DANIEL VAUGHAN: Progress requires hard work

April 5, 2019

We often make fun of leftist media sites like Vox, but this week they ran an interesting series: “Hindsight 2070: We asked 15 experts, ‘What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?'” One of the better pieces they ran was from professor Karen Swallow, who told the liberal Vox audience that abortion would be unthinkable in 50 years.

But of all the pieces, the best was written by political theory professor Jacob T. Levy, who argued, “The idea of a ‘wrong side of history’ will be considered unthinkable.” Too often, we rely on Martin Luther King Jr.’s line that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This belief gives rise to the notion that time is ultimately progressive.

Levy correctly pushes back against that narrative, quoting King’s later statements in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In the letter, King exhorted preachers and civil rights marchers to continue using non-violence as their means of protest. King admitted his frustration with “white moderates,” who agreed with the cause but would rather wait for progress to happen over time than act. He reminded his followers:

Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

Levy shortens this up to the “superstition that the passage of time reveals moral truth.” Truth exists apart from time, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not. Time can march on with or without that truth. And even though our current place in history shows remarkable progress — indeed, we live in one of the most prosperous and blessed times in all of human history — that does not mean we are not in danger of retrogression.

Levy then flips the question Vox asks: “Before we attribute magical moral powers to the passage of the next 50 years, we should look backward in 50-year increments and ask: How many old moral errors keep coming back? How many new ones get introduced?”

The old moral errors are easier to spot because we should recognize them. But hoping that time will fix them can blind us to the need to act. We live in a time when white supremacy and neo-Nazis are creeping in on one side, while communism and socialism returns on the other. Sprinkled among all of this is a rising anti-Semitism in the United States, a place long considered one of the safest countries in the world for Jews.

States are also starting to attempt to combat the creeping return of eugenics. As far-left countries tout their “elimination” of people with Down’s Syndrome, others correctly note this is nothing less than eugenics in action.

In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr. thundered down from his perch that “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” and ordered the forced sterilization of a young woman who had been raped and mistreated by the state. The goal was to prevent the “feebleminded” from reproducing and diluting the population. We may balk at Holmes treating a woman that way in 1927, but his reasoning can be heard today as our society tries to “eliminate” Down’s Syndrome.

As law professor Ilya Somin observed, “None of this proves that moral progress never happens. It obviously has occurred.”

Or to borrow a line from Ronald Reagan, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

As King said, progress isn’t inevitable; it takes the hard work and toil of men and women to establish and maintain freedom and liberty for all. When we stop working towards those goals, it’s entirely possible for society to lapse back into moral darkness.

We should never rely on time as the cure. It will only pass us by while others act — for better or worse.


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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.