A few days ago I was self-righteously “corrected” for mistaking an extreme progressive for a Trump supporter. The understandable confusion occurred when in a Facebook comment he’d referred to “libs” in a disparaging way. My transgression, according to this dunderhead, was that I thought the Biden administration was somehow an improvement over the Trump administration. With the almost audible, long-suffering sigh of a parent lecturing a recalcitrant child, he set about to progressive-splain just how wrong I was — and the length to which my head was up my posterior.
I was and remain too weary to argue with him. I have lost the knack for pointing out the obvious. No, that’s not quite true. I have lost the willingness to point out the obvious. I’ve lived long enough to see breathtaking change, and I’m not going to sit still and let some Johnny-come-lately kid tell me it’s an illusion. It isn’t. But I’m not going to argue with him either. I no longer have the time or the patience to educate the hopelessly ignorant.
When I was born most Americans thought interracial marriage was a very bad idea. The “leading lights” of the social media of my day, two halfbaked sisters named Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers, frequently made snide comments about gay and lesbian relationships. (“Well, if you’re going to live together you won’t need to find a house near a school,” was one.) Many Americans (including many women) thought the quest for women’s rights was a direct assault on America and the American family. What became known as “women’s lib” was patronizingly treated like a silly phase and frequently lampooned by comedians. (Woody Allen: “This is a picture of some women burning their bras. You can see it’s a very small fire.” And so on.)
As recently as 2012 every state in the country voted against same sex marriage. Less than 10 years later same sex marriages are sanctioned not only by the law of the land in America but by virtually every western nation in the world. Today being a racist is arguably the most unhip thing you can possibly be. Yet within the scope of my memory it was just another political point of view.
Yet to hear some people tell it things are worse than ever. I think there are two forces at work here. One is social myopia. It’s a kind of histrionics practiced by certain people who call themselves progressives but mistakenly think that any injustice is 100 times worse because it happens in their lifetime. The second force is a woeful ignorance of history. You cannot admit we are making progress if you have no knowledge or recollection of how things used to be.
I’m not saying that bigotry and backward thinking don’t still exist. They do. Millions of people still cling to the outmoded and ignorant beliefs that were common in my boyhood. Those are the Americans who voted for Trump. But they are getting scarcer. Real progress has been made, and the election of Joe Biden is one very real step in the direction of that progress.
Political change is slow and incremental. Some people don’t have the patience or — let’s call it what it is — the maturity to play the game. “We want the world and we want it now” is an echo from the music of my past that’s still a commonplace demand today. Well it doesn’t happen like that. Real change, change that’s permanent, takes time.
What Steven Pinker calls “progressaphobia,” or the unwillingness to embrace and acknowledge that we really have made progress, is a disease of certain flavors of progressivism. Don’t get me wrong here, I am a progressive. But I need to define my terms, because progressive means different things to different people. To me a progressive is someone who wants positive social change but who realizes that change also means compromise. You simply can’t have it all in a single step. There are many, many small steps between here and a perfect world.
That the Biden Administration isn’t moving fast enough for some people is a symptom of progressaphobia. There was a time not that long ago when there simply was no progress at all. The progress that’s been made since January 20th is nothing short of breathtaking — to any sane person. If the perpetual whiners cannot see the difference between then and now I am done pointing it out to them.
Yes, there are many things I would have done differently, to be sure. But the chasm between an angry, do-nothing, hate-tweeting monster who ordered his justice department to spy on people who wouldn’t support his criminal regime and the quiet, friendly, competent movement toward a better world by the current administration is so obvious and huge that if some people can’t see it nothing I say to them will change a thing. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.