A commenter on my most recent posting writes:
While there is much truth to what you write, in my experience as a pedestrian/bicycle/transit/sustainability advocate in the Madison, Wisconsin area, the people most inclined to have doubts about STEM are self-described liberals and progressives. When Wendell Berry spoke here last fall, the Overture Center was filled to overflowing with progressives – I doubt many Unitarians missed it.
It is the progressive types I know whose use of the word “community” most closely matches Berry’s definition of it. Meanwhile the notion that “community” requires respect for – and a return to – our better traditions seems to be sinking in among them (I would like to think I am assisting in this process.)
I’ve expressed my unhappiness with the term “Progressive” as a label used to describe a stance sympathetic with many of the positions embraced and advanced here on FPR. However, just as often I and many here write critically about so-called “conservatives” – particularly of the mainstream variety – whose embrace of corporatism, militarism, and cheerleading for unfettered economic growth is just as repugnant. These labels hinder often much more than they enlighten.
FPR, I think, seeks to appeal to dissidents in both camps – in no small part by pointing out the historic abuses of these labels. “Conservatives,” in many respects, are arguably as “progressive” as the Progressives of yesteryear. That is, there is little difference between those “conservatives” who cheerled “No Child Left Behind” and “progressive” advocates of centralized education; little distinction to be drawn between the embrace of “globalization” by denizens of the Left and “democratization” by the Bushies; little contrast between what is a widely shared encouragement to “equality of opportunity” and the promotion of the meritocracy by elites both Left and Right. Liberals and conservatives alike are often more similar in their fawning enthusiasm for STEM than liable to be in disagreement.
If I’m somewhat partial to the word “conservative” (and I say that never having voted Republican in my life), it’s because its etymological roots inescapably emphasize the concept of “conservation,” in contrast to the central emphasis of the word “progressive,” which is “progress” (i.e., the very opposite of “conserving”). It’s necessary to recall that it was 20th-century Progressives that actively sought the evisceration of local customs and folkways in the name of “rationalization” and scientific planning – among other things, through the advancement of the social sciences. Progressivism sought the replacement of “local knowledge” with “expertise”; its central emphasis was upon “growth” in every form (you can’t read a page of John Dewey without recognizing the emphasis upon “growth”); and, it was impatient with invocations of human falleness, sinfulness, and iniquity, instead preferring to re-describe human failings in therapeutic terms and recommending various therapies for their cure.
I am delighted that “progressives” in places like Madison, Wisconsin are flocking to hear Wendell Berry. I’d caution against embrace of that term, however (just as I mostly cringe when I hear the word “conservative” invoked). I’m open to another term – whether radical traditionalist or Jeffersonian republican or – hell – Porcher.
Before rushing to congratulate the enlightenment of “progressives,” I recommend this commenter (and everyone else, for that matter) read Eric Miller’s extraordinary, superb biography of Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time. The book recounts Lasch’s intellectual path from a Left, progressive rationalist to a radical, populist, religious seeker. In the course of his deepening understanding about the devastation wrought by capitalist, progressive managerialism during the 20th-century, Lasch came to wholly repudiate his one-time allegiance to Progressivism (and more wrenching still, the lifelong allegiance of his parents to rationalist Progressivism). As if writing the credo of FPR some thirty years ago, Lasch wrote
A radical movement capable of offering a democratic alternative to corporate capitalism will have to draw on traditions that have been dismissed or despised by twentieth-century progressives and only recently resurrected by scholars and by environmentalists, community organizers, and other activists. It will have to stand for the nurture of the soil against the exploitation of natural resources, the family against the factory, the romantic vision of the individual against the technological vision, localism over democratic centralism. Such a radicalism would deserve the allegiance of all true democrats.1
If the commenter cited above is right, then those he describes as “progressives” may, in fact, be conservatives; while most self-identified conservatives today (no less than many so-called “progressives,” such as leading STEM cheerleader Obama) are the worst sorts of “progressives.” Perhaps our terminology is less important than I suspect, but I think sloppy use of labels may permit too much sloppiness of thinking – a sloppiness that infects both the Left and Right equally. A certain clarity might be achieved starting with a refamiliarization with older terms, and with their underlying philosophies.
1. Christopher Lasch, “Democracy and the Crisis of Confidence,” democracy 1:1 (January, 1981), 40.