With the recent Scotus ruling, many have celebrated a sense of “progress” throughout social media. Rainbows have popped up on skyscrapers and online interfaces. Pictures pepper Twitter feeds and Tumblrs showing same-sex couples embracing, cheering, smiling, and waving flags. Some backlash is inevitable. But for the most part, most media outlets celebrate.

Certain words, like “conservative” and “reactionary” or (on the other side) “progressive” often make me wonder about progress–in effect, what it is and whether it exist. Personally, I think that the ruling is a sign of “progress,” but that progress is more complicated than we often give it credit for.

Take this situation. If a conservative is, by definition, someone who opposes changing the status quo and prefers more “traditional” values over more “progressive” values, then we have some odd alternatives. Either he or she is always (by definition) on the losing side of history. Or progress is not necessarily linear or inevitable.

The second of these hits to the sticky heart of progress, as one may have a harder time arguing against the raw progress of time and history–that it progresses–but we can easily argue that such progress is not some rosy, life-improving series of events. WWII, The Holocaust, the potential threat of climate change, the Arab Spring’s undoing, ISIS–such things complicate ideas of progress. “A Century’s Decline” by Wislawa Szymborska captures the feeling well:

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.
Too many things have happened
that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
has not.

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Why be better?

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief

-Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

I once acted in a series of one act plays, and when I wasn’t running lines or rehearsing, I watched the other shows. One particular line has stood out from the experience: “Why be better?” I almost missed it, but hearing that line over and over, I finally realized how nihilistic it was. Yet, some days, I ask myself the same thing.

For the most part, it seems to be a modern question. Ennui, hysteria, and melancholy became common, even expected, medical diagnosis for the growing middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries as prosperity and public reform democratized leisure. Prior to that, some historians argue, people didn’t have the resources for ennui.

Couple this with growing cities, rising industry, increased skepticism for religion and morality–Darwin’s work being one cause–and one can see the anxiety and hopelessness that spurs such questions, especially by the start of the 20th Century.

19th Century Middle Class at its finest. [Renoir image from]
19th Century middle class at its finest. [Renoir image from]
Continue reading “Why be better?”