Thursday, August 12, 2010

The paradox of progressivism

The paradox at the heart of progressivism can be expressed very simply: the more absolute one's commitment to equality, the higher one's status.

This has a cognitive corollary: the more perceptive one's understanding of the barriers to equality, the higher one's status.

So, commitment to equality becomes the basis of thinking one is a member of a moral and cognitive elite. Equality is, strangely enough, an excellent ideal for such elitism because there are so many different dimensions along which equality can be pursued (income, gender, culture, race, sexuality ...) that one can always find another dimension along which to demonstrate the superiority of one's moral commitment compared to more benighted outlooks.

Hence the well-known cognitive intolerance of the conspicuously compassionate and ostentatiously tolerant.

It also, because it is status on the basis of one's commitment to a better future, an outlook which tends to be profoundly anti-historical. The past becomes a record of follies and failures which is to be transcended by the glorious future. That past is not a record of achievement (outside the tradition blessed with such moral commitment and understanding), still less is it a store of lessons (since it lacked the moral and cognitive understanding now achieved). The more transformative that moral and cognitive understanding is held to be, the more that is true.

Which makes it a profoundly dangerous outlook, all too willing to discard the weary learning from the past and to dismiss information or perspectives that might undermine that sense of moral and cognitive superiority. It produces a schizoid "cosmopolitanism" which is all too willing to appreciate other cultures, but not critique them; all too willing to critique its own culture, but not appreciate it. Full of knowing but lacking understanding.

Yet, if one defines virtue against what are profoundly successful societies, one is going to produce a lot of failure. And, what is possibly worse, have a greatly attenuated ability to identify, let alone learn from, past failures, since such can always be put down to the lack of the current (unsurpassed) level of moral and cognitive understanding. While to acknowledge them threatens the very sense of moral and cognitive elitism which provides the profoundly satisfying sense of status in the first place.

All of which become mechanisms whereby highly intelligent and knowledgeable folk can promote disastrous policies and block effective ones. Not a happy place for a polity to be in.


  1. Even the mention of this mentality causes the muscles at the back of my neck to tighten and I get an image of a tightly wound, dark ball of wool - symbolizing a self referential system of belief that always reaches the same conclusions regardless of external results. As Monty Python sayeth "Look on the bright side of death" (and I would add) for it releaseth us from progressives for ever and ever. Amen.