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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Search For Perfection–The Legacy And Curse Of 19th Century Reformism

The desire to reform and even to perfect society is as American as apple pie. From the Puritans’ determination to create "a city upon a hill," to the utopian communities of the early nineteenth century, to the communes created by twentieth-century "hippies," the goal has been to establish a new social order that will improve upon the status quo. Sometimes this reform impulse is an isolated one; sometimes it defines an entire era. Historians point to two such eras with roots in the nineteenth century: the age of reform in the 1830s and 1840s and the Progressive era that spans the Gilded Age and the pre–World War I years of the twentieth century. (Carol Berkin, Institute of American History)

The philosophical principles on which such reform was based were first expressed in the early decades of the 19th century.  Scholar Philip Gura suggested an "Oversoul" shared by all humanity but perceived only by those who transcended the cares and concerns of the material world. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller developed an American ideology of spiritual equality.

From the 1840s to the 1930s reform movements were organized to improve conditions of work, education, and social welfare.  The Utopian Movements, such as the Oneida Colony, were the heirs of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, and although many were organized around spiritual principles, they were more purely philosophical than the more practical socially conscious movements to follow. The Oneida Community, for example, was a religious commune founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York. The community believed that Jesus had already returned in AD 70, making it possible for them to bring about Jesus's millennial kingdom themselves, and be free of sin and perfect in this world, not just Heaven (a belief called Perfectionism).

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Oneidans experimented with group marriage, communal child rearing, group discipline, and attempts to improve the genetic composition of their offspring. Self-reliance, optimism, individualism and a disregard for external authority and tradition characterized one of the most famous of all the American communal experiments. Brook Farm, near Roxbury, Massachusetts, was founded to promote human culture and brotherly cooperation. It was supposed to bestow the highest benefits of intellectual, physical, and moral education to all its members. Through hard work and simplicity, those who joined the fellowship of George Ripley's farm were supposed to understand and live in social harmony, free of government, free to perfect themselves.  Gradually, utopian communities came to reflect social perfectibility rather than religious purity. Robert Owen, for example, believed in economic and political equality. Those principles, plus the absence of a particular religious creed, were the 1825 founding principles of his New Harmony, Indiana, cooperative (US History Online).  

The Educational Reform Movement led by Horace Mann began the process of establishing a public education system in the United States.  The Women’s Rights Movement’ declaration of principles and objectives, presented at the Seneca Falls Convention. provided the philosophical, intellectual, and political basis for suffrage and equal opportunity.  The Labor Movement led to reforms in worker’s rights, safety, and benefits.  The Abolition Movement provided the philosophical and political basis for the North’s stand against slavery and Southern rebellion.  The Prohibition Movement was the first attempt to reform social behavior.

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Modern day progressivism is rooted in the reformism of the past.  It has, no less than any other utopian movement believes that human nature can be corralled, tamed, and reconfigured to act in society’s interests and not just those of the individual.  Beginning in the 1960s progressives first turned their attention to civil rights and then to world peace.  Freedom Riders, marches in Selma and Washington, DC, sit-ins, and protests against Jim Crow were instrumental in upsetting the Southern status quo, influencing the federal government to finally take notice of civil injustice, and encourage Congress to pass remedial legislation.  Similarly, marches, protests, and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam were instrumental in forcing a critical look at American military interventions specifically and American geopolitical hegemony in general.

These movements were as successful as many of those a hundred years earlier because not only were they based on philosophical idealism – the belief that society can evolve to a more just, principled, and moral community – but they were practical.  They focused on one single issue, organized protests around it, and most importantly demanded specific, identifiable, practicable solutions.  Progressives of the 60s were not content to demand civil rights for black Americans, but insisted on the passage of a Civil Rights Act.  They did not stop at protests of the Vietnam War, but demanded an end to it.

Today’s reform movements – environmentalism, race-gender-ethnic diversity, economic equality, and civil justice – are heirs to the reform movements of the past, but, because of their lack of specific, practicable, and realistic recommendations, have either floundered or never found the audience they expected.

Environmentalism, for example, for years included every issue from the spotted owl to global warming.  Activists assumed that citizens would make the connections they did – that the Earth was a living, interrelated, organism; that assaults on one preserve would necessarily affect all others.  There was a moral imperative behind environmentalism, activists argued, a question not just of adjustment but salvation.   The well-being and survival of the world depended on stopping the destruction of natural resources, the pollution of air and water, and the overuse of fossil fuel energy.

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In the early years of this century, environmental leaders understood that consolidation was the key to success.  The spotted owl, old growth forests, and the snail darter would have to take second place to the overriding issue of climate change which was existential in nature.  This consolidation around a single issue has helped environmentalists to focus popular attention and to raise climate change as a political issue.

A 2014 Gallup poll found that only 24 percent of Americans considered climate change a priority, and 14th out of 15 issues cited.  Despite the insistence of environmental reformers, little progress has been made in influencing citizens to take the threat seriously. Why has response been so diffident?

First, there is an equally strong campaign of resistance insisting that the science is not settled, that the current warming trends are but common occurrences in the geologic history of the planet, and that while man might be contributing to the phenomenon, climatological history is so difficult to decipher, and the climate at any one point in time is perhaps the most complex natural system of all, that conclusions are impossible.

Second, there are many who look to human ingenuity as a resolution to the problem.  If climate change is actually occurring, then human society will adapt as it always has.  Already cities like New York and Miami are considering ways to adapt to rising sea levels through systems of extended wetlands, Venetian-style canals, Dutch dikes, and new architecture.  Agricultural growing patterns might change given climate variability, but a global economy is well-positioned to adapt and prosper.

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Third, environmentalists have never offered serious compromises.  Their business is an all-or-nothing one; and yet each effort to control global warming means economic dislocation if not hardship.  Few Americans are willing to do little more than compost and sort their trash because anything more will cost money.

Finally, Americans are skeptical of doomsday scenarios.  While a surprising number of Americans believe that a Biblical Armageddon will come in their lifetime, anything less is looked at askance – hysteria, politically-driven emotionalism and a trampling herd mentality.  The more environmentalists hector, the more voters resist their appeals.

Other less existential reform movements have been quieted.  For months ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and the campaign against ‘The One Percent’ were on front pages in every major newspaper.  The populace was finally exercised and up in arms about the dramatic income inequality in America.  While the wealthy continue to prosper, the middle class falls farther and farther into poverty, and the lot of the poor becomes even more hopeless.  Yet the Occupy movement is moribund if not dead.  Why? Because it like all other reform movements was an heir of Utopianism.  Social and economic equality had to be right and good because of the Christian lessons of brotherhood, community, and charity.  Yet the lessons of history were unmistakable. There has always been a concentration of wealth, power, and influence in every society and every human community since the Paleolithic.  Attempts to reform this natural, historical fact have always fallen short.  Communism is a long-discredited political philosophy, and socialism not far behind.   Americans ignored the Occupy movement because of their appreciation of history and because of their desire to cash in on American entrepreneurial opportunity.   Most importantly, no reformer had any realistic proposals to rejigger the American economy to be more economically equitable.

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‘Black Lives Matter’ has come and gone as reform movement for similar reasons.  Social inequality has always been a part of human settlements and true integration has only happened once ‘The Other’ acted like ‘Everyone Else’.  Americans, while formerly sympathizing with the plight of black Americans had, after 60 years, decided that enough was enough.  It was time for individual responsibility, morality, and ethics to take their traditional place.  Enough angry, often destructive demonstrations.   BLM has languished because it had formulated no specific goals as the Civil Rights movement had decades earlier.  What was the point? Americans asked; and when no answers were forthcoming, BLM was off the front pages.

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Reformism is at the heart of the civil unrest and divisiveness in America today.  Righteousness is a given, not a premise.  Assumptions have become conclusions without the facts to support them.  Whites are innately, inherently racist.  Men are born misogynists. Capitalists are inescapably predatory and destructive.  Diversity ipso facto is right and good.  There is no such thing as sexual bi-polarity but only sexuality on a fluid gender spectrum.  Civil rights, especially those within a race-gender-ethnicity context – will always supersede individual, religious rights. 

Economists will always ask, ‘What’s the point?’.  Before investing in X program of public expenditure, what are the likely verifiable outcomes? If they cannot be demonstrated, then the investment must only be based on idealistic expectations, not realistic ones.  Moreover, economists will always speak of opportunity cost and cost-benefit.  If the assumption is made that all police are abusive, racist thugs and that they must be reined in, then what are the likely consequences?  One cannot ignore the spikes in violent crime in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Baltimore after the police were put on notice.  The cost-benefit equation had not been thought through.

There is no doubt that early American reform movements have had a significant impact.  Without reformist demands, carpenters, plumbers, and electricians would still be all white.  Without MLK the Civil Rights Act would not have been passed.  Without the massive student protests of the Sixties, the war in Vietnam, painfully and unnecessarily long, might have been longer. 

Yet, as mentioned above, these reform movements had specific, objective, practical, and verifiable objectives; and were part of expected democratically-inspired change.  Most importantly their spiritual, Transcendental nature was balanced by civil politics and supply-and-demand.  The War in Vietnam was wasteful, financially depleting, unwinnable, and demoralizing.  It took no reformist to demand its end.  Similarly the time had come to end the Civil War, albeit 100 years after the capitulation and surrender of the South. There was no way for true regional integration to happen – as Lincoln so desperately wanted – and along with it economic, social, and political unification without an end to segregation and Jim Crow.

Today’s reformist movements have no such focus and specific intent, nor especially no answers or practicable solutions.  Reformism – progressivism – today remains largely utopian, emotional, and idealistic.  Today’s reformers come by it naturally, so perhaps the criticism of them should be more moderate than it has been.  We are a nation of reformers after all.  It is in our national genes.  We believe that progress is real, that human nature is not hardwired and unavoidable, and that a better world is indeed possible 

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