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Why I Am Not A Progressive

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Okay, it’s going to be a long day.  A very long day.  I have to go in to school around seven, and teach on and off until four, and then go down to an Indian casino to do a book signing.

I am not making that up.

It’s the Connecticut Author’s Trail, and I’m glad they’ve been willing to have me.  The problem is that I have to be in around seven tomorrow, too, and the Mohegan Sun–where this mass book signing by about a dozen authors is supposed to take place–is at least an hour and a half from here.

Meaning that the chances that I’m going to be able to get any sleep tonight are limited to nil.

But it’s morning, and I’ve got tea, and I came accross the following this morning when I hit Arts and Letters Daily:


That’s Dissent magazine, the Grand Dame of American socialist publications, and I generally like it.  It’s intelligent, articulate and sane, and I tend to think it’s all those things even when I don’t agree with it.

And–something of a disclaimer–I was actually referenced in one of their articles a few years ago, and for several years afterward I got invited to the Christmas party.  I never went, mostly because things at home were so insane.  I wish I’d been able to.

All that said, this article is also articulate, intelligent and sane, and it makes it ever more clear to me why I could possibly be a liberal, but I could never be a progressive.

The discussion of rights, early on, is unfortunately muddled.  The writer tends to heap in historical accidents and then claim that they’re the direct result of seeing rights as “natural” (outside of society and prior to it) instead of as given by society.

And, of course, he mixes natural rights (to freedom of speech and conscience, for instance) with rights-in-law (like the right to vote).

I really wish we could come up with a different word for the rights-in-law.  The confusion caused by calling both natural rights and rights-in-law “rights” does a lot of damage.

Needless to say, however, that the natural right of a human being to the fruits of his labor (the right to property) is a natural right, and it is because it is a natural right that slavery is wrong.

John Adams knew that.  So did George Washington and Thoma Jefferson and James Madison, and those three owned slaves.

Natural rights are absolute limits on government power.  A “right” granted by my society is a right in law only, and it can disappear any time the government decides to take it away.

So nobody is going to get me on their side by saying that the first thing I have to understand about their political philosophy is that they reject the principle of natural rights.

But it wasn’t the rights thing that got me so fascinated when I was reading this article. 

The place where I realzed what it was that actually separated me from the political philosophy this writer was defending was this:

>>>Progressive philosopher John Dewey asked Americans to consider the meaning of individual freedom through the following thought experiment: imagine an individual without property, education, or employment. Is this individual free to amass property? Would it matter if she was? Can this individual coherently explain her plight to those with power? Does the right to free self-expression help her obtain their ear? If they hear an inarticulate message from her, will they attend to her needs?>>>

And what got to me was the fact that I know, I just know, that Dewey would have hated all my answers to all those questions.

Let’s take the first–imagine an individual without property, education, or employment.

I don’t have to imagine her.  I knew her.  Her name was Orania Gregoriou.  She was born on the island of Samothrace in the very early twentieth century.  Her family was dirt poor, and there were some ridiculous number of children–ten, I think. 

She had no education because, well, girls weren’t allowed to go to school in dirt-poor Greek island villages at that time.  They were required to go to religious instruction, and she learned to read there. Most of the girls she grew up with–and a good number of the boys–didn’t.  They didn’t want it.  She, apparently, did.

Her brother started coming to America in their late teens, steerage, the way that was done.  They wanted to bring her over, too.  They got laboring jobs and sent some money home to pay for her passage.

She decided there was just so much she was willing to put up with, and set herself up to use the one skill she had developed–the ability to make really exquisite lace–to help herself out.  She was fourteen and keeping house in a world where goats had to be milked and wash had to be done by hand, but she found spare time to make that lace for girls who wanted it to get married in, and she charged. 

She charged enough so that, by the time she was eighteen, she had enough money put aside so that–combined with what her brothers sent to bring her over steerage–she could come over in a stateroom, thank you very much, and with a trunk, too.

It wasn’t much in the way of “property.”  She had no education except what she was willing to do for herself.  She had no employment.  

So, you know, now what?

Take the second question:   Is this individual free to amass property?

Yes.  In fact, she was not only free to do it, she was extremely good at it.   And she did it in spite of the fact that there were no legal protections against discrimination in those days, which meant that the local banks were free to refuse to allow her to open accounts (don’t want any of those awful foreigners, you know). 

She married a very nice man with about half her intelligence.  He went to work as a waiter.  She took his money and bootlegged ouzo on the side (my father’s oldest memory was of being sent around to deliver brown paper bags with bottles in them and to pick up the money).

And then, when the depression hit, the hiding places at home had enough cash in them to make it possible for her not only to buy real estate, but to buy a piece of the bank, too.  And there was no more nonsense about not wanting to deal with foreigners.  It was the crash, and she was virtually the only one with cash.

So, on to the second question: would it matter if she was free to amass property?

Well, yes.  It would.  It mattered to her, to her children, and to her grandchildren.  I was about three when she told me I was going to college–was going, no “could if you wanted to” stuff–and that, if my father wouldn’t pay for it, she would. 

By the time I was born, she owned half the town my father had grown up in, and a good chunk of the one I was born in, too.  You have no idea how convenient that was.

On to the third question:  can this individual coherently explain her plight to those in power?

I expect that would depend on the individual.  My grandmother was a very articulate woman.  Some people–even some people with educations–are not. 

But this is the question at which my grandmother’s experience really begins to diverge from Dewey’s program.

Because in that word “plight” lies a world of cultural dissonance. 

Fourth question:  does the right to free self-expression help her obtain their ear?

Again, I’d have to say–yes.  Definitely so.  If it didn’t, there would be no Tea Party.  There would have been no nineteenth century rural populist socialism, either.

One of the wonderful things about the right to freedom of speech and the press is that it’s possible to band together with other like-minded people and refuse to go away, and that banding together can change everything. 

How about question five:  if they hear an articulate message from her, will they attend to her needs?

And this, you see, is where my head feels ready to explode.

Dewey’s mental image of the position of people who happen to be poor–all people who happen to be poor, not just a few with basic unsolvable problems (like physical disabilities or chronic or catastrophic illnesses)–is that it’s sort of like peasants in the realm of Catherine the Great. 

The rich and powerful hold their positions absolutely.  If there’s something you need, you must beg them to listen to you and hope that they’ll throw you some crumbs.  That’s when Progressivism comes in, giving you a right-in-law to the things you need so that you don’t have to be dependent on the good will of the upper class.

Let’s just glide by the fact that, if you had told my grandmother that she had a “plight,” she’d have whacked you over the head.

The simple fact of the matter is that she didn’t care if the rich and powerful listened to her and she certainly didn’t want them attending to her needs.  By the end of her life, she’d met quite a few of those people, and she had very little respect for most of them.

Her idea was that if people would get out of her way, she would attend to her own needs.  And she did.

Now, granted, Orania Gregoriou Papazoglou was a woman and a half, and a kind of force of nature.  Not everybody can be like that.

But in the Greek-American community in which she lived, there were plenty of other people who also started out poor and without education who ended up comfortably middle or working class.  They started businesses.  They worked as waiters and cabbies and laborers.  They made sure their children got the educations they didn’t have.  They even operated politically and were successful at it. 

And their children and grandchildren were even more successful at it.

I’m aware that not everybody who starts out poor gets out of poverty.  And I’m even more aware that the people who do are often immigrants, that there seems to be something about the native born poor (even in the days before welfare) that holds them back.

And I’m all in favor of  that safety net Cathy F. talks about.  There are good practical reasons for such a safety net, and good practical reasons for sensible regulation of things like workplace safety.

But the world Dewey thought he was living in–the world of rich and powerful people who can do everything and poor people who can do nothing but beg, so that natural rights are no use to them–is not any world I’ve ever lived in.

To the extent that any such world ever existed at all, in the United States, its destruction was due to the assertion of natural rights, not their denial.  The end of slavery and the end of Jim Crow were both declarations that natural rights do exist and should be honored absolutely. 

Mostly when I think of Progressivism, it’s the do-gooder busybody-ness that makes me nuts, the idea that the missionaries could go into the immigrant communities and “teach” them the way to live.  And if that didn’t work, they could pass laws to make them live the way that would be “better” for them.

But this thing of Dewey’s, above, is enough to make me get why I’m not going to ever be able to sign on to that particular political philosophy, even if they ditch the busybodying.

Written by janeh

September 23rd, 2010 at 6:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Why I Am Not A Progressive'

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  1. ‘Poor’ is sometimes like ‘victim’. I’ve always hated that term. Someone once seemed surprised when I reacted that way to having the term applied to me. It comes with an implication of helplessness and weakness – and I was dealing – not terribly well at first, admittedly, but successfully in the end – with the thing that was ‘victimizing’ me.


    23 Sep 10 at 7:06 am

  2. I agree, Cheryl. Poor is the natural state of the all but the tiniest minority of young people in most societies. It’s not the sort of terminal condition that do-gooders like to think it is.

    I think that, as a political label, “progressive” is an oxymoron.


    23 Sep 10 at 8:39 am

  3. I loved the story of your Grandma, Jane. She sounds like she was a wonderful woman.


    23 Sep 10 at 8:42 am

  4. I once asked a friend who was much more left-wing than I – and I was quite left-wing at that time – why ‘progressive’ should be applied to some policy or other that I rather doubted would result in much of an improvement over the status quo even if it were accepted and implemented. I didn’t quite see how something could be called ‘progressive’ unless it actually resulted in a change in the direction of a situation which was an improvement over the present one. Or was at least likely to result in such an improvement. I never did get an answer that satisfied me, but the friend, last I heard from her, was quite satisfied as I think she maintains much the same political positions as she did then.

    Yes, Jane’s grandmother sounds like quite a woman!


    23 Sep 10 at 9:56 am

  5. Jane wrote: “I’m aware that not everybody who starts out poor gets out of poverty. And I’m even more aware that the people who do are often immigrants, that there seems to be something about the native born poor (even in the days before welfare) that holds them back.”

    When you live in the place where you have grown up, there’s a kind of net of relationships (even dysfunctional ones) with people and places that gets you through life day to day. It’s easy to slide along, changing nothing, even when you don’t particularly enjoy the place (or the life) as it is. This is as true for the rich as the poor.

    Being physically ripped up by the roots, or voluntarily doing doing the ripping yourself, requires people to completely reconstruct their lives, and gives the opportunity to do it better. Maybe it’s easier to see the opportunities in a new place than the old place, as the old place is hedged around with accustomed prohibitions and restrictions. The new place is, well, new.

    This may be why immigrant poor progress better, faster and farther than native-born poor all over the world. Or perhaps it’s just that immigrants are the types that do well, or do *more* wherever they are.

    I am always astonished when I see how hard our local Mexican and Asian immigrants work. No wonder they and their children succeed.


    23 Sep 10 at 12:06 pm

  6. Lymaree has a point about immigrants. We are seeing it in Australia with the people who came after World War 2 and the Vietnam War.

    THere was a massive migration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the US in the 1880s and 90s. Many of them ended up in New York City living in tenaments and working in sweat shops. Their descendents are not there now!


    23 Sep 10 at 2:35 pm

  7. I think that whatever constitutional factors make you likely to emigrate to get a better life also mean that you will work to get a better life. And I think that also applies not just to immigrants, but those kids who get out of, say, rural towns with no prospects and move to the city.

    And “progressive” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing that Progressive used to mean. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it’s just a substitute for “liberal” because that’s been tarred….

    Cathy F


    23 Sep 10 at 8:05 pm

  8. The “shift out of culture” effect is interesting. The United States’ West Indian immigrants do quite well on an average–Think Malcolm Gladwell, Colin Powell and Sidney Poitier–but this is generally not true of West Indian immigrants in Britain. They’ve left teh islands, but not the culture. I would assume self-selection, but I haven’t seen any study which would prove it.

    As for progressiveism, I think it’s a doctrine to justify holding political power. Demonstrating its detrimental effect on many poor people won’t change matters. If you could demonstrate irrefutably that progressive doctrines never help any poor people, the progressives would just have to find a new rationale. In fact, I think they’re working on that already.


    24 Sep 10 at 5:22 am

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