Saturday, July 21, 2012

Why I am a progressive

I have been thinking about the progress made in the last couple of hundred years, especially for the United States of America. Obviously, a couple of hundred years ago the USA was a small weak country occupying a narrow strip in the middle part of the east coast of North America. The growth of the country is obvious.

The economic growth of the nation is equally obvious. Almost everyone in the United States would be thought of as very poor by today's standards. No one in the days of the U.S. founding fathers dreamed of wealth like that of Bill Gates. Indeed, even the poor today are in far less peril of hunger and destitution than the average person a couple of centuries ago. Our accumulation of capital has allowed us to produce much, much more per capita.

The technological development is also obvious. Think only of: planes, trains and automobiles; radio, television and the Internet; internal combustion engines and electric motors; telephones and computers; microwave ovens, refrigerators and electric light. A couple of centuries ago average people could afford few clothes, and had limited diets but improved manufacturing and distribution technology have made ua all more affluent and comfortable than our ancestors.

In terms of the theme of this blog -- knowledge -- a couple of hundred years ago people understood that the world was round and that it revolved around the sun. They understood that the stars were a long way away, but did not understand the nature of the galaxy, and had not a clue that the universe included galaxies by the billions. They had no understanding of deep space nor deep time. Today we begin to understand that most matter is "dark", different in nature than the matter we see and feel; most energy is dark, different in nature than the energy we understand.

We have learned that the surface of the earth changes over the eons, as mountains grow and weather away. We have learned that species come and disappear, and come to understand the nature of evolution.

While people a couple of hundred years ago knew something about electricity and magnetism, they had no conception that they were related, much less an understanding of electromagnetic fields adequate to develop technology. They did not understand that matter and energy were different aspects of the same stuff, nor did they have an understanding of atomic physics. The theory of relativity didn't come along until a century ago.


When the United States was founded, all the states had legal slavery and slaves in residence. It is a century and a half since we outlawed slavery, and we have gone through the Jim Crow period passing Civil Rights legislation a half century ago. Our policies towards Indians have become much more humane. Generations of immigrants -- Germans, Irish, Italian, Scandinavian, Asian and Hispanic -- have been successfully integrated into the nation. Religious tolerance has progressed to the point that we have had a Catholic president and vice president, and have a Mormon presidential candidate.

Conservatives emphasize keeping that which we have achieved. Progressives emphasize achieving still more. I hope we will continue to learn,  continue to advance our technology, and continue to enjoy more benefits from out institutions, our wealth and our knowledge. I am a progressive.

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