The Short Lifecycle of Progressivism (Codex Vagus: essay 09)

I am a 58-year-old cis gendered heterosexual man living in rural Japan and it took until today, April 13th, 2022, two weeks shy of my 59th birthday, to ever even hear of Uncle Remus and learn what it means. Uncle Remus is a fictional character in American literature created by Joel Chandler Harris, a white journalist, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Uncle Remus is an African American and a freed slave who narrates the stories of hardship endured by African Americans in the deep south and on plantations in the 19th century. Harris intended the stories to help promote understanding between Americans of African and European lineage. In his time Harris passed for a progressive and he was criticized for being such. His progressive attitude and well-meaning intentions to represent the plight of African Americans in a profoundly racist era did not age well. Eventually, stories of Uncle Remus was adopted into a movie by Walt Disney titled “Song of the South” in which actor James Baskett played Uncle Remus and won an Honorary Academy Award. He was not considered for Best Actor, allegedly due to institutional racism, but nevertheless became the first male African American actor to win the Academy Award. The film, however, cannot be seen today. It is not available on DVD or any other home media release and not on any streaming platform because it has become a representative example of Hollywood racism and glorification of slavery. The film is deemed deeply offensive and, by association, any good will or benevolent intentions Joel Chandler Harris may have had was buried with it. The name “Uncle Remus” has become synonymous with “racist stereotype”.

Codex Vagus is the title I gave to essays unrelated to creative writing on this blog.

Codex Vagus: essay 09

Not more than a few years after “Stay Woke” became the rallying cry of the Left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared in November 2021 “Wokeness is a term used almost exclusively by older people these days“. The word “woke” had turned from a rallying cry to a pejorative in the blink of an eye. Bill Maher attributed this sudden fall from grace to the idea that the word “makes you think of people who wake up offended, and takes orders from Twitter, and their over sensitivity has grown tiresome“. That assessment may have some truth in it, but it does not explain why progressivism in general has such a short life cycle.

Mark Twain spent most of his life preaching and infusing his art with anti-racist message. But today he is considered racist because he frequently used the word “nigger” which is a much more offensive word today than it evidently was in his time. More recently, J.K. Rowling, who spent over a decade writing a series of children’s stories about class and racial tolerance as its central theme, is now considered a bigot because she takes the classic “man vs woman” paradigm in her feminist beliefs. On the surface, she seems to be adhering to old style binary feminism that requires transgender women to be sorted in the same pigeonhole as cross-dressing men in order to keep making sense. Her actual opinions are a lot more nuanced, but social media – ever the enemy of nuance – has reduced her ideas to an acronym. Few people seem to realize that the maligned position she takes today was considered extremely liberal not long ago. Be that as it may, she continues to be the guiding conscience behind a series of stories about the virtues of kindness and inclusion. Ironically, the character Credence in the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise is a perfect metaphor for gender dysphoria.

Perhaps it is the destiny of today’s progressives to become tomorrow’s bigots. All of our ideas will one day be outdated. Radical liberalism, when they are right, become old news (female suffrage) or, when they are wrong, proven unworkable (communist government). Being liberal doesn’t pay in the long run because any advances you achieve with your blood, toil, and sweat will eventually be either stale and unappealing or thrown out at the curve. Progress may be a good thing overall, but it is a good thing with few lasting heroes. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were truly radical progressives who risked their lives for progress. Now they are reviled dead white men. Abraham Lincoln has been cancelled and Martin Luthor King has had his warts exposed. No doubt Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will live to see the day when she is discarded like an old offensive joke. Winston Churchill once said “If you are young and not liberal, you have no heart. If you are old and not conservative, you have no intellect”. He may have had a point.

The relentless march of progressivism not only creates few lasting heroes, it also produces a significant amount of collateral damage. James Baskett’s Academy Award, which he won against much adversity, is almost never mentioned these days. Imagine being an actor whose greatest lifetime achievement is being buried forever because the latent racism of the production company retroactively gained notoriety.

During the Puritan Revolution in 17th century England, people started naming their children Grace, Faith, Charity, Clemency, Mercy, Prudence, Constance, Temperance, and Love. People changed their surnames to the likes of Goodwin, Lovegood, and Goodman. The Sussex Jury registry lists names like Be-thankful Maynard, Search-the-Scriptures Moreton, Free-gift Mabbs, Kill-sin Pemble, Much-mercy Cryer, Seek-wisdom Wood, Fly-fornication Richardson, and Fight-the-good-fight-of-faith White. This must have been an early form of virtue signaling, no doubt partly a product of sincere reverence, but probably in no small part a product of the desire to project a good image, response to peer pressure, and perhaps fear of retribution to non-conformity. The Puritans sought to dismantle all things old, which they saw as nothing but depraved sources of corruption, and usher in the era of virtue. They may have been the template for the modern day woke progressives and social justice warriors. There are many similarities. Particularly how they insisted on shielding their ears from all offensive words and concepts.

Puritan virtue, like everything else, follows the Law of Entropy: What is stacked too high tends to topple. The Puritan Revolution did not last. But Puritanism persisted as a subconscious meme in the cultural landscape. And as it lost its footing in conservative society, it seeped insidiously into liberal minds. In the past half century, as the conservative segment of society became less and less Puritanical, the liberal segment became more and more infused with distilled purists. The human mind is particularly vulnerable to mob idealism. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution shares many similarities with the Puritan Revolution and current day woke social justice.

Is there any point to being liberal if your ideals will become outdated before the objective is halfway accomplished? J.K. Rowling’s men-vs-women binary feminism was once quite up-to-date and many of its stated goals are still unmet. She spent decades crafting stories about tolerance and inclusion. Then the rules changed. She has not. No doubt from her vantage point, she must have felt as if the rug was pulled from under her feet. Meanwhile, James Baskett’s Academy Award win was a triumph of social advancement and a giant leap forward for minority representation. But the movie was problematic from a racial justice point of view, and his accomplishment remains buried.

Is it fair? Is it fair that all good intentioned attempts at social equity eventually become pejorative flash cards? Joel Chandler Harris tried to express the plight and suffering of African Americans to a highly prejudiced generation, yet “Uncle Remus” has become an offensive code word, almost a racial slur. Everybody from Mark Twain to J.K. Rowling and anyone in between have been disgraced. Progress is a self destructive cycle that spits out and tramples on the bones of its former heroes. It is also prone to mob rule and fervor-driven echo chambers. Everything you do in the interest of progress could become a symbol of backwardness sooner or later. Is it any surprise that “woke” turned from rallying cry to insult in a matter of years?

Progress is fleeting. That’s the nature of it. Good ideas today will be stale ideas tomorrow. Hero today, pariah tomorrow. That’s the way it is. Social justice warriors of today should be aware that they too will eventually meet the same fate. And if any young person believes that their brand of liberalism, unlike those before it, will have ever lasting currency, well, zip-a-dee-doo-dah to you too.

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