MANN TALK: Progress: The What and How of It

by Perry Mann

 A politician seldom speaks a sentence without saying he is for progress. Everyone, he knows, is for progress. But few politicians, if any, have ever considered what progress really is or how progress is really made. They all  without doubt consider progress in tangible terms, in terms of currency, income, bucks, cash, money or in terms of the comprehensive Gross Domestic Product.  If  a politician had  investigated in depth the what and how of progress and if he were true to himself,  he probably  would never have become a politician.

 I had an epiphany while a student in a philosophy class:  If one could quantify the intangibles, the psychic and spiritual  values, such as  honesty, love,  mercy, respect, joy, beauty,  empathy, etc.,  he would discover that in   his life’s balance  the more tangible wealth he had at the end of day the less intangible wealth he would have and vice versa.  Thus, his life’s  books would show that he had gain nothing. That is, progress is an illusion. That no person gets more from life than any other person.

There is, as the conservatives are forever reminding liberals, no free lunch,  a concept  that is to  them based  totally in terms of the tangible; for, methinks, their meticulous bookkeeping seldom includes intangibles. Of course, only a God  attuned to every cause and effect,  aware of the fall of  every sparrow and sensitive to  every nuance  of  the  pleasure and pain of a man’s heart and mind  could really tally the balance at end of day or week or of a life time.  But  a mortal  can speculate.

Seldom do I read of  anyone questioning the  politician’s definition of progress. When I do its a red-letter day. Such a day occurred  recently when I read “Our Country Needs a New Measure of Progress,” by Bonnie Erbe, a liberal, articulate woman. A species I could shower with roses.  In the article she enumerates this nation’s  many  economic, scientific and technological  upsides  and then lists the many downsides and wonders what is progress and are we making it. 

 “Are we promoting the goals of making sure our country is economically, morally and psychically well-off? If not where did we go wrong and how can we fix it? Until we answer these questions, we cannot know whether we are making progress or not.”


 The short answer, as I see it,  is that the road not taken is so far in the past and that the road taken is so far traveled that this nation can never turn back, even if half the population suddenly intuited Truth and realized the enormity of  its error. It can hope only that  its wages  in the end are not  commensurate  with the  pride  and hubris of its waywardness. The nation is committed, however rightly or wrongly, and  it should face up to the results. But  it won’t . It will scapegoat and finger point, blaming everyone and everything but  itself. That we have seen the enemy and it is us is an unthinkable truth for most. 

 In a nation that claims to be Christian how many of its citizens take seriously the founder of its religion? How many do not store up things that are subject to moths, thieves and rust and  do not have  their hearts  with their treasures?  How many consider that getting into the kingdom for  a person of wealth is as impossible as a camel passing through the eye of needle?  Or take seriously the exhortation to judge not, turn the other check, do good for evil and love one’s neighbor as oneself?

How  many have considered that the problems of this nation are the result of its hypocrisy, of its professing a faith and ignoring that faith completely. Of its converting  a God-given Eden to cities and suburbs and highways, leaving in  the conversion’s  wake the detritus of  progress, namely,   stumps, dumps, slums, and  sprawl. Of its arising daily with a prayer that by nightfall  its net worth will increase way beyond what its labor has created and what it  has contributed to the commonwealth of nations. Of its demanding freedom to exploit, to use, to scheme, to  sell to the naive, the young, the susceptible by hype and hokum, cunning and deception, stores of stuff and things of which they have no need and all manner of grease and sweets, a constant diet of which  misshapes and shortens  their  lives. 

  Of its crowding frequencies with mind-numbing nothings, with  sex and violence,  cute quipsters, half-truths and lies,  all of which are interlarded with “messages” that are torture to any  mind with a modicum of commonsense. And  of its producing and making available instruments of death  designed for warfare’s slaughter to the public at large and allowing  the dealers  and purveyors of which to  wash their hands of the consequent carnage with the mindless  simplism that  guns don’t kill,  people  kill.

 Leo Tolstoy considered at great length what progress is and how to make progress. From his long and educated look at life, he formulated a century ago  five conditions of earthly happiness. First, he said, man’s union with nature should not be infringed.  “That is to say, that he should live under the open sky, in the light of the sun and in fresh air, in contact with the earth, with vegetation and with animals.”

A second condition is work. “In the first place voluntary work which one is fond of, and secondly physical work which gives one an appetite and sound restful sleep.” And work that is undoubtedly needful.

  “The third indubitable condition of happiness is a family.” A family in which the children are a joy and not a burden and in which the family works together for its bread and security.

 “The fourth condition  of happiness is free, amicable intercourse with all the different peoples in the world.”  That is, intercourse  free of the  social restrictions  that come with wealth and power,  restrictions that mandate that  one family speaks only to one other family and the latter speaks only to God.

  “Finally, a fifth condition of happiness is a healthy and painless death.” That is, a death that comes naturally and not from the ills concomitant with leisure and luxury, sloth and gluttony, alcohol and drugs.

 So if Christ and Tolstoy know any thing about  the nature of progress and how it is achieved, what tentative conclusion can one deduce when he uses their measure  against   this nation’s definition  of and its efforts toward progress as  manifested  by its history.   How does one answer Ms. Erbe ultimate question? “Where did we go wrong and how can we fix it?”

 If anyone has read this far and has  considered seriously the implications of Tolstoy’s and Christ ‘s views of progress and the way to it  relative to  this nation’s  views of same, he or she  can conceive the dimension of America’s error and the thousands of Mt. Everests that would need be removed and the millions of minds  that would need be   changed in order to alter significantly this nation’s  course. The die is cast . History will tell  as it has told about  all the nations that have preceded this one.

Man must live in harmony with the dictates of his genes and in proximity  of the nurture of nature or suffer from his alienation in all the many pernicious ways that  that alienation manifests itself. Progress is knowing nature’s will and doing as it wills. Fortunately, one can opt out and follow his own drummer and  to some degree ignore  the way of the many. History is replete  with accounts of  rebels that march out of step with a  society that  pants only for power and pelf;  and they offer guidance and  inspiration  to those who do not want to march like lemmings to perdition.

 My answer to Ms. Erbe is that  this nation  went wrong by believing that man can build a better environment than  nature built; that man makes the same mistakes over and over as history attests; and that there is no feasible  fix for the pickle we are in.   She must consider what the wise in history have taught about the nature of  progress and set her sails accordingly; for she will be knocking her head against a bulkhead if she tries to alter the course of this ship of state. Christ came and taught man the way, but for his efforts man crucified him. That same  man is no more ready  today  to  take seriously the  exhortations  of nature and of  God than he was 2000 years ago.  Tolstoy’s wisdom is dormant and collecting dust in libraries, unread except by   eccentrics  and the opt-outs of society.  Nothing is new under the sun.

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