2016 Election: Is Moral Progress a Math Equation or Does It Beat Like a Heart?
How can we chart moral progress? One popular narrative holds that it increases steadily, rising over time. But Jelani Cobb argues it happens in fits and starts, like an EKG line that spikes and falls.
William Jelani Cobb writes about the enormous complexity of race in America. In 2015, he received the Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis Journalism for his New Yorker columns, in which he combined "the strengths of an on-the-scene reporter, a public intellectual, a teacher, a vivid writer, a subtle moralist, and an accomplished professional historian."
His articles include "The Anger in Ferguson," "Murders in Charleston," and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Reparations." In awarding him the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, the jury wrote, "No one has done a better job of placing [the events in Ferugson, MO]—and similar happenings in other places like Sanford, Florida, Cleveland, Ohio and Staten Island, New York—in their broader context than Jelani Cobb." Further: "Cobb met the challenge of describing the turmoil in Ferguson in a way that cut through the frantic chaos of 'breaking news' and deepened readers’ understanding of what they were seeing, hearing, and feeling. Ferguson was not an aberration, he showed, but a microcosm of race relations in the United States—organically connected to the complicated legacy of segregation and the unpaid debts of slavery itself. "
Cobb was formerly associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, where he was director of the Africana Studies Institute. He has received Fellowships from the Fulbright and Ford Foundations. He is the author of Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic, and The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays. His forthcoming book is Antidote to Revolution: African American Anticommunism and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1931.
Jelani Cobb: One of the things that tends to characterize the way Americans think about progress is that we think of it as a kind of straight line, you know. We have like the X-axis and the Y-axis and the kind of line going diagonally upward and that is American progress. As time goes here we get better. And that’s actually a false narrative. That’s not an accurate way of looking at the way the country has progressed. In this country progress has more often looked like kind of like an EKG where we have these moments and then we have these values and then we have these moments. And that may slope upward over time. But it certainly has the kind of peak and valley effect to it. And with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign we’ve actually seen almost kind of overlapping things where we’re seeing peaks and valleys simultaneously. So it represents a form of progress that an American woman could be nominated for the presidency of a major political party and is not coincidental that that nomination coincides with the most egregiously breathtakingly vulgar expressions of sexism and misogyny that we’ve seen in American politics. We quite simply don’t have a frame of reference for this but both of those things happen at the same time.
Now because I’m an optimist I tend to believe that the graph that measures kind of upward trajectory will supersede the one that – the peaks will eventually outweigh the valleys. But I don’t think that we should ever be nonchalant or kind of look at history as a series of inevitable victories for the righteous, certainly not American history. When we look at any of these movements that have better life in this country they have the potential to fail at any moment. And the ones that succeeded that we think of as succeeding did so precisely because of ones that preceded it that actually did not achieve those objectives. And so if we’re talking about civil rights in the 1960’s, well we’d have to say that the kind of first thrust of that was in the nineteenth century after the end of slavery and the kind of dawning of segregation and those sorts of practices. So it’s possible for movements that are morally right to actually not achieve their goals. And in that regard Hillary Clinton’s nomination represents a particular kind of progress around gender and sex and inclusion in this country. And it also highlights the intransigent and entrenched means by which people want to retain the status quo.
It’s embarrassing to see that men are still more likely to vote for the republican nominee whose name I think has been said enough. I try not to say it. But I think we’re talking about a kind of entrenched reflex about patriarchy, a very masculinist idea that people have been waiting I think feeling like they had to suppress and now they get to express it. I was talking to a cab driver a couple of weeks ago who was an immigrant and he said that he just doesn’t understand how the country could think that a woman is up to the task of being the president despite the fact that there are these dozens of countries that you can point to where women have had presidencies and the countries still exist. They didn’t kind of collapse and go out of existence. And so these dynamics I think are very real and in a way that we had not anticipated in a way that I don’t think we even thought was possible the current presidential cycle has brought those to the surface. And I don’t think that it’s also – I don’t think this ends. Should Hillary Clinton be elected these dynamics will be present and they may be more vitriolic and they may feel more entitled and more victimized. And I think that has something to do with the way in which we’ve taught men to understand themselves in this society.
And I also think in some ways if you can kind of take the silver lining approach to this in some ways it’s better that you have this wound being lanced right now so all of it has come up. The disbelief around issues of sexual assault has now become part of the presidential election. It’s not simply a question that people ask during a debate or someone can give a canned answer. We are actually processing this. Like we are actually figuring out what it looks like when someone says that I’ve been sexually assaulted and people don’t believe them because that person is a woman. And that is happening now. And I think that it’s also we’re looking at the biases that people have in the presidential debates where Clinton would say something and her opponent would speak over her and kind of dismiss her perspectives. All these things have become an object lesson in it in a way that I think might not have happened. These things would still have been present but they’ve have been submerged. But now it’s all come to the surface and all the messiness is there and we have no choice but to confront it.
There’s a lot that we could talk about with this election but more than one notable things about this is I think the overt fascistic overtones of what has happened over the past year in American society, in American politics are notable. We typically think of societies that have suffered some great trauma or national humiliation as being susceptible to the appeals of fascism. Kind of hyper nationalism. The authoritarian figure who says I will protect you. These appeals to order and what people perceive to have been a disordered society. And we think that when people have experience a national trauma that they are more susceptible to this.
Except in the United States this is not coming on the heels of losing a war or having been humiliated in the kind of court of public opinion internationally. This turn toward a movement that has these overtones of fascism has come on the heels of the first black presidency which has been largely successful. And so we’re looking at people who feel that the prospect of African Americans no longer being in the subordinate position is as traumatizing to them as other societies that have lost wars and have been embarrassed and these other kinds of ways and felt the need to reassert their masculinity in movements that were fascist. And so that’s very disturbing to me and we’ve also seen a kind of return to McCarthyism of a certain variety. One of the things that he did was game the media in particular ways. So he would know that under the kind of idea of objective journalism if he said something that was untrue newspapers were going to report it. They might report an opposing opinion but they weren’t going to come down on the side and say that one of these is more true than the other.
It is the one side says the Earth is round, one side says the Earth is flat and this is where we end the story. And so by doing this he could get lots of misinformation out into the public that was self-serving. And he also did this as a means of ginning up the level of fear in society which worked well. Demagogues kind of bread and butter is working on the fears of population. And so even when newspapers would fact check McCarthy by the time they kind of dispelled one lie he had told three more. And by the time they got to those three it was now up to nine or ten others. So there was this exponential kind of mendacity. And we’ve seen that dynamic in this election as well even with people in the press, you know, some instances saying that they did not believe that it was their job to fact check a presidential candidate. Chris Wallace of Fox News made that point about the presidential debates. And even then implicit in McCarthy’s time there was a kind of conflict of interest the media had because while McCarthy was a demagogue and a disreputable person he was also a person who sold newspapers. If you put him on the cover of your newspaper on the front page people were going to pick it up and buy it and read it.
The same dynamic happens now, especially in cable media in 2016 where the implicit conflict of interests involves a person who is saying things that are absolutely untrue but whose name garners ratings. And so which in turn generate revenue. And so these are the dynamics that we’ve seen, you know, 60 years after McCarthy. We still are not any more adept at dealing with the dynamics that allowed McCarthy to rise and I think that’s something that should give all of us pause. It’s something we should all be concerned about.
The notion of progress has been met differently throughout history. Technological progress has been, with few exceptions, greeted with open arms in western societies. Moral progress, on the other hand, has advanced through social struggle. At times, the two have intersected, such as when the atomic and hydrogen bombs were created. But more often than not, the expansion of civil rights has come at a social cost, with those who oppose social change on the short end of the democratic stick.
Journalist Jelani Cobb chronicles the 2016 presidential election in the context of social progress in America, and notes the divergent paths before the electorate. Down one path, the first female President. Down the other, the most outspoken and controversial presidential candidate in modern political history. The Republic nominee is so controversial that the media, which has positioned itself as objective observes to the political process, was not prepared for a candidate to so flagrantly disregard political etiquette and tradition.
The rise of this blistering brand of conservative politics has not taken place in America against the backdrop of national embarrassment or economic ruin — more traditional paths for nationalist political parties — unless, says Cobb, you count the election of the nation's first black president. Understood in this light, many of America's past sins again come to light.
Ultimately moral progress happens in fits and starts, says Cobb, like an EKG line that spikes and falls, though as an optimist, he believes the line generally trends upwards. Will the 2016 presidential election yield progress or regress?
Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His latest book is The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.
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