In Defense of Progress

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. "In Defense of Progress." Commentary Magazine. 1980.


The idea of Progress—Progress with a capital “P”—has been in disrepute for a long time now. And with good reason, one would think. The experiences of this century hardly dispose us to any complacency about the present, still less about the future. A pessimistic, even apocalyptic view comes more naturally to a generation which has learned, at great pain, that the most impressive scientific discoveries may be put to the most grotesque use; that material prosperity sometimes has an inverse relationship to the “quality of life”; that a generous social policy may create as many problems as it solves; that the economy remains intractable in spite of all the lessons of Keynesianism, post-Keynesianism, and anti-Keynesianism; that even the most benign governments succumb to the dead weight of bureaucracy while the least benign ones are ingenious in devising new and horrendous means of tyranny; that religious passions are exacerbated in a world that is increasingly secular, and national passions in a world that is fatally interdependent; that the most advanced and powerful countries may be held hostage by a handful of primitive terrorists; that our most cherished principles—liberty, equality, fraternity, justice, even peace—have been perverted and degraded in ways our forefathers never dreamed of. At every point we are confronted with shattered promises, blighted hopes, irreconcilable dilemmas, good intentions gone astray, a choice between evils, a world perched on the brink of disaster—all the familiar clichés, which are all too true and which seem to give the lie to the idea of progress.

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