No morally better than we were 100 years ago
Looking back at 2016, it is remarkable how often the year was invoked as an argument against its own events.
Take just a few examples. A CNN article implored: “It’s 2016. What’s with all the sexism?” A Los Angeles Times op-ed reminded readers: “It’s 2016 and the civil rights era hasn’t ended.” A post at Grist marvelled: “It’s 2016, and we’re arguing about the constitutional validity of Roe v Wade.” And Ellen DeGeneres scolded Georgia for its “religious liberty” Bill with the tweet: “It’s 2016 and we’re still talking about equal rights for everyone. Georgia, you are better than this.”
The tic was especially prevalent on the Left but not exclusive to it: the libertarian magazine Reason wondered how school districts could ban Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird in light of what year it was.
As common as citing the current year has become, as a rhetorical technique it is exceedingly feeble. Those who use it frequently fail to formulate additional planks for their arguments. They do not think any explanation is required to understand why something in the current year should be an affront to our sensibilities. But they should realise that their notions of moral progress are hardly universal, and invoking the current year is a tone-deaf way to engage with anyone who does not already agree with them. To those without deeply ingrained progressive sensibilities, it is especially grating.
The broad assumption in the “current year” argument is that time inevitably ticks towards moral betterment. It is a view that has been espoused in different forms by the likes of Immanuel Kant, who wrote about “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity”, Karl Marx, who talked about emerging consciousness, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. If you are a progressive, you probably take moral progress as an article of faith.
If you’re a conservative, a member of the political Right or maybe just a working-class person who pines for a sunnier past, however, there is a decent chance you are sceptical of this concept. Mockery of the “current year” argument, especially as regularly employed by comedian John Oliver, has become a meme in some far Right circles. But you do not need to be on the political extreme to perceive a world in moral decline. And in this context, 2016 was not one of those “meandering points of bewilderment” that King described, but the continuation of a troubling trend.
Roughly half of Americans believe that the 1950s were better than today, according to a PRRI survey published in October. Predictably, whites were more likely to agree with this idea than other racial groups. But the class divide in the survey is more interesting: 65 per cent of white working-class respondents said the 1950s were better than today. Fifty-six per cent of white college-educated respondents said the 1950s were worse.
This is understandable. For white people without advanced degrees and good jobs, the world is getting demonstrably worse. Real wages have been stagnant for 40 years, while low-skilled jobs have been disappearing.
White life expectancy, although higher than it was in 1950, has declined slightly in recent years. A Washington Post analysis explained: “The things that reduce the risk of death are now being overwhelmed by things that elevate it, including opioid abuse, heavy drinking, smoking and other self-destructive behaviours.” And the suicide rate is rising, especially among the working class. White people without college degrees have been rocked by the decline of marriage, as well. As economists Shelly Lundberg, Robert A. Pollack and Jenna Stearns wrote in the May issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives: “Compared with college graduates, less-educated women are more likely to enter into cohabiting partnerships early and bear children while cohabiting, are less likely to transition quickly into marriage, and have much higher divorce rates. For this group, rising rates of cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing contribute to family histories of relatively unstable relationships and frequent changes in family structure.”
Citing the current year may be an effective scold for people who think there is something wrong with the past, but it is utterly perplexing to people who think that on balance the past was fine or perhaps better than today.
When someone says, as Code Pink founder Madea Benjamin did on Twitter in October, “I can’t believe in 2016 we have a presidential candidate who supports overturning Roe v Wade,” a sceptic may reasonably respond: Why is that so surprising? Forty-one per cent of Americans think abortion should be illegal, and 49 per cent say having an abortion is morally wrong.
Or when someone such as former Carolina Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman expresses frustration that “it’s 2016 and we’re having the conversation of colour ... we’re still repeating bad history,” one might note that he fails to engage with why some people may look at black football players — in this case, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton — differently than white players.
Each time progressives invoke the current year, they give up an opportunity to rigorously defend their position and convince others to see their point of view. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prompted cheers in November 2015 when he answered a question about why gender parity was important in his administration by saying, “Because it’s 2015.”
Similarly, Bustle, reflecting on Donald Trump’s Cabinet appointees, lamented, “It’s 2016 ... and in this modern age, you might’ve thought we’d come farther in terms of equality and diversity than, well, it now looks like we have.”
Missing is any argument about why Trump should not have selected the people he nominated or why diversity is important.
With 2016 at an end, we have thankfully heard the last of that well-worn refrain. In 2017, this progressive talking point’s stock will likely decline even farther. After all, President-elect Donald Trump was elected in no small part because of a wistful nostalgia for all things not of the current year. If progressives want to stem their bleeding, they need to understand why for many, especially those in the white working class, the current year is more menacing than hopeful.
•Nicholas Pell, a freelance writer born and bred in working-class America, lives in Ireland
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