The American Story, a college level U.S. history textbook, devotes two of its chapters to the early progressive movement which gained force in the first decades of the twentieth century. Based on its description of the "spirit of progressivism" you would be hard pressed to detect a difference between the early progressives and today's variety.
'Third, more than many earlier reformers, the progressives were willing to intervene in people's lives, confident that it was their right to do so. They knew best, some of them thought, and as a result, there was an element of coercion in a number of their ideas. Fourth, while progressives preferred if possible to use voluntary means to achieve reform, they tended to turn more and more to the authority of the state and government at all levels in order to put into effect the reforms they wanted.' (Divine et al. 595).
The progressives movement arose in the wake of the Gilded Age which was notable for its corruption, but which was also the period when America became an industrial power. You might say that improved standards of living brought about by industrialization enabled the progressive movement, which waged its most important battles was against conditions also brought about by industrialization.
With mass production came a huge demand for labor. Immigration increased dramatically. The demand drew laborers into the cities -- to the factories for work and to the slums to live. Life was not easy in the crowded tenements. As people packed themselves into the cities, crime, alcoholism, prostitution, gambling and a variety of other other social ills took off. Enter the progressives, who took it upon themselves to fix things, and they were often successful.
The progressives got a lot of good things done, like the enactment of child labor laws that put an end to the employment of children in factories. But they were also successful getting prohibition passed, and what a disaster that turned out to be. The common element in progressives' approach to reform was an unshakable faith in their own innate superiority.
But there was a darker side to this, one that is unlikely to be explored in college level text books, and is hardly mentioned in The American Story. Early progressives were proponents of eugenics. This meant that early progressives believed lesser people ought to be discouraged from having children. Even further, they believed defective, or dysgenic people should not be permitted to have children. This meant forced sterilization.
Among the early progressives who believed this was Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and recently included by Time Magazineamong its 100 most important people of the 20th century. Although Sanger's mission was to give women more control over their own lives, her efforts went somewhat beyond that. According to Wikipedia:
In A Plan for Peace (1932), for example, Sanger proposed a congressional department to:
Keep the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feebleminded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924.
Apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.
But that was 1932 and this is 2009 and the progressive movement has come such a long way since the bad old days. Or not. Consider a recent column by Michael Gerson which examines statements made by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a recent New York Times interview. (My emphasis below.)
'Q: "Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid abortions for poor women?"
Justice Ginsburg: "Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae -- in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion."
Gerson cautions that Justice Ginsburg's statements must be taken in context, although he seems to be aghast that whatever the context, the media in general and the Times in particular considered it perfectly acceptable for Ginsburg to cavalierly refer to "populations that we don't want too many of."
'Given this context, can it be argued that Ginsburg -- referring to "populations that we don't want to have too many of" -- was merely summarizing the views of others and describing the attitudes of the country when Roe v. Wade was decided? It can be argued -- but it is not bloody likely. Who, in Ginsburg's statement, is the "we"? And who, in 1973, was arguing for the eugenic purposes of abortion?
It is more likely that Ginsburg is describing the attitude of some of her own social class -- that abortion is economically important to a "woman of means" and useful in reducing the number of social undesirables. Neither judge nor journalist apparently found this attitude exceptional; there was no follow-up question.'
It's amazing to me that in this day and age we could have one Supreme Court Justice who would say something like this, but now we have another one coming along, certain to be confirmed. Sonia Sotomayor:
'And she often said that she hoped those experiences would help her reach better judicial conclusions than someone without such a varied background might reach.
The line was almost identical every time:
"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion."
That sentence, or a similar one, has appeared in speeches Sotomayor delivered in 1994, 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2001.'
From the Democratic side of the aisle and the left side of the political spectrum come the explanations and excuses. Senator Pat Leahy went so far as to offer a revisionto what Sotomayor actually said.
'Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), at the opening of questioning, misquoted the nominee’s “wise Latina” statement as a means to assert that she didn’t say what she said.
“You said that, quote, you ‘would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would reach wise decisions,”’Leahy said. Not quite, Sen. Leahy.'
In reality, it was acknowledgment by the Leahy that Sotomayor's sentiment was truly unacceptable. Otherwise, why bother to misquote it? I guess progressives haven't come all that far since the early days of the 20th century. They still have an undying faith in their own superiority, convinced that a liberal philosophy is proof of a towering intellect. Liberalism has become the English Chaplain in George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan.
'WARWICK. I am a soldier, not a churchman. As a pilgrim I saw something of the Mahometans. They were not so ill-bred as I had been led to believe. In some respects their conduct compared favorably with ours.
CAUCHON [displeased] I have noticed this before. Men go to the East to convert the infidels. And the infidels pervert them. The Crusader comes back more than half a Saracen. Not to mention that all Englishmen are born heretics.
THE CHAPLAIN. Englishmen heretics!!! [Appealing to Warwick] My lord: must we endure this? His lordship is beside himself. How can what an Englishman believes be heresy? It is a contradiction in terms.
CAUCHON. I absolve you, Messire de Stogumber, on the ground of invincible ignorance. The thick air of your country does not breed theologians.'
It is simply not possible for a progressive to be guilty of bigotry. It is a contradiction in terms. Lucky us! Now we get to have two just beauties on the Supreme Court of the United States. I'm sure they're nice people, and I have no doubt that they will do their very best to do the right thing in every case that comes before them. But I'm not at all optimistic that their best will be particularly good.
Can anyone who is caught uttering such nonsense in candid moments really be all that bright? Not to worry. With the Times on the case, whatever should spew forth from the mouths of Ginsburg and Sotomayor is already brilliant. In the world of the New York Times, progressive idiocies are transformed into Supreme Wisdom.
Robert A. Divine, et al, The American Story, Third Edition, New York: Longman Publishers, 2007