Monday, November 22, 2010

Reformers Should Expect the Unexpected

So many of our causes, passions, and movements could be characterized in terms of David versus Goliath, requiring superhuman strength to set right. At the outset, the odds are stacked against us. Business corruption must not be allowed to metastasize, lest the country be utterly eviscerated by it. Environmental pollutants must not destroy our fragile ecosystem. The military must have its spending curtailed in order to prevent massive waste and a swelling national debt, a belief held even by those who do not object to the very existence of a military. The prison-industrial complex must not be allowed to grow ever larger, while it incarcerates men of color at rapidly growing rates. It’s easy to get burned out, knowing the vast size and sweep of these problems, and easier still to believe that no amount of effort expended for any length of time will make one iota’s worth of difference either way.

One hundred fifty years ago, the Progressive cause célèbre was temperance. The knowledge of the destructive power of alcohol abuse led many to believe that nothing less than the manufacture, transport, and sale of intoxicating spirits in any form must be made illegal. Essentially a religious movement, there was present within it a desire to reform government by busting up liquor monopolies, saloons, and the political power present within them. This compulsion existed alongside a moral imperative to end the cycle of poverty as well as spousal and child abuse caused by alcoholism. Quakers as well as men and women of many other faiths played a major role in the temperance movement. The “drys”, as they were known, were pietistic Protestants who believed that it was the government’s job to regulate morality. In the United States, temperance’s ultimate goal was achieved with the passage of the 18th Amendment and the enactment of Prohibition.

Then, as now, there were people who relied on junk science and propaganda to advance the cause, and there were groups who advanced well-meaning, sensible views that pressed for legislation to cure a major societal problem. Some believed they were doing God’s will and others insisted that they were making life easier for their fellow person. The Anti-Saloon League used high pressure, coercive methods to force the hand of politicians, and was a formidable, well-run organization. Alcohol problems had been present for centuries, but the conceit of the first Progressives was that in destroying political power in crucial spaces, society could solve problems that had confounded others for centuries. These crusaders can hardly be faulted for their efforts. They were often acting on information we now know to be factually incorrect, aiming at the wrong method of solving a problem. Their focus was, in effect, far too narrow. Regardless of what they believed, there is often no “one best system” or “one best solution”, particularly for reforms as intensely complicated as this one.

Prohibition ultimately failed, of course, but it can still be seen as a noble experiment. The first commercially viable root beer was brewed by Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires and the first widely distributed milk chocolate came by way of Cadbury’s in the UK and Hershey's in the USA. These were efforts by Friends to develop alternatives to alcohol consumption. They were not successes if one considers their original purpose alone, but those who love a particular soft drink or grew up enjoying a distinct and delicious confectionery treat on Easter morning could hardly say that these were useless efforts. And, though I hasten to use this example, based on my dislike of war, the bagpipe made its way to Scotland only after the Crusades. What could be more distinctly Scottish a musical instrument than that?

It’s easy to see our causes and their products as absolute--good versus evil, moral versus immoral, guilty versus not guilty, right versus wrong. But life often isn’t that simple. An attitude that restricts itself to one particular, desired outcome without entertaining the possibility of the unexpected and the ironic often lands far short of the mark. Serendipity is sometimes responsible for great innovation, rather than a well-designed plan. Uncertainty, unpredictability, and sometimes chaos ought to be taken stock of and not feared. Without the space program, a major success by any estimation, a number of spin-offs would not have been developed for commercial usage. The microwave oven is the first to come to mind, but there are others. The lines between triumph and disaster are frequently blurry. Human progress is a messy affair more often than we might wish to contemplate.

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