In 1962, as an 18-year-old freshman at OSU, I was introduced to the question of whether history was progressive - more or less represented by a straight line rising/improving over time; or whether it was cyclical - like a sine curve with upward progress followed by inevitable decline and then back up and down again, endlessly repeating itself.
In that day, surrounded by obvious civil rights improvements for African Americans and women and bombarded by GE's slogan, "Progress is our most important product," I opted for the "straight line" option. Today, at 71, I've changed my mind. Technical progress, yes, but in terms of the human race, it's an illusion.
In 1889, Mark Twain dealt with this in his "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." A 19th-century engineer schooled in all aspects of the Industrial Revolution is accidentally transported over a thousand years into the past to the time of King Arthur. With all the apparent "magic" of 1,000 years' technical progress, the Yankee rises to the highest political status and sets out to lift up the backward, superstitious, and exploited populace of that dark age. He fails terribly. All the technical advances are no match for the superstition, ignorance, foolishness, and cultural indoctrination of the time. The story ends with the grim death of all the Yankee's disciples entrapped and diseased within a wall of 30,000 dead knights, electrocuted in their armor. So much for progress.
In 2011, George Carlin weighed in on the matter. He said the human race is done; we're "circling the drain." He said he'd given up on his species, his fellow Americans, and on our country; we needed to change, but we wouldn't do that; we'd destroy ourselves instead; the planet would heal; and with us gone, maybe insects would be the next dominant species. Carlin believed we had "squandered great gifts" giving in to "primitive superstition" and greed, "God and Mammon." He believed we have perverted the gift of democracy, and "the system is broken." He says, "When you're born in this world, you're given a ticket to the Freak Show, and when you're born in America, you're given a front row seat." He watched and wrote it down. So much for progress.
Now in 2016, how are we doing? Well, an awful lot of us think the President is a secret Muslim born in Kenya and bent on imposing Sharia Law, taking our guns, and putting thousands of conservative Americans in concentration camps. Millions believe the world is only 6,000 years old, that people once rode dinosaurs, that evolution is bunk, that everyone should carry guns, that Rush Limbaugh is "an entertainer," that Sarah Palin makes sense, and that businesses and others are waging "War on Christmas."
Many evangelists say they talk to God and he talks to them; Pat Robertson says he talked God into changing the path of a hurricane; he also says he'll sell you a magical, strength-building milkshake; people still believe in faith-healing, Big-Time Wrestling, and the benevolence of the invisible hand of the Market. There's no climate change, racism is a thing of the past, God hates gays and as a result He kills our soldiers. They believe that hatred of those different from us and fear of foreigners is in keeping with our heritage, and that Donald Trump and his followers have no resemblance to certain leaders and groups from the 30's. So much for progress.
Looks to me like we don't know history's mistakes and are doomed to repeat them. That's the truth, but Oscar Wilde said, "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you." I'm not much of a comedian. Nevertheless, like Carlin I'll be watching, secure in the knowledge that we reap what we sow and we get what we deserve.
Party on, dudes.