This is a guest post written by my smarty pants friend Patrick Glenn. It’s very serious.Bet you have to look up at least one word. Learn something people!
Advertising isn’t a place anyone should turn to for wisdom. After all, ads exist to sell you on a product or service, not make you think critically about the world. However, every once in a while, an ad is so amazingly dumb that it becomes worth talking about.
“Great progress comes from doing the right thing,” so this advertisement tells me in its opening line. The ad is for Kaiser Permanente (the health program to which I already belong, incidentally). Putting aside what “doing the right thing” has to do with a company that looks at the sick, injured, and dying and says, “I think we can make money there,” it is a profoundly stupid statement. If you were to actually think about the statement for two seconds you realize the absurdity of it, so it is uttered in an assured, soothing tone by a professional voice artist, making it seem reflexively true and not worth thinking too hard about.
Another important reason people can easily gloss over the line in question is that many people actually believe some variation of it. People tend to think of history is an upward progression, with things constantly getting better. Every year gets us more civilized, more democratic, better educated, more free. With this thinking, it stands to reason that since the history of the world is constantly getting better, only “doing the right thing” moves history.
The truth is, of course, that “great change” comes from a number of different sources. Ideas and movements come and go, and sometimes return. However, the upward-trajectory view of history leaves blind spots in many peoples’ understanding of the world. For instance, historian James Loewen has detailed how race relations in America were actually worse in the late 19th and early 20th century than they were in the years immediately following the abolition of slavery. Few Americans understand this, as we tend to think that America was super racist in 1865 and has grown steadily, if slowly, less racist ever since.
The problem with this thinking is not only that it’s inaccurate, but also that it leaves people flummoxed at phenomena like the rise of Donald Trump. How can such a person have so much political traction in 2016? Aren’t we a better society than that? Well, no. We just needed circumstances to give fertile soil to his type of demagoguery. More troublingly, America is only getting Diet Fascism in Trump’s authoritarian populist schtick. Europe, the birthplace of true fascism, has seen recent political victories by overtly and explicitly fascist, nationalist, and racist parties. People can’t understand how this is possible in societies that are supposed to be getting ever more progressive, tolerant, and empowered with each passing year and each right thing done.
The rise and triumph of Donald Trump and his supporters within the Republican Party certainly qualifies as a “great change.” Did it come from doing the right thing? Actually, if you want to pinpoint when the GOP could have saved itself, look at the rise of the Birther movement in 2011-2012, which Trump spearheaded. The right thing for Republicans to have done would have been to say, “We dislike the President for 100 policy reasons, but this idea that he is a secret foreigner is a silly waste of time. He was born in the USA, end of story.” But the GOP decided they needed to keep the racist vote, so while the establishment leadership at the time didn’t fully jump on board with the conspiracy theories, they didn’t dismiss them either. Instead, they gave tacit approval by saying things like, “It’s not my job to tell people what to think.” They decided to keep the fringe elements that have now subsumed them.
So please, don’t buy into the pablum that history is a great forward-moving force always giving victory to the forces of light. And don’t forget, even when the Kaiser ad is right and a great change does occur because someone did the right thing, “the right thing” doesn’t always look like what we expect. Rosa Parks wasn’t just some woman who didn’t want to move to the back of the bus; she was a radical activist who intentionally broke the law to make a statement. She’s a hero to us today, but in her day she was a criminal.
P.S.: Yes, if you want to be super pedantic about it, you could argue that they didn’t say that great change only comes from doing the right thing, but that’s the implication given the order of elements in the sentence (if they had said that doing the right thing results in great change, it wouldn’t be as exclusively defined).