“Progressophobia” demolished by Bill Maher: “Kids, there actually was a world before you got here.”

June 12, 2021 • 11:00 am

Reader Tim found this video from Bill Maher’s latest show in which the host attacks “progressophobia”—the claim that everything, including morality and social justice, is getting worse. This is palpably untrue, as Steve Pinker shows for many aspects of society in his book Better Angels. (Maher says the term “progressophobia” was coined by Pinker.) Yet for simply documenting progress (while noting that it’s not always steady and some areas regress), Pinker has been demonized. This baffles me.

I’m not sure why the “”progressophobes” persist. Some people seem to have an interest in claiming that the world is getting worse in nearly every way. I suppose this comes from the fear that if you admit that things like race relations and civil rights are getting better, you’re undercutting your mission in some way. After all, if equal opportunity (or even numerical equity) finally obtain in colleges, then diversity and inclusion administrators will be out of a job. And if your self-importance and the attention you get from others depend on complaining about lack of progress, then real progress undercuts those traits.

But I don’t see why we can’t fight to improve things at the same time we admit that they have improved. Who but a historical ignoramus (or Kevin Hart; see below) could clam that the rights of people of color haven’t improved in the last 75 years? I’m not going to bother to list all the ignominies visited on African-Americans, even when I was a little boy, that are diminished or gone. And do I need to add here that there’s still substantial room for improvement: improvement in housing, income, education, and so on? Or that racism has not completely disappeared?

I often tell the story of arriving at the College of William and Mary in 1967 on a Greyhound bus. At the bus station there were two bathrooms for each sex and two water fountains. It took me a minute to figure out what that meant. Only a few years before, those bathrooms and water fountains had been labeled “white” and “colored”. (William and Mary is in Virginia.) The labels had been removed, probably in 1964.

This bit by Bill Maher, in which he underlines moral progress, will surely dispel the claim that he’s an alt-righter (maybe he was an anti-vaxer, but he’s still on the Left). It’s one of his better bits, honest but humorous. And he takes “progressophobia to bits, asserting “There is a recurring theme on the far Left that things have never been worse,” and giving the example of Kevin Hart telling the New York Times, “You’re witnessing White power and White privilege at an all-time high” (article here).

Now no chronicler of progress, least of all Pinker, would claim that progress has been steadily upward, or in some areas, there’s been actual regression. Maher notes in this segment that areas that have worsened include the environment, the degree of homelessness in Los Angeles, and “the prospects for maintaining an actual democracy in America”.  But seriously, if you were a Jew, a black person, a gay person, or a woman, would you rather have lived in 1850 or now? This is a no-brainer.

37 thoughts on ““Progressophobia” demolished by Bill Maher: “Kids, there actually was a world before you got here.”

  1. Once again, it’s hard to tell when rhetoric is being deployed because the speaker believes it, or because he feels it’s useful. There is certainly a tactic which insists that now is the worst time ever (either as bad as before or worse) as a way to justify extreme policies and changes to laws that would allow them. Some people may just be Chicken Little, and think the sky is always falling. Others are looking for the wedge that would allow an end to democracy. I read the other day, I think for the first time, the term “toxic individuality.” The person who says we need to limit individuality wants to limit democracy.

  2. Many academics (in the non-sciences) self describe as “far left”, anti-capitalist, “smash the system” activists. They cannot admit that progress occurs under a capitalist system. Nor can they admit that progress can occur in a system where many of the institutions were initiated by white males. Their whole world view would collapse.

    1. I agree. If your theory says that the system is rotten to the core, that improvements are impossible, then you have deny any improvements that may have occured.

      1. See also this article from Quillette (from June 6, 2021):
        No, Critical Race Theory Isn’t a New Civil Rights Movement. (Just the Opposite)
        From the article:
        “One can understand why Critical Race Theory’s proponents would seek to link it to the civil rights movement, which properly enjoys a hallowed status in American history—and which yielded some of the most revered and intensely studied Supreme Court judgments on law-school curricula. But this line of argument, however rhetorically attractive, is logically incorrect: Critical Race Theory explicitly undermines the intellectual and moral foundations of color-blind American liberalism.

        The civil rights movement was based on a hopeful and optimistic vision of modern Americans turning the country’s ideals into reality. CRT, on the other hand, presents a dystopian vision in which ubiquitous bigotry and oppression defines America’s national soul. Far from being heir to the civil rights legacy, Critical Race Theory is in many ways its opposite.

    2. These professors who want to see it all burn also want the checks to keep coming. They don’t really mean it when they say they oppose capitalism, because they know that capitalism is ultimately the source of all that sweet sweet salary money the university pays to academics. So I agree with you – those folks are not really being honest with themselves. OTOH the Seattle anarchists in CHAZ really do want to set things like police stations on fire. Not many middle-class academics in that crowd.

  3. This monologue is one of my favorites of Bill Maher’s. His opening interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson was also enjoyable.

    Not so much the middle bit with Rob Reiner and Rachel Bitecofer. I found Bitecofer to talk over everyone and had some pretty crazy opinions which she defended mostly by increasing her volume. Am I alone in that opinion?

    Who claims Bill Maher is an alt-righter? Ok, I’m sure some crazies have that opinion, but seriously!

    1. Paul, Iike Bill Maher, but in my opinion it was Maher who was talking over Bitecofer, and who did not let here finish her thoughts. He would ask a question, and if she did not answer in 5 sentences, he would start talking over her.

      1. We’ll probably have to disagree on this. As the moderator, Bill Maher has to decide how much time to give a guest to get to her point. Bitecofer seemed like she was going to go on for hours. It probably also mattered that Maher (and I) thought she was making the wrong point.

  4. Yes, the truth today seems to be that many people of all ages have no concept of a period before their time, let alone 150 or 250 years ago. It is part of not knowing anything about history or at least before “my time”. That is why they judge everything in the past by the here and now. It compounds their ignorance because they become incapable of learning history. The result is they believe we are doomed.

  5. Professor Coyne, with all due respect, once again you are baffled, when you yourself directly pointed to the line of analysis that resolves the paradox. I know you have diminished James Lindsay because he voted for Donald Trump. However, he has the deepest understanding, and most articulate discourse on the phenomenon.

    The Woke/BLM/Antifa and their followers, and the CRT intellectuals arming them with justification, and their advocates in politics, do not care about the humanitarian goals which in reality have been actualizing, as you cite here. They are after control. Authoritarian control.

    It is simply a new manifestation of Marxism. The Old Left realized the economic approach to destroying capitalism was not working, so they shifted to cultural infiltration, and chose “race” as the fulcrum point. Lindsay traces the intellectual chain back to Marcuse, Gramsci, Popper, Hegel, Kant, Plato’s Republic (the original map for authoritarianism in the West.)

    Intrinsic to this project is “Do not tolerate” the slightest opinion — or fact! — that in any way challenges the narrative.

    1. Well maybe, as you imply, my understanding is shallow, and I’m the first to admit that I’m not a sociologist. I’m glad that your understanding is deeper, even though you are just speculating here.

      1. I suspect the commenter felt your bafflement was mostly a rhetorical device as you went on to give a perfectly reasonable explanation for why people don’t acknowledge progress. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

    2. I read an extended excerpt from Lindsay’s book co-authored with Helen Pluckrose, Cynical Theories, and thought it quite well done. Afterward (but well before I learned Lindsay was a Trump supporter) I read the solo follow-up he wrote for New Discourses, “The Complex Relationship Between Marxism and Wokeness” and found its analysis jejune.

      1. The alleged link to Marx (or even Frankfurt School), much less Antifa is indeed more of a boogeyman, and implausible when you see that the “diversity” core tenets are (1) well compatible with even a CIA advertisement video (2) woke people are totally infifferent to class or income equality, and people like DiAngelo also say so flat out (3) World Socialist Web Site, to name one big example, are opposed to wokeness and (4) original conflicts with the woke / “tumblr social justice” were located on the left, long before right wingers picked it up, and ran with it.

        1. I thought Greg Mayer said it best here a couple months ago: neoliberals including the Woke establishment are fine with 1% of the population owning 50% of the wealth, so long as 13% of the 1% are Black.

    3. Actually, the evidence points the other way. Every hard-core Marxist analysis of the current US political scene I’ve read has denounced Wokethought as something very much like false consciousness, and a possibly deliberate effort to replace class analysis with the racialization of politics that the Woke have been pushing for all it’s worth. The editor of Jacobin, a socialist publication with a distinctly Marxian (and occasionally flat-out Marxist) take on the dynamics of history, has published several columns in The Guardian (I believe Jerry has called our attention to some of these) in which he blasts SJWs in just those terms. Similarly for the World Socialist website, which is just plain Trotskyite. These folks loathe Critical Race Theory and the ideology of intersectional grievance-mongering. For them, the white underclass and the black underclass are natural allies in class struggle; CRT—promoted mostly by vastly overpaid, largely white academic professionals holding tenured positions in ivy-covered sanctuaries far from the scenes of the damage—drives a wedge between these two groups and cripples the prospects for a genuinely revolutionary transformation of social relationships. Think what you like about Marxism or Marxian perspectives on history and social issues, but don’t make the mistake of conflating two deadly enemies under the same label.

        1. I think it’s a bit different than that, Coel. The Marxists are saying, it’s all of us together against the bad greedo richies (not even exactly evil, to the true Marxist); the CRT people are saying, it’s all of us against each other. When everything is driven by identity, you’re back in the Hobbsian ‘war of all against all’. Of course, we know where Marxist thinking led to in historical practice. But economic conflict and class interest as a driver of history seems positively benign, compared to an ideology which tars you as a racist at birth due to the accidents of your genetics and brands you as inherently evil on that basis, no?

      1. Jacobin, World Socialists, Guardian … the cadre I am speaking of does not bother to dis those OldLeft-ish institutions/journals; they serve as camouflage. [“See, we are not Marxists, those guys are. We are just trying to make things better for all Americans.]

        CRT/Woke/BLM/Antifa … these are NewMarxist. They don’t care about any Old Left Theory. They only have one purpose: transform the culture.

        So, I’m not conflating the two. I’m saying they might seem like ‘deadly enemies,’ but the Woke are laughing as they smash windows and inject CRT into grammar schools.

  6. I often tell the story of arriving at the College of William and Mary in 1967 on a Greyhound bus. At the bus station there were two bathrooms for each sex and two water fountains. It took me a minute to figure out what that meant. Only a few years before, those bathrooms and water fountains had been labeled “white” and “colored”. (William and Mary is in Virginia.) The labels had been removed, probably in 1964.

    I recall taking a summer family car trip through the South when I was a little kid and my dad pointing out the “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards along the roadside, during the days of massive Southern resistance (including the “Southern Manifesto” signed by 19 US senators and 82 US congressman) to the landmark school-desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education.

  7. Now no chronicler of progress, least of all Pinker, would claim that progress has been steadily upward, or in some areas, there’s been actual regression.

    We meliorists, going back to John Dewey and William James, have always been willing to accept that it’s two steps forward, one step back.

  8. “I’ll lay you 8-to-5 [that] 2 to 3 out of 5 [tv commercials] have mixed-race couples in them.”

    All I can say is that it’s probably a good thing Uncle Joe went into politics instead of bookmaking. 🙂

  9. The subject of this post, Ken Kukec’s reference to meliorism, our host’s linking to the NYT article on zoos, as well as some other articles in the NYT recently, have got me meditating on ethical trend spotting, that is, on what would be today’s nascent moral developments that might grow into real improvements in life on earth. I don’t want to get into any arguments about the observations I’m making below; I just want to put these trendspots on the map at this point in time. I agree that zoos should fade away, indeed, that the time is ripe for humanity to end it’s enslavement of animals in general, including using them as a source of food and clothing. Articles about the tax avoidance of billionaires has me thinking along the lines of Peter Unger and Peter Singer that the presence of a extremely tiny minority of billionaires in a world wherein millions are starving is at root immoral. The reports from and surrounding the G7 meeting has me fantasizing about perhaps the ultimate improvement in human society, namely, the abolition of the nation-state and the concomitant establishment of world governance. Any other trends on the bending arc of ethics?

  10. Bill Maher’s point that so much has improved seems contrary to the constant stream of videos and commentary on TV, Twitter, etc. showing us the work left to do. Our societal denial has been burst in many areas but if you’re new to the scene (Millennial or younger), there may well be a lack of perspective. Steven Pinkerton’s book Enlightenment Now helped broadened my perspective. I hope Maher’s comments are widely viewed as future progress may be delayed if the starting point is unrealistic.

  11. I think that part of the reason why some minority folks can’t acknowledge that for them things are largely better than ever is because of an anxiety that what they have now or the gains they have made could be taken away from them at any time. This phenomenon is similar to that experienced by some Jews, who do not feel safe wherever they are. Lack of understanding of their historical experience contributes to this along with the media attention given to real acts of racism and the wealth inequality gap. If the trajectory of racial progress continues to accelerate in the coming decades then this fear of falling (which is also currently experienced by many whites, hence support for Trump) may diminish. It can take a long time to adjust to change, even if it is in a positive direction.

    1. Even though we know that progress has been made, I doubt that it has improved much during a Black person’s lifetime. Even if it has, it is notoriously hard to remember what things were really like a decade or two ago, say. It’s just not something our minds are good at. In other words, one pretty much has to be a student of progress to see it clearly.

      1. Yes, but students of progress (I quoted one the other day) argue that the lot of African Americans is no better than it was decades ago; that the bigotry and racism has just become harder to detect. It’s not rocket science to see that such a view is wrong.

        1. Agreed. I was offering it as an explanation, not a justification, of why they might be less appreciative of progress. Even if they can’t see progress during their lifetime, they should be aware of history.

      2. I think it takes at least an informal study of history to appreciate the importance of events that predate one’s lifetime. But I don’t think it’s so hard to remember key events that occurred decades ago in one’s own lifetime. Take our host’s recollection above of his arriving at a Greyhound bus station with separate restroom facilities as a student at William and Mary (q.v.).

        And I can speak from personal experience that watching Bull Connor turn loose his police dogs and firehoses on peaceful protestors in Birmingham on tv’s Huntley-Brinkley Report as an adolescent had a profound effect on me. I can only imagine the effect it had on those on the receiving end of this vicious authoritarian abuse (some of whom are still with us) and on their children.

        1. Yes, but some of us are old, unlike many who say stupid things like Kevin Hart. 😉 Even though I am virtually as old as our host, I can’t remember seeing any signs of Jim Crow in my childhood. Probably my memory isn’t so good but it is surely also that I spent most of my time in California and my birth country, England. Certainly people openly said racist things and quite often. That I do remember.

  12. So frustrating that guy. He’s so spot on on politics, culture, religion, modern times….. but EVERY time (including the other night) he opens his mouth on ANYTHING to do with medicine (including his anti-vaxing) … so patently idiotic.

    The other night he announces: “It’s over! We have the all clear” – when we SO DON’T – as he whines about masks and distancing. Gold medal for motivated reasoning and bias.
    I can’t square that one.


  13. It’s fun to be a victim and so much of what we see seems to be based on victim hood. I read a comment on a FB group about cephalopods that said they were sick and tired of people referring to anything white men didn’t create as “alien” because white men ruined the world. So much to address especially since it is a group about cephalopods but it shows how the poster felt everything was in some sort of post apocalyptic shitter and white men had victimized us all. I think the best response to this post was when one person said “squirts ink, swims away”.

  14. Honestly I think it’s fairly obvious why “progressives” are preaching the world is racist / sexist / bigoted etc. It’s the same reason Conservative Christian communities go on and on and on about sin and the need to accept Jesus into our hearts and cast out the Devil when there’s already general acceptance in that community. Humans can never live up to their Utopian ideals, so the moral community keeps reminding itself of its failures in the hopes of making things better.

    Another thing is that it’s really easy to be myopic about the situation as we see it. One antidote to that is to engage with other cultures including the cultures of those living in the past. Even watching movies from 50 or 80 years ago is a great reminder of how much things have changed because of the underlying attitudes that govern society. Whatever is not contentious in the film in terms of moral attitudes and behaviour is probably that way because the audience wouldn’t find it contentious either. Hence why modern period pieces feel so unlike older films in showing an era – what’s contentious now is what gets explained whereas it would pass unsaid.

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