The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
My hero, Dr. King, was wrong about justice.
I love Dr. King. His writings and speeches are collected in a book called “A Testament of Hope”. That book was a revelation for me. Dr. King had a moral clarity that is rare in this world. Many of his observations were accurate, wise, and timeless. But the ‘arc of the moral universe’ statement is misleading. We are promised no such experience in this world.
In Dr. King’s time, the quote may have been both accurate and wise. King saw the expanding reach of national newspapers and television networks. When the nation, through that new media, was exposed to the reality and brutality of overt Southern racism--then the nation, which believed it shared a common and decent morality, imposed that morality on the South.
While Dr. King’s understanding may have been both accurate and wise, it was not timeless. This is where my moral hero comes up against the hard realities of observation. Dr. King failed to consider sample size.
The ebb and flow of the moral universe, as it related to equal rights for blacks, was indeed bending in Dr. King’s direction. Northerners, naive as they may have been, considered themselves righteous in racial terms. When they saw peaceful protesters being brutally beaten and denied the vote, it offended their moral sensibilities.
That is very different from suggesting that the arc of the moral universe is bending constantly toward the good.
A whole lot of people, in 1900, believed the arc of the moral universe was bending toward justice. They believed in progress and globalism and egalitarianism. There was a slight blip in that bend toward justice when 10s and 10s of millions died in two world wars, a holocaust, and other assorted genocides. Oops.
Through much of my young life, the arc of the moral universe appeared to bend toward justice. The Berlin Wall fell. We (eventually) intervened in Kosovo. We got a handle on AIDS. South Africa ended apartheid. We started fighting hunger and disease in Africa. But the new world order did turn out as advertised.
Stephen Pinker’s excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature argues decisively that humanity has gotten gradually less violent over time. He showed convincingly (with data) that despite what we see on the news, rates of violent crime have continued to decrease, even in this century, and even in this decade. I’m thankful for that.
Pinker also argues convincingly in Enlightenment Now that most other things that matter to people are getting better over time. People are living longer, suffering less, and have more choice in life. Both conservative and liberal institutions have supported this progress.
But I’m sympathetic to warnings about the direction of our culture. There is no guarantee which direction the arc of the moral universe will bend.
When I was graduating from High School, the Soviet Union was busy disintegrating. We all celebrated Russia’s move toward democracy. Russia may be more genuinely dictatorial now in 2020 than it was back in the 70’s and 80’s. Ask a Russian journalist if the arc of the moral universe always bends toward justice.
This point is important, because the belief in the inevitability of a more just and more comfortable world affects people’s behavior. It allows people the luxury of saying “neither party has really earned my vote, so I’m not voting at all”. It allows people the luxury of buying into wedge issues, believing they can ignore the rest of their party’s policies without consequence.
People also feel protected by America’s “greatness”. Leading up to the election of 2008, someone asked one of the Presidential candidates if he “believed in American exceptionalism”. It was treated as kind of a big deal because, of course, every candidate for President should believe that America is special.
But in what way are we special? Does this mean other people in the world have to guard against authoritarianism, but we don’t? Does it mean other countries could be capable of evil, but we’re not?
Some people suggest that concern over the stability of the American project is an over-reaction. But I point to the example of Russia mentioned above. I also point to the example of the Middle East. Life in the Middle East has been chaotic and unpredictable all through our lifetimes. They are stuck in an intense cycle of tribalism and xenophobia and violence. Why do we think we are so special that this could not happen to us? We've proven we're not immune to tribalism and xenophobia and violence.
I’m worried about America, and where the arc is headed for my children and their children. People always worry about this kind of thing, and maybe I should just chill the heck out. Maybe our time is not as different as it seems in the moment that I’m experiencing it. But in my next posts, I’ll talk about some things that make the current era of American politics different from the past.
Recommended book: A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches, by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Recommended book: The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker
Recommended book: Enlightenment Now!, by Steven Pinker
Recommended book: On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder