U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Debate opening: Progressive Change

Last Sunday in the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn suggested that “The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.” Improving the economic situation for women in the world, through micro-loans and increased education, will directly result in the lessening of global poverty particularly because women spend differently than men. They argue that women’s issues tend to be seen as “soft” issues and put on the back burner by journalists and politicians to more “serious” issues like Tienanmen Square or wars. Yet, more women have been lost in the “gendercide” of the 20th century, through preferential abortion, less health care, bride burnings, etc, than men were lost in the wars of the same century. Read the article for the rest of their argument.

What struck me was the consistent use of Progressive Era discourse throughout the text. First of all, consider the two titles. The particular essay referenced above is “The Woman’s Crusade.” The title of the whole magazine is “Saving the World’s Women.” The thesis of the piece seemed to be that wealthy Westerners have a burden to bring the rest of the women up to middle class standards of living through middle class morality. Despite Kristoff having sensitivity towards other cultures in his other pieces, he seems here to utterly disregard any strength in the world’s cultures, and sees only the ways in which they do not measure up.

So what I would like to discuss here is–How should we, as historians, consider modern efforts for ameliorative programs? I would imagine most of us abhor world poverty, and yet, for me at least, Kristoff’s piece utterly lacked a sense of the historical failures of the Progressive Era, coupled as it was with imperialism. What do you think such a sense would have added to his arguments?

And at the same time, how do we talk about the complex ways in which imperialism functions? I always think about the way the Americans sashshayed into the Philippines with a full sense of the “White Man’s Burden” and smashed the local resistance movement that had started the war with Spain in the first place. And yet, why are there Filipino nurses spread all over the globe, filling a global nursing shortage? Because those Americans set up hospitals. While it seems to me that imperialism is wrong, it does not seem like simple condemnation adequately addresses the full range of possibilities here. In his piece, Kristoff takes the problem of seeming to dictate Western morality by using illustrations centered on Africans and Asians, with their goals in the forefront.

Is it right for historians to judge (for a slightly different, yet similar question, read this post)? Or, given that we are human, when we judge, what should be our parameters? I suppose this is linked to my previous post about ethics, but here I ask about our own personal ethics as historians.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Fundamentally your questions are about social ethics and the possibility that there is a universal moral standard that all people regardless of culture or empire can agree on. This questions has been answered in the negative as of late, and therefore any “judgement” is considered an act of power. The task of the historian is impossible unless we can make a value judgement on what historical problems is even worthy of study. It is unlikely that you will study slavery, or bride burning, if you don’t think it is a problem in some way. Additionally, “empire” gets overused becoming a simplistic and fashionable answer to complex problems. If you can’t explain it, call it empire and go with that.

  2. it’s impossible to avoid moral judgment, but it is possible to contain and mark it as such–to be relatively open, to lie as little as possible to the reader. anyway, these questions of historical/historian’s morality are, i think, best posed concretely. in this case, perhaps the question is, are we historians authorized to argue against the use of certain forms of discourse today because of our professional judgments about the past effects of that discourse? ie, crusades (well chosen word…) to save morally endangered and helpless females? i think, within limits, we are.

    for myself, i think this resurgence of progressive-era discourse is fascinating. is it because we have, again, a convergence of a certain moral universalism, technocracy, capitalism, huge power disparities…i’m not sure exactly what dimensions along which it is best to describe things. certainly there are several current arguments that the post-89 (or 2001) world is more like the pre-1914 world than anything else. there is something appealing, though perhaps not historically rigorous, about the idea that the 20th century is best regarded as a terrible deviation.

    also, anonymous, just because sometimes people use the concept of empire sloppily, to explain everything, doesn’t mean that it is meaningless. lots of concepts are misused or under-thought. it seems to me entirely legitimate to argue that progressivism and imperialism have something to do with one another. similarly, the idea of ‘humanitarian imperialism’ seems to me not unreasonable, and to pose rather sharply a number of real problems. it is silly to pretend that there is a straightforward answer to the question of when and by what armed intervention is justified. in as much as history is *the* discipline of unintended consequences, historians may well be perfectly positioned to critique short-sighted interventionism. something about learning from the mistakes of the past? unless one doesn’t believe in that sort of thing?

  3. Eric Brandom, I agree with you that just because a concept has been overused or used wrongly does not invalidate it. I can think of others racism, patriarchy, neo-liberalism. Historians do however tend to want to provide a “metanarrative” that explains everything. When they follow this too far it causes problems of distortions.

  4. On a side note, although I’m often sympathetic with the causes he espouses, Kristof’s self-presentation (which is connected, I think, to the rhetoric Lauren describes) can be off-putting. In particular, he often presents himself as the lone (white, male) crusader on issues of women’s rights in the third world, sometimes falsely accusing American feminists of ignoring these issues. Katha Pollitt wrote a good piece about this in The Nation back in 2004.

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