Bending the arc of the moral universe

A bit after the tooth fairy debacle, I took my daughter to see where they held the Putney Debates.

She was a bit puzzled at the time (and, to be honest, since as well) why we lugged all the way over to Putney to look at a church. But I thought it would be good to visit somewhere that’s important in the development of ideas of democracy.

The quote displayed in the church is from Thomas Rainsborough: “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he”.

Rainsborough was making the case for universal manhood suffrage, speaking on behalf of the Levellers. They got nowhere with that at the time, but it’s their words that prevail.

And when we think about the extension of suffrage to women, it’s the Pankhursts and Millicent Fawcett we remember. Their opponents, who dominated at the time, are now mainly faceless, forgotten.

We think about the slave trade, we think of William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. Those who opposed the change, and held out for decades against it, are not part of our narrative.

I don’t want to be too pollyanna-ish about this (not a criticism I ever thought I would need to defend myself against). It’s mainly a load of white men we remember (Wilberforce and Clarkson, and not so much Olaudah Equiano or Toussaint Louverture or Elizabeth Heyrick). And what we remember is perverted by the workings of power and privilege as well as by self-serving revisionism.

But it’s still good to hold onto Martin Luther King’s aphorism that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

When the civil rights movement went to Birmingham Alabama, it was a deliberate strategy, to expose that Bull Connor, the viciously racist Commissioner, was on wrong side of history. As King put it, “Bull Connor didn’t know history … there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to”.

Now Trump wants to institute a glorious day of patriotic devotion. But I don’t rate his chances. There’s a reason that the US has a Martin Luther King day and not a Bull Connor day.

Nobody takes pride in the Daily Mail’s support for fascism, or its campaign against accepting refugees from Germany, in the 1930s. In the same way, I can imagine a future time when it is incomprehensible how our society stood by and watched so many refugees be abandoned, excluded and vilified (and not just by Trump).

But like Joe Strummer said, The Future is Unwritten. Positive progress doesn’t just happen, we have to fight for it.

We have to bend the arc.

We have to believe that we are on the right side of history, and in believing it, we act on it. And in acting on it, we help make it come true.

 

2 Comments

  1. Alice says:

    Quite right. I’ve always liked the King quote, even though (as a humanist) I don’t believe a moral universe literally exists but is one that we create collectively, and only we will do the bending. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Rhonda says:

    Thank you. As the massive, spontaneous demonstrations here over the weekend suggest, Trump’s promise to make America great again may be happening, but just not at all in the way he meant.

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