Lest We Forget That Promised Land

In the best of all possible worlds, Brandeis believed, every workday would be short enough, calm enough, and safe enough to preserve workers’ ‘freshness of mind’, allowing them to continue educating themselves throughout adulthood, as citizenship requires.

- Caleb Crain, “State of the Unions”, New Yorker, August 26, 2019

A thing that happens and is not told ceases to exist and perishes. This is a fact well known to not only historians, but also (and perhaps above all) to every stripe of politician and tyrant. He who has and weaves the story is in charge.
- Olga Tokarczuk (2019 winner Nobel Prize for Literature)

Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now.
- Walter Brueggeman

Time by the clock.
One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, rock.
Time to get out of bed.
Time to go to work.
The class starts at 2:30.
The meeting ended at 9.

There’s another way to measure time. It’s not as popular. This way of telling the time is not as easy as looking at the clock or glancing at your watch. As a matter of fact, these timepieces have next to nothing to do with this way of reading time. You could watch the clock for twenty-four hours, and it would tell you nothing about the times. A watch is not what you watch when you’re attempting to interpret the time as history, which is what Charles Dicken does in the opening of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way….

 

Signs of the times. That deeper time. Time as history.

 

Not too many people know much or care much about history these days.

You go to school to learn something marketable, right?

Whatever history you were forced to learn in school, you forgot, right?

No, wait a second, you’re talking about Confederation and this dude Hitler, right?

There’s a reason they call history history, right? lol.

Our recognition of another time, a time before our time, a time that shaped our time is both spotty and shallow. From time to time, we may happen to notice buildings or cars clearly built before our time; at times, we may visit our grandparents; once in a while, we may observe Remembrance Day. These encounters with the past roughly
sum up our consciousness of history these days.

 

Lest we forget, here’s some time as history. You’ll see that time hasn’t always been about the bottom line.

 

Once upon a time, people were religious. Simply put, for hundreds and hundreds of years, people actually believed there was more to life than meets the eye. In keeping with this belief, people attended places of worship. There they would dialogue with God Almighty. Worshipers would hear God’s commandments and then respond to them by bowing their heads in shame and by pleading on their knees for forgiveness. In some religious traditions, they would then go to the altar to eat and drink. People did this for centuries.

Hardly anybody goes to church or to any other traditional place of worship anymore. Neither I nor anyone else could actually prove this, but one of the things that started the process of unbelieving (aka secularization) could have been the invention of the telescope back in the 17th century. With his naked eye pressed against the lens of the telescope, Galileo, an Italian astronomer, uncovered the fact that the earth revolved around the sun.

This was breaking news in more ways than one. Until the time of Galileo’s discovery, people had simply believed the sun revolved around the earth. Since time immemorial, people had seen the sun rising and the sun setting, and had simply concluded what appeared obvious: The sun and the stars moved while the earth stood still.

Faced with the fact that earth revolved around the sun, it began to dawn on people that things aren’t always what they appear to be. Coinciding with this doubt about the face value of reality came the pursuit of knowledge based on empirical evidence, that is, the rise of modern science.

Facts derived by the scientific method did more than upset long-established certainties. These scientific facts also had the effect of undermining faith in the authority of the Church and its teachings. The Christian worldview depended on the earth being the centre of God’s attention. Of the many issues arising from the fact that the decentred earth was now one of many planets revolving around the sun, there likely would have been the question of how God could keep a steady eye on a moving target.

The authority of the Christian worldview had been thinned by empirical fact. As a result, God, heaven, and the afterlife, matters that had distracted people for centuries, became increasingly immaterial. People’s orientation shifted from otherworldly concerns to this-worldly ones.

It began to occur to people disabused of the consolations of heaven that this-worldly life held considerable room for improvement. This general awakening, commonly known as the Enlightenment of the 18th century, had its roots in the intellectual and scientific progress of the 16th and 17th century. Like adolescents who have come of age and who no longer respect or trust the constraints and guidance of their care-givers, people of the 18th century became increasingly confident that science was the solution to the problem of human suffering. Instead of continuing to limp through life on the crutches of faith and of obedience to the God-ordained powers (and privileges) of traditional authorities like the the Church and the aristocracy, which, by the way, may have comprised 1% of the population, people leapt aboard the train “Modernity”. The belief was that this train would leave behind the evils of oppression and exclusion, and that it would provide quick and scientific passage to heaven on earth. The bee-line to the promised land, a society flowing with freedom and inclusion, would be achieved rationally, systematically and, therefore, with maximum efficiency.

Time was of the essence. The sooner we arrived, the better. At stake with this wager on “Modernity” - lest we forget - was not increasing profit margins for the few, but the freedom and wellbeing of all.

Some of you may still be wondering why I bothered to write this brief (and spotty) history of the last five hundred years of Western Civilization at a time when history is history. It’s because I no longer think we’re enroute to the promised land. It seems to me that we have settled for a steady supply of new and improved goods instead
of continuing on our way toward social and economic equality.

I could be mistaken. It’s possible we’re still on our way there, and that all of us just need to be patient while “Modernity” eats up the miles between the present and the just society.

Sorry. We’ve been travelling on the track that Reason built for several centuries. We could’ve been on Mars by now.

I suspect that “Modernity” has either come to a standstill or that it’s reversed its direction.

With respect to the three-point turn, it could be that “Modernity” has been hijacked and that we’re well into heading back the way we came. As power and wealth steadily concentrate and as the weight of oppression and the pain of exclusion silently spread, many of us aboard “Modernity” appear to care less where the train is headed. We have our smartphones to amuse us.

Note: Rabbit holes, like our predecessors’ thoughts about heaven, do nothing to relieve the real, this-worldly suffering of others.

It’s more likely that “Modernity”along with the whole Enlightenment project jumped the rails some time ago, and that its wheels are spinning spectacularly but, ultimately, unconvincingly on the side of the tracks while it uses up what’s left of its bravado. Hope so. That’s enough for now.

The Poverty and Its Associates - P&A series is being written by Len Van Harten and the posts don't necessarily reflect the position of the London Poverty Research Centre. Len lives in Thorndale, Ontario. He has worked in group homes, in classrooms, and in nonprofit housing. He believes that if you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying close enough attention to the world around you.