The Paradox of Progress in America


Someone dug up a copy of a college English Final that Johnny wrote in 2002. The purpose of the final was simply to write a concept paper that could serve as a model for proper grammar techniques. The subject matter was optional.

We have decided to publish it as a verification on policy positions. Being a Progressive is nothing new to Johnny. As you can see by the date of the Final, he was talking about working families and warning of the path we were on over 15 years ago.


Today, progress can have different meanings for different people. A large family, living in a one-bedroom apartment, may view obtaining a larger home as progress; or a multinational corporation, opening another store in a new, unsaturated location, may see growth as progress. And Germans may have seen the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a form of progress. However, all progress may not be good for all people. Humans almost always seem to progress (or, as some prefer—evolve) into a better society of people. Many researchers and scholars have conflicting viewpoints on this subject. It is this conflict that suggests a paradox of progress in America.

Progress is defined as "advancement toward perfection or to a higher place or better state; improvement" (1075). Paradox is "a statement contrary to popular belief" (979). So essentially, the paradox of progress in America is the belief that any of our industrial, medical, social, or technological advances may not truly be for the benefit of everyone in society. Therefore, what may or may not be good progress? Take the wheel, for instance. Since its invention—whenever that may have been—the wheel has been the source of numerous advancements: automobiles, machinery, engineering devices (for example, pulleys for lifting), larger forms of transportation, plus something as small as a wristwatch, just a few examples showing the effect of the wheel on today's world. It is considered a highly positive form of progression, in modern times.

The United States has also made great advancements in medicine. Case in point, according to Bert Weinstein—Acting Associate Director of Biology and Biotechnology Research Programs—of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, pathogens (such as the ones used in bioterrorism) can be detected quickly and accurately by using a device called the "Handheld Advanced Nucleic Acid Analyzer." This piece of equipment, though sophisticated, may lead to methods that "will be fast and easy to use," possibly making home versions available in the future (Fighting Bioterrorism, Fighting Cancer para 3, 4). Furthermore, machines that a layperson can use with little training-—defibrillators—are becoming more common, especially in largely populated are (American Red Cross 132-133). These are the machines used to provide a shock to a person who is in cardiac arrest. However, numerous setbacks affect the world of medicine, including those unfortunates who cannot afford adequate medical coverage and must go without proper healthcare for themselves and their families. Barbara Ehrenreich touches on this delicate subject in her book, Nickel and Dimed:

Most civilized nations compensate for the inadequacy of wages by providing relatively generous public services such as health insurance...But the United States, for all its wealth, leaves its citizens to fend for themselves—facing market-based rents, for example, on their wages alone. For millions of Americans, that $10—or even $8 or $6—hourly wage is all there is. (214)

America boasts of its achievements in the medical field but only makes certain acquisitions available to the lower-class members of society. With all of America's current technology in place, the nation struggles—more now than ever—to take care of the medical requirements owed to American workers. Many blue-collar, low-income workers are not afforded basic medical needs.

Other types of progress that receive a wide range of viewpoints from a variety of specialists is the ongoing technological advances. Authors Wayne Weiten and Margret A. Lloyd state, "Our modern Western society has made extraordinary strides in transportation, energy, communication, agriculture, and medicine. Yet despite our technological progress, social problems and personal difficulties seem more prevalent and more prominent than ever before" (1). Social problems come with the territory in a "First World" country. Weiten and Lloyd relate that, despite affluence, many people are "least satisfied with their finances." What's more, no matter how much some people have, they always seem to want more. This is how particular individuals define their success; they acquire material goods to show wealth. Unfortunately, in our society, such a contented success is defined, not by their needs being met but by their ostensibly simple wants. Thereafter, they convince themselves that these extras are a necessity—thus justifying their desires. So, the question should be asked: Who is richer, they who are content with sustenance, or they who sustain their contentment for more? Psychological studies show that those in the first group experience less anxiety over finances and are less likely to become "distressed about [their] economic plight" (1). Social psychologist, Robert Levine touches on some of these anxieties in A Geography of Time. Many of the financial problems experienced by society are a result of an ongoing tussle with time management. Levine explains that the pressure to keep up with time can influence a person, physiologically. "The pace of life does, in fact, have vital consequences for the quality of life" (154). He goes on to say, "In all of our pace-of life experiments, people in faster places [Type A cities] were more likely to be satisfied with their lives" (158). This appears to be a contradiction. However, he further states:

These results depict an apparent paradox [emphasis added]: people in faster places are more prone to suffer coronary heart disease, but they are also more likely to be happier with their lives. If a fast pace of life creates the stress that leads to cigarette smoking and heart attacks, shouldn't this same stress make for an unhappy existence? (158)

While individuals may encounter the same types of stressors toward similar sorts of events, they "have their own styles for coping," according to Weiten and Lloyd (95). One of these styles they introduce, which is also what Levine alludes to, is constructive coping. This is not the cure-all to everybody's "stressing out" needs, but it does give an explanation to Levine's seemingly contradictory comments. A person does not have to be free from stressors to live a happy life. It depends on how a person perceives and copes, as the race for success goes on, with the anxiety at hand. Pessimists tend to cope with anxiety in an unhealthy manner, as opposed to optimists. "[Seymour Epstein and Petra Meier, psychological researchers] found constructive thinking to be favorably related to mental and physical health and to measures of 'success' in work, love, and social relationships" (102). Aside from an individual's own methods of dealing with the range of emotions that go along with everyday living, it is evident are a great number of other stressors out there to choose from. "Robert Kegan maintains that the mental demands of modern life have become so complex, confusing, and contradictory that most [people] are 'in over [their] heads"' (3).

This way of living could be connected and traced to the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution. Chad Israelson, a history instructor at RCTC, comments, "The Industrial Revolution is probably the most important advancement in the last few centuries. It changed the way we live and work." W. R. Greg writes in his 1877 book, Life at High Pressure:

Beyond doubt, the most salient characteristics of life in this latter portion of the nineteenth century is its SPEED, —what we may call its hurry, the rate at which move, the high pressure at which we work; —and the question to be considered is, first, whether it is worth the price we pay for it—a price reckoned up, and not easy thoroughly to ascertain. (qtd. in Levine 153)

Rush, rush, rush! Most of the nation's population is in a hurry to get ahead. Of course, this is nothing new. Humans, by nature, are social but also self-indulgent. Therefore, as conditions in First World cities urbanized, alongside these conditions crept a division of labor. It was this separation that has led to the "social caste system" America is experiencing today. With poverty, displacement, specialized labor, and low-income jobs becoming more and more prevalent, progress does not appear to be the answer to everybody's turmoil. An economics instructor at RCTC, Darlene Voeltz agrees that industrialization has affected the country in ways that are only beginning to be understood. For example, the Assembly Line, created by Henry Ford, introduced a new sense of work ethics, which is still being acknowledged. These new work concepts, such as, job rotation—to help reduce accidents, due to stress and a loss of motivation—are still useful to companies in today’s business world. Even one of America's—and now the world's—most successful fast food franchises, McDonald's can attribute its monstrous growth to the idea of the assembly line (Schlosser 19-20). This leads to what Voeltz speaks of as "specialized labor," which she believes is responsible for the "hierarchy of pay" that resulted from this method of production. "Then it was the businessmen and the factory workers; today it's the computer literate and the computer illiterate—[hence] the haves and the have-nots," relates Voeltz. She goes on to say that if people in the workforce are not skilled in computers, they are not going to be able to keep up with the fast-moving economy and the giant leaps in technology that seem to be a daily event. Therefore, they are going to stay—or even become—a part of the have-nots, the '"working poor" (Ehrenreich 221).

Computers racing through the future, today is looking like that, which science-fiction writers envisioned decades ago. The "extension of self" is more readily available to more of the populous than ever before. With just the click of a button, anyone who has a simple understanding of computers and the Internet can access volumes of information from around the globe— the largest beneficiary being education—according to philosophy instructor, Ed Shafer, at RCTC. Shafer does admit that this technology can lead to a greater separation, or division, between people. As the computer literate and the computer illiterate separate, society could lose its sense of "social cohesion," says sociology instructor, Lynn Guenette, at RCTC. " America lost its normativeness and is changing so fast; there is no common morality," she believes. She suggests that, at first, this separation, or conflict between the haves and the have-nots, was necessary for the "equality" of working people through sources like unions—to help maintain fare wages for specialized workers. It was not until the United States began "living off the fat of third world countries" that this became a problem. America stopped providing for its own in many ways. And one of the biggest ways America has been slacking off its responsibilities is education.

Where will this country end up, if society does not stay focused on the importance of suitable forms of public education? The civil rights of future generations may be at risk. Soon, more and more "people [could become] unemployable," and as the gap between people widens, there may not be any terms for recourse. Furthermore, "if [America doesn't] have an educated populous, [America doesn't] have a democracy."

The democracy in America, the land of opportunity, the home of the "American Dream," the ground on which the pursuit of happiness is a liberty, has always promised society progress. Has it delivered? America does excel in many areas. However, the nation can also be found extremely lacking on its response to an abundance of social issues that may become a proverbial thorn in the side of future progress and productivity. That, which some may view as progress, is not necessarily of great benefit to others. In democracy, the majority rules. However, the majority might soon be the have-nots—the people for whom progress had negative effects. Consequently, they not only lose their voice in society, but they also lose their sense of belonging to the social arena and their motivation to progress as individuals who contribute a positive role in the community. This society, which people tolerate so proudly, cannot fully grow until it actualizes the paradox of progress in America.

Sharing is caring!