In Praise of Incrementalism

kerosene hat

Cracker: Get Off This
[purchase]

Maybe one of the clearest signs of getting older is that you recognize the value of incrementalism.  It is, of course, much more exciting to demand revolution, or immediate change in the face of an imperfect society than to argue for steady improvement.  No one remembers the Frenchmen who yelled, “Slowly approach the Bastille and, you know, reason with the guards.”  History has not lionized the American colonist who may have said, “Give me liberty, or give me a negotiated path to liberty, while keeping me alive!”  And there are no reported instances of anti-Vietnam War protesters yelling, “A few of you please consider standing against, or at least near, the wall, motherfuckers!” (Although we do have the tortoise and the hare fable.)  While some revolutions succeed, including ours (led, of course, by wealthy landowners, slaveholders and descendants of nobles), many fail, or result in chaos or oppression.

Much important and ultimately radical societal restructuring has come from incremental changes that built on prior advances.  The civil rights movement, for example, did not succeed by freed slaves taking up arms against the government.  It was a series of small victories which culminated in the election of an African-American president in 2008.  Which is not to say that things are perfect–they are far from it.  I’m in the process of reading Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, by Gilbert King, and it discusses the open racism in the country–not just the South–in the late 1940s and 1950s, and how the NAACP, and Thurgood Marshall, chose cases that would gradually chip away at Jim Crow laws.  This gradual strategy ultimately made it impossible for the Supreme Court to do anything but overrule Plessy v. Ferguson and its endorsement of “separate but equal” in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education.  More recently, we have seen how marriage equality went from something that was first not discussed, then was unthinkable to a constitutional right.  And is Canada really worse off because it chose not to participate in the American Revolution, and gradually obtained its independence almost a century later?

Last weekend, I attended a weekend conference at Princeton geared toward Jewish alumni, celebrating 100 years of Jewish life on campus.  Prior to 1915, there were few Jews, and no Jewish life, on campus or in the surrounding town.  In fact, for years, the Jewish population on campus was limited by a strict quota that was smaller than its “peer institutions,” giving Princeton the reputation of being unwelcoming to Jewish students.  Slowly, though, that began to change, and by 1972, Princeton opened a kosher dining hall, only the third on a college campus, after more Jewish oriented Yeshiva University and Brandeis.  Again, that alone didn’t end anti-Semitism at Princeton, but by the time I attended in the late 1970s-early 1980s, Jewish students were fully integrated into most areas of campus life (like I said, it wasn’t perfect).

At the conference, former University President William Bowen (or “Bilbo,” as we called him, if not to his face), discussed how one of his early efforts toward increasing inclusion on campus was turning the Baccalaureate service, during the pre-graduation period, from a Christian service to something more ecumenical (although, I suspect that atheists would have found it uncomfortable–I skipped mine because I refused to go to a service, and I wanted to sleep).  Bowen said that he very much wanted to invite Rabbi Gerson Cohen to be a speaker, but rather than immediately move from Protestant clergy to a rabbi, he first invited Professor Gregory Vlastos, then James I. McCord, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, then Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame, before bringing Rabbi Cohen in as speaker.  In his remarks at the conference, Bowen commented about the value of incrementalism.  Would Princeton have crumbled if a rabbi had spoken three years earlier?  I doubt it, but Bowen’s approach did make it seem like inviting a rabbi was a completely ordinary event, unworthy of note.

Over the past few weeks, as the Democratic primary race has heated up, I’ve been thinking about how, to a large degree, the two candidates seem to embody the incrementalism/revolution dichotomy.  I have said to friends that I wish I lived in a country where Bernie Sanders could be elected president, but I don’t think I do.  We live in a divided country, where Sanders’ ideas, as well-intentioned as they are, would never get through the Congress.  Sanders’ calls for revolution without much in the way of explanation of how he would achieve these goals are troubling.  To paraphrase pollster and consultant Mark Mellman, who participated in a panel on the election at the conference last weekend, Hillary Clinton has a solution for every problem, and Sanders has only problems without solutions.  I don’t agree with some of Clinton’s solutions, but I think that her approach would be more effective if she is elected.  Despite unparalleled obstruction by the right, the country has made progressive advances under President Obama, and Clinton has promised to continue and expand on them.  As Samantha Bee cleverly pointed out on her show this week, it is hard to understand how Sanders would be able to achieve his revolution in the face of similar obstructionism.  The idea, advanced by a Sanders supporter on Bee’s show, that the people would rise up and demand change was met with an incredulous “Have you met people?” from Bee.

Once again, I have written a long non-music related piece, and find myself, at the end, trying to tie it to a song.  My first thought was Johnny Cash’s great “One Piece At A Time,” in which the main character, an auto worker, assembles a Cadillac, incrementally, by taking a piece a day.  But that doesn’t work for me, because at the end, what he has assembled is a “psychobilly Cadillac,” an incoherent mess because of the styling changes made over the quarter century it took to gather the parts.  As it turns out, it isn’t easy to find a song that glorifies incremental progress, for the same reasons that revolutions are more memorable than steady advancement.  As Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”  So, although it isn’t perfect, our featured song, by Cracker, is “Get Off This,” in which the band mocks idealists who do nothing to actually advance their causes. (And that leads to another of my favorite sayings, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” sort of said by Voltaire and Shakespeare).  Like much of Cracker’s music, it has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek.

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