People get ready, there’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord
—Curtis Mayfield, “People Get Ready”
Whenever I close my eyes and try to imagine what the idea of inevitable historical progress might look like, I invariably envision a slow-moving train called The Progress Train, which has been chugging along with the patience of Job since the French Revolution. It’s one of those trains beloved of hobos in Depression-era movies, a Charlie Chaplin train that’s fairly easy to jump on and off of. Everyone knows that—regardless of your politics—you’ve gotta secure a spot on The Progress Train before you can get anything done. If you want to change things, if you want political power, you’ve got to muscle your way onto it.
But since seats are limited, and the game’s largely zero-sum, getting on the train almost always involves kicking someone else off. The stakes are high, the competition’s stiff, and the turnover’s high: so whoever’s on The Progress Train today hasn’t been there for long. Of course they do their best to conceal this fact. Ideally, whoever happens to be on The Progress Train at the moment would like you to believe that they’ve always been there; but, failing that, they’d at least like you to believe that they’ve always had a right to be there.
Passengers on The Progress Train are free to do as they please most of the time, so long as they drop whatever they’re doing whenever they hear that whistle blow: the whistle that blows whenever the train nears a station: the whistle that says it’s time to smile and wave to a crowd of well-wishers who’ve shown up in their Sunday best, rain or shine, to cheer on The Progress Train. These are good people, decent people, salt-of-the-earth types who mean well: the kind of people Frank Capra celebrated in his movies.
Like flag-waving patriots on The Fourth of July, and pious Christians on Easter Sunday, these lovers of progress can be counted on to drop whatever they’re doing whenever those church bells ring: the church bells that ring whenever The Progress Train is close by. Although they’ve yet to meet this year’s champions of progress, they’re in love with them already; they don’t know where the train’s going, but they can’t wait to get there; a whole lot of stuff goes missing every time, but no one suspects the train; a few children go missing every time, but no one suspects the train. “And,” writes Tony Hoagland, “the archers shot their arrows with their eyes closed. And the workers in the factory denied any knowledge of what the weapons would be used for. And the name of the one in charge was forgotten. And the boat sailed on without a captain.”
—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)
*Tony Hoagland, “In the Land of Lotus Eaters,” Sweet Ruin (1992)