Ogre in Progress

facing the ogres in progress, ogre progress

Facing the Ogres in Progress


Years ago, waiting with my younger son in the elementary school auditorium for the holiday program to begin, I asked what he learned in school that day. “VCCV,” he said. “VCCV? What’s that?” You know, Vowel, Consonant, Consonant, Vowel. He looks at a banner on the auditorium wall that reads PROGRESS! “Like O-G-R-E,” he said. I laughed. I had never noticed the “ogre” in “progress.” But there it was right in the middle, as big as, well, an ogre!

In folktales, ogres are usually large, hairy, hominid giants that are dangerous and feed on humans. The ogre is a universal creature: Native American lore includes people-eating giants, for Odysseus it was Cyclops, and in Japan it’s the oni. It’s also a metaphor for that dreaded monster that lurks in our world and has to be subdued if we want to move forward. Because ogres stand guard against progress, every social movement has to take them on. Most are subtle, almost invisible, and today they have sophisticated, well-oiled propaganda machines. Sometimes they have surveillance, prisons, and weapons.

On another level, the ogre is inside us, part of our shadow. It wants to block us from changing a habit or taking on an important challenge. When the ogre tries to eat the children, it’s trying to kill our agency, our possibility. It stands between us and our own powerful growth. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell says that in these stories from around the world, ogres are the “threshold guardian.” The threshold stands for the “limits of hero’s present sphere, of life horizon. Beyond them are darkness, the unknown, and danger.”

One had better not challenge the watcher of the established bounds. And yet—it is only by advancing beyond those bounds, provoking the other, destructive aspect of the same power, that the individual passes, either alive or in death, into a new zone of experience…. The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades.

Each of today’s challenges comes with its own ogres. For example, the Ogre of Disenfranchisement wants some people to lose their vote, not count, disappear, have less power over their lives. At one point or another, group after group has battled this particular ogre in every corner of the land: Native Americans, Blacks, women, people who didn’t own land, eighteen- to-twenty-year-olds who were being drafted to fight a war, non-Protestants, poor people, those in jail, felons who have served their sentences, and residents of Puerto Rico or Washington, D.C.

Some of these struggles are yet to be resolved, but one by one, most ogres that kept Americans from voting have been defeated. To fight them, people planned, made alliances, appealed, marched, were jailed, and beaten. Many died. Women fought for decades to win suffrage. So did Blacks, and in 1965, voting rights legislation brought down giant barriers.

But, like monsters at the end of a bad movie the ogres are back. Actually, they never left. Over the last decade, disingenuous legislators across the country have scrambled to create new and improved voting barriers. This is coordinated and pretends to be guarding against massive voter fraud, a problem that doesn’t even exist. The goal is to distort elections to favor the wealthy and powerful, signaling nothing less than the struggle between democracy and despotism. “The community today is the planet, not the bounded nation,” said Joseph Campbell. “The national idea, with the flag as totem, is today an aggrandizer of the nursery ego…. And the numerous saints of this anticult—namely the patriots whose ubiquitous photographs, draped with flags, serve as official icons—are precisely the local threshold guardians… whom it is the first problem of the hero to surpass.”

Authoritarianism is a danger to humankind. It’s an ogre. Injustice and inequality spawn entire colonies of ogres. So do racism, sexism, classism, and any other ism that exploits people or that lessens anyone’s dignity. So do the ogres that put profit before humanity and our home, Earth. These ogres guard every single threshold between where we are today, and the thriving and just world we yearn to live in.

— from Want to Change the World?