Skip to main content

The first class I attended at Duke was a seminar called “Globalization and Corporate Citizenship” led by Dirk Philipsen, a professor of economic history and public policy. The class was memorable because it was one of the rare gems offered by Duke’s curricula that challenged students to think transcendentally in a manner best summarized by the following metaphor:

A train moving too fast is an apt description of our current notions of progress.
Credit: David Mark

I believe it was the second week of class that Professor Philipsen spoke of a train. He said the train was going fast. Very fast. The train was also in jeopardy, for not too many miles ahead was a massive chasm. So what could be done to save the train and its passengers from an imminent doom? Why, we all thought the answer was obvious. Just stop the train! Pull the brakes like they do in the movies and come to a screeching halt right before the tracks end.

But there was a hitch in our thinking. Professor Philipsen went on: The train was actually getting faster instead of slowing down. It appeared no one on the train was concerned about the disaster ahead. The conductor and the rest of the crew steering the train simply did not want to be late.

Who were the passengers, why couldn’t they do something? That was point where the metaphor began to merge with reality. Professor Philipsen explained the passengers were all of us, and that the course of the train was really a conceptualization of progress. If we could solve the predicament of the train, metaphorically speaking, why then was it so hard to stop the train in real life? The train of climate change? The train of democracy? The train of justice?

Very rarely do we think about the direction these trains are headed, let alone if we should stop. Even when we do muster the collective will to stop the train, the sentiment never reaches far in our chains of command. The idea of stopping the train seems so frankly absurd and counterproductive in our time and era, even when it shouldn’t be.

I often return to the train metaphor because it is a salient reminder of the attitudes our country and its electorate have adopted in lieu of both domestic and international conflict. The incessant gogo mindset dominates our decision-making, encouraging ignorance rather than prudence. And it leaves problems that can’t be solved without serious action—like climate change, predatory capitalism, or achievement gaps—undetected and unbothered.

The train metaphor and other veins of thinking subsequently distract us from not only confronting the existential crises that loom in humanity’s future, but also the finer details in our way of life that are arguably just as threatening. Many of these details are laws camouflaged in legal print, evading scrutiny. I’m talking about the weird political financing laws allowing politicians to accept massive donations from special interests and private backers, or the strange fact that corporations are entitled to many of the same constitutional freedoms you and I share as living, breathing human beings.

Then there’s the criminal justice system I’ve had the privilege of learning about over this summer. If we can get off the anti-crime, pro-prison, “law-and-order” train ride for a moment and scrutinize just exactly what it is that’s in front of us, it becomes apparent that there are many pitfalls along the journey.

Take one example: mandatory minimum sentences. I didn’t even know about them until recently. Mandatory sentences are exactly as they sound; they are predefined sentence times associated with various criminal and civil charges. At first glance, one might think isn’t it nice to have some uniformity across the justice system, so that prosecutors can deliver fairer, and more equal sentences? Not really. The first red flag is that federal minimum sentences are a product of politics, not the judicial processes. They can be passed and changed by Congress, and they are often championed by politicians who want to appear tough on crime. As a result, mandatory minimum sentences seem to be getting longer and longer, and they subject defendants to unruly lengths of incarceration. Knowing this, prosecutors can use minimum sentences as their ace card to coerce guilty pleas. In federal court today, ninety-seven percent of defendants plead guilty rather than go to trial. Evidently, mandatory minimum sentencing is eating away at a judicial process that is supposedly honest and fair. How can any of this make sense? But enough about prosecutorial overreach—what about quota-based policing? Children in adult prisons? The death penalty?

As national protests prove this summer, it does make a difference to stop and confront societal issues. I believe progress isn’t simply about moving forward; it’s about what direction to take. And as I learn more about the erosion of progress in our police departments, courtrooms, and prison facilities, I hope many more will join me in search of a new metaphor for a progress, and better yet, a suitable reality.