Are Things really getting better?

As the year 2018 is drawing to a close I want to look back to determine whether it was a good year. The question that immediately comes to mind is whether the term good applies to a global quality of human life or whether, in considering this matter, we must be more modest and limit the adjective’s meaning to a quality of goodness in a more limited sense, i.e., to select smaller groups of humanity on our planet.

Best selling author, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, Steven Pinker’s 556 page book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, (Viking, 2018), addresses itself to the above question.

Before I share with you my opinion on both the question and Pinker’s book, I want to refer you to an excellent critique of the book by Joshua Rothman in his extensive article entitled “The Big Question: Is the world getting better or worse?” in the

July 23, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, (pp.26-32).

Steve Pinker is an erudite writer. Those 556 pages are chock full of valuable information, The text is well documented by means of statistics and graphs and shows that our world, contrary to many modern pundits’ lurid headlines and even prophecies, is not falling apart. In what the write up in the dust jacket describes as an “elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium,” Pinker shows that “life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West but worldwide.”

The question I would like to raise in response to Pinker’s finding is: for whom?

Clearly, this blog is not the place to do so in detail. Let me simply respond to Pinker’s findings not in terms of a critique of his methodology which to me seems impeccable but in a more basic manner, namely that of his research’s meaning for us ordinary human beings, relatively few of whom will read the book and if so, find solid reassurance for our planet’s and our own future.

Indisputably, the question “is our world getting better or worse” is interesting from a purely academic viewpoint. Fully aware that I will be criticized for my viewpoint, I cannot help but wonder whether the 700,000 Rohingeas, totally impoverished and displaced from their destroyed homes in Myanmar, care about the world’s statistically proven betterment when their existential situation has spiraled into misery.

Does the hungering population of North Korea rejoice because of the alleged global betterment of life on the planet? Would the North Korean prisoners in that country’s Gulags feel elated knowing that on the basis of Pinker’s graphs, life, health. prosperity, safety, etc. are globally on the rise?

And then there is the Yemen catastrophe, visually presented on TV almost every evening. Little bodies with protruding ribs, arms and legs of bone covered with skin. Large eyes devoid of expression. Living tiny little dying bodies held in the arms of their helpless and hopeless moms. Tens of thousands of these little children no longer alive, killed by starvation or bombs, produced in our country, and unleashed on them by Saudi Arabia killers, our “allies.” Can the world’s reported increasing wellness mean anything at all to these poor and suffering human beings?

Thinking back to the years of my imprisonment under the Nazi regime, I wonder whether this kind of optimistic information about the improvement of life conditions on our planet as shown by Pinker’s graphs, would have encouraged me or made me downright happy.

The presence of abject poverty, hunger and suffering continues to be present not just in so-called Third World countries but even in this our own country. The gap between a tiny minority of wealthy people and even the middle class, let alone those on the bottom of the wealth pyramid, is growing from year to year. It seems that exploitation of those with a weak or no voice in society is steadily growing. Is this good reason for optimism?

While wars have been decimating whole populations even during my own life time, not so long ago there existed no threats of mass extinctions by the now ever present nuclear threat. That this threat is for real has been adequately demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WW II. Need I suggest that it is worrisome that today’s arsenals of nuclear devices, much more powerful in their destructive force, are held by an ever growing number of nations.

I fairly recently had a brief conversation with an intelligent and well educated person in our congregation. When our talk turned to our planet’s ecology and vulnerability from our irresponsible use of natural resources, her response was a flippant, “thanks to our human genius, we have always innovated or found new scientific approaches to avert catastrophe. Regardless of what the future will bring, we will be able to cope with it.” My response to her words was, mazal tov, in Yiddish, “Good Luck!”

Then there is the phenomenon of global warming which hits indiscriminately. Its ever growing devastating powers have been experienced the last few years in this and other countries. Because of its geographic ubiquity and variety in terms of climate change,earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, fire, floods and depletion of the planet’s vital natural resources, it is multinational willingness to cooperate that is crucially needed to deal with its destructive effects on human life now and in the future. Sadly, this kind of international willingness to cooperate is absent.

Is civilization in terminal decline? Needless to say, I hope not!

But unless we make an end to the reckless destruction of our liberal democratic institutions in this country and join in global cooperation, we will arrive at a point of no return.

So what do I think of Pinker’s book? In my opinion, it is academically sound but otherwise meaningless. The quality of goodness of life, if to be meaningful, can only be seen subjectively by one person or a relatively small group at a time. Rejoicing over the increasing betterment of the world cannot and will not make a difference in an individual’s life. Besides, how many people are ready to buy such a book, let alone read 556 pages of statistics, graphs and their explanations and profit from it? Sorry, professor Pinker!

While as a Jew I highly support education and critical thinking and so also enlightenment, I prefer the generic term to be written with a lower case “e.” Written with a capital “E” it refers to the historical period of the Enlightenment which, generally seen, brought liberation to the Jewish people but paradoxically also spelled out the beginning of a racially-based antisemitism that eventually led to the Holocaust.

To me it is unsettling to see that today there are strong forces in these United States as also in a large number of other countries that have jettisoned reason, science, humanism and so also progress. Will these movements to the political “right” prevail and lead humanity to destruction or will a mass awakening and true enlightenment overcome ignorance, darkness and ill-will and usher in a better world for all?

The answer to this crucial question depends to some extent on you and me.