It’s hard not to focus on the train wreck/sinkhole/inferno (choose your metaphor) that is Washington, D.C., these days. Even when we point out to each other that there used to be fistfights under the capitol dome when congress was in session, it’s hard to imagine anything more stupid than the stuff that goes on there today. Unless, of course, it’s the even more idiotic and evil genocides in Africa and the Middle East.
But think for a minute about the progress civilization’s made on so many fronts in the past few years.
As recently as ten years ago, no baby boomer expected to see a black president in our lifetimes. We have a long way to go on race relations, but think of the progress represented just by the fact that Obama, with a not-great first term, beat a rich, white, successful former governor for a second term.
On Tuesday in Virginia, a slightly liberal Democrat (certainly not the greatest candidate we’ve seen) will nevertheless defeat a Tea Party-lite right wing homophobe for Governor of Virginia. On the same day, New York City will elect as mayor a white liberal who is married to a black woman who used to identify herself as a lesbian. There are gay members of congress, gay mayors and gay bishops, some of whom are even “out” about it. For all our faults—and despite the very visible and dangerous bigotry emanating from and directed toward religious fundamentalists–mankind as a whole seems to be becoming more accepting. (I admit proudly to my leftward leanings, but my point here isn’t that liberals = good and conservatives = bad. My point is that many Americans are voting for people they wouldn’t have considered voting for just eight or nine years ago.)
In The Better Angels Of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist and scientist Steven Pinker makes a convincing case that there’s an ongoing radical decline in per capita violence in the world. It doesn’t seem that way, does it? That’s because the bad news always pushes the good news off the front page. But the facts are unmistakable. There are fewer nation-vs.-nation wars. Many are threatened, but few develop. There’s been a disturbing little uptick in domestic violence in America over the past couple of months, but crime—especially major, violent crime—is down substantially.
And speaking of the news, journalism is still remarkably robust despite the dire forecasts I’ve been making over the past decade. The economic model that supported journalists and even made many of them rich for the past century has imploded. That’s why I’ve assumed that expensive, in depth, investigative reporting was on its deathbed. On the contrary, it actually seems more robust than ever. Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Carlos Slim have thrown some financial lifelines to important mainstream newspapers. They haven’t shown us long-term solutions, but they’ve at least given us more time to figure it out. Whistleblowers have also helped, alerting the newsmedia to corruption in high places. I always knew that in addition to their much chronicled and bemoaned faults, online “amateur” journalists and dedicated “anonymous-style” hacktivists would have some positive impact on journalism, but I never dreamed they would complement so well the work of old school reporters, who undoubtedly hold their noses while following up on scoops from WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, Daily Kos, Gawker and your friendly neighborhood blogger.
It was once hard to believe that technological advances in the 20th century would surpass those of the 19th century. They did. And now we all believe the 21st century will be even more astonishing. We usually blame cheap overseas workforces for the declining number of jobs in the U.S., but robots, computers and cellphones should get a bigger share of the blame. Assisted by modern technology, average workers today can accomplish twice as much in a workday as they could 25 years ago. Technology also makes it easier to work much more than 40 hours a week—and that’s what we’re doing. If we really want to create more jobs, we should be putting a ceiling on the number of hours we allow workers to work. Yes, there would be some short term inflation—people would still need to be paid a living wage—but it wouldn’t take long for those millions of newly employed workers to make a meaningful long-term contribution to the nation’s economy. (It would also create meaningful jobs for millions of immigrants who would be greeted at the border by their new employers waving balloons and popping champagne corks.)
The other sciences are also contributing to civilization’s progress. Life expectancy continues to climb around the world. The only force keeping us from eradicating malaria is politics: medical scientists now know how to end it in three years. In the U.S. we’re making significant strides in reducing the diseases that affect young people—heart disease, breast cancer, etc. It looks like the really stubborn cancers—lung cancer, for example—will just be the way old people die. But as they say, something’s got to get you. (At least, we think something’s got to get you: don’t try to tell Dr. Kurzweil that.)
There are, of course, a number of intractable challenges ahead of us. We definitely need to be specific in defining those problems. For example, the problem isn’t education in America; it’s educating the poor. The problem isn’t violence, it’s violence among the poor and it’s gun violence in particular. The problem isn’t providing affordable healthcare. The problem isn’t even providing universal affordable healthcare. The problem is finding the national leadership that will stand up to the ludicrous demands of the insurance, hospital and pharmaceutical lobbies. (Dear Mr. Drugmaker: If you find a cure for Parkinson’s, believe us, we want you to be a billionaire. Heck, we want you to be a trillionaire. Just don’t expect us to let you steal from the needy by playing your Patents Ponzi games. Stop creating incentives that reward you for making baby steps instead of making genuine headway.)
Global warming isn’t going away. Neither is the Tea Party or the NRA. We will always have the greedy, the ignorant and the unethical nipping at our heels. But mankind is actually solving many of its chronic nightmares and actually has the knowledge to solve many of the ones remaining. This isn’t blind Pollyannaish optimism: this is looking at the world without filters or blinders. (It’s also a major challenge to society. If the smart folks really do know how to solve major problems, why aren’t they doing more of it? What obstacles have we set up? Are our governmental and economic systems helping or hurting? Dammit, who’s stepping up to the plate?)
We all believe it’s a moral obligation for our generation to leave the world a better place for the generations that follow. I’ve worried about that. I’ve worried that my granddaughter would grow up with an inferior education and fewer opportunities to do the things she wants to do with her life. All of those worries haven’t gone away. But I do think her prospects are better than I’ve imagined.
Who knows. Maybe she’s the one who’s going to step up to the plate.
(Forgive the weird paragraphing and spacing in this and other posts: it has to do with Word and WordPress not getting along with each other. When you’re in hospice care you hate having to learn new tricks.)