More On “Is The World Better Than Ever?”

By Anton Alterman

[Note. This is a follow-up essay to my many recent posts about human progress.]

Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times publishes a column at the end of every year with the same idea as Pinker’s book … and a lot of the same data points.  It always seems spurious to me. I appreciate having someone take a crack at saying just what’s wrong with it, but there is much more to be said. For example, progress in income levels and education in China and India alone may account for a good deal of the perceived progress, and though they really do constitute progress, it may obscure other much more negative phenomena, like the fact that more than 1% of the world’s population are now internally or externally displaced refugees, whose level of economic, medical and educational well-being is off the charts in the other direction.

I am also not sure how you would graph the progress in civil liberties when so many putative democracies have veered towards authoritarianism, when torture is still regularly employed across wide swaths of the world, and religious fundamentalism has if anything tightened its grip over the last 50 years.

But while I appreciate the critique of the quasi-laissez-faire approach to progress attributed to Pinker, I think Lent may be too hasty in dismissing Pinker’s centrism, as we do not currently have a single example of really radical change that has ended up well. Or, if we do, it is changes that have tended towards the mean of liberal democracy.

In fact, where the author appears to endorse Pinker’s position, I rather disagree:

“Global shaming campaigns,” he explains, “even when they start out as purely aspirational, have in the past led to dramatic reductions in slavery, dueling, whaling, foot-binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.”

No, I don’t think any of this has been due to “global shaming”, nor does any of it suggest more than a movement toward basic democratic norms. The only “dramatic reduction” in slavery or Apartheid was the result of bloody civil wars. Nuclear testing was reduced by the Test Ban Treaty which was not a result of shaming but of recognition that nuclear radiation anywhere was a global threat. Foot-binding was terminated after the spread of education and a series of government bans, accompanied by other economic, social and political changes. Etc.

The point is, Lent wants to credit Pinker with recognizing the role of what amounts to cancel culture – pointing out, too, that he has also re-tweeted BLM and #MeToo posts, and also defending “identity politics” as something progressive – but I see no evidence that any of this has played a positive role in whatever social progress there has been. Progress is something you have to fight for, and not in the divisive way that these Tweet-based identity movements do, but in ways that can unite very large groups of people – the civil rights and women’s movements, the labor movement, the vast network of environmental organizations, as well as broad-based movements in science, education and jurisprudence.

Philosophy, especially ethics, plays a bigger role than “shaming” or identity politics, which, if anything, turns off so many people that it generates a regressive backlash that impedes progress. Occupy Wall Street, short-lived though it was, had a more positive impact than all the shaming and identity politics of recent years. A mass movement to reign in and break up the technopolies of Silicon Valley would do more to defend democracy than a lot of the nonsense that litters the current political landscape.

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3 thoughts on “More On “Is The World Better Than Ever?”

  1. Hmm… I agree that examining the progress of civilization of on an annual basis is rather like assessing sea level rise by checking the highest point reached by waves at the beach every day. I am reminded of the possibly apocryphal tale of Zhou En-Lai’s answer to Kissinger’s query about the geopolitical impact of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to tell.”

    As to how change can be effected, I’ll echo Zhou’s answer. Social media has wrought huge changes in political discourse. Sixty years ago we had Cronkite, Huntley, and Brinkley presenting us with a carefully gauged characterization of the events of the day. Because these fellows had a national reputation to defend, they confined themselves to statements that they felt they could justify. Newspapers were similarly constrained in their reporting, as were book and magazine publishers.

    But the rise of multiple channels of dissemination of ideas has unleashed a mob of charlatans who seek attention rather than trust. Political discourse has descended from the measured reasoning of people like George Will and Molly Ivins to the insane ravings of Mr. Trump.

    I cannot see how citizens can make sense of this cacaphony of nonsense flooding over them, nor can I reach firm conclusions as to its effect on our political progress.

  2. I think the question is relative. My humble opinion says: the world is exponentially different to what it was, even fifty years ago. Einstein showed a relativity between space and time. His theory did not make the world better than ever, we just knew more about physics and, theoretically, cosmology. We have to know stuff—can’t resist that urge. I would add that the world is exponentially(?) more complex.

  3. Thank you Mr. Alterman, you have stated what many people, including myself think, but lack the ability to express so succinctly!
    “More On “Is The World Better Than Ever?””
    Humanity, as a species, is on it’s journey from inception to demise, it seems that all species ‘eventually’ go extinct, as individuals we can see others who are at different stages of their personal journeys and so can surmise where we are on ours, as a species we have no other species to compare ourselves with so we really have no clues as to how old, relative to it’s possible life time, our species is, We know approximately how long we have been extant but we have no clue how long we will remain so, a living Human feels that they have always been alive, even though intellectually they know that isn’t true, it is more comforting to think we have always been alive and probably always will be, than it is to struggle with dreadful, though inevitable, events before their arrival.
    One metric we look carefully at in an individual, as a guide to their sustainability, is their health, How healthy is the Human species? Is it’s health increasing or declining?
    Many will say; it is obviously increasing! Look at the advances, particularly in first World Countries, in technology, in Medicine, in Pharmacology, surely these advances must mean a healthier population and wouldn’t a healthier people be a happier people? And if we aren’t why not?

    While we have changes that make life easier and more enjoyable for our physical selves, indoor plumbing, central heating and cooling, motor cars, and many other things which we accept as easily as we breathe, many of the changes to our emotional environment are causing great mental distress across broad sections of society, if our society is sick we are all part of it, so to some degree the malady effects us all!

    The insanity we see, I won’t attempt to identify the various forms in which it is displayed, is a consequence of the tensions that are building up in an aging species as we can no longer adjust to and incorporate the ever more complex world we live in! It isn’t anyone’s fault it is just where we are on the time line, we don’t ‘Have’ to destroy ourselves, and I hope we don’t, yet attempting to recapture some ‘imagined’ idyllic time of the past is a sure recipe for disaster!

    As always some great measured comments from Chris Crawford and Paul Van Pelt!

    I don’t think anything I have expressed runs counter to their observations.

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