Monthly Archives: February 2017

Getting Better, III: Cherish the Forces of Civilization and Enlightenment

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker insists that the conventional “romantic nostalgia [that] longs to turn back the clock”—to a time when things were great—is profoundly misplaced.

He admits that we can be reminded of the misery inherent in the daily lives of many of our ancestors—infested with lice and parasites; living above cellars heaped with their own feces; eating bland, monotonous, and intermittent food; laboring from sunrise to sundown before being plunged into darkness—and the absence as well of “the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection.” But Pinker contends specifically that the basis of our most vehement appeal to return to the past—”the profusion of modern violence” (muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, wars)—is wrong, and that, in fact, the level of violence in our world has never been lower.

The false claim that the characteristics of the modern world—global trade, ethnic inclusion, racial and economic diversity—make it more violent, less safe and less personally rewarding is a transparent attempt by a few to increase control and power at the expense of the many, based on fear and hate. Much like those who refused for a century and a half to acknowledge the truth that the sun does not revolve around the earth, these fear mongers refuse to acknowledge the truth that the world no longer revolves around them.

The evidence of progress, for Pinker, is motivation to be grateful and continue working for even more progress. He says, “For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.”


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Tolerating Diversity


There is a balance to be struck between gaining insight from historical awareness and reflection, on one hand, and making the present and future slaves to the past, on the other. In his book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Colin Woodard goes too far toward the latter and makes it even harder to get people talking to one another, which is the challenge before us.

Woodard says that, “Since 1877…the determinative political struggle [in American politics] has been a clash between shifting coalitions of ethnoregional nations, one invariably headed by the Deep South, the other by Yankeedom,” and he views virtually every facet of the history of North America through this lens.

Woodard’s “nations” are:

  1. Yankeedom—emphasis on intellectual achievement, the greater good, activist government, assimilation of foreigners
  2. New Netherland—materialistic, tolerant, innovative
  3. The Midlands—skeptical of government involvement, moderate
  4. Tidewater—conservative, aristocratic
  5. Greater Appalachia—combative, individualistic
  6. The Deep South—undemocratic, segregated, authoritarian
  7. New France—nationalistic, liberal (Quebec)
  8. El Norte—independent, adaptable
  9. The Left Coast—progressive, fertile
  10. The Far West—semi-dependent, resentful of government intervention
  11. First Nation—semi-autonomous

Woodard insists that one of the most commonly-made claims about the United States—as stated by Russell Shorto, “what made America great was its ingenious openness to different cultures”—was characteristic of just one of those nations: New Netherland. Woodard says that each nation possesses an individual culture that holds a vise-like grip on its people to this day, and he blames these roots—particularly in the case of the Deep South—for the country’s current woes and provides a very pessimistic view of any hope to overcome them.

Woodard goes to the opposite pole from what British historian Herbert Butterfield called The Whig Interpretation of History which only viewed the past in relation to the present. Instead, he views the present only in terms of the past, i.e., the segment of European society that settled each region of North America. By unyieldingly applying his fixed characterization to each region, he demonstrates that a detailed, historically-rooted stereotype is still a stereotype—an oversimplification—and he makes himself a part of the problem by becoming prejudicial, condescending and dismissive, rather than aware, sensitive or constructive. He betrays an “us versus them” mindset and—considering his own Yankeedom’s rival, the Deep South, to be incorrigible—attempts to rationalize the current divisive atmosphere.

Surely, many contemporary Americans in each of Woodard’s “nations” affirm the value of what Woodard describes as the uniquely Dutch approach. “The Dutch trait of tolerance was just that,” he says. “They didn’t celebrate diversity but tolerated it, because they knew the alternative was far worse…Insistence on conformity—cultural, religious, or otherwise—was self-defeating, causing strife and undermining trade and business.” As more and more people are able to understand this and, like the Dutch, to capitulate in order to preserve the best qualities of their own culture rather than cause it to be erased by their intransigence, the rivalries of the past can be overcome.

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