Getting Better, IV

Max Roser, an economist working at the University of Oxford, said that at the close of 2015, only 6 percent of Americans surveyed believed the world was getting better when, in fact—by many significant measures—it is:

According to Future Crunch, the year 2016 saw:

  • The discovery of potential cures for Parkinson’s, AIDS and sepsis, the rollout of a cheap vaccine for cholera, and dramatic declines in malaria death rates
  • Big wins for LGBT activists in Japan, Finland and Slovenia, and women’s rights in India and Iceland
  • Global declines in executions
  • Drops in income inequality in the US and China
  • Increases in German employment (despite huge refugee intakes)
  • Big conservation wins for tigers in China, elephants in Chad, bees in Europe, forests in Cameroon and oceans in Indonesia
  • The accelerating death of the fossil fuels industry and the incredible explosion of renewable energy around the world

…but these stories were vastly underreported.

“Forget fake news,” Future Crunch said. “Our real problem is balance. Respectable news outlets say they’re giving us an objective view of the world, yet drown us in a daily deluge of conflict and negative headlines. It’s manufactured drama and we can’t tear our eyes away. Bad news is great for business…because it’s an addictive product. That’s why it’s everywhere.”

Roser gives three more reasons for these overwhelmingly negative erroneous views:

  • It is hard-wired in human psychology to watch for signs of danger.
  • The 24/7 structure of the media highlights negative subjects.
  • We are unaware of how inconceivably exceptional our current living conditions are from the perspective of our ancestors.

Each of us controls the information we consume and the worldview we form as a result. Are you brave and discerning enough to recognize how far we’ve come and help continue to make things better?

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I’m Doing Something

Elvis Costello said, “I don’t go out much at night; I don’t go out much at all.” In fact, many people now often prefer staying in to going out for reasons that include:

  • Feeling free to act and dress however they want.
  • Saving their money.
  • Avoiding meaningless conversations.
  • Avoiding competition for parking, seating or using the bathroom.

But if I want to spend a couple of hours reading a book or the news online, I often prefer going out to a café or a public space to sitting in my living room. And I’m all over this scene from Seinfeld:

GEORGE: Do you mind if I watch [this tape] here?
JERRY: What for?
GEORGE: Because if I watch it at my apartment I feel like I’m not doing anything. If I watch it here, I’m out of the house; I’m doing something.

Even when I do go out, however, I don’t necessarily want to talk to anyone. Again, Seinfeld:

ELAINE: Come on, let’s go do something. I don’t want to just sit around here.
JERRY: Okay.
ELAINE: Want to go get something to eat?
JERRY: Where do you want to go?
ELAINE: I don’t care, I’m not hungry.
JERRY: We could go to one of those cappuccino places. They let you just sit there.
ELAINE: What are we gonna do there? Talk?
JERRY: We can talk.
ELAINE: I’ll go if I don’t have to talk.

It seems, however, that despite my lack of a social impulse and my squeamishness with conversation, I do feel sympathy for the idea of a “third place.” Ray Oldenburg said that third places—”public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact”—are “central to local democracy and community vitality.” They should be:

  • Neutral—”in which we all feel at home and comfortable”
  • Level—”by its nature, an inclusive place”
  • Conversational—”the cardinal and sustaining activity of third places everywhere”
  • Accessible—”one may go alone at almost any time of the day or evening with assurances that acquaintances will be there”
  • Regular—”the right people are there to make it come alive, and they are the regulars”
  • Unpretentious—”typically plain”
  • Playful—”joy and acceptance reign over anxiety and alienation”

Johnny Dzubak said that a third place “puts you in touch with people who are unlike you, which is an important part of growth for every man.” But he also said, for a third place to be right for you, it needs to have “the kind of people you’d want to spend time with.” I don’t know if such a place exists for me; I don’t know if I can be comfortable in a place “where everybody knows your name.”

Is it just the sounds of a public place that I like, not the interaction? What is it about third places that I like when I don’t particularly like talking with people or getting to know them?

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Reason Alone is Sufficient

Astrophysicist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson is a big fan of Jonathan Swift’s eighteenth century novel, Gulliver’s Travels. He told The New York Times that it’s his favorite novel of all time, and he regularly includes it among books he recommends to both adults and children.

Swift’s satire on human nature aligns with Tyson’s own devotion to reason and his caustic view of the seeming disdain many people have for it.

“I call people’s attention to Part IV [A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms],” Tyson said, “in which Gulliver meets a community of intelligent, logical horses. Their debates are short. Their decision-making is efficient. Their governance is rational. Their society is a model of function and performance. Meanwhile, running hairy, smelly, and naked in the woods are the Yahoos—the first appearance of that word. They are savage and irrational creatures. And they look just like humans.”

The reaction of one of the Houyhnhnms to Gulliver’s description of English society reads like many of Tyson’s descriptions of contemporary society:

“He said ‘he had been very seriously considering my whole story, as far as it related both to myself and my country; that he looked upon us as a sort of animals, to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen…that we disarmed ourselves of the few abilities she had bestowed, had been very successful in multiplying our original wants, and seemed to spend our whole lives in vain endeavors to supply them by our own inventions…that our institutions of government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature.'”

Indeed, Gulliver relates:

“It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain; and beyond our knowledge we cannot do either. So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness, in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown among the Houyhnhnms. In the like manner, when I used to explain to him our several systems of natural philosophy, he would laugh, ‘that a creature pretending to reason, should value itself upon the knowledge of other people’s conjectures, and in things where that knowledge, if it were certain, could be of no use.'”

Tyson insists that “reading this novel is fun, on the cynical side” because, he says, it’s “a reminder that, most of the time, humans are yahoos.”

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Baseball’s Unanimous MVPs

It’s almost spring, baseball games are being played again, and my collection of Topps baseball cards for winners of the Baseball Writers Most Valuable Player Award has grown for the first time in years. That collection has made me a bit of a connoisseur of information about the players who have earned the award over the years, including these items about the 18 unanimous winners:

Outfielders—8:

First basemen—5:

Third basemen—3:

Pitchers—2:

Catchers, second basemen or shortstops—0

Unanimous selections by decade:

  • 1930s—2
  • 1940s—0
  • 1950s—2
  • 1960s—3
  • 1970s—1
  • 1980s—2
  • 1990s—4
  • 2000s—2
  • 2010s—2

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Killer Instinct

I noticed a few days ago that the last four books I’ve read are all about murder cases (three real, one fictional):

It had been my intent after reading several dense, fundamental concept-laden histories of thought and culture to take a bit of a break, but not particularly to read about a bunch of killers. When I itemized the list above, however, it made me think—not for the first time—about why I, or we, dwell so easily on crime, particularly murder.

Psychologist Paul Mattiuzzi said, “We wonder about the victim, about the perpetrator, and about the circumstances. We are intrigued by the motive and the method and how they got away or how they got caught. We wonder who would be capable of the crime and whether they are ‘normal’ like us or hopefully quite different.”

Writer Joe Bunting reasoned, “People love puzzles…Everyone I know who likes doing crossword puzzles says mystery is their favorite genre.” And, moreover, “People are puzzles…It’s often difficult to understand why people do the things they do. Detective stories give us a glimpse into people we would never get in real life.”

While admitting that our obsession simply feeds “a deep fascination with the human psyche,” columnist Molly Fosco claimed more pragmatically that reading about crime helps us be “aware of the different types of dangerous situations [we] might encounter and know how to prevent them.”

Professor Scott Bonn agreed, saying that “serial killers appeal to the most basic and powerful instinct in all of us—that is, survival.”

People watching, logic, primal urges. I guess my/our fascination with a good murder mystery—real or imagined—is no mystery.

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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

american-nations-map

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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