• Giving Optimism a Chance

    • Posted on Mar 11, 2018

    Here's today's (Sunday 3-11) Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier column.  It's about clear-eyed, evidence-based optimism based on Steven Pinker's new book ENLIGHTENMENT NOW. The book deserves a good look, and after a good pondering, a mind-change.  Hard-core pessimists will find reasons to dismiss it, but open-minded folks might find it helpful for rethinking the question of whether humankind is getting better at reaching long-held ideals.  



    So, is the glass half empty or half full?  I’m trying a new answer. 

    For most of my adult life, I’ve been a half-empty guy. Having grown up in those dark “duck and cover” 1950s, when the cold war seemed to threaten us all with nuclear annihilation, pessimism came naturally.  As a young boy I followed news of the Korean stalemate, followed by the Vietnam debacle—not exactly wars that rewarded optimists.

    I led a life of low-level fears that made my dark outlook fit reality. I was a catastrophist and pessimist, expecting the worst and usually finding it. I tried to solve problems, but there were too many. Despair struck often.     

    My wife of over two decades was blessed with a half-full outlook, and therefore challenged my bleakness, but never for long.  Humor and music probably saved me from sinking into a life of misery. 

    Comes now Steven Pinker with “Enlightenment Now,” a well-researched and data-driven book that’s impossible to dismiss. It’s a full-throated shout-out for optimism that has given me pause. 

    Not the cock-eyed optimism of dreamers, but a conditional and cautious optimism based on mountains of evidence that shows how everything has improved. 

    I might have to try the unthinkable and change my mind. Horrors. 

    At first, I roundly objected to Pinker’s idea that mankind is better off in every way than it was during my growing years.  Notwithstanding pessimism, I at least appreciated a time before military weapons were available to children, when white faces and voices ruled radio, television, and the movies.  It all felt familiar and safe.  

    This was back when a Presidential candidate like Donald Trump would have been unthinkable for his divorces alone, not to mention his endless and obvious character flaws.   

    Those were the days, my friends, we thought they’d never end.

    Pinker’s point, which he began developing in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” is that those good old days were pretty terrible for almost everyone. Income was meager, women and minorities were ignored or oppressed, two world wars had killed millions, famine, torture, disease, and cruel and inhuman treatment was the norm.  Even IQs were lower, according to Pinker, and he marshals charts, graphs, and data for every point.     

    In 2016, President Obama asserted, “. . .if you had to choose blindly what moment to be born, you’d choose now.”  Probably true, since modern medicine saves millions, as does better nutrition, better education, less violence, and so on.         

    Pinker cautions that none of the worldwide improvements to human life happened automatically. They required science, critical thinking, mass movements, motivation to solve problems, and large-scale financing.  Good will and optimism alone won’t change anything.  No complacency allowed. 

    So carry on, research scientists, engineers, teachers, problem-solving entrepreneurs, optimistic thinkers. You’ve succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, Pinker insists, and I’m inclined now to agree. 

    Pessimists, is the glass half full after all?  Read Pinker and maybe give optimism a chance.  

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    • Posted on Feb 26, 2018

    When a culture rejects the moral and religious glue that has held it together for centuries, we can expect parts of it to shatter and fly apart. The obsessions and preoccupations of a collapsing culture typically lead to impotence and death.

    And sometimes to the mass murder of children.”

    A local Courier columnist closed his column Sunday (Feb. 25) with the above observation, and I believe he speaks for many readers.  In effect, he’s asserting that our current age is experiencing a decline in morality and religious values, as evidenced by action movies, violent video games, and of course school shootings.  If only we hadn’t lost our moral and religious way, he implies. 

    I don’t often agree with this hyper-conservative columnist.  He often decries liberal/progressives and their beliefs and values for creating the current "American carnage"  about which Trump ranted in his inaugural address.  This columnist hammers away at straw man progressives, predictably and snarkily. 

    To me he’s in an ideological rut fueled by anger and fear.  Unpleasant reading.   

    Yet in this instance, I partly agreed with him; we used to be better, and now we’re callous, insensitive imbibers of sensational and constant media jolts, which invariably includes bad news— “if it bleeds, it leads.”  In the past, moral and religious values were more certain and fixed, and that’s why violence rears its ugly head in the form of mass shootings, among other horrors. We can’t and shouldn’t return to those good old days, but they do seem better.  I had sunk into cynical pessimism, the same as this columnist, but for different reasons.   

    However, both of us are wrong. Very, very wrong, top to bottom, right to left.  I'm amazed at how wrong.  The good old days were far worse than today, in every way.   

    I’m currently undergoing something of a conversion, not to religious or conservative values, but to data and facts from three extremely convincing and well-researched—and well written—books:

    Two from Steven Pinker:  The Better Angels of our Nature (2011) and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. (2018) and Patrick Sharkey’s, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. (2018)

    All three books make the same point, though in different ways: Everything has been improving, markedly, for the past seven decades.  Got that?  Don’t believe it?  The news and our pathetic President and his fanatical supporters prove Pinker and Sharkey all wrong? 

    You’d better read these books.  They rely not on opinions, or ideology, or wishful thinking, but on hard evidence from everywhere. Data and statistics, charts, graphs, illustrations of all kinds.

    Crime is the lowest it’s ever been, as is poverty, violence, war—all way, way down from just a few years ago.

    There is no American carnage or decline whatsoever.  That’s mere fearmongering for political gain. The truth is far more optimistic—off the charts optimistic, and there are plenty of real charts to prove it. 

    To paraphrase Barack Obama, speaking in 2016:  If you could choose to be born in any time, as either man or women—once you look at the facts, you’d choose now.  

    Happily, I'm being jolted out of my dark pessimism.      





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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


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