• 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.  

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    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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  • Exposure Needed for Bad Ideas

    • Posted on Sep 03, 2017

    Today's Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier column.  Free speech really does mean just that, especially on a university campus where debate and discussion form the heart of higher education.   UNI's "Controversial Speakers" program was memorable not only for the speakers it brought before students and faculty, but also for the spirited defense of free speech set for by President J.W. Maucker as well as Cedar Valley ministers, no less.  

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    Imagine a university program that actually invites controversy, that sets out to make sure opposing viewpoints get aired, that seeks speakers who generate discussion and debate.  

     That’s exactly what happened at UNI just over a half-century ago, in the spring of ’66.

    UNI’s student and faculty Senates created a “Controversial Speakers” program.  
    This event gets explained in “A Century of Leadership and Service,” a wonderful two-volume history of UNI written by Professors William Lang and Daryl Pendergraft.  They detail UNI’s attempt to challenge students and faculty with speakers they might not otherwise hear. 

    The Iowa Board of Regents fully supported the program, saying it was “designed to demonstrate that in a democratic society all citizens have not only the right but also the obligation to inform themselves on issues of contemporary concern including politics, religion, ethics, and morals.”  

    I began my UNI teaching career as the program was gearing up.  I heard many of the speakers, including Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, civil rights activist Dick Gregory, beat poet Allen Ginsburg, and most bizarre of all, hippie/yippie Jerry Rubin, who in 1970 harangued 5,000 UNI students and faculty at O.R. Latham football field.  

    Some legislators were outraged, most prominently Charles Grassley, who roundly objected to speaker American Communist Party speaker Herbert Aptheker, calling Aptheker’s invitation to speak “deplorable and shameful,” and that “compulsory student fees and buildings paid for by the taxpayers were used to support this un-American philosophy under the guise of freedom of speech.” Other legislators chimed in, putting pressure on UNI to bar such speakers from campus.  

     However, 22 Cedar Falls and Waterloo Ministers defended the program, writing in a letter to the Courier, “. . . an integral function of higher education in a free society is to provide free discussion,” and that SCI students “exhibited a high degree of maturity in evaluating. . .speakers and opinions.” 

    President J.W. Maucker, speaking of Jerry Rubin’s wild speech, insisted that Rubin’s appearance “proved to be a worthwhile experience of a large majority of students and faculty because they got a chance to see this man in action firsthand and judge for themselves the soundness of his views.”  

    “Maturity.”   “Judge for themselves.”  Such words and phrases seem almost quaint these days, when “free speech” means huge protests during the speech and often cancellations out of fear of violence. 

    Let’s face it, a certain degree of faith in listeners’ maturity and judgment is required to invite such speakers as Ann Coulter or David Duke. As Oscar Wilde put it, “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”  

    I’d like to see the return of a UNI Controversial Speakers program. Speakers on contemporary critical issues, fringe or not, would demonstrate how much we value free debate. Bad ideas only grow stronger when opposed with violence and censorship.   

    Open peaceful debate remains the best way to expose charlatans. 
     

     


     

     






                 

     

     

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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.”

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