• 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.  

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Education
    • Hot Button Issues
    • Reviews
    • Nostalgia
    • Personalities
  • Sunday Essay #9: What I believe, by Lori Gallagher Witt

    • Posted on Jan 29, 2018

    Sunday Essay #9 Published Monday, 1-29-18

    For a good while, I’ve been searching for a piece of writing that puts together what I believe as a longtime  liberal/progressive.  Happily for me, a  friend of a friend posted this set of beliefs on Facebook by LORI GALLAGHER WITT, a freelance writer from Washington state who lives in Spain.  Ms. Witt  seems to have captured exactly how I think and feel about most major issues—and articulates them with equanimity and thoughtfulness.

    So, from Lori Gallagher Witt: 

    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    “1. I believe a country should take care of its weakest members. A country cannot call itself civilized when its children, disabled, sick, and elderly are neglected. Period.

    2. I believe healthcare is a right, not a privilege. Somehow that's interpreted as "I believe Obamacare is the end-all, be-all." This is not the case. I'm fully aware that the ACA has problems, that a national healthcare system would require everyone to chip in, and that it's impossible to create one that is devoid of flaws, but I have yet to hear an argument against it that makes "let people die because they can't afford healthcare" a better alternative. I believe healthcare should be far cheaper than it is, and that everyone should have access to it. And no, I'm not opposed to paying higher taxes in the name of making that happen.

    3. I believe education should be affordable and accessible to everyone. It doesn't necessarily have to be free (though it works in other countries so I'm mystified as to why it can't work in the US), but at the end of the day, there is no excuse for students graduating college saddled with five- or six-figure debt.

    4. I don't believe your money should be taken from you and given to people who don't want to work. I have literally never encountered anyone who believes this. Ever. I just have a massive moral problem with a society where a handful of people can possess the majority of the wealth while there are people literally starving to death, freezing to death, or dying because they can't afford to go to the doctor. Fair wages, lower housing costs, universal healthcare, affordable education, and the wealthy actually paying their share would go a long way toward alleviating this. Somehow believing that makes me a communist.

    5. I don't throw around "I'm willing to pay higher taxes" lightly. I'm retired and on a fixed income, but I still pay taxes. If I'm suggesting something that involves paying more, well, it's because I'm fine with paying my share as long as it's actually going to something besides lining corporate pockets or bombing other countries while Americans die without healthcare.

    6. I believe companies should be required to pay their employees a decent, livable wage. Somehow this is always interpreted as me wanting burger flippers to be able to afford a penthouse apartment and a Mercedes. What it actually means is that no one should have to work three full-time jobs just to keep their head above water. Restaurant servers should not have to rely on tips, multibillion dollar companies should not have employees on food stamps, workers shouldn't have to work themselves into the ground just to barely make ends meet, and minimum wage should be enough for someone to work 40 hours and live.

    7. I am not anti-Christian. I have no desire to stop Christians from being Christians, to close churches, to ban the Bible, to forbid prayer in school, etc. (BTW, prayer in school is NOT illegal; *compulsory* prayer in school is - and should be - illegal). All I ask is that Christians recognize *my* right to live according to *my* beliefs. When I get pissed off that a politician is trying to legislate Scripture into law, I'm not "offended by Christianity" -- I'm offended that you're trying to force me to live by your religion's rules. You know how you get really upset at the thought of Muslims imposing Sharia law on you? That's how I feel about Christians trying to impose biblical law on me. Be a Christian. Do your thing. Just don't force it on me or mine.

    8. I don't believe LGBT people should have more rights than you. I just believe they should have the *same* rights as you.

    9. I don't believe illegal immigrants should come to America and have the world at their feet, especially since THIS ISN'T WHAT THEY DO (spoiler: undocumented immigrants are ineligible for all those programs they're supposed to be abusing, and if they're "stealing" your job it's because your employer is hiring illegally). I'm not opposed to deporting people who are here illegally, but I believe there are far more humane ways to handle undocumented immigration than our current practices (i.e., detaining children, splitting up families, ending DACA, etc).

    10. I don't believe the government should regulate everything, but since greed is such a driving force in our country, we NEED regulations to prevent cut corners, environmental destruction, tainted food/water, unsafe materials in consumable goods or medical equipment, etc. It's not that I want the government's hands in everything -- I just don't trust people trying to make money to ensure that their products/practices/etc. are actually SAFE. Is the government devoid of shadiness? Of course not. But with those regulations in place, consumers have recourse if they're harmed and companies are liable for medical bills, environmental cleanup, etc. Just kind of seems like common sense when the alternative to government regulation is letting companies bring their bottom line into the equation.

    11. I believe our current administration is fascist. Not because I dislike them or because I can’t get over an election, but because I've spent too many years reading and learning about the Third Reich to miss the similarities. Not because any administration I dislike must be Nazis, but because things are actually mirroring authoritarian and fascist regimes of the past.

    12. I believe the systemic racism and misogyny in our society is much worse than many people think, and desperately needs to be addressed. Which means those with privilege -- white, straight, male, economic, etc. -- need to start listening, even if you don't like what you're hearing, so we can start dismantling everything that's causing people to be marginalized.

    13. I am not interested in coming after your blessed guns, nor is anyone serving in government. What I am interested in is sensible policies, including background checks, that just MIGHT save one person’s, perhaps a toddler’s, life by the hand of someone who should not have a gun. (Got another opinion? Put it on your page, not mine).

    14. I believe in so-called political correctness. I prefer to think it’s social politeness. If call you Chuck and you say you prefer to be called Charles I’ll call you Charles. It’s the polite thing to do. Not because everyone is a delicate snowflake, but because as Maya Angelou put it, when we know better, we do better. When someone tells you that a term or phrase is more accurate/less hurtful than the one you're using, you now know better. So why not do better? How does it hurt you to NOT hurt another person?

    15. I believe in funding sustainable energy, including offering education to people currently working in coal or oil so they can change jobs. There are too many sustainable options available for us to continue with coal and oil. Sorry, billionaires. Maybe try investing in something else.

    16. I believe that women should not be treated as a separate class of human. They should be paid the same as men who do the same work, should have the same rights as men and should be free from abuse. Why on earth shouldn’t they be?

    I think that about covers it. Bottom line is that I'm a liberal because I think we should take care of each other. That doesn't mean you should work 80 hours a week so your lazy neighbor can get all your money. It just means I don't believe there is any scenario in which preventable suffering is an acceptable outcome as long as money is saved.”

     

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Conservatives/Liberals
    • Hot Button Issues
Cedar Valley Chronicles Photo

“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.

Categories

Contact Scott

Contact Scott Photo