If February wasn’t the cruelest month, it sure was in the neighborhood. Children died in Syrian airstrikes. A teen shot 17 people dead at a Florida high school while an armed sheriff’s deputy stood outside. Russian election meddling still got a blase response from President Donald Trump, who continued to attack his own Justice Department and the special counsel investigating interference in the last election instead. Congress remained deadlocked over any issue of substance, including whether to allow the deportation of young people who have never known any other home than the United States. And there was a new revelation over some high profile individual’s sexual misconduct about every other day.
Now, add that to the general malaise over Mr. Trump’s erratic and embarrassing nature; the threat of North Korea’s nuclear programs (or a potentially cataclysmic response to it); Washington’s apparent indifference to growing environmental threats, particularly climate change; the ongoing struggles of class, religion and race where some can regard taking a knee to demonstrate Christian faith as good but to do the same to protest police misconduct as bad; the increasingly polarized and uncivil nature of our public discourse; and — especially from our prospective here in Baltimore — the government’s inability to adequately address violent crime, drug abuse and poverty, and one can be forgiven for feeling that the gray, overcast skies aren’t just a meteorological event, they are a reflection of the public mood as well.
And that would be wrong. If we feel that bad, we are missing the bigger picture. By most reasonable measures, life is getting better — as it has for generations.
That’s the point of a recently-published book, “Enlightenment Now,” by Steven Pinker, 63, a Montreal-born psychologist and popular author who trots out all kinds of numbers to demonstrate humanity’s progress. As a whole, the world is far wealthier, less dangerous and less conflicted than at any time in human history. Just in the last century, it is far safer to drive or fly, people are measurably smarter (if IQ tests are judged reliable) and better educated while living longer and more commonly in democracies than in authoritarian regimes.
It shouldn’t require a best-selling author to point all of this out. If we examine our own lives, chances are we can see the benefits of computers or medical science. Farming is more efficient than ever. Diseases have been conquered, and organ transplants are routine. There is more leisure time than our forebears could imagine. People see a problem, they attempt to solve a problem, a process we take for granted but one that was not quite so common prior to the Enlightenment.
So why is this reality so easily lost? Part of the problem — ahem — is how we in the news and opinion business tend to present the day’s events to our readers. The Sun rarely publishes the headline, “Hundreds of thousands of Baltimoreans had a lovely day yesterday” or more simply “Nobody died of smallpox.” Instead, it’s one crisis or disaster after another. Never mind that Americans are more likely to die in lightning strikes than as a result of domestic terrorism. But there’s also simple human nature: We are often fearful of progress and change. To be an optimist is to be naive. Four decades of polls show a majority of Americans believe their country is headed in the wrong direction. Really? All the time?
Mr. Pinker doesn’t advocate a Panglossian view that we already live in the best of all possible worlds, but he does support a more reality-based and measured view of the human condition. The industrial revolution and technological progress have made life easier for the vast majority living around the globe. But they have not made life problem-free, and progress is not always steady or without missteps. Just ask the civilians dying in Syria — or on the streets of West Baltimore. Poverty and racism are awful, but they used to be worse. The missile testing in North Korea is worrisome, but the number of nuclear weapons in the world has declined substantially from its peak. Climate change is a threat but not beyond human interdiction. Dissatisfaction is itself a reason for optimism; it implies that we are attempting to make things better, to study what has gone wrong and correct it. That’s what intelligent, empathetic and self-aware people of the 21st century do, isn’t it?