Posts Tagged ‘progress’

Let’s talk about race (again)

July 5, 2020

My 2009 “Rational Optimism” book addressed race. Rejecting the trope of America as a fundamentally racist society, I saw a nation “that has made titanic efforts to right these wrongs.” Recapping all the progress in just my own lifetime. Quoting black scholar Shelby Steele that America has achieved the greatest moral evolution in human history.

Obama had just been elected. The symbolic import seemed huge: we were “choosing a civic father, a tribal leader.” And “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and goodwill.”

I wrote that “[t]hose few who still spout white supremacy are mostly disadvantaged, powerless whites,” with “no influence upon the larger society, and scant real impact on blacks.” And “institutional racism . . . is largely a figment of imagination . . . no significant American institution could actually practice it. Indeed, today’s institutional bias is affirmative action . . . favoring blacks.” (Emphases in original.)

My view has since evolved. I obviously did not foresee the racist backlash against Obama’s presidency soon to explode. Nor a successor empowering the racism I’d thought was relegated to America’s dark corners.

What I wrote was colored by my own experience interacting with blacks, in the workplace, in commerce, in society. I understood deeply what cause for resentment they had, yet rarely observed its expression. Instead I was always impressed by the friendly decency of most blacks toward whites. If white society had, as I believed, done much toward reconciliation, blacks had done more. Again I quote Kimberly Jones: we’re lucky they seek only equality, not revenge. Their goodwill has outstripped that of whites.

But that does not mean they’re now okay with how things are, and it’s in that respect that my understanding has grown.

In particular, my words “scant real impact on blacks” overlooked policing. Being white, it just wasn’t on my radar screen then. Even if most cops aren’t consciously racist, nevertheless for a lot of them brown skin is a red flag. And for people having that skin, that’s a very big fact of life. They might shrug off the racism of assholes, but it’s another matter when it’s guys who can commit violence against you with near impunity under color of law. (Of course that’s a threat to us all, but blacks bear its brunt.)

I also didn’t fully grasp then how deeply raced-based concepts are culturally embedded in our heads. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, likened one’s conscious mind to a rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks he’s directing the elephant, but he’s really just along for the ride. Whites claiming color-blindness is a cliché. But experiments have shown that most harbor unconscious negativity toward black faces vis-a-vis whites. Even blacks themselves do.

I’m not color-blind. I see blacks as people whose forebears were brought here in chains and who struggle against much adversity to live their lives. I respect their blackness.

And even if today’s society were truly color-blind, also deeply embedded into its fabric are the effects of past racism. Studies have found differences between two populations today are often actually rooted in differing circumstances centuries ago. When slaves were freed in 1865, of course they started out very disadvantaged in relation to whites. That gets passed down through the generations. If your parents are poor and ill-educated, you will likely be too, hence handicapped in rising to betterment. And of course white society made sure that continued, at least for a century — the Jim Crow regime in the South erected to keep blacks “in their place” and, elsewhere, red-lining and a host of other discriminatory practices doing much the same.

Most of that is thankfully a thing of the past, yet all the racial baggage described above got lodged pervasively throughout societal structures and institutions.

We’ve tried to rectify this, with civil rights and voting rights legislation to at least remove barriers, affirmative action to counteract their lingering effects, and anti-poverty programs. But in one crucial respect we’ve singularly failed: education. Schooling could be a powerful force for overcoming the effects of inherited disadvantage. Instead, that disadvantage is mostly aggravated by rotten schooling for blacks.

That’s probably a key reason why, despite the mentioned efforts to close the black-white economic gap, it has actually widened over the past half century. A further reason is the over-incarceration of blacks, mostly thanks to the insanely punitive “war on drugs,” which makes everything worse. And another factor is the disintegration of black family life, at least partly the unintended consequences of anti-poverty programs. Even during the worst of the Depression and Jim Crow, the black family was strong. Today, 70% of black children are born to single mothers. That has an undeniably negative impact on those kids’ life prospects.

The chapter I started out quoting from was titled “America the Beautiful.” It didn’t claim perfection. Rather, what inspires me is the place of humanistic ideals in our society and our striving for progress toward fulfilling them. That’s America’s greatness. In the last few years we’ve had a great lurch backward. But progress never goes in a straight line, and in the long view we do grow better.

Francis Fukuyama wrote, in The End of History, of our craving for thymos — for recognition of one’s legitimate place in society, one’s worth and dignity as a human being. This is what “Black Lives Matter” is all about. It is this dignity, in the eyes of white Americans, that black people don’t feel they’ve yet fully achieved. But we’re getting there.

George Floyd’s killing and its aftermath raised the consciousness of millions of Americans, many more whites now able to empathically put themselves in the shoes of blacks, as fellow human beings, seeing the reality that they do, and newly supportive of measures to improve it. Even Mississippi is removing Confederate symbolism from its state flag.

While Trump ramps up his racist divisiveness. Tweeting “thank you” to a video with a man shouting “White power!” Completely insane — such hatefulness is fortunately far outside today’s American mainstream. In November the nation will do the right thing, flush its toilet, and we will move forward.

George Floyd will not have died in vain.

Steven Pinker: rational optimist

May 6, 2019

Steven Pinker is one of my intellectual heroes. Probably the closest to my own thinking. His new book is among the finest I’ve ever read.

In 2012 he published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has DeclinedSome thought this premise was nuts. Now he’s doubled down with Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Those four are indeed touchstones of the Enlightenment, a revolution in human thought beginning in the 1700s, immensely improving our quality of life. You might think this needs no defense. But howling fools today dance around bonfires of Enlightenment ideals. And as Pinker points out, intellectuals often actually hate the idea of progress (especially those calling themselves “progressive”). He explains how his optimistic message rankles both ends of the political spectrum.*

Some lefties say the Enlightenment gave us slavery, colonialism, imperialism, eugenics, and so forth; its misguided hyper-rationalism led straight to Auschwitz. Pinker says this has it backwards. All sorts of modes for exploitation and repression long predated the Enlightenment; its humanism led us to overcome them. Nazism was the antithesis of Enlightenment values.

There’s also cultural pessimism, “our sick society” a favorite phrase; a rat race of “consumerism” (which, Pinker trenchantly says, “often means consumption by the other guy”).

Meantime, the right sees the Enlightenment as vaunting individualism, unmooring people from past certainties, time-tested values, and close-knit communities. The result is supposedly a fragmented, dissolute culture, with epidemics of anomie, depression, and suicide. We were better off with reverence for thrones and altars.

But Pinker counters all this by documenting increased well-being and happiness levels for the great mass of humanity. He has no time for Nietzschean philosophy extolling the “great man” who stomps on peons. The Enlightenment also puts individuals above the tribe, race, nation, or faith; it’s average ordinary people (after all, that’s most of us) whose flourishing should be the focus. That’s humanism.

Militating against optimism and perceptions of progress are some human cognitive biases. A pessimistic cynic might seem more morally serious than a naive “Pollyanna” wearing “rose colored glasses.”

In fact, evolution hard-wired us to look on the dark side, attuned to threats. If that might be a lion lurking, best assume the worst and run. The optimist could get eaten (and wouldn’t pass on his genes). Modern life plays to this, inundating us with bad news — which tends to be more newsworthy than good news. A plane crash makes headlines; 100,000 daily safe landings are ignored. The news is full of crime too. And another cognitive bias is the “availability heuristic” — something seems prevalent if examples readily come to mind. So most people always believe crime is increasing, when in fact it’s dramatically fallen over decades. Similarly, pessimism’s putative moral seriousness makes them always say world poverty is rising. Again, it’s actually been plunging.

Enlightenment Now clobbers the reader with facts about these and other positive trends. I tried in my own book, The Case for Rational OptimismPinker’s is better. He does, in it, call mine “beautifully written” (thank you), and I’ll return the compliment. Pinker takes the writing craft seriously, working to make his points as cogently as possible, a pleasure to read. Enhanced by a droll wit. (He quotes Dorothy Parker, supposedly challenged to use “horticulture” in a sentence: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”)

The book is chock full of thought-provoking insightful analyses and good sense. But here’s the big picture. “The good old days” look good only thanks to amnesia. I’ve mentioned falling crime; it’s not just recent, but a huge fall over the centuries. In fact every kind of violence, including war, has plummeted. We are much safer, better fed, and healthier than our forbears, hence live much longer. We suffer less pain, work less hard and enjoy more leisure; and earn far more to enjoy it with. Globally, incomes are way up and poverty, as noted, is on the run. There is more democracy, freedom, and human rights, less oppression and discrimination. All these improvements — unsurprisingly — translate into more people feeling more happiness and fulfillment.

But are the benefits going disproportionately to the rich? Pinker calls inequality the left’s “theory of everything.” His clear-eyed perspective on this topic alone is worth the price of the book. Upper incomes have indeed skyrocketed, but it’s a basic fallacy that that’s achieved by picking the pockets of the poor. Steve Jobs got rich by providing products millions are thrilled to buy, improving their lives. An economic environment that doesn’t create such opportunities would keep everyone poor. And globally, the gap between the rich and the rest is actually narrowing, especially inasmuch as most people (including those lowest on America’s income scale) now enjoy amenities of life that used to be the exclusive province of the wealthiest (if available at all; many were not).

But is all our progress ruining the planet? Well, there is an unavoidable trade-off, and no free lunch. We could never have risen from the stone age without exploiting environmental resources. Pinker makes a good case that the benefits are well worth the cost. And it’s proven that we can have economic growth while actually improving the environment; prosperity gives us both the means and the desire. This applies to climate change (though we’re impeded not just by denialists and the fossil fuel industry, but also hostility among greens toward nuclear power and geo-engineering).

Progress does create losers as well as winners, and some resentments (especially ethnic). Pinker acknowledges the threat from anti-Enlightenment populist politics, of both right and left. Too many issues get viewed through a distorting lens of political tribalism. In particular Pinker details how Trump endangers what’s been achieved (quite a list). But he thinks those achievements happened for strong reasons which will not disappear. Indeed, what will disappear is older people hostile to Enlightenment humanism. Rising generations are increasingly on board with it.

So what does make progress happen? Not some mystical force. Rather, it’s using our brains to solve problems. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and science gives us the needed knowledge. Pinker defends the concept of reason. It’s not a matter of “believing” in it; we just use it. Any argument to the contrary defeats itself, because it is an argument — and what is any argument if not an exercise of reason? Of course humans aren’t always rational. But we’re capable of rationality, and its greater use underlies all our advancements.

He also defends science too, against the sneering so unfortunately prevalent among humanities scholars. They condemn so-called “scientism” that holds science should dictate everything, including morality. Nobody believes that. But Pinker insists science does give us the understanding of reality that enables us to approach such issues rationally. In contrast, religion-based moralizing rests on underlying assumptions about reality that are fundamentally false.

One of modernity’s advancements is more widespread education — which creates a virtuous circle. Giving more of us more problem-solving ability. People have literally, on average, grown smarter. Pinker explains what education does: you’re less superstitious, less in thrall to leaders, more understanding of differences among people, and able to resolve conflicts peacefully. Studies confirm, he says, “that educated people really are more enlightened.” Less racist and authoritarian. More imaginative and independent, but more community minded too. And more likely to trust other people — a crucial ingredient in creating the social capital that makes us work together.

This is why education is the main focus of my own philanthropic efforts.**

* I’ve experienced this myself; in one talk to a group of Jewish seniors, I hardly spoke ten words before the cynical brickbats started flying.

** Through the Frank S. Robinson Enlightenment Fund (Steven Pinker, honorary chairman).

The World Until Yesterday – What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?

July 27, 2014

imagesJared Diamond authored Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, tackling big questions of the human story. His latest is The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Is this yet another argument bashing civilization as really all a Big Mistake?

I’ve reviewed two such: Steve Taylor’s The Fall, and Peter Heinegg’s Crazy Culture: The Sins of Civilization. It’s an all too common trope, that humanity has lost its way, and did “fall” from an Eden of virtue, harmony, and purity; seeing us now on an evil path, doomed to deserved punishment via wrecking the planet.

But Diamond is saying no such thing. His subtitle question is sincerely posed. images-1Without suggesting we should forswear civilization and revive the stone age, he does think we’ve lost some valuable things. And that’s unarguable. All of life is trade-offs. We did give up a lot in creating civilization. In fact, for most of history that trade-off has probably been unfavorable; while inventing agriculture was perhaps necessary for survival, it did reduce quality of life, and only in very recent times have we finally achieved the payoff in human welfare. Only now are most of us truly better off than in the stone age. It’s ironic that only now do so many people question the trade-off.

Diamond compares “traditional” and modern societies in numerous aspects, and is pretty even-handed, refusing to romanticize primitive peoples. This comes from knowledge: he spent much of his scientific career among the pre-modern inhabitants of inner New Guinea.

images-3We must realize that, in the big picture, our transition to modernity has been incredibly swift, and we’re still working things out. For example, as Diamond explains, we evolved to cope with a feast-or-famine existence, which becomes a problem in our all-feast environment, causing obesity, hypertension, diabetes, etc. So we are actually less healthy than cavemen. Yet their average lifespan was around thirty.

One topic is war, central to critiques of modernity. That indictment says that only with civilization did we invent war; before then, in the virtuous pre-lapsarian Eden, people lived in harmony not only with nature but with each other; war was, at most, ritualized and basically non-lethal combat, certainly nothing like the bloody destructiveness of civilizational warfare. All nonsense, Diamond firmly concludes from the evidence (as did Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined). images-2Warfare in primitive societies has been far the more frequent and deadly (per capita). While it’s true that civilization’s “intrusion” can cause a transient spike in such violence, people then settle down, and living in civilized, organized states is a great dampener of violence, both within and among societies.

Yet the “fall from Eden” belief remains tenaciously persistent. Why? Diamond actually addresses that very question, and suggests a number of answers, all of them academic. But, oddly, he doesn’t mention what seems to me the obvious, overriding reason: self-hating cynicism toward one’s own society. For many, it flatters their moral vanity to see themselves as superior insightful beings among benighted fools and knaves. Hence the idea that civilization merely aggravates a basic human propensity for violence and bad behaviors of every sort.

Unknown-1Fundamental to that stance is viewing modern life as a rat’s nest of pathologies (see again my review of The Fall), with the resulting bottom line being that for all its supposed advancements, benefits, and creature comforts, modernity actually leaves us less happy than our primitive ancestors. And if that’s so, what good is civilization anyway? What have we gotten for all we’ve given up?

Well – if you have that mindset, it’s no surprise you’re unhappy. Seeing everything around you as a travesty is not conducive to good cheer. And it isn’t a posture of realism. Despite how such cynics may fancy themselves, their viewpoint acts as a reality-distortion device, just as powerful as, say, a religious faith. Neither enables one to see reality. It’s exemplified by the dogged (and wholly wrong) insistence that modern societies are more violent than primitive ones.

Most people, however, don’t think about such things one way or the other, just taking for granted that things are the way they are today, and never pondering how they might be (and were in the past, and in some places continue being) vastly different.

But I’m acutely conscious of what it took to get us where we are today, and what that means for our quality of life. With total commitment to realism and objectivity, I try to see what is rather than what I want to see. I don’t forget the trade-offs, all the things we’ve sacrificed for what we’ve achieved, as Jared Diamond explicates well in his book. But for me, in my own life, that trade-off is tremendously positive. I am continuously and profoundly mindful and thankful for modernity’s blessings – blessings unavailable in “The World Until Yesterday.”

images-4The foregoing recalls what Barry Schwartz called the “adaptation effect” in his book The Paradox of Choice.  People whose circumstances improve soon adapt to the “new normal” as merely how things are and should be; since what they’ve got is merely what they now expect, they don’t feel happier. Humanity as a whole suffers from this adaptation effect in regard to civilization’s benefits. If more people shared my mindset of not taking it all for granted, we’d be happier.

The Worried Optimist: A “Broken Windows” Theory of World Order

May 3, 2014

David Brooks’s 4/30 column helps crystallize my own thoughts. I’ve argued here, and in my 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism, that in the big picture we’ve been progressing toward Immanuel Kant’s vision of a trading network of peaceful democracies. images-5As did Francis Fukuyama in The End of History, and Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. But lately a lot’s been going wrong.

Spiraling downward are nations like Venezuela, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Egypt, whose revolution is producing a regime even worse than before; creeping authoritarianism afflicts Turkey; sectarian bloodletting recrudesces in Iraq; unbridled Chinese nationalism bullies its neighbors; Islamist violence seems everywhere; South Sudan blows up; Israelis and Palestinians act not to resolve their conflict but entrench it; Iran holds truculent; and of course Syria descends into metastasizing nightmare, while Putin tramples about, instigating havoc and laughing at the puny sanctions incurred. Devils dance while angels cower.

Is it to time to change this blog’s title?

Paraphrasing Brooks, the perennial problem is the strong preying on the weak. Starting with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, the world had been getting a grip on this. Nazis and Communists challenged the resulting liberal system but were successfully beaten back. Democracy has expanded phenomenally, and democracies don’t fight each other. All good. But Brooks quotes foreign affairs wise man Charles Hill that this centuries-long trend of geopolitical progress may be stalling out, images-2and entering a phase of deterioration. This is what “wolves of the world” like Putin are testing against, for what pickings among the weak they can grab.

Today, says Brooks, the system is under assault not by a single empire but a swarm of bad actors large and small. Whereas Nazis and Commies were unambiguously foes we had to fight, now we face a more insidious infection, a “death by a thousand cuts.” images-3No individual problem (Syria, Iran, Ukraine, etc.) may seem threatening enough to justify the cost and effort of wrestling it down, “but, collectively, they can kill you.” That is, kill the system undergirding world peace and prosperity.

“How,” Brooks queries, “do you get the electorate to support the constant burden of defending the liberal system?” While “people will die for Mother Russia or Allah,” few will die “for a set of pluralistic procedures to protect faraway places.” Few seem to understand it, and too many actually oppose it, never mind fighting for it. But we’re not actually talking about fighting and dying. While some (like Andrew Bacevich on the Newshour the other night) obtusely cast the choice as war versus no war, in fact much could be done without shooting, which is not being done. Brooks notes the West’s balking at even a little economic pain to deploy meaningful sanctions on Russia. And look what happened when President Obama merely suggested a modest action to punish Syria’s regime (far short of “war” or anything that might resolve the problem).

This is why Obama’s foreign policy of tiptoeing caution is actually so profoundly dangerous for the world’s future. Brooks again: ”The liberal pluralistic system is not a spontaneous thing. Preserving that hard-earned ecosystem requires an ever-advancing fabric of alliances, clear lines about what behavior is unacceptably system-disrupting, and the credible threat of political, financial and hard power enforcement.” Unknown-1

At least some enforcement is needed for rule of law to work; some cop on the beat. Recall the “broken windows” theory of criminology: tolerate a few broken windows, and pretty soon the whole neighborhood succumbs to disorder and lawlessness.

Only America is capable of the necessary global leadership. What’s at stake is not just a bit of Ukrainian territory (the “broken windows”); it’s the whole world, the liberal, democratic, peaceful environment that has brought so much prosperity and freedom to so many. 20140503_cna400Failure to meet the challenge bodes very ugly consequences. And, as of now, we are failing. The Economist’s latest cover wonders, “What would America Fight For?” Credibility, it says, is easily lost and hard to rebuild; the West is losing it; and “is so careless of what it is losing.”

Well here’s a positive proposal. The UN’s creation embodied lofty hopes, but thwarted by what proved to be a design flaw, the Security Council veto, making it too often an obstacle to resolving problems. We need a new organization: a league of democracies. Eligibility might be a tricky issue, though the EU’s application of strict membership criteria seems to work okay. A majority of nations would surely qualify, and such a league would enjoy great moral legitimacy, to fill the role the UN cannot.images

But don’t hold your breath waiting for this.

I remain an optimist; albeit a worried optimist.

Bill McKibben, Climate Change, and Who’s the Real Enemy?

June 1, 2013

images-3Bill McKibben (leading climate change activist) now decrees that a cause needs an enemy to mobilize against. Apparently climate Unknownchange deniers are not a big enough enemy, so McKibben solemnly proposes that the oil and fossil fuel industries be declared the enemy, to moralistically crusade against. He says searching and drilling for oil is wrong and should stop.

Unknown-1This might make more sense if that pied piper and his followers stopped using it. Stopped driving cars, riding buses or trains or planes; stopped heating or air-conditioning their homes; or using any electricity, which is mostly generated with fossil fuels like oil or coal (so even electric cars still actually use those fuels). McKibben talks as though oil drilling is solely for (horrors!) profit; as if our using oil were irrelevant; as if we’d quit if the evil oil companies just bowed in contrition and stopped foisting it on us.

Unknown-2If only we could wave a magic wand and convert to all-renewable fuel use, with economic efficiency. Of course that’s the rub. We could displace all fossil fuels tomorrow — but at horrendous cost.

Pish tosh, McKibbenites might say, planetary health trumps money concerns. However, money buys food and other conveniences of life, and in a world where too many people still endure poverty and hunger, they’re the ones who’d suffer the most. McKibben and friends may shed Unknown-3crocodile tears about the plight of the world’s poor (“victims of capitalism” they imagine), but when it comes to their climate obsession, the world’s poor are thrown under the bus.

In fact, McKibben has actually said economic growth is a bad thing; and even technological progress we’ve had enough of, it should all be stopped. A breathtaking idea when in the past few decades economic growth, accelerated by technological advancement (and our use of energy), has lifted billions from poverty.

imagesPish tosh comes the retort; the problem is too many rich. Just redistribute their wealth to the poor; problem solved. But we live in the real world, and if this “solution” were actually implemented (not bloody likely), then afterwards why bother making efforts and investments to produce wealth? We’d have equality all right – equal poverty. At least it would remove that splinter (rich people to envy) from the left eye.

But back to the original point of declaring war on oil companies. We have enough demonization of “enemies” in our political discourse. Should we make “enemies” of those who produce commodities we all use and need, in fact a vital underpinning for our whole living standard? As if we could or should give up modernity itself. Some like McKibben romanticize an agrarian past; but that pesky point of poverty again poops on their party. Before modernity, the vast majority lived in wretched squalor. We’re not going back there.

images-1The  fixation on curbing atmospheric carbon to combat global warming goes hand in hand with the McKibbenites’ bizarre vendetta against, once more, economic growth and the whole industrial economy. Despairing of actually slaying that dragon, they hope at least to put it on a starvation diet (for some human beings, alas, that would be literal), by cutting its energy supply. This (a) won’t happen and (b) would be bad for human progress if it did, but also (c) won’t solve the climate problem. If tomorrow we slashed carbon emissions to zero, scientists’ climate models show temperatures still rising, and rising only slightly less than if we do nothing. Yes, we should nevertheless try to limit carbon as much as possible, but to combat climate change a more rational strategy would shift the focus to preparedness, mitigation and adaptation, and exploration of geo-engineering (like adding particulates to the upper atmosphere) to recool the planet. All this will cost money, so anything impeding economic growth (like capping emissions regardless of the economics) would be self-defeating.

These realities McKibbenites don’t want to hear, because they detract from their anti-industrial, anti-technology, anti-growth, anti-progress, and ultimately anti-human crusade.

images-2Finally, climate change is not our biggest challenge. People’s future lives will be impacted far more by those age-old but prosaic nemeses of poverty, disease, and ignorance. Our chief weapons against them are economic and technological progress – fueled by energy use. This is humanity’s main battle. Which side is McKibben on?

POSTSCRIPT: Just after posting this I got the latest Economist, focusing on world poverty reduction. Great strides are chronicled. “Most of the credit,” The Economist says, “must go to capitalism and free trade, for they enable economies to grow – and it was growth, principally, that has eased destitution.”

Even in Africa

March 29, 2013

high horseWhen William Easterly reviewed Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, he called “disturbing” Ridley’s use of the word “even” regarding Africa, as in saying something good is happening “even in Africa.” Easterly, from a politically correct high horse, sneered at Ridley as “equality challenged.”

Strange perhaps that Easterly himself authored a book titled The White Man’s Burden” !

That’s a cheap shot – but so was Easterly’s. The fact is that most of Africa for decades was obviously, er, “progress challenged,” a graveyard for dreams; so to say that a positive trend is visible “even in Africa” is entirely appropriate. Is it somehow anti-equality to recognize the reality of Africa’s problems?

This blog has long expressed great optimism about progress and the human future. So let me now add too: even in Africa.



When in 2010 I heard news that Cote D’Ivoire’s President Gbagbo, who had lost a (long-delayed) election, was refusing to accept the result, I said to myself, “Here we go again. How many lives will this cost?” The answer was several thousand. But in the end, Gbagbo did not get away with it, and is now a guest of the International Criminal Court awaiting trial. His successor, Alassane Ouattara, a former IMF economist, seems to be responsibly working to tackle the nation’s problems. This is the new Africa.

It is portrayed in an excellent recent survey by The Economist. After colonialism ended, much of Africa was plunged into a morass of incompetent and corrupt, rapacious government by venal dictators, who did what they did because they were pushing on an open door; i.e., civil society did not have its act together sufficiently to stop them. But that has been changing; the door is finally closing, as seen in Cote D’Ivoire, and in many other African countries. Democracy is very much on the rise, more and more elections are being held, more and more fairly, and one by one the dictators have been going; and with them, a lot of the conflict and violence that such rule tends to propagate.

Even (that word again) in places like Sudan, Congo, Angola, and Somalia, no pillars of democracy, violent conflict has been ebbing. Somalia is beginning to rebuild itself as a functioning nation. Sudan’s split into two countries, I had feared, would spark a new war, especially over contested oil resources. But that situation too seems to be calming down.

UnknownAfrica has also seen a lot of material progress, with rising economic growth and incomes, falling poverty, more education, sanitation and better health, and a growing middle class. Real income per person rose over 30% in the last decade (compared to a 10% fall in the two before it). Opinion polls show almost two-thirds of Africans think this year will be better than last. (Only a third of Europeans do.)

This is an obvious consequence of reduced violence, and mainly reflects the overall better quality of governance that democratic politics brings, with officials accountable to voters. A key factor is the general abandonment of socialist and statist economic approaches in favor of more market-oriented, trade-oriented, and investment-oriented policies. It was a hard lesson to learn, but it’s finally being learned in Africa. (In this, Africans may be ahead of those advanced sophisticates in Europe.)

Unknown-2Such changes don’t “just happen.” There are great historical forces in play. The problems that befell post-colonial Africa entailed the basest elements of human nature, with the ascendancy of the worst people. Conversely, the turn-around reflects the efforts of that other and vastly greater segment of humanity, motivated to improve quality of life not only for themselves but for their fellows. Ultimately, that force is the more powerful, and must prevail.

Even in Africa.

Why I am an Optimist

March 17, 2013

images-1You know the indictment of humanity: killing and raping each other and the planet. We’re not angels. Indeed, we are animals, and some pessimists actually compare us unfavorably against other, “innocent” creatures. But in the natural realm, from which we arose, morality does not even figure. That considered, we have not in fact done badly, building a world with some justice, kindness, and virtue.

Great Britain was once the world’s top slave trading nation. This was extremely profitable, but Britons came to realize it was morally vile. John Newton, a slave ship captain who repented, wrote Amazing Grace: “I was blind but now I see.” And, seeing, the nation outlawed slavery.

Such moral feeling is not just some superficial veneer painted over our animal nature. While evolution did give us all the nasty traits pessimists harp on, it also instilled social cooperation and even altruism, because that too was needed for our ancestors to survive. That was the foundation of civilization. And while we’re certainly capable of evil, that’s not what really matters. What counts most is what we actually do, in ordinary everyday life, and most of us behave, most of the time, with decency, honesty, and compassion.

Some religions tell us we’re sinners, promoting shame and guilt about natural human feelings; but we are growing beyond this, to arrive at a healthier, more rational, more life-affirming view of ourselves. We are entitled to happiness without a burden of unearned guilt. We do good deeds not from grim duty but from generous free choice. We find meaning through positive efforts, through love, and by using our creative gifts. We take responsibility for ourselves and our actions, making judgments and choices, between truth and falsity, good and bad. This is freedom: we are moral beings with the power to choose.

We’re perennially plagued by utopian idealism, dissatisfied with Man and his world, intent on remaking them. Always after much pain and blood this fails. Yet all the while, we individual human beings, from our own personal strivings, are continuously remaking ourselves. And thusly is the world too remade, in ways the utopian battalions never can imagine. No vast bludgeonings are required. Just let people be, and a new day comes.

UnknownThus, while the past century was full of horrors, its far bigger story was of astonishing human gains. Worldwide average life spans more than doubled and incomes grew fivefold. People are living longer, healthier, and better. There is less poverty and hunger, more sanitation, less pain and disease, more education and literacy. Now, at long last, ordinary people in their billions are able to not merely survive but actually enjoy life. And this all occurred while population rose at unprecedented rates. The explanation is that adding people doesn’t add just mouths to feed, but also hands to work and minds to create, and most people produce more than they consume.

Knowledge, science, and technology are crucial. Population has not outrun the food supply because farming advances made the opposite occur. Our working hands and minds become ever more productive. That spreads wealth and raises living standards, widening our choices and ability to control our lives. It’s a virtuous circle. More prosperity impels people to insist on more democracy. More democracy means less war. As Francis Fukuyama wrote, democratic life and free markets allow people to finally satisfy the age-old human hunger for recognition and self-worth, reducing conflict. Less war means yet more affluence, which in turn slows population growth and enables more education. More education and knowledge means yet more technological advancement and spreading prosperity. Society grows not only richer, but more open, tolerant, humane, and fair.

The German philosopher Hegel said that history shows rationality and freedom on the ascent. It’s remarkable he could see this two centuries ago; even more remarkable that some deny it today, when it’s so much more evident. Progress is not some mystical force pushing us forward, it’s driven by our own efforts. It’s no coincidence that modernity has seen explosive growth in human understanding, and at the same time huge improvements in the human condition.

It is true that all our gains have a cost; there’s no free lunch, hence our environmental challenges. But increasing knowledge equips us to cope with them too. And never forget that this is the unavoidable price for the lives we enjoy. We could never have risen from the caves while leaving the planet unspoiled. Humanity’s central story is our battle with that environment, to overcome its limitations. Our achievement has been stupendous. Be proud of it.

imagesWe arrived here as naked animals, starting with nothing, daring to quest for the great prize of knowledge. By toil and tears, we are getting it. And we are using it to improve the world. Today’s is the best ever; tomorrow’s will be better still.