Thursday, May 28, 2009

Does Anyone Really Think There's No Such Thing as Progress?

In a recession, and with an administration in office that you may not agree with, it's easy to grumble that things are going downhill. "We're doomed, the country is going to hell in a handbag, it's the end of the world." For example: our cities are more violent than ever before, and you can't go out at night. Right?

Wrong. You often learn something when, instead of just going along with the groupthink grumbling, you actually work out the numbers to see if the received wisdom should stop being received. And it turns out that "Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth."

Yes, really. And even in crazy San Francisco, things are better than they used to be. Forget the 1960s; for some "you won't believe your eyes" memorable anecdotal data, just take a look at what people out here were up to in the 1870s:

The late 1870s birthed one of the most infamous sex scandals in history, with all the trappings of power, lust and deadly gunplay.

It began when minister Isaac Kalloch moved here from back East to become a pastor. Tales of illicit sexual exploits trailed him, and when he ran for mayor, Chronicle Publisher Charles de Young went on an opposition warpath. "Driven forth from Boston like an Unclean Leper, his trial for adultery, his escapade with one of the Tremont Temple Choristers," read one of the headlines. Kalloch railed back that de Young was, according to "The Magnificent Rogues of San Francisco" by Charles Adams: "The bastard progeny of a whore, born in the slums and nursed in the lap of prostitution."

An infuriated de Young shot Kalloch in 1879, but Kalloch recovered and was elected mayor. Kalloch's son was a better shot: He gunned de Young down in the newspaper office the next year, killing him.

If anything even close to this happened today, it would overwhelm the press and shut down the state of California. This will seem especially poignant to northern Californians. The Chronicle is our major newspaper (to which I often link, as above) and the de Young Museum is one of our major museums. I was dumbfounded to read this account. But it's not so out of character: this was only twenty years after California Chief Justice Terry killed Senator Broderick in a duel (in the city!)

Some of the grumbling about the world going to hell is no doubt the current of "the next generation is a bunch of losers" that undergirds the grumbling of middle-aged men since at least the Roman empire. But it seems to run deeper than that, to a kind of victimhood-worshipping justification for passivity. Tyler Cowen's sigh of frustration with the film-makers of The End of Poverty was that they apparently assume that the world's default position is wealth and happiness; since much of the developing world is miserable, this can only be due to active interference from the post-colonial villains of the West. Nonsense. Wealth is not the default situation. Poverty and misery are the default situation. Only by the constant application of reason and hard work do we escape that.

Beyond liberal mushheadedness, I'm bothered by this undercurrent of negativism, on all sides of the political spectrum, because it's dangerous. Somethin's broke? Then fix it! If there's an attitude I can't and won't tolerate, it's one of passively accepting victimization. Never ask me "oh well, what can you do?" because I'll have an answer for you. Yes, we sometimes hit rough spots, like the current recession - but it's nothing compared to the grind that our ancestors endured just a few generations ago, and that we don't, thanks to their hard work, brilliance and foresight. imagine meeting your great grandfather at your current age, and him smacking you around for being a whiner.

Again anecdotally: my great-great grandfather spent time at age 15 in a Confederate prison camp after being captured in the Civil War's only sword battle (a war in which he and many others were fighting to make it illegal for humans beings to be owned like livestock - there's an improvement for sure.) My great grandfather picked coal out of a mine in Western Pennsylvania all his life. My wife's father grew up in the literal ruins of post-war Japan, hauling rice up mountainsides at age 5 onward, and still managed to work his way up to a marketing position in one of the big conglomerates. My own father joined the Navy so he could afford his college education, the first of my ancestors to get one. Know what my biggest problem right now is? Which suburb of San Diego to live in while I'm in med school next year, because maybe La Jolla proper will be a little too pricey. Cry me a river, right? Granted, I'm fortunate (and I count my lucky stars every day), but I bet your life isn't so bad either. So next time you complain that your favorite beer isn't on tap at the sports bar down the street, or your plane ticket to Hawaii is a little too pricey, then boo hoo! (That sound you just heard was the ghost of my great-grandfather punching me for being a pussy. And you should get ready, cause he told me yours is on the way to your house right now.)

My point? Life has never been better - and we are responsible for creating the world we're living in! If things are so bad, why aren't there mass desertions of the cities for the mountains? Half of North America is still trackless wilderness. If civilization is so oppressive, then what is everybody waiting for?

Today, somewhere in the world, someone was shot on the way to work. Someone was put in jail for speaking their mind, or going to church, or not going to church. Someone couldn't feed their children. Yes, there is such a thing as progress, and it's only because of you and me that it will continue.

1 comment:

LVTfan said...

The default position is poverty and wealth concentration and income concentration because some of us have figured out that such a system works really nicely for their purposes.

Natural resources -- mine, or everyone's? Mine, naturally! As long as no one else thinks they were created equal to me!

Electromagnetic spectrum? Ditto! God made that for me to exploit. To hell with everyone else who might want to use it. They can pay me for the privilege. At least until someone else points out that I am no more entitled than my fellow human beings are to pocket that fortune.




All of these can be fine machines for concentrating income, wealth and power into the hands of the few.

We CAN have progress without poverty. But those who are enriched by our current structure are likely to tell you otherwise.