Progress and Enlightenment

Campbell was unusually serious this evening, looking out at the grey-green water below us. We’ve had some lovely sunny spring weather, cool but clear but Campbell or Camp to all of us can still see the clouds in the sky. He had already ordered us two pints knowing that I was not the tardy sort. “When you look at a cloudy sky with some blue patches to the west they look small and remote compared to the big grey clouds above us,” he asked and answered himself. “That’s an illusion. The blue sky is immense and stretches from horizon to horizon, like today, whereas the clouds will always blow away or dissipate eventually.”

“Usually after they drop their collective moisture first. Your point ?” I said, sitting down.

“What we see is not always what it is.”

“You’re full of wisdom but I still don’t get what you’re trying to say.”

“I’ve just come across a book by Steven Pinker, a Canadian psychologist at Harvard, called  “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” and he claims optimistically that as a species we are much better off today then say, just a few decades ago. Yes, here are forces at play that fight and obscure enlightenment every step of the way, sort of like the clouds obscuring the blue sky above.

“Let me guess; the usual suspects: Like populism, nationalism, religion and reactionary ideologies.”

“I guess I’m preaching to the choir. Pinker believes in the US’s First Amendment prohibition of an established religion, and any other attempt to make collective decisions based on parochial dogmas rather than universally agreed-upon reasons. He also points out that there are definite improvements to humanity thanks to electricity, refrigeration and vaccines. American homicides have plunged since 1992, and rates of disease, starvation, extreme poverty, illiteracy and dictatorships, when they are measured by a constant yardstick, have all decreased but then came Trump.”

“He doesn’t like Trump? What a surprise.”

“He suggests that the media’s focus on negative reporting aided the Trump campaign which exploited voters fears. And all those people who don’t support Trump are mystified by a republican congress, which sides with a president that undermines their maxims of free trade and diplomacy in favour of militarism. He quotes Obama who said in his farewell address how much we owe to progress and enlightenment and Macron who said in his inaugural speech how these values are under attack.”

“But don’t we live in a time of growing poverty, expanding wars and a worldwide rise in violence?”

“Not really. He blames our collective news media for much of this misconception. ‘News is about things that happen,’ he writes, ‘not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, ‘I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. Think about it: If you arrived in a new city and saw that it was raining, would you conclude, The rain has gotten worse? How could you tell, unless you knew how much it had rained before that day? Yet people read about a war or terrorist attack this morning and conclude that violence is increasing, which is just as illogical.”

“I know that us baby boomers had the best of all times with incredible economic and technological advances and growth in personal wealth.” I said, “but are we any happier than previous generations.”

“Not really,” Camp said, “according to Pinker, we have a higher rate of depression and suicide than the previous generation that went through the war or my grandfather’s generation that went through the depression but on the whole we’re better off. We still have 193 sovereign states that belong to the UN, the EU still functions, most countries try to avoid war, and there is flourishing world trade. There are exceptions of course like Russia, Turkey and Venezuela but on the whole it’s working.”

“Yes, Turkey is being dragged back to the middle ages by it’s radical mullah’s and Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic dictatorship. Not sure why the EU is sitting idly by while Turkish journalists are jailed for life and women’s right are flaunted in the worst ways,” I said, draining my beer while it was still cold. I hate warm beer.

“ And the US is also taking an increasingly nationalist course, with punitive tariffs and watch out for Pompeo, the new secretary of state, who spawned from the tea party. This does not bode well for the rest of the world,”

“Again, we’re just plain lucky to sit here in lovely Gibsons, being able to talk about all that’s good and wrong in this world, without being censored or even jailed for our views. Myself, like Pinker, still believe in progress and enlightenment, which is not a faith but a realisation that when people strive to improve their condition they will gradually succeed.”

Vicky must have overheard Camp spouting off. “I could improve your lot by bringing another couple of pints. All this serious talk must make you two thirsty. ”

“You’re right Vicky, as usual, I guess the next round is on me.”

‘Let’s raise a toast to the late Stephen Hawkins.”

“May you keep flying like superman,” I said, quoting NASA.




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