I’ve blogged numerous times on the apparent inevitability of liberal progressive ideas eventually overcoming the undying resistance of Conservatism: here, Here, and HERE…and there are 1/2 dozen more blogs on this website where I have highlighted progress. It never fails to surprise me, that both in the US, or on the worldwide scale over the centuries, generations, even over merely a decade or two, how much progress of a scientific and social nature has gone down. It becomes the new normal so quickly, that we barely notice it. I think also, that we tend to not notice how far we have come because of our daily pre-occupation with anything bad happening being featured incessantly on the nightly news. Additionally, the lack of coverage of progress in the media likewise serves our biases for events to be worried about. The self serving, perpetual emphasis on the negative aspects of our human nature by the world’s religions is certainly a factor as well, not only in supporting conservatism, but in failing to celebrate all the good we have accomplished. So today, while perusing the New York Times on my smart phone I came across 4 unrelated articles that all demonstrate remarkable progress at home and abroad.
First up is the Why 2018 Was the Best Year Ever oped by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, showing the hard-won, yet in some ways inevitable progress of the human animal when it uses it’s brain to learn new ideas, discard old ones and apply them to our problems. We have enjoyed some marvelous success, much of which goes unreported. Kristof does such an Oped annually to give a bit of equal time to human flourishing. We are learning machines, and in the previous post A Developmental Perspective on the Cognitive Niche, I made the case for children (and adults) being wired to explore, discover, theorize, and explain why and how things happen. We do this automatically, the result of the last few million years of hand-brain co-evolution in our species and the last few hundred thousand years of real conceptual advance. Infants are wired to explore, construct, experiment and ask why. For much of humanity the quest to suss things out never ends. Even the most Conservative of us who may cling to old cultural ideas of a religious and social nature, have hobbies, read the newspaper, watch TV and use the Net: i.e., take in new information. Some of the most conservative may rail against the vast majority of new ideas they encounter, but they are still learning and thankfully, most humans aren’t Ultra-Conservative, eschewing as many new ideas as they can: think Orthodox Jews, hard-core Muslims, the Amish, and Mennonites, and some Xian sects, all who seem to want to party like it is still 1099.
Kristof counters the bias in our cognition (and our daily news reports) for hearing bad news, by publicizing the little known yet expansive and impressive progress we humans have accomplished so quietly in yet another year. World poverty, illiteracy, crime, death, and disease rates all continue to go down in dramatic fashion, while personal freedoms, economic mobility, life expectancy, access to clean water and smart phone use continue to rise all around the globe. He’s not a deluded Pollyanna as he correctly acknowledges the horrific atrocities in Yemen, Syria, Bangladesh, and other hotspots of civil strife around the world that remain serious problems, but to be clear, we have just had another year since 1953 that no super powers were at war (China vs. US in Korea): 75 years without world powers at war, the longest stretch of peace in human history. Phenomenal. Additionally, there is nothing like Vietnam or the World Wars of the early 20th century occurring anywhere. The amount of deaths to wars, and wars themsleves, including civil wars, continue to decline, dramatically in number and scope. For US service people alone: Korea over 36,000 deaths, Vietnam nearly 60,000 dead, WWI-116,000, WWII over 400,000, and the Civil War over 650,000 soldiers dead! Staggeringly huge amounts of war dead (not counting civilian deaths) have been the norm for millennia, and worldwide. In contrast, after 17 years, Iraq and Afghanistan US military deaths combined don’t reach 8,000. As horrific as that number of service men and women lost still is, it is an incredible improvement over previous war casualties by orders of magnitude. And the same trend is seen with war deaths (and deaths due to genocides) worldwide. The hostilities in Yemen, Syria, and Bangladesh while terrible, pale in comparison to the size of human suffering in past conflicts: surely something to note. There are all sorts of examples of progress and improvement to be considered, and these yearly NYT opeds gives us an impressive sampling to temper our perspective that everything is always bad and only getting worse. Thank you, Mr. Kristof.
Continuing, Kristof points out that proportionately less children die of disease before age 5 than any time in human history. Less than 5 million young children die annually today, with over 7.5 billion people on the planet. (That’s 0.07%). There were over 20 million young children dying 50 years ago in 1960, with less than half the population: 0.3%, an order of magnitude improvement. If we had not applied new ideas such as vaccines, modern sanitation, and medical care, that number could have more than doubled to 50 million per year. Instead it is down below 5 million and continuing to decline. That’s incredible progress, and few know about it. Kristof points out how unaware the average educated person in developing countries is to any of these parameters of humanistic progress. People worldwide tend to underestimate the prevalence and effect of vaccines, economic growth, or world literacy for example, and overestimate the strife from terrorism, wars, and crime.
Thankfully, most humans are open to new ideas, even many of those stuck in conservative, highly religious, tribal cultures still struggling to move into the 21st century. A case in point is explicated in another NYT article A Quiet Revolution: More Women Seek Divorces in Conservative West Africa. From the article:
“But here in Niger, a place where women have less education, lower living standards and less equality with men than just about anywhere else in the world, a quiet revolution is playing out.”
Women are asking for, and getting divorces for reasons unheard of a generation ago: they are dissatisfied with their husbands lack of work efforts, with the repressive, ages-old, religious and cultural insistence on the husband controlling the wife’s activities, and an unsatisfying sex life. Even in this predominantly Muslim (80-90%) under-developed, and staggeringly poor country, women are exerting their individual rights as never before: because they know better. They are educated.
My pet phrase of course, is “Information Kills Religion”, but more generally “Information Kills Old, Bad Ideas” of which religious ideas are but the most significant of subsets. The author of the article, the noted journalist Dionne Searcey reports:
“Access to the media has skyrocketed. In rural areas, women discuss marriage troubles on call-in radio shows. In major cities, women vent their relationship frustrations on social media.”
Access to information. Hmmmm. When people are exposed to different options through education and connection with other people they come to realize:“It doesn’t have to be this way.” “Other people (women) don’t live like this.” “There is a better way to do this.” “This is not how it has to be.” I’m reminded of an old song lyric that referred to young men becoming enlightened in an entirely different context (France in WWI), that is an example of the same thing:
“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” (Donaldson, Young, and Lewis, 1919).
Education is the key. Information kills bad, old, unnecessary ideas. So the women in Niger are using call-in radio and social media to connect and learn that “it doesnt have to be this way”, arguing for better treatment and more freedom. And they are winning those arguments, one divorce at a time. I suggest their success is due to the fact that not only are the women themselves exposed to new ideas and connected by social media, but the members of their culture at large, the men, the imams who still enforce the cultural and religious norms, and their fellow villagers, the other members of their culture are all exposed to the new information afforded by the inter-connected global culture we all find ourselves in, here in the 21st century of the worldwide web, computers, and smartphones. The culture at large is changing, even in the most conservative of settings on earth.
Meanwhile the folks in Cuba who weren’t allowed cell phones until recently (2008) are just all excited to get 3G service this year! We in developed countries might laugh at such a commonplace if not comparably low bit rate, but compared to no information transfer at all, by that medium…man, that’s HUGE progress! And it will only educate the Cubans further and connect them to what’s going down in the rest of the world. Just like the women in repressive, tribal, 90% Muslim Niger, they will want the rights and freedoms and economic mobility they see the majority of all the other folks around the world enjoying.
Last but not least, I read another article among many in the news these days on the over-the-top, almost comical knee jerk reactions by conservatives to the new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is among a number of young and outspoken and female legislators elected to office. She and her colleagues represent real progress as well. Whether she turns out to be an effective legislator and spokesperson for the party or not remains to be seen, as it does for all the newly elected. But being under 30, a female, and Hispanic…again that’s progress. Ya gotta love it. A lot of Conservatives obviously don’t like it so much, as she has been regularly attacked in almost a frenzy of rather silly looking reactions to her candidacy and election. The Times article reports on one failed attempt to ridicule her, by posting a rather entertaining video of her dancing with other students while in college for a sports promotional video. It went viral, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, or at least…”and your point is?”
College students generally like to dance, and she wasn’t bad and it certainly looked like she and her fellow student-dancers had great fun producing the routines for their video. The shaming attempt by a self-titled Xian conservative Dad failed utterly. I think this example represents progress for another reason: politicians, legislators, elected officials are human beings. Regular folks really, that happen to have the drive to go into politics and the appeal to win. And they dance, and do all sorts of regular stuff, all the time. I think it is refreshing to show that. I think this aura many elected officials try to promote that they are somehow larger-than-life and too image conscious to let anyone see them with their hair down so to speak, showing that they are just as silly and vulnerable as the rest of us pilgrims, is almost laughable. Ocasio-Cortez and her freshmen class of legislators may go a long way to erasing that phony image. The 2016 mid-terms elected a lot of young, female, diverse, first time politicians. That fact alone is huge progress for America as well.
I blogged earlier “Its Always Been the Young” demonstrating that the youth of this country has been a formidable force in political and social change in times past, and this rather unrealistic dependence on old white guys inevitably having to run the show, in that they are somehow the privileged and best qualified to do so, is just another scam by the conservatives. I noted that in 2018 the average age in the House was 57 and the Senate 61, with the House being overwhelmingly male and white (besides old) and the Senate having only 20 women out of 100. We are now up to 23 female Senators. We have a ways to go, but we are moving in the right direction to reach parity at 50. The more young, male and female, and people of wider diversity in politics the better. The hegemony of old white guys that all look and dress the same, somehow, by default, running the country may be coming to an end.
So there you have it. Without trying, I stumble upon four different, and unrelated articles that showcase diverse examples of positive change, forward movement around the world: worldwide, Niger in Africa, Cuba and the US in the Western Hemisphere. Underneath all the political gridlock and turmoil in the era of Trump in the US, there is real change happening here at home and similarly all over the globe. Watch for it. And don’t watch the fucking TV nightly news. You will get the same old biased sample of mayhem and murder in the big city nearest to you, with a few minutes of sports and weather thrown in. If you do get any world news it will surely cover, out of thousands of possible stories or events, only a couple of stories from war zones or other tragedies. You wont hear how the women of Niger are getting to throw off millennia old repressions, how children all over the globe are being saved from suffering and death in record numbers, or how Cubans are moving inexorably toward the freedoms enjoyed by much of the rest of their fellow world citizens. But you will get to see Ocasio-Cortez and her classmates dance. Maybe she will get her colleagues in Congress to do the same sometime soon as well as she did briefly just outside her office in perfect response to the silliness. Won’t that just frost the conservatives one more time. Oh well, shit happens. And so does progress. Deal with it.