Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Remember the Future

Happy New Year!

Or is it?

For decades, the conventional wisdom has said that we're getting dumber, society is disintegrating, and the world is becoming more dangerous. Each new year, it seems, has carried us one step closer to the abyss. Why would anyone want to have children?

There's just one problem with this feeling: It's totally contradicted by the evidence.

Are we getting dumber? Not according to IQ tests, which show each new generation of Americans being smarter than the previous one. But isn't our culture dumbed down by TV? Not really. Have you ever sat down and looked at the pop culture of previous eras? I have. It's filled with racist and sexist stereotypes, cruel jokes, simplistic morality, and banal ideas. Even TV has improved dramatically. Compare shows like The Sopranos to the best TV dramas of the 50s, 60s, and 70s--The Sopranos beats them all in psychological, moral, and artistic sophistication. And The Sopranos isn't alone--the best TV these days is really, really good, and reflects a wiser, more self-aware culture.

Is society disintegrating? To be sure, there is less social capital in the United States today than there was fifty years ago. People are spending less time together; politics is polarized. But are things really worse than they were, say, in the decades leading up to the Civil War? Are people angrier now than they they were the 1930s or more polarized than in the 1960s? The answer is no. America today is more egalitarian, more tolerant, and more diverse than in any previous era.

Is the world more dangerous? Recently, crime in America has declined; so has domestic violence. Infant mortality is down; people are living longer. Scientists like Stephen Pinker, Douglas Fry, and Robert M. Sapolsky have argued that communal, political violence has gone down over the past few centuries--way down. Writes Pinker:

Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.

Of course, there's plenty to feel anxious about in 2008. Expenses and debt are up; inequality is growing. The nightmare occupation of Iraq continues. The globe is warming. Those are things to struggle against, personally and politically--and we might lose. But you know what? People in the past fought to make life better for us today--and many of their efforts succeeded. We have an obligation to the do the same for future generations.

That's my New Year's resolution: Remember the future.

[Cross-posted with the Greater Good blog.]

1 comment:

chicago pop said...

We have an obligation to the do the same for future generations.

I agree 100% with that statement, so I won't quibble with the empirical side of it. Good new year's resolution.