Getting Better?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday June 1 2018.


I recently purchased the 50th anniversary remastering of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I am enjoying hearing Paul McCartney optimistically sing “It’s getting better all the time” with John Lennon cynically commenting in the background, “Couldn’t get any worse”. Is it getting better?

Sometimes the unkindness of humankind makes me weep. A gang of disreputable dogs hangs around the shopping precinct near my home. I would not blame the shopkeepers for chasing them away. If you are trying to make a living by selling food, you do not want a pile of dog turds covered in flies in front of your establishment. Most of the shopkeepers tolerate the dogs and even feed them. Anonymous strangers see that the dogs get veterinary attention when necessary. There is kindness. I am thinking of the sort of mentality that would allow someone to dump a dog on the street.

There are many who lament the state of the world today and bemoan the cruelty of modern humans. Steven Pinker is not one of them – he is an optimist. In his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Pinker, a Canadian cognitive scientist who teaches at Harvard, covers similar ground to that trodden in his 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature.

In the 2011 book, he argued that violence in the world has declined. He specifically rejects the view that humans are inherently violent, but cites reasons for the decline in violence, reasons which have to do with controlling human behaviour: the rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary “with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force”; the rise of “technological progress [allowing] the exchange of goods and services over longer distances and larger groups of trading partners,” – people tend not to want to kill their customers; increasing respect for “the interests and values of women”; the rise of forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media, which “can prompt people to take the perspectives of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them”; an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which reframes “violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.”

The books were generally very well-received (fans included Bill Gates and Peter Singer) but there were dissenting voices. John Gray described Enlightenment Now as “embarrassing and feeble”. Statistician Nassim Taleb wrote:  “Pinker doesn’t have a clear idea of the difference between science and journalism, or the one between rigorous empiricism and anecdotal statements.”

Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct, agrees with much of what Pinker says but finds the books dangerous because of his unearned influence with the world’s movers and shakers –  a “coterie of neoliberal technocrats “. “His work offers an intellectual rationale for many in the elite to continue practices that imperil humanity.” Lent accuses Pinker of being blasé about the fact that humankind is destroying the planet. When Pinker does address the issue, he relies on a combination of market-based solutions and technological fixes, ignoring the fact that “Transnational corporations, which currently constitute sixty-nine of the world’s hundred largest economies, are driven only by increasing short-term financial value for their shareholders, regardless of the long-term impact on humanity.”

Pinker claims that “racist violence against African Americans… plummeted in the 20th century”. Lent dismisses this: “Instead, it has become institutionalized into US national policy” with African- American males six times more likely to be arrested than white men and one in every three African-American men can currently expect to be imprisoned in their lifetime.

The greatest flaw is Pinker’s assertion that “income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being”. In 2017, the richest 10 percent of Americans owned 77 percent of the nation’s wealth. The wealthiest 1% experienced nearly 65 times the absolute income growth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Economist Mujeed Jamaldeen has calculated that it would take over 250 years for the income of the poorest 10% to merely reach the global average income of $11/day. There is enough evidence that inequality is harmful. In blithely dismissing it Pinker undermines his whole case.

Another economist, Ganesh Sitaraman, in his book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic , argues that inequality brings “an erosion of trust as people become more dissimilar, interact less, and begin to see themselves as different from others in society. In political terms, the elites soon begin to believe they are more capable of governing society. This kind of thinking is inherently at odds with republican government, which is rooted directly in the right of the people to govern themselves.”

The Trump presidency is increasing inequality and class conflict. Throughout the US, young people are sinking into addiction and jobs are disappearing. Gun ownership is increasing and people are joining militia groups. Armed confrontations have taken place in Montana, New Mexico, Texas, and California. There were more than fifty attacks on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service employees, including two by snipers, between 2010 and 2014.A militia leader from Utah was arrested in 2016 after trying to bomb a BLM outpost in Arizona. How will these people react if Trump is ousted?

Someone was evil enough to mercilessly and persistently beat a dog that lived rough near our shops to the extent that the poor creature’s spine was damaged. Another human was good enough to take the dog home and care for it. It is now happy and healthy. Evil people carried out the Sri Lankan pogrom in 1983; decent people were courageous enough to risk their own lives to protect Tamil strangers. During every disaster, including the current flooding, individuals take risks to help their fellow humans. Let us be optimistic about the altruism endemic to what Isaiah Berlin called “the crooked timber of humanity”. Keep an eye open for the