Elections matter. On November 4th, 2014, the Republican Party had a very good night. On that election night, the United States Senate flipped from Democratic to Republican control. Even so, a simple mathematical calculation in which states with two Democratic senators are counted as D, states with two Republican senators are counted as R, and states with 1 of each are counted half each shows that after this election approximately 53% of the country was represented by a Democratic senator, and only 47% represented by a Republican.

On February 13, 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. Despite warnings from the majority Republicans in the Senate, President Barack Obama switfly nominated a replacement in Court of Appeals Circuit Judge Merrick Garland. As is their right, the Senate declined to approve (or even hold a hearing for) Judge Garland. Note that while there was nothing illegal about this action, it was highly irregular, precedent-setting, and reflected the will of just 47% of the country (as argued above).

On November 8, 2016, The Republican Party had another good night. Despite seeing their Senate majority shrink, the GOP managed to hold on to a slim majority in that body. They also, of course, elected Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. Still, with the loss of two more senate seats, the percentage of the country represented in the Senate by a Republican fell from 47% down to 44.4%.

Donald Trump dispensed with the Garland nomination and replaced him with Court of Appeals Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch. Holding a majority in the Senate (and having done away with the filibuster rule, thereby preventing Senate Democrats from blocking the nomination), the Senate approved Gorsuch to the Supreme Court (remember, these senators represented less than 45% of the people)

Today, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of President Trump’s travel ban. Associate Justice Gorsuch voted with the court’s majority.

Anyone interested in history and government should read the opinions – majority written by Chief Justice John Roberts and minority written by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. You can find these at the Supreme Court’s website:

https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/17-965_h315.pdf

Both are fascinating reading.

Chief Justice Roberts makes a very straightforward argument, though by including Trump’s own words about individuals of the Islamic faith, one could argue that Roberts is protecting his own historic legacy and forever damaging Trump’s. While Roberts points to all the discriminatory and inflammatory things Trump has said about Muslims, he finally concludes that it is within the president’s prerogative to make decisions such as this one.

Associate Justice Sotomayor makes a different argument. In forceful tones, Sotomayor argues that the motivation behind the president’s travel ban is unprincipled, based on religious bigotry rather than national security concerns. The Associate Justice cites the similarities between this case and the 1944 executive order imprisoning Japanese Americans during World War II. In both executive orders, national security was invoked without evidence to justify discrimination against a non-favored minority.

Sotomayor’s words are powerful and eloquent. I firmly believe that your children and grandchildren will be reading these words in future history classes. I’m proud to share a country with such a judge.

This case is a lovely demonstration of the different judicial philosophy with which we are struggling in this country. What one might call the Gorsuch or Roberts camp is reflected in Roberts’ argument. “The law is the law, what can be done?”

What one might call the Garland or Sotomayor camp asks us instead to look at our fundamental principles of fairness and equality. This is an old story in American history. We have always had high ideals, and we have always struggled to live up to them. All men are created equal. Does that include black men? Freedom of the press. Does that mean the press can criticize the government? Equal protection under the law. Does that mean women can vote? Does it mean gay couples should be allowed to marry? No establishment of religion. Does that mean Muslims and Christians should be treated equally when entering our country?

To its credit, the majority responded to Sotomayor’s citation of Japanese-American internment, saying it was “gravely wrong the day it was decided.” However, nothing the majority has done to curb the excesses of the current chief executive gives me any confidence that any of these five men would have opposed the internment order in 1944. It’s a lot easier to be on the right side of history three quarters of a century hence. What about today?

Finally, I’ll end where I started. Elections matter. If you have any lingering question about whether it matters who is in the White House, who is in the Senate, who is in the House, surely today’s Supreme Court decision has wiped those doubts from your mind. Elections matter. What sort of country do we want? One in which our Supreme Court ignores context, intent, and our deepest ideals, or one in which judges use plain evidence (such as candidate Trump’s call for a “complete and total shutdown” of one particular religion entering the country, in obvious violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause) to help us all live up to those difficult, deep, and precious principles?

We know exactly what sorts of judges each political party will give us. We also know that at least one party will use what can only be described as an unprecedented dirty trick to prevent the will of the other party from being exercised. So what sort of country do we want? Elections matter.

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OK, I’m ready now. It took me all this time to get myself to where I could write about the most extraordinary theater experience I’ve ever had. It happened on June 12, 2018, in Stratford, Canada. I saw The Tempest.

If you’ve seen my ranking of Shakespeare’s plays, you know that The Tempest, while quite high on my list, is not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Even so, I’ve always loved it, and I’ve both read it and seen it multiple times. But nothing could prepare me for what I enjoyed on that lovely Tuesday afternoon north of the border.

Some background first. My amazing wife Julie surprised me on my 50th birthday back in January with an invitation to travel to Stratford, Canada to attend their annual Shakespeare festival. We’d always talked about going, and this would be the year. On Monday morning we packed up the car and made the long drive across the border. Canada is a beautiful country, and Julie tells me the PM is quite attractive, as well. But, sad to say, we didn’t run across him on our trip. Maybe next time.

On Tuesday we were to see the play in the Festival Theatre (Canada, you know) at 2:00 pm. As we settled into our seats and examined the playbill, we learned a few interesting things. First, Prospero’s “magic garment” for this production would be a patchwork made from all the other Prospero coats fashioned over the years for the festival. That was a cool touch. Second, Martha Henry, who would be playing Prospero as a woman, had played Miranda at the Festival way back in 1962. This will be important later.

martha henry prospero

Martha Henry as Prospero, photography by David Hou/Stratford Festival

I was a little reticent going into the play. First, I’d just seen a production of The Tempest last summer at Schiller Park in Columbus. I adore Schiller and love their productions, and while I really enjoyed their Tempest, their anti-colonialist message was heavy. I wondered if Stratford would take a similar approach. While I don’t dislike that message, I think I was hoping for something a little different.

Second, my good friend and Shakespeare mentor Alex had discussed the modern trend of flipping Prospero’s gender. This would be the third production of The Tempest I’d see with that change (Julie Taymor’s movie starring Helen Mirren and the aforementioned production at Schiller were the other two). Alex talked about how making Prospero female changes the dynamic with Miranda in particular, and he didn’t much care for the change. I wasn’t sure – I almost never am when it comes to artistic choices in Shakespeare.

Truth be told, I’m not a sophisticated Shakespeare viewer. I haven’t seen a lot of live performances, and most I’ve seen are local, community-type theater like those put on by Actors Theater at Schiller Park. While I dearly love them, they are not high-end productions. So I’m probably just awed by inexperience. Take this, then, for what it is. From here on out, I will do nothing but gush.

This was, quite simply, the most moving experience I’ve ever had in a theater. I was moved to tears by the end of Act I of Wicked (Defying Gravity) last year on Broadway, so maybe I’m an easy mark. But this production of The Tempest left me utterly unable to formulate a word of English for many minutes afterward. At the end of this extraordinary play I was sobbing, trying my best not to make a complete fool of myself in another country, and failing miserably. I felt like Julia Roberts experiencing opera for the first time in Pretty Woman. I was a mess.

Why? The stage was exquisite. They did so much with lighting, both built-in stage lights and directed lighting from all over the theater, seamlessly turning the stage from a sinking ship to a simple wooden-floored island habitation to an glowing, other-worldly, magical realm where spirits reign. The sound was perfect – I’d read some reviews that said the actors were hard to hear, and while my hearing is about as good as a stone at the end of a runway, I could hear everything without difficulty. The casting was delicious – Stephano (Tom McCanus) and Trinculo (Stephen Oulmette) were hilarious, Ferdinand (Sébastien Heins) was just goofy enough to make his character charming instead of insufferable, Miranda (Mamie Zwettler) was utterly convincing as a fresh and naive 15-year-old girl, and Michael Blake was the most vulnerable and sympathetic Caliban I’ve ever seen. That will be important later, too.

ferdinand, prospero, miranda

Sébastien Heins, Martha Henry, and Mamie Zwettler, photography by David Hou/Stratford Festival

Ariel (André Morin) was beautiful and powerful, and the harpy that he commands is a special effect worthy of Broadway or Hollywood. I was legitimately terrified.

The actors made the play so approachable. Julie, who is not herself a big Shakespeare fan, afterwards said that she understood this play so well because the actors made it make sense. I agree. Even some of the language was substituted (“fever” for “ague”, for one example) to make the play more modern, without losing any of Shakespeare’s poetry and rhythm.

But those are all ancillary reasons. The biggest selling point by far (and I’m not denigrating anything else, just telling you what made this play so special for me) was Martha Henry as Prospero. She played an old and frail, but wise, loving, and so in-control Prospero that by the last act I was convinced that Shakespeare must have written this part explicitly for her, to be played in exactly this way. How could it ever have been otherwise?

The play was a joy, funny and touching and scary (Sebastian and Antonio almost had me convinced they were really going to kill the sleeping King Alonso), with beautiful music, exquisite costumes, and incredible effects throughout. I was hooked, on the edge of my seat as I probably hadn’t been since seeing Star Wars in its original run as an eight-year-old.

And then. And then came the scenes that quite literally stole my breath, made me dissolve into myself in a way no work of art has ever done to me before. Caliban, as stated earlier, wasn’t in this version the repressed native under the thumb of the colonizer. Instead he was vulnerable, child-like, and a touch sad. His speech about the island’s joys:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

had already brought me to tears earlier. I felt after this speech that Caliban, despite his murderous intent and near-rapist past, was desperate for love. And aren’t we all?

prospero caliban

Martha Henry and Michael Blake, Photography by David Hou/Stratford Festival

As the play reaches it climax, Prospero and Caliban have a moment together. “This thing of darkness,” Prospero says of Caliban, “I acknowledge mine.” How would they play this? It was . . . I don’t know if I can find the words. It was . . . freeing. It was Prospero telling Caliban, I know what we’ve become isn’t just you. It’s me, too. It’s both of us, and I want it to be better. And then – and just writing it will make it seem condescending but believe me when I tell you it wasn’t, it was so beautiful – she kissed his forehead. I lost all composure. Even now, thinking about it, I’m in tears.

But wait. There’s more. Caliban is on his way off stage and Miranda catches his eye. They pause. No words, just a pause. It’s “We shared this island, we talked together, we lived together, we saw each other’s worst. And yet, you are you and I am me and we meant something to one another, and I will remember you.” And then Caliban is gone and the rest are gone and it is just Prospero.

I’d been wondering how they’d handle the epilogue. I love this epilogue and still remember it from the first time I saw the play at Schiller many years ago. To me it and the other great Prospero speeches at the end of The Tempest are Shakespeare telling us what writing plays has meant to him, and how he is tired now and wants a rest. But in Martha Henry’s hands, in her voice, in her action, it is also her career as an actor, from Miranda in 1962 to today, all the characters she’s brought to life, all the stories she’s told, all the magic she has spun, and it’s all the other Prosperos, all the other actors who’ve worn that coat, now buried deep under the island in another of the myriad astonishing special effects in this production.

And then Prospero finishes her speech, and she turns, and the lights on the stage lead into the sky. Prospero, more frail and fragile than ever and yet now of strong will and determined mind, reaches into the sky, into those lights, toward the hand of her freed spirit Ariel, who reaches down to lift Prospero into the heavens. And all goes black.

And I sob. I can’t speak. I’m on my feet applauding the moment the theater is dark, and I’m still applauding as the cast take their bows and Prospero/Martha bids us all once more to set her free.

I will never read this play the same way again. This performance touched me in a way I still can’t really fathom, and my life is so much richer for it.

That’s a pretty good 50th birthday present, don’t you think?

One of my summer projects is to work my way through a lecture series by Pamela Radcliff of UC San Diego called “Interpreting the 20th Century: The Struggle Over Democracy”. There is so much relevant information and so many deep ideas here, but I wanted to share one that touched me today.

In Lecture 18, Professor Radcliff discusses the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi and his efforts in India. In particular, I was struck by the concept of satyagraha. It means “the search for truth” and became the label for the passive resistance Gandhi urged on his followers. This is where it gets interesting.

The goal of satyagraha, according to Professor Radcliff, is to “change the heart of the enemy.” It includes “the commitment not to hurt anyone else in the pursuit of truth.” But this goes much further than you might initially think.

“Gandhi means non-violence in the broadest sense of the term,” Professor Radcliff says, “not just physical non-violence but emotional non-violence, as well. It assumes in a sense that there are no enemies, only wrong positions, and that the purpose of satyagraha is to really open the minds of the enemy to their wrong positions, not to beat or humiliate those enemies as people. So an ideal act of satyagraha touches the heart of the enemy, and brings him to see the light. It doesn’t bully or intimidate, or humiliate.”

Radcliff quotes Gandhi in his account of a mill strike, “With the mill owners, I could only plead; to fast against them would amount to coercion.” Even an act of self-violence would have amounted to coercion, and that’s not what Gandhi wanted. He wanted their hearts and their minds, not their defeat by any sort of force.

Naive? Maybe. But this really struck a chord with me, fitting with my primary philosophy – a philosophy that I must remind myself of daily. Teach. Gently. We are all teachers. We are all learners. Change is slow, sometimes painful, often all but invisible. But when I reflect on the progress our society has made – in civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, children’s rights – just in my lifetime (I was born in 1968), I am impressed by human beings’ abilities to change their minds for the better. But it takes time.

Of course this isn’t a new idea. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” This is why that sentiment makes so much sense. Going high is aspirational. It is paving a path that might change hearts and minds. It is satyagraha.

So I don’t know the answer. I don’t know how we change hearts and minds so entrenched by fear and xenophobia. But I do know that when this horrible period of our history is over we will need to find a way to live together. I personally will try to practice satyagraha. I will try to remember that people are not my enemy, their wrong positions are. Maybe it won’t work at all, or maybe it will work – slowly, silently, changing one mind, one heart, one person at a time. I will try.

Of course, as always I might be wrong. What do you think?

I’ll say it again. Read the book. It has so much more to say than I have the energy or willpower to cover here.

I began my Facebook introduction to these blog posts with the central thesis of the book, which I will repeat here:

“(H)ow can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count.”

Counting helps us escape our preconceived notions. It serves as an objective arbitrator. It shows us that our gut feelings and anecdotal recollections can give an inaccurate picture. It helps us to know ourselves.

“Remember your math,” Pinker tells us on the final pages of the book,”an anecdote is not a trend. Remember your history: the fact that something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past.”

But it does mean that, by applying the ideals of the Enlightenment and our own ingenuity and compassion, we can make it better tomorrow. I believe we will.

 

Steven Pinker states in the introduction that his book is not about the Trump presidency. Fair enough, but for me reading it is and was a referendum on Trump, and solidified my reasons for despising this least enlightened of all presidents. This final entry on Enlightenment Now will summarize how Pinker (near the end of the book in Chapter 20) helped me solidify my opposition.

None of this, you’ll notice, has anything to do with Russian interference or conspiracy to steal an election. Did Trump cheat? Maybe, but even if he did, the fact remains that millions upon millions of Americans voted for him. It never should have been even close. The fact that it was is an indictment of our country, a sign that we, collectively, have failed to absorb the message of the Enlightenment. Maybe Pinker’s book will help.

Consider all the anti-Enlightenment stances Trump has supported.

Through the knowledge of the Enlightenment and the empathy it has helped foster, public health in America and across the world has improved. But Trump  supports withdrawing health insurance from millions and endorses debunked claims about vaccines causing autism.

The Enlightenment led to a globalized economy that has greatly reduced famine and extreme poverty, and is pulling more and more people into prosperity even as population continues to increase. Yet Trump supports protectionist trade wars and sees international trade as a zero sum game with winners and losers. He thinks trade wars are “good and easy to win” though there is zero historical evidence to support this claim.

The lifeblood of the improving world since the Enlightenment is innovation, education, infrastructure, and regulated financial institutions. Trump is indifferent to technology and education, supports tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of the social safety net, and wants eliminate the regulations that stabilize the global economy.

The Enlightenment led to the greatest explosion of equal rights in history. Trump demonizes immigrants, tried to ban Muslims from the country, demeans women, tolerates vulgarity, accepts support from white supremacists and equates them with their opponents, and appoints people who are hostile to civil rights movement. And that’s not even to mention the “why do we want all these people from shithole countries” crack that came to light in recent months).

The Enlightenment’s emphasis on individuals and their welfare opened the door for the environmental movement which has been enormously successful in cleaning our environment. Trump’s administration is rolling back environmental regulations. Trump’s environmental appointees are both unqualified and hostile to environmental protection. Trump has called climate change a hoax and has withdawn the US from the Paris climate agreement.

Another gift of the Enlightment’s emphasis on the individual (one that, admittedly, took a long time to realize) is the personal safety we enjoy in public and in the workplace. But Trump is anti-regulation, saying he wants to kill two regulations for every new one. How many of those “killed” regulations contributed to the plunging numbers of workplace and traffic deaths?

The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason leads to evidence-based policies for crime prevention. But Trump is contemptuous of experts and facts and prefers tough talk and his brand of common sense to those methods that actually work to reduce crime. Not surprising as one of his trademark lies was that crime is out of control and that only he can fix it.

Since the end of World War II especially, the world has seen how trade can cement peace. Trump villifies international trade and threatens to tear up agreements and weaken international organizations.

One of the cornerstones of the Enlightment is freedom of the press. Trump has kept up a running attack on the free press and wants to change libel laws to chill written dissent.

If the Enlightenment was one thing, it was a repudiation of violence as a way of solving disputes. Trump flaunts the rule of law. He encouraged violence against his critics, tried to discredit the popular vote without evidence, threatened to imprison his opponent,  and attacked the legitimacy of the judicial system when it went against him.

The Enlightenment was above all a respect for knowledge. Trump repeats ridiculous conspiracy theories and “sees public discourse not as a means of finding common ground based on objective reality but as a weapon with which to project dominance and humiliate rivals)

Most critically, since the end of Warld War II enlightened thinkers have supported a nuclear war tabo. Trump wondered why we shouldn’t use nuclear weapons and wants to renew a nuclear arms race that, before Trump, showed every signs of disappearing into the dustbin of history.

And, in the middle of this section on Trump, Pinker went there “Several members of Trump’s administration secretly colluded with Russia in an effort to lift sanctions against it, undermining a major enforcement mechanism in the outlawry of war.” (page 398)

The great hope that Pinker points to is that the president is not a dictator. There are checks on his power. I tend to agree, and rather than impeachment I hope we just get a president who is so boxed in he has nothing left to do, and then fades away in the 2020 election.

There’s one knock-down argument that pessimists can level at all the progress Pinker has pointed to so far. What happens when we’ve so damaged the Earth that no one, not the rich, not the poor, not the West, not the East, not Africa, not South America, no one can live on it?

You know what? You’re absolutely right. If we don’t solve our problems, we’re all doomed. So let’s solve them.

First, we have already come a long way. The Industrial Revolution filled the air with smoke and the water with sludge. Today, people fighting for cleaner air and water have made huge strides, so that rivers all over the planet are recovering, forests are being replanted, and a record amount of land and water has been set aside as wildlife and natural preserve. Though many problems remain, what the past 50 years have shown is that all these problems can be solved with a combination of government initiatives, public-private partnerships, and individual activism.

Except, perhaps, one.

That is the problem of human-caused climate change.

Most of our activities dump carbon dioxide into the air, and this extra carbon dioxide must warm the planet. If you want to debate that, go get your paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. This is simply a fact, and no reputable scientist can suggest any way in which excess carbon dioxide in the air will not lead to higher temperatures.

The question is how to fix it (and fix it we must, as, again, the scientific consensus is that this warming will be harmful, possibly devastatingly so). Solar and wind energy are nice, but limited, and require enormous swaths of land (reversing the trend mentioned earlier about preserving more and more land as natural space). Pinker’s most important answer is one I’ve long held (and again one that will cause my liberal friends to turn away): nuclear power.

I’ll be honest. I was first attracted to nuclear power because I think it’s cool. The idea that this esoteric nuclear phenomenon, the fission (or fusion) of atomic nuclei, along with Einstein’s E=mc^2, could be the answer to the world’s energy woes got my little physics heart pumping. One should always be wary of ideas one is especially fond of.

But nuclear power’s safety record is impressive, its lack of carbon dioxide emissions alluring, and the myriad ways that problems such as waste and proliferation can be dealt with is promising. Whether fission with thorium reactors and sodium salts or fusion with seawater and fuel from the Moon are the future, the promise of nuclear power as a solution to the very real threat of global warming is hard to pass up.

One inescapable fact about the world is that it doesn’t care what we think. If we keep pumping carbon dioxide into the air and do nothing to mitigate the damage, we will see the results. No amount of science denial or nuclear fear will hold the water back.

In Chapter 9 of the book, Pinker tackles a difficult topic: economic inequality. While it is true that globalism and free markets have given the world as a whole amazing gifts such as increased literacy, longer life spans, and reduced child mortality, it is also true that in the West a certain portion of the population – namely, workers without a college education – have been left behind. Pinker shows a graph shaped like an elephant, showing how the greatest increases in income have come among the poor and very poor (the elephant’s back and body) and the very rich (the elephant’s trunk tip). The main portion of the trunk itself represent those members of Western democracies who were not among the wealthiest members of their societies – factory workers, farmers, truck drivers and so on – who have been hurt the most by globalization.

This is a tough problem and you need to read Pinker’s chapter among other things. I certainly am not going to solve the problem here. A few of Pinker’s main points:

  • Unlike poverty, inequality itself is not an evil. JK Rowling has a lot more money that most of us, but that’s because she invented something that made a lot of people’s lives better, so we paid her for it.
  • While it is true that the middle class in America is being hollowed out, a great deal of the hollowing is because people who were formerly middle class are moving into higher income brackets.
  • While globalization may have stifled earnings for some, it also has greatly reduced costs for all, so that the “poor” today are able to live in ways that no one in the past could (how much would George Washington have to pay for a cell phone?)

You may not buy Pinker’s arguments about economic inequality, but I hope you see the wisdom in his proposed fixes. These include dealing with the real problem, which is less outsourcing and more automation, which has and increasingly will change the ways that everyone interacts with the world of work. What are the answers? Basic minimum income? Negative income tax? Certainly, education and job training, as well as an expanded social safety net that includes guarantees for essentials like food, clothing, and housing.

Like so many of our problems today (and we will always have problems, but as David Deutsch said in The Beginning of Infinity, problems are soluble), the problem of economic inequality is one of abundance, not scarcity. Another problem of abundance, that of environmental degradation, Pinker tackles next.

In the previous post I touched on only a few of the things that have gotten better over time. Others include the decline in violence (the topic of Pinker’s previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature), including both homicide and warfare, the decline in traffic and air travel fatalities, the decline in workplace fatalities, the increase in literacy, the increase in women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and children’s rights, and on and on. Read the book; you’ll see.

But in this post I want to talk a bit more about why these changes have occurred. And here I will lose some of my liberal friends. One of the great drivers of progress has been (wait for it) the creation of wealth.

Pinker is a believer in free market economies, and through him I have become a big believer, too. There is much that is good about free markets – though much that needs to be regulated. First we must realize that wealth really is something that is created. Wealth is not a zero-sum game. There’s not a set amount of wealth in the world that can then be divvied up; rather, we create wealth with our actions – our creativity, our drive, our hard work.

What drives the increase in wealth? Pinker lists these causes (again, liberals are not going to like this much. Sorry.)

1 – the fall of communism and other totalitarian systems and the spread of democracy

2 – the end of the Cold War

3 – globalization

4 – science and technology

It is important to note that Pinker is not endorsing a world free of regulation, the Libertarian ideal that, interestingly, exists in exactly zero countries of the world.

“(T)he market economies which blossomed in the more fortunate parts of the developing world were not the laissez-faire anarchies of right-wing fantasies and left-wing nightmares. To varying degrees, their governments invested in education, public health, infrastructure, and agricultural and job training, together with social insurance and poverty-reduction programs.”

And just because globalization has been successful doesn’t mean we have to accept all the less palatable parts. We can put pressure on companies to make working conditions better and environmental impacts less severe. “Progress consists not in accepting every change as part of an indivisible package – as if we had to make a yes-or-no decision on whether the Industrial Revolution, or globalization, is a good thing or bad thing, exactly as each has unfolded in every detail. Progress consists of unbundling the features of a social process as much as we can to maximize the human benefits while minimizing the harms.”

As the book progresses, we see again and again how tightly these ideas are related to one another. For instance, globalism isn’t just about creating wealth (though it’s very good for that). It’s also about peace. As Pinker states late in the book, “Let’s not forget why international institutions and global consciousness arose in the first place. Between 1803 and 1945, the world tried an international order based on nation-states heroically struggling for greatness. It didn’t turn out so well.”

All this wealth was a great, maybe the major, contributor, of just about every improvement we’ve made since the Enlightenment. But there are certainly downsides, and I’ll look at two of them – economic inequality and environmental damage – in the next posts.

I’ll say this again and again: read the book. I can’t do justice to it here. I can’t just quote the whole thing. The ways the world has changed for the better will make you leap for joy and will inspire you to try to fix the many, many things that are still to be done. Here’s just a short list of what has gotten better:

Life expectancy has increased, to a great extent (though not entirely) because child mortality has fallen.

“The loss of a child is among the most devastating experiences. Imagine the tragedy; then try to imagine it another million times. That’s a quarter of the number of children who did not die last year alone who would have died had they been born fifteen years earlier. Now repeat, two hundred times or so, for the years since the decline in child mortality began.”

Many disease have been eradicated. Others are on their way out. Knowledge of how disease spreads, and the resulting vaccines, water treatment facilities, and medical protocols have saved millions of lives.

Famine is decreasing. Famine deaths, once in the hundreds or thousands per 100,000 people, are today so low as to be unmeasurable on the same graph.

“In 200 years the rate of extreme poverty in the world has tanked from 90 percent to 10 percent, with almost half that decline occurring in the last 35 years.” And this at a time when population is increasing. Possibly the most powerful graph in the book is figure 8-5, which shows how the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen (not just percentage-wise but in actual numbers) while the total population has grown.

By the way, before you jump on Pinker (and me) for being polyannas, consider this quote:

“The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works.”

In the next post I’ll look at the causes.

I begin where Pinker ended.

Life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.

If you find these statements to be true, then Enlightenment Now is for you. Pinker uses this long, carefully-annotated and researched book to show that in all these areas – life, health, abundance, freedom, happiness, and knowledge – the world has gotten better since the Enlightenment. And that’s no coincidence. For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings struggled to make their lives safer, happier, freer from pain, and almost all failed. Only when we began applying the ideas of the Enlightenment did we make real and sustained progress in these areas.

What are those ideas? Pinker lays them out in chapter 1:

Reason – The belief in reason does not depend on humans being perfectly reasonable thinkers. Far from it. “The deliberate application of reason was necessary because our common habits of thought are not particularly reasonable.” We failed to make progress for so long precisely because reason does not come naturally. When we consciously make the choice to apply reason to our thinking, we make progress possible.

Science – As Richard Feynman said, science is the process we use to keep from fooling ourselves. Science is not a set of facts; rather, it is a way of examining the world.

Humanism – By recognizing individuals – not nations, tribes, ethnic groups, and so on – as the units of humanity, we discover purpose and meaning.

Progress – This book is not so much a history of the Enlightenment thinkers – in fact, it’s hardly that at all. The Enlightenment thinkers had some terrible ideas – and that’s the point! Progress means that all ideas are up for scrutiny, revision, and improvement. We are better today because the tradition of the Enlightenment encourages us to question the past. Progress is possible; we can get better. And we have.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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