Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger
I don’t know about you but I’ve had a bad month. I’m not talking about personal issues in my life because those are fine. I’m talking about the awful political and economic situations in this country, and I’m talking about the pain and misery felt by so many in the rest of our world. Each day it seems the news gets more depressing and I glean few hopeful signs from the news indicating that things will soon start to improve. As many here know, I am talking from the perspective of someone saved from the brink of death last year, so in a personal sense I have little complaint.
Taking it away from the deeply personal though, I see a country and a world in apocalyptic turmoil. Not only are we overwhelmed with seeming insoluble problems, but also from my perspective, we are beset with a host of irrational political leaders and those who follow them blindly. Added to the cacophony of these politicians, of all sides may I say, we have religious leaders who have twisted their religion to fit their own emotional needs. We also have CEO’s who will put profit above all other considerations. Finally, we have a general population so absorbed in a cult of celebrity, that civic understanding and action are mere afterthoughts. Is there no hope?
Actually, I believe there is hope for humanity and for Americans. I came to this conclusion while having my bad month, as I asked myself the question: When has it ever been better? I began exploring In my mind what I knew of various historical periods to see if ever in humanity’s civilized history there has been a more congenial time for our species. My conclusion is that there have been no periods in the seven thousand year old history of civilization where people’s lives were better than our lives are today. Before civilization was a long period where the strong prevailed and where death came young. Below is a brief sampling of various well-known historical eras and their “livability”. Since we have such an erudite readership, it is possible that some may disagree with my characterizations and I would appreciate their input in correcting my opinions.
Most archaeologists consider the Sumerian Civilization, circa 5,300 BCE, the first human organization of a large society. It was a collection of City States, who had writing and left fragments. They built some magnificent structures, had a state religion, kings, and nobility ruled them. The Sumerians had pyramids of a sort that served as temples. Most of the people lived in enforced poverty. Unless you were a noble, or among the few merchant princes, life was hard, dirty and short.
Egypt, circa 3,150 BCE is much better known than Sumer. Their pyramids were very big and they remain among the great structures extant. The Egyptians were more unified under their Pharaoh and had a distinctive State religion headed by the Pharoah. In essence though the political and economic structure was similar and most people’s lives differed little from those of Sumer. The overwhelming majority lived short, poverty-stricken lives.
Babylon, circa 1,790 BCE had as its’ sixth king Hammurabi. He developed a famous code of laws, which for their time were innovative. Nevertheless, the same human story of pyramidal power and wealth existed, lawfully or not. China developed writing around 1,600 BCE, but was not unified until many centuries later. The Chinese existed with 1,200 years of internecine warfare before reaching an early stage of unification. The life of Confucius 600 BCE was one led trying to bring harmony and end the horrors of war. Even with writing and many innovative inventions, their politics favored the powerful and plundered the rest.
Need I continue from the “Golden Age of Greece, through Rome, Carthage, the Rise of Islam, Inquisition, Black Plague, Renaissance, Reformation, etc? Despite great advances, the lives of probably 98% of humanity were short, brutal and beset by tragedy. This doesn’t even take into account the horrible lack of sanitary conditions and the absence of viable housing and medical care. As much as we may romanticize the flourishing of art and culture, by our standards even those atop their society’s pyramid lived lives below the standard of the average American and/or European.
In Woody Allen’s recent movie “Midnight in Paris” the theme is people’s longing for their romantic ideal of eras passed. The hero, a successful Hollywood hack screenwriter longs to be in the Paris of the 20’s and write “The Great American Novel”. He goes to Paris with his bland fiancé and her rich parents. As he wanders the Parisian streets, he longs to mingle with Hemingway, The Fitzgerald’s, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein. His wish fulfilled magically at midnight on a certain street in Paris, he returns to that era and meets his idols. He also meets a bohemian from that era. She is a poet of some talent and they fall in love, but she longs for and goes back in time to the era of the “Fin de siècle” which to her represents a “better” time. In the end, what motivates people in their romantic desire to flee the present, is a romantic dream of a better “past” and a present that they can’t tolerate. Allen’s salient point is that for some the past always seems preferable to the now and that is merely a human illusion.
I lived the counter-culture life through the Sixties and Seventies and while I have many memories to cherish, having been a part of it all, I would be loath to return. Been there, done that. Living in New York in the Twenties would also appeal to my romantic juices, but as in Woody’s movie, the reality would never live up to the romantic vision. I am a creature of air conditioning, computers, TV, modern toilets, toilet paper, and large rooms. I don’t like wearing socks, much less suits, ties, and starched collars. The truth is that the experience would make me uncomfortable physically.
Forgetting the creature comforts though, the politics of the Twenties would have made me unhappy. The succession of Presidents from Harding to Hoover helped lead this country to the disaster of the Great Depression via their comfort with the Upper Crust and their need to pamper them. Labor was downtrodden, immigration and immigrants issues, wide swaths of tenement slums, pollution, and other ills of a coal burning era.
The Western movie has always tickled my romantic fancy, but life on the frontier in truth was also far less than the romantic ideal portrayed. The pioneer heroism mixed with the fact that perhaps seventy percent of the frontier population were alcoholics and don’t let me get started on the treatment of the Native Americans. This doesn’t take into account the various odors of animals prevalent everywhere. Nor were legalities and fair justice a highlight of the lifestyle and politics were considerably more rancorous and physical than we see today.
Disagree with me if you will, but to my mind, there is no point in history that represented a time better than our own. There were never better governmental systems worldwide, than exist today. The life of the average human today is as good as it has ever been and that is true for even those living in the various horrible areas of the world, in unspeakable positions.
However, with my stating life has never been better for humanity, we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. I can envision a world where most people’s lives are not hard, short, and miserable; where legal systems treat all equally; where starvation and poverty doesn’t exist, you know the rest of this particular bleeding hearts’ drill.
This is the dichotomy for me, since the world has never been better, but remains for much of humanity a horrid place. Our own American society seems on the brink of cataclysm, yet things are better now than in the Jim Crow Fifties. I know many of conservative stripe look back fondly on the Fifties, but I lived through them. I remember the Southern lynchings, I remember the teen gangs in the Cities, I remember the McCarthy Era, heroin addicts, the banning of great books and the stultifying cultural conformity. We were more prosperous then, but we paid a stiff price for that prosperity. That price was for an empty lifestyle and the pretense of living a lifestyle of integrity and morality.
Therefore, while I believe this is not the best of all possible worlds, I’m convinced we live in the best of times for humanity, mainly because all past times have been worse. Who knows what the future might hold, but I do think we have a responsibility towards ensuring that things don’t get any worse. What do you think?