The Best of All Possible Worlds?

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?

22 thoughts on “The Best of All Possible Worlds?”

  1. The thread running through my thoughts was that many of us tend to view the world of our youth, or before, as somehow a better place and time. The “Good Old Days” syndrome. As a born “neurotic” my youth was problematic and I’ve found that as I’ve aged through the various phases of my life, “my little world” has gotten better and better. While external things like politics, poverty and racialism depress me, my life experience defines my optimism.

  2. I’m sorry to hear about your bad month. On the topic of the past I’ll remain silent. It’s about correcting our course in the here and now that I’m concerned about.

    I see our problem as one of partisan loyalties. We know that both sides have committed gross negligence that in a just world would have dire consequences. And we don’t want those consequences for our side. If we self identify as republicans, we don’t want the BuCh administration to stand trial. If we self identify as liberals, we don’t want the Obama administration to stand trial. And so it comes down to us once again. Through petty party loyalties, we allow injustice to flourish.

    Fuck us then. At least there’s justice there.

  3. Although fear, vanity, and greed/avarice continue to infect much of the herd, on the whole, I am content with the progress we have made.

  4. culheath,

    I’ve seen the Conley speech. It’s something every American should hear. Thanks for posting the link.

  5. culheath,

    I don’t think it sounds airy fairy, I think it sounds like a great idea. Thanks for the TED link – I’ll check it out.

  6. Nothing AY, just working through a hangover to get my brain up to speed this morning… er… afternoon in combination with my embarrassing need to quantify things. I do think we’ve been experiencing increasingly and unprecedentedly high levels of jerk in various measures of progress in recent history and that there are probably lessons to be learned from studying other times this happened and what the reaction to those were.

    I recently reconnected with an old mentor who long ago advised me* to keep a crazy ideas book and use it to write down any crazy idea that comes to mind. Our conversation reminded me of what good advice this was and I’ve taken it to heart – I just thought I’d share the crazy idea that Mike’s post sparked with all of you (in addition to putting it on my crazy idea list…).

    * Part of an enormous amount of good advice this person has given me – some of which I’ve even taken… 😉

  7. The “problem” is pretty simple: we just are not working well together. Everyone has their own “special interest” that is vying for a majority, which is not going to happen. America has always needed “an external enemy” to get everyone “on the same page,” and we do not have one now; thus, we are our own worst “enemy.”

    I do have one simple solution for one of our problems: since only 50% of Americans pay any income tax, EVERYONE, rich or poor, should PAY THEIR FAIR SHARE. If 100% of the people are paying their fair share, then all are invested, all have ownership, all are enfranchised, all have a stake in the game. If everyone is “paying their fair share,” all the cultural warriors out there would lose their relevance.

  8. Thank you for another wonderful essay, Mike. While I agree with everything you wrote, I think that there is another aspect of quality of life which is significant to the discussion – progress. In my mind the true measure of a greatness of a civilization is how much progress is made over what came before. If we take as our measure of the greatness of a civilization the median* “lot in life”, so to speak, then what societies and events and innovations are most significant? I’m sure the present still comes out on top by far in this measure as well – technology has boosted standards of living so much in our recent past that this couldn’t help but be the case – but I wonder which events and ideas have had the biggest effect on the lot of the common man. I think it would make for a fascinating view of the moral arc of the universe – and we could test the hypothesis that it bends towards justice… 😉

    * I think the median is a better proxy for the population as a whole than the mean is since it isn’t distorted by a very few people who are very well off.

    Raff,

    Before you complain about the math, I should explain something… I just went a little first derivative on you there – like going from distance to speed – and if you complain, you’re not just risking me prattling on about acceleration and jerk (the 2nd and 3rd derivatives) – in point of fact, after subtracting the first derivative I’ve got (∞ – 1) derivatives left and that equals ∞ and I can prove it… Now that I think about it, I wonder what kind of behavior is associated with local maxima in the jerk of progress. I’m guessing that you will find increasingly large peaks in jerk at the beginning of things like the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, the technological revolution, and the information age. I would think that this sort of thing would bolster and inflame reactionary elements in societies (which could then be manipulated by demagogues). Hmmm…..

  9. Mike, We’re probably better off today than we have been in the past. However, I’ve not much hope for our future…rapidly diminishing resources (energy and water) fouling of the oceans, and too damn many people.

    As an aside, have you read Empire of the Summer Moon by S C Gwynn? (I hope I have the title and author correct.) It’s a terrific story of Cynthia Ann Parker who was kidnapped in a comanche raid, but the larger story is of the comanche and their sucess in holding our westward expansion at bay – until they couldn’t.

  10. It’s up to each one of us to express our sense of reality to others and then from consensus create change.

    I enjoyed your time reference to how tough life has been since the earliest records. We live in a very special time.

    A true enjoyment today is reading great books today like “The social animal” and the “The big short”. One being self perspective while the other points to true greed to get ahead no matter what the cost.

    The “Edge of Physics” intriguing but seems somewhat misguided in how we spend money to help mankind. “The Ripple effect” will scare the pants off of you regarding water in the 21st century.

    So I am putting a book together based on well thought out fixes for our nation. Tell me your fix … return under subject heading “50 fixes” at amlidavid@yahoo.com looking for three to ten pages on any worthy subject that could help our nation. credit will be acknowledge even with a picture of you.. if you like. No monetary compensation to you will happen from this and you are giving up the right to some possible editing or spelling corrections.

    Whats your concern…. water, health, money, government, social injustice, civil rights, corruption, air quality, infrastructure, economic development, entitlement programs for government workers, military machines, the poor, not so poor and wealthy people…. whatever it is … go ahead and bend my ear. Maybe we can create a shift in thinking … that can lead to change.

    Thank You, DRA

  11. “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.”

    As a child of the cold war, I have to disagree. Living in the age of the split atom with the threat of global thermo-nuclear war over your head was quite disturbing. More disturbing now is the thought of the generation that grew up after the fall of the Soviet Union–the generation that never lived with that fear and so takes the issue far less seriously.

    And what about the other edge of the sword of technology that is making it easier and easier to concentrate power into the hands of the few? NSA warrentless wiretapping? Huxley’s vision of the future, i.e. control the masses while amusing them to death, seems to be coming true. The smarter your phone gets, the more your freedom erodes.

    I don’t know Mike; there’s something to be said about the recent past.

  12. I’m expecting an age of rampant corporatism and misery for the poor and dwindling middle class, before things get better again for all. On the plains of Gog and Magog, the spirits of Keynes and Hayek will duke it out in an apocalyptic economic smackdown.

  13. I disagree that these times are as good as it gets, and it is not just misty water color memories of the way we were that make me think this.

    There have always been bad things, no era is perfect but we have had better. We used to have leaders that confronted problems & offered real solutions (not always correct but always trying) we used to have a society that was willing to share the burden and, if necessary, accept difficult and unpleasant challenges. Today I do not see any leaders that want to actually confront the real issues we have as a nation or as a species on Earth. While there are large numbers of people who are ready and willing to cooperate to sacrifice and to strive for the betterment of all we are dominated by “ME FIRST TO HELL WITH YOU” types who want simple, painless solutions that cost them nothing while giving them more. Easily distracted, immature and ultimately failed adults.

    There are many things that make these the best times to live (I would be severely crippled from one event and on my way to a sure death from another is not for the vast improvements in medical science in the last 30 years for instance) but make no mistake, if these are not the end times there are the dawn of a new Dark Ages, controlled by ignorance, death and disease. Our hubris, greed and selfishness as a group have lead to this.

    There is a great line in “Hunt For Red October” when the Soviet sub commander allows his ego to set in motion the torpedo now headed back at him. It will be the epitaph on my headstone. His XO turns to him as it dawns on him what he has done, “You arrogant ass! You’ve killed us!”

  14. The internet gives voice to the non-irrational. The web sites I visit and the e-books I download and read give me solace and hope for humanity.

  15. Mike,
    It is a great question. We do have a responsibility to make things better for the future, but our current political situation makes that difficult. We are currently experiencing a trumped call for a pull back on everything that has made America great. The Great Satan in the White House is drawing us into Socialism according to those individuals and corporations who are worried about their large checkbooks. If we don’t defeat the science naysayers and keep corporations our of governance, we will regress.

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