The immortal novel A Tale of Two Cities begins:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
Actually, I think this yin-and-yang contradiction exists right now, today – and probably existed at every moment since the beginning of recorded history.
These are America’s worst times under a ludicrous president who has uttered 7,600 countable lies and shut down part of the federal government in a temper tantrum. But life also is good, with full employment, booming prosperity and superb personal freedoms.
Writers like Chris Hedges are correct that right-wing greed is pulling America apart in ever-worse inequality, and that industrial pollution causes global warming that threatens the planet. But writers like Steven Pinker are correct in claiming that our “better angels” cause life to improve constantly, with fewer wars, fewer murders, fewer rapes, fewer cruelties, fewer ethnic persecutions and relentless retreat of other evils.
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times – and it always was.
The hero of Scaramouche was “born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.” But that’s just half the story. Laughter can be dampened by grief and suffering. A better assessment of our ongoing carnival is the cliché: Life is a comedy to the person who thinks, and a tragedy to the person who feels.
Columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that, despite daily horrors in the news, “2018 was the best year in human history.” He cited:
Each day, about 295,000 people around the world gained access to electricity for the first time.
Each day, about 305,000 got safe drinking water for the first time.
Each day, 620,000 more people acquired access to the Internet.
“Only about four percent of children worldwide now die by the age of five,” he wrote. “That’s still horrifying, but it’s down from 19 percent in 1960.”
Before the 1950s, more than half of humanity lived in extreme poverty, defined as less than $2 daily income. Now the ratio is below ten percent.
When I was young in the 1950s, gay sex was a felony – and it was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath – and blacks were banned from white schools, restaurants, hotels, pools, neighborhoods and jobs – and it was a crime to buy a cocktail or look at something like a Playboy magazine – and a desperate girl who ended a pregnancy faced prison, along with her doctor. Our mayor once sent police to raid bookstores selling Peyton Place. Now all those Puritanical strictures have vanished. Human progress occurred.
A century ago, average life expectancy was 48 years. Now it’s near 80, thanks mostly to medical science.
The steady decline of supernatural religion is another human improvement, because it advances scientific honesty instead of magical fairy tales about gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, prophecies, visions and other church gibberish. And it reduces the us-versus-them alienation that divides humanity into rival religious camps.
It’s true that the bizarre Trump era is the worst of times. But I have blind faith (perhaps fueled by wishful thinking) that Trump will fade into the muck from whence he came, and intelligent statecraft will return. I have hope that Democrats eventually will attain universal healthcare as a human right for everyone – and today’s ruinous college debts will cease – and other progressive goals will be achieved, one after another.
As we stumble toward that future, it will always be the best of times and the worst of times.
(Haught, longtime editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, is a weekly contributor to Daylight Atheism.)