We each know remarkably little, no matter how old we may be, no matter how well educated we are. In the course of a single lifetime, how much can we actually read, watch and remember? How much of the world do we see and of what we see, how much do we truly understand? Do we ever get all the facts? Can we really cram the whole world both of today and yesterday into that small space between our ears? At best, our understanding can only be limited.
Benjamin Franklin, as an old man at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia the summer of 1787, commented, as he considered the final draft just before signing it, “I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve. But I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error…But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said, ‘I don’t know how it happens, Sister, but I meet with nobody but myself, that’s always in the right….’”
There’s always the subjective problem: all the new stuff that comes to us each day is filtered through what we already know, or think we know. Too often, we will see what we expect to see, rather than what is really there. What we know (or think we know) colors how we perceive things. It’s as if, after a quick glance at an optical illusion, we think we really understand the picture. We jump to conclusions with only half the story told.
Too often we live by slogans, imagining that a catchy phrase will serve the place of actual thought, or if it sounds good, it must be so. For instance, we might have heard the phrase, “Nothing was ever solved by violence.” It sounds profound. It’s certainly what we’d like to be true, and what we’d like to be true, what should be true, must be true. Right? But how did we solve the problem of Nazism? How did we solve the problem of slavery? And those are only two examples. Doubtless there are many soldiers and police officers, not to mention people being attacked by deranged wild animals, who could list several more times when violence was precisely what the doctor ordered. In the real world, facing real problems, the tongue-in-cheek military maxim comes closer to the truth: “There is no problem so large that it can't be solved with a suitable application of high explosives.”
Another phrase I’ve heard: “Democracy can’t be imposed at gunpoint.” Some people actually believe this, I suppose, but it simply isn’t true, since we have, within relatively recent history, two examples of doing precisely that, with two radically different cultures, and in both cases, quite successfully. As I recall, neither Germany nor Japan had much experience with democracy prior to their defeats in World War II in 1945. And yet, at the very moment we were just starting to successfully transform those two former dictatorships into free societies, the nattering of negativity and pessimism dominated the pundit world.
In Life Magazine of January 7, 1945, an article announced that “Americans are losing the victory in Europe”, while the Saturday Evening Post of January 26, 1946 told its readers about “How we botched the German occupation”. John Dos Passos in his article in Life wrote that “Never has American prestige in Europe been lower.” He went on to discuss the disorder that followed the allied victory in Western Europe.
Meanwhile, the Saturday Evening Post article concentrated on the apparent lack of an exit strategy for getting American troops out of Europe. Demaree Best wrote, “We have got into this German job without understanding what we were tackling or why.”
A simple question. Were the pessimists right back in 1946? And just how often are the pessimists ever right? As we consider what has gone before, do the bad guys usually and ultimately win? To help answer the question, consider a few other questions. Who won the Revolutionary War? Who won the Civil War? Who won World War II? Who won the Cold War? Have the number of democracies and free societies around the world risen or declined in the last hundred years?
Is the world a better place today than it was a hundred years ago? Child abuse and spousal abuse were not issues a hundred years ago. Racism was not an issue a hundred years ago. Is that because such things did not exist a hundred years ago? No, it’s because most people didn’t recognize them as bad things a hundred years ago. Not only has technology improved in the last hundred years, but there has been some improvement in morality, despite what some people may feel about a given moral issue that they see as in the dumpster at the moment. And before they carp about some evil practice that bothers them, consider that whatever the evil practice might be, it’s not a new thing, nor is it likely more widespread today than it has ever been. And yes, there are societies before our own where their moral hobbyhorse was far more accepted and common than it is today. Immorality, of whatever stripe, is never new. People are people and have always had a tendency to break the rules. Which reminds us, passing more rules probably won’t solve much either, given our penchant for ignoring them when they are inconvenient. Or do you really always drive the speed limit?
The world is not getting worse and worse. It may seem worse to you now than it did when you were a child, but how much of the world did you know as a child? Getting old, having to go to work and all the attendant pressures of adulthood do make the past, when we were children, seem so much better, after all. Mostly, if we think the world’s worse off, it’s just because we’ve let our brains become cranky and we’ve lost perspective.