The best of times

A slight tangent, first. This spring I happened to attend a general-audience talk given by Esko Valtaoja — an unknown name to international readers, I think, but one of the best-known scientists and public intellectuals of Finland. (Not that there would be much competition for those titles.) He’s an astronomer down in Turku, and quite much one of the people I most adore. (Up there with names like Dawkins, Tolkien, Erdös and Rumiko Takahashi for me — I like my idols diverse.)

As I was dumb/enraptured and wrote nothing about the talk down, I can share only the fact that he was fire, he was ice, he was inspiring, beautiful and also had a nice sense of humor and proportion. Also he talked about the fact how these modern times are actually better than the past — but though this post is a few brush-strokes about that, I don’t remember his exact points and thus am mostly forced to conjure up my own the best I can.

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And to start off lightly, Adolf Hitler. The Holocaust. As a quick, rough guess, around 15 million dead, and 75 million other deaths in the Second World War.

And now you ask yourself, “Dear empty skies, this is how he starts a paean to the glorious modern days?”

Well, yes.

If you heard there were ten murders annually in Little Cowpoke, Texas, and one thousand in New York, would you be inclined by that fact alone to think New York much more violent and unsafe than the charming Texan spot? Of course not, for being a sensible person you would notice that Little Cowpoke had a much higher per capita amount of killings.

The same is true of A. Hitler and his so very human fellow criminals: though they were savage, and killed more, their savagery in proportion to the population was much lesser than that of, say, the Huns or the Mongols. With a lazy look I saw easy mentions of population decreases from 25% to 50% for the areas annexed by Genghis Khan, and over 60% for all of China in the An Shi rebellion in the 8th century, with over 30 million dead — and while these absolute numbers are lower than those of WWII, the fraction of people killed is much higher, and that is the number which you should compare. In WWII even Poland, which got trampled again and again and had a genocide done against a significant minority lost “only” 17% of its population.

And all ratios aside, though the Nazis were all too humanly callous criminals (for some reason I don’t see how the term “inhuman” works), they would have blanched at the visceral savagery of the Mongols — or of the savagery of the “civilized” Byzantine emperor Basil II, who is said (possibly with some exaggeration) to have captured 15 000 Bulgars, and sent 99% of them home blinded. The rest were allowed to keep one eye each, to be sure the blinded reached the Bulgar king and delivered the desired effect. (While the Mongols had their good sides, I really don’t want to play a game of  “the positive aspects of the Mongol Empire” vs. “the positive aspects of Nazi Germany”. Why argue over which turd smells nicer?)

Similarly, the 1918 flu pandemic killed (again a representative guess) 75 million people worldwide — which, again guesstimating, was equal to the worldwide death toll of the Black Death (14th century) — but, dear empty heavens, the world population of the 14th century was a fraction of that of 1918! The diseases haven’t grown tired and old; we human just have gotten better in surviving them, and even eradicating them. I believe the germ theory of disease had something to do with that; would you dare to call that things getting better, even if we don’t have a panacea yet?

The same is true for many other things — sure, people suffer from illnesses (well, smallpox is gone as of 1979 — that’s from two million deaths per year to extinction in 13 years — and then some say vaccination doesn’t help!), sure, people still die (though all-natural cave men and bucolic Greeks alike had an average life span of 30, and the modern average is 70!), sure, things are not perfect, but at least there are fewer places where diarrhea is a major cause of death and you can go your life without ever seeing a doctor without a rattle and a shaman mask!

(That last, by the way, was not callous western disregard for third-world traditions, but rather a judgment on the general medical benefit of being treated solely by shamans, spirit healers, acupuncturists, homeopaths and similar quacks. Cultural, yes — the best one can get, not by a long shot.)

And what of the supposed spiritual emptiness, greediness and general unfriendliness of the callously criminal modern age?

Well, first: spirituality is a null word; just a hijack term that takes the natural healthy sense of awe, admiration and happiness we all have, and presses the unquiet ghost of God on it. I myself have nothing but scorn for spirituality, but I love and adore and go all weak-kneed seeing a sunset, or contemplating stellar evolution, or the tracks of centuries, or a woman’s smile. That’s awe, and that’s a long way from dead. (You have to, I’m afraid, trust me on this.)

Some complain about modern people being dazzled by entitlement, demanding this and that and everything for free and right now — as if that was a bad thing. As if grim acquiescence to poverty and toil on your own was the ideal; as if deferring pleasure was good and open want of it bad; as if there was something perverse in wanting the government to take care of its parts. As my personal liberal opinion, I think the government exists only to give the people what they want or need but can’t easily get on their lonesome; what’s wrong in wanting that to be as much as possible? Schools, medicine, police, justice, work, money, culture, pony rides? I’m just a hedonist who thinks there’s nothing bad in moderate selfishness, and nothing intrinsically good or worthy in suffering, hard work and frugality. (“Unless that’s what you wanna”, he said, crop tapping against a latex-covered thigh, lips bent to a little smile.)

And “general unfriendliness”? I hear that a lot. But just consider what the “friendliness” of the bygone years was. It was a pretty pushy thing, and always ready to say that other forces knew your wants and needs better than you. There were cold codes of conduct, unmovable expectations, tyrannic family patriarchs and arranged marriages, expectations of settling down, marrying and producing hordes of children; there were nosy gossips spying in the name of decency, ostracism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism, forces without appeal and doctrines without doubt, a place for everyone and no budging from your assigned place — if that is an old-time friendly society, I much rather take one where no-one cares how you spend your time save your company. (Not that a modern society is totally free of all of these — but there has been progress.)

And consider, if you will, all the things that were crimes in the friendly old years — homosexuality, atheism, adultery, abortion, swearing, use of alcohol, a whole host of victimless crimes from blasphemy to pornography to suicide — whether good things or not, today only troglodytes, usually of the heel-dragging religious variety, think any of these should be a crime, and the world is, I dare say, better for it.

Murder wasn’t a crime, occasionally, provided the killer was noble and the victim just one of them serfs. Women weren’t quite human, if you go back a bit and choose a miserable enough hellhole. (Again, still happens, but much in decline, or so I hope.) There was no free speech, and no democracy. (Well, the classical Greeks had, now and then, democracy if your weren’t a slave, a woman, or a foreign-born swine.)

Genocide was a way of the world, not a cause for hue and cry; slavery was commonplace and non-controversial; and the racists of today have little on the Europeans that exhibited African pygmies in cages as rare and curious beasts of the wild while bestial crowds ogled and jeered.

Also, the murder-abhorring present is quite a different thing from the Aztecs of old, who thought it perfectly nice, dandy and proper to rip the hearts out of a few ten thousand prisoners of war to sanctify a new temple. We are shocked by murders nowadays because they are rare, and unacceptable — in the past violent death was common, and commonly thought a good, proper thing: of course you burn witches, of course  you stone adulterers, of course you behead those who speak ill of the king, of course you kill the enemy you vanquished, of course you can cuff your wife to silence and kick your children to acquiescence, and so on and on; ’tis only proper, in the wondrous world of yesterday, when men were men and women were property.

Nowadays a handful dead on the other side of the world are enough to touch our heartstrings and draw condemnation, even if they aren’t royalty — that’s progress, and that’s a world that cares.

These are but a few rather random points, buttressed by sketchy numbers and a bit of rhetoric, but I personally believe the central idea is true (though it deserves props better and more eloquent than mine): we live in the best of times — so far. Not in a perfect time, but the best of times — so far.

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Details not touched: Anesthesia, widespread reliable use of for only the last 150 years. Travel, ability to go and visit Egypt even if you aren’t steenking rich. Leisure, a two day weekend and an eight-hour day and their relative newness. Children, the recent idea that maybe they don’t belong in factories and on battlefields. Beggars, and ways other than whips to encourage them to different vocations. Woo, the gradual relocation from the throne to the fringe. Religion, the descent from literalist theocracy to apatheistic cafeteria monotheism to atheism. Unemployment benefits, pensions, not feeding the elderly to wild animals. Individual liberties, due process, innocent until proven guilty, lack of torture (excepting the regimes of dictators and the Great White Beast). Privacy, right to this and that, UN declaration of human rights, and so on and on.