»  Taki's Magazine

October 6th, 2011

  Another Country


This week sees the publication of Steven Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The author has been talking about the book, for example here.

I got the book to review for a certain fortnightly conservative magazine whose name is an anagram of WIN A REVELATION! As of this moment I've only read a hundred of the 800-plus pages, so it would be wrong to engage with Pinker, even if I hadn't already contracted with someone else to do so. Here I just want to mull the somewhat larger and much more ancient issue: Is the present better than the past?

There are large differences of opinion about this, even some civilizational-scale ones. The sages of Old China looked back to a golden age of heroically virtuous emperors, since whose bountiful reigns, everything has gone to the dogs. Later historians wrote up the dynastic histories in terms of "good first" and "bad last" — that is, of a noble founder sweeping away the rotten old dynasty to establish a fresh new one, which then proceeded to rot down in its turn. Wall charts of Chinese history have the past at the top; and in the Chinese language itself, "upper week" means "last week," while of course "lower week" is "next week."

Over against this is the millenarian strain, strong in Judaism and Christianity, which sets Utopia in the future. Karl Marx worked up a materialist version of the idea, promising us bliss in a future of pure communism. How this ever got a hold on the imagination of the Chinese, I shall leave for another time.

This controversy was the first I ever engaged with, way back in my infancy. I heard it around the house, as a constant dialectical refrain, all through childhood and adolescence.

My sire was a gloomy reactionary (it travels on the Y chromosome) who loved the past, hated the present, and dreaded the future. Life, on his reckoning, was never better than during his childhood before World War One. England was England back then, Dad would tell you on no prompting at all. Women knew how to behave, the workshy went hungry, and food had some taste. I can see Dad now in my mind's eye, holding up his hand to mark off the top joint of his thumb: "Sundays we had a ham on our plate this thick!"

My mother took the opposite line. What about little kids going barefoot to school? Old folk shunted off to the work-house? Titled parasites living in affluent sloth while intelligent, capable men labored in poverty? Her family had been poorer than Dad's, and bigger. From working as a nurse she had seen the great improvements in hygiene and public health across the middle decades of the 20th century. As a housewife, she greeted with joy every new labor-saving gadget that came on the market.

Y chromosome notwithstanding, reason tells me that my mother had the better of the argument. We are cleaner, healthier, safer, and better-looking than our forebears. (Look at their teeth.) I would lodge three qualifications, though.

First, with the gains have come losses, most notably the slipping-away of trust and common understanding chronicled by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. I've written about this elsewhere in connection with Robert A. Heinlein's contribution to the 1950s Radio series "This I Believe." Heinlein:

I believe in my neighbors … in my townspeople … in my fellow citizens … For the one who says, "The heck with you, I've got mine," there are a hundred, a thousand, who will say, "Sure, pal, sit down." I know that despite all warnings against hitchhikers, I can step to the highway, thumb for a ride, and in a few minutes a car or a truck will stop and someone will say, "Climb in, Mack. How far you going?"

Fifty years ago hitch-hiking was a normal mode of travel. Like many of my generation, I hitch-hiked across Europe and back one summer college vacation. Nobody hitch-hikes now. You'd have to be crazy … or if you weren't, drivers would assume you were and drive on by.

Second, though not unrelated, all that steady progress, from the Enlightenment through to the later 20th century, was accomplished by European populations in nations whose non-European components were either negligibly small, or were excluded by discriminatory laws and customs from most kinds of participation. That progress can continue in nations with large, fully-engaged admixtures of non-Europeans, is not known. It might, and of course we are all supposed to believe that it will, with obloquy and ostracism heaped upon doubters; but that belief has no empirical foundation. It's just an act of faith.

A young friend visiting London wrote this to me in an email:

As I stood there in Waterloo Station waiting for the train, I noticed how few actual English people there were. The exact thought that went through my head was something like, "Wow, it must be bad here when it is rare to hear English spoken without a foreign accent." As I stood there, most of the people in the station were speaking English either with some African, Indian or Arabic accent, that is, if they were speaking English at all.

John Cleese recently recorded the same impression. I have had the experience, too, in America as well as in England. It is usually followed by the thought: "This will not end well." That may of course just be Dad speaking to me through the Y chromosome. Perhaps it will end just fine. We don't know. It's never been tried. Never, before modern air travel and the modern conception of "rights," have all the big old branches of Homo sap. mingled in such numbers under a regime of egalitarianism. It's an experiment. Experiments sometimes succeed, sometimes fail.

Third, the question, "Is the present better than the past?" prompts the prior question: "For whom?"

Samuel Pepys' Diary: October 20th, 1660.  This morning one came to me to advise with me where to make me a window into my cellar in lieu of one which Sir W. Batten had stopped up, and going down into my cellar to look I stepped into a great heap of turds by which I found that Mr. Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which do trouble me, but I shall have it helped.

Transported back 350 years to an age when wealthy senior government officials lived over cellars heaped with ordure, you or I would suffer greatly. Just the stink would drive us mad. Pepys, however, was a cheerful and busy fellow who got much pleasure out of life.

You have to exercise some historical imagination. There is no possibility of you or I being transported back to 1660, nor even 1960. It can't be done. The past belonged to the people who lived in it. We know about their lives; they did not know about ours; that asymmetry vexes the argument.

So what's my final answer to the question, "Is the present better than the past?" I don't have one. Perhaps there isn't one. Or perhaps there is one, but in some other place — a place where Mum and Dad have quit arguing at last.