Our parents’ generation, inferior to that of our grandparents, brought forth ourselves who are more worthless still and are destined to have children yet more corrupt
— Horace, 65 – 8 BC
Clearly Horace was pessimistic about progress. So was Malcolm Muggeridge, who Paul Phillips in Contesting the Moral High Ground quotes from an address to a Catholic assembly. Muggeridge, he wrote, went on, rightly or wrongly, to assume that “no notion of such a ridiculous thing as progress has ever been put in your heads. If it has, dismiss it at once. There are various things that human beings can do; but there is one thing they can’t do, and that is progress.”
Let me put Tom Switzer in this exalted company. Writing in the SMH (“Gloom, doom and optimism,” 26 December) he expressed an exuberance of positivity. Prominent in his mixed bag of auspicious happenings were declining world poverty, the collapse of the Soviet Union, medical advances, and increased life expectancy. Surprisingly, for a conservative, he trotted out the canard that even when ISIS was in its pomp “you were more likely to drown in the bath than die in terrorist violence.” At least he avoided scary falling fridges. But that is by the way.
Let us go back to 1928, with economic collapse imminent and Hitler, Tojo and human misery on a vast scale only a decade or so away. Economies were booming, Alexander Fleming had just discovered antibiotics, the Ottoman Empire had collapsed, you were more likely to drown in your bath than be killed by an anarchist bomb. My point: potted accounts of progress are seriously deficient in informing us about the state of play and, more particularly, about the near and not-so-near future.
You can look at today and find promise. Equally (more than equally), you can find omens of gloom and doom without looking too hard. Think of the threats.
North Korea, and probably soon enough Iran, with nuclear arsenals. The inundation of Europe with Muslim refugees and the rise of Islam more generally in and outside the West. Chinese expansionism. Russian imperialism. According to the UN (July 2015) the world’s population will have grown by 2.4 billion as of 2050, of which half will come out of Africa. And ‘come out’ a lot of them will, seeking refuge in the West. Anyone who finds any of this promising is definitionally a cock-eyed optimist.
And if this isn’t enough, we have Christianity, the foundation of our civilisation, falling away. We have self-loathing leftists running schools, universities and most of the media. Our politicians, apart from Trump and a few others, have a fetish for putting their citizens second to whatever is the international cause du jour (e.g., global warming or accommodating the never-ending hordes of refugees). Children are being presented with untoward sexual material as part of their “education”. The list goes on. Optimism doesn’t cut it for me; though I see it around me unaccountably. Why? Well, perhaps, because it is part of human nature.
There is evidently a predisposition to optimism among the human race. This might be an evolutionary personality trait which allows us to deal better with life’s difficulties. Psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier, who have written widely on the subject, suggest in the Handbook of Positive Psychology (Oxford, 2002) that “optimists are less distressed when times are tough, cope in ways that foster better outcomes, and are better at taking steps to ensure that their futures continue to be bright.” However, beware: “Too much optimism might lead people to ignore a threat until it is too late … optimists may fail to protect themselves against threats…” This is backed by author Kai Erikson in Everything in its Path, which tells the human story of a West Virginia town devastated by a flash flood and its aftermath:
“One of the bargains men make with one another in order to maintain their sanity is to share an illusion that they are safe, even when the physical evidence in the world around them does not seem to warrant that conclusion.”
Obviously, I have avoided this evolutionary trait of optimism, as apparently did Horace and Muggeridge and as, say, did the writer of Ecclesiastes. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of the spirit.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if bouts of pessimism are needed to save the day, which is why evolution as orchestrated by God keeps the trait alive, albeit among a distinct minority to prevent populations falling into a perpetual funk. Compare Churchill with many of those around him who thought war could be avoided.
I will come to the beginning of the end with one of my favorite Churchill quotes.
“If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”
Warding off threats while they are manageable seems like wise advice. While Churchill was clearly referring to military threats – put North Korea and Iran in today’s frame – his counsel has wide application. Nip problems in the bud is one prosaic way of putting it; ‘broken windows’ theory, a fancier way.
It is already late in the day. Think of Muslim migrants undermining the values and character of Europe and potentially America and Australia. Think of the opioid epidemic in America, with something similar now gathering pace in Australia. Think of the infiltration of history courses by those interested more in pushing a narrative than in finding the truth. Think of pornography on the internet. Think of the decline of Christianity and the sexualization of schoolchildren. Think of concrete bollards and Sudanese crime gangs in Melbourne.
How does this cultural unravelling stack up against smart phones and flat screen TVs? How much progress have we really made? Is Australia a better place now than it was fifty years ago? Is there now more cause for optimism than there was then? Are we happier and more fulfilled now having made material gains? Just asking.