In a 2015 survey, only 6 percent of Americans said that things in the world are getting better. This is not a surprise. Americans remain deeply pessimistic about the direction of their country and the world.
But what if this view fails to account for much evidence to the contrary? What if Americans’ failure to know the facts about progress becomes in itself a barrier to further progress?
That is the message of some recent findings by Our World in Data, an online publication of the University of Oxford.
Since 1930, the global rate of extreme poverty has fallen from 75 percent to 10 percent. The literacy rate has increased from 30 percent to 85 percent. Child mortality has been reduced by a factor of 10. Democracy has flourished; colonialism has almost disappeared. Education rates have soared, and population growth has slowed to the point where it could be zero by the end of the century.
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The article goes on to blame the media for creating the impression that the world is headed to hell, when in reality life is vastly and relatively better for almost everyone in the world. That is a familiar and not very helpful criticism: The media has always specialized, and, presumably always will, in not just news, but also bad news.
But the study’s interpretation is more on point when it calls for greater historical perspective: “Freedom is impossible without faith in free people. And if we are not aware of our history and falsely believe the opposite of what is true we risk losing faith in each other.”
In other words, our suspicious pessimism, built on false premises, only fosters more suspicious pessimism.
In “Network,” a 40-year-old movie that has been rightly hailed as prescient about the inevitability of a political primal scream like Donald Trump’s, there is a joke that seems appropriate in this context of ignoring historical silver linings. Two television veterans are recalling a story in which one of them was running very late to a stand-up on the George Washington Bridge and hopped into a cab, breathless and desperate. “Take me to the GW Bridge,” the man tells the cab driver. “Buddy,” the cab driver says as he turns around to face his passenger, “don’t do it: You got your whole life ahead of you.”
This advice has always struck me as ill-suited to help someone thought to be (mistakenly in the case of the movie) on the verge of suicide. The last thing the despairing soul may want to hear is that the future stretches out ahead, given that the past has been so painful.
Better guidance might be, however weak it may sound to the depressed: “Are you sure you are not negatively deluding yourself and allowing a massive misinterpretation to lead to a huge mistake?”
For those who are politically depressed and enervated in the wake of Trump’s triumph, some form of this question may at least be worth considering to energize them to have faith in another 100 years of progress.
Carter Eskew is a founder of The Glover Park Group, a communication consulting firm in Washington, D.C.