Monday, November 21, 2011

James Reston 1968, Steven Pinker 2010

At the end of a visit to the Minnesota History Center's 1968 exhibit (worth a trip, by the way), I saw a pile of Minneapolis Tribunes, reprinted from the December 24, 1968, edition. Old newspapers -- my favorite! So of course, I grabbed one.

Black and white front page of the Minneapolis Tribune, Dec. 24, 1968, with photo of Earth from near the moon

After I got used to the jumbo page size (3" wider than today's papers) and appreciated the photo of Earth taken from the first Apollo mission to orbit the moon, my eye fell on an article by New York Times' James Reston. It was titled "As '68 Fades, Optimism Overshadows Gloom."

Keep in mind, Reston wrote this in the year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, riots in urban neighborhoods, the Chicago police attacks at the Democratic National Convention, Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, Lyndon Johnson announcing he wouldn't run again and later signing the Civil Rights Act, Richard Nixon winning the presidency, the famous "bra burning" in Atlantic City, the North Korean seizure of the U.S. ship Pueblo, and the Tet offensive and My Lai massacre in the Vietnam war. (Not to mention the premiere of Laugh-In, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and 2001: A Space Odyssey; the winter and summer Olympics, with fists raised; a demonstration of the first computer mouse; and Valerie Solanas shooting Andy Warhol.)

Reston wrote:

Edgartown, Mass.—Where do we stand at the end of this agonizing year? The pessimists see the nation standing at the twilight of night. The optimists see it standing at the twilight of morning. But what is the outlook for the children, singing the lovely Christmas anthems of peace and reconciliation here in this lovely sea-girt town?

The facts for the moment seem to be with the pessimists, but the tendencies of history for the longer future are probably with the optimists.

The young men die in Vietnam while the old men wrangle in Paris -- that is the depressing fact -- but the turn away from violence has been made. It will take a long time to roll up the barbed wire, but the tendency is toward peace.

It is, of course, a matter of opinion, but even at home we may have made the turn -- without quite knowing it -- toward reconciliation. The evidence is not yet in the headlines, but the American people have drifted just far enough out into dangerous waters in this last year to glimpse the terrible consequences of division, and have, I believe, begun at least to pause and turn back.

There is some hope at the end of the year for progress in the control of arms -- which is the key to the domestic budgets in all the major states. There is movement toward unification of Western Europe, despite President de Gaulle. There is progress toward world monetary reform after the alarms of 1968. And even in the Middle East -- probably the most dangerous spot in the world today -- there is a balance of power and a realization in both Moscow and Washington that the situation must be controlled.

The news of contention, dissent, and violence in the world does not tell the whole story. There is still in this country a vast reservoir of tolerance, good temper, and sympathy among the people. It is seldom in the headlines, but it is there, and in the end it may very well prevail over the forces on the extremes shouting for blood.

Nobody could accuse Gunnar Myrdal. the Swedish scholar, of being a Polyanna about America. He has been studying our racial tensions for two generations and is certainly one of our most severe critics about the problems of Vietnam and the American cities.

Yet, on balance, he comes down on the side of the optimists. "There is no country on earth," he told J. Robert Moskin, the foreign editor of Look Magazine, "which has more of a common, explicit ideology -- more of a common, explicit morality, I might say. This is the old enlightenment ideal: dignity of the human individual, justice between people, liberty, equality of opportunity and brotherhood.

"You could write an American history which was just a history of violence, corruption, of evilness. That type of American history is now becoming quite popular in the rest of the world because of the Vietnam war and other things. But American history, as I see it, is that, in spite of serious setbacks, the trend is toward a gradual, ever better fulfillment of these ideals."

Jean Monnet, another thoughtful European, has been in this country recently, talking to the leaders of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, and he, too, has gone home believing, not that we are going into a tranquil period, not even that we are going to master our problems, but that we are going to control war and inflation and racial tensions and gradually make our way toward a more decent and unified world.

This may not be right, but Monnet, like Myrdal, sees the conflict between facts and tendencies and believes the latter are more important. Myrdal puts it this way:

"Americans, for the time being, are moving to the right, which means away from the American ideals. You might say America is a conservative country but what you have conserved very often are liberal ideals, and now you have been moving away from them. You are dissatisfied, frustrated. This is what I see in the American nation now. I believe this is temporary. This is the reason I am not pessimistic about America.”
Cover of The Angels of Our Better Nature by Steven Pinker
I read Reston's words out loud to my family in the car on the way home from the museum because they so closely mirrored overall sense of Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Near the beginning of the book, Pinker creates an imagined commencement speech from his own college graduation in 1976. The speaker, "an expert on the state of the world in the mid-1970s," offers a list of predictions about the state of the world in 2010, including the end of the Cold War, the rise of China as a major trading partner, no wars between major nations at all, the rise of democracies in many countries in many parts of the world, the end of apartheid without violent recrimination, and even relative peace between Israel and most of its closest neighbors.

"How would the audience have reacted to this outburst of optimism? Those who were listening would have broken out in snickers.... Yet in every case the optimist would have been right" (pages 28-29)

A provocative beginning to a book with a lot to say about the long-term nature of our world. I've spent over a month reading it; I imagine Pinker spent years writing it. So it seems appropriate to dedicate a week of the blog to discussing it.

This is Part 1 of Steven Pinker Week at Daughter Number Three.

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