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Are Things Getting Better or Worse?

April 15, 2019

“In what ways is America a better place to live in than it was … thirty … years ago? In what ways is it worse?”

This question, posed at the beginning of a book I’m reading, has stimulated my thinking these past two days. Here’s how I would answer that question, beginning with the ways I think life in the United States is better now than thirty years ago:

  • The violent crime rate in this country surged in the 1970s and 80s, peaking in the mid-90s. Since then it has dropped dramatically. Although some cities such as Chicago have seen an increase in recent years, the overall level of violent crime today is still at the levels of the early 1960s. So we are safer than we were thirty years ago.
  • Thirty years ago we were in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. During the 1980s, tens of thousands of young people died horribly from this always lethal disease. Today the HIV virus can be controlled, and we may be at the brink of a cure.
  • The AIDS epidemic fed widespread fear and hatred of gays. Sympathy and support for even committed and monogamous gay relationships dropped thirty years ago. But today, the gay and lesbian community is widely accepted, with much more job and housing protection, and same-sex marriage is now legal–something unimaginable thirty ears ago. (Some people would regard this as an example of how things have gotten worse in the last thirty years, but I regard it as better since it is an advance in equal treatment and protection.)
  • The rights and opportunities of women are much greater today (a woman received the most votes in the last presidential election), and demeaning language and behavior toward women is not taken for granted at nearly the level it was thirty years ago. Women are speaking up and making men much more aware of their sexism.
  • We now know a black man can be elected president of the United States (twice)–something quite doubtful thirty years ago.
  • Our country is far more aware of racial discrimination, white privilege, and the greater dangers innocent African-Americans often face at the hands of the police. Thirty years ago it was common for whites to believe that racism was no longer a significant problem. But the availability of widespread video recording and sharing has revealed the disturbing prevalence of discrimination. Because we can now see this racism, and the black community is visibly angry about it, we may think that race relations are worse now than they were thirty years ago. On the contrary, one side being blind while the other side was more quiet does not constitute “better” race relations. We are better off knowing the painful truth so we can work on race relations at a deeper level.
  • Transgender persons now receive far more understanding and support. Thirty years ago the trans community was virtually unknown or regarded with disdain. That may have made life simpler for cisgender persons, but not better for others.
  • The Internet has made research phenomenally easier and has significantly improved the quality of my own writing and speaking.
  • Social media have revolutionized communication possibilities, linking people in many helpful and delightful ways.
  • Entertainment is more diverse and available than ever before.

How is life in this country worse than it was thirty years ago? Here are a few thoughts:

  • The Internet is full of misinformation and disinformation, and is a platform for all kinds of crimes that are almost impossible to stop.
  • Social media and other technology have exponentially increased bullying, threats, and violations of privacy, resulting, for instance, in an increase in teenage suicide.
  • The twenty-four hour news cycle and endless cable news shows has given a platform and prominence to angry and extremist commentators. As a result, sources for the most accurate, in-depth and carefully vetted news (major newspapers and news magazines) have lost readership as well as trust. Many now believe that accurate news is “fake news” and that serious journalists are “the enemy of the people.”
  • The country is probably more socially and politically divided than it has been since the late 1960s. The two major parties have moved much farther apart, often excoriating each other as ill-willed or even evil. As a result, citizens often vote for extreme rather than moderate candidates, resulting in perhaps the most dysfunctional Congress in over a hundred years.
  • The 9-11 terrorist attack has vastly increased the power and scope of the security state, weakening privacy and freedom of movement. Fear of immigrants, foreigners, and Muslims has increased, as well as antisemitism. As a result, white nationalist terrorism is on the rise.
  • Our country is in its longest war in Afghanistan, and has troops under fire in various places in the Middle East. Our society has become far more militarized and inured to war than it was thirty years ago.
  • Society is responding to these upheavals by turning to ever-more violent, fantastical, and cynical entertainment. Values have become more relativized than thirty years ago (when stories and books about virtue and character were popular), and an attitude of nihilism is growing.
  • Churches are losing members, particularly young adults, at the fastest rate ever seen due to a loss of confidence in faith and religious institutions.
  • The effects of global warming are much worse now than thirty years ago, and the chances of being able to prevent catastrophic consequences are quickly diminishing.
  • Thirty years ago nuclear disarmament was in full swing. Today, nuclear weapons have proliferated and a new nuclear arms race with Russia is possible, increasing fears of a possible nuclear accident or war.

These two lists suggest that life in the United States is not easily categorized as better or worse; rather, some things are much better and some things are much worse. And sometimes what is better is also what is worse; for instance, the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse. Would we rather it had never been invented? Paradoxically, we are both more connected and more isolated.

Overall our level of happiness has probably stayed fairly level. It is human nature to emotionally adjust to our circumstances, regardless of whether we are somewhat richer or poorer than we used to be. On the other hand, we may be seeing more depression, addiction, and suicide.

For our long-term well-being, what most concerns me is what appears to be a decline in our spirituality: that is, we seem to have less commitment to sources of meaning and value that are greater than ourselves. When our confidence is limited to the empirical and self-serving, life becomes absurd and shallow.

Is there progress in history? I’m not sure. Technical progress, yes, though that’s not always a good thing (and could be utterly disastrous). There appears to be some progress in our ethical consciousness. For instance, we no longer consider slavery, the inferiority of women, and the use of torture as givens. That’s real progress, but it may be a temporary blip. If our spirituality erodes, perhaps those ethical gains will eventually also erode.

But whether there is progress in history or not, I believe there is always hope in history. This is, I think, at the heart of the biblical message. The joining of heaven and earth is our ultimate hope. How it happens we cannot fully understand or anticipate, as I think Jesus suggests in his parable of the seed that grows secretly (Mark 4:26-29). But it’s hope that keeps me going.

Which is why, ultimately, I’m an optimist.

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