Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Better and better

I have to make this point from time to time, even if it's only to reassure myself. Humans are making progress. Discernible, measurable progress, in all phases of life from life-span to education.
Go back a hundred years. The number one cause of death was influenza, closely followed by simple dehydration. People were old at 40. There's a story written in the 30's called "The Eighty Yard Run," about an old, washed-up man dreaming of the glory of his youth. He was 35. People lost their teeth early. If you graduated from high school, you were unusual. The number one employer of people was the farm, followed by domestic service.
I have a photo of my grandmother taken in the 30's. Her house is a one-room adobe shack with a dirt floor, no inside water, not inside toilet. She's already bent from carrying wood and hauling water. And these were not people who considered themselves poor. They were, but didn't consider themselves so. My grandfather had gone to college.
If you were a woman, your husband could beat you with impunity. If you were a child, your mother could whip you till your back was bloody. Your teacher could belt you with a paddle. If you were a citizen, you could be arrested and beaten. If you were African-American or (where I lived, Hispanic), you had almost no rights at all.
If you went to war, many of you died. The death toll from World War I and II is staggering. I believe the death toll for WWII is something around 18 million.
To be sure, we have our problems today. But what are they? Gangs. Yes, we hear a lot about gangs, but most of what I read in the local paper is gangbangers killing each other. Which is okay with me. We have drugs. To me that's just evolution in action. We have wars. How many have been killed in Afghanistan? Five thousand? About two months' highway death toll. We have cancer. A disease of older people. We have HIV and AIDS. Compared with the flu epidemic of 1913 (Was it?) it's nothing.
Naturally, we can do better. And we should do better. But in fact, we are doing better.


Jacqui Binford-Bell said...

The flu pandemic was 1918. Right after the boys got back from the trenches. I think we have just been lucky on the pandemic thing (or unlucky if you consider the overpopulation crisis). With airplanes it is just a matter of time before a case of Ebola virus makes it to New York City.

And more people died in wars because we didn't know as much about saving people with horrific injuries like we do now. War has taught us a lot about battlefield medicine.

As far as advances in medical care I think we have reached that point where we need to ask should we just because we can? And we need to give patients the choice of opting out.

Civil rights and treating people of different races and sects and sexes equally is the one place we have made huge strides for the better. So much so that when a hate crime happens a huge number of us are shocked and offended.

But I do believe education has declined. Illiteracy is on the rise in the United States and that is very sad.

Maybe it is the advances we have made in so many areas that make those areas were there has been no progress or back sliding even to seem that much more horrific. We have come up with no alternative to war. We just want to fight it with drones so the citizens don't scream about their kids going to war.

Some very complex issues at play.

On both your houses said...

Thanks, Jaqui. I think I need to respond on two items. First, the number of dead in wars has declined not only because of better treatment, but because 1)wars are smaller, and 2) fewer people actually come in harm's way. At Gettysburg, they were shooting at each other so close the rifle barrels were almost touching. The term "cannon fodder" doesn't really apply today. Maybe it should be changed to "suicide fodder."
The second point is about literacy. I actually believe that literacy is climbing. This for two reasons: 1) the definition of literacy keeps getting stricter and stricter, and 2) the number of people we are trying to educate gets larger and larger. Literacy once meant that you could sign your name and read familiar Bible verses. Now it means understanding and criticizing a complex argument or knowing who Picasso was. The target "literacy" keeps moving. This being the case, it's very difficult to compare literacy now with literacy even 50 years ago.