Interesting Ideas

And Yet...
If the world is lousier than ever, why are so many things so much better?
Gillette advertising illustration from The Munsey

In every age humanity is in its worst state ever, and ours is no exception.

Recent golden ages all look irrevocably past: literature, movies, TV, politics, unionism, whatever. They all were more interesting and more fruitful some other time. Now literacy is in the toilet. Every Bond film is not as good as Goldfinger. The Simpsons has gone downhill. Non-entities dominate in Washington. Everywhere my friend Mark goes people tell him it was better before he got there.

Are things really worse? The truth of the perception isn't nearly as important as the perception itself. If you think things are worse, they are, and there is never a lack of evidence. However sunny your disposition, you were almost certainly filling in the blanks in spite of yourself as you read the paragraph above. Or consider the bell curve. Whether applied to human nature or to the universe we inhabit, it demonstrates by definition how the bad offsets the good.

How bad is it? Who knows. The decline of civilization is all about relativism. Any effort to measure that decline will be warped by the contingent perspective that is bound up in the creation of even the most objective scale. The measurement will be no more neutral than the time- and culture-bound realities of the measurer. Just picking what to measure will skew any assessments beyond the limits of impartial standards. Forget decline; it's as easy to find good news as bad. Cancer is treated. Organs are transplanted. Nuclear war is avoided.

It's not just this fodder for spiritual uplift that weighs on the right side of the bell curve, fortunately. High-minded measures of progress can fade quickly in face of the daily grind of existence, not to mention its more fundamental terrors. Prosaic improvements are what give the most meaningful comfort in the midst of an eternally decaying civilization. And case by case, lots of things do seem a lot better today when compared with conditions just a generation ago. Continue

Bell curve

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Copyright William Swislow 2001