By Steve Freedman
If we measure how the world seems to be going at this very moment, we may conclude it is getting worse. However, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker makes strong arguments that the world is getting better across many measures, as described in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” and in his new book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.”
I read a recent interview with him in the Washington Post in which Emma Seppala, PhD, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, asked him to describe and explain his reasoning for arguing the world is becoming a better place. While his arguments were persuasive, his assessment of the United States struck me. Here, he sees the United States as an outlier:
“The progress is not particularly American — indeed, the United States is an outlier among rich Western democracies, with a stagnation in happiness and higher rates of homicide, incarceration, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, child mortality, obesity, educational mediocrity and premature death…And while inequality is increasing in the United States, it’s decreasing in the world as a whole, because poor countries are getting richer faster than rich countries are getting richer.”
This is not the first time I have heard or read about our declining well-being. In fact, many trends in our country right now liken us more to an emerging nation, not a first world-nation. If we care about the world we leave our children, we should care about these trends. Almost every issue and crisis is of our own making, and involves the overall health of our social fabric as described by Steven Pinker.
As I have written previously, our nation was founded on a covenantal principle that can be summed up in the preamble of the Constitution of the United States: “We the People.” As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks likes to say of America, this makes Americans a covenantal people – our founding fathers envisioned a society that embodies the notion of collective responsibility. We are responsible for each other. This is the foundation of our society and of our democracy. And proudly it was modeled after the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people.
Our country is fractured at this moment, and this explains that while things are getting better in much of the world, at best, progress is stagnant in the United States, despite the new gadgets and technology that would have us think otherwise. At worse, we are slipping.
We are, however, Americans, and if history is any indication, we will prevail, and come out stronger than before. But success will not occur without citizens involving themselves as participants and guarantors of the American social contract (covenant) and American dream.
As Americans, and compassionate and ethical Jews, we can no longer remain passive and believe changes will happen without our voices and without our votes. I see an awakening in our country as women coalesce around the Woman’s March and the #METOO movement. I follow the LBGTQ organizers, especially in New York, where a dear family friend, who is more like another son to me, leads the fight for social justice and equality for that community. I admire his resilience, and his activism in Gays Against Guns and Voices 4 Chechnya. And now, as a parent, grandparent and educator, I am in awe of the high school students who have found their voices in the wake of the Parkland shooting and their #NeverAgain and #MarchForOurLives movements. As one who had a voice when I was in high school, I know firsthand that these teenagers are more than capable of organizing and passionately and articulating their deeply-held beliefs that this country must address the school shootings, and come up with common-sense gun legislation. Our nation’s children and teachers deserve to be safe in their schools!
At Hillel, I have been approached by a few middle school students who want to participate in the national March 14 walk out in honor of those killed in Parkland, Florida on February 14. Since then, our students have been organizing, and teachers have created learning opportunities for students to understand the complexities of the issues, the idea of civil disobedience, and the Jewish view of societal violence, self-defense, and how to think beyond the scope of March 14 to a lifelong pursuit of action-oriented political/social engagement. These efforts will also help students to realize that lasting change may begin with grass roots but needs to extend to the legislative change that they will one day have the power to impact.
We support any student in grades 6 – 8 who chooses to walk out on March 14 at 10:00 a.m. for 17 minutes to honor each person who was gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Many of us will join our students during this walk out, and we respect any student who chooses not to participate. This is an authentic life lesson for our children. It is a lesson in civic duty and democracy, and the power of our voices; and as Jews, we are obligated to speak out against injustice, inequality, hate, and tyranny whenever the opportunity affords itself.
Maybe things are getting better for humanity around the world. Maybe we, in the United States, are lagging behind. And maybe the collective voice of our youth, demanding a better tomorrow, is the beginning of the renewal of America’s social covenant with each other so that we, as a nation, can get back on track.
P.S. I was proud to sign this letter by Jewish day school leaders calling for action after the Parkland shooting.