Opinion

Let’s be grateful for human progress

As we enter this American day of thanks, we shouldn’t forget the blessing of being able to make things better.

“Thanksgiving isn’t a Jewish holiday, so for lone soldiers, it can be difficult being away from family and friends,” says Yehoshua Sigala of the Lone Soldier Center, with offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, November 2019. Photo by Yonit Schiller.
“Thanksgiving isn’t a Jewish holiday, so for lone soldiers, it can be difficult being away from family and friends,” says Yehoshua Sigala of the Lone Soldier Center, with offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, November 2019. Photo by Yonit Schiller.
DAVID SUISSA Editor-in-Chief Tribe Media/Jewish Journal (Israeli American Council)
David Suissa
David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp and Jewish Journal. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

If all you do is follow the news, chances are you think our world is slip-sliding away. In fact, according to a 2015 survey cited in the Our World in Data (OWD) site, only 6% of U.S. respondents think the world is getting better.

But is our world really slip-sliding away?

We’ve been around for thousands of years. If we look at just the past 200 years, here’s what we would find, according to OWD:

In 1820, the vast majority of people lived in conditions that we would call extreme poverty today. In 1950, two-thirds of the world was living in extreme poverty. By 2015, the last year for which we currently have data, the share of the world population in extreme poverty has fallen below 10%.

How about literacy, the bedrock of educational and social progress?

In 1820, only 10% of people over 15-years-old were literate. In 1930, it was 33%. Today, we are at 86% globally. In absolute numbers, in 1800 there were fewer than 100 million people who could read and write. Today there are about 4.6 billion people with the same skill.

How about child mortality?

In 1800, the health conditions were such that around 43% of the world’s newborns died before their fifth birthday. By 2017, child mortality was down to less than 4%, a ten-fold improvement.

The key reason we rarely discuss such extraordinary long-term progress is that we’re swimming in 24-hour new cycles that focus mostly on what’s wrong with the world at the moment.

There’s plenty wrong with the world, of course, but if that’s all we see, we lose sight of the most fundamental aspect of the human condition—our ability to make things better.

Take the much-hyped claim that the United States is currently awash in systemic racism, a view that overlooks or downplays how far we’ve come.

As far back as 1998, the Brookings Institute noted, “Progress is the largely suppressed story of race and race relations over the past half-century.” The point was not that racism was eradicated, but that we’ve come a long way since the days of segregation only a few decades earlier.

Racial progress should not be idealized. There’s still much to do. As Jennifer Richeson of The Atlantic wrote in 2020, “It is obviously true that many of the conditions of life for black Americans have gotten better over time. Material standards have in many ways improved. Some essential civil rights have advanced, though unevenly, episodically and usually only following great and contentious effort.”

In other words, progress is neither linear nor inevitable, and it’s not an excuse for complacency. Like most good things in life, it requires effort.

But we’re more likely to make that effort if we have hope. That’s the power of being aware of progress—it gives us hope. It reminds us that we can do it, if only we put in the work.

If all we do is follow the daily news cycle and wallow in how bad things are, we risk nourishing a perception that our flaws are not just systemic but irreparable. That engenders not hope but cynicism and despair, the twin killers of progress.

As we enter this American day of thanks, and as we count our many blessings, let us not forget the blessing of progress, the blessing of being able to make things better, not just in the world but in our own lives.

On this one day at least, let us be grateful that there is good news hidden in the bad, if we know how to look for it.

May this Thanksgiving be even better than last year’s.

David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp and the Jewish Journal. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Topics
Comments
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates