“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’
I agree with the second part.” ~ Se7en
How bad is the world?
It’s not post-apocalyptic, Kevin Costner drinking his own piss bad, but it’s bad, right? Just look around. People are shooting up movie theaters and schools, others are getting murdered over loud music and Skittles. If pretty white ladies aren’t disappearing, they’re killing family members. And the children! Oh, won’t someone please think about the children? We live in a crazy, fucked up world. If only we could go back to the Golden Age, the 1950s.
Let’s take a trip through time.
Here are some statistics* for the United States (based on most recent year for which data is available, 2010).
U.S. Population: 313,900,000
Life Expectancy: 78.5 Years
Total Deaths: 2,468,435 (.0079%)
Deaths due to Heart Disease: 597,689
Deaths due to Cancer (Malignant Neoplasms): 574,743
Deaths due to Accidents: 120,859
Deaths due to Diabetes: 69,071
Deaths due to Flu/Pneumonia: 50,097
Deaths due to Liver Disease: 31,903
Infant Deaths: 24,586
Deaths due to Tuberculous: 569
These are the related numbers from 1950:
U.S. Population: 150,697,361
Life Expectancy: 68.2 Years
Total Deaths: 1,452,454 (.0096%)
Deaths due to Heart Disease: 535,729
Deaths due to Cancer (Malignant Neoplasms): 210,675
Deaths due to Accidents: 91,322
Deaths due to Diabetes: 24,413
Deaths due to Flu/Pneumonia: 47,168
Deaths due to Liver Disease: 13,864
Infant Deaths: 103,825
Deaths due to Tuberculous: 33,907
These are not exhaustive lists of every cause of death, but they hit most of the major ones (as you can see, some of them are less major now than they were in 1950).
As our population has grown, the rates of death have dropped, both overall and per cause. The trend doesn’t carry across the board, such as with cancer which has risen from 14.5% of deaths in 1950 to 23.2% in 2010. It’s very possible, of course, that the rise in the rate of cancer deaths coincides with our greater understanding of the disease and thus simply represents more accurate diagnoses. Or, maybe more people are just dying of cancer.
On the other hand, a smaller percentage of people are dying of heart disease, the flu and pneumonia and tuberculous (so much fewer in the latter’s case that it doesn’t even belong on the Leading Cause of Death list anymore). And infant mortality rate has nosedived. If the world truly is a worse place, at least we have those silver linings.
There are other kinds of deaths, though, and they’re up. I’d distinguish these as ‘active deaths’ (as opposed to diseases and the like which would be ‘passive deaths’). The current rates of suicide (0.016% of all deaths) and homicide (0.007%) are up from where they were in 1950 (0.012% and 0.005%, respectively), which clearly indicates that we live in a more depraved, dangerous time. Perhaps our passive means of dying are on the decline, overall, but our active means are rising. We’re making the world worse, obviously.
To be fair, though, suicide and homicide deaths accounted for 0.000122% and 0.000052% (again, respectively) of the entire population in 2010, whereas they accounted for 0.000114% and 0.000046% in 1950, so in neither year have they been as prevalent or threatening to the public as you might suspect just from watching the news.
But we do watch the news, and that’s the problem.
CNN Will Be The Death of Us
Look, I love the news, I love newspapers. I love journalists, both in the idealized world of fiction where a dogged reporter always gets his story and in the real world where hours upon hours of research and dedication will lead to 7 pageviews, while a story about Lindsay Lohan will be shared a million times.
Newsmen and women are doing some of the most important work in the world, and I respect the hell out of them. But, goddamn, CNN is terrible. And Fox News, and MSNBC. All of that round-the-clock, on high alert, Breaking News, staccato-music blaring noise is the worst.
Maybe this is because I grew up on Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, or maybe it’s because I’m forced to watch endless hours of it on mute while at work (it’s that or the same sports clips on ESPN), but the 24-hour News is a harping farce. This isn’t about politics. Forgetting all the sloganeering and political one-upmanship that these “news” stations employ, the single most corrosive element of these channels is their fearmongering. Whether it’s comparing various political figures to Hitler or highlighting fake violent trends, the Newsentainment peddlers are only as strong as their audience is scared.
It’s not entirely their fault: 24-hours of news sure sounds like a good idea until you put it into practice and realize that no amount of wars, political opera, celebrity deaths and international intrigue can possibly fill up 86,400 seconds of one day, let alone every day of every week of every month of every year. Of course they’re going to fill airtime with sensationalist pablum.
Still, no amount of excuses justify the baseless and systemic pursuit of terror. Maybe it was 9/11, maybe it was the Bush years and the war in Iraq, but for whatever reason our culture is being fed an endless stream of fear, and we’re eating it all up. There have always been fearmongers, there always will be fearmongers, but the problem in our current culture is that all this domestic terrorizing is making us oblivious to how good the world really is.
Every day they find some new outrageous murder, shocking trial or horrifying accident to feature and return to every half hour, and if there isn’t a new story to sink their teeth into, they’ll rehash something from a month ago. Every time a white kid from the suburbs dies, an entire news cycle is devoted to it, but a death of a black or Latino kid in the city isn’t worth a scrolling headline (unless of course there’s a race angle to play). Maybe that’s why it was recently found that optimism among blacks and Latinos is on the rise while whites are growing more pessimistic. White people think they’re being killed left and right.
I Have To Admit It’s Getting Better
In a previous post, I mentioned Steven Pinker’s phenomenal book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The book is too good and too extensive for me to even begin summarizing or cherry picking data points. Instead, I’ll urge you to pick it up, and in the meantime read this recently published article, which examines both Pinker’s claims and those of his detractors.
If Better Angels had a logline, it would be this: The world is less violent than you’ve been led to believe and, counter to common religious wisdom, our morality is becoming more extensive, not less.
Essentially, as the book lays out in page after page of thoroughly researched data and historical evidence, despite anomalies like World War II and the Holocaust, the 20th Century was one of the most peaceful, least violent centuries in human history (if taken as a percentage of all human population), and the 21st century is furthering that trend.
People naturally balk at that statement (I know, I’ve had this conversation frequently) for a whole host of reasons, but if I had to narrow it down to one, it’s because they don’t know history. What do you think is the most violent conflict in all of human history? If you figured it was World War II, you would probably be in the majority. And by total number of dead, you’d be right. 55,000,000 million people were killed in that war (including victims of the Holocaust). However, if you take that number as a percentage of the world’s population, WWII is only the 9th most violent conflict in human history.
You know what is first? The An Lushan Revolt of the 8th century. Ever heard of it? Me neither. 36,000,000 people were killed. 36 million, in the 8th century! Pinker suggests that in modern numbers, that would be equivalent to 429,000,000 deaths. No nuclear bomb necessary.
I said I wasn’t going to try to summarize the book and I won’t. I just wanted to make a point. Our understanding of the world and how “bad” it has become is based entirely on our perspective, which is myopic at best, borderline blind at worst. Despite the internet, despite globalization, we still tend to see national and world events through the lens of our tiny little neighborhood. This is especially true for people who are born and then raised and remain in the same town or region all their lives. We think we’re worldly if we can find Crimea on a map, but we know so little.
Not only are we globally shortsighted, we’re temporally obtuse. Anyone who tells you the 1950s was a better time than the 2010s is not black, Hispanic, Asian, female, gay, an ill infant, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, poor or working menial labor. The world has definitely changed since the 1950s, so much so that many of the people who are better off because of those changes don’t even appreciate how much better off they are. If we suddenly reverted back to 1950s America, half of Fox News’ devotees would be worse off, to say nothing of the rest of the country.
Thanks to science and medicine, passive deaths are largely on the decline, but what most people are surprised to learn is that active deaths are declining, too, and rapidly. I don’t need to say the world isn’t perfect, that’s self-evident. But the world is so much better than it once was, even in the “Golden Age.” Unfortunately, with the “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality steering our national news, all we ever hear about are the inexplicable rage killings and tragic deaths.
So what’s to be done about it? That’s not an easy question. In some ways, I think we need people to think the world is a shithole so they’ll keep working to fix it. After all, it’s the restless souls who wanted a better world for their children who actually made the world better for us, their children.
On the other hand, we spend so much time fretting about invisible monsters and statistically rare tragedies (such as terrorist attacks) that we accomplish very little real change anymore. The 20th century positively exploded with social change, medical advances and scientific breakthroughs that shaped a new world, a world that if viewed from the 8th century would be considered utopia. Now, though, we seem stuck in place, largely because we’re cutting scientific funding, but also because a nihilistic view has crept into every facet of our pubic lives, especially politics, and instead of taking bold steps forward we’re constructing steel barriers to hide behind.
Perhaps I’m being myopic. In 100 years, maybe the first decades of the 21st century will be seen as the most innovative and socially enlightened period in our history. We can only hope.
Even if that’s true, it won’t change the fact that we are becoming a nation utterly beholden to fear. You are not in danger. Your children are not in danger. Statistically, the odds of you being shot down by a crazed gunman is next to nil. Statistically, you will live longer and healthier than any of your ancestors (for the most part, this is true across the globe). The news is making you believe that you’re in the line of fire. You aren’t. The news is lying to you.
Turn off the news!
You might be an outlier. You might be killed in a terrorist attack. Your child might be kidnapped. Your family might be the Kardashians. Tragedies happen all the time. But, just from a pure numbers game, you are far, far, far more likely to live a long, boring life with a couple of marriages and some bratty kids and a job that doesn’t excite you but doesn’t really strain you that much, either, so heck, just keep doing it (which, for the record, I find far more terrifying than any suicide bomber).
No one can predict what will happen to you as an individual. That’s life.
Turn off the news!
With pretty firm certainty, I can say you aren’t going to die in a terrorist attack, you aren’t going to be knocked out by a kid on the street and your kids aren’t going to go missing from the playground. I’m not saying don’t be vigilante, I’m saying don’t be so scared, you little coward.
Turn off the news!
Turn off CNN. Turn off MSNBC. Turn off Fox. Just turn them off. Get your news from a newspaper and read an article written by someone who actually bothered to get the facts before going to press because they didn’t have the 24-hour News obsession with being the first on the scene. We’d all be so much better off if 24-hour News went belly up.
Turn off the news!
Don’t believe the hype. The world is not bad. The world is actually pretty dang good if you just turn off the news and look around you. All those things you’re afraid of, all the things you’re complaining about wouldn’t even register to someone from 1950 because OH MY GOD YOU HAVE A TALKING MACHINE IN YOUR POCKET!!!
Seriously, turn off the news. I don’t agree with Hemingway very often, but he was right, the world is a fine a place. Wouldn’t it be nice to see that headline once in a while.
*Statistics retrieved from these sources:
CDC.gov, InfoPlease, Vital Statistics of the United States by U.S. Dept of Health