You must remember the semi-comic Cold War film classic, “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.”
To recap its story: A deadly Soviet Union nuclear submarine suffers engine trouble and is forced to surface in a little New England fishing village. After some awkward dealings, villagers with shotguns and rifles march to the waterfront. Soviet sailors line the deck with machine guns. Weapons aimed, they face each other in a tense standoff.
Suddenly, a little boy, watching the drama from a church belfry, falls and is caught tangled in a rope, suspended high above the ground, screeching. Abruptly, both sides put down their guns and rush to rescue the child. Sailors form a human pyramid and untangle him. Everyone then joins in a hugging, back-slapping celebration. U.S. warplanes arrive to destroy the stranded sub, but villagers shield it with their fishing boats and escort it safely back to sea.
The movie has a deep meaning: Human decency — the urge to save a child — is stronger than political conflicts and military hostilities.
An episode similar to the film’s story occurred in real life on Christmas Eve, 1914, when British and German soldiers paused their hideous trench warfare on the Western Front for a spontaneous truce. They sang carols to each other, shouted holiday greetings, then got out of their bunkers to meet in no man’s land, where they traded small gifts and cordialities. Afterward, commanders had difficulty forcing the men to resume shooting each other.
Actually, human decency is the lifeblood of civilization. Abraham Lincoln poetically called it “the better angels of our nature.” The desire to help each other keeps humanity surviving and thriving.
Philosophers call this humanism: a craving to reduce slaughter and make life better for everyone. It’s the driving force of social advancement. Every government program that reduces poverty, improves health, prevents violence, upgrades nutrition, guarantees human rights, betters education, secures housing, assures equality, cures disease, enforces fairness, among other things, is a step in the process.
And decency slowly is winning. Several scholars have written books outlining progress that has elevated personal living conditions.
For example, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker asserts that rampant killing was 1,000 times worse in medieval times than today. In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he notes that international warfare has virtually vanished in the 21st century — and that murder, rape, genocide, torture, wife-beating, lynching, gay-bashing, dueling, racial attacks and even cruelty to animals are vastly less than in the past.
“The decline of violence may be the most significant and least-appreciated development in the history of our species,” he writes. “It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence.”
Today’s instant flashing of lurid news scenes, especially over the past some days, makes it appear that terrible behavior is everywhere — but it’s misleading. All statistics show a clear decline in savagery. Humanity is kinder and fairer than before.
These improvements arise from the best human urges. Intelligent democracy makes it possible for kindly instincts — the humane empathy locked in everyone’s inner mind — to prevail.
As long as supposed enemies drop their guns to rescue a dangling child, there’s hope that decency can outweigh the world’s ugliness, and civilization can keep on improving. We need to keep that in mind during our current troubling times.
This column is adapted and updated from a piece first published on Sept. 21, 2016, in Counterpunch.