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The best and worst of times

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A drawing of Charles Dickens with the words "The best and worst of time" overtop

Editor’s note: Although FFRF columnist James Haught died, sadly, on July 23 at age 91, we are lucky to still have a bunch of pieces Jim gave us to use — some fresh and others previously published — that we will be sending out till we exhaust this treasure trove. This piece is adapted and updated from a column published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Jan. 13, 2019.

The immortal Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities begins:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Actually, I think this yin-and-yang contradiction exists even today — and probably existed at every moment since the beginning of recorded history.

Life is good, with full employment, booming prosperity and superb personal freedoms. But people are also feeling a lot of economic unease due to rising prices and unaffordable essentials.

Writers such as Chris Hedges are correct that right-wing greed is pulling America apart in ever-worse inequality, and that global warming threatens the planet. However, writers such as Steven Pinker are correct in claiming that our “better angels” cause life to improve constantly, with fewer wars (although that may not seem to be the case currently), fewer cruelties, fewer ethnic persecutions and the relentless retreat of other evils.

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times — and it always was.

The hero of Scaramouche was “born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.” But that’s just half the story. Laughter can be dampened by grief and suffering. A better assessment of our ongoing carnival is the cliché: Life is a comedy to the person who thinks, and a tragedy to the person who feels.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that, despite daily horrors in the news, “2018 was the best year in human history.” He cited: Each day, about 295,000 people around the world gained access to electricity for the first time. Each day, about 305,000 got safe drinking water for the first time. Each day, 620,000 more people acquired access to the internet.

“Only about 4 percent of children worldwide now die by the age of 5,” he wrote. “That’s still horrifying, but it’s down from 19 percent in 1960.”

Before the 1950s, more than half of humanity lived in extreme poverty, defined as less than $2 daily income. The ratio now is below 10 percent.

When I was young in the 1950s, gay sex was a felony — and it was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath –—and Blacks were banned from white schools, restaurants, hotels, pools, neighborhoods and jobs — and it was a crime to buy a cocktail or look at something like a Playboy magazine – and a desperate girl who ended a pregnancy faced prison, along with her doctor. Now all those strictures have vanished. Human progress has occurred.

A century ago, average life expectancy was 48 years. Now it’s near 80, thanks mostly to medical science.

The steady decline of supernatural religion is another human improvement because it advances scientific honesty instead of magical fairy tales about gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, prophecies, visions and other church gibberish. And it reduces the us-versus-them alienation that divides humanity into rival religious camps.

As we stumble toward the future, it will always be the best of times and the worst of times.

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