Confessions of a Cockeyed Optimist
One of my favorite lines in all of world literature comes from Voltaire’s Candide. After surviving wars, plagues and pestilences, the ever-optimistic heroine pines for her dead teacher Pangloss. “Oh, Pangloss, Pangloss!” she cries. “How happy you would be if you had not been killed!”
That line sent me into spasms of laughter at seventeen. At 64, I see it as a germ of wisdom that just might help our species survive. Life is precious and fragile and all that really matters.
We’ll get through this terrorism business, maybe not in my time, but soon by historical standards. The reason is as basic as Candide’s immortal line. However immured people may be in religion, ideology and self-righteousness, most of them dimly understand a simple truth: being blown to bits is not a good thing.
Sooner or later, that simple truth will lead everyone to reject terrorism. The end will come sooner if we who oppose it now emphasize that simple truth in our propaganda, political and military strategy, and every act.
Our leaders seem to be getting the idea. The simple truth is working its way into our strategy and political discourse. We see that protecting civilians works better than killing terrorists, and that war may not be the best way to promote democracy.
Someone (Churchill, I think) once said that democracies do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives. We are living that sage line. But at least we seem to be reaching the point of exhaustion where doing the right thing is all that’s left.
Saving ourselves from our own profligacy is a bit more difficult. The consequences of owning a Hummer or razing a forest to plant tobacco are not as easy to see as the carnage of suicide bombing. The consequences lie farther in the future.
But that’s why we have science and scientists: to predict consequences that require math to see. The trick is to get ordinary people and ordinary leaders to believe them when they bear messages that no one seems to want to hear.
Modern Germany seems to have no problem. It’s elected a scientist—a physicist—as its Chancellor. And for its size and population, it’s way ahead of the rest of the world in wind and solar energy. Despite its still-recent Nazi aberration, the nation that invented moveable type and individualism is yet a moral force to be reckoned with.
Some day the rest of us must also come around. Just like governance by random explosions, leadership by the stupid and short-sighted must some day yield. Sooner would be better than later. But if we Americans can’t lead the charge ourselves, then Germany and China will show others the way. In our multipolar world, no one has a monopoly on wisdom or common sense.
Anyway, some really important anniversaries are coming up. According to legend, Martin Luther tacked his diatribe on paid indulgences on the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517.
So Halloween 2017—less than eight years away—will mark a very special anniversary in human history. It will come half a millennium after the individual act that ultimately broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly on thought. That act conceived freedom of speech and freedom of religion and made modern science possible. It allowed a mostly decentralized North to lead the world in freedom, commerce, productivity and innovation. Islam still awaits its own Martin Luther.
It’s cold in late October in the Northern Hemisphere. So I hope there’ll be bonfires everywhere on October 31, 2017. I expect to have one myself, but not for Halloween.
A few years later, in 2023, we’ll mark the four hundredth anniversary of the old English Statute of Monopolies, adopted by Parliament in 1623. That act established free enterprise and economic science. I’m still trying to pin down the exact date of its adoption, so I can know precisely when to celebrate.
Freedom of thought, freedom of enterprise. Not bad for a little over a single century, and in one small part of the world—what That Idiot Rumsfeld called “Old Europe.”
But the other shoe took a long time to drop. Freedom demands responsibility, lest it create license, anarchy and terror. The two are inseparable. If individuals are free to think what they choose and to act in free markets, they must be accountable for what they do.
The other shoe didn’t drop until centuries later, on October 1, 1946. After the most brutal and destructive war in human history, the Nuremberg tribunal sentenced surviving Nazi leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It rejected the defense of just following orders. In so doing, it sentenced all of us to responsibility for our acts, not just before God in the hereafter, but for now, on Earth, and before our fellow creatures.
Nuremberg is recent history. To the Chinese, who famously think the effect of the French Revolution is too early to tell, it happened yesterday. But Nuremberg’s effects are already multiplying as perpetrators face justice for genocide and other crimes in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Angola, and maybe someday even Darfur.
Nuremberg is so recent that it’s hard to know when to celebrate. I might not see the first century, when I’d be 99. So I’ll arbitrarily pick the 75th anniversary, in 2021, for my big celebration. It will fall between my celebration of Luther’s invention of individualism and the English Parliament’s invention of economics. My celebration will downplay Nazi atrocities and emphasize the positive: the establishment of a principle of accountability to each other that all leaders and all people must follow.
We humans learn slowly. Frequently we backslide. Freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of enterprise, and responsibility for our individual acts—even if we are leaders—took the best part of half a millennium to establish. We are still working out their ramifications and consequences. Accountability for destroying other species and damaging the Earth on which we all live is still a sometime thing.
But these three great principles seem here to stay. The Internet has given the first two a boost and soon may speed the third along.
In the meantime, we have a decent excuse to do what we humans do best: congratulate ourselves and celebrate. My health and longevity permitting, I plan to throw a big party on each of these three great anniversaries. If all of us do so and remember what we celebrate, our species just might muddle through.