Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Signs of Progress

Progress in science and technology has been extraordinary. The human mind has created miracles that boggle the imagination.

Can we make the same claim for the human heart? Have men and women become more considerate, kinder and more tolerant? Let us glance at some random events that happened 300 years apart — in 1717 and in 2017.

Anno Domini 1717: on the American continent, the first black slaves arrive. Also large numbers of Scots-Irish immigrants due to the famine at home. Horse racing, the major sport in the Southern colonies, calls attention to America’s prime values — individualism, competitiveness and materialism. Travel is cumbersome and slow. It takes weeks to get from Boston to Atlanta, while the New Horizons probe takes just 8 hours and 35 minutes to zip past the moon.

In Europe the thirteen-year War of the Spanish Succession has finally ended. After a reign of 72 years, Louis XIV, the Sun King, is dead, leaving his people destitute. The glory of the French court rapidly fades. In the Tuileries, King Louis XV, Louis’ grandson, a seven-year old boy with pink cheeks and curly long hair, receives the Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great.

Peter the Great, 6’ 7” tall, has lifted his backward and ignorant Russia to extraordinary prominence. He instituted education, brought in European craftsmen, scientists, builders and teachers. He created an extraordinary fleet, an invincible army, and subdued Charles XII of Sweden, the greatest warrior of his era.

On his trip to Paris, the always curious and eager-to-learn Tsar explores the pre-Napoleonic, narrow passageways of the city jammed with people, vendors, beggars, singers, pickpockets, quack doctors and carriages. Human excrements are freely dumped from the windows above and mingle with the odors of horse manure. For a neater appearance, the streets are covered daily with fresh straw, which at night is swept off into the river Seine. During the day, Parisian women use the river to wash their clothes. The streets swarm with prostitutes; but visitors, who don’t want to risk their health or their lives, stay away from them.

Paris is the best-lit city in Europe thanks to some 6,500 candle-lamps that are refilled each day. Around midnight, however, one by one they flicker and die, plunging the city into darkness. Anyone who values his or her life is behind locked doors.

We fast-forward to the year 2017: In the USA a highly controversial president is inaugurated. In Bangladesh a law to end child marriage and to force underage girls to marry their rapists is about to be passed. Our pets are mercifully granted death if severely injured or sick. But in most states of the US no such mercy is granted to people no matter how much they suffer. Scientists keep warning us about overpopulation and the depletion of our resources; nonetheless, our lawmakers oppose a woman’s right to have an abortion. A hate-motivated arsonist burns down a mosque in Bellevue, WA, leaving its Muslim community without a place to pray. But not for long. A close-by church offers them a large space free of charge.

There is no doubt, science and technology have progressed enormously. Can we say the same about the human heart — has it expanded in wisdom and understanding? Searching for evidence among my friends, I’d say yes, and yes again!

But other evidence belies my findings — little girls forced to marry their rapists; women denied the right over their body; arsonists motivated by hate; thieves waiting for darkness and killers for opportunity. And who knows the motives of lawmakers — power, wisdom, goodness, or celebrity?

Now as then, the world has harbored people of every description — some heroic, some wise and co-operative, some talented, generous, and good. And yet, there are plenty of others who are not. For in the last analysis, yesterday, as well as today and tomorrow, it is always up to the individual to strive for a better self.

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