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Some Thoughts on Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day, a voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth the cannon thundered in the South, and with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent, and made forlorn the households born of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said; "For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men."


I first heard this poem as a song by Johnny Cash decades ago, and the words hold the same power for me today as they have always held.

While the musical version of this poem has been performed by many artists, the words are of Longfellow.  The poet’s son had been seriously wounded a few weeks before Christmas of 1863 and he was grieving for not just his own loss, but the travail of an entire nation as blood ran in rivers from Civil War battlefields.   There is no doubt that the world seemed bleak to Longfellow at that moment.   Yet, the struggle for Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men is not that of a season, or year or a decade.  No, it is the struggle of mankind from the dawn of civilization.

It is so very hard for us to take the concept of global justice and peace within the perspective of the history of civilization.   We are all so very myopic, preferring to enlarge our own struggles and hardships and minimize the progress that has been made by humanity.

Conventional wisdom is that things are getting worse and worse. With the immediacy of modern media that brings violence into our homes it certainly feels like things are getting worse; however,  I will have you know that is simply not true.

The world has been progressing forward, howbeit by fits and jerks for millennia and the pace of improvement has accelerated over the past several hundred years.

Consider how there is more and more outrage over smaller and smaller affronts to human dignity.   A few years ago was the 100th anniversary of WW1. From August till Christmas 1914, more people were killed in that war than all the wars across the world in the past 10 years; and, each of the next few years that war only got bloodier.  Or we might consider what is being passed off as examples of virulent racism today no longer bears any resemblance to the genocide that the word racism was coined to describe.  The rights of minority groups across the globe has never been higher at any time in human history.    Sure, we humans still struggle with harassment and even violence but what we have nearly entirely eliminated is the wholesale slaughter of those considered to be outside the mainstream.  What we are “witnessing” by both Vladimir Putin and by Hamas this year is shocking to our modern minds because it is so rare; however, go back 500 years and such events were the norm, not the exception.

A recent study concluded that in the last decade a lower percentage of the world’s population is actively at war than at any time in recorded history.  Yes, we cringe at the images from Israel and Gaza, but the very fact that we see such images as abhorrent is evidence of how far we have come as a species.

In tribal societies, warfare was endemic and nearly constant.  Anthropologists tell us that in remote Amazonian cultures cut off from the modern world, around 25% of all males die violent deaths due to constant inter-group warfare. Rape and kidnaping of women is simply the norm as one group seeks advantage over others.  What is not present are TV cameras, phone videos and sophisticated campaigns to demonize one group or another. This pattern was true in all primitive tribal societies across the globe, despite the enduring popular fantasy that these societies were models of social cooperation. 

If we look at the challenges we face today. Most stem from the simple fact that we now have over seven billion people alive.   Why do we have seven billion people on earth, even while adult fertility rates worldwide have been falling rapidly?  Because for the first time in human history, most children born not only grow up to be adults, but they will live nearly twice as long as did people 300 years ago.  Death by violence, disease and starvation are now the highly publicized exceptions, not the rule.

When I wrote the first draft of this essay, the Newtown school shootings had been in the news recently.  Certainly, those killings were a tragedy for those nearby, but why was it a national tragedy?   What percentage of Americans were actually impacted by the events and not by the media reports of the events?  In the year after Newtown, approximately 16,000 Americans were killed by drunk drivers. Far more children die by that than they do by a mentally ill person with a gun.  But it does not play the same way in the media because it is not sensational.

Sensational, is code for “bad news with dead bodies” and even the most mature and serious major news outlet panders to sensationalism like Newtown on a daily basis.  I guess it is part of our nature, but is it really healthy for us to focus on the worst things that happen in the entire planet each day?  One of the things I am seeing more and more of, are stories of stupidity by local school teachers or administrators.  Hardly a day goes by that some teacher somewhere in the nation says something stupid or hurtful and it gets national attention. Yet, how many million times a day do teachers do something kind and helpful that never gets a line of press?

 Humans only have so much emotional range, and I’m quite sure the net effect of this is to deaden us to appropriate emotional responses to things that happen in our own cities or neighborhoods unless they are accompanied by graphic pictures or media hype. My kids were fond of saying, “If there aren’t pictures it didn’t happen.” While that is objectively untrue, in the life of those under forty, that is their reality.

On the other hand, good news goes underreported. This is not just because the media don’t think it’s interesting, it’s because good news often undermines political groups who thrive on bad news.

When I wrote the first version of this essay, I was working on my doctoral dissertation. I was doing some serious digging into the most current data on education and equality. In the process, I found some startlingly good news about which no one seems to care.

The most striking thing I found regarded the progress of African-Americans in education. Buried in a report by the US Dept. of Education’s Center for Educational Statistics it was shown that as of 2010, 15 % of the undergraduate college students and 14% of graduate students are African-American.   So what? Well, elsewhere in the report it stated that 15% of the school children in the US are African-American. Thus 150 years after the ending of slavery and 50 years after the last public University in the nation was opened to all races, African-Americans are fully represented in our colleges and universities a whole. That’s HUGE! Yes, I know that among the top schools which lead to the most lucrative job that is not the case, but that unreported data indicated massive and sustained gains.

When I posted that on my blog that week it was surely the first public release of that analysis. It should have been front-page news rather than in a tiny blog. And no, it was not picked up by the news media.

Similarly, in studying poverty issues, I found that the reason poverty rates have remained stagnant over the past 50 years is not that the lot of the poor has not improved; but, rather the definition of poverty continues to change to encompass far more affluence now than it did in the 1950’s.   By design, the poverty rate remains stagnant as it represents the poorest percentage; it does not represent actual material goods.   The truth is that the lifestyle of the center of the middle class in 1950 would be considered poverty by today’s standards.  Thus, things are getting better for the poor, it’s just we are all told that is not true.

Overall in my lifetime, civil rights have grown by leaps and bounds, hunger and disease have been reduced radically, and educational opportunity for the poorest children and those with disabilities has greatly improved. AND, we no longer live under the pall of immanent nuclear destruction, there has been a seismic shift in concerns for the environment…..and the list goes on and on. Yes, there has been some backsliding in the past decade, but even the fact we notice that backsliding shows how far we have come.

Last week I saw a quote from Benjamin Netanyahu justifying the wholesale slaughter of the population of Gaza. He (correctly) pointed out that what Israeli forces are doing in Gaza pales in comparison to the Allied bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan in WW2.  And he was right, in one 24-hour period US and Britain killed more civilians in Dresden than the Israelis have in Gaza in two months.  Even worse was we developed incendiary bombs specifically to burn to death civilians so that in two days the US killed ten times the number of women and children than Netanyahu has killed in Gaza. What Netanyahu failed to acknowledge was that the international laws of war were created so that those kinds of horrors would never be repeated. AND, importantly, violations of those laws now get front-page attention across the globe.  That, in itself, shows how far we have come since 1945.

Even though it does not benefit the media or political establishments (of all political ideologies), the truth of improving conditions globally is real just the same.

So, when we consider the Holiday season this year, do not despair. The world is not, as many would have us believe, going from bad to worse. Our expectations have simply risen so far and fast that what was once the norm is appalling.

So, listen to those bells and rejoice that Peace on Earth is within reach if we let it.

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Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

This is one of the most encouraging articles I've read in a while! "We are all so very myopic, preferring to enlarge our own struggles and hardships and minimize the progress that has been made by humanity." That is so true... For a long time I was in to end times prophecies, eschatology, predictions, etc, and none of that stuff really came true. Channels that promote that stuff are no better than the news with endless streams of negative content, sensationalistic video thumbnails, etc. My mom seems to hope the world gets worse and worse, because that supposedly signals the return of Christ. That mindset seems very off to me and I wish we all could instead focus on improving…

09 de jan.
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Big thumbs up! Many times in my religious education, I heard, "It's always Judgement Day." I scared my sister last year by using the word eschatology, but I was really referring to our moment when we get to decide, for a long time if not forever, how humans will live.


24 de dez. de 2023

Professor, you're right. Science writer (and British peer) Matt Ridley writes, in The Rational Optimist, that deaths from the great wars of the 20th century were a fraction of the 25% rate you quote for the Amazonians. I've had a couple of pals with psychological disabilities, living on SSI, and about as poor as Americans can get. They were the beneficiaries of central heating, refrigeration, and a decent diet.

You're mostly right that things look bad to us because we see pictures of every disaster. I'd like to think that there's another reason, and that's that we can imagine that things can be better. The same wealth that has already made the world a more comfortable place (or more nearly…

27 de dez. de 2023
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24 de dez. de 2023
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I agree that the world is a better place than it was many years ago. When the atrocities become personal things change for the victims. When cyberbullying ends up in suicide, or name-rape and false complaints end careers and families, it becomes personal. The problem is the far left who insist that every liberal must adhere 100% to their ideology or get roasted for something bad. Take for instance JK Rawling’s comment on transgender people. Her view is that these transgender men are not women. Suddenly the whole alphabetic community, including the actors who benefited from her writings, denounced her. This developed into a witch-hunt by stupid people. There is now a backlash from women against transgender men competing against…

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