28 June 2018
All Bad, Really?
At least the weather is good.
By Lynda Goetz
It honestly feels as if there has been too much rubbish news this week. More dispiriting information coming out of the Grenfell inquiry; more macho stuff from Trump and his trade wars; more ridiculous political correctness from the literary world*; more almost-unbelievable infighting amongst Government ministers; more posturing and prevarication about migration from various EU states; yet more discussion about the NHS, its achievements (and failings), its structure, its funding and its history, as well as more statistics and reports about women’s satisfaction (or not) with their sex lives; the rights and wrongs (as well as the money-making possibilities) of legalising cannabis; not to mention everybody’s frustration with the tediously long-drawn-out, seemingly going nowhere Brexit negotiations. Dear God! It really is enough to make you want nothing more in this heat than to curl up in the shade of a large tree with a good book and a glass of something cold and refreshing– which is actually what I was fortunate enough to be able to do for at least part of the last few extremely warm days.
The book I was reading is not new. It is called The Second Coming*, was written by Scottish writer, John Niven and published in 2011. It is absolutely not for those who are easily offended or shocked, nor for religious fundamentalists of any kind; but for those with an open-minded sense of humour and who share Niven’s view that human beings might have made a rather better fist of ‘Free Will’, then it makes for a very entertaining and, at times, laugh-out-loud read. You also need not to mind that from the outset, of course, you know pretty much how it’s going to end. Somehow, this book – recommended to me by a nephew – seemed to be absolutely appropriate reading for now, for a lazy summer day in the garden with the drone of the bees in the philadelphus and climbing roses and the clatter of a tractor making hay in the nearby field shutting out the clamour of depressing headlines in every form of media currently known to man. This is not great literature by any means, and is an easy read, but it is funny and well-observed. It also manages, even though the author does not evince much conviction about the goodness of most human beings, to convey the message of God (who, incidentally, like his Son, loves a good joint) which was simply ‘Be Nice’ ( apparently adulterated by Moses into the ‘pompous’ Ten Commandments).
The problem of course is that on the whole, or at least for a great deal of their time here on earth, many humans are not ‘nice’. We are driven by ambition, lust, money, power, the need to impress or the need to curry favour. These failings of course apply in greater measure the higher up the ‘food chain’ one gets, which makes politicians and those in authority particularly susceptible to ‘not nice’ behaviour. There is probably no way to change these facets of human nature, although the renowned Canadian-American psychologist Professor Stephen Pinker controversially argues that not only has violence in societies in general declined with time, but that (contrary to the commonly-held perception that the world is in a terrible shape) life has in fact been getting better for most people. His sixth book, The Better Angels of our Nature, published in the same year as Niven’s novel, identifies six major causes for the decline in violence. His eighth book, Enlightenment Now, published in February this year, continues the optimistic thesis of the earlier one, using social science data to show that things like health, prosperity, safety, peace and happiness are all on the rise worldwide. He does however also argue that what he calls the Enlightenment values of reason, science and humanism are under threat from religious fundamentalism, political correctness and postmodernism.
The BBC Reith Lectures, given this year by another Canadian, Professor Margaret Macmillan, address the question of ‘War and Humanity’. Professor Macmillan does not, it seems, always agree with Professor Pinker and she does consider that we live in a ‘precarious time’ with a fair bit to be pessimistic about. However, she also warns that ‘it’s very difficult to tell about your own times’. Whether you think that life for most is getting better or not, that one simple commandment, ‘Be Nice’, doesn’t sound too hard to stick to, does it? It also somehow seems so much easier to do when the sun is shining – at least for now. Perhaps some of the politicians around the world might also take heed.
*Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), author of ‘The Little House…’ books will no longer be the name used for a prestigious American award for children’s’ literature as ‘her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.’
*Not to be confused with the W.B Yeats poem of the same name