Each year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes a happy end-of-year column that reminds us that this year is the best in human history. This year, he was forced to temper his enthusiasm a tad, but nonetheless, insists that globally, extreme poverty and infant mortality are down, literacy is up.
The fallacy is that Kristof uses as his base of comparison for the past 25 years. That happens to be dominated by the Clinton and Obama administrations and 12 years of the Clinton Global Initiative (with which Kristof, a frequent moderator, is well familiar) that marshaled together wealthy philanthropists, the biggest international banks, the biggest corporations, government leaders and decision-makers and non-governmental organizations who were invited to make an appeal for “commitments” to projects and laid groundwork for a steady-as-she-grows economy (undermined by the Bush-Cheney administration and now by Trump).
The 3,600 Commitments to Action generated programs that improved the lives of 435 million people in 180 countries – no doubt a factor in Kristof’s positive-gain statistics.
Obama led the world to the Paris Climate Agreement, but Trump has not just pulled us away but is actively reversing the policies and programs aimed at keeping the planet from crossing that critical 1.5 degree Celsius mark over the pre-Industrial Revolution level. We’ve already gone 1 degree Celsius higher, leaving not much further to go. Scientists say that the doomsday level could be reached in just 12 years.
The U.S., with just 5 percent of the world’s population, accounts for 25 percent of the carbon emissions that are causing global warming and climate change. In Australia, an area the size of Massachusetts or Switzerland is burning; some 500 million animals have perished; hundreds died in California’s wildfires but I don’t think that is one of Kristof’s categories.
If that 1.5-degree threshold is hit, as climate activist Greta Thunberg and climate scientists around the world warn, 350 million could face drought, 120 million pushed into poverty by 2030, 200 million could be displaced by rising sea levels making today’s historic levels of refugees look inconsequential. Climate disasters don’t just kill, destroy infrastructure and ecosystems, and drain national treasuries, but leave in its wake disease, debt and death.
Waiting for a doctor’s appointment, I picked up an issue of Time Magazine that named Greta Thunberg “Person of the Year.” That inspired angry, resentful tweets by Trump and his acolytes. Imagine, attacking a 16-year old for taking on her shoulders the responsibility of prodding the conscience of world leaders to protect the planet.
Later that day, I attended a performance of New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ “The Mikado” – and was astonished to learn that the production had been completely redone in 2016 after being attacked in 2015 by New York’s Asian community for the work’s racist insensitivity to Japanese. New York Times’ reviewer’s headline was “Is ‘The Mikado’ Too Politically Incorrect to Be Fixed? Maybe Not.” The concern seems quaint now.
NYGASP introduced its new politically correct production in 2016, just as Trump was campaigning on the virtues of political incorrectness, insensitivity, disrespect and everything anti-Other.
Gilbert & Sullivan wrote Mikado 135 years ago (the notion of political correctness would have been alien to British audiences), and didn’t intend it to be a critique on monarchal rule as much as a satire on human nature.
But I find the Mikado absolutely relevant to today. Sadly, I can imagine a completely new, new production set in 2019 America with a US President instead of Mikado who comes to his office in the most absurd way (much as the Lord High Executioner) – completely unequipped, unprepared, unqualified for his office, rescued from prison (tax evasion, money laundering) to take charge of the treasury and wield ridiculous laws (regulating toilets), and takes for himself autocratic power, replacing judges, officials and advisers with sycophantic toadies and relatives, snubbing his nose at Congress and the Constitution, spending however he likes from the Treasury, and happily taking “favors” from foreign leaders and special interests (a la Grand Pooh-Bah).
It is not a stretch to put Trump in the role of Mikado, an ego-obsessed, maniacal ruler, who sees punishment as “a source of innocent merriment,” who rules by whim without care for consequences, who has no clue about policy, strategy, rule of law, international law, conventions or decency. A ruler who criticized the Iran nuclear pact as “the worst deal ever,” the Paris Climate Accord as “the worst deal ever” and NAFTA as “the worst deal ever” and on and on, who gives solace to the brutal dictator Kim Jong-Un (a model for Trump?) who revs up his nuclear program; who pokes and prods Iran which has formed a military alliance with China and Russia.
“Improvement” is a relative thing.
But the fallacy in Kristof’s argument is that because the trajectory overall in the last century (a blip in human history) has been toward improvement, conditions will continue to improve. When most of the world’s population, including China and India with over 1 billion people each, have been at the lowest rung, improvement is relatively easy to show. But the USA, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, it is harder for our setbacks in terms of increased poverty, inequality, mortality, to factor in. And in just the past three years, we see how progress in the world cannot just be derailed, but reversed, undermined, destroyed, and possibly never repaired. Even more improbably, it only takes one wholly inadequate person who has anointed himself all-powerful.
Just how easily progress can be derailed is clear just by events this past week. What would a full-out war with Iran mean to the trajectory of history and “progress” led by a commander-in-chief who doesn’t care, respect or know what a war crime is, pardons war criminals and threatens to bomb 52 cultural and religious sites, who believes “L’etat, c’est moi”?