It's disquieting to read a book that proves you're wrong, and more disquieting if you are wrong about a subject that interests you. I had that uneasy sensation when reading the conclusion of Clear and Present Safety (Yale University Press). The book says, with an air of total confidence, that the world, our world, "is safer, freer, wealthier, healthier, and better educated than at any point in history." Who knew? The authors of Clear and Present Safety, Michael A. Cohen (of the Boston Globe) and Micah Zenko (of Foreign Policy Magazine) clearly believe that almost everyone is mistaken about the state of the world. That's not because we are hopelessly ignorant but because we live in a political environment that's clumsy about facts. We regard the world with easy disdain because, despite our efforts, we don't know much about it.
We also don't know much about American military strength. The authors believe the U.S. is afflicted by what they call the "Threat-Industry Complex," the habit of senators, generals and TV pundits to describe fearsome dangers that may be the worst ever faced by America. The authors helpfully gather a selection of outlandish quotes. Two years ago, one air force general said "there's no question" Americans were living in the most dangerous time "since the Civil War."
We are instructed not to take such predictions seriously, since they are often made in pursuit of a government budget increase. Clear and Present Safety follows in the tracks of Steven Pinker, a Montreal-born psychologist at Harvard, who has made a fascinating specialty of transforming how we think about progress. (Pinker's name is the first one we encounter in Clear and Present Safety.) His book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (Viking), argues that the Enlightenment advocated certain reforms, which have been realized to an impressive extent. These enormous improvements have not been hidden but certainly they have not been absorbed into the accepted idea of education. Much has been ignored.
If Pinker blames individuals for choosing to read about tragedy rather than hard-won, admirable human progress, I plead guilty -- and I don't have to go beyond the past week to provide the details of my confession. I read half a dozen pieces investigating the dreadful massacre in New Zealand -- read them with burning curiosity, and looked for more like them. But if someone sets out to explain some sterling accomplishment (for instance, how humanity has recently cut in half the number of children who die before reaching age five), I probably won't have the same curiosity to read about it.
At the core of this difficulty is journalism's professional obsession. We who read the papers (or write them) know that news is, more often than not, bad news. An editor I worked for used to say, "Every day a newspaper tells the public what went wrong in the world yesterday." (He wasn't bragging.) Thousands of decisions following that pattern accrue into an attitude, which eventually becomes a reader's habit. Clear and Present Safety and Pinker's excellent books are admirable efforts to reverse a trend.