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Nothing. If history has taught us anything, it is that mankind excels at doing bad while pretending to be noble and otherwise.
Sorry to be so pessimistic, but the last century has proved beyond doubt that human beings are not getting better. In fact, the opposite has occurred: we’ve regressed. The myth of progress be damned and forgotten evermore. Sure the last century saw many positive examples of growth – technology and applied science come to mind. And, yes, this growth has been at an unprecedented level too – since 1915 we have had the invention or upgrading of planes, automobiles, vaccines, indoor plumbing, freezers, dishwashers, modern medical advances such as the heart transplant and chemotherapy, television, radio, mobile phones, satellites, and the computer. I could go on and on, but I shall stop where I am. Human technology and its use has been a definite benefit.
But the story of the last century encompasses much more then the good uses of technology. it also saw the rise of three totalitarian threats (the legacies of which are still with us), which nearly wiped out all life on earth; two unbelievably destructive great world wars; genocides (I use the plural because even in our “enlightened age” they occur still); mass torture; starvation; a Cold War (that included multiple actual wars); the unleashing of political tyrannies never seen before, whose great claim was making many of their subjects never to be seen again; the rise of police states to a level Orwell could not envision; biological warfare; chemical warfare; poison gas; gulags; concentration camps; the emergence of religious violence and the deaths of 200 million people. More people died in the 20th century from secular regimes than all the wars in history up until that point.
So why do people seem to think we are improving, that our better angels are calling us home? Many of our secular liberal/libertarian friends seem to think it: Stephen Pinker and Michael Shermer both have written books on the subject. Of course, they are wrong – and the reason can be seen or stated very simply by reference to human history and, more particularly, human nature. Jews and Christians both acknowledge the profound corruption of human nature. Many pagans, who realized the harsh fact that human beings are not good, historically did the same. The very idea that people are good, which is believed by many on the left, is an Enlightenment fantasy dreamed up in 18th century France. It is a very young and wrong idea.
There is a great Russian story about human nature (which Thomas Sowell mentions in his great Dismantling America book):
There is an old Russian fable, with different versions in other countries, about two poor peasants, Ivan and Boris. The only difference between them was that Boris had a goat and Ivan didn’t. One day, Ivan came upon a strange-looking lamp and, when he rubbed it, a genie appeared. She told him that she could grant him just one wish, but it could be anything in the world.
Ivan said, “I want Boris’ goat to die.”
There are variations of that story in many other cultures across time and space. What it lacks in narrative it gains in telling us something profound about human nature. That we have in us something very bad, despite the fact that we’re capable of goodness.
The really odd thing is that the myth of progress – the idea that human beings are getting better and more humane and kind— is beginning to come back with force in liberal mind. No matter the evidence to the contrary, people still return to it. This could be very dangerous. Those who fail to learn lessons from history are doomed to repeat it. And none of us want to see the 20th century repeated. I don’t, anyway. God willing and hopefully…