Refugee total reaches a record high, but does that obscure a march of progress?

Posted at 10:33 AM, Jun 25, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-25 10:33:07-04

We learned in school about modern history’s cruelest man-made refugee crises – the Russian pogroms of the 1880s, World War I and World War II, which displaced 40 million people in Europe alone.  

The history curriculum should be revised before fall classes.  In sheer numbers, there were more refugees in the world in 2014 than ever recorded.

Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that more than 40 million refugees and displaced persons roamed the world for the first time since World War II. Since then, 42,500 people a day, half of them children, became refugees, displaced (refugees in their native country) or asylum seekers.  The UNHCR estimates in its new report that there are now about 59.5 million refugees.

“Worldwide, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum,” the report states. If the population of refugees were a country, it would be the 24th largest in the world. 

Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, their battles partly fueled by ancient religious and tribal timber, are the major sources of new refugees. The refugees of the 21st century are not fleeing the world’s great powers, as in the past; they are far away from America, from Europe, from the developed Asian nations and far from the culture and historical memory of the developed, prosperous world. 

Some big thinkers, the optimists, take the view that it is a very good thing, a sign of great progress, that the most powerful nations aren’t at war, aren’t still colonizing the world and are, if marginally, making their citizens safer and healthier. Smaller countries and less developed ones will join this march of progress, slowly but inevitably.

The pessimists see today’s refugee crisis as a sign of, well, absolutely nothing.

Today’s refugee crisis, they say, shows that smaller wars, crusades and genocides, set in places without global power, sometimes without real states, can create as much suffering as the wars and empires of the textbooks.

Yes, the pessimists concede, the superpowers have played nicely if noisily for the past six or seven decades, but in the age of nuclear weapons, that could change in a moment.  If water, fossil fuel and food grow scarce in an overpopulated, overcooked planet, Waterloo will look like Lake Wobegon.  There is no march of progress, only cycles and lucky moments. 

This is perhaps the most fundamental divide in how people see the course of human events: a march of human progress versus survival in an untamable world with no special direction or narrative.

Two world-class intellectuals got into a sparkling trans-Atlantic argument about this recently.

Stephen Pinker is a cognitive scientist and roving idea-factory at Harvard and the author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.”

His argument is roughly that it is a scientific and statistical fact that the world is less violent than ever; there are proportionally fewer deaths by war, conquest, feud, human sacrifice, torture, genocide, slavery, murder, infanticide and so on. 

Humans are also longer-lived, healthier and safer from the natural world. This is not an accident of history or nature. Humans have become more reasonable and, perhaps, more altruistic; the most powerful states have finally learned how to increase the physical well-being of humans; undeveloped societies will inevitably follow.

John Gray is a British political philosopher, a great contrarian and also a prolific author for general readers. Writing in The Guardian, Gray condemns Pinker’s optimism as a modern articulation of the Enlightenment’s idealistic worship of Reason as the conqueror of Unreason, just dressed up in the modern vestments of statistics and social science. 

The optimists’ belief that reason, science and technology cannot be corrupted and will inevitably triumph as a secular religion. “The childish simplicity of this way of thinking is reminiscent of Christians who ask how a religion of love could possibly be involved in the Inquisition,” Gray writes.

For Gray, the ancient view is truer. There is no straight line of progress, only cycles; “advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost” and “civilization remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism.”

Measuring the history of human violence in statistics is absurd, Gray says. Human sacrifices, cannibalism and superpower wars may be down, but mass imprisonment, religious crusades and the spread of weapons of mass destruction are up. One launched nuclear warhead and the optimistic view will go up in a mushroom cloud.

“Gray is not just wrong but howlingly, flat-earth, couldn’t-be-more-wrong wrong,” Pinker writes in response. “The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty and despotism, a steadily growing proportion of humankind is surviving infancy and childbirth, going to school, voting in democracies, living free of disease, enjoying the necessities of modern life and surviving to old age.”

Where do you stand? With Pinker or with Gray?

[Also by Dick Meyer: The 2016 field is crowded, but does it matter?]

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