Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Hard to see America’s ‘success story’ in current bloody times

Mandatory Credit: Photo by CRISTOBAL HERRERA/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9427935c) People visit a makeshift memorial in front of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in, Parkland, Florida, USA, 20 February 2018.
A makeshift memorial in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, to honor victims of the mass shoorting on Feb. 14.

Is the world turning pinker? Is all for the best (as Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss claims in “Candide”) in the best of all possible worlds — or at least, better than in any previous state of the world?

Or is the world turning a darker shade — blood red rather than pink? In the wake of yet another massacre at yet another American school by yet another political extremist with yet another screw loose and yet another assault rifle, it is hard to swallow the pinker thesis. I refer, of course, to my friend and Harvard colleague Steven Pinker, whose latest book makes the (almost) Panglossian case that things have never been better.

“Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” is a cheerful, contrarian tract for dark times. I would guess that the vast majority of Pinker’s Harvard colleagues and students think the world is careening towards disaster. Here’s what he has to say: “Human welfare has improved dramatically, and it’s improved by almost any measure you like — longevity, health, prosperity, education, literacy, leisure time, and on and on . . . The objective record shows that progress has taken place, and it’s really an enormous success story.”


One reason people don’t appreciate this success story, Pinker argues, is distorted media coverage: if it bleeds, it leads. The other, he concedes, is that all this global progress is less discernible in America, which has (in his words) “a stagnation in happiness and higher rates of homicide, incarceration, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, child mortality, obesity, educational mediocrity and premature death” than the rest of the developed world.

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Yet even in America, things are not as bad as your Facebook news feed makes them seem — even, Pinker argues, when it comes to gun violence. On the basis of the evidence available as I write, it would be hard to deny that Nikolas Cruz, the gunman in Parkland, Florida, was a terrorist. He boasted in a YouTube comment that he was “going to be a professional school shooter”. He appears to have been involved with a white supremacist militia calling itself the Republic of Florida. He belongs in the same category as young Muslim men who commit acts of indiscriminate murder having expressed allegiance to ISIS.

Pinker remains in the pink, emphasizing “the tiny number of deaths . . . caused by terrorism compared with those from hazards that inspire far less anguish or none at all.” In 2015, according to his statistics, an American was 800 times as likely to be killed in a car crash as by a terrorist, and 3,000 times as likely to die in an accident of any kind. “Contact with hornets, wasps, and bees” killed more Americans than terrorists did that year.

I admire Pinker. I agree with him, as I argued at the time of the Las Vegas massacre four months ago, that the facts on gun violence in America are often misrepresented. But I think it’s not quite convincing to represent America as an outlier — a trivial exception — in a world that is generally getting better and will continue to do so.

Pinker shares the 18th-century Enlightenment’s faith in cosmopolitanism. He is on the side of “globalization, racial diversity, women’s empowerment, secularism, urbanization [and] education” and against the populist backlash Donald Trump has come to personify. This is partly because Pinker believes cosmopolitanism works. “As we continually expand discourse and interaction,” he said in a recent interview, “as people from diverse cultural backgrounds continue to sit down and agree about how to run their affairs, things tend to get better.”


The problem with this theory is that no country in history has more systematically tried to put it into practice than America. In the past several decades, increased immigration from all over the world has driven the foreign-born share of the US population from below 5% to above 13%. On present trends, the share will soon match the historic peak of 14.8% in 1890.

Moreover, immigrants to America now come from all over the world. Back in 1960, when Pinker was a boy, 84 percent of US immigrants were from Europe or Canada. By 2013 that share was down to 14 percent. On present trends in migration, fertility and mortality, the Census Bureau projects that minority groups will outnumber non-Hispanic whites in America by 2044. According to The Washington Post, the most that a Trumpian immigration policy could achieve would be to postpone that by five years.

If cosmopolitanism works, America should not be an outlier. It should not be the country where a significant proportion of the majority-soon-to-be-minority population is experiencing a rising mortality rate, not least because of an epidemic of opioid abuse, to say nothing of the multiple social pathologies described by Charles Murray in his seminal book “Coming Apart.” It should illustrate, not contradict, Pinker’s thesis.

Enlightenment Now? Or benightedness? America today feels like a country where Pinker’s cosmopolitanism has overshot, triggering an increasingly nasty backlash.

The Parkland school massacre is just the kind of horror that Voltaire throws at Dr. Pangloss to challenge his optimism. I want to believe Pinker when he says I should lighten up. It was just really hard to do that in the dark days of last week.

Niall Ferguson’s new book is “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook.”