Are we better off than our generational predecessors? Some say no, but I’m old enough for such pessimism to seem absurd. My parents knew nothing of modern conveniences like central heating, television, or advanced antibiotics; to travel for them was a luxury, to cross a border a risky adventure. They lived in an age of turmoil and horror. Yet they remained hopeful. Having survived the Bolshevik revolution, Nazism, and—after fleeing Germany and arriving in France in the 1930s—the Vichy regime, they opened a garment shop in 1945 in a working-class suburb of Paris and called it Au Progrès: “to progress.” I remember vividly the painted sign, with its brown letters against a yellow background. The name was an affirmation that the world could only get better.
This optimism, expressed in 1945, would be confirmed in the following years—for them and for so many others. Our lives, collectively, are better now, sheltered from ideological catastrophes, from great epidemics, and from mass famine. We can only rejoice in the massive reduction in poverty across the globe. War and malnutrition haven’t disappeared, but the number of victims keeps declining, thanks to a more lawful world order, effective economic policies, and scientific breakthroughs. Today, 7 billion humans are better off and live longer than the 3 billion who peopled the planet in 1945. If the price to pay for such advances is a hypothetical global warming, I’ll pay it. In any contest between Man and Nature, I’ll take the side of Man.
To proclaim oneself an optimist in an era of financial meltdowns and budget crises may nevertheless seem provocative. Yet while it’s true that the recent recession took us backward, it also encouraged some healthy self-criticism and innovation, which is how free economies move forward. Broadly speaking, the last half-decade has been fertile with economic and political progress. It has become clear, for example, that all nations, in all civilizations, demand freedom as well as prosperity. Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has come to represent China’s honor and, let us hope, its future. The Arab Spring, however disappointing and incomplete, has at least shown that the Middle East isn’t content with despotism. In Africa, a middle class is emerging. In Latin America, the peaceful transfer of power following free elections has become the norm.
Pessimism has its advantages: to predict the worst—and, in the event of catastrophe, to boast of having seen it coming—pays off. Optimism is more perilous, since it requires looking at the horizon and discerning positive developments, while risking being called Pangloss, whom Voltaire ridiculed for believing that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The optimist is also shadowed by the temptation to set aside unexpected events that don’t corroborate his original theory. At every moment, he must ask if it is reasonable to stay optimistic; he must also be a skeptic. This is no contradiction. I try to be both optimist and skeptic. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss used to say that without some kind of magnifying glass (a theory, that is), it was impossible to see anything—but, he added, all lenses distort. True to this view, I look at the world through my lens, while trying never to forget that it is imperfect.
If I had to sum up recent history as seen through my lens in a phrase, I’d propose: the Crisis of the West and the Westernization of the World. While the West is perplexed about its economic future, its cultural identity, and the dysfunctions of its democratic politics, others are rallying to its institutions and ways. A few years ago, invited to speak at the People’s University of Beijing, I speculated about this crisis of the West. The first respondent, the political philosopher Liu Junning, declared, to the applause of students and faculty, that many Chinese would gladly take our crisis—if they could enjoy our freedoms. Crisis and freedom are surely bound together, since the West is essentially driven toward self-criticism and what economists call “creative destruction,” an expression that really should apply to all aspects of our society. To a Chinese person oppressed by tyranny, creative destruction is eminently desirable. Perhaps, then, it’s time to love the West, and our times, more, as others envy us so much.