Fifty years ago hitchhiking was a normal mode of travel. Like many of my generation, I hitchhiked across Europe and back one summer college vacation. Nobody hitchhikes now. You’d have to be crazy…or if you weren’t, drivers would assume you were and drive on by.

Second: All that steady progress, from the Enlightenment to the later 20th century, was accomplished by European populations in nations where discriminatory laws and customs excluded non-Europeans from most kinds of participation. It is not known whether progress can continue in nations with large, fully engaged admixtures of non-Europeans. It might, and of course we are all supposed to believe that it will, with obloquy and ostracism heaped upon doubters; but that belief has no empirical foundation. It’s merely an act of faith.

A young friend visiting London wrote this to me in an email:

As I stood there in Waterloo Station waiting for the train, I noticed how few actual English people there were. The exact thought that went through my head was something like, “Wow, it must be bad here when it is rare to hear English spoken without a foreign accent.” As I stood there, most of the people in the station were speaking English either with some African, Indian, or Arabic accent; that is, if they were speaking English at all.

John Cleese recently recorded the same impression. I have had the same experience, in America as well as in England. It is usually followed by the thought: “This will not end well.” That may just be dad speaking to me through the Y chromosome. Perhaps it will end just fine. We don’t know. It’s never been tried. Never, before modern air travel and the modern conception of “rights,” have all the big old branches of Homo sap. mingled in such numbers under an egalitarian regime. It’s an experiment. Experiments sometimes succeed and sometimes fail.

Third: The question, “Is the present better than the past?” prompts another question—“For whom?”

Samuel Pepys’s Diary: October 20th, 1660. This morning one came to me to advise with me where to make me a window into my cellar in lieu of one which Sir W. Batten had stopped up, and going down into my cellar to look I stepped into a great heap of turds by which I found that Mr. Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which do trouble me, but I shall have it helped.

Transported back 350 years to an age when wealthy senior government officials lived over cellars heaped with ordure, you or I would suffer greatly. Just the stink would drive us mad. Pepys, however, was a cheerful and busy fellow who got much pleasure out of life. 

You have to exercise some historical imagination. There is no possibility of you or I being transported back to 1660, nor even 1960. It can’t be done. The past belonged to the people who lived in it. We know about their lives but they did not know about ours; that asymmetry vexes the argument.

I don’t have an answer to the question, “Is the present better than the past?” Perhaps there isn’t one. Or perhaps there is one, but in some other place—a place where mum and dad have quit arguing at last.

 



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