Reasons to be happy despite the media.

Dec 6, 2020

Journalists write about disasters because they sell more copy. A recent book tells us to look on the bright side.

To cheer me up a bit at the beginning of the lockdown, I read The Plague by Albert Camus and A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. A book I read a few weeks ago, Humankind: A Hopeful History by a Dutchman, Rutger Bregman, worked best. The only problem was that it made me feel guilty about being a journalist.

It seems curious to say while we are still in viral purgatory, but Bregman’s convincing starting point is that human beings have never been healthier and better off. Surveys carried out everywhere before the pandemic have been saying that for decades, but if people are not convinced, it has a lot to do with the pessimistic view of the world that we in the media broadcast. It comforts me to think that not everything is our fault. It is scientifically proven that bad news outsells the good.

If every day almost all the newspapers in the world publish on the front page the latest numbers of deaths and infections from the virus, it will be because this is what our dear readers want. What will we do when the pandemic is over? How will we compensate for the absence of such a commercially viable diet? It occurs to me that the solution would be to follow the current pattern and adopt the habit of publishing the figures for all deaths every day, be they from cancer, heart attacks, tuberculosis, malaria, or traffic accidents. The material is abundant. They would multiply the current coronavirus death figures by a factor of 40.

And these figures would serve to continue feeding the false belief that Rutger Bregman so dislikes. We will continue to think that the world is going to pot when the reality is that, even taking into account the Covid factor, we live in the most prosperous, safest, and healthiest era since the birth of the first homo sapiens. Statistics confirm, and Bregman is not the only one to point it out, that disease, poverty, and war afflict far fewer people today than half a century ago.

But the Dutchman goes further. His “radical idea”, he says on the first page of the book, is an idea “denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the media and erased from the chronicles of world history,” an idea “so intrinsic to human nature that it has gone unnoticed.” His radical idea is that “deep down people are pretty decent.”

Bregman spends the rest of the book supporting his thesis with scientific and historical data. I already suspected from my experience as a journalist that he was right. For example in Belfast, during the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, the truth that rarely counted was that most of the city functioned normally and people lived together in peace. When I covered the wars in Central America, I focused on massacres and murderers, but most of the citizens of El Salvador, Nicaragua, or Guatemala, even the combatants, were honourable.

Almost everything I have written during my nearly four decades as a journalist has highlighted the cruelty, selfishness, stupidity, greed, vanity, or ignorance of our species. For the past month, I have had a great time ranting about Donald Trump, who embodies all these flaws and more. But what I sometimes thought, and didn’t write when I was cruising through Trump territory in Pennsylvania on the eve of the election, is that the vast majority of those who voted for the monster must be, as Bregman would put it, decent people.

I have no reason to believe, putting aside their abysmal judgment and regrettable bad taste, that Trump’s nearly 74 million voters are worse people than the nearly 80 million who prefer Joseph Biden. If I were hit by a car, I’m sure the people of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, would come to my aid with the same alacrity, if not more, than those of New York or San Francisco.

Bregman wrote his book before the virus appeared. But even today I would continue to see reasons, I think, for hope. First, it seems that we have come up with a vaccine in less than a year when just a few decades ago it would have taken much longer. On the other hand, journalists rush to publish stories about young party-goers who pay zero attention to the norms of social distance, when the truth is that the vast majority have demonstrated the kind of altruism that would be required of them in times of war.

Let it never be forgotten: in this time of plague, so unique that its mortal victims have an average age of more than 80 years, it is the young who are making the most sacrifice. They are the ones who are being deprived of the joy that comes from being young, and who will suffer most from the economic consequences of these blasted confinements. Let’s remember: young people are being more than decent.

Finally, more good news, one that would have been celebrated with drums and trumpets around the world, had the pandemic not so obsessed us that we have lost our sense of proportion. I found this gem, half-hidden, in The Times of London on Friday. Newly completed research at a Boston hospital indicates that taking vitamin D supplements and maintaining a normal weight reduces the chances of getting “advanced or fatal” cancer by as much as 38 percent.

Consider this: the global number of cancer deaths in 2018 was 9.5 million, six times the number likely to die from Covid in 2020 (nearly 1.4 million to date). In other words, vitamin D and healthy eating could save twice as many lives as the virus vaccine.

Finally, I apologize. I write all this to break the ominous protocol that my work requires and to share the moment of hope that reading Rutger Bregman’s book gave me. But, editors and readers, don’t worry. Normal service will resume as soon as possible.

John Carlin writes regular columns for La Vanguardia (Spain) and Clarín, (Argentina). This column appeared in Clarín on 21 November 2020, and is translated by Kieran Tapsell.

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