View from Rue Saint-Georges

A Sense of Horrors Avoided

On progress and criticism

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | September 20, 2017
A scene from the aftermath of the 2010 floods in Pakistan (Russell Watkins/Department for International Development)


“The more one has suffered, the less one demands,” observed Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran. “To protest is a sign one has traversed no hell.” That sounds brutally dismissive. It’s too absolute, too extreme. One has only to look at the civil rights movement. Yet there is also truth in this statement, especially in our age of bare-minimum, social media “slacktivism.” I was reminded of this the other day when a friend shared a thread on Twitter in which a user, an immigrant with the handle @RoundSqrCupola, expressed bafflement at the way the politically outspoken actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani chooses to address his 1.8 million followers: “Kumail grew up in Pakistan, where you can be put to death for blasphemy, honor killings are rampant, atheists are murdered regularly. Yet he harps on endlessly about one of the most tolerant societies in the history of the world—the modern US. Goes apoplectic after every Trump speech/comment. Really hard to make sense of this perspective on the world.”

While I certainly don’t want to gainsay the extraordinary threat to American values the election of Donald Trump poses, these are questions worth asking, and not just of Nanjiani. In continually measuring our society against an as yet unattained frictionless utopia forever floating on the horizon—and neglecting to look in the rearview at all the horror that has been avoided—to what extent do we minimize and fail to appreciate the very real progress of which we are the accidental beneficiaries?

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