If You Can Read This, You’ve Got It Made

My latest essay, you can also read it here.

If You Can Read This, You’ve Got It Made

Where do you stand in the so-called “Global Village?” Well . . .

“If we could shrink the earth’s population to a village of precisely one hundred people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, the village would include . . .

60 Asians,
12 Europeans,
15 from the Western Hemisphere (9 Latin Americans, 5 North Americans, and 1 Oceanian), and
13 Africans.

Of those one hundred people . . .

50 would be female,
50 would be male,
80 would be nonwhite,
20 would be white,
67 would be non-Christian,
33 would be Christian,
20 would earn 89 percent of the wealth,
25 would live in substandard housing,
17 would be unable to read,
13 would suffer from malnutrition,
1 would die within the year,
2 would give birth within the year,
2 would have a college education, and
4 would own a computer.”

Source: The Winner’s Manual: For the Game of Life, by Jim Tressel, courtesy of Compassion International: http://blog.compassion.com/the-global-village/#ixzz2IpqymRPs

If you can read this, chances are that you are one of the privileged four percent with a computer. Therefore you are better off than most of the people who have ever lived; by their standards, you’ve got it made. I’ll venture to say that even the kings and queens who lived before 1800 A.D. would envy someone in your situation. Why? To answer that, first we’ll look at what monarchs have that you don’t have, then vice-versa. So what have they got?

  1. Wealth. No surprise there; wealth is probably the most important difference between a ruler and yourself. Still, there are things that money cannot buy, as we shall see.
  2. Power. If you’re not an absolute ruler, chances are you won’t have an army of servants waiting on you hand and foot, and you won’t get your jollies by lopping off the heads of those you don’t like. And you aren’t likely to pull extravagant stunts like the ones the craziest Roman emperors are known for (think of Caligula, Nero, Commodus and Elagabalus). Nor are you going to lead armies; if you want to conquer the world, you’ll have to do it in a computer game. On the other hand, thanks to the political revolutions of the past few centuries, most of today’s monarchs don’t have much power, either.
  3. Fame. If a king or queen does anything at all, he/she is sure to get mentioned in the history books. And they can build monuments so the world will remember them for ages to come. The drawback is that these days, members of royal families are also constantly pursued by paparazzi.

Okay, now what do you have to make your life better than theirs?  Mainly creature comforts, here’s the list:

1. Your home is more comfortable. Before the modern era, the best way to escape extreme weather was to move into a cave; the temperature in a typical cavern stays constant all year round (e.g., it is always 54° F. in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave). Most manmade architecture by itself doesn’t do as good a job protecting those inside; e.g., a drafty castle certainly won’t keep out the heat of summer, or the cold of winter. In our own time, however, air conditioning and central heating have made it relatively easy to escape nature’s worst tantrums by staying indoors.  Any king will tell you that an air conditioner does a better job of keeping you cool than slaves waving fans behind your head!And what about pests? A cave won’t keep you safe from bugs, mice and other vermin. Heck, when I lived in Florida, I had to get used to critters invading my house regularly. That’s why exterminators are still in business today. Still, you have to admit they do a better job of keeping the ants, rats and roaches away than whatever passed for pest control in the past; at least we don’t try to distract flies with honey-covered slaves, as one pharaoh allegedly did!

2. You are healthier–and cleaner. You have soap and shampoo; you probably would not want to try the products that were used before soap and shampoo were invented (e.g., the Incas used fermented urine for hair care). What’s more, you can bathe every day without being viewed as eccentric; some of the greatest figures in history were also notorious stinkers.  If you feel put out because you don’t have a golden toilet like Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the African tyrant (see below), remember that for most of history, monarchs didn’t have flush toilets!

Bokassa's toilet

Consider also the quality of your health care. Compared with today’s doctors, most of the physicians who lived before the mid-nineteenth century were outright quacks. I don’t want to begin listing all the crazy remedies they thought would work. Remember the scene in Star Trek IV where Dr. McCoy hears two twentieth-century doctors discuss a patient’s treatment, and he feels like he is listening to the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition? You would probably feel the same about the doctors that lived three hundred years or more before your time. Because they didn’t know about the danger of germs, their surgical instruments might only get cleaned when they were left in the rain, so imagine how dangerous an operation must have been. And they didn’t have anesthetics, either; ouch!

Thanks to antiseptics and antibiotics, most of the minor infections that killed people in ancient/medieval times are child’s play for today’s doctors and nurses, and minor operations don’t have to be life-threatening. Modern dentists can make sure most of your teeth don’t rot out of your head before you reach the age of thirty. In addition, you can take vitamin supplements to avoid deficiency diseases like scurvy, rickets and beriberi. Finally, in a worst-case scenario where you lose a limb, or are born without one, you can get a prosthesis that works nearly as well as the real thing, or even a transplant.

3. You live longer. This ties in with the previous item. Before the nineteenth century, life expectancy for most people was forty or less. Back then, you would be considered blessed if you lived long enough to see your grandchildren. Worldwide, life expectancy is now 67.2. In the United States it is 75 if you’re male, 80 if you’re female. Therefore you stand a good chance of enjoying thirty to forty more years than most of your ancestors did. Kings in ancient times who ruled for forty years or longer often did it with a co-regency; they shared the throne with someone else at the beginning of their reign, the end of it, or both.

I could also point out that statistically, being head of state is the most dangerous job ever created. Throughout history, a lot of kings, queens and emperors have died of “unnatural causes.” Today some jobs like coal mining are notorious for work-related injuries and deaths, but the percentages of workers killed in those jobs is still less than the percentage of murdered monarchs. In my European history series I chronicled how bad it was in two countries where at least a third of the rulers suffered violent deaths, the Byzantine Empire andScotland. Of course, the job was a lot more appealing when the person who had it exercised real power. Have you noticed that since most of the world’s monarchs became figureheads, the length of their reigns and lifespans has increased, too?

4. You travel faster and more comfortably. You can hop on a plane right now and be on the other side of the world a day and a half later. What’s more, the speed of today’s transportation means you no longer have to live in the same community where you work. Sure, we complain about traffic, bad service on airliners, etc., but it beats weeks of suffering from saddle sores, sore feet, or seasickness. The best you could hope for on a long trip was a bumpy stagecoach ride. And consider how in the past, many ships were lost at sea, and many travelers were intercepted by barbarians or highwaymen; you’ve got a better chance of arriving safely at your destination.

5. Instantaneous communication. For most of history a message could only travel as fast as a person or animal could carry it.  Today you can know more about somebody on another continent than you do about your next-door neighbor.

6. Your food is better. The typical supermarket is a marvel of modern economics. Even in the middle of winter, you can go there and find a far greater variety of food than most people have had over the ages. In ancient Mesopotamia, for instance, the average person lived on bread, onions and beer most of the time; meat was a special treat. By contrast, today’s grocers offer food items that can’t be grown locally, or are out of season in your area. Recently I heard some environmentalists telling us to buy only locally grown foods, to cut down on the amount of fuel needed to bring them to market, but you have to admit our diets will be much poorer if we do that.

You should also be thankful you have a refrigerator. That way your food stays fresh much longer than it used to, and you don’t have to cover your meat with spices to hide the fact that it is past its prime. True, in the past food didn’t have growth hormones and other additives, but if I am willing to pay extra, I can go to a health food store and buy food without the chemicals.

Also keep in mind that over the course of history, most of our crops have been taken from their native lands and successfully grown elsewhere. For instance, there once was a time when only Southeast Asia had rice; do you think you would have recognized Chinese or Indian cuisine back then? Likewise, chickens and their eggs were only known in East Asia before 1000 B.C.; if you lived anywhere else and wanted eggs for breakfast in those days, you probably would have gotten duck eggs, turkey eggs, etc. The biggest introduction of new foodstuffs happened after the discovery of America; it has been referred to as “the Columbian Exchange.” Imagine Italy without tomatoes, Ireland without potatoes, Madagascar without vanilla, Thailand without chili peppers, Florida without oranges, or South America without coffee, and you will realize what a difference this made.

A map of the Columbian Exchange.

Quick now, what is your favorite fast food? Chances are that if you lived far enough in the past, you would never taste it, even if you were a great king. Hamburgers, French fries, and fried chicken are all nineteenth-century inventions. The Italians were making pizza as early as the Middle Ages, but of course it couldn’t have tomato sauce on it before they discovered tomatoes. The place to sell those items also first appeared in the nineteenth century. Credit for the invention of the fast-food restaurant goes to an English baroness, Angela Burdett-Coutts, who got the idea that workers would eat a better lunch if they could buy fried potatoes and fried fish at the same establishment; that is how the English discovered fish & chips!

A few years ago, the Hungarians produced a commercial which asserted that they had a delivery service before they became civilized. But even if this is true, you can be sure they didn’t have as many items on the menu as they have today.

7. You can be entertained 24/7. For most of history, any form of entertainment required a live performance. Usually this meant watching musicians, jesters, jugglers, and acrobats; for a dramatic performance, you went to a theater to watch a play; for sports, you went to a stadium, racetrack, or whatever venue was appropriate. Well, thanks to our ability to record and store pictures, video and sound, you can watch/listen to those events any time you want, whether or not any entertainers are available. When I was a kid, I needed a record player or radio (neither of which was portable) to listen to music; now I carry my whole music collection on a device that fits in my pocket. And if you want to listen to the same song a hundred times, or watch the same game a hundred times, there’s nothing stopping you. Finally, our ancestors had access to just a few forms of entertainment in any given place; they might only get to see one sport, for instance. By contrast, radio, television and the Internet give us access to entertainment from almost anywhere in the world; e.g., I can listen to bhangra if I get tired of bluegrass music.

8. You can read, period. Before the invention of moveable type printing, books were prohibitively expensive because each one had to be copied by hand. And when people wrote with hieroglyphics rather than with a simple alphabet, it took twelve years just to learn to read and write. I believe that the reason why schools used to concentrate on teaching the three “Rs” (“reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic”) is because by the time the typical student mastered that, he was grown up and there wasn’t much time left to learn anything else. All this meant that in ancient and medieval times only a fraction of a nation’s population could read and write. The highest pre-modern literacy rate I have seen was 30 percent, for people living in the cities of the Roman Empire; in most cases single-digit figures would have been more accurate. Schools and libraries in those days were usually run by the state religion, because most of the people who could read were priests and monks. That is why the terms “cleric” and “clerical” used to be associated with the Church, but now have to do with accountancy. On a positive note, the low literacy rates virtually guaranteed a good job for anyone who could read. So if you were transported back in time and could master the language of whatever place you reached, you would have an automatic advantage over the other job-seekers.

All things considered, I’ll venture to say that if they could, even some of the god-kings of the ancient world might be willing to trade places with us. What do you think?

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