Sunday, November 25, 2012

Exactly Who You Think They Are: "The State Dinner"

1:30 in the morning on a Sunday, and here I am, wide awake thanks to having worked a midnight-to-8:30 shift on Black Friday. But the (possibly) good news is that the Internet is so dead at this hour that I'm writing about "The State Dinner" sooner than I otherwise might have. And it's a less objectionable episode than any of the first six. I don't mean as drama; on those terms it may be the weakest to date. Its subplots fail to cohere into a satisfying overall story, and what character work there is Sorkin's typical facile approach-real-drama-then-scurry-away stuff. But politically, this episode isn't quite as inane as it might be, and it actually grants a radical critique of the U.S. government some legitimacy, though it does so in underwhelming fashion.

First, however, we'll talk about vermeil. What's worse here, C.J. whining about how the reporters only discuss clothing and then dismissing protesters interested in an actual issue as "six pathetic people protesting on a Friday," or the weakness of Abbey Bartlet's answer on the problem of vermeil itself? Trick question, really, because they're the same failing: a nominal willingness to criticize the unnecessary opulence of national political life coupled with an indifference to doing anything about it. C.J. acts as though Abbey has brilliantly resolved the dilemma, but that's only true if you assume that the sole available options are to use the vermeil or to lock it away somewhere. Instead of either, they might, oh, I don't know, sell it and use the proceeds to feed poor people, or put it in a museum whose proceeds would feed poor people, or something like that. Likewise, there's no law that says the First Lady has to be wearing "a Badgley Mischka silk Shantung gown with a beaded bodice;" that's a choice, one that encourages a worshipful focus on the ceremonial presidency rather than a realistic consideration of the office as a political function. But Sorkin wants you to worship the president, at least if he's cosmopolitan enough to be worth the worship. At least this episode presents Danny Concannon in the best light he'll ever get, as an actual adversarial journalist, rather than the shameless colluder of "Take Out the Trash Day" and the Shareef assassination storyline.

The standoff in Idaho. This is one of the better strands of the episode, allowing Mandy to make a forceful argument about the possibility of government overreaction and the dangers of "the unbridled power of the state over its citizens," which is pretty strong stuff for the cheerfully authoritarian Sorkin. Her suggestion that the government sting against the extremists constitutes entrapment is especially relevant in light of the contemporary government habit of creating and arresting terrorists in the name of freedom. But there are issues with this presentation too. For one thing, even Mandy feels the need to describe the extremists as "exactly who you think they are." This neatly avoids discussing any concrete issues that might generate or expand this brand of right-wing extremism (one of which might be the liberal habit of reducing such extremists to a cultural stereotype), anything at all beyond the mournful suggestion that such people are "the inevitable and unavoidable byproduct of democracy." They hate us for our freedoms. Also, the shooting of the negotiator tends to suggest that peaceful engagement with extremism is doomed to failure, and that going in with guns blazing is always the best approach. I don't think that's the intention-- to the extent that the shooting means anything to Sorkin, it's probably in terms of character work for Mandy and Bartlet-- but the reading is there nonetheless.

Speaking of character stuff for Mandy, it's been interesting to note that in the first season to date, she is the voice of (what passes for) the far left in the world of The West Wing. Later this position will be held by Toby, but so far he's more pro-authority (consider his waxing indignant over the "threat" from Bertram Coles) and anti-union (like Josh, he sides with management over the truckers in the labor subplot), and Mandy is the actual liberal. It's telling that when Sorkin considered reintroducing her in season two, it was as an adviser to the left-wing Democrat played by Ed Begley, Jr. The only trouble with making Mandy the voice of the left is that she's a political consultant, an image-based job, and is easily dismissed as such, as happens in this very episode, even though there's not much substantive difference between the way she balances image and issues and the way everyone else in the West Wing does it. The resolution, where she appears literally not to have the stomach for this sort of thing, is tricky again in this respect. There's a larger issue involving the fact that Mandy and C.J., the two women in key positions, hold jobs that are more about presentation than substance, but I'll hold off discussing that until a future episode where it's a bit more relevant.

The storm. The ending is sweet; if you consider it in isolation from the rest of his personality, Bartlet is pretty likable. The only other thing worth noting is that it's not remotely appropriate for Josh to be using his and Leo's authority to divert FEMA's operations, however briefly, for the sake of a single family, even if that family happens to be related to a White House staffer. I'm honestly surprised that the episode presents Josh's behavior as entirely a matter of heartwarming loyalty, with not even a whiff of awareness that this is a privileged abuse of power.

The truckers. It's significant that even the liberal West Wing feels the need to maintain parity of insults, following the centrist narrative that the unions are just as bad as management. The high point of this nonsense is when Leo smacks down one of the union guys for telling an opponent he's "full of crap," because "this is the White House, Bobby, it's not the Jersey turnpike." First of all, I think that if he were actually on the Jersey turnpike, Bobby might use a slightly more offensive word than "crap." Second, I doubt that Vile Bobby was the first person to utter said word within the confines of the White House, or that by doing so he lowered the tone of presidential discourse forevermore. As a matter of fact, Leo's Boss used the word in the White House himself, in the pilot. But Leo had to distance himself from the truckers somehow, and if it could include a classist implication that truckers don't know how to conduct themselves among Serious People, well, so much the better.

Meanwhile, despite the occasional mention of specific issues, all of which continue to be relevant to worker/management relations, the ultimate verdict on the trucking debate is that it's a bunch of squabbling kids who need Papa Bartlet to tell them to act their age or nobody gets to use the Super Nintendo. (Having him pull out his Nobel Prize to declare that they're all wrong without ever saying how is an especially fine case of an empty appeal to authority.) The episode is at least vaguely aware that this may be an overreaction on his part due to ego, but there's no meaningful consideration of how this interaction between personal quirks and political problems might influence the fate of nations in ways both good and bad. That would be some real, complex drama, after all, and Sorkin is more interested in writing about lovable, mildly-flawed heroes than about profoundly compromised human beings.

Finally, the state dinner itself. The episode manages to get several things about Indonesia wrong, and there's something unpleasant about the various "aren't these foreigners wacky" gags being aimed at a real nation; stick to made-up countries, huh, Aaron? The multiple translation shtick is pretty threadbare even as slapstick; I Love Lucy did it in 1955, and it wasn't exactly cutting-edge comedy then. And I could certainly live without Toby lecturing the cook on not knowing English even though he lives here; why is a liberal Democrat reciting right-wing bumper stickers? But I'll put up with a lot to have U.S. hypocrisy called out as powerfully as it is here, leaving Josh and Toby speechless for once in their lives. Of course, I have to say that there are slightly more recent U.S. failures in the human rights department than the Native American genocide. The sort, for example, that come from rigging foreign elections and taking other repressive action in favor of preferred dictators, which this episode mentions in passing twice, once as a joke, because if there's anything that's funny, it's a century of often brutal American hegemony. But given that Sorkin will eventually pretend, in "Posse Comitatus," that the U.S. has never before compromised itself for the sake of its interests, I'm not sure he really gets the awfulness of U.S. foreign policy. If he did, he wouldn't, for half a hundred reasons, have been able to have a show about the White House airing on NBC.

Next episode: "Enemies," one of three episodes in the Sorkin era for which he was not credited with writing or co-writing the teleplay, though I'll continue my reductive habit of ascribing every aspect of the production to him anyway.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Dummies: "Mr. Willis of Ohio"

So here we are, more than a year after I last wrote about The West Wing. At five episodes annually, I should finish abusing the Sorkin era in a mere 18 years. Just think: babies born while I was discussing the pilot will be able to celebrate my post on "Twenty Five" by smoking a cigarette or casting a meaningless vote in the latest Most Important Election Ever. I'm getting a little misty at the very thought. Anyway.

"Mr. Willis of Ohio" is a tough episode from the perspective of this blog, because its political issue (apart from the cutesy Josh/Donna discussion of taxes, which is notable only insofar as it suggests Sorkin thinks the liberal argument for high taxation should be made in the most paternalistic way possible) is the census, which cannot possibly be said to matter. Sorkin tries his level best to convince us otherwise, not least in Joe Willis' final speech about its being "the right place to start," which is evidently meant to be stirring but contains, so far as I can see, no meaningful content. Yes, to the extent that one accepts the illusion of representative government it matters how many people there are in the country, and yes, to the extent that one fetishizes the constitution it matters whether sampling is consistent with it. But even so, this is thin stuff on which to hang an episode. (I note in passing that one benefit of the traditional census from a liberal perspective, that it provides temporary employment for hundreds of thousands of people who need it, goes unmentioned, though I suppose the acuteness of that need is somewhat more visible now that it was in 1999.)

But of course this episode isn't really about the census. It's about Joe Willis, about praising him in terms so condescending that the praise falls flat. Last episode ("The Crackpots and These Women," if you'll cast your minds back thirteen months), we were told that Mrs. Landingham was amazing because she had a perfect attendance award; now Joe Willis is amazing because, er. Because he's a teacher? Because he went to night school? Or because he's bereaved, good-natured, self-deprecating and black? Stop and imagine this same script with a white Joe Willis. Not only does Toby's ploy no longer work; the worshipful attitude the episode takes toward him becomes hard to comprehend. I don't think, though, that Willis' race is actually the point; it's just a cheap grab for liberal sympathy. Willis' true "appeal" lies elsewhere, and reveals a deep cynicism that clashes with The West Wing's superficial optimism.

What Toby says about Willis, what makes him "unusual," is that he "didn't walk into the room with a political agenda. He didn't walk in with his mind up. He genuinely wanted to do what he thought was best. He didn't mind saying the words 'I don't know.'" Unless you're a misanthrope, these are not in fact regarded as unusual characteristics for an average human being. They may, however, be unusual for a politician. What we have here, then, is the political class genuflecting to ordinary people by declaring their inherent superiority. This is most easily regarded as pandering, but it's also possible that politicians wholeheartedly believe it, that they do see themselves as driven purely by agendas, fixed opinions, selfishness, and arrogance. Consider Toby's confession to Willis, in which he acknowledges that he was engaged in manipulative, dishonest race-baiting. Doesn't that make him a pretty terrible human being, regardless of whether Willis knew he was doing it? The episode moves rather lightly past the partisan gains sampling will offer Democrats, but isn't that likely to be the point of the exercise? What about the precedent it sets? Instead of answers we get a joke about the Nielsens, a reminder that The West Wing is best regarded not as a drama, but as a sitcom suffering from a serious excess of Very Special Episodes.

One last thing about Mr. Willis: the character appears not to be very well thought-out. The first thing we hear about him is that "presumably he's gonna do what he's told." But if that's the case, how is he a swing vote, and why is he at a meeting designed to convince those hostile to what the White House wants? Unless they mean "do what he's told by the other committee members at the meeting." Which raises the questions: what party is Willis in? The other two are Republicans, but it's hard to imagine that Janice Willis, possibly black and definitely admired by Toby, was with the GOP. (Fun fact: in the real world there has never been a black Republican congresswoman, although Mia Love, black, female, Mormon, Republican, and therefore fascinating to those who enjoy identity politics, is hoping a recount will change that.) But if he's a Democrat, why is he being courted simultaneously with Republicans (or at all), and why do Gladman and Skinner act as though the Republican committee chair's advice would mean something to him? Is he supposed to be that much of a naif? Or is this just a script that makes no earthly sense?

Speaking of making no earthly sense, in this episode Josh points out the inanity of Sam telling Mallory that he had slept with Laurie, but only for the sake of another line of repetitive Sorkin banter, not because it is, you know, a gaping flaw in the plot logic of a major first season storyline. Also, Sam again makes the distinction that Laurie is not a hooker but a call girl. Why is he so hung up on this? Because he's a privileged asshat more offended by the idea that he would solicit a cheap prostitute than by the thought he would solicit one at all? You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment.

Then there's Zoey's close encounter with the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad frat boys. What's grating about this scene is not that I don't think such frat boys exist, or that they might be found in a D.C. area bar. It's not even the implausibility of the set-up. (On that note, though: where is Zoey's Secret Service protection? Leo's Boss mentions upping her protection, but why is nobody in the room with her to begin with? Did they somehow imagine that being surrounded by several high-profile members of the administration made her safer? No wonder kidnapping her turns out to be so easy. And would the bartender just hand her C.J.'s drink anyway? "It's for my non-underage friend!" Yeah, right.) What's grating is the reason the frat boys are so comically over the top: so that we won't stop to wonder whether throwing the Secret Service at them might be a slight overreaction to some macho posturing, posturing in which the grownup White House staffers also engage, though without the racism and homophobia. Are we meant to cheer that the Eric Balfour character might go to federal prison because he was carrying cocaine while attempting to flirt with a receptive girl who happened to be the president's daughter? I guess so, especially because it helped Charlie get over his inferiority complex. And what's a ruined life next to that?

That's all for now. Coming up: "The State Dinner," in which Abby Bartlet is introduced. I may watch it later today, but I doubt I'll have time to write about it until after Thanksgiving, which I plan to celebrate, in best West Wing tradition, by pretending to care about Indians and making a prank call to the Butterball hotline. Good times.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

One last Pinker followup

Although I joked about the endlessness of my response to Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, the truth is that for a book so (physically) substantial and wide-ranging in its claims, a long reply is warranted. Which is why I was pleased to read Edward S. Herman and David Peterson's Reality Denial: Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence, a 39,000-word critique that points out many of the faulty assumptions, biases, and distortions underlying Pinker's absurd thesis. There's a particular focus on his treatment of the 20th and 21st centuries, but later sections also deal with the wider historical issues, and the science (such as it is) behind his claims. Herman and Peterson's blunt, meticulous overview brings home especially well just how unpleasantly smug Pinker is about the naive illusions that undergird not just his thesis, but his general worldview. Their book is available as a printable PDF, or a hyperlinked online version. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Goodbye to All That

The laptop on which my notes on the Pinker book were kept was finally repaired and picked up last week, and I was thinking about writing part whatever-the-hell-we're-up-to-now this week. But yesterday my computer developed another problem, one it occasionally has that makes it run too slowly to use and can only be fixed by a recovery to factory default settings. Usually the problem starts gradually and I can copy off whatever data I need, but this time it was so abrupt that all my files were lost. The Pinker notes are gone, and without them I can't be specific enough to make future installments worth doing. In short: we're done.

It's probably just as well: the more I thought and read about the book, the more I felt it was so ridiculous, so intellectually sloppy, that it wasn't worth responding to in such detail. As I've said before, Pinker, like virtually every popular intellectual, is popular precisely because his beliefs reinforce old ideas while providing them with a modern, academic gloss. Anti-intellectualism has become the standard pose of conservatives, but most liberals, although their ideas are no less fixed and circumscribed, prefer to think of themselves as broad-minded. That this book is in reality a one-sided polemic that dismisses historical complexity and contingency in favor of nineteenth-century caricatures about reason and enlightenment is the point: it encourages readers to accept the status quo because they can tell themselves there's serious brainpower justifying it. I mean, it's 800 pages, with footnotes, and Pinker's a Harvard professor! What more could you expect? I used to want to debunk that kind of non-critical response; now I can't see the point. The David Bentley Hart review I linked to earlier says all that's worth saying.

The good news is that, with Pinker out of the way, I no longer have an excuse not to get back to The West Wing, which is easier to write about and (I would imagine) more enjoyable to read about, for the occasional poor soul who stumbles across this blog. Next episode, this week, I promise. Or hope. Or something.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Long History of Something or Other (Interlude 2): More Links

All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I still intend to finish this series on the Pinker book, and then get back to the West Wing reviews. There's been a long series of distractions, the latest of which is damage to the laptop on which my notes are stored, but at some point the stars will align and part five (or whatever number we're up to) will appear. Until then, a few more links.

Quodlibeta: I linked to a specific Pinker-related post on this blog before, but there have been several others since, subjecting his historical claims to a rigorous analysis I lack the resources and inclination to undertake. Spoiler: it turns out he's out of his depth. Shocking. Note particularly the post on medieval murder rates, which undermines the one piece of Pinker's factual argument I had been willing to accept.

"The Precious Steven Pinker": an entertaining review that's also more concise than anything I've written.

"Fandi Fictor Optimus Prime": IOZ weighs in.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Triangular Trades

The back cover of Ron Suskind's Confidence Men carries a set of blurbs that, intended to praise the author, instead suggest the defects of his approach. There are only four of them, but a dominant theme quickly emerges. "Suskind is at heart a storyteller." "Mr. Suskind is a prodigiously talented craftsman." "Suskind is the rare writer who combines excellent reporting with a knack for novelistic writing about real people." Those last five words are key to the failure, not only of Suskind's book, but of modern national journalism. As Bob Somerby has spent more than a decade pointing out, novelistic writing has been the press's default position for a long time, and when the facts complicate or disprove the group's preferred novel, they can be corrected, or made to disappear altogether. While Confidence Men isn't quite as egregious as the average press novel, its attempt to paint Barack Obama as a sincere proponent of change who was sidetracked by bad management and an intransigent staff most certainly values pleasing narrative over observable reality.

The press coverage of Confidence Men at the time of its release treated the book as a negative portrait of Obama's first two years in office, but really it's attuned not to Obama's critics but to those who are disappointed in him but still want to believe. The chapters that deal with the campaign are so fawningly impressed by his rhetoric ("brilliant speech... his particular brand of magic... precise and lyrical, heartfelt and gently clipped... extraordinary speech") that it's like being made to read a DailyKos diary from 2008. Forced to confront the distance between that rhetoric and the reality of 2009-2010, Suskind goes for the style rather than the substance, deciding against the elementary logic of human behavior that the "real" Obama is present in the speeches, and that the story of his presidency must explain how that desire for change was sidetracked.

He's supported in that narrative by several Obama-era White House functionaries who weave an account of how Obama's lack of managerial skills, coupled with the aggressive status quo-maintaining arguments of Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and Rahm Emanuel, stifled the earnest intention to produce genuine cost-cutting healthcare reform and potent new financial regulation. Without disputing that Obama was a poor manager who was intellectually dominated by his advisers, I have to point out that Suskind's major sources, the heroes of his book, all wanted substantial reform themselves, which would naturally color their recollection of Obama's actions and beliefs. At one point Suskind quotes Tom Daschle on the impression Barack Obama creates: "I saw a man who listened. Sometimes people misunderstood that listening as an acquiescence to their point of view." What neither Suskind nor Daschle can say is that Obama might well have encouraged that misunderstanding.

The common cynic's version of electoral politics has it that candidates say whatever they have to before the election and do whatever they want to after it. But of course political theater extends into the administration as well, and targets not only the general public but certain appointees as well, so that they remain in their positions creating the impression that the president really cares about perspective X on issue Y. Although the reformist domestic policymakers Suskind quotes are placed in secondary positions while those who would change as little as possible got the top spots, this is never read as a reflection of Obama's real political preferences. Here, in fact, is Suskind's entire explanation:
Sure, the other [reforming] team brought to the table honesty and passion, but those bold visions of the campaign season had meanwhile resolved into the serious, often risk-averse business of actually governing. In the midst of a battering economic storm, it no longer seemed like the right time to be making waves.
But if Barack Obama was capable of even mild cerebral activity (and though I think his intelligence has been overstated, I believe he was and is), he knew that that battering storm was the product of policies championed by those "serious, often risk-averse" people he was putting in top positions, and that allowing them to define another administration would make more waves that would gradually build the next storm. Such a decision is not simply about judgment as a leader; it's about political as well as managerial philosophy.

But, like so much modern journalism, Suskind places enormous emphasis on presidential personality, leaving unasked and unanswered why such diverse individuals produce results that consistently benefit one segment of the population over another. Much is made of Obama's having his advisers debate issues in front of him so he could lead them toward a consensus position, a preference that Larry Summers' (apparent) intellectual force and preparedness allowed him to manipulate. But that push for consensus is more than a leadership strategy. It's an act of triangulation, taking the liberal and conservative (as those terms are defined by the political class) positions and twisting them into something that, whoever it actually serves, seems like a compromise. Those not bewitched by Obama's rhetoric recognized well before the election that he was a master of such vacuous opportunism, and his fruitless attempts to shape legislation that would win large bipartisan majorities only drove the point home.

A narrative that ignores the ideological implications of Obama's approach encourages continued liberal adulation of his "vision," but more importantly it shifts the focus away from major structural forces that prevent serious reform. The power of the financial and health care lobbies is mentioned, but Suskind seems simply to assume that Obama could have used the power of popular sentiment and skillful politicking to overcome them. He also mentions, but doesn't really explore, the important fact that many of the people responsible for regulating and overseeing Wall Street come to those positions having worked on Wall Street, having made the risky deals and giant paychecks they're now supposed to police. This journey involving Washington and Wall Street also includes a third stop, on major college campuses, where as professors and guest speakers they inculcate their values in the next generation. Such a triangular trade guarantees that the system as it stands will always have more, and more powerful, supporters than detractors, and that calls for reform will often be couched in the language of safer profit rather than that of an increasingly insignificant public good.

There's a lot wrong with Confidence Men: the weakness for lame metaphor and love of a heart-warming biography that constitute Suskind's "knack for novelistic writing" (believe me, Harlequin romance novelists have more of a knack); the mistake, common to modern reporters, of using perceived quirks of body language to justify a invented reading of someone's mood; a habit of praising, and allowing self-serving presentations by, anyone who offers criticisms of the contemporary system (there's a paragraph about the awesomeness of mid-century captains of industry that's positively nauseating); an inability to make the shady economic methods he discusses more than vaguely understandable; the failure to examine foreign policy even cursorily; a simple lack of focus in a long, digressive, repetitive, and ill-structured book. But the crowning annoyance, at least for me, is the conclusion, in which Suskind claims that after the 2010 midterms Obama modified his managerial style and took control of his presidency.

In the wake of the debt ceiling nonsense, that isn't a terribly convincing proposition, and it's unsurprising that Suskind doesn't have much evidence for it. The only policy matter he can dredge up is the compromise that extended the Bush tax cuts in exchange for extended unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut. What makes this compromise better than any other Obama was involved in, apart from the fact that it falls after Suskind's chosen turning point, is that apparently he "had simply taken control of the matter" and "was sitting in the space his presidency had created." But any decision could be presented on those terms, depending on which facts one chose to emphasize. Another point of praise is Obama's speech in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings. But that tragedy was ideal for Obama's existing rhetorical strength: it involved no policy proposals, required only banalities about divisive politics, opposition to murder, and support for not being murdered. That given such a situation he could deliver an inspiring but intellectually empty speech is evidence of the "old" Obama, not a new one.

The final piece of evidence for this rebirth of an Obama worth supporting is the shakeup of his staff in which Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers left. To the extent that there was a managerial problem in the White House, those departures might fix it. But from an ideological standpoint, the full spectrum of changes is less than comforting. Setting aside questions about quitting versus being fired, which amount to office gossip, also gone in this new Obama era are financial reformer and Council of Economic Advisers head Christina Romer, healthcare reformer and OMB director Peter Orszag, inspirational-Obama architect David Axelrod, and outspoken financial reformer Paul Volcker. Tim Geithner is still in place as Secretary of the Treasury. This is a clearing of the decks, but it's not one that's particularly friendly to the ideology of the Obama certain liberals imagined themselves to be electing.

The replacements for both Volcker and Rahm Emanuel were widely understood as signals that the Obama administration would now be friendlier to big business. Such "moving to the center" is, as any observer of the political class knows, the ordained response to a Democratic electoral defeat. It's not a sign that Obama is returning to his transformational message, but that he's responding to the shifting elite consensus. And that is nothing new for him: he responded to the desires of liberals by playing one in the Democratic primary, and to those of the political class during his first two years as president by playing a cautious moderate. Now he's playing a cautious conservative, but the deeper political values remain the same. Suskind's happy ending, which includes a claim of post-midterm rising confidence in Obama that poll numbers don't support, is capped by a Valentine's Day 2011 interview with him that, even given Suskind's careful arrangement and glossing, communicates not the certainty of a new era but the same old rambling, waffling self-justifications of a career politician who wants to assuage critics and sound certain of his future without precisely admitting that anything went wrong in the past. Political narratives are powerful, versatile things, but they can only be sustained so far, and despite the author's best efforts, Confidence Men's resurrected liberal myth of Obama dies, like the original did, at the hands of merciless, unlovely fact.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Long History of Something or Other (Part 4): Read a Book, Save a Life

I had been about to forget The Better Angels of Our Nature, to disappoint absolutely no one by letting this series end with Part 3. But then I came across this New York Times column, in which Nick Kristof takes a break from shaping his personal impressions of world travel into U.S. policy imperatives to describe Pinker's book as "astonishingly good." That's certainly not the word I would follow "astonishingly" with in describing it. Several possibilities present themselves-- "sloppy," "facile," "self-congratulatory"-- but "good"? Nah. So I was irritated, and here we are again.

Chapter 4

This chapter is about "the Humanitarian Revolution," in which humanity, spurred on by great thinkers in an emerging marketplace of ideas, abandons wanton cruelty in favor of a recognition of human dignity. As before, the horrors of the past are thoroughly explored, with descriptions of instruments of torture, the nasty spectacle of public execution, and the viciousness of slavery. What's missing is an examination of how enthusiastic the great mass of people was about these trends. At one point, Pinker writes, "“Most people today have no desire to watch a cat burn to death, let alone a man or a woman. In that regard we are different from our ancestors of a few centuries ago." But what does "desire" mean in this context? Are we to believe that the Joe Six-Pack of 1700 woke up of a morning and thought, Goodness, I have a hankering to see someone broken on the wheel? Or did he respond to something that was part of the world as he knew it?

Pinker, who as a supporter of the state as theoretical model can only intermittently bring himself to acknowledge its failings as a force in the real world, slides too easily past the origin of torture and public execution in government policy to argue that it reveals something about what "people" are like. But the number of people who participated in torture or attended public executions is, as a proportion of the population, unlikely to be large, and Pinker, whose interest in facts continues to wax and wane with their usefulness for his preferred conclusions, doesn't investigate the question, preferring the implication that the entire past had a constant high appreciation for cruelty. This vagueness, which also occurs in a discussion of the occurrence of human sacrifice, prevents him from looking at variations in these practices within violent societies, which might allow for correlation with various explanatory measures.  How enthusiastic was the average citizen of Western Europe about auto-da-fes and iron maidens? It would be hard to find out, especially since the expression of reservations about these methods might well have ended in firsthand experience of them, a prospect that would tend to encourage circumspection. But if there's any evidence that might shed light on the topic, it's not examined here.

Let's put the issue another way: is the percentage of people who cheerfully attended public executions in medieval Europe radically different from the percentage who in the modern era gawk at traffic accidents, pore over autopsy photos, and download videos of terrorist beheadings? Yes, those who do such things are condemned now in a way they wouldn't have been in the past, a fact on which Pinker places great emphasis. But is the movement of these behaviors underground worth much celebration in and of itself, regardless of whether they're actually less common? We don't allow people to publicly take pleasure in torturing heretics anymore, but if they get their kicks by kidnapping, raping, and murdering college girls instead, I'm not sure we've gained much.

But let's grant for the moment that people are less bloodthirsty than they used to be. Pinker's explanation for this is something he calls "Enlightenment humanism." This worldview allegedly coalesced from "the ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Stuart Mill." Not surprisingly given the laundry list of philosophers involved, Enlightenment humanism turns out to be a vague phenomenon, a wishy-washy belief in human rights that's meaningless precisely because it's so unobjectionable. It has less to do with the complexities of the eighteenth century philosophical trend now known as the Enlightenment, and more to do with contemporary principles that have been Whiggishly projected onto the past. Pinker writes, "If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment, and have absorbed its humanist philosophy," but a more pertinent reason it sounds banal is that Pinker has drained all specificity from it.

Part of what's drained away is the violence and anti-humanism of which Enlightenment states are capable. Pinker is very good at waving away the failures of states and thinkers he admires to apply their high-minded principles to all peoples, instead of those they already like. The Declaration of Independence's airy statement that "all men are created equal" is, "however hypocritical" in light of slavery,  "a built-in rights widener." (Sounds like something you'd buy at the hardware store.) Obviously it's true that a broad declaration of principle leaves the door open for practice to catch up with it, but that only invites us to ask why such catching-up happens or fails to happen in the way that it does. Pinker, however, has no interest in dwelling on such failures. Colonialism, for instance, doesn't warrant an entry in the book's index, and is mentioned only to proclaim (shortsightedly, but we'll get there) that its end removed a major cause of war.

Not content to paint the Enlightenment as the source of everything good about modern ideas, Pinker also spins a yarn about the counter-Enlightenment, a real boogeyman responsible for militant nationalism, romantic militarism, Marxist socialism, and the Nazi Party. Surely there's some truth to this notion, but intellectual history isn't a sporting event where everyone has a jersey indicating an unshakable loyalty. And indeed Pinker is capable of acknowledging, at least tangentially, that Enlightenment ideas can have bad outcomes. In one of his more impressive feats of reductionism, Pinker tells us that "the engine of Enlightenment humanism" is rationality, and that rationality "can never be refuted by some flaw or error in the reasoning of the people in a given era. Reason can always stand back, take note of the flaw, and revise its rules so as not to succumb to it the next time." Well, of course it can, just as communism can justly distribute resources for the good of the people. But will it? 

Does rationality allow people to learn from their mistakes, or merely to recapitulate them with a new intellectual gloss? The answer is obviously "Yes"-- depending on the circumstances, either outcome is possible. The point here is not that reason is bad, merely (as Pinker would surely agree, at least in the abstract) that it's always in conflict with the human capacity for self-delusion. Develop a society in which reasoned argument is required to support a proposition, and people will put together reasonable-sounding nonsense to back up preexisting beliefs. Deemphasize religion to the point where traditional Christian anti-Semitism no longer passes intellectual muster, and lo and behold, racial, "scientific" anti-Semitism arrives to take its place. Ironically, Pinker, a critic of extremism in left- and right-wing political ideologies, holds with regard to Enlightenment humanism the core belief of the extremist: that the movement can never fail, and can only be failed. Debating the accuracy of that claim is beside the point: either way, there are failures, and sometimes catastrophic ones. Despite Pinker's habit of presenting his run-of-the-mill beliefs as under constant attack (“Today the Enlightenment is often mentioned with a sneer”), no one today would call for an abandonment of reason, but to lay too much emphasis on it as the source of positive values causes problems both for interpreting the past and for shaping the future.

In any case, Pinker is typically vague about causation when it comes to Enlightenment humanism and (putative) declines in cruelty. He cherry-picks a few nice-sounding quotes from major thinkers, as if general statements of humanism can't be found throughout history. He throws out some data about the explosive growth in book publishing, on the theory that a wider marketplace of ideas leads to better ideas, a notion that would seem to be called into question by the intellectual poverty of contemporary society, a phenomenon his own book could stand as evidence of. And he tells us that, based on a rising capacity to sign their own names, people were more literate, a mundane fact he spins into a fanciful theory about greater exposure to Enlightenment ideas and empathy-enhancing novels humanizing the brutish masses. This is, for those who accept the faintly self-congratulatory idea that the mere act of reading connotes greater intellectual or moral worth, an appealing theory. But to show that people knew how to sign their names doesn't mean they could read books, that they did read books, that they read the sort of "elevating" material Pinker has in mind, or that they took the "right" lessons from it if they did read it.

That last point provides a useful transition into alternate theories of the Humanitarian Revolution, if such a revolution exists. Books, through the forcefulness of point-of-view, may enable us to sympathize with those who are different. But by the same token they can also allow us to feel the disturbing pleasure of witnessing violence without any actual violence occurring. One often hears that violence in contemporary film and television is proof we live in a violent society, but might it really mean the opposite? Is the human appetite for cruelty so callous that it can be sated as easily by fiction as by reality? Did people stop going to beheadings because they could get them in books with less effort, and without the twinge of guilt genuine human death brings? Beyond all this there's the issue I've raised before with Pinker's blase dismissal of quality of life, which he reduces to economic status when he bothers with at all. Are people less accepting of or enthusiastic about public cruelty when their own lives seem less guided by a similar, natural capriciousness? I'm throwing out questions to which I can't provide answers, unless someone out there wants to pay me to do the research for a 700-page book on the topic, but unlike Steven Pinker, I've at least thought to ask them.

Brief Notes

-In discussing contemporary U. S. capital punishment, Pinker informs us that "a 'death sentence' is a bit of a fiction," a piece of news that will surely come as a surprise to the ghost of Troy Davis, and as a relief to the thousands of people currently on death row. Engaging in his usual simultaneous deflation of contemporary barbarity and inflation of sentiment against it, he emphasizes that the death penalty is used in relatively few cases and that the review process is lengthy. I don't know what the latter point has to do with anything; being executed after twenty years of appeals is still being executed. The former point has (I think unintentionally) an air of justification about it, as though "We only kill the people who really deserve it" wasn't the rationale of brutes throughout history. The decline in executions is commendable, but their continued existence also says something about our society's relationship with violence, and in casually dismissing present-day death row inmates, treating them as something equivalent to a rounding error, Pinker suggests one of the ways in which intellectual rationalism can diverge from humanism.

-Shakespeare is quoted twice, once for Falstaff's speech on honor and once for Shylock's "Hath not a Jew" eyes speech. In each case, Pinker manages to ignore the ambiguities of the text and misconstrue it as an uncomplicated example of Enlightenment humanist values. He fails to note that Falstaff, however valid his points about honor, is hardly a moral paragon, and that Shylock is, one rousing speech aside, a nasty caricature of greed who is roundly punished for his dastardly Jewishness. Neither of these errors really matters in a larger sense, but they do provide yet more evidence of Pinker's poor command of evidence outside his field. In the same vein, he mentions in passing “American accident victims who trip on a crack or spill hot coffee on themselves and sue everyone in sight.” Do you think Pinker has even a basic familiarity with the much-mocked Liebeck case? Or is he lazily repeating a popular misconception that helps shield corporations that put the trivialities of customer service above the safety of all employees and customers?

-As elsewhere, Pinker ignores historical contingency in favor of explanations that fit his imagined overall trends. We're actually asked to believe that the difference between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the bloodlessness (exaggerated, by the way) of the overthrow of James II in 1688 is a meaningful data point, as though English values had undergone a sea change in 39 years. Trying to explain the bloodiness of the French Revolution, a tricky subject for an Enlightenment admirer, Pinker compares it to the American Revolution, announcing that while the French "drew their inspiration [from] intellectual lightweights" the Americans "stuck more closely to the Enlightenment script." Imagine the stage directions on that document. Exit pursued by a humanist. That the American Revolution was so profoundly different in material ways from the French as to render comparison ridiculous doesn't seem to occur to Pinker, who further suggests the American "Founders" did better because they had also experienced the English Civilizing Process. Apparently there was no French Civilizing Process, which I guess means they never learned to bathe or avoid moving food onto their forks with their knives. Poor bastards. Nice as it might be to imagine that our wars will go well if we wish upon the right philosophers, I don't think history works that way.

-I've largely ignored Pinker's treatment of slavery, which is relevant to his subject because“violence is inherent to the definition of slavery.” That's basically true, but a better description of what's inherent to the definition of slavery is coercion.  While almost nobody likes/admits to liking violence, most people don't have a problem with coercion, provided somebody they approve of (their preferred political party, say) is doing the coercing. But much coercion rests on the implicit threat of violence, or of treatment sufficiently harsh that people will avoid it as carefully as they do violence. One can therefore argue that the "triumph" of contemporary Western society is devising a control system that works as well as violence and lacks its potential for breeding resentment and revolution. That's an improvement, I suppose, but it sets the bar awfully low. 

At any rate, Pinker's failure to consider even cursorily the difference between violence and coercion and its implications for his argument is another example of his intellectual fuzziness. Elsewhere in the discussion of slavery he refers to its existence in "so-called democratic Athens." But slavery isn't incompatible with democracy, which means only the holding of power by citizens. In a society with slavery, slaves may be human beings, but they're not citizens. That's unfair, but not inherently undemocratic. In this book, though, "democracy" is like "Enlightenment humanism," less a meaningful term than one of the glowing labels to be applied to the pinnacle of human civilization that is the northern United States and western Europe in the 21st century. Adherence to the model of these states is what matters, and distance is from it is undemocratic, illiberal, and unenlightened, regardless of what those words might actually mean.