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.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Some Pinker links

The next part of "A Long History of Something or Other" should be up on Sunday, but for now I wany to  post a collection of critical links relating to The Better Angels of Our Nature that I found illuminating, in contrast to the glowing reviews that suggested, against all available evidence, that Pinker is a great intellectual with a marvelous command of data. I don't necessarily agree with everything said at these links, of course, and in one or two cases the intellectual context of the criticism is, ah, not my own.

A review from the philosopher John Gray, at whom Pinker takes a swipe in the book

Thoughts on John Gray's review from an intelligent design blog

One of the better reviews, positive or negative, from the popular press: the Washington Post

An essay on the political implications of Pinker's argument (read the comments too)

Research into the evidence by which Pinker treats the An Lushan revolt as proportionally the most violent event in history

Louis Menand's New Yorker review of The Blank Slate, which captures some of the same quirks found in the new book

A brief piece on Pinker's misuse of the label "anarchy," with more good comments

 Feel free to mention more interesting links in comments.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Long History of Something or Other (Part 3): Rednecks and Urbans and Hippies, Oh My!

Chapter 3 (continued)

One of the bleakly amusing things about The Better Angels of Our Nature is that it faithfully takes government at face value. In chapter 2 Pinker lays out his version of Hobbes' theory of the Leviathan, in which states reduce violence because they're disinterested parties with more to gain from the enforcement of peace than from violent conflict. He also credits the emergence of "gentle commerce" and the free market for that decline, because "a free market puts a premium on empathy." One could of course put together a list of examples of what passes for a free market demonstrating a marked lack of empathy, but that's beside the point, since the sort of theoretical free market Pinker envisions has never existed, any more than those purely neutral and peaceful governments. Like a lot of people who defend government by arguing that it curbs the violent tendencies of the ungoverned, he never explains how those within the government escape those impulses, unless taking on power is, like baptism, a mystical cleansing of all that is bad.

This is part of what I mean when I describe Pinker as an ideal elite liberal. It's not that he shows no concern for injustices perpetrated by democratic governments. It's that his attitude toward such injustices is minimizing, faintly regretful, with the sort of faux-diligent on the one hand/on the other attitude that Serious People must always take toward such things. It helps that those most affected by such injustices are socially removed enough from Pinker that he can comfortably concoct a generalizing explanation of why they're in the mess they are. That explanation is part of a larger claim about the persistence of American violence, a claim that, by quite literally positioning elite liberals as the most civilized Americans, cements Pinker's ego-boosting appeal to the less thoughtful members of that class.

Having (at least to his own satisfaction) proved the existence of a civilizing process by reference to European history, Pinker uses it to explain the ups and downs of the American murder rate. It begins with a rapid decline among the early English colonists, which Pinker treats as evidence that the colonies were becoming civilized. Left unexplained is why the people of these colonies, who had presumably been civilized while growing up in England, should regress on arriving in new territory. Nor does Pinker consider that early colonists, not representative of the average Englishman, might thereby have been more violent, because in Pinker's argument there is no such thing as a more violent person, only a class of people that's generally more violent. One such class is "rootless young men," which might or might not explain the early colonists but is certainly used to explain violence in the territorial west. All those men who hadn't been properly civilized kept driving up the crime rate, but fortunately women began to show up because "nature abhors a lopsided sex ratio."  You or I might imagine the arrival of women in the west to be the result of a more complex process than "nature," but Pinker's first impulse when confronted with any fact in need of explanation is to credit nature, or failing that the government. People without formal power, are, in his view of things, far more acted upon than acting, at least in the spread of peaceful values.

Looking at the contemporary United States, Pinker has two trends to explain. One is the greater homicide rate in the south and in major urban areas; the other is the upswing in homicide and other violence between the 1960s and the 1990s. The south, we learn, is less civilized than the north, because it has an honor culture that contributes to violence. Racial tension has nothing to do with it, because white-on-white and black-on-black violence are also higher in the south than in the north, and the notion that violence has sources in dissatisfaction with anything other than its specific victim, is as we've seen, too much for Pinker. Poverty is, for similar reasons, not even mentioned, although the data suggest interesting (though not perfect) correlations. Obviously the possibility that southerners are, on average, more likely to 'believe' in violence than northerners shouldn't be discounted, but the effect of focusing on it to the exclusion of all other explanations is to suggest (intentionally or not) that northerners are better than southerners, that-- and Pinker uses these categories explicitly-- blue states are better than red states. No wonder Pinker is so popular; liberals love a statistic that, regardless of its credibility, makes them seem superior to all those bible-thumping racist hillbillies.

And speaking of racism. The explanation for high urban violence is that the urban poor, especially people of color, are "effectively stateless." This is an odd way to describe a population that, as he'll shortly discuss, is disproportionately incarcerated, but what Pinker means is that people of color have no access to the "good" side of law enforcement, the sense that crimes against them will be taken seriously and justice provided. He manages to acknowledge that there are often good reasons for them to be suspicious. But the dangerous appeal of an argument that people of color are stateless, and therefore less civilized, is not difficult to see. A certain type of elite liberal wants to feel a vague regret about the plight of the urban poor without any sense of a responsibility to alleviate it, and arguments that situate the problem in "the black community" are just the thing. Although I don't know if he'd endorse it, Pinker's argument about POC statelessness dovetails nicely with the line about poor parenting and "social pathologies" being pursued by mainstream Democrats and by Bill Cosby. The notion that systemic racial inequalities that have only very recently begun to be corrected might have lingering effects is not at all helpful to liberals for whom racism exists only in the actions and beliefs of Republicans.

When explaining the 1960s upswing in violence, Pinker blames it all on the counterculture, whose rejection of Eisenhower-era norms must naturally have turned them all into murderers and racists. Or, to put it in the academic language by which Pinker disguises the banality of his ideas, “one of the side effects was to undermine the prestige of aristocratic and bourgeois lifestyles that had, over the course of several centuries, become less violent than those of the working class and underclass.” He acknowledges, in what is evidently meant to pass for a treatment of possible flaws in his argument, that “correlation is not causation” and “the overwhelming majority of baby boomers committed no crimes whatsoever.” But he's quite happy to generalize about their behavior all the same. I've previously quoted Pinker's cavalier mention of such "hit[s]... to [elite] legitimacy" as Vietnam and the civil rights movement; by failing to treat the 1960s as a time of social change on a greater level than some people not washing enough, he extends his habit of giving government a free pass and unnaturally isolates one type of violence at a given moment in history from another. I feel like I shouldn't need to say this, but all the same: my goal here is not to justify violence of any kind, merely to note that a full historical explanation requires discussion of all factors, not just those matching the model that has caught your fancy.

The 1990s saw a decline in violence because they were a time of "recivilization."  This was not because of changes in quality of life, which Pinker one again simplistically dismisses by examining a couple of general variables, nor because of the rise of abortion, in refutation of which Pinker assembles an argument that proves he can be quite thorough, when digging into the data is necessary to make his beliefs sound correct. No, it's because more people are in prison and more police are on the streets, thanks in part to Bill Clinton's "stroke of political genius" in adopting right-wing positions on crime prevention. Pinker does find the time to say that "the pendulum has swung too far" and too many people are now incarcerated, but whatever qualms he states, the obvious tendency of his argument is in favor of policies that have "reduced" violence by containing it within the prison system, among people about whom good liberals need not concern themselves.

In Chapter 3, Pinker's love of earthy anecdotes mostly manifests as descriptions of how unsanitary the people of the past were by modern standards.  This isn't just a popularizer's diversion from boring old data; by emphasizing that modern audiences would find the medievals disgusting, he heightens the sense of distance that makes it easier to dismiss them as barbaric. It's not for nothing that one of the complaints by which societies distinguish themselves from the Other is the claim that he smells funny. In a later chapter Pinker announces that “humans have a revulsion to filth and bodily secretions.” But if that's a universal truth, why were people dirty for so much of history? The unintended implication of all this is that people were somehow, vaguely, content to be repulsive. And that, more than any actual evidence, is the reason for this notion of the civilizing process: by associating violence with aspects of personal behavior rather than with historical forces, you make it easy to divide the problem into us and them: present and past, north and south, rich and poor, white and black. By the end of the chapter, Pinker is blithely admitting that contemporary "informalization," the insufficient politeness that was responsible for 1960s violence, has not had an effect on contemporary patterns. This might seem to be a large hole in his theory, but it's waved away with a statement that the previously meaningful correlation no longer applies. Of course it doesn't: there's no longer anything for it to "explain."

Next up: Chapter 4, in which something called "Enlightenment humanism" reduces people's appetite for violence... except in a little unmentioned enterprise called "colonialism."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Long History of Something or Other (Interlude)

I've finished reading and taking notes on The Better Angels of Our Nature, and have written an Amazon review that summarizes the criticisms that are and will be part of these blog posts. It's less overtly political, less mocking, and more formal than the blogging, so if you want Cliffs Notes that are, in some ways, preferable to the full experience, just click here.

In celebration of being done I'm taking a few days off from thinking about Pinker and violence, but by the beginning of next week I hope to resume the series, which will include a number of large and small WTF moments that I couldn't work into the Amazon review and haven't mentioned on Twitter.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The state of the crackpot

I'm still reading Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, and still finding it frustrating; in fact, the number of things I want to comment on is so high, and reading and evaluating his claims is taking so long, that I can't hope to finish the book before it's due back at the library unless I delay the blog posts on earlier chapters for a while. Also, I've found Pinker dealing in later chapters with things I've accused him of not mentioning earlier on. (He deals with them brief and unsatisfactorily, but he does deal with them.) Therefore there won't be any more of the Pinker series until I'm done reading, which will be sometime in the first week of November. There also won't be any more West Wing posts until then, because after picking apart Pinker I can't find the mental energy to turn my crackpottery against Aaron Sorkin. So a couple weeks of dead time around here. Try to contain your disappointment.


Well, you can show a little.


I'll get my coat.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Long History of Something or Other (Part 2): The Very Model of a Modern Elite Liberal

Part 1 is here.

This may sound like a joke, but one of the serious problems with The Better Angels of Our Nature is that it's too short. A truly diligent scholar could write an entire book of this length on topics that Pinker rushes through in thirty-page chapters or sections of chapters. The desire to write a comprehensive book on violence has prevented him from writing a good one. The consequence of this compressed approach is that Pinker can seem to weigh opposing ideas diligently while actually examining them in a lopsided manner that I'd call polemical if I was more confident Pinker was aware of what he was doing.

If I describe his argument as reductive, defenders can point out scattered admissions of complexity, but it's the easiest thing in the world to list ambiguities in the abstract without applying them to your concrete conclusions. Lazy undergraduates (reader, I was one) know all about this, and professors who mean to be thorough aren't immune to it either.

A related problem is that, despite Pinker's occasionally slipping into colloquialism, this is fundamentally an academic book, dense with facts and arguments whose implications are described rather than explained. In a book aimed at a professorial audience, with the time, resources, and training to evaluate Pinker's claims, this approach would be fine. But The Better Angels of Our Nature is explicitly a book for ordinary readers, who are more likely to accept its overwhelming barrage of information without tracking the precise logic. A good book on popular science or other popular academics details its arguments clearly in accessible language. But very few such books exist, and this isn't one of them.

Chapter 2 (again)

While reading chapter 3, I came across a claim so unscientifically reductive that I felt compelled to check the sources Pinker cited for it. Unsurprisingly, I found some problems, but the important point right now is that one of them was to Lawrence Keeley's book 1996 War Before Civilization. That book, which made a splash in the popular non-fiction market on release, is Pinker's principal source for the claim in chapter 2 that nonstate civilizations were more violent than the states that evolved later, and for the data that back up that claim. I decided it would be worthwhile to dig around a little for responses to that book. I didn't find much, which according to preference you can interpret as a sign that the book was so brilliant it was hard to reply, a sign it was so ridiculous there was point in replying, or a sign that I'm not good at finding evidence of academic articles on Google. But I did come across the work of anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson, whose website includes PDFs of a number of articles on war in the pre-state world, some of which respond directly to Keeley (who had himself criticized Ferguson's approach). Even if you're not directly interested in this topic, I recommend taking a quick look at some of Ferguson's work, to get a sense of how complicated is the historical record that Pinker reduces to an incredibly violent past, and how distorted is his characterization of scholars who question that reduction as a "Peace and Harmony Mafia" pushing the image of the noble savage. Again, I'm not endorsing either side in the anthropological debate; I'd have to do a lot more reading to come to a decision on that. I'm only saying that Pinker fails to fulfill the responsibility of a popularizer to accurately reflect the state of the scholarly literature, even the parts that don't agree with him.

Because Pinker throws so much information and argument at the reader, even someone who's trying to read slowly and carefully can overlook odd or misleading assertions, including those with large consequences. Here's a quote from page 52: "During the 20th century the United States acquired a reputation as a warmonger, fighting in two world wars and in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. But the annual cost in American lives was even smaller than those of the other great powers of the century, about 3.7 per 100,000." This is equivalent to making the following statement about a father: "He has acquired a reputation as a child abuser, beating all of his children bloody several times a year. But he has never been injured himself." Two facts that are at best unrelated, and at worse in a mutual causal relationship, are presented as though they contradict each other.

Pinker's emphasis on the U.S. and Europe for statistics on contemporary wartime deaths (though to his credit he does include worldwide figures, which are also comparatively low) is part of a general habit of overemphasizing declines in violence and death in "major" and "developed" nations, which he attributes to, among other things, a civilizing process that will be the subject of chapter 3, which other nations haven't been privileged to experience. An alternate possibility, that rates of violent death remain higher in "developing" nations because Western technology has allowed the prosecution of wars that rain death on the citizens of those nations while leaving Western soldiers comparatively safe, has yet to come up.

Chapter 3

Having argued in chapter 2 that violence declined after the rise of states, Pinker now elaborates that it declined further across the second millennium of the common era. Although he's once again blithely combining different types of data of varying reliability, they're more safely comparable than those from the previous chapter, and I'm willing to concede that violence did indeed decline over the given period, if not in the easily measurable way that Pinker's charts imply. Where Pinker falls flat is in his explanation for the decline, which, if I may be forgiven a little reductiveness of my own, is that people stopped murdering each other because they developed table manners.

He begins on a personal note, explaining how he never understood "the rule of table manners that says that you may not guide food onto your fork with your knife." But the scales fell from his eyes when he read "the most important thinker you have never heard of," one Norbert Elias. As with previous chapters, Pinker builds the rest of his argument around uncritical quotation of a particular thinker: Hobbes, Keeley, and now Elias. The gist of Elias' argument is that a civilizing process occurred, symbolized by the rise of medieval etiquette manuals. Pinker, never one to pass up the chance to describe the past as disgusting, quotes many colorful rules from these manuals, and links learning not to spit or piss in public with learning not to stab people to death, because both involve the inhibition of impulses. "The childishness of the medievals," which Pinker thinks has sometimes been exaggerated but with which he basically agrees, gave way to the maturity of moderns, which descended from the upper classes to the lower, but not always evenly.

This is one of those cases where Pinker will admit the weaknesses of his argument without really confronting them. Toward the end of the chapter he acknowledges that in a contemporary setting, informalization, the opposite of this civilizing process, is not consistently linked with changes in the level of violence. I've never even heard of this rule about moving food onto a fork with a knife, and if someone attempted to introduce me to it my inclination would be to tell them (softly and non-threatingly) to fuck off, but I don't think I'm any more likely than Pinker to behave violently. Pinker tries to close this gap by claiming it's only the entrenchment of nonviolent values that has allowed the dissociation of violence and politeness, but a more rigorous intellect would give serious consideration to the possibility that the correlation of rising politeness and declining violence in the middle ages was not causative, at least not in the precise way he interprets it.

Before getting into alternate interpretations of that decline in violence, I'd like to turn briefly to another couple instances of Pinker being cavalier with data. While reading reviews of The Better Angels of Our Nature, I came across an Internet comment questioning whether improvements in medical science over time might have had an impact on rates of violent death. That struck me as an interesting angle, and I was waiting for Pinker to get around to discussing it. Imagine my delight on discovering the following, his sole comment on medical care and violence prior to the 20th century: “doctors before the nineteenth century were quacks who killed as many patients as they saved." I don't think there's better evidence of Pinker's reductive tendencies when dealing with problems of his thesis. I hope it isn't necessary to explain that the undeniable badness of pre-19th century medicine when compared to the modern variety is not proof that pre-19th century medicine was equally bad in all places across centuries, or that its evolution had no effect at any point on rates of violent death. Comically enough, Pinker provides a footnote for this broad assertion, and though chasing down particular passages from Pinker's sources is not something I intend to do a lot of unless someone offers me access to an academic library and payment for my time, in this case I was interested enough to do some Googling.

The first source Pinker cites here is Lawrence Keeley's book, the relevant pages of which are long on anecdotal descriptions of bad medical practices and short on actual evidence that medieval medicine was consistently bad. But it's unfair to blame Keeley for this, since his argument in that passage is not about modern vs. medieval medicine, but about medieval vs. prehistoric. He's arguing that in some ways ancient tribes had better medicine than medieval states. Whether or not that's true (again, I'd have to do more reading), it goes against the incredible breadth of the Pinker statement it's cited as supporting.

Pinker's second source for that citation is an article that informs us that "most authors agree" on the insignificance of medicine for changing levels of violent death, and endorses another scholar's model for using information about time lapse between injury and death to estimate how many deaths might have been prevented by medical technology. The original article from which that model is derived presents it "with huge qualifications," bases it in part on personal judgments of "doctors familiar with violent assaults," and uses it only in the context of comparing the present day with nineteenth-century New York City. Used this way, such a model is defensible, even if it smacks of speculation in the pursuit of a definitive conclusion. But by a scholarly game of telephone, it becomes part of Pinker's reason to dismiss the evolution of medicine utterly.

Also discussed in the article with that model is an issue that one might expect Pinker to mention, since it counterbalances and might arguably negate the possible effect of modern medicine: the increased efficacy of modern weapons. But Pinker can't really bring that up, because one of the ways in which he has countered the general impression of contemporary violence is by emphasizing the goriness of ancient weapons. One of his anecdotes in chapter 1 is a prolonged description of the damage ancient Greek spears could do. Injuries that are unpleasant to read about and injuries that are more reliably fatal are, of course, not the same thing, but Pinker has so thoroughly blurred this distinction that he can't rescue it now.

Pinker's dismissal of non-modern medicine is of a piece with the general tone of his book, which emphasizes at every chance it gets how miserable various aspects of pre-modern life were. I'm broadly sympathetic with that: I'm gay, I'm an atheist, and I have a degenerative hip condition that has required and will require multiple surgical interventions to keep me out of a wheelchair. I have very little nostalgia for the past. But Pinker's views go beyond sensible jaundice toward a (here's that word again) reductive Whiggism that colors his interpretation of evidence.

One last point about presentation of data. On page 64 we have Figure 3-4, title "Homicide rates in Western Europe, 1300-2000, and in nonstate societies." The chart above places those nonstate societies on the left as a vertical series of data points, to the right of which is a roughly horizontal curve showing the homicide rates over time. The obvious implication of this presentation is that the nonstate data chronologically precedes the Western European numbers, but as anyone who has looked closely at these particular nonstate data will know, they're actually from roughly contemporary nonstate societies. The progression indicated by the chart is not objectively historical, but based on Pinker's subjective notions of social evolution. It's a consistent problem of his treatment of nonstate societies that, while making the theoretical claim that their historical "location" shouldn't matter, he doesn't state openly enough that these societies are contemporary, and have been affected by various aspects of the civilized modernity he presents as diminishing violence.

To turn from the concrete to the theoretical, my principal complaint with Pinker's notion of civilizing processes in the decline of violence is that he attributes too much causation to the social and cultural aspects of that process, ignoring their effect on more fundamental aspects of ordinary life. This has, I think, to do with his failure to consider in this context certain possible broader causes of violence. I don't have the patience or the psychological and historical grounding to do justice to the question of why people are violent, but one possible aspect of an explanation has been on my mind as I read Pinker's book. Might people be more likely to be violent, even if they regard violence as unfair, if they also regard the society in which they live as unfair? This may sound like the stereotypical liberal habit of blaming violence in poverty, and that's a question I'll get to in a minute, but the applications of this notion are much broader.

Hobbes talks about life in the war of all against all as being "nasty, brutish, and short," but even if we set aside violence the life of the distant past was, as Pinker so enjoys pointing out, unpleasant in many other ways. It wasn't just violence that ended medieval lives on a scale moderns regard as horrific. If apparently healthy people can drop dead of a mild wound, a toothache, or no visible cause at all, is it less obviously wrong to end their lives by violence? If life is a hard, cruel, geographically limited and socially proscribed experience, does destroying it seem a less significant act? I don't know, but I imagine it's worth debating, whether those limitations to fairness exist in medieval London or 21st-century New York City. Pinker is good at pointing out how life-denying ideologies, whether religious or honor-driven, can encourage violence, but what about less formalized intellectual processes? He's so caught up by the (comparative) benevolence of particular elite institutions that he can't recognize possible influences from the thoughts of "common" people.

When Pinker does occasionally discuss such motives, he's as brief and glib as he always is when treating topics he regards as distractions. On page 84, for example, we have this: "A third dubious belief about violence is that that lower-class people engage in it because they are financially needy (for example, stealing food to feed their children) or because they are expressing rage against society. The violence of a lower-class man may indeed express rage, but it is aimed not at society but at the asshole who scraped his car and dissed him in front of a crowd."

The first half of that is an absurd straw-man version of arguments about violence and poverty. I can't speak for everyone who's suggested such connections, but most of the time literal theft to feed starving children is a thought experiment in ethical complexity, not something anyone thinks happens very often. The second half confuses the aim of violence and its source. As anyone who has ever lashed out at the wrong person in a moment of frustration can attest, we don't always target the things that make us mad; we aren't even always fully aware what those things are. Unless he's cannily trying to generate sympathy, a lower-class man won't claim he was motivated by social rage, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a contributing factor in his behavior.

Apt to acknowledge injustice in the abstract but rarely granting it any importance (when addressing the nature of the 1960s counterculture, he gives such "hit[s]... to [elite] legitimacy" as pervasive racism and the "illiberal" war in Vietnam one paragraph, and loud music, poor hygiene, and rejection of self-control ten paragraphs), Pinker is the model of an elite liberal. In my commentary on the rest of chapter three, which deals more fully with American history, I'll explain further how that's so, but for now it's worth noting that, whatever Pinker's own political positions and intentions, his work has obvious implications for policies on and attitudes toward violence.

Books like Pinker's, presented as groundbreaking but actually the rejuvenation of old unscientific ideas with a new (but false) intellectual gloss, marketed to mass audiences but not written in a style accessible to them, exist not to be read and analyzed but to be pointed to in justification of particular policies and beliefs. In this sense The Better Angels of Our Nature is comparable to titles like The Bell Curve and Hitler's Willing Executioners. And that, unless you're thinking solely in terms of sales figures, is not distinguished company to be in.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Long History of Something or Other (Part 1): Anecdotes and Anthropology

So scientific popularizer Steven Pinker has written a book on violence. The Better Angels of Our Nature claims that violence has declined consistently over the course of human history. and that we can isolate the various causes of that decline. At 700 pages with wide margins, small type, and many footnotes and graphs, it's the kind of book that some commentators take seriously based only on appearance.  "Look at all the evidence," they'll declare, as if the mere assembly of information in an academic format constitutes meaningful argument. In fact The Better Angels of Our Nature is, on the basis of what I've read so far, a very strange book, lacking the rigor of serious intellectual inquiry and inclined to throw selective data at the reader with insufficient attention to its context and drawbacks. As is often the case with books of this type, a traditional review can't capture the scope of the problem, can't communicate to the reader just how consistently sloppy and simplistic its thinking is. So I've decided to put together an in-depth, multi-part analysis of the book, looking at each major section of Pinker's argument and explaining how, for all the detail he puts forth, he fails to be as comprehensive and conclusive as his tone suggests. This first part will deal with the book's first two chapters.

Perhaps the most salient problem of The Better Angels of Our Nature is that it never attempts to define its central concept. What, in Pinker's view, is violence? This may sound like a stupid question; we all have a pretty good idea of what violence is. But when it comes to serious analysis, the things that we all have a pretty good idea of turn out to be the biggest problems. By failing to define violence clearly and comprehensively, Pinker lets himself have it both ways.  He can pull together a lot of data that aren't obviously connected and use them to argue that the abstraction he calls violence is on the way down, but when it comes to arguing that specific forces cause "violence" to decline, he can present correlations based on whichever measures of violence give the best result. Eventually I'll get into some specific problems caused by this methodological slipperiness.

Chapter 1

Before Pinker offers any hard evidence, though, he devotes his entire first chapter to anecdotal accounts of violence throughout history.  He justifies this as follows:
Scientists often probe their conclusions with a sanity check, a sampling of real-world phenomena to reassure themselves they haven't overlooked some flaw in their methods and wandered into a preposterous conclusion. The vignettes in this chapter are a sanity check on the data to come.
But the point of a sanity check is that it comes after the data, not before it, as a quick justification of scientifically-reached conclusions rather than an attempt to plant those conclusions in the reader's mind before any evidence has been presented.  Pinker's anecdotes, long on extreme and sadistic violence and in no way representative or statistically controlled, have an obvious prejudicial effect on the reader's mindset. Throughout the book's opening chapters, in fact, he revels in elaborate descriptions of particular cruelties, as though given societies should be thought of as more violent because they are sadistically violent. One could make an argument to that effect, but it would depend on a particular theoretical definition of violence, with which Pinker hasn't bothered. I also doubt he'll be regaling us with such elaborate descriptions of the effects of nuclear weapons, mustard gas, or anthrax.

He begins with carefully-selected descriptions of prehistoric corpses that suffered violence, then tendentiously asks “What is it about the ancients that they couldn’t leave us an interesting corpse without resorting to foul play?” Of course there are plenty of archaeological corpses that show no evidence of foul play; it's just that they aren't "interesting" because they don't tend to support Pinker's argument. In fact, one of the corpses he does discuss raises another question about definitions. Lindow Man, a two-millenia old bog body, was possibly a religious ritual sacrifice, in which case it is further possible that he went to his death willingly. Is this sort of consensual behavior violence? If so, what theory of violence can explain at once the motivations behind it and those behind coercive violence? What I'm getting at here is that, by failing to define violence, Pinker fails to come to terms with the complexity of its causes, his discussion of which, as we shall shortly see, is incredibly reductive.

But back to his morbid anecdotes. The next two sections are based not on historical records of any kind, but on Greek and Israelite myth: that is, on the the Homeric epics and the Hebrew Bible. Pinker acknowledges that these are fictions, but slips them in on the claim they reflect the cultures of their times and places. Which, up to a point, they obviously do, but it's also obvious that that process of reflection is not an easily comprehended one. There are a great many more depictions of violence in our media than there are acts of violence, after all. One could actually suggest that fictional accounts of violence resolve violent impulses in actual people, meaning violent art would imply a less violent society. I don't really think that's the case; it's a facile theory. But even considering such things would require Pinker to engage more deeply with the meaning of violence than he evidently cares to.

Part of the reason The Better Angels of Our Nature is so long is not that Pinker provides a great deal of substance, but that he loves a good digression. He spends 4 pages lovingly laying out the depravities of the Hebrew Bible. Among the highlights of this account are a calculation of the homicide rate at the time of Cain and Abel, a garbled version of the Samson story (it omits the actual reason Samson kills the men at his wedding feast, not that that's much better than Pinker's misreading), and the treatment of odd, unexplained stories like the death of Aaron's sons and David's census as if they proved something about human violence rather than about obscure religious tradition. Precisely because it's not a serious argument, none of this exactly matters; I dwell on it because I think it reflects Pinker's cavalier treatment of facts, which doesn't stop when he approaches substantive matters.

He goes on to reveal that Christian martyrdom, medieval knighthood, and the English monarchy were violent, shocking those readers who have never taken an introductory history course. Pinker really seems to believe that most Americans don't think of the distant past as having been at all violent. He fails to grasp that nostalgia about a non-violent past is almost always personal, reaching back to the innocence of childhood, not to the days of the Visigoths. He does get around to discussing violence in those days, the "wholesome" 1950s, but here, with an overview of advertisements and TV shows, we return to the notion that representations of violence are equivalent to actual violence. Pinker treats anecdotes about war, religious strife, violent crime, and media representation as equivalent, as all proving something about a monolithic entity called "violence." The notion that these forms of violence might conflict as much as they cohere, might fulfill different human needs, continues to go unmentioned.

Another small point with larger implications: at one point Pinker writes, without a hint of irony, that where our society once glorified soldiers, nowadays "military men are inconspicuous in public life, with drab uniforms and little prestige among the hoi polloi." I can only assume he's never attended a Fourth of July or Veterans' Day parade, or even seen a soldier in a dress uniform. (They look hot.)  What's happening here, and elsewhere in the book, is that Pinker is projecting his own upper-middle-class liberal values onto the rest of American society. This cuts right to the heart of Pinker's explanation of the decline of violence: those values, he claims, are responsible, and in places where violence persists, it's only because those values are insufficiently appreciated. That it's the presence of violence in those places that enables its absence here, that the lack of recent war among "major" and "developed" nations (which he sickeningly praises at the end of this chapter) is exactly because it's now occurring elsewhere in the world, is another thought of which Pinker is apparently incapable.

Chapter 2

The second chapter begins to lay out Pinker's theory of the decline of violence. This theory, taking in "Six Trends," "Five Inner Demons," "Four Better Angels," and "Five Historical Forces," is so loaded with simplistic numbered lists that one might imagine one had accidentally picked up a self-help title, or worse, a book by Newt Gingrich. Potshots aside, the first trend, something Pinker calls the pacification process, involves the transition from stateless prehistoric societies to early states, which were, he suggests, much less violent, because the state, as in Hobbes' theory of Leviathan, naturally curbs violence.

Before he begins to lay out such evidence as he has for this claim, Pinker gives an account of the origins of and motivations for violence. Devoted as he is to gene-driven evolutionary psychology theories --not that he mentions that these topics remain contested and there are other views on them-- Pinker treats violence as a basically rational process, something people do (or ancient societies did-- again, it's not quite clear whether he's discussing specific aspects of violence or the whole shebang) for coherent reasons related to survival, not because of irrational individual or communal impulses.  Revenge is purely undertaken for deterrent effect, not from emotional causes. This may or may not be a useful model for explaining why violence was common rather than rare in the earliest, least psychologically complex humans, but like all models it needs to be understood as a construct: useful for isolating and discussing variables but not something that exists in that precise form in nature. Having become common for sensible evolutionary reasons, violence has manifestly developed in senseless culturally-specific ways. (It's because of this that one of the sidelines here, a discussion of violence in chimpanzees, is thoroughly irrelevant, though as anecdote it probably primes certain readers' expectations.) In this chapter, however, Pinker is willing to ignore all that to focus on the variable he has decided matters: the presence or absence of a state structure.

The difficulty in comparing violence in state and nonstate societies is that all of our reliable statistics come from the former. To get around this, Pinker pulls in whatever fragmentary data are available on violence in nonstate societies, even if it's not remotely parallel to what we know about states. His charts lay out all these numbers neatly as though they're comparable, but in the text we get some hint of how rough these numbers are: "even if we tripled or quadrupled the estimate to include"... "What if we added"... "Even if we throw in"... "even if we generously multiplied it by twenty." If Pinker were dealing with solid data, these vague attempts at adjustment would be horrifying, but because his numbers measure different things, it barely matters that he's willing to maul them.

His first set of data on violence in nonstate societies comes from archaeological efforts to identify cause of death in corpses from ancient cemeteries. Quite aside from the ambiguities of this process (depending on the methodologies involved, it may or may not take into account non-fatal injury, accident, and animal attack), we are forced to rely on data from the cemeteries that happen to have survived, which are not necessarily representative of all deaths in given societies. It's all important to recognize that Pinker, again crushing difference in pursuit of the state/nonstate dichotomy, treats as equivalent cemeteries spread across the entire world and over at least 12,000 years of history, as if none of those locations might have atypical rates of violence unrelated to the presence or absence of a state. He does average these numbers, but an average of non-representative figures does not somehow become representative itself.

The second nonstate data comes from reasonably contemporary societies where tribal structures happen to have endured. Pinker has been using this data for a while, and his approach to it has come in for some criticism. The gist of it is that at least some of the societies he mentions in The Better Angels of Our Nature (there are a few more mentioned in the book than in the presentation discussed at that link), while they may be nonstate, are not representative of the ancient nonstate hunter-gatherer societies, and therefore don't prove anything about the distant past. In the book Pinker seems vaguely aware of this critique-- he moves some societies into a separate category of "hunter-horticulturists and other tribal groups"-- but, as I've been emphasizing, there's still a basic failure to acknowledge that nonstate societies are not interchangeable, and that high rates of violence in the specific communities for which we have data may not represent a larger trend of all nonstate societies.

Pinker is, of course, not an anthropologist, and a lot of his data and ideas seem to derive from a particular group of anthropologists, whom he treats as the only "scholars with no political ax to grind," as opposed to the "anthropologists of peace," or the "Peace and Harmony Mafia," who believe in less-violent ancient societies for what Pinker chooses to present as purely modern political motives. I have no idea what the facts on ancient violence are, but believing that only one side in a given debate has non-substantive reasons for its interpretations is naive, and the very ferocity with which Pinker dismisses his opponents' political motives becomes, whether he realizes it or not, a political motive of its own. But I don't see much value in open speculation on sources of bad faith, either in Pinker or in his opponents. Instead, I think it's important to return to the observation above that theoretical models can mislead us into projecting them too confidently onto reality. This is especially true in academic communities, where discussion of the nuances of these models can have the unintended effect of making one take their basic assumptions as fact.  Pinker is clearly convinced that his numbers reveal a wide-ranging historical truth, but looked at unto themselves, without the ancient historian's or anthropologist's habit of speculating and generalizing, as one must to produce substantive arguments, they're just a set of discrete facts that don't intersect. They may be, in a loose sense, suggestive, but they can't prove anything.

It might be objected that I, having anarchist political leanings, have special reason to find fault with Pinker's theory of the rise of the state as a reducer of violence, and it would be disingenuous not to admit that I'm reading this book in the first place because I came across a review of it and found his notions about the state, as the review presented them, risible. Having read this part of the book, though, I don't think that even were I to grant Pinker's argument about ancient nonstate violence, I would thereby do damage to contemporary anarchism. Despite Pinker's uncritical treatment of it, as though it expressed a universal truth, Hobbes' Leviathan is the product of a particular intellectual, political, and social context. Precisely because all nonstate societies are not identical across time, the specific pacification process Pinker theorizes in prehistory doesn't require the belief that eventual nonstate (or rather poststate) societies would see an increase in violence. An anarchist future need not be a reprise of the tribal past, although if it's Pinker opponents who are in the right about that past, certain aspects of it might be worth a second look.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Only Bad Witches Are Ugly: Good and Evil Over the Rainbow

I haven't watched "Mr. Willis of Ohio" yet, so my next real post is still a few days away, but in the meantime here's an odd little meditation on the politics of a very different entertainment.

While scrolling past ecstatic media coverage of the death of Qaddafi, who now truly isn't a seven-letter word for anything, I had the far-from-original thought that the mood of jubilation accompanying the death of any enemy of the United States (real or perceived) is like the big Munchkin musical number from The Wizard of Oz: a hearty chorus of "Ding dong, the witch is dead." I find this unattractive, because no death, not even one that can be morally justified given its circumstances (and there's no guarantee that this one was, though as with bin Laden's death corporate media are sure to ignore the questions that are already emerging, smothering any and all ambiguities with fog-of-war piety), is a cause for celebration. Even monstrous human beings are human beings, and when empathy limits itself only to good people, it's not empathy at all. The citizens of Libya, who spent decades living with Qaddafi's cruelty, can perhaps be excused for enjoying the certainty that he personally will never return to power; Americans have less excuse.

But what caught my attention was that the more I thought about The Wizard of Oz, the more I saw how its plot reflects some of the lies and illusions that drive American foreign policy, and is susceptible to an amusing alternate interpretation.  Dorothy's landing in Oz instantly kills its tyrant, for which which she's greeted as a liberator, albeit one showered with lollipops rather than flowers. But, in fantasy films as is the fantasy world that US politicians craft to achieve their ends, ya gotta have a villain, so the Wicked Witch of the West conveniently pops in. As Glinda tells us, "she's worse than the other one." One more wicked witch, and they'd have an Axis of Evil.

Anyway, Dorothy, having destroyed the political structure of Munchkinland, departs posthaste. The Munchkins, of course, are completely ready to resume their lives in a free and orderly nation, though in a realistic scenario the mayor of Munchkin City would immediately work to consolidate his power, while Glinda (and wasn't her arrival a little too timely?) would be making plans to annex the east, and the Lollipop Guild would go berserk, looting those pretty little houses and raping the Lullaby League.

At any rate, Dorothy ends up killing another foreign leader, again by an implausible accident that allows her to remain morally pure (no questions about summary execution here!), and is once more greeted as a liberator. Then she "convinces" the Wizard to step down and go into exile, bringing about a bloodless regime change. At this point Glinda returns and, having used Dorothy to dispose of three of her four competitors for power, lets her know that she's actually been able to go home all along. I doubt very much that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion will be allowed to rule the Emerald City for very long, and I can only imagine what Glinda has in store for the Good Witch of the South. MEK oughta take lessons from her.

When Dorothy gets home, she shows some remorse for her experiments in regime change, as so many politicians do when opinion has turned against their latest experiment in endless war. Back on the other side of the rainbow, Oz is probably in chaos, but Dorothy, for whom all that unpleasantness remains a distant memory, can chirp about how "There's no place like home!"... at least until the next time she gets itchy feet. The Nome King better watch his back. And so should Khomeini.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Big Block of... Something: The Crackpots and These Women

The title of this episode (apart from being, as Dave Barry would observe, a good name for a rock band) captures its rather broad focus. The linking narrative is what Toby aptly, if with a usage error embarrassing in a show under the impression it's intelligent, calls "Throw Open Our Office Doors to People Who Want to Discuss Things that We Could Care Less About Day." But woven around that are a fight between Leo's Pal and Toby, some banal psychodrama for Josh, the introduction of Zoe, and an attempt at an appreciation of the show's female characters. It's actually a fairly deft screenplay, if you overlook the fact that it does several of those things poorly.

Let's start with what Josh calls "Total Crackpot Day," earning him a whack on the head from Leo that's a little too forceful to be amusing. (Maybe that's why Jenny dumped him.) I've remarked in the past that the staff's disgust at having to talk to ordinary Americans reflects the contempt of the political class for people who care about issues in a more than nominal way.  (Look at the early liberal reaction to Occupy Wall Street, before co-opting that movement came to be seen as the better angle, or for that matter the liberal reaction to the Tea Party.) But, to be fair, this episode at least nominally agrees with Leo that "listening to the voices of passionate Americans is beneath no one." Both of the characters who are shown having these meetings with crackpots end up sharing their concerns on some level. It's all vaguely heartwarming. But what the hell is it good for?

So Sam spends a couple hours worrying about a UFO, and CJ can spout some trivia about wolves. Does that mean they'll encourage the White House to further address these "issues?" Of course not. The substantive effect is the same as if the staffers had remained unconvinced, or (and here's the rub) if they'd never had the meetings in the first place. It would seem that Margaret is right: this is definitely a waste of time.  Except, that is, insofar as it generates the illusion of access to pacify those who don't matter. (The rise of the Internet has made this process even easier.) Last week we learned that the staff can't be mean to congressmen because they're people too, but judging by the open contempt both Sam and CJ demonstrate for their guests, the crackpots aren't people at all.

One last point before we leave the topic behind, at least until next year's Big Block of Cheese episode: Leo refers to the crackpots as "people representing organizations who have a difficult time getting our attention." It's important to note the types of organization we're never shown. Apparently there was no time for the staff to speak to drug reform advocates, gay rights activists (recall that this episode is set in 1999), anti-corporate groups, or members of any peace movement, even though these are all indeed organizations that have a difficult time getting the White House's attention. One is left with the impression that people who aren't adept at acting within the system are all weirdos whose pet issues no one could possibly be expected to care about. And that, of course, is exactly what insider Washington thinks.

Since the main plot is essentially comic relief, the dramatic weight comes from the subplots with Josh, Toby, and Bartlet. I don't want to spend a lot of time on this, as little of it is directly political, but I will point out that Josh's angst is extraordinarily cheap drama on a number of levels, and shows some of the ways in which psychotherapy can become a writerly crutch, as will happen a couple more times during the show's run. It's obvious that therapy can be the basis for excellent character work; The Sopranos is a case in point. But that was a show with some sense of subtlety, and with a deeper awareness of what therapy can and can't do for a person. This, on the other hand, is like that old cartoon labelled "One-Session Therapy," where the therapist simply says, "Get over it." Josh goes to see his therapist for the first time in months, and immediately brings up both the problem he's having and a seemingly-unrelated quirk that the therapist quickly reduces to a buried trauma, with which the patient immediately deals. It's practically a parody of classical Freudian analysis. Apparently Josh is now over his lingering guilt at his sister's death, just as he'll recover from PTSD over the course of an episode next year. This is a pat, thoroughly episodic approach to complex ongoing issues, and it would be embarrassing in a soap opera.

Although Toby's problem with the president is personal, foreshadowing the eventual "revelation" that the president has daddy issues, they discuss it in terms of a couple political topics that caught my attention. On the basis of previous viewings, I had remembered Toby as the closest thing the series had to an admirable politician, in terms of his views on the issues, but so far I'm not seeing much evidence of it. There was his desire a couple episodes ago to cause trouble for the southern Democrat who made an empty remark that could be construed as a threat against Bartlet, which clashes badly with his later image as the civil liberties guy in the administration. And now he sincerely wants to kick Hollywood around for glorifying violence? Give me a break, dude: have you heard of a little thing called the US military?  Even as Sorkin's script acknowledges that complaints about violence in TV and movies are just easy politicking, it pretends that principled belief about such violence ought to be taken seriously. (On the other hand, Toby is at least allowed to argue for an honest admission that the gun control bill was weak, which everyone else dismisses on opportunistic political grounds.)

Finally, we have the "These Women" portion of the title, the scene at the end where Bartlet, Leo, and Josh wax rhapsodic about the female cast. I'm not one to use academic jargon in discussing social issues-- most of the time it isn't necessary-- but in this case, it's worth mentioning the gaze of this scene. The characters and the camera, and implicitly the series and its world, are male; no matter how successful they are, women remain the Other, and their success is somehow more remarkable than that of men in equal positions. A charitable interpretation would tie this to Leo's description of "a world that tells women to sit down and shut up," but fortunately I'm not inclined to be charitable, and anyway the problem of sex and gender attitudes in contemporary society is subtler than that, as the rest of the dialogue in the scene suggests.

Bartlet says that C.J. is "like a fifties movie star." Is that really the best appreciation he can come up with? It sounds more like praise for glamor and image (traditional feminine attributes) than anything else, especially since he adds that she's "capable and energetic and loving." Of those three adjectives, only "energetic" would ever be applied to a male politician, and even then it would sound like damning with faint praise. His comments on Mrs. Landingham are even worse. Would he assume a man would be less likely to "serve [his] country" after losing sons in Vietnam, or is this an echo of the idea that women are naturally more nurturing and child-oriented than men? The only thing he can say about her job performance, meanwhile, is that she's never missed a day of work. The Perfect Attendance Award? Really? That's what you give someone who has no real accomplishments. This scene, which is clearly meant to be in praise of women, ends up having the opposite effect because the qualities it ascribes to them are thoroughly cosmetic. This points to a larger problem with the series' treatment of female characters, but I think I've gone on long enough for one day, and there's an upcoming episode to which it's more relevant, so for now I'll let the subject go.

Quick takes:

*Bartlet telling everyone to look down at the seal so that they'll have heartier praise for his chili. This is a sitcom moment, but taken seriously, what does it say about his authoritarian hunger for deference?

*There are a couple jokes about the first lady's Ouija board. Obviously that's a reference to Nancy Reagan's astrologer and Hillary Clinton's seances (N.B. I don't know the details of either story, and I'm quite happy with that), but does Abby Bartlet really seem like the kind of person who would use a Ouija board? And are these stories themselves, about the frivolous, irrational hobbies of women, sexist in and of themselves?

*Sam: "there are levels and an order to our air defense command." Because maintaining the hierarchy is much more important than, oh, identifying something mysterious that's flying over the country.

*Bartlet talks about space travel and "touch[ing] the face of God." This is an obvious reference to Avuncular-Actor-in-Chief Reagan's post-Challenger performance, but at least that was about dead astronauts, not a paean to the days of the arms race.

*C.J. suggests they could spend the $900 million cost of the wolves-only road on building "the nine best schools in America." That's touching and all, but the more likely use of that much money would be on the nine best Predator drones. The scientists point this out, with an eerily relevant reference to "another war plane, another S&L bailout," but the episode is too busy portraying them as overzealous wackos to admit they have a point.

Next time: "Mr. Willis of Ohio," in which the series decides to wax sentimental about an ordinary American, possibly because he lacks the audacity to have deeply-held opinions.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Laws and Sausages: "Five Votes Down"

Once upon a time I entered an essay contest sponsored by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, on the topic "Is patriotism difficult to embrace in the world today, and why is it important?" Time has induced a blissful vagueness as to the details of my answer, but I do recall that it was in favor of patriotism, and calculated to appeal to the judges, that is to say, the sort of women who would glory in styling themselves members of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. What can I say? I was in high school, I was impressed by authority, and I wanted to win. Which I did.

The prize was a trip to Washington D.C. for what amounted to a politics summer camp. I'd act coy about what it was, except that anyone who cares is surely able to work out that it was the Washington Workshops Congressional Seminar. I had a miserable time, for a lot of reasons, only one of which is relevant to this post. During the days we seminar members visited landmarks and attended speeches by politicians and lobbyists unimportant enough that they had nothing better to do than talk to teenagers. But by night we participated in the Model Congress, for which we divided into subcommittees and wrote bills. My subcommittee addressed subjecting women to the military draft; again, the memory fails, but I think we were in favor.

You might well ask how, at a time when the draft was and obviously would continue to be a dead letter, this could be a relevant topic. But why shouldn't a fake bill be about a fake issue? Anyway, I was too miserable, insecure, and indifferent to play any part in the creation of the bill, but there was no avoiding the Model Congress proper, which took place on the final evening. Clad in formal attire, we were bussed to what the schedule breathlessly informed us was an actual Congressional office building. There we held debates on each of the four bills, leading up to the voting. In the course of the debate, some of the others went out in the hall to wheel and deal, persuading and promising as though the outcome could possibly be said to matter. I, on the other hand, was so bored that I voted to end debate on our own bill at the earliest opportunity, earning the ire of a girl sitting next to me, who was honestly baffled that I could want such a thing.

The experience wasn't a total loss; I was able to use it in one of my college application essays, where I delicately cast it as my recognition that participating in "the political process" wasn't for me. Today, I'll be more blunt: "the political process" is stupid, soulless, and ugly. In "Five Votes Down," even The West Wing comes, from a liberal perspective, perilously close to admitting it. Leo quotes the old saw about how you don't want people to know how laws and sausages are made. Like a lot of conventional wisdom about politics, this is something people would find profoundly depressing if they took it seriously. Very few admirable human beings believe that their jobs are too upsetting to be in public view.

The law that Leo's Pal wants to pass is gun control. I'll say up front that I'm very much in favor of gun control, provided that the first people it's applied to are the members of the US military. But in any case this law is already so whittled down by compromise that it's meaningless, as a congressman points out in an impassioned speech that would be moving if it weren't implicitly in favor of trying to solve social problems by authoritarian bans on inherently harmless behavior. So what we have here is 45 minutes of obnoxious maneuvering in favor of a pointless law. God bless America. The episode halfheartedly pushes the gradual change meme, but there's no force behind it, as if even the script can't bring itself to believe legislation matters.

At the end of the episode, when Leo says "It was hubris and we got what we deserved," that might seem like a criticism of the entire political process, but (part from being a reflection on the collapse of Leo's marriage, I think it's actually a criticism of their specific behavior in this episode, most notably Josh's pleasure in being the president's enforcer. Which apparently was wrong, not because the legislature ought to be independent of the executive under separation of powers, but because, as the slimy politician with whom Hoynes intercedes says, "These are grown men, with pride and dignity. They can't be manhandled." The ones whose interests matter, in other words, are the politicians, not the citizens. The final scenes are melancholy, not because the law that has been passed will contribute nothing to society, but because Leo's Pal didn't get enough credit for it.

(I would add that this episode gives the lie to the notion, popular among liberals otherwise at a loss to explain why Obama hasn't done all the hopey-changey things they convinced themselves he would, that the president has no power over Congress. He has leverage; the question is where and to what degree he opts to use it.)

The scenes in which Leo's marriage falls apart, although a little hard to swallow as drama-- why, after a long political career, are they just confronting this issue now?-- are wonderfully performed by John Spencer, particularly the beats in which, guilt-stricken and uncertain, he offers to carry her bags to the cab and asks her to call him before she goes to sleep. The discussion between Leo and Hoynes, in which the latter, who was a cartoon in his first appearance, proves to be a human being after all, is effective too.  The fact that Hoynes is simultaneously presented as a kindly man and a savvy political manipulator is, for The West Wing, verging on morally complex, a reflection of the fact that Hoynes won't officially join The Good Guys until the third season episode "Stirred."

The comic relief of "Five Votes Down" comes in two forms: (1) the subplot with Toby's stock windfall, which is another example of The West Wing creating the appearance of a scandal but expecting us to believe that the politician involved is really as virtuous as he claims, and again asks us to sympathize with the (literally) poor White House staff, who only make six-figure salaries and therefore might as well not have jobs at all; and (2) the scene where Bartlet is whacked out on pain pills. This is more goofy-but-lovable-sitcom-dad stuff, and Martin Sheen has a lot of fun with it, but what would happen if there was a national crisis while the president was high on Vicodin and Percocet? The same thing that would happen if his MS was acting up, I suppose, but that's a topic for another time.

Up next: the episode from which this blog's title is drawn, in which the White House staff are forced, possibly at gunpoint, to talk to people who, despite not being members of the political class, have the audacity to concern themselves with various issues. Also, some subtle but pernicious sexism.