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.