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.