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."

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