Among the Intellectualoids

What, Me Worry?

Steven Pinker says the modern world is a remarkably peaceful place.

By 10.6.11

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For years Steven Pinker has been shooting his mouth off about how peaceful the world is. It almost made you want to clobber him. Preferably with his new 832-page book. Pinker's latest tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, posits that no matter how dreadful the evening news, no matter how many security guards, house alarms, pit bulls, and conceal and carry laws we need for protection, our chances of a violent, excruciating death are much less today than in Days of Yore.

I guess it makes sense, though. I mean, what wasn't worse in the Olden Days? If you listen to my Dad, every walk to school was like the Trail of Tears. Or think about health care. In the 19th century if you got a paper cut you were as good as dead. The wound would fester and the next thing you know your parents would be renting out your upstairs room to Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Then there was food safety. Actually, there wasn't food safety. That was the problem. Meat was so rancid even the maggots turned up their noses. Men drank beer because it was purer than water, which wasn't fit for consumption. That was their excuse anyway. 

Generally speaking, people were more rude, smelly and disgusting. If you think people are repulsive now, spitting on the sidewalk, wearing their trousers around their knees, toting around bags of dog poop, centuries ago they were 100 times more disgusting. Only they didn't know it because our wives weren't there to tell them so.

But it is violence that Pinker is most interested in. His thesis is that, unlike in Times Past, our chances of meeting a horrible, bloody end are virtually nil. We are certainly more squeamish about cruel and inhuman punishment than were our sicko ancestors. Take this account of the execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger, convicted of treason in 1326:

Immediately after the trial, Despenser was dragged behind four horses to his place of execution, where a great fire was lit. He was stripped naked, and Biblical verses denouncing arrogance and evil were written on his skin. He was then hanged from a gallows 50 ft high, but cut down before he could choke to death. Despenser was then tied to a ladder, and  --  in full view of the crowd  --  had his genitals sliced off and burned (in his still-conscious sight) then his entrails slowly pulled out, and, finally, his heart cut out and thrown into the fire… Just before he died, it is recorded that he let out a "ghastly inhuman howl," much to the delight and merriment of the spectators. Finally, his corpse was beheaded, his body cut into four pieces, and his head mounted on the gates of London. 

Today, we squirm just reading this. Unless you are a sicko.

PINKER CREDITS THE Enlightenment and the rise of the Modern State for the decline in violence. That is, once the State stopped roasting, flaying, and castrating its citizens. Along with the rise of the State came an interest in international trade. The smart guys decided it was more fun to make piles of money selling surplus goods to foreigners than raping and pillaging their villages, though that was fun too.

This didn't happen overnight. Even America's founding fathers were extremely violent and scary people. Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton over a few flippant remarks Hamilton made about Burr's haircut or something. The hotheaded Andrew Jackson was riddled with more holes than a wheel of deli Swiss. In those days, politicians would settle scores not by threatening namby pamby legislative maneuvers, but with live rounds of ammo. Imagine C-Span's ratings if Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell settled their political differences like real 18th century gentlemen.

But what of the popular notion that the 20th century with its world wars, holocausts, genocides, civil wars, proxy wars, post-colonial wars, Marxist guerilla wars, drugs wars, cultural revolutions, great leaps forward, uprisings, purges, forced starvations, terrorist attacks, etc., was the bloodiest century ever? Hogwash, says Pinker. What matters is not the number of individuals massacred, but the percentage (of the population). Spoken like a true intellectual.

Some may find it curious that Pinker has decided to make this argument now, with the memories of 9/11 still fresh, with the U.S. locked in a death struggle with Islamic Jihad, with Europe awash in riots, and drug wars raging in cities across the Americas. I suspect Pinker could easily have made the counter argument: that the world is a much less peaceful place today.

But then we already knew that.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.