My long review of Pinker's important book on "Why Violence Has Declined" is now up at The American Conservative website.
Encouraging as all this is, Better Angels can be a frustrating read, in part because of the limitations of Pinker’s numbers-driven methodology, his Blue State Triumphalist biases, and his sprawling subject. It would have been helpful for him to have distinguished between, at one pole, disorganized violence committed by, say, your local mugger and, at the other, organized violence committed by, say, the Manhattan Project. Ironically, the Los Alamos physicists exemplified the virtues to which Pinker admiringly attributes the decline in violence, such as rationality, cosmopolitanism, and Enlightenment humanism. Yet those traits helped make those men horrifyingly lethal.
Sure, many examples of violence fall into the gray area between a carjacker and Niels Bohr. Yet drawing this distinction points out that the opposite extremes of violence might not trend in the same direction at the same time. That crime has been falling for the last few years in the U.S. at the same time as war is becoming less common around the world is hardly proof that the two tendencies are, as Pinker argues, causally connected.
Why should disorganized violence fall in the long run? Because the disorganized are largely losers. As the Big Lebowski tells Jeff Bridges’s long-haired The Dude, “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. … The bums will always lose.”
Not always. But they usually lose.
So what happened in the mid-1960s that we had to start locking our cars and houses? Why did Watts and then so many other inner cities explode into rape and pillage?
This is a dangerous issue for Pinker, one he handles creatively. He praises the “Rights Revolutions” of the 1960s for reducing domestic death and destruction, but his graphs don’t actually show much evidence for that. His basic marker, the homicide rate, hit bottom in America in 1957 and started shooting up again about the time the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed. A few years later, women’s lib legalized the abortion of tens of millions of fetuses. ...
(Impressively, Pinker acknowledges this objection to his paean to the pacific powers of feminism. He argues in response that, in the long view, abortion replaced infanticide. Okay, but when I was conceived in 1958, I was in far less danger of being exposed on a mountainside than anyone conceived in the 1970s was of being aborted. A better argument is Pinker’s last one: abortion has been in modest decline for the last two decades.)
Black and feminist leaders object forcefully to mention of any side effects of their ascents to power. Brilliantly, Pinker, who still wears his hair like Roger Daltrey of The Who, sidesteps these landmines by blaming the high crime rate of 1965-1995 on his own kind: the damn, dirty hippies.
Read the whole thing there.
If you think I'm kidding about Pinker's maneuver, here's the cover of The Who Sell Out, to which Pinker, a big Who fan, gives the caption "Fig. 3-17. Flouting conventions of cleanliness and propriety in the 1960s" to argue that the 1960s represented a temporary blip in the Civilizing Process. He explains:
"Throwing away your wristwatch or bathing in baked beans is, of course, a far cry from committing actual violence. The 1960s were supposed to be the era of peace and love, and so they were in some respects. But the glorification of dissoluteness shaded into an indulgence of violence and then into violence itself. At the end of every concert, The Who famously smashed their instruments to smithereens, which could be dismissed as harmless theater were it not for the fact that drummer Keith Moon also destroyed dozens of hotel rooms; partly deafened Pete Townshend by detonating his drums on stage; beat up his wife, girlfriend, and daughter; threatened to injure the hands of a keyboardist of the Faces for dating his ex-wife; and accidentally killed his bodyguard by running over him with his car before dying himself in 1978 of the customary drug overdose. ... When rock music burst onto the scene i the 1950s, politicians and clergymen villified it for corrupting morals and encouraging lawlessness ... Do we now have to — gulp — admit that they were right? ... there are plausible causal arrows from the decivilizing mindset to the facilitation of actual violence."
No doubt to some extent, and I've probably made the same argument myself, but did the damn, dirty hippies really commit all that much violence, especially relative to, say, African-Americans? Were The Who all that big in Watts? The elephant in the room is Pinker's sainted Rights Revolution, specifically the Civil Rights Revolution, which triumphed in 1964, yet was immediately followed by black rioting from the fall of 1964 through 1968 and a long rise in urban crime.
What was the driving force?
We have the testimony of countless leaders of Rights Revolutions that they were inspired by the Civil Rights Revolution. That was the rhetoric of Gay Lib following the Stonewall riot of 1969. Gay Lib then led to hundreds of thousands of deaths from AIDS — not exactly violence, but certainly disorder and death.
In summary, read my whole review there. I'll be revisiting Pinker's book on my blog in the future because I have an enormous number of notes that I couldn't fit into my 3,000 word review (is there any bigger topic than violence?), but to hold a good discussion, I need readers to get up to the baseline.