Whatever its causes…

Steven Pinker: Why Violence Is Vanishing – WSJ.com:

Whatever its causes, the implications of the historical decline of violence are profound. So much depends on whether we see our era as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide and war or as a period that, in the light of the historical and statistical facts, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.

From an interesting op-ed in which, as in Henry James’ ideal, the writer manages to describe the lamp by describing everything in the room except for the lamp.

Pinker speculates that the decline in war deaths can be attributed to a model of the state, to commerce, and to cosmopolitanism, and he pays special attention to communications technology.  He doesn’t speculate at all about the peculiar role of the American military-industrial-cultural complex in this great world pacification – what others have called Pax Americana.

I don’t intend this observation as flag-waving, but as a beginning point for investigation.  It seems an open question to me whether and, if so, to what extent the completion of America’s world-historical project must entail the inversion of Americanism, the world turned upside down all over again, with the New World eventually becoming the home and center of reactionary culture – militaristic, anti-scientific, schizophrenically anti-statist, xenophobic, all that typifies the ideology of my former friends and colleagues in the self-consciously American exceptionalist political movement.

They never consider what taking American exceptionalism to an extreme logically implies:  A world gone to Hell, so that we may preserve our American Heaven, or an American Hell isolated from world progress.  The only other alternative that preserves any remnant of the notion would be an “American exceptionalism” that treated its own extinction as a primary goal, and by historically “exceptional” means – by democratization, commerce, cosmopolitanism, and so on.   That would require thinking of ourselves in somewhat the same way that Jefferson, Adams, and the rest thought of themselves on their best days:  As equal citizens of the world in becoming, not as its conquerors or masters.

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3 comments on “Whatever its causes…

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  1. I’ll try and find an inforgraphic video I ran across a while ago charting world violence over world history. So far I haven’t succeedd, but I keep at it a bit. I think it was connected to one of the many articles Pinker has written on this. A slightly differnent one from the WSJ ends with this:

    Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has profound implications. It is not a license for complacency: We enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to end it, and so we should work to end the appalling violence in our time. Nor is it necessarily grounds for optimism about the immediate future, since the world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.

    But the phenomenon does force us to rethink our understanding of violence. Man’s inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, “Why is there war?” we might ask, “Why is there peace?” From the likelihood that states will commit genocide to the way that people treat cats, we must have been doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.

  2. On this subject, I recommend reading “The Chalice and the Blade.” It posits the idea that there was a lot less violence in human history than contemporary male (and male identified) historians would have us believe. The author makes a compelling argument. Too long to go into here. Suffice it to say that the records used as proof of there being a lot of violence in early human history in particular is characterized as hammers seeing nails. She points out that what have been seen as weapons painted on cave walls, for example, are really leaves. So from the CHALICE perspective there is a lot more violence now than there ever was. Either way, “we should work to end the appalling violence in our time.”

    • Isn’t Eisler’s emphasis more on pre-history or what you might call speculative history – not quite “history,” but rather a past (or idea of a past) making a bid through her writing and possibly through social movements to take a place in history?

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