Thursday, December 1, 2011

In which Voltaire dies for the 1 millionth time

Commentary this one lately heard in support of the Panglossian Dr. Pinker: "Yeah, we do rock, mostly -- despite the crap, the crappers, the piece of crap crap-eaters, lots of us do rock."

Yes, predominantly white cisgender upper-middle-class Americans do "rock," and under the law of one-lifetime self-interest, Pinker and Rand have a great deal to offer.

The deadly, righteous propaganda of Pinker (latest work of which is frequently bought together on amazon with a Steve Jobs tribute) congratulates wealthy westerners, who may be feeling just a bit guilty given the past several hundred years (or past five, or past one), on creating an overall peaceful, better world. Like many numerologists, Pinker massages statistics to prove that the world is less violent--and, for white, cisgender, upper-middle-class Americans, it is.

Pinker's plot is as easy to beat up as JK Rowling's. The topmost fish in the barrel are his use of percentages to to prove that things are safer. I.e., if the population of China increases by 100K in Year 2, while the population of Sri Lanka remains the same, and there are only an additional 50 violent murders in Sri Lanka in Year 2, it means that violence has decreased!

An even easier target--the fish peeking into the barrel of the shotgun--is that improvements in medical care which can fix victims of violence result in fewer deaths despite even greater harm initially done to the body. This doesn't bother Pinker, of course. For example, does a paralyzed veteran saved by a faster chopper and better operations prove that there is less violence than a few years ago, when he would've perished? No; it says nothing about violence.

Any basic statistician, removed from social context and the requirement of publishing the popular, can easily debunk this sort of dross; the next level of insidious western self glorification is found in Pinker's disgustingly vulgar cherry-picking of what constitutes violence worth his measuring cup:

1) Mongol hordes attack a village. 300 innocent children are killed in the attack. Later on, the U.S. bombs a water treatment plant. 16 plant workers are killed in the attack. 10,000 children get sick from poisoned water and die.

Pinker's conclusion: Mongols caused more violent deaths than Americans. 300 is way more than 16! We're improving! Things are great! We're the greatest generation and also angels!

2) American slave owners murder and abuse 24,000 slaves a year. Later on, state-licensed private prison operators rape, beat, and restrain 2 million African Americans a year.

Pinker's conclusion: Slavery was wrong, but the prison system isn't. 24,000 violent crimes have vanished entirely! Zero beats 24,000! Things are getting so much better!

3) Allied forces firebomb Dresden. 40,000 people are burned alive. Later on, America bombs Fallujah. 20,000 people are burned alive. Social infrastructure collapses. Police services, clean water, reliable food and transportation are shattered. Violent crime skyrockets. The major media fails to report on it. Victims are murdered to prevent the telling of tales. American generals "don't do body counts." An undeclared civil war claims the lives of dozens of thousands. Public records are burned and a massive homeless population spreads into the countryside to starve. 10,000 children get rare forms of cancer from leftover advanced post-industrial depleted uranium munitions, and die horrible deaths. For the next 100 years, the depleted uranium keeps on giving its gift.

Pinker's conclusion: 20,000 wartime deaths beats 40,000! Gosh, we're super! If we just keeping doing what we're doing, things can only improve more!

4) The King of England executes 23 political opponents in one horrible, backward, medieval year. Centuries later, in one year, CIA and MI6 black ops agents assassinate and/or black-hood 114 tribal dissidents in Pakistan, 90 tribal dissidents in Afghanistan, 442 insurgent leaders in Iraq, and 42 miscellaneous others in undisclosed locations. The Secretary gravely reports that four private security contractors were killed by insurgents.

Pinker's conclusion: 4 violent deaths beats 23 violent deaths. It's so nice that we're past the days of monarchist terror! Pass the punch!

The operative point here is that, by declaring that certain forms of violence are acceptable--the violence committed by the foreign and domestic military forces of certain nation-states--Pinker is able to massage statistics to make it appear that the world has gotten less violent. And for his pampered world, it has.

(God knows, of course, that every woman reports every time she is raped or physically abused, and every case of prison abuse reaches public statisticians. People with no health insurance go to the hospital when they're injured because they don't mind paying for the treatment as long as it makes sure crime statistics are accurately tracked, and people injured in gang violence--even in blessed American inner cities--never shy from making sure everyone knows what's happened.)

/facepalm @ Pinker


Not only Voltaire, but Tolkien would turn over in his grave, as the most vile industrialists turn their poisonous terror machines to the task of off-the-books slaughter, then call it an improvement. Of course, anyone familiar with the concepts of both wielding a sword to kill someone and wielding an M-16 (or an F-22) to do so should be able to dismiss Pinker out of hand, on the physical realities of arm strength alone, but when you need to feel calm about the state of things, it helps gloss over the shredded bodies to believe that it is, at least, "an improvement." After all, as Pangloss suggested, this is the best that things could be right now.

And things are always getting better. Our brightest engineers are working on even more sterile ways to shatter bodies as we speak.

Pinker is an unspeakably hideous, privileged whitewasher of certain kinds of violence: that violence which happens to people not us, in ways difficult to track and places far away, using formal reported crime statistics and deliberately downplayed, no-press-allowed numbers of how many people were "probably" killed in any given drone strike.

As the great nations of the world cooperate in raping, torturing, bombing, starving, poisoning and otherwise fucking up countless human lives, for wealthy western intellectuals to congratulate those great nations on being responsible for fixing problems by being so humane is profane beyond words. Let them eat cake. Let them drink blood.

No, let the final gasps of half a million starving children reach your carefully sheltered ears.

(A lengthier academic deconstruction of Pinker may be found here.)

"Follow the money," someone once said, to help discover the source of a wrongdoing. In the case of the wealthy, influential, American, Harvard professor Pinker, Mannheim would find no surprises in such a man sourcing the thesis that modern states, and their efficient, well-equipped police and military forces, have produced a "long peace."

(Edit: this continues here.)


  1. I prefer ol' Ezra's take on Western violence:


    THERE died a myriad,
    And of the best, among them,
    For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
    For a botched civilization,

    Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
    Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,

    For two gross of broken statues,
    For a few thousand battered books.

    (And again, as I mentioned chez IOZ, the amazing thing is that Noam brought Stevie along ... Stevie was considered the heir apparent at one point ...
    just shows to go ya what happens when you cross the Charles ... it's like crossing the Styx ... all memory is erased ...

  2. It really takes courage for a wealthy, white, well-known Harvard professor to publish a work declaring that things are better than ever before, courtesy the modern nation-state. It's almost like an interview with Caesar praising imperial Rome.

    What boggles the mind--or at least, what hurts so much--is the number of adherents who go out of their way to support that stuff without being paid.

    "Pinker--for when you feel guilty about privilege!"