Reality Denial : Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence
Pinker mentions in passing that the post-World War II peace among the giants was possibly a result of the immense cost of wars that might involve a nuclear exchange—and it did extend to the Soviet Union during its post-World War II life—but his explanation focuses mainly on the cultural evolution and biological adaptations of the Civilized, in contrast with the Uncivilized of the Third World. Why this new peaceableness of the Civilized does not stop their violent interventions abroad he fails to explain. The exclusion of wars against the Uncivilized from his definition of a “Long Peace” reflects gross political bias.
Pinker attributes the sense of increased violence to multiple “illusions,” one of which he believes is caused by the development of media and other advanced forms of communication that allow a rushing to the spot of bloody events, and recording them and transmitting them to the world. As he explained in a guest appearance on CBS TV’s The Early Show in mid-December 2011: “Not only can we send a helicopter with a film crew to any troubled spot in the world but now anyone with a cell phone is an instant reporter. They can broadcast color footage of bloodshed wherever it occurs and so we’re very aware of it.” Apparently Pinker believes that the media cover the world on a non-discriminatory basis, reporting on Guatemalan peasants slaughtered by their army, civilian victims of U.S. drone warfare in Afghanistan, Honduran protesters shot dead by their own military, and dead and injured U.S. soldiers as aggressively as they report on civilian protesters shot dead on the streets of Tehran, or the victims of the Syrian government or of the late Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The naiveté here is staggering.
Pinker’s “Cold War”
Although Pinker covers a great deal of ground from the earliest humans to the present, with numerous figures and learned citations, Better Angels is an overwhelmingly ideological work, with biases that reveal themselves at every level—sourcing, language, framing, historical and political context, and substance—and on all topics.
You would think that the disappearance of the gravest threat in the history of humanity [i.e., a NATO-Warsaw Pact nuclear war] would bring a sigh of relief among commentators on world affairs. Contrary to expert predictions, there was no invasion of Western Europe by Soviet tanks, no escalation of a crisis in Cuba or Berlin or the Middle East to a nuclear holocaust. The cities of the world were not vaporized; the atmosphere was not poisoned by radioactive fallout or choked with debris that blacked out the sun and sent Homo sapiens the way of the dinosaurs. Not only that, but a reunited Germany did not turn into the fourth reich, democracy did not go the way of monarchy, and the great powers and developed nations did not fall into a third world war but rather a long peace, which keeps getting longer. (295)
This is of course rhetoric, but it is saturated with political bias, straw persons, and literal errors: The nuclear war-threat has not disappeared, and two cities of the world were vaporized, with a quarter of a million civilians killed in two quick strokes, but this was done by Pinker’s home country, just as nuclear war remains “on the table” and nuclear arms continue to be an integral part of the arsenal of the United States, NATO, Israel, and India (the last shielded outside the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons by the new “strategic partnership” between the United States and India since July 2005)—and all despite the United States’ and the other four original nuclear weapons-states’ promise in 1968 to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Pinker is also misinformed that “expert predictions” were that Soviet tanks would occupy Europe—he confuses expert opinion and Cold War propaganda. The Soviet Union had been devastated during World War II, and sought loans from the United States in the post-war negotiations; it was a conservative and cautious international actor, and had no nuclear weapon till 1949. John Foster Dulles himself noted that “I do not know of any responsible high official, military or civilian…who believes that the Soviet now plans conquest by open military aggression” (i.e., via Pinker’s “invasion of Western Europe by Soviet tanks”). Writing in 1946-1947, U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes clearly did not expect any Soviet military attacks on Western Europe. He, Dulles, and other officials were mainly worried about Soviet political influence over Western publics, local leaders, and “infiltration” and “subversion,” which they countered with money, arms, agreements with local leaders, and their own “infiltrators” and “subversion.” Few if any real experts expected the resulting Federal Republic of Germany to turn into a “fourth Reich,” but some may have been surprised when the United States and West Germany violated early promises to Mikhail Gorbachev and his Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in early 1990 not to extend NATO further to the east, in exchange for Moscow’s acquiescence to the reunification of East and West Germany later in 1990. Pinker fails to discuss this peace-threatening development, or even mention the existence of the early promise to Moscow. Indeed, he comments that German reunification and NATO expansion “had no discernible effect on the Long Peace among developed countries, and it presaged a New Peace among developing ones.” (674)
Disappearing Imperialism, the Military-Industrial Complex, and Institutional Imperatives
The U.S. push for markets and investor rights and political control, sometimes called Imperialism, is for Pinker just natural and doing good, taking advantage of positive-sum business games with “gentle commerce,” as well as containing those with ideology who kill people freely. “The very idea of a capitalist peace is a shock to those who remember when capitalists were considered ‘merchants of death’ and ‘masters of war’,” (288) to give one example of Pinker’s perspective. Pinker doesn’t mention any such thing as “aggressive commerce” or discuss the possibility (and reality) of the cross-border seizure of property by the more powerful states. There are 17 citations to “gentle commerce” in his Index, and writers who promulgate the related ideas of “gentle commerce,” “Democratic Peace,” “Liberal Peace,” “Capitalist Peace,” and “Kantian Peace” (in the Pinker-friendly version of it) are featured and referenced lavishly. But there are zero indexed citations to the word “imperialism” in Better Angels, and no mentions of Jagdish Bhagwati and Hugh Patrick’s Aggressive Unilateralism, John Hobson’s Imperialism, John Ellis’ The Social History of the Machine Gun, Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts, Penny Lernoux’s Cry of the People, Gabriel Kolko’s Confronting the Third World, Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy, Robert Engler’s The Politics of Oil, or David Harvey’s The New Imperialism.
Vietnam and the Antiwar Protests
Pinker fails to explain why before, during, and after the Vietnam war the elites have been so little influenced by the masses marching in the streets. Why must the masses even march in the streets? Why must the elites continue to engage in military buildups and serious violence, at heavy economic cost, when according to his preferred expert James Sheehan the state is abandoning military force and focusing on the material well-being of the public? If institutional forces are not the explanation, why don’t the “better angels” trickle up to the leadership, especially when in his view the higher morality trickles down from the elite to the general population?
According to Pinker, “The three deadliest postwar conflicts were fueled by Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communist regimes that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents.” (308) As regards Vietnam, he goes on to show that the Vietnamese were willing to absorb large casualties inflicted on them by the U.S. invaders. For Pinker, this is the fanaticism that fueled the Vietnam war. There is not a word of criticism of the invaders who were willing to inflict those deaths in a distant land; certainly nothing “fanatical,” no mention of the UN Charter, no word like aggression is applied to this attack; and there is no mention anywhere in the book that the United States had supported the French effort at re-colonization, then supported a dictatorship of its own choosing; and that U.S. officials recognized that those fanatical resisters had majority support as we killed vast numbers of them to keep in power our imposed minority government. While acknowledging 800,000 or more “civilian battle deaths” in the Vietnam war, Pinker does not stop to explain how vast numbers of civilians could be killed in “battle” and whether these deaths might possibly represent a gross violation of the laws of war, or how this could happen in an era of rising morality and humanistic feelings, and carried out so ruthlessly by the dominant Civilized power.
Nowhere does Pinker mention the massive U.S. chemical warfare in Vietnam (1961-1970), and the estimated “three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children,…suffering from the effects of toxic chemicals” used during this ugly and very unangelic form of warfare. What makes this suppression especially interesting is that Pinker cites the outlawing and non-use of chemical and biological weapons as evidence of the new evolving higher morality and decline of violence (273-277)—so his dodging of the facts on the massive use of such weapons in Operation Ranch Hand and other U.S. programs in Vietnam is remarkable dishonesty.
Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo
However, when he deals with claims of mass civilian deaths brought about by U.S. policy in Iraq Pinker becomes much more demanding on the quality of evidence and methodology. One device that he uses here and elsewhere is to distinguish between the aggression-based killings by the United States during the initial stage he calls “quick” and “low in battle deaths,” and deaths during the “intercommunal violence in the anarchy that followed.” (266) He fails to mention the Nuremberg condemnation of aggression that ties it closely to deaths that follow: “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole." He ignores the facts that the civil conflicts were unleashed by the U.S. attack, and that the United States was an ongoing and large direct killer long after the “mission” was declared “accomplished” by George Bush on May 1, 2003. Fallujah and Haditha were just two of many U.S.-inflicted horrors that followed the announcement of an accomplished mission, and the U.S. invader-occupier was also an active manipulator of the civil conflicts that it unleashed. On the assumption that Nuremberg principles apply, this entire death-dealing and hugely violent enterprise is the legal and moral responsibility of Pinker’s home country leaders—a point that Pinker evades.
Pinker goes to some pains to discredit the higher-end mortality estimates for both the Iraqi theater of conflict under the U.S. war and occupation and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after its 1996 invasion by Rwanda and Uganda, two key U.S. allies in Central Africa. Specifically, he criticizes the work of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers, published in the British medical journal The Lancet in October 2006, which reported that 655,000 Iraqis had died during the roughly 40-month period from the March 20, 2003 U.S. invasion through July 2006, with some 601,000 of these deaths due to violence. He also criticizes the January 2008 report by the Brussels-based International Rescue Committee and the Burnet Institute of the University of Melbourne, which estimated 5.4 million excess deaths from all causes in the eastern DRC for the period 1998 to April 2007.
Pinker asserts that these mortality estimates are “not credible,” and refers to both of them with the derogatory term “revisionist” (his emphasis). “Revisionist” in this case means essentially not in accord with estimates that Pinker prefers. “Rather than counting bodies from media reports and nongovernmental organizations,” Pinker writes, “surveyors ask a sample of people whether they know someone who was killed, then extrapolate the proportion to the population as a whole….Without meticulous criteria for selecting a sample, extrapolations to an entire population can be wildly off.” (317-318) Thus in these two cases he rejects a method that is the current standard in epidemiological research—and that Pinker himself uses when it serves his methodological purposes (see “Massaging the Numbers,” below)—and that in our opinion is the soundest way of estimating mortality rates in large-scale armed conflicts, with their dangerous, high-risk settings and the frequent unreliability of governmental record-keeping.
In what on Pinkerian logic might be described as the ultimate in “revisionism,” Pinker completely ignores the “sanctions of mass destruction” imposed on Iraq by the UN but under U.S.-dominant influence and command, which in varying degrees of severity lasted from August 1990 into the U.S. invasion-occupation of 2003. It has been estimated that these sanctions may have caused a million Iraqi deaths, and in a notable incident, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright said in a 60 Minutes interview in 1996 that the sanctions-based deaths of an estimated “half a million” Iraqi children were “worth it.” In another notable statement on the Iraq sanctions, John Mueller and Karl Mueller wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs that this sanctions regime caused more deaths than “all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history.” U.S. officials knew that their destruction of Iraqi sanitation and water facilities by bombing raids during the 1991 war might well cause disease and deaths, but this did not impede the bombing or prevent the follow-up refusal to allow Iraq to buy replacement equipment during the sanctions era. Pinker never mentions these unangelic sanctions and this massive death toll, and though he thanks John Mueller in his Preface to Better Angels and cites Mueller 20 times in his Index and lists 10 different works by Mueller in his References, Pinker somehow misses Mueller’s co-authored Foreign Affairs article that throws grisly light on a major case of mass killing—but by the United States, hence invisible to Pinker.
The IRC-Burnet researchers produced compelling replies to these charges, pointing out that even if they had used the higher baseline mortality rate of 2.0 deaths per 1,000 preferred by HSRP and Pinker, the “estimated deaths would be 3.3 million since 1998”—nearly four times as many as the HSRP’s “best estimate” of 860,000 deaths for the shorter period from May 2001 through April 2007. But these competing claims have no bearing on a separate survey on behalf of the UN, which had already estimated that through September 2002, some 3.5 million excess deaths had occurred in the eastern provinces as a “direct result of the occupation of the DRC by Rwanda and Uganda.” We should add that, just as the Johns Hopkins surveys excluded Fallujah, thereby injecting a conservative factor into their results, the IRC-Burnet survey excluded from its samples locations where the violence and the risk to the researchers were greater than in the locations included in the samples, giving the IRC-Burnet results a conservative tilt as well.
But something else is almost surely at work behind Pinker’s advocacy for lower death tolls in Iraq and the DRC, and his reliance on sources that attack the work of researchers who have produced the higher-end estimates. Namely, his “New Peace” and “waning-of-war” agenda requires it. Two large-scale bloodbaths like those in Iraq and the DRC must be downsized to fit his agenda. Pinker therefore locates the lower-end numbers that he wants, ignores the “sanctions of mass destruction” in Iraq, attributes responsibility for the Iraq invasion-occupation deaths to “intercommunal” violence, thereby taking the United States off-the-hook, and clings to a “battle death” estimate for the DRC that ignores the many more indirect deaths from malnutrition and otherwise treatable diseases that characterized life in the eastern DRC over much of the past two decades, and comprise the major component of the DRC toll.
In the case of Afghanistan, once again Pinker’s apologetics for his own country’s violence is noteworthy. He tells us that as in Iraq “the interstate war phase was quick,” (266) but he fails to mention that the follow-up pacification process involved continued warfare and violence for at least the next decade, and was hardly “intrastate”—it was mainly military operations by the United States, helped along by its NATO allies, and extending into warfare operations in Pakistan. This not-very-quick assault was sufficiently violent and inept to provide the basis for a Taliban recovery and resurgence. Amusingly, and paralleling his claims about the new humanitarian “aspirations” of the Marines in Iraq, Pinker also finds a new ethical component in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, with “humanitarian protocols” applicable to the anti-Taliban bombing campaign. (266) He quotes a Wired Magazine article about a Human Rights Watch report written by senior military analyst Marc Garlasco that lauded the U.S. Air Force for its “very good record of minimizing harm to civilians.” (266) William Arkin, a leading Human Rights Watch analyst who has also taught at the U.S Air Force School of Advanced Airpower Studies, puts the word "victims" in quotation marks when referring to Afghan civilian casualties, and he resents the excessive attention given this subject. Arkin asks Afghans: "When are you going to pay the US for the cost of the bombs and the jet fuel and the American lives selflessly given to topple the Taliban and rout Al Qaeda, all done so that you can have a future?"
"Every vehicle is a target for the American bombers as they hunt down the stragglers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda," Suzanne Goldenberg reported from Zhawar, an area of mountain hamlets where the villagers described to her the indiscriminate devastation they suffered: "The village [Shudiaki] is completely flattened. My house was destroyed and my neighbors were killed....The dead remain there in the village. Everybody else has left." One air assault was based on the sighting of a tall man who seemed to be authoritative, therefore maybe Bin Laden, and no more information was needed to kill six peasants.
In his treatment of “genocide,” (320-343) Pinker’s selectivity—his focus on Western target-victims and neglect of the victims of the West itself—and his gullible and ignorant treatment of the facts are remarkable. For example, he repeatedly refers to Bosnian deaths in 1992-1995 as a case of genocide, and at one point he gives 225,000 as the number of victims. (340) Although he writes in an accompanying endnote that the “Bosnian massacres…probably killed closer to 100,000 than 200,000 people,” in his text, he adds parenthetically that though “Recent studies have shown that some of [the figures he uses for ‘genocides’] may be overestimates, [he] will stick with the datasets” in which the overestimates are to be found! (340) But two establishment studies of the deaths in Bosnia during the 1992-1995 period of armed conflict, one undertaken on behalf of the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the other funded by the Norwegian government, respectively, lowered the earlier propaganda-based estimates of Bosnian deaths on all sides to 100,000, and Bosnian Muslim civilians killed to approximately 33,000. Furthermore, when Pinker introduces the topic of genocide, he speaks of the awfulness “that someone would want to slaughter millions of innocents, including women, children and the elderly…[and that it] shocks the imagination by the sheer number of its victims” (320-321) But Bosnia hardly involved “millions,” and in the most famous episode there, at Srebrenica in July 1995, the Serbs bussed all the women, children and elderly to safety.
Pinker also follows the party-line on Rwanda. He takes it as unquestionable that mass killings of 1994 were a Hutu-based slaughter of “700,000 Tutsis…in just four months by about 10,000 [Hutu] men with machetes….,” and that poor Bill Clinton “was haunted by his own failure to act” to stop the killings. (339) Pinker is clearly unaware of the fact that Clinton did act—to get the UN to remove its troops just as the mass killing was escalating in April 1994, contrary to the desires of the Hutu leaders, but in line with the demands and interests of the U.S.-supported and militarily dominant Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by the Tutsi Paul Kagame. Pinker is also evidently ignorant of the facts that Paul Kagame was responsible for the April 6, 1994 shooting-down of the jet carrying Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana that triggered the mass killing, that Kagame’s forces moved into action within two hours of the shoot-down, and easily conquered Rwanda within one hundred days; and that the Clinton administration then and U.S. officials now are staunch supporters of the Kagame regime. There is good reason to believe that more Hutus than Tutsis were killed during this Kagame conquest of state power in Rwanda. Pinker also fails to tie this successful U.S.-supported conquest and genocide with the sequel Kagame invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was the second U.S.-supported genocide in this region. It is no coincidence that here also, as with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Pinker takes issue with higher-end estimates of the death toll.
Pinker also fails to discuss the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor in his section on “genocide.” The death-toll from this 24-year military campaign against the former Portuguese colony after it had won its independence was perhaps 200,000 people overall, and for the most violent years, from 1975 through 1981, between 150,000 and 170,000 out of an initial population of approximately 700,000. This means that over a quarter of the Timorese may have perished at that time, making East Timor the number one case of genocide since World War II, its percentage toll exceeding that of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and vastly greater than that of the famines in the Soviet Union and China during the Stalin and Mao years. (See “Communism versus Capitalism,” below.)
Pinker does mention a “regression analysis of 122 civil wars between 1945 and 1999,” (312) whose authors explain why they categorized the Timorese resistance to Indonesia’s military occupation as a “civil war”: “If a state seeks to incorporate and govern territory that is not a recognized state, we consider it a ‘civil war’ only if the fighting continues after the state begins to govern the territory (thus, Indonesia/East Timor 1975, yes…).” So here Pinker manages to find a source that rationalizes Indonesia’s invasion-occupation, and buries its genocidal results beneath some fabricated notion of a “civil war”: Indonesia could not have invaded East Timor, because in 1975 East Timor was not a recognized “state,” even though the Timorese went on fighting and dying after Indonesia seized their territory by force, and international law is explicit that “No territorial acquisition or special advantage resulting from aggression is or shall be recognized as lawful.” So via his preferred source, Pinker ignores the law on aggression. Pinker also misses the fact that Indonesia’s invasion and genocidal rampage across this tiny island was motivated by Timor’s off-shore oil reserves—a case of “aggressive commerce” driven home by the 1989 Timor Gap Oil Treaty between Indonesia and Australia, a treaty that granted Australian firms the right to drill in the oil-rich "Indonesian province of East Timor," hence unmentionable by Pinker.
However, there is also a tactic of the strong against the weak called “state terrorism,” sometimes called “wholesale” as opposed to “retail” terrorism, but Pinker ignores it, although “state terrorism” involves the killing of more people and the use of more ferocious means of violence—such as torture—than does the nonstate terrorism on which Pinker focuses. Thus Pinker never allows that U.S. “shock and awe” bombing or other direct or indirect attacks on civilian sites such as are now carried out by remote-controlled aerial gunships, or Israeli attacks on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as in Israel’s 2009 war on the Gaza Palestinians, where schools and hospitals were targeted and some 1,400 Palestinians killed, were acts of terrorism, although these attacks were designed to traumatize the population as well as kill people. Nor does the extremely violent nature of U.S. and Israeli actions cause him to use other invidious words, such as “aggression” or “mass murder,” to describe them. No, it is implied that the U.S. and Israeli violence is in some way justified, whether “defensive,” or “policing actions,” or perhaps “retaliation,” so words like “terrorism,” “murder,” and “genocide” are reserved for the actions of Western targets.
Here Pinker is echoing the work of PRIO, UCDP, HSRP, and other researchers closely aligned with a decades-old U.S. and Western agenda, accepting that, in the words of PRIO’s Nils Petter Gleditsch, “in the general trend towards more peace, Muslim countries and Islamic opposition groups seem to be lagging behind….” In an endnote, Pinker cites the UCDP-PRIO database for 2008, and list the 19 armed conflicts that he alleges “involved a Muslim country,” but he fails to mention that in many of the 19 cases listed, the United States or its clients also were crucially implicated. These were either armed movements resisting violent U.S.- and allied-directed state repression in countries where the victim population is Muslim (e.g., Iraq, the Philippines, Turkey), or U.S. and allied-supported insurgencies that fly Islamic banners in countries where the United States seeks to destabilize a regime (e.g., the Justice and Equality Movement in the Sudan, the Jandullah in Iran). In another endnote, Pinker writes that “Thirty of 44 foreign terrorist organizations in the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2008” were “Muslim terrorist organizations,” underscoring yet again his Islam-equals-violence theme, while in this case parroting the State Department’s official designation of who engages in “terrorism,” and who suffers from it.
The UCDP-PRIO database upon which Pinker relies is systematically and crudely biased. Thus for example it lists the U.S.-led war and occupation in Afghanistan for 2008 as an “internationalized internal” armed conflict between the government of Afghanistan and two opposition groups, the Hezb-i-Islam and the Taliban. The armed forces of the United States and indeed the entire NATO bloc are classified as “secondary” parties to this conflict, merely lending their support to an Afghan government that is a puppet they installed following the October 2001 invasion of the country, and continued to prop-up through 2008 (and now 2012). Similarly for 2008, the UCDP-PRIO lists the U.S.-led war and occupation in Iraq as an “internationalized internal” armed conflict between the government of Iraq and two opposition groups, the Al-Madhi Army and the umbrella organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq, which includes Al-Qaeda as well as several other armed resistance groups. Here again the UCDP-PRIO classified the U.S. and allied role in Iraq as that of “secondary” parties to the conflict, lending their support to the Iraqi government, rather than as the invader-occupier that had driven the previous regime from power and unleashed huge and ongoing violence in the country. But for the UCDP-PRIO as well as for Pinker, Afghanistan and Iraq were two of the 19 theaters where alleged “Islamic” conflicts were taking place in 2008, and this helps to show that an “increasing proportion of the world’s armed conflicts have involved Islamic countries and insurgencies over the past two decades, while the rest of the world got more peaceful.” (366) This carries Pinker beyond the preferential method of research.
Here again Pinker takes the Western media’s headlines and choruses of moral outrage as unbiased, and he apparently believes that equivalent or far more deadly events that they do not feature are properly downplayed or ignored. But if the New York Times and CNN rank the threat of violence against Salman Rushdie as more important and newsworthy than the actual U.S. bombing of mosques in Afghanistan, or warehouses bearing Red Cross insignia, or wedding parties, or broadcasting facilities, or episodes of mass killing in Iraq and the growing evidence of extensive genetic damage to babies born in Fallujah since this city of some 250,000 inhabitants was destroyed by U.S. forces in 2004, this speaks far more to the U.S. and Western media’s biases and propagandistic role than it does to the inherent importance of the Rushdie affair. No serious analyst or scholar would take U.S. media headline-treatment as the proper and authentic measure of the importance of global events.
“The impression that the Muslim world indulges kinds of violence that the West has outgrown is not a symptom of Islamophobia or Orientalism but is borne out by the numbers,” (362) Pinker reassures us. “The historian Bernard Lewis is not the only one who has asked, ‘What went wrong?’…Whatever the historical reasons, a large chasm appears to separate Western and Islamic cultures today.” (364-365)
Pinker’s notion of the “Civilizing Process” is based in part on his reading of a book originally published in Germany in 1939, titled The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. This book’s author, Norbert Elias, Pinker calls the “most important thinker you have never heard of.” (59; 64-81) Something called “self-control” is the central component of this alleged process. Better Angels contains many paeans to “self-control.”
Pinker has no serious evidence for this neatly-tailored story, even though his sources’ evidence for the decline in homicide rates in European countries over many centuries is solid. Nevertheless, he goes on to devote a section of his book to the so-called “science of self-control.” (592-611) “Lapses of self-control can…cause violence on a larger scale,” he tells us. “The burning and looting of African-American neighborhoods by their own residents following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and Israel’s pulverizing of the infrastructure of Lebanon following a raid by Hezbollah in 2006, are just two examples.” (592) But might not the widespread riots that occurred after King’s death have been the final result of unbearable social conditions needing only a spark to ignite them, as were the major riots four years earlier in New York City (Harlem), North Philadelphia, and Los Angeles (Watts), and not the result of some kind of maladaptive impulses among the rioting savages? Was the July-August 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon really an uncontrolled response to a provocation, or was the alleged provocation an excuse for an already planned, large-scale military action? In each of these cases, Pinker’s “lapses of self-control” substitutes a psychologizing about what makes human individuals tick for serious institutional analysis. The results are gross misrepresentations of history.
But in his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Pinker sought to vindicate in the language of evolutionary biology whole sets of junk-scientific claims about human psychology as well as the economic, social, and political arrangements that he prefers. This was especially clear in his attacks on what he called the “hard-left ideology” of the “radical science movement” of the previous three decades, whose partisans had criticized “sociobiology” and whom Pinker accused of running from scientific truths about the “innate differences among people,” because they feared the “political implications” these differences might entail. “Moral” and “scientific” doctrines have been so badly “conflated,” he charged, that genuine “discoveries about human nature [have been] greeted with fear and loathing because they were thought to threaten progressive ideals.” Indeed, “politically motivated reactions to the new sciences of human nature” sought to deny that such a thing as human nature exists.
Now Richard Herrnstein’s work (whether individually or jointly with Charles Murray or James Q. Wilson) was not dismissed but cited favorably. Pinker wrote that Herrnstein’s work on “IQ” in particular, as expressed by his notorious “syllogism,” should be accepted because it is “banal” rather than controversial, and “based on a mathematical necessity: as the proportion of variance in social status caused by nongenetic factors goes down, the proportion caused by genetic factors has to go up….[W]hen a society becomes more just, it will also become more stratified along genetic lines. Smarter people will tend to float into the higher strata, and their children will tend to stay there.” That the numbers for all factors, and the “IQ” tests themselves, reflect self-fulfilling cultural influences, is rejected by Pinker, as he fully embraces a crude biological determinism. Also, he never suggests that the Herrnstein-Murray findings might reflect a “hard-right” bias favoring policies that protect class and racist inequities, cutbacks in social spending, and an end to affirmative action-type programs. These writers are serious scientists, after all, like Pinker himself—not human-nature-denying, politically-driven leftists!
“I think [James Q.] Wilson was on to something when he linked the 1960s crime boom to a kind of intergenerational decivilizing process,” Pinker writes. “In many ways the new generation tried to push back against the eight-century movement described by Norbert Elias.” (109) Much of what Pinker contends in this and the next section ranks among the most laughable material in Better Angels. “The Civilizing Process had been a flow of norms and manners from the upper classes downward,” he continues. “But as Western countries became more democratic, the upper classes became increasingly discredited as moral paragons, and hierarchies of taste and manners were leveled.” (109-110)
Pinker claims that as U.S. society became more egalitarian and democratic, it also became less civilized (“Decivilization in the 1960s”); then he argues later that as U.S. society became less egalitarian and democratic, and considerably more repressive and reactionary, it was recivilized (“Recivilization in the 1990s”). But the Sixties saw the height of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, the rise of feminism, and growing demands of ordinary citizens to participate in political decision-making—a “crisis of democracy” in the eyes of elites and, in their corner, Steven Pinker.
Pinker quotes both Charles Murray and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to support his view: “[O]ne side effect [of the decivilizing 1960s] was to undermine the prestige of aristocratic and bourgeois lifestyles that had…become less violent than those of the working class and underclass. Instead of values trickling down from the court, they bubbled up from the street, a process that was later called ‘proletarianization’ [Murray] and ‘defining deviancy down’ [Moynihan].” (110) Moynihan’s 1965 report for the Johnson administration, The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, with its “tangle of pathology” rhetoric, and its warning that the “matriarchal structure” of the black American family, the “reversed roles of husband and wife,” spelled doom for black Americans below the middle class, was “eventually vindicated,” Pinker contends. “The decivilizing effects hit African American communities particularly hard.” (115)
Never mind that by the end of 2010, the adult U.S. prison population stood at 2,266,800 (or one out of every 104 adults), with an additional 7,076,200 adults on parole or probation. Racial and ethnic minorities have borne the brunt of this “recivilizing process,” with blacks and Hispanics accounting for at least 60 percent of all inmates today. Under the badly mislabeled 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the racially discriminatory “War on Drugs,” the number of people behind bars for non-violent “drug crimes” rose by 1,137 percent from 1980 to 2010, and some two-thirds of this exploding prison population were blacks. Although it was finally overturned in June 2012 by the U.S. Supreme Court, more than 25 years of mandatory minimum prison terms for the possession of one-one-hundredth as much crack as would similarly penalize the possession of powdered cocaine caused a situation in which black males had a 1-in-3 chance of winding up behind bars at some point in their lifetimes, compared to 1-in-6 for Hispanic males, and 1-in-17 for white males. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, roughly 23 percent of all prisoners in the world languished behind bars in the United States, this country boasting the “highest prison population rate in the world.” But there are no lamentations from Pinker about the lack of “self-control” running amok among U.S. lawmakers and the enforcers of the criminal justice system. As one group of critics noted about the rise of the “penal state” in America: “No thug, no dictator, no psychopathic madman anywhere in the world can touch the United States in this department.”
The criminologist Randall Shelden (whose name appears nowhere in Pinker’s book) has written that the new millennium began as the previous one had ended, with the institutional growth, spread, and deepening of the “crime-control industry,” its many state and private subsidiaries engaged in a self-perpetuating struggle for resources—more inmates and tax dollars above all. “What has occurred during the last one third of the twentieth century,” Shelden observes, “is that crime and its control has become one of the fastest-growing businesses in world history. As the manufacturing base of America has declined, we have seen in its place the rise of a fast-growing service industry.” In ranking the “order of importance” of the eleven factors that contribute to jail overcrowding in the United States, Jerome Miller ranked the “actual amount of crime committed” eleventh overall—dead-last. A “recivilizing process” indeed.
China’s death rate increased after 1979, with the surge of capitalist reforms and the associated sharp reduction in public medical services. A recent a review of China’s past and current demographic trends showed that its rate of death was higher in 2010 than in 1982, and that the greatest declines in mortality occurred well prior to the reforms, with a national decline occurring even during the decade that included the famine (1953-1964).
Now more than a decade after this initial flood of human deaths, arguments rage over how far Russia’s demographic crisis will cause its national population to fall by 2030 or mid-century, all due to the catastrophic shocks of the 1990s. Not only is there no mention in Better Angels of a Western-sponsored neoliberal shock-therapy killing millions of Russians during the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, but the only Russia that interests Pinker is the one from the early 17th century (i.e., the “Time of Troubles”) or the one from early last century, which fought in World War I and ended up with communism.
In contrast with Sen and Drèze, Rummel writes that more than 35 million people were “murdered” in the “Chinese Communist Anthill,” and of the famine victims he writes that “27 million starved to death,” every one of them “sacrificed for the most massive, total social engineering projects ever forced on any society in modern history….” But Rummel says what Pinker wants to hear, so while Sen is ignored, Rummel is promoted to serious authority and his numbers are used profusely and uncritically in Better Angels.
Among Pinker’s sources, definitional sleights-of-hand such as these abound. A 2011 paper by the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) concluded in its comparison of its own work and that carried out by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program in Sweden (UCDP) that both “datasets agree that the severity of war, as measured by the annual battle deaths, has decreased over the past twenty years,” and that “it seems evident that war is waning.” But the strength of these claims is exaggerated greatly by the fact that the UCDP and PRIO focus on direct or “battle-related deaths” to the exclusion of deaths that can be far more numerous during wartime, but are not directly related to actual battles. “Direct deaths…conform to our basic intuition of what it means for an agent to be responsible for an effect that it causes,” Pinker argues in defense of this method, “namely that the agent foresees the effect, intends for it to happen, and makes it happen via a chain of events that does not have too many uncontrollable intervening variables.” He continues:
The problem with estimating indirect [or non-battle-related] deaths is that it requires us to undertake the philosophical exercise of stimulating in our imagination the possible world in which the war didn’t occur and estimating the number of deaths that took place in that world, which then is used as a baseline. And that requires something close to omniscience….If Saddam Hussein had not been deposed, would he have gone on to kill more political enemies than the number of people who died in the intercommunal violence following his defeat?...Estimating indirect deaths requires answering these sorts of questions in a consistent way for hundreds of conflicts, an impossible undertaking. (299-300)
Not only is this a disingenuous argument, and Pinker’s counter-example of Iraq outlandish, but Pinker himself doesn’t believe it, as he and his sources violate it whenever they deal with communist regimes. For these regimes (e.g., Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot), attributing indirect, non-combat-related deaths to a deliberate plan requires no imaginative leap at all—the communists are maximally guilty for all of them, and estimating deaths poses no methodological problems. (See “Communism versus Capitalism,” above.)
Like Rummel, the HSRP, UCDP, and PRIO minimize U.S.- and Western-led warmaking and killing. Indeed, so systematic are the UCDP and PRIO labors to this end that they treat the U.S. role in the wars in the Koreas (1950-1953) and Vietnam (1954-1975) as “secondary,” that is, as merely providing support to the governments of South Korea and South Vietnam, even though the United States established these governments (in 1945 and 1954), and bore overwhelming responsibility for most of the killing and destruction in the wars. (Also see “’Islamic Violence’,” above, for how the UCDP-PRIO minimizes the U.S. role in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade.)
In the same dataset, the U.S. overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 is treated as an “internal” armed conflict between the Arbenz government and the “Forces of Carlos Castillo Armas,” with the U.S. role suppressed. The violence generated by the counterinsurgency regimes of Guatemala (1965-1995) and El Salvador (1979-1991) is once again treated as the result of “internal” armed conflicts, with no mention of the crucial U.S. role in arming, training, and supporting these regimes. In Nicaragua, the U.S. role first in supporting the Somoza dictatorship against the Sandinistas rebels (1978-1979) and later in creating and supporting the Contras and the FDN against the Sandinista government (1980-1989) is also suppressed. Many other examples could be added.
In contrast, the Soviet role in Hungary (1956) and later Afghanistan (1979) is treated as “primary,” with these armed conflicts classified as “interstate,” that is, as occurring between the Soviet Union and Hungary and Afghanistan, with both initiated by acts of cross-border Soviet aggression.
It is on the basis of methodologies as politicized as these that the “Long Peace,” the “New Peace,” and the “Democratic Peace” have been constructed. Among Pinker and the rest of the “waning of war” cadre, the imperial role of the United States simply disappears.
Given limited space, we will zero-in on four of Pinker’s most important figures.
The first is Figure 2-2, “Percentage of deaths in warfare in nonstate and state societies” (49), a bar diagram that purports to show the various odds that a “person died at the hands of another person rather than passing away of natural causes” at different times and places in history. (48)
The distinction between “state” and “nonstate” carries a heavy burden in Better Angels. Against the belief that “humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions,” and that the “world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably,” (xxi) ideas that he identifies with “romantic” writers such as Rousseau, Pinker argues that a “logic of violence” (31-36) pervades human affairs, and that humans spent almost their entire life on the planet trapped in a violent world. Invoking Hobbes, Pinker agrees that the “natural state of men, before they entered into Society, was a mere War, and that not simply, but a War of all men, against all men.” Hence the symbolic and emotional significance of “nonstate” and “state” for Pinker: The first means a ubiquitous war of all against all stretching back into the dark and distant past; the second, humans learning to live more peaceably as they developed agriculture and permanent settlements, and the central authority of states replaced the “state of anarchy.”
Some of Pinker’s small number of early critics noted how misleading it is to lump the disparate human groups associated with the first 39 graves into the same “nonstate” category, as even the most complete forensic inquiry into their mortal remains could hardly tell the story of what life and death had been like prior to the advent of “civilization.”
Also revealing is the cavalier attitude that he takes towards his data, and the huge fudge-factors he entertains. He offers a 0-to-60 percent range for the bodies recovered from one subset of 21 “nonstate” graves he labels “Prehistoric,” and claims that this series of estimates that are literally all over the map can be reduced to a meaningful final average of 15 percent. Similarly, he offers a 14 percent average for violent deaths among the 8 graves he designates as “Hunter-gatherers,” and a 24.5 percent average for the 10 “Hunter-horticulturalists” graves.
But were the bodies that Pinker alleges can be associated with violent deaths combat-related deaths, sacrifices, or accidents? Were the artifacts recovered with these bodies evidence of weapons or other kinds of tools? In cases when they are clearly weapons, were they also causes of death or the purely symbolic accoutrements of burial? Indeed, in one careful assessment of “Pinker’s List” of the 21 “Prehistoric” graves, the anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson concludes that this list “consists of cherry-picked cases with high casualties,” and that in passing-off these “highly unusual cases” as representative of “prehistory,” Pinker distorts “war’s antiquity and lethality.”
But in one of the rare informed reviews of this “trite Hobbesian message,” the anthropologist Douglas P. Fry argued that Pinker’s history of violence and war is upside-down. “[T]the archaeological facts speak clearly,” Fry noted, “showing for particular geographic areas exactly when war began. And in all cases this was recent, not ancient activity—occurring after complex forms of social organization supplanted nomadic hunting and gathering.” Among the “artifices of civilization” we must count war.
Thus while a certain “logic of violence” may be natural to human life at an interpersonal level, there is no evidence that violence and war were central to the development of humans for the first 95 percent of the past 200,000 years—or any time before. In “reverse-engineering” Homo sapiens and projecting war forever backwards, “older than the human species,” something that “our ancestors have been practicing war for at least 6 million years,” and turning war into a “selective pressure acting on the chimpanzee-hominid common ancestors and their descendants,” the academic survivalists among Pinker’s sources are playing “Time Machine,” transporting humans whose psyches have been distorted by modern civilization back into the past. Pinker’s theory that the development and spread of central governments associated with the early cities “ushered in the first major historical decline in violence” (35) fails its test—and fails it spectacularly.
Pinker insists that adjusted-rankings are needed to correct for two illusions. “The first is that while the 20th century certainly had more violent deaths than earlier ones, it also had more people.” (193) The other is what he calls “historical myopia” (also “availability bias”): The further in the past an era is from our own, the fewer details we know about it. Taking the An Lushan Revolt, Pinker claims that it would have cost the lives of 429,000,000 people, adjusted from the world’s population around 750 AD to 1950. As Pinker credits World War II with an unadjusted 55,000,000 deaths, this means that by his reckoning, World War II was only one-eighth as lethal as the An Lushan Revolt. Hence our technologically more advanced modern era has not been the most violent after all. Our thinking is rife with “illusions.”
But once again serious problems abound with Pinker’s reasoning and data. In what sense are his earlier destructive events genuinely and consistently events? Whereas World War II is relatively easy for us to define, four of Pinker’s higher-ranking “hemoclysms” span multiple centuries—the Mideast Slave Trade, the Fall of Rome, the Annihilation of the American Indians, and the Atlantic Slave Trade. If this is how he wants us to think about “violence,” then we should also enumerate the structural violence of the kind that Sen and Drèze analyze, and that takes into account the human losses which follow from the policy actions and inactions of the global capitalist structures, but which Pinker passes over because it falls outside his conception of violence. (Though not where he can associate the structural violence with “Marxism” and “communism.”) Given that many more people are alive today, and that our scientific and technological capacities would enable us to remedy much of the avoidable suffering and loss that remains with us, were our political capacities equally as developed, surely our modern world is awash in unacknowledged hemoclysms.
Also important is the fact that the estimated death tolls in well over half of the cases Pinker lists in this figure are extremely uncertain, but he can live with them—it is only the higher-end mortality estimates for Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo in our day that he feels compelled to challenge on technical grounds of exactitude.
In his treatment of this scatter plot of 100 datapoints, Pinker’s discussion is perhaps the most dishonest in his book. (Though his handling of Figure 5-6, discussed below, may be tied with it.) Based on Matthew White’s list of the “one hundred events with the largest man-made death tolls,” and arranged in chronological order from the earliest to the most recent, Pinker introduces one crucial change in White’s numbers: Pinker adjusts each reported death toll to its percentage of the world’s population around the time the event occurred. As we saw above, the effect of this kind of adjustment is decisive: It makes smaller death tolls appear much larger when the world’s population was much smaller; and it makes larger death tolls appear much smaller when the world’s population was much larger. To express the same criticism in a different way: The further away from the year 2000 (i.e., our era) an event is plotted, the greater its death toll will appear; and the closer to the year 2000 an event is plotted, the smaller will be its apparent death toll.
Thus Figure 5-3 plots ten events that in Pinker’s adjusted rankings turn out to be more lethal than the First and Second World Wars. “Circled dots [at the very top of this figure] represent events with death rates higher than the 20th century world wars,” Pinker explains: From left to right, these are associated with the Xin Dynasty (9-24 A.D.), the Three Kingdoms of China (189-280), the Fall of the Western Roman Empire (395-455), the An Lushan Revolt (755-763), the reign of Genghis Khan (1206-1257), the Mideast Slave Trade (7th-19th centuries), the reign of Timur Lenk (1370-1405), the Atlantic Slave Trade (1452-1807), the Fall of the Ming Dynasty (1635-1662), and the Conquest of the Americas (1492-). (197)
Because the data are plotted on a base-ten logarithmic scale, what numerical values the datapoints represent on the vertical axis are impossible to determine. Nevertheless, Figure 5-3 conveys visually and with an air of statistical certitude the two main points that Pinker wants to drive-home about the 20th century: That it wasn’t the most violent overall, and that World War II wasn’t the “most destructive man-made event in history” (contrary to what White himself writes). But this is methodology with a political rather than scientific purpose. Pinker adopts it not because it helps him to illuminate atrocities throughout human history, but because it enables him to reduce the apparent scale of atrocities in the recent past.
And poor Pinker cannot explain what went wrong. So once again he resorts to our alleged “historical myopia.” (198) He quotes the speculation of Matthew White: “Maybe the only reason it appears that so many were killed in the past 200 years is because we have more records from that period.” (198) And he adds to this his own speculation, as well as that of the political scientist James Payne:
[O]f course for every massacre that was recorded by some chronicler and then overlooked or dismissed, there must have been many others that were never chronicled in the first place…..As James Payne has noted, any study that claims to show an increase in wars over time without correcting for historical myopia only shows that “the Associated Press is a more comprehensive source of information about battles around the world than were sixteenth-century monks.” (198)
But this, too, is methodology with a political purpose—and with it, Pinker has done no better than resort to a Donald Rumsfeld-class excuse for the missing “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq: the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” In fact, in his treatment of Figure 5-3’s failure to show what he claims that it shows, Pinker outdoes even Rumsfeld: the absence of evidence counts as veritable proof. “[A]s you go back into the past,” he pleads, “historical coverage hurtles exponentially downward for two and a half centuries, then falls with a gentler but still exponential decline for the three millennia before….If more conflicts fell beneath the military horizon in the anarchic feudal societies, frontiers, and tribal lands of the early periods than in the clashes between Leviathans of the later ones, then the earlier periods would appear less violent to us than they really were.” (199)
Pinker devotes two dense sections to Richardson’s work, one on the “Timing of Wars” (200-210) and the other on the “Magnitude of Wars.” (210-222) Figure 5-6 depicts the 315 wars (civil as well as interstate) that Richardson identified as having either ended or started sometime between 1820 and 1950. (205)
On the page in Pinker’s book where Figure 5-6 appears, many of the 315 lines of data are a blur to the eye, just as they are here. But as the lessons that Pinker strains to impose on these data are even blurrier, let Pinker explain them:
Pinker wants us to believe that the relative power of warmakers and the institutional forces developing within and between them don’t matter. After all, was it not the emergence and consolidation of Leviathans that made it possible for our “better angels” to assert themselves and peaceableness to grow? Manchuria was just as likely to invade Japan in 1931 as was Japan to invade Manchuria; Poland just as likely to invade Germany in 1939 as Germany to invade Poland; and Iraq just as likely to invade the United States in 2003 as the United States to invade Iraq. He also wants us to believe that the existence of a military-industrial complex, rooted in the richest and most powerful country to emerge from the ruins of the Second World War, is irrelevant to the probability that it will engage in wars, and to the deadliness of the wars in which it does. (At least Richardson could plead that he died in 1952, and was no longer around to analyze the institutions and practices of permanent warmaking.)
With comments such as these, Pinker is imploring us to ignore major pieces of evidence that violence has reached new and more lethal heights in modern times.
This is the final triumph of ideology.
Pinker relies also on the work of Matthew White, who in his own book on the worst atrocities in history asserts that the “Western philosophy of war-making tries to avoid killing civilians.” Under this philosophy, White explains, the “1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima is justified as a legitimate act of war, while the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut is condemned as terrorism.” The “key difference,” White adds, was that “one was performed openly against a declared enemy who had the opportunity to fight back or surrender, while the other was sneaky”—that is, not an act of resistance to occupying armies that had just killed some 20,000 people and were still indiscriminately shelling the hills around Beirut. Pinker also relies on Rudolph Rummel’s work, a man who believes that Barack Obama is a left-wing appeaser of global tyrants, and busily engineering a coup d’état in the United States. Rummel’s twin-volumes on “democide” are so badly deformed by bias that he estimated that all but 5,500 Vietnamese civilians killed by U.S. forces during the war were "collateral damage" and thus the unintended victims of a civilian-protective war policy, whereas North Vietnam had deliberately targeted and killed vastly greater numbers, all as a matter of policy. Pinker himself claims that “at least 800,000 civilians died” in Vietnam, (267) but he also adds that these were “battle deaths,” and that the deaths ultimately were a result of the Vietnamese Communists’ “fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents”—that is, to their refusal to submit to superior force. (308)
Better Angels has been received even more warmly than was Claire Sterling’s book, garnering many positive reviews and its author invited to lecture about it and to appear on numerous radio, television, and Podcast interviews. The New York Times treated the book to at least five prominent mentions prior to the flattering front-page account it received in the Sunday Book Review in early October 2011 by
In this country, Stephen Colbert had Pinker as a guest on his popular Comedy Central program, but asked him no serious questions; Pinker himself repeated without challenge his mantra that “we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence.” Colbert did, however, find the courage to add that “Stalin killed 20 million people. Mao killed 70 million people. Hitler racked-up six million Jews alone and then like a cluster-of-millions of everybody else he didn’t care for….”
David Sirota also interviewed Pinker on his Colorado-based radio show. Sirota’s webpage at the KKZN radio station announces that Pinker’s book is “startling and engaging,” and adds in what appears to have been reproduced from the promotional literature of the Pinker camp that “Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps)…[that] we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”
In introducing Pinker on his MSNBC show, The Nation’s Chris Hayes called Better Angels a “phenomenal book,” and added later that the book is “very persuasive that things are getting better, that humans are actually getting less violent.” Hayes asked no challenging questions about this book during his two-hour show. And in the show’s closing “You should know” segment, Pinker said that the audience should know that “The rate of death in war has been going down since 1946”—to which Hayes added that, yes, all of us “should know that it’s getting better, even in really bad weeks it’s getting better.”
But do Colbert, Sirota, and Hayes (et al.) really go along with Pinker’s view that the 1960s was a decade of “decivilization,” and that the mushrooming of the U.S. prison population over the past 35 years is a sign of progress, as it further thinned the ranks of the Uncivilized roaming the streets? Do they accept that what those “overly indulgent” and future-discounting savages had suffered from was a lack of “self-control,” rather than adverse social conditions? And that the “recivilizing” process from the 1990s on—which included intensive policing, mass incarceration, and the reduction of welfare-state pampering—was the key to this improvement?
Do they also accept Pinker’s accolades to Charles Murray, Richard Herrnstein, James Q. Wilson, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan for emphasizing the alleged sociobiological roots of the class structure and inequality of U.S. society, and go along with his denunciations of the “hard-left” deniers of human nature whom, in contrast to Pinker and his allies, have “radical” political agendas and want to protect the welfare state’s undermining of “self-control” and reversal of the “Civilizing Process”? Are they not aware that Pinker completely ignores the structural violence of the global class war that has increased inequality and interacted with systems of state violence to enlarge "internal security" operations and prison populations? That many of the Western so-called “democracies” are really national security states? And that Pinker classifies these as the advanced-guard of the “Civilizing Process”?
Do they accept that the post-World War II era was a “Long Peace,” and for Pinker’s reason that the great powers fought no wars among themselves? Do they buy-into Pinker’s view that the role of the United States in this era was merely the “containment” of an expansionist Communist enemy, and had no self-interested purpose or ideological base? Do they agree with his shifting of responsibility for Korean and Vietnamese civilian deaths in those distant wars from the United States to the communist sides? What do they think about Pinker’s citing the peace movements of the 1960s and during the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq as evidence of the growth of our “better angels,” while failing to explain why those “angels” neither prevented nor stopped the wars? Could it be that institutional factors—the global interests of transnational corporations and the military-industrial complex, the refusal of the nuclear weapons-states to give up their advantage, a permanent-war system that is more resource-commanding than ever, and possesses the potential for unprecedented destruction—carry more weight in policy decisions than does the sociobiological expansion in the powers of reason and empathy speculatively asserted by Pinker, but impossible to prove?
Can they not see the inversion of reality in the notion that it is a “militant Islam” that is the cause of Western intervention in Islamic countries? And that the “Islamic threat” that Pinker elevates to ominous levels is contrived and, like Soviet “containment,” an excuse for a violent and forward-looking policy, necessary to meet Western institutional demands?
This critical failure to understand Pinker’s misrepresentations no doubt rests in part on the sheer volume of the purported evidence that he throws at his readers, with more than 1,950 endnotes, some 1,100 references, and roughly one figure for every six pages of text. But selectivity and ideological bias dominate throughout, and his key evidence does not withstand close scrutiny.
We have shown that Pinker’s most basic idea, that humans moved from a Hobbesian condition of chronic warfare via the growth of civilization and the Leviathan state to a slowly and unevenly developing peaceableness, is not sustained by credible evidence. In fact, the extant archaeological record flatly contradicts it, and in his review of Better Angels, the anthropologist Douglas P. Fry referred to this as “Pinker’s Big Lie.” But without the counter-myth of the Violent Savage, there could be no “Pacification Process,” and his story about the “better angels of our nature” would take on an entirely different cast than the one he gives us, in which “human history contains an arrow” and “violence meanders downward.” (694)
Pinker calls the belief that the “twentieth century was the bloodiest in history” a “cliché” and an “illusion.” (193) He deals with the fact that World War II was the historical peak in war-related deaths, and World War I a big-time killer as well, by several tricks. One is to relativize deaths by adjusting the numbers killed in earlier conflicts to later and much larger population bases, so that although the absolute death toll from World War II tops all others, he can depict it as far less deadly than several other wars and conflagrations from centuries long ago. But while Pinker makes violence into a relative matter in order to prove his main theme, he often mentions the long historical diminution in violence without making explicit that he is talking about relative, not absolute, levels of violence. But increases in absolute levels of violence might well be independent of the sizes of the population base. Surely the U.S. attacks on Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq were rooted in independent factors, not the number of people then living on the planet. Nor was there any link between the Nazi holocaust and the population of China.
Another Pinker-device is to claim that the great wars of the 20th century were “random” events, and in his book’s many figures where he cannot avoid the deadliness of the First and Second World Wars, he waves-off their magnitude as "statistical illusions”—they are “outliers” and even “apparitions”—and he urges us to forget that they both occurred in the past 100 years. They are unrelated to “modernity,” whose “forces” for the “reduction of violence” remain sacrosanct in spite of these and subsequent wars—and the evident failure of the “better angels” to do their work.
Yet another trick is to start the "Long Peace" conveniently at the end of World War II, and to define it as a period in which there have been no wars between the great powers. But the First and especially the Second World War had taught them that with their advancing and life-threatening means of self-destruction, they could not go on playing their favorite game of mutual slaughter any longer. But this didn’t prevent them from carrying out numerous and deadly wars against the Third World, which filled-in the great-power war-gap nicely. Thus the “Long Peace”—a brief 67 years through 2012—has been peaceful only in a Pinkerian sense, and it appears to have very shallow or even no roots in our “better angels.” Furthermore, as we have stressed, it is increasingly threatened by a Western elite-instigated global class war and a permanent-war system fueled by “threats” manufactured by institutional structures that continue to overwhelm these “better angels.”
Small wonder, then, that the message of Better Angels pleases so well the editors of the New York Times and the large U.S. permanent-war establishment. It is regrettable that despite its manifest problems, the book has bamboozled so many other people who should know better.
[ Edward S. Herman is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and has written extensively on economics, political economy, and the media. Among his books are Corporate Control, Corporate Power (Cambridge University Press, 1981), The Real Terror Network (South End Press, 1982), and, with Noam Chomsky, The Political Economy of Human Rights (South End Press, 1979), and Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon, 2002). David Peterson is an independent journalist and researcher based in Chicago. Together they are the co-authors of The Politics of Genocide (Monthly Review Press, 2nd Ed., 2011). ]
[ Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Reality Denial: Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence,” ZNet, July 24, 2012. ]
[ Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, Reality Denial: Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence, ColdType, July 24, 2012. ]
 On Iran, see, e.g., Seymour M. Hersh, “The Redirection,” New Yorker, March 5, 2007; Seymour M. Hersh, "Preparing the Battlefield," New Yorker, July 7, 2008; Seymour M. Hersh, “Iran and the Bomb: How real is the nuclear threat?” New Yorker, June 6, 2011; Leonid Savin, “The Conundrum of Iran,” Strategic Culture Foundation, January 27, 2012; William Maclean, “Not-so-covert Iran war buys West time but raises tension,” Reuters, January 18, 2012; and Richard Engel and Robert Windrem, “Israel Teams With Terror Group to Kill Iran's Nuclear Scientists, U.S. officials tell NBC News,” NBC News, February 9, 2012. On Syria, see, e.g., Tony Cartalucci, “Extremists Ravaging Syria Created by US in 2007,” Information Clearing House, May 11, 2012; Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly, “Syrian rebels get influx of arms with gulf neighbors’ money, U.S. coordination,” Washington Post, May 15, 2012; Jay Newton-Small, “Hillary’s Little Startup: How the U.S. Is Using Technology to Aid Syria’s Rebels,” TimeWorld, June 13, 2012; “Syria: The Military Nuances of the Conflict,” Stratfor, June 15, 2012; Scott Stewart, “Are Syria’s Rebels Getting Foreign Support?” Stratfor, June 21, 2012; Charles Glass, “Syria’s many new friends are a self-interested bunch,” The National, July 11, 2012; Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper, "Stymied at U.N., U.S. Refines Plan to Remove Assad," New York Times, July 22, 2012; and Adam Entous et al., “U.S. Mounts Quiet Effort To Weaken Assad's Rule,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2012.
 See, e.g., David Felix, “On Financial Blowups and Authoritarian Regimes in Latin America,” in Jonathan Hartlyn and Samuel A. Morley, Eds., Latin American Political Economy: Financial Crisis and Political Change (Westview Press, 1986), pp. 85-125. Referring to the impact of the Chicago Boys on Pinochet’s Chile from 1973 through the onset of the Latin American debt crisis in the early 1980s, Felix noted that “virtually the entire banking system has been taken over by the government and is now operated by government-appointed managers. A wisecrack…is that the transition from Allende to Pinochet has been a transition from utopian to scientific socialism, since the means of production are ending up in the hands of the state” (n. 14, p. 120). He adds that this has “led some observers to dub [the Chicago Boys] ‘Marxists of the right’” (n. 7, p. 119). Also see Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, The United States, and The Rise of the New Imperialism (Metropolitan Books, 2006), Ch. 5, “The Third Conquest of Latin America: The Economics of the New Imperialism,” pp. 159-194.
 Rummel, Death By Government, p. 272 and p. 274. For more of Rummel’s elaborate rationalizations for his egregiously low estimate of the U.S. “democide” in Vietnam, see pp. 271-277, a passage that is remarkable for its author’s complete rejection of his own definition of the term “democide” wherever U.S. violence in Vietnam (South or North) is the issue.
 Although they were writing nine years before the publication of The Better Angels of Our Nature, and sharing their reflections on the life and work of the late Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, what Richard C. Lewontin and Richard Levins wrote back then about Gould’s dislike of “Panglossian adaptationism” in the study of evolution (or what Gould himself once called the “blinkered view that evolutionary explanations must identify adaptation produced by natural selection”) applies quite aptly to Steven Pinker’s book: “Another aspect of Gould’s radicalism in science was in the form of his general approach to evolutionary explanation. Most biologists concerned with the history of life and its present geographical and ecological distribution assume that natural selection is the cause of all features of living and extinct organisms and that the task of the biologist, insofar as it is to provide explanations, is to come up with a reasonable story of why any particular feature of a species was favored by natural selection. If, when the human species lost most of its body hair in evolving from its ape-like ancestor, it still held on to eyebrows, then eyebrows must be good things. A great emphasis of Steve’s scientific writing was to reject this simplistic Panglossian adaptationism, and to go back to the variety of fundamental biological processes in the search for the causes of evolutionary change.” (“Stephen Jay Gould: What Does it Mean to Be a Radical?” Monthly Review, Vol. 54, No. 6, November, 2002.)