The Persistence of Pinkerism

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, November 12, 2021

I’m old enough to remember when you couldn’t do a speaking event related to war and peace without being asked numerous reasonable and not so reasonable questions about 9/11 (each accompanied by a stack of DVDs and flyers presented to you as a revelation from on high). There was a long period when you could count on the inevitable question about “peak oil.” I’ve been around enough to know that you can’t talk to peace-oriented people without a question about creating a Department of Peace, or to non-peace-oriented people without a question about good humanitarian wars against irrational foreigners who can’t be reasoned with, or to any group at all in the United States and some other countries without “What about Hitler?,” or to any self-selected audience at a peace-related event without the question about why the other people in the room are disproportionately old, white, and middle-class. I don’t mind terribly the predictable questions. They let me refine my answers, practice my patience, and appreciate the unpredictable questions when they come. But, my God, if people don’t stop with the out-of-control Pinkerism I may just pull all my hair out.

“But isn’t war going away? Steven Pinker proved that.”

No. He didn’t. And it couldn’t. War can’t arise or go away on its own. People have to make war expand or continue or decline. And they are not making it decline. And this matters, because unless we recognize the need for human agency to abolish war, war will abolish us; because unless we recognize the horribly unpeaceful time we are living in we will not care about or act on behalf of its victims; because if we imagine war going away as military spending climbs steadily through the roof, we’ll likely imagine that militarism is irrelevant to or even supportive of peace; because misunderstanding the past as fundamentally different and universally more violent can and does lead to excusing immoral actions that should be condemned if we want to do better; and because both Pinkerism and militarism are propped up by the same exceptionalist bigotry — if you believe the people of Crimea voting to re-join Russia is the most violent crime yet this century, you’ll likely also believe that threatening war on China is good for children and other living things (but doesn’t count as war).

There have been serious critiques of Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature since day 1. One of my favorites early on was from Edward Herman and David Peterson. A recent collection is called The Darker Angels of Our Nature. But people who ask the Pinkerism question seem never to have imagined that anything Pinker claimed has been doubted at all, much less thoroughly debunked by countless professional historians. I think this is, in part, because Pinker is a smart guy and a good writer (he has other books I like, dislike, and have mixed opinions on), in part because we all know that long-term trends can be the opposite of what we think (and, specifically, that U.S. corporate media creates false beliefs in rising crime rates simply by filling “news” shows with crime), in part because enduring exceptionalism creates certain blinders, and mostly because people have been taught to believe in Western capitalist progress since they were toddlers and they enjoy believing in it.

Pinker does not get every possible fact in his whole book wrong, but his general conclusions are all either wrong or unproven. His selective use of statistics, extensively documented at the links above, is driven by two overlapping goals. One is to make the past dramatically more violent than the present. The other is to make non-Western culture dramatically more violent than Western. So, the violence of the Aztecs is based on little more than Hollywood movies, while the violence of the Pentagon is based on data approved by the Pentagon. The result is Pinker’s agreement with the U.S. academic fantasy that the mass slaughters of the past 75 years constitute a great period of peace. In reality, the unprecedented war deaths, injuries, trauma, destruction, and war-created homelessness of the 20th century have rolled right on into the 21st.

How to characterize the damage of wars depends on whether you choose to include non-immediate deaths (later suicides and deaths from injuries and deprivation and environmental contamination due to wars), and whether you choose to include death and suffering that could have been prevented with the resources spent on the wars. Even if you’re willing to go with the most credible studies on immediate deaths, they are only estimates; and you’re lucky if you can get even credible estimates on less-immediate war killing. But we can be sure of enough to know that Pinker’s portrait of war’s evaporation is nonsense on its own terms.

I think it’s important for us to consider the death and suffering caused by sanctions and economic injustice and environmental destruction, whether or not Pinker does, and whether or not we label such things “violence.” The institution of war does a lot more damage than just wars. I also think it’s rather insane not to consider the ever-increasing risk of nuclear apocalypse that would not exist without war and all the “progress” made on how it’s waged and threatened.

But mostly I think we need to recognize that the rosy world of peace and nonviolence Pinker imagines himself in is in fact 100% possible if and only if we work for it.

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