I just received the new edition of Skeptical Inquirer (July/August 2013), and there are a couple of interesting things in it. First, I want to point out the excellent work Benjamin Radford did in exposing plagiarism in The Element Encyclopedia of Vampires (2009), which was filled with cut-and-paste plagiarism from websites. This was an even more egregious case of plagiarism than the self-copying I have documented in the work of David Childress, Erich von Däniken, and others. I dock Skeptical Inquirer points, though, for claiming the article was reviewing “plagiarism in New Age books” when in fact it is one book. I sort of hoped for a broader investigation given all the obvious plagiarism I’ve uncovered in alternative archaeology texts.
HarperCollins, the owner of the imprint publishing the book, offered a justification that shocked Radford, but should not have. They told him that the author, Theresa Cheung, had merely mistakenly forgotten to properly credit her sources, even though as much as 50% of the book was not her own work. Radford demanded to know how HarperCollins could stand by the work of a plagiarist and the integrity and accuracy of her information. They declined to respond, and Radford was shocked at the handling of the book. He ought not to have been. I can attest that at least one of my books (I won’t say which) was published without a single person at the publisher ever reading it all the way through, nor with even the most cursory of fact checks. (This was a problem because I type terribly and often miss typos, a couple of which were serious.) Another book’s only reader was a college student paid to “edit” the book during her summer break. She messed it up so terribly that I had to undo many of the “corrections,” which were laughably incorrect. Suffice it to say that allusions were not her strong suit.
And those were “serious” publishers of semi-scholarly work.
Elsewhere, I was surprised to see a lengthy article devoted to Steven Pinker’s views on violence, a topic I discussed last week (here, here, and here) in reviewing his incomplete views on ancient history. In the article, Chris Mooney and Indre Viskontas interview Pinker about his ideas on the decline of violence, and for a publication called Skeptical Inquirer neither really challenges the factual foundation of Pinker’s ideas.
Listen to Chris Mooney’s first question: “You paint the past as a world characterized by brutal violence. What is the causal reason for some kind of change?” Note that the premise assumes that Pinker is right about widespread, brutal violence—something that I don’t think Pinker has the evidence to truly demonstrate for most social levels of ancient civilizations since our evidence is overwhelmingly from elites engaged in power politics, and our records invariably record episodes of violence and omit long stretches of “boring” peace. The Age of the Antonines, peaceful as it was, left us comparatively little of note.
Now let’s stipulate that I don’t think Pinker is necessarily wrong that for the average Westerner today life is safer and more secure than at comparable periods fifty, five hundred, or five thousand years ago. I do, however, question the explanations Pinker offers for this change, and I also question whether one can legitimately compare fluctuations in violence between the 1970s and today with past periods of hundreds or even thousands of years, as Pinker does. Frankly, I don’t think there is anything that can be said about any “better angels” operating, as Pinker thinks, between 1985 and today; the period is too short, and the changes in violence could easily be undone, as the relatively (if superficially) peaceful 1950s yielded the unrest of the 1960s.
I continue to be troubled by Pinker’s conflation of interpersonal violence and state-sponsored violence as part of a single entity, “violence.” How can anyone know whether there are more or fewer per capita fistfights among drunken barflies today than there were in 1600 BCE? What criteria would one use to gauge the levels of rape in Bronze Age Mycenae? To make claims about changes in interpersonal violence across time is to simply apply preconceived notions and theories to almost completely absent evidence. To that end, Pinker can only fall back on descriptions of various customs and assume rates and levels of application most pleasing to his ideas. Therefore, the majority of his material on ancient history instead appeals to state-sanctioned violence, in which there has been a demonstrable change over time.
That’s where I was particularly amused that in his interview, Pinker describes the second half of the eighteenth century as “a quantum leap in humanity” wherein ancient notions of oppression and violence were first challenged, primarily through, of course, the new United States. He attributes this impulse toward democracy and liberty to literacy and the proliferation of “affordable printed media”—books, newspapers, and pamphlets. He claims that increased connections between people led to more humanitarianism, and he says the same thing happened with television in the 1950s. Isn’t that convenient? He gets to skip over the telegraph and telephone, which empowered imperialism, and the movies, which were used as tools of fascist and communist propaganda. Does it occur to him that the efforts to stop the slave trade emerged at the same time that industrialization began to made it possible to make profits without forced labor, and indeed had made forced labor unprofitable relative to the pitiful wages that could be paid to industrial workers?
But more importantly, while he seems to follow Marshall McLuhan’s idea that the medium is the message, someone needed to be writing this humanitarian literature he sees as launching the world into a new era. Their views did not emerge ex nihilo, nor from improved postal services. It was a long process, which I don’t have the time to discuss. Instead, I think it’s important to point out that if the literature = liberalism argument has any validity, it is primarily so in America, Britain, and possibly France. In central and eastern Europe, it was the state that imposed the new, more humane worldview, through the enlightened monarchs. In the Habsburg lands the fight against animal cruelty, which Pinker notes as a sign of evolving attitudes, came not from the people up but from the monarch down. Joseph II looked out his window, saw a horrible “game” of cruelty I will not describe, and promptly imposed animal welfare measures. In time, these became second nature, but they were deeply unpopular when imposed in the eighteenth century. Earlier, Peter the Great dragged Russia against its will into a more modern era, and Alexander II finally forced an end to serfdom, again from the top down.
In fact, so far as I can see, it is the growth in the power of the state that reduced state-sanctioned violence: First, the state now had enough power, reach, and influence to intervene everywhere, something impossible for medieval and early modern states, which could rarely impose centralized dictates on estates or even cities. With the state coming closer to exerting a monopoly on violence, there was less need to demonstrate central authority through violence. Bringing rivals to central power to heel reduced conflict, and the imposition of centralized authority also reduced criminality, eventually through the creation of police forces, as a reflection of the state’s power. We also tend to forget that the state itself, specifically monarchies in Europe, gradually allowed for democracy not out of humane ideals (though couched in that language) but to tame the rowdy, revolutionary violence of subject peoples by giving them alternatives to revolution. This process was not instantaneous, of course, and the reactions against the French Revolution, the Revolution of 1848, etc. meant that this process moved in fits and starts. (Catherine the Great rolled back the Enlightenment in Russia for just such a reason, as did Franz I and later Franz Joseph for a time in Austria.) Pinker seems to see these efforts through the lens of the propagandists who cast it in terms other than those of pragmatic actions. That would be a bit like taking the Crusades at face value as merely pious action.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.