Our Better Angels?


A few weeks ago I blogged about Steven Pinker’s magnificent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

In his summary, Pinker observes five forces that appear to lead societies toward broad reductions in violent behavior: law-bound states, commerce, feminization, the broadening of moral sympathy (expressed in cascading “rights revolutions”), and the entrenchent of reason in moral calculations.

No society is ideal, of course. For any one you might hold up for admiration, you’ll find a hundred ways it has retreated in shame from enlightenment and humaneness. Our country’ basis in the rule of law, for example, did little to protect Native Americans from conquest or African slaves from rapaciousness.

Demonstrators protest the Muslim ban at the Philadelphia Airport

Still, for all our flaws, America has done well by enlightenment, and we have been one of its greatest proponents. We have, in many respects, led the way out of the most destructive forms of violence that used to be hideously common among humankind–slavery, colonial wars, religious torture, and rampant child abuse, to name just a few.

The Trump administration has already mounted open attacks on three of Pinker’s pacifying forces and stealthy attacks on the other two.

The pullout from TTP, the first volley in a trade war with Mexico, and the promise to use protectionism to create jobs are an open attack on free trade. Trade, Pinker notes, has an almost miraculous ablity to reduce violence. Trading partners, whether they are fond of one another or not, have an overriding interest in seeking each other’s well-being. Often, in the escalation of an international conflict toward war, trade sanctions are made to pressure one’s adversary to negotiate. In other words, free trade is a tool for avoiding war. We now propose to throw it away.

The inauguration of Trump as sexual predator-in-chief, his desire to re-assert old men’s control of women’s health decisions, and his failure to include a single progressive female voice in his cabinet or staff are an open repudiation of the feminist cause. The “great” America he wishes to return to is one made placid, pretty and domesticated by the silencing of women’s voices and the exclusion of their minds from positions of power.

The “Muslim ban,” which we just witness chaotically taking action, as hundreds of airline passengers (and a few pilots) found themselves last weekend unable to travel to America, or stay once they’d touched down. The ban is a direct assault on the idea that we ought to recognize other individuals’ basic rights as similar to our own. The “America first” imperative takes a large, deliberate step back from the enlightened humanitarian principles that made us a nation of immigrants. If we follow the path of Trump’s jingoism, we turn away from the historical arc Martin Luther King Jr. called us to, the one that bends toward justice.

Aside from these direct attacks, Trump is also waging a lower-intensity war on the other two pacifying forces–the rule-of-law state and the entrenchment of reason in our moral life. Trump’s nepotism and blithe diregard for presidential ethics suggests he scorns the rule of law. With any luck, the courts will soon hear particular cases. His Muslim ban appears to be illegal in some respects as well.

Trump’s shakeup of the National Security Council over the weekend denuded it (at least in its usual format) of the rational voices we expect to pronounce dispassionately on the greatest threats to our security. Now instead of the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff we have Steve Bannon, a demented reactionary ideologue who seems genuinely to want a race war. Although it sounds odd to say the NSC’s terrain includes “morality,” its members actually makes decisions about actions that have immense¬†moral consequences, primarily decisions about whether to go to war.

Pinker would be the first to say my reactions are a sort of coffee table discussion, not a deep consideration of his ideas. The pacifying forces he identifies are long-term; they have evolved over the course of millennia, and they cannot easily be set back by one actor in a few short years. I accept that. The alarm bells I’m ringing may prove to be premature. But they still ring true. If we are to affirm our better angels, it will not be by sitting back and hoping to be more virtuous. It will be by changing course.






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