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The demoralization of malice
What are you thinking about right now?
Reading:  Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011)

It is comforting to read a book that proclaims good news in complete accord with my prejudices.  Professor Pinker has written a massive treatise arguing that there is such a thing as moral progress and that we have seen a great deal of it over the last few centuries and most particularly in my lifetime (I am just old enough to remember W.W. II).  There are a great many statistical graphs, mostly having to do with killing (that being the easiest kind of wickedness to quantify), but the book also chronicles the decline of other forms of cruelty.  It then considers, with due caution, various possible causes of the change.

I have not yet read any reviews of this book, but I dare say they will mostly be hostile.  People who have put a lot of effort into combatting this or that evil have a vested interest in the continuation of the combat and a reasonable suspicion of any news that might tempt them to let down their guard.  Professor Pinker is at pains to demonstrate that his arguments have no such intent and need have no such effect, but is unlikely to satisfy such people.  Also, this is a matter in which all questions are party questions, and those who read this book with the idea of pressing it into a leftist or a rightist mold will find it to be exasperatingly off message.  Finally, those who extrapolate from headlines will find the thesis simply incredible, for wickedness is a large part of what the news media have for sale ("If it bleeds, it leads").

On 9 December 1972, after hearing a few libertarian Republicans tell each other horror stories about poor blacks, I wrote in my journal:

...The plain & dangerous fact is that American society has no use for these people; it is not exploiting them....  The danger that they pose to the ruling class (us) is not that they will deprive us of their negligible productive capacity, nor that they will participate in a successful rebellion, but that they will tempt us to kill them.  We are technically & morally capable of such a thing....

Such a operation would pay for itself in a couple of years in reduced welfare costs.  What will prevent us from carrying it out is not prudence, but our bourgeois inhibitions against killing.  Fortunately, these seem to be getting stronger rather than weaker, at least in the upper middle class.  The Vietnam war has been prosecuted with less than Christian regret, but at least the level of hypocrisy is far higher than in W.W. II, and that is important.  Hypocrisy delineates the shifting shoreline of decency: where its range is large, the beach has a shallow slope, & the prospects for rapid change are great; when the typical position shifts outward, we have more ground to stand on.  Now [N.B. 9 December], we do not bomb Hanoi; then, we bombed Hiroshima.  Now, we say we are trying not to kill civilians; then, we were proud of how many we killed.  That's where the boundary is now.

But in the lower middle class it is probably moving the other way....  [I]t is easy to imagine a barber or a druggist hearing a black intellectual prate about "genocide" & murmur "Good idea." as he switches channels.  People will do what is expected of them if they get the chance.  Will they get the chance?  It would take something like a fascist revolution; for the present upper middle class occupies the governmental bureaucracy & the communications industry pretty securely, and the lower middle class is demoralized & disorganized.  The Wallace vote is an index of their hopes, and it will bear watching.  They, not the black lumpenproletariat, are the most dangerous class over the next decade.  After that, they will be as obsolete as cottonpicking slaves, & as grateful for welfare.  (Exactly as grateful.)

Governor Wallace, IIRC, said "The American people want a government that's mean".  It turned out he was overgeneralizing from his friends in Alabama.  More recently, our previous vice president, attacking the present administration, called the antiterrorist effort "a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business".  It is conceivable that he is right: that we really do have to give meanness a new lease on life in order to protect ourselves against suicide bombers.  But I think it far more likely that he was merely appealing (a little desperately) to his tough, mean, nasty, dirty constituency, and will be disappointed at the measure of it.


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