Some time ago I was reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels Of Our Nature. Pinker's thesis is simple, although he requires hundreds of pages and lots & lots of graphs to demonstrate it. Pinker says that the rise of the modern nation-state has resulted in a huge decrease in interpersonal violence (murder rates, roving bands of brigands, gang violence, and the like). Before the rise of modern states, Pinker argues that human societies were rife with interpersonal and intergroup violence, an observation I don't find hard to believe. But that's all changed now Pinker says. These are the "better angels" of our nature.
I couldn't argue with Pinker' claim and didn't try to. Clearly what he was saying was true. But this observation didn't impress me much. Before I was even 30 pages into his book, I had two thoughts which have stayed with me ever since.
- People don't murder each other nearly as frequently as they used to, and that's good, but so what? Interpersonal violence is expressed in hundreds of other ways. For example, "violence" is expressed through bank (or other) fraud which leaves the victim penniless but alive. Thanks a lot!
- The nation-state appropriates for itself the right to commit violence, and vigorously prosecutes anyone who usurps that right (commits murder). Some of us are lucky (so far) to live in a state which rarely exercises its "right" to commit violence against its own citizens, although the "safeguards" protecting us from state-sponsored violence are being whittled away one by one during the phony war on an abstract noun (terrorism).
Having made these observations, I thought that just about covers the illusive "better angels" of our nature. But that second point got me thinking about the modern nation-state, which is represented at the top by its government and the head of state. How are we to think about such an unwieldy, complex thing? I'm sure hundreds of thousands of trees have been cut down to provide the raw material for the many thousands of books which have been published on this subject, but for me it all came down to this: thinking of the state as a person—just like a corporation—allows us to characterize it in a most accurate and pleasing way.
So the question becomes what kind of person is the state? Would you want the state to be your neighbor? You will not be surprised to learn that I had some thoughts along those lines, to wit—
- The state is clever (manipulative) but dumb (psychologically regressed, like a petulant child).
- The state never takes responsibility for its actions (there's no accountability).
- The state is a bully, cruel and aggressive, especially if it is powerful.
- The state has no conscience (i.e. it's a psychopath).
- The state is easily corrupted.
- The state is rigid (inflexible).
And so on. I'm sure you could add to this list. Sounds like a dangerous character!
In short, the state is not a person you want living next door. In "foreign" affairs, which can often be viewed as a peculiar form of interpersonal violence (wars) under this view, might always makes right.
The fact that the state appropriates for itself the right to commit violence explains a lot which might otherwise appear grossly unfair and remediable. For example, it explains why those under the "protection" of the state like the Big Banks can (figuratively) get away with murder while lesser entities can not.
I remember some years ago when the G-20 meeting was held in Pittsburgh—a meeting of undesirables! I was mighty impressed by the fact that for a 48-hour period the streets of this city became a police state. Civil rights were simply tossed out the window. There was very little fall-out later. I was far more impressed with that event, which unfolded right before my eyes, than I was with Pinker's "better angels" as expressed in reduced murder rates.
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago police, who have a reputation for dealing toughly with protesters, will be prepared for the worst with new riot gear, including "sound cannon," if demonstrators at the NATO summit get out of line this weekend.
America's third-largest city and President Barack Obama's hometown has never hosted anything like the meeting starting on Sunday, which will draw representatives from some 50 countries, including leaders of the 28 members of the military alliance...
Here's my favorite paragraph.
Police said they will be keeping a watchful eye out for anarchists bent on more provocative actions, and have ordered about $1 million worth of new riot gear, including face shields that attach to helmets and fit over gas masks.
Anarchists! They're the contemporary reincarnation of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti
CHICAGO (CBS) — Some commuters will have to make alternate plans during the NATO Summit, as Metra today said it will close several stations on the Electric Line.
All Metra passengers–not just those on the Electric Line–will also face carry-on restrictions and security screenings from May 19-21. Riders will be allowed one briefcase-sized bag up to 15 by 15 inches and four inches deep. Riders will not be allowed to carry boxes, luggage, backpacks, pocket knives, bikes, food or liquid. This includes all beverages, such as coffee and soda.
Stations on the Electric Line that will be closed May 19 and 20: Museum Campus, 18th Street, McCormick Place, 27th Street and Kenwood...
The other line that runs under McCormick Place–the South Shore from Indiana–has not yet announced its plans.
One thing is clear, passengers who pass through McCormick during the summit will face closer scrutiny, CBS 2′s Susanna Song reports.
Several dozen commuter trains run underneath McCormick Place. Metra Electric and South Shore passengers who ride these lines will most likely face delays.
Commuters can expect to be screened and their trains to be searched before boarding.
Even though they won’t admit it, Metra officials had to fight hard to limit the inconvenience to its riders, at one point balking when the feds wanted them to stop all trains short of McCormick Place...
“This has been a process that looked at everything including stopping the trains,” Metra CEO Alex Clifford said.
Theresa Peterson, a South Shore line passenger said her conductor has already hinted at these extra security measures.
“They have told us they are going to have bomb sniffing dogs, wands .. and the TSA will be here. They have been upfront,” she said.
Woe to the person who drinks coffee on the Chicago Metra during the NATO summit. Otherwise the infamous Chicago police will not only confiscate that caffe latte, but they'll also beat the shit out of you for getting out of line.
I think that just about sums it up, so I'll end this post here.