Much as I wanted to spend Thursday night at Walmart getting pepper-sprayed over a $2 waffle iron, I caught up on some reading instead. (So blame me for the lousy economy.) Two books and a magazine have been holding my interest, when I wasn’t preparing to prepare for the holiday shopping season. First is “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker, a door-stopper (not “buster”) of a study of how dramatically violence has declined over the centuries, particularly in the past 150 years. Pinker is a Harvard professor of psychology and has made a couple of those “Top 100” lists of influential and serious thinkers. An added virtue is that he brings a novelistic/essayist’s touch to what could have been a dense and turgid run of statistics.
I’m only 200 pages into the 700 pages of his argument, (plus 120 pages of citations and footnotes), but his essential point is holding up quite well, despite, as he concedes from the get-go, rather nasty 20th century events like World Wars I and II, the Holocaust, Pol Pot, Rwanda, etc. He credits a variety of factors, including both inter-dependent economic activity, (its bad business to kill your customers) and Enlightenment thinking, trickling down, like trendy etiquette, from the “elites” to the “low-information” classes. And that’s state v. state violence, wars and such. Violence between people — murder, rape, torture, and garden variety sadism — has also fallen out of favor. The statistics on murders per 100,000 people from culture to culture is fascinating. Even the much sentimentalized native cultures like the blubber-eating Inuit had murder rates 50 times inner-city Detroit of 2011.
I may post more on this when I finish, but one takeaway for all our fringe conservative friends is that “hellhole, socialist” western Europe of … right now … along with a line of northern tier American states … may well be the safest cultures … ever … in terms of freedom from both state and personal violence.
The other book, which I just finished, is financial writer Michael Lewis’s “Boomerang”, essentially a collection of articles on post-2008 economic miseries. You may have read his piece on Iceland in “Vanity Fair”. It’s included here, along with the astonishing tale of Ireland, the gullibility of German bankers when it came to “trading” with American Wall Street sharpies and, my favorite, Greece.
With Europe teetering on the brink — hell, even the Germans are having a hard time selling their bonds — the tale of Greece comes with a constant series of reminders that the Cradle of Democracy’s financial chaos has less to do with overly lavish pensions and social benefits (to hear FoxNews’ politicians and intellectuals explain it) than the fact that almost no one actually paid taxes. You’ve no doubt read this in passing in some accounts. But Lewis, talking with Greek officials and tax investigators, lays out a far more compelling picture of system gamed to oblivion by everyone, from the top down. (To this then you add the Greeks’ supreme irritation with anyone, including the Germans, the only people with the cash to bail them out, telling them what to do. Greek exceptionalism!)
I loved the part where Goldman Sachs flies in and convinces the Greek government (before the last Greek government) to collateralize the only guaranteed flows of income they have — things like ferry and toll fees — which of course ends up with Our Guys pocketing a fat profit and the Greeks wishing they could have their drachmas back.
The magazine was the recent (maybe latest) issue of “New York”, with competing essays on “How the GOP Went Mad” by Republican apostate David Frum and “The Self-Loathing of Liberals: My Party’s Contempt for Power” by Jonathan Chait.
Frum’s piece is spot-on, depressing as all hell and, sadly, well understood by anyone paying attention. Chait’s angle is the one that I firmly believe is much more important as the clock turns to election year 2012. Yes, the Republicans are engaged in a bizarre exercise in mass delusion and tactical psychosis. But reasonable people can see that quite easily. (Look at the approval numbers for “Congress”). Not so with liberals’ perpetual psychological impairment, the one where perfection is forever and always the worst enemy of the good. That bizarre, chronic exercise in self-destruction gets far, far less attention.
Chait walks the reader through the numbing predictability of liberal “disappointment” with Democratic presidents in whom they, inexplicably, expected both perfection and instantaneous restoration of Enlightened democracy, following Republican malfeasance.
The specific issue is of course Barack Obama. A staple of every conversation I have with my clutch of over-educated, elitist friends is their “disappointment”, or “reservations” or out-right rejection of Obama, to the point of getting wistful about Jon Huntsman or some mythical “third party”, as though then, in that new/next singular hero we could have … single payer health care, a full-fledged green economy, financial stability, yadda yadda.
Chait regards this kind of thinking as a liberal variation on conservatives always-eery, serf-like acceptance of/obeisance to authoritarian leaders and mores. With liberals, total perfection, total fairness, total balance is the only acceptable level of presidential performance. Never mind the obvious fact that, you know, this is … politics … where perfection always goes to die, and that by definition the Democratic party is a mangy confederation of a 1000 different constituencies with at minimum 998 different ideas of perfection … so universally accepted perfection ain’t never going to happen.
In the end almost no true liberals will vote for any of the current Republicans. Huntsman may be the only one of that profoundly weird pack of dysfunctional personalities that even twitches the needle of intellectual credibility. But the liberal psychological impairment may be enough to seal defeat, again. The “self-loathing” that forever stirs up liberal malaise, the inability to ever regard any Democratic leader the way conservatives regard, say Ronald Reagan, is a serious energy-sapping impediment to the critical next, imperfect step. And by that I mean — reelection — which holds the (high) possibility of shifting the balance on the Supreme Court, setting health insurance reform in concrete and amending it as needed, continuing a cool, panic-free foreign policy performance, and offering … imperfect … resistance to Wall Street’s control of the global economy.
Not perfect, but a hell of a lot better than the alternative.