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Saturday, March 7, 2015
Current Affairs ... Society ...

Being more of an essayist as opposed to a Twitter-ist, I enjoy reading essay style magazines. That’s not a surprise to anyone who has read more than one or two of my posts (all 3 or 4 of you . . . if that many). And you also know that one of my favorite essay magazines is The Atlantic. I often comment here in an essay format about some of the essays that appear in each new Atlantic issue (kind of like fighting fire with fire, perhaps). So that’s what I’m going to do right now. Fasten your seat-belt, here we go with another Jim G essay, FWIW.

The March 2015 Atlantic contains an article by Jonathan Rauch entitled “Be Not Afraid”. Rauch’s main point is that President Obama was entirely correct in saying last August that even though many Americans believe that life in America is more dangerous than ever, in truth we’ve never been safer. Rauch ticks off a list of facts and expert opinions that weave together a picture of an America and a world where the risks of violence and mayhem continue a long-term historic decline. The headlines we read focus upon on-going terrorist attacks in major cities; armed conflict in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Mexico, Yemen, central Africa, etc.; near-plague-like conditions from Ebola in Liberia and Western Africa; and nuclear weapons in the hands of irrational ideologues (North Korea and Iran). And yet, when compared with the past, even the not-so-distant past, fewer and fewer people are actually dying from such conflicts and threats. Even crime is way down in the US and most other industrialized nations.

Well, QED (quod erat demonstrandum, Latin for “it had to be proven and so it has”). According to Rauch, “Americans’ threat perception has never been as distorted as it is today.” And thus we need to thank our intellectual President for lecturing the public about this, even though his approach draws fire from the many pandering populists in the GOP. In sum, the masses are being irrational once again, and so thank goodness for the brainy elite like Obama (and the people who write and publish The Atlantic) to set them straight.

Of course, given my own somewhat contrarian nature, I’m not sure if I’m going to buy into Rauch’s thesis. Yes, I’m sure that the facts and statistics that Rauch cites are correct. Statistically, the average American probably is safer from violent death or displacement than a century ago, a generation ago, and even a decade ago. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans should sit back and celebrate this fact.

Even if the overall chance of experiencing violence has gone down, there is still something about the nature of the remaining (and still significant) threat that can justify a rational concern on the part of the populace. First, the remaining threat level can be more surprising, more novel, and harder to foresee. In today’s fast-changing and high-tech world, things can and often do happen that are unlike anything from the past. Second, even if the probability of a threatening event has gone down, the potential severity of the remaining threat could be going up.

With both crime and terrorism, even as their occurrences become less frequent, their outcomes seemingly become more horrendous. Even if fewer people are injured or dead on average, the effect on society of what remains can be much more severe – the social aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks being exhibit # 1. The Palestinian Intifada attacks against Israel in the 1990’s and early 2000’s showed that a modern society can become inured to a constant exposure to “low-level” violence, i.e. Incidents that injure or kill only a handful at a time. But a series of rare but unanticipated, novel and extremely severe events can bring about big social changes, and those may not be all that positive (think back, if you are old enough, to how simple airline travel was 20 years ago; and if you can go back 30 or 40 years, recall how getting on a 707 was hardly any worse than getting on a bus, even if much more expensive)(you might also remember that 707 travel was a lot more comfortable than a trip on a modern airline; today you get the comfort level of riding that bus, but not the convenience).

So I think that Rauch and Obama need to be a little more psychologically nuanced in their analysis of public fear levels. And perhaps they could also throw in some understanding and sympathy (give Bill Clinton credit – for all his sins, he had a lot of empathy and even sympathy for the plight of the common man and woman — something that “Professor Obama” just doesn’t seem to connect with).

Oh, and here’s an interesting little tid-bit right from that article (at least from the print version). There is a chart on page 20 entitled “The Fear Factor” showing two time-lines proceeding from 1993 to 2013. One line represents the declining violent crime rate in the US; the other reflects survey results regarding the percentage of Americans who believe that crime increased in the previous year (check out this chart about fear-of-crime poll results, and this one on actual crime rates, to see what the Atlantic chart is getting at). For over half of the graph space (the one leading into the present), the trend in the crime perception statistic has continued to climb, and now exceeds 60% of the population; meanwhile the actual violent crime rate has continued to decline.

Oh, those stupid Americans. But take a look at the trends in the crime perception line; it decreases almost in lock-step with the crime rate from 1993 to 2001; then it suddenly bends like a V and starts a long march upward. OK, just what might have happened in 2001 that would have upset a lot of Americans and made them more sensitive to the overall threat of violence surrounding them?

Do I need to say it? Come on, I already did, in my 6th paragraph . . . The bigger question in my mind is, just why didn’t Rauch say it in his article . . .

One more footnote before I conclude this essay. Exhibit number one for Rauch is Steven Pinker’s famous and well-cited book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declines”. Pinker makes a solid case that the world is becoming more peaceful and more orderly, both in terms of the long run (the grand sweep from Antiquity and the Middle Ages into the Modern Era) and in terms of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Being a psychologist with a bent for evolutionary dynamics, Pinker explains the current hysteria in terms of evolutionary hardwiring to overreact. We haven’t dropped the mental habits gained from the early centuries in the African savannah. Also, political pressures in modern society encourage leaders to exploit this tendency for purposes of gaining and retaining power.

OK, sure. But what has caused the on-going decline in overall violence over the course of history? Pinker focuses on the development of government, literacy, trade, and increased social interaction over wide geographic regions. He also cites technology develops such as the printing press and other communication-enhancements. Furthermore, the continuing reward for enhanced scientific and commercial reasoning powers since the end of the Middle Ages has had a beneficial side-effect in terms of encouraging moral reasoning and commitment. So despite our greed, or because of it, we get nicer and nicer . . . on average.

But here’s what Pinker, along with Rauch and Obama, misses or doesn’t put enough emphasis on (in my opinion). The factors that Pinker and Rauch cite as violence mitigators generally correspond with economic well-being. I won’t go through a detailed analysis on this (I’m gonna do a Twitter-like punt here, despite my essayist instincts), but in a nutshell, I feel that you could make a good argument that peace is basically a rich-man’s perquisite. There are always exceptions, but the threats from both yesterday and today seem to come mainly from places where people experience low levels of income, wealth, education and stability (and fading hope for improvement).

And that applies on both an international and internal basis – violent crime is still quite rampant in the impoverished neighborhoods in our American cities. If our world and our nation is becoming richer on average, but continues to divide between the haves and the have-nots (as Thomas Piketty claims in his opus magnum, i.e. “Capital in the 21st Century”), then the problem of violence is NOT going to fade away. The violent poor can be controlled by the rich for a time, but unpleasant and unexpected things with significant consequences can happen (and sooner or later will happen) in such a chaotic, high-energy situation. Perhaps the American public, which itself struggles against a worsening economic divide, ain’t so irrational after all in fearing for what might be on the way.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:32 pm      

  1. Jim, Once again, I find myself really unable to disagree with anything you’ve said in this post. All I am going to do is make a few comments on your points.

    It has *always* bothered me greatly when someone says something is “better” – in this case – “safer” but then never says what something was “better than” or “safer than”; you’ve hit the nail on the head on that point as far as I’m concerned.

    One thing Rauch does not consider (or at least it’s not mentioned here) is that it very likely depends on where a person lives how he/she is affected by violence close to that individual. For instance, the 9/11 attack and that bomb at the Boston Marathon are examples: I was certainly affected by those attacks and sincerely grieved for those who died, were wounded, and those who had to experience that attack. However, I am far from NYC and Boston. I am sure those people who actually live in or near NYC or Boston are much more sensitive to anything that might trigger remembrances of those attacks than I am. It likely depends on where one is in relation to such violence what one’s reaction is/will be to anything connected to that violence. Meanwhile, things that happen near me get my attention and my concern. Then too, I think you are right that it’s the poor who tend to experience more violence and suffer more from it than those who have money.

    Another consideration that you mention is the fact that whether we recognize it or not, we have one world, one planet these days. Just today as I checked out the newspaper (I read the old fashioned ones that are printed on paper) and found that many people were killed in various attacks and/or accidents not only in America but throughout the world. As you mentioned a while back, one has to triage what one gives one’s attention to these days. Some, who may have more serious problems, will be left to get no attention; while others who may have lesser problems but are either closer in location or of more interest in some particular way to a particular individual get more of one’s attention. I find myself thinking that surely those who die or are hurt who are on the other side of this planet deserve the same care and attention as those close to home. Yet, it’s impossible to give the same amount of care and attention to everyone. (Except maybe for Mother Theresa.)

    Your specific points about the threat level being “more surprising, more novel, and harder to foresee”, more severe than before, society becoming “inured to a constant exposure to ‘low-level’ violence” are all right on the mark. I’d add to that the aspect of violence being a part of *entertainment* is almost certain to inure people to violence. I recently read the description of a quite violent movie being “a comedy”; and I asked myself was there not a contradiction in terms in that description? How could violence be comedy? Furthermore: Why is it people do not see that contradiction in terms?

    I also find myself asking why it is that ISIS seems to be returning to the Middle Ages’ concept of public violence and killing in the name of religion and “God’s Will”? Is it that the more shocking the violence the greater the attention. But strangely enough people soon “forget” the worst violence as other violence occurs and “pushes” the shock value farther back in one’s mind. Or do they simply want to return to the “good old days” when black and white were so easy to see and the grey of life was not a burden to figure out and take responsibility for. Big change is going on in the world now. Perhaps their violence is a response to the frustration they feel at the inability to stop change. Well, at least these are questions I think and wonder about.

    Very good post, Jim. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 8, 2015 @ 3:08 pm

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