Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Living in the Wreckage of the Future

If you read the headlines, listen to the news or just have a cup of coffee with a few friends the consensus everywhere seems to be, "The world is a cruel and violent place and every day, in every way, it's just getting worse."   Some days it fills me with despair that we revel in the bad news.  We seem to actually prefer having emotional orgies where we tsk tsk over the present (awful) and the future (will undoubtedly be worse if "something isn't done.")  Funny how we don't bring the past into the conversation.  Or if we do, we make vague noises about how things were so much better in times before.  Really.  And what is the evidence for that?

That is why Stephen Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature is such a good read.  Using hard data he makes a very good case that the past was not a bucolic idyllic place of peace and harmony where people knew how to get along and that modern man is not a hopeless degenerate wreaking havoc on his fellowman. In fact, he argues convincingly that things are looking mighty good these days compared to the world of our ancestors.

Just for fun let's examine a few figures for Europe and the United States.  Looking at one city in Western Europe, 14th century Oxford had around 110 homicides per 100,000 people per year.  What's the rate in modern times?  Less than 1 homicide per 100,000 people in all of London in the mid-20th century.  Was this decline only in England?  Not at all and Pinker devotes an entire chapter to the European Homicide Decline.  The timing and rate of decline varies according to country, and some centuries were more violent than others, but looking at Manuel Eisner's graphs, the data show that Western Europe went from between 4 and 100 homicides per 100,000 people in the past to its current all-time low of less than 1 per 100,000 and seems to be holding steady.  This story from 13th century England will sound very familiar to modern readers (and most certainly to any present day police officer):  "Symonet Spinelli, Agnes his mistress and Geoffrey Bereman were together in Geoffrey’s house when a quarrel broke out among them; Symonet left the house and returned later the same day with Richard Russel his Servant to the house of Godfrey le Gorger, where he found Geoffrey; a quarrel arose and Richard and Symonet killed Geoffrey."  Old scenario but all the evidence shows that it's happening a lot less today.  Simple prudence, however, would dictate against picking violent quarrels with one's friends.

That's Europe.  What do we see if we take a trip across the Atlantic?  The U.S. is a bit more complicated and those who say that the U.S. is a violent place are not entirely wrong.  Pinker, however, paints a more nuanced picture.    He argues that, "The key to understanding American homicide is to remember that the United was originally a plural noun, as in these United States.  When it comes to homicide the United States is not a country; it's three countries."  If you look at his map of the U.S. homicide rates you'll see that they vary enormously according to region.  Northern states like Minnesota, Iowa, Montana and the Pacific Northwest have rates that are comparable to Western Europe:  less than 3 per 100,000.  The situation degrades the father south you go until you start arriving at places like Alabama (8.9 per 100,000), Arizona (7.4 per 100,000) and Louisiana (14.2 per 100,000).  If you are a potential migrant and personal security is high on your list of priorities, you might want to skip these regions (I personally recommend Portland or Seattle myself - some recent crime statistics for both cities can be found here.)

Putting these numbers in context, there are several historical peculiarities about the U.S.  Instead of a steady decline over time, the U.S. saw murder rates shoot up in the mid-19th century which might have something to do with the civil war we were having at the time.  As for the Wild West,  "wild" doesn't begin to do it justice (pun intended).  In fact it was the lack of official justice that seems to have been one root of the problem.  In the world of my recent ancestors, if you lived in a small community or on a farm in the West, you couldn't necessarily just call the police in the event of crime - people pretty much had to take care of themselves. Here are a few homicide statistics from that era cited by Pinker:  Dodge City (100 per 100,000), Fort Griffin, Texas (229 per 100,000) and Wichita, Kansas with an incredible 1,500 murders per 100,000 people.  (Important to note here that some of these statistics are challenged by gun rights advocates in the U.S. who argue that they are outright false.)  All those numbers have come down and today, depending on who you ask, the national murder rate stands at somewhere between 5 and 7 per 100,000.  Anyone who wants to argue that the U.S. was a safer place in the 19th century is going to have a very hard time backing that up.

The above is just a thin slice of Pinker's book.  In addition to statistics in crime, he also talks about the prevalence of war.  Is the world overall more peaceful?  He contends that indeed it is and he cites some very interesting research to support this.  (Have a quick peek at the Correlates of War Project for some fascinating data about war and violence, territorial changes, military budgets and alliances over long periods of history.)  I also have not touched in this post some of his hypotheses for the reasons why he thinks peace is a trend.  I invite you to read the book, look closely at his evidence and judge his arguments for yourself.

I personally found it a nice counter-argument to the nearly universal discourse that the "world is going to hell in a handbasket."  Of course, if enough of us argued differently, it might take all the fun out of family dinners and coffee klatches with friends (not to mention that it would probably be the death of the media.)  After all, whatever would we find to talk about if we lost our very favorite all purpose guaranteed to fill the void under all circumstances with any audience topic:   the past was better than it was, the present is worse than it is, and the future is sure to be much worse. (Marcel Pagnol)

1 comment:

betty said...

memorial day ( late may ) in the USA is not WW2 or the great war of 1914. It is the memorial of the War of Northern Agression ( the US civil war of 1860 ).
Memorial day remembers the over 400,000 dead from the North and the South.
It was folded into a generic war dead during the Great War of 1914.