Drawn and Quartered

On the road tonight. Pretty exhausted. Wanted to say something about Syria before I crashed.

I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. It makes the claim that we live in an evolutionarily less violent time than any other before it. To me, this seems a point that required something significantly less than the 832 pages he wrote to establish. A second or two’s thought about Mel Gibson’s disembowelment in the closing scene of Braveheart, mimicked by puppets in effigy, has long persuaded me. But, in conversations with others, the position is not as self-evidenct as I assumed. And, I think that’s largely attributable to the dynamic and 24-hour coverage that violence receives today and the general horribleness of violent acts relative to our increasingly heightened sensibilities against it. In other words, precisely because most of us don’t encounter medieval violence as a regular incident of living our lives, it is that much more grotesque when Al-Queda beheads an engineer — even though, comparatively so, such mutilation is in fact much less frequent.

But, I think these kinds of reports out of Syria make you wonder:

The top official said Iraqi border guards had witnessed the Free Syrian Army take control of a border outpost, detain a Syrian army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs. Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers.

And, I think FSA are the “good guys.” Syria has fallen into civil war and the Al-Assad regime, worthy of our disdain, is near to fall. Whether we really want what rises up in its place, like with the whole of the Arab Spring, is yet to be determined.

My wife and I just finished watching the first season of Walking Dead. I can’t imagine sawing through someone’s leg. I can barely watch costume blood and prosthetic sci-fi. One of the characters saws his own hand off to be freed of a handcuff. Sort of like the hiker in 127 hours. I literally don’t know what order of magnitude rage or desperation I would need to sever mine or your limb, alive.

Whatever war we still perform, whether more or less than our ancestors, still remains horribly uncivil.

Performed by ipoetlaureate. Music produced by Sundance.

Today’s song blog here:

Civil War

3 thoughts on “Drawn and Quartered

  1. I’ll have to read that book because I can’t imagine how we are LESS violent than any other point in history. I mean, does it approach it from the perspective of the civilized mindstate of major countries where the simple daily things such as water and food are easily attained (due to, ya know, humane acts of not wanting others to die and starve)?

    I want to say more but, I like to have some foundation to stand on before ranting off. I can’t imagine that book could be focused on anything other than America…and a selective part of America, at that.

  2. Your reaction is pretty much what I hear from everyone. And, I get it but am still somewhat surprised. So, quite the opposite, as the page length suggests, his treatment is about as exhaustive as imaginable. All time. Globe wide. Our worst most murderous cities can’t compare to the violent death rates of pre-state cultures. Or even from 200 years ago.

    I think there are two obstacles to accepting the fact. First, we’re talking about rates. He compares the rate of violent death per 100,000 individuals. So “more” or “less” violent may or may not mean that there are less total deaths for any particular time or place but simply that the percentage of deaths per the whole population is declining.

    Second, and I allude to this in the post, but due to the rather secure nature of our daily lives in the West, violence (1) feels more out of place when we experience or see it, whether in our town or somewhere in the world and (2) is often more outrageous, in fact, for the unexpecting and helpless victims it is inflicted upon precisely because no one is walking around expecting it.

    So if James Holmes walks into a theater in 1845 and opens fire, he picks off maybe 2 people before he’s face down in his own hemoglobin. So, while any particular instance of violence might have been less in volume or less in gruesomeness, those incidents were far, far more typical.

    Our presidents into the 19th Century participated in duels!!!! It’s literally unthinkable. All of this only scratches the surface. Much more empirical arguments to be made. But, I’m not going to make them here. There’s already 832 pages on it!

    Thanks, dog.

  3. Funny you should mention the presidential dueling thing. talking to a friend of mine recently we came to the conclusion that a more cost effective way of dealing with things that come to war would likely be instituting that for major conflicts, 2 leaders duke it out (or, if there’s more involved, it could be triple threat or four corners). Unfortunately, it would change our parameters for our leadership selection, though, huh?

    Anyways, I totally see what you’re saying. I’m glad his book was exhaustive in its research and coverage. I totally see what you’re saying. Thanks for filling me in. I’ll have to add that book to my list of things to eventually buy and read through when I have money to make such purchases again.

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