Steven Pinker: No Utopian, he


Rather than skimming through it, I finally read all of Steven Pinker's "Better Angels of our Nature." I'm guessing that the one thing others have not discussed is his description of the crazy, utopian 1960s. In a nutshell, he's not for it. It was a period of the relaxation of self-control — "Do your own thing, Let it all hang out, If it feels good do it, Take a walk on the wild side." What happens out of all of this is what happens to, for example, the elder-defying, the why-don’t-you-all-fade-away band, the Who, where as he says one of the band members end up being a homicidal maniac, running over his bodyguard and such. For a peaceful society, you have to eschew these temptations to be free. If you're not up for it, perhaps you're lucky enough to be like Pinker and have a mother who dissuaded him from becoming other than the perfect mensch. 

So he's ostensibly telling us the good news — society has gotten better; much better — while warning us away from getting too excited. So if you are to read his work about how history is "shockingly violent" and "deeply brutal." About how most previous societies were profoundly infanticidal. That it was about rapes, a lot of rapes. That tribal cultures are the worst — he says, believe it or not, the colonialists reports of their savagery was spot-on. You're not supposed to say — well then, why the hell History? why the hell Anthropology? and count the future as open terrain, spared any heeding of scoldings to read history else repeat sins. Such blatant, youthful repulsion of elders and of the past, doesn't in his mind lead to 1920s modernism or 1960s hippie-love, but to your eventually taking a knife from your kitchen drawer and skewering your neighbour. No, as absurd as his account makes of these ginormous realms of interest and study, he wouldn't dare question any discipline — a word he surely loves — that encourages kids to spend dutiful hours studying, studying, studying, and enlarging their capacities of self-control, reason and self-denial. 

De Mause wouldn't discount that periods where you really feel you can let it go, be free — youthful, golden age periods — lead to a lot of violence. But his take is this isn't because adolescent periods are always that, which is why we should tutor ourselves to prefer the elder. His take is that they needn't be violent at all, they could be just times conducive to the most enriched living; but in the past they inevitably became violent because few of us were raised with enough love that we're not still under pressure from our internal perpetrator parental alters to feel like we'll be abandoned or killed if we enjoy ourselves too much (our alters, representatives of our denied, depressed mothers, required us to fill their gaps, and rejected us when near as infants focused on ourselves). So when things get really good, and we can't retreat, recess — we go amok. 

Pinker's work, that is, is actually for me a bit of a kill-joy. As much as I quickly realized my dreaming, Utopian-visioned professors of pre-modern History or Anthropology weren't quite seeing their peoples quite right, I knew at least that these professors were well-loved enough to inspire me to dream big, to try and be big — they wanted the people they studied and admired to be magical, at least in part, for their own sakes: they deserved no less. These well-wishing professors, I knew, inspired by the 60s youthful culture, will be the best we'll see until a new Golden Age inspires even more healthily raised people to change the world. When they start being discounted, it'll be mostly about liberating ourselves from their permission and goodness — from them as emblems of allowance — not truly their blind sightedness.  

Pinker is adamant that a bourgeois society is an elder one, a sober one. This is different from de Mause. De Mause talks about them as if they were youths stepping out into a new land of promise — ongoing growth, accruing wealth, accruing self-satisfaction, accruing self-attendance. He would argue that Pinker's sober world isn't actually intrinsically so inhibited at all; that we are prone to colour it that way so we can try and hide from ourselves the fact that what we wanted for ourselves is being realized — surely Pinker's current state of mind. If this isn't successful, if we begin to feel like we've empowered ourselves too much, have gone too long without some large sacrifice for our sins, we'll precipitate a war or deep recession. 

One does note that even as much as Pinker goes to great lengths to suggest that "Iran" isn't so bad, he leaves room to change his tune. What is absolutely abhorrent, what was a disgrace, was the 1960s, because with its upsurge of adolescence it upset a pleasant graph that showed violence on the downswing. As much as he has talked about the current religious as having compartmentalized many of their beliefs so they're out of the way of everyday life, he doesn't spare setting them up so that they don't seem like people out of several hundred years ago, still living with us today. He doesn't spare them being seen as people "before the (Protestant) revolution" — the New Atheist way of looking at Muslims. 

If Pinker's mother didn't just bless him by discouraging his freedom but also humiliated him, if he too at some level desires revenge upon her, not just to credit and acclaim, he might re-stage by setting up the Muslim world as both the Terrifying Mother and the Bad Child and start pointing fingers — look you, what's with all this disruption! 

We'll see if he goes like fellow reasoning, rationalist, atheist Dawkins, who was all Biology and study and peace and urbanity and Enlightenment ... until he wasn't, and had to settle scores. 

———

This is the most noteworthy passage for me in the whole book:

[Norbert] Elias had written that the demands of self-control and the embedding of the self into webs of interdependence were historically reflected in the development of timekeeping devices and a consciousness of time: "This is why tendencies in the individual so  often rebel against social time as represented by his or her super-ego, and why so many people come into conflict with themselves when they wish to be punctual." In the opening scene of the 1969 movie Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda conspicuously toss their wristwatch into the dirt before setting off on their motorcycles to find America. That same year, the first album by the band Chicago [...] contained the lyrics "Does anybody really now what time it is? Does anybody really care? If so I can't imagine why." All this made sense to me when I was sixteen, and so I discarded my own Timex. When my grandmother saw my naked wrist, she was incredulous: "How can you be a mensch without a wager?" She ran to a drawer and pulled out a Seiko she had brought during a visit to the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka. I have it to this day. (page 111)

He concludes the book, incidentally, this way: 

A final reflection. In writing this book I have adopted a voice that is analytic, and at times irreverent, because I believe the topic has inspired too much piety and not enough understanding. But at no point have I been unaware of the reality behind the numbers.To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness. I know that behind the graphs there is young men who feels a stab of pain and watches the life drain slowly out of him, knowing he has been robbed of decades of existence. There is a victim of torture whose contents of consciousness have been replaced by unbearable agony, leaving room only for the desire that consciousness itself should cease. There is a woman who has learned that her husband, her father, and her brothers are dead in a ditch, and who will soon "fall into the hands of hot and forcing violation." 

So we get this sort of neutral, distanced, account throughout, where amongst other things we learn his life was saved from depravity owing to a highly memorable incidence involving a watch where his grandmother stepped in to reign in his youthful impulses. And he finishes with a graphic afterwards, where a young man watches the life drain out of him, and afterwards, "the coup de grace," of an adult woman, already deprived of everyone that matters to her, about to be raped. 

Are we encountering here mostly his profound sadness and dismay, amelioration to those who wonder how he can talk about such awful subject manner and remain so cold? Or is it more unconscious payback against the women in his life who stepped in during his blooming adolescence during a blooming time in America's history, and made bloody sure he didn't grow up to be a rock and roll star?



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