The perfect way to start a new year is to take a big picture look at our future trajectory. For that, one book stands above all others - Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature.
This summer I linked to a TED Talk by Pinker when I first described his work in my blog Rising above the swamp.
I've just re-read Better Angels and it's terrific. Pinker shines a beam of analysis through the dark media images of "breaking news exclusives" and instant access to every hell-in-a-hand-basket story in every corner of the globe. In doing so he reveals that violence world-wide is on the decline. Contrary to media stories, things are getting better, not worse!
Pinker is no slouch waxing eloquent. He is an award-winning, Harvard based, Canadian-born experimental and cognitive psychologist. Twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Time Magazine named him one of the world's 100 most influential scientists.
Peter Singer's review says it all:
"The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. "
Enter the naysayers: Edward S. Herman and David Peterson's On The Alleged Decline of Violence.
First they say Pinker ventures too far outside his field of expertise. Now there's an irony-drenched slam (Herman is a professor of finance and Peterson a journalist).
Then they claim Pinker "completely ignores the kind of violence that is built into the structure of social relations and shows up…as unequal life chances…such as the savage global class war of the 1 percent against the other 99”.
Wandering so blithely onto the thin ice of political polemics, I wonder how long it would take their "savage global class war" to crash through the frozen pond of cultural relativism upon witnessing the bloody genocidal slaughter of the Mongol invasions or a half million murdered during the Christian Inquisitions?
Perhaps the long-term decline of violence will not persist. Perhaps war will break out over environmental collapse or an empty island in the East China Sea. There are plenty of problems to fix, especially the environment! And crime still persists.
But I'm a bit weary of the cynical, sky-is-falling crowd…when it isn't. Stewart Brand says "It is sometimes fashionable to despise modernity. A more appropriate response is gratitude."
A new year is upon us. Let's take a breath, appreciate our remarkable historical progress, and then reset our sights on our many remaining problems. Including crime.
Happy New Year!