Book Summaries History Politics

Ch 6: The New Peace (The Better Angels Of Our Nature)

The Venezuelan politician Juan Pérez Alfonzo said, “Oil is the devil’s excrement.” A country can be cursed by natural resources because they concentrate power and wealth in the hands of whoever monopolizes them. Usually, this is a governing elite, but sometimes a regional warlord. Rather than foster networks of commerce, the leader’s only concern is to fend off rivals for his cash cow.

Foreign aid can also enrich the wrong people. So can expensive contraband like opium, coca, and diamonds.

Collier observes that “the countries at the bottom coexist with the 21st century, but their reality is the 14th century: civil war, plague, ignorance.” The analogy to that calamitous century, which stood on the verge of the Civilizing Process before the consolidation of effective governments, is apt. In The Remnants of War, Mueller notes that most armed conflict in the world today no longer consists of campaigns for territory by professional armies. It consists instead of plunder, intimidation, revenge, and rape by gangs of unemployable young men serving warlords or local politicians, much like the dregs rounded up by medieval barons for their private wars.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature


The mind has built a defense against contamination by biological agents: this evolved sensation is disgust. Usually, it is triggered by bodily secretions, insects, and animal parts. It impels people to eject the polluting substance and anything that resembles it. Disgust can be moralized – one continuum represents spirituality, purity, and chastity – the other animality, defilement, and contamination.

We see disgusting agents not as physically repellent but also morally abominable. This explains metaphors for a treacherous person (rat, work, cockroach). Ethnic cleansing was an infamous term for genocide.  

In Worse than War, a history of 20th-century genocide, the political scientist Daniel Goldhagen points out that not all genocides have the same causes. He classifies them according to whether the victim group is dehumanized (a target of moralized disgust), demonized (a target of moralized anger), both, or neither. A dehumanized group may be exterminated like vermin, such as the Armenians in the eyes of Turks. A demonized group, in contrast, is thought to be equipped with the standard human reasoning faculties, which makes them all the more culpable for embracing a heresy or rejecting the one true faith. Among these modern heretics were the victims of communist autocracies, and the victims of their opposite number, the right-wing dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, and El Salvador. Then there are the out-and-out demons—groups that manage to be both repulsively subhuman and despicably evil. This is how the Nazis saw the Jews, and how Hutus and Tutsis saw each other.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Utopian ideologies lead to genocide for two reasons. One, a pernicious calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, the moral value is infinite. A million lives can seem like a good bargain for saving the future of humanity.

The second genocidal hazard is that the utopia must conform to a tidy blueprint. In a utopia, everything exists for a reason.

What about the people? Well, groups of people are diverse. Some of them stubbornly, perhaps essentially, cling to values that are out of place in a perfect world. They may be entrepreneurial in a world that works by communal sharing, or bookish in a world that works by labor, or brash in a world that works by piety, or clannish in a world that works by unity, or urban and commercial in a world that has returned to its roots in nature. If you are designing the perfect society on a clean sheet of paper, why not write these eyesores out of the plans from the start?

Chirot observes a commonality between Marxism and Christianity.

Marxist eschatology actually mimicked Christian doctrine. In the beginning, there was a perfect world with no private property, no classes, no exploitation, and no alienation—the Garden of Eden.
Then came sin, the discovery of private property, and the creation of exploiters. Humanity was cast from the Garden to suffer inequality and want. Humans then experimented with a series of modes of production, from the slave, to the feudal, to the capitalist mode, always seeking the solution and not finding it. Finally there came a true prophet with a message of salvation, Karl Marx, who preached the truth of Science. He promised redemption but was not heeded, except by his close disciples who carried the truth forward. Eventually, however, the proletariat, the carriers of the true faith, will be converted by the religious elect, the leaders of the party, and join to create a more perfect world. A final, terrible revolution will wipe out capitalism, alienation, exploitation, and inequality. After that, history will end because there will be perfection on earth, and the true believers will have been saved.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Pinker even draws a parallel between Christianity and Nazism, with Hitler as the prophet.


Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare—a tactic of the weak against the strong—which leverages the psychology of fear to create emotional damage that is disproportionate to its damage in lives or property.

Cognitive psychologists have shown that our perceived danger of risk depends on fathomability (it is better to deal with the devil you know) and dread (worst case scenarios, catastrophic, involuntary, uncontrollable). These illusions are left behind by ancient brain circuitry that evolved to protect us against natural risks (predators, enemies, storms). In an era of scientific ignorance, these quirks in our psychology bring a secondary benefit: people exaggerate threats from enemies to extort compensation from them, recruit allies against them, or justify wiping them out preemptively.

Terrorism is not a recent invention.

The terrorists that used to exist no longer do. It is a little-known fact that most terrorist groups fail, and all of them die. If this is hard to believe, observe the world around you. Israel still exists, Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and Kashmir is still a part of India.

Only 7 percent of terrorists obtain their goals, putting aside purely tactical victories (media attention, freed prisoners, ransom).

Abrahms also found that the few successes came from campaigns in which the groups targeted military forces rather than civilians and thus were closer to being guerrillas than pure terrorists. Campaigns that primarily targeted civilians always failed.

Despite Pinker’s apparent optimism, he is aware that he may be wrong. He admits that he is sometimes asked: “How do you know there won’t be a war tomorrow (or a genocide, or an act of terrorism) that will refute your whole thesis?”

But this question missed the point. It is not that there will be no war or terrorism in the future, it is that substantial reductions in violence have taken place, but at any moment, if the political, economic, and ideological conditions reverse – violence will follow a different trajectory.


In tests of tolerance, Islam, both in theory and practice, does not compare favorably with the Western democracies, but favorably with many Christian and post-Christian societies. Why did Islam bloe its lead ad fail to have an Age of Reason, an Enlightenment, and a Humanitarian Revolution. Some think that passages in the Koran, but these are nothing compared to the Old Testament. There is nothing that clever exegesis and evolving norms could not have corrected. Lewis points out that the historical lack of separation between mosque and state is the reason. Muhammad was not merely a spiritual leader, but a political and military one. Only recently have Islamic states made the distinction between the secular and the sacred. As new breakthroughs were filtered through religious spectacles, they were never properly absorbed.

Lewis recounts that while works in philosophy and mathematics had been translated from classical Greek into Arabic, works of poetry, drama, and history were not. And while Muslims had a richly developed history of their own civilization, they were incurious about their Asian, African, and European neighbors and about their own pagan ancestors. The Ottoman heirs to classical Islamic civilization resisted the adoption of mechanical clocks, standardized weights and measures, experimental science, modern philosophy, translations of poetry and fiction, the financial instruments of capitalism, and perhaps most importantly, the printing press.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Since Arabic was the language of the Koran, printing it was considered an act of desecration.

In 2010, Iran restricted the number of university students who would be admitted to programs in the humanities because the Supreme Leader Khameini thought that the humanities “promotes skepticism ad doubt in religious principles and beliefs.”

Whatever the reason, there is now a large chasm that separates Western and Islamic cultures. Huntington said that this chasm has brought us to a new stage: the clash of civilizations. But Pinker does not buy the Clash of Civilizations narrative.

Though the dramatic notion of a clash of civilizations became popular among pundits, few scholars in international studies take it seriously. Too large a proportion of the world’s bloodshed takes place within and between Islamic countries (for example, Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s, and its invasion of Kuwait in 1990), and too large a proportion takes place within and between nonIslamic countries, for the civilizational fault line to be an accurate summary of violence in the world today.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

The liberalizing forces of the modern world continue to chip away at Islamic insularity. These include  independent news networks like Al-Jazeera, American universities in Guld states, internet penetration, including social networking sites, the temptations of the global economy, and the pressure for women’s right from pent-up internal demand, NGO’s and allies in the west.

Conservative ideologues may resist these forces and keep their societies in the Middle Ages forever, but perhaps they won’t.

Read The Better Angels Of Our Nature

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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