If numbers and statistics could be made to sing alleluias, then perhaps we could hear the good news trilling out of two new books by distinguished academics, Joshua S. Goldstein’s ‘Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide’ and Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.’
Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever. Apparently just the opposite is true: Violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in the existence of our species. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, assassinations, pogroms, child abuse, gruesome punishments, deadly feuds and genocide were ordinary features of life. Not to mention popular amusements like gladiatorial contests, bear-baiting, cat-burning, witch-drowning and lynching.
Now, of course, we can see coverage of the violence that still exists, in full color, with sound. Television, the Internet, radio and print media tell us all the time about the horrors of war, and they should. It may be that our greater knowledge, plus our widening circle of empathy for the victims of violence, is part of what is making it decrease. But the media stories rarely highlight the numerical disparity between, say, the 300,000 American soldiers killed during World War II, the 50,000 during Vietnam and the approximately 6,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Professor Goldstein notes that in 2010 more Americans died by falling out of bed than were killed in armed conflict — some 600 American soldiers.
There is often a tendency among the chattering classes to agree with the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes that “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and that probably everything is going to go straight to hell in a hand basket. But what if it isn’t? What if things — and people — are actually getting better?
Professor Pinker cites some interesting statistics that question our romantic notions about the peaceful lives of our prehistoric tribal forebears. Studies documenting present-day hunter-gatherer tribes suggest that the chance of a prehistoric man’s being killed violently by another man ranged from 15 percent to 60 percent, whereas now in several Western countries the chance of being killed is between zero and one percent.
It is hard to believe good news when we are so programmed for pessimism, but the information is out there, to be read, digested, considered, discussed. If you have no time to read either book, you could go to YouTube and search for Goldstein, Peace is Increasing (youtube.com/watch?v=NipRlQ7uuJw) and watch a very short piece or watch a longer TED talk by Steven Pinker on the myth of violence (ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html). Both these men are looking at the big picture with all the tools that academia can muster: brains, rationality, numbers, eloquence and facts, and they share some really good reasons for hope.
Meanwhile, back at the fiction ranch, I have been reading ‘Consequences’ by Penelope Lively. Interestingly enough, the story hinges on the violent death in World War II of a young man, and the consequences of his life and death on subsequent generations. Penelope Lively is an English writer not as well known here as she should be. She is quite a wonderful woman of letters. She has written for children as well as adults, writes reviews and essays as well as memoirs and novels and won the Man Booker Prize in 1987 for ‘Moon Tiger,’ a novel about an old woman dying that weaves an exquisite mesh of memories, flashbacks and shifting voices, in a riveting story of loss and desire.
In “Consequences” we get to know three generations of women in their contexts — the young war bride in reckless love, her daughter growing up unconventionally and coming of age in ‘60s London and then that daughter’s daughter and her more circumscribed choices. All these women are vibrant and three-dimensional in their thoughts and relationships, and the various milieus so beautifully described come vibrantly to life.
I particularly love the passage where Molly, the ’60s girl, falls into a job at a library: “It sometimes seemed to Molly that the library was a place of silent discord and anarchy, its superficial tranquility concealing a babel of assertion and dispute. Fiction is one strident lie — or rather, many competing lies; history is a long narrative of argument and reassessment; travel shouts of self-promotion; biography is pushing a product … That is the function of books; they offer a point of view, they offer many conflicting points of view, they provoke thought, they provoke irritation and admiration and speculation.” She goes on but then manages to get herself fired from the library because she wants it not only to buy “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” but also to arrange a lecture about book censorship.
Poor Molly. She was before her time in terms of librarianship. If she were real, and here now, she could help us in our annual celebration of Banned Books Week, when libraries highlight all the books we have on our shelves despite the continual pressure from various quarters to remove them. Probably the children’s book ‘And Tango Makes Three’ will again top the American Library Association’s list as the most challenged book, as it has every year since its publication in 2006. Even now that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been rescinded and same-sex marriage is legal in New York State, there are those who feel this true story of two male chinstrap penguins in Central Park Zoo who successfully form a pair bond, hatch a donated egg and raise the baby is a dangerous story for young minds. But the book was published and has many champions and many readers — so the good news continues to ring out from the land of books.
Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.