Reality Denial : Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Volence

It is amusing to see how eagerly the establishment media have welcomed Steven Pinker’s 2011 tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,[1] which explains not only that “violence has been in decline for long stretches of time,” but that “we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species' existence.”[2]  A professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University since 2002 and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in the general nonfiction category,[3] Pinker’s lovable theme coincides with the Nobel Peace Laureate’s current engagement in wars on at least four separate continents (Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America); his regretful partial withdrawal from invaded and occupied Iraq; his victorious termination of the 2011 war in Libya; his buildup and threats to engage in even larger wars with Syria and Iran, both already underway with aggressive sanctions and an array of covert actions;[4] his semi-secret and ever-widening use of remote-controlled aerial gunships and death squads in global killing operations;[5] and his declaration of the right to kill any person anywhere for “national security” reasons—officially making the entire world a U.S. free-fire-zone.[6]  The Barack Obama regime, and before it the Bush-Cheney regime, have also supported and protected Israel’s escalated ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and the hostile U.S. actions and threats involving Iran and Syria are closely geared with those of Israel. 

Whereas in Pinker’s view there has been a “Long Peace” since the end of the Second World War,[7]  in the real world there has been a series of long and devastating U.S. wars: in the Koreas (1950-1953), Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (1954-1975), Iraq (1990-), Afghanistan (2001- or, arguably, 1979-), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1996-), with the heavy direct involvement of U.S. clients from Rwanda (Paul Kagame) and Uganda (Yoweri Museveni) in large-scale Congo killings; and Israel’s outbursts in Lebanon (1982 and 2006), to name a few.  There were also very deadly wars in Iran, invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (1980-1988), with Western encouragement and support.  And with the stimulus-excuse of 9/11, the U.S. political and “defense” establishment was able to declare a global “War on Terror,” open-ended and still ongoing, to assure that the “Long Peace” would not be interrupted by a conflict that met the Pinkerian standards for a real war.

In the same time frame as Pinker’s “New Peace,” alleged to have begun with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, the Warsaw Pact, and of the Soviet Union itself (1989-1991), we have also witnessed the relentless expansion of the U.S.-led NATO bloc, its 1990s war on and dismantlement of Yugoslavia,[8] its acceptance of new “out of area” responsibilities for “security,”[9] its steadily enlarging membership from 16 to 28 states, including the Baltic and former Eastern European satellites of the Soviet Union, and a growing U.S. and NATO encirclement of and threats to China and Russia.[10]  And during the first decade of the 21st century, the United States openly embarked on the systematic use of  “enhanced interrogations” (i.e., torture) and the frequent resort to “extraordinary renditions” that send captives to torture-prone clients for some not-so-angelic working over.[11]

Pinker’s standard for an interruption of the “Long Peace” would be a war between the “great powers,” and it is true that the major Axis and Allied powers that fought each other during World War II have not made war among themselves since 1945.  But Pinker carries this line of thought even further: He contends not only that the “democracies avoid disputes with each other,” but that they “tend to stay out of disputes across the board,” (283) an idea he refers to as the “Democratic Peace.”[12] (278-284)  This will surely come as a surprise to the many victims of U.S. assassinations, sanctions, subversions, bombings and invasions since 1945.[13]  For Pinker, no attack on a lesser power by one or more of the great democracies counts as a real war or confutes the “Democratic Peace,” no matter how many people die.

“Among respectable countries,” Pinker writes, “conquest is no longer a thinkable option.  A politician in a democracy today who suggested conquering another country would be met not with counterarguments but with puzzlement, embarrassment, or laughter.” (260)  This is an extremely silly assertion.  Presumably, when George Bush and Tony Blair sent U.S. and British forces to attack Iraq in 2003, ousted its government, and replaced it with one operating under laws drafted by the Coalition Provisional Authority, this did not count as “conquest,” as these leaders never stated that they launched the war to “conquer” Iraq, but rather “to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”[14]  What conqueror has ever pronounced as his goal something other than self-defense and the protection of life and limb?  It is on the basis of devices such as this that Pinker’s “Long Peace,” “New Peace,” and “Democratic Peace” rest.  (See “Massaging the Numbers,” below.)       

And it is in this kind of context Pinker throws-in his “gentle commerce” theme by advancing the so-called “Golden Arches Peace” idea—that “no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever fought in a war.”  The “only unambiguous” exception that he can name occurred in 1999, “when NATO briefly bombed Yugoslavia.” (285)  In an endnote he mentions that an “earlier marginal exception was the U.S. attack on Panama in 1989,” but he dismisses this U.S. war as too insignificant to make the grade—“its death count falls short of the minimum required for a war according to the standard definition,”[15] though according to the UN Charter and customary international law, there was nothing sub-standard about this unambiguous U.S. aggression against a sovereign country.  Here as in many other places, Pinker selects the estimated death toll that minimizes the U.S.-inflicted casualties and fits his political agenda.[16]

Pinker mentions in passing that the post-World War II peace among the giants was possibly a result of the immense cost of wars that might involve a nuclear exchange—and it did extend to the Soviet Union during its post-World War II life—but his explanation focuses mainly on the cultural evolution and biological adaptations of the Civilized,[17] in contrast with the Uncivilized of the Third World.  Why this new peaceableness of the Civilized does not stop their violent interventions abroad he fails to explain.  The exclusion of wars against the Uncivilized from his definition of a “Long Peace” reflects gross political bias. 

Pinker attributes the sense of increased violence to multiple “illusions,” one of which he believes is caused by the development of media and other advanced forms of communication that allow a rushing to the spot of bloody events, and recording them and transmitting them to the world.   As he explained in a guest appearance on CBS TV’s The Early Show in mid-December 2011: “Not only can we send a helicopter with a film crew to any troubled spot in the world but now anyone with a cell phone is an instant reporter.  They can broadcast color footage of bloodshed wherever it occurs and so we’re very aware of it.”[18]  Apparently Pinker believes that the media cover the world on a non-discriminatory basis, reporting on Guatemalan peasants slaughtered by their army, civilian victims of U.S. drone warfare in Afghanistan, Honduran protesters shot dead by their own military, and dead and injured U.S. soldiers as aggressively as they report on civilian protesters shot dead on the streets of Tehran, or the victims of the Syrian government or of the late Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.[19]  The naiveté here is staggering. 

Pinker’s “Long Peace” and “New Peace” and their alleged declines of violence not only coincide with the numerous and ongoing attacks by the giants on the midgets, the huge expansion in arms, and the new “burgeoning” of  torture,[20] but runs parallel with the increasing structural violence of a global class war that has resulted in growing inequality within and between countries, systematic dispossession of vast numbers, a widespread seizure of the commons, major migrations, growing cities of slums, increased ethnic tensions and anti-Islamic fervor, deliberately stoked in a troubled, receptive environment, mass incarceration of minority populations, and more vocal oppositional forces both here and abroad.[21]  These do not constitute “violence” in Pinker’s accounting system.  

Pinker’s “Cold War”

Although Pinker covers a great deal of ground from the earliest humans to the present, with numerous figures and learned citations, Better Angels is an overwhelmingly ideological work, with biases that reveal themselves at every level—sourcing, language, framing, historical and political context, and substance—and on all topics.

Consider this example:

You would think that the disappearance of the gravest threat in the history of humanity [i.e., a NATO-Warsaw Pact nuclear war] would bring a sigh of relief among commentators on world affairs.  Contrary to expert predictions, there was no invasion of Western Europe by Soviet tanks, no escalation of a crisis in Cuba or Berlin or the Middle East to a nuclear holocaust.  The cities of the world were not vaporized; the atmosphere was not poisoned by radioactive fallout or choked with debris that blacked out the sun and sent Homo sapiens the way of the dinosaurs.  Not only that, but a reunited Germany did not turn into the fourth reich, democracy did not go the way of monarchy, and the great powers and developed nations did not fall into a third world war but rather a long peace, which keeps getting longer. (295)

This is of course rhetoric, but it is saturated with political bias, straw persons, and literal errors: The nuclear war-threat has not disappeared, and two cities of the world were vaporized, with a quarter of a million civilians killed in two quick strokes, but this was done by Pinker’s home country, just as nuclear war remains “on the table” and  nuclear arms continue to be an integral part of  the arsenal of the United States, NATO, Israel, and India (the last shielded outside the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons by the new “strategic partnership” between the United States and India since July 2005[22])—and all despite the United States’ and the other four original nuclear weapons-states’ promise in 1968 to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.[23] 

Pinker is also misinformed that “expert predictions” were that Soviet tanks would occupy Europe—he confuses expert opinion and Cold War propaganda.  The Soviet Union had been devastated during World War II, and sought loans from the United States in the post-war negotiations; it was a conservative and cautious international actor, and had no nuclear weapon till 1949.  John Foster Dulles himself noted that “I do not know of any responsible high official, military or civilian…who believes that the Soviet now plans conquest by open military aggression” (i.e., via Pinker’s “invasion of Western Europe by Soviet tanks”).[24]  Writing in 1946-1947, U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes clearly did not expect any Soviet military attacks on Western Europe.[25]  He, Dulles, and other officials were mainly worried about Soviet political influence over Western publics, local leaders, and “infiltration” and “subversion,” which they countered with money, arms, agreements with local leaders, and their own “infiltrators” and “subversion.”  Few if any real experts expected the resulting Federal Republic of Germany to turn into a “fourth Reich,” but some may have been surprised when the United States and West Germany violated early promises to Mikhail Gorbachev and his Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in early 1990 not to extend NATO further to the east, in exchange for Moscow’s acquiescence to the reunification of East and West Germany later in 1990.[26]  Pinker fails to discuss this peace-threatening development, or even mention the existence of the early promise to Moscow.  Indeed, he comments that German reunification and NATO expansion “had no discernible effect on the Long Peace among developed countries, and it presaged a New Peace among developing ones.”  (674)

In another blatant display of internalized Cold War ideology, Pinker writes that a “romantic, militarized communism inspired the expansionist programs of the Soviet Union and China, who wanted to give a helping hand to the dialectical process by which the proletariat or peasantry would vanquish the bourgeoisie and establish a dictatorship in country after country.  The Cold War was the product of the determination of the United States to contain this movement at something close to its boundaries at the end of World War II.” (244-245)   So, just as no U.S. politician would suggest “conquering” another country, the U.S. foreign policy regime has been strictly defensive, containing the expansionist enemy.

This is an Orwellian inversion of real history, as neither the Soviet Union nor China displayed any “expansionist program” after World War II—the Soviet Union never expanded beyond its postwar boundaries and the settlement at Yalta.  They did give some modest, mainly rhetorical support to leftist and anti-U.S. forces at a distance, but the United States not only planned a postwar imperial expansion during World War II in its “Grand Area” strategies,[27] it actually did expand across the globe, as it fought to contain indigenous nationalist, independence, and social democratic movements, supporting counterrevolution and numerous rightwing and authoritarian regimes on every continent.[28]  There are important publicly available documents describing U.S. plans and programs to destabilize, subvert and replace the Soviet Union,[29] and to intervene to shape and reshape the Third World in a manner that Pinker would surely call subversion and democracy-busting if attributable to communist powers.[30]  But Pinker does not mention them.  And for Pinker, the United States never pursued a “romantic” or self-serving agenda during the “Long Peace,” and it gave no “helping hand” to those who, like Mobutu in Zaire, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, and Augusto Pinochet in Chile, would support a “free [even if corrupt] market” and investor rights.  The United States only responded to communist plans and threats.

But the Soviets made no distant moves comparable to the U.S. overthrow of Mossadegh and the installation of the Shah dictatorship in Iran in 1953,[31] its Korean and Indochinese wars, its close support of the Indonesian military coup and massacres in 1965-1966, its support of the South African apartheid regimes in Angola, Namibia and Mozambique, as well as South Africa itself (recall the CIA role in capturing and imprisoning Nelson Mandela), and its heavy involvement in the establishment of military and terror regimes in Brazil, Chile, and throughout Latin America in the post-World War II era.[32]  In the case of the central U.S. role in the violent overthrow of a democratic government of Guatemala in 1954, there was a loud official and media claim of a Soviet threat there, but this was a false propaganda cover for the desire to control and establish a completely subservient client in place of one that contested the United Fruit Company’s huge influence over policy.[33]  But in the U.S. establishment ideology of the Cold War, which Pinker has internalized and repeats throughout his Better Angels, the United States was simply defending the Free World against communist expansionism!

Disappearing Imperialism, the Military-Industrial Complex, and Institutional Imperatives

Pinker’s remarkable inversion of  reality in portraying the post-World War II period as a “Long Pe

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