Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Virtual Love - Andrew Blackman

Andrew Blackman is a fellow blogger who is known to comment here and on whose blog I occasionally comment. Though I was offered a free review copy of his book, I chose to purchase a copy instead as I was not sure if I could read the book and post my commentary within the requested time. I also wished to support the sale of the book.

A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman is a thoughtful, artistic, entertaining and ultimately sad meditation upon the state of the world in the digital age. 

The plot centers upon Jeff Brennan, a young man who resides in Milton Keynes, U.K. Jeff is employed in a job that bores him to death and spends most of his free time plugged into various online pursuits. He spends inordinate stretches of time playing online computer games with his best friend Jon. The novel consists of a series of first person narratives told by Jeff’s friends, family, and acquaintances, all directed at Jeff.

Early on we are introduced to Marie, a young American woman living in London. Marie has deep familial and intellectual roots within a liberal, environmental and anti-materialistic lifestyle as well as other related causes. She too is very engaged in the digital world and is a blogger. She becomes fascinated and infatuated with the extremely popular blog and persona of another person, who happens to be none other than Jeff Brennan. When Marie meets Jeff, the book’s protagonist, she mistakes him for Jeff Brennan, the political blogger who shares the same name. Jeff, realizing his opportunity with the beautiful Marie, plays along. Since the blogger Jeff Brennan keeps his personal life absolutely secret, our Jeff is able to perpetuate the deception and dates Marie, who eventually falls in love with him. As time goes by, our Jeff manages to further capitalize on the other Jeff Brennan’s blog’s fame. As a result, he slides further and further into emotional and moral vacuity.

Arthur Standhope is Jeff’s grandfather who lives his life based upon experience and reality and is adverse to the online world. His attempts at saving Jeff from himself often result in frustration. Arthur is thematically the key to the story and seems to represent the novel’s moral center.

This novel is immensely engaging and readable, yet it is also filled with ideas. It is an insightful critique of modern society and the digital age. There are many interwoven threads here. The concept of identity, how we project it, edit it, fake it and react to that of others is explored in great depth. We are reminded that identity issues are not exclusive to the digital universe. Even in the real world Marie analyzes and crafts her persona,

Maybe I like being the centre of attention for once, and maybe I play it up just a little. Maybe I become what people want me to be: an outgoing, glamorous, party-loving American chick. Maybe that’s why I only meet guys who want the fantasy, and probably scare off the ones who might want the real me.”

Yet there is something new going on in the world. Internet institutions like Facebook, twitter, blogs, etc., have revved up the identity game into overdrive. Aside from the main plot thread of Jeff taking on the identity of a famous blogger, he, Marie and their friends are constantly tweaking, editing and misrepresenting their online personas, some of which are completely made up. The novel explores many fascinating variations of this subject.

At one point Marie ponders some ideas concerning blogging,

“Everybody’s life was edited mercilessly. The boredom and humiliation were cropped out, leaving only glamour and excitement. Popularity, after all, was the currency. Housing estates in Bletchley and slow commuter trains on rainy afternoons were the guilty secrets, the shameful inadequacy. They’d bring down a blog’s value just as surely as a leaky sewer would erode property values.”

A plot feature that illustrates the complexity of the issue involves Marie’s entire process of falling in love with Jeff. She seems to fall for a combination of the real person as well as an online persona that she only thinks is his and is in no way connected with him.

I find that like a composer who writes a musical piece centered on a particular key and/or theme, a great book will take an idea or concept, in this case the idea of projected and perceived identities, and explore many of its permutations. Blackman succeeds in doing this here brilliantly.

There is much more to this book then I can explore in this post. There are ruminations on human perception of time, people’s tendency to jump on bandwagons, work ethic, etc. In addition, though the degeneration of Jeff was ultimately very dark and depressing, this book often provides sharp, witty and hilarious commentary upon the state of the world. One aspect of this work that I cannot help to mention is the extremely complex characterizations of all of the major, and some of the minor, characters. In particular Marie and Arthur are nuanced, vividly drawn and really steal the show here.

This is simply a great choice for anyone who wants to read an engaging and often funny story with emphasis on the digital world. It will be particularly interesting to anyone who writes a blog (Just in case anyone who comes here to read does that :)) as many of the characters are bloggers and the narrative is filled with insightful and amusing commentary on the subject. It is also a great choice if one likes deep characterization and rumination upon serious issues concerning the human condition.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Our New Republic

I often hear or read opinions about how bad the Internet and the digital age is in terms of people’s ability to think. I must disagree. I considered not putting up this post, as I think that I am stating the obvious. However, the ubiquity of contrary opinions that I hear on an almost daily basis has convinced me lay out my opinions.

For those of us who are curious about the world, it is simply the best time to be alive so far. Of course there are negative aspects to the information age. There are negative aspects to almost everything; but for those who utilize these modern tools to propagate and explore real knowledge, ideas and opinions, the digital highway is a wondrous medium that no previous generation has had the good fortune to have at its disposal.

No one needs to be reminded about the ocean of information and resources available. Just as importantly, there is such a free and efficient exchange of information, viewpoints and ideas. Book Blogging is but one example! 

In The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined Steven Pinker draws a parallel between what he calls our “Electronic Republic” and the old Republic of Letters. Centuries ago, intellectuals and writers kept their ideas percolating by a system that was known as “The Republic of Letters”.  During the 17th and 18th century, these notable thinkers engaged in a written exchange of ideas and commentary.  Today, people throughout the world have availed themselves the use of this new medium. The modern community is so much vaster. Furthermore it is not solely for the elites anymore. Millions of people throughout the globe are participating. Of course, our system is also much more efficient in terms of speed and is enhanced by verbal and visual communication. Though Pinker’s analogy between the centuries old medium and our modern interactions is limited and not entirely congruous, in many ways our current endeavors are an heir to the old literary republic.

All of my life I longed for more fulfilling communication with interesting, dynamic and innovative thinkers. Long before the Internet came along, I established friendships with such folks, read books and articles written by other such people and even watched television that helped me to understand the world better. Now, however, at any time of day or night I can read, communicate and exchange ideas on my blog, as well as on the sites of fellow bloggers. I can download millions of books and access essays on technological and scientific subjects, history and literary criticism. I can read and comment upon magazine articles, watch videos of authors discussing their books, the list goes on and on!

Many will lament the profusion of fluff, junk information, hate speech, etc. found on the Web. Many humans will also inevitably spend enormous amounts of time on silly online pursuits (indeed, I do so a little myself!).  I think that we must ask, however, twenty, or fifty, or one hundred years ago, were there that many more people engaged in intellectually stimulating pursuits? I hazard to guess that the information age has stimulated more then stymied the growth of curious minds. A dreamer, out of the box thinker, or even just a bright individual, who in years past might have been stuck in an intellectual backwater, now has access to vast communication channels with paths that reach to the far edges of both the geographic and intellectual world.

Nevertheless, a lot of unproductive time is spent with electronic devices. Some folks have had their lives consumed by them. However, when it comes down to it, I could care less what most people do with their time or their thoughts. I am just very happy and grateful that myself and likeminded folks have such a wondrous and useful door to the universe at our fingertips!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Thomas Jefferson:The Art of Power by John Meacham

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham is the second Jefferson biography that I have read in the last few months. After reading American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis I thought that reading Meacham’s book would give me an interesting and perhaps alternate perspective on the subject of this American icon. My commentary on Ellis’s book as well as a basic recapitulation of Jefferson’s life is here.

Meacham’s book is extremely balanced in terms of the various aspects of Jefferson’s life. Though Meacham’s central theme and contention is that Jefferson was a masterful politician and wielder of various forms of power, this work effectively covers and connects Jefferson’s personal, professional and philosophical life. This is a very complete and rounded account. It more evenly covers the various facets of Jefferson’s persona than Ellis’s work. Conversely, I found Ellis’s book to delve deeper and to provide a more comprehensive analysis of Jefferson’s political philosophy.

Since there are so many interesting angles of Jefferson’s life covered in this work, I cannot comprehensively encapsulate the material entirely in a single blog post. I will concentrate on what Meacham intended to be the main theme, though really it is only one of several important threads. That main theme is that Jefferson was masterful and pragmatic when he applied power, particularly political power.  This brilliant political style led to an incredibly transformative and successful presidency.

Jefferson’s accomplishments as America’s third President were transformative and impressive. Just to name some of his successes, the Louisiana Purchase, a bold move in many ways, doubled the size of the United States and avoided conflict with France. Capital improvement projects involving roads and waterways laid the foundation for future economic prosperity. This President also championed individual rights and expanded participation in government to the masses (at least for white male masses).  All of this was accomplished despite the fact that, as I highlighted in my previous commentary, Jefferson’s political and social philosophy often veered into the radical.

During the period of George Washington’s administration, American politics and politicians split into two bitterly divided factions: the Republicans (no connection with today’s modern American Republican Party, this Republican Party eventually changed its name and is now, centuries later, the modern American Democratic Party), led by Jefferson, versus the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton. The Republicans believed in a smaller, weaker, central government.  They were pro-agriculture, anti-capitalism, and wanted few checks on the will of the people. The Federalists wanted a more activist and powerful central government, especially when it came to the economics and finance; they were pro-capitalism, and distrusted the general population.

Jefferson, at least before he ascended to the Presidency, expressed support of an extreme version of the Republican viewpoint. He wanted a government with few checks and balances upon the will of the people. He advocated for the dismantling of America’s new finance system created by Hamilton. He also wanted America to remain primarily an agricultural society.

Yet, Meacham points out, as soon as he came into power he began to govern as a pragmatic centrist,

“Critics of Jefferson have argued that his vision of an agrarian nation with a weak central government puts him on the wrong side of history. It was Hamilton, they say, who correctly anticipated a future that would require a system of capital and large-scale action to create the means of national greatness. This critique of Jefferson, while familiar, is incomplete. Jefferson sent a reassuring signal to the manufacturing and financial interests who had learned to fear him as a champion of the agrarian over the commercial.”

During his first term in office, an incredible opportunity for the United States was presented when France offered to sell the enormous Louisiana Territory to America for a ridiculously low price. Jefferson, being a vigorous advocate of a limited government felt that he did not have the authority to make the deal and believed that he needed to initiate the lengthy process of amending the Constitution to acquire the authority. When it became apparent that France would withdraw the offer as a result of such a delay, Jefferson “put aside” his political convictions and just went ahead with the deal. Meacham portrays this event as the ultimate triumph of political pragmatism.

It was not solely as a realistic moderate that drove Jefferson’s successful tenure as chief executive. Though he wrote scathing attacks concerning his political foes, when it came to “face to face” communication Meacham describes him as a purveyor of “soft power”. Jefferson was a charmer and skilled in the art of persuasion. The author details how throughout his long political career, this Founder learned and honed the skills needed to convince rather then compel, as well as the skills needed to make people like him. Later as President these talents came in very handy,

Jefferson governed personally. He knew no other way. He had watched Peyton Randolph lead the House of Burgesses, sometimes in meetings in Randolph’s deep-red clapboard house at Nicholson and North England streets in Williamsburg. From his time spent in the Confederation Congress and presiding over the Senate for four years as vice president, Jefferson appreciated how to handle lawmakers, for he had long been one. Even then a president’s attentions meant the world to politicians and ordinary people alike. For all his low-key republican symbolism, Jefferson understood that access to the president himself could make all the difference in statecraft— hence his dinners with lawmakers and his willingness to receive callers. The strategy worked. In the Jefferson years Republicans were heard to acknowledge that “the President’s dinners had silenced them” at moments when they were inclined to vote against the administration. “

Even his fervent supporters sometimes acknowledged that as governor of Virginia during the American Revolution, Jefferson seemed weak and indecisive at times.  Meacham argues that he learned from these early mistakes. To the surprise of many of his critics, as President, Jefferson showed strength, even aggression, by boldly taking extra constitutional measures when buying Louisiana from France, warring with the Barbary States, etc.

In the partisan wars of the 1790s, many of his foes had misinterpreted his disposition toward individual freedom rather than toward Hamiltonian authority as dreaminess and weakness. They would learn— quickly and unmistakably— that they were wrong. “

 Jefferson was a brilliant and important enlightenment thinker. In terms of theory on individual liberty, his writings, including the American Declaration of Independence, draw a roadmap to individual rights and liberty that reverberates through the present day. He also articulated wariness over the power of government that also resounds through history.

Yet, as Meacham’s book argues, he was also a strong, competent and brilliant real world leader. I would contend that Jefferson was likely the only genius to attain the office of President of the United States. I think that such a combination of great philosophical theory and strong and effective leadership is rare in history.

Marcus Aurelius comes to mind. Indeed upon his retirement from the presidency Meacham writes,

“From France, the U.S. consul at Paris sent Jefferson a book about Marcus Aurelius. “ Along with the gift was a note comparing Jefferson to the Roman Emperor.

 There is so much more to this book. Jefferson’s personal life is covered in rich human detail. This account includes his liaison with Maria Cosworth as well as his relationship, which may have been coerced, with Sally Hemings. As exemplified by his relationship with Hemings, a slave that bore several of Jefferson’s children, Meacham does not shy away from Jefferson’s flaws. His record on slavery was poor, even by standards of the time. He initiated a horrendous campaign of war and forced relocation upon several Native American Tribes. He persecuted political enemies and engaged at what were at times vicious partisan rancor.

This is a great book both for readers who know little or nothing about the man as well as for those who are more familiar with his life story. The life, including the contradictions, of this great thinker are well worth exploring. Meacham has proven to be an intelligent, fair and enlightening guide.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov

Thanks to Himadri of The Argumentative Old Git. This was one of his Bah-Humbook recommendations for me.

Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov was written and is set in 1930’s Soviet Union. It manages to be both a dynamic and a somewhat hyperactive tale while at the same time delving into the depths of despair. Platonov’s short novel was not published until 1991. This is understandable, for had it been published during his lifetime in Stalin’s Soviet Union, it might have earned Platonov a trip to the Gulag.

The title character, Moscow Chestnova, is a young vibrant woman who becomes a parachutist in the Red Air Force. After being drummed out of military service when an unauthorized midair stunt almost kills her, she takes to hanging out with an assortment of Moscow intellectuals, artists, scientists and engineers. Among them is Dr. Sambikin, who is attempting to scientifically identify the human soul, and Sartorius, an engineer who falls deeply in love with Moscow.

After a night of passion Moscow leaves Sartorius to go explore the world. The remainder of the narrative explores the main characters’ descent into moral and psychological decay. Moscow, the once promising air force parachutist, becomes a laborer, loses her leg in an accident and eventually begins a liaison with Komyagin, another once promising individual whose life has fallen into meaninglessness and stagnation.

Sartorius falls deeper and deeper into a fugue and goes to work for the inglorious Department of Weights and Scales. Eventually losing that position also, he falls further and further. As blindness sets in he begins to lose even his identity and eventually marries an abusive woman.

This novel is full of symbolism and ideas. My version of the book was accompanied by a short but insightful summary of Happy Moscow’s themes by translator Robert Chandler.  Though Chandler sees the story as a balanced critique upon modernity, highlighting both the positive and negative aspects of the “New Humanity ”, I see this work as more of an indictment of a world going very wrong.

Moscow clearly represents the new age. She is initially filled with energy and optimism; she completely believes in the new industrial and scientific driven society and wants to protect and support it,

What Moscow Chestnova wanted was not so much to experience this life as to safeguard it; she wanted to stand day and night by the brake lever of a locomotive taking people to meet one another; she wanted to repair water mains, to weigh out on pharmaceutical scales medicines for patients, to be a lamp that goes out at just the right moment, as others kiss, taking into itself the warmth that a moment before had been light.”

The narrative is filled with descriptions of busy industrial processes and amazing scientific discoveries. The scientist and engineers are franticly pushing the boundaries of knowledge as exemplified by Sambikin’s pursuit of the human soul; at one point he believes that he finds it in the intestines of a cadaver! People are seen to display a dynamic and hyperactive optimism.

But all is not well. Underneath it all there are still masses of people with barely enough food and who live in squalor. In addition, Moscow and her friends are losing their values and their souls. The new high technological and industrialized world is empty and wretched under the surface.

At one point Sartorius observes clothing on sale in the Krestov market,

petty clothes prepared for infants who had been conceived, but then the mother must have thought twice about giving birth and had an abortion and now she was selling the tiny lamented – over garments of an unborn person along with a rattle purchased in advance”

In particular, Moscow and Sartorius go into a steep decline. In the end, all that they believed in is shown to be nothing and they both fall into a life of degeneration and despair.

Part of the problem is Socialism. This is illustrated in Sartorius’ loss of self as he begins to absorb the identity of people who he meets on the street. Eventually, he loses his entire identity. However, humankind’s relentless pursuit of science, industrialism, and mindless optimism are things that are also condemned here. I see Platonov’s criticism also applying to many aspects of our modern capitalistic industrial and post -industrial democracies.

The book displays many literary, mythological and philosophical influences, some that I picked up on myself and some pointed out in Chandler’s commentary. One inspiration not mentioned by Chandler that I found incredibly striking is that of D.H. Lawrence. My commentary of some of Lawrence’s ideas can be found in my posts on The Rainbow and Women in Love. In those pieces I described how Lawrence seemed to be presenting a warning about the ominous direction that humanity was moving in. Lawrence saw modernity, industrialism and collectivism as poisoning the human soul. A really interesting thing about Platonov’s book is that it seems to be an uncanny description of the nightmare future that Lawrence feared. I get the sense that if Lawrence could read Happy Moscow, written about seventeen years after the publication of The Rainbow, he would have said “I told you so.”
I cannot help to wonder what a conversation would be like between Moscow Chestnova and Lawrence’s heroine, Ursula Brangwen, who achieves what we would today call self-actualization when she frees herself from the pressures and concerns of conformity and modernity.

 It seems to me that both Platonov and Lawrence had some brilliant insights. We would still do very well to heed some of their warnings. However, both authors are too hard on the modern world. Moral degeneracy, dissociation from the positive aspects of nature, vacuity of self, etc. are not as new to recent times as these authors’ worldviews would lead one to believe. In many ways, an individual has more freedoms to resist such things in our world than they ever did in centuries past. I cut Platonov a lot more slack, as he lived in what was a brutal dictatorship. Surprisingly, however, for the most part his characters do not seem to be very oppressed by the government and seem to be living very free lifestyles of their choice. This may have been to protect himself, as Chandler indicates that Platonov actually hoped to get this book published. However, it seems to me that the story of an oppressive dictatorship was just not the one that Platonov was looking to tell in this novel.

Happy Moscow is considered unfinished. As per Chandler, it is likely mostly finished and Platonov just wanted to complete some minor revisions and touch ups. Yet this work does seem to be underdeveloped to me. I wanted to learn and experience more from the characters. I think that thematically Platonov could also have filled in a much clearer picture as to what exactly the problem was with the twentieth century. Basically the book was too short. Despite its flaws however, this is an extraordinary imaginative novel full of compelling characters and ideas.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker is a grand and all encompassing study in human violence as well as the trends that the author believes are driving it down. Pinker has succeeded in producing an extremely comprehensive work that provides the reader with a thought provoking and enlightening view of the big picture of this extremely important subject.

The book begins with one vital proposition that the entire work rests upon: over the course of human history, violence in all of its major forms has been declining. Pinker himself acknowledges that for many modern readers this may be a hard sell.

“In a century that began with 9/11, Iraq and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene.”

He subsequently devotes scores of pages to presenting volumes of statistics, analysis of statistics, as well as additional archeological, sociological and historical evidence in proving that the further back one delves into human history, the more violence one sees.

The author explores all major kinds of violence, including wars between states, civil wars, mass killings and genocides, crimes including murder and rape, corporal punishment, capital punishment, bullying, and more. He concludes that over the millennia, every single one of these practices has been on the downswing.

It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence

My assessment of this bedrock hypothesis is that Pinker is mostly, perhaps even close to entirely, correct. As noted, the book presents both comprehensive statistics as well as analysis of historical evidence to support his assertion. As someone who has pursued a lifelong interest in history, Pinker’s contention indeed fits with what seems to me to be an accurate view of historical patterns. In fact, I mostly agreed with the assertion that violence has been declining before reading this book. My problem beforehand was how to reconcile this theory into what many presume to be the most violent period in world history, that of the first half of the twentieth century. If violence is on a steady decline, how do we explain this era?

Pinker makes a relatively convincing case that the wars and mass murders that blackened the early part of the last century, while being among the worst incidents of this type, in terms of percentage of the world’s population killed, were not the absolute worst. He labels these horrendous events involving the intentional deaths of an enormous number of human beings as hemoclysms. The author argues that hemoclysms such as the Mongol conquests, as well as multiple very obscure events such as the Yuan Dynasty Wars, at the time, actually killed a larger percentage of the Earth’s population. Pinker sees the twentieth century calamities as the last in a series of terrible events that have occurred throughout world history, their frequency steadily diminishing.

Likewise, the violent crime waves that most Western societies began experiencing in the 1960’s, as well as the rash of civil wars and political and ethnic violence that have plagued Africa and other regions since World War Two, are shown be part of a long pattern of temporary, relatively small upward bumps that have always been part of the pattern. Furthermore, Pinker argues that both of these trends are past their peaks and are on the downswing. Deaths caused by terrorism, which has occupied so much of our attention over the past few years, are so relatively low, that they do not even appear as a blip in the statistics. Nevertheless, Pinker argues that the rates of terrorism are also on the decline.

If we put into perspective these temporary and less frequent upswings in violence, the picture of the downward slope in violence over time does become clearer. Pinker details what many perceptive students of history know; as bad as things seem today, the past, in virtually every society, was a place where wars, rape, torture, slavery, child abuse, animal cruelty, as well as countless other human evils were much more commonplace.

Next, Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor, turns his attention on neuroscience and tries to explain not only the neurological and evolutionary reasons for violence, but also the reasons for our “Our Better Angels” such as altruism, sympathy, cooperation, etc. He then attempts to connect these neurological phenomena to explain the trends and patterns related to the history of violence.

A good chunk of the book consists of Pinker attempting to explain why violence has been subsiding, as well as why there are often temporary but real setbacks in the trends. The book digs into the history, philosophy, psychology and sociology of humanity to find answers.

Pinker identifies five major trends over the course of history to explain this waning of violence. First, what he calls the “Leviathan effect”. That is the decline in violence that resulted as nation states became more and more organized (he comprehensively explores the countertrends that occur when such states wage wars as well as when they murder their own citizens). Second, “Gentle Commerce”, which is the gradual growth of commerce, trade and capitalism. Third, “Feminization” is the process where women become more and more empowered. Fourth, “Expanded Circles of Sympathy” by which sympathetic and empathetic feelings which humans originally reserved for family and tribe eventually expanded into larger and larger groups. Fifth, the “Escalator of Reason”, which is the ascent of reason over the centuries in opposition to irrational thought processes. According to the author, these forces have not just led to the reduction in violence, but to the betterment of humankind in innumerable ways.

At over 800 pages this is a massive work. Pinker journeys deeply into his contentions and does not give short shift to counterarguments. He tries to explore every angle of the subject. Readers of this blog will likely find some disagreements with these assertions. The arguments that I have laid out here are explored in such intricate detail in the book itself that I am not really doing them justice in this outline. There are so many avenues that the author ventures into that my synopsis overlooks really big parts of this work.

An example of just one of dozens of important points that Pinker makes here that I think is of particular consequence: the author talks about a number of immense significance to every human being alive.  It is a number that I have been cognizant and thought about over the years long before I had even heard of this book. That is the number zero. Zero is the number of direct major power violent conflicts that have occurred on Earth since 1952. It is a historically unprecedented span of time without such a war. It would have left informed citizens of past ages incredulous. Those who predicted such a period in times past were labeled as naive and foolish utopians. If it continues, it bodes well for the future.

Pinker is ultimately championing knowledge, rationality, and modernity. According to the author, behind all of the five major forces lay an increase in the dissemination of knowledge and/or the continued development of rational thinking. Contrary to the stereotype of cold and soulless logic, the text lays out a convincing premise that rational viewpoints and analytical thinking encourage such virtues as empathy, altruism, cooperation, nonviolence, etc.  The author even contends that such rational and critical cognitive processes encourage the propagation of non-violent and humane religious- based morality over exclusory, discriminatory and violent theologies.

Pinker’s line of reasoning is more or less in line with my views. I am a big advocate of rationalism as a driver of much that is good in the world.  There are such an enormous number of contentions and theories presented in this book that any thinking reader will find at least a fair amount to disagree with. However, in my opinion the author gets it mostly right.

I believe that this is a vitally important work. It is what I like to call a “big picture” book that is a key to understanding where humanity has been and where it is going as a species. As Pinker puts it,

The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.”

In a world of nuclear and other potential doomsday weapons, if Pinker is wrong then we are certainly doomed. If he is right, and if we can overcome an environmental calamity, we will likely make it as a civilization.  This is my conclusion, not Pinker’s.

Pinker is no utopian. He acknowledges that to some degree violence will always be a human problem. He faces up to what are clearly the downsides of modernity. He also concedes that predicting future trends is difficult. However, if his conclusions are correct, what he describes as the “arrow of history” is headed in a direction that promises somewhat better days ahead.