Posts Tagged ‘Steven Pinker’

Letter From New York 03 06 15 Ranting on a sunny evening…

June 3, 2015

Returning to the office from a series of appointments and meetings, I met with one of the phenomenon of New York City, the partially crazy person we all learn to just ignore. As I exited the 1 line at 28th Street, a very large gentleman came down 7th Avenue carrying huge black nylon bag, swinging at his side. As he strode the Avenue like a colossus, he was not exactly shouting; it was more like braying. He sounded rather like a human imitation of a siren. As I reached my turn at 30th Street, he began to alternate the braying with shouts of “I hate effing everything and everyone!”

No one seemed to really notice him. He just went on his way, slicing through the pedestrian traffic, a human battleship on some kind of mission.

Almost any foray onto the streets of New York means an encounter with at least one person with a loose grip on reality.

The other morning, there was a well-dressed, middle-aged lady on West End Avenue, chattering away. I thought she was speaking to someone while wearing a Jawbone. But she wasn’t. No Jawbone. Just having a merry conversation with her best imaginary friend.

We don’t intervene or do much except to give them as wide a berth as we can. If they’re not doing any harm, they sail on down the streets. Such people are part of the fabric of any metropolitan area. It sometimes causes me to think on the social welfare net we don’t seem to have for these folks.

There are so many human needs all over the world. Hundreds of thousands are facing potential starvation in South Sudan. Migrants are dying while attempting to reach Italy from Africa or from Myanmar to Indonesia. Nepal is in ruins. Heat is killing them by the hundreds in India.

The huge man on 7th Avenue got me thinking about the state of humanity. We spend so much time and money on fighting each other rather than uniting in curing what ails us. Howard Bloom posits that is part of our nature in “The Lucifer Principle.” He’s probably right. But my hope is that we head toward a better future though I’m not banking on it so much right this moment.

Fierce fighting has broken out in Ukraine again. Boko Haram has slaughtered thousands and kidnapped at least hundreds while Amnesty International is claiming the Nigerian Army has managed to kill off at least 7000 and should be investigated for war crimes.

China, Russia and the United States are all jockeying for position. Saudi Arabia and Iran are duking it out to see who is going to be the big kid on the block in the Middle East. Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines along with the U.S. are skittering to keep China from controlling the South China Sea.

But at the end of the day it is all geo-political nonsense that has been going on since the beginning of empires. The Egyptians wanted to be the big guy on the block and they were for a while. So were the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, Alexander had his moment – and it was just a moment – then came the Romans and so on and on and on. All about conquering and crushing.

I must pick up a copy of Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” Today it doesn’t feel like it.

While Mayor DeBlasio proclaims that New York is the safest big city in the country, murder rates have inched up the last two years.

Ah, I am ranting tonight but it’s what is on my mind tonight. And isn’t that what blogs are for? Our individual thoughts and rants and hopes and prayers?

Letter From New York 02 03 15 A Step Too Far…

February 3, 2015

The day didn’t start quietly; I was awakened by the sounds of trucks scraping the street outside the apartment in New York. It was a struggle to wake, having been in a long, convoluted dream about explaining some technology to a friend.

Running late for an early lunch date with a friend, I hailed a taxi on West End Avenue and headed for Le Bonne Soupe in Midtown. The driver was a cheery fellow and we chatted as we headed south; he was from Lebanon and has lived in the US for twenty-six years. He left Lebanon in the late eighties due to the civil war between Christians and Muslims. As his taxi was decorated with a number of rosaries, I pegged him as Christian. He reminded me that I have made a decision to live in an attitude of gratitude these days.

My friend, Mary Dickey, and I were the first customers of the day at Le Bonne Soupe, settling in for some warm food on a cold day. While we were eating, my phone buzzed with the distinct sound it has when an alert is coming in from BBC News. Picking up the phone, I read that ISIS had apparently burnt alive their captured Jordanian pilot.

Muath al-Kaseasbeh is his name. I want to say his name. If the video is legitimate and every one of ISIS’s videos has been legitimate, the “Caliphate” has stooped to a new low in its cruelty and depravity.

Apparently they dragged him in their signature orange jail suits to a cage, doused him with gasoline, and set him afire with great panache.

The Jordanians believe he was killed on January 3rd, long before ISIS dangled him as a pawn in an effort to secure the release of a woman in Jordan who has been condemned to death for being part of a suicide bombing in Amman ten years ago. Her own suicide vest failed to explode.

While having been disgusted at the beheadings, something about this latest death has caused me to feel anger, to want to do something to punish ISIS, to wish we had a hundred thousand snipers to deploy on them.

This was a step too far.

It has hung over me all day, a weight I should feel, I think. We have been at war so long we have all become a bit distant from the brutal meaning of humans killing other human beings. War is a brutal, brutish thing and takes men to the heart of a dark spot in their beings. It is no wonder we have so many veterans who are suffering the aftereffects of their time in service in Iraq and Afghanistan and every other place we have been in war.

Steven Pinker wrote the best selling book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He posits that over history we have gotten gentler.

It is hard on a day like this to believe it.

Letter From New York 12 30 14 The changing landscape around us…

December 30, 2014

Just as I sat down to write today, a veritable herd of deer crossed the yard, followed by one straggler who was obviously hurt, bounding as best she could on three legs while the rest were far ahead. It was touching and I instinctively wanted to run out and see what I could do for her – but I wouldn’t know and she is now long gone.

The sun is setting in the west; today, unlike the days before, was bright and sunny with brilliant cheer, chill but definitely not Minnesota cold. My brother told me it would be seven below there this morning. I woke to twenty-seven degrees. All the snow is gone now; the world looks more like a barren fall landscape than a winter wonderland.

The year is ending and everyone seems to be coming up with a top ten list, some of winners, some of losers but magazines are counting. Deadline Hollywood came up with part of its top ten films, which included FURY, UNBROKEN, AMERICAN SNIPER and Rory Kennedy’s documentary, LAST DAYS IN VIET NAM. Four of the five were war movies, which seems to have been on our mind this year.

It’s not surprising; we have been living with war for a long time now. Afghanistan is formally over and done but there are still boots on the ground and NATO still has a presence. Iraq and Syria burn and we have, of course, the Boko Haram in Africa.

Steven Pinker, author of THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, argues that overall violence is down from where it has historically been. This morning in The Times that sentiment was echoed with the caveat that because of Syria and Ukraine there has been an uptick in the last year but that there are “only” something like eleven conflicts happening when there used to be dozens.

Perhaps it just seems to be more to us in America because we have had Iraq and Afghanistan for so long and they don’t seem to be going away. We’ve had to face ISIS this last year, too. But all in all, over the course of my lifetime, it appears that overall violence has declined and while I find that hard to believe sometimes, the empirical evidence seems to point that way.

And that is good.

Now there is a pink tinge to the sky as the light of the day begins to fail; the bare trees claw the sky and make for a magic scene out the windows by my desk. It is a perfect time for contemplation and thought; soft jazz plays in the living room on Pandora.

Lights are beginning to come on around the neighborhood, soon the automatic lights will snap on as the dark descends.

As I sit in this bucolic setting, I say a quiet prayer for the families of the people on the lost Air Asia flight. Bodies and wreckage have been found; another Malaysian linked plane has been lost, the third this year.

My mind also goes to Alexei Navalny, the Russian dissident who was given a suspended sentence for fraud. Thousands gathered in Moscow to protest the sentence and he joined them and was arrested again. It is suspected he was given a suspended sentence to avoid his becoming a political martyr. Putin has taken on all the powers of the Tsar, Autocrat of all the Russias. He just hasn’t crowned himself. Perhaps before it’s done, he’ll follow the example of Napoleon and put the crown on his own head.

Ah, darkness has fallen. The automatic lights have clicked on. I must go and prep for dinner with friends, in the seemingly unending string of dinner and cocktail parties.

Tomorrow, I must make a decision as to which of the two parties to which I am invited I will attend to ring out the old and bring in the new. Not bad decisions to have to make.