For many years Dyer has been pointing out the decline in violence over time—a trend that many peace workers find surprising until they realize that he is comparing per capita rates in a growing world population, rather than the absolute number of incidents over time. In 2010 Harvard’s cognitive scientist Steven Pinker also published an important book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which made the same point, assembling as much numerical evidence as possible from the widest variety of historical and anthropological sources.
While clearly admiring Pinker’s research, Dyer’s own speech to the Toronto audience proceeded by examining the history of specific European wars over time. He pointed out that technological advances and the spread of conflicts into other countries around the world meant that there have been more than just two “world wars” that were more violent than preceding ones. Without predicting that war will end altogether, he showed that the historic trend has been diminishing rates of violence.
During the question and answer period following his talk, everyone was given the opportunity to submit a question or comment on a card. We promised to pick three good ones and print Gwynne’s responses in Peace Magazine. Here are those questions or comments, with his replies.
Q: What should we do about efforts to maintain coercive power by less violent means (NSA, etc)?
A: The attempt to expand surveillance and intelligence gathering completely without limits was inevitable once the technical capabilities came into existence, if for no reason than that bureaucratic empires like the NSA are programmed to expand. It is not inevitable that they will succeed, and Snowden’s revelations have been of great help in empowering the resistance to such ambitions. The solution has to be a combination of legislation strictly limiting the scope of the surveillance, and close supervision of the intelligence agencies by outside authorities. They must not be left to “police” themselves.
Q: How can nonviolence assist in ending the Israel/Palestinian conflict? Intifadas haven’t done it.
A: Amid general despair about the future of the “peace process,” now 20 years old and going nowhere fast, there is a new strategy being debated in Palestinian circles. If, as even Hamas is obliged to maintain (at least in public), the Palestinian goal is not to expel all the Jews from the region but to live alongside them in peace, then the two-state solution is only one alternative. Another is the one-state solution, which the Palestinians could unilaterally activate simply by accepting the sovereignty of the state of Israel over the entire territory between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.
After all, most Palestinians in the occupied territories have already lived under Israeli military control for their entire lives. Rather than seeking a separate state, why not demand Israeli citizenship and the vote? Not that Israel would willingly grant them those things, but it would transform the confrontation into a civil rights struggle which the Israelis would find much harder to deal with — and Palestinians will soon form the majority in the territory of that putative single state. Many Israelis already realize this, by the way, and it is the Palestinian strategy they fear most.
[The following remarks are not a question but part of a critique posted a few days later on a Science for Peace discussion list. We forwarded it to Dyer with the other two questions.]
Q: Both Dyer and Pinker are ignorant of a vast anthropology literature about the range and complexity of hunting/gathering and peasant societies. Dyer states that these “primitive” societies are sadistic and violent.In wars between these backward subsistence communities, men are much more violent than in large states, for they exterminate and rape and scorch the earth. The whiter and larger the state, the more peaceful.
Carthage doesn’t quite fit in with Dyer’s thesis, for the Roman armies killed and raped hundreds of thousands of people, enslaved 50 000, razed the city and sowed the fields with salt. Not to mention recent scorched earth wars by UN troops in North Korea, or by the US military in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam.
Curiously, Dyer defined world wars as those wars between “great nations” and he only discussed wars fought in Europe. He had a peculiar way of talking about people of color—referring to purple-skinned Nigerians—and he neglected the proxy wars against indigenous peoples and people of color. Not on his radar was the genocide of western hemisphere aboriginal peoples, the millions of people killed by the military and by starvation under the late Victorian British Empire. He did not mention the current proxy “world war” in Africa in which it is estimated that eight million Congolese people have died. He did not mention the killing fields of Latin America under the dictatorships supported by Europe and by North America. Or the wars and sanction regime imposed on Iraq. He did not question the UN, though the Korean War was a UN war, fought right after the establishment of the UN – causing three million deaths and the destruction of every city in that country. And he certainly did not venture into the violence of neo-liberalism. He credited American universities for educating some leaders in the developing world. He did not mention the education provided at the School of the Americas to brutal dictators and military leaders.
Like Pinker, or Pangloss, he seems to think we live in the best possible world and that there are some prospects for peace through the UN and global governance. In this blinkered view, words and aspirations appear to be more significant than actions. But it’s hard to see progress unless reality is brought into the picture and the real problems are confronted.
A: I will pass over this critic’s attempts to depict me as racist and anti-First Nations, as those who were present at the talk will already be aware that she is distorting my remarks, and focus on two questions of fact. The first is her insistence on the romantic vision of the Noble Savage, who was in fact no more or less noble than his civilized descendants. (She also seems to believe that hunter-gatherers were all non-white, or that I think they were. What color does she think her own pre-civilized ancestors were?) On the business of the “vast anthropology literature” which she references, the great weight of contemporary anthropological work supports the thesis of chronic inter-group warfare among hunter-gatherers. I recommend that she start by reading Constant Battles by Steven LeBlanc of Harvard University. Then she might also read Pinker more attentively, as he actually pays a great deal of attention to anthropology, as do I.
The other point is that the foundation of her argument, to the extent that it has one, is the usual grab-bag of all the bad things she can think of in the world. This is normally done in order to demonstrate that there has been no progress, and that the only possible solution is therefore a radical revolution that erases all existing structures. If that’s what she wants, then good luck with it, but this technique of fulminating about an indiscriminate list of calamities of every different size, character and era is just sloppy, and indignation is a poor substitute for coherent argument.