Apr 03

Way back in the day, I mean WAY back, humans ran around by themselves, isolated as individuals. The earliest humans spent every waking moment fending off predators, hunting other animals, and foraging for food. The hardest part was always staying safe. From saber-tooth tigers or lions or dire wolves or snakes, you always had to watch for predators.

(Side note: this history is, to be fair, fake. If you believe in evolution/Evolution, humans evolved from other pack animals going back millions/billions of years. It wasn’t like we somehow “started” as individuals. But let me go with it for a moment.)

The first group was the family. A male human impregnated a female human, and they stayed together because it just made it safer. This human male was giving up quite a bit of freedom. Before they mated, he could run around doing whatever he wanted. Afterward he mated, he had to come back from hunting every day by sundown. But he also got some benefits. By having children, the family had others who could help keep watch for predators, go hunting, or forage for food. (And, yeah sex.) Of course, these younger children had to obey the rules of the parents or get kicked out of the family into the wilderness to fend for themselves.

Living as a family was better than living alone.

Eventually it made more sense for one family to join with another family living nearby. This way they could share the guard duties and pool resources for food they had scavenged. Eventually, you had to join a group of families or other groups of families could come steal your food. These groups of families became the first tribes. And the tribes set up rules that all the families had to follow. These families also gave up some freedom by joining the tribe. Say a family liked to eat shellfish, but the tribe forbid shellfish. Well, the family had to give up the freedom to enjoy shrimp and lobster to join the tribe.

Joining a tribe was better than just surviving as a family.

Of course, some tribes banded together to make clans. These clans allowed for trade and inter-marriage among the tribes. They also guarded against the bad actions of other clans who might sweep in to steal food and women and, later, land.

Clans living was better than tribe living.

You see where this is going. Clans became cities, or city-states, or states, or nations, or nation states. After the Peace of Westphalia, some of these nations created alliances and today we have international treaties. In each case, working together in larger and larger groups made life better. This is a narrative version of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent history of the world, inspired by Yuval Harari’s Sapiens:

“History is the story of how we've learned to come together in ever greater numbers from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn't on our own.”

The above history is a Hobbesian-turned-idealistic view of the world, showing humanity as truly having its origins in a state of anarchy, where life is nasty, brutish and short. But it gets better as we come together. The way I like to describe this is we have been in a perpetual trade off of sovereignty for security and prosperity.

And I want to focus on one word in that last sentence in particular: sovereignty. Because it could stop the final step.

In the deeper cuts of the conservative blogosphere, the concept of sovereignty is hot. Every few years you find a conservative railing against some treaty or UN commitment that would crush US sovereignty. And not even super conservatives, as Richard Haass most recent Foreign Affairs article was about redefining sovereignty.

The most ideal form of this thinking was the book The Sovereignty Solution. A while back one of the authors sent me a copy of the book. He loved our blog, but I had casually mentioned I wasn’t onboard with their theory yet. (It went military-blog viral, admittedly a small viral, a few years back.) So he sent me a copy to change my mind. In short, the book didn’t change my mind or convince me of their theory, but it did convince me of the appeal of their theory.

Basically, any time you join the larger group, you give up some power/freedom/sovereignty. Giving up of power (freedom/sovereignty) is scary. But it is worth it, as every example above proves.

We’ve now taken the process global. 
International treaties by definition force states to give up sovereignty for the larger benefit. A bunch of countries get together and decide to cooperate on a given issue. To do so, they usually set up an enforcement agency or body. This group than regulates the issue. Sometimes, this larger international body will trump domestic law. Even in the US. (Because of the Constitution!)

You can see the benefits for international cooperation, but see US pushback because of perceived loss of sovereignty across a wide range of issues.

- Take landmines. Or chemical weapons. They are nasty weapons and we shouldn’t have them. So certain nations got together and made a deal to stop building those weapons and agreed to fine countries who don’t stop building them. The US won’t join the landmine treaty because we like having landmines.

- Take global trade. Some conservatives hate institutions like the World Trade Organization because it can restrict the actions of certain American companies. Overall, though, it makes the global trade system profitable and benefits America far more than it hurts it. But sovereignty.

(We would bring up global warming and the Paris Accords, but we know that is a hot button issue.)

When Trump rails against global elites and China and ISIS/Muslims, he’s arguing that foreigners sap our sovereignty. Trump doesn’t believe in allies because he doesn’t believe in ever sacrificing your own freedom for the larger gain. What do Brexit-eers criticize most about the EU? Those damn bureaucrats in Brussels telling them how to regulate the internet. Oh, and those same bureaucrats telling them how to run their immigration laws. How is Putin trying to destroy NATO and the EU? By encouraging countries to take back their own power from global institutions.

That’s all code for taking back sovereignty from global institutions.

So life was getting better and better in larger groups, and now we’ve stopped it in the name of sovereignty. Even though interstate nuclear war could end life as we know it, some conservative thinkers and politicians (Trump, Putin, Bannon) want to stop global integration. For conservatives, the power of groups to make the world better magically stops at the international level. 

In the end, life will be better as a global society, not as nation states. We should remember that.

Feb 08

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

Since the election, it’s been pretty trendy for journalists and pundits to quote paragraphs from articles they pre-wrote about Hillary's “inevitable” election win, and then explain what they either got right or wrong. I, Eric C, can do the same. Last year, I wrote a number of draft posts on violence, the media and pessimism as part of our “World is Getting Safer” series and in one of those posts I wrote the following:

“In some ways, it’s actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many conservative Americans believe they’re “losing their country”. Everything is falling apart as white people become an (allegedly) oppressed minority in this country, as evidenced by a lack of support for the police in shootings, income inequality, the push for immigration reform, and political correctness.

“The solution? Support Donald Trump in the polls.

“Ah, but Donald Trump rising in the polls? That’s actually a sign of imminent demise for liberals! Our political system is falling apart! The cycle turns over on itself, with self-reinforcing feedbacks loops that keeps making people feel the world is getting worse."

Well, pretty spot on, except Trump didn’t just rise in the polls, he won the election.

As we wrote in the introduction to this series, the 2016 election results reinforce one of the core theses of the blog: the world is as safe as it has ever been, but the media (left, right and center) and politicians (Democrats and Republicans) believe the opposite. Because of the overwhelming yet completely unjustified sense of pessimism across the political spectrum, many Americans wanted a change.

Yesterday, we called this the “Invisible Golden Age”.

So, to repeat as we have so many times before, the world is safer than it has ever been. In the last fifteen years, nearly a billion people were lifted out of poverty. The crime rate is still at a forty year low. Ebola--the disease that made everyone pessimistic in 2014--was under control by 2015. Though wars continue in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, global war is a fraction of what it was even fifty years ago. Even abortion rates in America are going down. And issues like income inequality, prison populations, climate change and improved during the Obama Administration. Hell, it seems like Steven Pinker is legally required to do one interview a year trying to explain this to people.

So how did we come to this point? The blame belongs to both politicians and the media, who failed to adequately explain to the American public how truly great things were both short term (during the Obama administration) and long-term (since the rise of the classical-liberal world order). We’ll start with politicians today, then hit the media next.

The Best Analogy for the "Invisible Golden Age"

When I think about how much we’ve written on “The World is Getting Safer”--not to mention Steven Pinker, John Horgan and countless others--and how little it seems to seep into the general consciousness of Americans, the best analogy I can come up with is global warming, except global violence rates are going down while global temperature keeps going up.   

The similarities are uncanny. Is there a scientific consensus? Yes, the people who study both (either climate scientists or political scientists) agree with a near universal consensus that the underlying facts say the world is getting safer/global temperatures are increasing, with some minor quibbles over the details. Is the trend a straight line? Nope, in either case. Most years the world gets a lot hotter; some years the temperature stays the same. Most years see a decline in violence; some years see spikes in war deaths or murders. (This applies to most rates of violence.) Do huge groups of people not believe what scientists tell them? Absolutely, in both cases.

The main difference between global warming and the world getting safer? Both Republicans and Democrats believe the world is in awful shape. (Though now that the Trump administration is actively misleading the public on violence, terrorism and crime rates, Democrats may realize the mistake they've made buying into this narrative.)

Blaming the Far-Left for Liberal Despair

You can (partially) blame the left flank of the Democratic party, who constantly complained that Democratic policies didn’t go far enough. On issue after issue, Democrats, led by Obama, made huge policy gains, but left-wingers (of which I am one) undercut their own success:

- Consider the Affordable Care Act. Some on the left felt it didn’t go far enough, wishing instead for a single payer option, so they didn’t want to cheerlead for it, though it both lowered the number of uninsured Americans and finally limited the massive yearly increases in healthcare costs. It even led pollsters to have to change how they polled the question just to clarify what people were dissatisfied about.

- Consider Wall Street regulation. Many progressives feel Democrats didn’t do anything to rein in the large banks, so much so that Bernie Sanders made it his central campaign talking point during the primaries, the left-wing version of a border wall. In reality, Dodd-Frank severely curtailed the profits of banks. As James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker, “But there’s no avoiding the deeper conclusion: regulations have simply made banking less profitable than it once was.” And it severely limited the chances for another crash. But ask yourself, how many Bernie supporters know this? Or care?

- Or look at the prison population. There’s no doubt that one of the central injustices of the last few decades has been America’s insane expansion in its number of prisoners. During Obama’s administration, the prison population finally started dropping. Did that fact make the news? Did it make the news compared to the countless think pieces talking about this injustice? You see, even when we make ground on an issue, the negativity overwhelms the progress.

Some of this is, possibly, a good trait to have. Democrats are never satisfied. They want more progress and improvement for all. But this is a recipe for dissatisfaction. It left an opening for Republicans politically, who constantly and consistently criticized Obama. When liberals joined that chorus--on the Affordable Care Act, Wall Street regulation, immigration, climate change, and criminal justice reform, and more--it sounded like no one was satisfied, even though both sides were arguing for opposite things.

And now, two weeks into the Trump administration, we’ve already seen Republican begin the process to repeal Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act. Democrats are protesting like Hell to keep these very bills, even though many people spent eight years complaining didn't do enough. But some gains are better than nothing.

By failing to celebrate victories or general world improvement, Democrats let Republicans win the debate on the future of the country. Republicans painted a picture of America as a dystopian hellscape caused by Obama, which Democrats never adequately rebutted, creating an enthusiasm gap between their supporters. (I should clarify: this is one of many, many factors that cost Democrats the election. We actually have a huge post on the topic coming.)

It should be noted that Republicans don’t return the favor of not celebrating their victories. Indeed, just a week after the election, 49% percent of Republicans “already felt the economy was improving” compared to 16% the week before, which almost breaks your mind if you think about it too hard. And consumer confidence jumped to a 15 year high. Or you can read President Trump’s tweets, taking credit for good economic news he had nothing to do with. And conservative media has proudly celebrated Trump’s first few weeks in office. Democrats, during Obama’s first few weeks, were already arguing with one another over Rick Warren speaking at his inaugural.

The end result? It feels like Obama (and Democrats) had a mixed legacy, when really it was an extraordinary run.

Blaming Centrists for Not Defending the Liberal World Order

You can look at the previous section as an indictment of those on the far left for being too critical of the Democratic coalition, focusing on short-term (Obama’s administration). Consider this section an indictment of moderates, focusing on the long-term wins of classical liberalism. If you look at the period of peace and prosperity since the end of World War II, we’re living in amazing times.

As I wrote about last week, a majority of Americans support trade agreements, because the facts support trade agreements. But ask yourself, when did you hear politicians make a cogent argument defending trade agreements? Instead, politicians from both sides of the aisle capitulated to the loudest anti-trade voices of their parties. It’s not just that the mythical “elites” took the gains of globalization for themselves (though in countries controlled by right-wing politicians, they did); it’s that they never explained how far we’ve come and, more importantly, why.

This could extend to a whole host issues, from the importance of international institutions, foreign aid, and more. Overall, the classical-liberal world needs more supporters arguing for its cause. And explaining how the world has achieved such amazing prosperity, both in America and Europe.

Blaming Conservatives for Fear-Mongering

When discussing terrorism and national security, my initial reaction is to reflexively blame Democrats for echoing Republican talking points about the state of the world today, citing both Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer describing the world as a “dangerous place” or that we live in “tumultuous times”. Or how, when Obama said ISIS didn’t pose an existential threat in his 2016 State of the Union, neither Republicans or Democrats clapped, though ISIS clearly doesn’t and didn’t pose an existential threat.

Of course, this would fall into the same logical fallacy I pointed out above, because when it comes to stoking fear, Democrats have nothing on Republicans.

This fear-mongering (there’s no better word for it) has been going on for years. For a quick primer, just check out our writing on the subject, including “Politicians STILL Don’t Believe the World is Getting Safer (And the Media Doesn’t Call Them On It)“, or our posts on Republicans during the primary, “Don’t Worry about EMPs, WMDs or ISIS: Sorry, Republicans The World is Getting Safer” and “ISIS, You Ain’t No Existential Threat, Bruv”.

This fear-mongering continues today. Donald Trump’s inaugural address was summarized by the two words “American Carnage” (more to follow in a few weeks). The Economist described General Flynn, now Trump’s national security advisor, as believing that, “Jihadism is an existential threat to the west, much greater than Russia or China.” Mike Pence just told Chuck Todd on Sunday, “But look, we live in a very dangerous world.

This extends to domestic policy as well. Republicans villainize entire minority and ethnic groups, with our President describing Mexicans as “rapists and murderers”, his administration blocking Muslim refugees from entering this country under the false pretense of security, conservative activists protesting the building of mosques, and conservative pundits describing African-Americans as “thugs”. When the crime rate started falling in the 1990s, the N.R.A. mis-leadingly started a campaign to stoke fear about crime across the country.

As a nation, we’re better than this.

Where do we go from here?

The irony, publishing this post now rather than four months ago, is that one could ask, “So, if convincing people the world is as safe as it has ever been would have turned the election, will trumpeting that message now help Republicans?” Not really. That question leaves out the “Why?” Why is the world as safe as it has ever been?

Because of trade. Globalization. International institutions and cooperation. Immigration. Shining a spotlight on police shootings. Criminal justice reform. In short, all the things Trump hopes to dismantle. And of course, his proactive policy choices could also endanger this invisible golden age, from the Muslim ban (which will inspire more terrorists) to building a border wall. More importantly: does anyone trust the President not to start wars?

In each case, by contextualizing the safety of today, we can (try to) stop these actions. Not only should we say this; we have to. Just this week, the President claimed the murder rate is at a 45 year high (it isn’t), both Sean Spicer and Mike Pence described the world as a “dangerous place” (it isn’t), and they claimed the media under-reporters terrorism (it doesn’t). To justify their policies, this administration will exaggerate violence; we hope to counter them.

President Trump may jeopardize this invisible golden age we find ourselves in, both domestically and internationally. And this needs to be said.

Feb 07

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

What if you were living in a golden age of safety and didn’t know?

What if no one else knew either?

What if the prison population, for a long a time growing at an unjustifiable rate, started shrinking? What if these drops in incarceration were accompanied by a drop in crime?

What if the number of people living in extreme poverty across the globe dropped from over 40% to 10% in the last thirty years?

What if you lived in a society where women, minorities, the disabled and LGBT people had gained rights unimaginable fifty, a hundred or two hundred years before?

What if the percentage of people who died in wars was at or near an all-time low?

What if the same was true of crime?

And genocide?

And slavery?

And torture?

But what if no one knew? What if no one cared?

What if everyone said that, instead of a golden age, we lived in the worst years in human history?

What if major newspapers on the left, (“Is 2016 the Worst Year in History?”), right (“A Night to Bid Good Riddance to a Crummy 2016”) and center (“2016: Worst. Year. Ever?”) asked if the current year was the worst in history?

What if defense secretaries and intelligence officials consistently testified on Capitol Hill that the world was a dangerous place? What if the President described the country as “American carnage”? What if the Vice President called the world a dangerous place? What if the minority leader in the Senate called these “challenging and tumultuous times”?

What if you couldn’t even escape the negativity by listening to podcasts? What if everyone from the FiveThirtyEight to iFanboy talked about despair? What if Radiolab did a whole show on nihilism? What if you couldn’t even escape this feeling listening to NPR without the interviewer describing the world as a “time of great worry and consternation”?

What if the country’s most respected comedians made the same declaration, like John Oliver closing out his final show of the year? Or Trevor Noah?

What if comedians felt this way about every year that preceded it? What if people felt this way about 2015? What if “2014 was not a great year for people”? And 2013?

What if every year you felt like Peter Gibbons from Office Space?

But what if it weren’t true? What if the facts didn’t back it up? What if you were actually living in an invisible golden age and no one knew?

Jan 24

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought-Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

I have a quick thought experiment for you. Imagine it is a few months before the 2018 midterm elections. Donald Trump’s already poor approval ratings have deteriorated further. (Maybe he couldn’t fulfill his promises. Or a trade war tanked the economy. Or maybe we’ve deployed ground troops to another Middle Eastern nation.) Even in a gerrymandered and segregated electorate, the Democrats look poised to sweep the House and the Senate. (This isn’t that unusual; the out of power party often wins seats in a midterm election.)

Donald Trump, though, warns America of voter fraud and corruption, the same themes he had warned of in his Presidential run. This time, though, he now has both the solution and the power to do something: he is ordering a halt to the elections across America until he can determine they will not be corrupted. To buttress his argument and show this isn’t simply an action of the executive branch, he proposes that Congress pass an emergency measure to postpone the election.

My thought experiment is this: How many Republicans would vote for that measure? (I suspect Mitch McConnell would. It seems he’ll break any political norm to keep power in perpetuity.) But how many other Republican members of the House and Senate would vote for the measure that would end our Republic?

And for those even half-heartedly preparing their justifications for the above vote, stop. You can never justify stopping an election in a functioning democracy. Or even a non-functioning democracy. If you give a President the ability to postpone one election for any reason, well, they will find find a reason to postpone all elections. Look to dictatorships in Africa (like the Congo right now) or South America (in the past) to see this in practice.

I bring up this hypothetical because one of the “hot takes” following the Donald Trump election was that we had witnessed the end of the “end of history”, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama being one of the most influential articles turned books of the 1990s. (The other? The Clash of Civilizations, which was read as gospel post-9/11.) I’ve counted at least four major articles and the author himself speculating on this topic. Many more mentioned Fukuyama in relation to Trump and/or Brexit.

The reasoning goes something like this: The End of History and the Last Man was about the triumph of democracy, free markets and classical liberalism more broadly. Brexit voters opposed free trade. They are also leaving one of the most important international institutions. So does Donald Trump. He also has autocratic tendencies. Combined with his flagrant disregard for Constitutional norms, Trump could seize power, ending our Republic. Matt O’Brien in Wonkblog has a good description:

“[Donald Trump's] gone back and forth and back again on almost every issue. But if he's serious about jailing his political rivals, about cracking down on the free press, about potentially abandoning our allies, about encouraging them to get nuclear weapons of their own, and about ripping up free trade agreements, then the liberal international order that has bequeathed us a relative Pax Americana the past 70 years will be no more. It'll be the end of the end of history.”

O’Brien combines two different key elements of “The End of HIstory” and today I want to focus on the parts about democracy, what Kenneth Waltz would have called “the second image” or the internal structure of states. (We’ll talk about the liberal world order, the international system, in my post tomorrow.)

My opening thought experiment actually proves that we aren’t in the end of the end of history--though it is terrifying to wonder how many Republicans would even consider voting for such a measure. Even in the outlandish scenario above, Trump could never justify his hypothetical takeover of American politics without denying he’s become an autocrat. Even as future Trump postpones the election--daring people to fight him and, from the playbook of most dictators, justifying his takeover of politics--he’ll sing the praises of democracy. Donald Trump’s most fervent supports drape themselves in the flag, patriotism, democracy, freedom and the Constitution. Donald Trump would have to echo those themes.

We see this “draping myself in the Constitution even as I spit on it” in Republican efforts to decrease voter turnout. Republicans justify voter suppression in the language of strengthening our democracy. They claim they want the democratic vote to be pure and untainted. In actuality, their policies disenfranchise potentially millions of eligible voters, a direct violation of the Constitution and the spirit of democracy.

And while Francis Fukuyama’s original argument was that the liberal world order was here to stay, the most important part to me has always been that liberal democracy triumphed as an idea. We forget this, because it seems so remote to us today, but in the 1930s, it wasn’t just that Hitler took power from his democracy, but that many pundits and politicians doubted democracy as a system. Many German citizens voted for the National Socialists to end the Weimar Republic, which they considered a failed experiment. In the 19th century, many people feared a capitalist system and wanted the return of monarchy and mercantilism (or agrarianism). Communism proposed an alternative system of politico-economics, but it failed as a theory, and hence Fukuyama wrote his book.

We see this in dictatorships of modern times. Vladimir Putin still holds rigged elections to justify his rule. So did Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. So does Bashar al-Assad, during a civil war no less. So will Recep Erdogan in Turkey. The only countries that have been immune have been Saudi Arabia (which just crushes all dissent with outlandish wealth) and China (who, of course, flirts with democracy every 20 years or so). In fact, the China example is the best counter: it’s people see the value of democracy and it’s leaders fear the ideology’s power.

Democracy has bested the alternatives. So has market capitalism, really, with some bumps. Yes the fringe of the fringe (the racist alt-right) has proposed a return to monarchy, but no one takes that seriously. Democracy has triumphed as an idea, even in dictatorships.

So yes, we have seen the end of history.

Aug 15

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here)

 And spoiler warning: This post contains massive, “The Wall”-sized spoilers for Game of Thrones. This is a show that deserves not to be spoiled, so proceed at your own peril.)

Game of Thrones is incredibly violent. Amazingly violent. It’s more unusual for episode to not contain some act of violence. But connecting this show, philosophically, to our site isn’t easy. Outside of a pat “violence sucks” message, there usually isn’t anything else to say. (This happens with a lot of favorite pieces of art. They’re violent, but we can’t shoehorn them onto the blog.)

But a few years ago, after reading about the audience’s reactions to Jaime Lannister raping his sister Cersei in the fifth episode of the fourth season, I found my angle: Game of Thrones proves the world is getting safer, which we posted about two weeks ago. We had so much material, including our responses to potential rebuttals to our argument, that we had to have a second post to hit it all.

Rebuttal 1: Who says this? Who really believes this?

Basically, I can imagine some people, in response to our piece, saying, “Of course the world today is safer than 600 years ago.” I mean, you couldn’t tell by the rhetoric of politicians--which we’ve quoted multiple times--who scream about how unsafe the world is today. Hell, the Republicans just made it the central talking point of their convention.

If you need quantitative proof, Slate published a piece trying to find the worst year in human history. The poll results at the bottom show 9% of people--on a liberal website--voted for 2016. Another 5% voted 2003, which is insane.

Rebuttal 2: No seriously, who is actually saying this?


A number of neo-racist groups--like the new white supremacy movement, the “alt-right” or the “neo-reactionaries” that have spread online--base their very existence on claiming that democracy has fundamentally made the world a more dangerous place. The solution--for this very fringe movement--is a return to monarchy with heaping doses of racism. I (Eric C) accidentally stumbled onto all this (in a post on TechCrunch) a day before Vox wrote a big piece on it.

Basically, the idea that the world is falling apart undergirds a new, burgeoning anti-democratic, racist ideology. Again, proving that the world is safer matters.

Rebuttal 3: Some outlets are (finally) reporting that the world is getting safer.

In a way. Sometimes. Kind of.

Fact-checking Trump’s acceptance speech, many news outlets reported that America is actually statistically safer than it was 8 years ago (when Obama took office) or 38 years ago (when the country apparently fell apart in 1968). Perhaps this is becoming the new norm for critics and reporters on the left? Or is it just a temporary response to a candidate most on the left abhor?

I‘d guess the latter. Take this headline from Slate two weeks ago: “More of the same: Gun Violence/Terrorism Edition”. On the Fivethirtyeight podcast, one of the reporters said, “Yes, the world is a dangerous place”. On Vox’s The Weeds, Ezra Klein described the world in similar terms. (We still love both of these shows.) So no, this idea hasn’t taken hold yet.

Rebuttal 4: Game of Thrones shouldn’t have depicted rape period.

We first wrote yesterday’s post two years ago after the Jaime/Cersei rape debacle. Since then, there was the Sansa rape by Ramsay Bolton that caused a sitting U.S. Senator to stop watching the series.

But as distasteful and opposed to rape as we are, if you want to depict the past realistically, you have to include rape. (But you don’t have to show it, and Game of Thrones had the rapes occur off camera.) As our post lays out, rape was a part of life in the past, especially during war. Game of Thrones made this clear in the first episode, when Daenerys was raped by Khal Drogo.

It wasn’t just the rape that was bad in the Middle Ages. Back then, women were property. A huge cultural shift occurred over the 20th century when the idea that women were independent agents, not marital property or birthing vehicles, came into being. In Game of Thrones’ world, women don’t decide who they can marry or who they can divorce. (Though, in fairness, Game of Thrones depicts powerful women leading behind the scenes.)

In other words, Sansa’s rape wasn’t a crime. It was daily life for women. More people should know this.  

Rebuttal 5: What about modern instances of slavery, torture, homicide, and so on?

I can already hear readers pushing back against each example in our post, asking, “What about modern day slavery? Or sexual assault on college campuses? Or the Charlie Hebdo shooting? Or Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding? Don’t those show society hasn’t improved at all?”

Pinker debunks that criticism on his website:

“There is an enormous difference between a clandestine, illegal, and universally decried practice in a few parts of the world and an open, institutionalized, and universally approved practice everywhere in the world.”

Torture, rape, slavery and other modern horrors were accepted and even celebrated in the past. Today, only criminals engage in them. Take slavery. Some people will point out that there are more slaves today than in the 1800s. But the highest estimates--which are almost surely over-estimates by interest groups--estimate that the modern world has 29 million slaves. Divided by the global population, that’s .003% of the population. So yeah, huge improvement.

We actually left off numerous improvements in the modern world, including religious fanaticism, entrenched racism and sexism, or the general improvements in healthcare or technology.

The world is so much better today.

Rebuttal 6: But this is a fantasy show...

This complaint comes from my dad who didn’t understand the point of our guest post. In short, Game of Thrones has dragons. Why look at it realistically?

Because George R. R. Martin based his series on the past. He made it realistic...then added dragons and zombies. If you can’t get past the fantasy elements of Game of Thrones, I’d recommend watching Rome, HBO’s less-fictional, historical predecessor to Game of Thrones. All of the same instances of violence occur. Slavery? Check. Torture? Check. Rape? Check.

Jul 25

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Donald Trump definitely made America seem like a dystopian hellscape last week at the convention. (See Seth Myers on Late Night for good coverage.) Trump’s theme was clear: the world is in chaos. With multiple wars in the Middle East, terrorist attacks in Europe, police shootings, and violence at political rallies, everything seems to be falling apart.

Trump wasn’t the only person spreading fear this year. Almost every Republican candidate for president--from mild-mannered Jeb Bush to bombastic Chris Christie--told the electorate during the Republican primaries that we live in truly “dangerous” and “perilous” times. Donald Trump and the Republican National Convention just made it their official theme.

Republican politicians aren’t alone in fear mongering. Democrats like Diane Feinstein believe we live in a “dangerous world”. Even a liberal commentator like Jon Stewart--who just called Trump out for fear-mongering on The Late Show--ended his run on The Daily Show (in the second to last episode) saying, “'The world is demonstrably worse than when I started.”

We need some perspective on how great we really have it.

And for that, we turn to the fantasy world of Game of Thrones.

Each week the show offers helpings of war, torture, rape, incest, mass murder, terrorist insurgencies, beheadings and so on, which should just depress us more. But it’s actually refreshing. Contrasting the pessimism of the daily news to this dark but wonderful TV show, we can’t help thinking, “Man, the world is so much safer today.”

Game of Thrones is a fun world to visit, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to stay. If modern times are “perilous”, how would you describe the Middle Ages? Despite the anxiety that pervades our culture, when compared to the past, we’re living in a modern golden age.

And Game of Thrones proves it. Unlike past fantasy authors, Martin based his world on actual European history. George R.R. Martin has said numerous times that he places a high premium on accuracy. “My novels are epic fantasy, but they are inspired by and grounded in history,” he told The New York Times.  Along with accuracy in food (lamprey pie), dress (velvet doublets) and weapons (two-handed greatswords), Martin’s Westeros is an excellent analogue for the ugliness and violence of Europe of hundreds of years ago (specifically, the eras of the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses). A trip through that world reveals just how much more dangerous and violent it was compared to contemporary times.

(Wall-sized spoilers abound for the rest of this article.)


Two seasons ago Jaime raped his sister Cersei and some fans got upset. Last season, Ramsay Bolton raped Sansa Stark, outraging many, many fans, including US senators. Viewed from a modern perspective, Sansa’s rape was disgusting. Show that scene to someone from the 1300s and they’d wonder why people were upset. Arranged marriages among royal families were an unquestioned part of life in the past, along with subsequent marital rape.

Sansa’s rape was far from the only sexual assault in the world of Game of Thrones--214 instances and counting in the books. Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane uses war as an excuse to rape as many people as he can. Sansa almost got raped by a mob in season two. And the series opened with Daenerys getting raped by Khal Drogo in the same circumstances as Sansa. (I’m not sure the Dothraki can even have consensual sex.) As Martin has said, in response to criticism both two seasons ago and last season, rape has always been a part of war. To not depict it would artificially sanitize his medieval world.   

Today, governments work to stop sexual violence. For one of the first times in human history, politicians have opened investigations into sexual assault in the military. Husbands can no longer legally rape their wives. This isn’t to say there still isn’t work to end sexual assault--there is--but we have come a long way.


One of the scariest parts of Game of Thrones is watching someone travel. Anywhere. As Catelyn Stark found out travelling to the Vale, even armed guards can’t keep you safe. You could be murdered at any point, or in the best case scenario, robbed of your savings, which Sandor Clegane did two seasons ago to a person giving him room and board. Or you could get captured by pirates with an interest in dwarf penises.

Homicide today is not what it was in the past. According to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, 14th century England had a murder rate that was 95% greater than it is today. In the short term, as has been widely reported in Slate and other outlets, the murder rate has declined, in some cases below levels in the 1950s and even early 1900s.


In the world of Game of Thrones, slavery is illegal in Westeros, but it’s legal in Essos. And boy howdy is it legal, with an entire region named Slaver’s Bay. The people of Astapor castrate slave warriors and the people of Meereen crucify slaves who rebel.

Until the middle 1800s, slavery was legal in most of the world, including Asia, Africa and Europe. The ugliest and most infamous example was probably the Transatlantic slave trade between 1525 and 1866, when slavers shipped 12.5 million slaves across the Atlantic. (Almost 2 million of them died during the trip.)

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Game of Thrones leans heavily on the Westerosi tradition of “trial by combat”, in which someone accused of a crime can fight their way out of it. This was really only practiced in Germany. Trials by ordeal, on the other hand, were quite common in Europe, forcing people to endure starvation, drowning and fire to prove their innocence. Though many think this only applied to witches, it was actually quite common.

The “justice system” of the medieval world was barbaric and capricious, often catering to the mob. Criminals found guilty weren’t taken to prison, they were paraded through the streets (like Cersei walking naked through the streets of King’s Landing), then ritually tortured (like having their nipples torn off with hot pincers), and then killed in gruesome ways (like being ripped apart by horses). The guillotine was actually invented as a more humane method of capital punishment.


Remember in the middle of season two of Game of Thrones when Arya, captured by the Lannisters, watches as Lannister henchmen systematically torture dozens (hundreds?) of prisoners? Pretty brutal stuff, plucking one prisoner each day, at random, then torturing them to death.

And pretty realistic to medieval uses of torture. As Pinker told Scientific American about torture five hundred years ago:

“Religious instruction included prurient descriptions of how the saints of both sexes were tortured and mutilated in ingenious ways. Corpses broken on the wheel, hanging from gibbets, or rotting in iron cages where the sinner had been left to die of exposure and starvation were a common part of the landscape.”

The World Is Getting Better

We could go on, listing the multitude of ways the world has become less violent. (We haven’t even mentioned the decline in war, the end to institutionalized racism, and more.)

Over the last few years, a cottage industry has sprouted up among academics trying to prove this academically. Stephen Pinker, John Horgan, Joshua Goldstein, John Mueller and others have tried (vainly) to convince the world that war is decreasing in frequency, terrorism is more hype that danger, and that overall things are getting better. Pinker summed up the argument for Slate a few years ago, “The world is not falling apart”. Charles Kenny titled a piece for The Atlantic in December “2015: The Best Year in History for the Average Human Being”.

But this line of thinking hasn’t broken through. Thanks to the media’s steady stream of daily violence, people believe the world is a scary, dangerous place.

By giving us an accurate, bloody depiction of the ancient world, Game of Thrones may actually give people a sense of how good we have it now. Hopefully, sometime soon, politicians and pundits will stop complaining about the sorry state of the modern world.

Or perhap they’d rather live in Westeros?

Mar 23

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

Today, we’ve got five smaller thoughts on police shootings that weren’t large enough for a post, or made another post too long. (Ir)regardless, we wanted to share them with you. Consider this a “Director’s cut”, if you will, for our “Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2015”.

1. We were wrong about the Michael Brown shooting. And so are most liberals.

I should clarify: in a way, we were wrong, since many people interpreted the closing lines of our Slate piece, “The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech” for (possibly) abdicating Michael Brown of any responsibility for what happened. Since we wrote that article, the Department of Justice released two reports. The first cleared Darren Wilson, saying Michael Brown, according to forensic evidence and reliable eyewitnesses, probably did go for Wilson’s gun. (The New Yorker has probably the best article on the whole thing.) And as many people pointed out, Michael Brown had just shoplifted.

Still, like Michael C wrote about the Tamir Rice shooting, it doesn’t mean the law enforcement community did the right thing. Darren Wilson was clearly over-aggressive in his handling of the entire incident. And as we wrote about in our second COIN post during this series, and as the second DoJ report made clear, the Ferguson police department engaged in systematic racism against the African-Americans in Ferguson.

And it remains an unjustified tragedy that a young man died for the crime of stealing less than five dollars worth of cigarillos.

That said, we spend a lot of time on this blog pointing out illogical or untrue things conservatives believe. In fairness, the Michael Brown shooting is a blind spot for liberals. I’ve tried to have this conversation with fellow liberals in Los Angeles about what actually happened; most don’t want to hear it.

2. Gun rights are racist.

Ironically, really. The Black Panthers inspired the gun control movement with their open-carry demonstrations in the 1960s. In response to gun control measures aimed at African-American protesters, the NRA transformed into its modern, far right, pro-guns incarnation.

But really, I’m talking about open carry gun rights.

Many modern gun rights activists have started openly carrying rifles and pistols, as an overt, in-your-face demonstration of their (believed) Constitutional rights. But frankly, if you’re black, you’d have to be insane to openly carry a gun in this country. You’re basically signing a death warrant. Think of Tamir Rice. Or John Crawford III. Or countless others. Police saw them and opened fire in seconds. If you’re black in America, carrying a gun is a license to, at best, get hassled by the police and, at worst, get shot by them.

3. A thought on crime and poverty.

Michael C and I were good kids growing up. From elementary to high school, we caused our parents little to no trouble. I got a detention, once, for being too loud. That’s about it. No drinking, smoking or premarital sex. That, of course, didn’t apply to everyone in our high school. There were kids who drank, got pregnant, died of overdoses, got bad grades, and so on. Some kids--with their church’s youth group--even stole a water truck at a construction site. But kids will be kids, and who can really blame teenagers for their actions, right? At some point, forgiveness kicks in, and you let kids grow up, which they do, becoming normal, law-abiding adults.

But a weird thing happened when those kids grew up: a bunch of them became police officers.

I remember, a few years after college, having this realization that, at least in Orange County, CA, cops spent a lot of their time chasing and patrolling themselves when they were teenagers. The difference is that most kids in Orange County still got a chance to grow up and “turn their lives around”, if that phrase even makes sense. This doesn’t apply to poor, minority communities in this country.

4. Did a sheepdog shoot a sheepdog?

Look at the Walter Scott shooting. If you buy into the analogy we’ve debunked before, you would interpret the shooting as a sheepdog (Michael Slager, a police officer) shooting a wolf (Walter Scott, who had a warrant out for his arrest) when the wolf tried to go for his taser. Then the video came out, showing Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back. Clearly a wolf (disguised as a sheepdog) shot a sheep (whose crime was not paying alimony, which shouldn’t be a death sentence). Oh, and both men were Coast Guards veterans, meaning a sheepdog-turned-wolf shot a former sheepdog.

Or maybe the analogy doesn’t make sense.

5. Remember, it’s always been this way.

Listening to music while writing up posts, I heard this:

“A young n**** got it bad cause I'm brown

And not the other color so police think

They have the authority to kill a minority

F*** that shit, cause I ain't the one

For a punk motherf***er with a badge and a gun

To be beating on, and thrown in jail

We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell

Fucking with me cause I'm a teenager...

That, of course, comes from one of the most important hip hop albums of all time, Straight Outta Compton on one of the most important songs of all time, “F*** tha Police”. I think we--white Americans--forget

that this issue is not new, despite the recent surge in news coverage. It’s always been this way. (And the response from conservatives is to rally around the police, just like they did in the 1980s when this song came out and just like they do today at Donald Trump’s rallies.)

Thank God (and cell phone technology) we’re finally seeing and (hopefully) addressing it.

Mar 21

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

I solved (well, mostly solved) the problem of police officer’s excessive use of force and power after rewatching an episode of Law and Order, specifically, the episode where Detective Green leaves the series to make Rent (the movie). After finding out that Detective Green had shot someone, Lieutenant Van Buren lays down the law to the Internal Affairs detectives, telling them point blank, “Detective Green isn’t talking to you until he has had a chance to consult his union lawyer.”

Wait, what?

See, Detective Green, in dozens of episodes, gets (tricks?) suspects into talking to him without a lawyer, or dissuades those few who do know their rights, saying things like, “You really want to get them involved?” “We can help you out if you don’t have a lawyer.” Lieutenant Van Buren often helped him, or begrudgingly relents when the suspect lawyers up in the interrogation room.

So what gives? Well, the police know that consulting with a lawyer makes it less likely that suspects will confess to something they did (or, in many cases, didn’t do). What struck me about the scene was that Lieutenant Van Buren treats the citizens of New York differently than she treats her own police officers.

It led me to a simple theory that I think would solve police shootings:

Police officers need to follow the Golden Rule.

That’s it. A huge amount of law enforcement wrongs violate this central tenet that runs through Christianity, Buddhism and countless other religions and philosophies. But the golden rule could still lend itself to interpretation. So let’s be clear on what the “Golden Rule for Policing” would mean:

Police officers must treat citizens as they would want themselves and fellow police officers to be treated.

This would have two major effects:

First, police would treat citizens better.

Think of the Laquan McDonald shooting in Chicago. From the first moment of the shooting, the police officers did everything they could to keep their fellow officers from going to jail and keep the shooting a secret. Compare that to how quickly police release mug shots for suspects for any other type of shooting or leak the suspect’s name to the media.

Instead we could craft policies and recraft our criminal justice system to take advantage of the Golden Rule. In short, the way police officers handle a police shooting is how every criminal prosecution should happen in America. A careful analysis of facts, caution in drawing conclusions, the overriding concern for the rights of the accused, the kid gloves treatment of suspects including ensuring they have legal representation and the chance to consult an attorney before they make a statement; these are the way police officers want to be treated in a criminal investigation.

In a way this is saying, “Hey, police officers, if you give your own brethren every benefit of the doubt, then you need to do the same for the citizens you serve.”

So police departments would ensure that every citizen gets the same treatment that any police officer suspected of a crime gets. That means lawyers would have to be present at every interview. No coerced interrogations. An impartial presentation of evidence to grand juries. Every suspect would get bail. The risk is fewer criminal prosecutions, but that is a risk that police officers willingly accept with their brethren on the force, so it is a risk all society should take with civilians.

Second, police would treat themselves harsher.

Ever been in a car with a police officer who gets pulled over for speeding? You know what they do? They pull out their badge. Most of the time, the cop who pulled them over will give them a pass. If they don’t, they think the cop who gave a speeding ticket to a fellow officer is a jerk. Compare that with the higher rate at which African-Americans get pulled over, stopped, searched, frisked and, in general, treated as a piggy bank by far too many communities.

Under a “Golden Rule for Policing”, officers would take much tougher stands against police misconduct. And there are much more serious issues than speeding.

Like domestic violence, which is much higher in police families than the civilian population. If the woman being abused isn’t related to a police officer, the abuser will most certainly spending the night in jail. And will probably face charges. If the suspected abuser is a police officer? Then likely nothing will happen. Police officers tend to give fellow officers the complete benefit of the doubt and don’t investigate allegations. It allows the issue to fester.

But it goes further than just domestic violence. Police officers have lied on witness statements in police shootings to protect fellow officers or themselves. Or when the official narrative is immediately overturned by camera footage, as Eric C wrote about recently. Under the “Golden Rule of Policing”, those actions are the worst betrayals of the badge.

My solution is, on its face, unrealistic. Or just very, very difficult to implement. Or too vague. But often when organizations have lost their way, focusing on their core values can be the solution. If police officers made this tenet their touchstone--as opposed to fierce loyalty to the badge--they could drastically improve the lives of all citizens in America.

A final note: this post should be a warning to every Christian police officer in America. Most police officers I would wager are conservative and religious. The Golden Rule absolutely applies to every action they take as police officers. The fact that some police officers treat citizens differently than their fellow citizens flies in the face of Jesus’ overriding maxim. Especially in a religious tradition that is based on the Golden Rule. It is literally one of two rules that Jesus said would replace all others. I hope more police officers take this to heart, especially when it comes to their fellow officers and citizens of this country.