I am currently reading The Better Angels of our Nature, by Stephen Pinker. It is not my typical sort of book, though I did read Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought over a decade ago. The main reason I picked this one up is that I do statistics in my work. Of particular interest to me is just how far off a typical person’s intuition is on mortality. I’ve read varied sources on it, perhaps since inspired to do so by hearing the appalling rates of violence in Medieval Europe as told in William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire.

Pinker tells the story of an obscure (outside of his field, I imagine) philosopher Norbert Elias. In one passage, I notices a familiar sentiment:

Elias himself was haunted by the not-so-civilized behavior of his native Germany during World War II, and he labored to explain that decivilizing process within the framework of his theory. He discussed the fitful history of German unification and the resulting lack of trust in a legitimate central authority. He documented the persistence of a militaristic culture of honor among its elites. The breakdown of a state monopoly on violence with the rise of communist and fascist militias, and a resulting contraction of empathy for groups perceived to be outsiders, particularly the Jews.

In a way, the social media have proven a tremendous boon for authoritarians from movements such as Men’s Rights, White Supremacy, and Christian Identity. Right-wing populist poiticians are taking full advantage.