Wednesday, August 08, 2007


On Monday I read this aricle by Edward Rothstein in the Arts section of The New York Times:

In one of the final events of the recent Lincoln Center Festival, a lone Mongolian bard named Burenbayar came onstage and chanted "The Secret History of the Mongols." ...

His subject was Genghis Khan, a conqueror of many peoples who was both barbarically ruthless and soulfully sentimental, reveling in revenge by tearing out an enemy's heart and liver with his bare hands while also forgiving, again and again, the bloody treachery of an envious childhood friend. He was at all times a warrior whose goal was conquest and whose demands could not be assuaged, except by victory.

... throughout history [such warriors] are revered.

Except for now, it seems, and particularly in the West. Today we are so wary of the warrior that we would find it unthinkable to celebrate him with elaborate descriptions of the beheading or disemboweling of his enemies. Instead we think of the warrior as a fanatic, an extremist with a streak of the berserk....

I'm not sure I buy that -- Mr. Rothstein seems to be overlooking the popularity of first-person-shooter video games, 300, Mafia movies, thug-life rap, and (at various times over the years) Westerns, torture-porn films, Rambo films, Sam Peckinpah films, early Clint Eastwood films, and so on. In fact, we have plenty of people in America who are eager to fight our wars (though Rothstein may not know any of them personally). On the other hand, he has a point: We don't have a lot of heroic real-life disembowelers.

Rothstein goes on to suggest that this lack may be hampering our ability to fight, or even understand, jihadists -- we think they're just a bunch of liberals who are temporarily peeved, he says. I don't actually know anyone who thinks this, but hey, maybe it's true, and maybe it really is why we haven't kicked all their asses by now.

Which brings us to this article from yesterday's Science Times:

...Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, believes that the Industrial Revolution -- the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 -- occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history, Dr. Clark argues.

Because they grew more common in the centuries before 1800, whether by cultural transmission or evolutionary adaptation, the English population at last became productive enough to escape from poverty, followed quickly by other countries with the same long agrarian past....

Dr. Clark ... has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped....

(Emphasis mine.)

Uh-oh -- did we lose the ability to fight savage evil jihadist scum because of capitalism? Did capitalism turn us into a bunch of big girls?

If this is true, it would be rather inconvenient for right-wingers. They love capitalism and they want our efforts to protect ourselves against Islamist extremists to be as warlike as possible. But what if one precludes the other?

Dr. Clark actually thinks our ability to adapt to capitalism is in our genes -- people in England who couldn't stop fighting and start saving had fewer surviving children than people who could, he says.

Others scientists are skeptical. They think people are people, and that big changes come from big changes in the physical or cultural environment, to which people adapt.

Me, I think we've substituted economic berserkery for literal violence. The Genghis Khans whose tales we tell around the campfire have names like Gates and Buffett and Murdoch. As individuals, we don't want to cut anyone's heart out and eat it anymore -- we'd rather build a bigger McMansion than our neighbor and watch him eat his own heart out.

But it's amusing to think that maybe capitalism has made us insufficiently brutal. If it's true, I wonder what right-wingers would prefer us to sacrifice -- hatred of Islamofascism? Or shopping? And if we've literally bred the warrior spirit out of our gene pool, whom should we interbreed with to get it back -- and at what cost to the Forbes 400?

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