Monday, December 17, 2012

It's A Dangerous World, But Not For Everyone

Modern InSecurity

The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it. 
Albert Einstein

Danger Ahead: The coyote's persistent,yet ill-advised, attempts to capture the roadrunner is similar to what is taking place in many parts of the world, where resources are poorly allocated and the end result in destruction and mayhem—eventually falling on the pursuer. No doubt, the coyote is obsessed with capturing the roadrunner; it would make more sense if he would buy a steak dinner at a fancy restaurant to meet his dietary needs. The best example of such irrational singular thinking in the political stage, of course, is the American gun lobby's obsession with both protecting and promoting the right to own lots of guns.
Perceptions can easily influence the way we view the world; and today it seems like a dangerous place. But is it really? I am not questioning about individuals who reside in the world's most dangerous nations or territories, including Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name the leading hot-spots for personal insecurity and instability, according to the 2012 Global Peace Index put together by the Institute for Economics and Peace, based in Sydney, Australia.

It's obvious that individuals residing in nations which received the lowest ranking for peace have every good reason to take personal security more seriously. In such places one can never be sure of one's safety; one can never take it for granted. So in a type of paradox, citizens residing in such places might not be happier but they might enjoy life with more gusto and enthusiasm than those of us residing in safer cities and communities. It might be Carpe diem, or pluck the day of its offerings. [From the Greek poet Horace's Odes Book I, and made popular by Byron.]

In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes (2011) Steven Pinker notes that violence is decreasing over-all in the world. Now, this is not an obvious conclusion, notably if one's only source of information is the daily news. Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian writes in a book review, in November 2011, shortly after the book was published:
One of the most contentious is the claim that the decline is in part the outcome of a unique European enlightenment, which extended the scope of human reason. Equally contentious, he seems to suggest that the decline of violence is evidence for a concept of human progress – although Pinker concedes that progress could be fragile and reversible. Whatever else this book is about, it is raising a kind of intellectual standard for liberal humanism at a time when it imagines itself besieged by doubters and critics.
 This is what the philosopher John Gray disagrees with and in his review he argued that Pinker was stuck in a contradiction that "afflicts anyone who tries to combine rigorous Darwinism with a belief in moral progress".
There is no doubt that Pinker is on a sort of crusade here and he makes clear his target: "a large swath of our intellectual culture is loath to admit that there could be anything good about civilization, modernity and western society." His response is this massive tome, a counterblast against the pessimism of our age, which is so full of gloom at the possibility of climate wars, global warming and nuclear proliferation.
Prof. Pinker is right on the mark when he defines our age as marked by pessimism. There is much to be critical about modern civilization, particularly if you reside on the other side of the divide. Small wonder, Prof Pinker's book has met with criticism. Even so, his conclusion has to be viewed in the broader canvas of history—from biblical times until the modern age. In relative terms, that is compared to other more brutal ages, ours is an age of civilized individuals and nations. In personal terms, depending on where you reside, including if you reside in a poor, urban area in inner-city America, your sense of security might be no different than the teenage boy residing in Mogadishu or Juárez or Kinshasha. There is no decrease in violence. None at all.

There are a number of factors that contribute to making a place dangerous, most notably lawlessness, a weak judiciary, corruption and lack of economic opportunity. When individuals have nothing to eat and can't find the legal means to obtain sustenance, through work and employment, many will resort to crime for survival as a means to feed their families. Many others don't and they live lives of quiet desperation.

One of the chief roles of governments is to ensure societal security, which leads to personal security and confidence among its citizens. If that is lacking, so is the confidence in the international community to invest in business and other commercial ventures, both which raise the socio-economic levels of a society and create jobs and other opportunities for a better life. In other words, business creates jobs and opportunities, which employ persons,and thus make urban areas safer and more productive. Dangerous places often do not do that.

It must also be said that, despite having much to be concerned about, there is much to be optimistic about our age. There is a good blueprint, so to speak, of how to model peaceful societies. If you look at the 2012 Global Peace Index once again, you will note which nations are at the top of the list: the top seven nations are Iceland, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Austria and Ireland. Now, there are a number of things that one can point to as why these nations are relatively peaceful, including rule of law, lack of corruption and economic prosperity. Most either went through the European Enlightenment or benefited from a close relationship with Great Britain. Another is that these nations have social peace, arranged through its social and economic policies. In such liberal democracies, the needs of the many are given somewhat more weight than the needs of the few.

Some might be surprised to find that the United States ranks 88th on the list, one ahead of China. Not so, when one considers the high level of violent crime found in too many major cities, or suburban towns,  including almost weekly reports of shootings at schools, shopping malls, places of work and other public places—the question on why this has become normative is not seriously asked by American legislators. As is the need for greater impartial research on the connection between violence on TV, films, videos and on-line games and its influence on the surrounding culture. Evens so, the United States is one of those anomalies that give researchers and scholars work, and increase the level of extreme rhetoric on political websites. It well might be that America's myths of Individualism, Exceptionalism, the Wild West, Manifest Destiny and the Gun Culture of Violence have all, if not unequally, contributed to the political decisions that influenced the nation's social and economic policies.

As a Canadian who has lived in the U.S., I could never understand why so many otherwise intelligent individuals place so much emotional energy into defending the need to own a handgun, a weapon whose only design and purpose is to kill; I sense that such Americans, numbering in the tens of millions, don't trust their government, and hence the reference to the Second Amendment. Even so, for those who agree with America's culture in most if not all respects and reside on the good side of the Divide, there is no better place in the world to live than America.

I, on the other hand, prefer Canada.

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