Boaz's Review of Books: Violence, elaborate lies and a literary journey through China and Africa

The books I finished reading recently that I thought might be interesting to comment upon were Steven Pinker’s The better Angels of Our Nature, Mo Yan’s Big Breast’s and Wide Hips, Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun, Robert Mazur’s Infiltrator and David Maurer’s Big Con .

Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, wrote a (way too long) book to argue the world is becoming less, not more violent. What about ISIS, Ukraine, gang warfare and mass shootings? Terrible things, but not nearly as violent as the Thirty Year War or Genghis Khan. This is based on relative homicide rates, or simply put: how many people die a violent death as a percentage of the population. You might be one of those paleo diet people who idealises the “peaceful” times of back when we were hunter-gatherers, living in the comfort of nature eating fruits off trees and fish out of the water. It turns out that was the most violent time we ever lived. In fact, even in the last 50 years there has been a substantial decrease in violence in the world. Even terrorism isn’t what it used to be.

terrorist attacks in Europe

Pinker goes through a list of everyday occurrences in medieval and hunter-gatherer lives: from infanticide to torture, rape and genocide, a list so gruesome and at times detailed that reading it I felt like a tabloid reader. Apparently we’ve barely found well preserved archaeological finding of someone that was not murdered or seriously maimed. So why have we started to murder, torture and rape each other less? Pinker proposes two reasons: first the rise and consolidation of the modern state. In this he relies strongly on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, arguing that the states are Leviathans whose net effect is to protect against violence by monopolising it. The second reason for the decline of violence is the establishment of non-violent cultural norms, a type of self-domestication, which slowly teach us that violence isn’t acceptable.

The author goes into substantially more detail into the philosophical and empirical reasoning behind his arguments, including a categorisation of violence types and its separate causes. For instance, passion violence is less likely to be diminished by states than reputational violence. It makes sense to have a “nobody mess with me” reputation, when it keeps you alive in the anarchic state of nature. It makes less sense to smack someone on the street for looking at you funny for it will land you in jail. Pinker also sprinkles the book full of quaint quotes to prove his point:

“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split.” – Robert E. Howard

Nevertheless, the author does realise that states are not a panacea: they also kill loads of people themselves when they clash with each other or experience internal unrest. As for changes in culture, Pinker claims they are responsible for a relatively recent decrease in violence. Hitting your wife and kids was acceptable in the Western world a century ago, but now isn’t. In medieval times a popular sport was cat baiting: a cat was tied down and people would try to head-butt it to death with their hands tied behind their backs, risking nasty injuries for all involved parties. As fun as it sounds, it is now unacceptable, along with duelling, torture and slavery. One of the most interesting points raised looks at the relationship between utensils, particularly knives, and the culture of violence. He claims it is not coincidental that in China, the place with a 5000 year of statehood, knives have been relegated to the kitchen.

Yet China in the 20th century is a great showcase of violence. It illustrates what happens when two states clash, when a state breaks down in Civil War and the subsequent heavy-handed reconsolidation. Big Breast’s and Wide Hips is a detailed account of the life of a Chinese family through those turbulent times. It reminded me slightly of One Hundred Years of Solitude and its magical realism (although this may be simply because I was unable to remember the dozens of similar sounding names in both novels). The main character and narrator is a weak but enduring boy infatuated with breasts, much to the disappointment of his mother, a long suffering matriarch with bound feet. Nevertheless, the fortune of the family and the boy goes up and does along the epochs, mostly depending on whether the political situation is favourable to them. I enjoy Mo Yan’s books because they are highly entertaining and captivating while at the same time lending outsiders an insight into the Chinese mind and the suffering of the 20th century.

Where there’s life, death is inevitable. Dying’s easy; it’s living that’s hard. The harder it gets, the stronger the will to live. And the greater the fear of death, the greater the struggle to keep on living.

In a sense, The Shadow of the Sun aims to do a similar thing by describing the turbulent times Africa was going through after the process of decolonialisation through the eyes of a Polish correspondent. However, as an outsider, Kapuscinski does not speak authentically for the African mind, nor does he attempt to. Instead, he excels at describing, explaining and dispelling myths about Africa. This includes the notion that Africa exists:

“Only with the greatest of simplifications, for the sake of convenience, can we say Africa. In reality, except as a geographical term, Africa doesn’t exist.”

Kapuscinski’s language is picturesque, his understanding is highly empathetic and his essays betray his education as a historian. Through his anecdotes one gains an understanding not only of the violent calamities that befell millions of Africans in the 20th century, but also of the trivialities of history and everyday life.

History is so often the product of thoughtlessness: it is the offspring of human stupidity, the fruit of benightedness, idiocy, and folly.

Both Mo Yan and Kapuscinski are adept at illustrating not only how folly makes history but also the Hobbesian argument espoused by Pinker: when a state falls power goes to the warlords and levels of violence creep up. Both in China and in Africa there is truth in Kapuscinski’s eloquent phrase:

“For the law in force here is this: whoever has weapons eats first.”

Yet there are fundamental differences, and it is here that the nuance in Pinker’s argument becomes apparent. In the Chinese case the population is docile and acceptant of the state, and the warlords for the most part accept the responsibility of having to govern, even if the practice is less than perfect. This is perhaps best evidenced in the beginning of Mo Yan’s novel, as Japanese forces approach Northern Gaomi county, the Shangguan family ask’s itself:

“Why should we flee? We are not landholders nor officials.”

I do not think Liberian civilians would ask a similar question. They know perfectly well why they must flee, for African warlords fight not for power over the state (thus looking for the oligarchs and the high level bureaucrats) but for booty. They still follow the old adage attributed to Genghis Khan:

The greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.

In nations where the state did not exist it must be built, and that it a long and bloody process. State building in Africa is further complicated by the legacy of colonial extractive states, which are designed to amass wealth first and to keep the peace second. Kapuscinski himself says it:

The colonial origins of the African state—a state wherein the civil servant received renumeration beyond all measure and reason—ensured that in independent Africa, the struggle for power instantly assumed an extremely fierce and ruthless character.

Whereas in China you could get rich through commerce no matter who was in power, as long as you did not stand in their way, in many African states the only way to riches was political. And many of the men who later became despots had nothing to lose, coming from disenfranchised minority groups, living in shantytowns in cities which had little to offer them. Moreover, in China the calamities of the 20th century interregnum were viewed as extraordinary, whilst in many of the African states it is business as usual. In fact, in the words of Kapuscinski:

Ordinary people here treat political cataclysms—coups d’état, military takeovers, revolutions, and wars—as phenomena belonging to the realm of nature.

Another fine example of a state having its power tested was Colombia in the 1980’s, the days when Pablo Escobar spent $10000 a year on rubber bands to keep his dollar bills neatly organised. These are the days in which Robert Mazur’s Infiltrator is set (which will also be a film later this year). In this book Robert tells how he took down the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, a well-known international bank with 30000 employees and 400 branches worldwide. Mazur convincingly points out that the weakness of all organised crime is its purse, be it corrupt government officials in Nigeria, thieving despots in Liberia or Mexican drug traffickers:

The greatest weakness the drug trade has is banking relationships. Each dirty banker serves dozens of big-time traffickers, but those bankers don’t have the stomach to sit in prison for life.

Authorities catch very little of it. In the book Mazur breathtakingly explains the extent to which he had to make personal sacrifices, such as financing the operation out of his own personal funds, with an increasingly unhelpful institutional apparatus behind him in order to bring down the big time money launderers. Funnily enough, when he got very high up and was dining with bank CEO’s openly discussing laundering cocaine money, the whole institutional apparatus became very unhelpful. In fact:

…we [Mazur & co] could trust our targets in the case more than our own people.

Mazur also hints to the why: at the very top of the game people are very much connected, the owners of the banks fly with the presidents of the US. Normally I would dismiss such a statement as a conspiracy lunacy, but this is a guy who spent three years undercover as a money launderer after all, and did take down a large bank. In fact, the recent Panama Papers leak reinforces it, who would have thought that the same law firm is used by David Cameron, the Icelandic prime minister and notorious Mexican drug dealers? Of course, Pinker would also have an opinion: states are there first to control the peace, policy is more of a recent hobby. Arresting the gangbangers on the street is much more important than touching the men leading the Cartels. Mazur recognizes this is explicitly part of the policy:

Managers are rated and promoted on the number of arrests and seizures made by their agents[…] It is a lot easier to assign agents to many little cases that result in the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of minor criminals. This is one of the reasons why the War on Drugs will always be unwinnable.

If the War on Drugs is unwinnable, what about ongoing efforts against on money laundering? Surely after 2008 no bank would dare to engage in money laundering?

BCCI got caught. Only that detail separates them from the rest of the international banking community. They’ve been out of the game for twenty years. The drug trade has produced about $500 billion per year since then, but no one has been prosecuted for laundering those $10 trillion.

Since Mazur took down BCCI, pretty much all major banks have been implicated in money laundering scandals. Apparently, there is very little that states will do to get rid of these criminals. Unless of course, the Cartels are openly trying to take over the state, which is precisely what is happening in many parts of the world. The power of the Cartels is such that when Manuel Noriega, the de facto leader of the sovereign state of Panama, was running into trouble with US authorities for money laundering (sound familiar?) the Ochoa family sent him a little coffin with a note warning him that he would be able to use it if any of Jorge’s money was lost in Panama. The note was signed “The Ochoa Family”. In the end of course, the US toppled both the Medellin Cartel and the Panamanian government.

If you are interested in the topic of infiltrating drug organisations you should read The Dark Art, a biographical account by a more gung-ho DEA agent who was very active internationally, tracking down traffickers from the Burmese Golden Triangle, to Ciudad Juarez and Afghanistan. If on the other hand you are interested in the details of money laundering, I highly recommend Criminal Capital.

Money launderers belong to the subset of criminals which do not use violence, called grifters in American argot. According to David Maurer, in the hierarchy of crime in the early 20th century US, con men were at the top. I was inspired to read into the topic by the two aforementioned agents who spent years pretending to be someone they are not and by Better Call Saul.

The Big Con is written by a linguist and details how cons work. Not only that, it provides an incredible insight into the lives and language of criminals in the US before World War 2. It shows the reader how these criminals identify and lure the mark:

“Never interrupt a fink while he is talking. Be a good listener and he will immediately conclude that you are a young man of some note. Just listen carefully to the lies he tells you. Marks are chock full of lies.

It explains how they gain their trust to convince them to do some unethical or illegal deal that will pay off greatly. Of course, it will pay off greatly only to the con men. Through the lens of these criminals you get an entire sociography of the incredibly corrupt American society that Roosevelt and Carnegie knew, in which ethnicities and social classes are ranked based on how hard they are to scam:

Jews are difficult, but there is a con man’s proverb which says, “It takes ten Jews to trim one Greek.” And all con men agree that it is next to impossible to trim a Chinese. “I don’t know any grifter who would be dumb enough to try to trim a Chink”

I like to think that I would be hard to scam, but of course, so do most people. Thousands of people (and a few of my friends) have gotten scammed on the internet, subsequently getting very little support from the authorities. If Pinker’s thesis is correct, we’ll see more scams and less muggings in the future. Will states be able to adapt to these new challenges, or will they be inefficiently prosecuted like money laundering is?

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