Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

We are living in the most peaceful time in history. There is less violence in the world today, on average per person, than at any other period. Not only that, but rates of violence in the United States is lower now than it has ever been. Oklahoma is almost certainly no exception.

Except for the Oklahoma part, this is the thesis of Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker argues effectively that violence has declined both in the long and short run, and proposes explanations for why this is the case. Wikipedia summarizes Pinker’s position as well as anyone:

Among these social changes cited as bringing about the ascendancy of our “better angels” are: the emergence of a strong government/authority with a monopoly on violence, the interconnectivity of cultures through the need for trade; increased literacy, urbanisation, mobility and access to mass media - all of which have exposed different cultures to each other - and the spread of democracy. Pinker stresses, however, that “The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue”.

Pinker does a wonderful job in the first half of his book demonstrating that violence genuinely has declined throughout history. The key to understanding Pinker’s case is to keep in mind that he isn’t talking about actual incidents of violence, which very well could have increased, but to look at rates of violence compared against the overall population. Incidents of violence per 100,000 people has plummeted to all-time historical lows.

While some people have tried to argue that Pinker may be mistaken in the long-term, his argument that violence declined in the last half of the twentieth century, particularly in Western democracies, goes undisputed. In the United States, there was a peak in the 1960s, followed by a steady decline in all kinds of violence since. In just the last twenty years, the United States has seen the rate of violence decline so much that the incidence drops have outpaced population growth. Incidences of violence have dropped by over 37 percent at the same time that the population has grown by over 22 percent. If you combine the numbers, the actual rate of violent crimes per 100,000 people in the United States has dropped by nearly half in just twenty years.

I’m not going to try to argue for or against Pinker’s explanations for why this trend has occurred. I’m not qualified to do so. What I’m interested in is how Oklahoma holds up under this trend, and whether Pinker’s explanations might shed light on the areas where Oklahoma differs from the trends in other parts of the United States and broader world.

Oklahoma has not bucked the national trend. It has also become less violent in the last twenty years. In 1993, there were 20,498 violent crimes reported in Oklahoma. That number peaked in 1995 at 21,748. Since then, the number of reported violent crimes dropped to 17,630 in 2011.

At the same time, Oklahoma’s population grew. There is no census data for 1993, but if you go back to 1990, the state population was estimated at 3,145,585. In 2010 it had grown to 3,751,351.  That’s an increase of over 19 percent.

If you combine the violent crime and population numbers, the Oklahoma violent crime rate per 100,000 dropped by more than 25 percent between the early 1990s and 2010. This may seem like a lot, but Oklahoma has not kept up with national trends.

For example, when Oklahoma’s violent crime rate peaked in 1995 at something like 660 per 100,000. That was still below the national average of 684.5. While the Oklahoma and national rates both dropped, Oklahoma’s did not keep pace. In 2010, Oklahoma’s violent crime rate was 478 per 100,000, while the national average was down to 404.5.

Here is a useful visual comparing Oklahoma’s violent crime rates to the national average since 2002.

The sections of the country that are the most violent might be surprising. Wikipedia has a nice graphic showing the most violent states as of 2004.


As you can see, southern states tend to be more violent than northern states. Pinker’s explanation for this is that the people who tended to immigrate to the southern US were herders and just happened to live in a more anarchic situation than the agrarian settlers of the northern half of the nation. Add onto this America’s frontier history in which the cliche of the lawless cow town and dangerous gold rush community depicted in popular culture isn’t too far off the mark. After all, Deadwood is based on a true story.

Pinker sums up the impact of this cultural remnant in an editorial he wrote for the New York Times called “Why Are States So Red and Blue?”:

But then why, once stable government did arrive, did it not lay claim to the monopoly on violence that is the very definition of government? The historian Pieter Spierenburg has suggested that “democracy came too soon to America,” namely, before the government had disarmed its citizens. Since American governance was more or less democratic from the start, the people could choose not to cede to it the safeguarding of their personal safety but to keep it as their prerogative. The unhappy result of this vigilante justice is that American homicide rates are far higher than those of Europe, and those of the South higher than those of the North.

If this history is right, the American political divide may have arisen not so much from different conceptions of human nature as from differences in how best to tame it. The North and coasts are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that emerged in the anarchic territories of the growing country, tempered by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.

Oklahoma was one of the last states fully tamed by government, with only Alaska coming relatively later. Another book I’ve been reading through, “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before,” is a progressive history of Oklahoma. It openly discusses how weak the territorial government was in the decades prior to statehood, and how there was a time in Oklahoma’s pre-state history where a majority of the population was illegal settlers. These settlers would have not had the same level of recourse to government intervention in disputes as nearly everyone else in the country.

One thing that hasn’t dropped as much in Oklahoma over the last few years is the murder rate. The number dropped from a high of 400 in 1995 (the Murrah Building bombing accounts for 168 of that number), down to around 200 a year in 2000, and has hovered around that amount ever since. The murder rate in Oklahoma in 2010 was 5 per 100,000.

There is a very useful chart in the Performance Statistics section of that shows that Oklahoma’s murder rate has either met or been above the national rate every year for the last decade.

Comparing Oklahoma’s violent crime rate to some other states might also prove interesting. Remember, Oklahoma’s violent crime rate per 100,000 in 2010 was, by my count, 478. New York’s was 391.3. California’s was 413.3. Even Texas beats us just barely at 450.6. Oklahoma doesn’t compare that well to any of the places we begrudgingly glance toward when trying to decide whether we’ve arrived.

According to the arguments laid out by Steven Pinker, if Oklahoma lawmakers and leaders want to make this as safe a place to live as say, New York, they have to embrace role of government as the only legitimate use of force in settling disputes, encourage urbanization, and accept that government has a legitimate role to play in spreading the Enlightenment ideals through education and rational inquiry. Unfortunately, we have a political climate right now where counter-Enlightenment groups like OCPAC and the Oklahoma Tea Party have a disproportionate role to play in the state’s public discourse.

Edit: There has been some hubbub online today about the fact that the murder incidents in Oklahoma City in 2012 were some of the highest on record. One year does not make a trend. Time will tell if this is an outlier or something to worry about. It is also important to point out that the population of Oklahoma City has grown drastically in the last few years. It would be surprising if the murder numbers didn’t go up. I’ll try to gather the info for a story looking at murder rates in OKC soon.

Note: This is the fourth in a series I’m doing on the book “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before,” edited by Davis D. Joyce. You can see them all under the Oklahoma history tag.

In this Chapter of “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before,” Dr. Kenny Brown, Director of Graduate Studies Program
U.S. History and Southwestern Studies at the University of Central Oklahoma, argues for a new interpretation of progressive politics in Oklahoma leading up to and just following statehood.

Brown begins with an overview of progressivism in the broader United States in that era, and how difficult it is to put a thumb on just what the term means. Clearly, it entailed an opposition to trusts and monopolies, and a desire to use regulation to prevent both. Beyond that, though, things get complicated. The term was applied to completely disparate groups of people in different regions with different values and goals.

American historians have interpreted “progressivism” as a unified movement, a diverse movement, a collection of varied yet still similar movements, an impulse, an impulse with many “strains,” a spirit of the age, a reform ethos, a reform wave, or some other type of elusive and ill-defined entity. According to various interpretations, “progressives” were liberal, conservative, working-class, middle-class, upper-class, rural, urban, forward-looking, backward-looking, Christian, scientific, Middle Western, found in every part of the country yet different in each section, proconsumer, probusiness, or proefficiency.

Brown uses this confusion over national progressivism as a backdrop to explain the various factions of what came to be called progressivism in the lead up to the writing and ratification of the Oklahoma constitution. He claims that Oklahoma historians have the same confusion about progressivism, largely because they take the generalizations of the politicians they are writing about at face value. He points to a number of histories of Oklahoma and early Oklahoma politics, some specifically on progressivism, and finds all wanting for useful definitions of the term.

It occurs to me that much of this kind of confusion still exists today, in both parties. For example, it is clear to everyone both in and out of the Republican Party that there is no unified definition of conservatism in the United States, especially right now. There are a number of factions, all claiming to be conservative, but with completely different goals and worldviews. Are conservatives poor white men, rich bankers and Wall Street brokers, Rand and Ron Paul libertarians, neo-conservative hawks, evangelicals, probusiness, anti-immigration, pro-military, anti-interventionist, Birchers or Buckleyites? There are people who call themselves conservative that fit under each of these labels, but it would be impossible to associate with all of them at once.

Brown frames progressivism in early pre-statehood Oklahoma in the context of the business environment in the United States following the depression of the 1890s. Corporations had sought stability through mergers and elimination of competition. As a relatively small number of large corporations began to emerge from this trend, a concern developed about the influence these companies might have in politics. As a result, interest groups formed based on the corporate model, that explicitly advocated for the interests of their constituents. This is the period when you really got the establishment of unions, interest groups like the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association.

Oklahoma was not immune to this trend. At the turn of the century, four large companies consolidated the Oklahoma railroads. At the same time, a large coal mining company was formed in the state. Based on these corporate models, trade associations began forming before statehood. There were Oklahoma Territory Medical and Dental Associations. Social organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union formed as well. By 1905, there were eighty clubs listed in the Oklahoma and Indian Territory Federation of Women’s Clubs.

The federation accomplished much of its impressive agenda: establishment of public libraries, formation of public kindergartens, and creation of parks, gardens, and other city beautification projects. As statehood approached, the federation advocated provisions in the constitution to ensure a humane juvenile justice system and to restrict child labor.

These clubs played a major role in setting up Oklahoma as a dry state when it came time to write the constitution.One woman stands out as a major force in early Oklahoma politics, Kate Barnard. Unlike most of the female advocates in the state, Barnard was single and without wealth. Barnard came of age in a poor neighborhood in south Oklahoma City. I guess south Oklahoma City has always been the poor part of the area. She will be the focus of the next essay in this series.

Barnard was an early labor advocate, particularly on the issue of child labor. This set her up in opposition later to some of the other progressive elements in the state, particularly farmers who wanted to be able to use children. Originally, Barnard was able to form a coalition between labor and the farm bloc over vague anti-corporate interests, but those broke down once she moved on child labor. When she started advocating on behalf of Indians who were being unfairly treated in the new government, she earned enemies from both sides of the aisle.

The issue of Indian lands demonstrated a major inconsistency in the logic used to attack large business interests. Critics accused corporate leaders of callously abusing farmers, workers, consumers, and other hapless common people. But many Oklahoma farmers, workers, and consumers unhesitatingly defrauded untutored Indians. Homegrown politicians seldom noted this hypocrisy, but a Chicago journalist observed, “In Wall Street they go after ‘theirs’ with the ticker and the seduction of stock certificates. In Oklahoma they seek the same thing with the abstract of the title men and the virgin soil. In Wall Street they shear the lambs and in Oklahoma they just take it away from the unsophisticated Indians.”

Over time, as the state tried to develop economically, anti-corporatism began to fall apart. Politicians would still pay lip service to it, the focus in the legislature moved to, segregation, morality legislation and “blue laws”.I’ve massively oversimplified the detailed and nuanced analysis Brown gives in this essay. I’ll end with his last paragraph, which sums up the chapter well.

The vague and trendy terminology of anticorporatism at first unified voters and acted as a catalyst to effect many reforms that seldom lived up to expectations. In Oklahoma these changes came rapidly. After the initial surge in 1907 and 1908, conflicts quickly emerged, and the difficulty of making tough decisions became more apparent. As this happened, successful politicians turned to more conventional ethnocultural issues, such as prohibition and Jim Crow laws, or they pleased constituents by log-rolling to locate state institutions in their home districts. These trends should be understood, and the inconsistencies and complexities of the politicians and interest groups should be recognized. Telling the story of the era, with its rich variety and contradictions, is far more productive and insightful than trying to generalize using the inadequate concept of “progressivism.”

I’m going to begin a series blogging my way through “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before”, edited by Davis D. Joyce in 1998. This book is basically the Oklahoma version of A People’s History of the United States, which should be very interesting if you know anything at all about this state. I picked it up a while back at while digging around in a used book store. I was actually on the prowl for the titles ostensibly penned by Sally Kern or James Inhofe. I was going to read them so you don’t have to, and review them here. Fortunately for my sanity, and the quality of people who sell books to that store, neither was available. This was.

Each chapter is an essay, nineteen in all, covering a different period or group of people in Oklahoma. There are essays on black Oklahomans, gays, Mennonite pacifists and abortion rights advocates, to name a few.

I’m particularly looking forward to the chapter on Woody Guthrie’s Oklahoma years. (An embarrassing confession, I am a huge Wilco fan, and didn’t come to fully appreciate Woody Guthrie until I rediscovered him through the two Mermaid Avenue albums of unreleased Guthrie songs they collaborated with Billy Bragg on.)

The editor, Davis D. Joyce, is also a biographer for Howard Zinn, so it only makes sense that he’d put together this book. In 2003, he teamed up with Noam Chomsky to write Howard Zinn: A Radical American Vision.

On that note, let’s begin the series.

Editor’s Preface

Joyce begins his preface by explaining the title and why it is a quotation. It was on the comment form of one of his students at the end of the semester.

What I had done in the course was to begin to try to introduce the kind of material found in this volume.

The next paragraph sums up pretty much my entire view of Oklahoma.

I love Oklahoma. I love its land, its people. I love its history. But, just as I always thought the bumper sticker slogan “America: Love It or Leave It” was silly, narrow-minded, and in appropriate-I always like “America: Change It or Lose It” better-I react negatively to those who react predictably negatively to every criticism of Oklahoma. Love it or leave it? No. Some of use love it enough to stay and try to change it-America and Oklahoma.

This is where I start pumping my fist and singing along to Red City Radio.

Joyce goes on to say that, while this sentiment frames the book, the idea behind it is explicitly that of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He quotes a couple of passages from Zinn explaining the goal of his book, namely to tell the stories of those who are usually voiceless throughout accounts of history. Joyce wants to get us to reconsider who the heroes and villains are when we think of Oklahoma history.

Joyce is careful to point out that this book is not comprehensive, but it is a good place to start. Much of the material in the book saw its first light of day in these pages.

He ends the preface by pointing out that this book is clearly political. Part of the goal is to help today’s radicals understand and appreciate their history, so they will be better equipped for the fights of this generation.

You may not know this, but hidden away in the quieter corners of some of the universities around Oklahoma are some pretty great philosophers. They write books for non-philosophers and everything.

The first Oklahoma philosopher on my list is also one of my favorites, Eric Reitan, a professor at Oklahoma State University.

A few years ago, when British biologist and vocal atheist Richard Dawkins was making the lecture circuit with his anti-religious screed The God Delusion, Reitan was in the middle of writing a book outlining his particular take on religion. What was originally going to be a book aimed at attacking fundamentalist Christianity, became a philosophical defense of the middle ground between fundamentalism and Dawkins’ atheism. What resulted is the very readable Is God a Delusion: A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers. The Kindle versions is a reasonable price. If you are interested in getting a pretty good look at the state of philosophy of religion and the debates about the existence of god, I can’t recommend a better book.

I haven’t read Reitan’s most recent book, God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism, but from what I gather it is about why hell doesn’t exist and everyone is saved. I also can’t recommend this book, because you can’t currently get it for less than $100. That’s what happens when you write for an academic press on an obscure topic. Ivory tower and all that.

Reitan has a pretty great personal blog called The Piety That Lies Between where you can read his ideas for free, and he’ll interact with you. The title is a reference to his religious position between fundamentalism and atheism. He is a super nice guy, and very thoughtful.