No Justice, No Peace
KAREN ATTIAH Black journalists and journalists of color, like we are tired, we are exhausted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Covering the story while living the story from WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. In rethinking the role of the police, consider what motivated the founding of the force from the very start.
ELIZABETH HINTON From the colonial period and the founding of this country, the impulse of policing has been to protect property and to enforce social control among immigrants, communities of color, and laboring communities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, how to comprehend the ruptures in our society. One very old theory suggests that civilization is just a thin veneer. And in tough times, we revert to our brutish selves.
RUTGER BREGMAN Veneer theory is simply wrong. Deep down, most people are pretty decent. With maybe one thing I should add there, which is that power corrupts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's more coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is out, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
We've really been confronting ourselves this week. Seeing ourselves in mostly unflattering high def. Like it or not, and the people who represent us in photo ops, clutching Bibles and fancy handbags, in uniform, firing flash bombs to maintain the established order, and in the streets with banners and outstretched arms trying to overturn that order. So who are we, really?
NEWS REPORT Mattis released a statement today that reads in part, "Donald Trump is first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people, does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us." [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do we see ourselves?
SPEAKER What you thought was going to happen? We need jobs to feed our babies, and we wouldn't have this problem.
REPORTER So, you think a lot of this is borne out of frustration?
SPEAKER Yes, they are sick and tired of being sick and tired. And this is what sick and tired looks like. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And how do others see us?
NEWS REPORT IN FRENCH
NEWS REPORT IN SPANISH
NEWS REPORT WITH ENGLISH ACCENT We see you actually, and every day we're listening and we're coming out with you
REPORTER We saw protesters tear gassed yesterday to make way for a presidential photo op. I'd like to ask you what you think about that. And if you don't want to comment, what message do you think you're sending? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Here, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paused for a very long 20 seconds or so, but I'm not supposed to air all that on the radio. Silence, sounds like a mistake.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU We all watch in horror and consternation what's going on in the United States. It is a time... [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Great powers, if they are to remain great, must take note of how they're viewed.
CHET HUNTLEY We made more good news for the Axis today. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's news man Chet Huntley in June 1943, commenting acidly on the riots initiated by U.S. servicemen against young Mexican-American men, many of whom were invited, though resented by local whites, to provide wartime labor. Some sported the edgy, baggy suits popularized in Harlem: zoot suits. They were called the Zoot Suit Riots, and they were brutal.
CHET HUNTLEY The open warfare in Los Angeles has been broadcast by our enemies in every foreign tongue and beamed toward all the continents, the nations, and all the islands where other races of people live. The Axis says, in short, here's your wanted democracy in action. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE An image problem, a moral problem that our nation cannot outrun.
CHET HUNTLEY Today, we gave the Axis more good news, gave our enemies some more weapons. There was a lynching in Florida and a race riot last night in Beaumont, Texas. [END CLIP]
KAREN ATTIAH As the country marks 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, the former British colony finds itself in a downward spiral of ethnic violence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Karen Attiah, Washington Post global opinions editor, reading from her recent column "How western media would cover Minneapolis if it happened in another country." She got the idea a little over a week ago during a sleepless night.
KAREN ATTIAH And I was up at like three A.M., kind of in shock and despair and just grief, honestly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It seemed to be a satire of how Americans and American journalists may set themselves and their nation apart from the rest of the world.
KAREN ATTIAH Yeah, and I'm also writing this from the experience of having reported abroad. I spent a decent amount of time in the Caribbean working with the Associated Press. I also reported in Nigeria and in Ghana. And so I'm coming at this understanding the foreign correspondees.
My parents are immigrants from West Africa, and so I also come at this with the experience of having us considered in the periphery and being flattened, frankly, by media narratives that say: oh, well, Africans are diseased and poor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You were inspired a little bit, right, by the famous Trevor Noah bit comparing Trump to an African dictator.
KAREN ATTIAH Yeah.
TREVOR NOAH What I'm trying to say is Donald Trump is presidential. He just happens to be running on the wrong continent. In fact, once you, once you realize that Trump is basically the perfect African president, you start to notice the similarities everywhere. [END CLIP]
KAREN ATTIAH There is a history of some of these leaders proposing bogus health remedies.
TREVOR NOAH The president of Gambia says he can cure AIDS with bananas, "And I can also cure cancer using AIDS." [END CLIP]
KAREN ATTIAH So I just kept thinking as Trump suggesting that maybe bleach could be a cure or sunlight. To me, it's just ironic, right, because this is the president who called the Africa s-hole countries, but he's cut from the same cloth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE All the quotes, obviously, in the piece are made up - except those from Trump. But they clearly represent certain very real mindsets. You had Mustapha Okango, an imaginary anthropologist, and Charlotte Johnson, an invented Liberian activist. Why did you include them? What can America learn through their eyes?
KAREN ATTIAH We tend to not quote African experts on America, right. We tend to quote American experts on Africa all the time, including myself. Mustapha, he's telling us that being a black person in this world doesn't kill you, but being a black person in America can. I guess I just wanted people to sit with that, both to underscore the sort of dual pandemics of racism and in an actual virus that is disproportionately killing us, but then also the fact that the continent that we tend to paint as disorganized, diseased, underdeveloped, has been doing a much better job at managing its affairs with this deadly virus. You know, Senegal is a country of 16 million and has only had, I think, 41 deaths at this point. I think that's why satire is so useful, if it can be done well, is that I can attack a multitude of cliches and absurdities and small-minded world views in a very short amount of time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Your Liberian activist, survived Ebola, wants to raise money for us poor Americans, says it's like they're living in a failing state.
KAREN ATTIAH Yeah, and that's to be honest, how a lot of people abroad are seeing us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Attiah's fictional journalist cites an expert who refers to the, quote, "ancient, inexplicable hatreds fueling these ethnic conflicts and inequality" and captures the required range of opinions, like those of G. Scott Fitz a, quote, "Minnesotan and member of the white ethnic majority," who said that going after a target crosses the line. Can't they find a more peaceful way like kneeling in silence?
KAREN ATTIAH And I've heard this from well-meaning, well-intentioned white folks who at the end of the day, we realize that any form of black dissent is uncomfortable to white people.
This idea that you can't they find a more peaceful way, like kneeling in silence, obviously is a reference to Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 took a quiet kneel during the national anthem. The NFL owners have effectively blackballed him, you know. We weren't listened to then. We were demonized then, you know, called all sorts of names by the president then, and now when buildings are burning and windows are broken, it's like, wait - but can you go back to the other way? And it's like that's not how protest works.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Property destruction tends to steal the focus. But in this case, I've noticed that in the legacy media, whatever you want to call it, the good outlets have not allowed the breaking-in at a Stop & Shop become the lead of the story.
KAREN ATTIAH I think, frankly, what's happening right now is that black journalists and journalists of color, like, we are tired, we, we are exhausted. Perhaps I would personally say maybe even like six or seven years ago, the coverage would have been," this is violence. We must condemn. We must protect all Stop & Shops. Stop & Shops don't deserve this. Stop & Shops have human rights."
BROOKE GLADSTONE Stop & Shops are people, too.
KAREN ATTIAH Right. And I think now I mean, we saw this with the Philadelphia Inquirer just this week where they tried the nonsense with that headline saying: Buildings Matter Too. The black journalists staged a virtual walkout.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The fact that black journalists and white journalists at the New York Times spoke out against the publishing of Tom Cotton's op ed to send in the military, suggests that those who are not likely to be directly affected, like white people, understand that this isn't just a theoretical idea of the misuse of the military in violation of the Constitution, that this literally puts black people in danger. I was just wondering whether the sense of solidarity that I'd like to see as a white person is real. What do you think?
KAREN ATTIAH It matters. Your question as to when you see the crowds being diverse, it matters a whole lot. I think black people are tired because we felt like we've carried this burden by ourselves for a long time.
This is just how I feel. Now, I will say this sort of solidarity and empathy and willingness to listen should be happening in peace time, not just when we're in a public health crisis and battles on the streets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Obviously, the word you choose to describe what's happening is a powerful signifier. Atlantic writer Megan Garber detests the word chaos because it suggests that the meaning and the message of the protests are obscured in a fog. When the New York Times referred this week to chaos in a headline, it caused an outcry. The first, but not the only time this week. The Washington Post used chaos too and the Associated Press and President Trump.
"But this is not chaos," wrote Garber, "and to dismiss the protests in that way as swirling eddies of inscrutability is to erase their message." Meanwhile, clash is a word Karen Attiah would never apply.
KAREN ATTIAH The word clash, frankly, whitewashes the lethal power that we've given to the police and not just the power, but impunity. That's why I'm very conscious of changing, I guess maybe you call it a bit of a language revolution that I can do my part to shift frames.
My use of the word uprising is maybe partially because I'm borrowing it from our foreign correspondentees, so it's partially that, but also because I honestly do think this is an effort to overthrow a system, systemic racism. Ferguson happened under Obama's watch, and we still went to the streets, still trying to overthrow ideologies to clean out again, not only police departments of quote unquote "bad apples," but to shake certain toxic foundations, right. And I think this time, even now, again, it feels different. It is not standard operating procedure for black journalists to publicly say they are staging walkouts of their media employers.
And I know there are going to be people who do not survive this, whether that is literally physically losing their lives to the coronavirus, in the streets, or if it's losing their jobs due to the virus or due to speaking out. A lot of us are at great risk right now. But things are gonna be different and you just hope that we can do what we can to make sure that difference is a better one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Karen Attiah is The Washington Post's Global Opinions editor. Her book about the murdered Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, called Say Your Word and Leave, is due out early next year.
Coming up, enforcing a system that works well enough for some Americans and horribly for others at a high cost to both. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. Hi, I'm Brooke Gladstone. We can know something of a nation by the conduct of its police. This week saw moments of patience and compassion from the police in some cities. But other police departments presented brutally in the unblinking eyes of cell phone cameras. On Tuesday, the L.A. police commissioner held a Zoom call to hear from constituents.
CONSTITUENT Police chief, you gotta resign. There's just no way around it, it's like you look so smug listening to everybody talking, and it's shameful. [END CLIP]
CONSTITUENT Tear gas is not even allowed to be used in war. Why is it being used on Los Angeles citizens? Helicopters have been over our neighborhood for days like we're criminals. Your department is violating human rights. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE On Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti announced that he'd be scrapping plans for a hike to the LAPD's 1.8 billion dollar budget and instead would be cutting 100 to 150 million from it.
In Minneapolis, Ward Three Representative Steven Fletcher called for totally reimagining what public safety means and what is really needed and really not needed.
STEVE FLETCHER At some point, we have to look at what actually is going to get to the root cause. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE We can trace the roots of American policing all the way to the Antebellum South.
ELIZABETH HINTON So a white civilian has the power to arrest and detain any black person seen outside of the control of their master. And in the southern states, these groups of white men organized what's known as slave patrols to assist slave holders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Slave patrols, says Yale University historian Elizabeth Hinton, were the precursors to the forces patrolling American streets today. But we wouldn't see the birth of formal police departments until the mid 19th century.
ELIZABETH HINTON You get your first what looks like modern police forces in cities like New York and Boston. They are tasked with protecting the property of elites and also stamping out labor unrest, and so there is a lot of police violence that accompanies this protection of states and private property.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How did that evolve by, say, the middle of the 20th century?
ELIZABETH HINTON So I don't know how much it has evolved. I think that from the colonial period in the founding of this country, the impulse of policing has been to protect property, to enforce social control and maintain a social order. Immigrants, communities of color and laboring communities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Seems to contrast a lot with what the media representations of the police were. I mean, by the 50s, there was Dragnet.
NARRATOR Los Angeles, California. I worked here, I'm a cop. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The motto "To protect and to serve" was adopted by the LAPD in 1955, was later picked up around the country. But I'm going to assume that this wasn't bought by everyone.
ELIZABETH HINTON Right. So for whites and middle class people, the primary duty of police is to protect and serve, is to guard property, it is to keep those communities safe from undesirable, scare quote, "outsiders." For low income people, for people of color in particular, policing is about surveillance, social control, searching for suspects and making arrests.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Those people weren't being depicted getting harassed on Dragnet.
ELIZABETH HINTON What's really key about the Dragnet moment, the 1950's moment is this is when we really began to see a new kind of dedication of resources to law enforcement. New uniforms, the kind of swelling of the ranks of officers themselves, along with new tactics. This professionalization coincides, of course, with the Great Migration of African-Americans from the southern states to the north. So, you know, one could actually trace the buttressing of police departments alongside the rise of black populations in the urban north.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So let's move from the Fifties to Johnson's war on crime in 1965. The Great Migration is really winding down. You see this as the biggest transformation of policing in American history - right?
ELIZABETH HINTON We have to go a little bit before Johnson into the Kennedy administration, when Kennedy and other officials became really concerned about growing populations of black youth between the ages of 15 and 24, living in cities that were becoming majority black or close to a third black. And they said, "if we don't make some kind of intervention, this social dynamite," that's what they called this group of youth, "would explode." So they established a major anti-delinquency program, pre-kindergarten programs that become Head Starts, job training programs, social workers doing outreach with youth who are vulnerable to violence. This was Kennedy's attempt to really wrestle with these problems. In 1964, Harlem does explode. Johnson immediately labeled this uprising as criminal, he took strides to separate it from the nonviolent direct action protests of the civil rights movement, even though the grievances that caused the Harlem community to erupt were rooted in socio-economic conditions, much like civil rights protests. The following year, as a prevention measure, Johnson declared the War on Crime in March 1965.
LYNDON B JOHNSON To provide better training and better pay for police. To bring the most advanced technology to the War on Crime in every city and every county in America. [END CLIP]
ELIZABETH HINTON Then, of course, absence a real fundamental change to political and economic realities. The social dynamite continued to explode every summer of Johnson's presidency and as they did, policymakers dedicated greater amounts of resources to fighting the war on crime and pulled back from the War on Poverty, as the turmoil of the 60s continued to unfold.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think that you would see as the greatest missed opportunity the brief moment of a policy that called for, quote, "maximum feasible participation."
ELIZABETH HINTON Yes. The principle that steered the early development of the war on poverty programs was this idea, which is poor people, better than outsiders, should be empowered to change their own community on their own terms. And so really, only in the first year of the opposite of economic opportunities operation between the Harlem uprising of 1964 and the Watts Los Angeles uprising of 1965, the federal government was funding autonomous grassroots organizations directly. One of the preeminent programs that received these funds was the Mobilization for Youth Program in New York City's Lower East Side. Organizers organized their fellow residents to do things like protest city hall, to engage in rent strikes against slum landlords. In Syracuse, the Community Development Corporation got the city to fund recreational facilities for youth. These grassroots organizations registered people to vote. You know, these programs really did foster an exciting and inspiring level of community empowerment and mobilization. One of the things that was so frustrating is that funding a tenant organization is like 1/50 at the cost of funding a SWAT team, and policymakers knew that these kinds of measures were really effective at reducing crime. And yet these community based measures were defunded and dissolved way too quickly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We will spin fast through the Nixon years where he dismantled the remnants of Johnson's War on Poverty. And at the end, only about 2% of the grants the Justice Department dispersed to fight the War on Crime, went to community-based measures like tenant patrols and block watches. And then, the era of Ronald Reagan and the Broken Windows policy that we associate with a generation later, that's where it began.
ELIZABETH HINTON Right. 1982, the idea of broken windows is influenced by the criminologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson. The strategy is if you arrest people for minor offenses, you will be essentially preventing people from engaging in more serious and potentially violent crime. The thing that happens alongside this new zero tolerance policing strategy is the criminalization of drug abuse, which now is discussed increasingly as a public health crisis in the context of the opioid epidemic. These two strategies really escalated the criminalization of entire communities that policymakers were simultaneously divesting from. Reagan cuts tens of thousands of people from the food stamp rolls, and of course, this trend continues through the 1990s and through the Clinton administration cuts the school lunch programs, which we continue to see today, while amping up police to fight the War on Drugs. Again, another really failed strategy to keep communities safe, especially if we believe that many of these problems of crime and violence are rooted in socio-economic conditions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk about the militarization of the police.
ELIZABETH HINTON 2014 in Ferguson was really a watershed moment.
NEWS REPORT The police were, as you said, using tear gas. They were heavily armed. Their weapons were drawn. They used flash grenades [END CLIP]
ELIZABETH HINTON The public really saw those big Hummer vehicles the Ferguson police were using to stamp out protests, AK 47s. And a lot of people attributed this to the transfers of the military to civilian police that began during the War on Terror. But again, history tells us that these kinds of transfers were going on for some time, that they began really in the context of Vietnam.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They didn't know what to do with all that stuff.
ELIZABETH HINTON And they were also fighting a war at home. Urban uprisings were very real. These kind of militarized tactics was really first used as a strategy to stamp out the radical left, so groups like the Weather Underground and black militants and revolutionaries like the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. These tactics end up becoming the foremost strategies that are used in the War on Drugs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then later, in the third millennium.
ELIZABETH HINTON One of the things that has changed is that this militarization is not just about the LAPD and the NYPD. It's about smaller police departments like Ferguson. What is this small city doing with these Hummers that are used in Iraq? And with the kind of militarization in hardware comes again this kind of warrior mentality. So it has a material manifestation, but also how officers increasingly see themselves. Many officers today have been in the Army and have served our country and come home and bring that training to the ways in which they police residents on the street.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So now we're hearing a call from protesters taking the streets: "defund the police." The US spends about 100 billion dollars annually on policing. LA is a prime example. 17.5 % of its total budget of 10.5 billion is reserved for the police, 53.8 % of the city's unrestricted general fund. Americans have made police the primary problem-solving institution in our society. If you have a morals objection to sex work or drug use: send the police. If we have a mental health issue or people are homeless, send the police. What would a radical shrinking of police forces mean?
ELIZABETH HINTON We can go back to those early models of American policing where people were responsible for keeping their own communities safe. So those schools that don't have police officers in full uniforms with guns walking around, and metal detectors and security, that's going to look like tenant patrols and block watch associations. That's going to have to accompany a major investment in resources in that community. But fundamentally, so much of what is involved in police duties today should really not be part of police work. Officers aren't trained to be social workers and counselors. The mental health example is a really good one, you know, as a result, people who need a different set of resources are treated punitively. And part of the conversation is really redefining public safety. Does public safety mean that somebody who jumps the turnstile gets arrested and put in jail, which costs taxpayers thousands of dollars. What does public safety mean that every child in America has access to clean water?
Now is the time to rethink what kind of a nation do we want to be. And that's going to require not only a change in world view, but a major redistribution of resources and a kind of ceding of power and disruption of the racial hierarchies that have really defined the United States since its founding.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Elizabeth, thank you very much.
ELIZABETH HINTON Thank you so much for having me. It's a great conversation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Elizabeth Hinton is a professor of history, African-American studies, and law at Yale University and author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America.
Coming up. The question of whether humanity deserves what it's wrought. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Policing is built on the assumption that people must be policed. That humanity's innate grubbiness requires an unyielding hand. In fact, most of our institutions are based on the dark view that our natural state is the war of all against all, in the words of the 17th century pessimists, some say realist, Thomas Hobbs, whereas the Enlightenment philosophers Jean Jacques Rousseau maintained that once we lived peacefully in harmony with nature and without rulers, until so-called civilization diminished us and cast us from Eden. For centuries, that view was dismissed as downright pie-eyed, but economic historian Rutger Bregman points to a wealth of research suggesting that Rousseau was the realist. Bregman's new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, argues that people may not be precisely good, but they are decent, despite what our rulers would have us believe. For centuries, they've insisted that without them, chaos would ensue.
RUTGER BREGMAN There's a very old idea in Western culture which says that civilization is only a thin veneer, and that when something happens, say, a crisis, for example, we become savages, animals, monsters, and that we reveal who we really are. Now, this idea goes back all the way to the ancient Greeks. You find it with the Greek historian Thucydides, for example. You find it with the early Christian church fathers, St. Augustine, talking about the concept of original sin. The founding fathers, John Adams. He once wrote an essay with the title: "All Men Would Be Tyrants If They Could." And I think the idea is also embedded at the heart of our current capitalist system, the notion that people deep down are just selfish. Veneer theory is simply wrong.
A huge amount of evidence from sociology and anthropology and archeology and psychology basically points in a very different direction, that deep down most people are pretty decent with. Maybe one thing I should add there, which is that power corrupts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You taught me the term nocebo, the idea that negative expectations yield negative outcomes.
RUTGER BREGMAN What we assume in other people is what we get out of them. So if we assume that most people are selfish, then we'll design our institutions around that idea, our schools, our workplaces, our democracy. And we'll bring out exactly that kind of behavior. Now, there's been some really interesting research into the Pygmalion effect. So, indeed, Robert Rosenthal is a psychologists who did this research for the first time in the 60s and he had mice in a one cage, he would say these mice are very smart. And on the other cage, you would say these mice are very stupid and slow, etc. In reality, they were just normal mice that were used for laboratory experiments. Then he let the students come in and say, okay, you got to put this animal in a maze and record how quickly they find the exit. Amazingly, the supposedly smart mice were faster. But after a while, he came to realize that the way these animals were treated by the students with more expectations, with more trust, I don't know, a bit more caring, that made all the difference. So it was a performative effect. What we assume in each other is what we get out of each other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do you see your book fitting into this moment?
RUTGER BREGMAN Yeah. You know, it's a very strange time, obviously, to be publishing a book about human kindness and human friendliness. Some people might think when they look at savage behavior from police into streets and think this is what happens when you put people in a uniform and you give them a bit of power. I think that's wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I know this week you've seen the Stanford prison experiment used to explain police brutality.
RUTGER BREGMAN Yeah, the Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most famous experiments in psychology. 24 students divided in two groups, guards and prisoners. Supposedly, these students very quickly turned into monsters, and the experiment had to be canceled after a couple of days.
RESEARCHER Afterwards, when I began to reflect on what I had done, this behavior began to dawn on me and I realized that this was a part of me I hadn't really noticed before. [END CLIP]
RUTGER BREGMAN Deep down, yeah, we're all savages and evil. We've only recently learned, actually, after the groundbreaking work of a French sociologist called Thibault Le Texier, who was the first one to go into the archives of the Stanford Prison Experiment, that actually it's a hoax. Philip Zimbardo specifically instructed his students to be as sadistic as possible. Now many of those guards said, no, no, no, I don't want to do that, that's not who I am. Then Zimbardo said, no, you gotta do this because then we can go to the press and say, look how horrible prisons are. And so some of them went along, and a couple of days after the experiment, Zimbardo immediately went to the press and it became this huge thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A huge and enduring thing.
RUTGER BREGMAN And you're right. It was used again this week to explain the terrible police violence that we see. But I think we have to go much deeper here. One of the striking findings from military historians in the past couple of decades is that most soldiers, especially when there were just average drafted soldiers, they couldn't fire their guns. American soldiers during the Second World War, many of them just couldn't do it. I think the central mechanism here that makes people able to be violent is distance. So on the one hand, there is physical distance. We know when the First World War, like 70 to 80 % of all casualties of war were from artillery.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But in this case, in the streets, we see the police directly putting their hands on protesters.
RUTGER BREGMAN Here, there is another mechanism, its play, which is the psychological distance. These cops have been conditioned both by centuries of institutionalized racism, but also specific police training to look at average citizens and see enemies. To be honest, it astonishes me; I knew that policing is in a really bad state in the U.S. I'm not saying that we don't have terrible incidents like that as well here. I'm from the Netherlands. We have a huge amount of racism as well. But if you look at police training, in the US, on average, it lost like 18 to 19 weeks, something like that. In most European countries, it takes more than two years. And you will you you equip them like their soldiers in Iraq or something like that. It's so crazy to look at.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So let's rewind a little, a lot, and pick up the story at the dawn of human history. You say that our hunter-gatherer forebears have an unjustifiably bad rap.
RUTGER BREGMAN If you look at the archeological evidence, there is actually almost no evidence for war in our deep history. All the evidence we have suggests that war had a beginning when we became sedentary, when we settled down, and we became farmers.
We also have the anthropological evidence. So what you can do as a scientist is study tribes in the 19th century and the 20th century or today who still have this nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Whether these nomadic hunter-gatherers live in the Kalahari Desert or in Alaska, there are really some striking similarities. For example, they have very egalitarian cultures. I mean, biologists talk about survival of the friendliest, which means that for millennia was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids and so had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. Because friends helped you to survive. Imagine Donald Trump in prehistory. He wouldn't have survived for long. This is one of the, I think, the great indictments of the society we live in right now is that it's not survive of the friendliest anymore. It's often survival of the shameless.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You talk about Dacher Keltner, an expert on applied Machiavellianism. And he calls this the power paradox. Even if we pick who appear to be the most modest and kindhearted individuals to lead us, eventually, power corrupts. And the people in power think that the people they lead, the rest of us, are as immoral as they because they assume we would behave as they do.
RUTGER BREGMAN Yeah, and nomadic hunter-gatherers already knew this, they knew that power corrupts. And so they use the power of shame and of peer pressure to keep those at the top in check. But then, after we became sedentary, we got these hierarchies and leaders who wanted to wage wars and increase their dominance and increase their authority.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Another point that you raised was that the development of friendliness went side by side with the development of brain power. There was an evolutionary biologist, you quote Brian Hare, who said, up until now, the assumption has always been that domestication diminishes brain power, literally reducing gray matter in the brain. But he came to a completely different conclusion.
RUTGER BREGMAN Yes, scientists have a long list of traits. They refer to this whole list as the domestication syndrome that all these domesticated species share. Thinner bones, smaller brain, floppy ears, and most importantly, they just look a bit more childish. Or the scientific term is pedomorphic. Just look a bit puppyish. Now, if you look at this list and if you also look at the genes that are associated with the domestication syndrome and then you look at us, you realize, we look pretty domesticated. But then the question is who did it? And the answer is we did it ourselves. This theory is called self domestication. Over the millennia, it was the friendliest among us, the tamest among us who had the most kids, and so at the biggest chance of passing on their genes, I've come up with a term for this hope history will remember me for it: homo puppy.
Even though the size of our brains, you know, became smaller. Our social intelligence increased. We became better at learning from each other. One of the most beautiful pieces of evidence we have for this is a really fascinating experiment in Russia that started in the 1950s, when it was actually illegal and very dangerous to study genetics. There was a Russian scientists called Dmitry Belyayev. And he started an experiment with silver foxes, a species that had never been domesticated up until then. He sort of wanted to do in a couple of years or decades, what, you know, normally would take centuries or even longer. For years, he selected the friendliest silver foxes to breed with each other. And he started to see that this whole domestication syndrome appeared, right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They ended up looking and behaving like puppies.
RUTGER BREGMAN Yeah. But even more interestingly, Brian Hare did intelligence tests with the wild silver foxes and the domesticated silver foxes. The domesticated silver foxes were smarter.
So Brian Hare says if you want a smart fox, you don't select for intelligence, you select for friendliness. The theory is that this also happened in our evolution. We've been selected for friendliness and that's exactly what made us so smart.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You noted that there were some social and psychological experiments after the Second World War used to support the veneer theory of civilization, to show how basically everyone has the capacity to become a Nazi. Can we zero in on the Milgram Experiment from the 60s? Why did the experiment not tell us what we think it does?
RUTGER BREGMAN What you had was an experiment in which someone was asked to do a sort of an intelligence test with someone else who was in reality actually an accomplice of the researcher. And then if that person made a mistake, the subject was asked to give electric shocks.
RESEARCHER Can I get a shot. 180 volts?
SUBJECT I can't stand the pain. Let me out of here!
RESEARCHER He can't stand it. I'm not going to killing that man there. I mean whose going to take responsibility if anything happens to that gentleman?
RESEARCHER I'm responsible for anything that happens here. [END CLIP]
RUTGER BREGMAN Those electric shocks started at 50 volts, then to 30, 45, 60 volts, etc., all the way up until 450 volts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It could kill someone.
RUTGER BREGMAN Yeah, and so the shocking headline of this study was that 65 % of average Americans were willing to go all the way to 450 volts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's a lot of Nazis.
RUTGER BREGMAN Yeah. Now, just like with the Stanford Prison experiment, the archives have opened up. An Australian psychologist, Gina Perry, discovered that actually a huge amount of the subjects didn't really believe the situation they were in. They thought this can't be real, right? I'm at Yale University and I'm supposed to be killing someone else here. I mean, that's probably not the case. You know what? I'll just get along with this. I must say, though, that the Milgram Experiment has been replicated, and even if it's not 65 percent, but it's still way too high. You would hope that only the psychopaths and the sociopaths do something like that, like only 1 %, but that's clearly not the case. So what's going on here? There's a new generation of psychologists that believe that the experiments are actually not about blind obedience, but about followership. The subjects want to be helpful, and they're being pulled along in this way. This is not a comfortable message. It's actually the dark side of friendliness. If you think about it, so many of the great atrocities in our history were actually committed in the name of loyalty, comradeship. Right? There's a really dark side to our capacity for friendship, which is sort of the tribal behavior, the groupish behavior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the Milgram Experiment, you point out that it wasn't about obedience, which is what it was supposed to test. This research initially was happening roughly the same time as the Adolf Eichmann trial. And the philosopher Hannah Arendt covering the trial at the time, didn't agree with Milgrim's initial conclusions about obedience, even though Arendt and Milgrim have been linked. She saw that Eichmann was not obeying, he was conforming.
RUTGER BREGMAN In my book, I've got one chapter about the question why German soldiers were fighting so hard, still, in 1944 and 1945, when it was clear that they were going to lose the war.
And the psychologist, they couldn't really understand it. They thought, oh, they must have been brainwashed. But then they started interviewing prisoners of war and discovered that actually these soldiers were not so much motivated by ideology or blind hatred, but by comradeship; they didn't want to let their friends down. And now we have a lot of evidence for that in the case of the Weimar. But obviously, if you look at the fanatical SS guards, you need something else, right? What you would counter there is more this this shocking ideology where these people believe that they were actually improving the world, if they were killing Jews.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Another pillar, as long as we're knocking them down, of our negative view of human nature is the Lord of the Flies. This book won the Nobel Prize when it was written back in the 50s.
RUTGER BREGMAN Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's practically a shorthand, even though it's a fiction for the argument that we are fundamentally Hobbesian.
RUTGER BREGMAN Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You found, though, a true story, long forgotten. Boys swept onto their own island. Nothing like what William Golding wrote. And it's going to be made into a movie. Congratulations!
RUTGER BREGMAN Thanks. Yeah. You know, I read Lord of the Flies when I was 16 years old. Still, millions of kids have to read Lord of the Flies in school. I wondered, is there one case where real kids actually shipwrecked on an island? After a lot of research, I found one example, in 1965, near Tonga, an island group in the Pacific Ocean, a group of six Tongan kids, who were fed up with boarding school. They stole or borrowed, I should say in their words. They borrowed a boat and they ended up in a storm and they drifted for eight days until they ship wrecked on the island of 'Ata, which is like a volcanic island, it's a rock that sticks out of the ocean. I managed to track down two of the six of the original Lord of the Flies kids. I also managed to find the captain who rescued them in 1966.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Amazing.
RUTGER BREGMAN They worked together really well on that island in teams of two to tend to the garden, to be on the lookout.
BROOKE GLADSTONE To tend to the fire.
RUTGER BREGMAN They managed to get a fire starting after three months and they never let it go out. You know, remember what happens in the fictional Lord of the Flies. They have this fire and the whole of the island burns down and they become savages. The real Lord of the Flies is in every single way the opposite of the fictional Lord of the Flies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why do you think the veneer theory keeps returning?
RUTGER BREGMAN Hmm. I think that cynicism is another work for laziness. Activism becomes pointless when things are lost anyway. Think about what the news does to us. You know, I really believe in investigative journalism that helps to uncover the structural forces that govern our lives. But Trump is very happy if we watch Fox News and CNN all day because then we become scared. And it's easier to rule people who are scared. It's important to emphasize that a cynical view of human nature has always been used by those in power because it legitimizes their power. If we can't trust each other, then we need them. We need kings and presidents and the army and the police to keep us in check. Now, if I'm saying most people are pretty decent, that's a very dangerous statement. If you really think it through, it means a revolution. Now we have a system that is all about distrusting the poor; so you have to prove over and over again that you're sick enough, that you're depressed enough, that you're really a hopeless case, and then maybe you'll receive a little bit of food stamps. But this is a system that creates dependency, depression, and anxiety.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What happens when authorities do trust the people?
RUTGER BREGMAN Now, if you turn it around and if you actually say, I trust you, then here's a bit of venture capital. Let's call it the basic income and you can decide for yourself what you want to do with the money. Then something very different happens. It's the same as with the experiment with the mice, right. What you assume in other people is what you get out of them. So we've got an extraordinary amount of evidence that in basic income experiments, you see crime dropping, you see kids performing better in school, you see the health of people improve. And it's actually an investment that pays for itself. Because poverty is really, really expensive in terms of policing costs and judicial costs and health care, you name it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the logical conclusion of understanding that people are fundamentally decent, kind of an argument for not needing police at all, for an anarcho-syndicalism. I mean, where does this all get us?
RUTGER BREGMAN The problem with anarchists is that they're not very good at building institutions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do we need institutions?
RUTGER BREGMAN Absolutely. We need to build different schools. We need to build different workplaces, democracies, police forces, you name it all, based on a different view of human nature, because people are a product of the institutions in which they grow up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You conclude your book with, I guess you'd call them a series of tips.
RUTGER BREGMAN Rules to live by.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What would you consider the most important?
RUTGER BREGMAN When in doubt, assume the best. Why? Because in most of the cases, we'll be right. I mean, that's just empirically true because most people are decent. In the second place, you know, behavior can be contagious. People mirror each other. So if someone is doing nasty to you and you do nice to that person, then often that other person can't resist reacting in a nice way as well. Then you can say, well, Rutger, but there are still people who are going to rip you off and and you're so vulnerable to that. And I'm saying then, yes, that's true. And it's collateral damage, because what's the alternative? Do you really want to live a whole life distrusting everyone around you so that you'll never be conned? That price is way too high. So just accept that you'll be conned a couple of times in your life. It's the rational thing to do. And if you've never been conned, you should ask yourself, what's wrong with me? Is my basic attitude to life trusting enough?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rutger, thank you very much.
RUTGER BREGMAN Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rutger Bregman is the author of Humankind: A Hopeful History. That's it for this week's show. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.