Bill James: "The human race has been in a long struggle to eliminate murder. And we will succeed."


Over at the new sports website Grantland, Chuck Klosterman interviews the godfather of sabermetrics, Bill James. Not about baseball, but about crime, the subject of James' new book Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. There's a good bit from the interview about how "it's only the opinion-makers and the 'opinion elites' who turn up their noses" at crime, and this bit in particular seemed of potential interest to the assembled:

I once watched a speech by a Canadian philosopher named Steven Pinker, and he argued that the world is continually becoming less violent. He wasn't talking about urban crime as much as war and disasters, but I'm wondering if you agree with that thesis: Is the world less violent than it used to be?

If you go back in human history, people witnessed bloodshed on a wide-scale basis all the time. The Romans didn't have gladiatorial shows where people were killed every once in a while — they happened all the goddamn time. If you were a sports fan in ancient Rome and you wanted to watch people torn apart by wild animals, you could do so many times a year. So it's true that the world is profoundly less violent than it used to be. … I knew a person when I was very young — a person who graduated from high school around the same time I did. … He had been with a woman when he was 18, and they had a son. The boy fell down some steps and died. Most everybody in town thought the child was a victim of abuse and that the man should be prosecuted for murder, but he never was. Now, if that had happened just three years later, he would have been prosecuted — because during those three years, there was a media uproar over child abuse. When I was young, I once had a realization while reading the newspaper about just how many things we now consider murder that were not seen as murder 100 years before. In 1950, if there was a fight in a bar and someone was killed, the police would ask, "Was it a fair fight?" If it was a fair fight, it might be manslaughter, but also might be nothing. When I played football in high school, our coach would work us as hard as he could on hot days and not let us have water. And you'd see stories in the newspaper, maybe 10 times a year, where some kid would die from this. Yet coaches still did it. But that would never happen now, because the coach would be charged with murder. We continually become less tolerant of actions that lead to death. The human race has been in a long struggle to eliminate murder. And we will succeed.

James, a hero of mine, is discussed in Nick Gillespie's and my new book, which you may have heard about. Reason on Bill James here. Thanks to Scott Ross for the tip.