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Believe It or Not: We're A Little Less Nasty Now

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Attention, fellow humans: The newly redesigned, relaunched New Republic contains great news about our much-maligned species. Not only have we humans stopped burning cats as a form of humorous public entertainment (as we used to do in 16th-century France), but we're also killing, torturing and enslaving each other less often than we once did.

Hooray for us!

This jolly news comes from Steven Pinker, who is a hotshot Harvard professor and author. The title of his happy piece is "A History of Violence." The subtitle is "We're Getting Nicer Every Day."

"Today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth," he writes.

Pinker is kind enough to provide a list of the nasty pastimes we humans don't practice as much as we used to: "Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment . . . rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration."

And so on. We humans still do this stuff, of course, but not as often, at least not on a per capita basis. And when we do these rotten things, we now have the common decency to feel bad enough to try to cover them up.

Sure, genocide in Darfur and torture at Abu Ghraib are bad, Pinker acknowledges, but if you take the long view, they are "mild by the standards of atrocities in human history."

"In many ways," Pinker writes, "we have been getting kinder and gentler."

Bravo! Congratulations are in order! At this rate of evolution, within a millennium or two we humans might be as civilized as cockroaches! I feel like standing up and belting out a chorus of "Up With People"!

Pinker's cheery essay is not the only good news in the New Republic. The other good news is that from now on the New Republic will be published half as often -- twice a month instead of once a week. Why is that good? Because each issue will be twice as fat, giving room for "longer, deeply reported profiles, essays and investigative pieces," the editors explain in the first issue of what they call "The New New Republic."

That issue (dated March 19 but on newsstands all this week) contains three of these longer pieces. Two are quite good: "The Agitator" by Ryan Lizza is a profile of Barack Obama that focuses on his years as a community organizer in Chicago and what he learned there. "Athwart History" by Sam Tanenhaus is a piece on conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. and his increasing doubts about the wisdom of the Iraq war.

But then there's the third big piece -- "This American Lie," Alex Heard's truly ridiculous essay on humorist David Sedaris, author of the best-selling books "Naked" and "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim." Sedaris writes comic essays, usually about himself and frequently about his childhood. Heard says he enjoys the essays but suspects they may not be completely true. So he starts fact-checking them and finds that -- brace yourself now -- Sedaris exaggerates for comic effect! For instance: Although Sedaris did work in a mental hospital, as he wrote in one essay, he was not really bitten by a demented old woman.

I'm shocked, shocked! This cannot stand! If I hadn't just read Pinker's piece, I'd say we should torture Sedaris for this heinous crime.

Meanwhile, I suggest that Heard continue this long-overdue investigation of American humorists. Did Mark Twain fudge facts about how far that frog jumped? Did the bed really fall on James Thurber's father? Was Bill Cosby's childhood pal Albert really fat or just pleasantly plump? And those kids in Lake Wobegon -- are they really all above average?

Get busy, Mr. Heard. Your life's work awaits.

The Servant Class

It's soooooo hard to find good household servants these days, especially if you happen to be a celebrity.

Fortunately, the latest issue of Celeb Staff, the magazine for celebrities and their factotums, contains a helpful special section called "The Well-Run Mansion."

"Running a mansion needs many pairs of hands," the magazine proclaims, and then it proceeds to list the folks attached to those hands -- estate manager, house manager, personal assistant, chef, chauffeur, nanny, housekeeper, houseman, butler, baby nurse, lady's maid and so on.

Times have changed in the servant business. For instance, you have to actually pay these people now, you can't just own them. Your butler will cost you $70,000 a year, plus medical insurance and vacations and a 401K. But butlers do more than they once did: "Now they are equally skilled polishing silver, changing a light bulb, doing extensive research online or giving massages to their employers."

Your lady's maid will cost you $50,000 a year, plus benefits. But she's no longer just a maid. "Some highly accomplished Lady's Maids may also cut and set hair and give massages, manicures and pedicures. She also packs and unpacks for travel."

Celeb Staff provides some helpful hints on how to treat your servants. For instance, "never let employees get so comfortable that they ask special requests, like extra time off." Also, try to hire people who have a "Service Heart," which is "the ability to suppress personal ego, while maintaining a low profile that never detracts from the owner."

Michael Holly certainly has a service heart. Holly writes the "Memoirs of a Celebrity Butler" column in Celeb Staff, telling amusing little anecdotes about his career "in the service of those in the higher echelons of society." Alas, he seems to be running out of amusing little anecdotes: His column in the February/March 2007 issue, titled "The Ill-Fated Flight of the Garlic Chicken Breast," is exactly the same as his column in the March/April 2006 issue, which was also titled "The Ill-Fated Flight of the Garlic Chicken Breast."

It's soooo hard to get good help these days, even in the magazine business.

Celeb Staff has been publishing for just a little over a year and already it has achieved a great feat: It's the best advertisement for raising taxes on the rich that you'll find on any newsstand anywhere.

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