Saturday, February 24, 2018

John Gray Takes Steven Pinker to Task


I cannot imagine a better reviewer for Steven Pinker's latest treatise on the Enlightenment than cantankerous British philosopher John Gray. When it comes to reading Pinker’s 576 page tome, better him than me.

Gray is well suited to the task because he is not, to say the least, a wild-eyed optimist. We count on him to provide a counterweight to Pinker’s imitation of Dr. Pangloss. Where Pinker looks at glass that is half full and declares it to be full, Gray sees the emptiness within. He holds a tragic view of human existence, one that correlates reasonably well with Freud’s, but not with mine.

Such is life.

Yet, Gray is a philosopher. Pinker is a psychologist. And Gray has a far better grasp of intellectual history than Pinker. Thus, you expect that he will do more than throw shade at the naïve young Pinker. And, Gray is not intimidated because the world’s richest dupe, Bill Gates, said that Pinker’s book is the best book he has ever read.

Gray concludes his review thusly:

Judged as a contribution to thought, Enlightenment Now is embarrassingly feeble. With its primitive scientism and manga-style history of ideas, the book is a parody of Enlightenment thinking at its crudest. A more intellectually inquiring author would have conveyed something of the Enlightenment’s richness and diversity. Yet even if Pinker was capable of providing it, intellectual inquiry is not what his anxious flock demands. Only an anodyne, mythical Enlightenment can give them what they crave, which is relief from painful doubt.

Given this overriding emotional imperative, presenting them with the actual, conflict-ridden, often illiberal Enlightenment would be – by definition, one might say – unreasonable. Judged as a therapeutic manual for rattled rationalists, Enlightenment Now is a highly topical and much-needed book. In the end, after all, reason is only the slave of the passions.

Liberals are drooling over Pinker because his book provides them with much needed therapy. The liberal order, the hope for liberal democracy has been losing ground lately. Now, Pinker has come along to soothe those hurt feelings, to calm those dashed hopes, with an assurance that liberals are on the right side of history.

So says Gray in his opening paragraph:

To think of this book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake. The purpose of Pinker’s laborious work is to reassure liberals that they are on “the right side of history”.

This tells us that Pinker is trafficking in born-again Hegelianism… the kind of philosophy that sees history unfolding according to a predetermined plan, and reaching a predetermined goal, no matter what you or I do or say. If you think that history is going to bail out your theoretical errors, you are seriously mistaken.

Pinker might have noticed that true Hegelians, like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, do not believe in freedom. They do not believe in free market capitalism. They hold it to be a monstrosity concocted to oppress the masses and to delay the arrival of the Worker’s Paradise. And yet, Gray points out that Pinker loves capitalism and free enterprise, grand accomplishments of what he sees as the Enlightenment.

One understands that Francis Fukuyama has already explained that the endpoint of the Hegelian World Spirit’s movement is a liberal democracy. And one understands that Hegel himself saw the apotheosis of the World Spirit in the conquering armies of Napoleon. Both Hegel and Fukuyama thought that Napoleon was bringing the liberal democracy promoted by the French Revolution. 

And yet, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror were not promoting liberal democracy. They were certainly not promoting free enterprise. The latter was a product of the British, i.e. Scottish Enlightenment, through David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume, the most important British Enlightenment thinker is, Gray tells us, ignored by Pinker. Doubtless Hume’s empirical bent was inconsistent with Pinker’s Hegelian idealism.

The true logical outcome of the Hegelian dialectic is a police state, where the power of the state imposes correct thinking on the masses. Its not a marketplace of ideas, but One Mind, thinking the same thoughts and believing the same beliefs.

Worse yet, for a Pinker, who rejects religion and faith, without really understanding either, is that free enterprise bases its concept of freedom on the free will that has been central to Western religion since the book of Genesis. Pinker’s belief in free enterprise shows that he does not understand the difference between the Franco-German Enlightenment and its British cousin.

The difference should be clear to everyone, especially since I related it in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. In a world where people possess true freedom they are not trapped within a grand historical narrative.  They are not worrying their souls about whether they are onthe right side of history. They are involved in a game where the outcome is uncertain. They participate in the market as players making moves in a game. To imagine that it will all work itself out no matter what you do is naïve.

Gray taxes Pinker with simpleminded thinking, as in this explanation of the Pinker argument about reason and faith:

Early on in this monumental apologia for a currently fashionable version of Enlightenment thinking, he writes: “To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” Well, it’s good to have that settled once and for all. There is no need to trouble yourself with the arguments of historians, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists, who treat religion as a highly complex phenomenon, serving a variety of human needs. All you need do is consult a dictionary, and you will find that religion is – by definition – irrational.

If I may, as I have often remarked, the great Thomas Aquinas showed over the course of thousands of pages that faith can indeed be rational. As for the question of supernatural entities, I will  introduce a point once argued by Jacques Lacan, with an assist from Alexander Meiklejohn. Namely, how do you know that ideas exist? You have never seen, heard, tasted, touched or smelled an idea. You will accept that the orbit of the planets, as rendered in a formula by Kepler, obeys a law, thus an idea. If so, the idea certainly existed before Kepler wrote it down as a scientific law. If it existed, where was it? And, what mind was thinking it? 

You might happily dismiss religious faith, but if you undertake a project or implement a new policy, you do not know whether or not it will work. You will proceed on the basis of a faith that it will… even if there are no scientific facts about the outcome.

Gray is too kind to mention it, but Pinker has ignored a basic insight offered by David Hume—namely, that science is about what "is" while ethics is about “should.” This means that you cannot use science to articulate ethical principles. Those who do, Gray notes, are not practicing science, but are indulging in scientism.

For Pinker, the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t simply identify a universal regularity in the natural world, “it defines the fate of the universe and the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order”.

Leaving the physics to the side, this suggests that life is a zero-sum game, that one person’s economic progress must come at the expense of someone else… and thus, that we must redistribute wealth rather than to grow it. Again, without saying anything about Newton, making his laws of thermodynamics into moral principles causes problems.

As for Newton’s third law of thermodynamics—“for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”—if you should be tempted to make it into a moral principle, you will find yourself with something like the law of the talion: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And you will note that this principle of retaliatory justice has largely been superseded by the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Again, disregarding the physics, the law of the talion produces social disharmony, an unending cycle of violence.

As I have suggested, and as Gray argues, Pinker is presenting a polemic. This does not involve the scientific method where facts can prove or disprove a hypothesis. Pinker has produced a fictional world where the Enlightenment is responsible for all the good that has happened in the world, and where those who reject the Enlightenment have produced all the evil. It is both childishly naïve and Hegelian:

To be sure, for Pinker there are no bad Enlightenment ideas. One of the features of the comic-book history of the Enlightenment he presents is that it is innocent of all evil. Accordingly, when despots such as Lenin repeatedly asserted that they engaged in mass killing in order to realise an Enlightenment project – in Lenin’s case, a more far-reaching version of the Jacobin project of re-educating society by the methodical use of terror – they must have been deluded or lying. 

And also,

Pinker stipulates that the Enlightenment, by definition, is intrinsically liberal. Modern tyrannies must therefore be products of counter-Enlightenment ideologies – Romanticism, nationalism and the like. Enabling liberals to avoid asking difficult questions about why their values are in retreat, this is a popular view. Assessed in terms of historical evidence, it is also a myth.

For Pinker, all the horrors that have befallen the human species since the advent of the Enlightenment flow from the pen of one Friedrich Nietzsche. Better to blame it on Nietzsche than accepting that the German Enlightenment produced both Communism and Naziism.

In his words:

If one wanted to single out a thinker who represented the opposite of humanism (indeed of pretty much every argument in this book) one couldn’t do better than the German philologist Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche helped to inspire the romantic militarism that led to the First World War and the fascism that led to the Second. The connections between Nietzsche’s ideas and the megadeath movements of the 20th century are obvious enough; a glorification of violence and power, an eagerness to raze the institutions of liberal democracy, a contempt for most of humanity, and a stone-hearted indifference to human life.

Gray takes Pinker to school on his straw man version of Nietzsche:

A lifelong admirer of Voltaire, Nietzsche was a critic of the Enlightenment because he belonged in it. Far from being an enemy of humanism, he promoted humanism in the most radical form. In future, humankind would fashion its values and shape its destiny by its own unfettered will. True, he conferred this privilege only on a select few.

He recognised no principle of human equality. But where does concern with equality come from? Not from science, which can be used to promote many values. As Nietzsche never tired of pointing out, the ideal of equality is an inheritance from Judaism and Christianity. His hatred of equality is one reason he was such a vehement atheist.

Truth be told, Nietzsche was an Enlightenment thinker. He was also an enemy of Judaism and Christianity. And he was “a vehement atheist.” From Pinker’s perspective, he has everything that anyone would want. Except perhaps the proper quantity of empathy. But, to be fair, Paul Bloom has argued that empathy is not necessarily morally benevolent. It can make you into a sadistic sociopath.

Nietzsche rejected the civilizing values bestowed by religion and wanted human beings to reconstruct their value system based on a liberated will. An aspect of human being, welling up from within the organism, the will should set forth new rules that everyone will be obliged to live with. As happens with all forms of Platonist thinking, a select few will be the arbiters of these rules.

Gray sees the Pinker book as a pep talk for wavering liberals:

Enlightenment Now is a rationalist sermon delivered to a congregation of wavering souls. To think of the book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake. Much of its more than 500 pages consists of figures aiming to show the progress that has been made under the aegis of Enlightenment ideals. Of course, these figures settle nothing. Like Pinker’s celebrated assertion that the world is becoming ever more peaceful – the statistical basis of which has been demolished by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – everything depends on what is included in them and how they are interpreted.

Gray concludes on a sober note, one that echoes views presented on this blog:

If an Enlightenment project survives, what reason is there for thinking it will be embodied in liberal democracy? What if the Enlightenment’s future is not in the liberal West, now almost ungovernable as a result of the culture wars in which it is mired, but Xi Jinping’s China, where an altogether tougher breed of rationalist is in charge? It is a prospect that Voltaire, Jeremy Bentham and other exponents of enlightened despotism would have heartily welcomed.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Justin Trudeau's Indian Fiasco


As a public service, I have been following Canadian Prime Minister Justin Bieber’s calamity-ridden trip to India.

For your interest, here are some remarks from an Indian journalist, one who had previously had warm feelings for the PM.

Barkha Dutt writes in the Washington Post:

How did Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the world’s favorite liberal mascot — a feminist man, with movie-star good looks, a 50 percent female cabinet and a political lexicon that has replaced “mankind” with “peoplekind” (making millions swoon) — end up looking silly, diminished and desperate on his trip to India this week?

Trudeau’s eight-day India expedition has been an absolute fiasco.

I will spare you the details. Dutt explains them at length in her excellent article. Let’s move ahead to her conclusion:

I confess, from afar, I used to be a Trudeau fan-girl. But after this trip, I’ve changed my mind. Trudeau has come across as flighty and facetious. His orchestrated dance moves and multiple costume changes in heavily embroidered kurtas and sherwanis make him look more like an actor on a movie set or a guest at a wedding than a politician who is here to talk business. Suddenly, all that charisma and cuteness seem constructed, manufactured and, above all, not serious.

Yes, indeed.  The PM was not there to do business. It’s all posturing and show. Be careful of liberal mascots masquerading as heads of state.

Jeffrey Immelt, Incorrigible Optimist


I don’t know what to make of this, but I imagine that some readers will have better information than I do. The other day Thomas Gryta did an extended analysis on Jeffrey Immelt’s failure as CEO of General Electric. The stock price tells the tale of an implosion, even though some of the carnage occurred after Immelt had abandoned ship.

You know that the psycho world has become infested with positivity. Cognitive psychologists did well to resurrect positive thinking from the bleak tragic vision bequeathed them by Freud. And yet, their relentless emphasis on happiness and good feeling comported certain risks. Among them, the current mania over Steven Pinker’s assertion that you have never had it so good, that the world is getting better and better… and that it’s all because we have overcome religious faith and are practicing the art of rational thought.

Pinker is a starry-eyed optimist, and, you will ask yourself, what could possibly be wrong with that.

Well, examine Gryta’s presentation of Immelt’s failure at GE. Could it all have been produced by an optimism that purposefully blinded itself to company problems? Was it produced by a relentless positivity that resembles the mindlessly absurd self-esteem movement? Or did Immelt lead his ship straight into an iceberg because he thought it was all theatre?

Gryta explains:

GE’s precipitous fall, following years of treading water while the overall economy grew, was exacerbated, some insiders say, by what they call “success theater.” Mr. Immelt and his top deputies projected an optimism about GE’s business and its future that didn’t always match the reality of its operations or its markets, according to more than a dozen current and former executives, investors and people close to the company.

This culture of confidence trickled down the ranks and even affected how those gunning to succeed Mr. Immelt ran their business units, some of these people said, with consequences that included unreachable financial targets, mistimed bets on markets and sometimes poor decisions on how to deploy cash.

The history of GE is to selectively only provide positive information,” said Deutsche Bank analyst John Inch, who has a “sell” rating on the stock. “There is a credibility gap between what they say and the reality of what is to come.”

Of course, Immelt has his defenders. And yet, Grypta notes, excessive optimism caused him to overpay for shares of GE stock:

… Mr. Immelt didn’t like hearing bad news, said several executives who worked with him, and didn’t like delivering bad news, either. He wanted people to make their sales and financial targets and thought he could make the numbers, too, they said.

The optimism was evident in how Mr. Immelt and the board used the company’s cash. Over the past three years, GE spent more than $29 billion on share repurchases, at an average price of almost $30, about twice the current level. That included billions of dollars spent less than a year before GE suddenly found itself strapped for cash last fall.

How did the stock do during his tenure?

Instead, at Mr. Immelt’s retirement in August the stock was below its level when he took over 16 years earlier. Including dividends, GE gained 8% with Mr. Immelt at the helm, while the S&P 500 rose 214%. Since he stepped down, the stock has lost about 43%, erasing almost $94 billion in market value. 

As I said, I am hardly an expert on GE or on the Immelt management style. Yet, is seems to embody the kind of Panglossian positive psychology that drowns the world in optimism and blinds us to dangers and risks.

America's Real Competition


America seems to have lost its mind. Its rational faculties have gone to seed and it is running around headless exclaiming that the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming.

It was all collusion. If it wasn’t collusion, it was treason. It was worse than Pearl Harbor, worse than the attack on the World Trade Center. We would call it Armageddon, but we need to reserve that one for the Trump tax reform bill.

Anyway, the intellectual elites are out there trying to overturn the result of a fair election in the name of defending democracy. Why do we think that these people are so smart?

Anyway, if you worship at the Church of the Liberal Pieties you must believe that the Russians colluded with the Trump campaign to defeat Hillary Clinton. How else could Hillary have lost?

Roger Kimball explains:

All of a sudden it was Russia, morning, noon, and night. Donald Trump must have ‘colluded’ with the Ruskies. It was the only answer to the otherwise imponderable question: how could Hillary Clinton lose? Every-one knew that she was a shoo-in, just as everyone knew that Donald Trump was a vulgar buffoon whose candidacy was a bad joke.

The only fly in this ointment was that no one could find any evidence that Trump had colluded with the Russians. This was not for lack of looking. The Democrats managed to saddle the Trump administration with a special counsel to investigate the charge.

A few sensible souls, possessing integrity, have offered that this is nonsense. One of the best, Stephen Cohen at The Nation has been saying that the current hysteria about Russia is making it far more difficult for the two nations to address any international issues together. A sensible point, well worth noting.

Kimball adds another salient point, namely that America’s real competitor on the world stage is not Russia, but China:

The second irony is that even as the media are running around skirling about the Russians, China is methodically extending its web of influence and power. We have all read about its encroachments in the South China Sea. This vast and weaponised manmade archipelago is a brazen attempt to extend China’s territorial claims and secure its hegemony in that part of the world.

Hardly a day goes by without another news story about China’s military and technological advances. As I write, a prominent tech website warns that the US is no longer guaranteed military technology dominance. ‘China is rapidly growing its fighter plane and stealth fighter capabilities,’ it warns. ‘China has developed competitive air-to-air missile capabilities.’

China has also become expert at projecting soft power. Consider the Confucius Institutes, Chinese government-sponsored cultural centres, that have sprung up at universities across the US. Not only are they potential havens for spies, they are mouthpieces for the Chinese government to disseminate the party line. As Peter Mattis, a former US intelligence analyst, noted, the institutes ‘are an instrument of the party’s power, not a support for independent scholarship’. Senator Rubio made the same point. ‘It’s a long-term, patient approach,’ he said. But then the Chinese are known for patience. Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, was once asked whether the French Revolution was a success. ‘It is too soon to say,’ he replied.

Politically correct elites in America are screaming about Russian interference. Meanwhile, a grave, multifaceted threat is coalescing just beyond the horizon of their consciousness. When will they wake up?

Now, you might see China as a threat. Or you might consider it a competitor. You might note that China’s expanding military presence in the South China Sea happened during the Obama administration. At the time, no one paid it much attention.

But, you will also note, as we have reported on this blog, that China wants very much to compete against the United States in the worlds of business, technology and commerce. It is building up its military technology at a rapid pace, too. 

And you will also note, that the American left does not want to engage in that kind of competition, in the marketplace, the playing field, the battlefield or the arena.

It is fighting supposed Russian election collusion because it wants to fight about minds and ideas. The American left had thought that it had fully and completely occupied the American mind… to the point where it was in complete control. After all, what with its monopoly control over the media and the educational establishment it had submitted American children and adults to constant indoctrination for decades now. How could Americans fail to vote the way their philosopher kings wanted them to vote?

The struggle against imaginary Russian collusion bespeaks another monumental failure. The struggle over democracy is a fight over an idea. The idealist faction of the American intelligentsia believes, as an article of faith, that the nation's success or failure will depend on whether it lives up to its ideals. Democracy is one; social justice is another.

Our Asian competitors are more pragmatic and more empirically minded. They are competing in industry, commerce, technology and the military. They care whether it works, not how it feels. They do not care, as Deng Xiaoping famously said, whether the cat is white or black. They care about whether it catches mice. 

We are masking our fear of competition with China with a hue and cry over our precious, sacred democracy— one that only succeeds when the people do what their overlords tell them to do.

Time for Scott Israel to Resign


If he had any self-respect Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel would resign his position. His department failed to act when it was informed, over and over again, that Nikolas Cruz was dangerous. Its deputy, Scott Peterson, stationed at M. S. Douglas High School during the massacre, stayed out of the way, leaving the children unprotected. And the first police officers on the scene were not from Broward County, but from Cold Springs. See Instapundit for the details.

Instead of resigning, Sheriff Israel, a proud Hillary Clinton supporter, is out and around on television promoting gun control. He is providing us with a portrait in cowardice.

And then there is this. You knew that this was part of the problem, didn’t you? But you, as I, refrained from saying anything… because we await the evidence.

Were you to ask why local authorities, from school officials to the sheriff’s office let Nikolas Cruz to run free, the answer seems to have something to do with an Obama era policy—keep minority children in school. The policy required everyone to overlook delinquent youths from minority groups, the better to keep the minority crime statistics down.

Jack Cashill reports for The American Thinker:

"We're not compromising school safety. We're really saving the lives of kids," boasted Michaelle Valbrun-Pope, executive director of Student Support Initiatives for Broward County Public Schools, in August 2017.

Valbrun-Pope was referring to what an article by Jeffrey Benzing in Public Source calls the "Broward County Solution." As Benzing relates, Broward County used to lead the state of Florida in sending students to the state's juvenile justice system. County leaders responded with a perfectly progressive solution: "lower arrests by not making arrests."

Authorities agreed to treat twelve different misdemeanor offenses as school-related issues, not criminal ones. The results impressed the people who initiated the program. Arrests dropped from more than a thousand in 2011-2012 to less than four hundred just four years later.

One particular motivation behind programs like Broward County's was the pressure from multiple sources to reduce the statistical disparity between black and Hispanic student arrests on one hand and white and Asian student arrests on the other. Benzing writes, for instance, how a Denver organization called "Padres & Jóvenes Unidos" successfully advocated for a program like Broward's to help achieve "racial and education equity" in Denver schools.

By virtue of his name alone, Nikolas de Jesús Cruz, the adopted son of Lynda and Roger Cruz, became a statistical Hispanic. As such, authorities at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland had every reason not to report his troubling and likely criminal behavior to the police.

There you have it.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Life in Feminist Multicultural Paradise

It's always fun to examine the track record of Sweden, the Western world's first Feminist Paradise, haven for multiculturalists and rapists. So, here's how Sweden is dealing with the problems created by its willingness to accept far too many Muslim migrants. Hint, it's not the crimes, it's the coverup. (via Maggie's Farm)

Justin Trudeau Does India


Today’s comic relief comes to us from the Daily Mail. What would we do without the Daily Mail. You recall that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, aka Justin Bieber has been touring India. It's more like a vacation than a state visit, so this gives him extra opportunities to look like a fool.

You will also recall that the prime minister of India sent a junior agriculture minister to greet Justin upon his arrival. Since Narendra Modi normally welcomes visiting dignitaries, everyone noticed the insult.

Now, the Western world’s more politically correct, ideologically sensitive, woke proponent of diversity has managed to act the perfect buffoon. Somehow someone told him that it would be a good idea to dress as an Indian… the better to show his respect for local customs. It was charming for a bit, but eventually became a national joke.

The Indian press is having a ball with young Justin. The Daily Mail has the compelling story:

Justin Trudeau has been ridiculed on social media by Indians for his 'tacky' and over the top outfit choices while on his first visit to their nation as Prime Minister.   

While many praised his clothing during the first two days of his trip, patience was wearing thin by the time he attended a Bollywood gala on Tuesday night, before the tide turned against him on Wednesday.

Ministers, authors, journalists and ordinary Indians lined up to mock him on Wednesday, saying his wardrobe was 'fake and annoying'. 

Perhaps taking note of the criticism, the Canadian leader donned a suit on Thursday as he visited Jama Masjid, one of India's largest mosques.

Among those who took to Twitter to comment, Omar Abdullah called it “choreographed cuteness.” Baahvna Arora found “Justin Bieber’s fancy dress display fake and annoying.” Shunali Kuhlar Shroff inquired: “Who advised Justin Trudeau to dress like a bridegroom at the Bombay event? Only a horse and a sehra seemed to be missing.”


Many observers suggested that it seemed Trudeau was attending a wedding from the way he was dressed (pictured here at one of Ghandi's former homes on Monday)


When he visited Bollywood, he exceeded all expectations. 


The Daily Mail explained:

But while the actors dressed down for the occasion, opting largely for black suits and shirts, Trudeau went all-out with a gaudy golden number.

India Today described the choice of clothing as 'tacky', suggesting it was insulting to his guests.

The paper wrote: 'We understand that the Trudeaus do not understand Indian clothing as well as Indian dignitaries do, but for someone who's been fond of wearing Indian kurtas even back home, it's not wrong to expect a touch of class.'

Now you know what it means to be a citizen of the world? Feeling edified yet?