Thursday, March 1, 2018

Steven Pinker: Don't Worry; Be Happy

Some few courageous souls have not been taken in by Steven Pinker’s version of the Enlightenment. Today, in the New York Times Jennifer Szalai vigorously opposes Pinker’s Panglossian optimism. She is none too impressed by his seductive effort to grant his version of the Enlightenment credit for everything that is right with the world and denigrating the Counter Enlightenment as the cause of everything that is wrong. As Bill Gates, the world’s richest dupe, drools over Pinker’s seductive wiles, Szalai offers us a better, more balanced approach.

As she suggests, Pinker’s theory seems to be: Don’t worry; be happy. You will immediately understand that if you bask in happiness and ignore all dangers, you will run straight into a ditch. You will not see it coming. It will descend upon you like a black swan. After all, writers at the turn of the twentieth century were declaring that humanity had achieved a higher plane of existence, the kind that would end wars and famines and oppression. How did that one work out?

Szalai opens her argument:

Steven Pinker doesn’t just want you to be happy; he wants you to be grateful too. His new book, “Enlightenment Now,” is a spirited and exasperated rebuke to anyone who refuses to concede that the world is becoming a better place. “None of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become,” he writes. “People seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch as much as ever.”

Isn’t everything amazing? The world is chock-a-bloc with nuclear weapons. It contains more than a few deviants who might very well use them. And yet, we must be happy at how wonderful life is.

She continues, quoting Pinker’s insistence on the righteousness of his cause. It is important to note that Pinker is engaging in intellectual seduction; he wants you to join the cult of true believers in happiness. And he wants to give all the credit to atheism:

“Left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have themselves become secular religions, providing people with a community of like-minded brethren, a catechism of sacred beliefs, a well-populated demonology and a beatific confidence in the righteousness of their cause.” Of course, Pinker’s confidence in the righteousness of his own cause may come across as similarly beatific (he’s an atheist who’s confident enough to use the word “blessed” without a hint of irony), but as he repeatedly tells us, the evidence is on his side. Scientific discovery and technological developments have ensured that “everything is amazing.” He’s merely expounding the obvious.

As I have often mentioned, the Enlightenment project has always mined religious narratives, all the while proclaiming itself to have overcome religious faith.

Pinker’s project is a polemic, designed to “cure” audiences. Thus, he is using positive psychology to provide therapy… for our minds. If only we learn how to see the world through rose-colored glasses, everything will be well. It’s all in your mind, that is, in your attitude:

But Pinker’s inability to “cure audiences” and “persuade them” doesn’t mean he has reconsidered his rhetorical approach; 300 pages after bemoaning those poor souls who read “Better Angels” and weren’t bowled over by his panoply of statistics, Pinker doubles down with still more data. “We have seen six dozen graphs that have vindicated the hope for progress by charting the ways in which the world has been getting better,” he writes.

As mentioned here, if you ignore the twentieth century or declare the horrors that were visited on human beings during that time to be a reaction against the Enlightenment, you can pretend that all is well and has been getting better since the end of the eighteenth century:

To that end, Pinker offers numbers to show that the world has, on the whole, become safer, healthier and wealthier. These benefits are more pronounced in the West, but even in developing countries conditions have improved through impressive public health advances, including better maternal care and vaccination programs. Whereas many people used to die from something so basic as lack of access to food, today rates of chronic undernourishment and catastrophic famines are on the decline.

Much of the progress did not come about because the world adopted liberal democracy. It came about because China, in particular, adopted free enterprise economic policies. It was not about the great liberal ideas, but about the practice of free markets.

Next, Szalai makes an important point. Pinker does not consider the lives of individuals. He sees only the aggregate, those aspects of it that support his belief and his faith. It is absurd to call Pinker anything other than a purveyor of a new system of beliefs and a new faith:

Besides, he has little patience for individual tragedy; it’s the aggregate that excites him. Even if manufacturing jobs have gone to China, “and the world’s poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class,” he still sees this as cause for celebration: “As citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the trade-off is worth it.”

But life isn’t lived in the aggregate, and it’s crude utilitarian sentiments like this — a jarring blend of chipper triumphalism and unfeeling sang froid — that makes “Enlightenment Now” such a profoundly maddening book.

Being as Pinker is a Hegelian he adopts an approach that becomes “messianic.” Here Szalai grasps the essential:

Part of the problem is that Pinker succumbs to a version of the magical thinking he otherwise rails against. For all his intermittent disclaimers about how past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, he keeps slipping into messianic anticipation. “Though I am skittish about any notion of historical inevitability, cosmic forces or mystical arcs of justice,” he writes, “some kinds of social change really do seem to be carried along by an inexorable tectonic force.”

And she notes well that Pinker is cherry-picking evidence and distorting facts in order to seduce your weak mind:

Pinker ends up undermining his own arguments with a tendency to overstate his case. He is so determined to keep the Enlightenment unsullied and pristine that he seethes at anyone who deigns to point out that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, scolding “prophets of doom” like the philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer for perpetrating “a demonization campaign” that drew a link between the Enlightenment project and fascism. He is especially piqued by those who observe that science was sometimes used to justify monstrous ends, including racism and eugenics.

Pinker’s book is filled with such fulsome apologias, which inadvertently suggest that the gains of the Enlightenment are so delicate that they require the historical gloss he compulsively provides.

As for Pinker’s cosmopolitanism, the citizenry of the world silliness, Szalai easily sees through it:

He wants to discourage the kind of fatalism that leads people to think the only way forward is to tear everything down. But he seems surprisingly blind to how he fuels such fatalism by playing to the worst stereotype of the enlightened cosmopolitan: disdainful and condescending — sympathetic to humanity in the abstract but impervious to the suffering of actual human being.

At a time when most reviewers, left and right, are drooling over the Pinker book, it is good to find  a reviewer who sees through the smoke and grasps the truth.


Jack Fisher said...

"As citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the trade-off [of manufacturing jobs from the US to China] is worth it.”

As Jay Silverheels, former Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, once asked, "Who is this 'we', Kemosabe?"

Pinker is veering into social darwinism, never a good path.

Sam L. said...

Yes the world is getting better...and the South Africans are going to dispossess the remaining white population.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Jack Fisher @March 1, 2018 at 6:52 PM:

Exactly. The Darwinist path is always alluring to the “brights,” our cognitive elite whose metaphysics is dogmatic scientific materialism. It’s seemingly unavoidable for a uber-logical nihilist.

As far as a manufacturing jobs trade-off, it is simply amoral to conduct the labor arbitrage we’ve been doing since China gained Most Favored Nation trade status (combined with the NAFTA loopholes) with public education in such disastrous shape. Guaranteed universal income actually starts to make sense if we keep going down this path of screwing middle class labor. I practically feel like a Democratic Socialist when I hear these sickos like the lobbyists for the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce and it’s globalist trade policy.

Jack Fisher said...

I'm no economist, but someone explain why printing mo' money won't necessarily result in price hikes for staples like Colt 45 tallboys.

Ares Olympus said...

This optimism, if that's what you call it, is the same that any "Free market" libertarian sells. If we can just get the government out of the way, smart people will make life better for everyone else, and make a 100 billion dollars to boot.

And just like true believers of the invisible hands of the market, its almost impossible to imagine what the alternative is. Every alternative sounds like Luddites to true believers, if we dare imagine any limits should be applied to the individual's right to spend his hard earned money on anything he pleases, as long as he's following some sort of golden rule in the abstract.

Like we can feel things are moving in the right direction when subsistence farmers move to the city, and work in a factory to make cheap things for richer countries, at least until robot labor replace them. But until then, workers suddenly are expanding the GNP of their country, and bringing in new dollars to help make interest or dividend payments back to distant investors.

It all sounds good to imagine someday soon 7 billion people will own smart phones and be just as distracted and unhappy as Americans as they try to avoid thinking about how much debt they owe. The game looks like a high wire act where winners stay up, and the losers somewhere far below when they fall, if they live, won't be a problem.

Sam L. said...

With respect to my comment on South Africa, see this, from a South African:

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Libertarians, invisible hands, subsistence and billions of people... and not a salient, cohesive thought. More of the same.

Get back to your own blog. Oh, that’s right... no one was reading it. Ever wonder why?