I woke up at 5am this morning, grumble grumble grumble, and trudged off to the kitchen to make the coffee, like usual. Then as usual I fired up the iPad and browsed while waiting for the water to boil and the coffee to steep, when…
That song had been running through my head since the Watchmen finale the other night, but it erupted into full symphonic orchestral sound in my head when I found Jessica Riskin’s article in the LA Review of Books, Pinker’s Pollyannish Philosophy and Its Perfidious Politics. Oh god yes. It’s so good to see that fraud exposed. I have been irritated by Pinker for years — he’s constantly going on about “progress” and “liberal ideals”, but what he really means is “crush our enemies in the East” and a pattern of conservative thought that would make Ben Shapiro comfortable. His books are propaganda for the Right, to allow them to pretend that they are the True Progressives.
You need to read the review for yourself. It’s delightful.
“INTELLECTUALS HATE REASON,” “Progressives hate progress,” “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery.” No, wait, those last two are from a different book, but it’s easy to get mixed up. Steven Pinker begins his latest — a manifesto inspirationally entitled Enlightenment Now — with a contrast between “the West,” which he says is critical of its own traditions and values, and “the Islamic State,” which “knows exactly what it stands for.” Given the book’s title, one expects Pinker to be celebrating a core Enlightenment ideal: critical skepticism, which demands the questioning of established traditions and values (such as easy oppositions between “the West” and “the bad guys”). But no, in a surprise twist, Pinker apparently wants us over here in “the West” to adopt an Islamic State–level commitment to our “values,” which he then equates with “classical liberalism” (about which more presently). You begin to see, reader, why this review — which I promised to write last spring — took me all summer and much of the fall to finish. Just a few sentences into the book, I am tangled in a knot of Orwellian contradictions.
Enlightenment Now purports to demonstrate by way of “data” that “the Enlightenment has worked.” What are we to make of this? A toaster oven can work or not by toasting or failing to toast your bagel. My laser printer often works by printing what I’ve asked it to print, and sometimes doesn’t by getting the paper all jammed up inside. These machines were designed and built to do particular, well-defined jobs. There is no uncertainty, no debate, no tradition of critical reflection, no voluminous writings regarding what toaster ovens or laser printers should do, or which guiding principles or ideals should govern them.
On the other hand, uncertainty, debate, and critical reflection were the warp and woof of the Enlightenment, which was no discrete, engineered device with a well-defined purpose, but an intellectual and cultural movement spanning several countries and evolving over about a century and a half. If one could identify any single value as definitive of this long and diverse movement, it must surely be the one mentioned above, the value of critical skepticism. To say it “worked” vitiates its very essence. But now the Enlightenment’s best-selling PR guy takes “skepticism” as a dirty word; if that’s any indication, then I guess the Enlightenment didn’t work, or at any rate, it’s not working now. Maybe it came unplugged? Is there a paper jam?
Riskin goes through Pinker’s evocation of major thinkers of Enlightenment philosophy and shows that he gets them all wrong. Kant, Hume, Diderot — somehow, Pinker distorts them all into cheerleaders for a version of the Enlightenment in which all we have to do is think hard and do science, and like Mr Spock, we will all get the right answer, and it will be the same answer for everyone. It’s weird. The only book by Kant that I ever struggled through was his Critique of Pure Reason, and, I don’t know, isn’t just the title a great big hint?
In fact, every one of Pinker’s boosters of reason and science was a skeptical analyst of these. It’s not that they were anti-reason or anti-science. Rather, it was the twinning of reason and skepticism that most definitively characterized Enlightenment thought and writing. In particular, Enlightenment authors were keenly aware that knowledge is inseparable from the knower, composed not only of the thing known, but of the knower’s perspective, passions, experience, interpretation, and instinct. Skepticism was the means by which they acknowledged this truth and put it to work. By eliminating skepticism from his rendition of the Enlightenment, Pinker has done the equivalent of removing every second word of a book: what’s left behind is not half the sense of the original, but just nonsense.
And then there’s Pinker’s worship of data. Every scientist knows that data is only part of the story; interpretation shapes that data, but even more, methods and sources select what data you see, and no amount of data can describe the totality of the phenomenon you’re attempting to describe. We are all peeking at the universe through pinholes, and attempting to summarize its nature with theories and models. Pinker, though, is trying to convince the reader that his graphs and charts and tables are comprehensive and tell a uniform message of a perfectable and perfecting world, which is really just a way of belittling real problems to tell us that everything’s all right.
Then there are the graphs that do not appear in the book: graphs showing rising sea levels, rising temperatures, the resulting natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires, mass shootings, and the list could go on. Indeed, it should set off alarm bells that every single graph in the book points in the same direction: every day in every way, better and better. My point is not that things are getting worse rather than better, but that history is not a straight line up or down, and that presenting “data” as though it produces and speaks for itself is worse than useless: it is profoundly dishonest. What we need in this time of political, environmental, and cultural crisis is precisely the value Pinker rejects but that his Enlightenment heroes embraced, whatever their differences of opinion on other matters: skepticism, and an attendant spirit of informed criticism. Skepticism is kryptonite to the sort of demagogue who brandishes something — a cross, a flag, a MAGA hat … or a graph — and calls anyone who questions it a delusional know-nothing. Pinker’s story is Manichaean, good versus evil, and the bad guys are intellectuals, progressives, and the misleading news media. Any of this sounding familiar? With friends like these, the Enlightenment doesn’t need enemies.
I am looking forward to the squawks of indignation from the usual crowd of neo-conservatives masquerading as neo-liberals masquerading as honest seekers of the truth. The apologists for Pinker will be loud…and wrong, as usual.