Optimism and Pessimism: The Sad Case of Steven Pinker

As fate would have it, while checking out Gordon Marino’s new Existentialism book on Amazon, I caught the advertisement for Steven Pinker’s, Enlightenment Now.

According to the blurbs, and what I’ve seen in the interviews that he’s given, his notion is that if you take the long view, we should be optimistic: we live longer, have better health, more wealth, more peace, and more freedom than ever before.  He subscribes to the Enlightenment view of reason being an engine of progress, and an engine that has worked. He even graphs progress over the ages.

I don’t doubt his graphs, but I reject that the graphs should erase the bad news and make us optimistic.

Take this blurb for another new book:

A sweeping history of twentieth-century Europe, Out of Ashes tells the story of an era of unparalleled violence and barbarity yet also of humanity, prosperity, and promise.

Konrad Jarausch describes how the European nations emerged from the nineteenth century with high hopes for continued material progress and proud of their imperial command over the globe, only to become embroiled in the bloodshed of World War I, which brought an end to their optimism and gave rise to competing democratic, communist, and fascist ideologies. He shows how the 1920s witnessed renewed hope and a flourishing of modernist art and literature, but how the decade ended in economic collapse and gave rise to a second, more devastating world war and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Jarausch further explores how Western Europe surprisingly recovered due to American help and political integration. Finally, he examines how the Cold War pushed the divided continent to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and how the unforeseen triumph of liberal capitalism came to be threatened by Islamic fundamentalism, global economic crisis, and an uncertain future.

What’s the lesson? Well, it seems Out of Ashes captures the truth of the ups and downs of history in a vivid way, refusing — reasonably — to tally whether the ups outweigh the downs. He writes as any morally sensitive person would, recognizing the co-presence of barbarism and decency in recent European history.

What’s wrong with Pinker’s approach?

If I said I was optimistic about the world the day after 9/11 or Hiroshima, I’d be irrational, insensitive, and blind.  The Pinker view is that we should look at the high points in the ups and downs of history, and look from on high, not from the trenches or the emergency rooms or the villages subjected to gas attacks.

I’d say it can be immoral and certainly insensitive to watch the highs getting higher rather than taking in the horrors of immediate suffering.  If I lose only two of six children to street violence or disease I should — what? — cheer because 100 years ago I would have lost three of six children to violence or disease?!?

Pinker’s mistake is to think that judging progress in the long view gives me reason to be optimistic in the short view, here and now. If my here-and-now is Syria or Yemen, or loss of health benefits, or news of the disintegration of justice in Washington, it won’t help to join Pinker in applauding the fact that things were worse all around 200 or 500 years ago. Horrors are horrors whether or not medieval or stone age or 3rd world horrors are worse.

Dan Rather takes a walk in the woods when the news gets too depressing. That’s more reasonable that reading Pinker’s cheer-me-up tonic. Massacres should be depressing no matter their past frequencies or purported present infrequency. We should be ashamed and pessimistic that reason hasn’t made massacres as unthinkable today as dying  from the common cold.




One comment on “Optimism and Pessimism: The Sad Case of Steven Pinker

  1. dmf says:

    well said, all of these folks who talk about the gains made via capitalisms never take into account that the cost of all that is our unfolding climate disaster, like accountants who don’t consider “externalities” in their costs of doing business.
    this bit of Said reminded me of your recent post on truth values:
    Berger’s project is to distinguish the authentic from the merely successful, and to save the former from the ravages of the latter.

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