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.”
In the United States, this spectacular ingratitude is lamentably bipartisan, he says, shared by anti-establishmentarians on both sides who refuse to see the light: “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.
Not so obvious, though, that he didn’t need to write a 550-page book to make his case. Pinker is a scientist — a psychologist, to be exact — and he prides himself on being thorough, valiantly fighting “progressophobia” with his voluble sentences and a fusillade of data. When he published “The Better Angels of Our Nature” in 2011, he believed he unequivocally showed that modernity and liberal Enlightenment values had made people less violent, and so he was taken aback by skeptical reviews that had the temerity to question his research methods or his conclusions.
“I had thought that a parade of graphs with time on the horizontal axis, body counts or other measures of violence on the vertical, and a line that meandered from the top left to the bottom right would cure audiences” of their delusions and “persuade them that at least in this sphere of well-being the world has made progress,” he recalls near the beginning of “Enlightenment Now.” 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.
Steven PinkerCredit…Rose Lincoln
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.