Virtue of rad­i­cal hon­esty

The Republican Herald - - OPINION - (Brooks is a writer for The New York Times)

Last week I asked a group of stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Chicago a ques­tion I’m ask­ing stu­dents around the coun­try: Who are your he­roes?

There’s al­ways a long pause af­ter I ask. Even­tu­ally one stu­dent sug­gested Steven Pinker. An­other chimed in Jonathan Haidt.

That was in­ter­est­ing. Both men are psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sors, at Har­vard and New York Univer­sity, who bravely stand against what can be the smoth­er­ing or­tho­doxy that in­hibits thought on cam­pus, but not from the fa­mil­iar con­ser­va­tive po­si­tion.

One way Pinker does it is by re­fus­ing to be pes­simistic. There is a mood across Amer­ica, but es­pe­cially on cam­pus, that in or­der to show how aware of so­cial in­jus­tice you are, you have to go around in a per­pet­ual state of in­dig­na­tion, neg­a­tiv­ity and right­eous rage. Pinker re­fuses to do this. In his new book, “En­light­en­ment Now,” he ar­gues that this pose is dis­hon­est to­ward the facts.

We’re all aware of the gloomy sta­tis­tics around wage stag­na­tion and in­come in­equal­ity, but Pinker con­tends that we should not be nos­tal­gic for the econ­omy of the 1950s, when jobs were plen­ti­ful and unions strong. A third of Amer­i­can chil­dren lived in poverty. Sixty per­cent of se­niors had in­comes less than $1,000 a year. Only half the pop­u­la­tion had any sav­ings in the bank at all.

Be­tween 1979 and 2014, mean­while, the per­cent­age of poor Amer­i­cans dropped to 20 per­cent from 24 per­cent. The per­cent­age of lower-mid­dle-class Amer­i­cans dropped to 17 from 24. The per­cent­age of Amer­i­cans who were up­per mid­dle class (earn­ing $100,000 to $350,000) shot up­ward to 30 per­cent from 13 per­cent.

There’s a fair bit of so­cial mo­bil­ity. Half of all Amer­i­cans wind up in the top 10 per­cent of earn­ers at at least one point in their ca­reer; 1 in 9 spend some time in the top 1 per­cent.

Poverty has been trans­formed by fall­ing prices and gov­ern­ment sup­port. “When poverty is de­fined in terms of what peo­ple con­sume rather than what they earn, we find that the Amer­i­can poverty rate has de­clined by 90 per­cent since 1960,” Pinker writes.

Amer­ica has a pretty big safety net. Our num­bers look bad be­cause so much of our health care spend­ing is fun­neled through em­ploy­ers, but when you add this pri­vate so­cial spend­ing to state so­cial spend­ing, Amer­ica has the sec­ond-high­est level of such spend­ing of the 35 na­tions in the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment, af­ter France.

Pinker has data like this in sphere af­ter sphere, mark­ing the progress we’ve made in health, the en­vi­ron­ment, safety, knowl­edge and over­all hap­pi­ness. So is he right, that so­ci­ety is in much bet­ter shape than we’re al­low­ing?

In part, but not to­tally. Pinker’s philo­soph­i­cal lens pre­vents him from see­ing where the real prob­lems lie. He calls him­self an en­light­en­ment man, but he’s re­ally a sci­en­tific ra­tio­nal­ist. He puts tremen­dous em­pha­sis on the value of in­di­vid­ual rea­son. The key to progress is in­for­ma­tion. The key sin in the world is a re­sult ei­ther of en­tropy, the ran­dom­ness that is built into any sys­tem, or faith — dogma cloud­ing rea­son.

The big prob­lem with his ra­tio­nal­is­tic world­view is that while he charts the way in­di­vid­u­als have ben­e­fited over the cen­turies, he spends barely any time on the qual­ity of the re­la­tion­ships be­tween in­di­vid­u­als.

That is to say, Pinker doesn’t spend much time on the de­cline of so­cial trust, the break­down of fam­ily life, the po­lar­iza­tion of na­tional life, the spread of tribal men­tal­i­ties, the rise of nar­cis­sism, the de­cline of so­cial cap­i­tal, the ris­ing alien­ation from in­sti­tu­tions or the de­cline of cit­i­zen­ship and neigh­bor­li­ness. It’s sim­ply im­pos­si­ble to tell any good-news story when look­ing at the data from these moral, so­cial and emo­tional spheres.

Pinker is a paragon of ex­actly the kind of in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty and courage we need to re­store conversation and com­mu­nity, and the stu­dents are right to re­vere him. But to­day’s sit­u­a­tion re­minds us of the weak­ness of the sort of Carte­sian ra­tio­nal­ism Pinker cham­pi­ons and rep­re­sents. Con­scious rea­son can get you only so far when tribal emo­tions have been aroused, when ex­is­ten­tial fears rain down, when nar­cis­sis­tic im­pulses have been given free rein, when spir­i­tual long­ings have nowhere healthy to go, when so­cial trust has been dev­as­tated, when all the un­con­scious net­works that make up 99 per­cent of our think­ing are aflame and dis­or­dered.

Our prob­lems are re­la­tional. I don’t know about yours, but af­ter the CNN Town Hall on Feb. 21, my Twit­ter feed was aflame, with two rag­ing war­ring camps. If we had an emo­tion­ally healthy polity, it would be com­pletely easy to pass eight or 10 sen­si­ble re­stric­tions to at least make it harder for lonely at­ten­tion-seek­ers to get guns. But our na­tion is emo­tion­ally sick.

Pinker’s ra­tio­nal­ism is not the to­tal cure. But I have to con­fess, I re­ally like him. A few years ago the magazine Mo­ment gave ge­netic tests to a bunch of writ­ers with Jewish her­itage. The tests re­veal that Pinker and I are third cousins. Learn­ing of this kin­ship tie, I now feel spe­cial af­fec­tion for him. Why? There’s no ra­tio­nal, sci­en­tific rea­son. I just do.

David Brooks

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