Sitting at home instead of on a plane to Ireland today. All the gigs have been cancelled. All the international trips have been cancelled. So I hit a downward spiral and listened to Robert Wrights interview with Steven Pinker. There is hardly a thinker alive that frustrates me more than Pinker. It’s especially true because I liked The Language Instinct so much.
This interview was frustrating on a number of levels. Most of it is Robert Wright talking and not listening. On top of that, a lot of his talking is petty griping about something Pinker tweeted at him. Pinker celebrates the Enlightenment and reason in contrast to what came before. It’s as if the whole history of the world went on for all those years and then all of a sudden someone thought, “Hey, we could use our brains. Let’s invent reason!”
Of course, when he talks about the Enlightenment improving things for everyone, he means medical technology, and agricultural technology, and all the good things the Enlightenment has done. He doesn’t mean, nuclear bombs, and sarin gas, and global warming that might destroy the planet.
Even the violence of the 20th century, which by most standards was the most violent and death filled century in our existence is handled in a statistical slight of hand. 6 million Jews and 6 million gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses, et al. systematically executed by Nazis might seem bad, but when you consider it as a percentage of the population, it’s just a drop in the bucket. However many tens of millions Stalin killed, no problem. As a percentage of the population, it’s not that many. Pol Pot filling up all those fields with 7 million people? But its 7 million out of so many million more. 200,000 people killed by a nuclear bomb? That’s hardly even worth talking about.
But really, the technology that allowed the systematic murder of millions and millions of people is also the technology that allows the majority of people on the earth to be better off than they were before. Of course, that is “better off” by the standards that Pinker chooses for measurement.