On Jan. 3, a newly divided Congress began its session amid extraordinary partisan hostility. Americans are at each other's throats, the polls say. These may be the most bitterly divided days in this country since the 1960s, or even the 1860s, we are told. But a fundamental question seems to have been drowned out in all the shouting, and that is why?
We are not in the throes of a profound cultural revolution. Half a million young men and women are not engaged in an unpopular foreign war in which tens of thousands of them are dying. Virginians and Pennsylvanians are not bayoneting each other in frozen fields over an existential threat to the country. What we need is perspective, to help us step back from the brink and allow our elected representatives to conduct the people's business this year with some degree of sanity.
Luckily a giant dose of perspective was granted to the world in 2018 in the form of Steven Pinker's meticulously researched and beautifully written book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Though at times the book lapses into lengthy harangues on politics and religion, its main substance is a well-nigh irrefutable demonstration of how the 18th-century Enlightenment stimulated the greatest advancements in human welfare in the history of the world, which continue to this day.
As such, it is a salutary corrective to the hysterical pessimism of recent years and a sorely needed source of inspiration for a new bipartisanship based on shared appreciation of our past and hope for our future.
For instance, you may have heard that President Trump colluded with Russians to steal the 2016 election, that he slept with models and porn stars whom he paid off and lied about, that he is a racist, a sexist, an authoritarian, a treasonous proto-fascist who is crassly blundering into a global conflagration and/or worldwide depression, and that America as we know it may soon be gone. Likewise you may remember that a different segment of the population spent the greater part of eight years stridently insisting that President Obama was a dissembling crypto-socialist and a feckless narcissist and that the decline of the West was at hand.
But have you heard that the world is about 100 times wealthier than it was two centuries ago, and that the proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty has fallen from almost 90 percent to less than 10 percent? Did you know that the proportion of people killed annually in wars is less than a quarter of what it was in the 1980s, and half of a percent of what it was in World War II? Enlightenment Now provides a thorough compendium of such knowledge showing that, far from living in especially trying times, ours is a golden age.
Not only are Americans less likely to die in wars, we are half as likely to be murdered as we were two dozen years ago, and over 90 percent less likely to die from car wrecks and all other accidents than at the start of the 20th century. Humanity is not only better off materially but in matters of social justice as well. As Pinker summarizes in Chapter 20 of Enlightenment Now:
" People are getting not just healthier, richer, and safer, but freer. Two centuries ago a handful of countries, embracing one percent of the world's people, were democratic; today two-thirds of the world's countries, embracing two-thirds of its people, are. Not long ago half the world's countries had laws that discriminated against racial minorities; today more countries have policies that favor their minorities than policies that discriminate against them.
"At the turn of the 20th century, women could vote in just one country; today they can vote in every country where men can vote save one. Laws that criminalize homosexuality continue to be stricken down, and attitudes towards minorities, women, and gay people are becoming steadily more tolerant, particularly among the young, a portent of the world's future. Hate crimes, violence against women, and victimization of children are all in long-term decline, as is the exploitation of children for their labor."
A vastly greater percentage of humanity is literate and educated than 50 years ago. People are living longer and in greater comfort as diseases and ailments continue to be cured and mitigated. Americans work far less, both at jobs and on daily chores, and have astonishingly greater access to travel, cuisine, entertainment, and every conceivable form of leisure. And all of this has coincided with a dramatic increase in global conscientiousness, with all developed countries making much greater efforts to reduce the rate of pollution, deforestation, extinction of species, and consumption of resources.
To be sure, problems remain. Disease, poverty, and war have not been eradicated. In the rich world, the working class has seen wages and prospects stagnate and decline for decades. America has experienced a sharp uptick in deaths from substance abuse and suicide, and our country faces psycho-social issues like mass shootings by children that would have been inconceivable decades ago.
But without minimizing the seriousness of these and other issues, they must be considered in the context of history. They are not greater, either in amount or in kind, than the problems humanity has steadily overcome since the start of the Enlightenment, which gives us every reason to believe that they will be overcome, if we continue on this path.
This "if" brings us to the second major takeaway from Pinker's book: These triumphs were not inevitable and will not inevitably continue. Mankind did not stumble into this golden age by chance or because it was the necessary next step on our long march from the primordial stew. We achieved this blessed state as a direct result of the free application of reason, science, and humanism to the pursuit of human flourishing, which began in earnest with the 18th-century intellectual movement in western Europe that we call the Enlightenment.
The fundamental tenets of this movement, such as freedom of thought, speech, and enterprise, often referred to as "classical liberalism," were enshrined in the foundation of the American republic and spread throughout the world by the liberal international order. The wonders of the modern world have been achieved because societies have increasingly structured their institutions, laws, and governments according to classically liberal Enlightenment values, and not according to feudal, monarchical, totalitarian, or any other set of values. Therefore, in order to keep the good times rolling, to continue surmounting obstacles that once seemed insurmountable--reducing climate change with technology, perhaps, or making war obsolete--America must remain committed to Enlightenment values, and to the liberal international order based upon them.
The need for such commitment is a major theme of Enlightenment Now. But if the book has a flaw, it's that Pinker's diagnosis of the dangers on the horizon is rather partisan. Tellingly, he notes on page 334 that he was urged by readers of his early drafts to end each chapter by warning, "[B]ut all this progress is threatened if Donald Trump gets his way." Then, as if on cue, he proceeds to spend much of the book warning that President Trump and his Republican populists, with their nationalism and anti-globalist animus, threaten all this progress. This is not to say that there is no such threat, but that this focus is shortsighted and misses the larger, more encouraging truth that Enlightenment values are the American creed, not the exclusive property of progressives.
Conserving America's traditional Enlightenment values is, in fact, a central component of the conservative raison d'etre. In another critically acclaimed book from 2018, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, Sir Roger Scruton explains that conservatism was originally a defense of tradition against radical innovation, as expressed by Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France, but over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries it became the primary exponent of classical liberalism, in response to the rise of socialism.
Scruton says, "[i]n this battle conservatism became, to a great measure, the true defender of liberty, against what was at best a rising system of bureaucratic government and, at worst, as in the Soviet Union, a tyranny yet more murderous than that of the Jacobins in revolutionary France." He further explains that after adopting classical liberalism as its central ideology, the conservative movement became preoccupied with the preservation of western civilization, understood as having the Enlightenment at its very heart.
Therefore to keep our country on the tried and true Enlightenment path, it is not necessary for Democrats to prevail. It is only necessary for conservatives to behave like conservatives, and for progressives to focus on progress.
If progressives focus on progress, they should see how much of it has been made under the philosophy dearest to conservatives and make common cause. After all, in a historical and international context, we are all liberals.
By pursuing a partisan angle, Pinker misses the opportunity to present Enlightenment Now as an argument for unity and a renewed sense of purpose in American politics. But regardless of his intention, this is how the book should be read. Just look at what we have done together! Humanity's recent surge out of the general wretchedness of 200,000 years wasn't a product of some impersonal force of history, or of one party's victory over the other, but of conservatives and progressives fighting for freedom and human flourishing by expanding the legacy of the Enlightenment.
This is the true American cause. It is the call home and the way forward. And the free world has much work left to do. We are still over-polluting the planet and under-accommodating the many millions of people whose lives have been upended by technology and globalization, and we are facing a rising superpower dead set on displacing the liberal international order with one decidedly less liberal.
So calm down, America. Take a few days and read Enlightenment Now. Then let's get back to business.
Todd C. Watson is an attorney in Newport, a JAG officer, and a former journalist.
Editorial on 01/06/2019
Print Headline: Enlightenment continues to glow