Ironically, some of the most sincere voices in film and fiction, who push messages of progress, are instead undermining it by encouraging cynical gloom. Take my esteemed colleague in the craft of creating worlds, Charles Stross, whose popular blog is often on target when it comes to listing phenomena that push against any hope for continuing our Western Democratic Scientific Enlightenment. The failure modes that he lists are daunting and mostly very real... and tell only half the story...
The other half -- how we got the freedom and other goodies that are in peril, in the first place -- almost never comes up, nor the many, many countervailing forces that we might use - as our ancestors used them - to keep the Enlightenment Experiment going.
Why this obsession with downer news? Well, for one thing, dire warnings are more useful than polyanna-pangloss-happy ravings! If I must choose - zero-sum - between extremes, then please do have the cynics come sit next to me!
But zero-sum is deeply stupid and self-defeating. As is stylish cynicism, over the long run. Diagnosing a disease is most effective when it is accompanied by a confident determination to take action. And that, in turn, requires some sense of the body's strengths, as well as its weaknesses.
In this new series, I plan to show how this same syndrome pervades academia and popular punditry. The overall result has been a shattering of confidence in our ability to improve, giving comfort to those who see no reason to improve, at all.
== The worst sin: admitting good news ==
Among the most important books of our era is Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) which presents voluminous statistical and other evidence to show that the cynical catechisms of both left and right are specious.
“Why is such good news anathema — even rage-inducing — among zealots at all ends of the political spectrum?”
But that is what so many hear. And that perception is, in its own right, deeply sick.
Now please, look over those two sentences again. Don't skim. They are blatantly true, and reveal stunning psychoses spanning our so-called political “spectrum.” In fact, both sides are functionally insane. Especially liberals, for not seeing the simple sales-pitch they could start using:
... by which I mean vile of Gray. In judging sages of the past, the rule must be “did they try hard to push our horizons of inclusion wider than the assumptions under which they had been raised?” If they fought to enlarge tolerance and opportunity beyond what men and women of their times took for granted, then yes, they were heroes of “enlightenment” and not hypocrites, as manipulative cynics like Mr. Gray would have you believe.
“Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
No, if anything I am being gentle, especially after Gray's loathsome trickery was quintupled — when he tried to fob off onto the Enlightenment all blame for Hitler and Stalin!
“You would never know, from reading Pinker, that Nazi “scientific racism” was based in theories whose intellectual pedigree goes back to Enlightenment thinkers such as the prominent Victorian psychologist and eugenicist Francis Galton. Such links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism are, for Pinker, merely aberrations, distortions of a pristine teaching that is innocent of any crime: the atrocities that have been carried out in its name come from misinterpreting the true gospel, or its corruption by alien influences. The childish simplicity of this way of thinking is reminiscent of Christians who ask how a religion of love could possibly be involved in the Inquisition. In each case it is pointless to argue the point, since what is at stake is an article of faith.”
Anyone who correlates Nazism and Stalinism - two fiercely repressive state religions and pyramidal-authoritarian despotisms - with anything other than a pair of frontal assaults by romanticism against the tolerant diversity of enlightenment empiricism, is either a supreme delusion-artist or an outright propagandist. The fact that actual scientists fled both the Nazi and the Communist hells as fact as they could, lending all their fiber to strengthening the democratic west, just might suggest that Germany and the USSR were using the term “scientific” as an incantation, far removed from the real thing. The very thing that their befuddled modern analogues -- romantics like Mr. Gray -- also confuse.
But yes, we have stuff to atone-for.
Please read again that last sentence and let it sink in. Across all of time, nations generally devoted half of their national wealth to war or defense, almost anywhere you look. Half.
What was the average under Pax Americana? Two percent of GDP — that is how much the NATO countries are currently arguing over. A pittance that would be hilarious, if folks from any other era showed up to offer comment.
The exception? The USA, which for a human lifespan has carried the more “normal” defense burden, protecting trade and general peace. And thereby empowered other nations to prosper. These aren’t just assertions. Refute them, if you can! (In the form, of a wager please: put real money on it.) You cannot.
Dang. Just dang. Um, has he watched even one historical documentary, ever, of any kind? Notice that Gray does not even try to back this up. He armwaves assertions. He is the Fox News of cynicism.
Continue to Part II: Is Conflict Necessary for Human Advancement?