Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Author:Steven Pinker
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Published: 2018-02-13T00:00:00+00:00

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A very different threat to human progress is a political movement that seeks to undermine its Enlightenment foundations. The second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of a counter-Enlightenment movement called populism, more accurately, authoritarian populism.24 Populism calls for the direct sovereignty of a country’s “people” (usually an ethnic group, sometimes a class), embodied in a strong leader who directly channels their authentic virtue and experience.

Authoritarian populism can be seen as a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking—against the Enlightenment institutions that were designed to circumvent them. By focusing on the tribe rather than the individual, it has no place for the protection of minority rights or the promotion of human welfare worldwide. By failing to acknowledge that hard-won knowledge is the key to societal improvement, it denigrates “elites” and “experts” and downplays the marketplace of ideas, including freedom of speech, diversity of opinion, and the fact-checking of self-serving claims. By valorizing a strong leader, populism overlooks the limitations in human nature, and disdains the rule-governed institutions and constitutional checks that constrain the power of flawed human actors.

Populism comes in left-wing and right-wing varieties, which share a folk theory of economics as zero-sum competition: between economic classes in the case of the left, between nations or ethnic groups in the case of the right. Problems are seen not as challenges that are inevitable in an indifferent universe but as the malevolent designs of insidious elites, minorities, or foreigners. As for progress, forget about it: populism looks backward to an age in which the nation was ethnically homogeneous, orthodox cultural and religious values prevailed, and economies were powered by farming and manufacturing, which produced tangible goods for local consumption and for export.

Chapter 23 will probe the intellectual roots of authoritarian populism more deeply; here I will concentrate on its recent rise and possible future. In 2016 populist parties (mostly on the right) attracted 13.2 percent of the vote in the preceding European parliamentary elections (up from 5.1 percent in the 1960s) and entered the governing coalitions of eleven countries, including the leadership of Hungary and Poland.25 Even when they are not in power, populist parties can press their agendas, notably by catalyzing the 2016 Brexit referendum in which 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the European Union. And in that year Donald Trump was elected to the American presidency with an Electoral College victory, though with a minority of the popular vote (46 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 48 percent). Nothing captures the tribalistic and backward-looking spirit of populism better than Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

In writing the chapters on progress, I resisted pressure from readers of earlier drafts to end each one by warning, “But all this progress is threatened if Donald Trump gets his way.” Threatened it certainly is. Whether or not 2017 really represents a turning point in history, it’s worth reviewing the threats, if only to understand the nature of the progress they threaten.26

Life and


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