Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (Summary)

“What is government, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” – James Madison

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (Summary)

Part 1


Chapter 1: Dare to Understand!

Problems are inevitable because our knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete.

Exchange (trade; business) can make an entire society not just richer but nicer because, in an effective market, it is cheaper to buy things than to steal them, and other people are more valuable to you alive than dead.

  • Ex) If the tailor goes to war against the baker, he must henceforth bake his own bread.

Part 2


Chapter 9: Inequality

Today we take for granted that if we want some milk, we can walk into a convenience store and a quart will be on the shelves, the milk won’t be diluted or tainted, it will be for sale at a price I can afford, and the owner will let me walk out with it after a swipe of a card, even though we have never met, may never see each other again, and have no friends in common who can testify to our bona fides.

  • A lot of institutions have to be in place for these and the millions of other anonymous transactions that make up a modern economy to be consumed so easily.

Extreme poverty is being eradicated, and the world is becoming middle class.

In two hundred years the rate of extreme poverty in the world has tanked from 90 percent to 10, with almost half that decline occurring in the last 35 years.

How big one’s house is or how many cars they drive is morally irrelevant. From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is important is that everyone should have enough.

Narratives about inequality loom larger in people’s minds than the existence of inequality. That creates an opening for politicians to rouse the rabble by singling out cheaters who take more than their fair share: welfare queens, immigrants, foreign countries, bankers, or the rich, sometimes identified with ethnic minorities.

A market economy is the best poverty-reduction program we know for an entire country.

  • It is ill-equipped, however, to provide for individuals within that country who have nothing to exchange: the young, the old, the sick, the unlucky, and others whose skills and labor are not valuable enough to others for them to earn a decent living in return.
  • To solve this, people pool their money through corporate or sales taxes, sovereign wealth fund, graduated income tax. The incentive for the tax payers is that if they become poor they could then benefit and have a safety net.

Free market capitalism is compatible with any amount of social spending.

Globalization helped the lower and middle classes of poor countries, and the upper class of rich countries, much more than it helped the lower middle class of rich countries — but the differences are less extreme.

A full 25 percent of Americans, 40-50 million people, were poor in the mid-1950s, and in the absence of food stamps and housing programs, this poverty was searing.

People earn more as they get older and gain experience, or switch from a lower-paying job to a higher-paying job.

A recent study using longitudinal data showed that half of Americans will find themselves among the top tenth of income earners for at least one year of their working lives, and that one in nine will find themselves in the top one percent (though most don’t stay there for long).

The income tax is still graduated, and low incomes are buffered by a “hidden welfare state” that includes unemployment insurance, social security, medicare, Medicaid, temporary assistance for needy families, food stamps, and the earned income tax credit, a kind of negative income tax in which the government boosts the income of low earners.

Income is just a means to an end: a way of paying for things that people need, want, and like, or as economists gracelessly call it, consumption. 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% since 1960, from 30 percent of the population to just 3%.

Globalization may produce winners and losers in income, but in consumption, it makes almost everyone a winner. Asian factories, container ships, and efficient retailing bring goods to the masses that were formerly luxuries for the rich.

A dollar today buys far more betterment of life than a dollar yesterday. It buys things that didn’t exist like refrigeration, electricity, toilets, vaccinations, telephones, contraception, and air travel, and it transforms things that do exist, such as a party line patched by a switchboard operator to a smartphone with unlimited talk time.

In 2011, more the 95% of American households below the poverty line had electricity, running water, flush toilets, a refrigerator, a stove, and a color TV.

  • More than 80% of households below the poverty line had an air conditioner, a video recorder, and a cell phone.
  • 60% had a computer.
  • When Pinker grew up, middle-class “haves” had few or non of those things.

An obvious priority is to boost the rate of economic growth, since it would increase everyone’s slice of the pie and provide more pie to redistribute.

The next step in the historic trend towards greater social spending may be a universal basic income (or its close relative, a negative income tax).

  • Despite its socialist aroma, the idea has been championed by economists such as Milton Friedman, politicians such as Richard Nixon, and states such as Alaska that are associated with the political right.
  • For universal basic income (UBI) to work you need to maintain incentives for education, work, and risk-taking.

The specter of anomie and meaninglessness in UBI is probably exaggerated, and it could be met with public jobs that markets won’t support and robots can’t do, or with new opportunities in meaningful volunteering and other forms of affective altruism.

A decrease in inequality is not always good. The most effective levelers of economic disparities are epidemics, massive wars, violent revolutions, and state collapse.

Chapter 10: The Environment

Greenism is a quasi-religious ideology.

Green ideology begins with an image of the earth as a pristine ingénue which has been defiled by human greed.

Pope Francis believes that we must repent our sins by regrowth, deindustrialization, and a rejection of the false gods of science, technology, and progress, humanity will face a ghastly reckoning in an environmental judgement day.

Greenism is laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated plant, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens, and cancer.

As countries first develop, they prioritize growth over environmental purity. As they get richer, their thoughts turn to the environment.

If people can afford electricity only at the cost of some smog, they’ll live with the smog, but when they can afford both electricity and clean air, they’ll spring for the clean air. This can happen all the faster as technology makes cars and factories and power plants cleaner and thus makes clean air more affordable.

Humanity does not suck resources from the earth like a straw in a milkshake until a gurgle tells it that the container is empty. Instead, as the most easily extracted supply of a resource becomes scarcer, its price rises, encouraging people to conserve it, get at the less accessible deposits, or find cheaper and more plentiful substitutes.

  • In reality, societies have always abandoned a resource for a better one long before the old one was exhausted.

Not only have the disasters prophesied by the 1970s greenism failed to take place, but improvements that it deemed impossible have taken place.

Emissions have gone down due to gains in efficiency and emission control. This refutes the orthodox Green claim the only regrowth can curb pollution and the orthodox right-wing claim that environmental protection must sabotage economic growth and people’s standard of living.

The Environmental Performance Index shows improvement in 178 out of 180 countries over the last decade.

Thanks to the 1987 ban on chlorofluorocarbons ratified by 197 countries, the ozone layer is expected to heal by the middle of the 21st century.

According to Pinker, the effect of greenhouse gases on the earth climate is unquestionably alarming.

  • By the end of the 21st century the temperature could rise at least 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and possibly up to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
    • That will cause more frequent and more severe heat waves, more floods in wet regions, more droughts in dry regions, heavier storms, more severe hurricanes, lower crop yields in warm regions, the extinction of more species, the loss of coral reefs (because the oceans will be both warmer and more acidic), and an average rise in sea level of between 0.7 and 1.2 meters from both the melting of land ice and the expansion of seawater.
      • Low-lying areas would be flooded, island nations would disappear beneath the waves, large stretches of farmland would no longer be arable, and millions of people would be displaced.

People esteem others according to how much time or money they forfeit in their altruistic acts rather than by how much good they accomplish.

Much of the public chatter about mitigating climate change involves voluntary sacrifices like recycling, reducing food miles, unplugging chargers, and so on. But this is a tragedy of the commons. People benefit from the sacrifices of others and suffer from their own, so everyone has an incentive to be a free rider and let everyone else make the sacrifice, and everyone suffers.

The sacrifice needed to bring carbon emissions down by half and then to zero is far greater than forgoing jewelry: it would require forgoing electricity, heating, cement, steel, paper, travel, and affordable food and clothing.

It may be satisfying to demonize the fossil fuel corporations that sell us the energy we want, or to signal our virtue by making conspicuous sacrifices, but these indulgences won’t prevent destructive climate change.

Carbon pricing: charging people and companies for the damage they do when they dump their carbon into the atmosphere, either as a tax on carbon or as a national cap with tradeable credits.

  • Economists across the political spectrum endorse this because it combines the unique advantages of governments and markets.
  • A negative externality is the damage to the commons in the tragedy of the commons.
  • Problems with carbon pricing:
    • Carbon pricing hits the poor in a way that concern the Left.
    • Carbon pricing transfers money from the private to the public sector in a way that annoys the Right.

Nuclear power is the world’s most abundant and scalable carbon-free energy source. It is better than solar, wind, hydro, etc.

Wind and solar are limited – the wind is often becalmed, and the sun sets every light and may be clouded over.

Wind farms take up a ton of space if they were to be used as a major energy source and to keep up with increases in energy consumption would require turning land the size of Germany into a wind farm every year.

  • To satisfy the world’s energy needs with renewables by 2050 would require tiling windmills and solar panels over an area the size of the United States (including Alaska), plus Mexico, Central America, and the inhabited portion of Canada.

In contrast, nuclear power plants take up 1/500th of the land needed by wind or solar.

With nuclear power, people in the developing world could skip the middle rungs in the energy ladder, bringing their standard of living up to that of the West without choking on coal smoke.

It’s not enough to stop thickening the greenhouse; at some point we have to dismantle it. The CO2 already emitted will remain in the atmosphere for a very long time. We will need to develop a technology that can capture and store CO2.

  • Plants have done this for billions of years. Plants suck carbon out of the air as they use the energy in sunlight to combine CO2 with H2O and make sugars, cellulose, and lignin.
    • The obvious way to remove CO2 from the air is to encourage the transition from deforestation to reforestation (planting new forests), by reversing tillage and wetland destruction, and by restoring coastal and marine habitats.

In 2017, Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement. Trump has notoriously called climate change a Chinese hoax.

Quick fix methods of last resort:

  • A fleet of airplanes could spray a fine mist of sulfates, calcite, or nanoparticles into the stratosphere, spreading a thin veil that would reflect back just enough sunlight to prevent dangerous warming.
    • Could cool down by half a degree Celsius for two years.
  • Or airplanes could spray a fine mist of seawater into the air. As the water evaporated, salt crystals would waft into the clouds and water vapor would condense around them, forming droplets that would whiten the clouds and reflect more sunlight back into space.
    • Both of these are inexpensive, require no new technology, and could bring global temperatures down quickly.
    • But they could have unintended consequences such as disrupting rainfall patterns and damaging the ozone layer.

Economist Paul Romer distinguishes two kinds of optimism:

  • Complacent optimism – the feeling of a child waiting for presents on Christmas morning.
  • Conditional optimism – the feeling of a child who wants a tree house and realizes that if he gets some wood and nails and persuades other kids to help him, he can build one.

Chapter 11: Peace

As of the first decade of the 21st century, every objective measure of violence had been in decline.

The long peace — period after WWII. As the armies of the major powers got better manned, trained, and armed, the wars became more lethal. This led to the long peace.

The world’s wars are now concentrated almost exclusively in a zone stretching from Nigeria to Pakistan, an area containing less than a sixth of the world’s population.

  • Those wars are civil wars.

According to the historians Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, “Genocide has been practiced in all regions of the world and during all periods in history.”

The prevalence of conscription (military draft), the size of armed forces, and the level of global military spending as a percentage of GDP have all decreased in recent decades.

The reason that Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah are American states is that in 1846 the US conquered them from Mexico in a war over unpaid debts. That cannot happen today: the world’s nations have committed themselves to not waging war except in self-defense or with the approval of the United Nations Security Council.

As countries get richer, they become less vulnerable to civil war.

  • Their governments can afford to provide services like healthcare, education, and policing and thus outcompete rebels for the allegiance of the citizens.

War may be just another obstacle an enlightened species learns to overcome, like pestilence (epidemic), hunger, and poverty.

Chapter 12: Safety

Accidents are the 4th leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease, cancer, and respiratory disease.

Even the world’s murder capital, San Pedro Sula, has seen homicide rates plunge by 62 percent in just two years.

When the police go on strike, there is an eruption of looting and vigilantism.

  • Crime rates can also soar when law enforcement is merely ineffective — when it is so inept, corrupt, or overwhelmed that people know they can break the law with impunity.

Eisner's one-sentence summary on how to halve the homicide rate within 3 decades:

  • An effective rule of law, based on legitimate law enforcement, victim protection, swift and fair adjudication, moderate punishment, and humane prisons is critical to sustainable reductions in lethal violence.

Crime often shoots up in decades in which people question their society and government, including the American Civil War, the 1960s, and the post-Soviet Russia.

Neither right-to-carry laws favored by the right, nor bans and restrictions favored by the left, have been shown to make much difference.

When robotic cars are ubiquitous, they could save more than 1 million lives a year, making it one of the greatest gifts to human life since the invention of antibiotics.

Chapter 13: Terrorism

The legal scholar Adam Lankford has analyzed the motives of the overlapping categories of suicide terrorists, rampage shooters, and hate crime killers, including both the self-radicalized lone wolves and the bomb fodder recruited by terrorist masterminds. The killers tend to be loners and losers, many with untreated mental illness, who are consumed with resentment and fantasize about revenge and recognition.

Chapter 14: Democracy

Since the first governments appeared around 5 thousand years ago, humanity has tried to steer a course between the violence of anarchy and the violence of tyranny. In the absence of a government or powerful neighbors, tribal peoples tend to fall into cycles of raiding and feuding, with death rates exceeding those of modern societies, even including their most violent eras. Early governments pacified the people they ruled, reducing internecine violence, but imposed a reign of terror that included slavery, harems, human sacrifice, summary executions, and the torture and mutilation of dissidents and deviants.

Civics-class idealization of democracy = an informed populace deliberates about the common good and carefully selects leaders who carry out their preferences.

  • By that standard, the number of democracies in the world is zero in the past, zero in the present, and almost certainly zero in the future.
  • Political scientists are repeatedly astonished by the shallowness and incoherence of people’s political beliefs, and by the tenuous connection of their preferences to their votes and to the behavior of the representatives.
  • Most voters are ignorant not just of current policy options but of basic facts, such as what the major branches of government are, who the US fought in WWII, and which countries have used nuclear weapons.
  • Their opinions flip depending on how a question is worded: they say that the government spends too much on “welfare” but too little on “assistance for the poor,” and that it should “use military force” but not “go to war.”
  • When they do formulate a preference, they commonly vote for a candidate with the opposite one.
  • Most people correctly recognize that their votes are astronomically unlikely to affect the outcome of an election, and so they prioritize work, family, and leisure over educating themselves about politics and calibrating their votes.
  • They use the franchise (political party) as a form of self-expression: they vote for candidates who they think are like them and stand for their kind of people.

Political scientist John Mueller suggests that democracy is essentially based on giving people the freedom to complain.

  • If citizens have the right to complain, to petition, to organize, to protest, to demonstrate, to strike, to threaten or emigrate or secede, to shout, to publish, to export their funds, to express a lack of confidence, the gov will tend to respond to the sounds of the shouters.
    • The freedom to complain rests on the assurance that the government won’t punish or silence the complainer.
      • The government must be constrained from abusing its monopoly on force to brutalize its uppity citizens.
  • Inequality, disagreement, apathy, and ignorance seem to be normal, not abnormal, in a democracy, and to a considerable degree the beauty of the form is that it works despite these qualities—or, in some important respects, because of them.

The top 5 countries that still execute people in significant numbers:

  1. China (1000+)
  2. Iran (1000+)
  3. Pakistan
  4. Saudi Arabia
  5. United States

The death penalty is going away, as it should.

  • The billable hours from expensive lawyers cost the state eight times as much as life in prison.
  • It should be a violation of “cruel and unusual punishment” from the Eighth Amendment.

Chapter 15: Equal Rights

Three independent analyses have found that a black suspect is no more likely than a white suspect to be killed by the police.

  • American police shoot too many people but it is not primarily a race issue.

An analysis of anonymous prejudiced Google searches has continued to decline.

  • Contrary to the fear that the rise of Trump reflects (or emboldens) prejudice, the cases continue to decline through his period of notoriety in 2015-2016 and inauguration in early 2017.

Bigoted searches came from regions with older and less-educated populations.

  • Compared to the country as a whole, retirement communities are seven times as likely to search for “nigger jokes” and thirty times as likely to search for “fag jokes”.

Private prejudice is declining with time and declining with youth, which means that we can expect it to decline still further as aging bigots cede the stage to less prejudiced cohorts.

The rate of illiteracy fell among African Americans from 45% in 1900 to effectively zero percent today.

Number of hate crimes in order of race (most prevalent to least prevalent):

  1. Anti-Black
  2. Anti-Jewish
  3. Anti-White
  4. Anti-Asian
  5. Anti-Islamic

In a cosmopolitan society, people interact with and find themselves in the same boat as other kinds of people, and that tends to make them more sympathetic to one another.

Racial segregation, male-only suffrage, and the criminalization of homosexuality are literally indefensible: people tried to defend them in their times, and they lost the argument.

As indefensible or unworkable ideas fall by the wayside, they are removed from the pool of thinkable options, and the political fringe is dragged forward despite itself.

  • That’s why even in the most regressive political movement in recent American history there were no calls for reinstating Jim Crow laws, ending women’s suffrage, or recriminalizing homosexuality.

Violence against wives and girlfriends and rape and sexual assault have gone down dramatically since the 1990s.

In every part of the world, people have become more liberal.

  • Though in every culture both the zeitgeist (the defining mood, ideas, and beliefs of a period in time) and the generations became more liberal, in some, like the Islamic Middle East, the liberalization was driven mainly by the generational turnover, and it played an obvious role in the Arab Spring.

Chapter 16: Knowledge

You unlearn that people who don’t look like you are less than human.

You learn that charismatic saviors have led their countries to disaster.

You learn that your own convictions, no matter how heartfelt or popular, may be mistaken.

Studies of the effects of education confirm that educated people really are more enlightened.

  • They are less racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and authoritarian.
  • They place a higher value on imagination, independence, and free speech.

Poor families today have more books, computers, and internet access and the parents spend more time interacting with their children.

IQ scores have been rising for more than a century, in every part of the world, at a rate of about 3 IQ points per decade.than

The worst-off parts of the world today are better off than the best-off parts not long ago.

  • If we divide the world into the West and the Rest, we find that the Rest in 2007 had reached the level of the West in 1950

Chapter 17: Quality of Life

“We constantly worry about the looming ‘retirement funding crisis’ in America without realizing that the entire concept of retirement is unique to the last 5 decades.” – Morgan Housel

  • It wasn’t long ago that the average American had two stages of life: work and death.

Single and working mothers today spend more time with their children than stay-at-home married mothers did in 1965.

Over the course of the 20th century, typical American parents spent more time, not less, with their children.

Today, almost half of the world’s population has internet access, and 3/4 have access to a mobile phone.

Chapter 18: Happiness

People take economic developments for granted and then focus on new things to be upset about.

Theory of the hedonic treadmill: people adapt to changes in their fortunes, like eyes adapt to light or darkness, and quickly return to a genetically determined baseline.

Theory of social comparison: people’s happiness is determined by how well they think they are doing relative to their compatriots, so as the country as a whole gets richer, no one feels happier.

Time spent with friends makes a life happier; time spent with loved ones makes it more meaningful.

We are happier when we are healthy, comfortable, safe, provisioned, socially connected, sexual, and loved.

The theories of the hedonic treadmill and social comparison are challenged by a study: Absolute income, not relative income, is what matters most for happiness.

Contrary to an earlier belief, winning the lottery, over the long term, does make people happier.

Over the past 35 years, African Americans have been getting much happier while American whites have gotten a bit less happy.

There isn’t a loneliness epidemic. People are at worst only slightly more lonely than previous generations. Possibly because more of them are single.

Social media cannot be credited or blamed for the changes in looniness among American students.

  • The decline in loneliness trend started in 1977 through 2009 and Facebook didn’t get big until 2006.
  • Social media users do not report higher levels of stress than non-users.

Humans actually haven’t become less social, they just changed their ways of being social:

  • Talking to coworkers more than cousins.
  • Having a smaller group of friends — but wanting a smaller group of friends.
  • Fewer traditional venues like clubs, churches, and unions.
  • More informal gatherings and digital media.

Suicides increase during economic downturns and political turmoil.

  • They are also affected by the weather and the number of daylight hours, and they increase when the media normalize or romanticize recent instances.

Suicide was more common in the past than it is today, at least in the 3 countries we have data on. Switzerland, the US, and England.

The list of disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association tripled between 1952 and 1994, when it included almost three hundred disorders, including Avoidant Personality Disorder — Which applies to many people who were formerly called shy.

  • The number of symptoms needed to justify a diagnosis has fallen.
  • The label “depression” today may be applied to conditions that in the past were called fried, sorrow, or sadness.

Robin Rosenberg noted that the latest version of the DSM could diagnose half the American population with a mental disorder over the course of their lives.

There is no evidence that the prevalence of common mental disorders is increasing.

American women have become unhappier just as they have been making unprecedented gains in income, education, accomplishment, and autonomy, and in other developed countries where everyone has gotten happier, the women have been outpaced by the men.

Not every problem is a crisis, a plague, or an epidemic.

  • There were misconceptions about a solid-waste crisis.
    • The country actually has plenty of landfills, and they are environmentally sound.

The original definition of Enlightenment was “humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity.”

Chapter 19: Existential Threats

The US, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have and have tested nukes.

The soot from 100 nukes could spread through the atmosphere, separate the ozone layer, and cool the planet for more than a decade, which in turn would slash food production and starve more than a billion people.

The engineering know-how required to build a basic fission device like the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bomb is readily available; highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium are not at all easily accessible. And to assemble and maintain — for a long period, out of sight of the huge intelligence and law enforcement resources that are now being devoted to this threat worldwide — the team of criminal operatives, scientists, and engineers necessary to acquire the components of, build and deliver such a weapon would be a formidably difficult process.

Pinker thinks that nukes are not necessary. Unnecessary weapons have been marginalized or scrapped before, such as antipersonnel landmines, cluster munitions, and chemical and biological weapons. Nukes can be dismantled and no new ones created.

The world has been dismantling nuclear weapons. The US reduced inventory by 85% since 1967. Russia has reduced by 89% from its Soviet-era peak.

About 10% of electricity in the US comes from dismantled nuclear warheads, mostly Soviet.

No additional countries are known to be pursuing nuclear weapons and a precedent has been set for counties with nukes to continue disarmament.

Chapter 20: The Future of Progressmicrofinancing

The economic empowerment of billions of people through smartphones, online education, and microfinancing. Among the world’s bottom billion are a million people with a genius-level IQ. Just think what the world would look like if their brainpower were put to full use.

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 homogenous, orthodox cultural and religious values prevailed, and economies were powered by farming and manufacturing which produced tangible goods for local consumption and for export.

The case against Trump:

Nothing captures the tribalistic and backward-looking spirit of populism better than Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

  • Social Spending: Trump has pushed for legislation that would withdraw health insurance from tens of millions of Americans, a reversal of the trend toward beneficial social spending.
  • Wealth: Trump is a protectionist who sees international trade as a zero-sum contest between countries, and is committed to tearing up international trade agreements.
    • 2020 Update: He created barriers to trade (tariffs) for many countries.
  • Inequality: Trump has demonized immigrants and trade partners while ignoring the major disruptor of lower-middle-class jobs, technological change.
  • The environment: Trump believes that environmental regulation is economically destructive; worst of all, he has called climate change a hoax and announced a withdrawal from the historic Paris Agreement.
    • 2020 update: He withdrew from the Paris Agreement.
  • Safety: 2020 Update: Trump threatened to send in the military to stop the Floyd Riots (what would be a dictatorial proto-Fascist act).
  • Postwar Peace: Trump has vilified international trade and has threatened to defy international agreements and weaken international organizations.
    • Several members of Trump’s administration secretly colluded with Russia in an effort to lift sanction against it, undermining a major enforcement mechanism in the outlawry of war.
  • Democracy: Trump proposed to relax libel laws against journalists, encouraged violence against his critics at his rallies, would not commit to respecting the outcome of the 2016 election if it went against him, tried to discredit the popular vote count that did go against him, threatened to imprison his opponent in the election, and attacked the legitimacy of the judicial system when it challenged his decisions—all hallmarks of a dictator.
    • Trump has praised autocrats in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt while denigrating democratic allies such as Germany.
  • Equal Rights: Trump demonized Hispanic immigrants, proposed banning Muslim immigration altogether (and tried to impose a partial ban once he was elected), repeatedly demeaned women, tolerated vulgar expressions of racism and sexism at his rallies, accepted support from white supremacist groups, and equated them with their opponents, and appointed a strategist and an attorney general who are hostile to the civil rights movement.
  • Knowledge (Truth): Trump’s repetition of ludicrous conspiracy theories: that Obama was born in Kenya, Senator Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination, millions of illegal voters cost him the popular vote, etc.
    • All politicians bend the truth and all sometimes lie (since all human beings bend the truth and sometimes lie), but Trump’s barefaced assertion of canards (unfounded story) that can instantly be debunked (such as that he won the 2016 election in a landslide) shows that he sees public discourse not as a means of finding common ground based on objective reality but as a weapon with which to project dominance and humiliate rivals.
  • Threat of Nuclear War: Questioned the taboo of using nuclear weapons, tweeted about resuming a nuclear arms race, mused about encouraging the proliferation of weapons to additional countries, overturned the Iran deal, and taunted Kim Jong-un about a possible nuclear exchange with North Korea.

Extra 2020 Updates: Corporate tax cuts, institutionalized cruelty at the border, nearly getting into a war with Iran, poor leadership in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Geographic areas of Trump voters match up with areas of racist Google searches.

Note: Syria is the most destructive war in the 21st century so far.

Pinker suggests that the alt-right is perhaps 50,000 people.

Sometimes society advances funeral by funeral.

Part 3

Reason, Science, and Humanism

Chapter 21: Reason

The postmodernist credo is that reason is a pretext to exert power, reality is socially constructed, and all statements are trapped in a web of self-reference and collapse into paradox.

  • Postmodernism doesn’t believe in truth or reason, so it refutes itself. They deny that there can be a reason for believing those very positions.

A mediocre education system has left the populace scientifically illiterate, at the mercy of their cognitive biases, and thus defenseless against airhead celebrities, cable-news gladiators, and other corruptions from popular culture.

Certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance. People affirm or deny these beliefs to express not what they know but who they are.

These creeds tend to vary along two dimensions:

  • One contrasts a right-wing comfort with natural hierarchy with a left-wing preference for forced egalitarianism (measured by agreement with statements like “We need to dramatically reduce inequalities between the rich and poor, whites and blacks, and men and women”)
  • The other is a libertarian affinity for individualism versus a communitarian or authoritarian affinity to solidarity (measured by agreement with statements like “Government should put limits on the choices individuals can make so they don’t get in the way of what’s good for society”)

To express the wrong opinion on a politicized issue can make one an oddball at best (someone who “doesn’t get it”) and a traitor at worst.

Kahan concludes that we are all actors in a Tragedy of the Belief Commons: what’s rational for every individual to believe (based on esteem) can be irrational for the society as a whole to act upon (based on reality).

We know that political partisanship is like sports fandom: testosterone levels rise or fall on election night just as they do on Super Bowl Sunday.

Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st.

  • Over the same time span, communism brought the world terror-famines, purges, gulags, genocides, Chernobyl, megadeath revolutionary wars, and North Korea-style poverty before collapsing everywhere else of its own internal contradictions.
    • Yet in a recent survey (2018) 18% of social science professors identified themselves as Marxist, and the words capitalist and free market still stick in the throats of most intellectuals.
      • Partly because their brains autocorrect these terms to ‘unregulated free markets’, perpetuating a false dichotomy: a free market can coexist with regulations on safety, labor, and the environment, just as a free country can coexist with criminal laws.
      • And a free market can coexist with high levels of spending on health, education, and welfare.

The totalitarian government of the 20th century did not emerge from democratic welfare states sliding down a slippery slope, but were imposed by fanatical ideologues and gangs of thugs.

The major enemy of reason in the public sphere today—which is not ignorance, innumeracy, or cognitive biases, but politicization—appears to be on an upswing.

The percentage of Americans whose opinions are down-the-line liberal or conservative doubled between 1994 and 2014, from 10 to 21%.

A faction of academic culture composed of hard-left faculty, student activists, and an autonomous diversity bureaucracy (pejoratively called social justice warriors) has become aggressively illiberal. Anyone who disagrees with the assumption that racism (or sexism) is the cause of all problems is called a racist (or a sexist).

Chapter 22: Science

Slavery has been practiced by every civilization, and was commonly rationalized by the belief that enslaved peoples were inherently suited to servitude, often by God’s design.

Nazism is not based on Darwinism. Hitler rejected Darwinism.

The political scientists, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, assembled a dataset of political resistance movements across the world between 1900 and 2006 and discovered that 3/4 of the nonviolent resistance movements succeeded, compared with only 1/3 of the violent ones.

  • Ghandi and King were right, but without data, you would never know it.

Postmodernist luminaries: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida.

Pinker argues that the sciences should be incorporated into the humanities.

“What is government, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” – James Madison

Chapter 23: Humanism

Science is not enough to bring about progress. “Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge” — but that’s the problem. “Everything” means everything: vaccines and bioweapons, video on demand and Big Brother on the telescreen.

Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind. Progress consists of deploying knowledge to allow all of humankind to flourish in the same way that each of us seeks to flourish.

The goal of maximizing human flourishing — life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, and richness of experience — may be called humanism.

Ian Greer © . All rights reserved.