This essay about Stephen Pinker raises a number of issues which I think are crucial to understanding the emerging contours of liberal anti-leftism. For example the tendency to profess a concern for social problems and then attack those who are actively seeking to address those problems:
What’s maddening about Pinker’s body of recent work is that it attacks the very people who are doing the most to address the problems he says he cares about. Progress is made by progressives, as Jeremy Lent pointed out, and it’s yesterday’s “social justice warriors” that are responsible for the declines in racist language and corporal punishment that Pinker shows off as accomplishments of Our Great Liberal Democratic Capitalist Order. The Pinkers of times past were the one Martin Luther King was addressing in Letter From Birmingham Jail, who placed trust in the “benevolent forces of modernity” to make things better rather than actually taking part in a social movement. As my friend Sam Miller McDonald put it, “most of those good things that Steven Pinker likes to brag about came about because of the hard work and sacrifice of the kind of people Steven Pinker likes to complain about.”
There’s also the tendency to misrepresent, overstate and smear while continually accusing those of the left of doing precisely this:
Pinker treats the left as hysterically overstating its case, of calling everybody racists and despoilers, even as he brands them Nazis and Stalinists. One of the common themes I see in critics of social justice politics is engaging in the very thing they’re accusing the left of doing. There are countless examples of this in Pinker’s work. For example, in The Blank Slate, which is strongly critical of mainstream feminism, he cites Gloria Steinem saying: “What you need is people who see through literature like Andrea Dworkin, who see through law like me, to see through art and create the uncompromised woman’s visual vocabulary.” Pinker concludes from this quote that Steinem is “oblivious to the danger inherent in a few intellectuals’ arrogating the role of deciding which art and literature the rest of society will enjoy.” This is an incredibly audacious remark for a book with entire sections on which art is the Good Art and which art is “ugly, baffling, and insulting art”
These are interesting as a diagnosis of a particularly influential public intellectual. But they also shed light on the broader tendency towards anti-leftism amongst contemporary liberals and how this reflects the shifting plate tectonics of public life as modernity’s institutions find themselves increasingly imperilled.
Categories: Post-Neoliberal Civics