The World Is Better Than Ever. Why Are We Miserable?

Lucky? Photo: Yiu Yu Hoi/Getty Images

Earlier this week, I went to a lecture given by Steven Pinker on his latest book, Enlightenment Now. I’m a huge and longtime fan of Pinker’s, and his book The Blank Slate was, for me, a revelation. He’s become a deep and important critic of the visceral hostility to nature and science now so sadly prevalent on the left and right, a defender of reason and the Enlightenment against the “social justice” movements on campus, and his new book is a near-relentless defense of modernity. I sat there for an hour slowly being buried in a fast-accumulating snowdrift of irrefutable statistics showing human progress: the decline of violence and war, the rise and rise of democracy, the astonishing gains against poverty of the last couple of decades, the rise of tolerance and erosion of cruelty, lengthening lifespans, revolutions in health, huge increases in safety, and on and on. It was one emphatic graph after another that bludgeoned my current depression into a kind of forced rational cheeriness. There were no real trade-offs here; our gloom is largely self-imposed; and is entirely a function of our media and news diets.

At the same time, I was finally reading another new book, Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen. If you really want a point of view that is disturbingly persuasive about the modern predicament and yet usually absent from any discussion in the mainstream media, I cannot recommend it highly enough. A short polemic against our modern liberal world, it too is relentless. By “liberal,” I don’t mean left-liberal politics; I mean (and Deneen means) the post-Machiavelli project to liberate the individual from religious authority and the focus of politics on individual rights and the betterment of humankind’s material conditions. Deneen doesn’t deny any of the progress Pinker describes, or quibble at the triumph of the liberal order. It is, by and large, indisputable. He does something more interesting: He argues that liberalism has failed precisely because it has succeeded.

As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing that comes from a common idea of virtue, and a concept of virtue that is based on our nature. This is the core of Deneen’s argument, and it rests on a different, classical, pre-liberal understanding of freedom. For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue. It placed the community — the polis — ahead of the individual, and indeed could not conceive of the individual apart from the community into which he or she was born. They’d look at our freedom and see licentiousness, chaos, and slavery to desire. They’d predict misery not happiness to be the result.

Pinker’s sole response to this argument — insofar as he even acknowledges it — is to cite data showing statistical evidence of rising levels of a sense of well-being in one’s life across the world. And this is a valid point. But Pinker seems immune to the idea of paradox, irony, or unintended consequences. He doesn’t have a way of explaining why, for example, there is so much profound discontent, depression, drug abuse, despair, addiction, and loneliness in the most advanced liberal societies. His response to the sixth great mass extinction of the Earth’s species at the hands of humans is to propose that better environmental technology will somehow solve it — just as pharmaceuticals will solve unhappiness. His general view is that life is simply a series of “problems” that reason can “solve” — and has solved. What he doesn’t fully grapple with is that this solution of problems definitionally never ends; that humans adjust to new standards of material well-being and need ever more and more to remain content; that none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality; and that none of it provides spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.

He has contempt for religion — which is odd for an evolutionary psychologist, since his field includes the study of genetic, evolutionary roots for religious belief. And, equally odd for an evolutionary psychologist, he sees absolutely no problem that humans in the last 500 years (and most intensely in the last century) have created a world utterly different than the one humans lived in for close to 99 percent of our time on the planet. We are species built on tribe; yet we live increasingly alone in societies so vast and populous our ancestors would not recognize them; we are a species designed for scarcity and now live with unimaginable plenty; we are a species built on religious ritual to appease our existential angst, and yet we now live in a world where every individual has to create her own meaning from scratch; we are a species built for small-scale monocultural community and now live increasingly in multiracial, multicultural megacities.

Which is to say that both Pinker and Deneen are right, but Deneen is deeper. Deneen sees paradox in human life, tragedy even; he respects the wisdom of the aeons that Pinker is simply relieved we have left behind; and he has a perspective that Pinker — despite his vast erudition and intelligence — doesn’t seem to grasp. Pinker, for example, has no way to understand our current collective rage — why aren’t we all ecstatic about such huge and continuing “progress”? — unless he blames our gloom and grief and discontent on … bad media. It’s all the journalists’ and intellectuals’ fault for persuading people they’re sad when, in fact, they’re super-happy! And he has a faltering grasp of politics, the cycle of regimes, the vicissitudes of history, the decadence of democracies, or the appeal of tyrants. His view of history is so relentlessly Whiggish it’s almost a self-parody. His understanding of the Enlightenment, as David Bell notes, surgically removes its most popular representative, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw from the very beginning the paradoxes of liberty and reason, and, for that matter, Edmond Burke, who instantly realized the terrifying emptiness of modernity, and the furies it might unleash upon us.

But, as Deneen understands, we are where we are. There is no going back. For our civilization, God is dead. Meaning is meaningless outside the satisfaction of our material wants and can become, at its very best, merely a form of awe at meaninglessness. We have no common concept of human flourishing apart from materialism, and therefore we stand alone. Maybe we will muddle through this way indefinitely, and I sure hope we do, numbed or placated by continuous material improvement. But it is perfectly possible that this strange diversion in human history — a few centuries at most, compared with 200 millennia — is a massive error that will at some point be mercilessly corrected; that our planet, on present trends, will become close to uninhabitable for most of its creatures thanks to the reason and materialism Pinker celebrates; that our technology will render us unnecessary for the tasks our species has always defined itself by; and that our era of remarkable peace could end with one catastrophic event, as it did in 1914. We have, after all, imperfectly controlled weapons of mass destruction, and humans have never invented a weapon we haven’t used (including nukes, of course). It is also true that humans have never lived before without a faith or cult or set of practices designed to reconcile us to death and suffering.

Why should this continue forever? Pace Pinker, this is a question that remains terrifyingly open. For Pinker, every sharply upward graph continues indefinitely upward. But I have never seen such an astonishingly rapid ascent without an equally sudden decline, a return to the mean. Maybe I’m just a doomsayer. But it takes a remarkably sturdy set of blinkers to think it’s an impossibility.

An Implicit Anti-Semitism

There’s been a lot of puzzlement about how key leaders of the Women’s March could have any affection for Louis Farrakhan. The Weekly Standard cheerfully provides a few classic Farrakhan quotes pertinent to feminism. My faves: “When a woman does not know how to cook and the right foods to cook, she’s preparing death for herself, her husband, and her children.” Or: “[M]an is supposed to have rule, especially in his own house … and when she rules you, you become her child.” You get the drift. I once went to a Farrakhan rally and noticed something else: sex segregation in the congregation. When Christina Hoff Sommers is designated a “fascist” for being a feminist skeptical of some of the empirical claims to her left, and constantly silenced on campus as a consequence, surely the leaders of the super-woke left would have a few issues with Farrakhan.

But nah. For at least three key leaders, he’s a hero. It emerged recently that a co-president of the Women’s March, Tamika Mallory, has actually been attending Farrakhan’s creepy and menacing events for 30 years! Last year, she put out a photo of her meeting with Farrakhan, writing: “Thank God this man is still alive and doing well. He is definitely the GOAT [Greatest of All Time].” She’s not alone in her fandom. Check out this Instagram page where no fewer than three Women’s March leaders — Carmen Perez, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour — gush over the benighted old bigot. Perez cites his honesty — “the Minister often speaks his truth” (notice how “truth” is entirely subjective). Mallory sends her love: “My family! Love you all!” Sarsour notes how he doesn’t seem to age — “God Bless him.”

Vox has a hilarious writeup of the issue here – it’s a kind of study in politically correct journalism, navigating the line between wokeness and reality, and failing. My colleague Jesse Singal has a sane summary of the contretemps here. The fact that neither Tamika Mallory nor the Women’s March itself can clearly apologize for fraternizing with a genocidal anti-Semite, vicious homophobe, and hoary old actual “male supremacist” baffles Jesse, as it might. If an alt-right organization were found cozying up to Farrakhan, it would be on the front pages of every newspaper. So why is the identity-based left’s alliance with him be a nonissue for many? Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post has reported on the story.

But I have to say that, unlike Jesse, the alliance with Farrakhan doesn’t baffle me at all. Once you understand the intellectual roots of the social justice movement, you see how anti-Semitism must logically be intrinsic to it. The essential claim is that all differences in outcome between any racial groups or the two sexes is entirely a function of oppression. Therefore those at the top of the hierarchy are logically the most oppressive, and the extraordinary success and achievements and prosperity of American Jews are thereby deeply suspicious. The fact that the Jewish people have been subjected in living memory to the most brutal oppression known to humans — mass extermination — is largely irrelevant. What matters for “social justice” is their alleged power now in America — and the urgent need for resistance to it.

This necessary dimension is largely kept on the down-low within social justice movements. Posters demanding “End Jewish Supremacy Now!” would expose the movement’s bald-faced racism against whites. But if it’s legit to fight against “whiteness,” it’s surely necessary to fight against “Jewishness” as well, because it is, in fact, one of the most successful and prominent forms of “whiteness” there is. Once you start down the path of racially based struggle, you find yourself quite quickly submerged in toxins. And when a movement is rooted in anti-white racism, anti-Semitism will never be that far behind.

The Unkindest Cut of All

Some extra thoughts on mass male genital mutilation, after my brief discussion last week. First to note is that one of the motives for male circumcision was the same as for female genital mutilation from the get-go. It was in part about dulling or removing sexual pleasure in order to control sexual immorality. The first-century philosopher Philo Judaeus described the practice as “the symbol of excision of excessive and superfluous pleasure.” Maimonides viewed it as a means to “bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible.” It was performed, he wrote, to “quell all the impulses of matter” and “perfect what is defective morally.” And that’s exactly what it does. The foreskin is packed with nerve endings, making it the most sensitive part of the penis, and it protects the glans from chafing and surface scarring, which also dulls sensation. Removing it is on its face an attack on male sexuality. Its analog among women is the clitoral hood, the removal of which is rightly considered an abomination. But for infant boys, it’s routine.

Mass circumcision is also very recent — a function of mid-19th century obsessions with cleanliness and masturbation. Wanking, at the time, was linked to a whole host of ailments, including epilepsy and insanity, and cutting off the super-sensitive foreskin was designed to prevent them. This is, of course, bonkers science — and yet we continue to live with its consequences. The prevalence of circumcision in America is also a function of fee-for-service medicine. In Britain, for example, routine genital mutilation is rightly not regarded as medically necessary, and if you want to mutilate your infant son, you have to pay for it out of pocket. The result is a rate of circumcision around 10 percent. In America, in contrast, where hospitals can actively profit from routinely including the procedure in labor and delivery, the rate is close to 60 percent. It’s a scam, in other words. Getting rid of it would cut health-care costs.

There are studies — largely in Africa — which show that it does seem to lower the incidence of some STIs, such as HIV, HPV, and herpes. You’d expect therefore that in developed European countries where it is rare, you’d also see higher rates of STDs. In fact, Europe has much, much lower rates of STIs than the U.S. There are a host of complicating factors, of course, that affect rates in Africa, Europe, and the U.S. But the fact that the U.S. has four times the rate of chlamydia and far higher incidences of gonorrhea and syphilis certainly doesn’t indicate that circumcision is a decisive factor in restraining sexual infections. The AIDS epidemic also had a much bigger impact in circumcised America than in intact Europe.

So why does it persist? Some fathers want their sons to look like them. Circumcised men understandably don’t like being told they’re living with mutilated, less sensitive dicks. Very few people personally experience the difference between having a natural and a circumcised penis, and so it remains a largely ignored procedure. In general, it’s all a rather squeamish subject. But it shouldn’t be. There are times when an irrational and massive aberration in human history — mass circumcision — needs to be subjected to reason. We can end this. And we should.

See you next Friday.

Sullivan: Things Are Better Than Ever. Why Are We Miserable?