Story time! Around 1999, your pen pal (me) was in college and went to see a linguist named Steven Pinker speak. His talk was about linguistics and evolution (I think). It was very interesting and Pinker seemed to your caller (me – the caller is always me) like the smartest person in the world, especially for the way he immediately responded to questions from the audience on mostly random topics with complete answers and loaded with examples. But it has apparently been a descent for him intellectually since, if this excerpt from a New York Times Critic from his new book Rationality is an indication:
The words written by Pinke r in a published book, to be clear, are: “Rationality is not cool,” then shortly thereafter, referring to a slogan on a mosaic near his home, “Although I cannot argue that reason is dope, phat, chill, fly, sick or bomb, and strictly speaking I cannot even justify or rationalize reason, I will defend the message on the mosaic: we must follow reason .Wow! It’s funny, because we were just talking about the 1990s, and that bag of slang would have been cranky even then.
There is a lesson here. Well, there are two. The first lesson is just “no”. The second is about what happens to you when you go from being a true public intellectual – an intelligent and learned person who writes books and speaks in public on complicated matters in a way laymen can understand – to one. public intellectual, who is someone who makes paid speeches and panel appearances for a business-oriented upper and upper middle class audience. (Pinker is pictured above at Ozy Fest, a celebration of upward mobility through panel discussions hosted by a media startup that could, according to one new in-depth and hilarious New York Times report, be a complete and utter fraud.) What these audiences pay for is content that signifies both intelligence and helps them justify and advance their own goals, which tend to involve starting, d ‘run or invest in, say, “Uber for the kitchen towel supply chain. (Just made forty million dollars!)
The first type of intellectual tries, in a nutshell, to understand how the world works and to improve it. This person is paid as an academic and intellectual author. The latter produces self-help and comfort content for wealthy people and gets paid like a celebrity. You can imagine what kind of effects these incentives would have on anyone, especially someone like Pinker who was already criticized relatively early in their career for, more or less, using fanciful scientific discourse to justify the status quo. This is how we end up writing a book celebrating ârationalityâ in 2021 when we have already written a celebrant âthe case for reasonIn 2018, for example. When your appetite for money and attention exceeds the freshness of your ideas, you can always repeat the same thing, or even say something that makes no sense at all.
Which brings us to the subject of Pinker in the above passage: how rationality has been viewed as disrespectful in the modern age. While it is not clear from the “joke”, which I suppose is that the words a youngster might have used in 1993 demonstrate an inherent lack of seriousness, he thinks reason has unfortunately been subdued. concerns about structural inequality and racism. (What he specifically says is that “fashionable academic movements like postmodernism and critical theory … hold that reason, truth, and objectivity are social constructs that justify the privilege of dominant groups.” , which is too broad a statement to cover here.) This topic has been of interest to Pinker for some time. As a Brandeis professor named Joel Christensen said in 2019, he is part of a “cadre of older male academics, mostly white” – there are many ex-white magazine journalists in executives too – who have created a thriving industry defending ‘free speech’, both as a social norm and as a supposed engine of human progress, against alleged enemies such as identity politics, political correctness and critical pessimism in general.
There is a lot of gold in these hills, but on the other hand, look what it does to your writing! Ouch. (To be clear, I’m not saying that everything a left-wing scholar says online is accurate, insightful, or not ridiculous. I to do means that making fun of the phrase “da bombe” in 2021 is a depressing way to pay your mortgage.)