Some Enlightenment 2.0 housekeeping

I spent the morning today down at CBC Radio, taping an interview with Michael Enright for Sunday Edition, which will be broadcast in 2 or 3 weeks. I also did Ontario Today on CBC last week, for those who are interested. Phone-in shows are a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand they’re pretty relaxed, because people almost always ask really long questions, so you have lots of time to think about what to say (unlike with hosts, who almost always ask very short questions, then get fidgety once you’ve talked for more than 30 seconds). On the other hand, the discussion on these shows tends to be rather untidy, because it bounces from one topic to another. So you don’t leave it with the sense of having said anything in particular.

In any case, talking about the book some more has reminded me of a few items of unfinished business.

Most importantly, I’ve been meaning to write something in response to the very thoughtful review of Enlightenment 2.0 by Jonathan Kay in the Literary Review of Canada. Kay’s discussion was largely positive, although one correspondent has urged me to respond in the most forceful terms to what he regarded as an outrageous libel, namely, that I have “conventionally leftist positions on a long list of contemporary issues.” Personally that comment didn’t upset me so much. It is true that I prefer to think of myself as a “principled centrist,” rather than a “conventional leftist,” but I recognize that working at the National Post for too long can lead one to lose track of where the political centre lies.

Where I think Kay raises an interesting issue, worthy of debate, is toward the end, when he criticizes my pessimistic assessment of the current situation. He suggests that I started writing the book at what turned out to be the nadir of reason in America, but that since then things have started to look up:

These things move in cycles. Traumatic cataclysms such as 9/11 or the real-estate crash inevitably knock rationalism around for a few years. But when the fear subsides, our better angels take flight. That process is now unfolding in Canada and the United States…

A tiny correction on the timeline – Kay assumes that I started writing the book in 2010, at the time of the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” whereas in fact I started it in 2012, just after this article appeared. It is however true that during Barack Obama’s first term of office, during the high-water mark of “birtherism” and “death panels,” when it looked quite likely that he would not be re-elected, the intensity of concern over political irrationalism was much higher. And when Obama was re-elected, it did occur to me that this might diminish interest in my (at that point half-written) book, because people would say to themselves “look, reason prevailed after all,” and stop worrying about the kinds of issues that I was expressing concern over. But then along came the government shut-down in the U.S., to remind everyone that crazy is still alive and kicking. And of course in Canada the Conservative campaign against the use of “statistics” and “data” in formulating policy has continued unabated.

In any case, I do want to insist on one point. I spend a fair bit of time in the book trying to show that “these things” do not move in cycles, but that they exhibit directionality. This is the point of the cultural-evolutionary model in chapters 6 and 7, and the analogy with addictive substances. Addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco propagate because of their ability to exploit a flaw in human reasoning. The problem is that once they are introduced into a culture (or once the technique for producing or purifying them is introduced), they can never be gotten rid of. They do not “come and go” in cycles, but rather they “pool” in the culture, which is why the list of addictive substances confronting the average person gets longer and longer as time goes by. I try to show that certain other innovations (“deceptors”), such as techniques of advertising, that succeed because of the way that they circumvent rationality, also wind up “pooling” in the culture. Thus there is good reason to worry that our social environment is becoming more and more hostile to the exercise of reason over time.

As a result, I find it overly optimistic (or complacent) just to say that “these things move in cycles.” Just as it is easier to get the toothpaste out of the tube than it is to get it back in again, it is much easier to undermine the rationality of public discourse than it is to restore it. (This is a point that conservatives should be quite familiar with it, since a lot of the conservative lamentation over the decline of traditional social mores has the same structure. For instance, it is a lot easier to undermine public civility and decorum – through rudeness and vulgarity – than it is to restore it. For all the fretting over “cultural decline” among conservatives, however, one can search the literature far and wide without finding any insight – without even finding any serious discussion – of how to reverse it. Just writing hectoring works of social criticism doesn’t seem to get the job done.)

There is one other issue raised, somewhat obliquely, by the review, but it’s a long discussion so I’ll save it for a future post.

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