Steven Pinker irks many of his fellow intellectuals. I’ve knocked him myself for his views on postmodernism and the origins of war, and he’s knocked me back. I am nonetheless a longtime admirer of the psychology professor turned megapundit, who packages big ideas and voluminous research in lucid, lively prose. Moreover, although he can be combative on the page, in person he’s a nice guy, and that matters to me.
And so, on a gloomy day just before Christmas, when I was casting about for someone to give my school a pep talk, Pinker immediately came to mind. In the latest of his many bestsellers, Enlightenment Now, Pinker argues that, contrary to what we might infer from daily headlines, things are getting better and better; we should be grateful to live in our era, the best (aside from recent setbacks) in our long, troubled history. This, I thought, is just the upbeat message that my students and colleagues need to hear in this plague-wracked season.