A Can of Worms

The hedgehog and the fox; lumpers and splitters; generalists and specialists: these are not all quite the same distinction, but they share a strong family resemblance. For some people, the world — or, to put it in temporal terms, the past — is simple. Either it carries a handful of clear lessons, or it reveals the workings of a few clear principles, or, at the very least, its significance can best be conveyed as a single and coherent narrative with a beginning, middle, and end (whether this means apocalypse or endless prolongation of the present). For others, as one student noted of my teaching style, it is a can of worms.

Simple is in right now. TED talks, which are really just simplified, evangelically animated lectures, are one manifestation of this. (Actual lectures, for good reasons and bad, are decidedly out.) The related but more general fascination with “Big Ideas”, voided once or twice a year by a generation of “Thought Leaders”, is another: for these Big Ideas are invariably expressible in very few words, if not still better in bold and simple imagery. The Enlightenment Caused Progress. Empire Was Good. Or, to take Canada’s current front-running entry, People Are Just Big Lobsters. Whether Archilocus or Isaiah Berlin would have considered these slogans worthy of their hedgehogs is doubtful. But we work with what we have.

Anyway, slogans are not new, nor are they the monopoly of a faction. What is new is that the slogan doesn’t just gesture towards deeper, more complex ideas, methods, or insights; the slogan is the point. Steven Pinker’s “seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs” are not meant to point us towards a more grounded appreciation of the Scientific Revolution or the Enlightenment, much less to encourage exploration of the events these labels cover in context. They are meant to tell us (as Pinker himself spells out) that to explore these critically — by looking at their histories, complexities and contradictions — is “nihilistic” and anti-Progress. “Enlightenment Caused Progress” is not the summary of a nuanced argument about causation. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, dividing Good from Evil.

This is obviously bad history. Pinker’s own summary of his points — which blames the Frankfurt School for “letting the Nazis off the hook” by relating them to other features of the modern world, but then chalks eighteenth-century imperial conquest and slavery up to human “civilization” since forever, unrelated to the Enlightenment unfolding at the same time, in the centres of imperial power and colonial authority, nurtured on profits and products derived from the sale or labor of the enslaved — is riven with contradictions and errors. As even a sympathetic reviewer has noted, “Pinker and the other proponents of progress are not historians, and have not read very much history.”

In another time or place, the trumpeting of error and confusion as brilliance and clarity might be alarming. We’ve grown used to it. But it seems as unlikely that Pinker’s Enlightenment was ever meant to be “good” history as it does that Jordan Peterson’s ramblings about “postmodern neo-Marxism” are meant as informed criticisms of actual books or ideas. For one thing, neither of these Big Thinkers appears to have done the reading that would require. For another, none of their intended audiences — including not only the Lost Boys that Peterson purports to rescue from still more cynical and fascist tendencies than his own, but also media and academic venues more interested in set-piece controversy than the quality of the ideas in play — seem to care.

This is sad, and not only for the foxes — fewer and fewer of whom find space in the academy to ply their quieter trade — but also for those hedgehogs who think that the long view or the small-b big idea can and should accommodate rather than erase complexity. It’s as if the longstanding and yet under-examined criticism of academic isolation and over-specialization has finally come home to roost in a viper’s nest of academically credentialed public intellectuals who sheathe lazy generalities and lame gibes in the skin of scholarship. Other than temporarily inflating a handful of academic-cum-media personalities, whose works will most likely be remembered as a kind of period kitsch, it’s hard to see any long-term gain.

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