Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Seven years after his The Better Angels of our Nature, the book in which he presented abundant statistics and reasons why violence has declined, Steven Pinker has published an even more ambitious tome defending the idea and ideals of Enlightenment. The controversy that arose from the ‘cautiously optimist’ view he presented in 2011 might have come as a surprise to the esteemed Harvard professor and has likely motivated him to double down on his claims in this new book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress‘.

It is a delight to digest the statistics of progress (decline in crime, war, disease, poverty, slavery, racism) that Pinker presents and discusses in the second and strongest part of the book, although at times it seems that prof. Pinker has made the stats look prettier than a scientific worldview would allow. In that sense, the book is Enlightenment propaganda, and this has backfired as we can read in the many reviews on Goodreads and especially in this in-depth rebuttal by Jeremy Lent and this critique by Guardian columnist George Monbiot that focuses on the environment.

Every serious critic agrees with Pinker’s enlightenment worldview. Unfortunately, as these critics have pointed out, he might have succumbed to enlightenment zealotry, which might have led hem to defend the Enlightenment against a benighted strawman rather than against its own unforeseen and unwanted consequences. There are some occasions of cherry-picking and rather annoying ridicule of Marx, Nietzsche, environmentalism and the dangers of strong AI.

The Enlightenment cannot function without a healthy dose of skepticism. Monbiot writes: What looks like a relentless enhancement in human welfare could emerge instead as an interlude between one form of deprivation and the next. Another reviewer accuses Pinker of defending an ‘anodyne, mythical Enlightenment can give them what they crave, which is relief from painful doubt.’

The story he presents at places like the Economic Forum in Davos, the story that is bought by the likes of Bill Gates, is a heart-warming and hopeful one, to be sure. The idea that we humans have come so far can foster more solidarity as we go forward solving the remaining problems – and the new problems that will arise as an indirect result of the enlightenment, such as environmental degradation and rising inequality, which Pinker has attempted to defuse out of fear they could be used as an argument against enlightenment thinking. There is the irony of this book: By exaggerating and massaging the numbers on the enormous progress we have made he seems to obfuscate the most important property of an enlightened position: that of relentless self-criticism and the willingness to engage with opposing views, so long as they are reasoned.

This critical self-awareness has now come from his serious critics – a reminder that the Enlightenment is indeed not advanced by lone intellectual behemoths, but by the concerted efforts and dialogue of humble minds. It is Pinker’s merit that he uses data rather than ideological narrative, and his book is a fruitful starting point of a debate that eschews the ideological in favor of the factual. That doesn’t make the vitriol of either ideological camp disappear, but it forces both sides of the aisle to think more scientifically. A world in which both progressives and conservatives are equipped with better reasons is a better world;-

Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker was originally published on Meandering home

Brazil kaputt

In a radio interview with a Dutch correspondent living in Rio, she expressed horror. The most likely president elect of Brazil this coming Sunday, the army captain Jair Bolsonaro, is worse than Duterte, Putin, Erdogan, Orbán and Trump combined. He will usher in a whole new level of autoritarianism. This piece of garbage is against minority rights, more specifically indigenous rights, and is lying all he can to ascend to power. His rule will also amount to a death sentence for the Amazon rain forest. He has applauded corrupt police officers shooting hundreds of people in the favelas. He says more people should be shot. He called African immigrants to Brazil the “scum of the earth”.

The popularity of this despicable thug, especially among black and mixed-race voters, is an enigma. Yes, it could partly be explained by the fact that Brazil is in its worst recession ever, partly by the escalating gang violence (black men are 9 times more likely to be killed than white men in Brazil) and partly by the sickening corruption of the ruling political elite. After he was recently attacked with a knife, many people began viewing him as a savior. Perhaps people are getting so sick and tired of the morally bankrupt political elite that they long for a de facto dictator.
But still. Shame on the Brazilian people, at least on the majority who will vote for this man out of fear or desperation or anger or all of those.


A dear Brazilian friend has already contacted me saying he will leave the country. I will offer him asylum in my appartment.

To be fair, the media is paying some attention, but it is not nearly enough. This is the largest country in South America, one of the 4 economies called the BRIC-countries and two of them (Russian and China) are already clearly not democracies. The world cannot afford to lose Brazil too.

Brazil kaputt was originally published on Meandering home

May 7. Arrested!

Today, I go to the Club Nautico again, this time with a young Brit called David. He is a Londoner and I have met a lot of nice Londoners along the way. He is gathering random events, which I like a lot.
Doug’s boat was already full, so we spoke to some more skippers. Olivier the Frenchman with his thick accent and grey beard, Herman the Hungarian Hun with his boat Atilla and big silver earrings. Fabien the professional experienced Colombian. They explain us how expensive everything is and how much work to operate an open-sea yacht. Our bargaining attempts fail and we give in. Tomorrow we will say YES to Fabien. We will leave for Panama the 13th of May.

We always desire violence more than we would admit. There is a metaphysical need for violence in all of us, and when it doen’t come out that means we’re suppressing it. Buh! How many writers impress their readers by this kind of talk. They all want to show us the darkest corner of the human soul, exemplifying it with their own soul that spouts deep metaphysical tones in e-minor just like an enormous organ in a gothic church, why not, they want to cut off the breath of their own public, strangulate their readers with their words. And in the end they say it’s all meaningless. Well, write about meaningless butterflies and meaningless hummingbirds then, instead of our meaningless lives. I have to elaborate this kind of stuff more, but I’m tired. I need better metaphores to describe the character of that writer so you can follow my imagination better. The long unkempt curly hair with shades of grey, the large plastic frame on his nose, the self-aggrandizing smile on his wet lips, his tailormade ruby suit, his laid-back posture, the wrinkles, the restlessly bouncing feet, that kind of things. I have to eleborate more in order to make you feel and think about it. All that pseudo-intellectual rant – what do I want to say here – that so called deep talk about the great questions: Why do we talk? Why we hold dear the illusion that we are not alone on this path to eventual decay. We always express ourselves in the hope our words echo in the receptive mental chamber of the Other. It doesn’t matter how black and nihilistic our words are. And there he sits on his chair, the writer, pressing the nail of his thumb slowly in the cushions and suppressing a long yawn. He is bored by the whole situation. The question remains: Why doesn’t he write about meaningless hummingbirds instead of the meaningless timespan between ejaculation and death?

There is a computer problem. On Ivan’s memory card is a virus. I discovered it and engaged on the resolving process right away. Like ambulance personel that doesn’t want to waste a single second. When I work with computers, which I don’t like, I can’t do only one thing at the time. So I download a couple of programs and try to restore the data with some tools simultaneously. This takes me a few hours, in the burning midday sun and I was kind of happy about it since now I am secure this is not my life. This was the thing I have escaped from. Like a good prisoner, the memory of my old prison fulfills my heart with joy. From the outside, that prison looks very, very pretty. Now I can see what it is: It’s just a laugable episode, an unsignificant interval between juicy organic activities. I resolve every aspect of the problem and that should have raised endorphine levels to induce a feeling of satisfaction and relief, just like it does with normal people. I am just sweaty, hot, and hungry, but happy to have experienced another proof ex negativo of who I am today.

After that I take a shower. Why not write a story about my seven-second fight with gravity and the soap? They have every right to be honored here. The soap is a piece of cheap red perfumed soap I bought in Santa Cruz for my private bump who refused to use it. It’s very slippery but it does what it should do: take away the sweat. I keep it in a plastic bag so that it doesn’t waste the other contents of my backpack. There are some hairs sticking on it, and its surface is not as fine as it used to be. That’s about all I can say about the soap-character, admittedly it’s not much. The gravity, my other adversary on this sprinkled venture, has an even simpler character. At least, to us earthlings it reveals only one side of it: “go down” I think maybe the soap could have made it into a modern play, at least it would have a chance to slip through, but the gravity would definitely be denied a role. My seven-second shower fight was, for that reason, not a modern play and would probably miss the Becketty finesse. If it was not a play, so it must have been real life. Seven seconds of real life! That’s something. I hold the soap in my right hand and try to rub my left arm, armpits, chest, belly, making a few circles around the bellybutton before the soap slips out of my hand. With my left hand I manage to catch it before it hits the floor and start washing my right arm, armpit, chest, belly, where the soap tries to escape again. A second time I can foil the conspirancy of its slipperyness and the blunt “go down” of gravity once again and catch the soap with both hands. I wash my thighs and bend forward to reach my calves. That was fatal. The soap falls on the floor and I lose the struggle. In only seven seconds, a foamy allegory to the drama of life has taken place. There is no

We go to a dance bar. The girls don’t dance with us. Either they’re hookers here, or frigid, that’s an interesting juxtaposition. This town is full of interesting juxtapositions and we sense that even though we only know the touristic center. When we walk home, some whores offer us massage and fuckifucki.
“Muy rico, muy economico fuckifucki suckisucki. Cinquenta mil pesos.”
Conversations with prostitutes usually never surpass a certain level, where only the erectile parts of my being are being taken into consideration. I don’t really like that.

I’m a bad boy. With the fake 20.000 peso bill I still carry along with me, I buy some beers on the street. The guy who sold me the beers recognized the counterfeit bill and showed it to some police officers. I have to come with them because it is a crime to have forged bills in your wallet, they tell me.
“How can that me a crime?” I ask. “I’m a tourist, I don’t know about this.”
-“I know, but Colombian law is very strong on this.”
“Look, I probably received this bill in a shop in Manizales.”
-“You walk with me.”
“Can’t you please let me go. I’ll be careful with the bills next time.”
-“Right now you’re arrested.”
“Look, it’s a twenty thousand peso bill. I can give you a real twenty if this remains between us.”
-“What do you say?”
I look around and tap him on his left shoulder.
“I want the best solution for everyone. You know I’m not guilty and I know you don’t earn much. You can eat out with your family with this money.”
-“I would, but it’s not my case.”
We walk on to the headquarters. I have to explain the situation a couple of times, in English and in Spanish. In the hostel, I can borrow some money to pay the beer-guy who has followed us all along.
“What happens next?” I ask.
-“You must offer them the same thing you offered me.”
“What do you mean?”
-“The twenty thousand.”
“No. That would be bribery. And I don’t want to do anything illegal. And besides, you know I am a writer and I will write about this. I hope I can write a positive story about Colombia.”
-“Tell them what you’re offering.”
“No. We shouldn’t be talking about this. Maybe I should talk to your chef instead.”
-“It’s your decision. We have to take you.”
His colleagues waited on their motorcycle, laughing.
“Now you must go with them.”
They kept laughing and when I told them again I wanted to talk to the chief of police, they suddenly announced me I was free to go. On my way back to the hostel I saw an older man in a police uniform standing on a balcony overlooking the scene. What might have prevented me to spend the night in prison was thus a trick. I started mentioning the bribe, and when they were considering it, I suddenly changed my attitude and told them I didn’t want to do anything illegal and I’d write exactly what would happen. I guess they were intimidated. Not bad, huh? There might even be a moral of this story:

Kamiel’s Daily Karma Rule: “Intimidation can be reversed”
If you’re intimidated by a person and a concept (such as the Law, Truth, Guilt), be imaginative and use the same concept against that very person.

May 7. Arrested! was originally published on Meandering home