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I met a Hungarian journalist for coffee this morning in Budapest. “Everybody knows that something is coming,” she said. “We can all feel it. I think this is why your book resonates with so many people.”
After we parted, I made my way back to my hotel. In my morning reading was this Andrew Sullivan essay contrasting Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Pinker’s book argues that we’ve never had it so good. Violence is way down, historically speaking, and people are healthier and better fed than ever before. Pinker’s general idea is that humanity is making real progress, and that people should ignore the doomsayers.
At the same time, I was finally reading another new book, Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen. If you really want a point of view that is disturbingly persuasive about the modern predicament and yet usually absent from any discussion in the mainstream media, I cannot recommend it highly enough. A short polemic against our modern liberal world, it too is relentless. By “liberal,” I don’t mean left-liberal politics; I mean (and Deneen means) the post-Machiavelli project to liberate the individual from religious authority and the focus of politics on individual rights and the betterment of humankind’s material conditions. Deneen doesn’t deny any of the progress Pinker describes, or quibble at the triumph of the liberal order. It is, by and large, indisputable. He does something more interesting: He argues that liberalism has failed precisely because it has succeeded.
Which is to say that both Pinker and Deneen are right, but Deneen is deeper. Deneen sees paradox in human life, tragedy even; he respects the wisdom of the aeons that Pinker is simply relieved we have left behind; and he has a perspective that Pinker — despite his vast erudition...
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