Reviews of John McWhorter’s and Steve Pinker’s new books

October 27, 2021 • 9:30 am

Two books that you’ll probably want to read are just appearing, and readers sent me links to one review of each.  The books are John McWhorter’s Woke Racism (see below for subtitle), which came out yesterday and is already #78 on Amazon, and Rationality (subtitle below) by Steve Pinker, which comes out tomorrow and is #653 on Amazon (it will go higher).

McWhorter’s book is 226 pages long with a hardback price of $19.06 on Amazon, and Pinker’s is a mere pamphlet for him at a scant 432 pages—and a bargain at $19.69 in hardcover.

The longish review of Woke Racism is at Quillette, so you can probably expect that it’s laudatory. I haven’t read it as I write this, but will before I continue this post. Click on the screenshot below to read it for free (but you can also subscribe to Quillette).

Pollen’s review, though it is laudatory, really summarizes the thesis of the book rather than evaluates it (there’s not a critical word in his piece though the NYT review I just found, also laudatory, detects some flaws). Pollen does give a good summary of what McWhorter says, though if you read McWhorter’s excerpts on his old Substack site, you’ll already know much of what he has to say. Regardless, I’ll read his book.

There are four parts of McWhorter’s argument as outlined by Pollen, and I’ll separate them. Quotes are indented:

a. McWhorter’s thesis. We are in the “third wave” of anti-racism, the first two being the “fight against slavery and legalized segregation. Number two was “the struggle against racist attitudes, which sought to instill the idea that racial prejudice was a moral defect.” This is presumably the era of Martin Luther King, Jr: from the Fifties to the late Sixties.  This third is the current brand of anti-racism, apparently construed by McWhorter as “woke racism,” although of course there are temperate and rational anti-racists. Those aren’t McWhorter’s targets.

b. The third wave is not only nuts, but harmful. 

In his new book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, John McWhorter demonstrates that there is far more Martin Luther than Martin Luther King in today’s anti-racist movement. McWhorter, a linguist and a professor at Columbia University, is a critic of luminous intelligence, and his book’s apparently oxymoronic title plays on Robin DiAngelo’s (equally oxymoronic) Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. DiAngelo’s dubious contention is that white progressives are often more injurious to the cause of racial equity than skinheads or bedsheet bigots, because their racist transgressions are the result of well-meaning ignorance. McWhorter asks the corollary: can even those supposedly enlightened and self-appointed champions of anti-racism (whom he calls “the Elect”) think and act in ways that harm black America?

McWhorter seems to concentrate on Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo as avatars of “third wave antiracism”, though, according to the NYT review, he gives short shrift to their arguments themselves (he has analyzed those arguments elsewhere). It will behoove you to read Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist and DiAngelo’s White Fragility, though they may cause you “harm” by creating “offense”. You can’t really fathom the irrationality of the current movement without reading at least those two books.

c. The third wave is not just like a religion; it is a religion:

The central tenets of the third wave are provided by what McWhorter pointedly calls a “Catechism of Contradictions.” These include such prescriptions as: embrace multiculturalism, but don’t culturally appropriate; silence is violence, but remember to defer and elevate oppressed voices above your own; more black students should be admitted to top schools (via adjusted test scores and grade standards) in order to foster diversity, but it is racist to acknowledge that students are admitted for these reasons, and it is racist to expect them to represent a “diverse” view.

The catechism, in this case, is not a metaphor: McWhorter earns his subtitle, and he is not being rhetorical. He does not argue that third wave anti-racism is “like” a religion—it is a religion in all but name. It is religious in the infinite elasticity of its arguments and in its claim to be an all-solving theory, which banishes irony and contradiction and treats all opposition as blasphemy. We see also the prayer sessions and genuflections, the insistence on sin, the creation of saints (see the George Floyd murals), and the same extraordinary moral arrogance masquerading as humility and meekness. Church leaders, in sympathy with white protestors at a rally in Cary North Carolina, actually washed black protestors’ feet. This is not a distortion of religious thinking, as critics like Andrew Sullivan (a Catholic) have claimed. It is religious thinking to a T. It is Christianity in drag

. . These ostentatious outbursts of self-flagellation are quasi-Christian displays of self-incriminating and self-mortifying masochism. Perversely, people want to feel bad about themselves and to be told that they are sinners, so that they can throw themselves on the mercy of their clerics.

It’s useless to quibble about whether it really is a religion because it lacks a supernatural being; the point is that it is a largely irrational and delusion belief system that shares many characteristics with Abrahamic faiths.

d. The new anti-racism is pretentious and condescending to black people. Further, it will do little to bring about equality as it is mostly performative. 

It is hard to see how any of this will redress real “structural” inequalities. “People supposedly committed to political transformation,” McWhorter writes, “breezily ignore the yawningly abstract relationship between testifying to ‘privilege’ and forging change in the real world.” How, for example, will DiAngelo’s micro-behavioral prescriptions make poor black communities less poor? How will dropping to one’s knees and admitting one’s privilege end the mass incarceration of black Americans caused by the disastrous failure of the War on Drugs? How will separate graduation ceremonies and separate national anthems raise standards in public schools, boost literacy, or make vocational training more accessible? None of these concrete problems receive a fraction of the attention given to the regulation of conduct and demands for intellectual rewiring.

As I’ve said before, Grania used to dwell on this issue when confronting woke words or actions. “What will it change?” she asked, and she lived in South Africa during the apartheid era. When people demonstrate against Americans trying on kimonos at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, how does that reduce racism against Asians? When people cancel bird names and change the name of Audubon societies because of accused racism, does it help the situation of black Americans? Well, I suppose you can make the case, but those acts are clearly exculpatory and performative. Surely there are meaningful acts that can do a better job, and those are the actions that McWhorter and Lowry have been prescribing. We’ll see if they’re discussed in McWhorter’s book.

*********************************************************

You can’t read the full review of Rationality since nearly all of it is paywalled on Arc Digital, but I got four whole paragraphs in an email from the site. (If readers have access, please send me a copy of the full review; I don’t think McWhorter would mind as it’s for publicity purposes.) If you are a subscriber, click on the screenshot below.

Here’s the excerpt I got:

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Steven Pinker’s earlier blockbuster Enlightenment NowWhile it was crisply written and argued, it seemed incurious and even blasé about the many sources of dissatisfaction which had led to the re-emergence of radicalism in many developed states. Pinker also had a bad habit of gish-galloping past strawmanned iterations of doctrines he disdained as irrational, from postmodern leftism to Nietzschean reaction, offering zingers rather than analysis. While his optimism resonated with me, as someone who has grown weary of the cliché of left-wing melancholia, Pinker’s “stay the course” diagnosis also struck me as inadequate to the challenges humanity faces in the 21st century.

Now that is bad writing, loaded with jargon and ponderous. But press on, for the review is positive:

So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his latest book, Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it MattersA far less ambitious book than Enlightenment Now, it may disappoint those looking for another “state of the world” liberal manifesto. That said, it plays heavily to his strengths as a renowned cognitive psychologist.

Many of its summaries of logical reasoning, critical thinking, and fallacious argumentation are top notch introductions which anyone could benefit from. Pinker still occasionally reaches too far when trying to engage in moral and political philosophies where his grip remains superficial, and as cultural analysis no one will get much from Rationality. But these are relatively minor complaints about what is a useful and always readable book.

We live in an era that simultaneously worships intellect and resents it. Even in the most relentlessly rad left circles I’m most familiar with, where discrimination of all kinds is avoided with incomparable zeal, the one form of social ranking that remains not only permissible but accepted is intellectual: who is the smartest, knows the most, has published the most books, etc. Much of this is the long term product of our Enlightenment heritage’s focus on reason as the Archimedean lever which can move the world for the better.

And there is more to read, but I can’t get to it . . .

h/t Steve (not Pinker!)

38 thoughts on “Reviews of John McWhorter’s and Steve Pinker’s new books

  1. Since Pinker made his name on a straw man (the notion that the Social Sciences were dedicated to a Blank Slate ideology which they certainly weren’t at the time he wrote the book) then I would be interested in reading this book in the same spirit that I was interested in reading Stephen Meyer’s book about how science proves God.

    1. Blank Slate ideas and models definitely were common in the Social Sciences when and prior to The Blank Slate being published. However, I doubt that Pinker thought that the Social Sciences were “dedicated to a Blank Slate ideology” (I never got that impression when reading the book, or any other material by him), though he may certainly have thought it was common among them. He himself is a Social Scientist, a linguist. Most of the evidence he refers to in the book are derived from the Social Sciences.

      Pinker had made his name already quite a while before The Blank Slate was published. His 1994 book The Language Instinct is what first earned him popularity among both critics and admirers.

      1. Pinker describes the nurture extremist Ashley Montagu as “typical”, if that is not a straw man I don’t know what is. Montagu retired in 1955 and was extreme even for his time.

        If you go through all of Pinker’s examples you find that they are not blank slaters at all, rather they have some different opinions about the extent to which genetics and environment contribute to personality and behaviour characteristics. In fact this was the main criticism of the book at the time from others in social science. For example in a review from a behaviourist, Henry D. Schlinger:

        “Worst of all, Pinker is simply wrong about the positions of many of those he accuses as blank slate advocates, especially John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner. If Pinker were to report their works accurately, he would find positions that recognized innate tendencies and traits or, in his words, “human nature.”

        Schlinger talks of Pinker’s ‘caricature’ of behaviourism. And if you go through Pinker’s other examples, outside of behaviourism, you will find that they are far from blank slater positions. Certainly they are not extreme genetic determinists, but then neither is Steve Pinker.

        1. It’s been a while since I read “The Blank Slate” so I can’t comment on the specifics you mention. My guess is that the blank slate idea is stronger in those peripheral to behaviorism. As I understand Skinner, he didn’t really believe in a blank slate but a prohibition amongst scientists against proposing internal mechanisms but should focus on measurable behavior. I think it is more a problem of social scientists morphing this into the “blank slate” idea that virtually everything that an adult human knows was acquired by their experience after conception. In short, it’s not the scientists you mention that are the problem but those who have twisted their ideas. Not sure if that jives with Pinker’s take.

          1. Yes, and that is where Pinker is on the mark. Much of the advice given to parents seems to depend on strong “blank slate” assumptions and Pinker is right to reassure parents that they should not feel guilty that they cannot run all the rings recommended by these kinds of books.

            Social sciences in the first half of the 20th century might have partially supported this advice, but the second half of the 20th century was devoted to the concept of not dying wondering and doing the empirical work to find out exactly what was heritable and what was environmental.

            Not recognising that did a great disservice to the public perception of social sciences.

            1. That’s what I’m talking about. Clearly, those who understand evolution shouldn’t have this issue but so many social scientists, in education especially, seem to ignore that. It is obvious why they do. They would like to think every child can be “anything they want to be if they try hard enough”, or some such horse manure. This idea was strong in Pinker’s “Blank Slate” days and still dominates. They worry that if society embraces the idea that much behavior and ability is inherited, kids will stop trying, or parents and educators will stop pushing them.

        2. Here is Steve Pinker’s position in a speech made at the time of publishing the Blank Slate and I can’t see anything here with which Skinner, Mead or Boas could disagree with’:

          “What all this suggests is that children are shaped not by their parents, but in part—but only in part—by their genes; in part by their culture, both the culture of the surrounding society and the children’s own culture, which we condescendingly call their peer group; and in large part by sheer chance—chance events in the development of the brain in utero, such as whether some neurons zigged or zagged at a particular day in brain development, and perhaps chance events in life, such as whether at some point you were chased by a dog, or inhaled a virus, or were dropped on your head, or got the top bunk bed as opposed to the bottom bunk bed.”

          The only think I would point out about this is that parents *are* part of the surrounding society of a child.

    2. Sorry, that’s nonsense. The idea that children represent a blank slate on which virtually everything is learned from experience still persists to this day, especially among those in the social studies arena and the Woke generally.

      1. I would be interested in which you think are areas of the social sciences in which “blank slater” positions were around in more than a tiny rump, from the time the book was written.

        Even the inventor of the “refrigerator mom” thesis, Leo Kanner, dropped the position and even apologised for it by the end of the 1960s. Heritability studies were all the rage by the 1970s.

        As for “woke”, the opposite is the case. Trans activists absolutely deny that any amount of nurture will make a trans woman a man or a trans man a woman.

        It is the anti-woke folk to insist that nurture is the culprit and that nurture can change trans women or man back.

        Colin Wright adopts a contradictory position. He says that there is plenty of evidence sex personality differences associated with gender are genetically determined but can sometimes vary and then goes on to claim that trans gender people are claiming otherwise.

        But the idea that sex personality differences associated with gender are genetically determined but not uniquely is perfectly consistent with the idea that gender is not a binary and with the experiences that trans men and women report.

        If gender is not binary and some biological males have experiences normally associated with the opposite biological sex then a genetic basis of sex personality, social and behaviour differences is just exactly what you would expect.

        But Colin Wright also claims that social contagion, ie environmental factors, contribute to people being trans.

        So the anti-woke position is more of a blank slate position than the woke position.

        1. You make a good point here but it is one that’s been made many times on these pages. The Woke position is that we can’t change, when it comes to race at least. Blank slatism was the default for social scientists when Pinker wrote the book. I believe it persists to this day though perhaps not so much with the Woke and CRT. (now over to your other comment)

  2. “It’s useless to quibble about whether it really is a religion because it lacks a supernatural being.” — J. Coyne

    Given Durkheim’s definition, the belief in supernatural beings isn’t necessary:

    “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions—beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church.”

    (Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. 1912. Translated by Carol Cosman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 46)

      1. Systematic racism is no different from the belief in demons.

        They are both invisible, occult, hidden.

        They are both monocausal explanations evil and disorder in the world.

        They both get fought by ritual exorcism, especially collective rituals of exorcism.

        Neither one is falsifiable. Frankly, it is possible that racial inequality persists as a result Satan and his minions just as equally as systematic racism.

        It is a supernatural explanation, and pushing back on it and requesting empirical evidence for this “theory” results in charges of breaching religious taboos, the same way skepticism of demonic manifestations are evidence of demonic infestation of the interlocutor.

        1. A way to test this supposition: if systematic racism does not function as supernatural explanation, then how would one empirically confirm or disconfirm that Satan is not personally behind systematic racism.

          We know racial inequality exists, and we know the only permitted explanation of racial inequality is “systematic racism” which is never defined, and no evidence of causal explanation is ever established. That is not empirical, its a religious article of faith, the same way belief in Satan is an article of faith.

          One of the functions of religion is to shut down people from asking certain kinds of questions, and supernatural “explanations” are directly related to that process.

      2. Well, Scientology was able to convince the IRS that it’s a religion, and so far at least, L Ron has not been deified. Of course, one can also argue that being tax-free is no great criterion for being an actual religion. Wait! Maybe Xenu can qualify!

  3. For anyone interested, McWhorter was a guest last week on Andrew Sullivan’s podcast (the Dishcast – which I’m pretty sure is open access even though the column is behind a paywall), discussing the book and ideas around it.

  4. The bizarre thing about the Anti-Racist movement, and the “quest” for racial equality (of outcomes), is that you cannot find any multiracial society, ever, in the history of the world where there has been equality of outcome. Even in ethnically homogeneous countries, you cannot find equality between co-ethnics of different classes, despite the efforts of the Cultural Revolution in China. Eighty Six percent of Chinese elites are descended from pre-1949 elites. No one has ever in the history of the world pulled it off, either on the basis of race or class.

    In America, we have spent over sixty years trying to close Black-White testing gaps, numerous attempts have been made, but it has not closed, if anything, its gotten worse in recent years. If anyone possessed an actual means to close that gap that worked, people would do it. Now I guess the approach is to pretend that tests don’t matter, but in reality, they do, and reality doesn’t play games.

    White people beating them up about their “privilege” isn’t going to do a damn thing to close the gap. Eliminating standards from public education is going to make it worse. Going through a bunch of performative exorcism rituals to fight occult white supremacy is a waste of time. Making everyone do let’s pretend about the problem and not discussing the actual root issues is not going to solve the problem, its a charade. Racial inequality primarily stems from testing gaps that continue into gaps in educational attainment that continue into income inequalities that continue into household wealth differentials, which then repeat themselves across generations. Employment markets are relatively efficient, so giving people fake credentials doesn’t necessarily translate into success in the job market unless employees can perform. Handing people money doesn’t translate into wealth, because wealth is primarily a function not of what you have, but of how good you are at holding onto what you have (and acquiring more). South Africa put in place affirmative action extensively, and so whites ended up leaving the job market and founding businesses, and in fact, the wealth gap increased as a result of affirmative action.

    Some of these people just want totalitarian power, but most are probably deluded. Its a pretty simple question: when has anyone ever socially engineered the outcome you seek, and how did they do it. If the answer is no, then you need to supply evidence as to why your approach would work when so many others have failed.

    1. “reality doesn’t play games” is one of the most important points that people have to accept – or not, I guess, since reality doesn’t need their acceptance or assent. It just is.

    2. “Racial inequality primarily stems from testing gaps that continue into gaps in educational attainment that continue into income inequalities that continue into household wealth differentials, which then repeat themselves across generations.”

      It seems to me that this chain of causation grossly oversimplifies the issues and realities of racial inequality. There are deeply rooted cultural attitudes resulting from generations living under actual racist attitudes and practices. In my lifetime, much progress has been made in providing better outcomes for Black Americans, and that might continue if we don’t accept that the cycle you describe is inevitable.

        1. No, I believe experience is the sole criterion of truth, and I refer to data. This supposedly makes me a bad person in your eyes, but it prevents me from shooting up horse de-wormer in other contexts.

        2. No, I am soliciting your specific proposals on why the testing gap persists and how you propose to close it, and the evidence for why your view is correct, which means you should be able to specify if you have a coherent public policy in contrast to performative purity rituals.

          If you can satisfy that inquiry, I am on your team 100%.

        3. Here’s the problem: Black people ARE dumber. Which is just a shortened way to say that the average black intelligence is significantly lower than the average white intelligence and there is a biological reason that’s the case. And even though we know that to be true, it must be denied because it’s “racist.” And so now we go in search of the cause of some inequalities having dismissed the actual cause. This means we will always end up with the wrong answers: systemic racism, school funding issues, over-disciplining minorities, school-to-prison-pipeline, etc.

            1. I’m not sure what you’re expecting I give in the comment section of a blog. Maybe read “Why Race Matters” or “Race Differences in Intelligence?” Does it count as proof that an overwhelming majority of researchers in the field believe there is a genetic component to racial IQ differences? It’s a tough summary you’re asking for.

              I guess a better start would be to ask what research you’ve read on the subject?

      1. No, it provides a causal mechanism for the replication of racial inequality in American society despite laws and good intentions to the contrary. Is it exhaustive? No, obviously you can get lung cancer even if you don’t smoke, but that doesn’t mean that there is no connection between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. Telling children not to smoke “oversimplifies the issues and realities of lung cancer” but is not bad advice.

        As far as “progress”, you have to define it in empirical terms, and examine it. The testing gap has grown over the last 20 years. Having diversity consultants correlates to the testing gap getting worse, so yes, probably chucking the DEI consultants would help minorities do better.

        The testing gap is extremely important as to why we have not ended racial inequality and have not made a lot of progress despite having ended most forms of legal racial discrimination, and permitting racial discrimination in favor of disadvantaged minorities.

        If you know how to make the testing gap disappear, please tell me how.

        If it is a result of these “cultural attitudes”, tell me what those attitudes are and how they are eradicated. Is this the non-replicated “stereotype effect”? Is this “self esteem”? If I recall the “self esteem” craze in the 1980’s, low “self esteem” caused failure until they figured out convicts in prison had high self esteem, and undergraduates in college had low self esteem. Now we have “triggers” to replace “self esteem” hokum.

  5. I found McManus’s writing perfectly OK, even if he uses a few big words where smaller ones might do. This might have something to do with generally agreeing with it. (I’ve only heard a few short talks and quotes; I might change my mind if I read _Enlightenment Now!_, but I think I’ll try _Rationality_ instead.)

  6. Picking up McWhorter at the library tomorrow – I was the first one on the hold list. (Just finished his “Nine Nasty Words” last month.)

    “I don’t think McWhorter would mind as it’s for publicity purposes.”
    Should that be “Pinker”?

  7. The Marx Brothers are likely candidates for woke suppression. In the movie “Horse Feathers” the football rivals are Huxley University versus Darwin University. Surely, the epitome of awfulness.

  8. I am not a fan of the “religion” debating tactic. If I say that I can see that I have had advantages that have stemmed from being part of a majority and someone decides to portray this as “self-flagellation” then they are unambiguously engaging in deceptive and irrational methods of rhetoric.

  9. I had never intended to read “How to be antiracist” but my interest has been piqued. Then I will try McWhorter’s book and see if he has been fair or if he is just preaching to the anti-woke tribe as the title suggests.

Leave a Reply