Is the world turning pinker? Is all for the best (as Voltaire's Dr Pangloss claims in Candide) in the best of all possible worlds - or at least better than in any previous state of the world? Or is the world turning a darker shade - blood red rather than pink? In the wake of yet another massacre at yet another American school by yet another political extremist with yet another screw loose and yet another assault rifle, it is hard to swallow the pinker thesis. I refer, of course, to my friend Steven Pinker, whose latest book makes the (almost) Panglossian case that things have never been better.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress is a cheerful, contrarian tract for dark times. I would guess that the vast majority of Pinker's Harvard colleagues and students think the world is careening towards disaster. A man they regard as both a racist and a sexist is president, white supremacists are running amok, climate change is accelerating and a nuclear war with North Korea is within the bounds of possibility.
Here's what Pinker has to say: "Human welfare has improved dramatically, and it's improved by almost any measure you like - longevity, health, prosperity, education, literacy, leisure time, and on and on . . . The objective record shows that progress has taken place, and it's really an enormous success story."
Or, as he put it in a recent Washington Post interview, "rates of disease, starvation, extreme poverty, illiteracy and dictatorship, when they are measured by a constant yardstick, have all decreased".
One reason people don't appreciate this success story, he argues, is distorted media coverage: if it bleeds, it leads, and all that. The other, he concedes, is that all this global progress is less discernible in America, which has (in Pinker's words) "a stagnation in happiness and higher rates of homicide, incarceration, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, child mortality, obesity, educational mediocrity and premature death" than the rest of the developed world.
Yet even in America, things are not as bad as your Facebook news feed makes them seem - even, Pinker argues, when it comes to gun violence. On the basis of the evidence available as I write, it would be hard to deny that Nikolas Cruz, the gunman in Parkland, Florida, was a terrorist. He boasted in a YouTube comment that he was "going to be a professional school shooter". He appears to have been involved with a white supremacist militia calling itself the Republic of Florida. He belongs in the same category as young Muslim men who commit indiscriminate murder having expressed allegiance to Isis.
Pinker remains in the pink, emphasising "the tiny number of deaths . . . caused by terrorism compared with those from hazards that inspire far less anguish or none at all". In 2015, according to his statistics, an American was 800 times as likely to be killed in a car crash as by a terrorist, and 3,000 times as likely to die in an accident of any kind. "Contact with hornets, wasps and bees" killed more US citizens than terrorists did that year.
In America, Pinker argues, the number of "active shooter incidents" (public rampage killings with guns) has "wobbled with an upward trend" since 2000, but the number of "mass murders" (with four or more deaths) actually went down slightly from 1976 to 2011. Moreover, he argues, the policy remedies invariably touted after terrorist incidents - notably tighter gun controls - would be unlikely to make much difference.
I admire Pinker. I agree with him, as I argued at the time of the Las Vegas massacre four months ago, that the facts on US gun violence are often misrepresented. But I think it's not convincing to dismiss America as an outlier - a trivial exception - in a world that is generally getting better and will continue to do so.
Pinker shares the 18th-century Enlightenment's faith in cosmopolitanism. He is on the side of "globalisation, racial diversity, women's empowerment, secularism, urbanisation [and] education" and against the populist backlash Donald Trump has come to personify. This is partly because Pinker believes cosmopolitanism works. "As we continually expand discourse and interaction," he said recently, "as people from diverse cultural backgrounds continue to sit down and agree about how to run their affairs, things tend to get better."
The problem with this theory is that no country in history has more systematically tried to put it into practice than America, his adopted home. (Pinker was born in Canada.) In the past few decades, increased immigration from all over the world has driven the foreign-born share of the US population from below 5% to above 13%. On present trends, the share will soon match the historic peak of 14.8% in 1890.
Moreover, immigrants to America now come from all over the world. Back in 1960, when Pinker was a boy, 84% of US immigrants were from Europe or Canada. By 2013 that share was down to 14%. On present trends in migration, fertility and mortality, the Census Bureau predicts that minority groups will outnumber non-Hispanic whites in America by 2044. According to The Washington Post, the most that a Trumpian immigration policy could achieve would be to postpone that by five years.
If cosmopolitanism works, America should not be an outlier. It should not be the country where a significant proportion of the majority-soon-to-be-minority population is experiencing a rising mortality rate, not least because of an epidemic of opioid abuse, to say nothing of the multiple social pathologies described by Charles Murray in his seminal book Coming Apart. It should illustrate not contradict Pinker's thesis.
Enlightenment Now? Or Benightedness? America today feels like a country where Pinker's cosmopolitanism has overshot, triggering an increasingly nasty backlash.
A good illustration of the way things are going is the continuing battle over free speech on American university campuses. Scarcely a week passes without protests against the appearance of one conservative or another. The standard accusations are (as in the case of Guy Benson at Brown University last week, or Charles Murray wherever he is invited) that the speaker is, if not a racist (or sexist), then someone whose work has encouraged racists (or sexists).
Protesting students often borrow symbols from 20th-century communists to make their points. The clenched fist on a red background is back in vogue. The irony is that Murray's work has been far more about inequality than about race. Time and again, he has warned that a cognitive elite formed at the nation's most selective colleges has lost all touch with the mass of ordinary Americans. Some campus protests illustrate his point.
Students protesting against free speech is just the kind of absurdity Voltaire throws at Dr Pangloss to challenge his optimism. Steve Pinker should watch out for that red fist.