Ideals that today’s educated people take for granted — equal rights, free speech, and the primacy of human life over tradition, tribal loyalty and intuitions about purity — are radical breaks with the sensibilities of the past. These too are gifts of a widening application of reason.
Fair enough, but to contrast what educated people were like in the bad old days, Prof. Pinker offers this:
Heroes like Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson avowed racist beliefs that today would make people’s flesh crawl.
Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson may have defenders to speak for them, but I’ll take this up on behalf of Churchill. Professor Pinker is exhibiting what William Manchester called “Generational Chauvinism”—judging people of the past by the accepted better standards of today.
If he means that Churchill used words like “blackamoors” and said that certain non-white races have “a high rate of reproduction,” nolo contendere. Of course, when Churchill grew up—in the late Victorian and Edwardian era—every Briton from the Sovereign to a Covent Garden grocer said the same things about other races, and nobody’s skin crawled because all of them believed it. That may be shocking to today’s ears—but that’s the way it was.
But simply to declare that Churchill was a man of his time is to miss a feature that distinguishes him. For example, this is the same Winston Churchill who in 1899 argued for equal rights for black South Africans in a debate with his Boer jailer in Pretoria, In 1906, as Undersecretary for the Colonies, he endeared himself to Gandhi by defending the rights of Indians in South Africa. The same Churchill endorsed the concept of a Jewish national home, and praised the contributions of Jews to civilization in 1920. Churchill opposed Indian self-government in the 1930s and, when he lost, sent encouragement to Gandhi; who admired Nehru; who would admire the Indian democracy today.
He Can’t be Pigeonholed
Winston Churchill was by no means a saint, and it does him a disservice to pretend he was without faults. But he is too complex a figure to pigeonhole. We must take into account the full picture. As Manchester wrote in the first volume of his biography, The Last Lion (p. 844):
Churchill, however, always had second and third thoughts, and they usually improved as he went along. It was part of his pattern of response to any political issue that while his early reactions were often emotional, and even unworthy of him, they were usually succeeded by reason and generosity.