Last night I went to see Jonathan Haidt talk about his new book, The Righteous Mind, at a Demos event held at the British Academy.
Haidt is one of the most thoughtful and important psychologists at work in the US today. His core interest is moral psychology: our sense of right and wrong. Over the years he has drawn on different disciplines - anthropology, evolutionary biology, philosophy - to put together a very rich and multi-layered picture of our moral sensibilities. His new book applies this learning to politics. It's quite a blockbuster, makes a big argument, and is already provoking a huge amount of discussion, over there and over here.
You can read about the book here, or here for a British perspective. In short, Haidt asks why it is that the left and liberal thinking has been in retreat for the last thirty or forty years, and concludes that the right now appeals to a much broader range of human instincts than the left does. His conclusions are all the more interesting in that they come from a liberal perspective - Haidt, like most academics, is on the left of the political spectrum.
Haidt turns out to be a charming, modest and compelling speaker, adept at using well-turned metaphors and imagery to express complex ideas. The event itself wasn't so impressive. It had two chairman plus an introducer. It had four guest panellists (one would have been sufficient - if you are going to invite people of the calibre of David Aaronovitch or Brian Eno it seems pointless to allow them only ten minutes to speak). One of the panellists - Rowenna Davis - didn't appear to have read the book at all and gave a speech about herself. Questions from the audience - of which too many were taken - were tedious speeches in disguise (a man called Philip Blond, by far the worst offender in this regard, seemed impervious to the audience's loudly expressed derision for his endless, incomprehensible and self-inflating spiel).
Haidt handled all this politely and stylishly. But the event as a whole embodied much about the contemporary left: solipsistic, shambolic, pessimistic - and yet somehow, oddly pleased with itself.