Sorting out the present global turmoil understandably demands our attention. But fathoming the lessons of the long past and anticipating the near future is no less important in framing the consequential choices we make today. Warning to the reader: what follows will likely disturb the safe space of those with a Panglossian outlook. A decided pessimism prevails among today’s key thinkers who look at the times ahead through the prism of historical experience.
This week, Stanford University classics historian Walter Scheidel outlines the theme of his new book, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.
“For hundreds and perhaps thousands of years,” Scheidel writes, “peace, stability and development have rewarded those at the top of the food chain more than anybody else. Profits from business, connections and power multiplied in the hands of the few and passed between generations. But the inverse is also true: Every time the gap between rich and poor narrowed ― during the two world wars, for example ― there was massive violence, a shock to the established order.”
“Yet,” he continues, “inequality” is “resilient” ― it “regularly advances once violent shock retreats.” Despite our idealistic hopes, Scheidel concludes, there is no reason to believe the future will be any different than the past: “Once genetic and cybernetic enhancements of the human body migrate from the domain of science fiction to real-life labs and clinics, the well-off will inevitably be in the best position to take advantage of these offerings, both for themselves and their offspring.”
In an interview, Cambridge University astrophysicist Martin Rees ― famous for asking whether we are living through humankind’s “final century” ― tallies the promise and perils ahead. Above all, Rees is concerned about the uses and misuses of biotechnology in the coming decades.
“We are already seeing that it’s becoming easier to modify the genome,” he says, “and we heard about experiments on the influenza virus to make it more virulent and transmissible. These techniques are developing very fast and have huge potential benefits but unfortunately also downsides. They are easily accessible and handled. It’s the kind of equipment that’s available at many university labs and many companies. And so the risk of error or terror in these areas is quite substantial, while regulation is very hard. It’s not like regulating nuclear activity, which requires huge special purpose facilities. Biohacking is almost a student-competitive sport.”
Like Scheidel, Rees’ reading of history casts a dark shadow on the future. As he puts it, “what can be done, will be done.” And in the near term, Rees see the main challenge as intelligent robots replacing workers with living wages.
“We will have to accept a big redistribution in the way the labor market is deployed,” he warns. “And in order to ensure we don’t develop even more inequality, there has to be a massive redistribution of wealth too. The money earned by robots can’t stay with a small elite ― Silicon Valley people, for instance.”
Rees’ advice for the short and long-term future: “There is a great saying, ‘fortune favors the prepared mind.’”
Back in the present, defenders of liberal democracy are preparing for the worst. Human Right Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes with alarm that, “I’ve spent years defending human rights around the world, but I’ve never been this worried about the future of the United States.” Roth warns that, “Experience elsewhere teaches us that [autocratic governments] can arrive with extraordinary speed, signaled not by tanks surrounding the presidential palace but by the erosion of democratic norms.” Writing from Hong Kong, Chandran Nair has had enough of America “bullying” everyone else, especially now that President Donald Trump is the culprit in the pulpit. “In response,” Nair writes in a defiant call to action, “the world should now get tough with America, and let it know that the global majority will no longer be pushed around.”
Graham Fuller, a former vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, sees some value in Trump’s penchant to candidly acknowledge what everyone knows to be true but won’t say. Though perhaps not quite as the president meant it when he recently said that he is open to a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Fuller agrees that “the two-state solution in practice is essentially a fraud.” Drawing on his long experience in the Middle East, he writes, “honest observers know full well that the mantra of preserving ‘the peace process’ for the two-state solution is now little more than a cover by hard-line Zionists for full Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands.”
The impacts of Trump’s America are also being felt in Africa. As China widens the scope of its activities there and the U.S. steps back from the world, Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden find that many are scrutinizing whether Beijing is a partner or predator on the continent.
Turkish journalist Ilgin Yorulmaz talks with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man most known for his role in a controversial plan to build an Islamic community center near ground zero in New York. He says Muslims in America should create an “American Islam” in order to assimilate with other like-minded people of faith to combat the extremist rhetoric in their respective religions. He also notes that his Cordoba House is, “training imams who are culturally integrated into the American life and can deal with the issues of it.”
Writing from Berlin, Yermi Brenner looks at how the marginalized Roma minority community in Germany continues to struggle against racism, invisibility and the threat of deportation over seven decades after a significant fraction of its population was murdered during the Holocaust. Reporting on the tensions between South Africans and Nigerian immigrants and shopkeepers in Johannesburg, Sipho Hlongwane reminds us that xenophobia is not limited to America or Europe these days.
Finally, our Singularity series this week showcases a “one-cent lab-on-a-chip” that “can diagnose cancer and infections.”
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