Is politics becoming our new religion?

10Q, Volume 3

Hello y’all,

I admit I skipped an edition mid of January, but I was travelling. The journey was of the inspiring kind, so I don’t regret it (though I apologize to those who clicked refresh night and day, waiting for this delivery). Being back always feels weird, though the person in the picture above isn’t me, but some weird future guy out of a futuristic and deeply weird fashion video.

But on to this edition. In case it’s the first time you’re reading this, some info:

► This newsletter includes ten topics I’ve been stumbling upon and have been thinking about. As the title suggests, more questions with context than direct answers.

► See this more like a small magazine if you don’t find time right away. Feel free to skip what’s not your cup of tea or read on later. It will still matter in 2019.

► I will send this newsletter twice a month. If all goes well.

► My name is Johannes, I am located in Austin, Texas. And I am happy to talk about these questions or anything else, here or @kopfzeiler (German) @johakuhn.

Here we go.

1. Is politics becoming our new religion?

If you dare to open political Twitter these days, you will find - among other things - many phenomenons that strangely remind you of religion: Different sects and their preachers, a chorus of Likes and Retweets. Heresy, fundamentalism, intolerance. And rituals that don’t resemble so much debates, but attempts to convert somebody (or preach to the choir of your own peer-group). It’s like Judaea in year zero!

All of this makes John Gray the philosopher of the hour. His book “Seven Types of Atheism” has been received with great interest here in the U.S.. In it, Gray makes the argument that Western atheists are still using a religious mindset - often substituting theism with the idea of progress that includes a linear path to a final, perfect state of being: Communism, a world ruled by science, a world of liberated individualism, a libertarian world, etc. Redemption, my friends!

All of this is political, and a current poll comes to a related conclusion: Non-religious Americans, who are normally Progressives, show the highest enthusiasm for political engagement.

As you can guess, Gray is a light conservative and thinkers before him like Christopher Lasch have criticised this religious (but often empty) vision of progress as well. In 2019, it seems timely again: History hasn’t ended; climate change, the success of the authoritarian mindset and inequality not only challenge our idea of progress, but at the same time make the fight against all three phenomenons an urgent necessity to act. But is this a search for redemption or are we truly in survival-mode?

One punchline of Gray’s thinking is that we might solve problems, only to find them returning the next day in different form. We are not coming closer to a goal, but live through slightly changing landscapes in repeating seasons. Acceptance of this is the basis of the conservative belief-system; for Progressives, this acceptance would mean nihilism. No wonder we get all religious about it.

2. Are we making progress, anyway?

Last year’s thinker of the hour, Stephen Pinker, has been thoroughly deconstructed in the last couple of weeks. Progress is not only hard to measure, it is unevenly distributed and your judgement also depends on your mindset: Are you an optimist? A pessimist? A possibilist? Grand narratives often don’t apply. At least not without footnotes.

The anthropologist Jason Hickel surely is not an optimist, but he’d probably consider himself a realist with a left perspective. He recently attacked Pinker and Bill Gates, arguing that poverty is up, not down. And he has also been suggesting to follow the suggestion of Yale philosopher Thomas Pogge: “Pogge argues that the morally relevant metric of progress against poverty is neither absolute numbers nor proportions, but rather the extent of global poverty compared to our capacity to end it.”

Hickel makes this calculation: “In 1990, it would have cost 10.5% of world GDP to lift everyone above the poverty line.  In 2013, it would have cost only 3.3%.  Our capacity to end poverty has improved by a factor of 3.18.  Meanwhile, the poverty rate has improved only by a factor of 1.23.” Meaning: “Morally, we are failing worse than back then.”

Well, obviously this is a damning verdict. And obviously, GPD and capital are important factors to get a complex picture - and one could include many others (for example the fact that a lot of labor, mostly done by women, still isn’t paid at all, nowhere).

3. Is the age of Slowbalisation upon us?

2018 was the year when the coming trade wars took shape, when governments curbed foreign investments in some sectors and multinational companies started to reorganize their supply chains. 2019, a word for the bigger picture makes it into mainstream: Slowbalisation, a new phase that is reshaping globalisation.

The Economist made a funky move (funky Brits!) and put Slowbalisation on the cover. The magazine names several causes: Trading has stopped getting cheaper, cheap labour is becoming less important because production gets automated, services are growing and can’t be internationalized as easily (just ask doctors about the paperwork necessary to work in another country). I can definitely see slowbalisation becoming snowball-like, leading into further distress: the services-sector is very automatable and always prone to cost-cutting, and the renationalisation of supply chains away from China can be interpreted as pre-war-measures. Or maybe we are just living through a re-regionalisation of trade and commerce.

4. Are we colonizing the future?

Is short-terminism civilization’s greatest threat? That’s the question Richard Fisher is asking in an excellent essay. It is a well-thought argument about how we can’t see our longterm responsibility, because we are only acting on recent news. We are not living and acting like we’ll have descendants. Which is an irresponsibility, taking into account how many will still follow us on earth:

The philosopher Roman Krznaric uses a drastic concept: “We treat the future as a distant colonial outpost where we dump ecological degradation, nuclear waste, public debt and technological risk.” The weird thing to me is that we imagine the consequences of climate change as a kind of apocalyptic moment, the end of the world. But the world will continue, and humans will continue to exist. The question is, in what kind of circumstances.

5. Will makeup for men become a regular feature?

To a lighter topic, an obituary: Remember the metrosexual? He’s dead, as grooming has become a regular feat of male existence.

I admit I’ve had my share of lotions and contribute to the market-growth of male beauty products (which is projected to hit $60 billion in the United States by 2020). But I am already being left behind, as male makeup is becoming a thing. More and more companies are launching their own cosmetics line. Eyeliner, meet guyliner! The trend has been coming out of Korea’s K-Pop-universe, now China is catching on. As trends globalize, and as we want to become like our best Instagram-filter-self and as gender has become multiple-choice, this seems to be a new, hot market. But let me warn you, fellow European men: To get the famous “chok-chok”-look of fresh radiance, it is not enough to simply wear cold cream!

6. Will we ever stop freaking out about objects in space?

People tend to anthropomorphize (giving objects & animals human traits). Maybe nowhere more so than in space, which reminds me of the one night many years ago when I was seeing Beethoven’s face on the moon (recreational Marihuana was involved).

The latest example is going far beyond hallucinating, though: The interstellar object ‘Oumuamua is so elegantly shaped that there’s a serious discussion (and a lot of clickbait-articles) about whether it could have been designed by aliens. Astronomer Steve Desch is keeping his cool and offers a reality-check: “‘Oumuamua is simply the latest object onto which we have pareidoliacally projected our hopes and desires”, he reckons, using a word (pareidoliacally) that even Google has problems finding. But the bottom line is: We see a face on Mars and Beethoven in the moon and it is a beautiful thing - human beings love mystery and long for connecting with the extraterrestrial.

7. Are we looking for the ideal astronauts in the wrong places?

The dream of space, or rather leaving our soon uncomfortable earth to populate Mars, is taking the fascination to another level. And it has been catching on, even though nothing except complete destruction could make earth less inhabitable than Mars…

But who is best suited to make it into space, anyway? Rose Eveleth makes the argument that people with disabilities are the ideal astronauts, as they are used to adapting to environments that are not suited for them: Blind astronauts would be able to navigate after the lights shut down inside the spacecraft. Amputees are used to moving their body in unison with a piece of technology. You get the idea. Constraints can be assets!

8. Another wave of internet blackouts?

In January, the governments of DR Congo and Gabon temporarily shut down the internet. For political reasons, not because they read the German Feuilleton or Professor Manfred Spitzer. The island of Tonga was more or less offline for two weeks because of a torn underwater cable.

Justin Sherman argues that we are going to see more blackouts this year, as nations like China, Russia and Iran lead the efforts to establish an internet with national borders. Sherman also warns about attacks on internet-infrastructure via turning connected devices into botnets. Your smart lightbulbs, fridges etc. that you never wanted to buy anyway. A quick reminder: We don’t have common security standards for the “Internet of things”, nor for the new 5G mobile network. This mixture of neglect and international inwardness might come to haunt us.

9. Will ageing societies get a “deliberately-criminal-seniors”-problem?

Something is going on in Japan, as this graphic tells us:

According to the BBC, more and more Japanese pensioners are living in jail. The reasons? One group wants to retire in prison, as the combination of loneliness and measly basic state pensions make growing old in the “real world” hard. Therefore they deliberately commit small crimes like shoplifting or bike-theft. The other reason: Judges are handing out tougher sentences for such petty crimes. The risk of poverty is a constant factor in all ageing societies, and it is breaking the promise of living in an industrialized nation. The Japanese case is not only cruel, but weird. Imagine getting to know other inmates and asking them: “Are you here serving time or retiring?”

10. How will we cope with automated early diagnosis?

If you know you are going to get Alzheimer’s disease, even though the first symptoms are years away: What would you do? This is the question a successful project by the University of California in San Francisco is raising. They used prediction machines (also known as “Artificial Intelligence”, AI) to analyse brain scans. The software was able to spot Alzheimer six years ahead of the first clinical diagnosis by human doctors. Which opens the possibility for early treatment (though Alzheimer’s is incurable as of now), but also the perspective of patients having some bad years by just knowing their memory is going to fade soon. Automated early diagnosis is expected to be a regular feature of medicine soon, and with it comes better treatment, but also the burden of knowledge (similar to genetic diseases that kick in later or get passed on to your kids).

That’s it for this episode - thank you for reading!