Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
The great democracy experiment
Quantifiable progress is easy to understand. This many people got vaccinated; that many rose out of poverty. The share of renewable energy climbed this much; GDP by that. We cheer such things on in this newsletter, with pleasure.
Social progress, on the other hand, though no less important, is more difficult to pin down. Sometimes a major law is passed or a ruling given, something that shows clearly, for a moment in time, how societies are evolving. But more often than not appreciating social progress requires a guiding hand to reveal where it may be hiding in the messy, slow-moving reality of day-to-day living. Our Members, thankfully, are excellent
hands minds for such work. This week we want to discuss a few interweaving strands of some difficult-to-see social progress.
It’s a common refrain these days that American democracy is in trouble. The truth to that is so well known that there is no need to repeat it here. That truth, however, runs parallel to another, less-discussed one. That American democracy—and all modern, diverse democracies—are a new experiment, historically speaking, and one that is by and large not blowing up in our faces but triumphing over humanity’s dark inclinations toward group-based strife and violence.
In the past, most democracies “defined themselves by their ethnic purity,” says The Progress Network (TPN) Member Yascha Mounk, in an interview with his online outlet Persuasion about his new book on the topic. “Today is the first time in the history of the world that we have a large number of ethnically and religiously diverse democracies that are trying to treat all of their citizens as genuine equals.”
In building functional, peaceful, diverse democracies, then, we are learning to do something new—something praiseworthy but hard, and that doesn’t come with a how-to guide. Looking at the injustices and failures that exist in our societies divorced from that historical context can become an exercise in despair or self-hatred. You might even think, like many do, that we’re especially bad, immoral humans these days, when in fact we’re an improvement—an imperfect, vulnerable one, but an improvement nonetheless. Mounk continues:
Yes, we’re failing in certain respects, but we’re succeeding in other respects. We’re doing much better today than we did fifty years ago. We’re doing vastly better today than we did a hundred years ago. That, I think, can give you the hope to build a vision for the kind of society you want to live in, and to make sure that our society doesn’t fall apart, but actually thrives and succeeds.
The rest of the interview goes over critical questions to chew on and specific places where Mounk sees success—when is the last time anyone cared about a Catholic marrying a Protestant?—all of it interesting. One thing he calls for is social institutions that emphasize what we have in common, places where people can build trust with one another. The fact that our current social media systems do the exact opposite is why they are so harmful to the modern democratic experiment.
Which brings us, strangely enough, to Elon Musk. If you’re not on Twitter, odds are you are not as agog as its users are about the news that the Tesla and SpaceX entrepreneur is buying the platform, but suffice it to say there’s a large, Twitter-based freak-out going on at the moment about what changes, good or bad, Musk may bring. Our founder, Zachary Karabell, on why the freak-out Musk isn’t based on clear thinking here, and we also wanted to share two contributions, one from TPN Member Eli Pariser and the other from public policy and communications scholar Ethan Zuckerman (and both ironically shared on Twitter) that dig a little into alternatives for billionaire-owned social platforms.
“When we—the people who actually power these platforms and make them worth visiting—choose to structure them as for-profit companies,” writes Pariser, “we choose to cede decision-making to the highest bidder.”
If we want to keep the democratic experiment going, one potent ingredient may be better alternatives for online life, ones that are controlled by us, the users. As Zuckerman advises, “Find a platform that wants you to govern, not one that wants to moderate you.”
A couple more thoughts before we finish on social progress. You can draw a direct line between the success of diverse democracies who look to treat all of society as equals and the failure of far right-wing political candidates. Which is why we are relieved about President of France Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of Marine Le Pen over the weekend. Slovenia, too, saw the ouster of Janez Jansa, a leader who was flirting with authoritarian rule, with their parliamentary elections on Sunday.
And to highlight one example of a ruling that demonstrates where the winds of society are blowing, however capriciously: if you’re gay and in the South Korean military, you can end up in prison for “indecent acts.” Exactly this happened to two soldiers who were charged under the South Korean Military Criminal Act for having consensual sex while off duty, and off base. Last week, South Korea’s Supreme Court struck down the men’s verdicts and prison sentences, ruling that applying the law in such a case violated their “constitutionally guaranteed right to equality and human dignity.” South Korea’s Constitutional Court is now reviewing whether the military law is unconstitutional, the fourth time it has done so since 2002. This is something to watch.
Before we go
Americans can now sponsor Ukrainian refugees. A step-by-step guide on how to do it here. And, TPN Member Jonathan Tepperman has a fantastic interview with human rights expert Harold Hongju Koh in The Octavian Report on what help international law can provide to bring the war in Ukraine to a peaceful outcome. (We also touched on this during our podcast episode on Ukraine with Anne-Marie Slaughter. Listen to it here.)
The Mediterranean Sea is now home to its first offshore wind farm, off the “heel” of Italy’s boot. Washington State is the first to pass a law mandating all-electric heating in most newly constructed buildings. The magic tool to accomplish this? Heat pumps.
The Financial Times knows how to get people engaged around climate policy: gamify it. You’ve got to make the right decisions to bring warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 in their new climate game. It was—a little surprisingly—a great way to learn about the most effective paths forward and what their financial and political costs might be. It was fun, too. (When we played, we limited warming to 1.69 degrees.)
It’s World Immunization Week. Google put together a wonderful interactive of the history of immunization here, and we can also celebrate that over one million children in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi have now received at least one dose of the first malaria vaccine.
This MIT Technology Review story on how Indonesia’s gig workers—the equivalent to Uber drivers and DoorDash deliverers—are fighting back against poor working conditions by hacking the platforms’ algorithms to their favor. It’s the David vs. Goliath of coding wars! And this Polish gaming company attracted our attention for offering their employees days off for menstruation. While we understand the concern that such a policy might underline the view of women as incompetent workers, there’s also the stark reality that some women are dealing with a truly disruptive event monthly. Could it be possible to have the option open and for those who take it not to be penalized? We’ll see.
Below in the links section, incandescent light bulbs are on their way out in the United States, scientists discover a potential breakthrough in the treatment of prostate cancer, and more.
The Information Horizon | S2 Ep. 5
What’s coming next? We sit down with a modern renaissance man, economist, and podcaster Tyler Cowen to participate in what he calls his greatest pleasure: information extraction. We pick his brain on everything from mRNA to housing bubbles to literature. “The world,” he tells us, “has never been more optimistic than it is now.” | Listen to the episode
Other good stuff in the news
- 10 recent climate policies that could make a difference | The Washington Post
- Biden administration starts Covid treatment push, focusing on Pfizer’s Paxlovid | Stat
- New rules will end the century-long run of classic light bulbs | The New York Times
- The Army expands benefits for soldiers who are parents | NPR
- A nonprofit is building tools to help impoverished families access government help | The Atlantic
- New miniature heart could help speed heart disease cures | The Brink
- A boot camp is giving Indigenous women the tools to run for office | The Guardian
- FDA approves first COVID treatment for children under 12 | Axios
- A Kansas City nonprofit is planting community gardens and orchards across the US | The Kansas City Beacon
- A TikTok army is coming for union busters | Wired
- A Large Hadron Collider revamp could revolutionize physics | BBC
- Scientists invent de-icing coatings to cut airline delays by lasting longer without toxic runoff | Good News Network
- Increasing openness of Jewish life in Dubai is another sign of an emerging new reality in the Middle East | The New York Times
- The complex journey of a life-saving vaccine | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- The female bridge helping vaccines reach kids in an under-immunised part of Pakistan | Gavi
- Trans men’s eggs have been matured in the lab—and could help them have children | MIT Technology Review
- Historic return of rhinos at Mozambique’s Zinave National Park after 40 years | Africanews
- Space-age laser technology is allowing scientists to study the ocean’s most delicate species | The New Yorker
- 80 critically endangered spotted tree frogs are being released into a New South Wales national park | The Guardian
- Discovery of bacteria linked to prostate cancer hailed as potential breakthrough | The Guardian
- AI tool accurately predicts tumor regrowth in cancer patients | The Guardian
- ‘An ecological miracle’: Taiwan’s fireflies are flirting in the dark again | The Guardian
TPN Member originals
- Twenty-three theses on Elon Musk and Twitter | Matthew Yglesias
- America won’t ever be majority minority | Yascha Mounk
- In conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévy on the reporter-as-activist | Jonathan Tepperman
- Annotated selections from abolitionist papers on their first day of publishing | Bina Venkataraman & Peniel E. Joseph
- Here’s why the best workers leave companies, while the worst ones stay | Jason Feifer
- In conversation with Thomas Piketty on the politics of equality | Tyler Cowen
- The cost of the war to Vladimir Putin | Ian Bremmer
Take the plunge into this week’s long list of progress links.
- Reclaiming Love as a Force for Justice | Valarie Kaur | May 10
- Majority Minority with Justin Gest | Manu Meel | May 19
- Automation, Productivity, Work, and the Future | Jason Crawford & Erik Brynjolfsson | May 25
- Breakthrough Dialogue 2022: Progress Problems | Ted Nordhaus | June 22–24
Until Next Time
Choose your own adventure.👇