As we leap into the new year, I'd like to share the 10 readings from 2020 that I’ve found particularly helpful to make sense of the fundamental social, political, and economic transformations of our time (with a geographical focus on Europe and the US). May these readings help you navigate the turbulent waters of 2021.
The Extraordinary Stamina of Scientists – with Katalin Karikó.
BIochemist Katalin Karikó dedicated her career to researching the potential use of mRNA for vaccines. We owe the new Covid vaccines to her stamina and resilience (and to the collective efforts of innumerable scientists around the world): “[A]fter so many years of adversity, and struggling to convince people that her research was worthwhile, she is still trying to comprehend the fact that her breakthrough in mRNA technology could now change the lives of billions around the world, and help end the global pandemic... She recalls spending one Christmas and New Year’s Eve conducting experiments and writing grant applications. But many other scientists were turning away from the field, and her bosses at UPenn felt mRNA had shown itself to be impractical and she was wasting her time.” Read the full article by David Cox / Wired (from December 2020).
The Future of Government - with Marianna Mazzucato.
Economist Mariana Mazzucato urges us to rethink the role of government public policy in the face of systemic challenges like Covid or climate change: „By assuming that governments have to wait until the occurrence of a huge systemic shock before they resolve to take action, insufficient preparations are made along the way... This requires a rethink of what governments are for: rather than simply fixing market failures when they arise, they should move towards actively shaping and creating markets that deliver sustainable and inclusive growth.” Read the full article in the Guardian (form March 2020)
The Epidemic of Loneliness - with Noreena Hertz.
Economist Noreena Hertz examines the individual and collective dimensions of loneliness, and its link to social disenfranchisement and populist politics: “Loneliness is political as well as personal, economic as well as social. It is also about feeling disconnected from our fellow citizens and political leaders, and detached from our work and our employer...,“ feeling excluded from society’s gains, and feeling unsupported, powerless, invisible and voiceless.. “This combination of personal and political isolation helps to explain not only why levels of loneliness are so high globally today, but also why loneliness and politics have in recent years become so closely linked.”
Read the full essay in the Financial Times (from September 2020) or check out her book, the Lonely Century.
The Governance of Big Tech – with Marietje Schaake.
With Covid on the collective mind, the regulation of big tech has received less attention this year. Luckily, Mariejete Schaake is on it: "Schaake offered a hopeful vision for the new values that could animate Silicon Valley—values that were democratic, incremental, and even traditional. Many talented software engineers, she said, “are looking for more value than the value of money...” If tech companies could be regulated by voters, she said, then laws could be passed that limited the civic and economic damage those platforms caused. Legislation could protect privacy and increase transparency about how companies use data; revised liability laws could hold companies accountable for what they disseminate, and improve public debate; antitrust actions could check the flow of wealth to the small number of companies that control platforms, aggregators, and algorithms..."
Read the entire text by Nick Romeo in the New Yorker.
The Tyranny of Meritocracy - with Michael Sandel.
Philosopher Michael Sandel argues (very convincly in my opinion) how a fetish with the idea of meritocracy poisons our societies: Meritocratic hubris “is the tendency of those who land on top to believe that their success is their own doing, the measure of their merit, and, by implication, that those who struggle, those who were left behind, must deserve their fate as well. It’s the tendency to forget our indebtedness to family, teachers, community, country, and the times in which we live as conditions for the success that we enjoy. The more we believe that our success is our own doing, the harder it is to see ourselves in other people’s shoes, the harder it is to feel a sense of mutual responsibility for the fate of our fellow-citizens, including those who aren’t flourishing in the new economy.”
Read the full interview by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker (from September 2020).
The Dynamics of Complicity – with Anne Applebaum.
How come so few Republicans have been standing up to Trump and his authoritarian governance. Historian Anne Applebaum delves into history to shed light on the dynamics of complicity and collaboration:"Until March 1949, Leonhard’s and Wolf’s biographies were strikingly similar. Both grew up inside the Soviet system. Both were educated in Communist ideology, and both had the same values. Both knew that the party was undermining those values. Both knew that the system, allegedly built to promote equality, was deeply unequal, profoundly unfair, and very cruel. Like their counterparts in so many other times and places, both men could plainly see the gap between propaganda and reality. Yet one remained an enthusiastic collaborator, while the other could not bear the betrayal of his ideals. Why?" Read the entire essay (The Atlantic, July 2020)
The Wisdom of Moderation – with Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Desiderius Erasmus, the philosopher dubbed the prince of humanists by his contemporaries, lived in a time when Europe plunged headfirst into religious conflict. In an intellectual climate of cruel dogmatism and intellectual tribalism he taught moderation and humility: "Unlike so many other great thinkers, in his time and since, Erasmus never fell prey to extremism. He believed in the healing power of moderation and reason, and in the civilising power of wine and conversation... It was also a matter of conviction. Erasmus loathed the certitude of ideologues and worried about the tendency of extremists to goad one another into greater acts of fanaticism. In place of revolutionary certainty, he preached the Middle Way. The best way to reform the establishment was from within, he argued."
Read the entire article (Economist, December 2020)
The Advantage of Multiple Identities – with Adam Shatz.
Author Adam Shatz explores the epistemological advantages of having multiple identities - by introducing us to the aspirations, fears, and contradictions of anti-decolonisation writer & activicst Albert Memmi who passed away this spring:"‘He represents no one,’ Sartre wrote of Memmi in his preface to Portrait du colonisé, ‘but since he is everyone at once, he will ..prove to be the best of witnesses’. Memmi saw little poetry or utopian promise in anti-colonial struggle. The face of revolt, he said, ‘isn’t pretty’ and can also lead to injustice, since ‘everyone ... looks for an inferior echelon in relation to which he can appear dominant and relatively superior ... Racism is a pleasure within reach of everyone.’
Read the entire essay (London Review of Books, August 2020).
The Importance of Bearing Witness – with Timothy Snyder.
Historian Timothy Snyder highlighty the importance of bearing witness by resurfacing the thinking and writing of Julius Margolin, a Jewish-Polish philosopher who lived and chronicled the systematic dehumanisation of the Gulag:"If you lose your concern for the facts of history, you have lost your concern for humanity. If you choose evasion and propaganda, then the anti-fascists lose out to the fascists, the better evaders and the better propagandists.The act of truthfully recording human suffering, by contrast, is also the act of affirming human value. The dignity of recalling detail is also the dignity of passing judgement. As a matter of individual ethics and also as a matter of democratic pragmatism, no “trampling on human rights should remain anonymous."
Read the entire essay (Tablet Magazine, October 2020).
The Demise of Cosmopolitan Britain - with Peter Gumbel.
Lastly, a text from the first day of 2021 - and one that's almost too close to home for me: British author Peter Gumbel, a descendant of Jewish refugees from Germany, mourns the nativist implosion of the UK and applies for German cititzenship:"My grandparents, who escaped Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II, found a home in Britain — to them, it was a beacon of light and hope. But they would be heartbroken to see it today. Inward, polarized and absurdly self-aggrandizing, Britain has lost itself. In sorrow, I mourn the passing of the country that was my family’s salvation."
Read the entire essay in The New York Times (January 2021).