In “Another Age of Discovery” The Moustache of Wisdom says disruptions in Copernicus’s day offer lessons today. Yesterday Mr. Kristof gave us “R.I.P., Jo Cox. May Britain Remember Your Wisdom.” Here’s TMOW from today:
Have we been here before? I know — it feels as if the internet, virtual reality, Donald Trump, Facebook, sequencing of the human genome and machines that can reason better than people constitute a change in the pace of change without precedent. But we’ve actually been through an extraordinarily rapid transition like this before in history — a transition we can learn a lot from.
Ian Goldin, director of the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University, and Chris Kutarna, also of Oxford Martin, have just published a book — “Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance” — about lessons we can draw from the period 1450 to 1550, known as the Age of Discovery. It was when the world made a series of great leaps forward, propelled by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Copernicus and Columbus, that produced the Renaissance and reshaped science, education, manufacturing, communications, politics and geopolitics.
“Gutenberg’s printing press provided the trigger,” Goldin told me by email, “by flipping knowledge production and exchange from tight scarcity to radical abundance. Before that, the Catholic Churches monopolized knowledge, with their handwritten Latin manuscripts locked up in monasteries. The Gutenberg press democratized information, and provided the incentive to be literate. Within 50 years, not only had scribes lost their jobs, but the Catholic Church’s millennia-old monopoly of power had been torn apart as the printing of Martin Luther’s sermons ignited a century of religious wars.”
Meanwhile, Goldin added, Copernicus upended the prevailing God-given notions of heaven and earth “by finding that far from the sun revolving around the earth, the earth rotated around the sun,” and “voyages of discovery by Columbus, da Gama and Magellan tore up millennia-old maps of the ‘known’ world.”
Those were the mother of all disruptions and led to the parallels with today.
“Now, like then, new media have democratized information exchange, amplifying the voices of those who feel they have been injured in the upheaval,” said Goldin. “Now, like then, public leaders and public institutions have failed to keep up with rapid change, and popular trust has been deeply eroded.” Now, like then, “this is the best moment in history to be alive” — human health, literacy, aggregate wealth and education are flourishing — and “there are more scientists alive today than in all previous generations.”
And, yet many people feel worse off.
Because, as in the Renaissance, key anchors in people’s lives — like the workplace and community — are being fundamentally dislocated. The pace of technological change is outstripping the average person’s ability to adapt. Now, like then, said Goldin, “sizable parts of the population found their skills were no longer needed, or they lived in places left behind, so inequality grew.” At the same time, “new planetary scale systems of commerce and information exchange led to immense improvements in choices and accelerating innovations which made some people fabulously rich.”
Was there a Donald Trump back then?
“Michelangelo and Machiavelli’s Florence suffered a shocking popular power-taking when Girolamo Savonarola, a midlevel friar from Ferrara, who lived from 1452 to 1498, exploded from obscurity in the 1490s to enthrall Florentines, who felt left behind economically or culturally, with sermons that laid blame upon the misguided policies and moral corruption of their leaders,” said Goldin. “He and his zealous supporters, though a small minority, swept away the Medici establishment and seized control of the city’s councils.
“From there, Savonarola launched an ugly campaign of public purification, introducing radical laws including against homosexuality, and attacked public intellectuals in an act of intimidation that history still remembers as the Bonfire of the Vanities. Savonarola was amongst the first to tap into the information revolution of the time, and while others produced long sermons and treatises, Savonarola disseminated short pamphlets, in what may be thought of as the equivalent of political tweets.”
The establishment politicians of the day, who were low energy, “underestimated the power of that new information revolution to move beyond scientific and cultural ideas” to amplify populist voices challenging authority.
Yikes! How do we blunt that?
“More risk-taking is required when things change more rapidly, both for workers who have to change jobs and for businesses who have to constantly innovate to stay ahead,” Goldin argued. Government’s job is to strengthen the safety nets and infrastructure so individuals and companies can be as daring — in terms of learning, adapting and investing in themselves — as they need to be. At the same time, when the world gets this tightly woven, America “needs to be more, not less, engaged, with the rest of the world,” because “the threats posed by climate change, pandemics, cyberattacks or terror will not be reduced by America withdrawing.”
Then, as now, walls stopped working. “Cannons and gunpowder came to Europe that could penetrate or go over walls and books could bring ideas around them,” he said. Then, like now, walls only made you poorer, dumber and more insecure.
Now here’s Mr. Kristof from yesterday, writing from Cambridge, England:
As I listen to the stormy debates here in the run-up to Thursday’s Brexit vote on whether Britain should exit the European Union, my thoughts keep drifting to my friend Jo Cox, a member of Parliament assassinated last week.
Jo was a leader who fought for genocide victims in Darfur, for survivors of human trafficking, for women’s health, for Syrian refugees, and, yes, for remaining in the European Union. She was also a proud mom of two small children: When she was pregnant, she used to sign her emails “Jo (and very large bump).”
Jo’s dedication to the voiceless may have cost her life. At least one witness said that the man who stabbed and shot Jo shouted “Britain First!” and when he was asked to say his name at a court hearing he responded, “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
Yet from awful events bittersweet progress can emerge. In three days, a fund in Jo Cox’s memory has raised about £1 million (about $1.5 million) for causes she supported. Likewise, perhaps revulsion at the murder will leave voters wary of the xenophobic tone of some of the Leave campaigners.
I hope so, for helping to save a united Europe would be a fitting legacy for a woman no longer able to influence the world in other ways — and also because the world needs Britain in Europe.
The British joke about their view of Europe, with a famous (and apparently apocryphal) headline once declaring: “Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off.” But it’s also true, as John Donne wrote, “if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.” And if Britain were washed away, Europe and Britain would both be less.
An International Monetary Fund report this month concluded that a British pullout from the European Union would “permanently lower incomes.” But more important are the political costs to an unraveling.
Among those who first called for a “United States of Europe,” was Sir Winston Churchill, in a 1946 speech, and the impetus for him and for Jean Monnet, “the father of Europe,” was primarily peace and security.
In many ways, that has been disappointing. The European Union has repeatedly failed political tests: It was paralyzed as genocide began in the former Yugoslavia, it adopted a common currency too soon, it mishandled the recent economic crisis, and it has bungled the refugee crisis. And that’s on top of the quotidian expense and wastefulness of a European bureaucracy translating in 24 official languages, including Maltese, Bulgarian, Slovak and Slovenian.
Immigration has also fed an anxiety about loss of control and about erosion of national identity, prompting a backlash not entirely dissimilar from the Donald Trump phenomenon in the United States. Jo Cox herself, in an article she wrote shortly before her death, acknowledged, “It’s fine to be concerned by immigration — many people are.” But her point was that practical concerns about immigration should be addressed with practical solutions, while Brexit would simply create new crises without solving old ones.
One risk is that if Britain leaves, others will follow, leading to a dismemberment of Europe and economic crisis. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, has warned that “Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the E.U. but also of Western political civilization in its entirety.”
That seems a little much. But we’ve seen the chaos in the Arab world since 2011, and the last thing the globe needs is another arc of instability.
One of the few triumphs of international cooperation of recent years was the joint effort by Britain, France and the United States to defeat Ebola in West Africa. That would have been more difficult if Britain and France were feuding and Europe were facing a deeper economic slump.
Likewise, a nightmare scenario is Russia overwhelming Estonia or its Baltic neighbors, testing NATO’s resolve (a test I’m not 100 percent sure NATO would pass or even survive). Such Russian adventurism is probably more likely if Europe is disintegrating.
Even the debate about Brexit has been poisonous in Britain. After Jo’s murder, a far-right group called National Action wrote of her killer: “#VoteLeave, don’t let this man’s sacrifice go in vain. Jo Cox would have filled Yorkshire with more subhumans!”
This is a scary period, compounded by the risk of Europe’s unraveling. It’s time for Britons to remember that immigration and integration have enriched their country as well as challenged it.
Jo Cox never had a chance to respond when her killer reportedly shouted “Britain First.” But in a sense, she already had. In her maiden speech in Parliament, she boasted of her constituency’s traditional English fish and chips — but also of its outstanding curries, made by immigrants. She declared, “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Rest in Peace, Jo. I hope Britain remembers your wisdom.