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The Future Is Now for the Transhumanist Party 

Wednesday, May 18 2016
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When John Lennon released "Imagine" in 1971, his lyrics about a brotherhood of man living life in peace struck many people as a simple, even anodyne, response to the Vietnam War. Although politically liberal, Lennon was no doctrinal Marxist — only three years earlier, his song "Revolution" had shrugged off people who "go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao." But the song struck many evangelical Christians as ghoulish, and for some, "Imagine" eventually came to be a sort of national anthem for the repressively secular, globalist state that was thought to be emerging: the anti-Christian New World Order that later became talk-radio conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' fever dream.

Left Behind, a series of 16 books written between 1995 and 2007 that details a possible end-of-the-world scenario, starting from when all good Christians go to heaven in an instant (the Rapture) until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, specifically calls out "Imagine" as a weapon in Satan's arsenal of seductive propaganda. The Antichrist in Left Behind is a suave, cosmopolitan Romanian named Nicolae Carpathia — the product of the fused sperm of two gay atheist academics, as it happens — who uses the global confusion in the aftermath of the Rapture to become Secretary General of the U.N. and eventually dictator of a world government that tattoos its citizens with the Mark of the Beast, damning them for eternity.

However clumsily written, Left Behind was for a time the best-selling adult fiction in the United States — partly because megachurches bought copies in bulk to distribute among their congregations — and a major cultural artifact whose high-water mark coincided with the 2004 election. Muscular, evangelical-inflected Republicanism has declined somewhat, as libertarians and later xenophobic populists gained ground in the party, but the anxieties that Left Behind played off of are very real: secularization, cultural dissolution, and the loss of something innately human to encroaching technology.

Zoltan Istvan of the Transhumanist Party is the closest thing to the Antichrist — as imagined in Left Behind, anyway — whom I've ever met. Telegenic, articulate, and blond, the 43-year-old Marin technologist who formerly worked in real estate now cheerfully advocates for a post-capitalist future of artificial intelligence, DIY genetic modification, and the eventual demise of death itself. And to put science and technology to the fore of the national agenda, he's running for president.

Istvan has updated the U.N.'s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights with a six-point Transhumanist Bill of Rights that calls for the legal recognition of sentient robots and the codification of our right to grow freakishly strong third arms if we want to. He is open about his own drug use; solving inequality among humans is one of his passions; and his wife is a doctor who works for Planned Parenthood. (Even his name — he's of Hungarian descent — sounds like the Left Behind character.) He is, in short, virtually everything that would horrify Pat Robertson, and like the wistful, one-world lyrics to "Imagine" in the early '70s, the future his political campaign envisions feels achingly close.

"Transhumanists are big substance people," Istvan says. "We're always trying stuff."

We're in his yellow, Formica-filled kitchen, where he's making us coffee, the delivery system for America's favorite drug. It's a sunny morning in early April, and he's recently received a package of nootropics, or cognitive-enhancement supplements, from a Bay Area startup that's looking to develop ways to make the human brain more creative and more attentive.

"They're all transhumanists, and they say it works, so I've been messing around with it a little bit," he says, admitting, "I haven't actually noticed huge effects yet."

At this point in the presidential race, most of the Republicans have already flamed out, yet in spite of some legitimate media traction — much of which he's written himself, for outlets like Slate, Gizmodo, and the Huffington Post — Zoltan Istvan's quixotic quest has not yet translated into a burgeoning political movement. There are many structural reasons for that, such as how he's not accepting contributions, or how it's still only primary season and there's no one else in the Transhumanist Party to primary. (Thus, he won't appear on the June 7 ballot.) Still, he has the ability to get the word out in ways that might not be available to someone leading the Prohibition Party or the United States Pirate Party ticket. He's been to 102 countries, occasionally covering things like Bolivian witch doctors for National Geographic, and claims to have single-handedly invented the sport of volcano-boarding on the slopes of Mt. Yasur in Vanuatu, by necessity; his escape from an eruption was captured on film. He's financially comfortable, too — enough to tour the U.S. last year in a coffin-shaped Immortality Bus, raising awareness about life-extension issues (although a crowdfunding campaign helped). Then again, it's not really about him sitting in the White House in January 2017.

"It's hard to get attention when you know I have no chance of winning," he says. But really, the difficulty is getting editors to give the nod to stories that don't relate to Trump, Clinton, or Sanders in any discernible way. "They're like, 'Well then, why is he a presidential candidate?' And you have to explain that this is a perfect vehicle for spreading the message, and you can see this happening maybe in 10 or 15 years, someone running on a science platform because science at that point is all around us. You come in a driverless car, we have a robot that makes us coffee, and it might make much more sense to have someone talking technology all day long to fix the world or be a part of the world, because it's astonishing to me that they're still debating immigration."

This general impatience with the sordid grind of politics is not uncommon among entrepreneurial types, particularly in the Bay Area, where techno-utopianism (or maybe anarcho-capitalism) runs deep. No doubt a full transhumanist revolution would remove power from squabbling, error-prone, and corruptible humans and delegate decisions to artificial intelligence, streamlining the operations of government to make it more responsive to ever-accelerating technological change.


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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