Trump’s latest hastening of the apocalypse

Plus: Empathy’s tribalizing side, a theory about conspiracy theorizing, Bloomberg doom, etc.

Welcome to another NZN! This week I (1) assess Trump’s recent contributions to the approach of the apocalypse, and put them in historical perspective; (2) take a deep dive into a new study which suggests that empathy (yes, empathy) is deepening political polarization; (3) steer you to readings about such things as: the (posited) human instinct to conspiracy theorize, the futility of Mike Bloomberg’s presidential aspirations, Mike Pence’s meddling in foreign aid, Turkey’s forever war, and the “good internet” of yore. Special bonus: how to cope with alligators and killer bees on the golf course.  

Apocalypse approach update

Keeping track of Donald Trump’s contributions to the coming of the apocalypse is a job too big for any one person. The best I can do is check in every month or so and list a few of the latest highlights. 

During the past 10 days: 

(1) The Trump administration notified the UN that the US will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement in a year, the earliest withdrawal date permitted by the accord. (2) A Russian arms control official warned that the prospects for sustaining the most important US-Russia arms control treaty after its expiration date in February of 2020 have been dimmed by Trump’s refusal to discuss the matter. (3) Iran announced that, as a result of Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal, and his ensuing imposition of draconian sanctions, it has reactivated centrifuges in a uranium processing plant that lies deep underground, resistant to military attack (but perhaps not resistant to the bunker-busting megabombs that President Obama gave Israel and that Israel may now be tempted to use).   

There’s a unifying theme here, and it isn’t just the increasingly plausible end of Planet Earth as we know it. It’s Trump’s apparent aversion to playing non-zero-sum games with other countries—that is, games that can have a win-win or lose-lose outcome (such as, respectively, avoiding a nuclear war or having one). Or at least, it’s his failure to play them well, to get win-win outcomes—and sometimes, it seems, his failure to even see that such outcomes are possible, that we live in a non-zero-sum world. 

This is no news flash. Ever since the earliest days of Trump’s presidency, he’s been referred to by some as “the zero-sum president.” The label has its merits (I’ve riffed on it myself), but it has one important, even dangerous, downside.  

To call Trump “the zero-sum president” makes him sound close to unique in his failure to play this country’s non-zero-sum games wisely. But in truth he is part of a long and proud American tradition of bad non-zero-sum game playing. In realms like arms control and global environmental policy, Trump is just the latest (and, yes, the loudest and most grating) expression of longstanding tendencies in American politics. Seeing those tendencies clearly is a prerequisite for formulating a sound apocalypse-avoidance strategy. 

There was a powerful anti-environmentalism lobby long before Trump showed up, and plenty of people in Congress happy to do its bidding. That’s one reason Barack Obama couldn’t get the Senate to ratify the Paris agreement and so had to sign onto it via executive order—which, in turn, is one reason it’s so politically easy for Trump to exit the agreement with a wave of his pen.  

And remember the Kyoto Protocol, the previous big climate change accord, signed by the US during the Clinton administration? That, too, lacked Senate ratification, a fact that made it easy for George W. Bush to announce two months into his tenure that the US wouldn’t implement it. 

And as for the nuclear arms control treaty with Russia that Trump may let expire next year, the New START treaty: though it did win ratification in 2010, that required a grueling political effort by the Obama administration, and half of Senate Republicans still voted against it. Eight years before that, Republicans had taken a bigger toll on arms control. Under George W. Bush the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which had been one of the great diplomatic feats of the Cold War era. 

I don’t want to make it sound like Republicans are the only problem. Lots of Democratic senators joined Republicans in resisting the Kyoto Protocol. And Chuck Schumer, leader of Senate Democrats, opposed the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Or, as Trump put it in a tweet after Schumer criticized him for abandoning the deal: "Senator Cryin’ Chuck Schumer fought hard against the Bad Iran Deal, even going at it with President Obama, & then Voted AGAINST it!" 

So true. Except for the Bad Iran Deal part.

I also don’t want to make it sound like no Republicans have ever lifted a finger to save Planet Earth. The Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that George W. Bush trashed had been signed in the first place by hippie peacenik Richard Nixon. And the predecessor of New START—the original START Treaty—was the older President Bush’s achievement and had been advocated by his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Reagan also, by the way, helped bring us the 1987 Montreal Protocol on fluorocarbons, which protects the ozone layer and may well be the most effective truly global environmental accord ever. 

And then there’s the Open Skies Treaty—which reduces the chances of war by facilitating mutual aerial surveillance among the US, Russia, and their allies. It, like START, came to fruition under the older George Bush—and was initially floated by President Eisenhower. 

Oh, which reminds me: Trump is reportedly planning to abandon that treaty, too. 

You may sense a pattern here: For decades, Republicans joined Democrats in supporting sound international agreements. But things started changing in the 1990s, especially on the Republican side. I don’t know why exactly, but it was around then that you started to see a couple of relevant and now-familiar themes in some conservative circles: 

(1) A fear of infringements on national sovereignty that bordered on the paranoid. And, actually, it sometimes crossed that border, featuring, for example, sightings of “black helicopters” from the United Nations. These fears were sometimes bound up with anticipation of a literal, biblical apocalypse. Some people believed that Kofi Annan, secretary general of the UN, was actually the anti-Christ. (I can think of a politician who’s a better candidate for that title… but I digress.) Testament to what a pivot within the Republican party this tendency would wind up abetting is that the bete noire of these sovereigntists was “the new world order”—a phrase that had been popularized, and embraced, by George H.W. Bush in heralding an age of post–Cold War international cooperation, sometimes pursued via the UN.   

(2) Populist antipathy toward coastal elites. You know, the kinds of effete cosmopolitan elites who would forge environmental accords with their fancy French friends. But back in the 1990s, the “cosmopolitan” part didn’t get as much rhetorical emphasis in the revolt against elites as it does now. The epithet popularized in 1992 by Vice President Dan Quayle (who aggressively fomented the Republican populism that would eventually make his boss Bush look like a quaint relic) was “cultural elite.” And the term’s main connotation was an alleged contempt for Middle Americans and their family values. But maybe the “cosmopolitan” part was latent in this stigmatization all along. In any event, that part is now salient.

And it does a lot of work. Branding elites as cosmopolitan makes them easier to resent and helps cast them as agents of the new world order—or, in the current and less fringy phraseology, of the dreaded “global governance.” In other words, it bridges these two big themes—sovereigntism and anti-elitism—and creates a kind of synergy between them.    

Obviously, these two themes are a big part of Trump’s brand. But the point of this historical digression is how far he is from having invented them. In fact, it would be closer to the truth to say that they invented him. They rendered his political career viable and helped shape some of the unformed parts of his ideology. If he hadn’t come along, someone else would have been their torch bearer, and might well have gotten elected president.

So this is another reminder that much of Trumpism isn’t about Trump. When he passes from the political scene, there will be someone to take up the torch he was handed. For example: Would a President Mike Pence be any less an enemy of global governance than Trump? He might even be a more effective enemy; he shows no signs of being a political mastermind, but exceeding Trump’s level of competence isn’t a very tall order.   

So an all-out multi-front apocalypse avoidance campaign will entail continued efforts to understand, at the deepest possible level, the forces that created this president—political forces, economic forces, cultural forces, whatever. Because they’re not going away soon, and they’re currently being harnessed to the long-term disadvantage of just about everyone. Lose-lose on a very big scale.

How empathy intensifies political polarization

There are people who believe that the political polarization now afflicting the United States might finally start to subside if Americans of both parties could somehow become more empathetic. If you’re one of these people, the American Political Science Review has sobering news for you.

Last week APSR—one of the alpha journals in political science—published a study which found that “empathic concern does not reduce partisan animosity in the electorate and in some respects even exacerbates it.”

The study had two parts. In the first part, Americans who scored high on an empathy scale showed higher levels of “affective polarization”—defined as the difference between the favorability rating they gave their political party and the rating they gave the opposing party. In the second part, undergraduates were shown a news story about a controversial speaker from the opposing party visiting a college campus. Students who had scored higher on the empathy scale were more likely to applaud efforts to deny the speaker a platform.

It gets worse. These high-empathy students were also more likely to be amused by reports that students protesting the speech had injured a bystander sympathetic to the speaker. That’s right: according to this study, people prone to empathy are prone to schadenfreude.

This study is urgently important—though not because it’s a paradigm shifter, shedding radically new light on our predicament. As the authors note, their findings are in many ways consistent with conclusions reached by other scholars in recent years. But the view of empathy that’s emerging from this growing body of work hasn’t much trickled down to the public. And public understanding of it may be critical to shifting America’s political polarization into reverse somewhere between here and the abyss.

Like many past studies, this one gauges people’s level of “empathic concern” by asking them how strongly they agree or disagree with a series of seven statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” If it seems strange that people who identify with this statement might find amusement in someone’s being injured at a protest, maybe putting the paradox in a more extreme context will help.

Imagine these avowedly empathetic people hearing about the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last month. There’s no denying that on the day of his death, Baghdadi was in some sense “less fortunate” than they—but do you expect them to have “tender, concerned feelings” for him? And would you be surprised if they reported that, actually, they got a bit of a lift from his demise?

What seems obviously true in the Baghdadi case—that people don’t deploy empathy indiscriminately—turns out to be true in less extreme cases, too, ones that don’t involve terrorist masterminds. Various scholars have found, in various contexts, an “empathy gap” between “in-group” and “out-group.” In one study, soccer fans showed more concern over pain felt by fans of their favorite team than over pain felt by fans of a rival team.

Of course, this new study does more than find meager empathy for the out-group. It finds that high-empathy people view the out-group more unfavorably (relative to their own group) than low-empathy people; and that they may even take more delight in the suffering of some out-group members. Here, too, the Baghdadi case is illuminating.

After all, high-empathy Americans presumably felt more acutely the suffering of the in-group members who were beheaded, on camera, by the out-group that Baghdadi led. And this could translate into more antipathy toward the out-group and its leader. (In President Trump’s colorful ramblings about the special forces raid, he peppered his fond reminiscences of Baghdadi’s death with vivid references to the beheadings, as if trying to make the death feel more gratifying to his audience. Whether consciously or not, he was harnessing the fact that in-group empathy can elevate ill-will toward the out-group.)

The authors of the APSR study—Elizabeth Simas and Scott Clifford of the University of Houston and Justin Kirkland of the University of Virginia—have this kind of dynamic in mind when they write, “Polarization is not a consequence of a lack of empathy among the public, but a product of the biased ways in which we experience empathy.”

Or, in the more general formulation favored by the late American scholar Richard Alexander: the flip side of “within-group amity” is “between-group enmity.”

Alexander was a biologist…

To read the rest of this piece, go to Wired, where it was published earlier today.

In Aeon, Dutch psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen argues that the tendency to build conspiracy theories is rooted in our genes, and had survival value in the social environment in which human evolution took place. 

On Stratfor Worldview, journalist Charles Glass writes that Turkish President Erdogan’s intervention in Syria—which started with the arming of proxies and now features Turkish troops in Syria—is turning into Turkey’s forever war. Glass writes, “When President Barack Obama considered the covert operation to train and equip Syrian rebels in 2013, code-named Operation Timber Sycamore, he said to his aides, ‘Tell me how this ends.’ As Turkey is discovering, it doesn't.”

A ProPublica piece by Yeganeh Torbati shows how Vice President Mike Pence has been steering foreign aid to Christian groups and away from non-Christian groups that had been designated for aid by career USAID officials.

In Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman riffs on the empathy study that I riff on above—the one which found that empathy exacerbates political polarization. Scott has a pretty consistently different perspective from mine—his glass is half full and mine is half empty—so his take on things is often a good complement to mine. (But trust me: the glass is half empty.)

In the wake of the recent implosion of the edgy sports website Deadspin, Phillip Maciak, writing in The Week, offers a requiem for "the good internet"—websites that emerged from the blogosphere a decade ago, created a home for sharp and sometimes strange writing, and then met the fate of all things mortal. 

Tweet of the week: After former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg filed this week to enter a Democratic presidential primary, GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini tweeted a graph that would seem to spell Bloomberg doom. It arrays 2016 voters along two dimensions—their position on economic issues and on social/identity issues. And the lower-right quadrant of the graph, where Bloomberg would seem to belong (being  progressive on social issues but not so much on economic issues), is pretty much devoid of voters. (For elaboration on the meaning of “social/identity,” see this interesting 2017 analysis by Lee Drutman, who created the graph that Ruffini tweeted.)

This week, after a black cat entertainingly intruded on Monday Night Football, the Atlantic promptly trotted out a photo spread of animals that have shown up, uninvited, at sporting events. It’s entertaining, and it includes the requisite alligator-on-a-golf course shot, but I personally prefer the video of a professional golfer manually expelling an alligator from the course—to say nothing of the video montage of 10 great golf course animal encounters, which features killer bees

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading, or at least scanning, this far. Feel free to email us at nonzero@substack.com. And feel at least that free to post on social media about anything you liked in this week’s newsletter—we need and appreciate this kind of help. And if you’re not feeling proactive enough to formulate a whole social media post, you can just follow us on Twitter at @NonzeroNews and honor us with the occasional retweet. 

Killing the “gift to Putin” meme

Plus: Enlightenment as efficiency, Amity via adversity, Zuckerberg’s and Dorsey’s slavish service to power, etc.

Welcome to another NZN! In this issue I: (1) risk inciting the Blob by arguing that Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East could be a good thing; (2) discuss the weird case of committed contemplatives who come to feel they’re not in conscious control of their behavior and yet perform, in work and in life, at least as well as before; (3) note how slavishly Twitter and Facebook serve repressive governments and other powers that be; (4) steer you to background materials about astrology’s resurgence, bonding across religious fault lines, bashing New Atheists, and other things. [Note: No newsletter next week. Have a non-zero-sum Halloween!]

Could we please kill the Blob’s “gift to Putin” meme?

American foreign policy elites are in near-unanimous agreement that President Trump’s withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, along with the ensuing influx of Russian and Syrian troops, is a “gift to Putin.” Some variant of that phrase has over the past two weeks appeared in headlines from the venerable New York Times, the venerable Foreign Affairs, and the quasi-venerable CNN, among other mainstream outlets. 

Russian elites have joined their American counterparts in viewing recent developments in Syria as a zero-sum game that Russia won and the United States lost. One Russian newspaper touted Russia’s “triumph in the Middle East,” and an analyst on Russian TV said this triumph is “sad for America.”

There are certainly things to be sad about. It’s sad that Trump’s withdrawal—impulsively ordered, with no diplomatic preparation—has caused so much more havoc and suffering, especially for the Kurds, than was necessary. And to me, at least, it’s sad that Trump, in his record-setting incompetence, is giving military withdrawals a bad name.

But I don’t buy the premise of the “gift to Putin” meme—that a decline of American influence in Syria, and a commensurate growth in Russian influence, is inherently a sad thing for America. This shift may well be good for Putin, but it could also be, in the long run, good for the United States and good for the Middle East broadly. 

Some people may find the previous sentence, with it’s win-win overtones, deeply disorienting if not flat-out unintelligible. The Cold War idea that the U.S. and Russia are playing a zero-sum game has gotten a second wind in recent years, in part because of genuine contentions between the two but also because of #Resistance psychology. Acting on the intuition that the friend of my enemy is my enemy, lots of anti-Trumpers look at the often-cozy relationship between Trump and Vladimir Putin (including their symbiosis during the 2016 presidential campaign) and conclude that Russia must be thwarted at every stop.

But what most needs thwarting is this archaic way of looking at foreign policy—as a Manichaean struggle for influence between the United States and its allies, on the one hand, and the forces of darkness on the other. The U.S. shares important interests with Russia—and, for that matter, with Russian allies Syria and Iran—and the sooner it recognizes that, the better.

I noted one example of this in last week’s newsletter: Russia and Syria and Iran are enemies of ISIS, one of the final obstacles to firm regime control of Syria. So any reprieve to ISIS granted by America’s abrupt withdrawal may be temporary.

But a larger and more critical point is that the challenge facing Russia and its client regime in Syria—not just consolidating control of Syria but rebuilding a devastated country—leaves Russia with no interest in the further destabilization of the Middle East. Which is good, because it’s hard to imagine the Middle East getting much more unstable—especially along the fault line between Iran and Syria on the one hand and Israel and Saudi Arabia on the other—without another disastrous war breaking out.

Russia has already shown signs of being able to play a constructive role here—a fact that, oddly, has been emphasized even by some who buy the “gift to Putin” thesis. Hal Brands of the American Enterprise Institute—in a Bloomberg Opinion essay titled, “Putin Conquered the Middle East. The U.S. Can Get It Back”—notes that “Putin has shown diplomatic flexibility, keeping the lines open to nearly all players throughout the region.” 

Brands laments “the collapse of America’s position in the region and Moscow’s ascendance as the key power broker in the Syrian civil war.” He goes on: 

“Moscow, in partnership with Iran and its proxies, has made itself the centerpiece of the diplomacy and regional power struggles surrounding that conflict. To what other capital would both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, trek to discuss Middle Eastern security?”

Not Washington, certainly—and that’s the point! It isn’t just that Russia shares America’s interest in a stable Middle East. It’s that Russia, unlike America, is in a position to do something about it. Yet Brands is so busy recoiling at Russia’s regional rise that he doesn’t welcome, or perhaps even quite recognize, its potential benefits—even as he comes tantalizingly close to spelling them out. 

Brands’s disposition is shared by many in the American foreign policy establishment. They combine an awareness that America hasn’t translated its regional power into productive diplomacy with a deep aversion to any waning of that power. This isn’t as ironic as it may sound. Many, perhaps most, of them see America’s diplomatic impotence as a product of the Trump era. They want to preserve American influence so that, once Trump is gone, it can again be used wisely.

Hope is a wonderful thing, but in this case you have to wonder what its historical basis is. When exactly in recent American history could you have gotten an Iranian leader, and not just an Israeli leader, to trek to Washington? Would that be, say, right after George W. Bush declared Iran part of the “axis of evil”? Even Barack Obama, more intent on improving relations with Iran than any recent president, never got all the way to rapprochement.

To read the rest of this piece, go to Politico Magazine. [Back story: A Politico editor who read the piece in last week’s NZN that noted the shared Russian-US interest in subduing ISIS asked me if I wanted to do a piece on other non-zero-sum aspects of Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East—in other words, a piece that would rebut the “gift to Putin” argument more broadly. This piece, published in Politico Magazine a few hours before this week’s newsletter came out, is the result.]

The strange efficiency of enlightenment

I’m not a big booster of Silicon Valley mindfulness. That is, I don’t go around telling people they should meditate because it can increase their productivity by a few percentage points. I think the best reasons to meditate are to clarify your view of the world and to become a better person. 

Besides, I don’t know if mindfulness meditation does enhance productivity, and I don’t have time to research the question. (I’m not very productive).

But there’s one version of the enhanced productivity question that I find fascinating, because it arises in some of the deeper regions of contemplative practice. Meditators who go very, very deep—so deep that their very sense of self may dissolve and stay dissolved—sometimes report a paradox: they no longer think many thoughts, and they don’t feel that they’re consciously making decisions, or consciously shaping their path through work and life—yet some of them report becoming more productive, often in very demanding jobs. 

I was reminded of this last week by a post on the quirky and interesting blog Slate Star Codex. The blog’s proprietor, Scott Alexander, dove into a study of people, from various spiritual communities, who plausibly claim to have “persistent non-symbolic experience.” Or, as the study’s author, Jeffrey Martin, fleshes that term out: an ongoing state of consciousness that might be called “non-dual awareness, enlightenment, mystical experience, and so forth.”  

Martin said the people studied could be placed at various locations along a “continuum that seemed to progress from ‘normal’ waking consciousness toward a distant location where participants reported no individualized sense of self, no self-related thoughts, no emotion, and no apparent sense of agency.” People at this end of the spectrum “reported that they did not feel they could take any action of their own, nor make any decisions. Reality was perceived as just unfolding, with ‘doing’ and ‘deciding’ simply happening. Nevertheless, many of these participants were functioning in a range of demanding environments and performing well.”

All of which brings us to Gary Weber, a guy I’ve gotten to know a bit over the past six years. Weber fits this description to a T. He says he rarely has thoughts, especially “self-regarding thoughts”—whether he’ll fail at this task or succeed at that one, whether he offended that person or charmed this person. And he says he doesn’t entirely understand why he does things; he doesn’t feel he’s made a decision to do them—he just finds himself doing them. 

Gary’s claim that he at some point “turned the page,” as he puts it, and found himself in a permanently altered state of consciousness, has gotten a kind of scientific affirmation. He was part of brain-scan study involving highly adept meditators, and it turned out there was one difference between him and the other meditators. The brain state they achieved after meditating for a while—reduced activity in the “default mode network”—was a state he was in before he even started meditating.

In 2013 I recorded a conversation with Gary, and here’s how he described his performance at meetings, such as meetings of a hospital board of trustees that he served on:

The thing Gary said about being fully present at meetings is almost completely alien to me, because my mind tends to wander, typically toward topics that involve me. But it’s not completely alien to me. I got a taste of what he means once during a meditation retreat. On this particular retreat, the silence was broken for a while mid-way through the retreat, and about ten of us got together with a teacher to talk about things. Never have I felt such effortlessly sustained focus during a group discussion.

My contributions to the discussion were also effortless. I spent little if any time wondering whether I should say something or thinking about when I should say it. Things just came out of my mouth, and I don’t think I’m fooling myself in saying that by and large they were well chosen interventions—things that contributed to the conversation, not done for the sake of show—even though they didn’t feel chosen at all. 

At any rate, I didn’t spend time, as I tend to do, wondering afterwards whether I should have said what I’d said—whether people found it impressive or stupid, useful or annoying. It had happened, and that was that.

I think the explanation for all this is the one suggested by Gary’s account. Over the first few days of the retreat, my normally robust sense of self had weakened a bit. Fewer than usual of my thoughts were about me. I was observing the world more on its own terms, and less in terms of its relationship to me, less in terms of what it could do for me.

This probably doesn’t sound shocking: the less self-absorbed you are, the more carefully you can pay attention to the world out there—and so, presumably, the more skillfully you can interact with it. But what’s interesting to me is that apparently this correlation between the subduing of self and productivity can persist even at the extremes—after you’ve reached the point Gary says he’s reached, the point where you have, as he describes it, no real sense of self at all, the point where the bounds between you and the world, in an important sense, cease to exist. 

Gary makes his ongoing state of mind sound pretty blissful: “It’s a space you can’t imagine bringing anything in to improve it or taking anything away that would make it better.” 

I can’t claim to have gotten to that point. And I can’t claim to have gotten to the point where you’re just watching your behavior unfold, with no sense of control whatsoever, and everything is turning out fine. But for an hour, at least, I got a lot closer to that. Engagement with the world felt pretty effortless, and the feeling that I was in the flow, and not trying to control it, gave me a sense of peace. The temporary retreat of my self was apparently good for me, and I like to think it was good for other people in the room. 

Meet the new boss

Twitter’s policies are abetting government repression in India, according to a piece by Avi Asher-Schapiro and Ahmed Zidan on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Last year Twitter obliged the government by rendering all tweets from the periodical Kashmir Narrator invisible in India. The periodical’s crime? It had written about a militant in the restive province of Kashmir. (The person who wrote the piece is in jail, and the restive province isn’t as restive as it used to be—not just because of the jailing of journalists, but because the internet has been shut down in Kashmir.) 

Twitter’s subservience shouldn’t surprise us. Given the power of governments to regulate or even ban social media sites, Twitter has a commercial interest in staying on good terms with governments. Same goes for other social media companies. I wrote a piece for Wired last year noting how unquestioningly Facebook bans any group the Trump administration labels a terrorist group—even though this administration’s approach to applying that label is, to say the least, loose.  

Much has been written about how the internet, and social media in particular, can decentralize power. And this potential is real; the Egyptian revolution of 2011 probably wouldn’t have happened without Facebook. But that revolution was ultimately subverted by a military coup, so obviously the decentralizing tendency of social media isn’t determinative. There are various reasons for this, and right now India and Twitter are doing a good job of illustrating some of them.

In related news: In the Intercept, Jon Schwarz asks why the dinners Mark Zuckerberg says he has with “lots of people across the spectrum” so he can hear “lots of viewpoints” seem to include lots of people from the right (Tucker Carlson, Hugh Hewitt, Ben Shapiro, Matt Continetti, Brent Bozell) and not lots of people from the left. I don’t know the answer, but if it turns out to be actual ideological bias, my opinion of Zuckerberg will rise. I’ve seen no evidence that he does anything for reasons other than maximizing Facebook’s profit and its long term strategic prospects. So far as I can tell, his mission is to expand corporate power, and he can be counted on to bow to power—in government, in journalism, wherever—in the service of that mission.

Writing in the New Yorker, Christine Smallwood reports that astrology is undergoing a boom, including among millennials who profess to be scientifically oriented. A 2017 Pew poll found that nearly 30 percent of Americans “believe” in astrology, and lots more are thought to dabble in it. 

The New York Times and Associated Press reported this week on two different examples of bridge-building across intra-Abrahamic fault lines, and the moral of the story was the same in both: nothing brings people together like shared adversity. In Lebanon, Christians of various sects and Muslims of various sects have joined in protesting economic conditions and government corruption. “The politicians told us that we hate each other, but we don’t,” one young protestor told Times reporter Vivian Yee. AP reports on Jews and Muslims who are uniting to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, which often emanate from the same far-right ideological milieu. A nonprofit called Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which started as a meeting of six Jewish women and six Muslim women in a New Jersey home, now has 170 North American chapters.

Over the past 18 months the number of Hillary Clinton voters who say the US has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria has risen sharply, while the number of Donald Trump voters who say that has dropped, the Huffington Post reports. So these voters are well positioned to, respectively, blame Trump and not blame Trump for Syrian mayhem

On meaningoflife.tv (and on The Wright Show audio podcast) I had a fun conversation with my old friend John Horgan, the famously cranky—I mean, skeptical—science writer. We talked about “scientism”—that is, an exaggerated sense of the scope of science’s authority—and took advantage of the opportunity to bash various name-brand New Atheists. We also talked about the weirdness of consciousness, the weirdness of quantum physics, and other weird things. And I got a chance to commend John for his role in fighting the rampant hyping of scientific findings.

Incoming: Thanks to readers who took the trouble to email this week, including those who focused on my piece about Hillary Clinton’s casting of McCarthyite aspersions on Jill Stein and Tulsi Gabbard. I could go into detail about the worthwhile points on that subject made by NZN readers Christine H., David N. Don A., and Robin G., but I won’t, because it turns out that reports of Hillary’s McCarthyite aspersions had been exaggerated. In what is either a strange coincidence or yet more evidence that journalists sometimes save time by cribbing from each other’s stories, several media outlets, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, said they’d made the same mistake in reporting what Hillary said in a podcast interview. It turns out she’d said the Republicans, not the Russians, were “grooming” Gabbard as a third-party candidate. I went back and listened to the interview, and I wouldn’t say it puts all questions about Hillary’s intentions to rest. She does say Stein is “also a Russian asset,” and the “also” does seem to mean that Gabbard is one, too. Still, with the “asset” line now following the claim that Gabbard is “the favorite” of the Russians, not that they’re “grooming” her, it sounds more ambiguous than it looked in the inaccurate partial transcript that got some of us so exercised in the first place. So, as Emily Litella used to say on Saturday Night Live, never mind. If you’d like to email us about something, notwithstanding the risk that the something will turn out to be nothing, here’s the address: nonzero@substack.com. 

And finally: Don’t be shy about using the Like and Share buttons below. And if you tweet about this issue of NZN, feel free to name-check us at @NonzeroNews and/or @robertwrighter. See you in two weeks.

When the New York Times warps our view of the world

Plus: The Trumpiest day in months; Virality and Virulence; Verizon, Facebook, and other menaces...

Welcome to another NZN! In this issue I (1) revisit one of the most intensely Trumpish days in the history of Trumpism; (2) accuse the New York Times of consequentially warping our view of Syria; (3) recount my roller coaster ride, on Friday, through the dark depths of Twitter infamy into the glorious sunshine of Twitter affirmation; (4) steer you to background readings on such things as curiosity and its hijacking, negative partisanship and its perils, creeping facial recognition technology and its creepiness, and Verizon’s plan to erase a non-trivial chunk of the collective human memory. 

But first: Thanks to the new NZN subscribers—and for that matter the old NZN subscribers—who this week helped push our subscription past the 14,000 mark. (Social media bragging here.) Next stop: Total domination of the noosphere.

Essence of Trump

Thursday was an amazing day even by the elevated standards of the Trump era. In the span of a few hours, these four things happened:

1) The Trump administration said it had orchestrated a five-day ceasefire—whose wording, it turns out, validated Turkey’s invasion of Syria the week before and its goal of creating a 5,400-square-mile “buffer zone” in the Kurdish part of Syria.  

2) In proudly discussing the ceasefire, Trump seemed to validate, as well, one product of that invasion: the ethnic cleansing of some 150,000 Kurds over the past two weeks. Trump said that, from Turkey’s point of view, northern Syria had to be “cleaned out,” and that sometimes you need to exercise “a little rough love,” an “unconventional, tough love approach.” Which in this case apparently entailed invading a country in plain violation of international law, shelling and bombing it, and, for good measure, deploying Syrian jihadists who set about committing atrocities that terrified Syrian Kurds into fleeing—all of which left Kurdish troops little alternative to accepting the ceasefire. Or, as Trump cheerfully characterized the dynamic he’d set in motion by abruptly withdrawing US troops from northern Syria: “When those guns start shooting, they tend to do things.” 

3) The White House announced that next year’s G-7 summit will be held at Trump’s Doral golf resort. This would seem to violate the Constitution’s Emoluments clause, which prohibits the president from accepting “any present, Emolument [profit or benefit], Office, or Title” from a foreign government. Even if you accept Trump’s claim that Doral will give everyone such a deep discount that he won’t make a profit (warning: don’t accept that claim!) there is huge “branding value” in hosting the G-7 summit—both the publicity emanating from the event and the longer-term value of the resort becoming historically significant. (No doubt Trump is already imagining Doral’s walls adorned with commemorative plaques and pictures of him and his fellow potentates.) But I guess if you’re getting impeached anyway you might as well go whole hog. And speaking of impeachment:

4) Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, openly admitted that Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine to pressure it into seeking information that would help him politically—specifically, evidence that would support his claim that Russia hadn’t actually hacked the DNC’s email in 2016. This admission doesn’t add as much fuel to the impeachment bonfire as would have been added had Mulvaney said that investigating Hunter Biden was another goal of the arm twisting. But it added enough fuel that Mulvaney, after a brief period of reflection and consultation, said he hadn’t actually said what he’d said.  

As a rule, this newsletter ignores the white noise of Trump’s ongoing ethically and legally dubious behavior. After all, the premise behind the newsletter’s predecessor, The Mindful Resistance Newsletter, was that mounting serious opposition to Trumpism requires discipline—not being distracted by Trump’s daily antics and transgressions, not reacting to them in ways that play into his hands, and not letting a perfectly understandable loathing of him warp our view of the world. In fact, this newsletter, like its predecessor, spends at least as much time criticizing people who abet that warping (see, for example, my criticism of the New York Times immediately below) as criticizing Trump. 

Still, every once in a while you have to pause and take stock—reflect on how high the stakes are and, lest Trump’s biggest transgressions be normalized, note what big transgressions they are. Any one of the four things listed above would, in ordinary times, dominate the news for many days. And rightly so. So let’s do pause briefly and reflect on Thursday, October 17, 2019—the 1001st day of Trump’s presidency—before getting back to the war on Trumpism. 

How the New York Times distorts our view of Syria

The New York Times wants to make sure you know that Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria has strengthened US adversaries. 

On Tuesday, after Kurds imperiled by the withdrawal cut a deal with the Syrian government to step in and protect them—thus expanding the influence of the Syrian regime and its allies, Iran and Russia—the Times featured two front page stories about Syria. Over one of them was a headline that said “Battle Lines Shifting to the Benefit of Iran, Russia and ISIS.” The other one said, in its very first paragraph, that Trump had “given an unanticipated victory to four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government, and the Islamic State.”

OK, we get the message. But there’s a problem with the message. These two stories are at best misleading and at worst flat-out wrong. And, sadly, they’re typical of much mainstream media coverage of Syria—and reflective, I think, of cognitive distortions that afflict many American journalists, warping our view of the world. 

The first warning sign, in both of these stories, is a paradox: some of the parties they call beneficiaries of recent developments—Syria, Iran, Russia—are enemies of another party they call a beneficiary of recent developments: The Islamic State, or ISIS. 

Now, it’s not impossible that a deal that strengthens Syria and its allies could also help their enemy. On the other hand, the Syrian regime considers ISIS a very threatening enemy, and can be counted on to try to destroy any remnants of ISIS within reach. And when these two stories appeared, that reach had just been greatly expanded, via the deal that the Kurds had cut with the Syrian regime. So isn’t it possible that the deal would actually hurt ISIS rather than help it? 

I want to be clear: Trump’s original withdrawal of American troops had presumably helped ISIS by directing the attention of the Kurds away from ISIS and toward the Turkish incursion. I noted this effect in last week’s newsletter (qualifying it with “at least in the short run”). 

But now we were seeing an influx of Syrian and Russian troops into Kurdish territory, and that could direct fresh and hostile attention toward ISIS. So, all told, this influx was cause to think that the previous week’s concerns about a resurgent ISIS (which the Times had spent plenty of ink on) may have been overblown. Indeed, was it even conceivable that the long-run consequences of Trump’s troop withdrawal could turn out to be, on balance, bad for ISIS? 

To check this speculation, I emailed Paul Pillar, who from 2000 to 2005 was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, which means he was in charge of the analysis of those regions for the CIA and all other American intelligence agencies. I asked whether it was crazy to think that Trump’s withdrawal of US troops could wind up being a “net negative for ISIS”—since, as I put it, there would now be an overall increase in “the number of armed enemies of ISIS” in Kurdish territory. 

Pillar replied that he wouldn’t jump to the “net negative for ISIS” conclusion just on the basis of the number of anti-ISIS troops in the area. He wrote, “Rather, the basic point is that those other players [Syria and its allies] have at least as much of a direct interest in combating ISIS as the United States does.” But then he added, “The one possible way you might get a ‘net negative’ out of it is that having the U.S. military on the ground as a foreign presence has been—as earlier events in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have demonstrated—a recruiting asset for radical Sunni terrorists.”

In short: the situation is complex—complex enough that the New York Times’s casual assertions about the impact on ISIS (which were basically just unreflectively recycled assertions from the previous week, when they’d made more sense) weren’t really up to New York Times standards. 

And, anyway, leaving aside the question of the net impact on ISIS of Trump’s troop withdrawal, one thing is hard to deny: if you compare ISIS’s prospects the day before the Kurds OK’d the influx of Syrian and Russian troops to ISIS’s prospects the day after, they had gotten dimmer. Mightn’t the Times have at least mentioned this fact—since, after all, this influx was precisely the big development that was being reported and assessed in that day’s paper? 

No such luck. Neither of these two front page stories acknowledged that expanded Syrian influence should be expected to undo at least some of the damage done to the war on ISIS by the American troop withdrawal announced the previous week. Both stories (one by David Sanger and one by Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt) kept their preferred narratives—that the wind was in ISIS’s sails—unsullied by fresh analysis. 

I don’t think any of these reporters are trying to deceive us. I suspect they’re victims of two cognitive distortions, and are inadvertently inflicting those distortions on us. 

1) Crudely zero-sum thinking. There definitely are dimensions along which the US has a zero-sum relationship with Russia, with Syria, with Iran. But the trouble with the label “adversaries” (or, worse still, “enemies”) is that it suggests a zero-sum relationship along all dimensions. It keeps you from even entertaining the possibility that something that’s good for Russia, Syria, or Iran could be good for the US. But it could be. In the real world—whether we’re talking about a person’s relations with “friends” and “enemies” or a nation’s relationship with them—there are very few purely zero-sum or purely non-zero-sum relationships. 

2) #Resistance thinking. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media outlets are working in a polarized political environment, which means they can best prosper by catering to one political tribe or the other. And they’re working in a technological environment that provides precise and instantaneous information about how many readers each of their stories gets—a fact that puts individual reporters and editors who want a big readership (and don’t all of us want a big readership?) directly in touch with this tribalizing incentive. Plus, of course, a lot of journalists have feelings about Trump that are strong enough to color their thinking without them realizing that. 

All told, media sites tend to move toward one of two camps—Trump or the Resistance. I don’t think the New York Times is as much in the Resistance camp as, say, Fox News is in the Trump camp. But I think it leans in that direction, even if that’s not the conscious intention of its reporters and editors. Possible bad consequences of Trump policies come more readily to mind than possible good consequences.

My speculations about the Times’s institutional psychology aside, there’s no doubt that a Times story saying Trump has delivered a victory to our enemies, like a Fox News story saying he has vanquished our enemies, will draw a bigger audience than a story saying the truth is more complicated than either of those narratives. Yet complicated is what the truth often is. And I think our foreign policy would be less destructive than it’s been in recent years if our most important media outlets did a better job of conveying the complexity.

Virality and virulence

This week I was reminded anew of the promise and peril of tweeting right after your morning coffee. And in the process I was reminded (not that I really needed it) of Twitter’s tribal nature. 

On Friday morning, just as the caffeine was taking full effect, and I was settling in to work on this newsletter, I fatefully took a look at my Twitter feed. I saw that Hillary Clinton, in an interview, had suggested that Tulsi Gabbard was being “groomed” by Russia to be a third-party spoiler candidate, and that Jill Stein, who played that role last time around, was “also” (like Gabbard, that is) a “Russian asset.” 

That’s pretty extreme. As Hillary Clinton undoubtedly knows, and as Wikipedia confirms, the term “asset,” in that context, is typically taken to mean that the person in question isn’t just being exploited by a foreign power but is consciously and secretly cooperating. Not to mention the fact that people aren’t typically “groomed” without being aware of it.

Now, my opinion of Jill Stein—like my opinion of Ralph Nader ever since his third party candidacy got George W. Bush elected president—is low. And I’m not a big Gabbard supporter. I like much of what she says about foreign policy, but I also find her in some ways offputtingly quirky. (For example: She replied to Hillary’s conspiracy theory with a kind of conspiracy theory of her own. And, though I’d like to think this was sly commentary on Hillary’s seeming paranoia, I fear it wasn’t—and if it was, I think it was too subtle for its own good.) 

But, all that said, there are few things that trigger me more than McCarthyism, and Hillary’s accusations struck me as a clear case of it. So, with what in retrospect seems like remarkably little reflection, I tweeted: “Hillary now has two respectable options: either provide evidence to back this up or apologize to Stein and Gabbard. Anything else is an indictment of her character.” 

That last line was the coffee talking. I mean, I stand by it, kind of, but it’s a little on the Olympian side. Come to think of it, so was the first line.

Anyway, I quickly saw that I was being “ratioed”—that is, the ratio of replies to retweets and likes was pretty high, which is often a sign of negative reaction. Further exploration confirmed the negativity. 

I did enough interacting with my critics to discern that by and large they either (1) thought that Jill Stein’s having sat at a dinner table with Vladimir Putin, or Tulsi Gabbard’s having met with Bashar al-Assad (whom she also called a “brutal dictator,” by the way), were conclusive evidence of conspiracy; or (2) insisted that Hillary wasn’t suggesting conspiracy—the former Secretary of State, apparently, was using the term “Russian asset” in a way it’s not typically used in the State Department. 

It’s amazing how unpleasant widespread criticism can be even when you’re convinced that the critics are confused. This was a kind of suffering that even caffeine couldn’t overcome.

My coalescing regret over having tweeted was about to morph into sustained self-reproach when…the cavalry arrived! A low but persistent level of retweeting had, via the magic of Twitter’s secret algorithm, moved my tweet into a friendlier part of the opinion ecosystem. By the end of the day I had more than 500 retweets and more than 2,000 likes—a lot by my standards—and hundreds of replies, most of them supportive. 

Which, I admit, cheered me up. But here’s what was depressing: To judge by the replies, at least, pretty much nobody—my critics or my supporters—was motivated by opposition to McCarthyism per se. They were either Gabbard haters or Stein haters or Hillary lovers, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, Gabbard lovers or Stein lovers or Hillary haters. For example: at least 100 of the 300+ replies consisted of people picking up on my phrase “indictment of her character” and deploying some variation on the theme that Hillary has no character. And a few people said other unflattering things about her (occasionally in ways that appealed to my sophomoric sense of humor).

But the main point is that almost every reply, whether from critics or supporters, involved a negative characterization—and usually not a very high-minded one—of one of the three players: Hillary, Gabbard, or Stein. It was an example of a phenomenon that is said to have grown greatly in the US in recent years: “negative partisanship”—tribal solidarity motivated largely by hatred of the other tribe. And the fact that in this case the word “partisanship” is misleading—that the tribal divide didn’t correspond exactly to the Democrat-Republican divide—isn’t much consolation.  

In the New York Times, psychologist Daniel Willingham dissects curiosity, explains why it so often hijacked by the internet to ignoble ends, and offers some tips for fighting the hijackers.

In Fast Company, Harry McCracken asks whether Verizon, the current owner of Yahoo, is acting responsibly in deleting the archives of Yahoo Groups, a once-thriving ecosystem of online communities. “Verizon is eradicating a meaningful chunk of the internet’s collective memory,” McCracken writes. “The Yahoo Groups archive is an irreplaceable record of what people cared about in its heyday.” This won’t be the first Yahoo-related digicide. As Jordan Pearson notes in Vice, “In 2009, Yahoo shut down GeoCities, taking roughly 7 million personal websites with it.”

Two years ago in Politico Magazine, social scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster explained what “negative partisanship” (see “Virality and virulence,” above) is and why its growth is bad for American politics. 

In Politico, Aaron David Miller, Eugene Rumer, and Richard Sokolsky lay outwhat Trump gets right about Syria.” Among their points: “the foreign policy establishment—the ‘blob’—has spilled a lot more ink complaining that his move benefits Russia than thinking about its actual effect on U.S. interests.” Two points about this point: (1) It meshes with my complaint about New York Times coverage of Syria, above; (2) It uses the semi-derisive term ‘blob’ for the foreign policy establishment—even though these authors, especially Miller, would traditionally have been thought of as members of that establishment. This is a welcome sign that the spirit of anti-blobism may be spreading from fringe renegades (me, for example, or Stephen Wertheim and Trita Parsi of the new and edgy Quincy Institute, who have a very worthwhile piece about Trump’s Syria policy in Foreign Policy this week) into parts of the mainstream. Hey Richard Haass, the phone call is coming from inside the house!

In a week when a New York Times op-ed advocated banning facial recognition technology “in both public and private sectors,” Wired reports on the growing if still quite limited use of the technology in schools. 

This week a retired admiral—and former commander of US Special Operations—won much applause by saying in a New York Times op-ed that Trump is a threat to the Republic and suggesting that this view is shared by many of the admiral’s peers. I’m ambivalent about this. I feel a bit uncomfortable when a former flag officer who implies that he speaks for many in the military writes that “it is time for a new person in the Oval Office” and “the sooner the better.” I realize he’s thinking about impeachment, not a coup, but I guess I’m old school; my father was a career army officer, and back in his day he and many other officers felt so strongly about the importance of separating the military from politics that they didn’t even vote. I have no doubt that that the admiral, William McRaven, is genuinely worried about the Republic. Me too. But but one thing about the Republic that worries me is that we’ve gotten to a point where we’re desperately looking to the military for political guidance.

Anti-trust tweet of the week: On Thursday Mark Zuckerberg, in a speech at Georgetown, declared that it isn’t Facebook’s role to play speech police. As he put it in an interview, “I don’t think people want to live in a world where you can only say things that tech companies decide are 100 percent true.” In response to which Gabriel Snyder, former editor of The New Republic, tweeted that what people don’t want is “to live in a world where just *ONE* tech company decides what people can say.” 

Incoming: Thanks to all the readers who emailed us (nonzero@substack.com) in response to last week’s newsletter. Several, responding to my lamentation about the dearth of anti-war activism among Buddhists and for that matter among progressives, directed me to welcome exceptions. Two readers—Jeff A. and Dat D.—mentioned the venerable Quaker group Friends Committee on National Legislation. Alan R. of Santa Cruz, an ordained Zen priest, hailed his local chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. And Elizabeth F. provided a master list of pro-peace groups. (You have to scroll down to get to the Peace/Anti-War section, and if you’re not disciplined you may be diverted to some other kind of activism before you get there. Be strong!) 

And finally: Feel free to make use of the “like” and “share” buttons below. And to follow us on Twitter. See you next week!

How US foreign policy elites spread lawlessness around the world

Plus: Basketball and China, baseball and Native Americans, Buddhism and militarism, etc.

Welcome to issue #4 of the Nonzero Newsletter. This week’s newsletter features: (1) my argument that “the Blob” (the US foreign policy establishment) is largely to blame for the still-unfolding disaster in Syria; (2) video of highly infectious laughter emanating—counter to stereotype—from a Buddhist monk; (3) a special sports-and-politics section, in which I appraise (a) San Francisco Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s alleged defense of Chinese repression; and (b) the Atlanta Braves’ alleged insensitivity to Native American sensibilities; (4) background readings on things ranging from the psychology of narcissists (I won’t name names) to the changing nature of terrorism in America to why you so rarely see your friends to why Jeff Bezos is so weird.

Brief promotional message: Feel free to follow us on Twitter: @NonzeroNews. And if you find yourself tweeting about this issue of the newsletter—which we don’t exactly discourage—feel free to include that Twitter handle, and/or my Twitter handle (@robertwrighter) in your tweet, so that we’ll notice your good deed, think good thoughts about you, and lobby the powers that be to award you karma points.

How the Blob’s lawlessness brought mayhem to the Middle East

This week’s abrupt withdrawal of US troops from a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria inspired a variety of criticisms, as politicians and commentators of all major ideological stripes condemned Trump for ordering it. 

The main criticisms have a lot of validity, in so far as they go. In greenlighting Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, Trump indeed, as charged: (1) abandoned the Kurds, who at America’s behest had spent the last few years fighting ISIS; (2) probably helped ISIS, at least in the short run, by diverting Kurdish attention and resources toward fighting Turkey; (3) ensured the death or displacement (a.k.a ethnic cleansing) of lots of Kurds.  

But there’s one criticism I haven’t heard, and I think this silence is an indictment of the entire Washington foreign policy establishment—and more evidence that it deserves its evocatively pejorative nickname, the “Blob.” 

The criticism that went unvoiced is simple: The Turkish incursion that Trump greenlighted is illegal. It violates international law, which prohibits transborder aggression.  

If you join the foreign policy establishment in not considering this worth much discussion, I understand. After all, precisely because of the Blob’s longstanding silence on international law, “violates international law” sounds like something abstract and technical, with less emotional force than, say, “committed a felony.” 

My own view is that if this doesn’t change—if international law doesn’t come to command the kind of respect that domestic law does—the wellbeing and maybe even the survival of our species will be at risk. The full version of my argument to this effect takes a while to unfold (I spent hundreds of pages on it in my book Nonzero). But you can get at least some sense for why I’m an international law aficionado by reflecting on this question: Why is it that pretty much no one in the entire foreign policy establishment—not liberal internationalists, not neoconservatives, not unilateralist Boltonesque warmongers—complains about Trump’s having just abetted an egregious violation of international law?

Here’s one plausible answer: Because pretty much all of them have themselves advocated egregious violations of international law, and many of them have done so prolifically. Indeed (sorry about the continued italics, but I’m pretty worked up at this point) the Blob’s persistent disregard for international law is one reason Syria is such a mess in the first place. 

For example: The US invasion of Iraq—an invasion that wound up spawning the precursor of ISIS, whose subsequent metastasis in Syria helped tear the country apart—was plainly, flatly illegal. Iraq hadn’t attacked us, which means the only way that war would have been legal is if the UN Security Council had authorized it, which it wisely didn’t. And it’s maybe a three-percent exaggeration—max— to say that the entire US foreign policy establishment supported this violation of international law.

International law, at this early stage in its evolution, is in some places amorphous, and often lacking in adjudicatory process, so it’s not always clear whether a blunder embraced by the Blob is, in addition to being a blunder, illegal. Consider regime change in Libya, which in 2011 led to the spewing of weapons into black markets across the region, including in Syria, where these weapons amped up the carnage. 

The Security Council resolution authorizing that intervention was about protecting civilian populations (initially in just one city) by establishing a no-fly zone—not about bombing the regime into collapse. But some scholars say the resolution’s wording was broad enough to make bombing the regime into collapse legal. Other scholars disagree, and I’m on their side. But one thing that’s clear is that virtually no one in the Blob even paused to consider the question. That’s not the Blob’s way. 

So too with the regime change effort in Syria—an effort supported by President Obama along with European and Arab allies. A few scholars might argue that the effort fully complied with international law (even though the US, in addition to flooding a supposedly sovereign nation with weapons intended to help overthrow its government, actually bombed parts of the country). Most scholars wouldn’t, but in any event, if you spent the Syrian civil war waiting for Blobsters to weigh in on the question one way or the other you were wasting your time. They were too busy intensifying that war by championing the funneling of weapons into dubious Syrian hands. 

Indeed, one of the louder Blobist complaints about that exercise is that it wasn’t intrusive enough—that we didn’t do more bombing, perhaps enough to induce the regime’s collapse. (Why we should have expected such an exercise to lead to a happier outcome than it had led to in Libya is one of many Blob-related intellectual mysteries.)

Historical what-ifs are famously tricky. But if international law had been scrupulously respected in the three cases I’ve cited—if, when in doubt about the legality of something, we had erred on the side of caution (as most of us probably do with domestic laws)—I think the world would now be in a better place. There would be way fewer innocent people dead or maimed in the Middle East, way fewer refugees, and therefore less in the way of extreme political reactions to refugees in Europe.  

And in Turkey. Though Turkey’s violation of international law has multiple motivations, one of them is to send millions of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey back to Syria. If it weren’t for the American foreign policy establishment, many of those refugees might not be there in the first place.

[Obscure footnote for international relations nerds: People sometimes ask me what the difference is between what I call progressive realism (which I’ve championed, for example, here) and traditional realism. I’ll probably get into this more systematically in future issues of the newsletter, but for now I’ll just mention one difference. Most traditional realists would join me in condemning the series of military interventions—in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria—that helped make the Middle East the mess it is today. But most of them wouldn’t care much about the question of international law. I mean, they’re happy to use international law when it’s handy, but there’s no big emphasis among traditional realists on respecting and nurturing its evolution as a critical part of long-term strategy. I would add, though, that there is a new anti-Blob think tank in Washington—the Quincy Institute—whose mission is broad enough to accommodate both traditional realists and progressive realists, and it will be interesting to see what kind of dialogue between them emerges under its auspices.]

Buddhism and anti-war activism

I recently had a conversation (just posted on meaningoflife.tv and also available in The Wright Show podcast feed) with one of my favorite people: Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Buddhist monk who is also a renowned scholar of Buddhism and a prolific translator of ancient Buddhist texts.

One reason I like him so much is that when he laughs—and he laughs at more offbeat things than your average monk, I’d guess—it lights up the room. Consider, for example, this exchange, which started with him telling me what the Buddha said about eating meat:

Another reason I’m such a fan of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s is that he has such vast knowledge of Buddhist texts that you can interrogate him in depth about, say, Buddhist ethics and learn a lot—which is what I spent most of the conversation doing. We discussed, for example, Buddhism’s emphasis on the welfare not just of all people but of all sentient beings; the stringency of the Buddhist ideal of “right speech” (which I violate, oh, several times a minute); and the anti-militarist drift of Buddhist ethics (as expressed, for example, in the ideal of “right livelihood,” which rules out working in the armaments industry). 

This last point leads to a lamentation that Bhikkhu Bodhi and I briefly shared: the fact that American Buddhists who engage in political activism rarely engage in anti-militarist activism. They do environmental activism and social justice activism (both worthwhile things), but they don’t spend much time protesting, for example, the carnage and chaos wrought by America’s highly interventionist foreign policy.

In this respect they’re remarkably like non-Buddhists. American progressives in general don’t spend much time trying to alter American foreign policy. You can’t throw a rock in Brooklyn without hitting a millennial who works at an NGO that deals with the climate change or domestic policy issues, but good luck finding one who’s agitating against America’s forever wars. (I’m actually against throwing rocks in urban settings—that would presumably violate some Buddhist ideal—but you take my point…)

If you know of exceptions—hidden recesses of Buddhist, or even non-Buddhist, anti-war activism—or for that matter if you’d like to hear about any exceptions that we learn about, drop us a line at nonzero@substack.com or click “reply” on this email.

The NBA’s China Syndrome

This was a tough week for San Francisco Warriors coach Steve Kerr. It all started when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protestors. The Chinese government—and lots of Chinese people—didn’t like that one bit, and China is a huge market for the NBA, so various NBA officials and players set about saying conciliatory things. Kerr, when asked about the controversy, did what you might expect: He declined to comment.  

At this point Donald Trump somehow found the time—even while getting impeached and getting Kurds slaughtered—to tear into Kerr (a longtime Trump critic) for not being manly enough to stand up to China. Which in turn kept the whole issue alive long enough for Kerr to be asked by a reporter whether, in the course of his many visits to China, there had been discussion of how the NBA’s financial interests relate to “a country whose human rights record is not in step with the United States.”

And the rest is social media history. Kerr replied: 

It has not come up in terms of people asking about it, people discussing it. Nor has our record of human rights abuses come up, either. Things that our country needs to look at and resolve. That hasn't come up either. None of us are perfect. We all have different issues we have to get to. Saying that is my right as an American. It doesn't mean that I hate my country. It means I want to address the issue. But people in China didn't ask me about, you know, people owning AR-15s and mowing each other down in a mall. I wasn't asked that question.

The good news for Kerr is that his views got wide dissemination. The bad news is that the dissemination was accompanied by commentary. For example, the assertion that Kerr “just compared China’s Concentration Camps to Americans owning AR-15s” got 2.1K retweets and 4K likes. Of course, Kerr hadn’t actually mentioned China’s persecution of Uighurs (via what are euphemistically called “re-education centers”), but it was predictable that this issue would spring to the minds of his critics. And predictable that they’d sense an asymmetry between this persecution (which the Chinese government pursues systematically) and mass shootings in America (which the US government doesn’t pursue, and would in principle like to stop).

Of course, even if Kerr had come up with a more nearly analogous example of a dubious American policy—say, the massively disproportionate incarceration of African Americans—he’d still be accused, as he was, of “whataboutism.”

Personally, I’m fan of whataboutism. I think it’s a healthy exercise, when you’re decrying something done by someone else or some other nation, to ask whether you, or your nation, has done comparable things—even if all you come up with is remotely comparable things. 

One virtue of this exercise is that it strengthens one of my favorite mental muscles, cognitive empathy—the ability to see the other side’s point of view. Because, however minor your problems or your country’s problems may seem to you, there’s probably someone out there who doesn’t consider them so minor. And, however you prioritize values—freedom of speech as compared to personal safety, say—other people may prioritize them differently, which is a useful thing to keep in mind. 

Leaving aside Kerr’s whataboutism, I think there’s a defense to be made of his earlier “no comment.” It isn’t everyone’s job to opine on the Hong Kong protests. And I can see why Kerr might think it’s his job not to opine on them. Maybe I’m naïve, but I think sports can help build bridges across nations and cultures. It doesn’t always do that, but it can. And, it will have a better chance of doing it if coaches and athletes don’t routinely share an unfiltered version of their view of the nation they’re trying to build a bridge to. 

Now, I’m not so naïve that I think the main motivation behind the NBA’s studious silence on China’s human rights record is to build intercultural bridges. The main motivation is money. But sometimes commercial incentives do happen to align with constructive things. 

In any event, the suggestion that Kerr is motivated by greed is dubious at best. He’s an unusually thoughtful guy who has reason to care about intercultural understanding. His father, a scholar of Arab culture, was president of the American University of Beirut when he was murdered in 1984, apparently by Islamist terrorists. 

And I suspect Kerr’s interactions with China have given him a more nuanced view of that country than many Americans possess. He probably realizes, for example, that many Chinese citizens, and not just the Chinese government, bridle at American criticism, which can therefore intensify the nationalism that adds to an authoritarian government’s power.

Obviously, the virtue of tactical silence has its limits. You wouldn’t encourage American companies to build bridges to Nazi Germany, and its fair to ask whether China’s persecution of the Uighurs, in particular, has moved China beyond the pale. 

That said, the denunciation of everyone who isn’t denouncing everything you think needs denouncing is a contemporary tendency I find unhelpful. And a variant of it I find especially annoying is the indignant allegation that someone has failed to stand up and make some kind of career sacrifice in the name of right. 

Because, for one thing, almost no one ever has the courage to do that, however nice it would be if they did. And, for another thing, some of the people who habitually demand that others make career sacrifices in the name of good are themselves doing roughly the opposite of that. They’re racking up Twitter followers, and thus boosting their career prospects, by conveniently failing to reflect with any depth or nuance on the complex question of how to actually make the world a better place.

America’s Pastime

This week baseball’s postseason playoffs were proceeding uneventfully when St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley threw the Atlanta Braves a curve ball. In between games one and two of the Cardinals–Braves series, Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, criticized a controversial Braves fan ritual: rhythmically simulating a tomahawk chop while humming something that is either a Native American war song or Atlanta’s idea of one.    

Braves officials took the complaint seriously. When the decisive game five rolled around, Atlanta fans didn’t find in their seats the complimentary foam tomahawks that had always been there for playoff games. And the loudspeaker didn’t, shortly before the first pitch, prompt the tomahawk ritual by playing the war song. 

If you were a superstitious Braves fan, you might have worried that this desecration of ritual would anger the gods. And sure enough: St. Louis scored ten runs in the top of the first inning—which, for those of you aren’t baseball fans, meant that the game was over before the other 8.5 innings were played. (Final score: 13-1. The Cardinals moved on to the National League Championship series, and the Braves went home.)

Before I say more about the tomahawk ritual per se, I’d like to say one thing about the recurring controversy over Native American sports names (which typically focuses on the Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, and the Kansas City Chiefs). Namely: these four names fall into two groups, and one group seems more offensive than the other. 

“Redskins” and “Indians” are labels for an ethnic group—which, let’s face it, is pretty weird. I mean, you wouldn’t name a team the Cleveland Latinos or the Washington African-Americans (much less something as unambiguously pejorative as “Redskins”). 

The only analogue I can think of is the Boston Celtics—and history affords Irish Americans much less grounds for taking offense than it affords Native Americans. Sure, Irish Americans were once victims of real discrimination, but they weren’t subjected to more than a century’s worth of ethnic cleansing and wanton slaughter and then confined to tracts of land specifically chosen for their barrenness. So if I owned the Cleveland Indians—and especially if I owned the Washington Redskins (whose name is less comparable to “Boston Celtics” than to “Boston Micks”)—I’d be looking for a way to gracefully change the name. 

After all, there’s precedent for changing a professional team’s name in response to changing times. In 1997, NBA owner Abe Pollin, worried about urban gun violence, rechristened the Washington Bullets as the Washington Wizards. And there were no ill effects; his team had been mediocre as the Bullets and it was mediocre as the Wizards.

In contrast to “Indians” and “Redskins,” both “Braves” and “Chiefs” refer not to an ethnic group but to a particular occupational status within an ethnic group—warriors and military/political leaders, respectively. And here analogues are abundant: the many professional sports teams (New York, New Jersey, Washington) that have been named “Generals,” not to mention the Kentucky Colonels. And the Washington Senators. Most of these teams aren’t still around, but if they were, nobody would bat an eye.

I’m not Native American, so it’s not my call to make. But it seems to me that terms like “Braves” and “Chiefs” could be taken as not offensive, perhaps even ennobling—at least, if they’re not accompanied by, say, a gratuitous tomahawk ritual.  

All of this may seem a bit more Jesuitical than is warranted by the context. After all, they’re just a bunch of sports teams—what’s so hard about changing all their names and being done with it? And I’m not against that. At the same time, I recognize that these days lots of Americans get really upset by the abandonment of tradition in the face of what they see as political correctness. And since some of these Americans vent their anger by doing things like vote for Donald Trump, I’m eager to find compromises that leave them, say, half as outraged as they otherwise would be.

And, for the same reason, I’m a fan of incremental progress. You know, like: Lose the tomahawks now, drop the war chant in a couple of years, and eventually get around to changing the name. (Only last year the Cleveland Indians removed the cartoonish image of “Chief Wahoo” from their uniforms and stadium signs but not from all merchandise; I expect the merchandise to follow suit before long.) And I guess one thing I’m saying is that, if you want to take an incremental approach to changing names, I’d go in this order: Redskins, then Indians, with Braves and Chiefs tied for third.  

So that’s my two cents. If you want to denounce me for looking at this as a typical white male, or for anything else, please email us at nonzero@substack.com (or just click “reply” on this email).

Atlantic staff writer Olga Khazan delves into the literature on self-confidence and finds that the difference between self-esteem and narcissism isn’t just one of degree. “People who have high self-esteem think of their social relationships as collaborative, while those with narcissism see the world as a zero-sum game. Only one person can be the best, they think, and it must be them.” In a remarkable act of discipline, Khazan goes the whole piece without mentioning any recent presidents.

Also in the Atlantic, Franklin Foer goes deep on the ever-fascinating, and sometimes disturbing, Jeff Bezos

After 9/11, an enduring upsurge in terrorist attacks against America was widely anticipated. And sure enough, the University of Maryland’s annual terrorism report, released this week, shows that the number of terrorist attacks in America last year was the highest since 1982. But here’s what wasn’t anticipated after 9/11: the big problem isn’t radical Islamism. All six lethal terrorists attacks in the US, featured “far-right ideological elements including primarily white supremacy and in at least two cases, male supremacy,” the report notes. The good news: terrorist attacks worldwide are down, and in the US the number of lethal attacks dropped in 2018 (from 18 to 6) as did the total number of deaths due to terrorism (43 in 2018, about half as many as in 2017). Upshot: the chances that you’ll die in a terrorist attack remain roughly zero.

In the Intercept, Jon Schwarz briskly reviews the many times the US has betrayed the Kurds. In Lobelog, Paul Pillar argues that Trump’s impulse to withdraw troops from the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria isn’t bad in itself, but that his execution of the withdrawal has been irresponsible; Trump has characteristically failed to pursue the kind of diplomacy that could have permitted an exit without the killing and ethnic cleansing now going on. 

In the Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz laments the demise of “the old 9-to-5, five-day-a-week grind.” Sure, it was a grind, but at least you and your friends were grinding at the same time—which meant you were free at the same times and so could hang out together. Now, with more people working “nonstandard or variable hours,” and affluent people, especially, putting in longer work weeks, “the hours in which we work, rest, and socialize are becoming ever more desynchronized.” Not surprisingly, Shulevitz is also the author of a book singing the praises of the Sabbath, a day for repose and interhuman connection. (On the other hand, the Sabbath isn’t all that conducive to intertribal connection. For Muslims it’s Friday, for Jews it’s Saturday, and for Christians it’s Sunday.)

Mindful Impeachment

Plus: Explaining patriotism to Trump, virtuous virtue signaling, slumbering octopuses, etc.

Welcome to Issue 3 of the Nonzero Newsletter! This week I (1) respond to Trump’s UN speech by giving him a tutorial on patriotism; (2) burden you with my worries about how impeachment could go awry, then share my hope about how it could work out well; (3) explain how virtue signaling saved my dog’s life; (4) steer you to background material on such things as impeachment, the Democratic presidential candidates’ foreign policy positions, a seemingly nefarious Ukrainian Facebook network, Hegel (yes, Hegel), and slumbering octopuses. [Note: No newsletter next week, so be sure to read this one twice. See you on Oct 12.]

In defense of ‘America First’

This week president Trump went before the United Nations and declared, “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” A year earlier he had gone before the United Nations and declared, “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” Sense a pattern? 

In last year’s address Trump also, as he often does, zeroed in on the particular manifestation of globalism that seems to most concern him—“global governance,” which he says poses a threat to “national sovereignty.”  

Some people might consider it impolite to go before the UN and denounce globalism and global governance—kind of like, I don’t know, being given a speaking slot at a Trump rally and then using it to denounce xenophobia. But Trump’s annual UN ode to patriotism and national sovereignty has one virtue: It crystallizes the confusion that drives his opposition to global governance. 

The crux of the confusion lies in the way Trump keeps acting as if you have to choose between global governance, on the one hand, and serving your nation’s interests (patriotism) on the other. This seems weird to those of us who support global governance in part because we see it as the best way to serve some of our country’s most vital interests. 

Or, to put it another way: My problem with “America first” isn’t the literal meaning of the phrase. Of course the president should prioritize the interests of the United States. That’s why we call him “President of the United States” rather than “President of the Rest of the World.” My problem is with Trump’s failure to see that, in the modern, interconnected world, serving American interests often involves helping other nations serve their interests. So putting America first doesn’t necessarily wind up putting other nations second. 

When this happens—when in the course of serving your interests you also help other nations serve their interests— that means you’re playing a non-zero-sum game with them; there can be a win-win outcome. So, for example, if a bunch of nations agree to make short-term sacrifices to slow global warming, that can be good for all of them in the long run. 

It’s certainly better for them than if there’s no such agreement. In the absence of an agreement, lots of nations may refuse to bear any such short-term costs because they don’t want to be the suckers who sacrifice for the common good while their neighbors don’t. So nothing much gets done, and the planet bakes.

Now, if there is an agreement to pay these short-term costs, and it’s a formal agreement—like, if it’s a treaty—that’s an instance of global governance (and an addition to the body of international law). And if the treaty specifies penalties for countries that violate it, it’s an instance of strong global governance. 

Trump is right to believe that such a treaty erodes national sovereignty. But note that in an important sense sovereignty is going to get eroded in any event. Sovereignty means control over you future, and if climate change proceeds unabated, you are losing control over your nation’s future. Like, for example, the ability to keep all of your cities above sea level for the next 50 years.   

So the question isn’t whether you should hang onto your sovereignty. That’s impossible. The question is in what form you want to lose it. Would you rather the lost sovereignty take the form of a firm commitment to constrain your carbon emissions, or that it take the form of hurricanes, floods, and droughts (or whatever exact side effects of climate change happen to afflict your particular country—not to mention the indirect effects that flow from climate change afflictions suffered by other countries)? 

That’s the generic case for global governance, whether the subject is arms control or trade or health or whatever: that various technologies have created more and more non-zero-sum games among various groups of nations, and that it’s therefore in the interest of each individual nation in such a group to join in agreements that constrain future behavior.

To subscribe to this idea doesn’t mean embracing all forms of global governance. Sometimes global governance, like governance generally, is done badly. And sometimes things get so complicated that figuring out whether global governance serves “the national interest” is hard. Like when a trade agreement would boost aggregate American prosperity but hurt specific classes of Americans. 

So accretions of global governance should be carefully inspected before being accepted. And, in deciding which ones to accept, its perfectly fine to focus on the interests of your nation (though I’m personally not averse to the occasional extension of charity to our fellow human beings in other nations, something that can also be done under the rubric of global governance). 

But to reject global governance broadly, as Trump has repeatedly done, is, among other things, unpatriotic. 

What to worry about when you worry about impeachment

This impeachment thing worries me. But don’t worry—I’m a worrier, so my worries are probably unwarranted.  

Still, if only for therapeutic reasons, I’d like to enumerate them, after which I’ll see if, upon reflection, I can dispel them.  

I have three basic nightmare scenarios: 

1. Impeachment helps Trump get re-elected. In this scenario, impeachment fails to remove Trump from office (since, after all, the Republican Senate gets the final say), but it succeeds in firing up his base by reinforcing one of his key narratives: his persecution at the hands of the deep state, the crooked media, and other elites. So in November of 2020, swing-state polling stations are awash in MAGA hats, and before you know it we’re in for another four years. Bonus bummer: We have to endure Trump’s declaring vindication when the Senate doesn’t convict.

2. Impeachment leads to a five-year or even nine-year Pence presidency. In this scenario, Trump gets convicted in the Senate. Though unlikely, this isn’t impossible. If the impeachment inquiry yields damning new revelations and Trump is so damaged by the fallout that re-election looks hopeless, a critical mass of Republican Senators who occupy safe seats or aren’t up for immediate re-election might desert him in hopes of maintaining Republican control of the White House. 

Mike Pence would then become president and, compared with Trump, might strike swing voters as presidential. (For starters, he isn’t orange and he sometimes finishes his sentences.) In which case he could then be returned to office once or even twice. By and large Pence’s policies would probably be Trumpist, as Trump’s base would have to be mollified in the wake of his Republican-abetted ouster. But Pence would likely abandon Trump’s refreshing if erratically expressed skepticism about military intervention. (Indeed, the GOP’s neocon foreign policy establishment would in this scenario have enthusiastically supported the Dump-Trump-for-Pence movement.) From my ideological perspective, at least, this is pretty much the worst of all worlds.

3. The impeachment process so intensifies America’s political polarization that for years to come, aspiring populist demagogues will have fertile ground to exploit. Of the three nightmare scenarios, this may be the most likely (and, unfortunately, it’s compatible with either of the other two). In fact, some deepening of America’s tribal divide seems pretty much unavoidable as impeachment proceeds.

OK, so those are my three big worries. Do they amount to an argument against impeachment? Not really. How impeachment plays out politically is too unpredictable for me to put huge stock in the first two scenarios, and as for the third: A modest increase in polarization might be a fair price to pay if impeachment did, one way or another, succeed in ushering Trump offstage in favor of a benign successor. 

And I guess I can imagine that happening. Let me try.

If the impeachment process is to leave Trump on balance less electable, it needs to move a fair number of voters into the anti-Trump camp (since, after all, you need to more than compensate for the galvanizing effect impeachment will have on his base). I’m far from sure that this scandal, as it stands, will do that. Though I consider the quid pro quo that Trump implicitly offered Ukraine to be a grave betrayal of his constitutional duties, I don’t think the story, so far, has the grassroots narrative power of things like flatout bribery or embezzlement or for that matter such dramatic interventions in elections as email hacking. 

But the night is young. I would direct your attention, in particular, to the three appearances of ellipses—presumably indicating excised passages—in the now-famous Ukraine phone call memo. One of them appears in the Biden part of the discussion—and note that the whistleblower’s own lawyer seems to affirm the significance of that ellipsis via a retweet. 

If the Democrats get ahold of the complete version of that memo (the one that White House lawyers have consigned to the cyber-equivalent of Fort Knox), and it turns out that any of those ellipses conceal something explosive—like, for example, an explicit quid-pro-quo—that could move the needle of public opinion. Not just because of what was excised, but because the fact of such consequential excising would so intensify the air of coverup. 

This is just one example—maybe the most promising one, for now—of future developments that could move us into what I consider the sweet spot: so damaging to Trump that re-election gets harder, but not so damaging as to trigger a mutiny among Republican senators that could lead to a Pence presidency.

So cheer up! 

OK, that’s enough cheer. Here’s the final thing that worries me: 

I haven’t seen many advocates of impeachment lay out scenarios like this, in which impeachment leads to a happy ending. In fact, it seems to me the most full-throated impeachment advocates have been short on scenarios, period. (And attempts on Twitter to elicit such scenarios—attempts by me, for example, or by noted author and activist Tim Wu—have yielded little.) Instead of outlining likely consequences of impeachment, these advocates often argue either that impeachment would be constitutionally justified (I agree) or that it’s morally compelled. 

And the moral compulsion arguments often assume this form: “Sometimes you just have to stand up for what’s right, whatever the consequences!” Which sounds appealing, until you drill down on the “whatever the consequences” part. I mean, if the consequences included, say, the destruction of the planet, that would give you pause, right? 

I’m not saying four more years of Trump is as bad as the destruction of the planet. But it’s up there. So, I’m sorry, I can’t entirely abandon my concern about the actual consequences of impeachment, especially if one of those consequences is more Trump. 

All of which bring us to…mindful resistance! Which, in addition to being the former name of this newsletter, is also a cause I remain devoted to.

You may think I’ve got a funny way of showing it. After all, doesn’t mindfulness mean, for example, not getting bogged down in anxieties and worries? 

Yes, kind of. At least, it means being sufficiently aware of the affective layer of my worries—the feeling of worrying—that I’m not unduly influenced by that, and can see clearly which worrisome scenarios are likely enough and momentous enough to be worth focusing on. In other words: it means being aware that I’m a worrier and filtering my worrisome thoughts accordingly. Which, as you can see, I’m trying to do, if with less than complete success.    

By the same token, mindfulness can help you be aware—as broadly and objectively aware as possible—of the consequences of your actions. Including the consequences of impeachment. 

Needless to say, if you strongly favor impeachment, mindfulness means trying to be aware of feelings that may be driving that. For example: Is there a retributive feeling—Let’s give Trump what he deserves!—so powerful that it could get in the way of assessing whether impeachment will or won’t work to his detriment? 

I’m just asking, not accusing. There certainly are people who strongly favor impeachment and are being reflective about it. And as time passes, more and more of them are laying out their arguments in writing (as in this recent piece by Ezra Klein arguing that, whether or not impeachment drives Trump out of office, it will have other worthwhile consequences). 

In general, I’d say that Buddhist ethics has a consequentialist leaning. It emphasizes pursuing humane outcomes through skillful action more than serving moral ideals regardless of the consequences. And mindfulness, when it’s working well, is integral to skillful action.   

How virtue signaling saved my dog’s life

Our dog Frazier was on death row when we got him—slated to be “put to sleep” if the animal shelter couldn’t find a home for him. 

If you don’t recognize that sentence as virtue signaling, you need to get more in touch with the zeitgeist. Over the past few decades it has become cooler and cooler to casually mention that your dog is a “rescue dog.” 

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Matt Bershadker, president of the ASPCA: “Rescuing an animal has become a badge of honor,” he told a New York Times reporter. “People proudly go to dog parks and walk around their neighborhoods talking about the animal that they rescued from a shelter.”

And this fact—that you can actually brag about your dog being an outcast and get social credit for it—seems to have been good for dogs. The percentage of dogs at animal shelters that have to be put to sleep for lack of adoption has dropped sharply over the past decade, the Times reported this month. 

There’s a lot of cynicism about “virtue signaling.” In fact, the term is almost always used pejoratively. But the fact is that virtue signaling per se isn’t anything to be ashamed of. It can be used for good—just ask Frazier! Or for bad. 

Want an example of bad? Go check out Twitter. People there spend lots of time signaling to their tribe—which usually means either the pro-Trump tribe or the anti-Trump tribe—that they’re upholding the tribe’s values. Unfortunately, one thing both tribes value is the hyperbolic denunciation of people in the other tribe. And one thing they don’t much value is reflecting on whether the denunciation is warranted before engaging in it. 

One effect of unreflective hyperbolic denunciations is to piss off the other tribe—which in turn increases the value the other tribe places on its own hyperbolic denunciations. Which in turn…well, you get the picture:  It’s an arms race of virtue signaling that leads to more and more of the intertribal hatred that people like Donald Trump exploit.

So we are indeed living in a time when much “virtue signaling” deserves to be snidely dismissed. But that’s because of the virtues being signaled, not because there’s anything wrong with signaling per se. Signaling—and the social reinforcement given for signaling—is as vital to healthy moral systems as to unhealthy ones. Any robust moral system harnesses the fact that all of us are at some level showoffs.

So here’s this week’s tip for being a good social media citizen:

When you see somebody in the other tribe showing off in front of their tribe, try not to get annoyed. At least, try not to get annoyed by the showing off part. After all, people in your tribe—including you, perhaps—are doing about as much showing off as people in the other tribe, even if you’re less inclined to notice it.    

I’m happy to add that this doesn’t mean you have to abandon getting annoyed altogether. But instead of getting annoyed by the showing off, get annoyed when the showing off is done in the service of something worth getting annoyed by. Like hyperbolic unreflective denunciation for example.  

And, if you want extra credit: Try getting annoyed when people in your tribe do that as well as when people in the other tribe do it. 

And, most important: Isn’t Frazier cute? And wasn’t it selfless of me to save him?

In the Nation, Jeet Heer assesses a strain of leftist skepticism about impeachment. In this view, the move to impeach is driven by the national security establishment, and “Trump’s great sin” was his “defiance of the intelligence community.” Heer lays out an alternative impeachment narrative that, he says, leftists can in good conscience get behind.   

“Have you read Hegel?”
“Not personally.”
That’s the old joke about how impenetrable Hegel’s writing is. Well, if you’d like to nonetheless try to understand Hegel’s philosophy, here’s the latest way to read him without reading him personally: via philosopher Tom Whyman’s riff on a recently viral (and presumably true) story told by a reddit user who goes by the name hegelianwife. Whyman’s piece left me understanding things about Hegel’s thought that I’d never understood before (which isn’t saying much, but still…). 

This week Elizabeth Warren answered the Council on Foreign Relations presidential candidate foreign policy survey—which means that pretty much all the Democratic candidates have now done that, including frontrunners Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders. So you can compare their positions on an issue-by-issue basis. See what you think. (I personally like Bernie when it comes to foreign policy, not just on the basis of the CFR survey, but because I have a lot of respect for his chief foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss—and also because Bernie has said more admirably edgy things about American foreign policy than his main rivals.)

This week a tweeted video of “an octopus changing colors while dreaming” garnered 31,000 retweets and counting. Turns out we don’t know for sure if it’s dreaming—just that it’s sleeping. But tweets of the video that made that clear got only a few hundred retweets, max. So let’s stick with the dreaming story. After all, while awake the octopus changes colors in response to changing circumstances, and while asleep it could be dreaming about being in various circumstances. (Like, you know, being in public and realizing it doesn’t have any clothes on and turning red.) Anyway, it’s a beautiful video. 

This week Facebook took down a vast network of Ukraine-based Facebook pages that were pushing pro-Trump propaganda. Could this have something to do with Ukrainegate? Another quid for Trump’s quo? Subsequent investigation by the newsletter Popular Information revealed that, actually, this was just some Ukrainians out to make a buck. They had discovered that pro-Trump memes are a good way to generate traffic and thus make a lot of money off of video ads. They had earlier discovered the same thing about pro-Jesus memes and pro-cute-dog memes. They got into pro-Trump memes because "the algorithm showed a hot niche,” said one of the entrepreneurial Ukrainians. “That's the whole story."  

And finally: This week we proudly unveil our brand new Twitter account. Needless to say, we encourage you to follow us. And speaking of social media: Thanks to those of you have been making liberal use of the “like” and “share” buttons below. We deeply appreciate your helping us get the word out.

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