Introducing the Apocalypse Aversion Project
Plus: Readings on AI and the Capitol riot, mindfulness and politics, foreign policy and blowback, etc.
Just to make sure I don’t bury my lede: Starting next week—on Monday, in fact—there will be a version of this newsletter that goes out only to paid subscribers.
As I type these words there are zero paid subscribers. I’m hoping that will change—and if you want to help change it right now, before you hear more about the new newsletter, I applaud that leap of faith:
But if you’d like to get more facts before taking the plunge, here are some of those:
1) The subscribers-only newsletter will come out way more often than this newsletter has been coming out—at least twice a week, maybe more often than that.
2) Different issues of the newsletter will assume different forms. I’d love to elaborate, but I don’t know exactly what those forms will ultimately be. They’ll emerge through evolution. We’ll try various things: rants, sermons, interview excerpts, info-graphics, searing profiles, poignant laments, astute essays, less astute essays, rapid reactions to big news, half-baked theories, summaries of important research, awards for good and bad social media conduct, guides to good reading, good viewing, good listening, etc. And we’ll see what works—where “what works” is defined largely by what readers tell us is working.
3) We’ll continue to cover lots of subjects, ranging from foreign policy to moral philosophy to the social impact of technology to the psychology of tribalism to international governance to mindfulness practice to… I could go on, but the thing I want to emphasize is:
4) Connecting all of this diversity will be a unity of purpose. That’s always been kind of true of this newsletter, but I worry that the purpose hasn’t been clear enough. The new newsletter will be an occasion to spell out that purpose more explicitly and get more serious about pursuing it. Which leads us to:
5) The new newsletter will be not just a newsletter but a project. Specifically: the Apocalypse Aversion Project. (OK, maybe I did bury part of my lede.)
If you’re wondering what the “apocalypse” part of that rubric refers to, I would humbly suggest that you haven’t been paying enough attention to reality lately. Here’s a quick update: Things aren’t going well. People in various places—certainly including America—are getting sucked into mind-warping tribal combat and as a result are ignoring various existential threats that face the whole planet. And time is running out. (I know, I know: the Trump era is over, and Joe Biden is a pretty normal human being, and things seem better now. But Trump was just a symptom, and I see no reason to think the underlying condition has improved.)
There’s an old joke about the weather: everybody complains about it, but nobody does anything about it. The same could be said about the downward spiral that America and the world are now in—except that it’s not a joke.
One reason it’s not a joke is that, well, it’s not funny. A subtler reason is that the premise of the weather joke—that nobody can do anything about the weather—doesn’t apply here. We in fact can do something to salvage the human prospect. We can dial down the hatred in America and elsewhere; we can unwarp our minds; we can build a global community, a community that is strong and prosperous and just, and do the things necessary to ensure a long and happy life for that community.
How? I was afraid you’d ask that. Not because I don’t have any answers, but because I don’t have all the answers, and because the challenge is so daunting that it’s hard to know where to start.
That’s what the new newsletter will be about—fleshing out the answers (with help from readers, I hope) and figuring out where people (like those readers) can start. I think this newsletter has made some progress on these fronts in the past, but not nearly enough and, just as important, not conspicuously enough. We haven’t really spelled out the answers, much less organized them or helped people act on them. I want to change that.
So I mean the “project” part of Apocalypse Aversion Project literally. I’m determined to have something coherent come out of this. The coherent thing could be a book, it could be a movement, it could be a resource site—and the resources could include everything from policy proposals to self-help. (One of the sunnier parts of my world view is my conviction that contributing to the salvation of the world and becoming a happier, more fulfilled person are aspirations that naturally harmonize if you approach them the right way.)
Details: Subscription is $6 per month. If you’re already a Nonzero Foundation Patron or a Parrot Room Patron, you’re eligible for one kind of freebie or another; check your inbox or the respective Patreon sites for details. (And if you’re wondering what the Parrot Room is, it’s a weekly after-hours podcast conversation I have with my old friend and ideological nemesis Mickey Kaus; paid newsletter subscribers will join Parrot Room Patrons in having access to those conversations.) People who don’t subscribe to the paid version of the newsletter will still get an edition of the newsletter occasionally, but probably no more often than this newsletter has been coming out—which is to say, once a month or so.
By the way, when I listed things that might emerge from this—a book, a movement, a resource site—I didn’t mean to rule out the possibility that more than one of these will emerge. And who knows? Maybe we’ll even hit the trifecta. What I feel sure of is that something will grow out of this—that the issues of the new Nonzero Newsletter will become more than the sum of their parts in some tangible way. One way or another, something bigger will be built. I hope that, starting Monday, you’ll help me build it.
To share the above piece, use this link.
In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall asks various political scientists whether Joe Biden will be able to govern effectively amid social strife and tribalism. “There were optimists and pessimists,” he writes. “If recent history provides a guide, the pessimists may well carry the day.”
Here's something I don’t say every day: Sam Harris made a valid point. Like me, he sometimes hears from people who say his advocacy of mindfulness is at odds with his intense interest in politics. And he replies roughly as I do, except that, being Sam Harris, he does so with more flair. In a recent episode of his Making Sense podcast, he said, “If you think that meditative insight should cause one not to care about the implosion of our democracy or about our ongoing failure to deal with civilizational challenges, if you think we get to not care about the world we’re building… it’s time to take your head out of your ass.” Leaving aside the vexing question of whether one can mindfully tell people to take their heads out of their assess (he goes on to assert that one can), I agree that the point of mindfulness meditation isn’t to cultivate indifference to the state of the world. Sure, it can help you cope with the world, help you preserve equanimity amid turbulence, but it can also help you think more clearly about how to improve the world—by, in particular, helping you subdue the cognitive biases that constitute the psychology of tribalism. Now, whether Sam Harris has done as much of that as he thinks he has is something I have expressed doubt about in the past. And I may return to that subject in this newsletter in the future. I certainly will return to the subject of how mindfulness can help us improve the world. But for now I’ll just revel in this moment of concord with Sam, and join him in affirming that there is at least one sense in which neither of us has our head up our ass.
In Inkstick, “Blob” defector Van Jackson argues that America’s foreign policy is partly to blame for the Capitol riot. He cites the work of Kathleen Belew, whose book Bring the War Home explains how the Vietnam War radicalized veterans who would go on to become leaders in the white power movement. (I interviewed Kathleen on The Wright Show in 2018.) Jackson sees a similar dynamic in play now, as the forever wars come home to roost. “You can dress up militarism abroad with rhetoric about liberty and freedom, but you can’t escape the consequence that doing so poisons your own polity,” he writes.
Could we identify all the Capitol rioters with no help from police, using just smartphone footage from the social media platform Parler, open-source AI, and a crowdsourcing website? In WIRED, Andy Greenberg reports on an effort to do that and highlights some of the ethical questions raised by its progress.
The latest evidence of how strangely and circuitously destructive the unintended consequences of American interventions can be comes in the form of a news report from Deutsche Welle: members of the Pakistani Taliban killed a police officer guarding a polio vaccination team. In 2011, the CIA, as part of its hunt for Osama Bin Laden, created a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad so it could get DNA samples from Bin Laden’s relatives. This seems to have fostered (1) a suspicion in Pakistan that vaccination programs represent nefarious foreign influence; (2) a specific conspiracy theory, especially popular among Islamist militants, that vaccination is a western plot to sterilize Pakistani children. Attacks on polio vaccination teams claimed at least 70 lives between 2011 and 2015—which may be why Pakistan is one of the last two nations on Earth where the disease still spreads. The other? Afghanistan.
The head of the World Health Organization recently warned that, as rich nations buy a place at the front of the line for Covid-19 vaccination, the world is “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure.” But he may have understated the indictment, as the failure could go beyond the realm of global social justice. Stable national governance makes it easier to address various global challenges, including terrorism, which tends to fester where states are weak. And poor nations are much more likely to collapse under the weight of a pandemic than rich ones. So it’s in America’s interest to contribute to the global Covid vaccine effort. And a simple adjustment of fiscal priorities would let it contribute substantially more. The total budget for COVAX, an international group tasked with distributing vaccines to poorer countries, is less than $10 billion. The latest US defense bill authorized the purchase of 96 F-35 fighter planes, with a sticker price of nearly $8 billion. So waiting until next Christmas for our shiny new planes could actually make America more secure.
OK, that’s it! Thanks for reading. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweet to us at @NonzeroNews. And if you don’t think you can make it past Monday without seeing another edition of this newsletter, help is available:
Illustrations by Nikita Petrov.