Plus: Explaining patriotism to Trump, virtuous virtue signaling, slumbering octopuses, etc.
|Sep 28, 2019||87|
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.]
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.
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.
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?”
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.