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.