How Broadway killed "Mockingbird"

Plus: Getting Glenn Greenwald, Wendell Berry’s eco-spirituality, the late Ram Dass on fear of death 

Welcome to yet another issue of NZN! This week I (1) declare myself a theater critic and complain about the moral and political subtext of Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway version of To Kill a Mockingbird; (2) declare myself a psychologist and delve into the inner workings of Glenn Greenwald, who this week became a free speech icon; (3) direct you to readings on such things as: musings by the late Ram Dass (author of the eastern spirituality classic Be Here Now) on death, fear of death, and fear of other things; the ethics of experimenting on eerily-brainlike “cerebral organoids;” the remarkable resilience of neoconservatives; Wendell Berry’s eco-spirituality; and America’s asymmetrical political polarization; (4) explain what you can do to help push NZN’s circulation past the 15,000 mark, a milestone it’s tantalizingly close to. [Note: No newsletter next week unless the world seems to be falling apart at an unusually brisk pace.]  

Glenn Greenwald has his reasons

This week’s version of “Suleimani had blood on his hands but the US shouldn’t have killed him” was “Glenn Greenwald annoys me but Brazil shouldn’t prosecute him.”

On Tuesday Brazilian prosecutors filed charges against Greenwald in connection with a series of Intercept articles he co-authored that, perhaps not coincidentally, suggested corrupt behavior on the part of the prosecutors’ boss, Brazilian Minister of Justice Sergio Moro. Also perhaps not coincidentally, these Intercept articles cast doubt on the legitimacy of the presidency of Moro’s boss, the famously authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro. 

Greenwald—who lives in Brazil and is choosing to stay there and face possible imprisonment, even though he could legally leave the country—immediately became the recipient of some very ambivalent support on Twitter. For example:

“Glenn’s been awful on US politics for years. But these charges are almost certainly bullshit.”
--Josh Marshall, founder and editor of TPM

“I disagree with Greenwald about basically everything and he has been relentlessly unpleasant to people I work with. Which is why I feel it’s important to say that this is a profoundly concerning assault on press freedom.”
--Quinta Jurecic, managing editor of Lawfare

And my personal favorite:
“I think Glenn Greenwald is a bad faith doorknob and I have nary a morsel of respect for him, but the cyber crime charges should give every journalist pause.”
--Imani Gandy (better known as @AngryBlackLady) of Rewire News 

I of course share these concerns about freedom of the press—all the more so because it’s easy to imagine Trump using Bolsonaro as a role model. But I’ll refrain from joining in the ritual denunciation of Greenwald, and instead point out one irony that may have evaded the awareness of some denouncers:   

The reason they find Greenwald so abrasive and/or wrongheaded is at some level the same reason he’s become the free speech icon they’re defending. Greenwald just isn’t constrained by fear the way most of us are. He’s not afraid to express views that antagonize pretty much the entire American establishment, he’s not afraid to express them in a way that deepens the antagonism, and he’s not afraid to throw a journalistic hand grenade into the Bolsonaro administration even though he’s within range of the fallout.

I’m not sure if Greenwald enjoys antagonizing people; he sometimes seems to. But, judging by his Twitter feed, he certainly isn’t daunted by the unpleasant aspects of intense conflict the way many of us are. 

There are other people, of course, who are known for stirring up outrage by acerbically voicing unpopular positions. But two things distinguish Greenwald from most of them: 

1) The positions he takes that enrage mainstream thinkers are sometimes deeply important. The classic case is his noting that the word “terrorist” isn’t applied with anything like consistency, and that the pattern of application tends to serve the propaganda needs of the country doing the applying. Or, as the old aphorism has it: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. If more Americans took this on board, our government would have more trouble getting us into stupid and devastating conflicts in the Middle East. But taking it on board would mean defying a cardinal rule of our foreign policy establishment: the establishment decides who the terrorists are, and if you question these decisions your patriotism and/or moral character will be subject to doubt.  

2) Greenwald isn’t opportunistic in his antagonisms; he’s not a controversialist or a troll. His various transgressions against conventional wisdom are bound by an underlying ideological consistency.

It surprises me how many people miss this. A couple of years ago, after Greenwald’s disdain for the #Resistance furor over Russiagate became clear, a well-known journalist asked me if I thought he was on Russia’s payroll. After ascertaining that she was serious, I replied that anyone familiar with Greenwald’s history—his aversion to cold-war fearmongering, and xenophobic fearmongering in general, his concerns about civil liberties and his suspicion of the national security establishment—shouldn’t be surprised by his position on Russiagate.

One reason people don’t always recognize ideological fidelity when they see it is that they get it mixed up with tribal fidelity. Many liberals would have rolled their eyes at George W. Bush if he’d said we’re sending military aid to Ukraine so that “we don’t have to fight Russia here.” But Adam Schiff said that very thing this week during Trump’s impeachment trial, and it gave liberals goose bumps. They were being faithful to the anti-Trump tribe and weren’t bothering to ask whether they were being faithful to any underlying ideology. 

It’s because Greenwald doesn’t subordinate ideological fidelity to tribal fidelity that the major American political tribes view him with suspicion; he’s not a reliable ally for any of them. Which is one reason so many people this week prefaced their defense of Greenwald with reservations about him.

Another reason is his legendary offensiveness. He talks about his ideological adversaries with—how should I put it?—the occasional lapse of diplomatic finesse. “Glenn Greenwald has called me a ‘deceitful’ mouthpiece of the national security state,” began a tweet from Susan Hennessey that went on to call Brazil’s charges against him “an outrageous assault on press freedom that should alarm every American.” 

In 2015, talking with Greenwald on my podcast The Wright Show, I asked him about his polemical style. Why had he chosen to illustrate a recent article with anti-Semitic cartoons that some readers predictably got triggered by? Why doesn’t he include the “to be sure” paragraphs that might short-circuit incendiary misinterpretation? Why does he sometimes attribute unflattering motivations to people? His answers defy easy summary, but it was clear that he’s given these questions a lot of thought, and he’s convinced that his style serves to advance the debates we need to have. Whether you like his approach or not, he has his reasons. 

If you want to watch the video version of our conversation, it’s here, on the Bloggingheads.tv web site; the above questions start a bit after the 20-minute mark. Another relevant resource is on the other video channel I run, Meaningoflife.tv. It’s a short mashup of people answering the question, “If you could go back and give advice to your 21-year-old self, what would it be?” Greenwald came last, and his answer was short: “Almost all of your fears are unreal.”

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How Aaron Sorkin killed Mockingbird

A few months ago I saw the Broadway version of To Kill a Mockingbird, a much-lauded production that, as shaped by playwright Aaron (“The West Wing”) Sorkin, significantly alters the tenor of the 1960 Harper Lee novel.

There’s a lot about the play I liked. The seemingly weird decision to cast an adult as Scout, the novel’s child narrator, worked spectacularly. But ultimately, I think, Sorkin’s rendering of the story drives home this sad fact: If you want to get much lauded for a Broadway production, the safest route is to affirm the prejudices and moral blind spots of your time rather than challenge them.

And here’s the irony: If Sorkin had wanted to challenge the prejudices and moral blind spots of our time, all he would have had to do is leave Harper Lee’s version of the story alone. In an important sense, the novel is actually more subversive now than it was in its original milieu. Sorkin, in trying to make the story edgier, has taken the edge off it. In trying to make it politically progressive, he has made it morally regressive.

To put a finer point on it: Sorkin has written a play for the #Resistance, injecting the story with a subtext about Trumpism and how we should handle it. And that message reflects and reinforces some of the least enlightened and most counterproductive tendencies in the liberal reaction against Trump.

One of the most famous lines in To Kill a Mockingbird comes during a conversation between Scout and her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch. He says to her: "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

In other words, Atticus is a fan of “cognitive empathy”—not necessarily sharing people’s feelings (that’s emotional empathy), but just understanding how they view the world: “perspective taking.” In fact, Atticus is a fan of radical cognitive empathy—trying to understand the perspective of even the characters you find most repugnant, the people whose perspectives you are least naturally inclined to explore.

He tries to understand what motivates a lynch mob that aims to kill his client, Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape. He tries to see things from the perspective of the man who not only did the false accusing, but threatens to harm Atticus’s family. He wants to understand the jurors who convict Robinson on the basis of dubious evidence.

I’m with Atticus on this one. It seems to me that if you want to reduce the incidence of objectionable behavior, the first step is to understand how it came to be—what view of the world motivates it, and what circumstances gave rise to that world view.

Aaron Sorkin, apparently, doesn’t think so. In Harper Lee’s novel, Atticus’s radical cognitive empathy—his effort to understand people whose behavior he deplores—comes off as laudable. But in Sorkin’s play, it doesn’t. Here is an exchange between Atticus and his son Jem that appears in the play but not the novel:

JEM: You’re trying to excuse those jurors.
ATTICUS: Explain. I’m trying to explain why they—so you can understand—I’m trying—
JEM: They don’t deserve an explanation and I already understand.

Other characters, most powerfully (and most understandably) the Finches’ African-American housekeeper, Calpurnia, also subject Atticus’s cognitive empathy to challenge if not ridicule. And there can be no doubt that they’re speaking for Sorkin.

Don’t take my word for it. Just listen to what Sorkin himself said before the play opened.

In a piece designed to pre-empt complaints about his meddling with Mockingbird (which is, after all, a nearly sacred text in America), he explained that he would be turning Atticus, depicted in the book as a paragon of virtue, into a more complex figure. Which, he said, didn’t involve changing Atticus’s character so much as putting it in a new light. “I didn’t have to give Atticus a flaw because, to my mind, he already had one; it’s just that we’d always considered it a virtue. Atticus believes that you can’t really know someone unless you ‘climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it.’”

And why does Sorkin think cognitive empathy is a bad thing? Because if you exercise it broadly, pretty soon you’ll be extending it to bigots of the worst kind. Sorkin continued, “He [Atticus] believes that Bob Ewell [Robinson’s accuser] should be understood as a man who lost his job. He believes Mrs. Dubose [a crotchety racist who is mean to Atticus’s kids] should be understood as a woman who recently stopped taking her medication and lives in physical pain. He believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists. He believes … that there are fine people on both sides?”

That last line, of course, is an allusion to Trump’s comment on the 2017 white nationalist march in Charlottesville. Apparently Sorkin feels about white nationalists the way Jem felt about the jurors: They don’t deserve an explanation.

Think about the implications of that: When people do very bad things, we shouldn’t try to figure out what made them do what they did. If you imagine us taking Sorkin’s advice every time anyone does something bad, then you’re imagining a future in which humankind makes zero progress in understanding why people do bad things. And the reason for this continued ignorance is that people who do bad things “don’t deserve” an explanation.

Sorkin’s rejection of radical cognitive empathy isn’t his only morally significant departure from Harper Lee’s version of the story. He makes the story’s antagonists, the father and daughter who falsely accuse Tom Robinson of rape, almost cartoonishly bad. In courtroom rants, both of them express their racism much more overtly and crudely than in the novel—and more crudely than even flat-out racists generally express their racism in public.

So there is no danger of people in Sorkin’s audience seeing bigotry as a subtle, insidious thing, something people may not admit to themselves—and thus no danger of them asking whether they themselves might sometimes be guilty of it. In Aaron Sorkin’s world, the good guys are always us, and the bad guys are always them.

Sorkin’s embrace of this quasi-Manichaean world view works synergistically with his rejection of radical cognitive empathy. When you consider people purely and unambiguously bad, you’re less likely to try to explore their perspective, and when you don’t explore their perspective, you’re more likely to keep thinking they’re purely and unambiguously bad.

It would be one thing if the people thus excluded from our understanding were just the worst of the worst—lynch mobs, white nationalists, etc. I’d still be against the exclusion, but at least the damage would be limited. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency in the #Resistance to exclude a much larger group from our understanding—people who voted for Trump. Lots of liberals (though, I like to think, fewer than three years ago) talk about Trump supporters as if they’re all bigots or all idiots or all bigoted idiots.

Among the problems with this attitude: (1) it blinds you to the variety of people who support Trump and the variety of motivations for supporting him (three of my siblings voted for Trump, and their motivations vary); (2) this blindness keeps you from thinking clearly about short-term politics—like what tactics might help a Democrat win the White House; (3) this blindness keeps you from thinking clearly about long-term policy—like what policies might reduce support for Trumpism over time.

In Sorkin’s defense, his concern about doing people a favor by understanding the roots of their misdeeds isn’t crazy. Understanding, say, the impoverished upbringing and unwholesome peer group that helped turn someone into a criminal can indeed make us more sympathetic toward them, even more forgiving of them. The French aphorism tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner—to know all is to forgive all—captures a deeply engrained human moral intuition.

And of course, forgiving all has its perils. A world in which you don’t put criminals in jail, or don’t subject bigots to moral sanction, is a dangerous place. So if we’re going to try to understand why people do bad things, we need to be wary of the natural conflation of explanation and exoneration, the intuition that to understand is to forgive. We need to be able to explore why people do bad things without concluding that they’re “fine people.”

Or, alternatively, we can try to hang on to the idea that they are in a sense fine people; we can try to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” mindful that if any of us had been born in their exact circumstances—with their genes, in their environment—we presumably would have turned out as they did. If we take that path, we need to learn to see punishment as a regrettable necessity, something that miscreants may in some sense not deserve, but something we have to administer for the greater good.

But I digress. How best to disentangle explanation from exoneration, so that we can hold people accountable for bad behavior even as we come to understand its roots, is a big and subtle challenge—a subject for another day.

Meanwhile, I’ll say one more thing in Sorkin’s defense: the Harper Lee version of Mockingbird does in some ways feed fears that understanding the roots of bad behavior could be a slippery slope toward excusing it. There are places where Atticus seems to suggest as much. “She’s old and ill,” he says of Mrs. Dubose. “You can’t hold her responsible for what she says and does.”

By my lights, this is a sign that Atticus hasn’t fully thought through the implications of his radical cognitive empathy—hasn’t wholly reckoned with the practical need to hold people accountable for wrongdoing even when we understand why they did wrong. But that’s the way moral progress works—one step at a time. Atticus has at least taken the first step. I don’t think we should follow Sorkin’s guidance and take a step backward, even though we’re living in a political age when doing that is a good way to win applause.

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In Quanta, Jordana Cepelewicz explores the ethical issues raised by “cerebral organoids”—brainlike structures, complete with active neurons, that are grown from human stem cells and used in research. The consensus within the field is that these blobs aren’t conscious, though I don’t understand how you can rule out some degree of sentience. In any event, their “developmental age” is likened to that of a second-trimester fetus, and as researchers build more and more complex versions of them, that age will rise.   

In a New York Times excerpt from Ezra Klein’s new book Why We’re Polarized, Klein looks at the asymmetrical nature of America’s political polarization, exploring the implications of the fact that over the past 50 years the Democratic Party has gotten more diverse while the Republican Party has gotten more homogeneous. 

The latest issue of California Sunday magazine devotes multiple articles to facial recognition technology: how it works, how it’s been used in the past, how police are using it now, how Hong Kong protestors circumvent it, and more... 

In Lion’s Roar, Mirabai Bush recalls visits with her friend Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher and author of the classic Be Here Now, who died in December. This excerpt from her 2018 book Walking Each Other Home focuses on their discussions about how to handle fear, including fear of death

In The New Republic, Jacob Heilbrunn explains how neoconservatives, discredited after the disastrous Iraq War, have regained influence in Washington notwithstanding President Trump’s professed aversion to military intervention. The recent assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani “revealed that the neocon military-intellectual complex is very much still intact, with the ability to spring back to life from a state of suspended animation in an instant.”

In the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, Taylor Plimpton notes the vibrance of political activism about immigration, gun control, and climate change and asks, “Why, when it comes to war, are we so strangely silent?” The answers he comes up with make sense, but I’d add another one: There’s a failure to fully appreciate how much our current state of endless war impedes solutions to other problems we care about, especially global problems such as climate change.

In the Baffler, George Scilabba writes about Wendell Berry, the ecologically minded writer and, in some sense, spiritual leader. Scilabba compares Berry to other “anti-modernists” and winds up appreciative of Berry’s work but in some ways skeptical. Berry is a Christian, whereas Scilabba believes that “our culture’s great need today is for a pious paganism, a virtuous rationalism, skeptical and science-loving but skeptical even of science when necessary, aware that barbarism is as likely as progress and may even arrive advertised as progress, steadily angry at the money-changers and mindful of the least of our brethren.” Scilabba grants that anyone who “shares Berry’s Christian beliefs” should naturally “adopt his ideal of stewardship. But if those religious beliefs are necessary as well as sufficient—if there is no other path to that ideal, as he sometimes seems to imply—then we may be lost. One cannot believe at will.”

Mea Culpa: Last week a link in the Readings section that was supposed to lead you to an interactive Washington Post feature that compares your views to those of Democratic presidential candidates in fact led to a piece about the therapeutic value of ghostly visions. That was a mistake—I didn’t mean it as a sly comment on the age of the two Democratic frontrunners. (Though now that you mention it…) There’s no way to correct mistakes like this in the email version of the newsletter, but we do, when made aware of such errors, correct them on our website. So if you spot a bum link, email us at nonzero.news@gmail.com, wait a decent interval, and then check the site.

And speaking of emailing us: I recently taped a conversation with NZN artist-in-residence Nikita Petrov in which we discuss some emails from readers about mindfulness, Buddhism, etc. Nikita and I also pick up on comments made by readers in a discussion thread we launched in last week’s NZN, about philosophies to live by. The video of the conversation is on our Patreon site. While you’re there, please consider becoming a Patron; we very much appreciate, and very much need, your financial support. 

And that’s a wrap. I’ll close with the usual encouragement to share our content on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.—except with this added motivational note: we are within 100 subscribers of the 15,000 circulation mark, and reaching that mark would—in addition to doing wonders for our self-esteem and giving us something to brag about on social media—take us one step closer to the status we aspire to: global media juggernaut.