Readings: Issue #4

Oct 12 2019
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.)

Readings: Issue #3

Sep 28 2019
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. 

Readings: Issue #2

Sep 21 2019
In a post ominously titled “A Middle East One Step Closer to Its ‘1914 Moment’,” the International Crisis Group does a good job of sizing up the implications of the attack on Saudi oil facilities. 

The New York Times Magazine interviews Ram Dass, author of the 1971 pop-eastern-philosophy classic Be Here Now, about the ego, the soul, and death—including his own eventual death, which he says is not a very big deal since “the soul is infinite.” 

In Prospect Magazine, Ray Monk, a philosopher and Wittgenstein’s biographer, argues that the landscape of modern philosophy might be quite different had it not been for the premature death of the philosopher R.G. Collingwood in 1943—a death that left Gilbert Ryle, a fervent champion of analytic philosophy, with unrivaled power in the British philosophy establishment. (Monk doesn’t get into this, but Ryle became Daniel Dennett’s mentor. And, though Dennett’s writings on the mind-body problem don’t echo his mentor’s writings to the point of saying that consciousness doesn’t exist, I’ve always had trouble seeing the difference between what Dennett does say about consciousness and saying that it doesn’t exist. Some other observers have had the same reaction. Maybe that helps account for the old joke about Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained—that it should have been called Consciousness Explained Away. In any event, Ryle’s book The Concept of Mind was basically an overt attempt to explain consciousness away; he coined the term “ghost in the machine” as a dismissive label.)

If you’ve been waiting for an entertaining writer to spend a whole article playfully ridiculing Silicon Valley startups that are in the psychological therapy business, your ship has come in. Nellie Bowles does the honors in the New York Times. 

What I did this summer: During the newsletter’s six-week summer break, as its name was slowly morphing from Mindful Resistance to Nonzero, I had conversations with some interesting people, including: Political scientist Francis Fukuyama on his book Identity; Israeli scholar and politician Yael Tamir on her book Why Nationalism; Ronald Purser on his book McMindfulness; and, last but certainly not least cosmic, political scientist Alexander Wendt on his book Quantum Mind and Social Science. All appeared on either bloggingheads.tv or meaningoflife.tv, and all can be heard on The Wright Show podcast feed, available at a podcast app near you.
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