Here are some things that have grown out of the social and political ferment catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd:
1) Merriam Webster says its dictionary entry for “racism” will be amended to “make the idea of systemic or institutional racism even more explicit in the wording of the definition.”
2) The TV show COPS has been canceled, and police cars have vanished from the bestselling video game Fortnite.
3) Github, the Microsoft-owned company that runs the world’s biggest site for software developers, plans to get them to quit using the word “master” to refer to the main branch of a computer program’s code.
I’m sure things like this can do some good. Language and culture influence our attitudes more than we realize (if not always in uniform ways; in my own experience, COPS often stirred empathy for the people arrested and underscored the pointlessness of jailing them). And particular words, like “master,” can offend some people in ways others are oblivious to.
Last week the New York Times ran a piece depicting Bernie Sanders as woefully out of step with the current political moment by virtue of his tendency to see the world through the prism of economic class, not ethnic identity. Calls from the Black Lives Matter movement “to address systemic racism and police brutality,” said the Times, are resonating in a way that “Mr. Sanders’s message of economic equality did not.”
It’s true that we’re hearing very little about that favorite Sanders theme of raising taxes on high-income people and using the money to help low-income people. By and large, the George Floyd story is being seen as a story about racial injustice and not about economic injustice.
I think that’s a mistake, in two senses.
First, it’s a tactical mistake for the left. This is a moment full of activist energy, and it’s opened up new political space; there’s a chance to push for radically increased government spending on, for example, education, housing, and health care for low-income people. Such spending disproportionately helps black people, and to pass it up because it’s technically about class, not race, would be wasteful to say the least.
In early June, small groups of demonstrators gathered in Israel and the West Bank to protest the killing of two men. One was George Floyd and the other was Eyad al-Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian who on May 30, while making his daily trek to a school for people with special needs, was killed by Israeli police. Protesters held signs that said #BlackLivesMatter and signs that said #PalestinianLivesMatter.
Are these two cases really comparable? Does the moral logic behind America’s Black Lives Matter protests naturally extend to a country 5,000 miles away?
Yes is just the beginning of my answer. Comparing the cases of George Floyd and Eyad al-Hallaq can be the first step toward a broad re-examination of American foreign policy. The George Floyd moment is an excellent time to ask why, in various countries, the United States routinely contributes to the killing, brutalization, and oppression of so many people—and why pretty much all those people are people of color.
It’s easy to point to differences between the cases of Floyd and al-Hallaq. Al-Hallaq, like all Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, had faced discrimination of a more formal kind than Floyd faced. He didn’t, for example, get to vote in Israeli elections, even though the Israeli government controls the Palestinian territory on which he lived.
Back when this newsletter was called Mindful Resistance, we created a discussion group in the Insight Timer meditation app under the same name. (The group is still there, and sporadically active, though you have to do some searching to find it.) One of the members undertook the radical initiative of organizing a group of mindful resisters that met in actual physical space—but not to discuss things, just to meditate. Well, it turns out that, lo these many years later, the group is still at it. So if you find yourself in Providence, Rhode Island, you can join a sitting on Monday or Friday at 8:30 a.m. alongside the Blackstone Boulevard running path, near Brookway Road. The group no longer posts the Mindful Resistance sign, but you shouldn’t have much trouble distinguishing them from other people in the area. They’ll be the ones sitting down with their eyes closed.
In recent years more and more philosophers seem to have embraced panpsychism—the view that consciousness pervades the universe and so is present, in however simple a form, in every little speck of matter. It’s a view that’s hard to wrap your mind around, so I’m glad I got to have a conversation with Galen Strawson, a noted philosopher who is one of its most articulate proponents (and who, as a bonus, is charmingly offbeat). I interviewed Galen on the Wright Show (available on both meaningoflife.tv and as an audio podcast) more than a year ago. Below is an extended excerpt.
From physicalism to consciousness as illusion—or the only real thing
WRIGHT: There’s a view that I think people are hearing more and more about called "panpsychism," and the idea there is that consciousness … pervades reality. There's some kind of consciousness over there where my curtains are—only a little tiny bit, maybe, but there's some.
And it's a view that you subscribe to, I think—but then you throw in a twist and add the word “physicalist”… So you have, I think, a pretty distinctive view. And I want to approach it by, first of all, getting clear on what you mean by "physicalism."
Now, am I right in thinking that that has come to be the term that philosophers use for what might have also been called at one time "materialism"? People hear "materialism" and they think of the idea that all there is is physical stuff, right? But now philosophers use the word "physicalism" for that. Is that right?
STRAWSON: Yes. I think it is right. I certainly use it in that way. Some philosophers mean more by physicalism than that. They tend also to mean something like "physics will tell us everything there is to tell about reality." And that's a mistake, in my view.
Yeah, I was just thinking about that today: … that science gives us everything we need to manipulate reality, but not all we need to understand reality.
Yes, I do. And, you know, I think of myself as a very passionate and committed naturalist. So it's not as if I have any odd agenda. I'm also an atheist, so I don't believe in any kind of god, and I don't have any sort of new age type of aspirations.
I think that I'm forced into the position I hold precisely because I wanted to have an entirely naturalistic attitude to reality.
Right. Now, a thing about physicalism is that, when you really start thinking about it, it's harder to define than you might think. … When you first hear it, you think "Well, okay—so it's all physical stuff, you could reach out and touch it, it's there, there's nothing spooky, there are no supernatural forces." But then you realize that … the deeper physics penetrates reality, the more you wonder in what sense there is physical stuff there, you know what I mean? Does that make sense?
Yes, it does, if you mean that the old picture of little tiny grainy bits of stuff—I mean, that was wiped out a hundred years ago. There aren't any such things, it seems.
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In the Times Literary Supplement, classical historian Mary Beard notes that the Romans often decapitated or replaced statues of leaders who had fallen out of favor and then offers some thoughts on dealing with controversial monuments in our time.
A bit more than a year ago, Matt Yglesias presciently wrote in Vox about what he called “the Great Awokening.” Since 2014, he observed, “white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter.”
As the world waits for Bibi Netanyahu to say whether Israel is going to annex parts of the West Bank (and if so which parts), critics are calling any such move the death knell for hopes of a “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But in Foreign Affairs, Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, argues that it’s already too late for a two-state solution, and the question is what kind of one-state solution there will be.
Good news for me! Having an abysmally short attention span has its upside. In Scientific American, Holly White explains that people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder often excel along three dimensions of creative thinking. (This piece was published last year, but I was too distracted to notice it then.)
A New York Times poll finds that Biden supporters are less likely than Trump supporters to feel proud and hopeful about America and more likely to feel anxious and angry about the state of the country—and way more likely to feel exhausted.
The Guardian lists eight of “the most stunning claims” in John Bolton’s new book The Room Where It Happened. You may not be stunned by all of them (“Trump offered favors to authoritarian leaders”) but the list is worth perusing. In the American Conservative, Barbara Slavin says the book’s account of Bolton’s approach to his job as Trump’s national security adviser is “an instruction manual for how not to do foreign policy.”
Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat comes up with what, as he notes, could pass for a radical left take on the current social unrest: The Black Lives Matter protests are, in effect, being co-opted by the establishment. Because elites would be threatened by a Bernie Sandersesque class-based revolt—involving things like seriously taxing the rich and redistributing resources to the poor (as I advocate in “George Floyd, racial justice, and economic justice,” above)—the consequences of the protests are being confined largely to things like the destruction of offensive icons, the renaming of buildings, and renewed pledges for workplace diversity, especially at the elite level.
As of November 9, 2016, here was the bad news: America had elected as its president an egregiously incompetent, childishly impulsive, crassly narcissistic man with authoritarian instincts. Here was the good news: it was possible to imagine these causes for concern interacting in such a way that some would neutralize others.
In particular: Maybe Trump’s incompetence, impulsiveness, and narcissism would keep him from realizing his authoritarian potential. After all, it takes skill and focus to erode civil liberties and aggrandize power while maintaining a critical mass of public support. Mussolini didn’t get to be Mussolini by throwing a public tantrum every day, filling his administration with dimwits, and engaging in zero long-term planning!
As of five months ago—three years after inauguration day—this hopeful scenario remained more or less intact. Trump had been thuggish and cruel, and he’d weakened norms that guard liberties, but it was still hard to imagine him systematically subverting liberal democracy and ushering in an authoritarian state.
But then the ground started to shift, and over the past ten days it’s shifted a lot. Trump’s incompetence and self-absorption, rather than short-circuit his authoritarian bent, are now energizing it.
What started the shift was the arrival in January of something the country had been spared throughout the Trump era: a new challenge of epic scale that urgently demanded presidential competence. Trump’s failure to contain the coronavirus with early and decisive intervention meant that his belated intervention would have to be dramatic but still couldn’t be conclusive. A nationwide lockdown would now “flatten the curve” but at this late date couldn’t crush it and meanwhile would create massive unemployment. America was condemned to a state of widespread economic deprivation and social dislocation with no end to the epidemic in sight.
This atmosphere of disease and discontent fed the civil unrest of the past ten days in various ways. For starters, if it weren’t for the pandemic, George Floyd might still be alive. Before he allegedly handed a counterfeit $20 bill to the store clerk who fatefully called the police, Floyd had lost his job as a bouncer because of the lockdown.
Not long ago I had a conversation on The Wright Show with the renowned Christian scholar David Bentley Hart, who subscribes to the doctrine of universal salvation—which, I’m happy to report, holds that no one suffers eternal damnation. Hart cites a long lineage of support for this idea in Christian thought, and he contends that a close reading of Christian scripture supports it as well. Plus (to oversimplify his argument slightly) there’s the question of what kind of God would want you to suffer forever. Hart is an engaging, witty, and very learned conversationalist, and I learned a lot from him.
You're a very well-known [and] prolific theologian. And you've written a book called That All Shalt Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, in which you bring good news to us all. Which is that none of us—not me, not even Sam Harris—is going to hell. That is your view, right?
Well, I definitely don't believe in an eternal hell, no.
I prefer to think of myself more as a scholar of religious studies, by the way, than a theologian—and there are a lot of people who would prefer I call myself that, as well.
But yeah, the book is about Christian universalism—about not only its history, but its logic. Principally, it's a philosophical argument that's negative in form. I'm afraid I don't know that it brings good news, but the claim it does make is that the only way [classical Christian claims] can be coherent is in the form of one of the classical universalist construals. It's a somewhat more minimal claim.
But you're a Christian, so presumably you do believe they're coherent?
Well, I believe in certain configurations they're coherent, yes.
Or Gregory of Nyssa's, Issac of Nineveh's—there's a long tradition there. That doesn't mean that I'm an apologist for the Christian religion in whatever form it takes. I think there are Christian truths, and there's quite a lot of nonsense that goes under the name of Christianity. So it's not an apologetic project for me.
Although you did write a book called Atheist Delusions, which presumably took issue with the New Atheists?
Not really my title, incidentally. They're mentioned at the beginning and at the end. Actually, the book that deals more specifically with the New Atheism was called The Experience of God. I have very little patience for the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism as they were then.
It's, I think, a fad that has more or less passed anyway. There are more interesting arguments to be had between religious believers and unbelievers and everything in between. I think that was a period of extraordinary crudity in public discourse on these matters. Kind of glad it's passed.
I'm happy to put that behind us.
On justsecurity.org, Rebecca Hamilton, a foreign-correspondent-turned-law-professor, writes about the current state of America as it might be rendered by a journalist from another country. Her goal is to challenge, as she puts it in a preface, “the assumed inevitability of an enduring democracy.”
The Washington Post reports that the easing of lockdown in Italy and other European countries has brought less covid contagion than feared. Possible explanations include the effects of summer heat on the virus and “enduring behavioral changes, from hand-washing to mask-wearing.”
In Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch reports that, though Joe Biden seems to be moving the Democratic party to the left on domestic policy, there are no signs of such movement in the realm of foreign policy. To many progressives, Lynch writes, “Biden appears to be a man of the past: an unapologetic champion of American exceptionalism. He backed the resolution authorizing the Iraq War, remains committed to waging an open-ended global war on terrorism with drones and special forces, refuses to condition military aid to Israel to secure its commitment to a Palestinian state, and demonstrates little interest in curbing a U.S. defense budget that has swelled by more than $100 billion under Donald Trump’s presidency.” Plus he’s been “portraying himself as tougher on China than Trump.”
Tricycle has posted a statement about Buddhism and racial justice, along with a reading list of related pieces from the magazine’s archive. One of the pieces is by Rhonda Magee, author of The Inner Work of Racial Justice, whom I interviewed on The Wright Show last year.
In the Washington Post, social scientists Lara Putnam, Erica Chenoweth, and Jeremy Pressman analyze the George Floyd protests, quantifying their unprecedented combination of scale and duration and noting other distinctive characteristics.
If you’ve been waiting for a long and somewhat technical argument that the coronavirus may indeed have originally escaped from a Chinese virology lab, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has got you covered. Which gives me the chance to say two things: (1) This question strikes me as less momentous than many people suggest. Claims that the virus was genetically engineered as a bioweapon have now been pretty definitively dismissed, so the remaining question is whether well-intentioned research meant to prevent future epidemics wound up backfiring. If it did that’s of course worth knowing, but at some level the takehome lesson is the same as in the scenario where the virus entered humans via a “wet market.” Either way there was a critical regulatory failure by the Chinese government that needs to be addressed. (2) If there was indeed a regulatory failure at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, then the Trump administration may well be partly to blame, as I explained in a piece in this newsletter earlier this year.
In The New Atlantis, David Kordahl reviews—with a fair amount of clarity, as these things go— two books about quantum physics, one by physicist and popularizer Sean Carroll and the other by theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. One book buys the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics, and the other book says such plausibility-stretching interpretations are among the reasons to think quantum physics itself is flawed.
The source of globalization’s strength and of its weakness is its non-zero-sum nature.
Fans of globalization tend to emphasize one side of this non-zero-sumness: the “win-win” side. When I buy a smartphone, I’m helping to pay the wages of workers in various Asian countries, and those workers, in exchange, are building me an affordable smartphone. Win-win!
This win-win dynamic is real. (Which doesn’t mean that no Asian workers are in any sense exploited but does mean that global supply chains have tended to raise wages in low-wage countries and save money for American consumers.) And this dynamic is a basic source of globalization’s stubborn power—one of the main reasons globalization is hard to stop. But to appreciate why globalization isn’t impossible to stop—and why it’s in some ways fragile—you have to appreciate two other game-theoretical things:
1) The flip side of win-win is lose-lose. The typical non-zero-sum game isn’t a game that always comes out win-win. It’s a game that can come out win-win but may come out lose-lose. And globalization, as it proceeds, makes these lose-lose outcomes possible on a larger and larger scale.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a good example—as was the 2008 American financial crisis and the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In different senses, these three international contagions spread through an infrastructure that had been built so that people in distant regions could play win-win games.
To put it another way, the “interdependence” that globalization famously fosters boils down to a correlation of fortunes: good news for someone halfway around the world can be good news for me, but bad news for someone halfway around the world can be bad news for me. Win-win or lose-lose—but, either way, non-zero-sum.
It’s when the infrastructure of globalization starts carrying waves of bad news that globalization is most vulnerable to political backlash. And Covid-19 has brought two waves of very bad news—first the viral contagion itself and, second, a contagion of economic contraction.
What heightens the political vulnerability of globalization, especially at times like this, is the second game-theoretical thing:
2. Non-zero-sum games are often intertwined with zero-sum games. Because of globalization, some American workers—especially in the manufacturing sector—have been playing a zero-sum game with low-wage Asian workers. And a lot of those games have been won by Asian workers and lost by American workers. Of course, when these American workers put on their consumer hat and go buy a smartphone, they become winners. But if you lose your union job at GM and wind up doing nighttime custodial work in a Detroit office building, you don’t put your consumer hat on as often as you used to.
That Donald Trump got elected president is among the signs that America has failed these workers. There are various ways it could have served them better: provided support and retraining after they lost their jobs; struck bilateral trade deals that reduced the exposure of these workers to foreign competition; or (my personal favorite) tried to achieve that reduced exposure via multilateral trade rules that, among other things, elevate labor and environmental standards in low-wage countries.
The previous issue of NZN featured Part I of my conversation with Princeton philosopher Gideon Rosen, in which we pondered this question: What does it mean to call yourself a “materialist” or “physicalist,” given that modern physics makes it hard to think of the world as consisting ultimately of solid particles or solid anything else. The difficulty of defining these labels leads to another question: Might they be a way of signaling not what you believe about reality but what you don’t believe—namely that you don’t believe the universe has a purpose (a “telos”) or comes with built-in moral truths? That’s where we pick up the conversation, which eventually leads to such topics as whether we live in a simulation, how we would know if we did, and whether the directionality of evolution (its tendency to lead to more complex and intelligent structures) could be evidence of a larger purpose unfolding on Earth.
ROBERT WRIGHT: I wanted to touch on teleology. I think you said [once] that [“physicalist”] is almost like an identifier, a way of saying "I'm not a moral realist,” and “I'm not teleological," meaning, “I don't believe there's purpose in the world, certainly [not] a larger purpose.” Am I misremembering, or would you have said something like that?
GIDEON ROSEN: Yeah, I do think that's part of it.
I mean, a whole bunch of things emerged together at the beginning of the 17th century with the scientific revolution. One was the rise of mechanistic physics as a fundamental theory of reality. Another—and these were not exactly the same thing—was the rejection of teleology in nature, the idea that the apt description of nature is in terms of the purposes of things, the functions of things, or the goods that are to be realized by physical processes. Those two things—the rejection of teleology and the rise of mechanistic physics—happened at the same time, with many of the same people involved…
By the time the scientific revolution was mature, to be a hardheaded, scientifically-minded philosopher or theorist was to hold that fundamental physics involves mathematical properties of extended things spread out in space and time, and not moral properties. Not functions, not purposes, nothing like that. And not, by the way, anything outside of nature that might have endowed physical things with that kind of purpose, like God.
So if you're a materialist or a physicalist now, you reject fundamental teleology and you also reject the supernatural...
It seems to me that one problem with that worldview is … the fact that we speak of a clock as having a purpose.
It is a purely physical system. So certainly you can imagine ... a physical system that has a purpose, but we don't have to think of the purpose as residing in the system... We can think of the purpose as almost having to do with the nature of its historical development...
Now, I understand that you could ... say, okay, the universe could have a purpose in that sense, but we just don't think that there was some kind of deistic God that imparted [it]. As a matter of belief, I can see that.
Although I would say that I think one current in thought that might lend... legitimacy to the view of this kind of purpose in the universe is all this stuff about living in a simulation, right? There are serious philosophers (plus Elon Musk, for what that's worth) who say: “Hey, we may be living in a simulation.”
And that seems logically possible to me… And if that's the case, then it's an example of something where a system that looks to us like a physical system—functioning regularly, in accordance with laws—clearly does have a purpose that was imparted. Right?
How will the coronavirus pandemic look in the rear view mirror? When, 30 years from now, high school students study for a test on early-21st-century history, what three or four Covid-19 bullet points will they memorize?
A leading candidate, to judge by the number of articles about it, is “ended a period of sustained globalization and ushered in an era of deglobalization.”
One interesting thing about this bullet point is that it represents a choice. Not all Covid bullet points do. This one, for example, seems pretty much guaranteed to be true: “accelerated the adoption of telemedicine, telecommuting, e-commerce, and other practices that save money by replacing in-person interaction with remote interaction.”
And, for that matter, certain aspects of a “deglobalization” bullet point are pretty much inevitable. There’s little doubt, for example, that the US and some other countries will make themselves less exclusively dependent on foreign suppliers—especially Chinese suppliers—for some pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.
Two people have recently made arguments for starting a new cold war with China—one of them a right-wing Trump supporter (Republican Senator Josh Hawley) and one of them a left-wing Trump opponent (journalist Matt Stoller). I’m not in the habit of complimenting Trump supporters, but I have to say that, of the two arguments, Hawley’s was more coherent. It was internally consistent in the sense that its logic meshed with Hawley’s Trumpist values.
Which was OK with me. I’m against a cold war with China, and I’m against Trumpism. Seeing the two fit naturally together somehow reaffirmed my faith in both positions.
I was also happy to see that Stoller’s argument wasn’t so coherent. Though I’m not a true leftist, I’m left of center, and I share many of the values that inspire people further to the left, including Stoller. I would have felt some cognitive dissonance if he had managed to reconcile a position on China that I disdain with political aspirations I respect.
Hawley’s argument came in a New York Times op-ed titled “Abolish the World Trade Organization,” and Stoller’s came in a conversation on the Glenn Greenwald podcast System Update. The two arguments have a lot in common.
For starters, both seem a bit overwrought. Hawley says that “Chinese imperialism” is “the single greatest threat to American security in the 21st century.” Stoller says China’s goal is “to subvert the current international global order.” (Exploit? Yes. But subvert? Why would you subvert something you’re successfully exploiting?)
And both Hawley and Stoller want not just to “decouple” (as Stoller puts it) our economy from China’s but to bind our economy more tightly with the economies of kindred nations. Hawley says we should build a new trading network “in concert with other free nations,” and Stoller wants us to “move production to democracies” and “create some level of self-sufficiency among democracies.” Both men want to see global commerce divided along ideological lines, just like in the good old days that neither is old enough to remember.
One difference between the two is in exactly how cold they want their wars to be. Hawley seems happy with something close to a complete rupture of relations with China, but Stoller wants to stop short of that.
In the Guardian, Rutger Bregman writes about a real-life version of Lord of the Flies, the William Golding novel about a group of boys who, left to their own devices after being stranded on an island, illustrate a dark view of human nature. But in the real-life story—involving six boys who got stranded on an island in 1966 and spent a year there—human nature comes off looking better. The piece is an excerpt from Bregman’s book Humankind.
Edward Luce of the Financial Times does a deep dive into Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.
In National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty argues that American attitudes on Covid-19 are less polarized than the lockdown-versus-open-up narrative on social media would have you believe. But he’d like them to become still less polarized: “At the risk of sounding like a total drip, let me just say: People, try to be generous to one another.”
In Lion's Roar, four Buddhist chaplains share stories about providing spiritual counsel to the sick and dying during the pandemic.
Two weeks ago a group of mercenaries staged an invasion of Venezuela so feeble and ill-conceived as to make the Bay of Pigs look like the Normandy invasion. In Vox, Alex Ward tells the remarkable story of the fiasco’s mastermind—an entrepreneurial former US soldier named Jordan Goudreau, whose eccentric security firm once did work for President Trump. Secretary of State Pompeo has denied “direct” US involvement in the escapade.
In the Atlantic, economist Emily Oster argues that "just stay home" coronavirus messaging risks making the perfect the enemy of the good and could lead people to do riskier things than they otherwise would.
The New York Times reveals what doomed a Republican senator’s attempt to stop the flow of US arms that, as deployed by Saudi Arabia, have killed many Yemeni civilians: a memo that Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro sent to Jared Kushner under the title: “Trump Mideast arms sales deal in extreme jeopardy, job losses imminent.”
This week I read a piece in the Atlantic that gave me a new mission in life. I now want to stamp out—completely extinguish, with no mercy whatsoever—a rhetorical tactic that has long belonged in the dustbin of history but continues to plague humankind: the aiding-and-abetting meme. That is: depicting people whose views you don’t like as being in league with, or abjectly serving the interests of, adversarial foreign powers.
The Atlantic piece is by George Packer, and the folks at the Atlantic think so highly of it that it’s in the actual physical magazine. Here’s a passage from it:
Donald Trump saw the crisis almost entirely in personal and political terms. Fearing for his reelection, he declared the coronavirus pandemic a war, and himself a wartime president.
OK, so far so good. But then Packer continues:
But the leader he brings to mind is Marshal Philippe Pétain, the French general who, in 1940, signed an armistice with Germany after its rout of French defenses, then formed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Like Pétain, Trump collaborated with the invader and abandoned his country to a prolonged disaster.
I realize that, to many readers, it won’t be obvious why this passage sent me over the edge, catapulting me all the way into Howard Beale territory. So let me try to explain the several things about it that, together, gave it such force.
The theory that Covid-19 came not from a Chinese “wet market” but from a Chinese laboratory now has the full support of President Trump. This hasn’t been confirmed by Trump himself, but it’s been confirmed by the next-most-official source: a Fox News chyron. During a recent episode of Tucker Carlson’s show, the chyron read, “Sources to Tucker: Intel agencies are almost certain that the virus escaped Wuhan lab.”
In sheerly factual terms, Trump could turn out to be on solid ground. The fringe version of this theory—that the virus came from a bioweapons lab, and may have been genetically engineered—continues to be widely dismissed, but credible people think the virus could have escaped from a less nefarious Wuhan lab, one that studies coronaviruses with an eye to preventing epidemics.
I can see why Trump thinks that publicizing even this watered down version of the lab origin story is a political winner. Though it lacks the cinematic flair of the bioweapon theory, it seems (at first glance, anyway) to corroborate the idea that the Chinese government was engaged in a cover up during the contagion’s crucial early stages. So it reinforces Trump’s blame-the-perfidious-Chinese-communists-not-the-incompetent-American-president narrative—without Trump having to be the one who blames the perfidious Chinese.
But if I were Trump I’d hope that the lab origin story doesn’t pan out. On close examination it turns out to reinforce the blame-the-incompetent-American-president message. In 2018, we now know, the Trump administration had an opportunity to help tighten security at the Wuhan lab that is at the center of the story and failed to do so.
Is physical stuff all there is? If you ask a philosopher that question, it can lead to a discussion that covers things ranging from consciousness to 20th-century physics to whether mathematical concepts are real. That’s what happened when I discussed the subject with Gideon Rosen, professor of philosophy at Princeton and co-author of The Norton Introduction to Philosophy. Gideon is also a friend of mine—which made the conversation even more fun for me than it would have been otherwise.
ROBERT WRIGHT: I've been trying to get you to be on this show for years. You've resisted, but the reason I've wanted you to is that whenever I have a question about philosophy, you provide a very efficient overview of the whole context of my question. You don't always provide a definitive answer, but that's in the nature of philosophy.
GIDEON ROSEN: It is. It's a shame that it's in the nature of philosophy.
It would be nice if we could wheel out definitive answers to these questions and it's a bit of a mystery why we can't, since everybody else manages to provide the occasional definitive answer. We don't. It's a drag, but we do our best.
Do you think it's a mystery? Or do you think it's kind of clear, given the nature of the questions you address, why it would be the case that you don't come up with the same kinds of answers that mathematicians and scientists do?
Yeah, there are some obvious differences that explain why we don't do it the way they do—but, if the questions make sense, if the questions are clear, then they have answers. We don't have a clear sense of why it is that we can't nail them down.
It's not as if we're floundering around. Philosophy produces plenty of opinion, plenty of conviction—even plenty of justified conviction, in the sense that people have arguments for their views and arguments that some people find persuasive. But we don't get as much consensus on the hard questions, even given the arguments we've got, and that's a little mystifying...
I don’t know, I want to give you more credit. I think you're just tackling the hard questions…
In the Atlantic, Peter Beinart argues that the Biden campaign’s apparent decision to try to out-hawk Trump on China suffers from three shortcomings: “First, it promotes bad foreign policy. Second, it could stoke anti-Chinese racism. Third, it doesn’t even make long-term sense politically.” But aside from that…
The Verge reports that Spot, the doglike robot made by Boston Dynamics, is being used in hospitals to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus between patients and staff. Ars Technica, in a piece called “The pandemic is bringing us closer to our robotic future,” notes that wheeled sidewalk delivery robots are also in demand.
In Foreign Affairs, political scientist Barry Posen argues that, though the pandemic has in some ways heightened international tensions, “the odds of a war between major powers will go down, not up.”
In a University of Chicago working paper, four academics present evidence that cable news viewing habits have influenced patterns of Covid-19 infection. During February, when Tucker Carlson was warning about the Covid threat and Sean Hannity was dismissing it, the more a county’s Fox News viewers watched Hannity, and the less they watched Carlson, the more the county was afflicted by the epidemic. This pattern abated after late February, when Hannity started taking the virus more seriously.
In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall assesses the political logic behind Trump’s attempt to play both sides of the lockdown debate—supporting people in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia who rebel against restrictions that are remarkably like the restrictions he professes to support.
In Vox, Roge Karma interviews Yale historian Frank Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society, about why the modern world is so vulnerable to pandemics and how the current pandemic will affect the perennial struggle between xenophobia and tribalism on the one hand and cosmopolitanism and cooperation on the other.
In the Guardian, Julian Borger does a play-by-play recounting of the World Health Organization’s response to the coronavirus contagion (and in the process rebuts widespread reports that Taiwan offered early evidence of human-to-human transmission that was ignored by WHO).
In the New York Times, Taylor Lorenz looks at Josh Zimmerman, who is a “life coach for influencers.” Weeks into the pandemic, a client who has big followings on YouTube and Instagram asked him for guidance and “within 24 hours… she had a plan for a timely series about grief, gratitude and self-reflection called ‘14 Days of Mindfulness.’ ” Lorenz opines that “Mr. Zimmerman’s role feels especially vital now, in the midst of a health crisis that has sent half the world home for an indefinite period and glued many of them to their phones.”
The Guardian reports that books by Marcus Aurelius and other Stoic writers are selling well amid the pandemic. Marcus, who lived through a plague, advised that, rather than mourn your bad luck amid misfortune, “you should rather say: ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.’ ” I’ve always assumed it would be easier to adopt that attitude if I were emperor of the Roman Empire, but maybe I’m underestimating the demands of Marcus’s job.
When Steve Bannon got his White House pink slip in 2017, there seemed to be at least two lessons for anyone who aspires to stay in Trump’s inner circle for long. First, avoid being depicted on Time Magazine’s cover as the “great manipulator”—the true power behind Trump’s throne. Second, avoid being quoted in a bestselling book as calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.”
But, however grave Bannon’s crimes, to write him off back then—to assume he would never again be a significant force within Trumpism—would have been to underestimate his resourcefulness and determination. A pandemic is a time of opportunity as well as tragedy, and Bannon is seizing the moment. And the way he’s seizing it drives home what a pivotal moment it is—how much will hinge on the way voters and politicians respond to the coronavirus contagion.
Bannon, like many nationalists, is highly sensitive to threats from abroad, and he was sounding alarms about Covid-19 before most Americans got the picture. In late January his “War Room: Impeachment” podcast morphed into “War Room: Pandemic.” In March it started getting airtime on WABC, New York’s right-wing talk-radio powerhouse, and it’s also featured on various other talk stations across the country. A video version of the show airs nightly on the Newsmax cable TV network.
Broadcasting from “Fort Defiance” in Washington, Bannon and his crew lay out a vision of how Trump should wage the war against Covid-19 (fiercely), how Trump should talk about the war (clearly and dramatically), and how amenable the post-pandemic landscape can be to the triumph of Trumpism. That triumph, Bannon seems to believe, will be easier if Trump and other prominent Trumpists follow his rhetorical lead. And Bannon’s stream of Trump-friendly guests, from Rudy Giuliani to Nigel Farage, probably increase the chances of that happening.
Meanwhile, Bannon is getting attention beyond his base. He’s the star of the Errol Morris documentary “American Dharma,” released five months ago, and this month he created a stir on Twitter by getting respectful treatment as a guest on the well-known leftish podcast “Red Scare.”
This week President Trump expanded his arsenal for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. He went from a blame-China-not-me strategy to a blame-China-and-the-World-Health-Organization-not-me strategy.
Officials at WHO, Trump said at a press conference, are “very biased toward China”—just look at how, in the early weeks of the outbreak, they “said there’s no big deal, there’s no big problem, there’s nothing.” So Trump will be “looking into” whether to freeze US funding for WHO.
Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida is on board. A week before Trump’s press conference, he called for hearings into WHO’s performance. The World Health Organization, Scott says, “lied to us. It was intentional. People are dying because of it.” So, “as soon as Congress is back in session, there should be a hearing, along with a full investigation, to review whether American taxpayers should continue to spend millions of dollars every year to fund an organization that willfully parroted propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party.”
This is a familiar right-wing move: subject international institutions to scrutiny that, if all goes according to plan, can be used to justify cutting their funding. Then, as the script typically unfolds, global governance fans like me spring to the defense of these institutions.
In this case, though, I’m partly in sync with the right-wing move. I don’t agree with Scott that we should do the investigation ASAP (since at the moment both we and the World Health Organization are kind of, um, busy). And I’m not in favor of cutting WHO funding. I’m also not nearly as sure as Scott that WHO is guilty as charged. But the organization could have performed better in the early stages of the contagion, and there’s at least some reason to suspect that people at WHO consequentially misled us.
Before I get into the consequential misleading, let me lay out a larger reason that I think fellow global governance fans should consider getting on the investigate-WHO bandwagon.
Institutions of international governance, like institutions of national governance, are prone to a particular form of corruption: they’re inclined to serve powerful interests at the expense of their mission.
Apple and Google announced that they’re jointly developing smartphone software that will facilitate “contact tracing”—finding and notifying people who have been near someone who tests positive for Covid-19. Blogger Nicky Case offers a cartoon explanation of how smartphone contact tracing can work without sacrificing privacy—which is the way Google and Apple say their system will work. Russell Brandom of The Verge answers “the 12 biggest questions” about the approach Apple and Google are taking. Efficient contact tracing is considered critical if the US is to emerge from economic lockdown without rapid recurrence of contagion.
The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner reports that, in New York City, the five ZIP codes with the highest rates of positive Covid tests have per capita income of $27,000, while the five zip codes with the lowest rates have per capita income of $118,000. The New York Times displays data from many cities, gathered by tracking the smartphones of high-income and low-income people, to support the thesis that “staying home during coronavirus is a luxury.” In the Washington Post, Eugene Scott explains “four reasons the coronavirus is hitting black communities so hard.”
The good news from Yemen: Saudi Arabia, which in 2015 led a military intervention that has greatly worsened the conflict there, declared a coronavirus ceasefire. The bad news: the next day Yemen, a country whose health care infrastructure has been devastated by the war, reported its first coronavirus case.
Google used (anonymized) location data from smartphones to see how much activity of various kinds—going to parks, shopping at grocery and drug stores, etc.—has changed during the Covid-19 epidemic. Its Community Mobility Reports website offers downloadable summaries of the activity for lots of nations, as well as individual American states and counties in those states. In my county—and I suspect in many others—the only category in which activity has grown is “residential.”
The International Crisis Group looks at ways the pandemic could “give rise to new crises or exacerbate existing ones” (especially in areas featuring conflict, simmering tensions, or weak governance). One problem is a possible lack of global leadership; the US, which led the international response to the 2014 Ebola contagion, has “simultaneously mishandled its domestic response to Covid-19, failed to bring other nations together and stirred up international resentment.”
The New York Times takes a look at how Americans are spending their money amid the shutdown. TLDR: Charitable giving down, alcohol consumption up, and boom times for home improvement.