Introducing the Apocalypse Aversion Project
Just to make sure I don’t bury my lede: Starting next week—on Monday, in fact—there will be a version of this newsletter that goes out only to paid subscribers.
As I type these words there are zero paid subscribers. I’m hoping that will change—and if you want to help change it right now, before you hear more about the new newsletter, I applaud that leap of faith:
But if you’d like to get more facts before taking the plunge, here are some of those:
This site features only a fraction of the writing I publish in my newsletter.
Please, consider subscribing.
In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall asks various political scientists whether Joe Biden will be able to govern effectively amid social strife and tribalism. “There were optimists and pessimists,” he writes. “If recent history provides a guide, the pessimists may well carry the day.”
Here's something I don’t say every day: Sam Harris made a valid point. Like me, he sometimes hears from people who say his advocacy of mindfulness is at odds with his intense interest in politics. And he replies roughly as I do, except that, being Sam Harris, he does so with more flair. In a recent episode of his Making Sense podcast, he said, “If you think that meditative insight should cause one not to care about the implosion of our democracy or about our ongoing failure to deal with civilizational challenges, if you think we get to not care about the world we’re building… it’s time to take your head out of your ass.” Leaving aside the vexing question of whether one can mindfully tell people to take their heads out of their assess (he goes on to assert that one can), I agree that the point of mindfulness meditation isn’t to cultivate indifference to the state of the world. Sure, it can help you cope with the world, help you preserve equanimity amid turbulence, but it can also help you think more clearly about how to improve the world—by, in particular, helping you subdue the cognitive biases that constitute the psychology of tribalism. Now, whether Sam Harris has done as much of that as he thinks he has is something I have expressed doubt about in the past. And I may return to that subject in this newsletter in the future. I certainly will return to the subject of how mindfulness can help us improve the world. But for now I’ll just revel in this moment of concord with Sam, and join him in affirming that there is at least one sense in which neither of us has our head up our ass.
In Inkstick, “Blob” defector Van Jackson argues that America’s foreign policy is partly to blame for the Capitol riot. He cites the work of Kathleen Belew, whose book Bring the War Home explains how the Vietnam War radicalized veterans who would go on to become leaders in the white power movement. (I interviewed Kathleen on The Wright Show in 2018.) Jackson sees a similar dynamic in play now, as the forever wars come home to roost. “You can dress up militarism abroad with rhetoric about liberty and freedom, but you can’t escape the consequence that doing so poisons your own polity,” he writes.
Could we identify all the Capitol rioters with no help from police, using just smartphone footage from the social media platform Parler, open-source AI, and a crowdsourcing website? In WIRED, Andy Greenberg reports on an effort to do that and highlights some of the ethical questions raised by its progress.
The latest evidence of how strangely and circuitously destructive the unintended consequences of American interventions can be comes in the form of a news report from Deutsche Welle: members of the Pakistani Taliban killed a police officer guarding a polio vaccination team. In 2011, the CIA, as part of its hunt for Osama Bin Laden, created a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad so it could get DNA samples from Bin Laden’s relatives. This seems to have fostered (1) a suspicion in Pakistan that vaccination programs represent nefarious foreign influence; (2) a specific conspiracy theory, especially popular among Islamist militants, that vaccination is a western plot to sterilize Pakistani children. Attacks on polio vaccination teams claimed at least 70 lives between 2011 and 2015—which may be why Pakistan is one of the last two nations on Earth where the disease still spreads. The other? Afghanistan.
The head of the World Health Organization recently warned that, as rich nations buy a place at the front of the line for Covid-19 vaccination, the world is “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure.” But he may have understated the indictment, as the failure could go beyond the realm of global social justice. Stable national governance makes it easier to address various global challenges, including terrorism, which tends to fester where states are weak. And poor nations are much more likely to collapse under the weight of a pandemic than rich ones. So it’s in America’s interest to contribute to the global Covid vaccine effort. And a simple adjustment of fiscal priorities would let it contribute substantially more. The total budget for COVAX, an international group tasked with distributing vaccines to poorer countries, is less than $10 billion. The latest US defense bill authorized the purchase of 96 F-35 fighter planes, with a sticker price of nearly $8 billion. So waiting until next Christmas for our shiny new planes could actually make America more secure.
Trump withdrawal syndrome
The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and its carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living... It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.
—Chris Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
I got my first Trump withdrawal symptom a few weeks ago. It happened while I was listening to Steve Bannon’s podcast—which, I know, I know, I probably shouldn’t spend my time doing, but then again haven’t the last four years been, among other things, a story of almost all of us using media and social media in very suboptimal ways?
Anyway, Bannon’s podcast had become a kind of nerve center for the effort to overturn the results of the presidential election. So I was in the habit of tuning in to monitor the state of play—and also, I admit, because I find Bannon’s seedy charisma fascinating. You can say a lot of bad things about Bannon—that he’s dishonest, that he’s amoral, that his grooming habits could use an upgrade—but you can’t say he’s not a great demagogue.
Each day, in rants that are broadcast not just via YouTube and podcast apps but on hard-right media outlets like Newsmax TV, he rallies his grassroots army (”the deplorables,” he lovingly calls them), exuding boundless confidence in victory against the enemy—the “globalists,” the Democrats (“the party of Davos”), the “Biden crime family,” and so on.
So I was listening to the podcast one day and for a moment Bannon’s spirits seemed to sag, as if the accumulated weight of the legal and political setbacks suffered by the stop-the-steal movement had finally sunk in. Bannon uttered his ritual guarantee of victory—“We got this”—but for the first time it seemed to refer not to Trump’s victory in this election but to the eventual triumph of the movement Trump represents.
Or maybe I was reading too much into it. Certainly Bannon quickly regained his verve; he continues to profess confidence that Trump will be a two-term president. But in that fleeting moment of flagging Bannon energy, I suddenly imagined a day—soon, God willing—when the Trump presidency would be in the rear-view mirror.
My first reaction was relief. Then came the symptom.
What is Progressive Realism?
A slightly condensed version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post.
Recently Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia under President Obama, expressed puzzlement about a term he had been hearing—a label adopted by some people on the left who aren’t happy with the emerging outlines of the Biden administration. “In the debate about the future Biden foreign policy I’m seeing people self-identify as ‘progressive realists’,” he tweeted.
This term bothered McFaul. After all, in foreign policy circles, “realism” has long signified a strict focus on national interest, with little regard for the welfare of people abroad. The famously pitiless Henry Kissinger called himself a realist. Maybe McFaul had Kissinger in mind when he lamented the “deaths and horrific repression” that past realists had countenanced and then asked plaintively, “Where are the progressive idealists?"
Speaking as a progressive realist, let me first say that the answer to that question is easy. “Progressive idealists” are everywhere!
If by that term you mean left-of-center people who wax idealistic about America’s global mission—who think our foreign policy should emphasize spreading democracy and defending human rights abroad—then “progressive idealists” pervade liberal foreign policy circles and will be running the show in a Biden administration. Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s picks for secretary of state and national security adviser, are progressive idealists.
That’s the problem. Though McFaul considers realism an ideology with blood on its hands—and God knows Kissinger has plenty of blood on his—the fact is that in recent years naive idealism has been responsible for much death and suffering and dislocation. And a lot of that happened on the watch of the Obama administration, where Blinken and Sullivan played important roles; both did stints as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser and both had high-level state department jobs.
So, with another round of progressive idealist foreign policy apparently on the way, it’s worth reviewing the previous round and seeing how things might have been different had realists been in charge. What follows are four basic principles of progressive realism along with examples of their violation by Blinken and Sullivan and the Obama team generally. Whether or not this exercise inspires any defections from the idealist to the realist camp, I hope it will inspire people like McFaul to revisit their assumptions about the moral superiority of idealism.
Apparently nice guys don’t really finish last. In Psyche, psychologists Craig Neumann and Scott Barry Kaufman write that people with “dark” personality traits like Machiavellianism have disproportionately poor job performance and heightened risk of violent death, while those with “light” personality traits like empathy report greater happiness and self-esteem. But there’s good news for those of us with a mean streak: Neumann and Kaufman found that “light” traits can be, and often are, learned over time. “Our research, and studies of our closest relatives, nonhuman primates, both show that moral behavior can emerge and change across development—in large part through cooperative social interactions,” they write. “Thus, by embracing and trusting social connections, we can progress toward a light personality trait profile—a pathway that appears to lead to healthy self-actualization and even transcendence.”
In the New York Times, Neal K. Katyal and John Monsky look at one of Trump’s last-gasp hopes for reversing the results of the election: the possibility that Vice President Pence could on Jan. 6 abuse his role as presiding officer at the counting of the electoral votes by Congress.
In the Kausfiles newsletter, Mickey Kaus, gets alarmed by news that covid vaccine distribution may be guided by “social justice” criteria. In this scenario, “essential workers” would—because many of them are people of color—get vaccinated ahead of senior citizens, a whiter demographic. Kaus attributes this proposal to Wokism and argues that Joe Biden could and should put Wokists in their place.
In Wired, Lily Hay Newman writes about the growing frequency and success of ransomware attacks in 2020 and the chances of this trend continuing in 2021.
In the American Conservative, Blaise Malley argues that Biden’s foreign policy won’t be as far left as his domestic policies and offers a theory as to why: many Democrats reflexively oppose policies championed by Trump, and Trump’s foreign policy instincts often align with those of anti-war progressives. “Even if advocating the reverse of what Trump has done means espousing centrist, liberal interventionist or neo-conservative approaches, many opponents of the outgoing president are likely to do so,” Malley writes. “Biden can revert to a conventional form of foreign policy precisely because he can couch it as the opposite of Trump.”
A handful of reporters got famous by battling the Trump Administration. Will they maintain their combative stance after Biden enters office? In the Atlantic, McKay Coppins explores the incentive structure that shapes reporting about presidents.
Pope Francis took aim at tribalism with his recent encyclical letter “Fratelli Tutti." In Commonweal, William T. Cavanaugh reflects on the subtle radicalism of the document’s emphasis on “fraternal love,” which Francis holds up as a response to divisions sown by cynical leaders and neoliberal economic policies. The kind of love the pope has in mind, writes Cavanaugh, involves interaction and even friendship across lines of racial and economic segregation. “Pope Francis is calling us to create different kinds of spaces—economic, political, and social—where we can encounter one another face to face, where we can regard each other as children of the same God and begin the difficult journey of love.”
In Responsible Statecraft, Annelle Sheline takes a dim view of the recently announced deal that will have Morocco normalize relations with Israel in exchange for US recognition of Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara. Sheline argues that the deal not only flouts international law but threatens global food security. Still, she doubts that Biden will roll back the decision. “Although the Biden administration may be less captured by pro-Israel interests than Trump, Anthony Blinken’s State Department will not wish to re-open the issue and risk undermining a normalization agreement with Israel.”
The New Yorker dedicates most of its latest issue to "The Plague Year," a sprawling piece by Lawrence Wright that tracks epidemiological, political, social, and personal efforts to combat covid.
Grading candidates for Biden’s foreign policy team: William Burns
Background: Burns, a career diplomat who has served as ambassador to Russia and as deputy secretary of state, gets particularly high marks for cognitive empathy—understanding the perspectives and motivations of international actors.
For our grading criteria, click here.
Bringing insight meditation to America: An interview with Sharon Salzberg
I was lucky enough to do my first meditation retreat—back in 2003—at a landmark of American Buddhism: the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. As much as any institution, IMS was responsible for bringing to America a kind of meditation known as vipassana—which is usually translated as “insight” and can be thought of, for practical purposes, as roughly the same thing as mindfulness. I was also lucky to have already met, at this point, two of IMS’s co-founders—Joseph Goldstein (who has previously appeared in the newsletter) and Sharon Salzberg, who is now world-famous for her teachings not only on mindfulness but also on lovingkindness meditation. Recently I had a conversation on The Wright Show podcast with Sharon about her latest book, Real Change, and we wound up talking both about the book and about the 1970s, when she and Joseph and Jack Kornfield co-founded IMS after sojourns in Asia.
BOB: I'm so glad I'm going to get to talk to you. We're old friends, for one thing. But also, you've got a new book out. It's the latest in a series of Real books. You've written a book called Real Happiness, you've written a book called Real Love, and this book is called Real Change.
SHARON: That's right. I somehow got on the Real train. I don't know how that happened. People are teasing me, like "maybe your next book is Real Life."
A lament in The Beinart Notebook—a new newsletter put out by my old friend Peter Beinart—notes that Joe Biden is unlikely to pursue a very progressive foreign policy and that “American progressives haven’t mobilized to change foreign policy in the way they have on domestic policy.” If you want to help improve that situation, you should subscribe to Peter’s newsletter (while, I might suggest, continuing to read this one).
Adapting to changes our species has inflicted on Earth’s environment is possible! At least, it’s possible for species other than ours. A flower called Fritillaria delavayi, which grows on rocky mountains in China, has long been used in traditional medicine. A study by Chinese and British scientists finds that, in areas where commercial harvesting is intense, the flower has evolved to be less conspicuous, changing from a bright green to a brown or grey that blends in with surrounding terrain.
In the New York Times, Jessica Bennett profiles Loretta J. Ross, a radical Black feminist professor who’s fighting “call-out culture.” Her weapon of choice? “Calling in.” Calling in is “a call out done with love”—that is, in private, with compassion and respect. Ross, a visiting professor at Smith College, believes that “we actually sabotage our own happiness with this unrestrained anger. And I have to honestly ask: Why are you making choices to make the world crueler than it needs to be and calling that being ‘woke’?”
Trump deeply disturbed the Blob this week with his plans to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan in half by the end of the year. In Responsible Statecraft, Andrew Bacevich and Adam Weinstein criticize foreign policy elites for freaking out: “Even as the dysfunction that has characterized the war is widely recognized, few in the foreign policy establishment are willing to consider the possibility that its continuation no longer serves the interests of the United States.” Meanwhile, one of several CIA-backed paramilitary groups in Afghanistan has come under fire for allegedly killing over a dozen civilians in a series of raids last month. In Foreign Policy, Emran Feroz reports that “many Afghans want the groups disbanded when the United States withdraws.”
In Aeon, anthropologist James K Rilling reviews research, including his own, into the biological effects of becoming a father—such as a drop in testosterone, a hormone that, in other species, has been shown to be inversely correlated with a male’s parental devotion. “We have known for decades that mothers’ bodies and brains are transformed by the dramatic hormonal changes of pregnancy and childbirth,” writes Rilling. Now we’re learning that men are “biologically transformed by the experience of becoming an involved father.”
Introducing the progressive realism report card
Remember last Saturday? When the networks declared Joe Biden the president-elect, and it was possible, for one bright shining moment, to imagine that Donald Trump would respond to news of his imminent departure from the White House by preparing to depart from the White House?
Now, a week later, there is so much worry about Trump refusing to leave that people are semi-seriously talking about how a skilled hostage negotiator would handle the situation. But here at the Nonzero Newsletter we’re choosing to optimistically assume a happy ending to this crisis and focus our worry elsewhere. Namely: on the question of whether, after Trump is finally extracted from the oval office, its new occupant will be much of an improvement over him in the foreign policy department.
Today we launch a series of evaluations of people who are in the running for major roles on Biden’s foreign policy team. We call these evaluations “progressive realism report cards”—which raises two questions:
1) Why progressive realism? For starters, because that is this newsletter’s unofficial foreign policy ideology. (I described its essence concisely in a 2016 piece in The Nation and, less concisely, in the 2006 New York Times essay in which I coined the term.) But also because progressive realism stands in such stark contrast to the ideology of “the Blob”—the bipartisan foreign policy establishment that has long managed to retain power in Washington notwithstanding its demonstrated tendency to screw up the world.
To put a finer point on it: I think that if progressive realist principles had guided America’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been able to get the political traction he got in 2016 by promising to extricate American troops from the various messes we’ve gotten them into. Because, by and large, the messes wouldn’t exist.
2) Why report cards? Do I honestly think that the people we give low grades will be assigned commensurately low-status positions (or none at all) in the Biden administration? No, for two reasons: (1) the Washington establishment seems to work the other way around: the worse your record on foreign policy, and the more damage your ideas have wreaked on the world, the more influence over policy you are granted; (2) we’re just a little newsletter, not a big and influential platform.
However, if enough like-minded, public spirited readers share these report cards on Twitter or Facebook, maybe we’ll be able to punch above our weight! And maybe, eventually, thanks to efforts at this newsletter and like-minded renegade outlets, the foreign policy establishment will start to feel the heat. (A guy can dream…)
Below is our first report card. It’s for Tony Blinken, who is probably Biden’s closest foreign policy aide and will almost certainly wind up with great influence in the new administration. Immediately below the report card itself is the heart of the matter—our justification for each of the grades Blinken received. (If you want to read a subject-by-subject explanation of the grading criteria—which doubles as a short introduction to progressive realism—that’s here.) In the coming weeks we’ll issue report cards to other prospective Biden foreign policy advisers—some of whom, we’re happy to report, will get higher grades than Blinken.
Grading Biden’s Foreign Policy Team: Tony Blinken
Background: Blinken is a liberal interventionist with an emphatic idealism about the virtues of “American leadership.” His relationship to Biden goes back decades, and he is considered a favorite for national security adviser or secretary of state.
For our grading criteria, click here.
In Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson argues that the time to start worrying about Trump's post-presidential resurgence is now. (And, yes, as the piece’s epigraph reminds us, the New York Times actually did run a “Hitler Virtually Eliminated” headline—albeit a small one—on the front page in 1923.)
After the terrorist beheading of a French teacher who showed students cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a more French, secularized version of Islam and was greeted by criticism and protests in numerous Muslim-majority countries. In Bloomberg Opinion, Pankaj Mishra contends that Macron’s discourse about the “right to offend” Muslim people hurts prospects for harmony between his country’s “secular” (historically Christian) majority and its Muslim minority. “It is one thing to defend freedom of expression—an obligation of all democratic leaders,” Mishra writes. “It is quite another to deploy a whole nation behind a particular expression of that freedom.”
Elixir for tribalism: America is divided in many ways, but in every state where the legalization or decriminalization of drugs was on the ballot, it won, notes Vox.
In Responsible Statecraft, Anatol Lieven argues that a lack of (cognitive) empathy has led American foreign policy astray. He laments our failure to understand Russian interests, even when they parallel our own. In Syria, for example, Russia has supported a dictator in order to avoid a power vacuum—much as we once did in Algeria and currently do in Egypt. Lieven leaves us with advice on how to deal with Washington’s new bogeyman: “We had better hope that in dealing with the vastly more formidable challenge of China our policy elites will engage in real study, eschew self-righteousness, and identify and not attack the vital interests of China, as long as Beijing does not seek to attack our own.”
A video on the philosophy of Thomas Metzinger offers reasons to think that the “self” may not exist. (I interviewed Metzinger in 2018 on my podcast, The Wright Show.)
In Vox, Umair Irfan assesses Pfizer's Covid vaccine, explaining what 90 percent efficacy actually means, how the drug company's approach to developing the vaccine works, and why it may take a while for the vaccine to get to market.
In Commonweal, Jesuit Scholastic Fernando C. Saldivar makes the case that the U.S. should join the E.U. and China in ratifying the Arms Trade Treaty, which bans the export of weapons that could be used to commit atrocities. The priest-in-training condemns the current, unregulated system, which gives arms dealers “a highly lucrative freedom to look the other way while the Saudis target noncombatants” in Yemen. “We can no longer pretend not to know—or appear not to care—what is being done with bombs and missiles made in America,” Saldivar writes.
A thought experiment about utilitarianism raises the oft-overlooked question of whether maybe you should let an AI eat you.
How to stay sane until the election’s over
My struggle to preserve some semblance of equanimity amid the most emotionally destabilizing presidential campaign of my life has led to extreme measures: I’ve been delving into the literature on both Stoicism and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Turns out the two schools of thought have something in common: a therapeutic technique that the ancient Stoics called premeditatio malorum—which, loosely translated, means imagining bad things that might happen. Sounds like the kind of thing I’d be good at! Here’s how it works:
Suppose you’ve spent the last couple of months worrying that a presidential candidate you detest, though behind in the polls, might stage a comeback. Suppose you’ve already taken the obvious measures to insulate yourself from the vicissitudes of online engagement—like, say, reducing the number of times you check for updated poll results from 20 or so times a day to 18 or so times a day. And suppose you still haven’t found peace of mind. It’s time to harness the power of premeditatio malorum: you just imagine that it’s the morning of November 4 and the candidate whose victory you dread has won.
When cognitive behavioral therapists guide you through this exercise, they ask questions like “So, if the worst happens, how bad will that actually be?” or “Would what you’re worried about happening really be the end of the world?” If the therapy works as planned, you realize, on reflection, that the answers are “Less than catastrophic” and “No.” In my case, the answers, on reflection, were: “Really, really bad, like super-bad, like beyond catastrophic” and “Quite possibly, yes.”
So my premeditatio malorum was off to an inauspicious start. Though the technique is supposed to have an effect that Albert Ellis, one of cognitive behavioral therapy’s founding figures, called “de-catastrophizing,” it was instead having an effect that I call “scaring the shit out of me.”
Maybe America’s great tribal divide is being overstated, or at least misunderstood. In the New York Times, political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan argue that the biggest cleavage in American politics isn’t the ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans but the “attention divide” between political junkies in both parties and the less politically engaged masses. In both parties, for example, the masses consider low hourly wages a much bigger problem than do the people (15 to 20 percent of each party) who qualify as “deeply involved” in politics. And the deeply involved tend to have obsessions not shared by the less engaged members of their party—such as the influence of wealthy donors in the case of Democrats and drug abuse in the case of Republicans. Also, in both parties the deeply involved are much less open to their children marrying across party lines. The gap between “the politically indifferent and hard, loud partisans exacerbates the perception of a hopeless division in American politics because it is the partisans who define what it means to engage in politics,” Krupnikov and Ryan write.
In Aeon, neuroscientist Laura Crucianelli reflects on the psychological importance of physical contact among humans and the consequences of its becoming a scarce resource amid the pandemic.
In the American Conservative, Gil Barndollar assesses the foreign policy stakes of Tuesday’s election. Biden promises a return to the pre-2016 normal, while Trump offers policies that are closer to that normal than Biden might like to admit. “Whether possessing four or 40 years of foreign policy experience, neither septuagenarian is apt to reorient America’s role in the world, regardless of what the voters want.”
A Pew Research Center study finds that the average American is much more worried about various threats to America—terrorism, Russia, China—than the average international relations scholar. (The one big role reversal: climate change.) What I’d like to see is a comparison between such scholars and the foreign policy experts who populate DC think tanks and presidential administrations. On balance, I’d guess, DC experts find America more vulnerable to foreign threats than experts who spend their time on college campuses. In which case the question would be whether that’s because DC experts have a closer, clearer view of the situation or because their social status and job prospects are correlated with how scary the world seems… or some other factor.
In the Intercept, Murtaza Hussain argues that many crusaders against cancel culture aren’t equal-opportunity crusaders. They tend to ignore, in particular, the plight of pro-Palestinian activists who run afoul of such influential pro-Israel speech police as Canary Mission (when these activists support, for example, the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel over its policies toward Palestinians). Discussion of cancel culture “among journalists and intellectuals has mostly focused on their own discomfort as a class,” Hussain writes. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian activists may face fates more dire than the dreaded “de-platforming.” Namely: “threats to immigration status, personal lives, careers, restrictions on foreign travel, and more.” (I made a related critique of the Intellectual Dark Web last year.)