If you’re the kind of person who likes to watch movies even when you know how they’ll end, you may have spent much of the past week focused on impeachment proceedings (which—in case you’ve managed to avoid the plot spoilers so far—are sure to end in President Trump’s acquittal by the Senate, with his base having been energized in the meanwhile). Personally, I hate watching movies when I know how they’ll end—especially this one! So I’m well positioned to tell you what’s been going on in the world this week other than impeachment.
And a lot has been going on. Unfortunately, much of it, from the vantage point of my own ideology, has been bad. If you, too, find this summary of the week’s big events a bit dispiriting, just remember this. OK, here goes:
A kinder, gentler Trump: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won re-election, as his Conservative party routed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. This apparently means that Brexit will happen next month, though the terms of the post-Brexit economic relationship between Britain and Europe won’t be worked out until long thereafter. Also, Britain may get smaller. The Conservatives lost big in mainly anti-Brexit Scotland, which may now seek a second referendum on whether to secede from the United Kingdom. And, for the first time, most members of parliament from Northern Ireland favor ditching the UK for union with Ireland.
A not much kinder, not much gentler Trump: Narendra Modi, the ethno-nationalist Prime Minister of India, hailed his parliament’s passage of a bill that would create a path to citizenship for migrants from nearby countries—with the notable exception of migrants who are Muslim.
If you’re a liberal who has been trying to change the minds of conservative climate change skeptics, social science now offers this guidance: Cut it out! The first step toward convincing them that they’re wrong may be to quit trying to convince them that they’re wrong.
That’s one takeaway from a study presented last month by two political scientists, Dominik Stecula of Penn and Eric Merkley of the University of Toronto. They found that people who strongly identified as Republican and were shown the scientific consensus on climate change were less likely to accept it if they were also shown warnings about the perils of climate change from prominent Democrats.
By itself this isn’t big news. We’ve long known that, just as people sometimes use “in-group cues” to form their views—that is, they uncritically accept opinions prevalent in their tribe—they can also use “out-group cues,” rejecting opinions because they’re held by the enemy tribe. And you’d expect this effect to be especially strong in an age, like ours, of “negative partisanship”—when the two political parties seem to be held together largely by dislike of each other.
Robert Wright: Hi Steven.
Stephen Batchelor: Hello Bob.
How are you doing?
Good. You should be, you're in France, living an enviable life there, i gather.
Well, unfortunately, human life, wherever you are...
Ah. That brings us directly to our subject, which is Buddhism. … You’re very well known as a writer on Buddhism, a former Buddhist monk yourself, still a practicing Buddhist. Now, some people might contend that description because you are famously a proponent of secular Buddhism and there are people who don't think that secular Buddhism should be called Buddhism, I guess. But we'll get into all of this, into what we mean by secular Buddhism. One interesting thing about your worldview is that you don't view the terms "secular" and "religious" as mutually exclusive. You think something can be secular, but religious. So, yeah, we'll get into this.
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In Aeon, the philosopher Nicolas Bommarito sings the praises of modesty and explains why, historically, many philosophers haven’t been big fans of it. Bommarito’s conception of modesty seems in some ways eccentric; he says that truly modest people don’t really care how they stack up against other people. (I’ve always tried to be modest, but if that kind of indifference is a prerequisite, I give up.) But at least one of Bommarito’s claims is unarguable: Modesty, he says, “is something you can’t really brag about.”
This week the Washington Post published and assessed a trove of government documents that are to the Afghanistan War what the Pentagon Papers were to the Vietnam War: a look into government findings and deliberations that reveal much more internal doubt about the prospects for success than was officially acknowledged.
In the Post’s Outlook section, Stephen Wertheim and Samuel Moyn of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft explain how the disregard of both domestic and international law has led war—invasions, occupations, drone strikes, special forces raids, etc.—to become a post–Cold War constant for America.
Elon Musk drew a certain amount of ridicule for this tweet. But I actually found it interesting. I’d never before thought about using one interpretation of quantum physics—that subatomic reality doesn’t assume definite form until it’s observed—to buttress the hypothesis that we’re living in a simulation. (And hey, at least he didn’t call anyone a pedophile.)
Have you ever noticed that different trains' whistles have different pitches? Turns out they’re so different that you could, by creating a video mashup of different trains whistling, play Pachelbel’s Canon.
You’ve probably heard the big news from this week’s NATO summit. As reported on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post, several European leaders were captured on video talking about President Trump, over beverages and hors d’oeuvres, in a less-than-reverential way—and Trump, needless to say, got in a huff about it.
What you probably haven’t heard—because it was reported almost nowhere—is this news from the summit: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced, "We have declared space as the fifth operational domain for NATO, alongside land, air, sea, and cyber."
There may be a hidden link between these two developments. One reason leaders of NATO countries dis Trump behind his back is that he spends so much time dissing NATO. And according to some observers, one reason NATO decided to expand its mission into outer space is to get Trump to cut down on the dissing.
After all, Trump this year, amid great fanfare, created the US Space Command—which, Congress willing, will soon beget the US Space Force, a military branch equal in status to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. So what better way for NATO to get some Trump love then to say that it, too, thinks the final frontier could use more policing?
In the previous issue of NZN, we ran excerpts from a podcast conversation I had with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci about similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism. This week we bring you a part of the conversation that’s a bit more self-helpy than last week’s selection.
This part of our chat draws on an advice column Massimo was writing at the time (in 2018), in which he answered people’s questions about how to stoically handle problems they face. Looking back at our exchange made me wonder if I should take a shot at offering advice from a Buddhist perspective (as informed by modern psychology, including evolutionary psychology). So let’s try it! If you have any practical questions you’d like me to answer, just write me at email@example.com.
I’ll respond to some of the questions in future issues of the newsletter. And, meanwhile, if you want to watch the entire conversation between me and Massimo, it’s here.
WRIGHT: So the idea is to look at a few questions that people have written, and, after we talk about the kind of Stoic guidance you’ve given them, see if I have anything to add from a Buddhist perspective. And maybe we’ll get a chance to elaborate a little on the differences in meditative practice, because I know there are varieties of meditative practice in both traditions. [...]
Let's take a question that you have answered already. Someone writes in:
I am a filmmaker based in India. Lately I've had a very tough time with my career. I feel like I'm working hard, but I just can't seem to catch a break. I mean, I write my scripts, I follow up with people and nobody responds. It's like I'm just being rejected...
He goes on to talk about how, where many of his peers have succeeded, he has failed. It's a failure narrative.
You want to talk a little about how you thought about that?
On the CBC, a psychiatrist at McGill University discusses a drug that apparently can help cure heartbreak. Recalling a “romantic betrayal event” while under its influence, he says, reduces the emotional power of the memory thereafter. Oddly—or maybe not so oddly—the drug is already in wide use as a way of lowering blood pressure.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat makes the case that the famously far-left Bernie Sanders could have broader appeal—both in the Democratic primaries and in a general election—than is generally appreciated. Sanders polls better among non-Bernie-Bro Democratic demographics than you’d expect, says Douthat. And his leftism is so focused on economic issues that he seems less threatening than many Democrats to conservatives who emphasize abortion and other social issues. Sanders could be “the liberal [candidate] most likely to spend all his time trying to tax the rich and leave cultural conservatives alone.”
In a piece in The Cut called “My Wife’s Enemies Are Now My Enemies, Too,” Josh Gondelman offers himself as a case study in the tribalizing potential of marriage.
In Psychology Today, Susan Lanzoni recaps the semantic evolution of the word empathy—which a century ago, when it first appeared in English, meant “nearly the opposite of what it means now.” It meant “projecting one’s own imagined feelings and movements into objects”—seeing sharp, angular contours as ferocious, say, or seeing soft curves as calm. Lanzoni hopes reflecting on the word’s etymology will rekindle this “aesthetic empathy,” which she says can deepen appreciation of “our inherent connection to a world beyond ourselves.” Such reflection could also remind us that when we exercise empathy in the most common modern sense—feel the feelings someone else is feeling—we are, strictly speaking, engaging in an act of projection; we can’t know exactly what it’s like to be someone else, even if it’s often worth trying.
And speaking of empathy: On the Wright Show I talked to psychologist Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy, about when empathy is and isn’t a good guide to moral conduct.
In Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria questions the “new consensus” which holds that “China is now a vital threat to the United States both economically and strategically, that U.S. policy toward China has failed, and that Washington needs a new, much tougher strategy to contain it.”
In Vice, Caroline Haskins, looks at how Amazon has “been quietly building a privatized surveillance network throughout the United States.” She’s not talking about Amazon’s Alexa, but rather about Ring, the security camera that lets people remotely see who’s at the door—or for that matter who’s walking along the sidewalk or what cars are driving by. Neighbors can form sharing networks that give each of them broad surveillance powers, and arrangements with local police can let them in on the action. Needless to say, there are pros and cons.
Forty-three years after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith do several deep dives into The Intercept’s “comprehensive dataset on everyone sentenced to die in active death penalty jurisdictions since 1976.” One conclusion: “Capital punishment remains as ‘arbitrary and capricious’ as ever.”
This week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said something no US secretary of state has ever said before: that Israel’s West Bank settlements are not a violation of international law. He said this in spite of the fact that (a) a plain reading of the Fourth Geneva Convention—which Israel signed, and which prohibits the transfer of civilians to territories acquired by force—indicates otherwise; and (b) the UN Security Council, the ultimate arbiter of such matters, has repeatedly said otherwise.
The phase of House impeachment hearings that concluded this week established, beyond reasonable doubt, that President Trump withheld congressionally authorized aid from Ukraine as a way of coercing its government into launching an investigation that, he hoped, would taint a political rival, Joe Biden.
Here is the political toll this has taken on Trump: Since the day the hearings started, his approval rating, as measured in the Real Clear Politics polling average, has risen by slightly less than a point, and his disapproval rating has fallen by slightly more than a point.
There was a time when you could shock people with paragraphs like that. But over the past three years Trump’s core support has proved so durable in the face of so much bad publicity that many Trump opponents have come to expect the worst. Poll numbers that once induced much wailing and gnashing of #Resistance teeth now elicit knowing, sardonic nods.
Countless undergraduates have been taught that America’s exceptionalist zeal—its seeming compulsion to remake other nations in its image, sometimes via war—dates back to the Puritans. The Puritans are said to have injected a sense of divine ordination “into the distinctive cultural DNA of imperially expansive America,” as historian Daniel T. Rodgers puts it. Rodgers puts it that way in a book that questions this standard story by closely analyzing what is taken as the source text of Puritanical American exceptionalism: a sermon in which John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, invoked this biblical passage: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” In the Nation, historian Andrew Delbanco reviews Rodgers’s book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon.
In Gzero, Gabrielle Debinski pithily summarizes views on foreign policy expressed by Democratic presidential candidates in this week’s debate—which devoted more time to foreign policy than past debates (which is to say: some time).
In an Aeon piece alluringly titled “What is to be done about the problem of creepy men?” law professor Heidi Matthews actually asks what is to be done with our intuitions about what is and isn’t “creepy,” particularly in the #MeToo era. She recommends not letting those intuitions substitute for careful analysis, since they can be tools of “shunning and social ostracism” and have been used against, for example, the mentally ill and homosexuals. Matthews also notes that the “creepiness” reaction is related to the emotion of disgust—which, as it happens, was the subject of a long 2016 piece in Aeon, by Kathleen McAuliffe, that also offered reasons for caution about letting our feelings serve as moral guides.
In The Federalist, Trump supporter Mollie Hemingway gives her account of “How Republicans won phase one of the impeachment.”
A New York Times Magazine piece by Kevin Roose documents the demise of the free internet and the growth of the paid internet—which offers, for example, a “news therapy” app called Sift that, for $3.33 per month, promises to help you “stay informed about contentious topics while reducing anxiety and stress.” Most surprising stat: the average American spent more than $1,300 on digital media last year.
In the New Republic, Udi Greenberg reviews the new book Reimagining Judeo-Christian America, by K. Healan Gaston of Harvard Divinity School. When the term “Judeo-Christian” came into currency in the 1940s, it served as a vehicle of social inclusion, identifying Jews with an American moral and spiritual heritage long thought of as Christian. But the term can be used for exclusion—as when Steven Bannon champions the struggle of the “Judeo-Christian West” against Islam. Gaston, Greenberg writes, argues that the term has been used that way more often than you might guess—and has sometimes even been used at the expense of Jews, as a way to “legitimize larger claims about Christian supremacy.”
On bloggingheads.tv—and on The Wright Show audio podcast—I argue with my closest Trump-supporting friend, Mickey Kaus, about impeachment and other things, including Trump’s Iran policy.
For my money, one of the most valuable things about a mindfulness practice is that it can give you a more objective view of the world. A bit of critical distance from your feelings can let you see other people with less of the distortion that feelings often bring.
And the people you see more objectively can include you. When mindfulness works well, it can help you reflect on decisions you face and give yourself the kind of guidance you’d get from a wise counselor—someone not caught up in your internal struggles, someone viewing you from the outside.
If you’ve tried mindfulness practice and failed to get such benefits, there may be another way to give yourself counsel with some measure of detachment. A study published in the esteemed scientific journal Nature a few months ago reports on the use of virtual reality to let people see themselves, almost literally, from the outside—and advise themselves from that vantage point.
This week, as the public phase of the House impeachment inquiry got underway, Rep. Adam Schiff, who is leading it, began his opening statement with these two sentences: “In 2014, Russia invaded a United States ally, Ukraine, to reverse that nation's embrace of the West, and to fulfill Vladimir Putin's desire to rebuild a Russian empire. In the following years, thirteen thousand Ukrainians died as they battled superior Russian forces.”
The Washington Post’s editorial board, on the same day, struck a similar tone. “The heart of the case” for impeachment, the editors wrote, is that, in trying to get Ukrainian help for his 2020 re-election run, Trump “allied his administration with some of Ukraine’s most corrupt elements, and undercut its military defense at a time when its soldiers were fighting and dying.”
I don’t want to sound hard-hearted, but could we please leave the Ukrainian soldiers out of this? I think it’s a mistake for impeachment supporters to frame their case against Trump in terms of the geopolitics of Russia and Ukraine—bad for their case against Trump, bad for America, and bad for the world.
The Democratic presidential candidates haven’t said much about foreign policy, and what they’ve said has often been frustratingly vague. This week brought a rare opportunity to compare their positions on a specific international development.
It started in Gaza, when Israel assassinated an Islamic Jihad military commander who was thought responsible for past missile attacks on Israel, including a strike in September that disrupted a Bibi Netanyahu campaign event. In response to the assassination (which also killed the commander’s wife), Islamic Jihad fired a barrage of missiles into Israel. Israel replied with more military strikes, which killed at least 30 additional Palestinians, including a number of civilians.
Most of the Democratic presidential candidates who weighed in—including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris—reacted the way American politicians have often reacted to such things. They condemned the Palestinian rocket attacks, expressed solidarity with Israel, made no reference to Palestinian casualties and no mention of either the immediate precipitant of the missile barrage (the killing of the commander and his wife) or conditions that might have contributed to earlier missile attacks on Israel (most notably Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza, which has helped sustain extreme poverty).
The two exceptions were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
On CNN’s website, journalist Daniel Dale, who has relentlessly chronicled the president’s untruths during this presidency, lists “45 ways Trump has been dishonest about Ukraine and impeachment.”
The Wall Street Journal this week published the results of its big investigation into how Google has “increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged.” Google “made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay, contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action.” Also, Google “boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com and Facebook.” (Remember the neediest!) Google also fiddles with the “auto-complete” algorithm to reduce the chances that people will stumble onto such inflammatory subjects as immigration and abortion.
In the Columbia Journalism Review, sociologist Musa al-Gharbi vividly depicts how good Trump is at getting his favorite thing: attention. Al-Gharbi divides the number of mentions each recent president has gotten in the New York Times by the total number of words published by the Times (to correct for the growth in the latter during the online age) and gets this graph:
In Aeon, philosopher Catherine Wilson sings the praises of Epicureanism as a guiding philosophy and argues that it’s well suited to the modern world. As a lifestyle, Epicureanism is less self-indulgent than the current usage of the term might suggest, though less austere than Stoicism, which is now undergoing something of a revival, and on which Wilson throws a bit of shade.
In Dissent, Nicolaus Mills reviews a biography of Gen. George Marshall, architect of the Marshall Plan and Secretary of State under Truman, and suggests that Marshall’s “pragmatic engagement” would be an improvement on America’s foreign policy of recent decades.
The New York Times reports that, with President Evo Morales having been forced out of office by the military amid protests against him, many of Bolivia’s indigenous people worry that gains they enjoyed in recent years are imperiled. Morales, the first indigenous president in the country’s history, was replaced by a woman of European descent who initially appointed an all-European cabinet and has in the past called indigenous religious rituals “satanic.”
On the Israeli website 972, Menachem Klein explains how the unusual dynamics of this week’s conflict in Gaza reflect important changes in the relationship among Israel, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.
In New York Magazine, Ed Kilgore argues that impeachment could be a “calamity” for Democratic presidential candidates who are in the Senate (Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, Booker, Harris, Bennet). Attending impeachment hearings—which would be in session six days per week—could keep them off the campaign trail for six weeks or more during the critical early phase of the primaries.
Keeping track of Donald Trump’s contributions to the coming of the apocalypse is a job too big for any one person. The best I can do is check in every month or so and list a few of the latest highlights.
During the past 10 days:
- The Trump administration notified the UN that the US will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement in a year, the earliest withdrawal date permitted by the accord.
- A Russian arms control official warned that the prospects for sustaining the most important US-Russia arms control treaty after its expiration date in February of 2020 have been dimmed by Trump’s refusal to discuss the matter.
- Iran announced that, as a result of Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal, and his ensuing imposition of draconian sanctions, it has reactivated centrifuges in a uranium processing plant that lies deep underground, resistant to military attack (but perhaps not resistant to the bunker-busting megabombs that President Obama gave Israel and that Israel may now be tempted to use).
There’s a unifying theme here, and it isn’t just the increasingly plausible end of Planet Earth as we know it. It’s Trump’s apparent aversion to playing non-zero-sum games with other countries—that is, games that can have a win-win or lose-lose outcome (such as, respectively, avoiding a nuclear war or having one). Or at least, it’s his failure to play them well, to get win-win outcomes—and sometimes, it seems, his failure to even see that such outcomes are possible, that we live in a non-zero-sum world.
This is no news flash. Ever since the earliest days of Trump’s presidency, he’s been referred to by some as “the zero-sum president.” The label has its merits (I’ve riffed on it myself), but it has one important, even dangerous, downside.
There are people who believe that the political polarization now afflicting the United States might finally start to subside if Americans of both parties could somehow become more empathetic. If you’re one of these people, the American Political Science Review has sobering news for you.
Last week APSR—one of the alpha journals in political science—published a study which found that “empathic concern does not reduce partisan animosity in the electorate and in some respects even exacerbates it.”
The study had two parts. In the first part, Americans who scored high on an empathy scale showed higher levels of “affective polarization”—defined as the difference between the favorability rating they gave their political party and the rating they gave the opposing party. In the second part, undergraduates were shown a news story about a controversial speaker from the opposing party visiting a college campus. Students who had scored higher on the empathy scale were more likely to applaud efforts to deny the speaker a platform.
It gets worse. These high-empathy students were also more likely to be amused by reports that students protesting the speech had injured a bystander sympathetic to the speaker. That’s right: according to this study, people prone to empathy are prone to schadenfreude.