Trump’s global war on TikTok

As you may have heard, President Trump is waging thermonuclear war against a smartphone app. Last week he declared, in an executive order, that the famously zany video app TikTok represents a national emergency and will be crippled by new legal restrictions come late September—unless, he has said, it’s sold to an American company by the Chinese company that owns it.  

You may have also heard that Chinese political and corporate leaders aren’t happy about this. But you probably haven’t heard that lots and lots of regular Chinese people aren’t happy about it. This is something that, so far as I can tell, the American media isn’t reporting.  

In fact, to confirm my suspicion about this grassroots blowback, I had to go beyond googling and email a Chinese-American friend who for years lived in China and now follows China closely as part of his job back here in the States. He emailed back, “There's certainly a lot of popular resentment at the Trump Administration for the TikTok ban.” Many Chinese people are “livid,” he continued, “that Trump has tried to kneecap the one Chinese app to finally break through globally.” 

In other words: Trump’s latest move has strengthened nationalist sentiment in China. And you know who likes to keep nationalist sentiment strong in China? Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader, whose popularity is directly proportional to it. 

Kind of ironic! After all, a professed purpose of Trump’s increasingly hostile stance toward China is to weaken its authoritarian leader. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a landmark speech delivered last month at the Richard Nixon library, said the U.S. must “engage and empower the Chinese people” to that end. (He “stopped shy of explicitly calling for regime change,” the Wall Street Journal noted.) Yet Trump, rather than engage the Chinese people, is alienating them—and in the process has empowered the regime.

Paul Bloom: The case for rational compassion

Paul Bloom is not a monster! I don’t normally begin my introductions of people with those kinds of reassurances, but Paul, a professor of psychology at Yale, is the author of a book called Against Empathy—and that title has led to some misunderstandings. Paul would like you to know that he isn’t entirely against empathy; he’s just against its counterproductive application—which he thinks is pretty common. After his book came out in 2016, I had a conversation with him on The Wright Show. I always have fun talking to Paul, and I think this extended excerpt shows why.

BLOOM: ...I actually suffer from an abundance of empathy. This book is, in some sense, a self-help book for myself. I tear up at things, I get really upset when I hear stories about people suffering. My charitable contributions are bizarre, based on personal prejudices and strong feelings. ...

WRIGHT: So this book is a cry for help. ...

This is definitely a cry for help. 

I would think that the temptation, if you write a book called Against Empathy, when you meet someone who has only heard the title, … is to say, "No, don't get the wrong idea." … The subtitle kind of says it: "The case for rational compassion." 

Exactly. The subtitle … is ... saying: “Look, I'm against something, but this is not one of those weird pro-psychopathy books that [says] we should be cruel to each other. It's not some sort of a plea for selfishness or brutality. It's rather: if you want to be a good person, there's a better way to do it.” ...

Some people think "empathy" is just a catch-all term for everything good: being kind, being moral, being compassionate or understanding. I have no problem if people want to use the word that way, and in that case, I'm not against empathy. I mean it in a more narrow sense: roughly, putting yourself in the shoes of other people, feeling their pain, feeling their suffering. 

And even taking that into account, I'm not against empathy for all realms of life. I think it's a wonderful source of pleasure. But the argument I make, which still remains somewhat controversial is that this narrow type of empathy is a very bad moral guide. It makes us into worse people, it makes the world worse. 

...  I think later we'll get into some of these distinctions: between empathy and compassion, and also a distinction you make between emotional empathy—you know, feeling their pain—and cognitive empathy, [which is] just understanding what the world looks like to them—that you're not railing against. ...

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Readings

A piece in the newsletter BNet makes the case that, “Being skeptical of TikTok is not weird. Being skeptical of TikTok to a far larger degree than any other Big Tech company is absolutely weird.”

Wondering what kind of influence Kamala Harris might exert on foreign policy in a Biden administration? In October of last year, in the lefty periodical In These Times, Branko Marcetic profiled the Center for a New American Security, the think tank that was channeling its influence on the presidential campaign largely “through the campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris, who has drawn heavily from its ranks to fill her line-up of foreign policy advisors.”

In Tricycle, Ann Gleig, author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, looks at the historical relationship between Buddhists and racial justice.  

In FiveThirtyEight, Likhitha Butchireddygari recently looked at the polling on American attitudes toward China over the last fifteen years. Plot spoiler: we’re at a Sinophilic low point. But Butchireddygari explains why these sentiments may not give Trump much help in the 2020 election. 

In MIT’s Technology Review, Tanya Basu offers some advice on how to change the minds of conspiracy theory believers in your life.  

On The Wright Show, I recently had conversations with two DC foreign policy thinkers—Heather Hurlburt, a self-described “pragmatic liberal internationalist,” and Emma Ashford, a “realist”—about what paradigm should guide America’s engagement with the world. Plus, I’m now doing a weekly show with my old friend and ideological nemesis (He voted for Trump!) Mickey Kaus. Audio versions of all these conversations are available on The Wright Show podcast feed.

Why is everyone so mean to Bari Weiss?

Bari Weiss, who until this week was an opinion editor at the New York Times, has signed two famous letters lately: (1) the “Harper’s letter,” which argued against cancel culture and was also signed by 152 other luminaries; and (2) the “Bari Weiss resignation letter,” in which Weiss, in addition to announcing her exit from the Times, tried to get someone canceled. 

The “someone” was the novelist Alice Walker. Weiss called Walker, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, a “proud anti-Semite who believes in lizard Illuminati.” 

I refuse to do whatever amount of googling it would take for me to develop a firm view on whether Alice Walker is indeed anti-Semitic, let alone get to the bottom of the famously slippery lizard Illuminati question. But for present purposes we don’t need that data anyway. I just want to note something others have noted about Weiss: she punctuates fierce defenses of free and untrammeled speech with attempts to expel people from the community of discourse because of things they’ve said. Obviously, if you can get enough elites to share your view that a person is anti-Semitic, that person won’t be welcome on mainstream platforms. To call someone an anti-Semite is to argue for their cancellation.

Can we make the George Floyd moment even bigger? 

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. 

Activist update

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.

George Floyd, racial justice, and economic justice

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.

What is it like to be an electron? An interview with Galen Strawson

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.

Correct. 

You agree? 

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.


George Floyd and American foreign policy

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.

Readings

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.

The true Trump nightmare is finally upon us 

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.  

The case against eternal damnation

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. 

Namely yours. 

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. 

Readings

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. 

Globalization as a moral good

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.

Questioning Materialism with Gideon Rosen: Part 2

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?

Goodbye, globalization?

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.

The incoherence of the anti-China left

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.  

Readings

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.”