Steve Bannon and the struggle for America’s post-pandemic soul

When Steve Bannon got his White House pink slip in 2017, there seemed to be at least two lessons for anyone who aspires to stay in Trump’s inner circle for long. First, avoid being depicted on Time Magazine’s cover as the “great manipulator”—the true power behind Trump’s throne. Second, avoid being quoted in a bestselling book as calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.” 

But, however grave Bannon’s crimes, to write him off back then—to assume he would never again be a significant force within Trumpism—would have been to underestimate his resourcefulness and determination. A pandemic is a time of opportunity as well as tragedy, and Bannon is seizing the moment. And the way he’s seizing it drives home what a pivotal moment it is—how much will hinge on the way voters and politicians respond to the coronavirus contagion. 

Bannon, like many nationalists, is highly sensitive to threats from abroad, and he was sounding alarms about Covid-19 before most Americans got the picture. In late January his “War Room: Impeachment” podcast morphed into “War Room: Pandemic.” In March it started getting airtime on WABC, New York’s right-wing talk-radio powerhouse, and it’s also featured on various other talk stations across the country. A video version of the show airs nightly on the Newsmax cable TV network.  

Broadcasting from “Fort Defiance” in Washington, Bannon and his crew lay out a vision of how Trump should wage the war against Covid-19 (fiercely), how Trump should talk about the war (clearly and dramatically), and how amenable the post-pandemic landscape can be to the triumph of Trumpism. That triumph, Bannon seems to believe, will be easier if Trump and other prominent Trumpists follow his rhetorical lead. And Bannon’s stream of Trump-friendly guests, from Rudy Giuliani to Nigel Farage, probably increase the chances of that happening. 

Meanwhile, Bannon is getting attention beyond his base. He’s the star of the Errol Morris documentary “American Dharma,” released five months ago, and this month he created a stir on Twitter by getting respectful treatment as a guest on the well-known leftish podcast “Red Scare.”

Did the World Health Organization fail us?

This week President Trump expanded his arsenal for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. He went from a blame-China-not-me strategy to a blame-China-and-the-World-Health-Organization-not-me strategy. 

Officials at WHO, Trump said at a press conference, are “very biased toward China”—just look at how, in the early weeks of the outbreak, they “said there’s no big deal, there’s no big problem, there’s nothing.” So Trump will be “looking into” whether to freeze US funding for WHO.

Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida is on board. A week before Trump’s press conference, he called for hearings into WHO’s performance. The World Health Organization, Scott says, “lied to us. It was intentional. People are dying because of it.” So, “as soon as Congress is back in session, there should be a hearing, along with a full investigation, to review whether American taxpayers should continue to spend millions of dollars every year to fund an organization that willfully parroted propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party.”

This is a familiar right-wing move: subject international institutions to scrutiny that, if all goes according to plan, can be used to justify cutting their funding. Then, as the script typically unfolds, global governance fans like me spring to the defense of these institutions.

In this case, though, I’m partly in sync with the right-wing move. I don’t agree with Scott that we should do the investigation ASAP (since at the moment both we and the World Health Organization are kind of, um, busy). And I’m not in favor of cutting WHO funding. I’m also not nearly as sure as Scott that WHO is guilty as charged. But the organization could have performed better in the early stages of the contagion, and there’s at least some reason to suspect that people at WHO consequentially misled us.

Before I get into the consequential misleading, let me lay out a larger reason that I think fellow global governance fans should consider getting on the investigate-WHO bandwagon.

Institutions of international governance, like institutions of national governance, are prone to a particular form of corruption: they’re inclined to serve powerful interests at the expense of their mission.

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Readings

Apple and Google announced that they’re jointly developing smartphone software that will facilitate “contact tracing”—finding and notifying people who have been near someone who tests positive for Covid-19. Blogger Nicky Case offers a cartoon explanation of how smartphone contact tracing can work without sacrificing privacy—which is the way Google and Apple say their system will work. Russell Brandom of The Verge answers “the 12 biggest questions” about the approach Apple and Google are taking. Efficient contact tracing is considered critical if the US is to emerge from economic lockdown without rapid recurrence of contagion.

The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner reports that, in New York City, the five ZIP codes with the highest rates of positive Covid tests have per capita income of $27,000, while the five zip codes with the lowest rates have per capita income of $118,000. The New York Times displays data from many cities, gathered by tracking the smartphones of high-income and low-income people, to support the thesis that “staying home during coronavirus is a luxury.” In the Washington Post, Eugene Scott explains “four reasons the coronavirus is hitting black communities so hard.”

The good news from Yemen: Saudi Arabia, which in 2015 led a military intervention that has greatly worsened the conflict there, declared a coronavirus ceasefire. The bad news: the next day Yemen, a country whose health care infrastructure has been devastated by the war, reported its first coronavirus case. 

Google used (anonymized) location data from smartphones to see how much activity of various kinds—going to parks, shopping at grocery and drug stores, etc.—has changed during the Covid-19 epidemic. Its Community Mobility Reports website offers downloadable summaries of the activity for lots of nations, as well as individual American states and counties in those states. In my county—and I suspect in many others—the only category in which activity has grown is “residential.” 

The International Crisis Group looks at ways the pandemic could “give rise to new crises or exacerbate existing ones” (especially in areas featuring conflict, simmering tensions, or weak governance). One problem is a possible lack of global leadership; the US, which led the international response to the 2014 Ebola contagion, has “simultaneously mishandled its domestic response to Covid-19, failed to bring other nations together and stirred up international resentment.”

The New York Times takes a look at how Americans are spending their money amid the shutdown. TLDR: Charitable giving down, alcohol consumption up, and boom times for home improvement.

The China Derangement Syndrome

Did you know that “America is under attack—not just by an invisible virus, but by the Chinese”? Did you know that, even amid this attack, “Joe Biden defends China and parrots Communist party propaganda”? If not, maybe you should get on the mailing list for news updates from the Trump-Pence campaign. 

Team Trump has shifted into full-on blame-China-first mode. In a span of two weeks, we’ve gone from Trump using the term “coronavirus” to Mike Pompeo test-marketing the term “Wuhan virus” to Trump abandoning all pretenses of subtlety and going with “Chinese virus.” 

There’s no denying that China deserves lots of blame. Its failure to adequately regulate Wuhan’s “wet markets”—where wild animals are sold for consumption—seems to be what inflicted this epic problem on the world.

Then again, in 2008 America’s failure to adequately regulate its financial markets inflicted an epic problem on the world. That’s life amid globalization: screwups in one nation can rapidly infect other nations. Sometimes you’re the screwer, and sometimes you’re the screwee.

To put this in more formal language: in a globalized world, nations are locked into a non-zero-sum relationship; there can be lose-lose outcomes or win-win outcomes, depending on how they play their games. This pandemic has been lose-lose, but in the fight against it there will be win-win moments—not just in the sense that victories over the virus in any nation make other nations safer, but in the sense that successful tactics and treatments discovered by one nation will spread to other nations. For better and for worse, we’re all in this together. 

One of the main things this newsletter is about (hence the name!) is how the world’s various non-zero-sum games can be played more wisely. Sometimes that mission means championing the kind of global governance that facilitates cooperation among nations. So, for example, I’d be against cutting US funding to the World Health Organization. And I’d certainly be against trotting out the idea of a 50 percent cut in that funding at exactly the time that a pandemic is enveloping the world—which, remarkably, the Trump administration actually did

But cheering for good global governance isn’t enough. If you’re serious about fostering it, you have to foster a political climate conducive to it, which means fighting the xenophobia and crude nationalism that so often poison that climate. 

You may think my next sentence is going to be: “And that means fighting Trump and Trumpism.” Wrong!

Killing COVID-19 without killing the economy

Our situation would seem to be this: the price of fighting COVID-19—the price of the massive social distancing the U.S. and other countries are now deploying against it—is almost certainly a recession and possibly a global depression. And global depressions have, among other downsides, something in common with COVID-19: they kill people. 

In the New York Times, David L. Katz, a physician, argues that there’s a way out of this dilemma—a way to avert economic collapse without paying a massive toll in death and suffering.  

The basic idea is to apply social distancing more selectively but more intensively: identify the most vulnerable (older people, plus younger people with such conditions as diabetes), and strengthen the rules that protect them from infection, while relaxing the rules for the less vulnerable, and thus allowing them to participate in the economy. 

In this scenario, the contagion would continue, but it would continue within corridors that would keep the death rate low—that is, corridors occupied by relatively young and healthy people. The typical experience of people infected would range from feeling no symptoms at all to having something like a bad case of the flu. And after infection they would presumably be immune, at least for a while. Eventually America would achieve “herd immunity”: a high enough percentage of the population would be immune so that the virus would quit spreading.  

Most people, including me, find “herd immunity” scenarios a bit chilling, as they entail unflinching resignation to a certain level of death, however low, within a certain part of the population. And that just seems less humane than trying to save everyone, even if that effort is doomed to fall well short of its goal. But before dismissing Katz’s idea, you should read his op-ed, because he notes downsides of the current approach (including lethal ones) that go beyond flirting with economic apocalypse. 

Red virus, blue virus

On March 11—back before President Trump had declared a national emergency and sent various other signals that he was now taking COVID-19 seriously—the Economist posted some numbers showing that Democrats were more worried about the virus than Republicans and more likely to have taken precautions against it. The headline said, “In America, even pandemics are political.” 

There’s certainly some truth to that. Once Trump, out of the gate, minimized the dangers posed by the virus, some of his supporters followed their leader—as supporters are especially inclined to do in polarized times. And their attachment to his position was probably strengthened by the derisive dismissal of it coming from his detractors. Psychology of Tribalism 101.

But to fully appreciate the coronavirus’s potential to deepen American polarization, you need to see how thoroughly it can be woven into the narrative that got Trump elected. And to see that, you need to understand another reason Trump supporters didn’t get as freaked out by the virus as Trump detractors: It wasn’t as much of a threat to them.

The virus was at first a blue-state problem: California, Washington State, New York, and Massachusetts had the biggest spots on the coronavirus map. And as the disease spread, it hit the bluer parts of the red states—the big cities. (As various analysts have noted, America’s great divide isn’t so much blue state versus red state—after all, big chunks of blue states are red, and vice versa—as high-population-density areas versus lower-density areas.)

Of course, this is changing. The virus is now in all states, and it’s starting to move from cities to towns. So maybe people on both sides of America’s political divide will more and more be seeing things the same way? 

In the sense of taking the epidemic seriously, yes. There’s been an uptick in Republicans’ interest in and concern about the coronavirus as it has spread and as Trump has gone from being dismissive of it to being conspicuously in command of the war against it. But there’s reason to worry that this convergence of perspectives won’t bring broader harmony between red and blue.  

For one thing, if you’re in a red state or a red town, and you see the virus headed your way, where is it headed from? From blue states and blue cities! Moreover: How did it get to those blue states and blue cities? From abroad.  

Readings

New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose sees upside in the physical isolation the coronavirus has imposed on us. The virus “is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used—to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems. It’s the healthy, humane version of digital culture we usually see only in schmaltzy TV commercials, where everyone is constantly using a smartphone to visit far-flung grandparents and read bedtime stories to kids.”

Pollution dropped markedly in China and Italy as a result of coronavirus-induced social distancing. On the environmental blog G-Feed, Marshall Burke calculates that the lives saved in China via reduced pollution exceeded the lives lost to the virus. Whether or not that’s true, the satellite images accompanying the blog post are testament to how much the air seems to have cleared up in China. Satellite shots of northern Italy before and during its lockdown paint the same picture. Of course, these reductions in pollution were part of an economic slowdown that you wouldn’t want to sustain forever. Still, the pandemic will no doubt heighten our appreciation of how many things we can do remotely, via information technology, without generating as many pollutants as we’re accustomed to generating. These things include not just telecommuting but, for example:

Quartz reports that the pandemic has brought a boom in telehealth, as doctors—in part to shield themselves from infection—become more amenable to virtual office visits.

In the New York Times, John Schwartz assesses the extent to which some of the tools of social distancing—telecommuting, virtual conferences, and the like—could slow the rate of climate change. The question is more complicated than you might guess. If, for example, working remotely means spending the day in a house that would otherwise be uninhabited, the fuel consumed to heat or cool the house has to be weighed against the fuel saved by not commuting (which itself varies greatly depending on whether you drive to work or take public transportation).   

Tricycle is offering free online meditation sessions “to help ease anxiety amid our social-distancing efforts.” And Dan Harris’s Ten Percent Happier website offers a free “coronavirus sanity guide.” 

Why neoliberals should love Bernie

Three months ago, on the website Counterpunch, Richard Ward wrote that Bernie Sanders is “the one possible challenger to the neoliberal order.” That status, he went on to assert, accounted for the timing of the Senate impeachment trial; it was the neoliberal order’s way of keeping Sanders off the campaign trail. I can only imagine what Ward thought this week after the Democratic establishment swung into action to convert Joe Biden’s victory in South Carolina into victory on Super Tuesday.   

If Biden’s resurrection was indeed in some sense the work of the “neoliberal order,” the effort may have been misguided. However qualified Sanders is to overthrow that order, he’s also qualified—maybe uniquely qualified—to save the things about it that many neoliberals profess to cherish, things that may otherwise suffer a grim fate.

To see what I mean, you have to first appreciate an odd thing about the word “neoliberal.” Unlike most ideological labels, it is claimed by virtually no one. It’s used mainly as a pejorative, typically to mean something like “a free market fundamentalist who happily does the bidding of corporate overlords, helping them run roughshod over the world’s working people.” And that’s not the kind of phrase you put in your LinkedIn profile.   

But even if no one wears the neoliberal label proudly, and even if the term is now thrown around so loosely as to make it unclear who really merits the label, it’s possible to apply it with some precision. If you follow the term “neoliberal” back to the 1990s, you’ll find it referring to a distinct set of policies—policies collectively called “the Washington consensus”—and an underlying philosophy. Adherents of that philosophy are still around, and many of them—neoliberals in a precise and not-necessarily-pejorative sense—are now being called neoliberals in the vaguer, pejorative sense.

These are the people I’m calling neoliberals, and here is the point I want to make about them: If their detractors are right—if they are mere tools of rapacious capitalism, cloaking their true motives in liberal cliches—then they should definitely oppose Sanders. But if their goals are the more high-minded ones that they profess, Sanders may be their man and Joe Biden may not.

Freeman Dyson (1923—2020)

The New York Times obituary of the physicist Freeman Dyson, who died last week, includes such characterizations as “iconoclast,” “heretic,” “visionary,” and “religious, but in an unorthodox way.” All of that and more came through in an interview I did with Dyson two decades ago (one of the very first video interviews I ever did, back at the dawn of online video). Below is a mildly edited transcript of the interview. Reading it, I was reminded how eclectically adventurous Dyson was--jumping from the Gaia hypothesis to an eccentric definition of God to the idea that the universe involves “three levels of mind” and to many other things. I was also reminded what a nice person he was.

ROBERT WRIGHT: First of all, thanks very much for letting me come talk to you here today. I've never been within the walls of the Institute for Advanced Study before, and I feel kind of privileged. It has a kind of mystique about it. Do you find that people react to it that way?

FREEMAN DYSON: Well, I tried to demolish this aura of sanctity that surrounds the place. What it is basically is a motel with stipends. ... It's just a place where young people come from all over the world and are given a year or two with pay.

A somewhat more selective admissions policy than some motels have. Right?

Yes. But still that's basically what it is. Mostly the important thing is what they do when they get home, not what they do while they're here.

I see. But there have been—I mean, Einstein, von Neumann and so on—there have been a lot of people thinking deep cosmic thoughts here, right?

Yes, but that's not really what the place is for, that's accidental.

It's not for cosmic thoughts really?

Well, if you're lucky, of course you get a few of those. ...

You, in any event, have been doing your share of thinking cosmic thoughts.

Not very much.

Well, I don't know. Let's do a brief review. 

Readings

In the New York Times, Peter S. Goodman writes that the coronavirus has “accelerated and intensified the pushback to global connection,” heightening fears about immigration and exposing the vulnerability of global supply chains. And the pushback may be just beginning. As Jeet Heer notes on Twitter, Trump’s initial, optimistic messaging strategy—Don’t worry, we’re on top of this—may soon give way to xenophobic, anti-globalization fear mongering. Secretary of State Pompeo has already started calling the virus the “Wuhan virus.”

Elizabeth Preston reports in Quanta that the aquatic salamander known as the axolotl—which looks even weirder than its name suggests—has now had its genome fully sequenced. The resulting knowledge could someday give humans a quintessentially axolotlic skill: the ability to regenerate lost body parts

In Fast Company, tech writer Harry McCracken takes a look at the presidential campaign of 1996, “the first to be fought on the web.” It wasn’t a momentous battle; most voters weren’t on the web, and “nobody in politics was an expert on leveraging its power.” McCracken says the candidates’ websites were “eyesores…even by 1996 standards”—and a perusal of them provides some supporting evidence. But I was most struck by the air of innocence and earnestness. The home page of Phil Gramm’s site declares, “We have established this presence on the internet in the interest of providing a wide range of news and information that will interest those who are already involved in our campaign and those who want to learn more about our efforts.” That it took only 20 years to get from there to 2016—when the web was a battleground of bot-abetted, microtargeted deception—is sobering.  

The Trump administration’s support of the bloodless coup that deposed Bolivian President Evo Morales hasn’t wavered amid the repression unleashed by his military-installed successor, to judge by a piece in the Washington Post. And, to judge by another Post piece, the justification for that coup is looking even shakier than before. A statistical analysis by two MIT scholars casts doubt on the claim that there were “voting irregularities” suggestive of foul play by Morales.  

I’ve never been good at lovingkindness (“metta”) meditation. (People who know me aren’t mystified by this.) In Tricycle, Thai forest monk Ajahn Brahm suggests that metta-challenged meditators like me start the practice by imagining a kitten. No way, dude. But I’m willing to try a dog. Anyway, this short article is linked to Tricycle’s annual Meditation Month—a challenge to commit to 31 days of (not-necessarily-metta) meditation, along with a package of materials that help. 

In the New York Times, Alex Stone looks at a demographic of growing interest to scholars of marketing: people who are consistently drawn to new products that will wind up bombing in the marketplace. These “harbingers of failure” may someday be used by companies to abort the launch of doomed products (whose past examples include Crystal Pepsi, Watermelon Oreos, and Cheetos Lip Balm.) Apparently there are whole zip codes whose residents seem to have this sixth sense. 

The recent peace deal between the US and the Taliban looked tenuous this week as Taliban attacks on Afghan government targets brought American counterattack. John Glaser of the Cato Institute argues that the deal will remain fragile so long as the US continues to make compliance with it conditional on constructive engagement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, rather than acknowledge the limits of American leverage.     

On the Wright Show, I interviewed alleged Bernie Bro David Klion, author of a tweet so notorious that Mike Bloomberg featured it in an ad implicitly aimed at Bernie Bros. I thought I had convinced Klion that it would be a good idea to tone down his more hyperbolic, tribalistic tweets, but a few days later he tweeted this. Sigh. 

Bertrand Russell’s not entirely crazy dream of ending war via logic

The truth, whatever it may be, is the same in England, France, and Germany, in Russia and in Austria. It will not adapt itself to national needs: it is in its essence neutral. It stands outside the clash of passions and hatreds, revealing, to those who seek it, the tragic irony of strife with its attendant world of illusions.     

                                    –from Russell’s essay “On Justice in War-Time” 

Among the many things Bertrand Russell is known for are these two: (1) laying the foundations of “analytic philosophy,” which values clear expression and fine-grained analysis over grand theorizing; (2) disliking nationalism, especially in its belligerent forms. I’d never imagined a connection between the two, but the philosopher Alexander Klein, in an essay published this month, says there is one. 

Russell, according to Klein, hoped that the rise of analytic philosophy would reduce the stature of grand philosophical paradigms with names like “German idealism” and “British idealism.” He wanted to “destroy a conception of philosophy as an articulation of a ‘national mind’,” Klein writes. 

This may sound like a pretty roundabout way to combat nationalism—and it would have seemed especially ineffectual at the time Russell was doing some of his writing on the subject, as World War I was engulfing Europe. But, Klein says, there was a second sense in which Russell hoped analytic philosophy could discourage national conflict. 

The methodology of analytic philosophy involves defining your terms with painstaking precision, thus crystallizing the meaning of propositions so they can be evaluated via strict logic. Russell’s “theoretical antidote to the irrational, sectarian vitriol between European nations,” writes Klein, “was to try to show how logic could function as an international language that could be used impartially and dispassionately to adjudicate disputes.” Well that would be nice!

Through the looking glass

In last week’s newsletter I introduced the strange worldview of Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist who believes that reality is radically unlike what we perceive it to be (an argument he made in his book The Case Against Reality). This week we offer the second part of my conversation with Hoffman, in which things get, if anything, stranger. We pick up the conversation where we left off last week: Hoffman had argued, on Darwinian grounds, that reality isn’t what it seems, without yet giving us his theory about what reality is.

DONALD HOFFMAN: I do have a theory, and I can discuss it with you, but I should point out that that theory is separate from the evolutionary conclusion. 

The evolutionary conclusion is: we don't see reality as it is. The second step is: okay, now, as scientific theorists, what shall we propose as a new theory of that reality? And someone can buy my first proposal—that we don't see reality as it is—and not buy my proposal about the nature of reality...

ROBERT WRIGHT: And the proposal you have, there's an actual mathematical version of it, I think it has maybe seven variables or something like that. And we won't be able to get into that in any depth at all, but one interesting feature of it is I think you claim it's testable.

Right.

Before we get into that, I want to get a little more deeply into the question of, okay, if this is not the real world, what is the real world that this is a kind of reflection of?… And here's where  things get weirder, as if things weren't weird enough, at least by my reckoning...

The foundation of the theory: conscious experiences are real

As I understand it, the world is kind of co-created by conscious agents... You tell me—you refer in your theory to conscious agents—does "a conscious agent" correspond to what we would think of as a conscious agent? Like, I'm a conscious agent, you're a conscious agent, so right now we are two conscious agents interacting—is that the correct terminology in your theory? 

That's the first step, yes. But there's more to it. I'll unpack it just a little bit. So here's the motivation for the direction I've gone.

The idea is it may be the case that all of my beliefs are false. I may know nothing. And that's a serious possibility. As scientists, we have to acknowledge that possibility. 

But if there is anything that I believe that's true, it's that I do have conscious experiences. If my belief that I'm feeling pain, or smelling a rose, or tasting chocolate—if my belief that I'm having experiences is wrong, then I'm pretty much wrong about everything, and we might as well just eat, drink, and be merry, because there's really nothing else that we can do as scientists.

This is a little like what Descartes said. The minimalist assumption is that you are having this experience whether or not the experience is true. 

That's right. I don't want to therefore go to the "cogito ergo sum" kind of thing; I don't want to perhaps go where he goes in terms of trying to prove my own existence, but just merely that if I'm wrong that there are experiences, then pretty much there's not anything secure that I can go with.

So I decided to say, okay, let's go with that. If space and time and matter, which are just the format of my perceptual system, are not the right predicates to describe reality, and I can't let go of the idea that I have conscious experiences, let's just start with consciousness. 

Let's see if we can get a mathematical theory of consciousness and conscious experiences—but a new kind of theory. 

Using asymmetrical warfare against Trump

This week, in my periodic role as obnoxious Twitter scold, I intemperately reprimanded famous Never-Trumper and #Resistance personage Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom), who had tweeted to his 328K followers something to the effect that Trump supporters don’t “care about anything but spite and resentment.” 

Why the reprimand? In part for the same reason I reprimanded Nancy Pelosi in this newsletter two weeks ago, after she conspicuously tore up her copy of Trump’s State of the Union speech. As I put it then, “Maybe you should ask yourself not only whether lots of people in your tribe will love that gesture, but how the people who aren’t in your tribe will perceive it.” Pelosi’s gesture plays into Trump’s persecution narrative—and Nichols’s tweet plays into Trump’s narrative that snobby cosmopolitan elites hold his supporters in contempt. 

In both cases, I think, what we see is our tribe taking Trump’s bait. He wants to enrage his detractors—us—so that we’ll do things that energize his supporters (by nourishing his narrative), thus making them more likely to get out and vote. 

Which leads to a question so good that I wish I’d thought of it myself. 

The question was posed by NZN reader Cary W., who, after reading what I said about Pelosi, wrote in an email: “So why is it that enraging detractors and energizing supporters is a politically beneficial tactic for Trump but a politically detrimental tactic for Democrats?” If it makes sense for Trump to do it, why doesn’t it make sense for Pelosi and Nichols to do it?

Readings

In Tricycle, Karen Jensen critically assesses Breathe with Me Barbie, the new doll from Mattel that can assume the lotus position and give meditation guidance to kids, saying things like “Imagine your feelings are fluffy clouds.” Jensen isn’t too impressed but ends on a hopeful note: “How do we know that she isn’t capable of awakening?”

In Politico, David Siders explores Michael Bloomberg’s plan to emerge from an initially deadlocked Democratic convention with the nomination

Seventy five years after the publication of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, Jules Evans, a scholar who as a teenager virtually deified Huxley, looks back on the book. Huxley said, as had “Perennialists” before him, that the world’s great spiritual traditions have a common core. For example: “Huxley suggests that the peak experience is the same in all traditions: a wordless, imageless encounter with the Pure Light of the divine.” I didn’t know, before reading this piece, that Huxley’s book was partly a response to World War II. “The reign of violence will never come to an end,” Huxley wrote, until more people recognize “the highest factor common to all the world religions.”

In an Atlantic piece on “authoritarian blindness,” Zeynep Tufekci argues that, however ironically, the Chinese government’s surveillance apparatus has impeded its view of the Coronavirus epidemic

If you’ve been wondering what it would be like to be a left-leaning woman at a mostly male, very right-wing gathering that, over a three-day weekend, prepares people for the impending collapse of civilization—well, your ship has come in. Lauren Groff, in a long Harpers essay, observes the denizens of “Prepper Camp” in North Carolina with the air of detached irony you’d expect. I spent much of the piece wishing she’d interact more earnestly with them, and get some insight into their motivation; and near the end of the piece she does summon some cognitive empathy, and some self-critical reflection.

In the Nation, David Klion profiles Sasha Baker, head of Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy team.

The US hasn’t properly accounted for $714 million worth of weapons and equipment it sent to Syrian proxy forces, according to a Defense Department inspector general report that is the subject of an article in the Military Times. These particular weapons were directed toward proxies fighting ISIS, and aren’t to be confused with the weapons sent to Syria as part of the secret $1 billion-plus CIA program to arm rebels in furtherance of Obama’s regime-change initiative. Some weapons from both programs wound up in the hands of ISIS and affiliates of al Qaeda.

A day before The Washington Post reported that US intelligence officials believe Russia aims to boost Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, Ben Judah and David Adler argued in the Guardian that a President Sanders would be no friend of Vladimir Putin’s

A judge has ruled that Happy the elephant, who lives alone on a one-acre plot at the Bronx Zoo, has not had her "personhood" violated, Sophia Chang reports in Gothamist. The ruling was a defeat for The Nonhuman Rights Project, which had sued the zoo in hopes of liberating Happy. The judge agreed that “Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property” and “should be treated with respect and dignity” and “may be entitled to liberty.” But, “we are constrained by the caselaw to find that Happy is not a ‘person’ and is not being illegally imprisoned."

Through a glass very, very darkly

A number of spiritual and philosophical traditions hold that reality is very different from what it seems to be. Buddhism springs to mind, as does George Berkeley’s idealism. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard an argument in this vein that’s as distinctively disorienting as the one made by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman in his recent book The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes. The Apostle Paul said that we see this world “through a glass, darkly,” but Hoffman would say that’s wildly optimistic. As he put it to me in a conversation on The Wright Show podcast (available as video on meaningoflife.tv): We have to let go of the idea “that there's any resemblance whatsoever between the nature of our perceptions—and even the language of our perceptions—and the nature of objective reality.” Below is Part I of that conversation (which we had several years before his book came out). Part II will appear in next week’s newsletter. 

ROBERT WRIGHT: What we're going to talk about today is kind of at the intersection of cognitive science and philosophy. We're going to talk about the mind-body problem, the question of what consciousness is, and a question that's raised by your particular theory of consciousness, which is, so far as I know, quite distinctive—unlike anything I've heard before. That question is whether what we think we see is really real, or how close to real it is. 

Your theory of consciousness, which has been getting attention among the people who think about these things, suggests that things are not as real as we think they are.

This bottle of water—


—it’s useful for me to think I see it, but it may not bear a very close correspondence to the underlying reality, right? 

DONALD HOFFMAN: Correct. It's real as an experience, but it may not exist apart from my experience in that form. 

Your theory builds on the following fact about natural selection… that, strictly speaking, natural selection doesn't build a brain that sees the truth. I mean, that's not what the criterion of natural selection is. The criterion is: natural selection will preserve traits that are conducive to the proliferation of genes.

Yes.

And so it will build brains that have the kinds of perceptions and thoughts that are conducive to the proliferation of genes. And if those perceptions and thoughts are false but still are conducive to the proliferation of genes, then there will be false perceptions. I think that's actually uncontroversial in evolutionary biology. 

Mike Bloomberg and the oligarchy question

This was the week that Mike Bloomberg finally got some respect. After which he got massive disrespect.

First the respect: 

Bloomberg had always been dismissed as a long-shot for the Democratic presidential nomination. He did, after all, have somewhat eccentric credentials for that honor—such as having delivered a speech at the 2004 Republican convention endorsing George W. Bush. But when “frontrunner” Joe Biden finished the Iowa caucuses at the rear of the pack, moderate Democrats started looking for a new Biden, and by the end of this week the betting was on Bloomberg.

I mean that literally. In the betting markets, Bloomberg’s chances of getting the nomination rose from 18 percent on the eve of Iowa to 35 percent by the end of this week. That put him way ahead of the nearest moderate—Buttigieg at 12 percent—and not far behind the market favorite, Bernie Sanders at 39.

And if you’re not the kind to put much faith in betting markets: Bloomberg’s national polling numbers have risen from 2 percent three months ago to 8 percent two weeks ago to 14 percent this week—all without his appearing in a single debate. Apparently spending $350 million on ads (9 times what Sanders has spent) can move the needle. 

And there’s more where that came from. If Bloomberg could somehow find a way to spend another $350 million every week between now and the end of the primaries in June—which is basically impossible, but just suppose—he’d be reduced to the status of man with only $54 billion to his name. If Tom Steyer, the other billionaire in the Democratic race, spent money at that rate, he’d be penniless by the end of March.

Readings

In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi compares the Democratic presidential race to the 2016 Republican race and argues that the same dynamics that favored Trump make Bernie Sanders the likely nominee.

Remember when the Trump administration said it killed Iranian General Qassim Suleimani because he posed an “imminent threat” to the US—you know, the claim that might have rendered the assassination compatible with international law, the claim that the administration seemed puzzlingly unable to support with actual evidence? Well cancel that claim. As the New York Times notes, the administration’s report to Congress defending the Suleimani killing makes no mention of an imminent threat.

In the Guardian, Benjamin Moffit asks why populist movements, such as Trumpism, are so durable, notwithstanding the efforts of “anti-populists” to eliminate them—or, at least, civilize them. He offers various answers, including this one: There are parts of populism that make a lot of sense! For example: “the elite often deserve their unpopularity and disdain.”

In Vice, Shayla Love explores the implications of a strange fact: though people who lose their sight are more prone to schizophrenia than the general population, no one who was born blind is known to have developed schizophrenia

In Vox, four staffers—Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Laura McGann, Dylan Matthews—each take a frontrunning Democratic presidential candidate and make the case for them. Bernie Sanders “can unite Democrats and beat Trump,” Mayor Pete is  “more progressive than you think,” Elizabeth Warren “has the best shot at a transformative presidency,” and Joe Biden “is the only candidate with a real shot at getting things done.” And the case for Michael Bloomberg is “coming soon.” 

In The Dispatch, a new magazine founded by National Review and Weekly Standard alumni, legal scholar and former justice department official Jack Goldsmith weighs in on the crisis of legitimacy in the Justice Department—the crisis triggered when prosecutors resigned from the Roger Stone case after Attorney General William Barr revised their sentencing recommendations in the wake of Trump’s tweeted gripes about the recommendations. Goldsmith (who was writing before Barr publicly complained about Trump’s tweeting) is hard on both Barr and Trump, though he notes that Obama, too, once violated the norm against presidential comment on justice department matters.

Bernadette Sheridan has synesthesia—more specifically, she has grapheme-color synesthesia; she sees numbers and letters in color. In a piece in Elemental she explains what it’s like to have synesthesia, and on this site she lets you type in your name and see what it would look like to her.

This week on Bloggingheads.tv (and The Wright Show podcast) I interviewed Andrew Bacevich, the historian and former Army colonel who is now president of the anti-militarism and anti-Blob Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. We talked about his new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, which advances a grand unified theory that explains both America’s disastrous recent foreign policy and the ascendancy of Donald Trump as flowing from a kind of ideological and moral hubris on the part of America’s ruling elites.