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.

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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.

Worst week ever?

What could be more painful, for the committed Trump opponent, than watching Trump march into last Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast and hold up a copy of USA Today with the word Acquitted plastered across its front page, above its story about his impeachment? 

No, the answer isn’t watching him hold up a copy of the Washington Post with the headline Trump Acquitted (which he also did). The answer is watching him do both of these things in the same week that (1) his Gallup approval rating reached its all-time high; (2) the Iowa caucuses turned into a display of Democratic incompetence that he seized on with malicious glee, while journalists reported that the Iowa fiasco had intensified Democratic infighting; (3) he delivered a State of the Union address that, in addition to setting a new standard for SOTU cheesiness, successfully employed his patented formula for political survival: simultaneously enraging his detractors and energizing his supporters; (4) he previewed, in his opening SOTU segment, a formidable reelection stump speech, flaunting a series of mainly accurate boasts about the health of the economy; (5) various pundits deemed this “the most politically successful week of the Trump presidency” or said that for the first time since Trump’s inauguration, they believed he will probably be reelected.  

But cheer up! For two reasons:

1) This too shall pass.

2) The great thing about bad things is that once you figure out why they happened, you can (in principle) make them less likely to happen in the future. 

Consider the decision to impeach. Now, I’m not here to declare that decision a mistake in every sense of the term. There is value in recording for posterity the fact that many Americans, and their political representatives, find Trump sufficiently horrible to warrant the ultimate indictment. If, decades from now, archaeologists are sifting through the ruins of American civilization, I’d like them to find evidence that its collapse didn’t catch us totally unawares; we knew an ominous presidency when we saw one.  

But if you ask whether impeachment was a mistake in sheerly tactical terms, I think the answer is yes. Between the first day of the House’s public impeachment hearings and the end of this week, Trump’s “underwater rating”—the gap between his disapproval and approval ratings—shrank by four points. This could be a coincidence, but it’s certainly the opposite of the hoped-for effect. The tactical argument for impeachment had been that it would damage Trump politically, even if it didn’t lead to conviction.

How to be an Epicurean (instead of being a Stoic)

A few months ago NZN ran an excerpt from my conversation with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to Be a Stoic. Well, one of Stoicism’s rival schools of philosophy in ancient Greece was Epicureanism, and one of Massimo’s colleagues, Catherine Wilson, has written a book called How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well. I interviewed Catherine on The Wright Show a few weeks ago, and below is part of our conversation. I went into her book knowing little about its subject, and I came away from it feeling a real affinity with Epicureanism—not just for its very reasonable approach to living, but also for its very congenial (to me, at least) political vibes. 

ROBERT WRIGHT: Why don't we start out by talking about the role of pleasure in Epicureanism. One of the connotations of the term “Epicurean” today is of a kind of hedonism, self-indulgence. And I think, on the one hand, you're going to say that that’s … misleading. On the other hand, pleasure does play a central role in the logic of Epicureanism, as a value that … you can organize your life around. Do you want to talk about that? 

CATHERINE WILSON: Yeah. Hedonism is pleasure taken to extremes, and no Epicurean ever recommended that. ... They saw that there are two limitations on that: first, you usually get yourself into trouble if you go too much into the pleasures of food, drink, sex, power domination; [and second,] there are ethical limits. So there's no way to go all out and stay within the limits of Epicureanism. 

On the other hand, what they do is give you a permission to enjoy innocent pleasures, and they don't see an opposition between pleasure and virtue, which all the major moral philosophies and religions seem to do. There's a kind of core of asceticism in not only Western, but Eastern thinking, and Epicureans were completely opposed to it. …

Stoics aim to be able to preserve their equanimity and even happiness under even highly adverse conditions ... and that entails an ability to, to some extent, divorce yourself from the guidance of natural emotions, right? Is there a broader distinction between Stoicism and Epicureanism in the way we think about our animal nature? 

Oh, I think so. … Stoics will tell you that they only want to free you of the painful emotions. [But] really, the rhetoric suggests otherwise. Seneca thinks any little bit of emotion is bad, the emotions are diseases.

Epicureans think of the emotions as like perception, something that we’re outfitted with that is conducive to our survival and functioning. 

So in the first place, they think you can't just suppress your emotions by thinking in certain ways—and secondly, why would you want to? If you could just take a pill that would make you completely numb against grief, against all forms of irritation, as well as against wanting things, liking things [and] being motivated to pursue things, life would seem incredibly numb and boring.

Ethics

You alluded to the limits that we, according to Epicureans, should impose on ourselves as we pursue pleasure. … In addition to yourself at that moment as something you legitimately think about—[that is,] it’s fair for me to want to be happy and enjoy pleasure at the moment—there are two kinds of constraints on that.

One is trade-offs between my happiness and the happiness of my future self, … and [the other] is [trade-offs] between my own happiness and the happiness of other people—[which is] where we enter the realm of ethics and morality, right?

Exactly. …

Readings

In a Vox interview, James Carville, Bill Clinton’s political guru, launches an entertaining broadside against the Democratic Party, the not-so-obscure subtext of which is that Bernie Sanders would be a disastrous nominee. Also in Vox, Matt Yglesias argues that Bernie’s performance in Friday’s New Hampshire debate shows him to be a more skillful tactician, and better at appealing to moderates, than is appreciated by some people who think he’d be a disastrous nominee. At Informed Comment, Juan Cole weighs in on Bernie’s political viability.

Turns out Michael Bloomberg is paying Instagram influencers to say nice things about him. So far as Daily Beast reporter Scott Bixby can tell, this is a first in American presidential campaigns. 

In Aeon, scholars Alberto Acerbi and Charlotte Brand report that over the past half century “English-language popular songs have become more negative.” Positive-emotion words have dropped in frequency, negative-emotion words have risen. The good news: the word “love” has grown in frequency over the past 15 years. More bad news: so has the word “hate.” 

In the Atlantic, McKay Coppins takes a very deep dive into “the billion dollar disinformation campaign to reelect the president.” 

The New York Times performs a public service by asking all Democratic presidential candidates the same set of foreign policy questions and then arranging the answers so you can peruse them either by candidate or by topic. The candidate who declined to answer the most questions: Pete Buttigieg (19 out of 35!). The only candidate who called for US compliance with international law: Elizabeth Warren.

In Tricycle, Matthew Gindin explores the intertwined roots of Buddhism and Hatha yoga

In Arc Digital, Alex Muresianu makes the case for a return to “smoke filled rooms.” This argument is a hardy perennial; every four years someone waxes nostalgic about the days, before the ascendancy of presidential primaries, when party elites chose presidential candidates. But coming now—four years after Republican elites were unable to keep Trump from winning the nomination, and as the Democratic race features no leading candidates who look like what you’d order up from central casting to beat Trump—the argument will presumably be getting more traction than usual. (Though four years ago a Democratic candidate who was favored by party elites did get the nomination and lost to a Republican candidate who wasn’t.) 

In the Washington Examiner, Damir Marusic reviews historian John Connelly’s book From Peoples Into Nations, about the emergence of nationalism in the nineteenth century and its earlier roots. The book argues, among other things, that nationalist movements have tended to grow out of “a perceived threat to a group’s existence.” 

If you want to know just how deeply anti-Palestinian Jared Kushner’s Israel-Palestine “peace plan” is, I recommend this American Prospect piece by Israeli Daniel Levy, who played a role in past Israel-Palestine negotiations.  

Remember the killing of an American contractor in Iraq that triggered a spiral of escalation that led to America’s assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani? Alissa Rubin of The New York Times reports that US intelligence may well have been wrong to attribute the contractor’s death to an Iranian-backed militia. In fact, Sunni jihadists who are enemies of Iran may have done the killing. So, as for those several dozen Iranians and Iraqis we killed during the spiral of escalation: never mind.

Since the previous issue of NZN came out, I’ve posted an episode of The Wright Show featuring Daniel McCarthy, a Trump supporter who, as the former editor of the American Conservative, can claim to have been ahead of the curve on the whole Trump thing. I learned some new things from my conversation with Daniel, such as: there’s a real fear among some Trumpists, apparently, that if America is swamped by immigrants who weren’t brought up to revere the Bill of Rights, various liberties—notably the Second Amendment right to bear arms—could be imperiled.  

The humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Syria, is concisely assessed by the International Crisis Group, which is a reliably acute analyst of conflicts and crises around the world.

A survey by the American Enterprise Institute explores the connection between politics and dating on an issue-by-issue basis. For example: having different views on abortion is a dealbraker for more people than is disagreeing over immigration. 

Glenn Greenwald has his reasons

This week’s version of “Suleimani had blood on his hands but the US shouldn’t have killed him” was “Glenn Greenwald annoys me but Brazil shouldn’t prosecute him.”

On Tuesday Brazilian prosecutors filed charges against Greenwald in connection with a series of Intercept articles he co-authored that, perhaps not coincidentally, suggested corrupt behavior on the part of the prosecutors’ boss, Brazilian Minister of Justice Sergio Moro. Also perhaps not coincidentally, these Intercept articles cast doubt on the legitimacy of the presidency of Moro’s boss, the famously authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro. 

Greenwald—who lives in Brazil and is choosing to stay there and face possible imprisonment, even though he could legally leave the country—immediately became the recipient of some very ambivalent support on Twitter. For example:

“Glenn’s been awful on US politics for years. But these charges are almost certainly bullshit.”
—Josh Marshall, founder and editor of TPM

“I disagree with Greenwald about basically everything and he has been relentlessly unpleasant to people I work with. Which is why I feel it’s important to say that this is a profoundly concerning assault on press freedom.”
—Quinta Jurecic, managing editor of Lawfare

And my personal favorite:
“I think Glenn Greenwald is a bad faith doorknob and I have nary a morsel of respect for him, but the cyber crime charges should give every journalist pause.”
—Imani Gandy (better known as @AngryBlackLady) of Rewire News 

I of course share these concerns about freedom of the press—all the more so because it’s easy to imagine Trump using Bolsonaro as a role model. But I’ll refrain from joining in the ritual denunciation of Greenwald, and instead point out one irony that may have evaded the awareness of some denouncers:

How Aaron Sorkin killed 'Mockingbird'

A few months ago I saw the Broadway version of To Kill a Mockingbird, a much-lauded production that, as shaped by playwright Aaron (“The West Wing”) Sorkin, significantly alters the tenor of the 1960 Harper Lee novel. 

There’s a lot about the play I liked. The seemingly weird decision to cast an adult as Scout, the novel’s child narrator, worked spectacularly. But ultimately, I think, Sorkin’s rendering of the story drives home this sad fact: If you want to get much lauded for a Broadway production, the safest route is to affirm the prejudices and moral blind spots of your time rather than challenge them. 

And here’s the irony: If Sorkin had wanted to challenge the prejudices and moral blind spots of our time, all he would have had to do is leave Harper Lee’s version of the story alone. In an important sense, the novel is actually more subversive now than it was in its original milieu. Sorkin, in trying to make the story edgier, has taken the edge off it. In trying to make it politically progressive, he has made it morally regressive. 

To put a finer point on it: Sorkin has written a play for the #Resistance, injecting the story with a subtext about Trumpism and how we should handle it. And that message reflects and reinforces some of the least enlightened and most counterproductive tendencies in the liberal reaction against Trump.   

One of the most famous lines in To Kill a Mockingbird comes during a conversation between Scout and her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch. He says to her: "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Readings

In Quanta, Jordana Cepelewicz explores the ethical issues raised by “cerebral organoids”—brainlike structures, complete with active neurons, that are grown from human stem cells and used in research. The consensus within the field is that these blobs aren’t conscious, though I don’t understand how you can rule out some degree of sentience. In any event, their “developmental age” is likened to that of a second-trimester fetus, and as researchers build more and more complex versions of them, that age will rise.   

In a New York Times excerpt from Ezra Klein’s new book Why We’re Polarized, Klein looks at the asymmetrical nature of America’s political polarization, exploring the implications of the fact that over the past 50 years the Democratic Party has gotten more diverse while the Republican Party has gotten more homogeneous. 

The latest issue of California Sunday magazine devotes multiple articles to facial recognition technology: how it works, how it’s been used in the past, how police are using it now, how Hong Kong protestors circumvent it, and more... 

In Lion’s Roar, Mirabai Bush recalls visits with her friend Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher and author of the classic Be Here Now, who died in December. This excerpt from her 2018 book Walking Each Other Home focuses on their discussions about how to handle fear, including fear of death

In The New Republic, Jacob Heilbrunn explains how neoconservatives, discredited after the disastrous Iraq War, have regained influence in Washington notwithstanding President Trump’s professed aversion to military intervention. The recent assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani “revealed that the neocon military-intellectual complex is very much still intact, with the ability to spring back to life from a state of suspended animation in an instant.”

In the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, Taylor Plimpton notes the vibrance of political activism about immigration, gun control, and climate change and asks, “Why, when it comes to war, are we so strangely silent?” The answers he comes up with make sense, but I’d add another one: There’s a failure to fully appreciate how much our current state of endless war impedes solutions to other problems we care about, especially global problems such as climate change.

In the Baffler, George Scialabba writes about Wendell Berry, the ecologically minded writer and, in some sense, spiritual leader. Scialabba compares Berry to other “anti-modernists” and winds up appreciative of Berry’s work but in some ways skeptical. Berry is a Christian, whereas Scialabba believes that “our culture’s great need today is for a pious paganism, a virtuous rationalism, skeptical and science-loving but skeptical even of science when necessary, aware that barbarism is as likely as progress and may even arrive advertised as progress, steadily angry at the money-changers and mindful of the least of our brethren.” Scialabba grants that anyone who “shares Berry’s Christian beliefs” should naturally “adopt his ideal of stewardship. But if those religious beliefs are necessary as well as sufficient—if there is no other path to that ideal, as he sometimes seems to imply—then we may be lost. One cannot believe at will.”

Tom Cotton, soldier in Bill Kristol’s proxy war against evil

Among the things I dislike about each fresh burst of American warmaking is seeing its cheerleaders bask in the spotlight. Consider Senator Tom Cotton, who has been unsettlingly visible since the assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani. 

Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, is a protégé of famous neoconservative Bill Kristol, who played a big role in getting the US to invade Iraq and has since championed various other forms of American belligerence, many of them aimed at Iran. Cotton got elected to the Senate with the help of a million dollars from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, subsequently hired Kristol’s son Joseph as his legislative director, and has in various other ways settled into a cozy symbiosis with Kristol’s network. The Washington Free Beacon—whose founding editor is Matthew Continetti, Kristol’s son-in-law—highlights Cotton’s exploits so regularly that any given page of its Tom Cotton archives (say, this year’s July-September page) will feature an array of headlines that speak to the vast range of the senator’s expertise. (August 26: “Cotton: Greenland Purchase Would Secure ‘Vital Strategic Interests’.”)    

You may, like me, find Cotton hard to take, but there’s virtue in persevering and paying attention to his recent doings. They nicely illustrate some key components of America’s war-starting and war-sustaining machinery—the powerfully primitive worldview that drives it, the dubious logic employed to justify it, and the sleazy tactics that are sometimes used to silence its critics. 

Exhibits A and B, from the past 10 days: (1) A New York Times op-ed Cotton wrote, defending the killing of Suleimani; (2) a letter that he and two other senators sent to Trump’s attorney general, requesting an investigation into a group that criticized the killing of Suleimani.

1. Cotton’s New York Times op-ed. This piece is notable for, among other things, employing a rhetorical device that has impeded human understanding since the dawn of civilization. You might call it the “falsely implied comparison.”  

In the course of casting various Democrats’ reactions to the assassination in a negative light, Cotton wrote in the Times that “Senator Bernie Sanders likened America’s killing of a terrorist on the battlefield to Vladimir Putin’s assassination of Russian political dissidents.” 

Making sense of the Buddhist idea that the self doesn’t exist

Below is an excerpt from a video dialogue between Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, and Joseph Goldstein, author of The Experience of Insight, One Dharma, and Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening.
Impermanence
Robert Wright: Impermanence is ... a huge theme of the Buddhist worldvieweverything is impermanent, you have to accept that. Does that become vivid in the course of meditation? … 

Joseph Goldstein: Yeah. It very much becomes extremely vivid in meditation practice, because we're practicing being undistracted. As we're undistracted and just connected more to the flow of our changing experience, we see, over and over again, that things are arising and passing away.I'll just give you a couple of very simple examples.

At the end of a formal meditation sitting we might ring the bell. If you just ask somebody what just happened, [they’d say]: "Oh, I heard the sound of the bell”—as if the sound of the bell at the end of the sitting is one thing.

But if we're really being mindful as we are hearing the bell, we see that for however long the sound lasts—maybe 15 seconds, or 20 seconds, or 30 seconds—within that time, there is constant change going on. It's nuances of sound: vibration, intensity, pitch. So many different things are happening within what we would call “the sound of a bell.” So we're really seeing the changing nature on a much more refined level.

And the same thing happens with the familiar meditation object...the breath. Normally we go, "Oh, take an in-breath, take an out-breath”—as if each of them is a single unit. But when we're really being mindful, we see that even within an in-breath, there are hundreds of sensations that are happening. And the quieter we get, we tune in, we refine our perception.

It's something I call NPMs, Noticings Per Minute. In the beginning, our NPMs are pretty low, maybe 10 or 20. But as we cultivate awareness and mindfulness, the NPMs go way up and we see within a breath, or within a step, so many different changing sensations happening.

And we also see the changing nature in our minds, the rapidity of thoughts arising and passing.

Readings

In the New York Times, Kashmir Hill writes about a “groundbreaking facial recognition app” that could “end your ability to walk down the street anonymously.” The flip side: It could also mean that you could walk down the street wearing augmented reality glasses that would show you the name of everyone you saw.

In trying to figure out why the death of Roger Scruton, a philosopher I’d barely heard of, occasioned so many online laments from conservatives (especially those with Burkean and nationalist leanings), I was led to an interview of him published last year in the New Statesman. As the New York Times obituary explains, the interview was originally published in condensed form and got Scruton into a lot of trouble after a New Statesman editor said on social media that it contained “outrageous remarks” about things such as Islamophobia and George Soros. You can judge Scruton for yourself by reading the full, unedited version of the interview that the New Statesman later published.

In the Nation, climate-change activist Bill McKibben uses the epidemic of wildfires that has afflicted Australia as a teaching moment.

In Mother Jones, Tim Murphy writes that, if you want to understand the impeachment of Donald Trump, it helps to understand the many parallels between it and the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson—which, Murphy says, has been greatly misunderstood. If you’re not up for a deep historical dive, you can read Vox’s answers to nine basic questions about the impeachment, starting with a really basic one: “1) What is a Senate impeachment trial?”

An interactive feature in the Washington Post asks you 20 multiple-choice policy questions, then tells you which Democratic presidential candidates you’re most closely aligned with and shows you a handy chart depicting the candidates’ positions on the 20 policies you opined on.  

In Aeon, historian Andreas Sommer laments “the overzealous pathologisation of spiritual sightings and ghostly visions.” Sommer says that, leaving aside whether “weird experiences” are valid guides to reality, people often benefit from them. One study found that nearly half of widows and widowers reported encounters with their dead spouses, and 69 percent of those found the encounters helpful, whereas only 6 percent found them unsettling. 

On bloggingheads.tv (and on The Wright Show podcast), I discussed and debated the assassination of Suleimani and its aftermath with my Iran-hawk friend Eli Lake. I kept my composure most of the time. And speaking of me and Iran: In May I wrote in Wired about Trump’s unprecedented designation of a governmental entity—Iran’s Revolutionary Guard—as a terrorist organization, and how abjectly and expansively Facebook had accommodated this designation. This issue is newly relevant—both because the assassination was justified by some on grounds that Suleimani was a member of a terrorist group, and because post-assassination expressions of support for Suleimani have been censored by Facebook’s Instagram.   

American officials belatedly disclosed that Iran’s retaliation for the Suleimani assassination—missile strikes on a base in Iraq—had in fact, contrary to earlier statements, caused American casualties. Some took this to mean that we came within a hair’s breadth of war, since a fatality would likely have brought American retaliation. But there’s reason to think it was more like three or four breadths. All the casualties seem to have consisted of either psychological trauma or “burst concussions,” which could have been suffered some distance from where the missiles hit. So my reading of the Iranian assault remains unchanged: Iran leaked word of the strikes so the troops could take shelter (though the US claims it got advance notice without help from Iran), and then hit its targets precisely. The idea was to avoid casualties, thus stopping the cycle of violence, while demonstrating that Iranian ballistic missiles, unlike the cruder missiles fired by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, have pinpoint accuracy and so could kill large numbers of Americans in the future. In this scenario, Americans may yet be killed to avenge Soleimani’s death, but if so this will be done by proxies, or at least without Iranian fingerprints, so as to reduce the chances of America’s bombing Iran in retaliation. 

Suleimani’s assassination and the muddled moralism behind it

Here’s this week’s news quiz:

Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian military leader who was assassinated by the US,
(a) has blood on his hands.
(b) doesn’t have blood on his hands.

If you chose “b” you really should spend more time online. Just look at these Google search numbers: 


Or, instead of going online, you could watch cable news. Anderson Cooper’s Thursday night show on CNN featured, if I recall correctly, at least three references to the blood on Suleimani’s hands, including two references to the specifically American blood on his hands. 

What’s interesting is how often these references are followed by a “but”—how often people who note the blood on Suleimani’s hands go on to raise doubts about the wisdom of assassinating him. Condemning Suleimani seems to be a ritual that commentators and politicians must perform before condemning, or even questioning, the killing of Suleimani. 

Joseph Goldstein on insight, happiness, and the power of saying ‘It’s OK’

Below is an excerpt from a video dialogue between Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, and Joseph Goldstein, author of The Experience of Insight, One Dharma, and Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening.

What is mindfulness?

Robert Wright: You're … a very well known teacher, thinker and writer about Buddhism and, I would say, a significant figure in the history of American Buddhism. When you founded the Insight Meditation Society in the early '70s along with Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, you played an important role in bringing a particular kind of Buddhist meditative practice into America, what's called Vipassana, and we'll get into that. [Your most recent book] is called Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. Now, “mindfulness” and “awakening” are both very important words in Buddhism, of course, and I want to talk about both of them. 

Mindfulness has recently infiltrated non-Buddhist circles. You hear it in a lot of places, I've heard Evangelical pastors talk about mindfulness, and there's a lot of purely what you might call secular discussion of it. For starters, is it easy to tell us what the word means?

Joseph Goldstein: Well, it has a nuanced meaning. It's a bit like asking “What is art?” or “What is love?”

I'm hoping you'll cover those as well before we get through, but let's start with mindfulness.

Readings

In 2013, in the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins profiled the then-obscure Iranian military commander Qassim Suleimani, who was killed this week by American drone strikes.

In Foreign Affairs, Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin assess America’s “40-year obsession with Iran”—and the misconceptions about Iran that sustain it. (There’s a paywall, but you can circumvent it via free registration.)

Apparently distraction was a problem for people even before there were entire Silicon Valley companies devoted to fostering it. Medieval monks complained about distraction (and information overload), according to historian Jamie Kreiner. In Aeon she shares some of their strategies for combatting it. (Warning: One of them is renunciation.) 

In a Buzzfeed piece called “Twitter and Facebook’s Race To The Bottom,” Alex Kantrowitz recounts the past decade’s evolution of the two social media platforms—an evolution that, as you may have surmised, he doesn’t wholly approve of. He focuses on how the addition of new features made the two platforms more toxic. I wouldn’t call this a balanced assessment (surely Twitter’s addition of the quote-tweet wasn’t all bad!), but it nicely underscores the recurring problem of innovation’s unanticipated downsides. Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Sarah J. Jackson has a few kind words about Twitter, which she says has brought previously unheard voices into influential conversations. 

In Vox, Dylan Matthews lists his 12 favorite academic studies of the past decade. Some are encouraging (one finds that increased spending on public schools actually helps), but not all. 

In the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof closed out last year by making the case that, “in the long arc of human history, 2019 was the best year ever.” Um, OK.   

Reporting from Tokyo, Rosalind Adams of Buzzfeed assesses Aibo, a line of robotic dogs that use facial recognition and AI to “shift their personality over time based on their interactions with people they spend time with. Soon, they become much more than a store-bought toy.”