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.
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.
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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.”
ROBERT WRIGHT: [Spinoza] kind of fascinates me… There's a phrase that's common now, people will say they're “spiritual but not religious.” And Spinoza strikes me as… maybe one of the first prominent philosophers you could call “spiritual but not religious.” He did use the word God, but not in a way that a lot of religious people would recognize, right?
REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Right. Pretty eccentric use of the word God.
By way of background, he was Jewish. His family had fled the Spanish Inquisition. They had been forced to pretend they were Christians. They went to Holland where they didn't have to pretend they were Christians and they could practice Judaism. And wouldn't you know it, their son almost immediately becomes a heretic and is excommunicated [from the Jewish community] at a very young age, in his early 20s, because his views on God and on Judaism are so radical, right?
So what was the problem? Where did he depart from orthodoxy? (Almost everywhere, I guess.)
He was put into—actually, in Hebrew it's called “herem”, and it's translated as excommunication, but it really means separation from the community—and usually there was … a term of separation, then you were allowed back in to the community. You did your penance and you came back in. Spinoza's is the only case on record in the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam where it was just “Get out, don't come back, we don't want you.”
And the thing is that he was, as you say, very young—23, 24. And so, he had not yet published the great work for which we know him, The Ethics. Scholars have speculated for a long time what exactly had he done to so infuriate people. And I have a theory about what he had done, which was that it didn't really matter to him to be part of that community. The one thing about Judaism—and I think it's still quite true—is that the community, the identity with the community, is extremely important.
Spinoza is radical in many, many ways. One way, which really predates the Enlightenment by 100 years and, I think, really pushes us toward the Enlightenment, [is that] he thinks that the identity you're born into is not the important thing. That it's just a matter of the accidents of one's birth. We make our identity by becoming rational. And to the extent we're rational, we all partake of the same identity.
You know those old people who are always seeing signs of civilization’s collapse in the way patterns of English usage are changing? You don’t? Well you do now!
Let me call your attention to this recent headline from no less an arbiter of linguistic propriety than the New York Times Book Review: “Is Blockchain Technology Overhyped?”
Now, when I was a boy, to “hype” something meant… well, let’s consult the actual dictionary I bought when I was in seventh grade, the Second College Edition of the Webster’s New World Dictionary: “to stimulate, excite, enlighten, etc., artificially by or as by the injection of a narcotic drug.” [emphasis added] Twelve years after buying that dictionary, when I got my first job at a newspaper, I discovered that this meaning of the term was alive and well, as reflected in a specifically journalistic usage: For a reporter to “hype” a story was to overstate it, to write it up in a way that exaggerated its actual significance (typically in hopes of getting it on the front page).
Before I proceed with my jeremiad, let’s pause to note an etymological irony: though to “hype” a story means to overstate it, the word derives not from the root hyper, which means “over,” as in “hyperbole,” but from the root hypo, which means “under,” as in “the hypodermic [under-the-skin] needle that brings the artificial stimulation.” OK, enough irony—now back to my jeremiad.
So, if to “hype” something means to overstate it, then to “overhype” something is to “over-overstate” it. Which is, well, a bit much, right? Even flat-out redundant?
Remember the “Intellectual Dark Web”? Nineteen months ago, that term was injected into America’s zeitgeist by New York Times staffer Bari Weiss, who, in a lavishly illustrated piece, explained what the IDW was and why it held great promise.
In Weiss’s telling, the loose network of thinkers constituting the IDW was just what America needed in a time of political polarization and increasingly oppressive speech codes. This new tribe of “renegades” was bound not by ideology—“The core members have little in common politically,” Weiss wrote—but rather by a fierce commitment to principle, to the defense of free inquiry and expression. IDW members might disagree about any number of issues, but all courageously stood up to “the tyranny of thought policing.”
Interest in the IDW spiked. (See graph, below, of Google search frequency for “Intellectual Dark Web.”) Then interest began subsiding. (See graph below again.) Then it kept subsiding. (Ditto.) Today, you don’t hear much about the IDW—not even from the people who are, or were, part of it.
At the conservative never-Trump site The Bulwark, Jonathan V. Last offers four reasons Republican politicians will never abandon Trump. And he means never; even after Trump leaves the White House he can use his Twitter following to punish politicians who defy him. Trump, writes Last, “owns the GOP in a way that is unprecedented in the modern era.”
In the first of a multi-part series, the New York Times vividly shows how vulnerable your cell phone makes you to invasions of privacy. The invaders aren’t telecom companies or the government but rather “location data companies” whose software resides in smart phone apps you’ve authorized to know your location—and who can sell your data to anyone who wants it. Though the software doesn’t know your identity—and most commercial users of the data don’t care about your identity, so long as they can, say, show you an ad for Acme Coffee the moment you walk past an Acme Coffee Shop—your identity can be inferred from your daily patterns of movement.
Tweet of the week comes from @DanMKervick: “We’ve reached a point in world history where a genuinely international political party makes abundant sense. It should focus on peace, disarmament, environmental preservation, and shared global prosperity.” Sign me up.
Turkey, according to a piece in the New Scientist, wins the award for first country to build and deploy drones armed with machine guns. An accompanying promotional video shows the drone in action in a setting that looks authentically warlike—without committing the marketing blunder of showing people on the ground getting killed.
In Tricycle, Sumi Loundon Kim explains how parents can introduce their kids to a nighttime ritual of lovingkindness (metta) meditation. It can be done more formally or less formally—while seated near a Buddhist altar or while snuggled in bed. I suspect this ritual might provide some of the psychological benefits that, as I dimly recall, my nighttime prayer provided when I was a boy.
Humans didn’t invent non-zero-sum games. Natural selection was forging win-win outcomes long before people showed up and articulated the underlying logic. The Hawaiian bobtail squid, for example, houses and feeds bacteria that, in return, camouflage the squid at night by emitting a light that’s similar to the moonlight filtering through the water. As Quanta magazine’s Laura Poppick reports, scientists have now mapped the bobtail squid’s genome and are using that data to flesh out the evolution of this symbiosis. Even if you’re not a genome enthusiast, you should consider checking out the beautiful pictures of bobtail squids.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to watch movies even when you know how they’ll end, you may have spent much of the past week focused on impeachment proceedings (which—in case you’ve managed to avoid the plot spoilers so far—are sure to end in President Trump’s acquittal by the Senate, with his base having been energized in the meanwhile). Personally, I hate watching movies when I know how they’ll end—especially this one! So I’m well positioned to tell you what’s been going on in the world this week other than impeachment.
And a lot has been going on. Unfortunately, much of it, from the vantage point of my own ideology, has been bad. If you, too, find this summary of the week’s big events a bit dispiriting, just remember this. OK, here goes:
A kinder, gentler Trump: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won re-election, as his Conservative party routed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. This apparently means that Brexit will happen next month, though the terms of the post-Brexit economic relationship between Britain and Europe won’t be worked out until long thereafter. Also, Britain may get smaller. The Conservatives lost big in mainly anti-Brexit Scotland, which may now seek a second referendum on whether to secede from the United Kingdom. And, for the first time, most members of parliament from Northern Ireland favor ditching the UK for union with Ireland.
A not much kinder, not much gentler Trump: Narendra Modi, the ethno-nationalist Prime Minister of India, hailed his parliament’s passage of a bill that would create a path to citizenship for migrants from nearby countries—with the notable exception of migrants who are Muslim.
If you’re a liberal who has been trying to change the minds of conservative climate change skeptics, social science now offers this guidance: Cut it out! The first step toward convincing them that they’re wrong may be to quit trying to convince them that they’re wrong.
That’s one takeaway from a study presented last month by two political scientists, Dominik Stecula of Penn and Eric Merkley of the University of Toronto. They found that people who strongly identified as Republican and were shown the scientific consensus on climate change were less likely to accept it if they were also shown warnings about the perils of climate change from prominent Democrats.
By itself this isn’t big news. We’ve long known that, just as people sometimes use “in-group cues” to form their views—that is, they uncritically accept opinions prevalent in their tribe—they can also use “out-group cues,” rejecting opinions because they’re held by the enemy tribe. And you’d expect this effect to be especially strong in an age, like ours, of “negative partisanship”—when the two political parties seem to be held together largely by dislike of each other.
Robert Wright: Hi Steven.
Stephen Batchelor: Hello Bob.
How are you doing?
Good. You should be, you're in France, living an enviable life there, i gather.
Well, unfortunately, human life, wherever you are...
Ah. That brings us directly to our subject, which is Buddhism. … You’re very well known as a writer on Buddhism, a former Buddhist monk yourself, still a practicing Buddhist. Now, some people might contend that description because you are famously a proponent of secular Buddhism and there are people who don't think that secular Buddhism should be called Buddhism, I guess. But we'll get into all of this, into what we mean by secular Buddhism. One interesting thing about your worldview is that you don't view the terms "secular" and "religious" as mutually exclusive. You think something can be secular, but religious. So, yeah, we'll get into this.
In Aeon, the philosopher Nicolas Bommarito sings the praises of modesty and explains why, historically, many philosophers haven’t been big fans of it. Bommarito’s conception of modesty seems in some ways eccentric; he says that truly modest people don’t really care how they stack up against other people. (I’ve always tried to be modest, but if that kind of indifference is a prerequisite, I give up.) But at least one of Bommarito’s claims is unarguable: Modesty, he says, “is something you can’t really brag about.”
This week the Washington Post published and assessed a trove of government documents that are to the Afghanistan War what the Pentagon Papers were to the Vietnam War: a look into government findings and deliberations that reveal much more internal doubt about the prospects for success than was officially acknowledged.
In the Post’s Outlook section, Stephen Wertheim and Samuel Moyn of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft explain how the disregard of both domestic and international law has led war—invasions, occupations, drone strikes, special forces raids, etc.—to become a post–Cold War constant for America.
Elon Musk drew a certain amount of ridicule for this tweet. But I actually found it interesting. I’d never before thought about using one interpretation of quantum physics—that subatomic reality doesn’t assume definite form until it’s observed—to buttress the hypothesis that we’re living in a simulation. (And hey, at least he didn’t call anyone a pedophile.)
Have you ever noticed that different trains' whistles have different pitches? Turns out they’re so different that you could, by creating a video mashup of different trains whistling, play Pachelbel’s Canon.
You’ve probably heard the big news from this week’s NATO summit. As reported on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post, several European leaders were captured on video talking about President Trump, over beverages and hors d’oeuvres, in a less-than-reverential way—and Trump, needless to say, got in a huff about it.
What you probably haven’t heard—because it was reported almost nowhere—is this news from the summit: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced, "We have declared space as the fifth operational domain for NATO, alongside land, air, sea, and cyber."
There may be a hidden link between these two developments. One reason leaders of NATO countries dis Trump behind his back is that he spends so much time dissing NATO. And according to some observers, one reason NATO decided to expand its mission into outer space is to get Trump to cut down on the dissing.
After all, Trump this year, amid great fanfare, created the US Space Command—which, Congress willing, will soon beget the US Space Force, a military branch equal in status to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. So what better way for NATO to get some Trump love then to say that it, too, thinks the final frontier could use more policing?
In the previous issue of NZN, we ran excerpts from a podcast conversation I had with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci about similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism. This week we bring you a part of the conversation that’s a bit more self-helpy than last week’s selection.
This part of our chat draws on an advice column Massimo was writing at the time (in 2018), in which he answered people’s questions about how to stoically handle problems they face. Looking back at our exchange made me wonder if I should take a shot at offering advice from a Buddhist perspective (as informed by modern psychology, including evolutionary psychology). So let’s try it! If you have any practical questions you’d like me to answer, just write me at email@example.com.
I’ll respond to some of the questions in future issues of the newsletter. And, meanwhile, if you want to watch the entire conversation between me and Massimo, it’s here.
WRIGHT: So the idea is to look at a few questions that people have written, and, after we talk about the kind of Stoic guidance you’ve given them, see if I have anything to add from a Buddhist perspective. And maybe we’ll get a chance to elaborate a little on the differences in meditative practice, because I know there are varieties of meditative practice in both traditions. [...]
Let's take a question that you have answered already. Someone writes in:
I am a filmmaker based in India. Lately I've had a very tough time with my career. I feel like I'm working hard, but I just can't seem to catch a break. I mean, I write my scripts, I follow up with people and nobody responds. It's like I'm just being rejected...
He goes on to talk about how, where many of his peers have succeeded, he has failed. It's a failure narrative.
You want to talk a little about how you thought about that?
On the CBC, a psychiatrist at McGill University discusses a drug that apparently can help cure heartbreak. Recalling a “romantic betrayal event” while under its influence, he says, reduces the emotional power of the memory thereafter. Oddly—or maybe not so oddly—the drug is already in wide use as a way of lowering blood pressure.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat makes the case that the famously far-left Bernie Sanders could have broader appeal—both in the Democratic primaries and in a general election—than is generally appreciated. Sanders polls better among non-Bernie-Bro Democratic demographics than you’d expect, says Douthat. And his leftism is so focused on economic issues that he seems less threatening than many Democrats to conservatives who emphasize abortion and other social issues. Sanders could be “the liberal [candidate] most likely to spend all his time trying to tax the rich and leave cultural conservatives alone.”
In a piece in The Cut called “My Wife’s Enemies Are Now My Enemies, Too,” Josh Gondelman offers himself as a case study in the tribalizing potential of marriage.
In Psychology Today, Susan Lanzoni recaps the semantic evolution of the word empathy—which a century ago, when it first appeared in English, meant “nearly the opposite of what it means now.” It meant “projecting one’s own imagined feelings and movements into objects”—seeing sharp, angular contours as ferocious, say, or seeing soft curves as calm. Lanzoni hopes reflecting on the word’s etymology will rekindle this “aesthetic empathy,” which she says can deepen appreciation of “our inherent connection to a world beyond ourselves.” Such reflection could also remind us that when we exercise empathy in the most common modern sense—feel the feelings someone else is feeling—we are, strictly speaking, engaging in an act of projection; we can’t know exactly what it’s like to be someone else, even if it’s often worth trying.
And speaking of empathy: On the Wright Show I talked to psychologist Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy, about when empathy is and isn’t a good guide to moral conduct.
In Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria questions the “new consensus” which holds that “China is now a vital threat to the United States both economically and strategically, that U.S. policy toward China has failed, and that Washington needs a new, much tougher strategy to contain it.”
In Vice, Caroline Haskins, looks at how Amazon has “been quietly building a privatized surveillance network throughout the United States.” She’s not talking about Amazon’s Alexa, but rather about Ring, the security camera that lets people remotely see who’s at the door—or for that matter who’s walking along the sidewalk or what cars are driving by. Neighbors can form sharing networks that give each of them broad surveillance powers, and arrangements with local police can let them in on the action. Needless to say, there are pros and cons.
Forty-three years after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith do several deep dives into The Intercept’s “comprehensive dataset on everyone sentenced to die in active death penalty jurisdictions since 1976.” One conclusion: “Capital punishment remains as ‘arbitrary and capricious’ as ever.”
This week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said something no US secretary of state has ever said before: that Israel’s West Bank settlements are not a violation of international law. He said this in spite of the fact that (a) a plain reading of the Fourth Geneva Convention—which Israel signed, and which prohibits the transfer of civilians to territories acquired by force—indicates otherwise; and (b) the UN Security Council, the ultimate arbiter of such matters, has repeatedly said otherwise.
The phase of House impeachment hearings that concluded this week established, beyond reasonable doubt, that President Trump withheld congressionally authorized aid from Ukraine as a way of coercing its government into launching an investigation that, he hoped, would taint a political rival, Joe Biden.
Here is the political toll this has taken on Trump: Since the day the hearings started, his approval rating, as measured in the Real Clear Politics polling average, has risen by slightly less than a point, and his disapproval rating has fallen by slightly more than a point.
There was a time when you could shock people with paragraphs like that. But over the past three years Trump’s core support has proved so durable in the face of so much bad publicity that many Trump opponents have come to expect the worst. Poll numbers that once induced much wailing and gnashing of #Resistance teeth now elicit knowing, sardonic nods.
Countless undergraduates have been taught that America’s exceptionalist zeal—its seeming compulsion to remake other nations in its image, sometimes via war—dates back to the Puritans. The Puritans are said to have injected a sense of divine ordination “into the distinctive cultural DNA of imperially expansive America,” as historian Daniel T. Rodgers puts it. Rodgers puts it that way in a book that questions this standard story by closely analyzing what is taken as the source text of Puritanical American exceptionalism: a sermon in which John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, invoked this biblical passage: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” In the Nation, historian Andrew Delbanco reviews Rodgers’s book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon.
In Gzero, Gabrielle Debinski pithily summarizes views on foreign policy expressed by Democratic presidential candidates in this week’s debate—which devoted more time to foreign policy than past debates (which is to say: some time).
In an Aeon piece alluringly titled “What is to be done about the problem of creepy men?” law professor Heidi Matthews actually asks what is to be done with our intuitions about what is and isn’t “creepy,” particularly in the #MeToo era. She recommends not letting those intuitions substitute for careful analysis, since they can be tools of “shunning and social ostracism” and have been used against, for example, the mentally ill and homosexuals. Matthews also notes that the “creepiness” reaction is related to the emotion of disgust—which, as it happens, was the subject of a long 2016 piece in Aeon, by Kathleen McAuliffe, that also offered reasons for caution about letting our feelings serve as moral guides.
In The Federalist, Trump supporter Mollie Hemingway gives her account of “How Republicans won phase one of the impeachment.”
A New York Times Magazine piece by Kevin Roose documents the demise of the free internet and the growth of the paid internet—which offers, for example, a “news therapy” app called Sift that, for $3.33 per month, promises to help you “stay informed about contentious topics while reducing anxiety and stress.” Most surprising stat: the average American spent more than $1,300 on digital media last year.
In the New Republic, Udi Greenberg reviews the new book Reimagining Judeo-Christian America, by K. Healan Gaston of Harvard Divinity School. When the term “Judeo-Christian” came into currency in the 1940s, it served as a vehicle of social inclusion, identifying Jews with an American moral and spiritual heritage long thought of as Christian. But the term can be used for exclusion—as when Steven Bannon champions the struggle of the “Judeo-Christian West” against Islam. Gaston, Greenberg writes, argues that the term has been used that way more often than you might guess—and has sometimes even been used at the expense of Jews, as a way to “legitimize larger claims about Christian supremacy.”
On bloggingheads.tv—and on The Wright Show audio podcast—I argue with my closest Trump-supporting friend, Mickey Kaus, about impeachment and other things, including Trump’s Iran policy.