For my money, one of the most valuable things about a mindfulness practice is that it can give you a more objective view of the world. A bit of critical distance from your feelings can let you see other people with less of the distortion that feelings often bring.
And the people you see more objectively can include you. When mindfulness works well, it can help you reflect on decisions you face and give yourself the kind of guidance you’d get from a wise counselor—someone not caught up in your internal struggles, someone viewing you from the outside.
If you’ve tried mindfulness practice and failed to get such benefits, there may be another way to give yourself counsel with some measure of detachment. A study published in the esteemed scientific journal Nature a few months ago reports on the use of virtual reality to let people see themselves, almost literally, from the outside—and advise themselves from that vantage point.
This week, as the public phase of the House impeachment inquiry got underway, Rep. Adam Schiff, who is leading it, began his opening statement with these two sentences: “In 2014, Russia invaded a United States ally, Ukraine, to reverse that nation's embrace of the West, and to fulfill Vladimir Putin's desire to rebuild a Russian empire. In the following years, thirteen thousand Ukrainians died as they battled superior Russian forces.”
The Washington Post’s editorial board, on the same day, struck a similar tone. “The heart of the case” for impeachment, the editors wrote, is that, in trying to get Ukrainian help for his 2020 re-election run, Trump “allied his administration with some of Ukraine’s most corrupt elements, and undercut its military defense at a time when its soldiers were fighting and dying.”
I don’t want to sound hard-hearted, but could we please leave the Ukrainian soldiers out of this? I think it’s a mistake for impeachment supporters to frame their case against Trump in terms of the geopolitics of Russia and Ukraine—bad for their case against Trump, bad for America, and bad for the world.
The Democratic presidential candidates haven’t said much about foreign policy, and what they’ve said has often been frustratingly vague. This week brought a rare opportunity to compare their positions on a specific international development.
It started in Gaza, when Israel assassinated an Islamic Jihad military commander who was thought responsible for past missile attacks on Israel, including a strike in September that disrupted a Bibi Netanyahu campaign event. In response to the assassination (which also killed the commander’s wife), Islamic Jihad fired a barrage of missiles into Israel. Israel replied with more military strikes, which killed at least 30 additional Palestinians, including a number of civilians.
Most of the Democratic presidential candidates who weighed in—including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris—reacted the way American politicians have often reacted to such things. They condemned the Palestinian rocket attacks, expressed solidarity with Israel, made no reference to Palestinian casualties and no mention of either the immediate precipitant of the missile barrage (the killing of the commander and his wife) or conditions that might have contributed to earlier missile attacks on Israel (most notably Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza, which has helped sustain extreme poverty).
The two exceptions were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
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On CNN’s website, journalist Daniel Dale, who has relentlessly chronicled the president’s untruths during this presidency, lists “45 ways Trump has been dishonest about Ukraine and impeachment.”
The Wall Street Journal this week published the results of its big investigation into how Google has “increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged.” Google “made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay, contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action.” Also, Google “boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com and Facebook.” (Remember the neediest!) Google also fiddles with the “auto-complete” algorithm to reduce the chances that people will stumble onto such inflammatory subjects as immigration and abortion.
In the Columbia Journalism Review, sociologist Musa al-Gharbi vividly depicts how good Trump is at getting his favorite thing: attention. Al-Gharbi divides the number of mentions each recent president has gotten in the New York Times by the total number of words published by the Times (to correct for the growth in the latter during the online age) and gets this graph:
In Aeon, philosopher Catherine Wilson sings the praises of Epicureanism as a guiding philosophy and argues that it’s well suited to the modern world. As a lifestyle, Epicureanism is less self-indulgent than the current usage of the term might suggest, though less austere than Stoicism, which is now undergoing something of a revival, and on which Wilson throws a bit of shade.
In Dissent, Nicolaus Mills reviews a biography of Gen. George Marshall, architect of the Marshall Plan and Secretary of State under Truman, and suggests that Marshall’s “pragmatic engagement” would be an improvement on America’s foreign policy of recent decades.
The New York Times reports that, with President Evo Morales having been forced out of office by the military amid protests against him, many of Bolivia’s indigenous people worry that gains they enjoyed in recent years are imperiled. Morales, the first indigenous president in the country’s history, was replaced by a woman of European descent who initially appointed an all-European cabinet and has in the past called indigenous religious rituals “satanic.”
On the Israeli website 972, Menachem Klein explains how the unusual dynamics of this week’s conflict in Gaza reflect important changes in the relationship among Israel, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.
In New York Magazine, Ed Kilgore argues that impeachment could be a “calamity” for Democratic presidential candidates who are in the Senate (Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, Booker, Harris, Bennet). Attending impeachment hearings—which would be in session six days per week—could keep them off the campaign trail for six weeks or more during the critical early phase of the primaries.
Keeping track of Donald Trump’s contributions to the coming of the apocalypse is a job too big for any one person. The best I can do is check in every month or so and list a few of the latest highlights.
During the past 10 days:
- The Trump administration notified the UN that the US will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement in a year, the earliest withdrawal date permitted by the accord.
- A Russian arms control official warned that the prospects for sustaining the most important US-Russia arms control treaty after its expiration date in February of 2020 have been dimmed by Trump’s refusal to discuss the matter.
- Iran announced that, as a result of Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal, and his ensuing imposition of draconian sanctions, it has reactivated centrifuges in a uranium processing plant that lies deep underground, resistant to military attack (but perhaps not resistant to the bunker-busting megabombs that President Obama gave Israel and that Israel may now be tempted to use).
There’s a unifying theme here, and it isn’t just the increasingly plausible end of Planet Earth as we know it. It’s Trump’s apparent aversion to playing non-zero-sum games with other countries—that is, games that can have a win-win or lose-lose outcome (such as, respectively, avoiding a nuclear war or having one). Or at least, it’s his failure to play them well, to get win-win outcomes—and sometimes, it seems, his failure to even see that such outcomes are possible, that we live in a non-zero-sum world.
This is no news flash. Ever since the earliest days of Trump’s presidency, he’s been referred to by some as “the zero-sum president.” The label has its merits (I’ve riffed on it myself), but it has one important, even dangerous, downside.
There are people who believe that the political polarization now afflicting the United States might finally start to subside if Americans of both parties could somehow become more empathetic. If you’re one of these people, the American Political Science Review has sobering news for you.
Last week APSR—one of the alpha journals in political science—published a study which found that “empathic concern does not reduce partisan animosity in the electorate and in some respects even exacerbates it.”
The study had two parts. In the first part, Americans who scored high on an empathy scale showed higher levels of “affective polarization”—defined as the difference between the favorability rating they gave their political party and the rating they gave the opposing party. In the second part, undergraduates were shown a news story about a controversial speaker from the opposing party visiting a college campus. Students who had scored higher on the empathy scale were more likely to applaud efforts to deny the speaker a platform.
It gets worse. These high-empathy students were also more likely to be amused by reports that students protesting the speech had injured a bystander sympathetic to the speaker. That’s right: according to this study, people prone to empathy are prone to schadenfreude.
American foreign policy elites are in near-unanimous agreement that President Trump’s withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, along with the ensuing influx of Russian and Syrian troops, is a “gift to Putin.” Some variant of that phrase has over the past two weeks appeared in headlines from the venerable New York Times, the venerable Foreign Affairs, and the quasi-venerable CNN, among other mainstream outlets.
Russian elites have joined their American counterparts in viewing recent developments in Syria as a zero-sum game that Russia won and the United States lost. One Russian newspaper touted Russia’s “triumph in the Middle East,” and an analyst on Russian TV said this triumph is “sad for America.”
There are certainly things to be sad about. It’s sad that Trump’s withdrawal—impulsively ordered, with no diplomatic preparation—has caused so much more havoc and suffering, especially for the Kurds, than was necessary. And to me, at least, it’s sad that Trump, in his record-setting incompetence, is giving military withdrawals a bad name.
I’m not a big booster of Silicon Valley mindfulness. That is, I don’ go around telling people they should meditate because it can increase their productivity by a few percentage points. I think the best reasons to meditate are to clarify your view of the world and to become a better person.
Besides, I don’t know if mindfulness meditation does enhance productivity, and I don’t have time to research the question. (I’m not very productive).
But there’s one version of the enhanced productivity question that I find fascinating, because it arises in some of the deeper regions of contemplative practice. Meditators who go very, very deep — so deep that their very sense of self may dissolve and stay dissolved — sometimes report a paradox: they no longer think many thoughts, and they don’t feel that they’re consciously making decisions, or consciously shaping their path through work and life — yet some of them report becoming more productive, often in very demanding jobs.
Twitter’s policies are abetting government repression in India, according to a piece by Avi Asher-Schapiro and Ahmed Zidan on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Last year Twitter obliged the government by rendering all tweets from the periodical Kashmir Narrator invisible in India. The periodical’s crime? It had written about a militant in the restive province of Kashmir. (The person who wrote the piece is in jail, and the restive province isn’t as restive as it used to be—not just because of the jailing of journalists, but because the internet has been shut down in Kashmir.)
Twitter’s subservience shouldn’t surprise us. Given the power of governments to regulate or even ban social media sites, Twitter has a commercial interest in staying on good terms with governments. Same goes for other social media companies. I wrote a piece for Wired last year noting how unquestioningly Facebook bans any group the Trump administration labels a terrorist group—even though this administration’s approach to applying that label is, to say the least, loose.
Thursday was an amazing day even by the elevated standards of the Trump era. In the span of a few hours, these four things happened:
1) The Trump administration said it had orchestrated a five-day ceasefire—whose wording, it turns out, validated Turkey’s invasion of Syria the week before and its goal of creating a 5,400-square-mile “buffer zone” in the Kurdish part of Syria.
2) In proudly discussing the ceasefire, Trump seemed to validate, as well, one product of that invasion: the ethnic cleansing of some 150,000 Kurds over the past two weeks. Trump said that, from Turkey’s point of view, northern Syria had to be “cleaned out,” and that sometimes you need to exercise “a little rough love,” an “unconventional, tough love approach.” Which in this case apparently entailed invading a country in plain violation of international law, shelling and bombing it, and, for good measure, deploying Syrian jihadists who set about committing atrocities that terrified Syrian Kurds into fleeing—all of which left Kurdish troops little alternative to accepting the ceasefire. Or, as Trump cheerfully characterized the dynamic he’d set in motion by abruptly withdrawing US troops from northern Syria: “When those guns start shooting, they tend to do things.”
The New York Times wants to make sure you know that Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria has strengthened US adversaries.
On Tuesday, after Kurds imperiled by the withdrawal cut a deal with the Syrian government to step in and protect them—thus expanding the influence of the Syrian regime and its allies, Iran and Russia—the Times featured two front page stories about Syria. Over one of them was a headline that said “Battle Lines Shifting to the Benefit of Iran, Russia and ISIS.” The other one said, in its very first paragraph, that Trump had “given an unanticipated victory to four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government, and the Islamic State.”
OK, we get the message. But there’s a problem with the message. These two stories are at best misleading and at worst flat-out wrong. And, sadly, they’re typical of much mainstream media coverage of Syria—and reflective, I think, of cognitive distortions that afflict many American journalists, warping our view of the world.
This week I was reminded anew of the promise and peril of tweeting right after your morning coffee. And in the process I was reminded (not that I really needed it) of Twitter’s tribal nature.
On Friday morning, just as the caffeine was taking full effect, and I was settling in to work on this newsletter, I fatefully took a look at my Twitter feed. I saw that Hillary Clinton, in an interview, had suggested that Tulsi Gabbard was being “groomed” by Russia to be a third-party spoiler candidate, and that Jill Stein, who played that role last time around, was “also” (like Gabbard, that is) a “Russian asset.”
That’s pretty extreme. As Hillary Clinton undoubtedly knows, and as Wikipedia confirms, the term “asset,” in that context, is typically taken to mean that the person in question isn’t just being exploited by a foreign power but is consciously and secretly cooperating. Not to mention the fact that people aren’t typically “groomed” without being aware of it.
Now, my opinion of Jill Stein—like my opinion of Ralph Nader ever since his third party candidacy got George W. Bush elected president—is low. And I’m not a big Gabbard supporter. I like much of what she says about foreign policy, but I also find her in some ways offputtingly quirky. (For example: She replied to Hillary’s conspiracy theory with a kind of conspiracy theory of her own. And, though I’d like to think this was sly commentary on Hillary’s seeming paranoia, I fear it wasn’t—and if it was, I think it was too subtle for its own good.)
This week’s abrupt withdrawal of US troops from a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria inspired a variety of criticisms, as politicians and commentators of all major ideological stripes condemned Trump for ordering it.
The main criticisms have a lot of validity, in so far as they go. In greenlighting Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, Trump indeed, as charged: (1) abandoned the Kurds, who at America’s behest had spent the last few years fighting ISIS; (2) probably helped ISIS, at least in the short run, by diverting Kurdish attention and resources toward fighting Turkey; (3) ensured the death or displacement (a.k.a ethnic cleansing) of lots of Kurds.
But there’s one criticism I haven’t heard, and I think this silence is an indictment of the entire Washington foreign policy establishment — and more evidence that it deserves its evocatively pejorative nickname, the “Blob.”
This was a tough week for San Francisco Warriors coach Steve Kerr. It all started when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protestors. The Chinese government—and lots of Chinese people—didn’t like that one bit, and China is a huge market for the NBA, so various NBA officials and players set about saying conciliatory things. Kerr, when asked about the controversy, did what you might expect: He declined to comment.
At this point Donald Trump somehow found the time—even while getting impeached and getting Kurds slaughtered—to tear into Kerr (a longtime Trump critic) for not being manly enough to stand up to China. Which in turn kept the whole issue alive long enough for Kerr to be asked by a reporter whether, in the course of his many visits to China, there had been discussion of how the NBA’s financial interests relate to “a country whose human rights record is not in step with the United States.”
I recently had a conversation (just posted on meaningoflife.tv and also available in The Wright Show podcast feed) with one of my favorite people: Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Buddhist monk who is also a renowned scholar of Buddhism and a prolific translator of ancient Buddhist texts.
One reason I like him so much is that when he laughs—and he laughs at more offbeat things than your average monk, I’d guess—it lights up the room. Consider, for example, this exchange, which started with him telling me what the Buddha said about eating meat:
This week baseball’s postseason playoffs were proceeding uneventfully when St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley threw the Atlanta Braves a curve ball. In between games one and two of the Cardinals–Braves series, Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, criticized a controversial Braves fan ritual: rhythmically simulating a tomahawk chop while humming something that is either a Native American war song or Atlanta’s idea of one.
Braves officials took the complaint seriously. When the decisive game five rolled around, Atlanta fans didn’t find in their seats the complimentary foam tomahawks that had always been there for playoff games. And the loudspeaker didn’t, shortly before the first pitch, prompt the tomahawk ritual by playing the war song.
If you were a superstitious Braves fan, you might have worried that this desecration of ritual would anger the gods. And sure enough: St. Louis scored ten runs in the top of the first inning—which, for those of you aren’t baseball fans, meant that the game was over before the other 8.5 innings were played. (Final score: 13-1. The Cardinals moved on to the National League Championship series, and the Braves went home.)
Before I say more about the tomahawk ritual per se, I’d like to say one thing about the recurring controversy over Native American sports names (which typically focuses on the Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, and the Kansas City Chiefs). Namely: these four names fall into two groups, and one group seems more offensive than the other.