John Bolton, public menace but useful expository device

Thanks to President Trump (and I don’t often start a sentence that way, believe me), it’s an auspicious week to rechristen a newsletter as the Nonzero Newsletter. 

For a long time now, a huge part of my worldview has been the belief that, as technology marches on, the world’s nations are playing more and more non-zero-sum games with one another—games that can have win-win or lose-lose outcomes, depending on how they’re played. On Tuesday Trump fired National Security Adviser John Bolton, who perennially fails to play such games wisely, or for that matter to even recognize that they’re non-zero-sum. More than anyone else—more even than Trump himself, which is saying something—Bolton epitomizes the zero-sum world view this administration has become famous for.

To list big non-zero-sum opportunities in the world is to list the kinds of opportunities Bolton has made a career of sabotaging: treaties for controlling nuclear weapons, bioweapons, weapons in space, cyberweapons; accords that address climate change and other environmental threats; international tribunals for peacefully settling border disputes and trade disputes; and the whole overarching project of nurturing global governance and the various multilateral institutions that mediate it. Bolton once said that if the United Nations building in New York “lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” (So, naturally, George W. Bush later made Bolton America’s ambassador to the UN.)

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Mindfulness at work

Three weeks ago, I suggested a way to use smartphones to (ironically!) weaken smartphone addiction. And I promised that in a subsequent issue of MRN I’d “talk about why this exercise has broader application than it may sound like it has.” So here goes.

First, a quick review: The anti-addiction exercise I recommended was to hold your smartphone and, upon feeling the urge to open some app, close your eyes and examine the urge. “The more you observe feelings like this, rather than succumbing to them, the more likely you are to notice them in the future, rather than reflexively, unthinkingly, obeying them.”

The reason this exercise can bring benefits beyond the realm of smartphone addiction is that “feelings like this” is a pretty broad category. Consider this lamentably common sequence of events:

You’re sitting at your computer and you’re supposed to be getting some work done—you’re staring blankly at a Word document or a spreadsheet or whatever—and then all of a sudden, before you know it, you’ve opened your browser and you’re doing something more fun than work. (Not that fun is a bad thing!—but there’s a time and place for everything.) Maybe you’ve checked into your favorite social media site, maybe you’re checking out things you could buy (next-day delivery!), maybe you’ve surrendered your autonomy to YouTube’s recommendation algorithm and are watching passively, almost helplessly, as a series of increasingly unredeeming videos parasitize your consciousness.

Ten days off the grid

The first rule of meditation retreats is, You do not talk about meditation retreats. The reason is that, by and large, people don’t want to hear about them. They don’t want to hear about how beautiful the world started to seem on day three (you had to be there) or about the aches and frustrations of days one and two (first world problems) or about the dark night of the soul toward the end of the retreat (ditto).

Still, I’m going to say a bit about the 10-day retreat I finished this week, because the second rule of meditation retreats is, Meditation retreats are hard not to talk about. A good retreat—and all eight I’ve been on have brought more good than bad—fills you with an urge to rhapsodize, even evangelize.

But don’t worry: I’ll try to repress the rhapsody. Though my retreat had plenty of powerful moments, my aim here is just to soberly make a couple of points about the virtues of staying off the grid for 10 days—and about the added benefits of combining that with the intensive practice of mindfulness meditation.

When NPR is more dangerous than Fox News

What to do when military conflict between the US and Iran seems to be approaching, and you’re trying to get a clear picture of the situation? I’m only half-kidding when I say there’s a case to be made for staying glued to Fox News. Sure, you’ll hear a lot of pro-war propaganda. But at least you’ll know that’s what it is. If you instead tune in to “mainstream” media, you may think you’re getting an objective account when in fact you’re getting an account that’s biased in favor of war—just biased in subtler, harder-to-detect ways than the accounts on Fox News.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that mainstream journalists and commentators who evince these biases are consciously anti-Iran or pro-war. Usually the problem is just that they’re Americans, viewing the world through American lenses, relying on America’s ecosystem of expertise. And, of course, they’re human—which means they have cognitive biases that distort reality in accordance with their group affiliations (such as, say, being American).

Consider a report that ran on NPR Thursday, hours after Iran downed a U.S. surveillance drone that, according to Iran, had violated Iranian airspace and, according to the United States, hadn’t. Rachel Martin, host of Morning Edition, began the segment by providing some context: “Since the Trump administration announced a maximum-pressure campaign against Iran, Iran has responded by attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.”

Ironic tribalism

Last weekend I attended my college reunion, as I do every five years. There are lots of things to do at a college reunion. Such as: put a positive spin on the last five years of your life, then do that again, then do that again.

Plus, reunions are a good place to study ritual. And I don’t just mean the opening ritual of slowly grasping the awful truth. (“Who are all these old people? Where are the people from my class?… Oh.”) I mainly mean the kinds of rituals an anthropologist might study—rituals of tribalism.

This year I engaged in a ritual that led me to add a new species of tribalism to my taxonomy of tribalisms. I call it ironic tribalism, and I’m wondering if it offers hope for the world.

As it happens, I attended a college, Princeton, that makes a famously big deal out of reunions. It is said to have the highest reunion participation rate of any college in America, or in the Ivy League, or something. And presumably the highest gaudiness quotient. My class-issued orange-and-black weekend wardrobe consisted of three shirts, two hats, and a blazer that made my high-school-senior-prom tux jacket (a tangerine plaid) look dignified. Plus orange shoe strings.

Abortion down south

This week’s passage in Alabama of the most severe anti-abortion law in recent American history triggered a flashback. I was back in my sophomore history class at Douglas MacArthur High School in San Antonio. There, at the front of the class, wearing cowboy boots, was Mr. Lightfoot, a stout middle-aged man who, in addition to being a history teacher, was a football coach and a farmer.

This was the year of Roe v. Wade. Mr. Lightfoot explained to the class that the people who think abortion should be legal are people who “want to have their fun and not pay for it.”

What struck me at the time was that this was a pretty grim view of parenthood—child rearing as a kind of decades-long penance for having had sex. What strikes me now is something different: even back then, before America was famously tribal, abortion was a tribal issue.

Mr. Lightfoot didn’t just think the people who disagreed with him about abortion were bad people because they were on the wrong side of that particular morally charged issue. He had a broader picture of their badness; they were people who engaged in or tolerated sexual promiscuity. And this perception, I would guess, only strengthened his conviction that they were wrong about abortion—even though, as a strictly logical matter, the question of whether promiscuity is bad and the question of whether a fetus is a human being aren’t the same question.

To boldly go where no cliché has gone before

In keeping with my long history of taking courageous positions, I opined in last week’s newsletter that hatred is a bad thing. Now MRN reader Jane is asking whether I could develop that observation into something that is, you know, actually of use to someone.

Jane put it more politely than that. I had said that we seem to be witnessing an escalating war between violent extremists—mainly white nationalists on one side and jihadists on the other. Recognizing that hatred was fueling this war, I said, was the place to start in thinking about “constructive policies the next administration might pursue and about constructive non-governmental initiatives (including the micro-initiatives that each of us can take in our everyday lives).” Jane quoted the part about micro-initiatives and wrote, “I wish you’d elaborate on this.”

OK, I’ll try. But please keep your expectations low. Remember: I said micro-initiatives.

Slowing globalization down

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright (2000).


 TIP #2 ON SAVING THE WORLD


The early-twentieth-century sociologist William Ogburn attributed many of the world’s problems to “cultural lag.” Cultural lag happens when material culture (technology, basically) changes so fast that nonmaterial culture (including governance and social norms) has trouble catching up. In short, the disruptive part of culture gets out ahead of what Ogburn called the “adaptive” part of culture. Ogburn’s general prescription was to speed up the latter—“make the cultural adjustments as quickly as possible.” But there is another option: slow down the former—cut the rate at which material technology is transforming the world; make the inevitable unfold at a more sedate pace.

Of course, it isn’t that easy. Globalization doesn’t come with a velocity-control knob. And the old-fashioned approach to slowing the spread of material technology—raising tariffs—has a history of inviting retaliation and thus yielding full-blown trade wars (the kind that usher in depressions). But there is a safer approach to slowing globalization down just a tad—a supranational approach.

Why Pure Reason Won’t End American Tribalism

[Published in Wired on April 9, 2018]


If you haven’t encountered any reviews of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s new bestseller Enlightenment Now—which would be amazing, given how many there have been—don’t worry. I can summarize them in two paragraphs.

The positive ones say Pinker argues convincingly that we should be deeply grateful for the Enlightenment and should put our stock in its legacy. A handful of European thinkers who were born a few centuries ago set our species firmly on the path of progress with their compelling commitment to science, reason, and humanism (where humanism means “maximizing human flourishing”). Things have indeed, as Pinker documents in great detail, gotten better in pretty much every way—materially, morally, politically—since then. And if we stay true to Enlightenment values, they’ll keep getting better.

The negative reviews say things like this: Pinker attributes too much of our past progress to Enlightenment thought (giving short shrift, for example, to the role of Christian thinkers and activists in ending slavery); his faith in science and reason is naive, given how often they’ve been misused; his assumption that scientifically powered progress will bring happiness betrays a misunderstanding of our deepest needs; his apparent belief that secular humanism can fill the spiritual void left by rationalism’s erosion of religion only underscores that misunderstanding; and so on. In short: In one sense or another, Pinker overdoes this whole enlightenment thing.

My own problem with the book is the sense in which Pinker underdoes the enlightenment thing. In describing the path that will lead humankind to a bright future, he ignores the importance of enlightenment in the Eastern sense of the term. If the power of science and reason aren’t paired with a more contemplative kind of insight, I think the whole Enlightenment project, and maybe even the whole human experiment, could fail.

If you fear I’m heading in a deeply spiritual or excruciatingly mushy direction—toward a sermon on the oneness of all beings or the need for loving kindness—I have good news: I’ve delivered such sermons, but this isn’t one of them. Eastern enlightenment has multiple meanings and dimensions, and some of those involve more logical rigor than you might think. In the end, an Eastern view of the mind can mesh well with modern cognitive science—a fact that Pinker could have usefully pondered before writing this book.

Why Can't We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality

[Published in the Atlantic in November 2013.]


Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them BY JOSHUA GREENE (PENGUIN)

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil BY PAUL BLOOM (CROWN)

in 1999, Joshua Greene—then a philosophy graduate student at Princeton, now a psychology professor at Harvard—had a very fertile idea. He took a pretty well-known philosophical thought experiment and infused it with technology in a way that turned it into a very well-known philosophical thought experiment—easily the best-known, most-pondered such mental exercise of our time. In the process, he raised doubts, in inescapably vivid form, about the rationality of human moral judgment.

The thought experiment—called the trolley problem—has over the past few years gotten enough attention to be approaching “needs no introduction” status. But it’s not quite there, so: An out-of-control trolley is headed for five people who will surely die unless you pull a lever that diverts it onto a track where it will instead kill one person. Would you—should you—pull the lever?

Now rewind the tape and suppose that you could avert the five deaths not by pulling a lever, but by pushing a very large man off a footbridge and onto the track, where his body would slow the train to a halt just in time to save everyone—except, of course, him. Would you do that? And, if you say yes the first time and no the second (as many people do), what’s your rationale? Isn’t it a one-for-five swap either way?

Greene’s inspiration was to do brain scans of people while they thought about the trolley problem. The results suggested that people who refused to save five lives by pushing an innocent bystander to his death were swayed by emotional parts of their brains, whereas people who chose the more utilitarian solution—keep as many people alive as possible—showed more activity in parts of the brain associated with logical thought.