Our dog Frazier was on death row when we got him—slated to be “put to sleep” if the animal shelter couldn’t find a home for him.
If you don’t recognize that sentence as virtue signaling, you need to get more in touch with the zeitgeist. Over the past few decades it has become cooler and cooler to casually mention that your dog is a “rescue dog.”
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Matt Bershadker, president of the ASPCA: “Rescuing an animal has become a badge of honor,” he told a New York Times reporter. “People proudly go to dog parks and walk around their neighborhoods talking about the animal that they rescued from a shelter.”
And this fact—that you can actually brag about your dog being an outcast and get social credit for it—seems to have been good for dogs. The percentage of dogs at animal shelters that have to be put to sleep for lack of adoption has dropped sharply over the past decade, the Times reported this month.
This week president Trump went before the United Nations and declared, “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” A year earlier he had gone before the United Nations and declared, “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” Sense a pattern?
In last year’s address Trump also, as he often does, zeroed in on the particular manifestation of globalism that seems to most concern him—“global governance,” which he says poses a threat to “national sovereignty.”
Some people might consider it impolite to go before the UN and denounce globalism and global governance—kind of like, I don’t know, being given a speaking slot at a Trump rally and then using it to denounce xenophobia. But Trump’s annual UN ode to patriotism and national sovereignty has one virtue: It crystallizes the confusion that drives his opposition to global governance.
This impeachment thing worries me. But don’t worry—I’m a worrier, so my worries are probably unwarranted.
Still, if only for therapeutic reasons, I’d like to enumerate them, after which I’ll see if, upon reflection, I can dispel them.
This site features only a fraction of the writing I publish in my newsletter.
Please, consider subscribing.
On his Scientific American blog, Scott recently posted an interesting piece about what kinds of things give people’s lives meaning.
It turns out people say they derive meaning from (among other things) extreme emotional experiences—not just positive ones, but negative ones as well. Which makes sense, when you think about it. The death of a close relative is an intensely negative emotional experience, one you wish you’d been able to avoid—but you certainly wouldn’t call it meaningless.
Washington spent the first part of this week trying to figure out who blew up some Saudi oil facilities. Was it Houthi rebels in Yemen, who proudly claimed responsibility? Or was it Iran? Or was it both—an attack conceived and orchestrated by Iran but executed by Iran’s Houthi allies?
There’s an important and underappreciated sense in which the answer doesn’t matter. The moral of the story is the same regardless of how the blame is distributed between Iran and the Houthis. Namely: If you don’t want people to blow stuff up, don’t attack them in the first place!
Sunflowers, believe it or not, play non-zero-sum games with one another—and do so with impressive skill! At least, that’s one reading of a study published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.
A typical sunflower, not surprisingly, tends to send its roots more profusely into nutrient-rich patches of soil than into nutrient-poor patches. But two researchers—Megan Ljubotina and James Cahill—report that, when there is another sunflower in the neighborhood, this behavior gets recalibrated.
If much closer to the nutrient-rich patch than its neighbor, the sunflower sends its roots into the patch more profusely than when there’s no neighbor around—as if it were rushing to colonize land before a rival gets to it.
Samantha Power—who wrote a Pulitzer prize–winning book about genocide that catapulted her onto President Obama’s foreign policy team, where she was a forceful advocate for humanitarian military intervention—has just published another book. It’s a memoir called The Education of an Idealist.
So far the commentary on the book illustrates a general principle of foreign policy commentary: the more your views depart from the establishment consensus, and the more willing you are to attack credentialed members of that establishment, the smaller the platform you’re allowed to express those views on.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.