The year the Intellectual Dark Web died

Dec 21 2019
Mindfulness

Spinoza’s cerebral mysticism

Below is an excerpt from a video dialogue between Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.

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?

Yes, yes.

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.

Newsworthy

Overhyped and too simplistic

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? 

Psychology Of Tribalism

R.I.P., Intellectual Dark Web (2018-2019)

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.  

Readings

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.