Death to the aiding-and-abetting meme!

Apr 25 2020

Let’s kill the aiding-and-abetting meme once and for all!

This week I read a piece in the Atlantic that gave me a new mission in life. I now want to stamp out—completely extinguish, with no mercy whatsoever—a rhetorical tactic that has long belonged in the dustbin of history but continues to plague humankind: the aiding-and-abetting meme. That is: depicting people whose views you don’t like as being in league with, or abjectly serving the interests of, adversarial foreign powers. 

The Atlantic piece is by George Packer, and the folks at the Atlantic think so highly of it that it’s in the actual physical magazine. Here’s a passage from it: 

Donald Trump saw the crisis almost entirely in personal and political terms. Fearing for his reelection, he declared the coronavirus pandemic a war, and himself a wartime president. 

OK, so far so good. But then Packer continues:

But the leader he brings to mind is Marshal Philippe Pétain, the French general who, in 1940, signed an armistice with Germany after its rout of French defenses, then formed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Like Pétain, Trump collaborated with the invader and abandoned his country to a prolonged disaster. 

I realize that, to many readers, it won’t be obvious why this passage sent me over the edge, catapulting me all the way into Howard Beale territory. So let me try to explain the several things about it that, together, gave it such force.   

How Trump’s “Wuhan lab” theory is backfiring

The theory that Covid-19 came not from a Chinese “wet market” but from a Chinese laboratory now has the full support of President Trump. This hasn’t been confirmed by Trump himself, but it’s been confirmed by the next-most-official source: a Fox News chyron. During a recent episode of Tucker Carlson’s show, the chyron read, “Sources to Tucker: Intel agencies are almost certain that the virus escaped Wuhan lab.”

In sheerly factual terms, Trump could turn out to be on solid ground. The fringe version of this theory—that the virus came from a bioweapons lab, and may have been genetically engineered—continues to be widely dismissed, but credible people think the virus could have escaped from a less nefarious Wuhan lab, one that studies coronaviruses with an eye to preventing epidemics.

I can see why Trump thinks that publicizing even this watered down version of the lab origin story is a political winner. Though it lacks the cinematic flair of the bioweapon theory, it seems (at first glance, anyway) to corroborate the idea that the Chinese government was engaged in a cover up during the contagion’s crucial early stages. So it reinforces Trump’s blame-the-perfidious-Chinese-communists-not-the-incompetent-American-president narrative—without Trump having to be the one who blames the perfidious Chinese.

But if I were Trump I’d hope that the lab origin story doesn’t pan out. On close examination it turns out to reinforce the blame-the-incompetent-American-president message. In 2018, we now know, the Trump administration had an opportunity to help tighten security at the Wuhan lab that is at the center of the story and failed to do so. 

Questioning Materialism with Gideon Rosen: Part 1

Is physical stuff all there is? If you ask a philosopher that question, it can lead to a discussion that covers things ranging from consciousness to 20th-century physics to whether mathematical concepts are real. That’s what happened when I discussed the subject with Gideon Rosen, professor of philosophy at Princeton and co-author of The Norton Introduction to Philosophy. Gideon is also a friend of mine—which made the conversation even more fun for me than it would have been otherwise.


ROBERT WRIGHT: I've been trying to get you to be on this show for years. You've resisted, but the reason I've wanted you to is that whenever I have a question about philosophy, you provide a very efficient overview of the whole context of my question. You don't always provide a definitive answer, but that's in the nature of philosophy. 

GIDEON ROSEN: It is. It's a shame that it's in the nature of philosophy.

It would be nice if we could wheel out definitive answers to these questions and it's a bit of a mystery why we can't, since everybody else manages to provide the occasional definitive answer. We don't. It's a drag, but we do our best. 

Do you think it's a mystery? Or do you think it's kind of clear, given the nature of the questions you address, why it would be the case that you don't come up with the same kinds of answers that mathematicians and scientists do? 

Yeah, there are some obvious differences that explain why we don't do it the way they do—but, if the questions make sense, if the questions are clear, then they have answers. We don't have a clear sense of why it is that we can't nail them down.

It's not as if we're floundering around. Philosophy produces plenty of opinion, plenty of conviction—even plenty of justified conviction, in the sense that people have arguments for their views and arguments that some people find persuasive. But we don't get as much consensus on the hard questions, even given the arguments we've got, and that's a little mystifying...

I don’t know, I want to give you more credit. I think you're just tackling the hard questions… 

Readings

In the Atlantic, Peter Beinart argues that the Biden campaign’s apparent decision to try to out-hawk Trump on China suffers from three shortcomings: “First, it promotes bad foreign policy. Second, it could stoke anti-Chinese racism. Third, it doesn’t even make long-term sense politically.” But aside from that…

The Verge reports that Spot, the doglike robot made by Boston Dynamics, is being used in hospitals to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus between patients and staff. Ars Technica, in a piece called “The pandemic is bringing us closer to our robotic future,” notes that wheeled sidewalk delivery robots are also in demand. 

In Foreign Affairs, political scientist Barry Posen argues that, though the pandemic has in some ways heightened international tensions, “the odds of a war between major powers will go down, not up.”

In a University of Chicago working paper, four academics present evidence that cable news viewing habits have influenced patterns of Covid-19 infection. During February, when Tucker Carlson was warning about the Covid threat and Sean Hannity was dismissing it, the more a county’s Fox News viewers watched Hannity, and the less they watched Carlson, the more the county was afflicted by the epidemic. This pattern abated after late February, when Hannity started taking the virus more seriously. 

In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall assesses the political logic behind Trump’s attempt to play both sides of the lockdown debate—supporting people in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia who rebel against restrictions that are remarkably like the restrictions he professes to support.  

In Vox, Roge Karma interviews Yale historian Frank Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society, about why the modern world is so vulnerable to pandemics and how the current pandemic will affect the perennial struggle between xenophobia and tribalism on the one hand and cosmopolitanism and cooperation on the other. 

In the Guardian, Julian Borger does a play-by-play recounting of the World Health Organization’s response to the coronavirus contagion (and in the process rebuts widespread reports that Taiwan offered early evidence of human-to-human transmission that was ignored by WHO).  

In the New York Times, Taylor Lorenz looks at Josh Zimmerman, who is a “life coach for influencers.” Weeks into the pandemic, a client who has big followings on YouTube and Instagram asked him for guidance and “within 24 hours… she had a plan for a timely series about grief, gratitude and self-reflection called ‘14 Days of Mindfulness.’ ” Lorenz opines that “Mr. Zimmerman’s role feels especially vital now, in the midst of a health crisis that has sent half the world home for an indefinite period and glued many of them to their phones.”

The Guardian reports that books by Marcus Aurelius and other Stoic writers are selling well amid the pandemic. Marcus, who lived through a plague, advised that, rather than mourn your bad luck amid misfortune, “you should rather say: ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.’ ” I’ve always assumed it would be easier to adopt that attitude if I were emperor of the Roman Empire, but maybe I’m underestimating the demands of Marcus’s job.