Introducing the Apocalypse Aversion Project

Jan 21 2021

Introducing the Apocalypse Aversion Project

Just to make sure I don’t bury my lede: Starting next week—on Monday, in fact—there will be a version of this newsletter that goes out only to paid subscribers.

As I type these words there are zero paid subscribers. I’m hoping that will change—and if you want to help change it right now, before you hear more about the new newsletter, I applaud that leap of faith:

Subscribe here.

But if you’d like to get more facts before taking the plunge, here are some of those:

Readings

In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall asks various political scientists whether Joe Biden will be able to govern effectively amid social strife and tribalism. “There were optimists and pessimists,” he writes. “If recent history provides a guide, the pessimists may well carry the day.”

Here's something I don’t say every day: Sam Harris made a valid point. Like me, he sometimes hears from people who say his advocacy of mindfulness is at odds with his intense interest in politics. And he replies roughly as I do, except that, being Sam Harris, he does so with more flair. In a recent episode of his Making Sense podcast, he said, “If you think that meditative insight should cause one not to care about the implosion of our democracy or about our ongoing failure to deal with civilizational challenges, if you think we get to not care about the world we’re building… it’s time to take your head out of your ass.” Leaving aside the vexing question of whether one can mindfully tell people to take their heads out of their assess (he goes on to assert that one can), I agree that the point of mindfulness meditation isn’t to cultivate indifference to the state of the world. Sure, it can help you cope with the world, help you preserve equanimity amid turbulence, but it can also help you think more clearly about how to improve the world—by, in particular, helping you subdue the cognitive biases that constitute the psychology of tribalism. Now, whether Sam Harris has done as much of that as he thinks he has is something I have expressed doubt about in the past. And I may return to that subject in this newsletter in the future. I certainly will return to the subject of how mindfulness can help us improve the world. But for now I’ll just revel in this moment of concord with Sam, and join him in affirming that there is at least one sense in which neither of us has our head up our ass.   

In Inkstick, “Blob” defector Van Jackson argues that America’s foreign policy is partly to blame for the Capitol riot. He cites the work of Kathleen Belew, whose book Bring the War Home explains how the Vietnam War radicalized veterans who would go on to become leaders in the white power movement. (I interviewed Kathleen on The Wright Show in 2018.) Jackson sees a similar dynamic in play now, as the forever wars come home to roost. “You can dress up militarism abroad with rhetoric about liberty and freedom, but you can’t escape the consequence that doing so poisons your own polity,” he writes.

Could we identify all the Capitol rioters with no help from police, using just smartphone footage from the social media platform Parler, open-source AI, and a crowdsourcing website? In WIRED, Andy Greenberg reports on an effort to do that and highlights some of the ethical questions raised by its progress. 

The latest evidence of how strangely and circuitously destructive the unintended consequences of American interventions can be comes in the form of a news report from Deutsche Welle: members of the Pakistani Taliban killed a police officer guarding a polio vaccination team. In 2011, the CIA, as part of its hunt for Osama Bin Laden, created a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad so it could get DNA samples from Bin Laden’s relatives. This seems to have fostered (1) a suspicion in Pakistan that vaccination programs represent nefarious foreign influence; (2) a specific conspiracy theory, especially popular among Islamist militants, that vaccination is a western plot to sterilize Pakistani children. Attacks on polio vaccination teams claimed at least 70 lives between 2011 and 2015—which may be why Pakistan is one of the last two nations on Earth where the disease still spreads. The other? Afghanistan.

The head of the World Health Organization recently warned that, as rich nations buy a place at the front of the line for Covid-19 vaccination, the world is “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure.” But he may have understated the indictment, as the failure could go beyond the realm of global social justice. Stable national governance makes it easier to address various global challenges, including terrorism, which tends to fester where states are weak. And poor nations are much more likely to collapse under the weight of a pandemic than rich ones. So it’s in America’s interest to contribute to the global Covid vaccine effort. And a simple adjustment of fiscal priorities would let it contribute substantially more. The total budget for COVAX, an international group tasked with distributing vaccines to poorer countries, is less than $10 billion. The latest US defense bill authorized the purchase of 96 F-35 fighter planes, with a sticker price of nearly $8 billion. So waiting until next Christmas for our shiny new planes could actually make America more secure.