Killing the “gift to Putin” meme

Oct 26 2019
Progressive Realism

Could we please kill the Blob’s “gift to Putin” meme?

American foreign policy elites are in near-unanimous agreement that President Trump’s withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, along with the ensuing influx of Russian and Syrian troops, is a “gift to Putin.” Some variant of that phrase has over the past two weeks appeared in headlines from the venerable New York Times, the venerable Foreign Affairs, and the quasi-venerable CNN, among other mainstream outlets. 

Russian elites have joined their American counterparts in viewing recent developments in Syria as a zero-sum game that Russia won and the United States lost. One Russian newspaper touted Russia’s “triumph in the Middle East,” and an analyst on Russian TV said this triumph is “sad for America.”

There are certainly things to be sad about. It’s sad that Trump’s withdrawal—impulsively ordered, with no diplomatic preparation—has caused so much more havoc and suffering, especially for the Kurds, than was necessary. And to me, at least, it’s sad that Trump, in his record-setting incompetence, is giving military withdrawals a bad name.

Mindfulness

The strange efficiency of enlightenment

I’m not a big booster of Silicon Valley mindfulness. That is, I don’ go around telling people they should meditate because it can increase their productivity by a few percentage points. I think the best reasons to meditate are to clarify your view of the world and to become a better person. 

Besides, I don’t know if mindfulness meditation does enhance productivity, and I don’t have time to research the question. (I’m not very productive).

But there’s one version of the enhanced productivity question that I find fascinating, because it arises in some of the deeper regions of contemplative practice. Meditators who go very, very deep — so deep that their very sense of self may dissolve and stay dissolved — sometimes report a paradox: they no longer think many thoughts, and they don’t feel that they’re consciously making decisions, or consciously shaping their path through work and life — yet some of them report becoming more productive, often in very demanding jobs.

Newsworthy

Meet the new boss

Twitter’s policies are abetting government repression in India, according to a piece by Avi Asher-Schapiro and Ahmed Zidan on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Last year Twitter obliged the government by rendering all tweets from the periodical Kashmir Narrator invisible in India. The periodical’s crime? It had written about a militant in the restive province of Kashmir. (The person who wrote the piece is in jail, and the restive province isn’t as restive as it used to be—not just because of the jailing of journalists, but because the internet has been shut down in Kashmir.) 

Twitter’s subservience shouldn’t surprise us. Given the power of governments to regulate or even ban social media sites, Twitter has a commercial interest in staying on good terms with governments. Same goes for other social media companies. I wrote a piece for Wired last year noting how unquestioningly Facebook bans any group the Trump administration labels a terrorist group—even though this administration’s approach to applying that label is, to say the least, loose.

Readings
Writing in the New Yorker, Christine Smallwood reports that astrology is undergoing a boom, including among millennials who profess to be scientifically oriented. A 2017 Pew poll found that nearly 30 percent of Americans “believe” in astrology, and lots more are thought to dabble in it. 

The New York Times and Associated Press reported this week on two different examples of bridge-building across intra-Abrahamic fault lines, and the moral of the story was the same in both: nothing brings people together like shared adversity. In Lebanon, Christians of various sects and Muslims of various sects have joined in protesting economic conditions and government corruption. “The politicians told us that we hate each other, but we don’t,” one young protestor told Times reporter Vivian Yee. AP reports on Jews and Muslims who are uniting to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, which often emanate from the same far-right ideological milieu. A nonprofit called Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which started as a meeting of six Jewish women and six Muslim women in a New Jersey home, now has 170 North American chapters.

Over the past 18 months the number of Hillary Clinton voters who say the US has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria has risen sharply, while the number of Donald Trump voters who say that has dropped, the Huffington Post reports. So these voters are well positioned to, respectively, blame Trump and not blame Trump for Syrian mayhem

On meaningoflife.tv (and on The Wright Show audio podcast) I had a fun conversation with my old friend John Horgan, the famously cranky—I mean, skeptical—science writer. We talked about “scientism”—that is, an exaggerated sense of the scope of science’s authority—and took advantage of the opportunity to bash various name-brand New Atheists. We also talked about the weirdness of consciousness, the weirdness of quantum physics, and other weird things. And I got a chance to commend John for his role in fighting the rampant hyping of scientific findings.