Readings: Issue #31

Nov 22 2020

A lament in The Beinart Notebook—a new newsletter put out by my old friend Peter Beinart—notes that Joe Biden is unlikely to pursue a very progressive foreign policy and that “American progressives haven’t mobilized to change foreign policy in the way they have on domestic policy.” If you want to help improve that situation, you should subscribe to Peter’s newsletter (while, I might suggest, continuing to read this one).

Adapting to changes our species has inflicted on Earth’s environment is possible! At least, it’s possible for species other than ours. A flower called Fritillaria delavayi, which grows on rocky mountains in China, has long been used in traditional medicine. A study by Chinese and British scientists finds that, in areas where commercial harvesting is intense, the flower has evolved to be less conspicuous, changing from a bright green to a brown or grey that blends in with surrounding terrain. 

In the New York Times, Jessica Bennett profiles Loretta J. Ross, a radical Black feminist professor who’s fighting “call-out culture.” Her weapon of choice? “Calling in.” Calling in is “a call out done with love”—that is, in private, with compassion and respect. Ross, a visiting professor at Smith College, believes that “we actually sabotage our own happiness with this unrestrained anger. And I have to honestly ask: Why are you making choices to make the world crueler than it needs to be and calling that being ‘woke’?”

Trump deeply disturbed the Blob this week with his plans to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan in half by the end of the year. In Responsible Statecraft, Andrew Bacevich and Adam Weinstein criticize foreign policy elites for freaking out: “Even as the dysfunction that has characterized the war is widely recognized, few in the foreign policy establishment are willing to consider the possibility that its continuation no longer serves the interests of the United States.” Meanwhile, one of several CIA-backed paramilitary groups in Afghanistan has come under fire for allegedly killing over a dozen civilians in a series of raids last month. In Foreign Policy, Emran Feroz reports that “many Afghans want the groups disbanded when the United States withdraws.” 

In Aeon, anthropologist James K Rilling reviews research, including his own, into the biological effects of becoming a father—such as a drop in testosterone, a hormone that, in other species, has been shown to be inversely correlated with a male’s parental devotion. “We have known for decades that mothers’ bodies and brains are transformed by the dramatic hormonal changes of pregnancy and childbirth,” writes Rilling. Now we’re learning that men are “biologically transformed by the experience of becoming an involved father.”

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Readings: Issue #30

Nov 13 2020

In Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson argues that the time to start worrying about Trump's post-presidential resurgence is now. (And, yes, as the piece’s epigraph reminds us, the New York Times actually did run a “Hitler Virtually Eliminated” headline—albeit a small one—on the front page in 1923.)  

After the terrorist beheading of a French teacher who showed students cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a more French, secularized version of Islam and was greeted by criticism and protests in numerous Muslim-majority countries. In Bloomberg Opinion, Pankaj Mishra contends that Macron’s discourse about the “right to offend” Muslim people hurts prospects for harmony between his country’s “secular” (historically Christian) majority and its Muslim minority. “It is one thing to defend freedom of expression—an obligation of all democratic leaders,” Mishra writes. “It is quite another to deploy a whole nation behind a particular expression of that freedom.”

Elixir for tribalism: America is divided in many ways, but in every state where the legalization or decriminalization of drugs was on the ballot, it won, notes Vox.

In Responsible Statecraft, Anatol Lieven argues that a lack of (cognitive) empathy has led American foreign policy astray. He laments our failure to understand Russian interests, even when they parallel our own. In Syria, for example, Russia has supported a dictator in order to avoid a power vacuum—much as we once did in Algeria and currently do in Egypt. Lieven leaves us with advice on how to deal with Washington’s new bogeyman: “We had better hope that in dealing with the vastly more formidable challenge of China our policy elites will engage in real study, eschew self-righteousness, and identify and not attack the vital interests of China, as long as Beijing does not seek to attack our own.”

A video on the philosophy of Thomas Metzinger offers reasons to think that the “self” may not exist. (I interviewed Metzinger in 2018 on my podcast, The Wright Show.) 

In Vox, Umair Irfan assesses Pfizer's Covid vaccine, explaining what 90 percent efficacy actually means, how the drug company's approach to developing the vaccine works, and why it may take a while for the vaccine to get to market. 

In Commonweal, Jesuit Scholastic Fernando C. Saldivar makes the case that the U.S. should join the E.U. and China in ratifying the Arms Trade Treaty, which bans the export of weapons that could be used to commit atrocities. The priest-in-training condemns the current, unregulated system, which gives arms dealers “a highly lucrative freedom to look the other way while the Saudis target noncombatants” in Yemen. “We can no longer pretend not to know—or appear not to care—what is being done with bombs and missiles made in America,” Saldivar writes.

A thought experiment about utilitarianism raises the oft-overlooked question of whether maybe you should let an AI eat you.

Readings: Issue 29

Oct 30 2020

Maybe America’s great tribal divide is being overstated, or at least misunderstood. In the New York Times, political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan argue that the biggest cleavage in American politics isn’t the ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans but the “attention divide” between political junkies in both parties and the less politically engaged masses. In both parties, for example, the masses consider low hourly wages a much bigger problem than do the people (15 to 20 percent of each party) who qualify as “deeply involved” in politics. And the deeply involved tend to have obsessions not shared by the less engaged members of their party—such as the influence of wealthy donors in the case of Democrats and drug abuse in the case of Republicans. Also, in both parties the deeply involved are much less open to their children marrying across party lines. The gap between “the politically indifferent and hard, loud partisans exacerbates the perception of a hopeless division in American politics because it is the partisans who define what it means to engage in politics,” Krupnikov and Ryan write.

In Aeon, neuroscientist Laura Crucianelli reflects on the psychological importance of physical contact among humans and the consequences of its becoming a scarce resource amid the pandemic.

In the American Conservative, Gil Barndollar assesses the foreign policy stakes of Tuesday’s election. Biden promises a return to the pre-2016 normal, while Trump offers policies that are closer to that normal than Biden might like to admit. “Whether possessing four or 40 years of foreign policy experience, neither septuagenarian is apt to reorient America’s role in the world, regardless of what the voters want.”

A Pew Research Center study finds that the average American is much more worried about various threats to America—terrorism, Russia, China—than the average international relations scholar. (The one big role reversal: climate change.) What I’d like to see is a comparison between such scholars and the foreign policy experts who populate DC think tanks and presidential administrations. On balance, I’d guess, DC experts find America more vulnerable to foreign threats than experts who spend their time on college campuses. In which case the question would be whether that’s because DC experts have a closer, clearer view of the situation or because their social status and job prospects are correlated with how scary the world seems… or some other factor.

In the Intercept, Murtaza Hussain argues that many crusaders against cancel culture aren’t equal-opportunity crusaders. They tend to ignore, in particular, the plight of pro-Palestinian activists who run afoul of such influential pro-Israel speech police as Canary Mission (when these activists support, for example, the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel over its policies toward Palestinians). Discussion of cancel culture “among journalists and intellectuals has mostly focused on their own discomfort as a class,” Hussain writes. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian activists may face fates more dire than the dreaded “de-platforming.” Namely: “threats to immigration status, personal lives, careers, restrictions on foreign travel, and more.” (I made a related critique of the Intellectual Dark Web last year.)

Readings: Issue #28

Sep 04 2020

In ProPublica, Alec MacGillis looks at “police pullback.” Amid recent protests, some cities have seen rising crime rates, apparently a result of less strenuous law enforcement by police who feel “aggrieved by the charges against their fellow officers, public criticism of their department as a whole or growing calls to greatly reduce their powers and resources.” An episode of police pullback in Baltimore in 2015, after protests over the killing of Freddie Gray, “combined with other problems to create a breakdown of civil order in the city,” MacGillis writes. “The rise of violence there has yet to abate, five years later.” 

This week Elon Musk, in promoting his brain-machine interface company Neuralink, trotted out a pig with a brain implant that can sense and relay nerve signals emanating from the pig’s snout. In Technology Review, Antonio Regalado notes that this feat is “nothing new” and explains why some of Musk’s awe-inspiring claims about future Neuralink products should be greeted skeptically. Meanwhile, Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, suggests that Musk should “behave like a pioneer and implant the Neuralink chip in his own brain rather than exploiting smart, sensitive pigs who didn’t volunteer for surgery, don’t appreciate that he provides pats and a straw cell, and should be left out of pie-in-the-sky projects.” (Last month I interviewed Newkirk about her new book Animalkind.)

In Inkstick, Annelle Sheline, a fellow at the Quincy Institute, argues that self-inflicted calamities in the Middle East (such as the recent immolation of Lebanon’s main port) shouldn’t distract us from “the United States’ own role in creating the instability and poor governance that plagues the region.” 

The Washington Post takes a brief look at the life of Rusten Sheskey, the policeman who shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, touching off the latest iteration of civil unrest. The New York Times takes a longer look at the life of Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death by police in her Louisville apartment in March.

In Quillette, Philippe Lemoine takes a very, very, very deep dive into how the SARS-CoV-2 virus arose in China and spread. His three pieces (a fourth is yet to come) undermine the harsher critiques of the Chinese government’s handling of the crisis, as well as claims that the virus originated in a laboratory and was the product of genetic engineering (though the conventional theory that it arose in a “wet market” is also lacking in evidence, he writes). Some promulgators of those critiques come out looking not so great; Lemoine says the reporting of Jim Geraghty of National Review was on more than one occasion “highly misleading”.

In Aeon, a short TED Ed video nicely illustrates the “Mary’s room” thought experiment, conceived by the philosopher Frank Jackson. Takes on it differ, but for my money it illustrates a sense in which human consciousness is beyond the reach of science (which doesn’t mean science can’t tell us anything about consciousness at all). Years ago Jackson spoke about his famous thought experiment on the Philosophy Bites podcast.

Readings: Issue 27

Aug 13 2020

A piece in the newsletter BNet makes the case that, “Being skeptical of TikTok is not weird. Being skeptical of TikTok to a far larger degree than any other Big Tech company is absolutely weird.”

Wondering what kind of influence Kamala Harris might exert on foreign policy in a Biden administration? In October of last year, in the lefty periodical In These Times, Branko Marcetic profiled the Center for a New American Security, the think tank that was channeling its influence on the presidential campaign largely “through the campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris, who has drawn heavily from its ranks to fill her line-up of foreign policy advisors.”

In Tricycle, Ann Gleig, author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, looks at the historical relationship between Buddhists and racial justice.  

In FiveThirtyEight, Likhitha Butchireddygari recently looked at the polling on American attitudes toward China over the last fifteen years. Plot spoiler: we’re at a Sinophilic low point. But Butchireddygari explains why these sentiments may not give Trump much help in the 2020 election. 

In MIT’s Technology Review, Tanya Basu offers some advice on how to change the minds of conspiracy theory believers in your life.  

On The Wright Show, I recently had conversations with two DC foreign policy thinkers—Heather Hurlburt, a self-described “pragmatic liberal internationalist,” and Emma Ashford, a “realist”—about what paradigm should guide America’s engagement with the world. Plus, I’m now doing a weekly show with my old friend and ideological nemesis (He voted for Trump!) Mickey Kaus. Audio versions of all these conversations are available on The Wright Show podcast feed.

Readings: Issue #25

Jun 28 2020

In the Times Literary Supplement, classical historian Mary Beard notes that the Romans often decapitated or replaced statues of leaders who had fallen out of favor and then offers some thoughts on dealing with controversial monuments in our time.

A bit more than a year ago, Matt Yglesias presciently wrote in Vox about what he called “the Great Awokening.” Since 2014, he observed, “white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter.” 

As the world waits for Bibi Netanyahu to say whether Israel is going to annex parts of the West Bank (and if so which parts), critics are calling any such move the death knell for hopes of a “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But in Foreign Affairs, Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, argues that it’s already too late for a two-state solution, and the question is what kind of one-state solution there will be.   

Good news for me! Having an abysmally short attention span has its upside. In Scientific American, Holly White explains that people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder often excel along three dimensions of creative thinking. (This piece was published last year, but I was too distracted to notice it then.)

A New York Times poll finds that Biden supporters are less likely than Trump supporters to feel proud and hopeful about America and more likely to feel anxious and angry about the state of the country—and way more likely to feel exhausted.

The Guardian lists eight of “the most stunning claims” in John Bolton’s new book The Room Where It Happened. You may not be stunned by all of them (“Trump offered favors to authoritarian leaders”) but the list is worth perusing. In the American Conservative, Barbara Slavin says the book’s account of Bolton’s approach to his job as Trump’s national security adviser is “an instruction manual for how not to do foreign policy.”

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat comes up with what, as he notes, could pass for a radical left take on the current social unrest: The Black Lives Matter protests are, in effect, being co-opted by the establishment. Because elites would be threatened by a Bernie Sandersesque class-based revolt—involving things like seriously taxing the rich and redistributing resources to the poor (as I advocate in “George Floyd, racial justice, and economic justice,” above)—the consequences of the protests are being confined largely to things like the destruction of offensive icons, the renaming of buildings, and renewed pledges for workplace diversity, especially at the elite level.

Readings: Issue #24

Jun 07 2020

On justsecurity.org, Rebecca Hamilton, a foreign-correspondent-turned-law-professor, writes about the current state of America as it might be rendered by a journalist from another country. Her goal is to challenge, as she puts it in a preface, “the assumed inevitability of an enduring democracy.”

The Washington Post reports that the easing of lockdown in Italy and other European countries has brought less covid contagion than feared. Possible explanations include the effects of summer heat on the virus and “enduring behavioral changes, from hand-washing to mask-wearing.”

In Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch reports that, though Joe Biden seems to be moving the Democratic party to the left on domestic policy, there are no signs of such movement in the realm of foreign policy. To many progressives, Lynch writes, “Biden appears to be a man of the past: an unapologetic champion of American exceptionalism. He backed the resolution authorizing the Iraq War, remains committed to waging an open-ended global war on terrorism with drones and special forces, refuses to condition military aid to Israel to secure its commitment to a Palestinian state, and demonstrates little interest in curbing a U.S. defense budget that has swelled by more than $100 billion under Donald Trump’s presidency.” Plus he’s been “portraying himself as tougher on China than Trump.”

Tricycle has posted a statement about Buddhism and racial justice, along with a reading list of related pieces from the magazine’s archive. One of the pieces is by Rhonda Magee, author of The Inner Work of Racial Justice, whom I interviewed on The Wright Show last year.  

In the Washington Post, social scientists Lara Putnam, Erica Chenoweth, and Jeremy Pressman analyze the George Floyd protests, quantifying their unprecedented combination of scale and duration and noting other distinctive characteristics. 

If you’ve been waiting for a long and somewhat technical argument that the coronavirus may indeed have originally escaped from a Chinese virology lab, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has got you covered. Which gives me the chance to say two things: (1) This question strikes me as less momentous than many people suggest. Claims that the virus was genetically engineered as a bioweapon have now been pretty definitively dismissed, so the remaining question is whether well-intentioned research meant to prevent future epidemics wound up backfiring. If it did that’s of course worth knowing, but at some level the takehome lesson is the same as in the scenario where the virus entered humans via a “wet market.” Either way there was a critical regulatory failure by the Chinese government that needs to be addressed. (2) If there was indeed a regulatory failure at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, then the Trump administration may well be partly to blame, as I explained in a piece in this newsletter earlier this year.   

In The New Atlantis, David Kordahl reviews—with a fair amount of clarity, as these things go— two books about quantum physics, one by physicist and popularizer Sean Carroll and the other by theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. One book buys the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics, and the other book says such plausibility-stretching interpretations are among the reasons to think quantum physics itself is flawed. 

Readings: Issue #23

May 16 2020

In the Guardian, Rutger Bregman writes about a real-life version of Lord of the Flies, the William Golding novel about a group of boys who, left to their own devices after being stranded on an island, illustrate a dark view of human nature. But in the real-life story—involving six boys who got stranded on an island in 1966 and spent a year there—human nature comes off looking better. The piece is an excerpt from Bregman’s book Humankind.

Edward Luce of the Financial Times does a deep dive into Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis

In National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty argues that American attitudes on Covid-19 are less polarized than the lockdown-versus-open-up narrative on social media would have you believe. But he’d like them to become still less polarized: “At the risk of sounding like a total drip, let me just say: People, try to be generous to one another.”

In Lion's Roar, four Buddhist chaplains share stories about providing spiritual counsel to the sick and dying during the pandemic

Two weeks ago a group of mercenaries staged an invasion of Venezuela so feeble and ill-conceived as to make the Bay of Pigs look like the Normandy invasion. In Vox, Alex Ward tells the remarkable story of the fiasco’s mastermind—an entrepreneurial former US soldier named Jordan Goudreau, whose eccentric security firm once did work for President Trump. Secretary of State Pompeo has denied “direct” US involvement in the escapade.  

In the Atlantic, economist Emily Oster argues that "just stay home" coronavirus messaging risks making the perfect the enemy of the good and could lead people to do riskier things than they otherwise would.

The New York Times reveals what doomed a Republican senator’s attempt to stop the flow of US arms that, as deployed by Saudi Arabia, have killed many Yemeni civilians: a memo that Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro sent to Jared Kushner under the title: “Trump Mideast arms sales deal in extreme jeopardy, job losses imminent.” 

Readings: Issue #22

Apr 25 2020

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.

Readings: Issue #21

Apr 11 2020

Apple and Google announced that they’re jointly developing smartphone software that will facilitate “contact tracing”—finding and notifying people who have been near someone who tests positive for Covid-19. Blogger Nicky Case offers a cartoon explanation of how smartphone contact tracing can work without sacrificing privacy—which is the way Google and Apple say their system will work. Russell Brandom of The Verge answers “the 12 biggest questions” about the approach Apple and Google are taking. Efficient contact tracing is considered critical if the US is to emerge from economic lockdown without rapid recurrence of contagion.

The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner reports that, in New York City, the five ZIP codes with the highest rates of positive Covid tests have per capita income of $27,000, while the five zip codes with the lowest rates have per capita income of $118,000. The New York Times displays data from many cities, gathered by tracking the smartphones of high-income and low-income people, to support the thesis that “staying home during coronavirus is a luxury.” In the Washington Post, Eugene Scott explains “four reasons the coronavirus is hitting black communities so hard.”

The good news from Yemen: Saudi Arabia, which in 2015 led a military intervention that has greatly worsened the conflict there, declared a coronavirus ceasefire. The bad news: the next day Yemen, a country whose health care infrastructure has been devastated by the war, reported its first coronavirus case. 

Google used (anonymized) location data from smartphones to see how much activity of various kinds—going to parks, shopping at grocery and drug stores, etc.—has changed during the Covid-19 epidemic. Its Community Mobility Reports website offers downloadable summaries of the activity for lots of nations, as well as individual American states and counties in those states. In my county—and I suspect in many others—the only category in which activity has grown is “residential.” 

The International Crisis Group looks at ways the pandemic could “give rise to new crises or exacerbate existing ones” (especially in areas featuring conflict, simmering tensions, or weak governance). One problem is a possible lack of global leadership; the US, which led the international response to the 2014 Ebola contagion, has “simultaneously mishandled its domestic response to Covid-19, failed to bring other nations together and stirred up international resentment.”

The New York Times takes a look at how Americans are spending their money amid the shutdown. TLDR: Charitable giving down, alcohol consumption up, and boom times for home improvement.