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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose sees upside in the physical isolation the coronavirus has imposed on us. The virus “is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used—to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems. It’s the healthy, humane version of digital culture we usually see only in schmaltzy TV commercials, where everyone is constantly using a smartphone to visit far-flung grandparents and read bedtime stories to kids.”
Pollution dropped markedly in China and Italy as a result of coronavirus-induced social distancing. On the environmental blog G-Feed, Marshall Burke calculates that the lives saved in China via reduced pollution exceeded the lives lost to the virus. Whether or not that’s true, the satellite images accompanying the blog post are testament to how much the air seems to have cleared up in China. Satellite shots of northern Italy before and during its lockdown paint the same picture. Of course, these reductions in pollution were part of an economic slowdown that you wouldn’t want to sustain forever. Still, the pandemic will no doubt heighten our appreciation of how many things we can do remotely, via information technology, without generating as many pollutants as we’re accustomed to generating. These things include not just telecommuting but, for example:
Quartz reports that the pandemic has brought a boom in telehealth, as doctors—in part to shield themselves from infection—become more amenable to virtual office visits.
In the New York Times, John Schwartz assesses the extent to which some of the tools of social distancing—telecommuting, virtual conferences, and the like—could slow the rate of climate change. The question is more complicated than you might guess. If, for example, working remotely means spending the day in a house that would otherwise be uninhabited, the fuel consumed to heat or cool the house has to be weighed against the fuel saved by not commuting (which itself varies greatly depending on whether you drive to work or take public transportation).
In the New York Times, Peter S. Goodman writes that the coronavirus has “accelerated and intensified the pushback to global connection,” heightening fears about immigration and exposing the vulnerability of global supply chains. And the pushback may be just beginning. As Jeet Heer notes on Twitter, Trump’s initial, optimistic messaging strategy—Don’t worry, we’re on top of this—may soon give way to xenophobic, anti-globalization fear mongering. Secretary of State Pompeo has already started calling the virus the “Wuhan virus.”
Elizabeth Preston reports in Quanta that the aquatic salamander known as the axolotl—which looks even weirder than its name suggests—has now had its genome fully sequenced. The resulting knowledge could someday give humans a quintessentially axolotlic skill: the ability to regenerate lost body parts.
In Fast Company, tech writer Harry McCracken takes a look at the presidential campaign of 1996, “the first to be fought on the web.” It wasn’t a momentous battle; most voters weren’t on the web, and “nobody in politics was an expert on leveraging its power.” McCracken says the candidates’ websites were “eyesores…even by 1996 standards”—and a perusal of them provides some supporting evidence. But I was most struck by the air of innocence and earnestness. The home page of Phil Gramm’s site declares, “We have established this presence on the internet in the interest of providing a wide range of news and information that will interest those who are already involved in our campaign and those who want to learn more about our efforts.” That it took only 20 years to get from there to 2016—when the web was a battleground of bot-abetted, microtargeted deception—is sobering.
The Trump administration’s support of the bloodless coup that deposed Bolivian President Evo Morales hasn’t wavered amid the repression unleashed by his military-installed successor, to judge by a piece in the Washington Post. And, to judge by another Post piece, the justification for that coup is looking even shakier than before. A statistical analysis by two MIT scholars casts doubt on the claim that there were “voting irregularities” suggestive of foul play by Morales.
I’ve never been good at lovingkindness (“metta”) meditation. (People who know me aren’t mystified by this.) In Tricycle, Thai forest monk Ajahn Brahm suggests that metta-challenged meditators like me start the practice by imagining a kitten. No way, dude. But I’m willing to try a dog. Anyway, this short article is linked to Tricycle’s annual Meditation Month—a challenge to commit to 31 days of (not-necessarily-metta) meditation, along with a package of materials that help.
In the New York Times, Alex Stone looks at a demographic of growing interest to scholars of marketing: people who are consistently drawn to new products that will wind up bombing in the marketplace. These “harbingers of failure” may someday be used by companies to abort the launch of doomed products (whose past examples include Crystal Pepsi, Watermelon Oreos, and Cheetos Lip Balm.) Apparently there are whole zip codes whose residents seem to have this sixth sense.
The recent peace deal between the US and the Taliban looked tenuous this week as Taliban attacks on Afghan government targets brought American counterattack. John Glaser of the Cato Institute argues that the deal will remain fragile so long as the US continues to make compliance with it conditional on constructive engagement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, rather than acknowledge the limits of American leverage.
On the Wright Show, I interviewed alleged Bernie Bro David Klion, author of a tweet so notorious that Mike Bloomberg featured it in an ad implicitly aimed at Bernie Bros. I thought I had convinced Klion that it would be a good idea to tone down his more hyperbolic, tribalistic tweets, but a few days later he tweeted this. Sigh.
In Tricycle, Karen Jensen critically assesses Breathe with Me Barbie, the new doll from Mattel that can assume the lotus position and give meditation guidance to kids, saying things like “Imagine your feelings are fluffy clouds.” Jensen isn’t too impressed but ends on a hopeful note: “How do we know that she isn’t capable of awakening?”
In Politico, David Siders explores Michael Bloomberg’s plan to emerge from an initially deadlocked Democratic convention with the nomination.
Seventy five years after the publication of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, Jules Evans, a scholar who as a teenager virtually deified Huxley, looks back on the book. Huxley said, as had “Perennialists” before him, that the world’s great spiritual traditions have a common core. For example: “Huxley suggests that the peak experience is the same in all traditions: a wordless, imageless encounter with the Pure Light of the divine.” I didn’t know, before reading this piece, that Huxley’s book was partly a response to World War II. “The reign of violence will never come to an end,” Huxley wrote, until more people recognize “the highest factor common to all the world religions.”
In an Atlantic piece on “authoritarian blindness,” Zeynep Tufekci argues that, however ironically, the Chinese government’s surveillance apparatus has impeded its view of the Coronavirus epidemic.
If you’ve been wondering what it would be like to be a left-leaning woman at a mostly male, very right-wing gathering that, over a three-day weekend, prepares people for the impending collapse of civilization—well, your ship has come in. Lauren Groff, in a long Harpers essay, observes the denizens of “Prepper Camp” in North Carolina with the air of detached irony you’d expect. I spent much of the piece wishing she’d interact more earnestly with them, and get some insight into their motivation; and near the end of the piece she does summon some cognitive empathy, and some self-critical reflection.
In the Nation, David Klion profiles Sasha Baker, head of Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy team.
The US hasn’t properly accounted for $714 million worth of weapons and equipment it sent to Syrian proxy forces, according to a Defense Department inspector general report that is the subject of an article in the Military Times. These particular weapons were directed toward proxies fighting ISIS, and aren’t to be confused with the weapons sent to Syria as part of the secret $1 billion-plus CIA program to arm rebels in furtherance of Obama’s regime-change initiative. Some weapons from both programs wound up in the hands of ISIS and affiliates of al Qaeda.
A day before The Washington Post reported that US intelligence officials believe Russia aims to boost Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, Ben Judah and David Adler argued in the Guardian that a President Sanders would be no friend of Vladimir Putin’s.
A judge has ruled that Happy the elephant, who lives alone on a one-acre plot at the Bronx Zoo, has not had her "personhood" violated, Sophia Chang reports in Gothamist. The ruling was a defeat for The Nonhuman Rights Project, which had sued the zoo in hopes of liberating Happy. The judge agreed that “Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property” and “should be treated with respect and dignity” and “may be entitled to liberty.” But, “we are constrained by the caselaw to find that Happy is not a ‘person’ and is not being illegally imprisoned."