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.
This site features only a fraction of the writing I publish in my newsletter.
Please, consider subscribing.
Apparently nice guys don’t really finish last. In Psyche, psychologists Craig Neumann and Scott Barry Kaufman write that people with “dark” personality traits like Machiavellianism have disproportionately poor job performance and heightened risk of violent death, while those with “light” personality traits like empathy report greater happiness and self-esteem. But there’s good news for those of us with a mean streak: Neumann and Kaufman found that “light” traits can be, and often are, learned over time. “Our research, and studies of our closest relatives, nonhuman primates, both show that moral behavior can emerge and change across development—in large part through cooperative social interactions,” they write. “Thus, by embracing and trusting social connections, we can progress toward a light personality trait profile—a pathway that appears to lead to healthy self-actualization and even transcendence.”
In the New York Times, Neal K. Katyal and John Monsky look at one of Trump’s last-gasp hopes for reversing the results of the election: the possibility that Vice President Pence could on Jan. 6 abuse his role as presiding officer at the counting of the electoral votes by Congress.
In the Kausfiles newsletter, Mickey Kaus, gets alarmed by news that covid vaccine distribution may be guided by “social justice” criteria. In this scenario, “essential workers” would—because many of them are people of color—get vaccinated ahead of senior citizens, a whiter demographic. Kaus attributes this proposal to Wokism and argues that Joe Biden could and should put Wokists in their place.
In Wired, Lily Hay Newman writes about the growing frequency and success of ransomware attacks in 2020 and the chances of this trend continuing in 2021.
In the American Conservative, Blaise Malley argues that Biden’s foreign policy won’t be as far left as his domestic policies and offers a theory as to why: many Democrats reflexively oppose policies championed by Trump, and Trump’s foreign policy instincts often align with those of anti-war progressives. “Even if advocating the reverse of what Trump has done means espousing centrist, liberal interventionist or neo-conservative approaches, many opponents of the outgoing president are likely to do so,” Malley writes. “Biden can revert to a conventional form of foreign policy precisely because he can couch it as the opposite of Trump.”
A handful of reporters got famous by battling the Trump Administration. Will they maintain their combative stance after Biden enters office? In the Atlantic, McKay Coppins explores the incentive structure that shapes reporting about presidents.
Pope Francis took aim at tribalism with his recent encyclical letter “Fratelli Tutti." In Commonweal, William T. Cavanaugh reflects on the subtle radicalism of the document’s emphasis on “fraternal love,” which Francis holds up as a response to divisions sown by cynical leaders and neoliberal economic policies. The kind of love the pope has in mind, writes Cavanaugh, involves interaction and even friendship across lines of racial and economic segregation. “Pope Francis is calling us to create different kinds of spaces—economic, political, and social—where we can encounter one another face to face, where we can regard each other as children of the same God and begin the difficult journey of love.”
In Responsible Statecraft, Annelle Sheline takes a dim view of the recently announced deal that will have Morocco normalize relations with Israel in exchange for US recognition of Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara. Sheline argues that the deal not only flouts international law but threatens global food security. Still, she doubts that Biden will roll back the decision. “Although the Biden administration may be less captured by pro-Israel interests than Trump, Anthony Blinken’s State Department will not wish to re-open the issue and risk undermining a normalization agreement with Israel.”
The New Yorker dedicates most of its latest issue to "The Plague Year," a sprawling piece by Lawrence Wright that tracks epidemiological, political, social, and personal efforts to combat covid.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.)
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.
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.”