Readings: Issue #11

Dec 14 2019

In Aeon, the philosopher Nicolas Bommarito sings the praises of modesty and explains why, historically, many philosophers haven’t been big fans of it. Bommarito’s conception of modesty seems in some ways eccentric; he says that truly modest people don’t really care how they stack up against other people. (I’ve always tried to be modest, but if that kind of indifference is a prerequisite, I give up.) But at least one of Bommarito’s claims is unarguable: Modesty, he says, “is something you can’t really brag about.”

This week the Washington Post published and assessed a trove of government documents that are to the Afghanistan War what the Pentagon Papers were to the Vietnam War: a look into government findings and deliberations that reveal much more internal doubt about the prospects for success than was officially acknowledged.

In the Post’s Outlook section, Stephen Wertheim and Samuel Moyn of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft explain how the disregard of both domestic and international law has led war—invasions, occupations, drone strikes, special forces raids, etc.—to become a post–Cold War constant for America.  

Elon Musk drew a certain amount of ridicule for this tweet. But I actually found it interesting. I’d never before thought about using one interpretation of quantum physics—that subatomic reality doesn’t assume definite form until it’s observed—to buttress the hypothesis that we’re living in a simulation. (And hey, at least he didn’t call anyone a pedophile.) 

Have you ever noticed that different trains' whistles have different pitches? Turns out they’re so different that you could, by creating a video mashup of different trains whistling, play Pachelbel’s Canon.

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Readings: Issue #10

Dec 07 2019

On the CBC, a psychiatrist at McGill University discusses a drug that apparently can help cure heartbreak. Recalling a “romantic betrayal event” while under its influence, he says, reduces the emotional power of the memory thereafter. Oddly—or maybe not so oddly—the drug is already in wide use as a way of lowering blood pressure. 

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat makes the case that the famously far-left Bernie Sanders could have broader appeal—both in the Democratic primaries and in a general election—than is generally appreciated. Sanders polls better among non-Bernie-Bro Democratic demographics than you’d expect, says Douthat. And his leftism is so focused on economic issues that he seems less threatening than many Democrats to conservatives who emphasize abortion and other social issues. Sanders could be “the liberal [candidate] most likely to spend all his time trying to tax the rich and leave cultural conservatives alone.”

In a piece in The Cut called “My Wife’s Enemies Are Now My Enemies, Too,” Josh Gondelman offers himself as a case study in the tribalizing potential of marriage.

In Psychology Today, Susan Lanzoni recaps the semantic evolution of the word empathy—which a century ago, when it first appeared in English, meant “nearly the opposite of what it means now.” It meant “projecting one’s own imagined feelings and movements into objects”—seeing sharp, angular contours as ferocious, say, or seeing soft curves as calm. Lanzoni hopes reflecting on the word’s etymology will rekindle this “aesthetic empathy,” which she says can deepen appreciation of “our inherent connection to a world beyond ourselves.” Such reflection could also remind us that when we exercise empathy in the most common modern sense—feel the feelings someone else is feeling—we are, strictly speaking, engaging in an act of projection; we can’t know exactly what it’s like to be someone else, even if it’s often worth trying. 

And speaking of empathy: On the Wright Show I talked to psychologist Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy, about when empathy is and isn’t a good guide to moral conduct

In Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria questions the “new consensus” which holds that “China is now a vital threat to the United States both economically and strategically, that U.S. policy toward China has failed, and that Washington needs a new, much tougher strategy to contain it.”

In Vice, Caroline Haskins, looks at how Amazon has “been quietly building a privatized surveillance network throughout the United States.” She’s not talking about Amazon’s Alexa, but rather about Ring, the security camera that lets people remotely see who’s at the door—or for that matter who’s walking along the sidewalk or what cars are driving by. Neighbors can form sharing networks that give each of them broad surveillance powers, and arrangements with local police can let them in on the action. Needless to say, there are pros and cons.

Forty-three years after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith do several deep dives into The Intercept’s “comprehensive dataset on everyone sentenced to die in active death penalty jurisdictions since 1976.” One conclusion: “Capital punishment remains as ‘arbitrary and capricious’ as ever.”

Readings: Issue #9

Nov 23 2019
In The Washington Post, Molly Roberts entertainingly offers explanations of why Pete Buttigieg hasn’t caught on among young voters. (I was reminded while reading this of what the great Mike Kinsley wrote about Al Gore in the late 1980s, when Gore was around Buttigieg’s age: He’s “an old person’s idea of a young person.”)     

Countless undergraduates have been taught that America’s exceptionalist zeal—its seeming compulsion to remake other nations in its image, sometimes via war—dates back to the Puritans. The Puritans are said to have injected a sense of divine ordination “into the distinctive cultural DNA of imperially expansive America,” as historian Daniel T. Rodgers puts it. Rodgers puts it that way in a book that questions this standard story by closely analyzing what is taken as the source text of Puritanical American exceptionalism: a sermon in which John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, invoked this biblical passage: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” In the Nation, historian Andrew Delbanco reviews Rodgers’s book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon.

In Gzero, Gabrielle Debinski pithily summarizes views on foreign policy expressed by Democratic presidential candidates in this week’s debate—which devoted more time to foreign policy than past debates (which is to say: some time). 

In an Aeon piece alluringly titled “What is to be done about the problem of creepy men?” law professor Heidi Matthews actually asks what is to be done with our intuitions about what is and isn’t “creepy,” particularly in the #MeToo era. She recommends not letting those intuitions substitute for careful analysis, since they can be tools of “shunning and social ostracism” and have been used against, for example, the mentally ill and homosexuals. Matthews also notes that the “creepiness” reaction is related to the emotion of disgust—which, as it happens, was the subject of a long 2016 piece in Aeon, by Kathleen McAuliffe, that also offered reasons for caution about letting our feelings serve as moral guides.

In The Federalist, Trump supporter Mollie Hemingway gives her account of “How Republicans won phase one of the impeachment.”

A New York Times Magazine piece by Kevin Roose documents the demise of the free internet and the growth of the paid internet—which offers, for example, a “news therapy” app called Sift that, for $3.33 per month, promises to help you “stay informed about contentious topics while reducing anxiety and stress.” Most surprising stat: the average American spent more than $1,300 on digital media last year.

In the New Republic, Udi Greenberg reviews the new book Reimagining Judeo-Christian America, by K. Healan Gaston of Harvard Divinity School. When the term “Judeo-Christian” came into currency in the 1940s, it served as a vehicle of social inclusion, identifying Jews with an American moral and spiritual heritage long thought of as Christian. But the term can be used for exclusion—as when Steven Bannon champions the struggle of the “Judeo-Christian West” against Islam. Gaston, Greenberg writes, argues that the term has been used that way more often than you might guess—and has sometimes even been used at the expense of Jews, as a way to “legitimize larger claims about Christian supremacy.” 

On bloggingheads.tv—and on The Wright Show audio podcast—I argue with my closest Trump-supporting friend, Mickey Kaus, about impeachment and other things, including Trump’s Iran policy.

Readings: Issue #8

Nov 16 2019

 On CNN’s website, journalist Daniel Dale, who has relentlessly chronicled the president’s untruths during this presidency, lists “45 ways Trump has been dishonest about Ukraine and impeachment.”  

The Wall Street Journal this week published the results of its big investigation into how Google has “increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged.” Google “made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay, contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action.” Also, Google “boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com and Facebook.” (Remember the neediest!) Google also fiddles with the “auto-complete” algorithm to reduce the chances that people will stumble onto such inflammatory subjects as immigration and abortion.

In the Columbia Journalism Review, sociologist Musa al-Gharbi vividly depicts how good Trump is at getting his favorite thing: attention. Al-Gharbi divides the number of mentions each recent president has gotten in the New York Times by the total number of words published by the Times (to correct for the growth in the latter during the online age) and gets this graph: 

In Aeon, philosopher Catherine Wilson sings the praises of Epicureanism as a guiding philosophy and argues that it’s well suited to the modern world. As a lifestyle, Epicureanism is less self-indulgent than the current usage of the term might suggest, though less austere than Stoicism, which is now undergoing something of a revival, and on which Wilson throws a bit of shade.

In Dissent, Nicolaus Mills reviews a biography of Gen. George Marshall, architect of the Marshall Plan and Secretary of State under Truman, and suggests that Marshall’s “pragmatic engagement” would be an improvement on America’s foreign policy of recent decades.

The New York Times reports that, with President Evo Morales having been forced out of office by the military amid protests against him, many of Bolivia’s indigenous people worry that gains they enjoyed in recent years are imperiled. Morales, the first indigenous president in the country’s history, was replaced by a woman of European descent who initially appointed an all-European cabinet and has in the past called indigenous religious rituals “satanic.”

On the Israeli website 972, Menachem Klein explains how the unusual dynamics of this week’s conflict in Gaza reflect important changes in the relationship among Israel, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

In New York Magazine, Ed Kilgore argues that impeachment could be a “calamity” for Democratic presidential candidates who are in the Senate (Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, Booker, Harris, Bennet). Attending impeachment hearings—which would be in session six days per week—could keep them off the campaign trail for six weeks or more during the critical early phase of the primaries.

Readings: Issue #7

Nov 09 2019
In Aeon, Dutch psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen argues that the tendency to build conspiracy theories is rooted in our genes, and had survival value in the social environment in which human evolution took place. 

On Stratfor Worldview, journalist Charles Glass writes that Turkish President Erdogan’s intervention in Syria—which started with the arming of proxies and now features Turkish troops in Syria—is turning into Turkey’s forever war. Glass writes, “When President Barack Obama considered the covert operation to train and equip Syrian rebels in 2013, code-named Operation Timber Sycamore, he said to his aides, ‘Tell me how this ends.’ As Turkey is discovering, it doesn't.”

A ProPublica piece by Yeganeh Torbati shows how Vice President Mike Pence has been steering foreign aid to Christian groups and away from non-Christian groups that had been designated for aid by career USAID officials.

In Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman riffs on the empathy study that I riff on above—the one which found that empathy exacerbates political polarization. Scott has a pretty consistently different perspective from mine—his glass is half full and mine is half empty—so his take on things is often a good complement to mine. (But trust me: the glass is half empty.)

In the wake of the recent implosion of the edgy sports website Deadspin, Phillip Maciak, writing in The Week, offers a requiem for "the good internet"—websites that emerged from the blogosphere a decade ago, created a home for sharp and sometimes strange writing, and then met the fate of all things mortal.

Tweet of the week: After former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg filed this week to enter a Democratic presidential primary, GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini tweeted a graph that would seem to spell Bloomberg doom. It arrays 2016 voters along two dimensions—their position on economic issues and on social/identity issues. And the lower-right quadrant of the graph, where Bloomberg would seem to belong (being progressive on social issues but not so much on economic issues), is pretty much devoid of voters. (For elaboration on the meaning of “social/identity,” see this interesting 2017 analysis by Lee Drutman, who created the graph that Ruffini tweeted.)

This week, after a black cat entertainingly intruded on Monday Night Football, the Atlantic promptly trotted out a photo spread of animals that have shown up, uninvited, at sporting events. It’s entertaining, and it includes the requisite alligator-on-a-golf course shot, but I personally prefer the video of a professional golfer manually expelling an alligator from the course—to say nothing of the video montage of 10 great golf course animal encounters, which features killer bees

Readings: Issue #6

Oct 26 2019
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.

Readings: Issue #5

Oct 19 2019
In the New York Times, psychologist Daniel Willingham dissects curiosity, explains why it so often hijacked by the internet to ignoble ends, and offers some tips for fighting the hijackers.

In Fast Company, Harry McCracken asks whether Verizon, the current owner of Yahoo, is acting responsibly in deleting the archives of Yahoo Groups, a once-thriving ecosystem of online communities. “Verizon is eradicating a meaningful chunk of the internet’s collective memory,” McCracken writes. “The Yahoo Groups archive is an irreplaceable record of what people cared about in its heyday.” This won’t be the first Yahoo-related digicide. As Jordan Pearson notes in Vice, “In 2009, Yahoo shut down GeoCities, taking roughly 7 million personal websites with it.” 

Two years ago in Politico Magazine, social scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster explained what “negative partisanship” (see “Virality and virulence,” above) is and why its growth is bad for American politics. 

In Politico, Aaron David Miller, Eugene Rumer, and Richard Sokolsky lay outwhat Trump gets right about Syria.” Among their points: “the foreign policy establishment—the ‘blob’—has spilled a lot more ink complaining that his move benefits Russia than thinking about its actual effect on U.S. interests.” Two points about this point: (1) It meshes with my complaint about New York Times coverage of Syria, above; (2) It uses the semi-derisive term ‘blob’ for the foreign policy establishment—even though these authors, especially Miller, would traditionally have been thought of as members of that establishment. This is a welcome sign that the spirit of anti-blobism may be spreading from fringe renegades (me, for example, or Stephen Wertheim and Trita Parsi of the new and edgy Quincy Institute, who have a very worthwhile piece about Trump’s Syria policy in Foreign Policy this week) into parts of the mainstream. Hey Richard Haass, the phone call is coming from inside the house!

In a week when a New York Times op-ed advocated banning facial recognition technology “in both public and private sectors,” Wired reports on the growing if still quite limited use of the technology in schools. 

This week a retired admiral—and former commander of US Special Operations—won much applause by saying in a New York Times op-ed that Trump is a threat to the Republic and suggesting that this view is shared by many of the admiral’s peers. I’m ambivalent about this. I feel a bit uncomfortable when a former flag officer who implies that he speaks for many in the military writes that “it is time for a new person in the Oval Office” and “the sooner the better.” I realize he’s thinking about impeachment, not a coup, but I guess I’m old school; my father was a career army officer, and back in his day he and many other officers felt so strongly about the importance of separating the military from politics that they didn’t even vote. I have no doubt that that the admiral, William McRaven, is genuinely worried about the Republic. Me too. But but one thing about the Republic that worries me is that we’ve gotten to a point where we’re desperately looking to the military for political guidance.

Anti-trust tweet of the week: On Thursday Mark Zuckerberg, in a speech at Georgetown, declared that it isn’t Facebook’s role to play speech police. As he put it in an interview, “I don’t think people want to live in a world where you can only say things that tech companies decide are 100 percent true.” In response to which Gabriel Snyder, former editor of The New Republic, tweeted that what people don’t want is “to live in a world where just *ONE* tech company decides what people can say.” 

Incoming: Thanks to all the readers who emailed us (nonzero@substack.com) in response to last week’s newsletter. Several, responding to my lamentation about the dearth of anti-war activism among Buddhists and for that matter among progressives, directed me to welcome exceptions. Two readers—Jeff A. and Dat D.—mentioned the venerable Quaker group Friends Committee on National Legislation. Alan R. of Santa Cruz, an ordained Zen priest, hailed his local chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. And Elizabeth F. provided a master list of pro-peace groups. (You have to scroll down to get to the Peace/Anti-War section, and if you’re not disciplined you may be diverted to some other kind of activism before you get there. Be strong!) 

Readings: Issue #4

Oct 12 2019
Atlantic staff writer Olga Khazan delves into the literature on self-confidence and finds that the difference between self-esteem and narcissism isn’t just one of degree. “People who have high self-esteem think of their social relationships as collaborative, while those with narcissism see the world as a zero-sum game. Only one person can be the best, they think, and it must be them.” In a remarkable act of discipline, Khazan goes the whole piece without mentioning any recent presidents.

Also in the Atlantic, Franklin Foer goes deep on the ever-fascinating, and sometimes disturbing, Jeff Bezos. 

After 9/11, an enduring upsurge in terrorist attacks against America was widely anticipated. And sure enough, the University of Maryland’s annual terrorism report, released this week, shows that the number of terrorist attacks in America last year was the highest since 1982. But here’s what wasn’t anticipated after 9/11: the big problem isn’t radical Islamism. All six lethal terrorists attacks in the US featured “far-right ideological elements including primarily white supremacy and in at least two cases, male supremacy,” the report notes. The good news: terrorist attacks worldwide are down, and in the US the number of lethal attacks dropped in 2018 (from 18 to 6) as did the total number of deaths due to terrorism (43 in 2018, about half as many as in 2017). Upshot: the chances that you’ll die in a terrorist attack remain roughly zero.



In the Intercept, Jon Schwarz briskly reviews the many times the US has betrayed the Kurds. In Lobelog, Paul Pillar argues that Trump’s impulse to withdraw troops from the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria isn’t bad in itself, but that his execution of the withdrawal has been irresponsible; Trump has characteristically failed to pursue the kind of diplomacy that could have permitted an exit without the killing and ethnic cleansing now going on. 

In the Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz laments the demise of “the old 9-to-5, five-day-a-week grind.” Sure, it was a grind, but at least you and your friends were grinding at the same time—which meant you were free at the same times and so could hang out together. Now, with more people working “nonstandard or variable hours,” and affluent people, especially, putting in longer work weeks, “the hours in which we work, rest, and socialize are becoming ever more desynchronized.” Not surprisingly, Shulevitz is also the author of a book singing the praises of the Sabbath, a day for repose and interhuman connection. (On the other hand, the Sabbath isn’t all that conducive to intertribal connection. For Muslims it’s Friday, for Jews it’s Saturday, and for Christians it’s Sunday.)

Readings: Issue #3

Sep 28 2019
In the Nation, Jeet Heer assesses a strain of leftist skepticism about impeachment. In this view, the move to impeach is driven by the national security establishment, and “Trump’s great sin” was his “defiance of the intelligence community.” Heer lays out an alternative impeachment narrative that, he says, leftists can in good conscience get behind.   

“Have you read Hegel?”
“Not personally.”
That’s the old joke about how impenetrable Hegel’s writing is. Well, if you’d like to nonetheless try to understand Hegel’s philosophy, here’s the latest way to read him without reading him personally: via philosopher Tom Whyman’s riff on a recently viral (and presumably true) story told by a reddit user who goes by the name hegelianwife. Whyman’s piece left me understanding things about Hegel’s thought that I’d never understood before (which isn’t saying much, but still…). 

This week Elizabeth Warren answered the Council on Foreign Relations presidential candidate foreign policy survey—which means that pretty much all the Democratic candidates have now done that, including frontrunners Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders. So you can compare their positions on an issue-by-issue basis. See what you think. (I personally like Bernie when it comes to foreign policy, not just on the basis of the CFR survey, but because I have a lot of respect for his chief foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss—and also because Bernie has said more admirably edgy things about American foreign policy than his main rivals.)

This week a tweeted video of “an octopus changing colors while dreaming” garnered 31,000 retweets and counting. Turns out we don’t know for sure if it’s dreaming—just that it’s sleeping. But tweets of the video that made that clear got only a few hundred retweets, max. So let’s stick with the dreaming story. After all, while awake the octopus changes colors in response to changing circumstances, and while asleep it could be dreaming about being in various circumstances. (Like, you know, being in public and realizing it doesn’t have any clothes on and turning red.) Anyway, it’s a beautiful video. 

This week Facebook took down a vast network of Ukraine-based Facebook pages that were pushing pro-Trump propaganda. Could this have something to do with Ukrainegate? Another quid for Trump’s quo? Subsequent investigation by the newsletter Popular Information revealed that, actually, this was just some Ukrainians out to make a buck. They had discovered that pro-Trump memes are a good way to generate traffic and thus make a lot of money off of video ads. They had earlier discovered the same thing about pro-Jesus memes and pro-cute-dog memes. They got into pro-Trump memes because "the algorithm showed a hot niche,” said one of the entrepreneurial Ukrainians. “That's the whole story."  

And finally: This week we proudly unveil our brand new Twitter account. Needless to say, we encourage you to follow us. And speaking of social media: Thanks to those of you have been making liberal use of the “like” and “share” buttons below. We deeply appreciate your helping us get the word out. 

Readings: Issue #2

Sep 21 2019
In a post ominously titled “A Middle East One Step Closer to Its ‘1914 Moment’,” the International Crisis Group does a good job of sizing up the implications of the attack on Saudi oil facilities. 

The New York Times Magazine interviews Ram Dass, author of the 1971 pop-eastern-philosophy classic Be Here Now, about the ego, the soul, and death—including his own eventual death, which he says is not a very big deal since “the soul is infinite.” 

In Prospect Magazine, Ray Monk, a philosopher and Wittgenstein’s biographer, argues that the landscape of modern philosophy might be quite different had it not been for the premature death of the philosopher R.G. Collingwood in 1943—a death that left Gilbert Ryle, a fervent champion of analytic philosophy, with unrivaled power in the British philosophy establishment. (Monk doesn’t get into this, but Ryle became Daniel Dennett’s mentor. And, though Dennett’s writings on the mind-body problem don’t echo his mentor’s writings to the point of saying that consciousness doesn’t exist, I’ve always had trouble seeing the difference between what Dennett does say about consciousness and saying that it doesn’t exist. Some other observers have had the same reaction. Maybe that helps account for the old joke about Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained—that it should have been called Consciousness Explained Away. In any event, Ryle’s book The Concept of Mind was basically an overt attempt to explain consciousness away; he coined the term “ghost in the machine” as a dismissive label.)

If you’ve been waiting for an entertaining writer to spend a whole article playfully ridiculing Silicon Valley startups that are in the psychological therapy business, your ship has come in. Nellie Bowles does the honors in the New York Times. 

What I did this summer: During the newsletter’s six-week summer break, as its name was slowly morphing from Mindful Resistance to Nonzero, I had conversations with some interesting people, including: Political scientist Francis Fukuyama on his book Identity; Israeli scholar and politician Yael Tamir on her book Why Nationalism; Ronald Purser on his book McMindfulness; and, last but certainly not least cosmic, political scientist Alexander Wendt on his book Quantum Mind and Social Science. All appeared on either bloggingheads.tv or meaningoflife.tv, and all can be heard on The Wright Show podcast feed, available at a podcast app near you.

All the content on this site is published as a newsletter first.

It's free, comes out 3 times a month and has extra writing.

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