NBA’s China Syndrome

Oct 12 2019

This was a tough week for San Francisco Warriors coach Steve Kerr. It all started when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protestors. The Chinese government—and lots of Chinese people—didn’t like that one bit, and China is a huge market for the NBA, so various NBA officials and players set about saying conciliatory things. Kerr, when asked about the controversy, did what you might expect: He declined to comment.  

At this point Donald Trump somehow found the time—even while getting impeached and getting Kurds slaughtered—to tear into Kerr (a longtime Trump critic) for not being manly enough to stand up to China. Which in turn kept the whole issue alive long enough for Kerr to be asked by a reporter whether, in the course of his many visits to China, there had been discussion of how the NBA’s financial interests relate to “a country whose human rights record is not in step with the United States.”

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How virtue signaling saved my dog’s life

Sep 28 2019

Our dog Frazier was on death row when we got him—slated to be “put to sleep” if the animal shelter couldn’t find a home for him. 

If you don’t recognize that sentence as virtue signaling, you need to get more in touch with the zeitgeist. Over the past few decades it has become cooler and cooler to casually mention that your dog is a “rescue dog.” 

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Matt Bershadker, president of the ASPCA: “Rescuing an animal has become a badge of honor,” he told a New York Times reporter. “People proudly go to dog parks and walk around their neighborhoods talking about the animal that they rescued from a shelter.”

And this fact—that you can actually brag about your dog being an outcast and get social credit for it—seems to have been good for dogs. The percentage of dogs at animal shelters that have to be put to sleep for lack of adoption has dropped sharply over the past decade, the Times reported this month.

Plant-based game theory

Sep 21 2019

Sunflowers, believe it or not, play non-zero-sum games with one another—and do so with impressive skill! At least, that’s one reading of a study published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. 

A typical sunflower, not surprisingly, tends to send its roots more profusely into nutrient-rich patches of soil than into nutrient-poor patches. But two researchers—Megan Ljubotina and James Cahill—report that, when there is another sunflower in the neighborhood, this behavior gets recalibrated.

If much closer to the nutrient-rich patch than its neighbor, the sunflower sends its roots into the patch more profusely than when there’s no neighbor around—as if it were rushing to colonize land before a rival gets to it.

On attribution error

Sep 21 2019
[Excerpted from 'How Mindfulness Meditation Can Save America' by Robert Wright, published in Wired, Oct 8, 2017]

In a context of intense tribalism, attribution error works like this: If people we identify as members of our tribe do something bad — if they’re mean to someone, say, or they break the law — we tend to attribute the behavior to “situational” factors. They had been under stress at work, or they were pressured by bad actors into misbehaving, or whatever. If members of the enemy tribe do something bad, we’re more likely to explain the behavior in “dispositional” terms — the bad behavior emanates from their basic disposition, their character. It’s just the kind of thing that people like them do.

Worse and worse

Jul 19 2019

Remind me to never again ask this question: “How could things possibly get any worse?” This week showed us that things can always get worse. You can have a president who has played on bigotry and xenophobia in various disgusting ways but at least has never told four non-white congresswomen to go back to where they came from. You can have a president who has inspired supporters to do deeply unsettling things but at least has never stood in front of a crowd, basking in its malevolence, as it chanted—about a Somali woman who came to America as a child refugee, gained US citizenship, and then got elected to Congress—“Send her back.”

Regular readers of this newsletter are familiar with my sermons about the importance of responding to Trump’s provocations with discernment—which can mean not responding at all, since sometimes Trump’s goal is to elicit a reaction that will fortify his base. Well, for the record: This is not an occasion when tactical silence is in order. When Trump adds a whole new dimension to his incitement of hatred and bigotry, when he stands in front of a crowd and evokes with new power memories of history’s most dangerous authoritarians, there has to be pushback.

Still, this being the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, I’m duty bound to ask what form the pushback should take—and, in the course of answering that question, to assess this episode as dispassionately as possible, under the circumstances.

Ironic tribalism

Jun 07 2019

Last weekend I attended my college reunion, as I do every five years. There are lots of things to do at a college reunion. Such as: put a positive spin on the last five years of your life, then do that again, then do that again.

Plus, reunions are a good place to study ritual. And I don’t just mean the opening ritual of slowly grasping the awful truth. (“Who are all these old people? Where are the people from my class?… Oh.”) I mainly mean the kinds of rituals an anthropologist might study—rituals of tribalism.

This year I engaged in a ritual that led me to add a new species of tribalism to my taxonomy of tribalisms. I call it ironic tribalism, and I’m wondering if it offers hope for the world.

As it happens, I attended a college, Princeton, that makes a famously big deal out of reunions. It is said to have the highest reunion participation rate of any college in America, or in the Ivy League, or something. And presumably the highest gaudiness quotient. My class-issued orange-and-black weekend wardrobe consisted of three shirts, two hats, and a blazer that made my high-school-senior-prom tux jacket (a tangerine plaid) look dignified. Plus orange shoe strings.

Abortion down south

May 17 2019

This week’s passage in Alabama of the most severe anti-abortion law in recent American history triggered a flashback. I was back in my sophomore history class at Douglas MacArthur High School in San Antonio. There, at the front of the class, wearing cowboy boots, was Mr. Lightfoot, a stout middle-aged man who, in addition to being a history teacher, was a football coach and a farmer.

This was the year of Roe v. Wade. Mr. Lightfoot explained to the class that the people who think abortion should be legal are people who “want to have their fun and not pay for it.”

What struck me at the time was that this was a pretty grim view of parenthood—child rearing as a kind of decades-long penance for having had sex. What strikes me now is something different: even back then, before America was famously tribal, abortion was a tribal issue.

Mr. Lightfoot didn’t just think the people who disagreed with him about abortion were bad people because they were on the wrong side of that particular morally charged issue. He had a broader picture of their badness; they were people who engaged in or tolerated sexual promiscuity. And this perception, I would guess, only strengthened his conviction that they were wrong about abortion—even though, as a strictly logical matter, the question of whether promiscuity is bad and the question of whether a fetus is a human being aren’t the same question.

To boldly go where no cliché has gone before

May 03 2019

In keeping with my long history of taking courageous positions, I opined in last week’s newsletter that hatred is a bad thing. Now MRN reader Jane is asking whether I could develop that observation into something that is, you know, actually of use to someone.

Jane put it more politely than that. I had said that we seem to be witnessing an escalating war between violent extremists—mainly white nationalists on one side and jihadists on the other. Recognizing that hatred was fueling this war, I said, was the place to start in thinking about “constructive policies the next administration might pursue and about constructive non-governmental initiatives (including the micro-initiatives that each of us can take in our everyday lives).” Jane quoted the part about micro-initiatives and wrote, “I wish you’d elaborate on this.”

OK, I’ll try. But please keep your expectations low. Remember: I said micro-initiatives.

Why Pure Reason Won’t End American Tribalism

By Robert Wright, Apr 08 2018

[Published in Wired on April 9, 2018]


If you haven’t encountered any reviews of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s new bestseller Enlightenment Now—which would be amazing, given how many there have been—don’t worry. I can summarize them in two paragraphs.

The positive ones say Pinker argues convincingly that we should be deeply grateful for the Enlightenment and should put our stock in its legacy. A handful of European thinkers who were born a few centuries ago set our species firmly on the path of progress with their compelling commitment to science, reason, and humanism (where humanism means “maximizing human flourishing”). Things have indeed, as Pinker documents in great detail, gotten better in pretty much every way—materially, morally, politically—since then. And if we stay true to Enlightenment values, they’ll keep getting better.

The negative reviews say things like this: Pinker attributes too much of our past progress to Enlightenment thought (giving short shrift, for example, to the role of Christian thinkers and activists in ending slavery); his faith in science and reason is naive, given how often they’ve been misused; his assumption that scientifically powered progress will bring happiness betrays a misunderstanding of our deepest needs; his apparent belief that secular humanism can fill the spiritual void left by rationalism’s erosion of religion only underscores that misunderstanding; and so on. In short: In one sense or another, Pinker overdoes this whole enlightenment thing.

My own problem with the book is the sense in which Pinker underdoes the enlightenment thing. In describing the path that will lead humankind to a bright future, he ignores the importance of enlightenment in the Eastern sense of the term. If the power of science and reason aren’t paired with a more contemplative kind of insight, I think the whole Enlightenment project, and maybe even the whole human experiment, could fail.

If you fear I’m heading in a deeply spiritual or excruciatingly mushy direction—toward a sermon on the oneness of all beings or the need for loving kindness—I have good news: I’ve delivered such sermons, but this isn’t one of them. Eastern enlightenment has multiple meanings and dimensions, and some of those involve more logical rigor than you might think. In the end, an Eastern view of the mind can mesh well with modern cognitive science—a fact that Pinker could have usefully pondered before writing this book.

Why Can't We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality

By Robert Wright, Oct 31 2013

[Published in the Atlantic in November 2013.]


Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them BY JOSHUA GREENE (PENGUIN)

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil BY PAUL BLOOM (CROWN)

in 1999, Joshua Greene—then a philosophy graduate student at Princeton, now a psychology professor at Harvard—had a very fertile idea. He took a pretty well-known philosophical thought experiment and infused it with technology in a way that turned it into a very well-known philosophical thought experiment—easily the best-known, most-pondered such mental exercise of our time. In the process, he raised doubts, in inescapably vivid form, about the rationality of human moral judgment.

The thought experiment—called the trolley problem—has over the past few years gotten enough attention to be approaching “needs no introduction” status. But it’s not quite there, so: An out-of-control trolley is headed for five people who will surely die unless you pull a lever that diverts it onto a track where it will instead kill one person. Would you—should you—pull the lever?

Now rewind the tape and suppose that you could avert the five deaths not by pulling a lever, but by pushing a very large man off a footbridge and onto the track, where his body would slow the train to a halt just in time to save everyone—except, of course, him. Would you do that? And, if you say yes the first time and no the second (as many people do), what’s your rationale? Isn’t it a one-for-five swap either way?

Greene’s inspiration was to do brain scans of people while they thought about the trolley problem. The results suggested that people who refused to save five lives by pushing an innocent bystander to his death were swayed by emotional parts of their brains, whereas people who chose the more utilitarian solution—keep as many people alive as possible—showed more activity in parts of the brain associated with logical thought.