Signing Off

By Robert Wright

A year ago I started writing regularly in this space. For me it was a fairly radical experiment. I hadn't had a regular writing commitment more demanding than a weekly column since I worked for a daily newspaper in the 1980s. And I'd never had the liberating but slightly frightening authority to publish whatever I wanted without an editor reading it first.

It was exhilarating from the very beginning, and often rewarding in ways that my previous forms of journalistic expression couldn't be. But by the fall it had become clear that it wasn't sustainable, and in October I let The Atlantic know that I'd have to call it quits at the end of the year.

The main reason for this decision is that I'm supposed to be writing a book. (Translation of "supposed to be": I've signed the contract and cashed the check--though my motivation to get the book written goes well beyond that.) I had naively imagined that I could make the book project dovetail with writing here on a roughly daily basis, and reconcile both of these things with my other commitments, notably running Bloggingheads.tv. Wrong.

It isn't just a matter of squeezing in the time to do some book writing. The book is about the Buddhist view of the mind, so there just isn't much synergy between writing it and writing daily about politics and policy and culture. I need to get my own mind in a different place.

In a few weeks I'll be going to that place. Through a great stroke of fortune, I have the opportunity to teach a seminar on the Buddhist view of the mind (and related matters) at Princeton. I'm looking forward to everything about this--the intellectual stimulus of curious undergraduates, the freewheeling discussion of deep subjects, the distinctively benign atmosphere of a college campus.

And, to be honest, I'm looking forward to getting up in the morning without feeling I have to develop an opinion about something and then publicize it. (Not that you asked, but: I just counted up my posts, and I've averaged one per weekday. And most were basically full-fledged columns, more like "pieces" than "posts"--which just goes to show that old habits die hard.) However, I have no doubt that any sense of relief will be outweighed by pangs of withdrawal. "Unique" is an overused word, but over the past year I've had the benefit of a unique station. I've had complete editorial freedom and I've benefited both from the aura of The Atlantic's age-old and carefully preserved prestige and from the power of The Atlantic's current editorial operation.

I somehow managed to keep the words "brand" and "platform" out of the previous sentence, but, yes, the shorter version is that this web site is a great platform with a great brand that afforded me great freedom, and the uniqueness lies in the fact that there's nowhere else--literally nowhere else--I could have gotten all three of these things in such great measure.

I want to say a little more about the brand and the platform. I know it's not a news flash to say that the digital age has been unkind to magazines and newspapers. And it's only slightly less obvious that the digital age hasn't been kind to magazine-like websites or newspaper-like websites. But those of us who have seen these truths unfold up close--that is, journalists who have seen the business of journalism transformed and in some aspects demolished--have an especially keen appreciation of the power of the technological logic behind them. So it seems nearly miraculous to see an enterprise like The Atlantic not just survive but flourish, staying in the black yet staying classy.

I was in touch with The Atlantic's editor, James Bennet, back when he and the magazine's owner, David Bradley, were adapting to an earlier, different incarnation of the internet by assembling a group of blogs to serve as the web site's core. I take some pride in (if I recall correctly) suggesting to James that he talk to Matt Yglesias, who then came to The Atlantic and became one of its early internet stars. But I deserve no credit for two subsequent inspired hires--Bob Cohn, who came from Wired to oversee The Atlantic's web site, and John Gould, Bob's deputy. Having now watched Bob and John work under James's leadership, I have some understanding of The Atlantic's remarkable adaptive record--how, with perfect timing, it has moved beyond the early, blog-o-centric model (which crucially got it a foothold on the web) just as internet journalism moved into what some call the post-blog era. I owe all four of these people--David, James, Bob, and John--thanks for building the environment I've been allowed to inhabit.

I could at this point keep naming names, thanking, in particular, fellow Atlantic writers for letting me bask in their reflected glory, but if I did I wouldn't know where to stop. So I'll just thank them generically, and also thank the readers who enjoyed, tolerated, or endured my writing, as the case may be, as well as the gratifyingly large subset of readers who reacted to what I wrote with sincere and civil comments.

I guess it's natural that, as I bring this year to a close, I look back and wish I'd written some things I didn't write, or vice versa. But my main regret is that I didn't make more explicit some of the concerns that were implicit in much of what I wrote. I feel like a preacher who, after standing at the pulpit 52 Sundays in a row, dispensing sermons on how to live right, realizes that he forgot to mention the part about salvation. So, at the risk of setting a record for longest swan song in the history of journalism, I'd like to quickly articulate three beliefs of mine that I rarely articulated this year, but that informed much of what I wrote, especially in the realm of foreign policy.

[1] The world's biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups--i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of "the other." I'm not talking about empathy in the sense of literally sharing people's emotions--feeling their pain, etc. I'm just talking about the ability to comprehend and appreciate the perspective of the other. So, for Americans, that might mean grasping that if you lived in a country occupied by American troops, or visited by American drone strikes, you might not share the assumption of many Americans that these deployments of force are well-intentioned and for the greater good. You might even get bitterly resentful. You might even start hating America.

[2] Grass-roots hatred is a much greater threat to the United States--and to nations in general, and hence to world peace and stability--than it used to be. The reasons are in large part technological, and there are two main manifestations: (1) technology has made it easier for grass-roots hatred to morph into the organized deployment (by non-state actors) of massively lethal force; (2) technology has eroded authoritarian power, rendering governments more responsive to popular will, hence making their policies more reflective of grass roots sentiment in their countries. The upshot of these two factors is that public sentiment toward America abroad matters much more (to America's national security) than it did a few decades ago.

[3] If the United States doesn't use its inevitably fading dominance to build a world in which the rule of law is respected, and in which global norms are strong, the United States (and the world) will suffer for it. So when, for example, we do things to other nations that we ourselves have defined as acts of war (like cybersabotage), that is not, in the long run, making us or our allies safer. The same goes for when we invade countries, or bomb them, in clear violation of international law. And at some point we have to get serious about building a truly comprehensive nuclear nonproliferation regime--one that we expect our friends, not just our enemies, to be members-in-good-standing of.

You might ask: If I'm so concerned about international affairs, why am I writing a book about Buddhism? Of course, you might not ask that. But just in case:

Part of the answer is that, though writing in this space has led me to emphasize my concerns about policy and politics, they aren't my only concerns. But another part of the answer is this:

If you look at the three challenges I've just identified in italics, you'll see that the second two wouldn't be so challenging if the first challenge was met. It's because Americans don't put themselves in the shoes of non-Americans that they (with the best of intentions) support policies that generate hatred of America and (without even realizing it) act as if rules are things that should be obeyed by everyone except America and its allies. (I don't mean to suggest that Americans are the only people who make these mistakes. It's just that I'm an American writing mainly for Americans, so I focus on American policies.) So if we could address the first challenge in a big way--if we could get much better at seeing the world from the point of view of others--that would go a long way toward saving the world from the grim fate that otherwise may await it. And, without going into a lot of detail, I'd just say that (1) the Buddhist view of the mind helps illuminate this challenge, as does modern psychology, and I'm interested in seeing how the challenge looks from these two vantage points; and (2) Buddhist meditative practice, in which I've dabbled, can be effective in addressing the challenge.

One thing I've wondered, as I've watched America's national security policies fail to address the challenges I describe above--and as I've watched the policies of nations in general fail to solve the world's biggest problems--is whether these failures will continue until we make what you might call "spiritual" progress at the grass roots level. In other words, maybe meeting that first challenge, and becoming better at seeing things from the point of view of "the other," isn't just conducive to progress at the policy level but a pre-requisite for it. In principle all religious and spiritual traditions can play a constructive role here. (That was part of the point of my most recent book, The Evolution of God--see the chapter titled "Moral Imagination.") But Buddhism is distinctively relevant, because there are now some very secular, westernized versions of it that may appeal to the growing number of westerners who reject religion per se.

My interests in the Buddhist view of the mind--the interests I'll explore in my book and my seminar--go well beyond this, but my point is just that there's a stronger thread of continuity between my 2012 and my 2013 than may at first meet the eye. So I hope readers who find that thread interesting will stay tuned. In the coming year I'll continue to do at least some writing, in various venues. (And links to things I write will appear in my twitter feed--@robertwrighter--along with other tweets.) I'm happy to report that, when the venue in question is The Atlantic, my writing will appear right here, in this space, stacked on top of all my previous posts (or pieces, or whatever). And who knows--maybe someday I'll again have the chance to write in this space with some regularity and frequency. In any event, thanks again to all the people who made doing that this past year so rewarding.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/01/signing-off/266925/