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What Happened: September 14, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: The danger of Instagram; Milley’s soft coup; RIP Norm Macdonald

The Scroll
September 14, 2021


The Big Story

Internal reports at Instagram, the popular photo-sharing app owned by Facebook, show that the company’s own research found the app was psychologically damaging to young people and especially harmful to young women. While a 2019 internal Facebook document acknowledged, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” the company kept its findings from the public for years before they were detailed in a Wall Street Journal investigation published Thursday. Echoing the Facebook team’s 2019 assessment, a March 2020 slide posted to Facebook’s internal message board found “32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” The research also found that the site’s teen users blamed it for increases in anxiety and depression and that 13% of British teens who experienced suicidal thoughts and 6% of Americans who did said Instagram triggered their desire to kill themselves. Some 22 million teenagers in the United States log in to Instagram everyday. They make up a large part of the site’s audience, more than 40% of which is under the age of 22. With so much of its user base and $100 million in annual revenue coming from young people, Instagram is hesitant to do anything that might push them away. Despite what the company’s employees were finding in their internal studies, “in public Facebook has consistently played down the app’s negative effects on teens and hasn’t made its research public or available to academics or lawmakers who have asked for it,” the Journal reports. During Congressional testimony in March of this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked about Instagram’s impacts on children’s mental health and made no mention of his company’s studies, telling Congress, “The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits.” 

Read it here:

Today’s Back Pages: Mystical Ambiguity: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav on the Via Negativa

The Rest

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley placed secret phone calls to his Chinese counterpart four days before the 2020 presidential election in which he allegedly promised China’s top military leader that he would warn him of any impending attacks, a new book co-written by famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward claims. Excerpts of the book were published in The Washington Post. Following U.S. military exercises in the South China Sea that alarmed Chinese officials, Milley phoned Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army to tell him that the U.S. government was stable and to assure him, “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.” In light of the fact these leaks almost certainly came from Milley himself, or people close to him acting under his auspices, the reports may be better understood as boasts than as traditional leaks.

Californians vote today to decide whether the state’s current governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, will be recalled from office. Newsom’s biggest challenger is the Republican Larry Elder. President Biden traveled to California yesterday to campaign for Newsom, who has seen a surge in the polls after looking vulnerable over recent months. A new poll in FiveThirtyEight shows 57.4% of California voters support keeping Newsom in office and only 41.5% expressing support for removing him.

Tens of thousands of U.S. military vehicles and pieces of equipment left in Afghanistan that are now in the hands of the Taliban will likely be passed on to China, a key strategic ally for the Taliban. Some of the equipment, such as communications gear and biometrics systems for storing biological data used to identify people, contains secret and encrypted technologies. “Expect the Chinese military to use this windfall to create—and export to client states—a new generation of weapons and tactics tailored to U.S. vulnerabilities,” conclude the experts quoted in an article from security publication Defense One titled “Equipment Left In Afghanistan Will Expose U.S. Secrets.”
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You could say that Norm Macdonald was funnier because he knew he was going to die, but the thing that made Macdonald a comedic genius is that he seemed to know the stakes long before his nine-year battle with cancer, which he kept a secret from the public, finally took his life in recent days at the age of 61. A Saturday Night Live alum and veteran standup, Macdonald was the Scots-Canadian Nikolai Gogol of the late-night comedy circuit: dark, funny, deep, and brilliantly alive to the weird resonances of the human condition. By no coincidence, he was the rare religious comedian and spoke often, especially over the past decade, about his Christian faith. He told a lot of great jokes over the years, but this one is a masterpiece.
Watch it here:

Housing prices across 55 nations increased by 9.2% between June 2020 and June 2021—the fastest pace since 2005. The United States had one of the biggest jumps in prices among the countries evaluated in a study by the property consultancy Knight Frank. 

Once again, scientists are attempting to resurrect the wooly mammoth 10,000 years after it went extinct. A bioscience and genetics company called Colossal that just raised $15 million from strategic investors has plans to use embryos developed in a laboratory from the skin cells of Asian elephants to save the threatened elephants from extinction while also creating a new hybrid that mimics the characteristics of the mammoth.

Top medical officials in the United Kingdom are recommending that all healthy teenagers ages 12 to 15—a group they say is at very low risk from the disease—should receive COVID-19 vaccines. In a letter, England’s four chief medical officers write that “in those aged 12 to 15, COVID-19 rarely, but occasionally, leads to serious illness, hospitalisation, and even less commonly death” while saying that the risk of vaccination is also “very rare.” Despite young people being at such low risk, the officials say that vaccinating them will have social benefits, such as allowing schooling to resume without disruptions.

Rap diva and Brooklyn native Nicki Minaj fired on MSNBC host Joy Reid and former View host Meghan McCain after the two political gatekeepers attacked her over tweets expressing skepticism about COVID-19 vaccines. Minaj sent out a series of tweets on Monday that ran the gamut from sharing anecdotes about people who’d had adverse reactions to vaccines, to encouraging people to do their own research and not be bullied before getting vaccinated, to soliciting advice on which vaccine is best and saying she’ll probably get one herself before going on tour. But a number of people, including McCain and Reid, pounced on the singer, leading Minaj to respond in a series of tweets that included a shot at McCain, exhibited below, that was on the tame side compared to her replies to Reid.

Eat shit you

— Nicki Minaj (@NICKIMINAJ) September 14, 2021

Broadway reopens today at full capacity for the first time since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Theatergoers will either have to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend shows. Before the pandemic, Broadway generated an estimated $14.7 billion for New York’s economy and almost 97,000 jobs. 

The Back Pages

Mystical Ambiguity: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav on the Via Negativa

Today’s Back Pages comes from Zohar Atkins, a rabbi and poet who writes at the Substack “What Is Called Thinking.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav teaches that we can know a thing’s essence by knowing all its limitations and imperfections. If I want to know what perfect wisdom is, I can do so by coming to a total knowledge of what perfect wisdom isn’t.

If you want a literary context for this idea, recurrent in his work, check out his tale “The Chandelier Maker.”

But there’s an ambiguity in the via negativa, the path of negation. Does the path of negation leave anything left standing, or does it simply clear away all objects so that we are left with “nothingness”?

In “The Chandelier Maker,” for example, the protagonist boasts that he can make the perfect chandelier, but the story itself does not show him making it, only boasting that he can. It does not describe the perfect chandelier. For in so doing, it would raise the specter of arbitrariness and relativity. “The way that can be named is not the eternal way,” says Lao Tze. And so we might think that, likewise, for Rebbe Nachman, the wisdom that can be taught is not the perfect wisdom.

And yet it’s not clear Rebbe Nachman himself came to such a “nihilistic” conclusion (or if he did, he was Straussian about it). Rather, his conclusion, much like Kierkegaard’s, is that, having negated the rational path, one is now free to accept the absurd as an alternative. But there really is a path—it can be taught, if esoterically, and it possesses positive qualities.

In many ways, Rabbi Nachman is the inverse of Maimonides. Maimonides also taught the via negativa. But while this led Maimonides to reject any and all knowledge of God’s essence, for Rabbi Nachman it led him to claim that precisely, paradoxically, in not knowing God, one could know God. The divide between them is the divide between the rationalistic view and the mystical view of divine absence. Another divide between them is that Maimonides reserves the via negativa only as regards the essence of God. For Rebbe Nachman, it should be applied to all things in life.

The Platonic form of something is discovered only by becoming, as it were, a scientist of lack. Personally, I find this compelling, for it alchemizes all disappointments into a necessary part of the holy quest. Nothing could be more useful than collecting all the things that don’t work.

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel.

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