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May we all have our hopes, our will to try
This week: how not to talk to Trump, why what's true is not the same is what is believable, what not to look forward to in 2018.
Given my track record I'm going to avoid making predictions but I will point to something might happen but probably will not (this is perfect, because I win either way). It's this: that the defining issue of British politics in 2018 will not be Brexit but whether to back a US attack on North Korea. The probability of this is low, but underrated. If the US decides on war, Theresa May (or her successor) will be put in a terrible, impossible position. The pressure to back our transatlantic ally, especially post-Brexit, will be enormous. On the other hand, the pressure from voters to not back the worst and most unpopular president of modern times in a pre-emptive war will also be enormous. It's the kind of thing that topples PMs. Of course, in the great scheme of things this would a relatively trivial side-effect of what would be a massively destructive war. So will the US go for it? There are two ways of looking at this decision: one of presidential volition, or as an institutional process. On the one hand, I think the presidential tweets are probably not a good guide to US intent, because Trump basically does not want to make big decisions (which in many ways we should be thankful for). American officials know that a war would carry a high risk of global catastrophe and will find a way to muddle through. This is the position of Jeffrey Lewis, one of America's foremost defence experts and indispensable on NK. On the other hand, wars can happen without presidents actually willing them. There comes a point when institutional drivers make it hard to stop a march to war (see Loren DeJonge Schulman's genius Balenciaga analogy). At some point, that may become the decision Trump fails to take. You can read Kori Schake (US national security expert, former Bush official, very experienced and shrewd) to get a sense of how the institutional wheels are now turning in a way they did in 2002. In summary, I think muddling through is likely but war could happen by accident.
HOW TO HIDE IN 2018
CV Dazzle uses fashion and make up to create camouflage from face-detection technology.
THE FUTURE IS JUST YOUR VERSION OF THE PRESENT
Ted Chiang is a science fiction writer. His book of short stories - one of which got made into the brilliant film, Arrival - is meant to be great and is on my wish list. Turns out he can write a terrific polemic too, I really enjoyed this, on how the Silicon Valley chatter about "superintelligent" entities not coincidentally reflects the way they think about business.
TRUE BUT UNBELIEVABLE
I like the far edges of philosophical reason, where abstruse logic blurs into nonsense. This is a good short piece (based on a new book) about why a theory may be true and yet impossible to believe in.
2017 LONG READS
I am not going to do my own list because I'm too scared of forgetting to include fantastic pieces and then bitterly regretting it. I refer you to David Brooks's excellent selection, parts one and two, which includes several I really want to get to. Also to Longform's best of list. I linked to its number one pick - Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah on Dylann Roof - in a previous letter. Read the piece and listen to Longform's interview with her too, both are extraordinary. Not a long read in the classic sense but this essay on centrism makes something meaningful and even beautiful out of a dry and seemingly empty concept. I also want to send you to Rachel Aviv's piece on Bobby Hadid, which is maybe slightly under-noted in the end of year reviews. It's amazing storytelling: if you start it, you'll finish it. Finally, since so many of these are quite dark, I recommend a brightener: Helen Lewis's brilliant essay on Frasier. OK maybe I've just done a list.
HOW TO INTERROGATE TRUMP
There's been a debate over how the New York Times handled its interview with Trump this week, with some arguing that the interviewer should have "pushed back" on his many falsehoods and contradictions. I agree with Sam Stein here. The debate really reminded me of the themes of my piece on interrogation. It might please us to see someone we don't like aggressively cross-examined, but it usually means you get less information from them, not less. And I think getting information is the right objective in this case. I do think a more aggressive style of interview should be tried on Trump on TV, but that would be with a different objective: to make his idiocy visible, to wind him up until he explodes. For a press interview, just turn on the mic and let him talk. That's how the FBI will do it.
HIGHLIGHT OF 2017
I don't care how many times you've watched it, watch it again.
...For reading The Ruffian in its inaugural year. It was an experiment and I've been in two minds about whether to continue it in 2018 but your kind comments, via email or in person, have tipped the balance to yes.
ABBA NEW YEAR
This week's subject line comes from Abba's marvellously miserable Happy New Year. Read the lyrics - they're worthy of Samuel Beckett, though of course it's a distinctively Nordic sensibility (after all, temperature defines personality). Either way, a reminder that A, B, B&A were amazing; with tunes, of course, but also with words.