Preet Bharara: Back in December 2018, bestselling author and journalist Michael Lewis appeared on Stay Tuned to talk about his fascinating book, The Fifth Risk. We so admired what Lewis had to say that we ran the episode last year during our Thanksgiving holiday.
Preet Bharara: Now, Lewis has partnered with Pushkin Industries to offer his own podcast, Against The Rules. It’s a searing look at fairness in every aspect of American life, financial markets, newsrooms, sports arenas, courts of law, and more.
Preet Bharara: In season two, now in full swing, Lewis examines the role of coaches in society. It wasn’t that long ago that we only had coaches in sports. Now they’re everywhere. There are life coaches and death coaches. You can hire a coach to improve your executive skills, your online dating performance, and even your charisma. But coaching has also become an odd source of unfairness. Just look around and ask yourself, who has access to these coaches and the edge they provide? Just as importantly, who doesn’t? And what does that mean for all of us? Subscribe to Against The Rules in Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
Preet Bharara: From Cafe, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
Sam Harris: Life has always been uncertain. None of us know how many heartbeats we have left. There’s a drum beat of uncertainty here that all of us have been living with all the time and there is a way to make our peace with that. There is no alternative. Immortality is not on the menu.
Preet Bharara: That’s Sam Harris, he’s a philosopher, a neuroscientist, and the author of bestselling books about religion, meditation, and rationality. He is also the host of The Making Sense Podcast. In 2014, Harris published, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and four years later launched a popular corresponding app which offers daily guided meditations.
Preet Bharara: Harris burst onto the cultural scene in 2004 with the publication of his provocative book, The End Of Faith. He soon became part of the new atheism movement, a loose group of skeptics that included Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Preet Bharara: Since then, Harris has become a passionate advocate for religious reform, meditation, and freedom of speech. Today, Harris and I talk about the principles of meditation and the role it can play in our response to crises like the coronavirus pandemic. We also discuss the moral complexities of reopening society, the psychology of Trump supporters, and the controversies he’s been embroiled in. Like when he hosted Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, on his podcast. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.
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Preet Bharara: Hey folks, Stay Tuned with Preet has been nominated for a Webby People’s Voice Award for the best news and politics podcast and we need your help to bring home the prize. You can cast your ballot at vote.webbyawards.com. That’s vote.webbyawards.com. Once there just type Preet or Stay Tuned in the search bar. The link to the page can also be found in the show notes to the episode and in Cafe emails. The deadline to vote is upon us. It’s tonight Thursday, May 7th, at midnight. So put your remote voting skills to practice and vote for Stay Tuned with Preet for Best Podcast Series in the News and Politics category. Again, that’s vote.webbyawards.com. Thank you as always for helping support our work and inspiring us to do what we do. And now onto the show.
Preet Bharara: This question comes from Twitter user Kenneth A. Vats @KenV54, who asks, “Why don’t Dem senators refuse to return to DC for the McConnell judge approval fiasco? They can’t block the nominations and pending legislation from the House is bi-partisan, or will be voted down. And in committee, doesn’t lack of any Dems stop the hearings? #askpreet.”
Preet Bharara: Well that’s a good series of questions. Obviously, one of the things that some people are not happy about is that in the midst of this pandemic, and there don’t seem to even be enough tests to administer to all the senators in that chamber, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has summoned everyone back into session, and in his words, for the purpose of confirming judges that a lot of Democrats are not so fond of, including a protege of Mitch McConnell who is at the ripe old age of 37 and is being promoted to be a judge on the DC circuit court of Appeals.
Preet Bharara: So as a general matter, I suppose Dem senators could refuse to return to DC. I think that a lot of them understand that it’s their duty to be in the chamber and vote on Senate business. As you know, I worked in the Senate for four and a half years and it’s not the style of most senators to simply stay away. They come and they fight and they make their arguments and they make speeches on the floor and they talk about things in committee. And as you point out, it wouldn’t necessarily stop the juggernaut anyway, so it seems not so pragmatic and wise, and not even so principled necessarily, to stay away from the chamber altogether, although you could make the argument that it’s a trying time and it’s an unsafe time and some of these members are in a high risk category and maybe they shouldn’t be going back.
Preet Bharara: So I think we should leave that to the discretion and judgment of individual senators, not withstanding what they’re called back for.
Preet Bharara: You ask an interesting question about what happens in the committee. As you know, judicial nominations all have to pass through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is now chaired by Chairman Lindsey Graham. The ranking member is Dianne Feinstein.
Preet Bharara: So in light of your question, I took it upon myself to refresh my own recollection about the rules relating to a quorum. So just to step back for a second, every federal judge, district court, or circuit court must have a hearing in the Judiciary Committee. That’s step one. Step two is then there’s a committee vote with respect to that judge and if it’s a favorable vote, then there’s a floor vote. So there’s basically three times where some proceeding has to happen in the Senate.
Preet Bharara: With respect to hearings, there is no quorum requirement and all the Democrats can stay home and suck on their thumbs and that will not prevent a hearing from going forward. There is a requirement for a quorum to conduct certain business, transact business, and here’s what the rule says, it’s Senate Judiciary Committee rule three, section one, seven members of the committee actually present shall constitute a quorum for the purpose of discussing business. Nine members of the committee, including at least two members of the minority, shall constitute a quorum for the purpose of transacting business. And then, this is important, no bill, matter, or nomination shall be ordered reported from the committee, however, unless a majority of the committee is actually present at the time such action is taken and the majority of those present support the action taken.
Preet Bharara: So what does that mean? That means as a technical matter, you got to have two Democrats, who are in the minority at the moment, present on the committee for there to be the ability to transact business and that business does include voting on nominations, as I recall, and as I understand it. Now, there have been times, including in my experience, that Democrats have just completely boycotted a judiciary committee vote either on a nominee or otherwise. That happens pretty infrequently and, as I said before, I think a lot of members feel that that’s a disservice to their constituents.
Preet Bharara: Maybe you can do it one week, maybe you can do it two weeks, but to just stay away from the committee altogether for every vote, I think might prompt a rule change. It might prompt some extraordinary action. Remember, these committee rules are not quite the same thing as constitutional principles and they are not scripture. And Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham can come up with a way in the face of what they would say is democratic obstruction more so than you typically see and figure out a way to bring these nominees to the floor anyway.
Preet Bharara: In my experience also, Dianne Feinstein is one of those people who doesn’t like to take refuge in a boycott from a vote. There were times that I can remember that some of the Democrats said, “Well, we don’t like this particular bill, or we don’t like this particular nominee, and we’re going to deny a quorum.” And Dianne Feinstein, almost always in my recollection, said, “That’s not what I got elected to do. I got elected to show up and I’ll make my best arguments. And if my side wins, it wins. If it loses, it loses. But I’m not going to hide in my office as opposed to vote.”
Preet Bharara: So according to the technical rules, Democrats have some ability to delay votes on particular judges, perhaps, but I think it’s a limited ability that they have.
Preet Bharara: This question comes in a tweet from Maryann Parkhill. “Hi, #askpreet, how was the White House able to prevent Fauci from testifying? Can’t the Congress subpoena anyone? Doesn’t Fauci have to respond to the subpoena?”
Preet Bharara: Well, this is an age old question that is being litigated right now in multiple courts, as Anne Milgram and I talked about on the Cafe Insider Podcast with respect to Don McGahn, the former White House counsel. Now, as an initial matter with respect to Dr. Fauci, my understanding is that the White House says he’s not permitted to come testify in the House. I don’t believe a subpoena has been issued. If the subpoena is issued, there are various limitations on the House’s ability to enforce the subpoena, especially given the state of play with these other cases, but as a threshold matter, I don’t believe that Dr. Fauci has yet been subpoenaed and when you’re not subpoenaed, I guess you can choose not to show up, although that’s disrespectful to the House Committee.
Preet Bharara: On the other hand, it does appear that Dr. Fauci has been asked to testify and the White House has agreed to let him testify before a Senate Committee. That seems a little selective. It’s an interesting question how a court would address the issue of not whether or not the White House has the right to say, “We’re not going to let someone who works in the administration come testify, and the Legislature and the Executive Branch have to work that out because we’re not going to get involved.” It’s a slightly more complicated matter when the White House says, “Well, you can testify in one chamber of commerce, but you can’t testify in another chamber of commerce.” That doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense and I don’t know if it would be easy enough for even those judges who say they want to stay out of it to stay out of that controversy because that seems highly suspect.
Preet Bharara: There’s also the question of whether or not Dr. Fauci is in fact the kind of person that Don McGahn is, a high ranking official who would be subject to executive privilege claims because Dr. Fauci is not a member of the White House staff. It’s unclear how those differences would play out if there was a court battle.
Preet Bharara: By the way, the mere idea of having a court battle over having Dr. Fauci testify is subject to such significant delay it’s not clear what the state of the pandemic would be after months pass and that problem and issue is resolved.
Preet Bharara: This question comes in an email from Pat Ruck, who asks, “Whatever happened to the publication of John Bolton’s book? Thanks.” Well that’s a great question and my first response is who cares? In fact, I think I tweeted in the last couple of days in response to a report that his publication date has been moved. I think the first time I’ve used on Twitter the yawn emoji. I didn’t even know there was a yawn emoji and I think it was made precisely for this circumstance.
Preet Bharara: A more serious answer to your question is, as a technical matter, there still appears to be some government vetting going on and review with respect to national security information and sensitive information, which may be legitimate. It may be political to push John Bolton’s book back. The original publication date was St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, that was moved recently to May 12th, and the reason I suppose you’re asking this question now is it has been moved again to June 23rd. It could be a combination of review and also publishers these days are moving a lot of books back, including books not as controversial as John Bolton’s would be because there’s not an ability to market the books. It’s not a great time for a book to come out and maybe people aren’t buying books as much as they were before, given they’re on hard economic times.
Preet Bharara: So I don’t know if it’ll come out on June 23rd or if the book, which is entitled, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, will come out at some later time. I think interest in the book is less than what it was before. John Bolton had his opportunity to testify in connection with the impeachment proceeding. He refused to do so. The impeachment vote took place. And so what he has to say, I don’t know how relevant it is to the world, particularly while we’re in the midst of this pandemic.
Preet Bharara: The one thing that I wonder whether he’ll address or not that is related to this pandemic world that we’re in and that I think puts Bolton under the spotlight, and not in a good way at all, are all those reports that say that John Bolton, National Security Advisor, is the person who was responsible for disbanding what has been commonly known as the pandemic response team in the White House, formerly known as the Global Health Security and Biodefense Unit.
Preet Bharara: So maybe his book will be a yawner, maybe he’ll be defensive about this particular thing that relates to how unprepared the administration was, and I don’t know how much people are going to want to listen to what he has to say about any issues, including that issue, given how he didn’t live up to his responsibility to testify back in January.
Preet Bharara: It’s time for a short break. Stay tuned. My guest this week is Sam Harris. He’s the host of the Making Sense Podcast and the author of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. An influential atheist, Harris has written impactful books on religion and politics which have provoked controversy and also earned him a dedicated following.
Preet Bharara: Harris joins me to break down the principles of meditation, the moral arithmetic of opening up our society, and his frustrations with political correctness. Sam Harris, welcome to the show.
Sam Harris: Thank you. Great to be here, Preet.
Preet Bharara: It’s great to have you. Let me begin by asking you what I ask every guest during this age of pandemic. How are you making out? How’s your family? How are you coping?
Sam Harris: We are surprisingly good and we really have just pure luck to thank for that. I just feel especially lucky that I can work without any real change in what I’m doing or how I’m doing it. I just by, without any foresight, I managed to create a platform for myself where my team has been 100% distributed. Everyone can work from home. I can podcast and write and record content for my meditation app. Just everything is just seemingly designed for this moment. So it just, again, I attribute no foresight to that. It’s just really is dumb luck, but I feel amazingly grateful.
Preet Bharara: Do you miss people?
Sam Harris: Yeah, but I have my family with me, so I’m not alone by any stretch. And it’s, as many people in this circumstance have found, there is a silver lining to this, which is the quality of family life, in many ways, has been improved. Again, assuming you have a great marriage and things are working out and so I’m painfully aware that many people are in diametrically opposite circumstances to the one I’m in, even with respect to variables like their marriage. To be in an unhappy marriage in the circumstance would be terrible.
Sam Harris: But yeah, so it’s been really great, apart from being concerned about where all this is headed at the scale of society and knowing that at a certain point we’re all going to know people who are really terribly impacted by this, if not just actually killed by this virus. So yeah, my worries are directed really not so much to my own case here, because we’re remarkably insulated.
Preet Bharara: So we have a, as will always be the case with someone like you, Sam Harris, 45,000 things to talk about. One of the reasons I wanted to have you on was to talk about various aspects of how people are dealing with the pandemic. I have some policy thoughts and questions I want to ask you about later, but first one of your endeavors, as you mentioned a second ago, was a dedication to and a teaching of meditation. You have an app called Waking Up. You have a book by the same name, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
Preet Bharara: Before we get to some of those concepts and how that activity might help certain people, maybe many people, I want to get a sense of how you got to where you got. So let me take it back to college. You were at a pretty decent school known as Stanford and I believe you were an English major there.
Sam Harris: Yeah. First time around I was. Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And so then by first time around you’re getting me to the segue. So you leave the confines of Stanford to go on, I think what you have described as a 10 year journey, what was that about and why did you feel the need to leave college and go on a 10 year journey?
Sam Harris: Well, when I dropped out, and at Stanford it’s called stomping out, and I think Stanford may be the only school, or the only decent school, that has this policy where you can never really drop out. You can just walk away and come back in a quarter of a century, apparently, and the registrar never blinks. You’re still enrolled. You didn’t have to send them letters accounting for your absence all the while. And that actually proved to be, in my case, an amazing advantage.
Sam Harris: I guess it could have been, to some degree, one of the proximate causes for me dropping out in the first place, because I knew I could always come back, but I don’t remember that being part of my thinking. But so when it came time, when I had the epiphany that I should go back to school and go to graduate school, it made it very easy to come back. And I was very happy for that.
Sam Harris: It took me, as you know, it was actually 11 years between what was my sophomore and should have been my junior year. I initially dropped out for two reasons. One, I was writing a novel at the time. I wanted to be a fiction writer. And it just was clear to me that at that point if you’re going to write the great American novel, nobody cares where you went to school, much less whether you finished school. So that was really my aspiration at that point. So I didn’t see any great peril in not finishing. And also I got really interested in the practice of meditation and all related esoterica, philosophy generally, but Eastern philosophy at that point in particular, and started spending a fair amount of time on meditation retreats.
Sam Harris: This entire career path was initially kindled by a couple of psychedelic experiences, which proved to me that there was more to the mind than I have given the mind to credit for. And I started sitting some longish meditation retreats in silence, starting with a weekend, and then 10 days, and then ultimately a month, and two months, and three months.
Preet Bharara: And when you say two months or three months, two months or three months of doing what exactly?
Sam Harris: In my case, these are very structured retreats in a tradition called the Vipassana, which is usually translated as insight meditation. And this is the tradition and that’s given us the big boom in mindfulness, and this is where mindfulness comes out of this system of teaching in the Buddhist tradition.
Sam Harris: And these retreats, starting in about 1975 or so, 1974, there were a bunch of Westerners, my friend Joseph Goldstein among them, who brought this practice out of India and to the West and set up retreat centers and general curriculum for teaching a silent retreat where you would have about 100 people on retreat, but navigating even common spaces totally in silence and not even making eye contact. So you can have breakfast and lunch with 100 people and no one has to ask to pass the salt. They really have created a machine for continuous meditation in silence, even for months at a time.
Sam Harris: And in this practice you are doing sitting and walking meditation ,an hour of each, alternating by turns, and you do that throughout the day. So, in the middle of a long retreat you could be meditating 14, 16 hours a day, formally, and then every interstitial moment, you’re also trying to be as clearly mindful as possible.
Sam Harris: What’s really unique about a silent retreat is that you’ve told yourself at the outset that for this period of time, whether it’s a weekend or whether it’s a month, there’s nothing worth thinking about. You’re not going to do anything with any thought that’s going to occur to you. You’re not going to go work in any way. You’re not going to send an email. You’re not going to read any books, much less write a book. You’re done with any conceivable distraction. And the goal is simply to be as clearly aware of the contents of your own consciousness as possible and to thereby recognize some features of the mind that people tend not to recognize when they’re constantly identified with thought and moved by thought to pursue the next object of desire or get rid of the next object of aversion.
Sam Harris: And so it’s an amazing container for this project, which if you only have practiced meditation for 20 minutes at a time once a day, or even an hour at a time, once a day, it’s a really unique crucible in which to experience the consequences of continuous practice. And so, yeah, so I did that for… In my 20s I spent about two years on silent retreat.
Preet Bharara: And so what is the point of that activity for most people? Is it an end in and of itself to experience that activity, or is it a goal further down the road that you’re aiming for?
Sam Harris: Well, the answer to that is slightly paradoxical because the goal is to recognize something about the nature of consciousness that’s already true. So the goal is to, on some level, arrive at where you already are, but you’re constantly overlooking this feature of the mind and thereby it seems like you have to seek it out and you have to practice some arduous method to get there. And so it is paradoxical, but there’s a resolution to that paradox.
Sam Harris: But there are several things that you want to recognize if you’re spending any significant time meditating, and the primary one is that the substance of certainly most of your suffering, virtually all of your psychological suffering, is a matter of being identified with thought as a matter of thinking without knowing that you’re thinking. When you look at the character of your mind moment to moment, and people haven’t meditated, for them this may be something that they’ve yet to really discover directly. They may in an abstract way understand this, but it is a bit of an epiphany in the beginning when you try to meditate that your mind is completely out of control. You’re thinking moment to moment from the instant you wake up in the morning to the instant you fall asleep at night, you’re having a conversation with yourself, there’s a voice in your head, you’re buffeted around by images and memories. And when you try to pay attention to the present moment, it is viewed through this scrim of discursivity and conceptual judgments. And it’s just a blizzard of conceptual thought and-
Preet Bharara: Which, you’re trying to get away from during the process of meditation. But is part of the point of that, and I’m a novice with respect to all these issues, so bear with me, is part of the point of that when you stop meditating, that there’s a different quality to the way you think about things, or is meditation just a respite from those things and you go back to the way your mind otherwise works with all of its cacophony and swirling thinking that’s out of control, as you described. In other words, is there supposed to be an effect for meditation on your non-meditative state?
Sam Harris: Oh yeah. The goal is not to become a meditator, and certainly not to become someone who spends most of his or her life on retreat, although people do. It is such a difficult project when you get into it, that many people do choose to spend vast periods of time on retreat. And I’ve studied with people who spent 10 or more years in caves, [inaudible] Tibetan Lamas.
Sam Harris: Outwardly, it can seem like a pretty strange project, but the reality is, is that you’re not trying to get rid of thought. You’re not even trying to get rid of negative thoughts. In the end, you’re trying to recognize something about the nature of consciousness.
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Sam Harris: In the end, you’re trying to recognize something about the nature of consciousness such that your wellbeing … Really, the intrinsic wellbeing of consciousness isn’t undermined moment by moment by identification with thought. There’s an image in the Tibetan tradition of … In the end, thoughts are like thieves entering an empty house. There’s nothing there for them to steal. That is an experience you can have where in the beginning you’re just ceaselessly hijacked by thought. You’re trying to meditate, you’re trying to pay attention to the breath, say, which is an initial exercise. You just notice that you can only do it for a few seconds before you’re thinking about all the stuff you have to do today or you’re worrying about that conversation you had with a colleague the day before that didn’t feel quite right. Why are you always like that? Why can’t you just say the right … Then you’re off and running.
Sam Harris: It is the kind of thing … The default state of consciousness for the normal person is impressively similar to psychosis. The only difference really between a normal person and a psychotic is the psychotic doesn’t have the good sense to keep his mouth shut. The psychotic is someone who’s verbalizing all of these thoughts.
Sam Harris: If you look at the nature of the conversation you’re having with yourself, you are talking to someone who isn’t there. You’re presuming to be both the speaker and the receiver of the conversation. It is quite delusional and the character of the conversation is so often unhappy. Sometimes it’s happy. Sometimes you’re telling yourself how great you are and what a good thing you just did and how much you’re looking forward to the weekend and all of that, but even that, that has a delusional structure to it.
Sam Harris: The crucial point is that at a certain point in meditation practice, you can penetrate this illusion and recognize that there’s nobody there. There’s no subject in the middle of consciousness. There’s no thinker who’s authoring the thoughts. There’s no little man in the boat.
Preet Bharara: If you are the meditator, during the periods of time that you’re not meditating, how are you supposed to be dealing with the voices in your head? Are you supposed to be becoming less psychotic or just aware of the fact that you are a psychotic, but for the fact that you keep your mouth shut?
Sam Harris: No. Here I should say there are different kinds of meditation. Some, by definition, are somewhat divorced from normal life, but mindfulness isn’t one of those types. In the end, meditation isn’t even something you’re doing. It’s something you’re ceasing to do. You’re ceasing to identify with every thought that comes careening into consciousness and you’re simply becoming aware in an open and nonjudgmental and non-reactive way more and more of whatever’s arising on its own. Thoughts, emotions, sensations, sights, sounds, perceptions. There’s no facet of experience isn’t a fit object of mindfulness. Once you have some stability in the practice, the goal thereafter is to not find any distinction between formal meditation and the rest of life.
Sam Harris: To sharpen this up, in this conversation with you, I’m experiencing, not continuously but intermittently what I would call the target state of meditation practice. It’s not separate from functioning normally in the world. It’s certainly not a matter of suppressing thought. We need to be able to think. Meditation is not … The goal is not to become incapable of discursive thought. There’s nothing about the state of mindfulness that blocks a person’s ability to understand human speech or initiate it. You can have a conversation and you can listen to the statements of others and parse them. Your mind is entirely intact. The thing that goes away is this sense that there is a subject in the head who’s carried through from one moment to the next.
Sam Harris: The starting point for most people is that they feel that they have a self and that the self is not identical to their bodies. They feel like they have a self that’s internal to the body and very likely internal to the head. It’s the thinker of their thoughts. It’s the one who’s trying to meditate. It’s the one who is behind their face and for whom their face is almost like a mask. Just imagine what it’s like to feel self conscious and embarrassed and you’re in dialogue with somebody else and you’re blushing face is something in front of you that’s exposing your inner anguish. The feeling for most people is that they are this homunculus of some kind in the head. That’s the central illusion that meditation is designed to cut through that. There really is just a unity of experience. There’s just consciousness and its contents in each moment. The sense that there’s a subject is an illusion that you can cut through.
Sam Harris: Cutting through it is an immense relief psychologically. It allows you to put down the burden of this painful self-talk really in a moment. If you suddenly have a thought that makes you angry … At this point in your practice, you can actually decide how long you want to be angry for. You can just say … I’m not saying anger is never warranted, but its utility has a very short half life.
Sam Harris: For me a negative emotion like anger is information. It’s a signal that increases the salience of certain things in the world, but it’s almost never the case that the best response to this information is to remain enraged and stay that way for minutes or hours or days at a time. Once you actually know how to meditate, once you can just simply recognize anger as this arising appearance in consciousness and recognize its physiology and become interested in it and just be the nonreactive context in which it appears the half life of an emotion like anger is on the order of seconds. It’s not even minutes. It is a super power to be able to just drop your problem in any moment when that’s warranted. 99% of the time it is warranted.
Preet Bharara: Is the same true, not just for emotions like anger but also sadness or isolation or anything else like that?
Sam Harris: It is, yeah. This is one of the things you learn and you learn it most vividly in the context of a meditation retreat.
Preet Bharara: Against the backdrop of these explanations, you use in your app and in your book a sleep metaphor, waking up. What is it that people are waking up from?
Sam Harris: This dream of discursivity and identification with thought in the end and waking up to the nature of the mind seen clearly, where thoughts are seen as appearances in consciousness and where the impermanence of all experience is vivid. You can see that on some level there’s nothing to hold on to. Experience is continually changing. Sights and sounds and sensations and thoughts and moods and emotion. Everything is just … There’s this cascade of appearance in consciousness. When you recognize it for what it is, many things happen. Take one feature that Buddhists tend to emphasize, but this is by no means … It doesn’t capture the whole project. When you look at the imperative that most of us feel to gratify desire … We think of something we want, whether it’s, just a sensory pleasure or it’s food or it’s a goal … It could be a career goal. We think of something, some change in experience that we want and we may desperately want this thing.
Sam Harris: We may spend months and years trying to get this thing and defer our sense of wellbeing until we get this thing. By virtue of impermanence, almost anything you can want is a mirage. Now this is not to say that there’s no difference between having a good life and a bad one or getting most of what you would want and getting none of it. Of course, there’s a difference there, but when you look at the connection between getting what you want and the deepest forms of wellbeing, there’s an amazing distance between those two things. The arrival at any goal or getting the taste you want on your tongue … These are incredibly brief … The fulfillment of these desires are incredibly brief experiences. Then you’re left with the memory of them. Then you’re left thinking how good that was or how satisfying that was. Then you’re left thinking about the next thing you want and this treadmill just never stops. Most people never discover an alternative, but running on it as fast as they can.
Preet Bharara: Is that necessarily a bad thing for society? Ambition and the crazy psychotic need for accomplishment or achievement, even though each individual example and receipt of achievement or production of an achievement is fleeting as you say … That’s how you build progress, technological and otherwise, some of which is bad, some of which is not bad. I guess my question is, a lot of this discussion has been about what meditation, mindfulness does for individuals. What would happen in a society in which everyone in the society had learned how to be mindful and meditated in this way at a very advanced level. Would it change the nature of that society? Its culture, its politics, the interactions that take place?
Sam Harris: I think that is a … It’s an understandable concern, but I think it’s a false one because when you look at what it takes to have your life radically transformed by this kind of inquiry, it is rare to take this as far as it can be taken. I don’t hold myself up as an example of the ultimate meditative athlete. I’m certainly not. I’m someone who … I’m very clearly aware of speaking from my own experience and when I’m not speaking from my own experience to flag that clearly. There are people who, yes, who’ve devoted more or less every instant of their life at a certain point to meditation practice. I’ve studied with some of those people and yes, if everyone followed their example, civilization as we know it would grind to a halt. There’d be nobody making the vaccine for COVID-19 or anything else we are eagerly waiting for and are right to care about.
Sam Harris: This is true with almost any other very narrow specialization. You could ask the same question. What if everyone became an NBA basketball player? It was all about Michael Jordan all the time.
Preet Bharara: They’re all be out of work right now.
Sam Harris: Yeah, they’d all be out of work and we wouldn’t get much of anything else done. It takes all kinds to run a functioning global civilization. When you talk about the basic insights and the basic competence here, it would do nothing but improve the mental health of more or less everyone. I would say there’s certain people who shouldn’t do long silent retreats. People are suffering from schizophrenia being one. I would say they shouldn’t do psychedelics either. It is a pressure cooker practice at a certain point, for many hours a day.
Sam Harris: For most people, most of the time, an ability to recognize that … Again, bring it back to anger. Just think of the difference between being angry for as long as you will be angry based on the mere happenstance of the legacy effects of your own mind. If you’re going to be angry for two weeks based on something happening on Twitter or in the office or in your marriage, that’s going to be you for two weeks and you and everyone else will be hostage to whatever you think to say and do on the wings of that emotion.
Sam Harris: Somebody who actually can practice mindfulness can recognize anger as separable from the thoughts that are arising, which suggests that you have every right to be angry. You can recognize the thoughts themselves as these mirror appearances, these transitory appearances in awareness. You can decide to become interested in that process, which otherwise is just this automaticity that you can’t inspect, but now you can see it. You can see that it’s something that is appearing in a larger space of consciousness, which is not itself angry. Doing that gives you another degree of freedom. Then you’re no longer suffering the illusion that someone else is making you angry. This is the first childlike illusion that gets cut through. When someone quote makes you angry, you feel that your discomfort in that moment and every moment thereafter is something that they’re responsible for. I feel this bad because you did that stupid thing that I’m now angry about. Now I have to discharge my unhappiness at you and everyone else in the environment because I feel so bad and there is no alternative but to discharge it.
Sam Harris: That’s the way certainly most people live until they learn something like mindfulness. Yet the difference between being angry for two weeks or two hours and two minutes is extraordinary. If the half life of anger is cut down by orders of magnitude in that way, all of the behavioral and emotional and relationship and career antecedents of that anger just disappear.
Preet Bharara: Is there a difference between unproductive anger and righteous anger, which can serve as a deterrent to the person who has put you in that state because they’ve behaved badly?
Sam Harris: I don’t think anger is … I don’t think we would want to get rid of anger entirely. Again, anger is a salience signal, as is fear and sadness. All of these emotions are appropriate in their own context, but the context spreads.
Preet Bharara: In proportion as well. The problem, it seems to me with all these things you’re talking about, speaking as someone who is not a meditator, is there’s a problem of proportionality. Something happens, you get angry for two weeks when appropriately you should be angry for two minutes. Maybe there’s some things that are rightly angering for two hours, but often people don’t make a distinction among those things because they haven’t thought deeply enough about it and haven’t disassociated themselves from those thoughts.
Sam Harris: Yeah. For instance, a clear case for me, and you know this is a hobby horse I often ride. When I see the next abomination coming out of the white house, I often feel anger, but again, anger for … It doesn’t stay long. It just becomes a salience signal. It is a … This is worth paying attention to. There is something to respond to here because this is not normal. It’s not normal and it’s certainly not normative. This is not a status quo we want to maintain. To see each Trumpian indiscretion and to see the distance between how the president is functioning and how a good president could and would function, to take it in the context of this pandemic, it’s totally appropriate to be outraged by that and to be motivated by that outrage.
Sam Harris: Then the question is, what’s the optimal mood to be in for the rest of the day as you write your op-ed or record a podcast or do something useful to get this guy out of office? Then I would argue that anger is almost never the feeling you want. It’s certainly not the feeling you want to leak into the rest of your life where you’re now having lunch with your family and you’re the angry guy.
Sam Harris: It’s not that you want to be completely free of stress. There’s good stress that can be used to productive ends. Here, I would draw an analogy to physical exercise. Physical exercise when you’re really doing it, when you go to the gym and lift heavy weights, that’s incredibly stressful, but it is good stress which you are imposing on yourself for a reason. Then you can put it down. If your blood pressure stayed at the same level as it did when you were doing your personal best in the bench press, that would be highly dysfunctional. On some level we don’t have … In our career stress and in our psychology, many of us have lost the ability or never acquired the ability to put down the stress that would otherwise be motivating to a useful purpose in a briefer context.
Preet Bharara: Continuing with the exercise metaphor for a second, not everyone is going to become, as you put it, a meditative athlete because that takes a lot of effort and people are busy and people may not be motivated to do that. Is it your view, and I’m predicting that it is, that everyone could benefit from 10, 15, 20 minutes of a meditative exercise in the same way that pretty much everyone, no matter your body type, no matter your level of health, can benefit from even 10, 15, 20, 30 minutes of exercise? Is it a universal recommendation on your part?
Sam Harris: Yeah. It’s actually a pretty good analogy because the transition from zero to one or nothing to something is I would argue where the biggest gains are made. A little bit does go a long way. This is certainly true with something like lifting weights. If you’re someone who is completely sedentary, who does nothing in the direction of fitness … If you switch from that to having one good workout in the gym a week, that’s an enormous gain in terms of your health. I don’t know if it’s 80% of the whole project, but it’s close. From having made that jump, then you can decide how far you want to take this fitness project. Then, when you walk into the gym, you’ll see photographs of the world’s fittest people on the wall and you’ll see advertised to you just how far this path goes in the end.
Sam Harris: You’ll know that, really on some level, modular, certain genetic talents and the difference between good and bad luck … There’s nothing unique about your case where you couldn’t make massive progress if you actually applied your attention to it. It’s the same thing with meditation. More or less everyone finds it difficult in the beginning, which is to say that they sit down and close their eyes and they try to meditate and basically they just wind up thinking with their eyes closed. With the right guidance …
Preet Bharara: That would be me.
Sam Harris: Yeah, but it really is everybody. Unless you happen to be the Tiger Woods of concentration for some reason, that’s the universal experience.
Preet Bharara: Can you apply what you’ve been talking about with respect to meditation and mindfulness to the current pandemic? One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this with you is that there are a lot of reasons for people to be anxious, to be stressed, to be sad, to be angry also on top of all of those things. Is there a particular way you think that in the current time people can use meditation?
Sam Harris: Yeah, this is an especially good circumstance to think about this, but the truth is it applies everywhere all the time. On some level there’s nothing unique about this. I should acknowledge as I did at the beginning that this is not one circumstance. People are having radically different experiences here. There are people who have witnessed the complete implosion of their economic lives. There are people who are making twice as much money as they ever had because they’re just in the right business. There are people who can work from home without a hitch because they’ve always been working from home. There are people who for whom working with synonymous with leaving the house and they can do nothing … They can’t even make a gesture in the direction of doing something useful until this lockdown ends.
Sam Harris: Then there’s every other conceivable difference with respect to the actual disease. There are people who have caught it and are suffering the symptoms and are worried about everything getting worse. There are people who have lost loved ones. I happen to know someone, not a close friend, but a close friend of a close friend who was practically patient zero at least on the west coast. He spent 31 days on a ventilator and is now happily survived but has an immense amount of work to do to get back to something like health now. Just the range of experiences here is as wide as possible. That’s true everywhere else in life, all the time.
Sam Harris: It is true to say, in every one of those cases, good and bad, what we have in each moment is our immediate sensory and emotional experience and the presently arising thoughts about it. Many of these thoughts don’t take the present as their object, but they focus on the past and the future. The substance of our anxiety in each moment and the link between this ever-present uncertainty of what’s going to happen next and our unhappiness, our discomfort in the face of uncertainty is mediated by thought. These thoughts go uninspected. You’re reading the Washington Post and it’s making you anxious and you see the president say something insane, like …
Trump: Then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. Is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? You see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. It’d be interesting to check that. You’re going to have to use medical doctors with .. . It sounds interesting to me.
Sam Harris: You realize that in the place of real leadership, we have something like a lunatic in charge and that makes you anxious. Yet there is a dreamlike quality to this. It is as true to say that your anxiety in that moment is mediated by thinking as fully as it would be if you were asleep and dreaming about these things and having an anxious dream. Our normal waking life is very similar, neurologically even, to what is happening to us when we’re asleep and dreaming. There are a few important differences. The main difference is our mental lives, while dreaming are much less constrained by inputs from our senses. Our sensorium has come offline and it gets replaced by the imagination on some level.
Sam Harris: Our highs and lows in the dream state are a pure confection of what we’re imagining, what we’re thinking, the story we’re telling ourselves. That doesn’t change much when we wake up and get out of bed and start worrying about our lives and start reacting to the people around us and what we think they meant and the look on their faces. We read the paper and we begin to vicariously suffer the highs and lows of other people who we will never meet in most circumstances. There’s something to inspect here and realize that life has always been uncertain. None of us know how many heartbeats we have left if we live as long as we might, we have something like three billion of them. That’s a finite number. There’s a drumbeat of uncertainty here that all of us have been living with all the time. There is a way to make our peace with that. There is no alternative. Immortality is not on the menu.
Preet Bharara: People make, depending on who they are, rational predictions about how many heartbeats they have left, what life expectancy is, or they make poor judgments about that. Those have different consequences with respect to those people and their lives and in the choices they make professionally and personally, which is a good segue to talk about some of the pragmatic issues relating to COVID-19. I’ve in my head wondered if you change the facts and you did the following thought experiment, what do you think would be different? Right now with varying degrees of certainty and there’s some evidence to show this to be true, by and large, younger people fare better if they get infected with the Coronavirus than older people. There is an understanding that there’s certain underlying conditions that can cause you to have a worse reaction and greater likelihood of it being fatal for you.
Preet Bharara: Professionals are very careful to say over and over again that young people are dropping dead from strokes as well, but the data seems to suggest that there are definitely high risk factors in high risk groups and lower risk groups. You see in various states, some people … I think you’ve written about this too, there are people who resist the lockdown because they’re engaging presumably in some calculation about the likelihood that they will have an infection and what the consequences and seriousness of that infection would be. Suppose you had … I’m looking at the screen right now while I’m talking to you. We’re taping on Monday, May 4th and it’s about 68,000 people have died in the United States. Suppose all the same ICU rates were there, the same number of people on ventilators, the same number of deaths, but it was completely and totally random. In other words, there was no basis to understand that would more likely infect older people and then they would have greater complications. It was utterly random across race, ethnicity, age, gender, everything else. Would there be a sole …
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:54:04]
Preet Bharara: Ethnicity, age, gender, everything else. Would there be a soul walking the streets anywhere in the United States today?
Sam Harris: Yeah. That would change it and it certainly would change it. I would argue it would change it even more if it were preferentially killing kids. Right? I mean just imagine how your calculus would change if your young children were at greatest risk for this and there was no vaccine in sight that’s definitely a variable. I must say I’ve never been… Again, because I knew someone my age, early fifties, just absolutely laid low by this early on, I was never… This is not a good sign of statistical reasoning here, but because I had this case in my life, I just… The idea that this was just the flu never landed with me.
Donald Trump: I really think doctor, you want to treat this like you treat the flu, right? And you know it’s going to be… It’s going to be fine.
Sam Harris: I mean just I don’t have friends who go down this hard from the flu and I’ve been around a while and this has always seemed like a very precarious situation as we’ve been trying to understand just what this virus does to us. But yeah, no, I do think it would change things and it’s interesting to notice just how framing, how you can conceptualize various risks, changes your attitude and the public’s attitude toward things. I mean the idea that this was just the flu or not even as bad as the flu, that did a tremendous amount of work. I would argue unhelpful work for our society early on and prevented us from responding to this as quickly as we should have.
Preet Bharara: Something you said a second ago, it has just struck me and it’s very interesting, you are a person of science, you have a PhD in neuroscience, and you like to engage in data-driven arguments, but you conceded a minute ago that one of the reasons these framings did not work with you, that it’s the mere flu, was based on one case. By happenstance, you happen to have a friend who was laid low and spent days, and days, and days on a ventilator. And that Sam Harris, having that slightly undo reaction, is that the way that all persuasion works in the practical world? That some of these people who were going out to the beach and they don’t seem to care at all, it’s because they don’t have a close friend or they don’t have a close relative that they know by name who is identifiable, who’s had this bad experience with coronavirus, and if that’s so, what does that say about how we engage in good policy and good persuasion in the country?
Sam Harris: Yeah, it’s an interesting question because as someone who’s reasonably sophisticated statistically and thinks about these things in terms of probabilities, and I’m fairly in touch with how bad my own intuitions are with respect to many of the things that are relevant here, just a sense of exponential growth, right? If you tell someone, well the on average a person who has this virus will infect two people versus infecting four people, well that difference strikes most people as a doubling of the problem. But of course it’s nothing of the sort. You get out 10 generations there, it’s a thousand fold difference. It’s the difference between a thousand people getting it from this one person and a million people getting it from this one person over the course of 10 links in the chain.
Sam Harris: So I’m aware of how bad all of our intuitions tend to be in these areas. And this was not statistical thinking, but it has an effect. And I’m aware of bracketing the effect. I’m someone who would have updated my sense of peril had there been reason to update it, but it’s… All along it has seemed like we have been using bad analogies for this virus and the truth is I’m also someone who has never discounted the significance of flu. I’m aware that 50,000 people die of flu and many of them are kids and you want to get your flu shot. But yeah, we need to use statistical reasoning when we’re talking about social policy because by definition we’re talking about large numbers and there are real trade offs. It’s just if 40,000 people are going to die every year based on what we do with our cars, there’s a rational calculus to be run with respect to how safe do we want our cars to be? How safe do we want our roads to be? How much money are we going to spend to that end? And yes, this is where the pablum that comes from people like Andrew Cuomo, who’s been a superstar here.
Andrew Cuomo: To me, I say cost of human life, a human life is priceless. Period. Our reopening plan doesn’t have a trade off.
Sam Harris: But when he says you can never put a price on human life, it’s one human life is too much to sacrifice, we’re going to lock society down, even if it’s just one life involved. No one can take that at face value because it’s absurd. We put a price on human life all the time and we have to because we can’t expend infinite resources.
Preet Bharara: Right, and certain things I think need to be said. It is in fact true that any particular life is priceless in the sense that the person saying it means it, but as you point out, implicit in all these policy decisions we make, how safe our cars are, how safe our planes are, how we calculate insurance rates, how we compensate families of victims who have fallen ill to something, all suggests that we put a value on life, a price on life. But when you’re operating in the real world and the political world, especially at a time that’s very fraught and panic inducing like during this pandemic, how do you think policymakers should talk about that? I’m not saying how should policy makers as a first matter, what choices they should make, but how should they talk about making those choices?
Sam Harris: Well, it is a hard problem. It’s a problem of persuasion. It’s a pragmatic problem because it’s, in this case, we really do want to motivate people and so far as we understand what the policy should be and take social distancing as really the only lever we’ve had within reach to pull initially here, we want people to practice it. We want people to get off the beaches, and get six feet from one another, and understand the reasons for doing it, and do it relentlessly enough so that we drive down the contagion rate. So it’s tempting to put a lot of top spin on our statements by way of motivating people, but the problem there is wherever you can show something to be scientifically unwarranted or dishonest, Where it can sound like propaganda with a partisan bias.
Sam Harris: Whether we’re talking about COVID, or climate change, or anything else, that’s where any shading of the truth or any departure from scientific rigor can become toxic. But it is inevitable that we have a stronger response to the identifiable death than the statistical death. I mean, this is Lenin’s sinister and perversely wise statement that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. I believe that was Lenin, I think it’s attributed to Lenin, and Stalin, and Mao, and a few other people, but I believe it was Lenin.
Preet Bharara: I see a pattern.
Sam Harris: Yeah, but it’s true. And so that’s why when a little girl falls down a well, we’ll get four days of wall to wall coverage of this emergency and yet a genocide can be raging in Sudan or somewhere else, or a famine killing hundreds of thousands of people and it won’t dominate even a single hour on a single program, much less a new cycle.
Preet Bharara: So it’s not just the identifiability, I feel like in this case, I wonder if it’s also the imagery. So when you have a flood or an earthquake, there are photographs and there are videos and you can see the destruction. And after war and during war you see people suffering on the battlefield. Here it’s all happening in ICUs where there are no cameras, there are no video cameras, there’s no documentation that I’ve seen. Maybe there’s one instance that I can remember, but we’re not seeing the overflowing emergency rooms and the people in the hallways who are just expiring many at a time. Do you think that’s an impact also, if there’s rich video documentation of these people suffering and dying in the numbers that they are, that the national reaction would be very different?
Sam Harris: Yeah. Although, one could argue that the framing is to some degree dishonest. So someone could rightly say, “Well listen, if you were standing beside the road with a camera every day of the year showing me who died or who was mortally injured in the next car accident, and you did that 40,000 times a year and broadcasted on CNN wall to wall, I’d be terrified to get into a car right now. Should I be terrified to get into a car? No.” Right? So that’s the counter argument. And you can do the same thing with flu. You can do the same thing with heart disease, and cancer, and anything else that’s killing people by the hundreds of thousands every year in the U.S.
Sam Harris: Granted, there’s a question of how to frame the ambient level of risk that we’re all incurring just by living, but from the very beginning it was obvious. There were several things that were different about this coronavirus. One is that it’s totally novel. No one has any immunity to it and very early on we had every reason to believe that this was going to just burn through every population exposed to it at something like an exponential rate because it seemed very contagious, more contagious than flu, not not like measles, but still bad enough, and we didn’t know what we were dealing with, but the most sanguine projections very early on was that this is at least five times as lethal as the flu. It was every reason to believe that this warranted a different response and at every point it has been rational to be concerned that if we did nothing, if we just let everyone catch it who’s going to catch it and cross our fingers and hope for herd immunity, that we would suffer something like a 1,000,000, or 2,000,000 or, even 3,000,000 deaths in the U.S.
Sam Harris: And for good reason, Most people found that totally unacceptable. And the only alternative to magic was to lock things down, and get busy working on a vaccine, and get busy working on testing capacity that could allow us to open up in a prudent way. And we’re still stalled in that second stage of using the time we bought wisely because of level of ineptitude politically and just institutionally that still is going to absorb several dissertations and popular books to finally diagnose. But it has been rational to respond differently to this every stage along the way because of the evidence. So therefore, to answer your original question Preet, it would have been rational to make the risk here as salient as we could and show footage from ER wards being overwhelmed and to draw the lesson, the necessary lesson from the experience of Italy as early as possible and to be motivated by it.
Sam Harris: And as a species, we show an impressive inability to be motivated in proportion to real risk. You make the cause of the problem invisible, and seemingly hypothetical, and probabilistic. Who knows if I’m going to catch this thing, and who knows what it will do to me, especially when you make the time horizon further in the future. This is why climate change is just such an impossible thing to message about, and respond to, and to take seriously. This is not necessarily something that’s going to be all that bad for me this decade, but it’ll be terrible for my grandchildren who don’t yet exist. It’s just an impossible thing to get apes like ourselves to have an appropriate emotional response to and to be guided by that response. And so yeah, creative messaging within the bounds of honesty is necessary here because we get absolutely exercised over tiny risks really that lead to super provocative stories.
Sam Harris: And you have people who devote their lives to conspiracy theories about things that were never going to affect more than 20 people anyway. And yet, things that can really destabilize a civilization are things we find it hard to orient to and much less disrupt our lives for.
Preet Bharara: You mentioned President Trump a few minutes ago, and I’m going to read back something you said on another podcast last year and you said this…
Sam Harris: There are very few people who find Trump more odious than I do, if there are such people, I haven’t met them, but much of the attack, many of the attacks on Trump are so poorly targeted that he’s being called a racist for things that are not evidence of racism. Now I have no doubt he actually is a racist, but no exaggeration, half of the evidence that dues for his racism by the left is just maliciously poorly targeted. [crosstalk 01:07:41].
Preet Bharara: What are some good critiques of President Trump, and some bad critiques of President Trump, and does it matter?
Sam Harris: I think precision really does matter here because on some level we’re fighting an asymmetric war, and the asymmetry is working to the disadvantage of good, conscientious, scrupulous, intellectually honest, and by and large liberal people. I don’t mean just Democrats, I mean anyone who would object to so much that’s on display in Trump’s administration. But there’s an asymmetry here and you can see it. I mean in a ordinary partisan context, you can see it in the way in which Judge Roy Moore was running a campaign where he was credibly exposed as something like a pedophile. I don’t know if pedophile is quite the right word, but he as a 30 year old man, was dating 14 year old girls or something like that and suffered very little reputational disadvantage in his world where at the same moment the Al Franken scandal, or pseudo scandal, which led to his immediate defenestration from the Senate.
Sam Harris: And that asymmetry where the people on the left have to be utterly scrupulous and non- hypocritical isn’t mirrored on the right or at least is not mirrored at all in Trumpistan. And again, that’s a context where the scruples of the left will be used against them every time. And we’re seeing this now with Joe Biden and the allegations against him, which could be entirely true and credible, but we’re trying to figure out how to respond to this. The problem with Trump… There’s so many problems with Trump, but there’s an amazing feature here where he’s so bad as a person, he’s so bad, he’s so unethical, he’s so dishonest that he has just destroyed our ability to calibrate our outrage. He’s destroyed the press’s ability to respond to each one of his transgressions. And so it’s true to say, I’ve said this before, but it’s true to say that I think if he were half as bad, he would appear worse, which is to say that he lies and desecrates the office of the presidency with such velocity, so relentlessly that it’s impossible to keep score. People try to do it, but it’s just you can’t… Each new outrage is supplanted by a fresh one, almost on an hourly basis such that the last outrage can’t be appropriately grokked.
Preet Bharara: So how do you argue, you’re a person who engages in debate and a lot of people like to debate you, but when you have a president and his allies who rely on complete false analogies, silly rhetoric, outright lies, what is the way for people of good faith to persuade or at least engage with people like Trump’s allies who are receptive to terrible analogies, outright lies, improper logic, et cetera?
Sam Harris: I say this as one who has failed, I think, to successfully change anyone’s mind, though I’ve tried for now years. At least I see no real time evidence of changing people’s minds who are securely in what I consider now a kind of personality cult of Trump supporters. You can point out obvious hypocrisy hoping they will care. You can point out that if you enumerate any of the 10 horrific things Trump did in the last 24 hours and you ask them to imagine Obama doing any one of those things, how they would have responded, and if they’re at all honest, they’ll recognize they would have responded differently.
Sam Harris: It wouldn’t be acceptable for a president to get the facts that wrong, intentionally or not, and to never correct the record, to never take responsibility for anything he’s done wrong, to blame everyone else all the time in logically incompatible ways. And to tell lies that are so at odds with terrestrial reality that there’s not even a pretense of their believability. I mean, so for instance, the much ridiculed moment where he suggested that we might want to ingest bleach, or some disinfectant, or get UV light into the body somehow, and those several incredible minutes where he’s at the podium spit balling about this as a cure and then suggesting to Dr. Burks that, “You’re going to look into this, right?” And all the memes that have been circulated around that, so then Trump came back and said that he was just being sarcastic and he was masterly trolling the press. He knew the press would jump at this to try to defame him and then now they’ve been caught red handed.
Donald Trump: What I was asking was sarcastic, and a very sarcastic question to the reporters in the room about disinfectant on the inside, but it does kill it and it would kill it on the hands and that would make things much better. That was done in the form of a sarcastic question to the reporters. Okay.
Sam Harris: Anyone who watched that video knows that, that’s not true. I mean there’s… I suspect there’s actually not a person on earth who believes the president’s account of what happened there. Now-
Preet Bharara: Even among his supporters? Even among his supporters [crosstalk 01:13:26].
Sam Harris: Even among his supporters. I would bet not one supporter who saw the original video and then saw the president’s account of it, I would believe there’s not a man or a woman alive who believes his account. And what’s amazing is that for Trump’s supporters, for the culture he’s managed either create or dissect out of our body politic, that doesn’t matter. What we’re dealing with is the kind of mind that revels in the WWE, knowing that it’s fake but not caring. There’s an analogy there, it’s perhaps too invidious for the WWE because I mean these people are real athletes, taking real risks, and ironically actually getting more injured than real MMA fighters much of the time because this is a dangerous thing to be doing, but it’s not dangerous in the way it pretends to be.
Sam Harris: It’s not real combat. These guys are not real fighters. They’re not great wrestlers and anyone who went to the UFC would get annihilated. That’s all understood or should be understood, and yet there’s a pretense of real combat there happening. And that suspension of disbelief to not care that it’s all a put on, on some level has migrated into the part of the brain that has to think about real world outcomes, literally life and death questions. And the question about the life and death of a global economy. Here we have a president who just makes things up when the stakes could not be higher and takes no responsibility for his messaging, for the consequences of his messaging, and the fact that people go indoors, or go out of doors based on what he thinks the risks are around this pandemic.
Sam Harris: It’s so appalling. It’s such an appalling failure of leadership and our leadership on the world stage. I mean, when you look at what has been done to the reputation of the United States globally, I mean we are the laughing stock of the world and a cautionary tale because of the person we’ve put in power, largely.
Preet Bharara: Does it cause you to judge in any way the people who continued to support him?
Sam Harris: Yeah, I mean that’s… I can’t help but do that. I notice that. I notice that it’s unhelpful and I let go of it whenever I can see to do that. Yeah, it is… There’s no question that if you’re dealing with someone… There’s something crazy making about what I’ve encountered in Trump supporters, and I don’t really… I don’t know that I’ve seen this anywhere else in public life, but what I’ve encountered in Trump supporters is a fundamental unwillingness to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with the man. At no point in my support of the Obama presidency or of president Obama as a person would I have failed to acknowledge any specific thing that he did wrong as something that he did wrong, or as a limitation on him as a communicator. He was worlds away from what Trump is as a politician, and as a person, as a communicator, but if someone who didn’t like the Obama presidency pointed out that his drawing of the red line in Syria and not enforcing it was a huge foreign policy blunder, and made our foreign policy look ludicrous, and made us look like a paper tiger, and it was just unwise for him to bluff when it was a bluff, and it’s just… Of course I could honestly talk about that.
Sam Harris: I do not find Trump supporters who will honestly engage with any of the man’s flaws or their consequences, and it’s absolutely crazy making. That’s why calling it a personality cult seems apropos. I mean, there is a kind of cultic and unreasoning blindness to some degree. There’s a nihilism there where it’s just… They’re the people who just view him as a wrecking ball who just needs to keep swinging through our institutions and let’s just bring everything down to rubble, because the real problem is the deep state, right? When you’re dealing with those kinds of people who have zero respect for expertise, and institutions, and institutional knowledge, and the real mechanisms by which things get done in this world and knowledge gets passed on from one generation to another. The people who think universities are pointless and the state department is pointless and most of these people haven’t thought this through, but they’re celebrating the reduction in power that we’re witnessing in our country.
Sam Harris: And some of them are even celebrating it even in the context of a global pandemic, which only admits of a coordinated global response, and which therefore only admits of a response wherein the rest of the world cares what America is doing, and saying, and thinking we should do because we’re not a nation of children and imbeciles who have been tipped over into some masochistic free for all. We’re all just going to go out and restart the economy without any ability to use any of this flattening of the curve wisely. So we’ve been completely sidelined and the rest of the world is just going on without us it seems to me. And in large measure Trump and the kinds of people he’s drawn into his orbit are responsible, it’s very hard to not be judgmental. But again, being judgmental of stark irrationality, and double standards that should be unsustainable, and truly unwise commitments to bad policies. Again, that’s a signal. It’s like anger, it’s like fear, it’s like it doesn’t feel good and it’s not. You don’t want that emotion to rule you moment to moment, but it’s worth paying attention to it.
Preet Bharara: I principally did not invite you on to talk about some of the controversies that you’ve been involved in, but I do want to ask you something about it and that is obviously you have critics on the right because of some of the stances you’ve taken about religion. You’re a noted atheist and you’ve said things about Donald Trump, like you’ve just recited here. You have pretty substantial critics on the left because of some of the things you’ve written about race. And I guess I have two questions for you. What are these labels, conservative and liberal mean if they mean anything and what do they mean to you?
Preet Bharara: And second, do you ever have a worry or a concern that some of the very complex and nuanced points you make and arguments that you write out can be used and distorted, probably in your mind, you think that they are being distorted by people who want to weaponize them and who are of less good faith than you. Do you think about how things can be taken out of context, or slightly changed, or misunderstood, or do you just do what you think in your discretion makes sense to say, and write, and think and do?
Sam Harris: Well more and more, it’s the latter, but there is no way to speak in a way that is so guarded and so hairsplitting such that you could never be quoted out of context to your apparent reputational demise. There’s just no way to do it. And so it…
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Sam Harris: You know, reputational demise. I mean, there’s just no way to do it. And so, it’s a losing game. I try to be, you know, when I look back on the kinds of things I’ve said and written earlier in my career I do notice moments where I made things harder for me than was really necessary.
Preet Bharara: Were you trying to be provocative in your earlier days?
Sam Harris: Provocative? No, but not boring. I mean, I was not beyond being motivated by the pleasure of a well turned phrase or giving something a little more, putting a little more English on the ball because it has a rhetorical effect. Not letting it grade into anything that I couldn’t back up factually, but just speaking or writing more colorfully than was necessary and therefore, I created more trouble for myself than perhaps I might have.
Sam Harris: But the truth is, this whole line of thought and accommodation to what I would generally refer to it as political correctness is a losing game because you can always be quoted out of context in a way that seems to reveal you as a moral monster, right? I mean, the example I use here, and so this is an example that will seem somewhat hyperbolic, but it actually isn’t. I mean, given the character of the people who tend to quote me out of context and tend to attack me for my views I don’t actually hold, this is the kind of thing that has happened to me again and again.
Sam Harris: If I were to say, in the context of any discussion about race and biology and that part of the outside the Overton window that gets everyone into trouble. If I were to say, you know, listen, black people are apes, white people are apes, we’re all just apes. Racism is ludicrous, right?
Sam Harris: If that were the statement, I am now continually followed by people who will take the first sentence out of context and memeify it and even talk about it in the context of a guardian op-ed or an article in Salon or AlterNet. I mean, these are all journals that have published more or less just continuous disinformation about me, but seeded with truths. Right? A real quote. So they would say, Sam Harris on the record saying that he thinks black people are apes. Right?
Preet Bharara: Well, not only those people. If you were the democratic nominee for president, Donald Trump would run an ad against you doing exactly that. They’ve done that with Joe Biden.
Preet Bharara: But that’s an easy example, right? Isn’t that …
Sam Harris: But it gets across the point that in terms of the kinds of things I have said about, I mean, you know, I mean, you have it in your head that I have said some controversial things about race and that the people on the left are perhaps justifiably critical of my positions. The truth is it’s, I have said, in my view, nothing controversial about race and that the most controversial thing I did is I had Charles Murray on my podcast and had a sympathetic conversation with him because I think he’s been unfairly maligned as a racist or white supremacist for his book that I had never read because I thought it must be racist nonsense. And I only became interested in his case when he was literally run off the stage at Middlebury College a couple of years ago. You know, 25 years after he wrote his infamous book, The Bell Curve.
Sam Harris: And so I was responding to what I saw as a crisis in an academia largely, but also just in wider culture. I mean, it’s spread to Silicon Valley. It spread to companies like Google and everywhere where there was an intolerance for actual dispassionate discussions about data and the kinds of things we were finding out about ourselves and about the world in scientific laboratories. These are by definition, nonpartisan contexts or should be. And I was just seeing the evidence everywhere, that you couldn’t talk about differences between men and women or questions of gender or sexuality or there was now so many no go areas in science that this thing was becoming increasingly stifling. And then, Charles Murray suddenly struck me as a canary in the coal mine.
Sam Harris: But the reality is, is that there is nothing of real political interest here. I mean, we know what we want the political punchline to be. We know what it has to be. We know that people need to be valued as individuals. You know, as you said earlier on, more or less like they’re priceless, right? And certainly like they are political equals to everyone else. Everyone is politically as important as everyone else.
Sam Harris: We want a free society where everyone can make the most of their talents and their passions and their opportunities, and we want to spread those opportunities to everyone and cancel as much as possible the very deep inequalities of good and bad luck. Right? I mean, and so there’s just, you look around in society, I mean, the difference between good and bad luck on every level is so enormous. I mean, the difference between being born into a happy and loving and intact family and being born into a circumstance where both your parents are killed in a car accident on your second birthday, right?
Sam Harris: I mean, that variable alone is so enormous, so it’s like how do we correct for that bad luck of that sort, to think of everything else, they throw everything else you want into this picture. Differences in health and education and everything compounds here and clearly the mark of an enlightened and truly wealthy society, you know, society that has a lot of moral wealth will be in how we raise the floor for the least fortunate among us. Right?
Sam Harris: So obviously, we want something like universal healthcare. Right? Obviously, we want, as we grow wealthier as a society, we want a tide that lifts all boats and we don’t want a Ginny coefficient in our society that makes us look like Brazil on it’s worst day and where the richest among us feel like they need to ring their compounds in razor wire to keep out the rabble, right?
Sam Harris: Like that, the end game for a truly prosperous America has to recognize that a certain level of wealth inequality is morally and politically unsustainable. But we know these answers already, right? Like there’s nothing that’s going to come from science that spells out differences between men and women say, or between people born in Norway and people born in Fiji. Right? And of course, those differences will be there to be found on some level. There’s no punchline there biologically or psychologically that’s going to suggest that we don’t want a society where political equality and freedom is safeguarded.
Preet Bharara: But if that is so people will say, well, then why spend so much time on it and why give grist to less good faith actors who want to use it for that purpose?
Sam Harris: Yeah. And that was absolutely one of my questions to Charles Murray in that podcast. And it’s the question that I have never gotten a good answer for, which is why pay attention to any of this stuff? What’s the point? What’s the point of becoming interested in racial differences? Right?
Preet Bharara: Right. Especially when you know what it will cause, what it will beget, and especially when you know that there have been prior attempts to try to graph science on this idea of racial difference and differences in intelligence that were quackery and caused a lot of justification for very terrible policies and a lot of discrimination. I mean, there is a legacy and a history of bad thinking, bad reasoning, and that outcomes based on just this kind of inquiry. Right?
Sam Harris: Yeah. Yeah. And I’ve always been aware of that and that’s been clear and I’ve never, again, I’ve never been interested. I mean, take this, the center of this, this unhappy bullseye. Differences, IQ differences across race has been something that has never interested me. And the truth is, you know, IQ has never interested me and race has never interested me. So what I’ve become interested in and the kinds of conversations I’ve been dragged into despite my better judgment is in the way in which people’s fear over the misuse of certain facts, actual facts or certain areas of inquiry, has led to a stifling of honest conversation and an attempt to assassinate people’s character and reputations.
Sam Harris: And so, what this has created is an environment in which you could literally stumble upon data where you were not looking for anything that could conceivably be politically charged, but you could stumble upon true data coming out of behavioral genomics or evolutionary psychology or anything in this area where science is intersecting with human behavior, that could literally ruin your life were you to speak honestly about it and for no good reason.
Sam Harris: I mean, the example that came to mind in this context, and this is, happily this example was working in my favor, but it could have gone the other way. You know, we found out a few years ago, I think it was 2014, that most of the people on earth are walking around with something like 2.4%, 2.7% Neanderthal DNA in them. Right? So I think my 23 and me data show that I was 2.7% Neanderthal. Everyone found this just hilarious, right? This is just biological comedy, right, to find this out.
Sam Harris: And then it was also found out that the only people on earth who don’t have Neanderthal DNA by and large are people who can trace their line of descent directly to Africa without any intervening adventures in Europe or elsewhere. And so, which is to say, black people from Africa don’t have Neanderthal DNA, right?
Sam Harris: And at the time when this came out, I tweeted attention all racists, you are right, whites are special. We’re part Neanderthal. Blacks are just human. Right? Something like that. And that was just me trolling the racists of the world. And you know, also just announcing this kind of amusing fact about Neanderthal DNA.
Sam Harris: But my encounters with the far left and the experience I had talking to Charles Murray made me realize that hand had gone the other way or just imagine the scientist who found that his analysis of the human genome and found that in the Neanderthal genome and found that the only people on earth who are part Neanderthal are black people from Africa. Right? Everyone else is 100% homosapians. Right? Imagine how that would have detonated in an American, especially in the American political context, right? Imagine the death threats that person would have got.
Preet Bharara: They would have detonated in two ways though, right? It would have detonated in the way that you’re discussing, perhaps, people upset at that revelation, but part of the reason it would have detonated there is it not true is because the other parallel detonation would have been on the part of organized and unorganized racist groups who would have said, aha, this explains a lot and used it to further malign and degrade and dehumanize black people. No?
Sam Harris: Well, yeah, of course. But we have to be able to speak honestly about what we discover about the human genome or any other corner of the universe through science. Now I would certainly admit that there are certain kinds of knowledge that it’s not worth seeking. Right? And it’s not worth emphasizing and it’s not worth publicizing. You know, how to weaponize smallpox. Well, there’s a right answer to that. And you know, somebody knows that answer. And this is not something that I think should be spread on the internet, right? It probably already is. But there are classes of facts that are, I would argue, not worth seeking out and worth keeping secret if that’s conceivable.
Sam Harris: But for the most part, we have to have an honest and non paranoid discussion about everything we discover about, in this case, human biology. Right? It’s just …
Preet Bharara: I don’t disagree with that. The reason I made the point that I made is I guess to see if you get and understand that there’s a reason for that fear and there’s a reason for, I think what you’ve described in some places as moral panic, because there’s a history and legacy of that information being used in unspeakably horrible ways. And I’m not saying it’s right and I’m saying that you have a point when you say that in controvertible scientific facts exist and should be accepted and should be able to be revealed without retaliation. But do you also understand why there are large numbers of people who do have a fear about that because there’s a track record?
Sam Harris: Oh, Oh, of course. Of course. But again, the remedy here as it usually is, is not to stop the conversation, but to just continue it, right? And so here, if you continue the conversation, you arrive at some other facts that are, in my view, fully exculpatory, which is the variance between groups is, for any of these characteristics we could conceivably care about, is never going to be greater than the variance within groups, which is to say that you know very little about an individual by being told he’s Japanese or Jewish or black or male or female. I mean, these are just not, you don’t know what you really care about if it comes time to hire somebody, right, for a job, which is usually the most poignant case here that everyone’s thinking about.
Sam Harris: So if I’m looking for a statistician, right, and you tell me that there are several candidates and here are these superficial features about them, right? And you know, one came from Finland and one has parents who were Inuit. I basically know nothing about this person’s aptitude for statistics, right? Anyone can be an outlier in any distribution who are going to be interrogating and so it’s never the right choice as an employer to think, okay, I’m going to screen on the basis of some superficial characteristic here.
Sam Harris: And so that, I mean that’s just, for me, that’s the political punchline. This is just not, it’s not saying to even dignify it as information at the population level. And yet the reality is, and this here’s just the background intellectual and moral fact that we have to get our minds around, and this is what caused me to touch this third rail in the first place. The reality is that for any quality of human being we could conceivably care about, that quality will differ at the population level among any two groups we can care about that. The mean, if we can measure this quality, the population mean is extraordinarily unlikely to be the same for any two groups we could pick out and they could even be groups that are not especially well-defined. They could just be self identified groups. I mean, this is a point that’s been often made and it’s important to make.
Sam Harris: The place of greatest genetic variance on earth is in Africa, right? So it’s like to talk about black people as a group, as a race, makes very little sense with respect to anything other than skin color as compared to other groups. Right? I mean, and even there, it doesn’t make a lot of sense because you have people who are in South India who are just as dark as people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Sam Harris: It’s just there’s much more to the story, right? But even if you take a badly defined group, you just take people who think they’re black or think they’re Jewish or think they have some amount of Native American in them. They can self identify any way they want. If you compare those groups for any variable you care about, you will discover group level differences, right? I see absolutely nothing to worry about really politically on that basis.
Sam Harris: And yet the people who think this is the intellectual and moral equivalent of plutonium believe they’re responding to a real emergency there and they have to shut conversation down even when the conversation goes there by accident. Right? Even if somebody thinks they’re just studying Neanderthals who no longer exist and then finds that a certain group has a disproportionate amount of their DNA, all of a sudden that person’s life is ruined.
Sam Harris: We’ve installed trip wires in our discourse, which the mere touching of which it winds up destroying people’s reputations for no reason. And so that’s the thing that’s untenable for me, and so for better or worse, I’ve just decided to speak as honestly as I can about anything that I find interesting and consequential. And you know, I’ve had to take some significant steps to create a platform where I can’t actually be canceled by people and I’ve managed to do that.
Preet Bharara: And you self-publish. I’ve done some of the same.
Sam Harris: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Sam, I have 49 more questions for you.
Sam Harris: Okay.
Preet Bharara: But we haven’t been able to get to them. Among them were going to be very easy ones, like do we have free will and can we be sure the universe exists? But we will have to save that for another time.
Sam Harris: It’s been a pleasure. I hope we meet in person one of these days Preet.
Preet Bharara: It’ll probably be a little bit.
Sam Harris: Yeah, no doubt.
Preet Bharara: The meditation app is called Waking Up. Sam Harris, thanks again for taking the time to be with us.
Sam Harris: Yeah. Take care Preet.
Preet Bharara: The conversation continues for members of the Cafe Insider community. To hear the stay tuned bonus material with Sam Harris and get the exclusive weekly Cafe Insider Podcast and other content, head to cafe.com/insider. Right now, you can try a Cafe Insider membership free for two weeks at cafe.com/insider.
Preet Bharara: So folks, I want to end the show this week by talking about something that I have brought up from time to time. And if you listen to the show with any regularity, you know how inspired I am by young people in this country and around the world and how crisis after crisis and when hard times befall us, sometimes it’s the young folks who lead the way and give a shining example of how the rest of us should behave, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception to that.
Preet Bharara: In fact, as nations all over the world battle COVID 19, they’re getting some help from federal governments, some less, but young people everywhere are stepping up to organize, create, donate, and help those who need it most. And they’re doing all sorts of things, dealing with national shortages of protective gear or PPE in hospitals and nursing homes to an increase in homeless populations.
Preet Bharara: There is a pretty cloud hanging over all of us and the long road back to something we once knew as normalcy and even lacking a lot of experience, life experience, training and postgraduate education, some young people are using what they have to make that road a little easier.
Preet Bharara: Here’s one example. There’s a 12 year old named Quinn from Canada who figured out how to 3D print ear guards. Those are small plastic devices meant to alleviate the pressure put on the ears of healthcare workers by the elastic strings of their face masks. You may not realize it, but healthcare professionals were near constant pain from the strain of the elastic. That doesn’t help them do their job. And after 12 year old Quinn’s mother sent a tweet that went viral, the 3D printing design he used to start his project was downloaded over 48,000 times by individuals and manufacturers alike. And Quinn continues to print and donate more every day.
Preet Bharara: That’s not the only 3D story, in connection with trying to alleviate the pandemic either. There’s New York City college freshmen and Girls Who Code alumna, Corina [inaudible 00:01:42:46]. She’s founded Makers for COVID-19, an international group focused on 3D printing as much PPE as possible, as fast as possible. She started 3D printing in high school and later focused on training other girls on the printing machine.
Preet Bharara: After she was evacuated from Cornell University, she started printing PPE at home, which quickly turned into founding Makers for COVID-19. She’s personally made 500 FDA and CDC approved regulation face shields, which she donates around the city of New York to medical centers. Her group currently has a total of 240 makers internationally who have created 22,000 units of regulation PPE every week. That includes shields, ventilator valves, and N95 type masks.
Preet Bharara: And that’s not all. There’s an Afghani all girls robotics team that’s building a prototype for a ventilator made from old car parts modeled after a blueprint from MIT.
Preet Bharara: And then there’s 17 year old Avi Schiffman. While President Trump falsely assured the American public that COVID-19 will not be an issue here, Avi begged to differ. In December, this Washington state local launched a homemade website to track the movement of the virus. That website is ncov2019.live and since its founding, it’s gotten over 100 million views. A self-taught coder, Avi created the site to pull information from all over the web to create live charts, images, and numbers that track the wreckage of the virus all over the world. Avi’s site is now a reputable and trusted watchdog of the virus. Why? Primarily because he took the threat of disease seriously long before the president of the United States did.
Preet Bharara: There are lots of other examples of young people stepping up and stepping forward. They inspire me still. They should inspire you too. I thank them for their service and for their care about the world.
Preet Bharara: Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, Sam Harris.
Preet Bharara: If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics, and justice. Tweet them to me at Preet Bharara with the hashtag ask pre or you can call and leave me a message at (669) 247-7338. That’s 669-24Preet. Or you can send an email to [email protected]
Preet Bharara: Stay Tuned is presented by Cafe. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior audio producer is David Tatasciore and the cafe team is Matthew Billy, David Kurlander, Sam Oser-Staton, Calvin Lord, Noah Azulai, and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara. Stay tuned.
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