This week we welcome more than 1,200 new subscribers to the Mindful Resistance Newsletter. Most of these people signed up after hearing the wonderful Brooke Gladstone discuss mindful resistance with me on this edition of WNYC’s On The Media. At least, that’s the conclusion of our crack data analytics team. Then, again, our crack data analytics team’s motto is “Correlation means causality.” But regardless of why you’ve signed up to receive the newsletter, here is your three-part orientation guide: (1) You can get more background on the idea of mindful resistance here. (2) You can read last week’s heartfelt appeal for reader feedback here. (3) If you’re wondering what you can do to help out—aside from just reading the newsletter and providing feedback, both of which are deeply appreciated—the answer is: use the newsletter’s Facebook and Twitter icons to spread the word. And note that you can use them to share either the entire newsletter or any of the newsletter’s three sections: our opening analytical summary of the week’s Trump-related news; some ruminations by me; and links to background reading. For this nuanced social-media-sharing functionality we thank our crack tech team (which, as it happens, is also our crack data analytics team).
THE WEEK IN TRUMP
Bannon Banished: Steve Bannon has finally crashed and burned. At least, that was a common view after the fallout from some Bannon quotes in the new Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury. (Bannon called Trump’s daughter “dumb as a brick” and said there was “zero” chance that Trump himself hadn’t met with the oppo-research-touting Russians with whom Donald Jr. and Jared Kushner infamously met.) After Trump retaliated by disavowing Bannon even to the point of giving him a nickname (“Sloppy Steve”), the formerly Bannon-backing billionaire Mercer family signalled its growing disenchantment with Bannon and said it wasn’t funding any of his political initiatives. There was even speculation that Bannon might be ousted from his role as executive chairman of Breitbart News, in which Rebekah Mercer is still an investor. In any event, it was harder this week than last week to imagine Bannon being the kind of independent power center he had fashioned himself as since leaving the administration—someone who could strike fear into the hearts of establishment Republican incumbents and apply corrective pressure when Trump strays from the populist creed. And, of course, it was harder to imagine that last week than it was before Bannon’s man Roy Moore lost in Alabama’s senatorial election. All that said, Trump is as famous for his reconciliations as for his breakups, and if Bannon ever re-enters Trump’s orbit that would help his credibility with funders.
As for the Book Itself: If the Wolff book is accurate, it is cause for deep concern. It depicts Trump as a man who is sliding into dementia and was never big on such cognitive tasks as reading entire sentences anyway. Some of those quoted in the book as denigrating Trump have issued denials. Axios offered that while some of the book is “wrong” or “sloppy,” Wolff gets right the depiction of Trump as “emotionally erratic” and having a staff that holds a “low opinion of him.”
Iranian Unrest: Anti-government protests in Iran began to wind down after the arrest of more than 1000 protestors and the death of at least 20. The Trump administration depicted the unrest as a cry for freedom and said “all freedom-living people must stand with [the protestors’] cause.” But the protests were triggered by economic grievances (unlike the 2009 protests, which were triggered by allegations of government election rigging). And the Trump administration has actually deepened Iran’s economic problems. Trump’s repeated signals that he may kill the Iranian nuclear deal have slowed the foreign investment that the deal was expected to bring to Iran.
The Two Koreas Agree to Talk: After a relatively quiet holiday week, Trump launched a fusillade of provocative tweets on Tuesday, including one threatening nuclear war against North Korea. (Conor Friedersdorf labeled it “the most irresponsible tweet in history.” In Trump’s defense: tweeting has a short history.) Meanwhile the two Koreas re-established an intergovernmental telephone line that had been closed since 2015 and agreed to hold talks that could reduce tension between them. Trump, who had previously said it was a mistake to talk to North Korea without preconditions, nonetheless welcomed this North-South dialogue. He also took credit for it.
Is the Mindful Resistance Newsletter in the Running? Trump tweeted, “I will be announcing THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR on Monday at 5:00 o’clock.” Fingers crossed.
Decommissioned: Trump disbanded his administration’s voter fraud commission before it could investigate voter fraud. The White House said the refusal of some states to turn over voting records had crippled the would-be investigation—but nonetheless insisted that there is “substantial evidence of voter fraud” in 2016.
Buzz Harshed: The Justice Department withdrew an Obama-era directive that essentially let states legalize marijuana without fear of federal interference. The move set up a possible clash over state versus federal authority. On Monday, California became the sixth, and largest, state to allow the sale of recreational marijuana.
Drill Baby Drill: The Interior Department announced plans to lift Obama’s ban on oil drilling off the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic, as well as the decades-old ban on Pacific coast drilling. Legal challenges are expected.
Hatch Escapes: Orrin Hatch, the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate (and thus third in the presidential line of succession after the Vice President and Speaker of the House) announced his retirement, fueling speculation that Mitt Romney would run for his Utah seat. Some anticipated a Senator Romney becoming a thorn in Trump’s side, but Romney’s past suggests he is not beyond appeasing. He full-throatedly denounced Trump during the 2016 campaign but then auditioned to be Trump’s Secretary of State. Trump and Romney had a reportedly cordial phone chat Thursday.
Aid to Pakistan Suspended: The administration announced that it will withhold $255 million in military aid from Pakistan over concerns that the country is not doing enough to fight terrorism.
MINDFULNESS AND IRAN
The protests in Iran have led to calls from various parts of Washington, certainly including the White House, to “stand with” the Iranian people. This has led to questions about what it means to stand with the Iranian people. Does it just mean we hope the protestors’ grievances are addressed by the Iranian government? Or is it code for “we favor regime change”? And, if the latter, do we plan to abet regime change?
At least one Washington advocate of standing with the Iranian people left no doubt about what he meant. Stewart A. Baker, a senior contributor at the Brookings Institution blog Lawfare, proposed giving weapons to the protestors.
After Baker’s post got some Twitter blowback, Benjamin Wittes, Lawfare’s editor-in-chief, issued a quasi-apology for having greenlighted it. He said that, in retrospect, the post failed to meet the blog’s editorial standards since it “can plausibly be read to advocate violence with potentially indiscriminate weapons in an emotive, too-personal fashion, and without any argument other than revenge.”
Yes, that would be a plausible reading. Baker had acknowledged that for all he knew arming Iranian protestors would lead to a bad outcome, but he said he liked the idea anyway because, after all, the Iranian regime had years ago armed proxy forces who killed American soldiers in Iraq.
Baker’s post left me with mixed emotions.
On the one hand, it seemed morally irresponsible in the extreme. We have lots of experience arming people in the Middle East who oppose repressive governments. Most recently, the US, along with some Middle Eastern allies, did that in Syria—and thus turned what would have been a brutal but probably brief government crackdown into a full-scale civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and created millions of refugees. Unless Stewart Baker wants to resign from his prestigious DC law firm and volunteer for rebel duty in Iran, maybe he should refrain from advocating policies that would produce lots of dead Iranian rebels.
On the other hand, I have to admire Baker’s candor about the crudeness of his motivations. Though he didn’t quite come out and say, “Revenge feels good, so I’m advocating it,” he sure didn’t conceal that underlying logic. (He titled his piece “Best Served Cold” after the famous aphorism about revenge.) And the truth is that the generic form of this logic—“if it feels good, advocate it”—is what motivates many American foreign policy proposals whose authors, unlike Baker, do conceal it.
If you want to understand how mindfulness could (according to me, at least) improve American foreign policy, it’s important to understand what I mean by the phrase “do conceal it” in the previous sentence. I don’t mean these Washington foreign policy analysts are being deceitful—that they’re consciously aware that their “rational” arguments are motivated by feeling. I mean that their brains convince them that their policy positions grow out of rational consideration, when in fact those positions are substantially rooted in feelings, and the rational justification is largely an add-on.
This view of the brain—as a machine that constructs “rational” arguments in the service of feelings—is taken increasingly seriously in psychology, and it has long been a theme in Buddhist psychology. Indeed, mindfulness meditation is among other things a technique for becoming aware of how your thoughts are shaped by your feelings. This awareness can help you figure out which thoughts are giving you good guidance.
And God knows American foreign policy could use better guidance than it’s been getting. Let’s see: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lybia, Syria—yeah, it seems like it’s been a while since we launched a big initiative in that part of the world that worked out well.
Revenge is by no means the only feeling that sponsors foreign policy disasters. Indeed, a single school of foreign policy thought may be supported by different feelings in different adherents. Consider hawkishness on Iran—the general idea that the Iranian government is bad and so must be countered in various ways. If you look at the various species of Iran hawks, and try to discern their motivating feelings, you’ll find different feelings motivating different species.
Some of the Trump administration’s Iran hawks—notably Defense Secretary James Mattis—seem motivated at least in part by what motivated Baker: outrage over past Iranian complicity in the deaths of US troops. Other Iran hawks—liberal interventionists, in particular—seem motivated more by concern for the plight of Iranians who live under a government that, though far from the most repressive in the Middle East, is also far from a liberal democracy. (Many of these liberal interventionists were similarly motivated by concern for the plight of Syrians, Libyans, and Iraqis—and, yes, the subtext of this parenthetical is that many liberal interventionists are slow learners). Meanwhile, a third species of Iran hawk—“pro-Israel” hawks such as Trump mega-donor Sheldon Adelson—may be motivated by fear: genuine fear for Israel’s security. (And, yes, the subtext of the quotation marks around pro-Israel is that I’m far from sure Israel’s long-term interests are served by everyone who is labeled “pro-Israel”.)
None of these feelings is inherently bad. Obviously, concern for the plight of foreigners can lead to good things. And fear certainly has its practical uses. Even revenge can lead to the punishment of people who need to be punished for the greater good. And so too with the more refined cousin of revenge: the deeply felt intuition that retribution is a moral good in and of itself.
The problem is that these feelings don’t always lead to good things, and in some cases they give us very bad guidance. (In the case of the last of those feelings—the retributive impulse—I tried to point this out, in Slate, a week after 9-11. I seem to have failed to redirect American foreign policy.) Witness Iraq, Libya, Syria, and maybe, depending on how things unfold, Iran.
So why don’t the DC foreign policy sages who have led us from disaster to disaster consider the possibility that the feelings guiding them may be leading them astray? Because, for one thing, they’re not aware of how large a role feelings are playing. If such awareness came easily, we wouldn’t need things like mindfulness meditation to cultivate and sustain it.
What to do? Well, it’s probably too much to hope that Washington think tanks will start offering mindfulness meditation classes. Besides, if think tank sages started thinking more like actual sages, they’d probably be fired. Think tanks have funders, and the funders have agendas, and the think tanks employ thinkers who serve those agendas. And virtually none of those agendas, so far as I can tell, aligns very reliably with the rational pursuit of America’s national security interests—or for that matter with morality.
So reforming American foreign policy will be a long, hard slog. It will take grass roots activism, better journalism, better Twitter, and lots of other things. (And by “better” I mean, among other things, “more mindful.”) But this reform is too critical for us to give up on it without a fight.
If you doubt the importance of foreign policy reform, just consider the domestic political consequences of America’s Middle East misadventures over the past 15 years—beginning with the Iraq intervention and ending with the Syrian intervention-by-proxy. It was in the chaos of post-war Iraq that the precursor of ISIS took root, and it was in the chaos of civil-war-torn Syria that ISIS per se took root. And if you imagine a world without ISIS—and without various other radical actors who were empowered by our actions in Iraq, Libya, and Syria—you’re imagining a world in which candidate Donald Trump would have had a much harder time exploiting and amplifying Islamophobia. Which means you’re probably imagining a world without President Donald Trump. Which means the long, arduous struggle for national enlightenment—working to disentangle feeling from actual, careful thought in our foreign policy deliberations—has to continue.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
In the Atlantic, James Hamblin took a look at Trump’s mental condition and proposed the creation of an independent “presidential-fitness committee” to “regularly assess the president’s neurologic status and give a battery of cognitive tests to assess judgment, recall, decision-making, attention.”
The Washington Post lists ten important White House moves, including multiple regulatory rollbacks, that happened during the end-of-year rush, while few were looking.
In 2004 the New Republic’s Michelle Cottle took a not altogether flattering look at the journalistic methodology of Michael Wolff, whose book on the Trump administration dominated this week’s news.
Joshua Zeitz looks at Trump’s relationship with the white working class through a historical lens: “Whiteness… continues to pay tangible benefits, and rightly or wrongly, it makes some sense that its primary beneficiaries are loath to support candidates who expressly promise to disrupt this privileged status.”
A new study demonstrates that the way you argue may affect how you think about truth itself.
Axios uses data visualization to show that “while Trump’s presidency has been action-packed, the public’s attention span doesn’t seem to last for long.”
Politico’s Danny Vinik argues that the workplace is being transformed not by robots or the “gig economy,” but by a massive shift towards independent contracting (which, it should be noted, is itself facilitated by information technology).
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, and Brian Degenhart