Issue #40: May 13–May 19, 2018

This week saw the first ever—in the entire history of humankind—virtual meetup of MRN readers. See the Local News section, below, for details about how you can join a future meetup—or, if you’re camera-shy, details about how you can interact via text with MRN readers. (Either way, the portal is a comments page we just created.) As for the week’s less momentous events: They’re crisply summarized in TWIT, as usual, and we also offer the usual semi-meticulously curated selection of background links, plus a bit of News You Can Use. And, right after TWIT, there’s a piece I wrote in which I use “new atheist” Sam Harris as a case study in the psychology of tribalism.

–Robert Wright

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 THE WEEK IN TRUMP

Non-Russia-gate: The New York Times reported that countries other than Russia—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—may have given Trump assistance during the 2016 election. Once president, Trump provided strong rhetorical support for those two countries as they imposed an economic blockade on Qatar—a position that surprised observers at the time, since Qatar is a US ally that hosts a major US military base. But don’t count Qatar out! The New York Times also reported that the Qatari government is on the verge of helping to bail out the financially troubled real estate business controlled by Jared Kushner’s family. So maybe the White House will get better at seeing Qatar’s perspective.

O Jerusalem: The US moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, gratifying many Israelis and antagonizing many Palestinians. Protests in Gaza—which had been happening weekly since late March–got bigger and more assertive on the day the new embassy opened. At least 62 Palestinians, some of whom were trying to cross the border into Israel, were killed by Israeli soldiers—slightly more than had been killed in the seven previous weeks of protests combined. One reason the embassy move is explosive is that in the 1947 UN partition plan that created Israel, Jerusalem was to be under international rule, in neither Israeli nor Arab territory. US diplomats have traditionally said that determination of Jerusalem’s ultimate legal status—a divided city, an international city, whatever—would await resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Focus on the family: The administration began preparing to house children on military bases as part of its plan to separate parents from their children when families cross the border illegally. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Kim Jong Un 1, John Bolton 0: North Korea cancelled talks with South Korea and threatened to cancel the June 12 summit between Kim Jong Un and Trump. It cited two grievances: (1) this spring’s joint US-South Korea military exercises; (2) National Security Adviser John Bolton’s assertion that North Korea should follow the “Libya model” of denuclearization—a model that, as astute observers had noted when Bolton first invoked it, was unlikely to be seen by Kim as auspicious. In trying to reassure Kim, Trump issued an implicit rebuke of Bolton, saying, “the Libya model isn’t the model that we have at all when we’re thinking of North Korea.” And the part of the military exercises that was to involve B-52 bombers and South Korean aircraft was cancelled, reportedly at the request of South Korea.

Bolton 1, bureaucratic rivals 0: Bolton consolidated power by eliminating the position of cybersecurity coordinator, whose occupant had reported directly to the president. Now the cybersecurity portfolio will be split between two people who report to Bolton. One of them is a protege of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and, like Bolton, lacks significant cybersecurity experience. The previous week Bolton had disbanded the global health security team and transferred its portfolio to the team that handles defense against weapons of mass destruction, including bioweapons.

DeVos helps DeVry: The Education Department has unwound a unit devoted to investigating malfeasance at for-profit colleges. Secretary Betsy DeVos has hired a number of officials from for-profits as top-level staff.

The week in Mueller: Trump’s attorneys have been assured by the Special Counsel’s office that its investigation won’t result in Trump’s indictment, according to Rudy Giuliani, one of those attorneys. In other words: Mueller shares the view of many experts that a sitting president can’t be indicted. That leaves open the possibility of impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate. It also leaves open the possibility that the special counsel could designate Trump an unindicted co-conspirator, as happened with Nixon. Meanwhile, Trump stated on a financial disclosure form that he reimbursed Michael Cohen for an amount between $100,000 and $250,000. This was taken as confirmation that Trump, despite his prior denials, did indirectly pay Stormy Daniels to not say that the two had an affair.

New, improved CIA director: By a 54-45 vote, the Senate confirmed Gina Haspel as CIA director, notwithstanding concerns about her past association with the waterboarding of terrorism suspects. Haspel promised to never again authorize torture, even if ordered to by the president. A career intelligence officer, Haspel is seen by some in the agency as a welcome departure from her predecessor, current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose background is in partisan politics.

Perils of publishing: The Washington Post reported that Trump has personally and repeatedly asked Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the rate paid by Amazon and some other companies to ship packages. Amazon is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, and Trump has strongly criticized the Post and Bezos as well as Amazon. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan tweeted that “using state power against the media is straight out of the authoritarian playbook.”

Trade wars (cont’d): Trump moved toward resolution of his trade conflict with China amid signs that the terms of resolution may benefit him politically. On Sunday he tweeted that a recently imposed US penalty on electronics company ZTE led to “too many jobs in China lost” and promised a fix. The Wall Street Journal then reported that, in exchange for this relief, China may rescind tariffs it recently imposed on US farm products. China is even said to be offering to buy $200 billion more of American products, a commitment that would be seen as a win for Trump. Meanwhile, NAFTA renegotiation talks are sputtering as a deadline set by Speaker Paul Ryan passed (though Ryan acknowledged that the truly final, immovable deadline may be weeks away).

Dare to DREAM? A coalition of House Democrats and some 20 renegade Republicans is close to securing enough signatures for a “discharge petition” that would force a floor vote on a bill providing a pathway to citizenship for so-called “DREAMers.” If Democratic leaders succeed in getting all their members to sign, only five more Republicans will be needed. Prospects for Senate action, though, would remain dim.

Another school shooting: Ten students at Santa Fe high school in Texas died at the hands of a fellow student who was wielding a shotgun and pistol that belonged to his father. The boy had planned to commit suicide afterwards, and he told police he spared friends so that his “story would be told.”

SAM HARRIS AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TRIBALISM

Below is an article I wrote that was published in Wired this week. It uses famous “new atheist” Sam Harris as a case study in the psychology of tribalism—not because he’s any more tribal than the rest of us, but because… well, I explain in the piece why he’s the specimen I put under the microscope.

–Robert Wright

Sam Harris, one of the original members of the group dubbed the “New Atheists” (by Wired!) 12 years ago, says he doesn’t like tribalism. During his recent, much-discussed debate with Vox founder Ezra Klein about race and IQ, Harris declared that tribalism “is a problem we must outgrow.”

But apparently Harris doesn’t think he is part of that “we.” After he accused Klein of fomenting a “really indissoluble kind of tribalism” in the form of identity politics, and Klein replied that Harris exhibits his own form of tribalism, Harris said coolly, “I know I’m not thinking tribally in this respect.”

Not only is Harris capable of transcending tribalism—so is his tribe! Reflecting on his debate with Klein, Harris said that his own followers care “massively about following the logic of a conversation” and probe his arguments for signs of weakness, whereas Klein’s followers have more primitive concerns: “Are you making political points that are massaging the outraged parts of our brains? Do you have your hands on our amygdala and are you pushing the right buttons?”

Of the various things that critics of the New Atheists find annoying about them—and here I speak from personal experience—this ranks near the top: the air of rationalist superiority they often exude. Whereas the great mass of humankind remains mired in pernicious forms of illogical thought—chief among them, of course, religion—people like Sam Harris beckon from above: All of us, if we will just transcend our raw emotions and rank superstitions, can be like him, even if precious few of us are now.

We all need role models, and I’m not opposed in principle to Harris’s being mine. But I think his view of himself as someone who can transcend tribalism—and can know for sure that he’s transcending it—may reflect a crude conception of what tribalism is. The psychology of tribalism doesn’t consist just of rage and contempt and comparably conspicuous things. If it did, then many of humankind’s messes—including the mess American politics is in right now—would be easier to clean up.

What makes the psychology of tribalism so stubbornly powerful is that it consists mainly of cognitive biases that easily evade our awareness. Indeed, evading our awareness is something cognitive biases are precision-engineered by natural selection to do. They are designed to convince us that we’re seeing clearly, and thinking rationally, when we’re not. And Harris’s work features plenty of examples of his cognitive biases working as designed, warping his thought without his awareness. He is a case study in the difficulty of transcending tribal psychology, the importance of trying to, and the folly of ever feeling sure we’ve succeeded.

To be clear: I’m not saying Harris’s cognition is any more warped by tribalism than, say, mine or Ezra Klein’s. But somebody’s got to serve as an example of how deluded we all are, and who better than someone who thinks he’s not a good example?

You can read the rest of the piece at Wired.

 

 LOCAL NEWS

Remember Isaac, who asked if there were any MRN readers who wanted to join him in a meetup? Well, MRN reader Dylan was game, and this week a virtual meetup was had.

Isaac sent us an email afterwards to say “we would love to have some more people join us in future conversations, we are flexible as to timing and format.”

So we created this page, where you can ask Isaac any questions you may have and let him know if you’re interested in joining a future meetup.

Or, if you don’t feel meetup-ready, you can put this page to a different use: just leave a comment about anything of relevance to the newsletter, or reply to someone who has already done that. Maybe down the road we’ll have a full-fledged discussion forum, but for now we’ll just see how this modest experiment in reader interaction goes.

Whatever your preferred medium—video or text—we hope you’ll be intrigued by the prospect of making contact with your fellow readers. We have reason to believe they’re a very congenial group.

—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)

BACKGROUND

In Politico, Elana Schor and Burgess Everett explore why progressive activists were unable to keep Senate Democrats unified and block the Gina Haspel confirmation.

Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times writes that the Trump administration has “gone further than any previous US government in expressing full-throated support for Israel,” thus “isolating itself internationally and further relinquishing its role as a Middle East peace broker.”

A late-2017 bloggingheads.tv conversation between Robert Wright and Amjad Atallah, who has served as legal adviser to Palestinian negotiators, offers background on why the status of Jerusalem is such a hot-button issue.

FiveThirtyEight’s Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux compared the length of the Mueller investigation to every special investigation since 1973 that resulted in charges.

In Slate, Jim Newell narrates the unexpected defeat of the House farm bill, “one of the most dramatic floor scenes of this Congress.”

In Buzzfeed, David Klion writes that “Russiagate is fundamentally a story about crimes committed in America by Americans.”

DEEP BACKGROUND

In New York magazine, Eric Levitz argues that the Democratic party is ill-served by the amount of attention CNN, MSNBC, and other outlets pay to Russiagate.

The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein warns of signs that Democratic-leaning young voters may not turn out for the midterm elections.

In the New York Times, conservative Gerard Alexander writes that liberals are sometimes preachy, judgmental, and self-satisfied in ways that alienate voters. In the same issue of the Times, liberal columnist Michelle Goldberg offers a more muted version of much the same warning.

The Cato Institute’s David Bier uses statistics to rebut claims by Chief of Staff John Kelly that Central Americans don’t assimilate well into American society.

James Hohmann of the Washington Post reports on three studies that “highlight a deep craving for respect among supporters of the president and an enduring resentment toward coastal elites that buoys his popularity.” One study quotes a woman in Michigan saying, “We voted for President Obama and still we are ridiculed. Still we are considered racists. There is no respect for anyone who is just average and trying to do the right things.”

On bloggingheads.tv, MRN’s Robert Wright had a conversation with sociologist Musa al-Gharbi, who has argued that researchers with negative views of Trump have produced distorted analyses of what motivates Trump voters, especially in assessing the roles of race and racism. The conversation is also available on podcast apps in The Wright Show feed.

 NEWS YOU CAN USE

In the event that you feel strongly about the virtues of “net neutrality”:

This week three Republican senators joined with Democrats to vote to preserve net neutrality, which the FCC plans to end on June 11. While the chances of such a bill passing in the House and being signed by President Trump are exceedingly slim, the strong level of support among voters has buoyed the hopes of net neutrality activists. Even if this initiative fails, the issue won’t die; actions by state governments and lawsuits filed against the FCC may keep many net neutrality provisions in place, and the issue will be prominent in some congressional elections. Fight for the Future is a non-profit whose mobilization of grassroots support helped get the Senate resolution passed. At their Battle for the Net site you can download an app to help identify internet service providers currently violating FCC regulations, install a widget on your own website to alert your visitors of net neutrality news, and, of course, learn how your congressional representatives stand on the issue and how to make your voice heard.

—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade & Brian Degenhart

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