Issue #48: Oct 21-Oct 27, 2018

In this issue of MRN we offer some thoughts about the week’s big hate crimes—the attempted mailbombings of Trump critics and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Also: the usual news roundup and background links, including some offbeat political developments (a new “Progressive International” in the making), and some offbeat research findings (evidence that virtual reality can foster empathy, and that a “sense of oneness” is a good thing to have). Finally: News You Can Use as the midterm elections approach.

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK

Synagogue shooting: At least eleven people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue by a gunman whom police identified as Robert D. Bowers, a right-wing extremist with a history of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant views.   

Would-be bomber: A Florida man was arrested and charged with sending more than a dozen packages containing explosives to high-profile critics of Trump. Some conservatives had speculated that the bombs were a “false flag” attack, but the suspect was a Trump supporter who regularly tauntedTrump critics on social media and drove a van featuring a picture of Hillary Clinton with crosshairs on it.
 
Trump trashes Reagan-era treaty: Trump said the US will withdraw from a 1987 nuclear arms treaty with Russia that led to 2,700 nuclear missiles being removed from Europe. Putin wasn’t pleased.

Downmarket: Stocks continued their weeks-long decline, and by Friday all the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s gains for 2018 had been erased.

Confronting Iran (cont’d): The Treasury Department enacted sanctions against two members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for providing support to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Bernie Sanders, said the move was part of the administration’s ongoing construction of a legal pretext for attacking Iran.
 
Confronting the caravan (cont’d): Trump alleged without citing evidence that “unknown Middle Easterners” were among the group of migrants traveling north from Honduras. The administration prepared to send up to 1,000 troops to the border, part of a broader plan to make it hard for migrants to request asylum.  

Party line: The New York Times reported that Chinese and Russian spies eavesdrop on calls involving Trump’s personal cell phone, which he uses to talk to friends in spite of warnings from his staff.

More Saudi revisionism: Saudi Arabia, revising yet again its account of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death, acknowledged that his killing at the hands of Saudi operatives was premeditated, but continued to insist that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew nothing about it in advance.

Trans rights threatened: The administration is considering defining gender as synonymous with biological sex under Title IX, which activists say would mean that bias against transgender people wouldn’t be treated as illegal sex discrimination. And the US is trying to remove the word “gender” from international human rights documents.

NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

Following the footprints:  As I write this, it’s hard to feel optimistic about America. A gunman just killed at least eleven people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, and that came on the heels of a series of mail bombs whose saving grace was the incompetence of their builder. But if you’re desperate for something to feel hopeful about, there’s this: the same social media that are famously playing a role in all this—drawing people into ideological cocoons and sometimes into extremism—are at least making it easier to see the dynamics of radicalization.  

Consider a deep dive by Kevin Roose of the New York Times into the social media history of would-be mailbomber Cesar Sayoc. Until 2016, Roose notes, Sayoc’s Facebook page featured posts about food, sports, bodybuilding, and scantily clad women. Then, as the presidential primaries heated up, “his anodyne posts gave way to a feed overflowing with pro-Donald Trump images, news stories about Muslims and the Islamic State, far-fetched conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News broadcasts.” And his Facebook and Twitter feeds make it clear where, in addition to Fox, he was getting his inspiration: Breitbart, Infowars, World Net Daily.

Then came phase two: He started attacking Trump critics online and “his posts took on a darker, more obsessive tone, often accompanied by threats of violence and gory images of bloody animal carcasses.” He sent a tweet to Eric Holder that said, “see U soon, tic toc.”

Fearmongers and conspiracy theorists in the right-wing media ecosystem hadn’t, by and large, advocated the kinds of things Sayoc was dreaming up during phase two. But it’s hard to imagine him having entered phase two if there hadn’t been a phase one, and it’s hard to imagine a phase one without the output of those fearmongers and conspiracy theorists—who in turn worked in synergy with fearmonger-in-chief Donald Trump.

The details about the alleged Pittsburgh shooter, Robert Bowers, are only now emerging, but it seems likely that he was swimming in much the same media ecosystem as Sayoc. (Hours before the shooting he had railed against the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, thus joining two alt-right themes, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.) And my guess is that his story will turn out to parallel Sayoc’s: an unstable man latches onto extremist ideas that give his life meaning and focus. Which leads to this reasonable surmise: the more extremist ideas there are in our media and our political discourse, the more unstable people will latch onto them and organize their lives around them.  

Philosophically minded observers can argue all day about whether the footprints left on social media by Sayoc and Bowers mean that Donald Trump, Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, et al, are morally culpable for this week’s hate crimes. (See the item below for my own doubts about the value of “blame” as a big theme in our discourse.) But the footprints should make it harder for Trump et. al. to deny that, whatever their intentions, their words have had a very bad effect on some people—so bad that maybe they should speak more carefully in the future. Of course, they’ll probably deny it nonetheless. Still, the events of this week may at least make it clearer to more people what a malign influence Trump and his crowd have had on America. And, with the midterm elections approaching, that’s something. 

Mail bombs and other forms of incivility: Twitter is a great place for pondering mysteries of the human mind. I like looking at viral tweets and trying to pinpoint the source of their psychological appeal. Sometimes this exercise doesn’t yield a conclusion that’s flattering to our species, but it’s often educational. In the case of a particular genre of tweet that flourished after the flurry of attempted mail bombings this week, the exercise has a particular kind of educational value: it illuminates a distinctive feature of Buddhist ethics.

Here’s an exemplar of the genre, a tweet from Wednesday (the day the suspicious packages started arriving en masse) that got 3,500 retweets and 13,000 likes: “Strange that the civility police are silent on the matter of attempted terror attacks on Obama, the Clintons, and George Soros. Perhaps they are spent from so passionately defending Mitch McConnell’s right to enjoy guacamole in peace. Disingenuous bullshit takes quite the toll.”

The “civility police,” of course, are people who chastise Trump critics for doing things like harassing Republicans in public. And, though I haven’t done much of that kind of scolding, I’ve done a little, if subtly, in this very newsletter. So I guess I’m one of the civility police. Nonetheless, I’ll try to be impartial, and not get too defensive, as I ask what exactly was the criticism being leveled at the civility police by this tweeter, the well-known journalist Lauren Duca.  

The literal point of the tweet, of course, is to ask why many civility police haven’t condemned the mail bomber—and to suggest that this somehow discredits our criticism of lesser forms of incivility. 

Here are some possible answers: (1) I personally try to avoid gratuitous virtue signaling—such as, for example, making a big show of condemning horrible behavior that no one in the known universe is praising. (OK, almost no one.) (2) I assume my condemning mail bombs wouldn’t have a huge impact on the kinds of people who send them; they’re not an especially reasonable group, and I like to think they wouldn’t consider me a role model.

In other words: When the behavior in question is harassing Republicans at dinner, there’s an ongoing argument about whether the behavior is a good idea, and there’s at least some hope that I could say something that would change the behavior—even if only obliquely and modestly, by convincing people not to give it positive reinforcement on social media. When the behavior in question is sending mail bombs, neither of those things applies.

So that’s my take on the literal meaning of the tweet. But maybe that take is beside the point. I suspect that the effective meaning of the tweet—the implied meaning that accounts for most of the retweeting—is more like: You’re blaming our side for incivility, but their side is worse than our side! So you should spend your time blaming their side, not our side!

Which brings us back to Buddhism. Buddhist ethics isn’t big on blaming people. I don’t mean that your typical Buddhist ethicist doesn’t recommend finding criminals and punishing them. I mean that by Buddhist lights the punishment would only be warranted if it made the world a better place—if, say, putting a criminal in jail kept him from committing more crimes or deterred other would-be criminals. You wouldn’t punish for the sake of punishing. In other words, mainstream Buddhist ethics doesn’t enshrine retribution as a moral good.

According to the judicial philosophy that prevails in American courtrooms, in contrast, you would punish someone just for the sake of retribution. In this view, if you find a criminal living in solitude on a desert island, and no one in the wider world will ever find out whether you punished him, so the punishment will have no deterrent effect, you should punish him anyway, because he was to blame for a crime, and blameworthy people should be punished. Retribution, in this view, is a moral good in and of itself.

So when you have a situation like we have in America today—escalating antagonism and incivility on two sides of a political divide—getting caught up in a big argument about who is to blame is a very American thing to do, but not a very Buddhist thing to do. A more Buddhist thing to do is ask what you can do to improve the situation. And if you think that your ideological brethren are worsening the situation by screaming at Republicans who are eating dinner, you recommend that they stop. 

This doesn’t mean you’re blaming them for anything, or saying that their yelling at people who separate immigrant families is worse than separating immigrant families. It also doesn’t mean you’re holding up civility as some moral good that always trumps everything. You’re just saying that in this particular case incivility is making things worse.

And I’d say it’s making things worse even from a narrowly partisan, not just national or global, point of view: images of Democrats harassing Republican politicians during dinner will likely increase Republican turnout in the midterm elections. If it wasn’t going to do that, you wouldn’t see so much footage on Fox News of Republicans having their dinners interrupted. 

Of course, I could be wrong about this; maybe in the long run yelling at Republicans while they dine will have more good effects than bad. My point is just that this is the argument to have—an argument about the consequences of behavior, not an argument about who deserves more blame.

To doubt the value of “blame” isn’t to deny that moral distinctions can be made between different forms of incivility. Inciting violence, as Trump has done, is, in my book, much worse than harassing people at dinner—as is, obviously, sending bombs to people. But I don’t think making this moral distinction is at the heart of the viral appeal of Duca’s tweet. I think the heart of the appeal is more along the lines of: The other side is worse than us, so quit criticizing our side! Which is ironic when those of us who are criticizing our side are doing that in hopes of keeping the other side from prevailing.

Weekend viewing: If you’ve let your Netflix subscription lapse, I can help! You can watch my recent conversation with CNN commentator Sally Kohn about her book The Opposite of Hate or my conversation with John Judis about his new book The Nationalist Revolt, on the international resurgence of nationalism. (You can also listen to these conversations on The Wright Show podcast feed.) Or you can watch another episode of MRN unplugged, featuring me and MRN St. Petersburg correspondent Nikita Petrov having a free-form trans-Atlantic conversation about stuff that’s happening in the world. To ensure high ratings, we moved a clip featuring my dog Milo to the front of the episode. (Below the video you’ll see a list of topics that you can click on to skip the stuff you find unappetizing.)

BACKGROUND

The Washington Post depicts accused mailbomber Cesar Sayoc as a deeply disturbed, perhaps delusional, man who, according to a cousin, was “built like a freakin’ animal” and “took too many steroids.” Kevin Roose of the New York Times examines his social media history and finds that 2016 was a turning point.

The Daily Beast reports on how the migrant caravan coalesced in Honduras. The group’s numbers swelled after the nation’s most watched news channel falsely claimed that a notorious “coyote” would pay the migrants’ food and transportation costs.

In the Intercept, Jon Schwarz reflects on the Cuban Missile Crisis by way of critiquing  the US decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

In Al Monitor, Laura Rozen looks at whether the murder of Jamal Khashoggi could help bring the war in Yemen to an end.  

The BBC investigates internment camps in China suspected of holding hundreds of thousands of Chinese Muslims.

Rolling Stone profiles Washington State Rep. Matt Shea, who has allied himself with some of the nation’s most prominent anti-government extremists and conspiracy theorists.

Daniel Dale, a Toronto Star reporter who does real-time fact-checking of Trump’s speeches, said on PBS NewsHour that Trump’s rate of false statements has grown markedly. “In 2017, he averaged 2.9 false claims per day. As of now, it’s 4.5 false claims per day.”

Georgia’s NAACP filed suit against the state’s Board of Elections after voters complained about voting machines switching their gubernatorial choice from Democrat to Republican. In a recently leaked audio recording, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp—who as Georgia’s Secretary of State oversees elections—expressed concern about his campaign being hurt by voters taking full advantage of absentee balloting.

Brazilian journalist Brian Mier presents evidence that far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro used thousands of WhatsApp groups to distribute false information, such as a photoshopped image of vice presidential candidate Manuela D’Ávila in a T-shirt that reads “Jesus is a Transvestite.”

 

DEEP BACKGROUND

In the Atlantic, Ron Brownstein argues that the increasingly diverse nature of the Democratic coalition and the increasingly white makeup of the GOP are trends that may feed off each other, exacerbating polarization.

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, said he and Bernie Sanders will launch a new “Progressive International” in November and are inviting Mexico’s leftist president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, to join. The aim is in part to counter the international network that Steve Bannon says he’s building.  

survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that younger Americans do better than older Americans at distinguishing between opinions and factual statements in the news.

The world’s largest rice gene bank secured funding to develop varieties resistant to potential effects of climate change: high temperatures, droughts, and floods.

At FiveThirtyEight, Matt Grossman surveys recent academic literature finding that people’s attitudes about race and gender are heavily shaped by the prevailing views of the party and candidates they already support.

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who spent 18 months in an Iranian prison, argues the Iran is “a much better long-term partner” for the US than is Saudi Arabia, and that the US should stop favoring the latter over the former.

In Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman reports on research suggesting that people who have a sense of “oneness” care more about the welfare of others, including those well beyond their social group. In Vox, Sean Illing uses this finding to  suggest that meditation or the use of psychedelics could help combat the problem of “tribalism.”

A study described in Pacific Standard found that virtual reality can be used to increase empathy for homeless people. In Tricycle, a Buddhist teacher and a neuroscientist who have studied VR’s use in Buddhist practice debate a skeptic of their research.

China plans to launch an “artificial moon” to light up the night sky.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

There’s been a lot of reporting about how laws and administration decisions could be used to suppress voter turnout this year. Even if you’re not the kind of voter who is susceptible to such a thing, you might consider spreading the word on social media that, once at the polls, people who believe they are registered to vote but are denied the chance to do so have the right under federal law to request a provisional ballot. Their votes will be counted if their eligibility is then verified. You might, for example, share this story and explicitly suggest that others do the same. Other news worth spreading: Lyft and Uber are offering discounted or free rides to polling sites.

 

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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