In this week’s newsletter, we ponder the coming midterm elections, celebrate a victory for anti-war activism, unveil a plan for civilizing Twitter, and offer the usual summary of the week’s news, as well as the usual exotic menu of background readings. Plus, of course, some News You Can Use.
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Fun and games: Trump tweeted a Game of Thrones-themed image of himself to herald this Monday’s re-imposition of Iran sanctions, which had been removed as part of the Obama-era nuclear deal that Trump terminated in May. The Christian Science Monitor reported that an Iranian charity for children with cancer will have trouble keeping medicine in stock because of the sanctions.
Yemen ceasefire proposed: Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Pompeo called for a ceasefire in the war in Yemen, to be followed by UN-led peace talks. The US provides arms and logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition that has been bombing Yemen since 2015.
Brazil takes a hard right: Jair Bolsonaro, whom critics have labeled a fascist, was elected president of Brazil. US National Security Adviser John Bolton praised Bolsonaro as a “like-minded” partner, while Human Rights Watch vowed to monitor threats to Brazilian democracy and civil liberties, and conservationists warned that Bolsonaro’s planned development of the Amazon could exacerbate climate change.
Militarized zone: Trump ordered more than 5,000 troops to the US-Mexico border to deal with a migrant caravan traveling through Mexico and saidthey should shoot anyone who throws rocks at them. The Nigerian Army used Trump’s remarks to justify having killed rock-throwing Muslim protesters earlier in the week.
Vetoing the 14th Amendment: Trump said he will issue an executive order ending birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. Most legal scholars believe this would be unconstitutional.
Voting fights: Jimmy Carter asked GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp to step down as Georgia’s secretary of state, saying it was unethical for him to oversee an election he’s running in. In Ohio, federal judges ruledthat voters who had been purged from the rolls for not voting in the last six years must be allowed to vote.
Gab gone: Gab, a Twitter-like site that attracted far-right users and people banned by other social media, was forced offline, at least temporarily, by its web hosting provider after it was revealed that Robert Bowers, the alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, was a verified Gab user. Bowers entered a not-guilty plea on Thursday.
Willie Horton redux: Trump tweeted an anti-immigration political ad that blamed Democrats for letting a Mexican who killed two Sacramento police officers enter the country illegally. A Washington Post fact check says the murderer actually entered the country during George W. Bush’s administration.
Don’t be evil (cont’d): Google employees staged walkouts to protest the company’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against top male employees, including Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, who left the company with a $90 million exit package.
NOTES FROM BOB
by Robert Wright
Midterms at last: The journalist Andrew Sullivan has a gift for putting things starkly. Here’s what he says about Tuesday’s midterm elections: “We will see, in a tangible way, what America now is.” Is Trump’s America “the new normal? Or has this been a detour into the freak zone, with a president accidentally elected, a major party temporarily hypnotized, but with a population still aware of something called reality?”
Twenty five years ago (when, as it happens, I was a colleague of Andrew’s at the New Republic), I would have been more inclined to buy this dichotomy. I mean, I wouldn’t have thought that on Wednesday morning America was going to align neatly with one of these scenarios or the other. But I’d have said that the media, in its quest for a simple narrative, would probably base its Wednesday-morning interpretation of the election on one of the scenarios—and that would matter, since the prevailing narrative helps shape the reality.
But that was then. In today’s America, no single dominant narrative about the election will congeal in its wake. There will be at least two narratives—one in the pro-Trump online world, and one in the anti-Trump online world. And, the human mind being what it is, neither narrative will be a completely objective depiction of reality. In the 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer, William Gibson called cyberspace (a term he coined) a “shared hallucination.” But cyberspace, while indeed capable of fostering hallucinations, has turned out not to be a place of nationally shared perceptions.
So one reality we’ll have to grapple with after the election is the same one we’re grappling with now: the lack of a shared reality. And, regardless of the outcome of this election, and regardless of the outcome of the next election, the Resistance won’t be able to say it’s succeeded at the deepest level until that reality has somehow become a bit more shared.
The other reality we’ll be left to grapple with after this election is, of course, Donald Trump. If the conventional wisdom is right—that the Democrats will take control of the House, though not the Senate—then the grappling may become a bit more forceful and effective. But Trump will still be Trump.
This newsletter has generally refrained from explicitly excoriating Trump, since plenty of that gets done by what we at MRN refer to as the “regular resistance,” and since excoriation can cloud the mind. But every once in a while it’s good to take stock of the man, and what better time than before an election that will indeed, as Andrew Sullivan says, bring some clarity about the nation’s path forward. So here is Andrew’s one-paragraph summary of our president:
“It is hard to think of a precedent for a president who endorses violence against political foes, sees the Justice Department as his own personal prosecutor, calls the press ‘the enemy of the people,’ tears children from parents, brags of multiple sexual assaults, threatens to lock up his opponents, enthuses about war crimes, ‘falls in love’ with the foulest dictator on the planet, refuses to divest of personal holdings in office, lambastes allies, treats the Treasury as a casino, actively endorses the poisoning of the environment, destabilizes NATO, baits minorities, lies incessantly, and oversees a resurgence of the white nationalist right.”
What’s amazing is that that isn’t the half of it.
A better Twitter: This week Twitter was engulfed by anti-Twitter sentiment after word spread that CEO Jack Dorsey was considering eliminating the “like” button. Which reminds me of my own idea for improving Twitter: a 20-second cooling off period. After you clicked “retweet,” an onscreen message would inform you that if after 20 seconds you still wanted to share the tweet, you could click “retweet” again—and meanwhile you could ask yourself if the person you’re retweeting is credible, if their voice is a voice you want to amplify, and if the sentiment motivating your retweet is a sentiment you’re proud of. I mention this idea just in case you were wondering why I’ve never been asked to run a company whose mission is to make a profit.
Yes we can: This week the United States, in a sharp change of policy, called for a ceasefire in the war in Yemen—a war it is party to by virtue of the arms and logistical support it gives the Saudi-led coalition that so intensified hostilities with its 2015 intervention. This is a big story and deserves the front-page play it’s gotten, but I think it contains within it a fairly big story that hasn’t gotten much attention at all. Namely: this was a triumph for grassroots anti-war activism.
Granted, this activism wasn’t the immediate catalyst. That honor belongs to the Saudi regime’s grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. By showering Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in infamy, this crime gave fresh momentum to congressional efforts to end American support for the brutal Saudi air war. And the resulting prospect—that majorities in the House and Senate might soon repudiate Trump’s Yemen policy—almost certainly factored into the administration’s ceasefire initiative.
Still, the congressional ground for this moment had been prepared by many months of activism—by grassroots-funded anti-war NGOs, by peaceniks on Twitter and Facebook, by people calling and writing their congressional representatives. Last spring a Senate move to end US support for Saudi aggression failed by a pretty close 55-44 vote, and this fall, even before the Khashoggi murder, growing opposition to that aggression was leading to another congressional vote. Without this pre-existing momentum, the Khashoggi murder wouldn’t have provided critical mass.
To say that celebration is premature would be an understatement. Even before Saudi Arabia amped up the havoc with its brutal bombing campaign and a crippling blockade, bringing Yemen to the brink of famine, the country had been beset by years of civil conflict involving a number of factions. Restoring true peace to Yemen will require the sustained work of many outside actors, including Iran—and the Trump administration’s refusal to deal with Iran constructively will likely persist, making lasting peace elusive for years. In fact, the administration’s insistence that the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels take the first step in the ceasefire may mean that the fire never ceases.
But whatever happens, the past year of slowly building pressure against America’s backing of the Saudi war campaign is a reminder that ordinary people energized by moral indignation can make a difference.
Mindful resistance isn’t just about, or even mainly about, resisting Trump, or Trumpism. It’s about resisting the forces of which Trump and Trumpism are particularly gruesome manifestations, including amoral belligerence. This week strongly suggests that resistance, however challenging, is not futile.
Tribalism in the wild: Last week, after a white man was caught on camera confronting a black man who was wearing a MAGA hat, a black conservative activist shared the video, writing, “Black Americans are being chased and bullied out of restaurants because liberals don’t believe that we deserve a piece of the American dream too.” Her tweet got more than 25,000 retweets. You may accuse her of hyperbole—claiming that “black Americans” are suffering a fate that, so far as the evidence indicates, only a single black American had suffered at the hands of a single miscreant. But that’s beside the point. The fact is that when people in one tribe see bad behavior by a single member of the enemy tribe, they tend to generalize anyway. Which tends to then reinforce if not deepen their antagonism toward the tribe as a whole. Which in turn increases the chances that they will do something reciprocally bad—which can then be caught on camera and… and so on. So keep this in mind next time you’re deciding whether to spread the word about a single miscreant in the other tribe doing something bad.
Voices: If you want to see me fail to maintain a Buddha-like equanimity, you can watch last week’s Bloggingheads.tv conversation between me and Robert Kagan about American foreign policy (also available as audio on the Wright Show podcast feed). Kagan, long known as a leading neoconservative thinker, usually manages to activate the reptilian core of my brain, but we always manage to end our conversations as friends (or, at the very worst, frenemies). The conversation starts here, the heart of the argument starts here, and if you want to hear me make a pragmatic argument for respecting international law, that’s here. Also, MRN St. Petersburg correspondent Nikita Petrov and I discussed a fascinating finding about how the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenics differ from culture to culture; in the US, these voices tend to be harsher and more menacing than in countries like Ghana or India.
In the Washington Post, George Conway, husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, argues that Trump’s proposal to end birthright citizenship is unconstitutional.
Yemen scholar Gregory D. Johnsen writes that the war in Yemen “is actually three separate yet overlapping conflicts.”
In the Atlantic, Elaina Plott writes that the midterm elections may mark the near-extinction of a long-dwindling breed: the moderate candidate.
A profile of George Soros in the New York Times details how the investor and progressive political donor became a totem for right-wing anti-Semitism.
The New York Times reports on a meeting between the rabbi of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, site of last week’s mass shooting, and the pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, site of a 2015 mass shooting.
The Daily Beast reports that the Department of Homeland Security has gutted an interagency task force that represented the federal government’s only systematic effort to combat violent white supremacy.
Foreign Policy reports on American efforts at the UN to undermine programs for sexual and reproductive health. The efforts are steered by evangelicals in the administration who believe the programs encourage abortion.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is reportedly under Justice Department investigation for a Montana land deal involving the chairman of Halliburton.
In the New York Times Magazine Janet Reitman takes a deep dive into attempts by US law enforcement to deal with white supremacists and other far-right extremists, who “have killed far more people since Sept. 11, 2001, than any other category of domestic extremist.”
Buzzfeed’s Ryan Broderick writes about how social media have spurred right-wing radicalization in Brazil and around the globe. He places some of the blame on a few big Silicon Valley companies that, he says, aren’t using their power responsibly.
Ezra Klein breaks down Trump’s media strategy, arguing that Trump uses a template established by everyday right-wing trolls.
Eyal Press writes in a Times op-ed about “stochastic terrorism,” the idea that certain kinds of rhetoric predictably increase the chances of political violence even though there’s no predicting who the perpetrators will turn out to be.
Just a week after marijuana legalization took effect in Canada, Mexican laws that made cannabis illegal to grow or consume were ruled unconstitutional, effectively legalizing it for recreational use.
Reuters reports that more than 36,000 people have walked into Canadafrom the US to file refugee claims since the start of 2017, with many naming Trump’s promise to crack down on illegal immigration as the cause.
NBC looks at “deep fake” technology that allows the creation of convincing videos of people doing and saying things they’ve never done and said.
Following the news of Sears closing hundreds of stores, Robert Woodson writes about the role the store’s catalogue played in allowing black Americans to shop without racial discrimination.
HuffPost examines why an article critical of a Democratic PAC mysteriously sank in Google’s search results, and finds that thousands of foreigners were paid 20 cents each to help manipulate the search engine’s algorithm.
A social psychology study reveals a partisan divide in the sexual fantasies of Americans.
In what could be termed an example of “fake old news,” five purported Dead Sea Scrolls fragments at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., are now thought to be fakes. There is a lucrative market for such dubious biblical artifacts.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
Are you a lawyer, paralegal, or law student? Or just someone who cares about the integrity of our elections? The nonpartisan Election Protection coalition seeks volunteers to work at polling places around the country and in their call centers to field voter questions.
Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has compiled a list of resources to help people deal with the midterm elections mindfully. She includes a short guided meditation, an article exploring the act of voting as a spiritual practice, and a podcast appearance in which she discusses “election stress disorder.”
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart,
Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh
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