Issue #52: Nov 25–Dec 1, 2018

In this week’s MRN we offer: the world’s most concise summary of the week’s Mueller news; the tragic story of a senator who got lots of mind-altering retweets; a prediction about the next few days of reflections on the late George H.W. Bush; thoughts on mindful genetic engineering; background links on, oh, everything; and, finally, the guidance some of you have been awaiting with admirable patience: how to unsubscribe from this newsletter.

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK

Yemen bill advances: A Senate resolution to end support of the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen passed a key procedural hurdle. The bill is unlikely to become law—that would require House passage and would still face a possible veto—but the 63-37 procedural vote was a rebuke to Trump and reflected dissatisfaction with his refusal to recalibrate Saudi relations after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Plant closings: General Motors said it will close five plants in North America and cut its workforce by 15 percent. Trump threatened to punish GM by ending subsidies for customers who buy its electric cars (though it’s not clear he has the authority to do that) and also said he might levy tariffs on imported cars.

The week in Mueller: Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, revealing in the process that Trump pursued a Russian real estate deal until weeks before the 2016 Republican convention—and that Cohen communicated with the Putin regime about the deal. And documents from the Mueller investigation—released this week by Jerome Corsi, a target of the investigation—suggest that Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone sought information from Wikileaks about hacked emails for purposes of relaying the information to senior campaign officials.

On-again-off-again bromance: Trump cancelled a scheduled meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit—ostensibly to punish Russia for seizing three Ukrainian ships in disputed waters near Crimea, but right after Cohen’s guilty plea rendered a Trump-Putin meeting awkward. The leaders of both Russia and Ukraine have been accused of exploiting the Crimea incident to boost domestic support.

Brave new world: A Chinese researcher said he had used CRISPR gene-editing technology during in vitro fertilization to create the world’s first babies with edited DNA that could be passed on to their offspring.

Not so Farr: Although the Senate has been confirming Trump judicial nominees at a record pace, controversial nominee Thomas Farr was defeated. Tim Scott, the only African-American GOP senator, joined Jeff Flake in opposing Farr, who critics say has long supported voter suppression tactics aimed at disenfranchising blacks.

Pelosi marches on: Nancy Pelosi was selected by House Democrats as their nominee for Speaker of the House—although, facing discontent among both moderates and progressives, she fell short of the 218 votes she’ll need to win the speakership in January. Rep. Barbara Lee—the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 authorization of military force that was used to justify much subsequent war—narrowly lost her bid to become the party caucus chair.

Skeptic: Trump dismissed a report from 13 agencies in his administration, released the day after Thanksgiving, that detailed the deleterious effects of climate change. He said, “a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence” but don’t accept the consensus view on climate change.

Georgia still on my mind: A lawsuit was filed on behalf of Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who ended her campaign without conceding victory to her opponent, Brian Kemp. The lawsuit alleges that Georgia’s voting laws and handling of the election—which Kemp, as secretary of state, oversaw—suppressed black turnout.

Bush dies: Former President George H.W. Bush died at age 94. One commentator wrote that Bush “is likely to be remembered as the last President of the republic not to have been intensely despised by a significant portion of its population.” 

NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

How to stop receiving this newsletter: I realize there are marketing consultants who might have advised me not to lead with this item. But if they’re so smart, how come I’m not paying them to give me advice?

Anyway, here’s the reason I raise this issue: There is an unsubscribe link at the bottom of this newsletter, but it is sometimes not visible to users of Gmail. Gmail cuts off emails beyond a certain length and inserts a link at the bottom that says “View entire message.” And you have to click that link to see a version of the newsletter that has an unsubscribe link at the bottom.  

All that said, I must close by quoting from an email we recently got from MRN reader Denise:  “Just wanted to let you know that I’ve been on a slash and burn purge of my inbox lately. I’ve unsubscribed from about 25 unwanted and previously wanted sources of info. Post-election letdown? Pre-holiday sanity saver? I don’t know. But know that my finger didn’t even twitch over the bottom of your newsletter. I knew I’d keep you.” We all need role models, and I personally think Denise makes a great one. 

And here’s a second sense in which you can emulate Denise: email us at feedback@mindfulresistance.net. We welcome any and all thoughts about mindfulness, resistance, life in general, the newsletter, etc. We don’t have time to reply to the emails individually, and we can only reply to a small fraction of them in this space, but we take them all to heart.

RIP, GHWB: Among the things that are predictable about the way America will process the legacy of George H.W. Bush, who died Friday: (1) He’ll be favorably compared to the current occupant of the White House; (2) his war with Iraq will be favorably compared to his son’s war with Iraq, since the elder Bush wisely chose not to overthrow Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq after he had succeeded in rolling back Iraqi aggression against Kuwait; (3) a few observers will note that his war against Iraq, by depositing military installations in Saudi Arabia, may have pushed Osama bin Laden over the edge and led to 9/11.

But I predict that very, very few people will note one commendable feature of that war: It was authorized under international law. Bush sought and received UN Security Council backing for it. That fact, during the quarter-century since the war ended, has drawn virtually no comment from American foreign policy observers. 

Here’s a longer-range prediction: the world will be something of a mess so long as we have this kind of indifference to—even obliviousness to—international law among American elites.

In any event, it’s worth noting that Bush himself (who had previously been US Ambassador to the UN), had international law in mind not only when he launched the war, but when he decided not to seek regime change and occupation. He recalled that “we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-cold war world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the UN’s mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish.”  

Buddhism 101: There’s an interesting interview in Lion’s Roar with America’s only Buddhist governor—David Ige of Hawaii. Ige comes to his Buddhism by birth; he’s of Japanese ancestry. So he’s an American Buddhist who is Buddhist in a different sense than many Americans who consider themselves Buddhist. A couple of things in the interview got my attention:

(1) How analogous a Buddhist temple is to a church or synagogue or mosque in terms of the role it plays in the community.

(2) Ige makes no mention of meditation. That isn’t surprising, since most Buddhists in Asia don’t meditate. What’s interesting is that, when he’s asked to name the Buddhist teaching that’s most influenced him, his answer nonetheless has a strong flavor of mindfulness. He says, simply: “perseverance, focus, and not being distracted.” Then he adds, “And being compassionate and respectful to everyone…  being respectful of all points of view.”

There’s a lot more to Buddhism than that, but you could do worse than to use that as the guiding takeaway from Buddhism. It reminds me of the summary of the Torah attributed to the ancient Jewish sage Hillel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Designing babies mindfully: This week a Chinese scientist said he had created the world’s first genetically edited babies. He altered the DNA of two embryos conceived in vitro in ways that (he says) will render the babies—and their babies, and so on—resistant to the HIV virus.

You may wonder what this has to do with Mindful Resistance. Well…

1) To be mindful is to pay attention to things that really matter, and not be distracted by turmoil in your head or in your environment. Obviously, the legal and ethical questions raised by our long-envisioned and now (apparently) realized ability to engineer new kinds of humans deserve attention—certainly more attention than most of the headlines that have the word “Trump” in them deserve.  

2) One thing this newsletter resists is Trumpism, and among the elements of Trumpism are a skepticism about international cooperation and an aversion to anything resembling global governance. And genetic engineering is a policy issue that can’t be responsibly addressed at the national level alone. I mean, you can try to address it at the national level. For example, in the US it’s illegal to do what this Chinese scientist did. But suppose that, five or ten or 15 years from now, some arguably menacing country—China, say—is letting parents boost their children’s intelligence or athletic prowess or ambition through genetic engineering. Don’t you think there’s a chance that there will be strong political pressure to change American policy? In this area as in other areas, if restraint is to prevail, there will have to be international agreement on it.

3) Another thing this newsletter resists is Trumpism Lite. That is: properties of Trumpism that long predated Trump, if in subdued form, and will persist in America’s political environment after he’s gone. These include the aforementioned skepticism about international cooperation and aversion to global governance, which have long existed on the right and also surface in the center and even, in some forms, on the left. If we define Trumpism broadly enough, Trumpism Lite could even include a myopia—a focus on short-term political incentives—that, while not as extreme as Trump’s myopia (nor as intensely egocentric, even hedonistic), does keep us from dealing effectively with serious long-term issues. Such as genetic engineering.   

All of this is, among other things, a reminder that, when you see items in The Week or the Background or Deep Background sections of this newsletter that have no glaring connection to Mindful Resistance, they may have a non-glaring connection.

Tribalism in the wild: Senator Chris Murphy, whose average tweet gets maybe 100 retweets, cleared the 13,000 mark by tweeting this: “It’s not some wild coincidence that the Administration’s foreign policy is most inexplicable toward the two countries—Russia and Saudi Arabia—where the Trump family pursues the most business.”

Actually, I think it may well be a coincidence. And I think the popularity of Murphy’s tweet is another reminder of the toll tribalism takes on our thinking—and ultimately on our policy. 

Sure, there’s a chance that business ties to Saudi Arabia are the main reason Trump has resisted calls to meaningfully punish the Saudi regime for its murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (by, for example, cutting off the supply of weapons and—critically—spare parts that keep the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen humming). 

But it’s not as if there’s a shortage of alternative explanations. After all, the administration sees Saudi Arabia as a key player in the crusade against Iran that lies at the center of America’s Middle East policy. And, rightly or wrongly (wrongly, btw), the administration seems to see the Saudi war effort as an effective form of pushback against Iran, since Iran supports the Houthis. (I say wrongly because Iran spends little money on the Houthis, whereas the Saudis are spending tons to fight them; the war is a good way for Iran to drain the resources of its regional rival.)  

And I bring the #Resistance good news: You can subscribe to my Iranocentric theory about Trump’s motives without surrendering the idea that Trump is being unduly influenced by money and family ties. After all, the biggest financial backer of Trump’s presidential campaign, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, has been known to betray what could be called, um, hostility toward Iran. And Trump’s son-in-law, in addition to having an ongoing bromance with murderous Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, grew up in a home where Bibi Netanyahu—whose loathing of Iran rivals Adelson’s—did sleepovers when in town.

Also in favor of the Iranocentric theory is the fact that the administration is full of Iran hawks, whose hawkishness ranges from pretty extreme (Defense Secretary Mattis) to extremely extreme (Secretary of State Pompeo) to crazily extreme (National Security Adviser Bolton). 

Again: I could be wrong. Maybe Trump family commercial interests do play the dominant role here (or maybe other commonly cited factors, such as oil or arms sales, do). Even if so, the virality of Murphy’s tweet illustrates what can—in some contexts, at least—be a deeply thought-warping dynamic: the more crassly unflattering to Trump a theory about the roots of American policy, the more popular the theory will be. Whether or not the theory is right. 

And when it comes to the Middle East, it’s important that we think clearly and keep our eye on the ball. Nearly every week brings more reason to think the Trump administration is heading toward a confrontation with Iran that could turn violent, and perhaps catastrophically so.   

Chris Murphy is one of the most enlightened foreign policy thinkers in the Senate, and he is quite aware of the Trump administration’s inclination toward conflict with Iran. Which suggests one of two things. Either: (1) I’m wrong about all this, and Murphy has good reason to think that personal financial incentives are driving Trump’s Saudi policy; or (2) Murphy’s tweet is a particularly good example of the thought-warping power of the #Resistance—because it shows that the warping can afflict even very clear thinkers. In either event, the tweet’s virality illustrates how much positive reinforcement people get for casting Trump in the worst possible light, and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t always serve us well.

BACKGROUND

The Detroit News uses Volvo’s recent opening of a plant in South Carolina as the jumping off point for an exploration of how there came to be so many foreign auto plants in the US, many of which thrive even as GM is closing plants in the Midwest and Canada.  

In Politico Bill Scher explains why the attempt to dislodge Pelosi as the leader of House Democrats has so far failed.

In the Spectator journalist Michael Tracey argues that Bernie Sanders should be considered the Democratic front-runner and is a much stronger candidate than is commonly realized.

Reuters reports on Iranian families, separated by Trump’s travel ban, that have been able to reunite in a geopolitical “gray zone”: a small library that straddles the border between Canada and Vermont.

In a recent interview, Hillary Clinton said that limiting the immigration of refugees into Europe would lessen ethnonationalist sentiment across the continent. The comment sparked a backlash from the left, while conservative Jonah Goldberg argued that Clinton is “mostly right” about immigration to Europe.

A Jewish professor and Holocaust scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College found swastikas spray-painted on her office walls.

Large-scale protests continue in France over a new fuel tax, among other economic grievances, but President Emmanuel Macron refuses to abandonhis energy plan, which includes closing all of the country’s coal plants and some nuclear plants.

The country of Georgia elected a former French diplomat of Georgian heritage as its first female president.

The BBC reports that Saudi women are wearing clothes inside-out (and posting pictures online, under the Arabic hashtag “inside-out abaya”) to protest their country’s dress codes.

DEEP BACKGROUND

A Miami Herald investigation recounts how billionaire Jeffrey Epstein managed to spend only 13 months in jail after he was charged with sexually abusing dozens of teenage girls. His unusually lenient plea deal was negotiated in 2008 with US Attorney Alexander Acosta—who is now Trump’s Secretary of Labor. Also unusually, the deal gave immunity to “any potential co-conspirators”—which, some evidence suggests, may have included Alan Dershowitz, the Trump-supporting Harvard law professor who, as a member of Epstein’s legal team, helped negotiate the deal. Epstein counts among his friends not just Dershowitz but Trump and Bill Clinton, both of whom have flown on Epstein’s private jet, nicknamed the “Lolita Express.”

study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that adding a “moral-emotional word” to a tweet increases its retweet rate by 20 percent. The 15 most impactful words were attack, bad, blame, care, destroy, fight, hate, kill, murder, peace, safe, shame, terrorism, war, and wrong.

On the Wilson Center website, Harvard historian Mark Kramer offers his explanation of why Crimea, which had been part of Russia since 1783, was transferred to Ukraine by the Soviet government in 1954.

In the Washington Post Christopher Ingraham cites evidence that in recent months the years-long epidemic in drug overdoses may have finally begun to subside.

Vox explains why the total number of children who are covered by health insurance in the US has dropped for the first time in a decade.

An investigative report by the Nation makes the case that the Department of Defense has committed accounting fraud.

The Guardian profiles some white Americans who suffered from “racial miseducation” but had subsequent experiences that helped them transcend racial biases.

In Scientific American, Madhusree Mukerjee looks at the history of the Andaman Islands, where members of the last tribe living in voluntary isolation in Asia recently killed an American missionary who had hoped to convert them.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

Mapping the Media: Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns almost 200 local television stations across the country, attracted scrutiny in April after Deadspin published a video of dozens of local news anchors reading the same script about the dangers of “fake news.” This week Sinclair issuedanother “must-run” segment to local affiliates, with commentary from former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn that casts in a favorable light the administration’s “zero tolerance” policies on immigration. If you’re wondering whether a station in your area is owned by Sinclair, you can use the lookup tool in this Vox article. And if you’re wondering what other companies may own the various stations in any major American media market, this Station Index can help.
   
Yemen: This week, in a procedural vote, the Senate backed a bill aimed at ending US military support for the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The bill is unlikely to get enough support in both houses to override a Trump veto, but the more support it gets, the more political pressure there will be on Trump to push Saudi Arabia toward a ceasefire and peace negotiations. You can help end the world’s largest ongoing humanitarian disaster by contacting your senator and expressing support for S.J. Res. 54.

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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