Issue #54: Dec 9–Dec 15, 2018

In this week’s MRN we bring you: (1) some good news about anger; (2) some bad news about anger; (3) more drum roll about our coming Patreon launch (Do you feel the momentum?); (4) a guide to books about political violence and how to avoid or resolve it; (5) the usual crisp summary of the week’s important events; (6) background reading on things ranging from dubious meditation studies to young Unabomber groupies. Plus: News You Can Use, especially if you’re American.

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK

Yemen ceasefire declared: Yemen’s warring parties agreed to a ceasefire in the city of Hodeidah, home of three ports that are critical to supplying humanitarian aid. On Thursday, the Senate approved a resolution that, if it became law, would require the US to end military support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

Presidential norm violation (cont’d): Trump said he would intervene in the Justice Department’s case against the CEO of Chinese telecom giant Huawei if doing so would help secure a trade deal with Beijing. Experts toldthe New York Times that this apparently unprecedented transaction would be legal but could undermine the rule of law and encourage foreign leaders to arrest Americans and hold them as de facto hostages.

All is change: Trump said that Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, will become his acting chief of staff when Chief of Staff John F. Kelly steps down at the end of the year. Trump also announced that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who is being investigated for possible corruption, will leave his job by the end of the year.  

Threat to Obamacare: A federal judge struck down the Affordable Care Act, ruling that a change made in the law by the Republican Congress had rendered it unconstitutional. The decision will be appealed and “most likely will not have any immediate effect,” according to the New York Times.  

Cohen sentenced: Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, was sentencedto three years in prison as part of a cooperation deal. A court document released on Wednesday revealed that the National Enquirer’s parent company is cooperating with the Mueller investigation—and has admitted coordinating with Trump’s 2016 campaign to channel hush money that squelched stories about past Trump sexual escapades.

Macron retreats: Responding to protests across France, President Emmanuel Macron canceled a gas tax and promised to raise the minimum wage and cut taxes for pensioners. In an attack unrelated to the protests, a gunman who had been on a terrorist watchlist killed three people and injured twelve in Strasbourg, France—and, later in the week, a Jewish cemetery near Strasbourg was defaced with swastikas.

May survives, but will Brexit? British Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no-confidence vote but continues to face opposition in Parliament to the Brexit deal she and the EU negotiated. With the EU apparently firm in its refusal to renegotiate, some observers are discussingthe possibility of a second Brexit referendum.

Heading home: The military began to withdraw troops Trump sent to the southern border, although the caravan of migrants the troops were meant to rebuff still hasn’t arrived. Of the 5,000 troops, 2,200 are expected to leave by the end of December.

Korean milestone: For the first time ever, North and South Korean soldiers peacefully crossed the demilitarized zone. They conducted largely symbolic inspections of one another’s dismantled guard posts.

 NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

Anger and tribalism: The Atlantic just published a sprawling piece on anger by Charles Duhigg (author of the mega-bestseller The Power of Habit). As sprawling pieces on anger go, it’s actually pretty encouraging. At least, I found a source of encouragement in it.

The piece opens with a story about the psychologist James Averill. Forty years ago, Averill sent a detailed survey on anger to residents of Greenfield, Massachusetts and was surprised by the results: anger, it seemed, often fosters constructive communication. It leads people to air grievances, and when they do that in the presence of the person they’re aggrieved against, the result can be discourse that leads to resolution. 

Duhigg writes: “These angry episodes typically took the form of short and restrained conversations. They rarely became blowout fights. And contrary to Averill’s hypothesis, they didn’t make bad situations worse. Instead, they tended to make bad situations much, much better. They resolved, rather than exacerbated, tensions. When an angry teenager shouted about his curfew, his parents agreed to modifications—as long as the teen promised to improve his grades.” 

These days, Duhigg notes, anger is “directed less often at people we know.” And…well, if you’ve spent much time online, you’re familiar with the various ways getting angry about people you don’t know can lead to something other than a happy ending.

So what’s so encouraging about this? For starters, it points to the sense in which much of the conflict and polarization we’re seeing these days isn’t really natural; it isn’t some kind of inevitable feature of human interaction, inscribed in our genes. 

Don’t get me wrong. The anger itself is in our genes. But it’s often not working as designed, because we’re not living in the environment natural selection designed us for. Anger evolved in a context of intimate social contact—a context that, to oversimplify a bit, you could think of as a hunter-gatherer village, consisting of maybe 50, 75, 100 people.

Reflect on how different that is from the modern environment. Today we get angry at people we see on TV—who, as you may have noticed, don’t talk back. Or we get angry at people we see online—people who may talk back, but do so in a context that lacks various moderating influences of a natural environment (such as face-to-face contact and the knowledge that you’re going to have to deal with the person for the rest of your life). Or we just talk about the people we’re angry at—and we do it performatively, in ways that draw likes, shares, and retweets, raising our stature in our tribe and further enraging the other tribe.

Of course, the fact that anger is in this sense not playing out naturally doesn’t mean the problem is easy to solve. Social media aren’t going away—and besides, they bring enough good things that, much as I might lament the passing of a simpler era, I probably shouldn’t want them to go away.

But the good news is that social media just got here. So we’re just starting to grapple with the challenges they bring.

I hadn’t even heard of Facebook until ten years ago. And back then virtually nobody was talking about the tribalizing potential of social media. Today, in contrast, if you google “tribalism” and “face,” or “tribalism” and “social,” autofill will handle the rest: “book” and “media,” respectively. More and more academics are studying the dynamics of tribalism, more and more pundits are pondering the problem, and more and more philanthropic money is going into doing something about it. There are real grounds for hope. 

[Note: I’m not saying that the only evolutionary function of anger is to foster communication that may resolve tensions. What we call the “psychology of tribalism” is complex and multi-faceted, and human nature definitely has a dark side. I’ll discuss this more in the future. For now I’ll just say that, as Duhigg’s piece illustrates, the phrase “the psychology of tribalism” should be taken (as was famously said about a prominent politician) seriously but not necessarily literally. Another note: Thanks to MRN readers Karen and David for bringing Duhigg’s piece to my attention.]

Momentum behind media juggernaut builds: Suppose you’re putting out a weekly newsletter and you’re only weeks away from launching a big crowdfunding campaign on Patreon—a campaign that may determine whether the newsletter survives and grows or withers and dies. What do you do to pave the way for a successful launch? (I mean, aside from ominously warning readers that if they don’t pony up, the newsletter may wither and die.)

Beats me. So I asked people on my team who are more promotionally minded than I am, and they gave me this advice: Talk up the virtues of the newsletter! Explain to people why if they support the newsletter they’re supporting something worthwhile! Talk about the parts of the newsletter that make you proud!

OK. I’m going to talk about something that makes me proud, and next week I’ll talk about another thing that makes me proud, and thus will momentum behind this media juggernaut build. Here goes:

In THE WEEK, the section that starts each newsletter, we’re trying hard—not always succeeding, but trying hard—to present a mindful view of the world. That is: a view that is alert, attentive, and unclouded by emotion.

This “unclouded by emotion” aspiration is actually kind of old fashioned. In journalism they used to call it objectivity. In fact, they still call it objectivity. But, so far as I can tell, mainstream journalism is further from objectivity than it’s been in decades. 

That’s partly because, in the digital age, with journalists getting feedback about how much traffic each article gets, it’s hard for them to resist the temptation to play to the crowd, writing stories that justify clickbait headlines. (They may even do this unconsciously.) And right now there are, to oversimplify slightly, two kinds of crowds: pro-Trump and anti-Trump. Many periodicals have—again, sometimes without really thinking about it—chosen one side or the other. 

For example, the lead paragraph of The New York Times account of this week’s much-discussed impromptu debate among Trump, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi made it sound as if Trump alone was responsible for things getting heated. (“Trump…transformed what was to be a private negotiating session with Democratic congressional leaders into a bitter televised altercation.”) Having watched the video, I find that a highly dubious judgment—but leave that aside; the larger point is that there was a time—not long ago—when newspapers like the Times avoided making these kinds of judgments, these explicit assignments of blame, even when they seemed clearly warranted.

All of this helps explain why I took it as high praise when MRN reader Doug, who manifestly does not share my ideology, wrote to us: “The Mindful Resistance newsletter contains the most unbiased news reports I read anywhere these days. And this comes from someone who agrees with about 90% of what Ben Shapiro says (although unlike Ben I don’t think I could ever vote for Trump).”

Equally gratifying was this 13-word email from MRN reader Carey: “Even a few sentences in, I feel a relaxation and clarity. Thank you.”

The virtue of the state of mind Carey describes—calm and clarity—isn’t just that it feels good. After all, one alternative to it—rage and confusion—can feel good, too; there’s nothing quite like the feeling of being righteously, even if wrongly, indignant in the presence of your fellow righteously indignant tribe members.  

But enraged indignation has downsides, including this big one: it can lead to bad tactics, tactics that help the other tribe. (Last year I elaborated on this in a piece for Vox about the idea of Mindful Resistance.) Plus, there’s this: your tribe’s rage may interact with the rage of the other tribe in a way that creates a positive feedback loop—that is, a downward spiral of mutually reinforcing rage, possibly leading to an America that’s so horrible that being the “winning” tribe would be meager consolation anyway.

So this, I hope, helps explain why we at MRN try to cultivate calm clarity. 

And we put a lot of thought into it. For example: Two days ago we were planning to include in THE WEEK the story broken by the Atlantic under this headline: “Trump Moves to Deport Vietnam War Refugees.” After all, it sounded outrageous—in fact, I actually got outraged about it on the weekly conference call we devote to discussing the upcoming newsletter. But as we looked more closely, it seemed that the upshot of the move was less dramatic than the headline made it sound.

The main consequence of the new policy—so far as we can tell based on the Atlantic’s reporting— would be to subject to possible deportation Vietnamese refugees who (1) came here before 1995 and (2) have been convicted of crimes here. And immigrants in general have long been subject to deportation if they’re convicted of crimes (unless they’ve become US citizens); these particular Vietnamese immigrants had previously been an exception to that rule. 

To be sure, the policy still reflects a petty and, at its core, heartless, even cruel, Trump administration obsession. So we did mention this development in our BACKGROUND section this week (below). And there we tried to summarize the policy’s concrete implications more clearly than the Atlantic did in the first few paragraphs of its piece.   

And who knows? Maybe we made the wrong call. My main point is that we’re trying hard to resist the temptation to sensationalize, to distort, to let our opposition to Trumpism cloud our vision, and hence yours. We’re trying not to be tribal. Or, at least, we’re trying to pursue our tribe’s goals as judiciously and effectively as possible.

And here’s the thing: not being unreflectively tribal is a challenging business model! In the current environment, it’s hard to get clicks, or to pick up Twitter followers and newsletter subscribers, if you’re trying to be calm and rational (even if you fail sometimes, as we do in this space and as I do on Twitter). Hence the Patreon initiative.

Patreon is, among other things, a way to reward endeavors that the market doesn’t reward. And these days, especially, the market doesn’t reward endeavors like this one. 

We’ll launch the Patreon campaign in January. Meanwhile, stay tuned for next week’s edition of Things I’m Proud Of. I will, among other things, elaborate on what I meant by “our tribe’s goals” a few paragraphs ago.

Nonviolent resistance: Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard’s Kennedy School, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on how to effect major political change nonviolently—and also on how to bring violent conflicts to an end. So when she offers her end-of-year list of ten “political violence-related books,” I feel compelled to share it. I also feel compelled to plug my 2017 bloggingheads.tv conversation with Erica about nonviolent resistance, as well as my conversation with one of the authors on her list (Stephen Walt) about the book of his she cites (The Hell of Good Intentions).

BACKGROUND

In Vox, Ezra Klein argues that this week’s federal court ruling against Obamacare is “unlikely to survive appeal” and may lend momentum to the Medicare-for-All movement.

Laurens Cerulus writes in Politico that the Trump administration’s campaign against the Chinese telecom giant Huawei is a part of “a new Cold War” that is dividing America’s European allies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week accused the Chinese government of hacking the Marriott hotel chain and stealing the information of up to 500 million people.

National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the White House’s Africa strategy would focus on curbing Chinese and Russian influence on the continent.  

The BBC explores how France’s Yellow Vests protest movement was organized and what (if anything) its members have in common. Articles in Britain’s Guardian and Italy’s La Stampa consider the global significance of the movement. Egypt has restricted the sale of yellow vests ahead of the anniversary of the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising.

The New York Times reports on an effort by New Jersey Democrats to fix their party’s gerrymandered advantage in cement by embedding it in the state constitution.

In the Washington Post, Sudarsan Raghavan describes the internecine fighting between local militias in Yemen, armed and supported by the Saudis earlier in the conflict, that has enveloped the city of Taiz.

The Trump administration revived a controversial plan that could lead to the deportation of thousands of Vietnamese immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, including minor crimes committed decades ago. The plan would give Vietnamese people who arrived before the 1995 restoration of diplomatic relations with Vietnam the same legal status as subsequent Vietnamese immigrants and other immigrant groups, removing the special protection against deportation they’ve long enjoyed.

In Quartz, Thu-Huong Ha reflects on the history of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants in the US. A report released by the Migration Policy Institute provides a statistical overview of Vietnamese immigrants in the country.
 
A New York Times investigation found that Marathon Oil, the nation’s largest oil refiner, worked with powerful oil industry lobbies to secretly campaign for the rollback of automobile emissions standards.

The Weekly Standard went out of business on Friday. The magazine, founded by Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes in 1995, was a strong and influential champion of neoconservative foreign policy, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Since 2016 it had been one of the few strongholds of Never Trump conservatism.

This week Tumblr banned “adult content” and Facebook banned language related to “sexual solicitation”—apparently in reaction to a recently passed federal law  aimed at combating human trafficking.

Conservative columnist George Will writes that Sen. Sherrod Brown from Ohio may have a better chance than any other Democrat of defeating Trump in 2020.

Liz Sly of the Washington Post reports that several thousand American troops in Syria, sent there by Obama to help Kurds fight the Islamic State, will stay there “indefinitely” to “act as a bulwark against Iran’s expanding influence.”

DEEP BACKGROUND

In a piece that features vivid, data-rich graphics, New York Times business writer Eduardo Porter explores the challenge of nurturing economic development in rural America. A report by a bipartisan group convened by Politico examines geographic disparities in wealth and job growth across America and suggests ways to address them.

Ronald Brownstein writes that Trump’s support from white working-class non-evangelicals is weakening, and that Democrats are gaining voters in this demographic.

Graeme Wood, in The Atlantic, and Ezra Klein, in Vox, offer critiques of Andrew Sullivan’s argument that political tribalism arose to fill the void left by the decline of organized religion.

New York magazine profiles young people who have embraced the radically anti-technology, anti-capitalist ideology of the Unabomber.

Pew poll from 2013 showed the growing dissatisfaction of Europeans with the EU project. A table lists stereotypes Europeans have about each other. All eight nations in the table deemed themselves more compassionate than any of the other nations. But Italians called themselves “the least trustworthy.”

An article in Tricycle argues that many studies that quantify the benefits of meditation are not methodologically sound.  

Columbia Law Professor (and recent Bloggingheads guest) Tim Wu outlines 10 antitrust cases that, in his view, the government should be actively pursuing.

Bill Gates tells Axios that he is concerned that the administration’s trade policy may wreck his global health agenda.

report in the New York Times follows Americans’ cell phone location data as it is collected by thousands of apps, then sold “anonymized” to companies purportedly for market research. One implication: if you see an ad for Starbucks on your smartphone just as you walk past a Starbucks, that may not be a coincidence.

A few weeks ago, in the New York Times Magazine, Janet Reitman explored how federal law enforcement officials who are charged with monitoring extremists failed to see the rise of right-wing extremism that preceded the 2016 election.

Here is an arresting metaphorical visual representation of the notion that a single set of facts can be interpreted in many different ways.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

There’s reason to believe that if Americans had a better idea of how things—including America—are viewed from beyond America’s borders, that would improve the world. The Paris-based website Worldcrunch offers help! It publishes English translations of news articles from foreign media. We’ve started making use of the site. (The article from Italy’s La Stampa cited in this week’s BACKGROUND section is from Worldcrunch.) You can, too.

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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