Issue #56: Dec 23–Jan 5, 2019

In this week’s MRN, we: (1) Do some more humblebragging to pave the way for next week’s launch of our Patreon crowdfunding campaign; (2) compare and contrast Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; (3) try to heighten your signal-to-noise ratio with our terse summary of the week’s news; (4) offer background links to pieces on subjects ranging from intellectual humility to “social justice warriors” to CIA-supported atrocities to Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy vision to mindfulness research to technologies of the future. Plus: an op-ed by…Anthony Scaramucci!

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK

New Congress: The 116th Congress opened with Democrats holding a majority in the House of Representatives and Nancy Pelosi being elected House Speaker. What’s being called the most diverse Congress in history includes over 100 women in the House and several other House firsts: first Muslim women, first Native American women, and first Somali-American.

Partial government shutdown continues: The House passed bills that would reopen the federal government, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell showed no interest in following suit—and, anyway, Trump said he’d veto any legislation that didn’t include money for a border wall. If the shutdown continues through Friday, 800,000 federal workers (half of whom are still working) will miss their first paycheck.

Hats tossed: Elizabeth Warren launched an exploratory committee for a presidential run and, appearing on Rachel Maddow’s show, blamed Trump for deepening the economic inequality that she says must be addressed. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee announced that he, too, is running and said he’ll focus on combating climate change.

More Iran saber rattling: Secretary of State Pompeo warned Iran against proceeding with the planned launch of three spacecraft, which he described as part of a ballistic missile development program that would defy a UN Security Council resolution. Iran’s foreign minister disagreed and added that the US is in “material breach” of the UN resolution (which affirmed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration withdrew from even while conceding that Iran hadn’t violated its terms).

See you on the dark side of the moon: China landed a probe on the perpetually unlit side of the moon, becoming the first country to do so. The day before, NASA’s New Horizons probe returned photographs of Ultima Thule, a city-sized, snowman-shaped planetary body on the edge of the solar system and the most distant thing ever observed at close range.

Rocket man returns: Kim Jong-un declared in his annual New Year’s address that North Korea will not scale back its nuclear weapons program until international sanctions are lifted, leading some analysts to opine that negotiations with the US are “back at square one.”

Yemen update: Houthi rebels began withdrawing from the strategic port of Hodeidah as part of a UN-brokered ceasefire. The UN World Food Program accused some Houthis of stealing and reselling food aid that the ceasefire is allowing to enter the country.
 
Inroads on the Amazon: Hours after taking office, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro transferred authority over indigenous peoples to the country’s ministry of agriculture, threatening the rights of natives and opening protected areas of the Amazon rainforest to potential industrial use. Deforestation has already reduced the ability of areas like the Amazon to serve as “carbon sinks” and so slow global warming.
 
UNESCO exit: The US and Israel formally withdrew from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the group of “anti-Israel bias.”   

Arms deal: Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan agreed to recuse himself from matters involving his former employer, Boeing, which is the second largest defense contractor in the US.

NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

Ocasio-Cortez Derangement Syndrome: Trump supporters sometimes accuse Trump critics of suffering from “Trump Derangement Syndrome”—having an obsessive dislike of Trump that warps their judgment. This week  conservative blogger Matt Walsh warned that some Trump supporters may suffer from an obsessive dislike of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC). Walsh tweeted, “I reiterate that Ocasio-Cortez is a star today in part because of the Right’s weird fixation on her. Yeah she’s got bad ideas and says dumb stuff, but that doesn’t make her satan incarnate and it doesn’t require or justify the disturbing obsession some conservatives have with her.”

Walsh was alluding to the now-famous video of Ocasio-Cortez dancing as a college student—and was criticizing the anonymous conservative tweeter (@AnonymousQ1776) who had made the video famous by mocking it. (“Here is America’s favorite commie know-it-all acting like the clueless nitwit she is.”)

Actually, that’s misleading. What made AOC’s dance video famous wasn’t so much the tweet mocking it as the zillions of tweets that then mocked the mocking tweet. Alluding to this irony, Tom Gara, BuzzFeed’s opinion editor, tweeted, “A lot of people are vigorously owning an 18k-follower twitter account named AnonymousQ1776, raising the age old question of who is truly being owned.”

Indeed. As is often the case in social media conflagrations in which one side’s outrage spreads the other side’s memes, the question of who is getting burned and who is doing the burning is complex.

In any event, Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t seem to have sustained any damage. The next day she did a little dance upon entering her congressional office and tweeted a video of it with this billing: “I hear the GOP thinks women dancing are scandalous. Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too! Have a great weekend everyone :)” (150,000 retweets and counting.)

At the risk of being pedantic: I wouldn’t say the GOP per se expressed disapproval of any dancing; no prominent Republican sided with @AnonymousQ1776 on this one. Still, Ocasio-Cortez doubled down, later commenting, “It is unsurprising to me that Republicans would think having fun should be disqualifying or illegal.”

This woman knows how to keep a fire going! 

Indeed, the day before, she had gotten maximum social media value out of the reaction in Congress to her voting for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House: There was one boo and a few groans from the Republican side—all of it done “gently and playfully” according to a New York Times reporter, and presumably meant to signify disappointment; at one point AOC had been considered a possible no vote on Pelosi, and Republicans would have loved to see Democrats divided on this issue.

But a former AOC staffer who wasn’t amused tweeted, “Republicans boo Ocasio-Cortez. They are so scared.”—and Ocasio-Cortez retweeted that tweet with this commentary: “Over 200 members voted for Nancy Pelosi today, yet the GOP only booed one: me. Don’t hate me cause you ain’t me, fellas.” (48,000 retweets).

Regular readers of this newsletter can guess my concerns: AOC Twitter followers who don’t closely scrutinize the actual evidence may think that Republicans in Congress maliciously booed her, and that prominent Republicans were actually outraged by a video of her dancing in college. Meanwhile, conservatives will be annoyed that liberals are taking a small subset of conservatives (including @AnonymousQ1776, who, btw, later deleted his or her Twitter account) as representative of the whole. (Fake news!) And so, once again, inter-tribal antipathy will grow.

I hope this isn’t sounding retrograde. When my wife read a first draft of this, she said it sounded like it was written by a grouchy old white guy (which surprised me, because I thought she already knew she was married to a grouchy old white guy). When I was Ocasio-Cortez’s age, I favored more radical and irreverent tactics than I now favor, and it’s possible that my current preferences reflect something other than the accumulation of wisdom—such as being an old white guy. On the other hand, being an old white guy does have its advantages if part of your job is to anticipate how Republicans will react to messaging from the Democratic side! 

In any event, I have a second concern. I’m not as far left as AOC, but I would like to see the Democratic party pulled toward the left on things like health care, tax policy, and, especially, foreign policy. And she is positioned to do some pulling. (I applauded her call to restore the 70 percent tax bracket, which struck me as a deft and refreshing Overton window maneuver.) So it would bother me if she failed to translate her stature into influence in Congress. And, as a piece in The Intercept (which strongly and importantly backed AOC during her underdog primary campaign) notes, some aspects of her political style have put off some Democrats in Congress.

Intercept reporters Ryan Grim and Aida Chavez write that, “if every win Ocasio-Cortez notches on the outside, elevating an issue and reshaping the conversation, simply creates more distance between her and her colleagues on the inside, organizing an effective progressive majority is impossible.” 

Notwithstanding my misgivings, part of me would hate to see AOC tone down her act. That’s partly because she’s such an amazing talent and fascinating phenomenon (especially in conjunction with close congressional allies who are also not averse to rattling some cages). And it’s partly because real and enduring change may require a departure from Washington’s standard operating procedure; maybe Ocasio-Cortez’s passionate and creatively nurtured grassroots following will eventually carry more weight in the halls of Congress. And maybe there’s something to the view that when you’re up against a force like Donald Trump, you have to fight fire with a firebrand. Or something like that.

Trump and Ocasio-Cortez do have some things in common. Both have a conspicuous disregard for political convention, both know how to command attention on social media, and both seem to relish a high-profile fight (whether inter-party or intra-party).

Needless to say, there are lots of differences. Trump’s fundamental meanness contrasts with AOC’s more lighthearted provocations (a lightheartedness that is impressive in light of the genuinely nasty attacks she’s endured). And his instinct for playing on the dark side of human nature—fear, xenophobia, and so on—is, of course, without peer in modern American politics. 

But some fraction of Trump’s divisiveness may be a simple function of his mastery of social media. In a tribalized America, if you do the things that build and sustain a huge Twitter following, you can wind up being divisive even when you’re not really trying. If you play to your base with optimal resonance, the amplification of outrage—on both sides, ultimately—will happen organically. 

I don’t doubt that Ocasio-Cortez can, like Trump, turn social media into a platform of epic proportions. I just hope that, unlike Trump, she can do that in a way that doesn’t deepen political polarization—which, in my view, tends to help Trump in the short run and tends not to help the world in the long run. 

Things I’m proud of (cont’d): Next week MRN will begin its long-awaited (by me, at least) and much-ballyhooed (ditto) crowdfunding campaign on the Patreon platform. We’ll ask you to open your hearts and your wallets (or, failing that, just your wallets) and help support this newsletter and its future evolution. Which means that, according to the team of top-flight consultants who are guiding me through this process—and who, as it happens, help me put out this newsletter—I’m supposed to continue my multi-week campaign of bragging about how great the newsletter is.

Well, OK, if they insist.

In the previous two issues of MRN I said I was proud of several things, including this: In our summary of the week’s news, we try to spare you the distracting, pointlessly-rage-inducing stories that consume so much of so many people’s time these days. This week I’ll focus on some kinds of stories we try to direct your attention to:

(1) Stories about Trump that have rage-inducing potential but are so important that we can’t ignore them—for example, genuinely significant new norm violations by Trump. Three weeks ago, in THE WEEK, we noted that Trump, in suggesting that an indicted Chinese executive could become a bargaining chip in trade negotiations, might be encouraging countries to arrest Americans and use them as bargaining chips. This week the Russian government—which would love to see the US release jailed Russian operative Maria Butina—arrested an American and charged him with spying. Hmmm

(2) Stories that are important in the sense that the human stakes are high and the US government is capable of exerting more positive influence than it’s exerting. We’re proud that we were focusing on the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, and the US’s role in sustaining it, before that was cool—that is, before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi turned the American public’s attention to the dark side of America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia. Until the Khashoggi murder, lots of people you might hope would talk about American foreign policy outrages—including people in the #Resistance—had been spending so much time outraged by less consequential things that there wasn’t time left to complain about an unfolding humanitarian disaster, even if Trump was helping it unfold. 

(3) We try to pay attention to the deeper forces that Trumpism is a manifestation of. So you may find, especially among our background links, stories that shed light on: what issues and sentiments motivate Trump voters; what issues and sentiments motivate the supporters of Trumpesque politicians abroad; what policies might, by addressing those issues, modify those sentiments; what long-term technological or economic trends portend for the future of politics; the psychology of tribalism. 

To be honest, I don’t think we’ve done a bang-up job on (3). And there are some other things I wish we’d do a better job of. But my top-flight consultants recommend against dwelling on the newsletter’s shortcomings. So I won’t do that—at least, not now. 

But next week, when we launch our crowdfunding campaign, I’ll risk the wrath of my consultants. I don’t plan to unveil a long inventory of failings, though; I’ll mainly be broadly aspirational. I’ll talk about things this newsletter could become, and about new things it could spawn, and ways you can help it realize this potential—even aside from (or, as my consultants might put it, in addition to) donating money. 

Weekend entertainment: Over the holidays I watched a documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, which was made in 2012 and won an Oscar the following year. I have two things to say about it: (1) You should watch it. Like, tonight! It’s one of my top-five all-time favorite documentaries, and it’s the only film I can think of that merits the label “non-schmaltzy feel-good documentary.” (2) Though it centers on events in the 1970s, it has relevance to one of this week’s much-publicized developments: Netflix is obliging the Saudi government by withholding from distribution in Saudi Arabia an episode of a standup comedy series that makes fun of the government.  

I’ll say more about (2) next week. For now I’ll just encourage you to watch the film—which is available on, um, Netflix. But I recommend that you do zero Googling about it in advance. Don’t even watch the trailer. The less you know about this documentary as you go into it, the better.

BACKGROUND

The New York Times summarizes the immediate effects of the partial government shutdown. The Washington Post describes some time-release effects—such as food stamp reductions that would take effect in February—and reports that administration officials are still trying to fathom the shutdown’s unfolding consequences and figure out ways to soften the impact. Meanwhile, DC residents are unable to get married.

Vox provides an overview of the House Democratic majority’s agenda.

In Pacific Standard, political scientist Wendy Whitman Cobb reviews Chinese space achievements and ponders whether a US-China space race is shaping up. A New York Times piece says that US-Russian collaboration in space is in danger of fracturing for both political and economic reasons.

Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren outlines her foreign policy vision in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

The New York Times reports on atrocities committed by Afghan strike forces that are trained and overseen by the CIA.

American Enterprise Institute fellow Giselle Donnelly argues that civilian-military relations are growing toxic under Trump as he alienates generals and bonds with lower-ranking troops. (The president attracted criticism for signing soldiers’ MAGA hats on his recent holiday visit to troops in Iraq.)

After Mitt Romney, now a senator from Utah, wrote an op-ed criticizing Trump’s moral character, Vox recounted Romney’s vexed history with Trump. In Townhall, Derek Hunter offers a conservative’s view of why critiques of Trump’s character tend not to erode the president’s support.

In Wired, Emily Dreyfuss offers background on this week’s big censorship story: Netflix removed from its service in Saudi Arabia an episode of Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj that mocked the actions of Saudi officials following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Meanwhile, Netflix and Amazon are developing a code for content in India that they would abide by voluntarily.

At Townhall, Anthony Scaramucci argues that Trump has received insufficient credit for passing bipartisan legislation, and lists several examples.

Dan Froomkin of White House Watch compares the way the New York Times and the Washington Post deal with Trump’s tendency to say untrue things.

The Wall Street Journal profiles Joel Kaplan, a former aide to George W. Bush who now works at Facebook, defending the company against allegations of political bias.

The Washington Post reports that Houthi rebels are using fear and intimidation to tighten their control of parts of Yemen. The Wall Street Journal reports that Saudi Arabia, which opposes the rebels, is arousing anger and resentment as it tries to win favor in a relatively peaceful part of Yemen.

DEEP BACKGROUND

In the New York Times, scholars Karolina Wigura and Jaroslaw Kuisz argue that liberals have overstated the ascendancy of illiberal populism in Europe and that fatalistic acceptance of its eventual triumph is unwarranted. Also in the Times, Katrin Benhold reports on a right-wing youth movement in Germany that is “better dressed, better educated and less angry than the skinheads of old” but aims to “rid Europe of non-European immigrants.”

Brian Resnick of Vox takes a deep dive into intellectual humility after discussing the subject with various scholars, including a psychologist who has started something called the Loss of Confidence Project.

In an essay called “Republicanism for Republicans,” published in National Affairs, conservative Brink Lindsey argues that “the Trump presidency is not a freak accident, but rather the culmination of developments that have been corrupting the conservative movement and the Republican Party for many years.” He urges conservatives to “return to our intellectual foundations and build anew from there.”   

“What Happens Next,” a collaborative effort by Quartz and Retro Report, contains 50 essays and a 10-part video series on how new technologies may shape the future.

FiveThirtyEight examines whether mindfulness meditation stands up to scientific scrutiny.

An essay in Aeon lists 10 lamentable features of human psychology. But cheer up: Future Crunch compiles a list of 99 news stories about human progress published in 2018.

Wired explores some of the more than 180 Amazon-owned companies that feed Amazon’s massive trove of consumer data.

In the face of criticism of “Social Justice Warriors,” Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs, explores the meaning of social justice and makes the case that “nobody should dismiss Social Justice Identity Politics Leftism.”

NEWS YOU CAN USE

Did your New Year’s resolutions include items such as “start meditating” or “re-start meditating” or “re-start meditating yet again”? The editors of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle offer crisp reviews of more than two dozen meditation apps. Inc offers a shorter list and ventures beyond meditation apps to include yoga apps and exercise apps and even an app that “allows you to record and listen to positive affirmations in your own voice.” (We haven’t tried this last app. If it asks you to affirm what a great app it is, we’d recommend that you move on to the next app.)

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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