Issue #57: Jan 6–12, 2019

In this week’s MRN, we: (1) finally end the long drumroll and launch our Patreon crowdfunding campaign; (2) find some modestly encouraging and surprisingly global takeaways in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man; (3) laud MRN readers who passed our astronomy crypto-test; (4) summarize the week’s turbulence, confusion, and belligerence in a remarkably even tone; (5) offer links to background reading on subjects ranging from mindfulness to Marxism to, more prosaically, the government shutdown.  

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK

Tired of winning: The US set a record for longest government shutdown in its history, and prospects for ending the shutdown dimmed as Trump and congressional Democrats held firm to their positions on whether funding to reopen the government should include money for a border wall. One increasingly discussed way out of the deadlock: Trump declares a national emergency, orders the wall built, and reopens the government—knowing that, in the event that this constitutionally questionable move is voided in the courts, he can still tell his base that he didn’t cave to the Democrats and that he was thwarted only by a hostile judiciary.

Tulsi tosses hat: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a heterodox Hawaii Democrat first elected to Congress in 2012, said she will run for president. Gabbard, 37, is an Iraq War veteran and the first Hindu and first Samoan American elected to Congress.

A less slow boil: The oceans are warming 40 percent faster than was estimated in a UN climate change report five years ago, according to a study published in the journal Science.

Syriously confused: National Security Adviser John Bolton seemed to signal a reversal of Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, laying down strict new pre-conditions for a withdrawal—including demands on Turkey that Turkey’s prime minister suggested he wouldn’t meet. But then the Department of Defense said the withdrawal had already begun (with one anonymous DOD official telling the Wall Street Journal that, “we don’t take orders from Bolton”)—though so far it seems to involve only equipment, and, notably, there is no timetable for a full withdrawal.  

Iran saber-rattling (cont’d): In Cairo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech on America’s role in the Middle East in which he blamed President Obama’s “fundamental misunderstandings” of the region for the current turmoil and vowed to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. (Iranian troops are in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government, whereas American troops are there against the will of the government and are thus in violation of international law.)

And to further complicate things: Iran confirmed that it is detaining a US Navy Veteran who had been missing since July. He is the first American detained by Iran since Trump took office.

The week in Mueller: A poorly redacted court filing by Paul Manafort’s lawyers revealed that in 2016 Manafort shared internal Trump polling data and discussed a Ukrainian peace plan with a business associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, who is said to have ties to Russian intelligence. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, agreed to testify publicly before the House Oversight Committee next month, shortly before his sentencing date in federal court, and promised to provide “a full and credible account” of his work on Trump’s behalf.

NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

Patreon Day: After weeks of buildup, the day has finally arrived when you can go to the Patreon crowdfunding site and offer financial support for this newsletter and for the larger project that (with your help) the newsletter can evolve into. To be clear: you don’t have to provide this support to keep reading the newsletter; it will continue to be available for free. You only have to provide support if you don’t want to be awakened at night by lacerating pangs of guilt, and don’t want to spend your remaining days on this planet burdened by deep and incapacitating remorse.

There. Have I made the sale? If so, you can proceed to our Patreon page and choose your level of support—the standard options are conveniently arrayed in the right-hand column—and click. And note that each of those options comes with some bonus content. So a life free of guilt and remorse is just a fraction of the return on your investment!

If I haven’t made the sale, please proceed to the next part of our indoctrination algorithm:

<strong=”notesfrombob2″>Patreon Day (cont’d): There are three reasons we here at MRN need your financial support: (1) so we can keep doing what we’re doing; (2) so we can do it better; (3) so we can do whole new things that further our overall mission. I’ll take these in order:

(1) I’ve devoted part of the last few issues of the newsletter to making the case that what we do here at MRN is distinctive and valuable. (See herehere, and here.) If you agree and, having reflected on this fact, want to now proceed to the aforementioned Patreon page, God bless you. If you’re still on the fence, you can proceed to (2):

(2) Here are some of things that we already do but that I wish we did better (more consistently and/or more deeply)—which would be easier if we had more, um, resources: (a) give readers more practical guidance on how to process the news—and how to process other political things, like social media—mindfully. This is challenging (because, for example, some of our readers are meditators, and some aren’t), but I think it’s doable; (b) illuminate perspectives on the other side of the tribal divide—in other words, help readers understand how Trump supporters are processing the news, and why they hold the views they hold, and what kinds of things harden or soften their views—the goal being to foster smart political tactics and sound public policy; (c) illuminate deep technological, economic, and demographic forces that have intensified intergroup animosities and illuminate possible policy responses to them; (d) provide more outlets for the energies of our readers, and for constructive communication among them.   

(3) That last aspiration suggests a number of possibilities. Should we make it easier for MRN readers to talk with each other online if they’re so inclined? Should we even facilitate local meetups or seminars? In general, community building is something we’d like to experiment with. And if the experiments work, community building could become an important part of our project. 

Another area of possible experimentation is in the audio-video realm. I can imagine, down the road, having a Mindful Resistance podcast. And, less far down the road, I can imagine realizing more synergy between this newsletter and the two audio-video podcast sites I run: bloggingheads.tv and meaningoflife.tv. That could take various forms, but the upshot would be to diversify the media resources that help us pursue our mission and to diversify the experience of MRN readers.

And speaking of our mission: If you’ve been reading this newsletter for long, you’ve probably got a sense for what I mean by “our mission.” In case you haven’t: I’ve tried to articulate a version of it on the Mindful Resistance home page—and, more recently, on the, ahem, Mindful Resistance Patreon page. (See paragraph 3 of the introductory letter from me.) And, actually, it turns out that the item immediately below this one, about the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, ends with what is in some ways a big-picture rendering of our mission. So feel free to give that a read.

Meanwhile, I just want to say that the overarching reason we ask for your financial support is because financial support of this particular kind will let us pursue our mission most effectively, and with the least distraction. It’s hard to put out a media product—a newsletter, a website, a podcast, whatever—without making compromises. If you rely on advertising for support, it’s tempting to tailor your content to the goal of maximizing traffic. If you rely on philanthropy, it’s tempting—or even mandatory— to tailor you content to the mission of the philanthropist (though it’s possible to find enough overlap between a philanthropist’s mission and yours to avoid major compromise). Complete liberation from these kinds of constraints is hard to find. The most promising path to it, so far as I can tell, is to get your financial support from lots of people who share your vision. We hope you’re one of those people. 

Sugar Man: Last week I encouraged readers to watch the wonderful documentary Searching for Sugar Man and said that this week I’d share some reflections on it. The reflections I had in mind were about its relevance to some recent Internet censorship issues—such as last week’s news that Netflix was withholding from Saudi distribution material by a stand-up comic that ridiculed the Saudi government. I still want to talk about that, but during the intervening week I realized that the documentary has a certain kind of relevance to the broader mission of this newsletter. And I want to talk about that, too.

I don’t want to say much about the substance of the documentary, because I think the best way to watch it is with minimal advance knowledge of it. But I can say this much: There was an American singer named Rodriguez in the 1970s who put out a couple of albums that flopped, after which he gave up his musical career. Meanwhile, in South Africa, he became a huge hit—“bigger than Elvis” as one South African put it. 

The part that really amazes me is this: Rodriguez wasn’t aware that there was a country where he was a star. Year after year after year he remained oblivious to his fame.   

The Internet has now become so pervasive that it’s easy to forget how distant foreign countries used to be. You couldn’t just Google yourself to find out where you were being talked about. And getting a letter from someone in a foreign country was an almost exotic experience. 

And, correspondingly, governments could do a pretty good job of walling their countries off from information they feared. During the Cold War the boundaries of China and the Soviet Union were almost impervious to information coming in—or, for that matter, going out—unless the government approved of the information.

In fact, though South Africa was integrated into the global economy in a way the communist superpowers weren’t, its government had some success at information control. The documentary shows us a copy of one of Rodriguez’s albums as it had been prepared by government censors for distribution to radio stations. One of the more controversial tracks—a song that mentioned drugs—had been deeply scratched with a sharp tool, rendered unplayable. So much for that broadcasting option. 

My point is that the Saudi government, in keeping an hour or so of stand-up comedy out of the country, is trying to reclaim a fraction of the control that a couple of decades ago it took for granted. So too with China. Last week the New York Times ran a piece on how a non-trivial part of China’s workforce is now devoted to censoring the Internet. But China’s borders are still way more porous to information—traveling in both directions—than during the Cold War.

This isn’t to say that we can relax and rest assured that things will continue to get, on balance, better. The Chinese government is doing a scarily impressive job of fighting the decentralizing tendencies of modern information technology. And some people worry that AI will eventually allow governments to monopolize information even more than was possible in pre-Internet days. But for now information flows more freely than it used to, and there’s reason to hope that will continue. 

There’s a second modestly encouraging thought I had after watching Searching for Sugar Man, and it speaks more directly to this newsletter’s mission. It has to do with the way that, over the past couple of decades, the World Wide Web has brought previously distant peoples into closer contact. I don’t just mean Americans like Rodriguez and people in South Africa and other countries. I mean, for example, Americans of different demographics and ideologies. For all the talk of how social media have balkanized discourse, the fact is that today, much more than 20 or 25 years ago, we in one sense or another brush up against Americans who aren’t like us. We see their comments on our tweets, or see their viral Facebook posts, we follow a link to a website they read.

Granted, these people aren’t always typical of the people in their demographic or ideological groups. Indeed, especially in a time of polarization, social media (and for that matter some non-social media) tend to draw our attention to the more extreme views and behaviors within any group. That warps our perception of these groups, and it’s a problem. 

In fact, the way technology has brought formerly distant people and peoples in touch with one another has created lots of problems. Whole cultures have been hit by crosscurrents that are bound to strike some as threatening. Religious believers feel under siege both abroad and in America. National identities seem imperiled by the sovereignty-eroding drift of technology. And the volatility of all this is heightened by the fact that new technology has been economically unsettling. It has taken some people’s jobs and given them to people in other countries or to machines. All told, the ideological and political turbulence generated by recent technological change shouldn’t surprise us.

That doesn’t make it any less troubling. Real threats to important values are afoot, and Donald Trump certainly represents one of them. And we haven’t figured out how to address the problem—by which I mean not just Trump, and not just Trumpism, but these deeper, technologically nourished roots of the discontent Trump feeds on.  

But at least the night is young. One thing Searching for Sugar Man drove home to me is how recently the world was a very different place than it is now—that is, how recently we started grappling with the problems we’re now grappling with.

As we grapple, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the very changes that can be incendiary can also be benign. Ultimately, after all, the fates of the people being thrown into contact with one another are intertwined. Sure, their interests sometimes conflict; in the short term workers in America may compete with workers abroad or with immigrants. But all these people live on the same planet, which means that often people who compete at one level will have a shared interest at another level—an interest in keeping the global economy robust, or preventing arms races and all-engulfing wars or solving various environmental problems. Which means that if reason can prevail—even purely self-interested reason—we can all get along in at least a minimally adequate way.

Part of the mission of this newsletter—and part of the idea of mindfulness—is to help clear people’s minds of various things that impede the kind of reason, the kind of wisdom, that could in this sense help save the world.

And, grand as that may sound, it’s only a fraction of the potential of mindfulness. The path mindfulness puts you on can lead not just to the wise pursuit of self interest, but to an apprehension of other perspectives that is so deep as to foster compassion. Indeed, mindfulness can even lead to some blurring of the perceived line between self interest and the other’s interest. (In Buddhism, the very end of the path—enlightenment, awakening—entails, in a sense, the complete erasing of that line.)

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the mystical Jesuit theologian and paleontologist, foresaw the broad contours of the information age nearly a century ago. Back when most American homes didn’t have telephones, he wrote about how information technologies were helping to create the “noosphere,” the “thinking envelope” of Planet Earth. He wrote: “Humanity… is building its composite brain beneath our eyes. May it not be that tomorrow, through the logical and biological deepening of the movement drawing it together, it will find its heart, without which the ultimate wholeness of its power of unification can never be achieved?” Stay tuned.

Disappointed in our readers:I’m sorry to say that only five readers passed the MRN astronomy test. In the previous newsletter we wrote that China had landed an unmanned space probe on the “perpetually unlit side of the moon.” Four readers emailed us to say that what is colloquially called the “dark side of the moon” is not in fact perpetually unlit—it’s just perpetually not visible to Earthlings. One reader made the same point on Twitter (in particularly pungent fashion). Oddly, all of these readers—apparently laboring under the mistaken belief that the MRN staff is fallible—thought they were correcting a mistake in the newsletter. We took off points for this, but all five still got a passing grade. So congratulations to Simon, Brian, Jim, Jeffrey, and Andrew.

BACKGROUND

The Washington Post explains—with the help of lots of graphics—where, when, and how migrants are being apprehended at the US-Mexico border.

A Washington Post piece illustrates how special interests—in this case the mortgage industry—are lobbying the Trump administration, sometimes successfully, to have government programs favorable to them reactivated even amid the shutdown. NPR examines how American life is being affected by the shutdown.

In a Guardian piece published in November, Michael Tracey explored why Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who this week announced her presidential candidacy, is viewed unfavorably by many Democrats and favorably by some Trump supporters even though her policy positions are “almost entirely progressive by any normal measure.” In 2017 Kelefa Sanneh profiled Gabbard in the New Yorker, highlighting her unusual background and her family’s participation in a Hare Krishna splinter group.

Sue Halpern, writing in the New Yorker, delves into possible reasons that Paul Manafort shared polling data with a Russian with ties to Russian intelligence, as was reported this week. Aaron Mate, writing in The Nation, argues that this development is being overblown.

The New York Times reports that, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the FBI opened an investigation into whether Trump was working on behalf of Russia.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Rep. Ro Khanna applauds Trump’s announcement earlier this month that he’ll withdraw all US troops from Syria and many from Afghanistan.

In the New Republic, Eve Fairbanks looks at the tenure of South Africa’s “Trump-like” president, Jacob Zuma, and its aftermath. “Maybe South Africa has something to teach America,” she writes.

The Democratic Republic of Congo declared Felix Tshisekedi the winner of last month’s presidential election, rejecting multiple independent assessments that his opponent, Martin Fayulu, had won by a large margin.

A Carnegie Moscow article argues that American sanctions have strengthened the ties between Vladimir Putin and his inner circle.

Vox explains how a narrative of racial hatred shifted after two black men were arrested in the murder of Jazmine Barnes. The seven-year-old black girl was killed in a drive-by shooting in Texas that drew national attention when the perpetrator was believed to be white.

Katherine Stewart, writing in the New York Times, explains Trump’s appeal to the Christian right by comparing him to the biblical King Cyrus—”a nonbeliever appointed by God as a vessel for the purposes of the faithful.”

The Guardian reports on a study which found that Coca-Cola has shaped China’s response to its growing obesity problem, encouraging a focus on exercise rather than diet.

DEEP BACKGROUND

In Aeon, philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong uses the example of  school integration in Durham, North Carolina in the early 1970s to show how antagonists—in this case, a black neighborhood activist and a Klan member—can find common ground.

In the New York Times, technology journalist Farhad Manjoo describes his meditation practice, which he portrays as a software upgrade for his brain, “designed to guard against the terrible way the online world takes over your time and your mind.”

An article in Tricycle takes newly sworn-in Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s use of an expletive to refer to Trump as an occasion to explore Buddhist perspectives on swearing.

In the Verge, Casey Newton reports on research from Princeton and New York University which found that people over the age of 65, irrespective of party affiliation, are more likely than people in other demographics to share links from fake news sites.

In Aeon, political economist John Rapley argues that the guidance Western economists gave to developing nations at the end of 20th century—to limit government regulations and rely on NGOs to fill the resulting gaps—backfired in Russia, India, and Turkey.

In the Times Literary Supplement, Jonathan Wolff reflects on four books about Marx and Marxism. He writes: “Marx’s theories of ideology, of alienation, of economic crisis and of class have rarely seemed so apt.”

Philosopher Akhandadhi Das argues in Aeon that digital technologies, including AI and virtual reality, facilitate the comprehension of the ancient Indian philosophy of Vedanta.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

Ever wonder whether reading the news from a given website is good for you? Whether you should think of the site as more like spinach or more like junk food—or worse? NewsGuard is a browser plugin that assigns “nutrition labels” to over 4,500 sites based on nine criteria. It works on all major browsers and displays ratings next to links to stories that appear on Facebook, Twitter, and other places. In addition to identifying fake news outlets, NewsGuard alerts you to websites that are run by candidates or political action committees and are designed to resemble legitimate journalism sites. For example, HealthNewsNJ.com is run by Senator Bob Menendez.

 

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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