Issue #59: Jan 20–26, 2019

In this week’s MRN we (1) find the missing link between last weekend’s Covington Catholic High School brouhaha and the 1951 Princeton-Dartmouth football game brouhaha; (2) say nice things about WhatsApp’s new approach to dampening emotional contagion; (3) say nice things about MRN Patreon patrons; (4) summarize a week that included a Trump capitulation, a Roger Stone indictment, and yet more new Democratic presidential candidates; (5) offer background links on things ranging from a new online brainwashing service to the dubious past of Elliot Abrams, newly appointed US envoy to Venezuela.

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK

Shutdown ends: Trump agreed with congressional leaders to re-open the federal government until at least February 15—a deal that involves no funding for a border wall and was viewed on both the left and the right as a victory for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Trump said if he didn’t get a “fair deal” from Congress by mid-February, he would either shut down the government again or declare an emergency and divert money toward wall construction (a move that would trigger court challenges).

Stone falls: Roger Stone, long-time GOP operative and Trump associate,  was arrested and charged by the special counsel’s office with crimes that include witness tampering and making false statements. The special counsel’s indictment corroborates earlier suggestions that Stone was used by the Trump campaign to gather information about the contents of hacked emails obtained by Wikileaks and about when various emails would be released.

Crisis in Venezuela: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, declared himself the country’s interim president amid mass protests against the sitting president, Nicolás Maduro. The Trump administration, along with Canada and more than a dozen Latin American nations, recognized Guaidó as president (and reportedly had privately assured him of this support before his declaration), but Maduro retained the support of the Venezuelan military.  

More hats tossed: California Senator Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg said they are running for president. Harris would be the first female African-American major-party nominee and Buttigieg would be the first openly gay major-party nominee.

Cohen talk balk: Michael Cohen postponed his voluntary testimony before the House Oversight Committee, citing threats made to his family by President Trump, who had suggested on Twitter that Cohen’s wife and father-in-law may be involved in criminal activity. The Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Cohen to testify on February 12, but that testimony will be behind closed doors.

Trans ban stands: The Supreme Court allowed Trump’s ban on transgender people from serving in the military to go into effect. The ruling took no position on the legality of the ban, and litigation will continue in the lower courts.

NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

Patreon update: Sincere thanks to all the MRN readers who have joined our Patreon crowdfunding campaign since last week. We now have more than 140 Patrons, pledging a total of more than $800 per month. If a couple dozen more of you pitch in, we’ll be within shouting distance of the $1,000 per month mark, at which point we can start dreaming big dreams—like acquiring some nice office space, for example.

And speaking of Patreon: I’ve posted another monovlog on Patreon that can be viewed by all Patrons. It’s a sequel to last week’s Patreon inaugural address, which drew comparisons to the Gettysburg Address, the Sermon on the Mount, and a guy short on sleep rambling semi-coherently on a Friday night.

Covington, Princeton, and Dartmouth: The psychology of tribalism has a long history—it goes back, oh, a million years or so—but the study of the psychology of tribalism is much younger. One good candidate for its birthdate is November 23, 1951. On that day, Princeton played Dartmouth in a football game that became the basis for a pioneering study, which was published 65 years ago this month.

The two psychology professors who did the study probably wouldn’t be surprised by last weekend’s now-famous incident at the Lincoln Memorial—where, depending on your tribal affiliation, Covington Catholic High School students showed themselves to be either (a) egregiously disrespectful if not racist hooligans or (b) teenage boys acting like teenage boys; and, depending on your tribal affiliation, a Native American elder was either (a) an unfairly accosted peacemaker or (b) an interloper of possibly sinister motivation. The Princeton-Dartmouth study—published under the title “They Saw a Game”—was about how differently a single event can be viewed by people of different affiliations.  

Here’s how I described the Princeton-Dartmouth game and its scholarly aftermath in my book Why Buddhism Is True: 

This was back in the days when Ivy League football was world-class football. The week before the game, Princeton’s all-American tailback, Dick Kazmeier, had appeared on the cover of Time magazine. 

The game was rough and, by some accounts, dirty. Kazmeier had his nose broken in the second quarter, and in the third quarter a Dartmouth player left the game with a broken leg. Two psychology professors—Hadley Cantril of Princeton and Albert Hastorf of Dartmouth—later wrote, “Tempers flared both during and after the game… Accusations soon began to fly.” 

Cantril and Hastorf turned the occasion into a study of tribal psychology. They showed films of the game to Princeton students and Dartmouth students and found sharp differences of perspective. For example, Princeton students, on average, saw Dartmouth commit 9.8 infractions of the rules. Dartmouth students, on average, saw 4.3 Dartmouth infractions. 

You probably don’t find this result shocking. That people’s allegiances can skew their perception is common knowledge. Still, there are several reasons I think this study deserves its place in the pantheon of psychology studies.  

First, the study took this common knowledge about biased observation out of the realm of anecdote and into the realm of data. It thus foreshadowed a whole generation of such studies—studies that formed the foundation of a kind of sub-field of psychology: the study of “cognitive biases”. 

The 1954 study also suggested something that is today more widely acknowledged than back then but that still hasn’t fully sunk in: though the phrase “psychology of tribalism” calls to mind powerful emotions like rage and hatred, what is in a sense more fundamental to this psychology is a bunch of cognitive biases. In 1951 at Princeton’s Palmer Stadium, and last weekend on social media, we had two groups of people whose perceptual and cognitive systems were processing the world in fundamentally different ways.

The final thing I like about this study is that its authors, Cantril and Hastorf, went beyond the observation that our minds bias our apprehension of reality and suggested that, in a sense, our minds construct reality. They wrote:

[T]he data here indicate that there is no such “thing” as a “game” existing “out there” in its own right which people merely “observe.” The “game” “exists” for a person and is experienced by him only in so far as certain happenings have significances in terms of his purpose. Out of all the occurrences going on in the environment, a person selects those that have some significance for him from his own egocentric position in the total matrix… [T]he ‘thing’ simply is not the same for different people whether the ‘thing’ is a football game, a presidential candidate, Communism, or spinach. 

Whoa! That’s pretty radical. It’s also pretty Buddhist. Indeed, one could argue, from a Buddhist perspective, that it’s profoundly true, and could then go on to riff about the Buddhist concept of “emptiness.” 

But I don’t want to do that. If I did, you might start worrying that there’s no point in even asking whether Princeton or Dartmouth committed more infractions, or in asking whether the Covington High School kids, or the Native American elder, did anything wrong—since, after all, there’s no objective truth about “reality” anyway.  

That concern, by the way, would be, for practical purposes, unfounded. Buddhist ethics, just like other ethical systems, distinguishes between conduct that should be encouraged and conduct that should be discouraged. (And, more broadly, Buddhist philosophy distinguishes between “ultimate” truth and “conventional” truth in a way that helps reconcile a radical metaphysics with useful ways of talking about the world.)

Anyway, Buddhism aside, I think Cantril and Hastorf were ahead of their time in emphasizing how active the mind is in constructing our perceptions. A few years ago, I was talking to the pioneering evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides about how various parts of the mind can “color” our perceptions, and she said that, actually, “color” isn’t the word she’d use. She said, “There’s always some psychological mechanism doing something—it’s creating our world, it’s creating our perception of the world.” So, she continued, it doesn’t make sense to say that these mechanisms “color our perceptions—I’d say they create our perceptions. There’s no way of perceiving the world that doesn’t involve carving it conceptually into pieces.”

She added, “There’s no view from nowhere.”

Again: Whoa! And, again, I don’t think this means we have to give up on the notion that there’s a reality out there that we make ethical judgments about. But I do think it’s a healthy reminder that we should be deeply skeptical of our snap judgments, and aware that attaining anything close to true clarity of perception is hard. 

Now, as for the ethical judgments we might make about the Lincoln Memorial incident: I discuss this challenge a bit in the aforementioned video I’ve posted on the Mindful Resistance Patreon page. (And if you think this is a subtle attempt to entice you into becoming a Patron, I want you to know that I resent the allegation of subtlety.)

And as for the Princeton-Dartmouth game: I would note that, in the view of the referees who presided over that game, Dartmouth deserved 70 yards worth of penalties, whereas Princeton deserved only 25 yards worth. And, though officials can be influenced by the home crowd, it’s hard for me to believe that a discrepancy this wide didn’t reflect something real.

Then again, I’m a Princeton guy. Decades ago, I went to football games at Palmer Stadium, and, a few years ago, I taught a course on Buddhism about 500 yards from where the stadium used to stand. So feel free to ignore my opinion.  

Dampening emotional contagion: The popular messaging app WhatsApp has reduced the maximum number of recipients of a forwarded message from 20 to 5. The move is aimed at slowing the kind of emotional contagion that is fueled by unfounded rumors, whose rapid spread has resulted in things like lynchings in India (where WhatsApp played a role). Unhindered social-media sharing (particularly on Facebook) also played a role in Myanmar’s murderous ethnic cleansing.

I’m not in the habit of applauding Facebook (which owns WhatsApp), but I have to say I think this is a good move. I think more social media platforms should experiment with such “mechanical” approaches to limiting the play of tribalism—like, for example, Facebook itself! Or Twitter. This week’s assignment to Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey: try to imagine algorithmic revisions that might have kept last weekend’s Covington conflagration from becoming so big. 

It’s not an easy assignment, especially since there are times when it’s good for information to spread fast (including when accurate information is trying to catch up with false or misleading information). Also, such a revision might cost Facebook and Twitter money, since frictionless sharing often means big revenue. Then again, becoming globally known as a leading purveyor of hatred and slaughter could wind up costing you money, too. Plus, hatred and slaughter are bad. 

Mueller (cont’d): If you want to hear my two cents about the Roger Stone indictment, they’re here, in the preface to my conversation with Russiagate skeptic Michael Tracey, whose perspective I think is very much worth listening to.

BACKGROUND

The Washington Post offers an extensive account of how Trump—after “five weeks of miscalculation and mismanagement by him and his administration”—finally came to the conclusion that he had to end the government shutdown without getting his border wall funded.

Vox details Kamala Harris‘s controversial record on criminal justice issues as San Francisco’s district attorney and, later, as California’s attorney general.

FiveThirtyEight provides background on Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and argues that, notwithstanding his obscurity, he could get the nomination.

Journalist Jon Schwarz, in a Twitter thread, offers an onslaught of unflattering (and relevant) background information on Trump’s newly appointed envoy to Venezuela, Elliot Abrams.

A Foreign Affairs article recounts how Venezuela went from being one of Latin America’s strongest democracies to being one of the region’s most impoverished countries, notwithstanding its oil reserves.

In the Washington Post, Deanna Paul weighs whether Trump’s statements about Michael Cohen’s family could amount to witness tampering.

A Boston Globe op-ed by Stephen Kinzer questions the wisdom and morality of the Trump administration’s professed aim to “maximize pressure on the Assad regime.”

On Lobelog, Jim Lobe and Ben Armbruster offer an extensive analysis of reasons to think the US could be drawn into war with Iran. Meanwhile, a Trump administration effort to begin an international investigation of Iran’s past nuclear activities ran into international resistance.

Four men were arrested and charged with plotting to attack a Muslim enclave in upstate New York. Twenty three guns were seized.

In the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald lists the ten most embarrassing journalistic failures related to the Trump-Russia investigation.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, several world leaders called for international oversight of the technology sector. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he hoped that the upcoming Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, would “be long remembered as the summit that started worldwide data governance.”

Macedonia changed its name to Northern Macedonia, thus becoming less threatening to Greece’s sense of identity and paving the way for entry into NATO, of which Greece is a veto-wielding member.

DEEP BACKGROUND

An essay in the Spanish newspaper El País cites and analyzes examples of political polarization and paralysis around the world.

The Independent reports on a study which found that people on the extreme left and right are less able than other people to judge when they’re wrong even about things unrelated to politics.

report published annually by Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security finds that the number of Muslim-Americans involved in violent extremism continues a decline that dates back to the Obama administration.

The Intercept’s Robert Mackey looks at the evolution of conspiracy theories about George Soros and identifies Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck as seminal contributors.

In Pacific Standard, John Shattuck chronicles the rise of Viktor Orban,  Hungary’s nationalist and authoritarian Prime Minister, and assesses the economic and demographic sources of his support.

In the American Prospect, Anya Schiffrin reviews a new book by three academics who say that more “disinformation and propaganda”emanates from the right than from the left, and that much of it gets a boost from big media outlets like Fox News, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller.  

An NPR/Frontline investigation finds that thousands of coal miners are dying from an advanced form of black lung disease and that federal regulations are obscuring the scale of the epidemic.

According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, young Republicans are shifting to the left on social issues like same-sex marriage and transgender rights.

An Oxfam study found that the 26 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the entire poorest half of humanity combined.


CNN’s Peter Bergen summarizes the “monumental and authoritative” history of the Iraq War published last week by the US Army War College. Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, who commissioned the history, said that Army officials spent the first years of the conflict relearning lessons from the Vietnam War, of which there had never been an official history.

Wired reports on a UK app developer that offers a $29 “brainwashing” service which lets a customer focus a campaign of persuasion on an individual Facebook user. If you’re an aspiring brainwasher, you can, for that low price, ensure that the Facebook user of your choice will be exposed to various “promoted articles” that share a common theme, such as “Stop drinking” or “Propose marriage” (or, presumably, “Stop drinking and propose marriage.”)

Tricycle interviews Sharon Salzberg and Oren Jay Sofer about how mindfulness and other ideas from Buddhism—including “right speech”—can facilitate constructive communication.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

If you’re still wondering whether you should have been suspicious of the now-famous anonymously sourced BuzzFeed article that, according to Special Counsel Mueller’s office, was inaccurate, here’s a resource you may be interested in. FiveThirtyEight has a detailed guide on how to judge the veracity of articles that cite unnamed sources. Created in 2017 for the Trump-Russia investigation, it emphasizes such techniques as evaluating the characterization of the sources and noting the precision of any denials the story generates.

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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