In this week’s MRN we (1) gripe about the American media’s coverage of America’s role in the Venezuela crisis; (2) ponder whether calling American politics “tribal” is racist; (3) summarize a week that included lots of news on the international relations front—plus, of course, on the Starbucks front; (4) steer you to background reading on things ranging from Cory Booker to St. Ignatius of Loyola to some elephant seals that took advantage of the government shutdown to acquire real estate; (5) and, needless to say, laud our Patrons.
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Venezuelan regime change: The European Parliament voted to follow the US, Canada, and many Latin American nations in recognizing Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as president rather than Nicolas Maduro. Earlier in the week, the Trump administration placed sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports and said it would transfer control of US-based Venezuelan government financial assets to Guaidó.
Brewing controversy: Starbucks founder and chairman emeritus Howard Schultz said he’s considering a run for president as a “centrist independent”—and was greeted by epic blowback from progressives. Many feared that his third-party candidacy would split the anti-Trump vote, and others said various plutocracy-related things that amounted to this message: If you’re a billionaire, and you live in a country that’s in the throes of a populist revolt on both the left and the right, and the country is being run by a guy who figured being a billionaire qualified him for the White House and is now widely loathed, maybe you should sit this one out.
A more conventional candidate: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker announced that he’ll seek the Democratic nomination for president. Booker, the former mayor of Newark, NJ, was elected to the Senate in 2013.
Arms accord suspended: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US is suspending the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia and will terminate the deal in six months if Russia doesn’t destroy missiles that the US and NATO say violate the treaty (which Russia denies). Leaving the treaty would free the US to develop intermediate-range missiles for deployment in both Russia’s and China’s neighborhoods.
Past haunts: Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia was under intense pressure to resign after a conservative website unearthed his medical school yearbook page, which featured a picture of someone in blackface next to someone dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Northam at first indicated that he was one of the two people but later expressed doubts.
Realpolitik in Afghanistan: The US and the Taliban have agreed in principle on a framework that could eventually lead to a US withdrawal from Afghanistan along with guarantees by the Taliban that terrorists wouldn’t operate from its territory. But first there would have to be a ceasefire, talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and other things that could go awry.
The dispensable nation: Britain, France, and Germany announced the creation of a trading mechanism that, by circumventing US banks, is intended to facilitate commerce with Iran notwithstanding US sanctions. The initial use of the mechanism will be narrow—confined to things, like food and medicine, whose export to Iran doesn’t violate the sanctions—but it could nonetheless become an important milestone: the US has long used the globally central role of its banking system to coerce international compliance with its unilateral sanctions, and there have long been warnings that this could eventually lead countries to reduce their reliance on that system and create alternatives.
Economic tensions with China (cont’d): The Justice Department issued criminal charges against Chinese telecom giant Huawei, alleging that the company violated US sanctions against Iran and stole trade secrets (even, allegedly, severing a robot’s arm and absconding with it). Meanwhile, the latest round of US-China trade talks wrapped up amid promises to keep talking—and hopes of reaching a deal before March 1, at which time Trump says he’ll levy steeper tariffs against China if there’s no deal.
NOTES FROM BOB
by Robert Wright
Media blackout: Is it just my imagination, or is the American media paying remarkably little attention to the question of whether the American government is heightening the suffering of the Venezuelan people? New research reveals that it’s not just my imagination! The research was conducted by… me.
Phase one of my research: I put this phrase into the Google News search box: “US sanctions on Venezuela.”
The first two articles listed were about things a UN-appointed special rapporteur on human rights had said about the Trump administration’s recently imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports. Such as: “Sanctions which can lead to starvation and medical shortages are not the answer to the crisis in Venezuela.” And: “The use of sanctions by outside powers to overthrow an elected government is in violation of all norms of international law.”
But neither of these stories was from a mainstream American media source. One was from a major Turkish newspaper and the other from an obscure lefty site that’s wholly devoted to Venezuelan news. The first prominent American media source listed in the search results was NPR, and the headline on its story was this: “Oil prices edge upward after US imposes sanctions on Venezuela.”
Well, when a country in South America is in the middle of a flat-out humanitarian crisis, and the US levies sanctions that could make things even worse, I guess somebody’s got to ponder the implications for American motorists. And why not NPR? Still, I think it would be cool if somebody in America’s mainstream media—and ideally many people—at least nodded toward the obvious moral question.
Phase two of my research: To see if the remarks of that UN rapporteur had entirely escaped the attention of American media, I put his name—Idriss Jazairy—in the search box along with “Venezuela”.
It turns out that a couple of Jazairy’s quotes can indeed be found in American media—buried about 1,500 words into an Associated Press roundup of Venezuelan news. And that roundup, so far as I can tell, made it into roughly two American media outlets: the Miami Herald and the Idaho Statesman. Well, I guess it’s a start.
I know very little about Venezuela. So I don’t have a good sense of whether the regime change effort now being led by the Trump administration will bring relief to the Venezuelan people, plunge the country into civil war, or what. All I have to go on is my skepticism of regime change operations and my support of international law. As I ponder the question further, I’d love to have more information than is readily available. And one reason it’s not readily available is that the American media tends to suspend its generally critical stance toward Trump when he’s doing the bidding of America’s reflexively interventionist foreign policy establishment. It’s kind of depressing.
But I close on a note of uplift. There is a member of the US Congress, Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who distinguishes himself from virtually all his colleagues by vocally supporting international law—and even mentioning it in the course of critiquing Trump’s Venezuela policy. And he managed to get such a critique published in a big American media outlet. And that’s a start.
Patreon update: Last week my appeal to the Patreotism of MRN readers took this form: “If a couple dozen more of you pitch in, we’ll be within shouting distance of the $1,000 per month mark.” Well, a couple dozen of you pitched in (like, exactly a couple dozen), and we are indeed within a few dollars of the $1,000 mark. So mission accomplished—please don’t give us any more money.
Just kidding! Actually, you should feel free to give us money. And if what you lack is a rationale, how about this: One thing I didn’t mention last week is that Patreon takes a 5 percent commission. So for us to get past the $1,000 mark, we actually need that total on the Patreon page to get past the $1,050 mark—which can happen this week if, say, a dozen of you join the 170 or so MRN readers who have already earned our undying gratitude, deep respect, slavish devotion, and so on. (If all goes according to plan, our Patreon page will, by the time this newsletter comes out, feature a brand new, very short, and highly unstructured monovlog by me for Patrons.)
Is “tribalism” racist? This week in the Washington Post, Christine Mungai, a journalist from Kenya, made the case against using the word “tribal” to describe America’s political climate. She says this usage is “based on a racist stereotype” and is at odds with “the actual behavior of indigenous peoples, whether African, Native American or Asian.”
I can see her point. If I belonged to an actual, literal tribe, it would not escape my attention that “tribal” is now used to connote the behavior of tribes when they’re at their worst: in conflict with another tribe and blinded by tribal allegiance to any redeeming features the opposing tribe may exhibit. And I might ask: Why don’t people use “tribal” to connote other aspects of life in a tribe—like communal rituals or, say, regular people doing a hard day’s work?
Of course, many of us do the same thing with the word “nationalist.” National allegiance involves some warm and wonderful things, but the term “nationalist” tends to connote blind loyalty to the in-group and, often, hostility toward some out-group. The difference is that “nationalist” is applied only to the behavior of national groups—it hasn’t become a generically negative term the way “tribal” has.
Mungai’s article in the Post sheds light on how this fate befell the term “tribal.” As she notes, the term took root within a paradigm built by late-nineteenth-century and early-to-mid-twentieth-century anthropologists known as “cultural evolutionists.” They talked about cultures “evolving” from the hunter-gatherer level of social organization to the agrarian level and so on. And to these “lower” levels of social organization they assigned such labels as “savage” and “barbarian.” The label “civilized” was reserved for state-level societies, such as ancient Egypt and Greece and all the nations in today’s world. It was from the rarified vantage point of “civilization” that all the “lower” levels of social organization—including the “tribal”—were assigned negative connotations.
Of course, “civilized” societies turned out to be fully capable of the “savagery” that all other societies are capable of—indeed, they’re capable of committing mass violence on a larger, more horrific scale than other societies. Maybe it’s no coincidence that over the twentieth century, as World Wars I and II so powerfully illustrated this fact, anthropologists, including cultural evolutionists, increasingly spoke of the various forms of social organization in more value-neutral terms.
Actually, even many of the earlier cultural evolutionists hadn’t been quite as reactionary as they may sound. They were, remember, talking, about cultural evolution; as a rule they didn’t attribute the different forms of social organization—hunter-gatherer band, agrarian tribe, whatever—to genetic differences among the people who constituted them. Indeed, the idea that all cultures tended to move toward higher levels of social complexity—but at differing rates owing to geography, climate, and other circumstance—was premised on the idea that human nature is everywhere the same. The name anthropologists gave this doctrine in the nineteenth century was “the psychic unity of mankind,” and it became a cornerstone of cultural evolutionism.
I’m not saying all these anthropologists had modern, progressive ideas about race. Lewis Henry Morgan, a nineteenth century cultural evolutionist whom Mugai mentions, certainly didn’t. But many cultural evolutionists, especially in the twentieth century, did. In any event, these modern, progressive ideas are logically compatible with cultural evolutionism, with its foundational notion of a single human nature expressing itself differently in different contexts.
I can definitely see the case for finding a substitute for “tribalism” as it’s being used today—a substitute that functions well as a generic term (encompassing intergroup hostility whether it’s ideological, national, sectarian, whatever) and that nobody finds offensive. So I’ll happily embrace any good alternative convention that seems to be approaching a critical mass of acceptance. Meanwhile, if I use the term “the psychology of tribalism,” what I mean to evoke is the psychic unity of humankind: people everywhere are the same deep down, and everywhere it’s a challenge to bring out the best in them. And right now people in “civilized” societies are illustrating that challenge with abundant clarity.
Incoming: MRN reader Kim writes: “I notice that the Mindful Resistance Newsletter no longer provides your email address. Are you discouraging reader feedback?” No! Please email us at email@example.com any and all thoughts—including, for example, ideas about a good alternative term for “tribalism.” (And, btw, our email address always appears at the bottom of the newsletter, but if you use Gmail you may have to click a link at the bottom to get to the very bottom of the email.)
Vox summarizes Sen. Cory Booker‘s background and policy positions. The 2005 documentary Street Fight, available on Netflix, chronicled Booker’s first, unsuccessful, run for mayor of Newark, NJ.
Business Insider surveys Starbucks employees about the presidential ambitions of their company’s founder.
In the New York Times, David Sanger and William Broad assess the possibility that Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty would trigger a new arms race.
Three Republican senators have proposed abolishing the estate tax, while Sen. Bernie Sanders announced a plan to expand it and raise its ceiling to 77 percent for billionaires. Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed her own version of a wealth tax, which Howard Schultz called “ridiculous.”
ICE has begun force-feeding six detainees, captured crossing the southern border illegally, who have been on a hunger strike for a month in protest of verbal abuse from guards.
Chicago Magazine profiles Kim Foxx, the first black Cook County state attorney, who is pursuing an agenda of criminal justice reform.
Writing in Tricycle, a former Thai Forest monk explores how the Buddha would respond to the Covington teens controversy.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the administration’s effort to oust Venezuela’s president is part of a broader strategy, championed by National Security Adviser John Bolton, to topple the “Troika of tyranny,”which includes the regimes in Nicaragua and Cuba. The Washington Post’s David Nakamura addresses the question of whether Bolton intentionally or unintentionally displayed a legal pad with “5,000 troops to Colombia” written on it.
Fatemeh Aman of the Atlantic Council suggests that lasting peace in Afghanistan may be hard to come by if Iran doesn’t play a role.
Two professors who study Latin America assess the situation in Venezuela, comparing and contrasting it with the situation in 2002, when Hugo Chávez survived a coup attempt.
In the American Conservative, Doug Bandow of the CATO Institute argues that the Venezuelan crisis is an occasion where US-Russian cooperationcould help—and reviews how the US-Russia relationship got to its current low state.
The New York Times reports that, during the government shutdown, when many national parks were open but unstaffed, vandals destroyed centuries-old trees and caused other damage at Joshua Tree National Park. The Washington Post visits a part of the Point Reyes National Seashore were elephant seals took advantage of the shutdown to acquire territory that they show no signs of surrendering.
In National Review, David French writes that a Virginia bill that would lower the barrier for third-trimester abortions amounts to legalized infanticide. In the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg takes a different view.
The New York Times uses 3D renderings to illuminate the dynamics of polar vortexes, such as the one that this week descended on the Midwest.
In a Twitter thread, scholar Brian D. Earp theorizes about why moral outrage is so common on social media.
A Stanford University study finds that people who quit Facebook spend more time communicating in person with friends and family, are less politically knowledgeable but also less partisan, and enjoy a small increase in life satisfaction. At the Religion News Service, Emily McFarlan Millerexplores the psychological benefits enjoyed by people who observe a “technology sabbath.”
In Al-Monitor, Jack Detsch explains why the departure of Defense Secretary James Mattis has made prospects for Yemen more bleak.
Pacific Standard describes a new study that complicates the accepted idea that tall men are advantaged in life. Though this finding does hold for white men, tall black men were stopped and frisked by the NYPD more often than short black men; and, in one study, making images of black men taller made them strike people as more threatening and less competent, whereas making images of white men taller had the opposite effect.
Axios provides an overview of legislative efforts to deal with the problem of “deepfake” technology, which uses AI algorithms to create realistic videos of people saying and doing things they’ve never said or done. A short deepfake video of Jennifer Lawrence with a strikingly Steve-Buscemi-like face went viral this week. This explainer from CNN illuminates the workings of deepfake technology.
In Aeon, Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman briskly reviews the past century’s shifting narratives—some naively optimistic, some simplistically pessimistic, some nuanced—about the world’s future.
A psychology professor at Wayne State University suggests using “spiritual exercises” of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th-century Catholic mystic, to make better life decisions.
A study in Nature finds that individuals with greater exposure to wars and violent conflicts are more likely to participate in religious groups and rituals, even years after the conflicts have concluded.
A blog post about a program in Baltimore that teaches disruptive elementary school students to meditate features, among other things, a cute picture of a kid meditating.
A mesmerizing six-minute video shows, in hi-def, the development of a small amphibian called an alpine newt from a single cell to a full organism.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
Yemen continues to suffer from a humanitarian crisis, notwithstanding a UN-sponsored ceasefire there—which is fragile at best, and covered only part of the country to begin with. Lawmakers in both houses of Congress who oppose continued US support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen have reintroduced the War Powers Resolution, which directs Trump to end that support. (Last year the resolution passed in the Senate but Republicans blocked a vote in the House.) In a Q&A at the Nation, California Rep. Ro Khanna argues on behalf of the resolution. If you’re convinced, you can contact your members of Congress and let them know.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart,
Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh
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