In this week’s MRN, we (1) examine the Trump administration’s use of suffering as a policy tool; (2) ask whether we should welcome our new robot overlords; (3) try to get you to eagerly await the publication of our guide to using social media mindfully; (4) declare this issue’s summary of the week’s news an emergency summary of the week’s news; (5) offer background links on things ranging from the famously nefarious Elliot Abrams to the “slow internet” lifestyle to the death (on Mars) of Opportunity.
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Emergency! In a move sure to be challenged in the courts, Trump declared a national emergency that he says allows him to divert more than $6 billion from various government programs to fund construction of a wall along the southern border. The move came as he signed a spending bill that averted a government shutdown but denied him the funding he had sought for the wall.
War powers invoked: The House, invoking the 1973 War Powers Act, passed a resolution that would end US funding for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The Senate is expected to take up the bill, but when it passed a similar resolution in the previous Congressional session, the vote fell short of a veto-proof majority.
She’s running: Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota announced that she is running for president. A moderate, Klobuchar has won three Senate elections by a large margin.
He’s running: William Weld, former Republican governor of Massachusetts and past vice-presidential candidate on the Libertarian ticket, signaled that he’ll challenge Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.
The ion curtain: Russian lawmakers drafted a bill that would change the country’s electronic infrastructure so that the Russian part of the Internet could keep functioning if cut off from the larger Internet. Backers depicted the bill as a response to an aggressive US cyber strategy announced last year, while critics said the new infrastructure could be used to suppress dissent. [Editor’s note: A quick Google search suggests that ions aren’t really central to microprocessor technology. But do you have a better pun?]
A year since Parkland: Valentine’s Day marked the one-year anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, which fostered hopes that a new youth-led movement would break the national stalemate on gun control. More than 25 states, including Florida, passed laws tightening gun laws in 2018, but no such action was taken at the federal level.
Bipartisan conservation: The Senate passed, by a 92-8 vote, a bill that would increase the protection afforded many national parks and wilderness areas and would expand some of them. The legislation would put on a permanent footing a program that directs a share of offshore oil drilling revenue to conservation programs.
ISIS cornered: The US-backed, Kurdish-led group Syrian Democratic Forces announced the start of a decisive battle with ISIS in its last remaining Syrian enclave, a town on the Iraq border.
Leaving New York: Amazon abandoned plans to build a corporate campus in Queens, New York, after facing resistance from union leaders, residents, and some Democratic politicians. The opposition was driven partly by objection to the $3 billion in New York state subsidies promised to a company that made billions in profit last year and paid roughly no federal taxes and is run by the richest person in the world.
NOTES FROM BOB
by Robert Wright
Pompeo hails progress in making people suffer: This week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News that sanctions on Iran are working: “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”
A cynic might say (so I’ll say it) that this sentence would be a truer reflection of Pompeo’s views if you removed the words “the behavior of” from the phrase “change the behavior of the regime.” Pompeo, like National Security Adviser John Bolton, is on record as favoring regime change in Iran. Still, you have to give Pompeo points for candor in at least one sense: He admits that the immediate goal of US policy is to increase the suffering of the Iranian people.
Increasing human suffering is also integral to Trump’s policy in Venezuela. The administration’s plan seem to be that as its economic sanctions sink in, growing grassroots desperation will make the military desert President Maduro in favor of the Trump-designated Venezuelan leader. (And that’s assuming things go smoothly; other regime change scenarios—in both Venezuela and Iran—involve violence, up to and including civil war.)
Human suffering is also a goal of Trump’s border policy. Family separation is just one of the ways the administration has tried to send a message that attempting to cross the border illegally will lead to misery.
One question I have is: Why don’t Trump’s most ardent and influential critics—that is, Resistance elites—pay attention to the full spectrum of Trump-induced suffering? Why is their compassion focused almost exclusively on people who cross the US border?
I certainly get that when suffering is up close it seems more vivid and urgent than when it happens far away.
On the other hand, America’s infliction of suffering in faraway lands has a particularly gratuitous quality. Unlike people who cross the border illegally, the Iranians and Venezuelans who suffer Trump-induced deprivation aren’t under the US government’s jurisdiction and aren’t breaking any American laws. In fact, the Trump administration itself depicts them as innocent victims of evil regimes.
And, by the way, remind me what international laws these regimes are clearly violating? The use of economic sanctions for dubious legal reasons is now a firm American tradition, one that long predates Trump. And this tradition has developed even as it’s become clear that sanctions—especially unilateral ones—rarely succeed in changing behavior. (Sanctions are a classic example of that famously faulty syllogistic structure: (1) Something must be done! (2) Sanctions are something. (3) Therefore, sanctions must be done!)
In my ideal world:
1) Americans would care about the suffering their government creates regardless of where it happens.
2) Americans would recognize that, very often, the things that are bad about Trump—including the suffering he unjustifiably creates—didn’t start with Trump. Granted, Trump’s sanctions on Venezuela are much more sweeping than Obama’s, his sanctions on Iran much less justified by plausible legal reckoning, and his infliction of suffering on illegal immigrants much more widespread and cruel than Obama’s. (For example: family separations did happen under Obama, but they were much rarer and less systematic.)
And, to expand the list: Trump’s rules of military engagement, especially as they apply to drone strikes, are less constrained than Obama’s by concerns about civilian casualties.
Still, I think Obama’s various suffering-inflicting policies, from sanctions to drone strikes, deserved more attention than they got, especially from the liberals who now constitute the heart of the Resistance.
All of which leads me back to my favorite subject: Mindful Resistance!
If you asked me what a Mindful Resistance movement should resist, my answer would be: More than Trump, and more than Trumpism per se. It should resist all kinds of things in our world that for too long have persisted in spite of the fact that they have a hard time withstanding moral scrutiny. And it should resist these things with the breadth of vision and clarity of vision that the word mindfulness connotes.
Trump offers a good opportunity to focus on these things because he embodies so many of them in such extreme, even grotesque, form. Moreover, the fact that Trump got elected president suggests that some of these moral challenges are growing, that forces afoot today are bringing out the bad in us in new and genuinely alarming ways. So he makes for an excellent call to action.
But, that said, there will still be much that demands resisting even after Trump has passed from the political scene. And the clearer we are about all the damage he’s doing—and about how different that damage is or isn’t from damage done by his predecessors—the better positioned we’ll be to keep resisting.
Should we welcome our new robot overlords? About a week ago I had a conversation on bloggingheads.tv (also available on The Wright Show audio podcast feed) with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff about his book Team Human, a scathing critique of the digital world. Rushkoff and I found things to agree on—we spent the obligatory several minutes trashing Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg—but I don’t find his critique entirely compelling. He seems to attribute just about all dubious aspects of modern technological life to capitalism, whereas I think in many cases capitalism has just given people what they want, and the problem is that what they want—or what they thought they wanted—turns out to have downsides. (But I do, as Rushkoff and I discuss, favor more regulation of quasi-monopolies like Facebook.)
Anyway, one thing that really interests me—and that I encourage your input on—is the idea behind the phrase “Team Human.” Rushkoff seems to see a kind of battle shaping up between humans and machines (though, again, he believes that if it weren’t for capitalism, technology would have evolved more benignly, and the machines would be more to our liking); it’s as if there is, in a capitalist context at least, a deep tension between the needs of people and the imperatives of technology.
Do you agree? Do the various downsides of living in the digital age seem so collectively malign that you get a kind of us-versus-them feeling when you think about the technologies that shape our lives ? If so, what would you say are the most menacing parts of the techno-threat? And if not, do you think these technologies are on balance good? What do you like and/or dislike about them?
Feel free to send your thoughts to email@example.com. We at MRN are always interested in how readers are handling modern life. And, as you’ll see in the next item, there’s another reason we’re eager to hear what you have to say about the digital world:
Subtext grasped by astute readers: Last week I noted that we weren’t far from reaching the 200-Patron mark on our Patreon page. And more than enough of you took the hint—we zoomed past the 200 mark and are now hovering around 212.
So thanks, hint takers, and welcome aboard! In addition to helping us keep putting out the newsletter—and even hire a part-time worker who can make the newsletter better—your support is helping us create whole new things that will benefit the entire MRN community. For example: If you look at the right-hand column of our aforementioned Patreon page, you’ll see that, after we reach the 300-Patron milestone, we’ll publish a guide to using social media mindfully. And that will be available to all MRN readers, not just Patrons.
As we start preparing this guide, we’re eager for input from MRN readers. How are social media affecting your work, your relationships, your politics? What are your best and worst experiences on social media? What’s the most regrettable thing you’ve ever done there? Do you ever go online with the goal of building bridges? Or with the goal of subjecting Trump-supporting trolls to ritual humiliation? And how did that work out? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t feel you can support us on Patreon right now, consider this form of sharing an in-kind contribution.
Like tribalism but different: Nominations for a substitute for the word “tribalism” (a word that, as I noted two weeks ago, is considered offensive by some) keep pouring in! There’s “divisionism” and “schismatism” (both from MRN reader Duncan); “gatherizm” (yes, with a z—that’s from Andrzej); otherism (from David); “herdism” (from A.H.). My favorite is probably “groupism,” submitted by three readers: Gloria, Charles, and David. (It reminds me of “groupish,” a term my friend Matt Ridley applied to human nature in his book The Origins of Virtue.)
OTOH, Duncan, even as he nominated “schismatism,” expressed ambivalence about the need for a new term. He wrote: “‘Tribalism’ is a powerful word. It conjures a vivid image and is instantly comprehensible.” And MRN reader Dick says the search for a “tribalism” substitute is “political correctness run amok… Speakers should certainly seek to be sensitive to listeners, but listeners should show some sensitivity to speakers—their intent, their understanding, and their humanity.”
And, alleged PCness aside, I still don’t see a nominee that does nearly all the semantic work “tribalism” does. So, since we have a whole new subject for MRN readers to provide input on (see preceding two items), maybe it’s time to suspend our search for a post-“tribalism” “tribalism.” But if you think you’ve found the perfect word, feel free to send it our way. We’re keeping a file.
A New York Times explainer published in January, when the prospect of Trump’s declaring an emergency hit the news, explores presidential emergency powers and the legal viability of Trump’s move. At Lawfare, Robert Chesney does a deeper dive into the issue. In Slate, law professor Daniel Hemel argues that House Democrats underestimated the chances that Trump’s emergency declaration will survive legal challenges.
In the Washington Examiner, conservative journalist Philip Klein arguesthat Trump’s national emergency declaration is “a terrible idea with dangerous consequences for limited government conservatives.” In a Twitter thread, conservative legal scholar Jack Goldsmith argues that Trump’s declaration of emergency is less extraordinary, in the context of American history and accumulating precedent, than it may seem.
Vox lists nearly 350 mass shootings (defined as events in which four or more people were shot) in the US since the Parkland school shooting a year ago.
Buzzfeed details evidence that newly declared presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar has been abusive towards her Senate staff. Writing at Salon, Amanda Marcotte says the media is trying to label all four female senators running for president “inauthentic,” and that “after years of stories that unfairly characterized female Democrats as liars and ballbusters, it makes sense that many women now believe the mainstream media has no credibility when it comes to covering female politicians.”
Matthew Yglesias of Vox argues that New York City is better off without Amazon‘s would-be Queens office complex. In Recode, Jadon Del Rey writesthat Amazon failed to understand that the political ground was shifting under its feet in between the time it announced its search for a host city and the time when it chose Queens as one of two winners.
Responding to freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar’s recent tweets about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which critics said were anti-Semitic, Michelle Goldberg writes that “at a moment when activists have finally pried open space in American politics to question our relationship with Israel, it’s particularly incumbent on Israel’s legitimate critics to avoid anything that smacks of anti-Jewish bigotry.” In a Twitter thread, a former congressional staffer who is an Israeli citizen describeshis professional interactions with AIPAC and says Omar’s tweet wasn’t anti-Semitic. M.J. Rosenberg, who once worked for AIPAC, writes in the Nation that “AIPAC’s political operation is used precisely as Representative Omar suggested.”
JTA lists groups that are using Omar’s tweets as an opportunity to fundraise, including AIPAC, the far-right Zionist Organization of America, the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace, and Omar’s campaign fund.
Turkey criticized China’s mass detention of Uighur Muslims, who are ethnically Turkic and refer to their homeland in China’s Xinjiang Province as East Turkestan. The statement marks a departure for Turkey, which in recent years had sought closer ties to China.
GOP Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that a two-year investigation by the committee has found no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. A Vox explainer examines the public evidence.
In the Week, Damon Linker argues that Elliot Abrams, Trump’s point man on Venezuela, has stayed a member in good standing of the foreign policy establishment, notwithstanding his criminal past and his role in various policy disasters, because he embodies two contradictory ideas that are integral to that establishment. Raymond Bonner, who covered Latin America for The New York Times in the 1980s, recalls the role of Abrams in downplaying the massacre of 900 Salvadoran peasants in 1981.
The Russian news site Meduza explores the prospects for legislation that would partition the Russian Internet. CNN looks at Internet shutdowns that have been used to combat anti-government forces in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America.
In Wired Noam Cohen reflects on the life of Lyndon LaRouche, the conspiracy theorist and fringe presidential candidate who died this week, and on how the Internet has changed the world of conspiracy theorizing.
After the Australian parliament made it easier to transfer sick refugees to the Australian mainland, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he’ll reopen a controversial detention center on Christmas Island. Opponents accused him of pre-election xenophobic fearmongering.
In Pacific Standard, William M. Adler reports that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s plan to build a transcontinental canal that would rival the Panama Canal is encountering indigenous resistance—and questions about Chinese backing of the project.
NASA’s Mars rover, Opportunity, was declared dead this week, 15 years after it began operations and a few months after a dust storm disabled its energy-collecting solar panels. The final image it captured is a vivid reminder of an important lesson: If you’re looking for uplift and inspiration, avoid being in the middle of a dust storm on Mars.
The Nieman Journalism Lab covers a study finding that the decline of local newspapers has led to an increase in political polarization.
The New York Times reports on Americans who have worked to build peace in conflict-torn countries and, upon returning home, see warning signs in America that remind them of the countries they left.
Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill concludes her six-week experiment of gradually cutting Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple out of her life. She says that in some ways “it was hell” but that it changed her relationship to technology for the better and nurtured a lifestyle of “slow Internet.”
The New York Times uses Spain to illustrate the hollowing out of the middle class that is afflicting much of Europe.
In Slate, Jess Zimmerman, a former employee of a nonpartisan fact-checking website, argues that trying to use facts to change the minds of misinformed citizens is a fool’s errand, because our cognitive biases make it so hard to abandon tightly held beliefs. She says using emotional appeals is more effective.
YouTube announced that it will no longer recommend conspiracy videosto users. A former Google engineer who helped build the recommendation algorithm praised the changes in a series of tweets, saying that this is the start of more humane technology that “empowers all of us, instead of deceiving the most vulnerable.”
It’s official: a new study finds that music we enjoy, like so many other things we enjoy, triggers the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
The Internet is famously full of ideological echo chambers, or “filter bubbles.” If you want to burst your bubble—or at least leave it for awhile and explore other terrain—there’s plenty of other terrain out there. For example, if you’re liberal, try visiting Conservapedia—a wiki encyclopedia written from a conservative point of view. Browsing through its articles (“Liberal,” “Isaac Newton,” “black hole, “George Soros,” “Why Do Non-Conservatives Exist?“) might be a good exercise in cognitive empathy—that is, an exercise in at least understanding how others see the world, whether or not you experience the emotional empathy that makes you identify with their feelings.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart,
Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh
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