Issue #63: Feb 17–23, 2019

In this week’s MRN we: (1) Ask what Jesus would say about the Jussie Smollett case and related not-what-they-at-first-seem-to-be phenomena; (2) summarize a week that included yet another unsettling revelation about Facebook and yet another Democratic presidential candidate; (3) steer you toward background material ranging from an interactive map of hate groups to a revolt by some peacenik Microsoft workers; (4) steer you toward a meditation app that now features an MRN messaging group!

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK

Venezuela: The struggle for power in Venezuela escalated sharply as President Nicolas Maduro tried to thwart US efforts to deliver food aid via Maduro’s rival, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the US and many Latin American countries deem Venezuela’s rightful leader. Venezuelan security forces killed two protestors and used tear gas to disperse crowds that want the aid delivered. Another four people were killed by irregular pro-government militias. As many as 40 members of the security forces were said to have defected along the Colombian border, and at least one food aid truck made it into Venezuela.

He’s still running: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont announced his presidential run and raised nearly $6 million in the campaign’s first 24 hours. The average donation was $27.

Trump retreats: Facing intense opposition from the foreign policy establishment, Trump backed away from his decision to withdraw all American troops from Syria. Of the 2,000 US troops stationed there, around 400 are now expected to remain.

Non-profit policing upheld: The Supreme Court struck a blow against civil asset forfeiture, or “policing for profit”—seizing assets involved in crimes, sometimes when the owners haven’t been convicted or even charged. The court ruled unanimously that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to state and local governments.

Non-fraudulent election scheduled: North Carolina’s bipartisan Board of Elections unanimously ordered a new election in the Ninth Congressional District after a trial revealed evidence of absentee ballot fraud. Mark Harris, the Republican candidate who led the vote count narrowly and admitted to employing the political operative suspected of carrying out the fraud, called for a new election as well.

Nuclear deals: The House Oversight Committee released a report accusing the administration of improperly bypassing Congress in order to sell nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. The report accuses Michael Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Adviser, of spearheading the plan while advising a company that would have benefited financially from it.

Labor secretary rebuked: A federal judge ruled that federal prosecutors—including former US Attorney Alexander Acosta, now the labor secretary—broke the law when they concealed a 2008 plea agreement with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein from the young women who accused him of sexual assault.

Facebook blocks foreign critics of US: Facebook blocked four viral-video news channels, which are critical of various US policies, for not stating that they were owned by RT, Russia’s state-funded broadcaster. RT’s editor-in-chief called the move “unprecedented discrimination,” noting that Facebook doesn’t demand that PBS, the BBC, or the CBC disclose their government funding.

Facebook doesn’t block private data: The Wall Street Journal reported that some smartphone apps instantaneously share their users’ data with Facebook “even if the user has no connection to Facebook.” The information ranges from health data, such as blood pressure or menstrual cycle, to information about what homes people are thinking about buying.

Double jeopardy: The Manhattan district attorney is preparing to charge former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort with breaking New York state law, the New York Times reported. A conviction would mean that Manafort has to serve prison time even if Trump pardons him for the federal crimes of which he’s already been convicted.

NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

WWJD?: Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” If he were preaching today he might say, “Judge not, because whatever you’re passing judgment about may not have actually happened anyway.”

This week’s big example was the assault that actor Jussie Smollett had said he suffered at the hands of two men yelling “This is MAGA country.” Now it seems they didn’t actually assault him, and they only yelled “This is MAGA country” because he paid them to do that.

Earlier examples include the viral video, months ago, of a white man ripping the MAGA hat off a black Trump supporter’s head. That, too, turned out to have been staged.

And then there are the fuzzier cases. Last month’s famous standoff between the Covington High School kid and the Native American elder did happen, but things turned out to be less clear cut than they seemed at first.

So too with this week’s viral video of Dianne Feinstein coldly rebuffing the plea of earnest schoolchildren that she support the Green New Deal. The edited video that went viral—and shaped coverage on mainstream news sites—casts her in an appreciably less favorable light than does the entire video.

In all of these cases, large numbers of people did not refrain from passing judgment before the evidence had time to settle. And in at least some of these cases, hostility between ideological groups no doubt got worse as a result. One group saw the other group’s rush to judgment as evidence of bias, hostility, and/or craziness.

It’s certainly understandable that people rush to judgment; our species seems to do that by its nature. (I did it with both the Covington and Feinstein videos, and in the Covington case I came close to tweeting something that, in retrospect, would have lacked important nuance.) And it’s especially understandable that people want to condemn things that, if true, are moral outrages. There are hate crimes in America, and there are more of them than those of us who aren’t in target demographics might guess. (My neighborhood, for example, is not abuzz with discussion of this week’s road-rage killing of a Muslim in Indiana—which could turn out to have been motivated by bigotry, as one account suggests.)

But every time there’s mass condemnation of a moral outrage that turns out to be, in fact, not so clearly a moral outrage, people become more likely to tune out reports of real, unequivocal outrages in the future. The fact that a small number of fakes—or of tendentiously edited videos—can have such a broadly negative impact isn’t fair, but it seems to be a fact of the modern world, and it’s all the more reason to proceed with care.

So this week’s pearl of wisdom from Bob is: Feel free to follow Jesus’s advice. Don’t judge. Or, at least, refrain from expressing judgment online until you’ve had time to reflect on the situation, and until a fair amount of evidence has come in. Mass opprobrium is an important tool for good, and there’s a time to join others in wielding it, but joining uncritically can do bad in the long run.

Another recommendation: Don’t reward the social media heavyweights who pass early or hyperbolic judgment. Many of these people are sincerely motivated, but, being human, they’re also susceptible to positive reinforcement. If you don’t give them retweets or shares or likes, you don’t risk adding even a microdose to the dopamine they get when they survey their indices of virality.

If this stance of tactical reserve leads you to change your whole social media mindset—to feel less compelled to form judgments about things in your feed—you may find that refreshing and relaxing. Deciding whether to add your voice to the latest mass condemnation, and how exactly to calibrate your voice, can be taxing, as can wondering anxiously afterwards whether you got the calibration right; or whether, as more evidence and opinion rolls in, you were flat-out wrong.

And if you’re wondering how to spend the time you’ll save by being less frantically engaged with social media: Well, there’s the point Jesus made only two verses after “Judge not that you not be judged.” He asked: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” You can always spend a few minutes working on the log. Actually, come to think of it, if you’re refraining from hasty judgment online—if you’re practicing the mindful use of social media—you are working on the log.

Patreon product placement: Over on the MRN Patreon page, I just posted a video in which I respond to some things Patrons have said in emails and in Patreon comment threads. It isn’t my finest performance; if I were you I wouldn’t become a Patron just to see this video. However, I might consider becoming a Patron so you can comment on the video, and thus interact with the other Patrons, who are turning out to be a great group, willing to offer guidance on things ranging from MRN’s future, to how to save the world, to how I can learn to make better videos.

Keep those cards and letters coming: Thanks to all the readers who responded to my appeal—actually, two separate appeals—last week to weigh in on how technology is affecting your life, and life in general, for better or worse. This feedback will inform our current work in progress—a guide to using social media mindfully—and provide grist for my Notes-from-Bob mill down the road. Our inbox continues to reside at feedback@mindfulresistance.net.

BACKGROUND

The Washington Post summarizes newly announced presidential candidate Bernie Sanders‘s 2020 policy agenda, which includes free public college tuition, climate change initiatives, and a $15 federal minimum wage. At FiveThirtyEight, Clare Malone warns that Sanders will face tough competition from Elizabeth Warren, especially in light of his poor performance with black voters in 2016. In Jacobin, Shawn Gude comparesthe two: “Warren is a regulator at heart who believes that capitalism works well as long as fair competition exists; Sanders is a class-conscious tribune who sees capitalism as fundamentally unjust.”

In the Atlantic, Peter Beinart writes that Sanders’s anti-interventionist foreign policy sets him apart from the other candidates.

In the Washington Post, political scientist Matthew Fuhrmann exploresaspects of the Trump administration’s attempt to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis that he finds troubling.

In 2016, the Washington Post reported on a case involving civil asset forfeiture, a practice the Supreme Court ruled against this week; police seized $53,000 from a Christian band that was raising money for orphanages in Burma and that was charged with nothing more than driving with a broken tail light.

Last year, when the UK was considering banning the Russian state news organization RT, the BBC explained what the channel is and is not.

On npr.org, Carrie Kahn and Alex Leff write that even for some Venezuelan opponents of President Nicolas Maduro, Washington’s efforts to oust him “raise concern because of the history of U.S. intervention in the region.” Citing an essay by historian John Coatsworth, they say the US has participated in Latin American regime change, directly or indirectly, more than 40 times in the past century. Last month in the Washington Post, political scientist Benjamin Denison wrote that regime change usually fails to effect the desired changes in a country’s politics and often leads to foreign military occupation.

In Slate, April Glaser reports on a protest by Microsoft workers that’s related to the company’s unveiling this week of its HoloLens 2 augmented reality headset. More than 50 employees signed a letter to Microsoft’s CEO last week asking that the company cancel a $480 million Pentagon contract that gives HoloLens technology to the defense department in order to, as the government has put it, “increase lethality”.

The Trump administration reportedly plans to launch a global campaign to end the criminalization of homosexuality. According to NBC News, one of the purposes of the campaign is to give the US the opportunity to denounce Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death.

The State Department says that Hoda Muthana, a 24-year-old American-born woman who joined the Islamic State four years ago and now wants to return to the US with her 18-month-old son, is not a citizen and will be denied entry. Her family’s lawyer said that “the Trump Administration is using this as a test case to revoke an individual’s birthright citizenship.”

A Coast Guard officer was arrested this week on gun and drug charges, with prosecutors alleging he was a would-be “domestic terrorist” and white supremacist. He possessed an arsenal of weapons and a target list of Democratic politicians and liberal media figures.

Steve Vladeck and Tess Bridgeman, writing in Just Security, critically assess the recent suggestion, made anonymously by administration officials, that the post-9/11 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force gives Trump a legal basis for attacking Iran.

Pope Francis opened a historic global summit on child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Last week, the pope defrocked former cardinal and archbishop Theodore McCarrick, whom the Church found guilty of sexually abusing men training in seminary and children.

Six former workers for Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, former leader of the Buddhist organization Shambhala International, sent an open letter to Tricycle recounting physical, sexual, and psychological abuse he allegedly perpetrated.

YouTube deleted over 400 channels and disabled comments on millions of videos after a video blogger said he had uncovered a “soft-core pedophile ring” that exploits the comments section under videos in which young girls are seen engaging in such activities as gymnastics. The move came after several big companies suspended advertising YouTube in response to the blogger’s  report, which implicated YouTube’s recommendation algorithm in the problem.

DEEP BACKGROUND

The Southern Poverty Law Center has released its 2018 interactive map of hate groups in the US. In November the Washington Post Magazine examined whether SPLC’s definition of a hate group is sound.

In the Atlantic, Emma Green, writing about a recent report by the Public Religion Research Institute, says that a “significant minority” of Americans “seldom or never meet people of another race.”

A Japanese firm is preparing to test technology for cleaning up space debris. Earlier this month, the US Defense Intelligence Agency warned that a similar Chinese program may be aimed at destroying US satellites as well as junk—an accusation China called “groundless.”

In Politico, historian Matthew Dallek warns Democrats that incumbent presidents usually win reelection because the opposition party nominates a candidate with lots of experience instead of one that has fresh ideas or excites voters.

A high-ranking French military officer faces possible punishment for criticizing the US-led campaign against ISIS in Syria. “We have massively destroyed the infrastructure and given the population a disgusting image of what may be a Western-style liberation, leaving behind the seeds of an imminent resurgence of a new adversary,” he said.

In Wired, Virginia Heffernan says that referring to someone who identifies as gender non-binary as “they” is challenging because “cognition is fundamentally conservative.”

The Washington Post reports on the development of robotic farm equipment with sufficiently sensitive touch to replace human fruit pickers.

In the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal argues that YouTube’s recent effort to minimize the influence of conspiracy videos will have little effect.

In Foreign Affairs, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that cosmopolitanism is “an expansive act of the moral imagination” that is critical to humanity’s survival.

An article in Nature Sustainability uses satellite data to conclude that the world is greener now than twenty years ago, thanks largely to land-management programs by China and India.

MIT Technology Review reports that China’s CRISPR twins, whose genes were edited to make them immune to HIV, may experience the unexpected side-effect of enhanced cognition.

Axios illustrates the capabilities of a new AI tool by running a piece called “AI wrote this story,” which the program created after being given two sentences provided by a journalist. A website called “This Person Does Not Exist” offers an endless sequence of realistic images of human faces created by AI (click “refresh” for a new image).

NEWS YOU CAN USE

Over on the MRN Patreon page, Patron David, in the course of commentingon one of our video conversations there, came up with an idea that may be of interest to MRN readers who are meditators or even aspiring meditators. He drew our attention to a free meditation app called Insight Timer that features, in addition to guided meditations from various teachers, groups that users can sign up for. So we’ve created a group called “Mindful Resistance.” If you already use the app, search for “Mindful Resistance” under “groups.” If you don’t, you can download it for free—for Android or iPhone—from the official site or from the Android or iPhone app store. You have to use the app for five days before you can write messages, so don’t be turned off if it’s a bit quiet at first. (Besides, meditation apps are in general agreement that quiet is not a bad thing.)

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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