Issue #50: Nov 4-Nov 10, 2018

In this week’s MRN—our 50th issue!—we (1) claim that the midterm elections vindicated mindful resistance; (2) ponder their other implications; (3) ask whether America could have another civil war; (4) do some civility policing (lest there be another civil war); (5) provide lots of background reading about the midterms, the Jeff Sessions firing, the revived gun control movement, and tons of other stuff.

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK

Election: Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, while Republicans held the Senate and likely increased their majority by one or two seats, depending on final vote tallies and the results of a runoff. Democrats will now be able to investigate the Trump administration, subpoenaing witnesses and documents, and Republicans may have an easier time putting conservative judges on the bench.

Out of Sessions: The day after the election, Trump forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign and installed Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’s chief of staff, as acting Attorney General (which may have been unconstitutional). Whitaker has argued that the Mueller probe should have its scope narrowed and its financial resources reduced, and has dismissed the possibility of Trump/Russia collusion and of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Better bombing optics: The US will quit refueling Saudi-coalition aircraft that are bombing Yemen, a symbolically important move that was hailedby some Democrats but won’t significantly constrain the bombing (as would cutting off other forms of US support). The move came after the UN—with Saudi-backed fighters advancing on the critical port city of Hobeidah—delayed plans for peace talks.  

Another mass shooting: A Marine veteran opened fire in a country-western bar in Thousand Oaks, California, killing twelve people before killing himself. Victims included a man who survived the 2017 Las Vegas country-western concert massacre.

North Korean nukes: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo postponed a meeting with North Korean officials after the North warned that it may resume development of nuclear weapons technology if the US doesn’t lift economic sanctions.

Get well soon: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was hospitalized after suffering three fractured ribs from a fall in her office. Ginsburg, a two-time cancer survivor, is at 85 the oldest justice on the Court.

Keystone blocked: A federal judge temporarily blocked construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a priority for the president.

Accosted: After CNN reporter Jim Acosta refused to relinquish the microphone during Trump’s post-election press conference, the White House revoked his press credentials. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later tweeted an apparently doctored video, which originated with an InfoWars host, that made it appear as though Acosta had aggressively reacted to a female White House intern reaching for the mic.

NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

Mindful Resistance wins! Every two years American political observers engage in an important national ritual. They claim that the election results vindicate their pre-existing views. Whether you think the next Democratic presidential candidate should be male or female, lefty or moderate, white or non-white, surely you can find supporting evidence somewhere in Tuesday’s results. Well, I can play this game! I say Tuesday’s results vindicated MRN’s world view.  

I found the key evidence while listening to The Daily podcast, which the New York Times puts out, well, daily. Friday’s podcast was about how the Democrats turned so many red House districts blue. Times reporter Kate Zernike described a race in Virginia, where Democrat Abigail Spanberger won by staying studiously on message—health care, health care, health care—and not responding to Trump’s provocations or dwelling on his hobby-horse issues, such as immigration.

Times reporter Jonathan Martin then said this approach had helped the Democrats flip seats across the nation. He recalled that after Trump’s election in 2016 “there was this extraordinary opposition that became known as the Resistance,” which evinced the view that “we’ve got to do everything we can to steadfastly oppose this president.” But “once the professional operatives in the party looked under the hood, so to speak, they realized that if we want to take the House back next year, we can’t just do it by demonizing Trump” and saying “Donald Trump’s a buffoon.” 

Michael Barbaro, the podcast’s host, asked, “So Democratic party leaders looked at all this angry animated resistance that was triggered by President Trump’s election, and said, ‘We can harness this but it can’t be our message.’?” Exactly, said Martin: the anger got Trump opponents to the polls, but a carefully crafted message won swing voters over. Anger wasn’t allowed to cloud strategic thinking.

I rest my case.

But what happens now? So what does it mean, in practical terms, for the opposition party to take control of the House? Not what it used to mean. And if Democrats don’t understand this, that could be bad for the Resistance.

In olden days—say, 25, 30 years ago—controlling the House meant you could “drive the media narrative” by holding hearings that would publicize whatever you wanted to publicize. If you wanted to highlight corruption in the executive branch, you could subpoena the necessary witnesses and documents and lower the public’s opinion of the corrupt.  

Then two things happened: (1) the now famous technological fracturing of the media landscape (i.e., the transition from the “narrowcasting” of the early cable TV era to ever-narrower-casting as the World Wide Web arrived and moved through its blogosphere phase to its social media phase); (2) the not-wholly-unrelated ideological tribalization of America, which began long before Trump, and is driven by forces deeper than him, but has reached its zenith via his distinctively polarizing persona. The upshot: We have two media ecosystems, one more-or-less anti-Trump and one emphatically pro-Trump.

So now congressional hearings that might have once driven the media narrative instead drive a narrative in one media ecosystem. Since January 2017 that’s been the pro-Trump ecosystem and as of January 2019 it will be the anti-Trump ecosystem. Democrats, in other words, will be preaching to the choir. But that metaphor makes things sound simpler than they’ll be. Trump will try to use aggressive congressional hearings, and the way they’re covered by the “fake news media,” to nourish his persecution narrative, making his fiercest followers feel even more aggrieved.

This doesn’t mean the Democrats shouldn’t be celebrating. A subpoena is a powerful thing, and congressional hearings still command attention, and even in today’s balkanized media landscape facts can be damning enough to matter widely. It just means the Democrats need to use their new powers skillfully, to deploy them carefully and attentively—mindfully, you might say—and try to maximize their impact while minimizing the blowback.  

There’s one other reason for Democrats—and anyone who cherishes the rule of law—to celebrate. The power of subpoena will make it harder for Trump to smother the Mueller investigation. If the investigation has turned up damning evidence the public doesn’t know about, and Trump’s new acting attorney general—or his successor—fires Mueller or in some other way tries to keep evidence in the dark, Democrats will have a flashlight.  

Crazy? Or crazy like Fox? One unresolved question about Trump is whether his antics and provocations are as impulsive as they seem, or are in fact tactically driven, part of a carefully crafted political and media strategy. Some of both, no doubt, but I increasingly think the second scenario has a lot to be said for it. Consider Trump’s decision to suspend the press credentials of CNN reporter Jim Acosta this week. The story stole tons of oxygen from the much more important story of Trump’s firing of Jeff Sessions, and no doubt suppressed attendance at “Protect Mueller” rallies held the next day (though attendance was still fairly impressive, given the short notice).

But that’s only half the story. Picking on a white male reporter allows Trump defenders to argue that his confrontations with female or nonwhite reporters aren’t misogynistic and aren’t racist. And if you don’t think Trump’s Fox News friends will make full use of that opportunity—by, say, mocking a black female reporter for alleging bias—then you don’t know Trump’s Fox News friends.

Civil War and the Civility Police: It used to be that when I heard news of a mass shooting, my first thought was “I hope it’s not a Muslim”—since, of course, violence done in the name of Jihad would send Islamophobic fear-mongering into overdrive. But this week, when news broke about a mass shooting in a country and western bar in California, I found myself thinking “I hope it’s not partisan.”

It wasn’t. The shooter was a former Marine who had been a machine gunner in Afghanistan and may have suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome but in any event had no evident ideological agenda. So my concern was unwarranted.   

But I’m far from alone in worrying about escalating civil conflict. A poll this summer found that 31 percent of likely voters think we’ll probably have a civil war within 5 years. And an interview this week on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air gave a bit of support to such fears.

The interview was with the scholar Andrew Delbanco, author of The War Before the War, about the run-up to the Civil War. Gross asked Delbanco about the possibility of civil conflict between America’s ideological camps today.

On the one hand, he replied, when you look at the 1850s and 1860s—the “complete breakdown of the federal government, the secession of almost half the country,” followed by a huge war—what’s happening today looks “like peanuts. And that’s one approach which I’m trying to cling to—you know, that something like this couldn’t happen again.” 

But, he added, “the other way to think about the story” is that “institutions that seemed durable and seemed unlikely to fail turned out to be extremely fragile.” And one contributing factor was the intemperance of “public language on both sides.” Radical abolitionists “were extremely belligerent and extremely insulting” and so were slave owners. And “the anger just started to feed on itself. And the viciousness of the politics sort of becomes an engine of its own perpetuation. And some of that feels like what’s going on right now.” 
Delbanco worries that we’ve forgotten that “civility and a modicum of respect for the other side—even if we think that the issues that divide us are so fundamental that we could never come to an agreement about them—that some measure of respect for the other side is critically important… By looking at the past, one is reminded that things that we take for granted as stable can suddenly go up in smoke. And we want to be really careful about that, I think.”

I agree. Which is why I’ve decided to become a permanent, card carrying member of the much-maligned “civility police.” 

So, for example, I join in the condemnation of the dozen or so people who walked up to the house of Fox News star Tucker Carlson at night, while his wife was home alone, and chanted, “Tucker Carlson, we will fight. We know where you sleep at night.”

Even aside from the inherent creepiness of this kind of behavior, there’s the danger that this kind of thing could escalate in tit-for-tat fashion. What if, say, some liberal pundit responded insensitively to the fears expressed by Carlson’s wife, and then one of Carlson’s defenders publicized that pundit’s home address so that people could go harass his family? Oh, wait, that actually happened. Hmmm…

Self-appointed Twitter scold: I know it’s obnoxious to go around slapping people’s wrists for arguably ill-considered tweets, but I’m afraid that’s part of my duty as a civility police officer. This week’s scolding is directed at Anand Giridharadas, someone I like a lot (and whose very worthwhile book I recently discussed with him) but whose viral election-night tweet I didn’t like. It read, “Whatever happens tonight, the results suggest a country that is on a knife’s edge —basically 50-50—on the acceptability of racism, nativism, demagogy, lies, chauvinism, abuse of power, cruelty, and corruption.”  

So the idea is that everyone who voted for any Republican congressional candidate finds all those things—racism, cruelty, nativism, corruption, etc.—acceptable? We’re not even allowing for single-issue voters—you know, like, Joe is pro-racism but has doubts about corruption, while Mary abhors racism but is totally on board the pro-corruption bandwagon? Or, more seriously: Joe and Mary are deeply religious evangelicals who hate racism but think abortion is unacceptable?

Now, granted: (1) The tweet came in the heat of battle, as the outcome of the election seemed in doubt, and after two years of deep frustration for Trump opponents; (2) Maybe, even then, it wasn’t meant as literally as I’m taking it.  

Still:
(1) I think tweets like this feed a kind “essentializing” of people in the other tribe—who are in fact a diverse array of people with diverse motivations—and that this impedes comprehension of them. However tempting it may be to dismiss Trump supporters as racists, nativists, and so on, that doesn’t shed much light on, and in fact discourages exploration of, the question of how they came to hold the views they hold. 

(2) I think it’s important to ask ourselves how our messages sound to the other tribe (even if I sometimes fail to do this myself). And this kind of tweet, I think, feeds a force that helped get Trump elected in the first place: the feeling among many of his followers that coastal liberal elites hold them in contempt.

And what’s the upside of a tweet like this? Well, it got 2,500 retweets.

I’m not saying getting retweets and new followers was the conscious motivation here. But retweets and new followers feel good, and so encourage repetition. That’s what drives a non-trivial amount of the deepening polarization we’re seeing: The way to get status within your tribe is to deepen antagonism between the tribes. And the more antagonism there is, the truer that is. This is a positive feedback dynamic of a very negative kind. 

On a more positive note: Having just given my prize for least favorite viral tweet of the week, I now hand out the trophy for best viral tweet of the year. The award goes to… @geraldinreverse, author of this quasi-koanic tweet that I find wonderful for reasons I can’t entirely articulate.

Click send: In future issues of MRN, I plan to do more in the way of highlighting and/or replying to emails from readers. So I encourage you to write us—at feedback@mindfulresistance.net—about whatever remotely relevant thing is on your mind: your take on politics, on policy, on mindfulness, on meditation, or your questions about any of these. And of course, we welcome feedback on the newsletter itself, which is always in state of evolution.

BACKGROUND

In the Atlantic, Benjamin Wittes lists ten reasons that Matthew Whitaker, the new acting attorney general, will have trouble interfering with the Mueller investigation. The New York Times profiled Whitaker.

In Mother Jones, Kara Voght writes that gun control advocates expanded their power in the midterm elections and explains how they plan to use it.

In Politico, Bill Scher contends that Democratic candidates evincing a “Midwestern Nice” personality did well in the midterms and suggests Democrats should keep this quality in mind when selecting a presidential nominee.

In Lobelog, Paul Pillar argues that midterm election results may make Trump even more inclined to act recklessly on the world stage, increasing the chances of war with Iran or even China.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Trump will nominate State Department spokesperson Helen Nauert as Ambassador to the UN. Nauert was a host on Fox & Friends who had no foreign policy experience when she took the State position in 2017.

The Orlando Sentinel explores the history behind Florida’s 150-year-old ban on voting rights for ex-felons, which was overturned by referendum on Tuesday. Although many believe this change will help Democrats since African Americans have a high incarceration rate, more than half of the nearly 1.5 million newly eligible voters are white.

Media Matters documents how the story of the migrant caravan dominated front-page coverage in the Washington Post and New York Times in run-up to the election. In Mother Jones, Kevin Drum tries to figure out whether public interest drove media coverage of the migrant caravan, or vice versa.

This week voters in Alabama and West Virginia passed measures designed to trigger abortion bans in the event that the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

An Intercept reporter was able to buy Facebook ads for users interested in “white genocide conspiracy theory.” Facebook had vowed to improve its automated ad targeting system a year ago after ProPublica used the same technique to buy ads for users interested in topics like “Jew hater” and “How to burn Jews.”

Bernie Sanders caught flak for saying that “there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American.”

Bill Gates unveiled a $200 million initiative to “reinvent the toilet” in Beijing this week, saying his goal is to save a half million lives.

DEEP BACKGROUND

In Tricycle, Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi calls for a more politically engaged Buddhism. Also in Tricycle, MRN editor Robert Wright was interviewed about Mindful Resistance.

In Medium, political scientist Brendan Nyhan writes that since Trump took office, support for immigration has grown—reaching, by some measures, record highs. In the American Prospect, Paul Starr weighs ambiguous evidence about the impact of anti-immigration rhetoric on the midterm elections and concludes that “voters didn’t repudiate nativism”—at least, not decisively enough to discourage Trump from going nativist in the run-up to the 2020 election.

In Vox, Chavie Lieber writes about manipulative advertising practices in children’s smartphone games, which feature ads that blur the line between games and ads and even shame children for declining in-app purchases.

In the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo explains how Google employees who staged the recent company-wide walkout over the company’s handling of sexual harassment cases hope to sustain a network for intra-company activism and may have changed the landscape of labor relations in Silicon Valley.

Katrin Bennhold, the New York Times’s Berlin bureau chief, says the rise of the far right in formerly Communist eastern Germany was driven partly by men who grew disenchanted as industrial jobs disappeared and eastern women moved to western Germany.

Dmitri Terenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes about competing views within the Russian foreign policy community as to whether Putin should be engaging with Trump—and explains why Putin himself thinks that he should.

A series of surveys by the Pew Research Center suggests that Europe is still divided into East and West by attitudes on religion, minorities, and social issues.

study by Penn psychologist Melissa Hunt suggests that using Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram causes depression and loneliness.

Bernie Glassman, an influential teacher of Zen Buddhism who mixed humor with Buddhism, passed away at the age of 79.

The Dollar Street project shows photos of the homes and possessions of 264 families of different economic status across 50 countries.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

The UN estimates that 14 million people are at risk of famine in Yemen—in large part because of bombing by, and an economic blockade imposed by, a Saudi-led coalition that the US supports. If you want to help, check out this New York Times list of respected organizations that provide humanitarian relief there. And feel free to express support for grassroots-funded NGOs that lobby against the Saudi intervention and America’s support for it. These include Win Without War, the American Friends Service Committee, and Amnesty International.

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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Issue #49: Oct 28-Nov 3, 2018

In this week’s newsletter, we ponder the coming midterm elections, celebrate a victory for anti-war activism, unveil a plan for civilizing Twitter, and offer the usual summary of the week’s news, as well as the usual exotic menu of background readings. Plus, of course, some News You Can Use.

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK

Fun and games: Trump tweeted a Game of Thrones-themed image of himself to herald this Monday’s re-imposition of Iran sanctions, which had been removed as part of the Obama-era nuclear deal that Trump terminated in May. The Christian Science Monitor reported that an Iranian charity for children with cancer will have trouble keeping medicine in stock because of the sanctions.

Yemen ceasefire proposed: Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Pompeo called for a ceasefire in the war in Yemen, to be followed by UN-led peace talks. The US provides arms and logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition that has been bombing Yemen since 2015.

Brazil takes a hard right: Jair Bolsonaro, whom critics have labeled a fascist, was elected president of Brazil. US National Security Adviser John Bolton praised Bolsonaro as a “like-minded” partner, while Human Rights Watch vowed to monitor threats to Brazilian democracy and civil liberties, and conservationists warned that Bolsonaro’s planned development of the Amazon could exacerbate climate change.

Militarized zone: Trump ordered more than 5,000 troops to the US-Mexico border to deal with a migrant caravan traveling through Mexico  and saidthey should shoot anyone who throws rocks at them. The Nigerian Army used Trump’s remarks to justify having killed rock-throwing Muslim protesters earlier in the week.

Vetoing the 14th Amendment: Trump said he will issue an executive order ending birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. Most legal scholars believe this would be unconstitutional.

Voting fights: Jimmy Carter asked GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp to step down as Georgia’s secretary of state, saying it was unethical for him to oversee an election he’s running in. In Ohio, federal judges ruledthat voters who had been purged from the rolls for not voting in the last six years must be allowed to vote.

Gab gone: Gab, a Twitter-like site that attracted far-right users and people banned by other social media, was forced offline, at least temporarily, by its web hosting provider after it was revealed that Robert Bowers, the alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, was a verified Gab user. Bowers entered a not-guilty plea on Thursday.

Willie Horton redux: Trump tweeted an anti-immigration political ad that blamed Democrats for letting a Mexican who killed two Sacramento police officers enter the country illegally. A Washington Post fact check says the murderer actually entered the country during George W. Bush’s administration.

Don’t be evil (cont’d): Google employees staged walkouts to protest the company’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against top male employees, including Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, who left the company with a $90 million exit package.

NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

Midterms at last: The journalist Andrew Sullivan has a gift for putting things starkly. Here’s what he says about Tuesday’s midterm elections: “We will see, in a tangible way, what America now is.” Is Trump’s America “the new normal? Or has this been a detour into the freak zone, with a president accidentally elected, a major party temporarily hypnotized, but with a population still aware of something called reality?”

Twenty five years ago (when, as it happens, I was a colleague of Andrew’s at the New Republic), I would have been more inclined to buy this dichotomy. I mean, I wouldn’t have thought that on Wednesday morning America was going to align neatly with one of these scenarios or the other. But I’d have said that the media, in its quest for a simple narrative, would probably base its Wednesday-morning interpretation of the election on one of the scenarios—and that would matter, since the prevailing narrative helps shape the reality.

But that was then. In today’s America, no single dominant narrative about the election will congeal in its wake. There will be at least two narratives—one in the pro-Trump online world, and one in the anti-Trump online world. And, the human mind being what it is, neither narrative will be a completely objective depiction of reality. In the 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer, William Gibson called cyberspace (a term he coined) a “shared hallucination.” But cyberspace, while indeed capable of fostering hallucinations, has turned out not to be a place of nationally shared perceptions.

So one reality we’ll have to grapple with after the election is the same one we’re grappling with now: the lack of a shared reality. And, regardless of the outcome of this election, and regardless of the outcome of the next election, the Resistance won’t be able to say it’s succeeded at the deepest level until that reality has somehow become a bit more shared.

The other reality we’ll be left to grapple with after this election is, of course, Donald Trump. If the conventional wisdom is right—that the Democrats will take control of the House, though not the Senate—then the grappling may become a bit more forceful and effective. But Trump will still be Trump.

This newsletter has generally refrained from explicitly excoriating Trump, since plenty of that gets done by what we at MRN refer to as the “regular resistance,” and since excoriation can cloud the mind. But every once in a while it’s good to take stock of the man, and what better time than before an election that will indeed, as Andrew Sullivan says, bring some clarity about the nation’s path forward. So here is Andrew’s one-paragraph summary of our president:

“It is hard to think of a precedent for a president who endorses violence against political foes, sees the Justice Department as his own personal prosecutor, calls the press ‘the enemy of the people,’ tears children from parents, brags of multiple sexual assaults, threatens to lock up his opponents, enthuses about war crimes, ‘falls in love’ with the foulest dictator on the planet, refuses to divest of personal holdings in office, lambastes allies, treats the Treasury as a casino, actively endorses the poisoning of the environment, destabilizes NATO, baits minorities, lies incessantly, and oversees a resurgence of the white nationalist right.”

What’s amazing is that that isn’t the half of it.

A better Twitter: This week Twitter was engulfed by anti-Twitter sentiment after word spread that CEO Jack Dorsey was considering eliminating the “like” button. Which reminds me of my own idea for improving Twitter: a 20-second cooling off period. After you clicked “retweet,” an onscreen message would inform you that if after 20 seconds you still wanted to share the tweet, you could click “retweet” again—and meanwhile you could ask yourself if the person you’re retweeting is credible, if their voice is a voice you want to amplify, and if the sentiment motivating your retweet is a sentiment you’re proud of. I mention this idea just in case you were wondering why I’ve never been asked to run a company whose mission is to make a profit.

Yes we can: This week the United States, in a sharp change of policy, called for a ceasefire in the war in Yemen—a war it is party to by virtue of the arms and logistical support it gives the Saudi-led coalition that so intensified hostilities with its 2015 intervention. This is a big story and deserves the front-page play it’s gotten, but I think it contains within it a fairly big story that hasn’t gotten much attention at all. Namely: this was a triumph for grassroots anti-war activism.

Granted, this activism wasn’t the immediate catalyst. That honor belongs to the Saudi regime’s grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. By showering Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in infamy, this crime gave fresh momentum to congressional efforts to end American support for the brutal Saudi air war. And the resulting prospect—that majorities in the House and Senate might soon repudiate Trump’s Yemen policy—almost certainly factored into the administration’s ceasefire initiative.

Still, the congressional ground for this moment had been prepared by many months of activism—by grassroots-funded anti-war NGOs, by peaceniks on Twitter and Facebook, by people calling and writing their congressional representatives. Last spring a Senate move to end US support for Saudi aggression failed by a pretty close 55-44 vote, and this fall, even before the Khashoggi murder, growing opposition to that aggression was leading to another congressional vote. Without this pre-existing momentum, the Khashoggi murder wouldn’t have provided critical mass.

To say that celebration is premature would be an understatement. Even before Saudi Arabia amped up the havoc with its brutal bombing campaign and a crippling blockade, bringing Yemen to the brink of famine, the country had been beset by years of civil conflict involving a number of factions. Restoring true peace to Yemen will require the sustained work of many outside actors, including Iran—and the Trump administration’s refusal to deal with Iran constructively will likely persist, making lasting peace elusive for years. In fact, the administration’s insistence that the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels take the first step in the ceasefire may mean that the fire never ceases.

But whatever happens, the past year of slowly building pressure against America’s backing of the Saudi war campaign is a reminder that ordinary people energized by moral indignation can make a difference.

Mindful resistance isn’t just about, or even mainly about, resisting Trump, or Trumpism. It’s about resisting the forces of which Trump and Trumpism are particularly gruesome manifestations, including amoral belligerence. This week strongly suggests that resistance, however challenging, is not futile.

Tribalism in the wild: Last week, after a white man was caught on camera confronting a black man who was wearing a MAGA hat, a black conservative activist shared the video, writing, “Black Americans are being chased and bullied out of restaurants because liberals don’t believe that we deserve a piece of the American dream too.” Her tweet got more than 25,000 retweets. You may accuse her of hyperbole—claiming that “black Americans” are suffering a fate that, so far as the evidence indicates, only a single black American had suffered at the hands of a single miscreant. But that’s beside the point. The fact is that when people in one tribe see bad behavior by a single member of the enemy tribe, they tend to generalize anyway. Which tends to then reinforce if not deepen their antagonism toward the tribe as a whole. Which in turn increases the chances that they will do something reciprocally bad—which can then be caught on camera and… and so on. So keep this in mind next time you’re deciding whether to spread the word about a single miscreant in the other tribe doing something bad.

Voices: If you want to see me fail to maintain a Buddha-like equanimity, you can watch last week’s Bloggingheads.tv conversation between me and Robert Kagan about American foreign policy (also available as audio on the Wright Show podcast feed). Kagan, long known as a leading neoconservative thinker, usually manages to activate the reptilian core of my brain, but we always manage to end our conversations as friends (or, at the very worst, frenemies). The conversation starts here, the heart of the argument starts here, and if you want to hear me make a pragmatic argument for respecting international law, that’s here. Also, MRN St. Petersburg correspondent Nikita Petrov and I discussed a fascinating finding about how the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenics differ from culture to culture; in the US, these voices tend to be harsher and more menacing than in countries like Ghana or India.

BACKGROUND

In the Washington Post, George Conway, husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, argues that Trump’s proposal to end birthright citizenship is unconstitutional.

Yemen scholar Gregory D. Johnsen writes that the war in Yemen “is actually three separate yet overlapping conflicts.”

In the Atlantic, Elaina Plott writes that the midterm elections may mark the near-extinction of a long-dwindling breed: the moderate candidate.

profile of George Soros in the New York Times details how the investor and progressive political donor became a totem for right-wing anti-Semitism.

The New York Times reports on a meeting between the rabbi of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, site of last week’s mass shooting, and the pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, site of a 2015 mass shooting.

The Daily Beast reports that the Department of Homeland Security has gutted an interagency task force that represented the federal government’s only systematic effort to combat violent white supremacy.

Foreign Policy reports on American efforts at the UN to undermine programs for sexual and reproductive health. The efforts are steered by evangelicals in the administration who believe the programs encourage abortion.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is reportedly under Justice Department investigation for a Montana land deal involving the chairman of Halliburton.

DEEP BACKGROUND

In the New York Times Magazine Janet Reitman takes a deep dive into attempts by US law enforcement to deal with white supremacists and other far-right extremists, who “have killed far more people since Sept. 11, 2001, than any other category of domestic extremist.”

Buzzfeed’s Ryan Broderick writes about how social media have spurred right-wing radicalization in Brazil and around the globe. He places some of the blame on a few big Silicon Valley companies that, he says, aren’t using their power responsibly.

Ezra Klein breaks down Trump’s media strategy, arguing that Trump uses a template established by everyday right-wing trolls.

Eyal Press writes in a Times op-ed about “stochastic terrorism,” the idea that certain kinds of rhetoric predictably increase the chances of political violence even though there’s no predicting who the perpetrators will turn out to be.

Just a week after marijuana legalization took effect in Canada, Mexican laws that made cannabis illegal to grow or consume were ruled unconstitutional, effectively legalizing it for recreational use.

Reuters reports that more than 36,000 people have walked into Canadafrom the US to file refugee claims since the start of 2017, with many naming Trump’s promise to crack down on illegal immigration as the cause.

NBC looks at “deep fake” technology that allows the creation of convincing videos of people doing and saying things they’ve never done and said.

Katie Herzog looks back at two infamous anti-gay crimes—the murder of Matthew Shepard and the Orlando nightclub shooting—and argues that neither was actually caused by homophobia.

Following the news of Sears closing hundreds of stores, Robert Woodson writes about the role the store’s catalogue played in allowing black Americans to shop without racial discrimination.

HuffPost examines why an article critical of a Democratic PAC mysteriously sank in Google’s search results, and finds that thousands of foreigners were paid 20 cents each to help manipulate the search engine’s algorithm.

A social psychology study reveals a partisan divide in the sexual fantasies of Americans.

In what could be termed an example of “fake old news,” five purported Dead Sea Scrolls fragments at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., are now thought to be fakes. There is a lucrative market for such dubious biblical artifacts.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

Are you a lawyer, paralegal, or law student? Or just someone who cares about the integrity of our elections? The nonpartisan Election Protection coalition seeks volunteers to work at polling places around the country and in their call centers to field voter questions.

Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has compiled a list of resources to help people deal with the midterm elections mindfully. She includes a short guided meditation, an article exploring the act of voting as a spiritual practice, and a podcast appearance in which she discusses “election stress disorder.”

 

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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Issue #48: Oct 21-Oct 27, 2018

In this issue of MRN we offer some thoughts about the week’s big hate crimes—the attempted mailbombings of Trump critics and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Also: the usual news roundup and background links, including some offbeat political developments (a new “Progressive International” in the making), and some offbeat research findings (evidence that virtual reality can foster empathy, and that a “sense of oneness” is a good thing to have). Finally: News You Can Use as the midterm elections approach.

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK

Synagogue shooting: At least eleven people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue by a gunman whom police identified as Robert D. Bowers, a right-wing extremist with a history of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant views.   

Would-be bomber: A Florida man was arrested and charged with sending more than a dozen packages containing explosives to high-profile critics of Trump. Some conservatives had speculated that the bombs were a “false flag” attack, but the suspect was a Trump supporter who regularly tauntedTrump critics on social media and drove a van featuring a picture of Hillary Clinton with crosshairs on it.
 
Trump trashes Reagan-era treaty: Trump said the US will withdraw from a 1987 nuclear arms treaty with Russia that led to 2,700 nuclear missiles being removed from Europe. Putin wasn’t pleased.

Downmarket: Stocks continued their weeks-long decline, and by Friday all the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s gains for 2018 had been erased.

Confronting Iran (cont’d): The Treasury Department enacted sanctions against two members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for providing support to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Bernie Sanders, said the move was part of the administration’s ongoing construction of a legal pretext for attacking Iran.
 
Confronting the caravan (cont’d): Trump alleged without citing evidence that “unknown Middle Easterners” were among the group of migrants traveling north from Honduras. The administration prepared to send up to 1,000 troops to the border, part of a broader plan to make it hard for migrants to request asylum.  

Party line: The New York Times reported that Chinese and Russian spies eavesdrop on calls involving Trump’s personal cell phone, which he uses to talk to friends in spite of warnings from his staff.

More Saudi revisionism: Saudi Arabia, revising yet again its account of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death, acknowledged that his killing at the hands of Saudi operatives was premeditated, but continued to insist that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew nothing about it in advance.

Trans rights threatened: The administration is considering defining gender as synonymous with biological sex under Title IX, which activists say would mean that bias against transgender people wouldn’t be treated as illegal sex discrimination. And the US is trying to remove the word “gender” from international human rights documents.

NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

Following the footprints:  As I write this, it’s hard to feel optimistic about America. A gunman just killed at least eleven people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, and that came on the heels of a series of mail bombs whose saving grace was the incompetence of their builder. But if you’re desperate for something to feel hopeful about, there’s this: the same social media that are famously playing a role in all this—drawing people into ideological cocoons and sometimes into extremism—are at least making it easier to see the dynamics of radicalization.  

Consider a deep dive by Kevin Roose of the New York Times into the social media history of would-be mailbomber Cesar Sayoc. Until 2016, Roose notes, Sayoc’s Facebook page featured posts about food, sports, bodybuilding, and scantily clad women. Then, as the presidential primaries heated up, “his anodyne posts gave way to a feed overflowing with pro-Donald Trump images, news stories about Muslims and the Islamic State, far-fetched conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News broadcasts.” And his Facebook and Twitter feeds make it clear where, in addition to Fox, he was getting his inspiration: Breitbart, Infowars, World Net Daily.

Then came phase two: He started attacking Trump critics online and “his posts took on a darker, more obsessive tone, often accompanied by threats of violence and gory images of bloody animal carcasses.” He sent a tweet to Eric Holder that said, “see U soon, tic toc.”

Fearmongers and conspiracy theorists in the right-wing media ecosystem hadn’t, by and large, advocated the kinds of things Sayoc was dreaming up during phase two. But it’s hard to imagine him having entered phase two if there hadn’t been a phase one, and it’s hard to imagine a phase one without the output of those fearmongers and conspiracy theorists—who in turn worked in synergy with fearmonger-in-chief Donald Trump.

The details about the alleged Pittsburgh shooter, Robert Bowers, are only now emerging, but it seems likely that he was swimming in much the same media ecosystem as Sayoc. (Hours before the shooting he had railed against the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, thus joining two alt-right themes, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.) And my guess is that his story will turn out to parallel Sayoc’s: an unstable man latches onto extremist ideas that give his life meaning and focus. Which leads to this reasonable surmise: the more extremist ideas there are in our media and our political discourse, the more unstable people will latch onto them and organize their lives around them.  

Philosophically minded observers can argue all day about whether the footprints left on social media by Sayoc and Bowers mean that Donald Trump, Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, et al, are morally culpable for this week’s hate crimes. (See the item below for my own doubts about the value of “blame” as a big theme in our discourse.) But the footprints should make it harder for Trump et. al. to deny that, whatever their intentions, their words have had a very bad effect on some people—so bad that maybe they should speak more carefully in the future. Of course, they’ll probably deny it nonetheless. Still, the events of this week may at least make it clearer to more people what a malign influence Trump and his crowd have had on America. And, with the midterm elections approaching, that’s something. 

Mail bombs and other forms of incivility: Twitter is a great place for pondering mysteries of the human mind. I like looking at viral tweets and trying to pinpoint the source of their psychological appeal. Sometimes this exercise doesn’t yield a conclusion that’s flattering to our species, but it’s often educational. In the case of a particular genre of tweet that flourished after the flurry of attempted mail bombings this week, the exercise has a particular kind of educational value: it illuminates a distinctive feature of Buddhist ethics.

Here’s an exemplar of the genre, a tweet from Wednesday (the day the suspicious packages started arriving en masse) that got 3,500 retweets and 13,000 likes: “Strange that the civility police are silent on the matter of attempted terror attacks on Obama, the Clintons, and George Soros. Perhaps they are spent from so passionately defending Mitch McConnell’s right to enjoy guacamole in peace. Disingenuous bullshit takes quite the toll.”

The “civility police,” of course, are people who chastise Trump critics for doing things like harassing Republicans in public. And, though I haven’t done much of that kind of scolding, I’ve done a little, if subtly, in this very newsletter. So I guess I’m one of the civility police. Nonetheless, I’ll try to be impartial, and not get too defensive, as I ask what exactly was the criticism being leveled at the civility police by this tweeter, the well-known journalist Lauren Duca.  

The literal point of the tweet, of course, is to ask why many civility police haven’t condemned the mail bomber—and to suggest that this somehow discredits our criticism of lesser forms of incivility. 

Here are some possible answers: (1) I personally try to avoid gratuitous virtue signaling—such as, for example, making a big show of condemning horrible behavior that no one in the known universe is praising. (OK, almost no one.) (2) I assume my condemning mail bombs wouldn’t have a huge impact on the kinds of people who send them; they’re not an especially reasonable group, and I like to think they wouldn’t consider me a role model.

In other words: When the behavior in question is harassing Republicans at dinner, there’s an ongoing argument about whether the behavior is a good idea, and there’s at least some hope that I could say something that would change the behavior—even if only obliquely and modestly, by convincing people not to give it positive reinforcement on social media. When the behavior in question is sending mail bombs, neither of those things applies.

So that’s my take on the literal meaning of the tweet. But maybe that take is beside the point. I suspect that the effective meaning of the tweet—the implied meaning that accounts for most of the retweeting—is more like: You’re blaming our side for incivility, but their side is worse than our side! So you should spend your time blaming their side, not our side!

Which brings us back to Buddhism. Buddhist ethics isn’t big on blaming people. I don’t mean that your typical Buddhist ethicist doesn’t recommend finding criminals and punishing them. I mean that by Buddhist lights the punishment would only be warranted if it made the world a better place—if, say, putting a criminal in jail kept him from committing more crimes or deterred other would-be criminals. You wouldn’t punish for the sake of punishing. In other words, mainstream Buddhist ethics doesn’t enshrine retribution as a moral good.

According to the judicial philosophy that prevails in American courtrooms, in contrast, you would punish someone just for the sake of retribution. In this view, if you find a criminal living in solitude on a desert island, and no one in the wider world will ever find out whether you punished him, so the punishment will have no deterrent effect, you should punish him anyway, because he was to blame for a crime, and blameworthy people should be punished. Retribution, in this view, is a moral good in and of itself.

So when you have a situation like we have in America today—escalating antagonism and incivility on two sides of a political divide—getting caught up in a big argument about who is to blame is a very American thing to do, but not a very Buddhist thing to do. A more Buddhist thing to do is ask what you can do to improve the situation. And if you think that your ideological brethren are worsening the situation by screaming at Republicans who are eating dinner, you recommend that they stop. 

This doesn’t mean you’re blaming them for anything, or saying that their yelling at people who separate immigrant families is worse than separating immigrant families. It also doesn’t mean you’re holding up civility as some moral good that always trumps everything. You’re just saying that in this particular case incivility is making things worse.

And I’d say it’s making things worse even from a narrowly partisan, not just national or global, point of view: images of Democrats harassing Republican politicians during dinner will likely increase Republican turnout in the midterm elections. If it wasn’t going to do that, you wouldn’t see so much footage on Fox News of Republicans having their dinners interrupted. 

Of course, I could be wrong about this; maybe in the long run yelling at Republicans while they dine will have more good effects than bad. My point is just that this is the argument to have—an argument about the consequences of behavior, not an argument about who deserves more blame.

To doubt the value of “blame” isn’t to deny that moral distinctions can be made between different forms of incivility. Inciting violence, as Trump has done, is, in my book, much worse than harassing people at dinner—as is, obviously, sending bombs to people. But I don’t think making this moral distinction is at the heart of the viral appeal of Duca’s tweet. I think the heart of the appeal is more along the lines of: The other side is worse than us, so quit criticizing our side! Which is ironic when those of us who are criticizing our side are doing that in hopes of keeping the other side from prevailing.

Weekend viewing: If you’ve let your Netflix subscription lapse, I can help! You can watch my recent conversation with CNN commentator Sally Kohn about her book The Opposite of Hate or my conversation with John Judis about his new book The Nationalist Revolt, on the international resurgence of nationalism. (You can also listen to these conversations on The Wright Show podcast feed.) Or you can watch another episode of MRN unplugged, featuring me and MRN St. Petersburg correspondent Nikita Petrov having a free-form trans-Atlantic conversation about stuff that’s happening in the world. To ensure high ratings, we moved a clip featuring my dog Milo to the front of the episode. (Below the video you’ll see a list of topics that you can click on to skip the stuff you find unappetizing.)

BACKGROUND

The Washington Post depicts accused mailbomber Cesar Sayoc as a deeply disturbed, perhaps delusional, man who, according to a cousin, was “built like a freakin’ animal” and “took too many steroids.” Kevin Roose of the New York Times examines his social media history and finds that 2016 was a turning point.

The Daily Beast reports on how the migrant caravan coalesced in Honduras. The group’s numbers swelled after the nation’s most watched news channel falsely claimed that a notorious “coyote” would pay the migrants’ food and transportation costs.

In the Intercept, Jon Schwarz reflects on the Cuban Missile Crisis by way of critiquing  the US decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

In Al Monitor, Laura Rozen looks at whether the murder of Jamal Khashoggi could help bring the war in Yemen to an end.  

The BBC investigates internment camps in China suspected of holding hundreds of thousands of Chinese Muslims.

Rolling Stone profiles Washington State Rep. Matt Shea, who has allied himself with some of the nation’s most prominent anti-government extremists and conspiracy theorists.

Daniel Dale, a Toronto Star reporter who does real-time fact-checking of Trump’s speeches, said on PBS NewsHour that Trump’s rate of false statements has grown markedly. “In 2017, he averaged 2.9 false claims per day. As of now, it’s 4.5 false claims per day.”

Georgia’s NAACP filed suit against the state’s Board of Elections after voters complained about voting machines switching their gubernatorial choice from Democrat to Republican. In a recently leaked audio recording, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp—who as Georgia’s Secretary of State oversees elections—expressed concern about his campaign being hurt by voters taking full advantage of absentee balloting.

Brazilian journalist Brian Mier presents evidence that far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro used thousands of WhatsApp groups to distribute false information, such as a photoshopped image of vice presidential candidate Manuela D’Ávila in a T-shirt that reads “Jesus is a Transvestite.”

 

DEEP BACKGROUND

In the Atlantic, Ron Brownstein argues that the increasingly diverse nature of the Democratic coalition and the increasingly white makeup of the GOP are trends that may feed off each other, exacerbating polarization.

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, said he and Bernie Sanders will launch a new “Progressive International” in November and are inviting Mexico’s leftist president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, to join. The aim is in part to counter the international network that Steve Bannon says he’s building.  

survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that younger Americans do better than older Americans at distinguishing between opinions and factual statements in the news.

The world’s largest rice gene bank secured funding to develop varieties resistant to potential effects of climate change: high temperatures, droughts, and floods.

At FiveThirtyEight, Matt Grossman surveys recent academic literature finding that people’s attitudes about race and gender are heavily shaped by the prevailing views of the party and candidates they already support.

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who spent 18 months in an Iranian prison, argues the Iran is “a much better long-term partner” for the US than is Saudi Arabia, and that the US should stop favoring the latter over the former.

In Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman reports on research suggesting that people who have a sense of “oneness” care more about the welfare of others, including those well beyond their social group. In Vox, Sean Illing uses this finding to  suggest that meditation or the use of psychedelics could help combat the problem of “tribalism.”

A study described in Pacific Standard found that virtual reality can be used to increase empathy for homeless people. In Tricycle, a Buddhist teacher and a neuroscientist who have studied VR’s use in Buddhist practice debate a skeptic of their research.

China plans to launch an “artificial moon” to light up the night sky.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

There’s been a lot of reporting about how laws and administration decisions could be used to suppress voter turnout this year. Even if you’re not the kind of voter who is susceptible to such a thing, you might consider spreading the word on social media that, once at the polls, people who believe they are registered to vote but are denied the chance to do so have the right under federal law to request a provisional ballot. Their votes will be counted if their eligibility is then verified. You might, for example, share this story and explicitly suggest that others do the same. Other news worth spreading: Lyft and Uber are offering discounted or free rides to polling sites.

 

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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Issue #47: Oct 14–Oct 20, 2018

In this week’s MRN, we offer background links on subjects ranging from ethnonationalism to “cultural Marxism” to the midterm elections. Plus various angles on the Saudi murder case, Elizabeth Warren’s DNA, and other news of the week. Also: the gruesome truth about the DC foreign policy swamp that Trump isn’t draining. And in News You Can Use: What you can do about US involvement in the Saudi war on Yemen.

–Robert Wright

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Issue #46: Oct 7–Oct 13, 2018

In this week’s MRN we dissect the Republicans’ “angry Democratic mob” meme and ask whether Democrats are mindlessly abetting it. Also: Netflix addiction (seriously); an apparent Saudi hit job and its consequences; some tribalism-transcending News You Can Use; and the usual zillions of background links—all preceded by our telegraphic summary of the week’s big news.

–Robert Wright

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Issue #45: Sept 30–Oct 6, 2018

In this week’s newsletter, we offer the usual pithy summary of the week’s news, the usual eclectic array of background links, various Kavanaugh-related things, and the answer to an uncomfortable question: Does Trump’s having reached a trade deal with Mexico and Canada mean we have to give him some credit? More uncomfortable still (initially, at least): a Trump-related meditation practice.

–Robert Wright

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Issue #44: Sept 23-29, 2018

We’re back for season two! And we’re still called The Mindful Resistance Newsletter! (But thanks to those of you who took our survey about alternative names—we’ll keep the results on hand in case we undergo another identity crisis…) So check out our new, modestly revamped newsletter, and see what you think. Feel free to email us with minor criticisms, major criticisms, or (preferably) abject flattery: feedback@mindfulresistance.net. And if flattery is your choice, you might consider going whole-hog and using our handy sharing icons to spread the word on Twitter or Facebook or via email.

–Robert Wright

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Issue #43: A message from Robert Wright

Hi, remember me? The guy who, in collaboration with some other people, was bringing you the Mindful Resistance Newsletter each week until we decided to take an inexcusably long summer break? Well, we’re still on the inexcusable break. But we’re gearing up for a return of the newsletter sometime in September, and I wanted to bring you up to date on our plans. I also wanted to give you the option of weighing in on a quasi-important question.

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Issue #42: May 27–Jun 2, 2018

Note: This is the final issue of the newsletter before our long summer break. As for how we’ll spend the break: Well, we’ll mainly be doing this. But when we’re not doing that, we’ll engage in searing self-assessment—reflecting on the newsletter’s shortcomings and pondering new directions it could take. For elaboration on all this—on the length of the break, the reasons for the self-assessment, and so on, see LOCAL NEWS, below. Meanwhile, if you want to aid in the assessment and you haven’t yet taken our five-question reader survey, please do.

–Robert Wright

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Issue #41: May 20–May 26, 2018

Note: After next week’s issue, the newsletter will go on an extended summer vacation. Next week I’ll elaborate on what “extended” means. And this week (see “Mailroom” section, below) I ruminate a bit on why we’re taking a long break. As for how we’ll spend the break: Well, in addition to lying in hammocks sipping mint juleps, we plan to spend some time thinking about how to improve the newsletter. You can help us do that by taking this very short survey.

–Robert Wright

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