Issue #36: Apr 8–Apr 14, 2018

Note: Due to foreseen circumstances, the newsletter won’t be published next week. But this past week had about 1.9 weeks’ worth of Trump-related news, so why don’t we call it even? Below you’ll find the usual stuff—TWIT, links, News You Can Use—plus my critique of the Steven Pinker book Enlightenment Now and the first known example of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter (and Project) getting serious attention from a philosopher! As for how you’ll spend your time next week, with no MRN to ponder: You can ponder the future of MRN and email us with any suggestions: We’ll be back on April 28.

–Robert Wright

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Attack on Syria: The US, in concert with Britain and France, launched airstrikes against Syria in the wake of allegations that the Assad regime had conducted a chemical weapons attack in the town of Douma, the last remaining rebel stronghold near Damascus. The airstrikes were confined to three sites thought to be associated with the development, manufacture, or storage of chemical weapons, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis said “we have no additional attacks planned.” This suggested that Mattis, an advocate of limited strikes, had prevailed over newly installed National Security Adviser John Bolton, who reportedly had argued for a “ruinous” attack on Syria. This is unlikely to be the last time Mattis tries to rein in Bolton, who has advocated regime change in both Syria and Iran. And Mattis no longer has Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to back his arguments for moderation. Tillerson’s appointed replacement, Mike Pompeo, has embraced regime change in Tehran, though in his confirmation hearings this week he started singing a somewhat different tune.

Legal niceties: Mattis said that even without congressional approval Trump had the authority to launch the attack under Article 2 of the Constitution because a “vital national interest” was at stake. But Sen. Tim Kaine tweeted that the attack was “illegal,” and a number of legal experts agreed. The attack’s standing in international law was, if anything, even shakier, since it wasn’t an act of self-defense and didn’t have backing from the UN Security Council.

Evidence: The attacks came hours before international inspectors were scheduled to visit Douma to seek evidence supporting the allegations against Assad. The inspectors—from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which was established by the Conventional Weapons Convention of 1997, to which Syria is a party—say they will proceed with their investigation. They have the means to verify that chemical weapons have been used, but their mandate doesn’t include assigning responsibility for the attack. (Some observers say the attack could have been a “false flag” operation, conducted by Syrian rebels or some other party that would like to draw the US into Syria more deeply or strengthen arguments that the regime is genocidal.) Mattis said the US is confident that Assad launched the chemical attacks, and French Prime Minister Macron has said he has “proof,” but neither has shared their evidence.

Better Call Saul: Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney, is under criminal investigation, the Justice Department disclosed after FBI agents raided his office, home, and hotel room. The investigation isn’t technically part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation; the raid came at the request of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. But Mueller’s office had “referred” the matter to the US Attorney (which means Mueller had come across evidence of wrongdoing on Cohen’s part). And the search warrant sought evidence related to communications between Cohen and the Trump presidential campaign and to payoffs made to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal to ensure their silence about sexual affairs with Trump. Trump responded to the searches furiously, and the New York Times reported that his advisers believe this investigation “poses a greater and more imminent threat to the president than even the special counsel’s investigation.”

Another reason for Cohen (and Trump) to worry: According to a report from the McClatchy news service, Mueller has evidence that Cohen traveled to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign. This would corroborate a report, in the famous Steele dossier, that Cohen had traveled to Prague, met with a Russian official, and discussed making payments to European hackers who had targeted the Hillary Clinton campaign. After the Steele dossier was published, Cohen said he had never been to Prague.

Possible consequences of the FBI raid: (1) Prosecutors may use the now-likely indictment of Cohen to pressure him into cooperating with the Mueller investigation—which could be highly problematic for Trump in light of the McClatchy story and in light of Cohen’s central role in Trump’s dealing for many years; (2) Trump could neutralize such pressure by prospectively pardoning Cohen; (3) Even if Trump doesn’t pardon Cohen prospectively, Cohen could feel assured of a pardon either because Trump privately guaranteed it or because Cohen sees a subtext in this:

Scooter skates: On Friday Trump pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the assistant to former Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. The move had little practical effect (George W. Bush had commuted Libby’s sentence), but was seen by some as a message to Cohen and other potential witnesses against Trump that they can count on pardons if they refrain from incriminating the president.

Constitutional crisis update: The FBI raids on Cohen’s premises brought another wave of speculation that Trump would fire either Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation and approved the raids. Various Trump allies on Fox News advocated firing Rosenstein, and the White House prepared talking points to undermine Rosenstein’s credibility. Meanwhile former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon lobbied White House aides and congressional allies to take steps to cripple the special counsel’s investigation. In response there was some movement on a stalled bipartisan Senate bill to protect Mueller’s job, which may end up on the Judiciary Committee’s agenda as early as next week.

Wait—there’s more! Ronan Farrow reported that the Trump-friendly National Enquirer paid a doorman at a Trump building $30,000 to stay silent about a rumor that Trump had fathered a child with an employee. The doorman confirmed the story. And Elliott Broidy resigned his position as deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee after it was reported that he had paid a Playboy model $1.6 million to stay silent about his having impregnated her. The deal was brokered by…. Michael Cohen. Broidy is also famous for trying to make money by influencing America’s Middle East policy.

Trading places: Trump directed his top trade official to explore re-entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, from which he ceremoniously withdrew shortly after taking office. He appeared to be trying to assuage the concerns of farm-state senators. Farmers are anxious about tariffs on US farm products levied by China in response to Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods. Increased access to the markets of TPP member nations could help farmers. Tamping down suggestions he was flip-flopping, Trump tweeted late Thursday night that he would “only join TPP if the deal were substantially better than the deal offered to Pres. Obama.” But renegotiating the deal would be fraught with political complexity; Japan, a key TPP member, says it has already compromised enough. Meanwhile, a Chinese government spokesperson told the New York Times that “no actual trade negotiations were underway” to resolve the conflict with the US over trade. Bloomberg reports that talks have stalled.

Ryan-nara: House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he would not stand for re-election. This would seem to increase the chances that Republicans will lose control of the House in November. Forty-three Republican incumbents have already said they won’t run for re-election, and Ryan’s departure may encourage more of that. Several political analysts opined that Ryan’s brand of fiscally austere conservatism has been marginalized by Trump’s ideologically flexible populism.

Comey strikes back: Excerpts from James Comey’s memoir, which will be published next week, began to leak on Thursday. The former FBI director writes that Trump asked him to disprove the existence of the infamous “pee tape” lest Melania begin to entertain doubts about her husband. Comey compared the president to a mafia boss—lying constantly, surrounded by sycophants, and demanding personal loyalty. In reply, Trump suggested that Comey is “an untruthful slimeball.”

Pompeo grilled: Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo faced a tougher-than-expected interrogation at his Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing, raising the prospect that he won’t receive a favorable recommendation from the committee. He frustrated Democrats by evading questions about his past objections to the Iran nuclear deal; by failing to renounce or criticize friends who are commonly identified as extreme Islamophobes; and by giving what Politico called “seemingly contradictory answers” about reports that Trump tried to get him to use his perch as CIA Director to pressure former FBI Director James Comey. If all Democrats on the committee vote against the nomination, along with GOP Sen. Rand Paul, who opposes it, Pompeo will not be endorsed by the committee. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would still be expected to bring the nomination to the Senate floor, where a majority vote in favor seems likely.

Pruitt Watch: As details of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s alleged improprieties and eccentricities continued to emerge, the Senate confirmed former coal-industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as Pruitt’s deputy. Wheeler, who, like Pruitt, is a skeptic of climate-change science and of government regulation, would become acting EPA head if Pruitt is forced out of his job.

Workfare: Trump signed an executive order that would strengthen work requirements for people receiving welfare. The order directs eight cabinet secretaries who oversee various forms of welfare (such as food stamps and Medicaid) to explore such changes, as well as ways to give states more flexibility in using federal welfare funds. Associated Press reported that the administration is considering letting states require some food stamp recipients to undergo drug tests.


Below is an article I wrote that was published in Wired this week. It’s a critique of Steven Pinker’s new bestseller Enlightenment Now. I argue that even Pinker, an undeniably insightful psychologist, doesn’t fully grasp the roots of the cognitive biases that warp our thinking and that both feed on and sustain tribalism.

–Robert Wright

IF YOU HAVEN’T encountered any reviews of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s new bestseller Enlightenment Now—which would be amazing, given how many there have been—don’t worry. I can summarize them in two paragraphs.

The positive ones say Pinker argues convincingly that we should be deeply grateful for the Enlightenment and should put our stock in its legacy. A handful of European thinkers who were born a few centuries ago set our species firmly on the path of progress with their compelling commitment to science, reason, and humanism (where humanism means “maximizing human flourishing”). Things have indeed, as Pinker documents in great detail, gotten better in pretty much every way—materially, morally, politically—since then. And if we stay true to Enlightenment values, they’ll keep getting better.

The negative reviews say things like this: Pinker attributes too much of our past progress to Enlightenment thought (giving short shrift, for example, to the role of Christian thinkers and activists in ending slavery); his faith in science and reason is naive, given how often they’ve been misused; his assumption that scientifically powered progress will bring happiness betrays a misunderstanding of our deepest needs; his apparent belief that secular humanism can fill the spiritual void left by rationalism’s erosion of religion only underscores that misunderstanding; and so on. In short: In one sense or another, Pinker overdoes this whole enlightenment thing.

My own problem with the book is the sense in which Pinker underdoes the enlightenment thing. In describing the path that will lead humankind to a bright future, he ignores the importance of enlightenment in the Eastern sense of the term. If the power of science and reason aren’t paired with a more contemplative kind of insight, I think the whole Enlightenment project, and maybe even the whole human experiment, could fail.

If you fear I’m heading in a deeply spiritual or excruciatingly mushy direction—toward a sermon on the oneness of all beings or the need for loving kindness—I have good news: I’ve delivered such sermons, but this isn’t one of them. Eastern enlightenment has multiple meanings and dimensions, and some of those involve more logical rigor than you might think. In the end, an Eastern view of the mind can mesh well with modern cognitive science—a fact that Pinker could have usefully pondered before writing this book…

You can continue reading the piece at Wired.


The “Resistance” isn’t known for having an especially high opinion of Trump voters. In fact, this is one of the founding complaints of the Mindful Resistance Project: The mainstream Resistance sometimes evinces a tendency to “essentialize” Trump voters as bigoted, xenophobic, and/or stupid, and so fails to adequately explore why they voted for Trump.

This week, on the philosophy blog Electric Agora, David Ottlinger suggested that the Resistance may not have an especially high opinion of people in general. He says that leaders of the Resistance rarely try to influence the opinions and attitudes of people “by appealing to them directly.” Rather, they “appeal to elites,” who in turn are expected to “change the people.”

These elites include politicians and, especially, journalists, whose coverage and commentary the Resistance tries to sway via “media criticism.” In other words: if journalists put the Resistance-approved spin on stories, then their audiences will be influenced accordingly. Ottlinger writes, “Missing is any idea of reader agency.” People are just puppets, so the key is to influence the puppeteers.

An interesting take—and it gets even more interesting (from my P.O.V.) when Ottlinger lauds the Mindful Resistance Project as taking the opposite tack: seeking change by working at the grassroots level, trying to persuade people directly rather than manipulate them through media spin.

I had never thought about the contrast between Mindful Resistance and the Regular Resistance quite like that—as a bottom-up versus top-down approach. One reason is that I do think there is benefit in exerting any influence at the top you can exert—in other words, make politicians, journalists, and other elites more mindful.

That said, it’s true that I’m not optimistic about changing the basic incentives that govern the media (click maximization) or politicians (vote maximization). Indeed, that was my take, in last week’s newsletter, on the Kevin Williamson controversy: the only way to disempower trolls like Williamson is to quit clicking on their bait. Which means readers, broadly, need to become more mindful.

I won’t recapitulate Ottlinger’s entire argument that “any successful resistance to Trump and Trumpism must be a democratic and a republican movement” and must “take civic virtue seriously.” I encourage you to read it yourself. But I will say it’s the first essay I’ve seen that suggests that Buddhist practice might help realize the vision of America’s founders.

—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)


In New York Magazine, national security expert Heather Hurlburt ponders the strategy behind the airstrikes on Syria and is not impressed.

Three days before Trump ordered strikes against Syria, Jack Goldsmith and Oona Hathaway listed some downsides to such strikes, ranging from their dubious standing in domestic and international law to their uncertain and possibly bad consequences.

In the course of a Lawfare podcast, Tess Bridgeman of Stanford gives unusually thorough attention to the standing of the Syrian airstrikes in both national and international law.

On Lawfare, Benjamin Wittes explains why the expansion of the Trump investigation to the US Attorney in New York is so threatening to Trump and writes: “The country is entering a dangerous moment—the moment of actual confrontation between the president of the United States and those who would investigate him.”

Jonathan Chait assembles off-the-record quotes from White House insiders suggesting that Trump may be close to firing Rod Rosenstein.

A Wall Street Journal piece explains why Trump’s hopes of rejoining the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership on terms better than those negotiated by Obama are probably unrealistic.

Two Facebook pages associated with white nationalist Richard Spencer have been kicked off Facebook, Vice reports.

Politico’s Michael Grunwald contends EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has proven to be ineffective at dismantling Barack Obama’s environmental legacy. In National Review, Jon Tierney argues that Pruitt is not anti-science.

Geoffrey Skelley of Sabato’s Crystal Ball assesses the import of the record number of House retirements this election cycle.


In Vox, Brian Resnick gathers research findings from psychology that help make sense of the Trump era.

In the Washington Post, Molly Roberts looks at the “Diamond and Silk affair” as a case study in claims of anti-conservative bias on the part of Facebook and in the tension between “Facebook’s fight to cut down on false information as well as hate speech” and its “commitment to protect freedom of expression.”

ABC profiles the president’s favorite TV show, Fox & Friends.

In Lobelog, Robert E. Hunter, former US Ambassador to NATO, looks at the long-term prospects for bringing peace and stability to Syria.

Paul Glastris writes that Democrats need to focus not on registering people to vote but rather on convincing those who are already registered to show up at the polls.

Evangelical activists are unhappy that Congress hasn’t done much aside from cut taxes, reports McClatchy’s Katie Glueck.



Better than Better Angels? In last week’s News You Can Use, conveying a tip from MRN reader Landon, we alerted you to Better Angels, a program that aims to build bridges across America’s tribal divides. This week, conveying a tip from MRN reader Elizabeth, we alert you to Living Room Conversations, a program that aims to… build bridges across America’s tribal divides. If you’re really ambitious, you can check out both and report back to us about which one seems better. And if you’re just pretty ambitious, you can try either and report back to us about whether you found it worthwhile.

Shareable: Arguably, this should be under the rubric News We Can Use, since it helps us when you use it. But in any event: This is a quick tutorial on how to make use of our social media sharing icons even if social media isn’t where you plan to do the sharing. 

Suppose, for example, that you want to email someone a link to a particular section of the newsletter—like, say, the section you’re reading now: NEWS YOU CAN USE.

Here’s what you do: Go up to the bar encompassing the words NEWS YOU CAN USE and click the Twitter icon. A window will pop open that has some words and then a link. You just copy the link and paste it wherever you want—email, text message, comments section on the New York Times, wherever. Or, of course, you can just go straight to Twitter. In any event, people who click on your link will go straight to the section of the newsletter you wanted to let them know about.

To take a recent example: If you had followed these very instructions last week, after you clicked on the Twitter icon you would see this URL: And if you shared that link, people might click on it and become MRN subscribers. And these new subscribers might later share such links themselves. And so on….

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


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