Issue #51: Nov 11-Nov 17, 2018

In this week’s MRN: Some good news about Yemen, reflections on the meaning of “tribalism,” Trump’s ongoing attempt to protect a royal murderer, and background links on everything from Eastern European nationalism to reward-the-loudmouth technology. Plus, of course, News You Can Use. [Note: No newsletter next week. The hardworking MRN staff will be busy giving thanks for Thanksgiving.]

–Robert Wright

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A ray of hope for Yemen: The UN envoy for Yemen said that Yemen’s government and the Houthi rebels had agreed to start peace talks in Sweden. Britain prepared to introduce a UN resolution on Monday that would demand a ceasefire, notwithstanding heated resistance to the resolution from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who in 2015 massively amped up Yemen’s civil war with a military intervention that continues today.

Speaking of bin Salman’s heatedness: The CIA has concluded with “high confidence” that bin Salman ordered last month’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, the Washington Post reported. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia said it will seek the death penalty for five of the Saudi operatives accused of carrying out the murder.

Don’t mess with Melania: Mira Ricardel, deputy to National Security Adviser John Bolton, was fired after Melania Trump publicly called for her dismissal, apparently because Ricardel clashed with the First Lady’s staff. Ricardel was a strong ideological ally of Bolton and reportedly had joined with him in trying to oust Secretary of Defense James Mattis, whom they consider insufficiently hawkish (notwithstanding the fact that his nickname as a Marine general was “Mad Dog”).

Trump vs. Europe: Commemoration of the end of World War One became the occasion for conflict between Trump and Western European leaders. On Armistice Day, with Trump sitting nearby, French president Emmanuel Macron pointedly decried “nationalism”—which led Trump to disparageMacron on Twitter, after which Germany’s Angela Merkel joined Macron in calling for “a real, true European army,” saying that “the times when we could rely on others is past.”

Trump vs. CNN: A judge ruled in favor of CNN in its lawsuit against the White House over the revocation of reporter Jim Acosta’s press credentials. Fox News had issued a statement supporting the lawsuit.

Theresa may exit: The Brexit deal negotiated with the EU by British Prime Minister Theresa May drew attacks from within her party and triggered resignations in her cabinet, raising doubts about her ability to get the deal through Parliament and even about her continued viability as prime minister.

Israel-Palestine conflict: The most intense fighting between Israel and Gaza since 2014 broke out after an incursion of undercover Israeli commandos into Gaza sparked a firefight that escalated into an exchange of rockets and airstrikes. Peace was restored via a cease-fire that was unpopular enough on Israel’s far right to imperil Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s coalition government.

Flake slams brakes: Senator Jeff Flake announced that he won’t vote to move any Trump judicial nominations from the Judiciary Committee to the Senate floor until a bill to protect the Mueller investigation gets a floor vote. Republicans need Flake’s support to win party-line votes on the committee, and Flake used that power in June to force a floor vote on curtailing the president’s ability to impose tariffs on national security grounds.

Deadly fires: Northern California wildfires continued to wreak havoc, with more than 70 people now confirmed dead, over 1,000 people missing, and smoke causing dangerous air conditions in San Francisco. Governor Jerry Brown said those who deny climate change “are definitely contributing to the tragedy,” and Trump, who once dismissed climate change as a hoax, said “maybe” it contributed to the California fires “a little bit.”

So long, Kools and Juuls: The FDA announced actions to curb underage use of tobacco products, including a ban on menthol cigarettes and limits on how e-cigarettes can be marketed and sold.


by Robert Wright

Most reassuring email of the week: MRN reader Karen writes, “Trump is a correction, a part of our awakening. Not to worry. All is well.” Well that’s a load off my mind! But, seriously, Karen may have a point. I mean, I’m not as sanguine as she is; I think it will be awhile before the phrase “All is well” springs to mind every time I see Trump’s florid visage on TV. Still, it’s true that Trump is forcing us to reckon with things we should have reckoned with long ago. In particular, he’s helped make “tribalism” a buzzword, and I think pondering tribalism is a good thing, as long as we’re clear on what tribalism does and doesn’t mean. Speaking of which:  

What is tribalism? In the Atlantic, Adam Serwer recently challenged the common view that “tribalism” is a big problem on both sides of America’s political divide. As a member of the tribe that holds the common view, I will not let this attack go unavenged!

The reason the tribalism label shouldn’t be applied symmetrically, says Serwer, is that only Trump’s side of the divide “remotely resembles a coalition based on ethnic and religious lines,” and only Trump’s side of the divide “has committed itself to a political strategy that relies on stoking hatred and fear of the other.” Serwer concludes that America “doesn’t have a ‘tribalism’ problem. It has a racism problem.”

Now, people on Trump’s side of the divide might reply that labeling them as racist, which Serwer more or less does here, is itself a way of “stoking hatred and fear of the other”—a manifestation of tribalism that Serwer himself condemns! 

But I digress. My bigger problem with Serwer’s argument is his insistence on confining the term “tribalism” to its old-fashioned sense of conflict along ethnic or religious lines. If those aren’t the lines that define your group, he seems to believe, your group can’t be tribal. 

A lot of us are using the term more broadly than that, to include groups defined by ideology. The reason is that the psychological mechanisms that sustain conflict along ethnic or religious lines—the emotions, the cognitive biases, the flat-out delusions—also sustain it along ideological lines.

Or, really, pretty much any lines. One study found that if you randomly assign young children blue T-shirts or yellow T-shirts, and then use shirt color as a basis for trivial things like seating assignments, the children will come to believe that their T-shirt tribe is superior to the other T-shirt tribe.

And the classic study of how tribal affiliation shapes perception— “They Saw a Game” —was about how Princeton and Dartmouth students assessed the officiating in a 1951 football game between the two schools. (Answer: Differently.) And you can rest assured that in the 1950s there wasn’t a big difference between Princeton and Dartmouth students along the dimensions of ethnicity or religion.

Though that study was about collegiate tribalism, the cognitive bias it highlighted—more sensitivity to evidence that our tribe was treated unjustly than to evidence that an opposing tribe was so treated—can play out in ethnic tribalism or religious tribalism. Or ideological tribalism: look at how media on the left and right covered allegations of voter suppression or vote tampering in this month’s midterms. 

In a sense the versatility of our tribal psychology is good news. It means humans aren’t doomed to eternal conflict along history’s most traditionally incendiary fault lines—race, religion, nationality. Just watch what happens when a fight breaks out during a basketball game; which side of the fight a player is on depends on the color of his T-shirt, not the color of his skin.

What that fight is telling you is that neither America nor the world is doomed to fracture along lines of ethnicity or religion or any other classically tribal lines. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, even so, it can fracture along other lines, including ideology.

Keeping that from happening is a huge challenge. Some of us believe that meditation is one tool that can help meet the challenge. But whatever tools you favor, meeting the challenge begins with understanding that all of us sometimes evince the psychology of tribalism, because we’re all human.

[Note: This reflection is a partial answer to MRN reader LeBrie, who asked in an email,  “Would you tell us more about why you use that word [tribalism] and how it’s helpful for us to think about mindful resistance?” It probably won’t be the last such reflection.]

Tribalism in the Wild update: Two weeks ago, under the heading Tribalism in the Wild, I linked to a video that had been widely shared in pro-Trump circles and depicts a white man confronting a black man wearing a MAGA hat. I used the video to argue for pausing and reflecting before you “spread the word about a single miscreant in the other tribe doing something bad.” After all, such miscreants usually aren’t typical of that tribe, yet some members of your tribe will infer that they are. Well, now MRN reader Robert has offered another reason to pause before sharing. He notes that the very video I linked to had been unmasked as a fake before I posted about it. (If you watch the video you may notice that there’s something off about it, in particular the victim’s unlikely passiveness.)
Headline of the Week: Trump Mulls Letting Turkey Kill U.S. Resident to Help Saudis Get Away With Killing U.S. Resident. No, it’s not from the Onion’s Thanksgiving edition—the Turkey in question is the country, not the animal. The headline is from New York Magazine, and the story is worth unpacking.  

The headline refers to an NBC News report that the Trump administration is considering evicting long-time US resident Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania.  Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan thinks Gulen was behind the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, and had sought his extradition even before that. If Gulen does wind up in Turkish hands he’ll probably be executed. Until now, Trump officials, like Obama officials before them, hadn’t found the evidence against Gulen strong enough to warrant extradition. But suddenly Trump is said to be having a change of heart.

Why? According to NBC News, handing Gulen over would be a favor to Erdogan that might lead him to ease up on his criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman—in particular, to quit leaking evidence that bin Salman (“MBS”) ordered the murder of Saudi journalist (and US resident) Jamal Khashoggi In Turkey. 

So, if all goes according to plan, Erdogan would get to kill Gulen and MBS would escape blame for killing Khashoggi. Win-win!

Now, this plan may well not materialize. The NBC story probably resulted from a leak that was intended to short-circuit the plan, and the leak may succeed. Besides, the CIA’s recently reported conclusion that MBS indeed ordered the Khashoggi killing may complicate Trump’s continued cozying up to him.

Still, it’s worth asking: Whence the drive to cozy up? Why is the US so intent on protecting the Saudi regime in the first place?

I promise to address that question in the next issue of the newsletter—which will be two weeks from now, after the Thanksgiving break. And I’ll do so in the context of Yemen’s civil war, because there the US-Saudi lovefest is sustaining killing on a scale that dwarfs the killing of a single Turkish cleric.  

Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving, and don’t forget to email us with questions, criticisms, encouragement, discouragement,


After Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined protesters in Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand a “Green New Deal” on climate change, Daniel Marans argued in HuffPost that this “inside out” approach to policy advocacy makes sense and has a history of success.

An analysis in 538 shows that while the number of Democratic women in Congress has grown sharply over the past four decades—and will pass the 100 mark in the next Congress—the number of Republican women has barely grown.

In Politico Jack Shafer says the longstanding tension between Trump and CNN’s Jim Acosta has been good business for both of them.

On The Real News, Aaron Mate explores the implications of one of Jeff Sessions’s final acts as attorney general: limiting federal oversight of police forces accused of abuses.

In Slate, Max Holland writes about the parallels between Trump’s appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general and Nixon’s appointment of Patrick Gray III to lead the FBI after the Watergate break-in. In the Washington Post, Jed Shugerman argues that lots of presidents have appointed hacks as attorney general.

The New York Times examines how Facebook responded to revelations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Among the company’s moves was to hire a PR firm that tried to discredit Facebook critics by claiming they were agents of George Soros.

A New York Times analysis concludes that Trump’s tax cuts had little effect on jobs and wages; the 1,000 biggest publicly held companies have eliminated nearly 140,000 jobs since the cuts were passed.

A clerical error in a court filing indicates that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been secretly indicted by the US government, a terrorism expert discovered. The charges aren’t known.

A New York Times piece, citing a think tank study, says that North Korea “has been engaged in a great deception” by secretly working on 16 ballistic missile bases while conspicuously dismantling other facilities. This wasn’t news to arms control experts or to Trump officials, and it doesn’t indicate violation of the deal Trump reached with North Korea—but it does underscore the deal’s vagueness.

After the NRA’s Twitter account told “anti-gun doctors” to “stay in their lane” and not comment on gun policy, dozens of doctors shared graphic photos and horrific stories of working to save victims of gun violence.

In Lion’s Roar, Buddhist figures such as Bhikkhu Bodhi and Rev. angel Kyodo williams offer their reflections on the midterm elections.

Denmark is withholding $9.8 million in aid from Tanzania in response to homophobic comments made by a prominent Tanzanian politician. Homosexuality is illegal in Tanzania.


An essay in Quillette argues that the roots of contemporary tribalism have less to do with politics than with such features of modern life as technologically driven social isolation and the decline of civic participation.

In Wired, writer Jean Guerrero looks at the life of her father—a so-called “targeted individual” who believes that the CIA is spying on him—to explore more general anxieties aroused by technology, Facebook, and the NSA.

This month saw the first member of Congress to be elected via “ranked-choice voting,” and in USA today, Lawrence Lessig says the technique should be used in presidential races.

The Guardian’s Natalie Nougayrède argues that the conventional narrative about the aftermath of World War I overlooks the experience of Eastern Europeans, thus reinforcing a sense of grievance that now fuels far-right movements in Hungary and Poland. Foreign Policy’s Remi Adekoyaexplains how Poland’s history of subjugation by other nations strengthens contemporary nationalism and distrust of the West.

Former Apple employee Heather Gold says recent updates to video-chat platforms “are making conversations between groups worse” with a “reward-the-loudmouth” design.

The LA Times reports that Trump has “retreated into a cocoon of bitterness and resentment” after the midterms. Pivoting off of Trump’s absences at some recent public events, Tom Scocca contends that Trump is not merely a dysfunctional president, but a “non-functional” one—something he says the press is poorly equipped to understand.

In Foreign Affairs, Charles Kenny argues that globalization has been overwhelmingly positive for the US economy. He says an increase in immigrant labor doesn’t lower wages or employment levels and sometimes raises them.

Historian Heather Cox Richardson compares Trump’s hyping of the migrant caravan to President Benjamin Harrison’s 1890 mobilization of 7,000 troops to South Dakota to confront an exaggerated threat of a Lakota Indian uprising.

Researchers at the College of William and Mary are using satellite images of lights at night to assess the effects of China’s massive infrastructure program in developing nations.


Is the Mueller investigation jeopardized by the appointment of overt Mueller skeptic Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general? Senator Jeff Flake seems to think so and is pressuring the Republican Senate leadership to permit a floor vote on a bill aimed at protecting the investigation. In April, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed by a 14-7 vote the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, which would provide that only a Senate-confirmed Justice Department official could fire Robert Mueller—and only for “good cause” as affirmed by a federal judge. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has kept the bill bottled up, but Flake’s pressure could force him to relent. Even if the bill didn’t become law—which would require House passage and either Trump’s signature or a veto override vote—its passage by the Senate could make it harder, as a political matter, for Trump to fire Mueller. If you think that’s important, you can contact your senators and make your views known.


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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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