Issue #61: Feb 3–9, 2019

In this week’s newsletter we: (1) watch presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard get pilloried for thinking clinically about foreign policy; (2) explore a cognitive bias that discourages such thinking; (3) search for inoffensive synonyms for “tribalism”; (4) announce an MRN hiring initiative; (5) steer you to background reading on things ranging from the Green New Deal to a visit with Davos plutocrats; (6) offer our usual summary of the week’s news—including a summary of the Jeff Bezos story that doesn’t involve a single body-part-related pun!

–Robert Wright

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Virginia’s Democratic dominoes: The top three state officials in Virginia, all Democrats, face calls to resign that could wind up putting a Republican in the governor’s mansion. If Gov. Ralph Northam (who admitted wearing blackface in medical school) resigns, the line of succession would be: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (accused of committing sexual assault in 2000 and2004), Attorney General Mark Herring (also an admitted blackface wearer), and Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox (with no known career-threatening scandals in his past).

Investigating Acosta: The Justice Department opened an investigation that could implicate Trump Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta in wrongdoing. The investigation focuses on a famously lenient 2007 plea deal that Acosta, then a federal prosecutor in Florida, reached with well-connected billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who had been accused of sexually abusing teenage girls.

Union’s state addressed: Trump’s second State of the Union address contained only one major announcement: that he will hold a second nuclear summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, in Vietnam, at the end of February. The president didn’t threaten to shut down the government to fund a border wall, and he reiterated his intention to withdraw troops from Syria and to negotiate a deal that would permit troops to leave Afghanistan.

Oops: CNN reported that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have transferred weapons they bought from the US to Al Qaeda-linked fighters and other jihadist militias, violating the terms of sale.

Bezos blackmail? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the company that owns the National Enquirer had threatened to publish racy selfies exchanged between him and his extramarital lover unless he called off his investigation into how the Enquirer got ahold of the selfies, and of text messages it had already published. Given that the company’s CEO, David Pecker, is a longtime friend of Trump’s, and that Trump considers Bezos an enemy, there was naturally speculation that the blackmail was intended to keep a Trump role in the invasion of Bezos’s privacy from being uncovered.

First the good news: NASA scientists announced that 2018 was the coolest year since 2014 but still the fourth-hottest year on record.  

Venezuelan standoff: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that Venezuela reopen a bridge on the Colombian border, which President Nicolás Maduro has blocked, so that US humanitarian aid can be put in the hands of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the US has deemed Venezuela’s rightful leader. Meanwhile, the Maduro regime said it had seized weapons that were secretly flown into Venezuela from Miami.
Roe v. Wade tea leaves: The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, temporarily blocked a Louisiana law that prevents most abortion providers from performing abortions. Analysts looking for clues as to how the Court might vote in a future ruling that would bear more directly on Roe v. Wade noted that Brett Kavanaugh voted with the minority to uphold the law but Chief Justice John Roberts, who has often voted with conservatives in the past, didn’t.

Abuse in the church: Pope Francis acknowledged for the first time that nuns have long been sexually abused by priests and bishops, with some nuns forced to have abortions.

BDS loses: The Senate passed a bill that, among other things, authorizes state governments to deny contracts to companies that boycott Israel. Six of the seven Senate Democrats who are prospective presidential candidates voted against the bill—most citing First Amendment concerns—but Amy Klobuchar, who is expected to announce her presidential candidacy on Sunday, voted for it.

Man of the House: John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who was the longest serving member of Congress in American history, died at the age of 92. As a member of the House of Representatives from 1955 to 2015, Dingell championed the auto industry, environmental protections, and Medicare, and in his final years he developed an active presence on Twitter.


by Robert Wright

Score! Last week I said that if MRN could pick up another dozen or so Patreon supporters we’d pass the $1,000 per month milestone. Well, we picked up not just a dozen, but a score (in the sense of, you know, 20), and moved past the $1,100 mark. Welcome aboard to our new Patrons—you’ve gotten us to the 190-Patrons mark, within a stone’s throw of 200! Fence-sitters should feel free to ponder that last sentence. Meanwhile:

MRN is hiring! In deciding how to deploy the financial resources made available by our deeply appreciated Patreon Patrons, we were torn between two options: (1) buy productivity-enhancing office equipment for my office; (2) buy something less expensive—such as productivity-enhancing nutrients—for all our team members. The vote wound up tied (me against them), so we settled on option 3: Assume that a few more MRN readers will take the Patreon plunge, and go ahead and hire the part-time worker that this would allow us to hire. That way some of our team members could be freed up to work on other prongs of our multi-pronged strategy for planetary salvation.

So here’s the job description. If you know anyone who might be right for the job, please direct their attention to it. And if no particular candidate comes to mind, feel free to spread the word more diffusely, by retweeting this.

Tulsi’s enemies and yours: This week Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard got raked over the coals for refusing, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, to label Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad an enemy or even an adversary. She said he’s not an “enemy” because he poses no threat to the US. And as for “adversary”: though she didn’t get a lot of time to explain her aversion to that term, she seemed to be saying that labels like that get in the way of addressing what she considers the key question: where do Assad’s interests align with America’s (e.g., in fighting ISIS), and where do they not?

“No labels” may sound like a mush-minded approach to foreign policy, but there’s actually some science that backs it up. It turns out that thinking of someone as your enemy or even your rival or adversary can warp your view of reality in dangerous ways. And this is worth keeping in mind even if you’re not a foreign policy nerd. After all, we all have enemies—or, at least, we all have people we’re tempted to think of as enemies. 

This label-induced warping of your view of reality happens via a cognitive bias knowns as “attribution error.” [Pre-emptive self-plagiarism confession: parts of the next few paragraphs are taken from my book Why Buddhism Is True.]

The word attribution here refers to the tendency to explain people’s behavior in terms of either “dispositional” factors—in other words, the kind of person they are—or “situational” factors. If you’re in line at a checkout counter, and the guy in front of you is rude to the clerk, and you think, “What a jerk that guy is,” you’re attributing the rudeness to disposition. If you instead think, “That guy must have had a bad day,” you’re attributing the rudeness to situation.

When coined in 1977, the term “fundamental attribution error” referred to a general tendency to overestimate the role of disposition and underestimate the role of situation. In other words, most of us, most of the time, go with, “What a jerk,” not “Maybe he just had a bad day”.

But it turns out there are two cases in which we downplay the role of disposition: (1) if an enemy or rival does something good, we’re inclined to attribute it to circumstance: he’s just giving money to the beggar to impress a woman who happens to be standing there; (2) if a close friend or ally does something bad, then here, too, circumstance tends to loom large: she’s yelling at a beggar who asks for money because she’s stressed out over her job.

This interpretive flexibility shapes not only our personal lives but international relations. The social scientist Herbert C. Kelman has noted how it keeps enemies on the enemies list: “Attribution mechanisms . . . promote confirmation of the original enemy image. Hostile actions by the enemy are attributed dispositionally, and thus provide further evidence of the enemy’s inherently aggressive, implacable character. Conciliatory actions are explained away as reactions to situational forces—as tactical maneuvers, responses to external pressure, or temporary adjustments to a position of weakness—and therefore require no revision of the original image.”

And, for good measure, champions of war do their part to keep the enemy label firmly affixed to the leader whose country they want to have a war with (in the run-up to one of America’s two wars with Iraq, the then-hawkish magazine The New Republic put an image of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on its cover with one embellishment: his mustache was cropped so that it looked like Hitler’s); the better to ensure that we interpret all the leader’s behavior in the darkest possible light.

So if, for example, someone like Hussein lets international inspectors into his country to look for weapons of mass destruction—which he did shortly before the Iraq War of 2003—it must be a trick. He must be hiding those weapons of mass destruction somewhere (an assumption that, oddly, stayed intact even after inspectors were allowed to look anywhere they wanted to look yet couldn’t find the weapons!). Therefore we must invade.

So, yes, the enemies label really does get in the way of clear thinking. Even when people have done lots of abhorrent things—like Saddam Hussein, like Bashar Al-Assad—thinking of them as inherently and perpetually abhorrent can wind up hurting you. For example, it might lead you to invade Iraq and thus create a series of nightmares, including whole new abhorrent phenomena such as ISIS.  

And the same goes for your enemies and rivals in everyday life. Though you’re naturally inclined to think of them as dispositionally bad people, thinking of them that way can blur your view of reality, sometimes to your detriment.

Like many problems, this one is easier to identify than to solve. The cognitive machinery that drives attribution error is subtly infused with emotion—with feelings that are activated by the thought of a rival or enemy and that in turn shape subsequent thinking about them.

If you want to make a serious attempt to defuse this cognitive bias, mindfulness meditation can help. I’ll talk about how exactly it can help in some future issue of this newsletter. And maybe I’ll talk about the connection between this cognitive bias and the much misunderstood Buddhist concept of “emptiness.” (The Cliff’s Notes version: This bias is driven by your sensing a kind of “essence of enemy” in the people you label enemies—and the doctrine of emptiness holds that the perception of “essence” is always illusory.)

Meanwhile: Though I’m not on balance a huge Tulsi Gabbard fan (some of her views strike me as crude and reactionary), I wish her luck in her no-labels campaign. But she’s got an uphill battle. Pretty much the entire American foreign policy establishment has a strongly pro-military-intervention disposition. (I guess it could be situational, not dispositional, but it sure is persistent!) And pretty much the entire mainstream media takes its cues from that establishment. Which means lots of people in the media are duty bound to heap disdain on people who try to think clearly.  

Tribalism synonym contest: Last week I asked whether there was a substitute for the word “tribalism” that wouldn’t have the downside of being found offensive by some people who are part of actual, literal tribes. A number of readers offered nominees. For example: “factionalism” (Michael), “polarization,” (Tucker), and “us-and-them-ism” (Susan). I’m not sure we’ve found a winner. Neither “factionalism” nor “polarization” seems to apply broadly enough. (Does either sound quite right when we’re talking about conflict between nations?) And neither of those terms connotes the psychological dimension of the problem the way “tribalism” does. “Us-and-themism” seems better on both counts—and has the added virtue of coming with a ready-made anthem. Still, “us-and-themism” is a bit unwieldy. And there’s an additional problem that afflicts any new coinage: Until a lot of other people adopt it, inefficiencies of communication can ensue. So I may be stuck with tribalism for a while. But nominations are still open. You can email us about this—or anything else—at

MSM bows to the power of MRN! In last week’s newsletter I complained that America’s mainstream media had failed to ask whether Trump’s sanctions on Venezuela would exacerbate Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. Well, within days of my raising this issue, the New York Times addressed it. You think that’s just a coincidence? Oh. Well, still…

Patreon product placement: On our Patreon page we just posted a video of a conversation between me and MRN’s most remote team member—Nikita Petrov in St. Petersburg, Russia—about the future of MRN and of the MRN mission (a subject that turned out to involve discussion of Harry Emerson Fosdick and, weirdly, Jordan Peterson). The video is available to Patrons who are at the four-dollar tier and above. They can also access an audio version of it by following these instructions.


New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait criticizes the Green New Deal, unveiled this week by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, as “at best grossly undercooked, and at worst fatally misconceived…the plan avoids taking stances that are absolutely vital to reduce carbon emissions [and] embraces policies that have nothing to do with climate change whatsoever.” Politico’s Michael Grunwald looks more favorably on the plan as “a messaging device designed to commit the Democratic Party to treating the climate crisis like a real crisis.”

In the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb examines the history of race relations in Virginia and the background of Gov. Ralph Northam. In the Washington Post, former FBI Director James Comey, a Virginia native, writes about the blackface controversy and the many symbols in Virginia that honor the Confederacy.

A few days before Jeff Bezos said the National Enquirer’s owner had tried to blackmail him, Washington Post reporters analyzed whether the Enquirer’s publication of his text messages was part of a targeted political hit—and discussed theories about how the Enquirer had gotten the texts.

In Politico Magazine, Elise Labott writes about how National Security Adviser John Bolton, a champion of regime change in Venezuela and Iran, has amassed power within the Trump administration.

In the Nation, David Klion profiles Matt Duss, Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy adviser.

A 2015 article by Reuters military correspondent David Axe looked at the way the US arms its allies—sometimes with US-made weapons and sometimes with Russian-made ones—and how the arms often end up in enemy hands.

Last month, after an anti-BDS bill failed in the Senate, Vox discussed the 26 state-level anti-BDS laws on the books, and explained how a federal anti-BDS law—such as the one that passed this week—could protect them from a constitutional challenge.

The Moscow Times reports that Google is removing search results in Russia at the request of the government. German antitrust authorities have ordered Facebook to restrict how it collects and processes data about users.

Two scholars at the Peterson Institute for International Economics argue that legislation championed by the White House which would give Trump more power over tariffs “should die in the cradle.”

This week, the House Intelligence Committee voted to turn over to the Mueller investigation transcripts of testimony given during its hearings last term. Two months ago Just Security provided a 19-page “perjury chart” documenting the various misstatements that associates of the president have given to Congress and other investigators.

After Trump used his State of the Union address to cast Democrats as a socialist menace, Cass Sunstein warned Democrats not to embrace socialism. Last month on, Robert Wright interviewed Nathan Robinson, founder of the socialist magazine Current Affairs, about socialism’s growing appeal.


The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson visits the World Economic Forum in Davos to see how the assembled plutocrats and globalists view our era of ascendant nationalism.
BuzzFeed News reports on a growing climate change protest movement in Europe that is being led by teenage girls.

In the New York Times Magazine, Elisabeth Zerofsky profiles French pop-historian Eric Zemmour, whose celebrations of French identity have won him fans on the nationalist right and who, according to Zerofsky, “combines the cable-news pugnacity of Tucker Carlson with the studied contemptuousness of Christopher Hitchens.”

In the Atlantic, Kathleen McAuliffe reports on studies suggesting that conservatives are more grossed out by gross stuff than liberals.

In Bloomberg Businessweek, Ladane Nasseri profiles members of Iran’s Millennial generation who benefited from a new openness after the 2015 nuclear deal but have been frustrated by the reimposition of sanctions after Trump’s withdrawal from the accord.

A Carnegie Moscow Center profile of Ukrainian presidential candidate Vladimir Zelensky observes that his unlikely popularity—he’s an actor and comedian—is the result of “the global trend toward anti-establishment leaders finally reaching Ukraine.”

The New York Times reports that YouTube is moving to limit the reach of videos that “misinform users in a harmful way,” such as those promoting conspiracy theories or other fringe beliefs.

Political scientist and journalist Brendan Nyhan summarizes his research on the influence of “fake news,” arguing that such misinformation played a  smaller role in the 2016 election than many believe.

Hundreds of schools in England will introduce mindfulness as a subject, teaching “relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and other methods.” examines three “mind tricks” your phone plays on you to keep you addicted to it, and offers five suggestions for breaking phone addiction. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson describes an extended disconnect from digital life as a path toward spiritual awakening.

NASA, in collaboration with European Space Agency, plans to launch a spacecraft that will crash into an asteroid, knocking it out of orbit—an operation they call the first ever test of a planetary defense system.

A Chinese-Dutch collaboration led to the first ever photo that features both the entire Moon and Earth in the same image.


This week the New York Times wrote about some San Diego residents who decided to write letters to asylum seekers and other aspiring immigrants who had been detained while trying to cross the border. One asylum seeker from Cameroon, who got his first letter after spending a year in detention, wrote back and said the letter had given him “courage.” This initially informal communications effort has morphed into something more organized. If you want to write one of these letters to a detainee—or lend detainees other forms of support—you can sign up at

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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