Issue #64: Feb 24–Mar 2, 2019

In this week’s MRN we (1) capture in fewer than 200 words just about everything you need to know about Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony; (2) tersely outline a whole bigthink progressive foreign policy; (3) see an MRN reader use real-life experience to highlight the pros and cons of social media; (4) brag about the brisk growth of an MRN discussion group that resides inside a meditation app; (5) offer background links on subjects ranging from “workism” to smartphone detox to CRISPR critters to a Ugandan social media tax aimed at reducing gossip.

–Robert Wright

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Cohen talks: In a congressional hearing, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen testified that in 2016 Trump was told by Roger Stone that Wikileaks would soon release hacked emails damaging to the Clinton campaign and replied, “Wouldn’t that be great.” In addition, Cohen reiterated or corroborated several things that had already been reported: that Trump directed him to pay hush money to former Trump paramour Stormy Daniels and then reimbursed him, in possible violation of campaign finance laws; that, well into the presidential campaign, Trump pursued a Moscow real estate deal that could benefit from Kremlin support, while publicly saying he had no business in Russia; that Trump encouragedCohen to provide false testimony about that to Congress (though, contrary to an explosive and disputed Buzzfeed story published in January, Cohen said the encouragement was implicit, not explicit); and that Trump broke laws governing his charitable foundation—by, for example, using $60,000 of the foundation’s money to reimburse a shill bidder whose assignment was to artificially inflate the auction price for a portrait of Trump (a portrait Trump then took possession of).

Summit not reached: A summit meeting in Vietnam between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended abruptly, and the scheduled ceremony for signing an expected nuclear deal was cancelled. The two parties offered differing accounts as to why.

India vs. Pakistan: Two weeks after a highly lethal suicide bombing in the Indian-held part of the disputed region of Kashmir, Indian jets crossed the Pakistani border and bombed what India said was a training camp of the jihadist group that had claimed responsibility. Pakistan returned the Indian pilot of a jet it had downed, a gesture that seemed to help defuse tensions between the two nuclear powers.

Inslee is in: Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee announced that he will seek the Democratic nomination for president. Inslee, the first governor to enter the race, will make combating climate change the core issue of his campaign.

Bibi busted: Israel’s Attorney General said he would indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for handing out political favors in exchange for lavish gifts and favorable media coverage. Earlier in the week, in anticipation of an April election, Netanyahu forged an alliance with a far-right party widely considered racist—a move that sparked criticism not just from progressive American Jewish groups such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now, but from conservative ones such as AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee.

Non-emergency legislation: The House voted to overturn Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on the US-Mexico border by a margin of 245 to 182. The resolution will now move to the Senate, where three GOP senators have said they will support it—which means that one more Republican supporter could bring passage, though by a margin that, like the House margin, would not withstand a Trump veto.

Afghanistan peace talks: The US and the Taliban began their highest level talks to date about ending the war in Afghanistan.

Kushy job: The New York Times reported that in 2017 Trump ordered that Jared Kushner, a White House adviser and the president’s son-in-law, be given a top-secret security clearance despite concerns raised by the FBI and CIA and against the advice of the White House counsel.

Actual gun control legislation: The House passed its most sweeping gun control reform bill in decades, requiring background checks for nearly all gun purchases. The measure is unlikely to receive a vote in the Senate, and Trump has already threatened to veto the legislation if necessary.


by Robert Wright

A new progressive foreign policy: With the Democratic presidential campaign coming to life, there has been lots of discussion of a “new progressive foreign policy.” In fact, I’ve done a fair amount of such discussing myself. Three weeks ago, on, I talked about this very subject with DC think tanker (and former Hillary speechwriter) Heather Hurlburt, and a week ago I talked about it with Yale history and law professor Samuel Moyn. (Both are available as audio podcasts on the Wright Show feed.)

In both discussions you may sense a recurring theme: I keep trying to sneak in plugs for my own preferred version of such a foreign policy, which I call “progressive realism.” But days after finishing the discussions, I had a revelation: Why be so sneaky about it? Why not just put my progressive realism manifesto right in the middle of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, so that readers can’t scroll from THE WEEK to BACKGROUND without tripping over it? So that’s what I’ve done. Mercifully, I’ve selected the extremely short version of my manifesto, which appeared in the Nation two years ago, rather than the longer version, which appeared in the New York Times 13 years ago. By the way, I think elements of this vision could have appeal on parts of the right (parts of both the libertarian right and of the social-conservative right), and I’ll be having Wright Show conversations with conservatives about this in the near future.

The Case for Progressive Realism
By Robert Wright

[originally published in the Dec 21, 2016 issue of The Nation under the title “American Foreign Policy Has an Empathy Problem”]

American foreign policy has an empathy problem.

The problem isn’t a shortage of empathy. Large quantities of empathy have been harnessed to build support for ill-advised interventions. The Iraq War was waged in part to help suffering Iraqis, many of whom, as it happened, wound up dead. The United States and its allies justified the arming of Syrian rebels as a way to help the oppressed Syrian people, though, in retrospect, had there been no armed insurrection, hundreds of thousands of Syrians would be better off—living under an oppressive regime, but still living. Not to mention the millions of refugees and the many Syrians who have suffered under ISIS’s rule.

No, the problem isn’t a shortage of empathy, but rather an imbalance between two kinds of empathy. Psychologists distinguish between “emotional empathy”—the feel-your-pain kind, which supporters of military intervention are good at cultivating—and “cognitive empathy.” Cognitive empathy means putting yourself in the shoes of other people in the sense of seeing how the world looks to them: perspective-taking.

For example, had we put ourselves in the shoes of Sunni Iraqis, we might have guessed that replacing a longtime Sunni leader with a Shiite leader would strike them as threatening—so threatening that, unless the transition were handled with unlikely deftness, rebellion could ensue. Had we put ourselves in the shoes of Bashar al-Assad, we wouldn’t have insisted for so long that any negotiated solution begin with his surrendering power. Authoritarian leaders almost never surrender power, least of all in an age when the reach of justice is increasingly global; leaders with a history of human-rights abuses no longer feel enduringly secure in exile.

And so on. Much of the problem with American foreign policy is a simple failure to understand the perspectives of important actors clearly enough to calculate the likely consequences of our actions.

The kind of cool calculation I’m recommending is typical of the “realist” school of foreign policy that has historically been associated with the right. Realism has long been seen as cold-blooded, even immoral, partly because it can mean putting yourself in the shoes of brutal dictators, and partly because one of its best-known practitioners, Henry Kissinger, has so much blood on his hands.

But one can imagine a progressive realism that is quite moral—at least if you agree that preventing mass slaughter and mass suffering is morally good. Here are some key distinctions between a progressive realism and more traditional kinds of realpolitik:

§ Progressive realists may tolerate oppressive or belligerent foreign leaders, mindful, among other things, of the carnage and chaos that regime change can bring. But that doesn’t mean actively backing such leaders—as when the United States validates a coup by funding Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, or logistically supports the Saudi bombing of Yemen.

§ Progressive realists, more than most realists on the right (not to mention neoconservatives and many liberal interventionists), understand that respecting and strengthening international law serves American interests. One benefit of respecting international law is the valuable self-restraint it can bring. The invasion of Iraq in 2003—deemed unlawful by no less an authority than UN Secretary General Kofi Annan—turned out to be the biggest US foreign-policy blunder of the past half-century. A second benefit of respecting international law is the fostering of such respect among other nations. Certainly America’s casual disregard for international law has had the opposite effect. The 1999 intervention of NATO in Kosovo without the UN Security Council’s authorization, which culminated in Kosovo’s 2008 secession from Serbia, was used by Russia to justify its 2008 incursion into Georgia and may have helped provoke it.

§ Progressive realists understand that technological evolution will only strengthen the logic behind building a more robust system of international law and global governance. Technologically created challenges, ranging from climate change to bioweapons proliferation to the catastrophic potential of cyberwarfare, make it in the mutual interest of nations to negotiate symmetrical, enforceable restraints on their own behavior.

There is much more to say about progressive realism, but fundamentally it comes down to this: First, do no harm; second, respect international law; and third, nurture global governance.

Techno-ambivalence: Thanks again to readers who have heeded our call for input about how digital technologies are affecting your lives. It’s all grist for our forthcoming guide to using social media mindfully. I wanted to share an email from a reader I’ll call Stephanie (because that’s her name) in its entirety because it so well captures some of the major pros and cons of social media:

How can a freelancer forgo social media? I belong to several closed
Facebook groups for women writers that are immensely valuable in terms
of moral support, leads to publishing outlets, finding a book cover
designer, contract advice, software, recording devices, when to pester
editors who ghost you and how to tactfully respond when they edit out
your main point, you name it. Even the rather ugly fights that have
destroyed a couple of these groups gave me crucial insight into racial
dynamics and the experience of people of color (I’m white). Despite
everything I know about Facebook I can’t give up these connections—not
to mention the ability FB gives me to publicize my own work and causes.
And my feed includes a lot of well-informed, thoughtful people whose
comments are fascinating. 

On the other hand, social media (and screen life in general) have been
screwing with my mind. I can feel the ping of serotonin in my brain when
FB tells me someone has liked or answered a post, or I see that someone
retweeted a piece I wrote. I’ve been a Buddhist meditator for a long
time, and now my mind is resisting getting quiet. It wants that
stimulation coming in. I’ve never had any kind of addiction but this
feels like one. It’s partly due to the barrage of Trump’s continuous
outrages but his effect is exponentially multiplied by instant access to
every possible piece of info and commentary. I turned off most
notifications but it doesn’t help much. I find myself forgetting things
like I never did before because so much new data is coming in that it
just pushes the old stuff out.

Stephanie, I feel your pain when it comes to (1) data overload turning your brain into mush; (2) editors turning your sinewy prose into mush. Aside from empathy, the main form of support I can offer is MRN: We work hard to ensure that, should you decide to unplug from social media (or even media more generally) for a few days, Saturday’s newsletter will offer you a way to make sure you haven’t missed any truly important news that week. And we try to weed out the more pointlessly outrage-inducing Trump-related news (unless we can present it as an object lesson in something or other—like, for example, the dynamics of inter-group hostility).

Putin, Peterson, Patreon: Over on MRN’s Patreon page, we’ve posted a videoof me talking with Nikita Petrov, MRN’s shadowy St. Petersburg-based Russian operative, about a wide range of things, including: whether Vladimir Putin is an ethno-nationalist (the answer surprised me), whether Jordan Peterson has done psychedelics, whether YouTube and Facebook are Big Brother, and why there are more Quakers than Shakers. Plus lots of stuff that’s more directly MRN-relevant, like whether MRN’s perspective is global enough (especially in light of its strikingly global readership), whether it should expand from newsletter into full-fledged media site, whether it should shrink from long newsletter into shorter newsletter, and whether, if I started offering guided meditations, I could be convicted of impersonating a real meditation teacher. If you’re not a Patron and thus not video-eligible but have thoughts on any of these questions, please feel free to share them with us via email:

P.S.: Also, please feel free to become a Patron. We need and value your support.

Who said all social media are bad? Last week we announced that we’d just set up a Mindful Resistance group on the Insight Timer meditation app, and a mere seven days later, the group has 70 members! You may ask: what is the group doing? Well, the answer to that question isn’t fully formed (in part because you have to use the app for five days before you’re allowed to post a comment to the group). So if you’re a meditator, or an aspiring meditator (the app offers guided meditations), you can join the group and exert a formative influence on the character of its discourse. To join, click the four small circles in the upper left corner of the app (which you can get for free from the iPhone or Google Play app stores) and search for Mindful Resistance.

FWIW, by the way, I’m finding the timer useful. I used to use a timer (just my smartphone alarm, not an app) for my morning meditation, but I’d somehow gotten out of that habit, and as a result had been finding myself checking my watch as my daily meditation session approached its end—which, of course, is not exactly Buddha-approved meditation technique. Plus, I’m liking having a digital record of my consecutive days of meditation. Makes me feel like I’m a good meditator! Oh wait—feeling that way probably violates some Buddhist precept or some standard meditation-teacher tip. So never mind. Still, I do like the timer, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with the discussion group.


Lawfare assesses the legal implications of Michael Cohen’s testimony. (You might want to skip the five paragraphs of throat clearing at the beginning.) In Vox, Andrew Prokop gives his take on the testimony—and explains why it in some ways helps Trump argue against allegations of collusion with Russia. In the Atlantic, Vann R. Newkirk II asks whether Cohen’s recounting of racist remarks by Trump will damage the president.

On the conservative site the Federalist, Adam Mill says Cohen’s testimony was a “cooked-up pretext to invade the president’s attorney-client privilege…a stain of shame on the rule of law.”

Vox gives background on Gov. Jay Inslee and his presidential campaign’s focus on addressing climate change. The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere interviews Inslee and asks whether a presidential run centered on environmental issues can succeed.

CNN explains why the Kashmir region, the locus of this week’s military conflict between India and Pakistan, has been a flashpoint for over 70 years. Foreign Policy analyzes the domestic political factors—notably an upcoming election—that may have shaped Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to order airstrikes inside Pakistan.

Newsweek’s Tom O’Connor talks to experts who speculate that this week’s North Korean nuclear negotiations failed because of backstage machinations by National Security Adviser John Bolton.

In JTA Ben Sales provides historical background on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance with the far-right Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party, the ideological successor to Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was expelled from Israeli politics in the 1980s and assassinated in New York in 1990 by an Egyptian-American. In 1994, a follower of Kahane massacred 29 Palestinians at the tomb of Abraham in Hebron.

This week a UN human rights commission found “reasonable grounds” to believe that Israeli snipers shot at children, medics, and journalists during protests in Gaza last year, acts that could be war crimes.

At War on the Rocks, Baheer Wardak presents a view of US-Taliban negotiations from the perspective of the Taliban.

For the first time in modern American history, a judge has been appointedto the federal bench without gaining the assent of either of the nominee’s home-state senators. The Alliance for Justice has criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his refusal to uphold this norm, which is more than 100 years old.

In the Daily Beast, Spencer Ackerman describes how parliamentary maneuvering by the House GOP, combined with inattention by House Democrats, may have doomed prospects in the Senate for a House-passed resolution barring US support of Saudi-led military attacks in Yemen. Sen. Bernie Sanders is working to revive the legislation.

The Guardian reports on a Ugandan social media tax aimed at reducing online “gossip.” The daily levy of 200 Ugandan shillings (around five cents) for using Facebook, Twitter, and about 60 other websites caused millions of people to abandon the Internet altogether.

The Washington Post reports on splits between liberal and moderate House Democrats, deepened by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s threat to help unseat moderates in primary elections.

NPR describes a controversial experiment in which scientists used the gene-editing technology CRISPR to introduce a mutation that makes mosquitos sterile and unable to bite. These mosquitoes may eventually be released in Africa to fight malaria.

Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow write in the New Yorker about the Israeli private intelligence firm Psy-Group, which has used spycraft techniques to, for example, influence local American elections.


New York Times business writer Kevin Roose recounts his experience with “phone rehab”—trying to loosen what had become an unhealthily intense dependence on his smartphone. Under the guidance of  a “phone coach,” he learned, among other things, “how profoundly uncomfortable I am with stillness.”

A piece in the Atlantic argues that active-shooter drills in schools are doing more harm than good.

In Vox, Zack Beauchamp writes about two new books that offer intellectual support for the ethno-nationalism of the populist right. Shadi Hamid of Brookings argues in a paper that “anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiment” should be considered “defining features of right-wing populism” in Europe.

In the New York Times, David Brooks proposes a political agenda for moderates—a set of policies rooted in “solidarity, fraternity and conversation across difference.”

J.M. Berger writes in the Atlantic about the many extremist manifestospublished in recent decades, and how the manifesto of the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011 has provided inspiration for many, including Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hasson, who was charged last month with planning a mass-casualty attack.

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias examines new data from the Public Religion Research Institute showing that Republicans are much less inclined than Democrats to favor ethnic diversity in the US.

In Wired, Antonio García Martínez suggests that blockchain technology could help combat “deepfakes,” doctored videos that look real.

Sociologist William Davies worries in a New York Times op-ed that the popular appeal of military rhetoric can undermine democracy.

In the New York Times, historian Stephen Wertheim writes about an emerging tension between America’s “new cold warriors” and a coalition of “restrainers” who are skeptical of American military assertiveness abroad. (MRN’s Robert Wright had a conversation with Wertheim on in January.)

In Aeon, M. M. Owen explores the science and history of conscious breathing.

A study says that unemployed male Christians are especially likely to watch propaganda videos of ISIS beheadings.

In the Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes about the perils of “workism”—placing work at the center of one’s identity.

Andrey Pertsev, a Russian journalist writing for the Carnegie Moscow Center, explores the career of Yevgeny Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef”—the man responsible for the infamous online “troll farm.” Pertsev argues that the media’s portrayal of Prigozhin as one of Putin’s most powerful associates was initially wrong but became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

MRN reader Dan Nixon talks to Jamie Bristow, director of the Mindfulness Initiative, about applying mindfulness in the criminal justice system, schools, and the workplace.

NBC News reports that anti-vaccine videos on YouTube are drowning out videos by pro-vaccine groups despite recently updated algorithms meant to obscure them.

In Aeon, an excerpt from the documentary Please Vote For Me chronicles a Chinese classroom election in which third-graders choose their class monitor.

A Night at the Garden is an Oscar-nominated documentary short about a little-known historical event: a 1939 pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden that was attended by 22,000 Americans.

A short piece in the Economist contends that the demise of the Ottoman Empire was hastened by coffee—or, more accurately, by coffee houses, which seem to have functioned somewhat like social media.


MRN reader Aaron suggests countering the onslaught of negative news with a visit to the Good News Network or Yes Magazine, where uplifting stories are highlighted. Another thing you might check out is journalism that aims to change the realities underlying negative news. The Solutions Journalism Network has built a database of rigorous reporting on responses to social problems. For example, an NPR story detailed 1,200-year-old resource management techniques that can be used to mitigate the impact of climate change.

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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