Issue #65: March 3–9, 2019

In this week’s MRN we: (1) dissect the Ilhan Omar controversy and offer tips for talking about Israel-related matters; (2) assess MRN’s progress toward total world domination; (3) concisely summarize a medium-intensity and medium-weirdness week; (4) offer background links on subjects ranging from climate-change couch potatoes to white-collar robots to Buddhist nationalism to Trump-Fox symbiosis; plus a map (a literal map) of America’s ideological intolerance.

–Robert Wright

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Hate by any other names: Under pressure from the Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi abandoned a resolution that condemned anti-Semitism and was seen as an implicit rebuke of Rep. Ilhan Omar, who had made allegedly anti-Semitic remarks about US policy toward Israel. Instead, the House overwhelmingly approved a revised version that condemned hatred broadly and cited not just anti-Semitism but Islamophobia, racism, and white supremacism.

Invisible deaths: An Obama-era rule requiring public disclosure of the number of civilians killed by CIA drone strikes was revoked by the Trump administration.

Papers, please: The House Judiciary Committee requested documents from 81 individuals or organizations connected to Trump as part of investigations into obstruction of justice, public corruption, and abuses of power. The White House called the probe “disgraceful and abusive,” and Fox News media commentator Howard Kurtz said the committee’s “kitchen sink approach” is a “tactical error” that “plays into President Trump’s hands” by reinforcing his narrative of persecution.

No country for old moderates: Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that they won’t run for president. Some analysts said this smooths the path for a Joe Biden candidacy.

Manafort sentenced: Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sentenced to 47 months in prison for financial fraud, far less than the 19- to 24-year term recommended under federal guidelines. Manafort facesa second sentencing next week for illegal lobbying.

Arab spring: Algeria saw its biggest-ever protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has ruled for 20 years but has rarely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke and is currently in a Swiss hospital. Protests began last month after Bouteflika announced that he would seek a fifth term.

Emergency calculations: The number of illegal crossings of the southern border reached an 11-year high last month, according to data released by the government on Tuesday. The next day, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, testifying before Congress, used the data to defend Trump’s declaration of a national emergency.

To less boldly go… : Trump ordered the Pentagon to develop plans to create a “Space Force” within the Air Force, retreating from his earlier dream of creating a whole new military branch for that purpose.

Guaidó returns: Defying some predictions, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro did not have opposition leader Juan Guaidó arrested when Guaidó returned to the country after conferring with Latin American leaders who support his bid to unseat Maduro. Meanwhile, the two sides blamed each other for widespread power outages as a weekend of pro- and anti-Maduro protests approached.

Ain’t no Bill Shine when he’s gone: Bill Shine, the former Fox News executive who was the fifth White House communications director in the 26 months of Trump’s presidency, resigned and said he will work on Trump’s presidential campaign. His eight-month tenure set a Trump-era record and was 24 times as long as Anthony Scaramucci’s, but Trump reportedly had soured on him.

My way or Huawei: Chinese electronics giant Huawei sued the US over a law that prohibits government purchases of the company’s telecommunications equipment. The US contends that Huawei’s equipment could be used by the Chinese government to spy or to disrupt telecom networks.

In other US-China news: According to a report in Mother Jones, the former owner of the massage parlor where New England Patriots owner and Trump friend Robert Kraft was recently busted for soliciting a prostitute is a Trump donor who frequents Mar-a-Lago and has been offering to sell access to Trump to her investment firm’s Chinese clients. As of now there’s no evidence that Trump knowingly participated in the scheme or that he patronized this particular prostitution outlet.


by Robert Wright

The magic of compounding: Last week I reported with pride that 70 people had signed up for the Mindful Resistance discussion group in the Insight Timer meditation app. Well, in the week since then, the group’s size has gone from 70 to more than 140! If we can sustain this rate of growth—double the number of members every week—then within 26 weeks all 7.7 billion people on Planet Earth will belong to our group. (If you don’t believe me, use your smartphone calculator to do the math while you’re downloading the Insight Timer app.) Total world domination is within our reach! 

And speaking of total world domination: We’ve established an MRN outpost in the strategically critical nation of Denmark. MRN reader Casper, who lives in Denmark, emailed us after we asked Patreon patrons to tell us why they’d decided that our enterprise merited their financial support:

Of the things I get as a Patreon patron, I am particularly appreciative of the newsletter. I realize that it’s free, but it does not write itself, and I am trying to wean myself off an overconsumption of the grotesque but attention-grabbing news coming out of the United States. Knowing I had the newsletter has helped me bring my daily dose way down (deleting the Twitter app has also helped). 
Thank you for that. 

And speaking of Patreon: You can join Casper, and the other generous souls who support our mission, by signing up as a Patreon patron here.

This whole Ilhan Omar thing: This week Cory Booker tried to dodge a question about the Ilhan Omar anti-Semitism controversy, and the video of the dodging went viral—which didn’t exactly strengthen the “profiles in courage” branding that presidential candidates like to sport. Well, I’m not going to make the mistake he made. So I’ll do the next most cowardly thing: try to see the issue from both sides, and do a lot of on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand-ing, and then at the end offer some how-to-talk-about-Israel tips for people on both sides of the issue.

Let’s start with this week’s controversial remark by Omar (not to be confused with last month’s controversial tweet by Omar). Continuing her series of complaints about the power of the Israel lobby, she said, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

This was widely denounced as anti-Semitic, and one of the denouncers, (Democratic) Congressman Juan Vargas, added to his denunciation: “Questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.”

I suspect that, to Omar, this sounded a lot like pushing for allegiance to a foreign country—like Vargas was illustrating the truth of the remark he had just suggested was anti-Semitic. In any event, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes opined on Twitter that Vargas’s determination to maintain US support for Israel reflected the real motivation behind the bipartisan blowback directed at Omar; the concern expressed by Vargas “is, I think, really driving this.”

Then, after getting some blowback of his own—after hearing from people who were outraged by his explanation of their outrage—Hayes added, “I should amend [my tweet] slightly. I don’t think ‘really’ driving this is accurate for many of [the] folks angry about Omar’s comments, but it is hugely present in all of this.”

I’d say that, post-amendment, Hayes had it about right. That is, on the one hand:

Many people who said or implied that Omar is anti-Semitic are motivated largely by fear that American support of Israel will be imperiled if people like her aren’t reigned in. And this isn’t just because they fear her policy positions on Israel. (She supports the BDS movement, which many Israelis consider an existential threat.) It is also, I think, because they know that various American “pro-Israel” groups actually do, collectively, exert great influence on US policy in the Middle East. (I put “pro-Israel” in quotes because I think many of these groups are actually harming Israel’s long-term interests with their support of its current government). And they worry that if more Americans understood this, these policies might get more critical scrutiny.

To put a finer point on it: Omar had triggered an earlier round of anti-Semitism accusations by suggesting that AIPAC—the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee—buys the support of politicians by conditionally channeling contributions to them (“It’s all about the Benjamins,” as she put it). And if Americans—and in particular mainstream liberals—come to think that their representatives are supporting Israel because they get paid to do it, that could make it harder for some of the representatives to support Israel (and to accept the money).

On the other hand: Many of the people who said or implied that Omar is anti-Semitic are motivated not fundamentally by concerns about Israel but by heartfelt concerns about anti-Semitism—and concerns about the threat rising anti-Semitism could pose to Jews in the US and elsewhere. (I suspect that most Americans who aren’t Jewish don’t understand how many American Jews—especially American Jews who are baby boomers or older—think that truly horrific persecution, maybe even something like a second Holocaust, could happen to Jews here or abroad.)

On both hands: Obviously, if both of these things are indeed true—if the motivation behind the blowback Omar got ranges from the political and tactical to the heartfelt and fearful—then this is a complicated situation. And that’s only the half of it! There’s another on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand that mirrors the first one:

On the one hand: Yes, there are genuine anti-Semites who knowingly and intentionally invoke the “tropes” that Omar is alleged to have knowingly and intentionally invoked—that rich Jews surreptitiously control world events and that American Jews have a “dual loyalty” and therefore can’t be trusted. (As was much pointed out this week, some of the more conspicuous examples are Trump supporters—but there are examples on the left as well.)

On the other hand: Some of the people who complain about the power of AIPAC and allied groups—and may even complain that this power is used to pressure them into showing “allegiance” to Israel—aren’t motivated by anti-Semitism. Rather, they complain because they feel that this power is warping American policy—policies toward Israel and toward Palestinians, and policies in the Middle East more broadly (notably America’s potentially war-inducing confrontation of Iran). And they think that if this warping power were more widely understood, more people would appraise these policies critically. (Of course, people intimately familiar with America’s political minefields and/or the history of anti-Semitism might avoid the word “allegiance” even if they’re not using it to accuse American Jews of having a dual allegiance, just to be on the safe side. But in any event it’s worth pointing out that Omar did not make that accusation, though much if not most of the reporting and commentary on this controversy has asserted or implied that she did.)

All told, then, on both sides of the debate about Ilhan Omar—and about whether the things she said should or shouldn’t be out of bounds—we have a spectrum of motivations, ranging from illegitimate and sinister to legitimate and earnest (leaving aside the question of whether the earnest people with legitimate motivations, on either side of the debate, are correct in their specific positions).

In short, this is a mess. All I can offer is three pieces of guidance for people on both sides of this issue:

(1) Be careful how you talk. I don’t mean be careful about what you say; I encourage you to express your views forthrightly on whatever issues you think are important. But you should think carefully about the words you use to express them—about not using words that needlessly antagonize people, or needlessly induce blowback, when other words would have expressed your views just as clearly.

(2) Be circumspect about the motivations you attribute to your ideological opponents, even though some of them, assuredly, have motivations they’re not admitting to (and some they may not be aware of). That’s partly because, given the complex spectrum of belief and motivation on both sides, an uncharitable attribution of motivation could be wrong, but it’s also because even when it’s right it’s probably unproductive at best. Unflattering attributions of motivation can bring antagonisms that polarize the debate further and make the world generally worse.

(3) Be circumspect about your own motivations. We all naturally assume that our motivations are pure. But, actually, impurity creeps into our motivations pretty readily. For example: you may start out with an earnest policy motivation, but if you get fierce criticism from the other side, it’s hard not to start disliking people on the other side, and that dislike can shape how you express your views and even what your views are.
And finally: In the unlikely event that (a) I’ve managed to conceal my own biases on this issue and (b) you’re curious about them, here they are in a nutshell.

(1) I haven’t seen convincing evidence that Ilhan Omar is anti-Semitic, and I don’t think either of the two controversial things she said over the past month—appraised carefully and in context—should be out of bounds (which, as should be clear by now, doesn’t mean that I recommend using the exact phrasing she used). (2) I think AIPAC and other groups that are often aligned with it (including think tanks and various media outlets) champion policies that are bad for the US and, often, bad for Israel—and that such groups are disserving both countries when they try to enforce a speech code that inhibits vigorous debate about these policies.

By the way, if you haven’t viewed the entire 10-minute video of the remarks from which Omar’s infamous “allegiance” quote was extracted, I recommend finding the time for it. And I’d love to hear your reaction to it: . I’m curious as to whether my reaction to it is  widely shared or whether, like so many things, this video is an ideological Rorschach test.


In National Review, David French argues that leftwing commitment to intersectionality prevents some Democrats from condemning Rep. Ilhan Omar. In the Forward, Peter Beinart complains that concern in Congress over “Jewish feelings” in debates about anti-Semitism always outweighs concern about Palestinian rights. In the Guardian, Beinart offers three arguments for why it isn’t anti-Semitic to be anti-Zionist.

In 2015 the Intercept published an elaborate tutorial on America’s drone strike program in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, based largely on leaked government documents. The report came before a 2016 rule mandated public disclosure of civilian casualties from CIA drone strikes—the rule that Trump revoked this week.

The BBC profiles Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, examining whether the company serves as a clandestine extension of China’s state intelligence services.

Miriam Jordan of The New York Times explains why illegal border crossings have grown lately and what kinds of people are doing the crossing.

Blogger Marcy Wheeler sorts the 81 individuals and organizations that the House Judiciary Committee requested documents from according to the improper or suspicious conduct their documents relate to.

New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo describes the misinformation—spread by governments, news outlets, and on social media—that he says warped the world’s view of the recent military conflict between India and Pakistan.

In the wake of the revelation that Trump overruled career staffers and top aides to grant Jared Kushner a top-secret security clearance, CNN reportedthis week that the president exerted similar pressure on behalf of his daughter Ivanka. And as for what exactly Ivanka Trump does in the White House: CNN’s Betsy Klein explores that question.

In the New Yorker, Jane Mayer explores the symbiotic relationship between Trump and Fox News. She reports that network executives held back a story about Stormy Daniels that could have aired before the 2016 election and notes that Trump’s antitrust policies align with the interests of Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News. This week the Democratic National Committee rejected Fox News’s request to host a Democratic primary debate and cited Mayer’s article as one reason.

This week NBC News San Diego obtained documents confirming a recent report from the Intercept that the US and Mexican governments have a database tracking journalists, lawyers, and activists from various countries, including the US, who are connected to the Honduran migrant caravan. Some people in the database have been detained at the border or prevented from crossing.

Human rights lawyers working on behalf of 28 Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan filed the first cases against President Bashar al-Assad at the International Criminal Court.

An Alabama judge permitted a man to sue the clinic that performed his girlfriend’s abortion on behalf of the aborted fetus. The lawsuit appears to be the first of its kind.

The Intercept reports that an internal, employee-led investigation at Google found evidence that the company is still working on a censored search engine for China that supposedly was scuttled last year.

The last Chevy Cruze rolled off the assembly line in Lordstown, Ohio this week. GM closed the plant after 50 years of operation, laying off 1,700 workers. CNN details the closure as well as the larger collapse of the auto industry around Youngstown, Ohio.

Reuters reports on the rise of Buddhist nationalism in Thailand as reflected in the Pandin Dharma Party. The party wants to make Buddhism the state religion and establish state-sponsored Buddhist settlements in Muslim-majority provinces to aid the return of Buddhists who left in response to an Islamist insurgency.

In USA Today, a former Army officer who served in the military during the Iraq War warns that America’s belligerent stance toward Iran—as shaped by National Security Adviser John Bolton in particular—is eerily reminiscent of the run-up to the Iraq War.


In the New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore examines whether “white-collar robots” will soon be taking lots of jobs from humans.

At Grist, Zoe Sayler presents two strategies—one involving comedy and one involving virtual reality—for pushing “climate couch potatoes” toward activism.

A study in the Journal of Information Technology & Politics finds that frequent use of Twitter increases knowledge of current affairs, while Facebook has the opposite effect.

CNN reports on the relationship between the Yellow Vest movement in France and recent anti-Semitic acts there.

In the Guardian, Vegas Tenold warns that the size of the neo-Nazi movement in America is underestimated because the movement is based on the intentionally inconspicuous structure of “leaderless resistance.”

In a Time Magazine profile of the 83-year-old Dalai Lama, Charlie Campbell writes that his influence is on the wane, and that the Chinese Communist Party is poised to co-opt Buddhist principles and to designate his successor after he dies.

The Greater Good lists 14 ways political polarization is harming America.

Cambridge researcher Luke Kemp analyzes the demise of past civilizations, concluding that, though the collapse of ours is “likely,” it’s not inevitable because “we have the unique advantage of being able to learn from the wreckages of societies past.”

A report by the American Historical Association shows that the number of history majors in the US has dropped by about 30 percent—more than any other discipline—since the economic crisis of 2008. Eric Alterman notes that, despite this overall trend, many elite colleges are experiencing a “history boom”—which means that some graduates have “the resources to try to understand our society while most do not.”

The Chinese government has launched a mobile app called “Study Xi, Strengthen China”— which features a “recommended” news feed, quizzes on President Xi Jinping‘s political theory, and tools for messaging, calling, or sending money to friends.

In Lion’s Roar, Eric Steuer writes about finding out that his childhood bully grew up to be a Buddhist teacher.

Terrorism expert Gary LaFree analyzes data indicating that terrorism peaked globally in 2014 and has been declining since.

Nature reports that scientists have “doubled life’s alphabet” by creating synthetic DNA that uses eight, instead of four, nucleobases.

An Israeli firm, with assistance from the government, has sent a spacecraft to the Moon. An article in Nature argues this can be the start of “a new era of lunar exploration,” in which “national space agencies work alongside private industries to investigate and exploit the Moon and its resources.”


This week we offer you not only some news you can use, but a grain of salt to go with it. The Atlantic this week published a much-discussed map of ideological intolerance. It tells you how prejudiced, on average, people in your county, and every other American county, are against “the political other.” You should check it outbut be aware that there are grounds for skepticism about it. Since surveying a significant number of people in each county wasn’t practical, the researchers surveyed 2,000 people nationwide, and correlated their degree of partisan prejudice with their demographic characteristics. (They found, for example, that  “the most politically intolerant Americans… tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban…”) They then assumed that these correlations would hold up within every county in the US and so assigned a degree of partisan prejudice based on each county’s demographic characteristics. But you can imagine reasons this assumption wouldn’t always hold—in fact, it’s in principle impossible to ever be sure that an assumption of this kind does hold across the board. So it’s not surprising that knowledgeable people have raised some doubts about the results. Still, some of the nationwide findings are interesting in their own right. (“Republicans seem to dislike Democrats more than Democrats dislike Republicans.”) And all of this—including the doubts about extrapolating from nation to locality—is food for thought.

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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