In this week’s MRN we (1) summarize a week that included unusual Republican defiance of Trump and a horrific terrorist attack against Muslims in New Zealand; (2) scan the white nationalist manifesto posted by the terrorist in search of clues about how to defeat his cause; (3) offer links to background reading on things ranging from Beto O’Rourke’s undergraduate years to CIA-sponsored psychology research to the new Captain Marvel movie; (4) in our News You Can Use section, offer guidance on how to listen to views you hate with some measure of equanimity.
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Terrorism in New Zealand: A self-described “ethno-nationalist” gunman killed 49 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. He streamed the carnage live on Facebook and posted a 74-page manifesto that said non-white “invaders” who immigrate to traditionally white countries must be repelled.
Trump resuscitates endangered emergency: The Senate voted to overturn Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the US-Mexico border, with 12 Republicans joining Democrats to forge a 59-41 majority. Trump then vetoed the measure, which had already passed the House, and used the occasion to say that the US faces an “invasion” of immigrants.
Yemen resolution passes: The Senate voted 54-46 to end US support of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, where years of conflict have killed tens of thousands of people. The resolution is expected to pass the House but faces a likely presidential veto.
Hire education: Fifty people, including the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were arrested following a federal investigation into bribery and corruption in college admissions. Parents allegedly secured slots at schools including Stanford, Yale, and USC by paying coaches at the schools to falsely tell the admissions office that their children were star athletes who would play varsity sports.
Run-on sentencing: A federal judge sentenced former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to 73 months in prison for witness tampering and other crimes, bringing his total prison term, including an earlier sentence for financial fraud, to seven years. Within hours, the Manhattan district attorney charged Manafort with more than a dozen state felonies—crimes that, unlike the federal crimes he’s been convicted of, would not be subject to a presidential pardon.
Big budget: The administration proposed a record $4.75 trillion budget that would increase military spending by 5 percent and includes $8.6 billion for border wall construction but would reduce projected spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Death takes a holiday: Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended capital punishment in California, granting a reprieve to over 700 people on death row—about 25 percent of the national death row population.
This week’s Democratic presidential candidate: Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who rose to national prominence during his unsuccessful but energetic campaign to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, announced that he is running for president.
The first casualty of pre-war: The New York Times reported that video footage contradicts claims, made emphatically by Vice President Pence and other American officials, that forces loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had burned food aid trucks. The footage suggests that a Molotov cocktail thrown by an anti-government protester caused the fire.
AI suspected in airline deaths: After an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed, killing 157 people, the US and other nations grounded all Boeing 737 Max 8 airplanes. The same model plane had crashed in Indonesia last year, and faulty auto-pilot software is thought to be behind both crashes.
Brextension: The British Parliament overwhelmingly rejected a revised version of the Brexit deal negotiated between Prime Minister Theresa May and the European Union. Parliament then authorized May to extend the Brexit deadline of March 29 by at least three months.
NOTES FROM BOB
by Robert Wright
A global lesson from New Zealand: I’ve long argued that we should work to understand the motivation of terrorists, since that might help us prevent future terrorism. Making this argument can get you accused of excusing terrorism. If, for example, you say that America’s military interventions have motivated some jihadists to attack Americans, a common reply is, “Oh, so the terrorism is our fault, and not the terrorists’ fault?”
Nevertheless I persist. Brenton Tarrant, who is accused of killing 49 Muslims in two New Zealand mosques, left unusually detailed evidence about his motivation—an online manifesto so long that I quit reading it after 20 minutes or so, when it started getting repetitive. Still, I think I got the basic idea.
The manifesto is chillingly clinical. Though its ideas are abhorrent, it doesn’t have the tone of a lunatic rant. It reads like a coherent and credible guide to Tarrant’s actual motivations—which makes it a potentially valuable resource in fighting what he stands for.
What struck me most about his motivation is how thoroughly it’s been shaped, in various senses, by globalization.
For starters, the attacks were in some sense a response to globalization. They were a reaction against the mingling of ethnicities that is part of globalization, a mingling encouraged by the kinds of immigration laws that global capitalism favors. “Ethnic autonomy,” Tarrant complains, is “destroyed in the name of cheap labour.”
At the same time, Tarrant implicitly embraces another aspect of globalization. He draws strength from his sense that he is part of a growing global movement. He cites as inspirations or comrades the Norwegian white nationalist terrorist Anders Breivik, the American white nationalist terrorist Dylann Roof, and the African-American Trump supporter Candace Owens, who recently gained attention for evincing a certain ambivalence toward Hitler. As for Trump himself: Tarrant considers the president “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” but doesn’t find him an impressive “policy maker and leader.”
Tarrant sees the consequences of his crime, no less than its context, as global. He hopes his mass murder will trigger counterattacks by Islamist extremists—which will then incite more attacks by people like him, and so on. He sees himself as accelerating a positive feedback cycle that will lead to a global war.
The war he has in mind won’t necessarily be apocalyptic. He’s willing to lay down his arms somewhere short of Armageddon, once everyone learns their proper place—when Muslims and other would-be immigrants are too fearful to set foot in New Zealand and other “white” countries, when Jews accept that their only legitimate home is Israel, and so on.
Meanwhile, though, he hopes to heighten conflict. He says that a pivotal moment for him was the death of Ebba Akerlund—an 11-year-old girl killed by a jihadist terrorist in Stockholm in 2017. He was deeply moved by this tragedy—by “the indignity of her violent demise and my inability to stop it”—but he seems to have since decided that many more Ebba Akerlunds need to die, and that he should help make that happen. He wants to “incite violence, retaliation, and further divide between the European people and the invaders currently occupying European soil.”
Somewhere, no doubt, there are jihadist terrorists who welcome this incitement—who see this week’s events in New Zealand as a recruiting bonanza, and hope for the same spiral of growing violence that Tarrant hopes for. As is often the case, extremists on “opposing” sides are playing a non-zero-sum game; each is helping the other build a following, and both want the stakes to get higher and higher.
True, at some point the game could turn zero-sum, since the two groups’ long-term goals are incompatible. But for now, at least, extremists on both sides want to jointly drive a positive feedback system into overdrive.
If you’re desperately scanning this bleak horizon for good news, try this: the common purpose of these two kinds of extremists, and the synergy between them, affords us a kind of efficiency; it means that things we do to frustrate one side may ultimately frustrate the other side.
If, for example, things we’ve learned about the motivation of jihadists helps us cut down on jihadist violence, that will deprive the Brenton Tarrants of the world of some fuel, making it harder for them to inspire emulation. Which in turn will make life harder for jihadist recruiters, and so on.
So what have we learned about the motivation of jihadists? Well, at the risk of repeating myself: if you listen to what the jihadists themselves say, it seems pretty clear that American military adventurism is a big motivator. It both feeds their America-is-at-war-with-Islam recruiting pitch and, often, creates the social conditions in which terrorist movements thrive. The group that evolved into ISIS, for example, was incubated in the chaos created by the American invasion of Iraq.
And ISIS has in turn inspired jihadist violence around the world, thus inciting white nationalists like Tarrant. In fact, the man who killed Ebba Akerlund—and thus helped push Tarrant over the edge—had pledged allegiance to ISIS the day before the attack.
Of course, it’s 16 years too late to stop the Iraq invasion. But look around you. In Yemen we have in various ways helped kill Muslims for years, and we’re still doing so. In Somalia Trump has stepped up the rate of drone strikes so sharply that my tax dollars helped kill 225 Somalians in the first two months of this year alone. The US is now involved in military hostilities—either on the ground, from the air, or both—in more than half a dozen majority Muslim countries. And a new Trump policy means that, when CIA drone strikes kill civilians, the government doesn’t have to disclose that to us.
Lethal American drone strikes have over the past two decades become like background noise, rarely commented on, rarely even noticed. So we don’t ask such questions as: If these drone strikes are actually solving the problem they’re designed to solve, then why does their number keep growing? And shouldn’t it worry us that someone like Tarrant almost certainly welcomes this growth as a harbinger of his cherished clash of civilizations?
OK, enough about America’s forever war. I don’t want to use this week’s horrors as just an excuse to repeat my standard sermon about the various ways America has helped turn “the clash of civilizations” into a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are other lessons from New Zealand’s tragedy.
For example: Tarrant seems to have drawn strength from prominent Islamophobes the world around. And there might not be so many of those if the norm against anti-Muslim hate speech were as strong as the norm against other kinds of hate speech. That Jean Pirro still has a job at Fox News after what she recently said about Rep. Ilhan Omar—and that Fox News didn’t even “rebuke” her until advertisers had time to weigh in—is proof that they’re not.
There are no doubt other things to be learned from a close reading of Tarrant’s text, and from the study of white nationalism more broadly—including the study of how less radical variants of ethno-nationalism initially take root, variants that may then drift toward radicalism and meanwhile help the Donald Trumps of the world gain power. It’s worth considering all kinds of policies, from the economic to the educational, that might make the world less hospitable to this pernicious ideology. (Yes, including immigration policies; I personally don’t think our immigration laws need tightening, but I don’t think progressives who worry about the effects of immigration on American wages should be shouted down as advocating “appeasement”—any more than I think calls to withdraw troops from Muslim countries should be dismissed because “that’s what the terrorists want.”)
But the biggest lesson I see in Tarrant’s manifesto is this: We face a threat from two kinds of enemies—white nationalist terrorists and jihadist terrorists—and the most important resource, for both of them, is hatred. In any war you want to impede your enemy’s access to its critical resources. If reducing that access for one enemy means reducing it for the other—well, I guess that’s a blessing of sorts.
Backstage pass: Over on the MRN Patreon page, we just posted a video of me talking with Aryeh Cohen-Wade, the MRN staffer who does more work on this newsletter each week than anyone else (besides me). It’s a wide-ranging conversation, and watching it will bring you the answer to such questions as: Is Aryeh ashamed of having graduated from a college whose soccer coach accepted a $400,000 bribe to gain admission for a student less worthy of admission than, say, Aryeh? If you’re not a Patreon patron and the fact that you don’t have access to this video fills you with tanha, I have good news: (1) You can become a Patreon patron! (2) Even if you don’t go that route, you can always get a freebie view of Aryeh in conversation by checking out the archives of his show Culturally Determined (and/or subscribing to the audio podcast); (3) If you scroll down to the NEWS YOU CAN USE section of this newsletter, you’ll see a reader’s question that we addressed in the video, followed by a print version of my answer to it.
Is it Insight Time yet? For those of you who meditate (or are thinking about starting): Membership in the MRN discussion group on the Insight Timer meditation app grew by 50 last week and is now tantalizingly close to 200. So if you haven’t downloaded the app and joined the group, feel free. And, since you have to use the app for five days before you can actually post a comment, once you download it you should assume the lotus position pronto! We don’t know how many group members have met the five-day criterion, but we may now get a sense for that; Nikita Petrov, who serves as both our shadowy Russian operative and our ambassador to the Insight Timer discussion group, has just posted a discussion-starting question on the app. As soon as you emerge from your contemplative silence, you can check it out.
In Vox, Li Zhou explains how the Senate’s vote against Trump’s national emergency declaration could work against Trump as the declaration is challenged in the courts. Jonathan Allen of NBC News explains how the vote could work in Trump’s favor at a political level.
Politico profiles Rep. Ro Khanna, the House leader of the effort to end American support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
In the Guardian, Gwyn Topham writes that the growing role of artificial intelligence in airliner navigation leaves pilots ill-equipped to deal with emergencies such as the one that disastrously afflicted an Ethiopian Airlines flight this week.
Joe Hagan, having shadowed Beto O’Rourke as he pondered a run for the presidency, profiles him in Vanity Fair. In February the New York Times wrote about O’Rourke’s days as an undergraduate at Columbia.
After this week’s prominent debunking of claims by Trump administration officials that supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had burned food trucks, Glenn Greenwald recounted past untruths that have helped draw the US into wars or more deeply into them. Five years ago The Military Times revisited what may be the most famous of those—false reports that led to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
The Washington Post reports that President Maduro has maintained the loyalty of the Venezuelan military in part by letting officers enrich themselves through state businesses and criminal activities.
Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation into Facebook and its data sharing deals, which involve over 150 companies. The deals allowed companies to see users’ friends, contact information, and other personal data, sometimes without the users’ consent.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US will revoke the visas of International Criminal Court personnel who seek to investigate abuses allegedly committed by U.S. forces abroad.
The US has threatened to reduce intelligence sharing with Germany if the German government proceeds with plans for Chinese technology giant Huawei to build the country’s next-generation mobile-internet infrastructure.
Following an ideologically inspired wave of negative user reviews on Rotten Tomatoes of the new Captain Marvel movie, which carries a pro-social-justice message, the review aggregation site is recalibrating its scoring system to deemphasize user ratings.
In Politico, Bill Scher argues that moderate House Democrats should draw attention away from the House’s vocal left-wing contingent by touting their own progressive efforts, such as a newly introduced carbon tax bill and a bill that addresses child poverty.
In the Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes about the American eugenicist Madison Grant, who wrote a book in 1916, The Passing of the Great Race, that Hitler called his “bible” and that, Serwer writes, fostered white nationalism by spreading “the doctrine of race purity all over the globe.”
According to a Pew Research Center survey, a majority of people in most of the top 18 destination countries for immigrants say that immigrants strengthen rather than weaken the country. But fewer than 20 percent of those surveyed in Italy, Greece, Russia, and Hungary say that.
In Vox, Eliza Barclay interviews a disciple of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh about the 92 year-old’s recent return to his home country of Vietnam, and about Buddhist teachings on the acceptance of and preparation for death. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Barclay interviewed the same disciple, Phap Dung, about using mindfulness during times of conflict.
Vox profiles two men—named Brian Chung and Bryan Chung—who are revamping the Bible for “the Instagram generation” and have already published editions of Psalms, the Gospels, and the Book of Romans.
In Time Magazine, Tawakkol Karman, winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, details a plan to end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
In Aeon, neurologist Robert A. Burton compares global migration to the chemical process of osmosis, arguing that in a world with dramatic regional inequality, the pressures driving migration are “natural and unavoidable,” while attempts to strengthen borders risk worsening the problem.
In Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman writes about new research indicating that liberals and conservatives are equally susceptible to fake news.
Scholar Tamsin Shaw looks at the underappreciated role that the CIA and the military play in funding social psychology research.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
MRN reader Dena recently emailed us about an earlier NEWS YOU CAN USE item:
Several weeks ago you linked to Conservapedia as an opportunity to practice cognitive empathy. Minutes into browsing the site, I was totally overcome with disgust and anxiety. My blood pressure rose, I got hot… I had to stop. I thought, “How does anybody read this with equanimity? How do I ever become mindful enough not to be enraged by this?” My idea/plea for a News You Can Use bit is advice on how to lessen those feelings as I encounter media in the vein of Conservapedia.
Before answering this question, we pause to encourage other readers to contribute to this section of the newsletter by either (1) telling us what kind of news you could use (as Dena has done); or (2) letting us know about online resources that might make for good NYCU items. Now back to Dena’s question:
One thing to remember about meditation is that it doesn’t have to consist of sitting on a cushion for a specified period of time each day. Whether or not you meditate daily—indeed, even if you’ve never meditated—you can still try to stop and meditate when the need arises. And, in a way, there’s no time when it’s easier to do that than when you’re having some strong feeling—like Dena’s “disgust and anxiety.” The reason is that strong feelings are easy to locate; if you sit down and close your eyes and observe them, you shouldn’t have much trouble sensing where in your body they reside. And once you’ve located them, you can examine them at a finer level—sensing, for example, their exact contours, and how those contours may change subtly from moment to moment.
If you can get deeply absorbed in this examination, your relationship to the feelings will start to change. They’ll lose some of their power; their control over you will weaken as they transition from compelling forces to objects of examination.
None of this is meant to suggest that it’s easy to go from locating your feelings to gaining a more objective purchase on them and starting to liberate yourself from them. Making that progression is a huge challenge, and that’s why a daily meditation practice can be so helpful. (There’s a reason they call it “practice.”) Still, making that progression is, in a way, no more challenging than taking the very first step: noticing the feelings in the first place—being aware that you’re having the feelings, rather than just sitting there, more or less oblivious to them, and letting them shape your thoughts. And that difficult step Dena has already taken. So for Dena, at least, one big step taken, one big step to go.
And, again: if there’s particular news you could use, or if you’ve found news others might use, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart,
Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith
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