Issue #68: Mar 31–Apr 6, 2019

In this week’s MRN we (1) note with approval the entry of a mindfulness meditation advocate into the Democratic presidential race; (2) explain how you can use a smartphone to fight smartphone addiction; (3) summarize a week that features an unusual amount of Capitol Hill vs. White House tension and the usual amount of White House vs. the World tension; (4) offer links to readings on things ranging from the declining objectivity of American media to a possible way to civilize street gangs to the possibility that matter is an illusion.

–Robert Wright

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House v. Trump: As the Justice Department prepared a redacted version of the Mueller report for release later this month, the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to subpoena an unredacted version along with underlying documents. If the administration resists the subpoena, the matter will be settled in the courts.

House v. Trump II: The Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee requested that the IRS hand over six years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns. A Trump lawyer asked the IRS to deny the request, foreshadowing a court battle.

Congress v. Trump: The House passed a resolution that would end US support of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The Senate had already passed the resolution (which invokes the rarely used War Powers Act), but the White House has threatened a veto.

He’s sitting: Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, a champion of mindfulness meditation,  announced that he’s running for president. Ryan, who has been in Congress since 2003 and is seen as a moderate, unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi for leadership of House Democrats after the 2016 election.

The Biden touch: Responding to accusations that he has inappropriately touched women, former Vice President and presumed presidential candidate Joe Biden released a video in which he promises to be “more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.”

Making poor countries poorer: The State Department took steps to end foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras after Trump blamed their governments for the migration of tens of thousands of their citizens toward the US.

The week in regime-change rumblings: The US is reportedly preparing to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, which would mark the first time a country’s military, or any other governmental entity, has received that designation. The administration announced sanctions aimed at disrupting oil trade between Cuba and Venezuela, whose president, Nicolas Maduro, it deems illegitimate.

Chicago precedents: Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, was elected mayor of Chicago. She will be the first African-American woman and the first openly gay person to serve in that office.

Lax security: Tricia Newbold, a whistleblower from the White House’s personnel security office, told the House Oversight Committee that more than 25 security clearance decisions made by career staffers had been overruled by the administration in ways that “were not always… in the best interest of national security.”

Algerian spring: Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power for 20 years (though essentially silent for the last six of them owing to a stroke), resigned after weeks of mass protests. The protesters are now demanding the ouster of the transitional government on grounds that it’s rife with Bouteflika cronies.

Borscht belt: Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election and is favored in the runoff against incumbent (and chocolate magnate) Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky has a vague policy agenda and little relevant experience (unless you count playing the president on a satirical TV show), but he uses social media well and speaks both Russian and Ukrainian, which helped him win in both the largely Russian-speaking east of the country and the more Europe-leaning west.

Young Turks: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost municipal elections to the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the country’s capital, Ankara, and in its financial capital, Istanbul (though the thin margin in Istanbul could be erased via recount). Opponents of the authoritarian president hope these cities will become power bases that help the CHP prevail in a future presidential election.

Brextension—the sequel: British Prime Minister Theresa May asked the European Union to extend Britain’s deadline for leaving it—which had already been extended from March 29 to April 12—to June 30. Earlier this week, having failed to secure agreement among her fellow conservatives on a Brexit plan, she entered negotiations with the Labor Party in hopes of securing a parliamentary majority for a plan.


by Robert Wright

Tim Ryan for president! Just kidding. I don’t know enough about Congressman Ryan, who announced his presidential bid this week, to jump on his bandwagon. Still, I think it’s cool that, for the first time in American history, we have a presidential candidate who is a committed meditator and a full-throated advocate of mindfulness. He even wrote a book called A Mindful Nation.

This week I downloaded the audio version of the book and perused it while taking walks, and it’s actually not bad. (And yes, Congressman Ryan, you can use that as a blurb.) I mean, sure, it’s in some sense a political document. (In fact, there’s now a revised edition that’s been renamed, perhaps with political aims in mind, Healing America: How a simple practice can help us recapture the American spirit.) But Ryan’s commitment to mindfulness sounds heartfelt, and so does his argument that it can enrich various aspects of American life and help solve various social problems. And the book features an introduction by the estimable Jon Kabat-Zinn, from whom Ryan learned his mindfulness (and whom I once interviewed and who once interviewed me.)

One of my favorite passages in the book starts with Ryan’s reflection on his grandfather: “He was kind and gentle, period. He was OK with that. And so were we. I see in my grandfather an example for our country. Consider where bravado and ego-based posturing has put us over the past 10 years. It has cost us too many lives, as well as a lot of money.”

The book came out four years before Trump was elected president, and it has a few lines that acquire new resonance in light of that development. For example: “We all know from the playground the one who is acting the toughest is really the most insecure.”

If you went to central casting and asked for a Democratic candidate who, juxtaposed with Trump on a debate stage, could drive that point home, Ryan would be in the running. He’s a big guy and a jock—he played quarterback in high school and was poised to do that in college when a knee injury ended his career—but he’s low key and unpretentious. His reserve would highlight Trump’s bombast, but wouldn’t come off as timidity in the face of it.

On paper, too, Ryan looks like a strong general-election candidate. As an earthy Midwesterner, he would probably do well in pivotal rust-belt states. Of course, candidates who would do well in the general election are often the ones who have the most trouble getting nominated in the first place. And Ryan may illustrate that; the history of moderate politics that would help him in swing states in November can hurt him in the caucuses and primaries, especially with the Democratic left so feeling its oats. But, notwithstanding his moderate past (and perhaps, um, mindful of it), he did co-sponsor this year’s House Medicare-for-all bill.

In any event, it’s great to have a presidential candidate who not only espouses mindfulness but is a good ambassador for it. His evangelicism is too soft to be offputting, and he emphasizes the compatibility of mindfulness with various spiritual traditions, including his own Catholicism. (He learned the contemplative practice of “centering prayer” at an early age.) If he can become a prominent part of the campaign conversation, that will probably help such causes as getting meditation into the public schools. Whether or not the White House is in Ryan’s future, his getting a bit closer to it could be a good thing for the world.

Hidden feature found in meditation apps: Membership in the Insight Timer app’s Mindful Resistance discussion group has reached 250! (Actually, the last time I looked the number was 248, but I thought the exclamation mark would look better with a 250 in front of it.) If you’re a member of the group and you open the app and take a look at the discussion area, you’ll see that Nikita Petrov, MRN’s ITE (Insight Timer Emissary), has just graced it with a new question for your reflection and comment.

But I digress. The main thing I wanted to say about the Insight Timer app is something I discovered about it last week: It can help you address smartphone addiction. In fact, any smartphone-based meditation timer can do that.

Here’s how it works: (1) Sit down and meditate until the app signals the end of your session via a gong or some other sound. (2) Reach for the smartphone, click any buttons you may need to click to confirm the end of the session, and then close the app. (3) Pause and reflect on what you’re feeling at this moment.

There are two possibilities:

1. If you’re like me, you’re feeling the urge to open another app. Email, Twitter, Facebook, Google News, whatever. For me the urge is especially reliable because I meditate first thing in the morning, before I’ve had any social contact, digital or otherwise. So I feel entitled to check in with the world!

2. If you don’t feel the urge to open another app, you may be able to summon the urge by gazing for a few seconds at the icon for whatever your most tempting app is. (And if you don’t have any apps that tempt you, congratulations—you’ve attained enlightenment!)

Either way, whether the urge comes naturally or you have to intentionally evoke it, this is an excellent opportunity to close your eyes and examine it. Where in your body is this feeling of wanting to open the app? What are its contours? How strong is it? The more you observe feelings like this, rather than succumbing to them, the more likely you are to notice them in the future, rather than reflexively, unthinkingly, obeying them. The more you repeat the exercise, the more your power over them will grow. In next week’s newsletter I’ll talk about why this exercise has broader application than it may sound like it has, and can yield benefits that go beyond the realm of smartphone addiction.

Inbox: MRN reader Dave writes:

In your Mueller Report note, I wonder if you omitted one observation that we should all consider. While a part of me was disappointed that recent news suggested “my side” didn’t win and that Trump didn’t get nailed, another part of me (which I considered to be the mindful part) was happy to learn that our president was not in fact part of a conspiracy with a foreign power. Should not this reaction be a part of any mindful take on the news… 

That’s a good point, though it presumes some degree of confidence that “our president was not in fact part of a conspiracy with a foreign power.” And the Mueller report, so far as we know, doesn’t convey anything like certainty on that point. The one relevant sentence we have from the report says that the investigation “did not establish” a conspiracy; it doesn’t say it established that there was no conspiracy. In other words, the evidence failed to meet some threshold (reasonable doubt?) for proving guilt. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence suggesting, even strongly suggesting, guilt.

All that said, the larger point Dave is making seems reasonable: We should try not to get so immersed in wanting “our side” to win a particular battle that we lose sight of ways in which bad news on one front entails good news on another front—even if it’s good news for our “enemies” as well as us.

Be like Dave! Send us thought-provoking comments and questions:

Oh, I almost forgot: Patreon.


In the Washington Post, Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman argue that newly announced presidential candidate Tim Ryan is more progressive than his reputation as a moderate would suggest. (Their piece also includes the official Ryan announcement video.) Meditation teacher Tara Brach’s website features a video of a talk Ryan gave in 2012, under Brach’s auspices, about his book A Mindful Nation.

After the Trump administration announced plans to cut off foreign aid to several central American countries, political scientist Sarah Bermeo arguedthat this and other aspects of Trump’s border security strategydemonstrate “a fundamental misunderstanding of current migration at the southern border” and will likely “increase human trafficking, decrease U.S. security, hurt the economy, and exacerbate underlying drivers of migration.”

The New York Times explains how the migrant-friendly policies of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador have led large numbers of Central Americans to enter Mexico and then travel north, contributing to the crisis at the US border. People’s World pinpoints the 2009 coup in Honduras—which the Obama administration accepted and implicitly validated—as the beginning of a mass exodus from that country.

Vox interviews Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi about his assessment of the Mueller report as “a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.” In contrast, Steve Coll argues in the New Yorker that “serious newsrooms and journalists did the job they are supposed to do” in covering Russiagate. Also in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen writes that the narrative of the Mueller investigation enraptured the Resistance and many in the media, preventing them from building more varied and effective arguments against Trump.

The BBC’s Katty Kay writes that this week’s accusations against Joe Bidenraise questions—in particular about how to handle past transgressions amid changing norms—that the #MeToo movement has not adequately addressed. In the New York Times, Gail Collins opines that Biden should have known better.

In the Guardian, Shira A. Scheindlin argues that Trump and Mitch McConnell are reshaping the federal judiciary at an “alarming rate.”

Conor Friedersdorf, writing in the Atlantic, reflects on “callout culture” via an appraisal of the famous confrontation of Chelsea Clinton by NYU students who said she shared blame for the Christchurch shooting.

A historic social justice center in rural Tennessee was destroyed in a fire this week, and a “white power” symbol was found spraypainted near the site. The symbol, from a pre-WWII Romanian fascist group, had also been displayed by the accused Christchurch shooter.

The New York Times analyzes what it would mean to ban “weaponized” social media, as has been proposed in Australia and New Zealand in response to the Christchurch massacre.

In a Washington Post op-edMark Zuckerberg advocated more regulation of companies like Facebook and suggested what form it should take. Verge reporter Casey Newton sees this as part of a broader Facebook public relations campaign aimed ultimately at allowing Facebook “to continue operating basically as is.”

This week, after the arrest of a Chinese woman who allegedly entered Mar-a-Lago while carrying two passports, four cell phones, and a thumb drive containing malware, both the New York Times and the Washington Post assessed the distinctive security challenges raised by the Trump-owned resort, where Trump periodically stays. (After Trump was elected, Mar-a-Lago doubled its initiation fee to $200,000.)


Scientific American reports on a study that found a decrease over the past decade in both implicit and explicit bias against minority ethnic groups and groups of non-heterosexual orientation.

In Pacific Standard, Emily Moon writes about a study showing that a reduction in consumption of red meat has led to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

A Wall Street Journal survey finds that a majority of Americans think social media divides us, wastes our time, and spreads misinformation—even as two-thirds of them  continue to use it daily.

The New York Times Magazine examines the vast power and reach of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which “has toppled governments on two continents and destabilized the most important democracy on Earth.”

Political scientist Brendan Nyhan argues that the Democratic Party should exert more control over its presidential nomination process in order to screen out potential demagogues.

In 2007, murder rates in Ecuador plummeted after the government legalized gangs, making them eligible for benefits available to other community groups. In Vox, Sigal Samuel talks to sociologist David Brotherton about whether the US should take similar measures.

In Tricycle, Lauren Krauze details the benefits of writing as a meditative practice.

Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, assesses the threat posed by white nationalist terrorism. The New York Times offers an interactive graphic on white nationalist attacks and connections among them.

In Foreign Affairs, William J. Burns, a career diplomat and former Deputy Secretary of State, offers guidance on how to undo the damage done to the State Department by Trump.

A Guardian reporter tries out various apps (presented at an Australian “cyberdelic incubator”) that explore the potential of virtual reality to treat trauma and OCD, aid meditation practice, cultivate empathy, and perhaps even simulate, for therapeutic purposes, near-death experiences.

A study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior finds that “participants who viewed proponents of political arguments as uncivil, unpleasant, and uncooperative tended to also view their line of reasoning as less logically sound, even when strong arguments were presented.”

In Scientific American, Bernard Kostrop explains and critiques“information realism,” the counterintuitive view held by some physicists that the universe consists of “abstract relations between entities” rather than entities themselves. This idea implies, some argue, that the universe is made of information and that matter is an illusion.


This week the House passed a resolution to end US participation in Yemen’s civil war, which the Senate had passed last month. President Trump is expected to veto the measure, and it’s very unlikely that Congress will override the veto. But if you support the legislation and enjoy uphill battles, you can contact your congressional representatives or give the White House a call at 202-456-1111. And, in any event, you might want to explore an interactive Al Jazeera graphic that depicts 19,000 air raids carried out in Yemen with US assistance, resulting, it is estimated, in more than 60,000 deaths.

–Edited by Aryeh Cohen-Wade with contributions from Brian Degenhart, Mark Sussman, Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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