In this week’s MRN we: (1) explore the Murdoch media empire’s powerful role in demonizing Rep. Ilhan Omar; (2) lament some things said by America’s only mindfulness-championing presidential candidate; (3) summarize a week that was rich in high-profile exits and non-exits; (4) offer background reading on things ranging from the religious left to a new activism among Amazon employees to Brexit questions you were embarrassed to ask to “the Light Triad of personality” (which is much better than the Dark Triad) to a part of the world where men and women seem to literally speak different languages. [Note: No newsletter next week, for Easter/Passover-related reasons, as discussed below.]
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Assange arrested: Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, was arrested at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and faces possible extradition to the US, where he is charged with “conspiring to commit computer intrusion.” Because the charges focus on Assange’s role in illegally obtaining documents, not in publishing them, some observers said there is no threat to freedom of the press; others disagreed.
Britain doesn’t exit: The UK and the European Union agreed to extend the deadline for Britain’s exit from the EU once again, from April 12 to October 31. But the question of what kind of Brexit deal would be acceptable to a majority of the British Parliament (not to mention the European Union) continued to be one that nobody seemed able to answer.
Bibi doesn’t exit: Benjamin Netanyahu won an unprecedented fifth term as Prime Minister of Israel and is poised to lead a right-wing coalition government. Several influential pro-Israel congressional Democrats immediately warned Israel not to follow through on Netanyahu’s campaign promise to annex West Bank settlements, which were established in violation of international law.
Bashir does exit: President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was arrested by the military after months of protests against him, but protesters, who want a civilian government, stayed in the streets—and continued to stay there after Bashir’s immediate successor, General Awad Ibn Auf, stepped down in favor of another general. Bashir is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for allegedly orchestrating ethnic cleansing in the country’s Darfur region, and Auf faces related ICC charges.
Nielsen exits: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned after repeated Trump complaints that she wasn’t tough enough in cracking down on illegal immigration and asylum seekers. The acting director of ICE also resigned, and Secret Service head Randolph Alles, after an embarrassing security lapse at Mar-a-Lago, announced his impending resignation.
Libya crisis: Thousands of Libyans were displaced as the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who has for years controlled eastern Libya, advanced on the capital of Tripoli, which is under the jurisdiction of the UN-backed Government of National Accord. Haftar’s bid to put the country under unified control is backed by Saudi Arabia.
Interior lobbyist: The Senate voted 56-42 to confirm David Bernhardt as Interior Secretary, amid calls from Democrats and government watchdogs to investigate Bernhardt’s past conduct as a lobbyist for the oil and agribusiness industries.
This week’s candidate: Rep. Eric Swalwell said he will seek the Democratic nomination for president. The 38-year-old four-term California congressman plans to make gun control the centerpiece of his campaign.
Spying by any other name: Attorney General William Barr said during a congressional hearing that he will examine the origins and conduct of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation in search of improprieties. His use of the term “spying” to describe the FBI’s surveillance of the Trump campaign in 2016 led to accusations that he was serving up Trump talking points, even after he tried to soften the tenor of his remarks.
Intranet: Russia passed a controversial “sovereign Internet” bill, ostensibly aimed at preventing foreign countries from shutting down the Russian part of the Internet. Critics say that by steering Russian traffic off of foreign servers, the program authorized by the legislation would give the state vast censorship powers.
Megapixels: Scientists unveiled the first-ever picture of a black hole—or, maybe, “picture” of a black hole, since it captured a pattern of radio waves, not light waves.
NOTES FROM BOB
by Robert Wright
America’s most dangerous immigrant: Having closely observed Somali-born Congresswoman Ilhan Omar this past week, I’ve concluded that some immigrants are indeed so dangerous that we’d be better off if they’d never been allowed to pollute our culture. The immigrant I have in mind is Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media magnate. Just consider the treatment that Rep. Omar got this week at the hands of three different Murdoch media properties.
The origins of the mistreatment date back to last month, when Omar, addressing the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that the organization’s formative mission had been to deal with the fact that American Muslims broadly were suffering because of what a small number of Muslims had done on 9/11. Here’s how she put it: “CAIR was founded after 9/11, because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”
The chain of misrepresentation and bad faith by which the phrase “some people did something” led to a multi-media Murdoch empire assault is pretty short. The key links are:
(1) a celebrity right-wing imam, weeks after Omar’s CAIR speech, tweeted that she “mentions 9/11 and does not consider it a terrorist attack on the USA by terrorists.”
(2) GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw retweeted this wholly unfounded inference with his added condemnation.
(3) On Fox and Friends, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade cited Crenshaw’s condemnation of Omar and said, “You have to wonder if she’s an American first.” (Irony alert: Weeks earlier, the Murdoch empire had condemned Omar for invoking a “dual loyalty” trope—something that, depending on your interpretation, she either didn’t do at all or did way more tenuously than Kilmeade did.)
Before condemning Omar’s remarks, Kilmeade actually played the tape of her uttering them. I guess you could say that’s a tribute to his sense of fair play: he was gamely admitting that the evidence didn’t back him up. But I suspect there’s a better explanation. Either (1) his dislike of Omar is so intense as to warp his perception of her, rendering everything she does and says in the most sinister possible light; or (2) such is his cynicism that he assumes that the brain of the typical Fox News viewer is warped in that way, and he’s happy to exploit that fact.
Kilmeade got some blowback about this and walked it back (even if he walked it back disingenuously). But the Murdoch empire was not retreating! The next morning, Murdoch’s New York Post ran one of its most incendiary front pages ever—an image of the twin towers burning, beneath Omar’s “some people did something” quote.
Meanwhile, a third Murdoch property—the Fox Business channel—brought on former Trump campaign adviser Jeff Ballabon to launch a fresh line of attack. Omar had called Trump adviser Stephen Miller a white nationalist, and since Miller is Jewish, this meant Omar was anti-Semitic—indeed, “the most dangerous anti-Semite we have ever seen,” Ballabon opined.
Needless to say, Trump approvingly tweeted a video of Ballabon making that charge. Trump then adroitly pivoted back to the main line of attack, tweeting a mashup that interspersed video of the 9/11 attacks with video of Omar repeatedly saying “some people did something.” He was so pleased with himself that he pinned that tweet to the top of his feed.
Last month, after Fox News host Jeanine Pirro slandered Omar, and implicitly questioned the patriotism of all American Muslims in the process, Fox News gave Pirro a two-week suspension. But it did so only after the Christchurch shooting had cast Pirro’s Islamophobe-baiting in a new and darker light. I’m afraid to speculate about what it would take for Rupert Murdoch—or his son and heir apparent, News Corporation executive co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch—to give Brian Kilmeade or Jeff Ballabon or New York Post editor Stephen Lynch the negative reinforcement they deserve for vilifying Omar.
And if it seems like I’m vilifying Rupert Murdoch: Well, I generally try not to pin the blame for big, complex problems on a single person. And certainly Murdoch isn’t solely responsible for American Islamophobia, or even for the amazingly persistent and broad-gauged harassment of Omar. But he’s responsible for a big chunk of that harassment. So this is a rare case where a single human being has the power to make a huge difference; Murdoch could call off his attack dogs and literally increase the life expectancy of a member of the US Congress.
I’m not a tactician of activism, but I hope people who know that terrain will think creatively about how to bring pressure to bear on Rupert Murdoch—via advertiser boycotts or via social pressure on him or on Lachlan or whatever. It would be hard to pull it off, but if you pulled it off you could do a world of good. In a certain sense, the fact that one man is responsible for so much badness is an opportunity.
Tim Ryan update: In last week’s newsletter I celebrated the arrival of a presidential candidate who is a full-throated advocate of mindfulness meditation: Rep. Tim Ryan. But, I said, “I don’t know enough about Congressman Ryan… to jump on his bandwagon.”
I’m glad I threw in that disclaimer! This week Ryan got some blowback on Twitter for something that, I have to say, probably deserves a little blowback. Talking to a crowd of supporters about what a divided country America has become, he said:
We’re divided. And I want you to know that our enemies come into our social media and they intentionally try to divide us… If there is an incident in America that’s controversial, about kneeling for the national anthem, or there’s a school shooting or there’s an incident between a cop and a kid, you know who comes onto our social media? The Russians. OK, I want you to hear this. The Russians. They come into our social media and they spin things to get us into these divided camps so that we’re fighting with each other. That’s what they want.
Now, I applaud Ryan’s attempt to make America less divided, and I see the value of “divided is what our enemies want!” as a unifying rhetorical device. And I like this line: “the most patriotic thing we can do is respect each other.” Still, I do think this invocation of “the Russians” qualifies for the label “xenophobic fearmongering.”
I mean, for starters, could he at least say “the Russian government” (which is indeed responsible for at least some social media meddling, though the extent and impact of the meddling is a subject of disagreement) instead of “the Russians” (who, collectively, aren’t responsible for that)? Second, before he decides to direct more fear and loathing toward Russia, he might consider the various fronts where constructive engagement with that country could be a good thing, such as nuclear arms control or creating a stable peace in Ukraine or Syria or for that matter in the Middle East more broadly.
And it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of antipathy toward Russia in the Trump era. Russia’s perceived role in getting Trump elected has helped created a political climate in which it’s hard to pursue this kind of constructive engagement. Indeed, as if determined to debunk the Trump-as-Manchurian-candidate meme, Trump withdrew from a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, amped up sanctions against Russia, sent weapons to Ukraine, etc. I’m not saying Russia bears no blame for the deterioration in relations, but I am saying that it’s not in the interest of either nation for politicians to make the political climate even less conducive to cooperation.
Plus, whatever role Russia may play or have played in dividing us, let’s face it: most of the problem lies with us. And evading that fact is not the first step to dealing with the problem.
On Broadway: If you’re in New York City on the evening of May 14, and all the shows on Broadway are out of your price range, here’s an option: At 6:30 I’ll be giving a talk called (wait for it) “Mindful Resistance” at Union Theological Seminary—which, as it happens, is on Broadway, if 80 blocks north of the Broadway part of Broadway. The price of admission is zero, but you do need to RSVP.
Mystery guest: Have you ever looked at the names listed at the bottom of this newsletter and wondered, “Who are these various people who help put out the newsletter?” Well, over the past couple of months I’ve posted video conversations with a couple of them (Nikita and Aryeh) on our Patreon page. This week we demystify a third MRN contributor: Colleen Smith. Colleen and I discuss various things, including her life story (the condensed version) and life in the digital age. To a surprising extent, a millennial and a boomer wind up agreeing on how weird that life is.
And speaking of our Patreon page: Thanks very, very much to all 265 (and counting!) of our patrons. Your support helps us in ways both tangible (you know, the money part) and intangible (the part where we feel appreciated and inspired to keep warranting appreciation).
Non-mystery guests: This week I posted a couple of conversations, one on bloggingheads.tv and one on meaningoflife.tv, that may be of interest to MRN readers. (1) I spoke with Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian activist, about the Israeli election. What I found interesting was the fact that—and the reason why—from his point of view the election’s outcome barely mattered, even though the election was presented in the American media as some kind of struggle for Israel’s soul. (2) I spoke with Paul Shapiro, author of the book Clean Meat, about how advances in biotechnology may soon allow people to eat actual meat without any animals having to die in the process. Both conversations are also available as audio podcasts on the Wright Show feed.
A dream deferred: Last week I suggested a way to use smartphones to weaken smartphone addiction. And I promised that this week I’d “talk about why this exercise has broader application than it may sound like it has.” And I meant it!… at the time. But the Notes from Bob section seems to have gotten filled up by other stuff, as has my time, so I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the next issue of the newsletter to attain enlightenment. And speaking of the next issue:
Warning—MRNless week ahead: The fact that next weekend features both Easter and the beginning of Passover gives us an abundance of reasons not to publish a newsletter. And we’re going to seize that opportunity! Now, as fate would have it, Attorney General William Barr will apparently release a redacted version of the Mueller report next week. So you may ask: Wait, you’re going to ask us to try to make sense of the Mueller report without the guiding light of MRN? The answer to that question is: Yes; be strong. But we promise to weigh in a week later with the definitive take on that report. Or, at least, with a take on that report. And we promise to be better rested than usual.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation has collected some reactions to the arrest of Julian Assange from other free speech and civil liberties groups.
David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times surveys turmoil in Sudan, Algeria, and Libya and discusses lessons that authoritarian regimes and protestors have learned from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Politico explores the growing divide among Trump’s top advisers on immigration policy.
Vox addresses nine questions about Brexit you were too embarrassed to ask.
In the Washington Post, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg argues that although evangelicals helped elect Trump, the religious left will prevent his reelection.
In the Guardian, Trita Parsi critiques Trump’s designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization. Parsi says the move ultimately benefits Israel and Saudi Arabia, not the US, and its purpose is to “reduce the maneuverability of future US administrations and to effectively take peace off the table.”
In a 2011 interview with the Guardian, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who was deposed this week, attributed the mass death and displacement in Darfur—which led to his being indicted by the International Criminal Court—to “traditional conflict.”
The Washington Post reports that the White House tried to pressure DHS to release detained immigrants on the streets of “sanctuary cities” that are Democratic strongholds in order “to retaliate against President Trump’s political adversaries.” ICE rebuffed the idea as impractical and illegal. On Friday, though, Trump tweeted in support of the idea.
The New York Times reports on the community response to the arrest this week of Holden Turner, the son of a local sheriff’s deputy, for the burning of three historically black churches in Opelousas, Louisiana.
Omar Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian activist who co-founded the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, was banned from entering the US. He intended to speak at Harvard and NYU and attend his daughter’s wedding.
Egypt withdrew from a US effort to create an “Arab NATO” that would counter Iran.
PBS Newshour looks at the record of Kevin McAleenan, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner whom Trump elevated to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security following the departure of Kirstjen Nielsen. In the Daily Beast, Justin Baragona argues that an appearance by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show was an audition by the immigration hardliner to run DHS.
Bernie Sanders introduced the fifth iteration of his Medicare for All Act in the Senate. Kaiser Health News examines Sanders’s plan and compares it with other Democratic health reform ideas.
In the Atlantic, David Graham writes about 88-year-old former Senator Mike Gravel’s presidential campaign, which is run by a small group of social media–savvy teenagers. Gravel says he doesn’t aim to win, but rather to meet the donor threshold that would allow him to participate in primary debates.
More than 4,500 Amazon employees urged the company to take aggressive action on climate change and reduce its carbon footprint.
Students at Georgetown University voted to establish a program that, if approved by the administration, would be the first reparations program for African-Americans in the country’s history. Descendants of 272 slaves sold by the university in 1838 would be given preferential admissions consideration and receive health and education services funded by a $27-per-semester student fee.
The Hungarian State Opera asked the all-white cast of its production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” to sign documents stating that they identify as African American. The move was an apparent attempt to skirt Gershwin’s requirement that all performances of his opera feature a black cast. The Gershwin estate is exploring legal options.
The philosopher Roger Scruton has been fired from his unpaid position in the UK’s Ministry of Housing after denying the existence of Islamophobia and decrying George Soros, which some regarded as anti-Semitic.
A Wired article explains what the first-ever picture of a black hole really is.
Using data from the More in Common Initiative’s “Hidden Tribes of America” project, the New York Times reports that the leftward tilt of online Democratic discourse doesn’t reflect the attitudes of most Democratic voters. New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz responds to the Times piece by arguing that an equally illuminating contrast is between progressives on Twitter and Democratic lawmakers who rely on money from corporate America.
In the Washington Post, Sulome Anderson writes about the parallel and mutually reinforcing radicalization strategies of Islamist terrorists and white supremacists. While both groups recruit new members by framing themselves as defenders against foreigners, Anderson finds that law enforcement officials are far less adept at identifying white supremacists than at identifying Islamist terrorists.
In Foreign Policy, Rachel Kleinfeld and Robert Muggah write that state violence and organized crime are on the rise globally and argue that stronger, smarter global governance could help stem that tide.
In Aeon, physics professor Gene Tracy examines the consequences of technology taking the place of human memory.
In Tricycle Magazine, Wendy Joan Biddlecombe Agsar interviews Mirabai Bush, a meditation teacher who taught at Monsanto and other companies, about the ethics of mindfulness in the corporate sector.
In Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman writes about the “Light Triad of Personality,” a set of positive traits that he contrasts with the more famous “Dark Triad.”
The BBC reports on a Nigerian village where men and women seem to “speak different languages.” The two genders understand each other well, partly because boys grow up using words from the “female language,” though they’re expected to switch to the male lexicon by age 10.
CNN says China’s soft power in Africa is growing as more young people learn to speak Mandarin.
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which operates stores for military personnel and their families, has recommended that its outlets stop displaying the news on their televisions because of its divisive nature.
In Scientific American, David Westmoreland describes a two-week course on evolutionary theory at a rural Indian village, taught by Western scientists invited by the Dalai Lama.
An interactive infographic by Al Jazeera illustrates how different voting systems operate in countries around the world.
As China continues to detain, surveil, and “re-educate” the million-plus Uyghurs living in its Xinjiang territory, Pacific Standard reports on a man living in Istanbul who runs a bookstore and publishing house that are aimed at keeping the Uyghur language alive.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
Action for Happiness lists some ways happiness is linked to our connection to communities. And if you’d like to operationalize this connection: the New York Times has published “10 Ways to Explore and Express What Makes Your Community Unique.” (The first step: Figure out how many communities you’re part of.)
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart,
Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith
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