Issue #71: Apr 28–May 4, 2019

In this week’s MRN we (1) note signs of a race-based Trump foreign policy; (2) explain how you, via the magic of micro-initiatives, can make the world a better place and maybe even save it; (3) summarize the week’s news so smoothly that you’ll feel almost no pain; (4) direct you to background reading on things ranging from William Barr to John Bolton, from the mindset of extremists to the oppressiveness of algorithms, from good news for the Satanic Church to bad news for Satan’s Twitter account (really); plus a lusty fourteenth-century nun.

–Robert Wright

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Barr, the door: In a letter made public this week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller complained to Attorney General William Barr that Barr had created “public confusion” by writing a deficient summary of the Mueller report and releasing it weeks before the report or its executive summaries were released. Barr defended his handling of the Mueller report in front of a Senate panel and then declined to appear before a House panel, after which House Democrats threatened to hold him in contempt for not turning over an unredacted version of the report.

Genetic screening: The Department of Homeland Security said it will start using DNA testing at the southern border in cases of suspected “fraud” to determine whether migrant children are biologically related to the adults with whom they’re traveling.

Brotherly non-love: The White House is reportedly planning to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who ousted Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi in a 2013 coup, and whose soldiers then gunned down hundreds of peacefully protesting members of the Brotherhood, had urged Trump to make the move.

Infrastructure weak: Trump and Democratic leaders agreed to pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, focusing on the nation’s roads, bridges, and rural broadband. The question of how to fund the initiative—a question some observers expect to derail it—won’t be discussed until another White House meeting in three weeks.

Coup gets resistance: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó tried to seize control of the government, exhorting his followers to take to the streets and calling on the military to break with President Nicolás Maduro. After a day of violent clashes between the military and thousands of Guaidó supporters, Maduro maintained the support of the military leadership and held onto power.

Polarization in Spain: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s center-left party captured a plurality of seats in parliamentary elections and will likely form a governing coalition. But the far right can also claim a kind of victory, as the intensely nationalist anti-immigration Vox party won 24 seats, compared with zero seats in the previous election.

Let the good times roll: The monthly jobs report showed the unemployment rate at 3.6 percent, the lowest level in 50 years. Longstanding expectations that the economy will tank before the 2020 election are coming into question.

He’s back: ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in a video and vowed that ISIS will continue its battle against “the crusaders” even though it has now lost virtually all its physical territory. In his first appearance since 2014, Baghdadi suggested that the recent ISIS-aided bombings in Sri Lanka herald a strategic shift away from building a caliphate in the Middle East and toward the cultivation of terrorists around the world.

This week’s candidate: Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado announced that he is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Bennet, a low-key moderate for most of his career, had a viral moment during the government shutdown when he delivered a fiery speech on the Senate floor excoriating Ted Cruz.


by Robert Wright

To boldly go where no cliché has gone before: In keeping with my long history of taking courageous positions, I opined in last week’s newsletter that hatred is a bad thing. Now MRN reader Jane is asking whether I could develop that observation into something that is, you know, actually of use to someone.

Jane put it more politely than that. I had said that we seem to be witnessing an escalating war between violent extremists—mainly white nationalists on one side and jihadists on the other. Recognizing that hatred was fueling this war, I said, was the place to start in thinking about “constructive policies the next administration might pursue and about constructive non-governmental initiatives (including the micro-initiatives that each of us can take in our everyday lives).” Jane quoted the part about micro-initiatives and wrote, “I wish you’d elaborate on this.”

OK, I’ll try. But please keep your expectations low. Remember: I said micro-initiatives.

One premise of the idea that we can all do things that might help defuse an incipient war between extremists is this: hostility is contagious, and it’s contagious in two different senses.

First, there’s inter-tribal contagion. If I see a tweet or Facebook post by some alt-righter or borderline alt-righter and reply to it hostilely (even in the sense of sarcastically), the target of my hostility will grow only more hostile toward the group he sees me as part of (lefties, coastal cosmopolitans, whatever).

Second, there’s intra-tribal contagion. The more hostile this person feels toward, say, coastal cosmopolitans, the more he’ll affirm and encourage that kind of hostility among his fellow tribe members, even tribe members whom he’s never met and who live nowhere near him. And he doesn’t even have to have that goal in mind. Social media are, among other things, stunningly efficient media of emotional contagion, and their intra-tribal conduits are robust.

So your replying sarcastically to some borderline alt-righter could, for all you know, have negative ripple effects around the world, ultimately intensifying the hatred not just of borderline alt-righters but of their ideological cousins, flat-out white nationalists, including potentially violent ones. Which means that not replying sarcastically could, relatively speaking, have positive effects around the world. And (let’s dream big!) engaging in a civil and earnest exchange that chips away at the borderline alt-righter’s negative stereotype about your tribe could have even more positive effects.

So what are the chances that a single act of restraint, or of civility, will, via these ripple effects, make a big difference—keep some teetering-on-the-brink white nationalist from becoming hate-filled enough to take the plunge into violence? Well, in the case of a single act of restraint or civility, not high. And, honestly, in the case of thousands of acts, not super high.

But if more and more people engage in these acts on a regular basis, I think the chances of an effect that dramatic do become high. And there is a chance—a percentage higher than zero—that one of your acts will be the one that does the trick. For all you know, one of your acts already has.

This is a pretty Buddhist view—and not just in the sense that it accords with the Buddhist idea of “right speech” and various other expressions of Buddhist ethics. It’s Buddhist in its conception of the way the world works.

Buddhist philosophy emphasizes the subtle causal interconnection of everything. Indeed, part of the logic behind the famously mystifying “not-self” doctrine—the idea that your “self” in some sense doesn’t exist—has to do with all the subtle forces constantly impinging on us, shaping our behavior so pervasively as to raise questions about how much of our behavior truly originates from “within.”

But, leaving aside the question of where our behavior originates, the flip side of this worldview is that this behavior—including our online behavior—is a causal force that ramifies subtly in myriad ways, and winds up, however indirectly, influencing all kinds of things all over the world. (One virtue of the Internet is that it’s made this ancient Buddhist idea harder to deny by illustrating it so vividly.)

You can’t say for sure that any one act of “right speech” will have ultimately good effects; emotional contagion isn’t that precisely predictable. Then again, you can’t be sure that covering your mouth when you sneeze will always have good effects; maybe if you’d given the person next to you your cold, they’d have stayed home the next day instead of going out and getting run over by a truck.

Still, subduing the spread of the cold virus has predictably good effects on balance, and I’d say the same thing about subduing the spread of figurative malicious viruses, like hostility.

So, anyway, this is the kind of thing I meant by “micro-initiatives.” There are kinds of things that, if you keep doing them, will make the world, on balance, a better place. And for all you know, they’ll make the world a better place in a dramatic way.

If you have thoughts about other kinds of “micro-initiatives”—or doubts about the kind I’ve outlined—do what Jane did: email us at

Professor Bob: In collaboration with the venerable Buddhist magazine Tricycle, I’m teaching an online course that speaks to the mission of this newsletter. It’s called Beyond Tribalism: How Mindfulness Can Save the World. It’s a six-week course that starts May 20, and you can enroll here. The course costs actual money, but: (1) If you know the right people, you can probably get ahold of a $25 discount code that looks remarkably like this: WRIGHT25; (2) Tricycle’s policy is to never deny people access to one of its courses for lack of means; scholarships are available. (3) “My” share of the proceeds actually goes to the Nonzero Foundation, which puts out worthwhile things like,, and, um, what you’re reading now. Note: The course will be available for free to Patreon supporters at the $4 tier and above, but not until the end of August. And can you really wait that long to save the world?

Clash of civilizations (cont’d): No, I’m not talking about the clash between “the West” and “the Muslim world.” That’s the self-fulfilling prophecy I wrote about last week. This week’s self-fulfilling prophecy was laid out by the director of policy planning in Trump’s State Department, Kiron Skinner. Discussing the future relationship between America and China, she said, “This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology.” When we faced off against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, she said, “it was a fight within the Western family”—but this contest with China is different; it’s “the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”

Not Caucasian. As I noted last week, Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations said there are natural tensions between major “civilizations”—such as western and Chinese civilization—grounded in their different characters. Huntington’s analysis was too essentialist for my taste, but at least he described these differences in character as cultural, not biological. Apparently in Trump’s State Department a more nineteenth-century view can be found.

After Trump won the 2016 election, and people started characterizing the worldview he shared with his then-guru Steve Bannon as “ethno-nationalist,” the label made immediate sense. It made sense in light of Trump’s obsession with Muslim immigrants and his obsession with Latin American immigrants. It also made sense in light of Bannon’s reported view that too many Silicon Valley executives are of South Asian heritage. Still, I underestimated back then how deeply ethno-nationalism would influence the Trump administration and how diverse would be the policies it could influence.

It’s important to discern, amid the torrent of troubling things emanating from the Trump administration, the things that are new and troubling. I’d say signs of an explicitly race-based foreign policy qualify.

Assembly of the elect: Plans for a meeting of MRN readers in the NYC area have solidified. The good folks at Union Theological Seminary in upper Manhattan have offered us a room to gather in. There, on the evening of Tuesday, May 14, regular readers of this periodical can give me positive and negative feedback about it and about anything else they’re feeling positively or negatively (or neutrally) about. The only catch is that first they have to listen to me give a talk on mindful resistance, which starts at 6:30 p.m. in Union’s chapel. The good news is that the talk is free, so long as you reserve a ticket here.

Correction: Alert MRN reader Chanaka spotted two mistakes in last week’s newsletter. The newsletter said that, in the wake of the Sri Lanka bombings, Sri Lanka’s defense minister and top police official had resigned. But actually: (1) Sri Lanka is a country that has both a defense minister and a secretary of defense, and only the latter resigned; (2) As for the country’s police chief: President Maithripala Sirisena said the chief resigned, but in fact the chief refused Sirisena’s resignation request. (Sirisena seems to have managed to sideline the chief nonetheless and appointed an acting police chief.)


In the Atlantic, Benjamin Wittes lists seven ways Attorney General William Barr has bent the truth about the Mueller report and writes, “Not in my memory has a sitting attorney general more diminished the credibility of his department on any subject.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board defends Barr. The New York Times collects reactions to Barr’s testimony before Congress this week from across the political spectrum.

The Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer examines the manifesto of the man who attacked a California synagogue last Saturday and finds connections between his anti-Semitism and his Christian beliefs. He blames Jews for killing Jesus, and the obscure denomination to which he belongs—the Orthodox Presbyterian Church—doesn’t share the beliefs of many pro-Israel evangelicals about the role Israeli Jews will play in the Second Coming.

In the American Prospect, Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg reflects on the California synagogue shooting, this week’s anti-Semitic-trope-laden cartoon in the international edition of the New York Times, and related recent developments. He concludes, “Anti-Semitism is a chronic illnessthat flares up when politics is polarized, when demagoguery stands in for policy, when people face changes they can’t understand and want a villain.”

In the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins profiles National Security Adviser John Bolton, “the Republican Party’s most militant foreign-policy thinker,” who enthusiastically supports intervening in Venezuela and has embraced regime change in Iran.

In Dissent, Jared Abbott argues that supporting “democracy and self-determination” in Venezuela entails opposing the “dangerous and destabilizing” actions taken by Juan Guaidó, the anti-democratic and inept leadership of Nicolás Maduro, and sanctions and military intervention from abroad. The International Crisis Group says the two sides of the conflict are not likely to reach a workable agreement, so external actors such as the US, Russia, and China have a responsibility to foster compromise.

In Politico, Tanya Snyder lists seven reasons to be skeptical about the $2 trillion infrastructure plan being negotiated by the White House and Democrats.

In the New York Times, David D. Kirkpatrick provides an explainer on theMuslim Brotherhood, which Trump reportedly plans to label a terrorist organization. Kirkpatrick writes, “Even experts critical of the Brotherhood agree that the organization does not meet the criteria for a terrorist group.”

In the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum details the origins and rapid rise of the far-right Spanish political party Vox, which went from winning no parliamentary seats in 2016 to winning 24 seats in this week’s elections.

Facebook and Instagram this week banned a number of figures, mainly on the far right, including Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, Louis Farrakhan, Paul Joseph Watson, and Laura Loomer.

The New York Times reports on Yemeni-American bodega owners in New York City who have organized a boycott of the New York Post over the paper’s alleged anti-Muslim bias. Yemeni Americans own about half of the city’s 10,000 bodegas.

An infographic from the Carnegie Center explains the Indian parliamentary election, which lasts through May and is expected to be the largest election in human history.

The UK Parliament declared an “environment and climate emergency“—a symbolic act that was among the demands made by the activist group Extinction Rebellion during recent protests. A BBC explainer looks at the movement and whether its goals are realistic.

Southern Baptist minister in Alabama, writing in the New York Times, describes how some white evangelicals handle tension between their conservative views on immigration and tenets of their faith. Often “people with strong anti-immigrant policy positions… open their homes, churches, wallets and arms to immigrants in their communities.”

The New York Times reports from Austria, where Grannies Against the Right has become a regular fixture in protests against Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his right-wing Freedom Party.

The IRS has granted the Satanic Temple (subject of a new documentary called Hail Satan) the same non-profit status enjoyed by churches, mosques, and synagogues. And speaking of Satan: Will Oremus writes about the parody Twitter account @s8n and what its recent decrease in new followers says about the opaque way Twitter changes its algorithms.


Buzzfeed profiles ex-Breitbart editor Katie McHugh, a former member of the alt-right who left the movement and is encouraging others to do so.

A BBC article describes the work of organizations that help people leave extremist groups and what this work tells us about “the extremist mindset.”

In a Guardian piece called “How the News Took Over Reality,” Oliver Burkeman argues that, thanks to social media and smartphones, the news has for many people come to feel “more important, even more truly real, than the concrete immediacy of our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces.”

Trump’s new science adviser,Kelvin Droegemeier, talked to Nature about the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s new anti-sexual harassment and academic engagement initiatives. He also lauded Trump’s demand for “6G” wireless technology (which doesn’t exist) and suggested that Trump may have been joking when he erroneously claimed that windmills cause cancer.

In the Nation, Bruce Robbins reviews anthropologist Didier Fassin’s Life: A Critical User’s Manual, which, Robbins writes, laments the tendency of “many in the Global North to treat an individual life as sacred while refusing to address the social structures that cause many lives to be treated as anything but.”

Researchers have found that suicides among boys ages 10-17 hit a five-year high in the month after the release of the Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why, which is about a teen girl’s suicide.

Anjana Susarla, a professor of information systems, argues that the new technological divide is not between those who have access to technology and those who don’t, but between those who are mindful of the algorithms their technology uses and those who aren’t.

The New York Times created online advertisements that reveal to viewers what the ad algorithm “thinks” about them—e.g., “this ad thinks you’re male, a C-suite executive and binge-watch reality dating shows.” An article by Stuart A. Thompson explains how the algorithm works and where the data comes from.

Archival researchers have discovered reports about a 14th-century nun who carved a dummy of herself in order fake her own death, flee her convent, and pursue “the way of carnal lust.” Apparently she failed to view the lust mindfully.


At Greater Good Magazine, in an article called “How to Talk to a Political Opponent Without Losing Your Cool,” journalist Amanda Ripley writes about academics who study how people can have more productive disagreements and more successful difficult conversations. Among the techniques that show promise: “looping for understanding,” in which you “distill the essence of what the other person is saying, and then say it back to them. There’s no need to agree with the person—or even to pretend to like them.”

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

Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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