Issue #73: May 12–18, 2019

  • In this issue of MRN, we (1) summarize a week in which the chances of war with Iran dropped and the number of Democratic presidential candidates grew (again); (2) ponder various issues raised by the extremely stringent new anti-abortion law in Alabama; (3) explore the motivation of a man who has reason to hate Trump and is trying to love him; (4) steer you to background readings on things such as Trump’s pardoning of a criminal friend/hagiographer, the latest attack on Rashida Tlaib, endangered rural hospitals, and the challenge of talking sense to Flat Earthers.

–Robert Wright

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The strictest anti-abortion law in the nation: Alabama’s governor signeda law that bans abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, unless continued pregnancy endangers the mother’s health. The law will likely be voided in the lower courts as incompatible with Roe v. Wade—but Roe itself seems headed for reconsideration by the Supreme Court, in connection either with this law or with one of the other anti-abortion laws that have passed in conservative states.

Number of Americans not running for president drops by two: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination—as did Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who has been elected twice to lead a state Trump won by more than 20 percentage points. That brings the number of Democratic presidential candidates to 23.

War no more? Trump told his defense secretary that he doesn’t want war with Iran, one of several signs that he hopes to defuse tensions in the Middle East (even as his administration sent more ominous signals, such as ordering non-essential diplomatic staff to leave Iraq and preparing a menu of options for fighting Iran that includes sending 120,000 troops to its neighborhood). Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported that some US officials now think the Iranian moves that set off all the war talk (notably the loading of missiles onto Iranian boats) were essentially defensive—preparations for retaliation in the event of an American military strike that was seeming more and more likely to Iranian officials.

Mutual ethno-nationalist admiration society: Trump drew criticism by holding a friendly meeting with far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the White House. Trump praised Orbán for being a “tough man,” and Orban said Hungary is proud “to stand together with the United States on fighting against illegal migration, on terrorism, and to protect and help the Christian communities all around the world.”

Muslims and Jews targeted: Fires at a mosque in Connecticut and at botha synagogue and a rabbi’s house in Massachusetts were deemed to have been set intentionally.

The kinds of immigrants Trump likes: Trump sketched an immigration plan that would give priority to high-skilled immigrants and de-emphasize family reunification as a basis for immigrating. The plan, which was put together by Jared Kushner, “appears destined for the congressional dustbin,” according to the Washington Post, but will likely be featured in Trump’s reelection campaign.

Huawei or the data highway: The Trump administration prohibited US telecoms from installing technology that could pose “an unacceptable risk to the national security,” a move widely seen as targeting Chinese tech behemoth Huawei. The Commerce Department separately placed Huawei on a list of firms deemed a risk to national security, a designation that will make it harder for Huawei to buy American-made components—and that could become a bargaining chip in ongoing trade negotiations with China.

Populism down under: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a conservative evangelical Christian whose views in many ways resemble Trump’s, surprised pollsters by winning re-election.


by Robert Wright

Abortion down south: This week’s passage in Alabama of the most severe anti-abortion law in recent American history triggered a flashback. I was back in my sophomore history class at Douglas MacArthur High School in San Antonio. There, at the front of the class, wearing cowboy boots, was Mr. Lightfoot, a stout middle-aged man who, in addition to being a history teacher, was a football coach and a farmer.

This was the year of Roe v. Wade. Mr. Lightfoot explained to the class that the people who think abortion should be legal are people who “want to have their fun and not pay for it.”

What struck me at the time was that this was a pretty grim view of parenthood—child rearing as a kind of decades-long penance for having had sex. What strikes me now is something different: even back then, before America was famously tribal, abortion was a tribal issue.

Mr. Lightfoot didn’t just think the people who disagreed with him about abortion were bad people because they were on the wrong side of that particular morally charged issue. He had a broader picture of their badness; they were people who engaged in or tolerated sexual promiscuity. And this perception, I would guess, only strengthened his conviction that they were wrong about abortion—even though, as a strictly logical matter, the question of whether promiscuity is bad and the question of whether a fetus is a human being aren’t the same question.

I’m not saying this was a crazy connection for Mr. Lightfoot to make. People who favor abortion rights are no doubt, on average, more tolerant of sexual promiscuity than people who oppose abortion rights, and there are discernible reasons for this correlation. So there’s a certain kind of logic behind Mr. Lightfoot’s linkage of the two issues.

Still, such is the power of tribal psychology that such logic isn’t required. If you feel deep antagonism toward one set of positions an ideological group holds, you’re then more likely to react antagonistically to other, wholly unrelated, positions that they espouse; the more you hate the tribe generally, the more you’ll reject its specifics. (Some climate scientists think it unfortunate that Al Gore became the iconic climate change evangelist, because that so prominently labeled climate change a liberal issue, making it that much harder to convert conservative skeptics.)

This means, among other things, that whatever the chances back when I was in high school that people on either side of the abortion issue would change their minds, there’s much less of a chance now. Because the overall intensity of tribal antagonism is, for various reasons, higher.

I guess you could argue that overturning Roe v. Wade—which of course is quite possible now that Brett Kavanaugh has joined the Supreme Court—would dampen tribal antagonism. With states free to set their own abortion policies, pro-lifers in Alabama, say, would no longer feel oppressed by the imposition of liberal values on them.

But it’s also possible that this state-level autonomy could deepen tribal fault lines by rearranging them geographically. After all, pro-choicers in Alabama will feel more oppressed if Roe is overturned. And some may flee. If you’re a liberal high school senior in a state that has conservative laws on abortion—and on other social issues—you’re more likely to choose an out-of-state college. If you’re a liberal looking for a job, you may be more likely to look out of state. Over time, the tribal lines—which now are largely drawn between urban and rural, within both red and blue states—will more and more be drawn between red and blue states.

On the other hand, this deepening of interstate fissures might be averted if Congress, in the wake of a future overturning of Roe, passed pro-choice legislation, standardizing abortion law nationally. And if Democrats are ever in control of both houses of Congress, that could happen.

At this point, I really don’t know where this will all end up. But I do feel fairly confident in making the broader point about the generalizability of ideological antagonism: intense opposition to the other tribe’s position on one issue can make agreement on other issues less likely.

Of course, sometimes intense opposition is in order. But gratuitously antagonistic opposition is all the more to be avoided once you realize that it could harden the opposition’s position on issues across the spectrum. So, I would argue, Democratic Pennsylvania state legislator Brian Sims, whose videotaped harassment of anti-abortion protestors last week sparked a backlash among pro-lifers (see Background item, below) may have, in however small a measure, hardened their position on other issues as well.

The good news, I guess, is that the dynamic can work in reverse: moving toward agreement, or at least civil accommodation, on one issue can make future convergence on another issue more likely by dampening overall hostility just a bit. These days I’m grateful for small things.

Loving Trump (cont’d): Thanks to readers who wrote in with their reactions to my short item last week about James A. Baker. Baker is the former FBI official who vowed, in an essay on the Lawfare blog, that he would try to love Trump—even though he’s been a target of Trump’s Twitter ire and was basically fired by Trump. Characterizations of Baker’s essay included “inspiring” (MRN reader Jill) and “moving, surprising, genuine and evocative of our common humanity” (David).

Not so fast!

As I noted last week, “Baker’s extraordinary essay doesn’t spell out with crystalline clarity the form this love will take or the logic behind it.” And when I subsequently did some research into the logic behind the love, I was… disappointed.

Baker discussed his essay briefly in a Lawfare podcast with Benjamin Wittes, and I listened to the podcast shortly after sending out last week’s newsletter. When Wittes asked Baker why he’d chosen not to hate Trump, Baker said that “to hate the president, to hate his family, to hate his supporters, would be to dishonor the country.” Elaborating, he started talking about the many past Americans, including military veterans, who had sacrificed for his freedoms, and said he wanted to honor those people. He concluded, “hating other Americans is not honoring them.”

He then added a second, related rationale: “I think we just have to elevate the level of debate and discussion in this country and stop hating each other. Because, why? Vladimir Putin loves it. We’re only helping him by hating each other.”

If you ranked all the reasons to love your enemy in a hierarchy of high mindedness, here are two that, in my view, would not deserve to be at the top: “Because my enemy happens to have been born in the same country I was born in;” and “Because loving this enemy will thwart another enemy.”

That said, I still give Baker a lot of credit. Trump inflicted real pain on him. (Even leaving aside the firing, I can only imagine what it’s like for Trump to send his Twitter mob after you.) For Baker to try to love Trump is (1) more impressive than any love initiative I’ve undertaken lately; (2) a valuable example (in some of its dimensions, at least) for aspiring enemy lovers everywhere.

Mindful capitalism: After extended contemplation, we at MRN have decided that we can’t achieve total world domination without a merchandising arm. So this week we unveil what our highly paid marketing consultants have advised us to call “your fabulous opportunity to buy a beautiful Mindful Resistance mug that’s probably microwave safe.” You can buy it here, and it’s only $20—and shipping is free even if you’re not an Amazon Prime member. Now, granted, this mug may not be quite as special as the Mindful Resistance mug that says “Founding Resister” on it—the one you could have for free if you became a Patreon supporter at the $8 per month level. But I’m guessing your cupboard could accommodate two new mugs…

And speaking of Patreon: I’ve been advised to advise Patreon patrons that, though we will from time to time initiate a discussion with patrons on our Patreon home page, patrons are free to themselves initiate a discussion with fellow patrons in the community section. And, to illustrate that these discussions needn’t be tightly bound to the MRN mission, MRN’s Nikita Petrov has just initiated a discussion on deep fake technologies. So feel free to respond (or have a fake version of you respond). And for those who aren’t patrons: Nikita has put the same post in the Mindful Resistance section of the Insight Timer app.

Tricycle and Tribalism: My six-week online course “Beyond Tribalism: How Mindfulness Can Save the World” starts this Monday! I’ve worked hard with the good folks at Tricycle Magazine to develop the course, and I hope you’ll give some thought to signing up. But don’t sign up without using the $25 discount code that I’m sharing with a few of my closest friends: WRIGHT25. (At the risk of overdoing this Patreon thing: the course’s video lectures will, at the end of August, be available for free to Patreon supporters at the $4 tier and higher. OTOH, there’s always a chance that by the end of August the Mindful Resistance media juggernaut will have quelled all the world’s tribalism, in which case there will be no reason to watch the lectures. So you should probably take the course now.)


Adam Liptak of the New York Times argues that the near-term challenges to Roe v. Wade will come via the review of state anti-abortion laws less extreme than the one just passed in Alabama—and that the Supreme Court is “more likely to chip away at the constitutional right to abortion established in 1973 in Roe v. Wade than to overturn it outright.”

Eric Johnston, author of the Alabama abortion bill that passed this week, was interviewed on the New York Times podcast The Daily.

In Wired, Adam Rogers writes about the “shoddy” science behind bills that ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is discernible—such as the bill that passed in Georgia last week.

Vox explains why Bill de Blasio, Steve Bullock, and so many other “random white men” are running for president.

In the Atlantic, Franklin Foer writes about Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán’s campaign to shape the ideological content of the country’s education system and about the resistance mounted by one of Hungary’s premier graduate schools, Central European University. In the New York Times, Patrick Kingsley reports on Orbán’s “double game” of both supporting his country’s Jewish population and implicitly condoning anti-Semitism.

In a Twitter thread, former Pentagon official Ilan Goldenberg explains how, in his view, recent Iranian military moves that were defensive in nature were misconstrued as offensive. Last year MRN’s Robert Wright wrote a piece in the Intercept arguing that the tendency to misconstrue defensive Iranian actions as offensive is abetted by uncritical reporting in The New York Times.

Vox explains why congressional Republicans are already admitting that Trump’s new immigration reform plan is dead on arrival.

The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott reports that Trump’s aides routinely ignore his orders and hope he’ll forget about them, which he is said to often do. For example, Trump said in March that he would cut off aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. It’s now late May…

Trump granted a pardon to Conrad Black, the conservative Canadian media mogul who served three years for fraud and obstruction of justice. Black is a friend of Trump’s and wrote a book called Donald J. Trump, which features the undeniably accurate subtitle, A President Like No Other.

As the US ordered the suspension of all commercial passenger and cargo flights between the US and Venezuela, the Maduro government and the opposition restarted talks in Norway, weeks after a failed uprising by opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

A UN report says that one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction due to climate change, deforestation, pollution, and other human activities. [We overlooked this item last week—thanks to MRN reader Christine for bringing it to our attention.]

Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims faced backlash after posting videos he made of himself heckling anti-abortion protesters outside a Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia. Hundreds of protesters called for his resignation, and a GoFundMe for the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia used the episode to raise more than $118,000.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib was criticized after saying she got a “calming feeling” from the knowledge that the homeland of her Palestinian ancestors had provided a “safe haven for Jews” during and after the Holocaust. Some conservatives—including the president, on Twitter—took Tlaib’s comments out of context and accused her of taking comfort in memory of the Holocaust itself. Democratic colleagues defended her against what Bernie Sanders called “ugly attacks.”

The White House, citing concerns about free speech, said it will not back a New Zealand–led effort to combat online extremism. Eighteen countries and five big tech companies have signed the nonbinding agreement, pledging to, among other things, “encourage media outlets to apply ethical standards when depicting terrorist events online.”

The White House unveiled an online tool people can use to tell the White House that they believe they’ve been censored on social media for their political beliefs. Conservatives, including Donald Trump Jr., have been alleging recently that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are biased against them.

Joe Garden, a former writer for the Onion, reflects on his role in creating the satirical image of Joe Biden as a crazy, lovable uncle: “We helped make him more likable by inventing a version of Biden that never existed.”

Weeks after the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, the government had to impose a nationwide curfew to curb anti-Muslim rioting across the country.

Facebook banned an Israeli company that it said was trying to disrupt elections and spread disinformation in foreign countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. The firm, called the Archimedes Group, advertises that it can “change reality.”


With rural hospitals across America facing bankruptcies and closures even as demand for emergency room services rises, Eli Saslow of the Washington Post chronicles the case of a financially imperiled hospital in Oklahoma.

Lee McIntyre of Boston University went to a Flat Earth conference and tried to figure out what it would take to get attendees to reconsider their views.

In Wired, Robyn Kanner writes about how, after experiencing an online backlash for a New York Times op-ed she wrote about empathizing with conservatives, she decided to tweet out her phone number with an invitation to talk. She has since spoken to dozens of strangers: “Each conversation left me feeling more human, less shamed.”

This data animation shows the dramatic change, around the world, in birth rate and child mortality since 1850.

In Aeon, the philosopher Mariana Alessandri argues against the “American virtue of cheerfulness,” which, she says, “borders on psychosis.”

New York Magazine’s Max Read says that private group chats are a growing trend among young people and are “an improvement over the machine-sorted feed” of Facebook and Twitter.

“Plan S” is a new initiative for open-access academic publishing in science that requires researchers supported by state-funded institutions to publish their work online, or in journals that are available to all, by 2020. Several national science organizations in Europe have signed on.

Caity Weaver spent a week living like it was 1994—using only that era’s technology and imbibing only that era’s culture—and documented her journey for the New York Times. “The first thing I noticed at midnight when the clock struck 1994 was the sudden silence in the room. The second thing was the deafening volume of my inner monologue.”

In Lion’s Roar, Arinna Weisman and Jean Smith provide a simple guide to walking meditation.

After a string of damaging public statements from officials in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, members were given a handout titled “How to Avoid Gaffes and Misunderstandings.”

The BBC reports that people in San Francisco, France, and elsewhere are setting up communal outdoor workspaces in parking spots, intended to promote community and to make a statement about the use of space in cities with pricey real estate.


Better Angels: More than a year ago, we mentioned in this section an enterprise called Better Angels, which was trying to build bridges between America’s warring tribes. Well it still is! And now it has released a documentary about its attempt to build such a bridge in an ideologically divided town in Ohio. Check it out. And if it leaves you inspired, consider signing up as a footsoldier in the war against our worst demons.

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

Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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