Issue #74: May 19–25, 2019

In this week’s MRN we: (1) briskly summarize a week that was pretty eventful, especially on the international front; (2) get all exercised about the release from prison of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh—though not for the reasons that others are exercised about it; (3) critically examine a treatise that defends the dumping of milkshakes on right-wing politicians; (4) direct you to background readings on things ranging from tensions with Iran to fake-news-resistant Finns to the origins of Hindu nationalism to Amazon’s gamification of warehouse work to the cluelessness of experts.

–Robert Wright

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This week’s war drums: Trump said he will send “about 1,500” troops to the Middle East in reaction to what the administration views as Iranian provocations. The perceived provocations—such as the sabotage of two Saudi oil tankers and the launching of a rocket into Baghdad’s Green Zone—haven’t been conclusively linked to Iran, though some analysts consider them plausible Iranian shots across the bow in response to crippling economic sanctions and other hostile American actions.

New emergency claimed: Trump declared that tensions with Iran constitute an emergency—a judgment that lets him sidestep congressional opposition to an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Old emergency questioned: A federal judge temporarily blocked Trump’s attempt to redirect military spending toward construction of a border wall—a redirection premised on Trump’s declaration of an emergency along the southern border.

Theresexit: British Prime Minister Theresa May, having failed to find a Brexit plan that could win the support of both Parliament and the European Union, announced that she will step down once her fellow Conservatives have selected a successor. The successor will face the problem she faced: though most voters in Britain’s 2016 referendum favored Brexit in the abstract, it’s not clear that any one concrete version of Brexit can win majority support either in Parliament or among the public—and also satisfy the European Union, as any version other than a “hard Brexit” would have to do.

No holds Barr: Trump gave Attorney General William Barr “full and complete authority” to declassify documents as part of a Justice Department probe into the origins and conduct of the 2016 FBI investigation that morphed into the Mueller investigation. Rep. Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said that Trump and Barr are trying to “weaponize law enforcement and classified information against their political enemies”—which is roughly what Trump claims the FBI did in 2016 and hopes the new investigation will establish.

Ethno-nationalist candidate wins: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has harnessed and, critics say, fomented anti-Muslim sentiment among Hindus, was re-elected resoundingly. His re-election chances were once in doubt, but his campaign was buoyed three months ago by a brief military conflict with majority-Muslim neighbor Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region.

Ethnically tolerant candidate wins: In a victory welcomed by religious minorities in the world’s largest majority-Muslim country, Indonesian President Joko Widodo won re-election, defeating a challenger who had allied with hard-line Islamists. After the election, at least six people were killed and 350 injured in violent unrest in Jakarta, the nation’s capital.

Assange indicted: Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was indicted under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information. Many see the indictment as a crucial test of First Amendment protections that have long been enjoyed by mainstream investigative journalists.

Advantage, Democrats: Federal judges in New York and DC denied Trump’s attempt to stop his longtime lender, Deutsche Bank, and his accounting firm, Mazars USA, from giving his financial records to Democrat-controlled congressional committees. Trump appealed both rulings.


by Robert Wright

American Taliban: This week the BBC ran this headline: “John Walker Lindh: Anger as ‘American Taliban’ freed.”

It’s true: Many people—including President Trump—were angry that the American who famously found common cause with the Taliban on the battlefields of Afghanistan, and was jailed 17 years ago, has been released.

I’m angry too! (While, of course, being mindful of my anger.) Specifically, I’m angry about:

(1) The fact that Afghanistan War has outlived Lindh’s prison term. Eighteen years after we invaded Afghanistan, our troops are still there, fighting and dying—and killing people—with no end in sight.

(2) The fact that the reason the Taliban were there for Lindh to join was that two decades earlier, in a typical exercise of Cold War overreaction, the US had flooded Afghanistan with weapons and encouraged Muslims to use them in a Holy War against the Soviet Union—an initiative that not only wound up creating the Taliban but also had such notable side effects as turning Osama bin Laden into the kind of guy who would arrange to have airliners flown into buildings. (America’s mindless fomenting of the forces that gave rise to 9/11 is detailed in Max Blumenthal’s new book The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump. My conversation with Max about the book will be in the Wright Show podcast feed, and on, this Tuesday.)

(3) The fact that so many people are so angry about Lindh’s release from prison.

Number (3), actually, is part of a generic peeve of mine—about how the word “terrorist” seems to render people incapable of clear thought.

Remember when President Obama was unable to fulfill his promise to close the Guantanamo detention facility (which, he noted, “only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies”)? What drove opposition to this initiative wasn’t the thought of freeing the detainees—that’s not what Obama was proposing. The opposition came from people freaked out at the thought of transferring the detainees to American prisons. As Mitch McConnell explained in the course of helping to thwart this goal, to move Guantanamo detainees to American prisons would be “to transfer dangerous terrorists to our communities.”

After all, one out of a zillion prisoners does escape from a maximum security prison every century or so! And apparently no degree of risk is acceptable when the risk can be juxtaposed with the word “terrorist.”

In contrast, when the word “terrorist” isn’t in play, Americans are willing to accept real risks as the price we pay for being a decent society. For example: Each year we release thousands of convicted murderers from prison. About one percent of them go on to kill again. So basically we’re saying: We’re willing to let dozens of innocent Americans die per year rather than live in the kind of nation where hundreds of thousands of murderers stay locked up for life even though 99 percent of them, if released, will never kill again.

Personally, I’m proud of us for this—for building a system that rests on clear and principled reasoning, and acknowledges that defending our values sometimes carries a painful price. I just wish it weren’t the case that invoking the word “terrorist” renders such reasoning arduous to the point of impossibility.

I’m not saying, by the way, that John Walker Lindh is comparable to some guy who killed a rival in a bar fight and got 12 years in the pen. Lindh is in some ways less scary than such a guy (apparently he’s never killed anyone) and in some ways more scary (he is said to support ISIS, and ISIS supports killing American civilians). I’m just saying it would be great if, however large the risk factors turn out to be in his case, we could do the math calmly, without freaking out. And so too with terrorism-related things generally. Instead, we’re treating terrorism the way we treated the Soviet menace during the Cold War—so reactively, and so irrationally, that we keep doing things that will haunt us down the road.

On the matter of milkshakes: This week, as Nigel Farage led Britain’s Brexit Party to what he hopes will be a strong showing in European Parliament elections, he encountered a problem: a protester dumped a milkshake on him. It was the latest in a series of milkshake dumpings on right-wing figures in Britain.

In Current Affairs, G.D. Forrest offers a treatise on the issues raised by this trend. It is called “In Defense of Throwing Food on People.”

One virtue of the adage “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is that it saves you the trouble of reading treatises defending people who do things to others that you wouldn’t want done to you. But Forrest is an entertaining writer, so I was happy to examine this argument in favor of living in a world where the longstanding norm against dumping foodstuffs on people you disagree with has broken down.

As it happens, Forrest doesn’t really spend much time defending that world. Most of the essay isn’t a defense of dumping stuff on people you disagree with, but rather a defense of dumping stuff on people Forrest disagrees with—which is to say, far-right figures. These figures, Forrest says, “gain power by appearing respectable”—wearing suits, speaking politely. “Throwing food and drinks on these people suddenly shakes the frame— for a moment, the far-right figure is no longer serious. They are a baby in a suit. They are a figure of fun. They are pathetic.”

True enough. And I agree with Forrest about who the bad guys are. But I’m mindful of the fact that the bad guys consider me and Forrest to be the bad guys—so I’m still not sure I’m ready to withdraw from the unspoken arms treaty that has allowed me to speak my mind for decades without ever encountering a milkshake I hadn’t ordered.

Forrest briefly addresses this concern about tit-for-tat, arguing that if somebody dumped a milkshake on Bernie Sanders, it wouldn’t hurt Sanders’s image as much as this week’s milkshake hurt Farage’s. Well, maybe. But I’m sure the enterprising folks on the far right could come up with some form of disturbance that would impede Bernie’s messaging more than Farage’s. And then Forrest would be logically compelled to embrace the normalization of whatever that turned out to be, right? Or did I totally miss the point of Ethical Philosophy 101?

Actually, my main criticism of Forrest’s essay isn’t even as high minded as Ethical Philosophy 101. The essay seems to assume that Forrest’s reaction to seeing Nigel Farage have a milkshake dumped on him—that Farage looks comically ridiculous, as opposed to looking like the victim of something done by some asshole—will be widespread. I suspect it will be spread about as wide as the circle of people who already considered Farage ridiculous.

That’s what it means to live in polarized times. Lots of things that in ordinary times might change some minds—ranging from milkshake showers to sharp rhetorical ripostes—tend not to change minds. Meanwhile, things like milkshake showers only intensify the kind of tribal hostility that gives people like Nigel Farage power in the first place.

At least, that’s my view. Readers who view milkshakes differently can send their treatises to

Final reminder… that you can enroll in my online course on the psychology of tribalism, produced in collaboration with Tricycle Magazine. (And a final reminder that Patreon patrons at the $4 tier and above will get free access to the course videos, though not until the end of August.) The first lecture is now online, and enrollment will stay open until June 1. And the discount code WRIGHT25 will save you some money.


In New York Magazine, Ed Kilgore explores the question of whether, as Nancy Pelosi has suggested, Trump actually wants to be impeached.

NPR profiles the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the century-old, right-wing paramilitary organization that has promoted “Hindutva,” the idea that India should be a Hindu nation. Newly re-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP, grew out of the group.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press examines the First Amendment issues raised by the Justice Department’s prosecution of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act. The New York Times Editorial Board inveighs against the indictment, calling it “a threat to freedom of expression and, with it, the resilience of American democracy itself.”

In the Atlantic, Peter Beinart writes that, though many Democratic presidential candidates are protesting the Trump administration’s drift toward war with Iran, they’re failing to challenge the false narrative underlying it: that Iran is, by the standards of its neighborhood, a distinctively malevolent and dangerous country.

On LobeLog, former US intelligence official Paul Pillar sees troubling parallels between current tensions with Iran and the atmosphere surrounding the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized America’s massive war effort in Vietnam, was premised on a reported attack by North Vietnam that seems not to have actually happened.

Kevin L. Schwartz warns on LobeLog that it is “dangerously misguided” for the US to justify war with Iran based on the actions of its proxies, especially when it isn’t clear how much control Iran exerts over them.

Carnegie Europe surveyed experts about the significance of the EU Parliament elections that are now wrapping up and are expected to expand the representation of nationalist Eurosceptics in the parliament.

A New York Times piece by Declan Walsh explores America’s role in the killing of an estimated 4,800 Yemeni civilians since 2016 by the Saudi-led military coalition. Alex Emmons of the Intercept explains how Trump is trying to circumvent Congress to get more arms to Saudi Arabia.

At Lawfare, Jonathan Shaub examines various arguments used by the Trump administration to justify its refusal to let former White House Counsel Don McGahn testify before Congress.

The Washington Post offers background on the conflict between the Trump administration and Chinese telecom giant Huawei, and explains why Google will no longer let the company use its mobile software even though Huawei commands 19 percent of the global smartphone market.

Bloomberg reports on a sting operation that has shaken Austria’s governing coalition: a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece got Austria’s vice chancellor to discuss a shady scheme that would benefit his right-wing nationalist party.

At War on the Rocks, Frederic Wehrey and Emadeddin Badi analyze the precarious situation in Libya and critique Trump’s decision to back militia commander Khalifa Haftar’s campaign against the government in Tripoli.


In the Boston Review, Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier write about the unanticipated threats that the Internet is posing to the functioning of democracies and how those threats can be met.

Bloomberg reports that Amazon is developing a wearable device that could infer the emotional state of wearers from their voice. The device might eventually “advise the wearer how to interact more effectively with others” and perhaps “be used to better target advertising or product recommendations.”

In the New York Times, Will Wilkinson argues that Trump’s Republican party, far from serving his many rural constituents, has “a positively anti-rural economic agenda.” Wilkinson offers economic revitalization policy ideas that, he says, Democrats could wield to their political advantage.

Bloomberg’s Sophie Alexander reports from New Albany, Ohio, where the billionaire owner of Victoria’s Secret has purchased all the town’s land and built an oasis for the wealthy (and a 60,000 square-foot mega-mansion for himself) amid a region suffering from post-industrial decline.

Colorado’s legislature is by some measures the most politically polarized in the country—but also, by some measures, the most productive. In Pacific Standard, Seth Masket explores why polarization doesn’t seem to hamper legislative output at the state level the way it does at the federal level.

This year the Boston Globe became the only American newspaper other than the New York Times to have more digital than print subscribers. At Nieman Lab, Joshua Benton says this first for a local paper (the Times being in effect a national paper) may be a good sign for the Globe and for local journalism in general.

In the Washington Post, Greg Bensinger reports on how Amazon is fusing video games with warehouse work in an attempt to engage and incentivize workers. Amazon’s efforts are part of a broader push by tech-oriented companies to use gamification to spur productivity, control costs, and relieve tedium for low-skill workers.

Lion’s Roar reports on Liberate Meditation app, which features guided meditations and dharma talks by and for people of color.

On NPR, Jon Hamilton explores the way the brain links physical pain and emotion, and how people suffering from chronic pain can sometimes find relief through breathing and relaxation techniques.

In the Atlantic, David Epstein writes about the dismal failure of credentialed experts to make reliable predictions in their areas of specialization, and the superior performance of groups of intellectually curious non-experts.

According to one study, the people of Finland are less vulnerable to fake news than the people of any other European country. A CNN report explores a media literacy initiative, launched by the Finnish government in 2014, that may deserve some of the credit.


Concerned about online privacy? VPN Mentor offers a tool that details the data that the 20 largest Internet companies are collecting from you, sometimes against your explicit instructions. (Thanks to MRN reader Jane, who, having read a Gizmodo piece we linked to about trying to live without the five big tech companies, emailed us about VPN Mentor.)


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

Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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