Issue #75: May 26–June 1, 2019

In this week’s MRN we (1) offer our patented weekly news summary—which, we continue to claim, features the highest signal-to-noise ratio in the Trump-related newsletter industry;  (2) find cause for cheer in European Union election results; (3) continue our crusade to deploy mindfulness as a weapon against distraction; (4) steer you to background readings on things ranging from the world’s most journalist-unfriendly country to the political realignment America is undergoing to the newly recognized disease of “gaming disorder” to the art of changing people’s minds.

–Robert Wright

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Borderline trade war: Trump said he will impose a five percent tariff on all Mexican goods as of June 10, and that the tariff will escalate monthly, possibly reaching as high as 25 percent, “until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP.” Prominent Republicans, as well as Democrats, condemned the move, and the stock market fell.

European elections: In European Union elections, nationalist Euroskeptic parties increased their representation in the European Parliament by several percentage points and will now occupy around a quarter of its seats. But parties on the left, notably the climate-conscious Green Party, also did well, while centrist parties saw their strength decline, leaving the Parliament more polarized than before.

Trump vs. Bolton: In what some took as an intentional undercutting of hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump said the US doesn’t seek regime change in Iran.

Mueller speaks: Special Counsel Robert Mueller spoke publicly about the Russia investigation for the first and perhaps last time, underscoring several points from his report: (1) Russia interfered significantly in the 2016 election; (2) the report’s failure to conclude that Trump obstructed justice doesn’t amount to exoneration, and indeed if Mueller felt confident that Trump hadn’t committed a crime the report would have said as much; (3) in Mueller’s view legal considerations precluded indicting Trump and ethical considerations precluded alleging a crime less formally; (4) the Constitution outlines an alternative “process” (read: impeachment) for addressing any wrongdoing by Trump. Mueller also said he considers it inappropriate to discuss the matter further and that, if called to testify before Congress, he won’t say more than is in the report.

Your tax dollars not at work: The State Department suspended funding of the little-known and somewhat mysterious “Iran Disinformation Project” after complaints that it was being used to attack human rights advocates whose reporting could undermine the case for sanctions against Iran.

Mass shooting: A municipal employee in Virginia Beach, VA killed at least 12 people at a public works facility before being killed by police.

The tribulations of Bibi and Jared: Though elections in April had left Benjamin Netanyahu poised to serve another term as Israel’s prime minister, he unexpectedly failed to form a governing coalition by the prescribed deadline, so new elections will take place in September. Thus Jared Kushner’s visit to Israel to discuss his long-awaited Middle East peace plan proved ill-timed—and, anyway, came on the heels of variousother signs that the plan faces a steep uphill climb.

Too many debaters: The Democratic National Committee tightened its eligibility requirements for this fall’s presidential debates. The requisite minimums for polling percentages and number of donors will be twice as high as for the summer debates—and candidates will now have to meet both minimums, not just one of them, to qualify for the debates. (In an unusual development, no new candidates entered the race this week.)


by Robert Wright

  Reason to be cheerful: There is disagreement over how opponents of Trumpism should feel in the wake of last week’s elections for the European parliament. Should we lament the stronger showing of nationalist Euroskeptic parties in this election than in the previous election—or be glad that the showings were weaker than predicted? Should we rejoice in the electoral success of full-throatedly anti-nationalist parties on the left, or worry that the attendant hollowing out of the center may just bring more, and more bitter, polarization?

Beats me. But there is one cause for hope that I’d like to latch onto: A number of these Euroskeptic parties seem less Euroskeptical than they used to be. As Katya Adler of the BBC recently noted, the big ethno-nationalist parties in France, Italy, and Germany have, in the runup to this election, abandoned their traditional calls for withdrawal from the EU, instead promising that they will “change the EU from the inside.”

There are various theories to explain this shift. The most common is that since Britain voted in 2016 to leave the EU, it has experienced a political psychodrama that has made it nobody’s idea of an attractive role model.

I’m sure that’s part of what’s going on, but I’d like to think there’s also something subtler at work—in part, I admit, because that subtler thing would allow me to claim I was prescient. In a long piece I published in Wired four months ago called “Make Globalism Great Again,” I wrote:

As time passes, these populists may realize that one thing an international league of malcontents can do, given the existence of international bodies whose policies they dislike, is lobby those bodies to change their policies. They may even realize that through such lobbying they can get results they couldn’t get if these bodies didn’t exist.

I cited an example of this dynamic on the American side of the Atlantic: Trump had inserted rules in the renegotiated version of NAFTA that were aimed at helping American blue-collar workers in the auto sector—rules that couldn’t have been implemented in the absence of the transnational institutions NAFTA created. (They are rules that, via their influence on Mexican factories, could ultimately raise US wages.)

So why am I so excited about drawing ardent nationalists, however incrementally, into engagement with international governance? It has to do with my preferred form of apocalypticism. I think international governance writ large—institutions that deal with environmental challenges, pandemics, the proliferation of all kinds of new and spooky weapons, the dangers of cyberwar or wars in outer space, etc., etc., etc.—is  pretty literally critical to the planet’s survival.

Envisioning a day when deeply nationalist political parties have evolved into champions of international governance is a good way to get dismissed as naïve. But here’s the thing: though the leaders of these nationalist parties rail against global governance, and convince their constituents to fear all encroachments on national sovereignty, many of those constituents could actually benefit from international governance.

Blue-collar auto workers who voted for Trump are one example, and potentially there are many more. Few Trump supporters—or Marine Le Pen supporters or Nigel Farage supporters—aspire to die in a biological weapons attack or a pandemic or see their power grid go dark because no one thought to negotiate cyberwar treaties. And the fact that many of them don’t now see the link between avoiding these fates and nurturing international governance isn’t unchangeable. Education can work, and attitudes can change (even on climate change—and an attitude change there would significantly smooth the path for global governance).

Remember, the number of issues that provide the core energy for ethno-nationalism is actually pretty small. Chief among them, in most countries, is the perception that immigration is out of control. In Europe, as it happens, a body of international governance—the EU—is responsible for the relatively permissive immigration laws that now prevail. But such a body could, in principle, just as easily tighten immigration laws as loosen them.

And in any event the larger point is this: the idea that there is some overarching conflict between international governance and the actual interests of voters who back the Donald Trumps of the world is not only wrong but the opposite of the truth. Across a broad spectrum of policy issues—labor, environment, security, privacy, etc.—these voters could benefit from sound regulations that cross borders.

If I’m right about the further evolution of international governance being the only thing that stands between our species and the abyss, then anything that gets nationalist voters in the habit of trying to sway transnational policies in their direction—rather than trying to end transnational policymaking broadly—is potentially a good thing. In which case last week’s European elections offer cause for cheer that, as causes for cheer go these days, is pretty substantial.

  Great distracted minds think alike: MRN reader Christine writes: “Your thoughts on using mindfulness to combat ‘distraction-by-Internet’ got me thinking.” Specifically, they got her thinking that my description of the distraction-by-Internet process in a recent issue of MRN was incomplete.

I had written, “You’re sitting at your computer and you’re supposed to be getting some work done—you’re staring blankly at a Word document or a spreadsheet or whatever—and then all of a sudden, before you know it, you’ve opened your browser and you’re doing something more fun than work.”

I suggested that, whatever you wind up doing—shopping online, checking into Instagram or Twitter, checking a basketball score, whatever—you were drawn to it by some variant of what Buddhists call tanha. That is, by craving, by thirst, by desire: desire to shop, desire to peruse Twitter, whatever. And, I said, if you’re being mindful, you can observe the tanha—or, at least, observe the specific manifestation of it, the specific kind of desire you’re feeling. And if you do this—if instead of acting on the feeling you observe it mindfully, experiencing it with care and attentiveness, it may lose its power.

Christine, having subjected the dynamics of her distraction to just this kind of mindfulness, concluded that I had omitted something. She wrote:

Is what we are facing here, before the craving, actually an aversion? When I think of facing that blank or unfinished document, and really SAT with those feelings, I did feel a sense of dread or unease that is present BEFORE I turn to any of those addictive, soothing devices.

Excellent point. Yes, in my own research on procrastination—and believe me when I say this is a vast body of research—I’ve found that right before I get pulled toward something gratifying, I get pushed away from the work itself. The example I gave in my book Why Buddhism Is True (p. 137) is that I’ll be writing, and feeling OK about the writing—but “if I get to a point where I can’t decide what sentence should go next, I’ll start feeling a bit uncomfortable.” The aversion to the discomfort makes me vulnerable to the attraction of Twitter, or shopping, or whatever.

So, really, if you want to attack the problem of distraction via mindfulness, you might want to start earlier than I had suggested in the MRN post that Christine read. You can observe the initial aversion mindfully. If you do that, maybe it will lose its power, and you can get back to work before the desire to tweet or shop even has time to take shape.

By the way, if you want to get really deep into the Buddhist weeds: technically, both the aversion and the subsequent desire can be seen as forms of tanha. They are both cravings for something—first the craving to be free of discomfort, then the craving to tweet or shop. In both cases, what you crave is for things to be different than they are—you either want to have something you lack or lack something you have.

This explains why, in the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment, he could call tanha the root of all suffering; the concept is broad enough to encompass all situations in which you’re not happy with your situation.


Business Insider uses two maps of the US to show how Trump’s newly announced tariffs on Mexican goods would affect different states. In the Week, Jeff Spross tries to find method in the seeming madness of Trump’s move.

Vox breaks down the European Union election results and finds that “fragmentation will define the new European Parliament.”

In the wake of Robert Mueller’s press conference, the Atlantic’s David Frum summarizes the major findings of the Mueller report. And, for Russiagate aficionado in search of more: In Time, former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa examines key footnotes from the Mueller report.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, not previously known as staunch allies, are uniting to craft legislation that would restrict the ability of senators and representatives to lobby after leaving Congress.

New evidence could influence a pending Supreme Court case by undermining the Trump administration’s defense of its aspiration to add a question about citizenship to the census. As the New York Times reports, documents found by the daughter of the late Thomas B. Hofeller, a GOP consultant who spent decades helping to create gerrymandered districts, suggest that the suppression of Democratic voter turnout may have been one of the administration’s motivations.

The New York Times reports that, thanks to a Trump administration initiative, the future will look less grim in the next edition of the National Climate Assessment than in the previous one. The US Geological Survey has ordered that the report’s climate model projections, which traditionally have gone through the end of the century, stop at 2040.

Boris Johnson, the leading contender to be the next British prime minister, has been summoned to court for claiming during the 2016 Brexit campaign that the UK paid the EU £350 million per week, when the actual net transfer of funds was considerably lower. The claim was a centerpiece of the “leave” argument.

In Jacobin, Sarah Lazare assesses Elizabeth Warren’s voting record on foreign policy, concluding that she is more hawkish than her progressive domestic policies might suggest.

Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, said his company would likely quit filming shows and movies in Georgia if the state’s new strict anti-abortion law goes into effect. NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia then suggested that they would follow suit. Tax incentives have made Georgia a major location for movie and TV production.

After the rapid promulgation of a video doctored to make Nancy Pelosi’s speech seem very slow and slurred, YouTube took the video down but Facebook didn’t, a fact that displeased Pelosi.

Twitter is weighing whether to ban white supremacists and white nationalists, or whether they “should be allowed to stay on the platform so their views can be debated by others.”

An EU Commission report says that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule is weakening Turkey’s bid for European Union membership (which, actually, has long stood little near term chance of success).


In CATO Unbound, Stephen Davies argues that many countries are undergoing a fundamental political realignment, in which the constituencies and ideologies of political parties change sharply. In the US, he writes, the realignment “is well under way and will probably be complete in another four years.”

NPR reports on drones, now being used by Houthi rebels, that may bring “a new age of drone warfare.” In contrast to large, expensive military drones that fire missiles, these cheap and inconspicuous drones—“a glorified model airplane with an explosive on the front and a propeller on the back,” as one researcher puts it—just blow themselves up after reaching their target.

In Foreign Policy, Amy MacKinnon interviews Ruslan Myatiev, editor of Alternative Turkmenistan News, about being a reporter in the nation that, according to the Press Freedom Index, recently became the world’s most journalist-unfriendly country, surpassing North Korea.

In FiveThirtyEight, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Laura Bronner break down the numbers to explain why, though Democrats often make appeals to religious groups, they have had trouble building a “cohesive religious voting bloc.”

On Medium, Ryan Holiday argues that, if we want to change the minds of our political opponents, we should treat them with kindness and empathy rather than trying to shame and humiliate them.

The World Health Organization has recognized “gaming disorder” — the prioritization of gaming over “other interests and daily activities, despite negative consequence”—as an illness. Meanwhile, reports the New York Times, e-sport complexes—slick new arenas where thousands of spectators can watch professional gamers do battle on mammoth screens—are springing up in various cities, ranging from Philadelphia to Las Vegas.

A study from the American Enterprise Institute finds that neighborhood amenities like stores, cafes, parks, and schools increase trust, sociability, and neighborliness while decreasing loneliness. Daniel Cox and Ryan Streeter, the authors of the study, write about it in the Atlantic.

The Aspen Ideas Festival website features an interview with Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, about how feminist resistance movements are challenging autocratic governments around the world.

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

Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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