Issue #76: June 2–8, 2019

In this week’s MRN, we offer: (1) a crisp summary of a week heavy in news about giant tech companies that dominate our lives; (2) a bigthink, or at least mediumthink, piece in which I unveil the term “ironic tribalism” and ask whether cultivating ironic tribalism can save the world; (3) background links that will steer you to readings on such things as D-Day, John Boehner’s new career as a marijuana pitchman, deepfake videos, fake but tasty meat, the unique peril posed by Tucker Carlson, how to talk to people different from you, and how a Muslim soccer star singlehandedly reduced the rate of hate crimes in Liverpool.

–Robert Wright

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Mexico tariffs averted: The US and Mexico reached an agreement that will for now avert the escalating tariffs that Trump had said he would impose “until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP.” Under the agreement, more migrants who seek asylum in the US will stay in Mexico while awaiting asylum hearings, and Mexico will more tightly police its southern border.

Platforms as police: YouTube said it would ban pro-Nazi videos and other “supremacist content”—defined as “videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion, based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status.” The Google-owned platform will also ban content denying the reality of well-documented violent events such as the Holocaust and the Sandy Hook shooting and will adjust its algorithms to reduce the prominence of other flagrant misinformation, such as Flat Eartherism.

Platforms policed: The head of the top House antitrust subcommittee announced hearings on Facebook, Google, and other big tech companies—a move the Washington Post called an “unprecedented antitrust threat for an industry that’s increasingly under siege by Congress, the White House and 2020 presidential candidates.” Meanwhile, there were signs that Google and Amazon will face new regulatory scrutiny from the Trump administration.

Government-backed massacre: Paramilitary forces in Sudan killed more than 100 people who were protesting against the military government that has held power since April, when President Omar al-Bashir was ousted amid street protests against him. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the de facto head of state, offered to open negotiations over transition to a civilian government, but leaders of the protest movement refused, demanding an investigation into the massacre before talks begin.

Delete your account: The State Department started requiring visa applicants to provide information about any social media accounts they have used in the past five years.

Anniversary apology: Fifty years after the Stonewall Inn riots, which were a landmark in the gay rights movement, New York City’s police commissioner apologized for the police raid that triggered them.


by Robert Wright

Ironic tribalism: Last weekend I attended my college reunion, as I do every five years. There are lots of things to do at a college reunion. Such as: put a positive spin on the last five years of your life, then do that again, then do that again.

Plus, reunions are a good place to study ritual. And I don’t just mean the opening ritual of slowly grasping the awful truth. (“Who are all these old people? Where are the people from my class?… Oh.”) I mainly mean the kinds of rituals an anthropologist might study—rituals of tribalism.

This year I engaged in a ritual that led me to add a new species of tribalism to my taxonomy of tribalisms. I call it ironic tribalism, and I’m wondering if it offers hope for the world.

As it happens, I attended a college, Princeton, that makes a famously big deal out of reunions. It is said to have the highest reunion participation rate of any college in America, or in the Ivy League, or something. And presumably the highest gaudiness quotient. My class-issued orange-and-black weekend wardrobe consisted of three shirts, two hats, and a blazer that made my high-school-senior-prom tux jacket (a tangerine plaid) look dignified. Plus orange shoe strings.

I can’t speak for all Princetonians, but the people I tend to hang out with at reunions are aware of how ridiculous we all look. That’s part of the fun. In that sense, there’s always an air of irony hovering over the exercise. Still, the phrase “ironic tribalism” didn’t pop into my head until well into the reunion.

It happened at the Saturday night fireworks display, as alumni of all ages stood and sang “the alma mater,” Old Nassau. Actually, in my case “sang” is an exaggeration. I don’t know the lyrics. I was a transfer student and so escaped freshman indoctrination. Besides, throughout my undergraduate years I maintained an air of studied alienation, and knowing the lyrics would have ruined my reputation.

But I do know this: there’s a part of the song that starts “In praise of Old Nassau,” and at that point you’re supposed to repeatedly extend your right arm to the right in a way that’s hard to describe but has always struck me as the kind of thing Roman soldiers might have done before marching into war. In any event, it definitely looks archaic. It’s easy to imagine classmates at an all-male school in the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century getting misty eyed while doing it.

Well, I didn’t get misty eyed, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the ritual. It felt good being one drop in a sea of people, all of us in sync, all of us bound by…well, all of us bound by not much, actually, except for the pretty arbitrary fact that we’d all gone to school at the same place. I mean, it’s not like we all shared the same religion or ideology or even socioeconomic background—and we certainly didn’t all know each other. In that sense—even leaving aside the ludicrous costumes—the ritual was kind of absurd. And I knew that, and even took a kind of delight in it. The tribalism I felt was ironic.

Here’s my working definition of ironic tribalism: a sense of tribal affinity that coexists with an awareness that the tribe in question is an essentially arbitrary collection of people, an artificial construct.

You might ask: But why feel affinity if you realize that the tribe is artificial? Well, at the risk of straining to justify the feeling I had Saturday night, how about this:

Some highly regarded spiritual leaders have said such things as “All men are brothers,” “All people are one,” “All people deserve love and compassion,” etc. And doesn’t feeling a sense of oneness (however transient, even superficial) with an effectively random group of people point toward these ideas? And doesn’t it do that more effectively than feeling a sense of oneness with kin or with people who share your faith or ideology?

Of course, strong allegiances to artificially constructed tribes have a checkered past. When people who happen to have been born in the same country feel united in their hostility toward another, equally arbitrary, collection of people, bad things can happen.

But that’s my point: when wars break out the people usually aren’t thinking of their tribes as arbitrarily constituted; they’re thinking that the people in their tribe are different from—maybe better than, and almost certainly more right than—the people in the other tribe. Their tribalism isn’t ironic.

Barack Obama showed flashes of ironic tribalism. He said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Of course, being president, he had to then go on to list some great things about America.

And there are great things about America. More broadly: there are distinctively great things about all countries, and there are also meaningful differences among countries in their prevailing values. In that sense, nations aren’t completely arbitrary compositions, and aren’t natural vehicles for an utterly ironic tribalism.

Still, I do think there’s a place and a need for irony in national tribalism, even in the high-minded version of it known as patriotism. Obama no doubt understood that the reason he so easily called those great things about America to mind was because he was American—whereas many Greeks might more naturally call to mind great things about Greece, and maybe bad things about America.

I think it would be a better world if everyone applied this kind of irony to their patriotism—cherished the good in their country but kept in mind that their tribal affiliation was giving them a selective rendering of reality, so they should be wary of doing things premised on a belief in their unique goodness or rightness. Like invading other countries, for example.

By the way, I realize that my reunion is an imperfect example of ironic tribalism. For starters, calling it an “arbitrary” assemblage of people is an oversimplification. As woke Millennials (including some woke Princetonian Millennials) would be quick to point out, this was a group of people who were almost all highly privileged, if not in exactly the same senses.

That said, I do think that what I felt last weekend was a more ironic kind of tribalism than people who sang that same alma mater 50, 100, 150 years ago felt. And I suspect that there are other realms in which tribalism has gotten more ironic over the decades.

I hope so—I hope there’s a trend there that we can explore and sustain. And I’d think that spreading awareness of the psychology of tribalism—awareness of the way our innate groupishness can distort our vision—would be one way to sustain the trend.

Tribalism in one sense or another will always be with us. And sometimes it’s a great thing. It can be a way to mobilize people toward a worthy cause, and it can give them a deeply rewarding sense of community—in the process offering them little exercises in transcending the self. The trick—no, not just the trick, but the planetary challenge of existential proportions—is to preserve what’s good about tribalism and subdue what’s bad.

If you have any thoughts about this—like whether ironic tribalism really offers hope, and whether it’s even a thing, and whether there are other ways to take the edge off of tribalism, feel free to let me know:


The New York Times reports that the tariff-averting agreement with Mexico that Trump proudly announced this week consists “largely of actions that Mexico had already promised to take in prior discussions with the United States.” As earlier reports had indicated, Mexico wound up rejecting Trump’s demand for a “safe third country” treaty, which would have compelled asylum seekers originating in Central America to first seek asylum in Mexico, not the US.

The Trump administration, citing financial constraints, is cancelling“education, legal aid, and playground recreation” for unaccompanied migrant minors held in government shelters.

Since 2001, Google has bought 270 companies, including 171 “competitors or nascent competitors,” according to an infographic-rich analysis of big tech companies prepared for the New York Times by Tim Wu and Stuart A. Thompson. (Strictly speaking, the more recent acquisitions were by Alphabet, the holding company that Google morphed into.)

Writing in Al Jazeera, Abdelwahab El-Affendi offers background on this week’s killing of more than 100 Sudanese protestors by government-backed militias, and concludes that the “massacre will further undermine any chances for peace and reconciliation in Sudan.”

YouTube’s newly announced crackdown on supremacist content drew various kinds of criticism on Twitter. On, MRN’s Robert Wright discussed content policing and other challenges facing social media companies with David Kaye, author of the new book Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet.

Two new studies suggest that tariffs imposed by Trump on Chinese and other imports could, as the New York Times puts it, “more than wipe out any gains from his $1.5 trillion tax cut for low- and middle-income earners.” (This week Trump terminated India’s preferential trade status, which has allowed duty-free access to US markets for an array of Indian goods since 1975.)

Murray Brewster of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports on this week’s gathering of Trump and other world leaders to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day—and asks whether the international collaboration that enabled the Normandy invasion would be possible today, given the prevailing aversion to mass casualties.

In the New York Times, Elizabeth Williamson reports on John Boehner’s journey from staunchly anti-drug Speaker of the House to highly compensated pitchman for the legal cannabis industry.

The Washington Post reports on the growing tendency of mainstream news outlets to call Trump a liar.

This week the headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation were raided by Australian Federal Police searching for information about leaked military files detailing abuse by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. On the Australian site the Conversation, Rebecca Ananian-Welsh writesthat such raids pose a threat to democracy.

Hackers have used malware stolen from the National Security Agency, which had developed it to fight terrorists and other enemies, to freeze thousands of computers in Baltimore, bringing basic city services to a halt. The city’s refusal to pay the $100,000 ransom has drawn criticism, but in Pacific Standard, Josephine Wolff defends it.

Border Patrol agents encountered 144,000 undocumented migrants along the southern border in May, the largest monthly total in 13 years.

The White House blocked a State Department agency from submitting testimony to Congress that called climate change “possibly catastrophic,” the Washington Post reports.

In Vanity Fair, Isobel Thompson uses Trump’s visit to Britain this week as an occasion to examine his possible influence on Brexit, the selection of the next prime minister, and the future of the National Health Service.


In Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson writes that a new book by Tucker Carlson is dangerous because it pairs a “xenophobic, white nationalist worldview” with economic views that have strong left-of-center appeal. “Carlson’s book shows us how a next generation fascist politics could co-opt left economic critiques in the service of a fundamentally anti-left agenda.”

Researchers at Stanford have linked a dramatic drop in hate crimes in Merseyside County, England to the recent success of local soccer team Liverpool F.C. and its star player, Mohamed Salah, who is a Muslim. Researchers also found that anti-Muslim tweets by Liverpool F.C. fans have dropped sharply.

In the Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley asks if the “global mental health epidemic” is being overstated.

Researchers studying the way people use digital media have proposed the term “screenome” (think “genome”) to describe the distinctive usage patterns created by people’s interactions with smartphones, laptops, tablets, and so on. The researchers hope that screenome analysis will help them gain a more fine-grained understanding of the effects of screen use on mood, behavior, and brain chemistry.

Emma Grey Ellis writes in Wired about two quite different tribes: consumers of “hustle porn,” who use apps to make their lives as efficient as possible, and aficionados of “zen porn,” who strive for minimalism.

On the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, The New Yorker re-published an account by A.J. Liebling of his time aboard one of the boats that was part of the invasion. For this particular assignment Liebling restrained his famous wit, though it flashes through at times.

Brookings Institution fellow Jon Villasenor assesses the challenges that deepfake technology pose to US elections—and to social media companies aiming to curb the circulation of fake videos.

Axios explores the booming market for plant-based and lab-grown meat replacements that, increasingly, taste like actual meat. Even Burger King is offering a non-meat burger.

Finland is the only European country where homelessness rates are falling. The Guardian reports on Finland’s program for housing the homeless and the philosophy behind it.

In Salon, Pam Spritzer explores the challenge of overcoming tribal divisions, focusing on examples of people who “discovered their shared humanity with those they previously wanted to kill.”

In Wired, Matt Simon visits Amazon’s “sorting facility of tomorrow,” where robots put items into boxes that will be shipped to customers and humans learn to work closely with robots.

In the first in a series of dharma talks for Tricycle, meditation teacher and nonviolent communication trainer Oren Jay Sofer discusses ways to practice mindfulness in everyday interactions. U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine presents five ways to have better conversations with people who are different from you.

Every once in a while, thousands and thousands of flocking birds happen to collectively resemble a single giant bird. (You may have to close a pop-up window to see this photo.)


This week we say goodbye to Brian Degenhart, who has labored long on behalf of MRN—and has labored even longer on behalf of MRN’s cousins, and (Patreon supporters may recall Brian’s recent video debut.) Brian has found a new and rewarding job that, happily, will leave him time to give us occasional tech support but, sadly, will not leave him time to keep performing a job for which he had a knack: finding items that fit under the NEWS YOU CAN USE rubric.

We’re wondering how we’ll fill Brian’s shoes in the long-term. Will it take two staffers, three—as-yet-undeveloped AI? In the short term, we’re going to try another approach: Crowdsourcing! We’re encouraging MRN readers to email us with ideas for the News You Can Use section. You can send your ideas to and put either NYCU or News You Can Use in the subject heading.

If you need inspiration, you can peruse past NYCUs in our archivesalmost every newsletter we’ve published features this section at the bottom.

And in case you prefer extrinsic to intrinsic motivation: If we use one of your submissions, you’ll get, gratis, a beautiful Mindful Resistance mug.

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

Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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