In this week’s MRN (1) we summarize a week that might have passed quietly had two oil tankers not gotten attacked in the Gulf of Oman, inflaming tensions between the US and Iran; (2) I get all literary, connecting last week’s post about “ironic tribalism” with Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle; (3) we unveil a new way for MRN readers to talk with each other about issues of the day; (4) we offer background links on things ranging from “liberal nationalism” to “McMindfulness” to the allegedly insidious influence of “positive news” to Steve Bannon’s impending eviction from his medieval monastery to a prolific Iranian journalist who turns out not to exist. Plus: Pepe the Frog has his day in court and captive Canadian whales get protection from abuse.
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New tensions with Iran: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of attacking two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, while Iran suggested that one of America’s regional allies had conducted the attacks in an attempt to cast false blame on Iran (that is, had conducted a “false flag” operation). But, in contrast with the administration’s response to last month’s US-Iran tensions, bellicose National Security Adviser John Bolton remained quiet, and no new military forces were dispatched to the area.
Hong Kong protesters win a battle: Hong Kong’s government suspendedconsideration of a controversial extradition bill after hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents protested against it and some protests turned violent. Protest leaders say the legislation, which would permit the extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China, could lead to politically-motivated extraditions and would erode the autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys under the “one country, two systems” framework, which China endorsed when Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese control in 1997.
Kellyanne gets reprimand: A government agency that monitors compliance with the Hatch Act recommended that Trump fire White House counselor Kellyanne Conway for repeatedly violating it. The Hatch Act forbids federal employees from engaging in political activity on the job, and Conway has used media appearances to disparage Democratic candidates for president.
Ebola outbreak crosses border: An Ebola outbreak that has killed nearly 1,400 people in Congo claimed its first known victim in another country—a five-year-old boy who died in Uganda after visiting Congo. But the World Health Organization said the situation doesn’t yet warrant a declaration of emergency.
House vs. White House: Invoking executive privilege, the Trump administration refused to give the House Oversight Committee documents it seeks in its investigation of the administration’s effort to add a question about citizenship to the census. Hours later, the committee voted to recommend that Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross be held in contempt of Congress.
House vs. White House (cont’d): The House of Representatives voted along party lines to go to court to enforce subpoenas issued to Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn. Barr and McGahn have declined to hand over all the evidence sought by House Democrats investigating Trump’s alleged interference with the Mueller investigation.
NOTES FROM BOB
by Robert Wright
Ironic tribalism and granfalloons: Last week’s post on “ironic tribalism,” which was inspired by my experience at a recent college reunion, set a new MRN record: most reader emails generated by a single item. My thanks to those who wrote in—you all deserve an individual reply, but, me being the sluggish writer I am, I’m afraid I’ll fall short of that mark. This week I’ll address one of the questions raised by readers, and I’ll hope to get to one or two of the other questions in future issues of MRN.
And this week’s winning question is… Shouldn’t I have talked about Kurt Vonnegut?
MRN reader Marcus has something in common with my wife: Both think I should have mentioned the “granfalloon,” a concept unveiled by Kurt Vonnegut in his novel Cat’s Cradle. For what it’s worth, I did give serious consideration to invoking granfalloons. Which isn’t to say that I’m deeply conversant in Vonnegut’s oeuvre. (I listened to an audiobook version of Cat’s Cradle a couple of decades ago during a long drive.) It’s just to say that, when I went online to refresh my shallow conversancy, the initial results were intriguing.
Wikipedia defines a granfalloon as “a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is meaningless.” And the part I’ve italicized did seem to track nicely onto part of the definition of ironic tribalism I tossed out last week: “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.” It seemed, in other words, as if an ironic tribe is basically a granfalloon whose members understand that their granfalloon is only a granfalloon.
But that turned out to be misleading, and I think the reason is worth exploring, as it bears on such questions as what kinds of tribalism pose grave threats to Planet Earth and what kinds of tribalism we can live with.
In Cat’s Cradle, the “granfalloon” is a concept that comes from a made-up religion called Bokononism, and it stands in contrast with another Bokononist concept, the “karass.” A karass is a group of people who share some cosmic purpose, even if that fact isn’t evident to anyone, including them. As the narrator of Cat’s Cradle puts it, “We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever understanding what they are doing.” It’s hard to know who’s in your karass, though there are clues here and there. As Bokonon (the founder of Bokononism) has written, “If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reason, that person may be a member of your karass.”
So a karass, though a team, isn’t a conspicuous team; it defies visible form and conventional categorization. It “ignores national, occupational, institutional, familial, and class boundaries,” the narrator explains. Teams that are defined by such superficial bounds are granfalloons—“false karasses.” In other words, pretty much all the world’s tribes—families, nations, labor unions, trade organizations, fraternities, sororities, and so on—are in a sense meaningless; they are of arbitrary composition, at least so far as God’s grand design is concerned. Only karasses are teams that are doing God’s work, and those are the teams you can’t see.
Which leads to the two reasons that (I’ve decided after much soul searching) I am not a Bokononist.
First, I like to think that there are tribes—visible tribes—that are doing God’s work. For example, Marcus himself, the MRN reader who suggested I mention granfalloons, is in Senegal as a member of the tribe known as the Peace Corps.
Second, I think if we want to increase the number of tribes that are doing God’s work—that are helping humankind, especially in ways that require the concerted pursuit of that goal—we need to think about the “arbitrariness” of tribes in a different way, a more fine-grained way, than Bokononists do.
For example: As I said last week, I view the people who attended my college reunion as an essentially arbitrary collection of human beings. But I don’t consider such granfalloons as trade associations arbitrary. Their members are all in the same business, so they have a common interest in pursuing certain goals (which is why they lobby legislatures). Similarly, labor unions have shared interests that can be pursued collectively. And political parties tend to have members with overlapping interests, and an ideology that reflects that.
It’s not realistic to imagine a world without these kinds of tribes: groups of people who unite to pursue a shared interest. Which is OK, because, for the most part, they aren’t deeply problematic, and sometimes they even do some good. Yes, there can be bad outcomes—for example, when powerful groups comprising a few rich people dominate weaker groups representing lots of non-rich people. Or when the bosses of interest groups profit at their members’ expense. Still, the interplay of interest groups can be a not bad way for societies to reach compromise—and, in any event, these kinds of groups tend not to be the tribes that carry the planet to the brink of apocalypse.
What kinds of tribes do that? It’s hard to generalize, but some of the worst offenders seem to be tribes that are arbitrary in a particular sense: membership in them is an accident of birth. Whereas it’s hard to predict a person’s vocation or political party at birth, it’s pretty easy to predict what national group or linguistic group, and certainly what ethnic group, they’ll be part of. (The same was long true of religious groups, but in some places that’s changing fast.) And often it’s along these boundary lines that the craziest, most massively lethal, things happen.
For example: If you were a male born in America around 1950, there was a pretty good chance that, two decades later, you’d be given the job of killing males born in North Vietnam around 1950—even though they posed no evident threat to you or your country.
In retrospect, I don’t know which of two facts is weirder: (1) that many of those Americans felt deeply that this was their patriotic duty (whereas if they’d been born in North Vietnam around 1950 they’d have considered it their duty to kill the Americans who felt this sense of duty); or (2) that the government had the power to jail people who grasped the absurdity of the situation and refused to participate. (Muhammad Ali observed, “I ain’t got nothin’ against no Viet Cong”—an epiphany that got him banned from boxing and led him to spend the next four years in court staving off imprisonment).
I’m not saying nations are of wholly arbitrary composition—that their citizens have no common and distinctive interests worth pursuing. By and large, people in Sri Lanka have a stronger interest in slowing global warming than people in Belarus do. I’m just saying that nations have a tendency to mobilize the psychology of tribalism in ways that don’t serve their citizens broadly and may gravely disserve them and gravely harm people elsewhere in the world. So it makes sense to spend more time worrying about how to tame nationalism than, say, how to tame labor unionism. Some tribes are more coherently and laudably purposeful, and less destructive, than others; they’re not all just granfalloons to me.
I’m not under the illusion that, if Kurt Vonnegut were alive today, he’d need me to explain any of this to him. As a prisoner of war in Germany, he had endured the firebombing of Dresden, an experience that famously shaped his book Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s likely that his attendant skepticism of nationalism is the prime mover behind the dismissal in Cat’s Cradle of tribes broadly as mere granfalloons.
Still, it is a broad dismissal—which leads to the core contrast between my worldview and the worldview in Cat’s Cradle: a difference between irony and absurdism. In calling all the world’s visible tribes granfalloons, Bokononism suggests that they’re all equally ridiculous. (And as if that weren’t absurdist enough: Bokononism itself, by its own admission, consists of falsehoods!) As should be clear by now, I don’t think all tribes are equally ridiculous. I just think that many of them—especially the ones that combine somewhat arbitrary composition with great destructive potential—need to be viewed more ironically by their members.
A bit of ironic detachment can keep us aware of ways the psychology of tribalism is warping our view of the world. And it can make us pause and reflect before, say, being convinced by a recklessly antagonistic administration that this or that country is a great peril to our national security.
I like to think that, as the decades roll by, more people, on balance, are viewing some of their tribal affiliations with a bit of irony. And that some of them are doing this with awareness of the stakes—aware that the psychology of tribalism is something our species needs to attack systematically if it is going to solve various threats to the planet as a whole.
Since most of these people aren’t aware of each other, I guess you could say they constitute a karass. But maybe they’ll become more aware of each other, more in touch with each other, more powerful through concerted action. Maybe someday they’ll constitute a tribe—a tribe that, like a karass and unlike a granfalloon, is doing God’s work. As this newsletter evolves, we hope to help make that happen.
If you have thoughts about any of this, you know where to find me: firstname.lastname@example.org. And there’s a second way—a whole new way—to register your views, and to do so in interaction with fellow MRN readers. Namely:
Whole new way of registering views unveiled: For some time we’ve been pondering the question of how best to foster conversation among MRN readers. And some of our ideas have shown promise. There has been, for example, engagement with the Mindful Resistance community forum in the Insight Timer Meditation app. But presumably meditators are more likely to show up in that forum than non-meditators, and not all of our readers are meditators. (Give them time!)
So we’re experimenting with hosting conversations on Patreon.
But (I can hear some of you saying, your words tinged with shame) I’m not a Patreon supporter. To which I have two replies:
1. Ever think about abandoning the life of a freeloader and… oops, I meant to say, ever think about becoming a Patreon supporter?
2. We’ve found a part of Patreon where you can participate in conversation even if you’re not a Patreon supporter. All you have to do is sign up here, and then you can go to the forum and leave a comment.
More often than not, these discussions will be led by (relatively) gregarious MRN staffer Mark Sussman. Mark has launched our first such discussion with some thoughts about ironic tribalism. Give the new forum a try! If you encounter any technical problems, email us at email@example.com–Mark provides free tech support. And if you encounter any Patreon supporters who are engaging in obnoxious virtue signaling, report them immediately. We’ll send them a commendation.
On Lobelog, Paul Pillar, who from 2000 to 2005 was in charge of analyzing the Middle East for the CIA and all other US intelligence agencies, takes a harshly critical look at what Secretary of State Pompeo said about Iran’s alleged role in attacks on two oil tankers this week.
The Intercept reports on Democratic presidential candidates who are contesting Secretary of State Pompeo’s claim that legislation passed in 2001 gives the administration all the authorization it needs to attack Iran.
Vox provides background on the proposed extradition law that sparked massive protests in Hong Kong—and that hasn’t been withdrawn, even though the government has suspended consideration of it.
The New York Times reports that the US has stepped up cyberattacks on Russia’s power grid—an escalation that is meant to deter similar incursions by Russia but that “carries significant risk of escalating the daily digital Cold War between Washington and Moscow,” according to the Times
This week Trump triggered a social media firestorm by saying in an interview with ABC News that if he was approached by a foreign government with damaging information about a political opponent, “I think I’d take it,” and that he would only contact the FBI “if I thought there was something wrong.” Ellen Weintraub, chair of the Federal Elections Commission, tweeted in response that “it is illegal to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.” She prefaced the statement with, “I would not have thought that I needed to say this.”
The New York Times reports that Colombian soldiers have been ordered to “step up” attacks on criminal groups and rebels, even if that brings increased civilian casualties. Though the government reached a peace deal in 2016 with the FARC rebel group, which had carried out a decades-long insurgency, many “former guerrillas have returned to fighting, while other criminal and paramilitary groups have expanded their control over parts of the country,” the Times says. The US has given Colombia $10 billion in aid to fight drug trafficking.
Dean Obeidallah, a comedian and writer who is Muslim, won $4.1 millionin a defamation suit again the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, which in 2017 published an article falsely stating that he was an “ISIS mastermind.” Obeidallah said he would donate the money to groups combating bigotry.
The trial of an immigration activist charged with conspiracy to transport and harbor migrants in Arizona resulted in a hung jury. Scott Daniel Warren, a 36-year-old college geography instructor who works with a group called No More Deaths, was arrested after he offered to provide two migrants with water, food, and lodging.
Murtaza Hussein of the Intercept discovered that Heshmat Alavi, an Iranian activist who wrote articles for sites like Forbes, the Hill, and the Daily Caller, does not actually exist. Alavi is a persona created by the Iranian group MEK, which has long pushed for regime change in Iran. MRN’s Robert Wright discussed the story with Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi on Bloggingheads.tv (a conversation also available on The Wright Show podcast).
Falling coffee prices are driving Guatemalans who own or work on coffee plantations to migrate to the US. USAID has funded programs to help coffee growers, but Trump has threatened to cut them.
The cartoonist who created Pepe, the frog that was appropriated as a meme by the alt-right, won a $15,000 settlement for copyright infringement against Alex Jones’s InfoWars, which had sold Pepe posters.
The Washington Post reports that Kim Jong Un’s half brother was a CIA informant and met with the organization days before he was assassinated in a Malaysian airport in 2017.
At least two dozen police officers were injured in Memphis in riots sparked by the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old black man by US Marshals.
In a review for Lawfare, Peter Spiro offers a skeptical take on Yael Tamir’s Why Nationalism, in which Tamir argues for a new “liberal nationalism”that satisfies the human need for community without the ethnocentrism of many of today’s populist movements.
In the Guardian, Ronald Purser writes that, though mindfulness meditation “can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism,” it may “be the enemy of activism.” The Guardian piece is an excerpt from Purser’s forthcoming book McMindfulness.
The New York Times looks at political polarization in state legislatures. For the first time in a century, all but one statehouse is dominated by a single party (Minnesota is the holdout). Multiple red states have passed harsh anti-abortion laws this session, while blue states have passed laws guaranteeing abortion rights if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Kevin Roose of the New York Times recounts how a young man named Caleb Cain, who was searching for self-help advice on YouTube after dropping out of college, was drawn into the alt-right—and how he climbed out of it and began spending his time watching left-wing videos.
In Pacific Standard, Tom Jacobs writes about a new study showing that black-to-white arrest ratios are higher under white sheriffs than black sheriffs. The study finds that white sheriffs place greater emphasis than black sheriffs on policing the kinds of crimes for which black Americans are more frequently arrested.
In the Outline, Joanna Mang critiques “positive news” media—websites and podcasts that frame upbeat human interest stories as an antidote to journalistic negativity. Mang argues that this genre reinforces a conservative worldview that glosses over important problems.
A bill that bans keeping cetaceans—like whales, dolphins, and porpoises—in captivity passed in Canada’s House of Commons, all but guaranteeing its adoption as law. The greatest impact will likely be on Ontario’s Marineland park, which keeps dozens of cetaceans in what activists say are inhumane conditions.
In an interview with Tricycle, Jeff Wilson, author of Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America, describes Buddhist attitudes toward abortion and the history of abortion as a religious issue in Japan and the US.
In the New York Times, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder writes that accurately predicting the effects of climate change requires an enormously powerful supercomputer, and the resources needed to build one would require large-scale international scientific collaboration, “a CERN for climate modeling.” Last year, Sabine appeared on The Wright Show to discuss her book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray.
In the New York Times Magazine, Jody Rosen reports on a 2008 fire at a Universal Music Group warehouse that destroyed over 100,000 master tapes, a loss the company had dramatically understated. The masters—which are “the truest capture of a piece of recorded music”—included work by dozens of well known artists, including Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Elton John.
A North Carolina man pled guilty to murdering three Muslim students but denies that he committed a hate crime, claiming he shot them over a parking dispute, period. The case raises questions about whether prosecutors can use implicit bias as a justification for hate crimes charges when there is no clear evidence of explicit bias.
According to Axios, Steve Bannon’s claims that he was closely allied with the Italian politician Matteo Salvini and would serve as an adviser to European nationalist parties during the EU elections were “overblown or false.” Also, the Italian government plans to revoke Bannon’s lease on a medieval monastery.
Our World in Data has compared actual causes of death in the US, Google searches for causes of death in the US, and media reports on causes of death in the US, finding wild disparities between what the media tells us will kill us and what actually does kill us. (Scroll down to see the graphic.)
NEWS YOU CAN USE
New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo recently wrote about how using a digital diary app called Day One has changed his life. The app is designed so that neither text, photos, nor audio recordings can be posted to social media. “Day One creates something so rare it feels almost sacred,” Manjoo writes. “A completely private digital space.” If you check out the app, let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart, Mark Sussman,
Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith
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