Issue #78: June 16–22, 2019

In this week’s MRN (1) we summarize a week that got the US and Iran to the brink of war but not over it; (2) I explain why mainstream media outlets like NPR and the New York Times may have done as much to grease the skids toward war as right wing outlets like Fox News; (3) we encourage people who aren’t (yet!) Patreon supporters to nonetheless mingle with Patrons for purposes of civic discourse; (4) we steer you to background reading on things ranging from immigration to Facebook’s planned digital currency to warrior robots to the evolutionary logic behind a dog’s captivating gaze to warmonger Brett Stephens to influential peacenik Tucker Carlson.

–Robert Wright

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War with Iran fails to start: Iran shot down an American surveillance drone that the US said was over international waters and Iran said was over Iranian waters. Trump tweeted that the US had been poised to launch retaliatory strikes on Thursday night but that he’d called the strikes off after being told they could kill 150 Iranians: “Not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”

In Zuckerberg we trust: Facebook said it will create a digital currency, called Libra, in collaboration with 27 partners, including Uber, Visa, Mastercard, and Spotify. Its value would be pegged to real-world currencies so as to avoid the speculative price gyrations that afflict Bitcoin, and the identity of users would ultimately be linked to their transactions, a feature that would discourage black-market transactions.

Cyber Cold War: The New York Times revealed a Pentagon program that installs latent but potentially crippling malware in Russia’s power grid so the US can retaliate for, and possibly deter, cyberattacks from Russia. Traditionally, US penetration of Russian computers had focused on reconnaissance, but Gen. Paul Naskone, the head of Cyber Command installed by Trump, has brought a more aggressive strategy.

Hong Kong simmers: Massive demonstrations in Hong Kong continued even after Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam suspended consideration of the bill that had sparked the protests. Protestors’ demands now include complete withdrawal of the bill (which would allow extradition to mainland China), Lam’s resignation, and the release of protestors in police custody.

ICE raids postponed: Trump announced the two-week postponement of a roundup—which had been expected to start this Sunday—of some  2,000 migrant families who have received deportation orders. A Trump tweet from early this week suggested that the roundup could be the start of a larger operation: “Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in.”

Egyptian coup victim dies: Mohamed Morsi, who in 2012 became the first democratically elected president of Egypt and a year later was deposed in a military coup, died in a courtroom. According to Human Rights Watch, his death came after years of mistreatment in prison by the military regime (a regime the Obama administration had helped validate by refusing to call its coup a coup).

Russia on Georgia’s mind: Protestors tried to storm the Georgian parliament after a lawmaker from Russia was allowed to make a speech, in Russian, from the Speaker’s podium. The spectacle of a Russian occupying a seat of political power (he was there as part of an international meeting of Orthodox Christian lawmakers) galvanized ill will toward Russia that has persisted since the Russia-Georgia War of 2008, and crystallized opposition to Georgian politicians seen as subservient to Russia.


by Robert Wright

  When NPR is more dangerous than Fox News: What to do when military conflict between the US and Iran seems to be approaching, and you’re trying to get a clear picture of the situation? I’m only half-kidding when I say there’s a case to be made for staying glued to Fox News. Sure, you’ll hear a lot of pro-war propaganda—but at least you’ll know that’s what it is. If you instead tune in to “mainstream” media, you may think you’re getting an objective account when in fact you’re getting an account that’s biased in favor of war—just biased in subtler, harder-to-detect ways than accounts on Fox News.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying mainstream journalists and commentators who evince these biases are consciously anti-Iran or pro-war. Usually the problem is just that they’re Americans, viewing the world through American lenses, relying on America’s ecosystem of expertise. And, of course, they’re human—which means they have cognitive biases that distort reality in accordance with their group affiliations (such as, say, being American).

Consider a report that ran on NPR Thursday, hours after Iran downed a US surveillance drone that, according to Iran, had violated Iranian airspace and, according to the US, hadn’t. Rachel Martin, host of Morning Edition, began the segment by providing some context: “Since the Trump administration announced a maximum-pressure campaign against Iran, Iran has responded by attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.”

Actually, we don’t know that. The Trump administration claims Iran was behind the tanker attacks, but Iran denies it, and all the evidence adduced by the Trump administration is circumstantial. I’d say the chances are pretty high that Iran was behind at least one of the two sets of tanker attacks (there was one in May, one in June). But as seasoned US intelligence officials have noted, there are numerous nations in that region with an incentive to stage an attack that Iran would be falsely blamed for. A reporter shouldn’t report something as fact unless it’s been established beyond reasonable doubt, and that hasn’t happened here.

Then Martin recounted the drone downing and brought on her nonpartisan guest analyst—Aaron David Miller, a longtime US diplomat who worked in both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. As Miller soon made clear, he recognizes that Trump got us into the current mess by abandoning the Iran nuclear deal and then ratcheting up sanctions against Iran. This no doubt inclined lots of listeners to view Miller as objective; he seemed like an American who is capable of seeing things from Iran’s point of view.

And, as Americans in the foreign policy establishment go, Miller is good at seeing things from Iran’s point of view. Still, I maintain that if you look closely at his words, you see signs of a cognitive bias known as attribution error. Here’s how attribution error works:

When an enemy or rival does something bad, you attribute the bad deed to disposition—you see it as growing out of the basic character of the actor, a reflection of the actor’s nature. (Makes sense, right? Your enemies do bad things because they’re bad people; you wouldn’t choose good people as enemies!) But when a friend or ally—someone in a tribe you identify with—does something bad, you attribute the bad deed to situation. You know: peer group pressure, or the fact that they didn’t get their nap, or whatever. Thanks to attribution error, our view of our fellow tribe members as fundamentally good can survive any amount of bad behavior on their part.

Miller doesn’t evince an egregious version of attribution error. As I’ve said, he does recognize that Trump’s sanctions have put Iran in a pickle, have put  “the Iranians under tremendous pressure and pain”—so the attacks on the tankers (which he, like Martin, seems sure were Iranian acts), shouldn’t have been too surprising.

Still, if you look at the language Miller uses to describe Iran’s attack on the drone, and the language he uses to describe the US attacks that he expects to come in retaliation, there’s a difference in framing.

Miller calls Iran’s downing of the drone a “willful attack.” In other words, though situational factors may have encouraged the attack, they didn’t compel it; they didn’t leave Iran with no choice. But how does Miller describe the military response he expects from the Trump administration? “I suspect the administration will have to find a way to respond.” (Emphasis added.) Trump it seems, has no choice; situational factors compel a military response.

Martin responds to this by asking Miller whether he’s saying Trump should respond militarily. No, Miller says: “I’m reporting here. I’m not moralizing or editorializing.” It’s just that he recognizes that, even if Trump’s own actions—abandoning the nuclear deal, imposing draconian sanctions—have put him in the predicament he’s in, he’s in that predicament: “administrations have political problems, and they usually entrap themselves by unwise rhetoric and actions.”

So, even though Trump, not Iran, initiated the sequence of actions that led to the current crisis, any military attack that Trump now launches is a product of situation, not disposition: Trump is “entrapped” and so “will have to” respond militarily. Iran, in contrast, acts dispositionally, volitionally. Indeed, in the process of explaining how trapped Trump is, Miller applies the language of volition to Iran a second time: “Now you have a willful challenge on the part of the Iranians,” he says.

A willful challenge! Well who can blame a person for responding aggressively to a willful challenge? Especially when the person is trapped?

This may seem like a small thing—a difference in language so small that even a semiotics grad student might not bother with it. To which I have two replies:

1. Yes, it is small—that’s the problem. The nuances are so subtle that you probably won’t notice them, so you’ll remain unaware of the effects they’re having on you and you’ll remain trusting of mainstream media.

2. This kind of thing is pervasive. It’s all over NPR and CNN and MSNBC and the New York Times and the Washington Post. The culprit isn’t always attribution error. Often it’s just a tendency to buy into the prevailing American view of Iran as dangerously destabilizing, belligerent, and repressive—whereas in fact there are several countries in Iran’s neighborhood (all US allies) that by objective lights do at least as badly as Iran on this scorecard. The day after the NPR report, I walked by a TV at the YMCA and heard Juan Zarate, MSNBC’s “senior national security analyst,” assert that Iran “presents a whole host of risks and threats” and then list with seeming sympathy the Trump administration’s familiar litany of inflated grievances and hyped fears. This is standard procedure for most “experts” who appear on MSNBC and CNN to talk about Iran. (Zarate worked in the George W. Bush administration, which brought us the Iraq War. If MSNBC wants to make people with that kind of track record go-to experts, that’s its business. But would everyone please quit calling MSNBC “liberal” and “progressive”—because when it comes to foreign policy, it is emphatically not left of center.)

There’s also, throughout America’s mainstream media, a pretty consistent failure to exercise “cognitive empathy”—not to try to feel their pain (that’s “emotional empathy”) but just to do basic perspective taking: to see the world from Iran’s point of view and so, for example, understand that Iranian moves we consider offensive and provocative Iran may consider defensive. Failing to do this elementary exercise can lead us to exaggerate the threat Iran poses, which in turn can lead to war.

Last year I wrote a piece for the Intercept called “How the New York Times is making war with Iran more likely,” showing how a front-page New York Times article did exactly this in subtle but consequential ways.  And this week I’ve searched in vain for a single reference in the US media to the following fairly obvious fact: If you’re Iran, and the US has been making louder and louder noises about bombing you, American surveillance drones are deeply threatening, because one of their jobs is to pave the way for the bombing, to make it as devastating as possible. So deterring the deployment of drones in your vicinity by blowing one up can be a defensive strategy. One man’s “willful challenge” is another man’s tenacious D.

Two weeks ago in MRN I wrote about something I called ironic tribalism: “a sense of tribal affinity that coexists with an awareness that the tribe in question is an essentially arbitrary collection of people.” If everyone applied an ironic attitude toward the arbitrary collection of people known as a nation, I said, you’d get a world full of people who “cherished the good in their country but kept in mind that their tribal affiliation was giving them a selective rendering of reality.”

I suspect there are liberals who occasionally watch Fox News with a conscious sense of irony. I recommend that they apply that attitude more broadly.

  Stuff happening on Patreon: You may have thought that our Patreon page is only for people who are MRN Patrons—people who have earned our undying gratitude by generously supporting us, people whose good karma reservoirs are overflowing, people who are guaranteed a favorable rebirth, eternity in heaven, or a really nice cremation urn, depending on their religious persuasion or lack thereof. Well, it’s true that the video monologue I just posted on Patreon isn’t available to those MRN readers who, for reasons known only to them, continue to flirt with eternal damnation.

But, as I noted last week, we’re experimenting with using the Patreon site to post discussion threads that are open to Patrons and non-Patrons alike. If you’re a non-Patron, all you have to do is sign up here. Once you’ve done that, you can go to the “posts” page, scroll down until you see an “unlocked” post, and you’ll be able to contribute to the discussion thread there. The current discussion—initiated by Mark Sussman, MRN’s vice president for discussion initiation—is about “ironic tribalism,” an idea I trotted out two weeks ago, revisited a week ago, and alluded to in the piece directly above.


In the New York Times, Iranian novelist Salar Abdoh describes life in Iran under the crippling economic sanctions imposed by Trump.

In a piece in the American Conservative called “Bret Stephens, Warmonger,” Andrew Bacevich, an historian and retired army officer who served in Vietnam, uses the work of the hawkish New York Times columnist as an object lesson in dangerously misleading characterizations of historical tensions between Iran and the US.

Fox News’s resident anti-interventionist, Tucker Carlsondelivered a warning Thursday night about the folly of war with Iran. According to the New York Times, Carlson had played a role in Trump’s decision to call off strikes against Iran—a decision Trump made only minutes before this broadcast, after which he settled in to watch it.

In the Washington Post, two Iranians—one who served as foreign minister in the Shah’s government half a century ago, and one who grew up after the revolution of 1979—explain how Trump is changing Iranian anti-Americanism from a “top-down” phenomenon, encouraged by the government, into a “bottom-up” grassroots phenomenon. “Nothing spurs a rally-around-the-flag effect among 83 million Iranians more than humiliation and threats of foreign aggression.”

In an attempt to convey the scale of Sunday’s protests in Hong Kong, the New York Times stitched together lots and lots of aerial photos, along with explanatory annotation. If you want to make it to the end, your scrolling muscles better be in good shape.

In Vanity Fair, Eric Lutz writes that Facebook’s newly announced digital currency, Libra, could help the company duck regulation by the Federal Trade Commission. Max Read, in New York magazine, argues that Facebook wants to use Libra to turn itself into “infrastructure: a service so important to daily life that most people have no choice but to use it.” In Forbes, Caitlin Long makes six predictions about the implications of Libra. One thing is clear: Facebook’s plan is already running into lots of resistance, including consequential political resistance.

Last year, MRN’s Robert Wright interviewed New York Times correspondent David D. Kirkpatrick about his book Into the Hands of the Soldiers, which chronicles the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the ensuing election of President Mohamed Morsi, and the military coup that unseated him. Morsi died this week.

A team of lawyers that inspected a migrant detention center near El Paso said the 250 minors there have inadequate food, water, and sanitation. The center is “the latest place where attorneys say young migrants are describing neglect and mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government,” the Associated Press reported.

In Politico, Russian journalist Alexander Baunov writes about the extraordinary case of Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter in Russia who was arrested on fabricated drug charges but released a few days later after an unexpected and widespread public uproar. Baunov says the episode could be a turning point in the fight against a police system that often uses false accusations to “extract a bribe, confiscate a business, force someone to emigrate or simply to keep silent.”

The BBC was granted access to one of the camps China has built in its western regions to forcibly re-educate Muslims in Communist Party ideology and the customs of the ethnic Han majority. In the video report, adult “students” in matching outfits diligently study and cheerfully sing, but a woman who served time in a re-education camp and now lives in Kazakhstan gives a dark account of what happens when news cameras aren’t rolling.

In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait criticizes Joe Biden’s proud recollection of times when, as a young senator, he negotiated amiably with segregationists. This “suggests that he has not grasped any of the tectonic changes in American politics, and that he is equipped neither for the campaign nor the presidency.”

The Washington Post describes how the ousting of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has gone from major Trump foreign policy goal to backburner issue that Trump no longer mentions publicly.

Meagan Flynn of the Washington Post looks at the controversy over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s application of the term “concentration camp”to migrant detention centers, connecting it to a longstanding debate over what to call Japanese-American internment sites.

The House held the first ever congressional hearing on a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations for slavery. Among those testifying was Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose 2014 Atlantic article arguing for reparations helped revive the idea.

Black leaders denounced e-cigarette maker Juul’s gift of $7.5 million to Meharry Medical College, a historically black institution, citing the high death rate among African Americans from tobacco-related illnesses.

In Bloomberg Businessweek, Peter Waldman reports on how the FBI and the National Institutes of Health are investigating ethnic Chinese cancer researchers, including American citizens, whom they suspect of stealing intellectual property. Waldman says the campaign may be “a dangerous lurch down the path of paranoia and racial profiling.”

As Trump threatens to send many more migrants back across the border, the Washington Post’s Maria Sacchetti reports on what that would mean in Ciudad Juarez. The Mexican city, which is across the border from El Paso, has shelter space for only 1,500 people, and in some scenarios that many could be turned away at the border every few days.


In Vox, Kelsey Piper looks at the future of “lethal autonomous weapons,” robots that in principle can swarm battlefields and decide who to kill without “a human in the loop”. Elon Musk, among others, has called for an international ban on them.

In NiemanLab, Joshua Benton looks at possible causes of the worldwide growth in the percentage of people who say they “often or sometimes avoid the news.” On, MRN’s Robert Wright recently talked with the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman about his related essay, “How the news took over reality.”

In the Atlantic, Hailey Weiss reports on a new study which finds that dogs evolved specialized facial muscles that facilitate communication with humans. The muscles, which wolves lack, allow dogs to widen their eyes and raise their inner eyebrows, an ability that may have evolved as a way to attract human eye contact.

In Aeon, Canadian film archivist Guy Jones has edited together a montageof street photography from around the world from 1838 to the present—one picture per year.

In the Washington Post, Lena Sun and Amy Brittain report on a wealthy New York couple that has donated millions of dollars to anti-vaccination groups. 

In Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander discusses anthropologist Joseph Henrich’s book The Secret of Our Success, which emphasizes how helpless humans would be without the accumulated culture they inherit—and also explores how culture has influenced human biological evolution.

In April 2016, the Boston Globe opinion section published a satirical front page imagining what the news would look like if Trump were elected president. In the Washington Post, Aaron Blake reviews the page’s predictions, finding that some turned out to be accurate—Trump has launched a trade war with China—while many others didn’t.

graphic in Visual Capitalist compares the sizes of the codebases required to run an array of things, including a pacemaker, Windows Vista, a US military drone, the Large Hadron Collider, all of Google’s services, and the syphilis bacterium (whose genes contain slightly less code than the program that runs the Age of Empires online video game).


Do you run across a lot of stories that scarily report on some health risk you’d been blissfully unaware of? Or that reassuringly unveil some new wonder drug? Maybe the new Twitter account @justsaysrisks can help you preserve equanimity in the face of such whipsaw journalism. It highlights medical and health articles that trumpet “relative risk” but fail to note “absolute risk”—or, in the case of the wonder drugs, trumpet relative risk amelioration but not absolute risk amelioration. For example, saying that a new drug reduces cancer rates by 50 percent sounds great; explaining that the drop is from a 2 in 10,000 chance of getting cancer to a 1 in 10,000 chance sounds less dramatic. The same logic works in reverse for a carcinogen that doubles your chances of getting cancer but leaves them at 2 in 10,000. Let us know if you find any other useful Twitter feeds by emailing us at

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

Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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