Issue #79: June 23–29, 2019

In this week’s MRN, we (1) summarize a week in which Trump went one for two in the Supreme Court; (2) find in Turkish politics some lessons about using sympathy as a weapon against Trump; (3) offer a free tip for meditators who have trouble focusing on their breath (which is to say, all meditators); (4) point you to a new reader discussion thread; (5) direct you to background reading on things ranging from Iran to immigration to an anti-Trump knitting website to the question of whether America is in its own way becoming as creepily Orwellian as China. Plus: A guide for guarding against deceptive online videos.  [Note: No newsletter next week; the MRN staff will be spending Fourth of July weekend thinking patriotic thoughts while grilling plant-based burgers.]

–Robert Wright

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A good week for gerrymandering: The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that federal judges can’t override congressional redistricting plans passed by state legislatures, even if the plans seem designed to amplify the electoral success of the party in power. The ruling—authored by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by the other four Republican-appointed justices—was a victory for the GOP, which controls most state legislatures.

Prince of peace: Jared Kushner unveiled a plan for $50 billion in Middle East economic development at a “Peace to Prosperity” workshop, pitched as part of a larger effort to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Complicating that quest is the fact that no Israeli or Palestinian officials attended the gathering, and that so far Kushner hasn’t addressed such difficult political issues as whether to establish a Palestinian state and, if not, what to do about the Palestinians currently living under Israeli occupation.

Census setback: The Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration’s effort to put a question about citizenship on the 2020 census. In a 5-4 decision authored by Chief Justice Roberts and joined in the key section by the four Democrat-appointed justices, Roberts wrote that the administration’s rationale for adding the question “appears to have been contrived,” but left open the possibility of the administration returning to the courts with a revised rationale.

No Joementum: The campaign season’s first debates among Democratic presidential candidates—held on consecutive nights and involving a total of 20 candidates—yielded an unusual degree of consensus among commentators: Joe Biden’s candidacy was damaged and Kamala Harris’s was strengthened when Harris launched a fierce attack on Biden’s opposition, early in his Senate career, to federally mandated busing as a remedy for de facto school segregation.

Iran: The Senate came up 10 votes shy of the 60 votes needed to pass legislation that would have required Trump to get congressional approval before attacking Iran. Meanwhile, Europe activated a financial mechanism that could eventually facilitate modest circumvention of sanctions imposed against Iran by Trump, and China said it would keep buying oil from Iran in defiance of those sanctions.


by Robert Wright

  Beating Trump with sympathy: Voters in Istanbul just delivered a major setback to Turkey’s version of Donald Trump—President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, a brash ethno-nationalist with authoritarian leanings whose base includes lots of religious conservatives. And apparently the secret ingredient in the campaign against Erdogan was love.

Erdogan’s party, which had long held a firm grip on politics in Istanbul, lost the mayorship—a development that Turkish analysts are calling a “tectonic shift” and possibly a harbinger of the end of Erdogan’s political career. The victorious candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, had drawn his strategy from a booklet that advocated winning voters through “radical love.”

What is radical love? The author of the booklet, Ates Ilyas Bassoy, a campaign strategist for the coalition of parties that propelled Imamoglu to victory, told the New York Times, “We had two simple rules: Ignore Erdogan and love those who love Erdogan. The whole strategy depended on this.”

The first rule, by Bassoy’s own account, has relevance to American politics. As the New York Times reports, “Mr. Bassoy said he reversed the opposition’s focus on criticizing Mr. Erdogan, citing as an example how Robert De Niro’s insult to President Trump at the Tony Awards last year served only to motivate Trump supporters who were insulted by the slur.”

And what about the second rule, “love those who love Erdogan”? The Times doesn’t fully flesh out the logic behind that, much less its relevance to America. But I can imagine two tactical advantages that Trump opponents could gain by loving Trump supporters—or, love being the hard-to-summon thing that it is, by at least trying to adopt a sympathetic attitude toward them.

1) If you’re sympathetic to Trump supporters—even if you’re just faking an attitude of sympathy—you’ll avoid saying things that signal (or could be seen by Trump supporters as signaling) a low opinion of them. Which is good, since one source of Trump’s support is the perception that effete cosmopolitan liberals regard hardworking middle American patriots with disdain if not contempt.

2) If you actually succeed in cultivating sympathy for Trump supporters, you’ll probably find it easier to understand how the world looks to them and what motivated them to vote for Trump.

This effect is due partly to a cognitive bias that I discussed in last week’s MRN: attribution error. When people in the opposing tribe do bad things (like vote for Trump), we tend to attribute that to their essential nature—their “disposition”—rather than to their circumstances. So we’re not inclined to ask what economic or other social conditions lead people to support Trump, which means we’re not very likely to find policies that could weaken support for Trump.

But if we feel some measure of sympathy rather than hostility toward Trump supporters, we’ll be less prone to that kind of attribution error, and more inclined to consider what conditions strengthen support for Trump.

So I say we give something like the Turkish model a try:

1) We don’t have to totally ignore Trump. But we can do what MRN is in fact designed to help people do. We can try to ignore, or at least set aside, the many Trump provocations that seem designed to elicit the kind of outrage that energizes his base. And this will leave us more time to focus on the most consequential Trump policies and utterances, the ones that most warrant noting and opposing.

2) We don’t have to love Trump supporters, but we can try to view them with real sympathy. And, hey, if you can manage to love them, more power to you.

I know this advice may seem forbidding. But look at the bright side: At least I’m not asking you to love Trump.

Blissing out: Two days after this issue of MRN hits your inbox, I head off to a 10-day silent meditation retreat. That means, among other things, that for 10 days I will be totally, 100 percent off the grid, wholly oblivious to goings on in the real world (or, depending on your philosophical orientation, more plugged into the real world than usual and less distracted by ephemera).

You may ask: How can I put out a newsletter while off the grid? The answer is that I can’t. Next week is the newsletter’s Fourth of July break, when our hardworking staff will be off indulging their tanha even as I try to transcend mine. We’ll be back the following week. But before I head off on my meditation retreat, I offer you:

  Free meditation tip: A couple of weeks ago one of my daughters told me she had started meditating again after a long time off the cushion. I asked her whether she was having trouble concentrating on her breath. She gave me a “duh” look. I deserved it.

I deserved it all the more because I had been having trouble concentrating on my breath during my morning meditation. But I did find a trick that helped me out, and I thought I’d share it with any of you who meditate—since, as my daughter’s duh look implied, if you’re meditating on a regular basis, you’re probably sometimes struggling with the challenge of concentration. And, for that matter, if you’re not a meditator, the reason may be that you tried meditating but couldn’t stay focused on your breath.

OK, here’s my free meditation tip: Pay attention to your breath!

Just kidding. Here’s the tip: Compare your breaths! Each time you inhale, ask yourself: How does this inhalation compare with the previous inhalation? Did the incoming air hit your nostrils in a slightly different place this time? Was the breath stronger or weaker? More diffuse or less? Longer or shorter?

I don’t mean you should do a mental disquisition on these questions. Just take a kind of mental picture of the breath and compare it to the memory of the previous breath. And if want to focus on only one particular quality of the breath—like where it makes contact with your nostrils—that’s fine.

For the most part this isn’t new advice. Noticing particular properties of your breath is standard mindfulness guidance, going all the way back to the canonical Buddhist text on mindfulness meditation, the Satipatthana Sutta. Its very first instruction on meditating reads like this:

O bhikkhus [monks], a bhikkhu, gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down, bends in his legs crosswise on his lap, keeps his body erect, and arouses mindfulness in the object of meditation, namely, the breath which is in front of him.

Mindful, he breathes in, and mindful, he breathes out. He, thinking, ‘I breathe in long,’ he understands when he is breathing in long; or thinking, ‘I breathe out long,’ he understands when he is breathing out long; or thinking, ‘I breathe in short,’ he understands when he is breathing in short; or thinking, ‘I breathe out short,’ he understands when he is breathing out short.

The only thing I’m adding to this is that, having noted a particular property of a particular breath, you can, if you want, compare it with that property of the previous breath. And I emphasize “if you want.” If you’re not having trouble noting the properties of the breath, then you don’t need my little trick. But if paying that kind of attention has been hard lately, this little trick may give you a kind of motivation to pay attention.

I’m tempted to say that this is a way of “gamifying” attention, but if I said that I would probably be accused of sacrilege for pasting a modern marketing term onto an ancient spiritual discipline. So let me instead argue that this little trick is wholly in the spirit of the ancient spiritual discipline. Here goes:

The Pali word that is translated into English as “mindfulness” is sati. And scholars who have explored the term’s ancient etymological roots have found that, around the time it entered Buddhist texts, it would have had a strong connotation of “memory” or “remembering.”

There are different views on how much of a connection, and what kind of connection, there is between this connotation of sati and its Buddhist use to denote what English speakers know as mindfulness. But certainly there’s a natural link between paying attention to things—which is integral to mindfulness—and remembering them; if you don’t do the former, you won’t do the latter.

It follows that if you do the latter, you’ll have done the former; if you remember something, it means you paid attention to it in the first place. So if you’re motivated to remember things, you’re more likely to pay attention to them. All my little trick does is motivate you to remember a breath until the next breath, and thus motivate you to pay attention to the breath in the first place.

I probably shouldn’t call it “my” little trick. And I don’t say that just because, according to the Buddhist notion of not-self, “I” don’t exist. I say it because, given all that has been written and said about meditation over the past couple of millennia, there’s roughly no chance that this is an original idea. If you’ve come across it somewhere else, let me know at and I’ll give credit where credit is due.

Patreon, land of contrasts: I just posted a monovlog on our Patreon page in which my dog Milo makes not one but two cameo appearances. In between them, I talk about Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, the next stage in MRN’s evolution, and other stuff. If you’re a dog lover (or a Harris or Biden aficionado) who isn’t a Patreon Patron, I have bad news for you: You can’t watch the video.

But there’s something you can do on Patreon. We’re continuing our experiment with hosting discussions on Patreon that are open to Patrons and non-Patrons alike. The latest discussion, orchestrated by veteran discussion orchestrater Mark Sussman, is on the cognitive bias known as attribution error, which I mentioned in both this week’s and last week’s newsletter. If you’re a non-Patron and want to join the discussion, 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.


In the Christian Science Monitor, Scott Peterson draws on Iranian history in explaining why Iran is probably a long way from succumbing to the pressure of US economic sanctions. This week MRN’s Robert Wright talked with former Pentagon official Ilan Goldenberg about how war with Iran could unfold and whether the US media’s depiction of the Iranian regime is unduly dark.

In New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan argues that the perspective on immigration policy that emerged from this week’s presidential debates probably amounts to “political suicide” for Democrats.

Last month Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, dismissed the long awaited Jared Kushner peace plan, writing, “What the Trump administration is seeking is not a peace agreement but a Palestinian declaration of surrender.” This week, as Kushner unveiled the economic part of his plan, Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, asked in a New York Times op-ed, “What’s wrong with Palestinian surrender?” He added that, “a national suicide of the Palestinians’ current political and cultural ethos is precisely what is needed for peace.” In the Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor outlines reasons Palestinians are wary of Kushner’s initiative.

FiveThirtyEight’s Galen Druke assesses the repercussions of the Supreme Court ruling that insulates gerrymandering from federal court review, outlining avenues that remain open to opponents of gerrymandering plans.

The Cut published an excerpt from advice columnist E. Jean Carroll’s forthcoming book in which she alleges that Trump sexually assaulted her in a department store dressing room in the mid-1990s. Two of Carroll’s friends corroborate her story, saying that Carroll told them about the assault in its immediate aftermath.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drew criticism from progressives after bowing to Republicans and Democratic moderates by allowing a vote on the Senate’s relatively conservative version of a border security funding bill. The bill, which lacked some protections for children in border shelters that Pelosi had originally sought, passed by a vote of 305 to 102.

Justin Raimondo, a conservative gay rights activist, unstinting opponent of military intervention, and co-founder of antiwar.comdied of cancer this week at age 67.

In India, a mob attacked a Muslim man suspected of stealing a motorcycle and for 12 hours beat him and forced him to chant Hindu slogans associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ethno-nationalist party. Police intervened but held the man in custody for four days before taking him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

In an effort to stave off the kind of social media manipulation that afflicted the 2016 election, Twitter and Facebook are taking various precautions against organized disinformation campaigns during this month’s and next month’s Democratic presidential debates.

Axios writes that the “Trump bump” has become the “Trump slump,” with media companies saying that the “shock factor around President Trump’s unplanned announcements, staff departures, taunting tweets, and erratic behavior is wearing off” and interest in political coverage is down overall.

Wired reports on a Toronto waterfront development envisioned by Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google. The plan includes eco-friendly buildings, an underground pneumatic tube system for garbage removal, streets with autonomous vehicles, and a system to collect unprecedented amounts of data on the residents’ behavior—”everything from which street furniture residents use to how quickly they cross the street.”

In a New York Times video op-ed, Daria Navalnaya, the 17-year-old daughter of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, interviews Russians who were born after Putin took power. The young people discuss how they view their country’s leader, whether they want to leave Russia for the West, and their emotional relationship to their homeland.

The knitting website Ravelry, which has 8 million users, announced that it is “banning support of Donald Trump and his administration”—whether expressed in discussion posts or knitting patterns—because support for Trump is “support for white supremacy.”

The New York Times reports that Mexico’s sending troops to its southern border, which was done under pressure from Trump, is reducing the influx of Central Americans who seek to migrate to the US or buy black market goods in Mexico.

In the New York Times, Ellen Barry reviews the gaffes, untruths, controversial statements, and other outrageous behaviors that have marked the career of Boris Johnson, who is on track to become the UK’s next prime minister. Johnson’s biographer notes a sense in which Johnson is like Trump: “The more he upsets the pious liberals, the better pleased his supporters are.”


There has been much comment on the creepiness of the Chinese government’s “social credit system,” which when fully operational next year will electronically monitor citizens and dole out rewards and punishment for behaviors deemed virtuous (paying bills on time) or not so virtuous (smoking in a no smoking area). Casey Newton of the Verge asks whether this is so different from the emerging behavior monitoring system in the US—which, though less centralized than the Chinese system and often not mediated by the government, is increasingly pervasive and often brings rewards and punishments.

A BBC piece explores the “light triad,” a constellation of personality traits that are conducive to a good life and stand in contrast to the infamous “dark triad” of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Last year MRN’s Robert Wright spoke about the dark triad, self-actualization, and other things with Scott Barry Kaufman, the psychologist featured in the BBC piece.

Debates over HBO’s Chernobyl have broken out in the Iranian media.Some reformist and moderate media outlets viewed the show as a warning about the dangers of nuclear power, while the conservative Fars News Agency called it US propaganda aimed at making people “scared of peaceful nuclear energy.” Meanwhile, in Russia, Chernobyl was well-received by many viewers, notwithstanding backlash from pro-Kremlin media.

study in JAMA Neurology finds that mindfulness-based yoga may benefit Parkinson’s sufferers by lessening depression and increasing mobility.

In Medical Xpress, Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki, author of The War for Kindness, discusses his research on empathy and says that “compassion meditation, diverse friendships and even fiction reading” can help build empathy. He also addresses the problem of “over-empathizing,” a particular risk for health care professionals.

Over 100 schools, hospitals, prisons, and other facilities in the US have installed sound-activated “aggression detectors” meant to alert authorities to noises associated with violent behavior, like angry yelling or gunshots. But a report by ProPublica found many kinds of sounds — including laughter, coughing, and a YouTube clip of Gilbert Gottfried — can trigger false positives.

In Aeon, Amy Hawkins and Jeffrey Wasserstrom write about the sometimes counterintuitive ways that China has appropriated and transformed Western cultural phenomena like Marxism, hip-hop, and fast food.

Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, after doing a bit of Googling, makes an interesting discovery: Images turned up via the search terms “futuristic” and “tech” are for some reason overwhelmingly blue and black. (“Why isn’t the future orange?” she asks.) Less surprising, perhaps: “history” is sepia, and “truth” is black and white.


There are several ways to mislead people via online video: present it out of context, misleadingly edit it, or doctor it. The Washington Post has created a guide to help you be on guard against all three kinds of deception. The guide, which will be updated periodically, includes a submission form via which you can report suspect videos.

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

Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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One thought on “Issue #79: June 23–29, 2019”

  1. On that meditation tip, I have one to share about concentrating on the breath. When I think of meditation as practice I relax to the idea that it is done so I can be ready for the big game. And the big game is noticing my thoughts. So when I notice that my mind has wondered from concentrating on the breath I celebrate that I have noticed my thinking. It is a victory to notice that I am not concentrating on the breath. Yea!!

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