Issue 80: July 7–13, 2019

In this week’s MRN (1) we offer our patented HS2NR (high signal-to-noise ratio) summary of the week’s news; (2) I talk as non-obnoxiously as possible about the 10-day meditation retreat I just finished; (3) I recount the harrowing experience of re-entering Earth’s orbit after 10 days with no news from the world; (4) we offer background readings on things ranging from Buddhist nationalists to Russian mercenaries to creepy technologies (e.g., the Pentagon can now remotely identify people via their heartbeats) to (on the brighter side) new survey evidence that Americans are sick and tired of war.

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK

Acosta lost: Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta announced his resignation amid renewed scrutiny of his role in the now-infamous 2008 plea deal that allowed financier Jeffrey Epstein to serve less than 13 months in prison for recruiting teenage girls as paid sex partners. Epstein, who has befriended such powerful people as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, was charged this week with sex trafficking—a charge Acosta had declined to pursue in 2008, when he was a US attorney in Florida.

Cheerio: The British ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, resigned after harsh assessments of Trump that he had put in diplomatic cables were leaked to a UK tabloid. Darroch wrote that the administration is “uniquely dysfunctional” and that Trump is “inept” and “insecure”—a characterization that inspired Trump to deem Darroch “a very stupid guy” and “a pompous fool.”

All welcome @realDonaldTrump: A federal appeals court ruled that President Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking from his Twitter feed people who criticized or mocked him. The court rejected Trump’s argument that he operates the account as a private citizen, noting that he often uses it to announce presidential initiatives: “Once the president has chosen a platform and opened up its interactive space to millions of users and participants, he may not selectively exclude those whose views he disagrees with.”

Message from Tehran: Iran announced that it has breached the limit on uranium enrichment dictated by the 2015 nuclear deal, though enrichment levels still fall far short of those necessary for a nuclear weapon. The move comes more than a year after the US withdrew from the deal, and after Trump reimposed sanctions that Iran’s compliance with the deal was supposed to keep at bay.

Anti-war stirrings in the House: A defense spending bill passed by the House this week includes a provision that would require Trump to get congressional approval before initiating military action against Iran. The vote sets up a confrontation with the Senate, whose version of the spending bill lacks that constraint on military action and also lacks other features of the House bill not welcomed by the Trump administration.

Immigration raids: On Sunday ICE agents will carry out mass arrests of undocumented migrants, Trump said. Officials speaking anonymously said the raids will target thousands of migrants, in at least 10 cities, who have received deportation orders and failed to comply with them.

NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

  Ten days off the grid: The first rule of meditation retreats is, You do not talk about meditation retreats. The reason is that, by and large, people don’t want to hear about them. They don’t want to hear about how beautiful the world started to seem on day three (you had to be there) or about the aches and frustrations of days one and two (first world problems) or about the dark night of the soul toward the end of the retreat (ditto).

Still, I’m going to say a bit about the 10-day retreat I finished this week, because the second rule of meditation retreats is, Meditation retreats are hard not to talk about. A good retreat—and all eight I’ve been on have brought more good than bad—fills you with an urge to rhapsodize, even evangelize.

But don’t worry: I’ll try to repress the rhapsody. Though my retreat had plenty of powerful moments, my aim here is just to soberly make a couple of points about the virtues of staying off the grid for 10 days—and about the added benefits of combining that with the intensive practice of mindfulness meditation.

By “off the grid” I mean no phone calls, no emails, no social media, no Internet—no news about the world whatsoever, unless you count real-time weather reports (that is, the weather itself; and here, since I promised not to rhapsodize, I’ll refrain from doing a play-by-play of Saturday’s mid-afternoon thunderstorm—a storm that, on a typical workday, I’d have barely noticed but that, after five days on retreat, was an arresting, almost overpowering, aesthetic experience.)

In the sixteen years since I did my first retreat, going on retreat has, I think, become more valuable. The reason is that the grid that retreats get you off of has gotten more pervasive, more oppressive, more unsettling. Smartphones didn’t exist during my first retreat, and since they showed up they’ve become increasingly destabilizing. It’s not that they bring more bad moments than good—it’s just that by bringing more of both they’ve turned life into more of a roller coaster. They are the ever more frequent inducers of anxiety and relief, of uplift and downbeat, of antipathy and affinity.

And then, of course, there’s their famous addictiveness—the chronic craving to take a peek at email or social media or news feeds, a craving that carries subtle discomfort and that, when appeased, may bring rewards but may bring disappointment or worse. And, needless to say, in the age of Trump, worse may be much worse.

So, yes, this is a grid worth spending some time off of. But getting you off of it is only the beginning of how a mindfulness meditation retreat addresses the problem. After all, one of the main benefits of mindfulness meditation is equanimity—the very thing that life on the grid directly challenges. So on retreat, as you meditate hours and hours each day, honing your technique and deepening your experience, you’re building skills that can help protect you from the grid’s torments once you’re back on it.

It’s hard to disentangle these two virtues of a retreat—the getting off the grid and the meditation. After all, one reason the meditation can work so well on retreat is that you’re off the grid. It’s easier to focus on your breath when you’re not lamenting a recent Trump political victory or celebrating a recent Trump political defeat or fantasizing about the comeuppance you’ll deliver to some asshole on Twitter or regretting the comeuppance you delivered to some asshole on Twitter.

In the absence of such distractions, and with big chunks of each day devoted to practice, meditative skills can grow fast. When I left for retreat my daily meditation was pretty perfunctory—I did my 30 minutes of sitting each morning, but in recent months that had gotten harder; if I managed to really focus on a dozen consecutive breaths I felt like I deserved to do an endzone dance. But by day five of this retreat, I felt like a maestro of meditation.

When that thunderstorm hit I had just finished with some distracting chore—doing my laundry, I think—and I wasn’t in a particularly mindful state. But I could see that a few other retreatants were deeply engrossed in the storm—sitting on a covered deck, gazing out, soaking it all in. So, in hopes of entering the zone they seemed to be in, I focused carefully on a dozen consecutive breaths. The result was dramatic, as the texture of my perceptions got suddenly finer. Indeed, there was not only a sharpening of my senses but a creative conflation of them; if I closed my eyes I could “see” the thunder unfold toward me, its patterns of sound translated into patterns of form. And encasing all of this was a toddler’s sense of wonder.

Of course, there’s a flipside to the way being off the grid helps heighten your meditative skills. Once you’re back on the grid, sustaining those skills gets hard. There’s more on your mind when you sit down to meditate—not to mention the fact that finding time to meditate is harder. (On retreat, I typically did seven sittings per day, lasting between 30 and 60 minutes each, plus some walking meditation as well as some plain old walking.)

So far I’m handling the challenge OK—my morning meditations are much more productive than they were pre-retreat, and I’m supplementing them with short but effective afternoon sits. Still, “so far” is just three days. So stay tuned. Meanwhile, my answer to a frequently asked question:

  What is re-entry like? After 10 days off the grid, isn’t returning to the “real world” jarring, even traumatic? Sometimes it is. Driving home from one retreat, I turned on the radio to hear coalescing accounts of the Sandy Hook shooting in its immediate aftermath—and I happened to be an hour’s drive from Sandy Hook, so I was hearing it reported as a local story. But this time around there was no such trauma. And as I caught up on the news by listening to a BBC News podcast from each day since I’d left, I was struck by how little of great moment seemed to have happened in the world.

I don’t mean that less of moment had happened than in the average 10-day span. I just mean that less of moment had happened than it seems like is happening when you’re absorbing the news on a daily basis. One feature of the Trump era is the chronic sense that a bunch of momentous stuff is happening when, actually, lots of the stuff isn’t momentous, or, in some cases, isn’t even really happening.

A major cause of this illusion is that Trump’s core psychological needs—always staying at the center of attention, always seeming tough, never letting a personal slight pass without retaliation—lead him to say lots of things that turn heads but don’t wind up amounting to much. During my retreat, apparently, Trump indicated that—in seeming defiance of a Supreme Court ruling—he would issue an executive order mandating the inclusion of a question about citizenship on the census. That made headlines. Then Trump said he wouldn’t do that after all. And that made headlines. Well, if you’d missed both headlines, you’d have missed nothing, because they left us back at square one.

You will find, in this issue of the newsletter, no reference to that whole affair aside from the one you just read. It didn’t, in my view, warrant mention in THE WEEK, or even in the BACKGROUND section (though that was a close call). One of the things we try to do in the newsletter is sift out the noise and focus on the signals—give you what you’d need to know if you’d spent the last week on retreat and wanted to catch up.

The reason we do that—even though we know you probably didn’t spend the last week on retreat—is that, as a whole, Trump’s presidency is momentous. Trump does deeply destructive things, like withdraw from the Iran deal and inspire fear in millions of immigrants who have long lived within our borders. His presidency is a serious threat to the nation and the world. So we can’t afford to waste time on distractions, especially the ones Trump self-servingly generates.

I don’t claim that this newsletter is the only way to raise your signal to noise ratio. A diligent mindfulness meditation practice can itself help you do that. And that’s worth underscoring. Being mindful isn’t a way of insulating yourself from reality. It’s a way of engaging reality in a more discerning and hence potentially more effective way.

You can make progress along that dimension without meditating, and this newsletter is certainly meant to help people who don’t meditate. But since at the moment I’m full of evangelical fervor, I’m inclined to suggest that people who have never tried the meditative path give it a shot—and that people who have meditated but never been on a retreat consider getting wholly off the grid for a week or so. You may be surprised by how little you miss and how much you gain.

And speaking of meditation: Two weeks ago in MRN I shared a kind of trick that had helped me address the growing difficulty I was having concentrating during my sittings. Assuming I wasn’t the first person to discover the trick, I asked readers to let me know if they’d seen it described elsewhere. Two readers replied that it can be found in The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa (aka John Yates)—a book I’ve heard very good things about.

If you have any questions or comments about all this—meditation, meditation tricks, meditation retreats, mindfulness for non-meditators, whatever—you can reach me at feedback@mindfulresistance.net.

BACKGROUND

In USA Today, law professor and former US attorney Barbara McQuade writes that the federal prosecutors in New York who indicted Jeffrey Epstein for sex trafficking may have “bigger targets than Epstein in mind.” The 2008 plea deal negotiated with Epstein contained an unusual provision that shielded “any potential co-conspirators” from future indictment. If that deal was intended to protect powerful people, writes McQuade, the prosecutors in New York “have the leverage to find out.”

A Washington Post piece on the Epstein case paints a relatively sympathetic portrait of Alexander Acosta as a US attorney in 2008, emphasizing the challenges he faced in getting a tougher plea deal than the one he got.

In the Verge, Adi Robertson asks legal scholars how the court ruling that Trump can’t block people from his Twitter account will play out for other politicians on social media.

In the Christian Science Monitor, Scott Peterson explores the tactical logic behind various recent Iranian behaviors—including increased nuclear enrichment—seen in the US as provocations. On LobeLog, Ben Armbruster pushes back against recent claims that the stepped-up enrichment signifies a drive for nuclear weapons.

The Washington Post reports that ICE and the FBI have been accessing databases of driver’s license photos from some states and using them to run searches with facial recognition technology. The millions of license holders whose photos have been used weren’t notified of this fact.

The United Arab Emirates, a critical player in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, is pulling its ground forces out of Yemen faster than was previously known and seems bent on exiting the country entirely, reports the New York Times. The withdrawal is “a belated recognition that a grinding war that has killed thousands of civilians and turned Yemen into a humanitarian disaster is no longer winnable.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that a State Department intelligence analyst resigned in protest after the White House blocked parts of his written congressional testimony about national security threats posed by climate change.

In the Washington Post, David Ignatius warns that, with unemployment low and Trump’s approval ratings up, Trump is “on a roll,” and Democrats will need to move toward the center to defeat him in 2020.

Lawmakers in France voted to impose a tax on Facebook, Google, and other large American tech companies, many of which use deft international accounting to minimize their tax exposure in high-tax-rate countries where they generate lots of revenue. In response, the US announced an inquiry to determine if the tax constitutes an unfair trade practice and whether retaliatory tariffs are in order.

In Greece, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party was shut out of parliament after failing to secure the minimum three percent of the national vote in an election that also saw the center-right New Democracy party win a big victory over the incumbent leftist Syriza party.

In the New York Times, Hannah Beech reports on Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where some Buddhists are persecuting Muslim minorities and renouncing religious commitments to nonviolence.

In a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 22 nations (not including the US) formally rebuked China’s mass detention of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims. The BBC reports that China is building boarding schools to house Uighur children whose parents are detained, thus separating the children from their native religion and culture.

In Mother Jones, Dan Friedman writes about how in 2013 he inadvertently started a viral rumor that there was an organization called “Friends of Hamas” that Chuck Hagel had supposedly given a speech to. This week, a 2013 joke tweet about that imbroglio by Max Berger, now a staffer on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, was unearthed by a Washington Free Beacon reporter and used to paint Berger as anti-Israel.

DEEP BACKGROUND

In Dissent, Michael Kazin and Atossa Araxia Abrahamian debate the merits of  left-liberal nationalism in the US.

In the Washington Post, Josh Dawsey reviews Tim Alberta’s new book American Carnage, which focuses on how Republican party leaders critical of Trump before he became president changed their tunes to curry favor with him.

In the Atlantic, Todd Purdum reflects on the legacy of Trump harbinger Ross Perot, the wealthy Texas businessman and two-time presidential candidate who died this week at the age of 89. In getting 19 percent of the vote for president in 1992, Perot showed that “there is a big chunk of voters who feel disaffected, harmed by free trade, threatened by demographic change, and attracted to an eccentric outsider who promises to upend the status quo.”

Writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Nathaniel Reynolds explains the origins, politics, and operational capabilities of the Wagner Group, a band of mercenaries Russia has used as a military proxy in conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and Sudan.

In the New York Review of Books, Jessica T. Matthews critiques the US’s ballooning defense spending.

The San Francisco school board voted to paint over a historic mural in George Washington High School that features images of enslaved African Americans and dead Native Americans. More than 400 academics and educators have signed a petition protesting the decision, arguing that the mural is actually critical of the racism it depicts.

The Pentagon has a device that uses lasers to identify people by their heartbeats, which are as distinctive as fingerprints. The device can work at a distance of 200 meters, and officials say the range could grow.

In Yahoo News, Michael Isikoff writes about the role of Russian intelligence agents and Russian government media properties in fomenting conspiracy theories about the 2016 murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich.

According to a new Pew Center survey, most military veterans and most Americans in general think the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not worth fighting. survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds that most Americans believe that selling weapons to other countries makes the US less safe.

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

 Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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