In this week’s MRN (the last issue before our summer break): (1) I wax Eisenhoweresque, warning about the emergence of a “military digital complex”; (2) we commend a prominent conservative journalist for retrospective mindfulness (better late than never!); (3) we concisely summarize a week in which Brexit and Trump’s border wall both got some wind in their sails (at least for the time being); (4) we steer you to background reading on things ranging from Robert Mueller to Boris Johnson to Josh Hawley to technology arms races between the US and China and between Hong Kong protestors and Hong Kong police. Plus a pre-summer-break bonus: The Happenings!!!
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Wall resurrected: By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court resuscitated Trump’s plan to take $2.5 billion from the Pentagon’s budget and use it to build a wall along parts of the southern border. Ongoing litigation may yet derail the project, but the Court said that, contrary to a lower court ruling, construction can proceed in the meanwhile.
Minister primed: In his first address to Parliament as the UK’s new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson vowed that he would stick to an October 31 Brexit deadline even if that means a “hard Brexit”—that is, a Brexit featuring no agreement with the European Union that would preserve some benefits of EU membership, such as low tariffs.
Arms block blocked: Trump vetoed congressional resolutions that would have blocked $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The resolutions, fueled by concerns about the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, passed with bipartisan support but by less than the two-thirds majority required to override a veto.
Mueller speaks: Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified in congressional hearings, saying little that wasn’t contained in his report. His minimalistic and sometimes halting responses frustrated Democrats who had hoped that, if the report’s contents could be rendered telegenically, support for impeaching Trump would grow.
Roselló resigns: Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Roselló, facing raucous and massive street protests and the threat of impeachment, said he will resign next week. The protests began after leaked messages showed Roselló speaking with his inner circle in vulgar terms about political allies and Puerto Ricans in general.
In Zuck we antitrust: Facebook revealed that it faces antitrust investigations from both the Justice Department and the FTC. And the Justice Department suggested that its scrutiny will extend beyond Facebook, announcing that it will conduct antitrust reviews of unnamed “market leading online platforms.” The disclosure by Facebook came on the same day it announced a $5 billion settlement with the FTC over its mishandling of user data.
Palestinian warning: Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian Authority will quit abiding by existing agreements with Israel—a move that, if it proceeds, could end the Authority’s cooperation with Israel in policing the West Bank. The move came in response to Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes whose location, according to Israel, pose a security threat.
More executions: Attorney General William Barr announced that he is ending the federal government’s de facto moratorium on capital punishment, thus paving the way for the executions of five men convicted of murdering children. The move won’t affect state courts, where most murder cases are tried.
NOTES FROM BOB
by Robert Wright
Summer Vacation: I now yield center stage to The Happenings, who in 1966 memorably proclaimed, “See you in September.” September is the next time you’ll be getting a newsletter from us. We’ll spend the intervening six weeks pondering things ranging from the deep (mind-body problem) to the shallow (aging body problem) to points in between. In that last category falls the question of what exactly this newsletter will be when it re-emerges. As I explained last week, MRN may undergo big changes (in length, scope, frequency, even name).
As I also explained last week, we will, over this six-week break, check in with you once or twice to give you a sense for what kinds of changes we’re contemplating, and why we’re contemplating them, and ask for your feedback. We’ll send you an email when that happens.
So there’s a sense, I guess, in which we’ll see you before September. But I couldn’t find an old song called “See you in September, but also before then, kind of.” So I’m sticking with The Happenings. And for those of you who don’t want to be dragged all the way back to the 1960s, I offer the 2005 cruise ship version of their song. Bon voyage. (If you miss us, you can always send a postcard to: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The military-digital complex: On January 17, 1961, three days before heading into retirement, President Eisenhower delivered a farewell address that would become famous for its warning about the growing power of what he called “the military-industrial complex.” Today, one day before this newsletter heads into a six-week hiatus, I make my bid to join Eisenhower in the annals of history. I’m warning about the emergence of what I’m calling the military-digital complex.
The military industrial complex, as defined by Eisenhower, is the confluence between a permanent armaments industry—which, as Eisenhower noted, hadn’t existed before World War II—and a large and growing military establishment. “In the councils of government,” said the president and former general, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
You can say that again. Thanks partly to arms industry lobbyists, the government spends tons of money making our military way bigger than what’s needed to keep our country secure and help keep the world beyond our shores stable.
What’s more: As if to justify all this spending, we throw our military might around so recklessly that we wind up destabilizing the world beyond our shores, and generating so much hatred of America that we may be making our country less secure. Having huge companies devoted to inflating the Pentagon’s budget is worse than just wasteful.
Which brings us to the military-digital complex: Thanks to the information age, the ranks of huge companies with an interest in inflating the Pentagon’s budget has grown beyond the Raytheons and Lockheed Martins of the world to include the Microsofts and Amazons of the world. And these are companies that, by their very nature, have the power to wield more influence on public discourse, and hence public policy, than the Raytheons and Lockheed Martins.
Consider the case of Amazon and its CEO, Jeff Bezos.
Amazon and Microsoft are the two finalists for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing contract (the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure or—wait for it—JEDI contract). The contract is scheduled to be awarded within a month, and the runup to that moment has featured two disturbingly familiar military-industrial complex motifs.
1. The revolving door. A former Amazon executive named Deap Ubhi went to work at the Pentagon, where he helped shape the JEDI program (and where, according to allegations made by Oracle, a longstanding member of the military-digital complex, he loaded the dice in Amazon’s favor). Then Ubhi went back to work for Amazon—having tweeted, at some point on this journey, “Once an Amazonian, always an Amazonian.”
2. The mind meld between defense contractor CEOs and the Pentagon. Obviously, running a company that’s angling for tons of Pentagon money is not a job for a skeptic of robust Pentagon spending. And, indeed, Jeff Bezos is not such a skeptic.
At a Wired magazine summit last year, Bezos was asked about the JEDI contract—and about the fact that Google had withdrawn from competition for the contract after facing a rebellion among peacenik Google employees over an earlier Pentagon contract (which involved AI that could be used in drone strikes). That kind of thing, Bezos said, “doesn’t make any sense to me.” He said of Amazon’s position: “We are going to continue to support the DOD and I think we should… If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble.” After all, “This is a great country and it does need to be defended.”
I’m not against countries defending themselves—especially the country I live in! My question is: How could Bezos look at the ways America has used military force over the last 20 years and conclude that it has much to do with defending America?
I mean, which deployments of American armaments over the past two decades has made Bezos feel safer? The Iraq War (which led to, for example, the creation of ISIS)? Bombing Libya into regime change (and into an enduring chaos that spewed weapons around the region while also sending the message—to, for example, North Korea—that if regimes agree to abandon their nuclear weapons programs we may later make them wish they hadn’t)? Syria (where we fought a proxy war that, via an infusion of arms from us and our regional allies, turned a doomed insurrection into a regionally disastrous civil war, triggering a refugee outflow without which both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 presidential election might well have turned out differently)?
Even the Afghanistan War—which at least had a plausible rationale, since the Taliban government had given Osama bin Laden safe haven as he plotted and launched the 9/11 attacks—has been a two-decade exercise in bloody futility.
Actually, to call that war futile is to put the best possible spin on it. We’ve killed so many people in Afghanistan—notably including civilians—that we’ll be lucky if the consequent hatred of America doesn’t lead to terrorism in America down the road. (Or, I should say, more terrorism. Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev said he and his brother were motivated by America’s killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.) And so too with the drone strikes we’re conducting in Somalia and Pakistan and…remind me what other countries?
I don’t think Bezos deserves special condemnation. He seems to be doing what pretty much all CEOs do: convince themselves that whatever enterprises they undertake to maximize profit are for the greater good or, at least, are not for the greater bad. And those of us who aren’t CEOs tend to do something comparable—convince ourselves we’re good people, doing good for the world, whatever the actual facts of the case. It’s only human for Bezos to wind up singing the same tune as the heads of Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
I’m just warning that the information age is increasing the number of powerful executives who will be singing that tune. Actually, I’m warning more than that; I’m warning that many of these are executives who are especially well positioned to influence public discourse. After all, they’re in the information business.
Jeff Bezos, lord of Amazon and of Amazon Prime Video, has the power to give a boost to particular books, particular movies, particular documentaries. He even has the power to commission video programming (such as, say, an Amazon Studios series that romanticizes the war on terrorism and keeps viewers terrified about how close the threat of terrorism always is) and then guarantee it a big audience. And as AI develops, he could have a lot more power than that. (“Alexa, what were the consequences of the Iraq War?”)
I’m not much for conspiracy theories, and I don’t imagine for a second that Bezos is now pulling any of these levers to increase support for Pentagon spending. But the strategic interests of a corporation have a way of seeping into its culture and having subtle and hard-to-trace but consequential effects. So it’s at least mildly troubling that technological evolution is drawing the Pentagon into symbiosis with the tech giants that shape various forms of information that shape our thinking.
Google is probably the only company whose potential influence on our information environment exceeds Amazon’s. So God bless those Google workers who, by protesting a Pentagon contract, made Google think twice about becoming a big player in the military-digital complex. (Let’s hope that Google is not, as has been claimed, retaliating against activist employees.) And hats off, by the way, to the dozens of Microsoft employees who signed a letter protesting a $479 million Pentagon contract.
There’s been no such rebellion by Amazon employees, and I’m guessing that the chances of one will only shrink with time. After all: If you’re an Amazon executive who is choosing a new employee, and you’ve heard Bezos rhapsodize about Amazon’s mission to defend America, are you going to hire, say, one of the Google or Microsoft employees who protested Pentagon ties? Are you even going to hire someone whose social media history suggests ardent peacenik activism?
Probably not. That’s the way these things work. It’s part of the process by which big digital companies drawn into the Pentagon’s orbit will align themselves with Pentagon thinking. Which is another reason to worry about how we’re all being drawn into the orbits of big digital companies.
Retrospective mindfulness award: Seth Mandel, executive editor of the conservative Washington Examiner, gets a special commendation this week for acknowledging his failure to use social media mindfully. He had shared a viral video of Rep. Ilhan Omar saying “we should be profiling, monitoring and creating policies to fight the radicalization of white men.” Unbeknownst to Mandel, the video had been edited (apparently by the Christian Broadcasting Network) to omit a conditional clause at the beginning of Omar’s sentence: “If fear was the driving force of policy to keep America safe, Americans safe inside of this country…”
Mandel tweeted, “I clearly broke my own repeatedly stated advice about gullibility toward things that appear ex machina and conform to your priors. Today I’m a hypocrite, tomorrow I hope to be better.” Alas, Sen. Marco Rubio, who had helped give early momentum to the Omar clip by sharing it on Twitter, refused to admit any error. (And, shockingly, my earnest appeal to him failed to convince him to change course and follow in Mandel’s footsteps.)
Patreon breakthrough: A surge, or at least mini-surge, of Patreon signups last week has pushed us past the 300 Patrons mark. That means that, thanks to a pledge we rashly made on our Patreon page months ago, we are now duty-bound to create a guide to using social media mindfully. So don’t worry about us slacking off during the coming six-week hiatus.
And thanks again to our Patreon supporters. As I said last week, the sustenance you give us is more than material (though the material part definitely comes in handy). During the summer break, we’ll be putting more content on Patreon than usual, including some videos in which I say some of the things I’d be saying in this space if the newsletter weren’t on hiatus. So please stay tuned, and thanks again.
Amid widespread criticism of Robert Mueller’s performance at congressional hearings this week, Renato Mariotti of Politico praisesMueller’s ability to stay “nonpartisan, measured, and above the fray.” In the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop reviews media coverage of Mueller’s performance, deems it unfair, even “cruel,” and attributes it partly to the past deification of Mueller.
In the New York Times, historian Samuel Moyn says the reaction to Mueller’s testimony highlights a “fantasy” that many liberals and progressives cling to—namely, that “they can advance their values by means of legal machination rather than political vision” and avoid the hard work of “crafting a winning majority.”
In the New York Review of Books, Fintan O’Toole recounts the rise of new UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, paying special attention to his early career as a sensationalist newspaper reporter covering the EU (unfavorably). O’Toole also spends some time on Johnson’s 2004 novel, Seventy-Two Virgins.
In the Intercept, Kay Aronoff reports on one of the underpublicized precipitants of the grassroots rebellion in Puerto Rico—the Washington-appointed board overseeing the island’s finances, which Puerto Ricans call la junta. The body is widely seen as favoring banking interests over the wellbeing of the island.
In the Nation, Tony Karon argues that Iran’s strategy for getting US sanctions loosened rests on the belief that “Trump cannot afford a war. That looks like a smart wager, but one that carries a high risk of miscalculation on either side that could spark a conflagration despite the desire on both sides to avoid one.”
Immigration raids trumpeted by Trump two weeks ago, which targeted thousands of immigrants who had failed to comply with deportation orders, wound up capturing only 35 people, the New York Times reports.
An 18-year-old American citizen who was wrongly held in immigration detention for 26 days was released this week. Francisco Galicia, who was born in Texas, says he lost 20 pounds from lack of palatable food and considered signing papers that would bring deportation just so he could get out.
In the New York Times, John Herrman analyzes privacy concerns that have been raised about FaceApp, the suddenly popular smartphone app that purports to show you what you’ll look like years from now.
Buddhists staged a protest at the site of a former Japanese-American internment camp in Oklahoma that is slated to house over 1,400 migrant children detained at the US-Mexico border.
An altered version of the presidential seal—with a Russian-style two-headed eagle holding golf clubs, and the phrase “45 is a puppet” in Spanish instead of “E pluribus unum”—appeared projected behind Trump at a speech he delivered to the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA. Turning Point attributed the mistake to a hasty last-minute online search, and the suddenly famous graphic designer who originally put the seal online called it “the most petty piece of art I think I’ve ever designed.”
In Jewish Currents, David Klion writes about what being Jewish means to Sen. Bernie Sanders and how Sanders has changed the way he discusses his religion since 2016.
In Politico, Natalie Fertig reports that the legalized sale of marijuana in some states has been a boon to the black market drug trade, as dealers exploit legal ambiguities to avoid regulation and taxes. (The scholar Mark A.R. Kleiman, a longstanding advocate of marijuana decriminalization who died last week, predicted such consequences of liberalizing drug laws, as the New York Times noted in its obituary of Kleiman.)
Newly elected Ukrainian president Volodmyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party did so well in parliamentary elections that it will govern without coalition partners. Konstantin Skorkin, writing for Carnegie’s Moscow Center, says that “no president in the history of Ukraine has had such resources while facing such a weak opposition.”
In the New York Times, Ana Swanson reports on Steve Bannon’s revival of the long-defunct, Cold War-era group the Committee on the Present Danger—which in its new incarnation is focusing its ire on Trump’s trade-war nemesis, China. In the Washington Post, Dan Drezner worries that hawkishness on China is becoming the new consensus in Washington, one that overstates the threat posed by China and understates the costs of economic and military conflict.
In the London Review of Books, Thomas Meaney reviews two books about the white power movement: Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home and Kyle Burke’s Revolutionaries for the Right. MRN’s Robert Wright interviewedBelew about her book last year on Bloggingheads.tv.
The New York Times reports on a technology arms race between police and protesters in Hong Kong, with each side using cameras and facial recognition software and trying to prevent their effective use by the other side. The protesters have created online groups to identify police officers who have removed identification numbers from their uniforms to thwart doxxing attempts.
In the New Republic, Alexander Zaitchik profiles Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, the 39-year-old Stanford-and-Yale-educated Republican who is known as a relatively cerebral proponent of Trumpism. Zaitchik says Hawley belongs to the group of “post-liberals” on the right who “mourn the institutions, values, and hierarchies that secular rationalism has laid to waste in the name of progress.” In the Nation, Jeet Heer draws on comments by Hawley and law professor Amy Wax at the recent National Conservatism conference to argue that “Trump’s peculiar brand of ethnic nationalism” is “becoming the new Republican orthodoxy.”
In HuffPost, Maxwell Strachan reports on the rise and fall of Mic, the left-leaning news site that catered to Millennials. Its business model depended on traffic from Facebook—and when Facebook changed its algorithm, Mic’s pageviews fell by half.
In the New Yorker, Jonathan Zitrain explores medical treatments andtechnologies that we use even though nobody knows how they work.
In the Atlantic, Juliet Lapidos writes about her experience as the child of Francophone immigrants: “Technically, there was never any doubt about my Americanness. Emotionally, there was and there is.”
In Aeon, Sahanika Ratnayake argues that some ideas associated with mindfulness practice—including value-neutrality and the Buddhist concept of “no self”—can constrain people’s capacity to understand themselves and their feelings.
In the Intercept, Sam Biddle warns that an “AI race” between the US and China could unleash dangerous technology.
Buzzfeed offers some suggestions for preventing the older, less technologically adept people in your life from accidentally sharing extremist memes and links on social media. The article is part of Buzzfeed’s “Protect Your Parents from the Internet” Week.
In the Washington Post, Arthur Brooks reviews data showing how misinformed people are (especially people who consume a lot of news). For example: “The average Democrat believes that more than 40 percent of Republicans earn more than $250,000 per year. Meanwhile, Republicans believe that nearly 40 percent of Democrats are LGBTQ.” (Correct numbers: 2 percent and 6 percent.)
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart, Mark Sussman,
Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith
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