In this week’s MRN we (1) ask whether the Sri Lanka bombings signify the onset of a new phase in history; (2) explain how to use mindfulness to combat distraction-by-Internet; (3) summarize the Mueller report and opine on its import; (4) suggest that New York-area MRN readers come hear me talk in mid-May (and convene after the talk); (5) offer links to readings on subjects ranging from Joe Biden to Lou Dobbs to Amazon software that decides which workers to fire to Chinese software that infers ethnicity from facial features to a chimp that uses software (the Instagram app) with impressive fluency.
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Sri Lanka bombings: More than 250 people were killed in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday by jihadist suicide bombers who targeted churches and hotels. Sri Lankan intelligence officials failed to act on warnings about the attacks, and as a result the defense minister and the nation’s top police official have resigned.
Synagogue shooting: At least one person was killed and three were injured in a shooting at a synagogue outside San Diego, exactly six months after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. A suspect was in police custody.
Stonewall: The Trump administration vowed to block a House Judiciary Committee subpoena of former White House Counsel Don McGahn and signaled that it would resist all other subpoenas related to the Mueller report. The matter is likely to be settled in the courts.
Joe-mentum: Former Vice President Joe Biden announced his bid for the Democratic nomination. His launch video depicts him as a candidate determined to defeat a threat to the very soul of America (Trump).
Will we change Iran’s regime? The administration moved to completely shut down Iran’s oil exports, saying it would sanction any nation still buying Iranian oil as of May 2. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, speaking to Chris Wallace on Fox News, said that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates want regime change in Iran and are, along with National Security Adviser John Bolton, pushing Trump toward conflict with Iran.
Didn’t we already change Libya’s regime? Trump reportedly indicated in a phone call with Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar that the US supports Haftar’s assault on the Libyan capital of Tripoli, which is currently held by what the United Nations deems the legitimate government of Libya. More than 200 people have died in the fighting, which also has the blessing of Saudi Arabia.
Comedian-in-chief: In Ukraine, comedian Vladimir Zelensky defeated pro-Western incumbent Petro Poroshenko in the presidential election. Expectations that Poroshenko’s departure might bring a warming of relations between Ukraine’s government and Russia were muted when Vladimir Putin made it easier for residents of renegade, separatist-controlled provinces in eastern Ukraine to get Russian citizenship.
Freedom to boycott: A federal judge ruled against a Texas law that requires state contract workers to affirm that they don’t support boycotting Israel—and thus ruled in favor of a Palestinian-American speech pathologist who had lost her job at a Texas public school. More than 25 states have laws or regulations that, like the Texas law, use state financial power to discourage support for boycotts directed at Israel.
Freedom to fuel wars: In a speech at the NRA’s annual meeting, Trump announced that the US would abandon the Arms Trade Treaty, a global agreement that President Obama signed but the Senate hasn’t ratified. About 100 countries have ratified the treaty, which aims to stop the illicit transfer of arms into conflict zones.
Vehicular assault: In Northern California, an Iraq War veteran drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians, injuring eight people, because he thought some of them were Muslims, police said. Relatives of the veteran said he had shown signs of PTSD.
NOTES FROM BOB
by Robert Wright
Clash of Civilizations 2.0: According to some officials in Sri Lanka, last week’s bombing of hotels and churches by ISIS-affiliated jihadists came in retaliation for the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand five weeks earlier.
There are reasons to doubt this claim, including the fact that preparing an attack like this probably took more than five weeks. On the other hand, five weeks is plenty of time to change the date of the attack and the target list—and a Christchurch-inspired change of plans could explain why the terrorists struck no Buddhist temples, which would have seemed likelier targets than churches given recent ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka. It could also explain why the terrorists struck no Sufi Muslim mosques, which were loathed by the hyper-puritanical Muslim preacher who led the attacks.
In any event, there are two things worth highlighting against this backdrop, and together they suggest that the world could be entering a new phase of terrorist violence.
(1) The Christchurch bomber, in his manifesto, explicitly said he hoped his attack would inspire retaliation. And he hoped this would then inspire counter-retaliation by his fellow white nationalists.
(2) Whether or not the Sri Lanka attack was retaliatory, it makes tactical sense for ISIS to depict it as retaliation for the New Zealand mosque attack—and, in the future, to actually stage such retaliatory attacks. “Global avenger of attacks on Muslims” is a good recruiting brand, and the old ISIS brand—”governor of an actual land-occupying caliphate”—doesn’t work now that ISIS holds no big chunk of real estate.
You see where this could be heading: toward a positive feedback cycle of a very negative kind. You could call it Clash of Civilizations 2.0.
I reviewed Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations long, long ago. In fact, this was so long ago that when I worried, in the final paragraph, about the clash of civilizations becoming “a self-fulfilling prophecy,” I wasn’t thinking about a clash between “the West” and “the Muslim world” in particular. (Huntington divided the world into multiple “civilizations”—western, African, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, etc.—and posited inherent tensions among them.)
But then 9/11 happened, followed by unwise American military interventions in Muslim countries, along with the unwise assertion by some American commentators that we were at war with Islam itself—all of which was a gift to jihadist recruiters, for whom the clash of civilizations became a kind of business model. In the post-Iraq War years, it became clearer and clearer that the specific self-fulfilling clash-of-civilizations prophecy to worry about was indeed the one involving “the West” and “Islamic civilization”.
Now that prophecy seems to have entered the second stage in its self-fulfillment.
Clash of civilizations 1.0 heated up as state actors (mainly the US), in the course of overreacting to non-state actors (mainly al Qaeda), attacked majority-Muslim state actors (most notably Iraq). This not only strengthened the non-state actors’ recruiting argument that the West was attacking Islam but also fostered the chaotic conditions in which terrorist groups take root. So ISIS was born and surpassed al Qaeda in strength.
Now, with this grim dynamic having gotten critical early support from US policies, it seems to be sustainable without further help from state actors, via the enthusiastic participation of non-state actors. The main players, in this scenario, would be jihadist terrorists and white nationalist terrorists, locked in an endless game of tit-for-tat, a game of potentially intensifying carnage—especially if they get ahold of various kinds of spooky weapons, ranging from the old-fashioned (nukes) to the futuristic (designer pathogens).
“Game” may seem like too lighthearted a word for this context, but it’s worth emphasizing (as I noted after the Christchurch attack) that these two kinds of extremists are literally playing a non-zero-sum game. Given their short-term goal—attracting more followers—the escalation of this conflict, and its depiction as a clash of civilizations, is win-win.
Figuring out how to defuse a cycle of violence that isn’t critically fueled by state actors is, by definition, a challenge for makers of state policy. Of course, it would help if America quit doing stupid things—like helping to fuel a war in Yemen and courting war with Iran—but the days when non-stupid US policy alone could avert an escalation of terrorism may well be gone. And policies that could now bring de-escalation are non-obvious—and, in any event, well beyond the power of the current administration to conceive, much less execute.
For my money, the place to begin thinking about this challenge—about constructive policies the next administration might pursue and about constructive non-governmental initiatives (including the micro-initiatives that each of us can take in our everyday lives)—is with what sounds like a cliché: Public enemy number one is hatred.
Obviously, hatred has always been a destructive thing, but what the architects of America’s “global war on terror” seem to have taken little account of is the growing lethality of hatred. For technological reasons, it’s easier than it used to be for a relatively small number of people who share a specific hatred to organize, even remotely, and deploy lethal force around the globe. Also for technological reasons, the lethal force available to haters could soon grow by orders of magnitude.
Nonetheless, a series of presidents, Republican and Democratic, have since 9/11 supported, variously, invasions, proxy wars, bombings and drone strikes with little evident regard for the hatred (much of it specifically directed at America) this generated and the dangers this hatred would eventually pose. Like human beings generally, they’ve focused more on short-term than on long-term consequences.
Combating hatred is famously difficult. Also difficult is something that can pave the way for that combat—convincing lots of people who matter that hatred is the main problem. If there’s value to be derived from the recent horrors in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, maybe it’s that they’ve made this job slightly easier.
Mindfulness at work: Three weeks ago, I suggested a way to use smartphones to (ironically!) weaken smartphone addiction. And I promised that in a subsequent issue of MRN I’d “talk about why this exercise has broader application than it may sound like it has.” So here goes.
First, a quick review: The anti-addiction exercise I recommended was to hold your smartphone and, upon feeling the urge to open some app, close your eyes and examine the urge. “The more you observe feelings like this, rather than succumbing to them, the more likely you are to notice them in the future, rather than reflexively, unthinkingly, obeying them.”
The reason this exercise can bring benefits beyond the realm of smartphone addiction is that “feelings like this” is a pretty broad category. Consider this lamentably common sequence of events:
You’re sitting at your computer and you’re supposed to be getting some work done—you’re staring blankly at a Word document or a spreadsheet or whatever—and then all of a sudden, before you know it, you’ve opened your browser and you’re doing something more fun than work. (Not that fun is a bad thing!—but there’s a time and place for everything.) Maybe you’ve checked into your favorite social media site, maybe you’re checking out things you could buy (next-day delivery!), maybe you’ve surrendered your autonomy to YouTube’s recommendation algorithm and are watching passively, almost helplessly, as a series of increasingly unredeeming videos parasitize your consciousness.
Well, I submit that if you really pay attention during the “before you know it” part—during the transition between failing at work and succeeding at entertainment—you’ll notice a feeling remarkably like the feeling you examined while doing the smartphone exercise.
I don’t mean it’s exactly the same feeling. Wanting to open Facebook feels different from wanting to read about a car you’d like to buy, which in turn feels different from wanting to check into a celebrity gossip website or (my personal favorite this week) wanting to check the score of Spurs-Nuggets games. In fact, if you examine your feelings closely enough, you’ll probably find that wanting to open Facebook feels different from wanting to open Twitter!
Still, there’s something all these feelings have in common: the generic feeling of desiring something. You might call this the feeling of craving or grasping. You might even—if you wanted to get all Buddhist—call it tanha. This generic craving lies at the motivational core of all these different forms of wanting.
It’s because of this common denominator that observing one kind of wanting mindfully can pay dividends when it comes to taming another kind of wanting. Whatever kind of wanting you’re observing, the observation has to involve the generic core, the tanha. That’s why, the more you pause to observe the yearning to open your smartphone’s Facebook app, the more likely you are to notice whatever yearning is trying to carry you away from your work later that day.
The point of this practice isn’t to eliminate all wanting. It’s just to give you enough perspective to see the emergence of, and pre-emptively veto, some of the wantings that you’ve decided are problematic. Which wantings those wantings are depends on what you want out of life.
Mueller in a nutshell: Some have speculated that William Barr released the Mueller report right before a big holiday for tactical reasons. Specifically, there are two theories: (1) He knew people would be distracted by the holidays and so not give the report much scrutiny; (2) He knew the Mindful Resistance Newsletter would be taking the week off, so the report wouldn’t be scrutinized mindfully.
As the only theorist who has advanced theory (2), I am the logical person to thwart the aim of Barr’s that it assumes. Also, I need to assuage my guilt for having taken Mueller Week off. For both of those reasons, I offer the following (mindful, I hope) summary of and reflection on the Mueller report:
1) Mueller didn’t find compelling evidence of criminal wrongdoing in interactions between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, though he notes more than once that he didn’t have access to all relevant evidence (e.g. re a 2017 Seychelles Islands meeting featuring Blackwater founder Erik Prince and an August 2016 meeting between Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik).
2) Mueller thinks—and here I’m reading between the lines—there are grounds for prosecuting Trump for obstruction of justice. But he doesn’t think saying so would be proper, given the Justice Department’s official aversion to indicting presidents, and some ethical considerations flowing from that. So he laid out the evidence for Congress to use should it choose to impeach Trump. The obstruction charges would revolve around Trump’s various attempts to derail or stymie the Russiagate investigation.
3) For the time being, impeachment looks unlikely, though the strong political incentive for many of the zillions of Democratic presidential candidates to advocate impeachment may lead to pressure on House Democrats to act.
4) All told, the system worked pretty well. There was a credible and extensive investigation of questions that warranted investigating, and Trump was frustrated in his heartfelt desire that the investigation be squelched. Wrongdoing by various parties was uncovered—some of which has been the subject of prosecution, and some of which may yet be prosecuted in other venues. And the part of the wrongdoing that was done by Trump (whether legal wrongdoing or ethical wrongdoing) is something voters can consider and act on in the voting booth and their elected representatives can consider and act on in Congress. True, there may have been wrongdoing that wasn’t uncovered—but at a minimum we can rule out the deep and thoroughgoing conspiracy between Trump and Russia that was once suspected.
5) Asterisk: Though the system “worked” in the sense that Trump failed to pre-empt or derail the Mueller investigation, that failure is at least partly attributable to his instability and incompetence. Whether the system is strong enough to withstand the future corrupt intentions of some craftier operator is unknown.
MRN hits Broadway: As previously noted, I’ll be speaking at Union Theological Seminary in New York, at Broadway and 121st Street, the evening of Tuesday May 14. As not previously noted, I plan to find a room somewhere in Union where MRN subscribers can congregate after the talk and give me feedback about the newsletter or anything else. (There will be free tap water for for Patreon supporters!) Stay tuned for details about that. Meanwhile, you can reserve a (free) ticket to the talk here.
Nate Silver analyzes the numbers on how Joe Biden could win the Democratic nomination. In 2017, Bill Scher wrote in Politico that Biden was positioning himself between Trump and Bernie Sanders as the “anti-populism candidate.”
Slate’s Fred Kaplan writes that Trump’s move to shut down Iran’s oil exports is a “declaration of economic war” that could lead to various bad things, including real war. In the New Yorker, Robin Wright takes a closer look at the chances of war.
In the Atlantic, Paul Rosenzweig, who helped investigate President Clinton in the 1990s, criticizes Robert Mueller for not explicitly accusing Trump of obstruction of justice. In Lawfare, Bush-era CIA chief Michael Hayden and ex-CIA officer David Priess respond to Rosenzweig, arguing that Mueller “did precisely what he should have done and precisely what the country needed: He played it straight, defining his prosecutor’s role narrowly.”
The comedian who was just elected president of Ukraine starred in a TV show as a teacher who suddenly becomes president, and the show is available on Netflix with English subtitles.
A (nonviolent) civil war seems to be erupting within the NRA.
Federal prosecutors indicted the former CEO of the Rochester Drug Co-Operative, along with the company itself, over improper sales of oxycodone and fentanyl. This is the first time a pharmaceutical company has been charged with drug trafficking.
Saudi Arabia executed 37 people convicted of terrorism-related offenses, the largest mass execution in the country since 2016. At least 33 of those executed were members of the country’s Shiite minority.
The Washington Post examines the relationship between Trump and Fox Business News anchor Lou Dobbs, especially as it pertains to immigration policy.
The New York Times looks at increased religious tensions and violence in South Asia, where decades of secularism have given way to a new era in which ruling parties advocate for majority religious groups and persecute religious minorities.
In the first quarter of 2019, US and Afghan forces killed more civilians in Afghanistan than insurgents did, according to a UN report.
A site called What’s on Weibo, which analyzes China’s biggest social media network, reports that when news broke about the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, many users started talking about the “burning of the Chinese Old Summer Palace in Beijing by the Anglo-French army in 1860.” Manya Koetse, the site’s editor-in-chief, assesses the contemporary meaning of the palace’s destruction.
The White House ordered administration officials to skip the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In lieu of attending, Trump will hold a rally in Wisconsin.
Christian Schilcher, a member of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party and deputy mayor of Hitler’s hometown of Braun am Inn, was forced to resignafter distributing a poem he wrote that compares migrants to rats.
Students and parents in Kansas public schools rebelled against the introduction of an online learning platform developed by Facebookengineers and funded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. The platform has students spend most of their day working on laptops with minimal guidance from teachers.
Americans are more stressed out than just about any other national group, according to Gallup’s annual Global Emotions Report. Latin Americans, on the other hand, were found to be extraordinarily upbeat, which some attribute to strong family structures and communities.
In Wired, Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein chronicle the last 15 months of Facebook’s struggle to fix its product and public image. (Facebook disclosed this week that it expects to pay between $3 and $5 billion in fines to the Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations resulting from data breaches and Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook user data.)
In the Verge, Colin Lecher reports that in Amazon warehouses worker productivity is monitored by machines that can then issue warnings or even terminations without input from human supervisors. (Amazon says supervisors can override the system.)
At npr.org, Hanna Rosin argues that America is experiencing a cultural shift away from empathy and suggests a way to reinvigorate our empathetic impulses.
In the New Republic, Thomas Meaney reviews George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, taking aim at the “militant liberal internationalism” of both author and subject.
Cognitive scientist Julian Matthews explains how the nature of human memory makes us susceptible to fake news.
The New York Times investigates the case of a Navy SEAL platoon chief charged with committing heinous acts against civilians and captive insurgents in Iraq. The report details how navy officers stymied attempts by his subordinates to expose the alleged crimes.
Philosopher Thomas Metzinger, a member of the expert group that developed the European Union’s proposed “Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI,” subjects the guidelines to a fairly scathing review.
Here’s a viral video of a chimp that is very good at using Instagram.
The Chinese government is using software that infers people’s ethnicityfrom their facial features and skin tone as part of an effort to track and profile the 11 million Uighurs living in China, the New York Times reports.
Vincent Horn, founder of Buddhist Geeks, offers six different ways to meditate, drawing on Buddhist tradition and secular practices.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
MRN reader Dena told us about AllSides, a website that presents the news from diverse ideological perspectives. The kind of collective balance AllSides strives for is famously hard to achieve; some people would even say true balance is impossible in principle. Feel free to email us and let us know what you think of AllSides’s effort (or what you think about anything else): email@example.com. AllSides also aims to promote civil discourse—and speaking of which: Glenn Loury of Bloggingheads fame recently spoke with John Wood Jr. of Better Angels, which promotes dialogue between people of contrasting views.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart, Mark Sussman,
Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith
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