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In this week’s MRN we dissect the Republicans’ “angry Democratic mob” meme and ask whether Democrats are mindlessly abetting it. Also: Netflix addiction (seriously); an apparent Saudi hit job and its consequences; some tribalism-transcending News You Can Use; and the usual zillions of background links—all preceded by our telegraphic summary of the week’s big news.
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Saudi hit job alleged: Turkey alleged that Jamal Khashoggi, a missing Saudi journalist and US resident who had criticized Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was murdered by Saudi operatives in Istanbul. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demanded an investigation into whether Saudi Arabia should be hit with Magnitsky Act sanctions, and Trump rejected calls to suspend arms sales to the Gulf ally.
Two blows against the death penalty: Malaysia’s executive cabinet moved to abolish the death penalty, putting 1,200 executions on hold. The Washington State Supreme Court struck down capital punishment on grounds that death sentences had been “imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”
Tunnel vision: FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed that his bureau’s investigation into allegations against Brett Kavanaugh was limited in scope by the White House, contradicting Trump’s claim that the FBI was free to interview anyone it chose.
Global warning: The UN issued a report that predicts dire effects from climate
change as soon as 2040 and says that averting catastrophe will require transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent.”
Don’t be evil: Google pulled out of competition for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing contract in the wake of employee backlash.
Bigger pharma: The Justice Department approved a $69 billion merger between health insurer Aetna and drugstore chain CVS. The consequences will be either wonderful or horrible, or maybe somewhere in between.
Authoritarianism down south: Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist who built support through social media, won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election with 46% of the vote. He’ll face the leftist Workers’ Party candidate in a runoff on October 28.
Car trouble: Ford Motor Company’s stock dropped to its lowest level since 2012 amid reports that Trump’s steel tariffs will cost the company over $1 billion in the coming year.
Hurricane Michael: One of the most powerful storms ever to hit the US leftat least 18 Americans dead and claimed at least 13 lives in Central America and the Caribbean.
First note from Bob: Notes From Bob is the section formerly known as the Bob-O-Sphere, a title that all non-Bob-members of the MRN staff initially disliked but, over time, and upon further reflection, came to dislike even more deeply. So that title has been placed on indefinite suspension, though its return can’t be ruled out. Meanwhile, if readers have nominees for a new name, they can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if, as seems more likely, they have feedback about some more important aspect of the newsletter, they can use that same address. I read every email and take all the complimentary ones very, very seriously.
Uncivil war: President Trump said this week that Democrats are practicing the “politics of anger, division, and destruction.” Democrats who ponder the irony of an accusation like this coming from Donald Trump—the Mozart of anger, division, and destruction—may feel indignation, even anger, well up within. Which would delight Trump! According to the Washington Post, Republicans have more or less officially settled on “Democrats are an angry mob” as a central theme of the midterm elections campaign. So the angrier Democrats look, the better.
The angry-mob theme seems to have gotten off the ground at the Kavanaugh hearings, where Orrin Hatch perceived a “paid mob” and Charles Grassley worried about “mob rule.” Variants on the theme now include “a liberal mob” (GOP Rep. David Brat), a “radical mob” (Trump), an “angry left-wing mob” (Trump again), and so on.
This week Democratic party elites generously provided raw material for the Republicans’ mob-meme machine. Eric Holder, attorney general in the Obama administration, explicitly rejected Michelle Obama’s dictum that “When they go low, we go high” and said to an approving crowd, “When they go low, we kick them.” GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, sensing an opportunity, compiled uncivil-sounding things said by Hillary Clinton, Corey Booker, and Maxine Waters, and tweeted, “Now Eric Holder wants the mob even angrier.” Eleven thousand retweets and counting.
It doesn’t matter that Holder had added that he wasn’t advocating anything illegal or inappropriate. And it doesn’t matter exactly what Corey Booker meant when he encouraged Democrats to “get up in the face of some congresspeople” or what Hillary Clinton meant when she said, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.” In a polarized country with a segregated media landscape, the opposing side is rarely going to get a fair and balanced presentation of your views, complete with context. If you give them a single sentence that works as red meat, that’s what they’ll hear, period.
I doubt that Booker, Holder, or Clinton are horrified at being vilified. The comments that got them vilified by the enemy tribe got them celebrated by their own tribe. In fact, in polarized times, getting vilified by the enemy tribe will itself get you celebrated by your tribe. And all of this is especially valuable if you’re running for president—something that at least two of those three are almost certainly pondering. As for the possibility that this publicity, while marginally increasing your chances of becoming president, will reduce the chances of your party’s prevailing in congressional races—well, you can’t have everything!
Of course, there’s an argument that this kind of publicity will help the Democrats’ chances in congressional races; maybe firebreathing Democratic rhetoric will do more revving up of Democrats than of Republicans. Well, maybe. But Heidi Heitkamp, the North Dakota Democrat who faces an uphill battle to retain her Senate seat, doesn’t seem to think so. She called Clinton’s comments about civility “ridiculous,” and added, “I can’t imagine how you get anything done if you don’t bring civility back into politics, and that goes for both sides.”
Shortly after Trump’s election, Andrés Miguel Rondón, an economist who lived in Venezuela during the reign of authoritarian populist Hugo Chavez, wrote that the kind of populism that sustains a Chavez or a Trump, “can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon.”
Personally, I’d argue that we not cooperate with Trump, but when I express that opinion on Twitter, the response I get—a few murmurs of approval, punctuated by questions about my manhood—suggest that I may be in the minority.
Khashoggi and Consequences: Stalin said, or at least is said to have said, “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” That adage got a kind of support this week. The apparent murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government operatives led lots of influential US Senators to seek a vote that would block future arms sales to Saudi Arabia, thus distancing the US from the brutal Saudi war on Yemen. If such a measure passes, Khashoggi’s death will have accomplished something that piles and piles of dead Yemenis have over the past several years failed to accomplish.
That’s not surprising. Khashoggi was so well known among Western elites, and the evolving details of his disappearance were so darkly enthralling, that attention was bound to be paid. Only rarely—when, say, the Saudis accidentally bombed a Yemeni wedding—did the deaths of Yemenis have nearly as much narrative power, and even then the power was fleeting.
Ideally, of course, it wouldn’t take murdered journalists or bombed weddings to spur a reckoning with America’s complicity in a horrendous war (a complicity that includes not just armaments but logistical aid). But I guess we should take what we can get.
Also in an ideal world, the reckoning would go further: It would question the whole Trump administration narrative that Iran is the most destabilizing and inhumane actor in the region and must be subjected to economic strangulation or whatever more violent means are required for regime change. Among the several reasons Trump’s administration pushes this narrative is that Saudi Arabia—an American ally, an American customer, and a Trump customer—favors it. And why not? This narrative is a great distraction from the fact that Saudi Arabia is, under its current leadership, at least as destabilizing and inhumane as Iran, and probably more so. But, as long as potentates in Saudi Arabia and such Saudi allies as the United Arab Emirates keep pouring money into American think tanks and the coffers of defense contractors, this fact will, in all likelihood, continue to languish in obscurity.
Sardonic tweet of the week: After various companies responded to the Khashoggi story by dropping out of Saudi Arabia’s upcoming “Davos in the Desert,” journalist Jon Schwartz of The Intercept tweeted, “STATEMENT: I am withdrawing from all ventures with the Saudi government until they go back to killing people I’ll never meet at a party.”
Rehab for Netflix addiction: Seriously, that’s now a thing. The newspaper The Hindu reports that a 26-year-old man who was binge-watching for more than seven hours a day is being treated in a clinic at India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience.
I shouldn’t be surprised. I remember the feeling of sitting in my office, watching episodes of Breaking Bad alone (mercenary meth dealers aren’t my wife’s cup of tea), and, at the end of each episode, wanting deeply, almost desperately, to watch another episode. It was a feeling of actual craving (what the Buddha called tanha, which he said lies at the root of human suffering)—not wholly different from the yearning a meth addict might feel.
Fortunately, I had so much work to do that I couldn’t afford to pipe video into my brain seven hours a day. But this Indian man, according to The Hindu, was unemployed and “turned to Netflix to shut out reality for more than six months.” There but for the grace of God go I. And, given the number of corporations—Netflix, Facebook, etc.,—that are devoted to getting us addicted to things, there will go more of us.
You could make the case that, in the current political environment, Netflix addiction is healthier than Facebook or Twitter addiction. At least it doesn’t leave you in a state of tribalistic loathing. But if we all disengaged from the political world, rather than trying to engage it mindfully, we’d be doing nothing to improve it.
Maybe modest doses of Netflix could keep Facebook and Twitter from getting out of hand—and vice versa. Buddhist texts are constantly being reinterpreted in contemporary terms, so how about this: When the Buddha talked about “the middle path,” what he had in mind was striking a healthy balance between streaming video and social media. OK, maybe not. Still, you might try it.
The AP’s Jon Gambrell analyzes the “darker side” of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has charmed western elites but is now widely suspected of being behind the abduction or murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Glenn Greenwald, who lives in Brazil, says that right-wing presidential contender Jair Bolsonaro is closer in temperament and ideology to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte than to Trump.
The New York Times reports on right-wing webpages that are peddling dubious news stories on Facebook, despite the social network’s efforts to crack down on disinformation campaigns.
Writing in The Intercept, Eoin Higgins argues that Obama’s reluctance to thoroughly investigate the Bush administration’s use of torture and wiretapping paved the way for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
A Politico poll suggests that the Kavanaugh confirmation energized Democratic voters more than Republican ones, and that more voters oppose the confirmation than support it.
The National Park Service wants to cut by 80% the amount of sidewalk space designated for protests in front of the White House and is considering charging demonstrators on the National Mall for things like “harm to turf.” The ACLU has threatened to sue.
Due to political tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is expected to become independent from the Moscow Patriarchate this week, ending a three-century-old arrangement.
A New York Times piece examines whether Amy McGrath, the Democratic challenger in a heated House race in Kentucky, can win despite refusing to run negative campaign ads.
An AP investigation revealed that 53,000 Georgia voters, 70% of whom are African American, have had their voter registrations suspended because of a recent law requiring names on voter rolls to exactly match DMV or Social Security records. Georgia’s voter rolls are maintained by Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is the GOP candidate for governor. The Georgia NAACP is preparing a lawsuit. In other voting rights news, a judge in Missouri ruled that a photo ID can’t be required for voting, while a court in North Dakota ruled that it can be—a ruling that Native American activists say will disqualify many who live on reservations.
In the Atlantic, conservative Reihan Salam uses the occasion of Taylor Swift’s dive into politics—the traditionally non-partisan singer this week urged followers to vote Democratic—to reflect on the thesis that the left holds “cultural power” while the right holds “political power” (and to also reflect on the phenomenon of “competitive wokeness”).
In a speech titled “How the United States Created Vladimir Putin,” Russian-American journalist Vladimir Pozner analyzes the impact of US foreign policy on Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
In Jacobin, Meagan Day assesses the “new internationalist vision” that Bernie Sanders laid out this week in a speech called “Building a Global Democratic Movement to Counter Authoritarianism.”
A new study uses survey questions to divide Americans into seven political tribes.
In an Atlantic piece on “compassion collapse,” Jamil Zaki explores why “people tend to care more about the suffering of single individuals, and less about the pain of many people.”
A Washington Post piece argues that Trump’s decision to pull out of the TPP trade deal, one of his first official moves as president, had the unintended effect of enabling Vietnam’s Communist government to crack down on nascent political and economic freedoms.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
Want to add some ideological balance to your news consumption? AllSides is a crowd-driven service designed to help you burst your filter bubble. It lets you browse the news by event or topic and see curated highlights of opinions from left, right, and center.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart,
Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh
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