Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 5, 2016

Foreign Policy: Jazz or Football?

By David K. Shipler

            American football is a convenient metaphor, and it’s sure to be overused on this Super Bowl weekend. But what if we turn it around and recognize that our foreign policy is actually the metaphor—a metaphor for football, and that our trick tactics and testosterone-driven plays internationally are often modeled on what works in the National Football League?
             The decision this week to ramp up US military deployment in Europe, like putting more muscle on the line, is designed to cow Vladimir Putin’s “aggression,” to use the word that is kicked around casually by the Pentagon. It seems logical if you think you’re in a game to win by defeating the opponent rather than finding victory on common ground. The real world of foreign affairs is rarely a zero-sum game, however, and there’s never a final whistle.
 The American-Russian face-off is full of football-style moves that look tough but have had the perverse effect of strengthening the hand of the other side. Expanding NATO, which commits the United States to go to war to defend any of its members, has alarmed Moscow as the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have joined the alliance, along with Eastern European countries once in the Soviet sphere of influence. Russia’s reaction has been the opposite of what’s good for the West.
NATO’s forward military posture appears threatening from Moscow’s perspective, and Putin has behaved more as an offensive coordinator than a sophisticated head of state. Building up his own armed forces, annexing Crimea, and taking over eastern Ukraine to prevent its slipping into Western Europe’s orbit, he in turn provoked Western responses that damaged his interests: economic sanctions, and now a proposed quadrupling of US military expenditures in Europe to include increased deployments, joint exercises, and pre-positioned weaponry. Poland and other East Europeans want American combat troops stationed on their soil.
Deterrence is a workable concept in many situations, and this might turn out to be one of them. But a sense of insecurity is also a powerful incentive to make self-defeating decisions, as Israel has done in its conflict with the Palestinians, and as Republican candidates for president are advocating today. Their tough-guy trash talk, suitable for beefy linemen on the gridiron, is so much hot air in the international arena, where brute force has proved ineffective in the complex warfare that has erupted since World War II.
To be fair, Barack Obama and John Kerry have often played like deft quarterbacks who know how to slide out of the pocket and find the receiver, and even ditch the passing play to run when the meaty heavyweights open a hole up front. For all the criticisms of Obama over Syria, he deserves credit for knowing when to hang back instead of rushing with armed force into a melee, as he is being pressed to do now in Libya. Kerry conducted the Iran nuclear talks with finesse. This is a reminder that even if you can’t put a clear number up on the scoreboard, you can play judiciously to protect your interests.
To the crowds who roar approval of Donald Trump’s primal, empty pledges to bludgeon the world into compliance, foreign affairs might seem susceptible to the quick, rough tackles and blocks that millions of Americans will relish this Sunday. It would be really satisfying to see how 11 of those ISIS guys, disarmed, would do against the crushing Carolina line. But international problems have a way of spilling beyond the neatly delineated 100-yard rectangle where rules and replays prevail.
 If foreign policy used another model, suggested by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State, things might go better. She likened diplomacy to jazz, with all its creative improvisation around central themes. She drew the analogy in 2012 in presenting an award given posthumously by Search for Common Ground to Chris Stevens, the American ambassador killed in Benghazi, Libya. He played the saxophone, she noted, which she knew something about, being married to another guy who doodled around on the instrument.
Listening to her unscripted, admiring speech about a diplomat she counted as a friend, it was hard to accept the Republicans’ propaganda line about her supposed callousness to that event. Stevens, she said, was an inventive diplomat who played by ear in working in close touch with the country to which he was assigned. Her brief talk had the powerful beauty of a heartfelt tribute to the man and his honorable dedication to the profession of advancing American interests without resorting to force of arms.

In a jazz piece, nobody wins and nobody loses. Success depends on intricate interactions, symbiotic runs of phrases and melodies. It’s more like the real world than football is.

February 2, 2016

The American Myth of "Who We Are"

By David K. Shipler

            All countries need myths, especially if they’re at least a little bit true. They inspire imagination, set high standards, and foster hope. The American Dream is such a myth, for it challenges the society to make real the principle that anyone who works hard can prosper. American democracy is partly mythological in an age of voter suppression and billionaire campaign funding.
President Obama has summoned up another myth—one about American character—by often declaring that this or that bigoted, inhumane, self-destructive policy is “not who we are.” That’s partly correct, but only partly. The notion of a people inherently devoted to inclusive, rational decency is a beautiful myth being sullied daily by the leading Republican presidential candidates and now, as seen in the Iowa results, by their supporters. If they are “who we are,” then we have some work to do on truth-telling, cooperative problem-solving, and respect for the country’s religious and ethnic diversity.

January 20, 2016

Obama and Race

By David K. Shipler

             On Monday’s holiday, Barack and Michelle Obama visited an elementary school in Washington, DC, filled backpacks with books for kids, helped make planters for the school’s vegetable garden, and celebrated the service of AmeriCorps mentors. But Martin Luther King Jr. Day passed with no speech by the first African-American president about race in America. Nor, in his final State of the Union address last week, did Obama include a discussion of the state of race relations, despite the strains and fault lines that have grown more visible in recent years.
            On matters of race, he has not used his bully pulpit very well. Not that he’s ignored the topic: Very occasionally over his two terms, he’s offered some of the most eloquent and insightful commentary heard from any president, usually at a ceremonial or tragic moment. He has initiated a series of concrete policies aimed at improving the lot of minorities, including a task force on policing that might help counter bias in uniform.
But what he has not done, for whatever reasons, is spark and guide the kind of ongoing, searching introspection that the country needs. This is a loss for all of us.
            Bill Clinton, a president whose acute sensibilities were shaped by his upbringing as a white kid in Arkansas during the Civil Rights Movement, organized a national conversation on race during his second term.

January 12, 2016

Labor: A Free Market or a Rigged Market?

By David K. Shipler

Imagine working hard for a big company, say, Walmart, and feeling that your paycheck should be higher. Imagine going to the store manager and asking for a raise. Imagine him saying no—well, you don’t have to imagine that, because that’s the way it will surely be if you’re all alone. But now imagine that all your colleagues, all the cashiers and stockroom workers and salespeople go together to the manager and ask for a raise. Will he take notice? You bet. And if he doesn’t, watch what happens if you and your co-workers threaten to strike.
That’s the simplified sketch of what collective bargaining is about. It is what labor unions do—unions that have become an endangered species in the private American economy, where only 6.6 percent of workers are members, according to the Labor Department’s latest figures, from 2014.
That means that the vast majority of employees, with the exception of highly skilled professionals who are valued enough to negotiate their terms, cannot influence their wages, vacations, pensions, health insurance, or job security. A larger minority of government employees are unionized—35.7 percent at last count, mostly police officers, firefighters, and teachers—but that figure is dropping too, and will probably get another downward kick by the Supreme Court, if the conservative justices rule as they indicated during a hearing this week.
The United States, then, is likely to become an economy with virtually no labor unions if the trends of recent decades persist. About one-third of American workers were union members fifty years ago, and just over one-tenth are today. What are the implications?

January 8, 2016

Books, Parents, Schools, and Hidden Defeats

By David K. Shipler

            About a year ago, a mother in a wealthy suburb of Dallas filed a formal complaint against the use of my book The Working Poor: Invisible in America in advanced placement English classes at Highland Park High School. A review committee was formed, but she thought its membership was stacked against her and so withdrew her challenge. That was the end of the story.
            Or was it? Not quite. Six of Highland Park’s eighteen English teachers resigned at the end of the year, mostly because of the controversy, which involved seven books altogether and had brought “panic attacks, meltdowns, or outbursts of volcanic anger,” one told me. Going forward, teachers were required to write long rationales justifying the readings they wished to assign, which were then submitted to panels of community residents. Only the principled, daring, and resolute could resist the temptation of “soft censorship” as a way of avoiding controversial works by not choosing them in the first place. This must happen invisibly all across the country.
So even victories over those who try to have books removed have unseen costs. The classroom can be invaded by stress, bureaucracy, politicization, and a sense of danger. Education has “become very unsafe,” said Brian Read, an English teacher in Plymouth-Canton, Michigan, whose selections for AP English—Beloved by Toni Morrison and Waterland by Graham Swift—had survived an angry challenge by a small group of conservative parents who hadn’t read them.

December 28, 2015

At Year's End, Bits of Good News

By David K. Shipler

            Don’t blame the mainstream press, whose job is to focus on conflicts and problems, for the grim picture of a grim world. You can’t cure an issue until you turn it out into the sunlight. But in this season of holidays and reflections and resolutions, a little light on the brighter spots in our better nature might be part of that remedy, not so much to comfort us as to provide models of what could be. So I offer a few here.
             *The Dallas Dinner Table, which organizes dinner conversations at homes and churches about race, has had so many requests by local residents to participate on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 18, that it quickly reached its maximum of 500 and had to close registration early.
            *The fear and bigotry toward Muslims inflamed by Donald Trump, and effectively endorsed by the silence of most other Republican candidates, has provoked rebuttals and statements of support for Muslims from some (though not all) Christian pulpits across the country.
*The bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, wrote of “our love for you, our Muslim neighbors,” and pledged “our commitment to find even more effective ways to protect and defend you from words and actions that assault your safety and well-being. We believe God calls us to resist what is divisive, discriminatory, xenophobic, racist, or violent, and we want you to look to us as allies and friends.”

December 14, 2015

Sequel: A Theatrical Idea Reborn

By David K. Shipler

            One year ago, the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C.—an otherwise estimable institution—summarily fired Ari Roth, its internationally respected artistic director, who over 18 years had built the center’s Theater J into an inventive forum of dramatic ideas. Roth was compelled by his family history and his creative sensibilities to reach across difficult lines of difference. He did not shrink from putting hard issues before Washington audiences, but always with a strain of hopefulness. He did not like leaving people in despair.
            He did not like leaving himself in despair, either, and in less than a year began a new theater company, appropriately named Mosaic, which is now assembling the polished pieces of diverse experiences into a thematic first season of ambitious plays. In a country and a world that is dangerously polarized, he is searching for paths to healing by looking clear-eyed at momentous conflicts and personal sorrows. Fine art does that. Art filtered by politics does not, and that’s where Roth’s expansiveness collided with the JCC’s timidity.
Essentially, Roth infuriated shallow-minded conservatives by staging plays that portrayed Israel as an actual country with real blemishes and impurities, not the cardboard artifice that right-wing, pro-Israel Americans have constructed in their imaginations. He produced playwrights who put history on display and allowed Arab voices to be heard. He did not censor one narrative in favor of another. He did not simplify reality but invited theatergoers to consider its contradictions and ambiguities, in the Middle East and elsewhere. And now, exiled from the Jewish theater, he is making a promising start doing the same thing on a broader landscape.

December 9, 2015

The Next Affirmative Action

By David K. Shipler


            College admissions officers who want racial diversity on campus have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with a conservative Supreme Court that dislikes racial preferences. The next probable step, once the Court decides the case it heard today (Dec. 9), is to shift from race to socioeconomic class as a means to assemble a creative variety of students. This would have pluses and minuses as a substitute for race-based affirmative action, which the Court seems poised to restrict severely or to strike down entirely in the current case, Fisher v. University of Texas.
            Class could be used as a proxy for race and ethnicity, given the overrepresentation of African-American and Latino households at lower income levels in the population as a whole. But the blacks and Latinos admitted to the most selective universities would be very different from those who get in under current racial preferences, large majorities of whom are middle- or upper-class, with only tiny fractions from poor backgrounds.
            “At the top twenty law schools, 89 percent of African Americans and 63 percent of Latinos (and even higher proportions of whites and Asians) come from the top socioeconomic half of the population,” writes Richard D. Kahlenberg, citing a 2011 study, while only 2 percent of all law students in those schools come from the bottom quarter. “Another study finds that the proportion of black students at elite colleges coming from the top quartile of the socioeconomic distribution increased from 29 percent in 1972 to 67 percent in 1992.”

December 5, 2015

Mixing Opinion into News

By David K. Shipler

            The New York Times violated a worthy tradition today by publishing an editorial on its front page, above the fold, in a space previously reserved for facts and analysis, not opinion. It was a mistake, and I’ll bet I’m not the only former or current reporter for the paper who hopes it doesn’t happen again.
            The Times has been one of the last American news organizations to maintain a high wall between news and editorial. This is a peculiarly American practice, unusual even among other democracies. But it has been badly eroded by Fox News especially, which taints much of its reporting with politics. MSNBC, some radio broadcasters, and smaller newspapers have also allowed news coverage to be corrupted by partisan perspectives, while The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and some others still cling to what we denizens of the newsroom used to call, in decades past, “the separation of church and state.”
            Reporters were so zealous about this firewall that the newsroom would rumble with murmurs of discontent when a certain editorial writer, who opined on urban affairs, descended periodically from his exalted perch on the tenth floor of the old Times building to the third-floor newsroom to find out from me and other writers what was actually going on in the street. We talked to him but were careful not to listen to him and to pay no attention to whatever he wrote on the topics we covered.

November 25, 2015

Next Thanksgiving

By David K. Shipler


            Thanksgiving is the best of American holidays. It is either religious or secular, depending on your preference. It is unburdened by materialism and free from jingoistic patriotism. It celebrates neither war nor triumph. It is not a day of mourning or grievance. It does not merely turn a page on the calendar but prompts a turning inward in reflection. The only true indulgence is the elixir of good food, best observed in our closest circles of family and friends.
            Only there, for those of us who have that safe place of intimacy, does giving thanks come easily this year. If we have good health, good love, good friendships—if we have enough money to sustain us comfortably, work that we enjoy, lives that educate us constantly—gratitude flows clearly. Our act of thanksgiving is about the present, and the past that has led to our bounty.
            We cannot give thanks for the larger world. Let us hope that next Thanksgiving we can, at least in some measure. I would wish then to be grateful--
            *for the decency of my fellow Americans, who snuffed out the hateful bigotry and bluster of Donald Trump and his mob of followers, overcoming them at the polls to retain our nation’s purpose and ideals.