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

January 17, 2019

The Solution: A Trump-Pelosi Duel


By David K. Shipler

                If you’ve seen the musical Hamilton or read the book by Ron Chernow, you might have gained some appreciation of dueling, not so much as a method of ritualized murder but as a conflict-resolution device. Of course Alexander Hamilton was shot to death by Aaron Burr, which is always a risk in political confrontations, at least metaphorically. Yet it didn’t have to end that way. It could have been played more deftly to regain and preserve honor for both parties.
                Perhaps that’s the answer for President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as my friend Steve Weisman impishly suggested over lunch in Washington this week. Trump is stubborn, and Pelosi’s scrappy, and they’ve wrapped themselves in their egos as some 800,000 Americans, unpaid during the government shutdown, discover the pitfalls of working for Uncle Sam.
                In Hamilton’s age, Chernow writes, duels following insults were “de rigueur” among those “who identified with America’s social elite.” To restore dignity, demonstrate courage, and avoid being marked as cowardly, rising to the challenge was unavoidable. However, “duelists did not automatically try to kill their opponents,” Chernow explains. “The mere threat of gunplay concentrated the minds of antagonists, forcing them and their seconds into extensive negotiations that often ended with apologies instead of bullets.”
                If things went too far and you faced off with pistols, you could “throw away your shot,” that is, aim wildly to avoid inflicting a mortal wound. There’s evidence that Hamilton did just that in his duel with Burr. But the youthful Hamilton of years earlier, alight with revolutionary fervor, sings at the outset of the musical, “I will not throw away my shot!” That’s about both him and his cause. It’s enough to stir the patriotic heart of any American audience, even in our dispiriting time.
 Trump and Pelosi are already dueling with words and actions, so far to a draw. Pelosi is demonstrating why congressional Democrats admire her as wickedly clever. She passes bills to reopen government without taxpayers’ funds for Trump’s wasteful border wall, which he said Mexico would pay for. She needles him with barbed rhetoric, noting that as a mother and grandmother she recognizes a temper tantrum when she sees one.  She tells him to delay his State of the Union address to Congress or submit it in writing as long as the shutdown continues, thereby threatening to deny him the television platform he craves. And he retaliates by denying her military transport to Afghanistan. And so on.
Pelosi’s still not very good at explaining Democrats’ policy positions to the public. The high road would be a detailed Democratic plan, with budget lines, to strengthen border security, absent a wall. And most Americans polled still dislike her after years of caricatures drawn by Republican propaganda. However, if her audience right now is Trump alone, she is hitting close to the target. While he blusters, fumes, and bullies, she aims with more precision. Surely he would never throw away his shot, but he also can’t shoot straight.
In Hamilton’s day, dueling was illegal in New York but not in New Jersey. (“Everything is legal in New Jersey,” says a line in the musical.) So Hamilton, Burr, and their seconds crossed the Hudson to Weekawken. Could Trump get away with it today? Remember that he once bragged, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose votes.” If the NYPD wouldn’t stop traffic for a duel on 5th Avenue, how about Florida with its stand-your-ground law? Trump’s approval rating might jump if he hit his mark, and if Pelosi won, she’d have Florida law on her side in a credible claim of self-defense.
Would Trump have the guts to take up the pistol? Bullies, as all of us who were ever children understand, prey on the weaker. Pelosi is not weaker.
As the ritual of the duel often forced negotiation, albeit in a dangerous way, it acknowledged the human need for dignity, which in most conflicts occupies a more significant place than is usually recognized. Imagine if Trump and Pelosi got down to business and negotiated over a table set with respect for each other’s dignity.
Or, they could duel in the Rose Garden with water guns. Then we could all laugh at them through our tears.

January 10, 2019

Trump's Foreign Policy Vacuum


By David K. Shipler
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
                                                                                                                   --The Wizard of Oz

            Watching the United States on the world stage today is like suffering from double vision. President Donald Trump strides, postures, and dramatically decrees. Then his subordinates stay approximately where they were before.
Trump credits Vladimir Putin’s denials that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and then the Justice Department indicts a bunch of Russians for doing precisely that. Trump announces a sudden withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria, and then his national security adviser, John Bolton, says they’re staying there to fight ISIS and defend our Kurdish allies.
It’s not that Trump has no influence over his own foreign policy. It’s that he has no policy. He has only impulses and whims—not all of which are necessarily bad. But since he detests veteran professionals who have been working on these problems for decades, and since he has let Bolton strip the National Security Council bare, Trump’s tweets are unsupported by any process of deliberation or execution that might actually translate into action on the ground.
Although the president is excoriated for this incompetence, it could someday save us from an impetuous war that he thinks up after watching Sean Hannity. Inertia, the tendency of a body to continue traveling at the same speed in the same direction, is fundamental in government. Whether you’re a right-wing conspiracy theorist who calls it the “deep state,” or a center-to-left citizen who laments the paucity of “adults in the room,” your nation’s well-being these days is protected by the difficulty of turning the ship of state on a dime, as Trump repeatedly tries to do.
It would be interesting to know—and in some future year we might find out—whether the generals and admirals have developed a secret method of resistance to this demented commander-in-chief’s rash orders. There have been reports of their slow-walking certain commands that can be bogged down in logistics and bureaucracy. But what if Trump wakes up early one morning, gets incensed by something on Fox and Friends, and calls in the officer with the nuclear football to obliterate a country that has ticked him off? Is there any subversive understanding in the military about how to defy such an order? If so, would it be treason? Probably, but it might also save the country.

January 3, 2019

Looking for a Political Sweet Spot


By David K. Shipler

                The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is faced with a tricky feat of navigation. It must appeal to the upsurge of national outrage against President Trump from the left while steering a course that will also attract the respect of moderate Americans near the center. And to do that, its committees that draft bills and conduct investigations will need to find an elusive sweet spot where liberal principles meet pragmatic governance—with broad appeal.
                It goes without saying that the behavior of the House Democrats will set the stage for the 2020 presidential election. Trump will vilify them no matter what, but if they give him ammunition by flying off into fits of extreme rhetoric and blizzards of subpoenas, they run the risk of appearing politically vindictive and irresponsible. If such accusations stick, they will stain whatever Democratic candidate emerges as the party’s nominee.
Therefore, every argument and assertion has to be well-phrased and factually unassailable. Every subpoena—and there should be many—has to be carefully supported by legitimate grounds for investigative necessity. No flamboyant grand-standing, no smear campaigns, no positions too radical to woo back independent Trump voters are likely to work.
                Furthermore, whatever positions and policies the Democrats adopt need to be explained and justified better than Nancy Pelosi is usually able to do. She’s an accomplished fund-raiser and herder of the cats in her caucus, and she can get legislation passed. But let’s face it, she’s not a great messenger on broadcast news, the unfortunate test these days of a successful politician. Too often she can’t put a persuasive sentence together. Either she has to practice her lines or let a more articulate Democrat do the talking.
                Liberals are feeling too heady after the mid-terms, with voters having elected Native Americans, Muslims, and record-breaking numbers of women. It’s reasonable to think that the tide has begun turning against a Republican Party bent on dismantling much of the good that government does for the people. But the operative word is “begun,” for this is not a revolution so much as a stirring, perhaps the prelude to a sea change that might mature eventually into a dramatic expulsion from power of the pro-rich, anti-minority misogynists who have diminished America.

December 6, 2018

America Without Heroes


By David K. Shipler

                There is a vacuum in America. Where leaders of virtue should reside, citizens find only a void, which echoes with yearning.
                So we have to invent heroes, and we rely on myth-making. These days, whenever a decent Republican dies, bringing that endangered species nearer to extinction, the firmament is flooded with rhapsodies of adoration: first, John McCain, now George H.W. Bush, their reputations amplified as counterpoints to Donald Trump. As the outpouring for Bush has shown this week, we love them more after they’re gone. They are never as pure in life as in death.
The hunger for heroes is one reason for Trump’s popularity among a core of supporters whose cheers cannot be dampened by his insults, his lies, his corruption, his racism, his misogyny, his impulsiveness, his ignorance, his hatreds, or his damage to the prized institutions of democracy. We are a needy people, and a large minority of us, it turns out, are excited by a large, brash personality who crashes through convention and waves his fist in the faces of more than half of his compatriots, plus most of the globe.
This infatuation with Trump’s autocratic bullying reveals a deep fault in American society. Coming when the country faces neither war, depression, rising crime, nor widespread terrorism, the readiness to be afraid is remarkable. Bedraggled families seeking refuge are “invaders.” Democrats threaten “mob rule.” Whites and men are victims. The world’s biggest economy is at the mercy of foreign countries. Imagine if the United States confronted actual risk, how vulnerable we would be to demagoguery—which can be a real danger in itself.
The search for heroes, then, can imperil security. It can let loose toxic impulses. It can undermine the constitutional system, which regards traditional institutions and venerable procedures, not individuals, as the protectors of the country’s freedoms. It can flit from one character to another, conferring Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame on the person of the moment.

November 5, 2018

How Self-Correcting Are We?


By David K. Shipler

                A measure of a country’s health is its capacity for self-correction. The same holds true of an institution, even of an individual. The test is what happens when behavior departs from a course that is moral, legal, decent, and humane; when it sacrifices long-term vision for instant gratification; indulges in fear and fantasy; abandons truth; oppresses the weak; and promotes cruelty and corruption. The election tomorrow is a test.
                An open, pluralistic democracy can reform itself, and the United States has a long history of moral violations followed by corrections--or, at least, a degree of regret. The colonies’ and states’ persecution of religious minorities led to the First Amendment’s provision separating church and state. The atrocities against Native Americans led eventually to more honest teaching of history, although not the compensations for stolen land and destroyed cultures that the victims deserved. The scourge of slavery led to its abolition by the Thirteenth Amendment, the Civil War to a stronger (if imperfect) union, the Jim Crow segregationist laws to an uplifting civil rights movement and a wave of anti-discrimination measures by Congress and the courts.
The denial of women’s suffrage was reversed by the Nineteenth Amendment. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was ruled unconstitutional, albeit too late for the prisoners. The character assassinations by Senator Joseph McCarthy of imagined communists, ruining careers and lives, were ultimately repudiated as repugnant and, in themselves, un-American. The illicit FBI and CIA spying on antiwar and other dissident groups led to a series of federal statutes regulating domestic surveillance, although those laws were watered down after 9/11. And most recently, the society’s broad distaste for homosexuality was revised into broad acceptance, including a Supreme Court decision overturning laws against gay marriage.
These and many other issues demonstrate that progress does not move in a straight line. The correction is never quite complete, and there is backsliding. While blacks in the South were once denied the vote by means of poll taxes and literacy tests, Republicans have now employed other means to the same end, purging registration rolls, for example, moving and reducing polling places in minority areas, and discarding registration forms on the basis of flimsy inconsistencies.
But in the long run, when this democracy damages its own interests and others’ well-being, it experiences something of a gravitational pull toward the more solid ground of social justice. That happened in the civil rights movement when the brutality of the segregationists, unleashing dogs, cops, and thugs to attack nonviolent demonstrators, became ugly enough to mobilize the conscience of the country. What will it take to mobilize the conscience today?

October 30, 2018

The Demons Within


By David K. Shipler

                On a December evening twenty-some years ago, Fern Amper, a Jewish resident of Teaneck, NJ, made a startling statement to a small group of Jews and African-Americans who gathered at her home periodically to discuss the issues of race, privilege, and bigotry. When the Jews spoke of anti-Semitism, the blacks mostly minimized it, preferring to see themselves as the country’s primary victims of prejudice and picturing Jews—who were white, after all—as comfortably powerful.
So, to make her point about Jews’ vulnerability, Amper claimed that they were always poised to flee. “I would venture to say that there’s no Jew sitting in here—and I’ve never spoken to you about this—who does not have an up-to-date passport for yourself and your kids in your desk drawer,” she declared. “Tell me if that’s true.”
“It’s true,” one said. “Absolutely,” said another. “Absolutely,” said all the Jews in the room.
The blacks were flabbergasted. “Why? Why?” asked Ray Kelly, an African-American. “Are you really serious with this paranoia?” A moment of silence followed, then a couple of voices said, “Yes.”
If the scent of perpetual danger seemed exaggerated in the 1990s, it seems more warranted in the era of Donald Trump’s winks and nods to the neo-Nazis and white supremacists among us. It is no coincidence that since his election, anti-Semitic attacks, both physical and verbal, have soared, culminating in the mass murder of 11 Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue last Saturday.
 As president, Trump has created an environment favorable to the undercurrent of anti-Semitism that American society has long harbored. It has surfaced dramatically since his election in 2016. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, counted a rise in the number of neo-Nazi organizations from 99 to 121 between 2016 and 2017. Murders by white supremacists have doubled, and the Anti-Defamation League reports “a 258% increase in the number of white supremacist propaganda incidents on college campuses.”
In addition, the ADL found that a 57% jump during 2017 in anti-Semitic incidents, defined as harassment, vandalism, and assault, was the largest one-year increase since the organization started keeping tallies in 1979. “Schools, from kindergarten through to high school, were the most common locations of anti-Semitic incidents,” the ADL reported. Jewish journalists and critics of Trump have been flooded with online threats, anti-Semitic portrayals, and disinformation, according to a voluminous study by the ADL.

October 20, 2018

Human Rights Hypocrisy


By David K. Shipler

                Hypocrisy is a cardinal feature of foreign policy, and it wasn’t invented by Donald Trump. Saying one thing and doing another, or doing different things simultaneously, or saying contradictory things about the same situation are venerable traditions in diplomacy, and no more dramatically than in the area of human rights.
                Most countries skate along easily in this slippery practice, but the United States sometimes bumps up against its inconvenient national myth: that America is the beacon of democracy, the shining city on a hill, the bastion of freedom, the model of liberty—and promotes the same the world around.  When the collision between idealism and realism occurs, American policy toward whatever country is committing egregious violations either hits a wall and retreats, or it finds a pragmatic detour around the obstacle to continue on its way, rationalized by national security and commercial interests.
                The second route, returning soon to business as usual, seems likely to be taken by Washington in the case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for the Washington Post who had exiled himself in the US to write critically of Saudi Arabia’s anti-democracy. As Trump has pointed out in various contorted statements, the US has a strong stake in close relations with the kingdom. He appears willing to stand up against the clamor of bipartisan outrage over the gruesome spectacle, as portrayed by Turkish authorities, of Khashoggi’s torture and dismemberment inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and the widespread skepticism about the official Saudi claim that he was killed during a fistfight.
Perhaps if the Saudis had used Israel’s technique against terrorists—a precisely placed bomb or a drive-by shooting—the reaction would have been muted. It has certainly been muted over broader transgressions by Saudi Arabia, such as its lack of a free press, its intolerance of dissenting political speech, and its ongoing carnage of civilians during the war in Yemen. No administration, whether Democratic or Republican, has seen fit to sever the ties of accommodation. America’s supposed passion for human rights has been overcome by several considerations.

October 10, 2018

The Names of Lobster Boats

By David K. Shipler

       The men and women who go out on the water in Maine before dawn to haul lobster traps come up with some inspired names for their boats. Many call them after their children or spouses. Others have painted on their hulls the fragments of life that speak to them: the anxious hope for a good catch, the sassy wit that brushes off danger, the reverence for divine force, the flinty swagger of independence, the poetry of the sea. In sailing the coast of Maine the past few months, I collected names, and put them here into something of the rhythm of the winds and tides. (There really was an up arrow beside the final name, seen near Jordan Island in Blue Hill Bay.)

                                                Kyle Thomas, Buggin’ Out,
                                                Seanior Moment, Get It Done,
                                                Wildest Dreams, Final Round,
                                                Karma, Twilight, Sea Chimes

                                                Autumn Dawn Faith,
                                                Family Tradition,
                                                Illusion, The Gambler,
Never Enough, Learning Curve

October 3, 2018

The Politics of Hate


By David K. Shipler
Making America Cruel Again, Part 4 of an Occasional Series

                Donald Trump might not drink alcohol, but he is fueled by another addiction, probably more dangerous: the roar of the crowd. After every brief period of detox in Washington, surrounded by sober aides and Congressional Republicans who try to contain his craving, he needs his fix. So he breaks loose and explodes into a rally of avid worshippers in a carefully picked niche of the country where his cult of personality thrives on loathing the rest of America. They adore him feverishly, wrote the columnist Richard Cohen, because “he hates the right people.”
                Legitimizing political hatred predated Trump, fostered by such propagandists as Rush Limbaugh, who for years has been vilifying liberals, Democrats, blacks, immigrants, the “drive-by” media, and “feminazis” who advocate for women’s rights. Limbaugh’s name-calling has caught on with enough conservatives to make its way into the White House and now prospectively to the Supreme Court if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed. Accused of sexual assault as a teenager, Kavanaugh showed more judicial temper than temperament by attacking Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee and raging against an imagined conspiracy of “the left” on behalf of the Clintons. Trump loved it.  
    Whatever it is that Trumpist conservatives want to conserve, it’s obviously not the civil discourse that has lubricated the machinery of American democracy.

September 25, 2018

He Said, They Said


By David K. Shipler

                We Americans are swimming in lies—lies from an entire advertising industry, lies from the top of our government on down, lies from the grassroots of hateful partisans, lies from such august institutions as the Catholic Church, lies from Fox News and other purveyors of propaganda. And on, and on, and on.
This Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will treat us to another gargantuan lie: the deception that we are seeing a truth-seeking process because Professor Christine Blasey Ford will be heard accusing Judge Brett Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her when she was 15. In reality, however, virtually all the members of the committee, both Republicans and Democrats, have already decided the case. The minority Democrats will credit her account, and the majority Republicans will not. She is on trial, as are most women who finally gather the courage and self-esteem to speak out about their abuse at the hands of prominent men.
And this will be something of a show trial, with a Republican-hired lawyer—a woman, of course, for the sake of “optics”—appointed to question her, to poke holes in her story, perhaps to rattle her enough to make her come across on national television as incoherent, confused, and unreliable. There is no hint in the Republican-led committee of any interest in getting to the bottom of the allegation. If there were, the FBI or a committee-organized, impartial investigatory staff armed with subpoenas would have been assigned to the matter. And the one alleged witness, Mark Judge, would be forced to testify under oath.
The Republicans’ refusal to call Judge pulls back the curtain on the farcical charade. They are obviously afraid that Judge, who Ford says was present when Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, ground his body against her, covered her mouth when she screamed, and tried to remove her clothes, might suddenly remember the incident in sworn testimony. There’s nothing like the threat of a perjury charge to focus your mind.
But this is political theater, practically devoid of due process. A methodical and intellectually honest effort to muster the facts and arrive at a conclusion is not legally required in the Senate as it is in criminal court. And so it will not be pursued, because it might interfere with Republicans’ steamrolling campaign to politicize the Supreme Court in their image.