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

September 18, 2018

Trump vs. the Palestinians


By David K. Shipler

Making America Cruel Again: Part 3 of an Occasional Series

            The more militant end of the Palestinian spectrum, which has grown in recent years, will surely be delighted by the Trump Administration’s latest deletion of aid. It cuts off $10 million  for peacebuilding programs that have brought together Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem for professional workshops, school visits, and joint projects designed to disarm the arsenal of suspicion and fear.
            These get-togethers have been denounced by Palestinian activists as efforts to “normalize” Israel’s dominance over the West Bank by “showing that everything is okay,” according to Nava Sonnenschein, an Israeli who runs such programs. The “anti-normalization movement” argues that cooperative projects acquiesce to Israeli control of the area and thereby subvert the goal of independent Palestinian statehood.
Some Palestinian participants have been threatened. Several years ago, women journalists on the West Bank were warned that if they joined a workshop for Jewish and Arab female journalists from Israel, they would be expelled from the Palestinian journalists’ union. “Some of them came nevertheless,” Sonnenschein said. “So they risked themselves because they believed it was a way to change the other side.”
Indeed, creating “change agents” is a goal of Sonnenschein’s School for Peace at Neve Shalom, a mixed Arab-Jewish village in the hills between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. When professionals—architects, land-use planners, engineers, environmentalists, physicians, and other influential adults from across the lines—are thrown together on the common ground of their skills and interests, she believes, they return to their own sides with a more open appreciation of the humanity and mutual concerns that can bridge the divide. Some change agents have maintained contacts with those in the other camp.
But in the latest episode of wizardry, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, want to punish Palestinians’ failure to negotiate for some nebulous notion of peace by cutting off programs that promote peaceful connections. The School for Peace and other private organizations have thrived on grants from the United States Agency for International Development, as well as from the European Union. The American funds will now support only projects that exclude Palestinians from the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, although Arab citizens of Israel may participate.
It’s been hard enough to get West Bank residents to the workshops, and virtually impossible for Gaza Palestinians. The stigma of “normalization” weighs on some would-be participants, and permits for Palestinians to enter Israel from the West Bank are hard to get from Israeli authorities, who virtually never issue them to Gaza residents. In addition, Israelis are prohibited by Israeli law from entering Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, or areas of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority. One solution has been to hold workshops in the Jordanian city of Aqaba, but that adds a costly travel expense.
 Scrolling down a list of projects now at risk, called Conflict Management and Mitigation grants, makes you want to weep: empowering Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians—primarily women and girls—to work on cross-border water management in the valley from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea; assisting Israeli and Palestinian almond farmers, date farmers, and olive growers and processors to increase production and develop business relationships; promoting changes in perceptions of children with disabilities; fostering civic involvement among youth and parents to promote peace and religious tolerance in East and West Jerusalem and adjacent West Bank towns; establishing pediatric programs for cancer patients through Catholic Relief Services; training Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to be entrepreneurs; organizing basketball and soccer in joint teams of Israeli and Palestinian youngsters. And on and on. Good stuff, all in the past tense unless other funding can be found.
This is the fourth strike in as many weeks against the Palestinians. First came the Trump Administration’s decision to cut $200 million a year in humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza. Then came the halt in all funding to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which finances schools and provides stipends to residents of Palestinian refugee camps, not only in the West Bank and Gaza but also in Lebanon and Jordan. In the last decade, the US has paid $233 to $400 million a year, about one-fourth of UNRWA’s budget. Whether European and Arab countries will fill the gap remains to be seen.
Third was the elimination of $25 million in annual aid to hospitals in the largely Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem, which could spell the collapse of some medical facilities.
Finally, the anti-peacebuilding decision. All add up to assaults on rank-and-file Palestinians, not leaders, and amount to the imposition of a hardball New York real estate culture on a very different Middle East dynamic. The Trumpist approach of trying to kick the Palestinians toward a deal by working hardships on ordinary folks might be effective in an established democracy where ordinary citizens could vote out leaders who made their lives miserable. Such is not the case in either the West Bank or Gaza.
What will be the effect? Maybe nothing but humiliation and anger, which already exist in abundance. But there are dire predictions, which are a dime a dozen in a region where many of them come true. Expectations are that restiveness and radicalization will increase in the West Bank; that Muslim religious schools will draw students away from the UN’s ill-funded secular schools; that terrorism against Israelis will rise; and that grassroots accommodation to peaceful coexistence, which is vital to any ultimate resolution of the conflict, will fail to grow as the programs of connection dwindle. The cut in UNRWA funding could hurt Hamas in Gaza, where it rules, but help Hamas in the West Bank by undermining the Palestinian Authority led by the more moderate Mahmoud Abbas. 
In any case, the Trump-Kushner approach resembles the prescription heard from an Israeli taxi driver in 1988: “We should go to the Arabs with sticks in hand, and we should beat them on the heads; we should beat them and beat them and beat them, until they stop hating us.”

September 1, 2018

McCain: Mourning Decency

By David K. Shipler

                Not since the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 has a senator’s death inspired such an outpouring of affectionate eulogy as the loss of John McCain. It takes nothing from McCain to observe that this week of mourning has been mostly a celebration of contrast—the stark contrast between a decent man who traveled a noble road and a corrupt president who wallows in the gutters of vindictiveness.
Had McCain died three years ago, before the advent of Trumpism, he would probably have been accorded due respect but hardly the effusive tributes and live funeral broadcasts that have been conveyed by “the enemy of the people,” as Trump enjoys calling America’s free press. McCain’s stature has been enhanced, ironically, by the misdeeds of his own party: Trump, who effectively dodged the draft, denigrated McCain’s ordeal as a POW in North Vietnam; McCain, as a victim of Vietnamese torture, denounced American torture under president George W. Bush; McCain stood up against Trump’s divisive incivility toward Americans and his obsequious flirtation with Russia; McCain gave his famous thumbs down on the Senate floor to his Republican colleagues’ witless attempt to strip Americans of the health benefits of Obamacare. So the late senator has now been immortalized as a principled, independent thinker and a creative maverick.
That is an exaggeration. Mostly he went along with his party on key conservative issues. And he certainly exercised poor judgment from time to time: He and four other senators intervened unethically with regulators on behalf of Charles Keating Jr., a bank executive who gave his campaign $112,000 and later went to prison for fraud against elderly investors. McCain later confessed to having learned a couple of lessons, including a sensitivity to the mere appearance of conflict and a willingness to address accusations openly in the press, rather than trying to hide. (“Flashing his quick temper, he insulted, cursed and hung up on reporters questioning him about his ties to Keating,” CBS reported.) He went on to team up with former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold to champion limits on campaign financing.

July 28, 2018

Trump's Fake Victories


By David K. Shipler

                It’s too bad that Donald Trump wasn’t president during the Vietnam War, because he would have declared victory and avoided years of bloodshed, as Vermont Senator George Aiken proposed in 1966. And judging by today’s gullible Trump supporters, 40 percent of Americans would have believed him. Imagine Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, had they been around, hailing the North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon, without resistance, as Trump’s breathtaking achievement in peacemaking. The war was over!
                If you lay out Trump’s various methods of appearing to win, you come up with at least three styles of fabrication.
                1. A real conflict but a declaration of victory that is either premature, exaggerated, or totally made up. North Korea is the main example to date. Despite Trump’s boast about peace in our time, bragging that the nuclear problem had been “largely solved,” Kim Jong-un’s regime has not agreed to a single step toward denuclearization—no timetable, no inspections, no concrete plan. He’s suspended testing, probably because he’s done all the testing needed so far for nuclear development, and while he’s made a show of dismantling a couple of test sites, intelligence agencies see work on nuclear weapons continuing.
And Kim’s dispatch of 55 boxes of bones to the US, which Trump trumpets as the remains of “American Servicemen,” cannot be authenticated until forensic analysis can find actual matches to American families. Until identifications are made, the somber pageantry of the return of the dead is, sadly, only theater, and a cynical ritual at that. The remains could be of non-American, UN troops who fought in the Korean War—or they could be of Koreans themselves. Kim has learned quickly how easy it is to get mileage from Trump for empty gestures.

July 20, 2018

Rip Van Winkle in Russia

By David K. Shipler

                I spent last week in Russia and felt as if I had woken up, after a long sleep, to an unrecognizable  world. Putting aside the nefarious activities of Vladimir Putin’s government—Crimea, Ukraine, cyberattacks, Novichok, and the police-state mechanism poised to act at Putin’s whim—Russia has revolutionized itself, at least on the surface.
                I’d last been there 25 years ago, in the liberalizing Gorbachev era and then right after the breakup of the Soviet Union, so I witnessed the beginning of change: a freer discourse, an occasional private restaurant devoted to pleasing customers rather than repelling them. But my true reference point, the time I seem to have fallen deeply asleep, was the communist period of the late 1970s, when I lived in Moscow for four years. Awakening last week, I felt like some country rube who had never seen a city’s bright lights. Or, as my son Michael noted as we traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg for the World Cup, I seemed to be switching glasses all the time, looking through Soviet lenses in utter amazement.
                Gone are the depressingly gray state-run stores and restaurants with empty shelves, long lines, and unsmiling clerks and waiters with no motivation to serve. Decent restaurants in Soviet days required connections to get reservations, and some had signs screwed permanently to the doors saying, “Myest Nyet,” “No Room.” Who wants customers when you get paid anyway by the state? And except for the caviar, the food was rarely gourmet. A Russian joke went this way:
                Customer: Is the fish fresh?
                Waitress: I don’t know. I’ve only worked here two weeks.

July 2, 2018

Trump vs. Workers


By David K. Shipler

Making America Cruel Again, Part 2 of an Occasional Series

            One of the many peculiarities of Donald Trump’s presidency is how deftly he stabs workers in the back while making many of them think he’s on their side. He’s given “I’ve got your back” a new meaning.
            His administration is dismantling environmental protections for laborers, decimating job safety regulations, and attacking the livelihoods of many of them by triggering tariffs on US goods going to Canada, the European Union, and China. Most of this destruction can be repaired in time once Democrats return to power in the White House and Congress. But more durable damage is being done by the Supreme Court, and there is surely more to come as Trump tees up for his second court appointment.
His first pick, Neil Gorsuch, is remarkably hostile to workers’ rights, and he has been so since before he ascended to the Court. He wrote the 5-4 majority opinion this term in Epic v. Lewis, stripping employees who are forced to sign arbitration agreements from any recourse in the courts over unfair labor practices. And he joined the 5-4 majority in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, stripping public employees’ unions of their ability to collect dues from all workers who profit from the salaries, vacations, health insurance, and other benefits negotiated through collective bargaining.
Gorsuch’s position should have come as no surprise. In a 2016 dissent as an appeals court judge in the Tenth Circuit, he went through bizarre legal acrobatics to uphold the firing of a truck driver who opted to leave his cargo rather than freeze to death on a winter night in Illinois.
When the brakes on his trailer froze, the driver, Alphonse Maddin, phoned for help from his company, Trans Am Trucking, and waited several hours for a repair truck. He was practically out of fuel, the auxiliary power heater for the cabin was broken, and he began to show dangerous signs of succumbing to the subzero temperatures. His cousin, who called him, said that his speech was slurred. His feet felt numb, and breathing was difficult. Finally, in desperation, he unhitched the tractor from the trailer and drove toward safety, returning 15 minutes later after being informed that the repair truck had arrived. He was then fired.

June 25, 2018

The Eye and the Camera


By David K. Shipler

            When O.J. Simpson was charged in June 1994 with murdering his wife, both Time and Newsweek ran his mug shot on their covers, but with a stark difference. Newsweek’s Simpson was true to the original photo, an African-American man with amber skin. Time’s artists darkened his complexion so that his unshaven cheeks and chin matched the blackness of his jacket. Within the deep cultural bias associating darkness with evil, the alteration gave Simpson a sinister air. The drama of the manipulation was obvious to all who saw the magazines side by side on the newsstands.
            Last week, using modern digital technology, Time again raised a ruckus by merging a photo of a crying 2-year-old Honduran girl and another of a towering President Trump, who seemed to be looking down at her. The words “Welcome to America” hovered ironically above her head.
             It can be argued that the human eye is not the final arbiter of visual truth. In an age of camera and computer wizardry, the photographic sensor and the software processor can bring to light what the eye has missed—or can erase what the eye might find distracting or distasteful. A few clicks and sweeps with a mouse can tease out digital information from an image that the camera has captured but the eye has not perceived; can brighten or dull or revise colors, change white balance, raise or reduce exposure and contrast, move people, remove blemishes, brush in different backgrounds, and so on. Therein lies the potential for both artistry and fraud.
            Much manipulation was possible even in the days of film. Ansel Adams, the great landscape photographer, spent hours in the darkroom “dodging and burning” to make areas of his prints lighter or darker, and thus more stunning. Autocratic regimes bent on revising history airbrushed into disappearance people who had been obliterated from the pantheon, including Stalin and Khrushchev in certain settings. (Fast forward to the digital age, and Haredi Jewish newspapers, which forbid images of women without hair covering, removed Hillary Clinton from the famous photograph of President Obama and his staff in the situation room during the attack on Osama bin Laden.)
            So, the question: What is acceptable, and what is not?
            One answer is to be honest with the viewer, to label clearly what has been altered. Another is to understand that art and journalism have different standards, that a picture purporting to document a visual fact must stand the test of absolute accuracy, while one that aspires to fine art carries a license to be altered and enhanced.
The trouble is that within those two broad categories, ethical lines can be intricate and blurry, and are drawn by various people in various ways. Andy Williams, a photographer who leads photo tours for Muench Workshops, believes that an image that combines several photos, as he’s done by creating a gorgeous scene of a horse and a misty landscape, for example, “should be announced as a composition.” On the other hand, he adds, “cloning out a stray branch or leaf, no, does not need to be announced. Color, white balance, all that, are creative tools available to us and do not need ‘announcing’ for a fine-art photo that is not a documentary photo.”
But do viewers always know that they are seeing a fine-art photo legitimately subject to enhancement? Or do they think they are witnessing on a screen or a wall exactly what their eye would have perceived in person? Do we all pause to differentiate between creativity and documentary?
Then, too, is the eye always infallible? In journalism as well as art, the camera’s frame is chosen and usually cropped, the scene frozen, the focus determined, and therefore the tempo of contemplation is slowed to a reflective pace. From a newspaper, a magazine, a broadcaster, and a news website, viewers should expect no manipulation, and they shouldn’t be unwittingly subjected to it. Time should not have tricked them with the subliminal effect of darkening O.J.Simpson’s skin. But they should recognize that those taking and presenting images have made choices of what to show and what to leave aside, just as writers do.
It’s hard to know reliably what viewers are going to assume about how much a given photograph has been manipulated in Lightroom or another program. It might be safe to say that most who saw Time’s recent cover recognized it as a composite, that Trump hadn’t actually been standing over the little Honduran girl. It was more like a political cartoon than a news photograph.
But how many realized that the crying girl was not actually being separated from her mother, who was merely being searched? The caption was accurate in other publications, but the photo morphed as it circulated into an iconic image of the cruelty being visited upon innocent children by the Trump administration’s family-busting policy at the border. That the cruelty exists is not changed by the misinterpretation of the picture, but the misinterpretation, heightened by Time’s use of it, gives Trump and his hardest-line supporters an opening to denounce his critics.
To help photographers navigate along the complicated lines between acceptable and unacceptable processing, some photo contests have devised and tightened rules, and have even embedded videos in the regulations. The effort is to be as clear as possible to avoid repetition of past incidents of deception. In 2015, the World Press Photo competition disqualified 20 percent of the entries for excessive processing, discovered when the submitted images were compared with the RAW files, which contain all the data the camera has recorded, without manipulation.
“Once we saw the evidence, we were shocked,” said Michele McNally, chair of the jury. “Many of the images we had to disqualify were pictures we all believed in and which we all might have published. But to blatantly add, move around or remove elements of a picture concerns us all, leaving many in the jury to feel we were being cheated, that they were being lied to. Many of these photographers clearly didn’t think what they were doing was wrong. But I’m telling you that it was often very wrong and not accidental.”
The competition’s current code of ethics prohibits staging, influencing a scene, removing people or objects and shadows except by cropping, changing color significantly enough to alter original hues, and so forth. Videos show examples of unacceptable changes: three small spots on a woman’s arm were removed, a cigarette butt was erased, highlights were added by cloning, a small fin was added to a fish, and two shots of groups of strollers on a bridge were combined into one.
Egregious alterations have been caught by a couple of prize administrators, but after the fact. In 2015, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects awarded a prize to a building called El Centro, which the Chicago Tribune described as “a striking, boomerang-shaped structure with blue and gold fins” designed by Juan Moreno. The trouble was, the jury went by pictures alone, and the photographer had erased a huge row of air conditioning/heating units that look like a couple of container trucks disrupting the graceful line of the roof. None of the jurors went to visit the actual, real-life building. The architect said he didn’t like the oversized structures, but he didn’t see the doctored photo as a misrepresentation. “The truth of the matter is, in every photograph that takes place on any building, there is an artistic representation that occurs,” he told the Tribune.
In another case, the Natural History Museum in London rescinded a 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award from Marcio Cabral, whose dramatic photograph of nighttime, glowing termites included, by lucky chance it seemed, an anteater at the base of the insect mound. After close examination by experts and a review of Cabral’s RAW files, the jury determined that the anteater was quite dead, stuffed, and usually resided at the visitor center at the Emas National Park. Cabral denied it.
Andy Williams and his colleague Juan Pons called attention to this gross deception in a podcast, where Williams differentiated between creating images for fun and art and misrepresenting them as absolute truth. During a rainy stretch on a trip in Alaska’s Inside Passage, he recalled, he told workshop participants, “Hey, why don’t we figure out how to use only Lightroom to smooth out the water here, cause we couldn’t do long exposure and we couldn’t do tripods. So I figured out that reverse clarity and reverse dehaze a little bit will give you a smoother appearance to the water. Which is kind of cool. And reverse sharpening. All those three things, and then I said, hey, what if we put some ducks in this from another picture? So I showed them how to select a flock of geese … and paste them into this image. … and at the end of the day we had a lot of fun and we created a lot of cool images. But they are created, manipulated, composite images. And I would never put this out to the world saying it’s anything but a composite image.”
To which Juan Pons added, “It’s all about being truthful, being honest with your viewers.”

June 19, 2018

Empathy vs. Self-Interest


By David K. Shipler

Making America Cruel Again: Part 1 of an occasional series

            It was sadly appropriate for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use a biblical verse once cited by some slave owners to justify cruelty to other human beings who were considered less than human: by Sessions about separating children from parents who enter the US illegally and “infest” the country (President Trump’s word, reducing them to insects and rodents), and by planters about returning fugitive slaves to their rightful place in bondage. It was the law, after all. Romans 13:1.
            Not that ripping weeping children from their parents’ arms is slavery—although slavers did so when profit and efficiency dictated. And not that the US is perpetrating “genocide” or acting like Nazis, as some critics have said, reaching for the most dreadful terms to harness their disgust and shame at the behavior of their beloved country.
But the outrages being perpetrated on the Mexican border signify the resurrection of practices and hatreds that might have seemed long buried in history if you were one of those citizens who believed America was destined to become better and better: more welcoming of difference, more just, more decent, more humane. How naïve of those of us who fostered such faith in their beloved country.
Nasty attitudes and impulses from the worst dimensions of America’s past are resurfacing as if they had merely hibernated waiting for the oxygen and sunlight of demagoguery to nurture them back into thorny bloom. And our past is replete with unsavory precedents: slavery, of course, and racist law in the form of Jim Crow; Native American families torn apart as authorities tried to stamp out tribal culture; citizens of Japanese descent interned during World War II; explicit anti-Semitism and white supremacy.

June 10, 2018

Kim, Trump's Foil


By David K. Shipler

            Whether Kim Jong-un knows it or not, he is about to play the role of Donald Trump’s foil in the farcical vaudeville routine that the American presidency has become. Unless Trump blunders egregiously (always a possibility), the Singapore meeting—no matter what its result—promises to entertain his American supporters with tough-guy antics and, possibly, the pretense of a “deal” that can be simplified by Fox News into an adoring sound bite. If the meeting blows up and Trump storms out in a blizzard of tweets, he’s a strong, combative leader who takes no prisoners. If the meeting’s vibes are friendly and promising, Trump is a clever negotiator who maneuvers his adversaries into compromise. Trump can’t lose. Only the world can.
It’s wise to remember that Trump, who touts himself as a champion deal-maker, has not made a single deal in nearly 18 months in office. He’s been more of a deal-breaker: on Iran, the climate, trade, and so on. His record in his real estate and branding business is little better, tarnished by a string of bankruptcies, failed ventures, scams, and refusals to pay struggling subcontractors. His “deal” to assist American workers lies in tatters after his hostile regulatory decisions and extremist court appointments, not to mention his new tariffs, which are expected to hurt more American laborers than will be helped.
There is nothing in Trump’s background to suggest a capacity to bargain well over complex issues. He fumbled around on health care with no effect. His Republican colleagues in Congress passed the tax bill without significant input from him. He is instead a showman and a propagandist who convinces a large minority of Americans that when he says things are good, they are good. His top priority seems to be fostering a cult of personality, which could be deadly to democracy if our constitutional institutions and reflexes fail.
 From what we have seen of him, Trump values his cult of personality far above the national security of the United States and, therefore, the denuclearization of North Korea. As a bully, he is making the United States into a bully as well, as we’ve witnessed; a bully kicks the smaller and the weaker (e.g., France, Germany, Canada, Mexico), and hesitates before the strong (e.g., Russia and China).
Now, it must be recognized that employing bullying against bullies, or convincing the dictator on the other side of the globe that you’re just crazy enough to unleash a nuclear firestorm, might make the “Little Rocket Man” tremble a little. It’s reasonable to speculate that Kim is sitting down with Trump because he thinks the US president is frighteningly unhinged—yet vulnerable to flattery.
Indeed, Trump has flattered himself about this meeting. Before abruptly canceling the summit and then restoring it, Trump and his acolytes had pumped it up so much that the president seemed to need it for both ego and domestic politics. Trump voters interviewed at recent rallies cited peace with North Korea, albeit prematurely, as a justification for their continued support. That seemed to give Kim leverage.
Therefore, if he’s clever enough, Kim might be able to out-maneuver Trump in practical reality: a phased reduction in sanctions in exchange for a very gradual phase-out of the nuclear program, an elimination that is never quite completed or an inspection regime that doesn’t penetrate all the mountain facilities hidden and buried in the North. But Trump’s fantasy world would remain, because talks could be protracted, and it would take a long time for the reality to catch up with his propaganda machine’s fiction: Victory, he would crow, as negotiations proceed slowly and keep American voters on a hopeful edge, along which only Trump can lead the way.
Trump and his collaborators in the White House and Congress would hail his iconoclastic approach to foreign relations: stare them down, shout them down, bulldoze them aside, and to hell with the wimpy experts with their obliquely polite diplo-speak. As long as Kim plays along and pretends to be disarming while getting the benefits of reduced sanctions, Trump can claim progress and success right up to his reelection. Yes, reelection. Kim will get his way, if he wants to keep the nukes, by stringing Trump along, and Trump will get his crown as deal-maker, at least in the eyes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
Of course it’s to Trump’s credit that he agreed to talk to Kim without setting preconditions or casting a summit as a big prize that North Korea had to pay for in advance. That straight-laced, uptight diplomatic calculation might be useful in some cases, but it’s not always productive, and it’s often taken by the opposition as humiliating. Further, if the US and North Korea can establish continuing dialogue to avert military miscalculation in that tinderbox of the Korean Peninsula, devastating warfare might be avoided. That would be a huge achievement, and a legitimate feather in Trump’s cap.
 The trouble is, Trump has made the United States untrustworthy. If Trump’s passion for self-puffery sets the two countries on a path to a real “deal” that Kim would observe, bravo. But if Kim is truly smart, he will insist that no agreement is valid without US Senate ratification, so that Trump or the next president could not toss away a solemn international accord like used Kleenex.

May 26, 2018

The NFL's Unpatriotism


By David K. Shipler

            American football is a metaphor. It rewards violence but depends on canny brainpower. Its plays look fairly simple from a distant stadium seat or a television screen, but beneath the raw muscle are intricate tactics and mental tricks, sometimes in the players’ taunts you cannot hear, often in the feints and ploys you cannot perceive. If you could see the quarterback’s eyes faking one way while he’s about to throw the other, or if you could watch every receiver at once and comprehend the dance steps and glances each uses to deceive the defense, you would appreciate more richly the complex game that enthralls so many Americans and earns such fortunes for players and owners.
None of that makes it a very civilized sport, however. A century from now, if human progress were inevitable, history would look back at football with something of the same revulsion now visited on the ancient bloodletting of gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. Not just the obvious physical damage to tendons and limbs, but moreover, the stealthy destruction of brains. Repeated hits to the head, long dismissed by the mercenary National Football League as medically insignificant, are finally acknowledged as causes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy later in life. Symptoms can include impaired thinking, depression, impulsiveness, short-term memory loss, substance abuse, and suicidality.
A study two years ago found that 40 percent of retired NFL players had evidence of traumatic brain injury. Last year, after lawsuits and public humiliation, the NFL finalized a settlement with players that has paid over $431 million to date. (The league even has a website devoted to the terms.) And, as every football fan knows, team owners voted in 2013 to impose a 15-yard penalty and a possible fine for leading with the head, whether on defense or offense. As every football fan also knows, referees are inconsistent in making that call.

May 15, 2018

Middle East Fantasies


By David K. Shipler

            At the end of an interview I did several years ago with Palestinian high school students in Ramallah, the West Bank, the teenagers asked for my opinion about the conflict. I said, in part, that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I thought the Palestinians were right; on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I thought the Israelis were right, and on Sunday I thought they both deserved each other. (Their Palestinian teacher was outraged that I’d consider the Israelis right on any day.)
Now I’d add the United States to that mix, because it’s become a party that’s both right and wrong and deserves all the praise and criticism it’s getting for moving its embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem.
            Logically, yes, a country gets to pick its capital, and Israel chose Jerusalem both in ancient and modern times. As President Trump declared in a videotaped message, “For many years, we have failed to acknowledge the obvious, plain reality that the [Israeli] capital is Jerusalem.” But logic does not rule there. If it did, the clash of Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms, and their overlapping territorial claims, would have been resolved long ago. No, what Trump and his smiling acolytes at the embassy’s opening ceremony do not get is the power of symbols to trigger zealotry in that weary land, where Israel, the Palestinians, and now the United States indulge in fantasies.
            It’s easy to see this by simply asking which image from that event represents reality: the jubilant Israeli and American officials, well-coifed in a clean, safe pageant of platitudes about peace, or the billowing black smoke, teargas, and bloody bodies of Palestinians who were raging toward Israel’s border with Gaza. Their demand? To return to villages that they had never seen, that mostly no longer exist, that had been emptied of their ancestors during Israel’s 1948 war of independence, which Palestinians call “Nakba,” Arabic for catastrophe.
            Neither the embassy ceremony nor the Gaza protest is remotely realistic. Palestinian kids have been indoctrinated to dream angrily of a return after 70 years to their grandparents’ lands inside Israel proper, where the orange groves and vineyards were rarely as lush and idyllic as in their imagination. For both security and political reasons, Israel is not about to permit a largescale return, and that demand by Hamas, which rules Gaza, simply reinforces Israeli fears that Palestinians want the obliteration of the Jewish state.