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

June 22, 2015

The Mainstream Roots of Bigotry

   By David K. Shipler

        The alleged murderer Dylann Roof may have entered the bible study group in Charleston from that fringe of white supremacists that have always plagued America, but the stereotypes they hold of African-Americans are also woven into much mainstream conservative commentary by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and others. One telling overlap is their assertion that whites are in peril; Beck has called Obama a racist who hates whites, Roof is said to have expressed fears that blacks were taking over, threatening whites.
Ironically, the election of a black president has enabled old racial assumptions to be embedded and camouflaged within legitimate political criticism. The images are cleverly encrypted, but they may be blatant as well. Google “Obama ape” and you will see dozens of Photoshopped pictures of Michelle and Barack Obama as primates, playing off that traditional American calumny of blacks as subhuman. You can buy them on T-shirts and babies’ onesies. When they are circulated online, sometimes by Republican office-holders, the caricatures create an odd counterpoint of racial prejudice alongside the non-bigotry that most voters demonstrated by twice electing the first African-American in the White House.
Low-level officials and candidates often suffer some informal punishment for stepping so crudely over the line of decency. Marilyn Davenport, for example, a Tea Party member of the Republican Central Committee of Orange County, California, forwarded a doctored photo of two adult chimpanzees and their baby, bearing Obama’s face. “Now you know why no birth certificate,” the caption said. After a mild uproar that embarrassed her, she insisted that she wasn’t racist and didn’t think of Obama as black. She got enough support from constituents that she defied the committee chairman’s demand that she resign.
The subhuman caricature is one of about a half-dozen traditional anti-black stereotypes that have a long history in American culture. Using each of them as a lens to examine criticisms of Obama can be illuminating. Not that Obama doesn’t deserve criticism, of course, but the racial component regularly magnifies the commentary, at least for those who hold the negative views of blacks that are implied. Let’s take them one at a time.
1.      Subhuman: When the commentator Glenn Beck was still at Fox News, he showed a clip of Obama denouncing special interests at a labor union event. Beck then held his head, wailed, and poked the AFL-CIO logo behind Obama on the screen. “Special interests!” Beck raged. “What planet have I landed on? Did I slip through a wormhole in the middle of the night? And this looks like America. It’s like the damned Planet of the Apes!” The line was not impromptu, obviously, because Fox’s studio engineer was ready with an immediate clip from the movie, a scene of apelike men surrounding a white man captured in a net, who was shouting, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!” Beck went on to host his own successful online show, which is carried by some cable services.
2.      Angry, Violent, Dangerous: Limbaugh, whose daily radio talk show draws millions of listeners and has an impact on conservative political argument, frequently speaks of Obama’s anger, saying he’s got a chip on his shoulder. This, despite Obama’s effort to avoid being seen as the stereotypical angry black man—to the chagrin of some of his supporters, who wish he’d get angry with Republicans who have undermined him. “I think he’s motivated by anger,” Limbaugh has said. “He’s got a chip on his shoulder, a number of them . . . the days of them not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang. He’s angry. He’s going to cut this country down to size. He’s going to make it pay for all the multicultural mistakes that it has made—its mistreatment of minorities. I know exactly what’s going on here.” In another monologue, Limbaugh declared: “Obama’s plan is based on his inherent belief that this country was immorally and illegitimately founded by a very small minority of white Europeans who screwed everybody else since the founding to get all the money and all the goodies, and it’s about time that the scales were made even.”
3.      “Other:” Blacks have often been thought of as different, others, not part of “us,” meaning us whites. And whites have told me in interviews that the more dramatically blacks emphasize their blackness in dress, hairstyle, language, and music, the less approachable they seem. In Obama’s case this has translated into the birther movement—the allegation that he was not born in the US—and the assertions that he is a socialist and a Muslim (Muslim also being a code now for dangerous).
Once the birther movement tapered off, the caricature shifted to Obama as not truly American, “more African in his roots than he is American,” Limbaugh said. Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Colorado declared at a fundraiser: “I don’t know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States or not, but I do know this: that in his heart, he’s not an American. He’s just not an American.”
4.      Uppity, Arrogant: It is a long tradition to regard blacks with power—undeserved power, in the prejudiced mind—as arrogant, and if you Google “Obama arrogant” pictures of him with his chin raised haughtily will appear on your screen. When Obama passionately defended his Affordable Care Act, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan said, “It’s arrogant, it’s arrogant. It was really a smugness, arrogance, and self-confidence.” Former House Majority Leader Tom Delay called Obama “Arrogant in Chief.” Of course you need an ego to get to the White House, and we’ve all watched Obama for enough years to judge for ourselves, but arrogant strikes me as out of tune with what I’ve seen. Exasperated, yes, but understandably so!
5.      Lazy: “Let me focus on the lazy,” said Limbaugh. “He’s on his sixth vacation. He really doesn’t appear to work very hard . . . I don’t think it’s laziness. I think it’s arrogance. I think Obama thinks of himself as above the job.”
6.      Stupid: It’s hard to pin this on Obama, but some commentators are undaunted by his obviously intelligence. They mocked him for using a teleprompter—has any other president been ridiculed for using the device? It was a way of dismissing his facility with words, casting his eloquence as a mask across an emptiness of substance. He’s in over his head, an incompetent leader. Again, there is nothing illegitimate in a president’s being criticized for incompetence (we’ve had a run of them), but combined with allusions to the longstanding images of blacks as mentally inferior, the condemnations are based less on specifics than on prejudice. Limbaugh, for example, has asserted that his blackness got him elected in a kind of political affirmative action, because whites did not want to be thought of as racists, even in the privacy of the voting booth, apparently.
It would be interesting to know if Roof was a consumer of mainstream commentary as well as marginal, hateful web sites. It would be interesting to know what commentators or web sites contribute to the world views of trigger-happy white policemen who think of black men as automatically dangerous. This poisonous stuff is in the air we breathe.

This is not to say that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the others who trade in racial images are directly responsible for the violence. They cannot be held accountable for that. But they can be held accountable for failing to use their megaphones to counter, rather than reinforce, the society’s time-worn prejudices.

June 11, 2015

Surveillance: Edward Snowden's Wishful Thinking

By David K. Shipler

            To risk all by being a whistleblower, you have to believe deeply in your society’s capacity for self-correction, and Edward Snowden—after periods of doubt—is a believer, it seems. Last week he hailed “the power of an informed public” in driving Congress to make modest trims in the National Security Agency’s authority to collect data on Americans’ electronic communications. This is the way an open democracy is supposed to work: expose the wrongdoing and provoke reform.
But before we celebrate with embarrassing rhapsodies, let’s remember how far the United States has to go. The 9/11 trauma has not yet healed, and the post-traumatic security measures—some sensible, others excessive—have compromised the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of the people’s right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Many of the extreme methods of intrusion remain intact. Some have proved worse than useless, overloading intelligence professionals with terabytes of distracting information that’s hard to search and sift for the ominous patterns of incipient terrorism.
So there are both practical and ideological reasons to abandon the excesses, yet they seem likely to stay largely in place until several conditions develop.
If earlier spasms of anxiety in American history are any guide, violations of constitutional rights in the interest of national security come to an end when, a) they are so egregious that their disclosure inflames the public; b) the perceived threat diminishes; and/or c) courts find the measures illegal or unconstitutional. Early signs of each of these can be seen, but only as slight beginnings of what may become significant trends.

June 1, 2015

The First Amendment and the Freedom to Hate

By David K. Shipler

Metro said Thursday that it will not allow new issue-oriented advertising in the transit system after a controversial pro-Israel group sought to place ads featuring a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, a drawing that was linked to deadly violence in Texas this month.
--The Washington Post


            Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that the White Aryan Resistance wanted to put ads on Washington Metro trains and buses featuring a cartoon from the gallery it labels “Kikes.” For example, take the one that portrays a long-nosed, thick-lipped, cigar-chomping giant leering maliciously as he applies a drill bit to the stomach of a smaller, terrified blond fellow he’s holding down with a meaty hand. “Never forget, white man,” says the caption, “the Zionist Jew is working around the clock to DESTROY YOU.”
            Or, let’s imagine that some purveyor of one of those Photoshopped images of Barack and Michelle Obama as subhuman primates (you can see dozens by Googling “Obama Ape”) decided to display it throughout the capital’s transportation system. Picture buses circulating through the streets of Washington adorned with posters of an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish monster or President Obama morphed into a chimpanzee.
            There might not be a risk of violent reaction. But it’s a safe bet that very few Americans would defend the parade of such ugly bigotry against Jews and blacks. Consider, then, the application to Metro by Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative to buy space for the winner of its cartoon contest in Texas—a drawing featuring the traditional stereotype of a fierce, raging Arab, glaring and waving a curved scimitar as he declares, “You can’t draw me!” The artist, out of the frame, replies, “That’s why I draw you.”

May 12, 2015

Pamela Geller and the Anti-Islam Movement

(published on The New Yorker Web site)

By David K. Shipler

     The winning cartoon in the contest to draw the Prophet Muhammad, early this month in Garland, Texas, which two gunmen attacked, depicts a fierce Prophet waving a scimitar and saying, “You can’t draw me!” The artist, whose hand and pencil are visible, replies from outside the frame, “That’s why I draw you.”
     And so the principle of free speech confronted American society’s unwritten code of restraint on contemptuous stereotyping. .  . Freedom of expression suddenly looked like two overlays on a map, the legal landscape and the cultural landscape, each with its own boundaries. . . . 
     Virtually all the alarm over the coming Islamic takeover and the spread of Sharia law can be traced back to an old document of questionable authority and relevance, “An Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Goal for the Group in North America.” Dated May 22, 1991, it was found in 2004 by the F.B.I., buried in one of a large number of boxes uncovered during a search of a house in northern Virginia.

May 5, 2015

Another View of Vietnam Veterans

By David K. Shipler

(Published on The New Yorker website)

      From time to time during the American war in Iraq which began in 2003, aging Vietnam veterans wearing baseball caps and khaki jackets emblazoned with pins, patches, and the names of their units gathered at the small commercial airport in Bangor, Maine. A few older vets of more noble wars were sometimes among them, frail men from the Second World War and Korea, as they assembled in the passenger lounge to greet returning troops when their planes touched down for refuelling. Bangor would be the arrivals’ first contact with American soil since they left for the zone of combat.
     At the gate, the Vietnam vets usually formed two lines—as an avenue of welcome, of course, not a gauntlet. They were giving something that many of them felt they had not received decades earlier. . .
     Through the years, our varied ways of thinking about the Americans who fought that war, which ended ignominiously forty years ago this week, have been characterized by tension between a sense of virtue and a sense of shame. Americans cannot agree amongst themselves on what happened there, on what might have happened had we done one thing or another differently, or on what would have happened if justice and morality had prevailed.

April 27, 2015

Manipulating History in Open Societies

By David K. Shipler

            Russians used to tell a joke in communist times: What’s the definition of a Soviet historian? A person who can predict the past.
            Disfavored officials were air-brushed out of photographs and deleted from textbooks. Wartime atrocities were ignored, and history was burnished with heroism. It was done by government edict, making the synthetic past immune to correction. It also made the Soviet Union very different from open societies, where (we believe) facts will survive and truth will ultimately prevail.
            But will they? Look closely and you can see that pluralistic democracies also manipulate history, notwithstanding their spirits of fluid inquiry and acerbic debate. Critics can dispute distortions, of course, as they do vigorously in both the United States and Israel, two countries where portrayals of history are often bent by the emotional weight of war. Yet distortions endure, for nature abhors a moral vacuum when it comes to war, and war is exactly that: a moral vacuum.
            A fresh search for virtue is underway this spring, the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, illustrated by the air-brushed history in a new documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam,” directed and produced by Rory Kennedy, to be broadcast by PBS April 28.
            The film is the anguished tale of panicky Americans rushing to evacuate as many Vietnamese as possible before North Vietnamese tanks roll in. Many of the images are familiar, the personal accounts less so. They are gripping stories of Vietnamese made vulnerable by their military service or their employment by the U.S. government, and of daring American officials organizing an airlift out of chaos.
            The trouble is, the brief historical set-up to this climax is so badly flawed that after the movie was first screened last year, a strong letter urging revisions was sent to Kennedy, signed by more than 30 correspondents who covered the war (including me). It didn’t help. (See link to text of letter in righthand column.) The film’s crucial silences lead the viewer to think that the ceasefire called for in the 1973 Paris agreement was violated by only North Vietnam, that no misdeeds by the U.S. or South Vietnam contributed to the peace plan’s demise.
            No mention is made of South Vietnam’s military offensives after the supposed ceasefire, of the rampant corruption and drug addiction in the South Vietnamese military, or of the failure by all sides to pursue the political settlement outlined by the agreement. Absent is the illicit involvement of American ex-military men in arming South Vietnamese aircraft for bombing runs violating the ceasefire.
The silences add to the dramatic effect—the South Vietnamese as innocent victims, the Americans as pure humanitarians—which heightens the nobility of those who struggled compassionately at the end. But by creating an occluded lens through which to view that finale, the film lets “a false narrative take root in the public mind,” the correspondents’ letter observed. The troubling result was aided briefly by WGBH, the sponsoring public television station in Boston, whose resource for teachers featured a six-minute clip of the one-sided history, until it was taken down around the time of a complaint about it by a former correspondent, Arnold R. Isaacs.
“If you consult reputable historians and any serious journalist who covered that history, I believe a large majority will tell you that this video presents fiction, not historical fact,” he wrote to WGBH. “It is a safe bet that only an infinitesimal minority of teachers or students who might see this video will know enough to recognize its faults.”
Isaacs (in the interest of full disclosure, my brother-in-law) had been there at the end, for The Baltimore Sun, and wrote a powerful, authoritative book, Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, chronicling the period from the Paris agreement through those final weeks and days. Among his objections to the film’s history was its clip of Vietnamese struggling to get onto a World Airways flight from Danang to flee south, ahead of the North Vietnamese advance. “Watching that video,” he wrote to me last week, “if you didn’t know it beforehand you would have had no clue that the people mobbing the hatchway were virtually all soldiers who had shot their way through crowds of civilian refugees to get to the plane. As I wrote in Without Honor, it landed in Saigon with four women, three children, three old men, and 320 soldiers.”
The film is being broadcast under the rubric of WGBH’s and PBS’s American Experience, which has decided to brook no criticism on its site. Jim Laurie, who covered the war for NBC, wrote a solid piece on the historical inaccuracies but was told it would not be posted unless his direct criticisms of the film were deleted. For example, he notes that the film leaves unchallenged the assertion by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that officials thought the Paris accords could lead to permanent division, as in Korea, a fanciful argument that Kissinger himself could not have believed, given that “the United States has stationed more than 30,000 troops in Korea for more than sixty years to guarantee a two state situation on the peninsula,” Laurie wrote. “In Vietnam no such role for the US was ever envisioned.”
“Also missing from the film’s narrative is any reference to the incompetence and corruption of some of the South Vietnam command,” he added, quoting Loren Jenkins of Newsweek seeing South Vietnam’s Economic Minister in 1974 handing out $100 bills to commanders in Danang in Hue. “They lined up like school boys at a candy store for their handouts,” Jenkins said.
Even the history that survives WGBH’s hatchet will not be visible to the public until after the broadcast, Laurie told me. His piece will be posted only on Wednesday, although “I argued that people might go to the website for more information during or just after the broadcast and would find no corrective there.” Laurie sardonically called this “my ‘American Experience.’”  
If Americans can’t agree on facts about a war long ended, imagine Israelis’ debates over the origin of their continuing conflict, their War of Independence in 1948. It took decades for textbooks to acknowledge that Israeli troops expelled Arabs, and longer for massacres of Arab civilians to be exposed. A respected Israeli historian, Benny Morris, documented about two dozen massacres but could not confirm one case in particular, at the village of Tantura, which recently embroiled both Israelis and Americans in a battle over artistic freedom.
An Israeli playwright, Motti Lerner, grew up near Tantura hearing stories of the killings. He believes that excavating history and listening to the other’s narrative are essential to Israeli-Arab coexistence. So he built a play, “The Admission,” around fictitious Arab and Jewish men, now friends, who were both at the village—the Arab as a witness, the Jew as a commander. Their children dig through layers of memory and denial, leaving the audience “deeply unsettled and unresolved,” in the words of Ari Roth, who produced the play in Washington, D.C., as the artistic director of Theater J. It is a genre designed “to break somebody open so that they can pick up the pieces outside the theater,” he said. Perhaps this can “ultimately effect change in society by leaving the theatergoer devastated, pulverized, opened up, and agitated.”
Theater J, in the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, had been under fire for years by a small group of conservative American Jews who decried, as slanderous, plays and discussions exploring Israel’s morality. Urging donors to withhold contributions, they made fundraisers nervous, particularly when the argument turned on a moment of disputed history.
“The Admission” got full houses and rave reviews, the usual index of theatrical success. But the Jewish Community Center, heading into a capital campaign, cancelled Roth’s annual Middle East festival, then fired him after he told the press about the conflict. He has now launched a new enterprise, the Mosaic Theater Company, which next year plans a new play by Motti Lerner, After the War.
You can bet that Roth will put unwelcome truths on his stage, resisting the admonition that even in an open society, you sometimes have to predict the past.

April 25, 2015

The Parochialism of Grief

By David K. Shipler


            We awoke this morning to the terrible news of the devastating earthquake in Nepal, where our son and daughter-in-law used to live doing humanitarian work, and where they have many friends. Through them, we also know several people there, so our natural and urgent need was to learn whether our friends and theirs were OK. Fortunately, the answer was yes, all were accounted for, which brought a sense of great relief. And then I felt a wave of guilt for being relieved just because those who perished were unknown to me personally. Was it enough to ache with diffuse sorrow at a distant tragedy, instead of being cut by a sharp edge of personal grief?
            We each live at the center of concentric circles of affinity, from our immediate families close in the middle, to rings of wider relatives, to dear friends, then more casual or professional acquaintances, and out into the wilderness of humanity at large. And within that vast reservoir of anonymous people, our connections and concerns—and pain of loss—are often determined by how alike the victims are to us.
            Years ago, a bunch of us reporters at The New York Times tried to graph the way this unconscious calculation shaped news judgments.

April 13, 2015

The Long Arc of Injustice

By David K. Shipler


            Earlier this month, a black man named Anthony Ray Hinton, convicted of murder thirty years ago, finally walked free in Alabama, out of death row. The finger of guilt now points to many others: not just the real killer, who may still roam the land, but also hasty police officers, blinkered prosecutors, careless ballistic examiners, politicians who won’t adequately fund criminal defense for the poor, and judges up and down the hierarchy from trial courts to appellate courts. The case is such a cold window on the dangers of the death penalty, which if carried out cuts off all possibility of revision and reversal, that it seems worth posting excerpts here of the detailed examination in my book Rights at Risk:

The law is a labyrinth, best comprehended by the high priesthood of attorneys who fashion and interpret its abstruse language. No unschooled layman, standing nakedly unrepresented before the terrible engine of the criminal justice system, can possibly fathom the hidden dangers of error—or the invisible shields that offer unnoticed protection.
Hinton’s court-appointed lawyer, Sheldon Perhacs, was given too little money to hire a reputable firearms expert to dispute the questionable findings of a police lab, and was still bitter about it decades later. The “expert” he could get for the $500 the court provided, a one-eyed retired engineer who couldn’t operate a comparison microscope, had jurors laughing in ridicule. Perhacs needed $10,000 for a qualified toolmarks examiner from New Orleans, because the case against Hinton for two murders rested entirely on a dubious lab report. It purportedly matched Hinton’s gun with bullets from the bodies, but the results were more ambiguous than prosecutors let on. Perhacs could not mount a persuasive rebuttal without a true expert.

April 3, 2015

Israel and Iran: The Enemy of My Enemy

By David K. Shipler


            History is a fickle thing, and given Israel’s intransigence toward Iran today, and toward the nuclear deal just negotiated, it’s worth remembering how differently the two countries’ interests lined up thirty-five years ago, even after Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979.
In the early 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, Israel’s then Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, invited me down to his ranch for a chat. He had a specific purpose, which emerged during our long conversation on a range of subjects. The point he pressed most urgently was the need for the United States to repair its relations with Iran. The country was a major player in the region, he argued, not to be ignored by Washington in the aftermath of the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He believed the Americans should be reaching out to Tehran, cultivating a restoration of ties.
            His view was self-serving, in that Iran was the chief counterweight to Iraq, Israel’s archenemy at the time. Egypt had signed a peace treaty with Israel, Jordan had a weak military. Syria and Israel were technically still at war but were observing a de facto peace along their common border on the Golan Heights.
But Iraq was a formidable military power in the region, and a threat. It had never endorsed the Arab-Israeli armistice of 1948, was helping finance the Palestine Liberation Organization, and had tried to go nuclear—an effort halted by Israel’s bombing in June 1981 of its nuclear reactor.
So Israeli officials quietly celebrated the grinding Iran-Iraq war as it went on year after year, reasoning that Iran would handicap and preoccupy Iraq and, in the longer term, serve as a balance against aggressive impulses in Baghdad. The enemy of Iraq was, well, if not a friend, at least a convenience. Indeed, Sharon publicly accused the US of arming Iraq with heavy weapons during the war.

March 25, 2015

Pressuring Israel

By David K. Shipler

            “If the United States decided it wanted to stand by the Palestinian people, we’d have our state in forty-eight hours,” Muhammad Arrar told me several months ago. He was a sinewy man in his mid-forties, a council member in Jalazoun, the West Bank refugee camp. “Israel is America’s fifty-first state,” he continued, in a standard line you hear from Palestinians. Then he added a plea: “In America in the 1700s, a majority of Americans stood up with their weapons and fought, and they raised their rights of liberty.”
This refrain was on the lips of virtually every Palestinian I encountered in the camps, in schools, in government offices; it was a naïve caricature of Israel as a kind of vassal state that could quickly be brought to heel by a flick of the superpower’s wrist. I tried to explain the limits of Washington’s power. Nobody accepted my brilliant analysis. I could see, through their veneer of courtesy, that they thought I was the one being naïve—or disingenuous.
But the relationship is complicated and contradictory, and its core—the dollars and hardware that bolster Israel’s military security—remains undamaged by the recent tiff between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Largely overlooked in the reporting on Monday’s speech by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough—whose criticisms of Netanyahu were given front-page coverage—was his affirmation of the nuts-and-bolts commitment, his impressive listing of the muscular, technologically advanced weaponry already in the pipeline. He pledged unflagging support, while criticizing Republicans for holding the defense budget, which includes aid to Israel, at 2006 levels.