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

September 24, 2015

The Hunger for Heroes

By David K. Shipler

            Washington’s adoring reception of Pope Francis has been cleansing. Scrubbed of the toxic rhetoric that passes for debate in this town, his simple truths have been elevating. His calls for human decency have been inspiring. His embrace of dialogue as he faced Congress this morning was not merely a pleading but a moral teaching. And despite the tiresome babble of CNN commentators trying to squeeze his various messages into familiar political boxes, Francis summoned the best in America with a challenge to lift our gaze beyond those boundaries and see again, with exhilarating clarity, the reasons for our great ideals.
            You do not have to be Catholic, or even religious, as I am not. You do not have to agree with every view that Francis holds, as I do not, to see him as a hero, a secular hero badly needed in the tumultuous vacuum of righteousness that afflicts our time.
The modern era has precious few: Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Mikhail Gorbachev (if you’re not a Russian who detests him), Malala Yousafzai (have you forgotten her already?).
We need heroes. We need figures to admire. We need our lives driven by something larger than ourselves. We need to play a part in a higher purpose. Occasionally, someone of goodness, or a mission of virtue, comes along to satisfy this yearning. As often, probably more often, it is someone of malice—or a corrupted idea. Religion can be either. As Francis said today, “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.”
Political leaders rarely lead, and so they rarely fill the emptiness. When they do, they sometimes become the vessels of unrealistic hope, as Barack Obama did during his first presidential campaign in 2008. Or they capture a population’s anxieties and angers by bullying “others,” by painting simplistic fictions over complex realities, and by conveying absolute certainty about everything they say.
This is Donald Trump: tough, combative, boastful, hostile to ambiguity—a demagogue meeting a need. This is Vladimir Putin, trying to cure a Russian sense of loss and humiliation with a strong hand at the top and a swagger back onto the world stage. This is ISIS, fabricating a totalitarian version of Islam to draw recruits disfigured by disillusionment and drift. This is the white nationalist movement of America, armed with the conviction that white Christians are victims. The hunger for heroes is not always uplifting.
Yet Pope Francis warned against “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.”
That vote of confidence in Americans was skillfully cast by a Pope who somehow knew how to feel his audience’s pulse of pride and striving. He made us think well of ourselves by celebrating four Americans as gateways into an exploration of the common good: Abraham Lincoln; Martin Luther King Jr.; Dorothy Day, the socialist advocate of the poor and co-founder of The Catholic Worker; and Thomas Merton, the Catholic thinker, writer, and social activist for racial equality and peace.
A moment of reflection, however, leads to the uncomfortable facts that the first two were assassinated, the third arrested repeatedly in demonstrations, and the fourth excoriated for his political views by both the Catholic and non-Catholic establishments. Heroes, it seems, are bred by contention and nurtured by rejection. Take the views of many in the House chamber today, turn the clock back and imagine them in the 1860s or the 1960s, and you would not hear them singing the praises of Lincoln or King. Even now, they would brand Day and Merton as leftist enemies.
Significantly, Francis has to transcend political labels to hold high moral principles. One can quarrel with his opposition to gay marriage and abortion, as I would, but his consistent honoring of life led him to a strong statement to Congress on capital punishment. It was a delicious moment: Citing “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” which got applause from Republicans, he then called for “the global abolition of the death penalty,” arguing, “Since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.” It may have been my wishful thinking, but I thought I saw Chief Justice John Roberts, a Catholic, squirm a little in the front row.
Near the end, the Pope gave us our charge: “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”

            Soon, sadly, Francis will be gone, leaving us to the diminished candidates for president of a nation that “can be considered great.” 

September 16, 2015

The Iran Deal: Israel Wins Twice

By David K. Shipler

The Senate’s failure to block the agreement with Iran may look like a defeat for Israel, whose government lobbied so intensely against it, but in reality Israel is likely to benefit in two ways if the deal is implemented. First, Iran will be impeded in pursuing nuclear weapons. Second, Israel will get more security aid from the United States.
The first point has been ferociously debated, of course. The second, however, is indisputable. The Obama administration was reportedly eager to start talks with Israel about enhanced assistance as the Iran deal was completed. Democratic supporters of the agreement, pressed by AIPAC, the pro-Israel organization, are ready to improve their political standing by by compensating Israel with new weaponry.
An example is Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who declared when he endorsed the Iran deal, “The U.S. should provide Israel with access to the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) to help deter Iranian cheating.” That’s the bunker-busting bomb, which might be able to reach buried, fortified nuclear facilities. It would presumably enable Israel to start a war that the United States would have to finish.

July 18, 2015

The Common Ground Between the United States and Russia

By David K. Shipler

            Washington may regard Vladimir Putin as the world’s Number One Nuisance, but he came through in the Iran agreement, just as he did in 2013 by negotiating the removal of chemical weapons from Syria (minus chlorine, unfortunately, which has industrial uses but has been weaponized). Before its thinly disguised invasion of Ukraine, Russia also shared intelligence on terrorism and other security matters. Unpublicized contacts among Russian and American military and civilian intelligence officials were reportedly frequent and productive; perhaps they still are.
So, a new overlay of common ground should be drawn onto the map of conflict between Washington and Moscow. President Obama, answering a well-placed question by Thomas Friedman Tuesday after the deal restricting Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, said this:
            “Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-Plus members in insisting on a strong deal.”
            Quite an endorsement. But he shouldn’t have been surprised. Preventing Iran from going nuclear is as much in the Russian interest as it is in ours. Look at a map. Iran is in Russia’s back yard. If there is any constant in Russian history (and there are several), it’s the importance of the back yard. Ukraine is also in Russia’s back yard. You mess with the back yard, you mess with house and home. And while Putin can certainly be faulted for his aggression against Ukraine, for exaggerating Western designs on Russia’s security, and for fostering jingoism among the Russian public, his country and the United States share important overlapping interests.
            Let’s make a short list:

July 1, 2015

A Constitution Informed by Social Change

By David K. Shipler

            If you spend time reading the Supreme Court’s majority and dissenting opinions in the landmark same-sex marriage case, a transcendent principle jumps out at you. It has little to do with the definition of marriage or the widening acceptance of homosexuality. Rather, it is the notion that society should be alive to its own injustices, even those unseen in the age when solemn constitutional texts were written. Later—nearly 150 years later in this instance—practices that were once acceptable emerge as violations of the rights set down at a very different time.
This is the crux of the ideological dispute between conservatives and liberals on the Court, and it is articulated in this case with unusual clarity. The conservative dissenters define liberty in the narrowest terms—to Clarence Thomas it means freedom from physical restraint and imprisonment, nothing more.
To Antonin Scalia, the clock simply has to be turned back to the date of the post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment, whose clauses banned the states from denying any person “the equal protection of the laws” or depriving anyone “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Those were the provisions that the Supreme Court found were being violated by denying same-sex couples the right to marry.
Scalia scoffed. “When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868,” he wrote, “every state limited marriage to one man and one woman, and no one doubted the constitutionality of doing so.” Case closed.
Compare that with Anthony Kennedy’s fluid view of liberty in his opinion for the slim 5-4 majority. Kennedy is not easily categorized as liberal or conservative; he is often a swing vote. Here, however, he effectively endorses the liberal concept of a living Constitution by emphasizing its place in a shifting world.

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.

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.