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

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?
Since Donald Trump began campaigning for the presidency, and continuing into his tenure in the White House, he has led the United States down a steep descent. He has played to the bigotry of his base of rightwing extremists and created a tinderbox of domestic terrorism, as Stephen Tankel warns. He has given license to racism and other forms of hatred. He has stoked the flames of grievance and resentment toward nonwhites, immigrants, and others considered outsiders. He has continued the Republicans’ practices of politicizing the courts, thereby undermining that vital branch of government. And now, by sending troops to the Mexican border as props in the midterm election campaign, he has politicized the military as well.
He has lied steadily, created imagined threats, and dragged the Republican Party along with him into abysmal dishonesty. His attacks on the press, aimed at sowing disbelief in accurate reporting, have helped to set the country adrift from factual reality. He has thereby hung a blank canvas on which he can paint any monstrous fantasy that he wishes—and a large minority of Americans will believe him.
He touts himself as a promise-keeper, but he has broken his nation’s promises internationally, on climate, on nuclear nonproliferation, and on trade—and with tariffs has damaged farmers and small businessmen who supported him. He has insulted allies and praised autocrats, who now cite him to justify their oppression. Trump has thereby converted the United States into a model for dictators, not democrats.
            The President has dislodged his great country from its pinnacle on the international order—diplomatically, militarily, and economically—into a go-it-alone outlier which will have fewer friends when needed. He has planted the seeds of global collapse into an anarchic array of parochial nationalisms.
             Domestically, he is dismantling to an extreme the regulatory mechanisms that have promoted cleaner air, cleaner water, workplace safety, consumer rights, restrictions on harmful chemicals, pharmaceutical oversight, and protections for employees and investors. The radicals in his cabinet have gone far beyond reasonable trims of excessive regulation, and are putting ordinary Americans at risk. His Republican Party has slashed corporate taxes and increased the deficit, pushing up job growth but also injecting what some analysts regard as an unsustainable “sugar high” into the economy and the stock market. He runs the most corrupt government in modern history, self-dealing and using his position to enrich himself and his family. He and the Republicans in Congress continually threaten health benefits under Obamacare, Medicare, and Medicaid.
             Trump has not created anything significant. His new trade deal with Mexico and Canada contain only marginal improvements over NAFTA, which he campaigned to eliminate. He has no new trade agreement with China, and he cast aside the Trans-Pacific pact that would have strengthened American commerce in the region at Chinese expense.
He has done nothing for Israeli-Palestinian peace except antagonize one of the parties, the Palestinians, by moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and thereby eliminating the US as an honest broker. He has given Saudi Arabia a blank check in its merciless war in Yemen, bringing widespread starvation to innocents there. In abandoning the nuclear pact with Iran, he has squandered leverage to negotiate an improvement. He has nothing to show for his vaunted summit with the North Korea leader, Kim jung-un, except a suspension of testing and hostile rhetoric, which is all to the good, except that there is no deal to end their nuclear program.
             And despite Vladimir Putin’s miscalculation in preferring Trump over Clinton in the 2016 election, Trump’s awed admiration for the Russian leader has not translated into real policy. Trump has simply withdrawn from the 1987 INF treaty restricting intermediate-range nuclear missiles without trying to negotiate a new agreement that would stop Russia’s cheating and include China in a set of restraints.
            The one thing that Trump has managed to create is a cult of personality among his followers, to the point of terrifying Republicans who go against him. That has given voters tomorrow little choice of sensible Republicans who would put a check on Trump. Now, only Democrats can do that.
Contrary to some expectations during the 2016 campaign and shortly after his election, Trump has not become a political liability to his party. So he’s made this midterm vote all about him. It will be a referendum of sorts, and therefore a test of whether the country is ready to take a first step in the process of self-correction or will have to continue farther down this path before realizing where it has led.

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.

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.

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.