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

August 21, 2016

What Trump is Teaching Children

By David K. Shipler

We’ve seen Donald Trump behave like a 12-year-old,
and now we’re seeing 12-year-olds behave like Donald Trump.
--Richard Cohen, president, Southern Poverty Law Center

            The new school year begins with an opportunity and a challenging risk for teachers: whether to use the presidential campaign as they usually do, as a teaching tool about American democracy, or to treat the brutish campaign of Donald Trump as they would some bloody mass rape and massacre, reported gruesomely on the news but typically avoided in the classroom.
            Teachers are divided, according to about 2,000 responses to an online survey last spring by the Southern Poverty Law Center. For 40 percent of the respondents, the emotional divide whipped up by Trump’s ugly rhetoric was making the election too hot to handle. A teacher in Pennsylvania bars Trump’s name from the classroom. “It feels like it makes it an unsafe place for my students of color.”
Other teachers, though, are eager to put the campaign on the agenda, because students have been so intensely engaged. The problem for each teacher is how, and whether, to maintain the customary neutrality.
            It’s usually a school policy and a mark of professionalism for teachers not to betray their political preferences while leading discussions, and especially not to endorse one candidate over another. But Trump’s bigotry, which has been emulated in student behavior and comments, has driven some minority students to plead for support from teachers, and some teachers say they have felt compelled to offer comfort by denouncing him.
            “Two responses from teachers illustrate their dilemma,” the study observes. “A teacher in Arlington, Virginia, says, ‘I try to not bring it up since it is so stressful for my students.’ Another, in Indianapolis, Indiana, says, ‘I am at a point where I’m going to take a stand even if it costs me my position.’”
            The study, entitled The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools, was based not on a representative sample but on an open online questionnaire distributed to subscribers to the newsletter of Teaching Tolerance, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s program to combat bigotry. The link to the survey was also distributed by other programs, Teaching for Change and Facing History and Ourselves. It seems likely, therefore, that the teachers who responded were those most attuned to ethnic, racial, and religious tensions in their classrooms. More than one-third have seen increased anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant attitudes, and more than two-thirds have heard immigrant children voicing “fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election.”
            Black youngsters display high anxiety as well. “My students are terrified of Donald Trump,” said a middle-school teacher with a heavily black and Muslim population. An elementary-school teacher in Oregon said her black students were “concerned for their safety because of what they see on TV at Trump rallies.” Some teachers hear black students worry that they will be deported to Africa if Trump is elected. Elementary school kids in Virginia were “crying in the classroom and having meltdowns at home.” At a high school in North Carolina, Latino students “carry their birth certificates and Social Security cards to school because they are afraid they will be deported,” a teacher wrote. Another said that students in her diverse school think that “apparently America hates them.” Others now believe that they are looking through a window into genuine attitudes among all whites.
“My Hispanic students seem dejected about not only Donald Trump's rhetoric, but also about the amount of people who seem to agree with him,” a teacher wrote. “They feel sure that Americans, their fellow students, and even their teachers hate them (regardless of their citizenship).”
            The fears are exacerbated by white children who copy Trump’s crude insults, teachers report. Most of the 2,000 respondents have witnessed a rise in “uncivil political discourse.” Some kids chant “Trump! Trump! Trump!” to intimidate minority students. A fifth-grader told a Muslim kid “that he was supporting Donald Trump because he was going to kill all of the Muslims if he became president!”
            Racial and ethnic epithets and stereotyping have proliferated in schools during the campaign. “Many teachers reported an increase in use of the n-word as a slur, even among very young children,” the study found. “At the all-white school where I teach,” said a Wisconsin middle-school teacher, ‘dirty Mexican’ has become a common insult. Before election season it was never heard.”
            Another wrote: “So many of my students have begun to show hatred towards refugees, low-income and poverty citizens, and there has been an increase in religious bias. Many are taking the anger and hate-filled speeches of the candidates to heart and are projecting the messages onto students they feel fit the stereotypes in the speeches.”
            Further, the self-correcting mechanisms built by the society seem damaged by the Trump phenomenon. One teacher noted that once upon a time—before this election campaign—if a student made a racial or ethnic remark and was called out, there would not be a repetition in that class. “Now, they argue back. They question me, why I think it is not appropriate to say when their parents and the future president of this country is saying it.”
            This is undermining years of anti-bullying efforts, some teachers report, as kids emulate Trump in feeling that they now have license to say whatever hurtful things they wish. “I think Trump's rude and brash behavior teaches my students that they can act like that.”
            The long-term ramifications are both obvious and stealthy. The country’s veneer of racial, ethnic, and religious accommodation is under severe stress, with segments of the new generation of citizens now accustomed to righteous-sounding distaste for those who are different. There is nothing new in this, of course, but it’s been a long while since a national leader has given such hatred positive sanction.
            Less visible are two other probable results: one, the spreading alienation from government, what a Connecticut high school teacher observed as students “losing respect for the political process and for the office of the president.” Two, the plummeting standards of intellectual honesty and critical thinking.
So far in this campaign, millions of American voters have put on display the failure of the nation’s schools to teach citizens to value accuracy, to revere honesty, to respect facts, to consider history, and to exercise enough intellectual curiosity to disassemble candidates’ statements for acute analysis. Shouldn’t these skills and values be taught in every high school?
“They are increasingly political (which is good),” a New York high school teacher wrote of the students, “but the extreme rhetoric being modeled is not helping their ability to utilize reason and evidence, rather than replying in kind.”

            Therefore, even once Trump vanishes like a sinister specter, hopefully on November 8, his shadow will linger for at least a generation—unless teachers across the country do their jobs assiduously to help youngsters learn what they need for respectful citizenship.

August 16, 2016

Does Putin Want Trump? Really?

By David K. Shipler

            Of all the odd things that have happened on the way to the presidential election, the weirdest is the spectacle of Republicans, once the fist-pounding party of national security, shrugging off Donald Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin and for Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. Further, to turn normalcy completely upside down, the Democrats, once the party of internationalism, are pointing fingers at the specter of treacherous foreign influence subverting American democracy.
            With some exceptions, the right has been indifferent and the left has been apoplectic over Trump’s embrace of Moscow’s perspectives. He has spoken admiringly of Putin, and Putin has returned the favor. The Republican candidate has accepted Russia’s annexation of Crimea, deleted a call for lethal arms to Ukraine from the Republican Party’s platform, brushed off the suspicious murders of nonconforming Russian journalists, and questioned whether NATO members such as the Baltics should be defended in accordance with the treaty’s obligations.
            Presumably to help Trump, two of Russia’s intelligence services hacked the email files of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, with mildly embarrassing releases so far and, surely, more serious disclosures to come. Meanwhile, Trump receives favored coverage and commentary by the Kremlin’s Russia Today television broadcasts in the U.S.
            The question is whether Putin, who is reputed to be a canny manipulator, really thinks that Russia would be well served by having a crackpot in the White House. Maybe so, if he’s as short-sighted as his KGB training taught him to be.

July 22, 2016

Trump's Dystopian America

By David K. Shipler


In Soviet times, Russians used to tell the joke about the man who went into a Moscow clinic to ask for an eye and ear doctor.
“We don’t have an eye and ear doctor,” said the receptionist. “We have an eye doctor, and we have an ear doctor. You’ll have to get an appointment with one and then the other.”
“No,” the man insisted. “I need an eye and ear doctor.”
“Why?”
“Because I keep hearing one thing and seeing another.”
Listening to Donald Trump and his Republican enablers is like hearing the fictions of communist propaganda inverted, not to glorify the country as in the Soviet Union but to picture America as having fallen into the dark abyss of violence, helplessness, and “humiliation,” a word Trump favored in his acceptance speech. This portrait is essential as a prelude to autocracy. A country does not move in that direction without fear, anger and despair, which has to be generated and heightened as the population is presented with a savior.
Moreover, an earlier American utopia existed, according to the bizarre Trumpist vision, and it can be restored by one man alone, who first has to convince enough citizens that they live today in dystopia. Trump’s declarations contain no legislators, no political pluralism, and no legitimate competing interests in a diverse society. “I alone can fix it,” he actually said as he described a broken system during his address to the Republican convention. The blustering promises of the Republican candidate for president suggest that he is entirely unfamiliar with the American constitutional system of checks and balances, the separation of powers. Indeed, as the rabble he has mobilized chanted at the convention for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment, history was being made: it might have been the first time that one American political party has called for the jailing of its opponent for president.

July 11, 2016

Recollections: Three Stories About Sydney Schanberg

By David K. Shipler

            The word “great” is overused in this age of superlatives, but it’s no exaggeration when applied to Syd Schanberg, whose coverage of Cambodia during its 1970s war has been remembered almost reverently, since he died last week, by those who worked with him. Here are three vignettes:

            One evening in Phnom Penh, as we were about to take Syd’s favorite government censor to a French restaurant for rich food and copious amounts of wine—standard practice to lubricate the “approved” stamp on controversial copy—Syd told me of a run-in with a different Cambodian censor three years earlier. It had been 1970, as ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia were being attacked and imprisoned by the government and civilians. Syd wrote of Vietnamese being placed in “internment camps.” The censor, whose English was passable but not colloquial, said (as I recall Syd recalling the quote), “Mr. Schanberg, the phrase ‘internment camps’ is not correct. We are not imprisoning them. We are just bringing them together for their own protection. We are concentrating them. You should say, ‘concentration camps.’” That wouldn’t be such a good idea, Syd told the censor. In the story, I believe, it came out just plain “camps.”

Syd had a towering sense of justice—some might call it self-righteousness, and he could be prickly about it. He had a keen eye, and his indignation flared over incidents that less sensitive people would have considered insignificant. One day, when he and I were walking into some government compound with Dith Pran—the storied Cambodian interpreter and fixer whose trials and ultimate escape after the Khmer Rouge takeover were dramatized in the film, “Killing Fields”—the Cambodian guard at the gate called Pran over for a pat-down but was about to let us two Americans pass without a check. Syd raised an angry protest, practically shouting at the guard that if he was going to frisk Pran he was damned well going to frisk us as well. The guard, clearly confused by this unique American who eschewed the privilege of being American, obediently gave us both perfunctory pat-downs.

July 9, 2016

The Killers Among Us

By David K. Shipler

There are racial killers among us. They are armed and dangerous, and they are hiding in plain sight. Some wear the camouflage of police uniforms and are hard to pick out from the ranks of law-abiding law enforcement officers. Others are civilians in street clothes. They act alone, or so it seems, outside any conspiracy or organization—so far. Yet they act in a context. They have their sympathizers and rhetorical enablers in America’s deep traditions of bigotry.
The police officers are vested by government with the authority to kill, and when they use that license wantonly, they are rarely punished, although a pageant of due process is often performed for the spectators in the streets. The victims usually have skin darker than the killers’.
Civilian murderers are allowed to arm themselves under a perverse political calculation by the Republican Party and a twisting of the Constitution’s Second Amendment by the conservative justices of the Supreme Court. The right to bear arms has become a malignancy in the healthy body of the rights that keep us free—the rights to speech, to religion, to peaceful assembly, to a free press, to counsel, to jury trial, and against forced confession and cruel and unusual punishment. The country is awash in lethal weapons, easily acquired. Cops are not wrong to assume that one or another citizen they encounter is armed.
Therefore, the events of the last few days have been both shocking and predictable. It should be no surprise that the spate of police shootings of black men, despite all the protests they have generated, has been followed by more shootings by police—in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Anthony, Minnesota. This is likely to continue until two things happen: the officers start being put in jail and police departments nationwide scrub themselves from top to bottom of the racial stereotypes picturing blacks as inherently violent and threatening.
That image of danger, one of the most prominent in the array of racial caricatures, heightens the wariness of some cops when they face black men. That can happen with black cops, too, who are not immune from the society’s messages about African-Americans. And when cops then become targets in retaliation, as they did in the Dallas sniper attack on Thursday night, officers’ fears are stoked further, and the trigger fingers get jittery. The black sniper told a police negotiator that he was out to get white officers; he killed five and wounded seven.
Ironically, Dallas is a police department that has worked hard to heal relations with minority communities. Many other departments across the country have done little to combat the racial stereotyping that many cops bring with them to the job, and which is reinforced by the comments of fellow officers, not to mention the society at large. It would be illuminating to learn whether cops who have killed unarmed blacks have visited racist web sites. It would be interesting to know whether they like what they hear when Donald Trump tells crowds of supporters to beat up a black protestor or to fear and exclude Muslims.
Trump has fueled a lust to assess people by their racial and ethnic groupings, and the measure of his success can be heard in the ugly roars of the crowds at his rallies. When he denounced the judge hearing the civil suit against Trump University for his Mexican heritage, he said, “I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump . . . His name is Gonzalo Curiel.” At the sound of the judge’s name, the mob erupted in a primitive, angry sound that will echo throughout the country long after Trump has disappeared.
Far from heralding the arrival of a post-racial society, Barak Obama’s election as the first black president has facilitated the eruption of online racist caricatures, web sites, T-shirts, even baby clothes. After decades of building an elaborate superstructure of inhibitions to curtail the expression of bigotry, American culture sees the structure eroding. Prejudice is voiced with increasing vigor and conviction. Using justifiable criticism of a president as a cover, many right-wingers have woven racial stereotyping into their arguments against Obama, and so have cracked the veneer of courtesy and decency that has developed since the civil rights movement. That veneer has masked virulent racist attitudes beneath, to be sure, but they are now loosened with greater ease. It is impossible for all police officers to resist the flows of toxic attitudes.
So, this will continue. The logic of vengeance dictates that the spate of shootings by police should be followed by shootings of police. It is significant that officials first believed that three or four snipers were involved in Dallas, carefully positioned to triangulate their targets. It would be an alarming escalation but entirely expected. The disciples of hatred find one another eventually, and they conspire. Furthermore, on the other side, the outraged and aggrieved include the legions of gun-toting white supremacists who have felt empowered by the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Given the broad context, it is not enough to point only to the shooters. The observation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel comes to mind: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

July 1, 2016

The Republican Party's Core Principles on Poverty

By David K. Shipler

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is busily issuing paper after paper on his party’s “core principles” regarding poverty, health care, national security, the tax code, and the like. These are meant to be serious proposals for reform, and they should be taken seriously, for some of them pose serious threats to less fortunate Americans.
That is especially so with Ryan’s anti-poverty plan entitled “A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America.” The 35-page document is heavily punitive, advocating sanctions against the poor if they do not achieve employment. If the plan were implemented by a Republican Congress under a Trump administration, it would further shred the safety net that now protects numerous innocent children from hunger and homelessness.
The damage would be done in two ways: first, by requiring heads of poor households to get jobs or lose their food stamps and housing subsidies—in effect, adding to those essential benefits the work requirements that currently limit cash welfare checks through Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). In other words, if you don’t get a job, no help getting food for your kids and keeping a roof over your family’s head.
Second, Ryan would decentralize accountability by cutting most strings that are attached by the federal government to state and local expenditures of federal funds. So, recipients of grants would have pretty free rein to spend the money as they wish. Unfortunately, not all states care much about poor people, as we’ve seen in the Republican-led states that have rejected Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, even though the cost is borne almost entirely by Washington.

June 25, 2016

Brexit, Trump, and Idols of the Tribe

By David K. Shipler

            In 1975, Harold R. Isaacs began his book Idols of the Tribe this way:

            “We are experiencing on a massively universal scale a convulsive ingathering of people in their numberless grouping of kinds—tribal, racial, linguistic, religious, national. It is a great clustering into separateness that will, it is thought, improve, assure, or extend each group’s power or place, or keep it safe or safer from the power, threat, or hostility of others. This is obviously no new condition, only the latest and by far the most inclusive chapter of the old story in which after failing again to find how they can co-exist in sight of each other without tearing each other limb from limb, Isaac and Ishmael clash and part in panic and retreat once more into their caves.”

            Four decades later, supposedly civilized people are retreating once more into their caves to shear off the intricate connections with “them,” to escape from “others” who are “different,” and to celebrate their own group by denigrating those across the boundaries of race, religion, nationality—of tribe. Harold Isaacs, my father-in-law, would be appalled but surely not surprised, for his work on group identity drilled into the long human habit of self-definition that relied on stereotyping, categorizing, and rejecting whole peoples.
            As at certain earlier times in history, this bad habit is now translating itself into toxic politics. Make no mistake: The United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union—a departure that is expected to feed other ethnocentric moves on the Continent—was driven essentially by antipathy toward “others” who had paid the UK the highest regard by uprooting themselves and settling there.
There were the reasonable complaints about high-handed EU regulation of British consumer safety standards, for example, and the burden of rescuing economic basket cases like Greece. But immigration seemed the more animating issue: a revulsion toward those whose citizenship in EU member countries gave them free passes into the UK.

June 21, 2016

Obama, Syria, and the Limits of American Power

By David K. Shipler

            Opposition to U.S. policy rarely boils up from the State Department, which the columnist James Reston used to call the Fudge Factory, a place of ambiguous words, hedged bets, and dulled edges. So a dissenting memo on Syria that surfaced last week, signed by 51 State Department officials, caused a stir in Washington, especially after Secretary of State John Kerry was reported to share its argument for focused air strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad—something President Obama has resisted.
            The document sets forth some cogent reasoning and analysis. But it’s noteworthy that it comes from the State Department rather than the Pentagon. Not only is the military more disciplined than the Foreign Service (for better or worse), but it’s also probably more realistic in assessing the complications, costs, and risks of such an escalation.
The military chiefs are said to have steadfastly backed Obama’s refusal to conduct an air war against the Assad regime, and it’s not hard to see why. Cruise missiles could be fired from a safe distance, but if drones were introduced or American pilots flew missions, advanced Syrian air defenses would have to be taken out first. Russian aircraft, now deployed on Assad’s behalf, would have to be countered or induced to stand by idly—an unlikely prospect. Finally, a collapse of Assad would leave a power vacuum (think Libya) into which something worse might flow, something called ISIS.

June 13, 2016

A Nation's Mental Illness

By David K. Shipler

            If the United States were a person, it would be involuntarily confined to a psychiatric institution as a danger to itself and others. Hopefully, it could eventually be cured. But for the time being, it displays a disconnection from reality, a tendency to hear voices of fantasy, an addiction to violence that it knows is self-destructive, and an inability to grasp the logic of cause and effect.
            No mass shooting is needed to reveal these impairments, but every time one occurs, as in Orlando over the weekend, it is a symptom of the national psychosis, seen in a parade of careless pronouncements, declarations, analyses, and proposals. Imaginary enemies are everywhere. Facts are powerless. Magic words are conjured up as remedies—“radical Islam” is what Donald Trump wants Obama and Clinton to say—as if some spell of witchcraft will neutralize the threat.
            Such behavior is not the mark of emotional health. National sanity, equivalent to civic responsibility, requires critical thinking to sort through the ambiguities and contradictions that come with reality. It assumes an instinct for self-preservation that will reject damaging practices, i.e., a recovering alcoholic’s avoidance of alcohol, or a violent individual’s avoidance of weapons. It demands deferred gratification, long-term planning, and an understanding of the consequences of one’s actions.
The United States demonstrates some of these attributes some of the time, but not most of them most of the time. If it had a single brain, it would be diagnosed as paranoid, manic-depressive, schizophrenic, and yet rational and well adjusted all at once. (I checked this with a prominent psychiatrist friend, who confirmed the finding.) That brain would be so torn between oscillating impulses of dysfunction and functionality as to be paralyzed and unable to take care of its own interests except in rare instances.

June 3, 2016

Dear Post Office: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It


By David K. Shipler

            In this age of self-serving politicians and corporate executives, and of resentment toward big business and big government and everything else big that stomps on the little guy, it is worth telling the story of an unassuming man who has put loyalty to a community above financial security. This will not get national attention, but it should.
            First, the geography and the logistics: For 28 years, L.J. Hopkins has loaded up his van every day, six days a week, to meet a variety of needs among folks living on two islands off the coast of Maine. He has driven onto the state ferry for its mid-morning run from Bass Harbor to Swan’s Island, unloaded his cargo, and returned to the mainland on an afternoon ferry. To get stuff to the other island—Long Island’s town of Frenchboro, which has only two ferry trips a week—L.J. has subcontracted with an island resident who has taken it in his boat from Swan’s to Frenchboro.
L.J.’s work can be pretty frantic. On the mainland he races around picking up urgently needed prescription medicine, engine parts, groceries, and the like. If he can’t get it, you probably don’t need it. He’s even taken two blown tires of mine off to the mainland to get fixed, and brought them back. He transports FedEx and UPS packages. And, most central to his financial well-being, he had a contract to transport the mail to the Swan’s Island post office—until earlier this spring, when small bureaucrats wielding excessive power prevailed. For decades before him, his mother brought the mail as well.
(This account is not exactly the official version, because the Postal Service’s regional public relations spokesman, Stephen N. Doherty, failed to reply to any of my rather pointed questions.)
The shock came when the local postmaster in the mainland town of Southwest Harbor, Mary Saucier, told L.J. that Postal Service regulations prohibited a vehicle from carrying anything other than mail. So, if L.J. wanted his $100,000-a-year contract, he could not take anything else, no FedEx, no UPS, no prescriptions, no groceries, no tools or parts to keep lobstermen’s engines running—nothing but mail.