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

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.
While the responsible press dutifully fact-checks and exposes each of Trump’s lies and fabrications, it is not just the individual falsehoods but the way they are strung together in a grim necklace of discontent that decorates his appeal. Only if you harbor a particular bitterness and terror will you recognized the country he describes.
The United States has plenty of defects, but most of them are not the ones being attacked by Trump or addressed by the Republican Party. The Trumpist propaganda would be harmful enough if he were running as a Democrat with a party behind him that believed in promoting social justice, fighting poverty, retarding global warming, regulating the economy for consumer protection, and reforming policing. No effective problem-solving comes out of misstating the problem.
To get cheers at the Republican convention, though, Trump had to invent a crime scare by focusing on a few cities with a spike in the murder rate and ignoring the precipitous drop in violent crime during the last 25 years. He had to adopt the Nixonian call for “law and order” against the terrible specter of anarchy raised by two gunmen who picked off police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. To avoid boos at the Republican convention, he had to avoid mentioning the killings of unarmed or non-threatening black men by cops.
He had to decry “poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad” but steer clear of proposing the vast anti-poverty programs that are required. Like a benevolent dictator, he declared, “I will restore law and order to our country.” And of course ISIS will be handily wiped away like a toxic stain. His scapegoating of “illegal immigrants,” blamed for the imaginary whirlwind of crime, gave his virtually all-white audience the red meat needed for the simplistic hatred that drives his campaign.
“The situation is worse than it has ever been before,” Trump declared of the international scene. Apparently, history began the day Trump was born, which was just after the end of World War II. He spoke of the world’s mightiest armed forces as a “depleted military.” He pictured law enforcement as the purview of the federal government alone, rather than the disparate state and local authorities where policing is largely done. President Obama, he said, “has made America a more dangerous environment than I have ever seen.” What he has seen has been from his perch on the upper stories of privilege. How many voters will compare the superlatives with reality will be known in November.
Nevertheless, as he boasted at the convention, Trump has given voice to the marginalized and the disaffected—but only among the white working class that got clobbered in the Republican-created economic collapse of 2007-08. Democrats have a lesson to learn from him—not his demagoguery but his talent at tapping that discontent. Those folks should have been courted, respected, and honored by Democrats, if they could have done it without the tools of racism and ethnocentrism. Obama and Congressional Democrats were good on policies but failed to make psychological and emotional connections. Helpful policies, it seems, are necessary but not sufficient in generating political support.
If Trump is elected, which seems highly possible, he will have to manipulate his propaganda. When he fails, as he will, he will have to find scapegoats. They will be citizens of color, foreigners, and liberal movements. He will have to ride roughshod over civil liberties, eroding the Fourth Amendment even more than it has been today. He will have to politicize the criminal justice system to the extent possible. He will have to rule by decrees that will euphemistically be known as executive orders—as much as he can unless he gets a supine Republican Congress.

He will thus bring the dystopian America into reality. And by 2020, he’ll probably have to invert his propaganda to convince the citizenry that utopia has either arrived or is just over the horizon. That brings to mind another joke that Russians liked to tell: The utopia of communism lies just over the horizon, but the horizon is an imaginary line that recedes as you approach it.

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.

May 22, 2016

Vietnam: Admitting Error

By David K. Shipler


            Contrary to Republicans’ false accusation, President Obama has not been traveling the world apologizing for American misdeeds (although there are plenty to be sorry for). Nor will he do so during his tour in Asia, neither at Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. president to visit the target of the first atomic bomb ever used, nor in Vietnam, where a misguided war killed 58,000 Americans and up to 2 million Vietnamese, according to Hanoi’s official estimate.
            Apologies aside, it would be healthy for Obama at least to name the colossal errors of judgment that led to the Vietnam War: the Cold-War assumption that monolithic communism would spread like a red stain around the globe, that North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were mere tools of Beijing and Moscow, that America could remake third parts of the world at will, and that American credibility would be shredded by a loss. In other words, he should call the Vietnam War what it was: a terrible mistake borne of historical ignorance and a disastrous misreading of the anti-colonialism that fueled Vietnamese nationalism.
             John Kerry, who is at Obama’s side as Secretary of State, missed his chance to talk about the war in these terms when he ran for president in 2004. Instead, he snapped a salute at his nominating convention and announced that he was reporting for duty. The transparent gesture to exalt his military role as a young Navy swift-boat commander in Vietnam, rather than embrace his famous conversion into an eloquent opponent of the war, forfeited the opportunity to advance the country’s perspective on the tragedy of its error.

May 16, 2016

The Politics of the Beard

By David K. Shipler

            Here’s the short version: Since I grew a beard on a whim in the summer of 1978, I have been mistaken for many kinds of people in several different countries: a KGB agent, a Maine lobsterman, a Jewish settler, a member of ISIS, and a homeless person. I was told in Kabul that if I added a turban, I could be a mullah, and a conservative in Israel suggested that I put on a yarmulke and go to the West Bank to see how a religious Jew would feel among hostile Palestinians. Each misidentification carried an interesting little lesson.
So did the beard’s absence, for when I went without it for a few months in 1995, I became unrecognizable in certain quarters. When I attended an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I’d worked from 1988-90, nobody greeted me; they simply didn’t know who I was. And my older son’s wedding pictures, taken during that interlude, show this mysterious fellow among the family members, like some interloper. Who is that guy? A woman I know slightly did recognize me bare-faced and quipped, “You’re in disguise!”