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

October 25, 2012

The Blessings of Romnesia

By David K. Shipler

Getting a fix on Mitt Romney’s positions and beliefs is like trying to nail a custard pie to the wall. But let’s give a small cheer for his Etch-A-Sketch routine on foreign policy. Holding his finger to the wind (while we’re mixing metaphors, we might as well go whole hog), he and his handlers apparently detected a fresh breeze of moderation among the electorate, so he abandoned his super-hawk routines on China, Russia, Iran, Syria, and Israel. As Vice President Joe Biden observed, Romney agreed with Obama so often during their debate that he seemed about to give the President his endorsement.

Fussy foreign-policy wonks have listed ad nauseam the important subjects ignored, bemoaning the lack of creative ideas, the surfeit of pedestrian formulas, and of course the factual misstatements, mostly by Romney--as in Obama’s fictional “apology tour.” But it’s encouraging that Romney now (at least for the moment) sees the center as the place to be when addressing the international maelstrom he will inherit if he wins.

This apparent shift is a little premature. It usually happens in the Oval Office, where the rigors of foreign affairs drive presidents toward the comfortable middle, no matter if they begin on the right or the left.

October 16, 2012

Syria: No Good Options

By David K. Shipler

A sad coincidence occurred this week. As the 14-year-old Pakistani campaigner for girls’ education, Malala Yousafzai, was being flown to Britain for treatment after being shot in the head by the Taliban, David Sanger of The New York Times was reporting from Washington that most small arms flowing to Syrian rebels were ending up in the hands of “hard-line Islamic jihadists.” On the surface, Pakistan has nothing to do with Syria, but when you throw Afghanistan into the picture, you get a cautionary tale.

In the late 1970s, the Soviet-imposed regime in Kabul sparked religious resistance in the Afghan countryside, in part by requiring schooling for girls, a socialist (and Western) doctrine that violated absolutist Islam. For a decade after Moscow’s 1979 invasion an insurgency of mujahideen, organized by regional warlords, bled the Soviet army with weapons from the CIA, finally driving the Russians into a humiliating withdrawal, much like America’s retreat from Vietnam.

October 11, 2012

Affirmative Action 2.0

By David K. Shipler

When admissions officers from thirty elite universities were asked how many of them were the first in their families to attend college, about two-thirds raised their hands. It was a stunning response, which surprised even them. Here were the gatekeepers for all the Ivy League schools—from Dartmouth to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the rest--plus an array of the other hardest schools to get into, from Amherst to Rice, Carleton, Stanford, Wellesley, Smith, Swarthmore, and the like. They were gathered in Aspen in 2004 to consider how to increase enrollment by students from low-income families.

I had been invited to speak to them about the dynamics of poverty, which some of them already understood very well. Their own upward mobility helped give them a sense of mission, which they were poised to take home to their respective presidents. Some have since succeeded, to a point, and others may do so soon, for race-based affirmative action is now in jeopardy before the Supreme Court. Class-based affirmative action is the likely substitute.

October 3, 2012

Mixing Religion Into Politics

By David K. Shipler

(published in Moment, Sept.-Oct. 2012)

If opinion polls on religion and politics are accurate, the American public reached a turning point last March, in the heat of the Republican primaries. For the first time in the 12 years that the Pew Research Center has been surveying attitudes, a plurality—38 percent—said that politicians talked too much about faith and prayer, exceeding the 30 percent who thought they talked too little. Until now, the figures had been reversed. The “too-little” camp reached a high of 41 percent in 2003. And this year, only 25 percent—down from 60 percent in 2001—felt that political leaders were expressing religious faith in just the right amount.

Does this indicate a growing distaste for candidates who mix religion into government? Let’s not get ecstatic quite yet. The First Amendment still sits uncomfortably on a good number of citizens, especially white evangelical Protestants.