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

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.