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

April 20, 2017

An Encounter with Bill O’Reilly’s Method

By David K. Shipler

            In 2004, with the publication of my book The Working Poor: Invisible in America, I was contacted by producers for the O’Reilly Factor about coming on the show to discuss poverty. First, though, the producers wanted to track down a man who’d made only a cameo appearance in my book, Kevin Fields. He had been buffeted by both his own mistakes and a society that lined up against him as he made assiduous efforts to pull himself into full employment and self-sufficiency. O’Reilly’s producers wanted to get him on the show with me.
            To no good purpose, I was sure. O’Reilly didn’t admire the poor; he stereotyped them. He would make mincemeat of Kevin. So while I tried to locate him, I thought I’d probably warn him what might be coming and perhaps advise him against appearing. But I couldn’t find him. I’d met him through his girlfriend, who had moved and disappeared from public records. There was no listing for him.
This I reported to the producers, but O’Reilly wouldn’t let them give up. So they contacted the penitentiary where Fields had spent two years for assault (with a baseball bat, he had told me, against five guys threatening him and his girlfriend) and got an address. The producers cleverly refrained from telling me that they’d found him, that they’d then interviewed him by phone, and that—while he wouldn’t be on the show—O'Reilly would present distorted facts about him to fit Fields into the conservative image of the immoral, undeserving poor.
I’d mentioned in the book that Fields, trained in prison as a butcher, hadn’t been able to get a job as one and had done mostly landscaping. But O’Reilly was determined to portray him as a lazy, self-indulgent, sex-crazed slacker.
Fields happens to be black, and the image of the sexually promiscuous and aggressive black man is deeply rooted in white prejudice. This O’Reilly played on, announcing with gleeful indignation that Fields had fathered four children by four different women (two more than at the time I’d interviewed him, Fields had told the producers).
O'Reilly then proceeded to outright falsehoods and distortions. “He’s been incarcerated time and again for failing to pay child support,” O’Reilly declared. Not true, as I learned when I reached Fields after the show: He’d been jailed once for one week and had otherwise made his payments.
“Here’s a man who’s just flat out irresponsible!” O’Reilly huffed. Fields was one of those people “basically, at their core, unable, unable—all right?—to be responsible. Thus, no one’s gonna hire them.”
But in fact, O’Reilly’s producers knew that Fields had been hired, which he told me afterwards he had explained to them. He had been working steadily for the past three and a half years as a meat wrapper in a Giant supermarket, at $7.35 an hour.
Fields was no model citizen: multiple kids with multiple women, a spotty job record, a quick temper that got him into trouble at least once with the law—but also a relentless determination to hold down steady work and advance against the odds as much as he could. All these were elements of the complex contradictions of a life that didn’t fit neatly into either the liberal box defining the social roots of poverty or the conservative impulse to blame the victims.

Complexity was not the stuff of the O’Reilly Factor, whose host had to distort to make his argument. Seeing him expelled from Fox for sexual harassment, after denouncing Kevin Fields for his sexual activity, brings a certain satisfaction. Except that we can be sure that Fox will find other such propagandists to carry the banner of bigotry.

April 9, 2017

Putin's Wrong Bet

By David K. Shipler

            If Vladimir Putin actually preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, he just drew his first bad hand. As (not so) humbly predicted in this journal during the campaign, Clinton would have been a methodical, predictable commander-in-chief who would have acted in Syria and elsewhere within a strong diplomatic and military context, not impulsively based on horrendous photographs of gassed children. That was good enough reason to stir Trump’s latent humanitarian impulses, but a single missile strike without solid preparation and well considered follow-up is unlikely to send what press secretary Sean Spicer called “a very strong signal.” Messages sent with missiles and bombs are rarely received as intended.
Clinton would surely have done what Trump didn’t bother to do: She would have been on the phone with Putin after Syria’s chemical weapons strike. She would have talked with Putin before retaliating. She would have surrounded herself with seasoned foreign-policy professionals who would have been working closely with Moscow, even in tough and hard-headed fashion, to fashion a joint approach to ending the Syrian carnage. She would not have led Putin to fantasize that he had a president in Washington that he could twist around his little finger.
This is a speculative scenario, to be sure. But as both Secretary of State and presidential candidate, Clinton displayed a clear-eyed realpolitik—willing to face down Putin but work with him on the countries’ overlapping interests, especially on counter-terrorism. While more hawkish than President Obama, she showed no inclination to go off on half-cocked military adventures isolated from any coherent strategy.

March 29, 2017

The Papier-Mache President

By David K. Shipler

            Now we know, if we had any doubts, what lies behind Donald Trump’s expansive promises and self-promotion as a tough dealmaker: nothing. The health-care debacle makes it clear that when it comes to driving a hard bargain, Trump is a chump, to use a word that has become fashionable in the mainstream press. He can’t even twist arms in his own party.
His assault on measures to stem climate change, and his withdrawal from the trans-Pacific trade agreement, benefit only China, which is moving to fill the vacuum left by the American departure. Thomas L. Friedman calls this policy, Make China Great Again. And Trump’s shameless use of coal miners as props this week for his empty promises to bring back jobs in a declining industry made him look either cynical or ignorant.
The miners were evidently advised to wear casual short-sleeved shirts, not the customary suits and ties, to the ceremony where Trump signed an executive order to begin a long, legally contentious process of replacing the Obama administration’s restrictions on coal-burning power plants. The class-conscious picture—men in suits vs. men carefully dressed down—said as much about the Trump White House as last week’s photo of all white men discussing their bill stripping women’s health services from insurance requirements.
 These images are icons of contempt. Moreover, they add up to a president who is just a life-size cardboard cutout that you can stand next to and have your picture taken. Behind the façade, there is no there there.

March 23, 2017

Judge Gorsuch's "Magical Notion"

By David K. Shipler

            Late in the third day of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii summed up the judge’s picture of American jurisprudence with three words: “a magical notion.” She called his portrait of neutral, apolitical judges interpreting the law fairly and without personal bias a Norman Rockwell painting of the courts, as if he himself weren’t being promoted by the dark money of hidden billionaires, as emphasized by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse in a tough interrogation.
            Through incisive questioning by Democratic senators (Republicans lobbed only softballs), Gorsuch stuck resolutely to his line that there were no “Republican judges or Democrat judges.” In this phrasing he repeatedly allowed his mask to slip, since the use of the noun “Democrat” as an adjective instead of “Democratic” is embedded in the lexicon of the right, designed to deny that opposition party the mantle of representing masses of citizens. He also took several opportunities to mention that judges appointed by “Democrat” presidents had joined him in opinions. In other words, the courts transcend politics.
            It would be a grand gift to the republic if it were always so. It often is, especially on lower courts, such as the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals where Gorsuch has served for a decade, and which are bound by precedent. He and the two other judges on his panel relied on a particularly cruel precedent when they denied an autistic child payment for private residential educational services that the local school district could not provide. The earlier case in his circuit found that under the law, such schooling “must merely be ‘more than de minimus,’” Gorsuch wrote, adding the word “merely.”

March 17, 2017

The Gradual Death of Honest Curiosity

By David K. Shipler

            The United States these days seems overrun by the indignantly incurious. They already know everything. They take no pleasure in ambiguity. They bask in certitude, entertain no doubts, and miss the beauty of seeing their preconceptions contradicted by complexity. They populate the political left and the political right, the halls of government, the studios of propaganda outlets masquerading as “news,” and even college campuses. Most seriously, they refuse to listen to those who disagree and even try to silence them.
            Dogmatic absolutists have always found places in American society: Jim Crow segregationists, black-power separatists, white supremacists, true communists, red-baiting conservatives, and ideologues of all stripes who never let facts get in the way of a good screed.
But they have never gained as much national power as today. This feels like something different. Where is the ballast that has righted the country in the past? Has a tipping point been reached?
The problem is not just the “fake news” that permeates the internet. It is the people who believe it. The problem is not just the lying by Donald Trump and his minions--their fabrications about imaginary surveillance, voter fraud, terrorist attacks, and the like. It is the citizens who feed Trump’s frenzy by roaring approval without bothering to reach for truth by checking the facts, which they could do online from home by evaluating sources. It’s not such a daunting task.
Americans are split between those who do just that and those who don’t, between those who are open and those who are closed to the cross-currents of reality. This is a serious fault line running through the United States, this divide between curiosity and complacency, between those willing to accept challenges to their opinions and those who sift out whatever they don’t want to believe.

March 6, 2017

What Should Democrats Do?

By David K. Shipler

            The distraught Democratic Party is at odds with itself about how to counter the unconventional presidency of Donald Trump. On the revolutionary side are the Bernie Sanders supporters and others who want to trash the party’s own establishment, play Tea Party politics, and obstruct everything proposed by the White House and Congressional Republicans. On the pragmatic side are the political pros who want to get elected in states that went for Trump. Both sides recognize the need to win seats in local races and state legislatures, plus the all-important governorships ahead of the 2020 census that will determine redistricting.
            Among the key decisions that must be made is how—or even whether—to approach the white working-class citizenry that voted for Trump. Some argue that the nationwide demographic wave favors Democrats as minorities ride to majority status in the country at large. Identity politics will eventually work as the percentage of whites diminishes, so goes the reasoning, because Republicans have turned their backs on minority interests while Democrats have embraced them.
            But the assumption has flaws. First, minority voters come in many different political flavors and can’t be counted on to vote overwhelmingly for liberal Democratic ideas, even if they’re most helped by them. Socially conservative currents run through certain nonwhite subcultures: the anti-abortion views promoted by some black churches, for example, and an anti-regulatory position among small-business owners. It’s possible that an aversion to female leaders was partly responsible for Hillary Clinton’s poor showing in Florida’s largely Hispanic counties. Exit polls showed that Trump won 28 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, to Clinton’s 66 percent, compared with Obama’s 71 percent in 2012.

February 26, 2017

Speak Loudly and Carry a Small Stick

By David K. Shipler

            When will we stop listening to Donald Trump? Yes, he’s president with a lot of power to make people’s lives miserable, but his tweets? Please. His latest, at this writing, is an attack on an ad (“a bad one”) for the “failing @nytimes” scheduled to air during the Oscars ceremony. The Times ad declares: “The truth is hard. The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.” How fitting that Trump should make his debut in the art of reviewing TV commercials by panning one that extols the virtue of truth.
It might be imperative in a democracy to remain shocked, to sound the alarm again and again. But at what point does the public become numb to presidential absurdity? How literally do we take his historical allusion, for example, calling the “fake news” media the “enemy of the people.” Did Trump know that he was borrowing a line from Lenin and Stalin that was used as a condemnation deserving of death or imprisonment? The phrase is so heavily weighted that it was avoided in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953.
            The Times ad selling truth follows the exclusion of the paper’s reporters, plus those from CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and several other news organizations, from an informal briefing by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, whose contempt for the press seems to have begun in college when the student newspaper called him Sean Sphincter. Editors then insisted it was just a mistake, a typo. Yeah, sure. Spicer doesn’t seem to have healed.

February 16, 2017

Lies Beget Lying

By David K. Shipler

            If you lie to your children, they will learn to lie to you. If you lie to your spouse, you will create a family culture of falsehood in which he or she will, unless strongly honest, lie to you as well. If you lie to your employees, don’t expect them to pass uncomfortable truths up the chain of command. And if, as president, you lie to the country and perhaps to your staff, many of them will breathe the miasma of fabrication that emanates from the top, and will surely assume that lying is an acceptable way of life in the White House.
            So President Trump’s dismissal of Michael Flynn for lying is like a projection of Trump’s own personality flaw onto his subordinate. It is worth noting that this happened only when the Flynn offense became public, courtesy of the “dishonest” Washington Post, which Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he hadn’t seen—a lie in itself, given that he’d been told two weeks earlier by the Justice Department about the contents of wiretapped conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador.
Does anyone think that the then president-elect did not authorize those conversations, that Flynn just flew solo without consulting with Trump? Is it possible that Trump ordered, or at least approved, Flynn’s discussing the post-Ukraine sanctions with the ambassador, perhaps obliquely suggesting that they could be eased by the incoming administration? Then, in the poisonous atmosphere of the West Wing after the inauguration, might Trump have wanted the substance of those discussions held closely, even from Vice President Mike Pence, who is no Russia fan? So, was Flynn just following his boss’s wishes in telling Pence that sanctions had not been discussed?
And by the way, shouldn’t the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency know that the Russian ambassador’s phone calls are monitored by the National Security Agency? Did Flynn figure on Trump’s having his back if transcripts were ever leaked? Note that the day after asking for Flynn’s resignation, Trump called him “a wonderful man” who was treated unfairly by the “fake media” and outed by leakers who committed a crime.
You see, Mr. President, this is what compulsive lying at the top leads to. Everything down below begins to look like a lie as well.

February 10, 2017

The Propagandist and the Press

By David K. Shipler

            It might be time to recognize that President Trump’s tweets and ill-tempered outbursts about the press are not just scattered impulses but part of a foundation being carefully laid to stifle investigative reporting and robust expression by the country’s news organizations. And a large plurality of Americans will be with him, as he showed during the campaign, when roars of approval greeted his threatening vilification of reporters covering his rallies.
            Now, in office, he and his new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, are in a position to test the limits of the First Amendment by various means, including legal actions that might be too expensive for any but the major news outlets to withstand. These could include extreme measures to silence government whistleblowers, aggressive demands on reporters to identify their confidential sources, and even moves to prosecute editors for publishing classified information. A Trump administration might make another attempt at prior restraint, which was repelled in 1971 by the Supreme Court, 6-3, when the Nixon administration tried to block publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War.
            Some responsible news organizations are already bracing for the onslaught and have redoubled their efforts to dig beneath the visible news. They now include on their websites instructions on how to use various encrypted communications to “share news tips with us confidentially,” as The Washington Post explains. The Post, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, for example, include links to such mechanisms as WhatsApp, Signal, SecureDrop, Strongbox, and Pidgin, with details on how much information about sender and receiver is retained by the providers. Even where the texts of messages are encrypted, some providers keep metadata—users’ phone numbers, email addresses, and time stamps—which could be subpoenaed by government to show that an official has been in contact with a reporter.  
These invitations to get in touch are useful, but they’re passive. The press also needs to assign beat reporters to regulatory agencies that have never received much day-in, day-out coverage. Getting into the weeds where mid-level officials reside, and finding what the columnist James Reston used to call “the man with the unhappy look on his face,” is essential for documenting the subtler shifts in rules and enforcement that are likely under Trump and the team of dismantlers he has assembled.

February 3, 2017

Trump's Next Target: Muslims in America?

By David K. Shipler

            Under a proposal reportedly circulating in the Trump administration, the Muslim Brotherhood would be listed by the Departments of State and Treasury as a terrorist organization. It would be a legally questionable step, given that the Brotherhood is so diffuse that it probably wouldn’t qualify as an “organization.” But at least until a successful court challenge, the designation could subject many Muslims in the United States, including American citizens, to prosecution under the law that punishes those who provide “material support” to terrorist groups.
            That is because key White House officials evidently accept the assertion by anti-Islam conspiracy theorists that many mosques, Islamic centers, and Muslim rights associations in the United States are fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood and training grounds for jihadists. Despite the absence of evidence, several top aides, including Trump’s senior counselor Stephen K. Bannon and national security advisor Michael Flynn, have given credence to activists who see a grand scheme engineered by the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate government, subvert the West, and impose shariah law—all this by Muslims who account for a mere 1 percent of the country’s population.
 As chairman of Breitbart News before joining the Trump campaign, Bannon provided a large megaphone to the small fringe of anti-Muslim propagandists. He distributed their alarmist warnings without a hint of skepticism, and without raising questions about their sources, which invariably disintegrate under scrutiny. Flynn served on the board of advisers for ACT for America, a radical group that agitates against Islamic centers and organizations.
 Islamic centers throughout the United States house mosques, schools, and facilities for community gatherings. But their image of innocent good works masks a sinister purpose, according to John Guandolo, a former FBI agent and periodic guest on a show Bannon hosted, broadcast on SiriusXM Radio. In a December 2015 edition, for example, Bannon accepted without challenge Guandolo’s contention that over 75 percent of the Islamic centers are “owned by the North American Islamic Trust, which is the bank for the Muslim Brotherhood here.”

January 26, 2017

The Leading US Manufacturer—of Problems

David K. Shipler

             The truckload of problems that new presidents suddenly face when they enter the Oval Office must not be enough for Donald Trump, because he is manufacturing his own to add to the pile. These are problems that did not exist beforehand. Some are inventions of his fertile imagination, others are new and damaging twists to old issues whose scars had long healed.
            Here is a short list:
            Mexico. As a cardinal rule of national security, you do not pick fights with a peaceful friend who shares a 2,000-mile border. You do not risk stoking anti-American radicalism that could bring an antagonistic government to power and turn your neighbor hostile. You do not endanger your security by jeopardizing the anti-drug cooperation that has developed. You do not provoke Mexico's president to cancel a visit to Washington. And if you don’t want more Mexicans to cross illegally into the US, you don’t make it hard for them to get decent jobs at home. By bullying companies not to build factories there and by imposing steep tariffs on their goods, you damage their economy and create more incentive to come to the US.
            China. If you want to address the actual, serious tensions that exist with China—trade, military expansionism, and the like—you don’t reopen the one-China policy by engaging with Taiwan, an approach with no gain for the US. If you’re a post-election Trump and you can’t resist tramping around awkwardly inside the carefully groomed garden of foreign policy, at least try to think more than one stomp ahead. And if you commit a clownish faux pas by speaking with the president of Taiwan, let it pass and be seen in Beijing as a rookie mistake. Don’t follow it up with threats to use some recognition of Taiwan as a bludgeon against China in other areas. Since Nixon, China has grown accustomed to the US accepting the fiction that Taiwan is just a Chinese province. It’s silly to us but essential to Beijing, which could probably invade and seize Taiwan before Trump could tweet, “Sad.”

January 19, 2017

America Enters a Fourth World

By David K. Shipler

            Beginning at noon Friday, when Donald Trump becomes the most childish, reckless, and truthless president in modern American history, the United States takes the first step into a new category of nations: those once mighty and noble that are falling into frailty and disrepute. Unless our institutions and traditions turn out to be stronger than our people—which is entirely possible—we will become the charter member of what can be called the Fourth World.
            It is a place of undoing. It is a place where moral values of the common good are picked apart, strand by strand, until only the shreds of caring and justice remain. It is where progress is dismantled: progress—albeit fitful and incomplete—in mobilizing the society through government to protect the impoverished from utter ruin, the innocent from false imprisonment, minorities from tyranny, children from hunger, families from dangerous foods and medicines and polluted air and water, and the earth from the end-stage of catastrophic global warming.
            There is nothing divinely ordained about America’s greatness. Once Trump and the radicals who will populate most of his cabinet finish their efforts to destroy what has been painstakingly constructed over decades, it will take a generation to recover. That is the actual time when it will be appropriate to plead, “Make America Great Again!”
            The Fourth World will come after the Third World, a term coined in 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, a French demographer, to mean poor, undeveloped countries “ignored, exploited, scorned, like the Third Estate,” he wrote in L’Observateur. His reference to the Third Estate dated back to the gathering storm of the French Revolution, when Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes used it to refer to the common people, as opposed to the clergy (First Estate) and the nobility (Second Estate).

January 12, 2017

To Russia With Love

By David K. Shipler

            It is impossible now, in the maelstrom of information and disinformation swirling around Donald Trump and Russia, for the United States to deliberate reasonably about its relationship with Moscow. It could happen if Trump were just slightly nuanced and sophisticated, because he is clearly disposed to patching things up with Putin. That would be a good thing if the open hand were accompanied by a clenched fist, to be raised when necessary.
Oddly, though, Trump cannot summon an unkind word about Russian policy and behavior, possibly because he sees the world in black and white, is consistently blind to shades of gray, and is determined to overturn all the tables and chairs of conventional thinking in Washington. He has thus polarized, not persuaded, and has helped fuel a dangerous hysteria about Russia in the national security and political establishment. It is reminiscent of the Cold War, when the Moscow-Washington global competition was viewed as a zero-sum game, with every gain by one seen as an equivalent loss by the other.
But the Russia-US relationship today is not a zero-sum game. It includes intelligence sharing on terrorism, the potential for joint efforts in Syria, collaboration in space and science, work on climate change and preserving the Arctic, and on. The relationship is an intricate tangle of conflict and cooperation, of clashing and mutual interests, of risks and rewards. Hillary Clinton clearly understood this. So, it seems, does Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, as indicated in his Senate confirmation hearing. But the President-elect shows no sign of seeing the cross-currents or looking past his next move. He plays checkers while Putin plays chess.