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

December 18, 2019

The FBI and the Trouble With Secret Warrants

By David K. Shipler

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.
--The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution
 The FBI, yet again, lied to the court, whose chief judge didn’t do her job properly and then excoriated the FBI. Republicans, who enacted and defended the secret system that permits such abuse, are suddenly in high dudgeon since the victim is one of their own. That’s the brief summary of the controversy over surveillance done on Carter Page, a campaign aide to Donald Trump. Whether something good comes out of the episode is an open question.
  There are basically two legal ways for the government to listen to your phone calls, read your emails, search your house, and invade other areas of your private life. One is with a traditional search warrant, signed by a judge after law enforcement swears that probable cause exists to believe that certain evidence of a specific crime will be found at a particular place and time. The other is with a secret court order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires something quite different: probable cause that you are an agent of a foreign power, meaning either a government or a terrorist organization. No crime need be involved, and the standard of particularity is largely waived.
                Other differences are notable. In a criminal case, the warrant is eventually disclosed and might be presented to the target at his door if he’s home as police arrive to do the search. He ultimately learns details of the searches. Theoretically, he should be able to see the affidavit on probable cause that the police submitted to the judge, so his lawyer can challenge the warrant’s basis and move in court to suppress the resulting evidence. However, in the experience of Richard Foxall, a defense attorney in California, judges rarely allow the defense to inspect the affidavits. (See Foxall's comment below.) That check on law enforcement doesn’t prevent all official wrongdoing, but it helps.
                No such transparency exists in FISA warrants. Not only are they issued in secret by judges in a secret court, they are executed without notice to the target and are never disclosed unless the government chooses to use the resulting evidence in a criminal trial, and even then the affidavits themselves are usually considered classified. Occasionally the FISA material is used as a basis for an ordinary criminal warrant, but defense lawyers are usually blocked from seeing the original application.

December 7, 2019

The Pitfalls of Political Trash Talk

By David K. Shipler

                Nobody in American politics can beat Donald Trump at the game of coarse insults, name-calling, and personal ridicule. And nobody should try, especially Joe Biden, who needs to keep his poise of dignity and decency if he has a chance of rescuing discourse from its quagmire. Little temper tantrums and macho posturing, provoked Thursday by an Iowa voter’s unfriendly question, are not going to please citizens looking for a return to decorum.
Besides, Biden’s not very good at it. An early attempt occurred back in October 2016, when Biden was campaigning for Hillary Clinton. He managed to deflect public attention from his powerful condemnation of Trump’s boast that he could grab any woman’s pussy. Biden called it “a textbook definition of sexual assault” and went on: “He said, ‘Because I’m famous, because I’m a star, because I’m, a billionaire, I can do things other people can’t.’ What a disgusting assertion for anyone to make!”
The burning anger in Biden’s face said it all. Then he stepped on his own message by adding: “The press always asks me don’t I wish I were debating him. No, I wish we were in high school so I could take him behind the gym, that’s what I wish.” The partisan crowd cheered, but the more important point was swallowed by the Biden bravado, which became the focus of the news.
Biden must have thought he’d scored, because he embellished in March 2018 at the University Miami: “If we were in high school I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him. . . . I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms my whole life. I’m a pretty damn good athlete. Any guy who talked that way was usually the fattest, ugliest S.O.B. in the room.”

November 25, 2019

Impeachment and the Mythology of American Virtue

By David K. Shipler

                After days of impeachment hearings in the House Intelligence Committee, the United States has emerged as a country riven by a clash between cynicism and perfectionism. Americans have grown so inured to wrongdoing that nefarious behavior won’t provoke outrage unless it violates some mythical norm of purity. And so Democrats and their witnesses have been forced to construct a backdrop of national righteousness against which President Trump can be cast in damning contrast.
                That shouldn’t be necessary. Trump’s actions should be enough for impeachment and conviction. If the society had a proper ethical reflex, it would be sufficient that he tried to get a “favor” for his reelection campaign from a foreign government, Ukraine, which desperately needs American support against Russia. End of discussion.
                 The United States shouldn’t have to be pictured as an unyielding advocate of global democracy and the rule of law, when we have a sordid history of doing the opposite where dictators suit us. Ukraine shouldn’t have to be given the exaggerated label “ally” when it has no such standing in any treaty. The rhetoric on foreign policy shouldn’t have to sound like a throwback to the Cold War, with Washington’s nobility poised against Moscow’s “aggression,” and a pretense that the U.S. bears no responsibility for the rising conflict with Russia.
Witnesses shouldn’t have to tout their and their families’ military service to be credible, and the military shouldn’t have to be burnished as flawlessly heroic. Those testifying shouldn’t have to chronicle their devotion to public service. Those born abroad shouldn’t need to sing moving hymns of praise to America as a haven of freedom to speak and to prosper, when prosperity and even freedom, as we are seeing, do not come to all who step onto American soil.
But national myths are often useful, because they set high standards to which the country should aspire. The gap between the myth and the reality is one that begs to be closed.

October 11, 2019

Punishing the Poor for Being Hungry

By David K. Shipler
The latest in a series: Making America Cruel Again

                The United States might be the only country in the world where poverty is considered a moral failing—on the part of the victims, not the society. When conservatives are in charge of government, this judgment infiltrates policy. Republicans move repeatedly to twist regulations around an assumption that the poor don’t want to work and don’t make sound decisions. And when this bias affects children’s nutrition, it can cause lifelong impairment.
                In the last year alone, the Trump administration has taken multiple shots at food stamps, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program), which helped feed about 40 million people last year. The latest change, one week ago, would cut benefits by $4.5 billion over five years. Even in a booming economy, one in seven children are in families considered “food insecure,” according to the Department of Agriculture’s 2018 survey, meaning that they weren’t sure of having enough food for everyone.
                Research in the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience has documented the severe biological assaults caused by inadequate nutrition during sensitive phases of brain development. Numerous studies, compiled in a lengthy National Academy of Sciences report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, portray a devastating landscape of cognitive deficiency resulting from nutritional deprivation. The insufficiency of healthy food during a pregnant woman’s second trimester can reduce the creation of neurons, the brain’s impulse-conducting cells. Malnutrition in the third trimester restricts their maturation and retards the production of branched cells called glia.
Iron is essential to promote the growth of the brain in size and the creation of the nerve-transmitting myelin sheath around the brain’s nerve fibers. The impact of iron deficiency in a baby, therefore, never disappears, even once the deficiency is eliminated. One longitudinal study that followed children from infancy through adolescence found that they scored lower “in arithmetic achievement and written expression, motor functioning, and some specific cognitive processes such as spatial memory and selective recall.”
Teachers reported that such children displayed “more anxiety or depression, social problems, and attention problems.” It is no great leap of logic to see learning disabilities as one result of malnutrition, and a child who can’t do decently in school, who can’t follow half of what a teacher is saying, is more inclined to drop out.
For those Republicans who are moved more by self-interest than empathy, it’s worth noting that high school dropouts earn less that those with degrees, pay less in taxes, have more serious medical problems, and are at higher risk of ending up in jail.
Yet Trump’s people have sought to saddle the $68 billion-a-year SNAP program with restrictions and cuts to the monthly benefits, which now come on debit cards with declining balances, and typically last a family only two or three weeks. Certain regulations that the Trump administration has either enacted or has openly considered would treat needy Americans with suspicion and distrust. For instance:

·         Officials have considered imposing a drug-testing regime on recipients (although not on farmers who receive huge federal subsidies as part of the same legislation).
·         The Agriculture Department, which administers the program, published a rule in July to eliminate states’ option to raise eligibility limits above the federal ceiling, which is 130 percent of the poverty line. Previously, states could get waivers to enroll families earning more if their housing and child-care expenses soaked up a big percentage of their income. More generous housing subsidies would help, because in many parts of the country, where rent can consume 50 percent or more of a family’s budget, the money for food gets squeezed. The comment period on the rule change ended in September; once adopted, it will cut off about 3 million recipients.
·         In last week’s action, the administration effectively took away $75 in benefits from one out of every five families by recalculating how housing and utilities costs are figured.
·         The Trump administration tried to tighten work requirements in this year’s budget, Congress refused, and officials have gone ahead anyway to partially evade the legislative intent. Since 1996, single able-bodied adults with no dependents, up to age 49, could get SNAP benefits for only three months in a three-year period unless they worked or were in job training at least 80 hours a month. States could waive the rule in areas with acute joblessness. Trump wanted to expand the requirement to age 59 and, more damaging, apply it to those with children over six years old. That was rejected by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. So last December the Agriculture Department did what it could administratively by making it much harder for states to get waivers.
·         In his 2019 budget, Trump proposed replacing half of a family’s cash grants with a food package of cereal, pasta, peanut butter, canned fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry, and other items deemed good for them. Sending such packages to 40 million people would have been so costly and impractical that the idea collapsed of its own weight. But the notion seems borne of a patronizing attitude toward the poor, who suffer from a disparaging stereotype that they do not act responsibly.
Clinics treating childhood malnutrition see a broad array of causes. Lack of money is the centerpiece, but lack of knowledge about healthy eating can also contribute to some cases. Health providers find that some parents don’t know how to cook with relatively inexpensive ingredients. New immigrants unfamiliar with American food can be fooled by ads into thinking that Coke and Cheetos are healthy. So can Americans themselves. Lots of junk food is cheap and filling, hence the nation’s epidemic of obesity, which can be a sign of malnutrition.
Supermarkets with fresh, healthy food are scarce in many low-income neighborhoods. A child’s food allergies can be baffling without the funds and information required to have a large assortment of choices on hand. Single parents doing shift work can’t keep track of what their kids are being fed by multiple caregivers. Nor do they usually have the orderly life that allows them to sit children down calmly to feed them, or have a regular family meal.
 In other words, childhood malnutrition is created at the confluence of problems and disabilities that magnify and reinforce one another. They must all be addressed. The cognitive impairment that results cannot be attacked by a country that keeps electing officials who entangle the safety net in a set of punitive impulses.
First published by the Washington Monthly.

October 2, 2019

The Constitutional Stress Test

By David K. Shipler

                For a country ostensibly devoted to the rule of law and worshipful toward its Constitution, the United States is in a peculiar state of dishonoring both. It has a president and a supposedly conservative political party that brushes away the ingenious checks and balances that the Framers devised to restrain authority. It is politicizing its judiciary and entangling its legislature in partisan stalemates while its executive branch evades, ignores, or derides the other branches of government.
This could have more than a transitory impact on the dynamics of the democratic system. In resisting the constitutional duty of Congress to monitor and limit executive behavior, Donald Trump and his acolytes are undermining a keystone of constitutional governance. The damage might turn out to be more serious than a phone call with the president of Ukraine, and more lasting than an impeachment inquiry. Conceivably, once the judicial branch gets involved, a “conservative” Supreme Court could codify curbs on the legislature’s authority to subpoena, question, and investigate administration officials. Such cases are now being litigated.
How is Congress to enforce its orders? By declaring recalcitrant officials in “inherent contempt” and seeking to have them fined or arrested? That would be an extraordinary step, and nobody seems to know how it would be carried out. Otherwise, though, Congress is defied with impunity, and the system is impaired. The smooth running of government would have to be discussed in the past tense, when it relied on a basic respect for the norms of balance among the branches, when it did not conduct debates across an unyielding divide of political tribalism.

September 15, 2019

Interpreting Biden on Race and Poverty

By David K. Shipler

                Former Vice President Joe Biden must have had millions of Democrats wincing during last Thursday’s debate as he fumbled his way through a pointed question on racial inequality in schools. His sentences were incomplete, his thoughts jumped around erratically. He revealed, once again, his tin ear on race.
But if you distill his incoherent response—which did not directly answer the question of Americans’ obligations in the long wake of slavery—you can see that he actually identified the essence of key problems facing impoverished families and their schools. He displayed deeper understanding and proposed more solutions in a disjointed sound bite than all the other candidates combined.
Here is what he said, annotated in italics:
            “Well, they have to deal with the … Look, there is institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure that we are in a position where--” He doesn’t finish his thought, but he is pointing to banks’ long practice of denying mortgages to blacks and “redlining” poorer neighborhoods out of consideration for loans. That has contributed to entrenched poverty and de facto segregation by community, which has meant that schools have been segregated as well, by race and income.
“Look, we talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title One schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year.” Pumping more funds into poor schools is essential to improve kids’ life opportunities. That’s because education funding relies mostly on local property taxes, which create vast disparities in per-pupil expenditures between wealthy and poor school districts. What Biden does not say, and should, is that these difficulties, and others he mentions subsequently, afflict poor whites as well as blacks. There are public schools that don’t have enough textbooks for all students, and teachers pay out of their own pockets to photocopy chapters.

September 6, 2019

Wanted: A "Shithole Country"

By David K. Shipler

                Donald Trump, who has come to realize that he was born in the wrong country, has ordered his Trump Organization to look for one to buy that he can run unimpeded by legislators, judges, news reporters, experts, and meteorologists. He thinks it would be great fun after leaving the presidency.
                “Maybe one of those shithole countries,” he reportedly told Ivanka just before she set out for Latin America. “Look around down there, will you? I’d rather one of them than in Africa . . .” The rest of his sentence is unprintable.
                Word has gone out in high-powered real-estate circles that Trump is willing to pay a small fortune for a nation where he can draft his own weather maps predicting what he has imagined, publish his fantasies in every newspaper, turn every newscast into unreality TV, make skeptical questioning a felony, reward corruption as smart business, and summon nubile young women to his palace. (He wants a Trump Palace, preferably on a hilltop flattened for a golf course.)
                Trump has told associates that the property must have this key quality: no constitution, or at least one that can be ignored. The US Constitution is a royal pain, as he keeps discovering, and he’s sick and tired of trying to get around it. “In the old adage,” he told one close aide, “the price of real estate is determined by three factors: location, location, and location. What I’m looking for is a place that is valuable because it is lawless, lawless, lawless.”
                Hearing about this, a disillusioned, patriotic Trump voter declared, “It is terribly selfish to say this, but let’s hope his search for a ‘shithole country’ is successful before he turns ours into one.”

August 17, 2019

Israel Forfeits Its Case

By David K. Shipler

                Before Israel became extremely right-wing, officials used to be eager to make their case with facts and reason. They were so confident in the legitimacy of their position in the Arab-Israeli conflict that they actually seemed to welcome a good opposing argument, because they thought they had a better one. When I arrived there in 1979 after four years covering the Soviet Union, the refreshing air of openness by government was like a tonic. There were exceptions, but as a rule, Israel’s officialdom didn’t try to silence painful disagreement. Comfort with flagrant debate was one of Israel’s most admirable qualities.
There is still plenty of noisy, acerbic dispute in the country. But the government lost its footing in denying entry to two Muslim US congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who wanted to visit the West Bank to champion the Palestinian cause and condemn Israel’s continuing “occupation.” That would have been an annoyance that the old Israel could have handled with sensible rebuttal, and hopefully some healthy introspection. In an earlier time, leaders stood tall in self-assurance. In the new Israel, it seems, they cower pathetically in fear of on-the-ground criticism.
The ironic result is the opposite of what President Trump imagined. He had said that Israel would look weak if it allowed Omar and Tlaib to visit. Israel now looks weak for having banned them—and for taking Trump’s bad advice. (Of course Trump’s idea of weakness is that you listen respectfully to views that differ from your own. He doesn’t seem to realize how weak he looks in his thin skin.)
This episode brings to mind Israel’s decision in 1979 to allow Jesse Jackson to enter the country for a highly publicized visit to Israel and the West Bank. Because of Jackson’s pro-Palestinian tilt, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan convinced Prime Minister Menachem Begin to deny Jackson any meetings with senior government officials, a rebuff that displeased some of Begin’s aides, who thought Begin himself should have met him. Yet the discomfort with Jackson’s views, including his earlier anti-Semitic remarks, did not rattle the conservative governing coalition enough to block his trip.

June 27, 2019

Jared Kushner and the Palestinian Pretense

By David K. Shipler

                Jared Kushner’s economic proposal for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is comprehensive, bold, and visionary, full of noble goals in commerce, trade, agriculture, manufacturing, road-building, local electricity production, water supply, education, vocational training, health care, women in the workforce, and the arts. Titled “Peace to Prosperity,” it imagines the West Bank as a trading center akin to Singapore or Dubai. Its calls for judicial independence, dependable contract law, anti-corruption measures, and administrative transparency that would be hailed by any “good-government” advocates. It envisions some $50 billion in international grants, loans, investments, and global expertise.  
                This would be nothing to sneer at if it related to reality. But to take it seriously, you have to play Let’s Pretend. So let’s pretend that the West Bank and Gaza constitute a normal country, independent but poor, with no Israeli overlords, and free to accept whatever outside assistance it chooses. Let’s pretend that the Palestinian rulers control their own borders so that people and goods can move easily, as Kushner recommends. Let’s pretend that West Bank land is all under Palestinian authority, rather than being fragmented into leopard-spot jurisdictions favoring expanding Israeli settlements and security concerns. And let’s pretend that the radical group Hamas no longer controls Gaza with a policy of relating to Israel by rockets alone.
                 In that fictional environment, Kushner’s plan is utopian in the best sense of the word. The document is silent on the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so depending on how charitable a reader wants to be, Kushner’s effort is either ignorant or presumptuous, either blind to the political resolution that would be required before his proposals can be implemented, or based on an assumption that a resolution will have occurred.

June 16, 2019

Phantoms of War

By David K. Shipler

                On the night of August 4, 1964, as two US destroyers were reporting attacks by North Vietnamese PT boats in the Tonkin Gulf, Navy Commander James Stockdale took off from the USS Ticonderoga to fly support. He spent more than 90 minutes below 2,000 feet searching for North Vietnamese vessels. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” he wrote in a book twenty years later, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there . . . there was nothing there but black water and American firepower."
                Yet the imagined incident, coming two days after an actual attack, prompted President Lyndon Johnson to denounce Hanoi’s “repeated acts of violence” and order a bombing run against a North Vietnamese oil depot. The sortie of 18 planes was led, ironically, by Stockdale, who knew conclusively what had not happened but followed orders to help “launch a war under false pretenses,” as he said in his book. (He was shot down on a later mission, spent seven years as a POW, and in 1992 ran for vice president on Ross Perot’s ticket.)
                The cautionary tale of the Tonkin Gulf has been revived in recent days by the Trump administration’s assertions of absolute certainty that Iran was responsible for attacks on two oil tankers. The evidence is sketchy—primarily a video showing Iranian Revolutionary Guards removing, not planting, a limpet mine—and sundry sightings of Iranian vessels in the area, as they always are. There might be intercepted communications, called SIGINT (signal intelligence) in the trade, but they haven’t been released.

June 13, 2019

Trump Tells the Truth

By David K. Shipler

                In a rare moment of candor and accuracy, President Trump today used the word “incredible” to describe his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Upon her announcement that she will be leaving the post, Trump tweeted, “She is a very special person with extraordinary talents, who has done an incredible job!”
                The entire White House press corps suddenly found itself in unfamiliar agreement with a tweet from on high.
                Reactions to the unprecedented spasm of presidential honesty came swiftly from an array of eighth-grade English teachers. “While the adjective ‘incredible’ has been corrupted in slang to substitute for such superlatives as “amazing’ and ‘extraordinary,’” said Mrs. Matthews of Chatham (NJ) Junior High School, “all of my students know very well that it means, ‘not believable.’ Its root is credo, Latin for ‘I believe,’ and is made negative by the prefix ‘in.’” For emphasis, she slapped her 15-inch ruler on her desk, her routine method of keeping her students awake and attentive.
                Trump surely knows the proper definition of “incredible,” several other teachers observed, because he went for a couple of years to Fordham, a Jesuit college where precise thinking and respect for language are de rigueur, and then to an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania.
                Jane Doe, who covers the White House for the East Overshoe Gazette summed up the feeling among her colleagues: “We just hope his next press secretary is less incredible.”

In case you’re wondering, this is satire—although the Trump tweet is real.

June 3, 2019

The Circular Spectrum

By David K. Shipler

“It reminds me of the Soviet Union.”
--Philip B. Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center, on the Trump Administration’s politicization of climate science.

                The spectrum of political and social views is usually pictured as a straight line running from left to right. But the range of positions on some matters might better be rendered as a circle, with the line bent around until the two extreme ends are joined in common excess.
                Take the rejection of science, for example. On the right are the deniers of all the careful and extensive research documenting the human contributions to global warming. On the left are the deniers of all the careful and extensive research into the human immune system’s activation by means of vaccines. They are not identical in their suspicion of elites in the scientific community, but they are close enough to be put together at the bottom of that circle.
                And anti-Semitism. Typically seen on the extreme right among neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, ugly manifestations have also surfaced on the left. In the US, some college students have mixed anti-Semitic stereotypes into their criticisms of Israel, as has Democratic Congresswoman Ihlan Omar. Britain’s Labour Party is under investigation for anti-Semitism by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission. Seven members of Parliament quit Labour in February in protest over its leadership’s failure to deal sufficiently with anti-Semitism as well as Brexit.
                Left-right similarities can be seen on some college campuses that have been stages for intolerant assaults in both directions. Shortly after 9/11, conservative students and alumni monitored and reported liberal professors for views expressed in and out of class, and tried to get some fired. More recently, liberal and minority students have shouted down conservative and racist speakers, or have pressed administrators to disinvite them. These attempts to silence expression are less prevalent than they appear from the news coverage they receive, but they have special gravity at institutions supposedly devoted to free intellectual inquiry. In places of higher learning, especially, a viewpoint considered offensive is best confronted with solid research, sound argument, and precise rebuttal.

June 1, 2019

Bad Spellers for Immigration Shutdown

By David K. Shipler

                After years of dithering about the immigration issue, the national Bad Spellers (BS) movement has finally endorsed President Trump’s border wall and other tough restrictions. But the organization also warned that his proposal to base immigration on merit would pose great dangers to American culture.
                “The risks are obvious when you look at the pictures and the names of the eight co-winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee,” said a BS statement. “Rishik Gandhasri, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao, Rohan Raja—and, by the way, the only one who seems like a white Anglo, Erin Howard. All these kids with families originally from India or somewhere else in South Asia who can spell all those ridiculous words that nobody ever uses—are they even English words?”
                BS went on to point out what every red-blooded American knows, that the right to misspell is enshrined in the Constitution (First Amendment) and exemplified by our president, who was made an honorary member of BS even before his inauguration. “Donald Trump is a true repesentative [sic] of the Peopel [sic],” said the announcement at the time. “He knows how to capitalize randomely [sic] and use apostrofes [sic] at will. He’s all about substence [sic], not spelling.”
                The fear, BS explained, is that hordes of hostile “aliens” will invade the country and undermine its devotion to the pluralism of spelling and grammar, which are core principles practiced daily in tweets, emails, conversations, and even classrooms. The evolution of the English language will be frozen at a pompous stage. It is obvious from the spelling bee results, BS argued, that immigrants’ high regard for education and their ambition to get ahead threaten American values. “Here is the question: What freedom do we have if not the freedom to spell as we wish?”
                In an effort to appeal to Trump, BS drove its point home with this: “The insistance [sic] on propper [sic] spelling is just another form of political correctness.”

Full disclosure: This is satire!

May 27, 2019

A Memorial Day Reflection

By David K. Shipler

                Ronald Young died last year. He served his country for his entire adult life, not in uniform but in the ranks of those unsung Americans who campaign for peace, who use not lethal arms but the weapon of morality to call their country to its highest values. They should also be honored on Memorial Day.
For Ron’s memoir, Crossing Boundaries in the Americas,Vietnam and the Middle EastI wrote a preface from which this essay is adapted. It calls upon us to consider what lenses we use to see ourselves and our past.
History is written by the victors, as Winston Churchill observed. It is then interpreted by the powerful, and periodically reinterpreted as values mature and new voices are heard. In other words, history is malleable. Russians under communism used to joke about the disappearance of important figures from official recollections: “What is the definition of a Soviet historian?” The answer: “A person who can predict the past.”
We Americans like to think we’re more truthful than autocracies, and we are, but only to a degree. While no central government dictates what we learn about our history, we have multiple versions manipulated instead by a thousand points of institutional bias, from the Texas school board’s textbook requirements to the museums and monuments scattered across the country. In democracies, too, what is taught and known about the past is shaped by the cultural consensus of the present.
Not long ago, Native Americans (then called “Indians”) appeared in classrooms and films as ruthless primitives. If they were occasionally admired, it was only for their savage nobility—their exotic rituals and canny self-reliance—or as collaborators with the white man against their own. I went to school in the 1950s, and I cannot remember reading a line in a textbook or hearing a sentence from a teacher about the atrocities visited upon them.
Nor was slavery sufficiently woven into the American story. Not until the waning years of the twentieth century did visitors to Monticello, Mount Vernon, and other plantations see anything of the majority of residents who had lived there—the enslaved blacks who built and labored on the land. Tours concentrated on the owners’ elaborate mansions, furniture, silverware, and china.
That this has changed—that the powerless are now seen—is a tribute to America’s sporadic capacity for self-correction. We hail Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement that were so vilified and spied upon by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. What an FBI memo called a “demagogic speech” that made King “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country” we now celebrate as one of the most inspiring pieces of eloquence in our history: “I have a dream.”
Yet even this evolving self-portrait underestimates a whole subculture of America’s sons and daughters who struggled against established policies and norms. They include blacks who sacrificed to overturn segregation and whites who journeyed south to join them in the civil rights movement. They include those who defied the military draft to resist the war in Vietnam, protested United States aid for Latin American dictatorships, urged nuclear disarmament, demanded protection of the environment, and called broadly on their country to stand for peace and humane justice—not easy standards for a superpower to achieve, evidently.
These Americans have been the backbone of our conscience. If we sing of their achievements too softly, we miss essential ingredients of our country’s greatness.
Ron Young was one of those Americans. I first met him when he and his wife, Carol Jensen, visited Jerusalem, where I was a correspondent, from their home base of Amman, Jordan. Their task, for the Americans Friends Service Committee, was to cross the rigid boundaries that divided Israelis and Arabs—and the internal boundaries that divided Israelis and Arabs among themselves—so they could report to Quakers back home on the state of the Middle East and its faltering peace process.
Being a reporter was my job, too. But Ron and Carol seemed to be doing much more. In harvesting competing perspectives, they were also seeding a measure of interaction and dialogue. They were carrying the contrasting views across those boundaries and leaving them for contemplation by the other side. To believe that this would make a difference took enormous faith in people’s good sense and their capacity to listen, especially to voices different from their own.
Given the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace nearly forty years after their efforts, you might conclude that their faith was misplaced. But they never struck me as naïve. They honored the decency in people, respected their need for dignity, and looked at hard truths with a clear gaze. We need more of this realistic idealism. Lofty goals cannot be reached by cynicism.
So Ron’s story was the country’s story—or, a part of the country’s story not usually told vividly. Because he came of age by following pathways that led through the most momentous protest movements in the nation’s postwar experience, his personal narrative filled in the picture of a turbulent society reaching for moral poise.
He told me little of this during our long conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during those years in Jerusalem. Perhaps I never asked—a grievous failing for a reporter. But he also never volunteered, a measure of his humility. He was not a man obsessed with himself.
But he was a man driven by the desire to see injustice made right—not with the flashing rhetoric of hyperbole, not with unprovable accusations of conspiracy or venality, but with the quiet assurance that understanding can be nourished from those seeds of listening.
At a time when organized religion is most publicized for its intolerance, Ron held regard for the clergy of diverse faiths as catalysts of change. That began at the height of efforts to topple Jim Crow segregation, when he dropped out of Wesleyan to work at a black church in Memphis under the Reverend James Lawson, Jr., who set him to reading and thinking about topics far beyond the immediate racial conflicts, including the threat of nuclear war.
Ron visited the Dominican Republic after the United States invasion, went to Uruguay for a conference on nonviolence and social change, and would have been drawn more deeply into Latin America were it not for the escalation of the war in Vietnam.
He worked for the religious and pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He burned his draft card, campaigned with the peace movement, and led a delegation including religious leaders for discussions with non-communist South Vietnamese who opposed the war. His anti-war credentials enabled him to visit North Vietnam in 1970 as part of a small group of religious figures to deliver mail to and from American POWs and their families.
In later years he translated those early contacts with religious leaders into a longterm effort toward Middle East peace. It’s hard to think of anyone else with his deep experience who could mobilize Muslim, Jewish, and Christian clergy in the way that he did, to keep pressing the United States to keep Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects alive.
Ron was 75 when he died of septic shock. I don't know if he would want a flag lowered to half mast, but he deserves the tribute as much as any soldier who falls in battle. If you are ever tempted to despair that Americans have lost their moral compass, look into Ron Young’s generous life of active idealism. And remember that he has not been alone.

May 17, 2019

Endangering American Muslims

By David K. Shipler

                If the Trump administration goes ahead with its plan to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, hundreds of thousands of US citizens could face federal prosecution for providing funds and leadership to mosques and Islamic community centers across the country. That is because federal law prohibits “material support” for terrorist groups, and some key Trump insiders accept the slanderous allegation by anti-Islam activists that the Brotherhood effectively owns mosques and has infiltrated the United States.
                Muslim Americans and their institutions could also face rising jeopardy from local authorities and organized citizens, who would employ the designation to mobilize fear. Mosques already have difficulty in some locations getting zoning changes and building permits, and extremists could easily use the official label of “terrorist” to justify vigilante violence. In other words, the hatred stoked by President Trump and some of his allies would be granted the force of law.
While President George W. Bush kept the anti-Muslim movement at bay, even after 9/11, Trump has surrounded himself with admirers and promoters of vitriolic alarmists who portray Islam in sinister terms reminiscent of the smears and suspicions fueled by hunts for communists in the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
Stephen Miller, a leading White House adviser, has a long record, dating back to his senior year at Duke in 2007, of imagining what he terms “Islamofascism” as being at war with Western civilization. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, remains in the president’s inner circle after running Breitbart, the rightwing outlet that helped promulgate baseless assertions that Islamic centers were fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood’s stealthy program to subvert America by imposing Sharia, Muslim religious law.
Frank Gaffney, who served on Trump’s transition team, distorts Islamic sources to create an ominous specter of community centers, mosques, and Muslim organizations controlled by the Brotherhood. Gaffney has been praised by Bannon as “one of the senior thought leaders and men of action in this whole war against Islamic radical jihad.” Between 2013 and 2017, Mike Pompeo, now Secretary of State, appeared on Gaffney’s radio program 34 times, according to The Atlantic.

May 6, 2019

Democrats Miss the Target

By David K. Shipler

It is so easy for President Trump and his allies to distract Democrats into skirmishes on the sidelines of the big game. Yes, it’s outrageous that Attorney General William Barr played spin doctor on the Mueller report by distorting its content. Yes, it’s even more outrageous that Barr is defying a Congressional subpoena to be questioned yet again about why he said what he said about the report.
But what’s really important is what the report itself says, not what Barr says about it. That’s what Democrats should be focusing on. For if you read all 448 pages, as every citizen should, you’ll see a troubling picture emerge of a bizarre, uneducable president who tries to run the government as if he were the head of a crime syndicate.
He uses his office to manipulate and intimidate. He lies to his aides, and they lie to him. He grooms himself as a cult figure whose approval is granted or withheld to the favor or detriment of acolytes. Some tell him they will obey even as they decide to defy him. He issues implicit threats (though not of violence, so far), and clearly expects his underlings to break the law on his behalf. When they do not, they are deemed “weak” and marked for retribution.  
More to the point of the Mueller investigation, the evidence in the report supports an assessment that Trump did, indeed, attempt to obstruct justice in at least two of the cases investigated, and possibly in another five. Mueller stops short of making that judgment explicitly. But since his report is like a legal textbook on the conditions required to make the charge, and his evidence on both sides of each question is spread out dispassionately in precise detail, even a layman can see the obvious.
This is what Democrats should be talking about. This is what they should be holding hearings on. They don’t need Barr to pillory, and they don’t need the “unredacted” version of the report. There is plenty in the public pages if anybody bothers to wade through the dry prose.
At the report’s end, Mueller writes something akin to a legal brief, rebutting arguments by Trump’s lawyers that obstruction statutes are too narrow and the Constitution too broad in its grant of executive power to permit a president to be charged for such behavior. With citations of Supreme Court opinions and discussions of legislative intent, Mueller has produced a document ready-made for a prosecutor wishing to defend any appeal against either criminal charges or impeachment.
The national interest might have been better served if Mueller had not punted on the bottom-line question of whether he thinks Trump tried to obstruct justice. “We determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” he writes, content with an approach that responsible journalists know as a kind of forensic exercise: on the one hand this, on the other hand that. Let the readers make up their own minds. “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime,” Mueller says, “it also does not exonerate him.”
Yet the evidence he lays out so impartially draws you to a conclusion in almost every instance. Mueller defines the three conditions that must be met for an obstruction charge: first, an obstructive act likely to interfere with an investigation; second, a nexus between the act and an official proceeding such as a grand-jury or law-enforcement investigation; and third, an intent to impede the investigation.
(Late today, more than 450 former federal prosecutors issued a letter concluding that Trump would have been charged with obstruction had he not been president.)
The two Trump activities that appear to satisfy all three conditions involve his praise and hints of a pardon for Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, and his efforts to limit the scope of the special counsel’s investigation to future elections, excluding 2016.
Trump frequently used the Mafia term “flip” to disparage insiders who turn state’s evidence, and Manafort won Trump’s accolades for refusing to “break.” By contrast, Trump called Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, a “rat” for cooperating with the special counsel.   
 “There is evidence that the President's actions had the potential to influence Manafort's decision whether to cooperate with the government,” Mueller says in his analysis of whether Trump committed an obstructive act. The report notes that while Manafort pleaded guilty in one case and entered a cooperation agreement, he lied to investigators after Trump “suggested that a pardon was a more likely possibility if Manafort continued not to cooperate with the government.” Further, Trump’s public statements during Manafort’s trial in another case, “including during jury deliberations, also had the potential to influence the trial jury.”
A nexus with an ongoing investigation clearly existed, Mueller finds, and the intent condition was also satisfied: “Evidence concerning the President's conduct towards Manafort indicates that the President intended to encourage Manafort to not cooperate with the government.” Sections on Roger Stone, Trump’s adviser, are blacked out, because his prosecution is ongoing.
Trump’s attempts to limit the investigation’s scope also appear in the report as having met the obstruction law’s three conditions. This came about as Trump tried to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to scale back the investigation to future elections, although Sessions had recused himself. Oddly, Trump picked as his messenger Corey Lewandowski, a private citizen and former campaign manager. Lewandowski never delivered the request.
 The attempt “would qualify as an obstructive act if it would naturally obstruct the investigation and any grand jury proceedings that might flow from the inquiry,” Mueller writes, stopping short of giving the obvious answer. Since a grand jury investigation had become public knowledge at the time, the nexus to an official proceeding would exist if limiting the investigation “would have the natural and probable effect of impeding that grand jury proceeding.” That sounds like a no-brainer.
Finally, the report is crystal clear on intent: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President 's effort to have Sessions limit the scope of the Special Counsel's investigation to future election interference was intended to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the President's and his campaign's conduct.”
Mueller’s evidence places other episodes in a gray area between probable and iffy. Among those, the case against Trump seeming strongest is his repeated demand that Mueller be removed. Since the investigation would have continued anyway, “a factfinder would need to consider whether the act had the potential to delay further action in the investigation, chill the actions of any replacement Special Counsel, or otherwise impede the investigation.” The other two conditions—the nexus and the intent—appear to have been satisfied in Trump’s desire to get rid of Mueller.
 Trump’s actions portrayed by the report as less certain to qualify as obstruction of justice include his appeal to James Comey, the FBI director, to lay off Michael Flynn, the national security adviser; his dismissal of Comey; Trump’s repeated efforts to get Sessions to “unrecuse” himself and take over the investigation; and his orders to White House Counsel Don McGahn to deny that he tried to fire Mueller. Various caveats and questions are raised in all these cases, although a layman could be forgiven for seeing fire where there is smoke.
The report is refreshing because it embraces ambiguity where relevant, leaves room for debate on each of these episodes, and is full of solid research and sound reasoning, a rare display these days of intellectual honesty and impartial integrity.
Yet even without a final, ringing declaration of judgment, its cascading evidence provides a cumulative indictment of Trump—if not criminally, then in the broader sense of the term, as a president incapable and unfit, ignorant or indifferent to the law and the Constitution, unwilling to learn, and thoroughly incompetent to govern in a system that restrains authoritarianism. The Democrats should forget Barr and concentrate on what the report tells us about Trump.

April 30, 2019

Rethinking Russia--Part Two

By David K. Shipler

                Donald Trump certainly acted like a guilty man when it came to accusations that he and his campaign had cooperated with Russia in promoting his candidacy. If a playwright had created such a character, he would have been considered too obvious.
                This is the fourth key question in assessing Russia’s actions during the 2016 campaign. The first three—whether the Russians hacked the Democrats’ emails, whether the Russians impersonated Americans online to exacerbate fissures in the society, and whether those activities helped elect Trump—were examined in Part One. Now we look at numbers 4 through 6.
                4. Based on Trump’s display of anxiety about the Russia investigation, his attempts to stop it, his aides’ interactions with Russians, and the lies some told to Congress and FBI agents, the assumption of a cover-up seemed reasonable. Trump and some of his people acted as if they were hiding something illicit or illegal.
Furthermore, the Mueller report said, dozens of Russian tweets and posts were cited or retweeted by campaign officials, including Donald J. Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Michael T. Flynn. But there is no evidence that they knew of the Russian origins. And the investigation didn’t find cooperation or coordination or conspiracy. Rather, the evidence it lays out portrays a haphazard array of contacts among Americans and Russians in erratic pursuit of two apparent goals: profitable business opportunities and improved superpower relations.

April 29, 2019

Rethinking Russia--Part One

By David K. Shipler

                Imprecise thinking about Russia has afflicted the United States in the wake of the 2016 election. The lines between fact and speculation have been blurred. The evidence of Russian misdeeds has been expanded into broad, unproven theories about Moscow’s motives and the impact on the election results. Legitimate contacts between Americans and Russians have been clouded with suspicion. And together, all these parts—both Russian activities and American reactions—have hobbled the ability of the United States to engage Russia in the kind of fruitful relationship that would promote American national interests.
                The election interference was only part of a broad deterioration, notes Kenneth Yalowitz, a veteran diplomat who served many years in Moscow, and then as US ambassador to Georgia and Belarus. It was preceded by a series of damaging episodes that broke down dialogue. “The bureaucracies have no connections anymore,” he said. “There’s no systematic conversation any longer. We don’t know each other. Given the very difficult state of the relationship, this is the time we should be talking to each other.” Instead, he said, “Our policy is just sanctions and breaking agreements.”
The downward slide can be mapped with landmarks of hostility: the West’s expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, which ignited historic Russian fears of close encirclement; the European Union’s courting Ukraine, the home of defense industries and a Russian naval base; American support for street protesters’ ouster of Ukraine’s elected, pro-Moscow president; then Russia’s thinly-disguised invasion of eastern Ukraine and overt annexation of Crimea, which reanimated Western fears of aggressive expansionism; a Russian tit-for-tat maneuver in America’s back yard to help prop up the anti-US regime in Venezuela; Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which restored Moscow’s foothold in the Middle East; Moscow’s violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and President Trump’s scrapping the agreement instead of renegotiating; Russian backing for right-wing racist parties in Europe; Moscow’s cyber intrusions into politics and elections in Estonia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Germany, France, and Austria; and Russian money to support Brexit, seen as part of a grand plan by the Kremlin to break up European cohesion.
                It’s a grim and dangerous list. When the election is added, with the surrounding political anger, the rigor and clarity required to evaluate what has happened is going to be hard to achieve. Trump, who campaigned on improving the relationship, has handcuffed himself by appearing unduly pro-Russia. He has fawned over President Vladimir Putin, downplayed the election interference, tried to thwart Mueller’s investigation, and left real policy to such hawks as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
                Moreover, the American debate has been muffled, thanks largely to Russia’s having cemented its standing as an adversary. Unorthodox voices have been marginalized as they question conventional wisdom and hold Washington at least partly responsible for the rising tensions.

April 17, 2019

The Scourge of Military Commissions

By David K. Shipler

                Of all the self-inflicted wounds by the United States since 9/11, the flawed military commissions set up to try suspected foreign terrorists rank high on the list. At Guantanamo, the commissions have been bogged down in a swamp of dubious ethical, legal, and procedural practices. Their constitutionality has been challenged, their partial secrecy denounced.
Some of their military judges have demonstrated bias, and one was reprimanded this week by the powerful Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which vacated all his orders back to Nov. 19, 2015, the date he initiated a conflict of interest by applying to the Justice Department to be an immigration judge. All rulings on his orders by the Court of Military Commission Review were also set aside, wiping the slate almost clean of pretrial decisions in the case, now requiring re-argument on many of the issues. It was a telling illustration of the mess that’s been created.
Without the military commissions, it’s a good bet that the most prominent prisoners at Guantanamo would have been executed years ago, or at least be sitting on death row waiting for the needle. They would have been tried in civilian federal courts, which Republicans have blocked, although the courts are the jewel in the crown of the American judicial system. If juries had found them guilty, it’s hard to imagine anything but the death penalty. Instead, the alleged organizers of the 9/11 attacks and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen have been in U.S. custody for more than 15 years, at taxpayers’ expense, waiting for trial by military commissions that are so ill-conceived as to be vulnerable to obstruction by prosecutors and multiple motions by defense attorneys seeking to guard their clients’ rights.

April 10, 2019

Will Israel Slam the Door?

By David K. Shipler

                In the 52 years since Israel took control of the West Bank from Jordan during the Six-Day War, the prospect of attaining peace by granting some form of self-government to the area’s Palestinian Arabs has hovered over the conflict like an apparition of hope or dread, depending on your political view. Now, that approach to solving the conflict might be closed off by Israel’s tight election results, since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is positioned to form a right-wing coalition.
In the first two decades after the 1967 war, the notion of an independent Palestinian state was so anathema to most Israeli Jews that it was supported only on the far left, mainly by Communists in the tiny Hadash party. Even liberal Peace Now leaders, who opposed Jewish settlements that were being built in the West Bank, avoided advocating Palestinian statehood for fear that their movement would lose credibility in Israel’s mainstream.
Indeed, Israel’s 1978 Camp David accord with Egypt, which led to a peace treaty in 1979, stopped short of calling for a Palestinian state, providing instead for “autonomy,” which was ill-defined and never implemented. Once statehood gained traction in Israeli politics following the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization, support among Israelis usually oscillated just above and below 50 percent, with occasional spikes during peaceful stretches.
That support itself carried so many caveats that it would have been impossible to convert into statehood without broad changes of attitude among both Israelis and Palestinians. Spates of terrorism by Palestinians knocked off some percentage points, as would be expected, but even in relatively calm periods, Israeli Jews expressed serious doubts about statehood defined as Palestinians might accept, and Palestinians had their own reservations about the compromises they would have to make.
A joint Israeli-Palestinian poll in December 2013, for example, found an abstract two-state solution supported by 63 percent of Israelis and 53 percent of Palestinians. But the numbers declined as details were specified. Israeli withdrawal from all but 3 percent of the West Bank—all Jewish settlements except those in several large blocks—was favored by only 44 percent of Israelis. A Palestine with no army and only a strong police and multinational force appealed to 60 percent of Israelis but just 28 percent of Palestinians. Dividing Jerusalem was accepted by merely 37 and 32 percent of Israelis and Palestinians respectively—each side wanted the city all for itself. And in December 2012, a refugee solution providing for compensation to Palestinian refugees, their right of return to the new Palestinian state, and an undefined number admitted to Israel, won only minority support on both sides—39 percent of Israelis and 49 percent of Palestinians.

March 7, 2019

Through the Minefield of Anti-Semitism

By David K. Shipler

                Israel is surrounded by a minefield that protects it from critics who step carelessly, such as the new congresswoman, Ilhan Omar. The explosives, planted by history, are the ancient anti-Semitic stereotypes that will blow up the argument of anyone who triggers them, no matter how cogent her position is otherwise. That is what Omar has experienced. She first detonated her case with the longstanding caricature of moneyed Jews buying undue influence, and then with the old calumny of Jews as disloyal to their own country. In among those lethal comments, her valid points and humane pleas were covered by debris.
You can’t truly appreciate the power of stereotypes without a sense of history. To understand the recent uproar and ugly resonance of the blackface worn years ago by Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, for example, you have to know about the demeaning minstrel shows of the past, which pictured blacks as stupid, lazy, and comically inept. To grasp the full implications of Omar’s statements, you have to recognize the nerves they touch in the collective memory of oppression.
             It’s not enough to condemn someone who stumbles around in this landscape. Omar needs the kind of guidance that has been provided in the past by the Anti-Defamation League, which has engaged and taught, not just blamed, those guilty of anti-Semitic statements. In 1981, for example, after Rev. Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” the ADL invited him and a delegation on a nine-day visit to Israel. Officials who met him didn’t bring up the comment and portrayed him as well-meaning, probably unknowing. He confessed that he should not have singled out the Jews, when he meant that the way to God was only through Jesus Christ.
So one has to wonder whether Omar knew what she was saying, and whether she is educable. Born in Somalia, fleeing at age eight with her family to a refugee camp in Kenya, and finally making it to the United States, she has clearly absorbed—perhaps unconsciously—at least a couple of the most virulent images from which Jews have suffered through centuries.

March 3, 2019

How to Get Rid of Trump

By David K. Shipler

                “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” So said Ralph Waldo Emerson, as recalled by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. It is an admonition that ought to be placed as a screen saver on the computers of all the eager Democrats in the House of Representatives who are licking their chops at the prospect of impeaching President Trump. A king who survives an attempt on his throne can be wild with vengeance, especially when backed by zealous toadies and street fighters.
                  If the report by special counsel Robert Mueller turns out to be an anti-climax after nearly two years of hype, Republicans who have circled the wagons around Trump will probably remain in place. As long as they don’t see Trump as a political liability, he’s safe, for impeachment is a legal-political hybrid. Without a smoking gun linking him explicitly to Russian manipulation of the 2016 election, hardly any House Republicans would vote for articles of impeachment, and the Republican-led Senate would fall far short of the two-thirds needed for conviction. The Republican Party of 2019 is a very different animal from the Republican Party of 1974, when its leaders, Senator Barry Goldwater among them, told Richard Nixon to resign or be impeached and convicted.
 Therefore, two other scenarios for dumping Trump seem more conceivable:
                 1. A Democratic electoral sweep in 2020 decisive enough to force the Republican Party into a cowering fit of reform.
This is the preferable outcome. If Democrats take the White House and the Senate, and keep or increase their majority in the House, Republicans might regroup as a more centrist, responsibly conservative movement that conducts serious debates over serious issues. Instead of rightist radicalism that favors the destruction of government, a reborn Republican Party might try to govern on behalf of a broader array of Americans.

February 17, 2019

America Down the Rabbit Hole

By David K. Shipler

                The United States desperately needs a Lewis Carroll to depict the satirical farce of our Wonderland. We have fallen into an alternative universe that cannot be captured by any responsible news reporter scrupulous about facts or careful nonfiction author tethered to footnotes. Only an imaginative talent for the bizarre can give us our current equivalents of the Hatter of the Mad Tea Party, the disappearing Cheshire Cat, the tyrannical Queen of Hearts with her dictum, “Off with his head!” Not to mention the Jabberwocky’s “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” He could be wearing a MAGA hat. Oh, for a Lewis Carroll!
                The latest scene would be President Trump’s fictional southern border, a place of dystopian invasion by swarthy, half-bestial creatures pouring in with drugs and criminal intent, waved on by gleeful Democrats jumping up and down with joy unrestrained. But fear not! The Great Wall of Trump hermetically seals the dark evil from the pure white good, and all is calmly virtuous inside. And by the way, when the wall is not actually built, the Trumpists merely have to say that it is being constructed, and then pretend that it magically stands even where nobody can see it. And all who hear the Jabberwocky’s enticing poetry dream peacefully between their pure white sheets.
                  Exaggerated fantasies of fictitious threats are not unheard of in American history. Driven by fears of French subversion, the Alien and Sedition Acts under President John Adams criminalized criticism of the government and subjected foreigners to arrest and deportation without cause or due process. President Woodrow Wilson led a campaign of paranoia, portraying opponents of entry into World War I as disloyal and deserving “a firm hand of repression.” Under him, the 1917 Espionage Act facilitated the prosecution of 2,000 socialists, anarchists, other political dissidents and labor union leaders. The 1918 Sedition Act set criminal penalties for “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about” the American form of government, the Constitution, the flag, the military, or its uniforms. Imaginary dangers from Japanese-Americans during World War II landed them in very real internment camps. And the McCarthy era of nonsensical anxiety about communist infiltration generated career-busting witch hunts.
                Against that background, Trump’s manipulation of his national-emergency power to move a few billion dollars around looks like a moderate test of the constitutional system’s checks and balances, but hardly the devastating wrecking ball that opponents have described. It is unwise, opportunistic, and contemptuous of the ingenious separation-of-powers mechanism that the Framers invented. If adopted as standard practice, it could also be used by future, liberal presidents to declare national emergencies in health care, climate change, and gun violence, as the few Republicans willing to stand up from their party’s supine position have warned.

February 5, 2019

Can a Racist Be Redeemed?

By David K. Shipler

                A significant question hovers over the furor surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s evident racism at age 25: Does a racist act justify a life sentence, or can a person evolve? Are racist attitudes malleable or thoroughly embedded in character? Is bigotry curable or merely discoverable, as through an old statement, action, or photograph?
                This conundrum, which is larger than Northam, has been mostly absent from demands that he resign. But it’s central to mapping ways forward from America’s quagmire of bigotry. If individuals’ racial prejudices are impervious to change, how does society make progress? Or if prejudice can be reduced, how is that best accomplished? These are not new issues, but they take on urgency with a President Trump who reflects and enables biases against an array of ethnic, racial, and religious groups, from Mexicans to blacks to Muslims.
                Unfortunately, Northam has failed to lead the discussion where it should go. He has neither acknowledged his sin nor chronicled his redemption. He has forfeited a teaching opportunity that might have helped the public see how a person can confront and revise his prejudices—if that is indeed his case. It is worth wondering whether he might have salvaged his political career with candid introspection. Maybe not, but it would have served the greater good, for the journey from racism through reform is one needed by society as a whole.  
                Northam’s sin was the inflammatory picture he evidently chose for his own page in his 1984 medical school yearbook. It showed two men standing side by side, one in blackface, the other in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Northam either was or was not one of the men, depending on which of his ambiguous statements you credit. In any case, he also admitted darkening his face with shoe polish on another occasion, to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance. That touched a nerve of racial history, when whites in blackface used to perform in minstrel shows that mocked African-Americans as dumb, lazy, fearful, and ridiculous.
                Relatively few whites are sufficiently attuned to the overtones of history, the undertones of stereotyping, and the innuendoes that trigger, for many African-Americans, the long echoes of hatred. If nothing else beneficial has happened during the Northam episode, the mainstream media have at least given a short course on the ugly practice of blackface. It still endures occasionally in Halloween costumes and “ghetto parties” on campuses, where administrators huff and puff and punish.
                How to remedy the scourge of bigotry often depends on how changeable people seem to be. Since widespread redemption appears doubtful, the society has erected a superstructure of inhibitions—both legal and cultural—designed to prevent prejudiced thoughts from being translated into behavior. Violating anti-discrimination laws carries legal penalties; violating cultural norms can mean losing a job, a promotion, a friendship, a reputation. The results are anything but consistent, as illustrated vividly by the contrasting reactions to Northam and Trump. Northam’s Democratic Party denounces him, and Trump’s Republicans look the other way.

January 31, 2019

The Wind Chill Factor

By David K. Shipler

                President Trump warmed the hearts of Americans today by declaring the wind chill factor “FAKE NEWS” concocted by “Democrat weathermen” who are part of the “deep state.”
                “Wrong!” he tweeted right before breakfast toward the end of his insomnia. “The weathermen seem to be extremely passive and naïve when it comes to temperature. Don’t they read their own thermometers? The thermometer says 10 below, and they say it feels like 40 below! Sad!”
                In case his point was lost, he added the obvious, somewhat gratuitously: “Perhaps meteorology (I got that from spellcheck) should go back to school!”
                Millions of his fervent supporters across the country felt immediately warmer. In Wisconsin, the 27,000 citizens who put him over the edge in 2016 went without coats and gloves. One told a TV reporter at WXYZ, “See? Trump tells it like it is.” Another, who left his MAGA hat home, slapped his arms around himself and jumped up and down, his breath in a freezing fog before him. He declared happily, “Trump keeps his promises!”   

January 27, 2019

Lessons From the Shutdown

By David K. Shipler

                It’s too bad that air controllers and TSA agents didn’t call in sick on day one of the shutdown. Maybe next time. They’d get the government reopened in about 90 minutes.
               That’s Lesson One. Here are some others:
·         Financial security is a mirage for huge numbers of fulltime employees, not only of the federal government but of private firms as well. Wages are too low and expenses too high to generate an adequate cushion of savings for families in the so-called middle class. People quickly ran out of cash for such basic needs as housing and food. As a former Coast Guard commandant told NPR, petty officers with two or three kids are paid below the poverty line.
·         If those with steady government jobs are so vulnerable, think of the fragility of low-skilled laborers paid less, who might not be able to get more than part-time work. Every dime that comes in goes out, leaving them on the constant edge of crisis. An uncovered medical bill, missed work for a child’s illness, a car repair, a layoff, reduced food stamps, delayed housing subsidies, or myriad other disruptions can send families into a downward spiral.
·         Those housing subsidies—particularly the government’s Section 8 vouchers that help pay rent to private landlords for low-income tenants—faced interruption, exposing the poor to eviction and surely undermining owners’ willingness to accept the vouchers. It’s hard enough in normal times to get landlords’ participation in the program, and funding is inadequate anyway. Waiting lists are long, and families who have to pay unsubsidized market rents are often forced to cut spending on food. That leads to malnutrition among children at crucial stages of brain development, studies have found, creating long-term intellectual impairment. This is likely to be a hidden cost of the shutdown.

January 17, 2019

The Solution: A Trump-Pelosi Duel

By David K. Shipler

                If you’ve seen the musical Hamilton or read the book by Ron Chernow, you might have gained some appreciation of dueling, not so much as a method of ritualized murder but as a conflict-resolution device. Of course Alexander Hamilton was shot to death by Aaron Burr, which is always a risk in political confrontations, at least metaphorically. Yet it didn’t have to end that way. It could have been played more deftly to regain and preserve honor for both parties.
                Perhaps that’s the answer for President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as my friend Steve Weisman impishly suggested over lunch in Washington this week. Trump is stubborn, and Pelosi’s scrappy, and they’ve wrapped themselves in their egos as some 800,000 Americans, unpaid during the government shutdown, discover the pitfalls of working for Uncle Sam.
                In Hamilton’s age, Chernow writes, duels following insults were “de rigueur” among those “who identified with America’s social elite.” To restore dignity, demonstrate courage, and avoid being marked as cowardly, rising to the challenge was unavoidable. However, “duelists did not automatically try to kill their opponents,” Chernow explains. “The mere threat of gunplay concentrated the minds of antagonists, forcing them and their seconds into extensive negotiations that often ended with apologies instead of bullets.”
                If things went too far and you faced off with pistols, you could “throw away your shot,” that is, aim wildly to avoid inflicting a mortal wound. There’s evidence that Hamilton did just that in his duel with Burr. But the youthful Hamilton of years earlier, alight with revolutionary fervor, sings at the outset of the musical, “I will not throw away my shot!” That’s about both him and his cause. It’s enough to stir the patriotic heart of any American audience, even in our dispiriting time.