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

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.