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

September 4, 2023

How Strong is Putin?

                                                         By David K. Shipler 

                We don’t know. That’s the honest answer.

In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, Kremlinologists could estimate the pecking order of the grisly men (almost always men) who made up the governing Politburo by observing how they lined up atop Red Square’s Lenin mausoleum for the parade on November 7, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Or their positions as they walked into a ceremonial hall. Or whose name adorned one or another declaration. Physical proximity to the General Secretary of the Communist Party was a clue to influence and a possible successor—and was watched closely by scholars, diplomats, and journalists.

                Inner politics was encrypted then. Kremlinology was like a puzzle with only a few visible pieces. But looking back, the Soviet Kremlin seems less opaque than Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin today. There are no puzzle pieces now, only misfits or blanks filled by deduction, guesswork, and wishful thinking.

                Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Putin’s political standing at home has been an obsession in the West, where conventional wisdom has ricocheted back and forth. At first, he was a formidable foe, a canny calculator of military and diplomatic maneuvers. Then, when his army stalled in the face of Ukrainian resistance, he became a monstrous blunderer whose humiliation would surely bring him down.

                But as he wielded his dictatorial powers to obliterate the remaining freedoms Russians had gained since the Soviet collapse in 1991, Putin was the ruthless strongman, unconquerable in the moment. As the war ground into a bloody stalemate, however, and criticisms of the military escalated from the right, his pedestal showed cracks.

Then, he was pronounced weakened and vulnerable when units of Wagner, the private militia, slipped from under his thumb and launched an abortive mutiny by marching toward Moscow. “How Revolt Undermines Putin’s Grip,” said the lead New York Times headline on June 25. The appraisal flipped two months later, after the (presumably non-accidental) plane crash that killed Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The lead Times story declared: “Mutineer Dead, Putin Projects Image of Might.”

So, which is it? A Russian president in peril or in command?

It could be both. Dictatorships rarely erode gradually. They are brittle, so they break without bending. They are invincible until suddenly they are not.

Putin’s case is hard to judge partly because of his one-man rule. No formal political structure exists either to support him, undermine him, or groom a successor and provide a transition. At least the Soviet Communist Party ruled through a Politburo whose head, the General Secretary, operated in the context of political consensus. Even the authoritarian structure—in the years after Stalin—was governed by broader interests than those of a single man.

Kremlin politics played out of sight, for the most part, bursting into the open only on occasion. Nikita Khruschev was ousted as Soviet leader by the Politburo (then called the Presidium) in 1964. Dmitri Polyansky was kicked off the Politburo in 1976 after catastrophic failures in agriculture, his portfolio. There was no announcement, of course; Polyansky’s name was merely omitted from the list of the new Politburo read to a Communist Party Congress.

Today, though, Putin answers to no official body. Who keeps him in power? The military? The FSB secret police? And who checks his authority? What restrains him, if anything? Does anyone hold him to account? Who would oust him? Who would choose his successor?

“Putin has created, in effect, his own protective army and praetorian guard, which are loyal to him,” said Kenneth Yalowitz, former US ambassador to Belarus and Georgia. “As long as that does not change, his position seems strong.” 

The other uncertainties in calculating Putin’s power are the war and the economy, a military adventure marred by volatility and an economy hobbled by Western sanctions. Together they might foster instability on high, but the opposite down below: an iron fist that suppresses dissent and purges disloyalty. So, Putin acts strong, perhaps because he feels weak.

This anxiety at the top and control at the bottom is a chronic symptom of Russian paranoia, from the communist period onward. It’s a paradox that fuels oppression. The pinnacle of power feels like an unsteady perch.

It was assumed, when Putin did not immediately move against Prigozhin after the half-baked mutiny, that the Russian president had lost his aura of invincibility, and that whatever sharks swam in the political class sensed blood in the water.

But it’s possible that instead of weakening Putin, the Wagner maneuver strengthened his hand for a high-level crackdown to match the low-level crackdown he has been executing against ordinary citizens. With a sweep of his hand, he has turned the clock back to before the late Soviet period. In the 1970s and 80s, it took more persistent and vociferous recalcitrance to get arrested that it does today, when mild dissent can land you in prison. On social media, at workplaces, in classrooms, people are afraid to question the war—or even to say the word “war.”

While the anti-war whispers have been stifled, the loud, pro-war dissent on the right has enjoyed immunity from the oppression. Pro-military bloggers have freely condemned the army’s performance, and Prigozhin was vitriolic in his criticisms. His mutinous caper might have given Putin the opportunity to put the brakes on the right as well.

Since it’s widely believed that Putin ordered the efficient disposition of Prigozhin and his top lieutenants who were on the downed plane, the Russian leader got what any dictator needs: a fearsome posture intolerant of any self-enhancing figure who seeks independent influence. It didn’t matter that Prigozhin aimed his mutinous maneuver not at Putin but at the defense minister and the chief of staff, both blamed for failures in Ukraine. Putin called it treason nonetheless.

Then he waited two months while Prigozhin traveled around freely. We can speculate about the pause in retribution. Perhaps Putin had to get his own military and secret police in line, to continue bringing most Wagner troops into the regular army, to diminish the chance of rebellion. In any event, just before the plane went down, he sidelined a general who had cozied up to the Wagner militia, and whose military prowess failed to protect him.

The trouble for Putin is the war, obviously. He is stuck with it. He has rationalized the assault on Ukraine with such sweeping appeals to mystical Russian history and national destiny that retreat or compromise would be taken as unfaithful to his country’s cause—and his own.

So, the war’s fate is to be Putin’s fate. Therefore, he has every motivation to continue, certainly past the 2024 American election in case his admirer Donald Trump wins the White House and makes good on his campaign pledge to abandon Ukraine. Like it or not, a vote next year will be a vote for or against Putin—look for intensive Russian interference in the campaign. If Trump wins and cuts aid, NATO will fracture and Ukraine’s formidable resistance will wither over time.

 Another factor in Putin’s strength and longevity is the level of popular discontent in Russia. That is hard to measure in a semi-closed society. Polls are suspect, because people give safe answers. Correspondents experienced in Russia try to take the temperature of the public, but citizens are circumspect, and journalists who get to close to the pulse become targets. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, fluent in Russian and deeply conversant with Russian society, has been in jail since March on trumped-up charges of espionage. Most Western correspondents now try to cover the country from outside.

During Russia’s fruitless war in Afghanistan, popular resentment bubbled up, driven by relatives whose sons and grandsons and brothers and husbands were coming back in body bags. The reformist Mikhail Gorbachev was propelled to power in part by disaffection over that failed foreign adventure.

“Putin is relying on the very strong Russian propensity to support the leader in time of war even if they have doubts about him. This is particularly true in the villages,” said Yalowitz, the former ambassador who knows Russia well from four years as a diplomat in Moscow. Still, he added, “The economic sanctions are doing serious damage to the Russian economy, and that plus the brain drain will cost Russia for years to come.” That could be a source of weakness for Putin.

Even if discontent over the current war grew enough to overcome the jingoistic propaganda that now saturates schools and media, the Russian non-democracy has no mechanism to translate citizens’ attitudes into political policy. The lines of cause-and-effect are blurred and indirect. The change of mind has to happen at the top, inside the enigma of Kremlin politics, which could very well produce a post-Putin regime even more hawkish and reckless.

How strong is Putin, and what will come after? We don't know. That's the honest answer. 

August 27, 2023

Florida Bans Scary Trump Mug Shot from Schools


By David K. Shipler 

                The Florida Board of Education, citing a state law’s prohibition against student “discomfort,” has instructed public school teachers to refrain from “showing, displaying, distributing, discussing, mentioning, or making implicit gestures or facial expressions during class regarding” the mug shot that Donald Trump posed for during his booking in Atlanta last week.

A member of the Board, requesting anonymity, explained: “The fierce, angry, vengeful look that Trump carefully adopted would terrify small children and bring immense discomfort to teenagers. He looks as if he’s about to trash them on social media or sign them up as false electors.”

The decree is an expanded application of the statute on curriculum, Section 760.10 (3)(f), which Florida enacted last year to restrict how racial issues are taught. The code states: “An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”

Even where race is not explicitly involved, the Board member said, “Discomfort is not an emotion we want any of our children ever to experience until they’re old enough to go into a voting booth.”

Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, asked for comment by a reporter in Iowa, said nothing. He just gave his once-a-week smile.

 This is satire. It’s all made up (except for the text of the law), a disclosure made necessary by the absurdity of current reality, which prevents lots of people from telling the difference between truth and fiction.

August 20, 2023

Democracy: The Political Right's Alarming Lack of Alarm


By David K. Shipler 

                Right-wingers who tamper with democracies should be careful what they wish for. They might hold positions of power today, but as they undermine the checks and balances that stabilize and restrain, they hand formidable tools to their opponents who might take over tomorrow.

This is poorly understood in both Israel and the United States, two democracies now imperiled by extreme agendas that would weaken longstanding mechanisms designed to protect minority rights and moderate governmental authority.

The political right ought to take note: If Israel’s religio-nationalist government dismantles the separation of powers by emasculating the judiciary, what’s to prevent some centrist or more liberal government from driving unencumbered through the same gaping holes? After all, the right-wing governing coalition has only a four-seat majority in a 120-member parliament.

In the US, similarly, if Republican “conservatives” regain the White House and disempower independent agencies by transferring power to the president, as Trump’s team plans—and if they continue dismantling the non-partisan machinery of elections in swing states they control—what’s to prevent Democrats from doing the same where they hold or gain majorities? When you destroy the careful balances in a pluralistic system, the new structure is available to everyone, not just to you.

A case in point is Donald Trump’s anti-constitutional argument that Vice President Mike Pence, as President of the Senate, could have rejected slates of electors from some states that went for Joe Biden in 2020. But if Pence had that power, so would every vice president: Vice President Al Gore could have thrown out Florida’s Bush electors in 2000, where the popular vote was razor close and justifiably contested. And Vice President Kamala Harris could do it in 2024 if she doesn’t like certain states’ results.

Why don’t reporters interviewing avid Trump supporters ever point this out and ask for reactions?

It could be that Trump and his spellbound flock don’t grasp the universality of the powers they seek to acquire. Perhaps they think that only they will benefit by eroding the professional integrity of vote-counting, for example, not imagining that their opponents might use the same tactic. Perhaps they don’t see how a Democratic president could use the immense authority they seek for Trump should he be re-elected. In a society still largely subject to the rule of law, which carries with it a respect for precedent, consistency, and equal protection, systemic changes are just that: systemic. They flow through the entire system, no matter which faction is in charge, now or in the future.

It could also be that Republicans—privately—don’t really think Democrats are nefarious. Maybe right-wing politicians don’t believe what they say about liberals and progressives. Perhaps, in their heart of hearts, Republicans recognize that the “radical left” is not so devoid of civic and moral virtue that it would threaten democracy with the tools the Republicans are forging for themselves.

Indeed, that’s the flaw in this doomsday scenario: The Democrats are not the same, at least not now. Gore didn’t throw out Florida’s electors, and neither will Harris. Democratic state legislatures are not rushing to curtail voting rights or politicize vote-counting. There is no moral equivalency between Republicans and Democrats.

But will that be forever? Power is an aphrodisiac. The judicial system is growing more sharply partisan on both sides. Gerrymandering is a time-honored tradition by both parties. Imperious moves to stifle speech come from the left as well as the right. The danger of concentrating authority in too few hands, without sufficient checks, remains as acute today as when James Madison warned at the Constitutional Convention: “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”

So it also is in Israel, which has no constitution but a set of Basic Laws that are supposed to set the standards for governmental action. Without a constitutional text, the Supreme Court has overturned some statutes and practices as “unreasonable,” a squishy concept that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has just outlawed. (The Court itself will hear a case requesting that it overturn that new ban on its authority, setting up what Israelis loosely call a “constitutional crisis.”)

In addition, Netanyahu has proposed giving government officials a majority on the commission that appoints judges, and granting the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, the power to overturn any Supreme Court ruling with a simple majority vote. The specter of emasculating the courts—the only check on executive/legislative power—has ignited vast street demonstrations, disinvestment, protests by respected former intelligence and military officers, and refusals to serve by numerous military reservists. At least the center and left are alarmed, even if the right is not.

Ironically, Israel’s Supreme Court has moved somewhat to the right as new justices have been appointed during years of conservative government. So, if the judiciary is weakened and the rightist coalition loses its narrow majority in the future, a more centrist or left-tilting government could presumably overturn conservative Supreme Court decisions.

These might include rulings limiting the rights of Arab citizens, for example, or allowing more Jewish West Bank settlements on Palestinians’ land, or permitting gender discrimination by Haridim, the ultra-religious Jews who increasingly demand the separation of men and women in public transportation and elsewhere.

In fact, for many Israelis on both sides of the conflict over the judiciary, the very nature of the country is at stake—whether it remains a secular and pluralistic state or becomes increasingly theocratic, run by extensively by religious law. A centrist or slightly liberal government, empowered to overrule the Supreme Court, could conceivably sweep away judgments that uphold an expanded religious authority in domestic life, open the door to Israeli annexation of the West Bank, and other policies favored by the hard right. That is the risk that Netanyahu and his extremist partners run by changing the rules of the game.

Ultimately, citizens in both Israel and the United States will decide the momentous question, which is much larger than the personalities or slogans or temporal policies of the candidates. All democracies contain the built-in mechanism of their own destruction: the popular vote, which can elect those who will slice away the protections, usually little by little, until the citizens wake up one morning to find that their precious freedoms to choose how they are governed have disappeared. In a well-informed citizenry, the alarm sounds long before, across the entire political spectrum.

August 13, 2023

The Republicans' Ideology of Ignorance


By David K. Shipler 

                The Earth is on fire. And Republicans, led by Donald Trump, are poised to dismantle all the funding and regulations to combat global warming.

Racial bigotry runs rampant in plain view. And Republicans bar the topic from classrooms, emasculate the Voting Rights Act, and move to ban the military’s anti-discrimination programs.

The COVID pandemic triggers rapid, ground-breaking vaccine development. And Republican officials demonize scientists, fight protective measures, and hound numerous public health specialists out of their jobs.

And so on. The Republican Party has led the United States into a peculiar era of contempt for knowledge, disdain for the experts who have acquired it, and suspicion of fellow Americans who revere learning. “Expert” has become a dirty word.

From Republican-controlled state houses to public universities, secondary schools, so-called “news” organizations, and libraries, a concerted campaign is on to create deserts of ignorance where no fruits of accumulated understanding can grow. These blank landscapes are devoid of the conscientious research and reasoning gathered over decades. In the empty patches, weeds grow—the weeds of fabricated conspiracies and dogmatic thinking. They are producing a harvest of contempt for any truth that violates a predilection.

There is a class element to this, a bottom-up sense that the elites with all their schooling really know nothing about the real world and care nothing for those whose names are not followed by letters signifying advanced degrees. This phenomenon of disparagement is a symptom of powerlessness, marginalization, and alienation. It was accelerated by the Great Recession of 2007-08—triggered by elite wheeler-dealers in finance. Lower middle-class families lost equity in their homes, jobs that had seemed secure, and confidence in their futures—a logical sequel to the decline of manufacturing and the stability it had provided. People’s foundations were shaken.

One outcome has been fear, particularly among whites without a college education. Not just fear of personal economic vulnerability, but also anxiety about change in demography and society: rising  numbers of non-whites, shifting social attitudes on sexual orientation and other issues, declining trust in such big institutions as government. That perspective sees an America drifting from some idyllic essence. Make America Great Again—Again.

That idyl is a myth, of course, picturing a supposedly homogeneous United States—white, Christian, socially traditional, heterosexual, family-based—a comforting Norman-Rockwell culture with non-accented English and red-blooded “American” names. It’s no surprise that it is nurtured mostly in rural areas where the myth is closer to reality, and where the new Republican Party finds ready voters.

Fear is convenient to certain brands of politicians, especially those aspiring to autocracy. As we have seen, fear has been cynically stoked by Trump and his fellow co-conspirators in the great takeover of a once-responsible political party. Where Republicans once garnered more electoral support than Democrats from voters with college degrees, it’s now the opposite. Democrats have largely lost their appeal among the white working class, where Republican fear mongering has gained ground.

That is not to say that a thirst for knowledge—and its delightful ambiguities and contradictions—is monopolized by the college-educated. Smarts and curiosity are widely distributed up and down the socio-economic scale, blessing those without university diplomas and also skipping many of those who have them. But informing yourself these days takes more time and skill than long working hours and defective schooling usually allow, a handicap for those who lack leisure and luxury.

Republicans have profited from the deep inadequacies of the country’s education systems, which mostly neglect to teach students how to check facts, discern truth from propaganda, and filter through the internet maze of reports and claims. (The News Literacy Project has developed curricula and online tools to help teachers do just that.) Under the guise of awarding parents control over their kids’ schooling, Republican lawmakers in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere are moving aggressively to erase honest history and relevant contemporary discussion from classrooms, and to remove books on race and sexual orientation from courses and libraries. The objective, it seems, is to create pockets of abject ignorance in the rising generations.  

That will work to the advantage of a party that wants to manipulate instead of educate. Even more troubling than the Republican schemes to fool the public is the capacity of large parts of the public to be fooled.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the “willing suspension of disbelief” as an aesthetic component of readers’ acceptance of literature’s plausibility. But he meant it as a conscious, creative process. In American politics, the willing suspension of disbelief allows mendacious actors room for mischief.

Hence, the Republicans’ ideology of ignorance. It is easier to convince citizens to ignore racial bias if you obliterate its history from classrooms. It is easier to foster contempt for your political opponents if you impugn their support for transgender people as morally harmful to children. It is easier to frighten people that they are losing parental authority if you brand relevant books and classroom discussion on race and gender as self-blaming, pornographic, or perverted.

It is a cleverly constructed strategy at the heart of Trump’s spellbinding appeal and his intellectual corruption of the Republican Party, once a responsible bastion of tempered governance. Trump and his copycats create areas of ignorance with their perpetual tempests of lies. They conjure up a mirage of candor but obliterate knowledge.

I am reminded of a day off the coast of Maine, sailing through a heavy rainstorm. The radar, unable to penetrate the downpour, displayed a screen entirely lit up in vivid orange, blotting out all traces of nearby boats, buoys, and treacherous land—the reality that I needed to see. Thankfully, the storm soon passed.

March 19, 2023

The Mixed Human Rights Record of Israel's Judiciary


By David K. Shipler 

                The right-wing Israeli government’s plan to eviscerate the powers of the country’s courts has generated massive demonstrations in the streets, worries by foreign investors, and boycotts of military service by hundreds of reservists in elite special forces and air force units. But the “independent judiciary” the protesters are defending does not have a sterling record on civil rights, especially those of Palestinian Arabs.

                The Supreme Court has refused to rule against the government’s inflammatory strategy of settling Jews in the occupied West Bank, a practice barred by the Fourth Geneva Convention. It has generally permitted the army to demolish the family homes of Arabs accused of terrorism, a form of collective punishment that the Geneva Convention also forbids. (Demolition is never used against Jews charged with terrorism against Arabs.) Inside Israel, the court has upheld a form of segregation by allowing rural villages and kibbutzim to reject would-be residents for “incompatibility with the social-cultural fabric of the town.”

The justices have only tinkered around the edges of the government’s tough practices. They have occasionally ordered a small Jewish settlement dismantled for taking Palestinian land. For similar reasons, they have required minor changes in the route of Israel’s security wall built on the border of the West Bank. They have ruled against demolishing a house where the accused did not actually live, and where a family tried to prevent the terrorist act. But the justices have typically avoided sweeping judgments on major policies affecting Palestinians’ rights, deferring to security concerns and gradually reducing the influence of international law.

                “Over the years,” says B’Tselem, an Israeli civil liberties organization, “the Supreme Court has permitted nearly every kind of human rights violation that Israel has committed in the Occupied Territories.”

Why, then, is the extreme political right so intent on emasculating the judiciary? First, the Supreme Court has gone the other way in a few important areas. It struck down a law exempting the state from liability for damaging civilian property during security operations in the West Bank. It limited the length of time that “infiltrators,” namely illegal immigrants from Africa, could be held in a desert prison camp that was designed as a deterrent to further arrivals.

And, most politically charged, the court overturned, as discriminatory, the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from the military service that all other Israeli men and women must perform. (Although, with ultra-Orthodox parties giving governing coalitions their parliamentary majorities, governments have repeatedly obtained the court’s permission to extend the exemption.)

                Second, if Israel annexes the West Bank as many on the political right desire, the military’s authority there would presumably end, along with the military courts that have tried Palestinians on both security and criminal charges since the territory was captured in the 1967 war. It is conceivable that the Supreme Court would grant Palestinian residents access to the same rights in the same criminal justice system as Israelis. That would not be welcomed by the virulent anti-Arab members of the current government.

                Last but certainly not least, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to stay out of prison if his endless trial on corruption charges, which began in May 2020, ever ends with a conviction. An independent judicial system is such an inconvenience to authoritarian-minded leaders, as former president Donald Trump might soon discover.   

Nevertheless, Israel’s Supreme Court seems less of a threat to some of the right-wing agenda than the protests in its favor might suggest. It has grown more restrained and more conservative in recent decades, especially since the retirement in 2006 of its president, Aharon Barak, a jurist revered both in Israel and abroad for his capacity to apply human rights to the exigencies of security interests.

In 2011, for example, the court essentially reversed a 1983 judgment by Barak against ten Israeli-owned quarries that were extracting building materials from the occupied West Bank. Citing the Geneva Convention and the Hague Regulations, Barak’s court had ruled, “An area held under belligerent occupation is not an open field for economic exploitation.” He reaffirmed the judgment in 2004. But in 2011, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch found that the long period of occupation “requires the laws be conformed to meet reality on the ground,” which she said included “the right to utilize natural resources in a reasonable manner.”

  In retirement, former Justice Barak recently called the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plan “a string of poison pills” that would be “the beginning of the end of the Third House,” meaning the third historical period of Jewish sovereignty after the eras of the ancient First and Second Temples.

Barak’s warning was airily dismissed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who declared that the former Supreme Court president “does not understand the essence of democracy,” endangered, in Levin’s view, because “all power rests with the judges, and they decide what’s proportionate and reasonable. That’s not democratic.”

But it is the Justice Minister who does not understand the essence of democracy, which relies on the separation of powers, a cardinal principle recognized by the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets. Israel’s Supreme Court is the only institution standing in the way of unfettered political diktat. With a parliamentary system whose majority always controls the executive branch, no other check or balance exists.

The country has no constitution; a failed constitutional assembly after Israel’s creation in 1948 led to the enactment by the Knesset, the parliament, of what’s called Basic Law, a dozen principles on “human dignity and liberty” derived from the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The Basic Law figures in the Supreme Court’s rulings on the “constitutionality” of statutes passed by the Knesset. Yet the court has been cautious, overturning only 22 laws since the power of judicial review was established in 1992, an annual rate lower than the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

It appears that even as the authority to annul laws has been rarely used, its existence has restrained the executive and legislative branches in the past. Not so much today, as the government has shifted to the right, and “elected officials have become less likely to accept legal advice to amend or withdraw bills that are constitutionally problematic,” according to Yuval Shany and Guy Lurie of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Ironically, given all the protests, the Supreme Court has suffered a decline in public trust, from 80 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2010 to 41 percent in 2021. “While the words ‘there are judges in Jerusalem’ used to put an end to public debate, today they provoke it,” wrote Yedidia Z. Stern, former dean of the law faculty at Bar-Ilan University, back in 2010. Dissatisfaction reigns on both the right and the left of the political and religious spectrums.

Yet for the sake of democracy, large numbers of Israelis seem to realize, the center has to hold. If Netanyahu and his justice minister looked around the world or into history, they would see how every dictatorship subverts and expropriates its judiciary. In the Soviet Union, pro-democracy dissidents used to speak of “telephone justice,” delivered by judges who first called Communist Party officials for instructions. In today’s Russia, supine courts mostly do the Kremlin’s bidding. Hungary’s semi-autocrat Victor Orban has emasculated the courts, which are also lapdogs of the regimes in Iran, China, and other authoritarian systems.

                Netanyahu and his extremist, anti-Arab cabinet are ramming through legislation that would require an 80 percent majority on the Supreme Court to invalidate a law, and would empower the Knesset to annul that ruling or any other with just a one-vote majority of legislators. Justices would be appointed mainly by governing politicians in a restructured Judicial Selection Committee, instead of the one currently dominated by nonpartisan judges and lawyers.

                That would set the stage for a kind of elected autocracy, placed in office by the voters but unchecked by the rule of law—or of any law other than the one enacted at the whim of the legislature, the executive, and their hand-picked judges, all three branches flowing into a single stream of authority.

                The sad question is whether Palestinians would notice much difference. Maybe not, since they haven’t had much success anyway, through Israel’s independent courts, fighting discriminatory laws and regulations.

March 8, 2023

World War II According to Tucker Carlson


By David K. Shipler 

                A reliably uninformed source has revealed that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s staffers, desperately bored without any significant national problems they’re allowed to address, have collected 41,000 hours of newsreel footage from 1939-45 and turned it over to Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

                Reels of film are unreliably reported to be stacked in his reception area, in his office, and around his venerable desk. One pile, which swayed dangerously in a puff of Carlson’s bloviations, finally toppled over onto his favorite saying, etched into a plaque carved from a Mar a-Lago palm tree:

                “What you see with your own eyes is a rumor.”

                 According to inside misinformation, Our Boy Tucker is preparing a show of the most telling, iconoclastic clips hidden for decades. They will definitively rebut the assertions by elitist “historians” that certain “events” and “attacks” and “battles” occurred.

                Tucker’s show is to begin with a scene from Pearl Harbor at sunrise on Dec. 7, 1941. Contrary to the fabrication about a Japanese attack, the camera pans across the beautiful harbor, where U.S. Navy ships lie quietly in their berths, sailors lounging on deck or going about their peacetime chores of swabbing, painting, and wielding nothing more dangerous than an occasional screwdriver.

                An advance copy of Carlson’s narration for this bit has been smuggled out of the Fox digital files, which as we know are full of revealing texts and e-mails. Tucker is itching to declare: “The socialist President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s approval rating had tanked, so he mobilized his propaganda resources to invent a Japanese attack, just to boost his poll numbers. And it worked.”

                Film of London during the so-called “blitz” shows a pub-filled city of merry-makers. How come no V-1 “buzz bombs” are heard? Tucker plans to ask. How come there are no explosions? How come there’s nothing but the clinking sound of beer mugs and happy chatter? Carlson will tell us why, and you probably already know the answer.

                A particularly affecting scene will show a ship sailing placidly along in an open ocean. “Worried about U-boats?” Tucker will sneer. “Please. Look closely. We’ll freeze the frame here. See the passengers out on deck enjoying the sun and the sea? It’s a pleasure cruise, folks, right there in the middle of 1943. Gimme a break.”

Then, a startling new clip of the so-called D-Day landing is sure to galvanize audiences. It is a beach scene, all right, but instead of helmeted soldiers in camouflage and belts of grenades, we will see a bunch of obviously American guys with their obviously French girlfriends playing volleyball on the sand and frolicking in the surf.

This momentous report will surely bring relief to all of us who have worried about the danger of a new war, World War Three. We didn’t even have World War Two, so relax.

Many reels have yet to be examined, according to our misinformed source, so we will just have to wait and see what long-suppressed scenes of benign German concentration camps the great Tucker Carlson will discover.   

                 This is satire. It’s all made up, a disclosure made necessary by the absurdity of current reality, which prevents lots of people from telling the difference between truth and fiction.

March 4, 2023

Israel's Forever War

                                                         By David K. Shipler 

                Forty-three years ago this month, the United States voted for a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Jewish settlements in Arab territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war, and demanding that they be dismantled. After an immediate outcry by Israel and its American supporters, President Jimmy Carter backtracked, saying an affirmative vote had been authorized only if all references to Jerusalem were deleted, which they were not. He blamed miscommunication within his administration.

The Israeli cabinet didn’t buy the story, saying the vote “gives rise to deep resentment.” Vice President Walter Mondale was booed at a meeting of American Jewish leaders. And it didn’t help President Carter in his re-election bid that November, although his landslide loss to Ronald Reagan had numerous other causes, including the American diplomats being held hostage in Iran.

                Decades later, it’s clear that Carter was right about settlements being “obstacles to peace,” in the official phase that was used through several administrations. But the U.S. never took concrete action to stop their expansion. It pressed occasionally for construction freezes but never dared to use economic or military aid as leverage. President Trump even supported the settlements; his ambassador, David Friedman, endorsed their annexation by Israel.

The years of negligence have allowed a dangerous sore to fester. At the time of that U.N. vote in 1980, there were about 11,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank; today there are some 450,000. Then, a small and marginal assortment of zealous Jewish vigilantes harassed and attacked Palestinians; today, a widening crusade of armed Israeli thugs holds sway in many areas, as witnessed last week when hundreds of settlers, in retaliation for the murder of two young Israeli men, rampaged through four Palestinian villages, burning cars and houses, vandalizing homes, and terrorizing children—children, who will never forget.

The arsenal of memory is reinforced by the cycle of terrorism and revenge. Its weaponry is ready for deployment by both sides at any hint of compromise. So, as long as clashes on the ground occur between Israeli settlers and Palestinians, no high-level peace agreement can succeed, in the unlikely event that one should be negotiated. Furious hatreds have long been generated at the level of everyday life.

That doesn’t mean that Arabs and Jews have universally hostile relations on the West Bank. Palestinians work on construction crews building settlements, in Israeli-owned businesses, inside Israel itself if they have permission to commute through the border wall that now cuts off the West Bank. Some Arab-Jewish friendships exist.

Nor are the militant settlers the only cause of conflict, obviously. Palestinian leaders have a long history of missing opportunities to move toward reconciliation. Years ago, Israeli proposals were spurned or ignored. The Israeli left’s call of “land for peace” evaporated after Israel unilaterally withdrew its troops from Gaza in 2005 and—instead of peace—got rocket fire as Hamas, the radical Palestinian movement, took power.

And yet, settlements on the West Bank have played a poisonous role in the unending war. Combined with stepped-up Israeli army raids against terrorist cells, settler violence has embittered ordinary Palestinians, with growing numbers promoting armed resistance, polls show. Even though the West Bank is far from a functioning democracy, no Palestinian leader can negotiate fruitfully without the population’s support. It is too easy to strike the match that will light the tinder of outrage.

In a perfect world, anybody of any religion, race, or nationality would be free to live peacefully anywhere, of course, unmolested by those of a different identity. But the Holy Land is far from perfect. It is a place where land is idolized, dogmatism is prized, and history is corrupted. The settlements, then, become instruments of politics and conquest.

 Israelis who move to the West Bank generally go for the subsidized housing, the semi-rural setting, or the religio-nationalist belief that God gave the Jews the deed to that land. But some bent on violence are drawn there by the conflict itself. They have usually been allowed to act against Palestinians with virtual impunity.  

Mixing biblical certainty with anti-Arab bigotry has made some settlements incubators of extremism. It has not been countered by any Israeli government, and won’t be by the current coalition, which includes ideological settlers in the cabinet. As a result, Israeli settlers have become both targets of terrorism and perpetrators of vigilantism.

This isn’t brand new. In 1983, settlers planted bombs in cars owned by the Arab mayors of Nablus and Ramallah; one lost both legs, the other, part of his left foot. A third mayor escaped after the Israeli army got a tip and warned him.

Later that year, a yeshiva student was stabbed to death in the West Bank city of Hebron, sparking a rampage by settlers who trashed and burned stalls in the Arab market. Then six settlers, including three who had been involved in the mayors’ bombing, dressed as Arabs and sprayed automatic gunfire into groups of students at the Islamic College in Hebron, killing three. Three of those settlers were sentenced to life in prison but were released only seven years later.

In 1994, a settler named Baruch Goldstein stormed into Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs and killed 29 Muslim worshipers; survivors beat him to death. He was made a heroic martyr by the radical settler subculture and an inspiration to Prime Minister Yitzhak’s assassin, Yigal Amir, a frequent visitor to settlements. Though not a resident himself, Amir identified with the hard-core settlers’ movement.

Until recently, Goldstein’s picture hung on the wall of Israel’s new Public Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, an extremist settler who had distributed a flyer of Rabin in an SS uniform and declared, after stealing an ornament from Rabin’s car, “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him too.”

Aside from the misdeeds of settlers themselves, their communities have multiplied and fragmented West Bank territory into disjointed enclaves impossible to forge into contiguous areas under Palestinian rule. By explicit design over decades, Israel has essentially slammed the door on a two-state solution.

That was the goal, the former general Ariel Sharon told me back in 1979, when he was Agriculture Minister facilitating new settlements by building roads, pipelines, and electrical grids. “Security is not only guns and aircraft and tanks,” he said then, years before he became Defense Minister and later Prime Minister. “If people live in a place, they have the motivation to defend themselves, and the nation has the motivation to defend them. As long as these settlements are built, a Palestinian state will not be established in this area.”

Like the term “refugee camp,” “settlement” conveys a misleading sense of impermanence. Both have become perpetual. Refugee camps are now tightly-packed slums where generations have lived. Many Jewish settlements began as tents or mobile homes on Arab villages’ common agricultural land but are now established semi-suburbs of town houses and apartments, schools and synagogues—“facts on the ground,” Sharon used to call them.

Each side has radicalized the other. Whatever harmony some once imagined being possible between the two peoples in two neighboring states is being soured into discord every day. Nobody is trying any more to end the forever war.

February 24, 2023

In Ukraine, Both Sides Are Losing


By David K. Shipler 

                A year into Europe’s largest land war in nearly 80 years, the prospect of “winning” remains not only elusive but—more telling—defined by wishful thinking rather than military reality.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine seems capable of achieving its ambitious aims. Perhaps, looking far into the future, Russia will succeed in taking over all of Ukraine. Or perhaps Ukraine will manage to expel Russian forces from its entire territory, including Crimea and the eastern Donbas region that Moscow grabbed in 2014. Perhaps. But so far, neither scenario looks possible.

Instead, Russia and Ukraine are locked in a conflict of mutual loss. Russia is losing its soldiers and weapons, its global standing, its economic vitality, its modicum of cultural and political freedom, and hundreds of thousands of talented citizens who are fleeing abroad. Convicted prisoners, freed to fight, are coming home, along with traumatized troops bearing shame and emotional scars. Russian society is being wounded.

Ukraine is losing population to death and migration, its houses and bridges and factories and farms, its energy grid, its medical system, and its reliable independence. If it survives, it will be hobbled by neediness and severe militarization. The coming generation will not easily erase the terrors endured in childhood.

Yet there is talk of “victory.” What that means today is certainly not what will be claimed eventually in whatever compromise may be reached, for this war—unlike Vietnam and the two World Wars—is not susceptible to the categorical defeat of either side. Both portray it as a clash of virtues and values, a colossal contest over the entire international order.  

February 10, 2023

The Rise of Black Quarterbacks

                                                         By David K. Shipler 

            At Sunday’s Super Bowl, the United States will congratulate itself on another racial milestone, the first time two Black quarterbacks have played in the culminating game of the country’s most popular sport. “Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes will make history on Sunday,” crowed CBS News.

But the history is a lesson in bigotry, illustrating how devious stereotypes can be.

The latest “first” is a cause for celebration, to be sure. It is no exoneration of American society, however, for the racial assumptions that have made this so long in coming still whirl around Blacks, whether professional athletes or ordinary mortals. Tangible barriers that are broken often leave a strong residue of bias—in this case, about the interactions of the mind, the body, and the power of Blacks on the field or off.   

Americans love to chart progress. We have had the first Black president, the first Black vice president, the first Black defense secretary, the first Black secretary of state, the first Black Supreme Court justice, the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and on. And now “the first Black House Minority Leader in history” as President Biden said in his State of the Union Address, congratulating Representative Hakeem Jeffries.

 Whether Jeffries was pleased or displeased by the label was hard to tell by the neutral expression on his face. Not every Black or Muslim or woman or gay person who gets past the obstacle loves being defined primarily that way. Jeffries and the rest of us might reasonably wonder if the day will ever come when the phrase “the first Black [fill in the blank]” can be relegated to a distant past.

            The first Black quarterback to start in the Superbowl was Doug Williams, who led the Washington Redskins to victory in 1988. He won the Lombardi Trophy and was named the game’s most valuable player. But he hadn’t been the team’s starter at the beginning of the season, when Black quarterbacks overall started fewer than 10 percent of NFL games. 

            Several years later, for my book A Country of Strangers, I looked into the patterns of prejudice that was keeping Black players out of the quarterback position. A system of tracking was putting high school athletes on career-changing detours, especially if they came from mostly Black schools, according to Richard L. Schaefer, former attorney for the National Football League Players Association. On college teams, he said then, talented Black quarterbacks were being bumped to other positions considered more physical than mental. “I think it’s a subtle, perhaps even subconscious, kind of bigotry.”

            The bigotry pairs two of the society’s longest-standing stereotypes of Blacks as both physically strong and mentally weak. Since at least the days of Thomas Jefferson, who codified those images in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, there has been a tendency in white America to see the body and the mind as opposite poles, perceptions that persisted and shaped college and NFL coaches’ decisions centuries later.

January 31, 2023

Policing in Black and Blue


By David K. Shipler 

                The murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis has opened a window onto the complexity of race as a factor in policing. A conventional assumption has been disrupted—that racism alone drives police brutality against Black citizens. Yet it would be a mistake to use the tragedy as an excuse to discount racial bigotry’s role in police behavior nationwide, and perhaps even in this case.

Unlike many other police killings of unarmed Black men, there was no frightened, trigger-happy white cop. There was no white-dominated “law enforcement” apparatus structured to keep Blacks down. Nichols was a young Black man beaten to death after a traffic stop by five Black officers in a mostly-Black police department headed by a Black police chief in a Black-majority city.

It’s a rare lineup of elements, and it has forced questions that seem to have nothing to do with race: about how police recruits are screened, how they are trained, how they are socialized once they’re in uniform, and how rules governing the use of force are designed and enforced.

Yet none of those areas is impervious to insidious racial stereotyping. They are all vulnerable to subtle interactions between race and power. Even Blacks, in keeping with a pattern seen broadly in multiracial settings, may internalize the negative stereotypes of themselves that are taught by the larger, white society.

Therefore, when America’s longstanding images of the Black man as aggressive, violent, and dangerous are lodged in any officer’s expectations, high anxiety can provoke preemptive force—by Black cops as well as white. The nervousness is enhanced during traffic stops, which cops are trained to believe are more life-threatening than the data show.

January 14, 2023

The Curse of Classified Documents


By David K. Shipler 

                Many years ago, the Communications Officer on the US Navy destroyer where I was stationed went into a panic. He had misplaced a booklet, marked “SECRET” containing encryption keys. He scoured the radio shack where the document was usually kept, went through the officers’ wardroom where we ate, and ravaged his desk in the stateroom we shared. Nothing.

                He was a young ensign and was sure he was going to prison. I helped him look. We both had Top Secret clearances, so there was no risk of my seeing something I shouldn’t. We overturned our mattresses. We emptied drawers and lockers. Finally, on a whim, I fished around in the narrow slot between a desk and a bunk and—voila! There it was. My roommate was saved.

                Would that all officials were as terrified of classified documents going astray. But no, as Donald Trump and Joe Biden have demonstrated, and as countless lower functionaries have surely done out of sight, carelessness seems as ubiquitous as classification itself.

There are two main reasons for this. One is overclassification of material that needn’t be kept secret, or whose need for secrecy has expired. The other is a decentralization of authority over the reams of classified documents that flow across some government desks. Those in certain positions are so used to shuffling papers with one of the three basic classification levels—Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret—that they evidently get too casual.

“Misplacing classified documents is very common—happens all the time,” the BBC was told by Tom Blanton, head of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. He added that certain information, such as a president’s travel schedule, is classified beforehand but need not remain secret afterwards. Yet those documents are often never put through the declassification process.

In addition, virtually every communication sent by an embassy to the State Department in Washington is classified, at least at the low Confidential level, even including reports of news stories that everybody can read in the local media. It’s too bad that Ben Franklin didn’t come up with some proverb for this like, “Absurdity numbs the conscience.”

Nevertheless, mishandling classified information either intentionally or in a grossly negligent way can be charged as a felony. And knowingly removing classified information from appropriate systems or storage facilities is a misdemeanor.

December 16, 2022

The Dying Constitution, Part II


By David K. Shipler

See Part I Here 

                Like a broken clock that tells the right time twice a day, former President Donald Trump’s recent call for the Constitution to be terminated was a fleeting moment of honesty. He never honored the Constitution in practice, despite his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” it. He sought to undermine its foundational separation of powers, and of course its mechanism of electoral democracy.

                Still raging and lying about the 2020 election, he wrote in early December, “A Massive Fraud [sic] of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.” His post appeared on his media platform, Truth Social, whose title aptly echoes the paradoxical name the Soviet Communist Party gave to its newspaper: “Truth” (Pravda in Russian). Need we cite Orwell yet again?

                This prominent a dismissal of the Constitution was a break from a long, modern American tradition. By and large, all sides in the most acrimonious debates ritually cite the document in reverence. They interpret it variously to suit their own arguments, to be sure, sometimes with convoluted sophistry. But they rarely hope to cast it aside. Even the January 6 rioters hailed the Constitution as they violated it by storming the Capitol to disrupt the sacred process of counting Electoral College votes.

                So, what is the significance of Trump’s remark? He has been sneered at for years whenever he utters absurdities, with much of the public thinking that he has finally crossed the line into a territory of his own demise. But for millions of his spellbound supporters, that line is as imaginary as the horizon, receding as he approaches it.

                After his comment on “termination,” only a bare majority (51 percent) of registered voters polled by Quinnipiac University said it disqualified him from running again for president. A substantial 40 percent said it was not disqualifying. The figures among Republicans were troubling: Disqualified—just 17 percent. Not disqualified—72 percent. Democrats, predictably, were the opposite: 86 percent said he was disqualified, 12 percent said not disqualified.

November 22, 2022

Trumpism is not Dead


By David K. Shipler 

                Despite Donald Trump’s political wounds from the mid-terms, his strategy of hateful polarization and autocratic assaults on democracy have not been defeated. They no longer depend on his personal demagoguery but have been woven into the fabric of the Republican Party. No true cleansing seems likely without a much more thorough drubbing at the ballot box than Republicans just experienced a week ago.

There is good reason for the relief that prevailed on the American left after Republicans failed to sweep the mid-term elections “as expected.” But expectations are figments of prediction, not reality. The Democrats held the Senate, yes, and few of Trump’s endorsed candidates achieved high enough office to rig vote counts, thankfully. Subverting democracy is not so easy.

But a glass half full is also a glass half empty. Many races were infinitesimally close, with millions of Americans ignoring Republicans’ dangerous campaign to undermine faith in elections, whose integrity is the pillar of government by the people. And the Republicans are still at it: gerrymandering upheld by rightwing judges, voter suppression laws, intimidation at the polls, threats scaring honest election workers to resign, and their biased replacements infiltrating local electoral systems.

According to much of the post-election analysis, the voting seemed less about Republicans vs. Democrats than about Democrats vs. Expectations. The expectations lost, mainly because they were so excessive.

Who was expecting what? Pundits, speculators, politicians, and reporters engaged in an orgy of expectations: the expectation that history would win by overrunning the party in power, as usual in mid-terms. That inflation would win by blaming the party in power. That crime would win by indicting the party in power. The word “expect” in all its parts of speech should be banned from political coverage.

                But did the Democrats win? If getting through a stalemated war without getting killed is winning, sure. But this war is far from over, and the bad guys are still at the gates.

On the one hand, none of the Republican candidates who called the 2020 presidential election fraudulent won office to supervise the next elections in swing states, including Nevada, Michigan, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. That removed part of the threat that the accuracy of future vote counts would be undermined by partisan secretaries of state and governors. On the other hand, election deniers won as secretaries of state in four states, and eight were elected as governors.

The mainstream of the Republican Party remains a conduit for the once-fringe white supremacist theories of social grievance and calls to political violence. Republicans swept Florida, the epicenter of school censorship, book banning, immigrant-bashing, and other assaults on liberty. The party retains its anti-democracy desires.

And while Democrats cheered the narrowness of Republicans’ takeover of the House of Representatives, it is precisely that razor thin majority that will give leverage to the radical Freedom Caucus and its most demented members, such as Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Ironically, a larger majority might have given the Republican leadership space for some moderation. Depending for votes by the likes of Boebert and Greene will make the chamber into a platform for slander, character assassination, guilt by association, wild fabrications, and other do-nothing cacophony.   

Conventional interpretations of political developments reveal two chronic problems of journalism. One is short-term memory. The other is the personification of policy.

The first is imposed by tight news cycles, which tend to create fads of interest. Topics and analyses flare and disappear like shooting stars. “News” is defined as something “new.” Therefore, events comprising both the changing and the unchanging—as most significant events do—are distorted by a lens that puts newness into focus and blurs the rest. What is different is emphasized; what remains constant is not. The midterm elections were a classic example, for much in the body politic remained basically unchanged.

The second defect—personification--comes from journalism’s limits of time and space, and its need to catch and appeal to the fleeting attention of the public. Attributing policy to personality—"Biden’s agenda,” “Trump’s candidates”—isn’t all wrong, obviously, but it’s too easy when it ignores the society’s contributing faults and virtues. Maureen Dowd had it right when she wrote that Trump had opened the Pandora’s Box of American demons. For years he was pictured as the cause when he was in fact the symptom, the facilitator. Now, it’s clear that Trumpism has taken root and can grow without him.

Therefore, while Trump’s political stature has been a central topic of coverage, and he remains the object of our obsession as he runs again for president, his malice has been institutionalized.

The same can be said of Vladimir Putin, by the way. Our concentration on him as the wellspring of all Russian evil misses the broader historical patterns of yearning that have transcended Russian governments since before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Even if Putin were toppled, Russia’s thin-skinned sense of humiliation, its messianic impulses, and its lust for respect through territorial expansion would not necessarily be toppled as well. His replacement might be as bad or worse.

So might Trump’s. In the White House, he was crude and sloppy, incurious about how to pull the levers of government and cultivate alliances within law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies. There are potential Republican challengers who are smarter and equally malicious: Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, for example, and Florida governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who just won election in a 19-point landslide.

In rallies, though, Trump is a marksman, hitting the targets of resentment. Perhaps a Trumpist successor would lack the rhetorical skill to incite mobs of hateful white Americans to channel their sense of powerless and marginalization. Perhaps. But Trump has been a model of demagoguery, so emulation can be expected.

There are those of us looking forward eagerly to a Trump political failure. But it would be no guarantee of salvation. Pandora’s Box has been opened.  

November 13, 2022

Putin's War Shrinks and Widens


By David K. Shipler 

                Russia’s war in Ukraine might be one of the strangest in history. Even while his army is being pummeled into retreat, President Vladimir Putin expands the goals of the conflict into a messianic campaign against the entire West. As his military holdings shrink on the ground, his strategic ambitions spread into a miasma of self-delusion. It is a dark comedy with monstrous effect.

                Not only does Russia aim to retake the Ukrainian part of the lost Soviet empire, according to Putin. Not only must Russia parry American military threats to preserve its very existence, he claims. But also, more deeply, Russia must fulfill its mission, borne of its thousand-year history, to lead toward a multipolar world: to defeat the arrogant West’s “faltering hegemony”; its “neo-colonial system”; its “enslavement” of the less wealthy; its “pure Satanism,” its “radical denial of moral, religious, and family values.”

                That is a tall order for a country with a limping economy, few international friends, and an army that looked formidable until the first shot was fired. It also suggests a war in search of an ideology—or at least a rationale trying for resonance in both Russia and developing countries that feel exploited.

In a way, it seems a lame throwback to the communist era of Russian evangelism for worldwide social justice. But it also reveals something more significant.

Putin seems to fancy himself a brilliant global analyst. He has been holding forth in various writings and several long speeches, most notably on September 30 in annexing Ukrainian territory that his troops didn’t entirely hold, and then on October 27 in a three-hour session at the Valdai International Discussion Club—an annual gathering of fawning Russian and foreign guests who lob softball questions after he pontificates at length.  

Several conclusions can be drawn from this disconnect between solid ground and atmospherics. First, Putin is not stupid and he is not unaware. He is Donald Trump with a sheen of sophistication. He is a cunning wordsmith who weaves lies and truths together into webs of alternative reality.

Second, he is a chess player with the long view, cognizant of historical trends and able to think several moves ahead. But he does not play well when he is emotional; emotion is not helpful in the logic of chess. And despite his steely pose, Putin reveals his emotions with a mystical reverence for Russian destiny. It has thrown him off his game.

And that leads to the third conclusion, perhaps the most important. Whether in sincerity or opportunism, Putin is tapping into a strain of ethno-nationalism that has endured through upheavals of state rule from czarist monarchy to Soviet communism to transitory pluralism to post-communist autocracy.

Call it Russianism, the label I settled on when I first encountered the phenomenon under Soviet rule in the late 1970s. A liberal writer saw it as the country’s only mass movement, and the most dangerous.

October 9, 2022

A Race to Extinction: Right Whales or Maine Lobstermen?


By David K. Shipler 

              A significant struggle, invisible to most Americans, is occurring along the northern New England coast to save both an endangered species of whale and an endangered way of life. It is a clash of priorities, values, and even basic facts, that could leave both North Atlantic right whales and Maine lobstermen as victims. You can see the high stakes when tough men of the sea have fear in their eyes.

              New federal regulations, enacted and in the works, are being challenged by Maine officials and lobstermen as unjustified. And the private sector has now escalated the conflict with a call to boycott lobsters. Issued from the other side of the country by the Monterey Bay (California) Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, it is based on information that is far from conclusive about the danger posed to the whales by ropes used in lobstering. The move seems wildly excessive, has undermined the conservationists’ credibility, and has further polarized the players in an effort that cries out for sensible solutions.

Also, by the way, boycotting lobsters won’t save the whales.

              The problem looks clearcut on its face. The estimated number of North Atlantic right whales has declined precipitously from about 480 in 2010 to under 350 today. Their mortality rate is high, mostly because of interaction with humans: many are struck by ships, and many others are entangled in rope from both gillnets and lobster gear, which can open wounds and lead to lethal infection. The demise of females has led to a decline of newborn calves below the 50 per year needed for the population to recover. Fifteen have been born so far in 2022.

              From here, the problem gets complicated. Climate change contributes, because as the Gulf of Maine warms faster than any other part of the earth’s oceans, the whales have followed their main food source—the tiny shrimplike calanus finmarchicus—northward into Canadian waters, notably the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a shipping area where collisions are likely.

September 24, 2022

The Age of Absurdities


By David K. Shipler 

              In the last week, both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have treated the world to fantasies and fables so pernicious in their implications for global freedom and security as to defy satire. Both men, aided by sycophants, have anchored us firmly in an era practically unmatched in modern times, where completely fabricated narratives cause wars and shape governments.   

In a televised speech, Putin declared the West guilty of designs on Russia’s very existence, implicitly threatened nuclear war if Russian territory is attacked, then made sure it would be attacked by orchestrating a forced “referendum” to annex Ukrainian territory in the Donbas region, thereby converting it into Russian land worthy of the ultimate defense!

Trump told Fox News that he could declassify the nation’s most sensitive secrets just by thinking to himself that they are no longer secret, and that the FBI—in its raid on his luxury club Mar a-Lago—was really after Hillary Clinton’s emails! And, of course, elections should not be trusted (unless he wins), because the 2020 election was stolen.

Late-night comedians cannot laugh away this parallel universe, because millions of Russians believe Putin, and millions of Americans believe Trump. We are on the brink of a wider war between Russia and the West because of Putin’s imaginary tale of American and European preparations for attack. We Americans are on the brink of losing our precious democracy because of Trump’s imaginary tale of election fraud and his Republican Party’s calculated program of placing partisans in official positions to create actual fraud next time around.

It almost doesn’t matter whether Putin and Trump are convinced of their own lies, or whether they are just clever manipulators. Enough of their citizens are spellbound by their rhetoric and charisma to intoxicate the two men with the illusion of broad and righteous support. Neither the recent cracks in Russia’s enforced unanimity nor the polarized hostility of American politics has induced moderation in either of the fabulators. Each has doubled down into his manufactured world of unreality.

September 19, 2022

The Democratic Party's Cynical Caper


By David K. Shipler

               Now that the mid-term primaries are over, the cynical wing of the Democratic Party can tally its “wins.” Those are the radical right-wing election deniers and Pro-Trump fans of autocracy whose victories in Republican primaries were owed in part to Democratic-funded ads.

Six of thirteen such candidates won and are headed to the November election, where Democrats hope their extremism will be repulsive enough to the broader universe of voters that their Democratic opponents will prevail. That could happen, but it would be a sordid achievement.

              First, as some leading Democrats have warned, it’s a risky proposition. Some of those crazies could get elected, as Trump himself did after Hillary Clinton’s campaign ran as if Trump’s own flaws would defeat him.

Second, even where Democratic candidates prevail in the general election, the Republican radicals and their nonsensical conspiracy slanders will have been given more of a platform courtesy of Democratic money.

“Many of these candidates develop a much larger following, even if they lose the current race,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist. “What we have seen is, they come back and win for school board or state legislative race or for city councils because of this new awareness and this new recognition.”

Third, spending $53-million in nine states has broken faith with Democratic donors who thought their contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would be going to—duh—Democratic campaigns.

Fourth, and perhaps most important in the long run, to work against principled Republican House members who had the courageous patriotism to vote for Trump’s impeachment after January 6, is to help undermine the prospects for a reformation in the Republican Party. The country needs two responsible political parties, and the Democrats have now helped enhance the dangers of embracing decency.

September 2, 2022

The Promise and Failure of Gorbachev's Legacy


By David K. Shipler 

            On March 15, 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev swore himself in as president of the Soviet Union. The country had no transcendent institution with constitutional authority, so Gorbachev administered his own oath as he touched his right hand to a deep red binder holding the constitution, newly amended to contain some of the checks and balances that would be necessary, but not sufficient, to create democracy.

It was a culminating moment of his rule, which he had begun five years earlier as General Secretary of the Communist Party. He stood on the broad dais of the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses, facing more than two thousand delegates who had just completed fractious days of argument over how much power an executive branch should retain.

That he died early this week, at this pivotal moment for both Russia and the United States, reminds us what the landscape looks like at the intersection of authoritarianism and democracy. Russia is descending. The United States is at risk of doing so.

When it came to executive authority, Soviet conservatives faulted Gorbachev for wanting too little, and for courting disorder in the land. Liberals attacked him for wanting too much, and for his canny parliamentary evasions to frustrate their demands. Watching from the gallery and hearing the fears from both sides, I wondered how he and the country could navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of dictatorship and anarchy.

Those were the twin specters of Russian history. Lurching from one to the other, the society had endured unruly transitions, leaving a residue of apprehension about pluralistic politics and a fondness for the strong hand at the top. Gorbachev was trying to lift this weight of the past, but with a restraint that proved untenable. In the end, the center did not hold. Reactionaries kidnapped him but failed to unseat him, and their abortive putsch accelerated the centrifugal force of ethnic identities that broke the country apart merely nine months after Gorbachev had recited his oath.

Left was a great vacuum of national esteem, a ravaged sense of dignity that now helps drive policy in Moscow.

Gorbachev came out of a subculture within Soviet Communism, a quiet, reformist impulse that ran parallel to the self-glorifying propaganda of the party apparatus. He came of age as Nikita S. Khrushchev, in his so-called secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, stunned officialdom by revealing and denouncing the demented abuses of Stalin. Party members whose parents had disappeared into the labor camps knew of the atrocities, but mainly on the limited territory of their own experience. The larger scope, now disclosed, suddenly gave the lie to the reverence for Stalin that had animated patriotism and nourished cohesion.

Khrushchev thus wrote the first chapter of de-Stalinization. Thirty years later, Gorbachev wrote the second.

Free speech is risky in a system long closed to introspection, and Gorbachev did not appreciate its uncontrollable fluidity. At first he allowed the press to examine current ills: alcoholism, corruption, drugs, prostitution, homelessness, teenage runaways, police brutality, street crime—most discussion of which had been previously taboo. Then came increasing candor about the Stalinist years: the 20 million dead in the purges, the decimation of the officer corps, the cruelties of collectivization, the atrocity of famine, the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.

It was a dizzying time of truth-telling that infected individual citizens as fear drained out of them. Once guarded behind a glass shield of formulaic conversation, many relaxed into honest discussion, flexing their minds and searching themselves for their own thoughts. Their stories from the past poured into newspapers and magazines. The journal Ogonyok published a letter from a prison camp guard who had lost his health and his honor, prompting a confession in reply from a former secret police investigator who begged forgiveness from those he had tortured, whose faces still haunted him at night. His letter went unpublished because it was anonymous—“My children and grandchildren do not know the whole truth about me,” he wrote.

Gorbachev evidently meant to liberate discourse and contain it at once, and specifically to insulate Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution from the onslaught of irreverence. To stop the ruthless examination of history at the Stalinist era proved impossible, however, and soon the flood of criticism and reexamination coursed backwards into the past until it consumed Lenin and the revolution as well, hitherto sacred tenets of the country’s pride.

A poster boy of professional emancipation was Yuri Afanasyev, once a compliant historian, who began to denounce Lenin until, at the congress that approved the constitution, he condemned the Bolshevik leader as responsible for “the institutionalization of the state policy of mass violence and terror.”

            An echo of this was heard in 1993 from an unlikely figure: Aleksandr Yakovlev, the former Politburo member and chief architect of Gorbachev’s policy of openness. At a conference, I asked if they’d known where they were going when they began. No idea, Yakovlev replied. They had the mistaken notion that they could reform the system. If it had been a socialist system, he said, it could have been reformed. But it was a fascist, totalitarian system, he continued, and a fascist, totalitarian system cannot be reformed, only destroyed.

            When did Gorbachev realize that? Yakovlev answered at the time: He still doesn’t. That’s why we no longer speak.

            Stripping away the myths of a brutal history looked exhilarating from the West, and to some Russians as well. The country was alive with nervous excitement. But the truth-telling also eroded Russia’s pose of historical honor. It stole from Russians their foothold in their past, as if Americans were to lose pride in the founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, and the Constitution.

Adrift, humiliated, and without a sense of national purpose, Russians have since searched for points of dignity. Some fix on the country’s heroism during World War II or reach back to the imagined glory of the czars. Nostalgia for something that could be called Russianism—a purity of culture, language, and religion—feeds a xenophobic ethnocentrism, a yearning for a single truth and a firm autocracy, and a strong distaste for the West. In making war on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin plays to some of these reactionary impulses, while also trying to hold them in check.

So, Gorbachev leaves a contradictory legacy. The history written in the West will cast him as a pivotal figure whose bold liberalization led, inadvertently, to the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In Russia he is detested in many quarters, precisely for the same thing. Without a basic reformation there, he will not be treated kindly as Russians write their own history. Taking myths from people is never popular.