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

May 8, 2021

Freedom of Speech in a Perfect World

 

By David K. Shipler 

                In a perfect world, everyone would be able to distinguish between ridiculous absurdities and reasonable possibilities. Everyone would be curious. Everyone would be open to revising preconceptions. Everyone would be canny enough to drill down beneath the superficial slogans to the facts, to hear the counter-argument, to entertain an opposite viewpoint, and to arrive at an informed opinion based on a foundation of truth.

                In that perfect world, populated by perfect human beings, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube would not have banned former President Donald Trump; The New York Times would not have fired its editorial page editor; and the Supreme Court would not now be considering whether a school can punish a student for lobbing online obscenities at the cheerleading squad. Trump’s pro-violence fulminations would have fallen on deaf ears, a senator’s published call for military force against protesters would have lacked resonance, and school officials would have merely shrugged.

                Freedom of speech in that utopia of reality-based common sense would be practically unfettered. The restrictions imposed by law—which are very few in the United States thanks to the First Amendment—would be even weaker. Informal restraints and punishments in the private sector (where the First Amendment does not apply) would not be necessary: Neither the racist slur, the conspiracy theory, nor the personal smear would gain traction in a decent public forum.

                Thinking about that imaginary world is kind of sad, isn’t it? Because it’s not what we have. It’s a fantasy. Instead, in Pogo’s cartoon words, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We ourselves are the enemy of free speech, because our behavior invites the impulse to censor. We allow pernicious words their impact. We filter facts through sieves of ideology and identity, selecting beliefs only within our zones of comfort. Our gullibility, our stubborn aversion to ambiguity, our political tribalism and dogmatism, our resistance to contradiction have all accumulated into a sense that we are acutely vulnerable to words, that our very democracy might tumble down in a torrent of ugly, nutty, vile words. Hence the supposed remedy: the wave of erasing, cancelling, punishing, banning to satisfy a yearning for blank spaces and blessed silences.

                Think for a moment how cheerless it really is for an open, pluralistic democracy to be deeply relieved not to read or hear the utterances of a former president. Think how bizarre to depend on a few private companies to suppress lies that fuel insurrection. How many of us devotees of free speech quietly celebrated the other day when Facebook’s oversight board ruled that banning Trump was legitimate after the January 6 invasion of the Capitol? Yes, the board took issue with the “indefinite” nature of his suspension, because open-ended uncertainty was not in Facebook’s rules. Yes, the board urged that the ban be reviewed in six months under clarified policies. But for now, at least, he is denied that platform, which feels merciful. Is that healthy?

                Wouldn’t it be healthier for Trump to be able to rant openly at the margin, where he belongs, and be widely rejected for what he is—a racist con artist, a dangerous demagogue, an aspiring dictator? Wouldn’t it be healthier to have an American public that could be trusted to decry speech that is factually wrong, scorn speech that is intellectually corrupt, and condemn speech that insults and incites?

In truth, though, the United States is not a healthy democracy. It is an unhealthy semi-democracy. It faces a rising far-right now channeling its major themes of white supremacy through the Republican Party, which in turn grows brazenly bigoted and anti-democratic.  

Are limits on speech the answer? Curbs on speech might soothe the moment, but they don’t foster informed and responsible thinking. And they certainly don’t curtail the spread of extremism. Germany’s strict laws against hate speech, which would be unconstitutional in the American system, have not prevented the flourishing of neo-Nazi and other far-right movements there. According to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, the author of Hate in the Homeland, German activists have found clever evasions. These include removing the vowels of certain prohibited words and arguing, successfully, that the resulting strings of consonants are not words in the legal meaning.

In the United States, banned users of social media have migrated to corners of the dark web or smaller platforms, where they carry on as before, on sites more difficult for law enforcement to monitor. It may be that their disinformation is less easily available to the wider public, but with Republican conduits for its distribution, it still works its way into the mainstream as relentlessly as a river finds the least resistant pathways to the sea.

The First Amendment has been interpreted by the courts to restrain the government from limiting the inherent right to freedom of speech except in such egregious cases as libel, incitement to violence, some forms of threat, child pornography, and invasions of privacy. There are high bars to proving those violations, though, and the prohibitions must be content neutral—that is, not disfavoring one viewpoint over another. A local ban on loudspeaker political campaign trucks at 2 am, for example, must apply to all candidates, not just one party or another. This leaves a broad landscape for speech in America, as it should be, and it’s quite hard for people to bump up against its frontiers.

In the private sector, however, the First Amendment generally does not apply, leaving institutions empowered to punish employees who post racist tropes, for instance, or even have their pictures taken at the Capitol uprising. Just as privately owned newspapers and broadcasters can pick and choose which viewpoints to publish or air, social media platforms may allow or prevent whatever opinions they wish. No law requires or prohibits them from distributing or barring Trump or any other figure whose posts they find offensive. And that’s where controversy about policing speech is now located.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms are neither publishers nor public squares, neither responsible for the ideas they distribute nor entirely exempt from informal accountability outside courts of law. If you libel someone in an article for The New York Times, the victim can sue both you and the paper. But if you post it on Facebook, only you can be sued. Facebook and other social media companies are immune from libel suits under a federal protection that some politicians want abandoned. If that happens, the platforms will presumably have to screen every post to be sure it’s not libelous or an invasion of privacy.

Yet as we’ve seen, the platforms come under strong social pressure to censor and to ban, and most now have rules and staff combing through postings to purge bigoted, inflammatory, threatening, inciting, and other memes and statements that strike the owners as offensive or dangerous. The standards are inconsistent and erratically enforced, and maybe that’s to the good.

Raucous debate that includes even despicable statements provides the oxygen of a pluralistic democracy. So calls for more vigorous private censorship raise the obvious concern: If too few people have too much power to control speech through their private companies, nothing guarantees that they will be the highest-minded models of civic virtue. Malice, bias, and propaganda for one side or another can poison the air we breathe.

Nor can government jump in to regulate, as some have advocated. Imagine a Trump-like administration deciding what Facebook could and could not post. The effort would probably fall under the weight of the First Amendment, if the Supreme Court stays faithful to its robust defense of the right to speech in the recent past. But maybe not. You never know. Terrible tweets of big lies and conspiracy fantasies are not benign, as we saw on January 6. In a mood of fear, rights can vanish.

There are two answers, neither of which is a complete solution. First, because no private or governmental censorship can truly silence, diversity of media is a natural protection against the tyranny of speech control. If you can’t say it here, you can say it there.

Second, the enemy is us, and every teacher in every classroom and every school needs to step up to the patriotic duty to preserve our open democracy by teaching and teaching and teaching how to read and think critically, how to read and hear with discernment, how to judge sources, check facts, and apply good sense to negotiate through the whirlwind of falsehoods that rip around us. Only then will we retain our footing in a world that won’t be perfect, but might be more perfect than the one we have.

April 19, 2021

Out of Afghanistan

 

By David K. Shipler

                There is a whiff of familiarity in the promised American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The parallels are uncanny, bringing to memory my one brief foray to the country, in the spring of 1988, as Soviet troops prepared to leave after nearly nine years of bloody warfare that ended in their defeat. Their departure opened the way for a fundamentalist Islamic movement to take power, now poised to take power once again.

                “One week from now, I’m going home,” Pvt. Yuri Moshnikov told me then, a grin lighting up his face. He was in a bush hat and light khakis and leaned casually against the gate of a base outside Kabul. Then the smile faded. He had lost friends during combat in Kandahar. “This war is evil,” he said bravely—bravely, for freedom of speech was not established in the Soviet Army. “No one needs this war. Afghanistan doesn’t need it. We don’t need it.” Yet, he continued, “I fulfilled my duty.”

Defeat in Afghanistan comes gradually, like a slow realization. For the Americans, it has taken nearly twenty years as mission creep evolved into mission impossible. For the Russians, it was spread by the US-supported mujahideen, the Islamist forces that received weapons from the CIA via the Pakistanis. These included shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, so deadly that when I flew into Kabul from Moscow aboard an Aeroflot passenger jet, we had to spiral down tightly in a falling-leaf approach while Soviet helicopters whirled around us firing flares to deflect any heat-seeking Stingers heading our way. For a guy with a US passport, being defended by the Soviet military against American weapons felt truly bizarre.

It was also odd, especially in retrospect, for the United States to be arming the wrong side, the side that oppressed women and barred girls from going to school. That side was the one that morphed into the Taliban, which harbored Al Qaeda, which struck on September 11, 2001, which prompted the United States to invade in order to—yes—oust the Taliban, the younger generation of fundamentalists who ruled the country with religious totalitarianism.

Pretty soon, they are going to be back. President Trump wanted out, so in a rare spasm of good sense he hired the skilled Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. But the agreement is turning out to be reminiscent of the Paris accords, which covered the US departure from Vietnam, leaving South Vietnam to fight and lose alone, as the Afghan government is likely to do as well.

April 3, 2021

America Hurtles Forward--and Backward

 

By David K. Shipler 

                According to Sir Isaac Newton’s third law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—a principle of physics, of course, but also true in politics and policy, at least currently in the United States. The country is moving in two directions simultaneously, as if two revolutions in thinking and practice are taking place, one progressing into a new era mobilizing government for economic and social reform, the other pushing hard into an old indifference to social injustice marked by blatant racial and class discrimination.

                Although the two revolutions frame their respective arguments around the size and role of government, they are driven by more fundamental clashes of concept. At root is the question of how inclusive a democracy should be, what problems it can solve, how the common good should be defined, and how near or distant the horizon of vision should be drawn.

Joe Biden, the 78-year-old Washington insider, did not raise radical expectations when he took office just over two months ago. He was forecast as a caretaker president who would decompress the political atmosphere with boring normalcy. Instead, he has quickly emerged as the unlikely catalyst of the most imaginative Democratic movement in at least a generation, perhaps since the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His aspirations are broad and intensely sophisticated, forming an agenda that would apply expansive ideals in mobilizing the nation’s expertise and financial power against the most vexing problems of race, class, health, education, climate, environment, energy, communication, low-paid work, elderly care, aging transportation networks, and just about every other failure in the American landscape.

The opposite revolution would leave all the failures in place, unresolved, and would add to them. It is more than a counter-revolution, led by Republicans who have become more than the Party of No. They go beyond saying no to every advance—no eased voting, no true help for malnourished children, no cleaner air or water, no safer workplaces, no better health care, no sufficient funding for schools, no mandatory wages high enough to support families. The new Republicans—for they are new in the history of the Republican Party—do not merely stand still and block. They are moving at speed back in time.

March 20, 2021

How Republicans Mainstream Far-Right Radicalism

 

By David K. Shipler 

                In the mid-1990s, a conservative named Joseph Overton devised a brochure with a cardboard slider showing how the parameters of acceptable political possibilities could be shifted. Called the Overton Window, it has helped explain the changes over time in society’s views on women’s suffrage, prohibition, racial segregation, gay rights, and the like. And now the window has been slid open to the flow of monstrous ideas from the white supremacist right into the public square of political discourse.

The conduit is the Republican Party, which is serving to normalize radical visions by reshaping them just enough to make them seem slightly less shocking. “Ideological beliefs once thought of as extreme have—with relative speed--become more widely accepted by the general public,” writes Cynthia Miller-Idriss in her book Hate in the Homeland.  “Mainstreaming is critical to the growth of far-right movements globally, because it helps them recruit, radicalize, and mobilize individuals toward violence, while reducing the likelihood that the public will raise the alarm about their efforts.” She was prescient: Her book was published even before the January 6 invasion of the Capitol.

A professor of education and sociology at American University, Miller-Idriss has made a specialty of studying right-wing extremism in Europe and the United States. Her catalogue of far-right themes, theories, fantasies, fears, and apocalyptic remedies offers an instructive lens through which to see the mainstream arguments of many Republicans and their supporters. Conservatives’ statements that initially look merely controversial jump into focus as menacing once your eyes adjust. You can see in many Republican declarations the features of dangerous extremism.

Those features include: anti-government and anti-democratic ideas; exclusionary beliefs that dehumanize “others” such as Jews, blacks, Muslims, Asians, Latinos, and immigrants; geographical identity that attaches historical purity to a land; existential fears of “white genocide” in a “great replacement” of Christian whites by non-Christian nonwhites; hypermasculinity; and conspiratorial fantasies culminating in violence to accelerate the rise of a new order.

When these convictions are taken from the margins and reshaped by Republicans into policy positions and political assertions, they slide into the public square in a pattern of ominous normalization. By placing Miller-Idriss’s depiction of far-right movements next to Republican and conservative themes, the symbiotic relationship becomes clear:

Anti-government, anti-democratic: The far right’s distrust of government was echoed by former President Trump’s repeated sloganeering against Washington corruption (“Drain the swamp!”) and his denunciation of governmental actions and agencies, including trade deals, the Iran nuclear agreement, the judiciary, the intelligence agencies, the Justice Department, and the FBI. Then, exploiting the far right’s anti-democratic suspicions, he assailed a Congress controlled by his own party and undermined faith in the legitimacy of the electoral process itself. That appealed to far-right beliefs that the system must be destroyed. The alternative--gaming the system—is being advanced nationwide by state Republicans, bent on power above all, who are flooding legislatures with bills to reduce access to the ballot box. That approach coincides with far-right goals of exclusion.

Of course railing against Washington is a perennial campaign theme with such a long tradition that decades ago, James Reston quipped that politicians who excoriate Washington often end up living there after retirement. Yet Trump took the polemics to unprecedented levels, channeling a populist antipathy for government. In this he led less than he followed; he heard and amplified the resentful chants of his supporters.

 “Drain the swamp, look at that sign. Drain the swamp in Washington, DC.” Trump said at a 2016 campaign rally. “I didn’t like the expression, drain the swamp in Washington. So I said it three days ago. The place went crazy. I said, you know what? I’m starting to like that expression.” It did not seem to matter to the far right that Trump wallowed in the swamp. The slogan inspired.

Exclusionary beliefs and white ethno-states:  “Places and spaces are fundamental to a sense of belonging and identity,” Miller-Idriss writes, “and are imbued with emotional attachment and meaning.” That has been true historically of Nazism and other far-right movements into the present. “Space and place are constant backdrops to contemporary far-right fears of a ‘great replacement’ and conspiracies about Europe turning into Eurabia.”

At the extreme right, she notes, “issues of territory, belonging, exclusion, race, and national geographies are foundational for imagining collective pasts as well as anticipated futures.” The remedies of “border walls, along with language about national defense, incursions, and invasions” reinforce the sense of existential threat. The 2017 white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville, Virginia, included chants of “Jews will not replace us.”

Those themes play harmoniously into the Trump Republican anti-immigration rants. They have gone way beyond rational policy arguments. Instead, they ignite far-right fervor by demonizing immigrants as mortal dangers to the very nature of America. “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” Trump tweeted as convoys of Central American families approached the border in October 2018. On another occasion, he declared, “If we can save American lives, American jobs, and American futures, together we can save America itself.” At a rally in Panama City Beach, in the Florida Panhandle, he wondered aloud what to do, cleverly suggesting violence while rejecting it. “We can’t let [border officers] use weapons,” he said. “We can’t. I would never do that. But how do you stop these people?”

“Shoot them!” a woman yelled. The crowd cheered. Trump gave a slight smile, then said, “Only in the Panhandle you can get away with that.” Cheers, applause. “Only in the Panhandle.”

In accord with some of his staff’s affinities for the far right, Trump also fed the yearning for a white ethno-state by explicitly naming the racial and religious components of his anti-immigration stand. He banned entry from seven Muslim countries. He derided immigrants from Haiti and Africa. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he asked. Nigerians won’t ever leave, won’t ever “go back to their huts.” He expressed preference for immigrants from countries like Norway. He went as far as to tweet that four congresswomen of color, three of whom were born in the US, should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Republicans did not object to the tweet.

Apocalyptic Imagery and the Great Replacement: The far right’s fears that minorities will replace whites through demographic change or genocide were cited by Robert Bowers, who killed 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh Synagogue, and Patrick Crusius, who killed 23 at an El Paso Walmart frequented by Latinos. The anxieties have found resonance in some Republicans’ remarks and retweets.

Speaking at the 2020 Republican convention, Charlie Kirk, the 26-year-old head of Turning Point USA, declared: “Trump is the bodyguard of Western civilization. Trump was elected to protect our families from the vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life.” (Kirk founded a think tank with Jerry Falwell, Jr., then president of Liberty University.)

 The country’s demographics are a grave concern. One of the far right’s goals, Miller-Idriss says, is to get whites to have more children, a theme picked up by Representative Steve King of Iowa in a 2017 tweet about immigration: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” In a follow-up CNN interview, he declared, “You’ve got to keep your birth rate up and teach your children your values and in doing so, you can grow your population and you can strengthen your way of life.”

King’s record is significant. He flirted with the far right for years before the Republican establishment and its funders finally had enough. In 2018 he gave a long interview to the magazine of the rightist Austrian Freedom Party. He retweeted comments by Lana Lokteff, a white nationalist who argued for a white ethno-state, saying, “Alt-right is the fight for a white future and white lands, free of invaders and traitors who actively seek to ruin us, to make us feel guilty for the success and might of our ancestors as a means to conquer us.”

He also endorsed a Canadian white nationalist, Faith Goldy, for mayor of Toronto. She had recited “the 14 words,” a catechism that reads: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

After a long history of this, King began to lose corporate campaign donations, but only some. In October 2018, Land O’Lakes stopped contributing, but others continued, including AT&T, Nestle Purina, the National Beer Wholesalers Association, Citizens United, the National Association for Gun Rights, the National Association of Convenience Stores, the American Association of Crop Insurers, and the American Soybean Association.

He won reelection in 2018, though barely, but was stripped of his committee assignments by fellow House Republicans in 2019 after saying in a New York Times interview, ““White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in class teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” He lost the 2020 primary, 45.7% to 36%.

Of course there’s a lot of rhetoric at both ends of the spectrum about saving or losing America, and Republicans have no monopoly on specters of Armageddon. The difference is that Trump and Republicans have spoken to a set of far-right movements that sees a race war as essential to a new world order very much like the ISIS drive to recreate the Caliphate, Miller-Idriss writes. “In this sense, Islamist and far-right extremists share a similar apocalyptic vision and use the same kinds of violent terrorist strategies in an effort to accelerate the process toward the end times.” The fastest path, according to the most extreme believers, is by “speeding up polarization and societal discord as a way of undermining social stability overall.”

Whether Trump was acting deliberately or instinctively or inadvertently in fueling the far right through polarization and instability is an open question. But he did it nonetheless by hyperventilating right to the end of his administration. Two days before the Senate runoff elections in Georgia last January, Trump told a rally, “America as you know it will be over, and it will never—I believe—be able to come back again.” Three days later, at the Save America March, an insurrection of Trump supporters broke into the Capitol and halted the Electoral College vote count in Congress.

Hypermasculinity: Gyms and mixed martial arts centers are important youth recruitment sites for the far right, Miller-Idriss reports, and physical fitness, strong masculinity, bravery, and toughness are promoted as central values of patriotism and ethnic purity. Trump has keyed into these themes. He tweeted a doctored video showing him body-slamming a man who had a CNN logo over his head. He posed as the tough guy recovering from Covid-19. Back in 2000, he effectively rescued from bankruptcy the organization sponsoring mixed martial arts competitions, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, by inviting them to hold two tournaments at his Atlantic City hotel. “Today,” Miller-Idriss writes, “the UFC broadcasts in over 150 countries to more than a billion households.” The far right champions such combat sports “as a perfect way to channel ideologies and narratives about national defense, military-style discipline, masculinity, and physical fitness to mainstream markets. Hitler himself had advocated for the importance of combat sports for training Nazi soldiers.”

In the vein of faux masculinity, the right-wing Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently disparaged women in the military: “Pregnant women are gonna fight our wars. It’s a mockery of the US military. While China’s military becomes more masculine, as it’s assembled the world’s largest navy, our military needs to become, as Joe Biden says, more feminine, whatever feminine means anymore, since men and women no longer exist.”

All this huffing and puffing might be written off as comical fringe warfare if it weren’t reflected in real-life attitudes on a broad scale. Some of the crazies are now in Congress—and they didn’t get there by breaking in past Capitol police. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has bought into the conspiracy theories that school shootings were faked and space lasers owned by the Jewish Rothschild family started the California wildfires. Before her election, she had also endorsed the notion of executing Democrats. But only 11 Republicans joined Democrats in removing her from committees.

Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, who spoke at a white-nationalist conference last month, was “scheduled to appear on a QAnon conspiracy-supporting talk show,” MSN News reported. The Arizona Mirror said that the conference organizer, 22-year-old white nationalist Nick Fuentes, followed with a speech calling the Jan. 6 riots “awesome” and demanding that Gosar and others pass legislation to protect America’s “white demographic core.’”

The penetration of the far right’s ideas was documented in a Vanderbilt survey taken in 2020 before the election. A slim majority (50.7%) of Republicans agreed with the statement, “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” A plurality (41.3%) agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” Others said they were unsure, and only 20 to 25% registered disagreement with those statements, which can be read as prescriptions for insurgency.

March 9, 2021

The Fleeting Euphoria of Racial Progress

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Again and again, we are cheated. Those of us who celebrate the embrace of justice are allowed elation only for a while. Then the inevitable bigotry awakens from what turns out to be a shallow slumber.

                The saga of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is the latest to lift the mood and then crush it. Their royal wedding in 2018 drew an estimated 1.9 billion viewers worldwide, not only for the splendor but also for the elevation of racial inclusion: a biracial American joining the British royal family, an expansion past ancient limits into the broader world. And how fitting, given the United Kingdom’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity. We were entitled to our euphoria, as na├»ve as it was.

                Barack Obama gave us that, too. On election night in 2008, television screens radiated with tears for the healing of history, notably the streaming eyes of Jesse Jackson, no fan of Obama but a courier of reform. Who will forget his face? But then, the first “black” US president—also biracial—became the target of ugly caricatures and epithets, facilitating the prejudices that Donald Trump rode into the White House eight years later. Euphoria, it seems, is always stalked by hatred: Emancipation by Jim Crow, Obama by Trump, voting rights by voting suppression.

                Last year, the murders of blacks by police—nothing new, but now recorded for all to witness—propelled the largest outpouring in history of white Americans demonstrating for racial justice. In big cities and small towns across the country, week after week, whites went with blacks into the streets, driven by the terrible, long video of the white Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin kneeling fatally on the neck of the unarmed black man George Floyd.

                Not since the brutality of segregationists against nonviolent civil rights demonstrators in the 1950s and 60s had the conscience of white America been animated so intensely. It was uplifting. It brought a kind of indignant ecstasy, a declaration that Black Lives Matter, meaning of course that black lives also matter, that black lives matter, too, not just white lives, that too often have black lives been seen as not to matter. Pride in this arousal of morality was not allowed to last long enough.

February 25, 2021

MACA: Make America Competent Again Part 2

 

By David K. Shipler

The second in an occasional series 

                A great American paradox is playing out dramatically on the Texas stage following the destructive winter storm: millions are unemployed, and millions of skilled jobs are vacant. Texans cannot find enough plumbers, electricians, and other hands-on specialists to restore life to decent levels of comfort and safety. The state—and the country at large—simply does not have enough men and women trained in the panoply of manual professions needed to keep an advanced society running.

There is a solution to this, and it’s recognized by labor unions, employers, and economists. It fits the general proposition, which I heard some twenty years ago from a leading economist, Robert Lerman: If a good idea exists, he said, you can be sure that it is being tried by somebody somewhere in the United States.

And for more than those twenty years, Lerman has been on a campaign to expand an idea already proven in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere. It is the ancient institution of apprenticeship—not in the medieval form but in a modern combination of in-class study and on-the-job learning that enhance practical skills for Americans who do not finish four years of college.

The hard fact is that if you don’t go to college or, once there, don’t get a degree, you’re in danger of falling through a hole in the economy. Unless you’re a whiz kid like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, you’re likely to be lacking the skills necessary to sell your labor competitively in a free economy. You could end up in dead-end, underpaid jobs that can consign you to a life near or below the poverty line.

And you will not be alone. Although 90 percent of Americans over age 24 have completed high school, only about two-thirds go immediately to college, and 40 percent of them drop out. Especially vulnerable are the first in their families to attend college. Their drop-out rate is 89 percent. Lerman reports that just 28 percent of all students and 17 percent of black students who began community college in 2016 graduated within three years, a slight increase over earlier years.

February 18, 2021

Rush Limbaugh and Encrypted Racism

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Rush Limbaugh, the witty, right-wing propagandist who died this week of lung cancer, gave his millions of listeners formulas for expressing anti-black bigotry without seeming to do so. Here is a description of his methods as directed against President Obama, in an excerpt from my book Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword:

                Given that blatant racial slurs are broadly unacceptable in twenty-first-century America, you could say that freedom of speech has its limits, restrained here not by law but by culture. And the punishments are inconsistent. People may lose jobs, promotions, reputations, and their chances for political office—or they may not. They can’t predict with confidence. Therefore, either instinctively or deliberately, people inclined to indulge in racial stereotyping find ways to disguise their messages in raceless terminology.

That leaves much room for disagreement over what is really being said. Is it encrypted prejudice or honest commentary? Which criticisms of Obama should be taken at face value, and which reverberate with echoes of age-old racial contempt? How can hidden implications be identified? Bias is agile and from time to time shifts into keys that sound race neutral to some Americans but are “dog whistles” audible to those who hear the notes of bigotry.

February 15, 2021

How to Love America

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Americans who want to love their country have to do it unconditionally, the way a parent loves a wayward child. Not to overlook flaws but to believe that correcting them is possible. Not to ignore the racial hatred, the murderous wars, and the impoverished children, but to cultivate the opposites that coexist with the injustices: the embrace of pluralism, the repugnance to violence, the passion for opportunity. This requires clear eyes to see what is and clear vision to see what can be.

                America needs a Carl Sandburg, who in the poem “Chicago” could honor struggle alongside raw virtue:

On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger 

. . . Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong  and cunning.

                America needs a Langston Hughes, who could embed within a verse both grievance and desire:

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be! . . .

We, the people must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

America needs a Martin Luther King, Jr., who could lament and challenge and believe within a single sentence: “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

America does have Rep. Jamie Raskin, the lead House Manager prosecuting Donald Trump’s impeachment, who said this in his closing statement:

“In the history of humanity, democracy is an extremely rare and fragile and transitory thing. . . .  For most of history, the norm has been dictators, autocrats, bullies, despots, tyrants, cowards who take over our governments. For most of the history of the world, and that's why America is such a miracle.”

How do we love a miracle betrayed? How do we love a nation tarnished? This is now a task for all citizens from the left to the right, from the depths of deprivation to the heights of wealth, from sea to shining sea.

The acquittal of Trump does not teach us how to love a broken country. Nor would conviction have done so, no matter how warranted. Either path would have turned millions of Americans of one persuasion away from millions of others. Justice could not be done in the Senate chamber. Justice has to be done in the hearts of the people. Justice has to arise naturally from whatever inner values have been sown in every citizen, whatever affection we hold for the cacophony of democracy, whatever beauty we can see in the messy differences among us.

 Love of country is the energy of reform. The Republican Party has made sure that Trump will continue to use his perfect pitch for propaganda. He will fix his marksman’s eye on whites who are alienated and outraged and frightened—and violent. He will not be vanquished from America any more easily than Voldemort from the world of Harry Potter.

The remedy to Trump’s toxic spell is a disapproving, combative love for an America wounded but capable of recovery—in short, an unconditional love full of contradictions. It is a pragmatic, persistent idealism and realism. It is a love not for a leader, not for a party, not for one policy or another, but a love for that miracle of self-government that has been, as Raskin noted, such an aberration in the course of human history.

February 5, 2021

MACA: Make America Competent Again

 

By David K. Shipler 

The first in an occasional series 

                Perhaps the word “again” should be put in quotes or parentheses or followed by a question mark, because while the United States has done a lot of things very well through its history, incompetence has also plagued governmental behavior in areas ranging from foreign affairs to poverty. A frequent hallmark of failure has been the unwillingness to apply what we know to what we do. Expertise does not get translated into policy.

                The most obvious recent example is the Covid-19 pandemic, where the Trump administration’s floundering cost lives and worsened economic hardship. But the gap between knowledge and practice inhibits problem-solving in many fields. If you add up all of society’s accumulated understanding about the causes of poverty, for example, or about the sources of conflict in one or another region of the world, and then compare that knowledge with the actions being taken, it looks as if knowledge gets filtered out through a fine sieve before it gets to the policy level.

The Vietnam War was such a case. The US government saw North Vietnam as a Chinese and Soviet proxy in the vanguard of communism, and therefore a threat to American security. But historians knew that Vietnam had resisted China for centuries. And so could any American soldier or diplomat in Saigon who bothered to notice how many streets were named for Vietnamese heroes in the long campaigns against Chinese occupation. It should have been no mystery to American policymakers that the war, for Hanoi, was the continuation of a long anti-colonialist struggle, not one fought to spread global communism.

The dilution of expertise in making policy can be seen in the Middle East, Russia, China, and other parts of the world. The same is true at home. Much is known about how to treat prisoners to reduce recidivism rates, how to prevent police from extracting false confessions, how to provide good defense attorneys for indigent defendants, how to curtail global warming, how to clean up air and water, how to make workplaces safer, how to reduce suicides (gun control), how to treat mental illness, and on and on.

Accumulated knowledge about poverty is not put to good use. We know how to alleviate housing problems in America; it’s a matter of money. We know how to eliminate malnutrition—also a matter of money. We know how to raise workers’ skills and make work pay enough to sustain a family. We know how to provide decent medical care. We know how to improve education. True, some of our abilities diminish along the more difficult part of the spectrum—we are confounded by child abuse, drug abuse, gang violence, racism, white supremacy, and harmful parenting. But we know how to ease many other hardships.

January 22, 2021

The Religion of Democracy

By David K. Shipler 

                If America has a state religion, the historian Robert Kelley used to say, it is constitutional democracy. Among all the rancorous arguments across the American spectrum, no compelling bid to abandon the Constitution can be heard. No rhetorical attack on democracy is made. No threat to the nation, no fear of insecurity provokes such apostasy.

Even those who would undermine the Constitution, including the Capitol rioters, have acted in its name. Thus did Donald Trump’s appeals to “stop the steal” of the election intone the mantra of democracy, not the authoritarian rule he was attempting to install. Democracy was hailed by rioters who believed that they were fighting to defend it even as their insurrection moved to take it down.

That profound hypocrisy becomes less puzzling when Constitutional democracy is seen as religious. For religion can be perverted. It can be rationalized into destruction, as a world full of religious violence has witnessed. A creed can be selectively interpreted, twisted to fit parochial interests, and ignited as a call to arms. A religion’s righteous purity can be contaminated with hatred, which is then fueled by religion’s righteous certainty. No secular reasoning can rebut the divine inspiration, the holy cause. If it is for good, then that is good. But it is not always so.

American democracy is often elevated with religious language: “sacred,” “desecrate,” “temple.” Both sides in the Capitol invasion of January 6 used the terms. The lone police officer who tried to coax rioters out of the Senate chamber said gently, “Just want to let you guys know, this is the sacredest place.”

As the mobs roamed the halls searching for legislators to kidnap or kill, Trump tweeted, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots. . . . Remember this day forever!”

 Once the Senate was taken back, Senator Dick Durbin declared on the floor: “This is a sacred place. But this sacred place was desecrated by a mob today on our watch. This temple to democracy was defiled by thugs, who roamed the halls — sat in that chair, Mr. Vice President — one that you vacated at 2:15 this afternoon.”

President Biden, in his inaugural address, hailed the survival of democracy against those who sought “to drive us from this sacred ground.”