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

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.

August 22, 2022

The Waning of America's Mission

                                                     By David K. Shipler 

              Here is the problem: The United States cannot campaign for democracy around the globe when too few Americans are willing to defend democracy at home. And since one of the major political parties has internalized Donald Trump’s authoritarian desires, making them its own, no serious foreign leader or activist can look upon the United States as a reliable model. No matter what President Biden says about the worldwide contest between dictatorship and democracy, the age of American evangelism appears to be over—or at least headed for a long pause.

              During the First Cold War, from the end of World War II in 1945 to the late 1980s, Soviet communism and American democracy staged an ideological rivalry across international boundaries in practically every region of the world. These were two irreconcilable theories of government and economics, both driven by strong moral arguments and deep cultural beliefs.

              Few Americans would have seen the Soviet Union as a moral enterprise, but that is exactly how many Russians saw themselves, as carriers of a torch of social justice. All countries, all peoples, would be better off in socialist, centrally planned economies, so the argument went, which would level the gross disparities under capitalism. And that could be done only with a one-party system, not the messy chaos of pluralistic democracy.

The Soviet Union itself had achieved nothing close to communism’s shared wealth, of course, with warrens of privilege reserved for the few at the expense of the many. Karl Marx would have been appalled. But no matter: Myths can be inspiring, and Moscow worked feverishly to spread that one to allies and client states, often as a condition of aid. After the Vietnam War, for example, it successfully pressed North Vietnam to snuff out the vibrant private entrepreneurship of the South Vietnamese, which took many years to recover.

The United States, meanwhile, was crusading for both private enterprise and pluralistic democracy, also as a moral enterprise. Not that either country neglected its national security interests; both Moscow and Washington were circling each other warily in many corners of the international arena, jockeying for influence wherever possible. The U.S. didn’t mind cozying up to dictators that were anti-communist, and even helping overthrow duly elected leftists who threatened Western business interests, as in Chile, Iran, and Guatemala, for example.

Many pro-democracy activists abroad saw through the hypocrisy yet also counted on the U.S. to support human rights, at least rhetorically. Inconsistency, a hallmark of foreign policy, doesn’t erase basic lines of belief. And the First Cold War was marked by an intriguing symmetry: Both the Soviet Union and the United States were inspired by the evangelical drive to spread their own systems for what each saw as the good of humanity.

Now, as the Second Cold War takes shape, the ideological landscape is quite different. The United States is losing faith in its own democracy. The Republican Party is placing partisans in key positions to undermine future elections, which will make the U.S. look familiar—but not inspiring—to those in countries where voting is manipulated by strongmen.

July 25, 2022

The Two Joe Bidens: Performer and Policymaker

 

By David K. Shipler 

              Every modern president needs acting skills alongside constructive policies. It’s not enough to run the government and shape the affairs of state.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt mobilized and comforted Americans through his wartime fireside chats on the radio. Harry Truman projected a down-home frankness. Dwight Eisenhower combined a victorious general’s solidarity with a quiet posture of visionary decency. John F. Kennedy used inspirational rhetoric, self-deprecating humor, and the demeanor of royalty. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s flattery and threats worked miracles in Congress to pass civil rights bills, which his display of passionate conviction helped sell to the country at large.

Richard Nixon lacked acting ability, though, and he looked bad on television. Gerald Ford failed to exude strength. Jimmy Carter had a whiny voice and too much honesty about America’s malaise. Ronald Reagan’s acting profession gave him perfect timing, witty quips, and a persuasive illusion of warm sincerity.

George H. W. Bush was a verbal fumbler and gave an impression of much less gravitas than his solid policy credentials warranted. Bill Clinton had a silver tongue and an infectious charm. George W. Bush seemed like a nice guy you could enjoy having a beer with. Barack Obama’s eloquence first carried him into national politics, and then into the White House, where his oratory stirred idealism among large numbers of citizens. Donald Trump’s direct insults, saying aloud the ugly things that many Americans thought, conveyed an image of brutal candor even as he spewed incessant lies, a technique that still mesmerizes millions.

              And now, Joe Biden. He personifies the dissonance between the performative and policy dimensions of the presidency. His approval ratings have plummeted even among voters who agree with him on major issues. The policies he supports don’t seem to matter; his manner of presentation is everything.

He is not a forceful orator, there is no song in his lyrics. He is, perhaps, too calm for the moment, even when he tries to hammer home a point or use sharp language. He fumbles, he digresses, he misspeaks—an ailment left over from his youthful stuttering—and does not excite. At 79, he acts his age and does not project the charismatic strength that many Americans seem to value, especially in a time of tension and hardship. He is often described as “weak.”

              Yet his supposed “weakness” is a mirage. In practice he has been as tough as nails in foreign policy, extremely ambitious domestically, and an activist user of executive power to further a liberal agenda—to the extent that the courts will allow.

July 6, 2022

How to Evade The Supreme Court

                                                     By David K. Shipler 

              With radical regressives on the Supreme Court trying to drag the country back to the 1700s, the case is being made for ignoring, defying, or deftly evading rulings that clash with the values of modern society. These include abortion, guns, government regulation, voting rights, religion, and affirmative action.

Both legal and illegal approaches are on the horizon. Already, to parry the extremist justices, New York has taken advantage of loopholes in Justice Clarence Thomas’s sloppily written gun-rights opinion. The Democratic governor and legislative majority enacted into law restrictions on concealed-carry licenses that the Court’s majority surely hadn’t imagined, and a list of “sensitive places” where guns would still be prohibited—a much longer list than the Court presumably envisioned.

Similar efforts are underway in progressively-dominated state legislatures to enshrine abortion rights in statutes or amendments to state constitutions following the Supreme Court’s ruling (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) that overturned Roe v. Wade and magically erased the right to abortion that the Court had earlier found existed implicitly in the United States Constitution.

The game now is going to be to outwit the justices, legally or otherwise. Some methods likely to be tried are in plain view, some under the radar.

 In the blatant category, nearly ninety elected district attorneys across the country announced in a joint statement that they would not prosecute violations of anti-abortion laws in their states. More unspoken refusals can be expected from prosecutors whose offices are already overworked with street crime and don’t want the cruel optics of jailing women and their doctors.

Civil disobedience by clinics willing to risk penalties to oppose the Court might be attempted if brave souls exist. And in some other areas of the law, surreptitious defiance or passive resistance is probable.

For example, after the Supreme Court strikes down race-based affirmative action, as it is certain to do next term in a case involving Harvard University, admissions officers will have little trouble continuing to give preference to minorities in the cloistered discussions that occur when picking the next freshman classes.

Those choices are pretty subjective right now. Grades and test scores have never been the whole story, especially at elite schools, which also look for the unquantifiable attributes of social commitment, community leadership, perceptive self-awareness, and personal success in rising above hardship, among other characteristics. A former Ivy League admissions director once told me that his department valued students who had worked for change, albeit just in their limited circles of school and neighborhood. Absent such qualities, even some class valedictorians with sparkling SAT scores were being rejected.

Since colleges are moving away from requiring or considering SATs, they’ll be able to disguise their racial preferences more easily, if they wish, to create the diverse classes many schools now see as benefitting not only students of color but also whites, who are exposed to the variegated features of the real world they will enter after graduation. University lawyers won’t approve, noted a friend in the legal profession, since they don’t want their clients to get sued. But that risk might not deter the entire generation of admissions officers who have worked hard to recruit bright kids from poor and minority backgrounds. (The Court could leave economic affirmative action intact, allowing colleges to give preference to low-income applicants without considering race.)

June 27, 2022

The Dying Constitution

 

By David K. Shipler 

              Conservatives like to deride liberals who believe in a “living Constitution,” which has stayed alive by applying its core principles to the evolving conditions of society. But the opposing view, that the Constitution must be interpreted only as the Framers supposedly intended, will not conserve anything. It will, if taken to the logical end now pursued by Republican extremists in legislatures and courts, strangle the founding document by cutting it off from the present, from the oxygen it needs to nourish the rights it is meant to preserve.

              The radicals on the right have formed a continuum of anti-constitutional movements that run from street thugs to election workers to politicians and to Supreme Court justices. Paradoxically, they cite the Constitution as their guide: the January 6 insurrectionists shouting their affection for a Constitution they’d obviously never read (in particular the Twelfth Amendment on Congress’s vote-counting process). Republican state legislatures organizing myriad ways to undermine the next elections. And the Supreme Court justices who are orchestrating an insurrection of their own by twisting the Constitution to fit their personal ideologies.

The “conservatives” in robes say they are keeping the Constitution as written, but they are actually making it all too malleable. They are turning it into a blank check for whatever policy they wish to inflict on American citizens, whether erasing women’s abortion rights, establishing in the public square a state-sanctioned Christianity (not Islam, for sure), or expanding practically everyone’s right to carry deadly weapons. All this has provoked accusations from the left that the Supreme Court is forfeiting its legitimacy, but the larger danger may be to the legitimacy of the Constitution itself.

June 7, 2022

Guns Are a Symptom

 

By David K. Shipler 

                The United States of America is now without any sacred places. Churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues are not sacred. Worshippers have been shot to death in Iowa, Texas, California, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas, Colorado, New York, Ohio, Georgia, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. Schools are not sacred. Children have been shot at 27 schools so far in 2022. Hospitals are not sacred. This year and last, in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, and Minnesota, patients and staff at hospitals and clinics have been targeted. There is no sanctuary.

                The vulnerable spaces are not only physical. They are also conceptual. They are areas of ideas and practice where democracy’s shared beliefs used to be protected by moral barriers—bulwarks that are now eroding. High levels of authority and influence openly corrupt the reverence for honest elections, the deference to the rule of law, the integrity of facts and truth. The society reels under a shroud of menace. There is a sense of disorder, instability.

                No wonder Americans rush to buy guns whenever a mass shooting makes the country recoil. People have grown afraid of one another. A great retreat from common ground is underway, a pulling back into individual sovereignty, where the gun is a tool and a talisman. Far from the fields and forests of the responsible hunter or the shooting range of the careful sportsman, the gunman who harbors fear or hatred buys a firearm to kill human beings, as many as fast as possible. Whether to defend his home and family, or to take revenge, or to serve a demented cause, he wields his weapon in a wilderness of distrust.  

                And so the gun is a symptom of a breakdown in America. The symptom could be treated, obviously; guns could be restricted in availability and capability. That is a task readily accomplished if citizens elected people who valued human life over political life. But even if that miracle occurred, the underlying society would not be healed sufficiently to obviate the gun as an object of desire.

May 17, 2022

Can We Predict a Mass Shooting?

                                                         By David K. Shipler 

                 Hindsight is 20/20, so looking back, the warning signs seem crystal clear: the online postings, the violent drawings, the fascination with guns, the peculiar conduct, the disquiet of his peers, even the overt threats, which were missed or minimized by educators, police, and parents. The FBI calls those advance indicators “leakage,” a common characteristic of mass shootings. The coming danger should have been obvious. Or should it?

In recent decades, threat assessment has developed into a sophisticated methodology. So why wasn’t 18-year-old Payton Gendron stopped before he murdered ten people last Saturday at a Buffalo supermarket in a mostly Black neighborhood? Why wasn’t 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley stopped before he killed four and wounded six last November in his Michigan school?

The general answer lies in the failures of many local authorities to follow a 22-year-old FBI recommendation to appoint threat assessment coordinators and teams of skilled professionals on call for quick mobilization to assess risks. The FBI’s 46-page report from back then, “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective,” is a nuanced analysis that ought to be in the top desk drawer of every school administrator and police commander.

“These threat assessment teams have to be multidisciplinary,” said former Supervisory Special Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole, who led the FBI’s project. “The reason is this: A single person looking at these warning signs might deem them to be not too significant, or they may inflate them, or they may not know what to do with them.” So, she told me, the team should include specialists from the school, the mental health profession, juvenile justice, law enforcement—and ideally, an attorney who could advise on whether, say, a backpack can be legally searched.

Threat assessment is not a perfect art, and over-zealous reactions carry risks to civil liberties. Preventive arrest in advance of a crime would be egregious. But short of that, measured interventions may have prevented mass shootings in “dozens of cases across the country,” according to Mark Follman, author of  Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America, a new book reporting on a team in an Oregon school district. In the case of one boy making threats, the professionals embraced him in a “wraparound” approach of counseling, academic help, and programs in and out of school.

April 29, 2022

Russia's Technology Gaps Risk Accidental Nuclear War

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Since President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced a heightened nuclear alert level and threatened Western nations with “consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” much of the world has worried that he might go nuclear in his war against Ukraine. But even if he does not, there is another concern: an unintentional, massive nuclear war triggered by a false alarm from Russian early-warning systems, which some experts believe are vulnerable to errors.

                The risk of a catastrophic mistake has been a threat since the outset of the nuclear age, and several near misses have been recorded. But miscalculation becomes more likely in a period of Russian-American tension when leaders are immersed in mutual suspicion. They would have only minutes to make fateful decisions. So each side needs to “see” clearly whether the other has launched missiles before retaliating with hundreds of nuclear warheads. Ambiguity in a moment of “crisis perception,” the Rand Corporation has noted, can spark an inadvertent “conflict when one nation misinterprets an event (such as a training exercise, a weather phenomenon, or a malfunction) as an indicator of a nuclear attack.”

                Russia and the United States are the most heavily armed of the nine nuclear powers, which also include China, France, the United Kingdom, North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Israel—with Iran poised to join the club. But only the U.S. has surveillance coverage of the entire globe, provided by three active geosynchronous satellites, with two in reserve, whose infrared receptors can spot plumes of missiles launched anywhere from sea, air, or ground. That data is supplemented by radar on the ground, giving the U.S. the capacity to double-check that a launch has actually occurred.

                Specialists in the field call this verification by both satellite and radar “dual phenomenology,” and the Russians don’t have it reliably. They lack adequate space-based monitoring to supplement their radar.

                What they have is a “terrible and dangerous technology shortfall,” according to Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology, and national security policy at MIT and a former scientific adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations.

                He believes that Russian satellites are handicapped by their inability to look straight down and distinguish the infrared signature of a missile launch against the Earth’s terrain.

                                                                                                    Courtesy of Theodore Postol


“Imagine that you took a photograph of a complex and rocky area of ground,” he explained in an email. To pick out an ant, you’d need to find it in “some very small pixel in a vast array of pixels.” In the infrared part of the spectrum, you need multiple high-quality sensors, each with a small enough field of view to discriminate between the background and a rocket plume, and to avoid a false detection from reflected sunlight or extraneous interference.  

April 10, 2022

"Sacred Hatred of the Enemy"

 

By David K. Shipler 

                As the Red Army swept westward into Germany toward the end of World War II, Russian soldiers wantonly burned villages; looted homes, committed rape, and murdered elderly women and other civilians in cold blood. Soviet Major Lev Kopelev, a German-speaking scholar of German literature assigned to the army’s Political Administration to propagandize the enemy, reported the crimes up the chain of command. He argued vehemently against the impulsive executions. He drew his pistol once and stood between a young girl and two Russian tank soldiers who were bent on raping her.

                He saved her, but not himself. Repeated calls for restraint made him a suspect, not a hero. “You engaged in propaganda of bourgeois humanism, of pity for the enemy,” said his interrogator. “You spent your time rescuing Germans and weakening the morale of our own troops; you engaged in agitation against vengeance and hatred—sacred hatred of the enemy.”

Major Kopelev was expelled from the Communist Party, arrested, tried, and sent to the GULAG for nine years. He tells the story in his 1977 memoir, To Be Preserved Forever, whose title comes from the official order stamped on secret police dossiers that are never to be destroyed.

                I have been thinking about him in these terrible days of Russian crimes in Ukraine. Russia’s troops are doing pretty much what their predecessors did back then, as we’ve learned after they’ve retreated from towns near Kyiv. I wonder if there is a Lev Kopelev among them and, if so, what will happen to him.

April 4, 2022

The War of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

 

By David K. Shipler 

                To the extent that we think we know the fears and expectations of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, they seem fraught with contradictions.

On the one hand, Putin labeled Ukraine as an incipient NATO base with malicious designs on Russia itself. On the other, he supposedly thought his “special military operation” would be a cake walk, seizing Ukraine’s capital and toppling its government in a matter of days. How could both be correct?

On the one hand, Putin portrayed Europe and the United States as formidable threats to Russian security. On the other, he disparaged the West as fragmented, decaying, polarized, and weakened by internal disorder. Those two versions cannot coexist in the real world.

                So, which of Moscow’s prophecies have proven true, and what does that imply for Putin’s future posture toward Western democracies? And which of the West’s anxieties about Russia have been realized, and how will those determine policy going forward?

It’s not good news. In the perverse calculus of war, even one side’s frustration and defeat can reinforce the convictions that led it to attack in the first place. So it might be with Putin. His terrifying assault has provoked a flood of NATO weapons into Ukraine, justifying his assessment of the risk posed by the North Atlantic Alliance. And Russia’s war of choice has galvanized most democracies in a unified front of economic punishment, surely enhancing Putin’s dogma regarding Western hostility.

March 22, 2022

Reading Putin's Mind

                                                         By David K. Shipler 

                The great guessing game today is about Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s inner thinking. He is “surprised,” and “shocked,” we are told by numerous commentators in the West: He “expected,” he “believed,” he “thought” that his war against Ukraine would be swifter, easier, and—yes—even celebrated by Ukrainians themselves. He did not think Ukrainians would rise up to defend their country with such alacrity. He did not think the rest of Europe would unite in such a tight formation against him. He did not expect the economic sanctions to be so punishing.              

                Whether this is speculative mind-reading or solid deduction, it’s important to get right, because it will inform assessments of what he might do going forward and what might induce him to stop. That’s why intelligence agencies have teams devoted to interpreting the psychology of world leaders.

It’s wise to recognize how assertions that look ridiculous from outside can look indisputable inside, as in Putin’s charge that Ukraine was a neo-Nazi base preparing military aggression against Russia—and in President George W. Bush’s charge in 2003 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Both fictions launched devastating wars, and each side apparently believed them sincerely. Putin, whose dictatorship does not exactly reward dissent, seems to operate in the echo chamber of his narrowing inner circle. “Behind closed doors they repeat the same garbage,” said one Western analyst with access to sensitive information.

                If that is so, then the war is driven by the strong logic of self-deception. That means that it is likely to continue and perhaps conclude with false triumphalism. Putin will need a claim of victory. But to give him that, short of Ukraine’s utter demolition and defeat, will require reading a mind that may be largely illegible.

“I think Putin has been surprised by many aspects of this,” the Russian émigré writer Julia Ioffe told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “that Ukraine didn’t fall within a couple of days, by the Ukrainian resistance, and the fact that Ukrainians aren’t greeting him as liberators.” And how did she know that Putin was surprised? She didn’t say.

It’s a reasonable assumption, but an assumption nonetheless, that Putin and his military made calculations that they simply got wrong, that his cost-benefit analysis went awry, that perhaps he wouldn’t have invaded had he known.

There is a pitfall here. For Putin, that kind of balance sheet does not seem decisive. The West can load up the debit side with weapons and sanctions, but that still leaves out the “emotional, spiritual, and metaphysical overtones” of his attachment to Ukraine described perceptively by Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace before the invasion.

March 7, 2022

Young Voices from Ukraine

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Victims of war are usually caught in the present. In the midst of crisis, it's hard to think about the big picture or what comes next. But six young adults in Ukraine, during an online discussion last week, summoned up the power to reach beyond their personal immediacy into a larger time and place.

                The session, attended by young people from at least twenty-six countries, was organized by a broad array of international youth organizations and moderated by Saji Prelis of Search for Common Ground, which manages conflict-resolution projects around the globe. (Full disclosure: My son Michael Shipler is a vice president of Search.)

                If you have an hour, it’s worth spending it watching the discussion here, because you can hear and see what you cannot read: the chords of sorrow and resolve in their voices, the grieving beauty in their eyes. And by the end, which will not be an end for them, of course, you will be torn by inspiration, which they throw up against the tragedy.

                At Saji’s wise request, not knowing what oppression that elusive future will bring, I am using only their first names, even though they gave consent for their full names to appear on the screen during the live stream. Neither they nor we can calculate the dangers going forward.

Most appear to be in their twenties and early thirties. They are fluent in English. They have the innocence of idealism. They are not children, but they are young enough still to imagine and to strive. They are not yet jaded or calloused or—as far as we can see—wounded. But they understand the wounds of others and are trying to heal them, in part by seeing their struggle as being not only for themselves.

                Yulia is trapped with her two small children in besieged Sumy, near the Russian frontier, having missed the brief opportunity to escape in the first days of the war. The town is under heavy Russian bombardment. Anna, a medical doctor, crossed into Romania, where she is treating evacuees. Alina recorded a gentle but defiant message as she fled to the Kyiv train station. Yuliana, a psychologist in Lviv, is trying to help with trauma. Roman, also in Lviv, is assisting refugees flooding into the city’s train station.

March 1, 2022

Recollections of Kyiv

 

By David K. Shipler 

                An event that now seems sadly remarkable occurred in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in 1975, when it was part of the Soviet Union. At the time, Kyiv enjoyed such a pleasant ambiance of broad boulevards and relative prosperity that Communist rulers made it one of a few “closed cities,” along with Moscow and Leningrad, where no Soviet citizen could reside without a government permit. Otherwise, millions would have flocked there to escape the deprivation of the countryside.

Now, thousands are fleeing.

In September 1975, I accompanied three American and two Soviet astronauts on a tour of tentative friendship. During a partial thaw in the Cold War, they had joined with handshakes in space during the Apollo-Soyuz mission, then came down to the hard gravity of Earth, traveling through the Soviet Union together in a pageant of hope. They were received with warm bear hugs and flower-bearing children as they tried jokingly to speak each other’s language and toasted their two countries’ exploratory steps toward cooperation.

 Russian hosts made sure to feature World War II’s Soviet-American alliance that had defeated Nazi Germany; the seven-city trip took the astronauts to significant spaces of wartime memory. Wreath-laying and somber pilgrimages at tombs and monuments were woven into the itinerary: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Kyiv, which had been occupied by Germany from 1941 to 1943; a war memorial on the way from the airport to their hotel in Leningrad, which endured a 900-day siege; an evocative monument with religious overtones in Volgograd, the site of the ferocious battle of Stalingrad with its two million dead.

At a dinner in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, the Soyuz 19 commander, Maj. Gen. Aleksei A. Leonov, raised his glass in a passionate toast likening the rendezvous in space to the meeting of American and Soviet soldiers at the Elbe River near the war’s end. The Soviets created a collage of two photographs overlapping: the American and Soviet astronauts and the American and Soviet soldiers reaching out to shake hands at the Elbe.

                If any American president ever again wants to strive for an emotional connection with the Russians, here is some simple advice: Remember and celebrate that noble partnership of victory.

February 25, 2022

A Russian Tragedy

 

By David K. Shipler

 

                As terrible as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be for Ukrainians, it also spells suffering for Russians, who cannot shake their own society’s paranoid, authoritarian traditions. Long gone is the modicum of pluralistic politics attempted briefly under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Vanished is the relatively relaxed acceptance of multilateral interests in “the near abroad,” as Russia calls its European neighbors. Now, as if reaffirming its tragic history, Russia is firmly back into autocratic form under Vladimir Putin, with its attendant xenophobia, insularity, and belligerence.

                For all its bigness and might, Russia has a thin skin, easily penetrated by slights and humiliation. There have been plenty of those inflicted by the United States and Western Europe, most dramatically in breaking promises from the early 1990s to refrain from expanding NATO. But even with that, Putin’s pugnacious sense of victimization runs far beyond reality. It depends on a demonization of the outside world as vitriolic as in Communist times. It depends on a vertical flow of power as dictatorial as the czars’.

                Putin’s raging, wounded speech February 21 setting the stage for war brought back a memory from the 1977 Soviet Union, when a Moscow police lieutenant stopped a West German television crew from filming the smoke-damaged exterior of the Rossiya Hotel after a fire that killed at least twenty. The reporter asked why. The officer explained, “We do not want to let foreigners laugh at our misfortune.”

The remark offered a telling insight. To imagine that foreigners were eager to mock Russia over a deadly fire must have required extraordinary self-torment, a loneliness of unfathomable pain. There is every indication, 45 years later, that Russia’s leadership remains stuck in that state of mind.

The sense of persecution echoes into Putin’s current remarks. Ukraine “has been reduced to a colony [of NATO] with a puppet regime,” the Russian president declared. It “intends to create its own nuclear weapons,” and “Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country.”  Its policy is “to root out the Russian language and culture and promote assimilation.” It is subjecting ethnic Russians to “horror and genocide” in Ukraine’s Donbass region, which—he neglected to mention—was being wracked by an eight-year civil war that he launched and fueled. Those crimes, he said, were being ignored by “the so-called civilized world, which our Western colleagues proclaimed themselves the only representatives of.” He called Ukraine’s democratic movement, which overthrew the pro-Moscow government in 2014, “Neanderthal and aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism.”

These dystopian fantasies about Western designs on Russia’s pride and security make a volatile chemistry. Whether he believes them or not, he uses a technique once described by a Soviet professor as characterizing sophisticated propaganda: “a truth, a truth, a truth and then a lie.”

February 14, 2022

The Origins of Cold War II

 

By David K. Shipler 

                The new Cold War, which now grips Europe and the United States, is not all Russia’s fault. A seed was sown in the American assurances broken by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who reversed verbal pledges to refrain from expanding the Atlantic military alliance toward Russia. The Russians didn’t get it in writing, and some analysts doubt that commitments were made, but official records of conversations suggest American bad faith.

That past doesn’t excuse Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive effort to reconstruct Russia’s sphere of influence. He has ignored one commitment that actually was put in writing, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which obligated Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” Negotiated in exchange for Ukraine’s relinquishing Soviet nuclear weapons stationed on its territory, it was brushed aside by Putin in 2014 when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine and began an ongoing proxy war against Ukrainian forces in the country’s east.

There are myriad reasons for Putin’s own expansionism, including Russia’s historic anxieties about the West’s political and military encroachment. Nevertheless, the past American behavior helps explain his distrust of the U.S., his sense of victimization, and his worries about national security. As exaggerated as those concerns might appear to the West, whose alliance has not threatened to attack Russia, they are amplified by Moscow’s experience with Washington after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has said that he was “swindled.”

Declassified documents tell the story of how American officials led the Russians to believe that no expansion would be undertaken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), then later nearly doubled the size of the alliance. Russian and American transcripts and summaries of high-level meetings, posted in recent years by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, record multiple assurances in the early 1990s.

January 19, 2022

The Supreme Court vs. Health and Safety

                                                     By David K. Shipler               

                When the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers, its three most conservative justices also issued a little-noticed concurring opinion with ominous implications. In it, they gave voice to an expansive interpretation of the “non-delegation doctrine,” which holds that Congress cannot delegate its legislative powers to the executive branch. When agencies issue broad regulations, the argument goes, they are effectively legislating, thereby violating the Constitution’s separation of powers.

                How far the Court will take this reasoning is an open question. But its most outspoken champion, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the concurring opinion, was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in an alarming pronouncement: that even if the law allowed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), to issue the mandate—which existing law did not, the 6-3 majority ruled—such a statute should be overturned.

                “On the one hand, OSHA claims the power to issue a nationwide mandate on a major question but cannot trace its authority to do so to any clear congressional mandate,” Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito declared. “On the other hand, if the statutory subsection the agency cites really did endow OSHA with the power it asserts, that law would likely constitute an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority.”

With two more votes on the Court, that position could hobble the federal government’s ability to apply health, safety, and environmental laws across the board. Indeed, a case involving the Environmental Protection Agency, to be argued next month, might provide an opportunity for a ruling of considerable scope.

January 5, 2022

January 6 and the Hypocrisy of "Democracy"

                                                         By David K. Shipler 

                 Communist East Germany officially entitled itself the German Democratic Republic. The dictatorship of North Vietnam was named the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And the Trump insurrectionists of January 6, 2021 executed their violence against Congress in the guise of protecting democracy.

                Democracy—that alluring concept, that aspiration, that illusion—is still a moral ideal, even among autocrats and would-be oppressors who wear it as an empty label. In the United States, moreover, the Constitution remains gospel, cited even by those who would shred its principles as fiercely as many religious zealots corrupt their holy texts.

                If the United States has a state religion, the late historian Robert Kelley used to say, it is constitutional democracy. That remains so. The very threats to constitutional democracy are being made in its name. The radical right mob that invaded the Capitol, seeking to keep Donald Trump in power, did not reject democracy; they fought for it, or so they believed, having accepted Trump’s lie that he had won the election. “Stop the Steal” became their mantra. They did not reject the Constitution; they claimed to defend it, even while attempting to sweep its provisions aside.

                The Republican Party, now a conduit for radical-right fantasies and dreams, pretends to bolster democracy while becoming the most formidable anti-democratic force in the United States. Instead of sobering the party, the January 6 assault emboldened Republican-controlled state legislatures to enact onerous restrictions on voting and—more menacing—disempower local officials who administer elections honestly. Election officials, facing death threats, leave their jobs, opening the field to the miscreants. “Election integrity,” the Republicans’ rationale, means the opposite. It sets the stage for elections that would be truly stolen.

                When words come to mean the opposite of themselves, when noble ideas are twisted into tools of their own demise, a society dives into a whirlpool. It is sucked down not just by legal mechanisms or institutional processes. Those are mere cover for the deeper currents of distrust and alienation, of humiliation and an angry sense of helplessness. Those, in turn, nourish a vulnerability to demagogues—not only Trump but Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and other propagandists—and a susceptibility to outlandish tales of malevolent conspiracy. Even if Trump disappeared tomorrow, those currents would still course through much of America.

December 14, 2021

Putin, Emotional Chess Master

 By David K. Shipler 

                You can almost picture Vladimir Putin, perpetual president of Russia, hunched over a chess board the shape of Europe, divining strategies many steps ahead of his fractious, ambivalent opponents. A gas pipeline here, troops and tanks there, propaganda everywhere to set the stage for the twenty-first century’s Great Russian Expansion.

He is a skillful player. He reads the other side, detects its weakness, studies its patterns of resolve and hesitation. He appears coldly rational. Yet some who watch him closely see something beyond careful calculation. That is especially so when the issue is Ukraine, now in his military’s crosshairs.

“Putin’s attachment to Ukraine often takes on emotional, spiritual, and metaphysical overtones.” write Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Alongside his tangible geopolitical concerns, they believe, he is driven by the personal compulsions of historical fabulation and ethereal bonds to a land that he denies constitutes a country. Its capital, Kyiv, was the center of the Slavic state Rus a millennium ago. Its size places it second only to Russia in Europe. Its historic kinship with Russia is exaggerated by the Russian leader to justify making it the target of a sacred claim.

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union into fifteen countries along the lines of its fifteen republics, including Ukraine. Imagine the trauma—as if the United States fragmented into fifty independent nations, with a searing loss of dignity and global standing. Putin called the Soviet breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Rumer and Weiss see him impelled to retake the prize of Ukraine to burnish his legacy.

 “No part of the Russian and Soviet empires has played a bigger and more important role in Russian strategy toward Europe than the crown jewel, Ukraine,” they note in their essay. “The country is essential to Russian security for many reasons: its size and population; its position between Russia and other major European powers; its role as the centerpiece of the imperial Russian and Soviet economies; and its deep cultural, religious, and linguistic ties to Russia, particularly Kyiv’s history as the cradle of Russian statehood.”

 Washington policymakers gave no hint of understanding any of that when they moved to fill the power vacuum left by the Soviet collapse.

November 16, 2021

The Secret Taiwan-Texas Deal

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Thanks to Russian hackers, we have a transcript of a startling portion of President Joe Biden’s video conversation last night with Chinese President Xi Jinping:

                Xi: Joe, as you know, I was honored recently to be elevated in history to the esteemed stature of our Communist Party’s two great leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. This act signifies one of our most envied powers: to rewrite history. Leaders all over the world wish they could do it.

                Biden: Yes, I noticed, but we Americans don’t envy that at all. We like our history plain and truthful.

                Xi: Oh, do you? I have been admiring the skill of your Republicans in rewriting your history of racial oppression to indoctrinate children in the phony purity of your past. And this, just at the time when you accuse us of oppressing some of our people! That’s called hypocrisy, Joe.

                Biden: Look, man, that’s a long discussion that has nothing to do with our agenda. Let’s get down to the issues. Taiwan is next on the list.

                Xi: Exactly. Taiwan is my subject here. I have a bold idea, which I hope you’ll accept. Taiwan is a thorn in my side—not really part of my empire, not really independent, constantly making breakaway noises, and full of so-called democrats who love chaotic debate and discord. And who, by the way, will never rewrite history properly.

                Biden: So why don’t you just let Taiwan be Taiwan?

                Xi: Even better, let me give Taiwan to you.

                Biden: Huh?

                Xi: Give it away. Then I won’t have to worry over it all the time. It’s really a pain. But I want something in exchange.

                Biden: This is ridiculous.

Xi: You won’t think it’s ridiculous when you hear my proposal. You give me Texas.

Biden: [A funny noise that sounds like a snort, then a burble, then a chortle.] Wow, man, what an idea! We get Taiwan’s economy and great restaurants, and you get—hey, Texas is a bit recalcitrant. You sure you want it?

Xi: We have been studying Texas. The governor there claims to love individual liberty, but our autocracy experts can sniff out wannabe authoritarians. Greg Abbot would be our collaborator as much as Carrie Lam. And the rest of the Republicans, who still love incipient dictators like Trump, who just need to be flattered to become our lapdogs. And who don’t like free elections. And who don’t like public health—think Wuhan, Joe. They’ll fit right in.

Biden: Well, I don’t know about that. They’re pretty difficult people.

Xi: We have ways of taking care of difficult people.

Biden: But they have lots of guns.

Xi: Guns we can turn to our own use. All those swaggering cowboys looking for enemies, perfect matches with our Guoanbu agents. They’ll love each other. Brotherly love, Joe, a real peacemaking mission.

Biden: Hmmm. You know about our independent judiciary, right? Not exactly your style.

Xi: [Huge guffaw.] Independent? Come on, Joe, you don’t have to do propaganda with me. When was the last time you saw a Republican judge rule for the little guy? No, no danger there. I like their impulse to defer to the established authority. And we will be the established authority!

Biden: What about the judges who go against you?

Xi: Ask me that in a few months, and I’ll ask you back: What judges? Where are they?

Biden: I’ll admit, it’s an appealing idea. No more Greg Abbot, no more Ted Cruz, thirty-eight fewer electoral votes. And we get some great Chinese restaurants. But you get all that oil. What do we do for oil?

Xi: Switch to solar and wind, Joe! It’s what you’ve been campaigning for. We’ll just force you to make it happen!

Biden: Yeah, sounds good. But what about the border between Texas and the US? And how do I sell this to the American people?

Xi: Easy, Joe. You tell them you’ll build a wall around Texas, and that China will pay for it. 

 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.

October 19, 2021

Biden’s Housing Plan as a Key to Children’s Futures

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Let’s assume that Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are decent people, not callous to children in poverty. That would mean that they’re merely clueless. They are not connecting the dots. As they insist on slashing President Biden’s proposed $322 billion in housing subsidies, they cannot possibly understand how much lifelong damage that will do to kids.

                 Biden and the Democratic leaders are trying to break a key link in the chain reaction of poverty. Housing is that link. Without government aid, high rents leave less money for food, leading to malnutrition, parental stress, and disrupted living, all of which can impair brain development in young children. The scientific and social research has been clear on this for decades. Yet the connections are rarely recognized by legislators and officials—and journalists as well—who persistently treat each problem and government program as separate and distinct, with little regard for the web of interactions among the hardships that struggling families face.

                In many parts of the country, the private housing market is brutal for low-wage workers. Nationwide, households in the bottom 20 percent spend a median 56 percent of their income on rent.  The rest of their monthly funds are committed to paying for electricity, water, phone, heat, car loans, and the like. What they can shrink is the part of their budget for food. And without proper nutrition during critical periods of early life, children suffer cognitive impairment that is not undone even if food security is later restored. [See A Hungry Child’s First Thousand Days in Washington Monthly.]

                Stress is also a factor in brain development, researchers have found. Even if a family doesn’t become homeless but lives with constant tension over paying the rent and other bills, the anxiety can be absorbed by children, both in utero and after birth. Imagine—if you can—the anxiety of parents who have too little food for their children, for feeding offspring is a most elemental instinct and duty.

Furthermore, children’s biological and mental health is damaged when families have to move repeatedly or reside in poor housing with lead in the water from old pipes, roaches and mold that trigger asthma attacks, and overcrowding that causes household friction.

                The study of stress has been a significant addition to the understanding of the environmental impacts on the brain, to the point where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) devotes an entire website to updating research on risks and prevention. In its list of what scientists in a seminal study call Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), the CDC includes housing issues along with more obvious traumas such as suffering neglect and witnessing violence or suicide.

September 25, 2021

America's Callous Border

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Several years ago, a gray-haired passport control official at Heathrow Airport in London, noting “writer” under “occupation” on my landing card, asked me what I wrote. I was finishing a book on civil liberties, I told him, with a chapter on immigration. That caught his interest. He leaned forward, glanced around, lowered his voice and said, “I loathe borders.”

    Funny line of work you’re in, I said. We shared a chuckle, he stamped my passport, and I crossed the border that he loathed.

                We have nation states, and so we have borders. Dictatorships need them to keep people in, lest their countries be drained of the talented and the aspiring. Democracies need them to keep people out—often those with talent and aspiration who are fleeing to safety and opportunity. So far, the United States is lucky enough to be the latter. So far.

                When desperate fathers and mothers are drawn with admiring naïveté to the beacon of America, when they carry their children through months of torment by mountain jungles and predatory gangs, when their courage and towering fortitude set them apart from the masses, shouldn’t they be embraced when they reach the final border of a nation of fellow immigrants that touts its compassion and humanity?

                Cut through the crazy tangle of immigration laws, regulations, and inconsistent enforcement to the essential ethic, and the answer is an obvious yes. But the obvious is not obvious in the White House or in the Department of Homeland Security or in the ranks of the beleaguered Border Patrol, whose horsemen scramble, as if herding cattle, to intercept frantic Haitians wading from the Rio Grande onto the banks of freedom and promise.

September 15, 2021

California's Next Step (I'm Kidding)

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Now that Californians have crushed Republicans’ effort to recall Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom (with 63.9 percent of the votes at last count), maybe the left ought to try what the right has done in Texas: Let anyone sue anyone who helps anyone do something you don’t like. In the case of Texas, it’s getting an abortion.

Imagine if liberal California—or New York, or the District of Columbia, for example—did the same on issues dear to the hearts of “progressives.” The Texas law recently enacted by radical Republicans allows anyone in the entire country to bring a civil suit against anyone in the state who helps a woman exercise her constitutional right to abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Any bounty hunter who wins in court gets $10,000 plus legal fees from the suit’s target, whether doctor, nurse, receptionist, or possibly the Uber driver who takes the woman to the clinic.

The tactic is designed to remove the state as the enforcer and thereby befuddle the courts, which otherwise might enjoin government from putting the law into effect. That gave five anti-abortion Supreme Court justices just enough leeway to refuse to block the Texas law, even temporarily. So, let’s consider what the left might do in return.

First, California could pass a law allowing anyone who refused to be vaccinated against Covid to be sued by anyone anywhere in the country. Going unvaccinated is an obvious public health threat, and while legitimate medical and perhaps religious exceptions could be made, those refusing the shots incubate evolving variants and endanger children and the immunocompromised. Therefore, under the Texas formula, everyone has what judges call “standing” to sue.