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

December 29, 2016

Facts, Fantasies, and Foreign Policy, Part II

By David K. Shipler

            Secretary of State John Kerry made the speech this week that he should have made three years ago, when it might have had an impact greater than to antagonize. In a well reasoned analysis of the harm being done by Israel’s practice of settling Jews on territory to be used for a Palestinian state, he warned that prospects for peace were being curtailed. He justified the US decision not to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements this way: “If we were to stand idly by and know that in doing so we are allowing a dangerous dynamic to take hold which promises greater conflict and instability to a region in which we have vital interests, we would be derelict in our own responsibilities.”
            But standing idly by while settlements have been expanded is exactly what the United States has done for decades. It has never put its money where its mouth is. It has used plenty of words but no real leverage. It has never made Israel pay for this “dangerous dynamic.”
The most recent punishment, in fact, was President Obama’s award to Israel this fall of $38 billion in military aid, which, Kerry noted, “exceeds any military assistance package the United States has provided to any country, at any time, and that will invest in cutting-edge missile defense and sustain Israel’s qualitative military edge for years to come.” Israel gets more than half the entire military financing that the US provides to the entire world. For this, Obama gets denounced as anti-Israel by right-wing American Jews and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist claque.
            Words have weight in foreign affairs, no doubt. And every Republican and Democratic administration, through Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama, has tried—and failed—to sway Israel through vehement words, criticizing the settlements in the contested territories as “obstacles to peace.” To that standard indictment has occasionally been added the charge that the settlements violate international law that governs the rules of war and occupation, as the recent UN resolution stated.
But no financial penalty has been imposed. In effect, because money is fungible, American aid goes into one pocket, freeing Israel to use funds from another pocket to subsidize settlements through housing loans, roads, power lines, water and sewer hookups, and security by the army.

December 26, 2016

Facts, Fantasies, and Foreign Policy, Part I

By David K. Shipler

            Donald Trump, the hot-air balloon who floats and weaves untethered to facts, is poised to create foreign policies (there will be many simultaneously) based on his fantasies and myths, which he will sell convincingly to a plurality of adoring Americans and spineless Republicans in Congress. He is even less curious about the world than George W. Bush. Into this knowledge vacuum will flow the imaginary demons and fairies conjured up by officials in modern America’s most extreme right-wing government, which he is now assembling.
            It will be a dangerous time. But let’s not pretend that fantasy-based foreign policy is unprecedented. It induced the United States to overthrow legitimate, nonthreatening governments and enter at least two losing wars: Vietnam and Iraq, with more to come, undoubtedly. Paranoia is one of America’s most prominent afflictions.
            The New York Times columnist James Reston used to call the State Department the Fudge Factory, an apt name to any reporter who tried to cover it. Attempting to pin down a hard fact of policy was like nailing a custard pie to the wall. Only occasionally would you come across a candid foreign service officer, usually in a US embassy abroad, who would share insights openly into the country that you both were working to understand. I treasured those folks and still count one of them from the embassy in Moscow, Ken Yalowitz, as a close and trusted friend, who went on to become an ambassador himself, to Belarus and Georgia.
             One key mission of both the State Department and intelligence agencies is to act as fact-gathering machines. They are populated with experienced people who speak the local languages, know local history, and are charged with reporting back to Washington. It’s hard to think that Trump will ever listen to them. Indeed, all signs point to ideological pressure for subordinates to avoid thinking differently from his latest tweets, lest they lose their positions.

December 8, 2016

On Whiteness

By David K. Shipler

            About 20 years ago, I asked a small class of white students at the University of Maine what percentage of the American population they thought was black. Maine is one of the whitest states in the union, so these students—all from Maine—saw hardly any African-Americans in their daily lives. But their estimates were high: One woman thought 50 percent of the country’s population was black. Another student agreed, and a couple of others guessed 40 and 30 percent. The actual figure was 13 percent (and, at the time, 0.4 percent in Maine).
            Why such exaggeration? And what did it signify? Was it one seed in the tangle of identity issues that brought Donald Trump to power two decades later?
            For a long time, in the midst of campaigns for affirmative action and other remedies to the wrongs of racial discrimination, polling has found many whites exaggerating not only the numbers of blacks but their prosperity and privileges. Last summer, only 2 percent of white Trump supporters, and just 13 percent of all whites surveyed, agreed that “white people benefit a great deal from advantages that blacks lack,” according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, 62 percent of blacks recognized the existence of white privilege.
            An earlier Pew poll showed African-Americans at least 20 percent more likely than whites to think that blacks were treated less fairly by the police, by the courts, by mortgage lenders, in the workplace, in stores and restaurants, and when voting in elections.

December 2, 2016

In Vietnam, a Patriot Without a Place

By David K. Shipler

            The name Nguyen Ngoc Luong will not ring a bell for most Americans, but it should. Through his anonymous work with correspondents, readers of a certain vintage who followed the Vietnam War through the pages of The New York Times were broken open to the distress and resilience of the Vietnamese. He understood his country at a depth far beneath the headlines, and so helped us see, learn to listen, and enrich our reporting.
            He once leaned over to me and whispered, as we sat in a Danang restaurant near a table of paunchy South Vietnamese Army colonels, “I cannot stand Vietnamese who have no sign of suffering on their faces.”
Luong was not just an interpreter of language, from Vietnamese into his fluent English, but also an interpreter of culture. His streetwise, romantic sense of righteousness and purpose led him to find the small, human narratives that illustrated the whole. And he kept us safe, sniffing out the danger of a too-quiet lane or a village of deceptive calm long before we had an inkling that something was wrong.
Luong died recently at the age of 79, in Ho Chi Minh City, in the country that he loved, but which did not love him enough. Alone among Times employees as Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, Luong chose to stay, to decline the offer to uproot himself and flee with his family to America. “I am a buffalo boy,” he used to say, proudly and wistfully, for it had been decades since he had ridden a buffalo while playing his flute.
            There are hundreds of people like Luong all over the world, local citizens of countries in conflict, who interpret, arrange, guide, open doors, and protect the foreigners who arrive as journalists or aid workers to observe and assist. Their help is crucial, and is done mostly behind the scenes, where they become invisible heroes. My son Michael, who does conflict-resolution work in many parts of the world, met Luong in 2001 after hearing from me about him for years. “He has left me with the Luong Principle,” Michael said. “Find a Luong wherever you go.”

November 23, 2016

The Election of Wishful Thinking

By David K. Shipler

            Mark Twain is said to have once advised, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” So it might be said of Donald Trump. If you don’t like his policy on this or that, just wait a few minutes. It was true during the campaign and has been the case since the election.
His shifts have stoked the wishful thinking that some on the left have embraced since his candidacy. First, his cruelly personal, bigoted assaults were supposedly so off-putting that voters would surely flee from him in droves. On the contrary, he did better and better as the primaries proceeded.
Then, conventional wisdom in the press and political establishment held that a) he would moderate his tone during the general election campaign to appeal to a broader electorate, or b) his repeated misogyny, crude ignorance of the world, and narcissistic rants would propel him into the dustbin of history. He did not moderate, and he made history instead of being buried by it.
All assumptions about the power of good manners, truth-telling, and common decency fell by the wayside. Whenever Trump said something obnoxious, and especially after the recording surfaced of his boasts about his predatory sexual preferences, The New York Times and other mainstream news organizations rushed to hear from the distraught and fractured Republican leadership about the party’s imminent disintegration and how it might put itself back together again after the expected devastating loss.
Most of the chattering class, including conservative Republicans, couldn’t believe that voters would tolerate his rude attacks on sacred cows—the parents of a U.S. soldier who had died in combat, a former P.O.W. named John McCain, a Miss Universe, a handicapped reporter—or his flirtation with Vladimir Putin or his nonchalance about NATO commitments and the spread of nuclear weapons. But even when his poll numbers dipped after an egregious remark, the support then steadied and never signaled the collapse that some political coverage predicted.

November 9, 2016

Let History Judge

By David K. Shipler

All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.
                                    --James Madison

            In the Revolution of 2016, alienated Americans have set the stage for a hard lesson in how democracy can be used to disable democracy. It would not happen at once, but as gradually as if the constitutional body were afflicted by an autoimmune disease. The curing power of the people’s voice would be turned against itself. The strong hand at the top, so fervently desired by the forgotten and ignored, would evolve into a counter-revolution of authoritarian demagoguery, which even a tradition of pluralism could not withstand. This is the gloomiest scenario.
            There is another scenario, however. It envisions a successful test of the ingenious American system, imagined and created to separate, check, and limit the power to reign and abuse. The Constitution restrains and holds. The president’s autocratic impulses are shackled to the rule of law.
            Nothing in Donald Trump’s pronouncements, policies, and behavior so far suggests that he grasps or accepts the constraints of the Framers’ inspired concepts. He fired up masses of aggrieved citizens by promising them decrees, not proposals. He talked as if he could do whatever suited him, as if no legislative branch existed, no courts stood to thwart his whims. He has recognized no principle of protecting minority interests. He has nurtured a cult of personality more suitable to a dictatorship than a democracy.
            Therefore, it is reasonable to expect in him a president who will push far past the boundaries of his constitutional prerogatives by trying to politicize law enforcement and the judiciary until they are mere shadows of justice. It is logical to expect a president who will insult and dismiss citizens along racial, gender, and religious lines, as he did during his campaign, and continue to give license to the hate-mongers among us. It is likely that he will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to divide and diminish this once-great nation, and even to bring dissidents to subservience.

October 31, 2016

Can the FBI Be Trusted?

By David K. Shipler

            On a March weekend in 2004, senior fingerprint examiners were called urgently into work at the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Virginia. A print had come in from the Spanish National Police, found on a blue plastic bag of detonators discovered after ten bombs had blown up on trains in Madrid, killing 191 passengers and wounding more than 1,400. Under stress, the examiners hastily matched the print—erroneously—to Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer who had converted to Islam.
This case is worth recalling in light of the current uproar over Hillary Clinton’s emails, because it provides rare insight into the FBI’s capacity for circular reasoning and sloppy forensics—even downright intellectual dishonesty. Time and again over the years, Americans have seen that alongside the many fine FBI agents are lazy thinkers who filter evidence to suit their imagined theory of a crime, and who prejudge people based on religion and ethnicity.
The agency is less nefarious than under Director J. Edgar Hoover, when it launched covert operations against civil rights and antiwar activists, but it remains well below its mythical high standards. Given the rules-be-damned posture of its current director, James Comey, it needs to be watched closely.
Mayfield was arrested as a material witness, his reputation was shredded, his family was traumatized, and his law practice was severely damaged before he was cleared—not by the FBI but by the Spanish police, who kept insisting that the print was not a match at all. In the end, the FBI’s misdeeds cost taxpayers $2 million to settle Mayfield’s lawsuit.

October 26, 2016

Who is the Toughest of Them All?

By David K. Shipler

            The answer, which should be obvious by now, is Hillary Clinton. A good many of Donald Trump’s supporters like him for his supposed toughness, but the three presidential debates, combined with his “whining” on the campaign trail (President Obama’s word), exposed his weak-kneed nature as a vulnerable personality who couldn’t hold his own in a face-off with a foreign leader if his country’s security depended on it—which it would.
In the debates, he was easily rattled. He meandered off subject. He couldn’t muster hard facts and bring a thought to a persuasive conclusion. In a summit meeting, the likes of Vladimir Putin would eat him alive, both by flattery and stiletto argument. Trump would either give away the store, make agreements he’d later disavow, or stomp his foot in temper tantrums. Never in this campaign has he demonstrated any talent for the tricky diplomatic negotiation, despite his dubious boasts about his commercial deal-making.
By contrast, he and his fellow Republicans have given Clinton a stage to show her grit. During hours of small-minded grilling on Benghazi by Congressional Republicans, she stayed steadfast, cool, and professional. They failed to dent her armor.
Nor did she flinch when Trump, in a tactic of cruelty, used four women as props to poison the gathering for the second debate. The age-old practice of blaming the victim of sexual misdeeds, in this case the wife of the philanderer, backfired.

October 18, 2016

Trump vs. America

By David K. Shipler

            While Donald Trump reflects the worst characteristics of American society, as many have said and written, he has also emerged as the leading voice of contempt for the country he wants to lead. He doesn’t really seem to like America very much—at least the America that exists in reality: the pluralistic, multiracial, multiethnic, fair-minded America that is engaged with the broader world.
Especially as he sinks in the polls, he is flailing recklessly at the most crucial elements of pluralistic democracy. He has become the leading opponent of a free press and of an electoral process that has guaranteed smooth, peaceful transitions of power for nearly 250 years. Now that he appears to be losing, he has set out to undermine public confidence in the country’s prominent news organizations and in the election itself. And for months he has made pronouncements and promises as if he could, as president, simply dictate and overrun the separation of powers, the checks and balances that the Framers ingeniously created in the Constitution.
A pillar of American democracy is the capacity of the winners of tough campaigns to then govern. Trump could not govern, given the distrust and disgust he has sown at large in the population and among the Republican leadership in Congress. He is now trying to make it impossible for Hillary Clinton to govern as well.

October 11, 2016

Voting for the First Principle

 By David K. Shipler

            If you fear and detest Donald Trump, as well you should, but have strong aversions to Hillary Clinton, and if you value your vote as a statement of principle that neither major candidate satisfies, consider this: If you rank your principles in order of importance, the one at the top ought to be the protection of the American democracy, as flawed as it is, against the threats from within.
            The only way to vote for that First Principle is to defeat Trump, and the only certain, practical way to defeat Trump is to vote for Clinton. Not for Gary Johnson the Libertarian or Jill Stein the Green, no matter how attuned their policies are to yours. And not to stay home and abstain. Citizens who fail to vote undermine democracy, too.  
There is little need here to repeat the litany of threats that Trump presents, and which every American who has been paying attention already knows. To his autocratic impulse to ride roughshod over the constitutional system of checks and balances, to sweep away the rule of law, to foster racial and religious hatred, to invite violence against his opponent, to inspire vigilantism at the polls, can now be added his threat, if he wins, to jail his opponent, which he expressed in the second debate. This is the stuff of a banana republic, not the United States of America.
Republican leaders who were shocked, shocked, by his frat-boy, “locker-room” boasts about committing sexual assault against women were holding their fingers to the wind instead of to their brains—or their hearts.
But it is an ill wind that is strafing the country.

October 7, 2016

Dear Post Office: A Sequel

By David K. Shipler

            I bumped into L.J. Hopkins outside the post office yesterday, and he was beaming as I’ve never seen him. He’s always an affable guy, but the smile now glows. With the help of a variety of dedicated folks from many walks of life, from lobstermen to legislators to lawyers, he has won and brought victory to everyone in two small island communities off the coast of Maine.
This report of the happy ending to the story comes in response to far-flung readers who, despite having no personal connection to this tale, asked to learn the ultimate outcome after I described the problem last June. It is partly David and Goliath, partly a case study on how to move a gargantuan bureaucracy that doesn’t give a wit about the little guy.
            Six months ago, the US Postal Service decided that a convenient arrangement was no longer permissible. For nearly thirty years, L. J. had been carrying the mail for the adjacent islands of Swan’s Island and Frenchboro, along with UPS and FedEx packages, prescription medicines and engine parts that islanders needed, and groceries for the island’s only store. His mother had done the same thing for decades before him.
Every morning, L.J. drove his white van, loaded up with essentials, onto the state-run ferry on the mainland, got off on Swan’s, delivered his goods, and took an afternoon ferry home. The stuff destined for Frenchboro then got put into a seaworthy lobster boat owned by the Swan’s Island storekeeper, Brian Krafjack, who would make the run across open water to Frenchboro, weather be damned.
 This lifeline is no small matter. It helps to make the islands viable, keeps them inhabited at a time when the temptations of mainland life play on the imaginations of the younger generations. Swan’s Island has 332 year-round residents, Frenchboro, 61. L.J.’s service has helped islanders who struggle financially avoid some of the steep ferry fares they’d have to pay to spend most of a day going off for medicine or parts.

September 29, 2016

The Miscalculations of Shimon Peres

By David K. Shipler

            Shimon Peres has been lionized since his death this week, but the praise has obscured at least two of his grave errors, which damaged Israel’s options for peace with the Palestinians. One was his early support for Jewish settlements in territories captured from the Arabs in the 1967 war. The other was his unwillingness to call snap elections after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. These two miscalculations, which went unreported in The New York Times obituary, have had lasting effect, and not to the good.
Peres, the last of Israel’s founding fathers, had a long list of accomplishments to his name. He was instrumental in obtaining weapons for Israel before the United States became its chief benefactor, and in getting the materials necessary for the country to develop nuclear weapons. He served in multiple posts, including defense minister, foreign minister, prime minister, and finally president. He philosophized eloquently.
Most important, his aides secretly negotiated with the Palestine Liberation Organization a loose agreement known as the Oslo accords, which led to the PLO’s and Israel’s mutual recognition and opened a way to peaceful coexistence. Peres, Rabin, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded too hastily as it turned out. Ultimately, the Oslo process was violently derailed by extremists on both sides. Ironically, Peres’s mistakes were partly responsible.
Decades before, by facilitating Jewish settlement in occupied lands, he had inadvertently helped give a foothold to a movement that became a zealous force of religio-nationalism, one that today brooks no compromise with the Palestinians. The movement, whose adherents now occupy cabinet positions in the government, reveres the ancient biblical lands of Judaea and Samaria—known to the rest of the world as the West Bank of the Jordan River—captured from Jordan in 1967 and the logical place for a Palestinian state, were it ever to be created. Jews have a historical right to be there, the religio-nationalists argue. And they are there, with some among them committing daily vandalism and vigilantism against Palestinians.

September 26, 2016

Stop, Frisk, and Miss

By David K. Shipler

            On a warm night some summers ago, a wiry sergeant named G. G. Neill and his “power shift” of police officers pulled their four marked squad cars into a somber, impoverished block in Southeast Washington, D.C. Six cops got out, none of them undercover. They were in uniform because they wanted to see what young black men hanging out on a street corner would do when the law appeared. Neill believed that telltale reactions would often betray a person who was concealing a gun.
            The armed man’s buddies, hanging out, might all turn to look at him. He might walk quickly away. He might turn one side away from the cops, lean against a car, hold his girlfriend tightly on his weapon side, or repeatedly touch his waistband to be sure the gun is securely in place. His clothes might be too bulky for the weather, or an ill-fitting jacket would hang lopsided, as if weighed down by something heavy in a pocket.
            This time in this block, however, and in many others during the deep nights when I traveled parts of the nation’s capital with the unit, the young black men did nothing suspicious. That didn’t prevent them from being searched. Some were so used to the cops coming around that they pulled up their T-shirts, without being asked, to show they had nothing stuck in their belts. They were as casual as passengers removing their shoes at airport security. Others allowed themselves to be patted down with no overt objections except for the smoldering looks in their eyes. They raised their arms so the cops could run their hands up and down their bodies and between their legs, then squeeze their pockets.
            This is the sorry state of the Fourth Amendment in the nation’s heavily black neighborhoods. The Framers carefully crafted the protection of “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” But that right, which is not to be overcome unless probable cause exists that evidence of a crime will be found, has been shredded by the war on drugs, the war on street violence, and most recently the war on terrorism. Wars, whether actual or metaphorical, do not comport well with individual liberties.

September 18, 2016

The Mirror Factory

By David K. Shipler

Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and
 put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.
--Granger, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

            A presidential election campaign is a mirror factory with a deception. We think we are looking at the candidates, but we are looking at ourselves. Our foibles and dreams are reflected back at us. The mirrors are unforgiving. They hide no blemishes. All we have to do is concentrate and watch through clear eyes.
            Yes, politicians are to blame. They give us what they think we want to see. And it turns out that many of us want to see fantasies: impossible promises, exaggerated caricatures, and utter illusions. We want to see demons. We yearn for enemies, both foreign and domestic, to purify complexity into enticing mirages of simplicity. Too many of us, with the help of certain politicians, conjure up monsters to blame and hate.
            We are charitable and we are selfish, we are peaceful and violent, accepting and bigoted. Amid all our vast variety, a large proportion of us look in the mirrors for tough guys. We don’t want to see softness or empathy in ourselves. We want to seem caring without being weak. We want hard edges. We want to look in the mirrors and see in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is, you-know-where-you-can-put-it, make-my-day belligerence to confront the whirlwind of self-pity, moral guilt, and learned helplessness to which we imagine once-great America has succumbed.
That part of us doesn’t want to see any acquiescence reflected back. If the half or more of us who will vote for Trump see our reflections honestly in the mirrors, we will see ourselves as torturers who wish to kill the wives and children of supposed terrorists, as war criminals who want to plunder (“take the oil”), as pugnacious bullies spoiling for a war with Iran, as unreliable allies who want turn our backs on our friends, as advocates for the jailing or assassination of the Democratic candidate in what we hail as the world’s leading democracy.
When we look straight into our reflections, we do not see temperate, steady deliberation. We see boiling, zealous impatience. When a voter can declare that a candidate “says what I think,” a remark heard frequently from Trump supporters especially, it’s a sign that the mirrors have been polished.

September 12, 2016

Hillary Clinton's Other Basket

By David K. Shipler

You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic . . . But that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. . . . Those are people we have to understand and empathize with.
--Hillary Clinton

            Nobody who wants to be president of all Americans has the luxury of being “grossly generalistic,” as Hillary Clinton confessed she was about to be when she told a fundraiser last week that half of Donald Trump’s supporters were “deplorables,” some “irredeemable.” Putting groups of people in a basket, like rotten fruit, is distasteful no matter how rancid their racial and social attitudes. And nobody is irredeemable.
Not that she’s wrong about Trump’s fueling bigotry. But it’s “that other basket of people,” those “we have to understand,” in Clinton’s words, who present her and the Democratic Party with a lesson in true failure—and therefore an opportunity for repair.
 Very little has been done by the Democrats over the last eight years to connect with the white, blue-collar citizens whose lives and hopes have been tossed into anxiety. While the government programs the Democrats have championed did help and would have helped more had they not been curbed by Republicans, the sense of commitment and concern at the top rarely filtered down to the grassroots. It’s a constituency the party has mostly lost in recent decades.
 Barack Obama, an excellent president in many ways, did not turn his considerable charm on those Americans. He did not work hard enough to engage the disaffected and the marginalized who had been displaced from jobs that had seemed durable, and from homes that had seemed secure, by the Great Recession precipitated largely by the Republicans.
Granted, his Affordable Care Act, his stimulus bill, his consumer protection measures and banking restrictions have all assisted people in that “basket.” But most of them don’t give him or the Democrats credit. He has not been able to translate those hard concrete measures into the soft engagement with personal hardship that gives a holistic contour to a presidency. His brilliant speeches notwithstanding, his aloof demeanor and his understandable focus on policy solutions have left a gap. And that gap has been exploited by the rightwing, thinly veiled racial propaganda of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and other extremist media, which animated the nativist prejudices that regarded a black man as an undeserving, an alien, and a frightening specter in the White House. That diffuse bigotry—a backlash against having a black president—is part of what has propelled Trump to the verge of the presidency.

September 4, 2016

On National Anthems

By David K. Shipler

            One day in the summer of 1960, just 15 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, a tour bus of Americans, driving through the Netherlands, broke into song, led by a seminary student in the group. It was an old Methodist hymn, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, in a beautiful Haydn melody.
            Suddenly the driver, a Dutchman named Jerry, shouted at us to stop, please stop. He had to pull over, he was so upset. We fell silent, baffled, until he explained that we were singing the melody of the German national anthem, whose lyrics in Weimar and then Nazi times began, “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles/ Uber alles in der Welt,” (“Germany, Germany above all/ Above everything in the world”). Jerry had seen the German tanks and troops roll into Amsterdam. He had seen people hanged from lampposts. By singing that tune, even as a hymn, we were unwittingly sweeping him back into the war.
             For me, at 17, this was a moment of clarity about the innocence of my parochialism, the indelible memories of suffering, and the power of patriotic music. It was a sudden education in the vast symbolic force of national anthems. Like the pieces of colored cloth sewn together into national flags of fierce identity, the arrangements of notes and words can compute into something far greater than the sum of their parts.
So it is that we now see Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, reviled and applauded as he stays seated or takes a knee instead of standing for The Star Spangled Banner. He is protesting what all good citizens should: police shootings of unarmed black men and the country’s stubborn scourge of racism. If he had only made a speech, fine. But failing to respect the national anthem, well, that’s heresy!

August 21, 2016

What Trump is Teaching Children

By David K. Shipler

We’ve seen Donald Trump behave like a 12-year-old,
and now we’re seeing 12-year-olds behave like Donald Trump.
--Richard Cohen, president, Southern Poverty Law Center

            The new school year begins with an opportunity and a challenging risk for teachers: whether to use the presidential campaign as they usually do, as a teaching tool about American democracy, or to treat the brutish campaign of Donald Trump as they would some bloody mass rape and massacre, reported gruesomely on the news but typically avoided in the classroom.
            Teachers are divided, according to about 2,000 responses to an online survey last spring by the Southern Poverty Law Center. For 40 percent of the respondents, the emotional divide whipped up by Trump’s ugly rhetoric was making the election too hot to handle. A teacher in Pennsylvania bars Trump’s name from the classroom. “It feels like it makes it an unsafe place for my students of color.”
Other teachers, though, are eager to put the campaign on the agenda, because students have been so intensely engaged. The problem for each teacher is how, and whether, to maintain the customary neutrality.
            It’s usually a school policy and a mark of professionalism for teachers not to betray their political preferences while leading discussions, and especially not to endorse one candidate over another. But Trump’s bigotry, which has been emulated in student behavior and comments, has driven some minority students to plead for support from teachers, and some teachers say they have felt compelled to offer comfort by denouncing him.

August 16, 2016

Does Putin Want Trump? Really?

By David K. Shipler

            Of all the odd things that have happened on the way to the presidential election, the weirdest is the spectacle of Republicans, once the fist-pounding party of national security, shrugging off Donald Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin and for Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. Further, to turn normalcy completely upside down, the Democrats, once the party of internationalism, are pointing fingers at the specter of treacherous foreign influence subverting American democracy.
            With some exceptions, the right has been indifferent and the left has been apoplectic over Trump’s embrace of Moscow’s perspectives. He has spoken admiringly of Putin, and Putin has returned the favor. The Republican candidate has accepted Russia’s annexation of Crimea, deleted a call for lethal arms to Ukraine from the Republican Party’s platform, brushed off the suspicious murders of nonconforming Russian journalists, and questioned whether NATO members such as the Baltics should be defended in accordance with the treaty’s obligations.
            Presumably to help Trump, two of Russia’s intelligence services hacked the email files of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, with mildly embarrassing releases so far and, surely, more serious disclosures to come. Meanwhile, Trump receives favored coverage and commentary by the Kremlin’s Russia Today television broadcasts in the U.S.
            The question is whether Putin, who is reputed to be a canny manipulator, really thinks that Russia would be well served by having a crackpot in the White House. Maybe so, if he’s as short-sighted as his KGB training taught him to be.

July 22, 2016

Trump's Dystopian America

By David K. Shipler

In Soviet times, Russians used to tell the joke about the man who went into a Moscow clinic to ask for an eye and ear doctor.
“We don’t have an eye and ear doctor,” said the receptionist. “We have an eye doctor, and we have an ear doctor. You’ll have to get an appointment with one and then the other.”
“No,” the man insisted. “I need an eye and ear doctor.”
“Because I keep hearing one thing and seeing another.”
Listening to Donald Trump and his Republican enablers is like hearing the fictions of communist propaganda inverted, not to glorify the country as in the Soviet Union but to picture America as having fallen into the dark abyss of violence, helplessness, and “humiliation,” a word Trump favored in his acceptance speech. This portrait is essential as a prelude to autocracy. A country does not move in that direction without fear, anger and despair, which has to be generated and heightened as the population is presented with a savior.
Moreover, an earlier American utopia existed, according to the bizarre Trumpist vision, and it can be restored by one man alone, who first has to convince enough citizens that they live today in dystopia. Trump’s declarations contain no legislators, no political pluralism, and no legitimate competing interests in a diverse society. “I alone can fix it,” he actually said as he described a broken system during his address to the Republican convention. The blustering promises of the Republican candidate for president suggest that he is entirely unfamiliar with the American constitutional system of checks and balances, the separation of powers. Indeed, as the rabble he has mobilized chanted at the convention for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment, history was being made: it might have been the first time that one American political party has called for the jailing of its opponent for president.

July 11, 2016

Recollections: Three Stories About Sydney Schanberg

By David K. Shipler

            The word “great” is overused in this age of superlatives, but it’s no exaggeration when applied to Syd Schanberg, whose coverage of Cambodia during its 1970s war has been remembered almost reverently, since he died last week, by those who worked with him. Here are three vignettes:

            One evening in Phnom Penh, as we were about to take Syd’s favorite government censor to a French restaurant for rich food and copious amounts of wine—standard practice to lubricate the “approved” stamp on controversial copy—Syd told me of a run-in with a different Cambodian censor three years earlier. It had been 1970, as ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia were being attacked and imprisoned by the government and civilians. Syd wrote of Vietnamese being placed in “internment camps.” The censor, whose English was passable but not colloquial, said (as I recall Syd recalling the quote), “Mr. Schanberg, the phrase ‘internment camps’ is not correct. We are not imprisoning them. We are just bringing them together for their own protection. We are concentrating them. You should say, ‘concentration camps.’” That wouldn’t be such a good idea, Syd told the censor. In the story, I believe, it came out just plain “camps.”

Syd had a towering sense of justice—some might call it self-righteousness, and he could be prickly about it. He had a keen eye, and his indignation flared over incidents that less sensitive people would have considered insignificant. One day, when he and I were walking into some government compound with Dith Pran—the storied Cambodian interpreter and fixer whose trials and ultimate escape after the Khmer Rouge takeover were dramatized in the film, “Killing Fields”—the Cambodian guard at the gate called Pran over for a pat-down but was about to let us two Americans pass without a check. Syd raised an angry protest, practically shouting at the guard that if he was going to frisk Pran he was damned well going to frisk us as well. The guard, clearly confused by this unique American who eschewed the privilege of being American, obediently gave us both perfunctory pat-downs.

July 9, 2016

The Killers Among Us

By David K. Shipler

There are racial killers among us. They are armed and dangerous, and they are hiding in plain sight. Some wear the camouflage of police uniforms and are hard to pick out from the ranks of law-abiding law enforcement officers. Others are civilians in street clothes. They act alone, or so it seems, outside any conspiracy or organization—so far. Yet they act in a context. They have their sympathizers and rhetorical enablers in America’s deep traditions of bigotry.
The police officers are vested by government with the authority to kill, and when they use that license wantonly, they are rarely punished, although a pageant of due process is often performed for the spectators in the streets. The victims usually have skin darker than the killers’.
Civilian murderers are allowed to arm themselves under a perverse political calculation by the Republican Party and a twisting of the Constitution’s Second Amendment by the conservative justices of the Supreme Court. The right to bear arms has become a malignancy in the healthy body of the rights that keep us free—the rights to speech, to religion, to peaceful assembly, to a free press, to counsel, to jury trial, and against forced confession and cruel and unusual punishment. The country is awash in lethal weapons, easily acquired. Cops are not wrong to assume that one or another citizen they encounter is armed.
Therefore, the events of the last few days have been both shocking and predictable. It should be no surprise that the spate of police shootings of black men, despite all the protests they have generated, has been followed by more shootings by police—in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Anthony, Minnesota. This is likely to continue until two things happen: the officers start being put in jail and police departments nationwide scrub themselves from top to bottom of the racial stereotypes picturing blacks as inherently violent and threatening.
That image of danger, one of the most prominent in the array of racial caricatures, heightens the wariness of some cops when they face black men. That can happen with black cops, too, who are not immune from the society’s messages about African-Americans. And when cops then become targets in retaliation, as they did in the Dallas sniper attack on Thursday night, officers’ fears are stoked further, and the trigger fingers get jittery. The black sniper told a police negotiator that he was out to get white officers; he killed five and wounded seven.
Ironically, Dallas is a police department that has worked hard to heal relations with minority communities. Many other departments across the country have done little to combat the racial stereotyping that many cops bring with them to the job, and which is reinforced by the comments of fellow officers, not to mention the society at large. It would be illuminating to learn whether cops who have killed unarmed blacks have visited racist web sites. It would be interesting to know whether they like what they hear when Donald Trump tells crowds of supporters to beat up a black protestor or to fear and exclude Muslims.
Trump has fueled a lust to assess people by their racial and ethnic groupings, and the measure of his success can be heard in the ugly roars of the crowds at his rallies. When he denounced the judge hearing the civil suit against Trump University for his Mexican heritage, he said, “I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump . . . His name is Gonzalo Curiel.” At the sound of the judge’s name, the mob erupted in a primitive, angry sound that will echo throughout the country long after Trump has disappeared.
Far from heralding the arrival of a post-racial society, Barak Obama’s election as the first black president has facilitated the eruption of online racist caricatures, web sites, T-shirts, even baby clothes. After decades of building an elaborate superstructure of inhibitions to curtail the expression of bigotry, American culture sees the structure eroding. Prejudice is voiced with increasing vigor and conviction. Using justifiable criticism of a president as a cover, many right-wingers have woven racial stereotyping into their arguments against Obama, and so have cracked the veneer of courtesy and decency that has developed since the civil rights movement. That veneer has masked virulent racist attitudes beneath, to be sure, but they are now loosened with greater ease. It is impossible for all police officers to resist the flows of toxic attitudes.
So, this will continue. The logic of vengeance dictates that the spate of shootings by police should be followed by shootings of police. It is significant that officials first believed that three or four snipers were involved in Dallas, carefully positioned to triangulate their targets. It would be an alarming escalation but entirely expected. The disciples of hatred find one another eventually, and they conspire. Furthermore, on the other side, the outraged and aggrieved include the legions of gun-toting white supremacists who have felt empowered by the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Given the broad context, it is not enough to point only to the shooters. The observation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel comes to mind: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

July 1, 2016

The Republican Party's Core Principles on Poverty

By David K. Shipler

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is busily issuing paper after paper on his party’s “core principles” regarding poverty, health care, national security, the tax code, and the like. These are meant to be serious proposals for reform, and they should be taken seriously, for some of them pose serious threats to less fortunate Americans.
That is especially so with Ryan’s anti-poverty plan entitled “A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America.” The 35-page document is heavily punitive, advocating sanctions against the poor if they do not achieve employment. If the plan were implemented by a Republican Congress under a Trump administration, it would further shred the safety net that now protects numerous innocent children from hunger and homelessness.
The damage would be done in two ways: first, by requiring heads of poor households to get jobs or lose their food stamps and housing subsidies—in effect, adding to those essential benefits the work requirements that currently limit cash welfare checks through Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). In other words, if you don’t get a job, no help getting food for your kids and keeping a roof over your family’s head.
Second, Ryan would decentralize accountability by cutting most strings that are attached by the federal government to state and local expenditures of federal funds. So, recipients of grants would have pretty free rein to spend the money as they wish. Unfortunately, not all states care much about poor people, as we’ve seen in the Republican-led states that have rejected Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, even though the cost is borne almost entirely by Washington.

June 25, 2016

Brexit, Trump, and Idols of the Tribe

By David K. Shipler

            In 1975, Harold R. Isaacs began his book Idols of the Tribe this way:

            “We are experiencing on a massively universal scale a convulsive ingathering of people in their numberless grouping of kinds—tribal, racial, linguistic, religious, national. It is a great clustering into separateness that will, it is thought, improve, assure, or extend each group’s power or place, or keep it safe or safer from the power, threat, or hostility of others. This is obviously no new condition, only the latest and by far the most inclusive chapter of the old story in which after failing again to find how they can co-exist in sight of each other without tearing each other limb from limb, Isaac and Ishmael clash and part in panic and retreat once more into their caves.”

            Four decades later, supposedly civilized people are retreating once more into their caves to shear off the intricate connections with “them,” to escape from “others” who are “different,” and to celebrate their own group by denigrating those across the boundaries of race, religion, nationality—of tribe. Harold Isaacs, my father-in-law, would be appalled but surely not surprised, for his work on group identity drilled into the long human habit of self-definition that relied on stereotyping, categorizing, and rejecting whole peoples.
            As at certain earlier times in history, this bad habit is now translating itself into toxic politics. Make no mistake: The United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union—a departure that is expected to feed other ethnocentric moves on the Continent—was driven essentially by antipathy toward “others” who had paid the UK the highest regard by uprooting themselves and settling there.
There were the reasonable complaints about high-handed EU regulation of British consumer safety standards, for example, and the burden of rescuing economic basket cases like Greece. But immigration seemed the more animating issue: a revulsion toward those whose citizenship in EU member countries gave them free passes into the UK.

June 21, 2016

Obama, Syria, and the Limits of American Power

By David K. Shipler

            Opposition to U.S. policy rarely boils up from the State Department, which the columnist James Reston used to call the Fudge Factory, a place of ambiguous words, hedged bets, and dulled edges. So a dissenting memo on Syria that surfaced last week, signed by 51 State Department officials, caused a stir in Washington, especially after Secretary of State John Kerry was reported to share its argument for focused air strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad—something President Obama has resisted.
            The document sets forth some cogent reasoning and analysis. But it’s noteworthy that it comes from the State Department rather than the Pentagon. Not only is the military more disciplined than the Foreign Service (for better or worse), but it’s also probably more realistic in assessing the complications, costs, and risks of such an escalation.
The military chiefs are said to have steadfastly backed Obama’s refusal to conduct an air war against the Assad regime, and it’s not hard to see why. Cruise missiles could be fired from a safe distance, but if drones were introduced or American pilots flew missions, advanced Syrian air defenses would have to be taken out first. Russian aircraft, now deployed on Assad’s behalf, would have to be countered or induced to stand by idly—an unlikely prospect. Finally, a collapse of Assad would leave a power vacuum (think Libya) into which something worse might flow, something called ISIS.

June 13, 2016

A Nation's Mental Illness

By David K. Shipler

            If the United States were a person, it would be involuntarily confined to a psychiatric institution as a danger to itself and others. Hopefully, it could eventually be cured. But for the time being, it displays a disconnection from reality, a tendency to hear voices of fantasy, an addiction to violence that it knows is self-destructive, and an inability to grasp the logic of cause and effect.
            No mass shooting is needed to reveal these impairments, but every time one occurs, as in Orlando over the weekend, it is a symptom of the national psychosis, seen in a parade of careless pronouncements, declarations, analyses, and proposals. Imaginary enemies are everywhere. Facts are powerless. Magic words are conjured up as remedies—“radical Islam” is what Donald Trump wants Obama and Clinton to say—as if some spell of witchcraft will neutralize the threat.
            Such behavior is not the mark of emotional health. National sanity, equivalent to civic responsibility, requires critical thinking to sort through the ambiguities and contradictions that come with reality. It assumes an instinct for self-preservation that will reject damaging practices, i.e., a recovering alcoholic’s avoidance of alcohol, or a violent individual’s avoidance of weapons. It demands deferred gratification, long-term planning, and an understanding of the consequences of one’s actions.
The United States demonstrates some of these attributes some of the time, but not most of them most of the time. If it had a single brain, it would be diagnosed as paranoid, manic-depressive, schizophrenic, and yet rational and well adjusted all at once. (I checked this with a prominent psychiatrist friend, who confirmed the finding.) That brain would be so torn between oscillating impulses of dysfunction and functionality as to be paralyzed and unable to take care of its own interests except in rare instances.

June 3, 2016

Dear Post Office: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

By David K. Shipler

            In this age of self-serving politicians and corporate executives, and of resentment toward big business and big government and everything else big that stomps on the little guy, it is worth telling the story of an unassuming man who has put loyalty to a community above financial security. This will not get national attention, but it should.
            First, the geography and the logistics: For 28 years, L.J. Hopkins has loaded up his van every day, six days a week, to meet a variety of needs among folks living on two islands off the coast of Maine. He has driven onto the state ferry for its mid-morning run from Bass Harbor to Swan’s Island, unloaded his cargo, and returned to the mainland on an afternoon ferry. To get stuff to the other island—Long Island’s town of Frenchboro, which has only two ferry trips a week—L.J. has subcontracted with an island resident who has taken it in his boat from Swan’s to Frenchboro.
L.J.’s work can be pretty frantic. On the mainland he races around picking up urgently needed prescription medicine, engine parts, groceries, and the like. If he can’t get it, you probably don’t need it. He’s even taken two blown tires of mine off to the mainland to get fixed, and brought them back. He transports FedEx and UPS packages. And, most central to his financial well-being, he had a contract to transport the mail to the Swan’s Island post office—until earlier this spring, when small bureaucrats wielding excessive power prevailed. For decades before him, his mother brought the mail as well.
(This account is not exactly the official version, because the Postal Service’s regional public relations spokesman, Stephen N. Doherty, failed to reply to any of my rather pointed questions.)
The shock came when the local postmaster in the mainland town of Southwest Harbor, Mary Saucier, told L.J. that Postal Service regulations prohibited a vehicle from carrying anything other than mail. So, if L.J. wanted his $100,000-a-year contract, he could not take anything else, no FedEx, no UPS, no prescriptions, no groceries, no tools or parts to keep lobstermen’s engines running—nothing but mail.

May 22, 2016

Vietnam: Admitting Error

By David K. Shipler

            Contrary to Republicans’ false accusation, President Obama has not been traveling the world apologizing for American misdeeds (although there are plenty to be sorry for). Nor will he do so during his tour in Asia, neither at Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. president to visit the target of the first atomic bomb ever used, nor in Vietnam, where a misguided war killed 58,000 Americans and up to 2 million Vietnamese, according to Hanoi’s official estimate.
            Apologies aside, it would be healthy for Obama at least to name the colossal errors of judgment that led to the Vietnam War: the Cold-War assumption that monolithic communism would spread like a red stain around the globe, that North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were mere tools of Beijing and Moscow, that America could remake third parts of the world at will, and that American credibility would be shredded by a loss. In other words, he should call the Vietnam War what it was: a terrible mistake borne of historical ignorance and a disastrous misreading of the anti-colonialism that fueled Vietnamese nationalism.
             John Kerry, who is at Obama’s side as Secretary of State, missed his chance to talk about the war in these terms when he ran for president in 2004. Instead, he snapped a salute at his nominating convention and announced that he was reporting for duty. The transparent gesture to exalt his military role as a young Navy swift-boat commander in Vietnam, rather than embrace his famous conversion into an eloquent opponent of the war, forfeited the opportunity to advance the country’s perspective on the tragedy of its error.

May 16, 2016

The Politics of the Beard

By David K. Shipler

            Here’s the short version: Since I grew a beard on a whim in the summer of 1978, I have been mistaken for many kinds of people in several different countries: a KGB agent, a Maine lobsterman, a Jewish settler, a member of ISIS, and a homeless person. I was told in Kabul that if I added a turban, I could be a mullah, and a conservative in Israel suggested that I put on a yarmulke and go to the West Bank to see how a religious Jew would feel among hostile Palestinians. Each misidentification carried an interesting little lesson.
So did the beard’s absence, for when I went without it for a few months in 1995, I became unrecognizable in certain quarters. When I attended an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I’d worked from 1988-90, nobody greeted me; they simply didn’t know who I was. And my older son’s wedding pictures, taken during that interlude, show this mysterious fellow among the family members, like some interloper. Who is that guy? A woman I know slightly did recognize me bare-faced and quipped, “You’re in disguise!”

May 4, 2016

The Unknown America

By David K. Shipler

            Just as the world has entered a phase of post-nationhood, where warfare is committed most persistently by non-state actors such as ISIS, the United States has entered a phase of post-party politics, where insurgencies sap power from the party professionals who are supposedly schooled in the arts of campaigning and governing.
The political upheaval would be exciting if it weren’t scary, and it would be uplifting if the grassroots impulses were humane and inclusive. But the populist resentments are varied, and they are channeled into different streams. Bernie Sanders taps the noble yearning of those who want a society pledged to open opportunity. Donald Trump gives voice to a sinister tide so surprising in its scope as to raise the question of how well most Americans know their own country. How many of us realized that so much ugliness resided just beneath the surface of civility?
Probably not many, perhaps not even among those who find themselves supporting Trump. As they keep telling reporters, he says what they think. But do they really think that stuff? Has some intoxication with Trump removed their inhibitions? Do they all detest people not of their race, religion, ethnicity? Are they actually, deep down, soft on the Ku Klux Klan? Do the men, in their hearts, disparage women, and do the women among his voters ridicule themselves because of their gender? Do they truly admire crude name-calling, and would they tolerate such coarse rudeness in their children or their spouses?
Do they seriously misunderstand the American system of checks and balances that would prevent Trump from doing most of what he promises? Would they really prefer an authoritarian system whose head of state had semi-dictatorial powers? Do they actually believe that government, which has so disillusioned them, can resolve all the economic anxiety and hardship many of them have endured?
Do they admire Vladimir Putin as Trump does? Really? Do they truly want the nuclear proliferation that Trump proposes, with Japan and South Korea in possession of the bomb? Do they actually want a trade war with 45 percent tariffs on goods from China and China’s inevitable retaliation? Do they believe that America’s leadership will be enhanced by dismantling military bases and alliances? Do they think that swagger and bluster and boasting are what make America great?

April 29, 2016

What the People Do Not Want to Hear

By David K. Shipler

            I am old enough to remember when there were no credit cards. Yes, children, there was such a time, in the Olden Days. Personal accounts could be arranged at some local stores, which would note your purchases in a ledger, to be paid off eventually. Then some department stores—Macy’s, Sears, and the like—issued their own cards, valid for use in their stores only. Esso (now ExxonMobil) had its card for charging gas at Esso stations.
            But the only real private borrowing people did was to buy a house or a car. Even student debt was minuscule. The use-everywhere piece of plastic came along later, and with it, the ease of overspending and the boom in personal debt. Under the law, national banks’ interest rates were exempt from state restrictions on usury, and their terms weren’t exactly transparent. Add the second mortgage and the home equity loan, which allowed people to treat their houses like ATM machines, and you have a nation of folks craving what they see advertised, buying insatiably, and living beyond their means.
            Now, put that phenomenon onto the tectonic shifts in the American economy as it moves from an industrial age to a digital robotic age, and you have an upheaval as uncontrollable as global warming—only marginally manageable by the will of humans to make sacrifices and alter behavior. As manufacturing declined, union membership plummeted, eroding workers’ clout in the marketplace of labor. Wages did not keep pace with consumers’ appetites. As high-tech jobs mushroomed, the skills gap grew, with more and more Americans unable to compete effectively in a global economy.
            That’s where the current politics of rage enters the picture. Donald Trump tells people what they want to hear, but what they want to hear is a lie. It has two parts: First, everybody is at fault except yourself. Blame Mexicans. Blame Muslims. Blame “losers.” Blame liberal Democrats. Blame corporations that move jobs abroad.
            Second, solve the problems with a sweep of the hand: Ban Mexicans. Ban Muslims. Discard “losers.” Make deals. Run Democrats out of office. Isolate the U.S. from world trade. Bar corporations from closing factories here and opening them there.

April 19, 2016

My Composite Candidate

By David K. Shipler

            If only we could Photoshop politicians, taking a keen and honest eye from one, a civil and courteous tongue from another, a brain from one who happened to have one, and a heart from another to place into the one whose vacant soul echoes with unfeeling arrogance. If we could just move parts around with a cursor to combine into the ideal presidential candidate, we could relax instead of grinding our teeth until November. Imagine what a relief it would be if we didn’t have to wish that Bernie were more sensible and Hillary more credible, that Ted had learned something beneficial at Princeton, and that The Donald’s mouth didn’t have to be washed out with soap.
            So just for fun, permit me to irritate almost everybody who reads this by finding in each candidate some quality that would be suitable in a president, then assembling the array of characteristics into a composite.
            First, let’s combine the populist appeals of Trump and Sanders, but without their simplistic rhetoric. We leave behind Sanders’s one-note scapegoating of “Wall Street” so our perfect candidate has room for nuance and sophistication, which will come later in the construction process. Of course we lose Trump’s bigotry, misogyny, bullying, incitement to violence, and ignorance about the American system’s inconvenient obstacles to ruling by fiat.
            Absent those undesirable qualities, you might ask, what’s left? Good question. What’s left is both men’s instinctive talent for touching the legitimate frustrations and disaffections of large numbers of citizens who have suffered a raw deal or have seen others getting kicked. What’s left is both men’s knack for voicing the resentments about a government and an economy that have failed to protect those who have lost their homes, their reliable employment, and their sense of security and well-being.

March 24, 2016

The Problems of Boycotting Israel

By David K. Shipler

            A couple of years ago, a retired Israeli journalist, Yehuda Litani, walked into his favorite local grocery store in Jerusalem and noticed cartons of eggs from a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. He had words with the storekeeper. “I asked the grocer to bring eggs from other sources,” Yehuda told me. “He refused, and I stopped buying there since that day.”
            Such settlements are widely considered by the Israeli left—and officially by the U.S. government—as obstacles to the eventual creation of a Palestinian state on West Bank territory, which was captured by Israel from Jordan during the 1967 war. The settlements have spread and grown into commercial enterprises, and leading settlers have risen into the ranks of the parliament and government. For this and other reasons, the door appears to be closing on a two-state solution.
So Yehuda, who speaks Arabic as well as Hebrew, and who covered the West Bank as a reporter, has mounted his tiny, principled boycott. He has no illusions. “Some of my friends in Jerusalem are behaving the same way,” Yehuda emailed, “but I must say that we are but a small minority—most people do not care about the exact source of the agricultural products they are buying.”
            The question of how and whether to use purchasing and investing power to influence Israeli policy has inflamed some campuses in the U.S. and Europe, mobilized several Protestant church assemblies in the U.S., and alarmed the Israeli government and its American supporters. Boycott proponents comprise all sorts of folks: the idealistic, the malicious, the honorable, the anti-Semitic, those who think they are trying to save Israel from an immoral quagmire, and those who care nothing for Israel’s continued existence.

March 15, 2016

"Have You No Sense of Decency?"

By David K. Shipler

            On June 9, 1954, in a highly charged Washington hearing room, the elderly attorney Joseph Welch, a man partial to homespun clarity, put to Senator Joseph McCarthy the stiletto question that has entered American lore. Responding to the Wisconsin Republican’s smear of a young colleague of Welch’s, the lawyer demanded McCarthy’s full attention and began with this:
            “Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy tried to persist, Welch cut him down: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
            In the old black-and-white film, McCarthy has a mean squint, a twisted look something like Donald Trump’s when attacked. Trump’s method is different, but he plays on the same ground of fear and demonization. So Welch’s question is relevant today, and it ought to be directed not only to Trump but also to the American people: Have you no sense of decency?
Or, to make a gesture toward hope: After many months of waiting, when will America’s slumbering decency awake?
            For that is what eventually happened to end McCarthy’s slimy innuendos that ruined so many lives with false implications of communist affiliations, based on scanty rumors, guilt by association, and fabricated evidence. Preceded by Edward R. Murrow’s devastating televised assault on McCarthy three months earlier, Welch’s rhetorical question hit home. Huge numbers of Americans, watching live on national television, knew the answer. Decency stirred.
            This episode remains as my first political memory. I was 11 years old. Coming home from school day after day, I saw my grandmother, a Southern-born, Eisenhower Republican who detested communists, sitting bolt upright in a straight-back chair in front of the TV, appalled by McCarthy’s vile slanders. She loved Joseph Welch. His gentle decency struck a chord with the decency she carried inside herself.
            So it was during the Civil Rights movement as well, as Americans saw in their living rooms the contorted, hateful faces of Southern white girls screaming racist epithets outside integrating schools, the burly white cops swinging truncheons at non-resisting black protesters, the dogs and fire hoses unleashed against peaceful citizens demonstrating for their basic rights. Segregationists played their role in a pageant of brutal injustice vividly enough to stir the decency that resides in most Americans.
            Where is decency now? Is it gone or just marginalized, merely dormant? For a long time, McCarthy got away with his witch-hunt as a sly weasel in an era of exaggerated fears about communist designs on America. Trump gets away with his bullying as a vicious Rottweiler in a time of real and fake fears about insecurity in all its forms. Many of his supporters are legitimately scared of their economic peril, unduly afraid of terrorism, and eager to accept the scapegoats he offers, which include the varieties of people who represent a diversifying America.
Even if Trump does not win the Republican nomination, or even if he wins that but not the White House, his supporters will remain a restive, fulminating force of anger. So he has offered the country a lesson in its failure to remember that tolerance, logic, and the acceptance of difference is not genetic but must be learned anew by each generation.
The society has failed those who accept him as he vilifies and ridicules vast groups of people, a whole religion, all who try to govern, all who disagree. It has failed those who give a Nazi salute outside his rally and shout, “Go to Auschwitz,” as one man did. It has failed those who shout, “Nigger,” and “Go back to Africa.” It has failed those who cheer his invitation to beat up protesters, the empty promises he cannot possibly fulfill, the coarse insults he levels at fellow candidates. It has failed those whose schools have not taught them to check facts, research reality, know history, follow public issues, and make decisions that are carefully informed.
            On his 1954 program, “See It Now,” Ed Murrow read from the script that he and Fred Friendly had written about McCarthy. It is worth listening to today:
“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine—and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. … We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.
“We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear. He merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.’”
Murrow concluded with his traditional sign-off: “Good night and good luck.”

Good luck, indeed.

March 8, 2016

The Great Manipulator and the Velcro Candidate

By David K. Shipler

            If Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, as his admirers enjoyed saying, then Donald Trump is the Great Manipulator, with an uncanny eye for the voters’ nerves of fear and yearning. If criticisms slid off Reagan as if he were coated with Teflon, every one sticks to Hillary Clinton as if she were covered in Velcro. If Trump gets better at what he does, and if Clinton doesn’t unglue the labels of dishonesty and opportunism, the election could be close.
            Trump is dangerously clever at reading the electorate, at least the part of it whose anti-government anger and economic despair have been energized by Republican radicals who now wail as Trump rides the wave that they produced. Talk-show personality Glenn Beck, who incites furious extremism, compared Trump to Hitler in 1929 and warned Americans against voting in anger. “When you’re really angry, you don’t make good decisions,” Beck told a rally for Ted Cruz. “Don’t drive drunk, don’t vote angry.” That’s sage advice from a model of calm reason.
            But if Trump grabs the nomination, it would not be amazing to see him temper his insults, smooth his sharp edges somewhat, and stress the virtue of “flexibility,” a word he used a few times in the last debate. His bare-knuckled bullying appeals to some but repels others, even those who want a tough-guy act in the White House. If he managed to time his evolution deftly, he might just appeal to the wishful thinking of Republicans who want to beat Clinton at all costs. And costs there would be.

March 4, 2016

The Privacy Problem: Security vs. Security

By David K. Shipler

            We might be approaching a tipping point about privacy, as dramatized by the Apple-FBI dispute over decrypting a terrorist’s iPhone. After years of seeing privacy and safety as opposites in the war on terrorism, important segments of American society seem to be recognizing personal security and national security as parts of the same whole, not as a dichotomy in a zero-sum game. If this evolution continues, it could eventually produce a significant correction to the surveillance state that developed after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the meantime, however, the two versions of security are colliding: the government’s rising concern about security from crime and terrorism in an age of digital encryption on the one hand, and, on the other, the public’s heightened interest in security from hackers, identity thieves, cyber-ransom demands, and—yes—government surveillance. Both sets of anxiety are justified. How to resolve the clash intelligently is far from clear.
The FBI’s effort to force Apple to create new software to disable an iPhone’s security features is propelling the courts forward in time at a faster speed than they typically travel. They usually lag well behind technology. But now they and Congress need to catch up quickly. That phone and hundreds of others sit in evidence lockers waiting to be cracked by law enforcement, requiring a creative effort by judges, legislators, prosecutors, and high-tech companies to make it possible—legally and technically—to execute a legitimate search warrant on a particular device without the risk of compromising security on all such devices.

February 25, 2016

The Temporary Death of Political Cynicism

By David K. Shipler

            Cynicism about politics appears not to be genetic. It has to be relearned generation after generation, election after election. So it is that voters who are fed up with ineffective or unjust government, and by politicians who promise what they don’t deliver, are flocking to two candidates who cannot possibly deliver what they are promising: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
            The attraction, at each end of the spectrum, seems to run beyond protest or anger. Not only do Trump and Sanders supporters know what they dislike, they also know what they want to believe is doable: “Make America great again,” says Trump. “Make this political revolution a reality,” says Sanders.
            Polling shows that only six percent of voters “would consider voting for both men,” Thomas Edsall reports in The New York Times, based on recent NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys. But a few of their policy proposals actually overlap: hitting corporations for taxes on overseas profits; eliminating tax loopholes for the very rich, opposing trade agreements that have facilitated the American job drain; raising the wages required for foreigners who get H-1B work visas; and increasing spending on mental health treatment for veterans, for example.
Trump also favors letting vets use their Veterans Administration cards for private physicians, outside the system, who accept Medicare. Sanders takes credit for a law that “makes it easier for some veterans to see private doctors or go to community health centers,” his website declares.
If you take time to drill down into the positions detailed by both candidates, you’ll find that while both offer some concrete specifics about how they would accomplish their goals, Sanders’s are more solidly documented. Some liberal economists have questioned his math, but there is no doubt that his proposed tax increases would generate hundreds of billions in additional revenue. All he’d need is a Congress that looks nothing like the one we’re fated to have.

February 14, 2016

The Nihilist Republicans and Political Bigotry

By David K. Shipler

            Senate Republicans’ pledge to reject President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee who hasn’t been named contains as much intellectual integrity as trying to ban a book you haven’t read. It further politicizes an institution that works properly only above politics, when justices examine the law and the Constitution without regard to their personal preferences. And it could paralyze the Court on key cases, producing 4-4 ties that would let stand lower appeals court rulings but would set no nationwide precedents on matters that cry out for clear resolution.
The ironic fact that this would promote government’s dysfunction and further reduce its stature does not help so-called “establishment” Republicans who are worried about the protest vote being mobilized by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Those voters have been energized by the disdain for government, encouraged by the Tea Party movement and other radicals who could be called the Nihilist Republicans, as distinguished from the Responsible Republicans who used to try to govern when they won elections.
Justice Antonin Scalia’s body wasn’t even cold before Nihilist Republicans voiced their political prejudice by stereotyping as leftwing any conceivable candidate who could be proposed by Obama. This is the classic dynamic of bigotry: reject an individual—even an unidentified individual—because of his or her membership in a group. Reject because of the origin. Reject because of who supports the person. It is the same deviant logic that Trump uses to oppose letting Muslims into the country.
In a society that supposedly values individualism over collectivism, judging people by their collective associations rather than by their individual traits violates a basic American ethic—at least one we wish to see practiced.

February 5, 2016

Foreign Policy: Jazz or Football?

By David K. Shipler

            American football is a convenient metaphor, and it’s sure to be overused on this Super Bowl weekend. But what if we turn it around and recognize that our foreign policy is actually the metaphor—a metaphor for football, and that our trick tactics and testosterone-driven plays internationally are often modeled on what works in the National Football League?
             The decision this week to ramp up US military deployment in Europe, like putting more muscle on the line, is designed to cow Vladimir Putin’s “aggression,” to use the word that is kicked around casually by the Pentagon. It seems logical if you think you’re in a game to win by defeating the opponent rather than finding victory on common ground. The real world of foreign affairs is rarely a zero-sum game, however, and there’s never a final whistle.
 The American-Russian face-off is full of football-style moves that look tough but have had the perverse effect of strengthening the hand of the other side. Expanding NATO, which commits the United States to go to war to defend any of its members, has alarmed Moscow as the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have joined the alliance, along with Eastern European countries once in the Soviet sphere of influence. Russia’s reaction has been the opposite of what’s good for the West.

February 2, 2016

The American Myth of "Who We Are"

By David K. Shipler

            All countries need myths, especially if they’re at least a little bit true. They inspire imagination, set high standards, and foster hope. The American Dream is such a myth, for it challenges the society to make real the principle that anyone who works hard can prosper. American democracy is partly mythological in an age of voter suppression and billionaire campaign funding.
President Obama has summoned up another myth—one about American character—by often declaring that this or that bigoted, inhumane, self-destructive policy is “not who we are.” That’s partly correct, but only partly. The notion of a people inherently devoted to inclusive, rational decency is a beautiful myth being sullied daily by the leading Republican presidential candidates and now, as seen in the Iowa results, by their supporters. If they are “who we are,” then we have some work to do on truth-telling, cooperative problem-solving, and respect for the country’s religious and ethnic diversity.