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

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!