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

December 6, 2018

America Without Heroes

By David K. Shipler

                There is a vacuum in America. Where leaders of virtue should reside, citizens find only a void, which echoes with yearning.
                So we have to invent heroes, and we rely on myth-making. These days, whenever a decent Republican dies, bringing that endangered species nearer to extinction, the firmament is flooded with rhapsodies of adoration: first, John McCain, now George H.W. Bush, their reputations amplified as counterpoints to Donald Trump. As the outpouring for Bush has shown this week, we love them more after they’re gone. They are never as pure in life as in death.
The hunger for heroes is one reason for Trump’s popularity among a core of supporters whose cheers cannot be dampened by his insults, his lies, his corruption, his racism, his misogyny, his impulsiveness, his ignorance, his hatreds, or his damage to the prized institutions of democracy. We are a needy people, and a large minority of us, it turns out, are excited by a large, brash personality who crashes through convention and waves his fist in the faces of more than half of his compatriots, plus most of the globe.
This infatuation with Trump’s autocratic bullying reveals a deep fault in American society. Coming when the country faces neither war, depression, rising crime, nor widespread terrorism, the readiness to be afraid is remarkable. Bedraggled families seeking refuge are “invaders.” Democrats threaten “mob rule.” Whites and men are victims. The world’s biggest economy is at the mercy of foreign countries. Imagine if the United States confronted actual risk, how vulnerable we would be to demagoguery—which can be a real danger in itself.
The search for heroes, then, can imperil security. It can let loose toxic impulses. It can undermine the constitutional system, which regards traditional institutions and venerable procedures, not individuals, as the protectors of the country’s freedoms. It can flit from one character to another, conferring Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame on the person of the moment.

November 5, 2018

How Self-Correcting Are We?

By David K. Shipler

                A measure of a country’s health is its capacity for self-correction. The same holds true of an institution, even of an individual. The test is what happens when behavior departs from a course that is moral, legal, decent, and humane; when it sacrifices long-term vision for instant gratification; indulges in fear and fantasy; abandons truth; oppresses the weak; and promotes cruelty and corruption. The election tomorrow is a test.
                An open, pluralistic democracy can reform itself, and the United States has a long history of moral violations followed by corrections--or, at least, a degree of regret. The colonies’ and states’ persecution of religious minorities led to the First Amendment’s provision separating church and state. The atrocities against Native Americans led eventually to more honest teaching of history, although not the compensations for stolen land and destroyed cultures that the victims deserved. The scourge of slavery led to its abolition by the Thirteenth Amendment, the Civil War to a stronger (if imperfect) union, the Jim Crow segregationist laws to an uplifting civil rights movement and a wave of anti-discrimination measures by Congress and the courts.
The denial of women’s suffrage was reversed by the Nineteenth Amendment. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was ruled unconstitutional, albeit too late for the prisoners. The character assassinations by Senator Joseph McCarthy of imagined communists, ruining careers and lives, were ultimately repudiated as repugnant and, in themselves, un-American. The illicit FBI and CIA spying on antiwar and other dissident groups led to a series of federal statutes regulating domestic surveillance, although those laws were watered down after 9/11. And most recently, the society’s broad distaste for homosexuality was revised into broad acceptance, including a Supreme Court decision overturning laws against gay marriage.
These and many other issues demonstrate that progress does not move in a straight line. The correction is never quite complete, and there is backsliding. While blacks in the South were once denied the vote by means of poll taxes and literacy tests, Republicans have now employed other means to the same end, purging registration rolls, for example, moving and reducing polling places in minority areas, and discarding registration forms on the basis of flimsy inconsistencies.
But in the long run, when this democracy damages its own interests and others’ well-being, it experiences something of a gravitational pull toward the more solid ground of social justice. That happened in the civil rights movement when the brutality of the segregationists, unleashing dogs, cops, and thugs to attack nonviolent demonstrators, became ugly enough to mobilize the conscience of the country. What will it take to mobilize the conscience today?

October 30, 2018

The Demons Within

By David K. Shipler

                On a December evening twenty-some years ago, Fern Amper, a Jewish resident of Teaneck, NJ, made a startling statement to a small group of Jews and African-Americans who gathered at her home periodically to discuss the issues of race, privilege, and bigotry. When the Jews spoke of anti-Semitism, the blacks mostly minimized it, preferring to see themselves as the country’s primary victims of prejudice and picturing Jews—who were white, after all—as comfortably powerful.
So, to make her point about Jews’ vulnerability, Amper claimed that they were always poised to flee. “I would venture to say that there’s no Jew sitting in here—and I’ve never spoken to you about this—who does not have an up-to-date passport for yourself and your kids in your desk drawer,” she declared. “Tell me if that’s true.”
“It’s true,” one said. “Absolutely,” said another. “Absolutely,” said all the Jews in the room.
The blacks were flabbergasted. “Why? Why?” asked Ray Kelly, an African-American. “Are you really serious with this paranoia?” A moment of silence followed, then a couple of voices said, “Yes.”
If the scent of perpetual danger seemed exaggerated in the 1990s, it seems more warranted in the era of Donald Trump’s winks and nods to the neo-Nazis and white supremacists among us. It is no coincidence that since his election, anti-Semitic attacks, both physical and verbal, have soared, culminating in the mass murder of 11 Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue last Saturday.
 As president, Trump has created an environment favorable to the undercurrent of anti-Semitism that American society has long harbored. It has surfaced dramatically since his election in 2016. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, counted a rise in the number of neo-Nazi organizations from 99 to 121 between 2016 and 2017. Murders by white supremacists have doubled, and the Anti-Defamation League reports “a 258% increase in the number of white supremacist propaganda incidents on college campuses.”
In addition, the ADL found that a 57% jump during 2017 in anti-Semitic incidents, defined as harassment, vandalism, and assault, was the largest one-year increase since the organization started keeping tallies in 1979. “Schools, from kindergarten through to high school, were the most common locations of anti-Semitic incidents,” the ADL reported. Jewish journalists and critics of Trump have been flooded with online threats, anti-Semitic portrayals, and disinformation, according to a voluminous study by the ADL.

October 20, 2018

Human Rights Hypocrisy

By David K. Shipler

                Hypocrisy is a cardinal feature of foreign policy, and it wasn’t invented by Donald Trump. Saying one thing and doing another, or doing different things simultaneously, or saying contradictory things about the same situation are venerable traditions in diplomacy, and no more dramatically than in the area of human rights.
                Most countries skate along easily in this slippery practice, but the United States sometimes bumps up against its inconvenient national myth: that America is the beacon of democracy, the shining city on a hill, the bastion of freedom, the model of liberty—and promotes the same the world around.  When the collision between idealism and realism occurs, American policy toward whatever country is committing egregious violations either hits a wall and retreats, or it finds a pragmatic detour around the obstacle to continue on its way, rationalized by national security and commercial interests.
                The second route, returning soon to business as usual, seems likely to be taken by Washington in the case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for the Washington Post who had exiled himself in the US to write critically of Saudi Arabia’s anti-democracy. As Trump has pointed out in various contorted statements, the US has a strong stake in close relations with the kingdom. He appears willing to stand up against the clamor of bipartisan outrage over the gruesome spectacle, as portrayed by Turkish authorities, of Khashoggi’s torture and dismemberment inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and the widespread skepticism about the official Saudi claim that he was killed during a fistfight.
Perhaps if the Saudis had used Israel’s technique against terrorists—a precisely placed bomb or a drive-by shooting—the reaction would have been muted. It has certainly been muted over broader transgressions by Saudi Arabia, such as its lack of a free press, its intolerance of dissenting political speech, and its ongoing carnage of civilians during the war in Yemen. No administration, whether Democratic or Republican, has seen fit to sever the ties of accommodation. America’s supposed passion for human rights has been overcome by several considerations.

October 10, 2018

The Names of Lobster Boats

By David K. Shipler

       The men and women who go out on the water in Maine before dawn to haul lobster traps come up with some inspired names for their boats. Many call them after their children or spouses. Others have painted on their hulls the fragments of life that speak to them: the anxious hope for a good catch, the sassy wit that brushes off danger, the reverence for divine force, the flinty swagger of independence, the poetry of the sea. In sailing the coast of Maine the past few months, I collected names, and put them here into something of the rhythm of the winds and tides. (There really was an up arrow beside the final name, seen near Jordan Island in Blue Hill Bay.)

                                                Kyle Thomas, Buggin’ Out,
                                                Seanior Moment, Get It Done,
                                                Wildest Dreams, Final Round,
                                                Karma, Twilight, Sea Chimes

                                                Autumn Dawn Faith,
                                                Family Tradition,
                                                Illusion, The Gambler,
Never Enough, Learning Curve

October 3, 2018

The Politics of Hate

By David K. Shipler
Making America Cruel Again, Part 4 of an Occasional Series

                Donald Trump might not drink alcohol, but he is fueled by another addiction, probably more dangerous: the roar of the crowd. After every brief period of detox in Washington, surrounded by sober aides and Congressional Republicans who try to contain his craving, he needs his fix. So he breaks loose and explodes into a rally of avid worshippers in a carefully picked niche of the country where his cult of personality thrives on loathing the rest of America. They adore him feverishly, wrote the columnist Richard Cohen, because “he hates the right people.”
                Legitimizing political hatred predated Trump, fostered by such propagandists as Rush Limbaugh, who for years has been vilifying liberals, Democrats, blacks, immigrants, the “drive-by” media, and “feminazis” who advocate for women’s rights. Limbaugh’s name-calling has caught on with enough conservatives to make its way into the White House and now prospectively to the Supreme Court if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed. Accused of sexual assault as a teenager, Kavanaugh showed more judicial temper than temperament by attacking Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee and raging against an imagined conspiracy of “the left” on behalf of the Clintons. Trump loved it.  
    Whatever it is that Trumpist conservatives want to conserve, it’s obviously not the civil discourse that has lubricated the machinery of American democracy.

September 25, 2018

He Said, They Said

By David K. Shipler

                We Americans are swimming in lies—lies from an entire advertising industry, lies from the top of our government on down, lies from the grassroots of hateful partisans, lies from such august institutions as the Catholic Church, lies from Fox News and other purveyors of propaganda. And on, and on, and on.
This Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will treat us to another gargantuan lie: the deception that we are seeing a truth-seeking process because Professor Christine Blasey Ford will be heard accusing Judge Brett Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her when she was 15. In reality, however, virtually all the members of the committee, both Republicans and Democrats, have already decided the case. The minority Democrats will credit her account, and the majority Republicans will not. She is on trial, as are most women who finally gather the courage and self-esteem to speak out about their abuse at the hands of prominent men.
And this will be something of a show trial, with a Republican-hired lawyer—a woman, of course, for the sake of “optics”—appointed to question her, to poke holes in her story, perhaps to rattle her enough to make her come across on national television as incoherent, confused, and unreliable. There is no hint in the Republican-led committee of any interest in getting to the bottom of the allegation. If there were, the FBI or a committee-organized, impartial investigatory staff armed with subpoenas would have been assigned to the matter. And the one alleged witness, Mark Judge, would be forced to testify under oath.
The Republicans’ refusal to call Judge pulls back the curtain on the farcical charade. They are obviously afraid that Judge, who Ford says was present when Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, ground his body against her, covered her mouth when she screamed, and tried to remove her clothes, might suddenly remember the incident in sworn testimony. There’s nothing like the threat of a perjury charge to focus your mind.
But this is political theater, practically devoid of due process. A methodical and intellectually honest effort to muster the facts and arrive at a conclusion is not legally required in the Senate as it is in criminal court. And so it will not be pursued, because it might interfere with Republicans’ steamrolling campaign to politicize the Supreme Court in their image.

September 18, 2018

Trump vs. the Palestinians

By David K. Shipler

Making America Cruel Again: Part 3 of an Occasional Series

            The more militant end of the Palestinian spectrum, which has grown in recent years, will surely be delighted by the Trump Administration’s latest deletion of aid. It cuts off $10 million  for peacebuilding programs that have brought together Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem for professional workshops, school visits, and joint projects designed to disarm the arsenal of suspicion and fear.
            These get-togethers have been denounced by Palestinian activists as efforts to “normalize” Israel’s dominance over the West Bank by “showing that everything is okay,” according to Nava Sonnenschein, an Israeli who runs such programs. The “anti-normalization movement” argues that cooperative projects acquiesce to Israeli control of the area and thereby subvert the goal of independent Palestinian statehood.
Some Palestinian participants have been threatened. Several years ago, women journalists on the West Bank were warned that if they joined a workshop for Jewish and Arab female journalists from Israel, they would be expelled from the Palestinian journalists’ union. “Some of them came nevertheless,” Sonnenschein said. “So they risked themselves because they believed it was a way to change the other side.”
Indeed, creating “change agents” is a goal of Sonnenschein’s School for Peace at Neve Shalom, a mixed Arab-Jewish village in the hills between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. When professionals—architects, land-use planners, engineers, environmentalists, physicians, and other influential adults from across the lines—are thrown together on the common ground of their skills and interests, she believes, they return to their own sides with a more open appreciation of the humanity and mutual concerns that can bridge the divide. Some change agents have maintained contacts with those in the other camp.
But in the latest episode of wizardry, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, want to punish Palestinians’ failure to negotiate for some nebulous notion of peace by cutting off programs that promote peaceful connections. The School for Peace and other private organizations have thrived on grants from the United States Agency for International Development, as well as from the European Union. The American funds will now support only projects that exclude Palestinians from the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, although Arab citizens of Israel may participate.

September 1, 2018

McCain: Mourning Decency

By David K. Shipler

                Not since the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 has a senator’s death inspired such an outpouring of affectionate eulogy as the loss of John McCain. It takes nothing from McCain to observe that this week of mourning has been mostly a celebration of contrast—the stark contrast between a decent man who traveled a noble road and a corrupt president who wallows in the gutters of vindictiveness.
Had McCain died three years ago, before the advent of Trumpism, he would probably have been accorded due respect but hardly the effusive tributes and live funeral broadcasts that have been conveyed by “the enemy of the people,” as Trump enjoys calling America’s free press. McCain’s stature has been enhanced, ironically, by the misdeeds of his own party: Trump, who effectively dodged the draft, denigrated McCain’s ordeal as a POW in North Vietnam; McCain, as a victim of Vietnamese torture, denounced American torture under president George W. Bush; McCain stood up against Trump’s divisive incivility toward Americans and his obsequious flirtation with Russia; McCain gave his famous thumbs down on the Senate floor to his Republican colleagues’ witless attempt to strip Americans of the health benefits of Obamacare. So the late senator has now been immortalized as a principled, independent thinker and a creative maverick.
That is an exaggeration. Mostly he went along with his party on key conservative issues. And he certainly exercised poor judgment from time to time: He and four other senators intervened unethically with regulators on behalf of Charles Keating Jr., a bank executive who gave his campaign $112,000 and later went to prison for fraud against elderly investors. McCain later confessed to having learned a couple of lessons, including a sensitivity to the mere appearance of conflict and a willingness to address accusations openly in the press, rather than trying to hide. (“Flashing his quick temper, he insulted, cursed and hung up on reporters questioning him about his ties to Keating,” CBS reported.) He went on to team up with former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold to champion limits on campaign financing.

July 28, 2018

Trump's Fake Victories

By David K. Shipler

                It’s too bad that Donald Trump wasn’t president during the Vietnam War, because he would have declared victory and avoided years of bloodshed, as Vermont Senator George Aiken proposed in 1966. And judging by today’s gullible Trump supporters, 40 percent of Americans would have believed him. Imagine Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, had they been around, hailing the North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon, without resistance, as Trump’s breathtaking achievement in peacemaking. The war was over!
                If you lay out Trump’s various methods of appearing to win, you come up with at least three styles of fabrication.
                1. A real conflict but a declaration of victory that is either premature, exaggerated, or totally made up. North Korea is the main example to date. Despite Trump’s boast about peace in our time, bragging that the nuclear problem had been “largely solved,” Kim Jong-un’s regime has not agreed to a single step toward denuclearization—no timetable, no inspections, no concrete plan. He’s suspended testing, probably because he’s done all the testing needed so far for nuclear development, and while he’s made a show of dismantling a couple of test sites, intelligence agencies see work on nuclear weapons continuing.
And Kim’s dispatch of 55 boxes of bones to the US, which Trump trumpets as the remains of “American Servicemen,” cannot be authenticated until forensic analysis can find actual matches to American families. Until identifications are made, the somber pageantry of the return of the dead is, sadly, only theater, and a cynical ritual at that. The remains could be of non-American, UN troops who fought in the Korean War—or they could be of Koreans themselves. Kim has learned quickly how easy it is to get mileage from Trump for empty gestures.

July 20, 2018

Rip Van Winkle in Russia

By David K. Shipler

                I spent last week in Russia and felt as if I had woken up, after a long sleep, to an unrecognizable  world. Putting aside the nefarious activities of Vladimir Putin’s government—Crimea, Ukraine, cyberattacks, Novichok, and the police-state mechanism poised to act at Putin’s whim—Russia has revolutionized itself, at least on the surface.
                I’d last been there 25 years ago, in the liberalizing Gorbachev era and then right after the breakup of the Soviet Union, so I witnessed the beginning of change: a freer discourse, an occasional private restaurant devoted to pleasing customers rather than repelling them. But my true reference point, the time I seem to have fallen deeply asleep, was the communist period of the late 1970s, when I lived in Moscow for four years. Awakening last week, I felt like some country rube who had never seen a city’s bright lights. Or, as my son Michael noted as we traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg for the World Cup, I seemed to be switching glasses all the time, looking through Soviet lenses in utter amazement.
                Gone are the depressingly gray state-run stores and restaurants with empty shelves, long lines, and unsmiling clerks and waiters with no motivation to serve. Decent restaurants in Soviet days required connections to get reservations, and some had signs screwed permanently to the doors saying, “Myest Nyet,” “No Room.” Who wants customers when you get paid anyway by the state? And except for the caviar, the food was rarely gourmet. A Russian joke went this way:
                Customer: Is the fish fresh?
                Waitress: I don’t know. I’ve only worked here two weeks.

July 2, 2018

Trump vs. Workers

By David K. Shipler

Making America Cruel Again, Part 2 of an Occasional Series

            One of the many peculiarities of Donald Trump’s presidency is how deftly he stabs workers in the back while making many of them think he’s on their side. He’s given “I’ve got your back” a new meaning.
            His administration is dismantling environmental protections for laborers, decimating job safety regulations, and attacking the livelihoods of many of them by triggering tariffs on US goods going to Canada, the European Union, and China. Most of this destruction can be repaired in time once Democrats return to power in the White House and Congress. But more durable damage is being done by the Supreme Court, and there is surely more to come as Trump tees up for his second court appointment.
His first pick, Neil Gorsuch, is remarkably hostile to workers’ rights, and he has been so since before he ascended to the Court. He wrote the 5-4 majority opinion this term in Epic v. Lewis, stripping employees who are forced to sign arbitration agreements from any recourse in the courts over unfair labor practices. And he joined the 5-4 majority in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, stripping public employees’ unions of their ability to collect dues from all workers who profit from the salaries, vacations, health insurance, and other benefits negotiated through collective bargaining.
Gorsuch’s position should have come as no surprise. In a 2016 dissent as an appeals court judge in the Tenth Circuit, he went through bizarre legal acrobatics to uphold the firing of a truck driver who opted to leave his cargo rather than freeze to death on a winter night in Illinois.
When the brakes on his trailer froze, the driver, Alphonse Maddin, phoned for help from his company, Trans Am Trucking, and waited several hours for a repair truck. He was practically out of fuel, the auxiliary power heater for the cabin was broken, and he began to show dangerous signs of succumbing to the subzero temperatures. His cousin, who called him, said that his speech was slurred. His feet felt numb, and breathing was difficult. Finally, in desperation, he unhitched the tractor from the trailer and drove toward safety, returning 15 minutes later after being informed that the repair truck had arrived. He was then fired.

June 25, 2018

The Eye and the Camera

By David K. Shipler

            When O.J. Simpson was charged in June 1994 with murdering his wife, both Time and Newsweek ran his mug shot on their covers, but with a stark difference. Newsweek’s Simpson was true to the original photo, an African-American man with amber skin. Time’s artists darkened his complexion so that his unshaven cheeks and chin matched the blackness of his jacket. Within the deep cultural bias associating darkness with evil, the alteration gave Simpson a sinister air. The drama of the manipulation was obvious to all who saw the magazines side by side on the newsstands.
            Last week, using modern digital technology, Time again raised a ruckus by merging a photo of a crying 2-year-old Honduran girl and another of a towering President Trump, who seemed to be looking down at her. The words “Welcome to America” hovered ironically above her head.
             It can be argued that the human eye is not the final arbiter of visual truth. In an age of camera and computer wizardry, the photographic sensor and the software processor can bring to light what the eye has missed—or can erase what the eye might find distracting or distasteful. A few clicks and sweeps with a mouse can tease out digital information from an image that the camera has captured but the eye has not perceived; can brighten or dull or revise colors, change white balance, raise or reduce exposure and contrast, move people, remove blemishes, brush in different backgrounds, and so on. Therein lies the potential for both artistry and fraud.
            Much manipulation was possible even in the days of film. Ansel Adams, the great landscape photographer, spent hours in the darkroom “dodging and burning” to make areas of his prints lighter or darker, and thus more stunning. Autocratic regimes bent on revising history airbrushed into disappearance people who had been obliterated from the pantheon, including Stalin and Khrushchev in certain settings. (Fast forward to the digital age, and Haredi Jewish newspapers, which forbid images of women without hair covering, removed Hillary Clinton from the famous photograph of President Obama and his staff in the situation room during the attack on Osama bin Laden.)
            So, the question: What is acceptable, and what is not?
            One answer is to be honest with the viewer, to label clearly what has been altered. Another is to understand that art and journalism have different standards, that a picture purporting to document a visual fact must stand the test of absolute accuracy, while one that aspires to fine art carries a license to be altered and enhanced.
The trouble is that within those two broad categories, ethical lines can be intricate and blurry, and are drawn by various people in various ways. Andy Williams, a photographer who leads photo tours for Muench Workshops, believes that an image that combines several photos, as he’s done by creating a gorgeous scene of a horse and a misty landscape, for example, “should be announced as a composition.” On the other hand, he adds, “cloning out a stray branch or leaf, no, does not need to be announced. Color, white balance, all that, are creative tools available to us and do not need ‘announcing’ for a fine-art photo that is not a documentary photo.”
But do viewers always know that they are seeing a fine-art photo legitimately subject to enhancement? Or do they think they are witnessing on a screen or a wall exactly what their eye would have perceived in person? Do we all pause to differentiate between creativity and documentary?
Then, too, is the eye always infallible? In journalism as well as art, the camera’s frame is chosen and usually cropped, the scene frozen, the focus determined, and therefore the tempo of contemplation is slowed to a reflective pace. From a newspaper, a magazine, a broadcaster, and a news website, viewers should expect no manipulation, and they shouldn’t be unwittingly subjected to it. Time should not have tricked them with the subliminal effect of darkening O.J.Simpson’s skin. But they should recognize that those taking and presenting images have made choices of what to show and what to leave aside, just as writers do.
It’s hard to know reliably what viewers are going to assume about how much a given photograph has been manipulated in Lightroom or another program. It might be safe to say that most who saw Time’s recent cover recognized it as a composite, that Trump hadn’t actually been standing over the little Honduran girl. It was more like a political cartoon than a news photograph.
But how many realized that the crying girl was not actually being separated from her mother, who was merely being searched? The caption was accurate in other publications, but the photo morphed as it circulated into an iconic image of the cruelty being visited upon innocent children by the Trump administration’s family-busting policy at the border. That the cruelty exists is not changed by the misinterpretation of the picture, but the misinterpretation, heightened by Time’s use of it, gives Trump and his hardest-line supporters an opening to denounce his critics.
To help photographers navigate along the complicated lines between acceptable and unacceptable processing, some photo contests have devised and tightened rules, and have even embedded videos in the regulations. The effort is to be as clear as possible to avoid repetition of past incidents of deception. In 2015, the World Press Photo competition disqualified 20 percent of the entries for excessive processing, discovered when the submitted images were compared with the RAW files, which contain all the data the camera has recorded, without manipulation.
“Once we saw the evidence, we were shocked,” said Michele McNally, chair of the jury. “Many of the images we had to disqualify were pictures we all believed in and which we all might have published. But to blatantly add, move around or remove elements of a picture concerns us all, leaving many in the jury to feel we were being cheated, that they were being lied to. Many of these photographers clearly didn’t think what they were doing was wrong. But I’m telling you that it was often very wrong and not accidental.”
The competition’s current code of ethics prohibits staging, influencing a scene, removing people or objects and shadows except by cropping, changing color significantly enough to alter original hues, and so forth. Videos show examples of unacceptable changes: three small spots on a woman’s arm were removed, a cigarette butt was erased, highlights were added by cloning, a small fin was added to a fish, and two shots of groups of strollers on a bridge were combined into one.
Egregious alterations have been caught by a couple of prize administrators, but after the fact. In 2015, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects awarded a prize to a building called El Centro, which the Chicago Tribune described as “a striking, boomerang-shaped structure with blue and gold fins” designed by Juan Moreno. The trouble was, the jury went by pictures alone, and the photographer had erased a huge row of air conditioning/heating units that look like a couple of container trucks disrupting the graceful line of the roof. None of the jurors went to visit the actual, real-life building. The architect said he didn’t like the oversized structures, but he didn’t see the doctored photo as a misrepresentation. “The truth of the matter is, in every photograph that takes place on any building, there is an artistic representation that occurs,” he told the Tribune.
In another case, the Natural History Museum in London rescinded a 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award from Marcio Cabral, whose dramatic photograph of nighttime, glowing termites included, by lucky chance it seemed, an anteater at the base of the insect mound. After close examination by experts and a review of Cabral’s RAW files, the jury determined that the anteater was quite dead, stuffed, and usually resided at the visitor center at the Emas National Park. Cabral denied it.
Andy Williams and his colleague Juan Pons called attention to this gross deception in a podcast, where Williams differentiated between creating images for fun and art and misrepresenting them as absolute truth. During a rainy stretch on a trip in Alaska’s Inside Passage, he recalled, he told workshop participants, “Hey, why don’t we figure out how to use only Lightroom to smooth out the water here, cause we couldn’t do long exposure and we couldn’t do tripods. So I figured out that reverse clarity and reverse dehaze a little bit will give you a smoother appearance to the water. Which is kind of cool. And reverse sharpening. All those three things, and then I said, hey, what if we put some ducks in this from another picture? So I showed them how to select a flock of geese … and paste them into this image. … and at the end of the day we had a lot of fun and we created a lot of cool images. But they are created, manipulated, composite images. And I would never put this out to the world saying it’s anything but a composite image.”
To which Juan Pons added, “It’s all about being truthful, being honest with your viewers.”

June 19, 2018

Empathy vs. Self-Interest

By David K. Shipler

Making America Cruel Again: Part 1 of an occasional series

            It was sadly appropriate for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use a biblical verse once cited by some slave owners to justify cruelty to other human beings who were considered less than human: by Sessions about separating children from parents who enter the US illegally and “infest” the country (President Trump’s word, reducing them to insects and rodents), and by planters about returning fugitive slaves to their rightful place in bondage. It was the law, after all. Romans 13:1.
            Not that ripping weeping children from their parents’ arms is slavery—although slavers did so when profit and efficiency dictated. And not that the US is perpetrating “genocide” or acting like Nazis, as some critics have said, reaching for the most dreadful terms to harness their disgust and shame at the behavior of their beloved country.
But the outrages being perpetrated on the Mexican border signify the resurrection of practices and hatreds that might have seemed long buried in history if you were one of those citizens who believed America was destined to become better and better: more welcoming of difference, more just, more decent, more humane. How naïve of those of us who fostered such faith in their beloved country.
Nasty attitudes and impulses from the worst dimensions of America’s past are resurfacing as if they had merely hibernated waiting for the oxygen and sunlight of demagoguery to nurture them back into thorny bloom. And our past is replete with unsavory precedents: slavery, of course, and racist law in the form of Jim Crow; Native American families torn apart as authorities tried to stamp out tribal culture; citizens of Japanese descent interned during World War II; explicit anti-Semitism and white supremacy.

June 10, 2018

Kim, Trump's Foil

By David K. Shipler

            Whether Kim Jong-un knows it or not, he is about to play the role of Donald Trump’s foil in the farcical vaudeville routine that the American presidency has become. Unless Trump blunders egregiously (always a possibility), the Singapore meeting—no matter what its result—promises to entertain his American supporters with tough-guy antics and, possibly, the pretense of a “deal” that can be simplified by Fox News into an adoring sound bite. If the meeting blows up and Trump storms out in a blizzard of tweets, he’s a strong, combative leader who takes no prisoners. If the meeting’s vibes are friendly and promising, Trump is a clever negotiator who maneuvers his adversaries into compromise. Trump can’t lose. Only the world can.
It’s wise to remember that Trump, who touts himself as a champion deal-maker, has not made a single deal in nearly 18 months in office. He’s been more of a deal-breaker: on Iran, the climate, trade, and so on. His record in his real estate and branding business is little better, tarnished by a string of bankruptcies, failed ventures, scams, and refusals to pay struggling subcontractors. His “deal” to assist American workers lies in tatters after his hostile regulatory decisions and extremist court appointments, not to mention his new tariffs, which are expected to hurt more American laborers than will be helped.
There is nothing in Trump’s background to suggest a capacity to bargain well over complex issues. He fumbled around on health care with no effect. His Republican colleagues in Congress passed the tax bill without significant input from him. He is instead a showman and a propagandist who convinces a large minority of Americans that when he says things are good, they are good. His top priority seems to be fostering a cult of personality, which could be deadly to democracy if our constitutional institutions and reflexes fail.
 From what we have seen of him, Trump values his cult of personality far above the national security of the United States and, therefore, the denuclearization of North Korea. As a bully, he is making the United States into a bully as well, as we’ve witnessed; a bully kicks the smaller and the weaker (e.g., France, Germany, Canada, Mexico), and hesitates before the strong (e.g., Russia and China).
Now, it must be recognized that employing bullying against bullies, or convincing the dictator on the other side of the globe that you’re just crazy enough to unleash a nuclear firestorm, might make the “Little Rocket Man” tremble a little. It’s reasonable to speculate that Kim is sitting down with Trump because he thinks the US president is frighteningly unhinged—yet vulnerable to flattery.
Indeed, Trump has flattered himself about this meeting. Before abruptly canceling the summit and then restoring it, Trump and his acolytes had pumped it up so much that the president seemed to need it for both ego and domestic politics. Trump voters interviewed at recent rallies cited peace with North Korea, albeit prematurely, as a justification for their continued support. That seemed to give Kim leverage.
Therefore, if he’s clever enough, Kim might be able to out-maneuver Trump in practical reality: a phased reduction in sanctions in exchange for a very gradual phase-out of the nuclear program, an elimination that is never quite completed or an inspection regime that doesn’t penetrate all the mountain facilities hidden and buried in the North. But Trump’s fantasy world would remain, because talks could be protracted, and it would take a long time for the reality to catch up with his propaganda machine’s fiction: Victory, he would crow, as negotiations proceed slowly and keep American voters on a hopeful edge, along which only Trump can lead the way.
Trump and his collaborators in the White House and Congress would hail his iconoclastic approach to foreign relations: stare them down, shout them down, bulldoze them aside, and to hell with the wimpy experts with their obliquely polite diplo-speak. As long as Kim plays along and pretends to be disarming while getting the benefits of reduced sanctions, Trump can claim progress and success right up to his reelection. Yes, reelection. Kim will get his way, if he wants to keep the nukes, by stringing Trump along, and Trump will get his crown as deal-maker, at least in the eyes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
Of course it’s to Trump’s credit that he agreed to talk to Kim without setting preconditions or casting a summit as a big prize that North Korea had to pay for in advance. That straight-laced, uptight diplomatic calculation might be useful in some cases, but it’s not always productive, and it’s often taken by the opposition as humiliating. Further, if the US and North Korea can establish continuing dialogue to avert military miscalculation in that tinderbox of the Korean Peninsula, devastating warfare might be avoided. That would be a huge achievement, and a legitimate feather in Trump’s cap.
 The trouble is, Trump has made the United States untrustworthy. If Trump’s passion for self-puffery sets the two countries on a path to a real “deal” that Kim would observe, bravo. But if Kim is truly smart, he will insist that no agreement is valid without US Senate ratification, so that Trump or the next president could not toss away a solemn international accord like used Kleenex.

May 26, 2018

The NFL's Unpatriotism

By David K. Shipler

            American football is a metaphor. It rewards violence but depends on canny brainpower. Its plays look fairly simple from a distant stadium seat or a television screen, but beneath the raw muscle are intricate tactics and mental tricks, sometimes in the players’ taunts you cannot hear, often in the feints and ploys you cannot perceive. If you could see the quarterback’s eyes faking one way while he’s about to throw the other, or if you could watch every receiver at once and comprehend the dance steps and glances each uses to deceive the defense, you would appreciate more richly the complex game that enthralls so many Americans and earns such fortunes for players and owners.
None of that makes it a very civilized sport, however. A century from now, if human progress were inevitable, history would look back at football with something of the same revulsion now visited on the ancient bloodletting of gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. Not just the obvious physical damage to tendons and limbs, but moreover, the stealthy destruction of brains. Repeated hits to the head, long dismissed by the mercenary National Football League as medically insignificant, are finally acknowledged as causes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy later in life. Symptoms can include impaired thinking, depression, impulsiveness, short-term memory loss, substance abuse, and suicidality.
A study two years ago found that 40 percent of retired NFL players had evidence of traumatic brain injury. Last year, after lawsuits and public humiliation, the NFL finalized a settlement with players that has paid over $431 million to date. (The league even has a website devoted to the terms.) And, as every football fan knows, team owners voted in 2013 to impose a 15-yard penalty and a possible fine for leading with the head, whether on defense or offense. As every football fan also knows, referees are inconsistent in making that call.

May 15, 2018

Middle East Fantasies

By David K. Shipler

            At the end of an interview I did several years ago with Palestinian high school students in Ramallah, the West Bank, the teenagers asked for my opinion about the conflict. I said, in part, that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I thought the Palestinians were right; on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I thought the Israelis were right, and on Sunday I thought they both deserved each other. (Their Palestinian teacher was outraged that I’d consider the Israelis right on any day.)
Now I’d add the United States to that mix, because it’s become a party that’s both right and wrong and deserves all the praise and criticism it’s getting for moving its embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem.
            Logically, yes, a country gets to pick its capital, and Israel chose Jerusalem both in ancient and modern times. As President Trump declared in a videotaped message, “For many years, we have failed to acknowledge the obvious, plain reality that the [Israeli] capital is Jerusalem.” But logic does not rule there. If it did, the clash of Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms, and their overlapping territorial claims, would have been resolved long ago. No, what Trump and his smiling acolytes at the embassy’s opening ceremony do not get is the power of symbols to trigger zealotry in that weary land, where Israel, the Palestinians, and now the United States indulge in fantasies.
            It’s easy to see this by simply asking which image from that event represents reality: the jubilant Israeli and American officials, well-coifed in a clean, safe pageant of platitudes about peace, or the billowing black smoke, teargas, and bloody bodies of Palestinians who were raging toward Israel’s border with Gaza. Their demand? To return to villages that they had never seen, that mostly no longer exist, that had been emptied of their ancestors during Israel’s 1948 war of independence, which Palestinians call “Nakba,” Arabic for catastrophe.
            Neither the embassy ceremony nor the Gaza protest is remotely realistic. Palestinian kids have been indoctrinated to dream angrily of a return after 70 years to their grandparents’ lands inside Israel proper, where the orange groves and vineyards were rarely as lush and idyllic as in their imagination. For both security and political reasons, Israel is not about to permit a largescale return, and that demand by Hamas, which rules Gaza, simply reinforces Israeli fears that Palestinians want the obliteration of the Jewish state.

May 10, 2018

Predicting Iran

By David K. Shipler

            President Trump’s decision to violate the Iran nuclear accord is giving rise to competing forecasts: Iran’s moderates will be discredited, the hardliners will gain sway, the country will resume its rush to develop nuclear weapons and spark a nuclear arms race in the region, Iran’s military actions outside its borders will increase, and the United States will no longer be trusted to keep its word in international agreements. Or, Iran’s economic suffering will worsen, leading to regime change as Trump hopes, and curbing the country’s support of bad actors from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Houthi rebels in Yemen. Or, in yet another possibility, the United States will be isolated, for better or worse, as Europe finally acts in unison to go its own way.
            Most of these scenarios depend on the behavior of Iran, which has become the Middle East’s Number One Nuisance. To paint a picture, it’s worth listing some of the opportunities missed and the new ones that have now arisen.
            Missed Opportunities.
            1. Seeing vividly the divided American views on the nuclear agreement, which had so little support that President Obama could not even submit it to the Senate for ratification, and then hearing Trump’s promise to scuttle it, Iran might have tempered the two activities that generated the most resentment and opposition: its ballistic-missile development program and its strategy of expanding its influence into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, and elsewhere. Instead, the Revolutionary Guard and other hardline factions, which control those cross-border policies, increased arms transfers and moved military assets into Syria in what looks increasingly like a forward deployment threatening Israel.
            2. Iran might have toned down its anti-Israel rhetoric and avoided marching into confrontation with Saudi Arabia, which simply reinforced conservative Americans’ resentment over ending sanctions against Tehran.

March 24, 2018

"Make America Think Again"

--Sign at the March for Our Lives

By David K. Shipler

            Every big march has a personality and a mood. The 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I have a dream,” was the friendliest large crowd I’ve ever been in, with warmth and smiles and easy conversation among strangers—except during Dr. King’s speech, when the hundreds of thousands on the Mall fell quiet under the cadence of his hopeful appeal to the conscience of America.
            The November 1969 demonstration by the New Mobilization Committee against the Vietnam War, mostly grim and peaceful, disintegrated late in the day as militants in the Weather Underground threw rocks, bottles, and paint at the ground-floor windows of the Justice Department, and then at police officers who replied with volleys of teargas and nightsticks.
            The 1995 Million Man March, billed as a demonstration of atonement and renewal by African-American men, was conducted in an air of firm, morality-driven conviction and contemplation as speaker after speaker confessed, apologized, pledged, cajoled, preached, and promised.
            The 2017 Women’s March, the day after Donald Trump’s Inauguration, displayed all the difficult emotions of that moment for those who decried his election: defiance, bitterness, resentment, resolve—but with a tincture of dry wit represented in the hand-made pink pussy hats worn to mock Trump’s boastful claim to a pussy-grabbing habit.
            Today, the March for Our Lives in Washington was different. There was some wit in the signs, to be sure (“Trump Loves NRA Because It’s Easy to Spell”), and some laughter from the cramped crowds of teenagers and younger kids, of teachers and parents and other adults from the graying and limping to the lithe. We weren’t all solemn all the time. Just most of the time. It didn’t take a big push to get us to the edge of angry tears.

March 14, 2018

The Absence of Foreign Policy

By David K. Shipler

            If President Trump doesn’t get us into an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula or elsewhere, his lurching and staggering on the world stage might have the long-term benefit of inducing other countries not to take the United States so seriously. This would look bad from inside the Washington Beltway, where American power to influence the globe is exaggerated, but it could have an upside in certain situations.
For better or worse, the United States has been decisive, as in World War II, when its reluctance to enter the fight allowed Nazi Germany to overwhelm continental Europe, drive Britain back on its heels, and pummel the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Instead of opening a second front, the United States sent aid that included canned beef stew. For decades afterwards, Russians sardonically called canned stew “the Second Front.”
Combined with Soviet forces, the U.S. entry into the war, after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was pivotal to its outcome, as we know, and the postwar order in Europe, particularly the NATO alliance to balance Soviet expansionism, was a creature of American leadership. In addition, before the Trump administration, Washington promoted human rights and pluralistic democracy where they suited American interests, which arguably tempered some authoritarianism.
But in its anti-communist fervor during the Cold War, the U.S. also demonstrated dramatic hypocrisy by meddling in foreign elections, turning a blind eye to rights violations, and even installing rightwing dictatorships. As Lord Acton observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
It could be, then, that President Trump’s current lack of foreign policy, for which he has been so roundly criticized by specialists, is a good thing. It might be better than a hawkish alternative promoted by the hardliner Mike Pompeo as the next secretary of state.

March 1, 2018

The Faces of Children

By David K. Shipler

            You could not look away from the grim faces on the front page of The New York Times this morning. They were students in Parkland, Florida, who returned to classes two weeks after their school became the latest memorial in America’s litany of shootings.
            Their hollow gazes chilled me in a special way, because they wrenched me back to a picture I had taken 45 years ago of Cambodian children about two weeks after their village of Neak Luong had been mistakenly bombed by an American B-52. The huge bombs had marched through town leaving enormous craters like the footprints of some giant, smashing most of the hospital, obliterating fragile houses, killing and maiming parents of children and children of parents.
Unlike most kids I’d met elsewhere in Indochina, these youngsters of Neak Luong did not crowd curiously around an American to grin and laugh into his camera. They stood silent and unsmiling, their faces impassive from torment—just like those Florida kids—as if the reverberations of shellshock had not yet died away. And perhaps never would.
            The eyes of the tallest girl in my picture haunt me still. She is probably about 12 years old. She looks straight into the lens, but vacantly, without guile or passion. Her stare seems neither angry nor fearful but emotionally flat, like a veil across a wound.
            In the center of today’s picture, too, is a Florida girl whose downcast eyes, in shadow, should not ever be forgotten. She looks broken. Her head bends slightly forward; she might be carrying a red flower, just visible between two teenagers in front of her. She seems about to weep—for all of us.

February 16, 2018

Looking For a Political Bell Curve

By David K. Shipler

            Here is a simple illustration of what’s wrong with Congress. The graph below, plotted from an assessment of Senators’ voting records by The New York Times, shows the deep chasm in the moderate middle where bipartisan compromise and true governing can take place. Both Democrats and Republicans are clustered far outside that center, making negotiation on major issues difficult. We have just seen a result of this in the stalemate over immigration.

Chart by David K. Shipler. Data Source: New York Times

            Voters of various stripes will surely look at this and say, well, I’d like even more Democrats to shift to that liberal left, or I’d be pleased to see more Republicans at the far right of the graph. Fine. When we get to the ideal world, count me in the first group. I’d be glad to see a more liberal, or “progressive,” drift. But the country isn’t built that way, and it cannot be led effectively from either end of the spectrum, or with the current barbell-shaped political distribution. We need a traditional bell curve, where the line bulges in the center and tapers off at both extremes.
            Around that central axis there would still be sharp disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over the size and function of government, the regulation of business, the environment, immigration policy, budget priorities for the military versus social benefits, the makeup of the judiciary, and other matters. But more members of Congress clustered near the center would indicate less dogmatism and more flexibility; they might even be willing to listen seriously to the other side’s arguments.

February 11, 2018

Korean Kremlinology

By David K. Shipler

            The camera angle was perfect, and it was surely no accident. Caught in the same frame, diagonally in the row behind an unsmiling Vice President Mike Pence, sat Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at the opening of the Olympics in South Korea. Neither, it seemed, dared to look at the other, exchange words, or shake hands.
            One interpretation is that Mr. Pence wants to stay alive politically, and that Ms. Kim wants to stay alive, period. Although she’s rumored to be a close and trusted adviser to her older brother, he has shown no compunction in terminating high-ranking individuals, including relatives, who present a threat to his power or deviate from the prescribed path. And Mr. Pence has thinly disguised presidential aspirations; the last thing he needs is a picture of himself shaking hands with the avowed enemy.
            It is a peculiar tradition in international relations that showing basic courtesy to your adversary is regarded as a concession, as if a hello or a handshake—not to mention actual conversation—were a grand reward to be conferred only in exchange for some prize from the other side. This kind of thinking has prevented the start of many negotiations where one party or the other demands that certain preconditions be met before talks can begin. Sometimes that works, but often it produces silence and misunderstanding.
            The “messages” sent by military actions or visual gestures are usually brittle and dogmatic, lacking the nuance essential to sophisticated approaches across the gulfs of hostility. Whenever the US suspended bombing North Vietnam during a discreet outreach toward launching peace talks, for example, Hanoi interpreted the cessation as pure propaganda aimed at making a warlike America appear conciliatory. When the outreach failed and bombing resumed, the North was convinced it had been right.
            Similarly, North Korea’s joint appearance with South Korean athletes in these Winter Games has been dismissed by the Trump administration as propaganda, aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington and undermining Washington’s campaign to isolate the North further for its threatening nuclear and missile program. It couldn’t also be that the North Korean leader, Mr. Kim, emboldened militarily, is looking not for domination but for security?
            Watching the VIP section at the Olympic ceremony was like gleaning policy by studying  the lineup of Soviet Politburo members atop the Lenin Mausoleum, and counting the missiles marching past in a parade through Red Square. (Soon, for President Trump’s entertainment, we’ll get to count American missiles rolling along Constitution Avenue.)
As the Korean teams marched together under the neutral flag symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula, Mr. Pence and his wife remained seated, a technique he copied from the pro football players so vilified by President Trump. Too bad Mr. Pence didn’t take a knee.
            How will his defiant gesture be interpreted? As a rebuff to North Korea? As a rebuff to both Koreas? As a statement of opposition to reunification—or to peace on the peninsula? Take your choice. But you can bet that North Korea will see it differently from what the United States may have meant.
            As later histories often reveal, misunderstandings during acute tension can lead to absurd miscalculations that look comical in retrospect—or highly dangerous. Several episodes during the Vietnam War were revealed at a joint 1997 conference in Hanoi of former US and North Vietnamese officials.
            Comparing notes, they discovered what a pivotal mistake Washington had made in reading elaborate meaning into a coincidence more than three decades earlier. On Feb. 7, 1965, several months before US ground troops were deployed to South Vietnam, North Vietnamese forces attacked an American advisers’ compound and airfield at Pleiku, killing eight Americans and wounding numerous others. On that day, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, happened to be in Saigon assessing the military situation for President Lyndon B. Johnson. And on the same day, the Soviet Premier, Aleksei Kosygin, was visiting Hanoi.
It was the first attack directly on Americans, and since it coincided with the Bundy and Kosygin visits, Washington read it as a calculated policy move by Hanoi. In retaliation, the US began bombing North Vietnam.
Americans at the conference asked why Hanoi had made the assault then. Across the table, Lieut Gen. Dang Vu Hiep, a former deputy of the North Vietnamese Army’s political department, then stationed near Pleiku, explained: “This was a spontaneous attack by the local commander,” he said, who had acted under general orders to do it when ready. The assault by 30 commandos had been planned long in advance; the timing was coincidental. “We did not know Bundy was in Saigon. We were just attacking,” said General Hiep. He told me during a recess that Kosygin “was not pleased” but apparently didn’t feel free to say so publicly.
This came as a revelation to Robert McNamara, defense secretary at the time, who had led the way in organizing the 1997 conference. Had he known about the accident of timing, he said, “I think we’d have put less weight on it and put less interpretation on it as indicative of North Vietnam’s aggressiveness.”
Mutual suspicion is a lens through which innocent mistakes can be distorted into assumptions of malice. As one effort to get negotiations going, for example, the American Ambassador to Poland, John Gronouski, was scheduled to meet with the North Vietnamese Ambassador on Dec. 6, 1966 to receive a reply to a proposal for talks. Gronouski waited in the office of the Polish Foreign Minister, Adam Rapacki, but the Vietnamese envoy did not show up. For 30 years this had been interpreted as a rebuff.
But at the conference, a retired Vietnamese diplomat, Nguyen Dinh Phuong, gave another version. He had been dispatched from Hanoi to Warsaw for the meeting, he said. He had arrived on Dec. 3 (a day that bombing was resumed) and waited with his ambassador at the North Vietnamese Embassy on Dec. 6. ''We waited the whole day,'' he said, ''but the US Ambassador did not show up. On the 7th, the US bombed more forcefully in downtown Hanoi. We concluded that the U.S. did not want to have negotiations.''
Today it would be wishful thinking to imagine that North Korea wants negotiations that might lead to a reduction or elimination of its nuclear arsenal, which is clearly regarded as a deterrent against an American attack. But at the brink of war, amid mutual vilification, the chance of miscalculation is high. If there were ever a moment for direct dialogue to reduce the probability of military accident, this would be it. At least South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been invited by Ms. Kim, at the behest of her brother, to visit Pyongyang, where even fruitless talks might ease tensions.
As for the US and North Korea, perhaps secret communications are ongoing, although no such indication could be seen in Mr. Pence’s frosty demeanor in the vicinity of Ms. Kim. Contacts wouldn’t be technically hard to arrange. North Korea has a delegation in New York at the UN, and both countries have embassies in third countries, where their ambassadors or other staff could converse—provided they didn’t get confused about where they were supposed to meet.

February 3, 2018

Spying on Americans

By David K. Shipler

            The truly serious problem behind the controversial memo released by the House Intelligence Oversight Committee is not so much political as it is constitutional. It is the flawed process of secret intelligence warrants that enable government authorities to do end runs around the Fourth Amendment. That broader issue underlies the question of how the FBI got a warrant to eavesdrop on Carter Page, one of President Trump’s campaign aides.
            Now that Republicans have suddenly discovered their keen interest in civil liberties (albeit for political reasons), they might well revisit their unyielding support of the loosened standards for obtaining warrants that they pushed through in a panic right after 9/11. With the acquiescence of Democrats, the Patriot Act—opposed by only one senator, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin—shot holes through the sensible restrictions on monitoring Americans’ communications.
            First, a bit of history. The Framers, reacting to the British use of writs of assistance to search whole towns for contraband in colonial times, wrote the Fourth Amendment to guard against government intrusion into a citizen’s zone of privacy. Although the word “privacy” does not appear in the Constitution, it is heavily implied and is woven into numerous court opinions.
            Significantly, the Bill of Rights assumes that the people possess rights inherently, not that they are given rights by the government. The Fourth Amendment declares: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
            The terms “unreasonable,” “probable cause,” and “particularly” are among the most commonly debated in criminal cases where searches produce evidence that defense attorneys seek to suppress. Did the police officer act reasonably? Did she have probable cause to believe that such evidence of a crime would be found at a specific time and place? Was the search narrowly tailored to focus only on that purported evidence? And so on.

January 29, 2018

The Shifting Threshold of Outrage

By David K. Shipler

            Fifty years ago this week, Americans who had believed their leaders’ optimistic lies were stunned by the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s lightning assault on scores of South Vietnamese towns and cities. An enemy squad even managed to enter the US Embassy compound in Saigon, giving Hanoi and its Vietcong surrogates a propaganda victory—but not the military victory they had sought. Their forces took heavy casualties as the Americans and South Vietnamese pounded them back.
            Furthermore, the expectations of the North Vietnamese commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, were not fulfilled. As he later revealed, he had predicted that the South Vietnamese army would collapse, the civilian population would rise up in rebellion, and the United States would scale back sharply.
            Yet the American public was not struck by the collision between Hanoi’s goals and the results on the ground. Rather, what pushed much of the country to the threshold of disillusionment and outrage was the collision between American officials’ rosy assessments and the North’s capacity to mount countrywide attacks. Just weeks before the Tet Offensive, the US commander, General William Westmoreland, declared boldly, “We have reached an important point, when the end begins to come into view.” Then the disastrous reality came into view—the prospect of a grinding stalemate at best. It was a psychological turning point in the war.
            That threshold of outrage has risen in recent decades; it now takes a higher dose of deception and corruption to generate sufficient disgust to produce change. President Trump’s chronic lying—he uttered some 2,000 blatant falsehoods and misleading claims during his first year in office—cost him nothing during his campaign. Nor did his boast on tape about grabbing women “by the pussy.” His obvious racism—commending some “fine people” who marched with white supremacists in Charlottesville, and preferring immigration from Norway instead of “shithole” countries in Africa—has not crushed his support among Republicans in Congress or his core of voters.

January 12, 2018

Trump's Consistent Bigotry

By David K. Shipler

President Trump might be erratic and unpredictable in many areas of public concern, as when he tweeted his disapproval this week—and then, 90 minutes later, his approval—of renewing the government’s authority to collect Americans’ international communications without warrants. His multiple positions on extending permission for Dreamers to stay in the US have been dizzying, and his oscillation between assailing and extolling China seems to depend on how recently the Chinese leadership has feted and flattered him.
But his contempt for people who are not whites of European origin has been as steady as his obsequious adulation of Vladimir Putin and his rampant deregulation of American industry. These seem to be unshakable pillars of attitude and policy, standing solidly against the swirling, impulsive chaos of his White House. Trump has been a dependable bigot, painting entire racial and ethnic groups with the broad brush of prejudice.
Nobody should be surprised. He has a long history. In 1972, federal investigators sent “testers” into a Brooklyn housing development managed by Trump’s company. After a black woman was told that there were no vacancies, a white woman was given a choice of two apartments. Extensive further evidence led to one of the largest civil-rights lawsuits in history.