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

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.
                                                                                          Photo by Debby Shipler
           High school students from Pennsylvania held up a long white sheet with so many names of dead kids written on it that you couldn’t read them unless you got close. A middle-aged woman stared at the sheet of names, a kind of portable monument as moving as the memorial to the dead in the Vietnam War, and then she turned away, her face wet with tears, and went to one of the boys and wrapped him in a desperate hug.
            She carried no sign and wore no button, but since everyone has a story, hers might have been too painful to put on a placard. Who knows? There were hundreds of thousands of stories on Pennsylvania Avenue, and hundreds of thousands of fears. The faces were the beautiful faces of America—white and black, Asian and Latino, all brought together from urban slums and upscale suburbs by those Parkland, Florida kids who hold the future of our country in their hands and in their hearts.
            So, in a paradox, a march to mourn and to demand became exhilarating. It can happen that tragedy suddenly taps a well of goodness.
Today I was reminded of what followed in Israel, after several hundred Palestinian civilians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila were massacred in cold blood by Israel’s allies, the Lebanese Christian Phalangists, in 1982. Israel’s army controlled the area and did nothing to stop the slaughter. How actively complicit Israeli officers were in allowing the Phalangist militia to enter the camps quickly became a burning question in Israel. In an explosion of conscience, some 400,000 Israelis (nearly 10 percent of the population) rallied in Tel Aviv to demand an official commission of inquiry. I had never witnessed such an uplifting transformation of rage into a soaring call to moral virtue. (The demonstrators got their commission, which fixed “indirect responsibility” for the massacre on the Israeli army.)
Washington today saw the same rising of an elated commitment borne of these young Americans’ faith in the power of the ballot box to expel the negligent, the calloused, the ethically corrupt. Volunteers with clipboards circulated to help voters register. Two young women, separately, held signs announcing that today is their 18th birthday. In this sad time, the next generation is showing us its inspiring faith in the promise of democracy.
Survivors of the Valentine’s Day shooting that took 17 lives in Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been so eloquent, so sensible and passionate, so clear-voiced and practical in their specific proposals for gun regulations that they have awakened something exciting in the country. Emma Gonzales, David Hogg, Sam Zeif, Julia Cordover, Cameron Kasky, Jaclyn Corin, Kyle Kashuv, Ariana Klein, Alfonso Calderon, Lorenzo Prado, Lane Murdock, and others at Douglas and elsewhere across the country come from both sides of the political divide but have found common ground here. Google their names in 10 years and bet that they’ll be making things better in whatever circle of influence they have drawn for themselves. (And bet that college admissions officers, who often give preference to agents of change, are jotting down these names.)
Significantly, the extreme right seems so scared of these kids that they have to treat them with contempt or pretend that they aren’t involved at all. An absurd accusation that Mr. Hogg and others are really “crisis actors” has circulated on the internet, apparently believed by gullible Americans. And the National Rifle Association today went into contortions to discredit the entire sweep of mass marches across the country, saying:
“Today's protests aren't spontaneous. Gun-hating billionaires and Hollywood elites are manipulating and exploiting children as part of their plan to DESTROY the Second Amendment and strip us of our right to defend ourselves and our loved ones.”
            Time for an historical reminder: On April 23, 1951, Barbara Rose Johns, 16, led a walk-out from the segregated R. R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, to protest inferior conditions. The black school had no gym, no cafeteria, and insufficient room for its students. Some classes had to be held in the auditorium, old school buses, and tar paper shacks. Ms. Johns engineered a gathering of the students in the auditorium, and then a student protest that eventually grew into one of the cases in the Supreme Court’s decision, in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down school segregation.
            So, never underestimate kid power. As one youngster’s sign declared today, “You Can’t Put a SILENCER On Our Voices.”

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.

December 19, 2017

The Business Myth

By David K. Shipler

            Somewhere between the reverence for private business and the excoriation of capitalism there must be a middle ground where the virtues of free enterprise are recognized and its menaces are contained. Finding that territory of moderation seems especially difficult today, as President Trump and the Republican-led Congress move to unchain corporations from the taxes and the regulations that protect social justice, consumer interests, worker safety, and the environment. Meanwhile, the incipient revolution against corporate villainy, now led by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, remains alive but marginal.
            So Washington, for the moment at least, has a government of, by, and for the corporate elite, which was hardly enthusiastic about the Trump candidacy. That is the irony of Trump: a rich entrepreneur stirring up resentment toward powerful business, a splashy spendthrift touting himself as the voice of the “forgotten” struggling blue-collar class, which still approves of him after a year of getting nothing except slogans and wishful thinking.
            The wishful thinking relies on an old myth about business, which has two main parts. First, the notion that reduced corporate taxes will liberate cash to flow to workers, in the form of higher salaries and employment rates, has been a matter of debate for decades between conservatives and liberals. Despite the paucity of evidence from the past, conservatives insist that liberating private companies will boost the overall economy by enhancing capital investment. Liberal economists, by contrast, tend to see the gains going to the wealthy stockholders. Companies are expected to increase dividends and buy back shares, which will raise stock prices.

December 13, 2017

Apathy, Alienation, and Low Voter Turnout

By David K. Shipler

            Not to throw too wet a blanket on Democrats’ euphoria in winning a Senate seat in deeply conservative Alabama, but let’s take a moment to reflect on the sad fact that the worthy candidate, Doug Jones, was elected by merely 20.2 percent of the state’s eligible voters—671,151 out of the 3.3 million who could have cast ballots. His unworthy opponent, the accused pedophile, confirmed bigot, and serial violator of the rule of law, Judge Roy Moore, got 19.5 percent of the electorate.
And the turnout was much higher than expected in a special election, a whopping 40.4 percent, versus the 25 percent that Alabama’s secretary of state had predicted. Wow. In this hotly contested race, which mixed morality with theology and ideology, which put control of the Senate in closer balance, and which exposed the tribal politics that afflicts so many Americans, only 6 out of 10 voters stayed home and let others decide. What an achievement for democracy.
The truth is, it is a democracy that we are in danger of losing unless much higher proportions of citizens participate, at the very least by going to the polls. Otherwise, the middle ground is abandoned to the zealous extremists, some of whom will vote away the civil discourse, the tolerance of political and social plurality, and even the legal rights that protect us all.
This is an urgent truth in presidential elections, just as in state and local contests. With the turnout at 59.3 percent in 2016, only 136.7 million cast ballots, out of 230.6 million eligible voters, whether registered or not. So the percentage needed for victory was very low. It took only 27.3 percent of the country’s eligible citizens over age 18 to put Donald Trump in the White House. (Hillary Clinton got 28.6 percent but of course lost the Electoral College.)
Rule by small minorities has been typical, as a look back two decades demonstrates:
1996 – Bill Clinton was elected by 26.3% of all eligible citizens.
2000 – George W. Bush, by 27.3%
2004 – Bush again, by 31.5%
2008 – Barack Obama, by 33.7%
2012 – Obama again, by 30.6%