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

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.  
Once the studies were in and the NFL conceded the harm being done, additional research finding brain damage in high school and college players as well led to predictions that the sport would dry up as parents refused to let their kids go out for football. But the number playing in high school, at 1,112,251 in 2015-16, dropped by only 25,503 the following year. And the number of schools with teams grew by 52, from 14,047 to 14,099. “Football remains the No. 1 participatory sport for boys at the high school level by a large margin,” the National Federation of State High School Associations reported, followed by track and field, then basketball, baseball, and soccer.
As metaphor, football satisfies some yearning for a world whose complexities are eventually resolved in a pageant of brute strength (cleverly applied) in which one side actually wins. No nuanced ambiguities take us into uncertainty. No wispy hopes tease us into imagining that somehow after the clock has run out the apparent loser will emerge victorious. No wishy-washy, feel-good, socially conscious, diplomatic fudging continues indefinitely without solving the problem. But no outright warfare erupts, either. Violence alone does not win games. There are rules. There are standards of conduct, technology on the sidelines, careful thinking, intelligence briefings, and flexibility of tactic. And in the end, posturing and rhetoric aside, you have to perform on the field, in full view, leaving no doubt about whether you have succeeded or failed. This is not necessarily the case in politics or foreign affairs or at the workplace. If you appreciate the very human internal tension between beastly instincts and cerebral calculation, football seems the right combination.
Now, in the professional National Football League, we see all the moneyed team owners adding to the metaphor a bizarre affirmation of the fakery that now prevails in real-life America. Pretending to love their flag (but obviously not the freedom for which it stands), they are constructing a cardboard fa├žade of patriotism by deciding unanimously to fine teams whose players, if on the field, refuse to stand for the national anthem. One wonders if the owners think their fans are all jingoistic pseudo-patriots who adore the bullying of that champion of fantasy, President Trump. He had raged at the players, most of them black, who had “taken a knee” during the anthem to protest police killings of unarmed African-Americans. Indulging his autocratic instincts, Trump has now praised the owners’ decision and suggests that maybe players who stay off the field during the anthem “shouldn’t be in this country.”
NFL fat cats take note: A lot of your fans are citizens with a different patriotic reflex. They recognize your new rule as anti-patriotism, because what Makes American Great Again and Again are its freedoms to speak, to assemble, to seek a redress of grievances. That is what the quarterback Colin Kaepernick was doing when he began to kneel during the anthem, a truly patriotic gesture that has cost him his career so far. No pro team will sign him.
Of course the First Amendment, which preserves these rights, restricts what government can do, and the NFL as a private entity can legally deprive its employees of their speech when they’re on the job. But kneeling is the perfect gesture of respect for the promises that stand behind the symbols of the anthem and the flag. To kneel is to show deference—not to the tune or the lyrics but to the freedoms the song and the flag represent.
When players first began to kneel, I was suddenly taken back to the Soviet Communist period, when on Constitution Day in Moscow, marked annually in December, pro-democracy dissidents led by Andrei Sakharov would gather in Pushkin Square to honor the noble (and empty) promises of freedom that were articulated in the Soviet constitution by standing silently and removing their hats. That’s all they did: no placards, no chants, no verbal demands. Just a gesture of respect for high ideals, unfulfilled. If you bumped up against one of the beefy KGB agents standing about watching, you felt as if you’d connected with a tree trunk. After a short while in this reverent demonstration, the dissidents put their hats back on and went home.
Nothing changed. Will anything change in America?

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.