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

August 30, 2017

The Freedom to Hate

By David K. Shipler

            Perhaps alone among established democracies, the United States enshrines in constitutional law the right to preach bigotry. Canada’s Human Rights Commission can levy hefty fines for speech “likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.” Australia’s Racial Hatred Act punishes expression and action likely “to offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate” based on a person’s or group’s race, national, or ethnic origin. 
            Germany in 1985 became the first country to ban Holocaust denial. Further, anyone who “incites hatred against segments of the population . . . or assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population” is subject to five years in prison.
            Nazi symbols, anti-Semitic speech, and Holocaust denial are prohibited in at least 14 other European countries, plus Israel. The Czech Republic also bans the denial of communist crimes.
The constitution of post-apartheid South Africa, while guaranteeing freedom of expression, excludes from that protection “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.” The late Arthur Chaskalson, an author of the constitution and then South Africa’s chief justice, once explained patiently to me that his country’s oppressive racial history required constraints on inflammatory speech.
            Would this be a good idea for the United States? We certainly have a corrosive legacy of racism, now hailed by white supremacists who get a wink and a nod from President Trump. But other countries that have suppressed expressions of bigotry have not eliminated bigotry, which has just been driven underground to fester in darkness without vigorous rebuttal.
Yugoslavia’s communist regime kept an authoritarian lid on historical animosities among Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and others along religious and ethnic lines, but once communism collapsed and the dictatorship dissolved, the lid was taken off, and the hatreds boiled up into Europe’s most vicious, genocidal war since the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The Soviet Union, whose communist propaganda pretended that ethnic distastes and stereotypes didn’t exist, broke up into 15 countries along national and ethnic boundaries. Czechoslovakia, where Czechs and Slovaks harbored underground aversions to each other, divided peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Hungary’s endemic anti-Semitism has risen to the surface. And in Western Europe as well, rightist movements preaching intolerance toward Muslims—and often Jews—have gained political traction.
 The American concept of free speech—an expansive permissiveness shielded by the First Amendment and its robust interpretation by the courts—relies on the stability of the social order and the wisdom of the people. If neither the government nor the society is fragile enough to be shredded by spasms of hatred, and if hateful ideas, when turned into the sunlight, will be cured by the broader public’s rebuttals and denunciations, then we are safe.
If these assumptions are correct, bigotry at the margin poses little risk in the United States. It can be permitted because its resonance is limited. For better or worse, the same can be said of Marxist or socialist preaching on the left; it cannot succeed against the American economic, political, and social order, at least at present. Only when a threat is exaggerated enough to seem real—Japanese-Americans during World War II, for example, and communist influence in the early Cold-War era of McCarthyism—do members of those groups face persecution and prosecution.
The First Amendment is not essential in protecting a consensus, for a consensus doesn’t need protection, but in insulating the unpopular, the extreme, and the hateful from government censorship and prosecution--“not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. declared.
Since the Bill of Rights, beginning with the First Amendment, restricts only what government can do, not what private entities can do, corporations and private universities usually have latitude to punish racist speech, for example, but state-run universities do not. Students on the left who want their public universities to silence rightwing speakers cannot succeed legally. Nor can government agencies censor employees when they are speaking as individuals outside their workplaces, unless they are deemed to be representing the agency.
            Burning through the debate that has followed the frightening march by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, is the question of whether government should ban such demonstrations and the hate speech online and elsewhere that fuels such movements. Considerable rancor has focused on the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the march organizers successfully in federal court when they were told to move their gathering a mile or so from the ostensible target of their demonstration: a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee that was slated for removal. A judge ordered the city to allow them to congregate at the monument.
The episode turned brutally violent. The supremacists and neo-Nazis carried guns, bats, torches, swastika-adorned flags, and placards celebrating their bigotry. They chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” “These streets are our streets!” and “Blood and Soil!” an old Nazi slogan. They fought with anti-fascist counter-protesters, and a white supremacist adopted an ISIS technique by driving a van into a crowd of anti-fascist demonstrators, killing a 32-year-old woman.
            Some ACLU members resigned, and the organization did some soul searching, reaffirming its policy of denying representation to groups that would carry arms or plan violence. But you don’t always know in advance, and the ACLU claims it did not know in this case. In any event, the organization usually takes a purist stand in defending constitutional rights, and is proud of standing up for those anywhere on the political spectrum, including those with whom it acutely disagrees—as it did in supporting the right of Nazis in 1978 to march in the Jewish town of Skokie, Ill.
Laws prohibit violence, of course, and there is no First Amendment right to commit or incite it. And while modern American case law has mostly defined incitement narrowly—it must promote an imminent attack on a specific target—it seems correct for the ACLU to draw that line and stick to representing the right to peaceful expression.
As the First Amendment stands, government cannot usually restrict speech based on its content alone, and cannot set rules favoring one point of view over another. The time and manner of expression can be regulated, but they must be regulated similarly for all. So, a political campaign can be prevented from using loudspeakers in a residential neighborhood at 3 a.m., as long as all campaigns face the same ban.

So, the ACLU is correct in arguing that if the white supremacists were barred from speaking or demonstrating peacefully, the shield of the First Amendment would be pierced for all. Government would gain the power to choose which content could be suppressed. Imagine giving that authority to the Trump administration. 

August 13, 2017

Bombs and Bombast

By David K. Shipler

            President Trump’s threats that the military is “locked and loaded” to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea are likely to be turned around by history as phrases of self-mockery. They will—hopefully—be on the same list of absurdities as “Mission Accomplished,” that huge banner hung on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln as President George W. Bush spoke of victory in Iraq prematurely, in 2003. Or, remember President Lyndon B. Johnson’s swashbuckling call to US troops in Vietnam to “nail the coonskin to the wall?” As Michael Beschloss notes, it came long after LBJ himself, in 1965, had expressed serious doubts in private that the war was winnable.
            Trump’s hawkish generals—his chief of staff, national security advisor, and defense secretary—seem to know what he does not: that war with North Korea is also unwinnable, because even using conventional weapons alone, Pyongyang could kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans in Seoul and elsewhere within range of the North’s well-bunkered artillery. As American military analysts have noted, the North could send troops pouring across the demilitarized zone, and China would be tempted to enter the fighting. A nuclear exchange would be the Armageddon of the atomic age.
            Trump loves making grandiose (empty) promises and flat statements of tough-guy rhetoric. It’s been suggested that he’s still in real-estate mogul mode, figuring that starting a negotiation with a rash demand gets you a favorable compromise in the end. The trouble is, he sounds more like an unhinged Mafia chieftain than a sober United States president. In threatening North Korea’s annihilation, he reinforces the anti-American propaganda that has propelled Pyongyang’s painstaking acquisition of its nuclear capability.
As Jean Lee, a former Associated Press correspondent in Pyongyang writes in TheNew York Times, the North has schooled children to hate America and fear its aggression. So Trump’s rhetoric now plays into the hands of Kim Jong-un, who needs fear of attack and invasion to weld his people into a compliant mass beneath his dictatorship. Perhaps Trump also needs an outside enemy (in addition to ISIS) to shore up his waning support among Americans and distract from the special counsel’s accelerating investigation of the Russia affair.

July 13, 2017

Russia and the US: The End of Evangelism

By David K. Shipler

            Most Americans during the Cold War would probably have been stunned to learn that the Soviet Union, also known by Ronald Reagan as the Evil Empire, saw itself as a highly moral enterprise. It regarded its economic and political systems—centrally-planned socialism and the order brought by one-party rule—as the most beneficial for other countries, and it sought global influence not only to enhance its national security but also to spread its ideas of social justice.
            It goes without saying that the Soviet system of dictatorship and state-owned production was unjust in the extreme, especially for the little guy. But the Russians’ sense of righteousness was as fervent as the Americans’ reverence for free enterprise and pluralistic democracy. So, pursuing their mirror images of what was best for the world, both Moscow and Washington propagated their beliefs abroad with missionary zeal.
            The evangelical streak in Russian foreign policy ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the death of Marxism as a state ideology. True communism, never achieved, withered as a goal at home and abroad. Today, Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems driven only by a non-ideological impulse to protect its borderlands militarily, promote itself economically, and expand its international reach to recover its reputation from the humiliation of decline.
            The United States has also become less ideological in foreign policy, it seems, since President Trump took office. Defense of human rights and the spread of democracy—and even the promotion of capitalism abroad—have taken a back seat to an inchoate campaign of counter-terrorism. To that end, Trump finds no fault with his chums in the authoritarian regimes of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for example, but cites human rights violations in rolling back relations with Cuba.

June 7, 2017

The Unpredictable Wages of War

By David K. Shipler

            On the seventh day, after its dizzying six-day victory 50 years ago this week, Israel turned a corner from a sense of extreme vulnerability to a period of triumphalism. The armies and air forces of the surrounding Arab countries lay in shambles, the Goliath slain by the tiny Jewish state. Moreover, with Israel’s territory greatly expanded into ancient biblical lands, a hybrid of religion and nationalism found fertile ground. The movement then grew, even more than its adherents had expected, until it gained lasting power to shape the map for the next half century or more. 
            And that has saddled Israel with a moral and political burden. The euphoric victory in the Six-Day War brought a heady sense of Jewish self-reliance after a long history of persecution. But by holding onto the West Bank of the Jordan River, where Palestinian Arab residents have minimal say in how they are governed, Israel has undermined its democratic values and exposed itself to international condemnation.
To withdraw, however, would incur security risks and meet resistance from the religio-nationalist movement, which has gradually moved from the political margins into the cabinet. The movement calls the West Bank by its biblical names Judaea and Samaria, and regards it as the Jewish birthright, which Genesis says God gave to Abraham and his seed. The territory has been widely settled by religious Jews (along with secular Jews drawn there by housing subsidies). Many would have to be uprooted if a Palestinian state were to be created there under a peace agreement.
The outcome of a war, which seems obvious at the moment, can look simplistic in hindsight. Nothing of this conundrum was foreseen in June of 1967. Nor in 1973, when Israel nearly lost the Yom Kippur War, was it apparent that Anwar Sadat of Egypt may have felt that his near victory had burnished his warmaking credentials enough to then offer peace; he made a dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and followed with an Egyptian-Israeli treaty. Similarly, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which succeeded in driving the Palestine Liberation Organization out of the country, exposed Israeli soldiers to close-in attacks that eroded Israel’s image in the Arab world as a formidable juggernaut.

June 2, 2017

Trump's Embrace of Victimhood

By David K. Shipler

            One of the most significant passages in President Trump’s speech withdrawing from the Paris climate accord was this: “At what point does America get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us as a country? We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore.”
            Laughing? If he actually believes that, then the lines provide a quick insight into one origin of his confrontational impulses. Being laughed at is to be humiliated, and a readiness to think that it is happening when it is not is a hallmark of an inferiority complex and an imagined sense of victimhood.
We have heard this before, as in Trump’s graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy: “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately—especially by the media.  No politician in history—and I say this with great surety—has been treated worse or more unfairly.” Suffice it to say that Trump’s grasp of history is a touch shaky.
Victimhood is a major theme of the Trump Doctrine, and it’s what won him a good share of voters last November—working-class Americans who were, in fact, victims of an economy that had left them behind. In Trump’s rhetoric, however, the country as a whole shares their victimhood, as a victim of raping immigrants, rampaging terrorists, job-stealing trade deals, and the like. Now, to top it off, the world has been laughing at us.

May 24, 2017

The Ahistorical Donald Trump

By David K. Shipler

            There is an intriguing quality about President Trump, one that makes him a laughing stock at one moment, a loose cannon the next, and a breath of fresh air to many of his supporters. He is completely untethered to history—to the history of his own country, to the histories of other countries he deals with, to the history of carefully constructed US policy, and even to the history of his own pronouncements.
            He has no compunction about contradicting himself, as he has in recent days about Islam, and he seems content to address a problem as if it were a blank slate without a long background of messy complications. Unburdened by the expertise of scholarship or diplomacy—which he obviously didn’t tap for his Mideast trip—his statements to Sunni Arab leaders in Riyadh and to Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Tel Aviv and Bethlehem sound simplistic, devoid of all the hand-wringing doubts that specialists in the region would include.
That might be a good thing if it meant cutting past the burdensome histories that weigh down the region. You might call that creative naïveté. But it’s hard to see much prospect in Trump’s bumper-sticker approaches. Both sides want peace, let’s do a deal. All sides want to defeat terrorism, let’s blame Iran and ready our billions in American arms. Let’s give Arab despots the green light to suppress their domestic oppositions in the name of fighting terrorism. Let’s conveniently forget that the Saudi hosts developed Wahhabism from which al-Qaeda’s ideology flourished. Let’s not analyze the endemic, local wellsprings of radicalism but rather—as the writer Robin Wright has noted in criticism—portray it as some alien invasion that can be expelled “out of this earth,” as Trump urged the Muslim leaders gathered in Riyadh.

May 11, 2017

Politicizing the FBI

By  David K. Shipler

            The FBI has never been entirely insulated from politics, especially during the long tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, who in his 48 years as director (1924-72) compiled compromising dossiers on government officials and private Americans that gave him enormous leverage. His agency tried to provoke Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide by threatening to publicize the civil rights leader’s womanizing. It sent phony letters to wives of Black Panthers, purporting to be from their mistresses. It conducted surveillance of labor leaders, members of Congress, and at least one Supreme Court justice, funneling information to presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson. (During the 1964 presidential campaign, LBJ had the FBI report on the staff of his opponent, Barry Goldwater.)
            The road back to those days would be long and difficult, even with a President Trump who lacks ethical and constitutional brakes. But it’s possible, and Trump’s next moves will be telling. The first question is whom he’ll nominate to replace James Comey, fired just days after Comey requested more assets for the FBI’s investigation of Russian involvement in Trump’s campaign. The second question is whether enough Senate Republicans will demand that the new director be unassailably independent.
Because, make no mistake: Trump wants to swing his weight around as decisively as possible, and no more dramatically than in security and law enforcement. This is not only about covering up a Russia connection; it is to set the stage for draconian measures against Muslims after the next domestic terrorist attack, to emasculate investigations into police brutality, and to turn the power of the FBI against political dissent. Comey would probably have stood in the way. As bumbling as he was in his public disclosures about the Clinton emails, he was also known as a defender of the rule of law.
The FBI has a sordid history of hunting for phantom communists, keeping loyalty files on hundreds of thousands of Americans, wiretapping without warrants, and infiltrating and disrupting antiwar and civil rights groups—especially under what the bureau called COINTELPRO during the Cold War. Only in the 1970s, after the Church committee exposed the broad swath of wrongdoing, were protections imposed. These included restricting the FBI director to a 10-year term to preclude another Hoover phenomenon. But the position has no job security, obviously, since the president may fire at will.

April 30, 2017

Foreign Policy: The Magnetism of the Center

By David K. Shipler

            The forces of international affairs usually drive US presidents toward the political center. Wherever they may begin, on the left or the right, presidents tend to feel pulled toward a middle ground, a place of more moderation and hesitation than they might prefer. Confronted by the complexity of crisis and the pragmatic limitations of power, most—not all—end up pursuing centrist policies. These bear marked resemblance to those of their predecessors and successors.
            A question now is whether this happens to President Trump. He has staffed his key foreign affairs positions with relatively level heads whose pronouncements are more sober than his own. They often contradict Trump’s dogmatic, threatening tweets and the absolutist, sweeping pledges from his campaign. Trump himself careens from the absurd, scary, and impractical to a more reasonable zone of compromise. Where he will end up on a given issue is highly unpredictable and therefore unsettling across the globe. But his inconsistency also raises intermittent hopes that realities are penetrating policymaking.
            A president has more authority in foreign policy than in domestic affairs, since he commands both military force and diplomacy, and can move more quickly than Congress ever does in picking over budget provisions on the tax code, health care, environmental issues, the social safety net, and other government programs to benefit Americans. In that domestic arena, the center has no apparent magnetism for Trump. Despite the difficulties he faces with the Republican-controlled Congress on health care, for example, he is getting win after win for corporations over individuals, and might do so on his tax proposals. Whatever happens in Congress, his regulatory agencies are in the hands of extreme radicals of the right, whom he has installed to dismantle decades of progress.
 So if Trump begins to look moderate, and beguiles the American public to see him as such, it will be in the international arena, not the domestic.

April 20, 2017

An Encounter with Bill O’Reilly’s Method

By David K. Shipler

            In 2004, with the publication of my book The Working Poor: Invisible in America, I was contacted by producers for the O’Reilly Factor about coming on the show to discuss poverty. First, though, the producers wanted to track down a man who’d made only a cameo appearance in my book, Kevin Fields. He had been buffeted by both his own mistakes and a society that lined up against him as he made assiduous efforts to pull himself into full employment and self-sufficiency. O’Reilly’s producers wanted to get him on the show with me.
            To no good purpose, I was sure. O’Reilly didn’t admire the poor; he stereotyped them. He would make mincemeat of Kevin. So while I tried to locate him, I thought I’d probably warn him what might be coming and perhaps advise him against appearing. But I couldn’t find him. I’d met him through his girlfriend, who had moved and disappeared from public records. There was no listing for him.
This I reported to the producers, but O’Reilly wouldn’t let them give up. So they contacted the penitentiary where Fields had spent two years for assault (with a baseball bat, he had told me, against five guys threatening him and his girlfriend) and got an address. The producers cleverly refrained from telling me that they’d found him, that they’d then interviewed him by phone, and that—while he wouldn’t be on the show—O'Reilly would present distorted facts about him to fit Fields into the conservative image of the immoral, undeserving poor.
I’d mentioned in the book that Fields, trained in prison as a butcher, hadn’t been able to get a job as one and had done mostly landscaping. But O’Reilly was determined to portray him as a lazy, self-indulgent, sex-crazed slacker.

April 9, 2017

Putin's Wrong Bet

By David K. Shipler

            If Vladimir Putin actually preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, he just drew his first bad hand. As (not so) humbly predicted in this journal during the campaign, Clinton would have been a methodical, predictable commander-in-chief who would have acted in Syria and elsewhere within a strong diplomatic and military context, not impulsively based on horrendous photographs of gassed children. That was good enough reason to stir Trump’s latent humanitarian impulses, but a single missile strike without solid preparation and well considered follow-up is unlikely to send what press secretary Sean Spicer called “a very strong signal.” Messages sent with missiles and bombs are rarely received as intended.
Clinton would surely have done what Trump didn’t bother to do: She would have been on the phone with Putin after Syria’s chemical weapons strike. She would have talked with Putin before retaliating. She would have surrounded herself with seasoned foreign-policy professionals who would have been working closely with Moscow, even in tough and hard-headed fashion, to fashion a joint approach to ending the Syrian carnage. She would not have led Putin to fantasize that he had a president in Washington that he could twist around his little finger.
This is a speculative scenario, to be sure. But as both Secretary of State and presidential candidate, Clinton displayed a clear-eyed realpolitik—willing to face down Putin but work with him on the countries’ overlapping interests, especially on counter-terrorism. While more hawkish than President Obama, she showed no inclination to go off on half-cocked military adventures isolated from any coherent strategy.