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

November 21, 2017

The Moral Vacuum in Tribal Politics

By David K. Shipler

            To anyone naïve enough to think that sexual decency should be high on a list of virtues, Donald Trump’s news conference just before last year’s second presidential debate was a puzzling scene. Days after the disclosure of the “Access Hollywood” tape that had caught Trump bragging about his predatory exploits, four women who had been victims of sexual assault gave him their support. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump had said on the tape. “You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. Do anything.” Nevertheless, the four women sat with him behind a table, endorsed him, and assailed the Clintons.
            Juanita Broaddrick claimed to have been raped by Bill Clinton. Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey said he had groped them. Kathy Shelton’s grievance was aimed instead at Hillary Clinton, who had been assigned by the court as defense attorney for a man who had raped Shelton when she was 12. Her resentment was misplaced, since Clinton was plainly fulfilling the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a defendant’s right to counsel.
 Shelton and the others might have been expected to see sexual crimes as transcendent, well above politics. That they clearly did not—that they backed Trump in the face of detailed accusations against him by a dozen women who were brave enough to give their names—was as much a commentary on the state of social morality as Democrats’ impulse had been to wish away the allegations against Bill Clinton.
Rumors and stories about Clinton were in the air before his first election to the presidency, but they lacked the specificity that would have confronted liberals with a hard choice. Although Paula Jones sued Clinton in 1994, two years before his reelection, her accusations didn’t sway many voters. And his sexual liaisons with intern Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office didn’t become public until after the election. Even then, his supporters generally opposed his impeachment by the Republican-led House and were relieved when the Senate failed to convict him.
“Sexual misconduct,” it seems, is outrageous only when committed by a member of your opposing political tribe. When it’s your own guy, the accusations are fabricated, concocted by conspiracy, discredited by the character of the accuser, undermined by the delay in reporting, or just ambiguous enough to be dismissed as a misunderstanding.
It’s not news that in politics, policy outweighs ethics. But there’s something more these days. The passion among many evangelical Christians to stick by Roy Moore, the Alabama candidate for Senate who has been accused by nine women of fondling and groping them when some of them were just 14 or 16, rests in part on his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and transgender rights, which carry more moral weight for the Christian right than his alleged immoral sexual deviance.
But his core support is also driven by the power of political affinity, which runs deeper into the cultural bedrock than mere policy positions can reach. A kind of tribal identity has been created among large segments of American voters who go with their team, right or wrong. In this dynamic, Moore gains something as criticisms of him escalate. Calls by the Congressional Republican leadership for him to step aside have energized the conservative, anti-Washington tribe in Alabama to circle the wagons and stand tall against the onslaught.
The siege mentality has long been promoted by Republicans who have preached the fantasy that Christians are victims in a mostly Christian America, under assault by social liberals.
Among 10 Alabama pastors interviewed by the Boston Globe who have remained firm in their support for Moore, “several said the allegations made them more proud to vote for the former judge,” the paper reported. One minister wondered how much the women were being paid to make the accusations. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelical preacher Billy Graham, decried the hypocrisy of “so many denouncing Roy Moore when they are guilty of doing much worse than what he has been accused of supposedly doing.”
Speaking of hypocrisy, Moore retains the backing of Christian conservatives who wanted Clinton to resign the presidency after his sexual escapades with Lewinsky, the Globe reported. Further, polls by the Public Religion Research Institute found that between 2011 and 2016, the proportion of white evangelical Protestants who thought that an official “who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties” jumped from 30 to 72 percent.
Such discounting of personal transgressions is not usually associated with fervent religious belief, but a good deal of religion is more secular than divine. Trump’s ethical vacuum has played into this phenomenon: He won 80 percent of the white conservative evangelical vote as the theological and moral basis of that brand of Christianity has become narrower, shallower, and more severely political.
Some bright day, perhaps, our society will produce moral leadership and will learn to condemn sexual assault no matter the party affiliation of the perpetrator. “We can’t let women’s dignity ebb and flow with the political tides,” said Lynn Dickinson, a friend who’s a lawyer in Dallas. “Either we have and deserve to be treated with dignity or we don’t.”

November 4, 2017

The Military Myth

By David K. Shipler

            At a rest stop in Vermont recently, I fell into conversation with two men staffing a table set up by a veterans’ organization. One, about my age, had been an officer on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam during the war. So we compared notes. I’d been an officer on a destroyer at the same time, but in much safer places, half a world away in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
            “Thank you for your service,” he said. No need for thanks, I replied. I had cruised to exotic ports, loved being at sea, and benefitted from responsibility placed on me at a young age. “But you put yourself in harm’s way,” said the other guy, who’d been in the army. I shook my head. I was never in harm’s way, I told them. I was in more harm’s way as a journalist later, in a couple of war zones, Vietnam included. And I served my country much more significantly reporting important news than sailing on a ship through peaceful waters.
            But American society has adopted a narrow view of service. At least superficially, in the pageantry that accompanies sporting events and various public expressions of patriotism, the men and women in uniform are celebrated. Rightly so, in many cases. But what about the civilians—providers of humanitarian aid, human rights observers, news correspondents who have also risked, and lost, their lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the mission of assisting victims and informing Americans?
            During the recently broadcast series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, citizens who had sacrificed a good deal to oppose the war emailed among themselves, and sometimes spoke and wrote publicly, in wounded complaint that their contributions to the country had been virtually ignored or, worse, given a negative cast by the filmmakers.

October 15, 2017

The Demolition Expert

By David K. Shipler

            You’ve got to hand it to Donald Trump. He’s gone from construction to destruction while scarcely missing a beat. After a real estate career doing deals to build hotels and resorts, he has not constructed a thing to advance the country since becoming president—not a coherent policy, not a beneficial program, not an international agreement, not even the ill-conceived wall that he promised falsely would be paid for by Mexico.
Instead, he relishes firing people and publicly undermines those who still work for him. He bulldozes the structures of government that protect Americans from dirty air, poisonous water, unsafe workplaces, corporate exploitation, inferior health coverage, and racial discrimination. He halts reform efforts in the criminal justice system. He introduces new toxicity into the country’s divides along political, ethnic, class, and racial lines. Years of progress are being rapidly reversed.
 He has driven wedges into our international alliances, made adversaries of friends, and set out to tear apart painstakingly negotiated agreements that promote trade and curb disastrous global warming. He has threatened to obliterate North Korea over its nuclear weapons, yet he simultaneously strives to torpedo the agreement that has suspended Iran’s rush toward such weapons. In the unlikely event that North Korea ever considers a deal with the US relinquishing its nuclear programs, it would have to doubt America’s trustworthiness, as Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry has said.
For Trump has shown the United States government to be unreliable in its promises abroad and to its own people. It has been erratic and unpredictable in a manner that erodes the rule of law, which requires legal stability and consistency.
Trump’s wrecking ball, which he wields with a self-satisfied smirk whenever he signs an executive order, makes it impossible for health insurers, patients, doctors, and hospitals to navigate with assurance through the complex finances of medical care. Business ventures that trade internationally, American farmers who export to Canada and Mexico, health services that treat women overseas, immigrants who seek an American life, foreign leaders who have depended on the American umbrella of protection and leadership, and myriad others can no longer count on the United States government.
This is deeply unsettling. The disruption reaches far beyond Trump’s intemperate tweets, his vulgar personal clashes, and his incessant lies. Mostly in the name of undoing everything with former President Barack Obama’s name attached, Trump seems indifferent to the harm caused to vulnerable people, from women in Madagascar who can no longer get contraceptives through a non-governmental organization dependent on US funds, to American voters of his who will now find their health premiums skyrocketing because he is merrily cutting off government subsidies. They will surely distrust government even more than they did before, when their alienation led to Trump’s victory.
Fortunately, he does not head a dictatorship, for he would be a cruel and vindictive autocrat if he had his way. He would not only urge that NBC stations’ broadcast licenses be revoked for news stories he dislikes; he would revoke them. He would not only call for an end to tax breaks for the NFL in retaliation for players’ kneeling during the national anthem; he would end them. He would not only denounce the critical media for “fake news” when it told unwelcome truths; he would close them down.

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.

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.