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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

August
17
Thursday

“We still have hope because we have so many young people who are prepared to sacrifice their freedom to fight for democracy for our society.”

Those were the words of Joshua Wong, one of three influential pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong taken to prison by Chinese authorities Thursday.

Freedom always matters. It is one of humanity’s noblest goals. But it can often matter more when its costs are made plain. For Mr. Wong, the demand for political freedom will cost him six months in prison and a chance to run for office for five years.

Yet by freedom’s peculiar math, Wong almost certainly won something Thursday, too. History shows that the highest expression of liberty has often been one of sacrifice – actions that amplify power of freedom through the purity of a radical selflessness.

Beijing may have imprisoned a young man, but it also unleashed an ideal. “If anything is to galvanize the international community,” one human rights activist tells The Guardian, “then it is the sentencing of three young men who have committed no crime apart from a political crime.”

We are monitoring the apparent terror attack in Barcelona Thursday. For now, please check CSMonitor.com for details.

Here are our five stories for today: 

1. Business backs away: what that means for Trump, and business

Big companies are a lagging barometer for the nation's moral atmosphere. Mostly, they want to sell stuff and stay out of politics. That's what makes many CEOs' increasingly public break from the Trump administration unusual. 

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadFor many chief executives it’s uncomfortable and even risky to take a public stand on nonbusiness issues. But increasingly America’s CEOs have been distancing themselves from President Trump. First came some opposition to the president’s ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries. Then some objected to his pullout from the Paris agreement on climate change. This week a trickle of corporate discontent has become a gusher, as two White House advisory councils were effectively disbanded because of CEO withdrawals over Mr. Trump’s fumbled opportunities to denounce the white supremacists whose rally turned violent in Virginia last weekend. Often the risk for CEOs is that taking a public stand might alienate business customers. In this case, many faced public criticism if they stayed on advisory boards and did not speak out. Another likely factor behind the CEO revolt: Policy missteps by the young administration have dampened corporate hopes for what Trump can deliver for them on issues like tax reform. The bottom line, for now, is a president who’s growing more isolated from private-sector leaders.

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1. Business backs away: what that means for Trump, and business

Not since the 1930s, when prominent business heads publicly broke with Franklin Roosevelt, has a US president seen such a revolt by leading business executives.

Only this time, like Alice down the rabbit hole, everything is topsy-turvy.

Then, the heads of General Motors, General Mills, and others organized to try to defeat a liberal president because of his policies.

Today, a string of business leaders are upbraiding a conservative president because of his character, specifically his fumbled attempts at denouncing neo-Nazis and white supremacists holding a rally turned violent in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.

In 1936, Roosevelt seized the moral high ground, saying he was battling “the forces of selfishness” and went on to a landslide election victory.

Now, it appears it’s the CEOs who have the high ground. While President Trump waited two days before specifically denouncing the ideologies of white supremacists, the KKK, and others, then seemed to undercut that denunciation in a subsequent press conference, executives made clear their opposition to hate groups and quit two White House advisory boards in droves –a rare and stinging rebuke from the business community to a sitting president.

Politically, the move further isolates Mr. Trump at a time when he has few legislative victories and an increasingly restive Congress. The situation also pushes CEOs into an unfamiliar – and, for many, an uncomfortable – position of taking high-profile stands on hot-button issues.

Such a public rebuke of a sitting president “is quite rare,” says David Farber, a history professor at the University of Kansas and author of “The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism.” “Even during the Vietnam war, during the times of Nixon and the controversies of the 1960s and early ’70s, leading business people did their best to pretty much stay out of politics.”

Instead of a new trend of CEO outspokenness, it’s likely that this episode represents a unique moment when CEOs felt compelled to speak out.

A usually cautious lot

Typically, companies don’t take stances on political issues because they don’t want to alienate customers. They will lobby when their business is affected and occasionally criticize a president over a specific issue: Think insurance companies taking on Presidents Bill Clinton and later Barack Obama over health care. But CEOs tread carefully because a president wields enormous power and they don’t want a disagreement in one area to shut off possibilities of White House collaboration on other issues.

One thing that’s different in this case: Corporate leaders may feel they risk alienating customers if they don’t speak out.

The last time there was such a public break came in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression, when General Motors’ Alfred Sloan and other corporate leaders broke with FDR’s then-radical programs for massive government intervention in the economy.

That corporate opposition was far more serious than today’s, professor Farber says, involving a well-funded effort to defeat Roosevelt in the 1936 elections. By contrast, corporate America today supports key parts of Trump’s agenda, especially tax reform and the push to reduce government regulation.

Early clashes with Trump

It was other White House policies, supported by a Trump voter base that includes white nationalists, that started the trickle of CEO discontent. In January, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, and many others condemned Trump’s ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries. In June, Tesla’s Elon Musk and Disney's Bob Iger quit the president’s strategic policy forum after he announced plans to pull America out of a UN climate-change accord.

Into the spring and summer, CEO criticism of Trump shifted, especially after the White House’s very public failure to push health-care reform through the Senate. Could the president get anything done? In May, billionaire investor Peter Thiel, one of Trump’s few backers in Silicon Valley, reportedly called the administration “incompetent.”

Last month, that frustration boiled over in public. “It’s almost an embarrassment being an American citizen traveling around the world,” Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, told investment analysts in a conference call to discuss quarterly earnings. “At one point we all have to get our act together or we won’t do what we’re supposed to do for the average Americans.”

The banker quickly walked back even that oblique criticism of the president. But after this week’s fumbles over condemning racism, Mr. Dimon took the gloves off.

“I strongly disagree with President Trump’s reaction to the events that took place in Charlottesville over the past several days,” he wrote in a memo to employees Wednesday. “There is no room for equivocation here: the evil on display by these perpetrators of hate should be condemned and has no place in a country that draws strength from our diversity and humanity.”

Diminishing expectations?

CEOs’ criticism of the administration as ineffective is worrying enough. A president who can’t show results loses allies quickly.

“Just like Republican senators have no fear of criticizing the president, so corporate America has made the judgment that this guy is not going to deliver what they want,” says Elaine Kamarck, founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution.

The business community is by no means monolithic, so support for Trump varies by industry, sometimes by company. Still, his standing among CEOs as well as other influencers seems to be dropping. In February, 76 percent of executives said the new administration would help their businesses, according to a JPMorgan Chase survey. In June, a survey at the Yale CEO Summit (which included government officials and academics) found that half the participants gave the administration an "F."

Even his tweet attacks are losing their sting, at least on Wall Street. In December, when the president-elect criticized the costs of F-35 jet fighters, Lockheed Martin stock dropped more than 5 percent. On Wednesday, when Trump attacked Amazon for “doing great damage” to tax paying retailers, its stock fell 0.9 percent before fully recovering three hours later and then following the Nasdaq index.

Trump’s increasing political isolation has been magnified by his inability to bring the nation together after the tragedy in Charlottesville. At the moment, that leadership vacuum is being filled partly by CEOs.

A handful of executives quit his manufacturing advisory board after President Trump waited two days before specifically condemning the ideologies of white supremacists, the KKK, and neo-Nazis. A day later, after a press conference in which he seemed to defend some of the white nationalists, business leaders had had enough.

The chief executives on the two White House advisory boards held conference calls, reportedly deciding themselves to disband the Trump councils, a stunning reproach.

Constraints on CEO speech

Taking such high-profile positions on nonbusiness issues is an uncomfortable position for many CEOs. They want to avoid controversy, but the president’s comments were so out-of the-mainstream that taking a stand against them offered no downside.

“This was a no-brainer,” says Yvan Allaire, executive chair of the Institute for Governance in Montreal. But he cautions that this does not signal a new era of corporate outspokenness, because CEOs can’t say anything that would hurt their company’s value. Shareholders and hedge funds would be quick to punish the stock.

“CEOs are as moral a group of people as any other,” he says. “But their ability to take moral stands is constrained.”

Presidents can rebound, scholars stress – whether that means winning reelection or simply regaining some political traction. Ronald Reagan overcame a slow start and a deep recession to win reelection by a landslide, Farber points out. Despite deep opposition to his Vietnam War policies, Richard Nixon also was reelected overwhelmingly, famously appealing to the “silent majority.”

For Trump, a path toward regaining corporate support is to begin delivering on the campaign promises that attracted business leaders in the first place, notably tax reform.

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2. In Venezuela, the remaking of an opposition movement

Venezuelans face an unpalatable question: When do elections become such a sham that there's no point voting? As President Nicolás Maduro dismantles democracy, the rapidly growing opposition is considering the appropriate way to respond. 

Mark
Antigovernment demonstrators wave a Venezuelan flag during a protest against President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Aug. 12.
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Ariana Cubillos/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAs July 30 drew near in Venezuela – the day of President Nicolás Maduro’s special election, to create a new, all-powerful assembly – opposition leader Freddy Guevara had a warning for other Maduro opponents. “What comes after … will not be easy for us,” he said. He was right. This week, the opposition faced a first, and fundamental, test: whether to field candidates for long-delayed gubernatorial elections, now scheduled for October. Some fear that participation will validate an increasingly undemocratic government. But keeping out backfired in 2005, when the opposition protested parliamentary elections under then-President Hugo Chávez: His supporters easily won the majority of the National Assembly, and his Bolivarian Revolution was entrenched. That history lesson has been hanging over politicians again this week, as they debated how best to bring about change in a government where the rules of the game are constantly changing. In the end, the largest parties decided to run. Sitting out “serves only to hand power” to the ruling party, says Julia Buxton, a Venezuela expert at the Central European University in Budapest.

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2. In Venezuela, the remaking of an opposition movement

Since April, Venezuela’s opposition coalition seemed to be gaining the kind of support and momentum it was long criticized for lacking. Its calls for peaceful protests and boycotts were met by a broad, consistent turnout, and an unofficial referendum it organized in July led more than 7 million Venezuelans at home and abroad to condemn the increasingly authoritarian moves of President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

The coalition was making powerful promises, like plans to set up a parallel government if President Maduro moved forward with a July 30th vote to create a Constituent Assembly.

“We are not backing down because our problem isn’t the Constituent Assembly, it’s the dictatorship,” said Freddy Guevara, a top opposition politician in the National Assembly, in the lead-up to the vote. “What comes after…will not be easy for us.”

Mr. Guevara was right. Since representatives were elected to the Constitutional Assembly – a legislative superbody with powers to rewrite the Constitution and override institutions like the opposition-controlled National Assembly – the opposition’s momentum screeched to a halt. Street protests shrank and the opposition coalition faced a decision that both confused and frustrated citizens desperately seeking change: whether or not to participate in upcoming gubernatorial elections.

For some, participating in the elections was an implicit validation of a government bordering on dictatorship. For others, not participating spelled the very same thing, since it would rule out any chance of creating change through formal channels. And those abstract questions of how to challenge an increasingly powerful ruling party had a concrete deadline: Candidates had to sign up this week to run in October’s race – delayed since last December.

In the end, the largest parties within the opposition coalition decided to participate. But it raises questions about how best to pressure a government into negotiations or leadership change in an environment where the rules of the game are constantly changing. And their choice has left a powerful showing of public pressure via street protests in limbo. While the opposition seems to be making a bet on the possibility of peaceful political change, past missteps and growing national unrest are hanging over the decision. 

“Not participating in elections, as the opposition has done on previous occasions, serves only to hand power” to the ruling party, says Julia Buxton, a Venezuela expert at the Central European University.

Sitting the vote out wouldn’t provide The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), as the opposition coalition is known, “with any viable platform to push back on the government other than through street protests – which to date, have had minimal impact despite the death toll” of more than 100 people, she says.

History lessons

The opposition’s decision to participate in elections echoes back to 2005: the year the opposition decided to protest the parliamentary election, accusing then-President Hugo Chávez of moving the country toward dictatorship.

The boycott didn’t draw the hoped-for international backing, and supporters of Chávez easily won the majority of the National Assembly. As a result, Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution was entrenched, with sympathetic state appointments and legislation key to Chávez’s social project rubber-stamped by parliament.

In the years that followed, the opposition seemed to take that 2005 lesson to heart, throwing themselves into elections, from the near-miss by Henrique Capriles in his presidential bid against Maduro in 2013 to the opposition’s 2015 parliamentary victory. But when efforts to launch a recall referendum against Maduro last year were rejected, and the gubernatorial elections appeared to be perpetually delayed, the coalition shifted tack, moving toward calls for pressure on the government from the streets via large-scale protests.

“It’s our duty to participate,” said opposition party leader Andres Velasquez last week at a press conference, referring to the upcoming elections. “By not doing so, we would be validating the dictatorship,” he argued.

Despite the opposition’s rough experience boycotting elections in the past, “there are plenty of people who aren’t persuaded” that participating in the elections is the correct choice, says Elsa Cardozo, a political analyst in Caracas. Amid severe shortages, “It’s not easy to understand for someone who is hungry or looking for meds or working like crazy that running a campaign” is going to change the immediate hardships in Venezuela, she says. “And the opposition hasn’t done a great job of convincing people who risked their lives protesting that it’s the correct decision.”

There are also members of MUD who have argued against the election route. “It is inconceivable that democratic Venezuelan forces are contemplating a regional election process without removing the dictatorship from power,” opposition politician María Corina Machado said earlier this month. 

The opposition’s inability to convince supporters or those who no longer stand with the government goes to the heart of the coalition’s challenges, says Dr. Buxton.

“What is happening in Venezuela is complex and unique, and this in turn shapes the options and constraints facing the opposition,” she says. “The opposition has had a very comfortable and relatively easy ride with the international media and it has had access to foreign governments and influential external actors.

“What it has not been able to do is build and consolidate popular support at home,” she adds. “Despite the catastrophic situation in the domestic economy and evident disenchantment with Maduro, the opposition are still not widely popular.”

‘A visible opportunity’

Some see the opposition’s decision to participate in elections as a risky bet. “Not only are they going to be trying to participate in a process where the rules of the game are constantly changed [by the government], but they’ve lost credibility with the people,” says Carlos Luna, director of the school for political studies at the Central University of Venezuela. “No one negotiates if they have the power to maintain control, and the pressure from the streets and the international attention that was drawing are needed to [create] change.”

Already, the government has disqualified MUD candidates in seven states from participating in the October vote, five of which had landslide opposition victories in 2015 elections. The government has vowed to ban any opposition candidate that played a part in calling for protests over the past four months, and has called for a tribunal-style truth commission. Two opposition politicians were taken from their homes earlier this month and put in prison, sending a chilling message to candidates running for office.

“If you think, embittered citizens sitting at home, that you are now going to go to write yourself in after you made calls to set Venezuela on fire and traveled the world calling for a Venezuelan invasion, you’re mistaken,” top government party official Diosdado Cabello said on television this month, alluding to frequent accusations made by ruling-party members that the opposition is working with foreign powers to overthrow the government and wreck the economy.

But the opposition needs to look beyond the obstacles thrown in their path by the government, says Dr. Cardozo.

“This moment is a visible opportunity to unify the opposition’s message and amplify its reach” to parts of Venezuelan society that haven’t traditionally supported it, like former Chavistas unhappy with the Maduro administration, she says.

“If they don’t take advantage of [ex-government supporters] through electoral channels, then what else is there?”

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3. Protests: Social media and the crowdsourcing of justice

Vigilante justice does not have the best track record when it comes to actually being just. In an extreme case like the Charlottesville protests, “outing” white supremacists online can feel morally right, but some experts worry where it might lead.

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadIn the wake of the events over the weekend in Charlottesville, Va., a widespread online campaign has been putting names to the faces of participants in an effort to publicly shame them for their displays of white supremacy. Some critics label the approach as little more than mistake-prone mob vigilantism energized by social media. The current campaign has repeated the mistakes of previous public shamings – including missed context and misidentifications – and raised additional concerns that this campaign, as well-intentioned as it may be, could only harden the views of some of the individuals it is targeting. “Historically every society sanctions people who violate the boundaries of what’s normal and acceptable,” says Alice Marwick, an assistant professor of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This is just the latest form of that shaming.” Up for discussion is the moral acceptability of such action in this particular case, and of public shaming in general. “While I think in this instance it’s perfectly morally defensible,” says Tom Spiggle, a former assistant US attorney general, “we’ll have to see what the next iteration is.”

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3. Protests: Social media and the crowdsourcing of justice

When hundreds of white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend in their largest public appearance in decades, it put faces to ideologies that have become increasingly high-profile over the past year.

Names are now being put to those faces. In response to the rally – which descended into violence in clashes with counter-protesters that left 19 injured and one counter-protester, Heather Heyer, dead – various online crowdsourced campaigns have been trying to publicly shame and punish individual protesters.

Some observers have long-criticized such online shaming campaigns as little more than mistake-prone mob vigilantism energized by social media. The Charlottesville campaign has not only repeated the mistakes of previous public shamings – including missed context and misidentifications – but it has raised additional concerns that this campaign, as well-intentioned as it may be, could only harden the views of some of the individuals it is targeting.

“Historically every society sanctions people who violate the boundaries of what’s normal and acceptable,” says Alice Marwick, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill.  “This is just the latest form of that shaming.”

“These are very potent tools, and they’re being used for an enormous variety of social violations,” adds Dr. Marwick, who researches social media and society. “For neo-Nazis, many would agree it’s socially unacceptable behavior. That’s quite different from shaming a woman wearing yoga pants.” 

Indeed, online public shaming has ranged from the benign (like Facebook groups shaming people for bad parking jobs), to the predatory. For example “doxxing” –  when a target’s personal information, like their home address and phone number, is made public – can lead to direct threats to the lives of targets and their families. Gamergate activists, for example, doxxed and threatened female video game critics.

Immediate consequences

The post-Charlottesville campaign does not seem to have reached that extreme. But there have been consequences for some self-described alt-right protesters – and for some people who weren’t even at the rally last weekend.

Soon after the dust settled in Charlottesville, Twitter user @YesYoureRacist began posting pictures of alt-right protesters and crowd-sourcing other users to find out their names and workplaces or universities. His was one of many efforts to identify and publicly shame protesters.

-       Peter Cvjetanovic, a University of Nevada, Reno, student, was one of those identified.

-       Cole White, another protester, resigned from his job at a Berkeley, Calif., hot dog restaurant after being identified.

-       Peter Tefft, of Fargo, N.D., was repudiated by his family after being spotted giving television interviews at the rally.

These campaigns have also highlighted the risks of an online manhunt conducted by amateurs with itchy Twitter fingers. Most notably, a University of Arkansas assistant professor named Kyle Quinn was mistakenly identified as having been one of the torch-bearing protesters. He was flooded with vulgar messages on social media and accused of racism, and his home address was posted on social networks before the mistake was discovered, the New York Times reported. @YesYoureRacist also apologized for mistakenly placing Joey Salads, a YouTube star, at the rally. The Twitter user posted an old photo of Mr. Salads wearing a swastika armband, a photo that had been from a different event.

'Doxxing' seen as justified post-Charlottesville

Doxxing has been used by both the right and the left. While Gamergate trolls left some feminists fearing for their lives, some progressives have criticized public shaming from the left, including the social media hounding of Rachel Dolezal, the civil rights activist who had faked being African-American.

“The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people,” wrote Jon Ronson, author of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” in the Guardian. “We are now turning it into a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.”

“Because this is something that can be used by every side, whether it’s justified is going to depend on your political position,” adds Marwick. “People on the far-right frequently target feminists, supporters of Black Lives Matter, and claim that they’re terrorists and are stifling free speech.”

The Charlottesville campaign has yet to reach that level of vitriol. Social media users have even stressed not posting sensitive personal information. Most experts who spoke with The Monitor think the campaign has been morally justifiable so far.

“I think there’s value in naming those people,” says Jen Golbeck, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, College Park. “I don’t think it carries the threat that someone is going to come to your house and hurt you or your kids.” 

Furthermore, naming and shaming the protesters may be as much a response to the past 12 months – which have seen the self-described alt-right become increasingly outspoken, fueled in part by perceived support from the White House – as to Charlottesville specifically. “After half a century,” the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote on the cover of its 2017 Intelligence Report, “the radical right enters the mainstream.”

“People feel kind of powerless” against the rise of the alt-right, says Dr. Golbeck, and identifying individual members can “have an impact and … get in the way of this group of neo-Nazis and white supremacists becoming more successful.”

“What social shaming shows is people feel very angry about the increasing social acceptability and normalization of these positions,” adds UNC's Marwick, “and social shaming becomes a way for people to fight back against that.” 

The campaign could backfire

Whether identifying its adherents is striking a blow against the self-described alt-right is an open question, however.

George Hawley, a political science professor at the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa and author of the upcoming book “Making Sense of the Alt-Right,” notes that the doxxing of white supremacists began around the turn of the year, with some of the movement's once-incognito leaders – including “Mike Enoch” (actual name Mike Peinovich) and “Millennial Woes” (real name Colin Robertson) – becoming household names.

“The result wasn’t a decrease in alt-right activity,” says Dr. Hawley.

The same may be true for the Charlottesville protesters, Hawley believes, and being publicly named could even cement their alt-right ideologies.

“Once someone is outed they don’t really have anything to lose,” he says. “So one thing that might result from doxxing is that someone who might have been engaged in far-right activism as an occasional hobby or dalliance may turn to be more aggressively involved, be more open, and create more content.” 

As doxxing efforts have ramped up against the alt right “this intermediate category seems to be shrinking,” he continues. “People are deciding to either be totally upfront or stay 100 percent anonymous. What I don’t know is what direction more people are going towards.”

What’s more, being publicly shamed may directly reinforce a feeling of victimization that is already pervasive within the alt-right. 

In the wake of Charlottesville, however, the public naming and shaming of white supremacists and neo-Nazis is hard to criticize, say some observers, even for those who have spoken out against such shaming more generally.

Asam Ahmad, a Toronto-based poet and community organizer, criticized “call-out culture” among progressives in a 2015 article as something with “a mild totalitarian undercurrent” with similarities to the prison-industrial complex and its preference “to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.”

This week, in an email response to The Monitor, he wrote: “Every single white supremacist deserves to be publicly shamed and face the consequences of their actions.”

Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. “While I think in this instance it’s perfectly morally defensible,” says Tom Spiggle, an employment lawyer and a former assistant US attorney general, "we’ll have to see what the next iteration is, because it could be for something I don’t support.”

This story was corrected to reflect the fact that Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute and a white nationalist, has not been doxxed.

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American closeups

Reports from the road

4. The Nebraska farm that blocks a pipeline’s way

The Keystone XL pipeline's long and fractious path to becoming a reality might well end at the Tanderup farm in rural Nebraska. Its sweeping cornfields provide a portrait of a landscape beloved, a determination undimmed, and of neighbors divided. 

Mark
Helen and Art Tanderup stand in their cornfield in Neligh, Neb. They decided to fight the Keystone XL pipeline that would cross the land first farmed by Mrs. Tanderup’s grandfather in 1917.
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Doug Struck
 

The 30 Sec. Read“We moved up here, and first thing, we got a knock on the door.” Art Tanderup is recalling the visit that he and his wife, Helen, got as they began retired life at Helen’s family’s farm in Neligh, Neb. At the door: TransCanada Corp. The firm said it wanted to ship thick bitumen oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico via the Keystone XL pipeline, cutting through six states – and the Tanderups’ small farm. TransCanada offered them about $20,000 for a piece of their land. But the Tanderups did some research, and the more they learned, the less they liked the idea. Mostly, they worry that a pipeline leak could send toxic sludge into the giant aquifer under their cornfield. Today, Nebraska is just about the last bureaucratic hurdle before excavators begin their work. The Nebraska Public Service Commission is to decide by Nov. 23 if the route will hold. If they lose? Both Art and Helen stare into the distance for a bit. Finally, Art says softly that he will probably stand in front of the bulldozers. “We’ve fought other things together,” Helen adds. “I’m going to fight with Art.”

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4. The Nebraska farm that blocks a pipeline’s way

The cornfields of Nebraska sweep over gentle hills, disappearing at the horizon. To the modern farmer they are mathematical creations: the calculus of total acres, fertilizer per acre, inches of rainfall, tons of herbicide, radius of the giant pivot irrigator, and square feet of crops lost at the edges. Rows are planted with computer-driven precision; corn is sold when the financial analytics say the price is right.

On Art and Helen Tanderup’s small farm, the land is something else. Oh, they have some of the trappings of the super-sized operations that have become the economic imperative of farming in the Midwest. They have a pivot irrigator, an old combine, a tractor, a pickup truck. They watch the rain, and carefully figure inputs and outputs to the corn and soybeans on their 160 acres.

But the soil is also rich with history. Tradition. Memories. Helen grew up here, in the two-story farmhouse that she and her husband got when her mother passed away. She looks at the fields and sees her grandparents.

The ground also holds the future. It is land that maybe someday will get farmed again – loved again – by grandchildren or great grandchildren or somebody else who sifts the soil and hears its past.

That is why the land is precious to the Tanderups. That is why they took a stand.

“I don’t want something like this to happen to what my grandparents built up,” says Helen.

The “this” is the Keystone XL Pipeline. TransCanada Corp wants to ship thick bitumen oil from its tar sands in Alberta, British Columbia, to Houston on the Gulf of Mexico, cutting through six US states and the Tanderups’ small farm.

  

Anti-pipeline signs line the shed of Art and Helen Tanderup, who are against the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that would cut through the farm where they live in Neligh, Neb.
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Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters

The fight over this pipeline is one of those national issues that never seem to go away. It started nine years ago. After much hedging and delays, President Obama finally rejected the pipeline in November 2015, saying it would worsen climate change. President Trump promptly reversed that on his fourth day in office, ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to give the federal go-ahead.

Nebraska is just about the last bureaucratic hurdle before giant excavators begin to slice open the ground to insert 1,179-miles of 36-inch pipe four feet underground. An outnumbered but stubborn group of farmers, ranchers, Native Americans, and environmentalists staged a furious last-stand defense of their pipeline opposition this month in Lincoln, where the Nebraska Public Service Commission held hearings.

The Tanderups took the week off – “our vacation,” Helen says wryly – to sit in the four-day marathon at the Cornhusker Hotel. The commission is to decide by Nov. 23.

The Tanderups are a round and cheerful couple, who laugh easily and are patient with a stranger’s questions. Like so many in farm country, they left the rural countryside for careers. Art taught library science in a high school north of Omaha for 35 years; Helen worked in the student services of a college near the city. They raised two kids. When Helen’s parents got old, the Tanderups kept up the farm. Twice a week, Art would race after school the 100 miles to get to Neligh, hop on a combine to work into the dark, and rise at 4 a.m. the next day to get back to his classes on time. Summers and weekends were on the farm.

When they finally could retire – both are in their 60s – they moved to Neligh, intent on supplementing their pensions with what they could grow.  “Just two old folks who wanted to retire to travel a little and farm,” Art says.

That dream did not last long.

“We moved up here, and first thing, we got a knock on the door,” says Art. It was a representative of TransCanada, who wanted the Tanderups’ signature on an easement to bury the oil pipeline through their cornfield.

She painted this lovely picture about how it was going to help this country and all this stuff, wonderful stuff, and she left, we thought, by God we’d better go salute the flag,” says Art.

TransCanada offered them about $20,000. But the Tanderups are not hasty people. They told the agent they’d think about it, and wanted to do some research. The more they learned, the less they liked it. They did not like the United States government giving a foreign corporation the right to forcibly take a 50-foot swatch of US farmland. But the biggest danger, they concluded, was of a pipeline leak that could send toxic oil sludge into the giant Ogallala Aquifer under their cornfield.

The aquifer covers eight states, and is the lifeblood of both farming and drinking in the Great Plains. Without it, the soil dies. Farms die. Cities would grow parched. If that huge fresh pool is fouled, it could be lost forever. TransCanada says there will not be a leak. The Tanderups say they won’t stake the future of their land on that promise.

You know, once you figure out what tar sands are, how they are mined, how they are diluted, what they are doing to the First Nations people up in Canada, what they are doing to the environment up there, what a potential leak would do here, I mean there’s no way you could be for this,” says Art. “We aren’t signing these papers.”    

Their decision has come at a heavy cost. It has put them in the bullseye of a hot national issue. More painfully, it has strained the social fabric of this rural community. Of about 90 landowners in Antelope County, 64 had signed an easement, and some resent the holdouts.

“Nobody likes us,” says Helen.

“Well, I mean, we started getting snubbed at church,” says Art.

That particularly hurts Helen. “All the friends that my mom and dad had here in town, and now we are standing out because we don’t feel this is right. We’ve lost them.”

But the Tanderups dug in. They started attending meetings of pipeline opponents. They offered up 80 acres to scrape a “crop art” symbol of resistance into their fields between harvests. Art went to Washington in 2014 to join thousands of protesters on the Mall. And later that year a concert by Willie Nelson and Neil Young brought 8,600 people – more than the county’s population – to the Tanderups’ isolated farm for a fundraiser to oppose the pipeline.

When Mr. Obama finally rejected the northern leg of the pipeline through Nebraska, the Tanderups thought they had won. “I mean, it was a great… it was a great day, it was a great day that day,” Art recalls, savoring the victory.

When Mr. Trump won the election, they knew the victory was gone. “We got up the next morning and we were in total disbelief. One of our neighbors came over, and we talked, we hugged, and we cried. It was not a good day.”

The Tanderups know the odds. Nebraska is Trump County, coal and oil country, and the governor has backed the pipeline. Whatever the decision of the utilities commission, the Tanderups are hoping court appeals will buy more time. And TransCanada has made some grumblings lately that there could be too few customers to go ahead with the grand project – though the Tanderups don’t believe it.

What if they lose? The Tanderups are not the kind of people comfortable with loud bravado. Both Art and Helen stare into the distance for a bit. Finally, Art says softly that he will probably stand in front of the bulldozers.

It’s that important to us. We’ve spend a lot of time talking about it,” Art says.

“We’ve fought other things together,” Helen adds. “I’m going to fight with Art.”

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5. How a New England town learned to live with rattlesnakes

Could you love a rattlesnake? Grudgingly, the residents of a Connecticut town have come to embrace them. And that's a model for conservation nationwide. Every creature is essential to a healthy ecosystem, wildlife managers say. Even the fanged ones. 

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadDecades ago, when farms outnumbered suburban homes in Glastonbury, Conn., any timber rattlesnake away from its nearby mountain den and too close to people was usually greeted with a shovel blow, a bullet, or Buick tires. Today, residents of the Hartford suburb who encounter the venomous snakes are more likely to pick up a phone than a shovel. That shift is the hard-won result of an extensive public education campaign designed to help people put their fears of the snakes into perspective and to see the value that every species – even the rattlesnake – brings to the local ecosystem. Those efforts could serve as a model for wildlife managers in Massachusetts. The Bay State’s most recent plan to help boost dwindling rattlesnake populations crumbled under the pressure of public fear. Taking a page from Glastonbury, wildlife managers have plans to prop up habitat conservation and den monitoring efforts with resident education. As one ecologist puts it: “It’s human behavior, human attitudes, that are crucial in the successful conservation of predators.”

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5. How a New England town learned to live with rattlesnakes

When it comes to snakes, Doug Fraser has always been, well, different.

In the 1940’s and 50’s when others entered the woods of Glastonbury, Conn., to bag up timber rattlesnakes for disposal, the East Hartford teenager went there looking for a pet.

Mr. Fraser has since redirected his passion into protection of a once-plentiful species now absent from Maine and Rhode Island and endangered in the rest of New England. Over the years, the biologist has become rattlesnake champion, working to dislodge deeply rooted public fears that have persisted for generations. And his efforts appear to be paying off. The species has yet to progress beyond its endangered status in Connecticut, but the Glastonbury population has stopped shrinking and now holds at “steady,” according to Fraser.

Locally, his methods could become a model for other New England states looking to preserve and protect dwindling timber rattlesnake populations. On a broader scale, he joins conservationists trying to stop a global decline in wildlife populations and attempting to teach people how to live as neighbors, not adversaries, with other species.

Predators like the timber rattlesnake are often the most hated and persecuted wildlife, says William Ripple, a distinguished ecology professor at Oregon State University. This is alarming to scientists, given new research that suggests predators are not only vital to healthy natural environments, but to humanity itself.

To preserve both, Professor Ripple says it ultimately comes down to what the people do. “It’s human behavior, human attitudes, that are crucial in the successful conservation of predators.”

From persecuted to protected

In Glastonbury, Fraser monitors the region with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, watching for anyone who tries to kill rattlesnakes or catch them to be sold as pets on the black market. Both DEEP and Fraser fiercely guard the den’s exact location, and even the number of snakes living there is a secret. (In this story, the name of a Glastonbury resident who helped rescue a snake has been changed to avoid revealing the location of the endangered rattlesnakes living there.)

But Fraser will readily share plenty of other details about the timber rattlesnake. He lovingly describes the “magnificent” outcome of 69 million years of evolution: their ability to sense prey through infrared heat, and the scent trail a female timber rattlesnake will leave for her babies to find their way, on their own, back to the den they’ll imprint on forever.

It’s the female snakes, Fraser says, that can keep a population going if they live long enough to reproduce several times, the first time at around eight years old and then every two, three or four years after that.

After following the Glastonbury rattlesnake population for half a century, Fraser has seen firsthand how difficult this can be: As foot-long babies, timber rattlesnakes are vulnerable to being eaten by owls, hawks, or black racer snakes. As adults, they contend with roadways, habitat destruction, and a hatred passed down by Americans’ colonial ancestors.

“The rattlesnakes in this area have been persecuted for a long time,” Fraser says.

Decades ago, when farms outnumbered suburban homes in the area, any timber rattlesnake away from its nearby mountain den and too close to people was usually greeted with a shovel blow, bullet, or Buick tires.

“The farmers back then, they feared them,” says Brett Sawyer, a fourth-generation Glastonbury resident who has decidedly departed from that tradition.

Mr. Sawyer wears his feelings about timber rattlesnakes on his sleeve.

Literally. A tattoo of a timber rattlesnake climbs up his arm, the rattle just poking out of his t-shirt neckline.

Sawyer recently helped remove a female timber rattlesnake from his neighbor’s lawn, found near a male timber rattlesnake that was accidentally run over by a car on the same day. Sawyer held the surviving snake until Fraser could travel from his Massachusetts home to measure, microchip, and mark her rattle before releasing her back into the woods. The male snake was likely in pursuit of mating with the female, Mr. Fraser says.

 

Thanks to Sawyer and other cooperative locals who form a new generation in Glastonbury, the female snake still stands a chance of having another set of babies.

Repairing rattler reputations 

While Glastonbury’s rattlesnakes enjoy relative peace today, they were in big trouble in the 1970’s and 80’s. That’s when housing developments popped up all over town and some new residents decided they didn’t want the snakes following old paths through their new yards.

The state of Connecticut contracted Mr. Fraser, a Siena College professor at the time, to study relocating the native snakes. But he found that, because the species imprints on a den, they wouldn’t survive a move; no matter how far away, they would try to go back home.

With the passage of the Connecticut Endangered Species Act in 1989, timber rattlesnakes and other species received new state-level regulatory protection, and Glastonbury continued its ongoing conservation and public education work.

Fraser and his partner, herpetologist and former local police officer Bob Fritsch, gradually educated area residents about the endangered species through one-on-one conversations, public presentations, letters to the editor, and informal talks in the basements of neighborhood homes.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 7,000 and 8,000 people in the United States receive bites from venomous snakes each year, five of whom die. There are no breakdowns by individual species, and the state of Connecticut Department of Health doesn’t track snakebites.

“If the snake strikes, it strikes because it absolutely has no choice but to strike,” Mr. Fritsch says. “It would much rather lie still or retreat than strike.”

Soon, people began calling Fritsch or local residents like Sawyer for help whenever they saw a timber rattlesnake, rather than trying to handle or kill it.

Former Glastonbury “town planner slash rattlesnake guy” John Rook says that over his 27-year tenure, local residents were generally supportive as the town acquired about 1,000 acres of land to conserve key habitat areas for the timber rattlesnake and other species.

“I think there were some people that had the heebie-jeebies about rattlesnakes a little bit, but knew this was the right thing to do,” he says.

Mr. Rook says the town continues to work with developers to mitigate harm to the snakes and with real estate agents to let any homebuyers know what they’re getting into.

“I think a lot of the people that live in that area now are pro-rattlesnake,” he says. Before retiring a few years ago, he received multiple calls from people sitting in their cars as they blocked the road, letting a timber rattlesnake slither on by.

Finding political will

Rattlesnakes are already gone in two other New England states. Massachusetts doesn’t want to be next.

The Bay State’s first attempt to boost the population did not go well. Residents living near the Quabbin Reservoir rejected a proposal to place a captive-bred timber rattlesnake colony on Mt. Zion, a restricted island in the 39-square-mile public water body.

The last recorded death from a rattlesnake bite in Massachusetts occurred in 1791. But to many residents, the possible sake-bite risk to boaters who use the port-o-potty on the island was too great.

In April, the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board recommended that the state stop pursuing the Mt. Zion plan. That board’s chairman, University of Massachusetts professor emeritus Joseph Larson, says the state had solid information on the rattlesnake. The challenge was understanding the people.

“It’s the interaction between people and wildlife, and so much of our work boils down to managing people,” Dr. Larson says.

Environmental scientists are starting to study the “managing people” part more. And the Glastonbury experience offers researchers valuable insight.

“It takes a lot of political will to protect a venomous snake,” says Ted Levin, author of “America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake.”

Through education, he adds, people in Glastonbury have overcome a natural, biological fear of a venomous snake.

“They’re willing to live with them,” Mr. Levin says. He is optimistic that other communities can follow suit.

In Massachusetts, state officials are now working on a new plan focusing on the existing five rattlesnake populations. Berkshire Community College environmental science professor Tom Tyning says it will likely look similar to the Glastonbury model: habitat conservation, monitoring dens, and educating residents.

The southern Berkshires area already appears to be approaching that goal. Professor Tyning says there are volunteers who people can call to come pick up nuisance snakes found wandering from their local den.

“Here in New England, the last rattle of a rattlesnake is yet to be heard,” he says.

Given a recent consensus within the scientific community that predators have a big role in regulating ecosystems, it’s more important now than ever to biologists like Oregon State’s Ripple that these species continue to exist.

The scientific community is also just starting to understand the range of “ecosystem services” that wildlife can provide, he says. Timber rattlesnakes, for instance, prey on the white-footed mouse, a host for Lyme disease.

“I think it’s important for us to be humble and acknowledge these animals have roles in nature, and humanity is part of nature,” Ripple says.  

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The Monitor's View

What post-ISIS Iraq can do for peace

 

The 30 Sec. ReadReports that Iraq wants to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia is another sign of how many Iraqis have learned from battling Islamic State that the Sunni-Shiite rivalry must end. The mainly Shiite government in Baghdad needs Saudi help to rebuild Sunni areas such as the city of Mosul. But Iraq also wants to reduce the influence of Iran, which has supported Iraqi Shiite militias involved in the anti-ISIS fighting. To reconstruct their country, in other words, Iraqi leaders need a rapprochement between its giant neighbors. Iraq has learned the hard way that domestic conflict between Sunnis and Shiites will not bring jobs and other necessities of running a democracy. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, too, reformist leaders are moving to play down religious extremism in favor of economic growth and freedoms demanded by rising youth populations. Iraq may be in a position to help the two countries understand that cooperation based on national identities must replace conflict over religious identities. 

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What post-ISIS Iraq can do for peace

The collapse of Islamic State (ISIS) strongholds in Iraq is proving to be more than a military victory over terrorists. The two-year battle against the militant sectarian group has also awakened Iraqi leaders to the need to mend relations between Sunnis and Shiites – and not only in Iraq. With a renewed drive for national unity, Iraq also now sees itself as a possible mediator between the region’s rival powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In recent weeks, Iraqi leaders have visited Saudi Arabia, mainly to gain economic support in rebuilding Iraqi cities destroyed by ISIS. The mainly Shiite government in Baghdad needs Saudi help to rebuild Sunni areas such as the city of Mosul. But Iraq also wants to reduce the influence of Iran, which has supported Iraqi Shiite militias involved in the anti-ISIS fighting. To reconstruct their country, in other words, Iraqi leaders need a rapprochement between its giant neighbors. This explains reports of Iraq offering to be a go-between.

Iraq has learned the hard way from its war with ISIS that domestic conflict between Sunnis and Shiites will not bring jobs for young people and other necessities of running a democracy. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, too, a new crop of reformist leaders are moving to play down religious extremism in favor of economic growth and freedoms demanded by rising youth populations. Such efforts rely on political inclusion over the kind of religious exclusion behind so many conflicts in the Middle East.

Saudi assistance has started to flow to Iraq after a visit by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and a prominent Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr. The border has been opened for trade 27 years after it was closed. And a joint trade council has been formed. Iraqi politicians are also deciding how to either disband the Iran-backed militias or blend them into the Iraqi Army.

The Saudi-Iran rivalry needs a mediator if the region is to know peace. From Yemen to Lebanon, the two oil giants are involved in a dead-end contest over their competing claims to dominance of the Muslim world. With its history of suffering from Sunni-Shiite conflict, Iraq may be in a position to help the two countries understand that cooperation based on national identities must replace conflict over religious identities.

Out of the ashes of the war with ISIS could arise a wider peace.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

What can help marriage succeed?

 

Marriages are under a lot of pressure. But research indicates that children living in poverty are more likely to succeed if their parents are married. So how can we help marriage succeed? Christian Scientist Susan Stark points out that marriages are strengthened by unselfish love. We all have the ability to express qualities of selflessness, because we are the very spiritual reflection of infinite, divine Love. “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him,” we read in the Bible (I John 4:16). We are being true to what we really are when we let divine Love lead us, inspiring patience and forgiveness. The world can use all the love that marriage can contribute. It is a good place to nurture each other and bear witness to the power of divine Love.

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What can help marriage succeed?

Marriages are under a lot of pressure. So many are short-lived or never happen in the first place. Marriage, however, has tremendous potential to help individuals and society. The article “Marriage can fight poverty – but how do you promote it?” in The Christian Science Monitor (June 1, 2017) cites research that children living in poverty are much more likely to succeed if their parents are married. Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is quoted: “There’s a surprising degree of agreement that the country needs marriage.”

What can help marriage succeed? My short answer would be that the good we find in marriage really comes from the good – the love – we give. Unselfish love for each other and our children makes a marriage strong.

At our wedding, a friend read the Bible story of Isaac and Rebekah (see Genesis 24:1-19). He chose it because it’s all about unselfish love.

Here is how the story goes. Abraham sent his servant to look for a wife for his son Isaac. When the servant saw a young woman drawing water from a well, he asked for some. She – Rebekah – hurried to give him a drink and then, without further prompting, went on to draw water for his 10 camels. (A thirsty camel can drink as much as 30 gallons of water!) This was the sign of unselfish generosity that the servant was looking for in the woman who would marry Isaac.

Rebekah certainly had a giving nature, but we can all express this spirit of selflessness. Love is not a personal ability, bestowed on some more than others. The more love we give, the more love feels like divine grace, rather than being created by human effort. Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer of Christian Science and the Leader of the church she founded, wrote about the effect love has on us: “Love enriches the nature, enlarging, purifying, and elevating it” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 57).

What’s behind this uplifting power is God, divine Love itself – and our true, spiritual identity as Love’s reflection. The Bible traces the love we express to its divine source: “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (I John 4:16).

“Dwelling” in God, Love, was very familiar to Christ Jesus. He loved in the fullest way, expressing compassion and forgiveness not only to dear friends but also to his enemies. This doesn’t mean he gave in to unacceptable behavior; his love sometimes led to rebukes that paved the way for healing. He was true to his nature as the Son of God, divine Love. We, too, are being true to what we are as God’s spiritual child when we let divine Love lead us, perhaps prompting us to show appreciation for our husband or wife, be attentive to a spouse’s needs, or be patient and forgiving – and to find divine Love enabling us to stand up to wrong behavior for the purpose of healing.

There are times when a married couple must reach deep for the love it takes to continue together. Our endurance or kindness might seem too meager for the challenges that a marriage faces. But God is always present to lift our thought to His fullness and infinite love, and loosen the grasp of fear or resentment – and bring healing to the relationship when needed. Each inspired act of love, no matter how small, evidences that God is upholding all that is good in a marriage.

The world can use all the love that marriage can contribute. It is such a good place to nurture each other and a family, bearing witness to the power of divine Love to bring out the best in one another.

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A moment, today

Fleeing to safety

People run from the scene in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday after a white van jumped the sidewalk in the historic Las Ramblas district, crashing into a summer crowd of residents and tourists – killing more than a dozen and injuring some 50 more, police said. The attack was still being investigated.
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Giannis Papanikos/AP
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In Our Next Issue

( August 18th, 2017 )

Thank you for reading today. Come back tomorrow. Among the stories we’re working on: One fact made clear after London’s devastating Grenfell fire is that the working poor are finding fewer footholds in a city of global wealth, rapid gentrification, and a shrinking welfare state.

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