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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.

2018
April
20
Friday

There’s a debate we have in the newsroom – if not daily, then pretty close to it. Let me set the scene. First, news breaks. Let’s say the former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation releases memos detailing his recollections of conversations with the president. (Hint, that happened yesterday afternoon.)

It’s news, yes. It will lead many news publications. But the memos have been leaked so much that there just isn't anything very interesting to say. Or, in another scenario, maybe there is something interesting to say, but nailing down the facts, reaching sources, and – perhaps most important – thinking deeply about why the story really matters, means that we can’t hit the deadline for today’s edition. So, what do we do?

We call this debate: news value versus distinction. We’re a news publication. We need to be newsy. So sometimes, we do the best we can in the time we have. But at the same time, the Monitor’s value is in its distinction. Our readers come to us for our lens – for insights that help them see the world differently and constructively.

Today, we went for distinction. Harry Bruinius’s lead story feels like a piece of distinctively Monitor journalism, even if it’s not bang on the news. By replying to this email, you can join our debate. It’s not a seat in the newsroom, maybe, but we’d love to hear your thoughts. 

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Here are our five stories for today, including a different perspective on environmentalism, diversity that gets beyond quotas, and the Monitor's decade-long journey with a remarkable woman. 

1. Now, churches struggle with their #MeToo moment

Our first story is not of the news today, but it is very much of this moment in history. #MeToo is challenging views of power that objectify and exploit women and the vulnerable. For many faith communities, it points to a need to look inward. 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadWhen Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian was a prosecutor in central Florida in the 1990s, his office handled thousands of sexual abuse cases. About half, he says, involved a faith community. Today, the question is this: Is the American church having its #MeToo moment? Allegations against a few prominent pastors, along with the rise of a #ChurchToo hashtag, point to simmering concern. But experts like Mr. Tchividjian and others suggest the problem is much deeper than has yet been acknowledged. The values of forgiveness and redemption are essential and powerful agents in Christian life, but in cases of abuse they can often be turned into protection for the powerful, covering behaviors that prey on women and children sexually, these experts say. The problem is not limited to any faith tradition, nor is it connected to liberal or conservative churches. But it is most apparent in churches that are authoritarian and hierarchical. “Where certain people have a whole lot of power and others have next to none,” says one author of a book on the subject, “that’s when you start to see problems.”

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1. Now, churches struggle with their #MeToo moment

Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian has devoted most of his career to an emotionally and spiritually wrenching task.

A former prosecutor, he’s been investigating charges of sexual misconduct and child abuse for nearly three decades. Since the mid-2000s, however, he’s focused on American houses of worship, especially those within his own evangelical Protestant tradition. He’s handled hundreds of cases over the years, and he is still seared by the memories of them.

There was the missionary boarding school in Africa his team investigated, in which house parents and teachers were abusing a number of children. “It was an eye opener for us, we left our soul behind after the investigation,” says Mr. Tchividjian, who in 2003 founded an organization called GRACE, or Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.

While the #MeToo movement has revealed widespread abuse from Hollywood to government to businesses, mounting allegations of sexual misconduct within houses of worship and religious communities point to something perhaps even more appalling – a breach of a special trust. And a number of activists suggest it is far more common than many may imagine.

“In the early 2000s, when the tragedy of the Catholic Church was just starting to emerge, I’m thinking to myself, and sharing with others, my goodness, Protestants for the most part have no clue that this is as serious as an issue in their own churches,” says Tchividjian, a grandson of the historic evangelist Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

During the past year, many women, and even some men, across the country have used the online hashtag #ChurchToo to tell their stories of past abuse. They have recounted how men in power used their uniquely intimate roles as pastors to spiritually manipulate and sexually coerce them when they were at their most vulnerable. Many were underage teens.

“Women who have paid this pound of flesh for years, and have not been heard, or who have been silenced, are finding this kairos moment,” says Belinda Bauman, founder of One Million Thumbprints, a global campaign to assist women affected by war. Kairos is a theological term referring to a crucial moment to take action, and Ms. Bauman adds: “Honestly, it feels like we have an opportunity to make a choice right now, and heaven help us if we choose wrongly, for the sake of the church and culture.”

High-profile cases

Last week, one of the nation’s most influential evangelical pastors, Bill Hybels, a best-selling author and pioneer of the suburban “megachurch” movement, resigned his position from Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. Among the allegations against him were suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms from at least two women who were church leaders at the time. Pastor Hybels called such accusations, which had previously led to an internal church investigation, “flat-out lies.”

A well-known Alabama evangelist and author, Acton Bowen, was arrested last week after being charged with child sex abuse. Last month, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, Frank Page, resigned after admitting to a “a morally inappropriate relationship.” Earlier this year, too, the Memphis megachurch pastor Andy Savage admitted he had engaged in a “sexual incident” with an underage teen in 1998, after the woman shared her #ChurchToo story online. His congregation gave him a standing ovation after his public confession, but last month he resigned.

“No one is surprised at any of this,” says Bauman, who last year helped to organize a corollary of the #ChurchToo movement called #SilenceIsNotSpiritual.

“We hope and wish and pray and, technically, we even believe that the church should have a whole different standard to measure up to,” she says. “Except that, we’re full of human beings, and human beings in a power structure that has traditionally lent itself to what we call ‘systemic unholiness.’ ”

Why ‘I lost my church’

Her definition of “systemic unholiness” is not simply about abusive pastoring. It also touches on the cultural and institutional attraction to stories of forgiveness and redemption, which in these cases serve only to silence those abused. “That looks a lot like the protection of power, and the protection of men in that power structure, at the expense of women telling their stories,” says Bauman.

Last year, attorney and advocate Rachael Denhollander was the first of nearly 160 women to reveal publicly that she had been abused by Larry Nassar, the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, when she was a homeschooled evangelical teen. And while she extended her forgiveness at his sentencing, she also told Christianity Today that if her abuser had been a pastor, she would have been vilified.

“We are very happy to use sexual assault as a convenient whipping block when it’s outside our community,” Ms. Denhollander said. “When the Penn State scandal broke, prominent evangelical leaders were very, very quick to call for accountability, to call for change.”

But she was asked to leave her church, she said, for being so outspoken on the issue. “The reason I lost my church was not specifically because I spoke up,” she explained. “It was because we were advocating for other victims of sexual assault within the evangelical community, crimes which had been perpetrated by people in the church and whose abuse had been enabled, very clearly, by prominent leaders in the evangelical community.”  

Protecting the powerful

When Tchividjian was a prosecutor in central Florida in the 1990s, he was already insisting that his district establish a new special unit to prosecute cases of sexual violence. By the time he left, his office had handled thousands of abuse cases, and Tchividjian says many involved a faith community – one of the reasons he decided to launch GRACE, he says.

“It was just amazing how many church leaders and church members had no problem coming to court and testifying on behalf of the character of the defendant, and how few came in defense of the victim,” he says.

He estimates that he and fellow prosecutors observed this in about 9 out of 10 cases. “There’s something wrong with that,” he adds. “The Jesus that I know was always on the side of the wounded and the marginalized, and that’s not what’s happening here.”

“We are still drawn and seduced by power and influence,” says Tchividjian. “And so, as a result, when there is abuse within churches and faith communities, children are the ones who often fall through the cracks. The powerful and the influential, the perpetrators, those are the ones that we embrace.”

Where abuse flourishes

When it comes to sexual abuse, there are few differences among various faith traditions, says Janet Heimlich, author of “Breaking Their Will, Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment.” It is not about whether a religious community has a more conservative or liberal theology. Abuse flourishes within power structures that create unquestioned authority.

“What it boils down to is when a religious environment is more authoritarian,” says Ms. Heimlich, who also founded the Child-Friendly Faith Project, an national advocacy organization that provides help for survivors and helps educate religious communities. “In some religious communities and environments where there is a strict social hierarchy, where certain people have a whole lot of power and others have next to none – that’s when you start to see problems.” 

“That includes whenever there’s a fear-based aspect to the way the community rules are set, or in the way beliefs are structured,” she says. “And when there’s a strict social separatism, when a community keep themselves apart from outer communities – whenever you have these three factors, you’re more likely to see these problems.”

Within such communities, “there is often a distrust of law enforcement, and, I think, a feeling that if law enforcement takes a look under the hood, the entire community will be attacked, and it will reflect poorly on the wider community,” says Kacey McBroom, a partner in the Los Angeles-based law firm Kaedian, LLP, who has worked with separatist-leaning religious communities.

“The feeling was: This is something that should be between the accused and God,” Ms. McBroom continues. “He will have to answer to a higher authority, and not the law.”

Breaking a taboo

Tchividjian and Bauman say religious institutions need to both set clear protocols and begin to talk about the issue, which has long been taboo.

“When I speak with pastors, when I speak with Christian leaders, college presidents, a lot of them think this really isn’t their issue,” says Bauman, who, like Tchividjian, has distanced herself from her evangelical heritage. “And I would say, ‘It absolutely is your issue, because 1 in 5 women on college campuses have experienced a violent incident, sexually-based, in their lives,’ ” she says, citing statistics from the United States Justice Department. “And that’s Christian campuses, too.”

“But I love the church, period,” says Bauman. “It is my home. I work in war zones, and I see the damage that the church does globally. But I also see the joy and the healing that the church does globally.”

Which is one of the reasons Tchividjian and his colleagues at GRACE have been trying to develop seminary curricula and training for communities of faith.

“If we’re going to change the culture of churches, we can’t just go in and do a weekend training on child protection or sexual violence,” says Tchividjian. “What happens with those, you go in for a weekend, you do a training, everyone feels sort of good that they’ve done this, they know a little more, which is good.”

“But at the end of the day, if I go back to the church six months later, and I ask, how has this training impacted the culture of this church carries on business?” he says. “Most of the time, if we’re being honest, not much.”

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2. Diversity on display at a tech conference minus 'tech bros'

Our next story hits on a similar theme: small efforts at awakening institutional change. In this case, a group asked a probing question. When the tech community looks at women and minorities, does it see opportunity or a quota? 

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Aanchal Gupta, director of security at Facebook, led a discussion during OURSA, a cybersecurity conference featuring women and minority professionals, in San Francisco April 17.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
 

The 30 Sec. ReadWhen a major cybersecurity conference announced this year’s lineup of speakers, only one woman was on the list. That omission sparked a heated debate and led to an alternative conference being staged the same week in San Francisco, one that had a diverse lineup of speakers. Organizers of OURSA say the inclusion of women and racial and ethnic minorities is essential to the future of a fast growing sector. Only 1 in 10 cybersecurity workers is a woman; African-Americans and Hispanics are also underrepresented in the field. At the conference, speakers emphasized that they were on stage because of their talent and expertise, not as token names, and dove into complex discussions of digital privacy and security. “One of the things we wanted to focus on was having presenters and speakers really represent their work, not just talk about what it’s like to be a woman in security,” says Melanie Ensign, head of privacy and security communications at Uber. She and other organizers say it wasn’t hard to find diverse voices for their event and that other conferences should take note.

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2. Diversity on display at a tech conference minus 'tech bros'

Aanchal Gupta, director of security at Facebook, is posing a question to her panel of five experts onstage when she has to catch herself.  

“You guys are presenting ... ”

She stops. “Sorry, I’m so used to being around guys,” she says. "This is my first panel where it’s all females.”

Both the speakers and audience laugh, but everyone knew Gupta wasn’t really joking. The one-day event held here Tuesday was explicitly designed to to show that the privacy and security sector has a healthy share of female and minority experts who can speak to a wide spectrum of issues relevant to a male-dominated industry.

OURSA, short for Our Security Advocates, was conceived in early March after a major security convention, the RSA conference, announced a list of 20 keynote presenters with only one woman: Monica Lewinsky, who was to speak on cyberbullying. (RSA later issued a revised list with more women, saying this was always its intention.)  

Leigh Honeywell (2nd r.) and five other women in cybersecurity speak on a panel called Applied Security Engineering at OURSA, Our Security Advocates. A group of women in the security industry put together a day-long event to feature female and minority speakers, most of whom hold high-ranking positions in the field.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman//Staff

In response, a group of indignant men and women decided to stage an “alt-conference” the same week as RSA. OURSA vowed to bring together speakers from diverse backgrounds who were renowned in their field, and to move beyond discussing minority experiences to call attention to the excellent work already being done by women and racial and ethnic minorities. 

"One of the things we wanted to focus on was having presenters and speakers really represent their work, not just talk about what it’s like to be a woman in security," says Melanie Ensign, head of privacy and security communications at Uber. “There are major segments of our community that are just so tired of talking about being in security and our gender.”

Like the rest of the tech sector, cybersecurity is notorious for its gender and diversity gap. In the US, African-Americans and Hispanics make up less than 12 percent of the cybersecurity workforce, while women make up about 10 percent, according to the International Consortium of Minority Cybersecurity Professionals. The rate is not much different worldwide.

With a rise in cybercrime across the globe that is expected to triple the demand for cybersecurity workers by 2021, observers say addressing the diversity gap now is crucial. And conferences – an important platform for showcasing expertise – can be a key part. “To have a percentage feel excluded at these events is a detriment to the field,” says Wendy DuBow, senior research scientist at the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

OURSA, which took place at Cloudflare headquarters in San Francisco, offered a short-term antidote that attracted around 250 people. Sessions revolved around a diversity of perspectives – the day’s first discussion, for instance, was on the intersection of technology and advocacy for high-risk populations, led by a panel of activists, programmers, and researchers from diverse backgrounds. 

“You couldn’t have that conversation with just a group of white men,” says Ms. Ensign, the conference's media coordinator.

Attendees listen as women speak at OURSA, which was conceived in early March after a major security convention, the RSA conference, revealed that its list of keynote presenters included only one woman.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Organizers say it wasn't hard to find diverse voices. The real challenge in putting together her session on applied security engineering, says Ms. Gupta, was saying no to dozens of quality submissions. “That shows that there are so many passionate people out there who care about security, privacy, and online safety,” she told the audience. 

Attendees were as diverse as the presenters and added to the sense of empowerment at the venue. “The composition of the room can really change how you approach a topic,” says Anna Lauren Hoffmann, an openly trans assistant professor of technology and culture at the University of Washington. While her scholarship doesn’t traditionally fall within the security sector, she was able to lend her expertise to a session on the ethics of emerging technologies. “It’s a strength of this event that they were able to broaden their lens,” she says.

Some preferred to keep to a minimum any talk about their lived experiences. Window Snyder, chief security officer at cloud-computing service provider Fastly and a top voice in application security, spoke onstage about the need for girls and women to embrace their femininity as they cut their teeth in the industry. But after the session, she said she only wanted to take questions on application security. “I can talk about that for as long as you like,” she says.

OURSA’s organizers aspire to see a world where women and other minorities no longer have to talk about their struggle for recognition in cybersecurity. For now, they’ll settle for proving that there is a way to do conferences differently.

“We hope that other conferences will try a little bit harder to give women and others a chance to participate,” Ensign says. “Our hope is that a year from now, we don’t feel like we need this event.”

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3. The big eco-challenge: Wealth can up concern – but also footprint

Call it the environmentalism paradox. As nations become wealthier, their negative impact on the environment increases, yet so does their capacity and desire to help. Ahead of Earth Day, it's a reminder that the health of the planet depends largely on how powerful we can make the second half of that equation.   

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The 30 Sec. ReadIs the environmental movement too elitist? Various studies show that, as individuals and nations rise out of poverty, their concern for issues that go beyond day-to-day survival, such as environmentalism, also increases. This creates an apparent paradox: Those most concerned about the environment tend to be the ones destroying it. But history shows that, while environmental degradation initially rises as a country industrializes, it then reaches a turning point as the public begins demanding cleaner air and water. The conundrum is still this: It’s hard to safeguard the planet while also growing the economy. And rich and poor alike have big stake in this. People in Latin America and India, for example, are actually more worried about climate change than those in wealthier countries. As environment scholar Melissa Checker puts it: “Just because there's a kind of general prevailing idea of what sustainability and preserving the environment are, does not mean that people of color, poor people are not really concerned about the environment or involved in it.”

The environmental Kuznets curve illustrates how, as a nation industrializes, environmental degradation rises at first and then declines.
Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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3. The big eco-challenge: Wealth can up concern – but also footprint

A common charge against environmentalists is that they’re hypocrites. They tell us to reduce our carbon emissions, the typical argument goes, yet they fly planes all over the world. They condemn Big Macs, yet they buy raspberries imported from a different hemisphere. They sneer at our plastic shopping bags, yet every year they buy a new iPhone.

The same charge is frequently leveled against rich nations. For instance, a 2014 Financial Times op-ed by science policy analysts Roger Pielke and Daniel Sarewitz criticized the Obama administration for focusing foreign aid on low-carbon projects instead of those that would deliver electricity to the most people, choices that they say reflects “a widely shared assumption that poor nations need not aspire to the sort of energy consumption seen in North America, western Europe and other wealthy regions.”

Is it true? Researchers have found that concern for the environment rises with wealth, but so does one’s ecological footprint. This leads to a truth that some environmentalists might find inconvenient on this Earth Day weekend: The greater your concern for the environment, the more likely you are to be destroying it.

This contradiction arises from the simple fact that those experiencing poverty, be they individuals or nations, devote more time to their own survival than to global issues, even when the two are linked. Given the choice between electricity and clean air, most choose electricity.

In effect, it’s when faced with the option of having both electricity and clean air that environmentalism gains traction as a political force. There’s evidence that poor and lower-income people care about the environment, but feel less financially able to act on that concern.

“Just because there's a kind of general prevailing idea of what sustainability and preserving the environment are, does not mean that people of color, poor people are not really concerned about the environment or involved in it,” says Melissa Checker, professor of urban studies at Queens College and professor of anthropology and environmental psychology at the City University of New York. “There are just different ways to think about nature and caring about it. All equally valid.”

The intersection of economics and ecology is a complex one, but it can be partially explained with a Kuznets curve, an upside down “U” shaped graph developed by Nobel laureate economist Simon Kuznets in the 1950s to illustrate economic inequality. As a country’s per capita income rises, Kuznets argued, inequality increases at first, before reaching a turning point when it starts to decline.

Some evidence points to an environmental Kuznets curve: As an economy grows, the environment suffers due to increased consumption. This continues until the average income of that economy is high enough for individuals to make the environment a priority. A 2008 study suggests that this happens when a country’s annual per capita income reaches about $30,000.

The environmental Kuznets curve illustrates how, as a nation industrializes, environmental degradation rises at first and then declines.
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Something like that appears to have happened in the United States around 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, when public demand led to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the years since, The United States has seen a 73 percent drop in the pollutants listed in the Clean Air Act and are saving nearly 100 billion gallons of water a day compared to the 1980’s peak, even as the economy grew. Iconic species such as the American bald eagle and the humpback whale have returned from the brink of extinction.

When it comes to greenhouse gases, America’s turning point came much later. US emissions peaked in 2007.

Again, all this doesn't mean less-affluent people don't care about clean water and air, or Earth's climate. While polls in the US show concern for the environment rising by education level, lower income voters or residents sometimes show stronger concern on issues like water or global warming than those with higher incomes. And globally, polling by the Pew Research Center finds people in India and Latin America more worried about global warming than those in developed nations.

Still, the conundrum remains: Can environmentalism coexist with rising prosperity? Some experts argue it’s impossible for economic growth to continue indefinitely, as long as that growth is linked to the physical world. 

“Infinite economic growth is horrible for the planet,” says David Pellow a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “So the very framing of the idea of pro-environmental behavior is missing this really important point that it is almost always rooted in an anti-ecological framework of infinite economic growth.”

So to save our environment, must we sacrifice our economy? Professor Pellow offers no easy solutions. “To achieve ecological sustainability, we’re going to have to go beyond basic reforms and tweaks,” he said. “We absolutely need to rethink and overhaul our entire idea of our way of life and what civilization is.”

Other experts, while agreeing major economic changes will be needed, are more optimistic, especially if human population peaks and then begins to decline, thanks to lifestyle changes that come with rising prosperity. Some have outlined paths toward “deep decarbonization” of the economy, seeking to stop global warming. Their vision includes continued economic growth, but with vastly greater energy efficiency and reliance on renewable power, including in developing nations.

Joela Jacobs, an assistant professor of German studies at the University of Arizona studying the culture of environmentalism among refugees in Europe, sees a few cues we can take from those refugees and the poor around the world.

“Assuming that those who are poor do not know about the importance of environmentalism is a huge misconception,” she says. “If you live in poverty, you know what scarcity of resources means and what an uncertain future means, and I think that's precisely [the lesson] to learn.”

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4. Whose beach? In Florida, it’s private ownership vs. public access.

In Florida, beaches are a treasure, and that is what has made them such a flashpoint in a growing battle over what money can buy. 

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAl Hadeed, a local official in Flagler County, Fla., has a deep connection to his community’s open-to-all beaches. Beachgoers "walk, they hike, they fly kites,” enjoying the shush of waves on sand. “And we don't want to have wall-to-wall condos running up and down the beach," he says. But controversy over public access and private property has hit hurricane levels in the the past few years, as climate change raises ocean levels and Florida’s necklace of beaches continues to contract. Last month, Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill that restricts local governments like Mr. Hadeed’s from passing ordinances to preserve public access to privately owned beaches. And while scholars say that ancient common law principles have proclaimed tidal shorelines a public good since Roman times, many conservatives say this principle flouts the more important rights of private-property owners – and they’re getting sick of the growing crowds. But this clash of values could only get more stormy in the Sunshine State. “What we’re talking about now is really trying to preserve the status quo,” says Hadeed. “No fence obstruction or anything that impairs or impedes public access. That is how the beach … has existed for eons."

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4. Whose beach? In Florida, it’s private ownership vs. public access.

With his straw hat, rubber waders, and a quartet of 12-foot fishing poles, Peter Schilling is the modern version of an ancient archetype: the surf fisherman, casting knee-deep in the ocean foam.

At least twice a week, Mr. Schilling casts the breakers for pompano, whiting, or spotted trout, driving up to Amelia Island from his home in Jacksonville.

And like millions of beach lovers throughout the United States, Schilling understands in his gut what the Florida Supreme Court declared in 1939,  that the beaches of the Atlantic ocean are "a public highway" for pedestrians and bathers who enjoyed ancient customary rights to them. 

For lot of beachside landowners, however, this romantic view of the beach as public thoroughfare is a bygone relic. They really don't want a guy in rubber waders casting in their breakers – or loud, litter-dropping spring break revellers. 

"Move or I'll call the cops!" some have said, according to Schilling. "It's happened to me a few times. I guess I'm blocking their view," he says. "I just shrug and say, 'Okay, call the cops.'"

The debate over public access to Florida’s beaches has been reaching hurricane levels in recent years. Climate change, rising sea levels, and the impact of recent storms have been shrinking the white necklace of beaches circling the Sunshine State, even as its population continues to grow and beachfront property values keep climbing.

The result, says Florida beach advocate Holly Parker, is a growing number of "really volatile conflicts on the beach: fencing off sand all the way to the water, pouring concrete posts and putting No Trespassing signs up, fistfights between tourists and homeowners," she says.

An 'ancient right'

Such tensions have simmered here for decades, as more and more beachfront mansions and developments blocked historic access paths. But Florida's current debate echoes a larger clash of values that other states have confronted on their beaches.

In many coastal areas, observers say, wealthy municipalities and private homeowners’ associations have been throwing up more legal and physical barriers to public access, so as to create exclusive and marketable beachfronts.

States like Texas, however, have pushed back. After developers and private owners began restricting beach access, 77 percent of Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment for “the right of the public, individually and collectively, to access and use the public beaches bordering the seaward shore of the Gulf of Mexico.”     

Courts in New Jersey, Michigan, and California have also sided with public access rights to national treasures, invoking the “public trust doctrine” that holds that government must protect natural and cultural resources which all citizens have a right to enjoy.

And states like Hawaii and others have long asserted a “common law right shared by residents and visitors alike.” Dating back to Roman times and incorporated into English common law and then transported to the American colonies, it holds sacrosanct that everyone has “customary use” of land with the ebb and flow of tidal waters.

As Florida's highest court put it in its 1939 ruling, "There is probably no custom more universal, more natural or more ancient, on the sea-coasts, not only of the United States, but of the world, than that of bathing in the salt waters of the ocean. Many are they who have felt the life-giving touch of its healing waters and its clear dust-free air."

"The beach is a powerful symbol in Florida – it is all things to all people,” says Gary Mormino, a history professor at the University of South Florida and author of "Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams." “But wealth is also privileged in Florida. And given that living on the beach is a fabulously expensive luxury, it must gnaw on property owners that they have to share their backyard with the unwashed."

Private property and customary use

Last month Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed the “Real Property Act,” which blocks local governments from passing any ordinance to preserve public access to privately-owned beaches.

It specifically bans municipalities from invoking “customary use” to forbid owners from blocking off their land. Now the onus is on municipalities to sue landowners and prove that public access to their private beachfront is “ancient, reasonable, without interruption and free from dispute.”

“If you’re going to take away somebody’s property, you have to do it through the courts,” said Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Republican representing Naples, in March. “To me, it’s just appalling that a local government could do this.”

Still, she noted that “this problem is not going to go away, and it’s going to happen up and down the coast" due to continued erosion. 

In response, a growing number of coastal counties are readying court battles to secure beach rights for the public before they are lost to time and tides. At its heart, this battle pits an older idea of public rights against a modern notion that private property rights trump communal claims. 

"Property owners often conceive of property as a monolith – either you own it or you don't,” says law professor Alyson Flournoy, an expert on beach rights at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “But property law is really about relationships among people with respect to land. Often many different people have interests in a single piece of land, and that is very true of property at the water's edge."

While over 60 percent of beachfront property in Florida is privately owned, over 63 percent list the beach as their favorite recreational activity. And only 2 out of every 10 Floridians like the idea of cordoning off beaches for the enjoyment of landowners alone. That said, the new law has been misunderstood as a bid to privatize public beaches, which it is not, says Prof. Flournoy. 

A controversy in Walton County

The new law had its genesis, in part, in a controversy that erupted in Walton County in Florida's panhandle. There, beachgoers often rub elbows with the likes of country music star Kenny Chesney. But unbridled growth in communities like Seaside has irked property owners who find cigarette butt mounds on their beaches and are unswayed by appeals to ancient principles of waterfront access. 

Recognizing the fallout from rapid development, county commissioners paid for a wide-ranging study from a former state historian. The result was a "customary use" ordinance that kept beaches open to the public.  

Landowners sued, but lost. Yet the case reverberated throughout the state, where conservative lawmakers and advocates for strict private property rights seized on other local clashes to attack the common law ideal and pave the way for the new law. 

"To blanket-take property from people who own it and have a title to it, without compensation or due process, really violates most fundamental aspects of property rights," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), now a Walton County resident, during a talk in Bonita Springs earlier this year.

The bill appeared this year as the Florida legislature addressed a number of "home rule" issues, such as a proposal to ban municipalities from passing tree ordinances that curb the ability of property owners to shape the communal canopy.

Preserving public access

For retiree Jim Stoner, who’s logged thousands of miles walking barefoot on Fernandina Beach and gathering more than 8,000 shark teeth washed up by the tide, the law is “about the poor and the rich." He adds, "some people just think they own everything."

Down the coast in Flagler County, local officials are among those gearing up for a fight to preserve public access after the Real Property Act takes effect on July 1. Many here, too, appeal to a romantic ideal that many Floridians still hold dear.

Al Hadeed, the county attorney who lives in Bunnell, says that beachgoers in this largely rural county "walk, they hike, they fly kites, they picnic, they engage in photography, and it's a very coquina beach. We also have a lot of wildlife, because we don't have wall to wall condos running up and down the beach."

Ahead of July 1, county commissioners are scrambling to clarify legal rights to dune protection. Last Monday the commission held an emergency meeting, hoping to streamline an ordinance and fast-track a $25 million project to fix their beach’s extensive hurricane damage.

"This new law is changing the calculus, so now people might come in and wall off that beach," says Mr. Hadeed. "What we're talking about now is really trying to preserve the status quo, no fence obstruction or anything that impairs or impedes public access. That is how the beach exists today and has existed for eons."

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5. Putting family first: a South African mother's years-long struggle

Our last story today is a video about a South African woman who staff photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman calls “the most compassionate and loving mother I’ve met in all my years I’ve worked.” The Monitor has followed Olga Thimbela since 2007, when she took in six children from relatives who died of AIDS. On Monday, we’ll share the story of her daughter, who in many ways symbolizes the promise of the new South Africa, but also the pitfalls that remain. Here we trace our decade-long relationship with Olga – the challenges of moving beyond the legacy of AIDS, apartheid, and poverty, and the yearning of a mother’s love.

Mark
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The Monitor's View

The art of parsing public apologies

 

The 30 Sec. ReadOn Thursday, Philadelphia’s police commissioner apologized to two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who were arrested while sitting in a Starbucks. Starbucks head Kevin Johnson apologized many times and plans to do so again in person. These follow a wave of apologies from public figures from Mark Zuckerberg to Theresa May. The task of parsing so many public apologies can be humbling. Key questions need to be asked: Was the apology sincere, unforced, and unequivocal about culpability? Was there genuine empathy with the victims? Did the apology come with a change of behavior? Such steps are necessary to heal a social wound and restore lost trust. On April 20, the Basque separatist group ETA issued an apology for its four decades of bombings and shootings. It was met with skepticism. Why? While ETA said it was “truly sorry” and took “direct responsibility,” it also seemed to imply that the current government should somehow share some responsibility. The weak apology indicated it may be seeking concessions. Apologies matter. Discerning their honesty and their effects can help save both individual lives and entire groups. The truth-telling can also put the lie to any notion that the original offense was right to begin with.

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The art of parsing public apologies

Sorry to say but in recent days there has been an abundance of apologies from public figures. Mark Zuckerberg, Laura Ingraham, Tony Robbins, Theresa May, Jimmy Kimmel – all have issued some form of regret over words spoken, actions taken, or past neglect. Even the pope apologized for misjudging the cover up of sexual abuse of many minors in Chile.

On Thursday, Philadelphia’s police commissioner apologized to two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who were arrested while merely sitting in a Starbucks. He promised a new policy for police in responding to calls about alleged trespassing. The head of Starbucks, Kevin Johnson, apologized many times and plans to do so again in person. He has already ordered a day of race-bias training for all employees.

The task of parsing so many public apologies in such a short time can be humbling. Yet here are a few questions that often need to be asked:

Was the person’s apology sincere, unforced, and unequivocal about culpability, the wrong done, and the lesson learned? Was there genuine empathy with the victims? Did the apology come with restitution and a real change of behavior?

Such steps are necessary to heal a social wound and curb a repeat of the offense. Societies rely on trust, and real apologies help restore lost trust. They speak to a shared ideal about integrity.

Judging an apology from afar can be difficult. For the public, the task is easier when victims accept an apology, forgive the offender, and accept any reparations made. In the case of Mr. Zuckerberg and the mishandling of private data by Facebook, many users still await further privacy controls.

In a few cases, misreading an apology can have serious consequences.

On April 20, a terrorist group known as ETA, which had long sought independence for Spain’s Basque region, issued an apology for its four decades of bombings and shootings, in which more than 800 people were killed. The militant group disarmed last year. And it plans to dissolve itself in coming weeks.

But its apology was met with skepticism. While ETA said it was “truly sorry” and took “direct responsibility” for causing “damage that can never be put right,” it seemed to imply that it had inherited a culture of violence from Spain’s civil war and that the current government should somehow share some responsibility for the suffering.

The group’s weak apology suggests it may be seeking an amnesty and the release of ETA prisoners. While the government welcomed the statement as an apology, it remains wary of cutting any deal until the victims and their families are satisfied about ETA’s motives and acceptance of any punishment.

Apologies do matter, but some more than others. Discerning their honesty and their effects can help save both individual lives and entire groups. The truth-telling can also give the lie to any notion that the original offense was right to begin with.

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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.

Still small voice

 

In recognition of Earth Day on April 22, today’s column is a poem that points to the light, peace, harmony, and joy that divine Spirit has bestowed on its entire creation.

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Still small voice

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? – Matthew 16:3

Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. – I Kings 19:11, 12

I.

can you

see the face of the sky?

read the signs of the times?

gauge the tenor of thought?

discern the state of things within?

is there a storm brewing?
floods of fear
waves of rage
hateful righteousness
reaching a boiling point?

we are being called

not to be barometer
for world currents:
suggestion, projection,
manipulation

but to sift real
from unreal
to heed the
still small voice within

Elijah heard it
on the mountain
as he faced
wind
earthquake
fire

and right there –
he heard
the still small voice
of God

stilling the storm
lighting the dark –
peace breaking through

suddenly the world
is seen
as God sees:
safe, intact, assured.

II.

today,
instead of railing,
wondering,
blaming,
being transfixed
by portent of the times

we could,
like Elijah,
make our way higher,
find the center of our hearts –
not turn away,
but turn towards
the face of God

and there in some hush
an assurance –
insistent stillness –
hear, see, feel God, good
embracing the universe
in impartial, impervious
tenderness

here is where we see the face of the sky
discern the real signs of the times
storms find their stillness
fires burn but do not consume
the earth moves in wonder
all things are safe, intact, assured
everything about us
sings for joy.

Originally published in the Christian Science Sentinel, Nov. 6, 2017.

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Viewfinder

A mother’s day in Congress

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D) of Illinois arrived at the Capitol in Washington April 19 for a vote. She brought along her new daughter, Maile, bundled against the wind. In a change in Senate rules, lawmakers decided to allow babies of members on the floor during votes. The senator tweeted an image of her daughter's clothes, laid out: 'I made sure she had a jacket so she doesn’t violate the Senate floor dress code (which requires blazers),' it read. 'I’m not sure what the policy is on duckling onesies....'
Caption
|
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( April 23rd, 2018 )

Thanks for spending some time with us today. On Monday, we'll look at the growing number of young conservatives who feel that colleges don't reflect their values. In response, new ideas are springing up.     

Also, for your weekend reading pleasure, we'd like to bring your attention to the digital edition of our Monitor Weekly magazine. You can see the current edition here. We'd love to hear your feedback. Would you value getting this digital edition on a regular basis? Again, you can let us know by simply replying to this email. 

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