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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.

May
11
Thursday

It’s easy for the media to be transfixed by Donald Trump, the man. His behavior. His policy. His style. Washington is still abuzz over his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. Once again, he was doing something unusual.

But that fixation on personality can miss important points. Yes, President Trump is a unique character. But he’s also a product of his times. Yes, in firing Mr. Comey, Mr. Trump went against traditional norms of presidential behavior. But politics over the past decade or more has been all about rewriting norms, from impeaching presidents to yelling “you lie” at a State of the Union address.

One political expert told The Atlantic magazine that two key norms uphold a robust democracy: not abusing the power of the majority and not delegitimizing your opposition. Both those norms were under strain before Trump entered the White House. So upholding them means not just pointing the finger at a person, but also looking at deeper threads in thought and society that need leavening.

1. Where the inquiry on Russian interference goes now

In the wake of his firing, FBI Director James Comey was hailed for his integrity. But integrity doesn't need to walk out the door with him. Congress and the FBI are still fully capable of having responsible and even bipartisan Russia investigations. 

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadLots of Democrats – and a scattering of Republicans – are now calling for some sort of new, independent look into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. In their view, President Trump’s abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey has tainted the US government’s central Russia investigation, run by the bureau. But here’s the bottom line: It is very unlikely we’ll see a new special prosecutor or independent commission on Russia/election issues. The president doesn’t want anything like that. Top officials of the Department of Justice have said it’s not necessary. The GOP congressional leadership isn’t in favor. The existing FBI probe, plus separate House and Senate Intelligence Committee investigations, will have to suffice. That could well be OK, say experts. The Senate inquiry seems serious and thorough, if slow-moving. The FBI is well along with its own look – and Mr. Comey’s firing might strengthen, rather than weaken, agents’ desire to get to the bottom of any connections between Moscow and Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.

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1. Where the inquiry on Russian interference goes now

This story was updated on May 11.

President Trump’s sudden dismissal of FBI Director James Comey has caused many Democrats (and some Republicans) to redouble calls for some sort of new and more independent investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

But the reality is that at this point a new Russia probe is unlikely. At the Justice Department, the person who would appoint a special counsel for Russia is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – the same Rod Rosenstein who wrote a three-page memo the White House is using to justify Comey’s firing. In Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky says he won’t support creation of any special investigatory panel. Neither will Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. So that pretty much shuts the door.

Still, it remains possible that the nation will get credible and even bipartisan looks at what Russia did and what ties, if any, it had with Trump campaign officials. The FBI’s investigation has been grinding along for months. Federal prosecutors are now reportedly issuing grand-jury subpoenas for associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. And the Senate Intelligence Committee appears to be approaching its probe in a methodical way.

“The Senate [Intelligence Committee] seems to be doing things thoroughly. It may take a long time but we could get a pretty deep investigation,” says William Banks, a law professor and founding director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University.

Practically speaking, at issue under current law are two very different approaches to a new Russia investigation effort.

The first would be a special prosecutor or special counsel – an official appointed by the attorney general and charged with looking into all things Russia and elections.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from Russia decisions. So it would fall to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to take this step, if it occurs. (That seems a long shot, as it would be a not-so-tacit admission that firing Comey was a bad political move.)

On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York reiterated his call for a special prosecutor. Such an official would not be subject to day-to-day supervision by the Attorney General or anyone else at the Justice Department, Sen. Schumer said.

“That means the special prosecutor would have much greater latitude in who he can subpoena, which questions they ask, how to conduct an investigation,” Schumer said.

This is true, but “special” is not the same thing as “independent." Special counsels answer to the attorney general, points out a 2013 Congressional Research Service report on the subject. They “may have their prosecutorial or investigative decisions countermanded by” the attorney general, the report adds.

The second way of starting up a new Russia investigation might involve some kind of new congressional entity, either a special committee, or a congressional commission.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has long called for the former. That would involve collecting an ad hoc group of existing lawmakers into a committee limited to looking at Russia election issues.

Other members, such as Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan, have publicly talked about the latter approach. That would entail a congressionally picked group of outside wise men and women to study Russia questions. A good example of this was the 9/11 Commission, a group of five eminent Republicans and five eminent Democrats, chaired by Republican Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey.

In the current charged political environment, a national commission might be the only path to a new approach acceptable to both parties.

“Trump couldn’t stand in the way of that” if Congress moves in that direction, says Prof. Banks of Syracuse University.

The problem here is that the congressional leadership does not seem to be moving in that direction. On Wednesday, with lawmakers still reeling from the shock of the Comey firing, Majority Leader McConnell made it clear that he would not support any additional inquiry.

“Today we’ll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done,” McConnell said.

The current work McConnell was referring to includes two congressional investigations as well as the FBI's investigation. One of these efforts, overseen by the House Select Committee on Intelligence, is currently a tangled mess, given the move by chairman Devin Nunes (R) of California to secretly visit the White House to view documents he said might help prove Trump’s accusation that he was wiretapped by President Obama during the campaign.

But the parallel investigation of the Senate Intelligence Committee, despite some signs of tension, seems to be proceeding in a serious manner. Chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina and Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia have made an effort to project a bipartisan, adult image.

Sen. Burr on Tuesday said he was “troubled by the timing” of Comey’s firing. But he didn’t call for a special prosecutor or new independent commission.

The formation of a new investigatory effort would take some time, putting off the moment when the public might begin to get more answers. Given that the best hope for Democrats and GOP critics of the Comey firing might be to keep up intense scrutiny of the current FBI and Senate efforts. If President Trump truly wants to derail Russia investigations, the irony is that the dismissal of Comey may produce so much attention that it has the opposite effect.

Democrats are furious. Many Republicans are (secretly) annoyed and nervous. Cable news is in full-press mode. For the White House, the Comey firing has been an unanticipated explosion that may even affect its ability to get its legislative agenda through Congress.

Firing Comey may make Trump feel as if he has exercised power, in the short term. But that might not last, says Andrew Rudalevige, a professor of government at Bowdoin College who specializes in presidential management of the executive branch

“In the long term he may find it undermines his power in various ways,” says Rudalevige.

Given all this, what should voters look at to try and determine whether the Russia investigations are still on track?

Who Trump nominates to be the next FBI director, for one thing, and whether that person gets confirmed. If he picks an administration loyalist such as former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, or perhaps New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, it will be an obvious sign he’s trying to exert much greater control over the course of the bureau’s Russia inquiry.

The pace of subpoenas could be another sign. On Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena for relevant documents from ex-NSA Michael Flynn, indicating a degree of seriousness about examining his role in the Russia affair. According to news reports, federal prosecutors have similarly begun issuing subpoenas for the business records of Flynn associates.

Federal subpoenas would mean the inquiry has moved into the purview of the larger Justice Department as well as the FBI. If it reaches that stage it would take a concerted and obvious effort to turn it off. Such an effort would almost certainly become public via media leaks.

“I’m not positive an independent prosecutor is necessary right now. It is still possible for the existing processes to work. But they have to be allowed to work,” says Andrew Rudalevige of Bowdoin.

By Peter Grier
Staff writer
( 1192 words )
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2. Venezuela crisis: the ‘why’ – and the ‘what next?’

One of the most important and somewhat overlooked events in the world right now is the crisis in Venezuela. At issue are shifting views on corruption and Latin American democracy. 

Mark
Antigovernment protesters faced water-cannon fire from security forces at a student march near the Education Ministry in Caracas, Venezuela, May 8. Street protests against President Nicolás Maduro have occurred almost daily since March.
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Fernando Llano/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadHow did Venezuela get here? As the rest of the world watches massive protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro enter their second straight month, that’s the question many are asking. Fifteen years ago, critics of then-President Hugo Chávez accused the charismatic leader of eroding the country’s checks and balances, but oil prices still managed to buoy his aggressive social programs. Under his handpicked successor, Mr. Maduro, Venezuela has entered a deep economic crisis, with routine shortages of food and medical supplies. In response to protests for change and aid, the government has clamped down with heavy-handed tactics. But the more important question is where Venezuela goes from here – and what role regional governments can play in restoring stability. 

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2. Venezuela crisis: the ‘why’ – and the ‘what next?’

In 2001, Venezuela was the wealthiest country in Latin America. Today, its institutions and economy are crumbling, and public demonstrations have entered the second month straight. How the government and international community respond could determine the fate of not only Venezuela, but regional neighbors as well. 

Q: Why are Venezuelans protesting?

Protests have taken place on and off over the past several years. But they sparked anew this spring after a late March announcement by the Supreme Court that it would take over the powers of the National Assembly – the only opposition-run branch of the government and the sole check on President Nicolás Maduro’s power. The decision was reversed three days later, but in a context of food and medical-supply shortages, triple-digit inflation, the imprisonment of protesters and opposition politicians, delayed state and municipal elections, and the quashing of a presidential recall vote, Venezuela is seeing some of the largest antigovernment protests in nearly three decades.

Critics accuse Mr. Maduro of moving toward a dictatorship, while the government accuses protesters and the political opposition of colluding with foreign governments in an effort to oust him. The armed forces have been deployed to the streets, and government-allied militias have carried out violence against demonstrators. More than 35 people have died since protests ratcheted up in April. 

Demonstrators are demanding four key actions: new elections this year, government recognition of the humanitarian crisis, the release of political prisoners, and the removal of Supreme Court justices who issued the decision about the National Assembly. 

Q: How did Venezuela get here?

Venezuela has faced challenges including stark inequality and high inflation for decades – long before former President Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. But over the past nearly two decades, inflation has skyrocketed, and it’s estimated to reach more than 700 percent by the end of the year. Mr. Chávez implemented vast social programs bolstered by the country’s oil wealth, catering to a segment of the population that was long overlooked by politicians. But policies meant to keep food prices low served as a disincentive for local production, leading to frequent shortages that spiked in recent years as international oil prices fell and Venezuela’s ability to import products declined. The combination of these factors has led to vast shortages, sweeping malnutrition, and a government grasping to hold on to power.

Maduro was tapped by Chávez before his death in 2013 to lead Venezuela. But Maduro lacks his predecessor’s charisma, and less than a quarter of the country approves of his administration. 

Q: How is the international community responding?

For years, neighbors stayed quiet on Venezuela. But the region is starting to speak up as the situation has become more serious – in terms of the economic crisis, increasingly violent face-offs between protesters and the armed forces, public-health concerns, and migration to neighboring nations.

The Organization of American States (OAS) called out the Venezuelan government once again this month, saying it has not only violated the country’s Constitution, but also “the principle of justice ... electoral rights of its people ... republican probity ... [and] sovereignty over its natural resources.” Nations including Peru and Costa Rica have withdrawn their highest-level diplomats, and earlier in May, eight Latin American countries, including neighbors Colombia and Brazil, as well as Mexico and Argentina, came together to denounce the government’s response to protests.

Q: How is the Venezuelan government responding to the protests?

The Maduro administration is aggressively defending the “Bolivarian Revolution,” launched by Chávez in 1999, from what it sees as a corrupt opposition angling for a coup. Not only have security forces deployed to the streets, where they have fired tear gas and violently clashed with protesters, but the government has gone on the offensive legally, as well. Maduro responded this month to protester demands for elections by announcing a new 500-member body that will have the power to rewrite the Constitution without legislative input. Opponents fear that the new assembly will be stacked with government sympathizers and not represent the voice of those looking for a democratic transition.

The government sees the opposition as launching an "unconventional war," according to the vice president. When pressured by the OAS to soften its reaction to protests last month, Venezuela said it would withdraw from the regional body, of which it’s been a member for more than six decades. 

Q: Is Venezuela still considered a democracy?

For years, the description of Venezuela’s government has come with a host of modifiers, from an illiberal democracy to democratic socialism. A slow erosion of checks and balances took place under Chávez, but many observers saw the decision by the Supreme Court to (in the end, temporarily) dissolve the National Assembly’s powers as the final straw.

“It’s an out-and-out dictatorship,” says Christopher Sabatini, a Latin American specialist at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York. “The government indefinitely postponed elections and ignored the Constitution. There are dozens if not hundreds of political prisoners, waves of arbitrary detentions.... These things don’t occur in a democracy.” 

By Whitney Eulich
Correspondent
( 814 words )
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Counterpoint

Finding hidden progress

3. Airline travel: It’s not all push and shove

Here's something surprising we found. Amid weekly reports of brawls in airplanes and airports, customer satisfaction is actually at an all-time high. The thing is, the industry can still get a lot better. 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadHas air travel descended into chaos? Since a passenger was dragged off a United Airlines flight last month, a flurry of incidents have made it seem that way. Just this week, a flight attendant was injured breaking up a fight on a Southwest Airlines trip, and brawls broke out in a Florida airport after Spirit Airlines canceled several flights due to a pilot strike. Members of Congress have threatened action if airlines don’t improve customer service. In fact, they have already done so: In 2017, the airline industry received its highest score on J.D. Power’s annual Customer Satisfaction Index, and its marks have been improving for the past five years. Last year flight cancellations, lost bags, and passengers bumped from flights all hit lows not seen in 22 years of Transportation Department tracking. Customer complaints were down. Even prices are falling. Still, there’s room for improvement. J.D. Power says despite those gains, the airline industry is among the lowest it rates for customer satisfaction, ahead of only mortgage lenders.

SOURCE: JD Power, US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Airlines for America
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. Jordan’s Palestinians try to revive an old peace path

On the surface, the rising Palestinian call to join Jordan might look like an impractical and arcane diplomatic maneuver. Really, it’s a desperate plea for help.  

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadPalestinian refugees and their descendants have for decades watched from the East Bank, or Jordanian side, of the Jordan River as hopes for an independent Palestine ebbed and flowed. The peace process has long been stuck, and their faith in Palestinian leaders, namely President Mahmoud Abbas, is in steep decline. An increasingly shared sentiment: “He does not represent us and can no longer protect our rights.” So in their frustration and despair, East Bank Palestinians are reviving the old, discarded idea of Palestinian-Jordanian confederation as their best bet for statehood. For many reasons, the idea has been and still is a political non-starter. Not least because it has been embraced by right-wingers in Israel who would like to declare that Jordan is Palestine. Some Palestinians are holding out hope that Jordan’s king could deliver more than Mr. Abbas. “We need a leader that can influence the Americans and hold a strong stance with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” says the head of a local clan. “King Abdullah could be that leader.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. Jordan’s Palestinians try to revive an old peace path

Omar Draz’s winding path to Jordan was like that taken by many Palestinians.

He was born two years after the nascent Israeli army pushed his family from the Palestinian village of Tall al-Turmus in the 1948 war.

He spent his youth in Gaza before war once again uprooted him and drove him and his brothers in 1968 to Jordan, where he built a successful career, opening several furniture workshops and showrooms.

Today, Tall al-Turmus is long gone. In its place stands the Jewish village of Timorim in what is now central Israel. Yet Mr. Draz, who retains the wrought iron key to his ancestral home, has never given up hope of returning home to a Palestinian state, a dream he has passed on to his six children and 20 grandchildren.

For decades he has watched from the East Bank of the Jordan River as hopes for an independent Palestine have ebbed and flowed. Negotiators have come and gone, but for years, the peace process has gone nowhere.

Now he sees a different path to statehood.

“Jordan and Palestine should enter a confederation,” Draz said recently at a gathering of two dozen Palestinian elders, tribal leaders, and businessmen at the Amman Wihdat refugee camp services committee. His proposal was hardly new, yet his statement was met with murmurs of agreement.

“Abbas and the Authority do not represent us and can no longer protect our rights – someone else has to,” he added, referring to President Mahmoud Abbas, the long-serving Palestinian Authority (PA) leader whose popularity has plummeted and whose elected mandate expired eight years ago.

Confederation, a union of sovereign states, has long been a polarizing fringe idea that was – and mostly still is – publicly dismissed outright by Palestinian and Jordanian officials alike. Palestinians were suspicious it would make a Palestinian entity subservient to Jordan, while Jordanians feared Israelis would use it as an excuse to drive thousands of Palestinians from Israeli territory into Jordan, upsetting the kingdom’s delicate balance of Palestinians and Jordanian tribes. Joining Palestine with Jordan was a political non-starter.

So why is there a groundswell of new support for a rejected idea?

Analysts say it is a product of the despair East Bank Palestinians feel at not having a political voice as they see their dream of independence slip away. They feel estranged from the West Bank-based Palestinian political institutions, have little faith in either the PLO or Hamas, and so are turning to the government of their host country.

“People are so desperate to end the occupation they are saying that if a confederation with Jordan can save us from the evils of occupation, then we are willing to accept it,” says Daoud Kuttab, a veteran Palestinian journalist who spends part of his time in Jordan as director of the Community Media Network.

“The fact you are hearing this more now is a reflection of people’s desperation rather than desire.”

A recurring idea

Jordanian-Palestinian relations have at times been fraught. Following the 1967 Middle East war and Jordan’s loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinian aspirations for statehood were the source of serious tensions with the kingdom, including open conflict between Palestinian militias and the Jordanian Army in September 1970. And Jordan only surrendered its right to represent and administer the West Bank in 1988 after pressure from the Arab League.

The confederation idea resurfaces every few years. It was first proposed by King Hussein, the late father of Jordan’s current monarch, King Abdullah, then by pragmatic Palestinian thinkers, and, more recently, right-wingers in Israel.

But it is the support of this latter group – Israeli politicians trying to declare Jordan as an alternative “Palestine” – that has made the discussion of confederation especially taboo in Palestinian and Jordanian official circles.

Yet as the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute appears more distant, the idea of a confederation is appealing to the grassroots as a way to break the diplomatic impasse.

The proposal was raised publicly in mid-2016, when former Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam Majali called for a confederation while on a visit to the northern West Bank city of Nablus – a call echoed by Ghassan Shaaka, a former Nablus mayor and former member of the PLO Executive Committee. The declaration prompted speculation and debate in Palestinian and Jordanian press for months.

Revival of the longshot idea is being driven by more than just frustration with a peace process that has produced only limited autonomy on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It is also a result of the growing dissatisfaction with the aging Abbas, Yasser Arafat’s successor as chairman of the PLO, who is regarded as ineffectual and corrupt.

After several failed attempts at peace talks and amid the sustained expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Palestinians in Jordan say they now fear that Abbas and a weak PA leadership may negotiate away or lose their rights, whether it be the right of return to towns and villages within the 1967 borders, or compensation for those who cannot.

They point to Abdullah’s standing in Washington – and his reported influence over President Trump’s warning against Israeli settlement expansion and delaying of the previously imminent embassy move to Jerusalem – and say that entering an arrangement with Jordan would provide Palestinians with greater leverage and protection on the international stage.

“We need a leader that can influence the Americans and hold a strong stance with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu – Abbas and the Authority are not those leaders,” says Youssef Ziyadeh, a head of the Ziyadeh clan,which was dispersed from villages within pre-1967 Israel. “King Abdullah could be that leader.”

Disconnect with leadership

The PA has a large presence in Amman. It provides occasional food aid and financial assistance to vulnerable refugees, and Abbas frequently uses Jordan as a meeting point with international delegations.

But Palestinians in Jordan see PA officials, many of whom own sprawling villas in upscale West Amman, as far from the average person, paying lip-service to the more than 2 million refugees in the country while enriching themselves. There is no direct channel of communication between East Bank Palestinians and the PA, they say.

Officially, the Jordanian government, the PA, and state-influenced news outlets have shot down any talk of a confederation.

“Any talk about a confederation is unacceptable and undermines the effort to solidify the independence of a Palestinian state,” a Jordanian government source says, declaring that “the focus now should be on establishing a fully independent sovereign Palestinian state.”

Over the past year, however, East and West Bank community leaders have discussed the practicalities of confederation with Jordanian officials in meetings initiated by the Palestinians themselves, Palestinian and Jordanian officials say.

In their wake, Amman maintains that a Palestinian state must be established before any confederation could proceed, official sources say. Yet the proposal is one that is constantly considered by Jordan’s strategic planners.  

Meanwhile, the confederation idea is also gaining some supporters in the West Bank.

A survey taken by Nablus-based Najah University in October 2016 saw a solid plurality of West Bank residents in support of a confederation with Jordan, with 42.3 percent for such a union compared with 39 percent against.

And Palestinians’ faith that the two-state solution for the conflict with Israel is viable is at an all-time low. In a December 2016 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey, 31 percent of respondents said a two-state solution is viable, compared with 65 percent who say it is not.

Not a federation

Proponents of the idea stress that the arrangement would be a confederation between two independent states, not a federation of two entities such as Jordan’s previous annexation of the West Bank between 1948 and 1967.

Under the confederation proposal, power would not be shared by Palestine and Jordan. Rather, each state would have complete authority over its own internal and international affairs. The two states would enter a joint security agreement, which would likely see Jordanians taking part in helping secure the Palestinian state’s border.

A confederation could also mean big dollars for both sides, supporters say, by greatly easing the flow of goods across the Jordan River and allowing a Palestinian state to have direct and quick access to international markets.

Currently, direct trade between the West Bank and Jordan hovers around $160 million per year. Trade between Israel and the West Bank, meanwhile, totals over $3 billion.

“A confederation would be the best thing that could happen to the Palestinian and Jordanian economies,” says Abdelhakim al-Sanari, a Palestinian refugee from Hebron who says his garments business in Amman cannot meet the demand in Jenin, in the West Bank, because of Israeli restrictions and customs.

Lingering opposition

Large segments of Jordan’s population, meanwhile, remain fiercely opposed to confederation, mainly Jordanians of East Bank origin who fear a migration of Palestinians from the West Bank, as well as local Palestinians who fear their rights as refugees would be lost.

“If a confederation is handled wrong, Jordan would not see any stability on the West Bank or even at home in the East Bank,” says Oraib Rintawi, director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.

“For many, it is a non-starter – and that just won’t change.”

Other say it’s a moot point, for now.

“The problem is not whether the Palestinian territories need to be an independent Palestinian state or confederated with Jordan, the question is whether Israel is willing to end its control over these territories,” says Ghassan Khatib, political science professor at Bir Zeit University and former Palestinian cabinet member.

“If there is an end to the occupation, there is always the possibility of a confederation,” he said. “You cannot take this decision while you are under occupation.”

Nevertheless, several East Bank tribal leaders and hardline Jordanian nationalists, who have resisted even giving Palestinians in Jordan full political rights, say they now accept that a confederation between two separate states may be “inevitable.” 

“At the end of the day, if you want a security settlement and if you want a functioning economy in the West Bank, you will have to link it some way to Jordan,” says Abdul Hadi Majali, former Jordanian ambassador to the US, nationalist MP, and a leader of the influential Majali tribe.

“There is a Jordanian national identity and a Palestinian national identity, but that doesn’t mean that the two states cannot reach an agreement that respects both.”

By Taylor Luck
Correspondent
( 1695 words )
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5. The immigrant experience, reimagined through art

Art can get us to look at the world differently. And at this moment in particular, that is just what artist Nari Ward wants us to do. 

Jamaican-born Andrea Birch-Christian stands in front of artwork by Nari Ward after her May 4 naturalization ceremony at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The museum held the ceremony in conjunction with a survey of Mr. Ward’s work, which deals with issues of race, identity, and immigration.
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Alfredo Sosa/Staff
 

The 30 Sec. ReadNari Ward insists he’s not a political artist. But at a time when immigration has become a contentious political issue, the Vilcek Prize in Fine Arts winner has emerged as one of the most visible artists fostering conversations about the topic in ways that go beyond Republican and Democratic talking points. “I want to change the way someone may think about their own life,” says the Jamaican-born artist, who lives and works in a Harlem fire station. But he’s also challenging his audience to see things differently. Take “We the People” at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which is hosting a 20-year retrospective. The piece spells out the opening words to the preamble of the US Constitution in shoelaces. It’s an arresting image. And it epitomizes Mr. Ward’s style of repurposing everyday objects – most of which he culls from New York streets – to convey powerful messages. Ward loads his work with metaphor and dual meaning. That way, he says, viewers will draw their own conclusions. “I’m trying to find those middle spaces,” says Ward. “There’s always the contrast that creates the conversation.”

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5. The immigrant experience, reimagined through art

As if the process of becoming a US citizen weren't full of enough symbolism, Andrea Birch-Christian was naturalized inside an art museum.

“It feels good, it feels happy,” Ms. Birch-Christian said after the May 4 ceremony at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. This month, the ICA hosted its first naturalization ceremony, welcoming 137 immigrants from some 50 countries. The ceremony was done in conjunction with a survey of more than 20 years of work by the American visual artist Nari Ward. Like Birch-Christian, Mr. Ward immigrated to the US from Jamaica, in his case as a 12-year-old.

Birch-Christian and few (if any) of the newcomers had ever heard of Ward. They simply showed up at the location assigned by Citizenship and Immigration Services. But the swearing-in was a fitting addition to an exhibit meant to challenge notions of what it means to be American, organizers said.

“Art museums are important civic spaces for us to learn and connect,” museum director Jill Medvedow said during the event, noting that Ward’s work “illustrates what it is like for him to be an immigrant from Jamaica.”

But Ward’s work is more than an expression of his personal journey from Jamaica to New York, where he lives today. At a time when immigration has become a contentious political issue, he’s emerged as one of the most visible artists fostering conversations about the topic in ways that go beyond Republican and Democrat talking points.

Nari Ward appears in a 2013 self-portrait titled “Sun Splashed, Artin,” on display at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art as part of a large survey of his work.
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Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins and Havana

Ward’s work “just draws you in,” says Jessica Hong, a curatorial associate at the ICA in Boston. “It’s another invitation to explore these issues.”

To be sure, the museum couldn't have anticipated that the survey would become so relevant to the current political discussion. It originated in Miami in November 2015 and has also shown in Philadelphia. But the messages in his work have taken on new significance under the Trump administration. In another sign of Ward's growing cultural influence, he won this year's Vilcek Prize in Fine Arts. It's a $100,000 award given annually to immigrant artists.

One of the most prominent installations in “Nari Ward: Sun Splashed,” which runs through Sept. 4 in Boston, is “We the people.” The piece spells out the opening words to the preamble of the US Constitution in shoelaces. It’s an arresting image. And it’s an installation that epitomizes Ward’s style of repurposing everyday objects – most of which he culls from New York City streets – to convey powerful cultural and political messages.

But why shoelaces? Why not string or yarn or rope? When Birch-Christian and her husband, Sandy Christian, walked into Ward's show, they recognized images from their native Jamaica – but weren't sure what to make of the laces. Mr. Christian thought they could reference Jamaicans’ penchant for reusing common objects. 

Ward’s work is loaded with metaphor and dual meaning. That way, he says, viewers will draw their own conclusions. “I’m trying to find those middle spaces,” says Ward. “There’s always the contrast that creates the conversation.”

For him, the shoelaces served as a visual effect to “We the People” (the phrase is legible from a distance, but becomes more obscure the closer you get) and as a vehicle to make the piece collaborative. Ward sought to create individual connections with the powerful phrase. At other installations of the piece, many of the laces were donated by individuals. In Boston, members of the ICA’s teen group helped assemble the piece; youth groups at other museums have also been involved with its installation.

Nari Ward’s installation titled “Mango Tourist,” from 2011, uses foam strips laced with discarded electrical parts and mango seeds to create larger-than-life snowmen.
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Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Today, he lives and works in a former Harlem fire station and much of his art reflects his urban experience. Early in his career, he became known for utilizing found objects such as baby strollers and shopping carts. In 1993, in one of his first major installations, he assembled some 150 discarded strollers inside New York's New Museum for a piece called "Amazing Grace." Since then, his work has appeared in some of the biggest museums and exhibitions around the world.

Figuring out the meaning behind Ward's work can be something of a brain teaser. In one piece called “Iron Heavens,” he uses baseball bats and household oven pans to build an installation that seems eerie and dark. Ward explains he wanted to make a statement about rebirth and transformation by taking the bats – a symbol of the violence in New York City of the 1990s – and turning them into something peaceful by attaching cotton to each one. Another work called “Savior,” also from the 1990s, evokes an elegant figure emerging out of a rusty shopping cart. The body of the figure is constructed of plastic trash bags, fencing, and bottles. 

His recent work is less abstract, but no less complicated. His installation at the five-acre Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City in Queens is made up of a herd of sculpted goats – an animal that symbolizes sacrifice, hard work, or debauchery. “The goat is a starting point for a conversation around false exuberance,” he says.

The title of the show, “G.O.A.T., again,” references the Greatest Of All Time. Rappers and athletes commonly call themselves “goats.” Still, it’ll be hard to escape the political leanings – it also can be read as a commentary on Mr. Trump’s trademark boastfulness, as well as arrogance in general. The installation includes a neon sign that resembles one from Harlem’s Apollo Theater. On Ward’s sign, however, only the word “poll” is illuminated.

Ward insists he’s not a political artist. “I want to change the way someone may think about their own life,” he says. But he’s also challenging his audiences to see the world around them differently.

Consider the rebar jutting from the backs of his Socrates Sculpture Park goats. In one sense, it’s morbid. But Ward says it’s also an image of optimism, pointing out that many builders in Jamaica and other developing countries leave rebar exposed to make it easier to add more floors. “When I see the rebar sticking out the roof, I always think about it as optimistic possibilities for the next generation.”

Nari Ward: G.O.A.T., again" opened on April 29 at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens. The outdoor exhibit uses a heard of goats – an animal that symbolizes sacrifice, hard work, or debauchery – to make a statement about today's political and cultural exuberance.
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Courtesy the artist; Socrates Sculpture Park; Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua
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The Monitor's View

South Korea’s vote for a new business culture

 

The 30 Sec. ReadMoon Jae-in takes power in South Korea following a popular revolt that brought down the previous president, Park Geun-hye, in March on corruption charges. That issue matters to South Koreans (see yesterday’s report by Michael Holtz from Seoul). But it is Mr. Moon’s promise to challenge the dominance of the country’s family-run conglomerates, known by the Korean term for “wealth clans,” that best represents a new mood among South Koreans, especially the young. The victory for Moon as president could be a victory over the notion of hereditary succession in Korea’s giant conglomerates and could mark an important culture shift. Innovation in any country requires that employees be able to question their superiors or to move up the ranks by their talent and creativity – not by kinship.

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South Korea’s vote for a new business culture

For much of Asia, South Korea has been a model for decades, a success in both its democracy and its high-tech, high-income economy. Now after Tuesday’s election of a new president, it could become known for another aspect of progress. Its voters appeared to have rejected heredity as a claim of governance in both politics and business.

The election winner, Moon Jae-in, takes power following a popular revolt that brought down the previous president, Park Geun-hye, in March on corruption charges. Ms. Park is the daughter of a former strongman and a symbol of a fading nepotistic culture. But it is Mr. Moon’s promise to challenge the dominance of the country’s family-run conglomerates, known as chaebols (or “wealth clans”), that best represents a new mood among South Koreans, especially the young.

If Moon succeeds in pushing merit over bloodlines in business, the country could set a high standard against old notions about dynastic organizations across Asia – including the three-generational rule over North Korea by the Kim family.

Genes and pedigree need not be destiny in societies that flourish on freedom and opportunity.

Previous presidents, such as Kim Dae-jung in the 1990s, tried to break the chaebol system. The industrial giants did help build the economy after the Korean War. And these companies – such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and Hanwha – are now global competitors. But reform has been slow. The country now dislikes the chaebols but finds it difficult to create a new economic model.

Lately, however, many of the third-generation owners have proved arrogant or corrupt. Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae-yong, for example, is in jail on charges of bribery related to Park’s impeachment. Most of all, the chaebols’ dominance – about 80 percent of the economy – has prevented the growth of start-ups, which the country needs to spur innovation and create jobs.

For decades, the ideal career path for young Koreans has been to join a chaebol. But the companies have been shedding jobs. Youth joblessness is near 10 percent. South Korea needs a culture shift in corporate governance away from hereditary succession to professional management. Innovation in any country requires that employees be able to question their superiors or to move up the ranks by their talent and creativity – not by kinship.

Moon promises to help wean the young off working at chaebols by creating 810,000 jobs in the public sector and 500,000 more in the private sector. He would, for example, pay the salary of 1 in every 3 workers at small companies for three years. In addition, he plans new rules over the companies that would make them more transparent and make it difficult for owners to pass the baton to the next generation.

In a book about his work under a previous president, Moon wrote that “public awareness of people’s sovereignty took root” in the steady restoration of democracy since 1987. If he now uses his own presidential powers to erode a belief in biological heredity in business, Moon will have opened an added dimension of each individual’s sovereignty.

By The Monitor's Editorial Board
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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.

How is it ‘supposed to be’?

 

When something hoped for doesn’t happen, have you wondered if it’s because of human fault, fate, or a sign from God? This writer reasoned through to an understanding of underlying cause that gave her peace.

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How is it ‘supposed to be’?

Several years ago, I placed my house on the market to sell with the brave intent of moving clear across the country. However, months went by and there was no sale. I lowered the price twice, and made some minor cosmetic changes to make the property more appealing. Still there was no sale. Then I wondered if maybe this failure to sell was a “sign” from God that I wasn’t supposed to move after all. But then I thought more deeply about it.

If a student of mathematics has trouble solving an equation, that wouldn’t be a “sign” that the problem isn’t solvable. The student knows that because the principles of mathematics are already established, the solution has already been established. She also knows that she is fully capable of understanding and applying those principles correctly in order to find the right answer.

I realized that the fact that my house had failed to sell just meant that my house had not sold, and that believing that circumstance was a “sign” was superstition. To conclude that each event in our human experience – both good and bad – must have divine authority, is as unscientific as believing that the roll of the dice or the numbers on a lottery ticket are sanctioned by heaven.

It was my deep and earnest desire to understand God differently – not as another name for "fate," but as the divine Principle at work in my life. Turning away from human speculation about what was “supposed to be,” I focused on gaining an understanding of the true idea of what God is. The study of Christian Science had introduced me to God as an exact, dependable, invariable, and loving divine Principle governing our lives, including even necessary decisions like housing. Such peace followed these realizations! All confusion and uncertainty vanished as I reasoned from the basis of God being divine Principle. Within a month, the house sold, I moved, and settled into a new place. My peaceful understanding of my spiritual “home” stayed with me, much like a snail has its shell everywhere it goes.

What truly is “supposed to be” requires no anxious waiting for unseen mysterious forces to come into play and coalesce a plan. The fact is that God, good, is the only cause. Harmony and order are the effects. Speculation about what is humanly “supposed to be” must give place to these divine facts.

God’s will is invariable good, and can have no other conclusion but good in our lives.

The Monitor's founder Mary Baker Eddy writes: “Immortal Mind is God, immortal good; in whom the Scripture saith ‘we live, and move, and have our being.’ This Mind … is the divine intelligence, or Principle, of all real being; holding man forever in the rhythmic round of unfolding bliss, as a living witness to and perpetual idea of inexhaustible good” ("Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896," pp. 82–83). Understanding this true condition of our existence gives us a foundation upon which to build our expectations of the right resolution to any questions we face.

This article was adapted from an article in the Feb. 10, 2014, issue of The Christian Science Journal.

By Earlene Cox
( 521 words )
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Viewfinder

Ending a mission

Japanese soldiers from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan boarded a plane in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, today. The 350-strong Japanese military contingent is withdrawing after a five-year mission building infrastructure. The move coincides with rising violence in South Sudan, but a South Sudanese official indicated the troops’ departure was welcome, Reuters reported, because 'the government of South Sudan is able to control the country.'
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Jok Solomun/Reuters
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In Our Next Issue

( May 12th, 2017 )

 

Thanks for reading. Come back tomorrow. We’ll be looking at how Detroit’s new light-rail system, a symbol of hope for the city’s revival, may also be a study in how philanthropy, the private sector, and government can collaborate.

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