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.

Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

A walk in the park – a moment so iconic it’s become a cliché.

But for women in Iran, the freedom to walk outside enjoying the sun on their hair is anything but.

The country has opened a series of women-only parks, where women can take off the mandatory long coats and headscarves they must wear outside. There, they are free to exercise, dance, and play with their children.

“We hate the headscarf,” a retired nurse told The Guardian. “We are so happy to be able to go to a place where we can walk around uncovered, do sports, and sunbathe.”

Parks like Mother’s Paradise in Tehran are not without critics: Conservatives are concerned women will become “confused” if there is a place where they can walk uncovered. And feminists say the parks, policed by female guards, are yet another way to isolate women and keep them hidden.

There are also practical concerns: A lack of changing facilities and a prohibition on boys over age 5 complicate things for the moms for whom the parks are explicitly designed.

But, as one expert says, the parks offer religiously conservative women a taste of something they otherwise would not have: freedom. And that is a breath of fresh air.

1. Nuclear North Korea: what – and who – helped boost its rise?

The war of words escalated again this afternoon between Washington and Pyongyang. But beyond the question of brinkmanship, there are some important questions about how the Hermit Kingdom has managed to push forward nuclear capability in defiance of the rest of the world.

North Koreans gather for a rally at Kim Il-sung Square carrying placards and propaganda slogans, in an event orchestrated after the United Nations' latest round of sanctions, on Aug. 9 in Pyongyang, North Korea. (The sign says, 'Protect our nation to the death' and 'Hearts of 10 million people are burning.')
Jon Chol Jin/AP

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How has North Korea, perhaps the most isolated nation on the planet and one of the most heavily sanctioned, reached the point where it is on the brink of becoming a nuclear power and is issuing threats that seemingly are no longer unbelievable? The verbal volley arcing across the Pacific directly followed reports that Pyongyang had successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads to fit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. The North’s long journey to acquiring a military nuclear capability began in the aftermath of the Korean War, when the North found itself facing a US nuclear threat that at its height amounted to thousands of missiles, mostly based in South Korea. Pyongyang turned to the Soviet Union, which provided training and its first nuclear test reactor. The later demise of the Soviet Union is also thought to have provided North Korea with an infusion of nuclear expertise. But its latest dash to the nuclear finish line – a flurry of missile and nuclear tests – seems to be more a product of its own doing: a leadership willing to take risks, and a mentality that didn’t fear failure, but embraced it as an opportunity to learn.


Nuclear North Korea: what – and who – helped boost its rise?

Tensions arcing across the Pacific Ocean between North Korea and the United States have scaled fresh heights in recent days, with President Trump threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and Pyongyang responding by declaring its intent to prepare a missile assault on the waters around Guam.

Precipitating the verbal showdown was North Korea’s latest apparent breakthrough in its nuclear weapons program, which was just the most recent in a string of rapid advances that appear to have taken experts and analysts by surprise.

According to media reports Tuesday, the Defense Intelligence Agency has assessed that Pyongyang is now capable of sufficiently miniaturizing nuclear warheads so they can be affixed to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Word of that alarming development came less than two weeks after North Korea tested an ICBM that appeared capable of reaching the contiguous United States.

How has it come to this? How has the most isolated nation on the planet – and one of the most heavily sanctioned – reached the point where it is on the brink of becoming a nuclear power and issuing threats to the world’s leading power that seemingly are no longer unbelievable?

The seeds of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs were sown amid the chaos of the Korean War, as Pyongyang found itself at the receiving end of nuclear threats from the United States. Collaboration on nuclear technology with the Soviet Union followed soon after, and an influx of Russian scientists to North Korea after the collapse of the Soviet Union deepened the foundation for Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons.

In more recent years, a mindset that embraces failure as an opportunity to learn, and a greater willingness to upset the West, have all contributed to a rapid acceleration in both the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“The origins of North Korea’s nuclear program can be traced back to a reactor that the Soviet Union gave to North Korea,” says Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.

Piece of cold war puzzle

The Soviets’ IRT-2000 research reactor, procured by the Hermit Kingdom in 1962, was but a part of the nuclear cooperation between the two nations: North Korean nuclear specialists had already been spending time in the USSR, and in 1956 Pyongyang had become a member of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, based in Dubna, near Moscow.

From Moscow’s perspective, the motivation behind this collaboration was little more than a piece of the cold war puzzle.

Just as the United States “was spreading nuclear technology to client states, so the Soviet Union was doing the same,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Americas (IISS) in Washington. “The North Koreans then used it for their weapons program, but that was never the Soviets’ intention.”

The Soviet-North Korean cooperation took place in the wake of the Korean War, at a time when northeast Asia was awash with US nuclear weapons. At the peak, in 1967, 3,200 nuclear weapons were deployed in the Pacific theater by the United States, the bulk of them in South Korea.

The Soviets continued to provide nuclear assistance, but Pyongyang wanted more, and their quest took them to Beijing. But China declined to help, and requests “for atomic secrets were reportedly rebuffed in the 1960s and again in the 1970s,” says Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security.

In declining to assist the Hermit Kingdom in its endeavors, says Mr. Fitzpatrick of IISS, China was “being responsible,” refusing to be party to the spread of nuclear weapons. “Any nuclear weapons state has a rationale for not increasing the number of other nuclear weapons states,” Fitzpatrick adds. “It lowers the value of that currency.”

Soviet loss was Pyongyang's gain

It was then that the demise of the USSR in 1991, by all accounts, lent a fresh boost to North Korea’s efforts.

“There were a lot of Russian nuclear specialists kicking around after the collapse of European communism,” says John Merrill, a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Many of them are believed to have made their way to North Korea.

During the 1990s, it is also thought that North Korean nuclear expertise benefited from the proliferation network of Pakistani nuclear physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who allegedly exported such knowledge to Iran and Libya, as well.

The relationship between North Korea and Pakistan has been one of mutual benefit, with North Korea providing Islamabad some of its missile technology.

According to Ms. Hanham of the Middlebury Institute, Pyongyang’s missile program “also in a way originated from the Soviet Union,” their first foray into that field being the procurement of Soviet-made Scuds from Egypt. Thereafter, many of the North’s homegrown missiles were born through the reverse-engineering of Scuds; the medium-range No-Dong missile was essentially a stretched version of the same.

“Among so-called rogue states, North Korea is the most sophisticated,” says Bruce Cumings, a history professor at the University of Chicago whose work focuses, among other topics, on modern Korean history. “The Iranian missile tested a couple of weeks ago, for example, was basically a North Korean missile.”

Willing to take risks, and fail

Indeed, many analysts agree that whereas in the early days of both their nuclear program and their missile program the North Koreans were reliant on external sources, more recently their technology and expertise has become increasingly indigenous. And one reason for their rapid progress lately is their relative indifference to failure: they are far more likely to go ahead and test their weapons even when their confidence of success is low enough that most other nations would balk at the thought of testing.

“A little less than half of their tests have failed or exploded on launch,” says Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “And each time, whether it’s a success or a failure, they learn.”

There is another aspect to the speed of developments in recent years. With the resources of a state – even one weighed down by sanctions – at a weapons program’s disposal, the research is likely to be richly funded. And while there is no doubt that the ballistic missile program is a focus and a priority for North Korea’s leadership, says Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for missile defense at IISS, “the biggest change is that Kim Jong-un is willing to take greater risks to get to where he is.”

“Under Kim Jong-il [Kim Jong-un’s father and predecessor],” adds Mr. Elleman, “North Korea was less keen to alienate the West.”

As for China’s current role, some analysts believe Chinese companies do help North Korea smuggle certain goods across the border. Occasionally, state media pictures from Pyongyang reveal items of Chinese origin. In one of the recent missile launches, for example, the launch vehicle was thought by experts to be of Chinese origin, according to Ms. Collins of CSIS.

Yet as quickly as events are moving with regard to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons capabilities, and as inflammatory as the rhetoric may be on both sides of the Pacific, it may be worth remembering what drives North Korea’s determination to become a nuclear power.

Having felt under threat from US nuclear weapons for more than half a century, North Koreans have become convinced that the only way their regime will survive is if they, too, hold such a capability – to act as a deterrent.

“There’s no reason for all the hype,” says Dr. Cumings. “North Korea is achieving something they’ve long sought – to stabilize the situation.”


2. The power struggle that could shape Poland’s democracy

Both internal and external pressure has been unable to quell Poland's roiling constitutional crisis. But an unexpected party has quietly taken a stand for democracy: the country's president, previously seen as a figurehead.


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Since taking power in late 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) has been engaged in a broad campaign to centralize power and reduce the judiciary's independence. Critics say that under PiS, Poland is sliding toward authoritarianism. And neither widespread protests nor warnings from European Union officials have slowed down their momentum. But an unlikely power struggle between PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and President Andrzej Duda might derail PiS where others have failed. After two years of faithfully supporting even PiS’s most controversial policies, Mr. Duda last month vetoed two controversial judicial reform bills, surprising the country. This week, Duda blocked the appointment of two-score generals by the defense minister, a close ally of Mr. Kaczynski. So far, Kaczynski and PiS have played down the split, but experts say it could force the party to moderate. “Before [the vetoes] PiS looked like a monolith,” says Michał Bilewicz, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Warsaw. “Now … you can hear openly expressed criticism of right-wing journalists, intellectuals, who used to be highly supportive of PiS who are now suddenly highly critical.”


1. The power struggle that could shape Poland’s democracy

“The Chairman’s Ear,” a popular online satirical video series in Poland about the country's ruling party, leaves little doubt over who wields the power in Polish political life.

The titular chairman, operating out of his sparsely decorated office, holds no elected mandate. But he is at the eye of a sphere of bureaucrats and politicians, either buffoonish or easily cowed by the imperturbable puppetmaster. And through clever manipulation and subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) threats, he pushes those with real power to do what he wants – and to pamper his beloved cat, Mruczuś.

And at the opposite end of the spectrum – and always just outside the chairman's door – sits the sheepish Polish president. Episode after episode, he eagerly waits to get into the chairman's office to speak with the true kingmaker in Polish politics. But he is always stymied by the chairman's staff – who not only don't see the president as important enough to let into the inner sanctum, but don't even show him the respect of remembering his name correctly.

For many Poles, it's funny because it mimics their political reality.

The chairman is an obvious stand-in for the leader of the ruling, ultraconservative Law & Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. He has not held government office since 2007 and polarizes the Polish public, but enjoys nearly complete control of PiS.

Polish President Andrzej Duda makes a statement in Warsaw last month.
Alik Keplicz/AP

The impotent president is a proxy for President Andrzej Duda, formerly of PiS and still allied with the party. The 45-year-old Mr. Duda won the presidency in 2015. It was widely believed at the time that he was handpicked for branding purposes – a young, modern face who would attract voters beyond hardcore supporters but still allow Mr. Kaczynski to pull the strings. It worked. The party is the only in post-communist Poland to have won enough seats to govern without a coalition.

But that once predictable mode of operation began to fray in recent weeks, as PiS under Kaczynski tried to fundamentally reshape the independence of the country's judiciary. What should have been clean sailing for a trio of PiS bills to reform the system ran aground, as Duda – defying his “Chairman's Ear” caricature – signed vetoes thwarting two of the three laws.

Now, some in Poland are wondering if the president may turn out to be more than just a rubber stamp – and whether he may prove a moderating force against the hardline "chairman" who has been steering Poland's government unchallenged for so long.

“Before [the vetoes] PiS looked like a monolith,” says Michał Bilewicz, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Warsaw. "Now, for the first time, you can hear openly expressed criticism, of right-wing journalists, intellectuals, who used to be highly supportive of PiS who are now suddenly highly critical.”

The twin in mourning

The stakes of a power struggle within the halls of the Polish government are high, with the effects spanning far beyond a single party. Since taking power in late 2015, PiS has been engaged in a broad campaign to centralize power and reduce the judiciary's independence – a reform it claims is necessary to reduce corruption in the courts. It has also been one of the loudest critics of the European Union's plan to relocate refugees across the bloc. Critics say that Poland under PiS, much like Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is sliding toward authoritarianism. And neither widespread protests by PiS opposition on Polish streets nor warnings from officials in the EU, which provides Poland with significant funding, has slowed down their momentum.

Yet if Kaczynski and Duda continue to be at loggerheads, that might derail PiS where the Polish opposition and the EU have so far failed.

The leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, votes to approve a law on court control, in the parliament in Warsaw last month.
Alik Keplicz/AP

Officially, PiS dismisses any rift as “gossip.” Some even believe the vetoes were engineered to take the wind out of the sails of demonstrators.

But earlier this week the president blocked the appointment of reportedly more than forty generals by Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, a close ally of Kaczynski, keeping tensions with PiS leadership aflame.

This sort of dissent is not how Kaczynski, whom his biographer Michał Krzymowski calls one of the most important political figures to have emerged since 1989, intended the party he founded to operate. He was involved in a few movements in the 1980s and '90s, including the Solidarity trade union that helped bring down communist rule in Poland. In 2001 he and his identical twin brother, Lech, founded PiS. Four years later, PiS won parliament and Lech was elected president; a year after that, Kaczynski became prime minister.

But tragedy struck the Kaczynskis in 2010, one that has shaped the PiS leader's life since. In April 2010, Lech was killed when the Polish Air Force plane he was on crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk. The event seems to have made Kaczynski, already isolated, even more solitary. He has said he will mourn his brother’s death the rest of his life. He wears only black attire, even on vacation.

According to a recent profile in the Polish edition of Newsweek, Kaczynski's assistants do all his shopping for him, they buy his suits, and food for his cats (he is a well-documented cat lover). He used to share meals with his mother, with whom he lived, before she passed away. Now he usually eats alone.

The crash also put into sharp relief Kaczynski’s sense of victim and aggressor. He insists that the crash could have been a political assassination on the part of Russia, though no investigation has found any foul play. “His personal trauma has an impact on his political life and the whole politics in Poland,” says Mr. Krzymowski, who wrote “Jaroslaw: The Kaczynski secrets.”

Still, he appeals to a large swath of Polish society who shares his socially conservative, Catholic ethos and has failed to find footing in the post-communist economy. In the PiS chairman, Poles see someone who has eschewed the extravagance associated with Civic Platform, which ruled Poland during the boom years of the past decade, but exacerbated a sense of inequality and “them” vs. “us.”

The unknown president

Duda seems an unlikely foil for the strong-willed Kaczynski. The president rose through the ranks of PiS, but was relatively unknown when he ran for office. (He left the party upon being elected to the presidency, as is constitutionally required.) And over the past two years, he reliably agreed with every policy floated by PiS, even its most controversial like packing the Constitutional Tribunal.

Just like Kaczynski, he seems to eschew extravagance that the populace associates with the ruling classes. While he served as an EU parliamentarian, he put his high salary towards saving for an apartment for his daughter instead of moving into a more luxurious home.

And he too has close links to the Catholic church. As a teenager he was a boy scout and an altar boy. The day before he vetoed the controversial judicial bills, he was seen praying in the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa as demonstrations rose to tens of thousands in cities around the nation.

But Duda is also more than two decades younger than Kaczynski, which may factor into his decision to block PiS. Indeed, many first-time PiS voters, including youths and middle-class urbanites, were drawn the party precisely because Duda signaled that it was not just for those like Kaczynski who came of age during the cold war.

Jan Olszewski, who was prime minister in 1991-92, offered another reason why Duda may have taken a stand: The bills were simply badly written. Mr. Olszewski told a reporter in the Super Express daily newspaper that Duda’s decision showed that he is willing to stand up against legally flawed legislation. “For a lawyer, and everyone who knows the law, it would have been hard to sign it,” he said. “Pushing the bills at such a fast pace, we saw occur in previous parliaments. It's a shame that PiS hasn't changed these practices.”

Whatever Duda's motive, says Krzymowski, the Kaczynski biographer, “[Duda’s] vetoes are seen by Kaczynski as a betrayal.”

Dominik Tarczynski, a PiS lawmaker, dismisses talk of divisions within the party as politically motivated. He says that the vetoes show democracy is working in Poland. “It is [Duda's] constitutional right. He has his own view. He has his own opinion,” says Mr. Tarczynski. “We are the political party. We are in the parliament. He is the president of Poland.... This is the normal democratic way.”

A new dynamic?

According to the latest opinion polls, 78 percent of Poles support the vetoes, but only 50 percent of PiS supporters do. Now the bills are being amended.

Meanwhile, the party itself is still as popular as ever – in fact, according to a recent poll, their approval rating has grown to 40 percent, higher than before the bills were written. But Mr. Bilewicz contends that the divisive rhetoric the party employed to support its judicial reform and criticize foes – which was absent during its electoral campaign – may have backfired internally, and perhaps not surprisingly: It is right-wing conservatives, Bilewicz's studies have shown, who are most repelled by radical language.

He says criticism that he has seen emerge from conservatives over governmental policies, such as demands for German war reparations or plans to continue forest logging, is a sign that it could be harder for the party to move forward with its program as easily as it has in the past two years. “It will be hard for them to effectively govern once they lose support from former PiS-supporting intellectuals.”

On the other hand, Piotr Wawrzyk, a political analyst at Warsaw University, says he doesn’t believe that PiS unity will erode because Kaczynski appealed to PiS bases to accept Duda’s constitutional right. “[His] voice is the most important, so when he said that they had to come to terms with that, it is closing the case,” he says.

In the end, Duda and Kaczynski might have to accommodate each other, says Krzymowski, because neither can survive without the other.

“Kaczynski can be very brutal towards people who betrayed him. He is very emotional. But he is also very pragmatic, and I think that a cold calculation will win at the end, because both Kaczynski and Duda need each other,” he says. “After the vetoes, there will never be a love relationship between them, but I don't think they will attack each other so openly. It will be a cold war.”

• Sara Miller Llana contributed to this report from Paris.


3. What a cut in legal immigration could mean for US economy

Beyond humanitarian questions, economists say, cutting back at a critical moment of demographic change comes with substantial risks.


Job-takers – or next drivers of growth?

SOURCE: Decennial Censuses (1890-2000), American Community Survey, National Academy of Sciences, US Department of Homeland Security, Pew Research Center
Laurent Belsie and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

American close-ups

Reports from the road

4. How Peru, Indiana, got its groove back

What brings people back to a "dying" town? A vignette from Peru, Ind. – where circuses used to winter in the early days of the 20th century – offers a window into one town's homegrown, hard-fought renaissance.


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The silence of empty storefronts has become a common soundtrack in many American small towns. But to Steve Dobbs of Peru, Ind., it is the sound of opportunity, a void that can be filled by fixing up abandoned buildings, by reigniting the lost ambitions of businessmen, by tapping a small core of youthful dreamers trying to give the town another chance. Populations of small towns have plummeted over the past 100 years, as urbanization has topped 80 percent. And Peru’s story has been no different. But recently, residents, who were raised here and left for school or work, are returning and helping to revitalize the community, one business, one building at a time. Sandra Tossou grew up in Peru, then fled for culinary college and became a fast-rising star. She later returned to open a bakery in her hometown. “Some people think I took a step back from the limelight,” acknowledges Ms. Tossou. “But it depends on your definition of success. In this community, I stepped into the limelight.”


How Peru, Indiana, got its groove back

The settling quiet of Main Street in small-town America – so few cars now, shops closed, not so many people – is like a seashell held to the ear: It sounds different to each one who listens.

To a stranger coming to this central Indiana town, it is the silence of empty storefronts, of the stoplight blinking at the main crossroad with no traffic in sight, of a far-off lawn mower snarl echoing down empty avenues. It is the sound of a town dying.

To Sandy Ploss, it is a quiet that rings with the history of circuses that once filled this town with performers and trainers and riggers at their winter quarters – a history she helps preserve with the kids of Peru, who put on an annual Amateur Circus.

To Steve Dobbs, it is the sound of opportunity, a void that can be filled by fixing up abandoned buildings, by reigniting the lost ambitions of businessmen, by tapping a small core of youthful dreamers trying to give the town another chance.  

The United States Census Bureau has been documenting America’s move to cities for a century. In 1920 the number of Americans living in cities exceeded those in small towns and rural areas. Today that urbanization tops 80 percent. The population of most small towns has plummeted.

So it is in Peru (whose name was apparently a whim of its founder, who wanted something shorter than nearby Mexico, Ind.). By the early 1900s, the county claimed about 40,000 people. That was when the rail lines were bustling and circuses camped outside of town, filling Peru with transients, although the Census Department put the permanent population at 8,000-12,000. Once a canal town, it became a busy rail crossroads, later the host to a large Air Force base, and was the hub of economic activity.

“Peru was the place everyone from the surrounding area came to shop,” says Shirley Griffin, the town’s chief historian and archivist of the Miami County Museum.

But then the rail traffic slowed, and two lines pulled out. The circuses began to winter in Florida, instead. The Air Force downsized to a reserve base in 1994, wiping out 4,500 jobs.  Multinational banks bought out local ones, replacing institutions of 80 workers with small branches staffed by eight. Big manufacturers did the same. Senger Dry Goods, the three-story department store that was “the Walmart of its day,” according to Ms. Griffin, closed, leaving her museum a huge space to house the town’s memories.

The population dropped. It’s little more than 11,000 now, and still falling, according to the Census Bureau. Businesses moved. Restaurants closed. People vacated their frame homes, aligned soldierly on the straight avenues, to withstand the elements alone.

“Yes, it’s a dying town,” concludes Bonnie Arrick, a septuagenarian who grew up here, moved away three times, and returned each time.

That, say the folks who live here, is the thing about small towns. Lots of people leave, but some come back.

The pull of home can be strong, says the mayor, Gabriel Greer. He went away to college, studied in London, and eventually returned to Peru. “You talk to any 16- or 17-year-old in Chicago or New York or Peru, and they all say the same thing: I want to get out of here. But then they reach a certain age, and they want to give their kids the kinds of experiences they had.”

The heyday of manufacturing will not come back, Mayor Greer says. But instead of trying to get jobs to come to Peru, he wants to make Peru a place people want to live. Jobs will follow.

Those who do live here offer the expected sales pitch for small towns. It’s a great place to let kids grow and roam. No traffic jams to work. You know your neighbors. Prices are cheap.

So they are not giving up. Greer acknowledges the town is trying to buck population trends but says a new spirit and some new businesses are creating “a bit of a renaissance.” Like small towns all around the Midwest, he says, they are scraping for solutions.

For Ms. Ploss, that may be the circus. The town bills itself as “Circus Capital of the World” from its days as the winter hub for many traveling shows. The professional troupes are gone, but the town rigorously trains 200 kids a year in the arts of trapeze, tumbling, and high-wire walks, and puts on 11 polished shows each summer.

“If you’re a kid in Peru, you don’t have to run away to the circus. It’s right in your backyard,” says Ploss, the granddaughter of circus great Clyde Beatty.

“They think they are learning circus acts,” chuckles the town’s prosecuting attorney, Bruce Embrey, who has served as ringmaster for 37 years. “But what we are really teaching them are life skills. If you have the confidence to let go of a trapeze bar 30 feet above ground and fly toward a teenager you trust to catch you, you will have confidence for life.”

Maybe the town’s draw will be its history. A new pub – Dillinger’s – named after the famous bank robber, opened recently. John Dillinger himself stopped by town in 1933, the story goes, to hold up Peru’s police station and replenish his supply of weapons and ammo. Oh, and composer Cole Porter was born here.

Maybe it will be a spiffier look. Mr. Dobbs returned with his wife, a cousin of Porter, so she could practice farm law and they could raise their kids. Looking for cheap space for her law office, Dobbs says, they ended up with a three-story building, once a Montgomery Ward, right downtown. Fixing up that building launched Dobbs, with other mostly young professionals, to begin a campaign to tear down plywood and renovate building fronts.

“We can’t attract new businesses if they drive through town and see boarded up stores and abandoned houses,” he says. “We want to be in the running.”

Sandra Tossou signed on. She grew up here, then fled for culinary college in Rhode Island, and became a fast-rising star in the rarified world of pastry chefs, studying in Ireland, then holding top kitchen jobs at some of the best hotels in America.

She left it all five years ago to make wedding cakes and cupcakes and run a cozy bakery shop in downtown Peru, slowly watching her business grow and the vacant buildings beside her begin to fill.

“Some people think I took a step back from the limelight,” acknowledges Ms. Tossou, in the bright open kitchen of her bakery. “But it depends on your definition of success. In this community, I stepped into the limelight.”

Correction: Bruce Embrey was a ringmaster for 37 years.


5. A famed Tibetan horse festival – with politics in the wings

On the Tibetan Plateau, a famous festival still features feats of derring-do on horseback. But for those whom this isn't their first rodeo, it has become entangled in questions about politics and the suppression of the Tibetan identity. 

A Khampa horseman performs tricks at the annual horse-racing festival in Yushu City in Qinghai province, China. The remote Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is home to Tibet's historically strongest warriors, the Khampa, who showcase their culture at the horse-racing festival.
Ann Hermes/Staff

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On the eve of this famous horse festival, held in a vast valley on the Tibetan Plateau, one young rider is brimming with excitement. “When I’m riding a horse everything is perfect. It’s like flying,” he says. “I hope we can have this festival forever.” Yet for many local Tibetans, the event is a husk of its former self, tainted by years of heavy-handed propaganda and brash commercialization. After an earthquake hit in 2010, the Chinese government paid for a stadium on the city outskirts, and has maintained tight control ever since: using the performances, critics say, to send a message that traditional Tibetan culture is alive and well, despite reports of repression. Many locals appreciate the boost in business, but say they feel conflicted because of the dwindling authenticity. “I haven’t been here for three or four years,” says one caterpillar-fungus salesman. As he watches from outside the stadium’s gate, five soldiers march past – all of them ethnically Han, like most Chinese citizens. “Local people don’t come here anymore,” he says. (Beijing bureau chief Michael Holtz reported with staff photographer Ann Hermes. Expand the story to see her images, or view even more in this gallery.)


1. A famed Tibetan horse festival – with politics in the wings

The opening ceremony of the annual Tibetan horse festival here officially begins by lighting a bundle of mulberry branches at the north end of the stadium, which sits in a treeless valley ringed by rolling hills. As the fire begins to smolder, 20 People’s Liberation Army soldiers march onto the field in tight formation. They lead a procession of thousands of ethnically Tibetan men, women, and children wearing brightly colored costumes, and 200 Buddhist monks and nuns dressed in maroon-and-saffron robes.

The highlights of the ceremony, though, are the daring stunts performed by the 150 or so riders – all with their horses galloping at full speed. Some carry a rifle in one arm and shoot small paper targets set on the ground. Others hang off the side of their horses to snatch white ribbons off the field. A small few do headstands on their saddles. Fireworks explode over the stadium halfway through the three-hour ceremony. 

It’s an impressive sight for those lucky enough to get tickets – which aren’t for sale, but handed out by government officials. Yet for many local Tibetans, the horse festival is a husk of its former self, tainted by years of heavy-handed propaganda and brash commercialization. 

“I haven’t been here for three or four years,” says Dawa Jiangcai, a local caterpillar-fungus salesman (used in traditional medicine, the prized fungus fetches a high price). As he watches the ceremony from outside the stadium's north gate, five soldiers march past on the gravel path beside him – all of them are ethnically Han, like more than 90 percent of Chinese citizens. “Local people don’t come here anymore,” he says. 

A Tibetan performer watches as PLA soldiers line up next to the stands at the annual horse-racing festival in Yushu. After an earthquake hit Yushu in 2010 the Chinese government became increasingly involved in the management of the festival. Critics claim it's an attempt to appropriate Tibetan culture for its own purposes.
Ann Hermes/Staff

The horse festival has long been one of the most celebrated events in Yushu, or Gyêgu in Tibetan, a county-level city on the Tibetan Plateau in the western province of Qinghai. It draws thousands of spectators every year. At the stadium, we meet a businessman from Nepal and a Han couple from Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, as well as dozens of Tibetans from across the plateau.

Tourists like these provide a substantial boost to Yushu’s relatively weak economy, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by local business owners. Hundreds of vendors set up stalls outside the stadium to sell food and Tibetan handicrafts. But many say they’re conflicted about the tradeoff between their growing profits and the festival’s dwindling authenticity.

“Even though we now have improved living standards and the government pays more attention to these cultural activities, I feel it’s more formalized,” says a local Tibetan who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from the government. “Local people cannot feel free and open like before.”

The heavy presence of Chinese police and military forces doesn’t help. People's Liberation Army soldiers have been assigned to horse festivals like the one in Yushu since violent riots and protests in the Tibetan region in 2008. In the city’s central square, two fire extinguishers sit on the ground in front of a police van. They serve as a grim reminder of the more 140 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in the subsequent years to protest Chinese rule.

Critics say that in the face of this simmering unrest, government officials have turned the Yushu horse festival into a propaganda tool – a way to show the world that traditional Tibetan culture is alive and well and the people here are happy, despite reports to the contrary.

In recent years, China has restricted the teaching of the Tibetan language as part of ongoing campaigns to encourage ethnic minority groups’ assimilation into Chinese culture. At the same time, Chinese government workers have been dismantling buildings and evicting residents at Larung Gar, one of the world’s largest centers of Tibetan Buddhist learning, in what Tibetan rights activists say is just the latest example of state-sponsored repression.

“Chinese authorities think they can use events like the horse festival to serve their political interests,” says Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based advocacy group that supports self-determination for Tibetans. “What has happened is that they have increasingly gained control over them.”

In 1994, the government launched a festival to celebrate the Kham culture of eastern Tibet, an ethnically distinct region known for its fierce warriors. The idea for the festival was proposed by Gama Tuga, a renowned local historian, who had spent seven months traveling around the region.

Mr. Gama died earlier this year, but his son, Gama Gangsen, says his father’s dream was to bring the Kham people closer together. Four counties take turns hosting the festival every two to four years.

The horse festival, which is a separate event from the Kham culture festival, started in the early 1980s. It’s been held annually in Yushu for the last four years. 

Local Tibetans watch rehearsals of the Yushu Horse-Racing Festival's opening ceremony from the outskirts of the stadium.
Ann Hermes/Staff

In 2010, a massive earthquake hit Yushu, killing nearly 2,700 people and leading the government to cancel the festival for four years. As the city rebuilt itself, the government paid for a new stadium on its western outskirts. It has maintained tight control over the festival ever since. Like the newly built city around it, local residents say, the horse festival became overly commercialized and all too modern. 

“For several years before my father passed away, he seldom went to horse festival,” the younger Gama says. “If my father doesn’t want to see what he doesn’t like, he will not go there.” 

For locals like Gama, the heart of the festival is on the Batang Grasslands, an expansive plain about a half-hour drive south of the city. This is where many of the horse races take place in the days after the opening ceremony. Local people say they are more authentic than the events held inside the stadium.

On the eve of the festival, Dorge, a 20-year-old rider, is brimming with excitement as he stands next to his horse and thinks about the days ahead.  

“When I’m riding a horse everything is perfect. It’s like flying,” he says. “I hope we can have this festival forever.” 


The Monitor's View

The lesson of the Google firing for innovation

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Besides generating discussion, the flap this week over a Google engineer’s memo on diversity may help elevate the debate over how best to foster the kind of innovation that drives higher productivity. Innovation in today’s industries thrives on a diversity of thought and values. Yet the thoughts expressed in meetings, memos, or hiring practices must not limit the inherent qualities of others. Pegging a person’s skills and talents based on sex runs a high risk. It can hinder thinking by ignoring an individual’s particular traits – or ability to acquire a greater diversity of traits. Men and women can possess a mix of the traits and attributes commonly divided into feminine or masculine. An employer’s task is to find the right blend and balance – without discriminating by sex. To hire or promote a man or woman based on sex only adds to the possible limits on innovation.


The lesson of the Google firing for innovation

Just days after Google fired an engineer for writing a memo that stereotypes women for traits that allegedly hinder innovation, Americans received a federal report about their pace of innovation reflected in the workplace. The productivity of nonfarm workers grew at an annualized rate of only 0.9 percent. That’s far lower than the historic highs of the 20th century. And it is lower than the 1.2 percent average over the period of 2007 to 2016.

The United States must do better in boosting its inventiveness, efficiency, and investment in ideas. Here’s why: “If labor productivity grows an average of 2 percent per year, average living standards for our children’s generation will be twice what we experienced,” Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer said in a July speech.

The Google firing was perhaps good timing. It may help elevate the debate over what can lift the limits on the kind of innovation that drives higher productivity, especially outside places like Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, and Seattle.

Stereotyping a person or a whole group of people does not help, especially if such labeling is rooted in biological determinism. Women, for example, should not be penalized by an employer or a fellow worker who believes they are especially likely to leave the workforce if they have children.

Innovation in today’s industries thrives on a diversity of thought and values, beyond the traditional model of a lone genius. Yet the thoughts expressed in meetings, memos, or hiring practices must not limit the inherent qualities of others. Pegging a person’s skills and talents based on sex  runs a high risk. It can hinder thinking by ignoring an individual’s particular traits – or ability to acquire a greater diversity of traits.

In addition, the variety of attributes commonly divided into feminine or masculine is necessary for a workplace to be innovative. It stirs discussion in new directions or allows a company to be more sensitive to the needs of diverse customers and clients.

Men and women can possess a mix of those traits. An employer’s task is to find the right blend and balance – without discriminating by sex. To hire or promote a man or woman based on sex only adds to the possible limits on innovation.

The Google firing will linger on as either a lawsuit or as a controversy over free speech in private companies. But for the sake of innovation and higher productivity, it should also provide valuable lessons on the need to lift mental limitations in the workplace.


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.

Who, really, are you?

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Many see themselves, and others, as more than just an assemblage of physical characteristics. Qualities of thought and character, such as kindness and intelligence, also contribute to how we think about people. And such qualities also point to a deeper sense of identity: our spiritual, capable, purely good identity as God’s own creation. A growing understanding of our true identity as the idea of God, divine Mind, brings help and healing. Christian Scientist Mark Swinney recounts a time playing baseball when he was floored by a pitch that hit him in the head. He prayed right then and there, and it came to him that at every moment, we are what Mind knows us as. He saw how our goodness and wholeness are defended by God. Mr. Swinney was able to get up and finish the game free of pain, without so much as a mark where the ball had hit him. Understanding even just a bit of our unbreakable relation to God, good, brings help and healing.


Who, really, are you?

What is the true nature of our identity? Some may believe they know us just because they see our bodily features. Other people, no doubt, see themselves and others as more than just an assemblage of physical characteristics. For instance, I like to watch for things such as kindness, a sense of humor, or an insightful intellect. Those kinds of qualities, while nonphysical, can make a significant impression.

Such qualities point to an even deeper sense of identity – how God created us. My understanding of our God-given identity is that we are utterly spiritual, capable, and purely good. God reveals this spiritual, wonderful nature to each one of us. And getting to know this deeper idea of ourselves isn’t just a philosophical or theoretical exercise. It has a “here and now” value. I’ve found that consciously trying to better understand the spiritual truth about myself is active, healing prayer. Contrastingly, focusing a lot of thought on my body and my personal opinions can distract from that.

Here’s one way I think about this. In my wallet, I have a driver’s license. I only think about this document, however, when someone needs to see it to verify my identity. I certainly know that it’s there, yet on any given day my overall attention to this license is minimal.

Similarly, while I take care of my day-to-day needs, of course, I endeavor to be primarily focused on the spiritual identity we each have in our oneness with God, divine Mind. This is more of a continual, intentional activity. And the more we do this, the better!

Once, when I was playing baseball, a pitch struck me on the side of my head. I fell to the ground, and as I lay there, I prayed deeply, asking God for a better understanding of what I am.

It came to me that I am, in actuality, what divine Mind is knowing me to be. To be what God knows about me is, in fact, my purpose. In every moment, I am the creation of Mind. In every moment, I am defended by Mind. In every moment, I am fulfilled by Mind. In every moment, I represent Mind. This is spiritually true about each one of us.

This deeper sense of my true identity superseded everything, freeing me from pain and fear. I stood up and trotted to first base. There was no bruise, or even a mark, where the ball had hit me.

Understanding even just a bit of our unbreakable relation to God helps us if we’re feeling intimidated by a situation or injury. Christ Jesus pointed us to the freedom that comes when the truth is known (see John 8:32). It’s worth taking time to consider what we really are in this way. Under God’s authority, we have the right to say, “I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12, New Revised Standard Version). Realizing that the infinite nature of God, good, leaves no place for God’s opposite within us brings help and healing.



Rail, first built for mail

A museum worker sits in a battery-powered train on the Mail Rail tracks of the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office underground station in London. The six-mile postal line, put into service in 1915 as a way of sidestepping the street traffic above, was decommissioned in 2003. It will reopen next month as a tourist attraction.
Hannah McKay/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

In Our Next Issue

( August 11th, 2017 )

Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks so much for joining us. Come back tomorrow, when Scott Peterson will be reporting from Iraq. While Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Mosul over the Islamic State July 9, civilians still face threats from hidden jihadis. Scott has been talking to people who have escaped the violence.

Monitor Daily Podcast

August 10, 2017
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