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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

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

2018
February
09
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

The stock market got whipsawed. The federal government flirted with another partial shutdown. A domestic-abuse case roiled the White House inner circle.

Amid all of that a private rocket soared.

More powerful than anything since the Saturn V that carried Apollo missions on its back, it took along a red Tesla Roadster as its test payload. Perhaps the most enduring visual of the week was that car, the big blue marble behind it, a spacesuited mannequin projecting a casual bliss from the driver’s seat.

Elon Musk is no citizen scientist. More like Earth's deep-pocketed chief innovation officer. But workaday scientists at the root of great advances keep quietly pushing at the boundaries of thought. This week a team studying the DNA of a skeleton found in 1903 in a cave near the village of Cheddar, England, discovered that the 10,000-year-old “Cheddar Man” would have had dark-pigmented skin.

As one archaeologist on the project told The Guardian, “these imaginary racial categories that we have are really … very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.”

In the United States more than 60 PhD candidates in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – will reportedly be running for political office at some level this year. That can be cast as a wave of “resistance.” Or it can be seen as an encouraging trend: deeper social engagement by men and women committed to the steadying hand of demonstrable truth.

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Now to our five stories for today, chosen to highlight the importance of clear intentions, of casting a critical eye on "progress," and of recognizing the power of connection.

1. An Olympics of peace and unity? Sizing up an overture.

What does North Korea’s participation in the South Korean-hosted Winter Games really mean for the peninsula? To some observers, Pyongyang looks like a party crasher seeking feel-good photo ops but not contributing much. Others see the “joint Olympics” as an experiment in cooperation that at the very least is better than inertia.

Petr David Josek/AP
North Korea's Hwang Chung-gum and South Korea's Won Yun-jong arrive under a flag promoting a unified Korea during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Feb. 9.

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The idea of an Olympic truce goes back to the earliest days of the ancient games; the first one was declared in 776 BC. And with this year’s Winter Games opening today in South Korea, President Moon Jae-in is hoping to build on that tradition. A North Korean team is participating, and North Korea’s ceremonial head of state is attending, Mr. Moon would like to see athletic competition lead to political reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula. But is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un serious, or is his Olympic overture just flimflam? He has been stepping up his nuclear and missile testing recently, and threatening the United States. President Trump has warned of “fire and fury” to dissuade him. The South Korean government is trying to head off a potentially catastrophic confrontation by laying the groundwork for negotiations. But talks have been under way, on and off, for more than 20 years, and they haven’t stopped the North. If Mr. Kim’s Olympic gesture turns out to be all icing and no cake, says one South Korean analyst, “we’ll be back to Square 1.”

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1. An Olympics of peace and unity? Sizing up an overture.

If US threats of “fire and fury” do not stop them, try Olympic ice skates.

That seems to be the thinking behind South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s eagerness to welcome North Korea to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics – and share the global stage that Seoul has been seeking for more than 15 years. But he is taking a big gamble.

Mr. Moon has dubbed the Games that open today the “Peace Olympics,” and expressed hope that they might pave the way for more substantive efforts to end the North’s nuclear program after two years of rising tensions. If they fail to do so, however, the Olympics could mark the end of the road for peaceful diplomacy.

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signaled his willingness last month to send a delegation to the Games, Mr. Moon warmly welcomed the 22 athletes, including skiers, hockey players, and a pairs figure skating couple who skated their Olympic qualifying performance to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

“It can be very symbolic to show that the Korean people are one people in one nation and to try to revive that nationalistic feeling,” says Kim Ji-yoon, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Seoul. “I think the Olympic Games can also help lure the North Koreans to the negotiating table. I don’t really think it’s going to be a very significant step, but still, it’s a good point to start to talk, any kind of talk.”

Some 61 percent of South Koreans approve of North Korea’s participation in 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and 53 percent expect that the Games will improve inter-Korean relations, according to a Korea Press Foundation poll published Jan. 31. But Moon’s move has been met with a good deal of skepticism and even anger, particularly over his last-minute announcement that the two Koreas would field a joint women’s ice hockey team – meaning some South Korean players would be sidelined.

“The North Korea thing has kind of ruined the Olympics,” says Park Junghwan, a young man in Seoul who doesn’t think talks will yield any fruit – a view that he says was shaped in part by his mandatory military service. “North Korea did this kind of thing before – they were developing nuclear weapons and they came here and said some peaceful things. It is the same this time.” 

Give peace a chance?

Welcoming North Korean athletes is in keeping with the pure Olympic spirit, says B.J. Shin, who served as vice president for the Korean Olympic Committee for 15 years. As Korea’s chef de mission at the 2004 Athens Olympics, he marched side by side with his North Korean counterpart behind a Korean Peninsula flag – as the two teams are doing at this year’s opening ceremony.

The North Korean delegation will feature pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, the only North Koreans to qualify on merit. A dozen female ice-hockey players will compete on a joint team with South Korea – the real novelty of these games – while several skiers and two short-track speed skaters will compete under their own flag on a special invitation from the International Olympic Committee.

While Mr. Shin supports the athletes’ participation and agrees in principle with Moon’s push for talks, he doesn’t see any sign that Mr. Kim will give up his pursuit of ever more powerful nuclear weapons.

“President Trump, he’s right,” says Shin, who visited North Korea twice as CEO of Philips Electronics Korea. “This guy – he’s not moving. He’s not moving one millimeter.”

South Korea’s Olympic overture comes after an unprecedented escalation of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, which have accelerated despite US threats and increasingly punitive United Nations sanctions. In the past two years alone, Kim has fired more missiles than his father and grandfather launched in 25 years.

Moon, whose parents fled North Korea, was born in a North Korean refugee camp and strongly supports negotiations – to Washington’s dismay. When Mr. Trump declared on Twitter that “Talking is Not the Answer” last fall, Foreign Affairs pointed out that Moon – a practicing Roman Catholic – was embracing the “diplomacy of encounter,” a philosophy advocated by Pope Francis.

Some see North Korea’s Olympic bid as a deliberate attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. Certainly, its team’s presence in Pyeongchang draws attention towards the Korean aspects of the peninsula’s division – suggesting it is up to the two neighbors to resolve themselves. That distracts from the international aspects of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat to other countries, which poses a global problem.

Moon’s penchant for diplomacy has come in for criticism not only from conservatives at home and in the United States, but also from many of the young people who were key to his electoral victory last May. While they are progressive on social issues, they are far less inclined than their parents to make nice with North Korea.

Stefano Rellandini/Reuters
Performers take part in the opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Feb. 9.

Better together? Not for the young

Their parents largely still see Korea as one country, tragically and artificially divided.  The younger generation views North Korea as a foreign country whose society and system of government are alien.

Whereas their parents grew up stocking emergency food rations and keeping the bathtub full in case of war, they have resigned themselves to the fact that a war today could explode at the press of a nuclear button – and that there would be nowhere to flee.

Nor are they moved by ethnic nationalism, a move some see as positive in a broader sense, but not for Korean unification. Some 71.2 percent of 20-something South Koreans oppose reunification, according to a 2017 survey by the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. Many cite the economic burden that reunification imposed on West Germany, and point out that North Korea is far worse off than East Germany was.

Choi Jin-sun and Hwang Do-kyung, two young Korean women waiting in Seoul for their train to Pyeongchang, where the winter Games are being held, say they support negotiations in principle but are not hopeful about the results. 

“Talking is better than nuclear bombs,” says Ms. Choi.

“We should try as much as we can,” Ms. Hwang agrees, “but I think North Korea will not cooperate.”

That is a view increasingly held by pundits too. They will be looking beyond North Korea’s Olympic charm offensive for a sign of a shift in behavior. If the nuclear tests and missile launches pick up again when the Games are over, it could become a “we told you so” moment for conservatives.

“If North Korea insists upon the same behavior or even ups the ante, then everything will go back to square one,” says Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at the Institute for North Korean Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

“It will only provide a very useful justification and legitimacy to the Trump administration and the conservatives in South Korea and in Japan to claim that, ‘Look, we have given a chance to Pyongyang and Seoul to settle this case in a peaceful manner, taking advantage of the Olympic Games, but it utterly failed and … we have exhausted all the diplomatic tools. Now it is time to turn to something else.’ ”

In other words, if ice skates don’t cut it, we could be back to warlike threats of “fire and fury.”

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2. In series of attacks in Afghanistan, a message from Pakistan

Simplifying a conflict may not always be a winning strategy. The US may be finding that out as it tightly focuses on the steep military challenges in Afghanistan – sometimes without regard for its disintegrating relationship with Pakistan.

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Months after President Trump signaled he was stepping up the US war effort in Afghanistan, he turned his attention to Pakistan, the at-times troublesome US ally next door. On Jan. 1 he tweeted that Pakistan gives “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.” Days later the United States suspended $2 billion in security assistance to Pakistan, demanding “decisive action” against the Taliban. For Afghanistan, things went downhill from there, as four attacks attributed to the Taliban and the local branch of Islamic State killed more than 150 people. While Pakistan denies harboring Taliban and other hard-line Islamists, analysts say the midwinter spasm of violence can be traced to Islamabad. Even as the Taliban has grown and evolved, notes one, Pakistan has kept close ties with the most extreme elements. And a Western official in Kabul says the flow of military-grade explosives across the border points to a state sponsor. “The widespread assumption is that this [violence] is Pakistan pushing back against the new American strategy,” he says. “If we continue down this path [of pressure] – and I think we will continue down this path – it’s going to continue getting worse.”

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In series of attacks in Afghanistan, a message from Pakistan

Why, in the dead of winter, two months before the traditional start of Afghanistan’s fighting season, has the country been rocked by four attacks that killed more than 150 people?

The trigger was not a change in the Taliban’s fighting calendar, analysts say, nor was it necessarily evidence of intensified competition between Taliban and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) to lead the insurgency against the Western-backed government.

Rather, they say, it was a violent Pakistani response – using its Islamist insurgent clients – to President Trump’s recent pressure on Pakistan to rein in militant sanctuaries, or else.

A Western official in Kabul who asked not to be further identified dismisses the competition theory, and warns that continued pressure on Pakistan is likely to produce an even more violent reaction.

He points out that the explosive power of suicide car bombs – as used in two of the most recent strikes, one claimed by the Taliban, the other by ISIS – has grown and cites reports of an increased flow of high-grade explosives across the border over the past year.

“When you do the explosive residue tests on a lot of these, you end up with military-grade explosives that are not widely available,” he says.

“We’re not talking about fertilizer bombs. We’re talking about plastic stuff, Semtex, whatever, that you just can’t buy in a grocery store,” says the official, noting that those results point to a state sponsor, of which there are “relatively few” in the region.

“These are the same sources – almost certainly Pakistani intelligence – picking and choosing a few different cells that they’ve been cultivating for years, sometimes branded with the Taliban flag, sometimes branded with the [ISIS] flag,” says the official.

“The widespread assumption is that this [violence] is Pakistan pushing back against the new American strategy. This is Pakistan giving a small taste of what it’s capable of,” adds the official in Kabul. He notes that “a lot of circumstantial evidence” indicates an increased flow of military-grade explosives from Pakistan in the past year.

“Pakistan has a wide menu of options still available to it … and if we continue down this path [of pressure] – and I think we will continue down this path – it’s going to continue getting worse.”

Mr. Trump on Jan. 1 tweeted that the US had “foolishly” given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and got “nothing but lies and deceit” in return. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.… No more!” he tweeted.

Days later, Washington suspended roughly $2 billion in security assistance to nuclear-armed ally Pakistan, until it takes “decisive action” against the Taliban and affiliated Haqqani network. The rising pressure on Pakistan comes as the US is stepping up its 16-year war effort with thousands of new troops, an expanded campaign of airstrikes, and new, looser rules of engagement.

Pakistan denies harboring Taliban and other hard-line Islamists, though its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has for years had close ties and influence over militants of all stripes, and facilitated their attacks across the border in Afghanistan.

Afghan officials take harder line

The result of the new US pressure appears so far to have been felt most sharply in Kabul, where the Taliban in late January attacked the Intercontinental Hotel, and then used to devastating effect an explosives-laden ambulance to kill more than 100 people at the gate of the Ministry of Interior complex.

In addition, the far smaller ISIS branch in Afghanistan, which calls itself Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), used two men in explosive vests to initiate an attack on a Kabul army post, killing 11. And IS-K claimed responsibility for targeting the offices of Save the Children in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, killing four in a gun battle launched by a suicide car bomb.

Anti-Pakistan and anti-Taliban sentiment has since soared in Afghanistan. Afghan officials have also taken a harder line against the Taliban, and rejoiced in Trump’s declaration last week that reversed long-standing US policy by ruling out talking to the insurgents, thereby dismissing any chance of a negotiated peace, for now.

/Rahmat Gul/AP
Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, Afghanistan's intelligence chief, speaks during a joint press conference with Ahmad Barmak, Afghanistan's interior minister, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 1, 2018. The officials said they had given Pakistan proof that the militants who carried out a recent series of attacks were trained in Pakistan and that Taliban leaders there are allowed to roam freely.

In a televised address on Feb. 4, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accused Pakistan of being a “Taliban center” and said “we are waiting for Pakistan to act.” Earlier, after the hotel attack, Mr. Ghani had said the attackers were acting “on the orders of their masters.”

Afghanistan’s intelligence chief, Mohammad Masoum Stanekzai, accompanied by the country’s interior minister, last week visited Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, and said they “shared undeniable evidence that the attacks were planned there.”

Such a connection is not a surprise, say analysts. The Taliban in recent years has grown as a movement, and fractured at the same time – between hardliners and moderates, for example, and with a far less Pashtun-centric make-up that includes ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and others. But Pakistan’s ISI has kept very close ties with the most extreme elements, and exercises influence over them.

“The Taliban have become less and less about Islam, and more about Islamabad itself,” says Javid Ahmad, a fellow at both the Atlantic Council in Washington and Modern War Institute at West Point.

“For Pakistan, the Taliban is a pet movement. For the Taliban, Pakistan is a Santa Claus,” says Mr. Ahmad.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

One result is that the Taliban is not an independent movement, and hard-liners routinely sabotage efforts by moderates to take up the Afghan government’s and US offers to talk peace, says Ahmad. “The Taliban are given the power to kill, but not to negotiate."

Another result is that the Taliban often have more sophisticated equipment on the battlefield than the Afghan police and military, including sniper rifles with sights made in Iran and Pakistan, night-vision goggles, even surveillance drones and Humvees.

“Now where did they get all these things from? It is not the Iranians providing this stuff, it’s not the Russians,” notes Ahmad. “Given the reports we have, open-source, it’s to a large extent the Pakistanis,” he says.

Rare deviation from the script

Pakistan has long denied any such involvement in Afghanistan. After the Kabul ambulance bombing, for example, a Foreign Ministry official said Pakistan “stands with its Afghan brothers in this hour of grief.” The official said Pakistan had recently handed over 27 Afghan militants, and claimed that 470 attacks originating in Afghanistan had been carried out on Pakistani soil.

And yet, Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, last September appeared to confirm that those responsible for a May 2017 truck bomb near the German Embassy in Kabul, which killed more than 150 people, had come from Pakistan.

Three or four people “crossed over the border” and a vehicle traveled to Kabul “and was parked in an embassy compound before it blew up,” Mr. Abbasi told the Financial Times in an unexpected acknowledgment by the new premier that strayed from the usual ISI script. His office later denied the remarks.

“The [Pakistani] army and its supporters have repeatedly pointed to the heavy casualties among troops fighting the Pakistani Taliban. Yet only the army itself can change policy toward those Afghan Taliban hiding in Pakistan,” wrote Ahmed Rashid, a veteran Pakistani analyst and author, in the Financial Times Jan. 10.

Pakistan supports the Taliban to limit the influence of rival India, and the army is concerned about Trump’s calls last year to tighten ties with India, and work with it in Afghanistan, notes Mr. Rashid, author of the 2012 book, “Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Options for both US and Pakistan

While Pakistan makes its calculations, the Trump administration seems much more focused on the military challenges of America’s longest-ever war than its deteriorating relationship with Pakistan.

Trump made no mention of Pakistan in his State of the Union address on Jan. 30, but praised “new rules of engagement” in Afghanistan. A White House “fact sheet” released the same day stated that US commanders now have the “authority and resources needed to deny terrorists the safe haven they seek in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

The president is “making clear to our allies that they cannot be America’s friend while supporting or condoning terror,” said the White House. Suspending aid to Pakistan was “was sending a long overdue message.”

The changes were welcomed by some US military commanders in Afghanistan, who have embraced the new “fight and win” approach Trump spelled out last August. Military hardware is currently being redeployed to Afghanistan from the anti-ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria.

The aim is to “continue to put pressure on the Taliban until they realize they’ve basically got a binary choice: they can negotiate and reconcile, or live in irrelevance and die,” US Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, head of the air campaign in Kabul, told the Defense One website.

Pakistan and the US both have many options. The US can boost the pressure on Pakistan by imposing sanctions, or strip Pakistan of its non-NATO major ally status, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested last August. It could also declare Pakistan a state-sponsor of terrorism.

Likewise, the US military largely depends on Pakistan as a gateway for supplies in landlocked Afghanistan, and convoys have been shut down in the past, or attacked. And analysts note the lack – so far – of Baghdad-style double truck bombs, or surface-to-air capabilities that could disrupt US-led drones and aircraft, but say such strikes would be a way for militants to escalate at Pakistan’s behest.

The Afghanistan violence “is a forceful response by both the Taliban and their patrons in Pakistan to the Trump administration,” says expert Ahmad. “In the months ahead, Pakistani officials will be reminded increasingly that business as usual is no longer acceptable to the United States.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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3. How a new law imperils Poland’s reconciliation with its past

Can you fix a widely repeated historical inaccuracy without complicating a healthy process of national introspection? This piece looks at how Poland is working through the difference between a straightforward revise and ... revisionism.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP
Survivors attend a commemoration event in the so-called sauna building at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oświęcim, Poland, on Jan. 27.

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In a new law signed this week by President Andrzej Duda, it is now a crime in Poland to falsely attribute crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish nation and state. That means saying “Polish death camp,” a shorthand for Nazi-run Auschwitz-Birkenau, which sits on Polish soil, is illegal. The phrase is indeed inaccurate – the camps in Poland were entirely Nazi constructions. But the law is causing diplomatic flare-ups, particularly with Israel, which sees it as an attempt to deny the historical record of some Poles' collusion in the Holocaust. And in Poland, it is threatening to derail the country's introspection into its role in World War II, both good and ill. In the last 20 years Poles have been making strides to end a national sense of victimhood and come to grips with their more complex history during the war. But the new law could undercut that effort by trying to criminalize rather than contemplate. “This cannot be a matter of state legislation,” says Michael Müller, a historian at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. “You cannot regulate collective memory by law.”

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1. How a new law imperils Poland’s reconciliation with its past

The 20th century volume of “Europe, Our History,” being finalized now for release in identical German and Polish editions, is meant to overcome the classical nationalist perspectives so common in school textbooks.

German students will learn more about the understudied events east of its frontier, including the Warsaw Uprising. For their Polish peers, the textbook delves into the messy truths of occupation: while there was no collaboration with Nazi Germany at the state level in Poland, some Poles did collaborate with the occupiers.

Though a small reference point, it is a big marker of how far Poland has come recently in facing some of the darker parts of its wartime history, says Michael Müller, a historian at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and a leader of the joint Polish-German textbook project. “That makes a difference,” he says. “We have worked hard to develop a common narrative, a cross-national narrative of these issues.”

Yet it is exactly that more nuanced view of history – and public acceptance of it – that many worry is under threat in Poland under the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

In a new law signed this week by President Andrzej Duda, it is now a crime, punishable up to three years, to falsely attribute crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish nation and state. That means saying “Polish death camp,” a shorthand for Nazi-run Auschwitz-Birkenau that sits on Polish soil, is illegal.

For those who know 20th century Polish history, the country’s narrative – told from between Germany and the Soviet Union, the two major aggressors in the European theater – is of victimhood and heroism. The phrase “Polish death camp” is inaccurate, as the concentration camps that lay inside Poland were purely Nazi constructions. As a result, many express empathy for Poland for the implicit association with the Holocaust.

But legislating on history has sparked an international outcry, whether it’s concerns from Israel that the PiS government is whitewashing the darker forces in Polish society during the war, or from the United States that it’s stifling freedom of speech. And at home, critics condemn a diplomatic fiasco they say was intended as political gain. PiS has often directed hostility at modern and wartime Germany to bolster its nationalist credentials.

And while the law itself exempts those in pursuit of art or research, historians worry that vague wording, and a general climate of intolerance in Poland, threatens to roll back the progress that Poles have made in reckoning with the uncomfortable truths of its past in this century.

“These issues are really painful. And it’s not so easy to solve them,” says Paweł Machcewicz, who has researched one of the most notorious cases of Polish collaboration, the Jedwabne pogrom, and was fired by the government from his post as the director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk. “But the problem in Poland is that these legitimate concerns are exploited politically and magnified politically.”

The need for introspection

It was the publication in 2000 of the book “Neighbors,” by Jan T. Gross, that shed light on the Jedwabne pogrom, where hundreds of Jews were executed in 1941 at the hands of regular Poles. The book generated new discussions about anti-Semitism in Polish society, and helped many Poles – though not all – to look harder at simplistic labels of perpetrators and victims ascribed to them during the war. (In its own subsequent investigation, the Institute for National Remembrance in Poland also found proof of the pogrom, though they put the death toll lower and argued it was “inspired” by German occupiers.)

The period of controversy stirred by “Neighbors” was a deeply unsettling time, says Professor Machcewicz. But it also paved the way for such history to be explored today in text books, or museum exhibits. “At the time I was very proud of the fact that Polish historians and Polish public opinion could face the past in a very dignified way,” he says.

“I think that the most important part of the Polish fate was martyrdom, heroism, and the anti-Semitism was just one of the currents of history,” he says.  “But we have to go through this process of self-reflection. If we reject these issues we are going to construct an artificial national memory. And one day sooner or later it will crack.”

This chapter in Polish history has not been fully reconciled. With each reference to collaboration, whether in the Polish movies “Ida” or “Aftermath” or the German television miniseries “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” comes emotional debate.

The Polish government says it has been misunderstood. When he signed the law this week, President Duda said he’ll introduce it to the court system for review, a sign that the debate is not settled.

Dawid Zuchowicz/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters
Polish President Andrzej Duda speaks about his decision on the Holocaust bill at Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Feb. 6.

Jan Rydel, chairman of the steering committee of the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, welcomes the referral to the constitutional court. “It is my deepest belief that it was not the intention of the authors of the bill or MPs who adopted it to censor any statements made on the Holocaust, including those related to the complicity of individual Poles or certain groups of Poles,” he says in emailed responses, adding that the dispute shows how vital remembrance and solidarity remain across Europe today.

In a recent poll, 40 percent of Poles support the bill, while 32 percent have a negative opinion about it. Jan Sobiech, who teaches history in high school in Warsaw, generally believes the bill is “a step forward to systematize responsibility for using terms that skew historic truth,” he says.

But as a teacher, he also worries about freedom of speech and historic truth. “Poles have a moral right to say that they were victims during the war,” he says. “But not all was black and white. Many of us were good and heroic, but there were also people who were bad.”

‘You cannot regulate collective memory’

Outside of Poland, the bill has caused the most controversy with Israel, which has forcefully condemned the law on grounds that it denies the historical record of some Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust.

Daniel Wolniewicz-Slomka, who was born in Israel and has been living in Poland for nearly seven years, says the diplomatic crisis could soon be defused. “But I'm afraid that hostility towards Jews that we have been observing lately will stay for longer,” he says, referring to the increasing presence of the Polish far right. “And Jews who live in Poland will have to face it.”

For many, the move speaks more about Poland’s current relationship with Germany and the European Union. In calling for war reparations from Germany, as it has done, or battling against acting German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies, PiS often portrays itself as a continued victim of its stronger neighbor to the west.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Tensions and sensitivities from the past remain though, and Germany has trod more cautiously with Poland than the US or Israel have. Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel reiterated Germany’s sole responsibility for the Holocaust over the weekend. “Poland can be sure that any form of falsification of history, like the term ‘Polish concentration camps,’ will be unequivocally rejected and strongly condemned by us,” he said. “This organized mass murder was carried out by our country and no one else.”

Still, Germans say they are worried about the nationalist turn today in Poland. Based on their own history, they believe that unfettered introspection is the only path forward. For example, many explain the rise of the far right in eastern Germany as due in part to myths of innocence from Nazi crimes created under Soviet rule in the German Democratic Republic.

Cornelia Kirchner-Feyerabend, a high school teacher in Nuremberg in the state of Bavaria, happened to be on the mandatory school visit to Dachau with her students when she learned of the law, and says the teens were shocked. “The main responsibility lies with Germany, they are the ones to blame,” she adds. “But it's a bit difficult now, with this current government, which is ignoring rule of law and independent justice, and just ignoring things that are vital for the European ideal.”

Professor Müller, currently conducting research in Poland, says that he can understand the Polish demand to be accurately reflected in history – a sentiment that spans the political spectrum. Even former US President Barack Obama unwittingly repeated the term “Polish death camp” in a 2012 speech, for which he later apologized.

“Generally [Poles] feel uncomfortable with careless and uninformed generalizing statements about Polish history in the 20th century,” he says. “Having said that, this cannot be a matter of state legislation, you cannot regulate collective memory by law.”

Yet if he disagrees with it, he says he is confident the law won’t cause lasting damage, to academic research or Polish introspection. “We all know that authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in the past tried to regulate history, and they never succeeded,” he says. “It is even more unlikely now.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. In grad-rate crisis in D.C. schools, deep questions of ethics

Monitor editors and writers spend a lot of time looking for credible signs of social advancement. But when the “progress” tag is wrongly worn in the pursuit of recognition, that’s worth probing, too, out of respect for those not seeing the promised gains.

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After a recent scandal surrounding graduation rates, the school system in Washington, D.C., is doing some self-reflection. Records for one-third of the 2017 graduates (excluding those from charter schools) indicate that their schools violated attendance and/or credit policies in allowing them to graduate. The District of Columbia is not the only place this is happening, observers say, which can make it difficult to separate genuine improvements in graduation from gains that merely look good on paper. The question then becomes: At what point does a desire to help struggling students get through high school cross the line into unethical shortcuts, potentially setting them up for longer-term failure? Underlying the scrutiny is a deep desire by many stakeholders to bolster trust – trust among students, parents, and teachers; trust between educators and administrators; and trust in public education itself. “The way you engage the most challenging kids is through relationships,” says Mark Hecker, executive director of the nonprofit Reach Incorporated. “There needs to be someone [in the school] that is going to notice if that kid is not there that day, which [requires] transformative investments.”

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In grad-rate crisis in D.C. schools, deep questions of ethics

It seemed to be such a good-news story, one the nation was eager to celebrate: All the seniors at Ballou High School in the District of Columbia – despite poverty and other obstacles – walked across the stage and received their diplomas last spring.

But as the high school graduation rate keeps hitting new highs in the United States, it appears now that the rush to celebrate, in some cases, has masked a culture of passing seniors by any means necessary.

At Ballou, that meant allowing kids to pass classes despite chronic absences – with about half the seniors missing more than 60 days – and offering short credit-recovery classes before they failed the regular course, all in violation of district policy, WAMU and NPR reported in late November. 

Now, an outside evaluation of the D.C. school district has shown such violations were widespread. But D.C.’s is far from the only school system that should examine itself, education experts say.

Gray areas around attendance and credit recovery are fairly common, and that can cause confusion or can be exploited. It can also make it difficult to separate genuine improvements in graduation from gains that merely look good on paper.

The big question: At what point does a desire to help struggling students get through high school cross the line into unethical shortcuts, potentially setting them up for longer-term failure?

A desire to bolster trust

Underlying the scrutiny is a deep desire by many stakeholders to bolster trust – trust among students, parents, and teachers; trust between educators and administrators; and trust in public education itself.

The push to boost graduation nationally over the past 10 years “has been a net positive,” says Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. But the D.C. story reveals a “double-edged sword: Once something becomes part of accountability … on the margins there’s always some book-cooking,” he says. “On the other hand, without accountability there’s motivation to ignore it.” Before federal and state monitoring of graduation rates, people often found ways to not count students as dropouts when they stopped showing up to high school.

The final report on the District of Columbia Public Schools, released Jan. 29, showed that records for 937 graduates, one-third of the class of 2017, indicated their schools paved the way by violating attendance and/or credit policies. (The investigation did not include the city’s many charter schools.) Violations were more frequent at the schools serving the largest concentrations of high-needs students, such as those living in poverty or with disabilities. 

Antwan Wilson, one year into his job as chancellor of DCPS, has placed several people on leave and acknowledged the need to address complex factors that unduly pressured many educators – including contradictory policies, insufficient training and records-management systems, and incentives to meet aggressive graduation goals.

Beyond D.C., governors should put “measures in place to tell cheaters from honest brokers” when it comes to graduation data, suggests Nat Malkus, an education policy scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. 

Chicago is one of relatively few school districts that has independent researchers verifying graduation improvements. “We don’t see any evidence of watering down the curriculum,” says Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. “Students are more prepared than ever before … and [have] better college outcomes.”

In D.C., the school-choice landscape has meant that many families access exam schools and charters, leaving a higher concentration of students with the greatest challenges in certain district schools that don’t receive enough support, some observers say.

“I’m all for students being held accountable to a standard… But this got started because principals were trying to help kids navigate a broken system,” including high rates of childhood homelessness and trauma, says Mark Hecker, executive director of the nonprofit Reach Incorporated.

His group supports struggling high school students while they work as reading tutors for younger kids. “The way you engage the most challenging kids is through relationships,” Mr. Hecker says. “There needs to be someone [in the school] that is going to notice if that kid is not there that day, which [requires] transformative investments.”

Behind the absence numbers, Hecker adds, each student’s story is different. Some may be way behind academically, while others have managed, despite all odds, to go on to community college and, so far, succeed.

Climate change 

A growing number of school districts have begun to use chronic absenteeism data as an early warning sign, and to forge community-wide partnerships to help nip it in the bud. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser launched an “Every Day Counts!” attendance campaign last year to start down that path.

To make deep changes, DCPS also needs to collaborate with teachers and move away from “a climate of fear cultivated over the past 10 years,” says Washington Teachers’ Union president Elizabeth Davis. Sixty percent of the roughly 75 high school teachers who responded to a recent WTU/EmpowerEd survey said they had felt pressured by a school administrator to change a grade or pass a student who didn’t meet expectations. Teacher turnover rates are high. 

Ms. Davis says she’s optimistic because Chancellor Wilson has already begun listening to teachers. He also announced he’ll create an ombudsman position to provide a faster channel for complaints. 

In addition, Wilson’s office is meeting with current seniors, training high school staff, auditing transcripts, setting up a process to revise policies, and planning resource fairs to address families’ needs. 

“We want to make sure that our students are loved, that they are challenged and they are prepared,” Wilson said during a Jan. 29 press conference. (The district provided a video of the press conference in response to the Monitor's request for an interview.) “We want to make sure,” he said, “that everyone knows that we will hold our students to the highest expectations and support our educators.”

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5. 'Calls From Home': Kentucky radio station connects inmates and families

What promises should a society make to those it incarcerates? Not to dehumanize them, surely, but to try to rehabilitate. We really liked the essence of this story: It’s about an auditory crack of light in what can be an unforgiving wall of isolation.

Two ways to read the story

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More than 5,000 men are incarcerated in the six federal and state prisons in the broadcasting range of WMMT. Every week, for almost 20 years, the Whitesburg, Ky., radio station has produced a show called “Calls From Home” that broadcasts recorded messages from the inmates’ friends and family members. WMMT bills itself as “a 24 hour voice of mountain people.” As far as the station is concerned, if the inmates can tune in then they are mountain people, too. “At the core, it’s like human decency. I do feel like it’s the least we can do to provide some small means of connection,” says Elizabeth Sanders, WMMT’s co-general manager.  On this frosty night, Ms. Sanders is taking calls while Tom Sexton DJs. The calls flood in – updates on daily life and its routines, a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” or more somber family news. In one of the first calls of the night, a tired-sounding woman begins: “Hey baby, this is your wife. This is your Monday blues chaser. The girls are behaving, and I’m good. I’ve been hard at it. I got some decent sleep the weekend. Yeah, some normal hours.”

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'Calls From Home': Kentucky radio station connects inmates and families

As the last notes of Childish Gambino’s “Me And Your Mama” fade to silence, Tom Sexton leans forward into a microphone.

“Coming up by request,” he says in a softened-for-radio Appalachian drawl, “going out to Sporty Black from his wife, this is Kendrick Lamar with ‘LOVE.’ ”

The melodic R&B track then begins to emanate from the heart of this small eastern Kentucky town, across the ice-clad mountains of central Appalachia. Close to 100,000 people could be tuning in, but tonight’s shows are targeted for a very specific audience. People like “Sporty Black.”

More than 5,000 men are incarcerated in the six federal and state prisons in the broadcasting range of WMMT. Every week, for almost 20 years, the station has produced a show called “Calls From Home” that broadcasts recorded messages from the inmates’ friends and family members.

WMMT bills itself as “a 24 hour voice of mountain people,” and as far as the station is concerned, if the inmates can tune in, then they are mountain people too.

“They’re not willingly part of our communities here, but they’re here and part of our communities,” says Elizabeth Sanders, WMMT’s co-general manager and a “Calls From Home” producer.

“Anything we can do to help make the barriers between them and their families a little bit less, then we’re fulfilling part of our mission as the radio station here,” she adds.

The show has become something of a national phenomenon. Every Monday night calls flood in to the station, housed in a wooden, warehouse-looking building on Whitesburg’s main street.

In the Summit City bar in Whitesburg, Eli Jefferson, a young man with a white trucker hat and a bushy beard, is among the patrons familiar with the show.

“It’s pretty depressing,” he says. But “I feel like it’s a good way to connect with prisoners.”

And, he adds, “I feel like it’s good for the people that are hearing it.”

On this frosty night, Ms. Sanders is taking calls while Mr. Sexton DJs in the studio downstairs. When song requests come in she texts them to him. Some of the calls come with children discussing a report card, a “happy birthday” rendition, or more somber family news. Many, she says, simply recount the routine events of the day. One of the first calls of the night fits that profile.

“Hey baby, this is your wife, this is your Monday blues chaser,” begins a tired-sounding woman. “The girls are behaving, and I’m good. I’ve been hard at it, I got some decent sleep the weekend. Yeah, some normal hours.”

Pitched as a new source of economic development amid coal power’s decline, prisons began sprouting up around Appalachia in the 1970s. Sanders grew up near Whitesburg during the prison-building boom, but in the seven years she’s spent working on “Calls From Home” she says she’s gained a far more intimate knowledge of the routines, processes, and challenges of incarceration.

Take the difficulties families can have visiting loved ones in prison, even on weekends. There is no bus to Wise County, Va. – where Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons are located – for example, and it’s a six-hour drive from Richmond, Va., where many inmates’ families live. Living in a city with public transportation, many families don’t have cars and have to find alternate ways to make the trip, weighing the cost of staying in a hotel overnight against a 12-hour round-trip.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Tom Sexton DJ's the WMMT radio show 'Hip-Hop From The Hilltop,' in Whitesburg, Ky., on Feb. 5. It precedes 'Calls From Home,' a weekly show that plays messages from the friends and family of thousands of inmates incarcerated in the station's broadcasting range.

There are also inmates whose families don’t live in the continental United States. For a few years Virginia had a contract to house inmates from the US Virgin Islands, while a private prison in Kentucky held inmates from Hawaii. Getting calls from the Virgin Islands “just baffled me,” Sanders says.

Then there are the costs of calling prisons directly. Those have been rising for years, reaching in excess of $10 a minute in some cases until 2015, when Federal Communications Commission announced a rule capping how much telecom companies could charge. (The FCC lost a lawsuit against the rule last summer, a decision the Trump administration is not appealing.)

“Having a toll-free number can help families keep in touch a little bit more,” says Sanders. Sometimes, when a caller reveals something sensitive like a death in the family, she thinks: “It’s one of their only ways.”

The show began with a call, out of the blue, from a woman who said her brother, an inmate at Wallens Ridge, listened to the station’s popular hip-hop show. Could she give him a shout-out?

Most people in the community don’t have a problem with new prisons being built in the area, Sanders says, though they have grown skeptical of the promises of thousands of jobs. Some locals find “Calls From Home” so emotional they say they can’t listen, she adds, while others listen so often they can recognize regular callers.

“At the core, it’s like human decency,” says Sanders. “I do feel like it’s the least we can do to provide some small means of connection.”

What the staff of six hopes is that the show gives their listeners – particularly those not behind bars – insights similar to theirs. After all, they say, there is only one federal prison currently being considered for construction. It would be built in Letcher County, a few miles from Whitesburg.

“If you listen to [the show], it just kind of puts, I don’t know how you say it, maybe a face to it,” says Sexton. “I’m not a shrink, but it’s good for people to have some proximity to that.... Hopefully they come away with having humanized these people that are oftentimes demonized and marginalized and cast aside.”

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The Monitor's View

A veiled truth in Iran and the US

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The Islamic Republic and the United States now have at least one thing in common. Each is home to a campaign by Muslim women demanding the freedom to wear the clothes of their choice. In Iran, women are protesting a law imposing the hijab – standing up in public squares to hold their headscarves aloft in defiance. In the US, the campaign is not against government rules but rather a common social stigma applied to Muslim women who choose to wear the veil out of religious ideals about personal modesty. Since 2013, a movement begun by Muslim immigrant Nazma Khan has invited all women to wear the hijab on Feb. 1 in solidarity with Muslim women. World Hijab Day has since taken off in popularity in many countries. The mirror aspects of the two campaigns reflect a common interest in individual integrity and freedoms. To honor a person’s choice on whether to wear religious attire is to honor their inherent dignity, a concept common to all religions. Iran and the US are each still coming to grips with that common truth.

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A veiled truth in Iran and the US

For all their official hostility toward each other, Iran and the United States now have at least one thing in common. Each is home to a campaign by Muslim women demanding the freedom to wear the clothes of their choice.

In Iran, the campaign started in December when dozens of young women began to stand up in public squares and hold their headscarves aloft in defiance of mandatory laws on wearing a hijab. Social media in Iran have been ablaze with images of the protesters. At least 29 of them have been arrested so far and could face two months in jail and 74 lashes.

Their core message: Telling women what to wear on their heads is like telling them what to think in their heads.

In the US, the campaign is not against government rules but rather a common social stigma applied to Muslim women who wear a veil in public out of religious ideals about personal modesty.

Since 2013, a movement begun by Muslim immigrant Nazma Khan has invited all women to wear the hijab on Feb. 1in solidarity with Muslim women. The so-called World Hijab Day has since taken off in popularity in many countries, even prompting British Prime Minister Theresa May to declare last year, “I believe that what a woman wears is a woman’s choice.”

The campaign’s core message: Religious freedom requires an understanding of how religious attire can define a person’s identity. Harassing women for an expression of their beliefs can erode the freedom of religion.

The mirror aspects of the two campaigns reflect a common interest in individual integrity and freedoms – and not only for women. In Iran, men are barred from wearing shorts in public. While the US-based campaign appears to be slowly shifting attitudes, the one in Iran appears to be sparking a political battle among the regime’s political and religious elite.

Soon after the women’s protests began, President Hassan Rouhani – a relative moderate – released an opinion survey showing a big drop among those who favor charging women caught without a hijab in public. In 2006, about half of Iranians said they should be punished. By 2014, the number had declined to 39 percent – and has probably fallen since then, given the level of dissent in Iran. In the capital, Tehran, enforcement of the hijab law has been has eased since December.

In societies with concerns about security, of course, laws that require temporary removal of a facial covering – in the presence of a woman – may be needed. But otherwise veils of all kinds do not pose a threat in most settings, nor should they be required by law or imposed on women through public shaming.

Honoring a person’s choice on whether to wear religious attire is to honor their inherent dignity, a concept common to all religions. Iran and the US are each still coming to grips with that common truth.

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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.

A ‘graceless age,’ or God-given grace for all?

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Today’s article explores the idea that there’s a God-given law of good that we can all discern – that the grace of God, divine Love itself, is bestowed on everyone.

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A ‘graceless age,’ or God-given grace for all?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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A classic rock ballad once asked, “How can love survive in such a graceless age?” Although that song, “The Heart of the Matter” by Don Henley, was recorded nearly 30 years ago, its poignant question still seems relevant today in the face of almost daily news reports of violence, sexual misconduct, and political dialogue that’s often laced with toxic words and personal attacks.

As a counterpoint to this, I read recently that the 239-year-old Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” (John Newton) is today performed an estimated 10 million times annually. What this says to me is that many people today are looking for a higher, more spiritual answer to hate, incivility, and tragedy.

The grace coming to us from God’s love is so simple, so unselfish, so nonjudgmental, that it breaks through conventional reasoning about what we are and how we see and relate to others. Grace helps us have a more tender view of the world, and to counter conflict, anger, and crudeness. My study of Christian Science has shown me that there’s a God-given law of good that we can all discern – that the grace of God, divine Love itself, is bestowed on everyone.

The Bible explains, “Unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ” (Ephesians 4:7). As we accept that Christly gift, we can, in turn, actively share its blessings. God’s grace – His boundless love for us – is universal, and because we are, in reality, the spiritual reflection of divine Love, no one is excluded from God’s grace. From this it follows that everyone has an inherent ability to reject wrong in whatever form. The Monitor’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote in her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “What we most need is the prayer of fervent desire for growth in grace, expressed in patience, meekness, love, and good deeds” (p. 4).

One definition of patience is the quality of expecting good, expecting justice; of meeting offense without anger or revenge. We can think of meekness as the strength that comes from letting divine Love, rather than pride and arrogance, lead us. Love counters hatred. These qualities are powerful because their source is God, whose infinite love is continually and actively expressed.

At one time, I worked in the advertising department of a Fortune 500 company. There was one manager in particular who had a reputation for being coarse and belligerent. Instead of providing constructive feedback, he often rejected our work with disparaging comments and ridicule. As we approached the deadline for finishing an important project to promote his product line, I became very angry and frustrated. His put-downs were demoralizing, and our group’s productivity and creativity were suffering.

I had a clear sense that trying to meet this challenge through self-justification and anger was not going to work. And so I paused to take some quiet time to pray. I remember being lifted by these words in John’s Gospel, referring to Christ: “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace” (1:16). I realized that I needed to express more grace, and to recognize that despite how it seemed, everyone – including this man – was God’s reflection, capable of responding to and feeling God’s grace.

I asked to meet with him to discuss his project face-to-face, rather than through internal memos. I told him that our entire group shared his desire to promote his product line in the best possible light, and that I truly wanted to work with him productively and with mutual respect.

He paused, and then said, “I’m not used to being treated this way.” It was a positive comment, and proved to be a turning point. The project went forward through completion quickly after that, and future ones did as well.

If our thoughts and actions reflect even a grain or two of those qualities we “most need,” this helps lift ourselves and our neighbors out of the view that we live in a “graceless age.” And we come to see that grace is ours to express at every moment!

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Viewfinder

An accidental documentarian

©R.C. HICKMAN; R.C. HICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVE, BRISCOE CENTER FOR AMERICAN HISTORY
Children swam in Dallas’s Exline Park on Aug. 6, 1957. The photographer, R.C. Hickman, became interested in the art form during his World War II military service, leading to him becoming an official Army photographer. Mr. Hickman became best known for his photos of the civil rights movement. But during a long career in Dallas he also documented the daily lives of the city’s dynamic African-American community in the decades following World War II. “Hickman was an outstanding photographer whose work will remain a permanent visual record of a significant transitional era in the history of the African-American community in Dallas,” says Don Carleton, executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, which houses Hickman’s photography archive. Click the button below to view a gallery of Hickman’s work.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( February 12th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Thanks for being here today. Have a great weekend, and check back on Monday. We're working on a story from Florida. A federal rebuke of the state’s arbitrary system for restoring voting rights to felons could draw national attention to Florida’s next move, and to the impact of voting rights on political outcomes.

And a quick note: If you read us on mobile, click here to learn how to place an easy bookmark for the Daily among your apps, and jump straight to the latest enriched version anytime. 

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February 09, 2018
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