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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
12
Monday

There was a time, believe it or not, when people complained that American politics was not nearly partisan enough. Back in the 1960s, Republicans and Democrats were seen as too chummy. There was, it seemed, no competing vision for the United States.

For 12 years, Germany has stood on that same ground. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership has been marked by a seemingly unspectacular competency and a series of “grand coalitions” between the countries’ two largest parties.

Now that era appears to be ending. Nearly five months after the last elections, Ms. Merkel is in danger of failing to form a government. This is not shocking. Politics has life cycles, and more-partisan times can stir fresh thinking. In America, the backlash to 1960s politics spawned Sen. Barry Goldwater and a radically different view of American conservatism.

The danger is when partisanship becomes weaponized, closing off routes for partisan differences to be addressed with compromise. The stagnation of the middle class and the enduring culture wars have made partisanship toxic in the US. The refugee crisis appears to play some part in Germany’s evolving shift. Democracies fuel constant revolutions. What matters are the motives behind them.

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Now, here are our five stories of the day, which look at the deeper principles behind a number of new voting laws, the cost of glossing over past injustices, and the glory of finely tuned cross-country ski.  

1. Fiscal stimulus is back. So are bigger deficits.

The budget deal signed by President Trump last week is built on one big hope: that a hot economy can outrun growing deficits.  

Mark
Andrew Harnik/AP
The Capitol Dome of the Capitol Building is seen at sunrise Feb. 9 in Washington. After another government shutdown, Congress passed a sweeping, long-term spending bill that President Trump signed on Friday.

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It may not feel like it, but the US economy is running hot right now. Companies are hiring and sales are growing, as are the wages and prices that drive inflation. Economic growth is creeping closer to 3 percent, a rate not seen in more than a decade. That the federal government is opening its fiscal spigot at this juncture, after years of austerity and wrangling over debt ceilings, is a pivot that may come back to bite policymakers. That’s because $1-trillion-plus annual deficits not only require that more government revenues go to service a rising debt pile. Higher federal borrowing also puts upward pressure on interest rates that, in turn, could deflate the consumer and business confidence on which the US economy depends. When those rates rise, says Diane Lim, an economist, “Congress won’t be able to ignore it anymore.” To be sure, that day of reckoning lies in the future. But a sharp fall in stock prices last week, in part because of concerns over inflation and how central banks will unwind historically low rates, could be a sign of what’s ahead. The $1.5 trillion tax bill, together with last week’s bipartisan budget bill, have put the United States on track to a debt burden relative to its economic size not seen since 1946. “It’s becoming a taller and taller order for the economy to grow faster than debt,” says Ms. Lim.

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Fiscal stimulus is back. So are bigger deficits.

In piling a huge spending bill on top of a huge tax cut without the requisite revenues to pay for either one, US policymakers are putting extraordinary faith in the economy. They’re hoping it will grow so fast that it keeps a swollen national debt from getting worse.

They can point to signs of economic strength behind their faith: After nine years of expansion, business is booming and unemployment rates are near rock-bottom.

But economists and investors fret that the federal government is adding stimulus at exactly the wrong time in the economic cycle, just when it is near or at the top of its expansion with nowhere to go but down. 

“The economy's going to be running hot,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics, a risk-management subsidiary of Moody’s Corp. in New York.

And federal budget-watchers are appalled. “It is hard to think of a time when there was less budget discipline than there is right now,” Alan Auerbach, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, writes in an e-mail.

Budget experts calculate the United States is headed for $1 trillion-plus deficits, reminiscent of Obama's first term before the economic recovery took hold. Except this time, those deficits would be permanent, ballooning the federal debt and causing interest payments to eat up more government revenues, leaving less to spend on other priorities. 

If Congress makes permanent the temporary tax cuts for individuals and doesn't ratchet down its spending after the new two-year budget plan expires, annual deficits could swell to $2 trillion a year in a decade, says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan watchdog group.

One bright spot is that most economists don't foresee any immediate crisis of confidence in the US Treasury. And Congress has in the past successfully dealt with budget problems – at least when pushed by circumstances. Moreover, the likelihood of increasingly violent hiccups in the economy and the markets – US stock prices fell more than 10 percent last week – will eventually force policymakers to focus on the rising debt, some economists say.

“There are natural self-correcting mechanisms in the economy,” says Diane Lim, principal economist at The Conference Board, a business membership and research group based in New York. “What’s going to happen is one day interest rates will start to dramatically rise and that will scare everyone off enough that they'll just have to get their act together. Congress won't be able to ignore it anymore.”

Where interest rates go next

Interest rates may well be the pressure point.

Fear of rising US interest rates – in response to inflation fanned by Congress – were at least partly responsible for the sudden plunge in US stock markets this month. Taking a cue from the US, global stock prices have see-sawed wildly as traders have tried to sort out the short- and medium-term implications of Congress's spending package.

Through 2019, the extra stimulus should boost the economy, economists say. Tax cuts make the US a more competitive place for corporations to set up shop. The spending package means nearly $90 billion in disaster aid for communities hit by wildfires or hurricanes, a massive boost in military spending, the renewal of large health-care programs for low-income children and adults, and billions of dollars in extended business tax breaks. The threat of another government shutdown has been averted for a year under a bipartisan agreement.

“The market is overreacting,” says Jared Bernstein, an economic adviser in the Obama administration and now senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “There are people in this economy that have not been reached. This extra spending can bring down the unemployment rate.”

Both sides of the aisle may be able to take credit if annual growth rises above 3 percent, a clip last seen in 2005. The same goes for unemployment, now at 4.1 percent, should it fall into 3 percent territory. 

Only after 2019 are the problems with Washington’s deficit strategy likely to emerge.

All that increased government spending raises interest rates in two ways: More borrowers are competing for a relatively fixed amount of credit; and the US Treasury must sell more bonds to a fixed number of buyers.

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney – a former fiscal hawk in Congress – concedes this risk but says tax cuts will help to sustain business spending even if borrowing costs rise. “If we can keep the economy humming and generate more money for you and me and for everybody else, then government takes in more money and that’s how we hope to be able to keep the debt under control,” he told “Fox News Sunday” yesterday. 

Most economists reject Republican claims that the tax cut will create so much extra economic activity that it will pay for itself through more tax revenues.

On Monday, the Trump administration seemed to acknowledge a starker view of the spending pressures, presenting a budget plan that would not eliminate the deficit in 10 years, unlike the plan it presented a year ago, which forecast a $16 billion surplus in 2027.

Timing matters

Also, the tax cuts and spending package look particularly ill-timed, economists say. Unlike President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in the 1980s and President Barack Obama’s recessionary stimulus package in 2009, which primed the pumps at or near the bottom of economic cycles, the current stimulus comes when the economy is running at capacity – or hot, as Mr. Zandi puts it.

“It’s in this hot environment that the odds are that it overheats – that interest rates rise too far too fast, undermine stock prices and real estate values, and lay the foundation for a very weak economy or even a recession early in the next decade,” he says.

At the very least, this complicates the work of the Federal Reserve, which since 2015 had been raising record-low interest rates slowly to head off inflation without triggering a recession. Now, the Fed may have to raise interest rates faster.

This isn’t the first time government has piled stimulus spending onto a booming economy. In the 1960s, after a tax cut under President John Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson increased spending for his Great Society programs and the war in Vietnam. For a while, the economy kept humming. But inflation surged near the end of the decade and by the early 1970s the economy had gone into a tailspin, with inflationary pressure that took another decade to snap.

“A lot of our clients are kind of wondering whether this mix of policies that we’re pursuing now will set up an episode something like what occurred in the late 1960s,” says Joel Prakken, chief US economist of IHS Markit.

Economists caution that the economy’s future course is uncertain because policies can change. Out of the economic turmoil of the 1970s came two important changes. Congress passed the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, giving itself an equal role as the president in shaping the federal budget and creating the procedures for budget agreements. The second was the arrival of Paul Volcker at the Fed, who jacked up interest rates in the early 1980s, conquering widespread inflation and establishing the Fed’s inflation-fighting credentials.

What’s needed now is for Congress to fashion new procedures for budgetmaking, so that today’s extreme partisanship doesn’t derail the process, says Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

When will Congress address the larger issue of the debt? Unless the optimists are right and economic growth can keep the debt-to-GDP ratio from rising, the day will come when lawmakers make debt-reduction a priority. 

“It’s just becoming a taller and taller order for the economy to grow faster than debt,” says Ms. Lim of the Conference Board. “We haven’t been able to do that ever since we started running up the deficits in the 2000s.”

– Monitor Staffer David Sloan contributed to this article from Washington. 

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2. Trump budget proposal flips Republican script again

Following on the heels of last week's deal, President Trump on Monday released his budget proposal for the years ahead. One takeaway: Fiscal discipline is often cast as a partisan issue, but it's hard for both sides. 

Mark

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For Republicans, President Trump's read of the US electorate has meant a departure from traditional GOP positions, including on trade, immigration, and Russia. But it's his departure from fiscal conservatism that has dealt the biggest shock to the Republicans' system. As his budget proposal released Monday indicates, balancing the federal budget just isn't a priority. Between the recent cuts in taxes and the proposed increases in spending, Mr. Trump's fiscal 2019 budget is projected over time to produce massive annual deficits, adding trillions of dollars to the national debt. But Republicans in Congress, with some exceptions, are barely raising a fuss. Analysts say politicians from both parties have difficulty making tough choices. But Trump seems to understand that US voters don't see reducing deficits and debt as a top priority. In a poll last month, only 17 percent of voters called the deficit "the most important issue." "That's the basic problem with the deficit and the national debt," says William Schneider, a policy analyst at George Mason University. "They're important, but something else is always more important – and I don't think that's ever changed."

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Trump budget proposal flips Republican script again

The Trump administration’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year, released Monday, reflects a stark new reality of the Republican Party: Balancing the federal budget just isn’t a priority.

Even projected 10 years out, President Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget does not lead to elimination of the deficit. On the contrary, it would produce massive annual deficits and add $7 trillion to the debt. Combined with last year’s tax reform, which cut taxes by $1.5 trillion over 10 years, and last week’s two-year budget deal, which increased federal spending by $300 billion, the nation’s fiscal picture is awash in red ink.

Annual deficits of $1 trillion or more could soon become the new normal. But Republicans, with some exceptions, are barely raising a fuss – despite an official party platform that calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.

This fiscal trend isn’t all about Mr. Trump, analysts say, pointing to the long-term growth of entitlement and other spending and the unwillingness by politicians of both parties to make tough choices. But it does reflect Trump’s understanding of the American electorate, which polls show does not see reducing deficits and debt as a top priority.

For the GOP, now Trump’s party, the president’s read of the electorate has meant a departure from other traditional positions, not only on fiscal matters, but also on trade, immigration, and Russia. At the same time, Trump’s embrace of social-conservative positions has kept a key portion of the Republican base, the religious right, firmly in his camp.

But it is Trump’s departure from fiscal conservatism that has dealt the biggest shock to the GOP system.

“At this point, it looks like the tea party is dead,” says Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “There seems to be no real constituency for spending restraint.”

Last week, the libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky sparked a brief government shutdown when he blocked a motion to allow final passage of the two-year spending bill, asserting that “my party is now complicit in the deficits.” But other deficit hawks in the Senate remained largely silent.

Mr. Riedl ascribes only part of the Republicans’ seemingly new attitude toward deficits to Trumpism – a populism that makes reforms or cuts to government programs like Social Security and Medicare anathema. Though Trump’s budget does propose changes to drug pricing in Medicare, the government health program for seniors, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has ruled out addressing entitlement programs this year.

Tolerance of deficits is a bipartisan phenomenon that goes back years, but with the Republicans holding both the White House and both houses of Congress, the spotlight is on them.

“The GOP is united around tax cuts and defense increases; they’re not united around spending cuts,” Riedl says. “Basically, the party is united around the dessert, but not around the actual work of paying for government.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio, a founder of the House’s tea party-inspired Freedom Caucus, expressed frustration Sunday over his party’s inability to rein in spending, but he blamed Democrats. The need to garner 60 votes to end a filibuster in a 100-seat Senate, where Republicans have the slimmest of majorities, effectively forces them to make spending concessions to Democrats to win enough votes.

Still, Congressman Jordan expressed frustration over the explosion of spending. “This was not consistent with what the American people elected us to do,” he said on Fox News Sunday.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director and another founding member of the Freedom Caucus when he served in the House, also blamed the Democrats and the rules that give them power.

“People think we can do what we want to in Washington because Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House,” Mr. Mulvaney said on Fox News Sunday. “But the truth of the matter is, because of the 60-vote rule in the Senate, we need Democrat support.”

It is, in effect, a form of mutually assured (fiscal) destruction. But most Americans aren’t clamoring for a new approach. Last month, in a poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, only 17 percent of voters called the deficit “the most important issue” – including 14 percent of Republicans and fewer than 17 percent of Democrats.

“That’s the basic problem with the deficit and the national debt; they’re important, but something else is always more important – and I don’t think that’s ever changed,” says William Schneider, a policy analyst at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.

“The only thing different about now is that Trump has paid far less attention to the deficit and spending than other Republican presidents have done,” Mr. Schneider says. “I don’t recall his ever talking about reducing the deficit.”

It’s worth noting that the budget released Monday, like all budgets, will never see the light of day. But it's an important reflection of the administration's goals and aspirations.

Riedl of the Manhattan Institute also points out that it was last fall that the Republicans passed their first budget proposal that didn’t balance in 10 years. And he suggests a bit of hypocrisy on the Republicans’ part.

“Republican lawmakers find it easier to criticize deficits when they’re out of power. You could say they’re bluffing,” Riedl says. “They were major deficit hawks under [President] Clinton, then they got full control of government under [President] Bush, and we got larger deficits and spending.”

The GOP talked tough on deficits again under President Obama, he says, and “then as soon as Trump gets elected, we see the same thing.”

He cites Republicans’ handling of Obamacare as analogous: They passed a repeal bill when they knew it would be vetoed, but as soon as a Republican president took office, the same bill couldn’t pass.

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3. Florida's right to vote and a 'silent civil rights struggle'

The question of who gets to vote is at the core of a democracy’s sense of itself. Now, a growing number of states are changing how they treat those convicted of felonies. The moves show how thinking about punishment and responsibility is shifting.

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During four years of former Gov. Charlie Crist’s tenure, Florida’s clemency board restored voting rights to 154,000 people who had been convicted of felonies. During seven years headed by Gov. Rick Scott, that number plummeted to less than 3,000. That figure – along with individual examples, including a 54-year-old man who was told he had to wait 50 years to reapply to have his rights restored – was cited by the federal judge who declared Florida’s system unconstitutional. Federal District Court Judge Mark Walker said the state had until Feb. 12 to come up with remedies to the constitutional violations. Rebuked for violating the First and 14th Amendments, Mr. Scott joins other Republican state politicians facing legal blowback from measures that courts have ruled discriminate against black Americans. Advocates for restoring voting rights increasingly see it, one civil rights lawyer says, as a moral focus on the meaning of citizenship. “We are in a new moment,” says Bryan Sells. “We are [as a country] reevaluating the value of the right to vote and of unrigged systems. It’s not because the system was less rigged before. People are just caring about it more in the last five years.”

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Florida's right to vote and a 'silent civil rights struggle'

Updated: This article was updated at 2:35 p.m. to include a statement from the Florida governor's office.

The first time the Florida poet Devin Coleman voted was also his last.

It was 2000, Gore v. Bush – when his was among millions of votes in play as the US Supreme Court called the winner and set the eventual arc of American affairs.

Not long thereafter, Mr. Coleman was involved in a fight at a house party. His arrest led to eventual burglary charges, a prison sentence, and the revocation of his right to vote.

Nearly two decades later, Coleman, now 39, is a father, published author, public speaker, and college graduate. But he says his disenfranchisement has shaded those successes.

“Everything in my life has been affected by my conviction – even after I paid my debt,” says the author of “Prisoner to Poet: Thoughts of an incarcerated soul.” “At this point, [reclaiming my full citizenship] has become a life’s journey for redemption.”

Perhaps aiding in that quest, Federal District Court Judge Mark Walker ruled Feb. 1 that 1.5 million Floridians’ right to vote has been affected by a “scheme” to bend the people’s collective will to political whim.

The judge found that the vote restoration process in Florida – executed by a Republican-led clemency board headed by Gov. Rick Scott – used arbitrary means to decide who is worthy. The state has until Feb. 12 to come up with remedies to the current constitutional violations.

Rebuked for violating the First and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution, Mr. Scott joins other Republican state politicians facing legal blowback from measures that courts have ruled discriminate, whether by effect or intent – or both – against black Americans.

Most immediately, the ruling could force Florida to immediately fix a massive backlog of re-enfranchisement cases ahead of the November election, potentially impacting races – including Scott’s potential Senate run. But more broadly, the verdict against Florida’s system, civil rights experts say, could train the nation’s eyes on the deeper impacts of voting rights on political outcomes.

“We are in a new moment,” says Bryan Sells, a civil rights lawyer in Atlanta. “We are [as a country] reevaluating the value of the right to vote and of unrigged systems. It’s not because the system was less rigged before. People are just caring about it more in the last five years.”

Advocates for restoring voting rights increasingly see it, he says, as a moral focus on the meaning of citizenship.

In fact, earlier this year, nearly a million Floridians signed a winning petition to have automatic vote restoration for felons (save for murderers and rapists) added to the state constitution. Sixty percent of voters would need to OK it in November for it to become law. A 2014 national poll showed 65 percent of Americans in favor of automatic vote restoration.

But passing the amendment may be an uphill battle in the Sunshine State, where law and order command a heavy respect.

“[Felon disenfranchisement] is understood as an issue of law and order and in Florida that’s the end of the discussion,” says Scott Paine, a political analyst for the Florida League of Cities in Tampa. “It is not seen in other terms, no matter the merits of other arguments. At the same time, this may be less about the state as a whole than about a particular administration’s perspective.”

Governor’s personal involvement

The practice of withholding voting rights from people convicted of felonies has a legal basis. The 14th Amendment balances equal rights with the right of government to bar the franchise from Americans convicted of “rebellion and crime.” There is one vital caveat, which is at the heart of Walker’s ruling: It is illegal to withhold rights based on race or viewpoint. The state argues that Florida’s system is in place to ensure that only “responsible” people vote.

In an investigative look at Florida’s vote restoration backlog, the Tampa Bay Times noted last summer that Scott “often shows a softer, more human side as he intently poses personal questions” like “Do you still drink? ... Are you married?” or to a child, “Is he a good dad?” But unless those answers personally satisfy Scott, the applicant’s vote restoration is denied.

Such personal involvement by a governor into a citizen’s voting rights also bucks trends. Since Coleman’s first and only presidential vote in 2000, 20 states have eased re-enfranchisement restrictions, with many automatically returning the franchise to those who have completed the terms of their punishment. Today, only Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa use clemency boards to determine eligibility.

Florida – a key swing state – stands out.

After winning the election in 2010, Scott, along with three other Republicans on the clemency board, made the re-enfranchisement process more onerous. The board granted about 154,000 clemencies in four years of former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist’s tenure, but that number plummeted to less than 3,000 in seven years under Scott.

“The discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons’ rights in Florida has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors. The process is outlined in Florida’s Constitution, and today’s ruling departs from precedent set by the United States Supreme Court," says John Tupps, communications director for the governor, in a statement provided to the Monitor. “The governor believes that convicted felons should show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities. While we are reviewing [the] ruling, we will continue to defend this process in the court.”

For his part, Judge Walker saw the scheme as part of a broader trend where partisans emboldened in part by the rollback of federal voting protections by the Supreme Court have attempted to use voter ID and gerrymandering to secure permanent electoral footholds.

According to the ruling, Scott noted that the clemency board “can do whatever we want.” That included returning the right to vote to a white Floridian who admitted he voted (illegally) for Scott. Meanwhile, four of five people turned down for similar circumstances were black. One out of 10 Floridians have had their voting rights revoked; for black residents, the ratio is one out of five.

In one case Walker cited, a 54-year-old was told he would have to wait 50 years before reapplying to have his voting rights restored.

Nationally, one out of 13 black Americans can’t vote because of felon disenfranchisement, a practice that started in the South during Reconstruction to suppress the emerging freedman’s vote. About 4.7 million Americans can’t vote because of their criminal record, 1.7 million of whom live in the Sunshine State.

To be sure, the moral issue of whether felons should receive their voting rights back after serving their sentences has been what some have called a “silent civil rights struggle.” But the disproportionate impact of voting rules on black people writ large is drawing new attention to the problem, including from some Republicans, including former President George W. Bush – whose own 2000 election may have gone differently if so many Floridians had not been disenfranchised.

In the past two years, courts have ruled that Texas, North Carolina, and Ohio engaged in racial gerrymandering in an effort to disenfranchise black voters, a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

“This court is not blind to nationwide trends in which the spigot to access the United States’ most ‘precious’ and ‘fundamental’ right, the right to vote, depends on who controls the levers of power,” Judge Walker wrote in his 43-page order. “That spigot is turned on or off depending on whether politicians perceive they will benefit from the expansion or contraction of the electorate.”

Legacy of Florida’s past

Snuggled up to “NaNa,” one of Florida’s most towering beach dunes, lies the historic African-American community of American Beach, on Amelia Island.

Doug Reid is one of the several hundred residents of the town established by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire and founder of “The Afro” insurance company in 1935, during the Jim Crow era. It was a beachside community for African-Americans, who were not legally allowed to go swimming at many other beaches along Florida’s thousands of miles of coastline.

Mr. Reid sees a link between the state’s past history of racism and its restrictive approach to restoring voting rights after a sentence is completed.

“You still get a little bit of the Confederacy going on down here,” he says, pointing to a rise in white nationalism. He notes, however, that he personally has not felt discriminated against in Florida. And he does not know anyone who has had their voting rights revoked.

Some government observers also point out the simultaneous rise in polarized nationalism and efforts to suppress minority votes. “The [2016] election showed me that among white Americans, if Jim Crow were on the ballot, he’d win,” says Steven Taylor, an expert on the intersection of race and politics at American University, in Washington, D.C. “On issues of intense polarization, blacks are [right to feel they are] going to be on the losing side.”

Former US Marine Ryan Conover, who works as a fishmonger on Amelia Island, says most people don’t understand their rights as well as they should.

He also knows that Floridians may well be less sympathetic to criminals, especially hardened ones.

But as someone who has defended American freedoms, Mr. Conover, who is white, says he is concerned about the psychological and social costs of denying the right to vote to felons who have paid their dues. His view is supported by studies that show that vote restoration leads to less recidivism.

“The vote is critical to a sense of citizenship, especially when you are trying to rebuild your life,” says Conover. “Not being able to vote means that you have no say in what goes on in your community.”

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4. Russia's grass-roots bid to expose Stalin's 'Great Terror'

From the worst atrocities can come opportunities for reckoning and reconciliation, whether in South Africa or postwar Germany. But Russia’s unwillingness to face its Stalinist past shows how history – when allowed to linger – can continue to shape the present.

Mark
Andrey Arkhipov
The relatives of family members who were killed by Joseph Stalin’s secret police put flowers and candles on graves where the victims’ remains have been reburied near Voronezh, Russia.

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They’re called “memorial zones” – places that hold the remains of thousands of people executed by Stalin’s secret police during the Great Terror of 1936-38. In the Russian city of Voronezh, volunteers have been excavating one such site each summer, reburying the remains of at least 10,000 local victims thought to have been interred here after perfunctory trials for fantastical crimes. It is a noteworthy step in addressing crimes that have yet to be fully recognized. For Valery Chekmaryov, one of the few surviving victims of the era, it is imperative to have a forthright reckoning. After a lifetime of toiling alone to document what happened to his father, who was summarily shot in 1937, he says, he is seeing more commemorations and press coverage in Voronezh. “That is something quite new,” he says. But despite official commemorations and monuments like the Wall of Sorrows in Moscow, Russia is far from an open discussion. “These days the thing that just astounds me is when I hear that … someone is talking about putting up a monument to Stalin,” he says. “Have they learned anything from history?”

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Russia's grass-roots bid to expose Stalin's 'Great Terror'

Just about every former Soviet city has a place outside town, usually a forest or piece of scrubland, where Joseph Stalin’s secret police brought thousands of executed “enemies of the people” and dumped them into mass graves, especially during the nightmare years of the Great Terror of 1936-38. 

Here in Voronezh, a central Russian city of about 1 million people, that place is known as Dubovka. It’s a forlorn stretch of sparse oak forest that even today can be reached only by a long hike along unmarked paths. For decades the subject of rumors and frightened whispers, Dubovka was recently designated an official “memorial zone.” Mostly youthful volunteers have been excavating the pits each summer, removing and reburying the remains of at least 10,000 local victims that are thought to have been interred here. 

What they find are the remains of men, women, and even children, often with their hands still tied behind their backs, whose tattered documents, buried with the bodies, show they came from all walks of life. Researchers say many had a swift and perfunctory trial, if they had one at all. Most were charged with fantastical crimes, such as operating under the direction of German or Japanese intelligence. They were accused of committing acts of sabotage, motivated by loyalty to Stalin’s personal enemies, such as Leon Trotsky.

“I hope the time has come for people to face this monstrous reality, but it is not happening,” says Lena Dudukina, a local poet and volunteer with the human rights group Memorial. She wants to start a website similar to one set up by activists in the western Russian region of Karelia to document all that is known about the mass slaughter and, perhaps, inspire others around the country to begin their own investigations.

“Something has to be done so that when the public and the government do decide to face these issues squarely, enough facts have been collected to assist that process,” she says. “The worst thing would be if it all slips back into the realm of mythology, and no justice is ever realized.”

In one sense, the nascent movement here mirrors enduring grass-roots efforts in many countries around the world to confront elements of a dark past. In Japan, officials are being forced to deal with the atrocities committed against South Korean “comfort women” during World War II. In the United States, the legacy of slavery continues to haunt many states and institutions. (Click here for related story.) Germany’s moral reckoning with the Holocaust is ever present, and countries from Indonesia to Cambodia to Rwanda have had to deal with past genocides. 

ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AP
People gather in Moscow’s Red Square to mark the anniversary of the death of Joseph Stalin. Opinion polls show Russians are increasingly inclined to see him as an effective leader and play down the mass crimes he oversaw.

The nations that do confront past atro­cities do so in their own ways and at their own pace. Some hold very public truth and reconciliation hearings. Some erect monuments. Others deal with it more quietly, through schoolbooks and social discussions.

Russia’s response has been more muted than that of other countries in similar situations. Eight decades later, the crimes of Stalin have yet to be fully recognized, much less documented. There is no closure for millions of descendants whose grandparents disappeared, and no consensus – or even much debate – among Russian historians about what happened and why. The slaughter and incarceration of millions remain shrouded in myth, even though former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced the repressions in a secret speech in 1956 and attempted to “de-Stalinize” the Soviet system before he was overthrown. His successors, seeing the whole discussion as a threat to Soviet legitimacy, quelled the talk altogether.

During Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to reform Communism in the late 1980s, a flood of revelations about Stalinist repressions in the media, and wrenching memoirs of surviving victims, did contribute greatly to public loss of faith and the subsequent peaceful collapse of the USSR.

To this day, no one has a clear estimate of how many Soviet people fell victim to the massive waves of political purges that rocked the Stalin era, tearing families and whole communities apart, and leaving scars that have not healed.

“Between August 1937 and November 1938, about 1-1/2 million people [in the USSR] were arrested and perhaps 700,000 of them were shot,” says Nikita Petrov, one of Russia’s leading historians on the secret services and an expert with the Memorial society. “It was a really terrible time in our history.” During the entire period from the early 1920s to Stalin’s death in 1953, he estimates, about 12 million people were either killed, sent to labor camps, or otherwise suffered directly from repressions.

“We would like very much if our state would provide official figures, perhaps in the form of an apology, but the Russian state doesn’t seem at all interested in doing that on any level,” he says. “They say: ‘Leave it to the historians.’ But how can we do our jobs when the archives are still mostly closed, even to specialists?”

One of the few surviving victims of the Great Terror is Valery Chekmaryov. His father was one of a group of 23 railroad workers accused of treason and shot in 1937. As the family of a convicted “enemy of the people,” young Chekmaryov and his mother were arrested shortly thereafter, evicted from their apartment, and trundled off to a labor camp in the Volga region of Mordovia.

ANDREY ARKHIPOV
Valery Chekmaryov, sitting in his home, was just a few months old when he was sent with his mother to a Soviet labor camp.

Chekmaryov spent nearly a year in the gulag before being taken to Voronezh to live with his grandmother while his mother was still being held.

“The fate of my family was typical for those designated as enemies of the people,” says Chekmaryov, who has spent his life trying to document what happened to his parents. His mother returned from the gulag in 1946 and, following Stalin’s death, managed to get herself and her husband “rehabilitated” – which is Soviet-speak for having one’s rights as a citizen restored and their convictions expunged from the record. Chekmaryov himself was only rehabilitated by a Soviet court in 1989. Still, he managed to live a productive life in the Soviet Union, becoming a railroad engineer like his father.

But it’s only in recent years that he’s managed to gain access to some of the documents in his father’s case. For instance, he has a court paper, stamped as a “true copy” by today’s FSB security service, that says his father’s group was convicted after a 20-minute trial of being “a Trotskyist spy and sabotage unit acting under the direction of Japanese intelligence.”

“I have been studying this for many years, and I still have no idea how all [the state purging] was organized,” says Vyacheslav Bitytsky, head of the Voronezh chapter of Memorial – which has, ironically, been declared a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin because it receives international funding. In addition to trying to document the extent of the Stalin-era mass terror, the group works to legally exonerate victims and introduce educational programs in local schools that could help lift the fog that still surrounds this horrific chapter of history.

“They didn’t just seize people in the streets. They opened cases, investigated, held trials, and hence there must be documents,” says Mr. Bitytsky. “Yet it becomes harder and harder to get access to the archives, unless you were a victim or a direct descendant. People like Chekmaryov are the last ones who will be given any access at all. He’s over 80 now, and most of the others are long gone.” 

For years, Chekmaryov did his research largely in anonymity. No one was particularly interested in his efforts to dig up details of his family’s past, nor his push to get the country to confront this dark era. But that began to change about five years ago. 

Now he sits on a committee in Voronezh that prepares events each year to mark a national day to “commemorate victims of political repressions.” He is also a regular guest at solemn ceremonies authorities organize at the Dubovka gravesite, and is often consulted on issues about Stalin-era crimes by local and regional officials.

“Once a year, at least, this issue gets quite a lot of coverage in our local media. The governor and others organize and attend events to honor the victims of repressions,” says Chekmaryov. Sitting in a hotel room in Voronezh, he comes off as someone who has spent a lifetime battling the system – passionate, engaged, committed. “That is something quite new in Russian life, and it’s a symbol of the attitude of our authorities,” he goes on. “On the other hand, the continuing difficulty of getting access to documents, to fully research what happened, is another mark of their attitude.”

What Chekmaryov has been able to find out, he’s written in a book, which he published himself. At this point, he doubts he will unearth any new information. “You can’t call it closure,” he says. “But it’s something.”

ANDREY ARKHIPOV
Photos of Valery Chekmaryov's mother and his father (r.) who was shot by the secret police.

Voronezh is a cultural and industrial hub in southwestern Russia that sits astride a broad river. It was the city where Peter the Great built his first great naval fleet and, more recently, was almost completely destroyed in back-and-forth sieges between the Germans and Russians in World War II.

Voronezh lies in a more liberal part of Russia, and local authorities, unlike those in many other cities and regions, have been cooperating with efforts spearheaded by the local chapter of Memorial. But even here it’s an uphill slog for activists. They perceive that officials are deeply ambivalent about an issue that remains explosively controversial, and are therefore unwilling to let the social conversation move much beyond commemorating victims and expressing shock at the tragedy that struck here 80 years ago.

Besides sponsoring the annual commemoration day, local authorities have assisted in the publication of a “Book of Memory” that lists thousands of area people who were executed or sent to gulag labor camps. RIA-Voronezh, a state-funded regional news agency, has run a series describing the stories of local people who suffered death and imprisonment during those terrible days.

But that’s about as far as it goes. 

Alexander Akinshin, a history professor at Voronezh State University, and one of the authors of the Book of Memory, says there are two institutes of higher learning in Voronezh with modern history departments, but not a single course is taught about those terrible events of the 1930s. Historians do write about it, but usually their work, like his own, focuses on individual cases rather than trying to analyze the era. 

“To investigate those events properly, to examine the whys and wherefores, you would need access to a lot of documents that are absolutely unavailable today,” he says. He can’t name a single book by any contemporary Russian historian that tackles the broad themes of purges and gulags, though there are plenty by Western authors. “Perhaps not enough time has passed,” he speculates. “Public interest is not there. People these days are too concerned with their private lives, personal problems, and there is no pressure from below for change.”

Those boundaries have undoubtedly been set by the Kremlin. On one hand, Vladimir Putin has gone much further than any previous Soviet or Russian leader in acknowledging the massive tragedy that befell millions of Soviets, and admitting that it was wrong. On the other hand, President Putin is striving to knit together a narrative of Russian history that promotes national unity, and Stalin needs to be integrated into that story as an effective leader who oversaw industrialization and a victory over Nazi Germany, and left the USSR a mighty superpower on the world stage when he died.

“What we see in the official narrative is that victory over enemies takes precedence over the ‘mistakes’ that were made. It doesn’t deny the repressions – as [the government] did in Soviet times – it accepts that they happened but offers a very vague moral verdict,” says Anastasia Nikitina, a former history teacher who is now an education consultant for a local coalition of nongovernmental organizations called Human Rights House.

She works with local schools and teachers, with the aim of raising consciousness about fascism and Stalinism. Ms. Nikitina says students generally know that many people were killed during this period but few teachers are interested in discussing the atrocities in any depth. 

“There is a strange imbalance in the way this history is taught,” she says. “Young people are officially encouraged to speak about their grandparents who died fighting against Nazis in the war. Whole classes are devoted to showing pictures, recounting their experiences, keeping their memories alive. But no one is encouraged to speak about ancestors who perished in the repressions. It’s an awkward, silence-inducing subject.”

Nikitina takes some solace in knowing that young people today seem more willing to discuss such topics. While the interests of the state tend to reign supreme in Russian political culture, she says that young people today believe their opinions matter. 

Still, she believes the country has a long way to go in addressing the atrocities of the past. In her view, Russia needs to not just recognize the victims of the Stalin era, but the crimes that took place as well. “People want justice, and that only happens when the criminals are named and the crimes are punished,” she says. “We are very far from having any kind of discussion about that.”

Last Oct. 30, the official day commemorating “victims of political repression,” Putin inaugurated a major monument to thousands of faceless victims of Stalinist terror called the “Wall of Sorrow” in central Moscow. It is a 100-foot-long bronze wall featuring a multitude of faceless figures intended to represent the victims of repression and persecution. The wall is curved like a scythe and contains stone fragments from gulags across the country.

“An unequivocal and clear assessment of the repression will help to prevent it being repeated,” Putin said at the unveiling on a damp night. “This terrible past must not be erased from our national memory and cannot be justified by anything.”

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN/REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers during a ceremony unveiling a memorial to victims of Soviet-era political repressions called the ‘Wall of Sorrow’ in Moscow.

Yet in his recent interview with US filmmaker Oliver Stone, Putin slammed critics for “excessive demonization” of Stalin and argued that focusing on the former dictator’s crimes against humanity “is one means of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia.”

That illustrates the fine line the Kremlin is attempting to walk over how to deal with the massive crimes of the Stalin era, which did more to delegitimize the USSR than any other issue and cannot be comfortably woven into any conceivable narrative of Russian history that purports to stress continuity, national unity, and rightness of purpose.

One key problem for Putin is that Russia sees itself as the inheritor state of the Soviet Union, and many of its current institutions proudly trace their roots back to Soviet predecessors. Foremost among these is the FSB security service, which recently celebrated 100 years since the founding of the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police organization. To mark that occasion the current FSB director, Alexander Bortnikov, gave a defiant interview to the press arguing that accusations against Stalin’s secret police are greatly overstated. The USSR faced all kinds of threats from devious external enemies, as does Russia today, and the Motherland had to be protected even if the methods were sometimes harsh.

“The enemy either tried to defeat us in open combat or by using traitors inside our country to sow discord, divide the nation, and paralyze the ability of the government to effectively respond to threats,” he said. “The destruction of Russia is still an obsession for many. Although many associate this period [1936-38] with the mass fabrication of charges, archive materials show a significant number of criminal cases were based on factual evidence.”

Public opinion polls show that Russians themselves are increasingly inclined to see Stalin as an effective leader and play down the mass crimes that he oversaw. A tracking poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found the number of respondents who regarded the Great Terror as a “matter of political necessity that history will absolve” grew from 9 percent to 25 percent between 2007 and 2017. Those who viewed the purges as a “political crime that cannot be justified” fell from 72 percent to 39 percent over the same period.

“It’s not just that the public is mostly indifferent to these issues; it’s that even people who know all about it are conflicted,” says Svetlana Tarasova, author of a series of articles about the Great Terror for the RIA-Voronezh news agency. “I talk with people who went through terrible things, who were real victims, and yet they still are unsure what to think about Stalin. Even if they suffered through agonizing personal tragedy, somehow they still find it possible to justify him.”

Chekmaryov, the gulag survivor, hears the same things – and it haunts him. The only way to cleanse a nation’s soul and prevent the horrors of history from being repeated, many believe, is to have a full and forthright reckoning with the past.

“These days the thing that just astounds me is when I hear that somewhere in Russia, someone is talking about putting up a monument to Stalin,” he says. “I wonder, have they learned anything from history?”

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5. The Olympic-level science behind the sports

The untold story of the Winter Olympics is the pit crew – the tech specialists who have literally turned schussing, sliding, and soaring into a breathtaking science. 

Mark

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Every four years, athletes at the Winter Olympics astonish with their strength, their speed, their grace, and their skills. What viewers don’t see, though, are all the technical wizards in the wings, making sure the competitors have the best possible equipment. Think pit crew, with a track that can change by the hour. The techies can distinguish between all kinds of snow and ice – soft or hard, cold or warm. Then they can recommend the right skis, or snowboards, or sled settings, for the conditions prevailing on race day. As the athletes are the first to admit, they’re only as good as their gear. Their support teams’ ingenuity, innovation, and precision are every bit as Olympic as the athletes’ performances, and their schedules are sometimes even more grueling. “We work half a day,” jokes Richard Laubenstein, a former race-car mechanic who now tends to America’s bobsleds – often in damp, unheated parking garages. And by half a day, he means 12 hours. 

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The Olympic-level science behind the sports

Chris Mazdzer of the United States shook up the luge world order Sunday night, becoming the first non-European to podium in the Olympic men’s singles event.

“This is validation for everything I’ve done,” said Mazdzer, who won silver. “All the sacrifices, it’s worth it.”

It took 16 years of training, and came down to a fraction of a second. Had he been just .207 seconds slower, he would have missed out on the medals entirely.

In sports events that are won by such wafer-thin margins, it’s not only the athletes who are crucial; equipment plays a critical role too.

Laboring behind the scenes are hundreds of mechanics and technicians preparing skis, snowboards, and sleds. Think pit crew – with a shoestring budget and a track that changes by the day if not the hour.

Their ingenuity, innovation, and precision are every bit as Olympic as the athletes’ performances, and their schedules are sometimes even more grueling.

“We work half a day,” jokes Richard Laubenstein, a former race car mechanic who now tends to America’s bobsleds – often in damp, unheated parking garages. And by half a day, he means 12 hours. 

These geek squads – which sometimes include the athletes themselves – are intimately familiar with the difference between a sharp snow crystal that squeaks underfoot and the rounded shape of snow that has thawed and refrozen. They notice whether the ice on the bobsled track is crystal-clear – the sign of hard, fast ice – or the milky kind that is liable to get chips and bumps as the race wears on.

They use space pens and waterproof notebooks to record testing results in all sorts of weather so that when they know the precise conditions on race day, they have a log of what works best.

“Wax technicians need to be meteorologists,” says Alex Deibold, who served as a wax tech at the 2010 Olympics and won bronze in snowboard cross as a competitor at the 2014 Sochi Games. “You have to look at the weather and be like, it says it’s going to snow – but it’s said that for the past four days. Maybe I’ll prep one extra board, just in case it does.”

From pine pitch to fluorocarbons

At the 2015 snowboard cross test event in Pyeongchang, there was no snow in the forecast. But Deibold’s wax tech Andy Buckley woke up in the middle of the night and noticed it was snowing outside. So rather than going back to bed, he went down to the wax room at 3:30 a.m. and spent nearly three hours rewaxing Deibold’s snowboards, as well as those of his teammates, Nick Baumgartner and Nate Holland.

Holland won gold, Baumgartner bronze, and Deibold was fifth. “I think you can attribute that to the fact that our wax tech took a little bit of extra time and rewaxed our snowboards,” says Deibold.

Gone are the days of smearing sperm whale oil and pine pitch on skis; today’s techs select from a wide array of chemical compounds – some as costly per ounce as caviar. Taking into consideration the temperature, humidity, and the relative freshness of the snow, the techs concoct the mixture that will enable the bases to glide across the snow with as little friction as possible.  

Skis and boards are also put through stone-grinding machines that imprint textures designed for warm or cold snow, and wet or dry snow. Cross-country skiers can travel with 20 or more pairs of skis, each suited to a specific set of conditions. Diebold brings five snowboards with different grinds to his competitions.

Sliding sports don’t have that luxury; they generally have one race sled, but there’s still plenty of prep involved.

First, there’s the off-season work: designing sleds, building them and testing their aerodynamics in wind tunnels. Then there’s finding the right balance between speed and control for any given track and the ice conditions that day.

On luge sleds, for example, you can gain more control by tilting the runners, known as “steels,” more sharply into the ice, or by changing their relative angles. But such techniques sacrifice speed. And speed is of the essence when 0.007 seconds is the difference between a silver medal and nothing.

Sliders can squeeze a few more thousandths of a second off their time by polishing their steels. They start with low-grit sandpaper wrapped around a file and work up to 2500-grit sandpaper, finishing off with diamond paste until they can see their reflection.

“When we’re done…I would be comfortable shaving off of it,” says Tucker West, who finished 26th  in Sunday’s race. 

'You're riding on your pinky'

Where exactly does one get a bobsled or a skeleton sled? After all, it’s not as if they’re lined up next to the Flexible Flyers at ACE Hardware. American teams have set about making their own.

“If you’re going to be competing at the top level you don’t want the standard thing that everyone can buy,” says skeleton racer Matt Antoine, who has been a driving force in a new sled-building program that began in 2009. “You can be the best pusher, the best slider, but if you’re bringing crappy equipment to the race it doesn’t matter.”

It has cost more than $2 million for USA Bobsled to design, prototype, and build new four-man bobsleds. One of them will be in competition for the first time in Pyeongchang, and it hasn’t even had the opportunity to go through the usual “aero-tuning” tests.

But the team has learned a lot from testing other sleds in a wind tunnel in Mooresville, N.C., when the sled is suspended slightly off the ground to have its drag coefficient measured. While they are about it, the team tests its helmets, suits, and different athlete positions for maximum aerodynamic efficiency.

Then in training runs, the athletes, coaches,  and team bobsled mechanic Laubenstein experiment with different runners – wider ones for more control, narrower ones for more speed. The runners, which cost $6,000 to $12,000 a pair, are not like ice skates but perfectly rounded and smooth – and about the width of a finger.

“I always tell people – that’s what you’re riding on: your pinky,” says Laubenstein. Before a race, he uses razor-thin shims to align the runners to .005 of an inch accuracy, or about the width of aluminum foil.

“Richard is fantastic,” says Steve Langton, a member of the bobsled team. “Having someone doing stuff that we don’t have to do (gives us) time that we can sleep or recover.”

Laubenstein’s wife has an important role to play too; she has taken the team under her wing, baking them treats.

“After the race, we’re like, just take us back to the garage,” says driver Justin Olsen. “Once we’re in the garage, we’re like, where are the sweets?”

By the time they’re done, the baking pan is bent.

Just one more thing for the mechanic to repair.

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct Mazdzer's margin of victory in the luge competition. 

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The Monitor's View

India links women's safety and economic growth

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India’s economy is now growing at a faster clip than China’s. But further progress hinges on gender equity. The economy will keep growing only “if women ... assume political power and attain public status, and participate equally in the labor force,” according to India’s annual Economic Survey, which is pink to underscore the point. The idea that economic growth requires gender equality goes against a common theory that growth will automatically reduce gender inequality. But a recent International Monetary Fund study estimated that India’s gross domestic product would increase 27 percent if women’s participation in the labor force were to reach the same level as men’s. That goal will first require that India reduce violence against women out of a moral concern, not only for economic benefit. “We have to change our thinking and stop believing that boys are superior to girls,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi says. Many of the pro-women movements in India have defined a new freedom for women and girls. The more they spread, the more other restraints in society will be lifted – including restraints on economic growth.

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India links women's safety and economic growth

India reached a globe-shaking threshold this year. Its economy is now growing at a faster clip than China’s. That might be a source of pride for the country and its prime minister, Narendra Modi. Except it is not.

In its latest economic report, the government stated that India’s future development hinges on how women and girls are treated in society. The “intrinsic values” of gender equality are incontestable, it states. And the economy will keep growing only “if women acquire greater personal agency, assume political power and attain public status, and participate equally in the labor force.”

To make the point, the cover of the annual Economic Survey is colored in pink.

The idea that economic growth requires gender equality goes against a common theory that growth will automatically reduce gender inequality. In a recent study, the International Monetary Fund estimated that India’s gross domestic product would increase 27 percent if women’s participation in the labor force were to reach the same level as men’s.

That goal, however, will first require that India reduce violence against women out of a moral concern, not only for an economic benefit. After a notorious rape-murder of a female student in 2012, the government has made some progress in public safety for women, such as stricter punishment for rapists. And social media campaigns and street protests have awakened people to the problem as well as other social biases against women. According to one poll, more women report feeling safe from physical and emotional violence than a decade ago.

But the economic survey reveals this startling statistic: India has 63 million fewer women than it should have because of a parental preference for boys. Abortion of female fetuses is still too common even though the practice was outlawed in 1994. In addition, India has 21 million girls who are “unwanted” by their families.

A skewed ratio of men to women is now a big economic problem in India. And it creates a gender dynamic that needs correction in favor of women, such as protection from sexual misconduct.

The good news is that the percentage of educated women in India had gone up, from 59.4 percent in 2005-06 to 72.5 percent in 2015-16. And Mr. Modi has pushed a “girls empowerment” at the village level, such as building girls-only toilets at schools. “We have to change our thinking and stop believing that boys are superior to girls,” he says. “We should change our mentality.”

Many of the pro-women movements in India – including the import of the #MeToo campaign – have defined a new freedom for women and girls. The more they spread, the more other restraints in society will be lifted – including restraints on economic growth.

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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.

Goodbye, self-condemnation

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Today’s column comes from a young athlete who shares how identifying himself as God’s spiritual, capable, and valuable child enabled him to stop fixating on mistakes and instead experience more joy, confidence, and progress on the baseball field.

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Goodbye, self-condemnation

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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My whole life, baseball has been my favorite sport, and I have never worked harder at anything else. Coming into high school, I was nervous about playing baseball because I knew the skill level was a big jump for me. But after a winter of training, I felt prepared and ready. When the season started that spring, I was thrilled when the coaches invited me to be on the varsity team as a freshman. As the season progressed, I started every game and quickly found my spot on the team.

Then, suddenly, my performance went downhill. I kept making mistakes, and I started to question whether I was a good fit for the team. I felt as if I was just disappointing my teammates and coaches. My self-confidence plummeted, and even my enthusiasm for baseball started to diminish. When I made mistakes, I would blame myself for not being good enough.

After practice one day, one of my coaches called me into his office and asked me how I was doing. I told him that I wasn’t confident and felt down on myself for all the mistakes I kept making. Like me, the coach was a Christian Scientist, and he shared with me a passage quoted in “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” by Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy. The passage says: “He assumes no borrowed appearance. He seeks no mask to cover him...” (p. 147). My coach compared my errors during the game to a mask that was covering my true identity.

That helped me see that I needed to think about myself in a different way. I had been identifying myself based on what seemed like my personal abilities, or even worse, my lack of abilities when I messed up. But my true identity is God’s child, wholly spiritual and therefore capable.

After we talked, my thought shifted and I saw clearly that while I could certainly reflect on and learn from my mistakes, they weren’t actually part of me and didn’t define me. Only God defines me, and I could look at myself spiritually, rather than focusing on what I was doing wrong.

As the season went on, I continued to pray with the idea of taking off the mask of a limited, material sense of myself, and I did see progress. But I was still finding it tough not to fixate on my mistakes.

My coach reminded me of this verse from the Bible, which is one of my favorites: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, New King James Version). I put that passage together with the idea I’d been working on about taking off the mask and it felt like finding the final piece of a puzzle. I suddenly understood that I wasn’t doing any of this on my own, as a limited individuality separate from God, but that I was actually God’s spiritual reflection. God’s healing power, the Christ, enables us to express qualities such as ability, joy, and kindness toward ourselves and others. The Christ shows us what we really are as God’s creation. I felt so relieved!

As the baseball season came to an end, I found I was consistently playing my best games. The belief that my mistakes defined me no longer had any hold over me. I was playing freely, and even if I did make a mistake, I wasn’t tempted to beat myself up about it anymore. I would just mentally take a step back, remember the way God created me, and jump back in the game. I regained my confidence and joy and felt like part of the team again.

This healing taught me that we always have a choice in the way we think about mistakes. Rather than learning a lesson and moving on, it’s tempting to focus on mistakes and to be self-critical. But all that does is trick us into believing in an incorrect view of ourselves. Instead, we can take a moment to correct this view and perceive the true view of ourselves – created by God as unlimited and valuable. This allows us to express more of those God-given qualities and to start leaving the mistakes behind.

A version of this article ran in the Q&A series of the Christian Science Sentinel’s online TeenConnect section, March 9, 2017.

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Viewfinder

Portrait of a first lady

Andrew Harnik/AP
Former President Barack Obama looks at former first lady Michelle Obama's official portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery Feb. 12 in Washington. Mr. Obama's was done by African-American artist Kehinde Wiley, while Mrs. Obama's was done by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald. Mr. Obama praised Ms. Sherald for 'spectacularly' capturing his wife. Mrs. Obama talked about the girls who would come to the National Gallery. 'They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution.... And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls,' she said.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( February 13th, 2018 )

Thanks for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow for Galentine's Day. Yes, Galentine's Day is a thing. Women take out their female friends to celebrate one another – in contrast to the Hallmark-fueled ocean of tears that comes one day later. We'll take a light look at how the celebration leapt from a television show to reality. 

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February 12, 2018
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