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.


Fake news is a popular topic these days. Facebook is blamed for spreading it. Countries are weighing how to combat it. And politicians accuse others of creating it. But last week, several Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers released a study that led to one ironclad conclusion: Fake news exists because people on social media love it.

The fact is, governments and tech companies have actually done a fair bit to help credible sources. Yet “Twitter users seem almost to prefer sharing falsehoods,” notes one analysis of the study. This has nothing to do with foreign meddling or robotic algorithms. The research found that Twitter’s bots promoted true stories as much as they promoted false ones. But the false ones were wildly more successful.

Why? First, fake news can be much more clickable because it is, well, fake. But it also manipulates us, evoking surprise and disgust. 

What emotions does real news evoke? Sadness and trust, the study found. Trust is something we all can value more. We can start by not expecting news to conform to our worldviews. And, perhaps, sadness doesn’t need to be the first emotion we associate with real news. Maybe we can expect news to inspire and uplift, too. 


Now, here are our five stories for today, looking at an election centered on character, a country searching for its voice, and a criminal justice program built on a different perspective.  

1. Russia eyed in UK spy poisoning case. But why would the Kremlin do it?

Fingers are pointing at Russia for the attempted assassination of a former spy in Britain. It offers a chance to examine why Russia often acts like this. Problem is, in this case, it's a bit of a mystery.


The 30 Sec. ReadWhen Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent for Britain, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury, England, last week, blame was quick to fall on Russia for the attempted murder. Based on a statement from British Prime Minister Theresa May today, the means justify the accusation: She described the poison as a “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.” But what’s the motive? That’s considerably less clear. Though the Kremlin has been fingered for murdering President Vladimir Putin’s critics in Britain before – most notably former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko – Mr. Skripal has been leading a largely nondescript life since being part of a 2010 spy exchange, which under traditional espionage rules would keep him from being a target. It could also be a move outside the Kremlin completely – perhaps by an individual faction within Russia's sprawling establishment trying to curry favor with Mr. Putin, or pursuing its own agenda. But the Kremlin has denied involvement, and most Russians believe that the attack was a false flag operation to justify further action by the West against their country.


1. Russia eyed in UK spy poisoning case. But why would the Kremlin do it?

It certainly looks like a state actor was behind the attempted murder by exotic nerve agent of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain last week.

Outside of Russia, few people have any doubts about who that culprit must be, and most fingers are pointed squarely at Moscow. Indeed, British Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament today that it was “highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act,” and that the poison was “a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.”

There is, however, a distinct shortage of solid theories about why the Kremlin would have ordered such a high-profile attack on a man who – by all the traditional spy vs. spy rules – should no longer be of interest to security services. The only certain outcome is that it will be yet another in a long line of aggravated East-West crises that was already looking more acrimonious and unpredictable than the old cold war ever was.

Dmitry Kiselyov, one of Russia's most powerful media figures, speaks about the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain on state-owned TV channel Rossiya-1, in Moscow on Mar. 11. The words at left read ‘death trap.’
RU-RTR Russian Television/AP

Who did it?

The Kremlin has categorically denied any involvement in the crime. Indeed, it's hard to see how Vladimir Putin, who looks set to be handily reelected next Sunday, and who is able to manifest his threats to the West in the form of late-generation nuclear missiles, could possibly benefit from the brutal murder of an obscure former turncoat who was pardoned and exchanged for captured Russian spies nearly a decade ago.

Predictably, some Russian analysts are claiming the attack on Mr. Skripal might have been a false flag operation by Western interests. They suggest the aim was to worsen the crisis of East-West mistrust and prompt tough measures, such as new sanctions against the huge numbers of wealthy Russians – including both pro-and-anti-Kremlin figures – who've parked their assets in Britain in recent years, or perhaps even more sweeping steps like a Western boycott of the upcoming soccer World Cup in Russia this summer. All that, and more, is already under active discussion in Britain.

Other experts seem less certain. Contrary to widespread Western belief, Mr. Putin's Russia is not under tight one-man control. Rather than the direct result of Kremlin diktat, experts say, a good deal of lawless behavior – from the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov three years ago to the recent cyber-shenanigans of Russia's “troll farm” – seems more plausibly explained by factions within Russia's sprawling establishment freelancing in their own interests, perhaps even aiming to please Putin.

In her statement to the British Parliament, Mrs. May said that it remained unclear whether Russia had intentionally deployed the nerve agent against Skripal, or if it had lost control of the poison and someone else used it. She said she was giving the Kremlin until the end of Tuesday to explain which possibility was the correct one. But many Russians believe that they are being framed.

“It does look like this attack had to be state-sponsored, and many here suspect some other [country] could have done this to implicate Russia,” says Sergei Karaganov, one of Russia's leading foreign policy specialists. “It seems unlikely to me, but possible, that some renegade forces inside the Russian elite might have done it” to embarrass Putin and drive Russia into an even more nationalistic corner. “It's hard to picture anyone defying Putin like that, but the possibility can't be excluded.”

And why?

Sergei Skripal was a career officer of Soviet military intelligence which, like its present day Russian incarnation, is known as the GRU, or main intelligence directorate. In 1995, he was recruited by the British secret service MI6, and reportedly handed over details of up to 300 Russian agents working abroad. He was caught in 2004, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced in 2006 to 13 years in a labor camp for treason. But four years later he was freed, pardoned by Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev and, along with three other convicted Russian spies, traded for 10 Russian “sleeper agents” caught in the US in a classic cold war-style spy swap.

“There has never been any case in the past when agents [who've been traded in this way] have been killed or harmed,” says Alexei Kondaurov, a former KGB general who later worked for the Yukos oil empire of exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and then served several years as a deputy of the State Duma. He says he doubts that Russian security services would tear up that old rule book, which benefits them as much as the other side. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Kondaurov's name.]

“If Moscow is accused of the Skripal story, I see no rational motivation for it,” he says. “Skripal didn't possess any useful information any more. Sure, he held classes on secret service methods [in Britain], but this stuff is as old as the pharaohs.”

Some critics have cited a 2010 video of Putin in which he calls “traitors” to Russia deserving of death as evidence of the Kremlin's hand behind Skripal's attempted murder. In the video, which has gained attention since the attack on Skripal, Putin says those who turn on their “their brother in arms ... Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.”

But the video offers no reason for why Skripal, of dozens of Russian former spies now living in the West, was targeted. Nor does it suggest why he would be targeted now, eight years after Putin's comments and being exchanged.

“Some people say maybe it was done to intimidate other [traitors] but I doubt that could work,” says Mr. Kondaurov. “More likely it will have the opposite effect.”

Soviet and Russian secret services have been known to assassinate their enemies abroad, including through the use of exotic poisons. The 2006 murder by radioactive polonium of former FSB anti-organized crime officer Alexander Litvinenko, which a British government inquiry determined was “most probably” ordered by Putin, is the case most frequently mentioned. Mr. Litvinenko, who defected to Britain in 2000, apparently later went to work for MI6, and also joined in the highly public anti-Kremlin campaigning of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

Rough waters ahead

Putin addressed Russian security service professionals a week ago, ironically a day after Skripal's poisoning, and cast Russia as being on the defensive amid a ferocious assault by Western intelligence agencies. He claimed that Russian counter-intelligence had interdicted almost 400 foreign operatives working in Russia last year alone.

“I ask you to continue to work in this most important direction in an extremely concerted and effective way,” he told them, “to stop all attempts by foreign intelligence services to gain access to sensitive information of a political, economic, technological, and defensive nature.”

If British authorities officially implicate Russia in Skripal's attempted murder, as seems likely, it spells even stormier weather for Moscow's relations with the West. But in one respect, British retaliation could play into Putin's hands. Proposals to force rich Russians residing in Britain to explain the sources of their wealth, or risk having it seized, could force them to bring it back to Russia – something the Kremlin has been trying in vain to convince them to do for almost five years.

“People used to say that money has no citizenship. Now it seems that it does: Russian money is going to be treated as distinctly Russian,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. “Putin has been offering all kinds of deals to rich Russians for years if they would repatriate their assets, but very few took him seriously. Maybe now they will.”

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2. Ahead of a closely watched election, voters prioritize values

The election for an open congressional seat in Pennsylvania is being cast as a bellwether. If true, it's an interesting development. Staff writer Linda Feldmann is finding that what voters there say they want most is character. 


The 30 Sec. ReadTuesday’s special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district is a nail-biter, according to polls – a shocking turn, given that President Trump won the district in 2016 by almost 20 percentage points. This is Trump country, dominated by white, working-class voters, and the race has focused on jobs, steel tariffs, workers’ rights, and guns. Still, many voters say what they care most about is character. The Democrat, Conor Lamb, is a young telegenic former federal prosecutor and former Marine. The Republican, state Rep. Rick Saccone, says he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.” Mr. Saccone has run a lackluster campaign, compared with Mr. Lamb’s energetic effort, forcing national Republican and outside groups to kick in more than $9 million. If Lamb wins, watch gleeful Democrats announce that they have “cracked the code” for how to win back disaffected Trump voters. “Both men have good qualities,” says Joe DiSarro, a professor at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. “Will the voters go with experience, a more mature person who has been in office and has a record? Or do they go for someone who’s a fresh face, has new ideas, and has appealed to voters’ desire to get things done?”


2. Ahead of a closely watched election, voters prioritize values

When Lydia Balogh, a registered Republican, showed up at a rally for Democrat Conor Lamb here in suburban Pittsburgh, she was already in his camp. And she was already doing her part to help his congressional bid, hosting campaign workers in her home.

But she wanted to show her support in person – and see former Vice President Joe Biden, who joined Mr. Lamb on stage in a rousing endorsement of the telegenic young former federal prosecutor and former Marine.

Lamb’s race against Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone in Tuesday’s special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district is a nail-biter, according to polls – a shocking turn, given that President Trump won the district in 2016 by almost 20 percentage points. This is Trump country, dominated by white, working-class voters, along with wealthier, close-in suburbs. Many issues burn bright, starting with jobs, steel tariffs, workers’ rights, and guns.

But for Ms. Balogh, this race is not primarily about issues.

“It’s about character and integrity, things we desperately need,” says Balogh, who is retired from her job in sales. “It’s time for bipartisanship. We need to work together.”

Lamb and Mr. Saccone are battling to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. Tim Murphy (R), who resigned last October amid reports that he had asked his mistress to have an abortion despite his public stance opposing abortion.

Supporters of Saccone also cite values – often expressed in one word, “freedom” – in explaining their choice. Gun rights loom large, amid renewed efforts to limit access to weapons. Saccone supporters also cite Trump’s tax cuts and efforts to repeal Obamacare as reasons to send the Republican state lawmaker to Washington. After all, Saccone says, he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.”

Republican Rick Saccone acknowledges the crowd during a campaign rally with President Trump, Mar. 10, in Moon Township, Pa. Mr. Saccone is running against Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election on March 13 for Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, a seat vacated by Republican Tim Murphy.
Keith Srakocic/AP

But Saccone isn’t really another Trump. He has run a campaign seen as lackluster, compared with Lamb’s energetic effort, forcing national Republican committees and outside groups to kick in more than $9 million. Trump has come to the district twice, as have other high-profile surrogates. Saccone is a generation older than Lamb, and an experienced politician, while Lamb is a first-time candidate. 

The last time Pennsylvania’s 18th district sent a Democrat to Washington was 2003. If Lamb wins, watch gleeful Democrats announce that they have “cracked the code” for how to win in Trump country. A Lamb victory would give rocket fuel to Democrats’ push to retake the House in the November midterms, spurring donations and activism.  

Lamb “could give his party a blueprint for how to win swing districts across the country,” says a Republican activist whose political action committee has donated to Saccone.

Even if Saccone wins narrowly, Democrats can claim a victory of sorts, as they have in other unexpectedly close Republican victories in special House races since Trump became president.

The wild card in this southwestern Pennsylvania district is the union vote. Between 20 and 25 percent of the electorate here lives in union households, and “it will probably be greater than that in the special, because organized labor is doing a lot to turn out members,” says Democratic political consultant Mike Mikus, who lives in the district. “So it could hit 30 percent.”

Union voters have trended Republican in recent years, for both cultural and economic reasons. But Democrats believe that a stronger economic message that addresses kitchen-table issues could make a difference.

Regis Ryan, a steamfitter who came to see Lamb and Mr. Biden at a union-sponsored event near Pittsburgh last week, says Trump has made promises to workers that he can’t keep.

“He came to the area and said he’d get their jobs back, but that’s a lie,” says Mr. Ryan, citing the rise of robotics and cheap natural gas as factors behind the changing job picture in this part of Pennsylvania. “There’s a trust factor here; so many people are seeing that.”

And what about gun rights? It’s an issue important to many union members here.

“I’m pro-Second Amendment, but I vote my wallet,” says Ryan, pulling a thick billfold out of his back pocket and slapping it on his palm. He’s volunteering for Lamb.

On most hot-button issues, Lamb and Saccone are actually on the same page. Both support Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs and gun rights, and both call themselves pro-life, though Lamb says he is willing to leave the law as is.

But it’s on labor issues where the two men part company. Saccone supports “right to work” laws, which block unions from requiring dues payments from workers they represent in collective bargaining. Saccone also supports so-called “paycheck protection” legislation, which makes it hard for public sector unions to raise funds for political activity.

Former Congressman Murphy was a reliably conservative vote in Congress – except on matters affecting unions. Saccone’s departure on labor matters has given Lamb an opening.

‘A prop in the commercial’

Saccone may well look at his Democratic opponent and wonder how a political novice still just starting out in life could grab a reliably Republican seat in Congress. The affable state representative runs through a 40-year career that includes service as an officer in the Air Force, a year as a diplomat in North Korea, two published books, college professor, international businessman, and four terms in the state legislature.

“How do you match that with a young guy like this who has no life experience – a few years in the military working in the legal office, an Obama appointee to the US Attorney’s office for a few years,” Saccone says in an interview at his field office in Greensburg. “That’s it.”

And that ad showing Lamb firing a rifle? “He didn’t have a shooting job” in the military, Saccone says. “It was a prop in the commercial.”

Saccone’s South Korean-immigrant wife, Yong – a flamboyant contrast to her husband with dyed magenta hair and a stars-and-stripes outfit – nudges him to talk about his Italian immigrant roots. The contrast with Lamb, an Ivy League educated scion of a prominent political family, is stark (Lamb’s grandfather was Democratic majority leader in the Pennsylvania state Senate, and his uncle is Pittsburgh’s controller). Saccone suggests that Lamb is trying to pull one over on the people of the 18th district.

“Lamb is a far-left liberal in disguise, trying to pretend that he’s a moderate Democrat,” he says.

Lamb says he won’t vote for Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker, if the party retakes the House. But, Saccone says, Lamb has “all her lieutenants around him,” giving him money and coming into the district to campaign, including “crazy Uncle Joe Biden.”

The Lamb campaign declined to make the candidate available for an interview.

A quick walk around Greensburg, whose ornate courthouse dominates a county seat that has seen better days, reveals more bars than coffee houses. In interviews, residents say they’re either not planning to vote, or still undecided.

“I’m probably leaning toward Saccone,” says Kelli, a Trump supporter who tends bar and is about to start working in a bank. “He’s a real person.”

Mike, a self-employed electrical installer, also supports Trump and cares deeply about Second Amendment rights. “Anybody tries to take my guns away – that’s not happening,” he says.

Biden vs. Trump

Recent visits by both Biden and Trump intensified the spotlight on a race that had already captured national attention. Biden spoke emotionally of how Lamb reminded him of his late son Beau – both were military lawyers – and he positioned himself as a son of Scranton, Pa., with blue-collar values that match the 18th district.

Biden sounded, for all the world, like a presidential candidate. Trump, even more so, treated his visit here Saturday night like a presidential campaign event.

Democrats in the 18th district have little to lose. If Lamb falls short on Tuesday, he is already poised to run again in November for a seat in Pennsylvania’s new congressional map. (The current map was rejected by the state’s high court over partisan gerrymandering.)

But for now, the Lamb campaign is keeping its eye on the prize. Hanging on the wall in its field office in Carnegie is a hand-written sign that declares, “Character matters!” Indeed, the workers there were unfailingly polite to two reporters who showed up unannounced.

No matter the outcome, it’s been “a beautiful campaign to watch,” says Joe DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., and a member of the Republican State Committee.

This district was drawn to favor a Republican, he notes, and even though Lamb is an articulate, attractive candidate, Mr. DiSarro isn’t sure he can pull it off.

“Both men have good qualities,” he says. “Will the voters go with experience, a more mature person who has been in office and has a record? Or do they go for someone who’s a fresh face, has new ideas, and has appealed to voters’ desire to get things done?”

The 18th district is still very socially conservative, DiSarro notes, and Lamb is running against his party. Saccone is running with his party, and with Trump, who remains reasonably popular here. That calculus probably favors Saccone, despite his anti-union positions. On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette endorsed Saccone.

But if the labor turnout effort is effective, Lamb could win. And that, to quote Biden, would be a big deal.

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3. US-North Korea summit? Shared language, expectations are key.

Almost no one thinks the potential meeting between President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un will lead the North to denuclearize. Yet steps forward could still come of it. 

A woman walks past a screen showing President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Tokyo March 9. After a year of threats and diatribes, Mr. Trump and third-generation North Korean leader Mr. Kim have agreed to meet face-to-face for talks about the North’s nuclear program.
Koji Sasahara/AP

The 30 Sec. ReadThere are lots of ways a US-North Korea summit could turn out badly. The two sides might have widely different expectations, or take offense at some perceived slight. The possibility for misunderstanding between Washington and Pyongyang seems high. But there are also many ways such a summit could go right. Shock at the manner in which President Trump suddenly accepted an invitation from Kim Jong-un shouldn’t obscure this possibility. First, a summit could put off any conflict for the moment. Talking is generally better than war. Second, the United States and North Korea might be able to agree on interim steps that could improve their relationship. In this regard the establishment of improved communications could forestall accidental conflict, or North Korea might agree to a testing freeze in exchange for sanctions relief. None of these would be a significant move toward North Korean denuclearization, but they would reduce the risk of conflict, according to Mark Bell, a nuclear weapons expert at the University of Minnesota. “To that extent they would be very valuable for the security of North Korea and the security of the United States,” he says.


3. US-North Korea summit? Shared language, expectations are key.

President Trump’s acceptance of a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un last week was a huge surprise for much of official Washington. It was almost as if Mr. Trump had decided to become a Democrat, or give up golf.

After all, Trump has derided Kim as “Little Rocket Man.” He’s threatened North Korea with “fire and fury.” The way in which the agreement came about seemed impetuous. Critics were quick to point out the many ways in which it might flop.

Flop it might. The North Koreans have said nothing yet about their view of the potential summit, or even if they’ve actually extended such an invitation. (South Korea is serving as the conduit between the sides.) The US insists that North Korean “denuclearization” is on the table. That’s a word that Washington and Pyongyang have interpreted very differently in the past.

But shock shouldn’t make the US blind to opportunity, according to some experts. There are ways in which a US-North Korean summit could go right. If nothing else, a face-to-face meeting is better than trading insults via Tweet and North Korean state media. Negotiations are better than war.

“We need to talk … to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to blunder. We’re on the edge of pretty grave dangers here,” said former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and former Democratic chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in an interview on Atlanta’s WABE broadcast Monday.

Meaning of denuclearization

As of now, it remains unclear whether, where, or even if the Trump-Kim summit will take place.

Over the weekend administration officials said that the North Koreans had already made a series of concessions in exchange for a possible meeting with  Trump. According to the US, these are: a promise to end missile and nuclear testing for now; an agreement to refrain from criticizing upcoming US-South Korean military exercises; and, most importantly, a promised willingness to discuss giving up its existing nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons development program.

The North Korean regime has said “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” is on the table, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Sunday in a Fox News broadcast interview.

The pressure of Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions on North Korea is what has brought Pyongyang to the table, administration officials say. That is certainly possible. Many nuclear experts, however, doubt whether the North’s pledge to talk about “denuclearization” is exactly what the Trump administration believes it to be.

When North Korea talks about denuclearization, it’s meant to apply to the US as well as itself, indicating it is still suspicious that America maintains tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea – weapons the US withdrew in the early 1990s.

It also often links the nuclear issue with the presence of US troops on the Korean Peninsula. Withdrawal of troops has been a non-starter issue for US presidents for a generation, as it would leave South Korea open to North Korean conventional forces, which include massed artillery within range of Seoul.

What's in it for North Korea?

And why would Pyongyang now give up its nukes, after expending so much effort and so many scarce resources to obtain them? From the North Korean point of view, they are the nation’s best deterrent against a vastly more powerful United States that is committed to its destruction and has engaged in other regime changes around the world.

According to the analyst site Arms Control Wonk, North Korea is now building a national monument at the launch site of its ICBM test from last November, which indicated an ability to reach the continental US with a missile. That does not sound like a regime eager to trade away its nuclear program for economic aid.

“It is hard to see what the United States could offer that would make giving up their nuclear weapons even something worth thinking about,” says Mark Bell, a nuclear strategy expert and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.

That does not mean talks would be pointless, Bell adds. He says the US has interests in North Korea beyond denuclearization and much to gain from contacts with Pyongyang.

North Korea might be open to limits on its nuclear program, for instance, now that it appears to have reached a point where it is already a nascent nuclear power. It might agree to freeze its arsenal, or its testing regimen, in exchange for some mix of sanctions relief, limits on US military exercises, and perhaps an official peace treaty ending the Korean War.

The US might be able to negotiate a North Korean pledge to refrain from selling any surplus fissile material to dangerous groups abroad. A North Korea-US channel of communications similar to the Cold War hot line between the US and USSR could help prevent misunderstandings and accidental conflict.

Reducing risk of war

None of these things would “denuclearize” North Korea per se, but they would reduce the risk of a terrible war.

“To that extent they would be very valuable for the security of North Korea and the security of the United States,” says Dr. Bell.

However, to hear administration officials talk, right now the possible summit is all about a grand bargain that would sweep away North Korean nuclear weapons once and for all, with the lifting of sanctions the key US concession in the deal.

That may be a laudable goal, but as noted above, the chances of it actually happening are quite small. In that sense the impossible may get in the way of the achievable, according to Brookings Institution foreign policy fellow Ryan Hass.

“The risk of inflated expectations is that it will set the summit up for failure. If the summit becomes perceived as a failure, pressure will build in the United States to turn to brinkmanship and military options to achieve what diplomacy could not,” writes Mr. Hass in an analysis for Brookings’ Trump and Asia Watch series.

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4. After fall of a dictator, young Gambians push into politics

We hear so much today about rebuilding trust in democracy. In Gambia, that means recovering from two decades of dictatorship. But the lessons echo beyond Africa. They speak to the power of new voices – and the need for them to be heard.


The 30 Sec. ReadAt more than six feet tall, Abdoulie Ceesay towers over most of his constituents – and his ever-present sunglasses give off an air of confidence, too. But when women old enough to be his mother arrive to greet him during a prayer break, his humility is clear. At just 33, the parliamentarian is a rarity. Sixty percent of Gambia’s population is under age 35, but only a sliver of its representatives are. Young people’s engagement, though, was key to Gambia’s historic moment last year, when autocrat Yahya Jammeh was voted out of office after more than 20 years in power. And as democracy rebuilds here, they are determined to continue having their say – particularly key in a country where thousands of youth embark on the dangerous journey toward Europe each year, driven by a perceived lack of opportunity. Many are frustrated by the rate of change, compared to high hopes immediately after the political transition. But initiatives to support young activists and political candidates have mushroomed. Whether in or out of office, one 20 year-old activist says, “You can still speak out wherever you are.”


4. After fall of a dictator, young Gambians push into politics

Abdoulie Ceesay steps out of his shiny white pick-up on a sandy road, quickly followed by his team. On the agenda of this member of Parliament’s visit to Labakoreh, a small Gambian village in his constituency: political reconciliation, development, and disputes about who should succeed the village chief – known as alkalo – after the recent death of his predecessor.

The villagers eagerly gather, rushing forward to exchange a few courtesies in the Wolof or Mandinka languages. As is often the case, the crowd Mr. Ceesay is preparing to address is almost entirely older than him.

“When people elect their representatives, they respect them even though you are young,” he says behind dark sunglasses. Along with his towering height, they give off a confident air – but when women old enough to be his mother arrive to greet him during a prayer break, his humility is clear.

At 33, Ceesay’s age makes him a political rarity. Sixty percent of Gambia’s population is under age 35. Yet out of 58 members of the National Assembly elected in April 2017, only 15 fall under that age bracket.

But it is a new moment in Gambia, especially for young activists. The 2017 fall of Yahya Jammeh, a dictator who had ruled for 22 years, especially surprised and emboldened the young people who had grown up completely under his regime. Many of them put themselves at risk to campaign against him, at a time when writing the wrong slogan on a T-shirt or social media could land someone in prison.

A year after the arrival of new President Adama Barrow, however, discontent is growing over slow progress. Many young Gambians hope democracy can help boost their representation in government and address the issues that matter to them most: high unemployment, poor education, and the resulting lack of opportunities that is driving thousands to attempt the dangerous crossing to Europe. Young women, in particular, are hoping to join a political process that has traditionally shut them out.


In the lead-up to presidential elections in December 2016, the political momentum was unprecedented. For two decades, Mr. Jammeh and his party had won all elections amid allegations of rigging. Now, he was facing off against a political newbie: Mr. Barrow, leading a coalition of opposition parties.

Young people – many of whom had only known one leader  – came out in droves to political rallies, and worked on mobilizing their own families, friends, and communities to go out and vote. Barrow won, but getting rid of Jammeh was another matter: He originally accepted defeat, then changed his mind. As Barrow supporters pushed for Jammeh to step down, their excitement was emblazoned on T-shirts and walls: #GambiaHasDecided. Social media was ablaze with political discussion and hopes of change.

When Jammeh eventually fled to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017, driven out by the threat of invasion by regional forces, some young people kept arguing for change on social media. A few dozen protested for the National Assembly to resign, denouncing it as little more than a rubber stamp for Jammeh.

Others, like Ceesay, ran for office. A father of three, he says his community pushed him to campaign. He worked for an international nongovernmental organization, and had never been involved in politics.

Initiatives to empower youth in politics have mushroomed since Jammeh’s departure. There’s the Not Too Young to Run campaign, which helps young candidates with campaign planning and communications. There’s funding and training available through international organisations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI). And there’s the parliamentary youth caucus, where Ceesay serves as a secretary.

Still, barriers remain, particularly lack of funding and recognition. In addition, cultural beliefs and memories of the recent past have left many communities reluctant to letting their young men and women run for office.

“Even if a young person wants to go into politics, some people remind you that you are young, you have a lot of future ahead of you, so you don’t have to risk your life,” says Lamin Darboe, director of the National Youth Council – an umbrella organization working with 115 youth groups across the country. “Because it has been a matter of life and death to be in the opposition in the Gambia at some point.”

And parties headed by older men have struggled to adapt. “The political parties have not gone out of their way to attract youth to join,” says Robina Namusisi, Gambia director of the IRI. She’s supported the parliamentary youth group, training them and providing them a space to meet while they were drafting their group’s constitution. “It’s disheartening to hear that most of the youths want to run as independent,” she says, as it deprives parties of future leaders, and aspiring leaders of much-needed publicity and support.

Slow-coming change

After Jammeh’s departure, hopes for the new Gambia were high. More than a year into Mr. Barrow’s government, however, discontent is growing at the pace of change. The economy has improved slightly, despite Jammeh leaving the country millions of dollars in debt after helping himself to its coffers. Yet youth unemployment stands around 40 percent, fueling migration out of the country. In 2017, more than 11,000 Gambians reached the shores of Italy hoping for a better future. Power and water cuts are a daily occurrence.

“There’s not been much change,” says Nyimasata Camara, a political science lecturer at the University of the Gambia. “In terms of employment, we have not seen anything happening at all. The creation of industries that can absorb the unemployed youth has not happened.”

Last November, as shortages worsened amid a hot spell, youth groups on Whatsapp organized hundreds of people willing to protest – an unthinkable feat under Jammeh. But Occupy Westfield, as they called the movement, was denied a police permit. Instead, its leaders, a group of 20-something friends, gathered to reiterate their demands for water and electricity before being dispersed by authorities.

Soon, they highlighted a new concern: their right to assemble freely. Some laws that facilitated human rights abuses in the past, such as those restricting press freedom, are still in place while the constitution is reviewed. As young people organize, their progress is similarly slow. The youth caucus, for example, stands ready to operate, but is still awaiting parliament’s approval to start.

The slow pace is especially marked for young women. Back in Labakoreh, sitting discreetly in a corner of the health center where Ceesay is presiding over his meeting, is Maimuna Ceesay – one of two women in the room, and his cousin. During the presidential election campaign, she encouraged women and youth in her village to vote for the coalition. Now, as April elections approach, she running for councilor of Kunkujang, a ward of around 40,000 people along the coast.

“The main reason Gambian women are not participating in politics is because of the harassment,” says Ms. Ceesay in her soft English. “The ones who should support you, they are the ones harassing you.” In her short political career, she’s been called a prostitute and a flurry of disparaging names, she says. “I don’t care about all that. I think what men can do, I can do that too.”

But many women are reluctant to run for office. In the National Assembly, there are only six – a mere 10 percent of lawmakers. In the meantime, some find other ways to make a difference.

“You don’t have to be in office to get involved in politics” says Ya Mallen Jagne, vice chairperson of Occupy Westfield. At 20, she has founded a political movement, organized a protest, and spoken with ministers to discuss her group’s demands. She still has a year before she can be elected to the National Assembly, where the minimum age for lawmakers is 21.

“The stuff I do – it’s politics – but it’s not in the sense that most people understand it,” says Ms. Jagne. “You can still speak out wherever you are.” 

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5. One state’s novel push to ease ex-prisoners’ social reentry

The question of how to treat those who commit crimes is rippling through the United States. One pioneering program in Massachusetts starts from a simple tenet – "you have value" – and then goes about proving it.

Donald Haynesworth takes a class at the School of Reentry at the Boston Pre-Release Center. The school is part of a pilot program to help reduce recidivism and support inmates with valuable skills as they transition into society. 'When you get certain amount of education, you want more,' says Mr. Haynesworth.
Han Zhao/The Christian Science Monitor

The 30 Sec. ReadAt the Boston Pre-Release Center, a correctional facility, Donald Haynesworth is participating in a first-of-its-kind program in Massachusetts. The School of Reentry is modeled after research that suggests that education is one of the best ways to help reduce repeat offenses. People who are incarcerated have to apply to the pilot program, and once admitted they are housed in a separate dorm and immersed in an academic environment that includes completing high school requirements and earning college credits. Having been in and out of the criminal system for more than 20 years, Mr. Haynesworth says he is ready to make this his last trip to prison. He began in the School of Reentry in September and now has nine credit hours with Roxbury Community College. When asked how it feels to have college credits, Haynesworth shakes his head. “There’s no feelings yet. It’s like a dream…,” he says. “When you get a certain amount of education, you want more. Because they say knowledge is power.”  


5. One state’s novel push to ease ex-prisoners’ social reentry

A pressed gray suit, polished leather shoes, and a firm handshake. It isn’t difficult to peg Matthew Guillou as a working professional. But few would guess where he lived just six months ago.

In October, Mr. Guillou had just come out of jail for a two-year sentence for possession of narcotics. But he left prison with 21 credit hours from Roxbury Community College in Boston and a paid internship as a computer instructor for young people at STRIVE Boston, an organization that empowers community members by providing employment training. Guillou was soon promoted and is now a case manager.

Much of his job, Guillou says, is to help at-risk youth. “I teach them time management, I teach them Microsoft, and how to build resumes.” Then he pauses and laughs, “You know where I learned the skills?”

Guillou is referring to the training he received at the School of Reentry at the Boston Pre-Release Center, a first-of-its-kind program in Massachusetts. The men who designed and shepherd the entire operation – Ben Thompson, Edward McAdams, and Alan Spencer – are all passionate about criminal justice reform. They created the program to reduce recidivism and crime rates, but also saw it as an opportunity to use data about repeat offenders and education’s best practices to help inmates transition back into society. 

“Many of these guys are so disadvantaged,” says Mr. Thompson, the Massachusetts assistant undersecretary of reentry. “What we’re saying to them is: You have value, you are college material, which is what they weren’t told [growing up].”

Edward McAdams, the headmaster at the School of Reentry in the Boston Pre-Release Center, talks with student inmates about Joseph Campbell's 'The Power of Myth.'
Han Zhao/The Christian Science Monitor

'An opportunity for real change'

The pilot program debuted in January 2016, and the most recent cohort started in September 2017. About 110 inmates applied in the latest round and 25 were selected, after being screened for serious offenses such as first- or second-degree murder. In the course of 12 to 18 months, student inmates receive training in three areas: HiSET, an exam that provides a high-school equivalency credential; vocational ed, which in this case means Microsoft software certification; and mindfulness. 

“We are not reinventing the wheel, we are increasing the dosage,” says Thompson. “We know the correlation between education and crime, so all we’re trying to do is to give you more education. And the data confirms that it [education] will produce less crime.”

In Massachusetts, the most recent recidivism rate is 32 percent, and is typically calculated based on numbers collected two to three years post-release. While it is too soon to track data on the School of Reentry graduates, the program’s leaders note that 100 percent of the 2016 group are employed. 

Education opens doors to jobs that have social and economic mobility, where people can feed their families, and begin lives that are contributing to their community and the economy, says Megan French-Marcelin, the Fair Hiring Project Coordinator with JustLeadershipUSA, a criminal justice reform advocacy group. 

More discussion is needed around the best approach to educating people in the context of reentry, she says. While some efforts are successful, she suggests that the investment needs to come at the community level, long before incarceration happens. 

“Access to education is critical,” Ms. French-Marcelin says. “We know the further along in education that people go, the less likely they are to recidivate.”

The public has a financial interest in that outcome as well. According to Thompson, data reveals that for every dollar taxpayers spend on inmates’ education, they get back $3 to $5 if inmates don’t reoffend – as opposed to paying thousands of dollars each year to keep them in jail. 

“We really push with the guys to understand that if you change, it’s not just you that have changed: your kids have changed, your relationships have changed, your neighborhood starts to change,” says Mr. McAdams, the headmaster. 

Research suggests that giving inmates an environment closer to a typical educational setting seems to be the key to a successful reentry program, he says.

In the School of Reentry, student inmates are immersed in their work from 8:30 a.m. to sometimes 6:30 p.m. They meet with faith groups and college tutors, attend Parents Helping Parents workshops, and receive counseling treatment from University of Massachusetts at Boston’s Addictions Counselor Education Program. The UMass program also provides training for student inmates who are interested in addiction counseling as a career path. After a day of classes and trainings, students return to their individual dorm rooms, which non-student inmates cannot access. 

Kiminori Nakamura, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland in College Park, says a program with such intensity and a separate dorm room setting “is definitely not the norm.”

“The norm is the prison offers a couple classes,” says Mr. Nakamura. “The routine is maybe in the morning they [inmates] go to a drug treatment session, they go to lunch, they may have to do some work, then maybe in the afternoon there’s another GED class they have to attend. Then they go back to their cells and mingle with everyone else.”

Nakamura adds that programs that emphasize cognitive change for inmates, like this one, might yield better results in reducing recidivism.

Matthew Guillou, a former student inmate at the School of Reentry, is working as a case manager at STRIVE Boston. He wonders, 'If I didn’t have the education, where would I be? What type of housing would I be in? What kind of job would I get?'
Han Zhao/The Christian Science Monitor

Mindset shifts

Despite the intensive schedule, the school takes an unconventional approach to assessment. McAdams says he stays away from grading his students because they, by default, are used to failing. He adopts a “not yet" mindset – instead of assigning letter grades, he guides students with a focus on making progress. Even if they are “not yet” able to do something, they may eventually. 

“When they first come in, they are totally deflated. ‘I’m not getting this; I’m stupid,’ ” McAdams says, describing the thoughts of his students, many of whom do not have high school diplomas. But after learning to switch their thinking path, “Now they say ‘I’m starting to get this,’ ” he says.

As for the vocational piece, Mr. Spencer, director of workforce development at the school, chose to provide Microsoft certificate training – which qualifies for college credit – to student inmates to boost their chances of acquiring better jobs.

“We are focusing on meaningful credentials,” says Spencer. “We want to change the picture of a guy leaving jail and [washing] dishes; we want to provide alternatives to that.”

Thompson adds, “The college credits give them incentive to continue education; they are not coming back [to prison] because we have given them the alternatives.”

Donald Haynesworth seems to share that vision. Having been in and out of the criminal system for more than 20 years, Mr. Haynesworth says he is ready to make this his last trip to prison. He began participating in the program in September and now has nine credit hours with Roxbury Community College. When asked how it feels to have college credits, Haynesworth shakes his head. 

“There’s no feelings yet. It’s like a dream… I’m just going to keep on going,” he says. “When you get a certain amount of education, you want more. Because they say knowledge is power.”  

Gratitude and a mission

Back at STRIVE, in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, Guillou says he’s grateful.  

“I am so fortunate that I’m placed here at this position and received the education I had,” he says. “If I didn’t have the education, where would I be? What type of housing would I be in? What kind of job would I get?”

He then lists a series of plans on his agenda. The next day, he’s starting a practicum to become a licensed drug and alcohol counselor. His sister is in the process to become licensed as well. Guillou plans to partner with her to open a practice one day. He says he likes giving back; he sees helping people as a form of service. What he is most proud of is that he’s a better father now.

“I see them every weekend now,” he says of his kids, noting that his relationship with them now is a lot better than he envisioned it would be. “They're so big now and college is around the corner. And trust me, they're going to college.”

Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately represent the full scope of Megan French-Marcelin's comments on education and reentry programs and to correct the precise wording of one of her quotes. 

( 1415 words )

The Monitor's View

A prize for dwellings that connect


The 30 Sec. ReadArchitect Balkrishna Doshi was honored last week with the Pritzker Prize, the “Nobel” of architecture. Mr. Doshi is known for designing low-cost housing in India that, as he puts its, empowers the “have-nots” to live well with low building costs but also in designs that create deep connections in shared spaces. His most noted success: a housing scheme in Indore for some 80,000 people. It uses prefab materials that allow for easy expansion, and it includes a network of passages and courtyards to forge communal living. As Doshi once put it, “Planning is not merely physical growth, but also spiritual and cultural, all hinged on availability of resources.” In a world marked by rapid communications and transport, Doshi’s work helps retain the aspirations for a traditional society, within new structures. An architect, Doshi has said, must turn “refuges into homes, houses into communities, and cities into magnets of opportunities.” “The promise of a home is not a limited hope,” he told the Guardian newspaper, “but the sky becomes the limit.” 


A prize for dwellings that connect

When architects are asked to design a community from scratch, many start from the premise of a shortage in basic housing. In the United States, for example, the number of people seeking to rent has been at record highs for five years. Yet construction of new units is about a third below demand. The result: Of the 44 million Americans who rent, about half spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

The easy solution is more high-rises, right?

Not necessarily, according to a breed of architects who start from a different premise. They see housing as more than physical shelter. They begin with the natural desire of individuals to use dwellings to expand their possibilities and participate in small societies. People buy into a community as much as they do a set of rooms. Why not start with their social needs first?

This type of architect is still rare. But an early pioneer, Balkrishna Doshi of India, was honored last week with the Pritzker Prize, which is the “Nobel” of architecture. Mr. Doshi is known for designing low-cost housing in India that, as he puts it, empowers the “have-nots” to live well in homes made with inexpensive building materials and designed to create deep connections in shared spaces.

His most noted success is a low-cost housing scheme in the city of Indore for some 80,000 people. It uses prefab materials that allow for easy expansion of living quarters and includes a network of passages and courtyards to forge communal living. The prize committee noted his ability to understand “how cities work” as living organisms.

Or as Doshi once put it, “Planning is not merely physical growth, but also spiritual and cultural, all hinged on availability of resources.” A community of homes must rely on connected lifestyles and the “virtuous skills of the locals.” Homes must allow for self-discovery. And ideally, he says, all aspects of a person’s life, from housing to education to recreation, should be within a half-hour walk.

“The promise of a home is not a limited hope, but the sky becomes the limit,” he told the Guardian newspaper.

In a world marked by rapid communications and transport, Doshi’s work feeds the aspirations for traditional society within new structures. Many of his buildings, while built with modern concrete, also use local crafts, such as mosaics.

An architect, Doshi often says, must turn “refuges into homes, houses into communities, and cities into magnets of opportunities.” Perhaps that can become the motto for designers and developers of new rental communities in the US. 

( 418 words )

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.

Lump on head healed


While the impact of “thoughts and prayers” has been questioned by many after recent news events, today’s contributor found how a different approach to prayer effectively resolved a frightening health concern with full healing.  


Lump on head healed

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Brushing my hair on a day like any other, I noticed a lump at the top of my scalp. It was tender and felt rather large. My first thought was, “What is this?” – a question that can bring a sense of dread.

As someone who’s found through many experiences that prayer brings about healing, I quickly turned to God for an answer that would give me a confidence-bringing assurance of His love.

In Christian Science I’ve come to see how prayer that is specifically seeking a healing is more than simply asking. It is the desire to listen for and affirm what is true about God and therefore all of us (in this case, me), as God’s creation. Based on the key insight in the Bible that “God created man [everyone] in his own image” (Genesis 1:27), I understood that as the image of God, divine Spirit, I was not made of material components but entirely spiritual, holy, and good.

Understanding ourselves in that light, we come to see that there is no basis for fear, harm, or discomfort to encroach on the wholeness and health of God’s children – which includes all of us! God is infinite Life itself and expresses Himself in all that represents Life, meaning He is the only creator of each of us.

Throughout the day, each time I gathered my hair through my fingers, I deliberately pulled my hand back, rather than feeling around the top of my head to check whether the lump was still there. In doing so I wasn’t avoiding the situation. I was praying earnestly. I was affirming that the only thoughts that could come to me are God’s thoughts, representing health, comfort, and peace of mind.

“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, defines “angels” in terms of thoughts. It describes them as: “God’s thoughts passing to man; spiritual intuitions, pure and perfect; the inspiration of goodness, purity, and immortality, counteracting all evil, sensuality, and mortality” (p. 581). Knowing that God, the divine Mind, was constantly passing these healing thoughts to me inspired me as I continued to pray.

Another element in this healing was knowing God, divine Love, was right there with me, inspiring and comforting me. Christian Science explains that Christ, the divine nature Jesus expressed, is forever with us, assuring us of God’s love and care. “Science and Health” clarifies this when it says, “Christ is the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness” (p. 332). Elsewhere, “Science and Health” defines “Christ” as “the divine manifestation of God, which comes to the flesh to destroy incarnate error” (p. 583). We can think of this “error” as a mistake about God and His creation. I wasn’t the mistake – God’s children are eternally perfect and complete – but that lump was a mistaken sense of me! It was a misunderstanding of my real, spiritual identity.

While sitting and talking on the phone early the next day, twisting my hair in common fashion, I noticed there was no longer any discomfort. I knew the healing was complete. Indeed, the lump was completely gone.

Just like a dear friend we count on, God is always by our side and on our side. In fact, as God’s likeness, we can never be separated from Him! God is always giving us the thoughts, confidence, and sweet assurance of His presence that we need to meet the demands of the day – whether the help needed is physical, financial, moral, or social.

Science and Health captures this promise in these wonderful words: “Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need” (p. 494).

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Taking flight

A schoolchild prepares to fly a kite at a United Nations-run school in Amman, Jordan, Mar. 12.
Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

In Our Next Issue

( March 13th, 2018 )

Thanks for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when we examine what often seems an overlooked war in Afghanistan. Staff writer Scott Peterson offers a different view, talking to some of the half-million Afghans displaced last year alone.

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