Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Technology keeps on delivering. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos showed up at a robotics conference on Monday walking a robotic dog.

But tech appeared to be in a dark kind of retrograde for much of this week.  

An autonomous car was involved in a fatal accident. The cybercurrency bitcoin was found to have illegal content hidden in the folds of the blockchain – the decentralized database – that distributes it. Facebook had its high-profile travails.

What’s to keep us from living in a real-life “Westworld,” a place of power without responsibility? Lawmakers on Wednesday passed legislation, now headed to the president, that would weaken a legal shield that has kept online platforms from being sued for something a user posted.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act dates to 1996. It’s the legal backbone of the modern internet. Without it, none of your favorite social media sites could exist. Exposure to the risk of devastating legal backlash would simply be too great.

It also has made it easier for child-sex traffickers, who have flourished online, to operate. But many critics see a Pandora’s box amid the good intention of congressional tinkering. Some cite censorship – or say it will only drive traffickers deeper underground.

This week, we’ve again been shown a window on the complications of slipping a leash on an industry that’s on the dead run.

Now to our five stories for your Friday, looking beneath the headlines to highlight resolution, reinvention, and a proud episode of cultural reclamation. 

1. In Trump emoluments case, ethics and constitutional intent

Let’s stay on law for a bit longer. While White House staffing shakeups and decade-old sex-scandal allegations are lighting up TV screens, an important story is getting less attention: the work of ensuring that President Trump, a businessman turned politician, has kept those realms appropriately separate.

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Legal scholars agree that the Founding Fathers wrote the emoluments clause into the Constitution to insulate government officials from foreign influence and corruption. But today there is sharp disagreement on the definition of “emolument.” Lawsuits filed by a watchdog group in New York and Maryland argue for a broad interpretation that bars the acceptance of “anything of value” from a foreign state, including the act of renting a room at a Trump hotel anywhere in the world. A third lawsuit, filed on behalf of 200 Democratic members of Congress, seeks to advance that “anything of value” position. It is more than an ethical nuance: Trump critics view the scenario as potential grounds for impeachment. In contrast, lawyers for the Trump administration say the clause only prohibits payments or gifts to the president if they are made in connection with services provided in his official capacity as president or provided in a context that would effectively make him an employee of a foreign government. Some scholars say the more expansive view has an uphill legal climb. “If I went to the Trump Hotel right now, and … I paid $1,600, stayed there for a night, had dinner, and left, nobody would say I had made a gift to the Trump Organization. I just paid what it cost,” says one law professor. “If, the very next day, a foreign ambassador stayed there and paid the exact same amount that I did, it seems strange to me to all of a sudden call it a gift or an emolument.”


In Trump emoluments case, ethics and constitutional intent

A foreign official travels to Washington, books the Ivanka Suite at the Trump International Hotel for $1,595 per night, and later makes glowing comments about the hotel during a meeting at the White House with President Trump.

To some, the scenario is no big deal – a bit of diplomatic flattery linked to a routine transaction for high-end business accommodations in the heart of the nation’s capital.

But to others, the hypothetical encounter sets off alarm bells. Trump critics see the renting of the suite as an effort by a foreign government to curry favor with the president of the United States by delivering a financial benefit to a hotel that bears his name, is run by his sons, and in which he maintains a personal and financial interest.

“I am confident that that is no mere hypothetical,” says Norman Eisen, an ethics lawyer in the Obama White House and chairman of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “Trump is very focused on this kind of thing and quite likely to be influenced by this kind of blandishment.”

It is more than an ethical nuance. Mr. Eisen and other critics view the scenario as potential grounds for impeachment. Their case depends on convincing a federal judge to embrace an expansive interpretation of a once-obscure constitutional provision called the foreign emoluments clause.

The clause prohibits federal officials from accepting any present or “emolument” from a foreign government.

There is an exception. The official can keep the present or emolument if he obtains the consent of Congress.

Mr. Trump has not done so.

Lawsuits have been filed in federal court in New York, Maryland, and the District of Columbia seeking a declaration that Trump is violating the Constitution because his hotels and other companies continue to do business with foreign governments and foreign officials.

“President Trump’s myriad international and domestic business entanglements make him vulnerable to corrupt influence and deprive the American people of trust in their chief executive’s undivided loyalty,” reads the complaint filed in federal court in Maryland.

Ethics questions have dogged Trump and members of his administration since his election. They are driven in part by Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns and his decision not to divest his 77.5 percent ownership in the Trump Organization.

It has become common practice since the Watergate scandal in the 1970s for presidential candidates to release their tax returns and for presidents to divest their financial and business interests by placing those interests in a blind trust prior to taking office.

Not Trump.

Instead of divestment and full disclosure, the Trump administration and the privately held Trump Organization have offered the American people vague assurances that fall somewhere between “trust us” and “none of your business.”

These waters have been further muddied by the ongoing Russia meddling investigation. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly expanding his probe to examine at least some Trump-connected business deals, including issuing subpoenas for documents from the Trump Organization.

Questions have also arisen about the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Mr. Kushner has divested his ownership stake in his family’s real estate company. But the company is seeking to shore up financing for a debt-laden property on New York’s Fifth Avenue, with a $1.2 billion debt coming due in January 2019. Investors from China and Qatar had earlier been approached.

Kushner recently had his interim White House security clearance reduced from top secret to secret, reportedly amid concern that his family’s business dealings might make him vulnerable to foreign influence.

Administration lawyers maintain there is no conflict of interest between Trump’s work as president and the Trump hotel business. Trump’s sons have pledged not to pursue new business deals during their father’s presidency. And prior to becoming president, Trump pledged to donate to the US Treasury all proceeds from foreign officials staying at his hotels.

Trump Organization officials announced last month that they turned over $151,000 to the Treasury for business with foreign officials conducted between Jan. 20 and Dec. 31, 2017. Trump executives did not identify the officials or the foreign sources of the funds, making it impossible to assess any potential ethics issues.

Critics say such donations do nothing to reduce the threat of foreign influence.

The concern is that Trump will use his presidential stature and clout to bolster his international business empire at the expense of US national interests. One way to police that would be through enforcement of a beefed-up emoluments clause.

Debate hinges on definition

Legal scholars agree that the founding fathers wrote the emoluments clause into the Constitution to help insulate government officials from foreign influence and corruption.

But there is sharp disagreement over the prophylactic scope of the measure. One prominent scholar argues that the clause doesn’t apply to the president at all. But the bulk of the debate focuses primarily on the definition of “emolument.”

Lawyers for CREW argue in lawsuits filed in New York and Maryland that the term “emolument” must be interpreted broadly to bar the acceptance of “anything of value” from a foreign state – including the act of renting a room at market rates at a Trump hotel anywhere in the world.

A third lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., by the Constitutional Accountability Center on behalf of 200 Democratic members of Congress, seeks to advance the same “anything of value” position.

In contrast, lawyers for the Trump administration argue for a more targeted definition. They say the foreign emoluments clause only prohibits payments or gifts to the president if they are made in connection with services provided in his official capacity as head of state, or provided in a context that would effectively make him an employee of a foreign government.

That view would protect against foreign attempts to corruptly influence presidential actions, including classic quid pro quo bribery. But it would not prohibit commercial transactions that are not directly related to an official’s government authority.

“If I went to the Trump Hotel right now, and I reserved that [Ivanka] suite and I paid $1,600, stayed there for a night, had dinner, and left, nobody would say I had made a gift to the Trump Organization. I just paid what it cost,” says Andy Grewal, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law.

“If, the very next day, a foreign ambassador stayed there and paid the exact same amount that I did, it seems strange to me to all of a sudden call it a gift or an emolument,” Professor Grewal says.

“You could reasonably say that maybe if the president knows about it, he may favor a particular country in negotiations if they are always holding receptions and functions at the hotel. But that doesn’t make it a gift,” Grewal says.

Eisen disagrees. The president’s hotel business presents an opportunity for foreign-influence operations, and Trump’s personality makes him particularly vulnerable, he says.

“We know that President Trump cares about even small advantages to himself,” Eisen says. “We know he is susceptible to flattery. And we know that he is checking on the performance of his hotel.”

“It is an enormous channel through which foreign governments are seeking, we believe, to influence the president,” he says.

Bribery vs. 'anything of value'

Lawyers challenging Trump in the court cases argue that the emoluments clause was meant to cover more than just bribery. It was designed to protect against a public official receiving anything of value that might compromise the Constitution’s demand of exclusive loyalty to the American people.

Such compromising opportunities would include:

  • A foreign diplomat booking a room at a Trump hotel or hosting a diplomatic reception there.
  •  A foreign-owned bank providing a loan to a Trump business.
  •  A foreign-owned business paying rent for office space to a Trump business.
  •  A foreign government approving a license for a Trump company project.
  •  Any Trump Organization profit on a business transaction with a foreign government or foreign-owned entity.

Rather than trying to avoid contact with foreign officials, the Trump International Hotel in Washington has been reaching out to the diplomatic corps, encouraging them to conduct business at the hotel and conference center. The hotel even hired a director of diplomatic sales.

The effort is showing results. In February 2017, the Kuwaiti Embassy held its national day celebration at the hotel. It did so again this year. The Embassy of Bahrain also held a national day celebration there. Azerbaijan co-hosted a Hanukkah party at the hotel in December 2016. The ambassador and permanent representative of Georgia to the United Nations stayed at the hotel during a visit to Washington in April 2017.

Potential conflicts extend beyond Trump’s hotel business.

Last year Trump-owned companies had 157 trademark applications pending in 36 foreign countries, according to a New York Times report. The granting of any of those applications would amount to a benefit received from a foreign country.

For more than a decade, Trump had been trying, unsuccessfully, to win trademark protection in China for Trump-branded building construction services. His most recent rejection came in May 2015, according to the lawsuits.

Then, three weeks after winning election, the president-elect made a surprise phone call to the president of Taiwan. The call sent shockwaves across Asia, suggesting to some that the new president might jettison the US government’s longstanding one-China policy of not formally recognizing Taiwan.

A few weeks after taking office, in February of 2017, Trump affirmed in a meeting with the Chinese president that he would uphold the one-China policy. Less than a week later, the Trump Organization received trademark protection. In the weeks since, nearly 50 Trump trademark applications in China have been approved or received preliminary approval, according to press reports and documents filed in federal court.

Among other examples of potential conflicts cited by the plaintiffs in their lawsuits:

  • Trump receives regular payments from the Chinese government via rent paid by the government-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, a key tenant in Trump Tower in New York.
  •  Trump receives royalties from foreign governments for the television distribution of his show “The Apprentice,” and spinoffs from that program. International licensing fees are received for broadcasts on government-owned stations in the United Kingdom, Brazil, Bulgaria, Indonesia, and Vietnam.  
  • The Trump Organization runs the newly opened Trump International Golf Club in Dubai. In completing the project, the company required an array of permits and approvals from the Dubai government.
  • Trump receives regular payments from Saudi Arabia, India, Afghanistan, and Qatar. All four countries have purchased space for their United Nations missions at Trump World Tower near the UN building in New York City. Saudi Arabia pays more than $88,000 a year for common amenities in the building. The three other countries pay pro-rated amounts for amenities.

The basic question in each of these examples is whether they constitute the receipt by the Trump Organization – and the president – of foreign “emoluments” prohibited by the Constitution.

According to the plaintiffs, the answer is yes.

How clause has played out in past

If embraced by the courts, such a broad definition of emolument would require US officials – including the president – to completely divest from any private business or investment that might engage in transactions with foreign officials or foreign governments.

The Trump administration’s narrower definition of emolument would allow US officials – including the president – to continue owning private businesses while in office and would allow those businesses to conduct transactions with foreign officials and governments, but only when the transactions were unrelated to the officeholder’s government responsibilities and were not being used as a conduit for corruption.

They say the plaintiffs’ broad interpretation of the foreign emoluments clause as covering “anything of value” runs counter to history. “For over two centuries, the foreign emoluments clause has been interpreted and applied in an office- and employment-specific manner, without infringing on the ability of presidents or other officeholders to have private business interests,” state legal briefs filed by administration lawyers.

One recent example is the appointment and confirmation of Hyatt Hotels heiress Penny Pritzker as President Obama’s Secretary of Commerce in 2013.

In preparation for taking office, the Chicago billionaire resigned from the board of directors of Hyatt Hotels Corp., but she declined to divest her substantial Hyatt stock holdings. At the time, no one raised concern that her continued ownership might violate the emoluments clause if foreign officials and foreign governments rented rooms and held conferences at Hyatt properties worldwide while she was Commerce secretary.

Ms. Pritzker pledged to recuse herself from any potential conflicts during her government service. She was confirmed by the Senate 97 to 1.

Twenty-two of the 30 Democratic senators currently suing Trump over the emoluments issue voted to approve Pritzker’s nomination.

Those arguing for a more targeted definition of emolument also point to the experience of the nation’s founding fathers – and its first presidents. Many of them were in the room when the emoluments clause was put to paper.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe all owned plantations that continued to operate and sell tobacco and other agricultural products in foreign commerce while they were serving as president, according to briefs filed by administration lawyers.

“At the time of the nation’s founding, government officials were not given generous compensations, and many federal officials were employed with the understanding that they would continue to have income from private pursuits,” the government’s brief says.

Charles Pinckney, who proposed adding the emoluments clause to the Constitution, operated several plantations in South Carolina while serving in various public offices, the brief notes.

Eisen disputes the suggestion that the early presidents conducted private business with foreign governments while serving as president.

“Those people have not shown a single example of Washington selling his flour to a foreign government,” he says. “The reason they can’t find a single example is because Washington was careful about it.”

A friend of the court brief filed in the CREW litigation by five legal historians says the word “emolument” was not a carefully calibrated term of art in the 18th century. They say the Trump administration’s definition is “unduly narrow and artificial.”

What the framers meant

Robert Natelson is a constitutional scholar and author of the book “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant.”

As the dispute over the definition of emoluments intensified last year, Mr. Natelson launched his own investigation unrelated to the pending litigation.

He consulted a dozen 18th century dictionaries, examined every use of the word “emolument” in the Continental Congress, the Confederation Congress, as well as the convention that framed the Constitution and those that ratified it. He also studied the use of the word in newspaper articles and pamphlets published during the ratification debates.

He ultimately concluded that the definition of emoluments most faithful to the framers is “pay and fringe benefits of financial value given to a public employee by reason of service.”

He says the definition proposed in the pending lawsuits prohibiting receipt of “anything of value” is not consistent with the original meaning, adding that if the framers of the Constitution had required complete divestment of any private businesses that might interact with foreign officials and governments, they would have had difficulty recruiting qualified candidates for public office.

“The mere existence of a separate enterprise outside your government salary is not something that they would have found inappropriate,” Natelson says. “They wanted to attract good people with good private sector experience to government and therefore they did not want to create a system that penalized those people or deterred them expressly from government service.”

“If you look through the leading list of founders you will find that while most of them had public sector experience, the majority had private sector experience as well,” he says. “And they were quite successful.”

Professor Grewal agrees with Natelson’s assessment.

“If you went back in time and told George Washington to put his assets in a blind trust, he’d ask you what the heck you were talking about,” he says, noting that Washington spent 400 days of his 8 years as president working at Mount Vernon.

Grewal does not believe the courts will ultimately embrace the plaintiffs’ expansive view of emoluments.

“If they are right that it means ‘anything of value,’ then that means every president has violated the Constitution, thousands of federal officials will be penalized, and a lot of our veterans will be in deep trouble,” Grewal says.

Administration lawyers agree that if the courts embrace the plaintiffs’ view, it will result in absurd consequences. “Under plaintiffs’ theory, no president, member of Congress, or military officer could hold stock in any chain of hotels that is patronized by any representative of a foreign government who is traveling on official business,” the government’s brief says.

“Indeed, covered officials would be barred from holding stock in any company that does business with any foreign government or government-owned corporation.”

In December, a federal judge dismissed the suit filed in New York. The judge ruled that CREW and its fellow plaintiffs did not have legal standing to file the litigation. That decision has been appealed to the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals.

In January, a federal judge in Maryland heard arguments about whether to dismiss that emoluments lawsuit. That case was filed by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia. CREW is also a party to that suit. A decision is pending.

Lawyers have submitted briefs in the third emoluments suit that was filed in Washington by 200 members of Congress against Trump. A hearing has been set for June 7.

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2. As Turkey battles in Syria, a more religious nationalism emerges

This next piece is about a strategic rebranding. Introducing religion into politics can squelch dissent and weaken democracy. The religious nationalism at play in Turkey not only helps President Erdoğan’s war effort in Syria, it also helps solidify his hold on power.

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army fighters were deployed in Afrin, Syria, March 18.

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Turkey’s military, the second-largest army in the NATO alliance, has a fiercely secular tradition. Yet its recent successful operation, an incursion into Syria to chase Kurdish fighters from a border region, was couched from the beginning in overtly Islamic language. “There will be no progress unless there is jihad,” the speaker of parliament said as the offensive began. “We have martyrs, may Allah grant them mercy.” Such language, say analysts, is an indication of how far President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party have progressed in infusing religion into Turkish nationalism. It also serves a practical purpose, boosting emotional support for a war that is not without costs, and muting opposition – to the war and to the president. “You do have a … nexus of Islamism and Turkish nationalism that has not existed before,” says a Turkey expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It resonates. And the moment you define it as a religious war, you have no sympathy for the people on the other side.… Once you call something a holy war, citizens are very constrained in their ability to say anything about it.”


As Turkey battles in Syria, a more religious nationalism emerges

When Turkey’s armed forces finally seized control last Sunday of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, after a two-month campaign, it was presented as a victory by “Islam’s last army” in a holy war, or “jihad.”

Turkey has mounted frequent cross-border operations into Iraq over the years to target militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). And “Operation Olive Branch” – as Turkey named the Afrin offensive – is the second major operation into Syria since 2016, aimed at preventing Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK from building their own mini-state on Turkey’s southern border.

But never before has an operation by Turkey’s military – the second-largest army in the NATO alliance, with a fiercely secular tradition – been wrapped in such overtly religious language.

That portrayal signifies how far President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have progressed in rebranding Turkish nationalism in their own, Islam-rooted image. The results, analysts say, have been an extension of the AKP’s conservative and religious agenda; less room for opposition; and a deepening of anti-Western sentiment that has portrayed Turkey as the front line in a clash of civilizations.

“You do have a combination – a nexus of Islamism and Turkish nationalism – that has not existed before,” says Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a Turkey expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations who is based in Istanbul.

“It resonates. And the moment you define it as a religious war, you have no sympathy for the people on the other side. They’re the enemy. They are terrorists. They are not innocent,” says Ms. Aydıntaşbaş.

“Once you call something a holy war, citizens are very constrained in their ability to say anything about it,” she says. “We’ve had lots of people who are detained or under investigation for their tweets, or criticizing the war, so social media has really been silenced about it.”

Kayhan Ozer/AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, center, attends the inauguration of his ruling Justice and Development Party's Politics Academy, in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, Mar. 9.

President Erdoğan vowed this week that Turkey would advance much further east in northern Syria, using its soldiers and the Syrian militia it supports to seize control over all the border territory, most of it now in the hands of US-backed Syrian Kurds. Much of that ground is now held by Kurdish militias, whom Turkey considers to be terrorists, that were backed by the US to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) – with American units seeded among them.

Taking Afrin was but a “comma” in the Turkish advance, and it will continue “until we entirely eliminate this [Kurdish-controlled] corridor,” said Erdoğan.

The price has been high. Some 50 Turkish soldiers have been killed, with reports of several hundred civilians dead. Turkey claims to have killed or captured more than 3,700 Syrian Kurdish fighters, though other estimates suggest 1,500 of them were killed. Tarnishing the result, Turkey’s own Syrian proxy force has been photographed engaging in wholesale looting of Afrin, as well as destroying a statue of a mythical figure in Kurdish history who represented resistance and freedom.

Surge in religiously infused nationalism

The blending of nationalism and religiosity, which has been a growing feature of AKP rule since it came to power in 2002, surged in the aftermath of a failed July 2016 coup attempt. Nightly “unity” rallies, organized in cities across the country by the AKP for a month, were steeped in mixed religious and political imagery.

Mustafa Akyol, the Turkish author of “The Islamic Jesus” and “Islam Without Extremes,” says Erdoğan is using a religiously infused nationalist narrative to support his status as a strong leader. While “the dominant and official ideology in Turkey has always been nationalism,” he says, the religious component has become more visible in the past couple of years.

“Now we are seeing Turkish nationalism again as the dominant ideology, but this time with a lot of Islamic references, so the nation is defined mainly through its Islamic heritage and the Ottoman Empire. Islamic themes are more visible,” Mr. Akyol says, noting that it helped mobilize support for the Afrin operation.

“The narrative of President Erdoğan in the past 5 or 6 years has been defined by these grave threats to Turkey,” says Akyol, who is also a fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “Some of these are real threats. The PKK is a real threat to Turkey. And the coup was a real threat to Turkey,” he says.

“But then these threats are taken to advance a highly ideological narrative, which basically says Turkey is now threatened by endless conspiratorial powers, the Western allies, the PKK movement, Gülen, and all of them are connected somehow. And against such grave enemies, we need a strong leader, a strong national psyche … with a lot of holy references.”

From the start, the Afrin operation has been cast in Islamic terms.

“There will be no progress unless there is jihad,” Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman said as the offensive began. “The great state will stand up, we have martyrs, may Allah grant them mercy.”

Funerals for fallen Turkish soldiers have also been saturated with religious terminology. Speaking at one last week, Erdoğan said, “paradise is near,” and that, “Our martyrs have undertaken a great struggle … for our religion.”

Erdoğan has a history of using Islamist rhetoric, and was jailed for four months for breaking secular laws in 1997 when he was mayor of Istanbul, by reciting these lines in a speech: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.”

Last week he compared the spirit and faith of Turkish soldiers at Afrin to those Ottoman troops whose legendary faith helped them prevail in the World War I battle of Çanakkale on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915.

Marking that anniversary, Erdoğan quoted lines from the poet Yahya Kemal, which spoke of the Turkish Army then as “the army which has died for you; you raise them high in the call to prayer; victory is claimed, because this is the last army of Islam.”

Nationalist concept of ‘jihad’

Even Turkey’s official Directorate of Religious Affairs issued a sermon in mid-February, proclaiming upon the Afrin offensive.

“It is the highest level of jihad to enter armed struggle for the faith, existence, the homeland, and freedom,” the sermon said. “Our heroic army fighting for independence and our future, for unity and togetherness, is victorious!”

While words like “martyr” have always been used by the Turkish military, and Allah invoked by soldiers, the open use of words like “jihad” have surprised secular Turks, especially. One columnist asked pithily, after the “last army of Islam” and “God’s army” lines of poetry were posted, whether the Twitter account of the Turkish Armed Forces had been hacked by ISIS.

Author Akyol says he’s sometimes uncomfortable with the use of religious terminology, but sees it in more political terms.

“This is a very nationalist concept of the word jihad, and holy struggle, as defending our homeland against the enemies … but I would not see this language as akin to that used by jihadist terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS,” he says.

Islam is more present in Turkey’s official education, with even TV series and state TV making increasing references to the nation's Islamic values and past. But there are limits, too. Erdoğan lashed out this month at ultraconservative clerics – one of whom had recently condoned wife beating – saying, “Islam must be updated.”

“AKP’s social agenda can be rightly called conservatization, more than anything else,” says Akyol. “Does this include ‘Islamization’? Yes, obviously Islam is more dominant in the official narrative, [but] it is not an Islamization that will make Turkey look like, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran in 10 years.”

Squelching opposition

Still, describing the Afrin offensive as a “holy war” has made opposition more challenging, especially under a state of emergency that has continued since mid-2016. Just over two weeks into the offensive, the Interior Ministry announced that 449 people had been arrested for social media use about Afrin, and accused of making “propaganda and terrorism.”

Another element is anti-Western sentiment, which characterizes Turkey’s role as a front line in a broader civilizational clash, says analyst Aydıntaşbaş. She notes that on Turkish television this week – even the CNN affiliate CNN Türk – there have been discussions about “America’s Chaos Plan,” in which panelists speak seriously of US support for ISIS and its aim to bring chaos to the Middle East.

“You see this a lot,” says Aydıntaşbaş. “ ‘Islam’s last army’ isn’t just fighting Kurds, it’s fighting Kurds who are being used by the West and Christian world, in the old set-up that they are describing.

“Turkish leaders want it both ways,” she adds, noting Turkey’s EU membership bid and NATO role. “They want to cooperate with the West, but have the right to do West-bashing, Euro-bashing, and US-bashing in the public sphere.”


3. Marching with intent: How civics classes create teen leaders

A new strain of teen activism appeared to emerge overnight after the Parkland, Fla., shooting. In fact, it had a running start. This story looks at the groundwork done by educators to nurture an informed and articulate generation.

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When teens and others take to the streets tomorrow to protest gun violence, it will highlight student activism. But something else will be on display as well: a growing awareness of the importance of civics education. Organizers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., were thrust into the spotlight when their peers were killed in a recent attack. But the surviving students had preparation for this moment. Thanks to state law, they have benefited from a civics education that many Americans have gone without – one that has taught them how to politically mobilize, articulate their opinions, and understand complex legislative processes. Other states are following Florida’s lead, with efforts under way to boost civic health – and potentially voter turnout – with K-12 projects and courses. “Parkland really shows the potential of public civic education,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “The goal is to make every student like that – not afraid to discuss difficult issues,” and with the skills to express a viewpoint.


Marching with intent: How civics classes create teen leaders

When the fire alarm went off at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, Rebecca Schneid’s teacher hid her in the newspaper closet. Surrounded by stacks of old editions of the school newspaper The Eagle Eye, Rebecca texted her mom: “This is a code red and I don't think it’s a drill.”

As editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the closet used to be Rebecca’s “favorite place on Earth.” Almost a month after the shooting, she says she still has bad days, thinking about hiding in the hot closet for 90 minutes while 17 of her classmates and teachers were killed.

But Rebecca is not avoiding The Eagle Eye. Since returning to school, she has written articles about the NRA’s lobbying efforts and the #NeverAgain movement. Someday, these articles will fill the same closet where she hid.

“It’s very symbolic,” says Rebecca, a junior. “The irony is not lost on me.”

A leader of the school newspaper, politics club member, AP US history student, and participant on the youth cabinet of US Rep. Ted Deutch (D) of Florida, Rebecca may seem uniquely positioned to lead Stoneman Douglas students’ political fight for gun control. She is – but she is not the only one.

After the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., students across the country are finding their political voice. Young Americans from more than 3,000 schools, many of them too young to vote, participated in a national walk-out event on March 14 to protest gun violence. And on Saturday, March 24, students are expected to lead hundreds of March for Our Lives rallies.

Lynne Sladky/AP
Students walk out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, as part of a nationwide protest against gun violence, Mar. 14, in Parkland, Fla. Florida, a leader in civics education in the US, mandates that all middle school students take a civics course, pass a comprehensive test, and include civics education reading in K-12 language arts.

The Parkland students were thrust into the spotlight, but they had preparation for this moment. Thanks to state law, they have benefited from a civic education that many Americans have gone without – one that has taught them how to politically mobilize, articulate their opinions, and understand complex legislative processes. Now they are using their education to lead their peers across the country.

“Parkland really shows the potential of public civic education,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “The goal is to make every student like that – not afraid to discuss difficult issues,” and with the skills to express a viewpoint.

Current high schoolers’ interest in politics did not happen overnight, says John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles. They have come of age in the shadows of the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ advocacy, and Dreamers legislation – all societal issues that are relatively easy to understand and spread quickly on social media. Young Americans, he says, have been waiting for their moment to jump into the ring.

“We see a reemergence of commitment among young people to look past themselves and see themselves as agents that can affect change,” says Dr. Rogers. “The walk-outs [last week] were about gun control, but it was also about young people wanting to have a voice.”

Florida's comprehensive program

States are moving to keep up with the current momentum around civics, but Florida is largely regarded as having the most comprehensive civics education program in the country.

The Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act – named for the former member of the US Supreme Court who has made civic education a hallmark of her post-bench work – passed in 2010 with bipartisan support. It mandates that all middle school students in Florida take a civics course, pass a comprehensive test, and include civics education reading in K-12 language arts. 

“If every state enacted a policy like Florida’s ... America’s young people would be on course for more active and informed civic engagement,” says a September 2017 report co-authored by Dr. Kawashima-Ginsberg.

According to the study, more than 90 percent of Florida civics teachers discuss current events in the classroom, two-thirds of them doing so weekly, and a majority of them use teaching simulations such as debates or mock trials.

Florida's Broward County, the sixth largest school district in the United States where Stoneman Douglas High is located, takes civics education even further. In the district-wide debate program, every public high school and middle school has a team, and several elementary schools participate as well.

“[T]he overall emphasis of civic learning is paying off,” says Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, a civic learning website with teaching resources and games founded by Justice O’Connor in 2009. “[Parkland] is a sad way that we got to discover this, but a Civics 2.0 – not your grandmother’s civics – but a civics that is relevant, engaging, and puts kids at the center of the political action ... graduates citizens who are ready to be a part of a community that we call the American experiment.”

But the students from Parkland are largely the exception to the rule. A growing emphasis on test scores in US education has pressured teachers to focus on reading and math. And in today’s polarized age, many teachers feel nervous about discussing politics without support from school, state, or district officials because it often leads to complaints from parents.

With no cohesive nationwide policies regarding civics, comparing learning requirements between states is difficult.

For example, due to campaigning by the Joe Foss Institute’s Civics Education Initiative, 17 states now require students to take some version of the US citizenship exam before graduation. But in only eight of those states is a passing score required to graduate. And even in those eight states where the test has real implications, rote memorization to pass a 100-question test is not always the best way to get students excited about civic participation, says Kawashima-Ginsberg.

“[E]ncourage the idea that a school is a micro-democracy where students can become citizens,” she explains. “Accountability is important but it doesn't always have to be tests.... Illinois doesn't have tests per se, but there is such a strong expectation – there is a cultural shift there.”

In 2015, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law that requires all high school students to take a semester of civics. There is no required testing at the end of the semester, but the program invests in professional development for civics teachers through training sessions, mentorships, and roundtable discussions. Data is still being collected on the law’s effects. 

'The desire to learn is there'

In Winterville, N.C., civics teacher Victoria Bridgers has 12 weeks to teach 10th graders about how the US government works. And she has to pack a lot into the semester: Only a handful of students, for example, can correctly identify US Vice President Mike Pence.

“The desire to learn is there,” says Ms. Bridgers, “but the general knowledge is low.”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found in its most recent report in 2014 that only 23 percent of US 8th grade students were “at or above proficient” in civics, failing to answer questions about basic political topics such as checks and balances and presidential powers. The scores varied by race, with white students three times more likely than black students, and twice as likely as Hispanic students, to be proficient.

Students don’t begin Bridgers’ class understanding how impeachment or zoning works, but she says they are “beyond fascinated” with the inner workings of the US government and excited to vote in their first presidential election in 2020. Current events, she says, have only piqued students’ interest further.

“Students are paying attention,” says Bridgers. “They might be fuzzy on the details, but even the less enthused student has a clue that something is going on with Russia.”

Bridgers says the student council at her high school grew from roughly 12 students to an unprecedented 30 in 2016 due to more and more students wanting to participate. And when her school received a shooting threat (which was later dismissed) one week after the Parkland shooting, some students chose to stay at school and write letters to politicians asking for stricter gun control, rather than go home for the day.

“This generation was raised very differently and has a different sense of identity,” says Ms. Dubé of iCivics, adding that students today are “particularly hungry” for civic education. “You have two choices: you can be completely cynical and disengage [from politics], or you can call the bluff and decide to play the game.... There is a growing sense that youth are re-negotiating more influential roles in the family and in schools.”

iCivics saw a modest rise in visitors after it launched in 2009. But the number of students using iCivics has taken off exponentially in recent years, increasing from 1.3 million annual users in 2014, to 5.3 million in 2017.

But even as student interest is on the rise, some teachers say that today’s political environment complicates their efforts to help students understand and appreciate American government. 

SOURCE: State graduation requirements; Additional input for Tier 1 states from reports by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and discussion with its director, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg
Story Hinckley, research; Karen Norris, graphic/Staff

“Now it’s more difficult than it used to be because what they see in how government operates, and what we try to teach them, are so distinctly different,” says Mike Harris, a teacher and debate coach at Wichita East High School in Kansas, while at a national quizzing tournament with his team in Andover, Kan., March 16. 

But Mr. Harris, who already has 50 two-person teams signed up for his debate group next year – up from 36 this year – says debate can help antidote the intense polarization in US society today.

“That’s the thing that we don’t do well as people anymore is looking at the other person’s perspective and understanding their position, and what their arguments are, and then finding a way to engage in that productively,” says Mr. Harris. “And that’s what debate creates.”

Boosting civic participation

When the push for Florida’s civics education act started a decade ago, reports ranked the state's civic health as “among the worst in the nation.” But low civic participation is not unique to Florida, with just more than 50 percent of eligible Americans voting in presidential elections.  

“I can see that as a motivation [for civics education],” says Dubé. “We pushed civics out of the classroom for decades and we are seeing the result of that.... Generations were lost.”

At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, the Kansas Board of Education plans to evaluate – and reward – schools in the state that do civics particularly well. Michigan passed a law last year requiring all high schools in the state to take a semester-long course on civics. North Carolina now has a three-member Joint Legislative Study Committee on Civics and Economics Education in the state legislature to evaluate students civic and economic literacy.

The Massachusetts state legislature is currently considering a bill that would “prepare students for lifelong civic motivation and participation ...” If the bill passes, all Massachusetts public school students will need to complete two civic projects, in two different grade levels, on a policy that affects their community in order to graduate.

Civics education advocates say that such measures are not only a step forward for their discipline, but a step forward for all education.

“Good civics is about analysis, synthesis,… developing their tools for analyzing political issues [and] being able to participate in dialogue,” says UCLA’s Rogers. “That's why we have public school – so we can pull together people from different backgrounds and build relationships of empathy with one another.” 

More than 1,300 miles away from Parkland, San Antonio high school student Selina Noe feels a sense of unity with her Parkland peers. After the Florida shooting, Selina wrote a letter to Congressman Will Hurd (R) of Texas in her AP English class suggesting some resolutions, such as background checks, that could prevent school shootings.

“In this generation, I feel like we can change something,” she says. “And if everyone gets to write a letter, and if everybody does something about this, then something will be done.”

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed reporting from Andover, Kan., and staff writer Henry Gass contributed reporting from San Antonio.

SOURCE: State graduation requirements; Additional input for Tier 1 states from reports by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and discussion with its director, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg
Story Hinckley, research; Karen Norris, graphic/Staff

4. After Maria, spring break in Puerto Rico means 'rebuild,' not 'relax'

That same self-awareness and global outlook have also been reshaping the time-honored “service trip.” It has become much more about selflessness than selfies. Six months after hurricane Maria, that shift is being welcomed in Puerto Rico.

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Spring break in Puerto Rico. It’s a phrase that calls to mind palm trees, Caribbean beaches – and a lot of relaxation. But that’s hardly the case for Javier Secaria and Kevin Ratana Patumwat. The Harvard Law students have volunteered to spend their vacation shuffling through paperwork, offering pro bono help for Puerto Ricans trying to navigate FEMA claims. Six months after hurricane Maria, almost 150,000 homes here are still left in the dark, and rebuilding is slow. But many local groups have extra help this spring, in the form of vacationing high school, college, and graduate students. The work is often basic – clearing debris, recording names – and is just “a small drop in the large ocean of things that need to be done,” as one college student leading a service trip says. But it still has an impact. “I’ve realized if you are respectful, and if you’re an active listener, you can give someone dignity,” says Mr. Patumwat. “And when someone feels abandoned after a storm like this, just listening can really help.”


After Maria, spring break in Puerto Rico means 'rebuild,' not 'relax'

Mallory Gibson, a music-business major at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), has spent her junior-year spring break surrounded by sand, surf, and palm trees. But her experience has been pretty far from typical. 

“This is exactly what I wanted to do,” says Ms. Gibson, who moments earlier put down a nearly two-foot-long machete that she was using to whack apart a fallen palm tree. She’s covered in a thin film of dirt and, like everyone else here, drips sweat under the midday sun. Just a few hundred yards away the Caribbean laps the sandy shore of the Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve, but she won’t dip her toes in the water until her seven-hour work day wraps.

“We’re tackling a small drop in the large ocean of things that need to be done” to help Puerto Rico get back on its feet, she says. 

Gibson is the co-leader of a 22-person team from her university that traveled to Puerto Rico to volunteer six months after hurricane María, cleaning up debris and helping regenerate parts of the forest destroyed by the Category 4 storm. 

These college students aren’t alone in eschewing traditional spring break activities like sunbathing and partying to help Puerto Rico recover. From the more than 100 Boy Scouts from across the mainland US helping to rebuild a scout camp in Guajataka to 31 Harvard law students providing pro-bono legal aid and humanitarian work, spring break in Puerto Rico this year is a far cry from lazing on the beach. 

In “school, you tend to forget what real life is about,” says Kevin Ratana Patumwat, a second-year Harvard Law student. He’s come to better understand the disaster, which, as of March 9, still had left nearly 150,000 homes in the dark. “I’ve met people who can’t gather the proper documents [for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA] because the roof of their house is caved in from María,” he says.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Harvard law student Kevin Ratana Patumwat helps hurricane victims sort legal documents at a FEMA help center on March 14, 2018 in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Six months after hurricane Maria hit, students spent their spring break helping victims navigate the FEMA system.

Students dedicating their time off to working with communities in need bucks the labels and stereotypes of selfishness thrown at young people. And it’s part of a larger trend in the United States that’s slowly grown over the past 25 years: students using time off to serve in a way that builds community engagement, empathy, and leadership.

“We meet students really interested in getting involved in things bigger than themselves,” says Samantha Giacobozzi, executive director of Break Away, a national organization that trains students at universities across the country to organize and execute alternative breaks. 

“They may still be taking selfies, but they’re really remarkable in the ways in which they get involved” in their communities and current events, she says, referring to both the notable uptick in alternative breaks over the past decade and youth-led movements like activist for gun control after the Parkland, Fla. school shooting. “Because they’re plugged in [online], they know a lot about what’s happening in the world around them.”

Working vacation

Two students in floppy sun hats heave part of a tree trunk onto the back of a flatbed truck on a recent Tuesday afternoon. They high-five and giggle before turning around to pick up another load.

The nature reserve where they’re volunteering to clear out palm trees and storm debris in order to plant native-tree saplings is on the eastern coast of the island, about 20 miles away from where María first made landfall. The trees will help revitalize parts of the reserve that were destroyed by the hurricane, and could one day serve as an additional natural barrier to protect locals from battering storms.

“The work they’ve done in two days would take us about 1-1/2 or two weeks to complete,” says Antonio Bulnes, a reserve staff member working with the students. The nongovernmental organization Para La Naturaleza, which manages the reserve, has a goal of planting 1 million trees in the wake of the storm. “Since María, we’ve needed more help than usual,” says Mr. Bulnes.

Robin Chadwick, a junior studying nursing at UNC, was feeling frustrated after hurricane María. “I don’t like how the government handled the response,” she says. “I kept seeing news stories about how there wasn’t enough support or how people are still living without water and electricity.” She felt helpless, she says.

The storm caused roughly $100 billion in damages to Puerto Rico, exposing deep-seated challenges like an out-of-date power grid and flimsy home construction. Even power restoration is still considered in the “emergency” phase, just three months before hurricane season will rear up again.

When Ms. Chadwick learned about the trip via a school-wide email, “I knew I had to do it.” In the past, she spent her spring breaks traveling to cities like New York for fun or working to finance her studies.

Interest in volunteering in Puerto Rico has shot up since the storm, according to Community Collaborations International (CCI), the Nevada-based organization that helped coordinate the lodging, travel logistics, and volunteer itinerary for UNC’s spring break.

“We had groups travel in January and there are a lot of people going this summer – we’ve never had summer projects in Puerto Rico before,” says Steve Boisvert, founder of CCI, which works directly with universities to help organize alternative breaks.

Many point to another infamous storm, hurricane Katrina in 2005, as driving a surge of interest in dedicating vacation to serving others. More than a quarter of alternative break programs operating in partnership with Break Away, for example, were launched between 2002 and 2011, according to a 2016 Break Away report. That’s the biggest period of growth over the 26-year snapshot they track.

Increasingly, there are also requirements in high schools across the country – and expectations from college admission panels – for students to do community service, starting at a younger age.

This generation “has that background and rhythm of commitment to service in their bones,” says Melody Porter, director of the Office of Community Engagement at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

The term Alternative Spring Break has become a catch-all for service during vacations, an alternative to the party scene long associated with college spring break. What sets a formal “Alternative Spring Break” (ASB) apart from the service trips that religious organizations or youth groups have been leading for decades is the student leadership in planning the work and travel, and the inclusion of active reflection around the experience, says the Reverend Porter, who co-authored a book released in 2015 on alternative spring breaks.

These trips “open up a world that otherwise wouldn’t be available to students: understanding social issues in new ways, developing relationships with people. Our ultimate hope and what we see happen over and over again reliably is that people come to understand themselves and their positions in the community differently” after participating in an ASB, she says. Most schools hold regular meetings in the lead-up to a trip to discuss the project's bigger-picture context, communicate with community partners, and dissect important topics like the risks of “helicopter-ing” in somewhere to try and be a savior, versus working alongside locals who know best what their community needs. 

Listening with respect

Across the island, in Puerto Rico’s mountainous center, Harvard Law students Javier Secaria and Mr. Patumwat set up shop at a FEMA center in the Centro de Bellas Artes in Barranquitas. Mr. Secaria puts his orange backpack on one of the many white plastic chairs filling the vast room, and pulls out a small cardboard sign that reads, “legal orientation desk.” Those lining up for help have driven miles along the steep, winding, one-lane roads to come here today. 

The first- and second-year law students are accompanying Walter H. González Collazo, a lawyer with The Foundation Fund for Access to Justice in Puerto Rico. Mr. González and other lawyers like him across the island are working pro-bono to help individuals navigate FEMA bureaucracy in order to try and appeal their denied cases. He bounces between 10 FEMA centers in different small mountainous towns each week, working Monday through Saturday.

Patumwat and Secaria’s work isn’t rocket science. They’re conducting pre-interviews with individuals in order to gather their names and addresses, and to understand what step of the application process might have thrown them off track. But law – even in Spanish – is a language these young students speak, and their legal know-how allows González to tackle nearly double his typical tally of cases each day. 

“In the legal profession, as in others, there’s an ethic we try to teach of service and the idea that with the privileges of education and opportunity come a responsibility of service to others,” says Andrew Crespo, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School who is Puerto Rican. He helped launch the Hurricane María Legal Assistance project last fall.

“You don’t need specialized skills to help. I’ve realized if you are respectful and if you’re an active listener, you can give someone dignity,” says Patumwat. “And when someone feels abandoned after a storm like this, just listening can really help.”


5. In South Africa, reclaiming an Afrikaans as diverse as its speakers

Language is about so much more than words. In South Africa, Afrikaans has long been associated with the apartheid-era government and with persistent inequality. But for millions of nonwhite South Africans, it’s also the language of home and proud identity.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Willa Boezak, a Khoi San scholar and activist, speaks in his home about the Afrikaans language, on March 6, in Cape Town, South Africa. The black ANC government is passing legislation to stop the use of Afrikaans in the schools. Mr. Boezak points out that Afrikaans was initially an indigenous language, not a white language. It is the first language of most white and multiracial people in Southern Africa.

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Afrikaans literally means “African” in Dutch – a hint of the South African language’s complex roots, with influences as far away as Southeast Asia. Much like South Africa itself, it’s the result of a collision between Europeans, slaves from around the world, and indigenous people that began in the 17th century. Today, a majority of South Africans who speak Afrikaans are not white, but it’s still strongly associated with white rule. But a growing group of activists, artists, and academics are shedding light on its complicated history – as vast, diverse, violent, and brazenly creative as the country’s own. And it’s not just about the past, they say, it’s also about how millions of South Africans feel about the way they talk today. “I wanted to feel proud to speak my mother tongue, the language I dream in, the language I heard in the womb,” says singer, poet, and cultural activist Blaq Pearl. “Once I embraced where the language came from, I started to feel liberated speaking it.”


In South Africa, reclaiming an Afrikaans as diverse as its speakers

When a wave of student protests began crashing over South Africa’s universities in mid-2015, it didn’t take long to reach the doors of Stellenbosch University.

A stately campus nestled among the vineyards and mountains near Cape Town, with a student body that was 60 percent white in a country where nine in 10 people are not, “Stellies” was an obvious target for students angry with the educational status-quo. And its protestors had one grievance in particular: language.

“Being taught in Afrikaans, going to class and not understanding – these have all been part of how Stellenbosch has excluded me as a black student,” a PhD student named Mwabisa Makaluza explained to a South African paper at the time, referring to the local language that was heavily used by the apartheid government.

The implication was clear: Afrikaans was for white people. And since Stellenbosch still taught most of its courses in Afrikaans, it was slamming the door on students who weren’t.

But as Willa Boezak watched the TV footage of protesters marching across the campus’s red brick paths, he didn’t quite see it that way.

It’s crazy this is what apartheid did to us, thought Dr. Boezak, a minister and activist for the rights of South Africa’s Khoikhoi indigenous community. It made us believe that white people actually invented Afrikaans, and that it’s their language.

The Dutch-based creole, he knew, wasn’t simply made up by white people. It emerged in the collision between Europeans, slaves, and indigenous people in southern Africa that began in the 17th century. But its bitter association with whiteness has “proven really hard to get rid of,” he says.

Of course, Afrikaans was more than a language in the protests. It was a shorthand for power. But to Boezak, it was telling that the discussion on campus had become, well, so black and white.

Like a growing group of activists, artists, and academics here, he is trying to complicate that story. Afrikaans was the language of white power in South Africa for a long time. But it was never just that, they say. It has a history as vast – not to mention as diverse, as violent, and as brazenly creative – as South Africa itself. And reclaiming that history isn’t just about making good on the blind spots of the past. It’s also about giving millions of South Africans reason to take pride in how they talk today. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Willa Boezak, a Khoi San scholar and activist, has written books about the Afrikaans language. Afrikaans is the third-most commonly spoken language in South Africa, and the first language of about 7 million of its 50 million people.

“I wanted to feel proud to speak my mother tongue – the language I dream in, the language I heard in the womb,” says Janine Van Rooy-Overmeyer, better known as the singer, poet, and cultural activist Blaq Pearl. “Once I embraced where the language came from, I started to feel liberated speaking it.”

Worldwide roots

Like the majority of the 7 million South Africans whose first language is Afrikaans, Ms. Van Rooy-Overmeyer comes from a group of South Africans classified under apartheid as “coloured” – still a commonly used term today. Though she says she does not personally relate to the category, the term has long been a blanket description here for people of mixed race descended from indigenous Khoikhoi and San communities, Southeast Asian slaves, Europeans, and other African communities.

Their history, in a sense, is also the history of Afrikaans (literally “African” in Dutch), which grew from the encounter between those same groups of people at the southern tip of the continent between the 17th and 19th centuries.

In that violently cosmopolitan colonial world, masters needed a way to order around their slaves, and indigenous people needed a way to offer assistance and negotiate treaties with the new arrivals. And everyone needed a way to haggle.

A kind of simplified Dutch quickly became the language of war, money, and love in the early Cape Colony. And soon, it began absorbing words and syntax from both local languages and from Southeast Asian languages like Indonesian, the mother tongue of many of the area’s slaves.

Though most of Afrikaans’ vocabulary still came from the Netherlands, that wasn’t true of the people using it. In the mid-19th century, Muslim communities in the Cape became the first to write down the new language, using Arabic script and teaching it in their madrassas, or religious schools. Still, the language was often seen as lower class, and many Dutch speakers pejoratively called it “mongrel Dutch” or kombuistaal – kitchen language.

Language of repression, language of home

But as white Afrikaans speakers – many of whom had been on the continent for generations – grew more distant from their European roots, they began casting around for a new identity.

“They wanted to claim a history of their own, and to do that they needed a language of their own,” says Boezak. “The problem was that to do that, they had to steal from other people.”

In 1875, a group of Afrikaans-speaking white settlers announced the formation of The Society of True Afrikaners. Their main project was to standardize Afrikaans, which they called a “pure Germanic language.” Over the next few decades, they wrote dictionaries and published Bibles, children’s books, and nationalist poetry.

And as they did so, they quietly began to write “non-white” Afrikaans speakers out of history.

Afrikaans is “no mixed language, certainly not a mixed language that originated with Dutch speaking the Malay-Portuguese of the slaves,” wrote prominent linguist D.B. Bosman in 1916.

For decades, that became the largely accepted view in South Africa. In 1976, when the apartheid government tried to change the language of instruction in all South African schools to Afrikaans, massive protests erupted, with students wielding signs that read, in no uncertain terms, “TO HELL WITH AFRIKAANS.”

“As black Afrikaans speakers, we had to live with this double consciousness,” says Hein Willemse, a scholar of Afrikaans at the University of Pretoria, who was then a young academic and anti-apartheid activist in Cape Town. “On the one hand, it was quite clear that Afrikaans was the language of repression.” And it was often deployed to wound, he says, as when police used the informal version of “you” to address black people old enough to be their parents.

“On the other hand, Afrikaans – a different Afrikaans – was the language of home,” says Dr. Willemse, who recently wrote an opinion piece entitled, “More than an oppressor’s language: reclaiming the hidden history of Afrikaans.”

'Pride in who I am'

After apartheid ended in the early 1990s, Afrikaans’ status backslid. But the historical associations lingered.

In the Cape Flats – the sprawling miles-long sheet of sand outside Cape Town where millions of African, coloured, and Indian South Africans were resettled during apartheid – many young South Africans continued to grow up with the feeling that their version of Afrikaans was inferior and backward, since it sounded different from so-called “white Afrikaans.”

“When you go outside your community and see how other people react to the way you speak, you begin to feel like there’s something wrong with you,” Van Rooy-Overmeyer, the singer and poet, says. “And the impact of that hits deep. It has a really negative impact on the self esteem of an entire group of people.”

When Van Rooy-Overmeyer began her career as Blaq Pearl, she often sang and performed in English “because we were taught to see our own language as inferior.”

But that began to change in 2010, when she was invited to perform in a stage production called “Afrikaaps” – the name of the dialect of Afrikaans spoken in so-called "coloured communities" in the Western Cape. Performed entirely in this Cape Afrikaans by a troupe of well-known musicians from the Cape Flats, the play told a lesser known history of the language.

Afrikaans, sang Moenier Adams, one of the show’s performers, “is a history book without a cover, of a white guy looking for a brown skinned lover…. It lies in your blood and your history.”

The reaction to “Afrikaaps” was electric, Van Rooy-Overmeyer says. For many in her audiences, it was the first time they had heard Cape Afrikaans used so reverently. And for her, “it sparked a shift inside of me.”

Since then, she has devoted much of her professional life to teaching young people in those communities about the history of their language. But historian Saarah Jappie, who studies 19th century Arabic-Afrikaans manuscripts, says that story is still a surprise to many.

“When I show kids these manuscripts, so many of them say to me they had no idea this existed,” she says. “There’s this new sense of pride and ownership [in the language].”

Still, reclaiming history in contemporary South Africa is no simple task. Like everywhere, history’s mouthpiece here is the powerful – and many “coloured communities” here say they feel as excluded in the new South Africa as they did in the old. Then, they say, they weren’t white enough. Today, many feel told they’re not black enough.

In recent years, Afrikaans has become the flashpoint for conflict at schools and universities across the country, largely used as shorthand for the lingering remnants of apartheid that still hang low across many parts of South African society. (On average, white South Africans still earn nearly five times as much as black South Africans, and more than twice as much as coloured South Africans.)

Julius Malema, leader of the leftist opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters, asserted last year that he “strongly believe[s] Afrikaans is being used to perpetuate white supremacy in South Africa.” Others argue that it is simply a minority language – taught in fewer schools, and to fewer students, than English – and doesn’t deserve the prominence it’s historically been afforded in South African society.

The view that Afrikaans is the language of white power in South Africa has left many coloured and other black Afrikaans speakers feeling marginalized, they say, even if they understand the roots of the complaint.

“This was the stupidity of apartheid – forcing Afrikaans on people” and making the language feel like their enemy, Boezak says. But for him and many others, it’s still a language worth preserving.

“When I perform in Afrikaans it really captures the essence of what I want to say – my culture, my identity,” says Van Rooy-Overmeyer. “It captures my pride in who I am, which is something I want to share.”


The Monitor's View

Europe backs Britain – and itself

The Kremlin’s drive to split apart Western democracies has run into turbulence. The European Union said Friday that it not only backs Britain’s claim of Russia being behind the poisoning of a former spy, but also that most EU states plan to take action against Russia. This club of democracies is standing in solidarity against the attempted murder of civilians on EU soil with a military-grade nerve agent. Europe, in other words, will not allow itself to become like Syria’s chemical battleground. The bloc’s “unqualified” support is especially noteworthy because of its ongoing differences with Britain over the terms of that country’s exit from the Union. It is also surprising given that a few EU members tend to side with Russia on many issues. As more countries like Russia favor authoritarian rule, Europe may be waking up to the need to better embrace a rules-based international order and the democratic values that undergird it.


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.

Loving all, healing hatred

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Today’s column explores how letting tender seeds of spiritual perception take root and flourish in our hearts can help destroy hatred and support peace in the world.


Loving all, healing hatred

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It’s certainly fulfilling to express love – to give generously, be supportive, and do unselfish things for family and friends. But it can be especially challenging – and especially important – to care for those who are struggling most to feel loved: the unlawful, the unruly, those who are dishonest or cruel. It can be tempting to think such individuals are not deserving of love.

I truly feel, though, that the genuine expression of heartfelt love – love that is derived from the Divine – has the power to permanently heal hatred in whatever form, whether it’s bullying on the playground or some other manifestation of harmful behavior on the larger world stage. “God is love,” the Bible states (I John 4:8). But God’s enduring love can become more real and powerful to us only in proportion as we strive to obey the ever-timely adage, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” This imperative, expressed by Christ Jesus, and found in some form in most religions, holds the key to stemming violence and discord in society.

Jesus lived this love with breathtaking boldness. He reached out to the destitute, the social outcasts, and the morally straying to heal them and restore hope and spirituality to their lives. Articulating a new precedent for humanity, he said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44, 45).

Cultivating the honest desire to love one another is something we can all do, because the nature of each of us is Christlike and good. Jesus taught that we have a noble heritage as sons and daughters of God, our Father-Mother. He explained that the kingdom of God, Love, is already within us as God’s image and likeness.

Expressing Christly love can begin humbly with a small, tender seed of spiritual perception that we all have the same Father, or origin, the one divine Spirit. That we are all truly brothers and sisters – Spirit’s spiritual expressions – fashioned after God’s goodness with the capacity to love and be loved. Better understanding God, good, as our real source also aids us in healing wrong behavior, because we perceive it as distinct from the individual, as no part of his or her true, original selfhood as God’s loved reflection.

When faced with evil deeds, we can strive to water the seeds of Christly love in our hearts – neutralizing any sense of revenge or indifference – so that we may more effectively reach out in prayer and compassion to those on whom evil appears to have made its mark. Right there God is seeing His children in their original, spiritual, sinless nature. And we can, too. When we see our fellow men and women as God does, it can lead us to take just the right steps forward in any given situation to promote forgiveness, justice, and mercy, including taking proper civic action when necessary.

I regularly volunteer at a prison and meet with various inmates, many of whom have been convicted of violent crimes. Through our group prayers, Bible study, and open sharing times, I’ve been gratified to see signs of genuine repentance and even wholesale reformation taking place. The seeds of love and regeneration are taking root right where a barren desert of hopelessness had seemed the only reality. These individuals are learning to reject the misconceptions they’ve had of themselves – mental impositions that have previously hid from view their true nature as God’s children.

In her central work, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” the discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, writes: “Human affection is not poured forth vainly, even though it meet no return. Love enriches the nature, enlarging, purifying, and elevating it” (p. 57). As we take a stand for the truth of man’s loving nature as God’s child, and put our prayers into action, we can help the world see that an active expression of divine Love is the highest, most effective response to human hate.

In speaking of the capacity of good to triumph over evil, the Bible gives this promise: “The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose” (Isaiah 35:1). Each of us has the God-given ability to let the seeds of divine Love take root and flourish in our heart – and to help water them in the deserving hearts of others.



Calm restored

Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters
A military helicopter flew over the French village of Trèbes March 23 after a hostage situation there ended. The French government said that a 26-year-old attacker – known to police for petty crime – was shot and killed by police after killing three people, one during a car hijacking and two inside a supermarket. Agence France-Presse reported that the attacker had claimed allegiance to ISIS.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

In Our Next Issue

( March 26th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Thanks for being here with us. Come back Monday. We’ll be looking at Europe’s experience with the mental health aspect of the gun-violence crisis – and at what lessons it can offer.  

Also: Get social with us this weekend. We’ll have five young staffers managing and posting to our social media accounts from the March for Our Lives events in Washington and Boston. Watch Twitter and Instagram early Saturday (@csmonitor for both), and Facebook later Saturday and through the weekend. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

March 23, 2018
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