Monitor Daily Podcast

April 13, 2018
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Monitor Daily Intro for April 13, 2018

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Another week brought more questions about power.

Does a Facebook executive have too much of it? Do striking teachers have enough of it to win concessions? Might the United States project it militarily in Syria (even as China flexes with a vast flotilla in the South China Sea)? [Update: After airstrikes Friday night, coordinated with Britain and France, the US hinted at further action if warranted.]

We can put faces to those stories. But a murkier power story saw some developments this week, too.

Fully two-thirds of tweets shared to popular websites were found by a Pew Research Center report to have been directed by “bots” roaming without human input, changing conversations. Such rules-based bots are supported by a kind of artificial intelligence that lets them understand words in context. They’re a bridge to more formidable forms of AI – and to a deeper set of questions about ethics and limits.

Facebook’s chief executive said this week that a huge AI presence would police its future content.

But the potential for AI’s broader use – including in warfare, policing, and other public-sector purposes – has observers clamoring for assessment and monitoring. (This week also happened to greet the world’s most valuable AI start-up, a $3 billion Chinese firm that specializes in analyzing faces and other images.)

AI gets launched by human actors. Wedded to political authority, does it begin to wield a power that defies control?

“If governments deploy systems on human populations without frameworks for accountability, they risk losing touch with how decisions have been made,” declares a report from a nonprofit called AINow, which tracks the technology’s social impact, “thus rendering them unable to [detect] or respond to bias, errors, or other problems.”

Now to our five stories for your Friday, including protecting due process in Washington, changing young lives in Oklahoma, and pursuing justice without fear in Brazil.

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Republicans hail checks and balances. But would they ‘fall in’ on a firing?

It’s kind of a moment for Congress. Expressing belief in the importance of a deliberate pursuit of truth might reassure the public that integrity and order, democracy’s stabilizers, are intact.

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Republican lawmakers have largely insisted that President Trump wouldn’t fire special counsel Robert Mueller. “It would be catastrophic,” says Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. But lawmakers have become increasingly anxious that it might happen, and have crafted bipartisan legislation aimed at protecting Mr. Mueller in the event that Mr. Trump moves to remove him. Now, however, Trump is hearing demands from the right that he fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The argument is that Mr. Rosenstein allowed Mueller to exceed his mandate, leading, for example, to the FBI raid on the office of Trump’s personal lawyer. Such a move would still be highly controversial, but if firing Mueller is perceived as crossing a congressional red line, GOP strategists aren’t so sure that a move against Rosenstein would spark a massive uproar among most Republicans on Capitol Hill. Rick Tyler, a former top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz and to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, says he thinks Trump has already decided to fire Rosenstein, and is just waiting for the right moment. “Trump believes that if he does this, nothing will happen. And I believe that.”

Republicans hail checks and balances. But would they ‘fall in’ on a firing?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky tells reporters he's seen no clear indication Congress needs to pass legislation that would prevent the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller, on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018.

The drumbeat on the right is getting louder: President Trump should fire a key figure in the Russia investigation – not special counsel Robert Mueller, but his supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Trump allies say.

Their stated reason: Mr. Rosenstein has allowed Mr. Mueller to exceed his original mandate, which was to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the possible involvement of Trump associates. The latest example of an expanded mandate – the FBI raid Monday on the hotel room and office of Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer – infuriated the president, and boosted the argument for firing Rosenstein.

As president, Trump has the power to fire the deputy attorney general, but such a move – particularly in the service of reining in Mueller or even firing him, too – would be highly controversial. Firing Rosenstein would suggest to the president's critics that he is intent on halting or impeding an investigation that, the latest polls show, a majority of Americans support.

Caught in a squeeze are Republican lawmakers, who largely insist Trump at least wouldn’t fire Mueller. “It would be catastrophic,” says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine in an interview with the Monitor. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says Trump firing Mueller would be “suicide.”

But lawmakers from both parties had become increasingly anxious it might happen, and crafted bipartisan legislation aimed at protecting Mueller in the event that Trump moves to remove him. The so-called Mueller protection plan was headed for a Senate Judiciary Committee vote next week until partisan infighting among committee leaders threatened to derail the bill.

Important symbolism

Concerns about the constitutionality of the legislation complicate the matter, and even were it to pass both houses of Congress, Trump likely would veto it.

But proponents say the effort remains important, as a signal to the president and the American people that the legislative branch is alive to its role in the US system of checks and balances.

At its heart, the legislation matters as a symbolic gesture – an attempt to reassure the public that honesty, integrity, and the rule of law are paramount at a time of uncertainty.

“Because the political symbolism matters here, it would be most meaningful if Congress can generate a bill with some significant bipartisan support, even if it doesn’t have a veto-proof majority behind it,” says Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University. “Even a simple resolution expressing congressional belief in the importance of a thorough and good-faith investigation would be useful, from that perspective.”

The “unjustified removal” of Mueller would cross a congressional red line, and would be politically costly, says Professor Whittington.  

Echoes of President Richard Nixon and the “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which an embattled president ordered the firing of the special prosecutor, would ring loudly.

“The story would be, ‘He’s another Nixon; he’s trying to hide something,’ ” says political expert William Schneider, a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

But some Republican strategists aren’t so sure that a Trump move against a top Department of Justice figure – especially Rosenstein – would spark a massive uproar among most Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“They will feel they have no choice but to fall in line,” says Ford O’Connell, chairman of the CivicForumPAC.

Reliance on Trump's base

Rick Tyler, a former top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, says he thinks Trump has already decided to fire Rosenstein, and is just waiting for the right moment. And when it happens, he says, don’t expect a big outcry from Republicans.

“If you go up to Congress right now, they will say, ‘This would be the end of his presidency,’ ” says Mr. Tyler. “Why? Because they don’t want to be held accountable for when he does fire Rosenstein…. But Trump believes that if he does this, nothing will happen. And I believe that.”

Buttressing Trump is the loyalty of his political base – the 20 to 30 percent of the electorate that strongly supports him, almost no matter what. It is those base supporters who form the nucleus of support for Republicans in the House and Senate, making it hard for them to stray too far from the president.

Trump has plenty of reason to believe he could fire Rosenstein without mortally wounding his presidency, Tyler says. He fired James Comey as head of the FBI last May, and the ensuing uproar eventually subsided. Another target of presidential ire, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, was fired last month by Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions – and Congress shrugged.

Mr. Comey’s return to the public spotlight – with unflattering details about Trump leaking from Comey's soon-to-be-released tell-all book – has given way to more presidential agita. On Twitter Friday morning, Trump called Comey an “untruthful slime ball.” It could be harmless venting, but it could also signal another descent into recriminations over what he sees as the “witch hunt” of the Mueller investigation.

Pardon of loyal Scooter Libby

Trump’s announcement Friday that he had pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby is more significant. Mr. Libby, who was chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted in 2007 of multiple crimes, including perjury before a grand jury. Trump’s pardon of Libby represents a reward to someone who was loyal to his boss, and sends a powerful message to all of Trump’s associates who face legal trouble today.

But for Trump himself, the present danger of the Mueller investigation remains. And even if he can fire Rosenstein without facing major political consequences, action against Mueller himself would be highly risky. Nearly 70 percent of Americans say Trump should not fire Mueller, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll.

Harvard Law Prof. Alan Dershowitz, a Trump confidant and critic of Mueller’s aggressive tactics, told the Boston Globe this week that he “would certainly advise [Trump] not to fire anybody,” even though, in Mr. Dershowitz’s view, he has “the right to seek the firing of anybody in the executive branch.”

“As an American citizen, I’m concerned about what it would do to divide America,” Dershowitz said. “I would rather see actions that bring us together than actions that would divide us.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

Germany takes a run at online hate speech. Some cry ‘censorship.’

Fighting intolerance can’t mean squelching discussion or dissent. This piece explores how a push to crack down on virulent hate speech has Germany bumping up against free expression.

Britta Pedersen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP
Politicians, activists, and citizens break down a wall made of styrofoam blocks on which 'hate speech' is written in Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt square September. The relief organization Care has begun a nationwide campaign against hate and agitation.

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Around the world, governments and citizens are worried about how social media platforms have become a home for “fake news,” invasions of privacy, voter manipulation, and hate speech. To deal with an explosion of abusive and hateful content – including anti-Muslim rhetoric and violent speech against politicians – Germany is staking out an aggressive and far-reaching position. A new law, known as NetzDG in Germany, requires large social media companies to quickly remove illegal content from their sites or face heavy fines. Proponents say it’s a much-needed effort to bring Germany’s laws on hate speech, written decades before the internet existed, in line with modern realities. Yet there’s a pushback. Critics charge that the move endangers freedom of expression by outsourcing censorship to unaccountable private companies. They say it will lead to a purging of content that isn’t illegal. Still, many agree that some action is needed now, and that the stakes are high. “[P]eople have come to [believe] that complete freedom in social media is not a guarantee of freedom of society,” says a lawyer in Würtzburg. “It is quite the contrary … we may need to intervene and regulate social media, in order to protect our constitutional values.”

Germany takes a run at online hate speech. Some cry ‘censorship.’

Britta Pedersen/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP
Politicians, activists and citizens in Berlin symbolically smash a wall of styrofoam blocks on which ‘hate speech’ remarks are posted in September 2017 in a gesture of support for removing offensive content from sites.

It was a seemingly innocuous tweet: The police in the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) were extending New Year’s greetings to residents. In addition to a missive in German, the department sent their well wishes in French, English, and Arabic.

The last one didn’t sit well with Beatrix von Storch, a member of the far-right Alternative for Germany party. “What the hell is wrong with this country? Why is the official police page in NRW tweeting in Arabic?” she asked in a tweet of her own. Harking back to New Year’s Eve 2015, when groups of young men, many of whom authorities described as immigrants from North Africa, sexually assaulted women during the holiday revelry in Cologne, Germany, she wrote: “Do you think it is to appease the barbaric, gang-raping hordes of Muslim men?”

Several hundred kilometers south, editors at the satirical magazine Titanic saw the tweet and seized an opportunity to mock the politician. They changed their profile picture on Twitter to an image of Ms. von Storch and began parodying her. “The last thing that I want is mollified barbarian, Muslim, gang-raping hordes of men,” they tweeted.

On Jan. 1, Twitter suspended the accounts of both von Storch and Titanic. Von Storch posted the content of her tweet on Facebook, and that post was deleted, too. It was the first day of enforcement of a new German law forcing social media companies to promptly remove hate speech and other illegal content posted on their networks. 

In the struggle to deal with the explosion of abusive and hateful content on social media sites, Germany is staking out one of the most aggressive and far-reaching positions of any country in the world – and is being closely watched as a result. 

The new law, known as NetzDG in Germany, requires large social media companies to remove illegal content from their sites, in most cases within 24 hours, or face heavy fines. Proponents say it’s a much-needed effort to bring Germany’s laws on hate speech, written decades before the internet existed, in line with modern realties to curb the rampant proliferation of abusive content.

Hauke-Christian Dittrich/DPA/AP
Beatrix von Storch, a far-right German politician, posted a controversial tweet that helped push Germany to pass a hate-speech law.

Yet the move has provoked a strong outcry, both from free speech advocates and political parties across the ideological spectrum in Germany. Critics charge that the law endangers freedom of expression by outsourcing censorship to unaccountable private companies and will lead to a purging of content that isn’t illegal. The New Year’s Day saga with von Storch and Titanic encapsulates the controversy swirling around the law.

“Right there, you’ve got some of the core kinds of speech that you often presume would be protected in democratic societies – political speech and satire,” says Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. “Some of this content may have very well violated German law, but that is something for German courts to decide. It’s not something that private companies are competent to decide.”

Germany highlights just one dimension of rising global concern over social media content. Around the world, governments and citizens are worried about how the platforms have become a home for not only hate speech, but also “fake news,” invasions of privacy, and voter manipulation. Look no further than the investigations in Washington over whether Russia used social media to try to influence the 2016 presidential election, and the recent outcry in the wake of news that a consulting firm linked to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign harvested data on some 50 million Facebook users. 

Yet it is the success or failure of Germany’s law that may well set the tone for what other countries around the world do in regulating social media, at least on hate speech. Several European countries are already considering similar plans, while some authoritarian governments are citing Germany’s move as justification for their own crackdowns on freedom of expression.

More than anything, NetzDG illustrates one of the most fundamental tensions facing societies in the Digital Age: how to curb online hate speech and abusive content without trampling freedom of expression. 

“In Germany we have made a decision, especially with our history, that you cannot spread hatred against ethnic minorities,” says Stefan Heumann of the Berlin-based Foundation for a New Responsibility, which studies the intersection of technology and society. “We don’t accept that. We have laws outlawing that.... It is important to enforce those in the online world as well. Most of the public actually supports that those laws should be enforced online. Then the big question is, how do you do that?”


The story of how NetzDG was created begins in the summer of 2015, at the height of the flow of refugees into Europe. A sense of optimism pulsated throughout Germany’s southern state of Bavaria, especially in the Munich train station. It was the physical entry point for most of the newcomers and symbolized the vaunted Willkommenskultur, or “welcome culture,” that blossomed across the country. Yet a profound unease existed as well. Arsonists began attacking refugee housing centers, and other opponents of the great migration flooded Facebook with abusive comments. 

One refugee, Anas Modamani, arrived that summer from Syria along with the rest of the masses. Mr. Modamani would have remained just an anonymous case file among the 1.3 million other asylum-seekers who registered with the German government, except for one seemingly innocuous, spontaneous act: He took a “selfie” with German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she visited his refugee shelter in September 2015. (See photo.)

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters/File
Syrian refugee Anas Modamani takes a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015 outside a refugee center in Berlin. It’s an image that anti-immigrant and other groups spread on the internet and sometimes altered in controversial ways to attack Ms. Merkel’s policies, tarnishing Mr. Modamani’s image in the process.

At first Germans proudly circulated the photo of Ms. Merkel smiling in a baby blue blazer and Modamani exuding a look of serenity over social media as a sign of the country’s spirit of benevolence. But immigration critics quickly picked up the image and used it for their own purposes, mainly to attack Merkel but tarnishing Modamani in the process.

The photo appeared on Facebook after a group of young refugees from Syria and Libya set a homeless man on fire in Berlin, accompanied with false comments that Merkel had posed with one of the perpetrators. After the bombing in the Brussels airport and subway train in March 2016, Modamani’s face appeared again, this time under the words that Merkel took a selfie with a “terrorist.” “I cried when I saw it,” Modamani told Al Jazeera.

Later, an altered image showed him in the foreground of a photo of the truck used to kill 12 people at the Berlin Christmas market in 2016. “I want to live in peace in Germany. I fled from the war and bloodshed in Syria to live in safety,” he told the news outlet. “I was too afraid to leave my house after I saw what people wrote about me. This is not just my problem. It’s a problem of our time.”

Chan-jo Jun, a fast-talking lawyer who zips around his sleek offices in the postcard-perfect town of Würzburg, north of Munich, thought he saw a clear legal answer to the problem of hateful words and falsified information posted on the internet.

Stopping the posts about Modamani, he reasoned, should have been as simple as notifying Facebook that they were illegal under German law. The photos were clearly altered, the rumors clearly false, and they were invading Modamani’s privacy. “When management has positive knowledge of a specific case, they have to act or else they would be personally liable,” says Mr. Jun. “I thought if I could just demonstrate once that everyone should just report illegal content to [Facebook] management, they’d have to react or else be punishable by law.”

But each time he asked the company to take down the photos he got the same response: The images didn’t violate Facebook’s “community standards,” guidelines that the company has set up to define what is offensive and therefore removable. 

He concluded the company didn’t care about criminal law in Germany and instead looked at him as a nuisance – “some stupid lawyer in Würzburg,” as he puts it. He took Facebook to court in a case that turned into one of the most closely watched in Germany. In March 2017, Jun lost the trial, but he believes it helped bring the problem of hate speech to the attention of lawmakers, who, as passions flared over migration, were becoming the target of vitriolic attacks themselves. Suddenly, they could empathize with a refugee who was being maligned by postings that a private company refused to take down.

“There was lots of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violent speech against politicians,” says Mr. Heumann of the Foundation for a New Responsibility. “The law in part came because politicians were so personally affected by it.”

Because of its history, Germany has long had strong regulations on hate speech. Inciting hatred against a religious or ethnic group is illegal, as is assaulting the human dignity of others.

Jun thinks his loss ultimately led to a recognition among lawmakers that Germany’s laws against hate speech, created decades before the internet existed, aren’t tough enough to police the social media landscape.

“It was better with a lost case than a won case,” he says, “because otherwise people would say, ‘You just have to go to court to get justice. They don’t have to change anything. You just keep suing Facebook.’ ”

Facebook’s lack of responsiveness in removing material that users had flagged spurred lawmakers to act, too.

“Facebook dug its own pit by completely ignoring every problematic behavior on their platform,” says Matthias Spielkamp, founder and executive director of
AlgorithmWatch.org, a Berlin-based advocacy group that seeks to bring accountability to automated decisionmaking systems. Mr. Spielkamp doesn’t support the law but believes Facebook’s “arrogance” ultimately backfired. “Now this is quite a mess,” he says, “because what in the end resulted was a law that no one is really happy about. Not even the government.”


NetzDG, passed by the German parliament last June, requires social media companies with more than 2 million users to create a system to receive and respond to complaints of allegedly illegal content.

They have 24 hours to remove illegal postings in most cases and a week for more complicated evaluations. Under the law, they must also issue a public report on their actions every six months. Failure to comply can lead to fines of up to €50 million ($62 million). Deciding whether flagged content is illegal requires monitors to consult 22 provisions of Germany’s criminal code.

Paul Zinken/DPA/AP
Supporters of the right-wing ‘Identitarian’ movement demonstrate in Berlin against the law.

Last year Facebook added 3,000 people worldwide to its “community operations” team of 4,500, though a spokesperson said the increase was not in response to NetzDG. In Germany, the company has also outsourced monitoring to two companies in Berlin and Essen employing 1,200 people.

A Twitter spokesman declined to comment on how it was enforcing the law, but referenced a Human Rights Watch statement assailing the statute. A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement that the company has “devoted significant time and resources” to complying with NetzDG but criticized the law as well.

“We believe the best solutions will be found when government, civil society and industry work together and that this law as it stands now will not improve efforts to tackle this important societal problem,” said the statement. “We feel that the lack of scrutiny and consultation do not do justice to the importance of the subject. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure safety for the people on our platform.”

It’s not just social media companies that oppose the law: NetzDG has provoked a strong backlash in Germany by a wide variety of political groups, from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to the liberal Free Democratic Party to leftist parties. Critics say the law will lead to over-censorship because of the combination of hefty fines and the short time window for companies to respond to complaints. Concern looms, too, that satirical and humorous content will get indiscriminately removed from sites. 

Sophie Passmann knows something about what that feels like. She is a 24-year-old comedian who lives in Cologne. Every New Year’s Eve she becomes the butt of her friends’ jokes because of one of Germany’s most enduring year-end traditions: the airing of “Dinner for One” across German television. A British sketch, it’s about the 90th birthday party of an Englishwoman named Miss Sophie who has outlived all her friends. So her butler makes his way around the dinner table, impersonating each of the guests.

“It’s terrible for a person called Sophie,” says Ms. Passmann. “My friends think it’s funny to call me Miss Sophie all night.” So this year she shot back. On the day NetzDG went into effect, she posted a tweet at 9 a.m. that mocked the idea, often put forth by the far-right, that refugees were destroying German culture: “As long as it’s a tradition in Germany to watch ‘Dinner for One,’ refugees can totally come to Germany and destroy our culture.”

It was not her best joke, she concedes, but it should have been obvious that it was humor. By that evening, however, she’d received multiple notifications from Twitter that users found it offensive, and by nightfall the company had removed it. She says her parents don’t love her sense of humor, so she called them for their opinion. They agreed that it wasn’t the most adept one-
liner. “But they understood it was a joke,” she says. Twitter should have, too, but their reflex is to err on the side of not being fined, she believes.

Figuring out what is hate speech or likely to incite people to violence, and what is satire or humor, isn’t always easy. Ms. Llansó of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington says if you’re a company trying to manage risk and being forced to navigate more than 20 provisions of the German criminal code, you are going to be “fairly aggressive in your interpretation of what might violate the law.”

Another complaint is that there is no appeal process once material is removed and little explanation for why it was taken down. When Twitter suspended the account of Titanic magazine, staffers at the publication tried to contact Twitter but couldn’t reach a person. All they could do was send an email. Twitter reinstated Titanic’s account 48 hours later without explanation.

But perhaps the most serious criticism of the law is that it moves the responsibility for regulating speech from the government to private companies that have no accountability. This raises issues of transparency as well as definition: Speech that is illegal may be different from speech that violates a company’s community standards or terms of service. How do you know why something has been removed? Should it really even be removed? 

“The law is a slap in the face for all democratic principles because, in a constitutional state, courts rather than companies make decisions about what is unlawful and what is not,” Sahra Wagenknecht, parliamentary leader of the radical Left party, told the German press.

Bernd Von Jutrczenka/DPA/AP/File
Police spokesman Stefan Redlich presents phones, weapons, and other items confiscated during a raid of 10 residences in Berlin in a crackdown on suspects who use social media to spread hate speech.

Given all the criticism of NetzDG, German lawmakers are looking at ways to reform it only a few short months after it took effect. Some legislators want to create an appeal process for users whose content has been deleted. Many also want to establish an independent body that would assess complaints and decide whether to take down content, rather than have the companies do it themselves.

All this is important because other countries are looking at adopting their own version of NetzDG, which critics find particularly alarming. 

The European Commission has already called for social media platforms to take more responsibility for content, while the British and French governments are developing plans to press social media companies to do more to identify and remove terrorist or hateful material.

But what concerns free speech advocates the most are moves by authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning governments. Russia, the Philippines, and Singapore have all cited Germany’s law as they have pressed forward with efforts to restrict speech.

While NetzDG certainly has its share of detractors, it has also had its salutary effects, even some critics admit. At the very least, says Spielkamp of AlgorithmWatch
.org, it has made more Germans aware of the fundamental value of free speech.

“Not everything that harms your feelings needs to be taken down,” he says. “You have to accept in a democracy it is legal, and should be legal, [for others] to say things that you don’t agree with.”

The law has also spurred a deeper discussion about whether Germany needs to back off its historical sensitivity about hate speech. Not surprisingly, editors at Titanic are among those wanting to widen the guardrails on free expression.

The pages of the satirical magazine regularly offer a Rorschach test on where the country stands on the limits of political and provocative expression. The publication has been the subject of more than 40 libel, slander, and other lawsuits since it was founded in 1979. Moritz Hürtgen, social media editor at Titanic, who was behind the AfD parody, says the magazine’s target is always the powerful.

“The way we understand satire is that it always punches up but never down.” That means major churches, companies, or politicians are fair game. Those without power – refugees, for example – are not.

Frank Rumpenhorst/DPA/Newscom/File
Tim Wolff, editor in chief of Titanic, holds a model of the Eiffel Tower in his office in Frankfurt. After the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, he said humor was more crucial than ever. He opposes a German law aimed at curbing hate speech online.

Tim Wolff, Titanic’s editor in chief, believes modern Germany should stop reflexively shielding itself from ugly words and comments. He calls NetzDG “very post-Third Reich German.”

“It tries to hide ugliness instead of really getting rid of it,” he says. “It is shifting all the work to Twitter or Facebook instead of showing what is really going on in people’s minds.”

He draws a parallel between the law and Germany’s banning of “Mein Kampf” and denials of the Holocaust. “It always works that we are ashamed of that so don’t show it. It’s not getting to the core of the problem.”

Jun, the lawyer in Würzburg, has a different view. He says Germany is seeing far too much hate speech today – accepting behavior online that society would never tolerate in conventional public discourse. He believes online content should be elevated to – not allowed to bring down – the standards of acceptable speech.

“What has happened in the past 1-1/2 or two years is that people have come to the insight that complete freedom in social media is not a guarantee of freedom of society,” he says. “It is quite the contrary, that we may need to intervene and regulate social media, in order to protect our constitutional values.”

Special Report

In Tulsa, a deep-reaching philanthropist’s long-term test

George Kaiser is a bighearted man with a big idea: that a leveling of early advantages can put children on course to overcome what can seem to be assigned life outcomes. Over the next year, we'll be following this Oklahoma story closely, through the stories of three families. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Before heading into work, Alexis Stephens drops off her daughter Addison at Educare, an early childhood education facility for low-income families in Tulsa, Okla. Heavy investment in the city’s public and private social service, including Educare, has come from the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

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Hayezetta Nichols is expecting her third child. On top of the normal anxieties of an imminent delivery, she has more on her mind. She'll be going on unpaid leave from her call-center job at AT&T. But Ms. Nichols has places to turn: Her other two children are at a donor-funded child-care center. When she runs low on baby supplies, she knows how to tap another donor-funded charity. (She also is practical: Instead of a baby shower, Nichols is “going to have a diaper party,” she says with a smile.) Much of her support comes courtesy of what is essentially a $200 million bet on the potential of poor children to succeed. Over the next decade, the George Kaiser Family Foundation – described in a Monitor story in November – aims to match tens of thousands of low-income families with the social services they need, from nursing and birth control to child care and early education. Some are publicly funded programs, vulnerable to Oklahoma’s perennial budget crises; others are run by nonprofits that depend on donors. The Monitor is following three families to see the challenges and opportunities that they encounter and to plumb the promise of the Birth through Eight Strategy for Tulsa, Kaiser’s child-centered philanthropy. In an era of yawning gaps in health, education, and social mobility, what can Tulsa teach us?

In Tulsa, a deep-reaching philanthropist’s long-term test


On the sunny side of a red-brick building, Alexis Stephens extracts a dusty pink stroller from beneath a black-iron staircase. A quick wipedown, and Addison, her impish daughter, is inside, waiting to be pushed the length of the fenced-in yard.

Across town, Mikaleah Moment sits in a well-worn leather armchair in her living room, as sunlight filters through black curtains. She comforts R’Myah, her infant daughter, who's still recovering from a trip to the doctor the previous day. Ms. Moment’s shift at Family Dollar starts at noon, but she’s not sure if she’ll show up.

At a rented house further north on a dead-end lane, Hayezetta Nichols, a working mother of two in her last month of pregnancy, moves slowly past a dish-clogged sink. She moved her family into the house a month ago, gaining an extra bedroom for Loyal, the daughter she’s expecting, but it’s all she can do to keep the place tidy with two small children underfoot.

These three mothers are raising young kids in Tulsa, a city of uneven wealth and deep poverty, delineated by race and class and geography. All are part of a grand experiment rooted in the belief that investing early in children can help close the gap when they start school and set a path out of straitened upbringings. Behind the experiment is George Kaiser, an oil-and-banking billionaire. His local philanthropy has made Tulsa a testbed for innovation in fighting poverty and injustice, along with civic renewal and music heritage. 

Over the next decade, Mr. Kaiser’s foundation aims to match tens of thousands of low-income families with the social services they need, from nursing and birth control to childcare and early education. Some are publicly funded programs, vulnerable to Oklahoma’s perennial budget crises; others are run by nonprofits that depend on donors like Kaiser.  

His $200-million bet on the potential of poor children to succeed after a sustained early dose of nurturing and stimulation is called the Birth through Eight Strategy for Tulsa (BEST), an echo, perhaps, of the Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child for his first seven years, and I'll give you the man." (Kaiser is a descendant of a German-Jewish family who immigrated here in 1940.)

“Ultimately BEST is about tackling inter-generational poverty and creating a cycle of opportunity,” says Sophia Pappas, who directs the strategy at the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF). “We know how important the early years are for a child’s development.”

The Monitor is following the three families profiled here, and others like them, to see the challenges and opportunities that they encounter and to plumb the promise of Kaiser’s child-centered philanthropy. Educators, activists, and philanthropists in other cities are also watching BEST closely, and an elite club of wealthy donors is helping to fund its first phase.

In an era of yawning gaps in health, education, and social mobility, what can Tulsa teach us?


Ann Hermes/Staff
Hayezetta Nichols serves breakfast to her daughter, Myracle, and son, Lijah, at Educare on April 5 in Tulsa, Okla. Educare is an early education facility and daycare for low income families.

When Ms. Nichols was pregnant with Myracle, her first, whose name reflects the nine miscarriages that preceded her, she craved dirt. For her son, Lijah, born 16 months later, she took the advice of a friend with similar cravings and substituted cornstarch for dirt. It worked.

Which is why on a recent afternoon Nichols breaks off conversation to lean back on her chair – two cushions propped behind – and tips cornstarch into her mouth. She swallows. “Go on,” she says.

Although such cravings, known as pica, can be an indicator of malnutrition, Nichols says she’s had regular check-ups during this pregnancy, even dashing across town to the clinic – “I’m a worrywart” – when something felt wrong and being told her baby is fine. In fact, Loyal, was born three weeks later. 

One of BEST’s goals is to improve access to prenatal care so that more babies are born healthy. In 2015, of roughly 9,400 babies born in Tulsa County, more than one in 10 were premature. Among all mothers, 41 percent didn’t receive prenatal services in their first term.

Nichols delivered Loyal, her third, at Hillcrest Medical Center. Last year nearly 3,000 mothers gave birth there, according to Jenny Leach, the director of nursing for women's and children's services. Of Tulsa’s hospitals, Hillcrest has the highest share of mothers enrolled in Medicaid, which is why BEST is targeting expectant mothers there with early-literacy and infant-nurturing kits, and signing them up for home visits after they leave the hospital.

On top of the normal anxieties of an imminent delivery, Nichols has plenty more on her mind. Money, for one. After she goes on unpaid leave from her call-center job at AT&T she can apply for cash welfare, and her monthly food stamps will automatically increase with a third child. Her rent is supported by vouchers. Myracle and Lijah are enrolled at Educare, a GKFF-funded childcare center for low-income families. And when she runs low on baby supplies, she knows how to tap another GKFF-funded charity, Emergency Infant Services.

Still, she frets about making ends meets. So instead of a baby shower, Nichols has a more practical idea. “I’m going to have a diaper party,” she says, a smile playing on her face framed by twists of braided hair. “A diaper party is you have diapers or wipes in hand when you come to this door. You don’t have either, you don’t get to enter.”

Then there’s Lavelle Nichols, her live-in partner and ex-husband. They met when he was in jail in Tulsa, facing a charge of assault. That first visit, set up by a cellmate, turned into a three-hour talk, and she kept going back to see him. “I knew I was going to marry her,” says Lavelle, a former boxer from Little Rock, Ark.

In October 2012, Lavelle was released on probation after serving 16 months of a three-year sentence. The couple married the same day. A year later, Ms. Nichols filed for divorce. “I don’t do too well with abuse,” she says, acidly. Myracle, her daughter, was born in 2015 to another father. Then the couple reunited and together had Lijah, their son. Lavelle has kicked a drug habit and enrolled in a work-training program for former prisoners. 

Earlier this year, Lavelle was forced to suspend a job hunt after he was diagnosed with a hernia. (After the interview, Lavelle's medical procedure was a success.) “I’m more worried about us being able to keep moving forward. But I think we’re going to be OK. I do,” she says.


Ann Hermes/Staff
Mikaleah Moment drops off her daughter R’Myah at Educare on April 5 in Tulsa, Okla.

Like many young girls, Mikaleah Moment watched MTV’s “16 And Pregnant” and thought, no way. “I always used to tell myself, I don’t ever want to be like that,” she says. (Some researchers credit the show for accelerating the national decline in teen pregnancy rates.)

Then in high school she got pregnant with her first daughter, Jo’Nae, who was born in May 2015. At the time, Moment lived with her grandmother, a retired schoolteacher who pushed her to stay in school, not give up on her ambition to be a nurse. Her mother, a diabetic who didn’t work, was in and out of jail. A day before Jo’Nae arrived, Moment’s mother died. A year later, her grandmother also passed.

For Moment, there was no going back. “I feel like I’ve been a ‘little old’ girl since I was about 15 years old. Life’s been hell since then,” says the 18-year-old.

Oklahoma’s high rate of teen pregnancies – second in the nation – is blamed for its failure to graduate more high-school students. Nationally, children born to teen mothers are statistically more likely to become parents at an early age and to underachieve at school.

But Moment bucked the trend. She went back to school and graduated early, something that neither of her parents had done. “I don’t want to be a statistic so therefore I’m going to get up and do something with myself. I’m going to push myself,” she says.

She was able to study because Jo’Nae was enrolled at Educare. At this time, she hooked up with Rande, who wore cowboy boots and went to rodeos, and soon she was pregnant again with R’Myah, who was born last August and also goes to Educare. She’s still with Rande, two years on, but calls their relationship “a bit rocky.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Mikaleah Moment arrives home after work to play with her daughters Jo’Nae (l.), and R’Myah (r.), in her home on April 6 in Tulsa, Okla.

On a recent morning, Moment sat in the front room of her late grandmother’s ranch-style house, checking her phone. Her deep-pink nails tapped on the glass, to her mild irritation. “I wanted them to be long but not this long,” she says. She wore gray sweatpants and a black tank top.

Rande emerges from the bedroom where R’Myah is sleeping to look for his wallet.

“Did you look in our room? Check the car too,” Moment says.

Minutes later, Rande comes back, and says he’s off to cash a check. He tells Moment that R’Myah has woken up in their bed. “All right,” says Moment, not rising from her armchair.  

The front door slams. Moment frowns. “He’s leaving and I got to go to work at 12,” she says. Her nails go to the phone. Tap. Tap. “Oh, he’s coming back. We’re good.”

Moment’s last job was a temporary position in the safety department at a oil refinery. It paid well, but the 12-hour shifts were tough. Now she’s at Family Dollar. It’s part-time, not much money, but enough to pay some bills. (She later quit after a robbery at the store.) Now that she’s turned 18 she wants to start community college and pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.

As a parent, she marvels at the learning environment at Educare compared to the home daycares in her predominantly African-American neighborhood. Jo’Nae knows how to count to 10, her ABCs, her colors. She also knows how to be sassy, and to strike a pose for a camera that Moment recognizes as an imitation of her mother: tongue stuck out, head askance.

“She’s a little me. But I’m just going teach her to do better than me. Don’t do the things that I did. Don’t make the same mistakes. Don’t make the cycle repeat itself. You want the cycle to break,” she says.


Ann Hermes/Staff
Alexis Stephens wakes up her son, Carson, and daughter, Addison, in the morning before she goes to work on April 5 in Tulsa, Okla. Ms. Stephens lives with her children in an apartment that is one of 13 units in a downtown women’s shelter.

This is what home looks like to Alexis Stephens: two airy rooms on the ground floor of a 1920s apartment block, windows thrown open to the breeze. In the back room is the bunk bed that Ms. Stephens shares with Carson, her third-grader, and Addison’s wooden cot.

“My kids love it here. I don’t want to leave,” she says.

The apartment is one of 13 units in a downtown women’s shelter that Stephens moved into a year ago. The previous year, she had been homeless, an addict who couldn’t quit, even when she found out she was pregnant with Addison. At seven months, Stephens was arrested for breaking into her ex-boyfriend’s house and held in jail pending trial.

Addison was born in June 2016, delivered at Hillcrest Medical Center, where Stephens was given 24 hours with her newborn before she was taken away by child services. “I kissed her so many times, over and over. I cried and told her I would come back for her,” she says.

Stephens avoided prison via another GKFF initiative, Women in Recovery, a criminal-justice diversion program for mothers. It’s the reason that she has Addison back and that Carson is living with her. Addison is enrolled at Educare, which allowed Stephens to go back to work. In November, she got hired at a marketing company.

That Kaiser’s philanthropy extends to rehabilitating female inmates speaks to the complexities of tackling child poverty. Oklahoma leads the nation in locking up women. Its swelling prison population of mothers exacerbates the plight of their children and also means that even less money is available for social services. 

Women In Recovery provides housing, therapy, parenting, and career classes to mothers, with an aim of cutting rates of recidivism and reuniting families.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Addison, daughter of Alexis Stephens, points to drawings of her family in a book that deals with her mother's battle with addiction. Her brother Carson created the book with the help of Women in Recovery, a criminal-justice diversion program for mothers supported by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

For Stephens, it allowed her to be a mother to Addison, who spent time in foster care and with the family of her father during Stephens’ trial. She is also working on parenting Carson, who lived with her during her addiction, she says. She wasn't always there for him. “I was depressed. I didn’t want to be awake unless I was high,” she says.

Unlike Addison, who is thriving in her year-round program, Carson never went to preschool, because Stephens was worried that if her habit was found out he might be taken away from her. That fills her with guilt, but she’s determined to make it up to him, to be a good mom.

At a recent dental check-up, Carson was advised to start flossing. But Stephens recognized that telling him sternly to do it – her own mother’s method – might backfire.

“I don’t floss so I didn’t see how I was going to get him to floss. But we found a proactive way to resolve that,” she says.

“I started,” says Carson, a soft-spoken boy with brown hair. “And I made you start.”

Her diversion program ended in March, though she will remain on felony probation for two years. By summer, she’ll have to move out of the shelter and find a place for her family.

On the bookshelves above Addison’s cot, the toddler bedtime reading – “How Dinosaurs Stay Safe” and “Peek-a-boo” – is bracketed by “No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline” and a Narcotics Anonymous handbook.

Former addicts know all too well the risks of relapse. A mother living across the hallway from Stephens was recently sent back to prison. Her toddler son is currently staying with Stephens.

“I feel very confident because I have people I can call if I do run into situations. I’ve really built this life that I’m living from nothing,” says Stephens.


The three moms profiled here all have one important assist: free, high-quality daycare for their kids. That puts them in a minority in Tulsa and across the country, where about half of all toddlers stay at home with their parents. Oklahoma is unusual in that it enrolls nearly three-quarters of its four-year-olds in public pre-K programs, much higher than other states.

But for Kaiser and his BEST team, that classroom experience comes too late for low-income kids, whose cognitive and social-emotional development need a bigger boost. If toddlers can’t attend Educare or another similar center, other programs are needed to guide parents and other caregivers toward the same goal: an early-learning experience that sets them up for school.

To that end, BEST is drilling down on community outreach, from pediatric clinics to social-media campaigns, to promote early literacy. The strategy also calls for partnerships with schools to support learning between kindergarten and third-grade state tests. GKFF will be tracking the results of those as a metric, to see if its strategy is working.

“You need a cumulative effort of multiple programs rather than a single shot. Easier said than done. But that’s what has to happen,” says Steven Dow, the executive director of CAP Tulsa, a nonprofit that runs preschools and other programs for low-income families.


Once a month, the First Baptist Church North Tulsa dishes up free pizza and reading classes for preschoolers. Volunteers hold the “Talk! Sing! Read!” event inside a church annex, a lofty wood-floor gymnasium with basketball hoops set out with 20 trestle tables, most of which were filled on a recent evening by chattering children and their caregivers, mostly working parents.

At one table sits Sara Jackson and her son, Cortez, who is 15 months old. Ms. Jackson is a working mom – but unlike the women profiled above she doesn't get free childcare at a center like Educare. Cortez spends four days a week at a home daycare and Jackson's mother pays half, the only way she could afford to send him, she says. 

Her elder sister runs a daycare, but Cortez never settled there so they moved him to his current place. The first time she dropped him off, Jackson waited outside. “I could hear him on the floor playing and he wasn’t crying,” she says. 

The youngest of six children, Jackson was the only one to graduate high school without having a child. She went on to study photography and graphic design at college, and now works at business-services firm, while making extra as a photographer. She was 31 when she had Cortez, and on paper she's a single mom, though her boyfriend is involved. “We can't afford to get married,” she says. 

For her, First Baptist is home: Her family has attended for decades, and the pastor's wife is a godparent to Cortez. So she's happy to bring him to reading nights, knowing that he'll go home with a book. 

Also on the sidelines, watching closely, was Ms. Pappas, the BEST director, who as head of early childhood education in New York City’s Department of Education helped drive the rapid expansion of public pre-K. She knows that faith leaders like Deacon Darrell Walker, who has gone door to door to get out the word about literacy, can bring in at-risk kids that aren’t in GKFF’s fold. “They’re being reached by trusted members of the community,” she says.

After a blessing and a boisterous chant of L-O-V-E, the children are divided by age for reading groups. Newcomers are directed to a small room where Howard McCondichie, a volunteer at the church, hands out a tote bag with a T-shirt, blanket, and book. “This is a gift from George Kaiser,” he says, as the kids compared T-shirt sizes.

Mr. McCondichie, a retired middle-school teacher, explained to the families how the program worked. He told them that children who can’t read by third grade are statistically more likely to go to prison. He smiled. “Even when you’re in the car with them, sing to them. Read to them,” he says.

Correction: The comments from Howard McCondichie have been updated to reflect that it is children who can't read by third grade, rather than by age three, who are statistically more likely to go to prison.

Honoring Marielle: A Brazilian activist’s killing inspires a youth movement

So often, a bid to silence strong pro-justice sentiment ends up amplifying it instead. Intimidation is meeting with determination in Brazil a month after the killing of Marielle Franco, who had dared to oppose the violent policing of Rio’s favelas.

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Brazilian politician Marielle Franco was a rising star in Brazil’s new left-wing party when she was shot and killed last month. Her death propelled her name – and her work fighting police violence in poor, mostly black communities – onto the world stage. She stood out for a lot of reasons: She grew up in a favela dominated by drug gangs, and she was a young black woman. Despite black Brazilians making up more than half of the population, there is little diversity in political office. For many young, black women, Ms. Franco’s death was a wake-up call. On a recent evening, some 60 aspiring activists and politicians gathered on a college campus to identify ways they could push Franco’s work forward. “Marielle’s death was a bid” to end our work for a more just society, says Taliria Petrone, the event organizer who encouraged Franco to run for office in 2016. “But instead of destroying us, her death has united us” to continue.

Honoring Marielle: A Brazilian activist’s killing inspires a youth movement

Ellis Rua/AP
Councilwoman Marielle Franco smiles for a photo in Rio de Janeiro, Jan. 9, 2018. Franco was fatally shot March 14 while returning from an event focused on empowering young black women. Her death touched a nerve in Brazil, where more than 50 percent identify as black or mixed-race, yet most politicians are white men.

When Rio de Janeiro’s city councilwoman and human rights activist Marielle Franco was assassinated after a political event last month, Carla Duarte, a university student and aspiring politician here, felt whiplashed.

First came the tears, for hours straight, she recalls – and then the fear.

“I’ve always been involved in local politics,” says Ms. Duarte. But Franco’s death made her “realize my life could be on the line if I decided to make a career out of complaining loudly” about problems in her community.

Franco described herself as a “woman, black mother, lesbian, and child of the Maré favela [slum],” and for many she was a symbol of hope: Someone carving out a passionate career focused on giving voice to Brazil’s silenced. On March 14, Franco was fatally shot alongside her driver following a public event called “Black women changing power structures.” One month later, authorities have yet to make arrests for her murder.

But, on a recent Wednesday night, Ms. Duarte says she’s started to feel a new emotion following Franco’s death: hope.

She joined roughly 60 other women like her and Franco – Afro-Brazilian, from poor neighborhoods, and aspiring to make a change in Brazilian society via politics – to strategize ways to carry forward Franco’s legacy as a fierce critic of police violence and institutionalized discrimination against the poor.

“I need to keep going because this is exactly what those who killed Marielle would want me to be,” says Duarte. They want her to feel “frightened of making a difference and unprepared to lead the fight in my community” against poor health services and public education, she says.

More than half of Brazil’s 200 million people are black or mixed-race, yet only a small percentage of politicians are Afro-Brazilian, according to a forthcoming study published by the University of São Paulo and focused specifically on that state. “We have a minority solving the problems of the majority,” says Osmar Teixeira Gaspar, a human rights lawyer and study author.

In the midst of persistently high violence that largely affects poor and black Brazilians, those like Duarte who were rocked by Franco’s death are now working to ensure her legacy is continued, from mentorship by established politicians to fighting to ensure Franco’s murder is solved.

“Marielle’s death was a bid to blow up our path to a more egalitarian society,” says Talíria Petrone, a city councilor in Niterói, a Rio suburb, and friend of Franco’s.

“But instead of destroying us, her death has united us, strengthened and inspired us to continue. She … challenged the status quo.”

Honoring Franco through action

Franco grew up in the Rio favela known as Maré Complex, a violent community dominated by drug traffickers. The young politician rose quickly to become a leading voice in the black rights movement, and a thorn in the side of opposing politicians. She refused to shy away from publicly denouncing violence by military police against poor, black Brazilians.

Many here had never heard of Franco before her death. But her murder has come to symbolize the impunity, violence, racism – and desire for opportunity and change – that have enveloped South America’s largest nation. Her assassination was decried by governments and citizens across the world, with Brazil’s prosecutor general calling it an attack on democracy.

April 14 marks the one-month anniversary. Supporters are frustrated that the investigation has made little progress other than the recent revelation that there could be fragments of fingerprints on the bullet casings collected at the crime scene.

Anger around Franco’s death spills over into tonight’s meeting in Niterói. Some participants cry, while others punch the air with their fists. “Marielle is here, now and forever,” several women call out in unison.

“Marielle was my friend, my sister, and my confidante,” says Ms. Petrone, the event’s organizer, who arrives with a burly armed guard. Like Franco, she’s received death threats since taking office in 2016.

Petrone, a former history teacher, was elected at the same time as Franco, on a platform that promised to tackle a host of social problems including violence against women, racial discrimination, and intolerance of the LGBT community.

Franco “understood what it was like to be a black female in a white-male dominated council chamber,” Petrone says. She suffered “explicit racism and realized some of these men still see us as black slaves with no right to enter their sphere of power.”

Tonight’s meeting is meant to be the first of many, aimed at galvanizing attendees to fight against social inequalities.

Brazil is in the midst of a historic economic and political crisis that’s seen top politicians fall and a sitting president impeached. Unemployment averaged at 12.7 percent in 2017 and violence is climbing, with poor, black Brazilians the hardest hit.

Data released last October by the Brazilian Forum on Public Security shows that 4,224 people were killed in Brazil following police interventions in 2016. Almost all of the victims were male; 76.2 percent of them were black and less than 30 years old.

In Rio state, nearly 160 people were killed in clashes with police in January alone, a 57 percent increase from 2017. The police offensives that have defined favela life for decades are once again on the upswing. A recent decision to introduce the military in Rio to combat gang violence has made little headway, some observers say.

Franco was strident in denouncing military intervention, which is now in its second month.

“I have to honor Marielle’s death and continue what she started so the difference she made is not in vain,” says participant Duarte, whose mother is black and father white. She blames the violence she has personally experienced in low-income areas – mugged five times and once at gunpoint – on economic inequalities and lack of opportunities.

Some 54 percent of Brazilians identify as black and mixed-race, but Dr. Teixeira, the human rights lawyer, found that between 2014-2017 only 4.2 percent of elected politicians in the São Paulo legislature were black.

“São Paulo was the center of my research, [but] the national reality isn’t far off,” he says. “A significant number of black candidates do not have the wherewithal, the education, the financial and material structure, and the support to enter and sustain themselves in” a political race.

Some, like Teixeira, propose quota systems to overcome the low representation of black Brazilians in politics. But Petrone believes fighting from the ground up to prepare politicians for the realities of politics is the only way forward.

“My role has taken on [a new] urgency,” says Petrone of her desire to help mentor others like Franco. She remembers persuading Franco, whom she knew for more than eight years, to run for office over coffee in 2016. She wants to share some of that same encouragement with the next generation of Francos here tonight.

“I’m opening my offices so [these women] can shadow my work, inviting them into the council chamber to watch the process, giving them one-on-one pep talks on what they need to do to enter the political process,” she says.

I’m “listening to their fears and [trying to give] them the courage and self-belief that they can do it. Just like me. Just like Marielle.”


A Washington-watcher’s top 5 political tell-alls

The political book that’s been creating so much buzz is the latest in a long line of revealing works by (and about) powerful D.C. figures. Here’s a look at a controversial genre that can often get beyond "color" to deliver real insight.

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Next week, Americans will get a better sense of what happened between James Comey, the former FBI head, and the man who fired him, President Trump. Mr. Comey’s book, “A Higher Loyalty,” will join others in the popular “tell-all” genre, which features offerings from unhappy ex-officials in Washington. If a copy of Comey’s book proves elusive – its preorders suggest brisk sales – there are alternatives to bide your time. One is “Hacks,” by Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic Party official and strategist. Her colorful memoir, published last November, alleged among other things that the 2016 Democratic primary process was “rigged” for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Another choice is “Blind Ambition,” by John Dean. First published in 1976, it is the model for a memoir by an angry or repentant former political official. Mr. Dean was President Nixon’s White House counsel. He plumbs his own faults: ambition, hunger for power, a tendency to fawn. Eventually, the holes in principle became apparent to him, as did the holes in his boss. “The power fix, the high which I had pursued all my adult life, was wearing off,” Dean wrote. “I was coming down.” 

A Washington-watcher’s top 5 political tell-alls

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Then-FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 3, 2017. Comey is blasting President Trump as unethical and "untethered to truth" and his leadership of the country as "ego driven and about personal loyalty." Comey's comments come in a new book in which he casts Trump as a mafia boss-like figure who sought to blur the line between law enforcement and politics, and tried to pressure him regarding the investigation into Russian election interference.

Former FBI Director James Comey’s new memoir “A Higher Loyalty” goes on sale early next week. Some copies have leaked out early and bits are appearing in the news: Mr. Comey compares President Trump to a “mob boss” (though he does not directly accuse Mr. Trump of any actual crime), and he accuses Trump of being unethical and “untethered to truth.”

He also says the president is shorter than he expected – unsurprising in context, since Comey himself is an inch taller than ex-NBA great Michael Jordan.

The book’s assured of being a financial success: It’s been on Amazon’s best-seller list for a month due to pre-orders alone. In large part, this is because Americans appear pretty interested in what happened between the ex-FBI chief and his boss that caused the latter to fire the former.

It’s also due to the fact that Washington tell-all books by unhappy ex-officials are a popular genre. Who doesn’t like a little dish of inside Washington dirt?

Since the first shipping of Comey’s books might disappear quickly, here’s a list of DC memoir classics readers can use to pass the time until Amazon restocks. Some are famous; some are personal favorites. We’ll start with a Comey connection – a book by the person who’s interviewing him on ABC Sunday night in his first big television reveal.

“All Too Human,” by George Stephanopoulos. Yes, before he was a network star, George Stephanopoulos was an ambitious, hard-working top aide in the Clinton White House.

He resigned shortly after President Bill Clinton won reelection in 1996 and wrote this book, which is definitely not a whitewash of his White House years. It contains unflattering descriptions of both the president and First Lady Hillary Clinton. Both had volcanic tempers, Mr. Stephanopoulos wrote. And Bill, obviously, risked his presidency for a dalliance with an intern.

Stephanopoulos wrote that he felt like a “dupe” when he learned the truth about Mr. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

“For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington,” by Don Regan. Don Regan was an affable yet aggressive former Merrill Lynch chief executive who served President Ronald Reagan as Secretary of the Treasury and then White House Chief of Staff.

In the latter job he was, if anything, too forceful. Eventually he resigned in 1987, in part due to complaints that he was acting too much as a prime minister to a detached president. His chief bureaucratic enemy was First Lady Nancy Reagan, and in his memoir, published while Mr. Reagan was still in office, Regan took revenge. He revealed that Mrs. Reagan relied on an astrologer to aid in key decisions, including the timing of medical procedures for the president, responses to the Iran-Contra affair, and when he, Don Regan, should be fired.

“I learned that you can be thrown to the wolves any minute,” he wrote.

“The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed,” by David Stockman. In its day, this book was as anticipated as Comey’s. Well, almost as much, since its theme is fiscal policy as opposed to White House morality. David Stockman was a conservative young member of Congress picked to serve as President Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget director.

In his first year in office he spoke at length to an Atlantic reporter – perhaps too much at length, and too freely. The resultant story revealed that nobody in the White House really knew what would happen with the so-called “supply side” Reagan revolution, which counted on tax cuts to actually increase revenue.

“None of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers,” was the key quote. “The Triumph of Politics” is Mr. Stockman’s own 1986 explication on this subject. It popularized “rosy scenario,” “magic asterisk,” and other phrases used to explain how the White House tried to cover up bad numbers.

Bonus points: it has scenes in which the military budget is explained to the president by using cartoons.

“Hacks,” by Donna Brazile. Donna Brazile is a veteran Democratic Party official and strategist who served as acting chairman of the Democratic National Committee from July 2016 until February 2017.

Her colorful memoir, published last November, alleged among other things that the 2016 Democratic primary process was “rigged” for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. This produced a presidential tweet from Trump: “The real story on Collusion is in Donna B’s new book. Crooked Hillary bought the DNC & then stole the Democratic Primary from Crazy Bernie!”

The whole thing produced an uproar among many Democrats, particularly Bernie supporters; Ms. Brazile has since walked back the claim somewhat, saying she saw no evidence actual primary elections were manipulated.

“Blind Ambition,” by John Dean. First published in 1976, this is the classic, the urtext, the model for a memoir by an angry or repentant former political official.

For the youngsters out there, John Dean was President Richard Nixon’s White House counsel. At first he helped organize important parts of the Watergate cover-up. But he grew to regret the conspiracy, famously told Mr. Nixon that the cover-up was a “cancer on the presidency” that needed to be excised, and testified fully before the Senate Watergate Committee before serving time in prison.

This book today is less an explanation of Watergate itself than an unsparing self-examination. Mr. Dean plumbs his own faults: ambition, hunger for power, a tendency to fawn. At first he was proud that he was the person the president had turned to when a big, dirty job needed to be done. But then the holes in principle became apparent, as did the holes in his boss.

“The power fix, the high which I had pursued all my adult life, was wearing off. I was coming down,” Dean wrote.

Those are words many people in today’s Washington would do well to heed.

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War in Syria. Gloom over Iran. Can Iraq provide hope?

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Those focused on the region’s conflicts may be missing a peaceful counternarrative in the Middle East. Iraq will hold free national elections May 12. And what really stands out is that the vote has become a showcase for Iraq’s steady progress in overcoming religious and ethnic divides since the 2003 American invasion. Already a covert attempt by Iran to corral Iraq’s majority Shiite community into a strictly sectarian political coalition – one that would exclude minority Sunnis and Kurds – has failed. Leading Shiite figures are running on platforms that emphasize national unity. And in a clear sign of democratic health, nearly 7,000 candidates are running for 329 seats. Iraq is still hardly a model democracy after nearly 15 years of elections. The political haggling after this vote may be difficult. Still, with a Middle East so unsettled by religion-based rivalries, Iraq’s small steps in forming an inclusive identity need to be welcomed.

War in Syria. Gloom over Iran. Can Iraq provide hope?

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A worker prepares election banners in Baghdad, Iraq. Nearly 7,000 candidates eager to shape the country's future have begun campaigning for 329 seats in the May 12 parliamentary elections.

As Western leaders debate when to strike Syria over its use of chemical weapons and wonder if Iran deserves more sanctions against its nuclear threat, they may be missing a peaceful counternarrative in the Middle East – one that still needs support.

Oddly enough, Iraq, the country that lies between Iran and Syria, is about to hold free national elections on May 12. And what really stands out is that the vote has become a showcase for Iraq’s steady progress in overcoming religious and ethnic divides since the 2003 American invasion.

Official campaigning for the election of a new parliament kicks off April 14. But even before that, a covert attempt by Iran to corral Iraq’s majority Shiite community into a strictly sectarian political coalition – one that would exclude minority Sunnis and Kurds – has failed. Leading Shiite figures, such as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are running on platforms that emphasize national unity and a struggle against endemic corruption.

A public mood to reinforce an Iraqi identity over the country’s normal fault lines is easy to understand. Last year, the nation’s military triumphed over Islamic State militants who had taken over a third of the country in 2014. Also last year, a vote in the Kurdish region for independence failed. Young people are fed up with corruption, forcing politicians to claim they can curb it. And the country has enjoyed unusual economic growth and a greater flow of abundant oil exports.

In a clear sign of democratic health, nearly 7,000 candidates are running for 329 seats. Many candidates reflect a popular resentment against Iran’s meddling in Iraq, which is driven by Tehran’s desire for a land bridge through Syria and to the coast of Lebanon.

At a deeper level, many Iraqis accept the ideas of a leading Shiite theologian, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who disagrees with Iran’s model of governance. A cleric himself, he says clerics should not run secular affairs, especially in a diverse society where citizens are treated equally.

Iraq is still hardly a model democracy after nearly 15 years of elections. The political haggling after this vote may be difficult. One underlying issue: whether a new government will demand American forces to leave. Such a request is unlikely, as the United States still provides massive aid to Iraq.

Still, with a Middle East so unsettled by religion-based rivalries, Iraq’s small steps in forming an inclusive identity need to be welcomed.

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.

Meekness and the ‘elephant walk’

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Today’s column considers where true strength lies.

Meekness and the ‘elephant walk’

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

One summer Sunday at dusk a number of years ago, my wife Judi and I were walking back to our downtown hotel from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The shadows were deepening. We were alone except for a noisy group of men clustered about a park bench at the next corner. As we approached, we saw they were vagrants sharing a bottle in a brown paper bag. They were loudly arguing over who was the toughest among them.

Judi’s hand squeezed mine. I was suddenly aware of how meek, how vulnerable I must have looked in my walking shorts and flowered shirt. A man on the park bench pointed at me. In a mocking tone he told one of the other men in the group, “If you’re so tough, let’s see you beat up this guy!” The challenged man turned, his lips curled in anger. He took a step toward me.

My response was meek, but it wasn’t vulnerable. The idea “God is Love!” flooded my thought like a mental shout, calming my fear, and it was followed by the recognition, gained from my study of Christian Science, that God is the only real power. I looked at the man directly and smiled, striving to see him as I knew God saw him, not as an angry drunk with a raised fist, but as the spiritual child of God, created to express goodness.

As I saw him in this spiritual light, the man’s face softened. He stepped back to let us pass, making a theatrical bow. As we walked by, I was tempted to look back to see if we were being followed. But the thought quickly came that there was nothing to fear, and that proved to be so.

I had learned about the might of meekness over a period of many years. When I was a boy, Christ Jesus’ promise about the meek inheriting the earth (see Matthew 5:5) seemed dumb to me. The way I saw it, the strong and bold had all the power.

Turn the other cheek? In the world I knew, meekness wouldn’t help you survive, much less succeed. The schoolyard bullies who tried to take my bike or lunch money certainly weren’t meek. So I began lifting weights in the garage, determined that no one would kick sand in my face.

But step by step I came to see that real strength isn’t in muscles or aggressive behavior. I like to think of elephants, which are powerful and yet are known as the “gentle giants” of the jungle. The placid pachyderms have no natural enemies.

The Bible teaches there is strength and comfort in meekness. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). The Bible contains plenty of examples of protection from harm and deliverance from disease as well as lack. King David wrote: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalms 27:1). Jesus demonstrated God’s power in many ways. At his word, storms subsided, food became plentiful, and there were spectacular healings. Yet this most powerful of men was so meek; he never harmed anyone.

This points to a different way of looking at real strength – not as based in physical brawn, but as spiritual. Each of us inherently has this spiritual strength because we are the children of God reflecting the limitless power of God, divine Love, who is all good. In her seminal text, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, said: “Man is idea, the image, of Love; he is not physique” (p. 475). “Man” here refers to everyone. Whether we are male or female, divine protection has nothing to do with learning to wield one’s fists. God’s love for us protects and purifies.

As the Bible says, “The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty” (Zephaniah 3:17). Like those “gentle giants” in the jungle, it’s possible and natural to exist and even thrive in meekness and harmony.

Other version​s​ of this article ran in the May 28, 2012, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel​, and in the Christian Science Perspective column on August 30, 2011.


Don’t ask why

Stephane Mahe/Reuters
A hen crossed the road as protesters stood by a barricade near Nantes, France, April 13. The government’s clearing of a squatters’ camp there, at the site of an abandoned airport, had touched off clashes. A number of mostly unconnected strikes and protests have flared in France – at the national railroad over job guarantees, at Air France over pay, and among students and retirees over application processes and pension deductions, respectively. This year's protest season coincides with the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the widespread uprisings of May 1968.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Thanks, as always, for being here. We’re building our lineups for next week. Come back Monday for Ned Temko’s take on why the world must refuse to let “a new barbarianism” – the deliberate targeting of civilians and even medical personnel – become the new normal in conflict zones. After that, we’ll have Taylor Luck’s look at democracy’s success, despite growing pains, in Tunisia.

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