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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

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

2018
April
16
Monday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Few years in modern history cast as long a shadow as does 1968.

The United States endured assassinations and a political convention turned violent. The antiwar and civil rights movements clenched their fists. Europe saw the Prague Spring and French rioting.

Over the weekend Britain revisited a major political speech given that year – 50 years ago this week – by Enoch Powell, a Conservative member of Parliament. It heaped scorn on racial integration. It went much further. Called the “rivers of blood” speech, it rippled fast and far, stirring fear of immigrants, raising the specter of the British-born seeing “their homes and neighborhoods changed beyond recognition.”

Voiced by a British actor, it was broadcast Saturday by the BBC show Archive on 4. The stated aim: journalistic analysis and a chance to examine and educate about an important moment in British political history. But as it approached, it stirred deep debate.

Some were outraged. Why deepen the divisiveness – the anger at “the other” that’s on stark display in Europe and the US today? Some advanced another view: that the dissection of hateful oratory can help spread the sort of cleansing light that’s inspiring such acts of resistance as the massive pushback rallies in Hungary.

That kind of tense introspection also followed a New York Times piece about a modern-day Nazi sympathizer in Ohio last year. It has attended conversations in Germany over whether to bury parts of its past.

One modern take on Powell comes from BBC media editor Amol Rajan. Born to immigrant parents and raised in South London, he was a panelist on Saturday’s broadcast. “It’s impossible not to feel that the intemperance of [Powell’s] language,” he said, “set back the very cause that he was espousing.”

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Now to our five stories for your Monday, highlighting guardrails in politics and war; youth-driven change in Kansas and India; and a celebration of galactic discovery.

1. Question around Trump: What constitutes obstruction of justice?

The very public nature of the fight between the US president and the former head of the FBI could complicate their dispute from a legal standpoint. As this piece points out, it also masks a deeper dispute: about how much authority the Constitution grants presidents around overseeing law enforcement and prosecutions.

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It is no secret that former FBI Director James Comey and President Trump have been waging a war of words against each other. At the heart of the dispute is a request in February 2017 by Mr. Trump that Mr. Comey consider backing off an investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. After Comey refused and declined to take other actions to lift a “cloud” over the Trump presidency, Comey was fired. Trump critics see the presidential requests and firing as evidence of obstruction of justice. Comey’s personal testimony could play a central role if Trump should face an impeachment trial. Yet what exactly would constitute obstruction of justice by a president? Where some legal scholars say actions like Trump’s firing of Comey may amount to obstruction, others say the nation’s chief executive has wide latitude on such decisions. Saikrishna Prakash at the University of Virginia says a president might even be able to issue a pardon for himself. Even that, though, wouldn’t mean an escape from accountability. Mr. Prakash says: “The pardon power doesn’t extend to impeachment.”

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Question around Trump: What constitutes obstruction of justice?

During his career, James Comey has served as a federal prosecutor, senior Justice Department official, corporate lawyer, and FBI director. With the release of his memoir on Tuesday, he is about to become a bestselling author.

But Mr. Comey’s most significant role may be yet to come.

If special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation proceeds as many Trump critics are hoping, Comey could eventually emerge as the star witness at a congressional trial to possibly impeach President Trump for alleged obstruction of justice.

That goes a long way to explain why Comey is under such vicious attack on Twitter and elsewhere by the president and his supporters.

“Slippery James Comey… will go down as the WORST FBI director in history, by far,” Mr. Trump tweeted on Sunday.

In his book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” Comey calls the president “unethical and untethered to the truth” and compares Trump to a mob boss obsessed with personal loyalty.

In an ABC News interview on Sunday night, Comey went further, saying he believes it is at least possible the president has been compromised by the Russians.

Significantly, he also said he thinks Trump may have engaged in obstruction of justice when he asked Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

“It’s certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice,” Comey told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

Ironically, legal experts say Comey’s book and associated national media blitz could wind up harming any potential impeachment case against the president, if, for example, discrepancies are found in the former FBI director’s recounting of events. And Comey’s broader attacks on Trump’s character could undermine his credibility as an impartial law enforcer.

“When you have witnesses going out into public and telling their stories, all kinds of things can happen,” says Bill Yeomans, a legal scholar at the Washington-based advocacy group, Alliance for Justice. “Comey has every right to write his book…. But the timing is terrible.”

But an obstruction of justice case against the president was never likely to be straightforward, anyway – for the simple reason that it is still a matter of significant debate among legal scholars as to how much authority the Constitution grants presidents when it comes to overseeing law enforcement and prosecutions.    

Often a key to impeachment trials

Obstruction of justice is no small matter. It formed the core of impeachment efforts against former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

At the heart of Trump’s alleged obstruction is a private meeting in the Oval Office between the president and then-FBI director Comey.

It was Feb. 14, 2017. Trump was three weeks into his presidency, and already Mr. Flynn, his national security adviser, had been forced out over allegations that he lied about a conversation with the Russian ambassador.

Flynn hadn’t just lost his job. He was now also under investigation by the FBI.

In his ABC interview, Comey said he suspected something improper was about to happen when Trump asked Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to leave the room to allow Trump and Comey to speak privately.

Once Trump and the FBI director were alone, the president made an unusual request. “[Flynn's] a good guy, the president said, according to Comey. “I hope you can let it go.”

Comey says he was so alarmed by the exchange that afterward he drafted a memo to himself to create a paper trail. “I am recording it… because the conversation will likely come back some day and [the president] may well lie about it,” Comey said in the ABC News interview. “I need to remember exactly what was said there. It could be evidence of a crime.”

Trump critics say that in addition to the Flynn request, the president has undertaken a series of questionable actions that create what they see as a mosaic of presidential obstruction. They cite a request by Trump that the national intelligence director and CIA director intervene with Comey to convince him to stop the Flynn investigation. (There is no indication they acted on this request.)

They note that Trump continued to press Comey, asking him to help lift a “cloud” over his administration. And that after Comey took no action, the president fired him on May 9, 2017.

In a meeting with the Russian foreign minister and a subsequent television interview, they say, Trump mentioned the Russia investigation as playing a role in his decision to fire Comey.

The president is also reported to have come close to firing Mueller in June and December 2017 but eventually backed down, according to The New York Times.

More recently, news outlets have reported that Trump is considering firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. It was Mr. Rosenstein who appointed Mueller as special counsel, and Rosenstein who has authorized Mueller’s widening investigative authority.

Trump maintains the Trump-Russia investigation is a politically motivated “witch hunt” that is undercutting his authority as president and the effectiveness of his administration.

An unresolved legal question

But behind the looming showdown between the president and the special counsel lurks a surprisingly unresolved legal question: What exactly constitutes obstruction of justice by a president?

It is a source of debate within the legal community, and there are a wide range of opinions. But it has never been fully litigated in the courts.

At issue isn’t whether a president can be held accountable for obstructing justice. The short answer to that question is that he can. The accepted method to do so is impeachment by Congress.

What remains unclear is whether a president can be said to be obstructing justice if the actions in question are in accord with powers granted to the president under the Constitution.

This is where many legal analysts diverge.

Some believe that any action by a president that undercuts an investigation, if undertaken with a corrupt motive to undermine that investigation, would constitute obstruction of justice. If that wasn’t so, they argue, the president would be holding himself above the law and would violate his oath to faithfully execute the laws.

“It is a difficult issue because we are dealing with a president exercising his presidential authority,” says Mr. Yeomans of Alliance for Justice. “But I am thoroughly convinced that there is enough evidence even in the public domain to make out obstruction of justice.”

Trump’s actions are more blatant than those of former President Richard Nixon, who resigned amid the Watergate scandal, says Yeomans, a former Justice Department official and former law professor.

“We have Trump saying over and over in public that what he is trying to do is impede the investigation,” he says. “I don’t think there is any lack of evidence.”

Others embrace a broader concept of presidential authority. The Constitution authorizes the president, as the nation’s sole chief executive, to do certain things – such as wield a veto, grant a pardon, appoint certain officials, and fire certain officials.

Under this view, Trump’s firing of Comey – or potential firing of Mueller or Rosenstein – would not constitute an abuse of power or obstruction of justice, however ill-advised it might be from a political perspective.

Trump’s actions in the Flynn episode are not inconsistent with actions routinely taken by presidents during the founding generation, says Saikrishna Prakash, a constitutional scholar and law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. “Early presidents intervened in prosecutions all the time,” he says. “Washington, Adams, and Jefferson basically wrote letters to prosecutors telling them to start and stop cases.”

“Their view was that we are the chief executive. We decide when the laws ought to be enforced and when they ought not to,” Professor Prakash says.

Modern presidents generally don’t exert such hands-on control over day-to-day law enforcement. But under this view, as the nation’s sole chief executive, they could.

In fact, Prakash argues the president’s authority extends well beyond the power to direct prosecutions and fire officials. He says it might even enable a president to issue a pardon for himself.

Yet even if Trump were to pardon himself, it wouldn’t mean necessarily that he’d escape accountability.  “The pardon power doesn’t extend to impeachment,” Prakash notes.

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Patterns

Tracing global connections

2. Why West, amid horrors of modern war, struggles with red lines

How do you decide where to set limits when it comes to barbarity in war? Airstrikes on hospitals – let alone chemical weapons use – are sharply raising the stakes for that discussion. 

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The war in Syria has repeatedly confronted Western democracies with a challenge: How to find the political will to impose limits on the systematic targeting of noncombatant men, women, and children. The recent refusal of former Prime Minister Tony Blair to be interviewed on the subject of Eastern Ghouta is telling. His advocacy helped lead the United Nations to endorse an international “responsibility to protect” civilians. But his support for the war in Iraq, begun in part on that principle, tarnished his legacy. A recent documentary, “The New Barbarianism,” lays bare how the particular horror of chemical weapons is part of a broader assault on civilians. Producer Stephen Morrison has no illusions about a return to an earlier humanitarian assertiveness. But, he says, the world must refuse to let the attacks on humanitarian standards and international law become the new normal. Director Justin Kenny highlighted the need to “ring the alarm bells,” and to showcase the work of those who document attacks on aid workers. Said David Miliband, now head of the International Rescue Committee: “If you look at the facts, you get depressed. If you look at the people, you have hope.”

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Why West, amid horrors of modern war, struggles with red lines

A “red line” against the gassing of civilians has been drawn. Again.

Yet in the wake of the US-led missile strike on Syria, two powerful testimonies – a new documentary and a revealing email from a former British prime minister – underscore how profoundly the ways of war have changed and the challenge that poses Western democracies. Namely, to find a way, or the political will, to set limits on the systematic targeting of noncombatant men, women and children.

The film is called The New Barbarianism, and was made by former PBS NewsHour foreign editor Justin Kenny in partnership with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. It lays bare the extent to which civilians are being attacked, and how the particular horror of chemical weapons attacks is part of a broader assault on civilian populations that has received far less international attention. The film focuses on a campaign of attacks against hospitals and medical facilities, doctors and international relief workers, in violation of a seven-decade-old protection for humanitarian assistance under the Geneva Conventions.

The email comes from the office of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom I’ve covered as a London-based journalist for nearly 20 years. It was in reply to a request a month ago to discuss the siege by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers on Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus – the assault that culminated in the recent chemical strike in Douma. Mr. Blair was a leading voice in the late 1990s for a new definition of international security that would embrace a duty to respond militarily, if all else failed, to humanitarian crises like the ethnic cleansing then under way in the Balkans. The case he made eventually helped lead to the UN’s endorsement in 2005 of the principle of an international “responsibility to protect” civilians.

Yet the reply to my request, from Blair’s press aide, said: “Tony feels this doesn’t really fit in with what he is focusing on at the moment.” I doubt his belief in the principles he put forward has weakened. Yet I’m also pretty sure why he is reluctant to talk about them publicly nowadays: the Iraq War of 2003, a conflict begun in part on the basis of a “responsibility to protect” but which ended up tarnishing not only that principle but Blair’s own reputation and legacy.

When President Barack Obama’s first “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria was crossed in 2013, the effect of Iraq loomed large. Britain’s then prime minister, David Cameron, favored joining the US and France in a targeted response to Mr. Assad’s horrifying attack on his own people. But the House of Commons told Cameron no, all but ensuring that Mr. Obama, too, retreated from acting. The Commons debate ended up being far less about Assad’s use of chemical weapons than about purported parallels to the war in Iraq.

UK Parliament/Reuters
Britain's then prime minister, David Cameron, is seen addressing the House of Commons in this image taken from video in August 2013 amid debate over military action against Syria to punish and deter it from chemical weapons use.

It’s impossible to know whether a more forceful Western response to that earlier atrocity might have prevented further chemical weapons attacks. Assad’s position was far weaker then. Russia’s military intervention was a couple of years away. Yet both Assad and Russian President Putin now know that – despite the latest cruise-missile retaliation, or President Trump’s similar response to a chemical attack a year ago – the prospect of any concerted, lasting Western military response to such atrocities has become vanishingly small.

So what, then, is to be done about the broader pattern of attacking civilians and the humanitarian workers trying to protect them?

Stephen Morrison, who as head of CSIS’s Global Health produced and co-directed the new documentary, has no illusions about a return of the humanitarian assertiveness advocated in the late 1990s. This is not just due to Iraq, but because of NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011, responding to what seemed an impending massacre of civilians in the east of the country. As Mr. Morrison puts it: “We jumped in with some sort of responsibility-to-protect logic, and we created havoc, and we walked away.”

The immediate imperative now, he argues, is to refuse to let the growing assault on humanitarian standards and international law go unnoticed: the attacks by Assad and the Russians in Syria, whether with gas or deadly barrel bombs; by both sides in the ongoing war in Yemen; and in nearly two dozen other conflicts worldwide. The danger is that the deliberate targeting of civilians and those seeking to help them will become accepted as a kind of new normal.

Courtesy of CSIS GHPC
CCTV footage of Dr. Wassim Moaz, one of the last pediatricians in Aleppo, Syria, moments before he was killed in an airstrike as seen in 'The New Barbarianism.'

The film could play a part in preventing this, by focusing on what Mr. Kenny calls the “deliberate, wholesale erosion of humanitarian law” and by “giving a face and a voice to the people on the ground.” Kenny, too, is skeptical about the chances of a concerted international initiative to remedy the situation any time soon. But, he insists: “It’s not too late.” And in making the film, he says, he became convinced of the need “to start ringing the alarm bells.”

Equally important are the NGOs, diplomats, international law experts, and humanitarian workers whose work the film highlights: groups like the World Health Organization and Physicians for Human Rights, which have increasingly been documenting the attacks on medical and aid workers; Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders); or newer organizations like the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). A group of doctors of Syrian descent, they initially figured on trying to help in whatever small way they could. They’ve ended up risking their lives to provide medical care under conditions of enormous hardship, while publicizing the systematic assault by Assad’s army and Russian forces on the civilians they’ve been desperately trying to care for.

David Miliband was a top policy aide to Blair in Downing Street and later Britain’s foreign secretary. Now, he heads the International Rescue Committee in New York. Commenting on the attacks on groups like SAMS, and on his own teams in the field, he says: “If you look at the facts, you get depressed. If you look at the people, you have hope.”

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3. Class president? No, these Kansas teens are running for governor.

“Every generation,” Paul Simon wrote, “throws a hero up the pop charts.” He might have been singing about political resisters. Or he might have had in mind youths like the ones in this next piece, earnest believers – though not without critics – in change from the inside.

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Feel the Berg! Jack Bergeson, a garrulous 17-year-old, is running for Kansas governor on a Bernie Sanders-esque platform after becoming disillusioned with Republican politics in the state – and discovering that there was no minimum age requirement to run for its top office. His comrade and foil in this quest is Tyler Ruzich, who calls himself a proud Republican but challenges traditional GOP stances on guns, LGBT issues, and more. While Mr. Bergeson and Mr. Ruzich are opponents, they have a good deal in common: Both tout bipartisanship and reject what they see as tired political posturing. Above all, they share a desire to engage their generation in changing America’s unhealthy political environment. “Somebody has to step up,” says Ruzich, perched on a Starbucks stool and swinging his legs. “I don’t think the adults are working together that well.” While the state’s Democratic Party has embraced Bergeson, the state GOP has banned teen candidates from participating in debates. But Ruzich is unswayed. “Whether I’m invited or not … I’m going to be there,” he vows. “I deserve to be in the same room.”

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Class president? No, these Kansas teens are running for governor.

Jack Bergeson, the garrulous 17-year-old Democrat running for Kansas governor, hadn’t even bothered to put his phone number on his campaign website until recently – because everyone already seemed to have it.

“National networks all have my stuff,” says the young Mr. Bergeson, nibbling on a few fries at his parents’ Wichita burger joint. “They can get ahold of me if they want.”

It’s a Saturday, and he has been up since 4:30 a.m., when he headed to Kansas City for a CNN interview – only to be displaced at the last minute by the latest Trump drama. “They’re going to reschedule me, hopefully. I don’t know when. But they said they would.”

At least five other teenagers, and, briefly, a dog named Angus, have followed Bergeson’s lead since he discovered one Sunday afternoon two years ago that Kansas has no minimum age requirement – actually, no requirements at all – for gubernatorial candidates. A predictable flood of media attention has followed, something Bergeson, like many other teens who’ve entered the political spotlight of late, is handling with remarkable cogency and the self-assurance of youth – if at times an understandable touch of naiveté.

A former Mitt Romney supporter, Bergeson says he became disillusioned with Republican politics under former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, whose drastic tax-cutting experiment sparked a revolt even within the state GOP. So, Bergeson now champions Bernie Sanders (one of his slogans is “Feel the Berg!”), and has designed a campaign platform that includes universal health care, raising the minimum wage to $12, and legalizing marijuana, which he says could help restore state budgets.

His comrade and foil in this quest for the statehouse is Republican candidate Tyler Ruzich, a high schooler from the Kansas City area who works part-time at the local Hy-Vee grocery store. Mr. Ruzich, like many young people, is not afraid to challenge traditional GOP stances; he supports LGBTQ rights, advocates reining in the National Rifle Association, and criticizes his party for using the “euphemism” of voter ID to engage in voter suppression.

While Bergeson and Ruzich are technically opponents, they have a good deal in common: both believe in bipartisanship, reject what they see as tired political posturing, and share a desire to engage their generation in changing America’s unhealthy political environment.

“Somebody has to step up,” says Ruzich, perched on a Starbucks bar stool and swinging his legs. “I don’t think the adults are working together that well.”

Christa Case Bryant/Staff
Tyler Ruzich – "rhymes with music," he says with a smile – decided to run for governor of Kansas as a Republican after Democratic teen candidate Jack Bergeson encouraged him to make the youth movement bipartisan. He is 17, but will be eligible to vote in time for the 2018 elections in November.

How it all began

As Bergeson tells it, his involvement in politics started years ago, when as a freshman he got hooked on an “insanely nerdy” mock government on the old Instagram app called “Two Parties, One Nation.” Every Saturday was Election Day.

“I ran for president every time and never got any votes,” he admits, noting that the participants tended to lean Republican (not unlike Kansans). He did however, run the Chicago Transit Authority and got elected to Congress. It was through that online community that Bergeson first met Ruzich, a colleague in the mock US House of Representatives.

After Bergeson launched his gubernatorial campaign – and after he got on the Jimmy Kimmel show and began to make something of a name for himself – he realized he could have an even bigger impact if he had a fellow teen running from across the aisle to help boost youth engagement. So, he persuaded Ruzich to launch his own campaign and “double the impact.”

“If I’m [taking] a Democratic message to a young audience and he’s out there talking to a young Republican audience, we’re going to get more people involved,” Bergeson says, noting that three more teenage conservatives have since thrown their hats in the ring – Ethan Randleas, Dominic Scavuzzo, and Joseph Tutera. (Aaron Coleman, a Green Party candidate, had also announced his candidacy at one point, though his current status is unclear.) “We need to engage voters of the next generation.”

Not welcome on the debate stage

Ruzich has not exactly been embraced by the state Republican Party, which – in consultation with the leading gubernatorial candidates – has set debate rules requiring all participants to have voted in the 2014 election. At that point, some of the teens weren’t even teens, let alone voters.

Ruzich says he dislikes pointing fingers, but after some caveats and niceties, confesses he disagrees with how Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is in charge of state elections and is also a front-runner in the Republican gubernatorial primary, has used his power to render teenage candidates effectively ineligible in this election. “I see that as a great threat to … the impact the young people can have on this democracy,” says Ruzich.

For their part, state GOP officials argue that it’s hard to know if someone who has never voted before is actually a Republican.

And while they don’t want to squelch political enthusiasm among young conservatives, they also don’t want to risk complicating a race that should be relatively easy for a Republican to win – especially with a field that includes Kobach, a Trump ally, as well as the incumbent governor, Jeff Colyer, a surgeon with degrees from Georgetown, Cambridge University, and the University of Kansas. 
 

“We have confidence that our voters will select the right candidate,” says chairman Kelly Arnold, who served for more than a decade with the Young Republican National Federation and has advised some of the teen candidates on the process of running. “But you also want to do everything you can to produce a primary candidate that can win the overall election.”

That means limiting the number of people on a debate stage, Mr. Arnold says – not unlike the decision in the 2016 presidential primary season to hold one prime-time debate for top contenders and another for lower-tier candidates. Except in this case, the also-rans have been limited to venues like high school gymnasiums.

The state Democratic Party, on the other hand, has welcomed Bergeson’s participation – including in a gubernatorial forum at their recent convention.

“I think people appreciated having Jack on stage and hearing from him,” says Ethan Corson, executive director of the Democratic Party in Kansas. “Otherwise, you’re sort of guessing at what those younger people are interested in.”

What their peers are saying

Even some young Kansans have mixed feelings about their peers’ campaigns.

“I admire the kids that are protesting against gun violence – I think that’s a more useful use of our time than running for governor, where you can’t actually do anything,” says Ben Engle, a high school debater from Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School in Wichita.

Others wonder whether some of the teenage candidates may be motivated more by a desire to burnish their resumes for college than to actually lead the state of Kansas – and say the quixotic campaigns have been limited to well-off, white kids who can afford the $2,100 necessary to get on the ballot. (Bergeson says he raised the sum from about 60 donors who contributed an average of $40 each, and Ruzich – who says he was born into a “very, very poor family” that pulled ahead through financial responsibility – has even had out-of-state donors contribute.)

But some point out that social change has often been led by young people. The Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman who played a key role in the American Revolution, was just 19 when Congress commissioned him as a major general, and Alexander Hamilton was 21 when he signed the Declaration of Independence.

“We have spent so much time and energy telling kids, ‘Do whatever you want to be, be the change you want to see,’ ” says James Harris, a debate coach at Andover High School outside Wichita. “But all of a sudden when they step up to the plate we tell them, ‘Oh, it’s not your time.’ ”

Ruzich, for his part, remains unswayed.

“When there is a debate, whether I’m invited or not … I’m going to be there,” he vows. “I deserve to be in the same room.” 

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4. The girls who took charge in a town in rural India

Here’s another piece about teen self-empowerment. Two years ago, girls in a village in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state began pushing for improvements like access to books and buses. They haven’t looked back, and everyone has gained. “I know my rights as a child and as a girl, but … we didn’t stop there,” said one. “We now understand our role in our community, and we are acting on that.”

Howard LaFranchi/Staff
Thennamadevi girls cub secretary Malarvizhi Pandurangan speaks at a club meeting on Jan. 24 in Thennamadevi, a village outside Viluppuram in India's Tamil Nadu state.

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High school student Kousalya is a minor celebrity in Thennamadevi, a village nestled between banana trees, rice paddies, and sugar cane fields in southern India. Dramatically standing out in a sea-green dress, she’s swarmed by young girls with pigtails and wide grins as she steps out to lead a rally for the girls club she heads – a club whose accomplishments would make any government bureaucrat envious: new street lights and toilets; a bus stop and library; sanitary napkins in schools; and a pledge to avoid child marriage, and help anyone pressured into one. Girl power is blooming across India, with campaigns for education and against early marriage and female infanticide – reflecting a global emphasis on girls’ well-being, as a linchpin of sustained economic and social progress in developing countries. “We’ve seen that intervening with girls around 10 years old makes a great deal of sense, because they still have many options before them and they aren’t yet facing the pressures that come in many cultures with adolescence,” says one expert. “Reversing a girl’s trajectory after 13 is often very difficult.”

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The girls who took charge in a town in rural India

Girl power is blooming across India. Clubs intended to boost adolescent girls’ sense of worth are sprouting in remote villages. Women feeling empowered in local politics are acting as mentors and making a priority of improving the future for one of India’s most long-neglected populations. 

But there’s girl power, and then there’s Thennamadevi.

In Thennamadevi, a village sheltered by banana trees and nestled amid rice paddies and sugar cane fields in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state, girls have moved beyond discussions of the challenges they face in India. They’re taking action. Bold action.

Frustrated by the many do-nothing men who seemed more interested in turning sugar cane into moonshine than in improving village life, the teenage girls have organized around their professed goal of making Thennamadevi the best community in their district.

The result is that in less than two years the girls have done everything from creating a 150-book library to successfully lobbying local authorities for a bus stop. The objective there: to cut down on the time girls (and boys) have to spend walking through dark and sometimes dangerous fields to get to and from school. 

“After going to our club, I know my rights as a child and as a girl, but it seems what’s different about our village is that we didn’t stop there,” says Kousalya Radakrishnan, the Thennamadevi girls club president. “We now understand our role in our community, and we are acting on that.”

Young Kousalya, even though still in high school, already sounds like a seasoned politician. She sums up her role in the local girls’ movement with clarity and simplicity: to figure out how to deliver on the hopes and dreams that bubble up from the two dozen 14- to 18-year-olds in the club. 

All of which has also helped make her into a minor celebrity and role model here. As she steps out of a cramped community center and onto a dirt street to lead one of the club’s signature rallies, dramatically standing out in a sea-green dress, she is swarmed by young girls with pigtails and wide grins. “We’re making things better not just for girls,” she says, “but for everybody in our village.”

And maybe, she might have said, for the world’s largest democracy.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Malarvizhi Pandurangan (c.), secretary of the Thennamadevi girls club, stands with other members of the group after a meeting in their village.

Around the world, development experts are increasingly focusing on girls as the key to fostering progress in developing countries. For more than two decades, aid groups and international nongovernmental organizations have centered their efforts on trying to reduce poverty and improve global health for women. The rationale has been that by unlocking a rural woman’s entrepreneurial spirit – helping her, for example, to not just tend her field but to sell her own produce – the woman’s entire family will receive a boost. Similarly, improving maternal health and helping a woman space out her pregnancies will enhance prosperity. 

Numerous African and South Asian countries have seen extreme poverty rates fall and national health standards improve as a result of a focus on women. But more recently development experts have honed their efforts even further, zeroing in on girls as the linchpin of sustained economic and social progress in developing countries.

“We know that if girls stay in school, if they don’t marry and have babies early, and if they are empowered to pursue dreams their mothers never could have imagined, they improve not just their own lives but are a force for growth and progress in their communities and more broadly in their countries,” says Geeta Rao Gupta, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation and an international expert in women’s empowerment. “When girls learn to replace time-honored limitations with ‘I can be whatever I want to be,’ it opens new paths forward for the girls and for everyone around them.”

In many developing countries, girls face two starkly divergent paths: one fettered by gender inequality and cut short by early childbearing and the other offering personal fulfillment and economic improvement that benefit families and nations. If the second path is closed off, experts say, that’s a large chunk of a country’s economic growth potential that will never be tapped. 

“Countries cannot end poverty if girls are unable to make a safe and healthy transition from adolescence to adulthood and become productive members of their communities and nations,” the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said in its 2016 “State of World Population” report.

The UNFPA report focused on the world’s 60 million 10-year-old girls, noting that the educational and other opportunities available to pre-adolescent girls and the “flurry of life-changing events” on their horizon will go a long way in determining many developing countries’ prospects. 

“We’ve seen that intervening with girls around 10 years old makes a great deal of sense, because they still have many options before them and they aren’t yet facing the pressures that come in many cultures with adolescence,” says Dr. Gupta. “Reversing a girl’s trajectory after 13 is often very difficult, especially if she’s had little education and she’s married early and will soon be expected to have babies.” 

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
‘When girls learn to replace time-honored limitations with “I can be whatever I want to be,” it opens new paths forward....’ – Geeta Rao Gupta, United Nations Foundation

Pointing out that worldwide 32 million girls of primary-school age are not in school, the report noted that “without quality education the 10-year-old girl will not acquire skills to earn a better income and find decent work.” The ability of countries to ensure access to a primary and secondary education and to tackle stubborn problems such as gender discrimination, it concluded, “will shape the degree to which this generation [of girls] is able to maximize its potential and become drivers of positive change at the local and global levels.”

Some countries are embracing the girl-power movement – at least on paper. 

Count India among them. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country has launched a visible public awareness campaign under the slogan “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” – “Save the Girl, Educate the Girl.” 

Around New Delhi and in cities across the country, billboards feature girls wearing school uniforms or playing carefree games outdoors, with slogans such as “Every girl is precious” or to educate a girl is to “strengthen the nation.” The campaign is part of national efforts to end female infanticide and child marriage and to stress the importance of keeping girls in school. Yet slogans are one thing; changing a culture is another. 

“All of this activity and national communication around the girl child is pretty robust, and that’s certainly positive,” says Gupta. “But implementation of the programs behind the slogan remains a challenge, and then there’s the underlying issue that is more important than any of the rest of it: that girls are just valued less, largely because they carry less economic value.”

Not in Thennamadevi, though. Not for a handful of idealistic and indomitable teens. 

Ahmad Masood/Reuters/File
Girls make their way to school through a vegetable field in New Delhi.

Kousalya was like many of the young girls in the village. She was headed down a path with tightly prescribed expectations and boundaries.

Her father, a fruit seller who like many other fathers in the village was prone to drinking, didn’t want her to go to school after age 12. A daughter should be at home, he said, not going off to a new school that would be “mixed,” where she’d be around boys.

But her father died an alcoholic, and Kousalya insisted on going to school, enlisting the support of a women’s nongovernmental organization in nearby Viluppuram, the district capital. Now she’s studying physics, wants to go to college, and plans to eventually become a college professor.

“We’ve come a long way from the first days of the club when we went door to door to convince parents that it was a good idea to let their daughters come out in the evenings to meet with other girls,” says Kousalya, standing before rows of purple-draped tables in Thennamadevi’s activity center. “Experiencing that progress has shown all the girls that they can do a lot with their lives.”

Amit Dave/Reuters/File
Schoolgirls practice martial arts during an event in Ahmedabad, India, to mark an anniversary of the fatal gang rape of a woman on a Delhi bus in 2012 that made international headlines.

Others confirm that the can-do spirit of the club has taught them that the future is boundless. Bharati Murugan grew up hearing “You are a female. You are not for studying and working,” she says. But that made her all the more determined to avoid her mother’s fate as a child bride. When the club was formed, she was one of the first to join and is now the treasurer. 

Standing alongside the bicycle she cherishes because it gives her an exhilarating sense of independence, Bharati says that working to improve life in the village has taught her that girls really can accomplish a lot, especially when they collaborate. Her involvement with the club has also strengthened her determination to one day join India’s civil service, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

“I made a sign for my house that says ‘Bharati IAS!,’ and every morning I proclaim those words aloud. My family laughs at me, but I don’t care,” she says, pulling on one of her two long braids. “I’m going to make it come true, just as the girls of Thennamadevi are making true our dream of building a model village!”

Indeed, the girls have been bringing about civic improvements with a speed that would make any government bureaucrat envious. They badgered district leaders with letters and meetings until lighting was provided for the village’s two unpaved streets. Tired of confronting village men loitering and drinking around the community toilet when they needed to use it, the girls started a campaign to install commodes in individual homes. That effort aims to address two issues at once: the village’s chronic problem of drunken and sometimes harassing men and the broader national health challenge of ending “open defecation.”

They’ve also targeted issues specific to them as adolescent girls. They persuaded district health officials to stock modern sanitary napkins in the nearest clinic as a replacement for traditional cloth rags. In a country where child marriage remains a national scourge (despite a law prohibiting the marriage of girls under age 18), club members have publicly pledged not just to renounce the practice for themselves but to come to the rescue of anyone they know being pushed into an early union. 

Through all the activism, the girls are developing vital leadership skills. Malarvizhi Pandurangan says the girls club’s successes have taught her that organizing and speaking up works, so she’s taken her advocacy to her technical secondary school, where she’s deepening her math skills and learning about electrical circuitry.

“I tell the girls in my class about all the services our club has brought to my village, and I say we can improve our school in the same way if we work together,” says Malarvizhi, standing in one of the spare classrooms of the Thiruvalluvar Technical Institute. 

Outside, separate classes of girls and boys assemble on the dusty ground under the shade of thin-leaved trees to study for upcoming exams. Inside, girls whisper and giggle as Malarvizhi shares with a visitor how she’s organizing her classmates to lobby local businesses to provide the school with better equipment.

Thiruvalluvar’s principal, Vazha Jayachandran, attests to Malarvizhi’s leadership, and adds that all 40 girls at the institute are helping to infuse the school with more energy and academic rigor. 

“Five years ago we didn’t even have girls here,” he notes, “and now they are almost always the strongest in our subjects and produce the best results.”

Ahmer Khan/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Students perform a play explaining the consequences of child marriage at a meeting of a girls club in Lamba Kalan, a remote village in a conservative state in northern India.

What’s remarkable about the girls of Thennamadevi isn’t just what they’ve accomplished. It’s what they’ve accomplished given where they’re from. 

The Viluppuram district, with its web of rail connections, is a hub of child trafficking and sex trafficking. The district records some of India’s highest levels of child abuse, according to local officials and NGOs.

“People don’t easily talk about these problems, making addressing them all the more difficult,” says Sathiya Babu, managing trustee of Viluppuram’s office of Scope India, which shelters runaway and trafficked kids and works with local communities to improve children’s living conditions. 

“But we’re finding that the kids, and the girls especially, are determined to build better lives and are no longer accepting the traditional limitations their communities, even their own parents, are putting on them,” he says.

In many ways, Thennamadevi is a typical village for the area, Dr. Babu says, but in others – both good and bad – it stands out.

“Most of the men there are alcoholics – that’s not so unusual – but one result is that 90 families in the village are run by widows. That’s a situation that aggravates existing challenges in the area,” he adds, “from child abuse and runaways to child marriage. A mother who can’t support all her children may see the girls as either a financial burden or even as a source of income” – for example through a dowry, even though dowries are outlawed in India, he says.

Still, Babu notes, Thennamadevi’s girls are unusual because in less than two years they have taken their club from a venue for discussing problems to one for taking action.

“Last year the girls there requested that the club organize a meeting where they could learn how to petition the government,” he says. “These are girls who want change.” 

Yet for all the national focus on girls and the district’s efforts to improve their lives, there’s evidence that the long-held prejudices against girls remain strong.

S.K. Lalitha, Viluppuram’s social welfare director, notes that the district’s female-to-male birth ratio actually declined over the past decade, despite sustained national and state campaigns against sex selection and female infanticide. The 2016 family health survey showed that in the previous year 819 girls were born for every 1,000 boys – 777 girls for every 1,000 boys in rural areas. 

“Those numbers are alarming, but they back up what I hear so many mothers say, that there is no security today for girls and that life for girls is getting harder,” Ms. Lalitha says. “That’s one reason the positive example of girls like those in Thennamadevi is so important.” 

Tsering Topgyal/AP/File
Indian schoolgirls sit in a park on a foggy morning in New Delhi.

Other clubs are being set up, too. Across the country in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, UNFPA and UNICEF have teamed up with local NGOs to create a network of hundreds of “kishoris,” or adolescent girls clubs, in some of the conservative state’s most remote areas.

On a sunbaked day in the village of Lamba Kalan, girls from 10 to 19 years old hear from one of the older members of her marriage at age 5. Another tells of being married off when she was 9 because her father was ill and the family needed money. Both girls pledge to “never allow my daughter to marry as a child!”

Then several girls put on a play whose  story line in their area remains more fact than fiction: It’s about an impending child marriage. After the teacher in the play tells a mother that marrying off her daughter before she’s 18 is illegal, the mother confronts her husband: “I want our daughter to be a teacher or a doctor, not to get married and have babies so young as I did!”

The father’s retort is one many of Lamba Kalan’s girls say rings familiar: “If our daughter gets too much education, we will have trouble later finding her a suitable husband,” he says. “A girl’s place is at home, and then marrying and going to live in her husband’s home.”

Then comes the closing line from the mother, a line that draws enthusiastic applause from the girls club members: “No, that’s no longer true. Life for our daughters is changing!”

***

The enthusiasm of mothers for their daughters’ accomplishments is in fact no longer just theater, at least in places like Thennamadevi. 

Standing on the stoop of her home on a village side street, Maragatham Radakrishnan hugs her daughter Kousalya and marvels at her confidence and determination.

“I never could have imagined a daughter of mine accomplishing even half of what Kousalya has done,” she says, beaming. Having never been to school herself, Ms. Radakrishnan says her biggest dream had always been that her daughter would be able to get some education. And now here’s Kousalya getting that education – and leading a movement. 

“I see her doing things for the village and helping the younger girls, and it makes me so proud,” she says. “That she can speak up like she does, it’s amazing to me. She’s becoming a leader.”

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5. What Kepler taught us about our vast galactic neighborhood

Sometimes a change in perspective can unlock a universe of possibilities. When NASA launched the Kepler space telescope into orbit in 2009, it liberated scientists from the limitations of ground-based telescopes. As a result, we can all now see ourselves in an entirely new context.

NASA/AP
An undated artist’s concept provided by NASA shows the Keplar spacecraft moving through space. On April 18, the US space agency plans to launch Kepler's successor, TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) to take exoplanet research to the next level over the next two years.

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For many exoplanet scientists, the time since the first confirmation of a planet beyond our solar system in 1992 can be broken down into two periods: before the Kepler space telescope and after. The early days of ground-based exoplanet research yielded some 300 exoplanets. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has identified more than 2,600 exoplanets and counting. That data – and the hidden surprises – have revolutionized how we see alien worlds and set scientists on a path to answering some of philosophers’ oldest and deepest questions about our place in the universe. Kepler's data opened our eyes to the vastness of our galactic neighborhood. But, “like most great science missions,” astrophysicist Sara Seager says, “it created more questions than it answered.” And on Wednesday, after a delay, NASA plans to launch Kepler’s successor to take exoplanet research to the next level. Over the next two years, TESS – the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite – will scan almost the entire sky, hunting for exoplanets that could hold clues into the evolution of solar systems, Earth-like planets, and life. (Watch this short Monitor video about TESS and its mission.)

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What Kepler taught us about our vast galactic neighborhood

Thousands of tiny pinpricks of light fill a dark sky on a cloudless night. For thousands of years, people have looked up at that star-filled, mysterious expanse and wondered what – or who – is out there. Do worlds like our own orbit other stars? Is life a common occurrence in the cosmos? Or, are we alone in the universe?

With the launch of a new mechanical “planet hunter” scheduled for this week after a delay, NASA will take the next step toward answering those ancient questions. TESS – the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite – will scan almost the entire sky over the next two years, identifying planets orbiting stars (called exoplanets) in our own stellar neighborhood that may hold clues into the evolution of solar systems, Earth-like planets, and life.

But TESS isn’t the first orbiting telescope to search for exoplanets. NASA’s Kepler space telescope paved the way. 

Since it first launched in 2009, Kepler has discovered more than 2,600 exoplanets and counting – nearly three-quarters of all known exoplanets. That flood of data, and the surprises hidden in it, have revolutionized how we see alien worlds and set scientists on a path to answering some of philosophers’ oldest and deepest questions about our place in the universe. 

“Kepler gave us a true view of what’s out there,” says Lisa Kaltenegger, director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and a member of the TESS science team. And, she says, “Nature seems to make planets wherever she can.”

Exoplanets are a relatively new discovery. Although philosophers and scientists had hypothesized that they were out there, it wasn’t until the 1990s that astronomers confirmed the first exoplanet discoveries. Before Kepler launched, a little more than 300 exoplanets had been detected using ground-based telescopes, and each was cause for celebration and many scientific publications.

But Kepler changed all that.

“It’s almost hard to remember how little we knew in 2009 when Kepler launched,” says Jessie Dotson, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and a Kepler mission scientist.

From the ground, scientists discovered mostly giant exoplanets, thought to be like Jupiter. But Kepler data confirmed scientists’ suspicions: there are systems like ours out there – and ones that are wildly different.

A hunter's sight

By design, Kepler is a planet hunter. The mission was planned so that the space telescope could look at hundreds of thousands of stars at once and establish a sense of just how common exoplanets can be. To do that, it had to fit as many stars in its view as possible. So Kepler set its sights on a distant patch of sky in our galaxy, collecting data on stars’ brightness. 

Using what’s called the “transit method,” scientists comb through that data looking for a dip in starlight, suggesting that a planet may be passing between its star and Kepler, momentarily blocking some of the light. Kepler was set to observe for at least three years in order to detect planets in an Earth-like orbit or tighter at least three times, to eradicate other explanations. 

Focusing on an Earth-like orbit would enable Kepler to discover planets that might be able to host life. That’s because all life as we know it (read: life on Earth) requires liquid water. Earth’s distance from the sun makes it not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to be stable on the planet’s surface. That places it squarely in a band around the sun referred to as the habitable zone, or the Goldilocks Zone.

Kepler set out to determine if exoplanets are abundant in our galaxy, and they sure are. Scientists now say that there are more planets than stars.

“We expected that,” says Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and deputy science director for the TESS mission. “Stars are born with disks of gas and dust. And just like those dust bunnies want to form in your living room, we think planets want to form out of that material.”

Still, Dr. Dotson says, “There’s a big difference between thinking something is possible and knowing it’s true.”

Stranger than (science) fiction 

The most common planets in Kepler’s plentiful data were actually unfamiliar ones: planets between the size of Earth and Neptune. Sometimes described as “super Earths,” or “mini Neptunes,” these planets have no direct analogue in our solar system. Scientists also found that solar systems like ours are not the most common. Most planetary systems occur around the dim, reddish M-dwarf stars, not the yellowish G-type stars like our sun. These stars make up nearly three-quarters of the stars in our galaxy and are the main target for the TESS mission.

And some of Kepler’s discoveries defied imagination.

The mysterious “mini Neptunes” aren’t the only weird planets discovered in Kepler data. Scientists have found evidence of water worlds, hot Jupiters, lava worlds, and even circumbinary exoplanets, which, like the fictional planet Tatooine in “Star Wars,” orbit two stars.

“The diversity of planets is breathtaking,” Professor Kaltenegger says. “If we had just found planets like those in our solar system, it would’ve been nice, but kind of boring.”

Another astonishing exoplanet was spotted orbiting a white dwarf, the smoldering embers of an extremely old star near death. A closer look at the system revealed that the planet was being pulled apart and drawn into the dying star, illustrating one end of planetary evolution. 

This discovery has the potential to expand where and how astrobiologists search for signs of life, too. “This told us that these have been around for a long time, and we shouldn’t think of things just in space, we should think about them in time, also,” says Elisa Quintana, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who served as a Kepler mission scientist for a decade before joining the TESS mission as a support scientist. 

“Maybe every system has a little slice of time where there’s life,” she adds.

Kepler has provided considerable data for astronomers to start to piece together models of planetary evolution. But, “like most great science missions,” Professor Seager says, “it created more questions than it answered.”

Hunting for habitability

Like Kepler, TESS is primarily a planet-finding mission, but the new space telescope will focus on identifying planets that may hold the answers. The satellite will scan almost the entire sky looking for planets close enough (within 300 light-years of Earth) and bright enough for future missions, like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, to investigate.

TESS’s eye will be largely on M-dwarf stars (those little reddish ones that are so plentiful, especially in our corner of the galaxy). As Kepler showed, those stars could host many Earth-like planets in that sweet spot for liquid water, which opens up new questions in the search for extraterrestrial life. 

“It’s making me rethink what is meant by habitability,” Dotson says. “Now you start to ask the question, is liquid water enough for habitability?”

Kepler data has pushed scientists to think as expansively as possible, not limiting themselves to the models we know: our planet and our solar system.

“We have these four terrestrial planets, and these four giant planets, and a sunlike star,” Dr. Quintana says. But Kepler has shown that our system is by no means standard. “And what if actually the most common habitable planet is a circumbinary planet? We could imagine people on these circumbinary planets doing searches for life and only considering systems with multiple stars.” 

Between Kepler, TESS, and other missions, scientists are amassing a growing catalogue of exoplanets for future generations of scientists to study and build upon.

Kepler laid the groundwork for TESS and other future missions, and it wasn’t easy. “Kepler basically plowed down everything in its way” to lead the way, Kaltenegger says. When the principal investigator, William Borucki, first proposed it in 1992, the Kepler mission was seen as too uncertain and risky. It took him five tries to finally get it approved in 2000.

And then, after four years of observation and exoplanet discoveries, the prime mission was brought to an abrupt halt in May 2013 by a mechanical failure. Two of the four reaction wheels that maintained the space telescope’s orientation broke, rendering Kepler ineffective as a planet hunter.

But scientists weren’t ready to be done with Kepler yet.

The scientific community quickly figured out that they could use the pressure of solar radiation to stabilize the telescope so that its field of view ran along the orbital plane of Earth, looking at a new section of sky every 83 or so days. NASA approved the second Kepler mission, dubbed K2, in 2014, and the exoplanet discoveries started flooding in again.

Now, the space telescope faces a certain death: it’s nearly out of fuel, and is expected to run out within the next few months. But that won’t mean the end of new Kepler-spotted exoplanets. It could take about a decade to sift through the treasure trove of data from both the Kepler and K2 missions, a process that will bring to light even more exoplanet discoveries. 

Over the course of its two lifetimes, Kepler did more than accumulate vast amounts of scientific data. That data also changed our perspective of the universe – and our place in it. 

As a graduate student in the 1990s, Dotson, who is now the K2 project scientist, remembers staring up at the night sky “and just being blown away by all those pinpricks of light. I was learning how they worked, and the scales of how far apart they all were, and all that. And I remember sitting there being blown away by that. But at the same time it felt very, very lonely, because it’s just so vast.” 

“When I’m lucky enough to look at the night sky now,” she says, “I’m blown away from a different perspective. It no longer feels lonely; it now feels just like a whole realm of possibilities have opened up.”

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The Monitor's View

Trump’s attack on Syria: a bias for hope?

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In his second strike on Syria in a year aimed at punishing the regime for its use of chemical weapons on innocent people, President Trump fired more ordnance and had the support of France and Britain. Yet for this tougher defense of human rights, public reaction has been largely pessimistic. The slaughter in Syria is largely expected to continue, albeit with conventional weapons. Even Mr. Trump reflected a prevailing negative view about human rights in the region. “We will try to make it better,” he said, “but it is a troubled place.” But does the evidence really hold up that the world faces a fallback in human rights and a rise in political violence against civilians? Not according to human rights scholar Kathryn Sikkink. Citing data about progress in basic rights since the 1940s, she says future scholars will look back on the seven decades since World War II “as a watershed in the path towards protecting human rights.” She opts for a “bias” toward the hope of human rights progress. Developments always need the context of recent history, especially the history of the world’s steady momentum in recognizing each individual’s right to political freedom and a life of dignity.

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Trump’s attack on Syria: a bias for hope?

Twice within a year, President Trump has ordered missiles fired on Syria’s military for its use of chemical weapons on innocent people. In his second response on April 13, Mr. Trump doubled the number of missiles. And France and Britain joined in. Yet for this tougher defense of human rights, public reaction has been largely pessimistic. The slaughter in Syria is largely expected to continue, albeit with conventional weapons for now.

Even Trump reflected a prevailing negative view about human rights in the Middle East, the region with the most violent conflicts. “We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place,” he said. 

Such events do seem to add to the pessimism about the protection of basic rights around the world. Journalists bemoan that humanitarian instincts have run up against hard political realities and that deliberate targeting of civilians will become a norm. Pundits point to a rise in hateful ideologies and a decline in democracy.

But does the evidence really hold up that the world faces a fallback in human rights and a rise in political violence against innocent civilians? 

Not according to a leading human rights scholar, Kathryn Sikkink of Harvard University. In her latest book, “Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century,” she presents a slew of data about progress in basic rights since the 1940s and warns against a tendency by activists and the media not to stress progress and successes. 

She says future scholars will look back on the seven decades since World War II “as a watershed in the path towards protecting human rights.” By the early 21st century, she points out, most governments had accepted human rights law, at least on paper if not in practice. Violence of one group on another has dropped since 1990. New international courts have led to a rise in accountability for genocide. The number of human rights groups keeps rising.

In 1977, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty by law or in practice. Today more than half of all countries have done so. Since 1979, women have seen a steady increase in equality for education. Undernourishment has lessened, and so on.

Activists have been so successful that they have helped draw more attention to once invisible harms, thus creating the false impression of a worsening situation. They’ve also raised the bar on what is unacceptable, such as writing new definitions of torture and extrajudicial killings.

Because atrocities are more visible, human rights activists tend to ruminate on each violation. They absorb the suffering of victims, leading them to believe tragedies are more likely to happen, Ms. Sikkink states. And journalists who write about human rights think they look smarter by reporting mainly negative news.

Based on the evidence she has compiled, she opts for a “bias” toward the hope of human rights progress. “If people around the world come to believe that their efforts on behalf of human rights are suspect or even counterproductive and retreat to inactivity, human rights progress could indeed stall or move backward,” she writes.

Her simple request: “We need to ask not only, ‘What is wrong with human rights?’ but also, ‘What is right with human rights?’ ” 

Syria’s future is still unknown, and its progress in human rights can be uneven. Millions of civilians remain vulnerable. Yet the United States keeps thousands of troops in Syria and is rebuilding portions once ruled by Islamic State. Russia faces more problems for supporting the attacks of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. And chemical weapons may not be used again for a long time. 

Such developments always need the context of recent history, especially the history of the world’s steady momentum in recognizing each individual’s right to political freedom and a life of dignity.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Establishing self-worth

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Today’s contributor shares her journey to a more meaningful understanding of her value through a deeper sense of God.

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Establishing self-worth

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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We all have different ways of establishing our sense of self-worth. For instance, growing up, I felt pretty good about my skills as a baseball player because my dad taught me to throw from the shoulder and not from the elbow, which was unusual for a girl at that time. And I felt good about myself as a student because I worked hard and got pretty good grades. Yet the thing that I tried hardest at was being a “good girl.” When I was in eighth grade, I even got a citizenship award, and that reinforced my efforts to be good.

Now, you might think that all of this would add up to a secure sense of self-worth, but that wasn’t necessarily true. Because my sense of my value was largely based on the premise that my goodness was personally sourced, it was limited – it got rocked and shaken when I made mistakes. But these very moments of insecurity actually ended up proving helpful, because they caused me to consider my self-worth from a deeper perspective.

For example, on one occasion I made a mistake that made someone very angry with me. All of my attempts to apologize and correct the situation were in vain. I felt deep remorse and agony, and it felt as though my whole identity as a good person was threatened.

But I also began to see that this sense of identity was the crux of the problem. “What is my true identity?” I wondered. I frequently turned to the Bible when I needed help, so in this case I looked there for inspiration. This led me to consider the life of Christ Jesus, who no doubt had the most secure sense of himself of anyone who has ever walked the earth. His powerful life example of doing good, of healing and saving humanity from the oppression of sin, disease, and death, is unparalleled.

Yet he based his sense of self-worth entirely on the goodness of God, not himself personally. When someone addressed him as “Good Master,” he responded, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God” (Matthew 19:16, 17). He also said, “I can of mine own self do nothing” (John 5:30). He lived with complete confidence in his ability to do good because he knew the source of that ability was God.

And he also explained that we all are naturally good because God is our source, too. God is the divine Principle, or governing cause, of our being, whose glorious attributes we can’t help but reflect. And acknowledging this to be true about ourselves enables us to express that goodness more fully in our lives.

As I reasoned with these ideas, I felt a deep sense of humility settling into my heart. All the good that I had ever expressed was still valid; it just wasn’t sourced in a mortal personality with a track record of successes and failures. My value was, and is always, secure in God. I began to more clearly feel God, divine Love, guiding me, which also helped me see how to move forward productively and calmly.

This experience continues to help me. For instance, some years later I felt inspired to take an unconventional turn in my career and was faced with the fact that others disapproved of my decision. For a while I struggled with that, but once again it turned me more deeply to God for reassurance, and I gained a clear sense of confidence that I was doing the right thing. The decision I had taken proved to be a rich blessing for me and for many others that I was able to help in my new role.

In a talk at the beginning of the 20th century, the discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote: “Happiness consists in being and in doing good; only what God gives, and what we give ourselves and others through His tenure, confers happiness: conscious worth satisfies the hungry heart, and nothing else can” (“Message to The Mother Church for 1902,” p. 17). Establishing a deep and lasting sense of self-worth is not about propping up a fragile ego. It is finding an enduring sense of our value to God as His creation and recognizing, in the heart of humble prayer, that God is the source of our identity, ability, fulfillment, and success. We can let this benediction that God gave to Christ Jesus nourish the deepest places of our being and inspire our efforts to do right: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

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Viewfinder

Long run, no sun, still fun?

Mary Schwalm/AP
Wearing a plastic poncho, Manuel Gonzalez (No. 9300) from Illinois, reaches out for a high-five just after crossing the starting line during the 122nd running of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass., April 16. Desiree Linden of the United States and Yuki Kawauchi of Japan were the women’s and men’s winners, respectively.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( April 17th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Thank you for being here today. Stop back tomorrow. For Tax Day, we’ll be taking a look at how the American public really feels about taxes and what they mean to US democracy.  

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