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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
May
30
Wednesday

On Monday, the South African sporting world announced that Siya Kolisi would become the first black captain of the Springboks rugby team. That marks a major milestone for Mr. Kolisi, who grew up in an impoverished township near Port Elizabeth, and one for a storied team in what has historically been a white man’s game, both on the field and in the stands.

In other words, it’s a big deal for a country where the issue of racial representation in sports still courses through the national dialogue, 24 years after the end of apartheid.

In 1995, South Africa’s upset victory in the Rugby World Cup, chronicled in the movie “Invictus,” united a nation around a sport few black citizens wanted anything to do with. It’s been a bumpy road since, with black players charging they had fewer opportunities and white fans saying black players were underrepresented because they were less qualified. Just recently, a black former rugby player walked off a TV broadcast after castigating his fellow commentators, both white former rugby players, for patronizing him.

But Kolisi’s appointment points to the momentum in the other direction. Just over two decades ago, Kolisi could not have married his wife, who is white. And he certainly could not have dreamed of breaking through one of his country’s most tenacious remaining racial ceilings.

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We want to point out two new features that you'll see today. First, the Daily's audio is now available on iTunes and Google Play. (Follow those links or click below the audio player button at the end of this package.) And second, you'll see a toggle at the top of our stories that allows you to move easily between the quick read and the deep read. Try these out! 

Now, to our five stories.

1. With swift cancellation of 'Roseanne,' ABC draws line in sand

Roseanne Barr's tweet was an act of ugliness. We're looking at the speed of the response to it, which underscores the growing demand that people be held accountable for such behavior.

Amelia

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In one sense, “Roseanne” could have brought the country together. It showed the United States how a fictional working-class family tried to navigate the shoals of political division and economic stress in the age of President Trump. But now it is gone, kaput, canceled, because of the outrageous tweets of Roseanne Barr, its creator and star. It’s possible it will become another symbol of political division. Ms. Barr and some Trump supporters are already claiming that it was the Roseanne character’s support for the president that doomed the show. But in another sense, the whole affair might be a positive example, say some experts. It shows how a formal institution might handle social and political pressure in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Once Barr’s racist tweet went viral, ABC moved quickly to cancel a show that was one of the most watched and profitable programs on television. “This powerful media company is setting a new example: there are consequences to abhorrent behavior, or at least, there can be,” writes L.S. Kim, an associate professor of television studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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1. With swift cancellation of 'Roseanne,' ABC draws line in sand

The “Roseanne” reboot could have been unifying TV. It was something rare in today’s US entertainment: a depiction of an extended working class family, including supporters of President Trump. Real-life families split by politics might have laughed together and looked at their own situation – for thirty minutes a week, at least.

Now it’s another possible symbol of division. The real-life Roseanne Barr is different than “Roseanne,” the character. Her outrageous tweets led to the show’s sudden cancellation. Some Trump supporters may see in this Hollywood bias toward the president in particular and conservative ideas overall.

The affair might be a useful example, though, in one sense – how formal institutions under political pressure from social media can handle their situation.

The willingness of ABC to nix “Roseanne” within hours of Ms. Barr’s tweets “sets a precedent” in the view of L.S. Kim, an associate professor of television studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“I think in the current context of outlandish, outrageous, and impulsive statements released out into the Twitterverse, there has been a tentativeness about how formal institutions ought to respond,” Professor Kim wrote in an email. “[T]his powerful media company is setting a new example: there are consequences to abhorrent behavior, or at least, there can be.”

“Abhorrent” was what ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey called Barr’s actions in the brief statement announcing the show’s cancellation. The move came only hours after Barr unleashed a series of tweets that falsely claimed Chelsea Clinton was related by marriage to billionaire George Soros, and went downhill from there.

Barr included anti-Semitic references. In a blatantly racist tweet, she described Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to former President Barack Obama and an African-American, as an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “The Planet of the Apes.”

ABC’s swift dumping of Barr follows other high-profile divorces between networks and celebrities. FX cut ties with comedian Louis C.K. and Netflix did likewise with Kevin Spacey, formerly the star of “House of Cards,” after allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault surfaced.

“This decision on ‘Roseanne’ seemed to be a no-brainer,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, based at Syracuse University. “She reached down the barrel for one of the most evil stereotypes there is. When the executives at ABC read that tweet, they must have known this ends only one way.”

David Schmid, an associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo and a pop culture expert, called ABC’s axing of the show “a good decision” that reflected the network’s desire to contain the damage of potential viewer and advertiser boycotts.

“This is all about the money. ABC realized that despite the success of ‘Roseanne,’ they were going to lose a lot of money,” he says.

Professor Schmid adds that Walt Disney Company executives — who named Ms. Dungey ABC’s entertainment president two years ago, making her the first African-American to lead a major broadcast network — quickly understood the cultural implications of Barr’s tweet.

“We’re talking about the company behind ‘Black Panther,’ ” he says, referring to the first superhero film with a black lead character, which earned more than $1.3 billion in worldwide box office since its release in February. “How’s it going to look if they defend something like what she wrote?”

Fan reaction

Fans of the show expressed surprise and sorrow at its sudden cancellation.

Dale Atkinson, who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., says he was “shocked but kind of not shocked” by Barr’s tweetstorm, given her penchant for provocative statements and pushing cultural boundaries. He agreed with ABC’s decision while lamenting the demise of a show that depicted a world he recognized as his own.

“It dealt with everyday people, everyday situations,” says Mr. Atkinson, a retired factory worker. “I could relate to it, and a lot of people I know could relate to it. There aren’t a lot of shows like that on TV.”

Edward Van Dreal, another fan of the show, describes himself as a Trump supporter who switched political parties in 2012. 

“[Roseanne] gets enormous support just because she’s willing to stand up and say she’s a Trump supporter,” says Mr. Van Dreal, a 60-something who lives in Courtland, Minn., some 90 miles southwest of Minneapolis, where he runs a long-haul trucking company.

He condemns Barr’s tweet about Ms. Jarrett yet holds out hope that the show will find another home. Earlier this month, Fox picked up “Last Man Standing,” a sitcom starring Tim Allen, a Republican, that ABC canceled last year.

“Roseanne self-destructed and said something that anyone would agree is inappropriate,” Van Dreal says. “ABC had to do what it had to do. But this isn’t over yet.”

It is possible that a niche broadcaster could pick up “Roseanne.” It’s highly unlikely that a network would risk it, however, if Barr remains part of the show.

Celebrities vs. politicians

In part that is because celebrities face greater consequences for behavior outside political norms than do politicians themselves, says Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an assistant professor of history at Purdue University and author of “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life.” In that sense modern celebrity may be more democratic than electoral politics.

Entertainment stars need broad-based popular support. “Celebrities depend on a market. They have to appeal to a national market,” Dr. Brownell says.

National politicians, on the other hand, often rely on a base of committed supporters for money and votes. They win by segmenting the population as opposed to appealing to all on a national basis.

“Their demographics are significantly smaller,” Brownell says.

She says this is perhaps why Barr has suffered greater consequences from her transgressive tweets than Mr. Trump has from his, which sometimes contain false statements, such as his charge that his campaign was wiretapped by President Obama.

Through Wednesday afternoon, Trump had refrained from direct comment on the Barr controversy. (When the show first aired, he called to congratulate Barr on its high ratings.)

He did issue one tweet that addressed the matter at an oblique angle.

“Bob Iger of ABC called Valerie Jarrett to let her know that 'ABC does not tolerate comments like those' made by Roseanne Barr. Gee, he never called President Donald J. Trump to apologize for the HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC. Maybe I just didn’t get the call?” Trump tweeted.

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2. Beneath Ukraine journalist drama, a grinding media crackdown

Ukraine draws Western attention for its conflict with Russia, or most recently, a journalist's “murder.” Less noticed has been its crackdown on foreign and domestic media.

Amelia

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On Tuesday, Arkadiy Babchenko, a Russian journalist, appeared to have been murdered in Kiev, Ukraine, making international headlines. But his “murder” was a ruse meant to root out people who were attempting to kill him – highlighting just how chaotic Ukraine can be. Behind the Babchenko saga, however, a more mundane but grinding campaign is going on against journalists, media critics say. Ukrainian authorities insist they are fighting Russian propaganda and, indeed, the primary targets of the crackdown have been Russian journalists and news outlets. But growing numbers of solely Ukrainian news organizations are also coming under pressure from the Ukrainian security service for airing criticisms of government policies. More disturbing, analysts say, is the role of ultranationalist street gangs, who have besieged the offices of critical news outlets, threatened journalists and activists, and dispersed meetings with seeming impunity. “It's extremely worrying to see Ukraine adopt methods that seem straight out of the Kremlin toolbox, especially since Ukraine is a country that has chosen a different path and declared that its future lies with Europe,” says Tanya Cooper of Human Rights Watch.

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Beneath Ukraine journalist drama, a grinding media crackdown

When a Russian journalist critical of the Kremlin is seemingly gunned down in Kiev – and then is revealed to have been faking his death as part of a geopolitical sting – it is quite rightly headline news in the West.

But a state-supported campaign to silence media critics in pro-Europe Ukraine isn’t getting much notice at all. And human rights monitors say that needs to change.

While many of those targeted have been Russian – and thus claimed by Kiev as legitimate casualties of Ukraine's “information war” with Russia – an increasing number are Ukrainian, and whose offenses appear solely to have been criticism of the government’s policies. More disturbing, analysts say, is the role of ultra-nationalist street gangs, who have besieged the offices of critical news outlets, threatened journalists, harassed LGBT activists, and dispersed meetings with seeming impunity, while police stood by and watched.

“It's extremely worrying to see Ukraine adopt methods that seem straight out of the Kremlin toolbox, especially since Ukraine is a country that has chosen a different path and declared that its future lies with Europe,” says Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “By cracking down on free expression, and ignoring their international legal obligations, they are losing sight of that future.”

A media crackdown in Ukraine?

Kiev has developed a reputation as an unsafe city for journalists, with two murdered there since 2015. On Tuesday, Arkadiy Babchenko, a Russian journalist and critic of the Kremlin, appeared to have been number three, after being reported to have been killed by an unknown gunman. Mr. Babchenko’s apparent death made international headlines, especially as Russia was accused of being behind it.

But during a Wednesday press conference held by the Ukrainian security service (SBU), Babchenko walked out uninjured: his “murder” was an SBU ruse meant to root out people who were attempting to kill him. The shocking turn made an already dramatic media story that much more so – and highlighted just how chaotic Ukraine can be.

But behind the “stranger than fiction” Babchenko saga, a more mundane but grinding campaign is going on against journalists, media critics say.

Ukrainian authorities insist they are fighting Russian propaganda and, indeed, the primary targets of the crackdown have been Russian journalists, news outlets, and even movies and TV serials.

Last week President Petro Poroshenko published a decree extending sanctions against 1,748 Russian individuals and 746 entities, including a ban on most Russian media outlets. Dozens of Russian journalists have been expelled in recent years. On May 15, the SBU raided the Kiev offices of the Russian state-run news agency RIA-Novosti and arrested its chief, Kirill Vyshynsky, a dual Russian/Ukrainian citizen, on suspicion of treason.

But growing numbers of solely Ukrainian news organizations are also coming under pressure from the SBU for airing criticisms of government policies, particularly on issues like conduct of the war in the east, relations with Russia, and military conscription. In an open letter to Mr. Poroshenko last September, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) cited an expanding pattern of repression against independent journalists and bloggers who step over those lines.

Government supporters say there’s a war going on and Russian disinformation needs to be countered. They say the claims of “media crackdown” are inventions aimed at blocking efforts to defend the country from “information attack” and blackening Ukraine’s name.

“There is no attack against the mass media in Ukraine, not on the internet, TV, or printed press,” says Olga Bodnar, a parliamentary deputy with Yulia Tymoshenko’s BYuT bloc. “There are just some questions being asked about the information policies of a number of [news outlets]. These charges are garbage, aimed to escalate tensions and make Ukraine look bad.”

Other analysts say the attacks are narrowly focused, aiming to tar any dissent over Ukraine’s radical de-communization laws, anti-war sentiment, or desire for better relations with Russia as treasonous.

“These are not general repressions but selective attacks against mass media seen as affiliated or associated with Russia. It’s intended to have a public effect, to create the impression there is an ideological struggle going on and information needs to be protected,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. “Russia is blamed for the growing influence of pacifist and anti-nationalist moods, which the authorities find very worrisome.”

‘The path Ukraine chose’

The current plight of Ukraine's Inter TV, a major Ukrainian-owned, Russian-language network, illustrates this problem.

On May 9, Ukraine’s Memorial Day, Inter TV broadcast a concert celebrating the country’s victory over Nazi Germany. While the former Soviet holiday is still marked nationally, it is only really embraced in central and eastern Ukraine, where just about everybody’s grandfather fought in the Red Army, and they still tend to honor that service. In Ukraine’s west, May 9 is largely downplayed, as locals’ forebears battled against the Soviets.

Those past conflicts have reemerged in modern legal battles, as Kiev’s pro-Europe government has tried to purge Ukraine of Soviet symbolism. Western Ukrainian independence fighters who fought against Soviet power, sometimes in collaboration with the Nazis, have been made “heroes of Ukraine” and awarded monuments and street names. At the same time, new laws have made Soviet symbols and Red Army paraphernalia illegal to display, building up resentments in the country’s east

The presenters of the Inter TV concert expressed their criticism of the de-communization laws to their viewing audience of some 7 million. “We cannot allow the streets of our cities to be named after the fascist criminals, and their portraits to be carried with impunity during torchlight processions in our capital, where every meter was blood-soaked by our compatriots.”

Within 48 hours, Inter TV’s Kiev headquarters was surrounded by nationalist protesters who tried to burn it down and demanded authorities deprive the station of its broadcasting license. Instead of condemning the attacks, Ukraine’s official media watchdog said it was scheduling a snap inspection of Inter TV to look into alleged violations of the law.

“Of course it’s challenging to maintain freedoms while there’s a war going on, but that is the path Ukraine chose,” says Ms. Cooper. She says she has personally experienced the intimidation of Ukrainian ultra-right street groups. She was recently asked to speak at a meeting organized by the local chapter of Amnesty International, about pending legislation banning “homosexual propaganda” similar to that enacted in Russia a few years ago.

“The meeting was disrupted by about 20 nationalists – you can only call these people thugs – who did not permit it to proceed,” she says. “The police were of no help. In the end, they enabled safe passage out for us, nothing more. These kinds of incidents are very common these days, and they are rarely investigated.”

That combination of street intimidation and official pressure is casting a deep pall over Ukraine’s claim to be building a free and open media culture.

“Fighting Russian propaganda without following international laws and obligations is the wrong way to go,” says Cooper. “It’s a losing battle. Ukraine needs to counter Russia by following the principles it has declared, by supporting civil society and putting resources into a real media alternative.”

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3. Adapting for an arid era, Texas farmers scratch crops from dust

Farmers stymied by drought often tap underground aquifers. In Texas, they're trying to mitigate the long-term consequences of that short-term solution.

Amelia
Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
C.E. Williams (l.), general manager of the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District, talks with Peter Winegeart, assistant general manager of the district, at a test project of a mobile drip irrigation system.

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There has never been much rain in the Texas Panhandle. Agricultural production in the region has always had an extra degree of difficulty. Today, however, the region is in transition. The last real rain was seven months ago. The current drought could be devastating in the short term, farmers say. But the real water worry isn’t overhead but rather underfoot: The depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer that has made farming in the desert possible for 100 years has farmers making every drop of water count. With the Ogallala in a state of “managed depletion” in many parts of Texas, farmers are adapting what they grow and how they water it. Scientists are researching new drought-resistant crops and more efficient irrigation technologies. The overall picture, however, is of a water-poor region that is only going to keep losing water. With a century of economic, political, and cultural investment in agriculture, farming in the Panhandle isn’t likely to go extinct. But as farmers scratch their way through this year’s drought, they know it will be even tougher for their children and grandchildren. “If you’re taking dollar bills out and putting pennies in, there’s an end of the road at some point in time,” says C.E. Williams, general manager of the eight-county Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District.

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Adapting for an arid era, Texas farmers scratch crops from dust

It's been seven months since this patch of the Texas Panhandle has seen real rain. Slate-gray clouds now blanket the mid-May morning sky, a glimmer of hope for C.E. Williams. As much as he is thinking about rain – praying for it, really – he’s also thinking about his grandchildren.

Mr. Williams is general manager of the eight-county Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District (PGCD) here, a job he says “is like balancing a balloon on the end of a needle.”

With just 15 to 20 inches of rain during a good year, a fraction of the 60 to 70 inches seen in Houston, Panhandle farmers depend on the Ogallala Aquifer beneath them to sustain their crops. His job is to ensure people are able to use enough of it today to make a living while saving enough for future generations to make a living as well.

“I’ve always thought if I’m doing what’s right for my grandkids in the decisions I make here, that’s probably the right decision,” he says.

There has never been much rain in the Panhandle, and so agricultural production in the region has always required an extra degree of difficulty. Ever since windmill wells allowed settlers to tap into the Ogallala in the mid-1800s, turning what was considered then a great American desert into a new breadbasket, new techniques and technologies have helped the industry survive and thrive.

Today the region is once again in transition. The current drought, which could be devastating on its own, is forcing farmers deeper into the Ogallala. With the aquifer in a state of “managed depletion” in many parts of Texas, farmers are adapting what they grow and how they water it. 

“They’ve been really progressive adopters of advanced, efficient irrigation technologies,” says Dana Porter, a professor at Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Extension Center in Lubbock. “There’s a lot of really advanced plant science, soil science, and engineering, that is going into management tools to help these guys improve.”

The overall picture, however, is of a water-poor region that is only going to keep losing water. With a century of economic, political and cultural investment in agriculture, farming in the Panhandle isn’t likely to go extinct. But as farmers scratch their way through this year’s drought, they try to do so without making life harder for their children and grandchildren.

Diversification

Billy Bob Brown grew up with Williams in the small town of Panhandle, 30 minutes east of Amarillo. He’s been farming the dusty soil here since 1972. Corn had always been his favored crop, but in recent years, he’s transitioned most of his rows to the less water-intensive cotton.

“[Cotton] has just offered us a completely different deal,” he says. “Right now it’s the money-maker.”

It takes less than 12 inches per acre to grow cotton, compared with the 30 inches corn demands. He has reduced his water use even more by converting 60 percent of his acreage to “dryland farming,” foregoing irrigation entirely to rely on rainfall. Combined with improvements in irrigation technology on his remaining land, he says he has been able to farm 342 acres with the amount of water his father used on 100 acres.

Mr. Brown sees diversification as the way forward for Panhandle farmers – diversification not only of crops but farming methods and irrigation techniques. Farmers here will always need to irrigate, he says, especially smaller and less experienced farmers. That is something he is thinking about as he prepares to hand over his farm to his grandson. Brown can give him land and equipment, but it feels like every drop of groundwater he uses is a drop his grandson can’t use.

Livelihoods in water and land

About a 10-minute drive from Brown’s house, on another farmer’s cotton field, Williams and the PGCD are testing one new piece of equipment that might be able to make a small but important difference.

Sun and wind have combined to chase away the gray clouds from the morning, and Williams dons sunglasses to inspect a drip irrigation system developed by a Kansas-based company.

For years most farmers have irrigated their crops using a “center-pivot” system – a large rig, outfitted with dozens of dangling hoses, that circles around a field watering everything beneath it. Another method has gained recent favor. With “drip” irrigation, water flows through a perforated hose – sometimes buried under the topsoil – and leaks out into the soil.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
A mobile surface drip irrigation system may conserve more water than a spray irrigation system by dripping water directly onto the soil so there is less chance the water evaporates or is swept away by wind.

The system Monty Teeter, chief executive officer of Teeter Irrigation, is marketing to the PGCD essentially combines the two. Called a “Dragon Line,” it’s an array of orange hoses, each riddled with slits, that the center-pivot rig drags along the soil, leaking water straight into the soil as it goes.

He cuts a hose open to show Williams the emitter inside that controls how much water is allowed to drip out. Spray hoses only hang about knee-high from the ground, but even in those few feet precious amounts of water can be lost to evaporation and the wind. Drip lines would limit those losses, he says, increasing water efficiency anywhere from 25 to 50 percent.

“My thinking is we’re trying to change a culture of irrigation,” he adds. The center-pivot system was a foreign concept to farmers when he began selling them more than 40 years ago, he says, and drip lines could become just as commonplace.

Watching the demonstration, Peter Winegeart, the PGCD’s assistant general manager, notes that farming has always been evolving. To make his point, he points down at his feet to the tufts of wheat stubble in the soil, towering (relatively) over the small green leaves of newly-planted cotton seeds.

“This was put in just to keep the soil in place so it’s not blowing across the Panhandle,” he says. “In the Dust Bowl they plowed everything up and then they realized, ‘Well that was not very smart.’ ”

“You just learn as you go,” he adds.

“They know that their livelihood is the water and the land, and if we don’t use it to the best of our ability then their livelihood’s not there.”

Making do and making rain

With such little water available in the Panhandle – either from the ground or from the sky – Williams and the PGCD are in the business of making the most out of every drop.

Primarily that means extending the Ogallala’s lifespan as long as possible. The PGCD is one of 98 groundwater conservation districts in Texas, and each is required by the state to ensure the users in their jurisdiction withdraw water only within a set limit each year.

For the PGCD, that means trying to limit groundwater withdrawals so that the Ogallala depletes by no more than 50 percent of its 2012 level – which roughly translates to 1.25 percent per farmer per year. Williams likes to think about the Ogallala as a bank account – the trouble is, the sparse rainfall deposits can’t keep up with the rate of withdrawals.

“If you’re taking dollar bills out and putting pennies in, there’s an end of the road at some point in time,” Williams says.

That’s how the PGCD got in the business of making rain.

Jennifer Puryear, a meteorologist, has helped run the district’s cloud-seeding program for a dozen years. She monitors the radar for incoming storm fronts and deploys the districts' two planes to fire flares of silver iodide and calcium chloride into the storm system. Updrafts pull the particles into the clouds, “fertilizing” the clouds, and, by her observations, increasing rainfall in those clouds by 5 to 10 percent, an average of 1.35 to 1.75 inches.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Jennifer Puryear, a meteorologist at the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District, in her office monitors approaching storm systems. She runs a cloud-seeding program that increases rainfall during storm events by five to 10 percent. In a region that only gets about 20 inches of rain a year, she says, that increase 'makes all the difference.'

“Five to 10 percent doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you can prevent 5 to 10 percent from being pumped out of the aquifer, to me it’s beneficial,” she says.

One morning in mid-May she is studying live radar images on her computer of a storm system over the district. A transponder radio squawks as she communicates with a pilot who’s just taken off. The system had been there overnight and is now petering out – not the best time to try seeding.

“You really need to be working in the non-drought seasons, because that’s when you get the opportunity to increase your watersheds,” she says.

“The best we can do is just throw out the new technology as much as we can. Stopping farming I don’t think is really an option,” she adds. “All these small towns, that’s what they do. Farm.”

Drop by drop

From windmill wells in the 1800s, to shallow water pumps in the early 1900s, to more powerful centrifugal pumps in the 1950s, farming in the Texas Panhandle has intensified with each new technological breakthrough – with the Ogallala Aquifer the fuel for the agricultural engine.

In recent years farmers have been tapping the brake more when it comes to using water. But while the water is being used more efficiently, there is still a lot more being used than is being recharged.

After a century of agriculture, farming is likely to persist in the Panhandle. And if farmers are saving water through more efficient equipment they tend to use that spare water to increase yields or open another field, rather than leave it in the ground.

The Ogallala isn’t declining uniformly – it is thicker around Amarillo than around Lubbock further south, for example – but groundwater is being pumped out at a rate six times faster than it is being recharged, according to Robert Mace, a water policy expert at Texas State University in San Marcos. Even if that rate slows, so long as withdrawals continue the aquifer “is a finite resource.”

“It’s not evil,” adds Dr. Mace, a former deputy executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board. “They’re business folks, so they’re looking at the bottom line.”

A transition to a more water-poor future is under way, however. Dryland farming is coming to dominate the southern Panhandle where the Ogallala is thin, and most of the Panhandle is projected to be that way in 50 years.

What seems unlikely is another technological breakthrough that transforms the Panhandle in the way windmill wells and centrifugal pumps did.

“There’s incremental improvements,” like the Dragon Line and cloud seeding, Mace says, “but not this major silver bullet.”

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
David Hodges, a local farmer, holds rainfall charts dating back to 1880. As of that day, 2018 was the second-driest year in his records.

David Hodges has grown enamored with another incremental improvement. Desperate to conserve rainwater a few years ago, he backed an empty tanker truck to the side of his biggest barn, connected a piece of irrigation pipe between the tanker and the barn’s gutter, and left it there during a storm. After 40 minutes, the truck was full.

The next year he bought two 10,000-gallon rainwater storage tanks. Last year he bought another one, and despite getting almost no rain for the past seven months, he has barely had to touch his wells.

“We really have enjoyed those things, but it only works when it rains,” he says one afternoon in mid-May.

Despite the difficult conditions, there are many young farmers in this area east of Amarillo – who haven’t been scared away. Brown’s grandson is one, and Hodges’s son, Destin, is another.

Stocky and tanned, the wide smile on the younger Hodges’s wavers only slightly as he thinks about the Ogallala.

“It’s scary, seeing the water go down,” he says. “You just keep working at it, try to save as much water as you can.”

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4. ‘Bride price’: Women in South Africa balance tradition, freedoms

Some say the practice of "lobola," or bride price, demeans women. Young South African women are seeking a middle ground that will reconcile tradition and modern rights. 

Amelia
Olivia Decelles
Sinegugu Sikhakhane tests the makeup she plans to wear at her engagement party. Her boyfriend asked her family for permission to marry her and sealed the agreement with a cash payment. In South Africa, the practice is known as 'lobola.'

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Sinegugu Sikhakhane was a third-year university student when her boyfriend approached her family to ask for her hand in marriage, sealing her future with a cash payment. She was not part of the conversation. “I didn’t choose; my family chose for me,” says Ms. Sikhakhane. This tradition, in which a groom's family makes a payment in livestock or cash before a marriage can take place, is practiced across much of Africa. Here in South Africa, it is known as lobola. Many young women say they respect the traditions of their cultures, but they chafe at a transaction that treats them as a commodity and binds them to a life commitment without their consent. They’re addressing this in a variety of ways, from cohabiting to avoid traditional marriage and lobola altogether, to fighting legal battles to abolish it. “We have the power to make decisions, and we respect our culture,” says Sihle Hlophe, a documentary filmmaker living in Johannesburg. “When we question our culture it doesn’t mean that we want to do away with it completely.”

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‘Bride price’: Women in South Africa balance tradition, freedoms

Sinegugu Sikhakhane stares at her reflection in the mirror of her bedroom, testing the makeup she will wear for her engagement party – a celebration of a proposal not made to her, or even with her knowledge.

Ms. Sikhakhane was a third-year university student when her boyfriend approached her family to ask for her hand in marriage, sealing her future with a cash payment. She was not part of the conversation.  

They wouldn’t get married for four years, when a bride price, paid in cattle, would be due, but no other man could ask to marry her. 

“I didn’t choose – my family chose for me,” says Sikhakhane, a 22-year-old university graduate, pulling on her denim jacket and shaking loose her thick black hair.

“I love my fiancé. I do love him, but I wasn’t ready for marriage. Now because he has already gone to my family, I have no choice,” she says.  

Similar traditions, in which a groom’s family makes a payment in livestock or cash before a marriage can take place, are practiced across much of Africa, from Libya and Morocco to Zimbabwe and South Africa. Here, it is known as lobola. The custom is part of a rich, elaborate tradition around marriage in some ethnic groups, one that has the power to forge bonds, supporters say. Critics, however, say it commoditizes women, thus disempowering them. 

Many young women say they respect the traditions of their cultures, but chafe at a transaction that treats them as a commodity and binds them to a life commitment without their consent. They’re addressing this in a variety of ways, from cohabiting to avoid traditional marriage and lobola altogether, to fighting legal battles to abolish lobola

“We have the power to make decisions and we respect our culture,” says Sihle Hlophe, a documentary filmmaker living in Johannesburg. “When we question our culture it doesn’t mean that we want to do away with it completely.”

Ms. Hlophe is working on a film due out in 2019, “Lobola: A Bride’s True Price,” that explores the tension women face juggling choices about their lives and the pressure of customs. It tracks her own dilemma as she navigates the expectations of community and family while pursuing personal goals – something she says creates a “huge conflict.” 

Some are taking up the issue in court. In Zimbabwe, Harare lawyer Priccilar Vengesai has asked the constitutional court to abolish lobola, or if that fails, to rule that the obligation to make a lobola payment might apply to either the bride or groom’s family. 

Ms. Vengesai said the terms of her previous marriages objectified her. 

“This whole scenario reduced me to a property, whereby a price tag was put on me by my uncles, and my husband paid,” she told Zimbabwe’s Herald newspaper. “This demoralized me, and automatically subjected me to my husband’s control, since I would always feel that I was purchased.”  

Ms. Vengesai is not the first to make a legal challenge. A Ugandan court rejected an appeal to ban the practice but ruled that men can’t ask for a refund in case of divorce. Zimbabwe passed a law preventing parents from accepting payment for daughters under the age of 18. 

The practice has its pluses, acknowledges Hlophe, citing the bond that is created between families through the negotiation process. 

“They have robust discussion and they bond and they eat together. They say that the people who are a part of your negotiation party are the people you turn to when you have problems, or when you know you have something to celebrate,” she says. “From that moment on, you are forever family.” 

However, Hlophe, who is struggling with whether to consent to a lobola arrangement, or press her future husband for a civil marriage, dislikes that the bride price today is often paid in cash rather than in cattle.

“Cattle is a social currency,” she says, and it has symbolic value in traditional society. “Now in some instances lobola has become largely about money, and how much the bride is worth. I don’t want to be commoditized.” 

In a contemporary urban setting, it’s not always realistic to negotiate in terms of cattle. Entrepreneurs have developed apps to calculate the cash equivalent of the cattle price, allowing users to adjust for factors such as education, virginity, and skills. A price of 11 cows, or about $7,000, is considered fair for someone who has finished school and is a virgin, according to the Lobola Calculator app, which was created as a joke but is used by some men to estimate an offer. That’s the price Sikhakhane’s boyfriend agreed to pay her family.

Despite being conflicted about the custom, Sikhakhane says lobola is fair compensation for what her family invested in her. She lives in her mother’s house, and although she is in her mid-20s, she obeys her mother’s decisions. 

“Because I’m still like a child under my mom’s hand and she has sacrificed a lot for me, when I get married the responsibility goes to my husband or my future husband,” she says. “So therefore he needs to pay my mom for all the money she was using sending me to school, clothing me, and feeding me.” 

To skirt lobola altogether, young couples are increasingly choosing to cohabit instead of tying the knot, according to a 2011 Witwatersrand University study of marriage rates in KwaZulu-Natal province by researchers Dorrit Posel and Stephanie Rudwick.

Half of respondents who were never married cited lobola as the main reason for not marrying, according to the study. Almost all respondents cited the cost of lobola as a concern.

Many men consider their ability to pay a mark of manhood and proof of their ability to provide for a family, however. Those who avoid it may not be recognized as properly married by their communities.

“It is a rite of passage for him in becoming a man in his family, and in my family he might not be considered as really married to me if he doesn’t do it,” says Hlophe.  

The practice puts pressure on women, too. Payment of lobola can affect the power relationship in a marriage, remove decision-making power from women, and increase the risk of domestic violence, says Nizipho Mvune, a doctoral student in gender studies at KwaZulu-Natal University in South Africa. 

“Research suggests that some men become violent when they have reduced economic power, and when they finally pay lobola, they are in a position to call the shots and dictate the terms of relationships,” says Ms. Mvune. 

In Zimbabwe, researchers from the Gender Studies Department of Midlands State University interviewed dozens of people affected by domestic violence. The 2013 study found that 80 percent of them said lobola exacerbated violence based on gender.

Despite the challenges, tradition often reigns. Sikhakhane says she has a duty to her family customs, and a duty to show respect for the ancestors. 

“If you believe in them, then you do all the stuff that needs to be done,” she says. “Some people think, let me just do it for the sake of my family.”

This reporting was supported by Round Earth Media and the SIT study abroad program. 

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On Film

5. Our movie critic’s three picks for May

Looking to start your travel season by way of some lavishly located films? Our critic, Peter Rainer, has some ideas for you.

Amelia

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May’s movies deliver a lush portrayal of the dynamics of a family farm in World War I France, a satisfying adaptation of a play about art and sacrifice, and a wrenching story of star-crossed lovers. Some of the imagery in “The Guardians,” directed by Xavier Beauvois, is straight from the paintings of Jean-François Millet, but the film stops short of aestheticizing the arduousness of daily farm life in wartime France. The best reason to check out the Michael Mayer version of Anton Chekhov’s play “The Seagull” may be Annette Bening’s fantastic turn as Irina, the grand dame of the Russian theater whose most tumultuous work occurs offstage. And while the flashback structure of the grim, set-in-Britain “On Chesil Beach” is too herky-jerky for the film’s more delicate emotional modulations, the power of a couple’s final face-off is so wrenching that neither that nor a handful of other minor flaws matter much.

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Our movie critic’s three picks for May

An adaptation of a classic Anton Chekhov play and a story about women working on a farm in World War I France are two of the best movies to have been released this month, according to Monitor film critic Peter Rainer.

'The Guardians' beautifully portrays the dynamics of a family farm in WWI France

Xavier Beauvois’s marvelous new film, “The Guardians,” which takes place in France over five years beginning in 1915, is set almost entirely on a family-owned farm. Hortense (Nathalie Baye), the family’s matriarch, has a son-in-law in the war, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), who is married to Hortense’s daughter, Solange (Laura Smet). Also on the front lines are Hortense’s two sons, Constant (Nicolas Giraud) and Georges (Cyril Descours). To help with the harvesting, Hortense hires a pious, dutiful 20-year-old orphan, Francine (Iris Bry).

Beauvois, who co-wrote the screenplay with Frédérique Moreau and Marie-Julie Maille based on a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, presents the dailiness of farm life through its seasons with an unhurried grace. Although some of the imagery, beautifully captured by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, derives directly from the paintings of Jean-François Millet and the work of such filmmakers as Marcel Pagnol and Jean Renoir, I never felt as if he was aestheticizing the arduousness of the life put before us. Beauvois has a seismic sensitivity to the ordeals faced by enclosed communities in wartime. Grade: A- (Rated R for some violence and sexuality.)

'The Seagull' offers strong performances, Chekhovian sorrow

In most Anton Chekhov plays, none more so than “The Seagull,” everybody is in love – but with the wrong people. The latest film adaptation of “The Seagull,” directed by Michael Mayer and adapted by Stephen Karam, does a creditable job of orchestrating Chekhov’s sorrowful romantic roundelay (although the decision to open with the final scene and then flash back is an unnecessary harbinger).

The best reason to check out the film is for Saoirse Ronan’s tender, wrenching performance as the lovelorn Nina, and, especially, for Annette Bening’s fantastic turn as Irina, the grand dame of the Russian theater whose most tumultuous work occurs offstage. Bening is capable of being waspish, consoling, frail, indomitable, and woebegone – sometimes all at once. She turns “The Seagull” into a play about the hellish sacrifices one makes for art. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity.)

'On Chesil Beach' tells a tragic story of crossed love

Ian McEwan’s resoundingly melancholy 2007 novel “On Chesil Beach,” set mostly in 1962, has been respectfully adapted by McEwan, acting as screenwriter, and Dominic Cooke, a renowned English theater director making his movie debut.

The film, which stars Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, opens with the lead-up to the couple's wedding night in an old Georgian hotel on a rather remote stretch of Chesil Beach in Dorset, England. From there it cuts back and forth between scenes of their courtship and the disastrous way in which that connubial night plays out.

The filmmakers erred, I think, by attaching a coda to the proceedings that sentimentalizes what we’ve just witnessed. And in general, the flashback structure is too herky-jerky for the film’s more delicate emotional modulations. But the power of the couple's final face-off is so wrenching that none of these cavils matter very much. Grade: B+ (Rated R for strong sex references, violence, and gore.)

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The Monitor's View

For Italy, all roads lead to EU values

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Qualities such as trust, fiscal prudence, and rule of law are the unseen assets of an economy. Italians went to the polls three months ago, yet they still do not have a new government. Global financial markets have taken a dip out of fear that a postelection crisis there might force Italy to default on its debt or lead it to withdraw from Europe’s shared currency. Elections do more than set a new direction for a country. They also serve as a test of voter understanding about the values that drive innovation, stability, and prosperity. A majority of Italians still support the euro, a benefit of 75 years of efforts to unify postwar Europe. But they also see little urgency in dealing with the third-highest public debt in the world. Economic growth relies on the spending restraint and similar promises that Italy made to its partners in the European Union. Markets seek consistency and certainty in Italian policies, but, most of all, cooperation on the values that have turned the EU into the world’s second largest economic region. The EU nations together will eventually make better choices on essential values than if each country splits off on its own. Greece made a choice to stay in the EU after its 2011-12 financial crisis. Now it is Italy’s turn.

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For Italy, all roads lead to EU values

For decades, the rest of the world could largely ignore the contact sport known as Italian politics. Not this week, when global financial markets took a giant dip out of fear that a postelection crisis in Rome might force a default on Italy’s outsize debt or lead it to withdraw from Europe’s shared currency.

Italy, warned Ignazio Visco, governor of the country’s central bank, is “a few short steps away” from losing the “asset of trust.”

Qualities such as trust, fiscal prudence, and rule of law are indeed the unseen assets of an economy, especially in one that is the fourth largest in the European Union. Italians went to polls three months ago to choose new leaders, yet they still do not have new government. The key dispute is whether Italy should ignore EU rules on debt levels – and even possibly leave the EU.

The top vote-getters in the March election, the populist Five Star Movement and the right-wing League, are euroskeptics. The League claims EU rules are “enslaving” Italians, barring them from borrowing more to spend more. But President Sergio Mattarella, who must bless any coalition government, is in favor of Italy living by EU standards of governance. The standoff could lead to a compromise or a new election as soon as July 29.

Elections do more than set a new direction for a country. They also serve as a test of voter understanding about the values that drive innovation, stability, and prosperity. A consistent majority of Italians still support the euro, or the common currency, which is a solid benefit of 75 years of efforts to unify postwar Europe. But they also see little urgency in dealing with the third-highest public debt in the world and the eurozone’s largest in absolute terms.

Private investors fled Italy’s financial markets this week because the country seemed not to understand that economic growth relies on the spending restraint and similar promises that Italy, a founder of the EU and the euro, made to its partners. Markets now seek consistency and certainty in Italian policies, but most of all, cooperation on the values that have turned the EU into the world’s second largest economic region.

In his last book, “Factfulness,” the late Swedish statistician Hans Rosling pleaded for more nations to unify around a common search for truth. “In order for this planet to have financial stability, peace, and protected natural resources, there’s one thing we can’t do without, and that’s international collaboration, based on shared and fact-based understanding of the world. The current lack of knowledge about the world is therefore the most concerning problem of all.”

Together, the EU nations, as an intentional community, will eventually make better choices on essential values than if each country splits off on its own. Greece made a choice to stay in the EU after its 2011-12 financial crisis. Now it is Italy’s turn.

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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.

A lesson from ‘Beauty and the Beast’

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Everyone has what it takes to redeem mistakes and move forward with a fresh start.

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A lesson from ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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“Beauty and the Beast” was the spring musical performed by students at my grandchildren’s middle school this year. In the story, an angry, deformed Beast regains his former princely nature in response to the patience and selflessness expressed by a young woman imprisoned in his castle. Since I was writing the press release for the production, I had the opportunity to interview the students and to ask them what lessons they had learned from the Beast’s experience. Someone said that perhaps the Beast had never been taught to treat others kindly. Another said that perhaps he did not realize that unkindness could have such terrible consequences.

I was touched by their lack of condemnation and willingness to forgive. This reminded me of another story I love about redemption and forgiveness – a story Christ Jesus told about a young man who audaciously asked his father for his inheritance while his father was still alive (see Luke, Chapter 15, in the Bible). Unfortunately, the son’s self-indulgent behavior resulted in him wasting his entire inheritance, leaving him destitute.

Repentant, and believing he had lost his father’s love, he headed home, hoping he’d be allowed to work as a servant. But when his father saw him, he was overjoyed and ran to greet his son. He showered him with love and symbols of sonship – the best robe, a ring, and shoes – communicating to all that his stature of sonship was intact.

If one has made a mistake, one might be tempted (like the son in this story) to feel unworthy of redemption and forgiveness. But my study of Christian Science has shown me how to think differently, more spiritually, about our nature as the children, or expression, of God, divine Spirit. It has helped me see that because man’s heritage is composed of spiritual qualities, such as love and purity, these cannot be wasted, lost, or overspent, but are ever available for us to express each day. This is explained in the Christian Science textbook this way: “In Science man is the offspring of Spirit. The beautiful, good, and pure constitute his ancestry” (Mary  Baker Eddy, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 63).

As we’re willing to accept this idea, then we find it’s both natural and a pleasure to behave in ways that express these qualities and encourage them in others. I saw this to be true some years ago when I was teaching. I had invited a guest speaker to share his expertise on a curriculum topic with my class, and he brought along some memorabilia to enrich his presentation. After an enjoyable talk, the speaker began packing away his belongings and noticed that a valued medal was missing.

When no one in the class admitted to taking the medal, I took an approach I’d found helpful in other situations: I reached out to God in silent prayer. It was a Christian school, so I asked the students to pray as well. My own prayers affirmed everyone’s identity as the child of divine Love, God, who guides us to be upright and honest. I felt with conviction that dishonesty is not a quality from God, and therefore has no place in anyone’s true nature. And I prayed to know that our relation to God, the source of our identity, can never be broken.

Shortly afterward, the lunch bell rang, and as the students were leaving the classroom, one boy stayed behind and quietly gave me the medal. He apologized for his behavior and admitted that he had made a mistake. I thanked him for doing the right thing and gently reminded him that God gave him the strength to say “no” whenever he was tempted by such thoughts. I assured him that there’d be no further action, and he was very grateful that he was forgiven. There were no further incidents with the boy stealing. Knowing that everyone’s true heritage is spiritual and Godlike enables us to put aside improper behaviors and to sincerely and joyfully accept the opportunity for a fresh start.

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Viewfinder

In Belgium, a solemn pause

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP
Police officers and members of the public attend a moment of silence for shooting victims near the City Hall in Liège, Belgium, May 30. A gunman killed three people, including two police officers, in that city on Tuesday. Police later killed the attacker.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( May 31st, 2018 )

Thanks for joining us today. Tomorrow, we’ll have another story in our “Home” series. This one takes us to Lincoln, England, and a community’s struggle to accept and even welcome the change represented by the building of a mosque.

Monitor Daily Podcast

May 30, 2018
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