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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
June
25
Monday

The New York Times asked an interesting question Sunday: What if you had been told a lie all your life, only for the government that told it to suddenly acknowledge it wasn’t true? In this case, the example was Saudi Arabia, which now officially allows women to drive despite saying for years that women were less intelligent and would cause birth defects in their babies if they drove while pregnant.

The question resonates more broadly, of course. The era of fake news makes demands on us all. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center looked at how well Americans separated fact from fiction. Among the qualities that distinguished those who did better: a high political awareness, a sense of digital savvy, and a lot of trust in the news media.

But research shows that facts themselves often don’t change opinions. Indeed, they frequently only set people more firmly in their ways. In Saudi Arabia, for example, many men still think the same about women, even though the official government position has changed. In other words, even if “facts” change quickly, the worldviews behind them don’t.

That brings the political challenge of today into sharper focus. Problems are not solved by force of facts but rather by turning arguments into “a partnership, a collaboration,” writes Julia Galef, president of the Center for Applied Rationality. Is that even possible amid such polarization? In reality, it simply points to the evolving task of any nation: the struggle to find some true sense of “one” among many.

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Our five stories for today include a touching piece from Colombia about books, and fresh thinking from lobstermen in Maine, but two articles also dig a little deeper into the struggles worldwide over facts and perceptions.   

1. High-court ruling carries major implications for voting rights

The final week in June is always a big one for Supreme Court watchers, and this week will bring major decisions on the Trump White House's travel ban and the future of public unions. Today, the justices issued a ruling with "huge ramifications" for voting rights law.

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On Monday, the United States Supreme Court overturned almost entirely a lower court ruling that had invalidated several political districts in Texas for harming the voting power of racial minorities. These final weeks of the Supreme Court’s term have been defined by narrow technical rulings in contentious cases on issues such as partisan gerrymandering and religious liberty. Today’s 5-to-4 decision on racial gerrymandering in Texas veers from that pattern, experts say. The case, Abbott v. Perez, had been litigated over seven years and three election cycles. With the decision coming less than two years away from a new round of redistricting, the ruling could have significant implications for voting rights lawsuits. “There was a lot of evidence of discriminatory intent in the [Texas] map that the [high] court sort of ignored,” says Michael Li, of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, “and today’s ruling shows a huge presumption of good faith even in a situation like Texas.” The decision, he adds, could have “huge ramifications for voting rights law more generally, well beyond Texas.”

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High-court ruling carries major implications for voting rights

In a decision split along ideological lines, the United States Supreme Court Monday overturned almost entirely a lower court ruling that had invalidated several political districts in Texas for harming the voting power of racial minorities.

These final weeks of the Supreme Court’s term have been defined by narrow technical rulings in contentious cases on issues such as partisan gerrymandering and religious liberty. Today’s decision on racial gerrymandering in Texas veers from that pattern, experts say. Less than two years away from a new round of redistricting, it could have significant implications for voting rights lawsuits.

“There was a lot of evidence of discriminatory intent in the [Texas] map that the [high] court sort of ignored,” says Michael Li, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, “and today’s ruling shows a huge presumption of good faith even in a situation like Texas.”

The decision could have “huge ramifications for voting rights law more generally, well beyond Texas,” he adds. “It’s very disappointing and in a lot of ways disturbing.”

Lower court ‘critically flawed’

The case, Abbott v. Perez, has been litigated over seven years and three election cycles, dating back to when the Texas legislature drew new district maps following the 2010 Census. Minority voters and advocacy groups sued almost immediately, claiming several of the new districts were gerrymandered to dilute or otherwise harm minority voting power. Federal district courts in both San Antonio and Washington ruled that the 2011 map intentionally discriminated against minority voters – the latter because, at the time, Texas was required under the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to have any changes affecting voting “precleared” by the court. An interim map drawn by the Texas court was used in the 2012 election.

While the Texas court wrote that its interim map didn’t entirely address the intentional discrimination in the 2011 map, the state legislature adopted it as its permanent district map in a 2013 special session. That map was then used in the 2014 and 2016 elections while litigation continued. A three-judge panel of the district court in San Antonio eventually ruled last year that the interim map it had drawn still carried the “taint” of intentional discrimination found in the 2011 map and invalidated seven state house districts and two congressional districts.

Monday’s majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by the court’s four other conservative justices, reversed that decision almost entirely, with one exception: One of the nine invalidated districts, a state house district in Fort Worth, is racially gerrymandered and needs to be redrawn, he wrote.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton hailed the decision in a statement as “a huge win for the Constitution, Texas, and the democratic process.”

“The court rightly recognized that the Constitution protects the right of Texans to draw their own legislative districts, and rejected the misguided efforts by unelected federal judges to wrest control of Texas elections from Texas voters,” he added.

The “essential pillar” of the three-judge panel’s reasoning “was critically flawed,” Justice Alito wrote because “it was the challengers’ burden to show that the 2013 [Texas] legislature acted with discriminatory intent.”

“The 2013 legislature was not obligated to show that it had ‘cured’ the unlawful intent that the court attributed to the 2011 legislature,” he added.

When thus viewed “under the proper legal standards” – meaning with the plaintiffs having to prove that Texas engaged in intentional discrimination when it adopted the interim map in 2013 – the high court ruled that “there is no evidence that the legislature’s aim was to gain acceptance of plans that it knew were unlawful.”

The actions of the 2011 legislature are not irrelevant, Alito continued in his opinion, but the three-judge panel should have given those factors less weight than it did.

“When all the relevant evidence in the record is taken into account,” he wrote, “it is plainly insufficient to prove that the 2013 Legislature acted in bad faith and engaged in intentional discrimination.”

‘What’s the use of Section 3?’

This analysis represents a significant departure from typical Supreme Court practice in a few ways, however, according to experts and the court’s four dissenting justices.

“The court seemed to not give deference to the district court’s actual [factual] findings, which we would normally expect the Supreme Court to do,” says Steven Schwinn, an associate professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Cases that examine voting rights issues, such as claims of racial gerrymandering or racially discriminatory voter ID laws, are usually very fact-heavy and fact-specific. It is typically the job of the district court to review evidence, gather witness testimony, and do everything else necessary to determine, based on the facts, whether certain voter districts or voting laws are racially discriminatory or not.

“So when trial judge makes fact-findings based on hearing evidence, the appellate courts are supposed to defer to that fact-finding under the law because appellate courts don’t have the chance to do all that stuff,” says Professor Schwinn.

“You’ve got a very extensive factual record here that a majority of the Supreme Court seemed to be willing to disregard, or play fast and loose with,” he adds.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor – joined by the court’s three other liberal-leaning justices – wrote that the district court had followed its requirements to factually prove intentional racial discrimination “virtually to a tee … having presided over years of litigation and seeing firsthand all of the evidence.” (Alito, in a footnote, struck back at her on this point, writing that the dissent “is simply wrong in claiming over and over that we have not thoroughly examined the record.”)

Furthermore, in using that evidentiary record to leave all but one of Texas’s disputed voting districts intact, the high court’s decision “will make it harder for people to bring these sorts of claims in the future,” says Mr. Li of the Brennan Center.

“Normally you assume the legislature is acting in good faith, but not when the legislature has a history of having intentionally discriminated,” he adds.

Its history of intentional discrimination against minority voters had kept Texas among a group of states that were required to have changes to their voting laws “precleared” by a federal court under Section 5 of the VRA – essentially, Texas had to prove to the court that the changes weren’t intentionally discriminatory. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder  – five years ago today – declared Section 5 unconstitutional.

That decision still left plaintiffs with an avenue to address potentially discriminatory voting laws under Section 3 of the VRA. Under that section, if plaintiffs are able to show that a jurisdiction or state intentionally discriminated, a court could order the jurisdiction or state back into preclearance.

With its decision today, the Supreme Court has set a very high bar for plaintiffs to prove intentional discrimination in these kinds of cases, experts say.

“If what happened in Texas [since 2011] is not powerful enough [evidence of discriminatory intent] it’s really hard to imagine what would be,” says Li.

“The trigger for Section 3 is intentional discrimination, and if effectively because of the Texas decision you have a really hard time proving intentional discrimination, what’s the use of Section 3?” he adds.

States following suit?

Today’s decision also comes at a time when other former preclearance jurisdictions are looking to implement controversial changes to their voting laws.

In North Carolina – which last year had a change to its voting laws thrown out by a federal court because it targeted African-American voters “with almost surgical precision” – legislators have introduced a bill that would eliminate the final Saturday of early voting in state elections, a day that often draws large numbers of black voters. And in Alabama the state government has made a series of changes since the Shelby County decision that have restricted voting access, including passing a voter ID law, closing driver’s license offices in heavily African-American counties, and purging voter rolls.

Narrow decisions on technical or procedural grounds have allowed the Supreme Court to both find some consensus and avoid potential controversy so far this term. Its 6-to-3 decision in a case about a cake-shop owner who refused to serve a gay couple, for example, focused on procedural errors in a lower court. In two cases about partisan gerrymandering the justices decided, unanimously, to punt on the merits.

The justices could have done similar with today’s decision. The court’s ability to rule on the merits of the case was far from clear, since the lower court had not issued a formal injunction preventing Texas from using its old map, the usual trigger for Supreme Court review.

“If the court wanted to write this case in a narrow way, what it should have done is say that it lacked jurisdiction,” says Schwinn. “The court did not take up the narrowing option.”

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Patterns

Tracing global connections

2. How nationalism fuels anti-immigration front across the West

Often, the facts around migration matter less than perception. Across the West, that’s leading to levels of anti-immigrant isolationism not seen since the 1930s. 

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The pressure is now building on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to take a far tougher line on immigration or risk seeing her government fall. She, French President Emmanuel Macron, and other leaders in Europe hoping to stem the tide are holding crucial European Union talks this week in hopes of finding a new, cooperative formula for meeting the challenge of immigration and asylum. Immigration – or more accurately, a mix of immigration, globalization, war, and economic hardship – is a major reason for today's populist surge in the West. But the crucial element is not the number of migrants. It’s the politics of immigration: its power as a weapon in focusing popular disenchantment, frustration, and anger on the “threat” of foreigners in a nation’s midst. In many ways, the clocks in Europe seem to be turning back to pre-World War II days, to a time when competing nationalist, ethnic, and religious forces held sway. Then, as now, the realities of immigration mattered less than the politics. “Crime in Germany is way up,” President Trump tweeted about the US ally. Crime in Germany is, in fact, down.

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How nationalism fuels anti-immigration front across the West

The battle over the immigration issue in America has masked what could prove a more fundamental change internationally: the emergence of an informal alliance including political leaders across the Atlantic who, like President Trump, have placed an angry mix of nationalism and populism at the heart of their message.

It is happening in Poland, Hungary, Austria, as well as with Italy’s newly installed populist coalition and Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was given a path to virtually unchallenged power by his latest election victory Sunday.

The anti-immigrant nationalists in France, under the banner of Marine Le Pen, were dealt a blow last year by the election of President Emmanuel Macron. But the pressure is now building on German Chancellor Angela Merkel from her coalition partners to take a far tougher line on immigration or risk seeing her government fall. She, Mr. Macron, and other leaders in Europe hoping to stem the tide are holding crucial European Union talks this week in hopes of finding a new, cooperative formula for meeting the challenge of immigration and asylum.

We’ll get a much better idea of whether they can do so, or at least take the sting out of demands to close borders and send people packing, in the coming week. But the deeper trend – the populist backlash against economic globalization and the strains that is putting on the EU, as one of the main post-World War II vehicles for economic and political cooperation – already has two clear cheerleaders: Mr. Trump and Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Trump, whose former campaign strategist Steve Bannon has recently toured Europe and met with anti-immigration nationalists, sees a welcome echo of his own stump speeches. For Mr. Putin, a potentially weakened EU – and possibly a weakened NATO as well – offer the potential of projecting his own influence on the continent, and even perhaps an end to Western sanctions over Russian intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.

None of that is certain to happen. But in many ways, the clocks in Europe seem to be turning back to pre-war days, to a time when competing nationalist, ethnic, and religious forces held sway. After World War II, Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe effectively forced a lid onto them there, while the creation of the alliance among democratic countries of Western Europe created an architecture of cooperation that, at least for a while, successfully expanded to embrace former Soviet satellites after the fall of the USSR.

Immigration – or more accurately, a mix of immigration, globalization, war, and economic hardship – is a major reason for the populist surge. Even before the international financial crisis of a decade ago, the globalized economy contributed to the contraction or even the collapse of a number of traditional industries and businesses in the US and Europe. At the same time, war in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, along with failed governance, poverty, and hunger in parts of Africa, led growing numbers of asylum-seekers and economic refugees to seek opportunities in Europe, peaking with a huge influx several years ago.

But the immigration part of the equation is complex. The facts are straightforward enough. A United Nations report last week revealed that an all-time high of nearly 70 million migrants were on the move in 2017. But the crucial element is not the number. It’s the politics of immigration: its power as a weapon in focusing popular disenchantment, frustration, and anger on the “threat” of foreigners in a nation’s midst. Rarely was this more evident than in the anti-immigrant isolationism of pre-World War II America, and in 1930s Europe.

Then, as now, the realities of immigration mattered less than the politics. In the US, crime rates appear to actually be lower among immigrants than for native-born Americans. Last week, Trump tweeted an unprecedented barb at Merkel, a key US ally. “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” he wrote. “Crime in Germany is way up.” Crime in Germany is, in fact, down. But the president did put his finger perfectly on the politics.

His message also underscored the challenge in achieving what Merkel is seeking at this week’s EU talks, and what the UN report stressed was essential in defusing immigration as an engine for populism, nationalism, and potential political instability: “a far more comprehensive approach so that countries and communities aren’t left dealing with this [issue] alone.”

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3. For reporters covering Trump, the serial challenge of handling untruths

The gap between facts and perception also plays out repeatedly in press coverage of President Trump. The result is a seemingly irreconcilable break between the media and Mr. Trump’s supporters, with each hearing the president very differently.

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President Trump, accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2nd from right), spoke to members of the media June 1 on the South Lawn outside the Oval Office in Washington. According to The Washington Post's Fact Checker, by the end of May Mr. Trump had made 3,251 false or misleading statements while in office.
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Andrew Harnik/AP

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All presidents exaggerate, shade the truth, use facts selectively, and make unrealistic promises. Some, on occasion, have flat-out lied. But President Trump – a businessman, salesman, and former reality TV performer with a keen instinct for public relations – has taken presidential communication to a different place. He says things that many Americans find offensive. And he frequently says things that are provably false. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has counted 3,251 false or misleading claims made by Mr. Trump since he took office through the end of May. Still, many reporters won’t use the L-word – lying – when characterizing Trump’s false statements, because lying implies an intent to deceive. “What he does can be hard to label because, as anyone who has worked for him will tell you in candor, he often thinks whatever he says is what’s real,” New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted recently. Moreover, to Trump’s most ardent supporters, his aggressive way of communicating is a plus. The more reporters call the president out on his false statements, the more he uses them as a foil, lambasting the “fake news media” and engendering even more support from his base.

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For reporters covering Trump, the serial challenge of handling untruths

For three years, since the day he glided down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his presidential bid, Donald Trump has confounded the mainstream media. He says things that many Americans find offensive. And he frequently says things that are provably false.

Yet, by some measures, President Trump is thriving. His job approval rating, while still relatively low, now ties his all-time high of 45 percent in the Gallup poll. Among fellow Republicans, he’s at 90 percent, also on par with his all-time best.

Many factors play into attitudes about Mr. Trump, including the strong economy. But to his most ardent supporters, his aggressive way of communicating is a plus. And he uses that style to “play” the media – the very institution envisioned by the Founding Fathers as an important check on government, say experts on political rhetoric.

The more the media go after him and call him out on his rhetoric, especially false statements, the more Trump uses the media as a foil. This, in turn, engenders more devotion from base Trump supporters – and even wins him sympathy from skeptics who believe the media go overboard at times in their criticism.

The press – already facing declining trust from Americans – is in a no-win situation in its dealings with Trump, says Barbara Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. 

Obviously, “you can’t stop [pointing out Trump’s misstatements], because if you do, all is lost,” Ms. Perry says. But she’s not sure all the fact-checking by reporters changes many minds.

Trump’s use of repetitive falsehoods in politics began with his participation in the birther movement, says Perry, referring to the conspiracy theory that questioned President Barack Obama’s American birth. As a candidate and then as president, Trump has developed a formula for reinforcing false information in public thought, a technique that’s particularly effective at his rallies, she says.

“First, he injects the inaccuracy into the body politic,” says Perry. “Then he repeats it over and over again. Then he talks about how he’s finding evidence to ‘prove’ what in fact is an inaccuracy, and sprinkles in editorial asides.” 

“There’s almost a religious cadence to it, like call and response,” she says.

Last week’s news cyclone over migrant children may provide the sharpest test yet of Trump’s ability to defy facts without repercussions. He faced an uproar over his “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which led to the separation of more than 2,500 children from their parents after their apprehension at the US-Mexico border.

At first, Trump insisted he alone couldn’t fix the problem: Congress had to act. And it was the Democrats’ fault.

Then, he reversed course, and signed an executive order that allows children to stay with their parents while in detention. The episode’s impact on Trump’s job approval numbers has yet to be determined, but it could be instructive.

What’s different is that Trump directly contradicted himself in a very short period of time, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  

“This becomes a test case of whether a Trump audience is capable of seeing a reality in the face of repeated exposure to an unreality,” says Ms. Jamieson. “The answer may be no – in which case, we are in a fundamentally different world.”

‘A particular vernacular’

Trump allies respond to accusations of presidential lying in different ways. Former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, appearing on ABC’s “This Week” on June 17, argued that the media are misinterpreting Trump’s style of speaking.

When asked about Trump’s habit of saying things that aren’t true, Bannon said, “I don’t believe that.” When prodded to explain, he said: “I think he speaks in a particular vernacular that connects to people in this country.”

In a broad sense, academics Perry and Jamieson agree that Trump’s “vernacular” connects with his supporters – and that it’s not always meant to be taken literally.

Jamieson recalls a focus group with Trump supporters in 2016, in which several said they didn’t expect Trump to literally put up a border wall that Mexico would pay for. Instead, what they heard was a commitment to following through on the issue.

“If you heard it to say, he’s going to do a lot more on immigration than anybody else … then at some level, there’s a truth there for you that’s not a literal truth the way the elites are hearing it,” says Jamieson.

Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway responds to questions about the president and truthfulness in a different way. At a recent press breakfast hosted by the Monitor, Ms. Conway pushed back on a reporter’s assertion that Trump is “serially untruthful,” and blamed anti-Trump bias.

“I think many people in this room … are skeptical of him, because you neither wanted nor expected him to be the president,” Conway said.

She also blamed reporters for being harder on Trump than on Democrats.

“Has the president said something that even comes close to, ‘It was a videotape that caused the loss of life of four people in Benghazi’? Has he said anything close to, ‘You can keep your plan, you can keep your doctor’?” she said, repeating assertions by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Obama.

Her comment raises a larger issue: All presidents spin, dissemble, exaggerate, shade the truth, use facts selectively, and make unrealistic promises. Some presidents, too, have been caught lying – such as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Dwight Eisenhower lied to protect national security after the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane.

But Trump – a businessman, salesman, and former reality TV performer with a keen instinct for public relations – has taken the art of presidential communication to a different place.

The L-word

White House reporters admit that he can be challenging to cover. “I have written stories about his lies, falsehoods, whoppers, half-truths, salesman-like stretches,” New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted recently.  “The reality is that what he does can be hard to label because, as anyone who has worked for him will tell you in candor, he often thinks whatever he says is what’s real.”

For that reason, many reporters aren’t willing to use the L-word – lying – when characterizing Trump statements that are false. Lying implies an intent to deceive, and only he knows his intent.

What is certain is Trump’s effective use of repetition – both verbally and via Twitter. Perhaps his most oft-repeated phrases are “fake news,” when referring to news stories that he doesn’t like or which contain errors, and “witch hunt,” in reference to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. In using those terms, Trump not only reinforces his base supporters’ beliefs, he also degrades overall public trust in the media and government institutions, say experts in communication.

“Social psychologists call it the ‘familiarity effect,’ ” says Jamieson. “It means that when you’re exposed to something repeatedly, your sense that it is accurate increases.”

Linguist George Lakoff, who advises Democratic politicians, says that Trump “weaponizes” words, and journalists need to do more than just report what he says. They need to provide context, refrain from putting false information in headlines or story leads, and avoid sensation in favor of substance.

“By faithfully transmitting Trump’s words and ideas, the press helps him to attack, and thereby control, the press itself,” Mr. Lakoff recently wrote in The Guardian. “Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him to put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas.”

The fact-checking industry, which has flourished under Trump, is another important element in Trump’s relationship with the media. Best-known, perhaps, is The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, which has been counting false or misleading claims made by Trump since he took office.

Through May, that list had reached 3,251 statements. Most recently, in its analysis of Trump’s speech last week at a rally in Duluth, Minn., Fact Checker concluded that Trump made a false or misleading statement almost once every two minutes.

Recent inaccurate claims by Trump include his assertion that “crime in Germany is way up” due to an influx of migrants. In fact, crime in Germany is at a 25-year low. Trump also says he has begun building his border wall, a claim Politifact says is “mostly false.”

But what impact does fact-checking have, at this point? To Trump supporters, the allegations of lying are just fake news. To his opponents, the fact-checkers only reinforce their view that he is a serial liar.

When asked about Trump and falsehoods at the Monitor Breakfast, Conway said she looked at the Washington Post’s list of presidential misstatements and found it overly nit-picky.

“I read it, and it’s that he’s off by a percentage sometimes about the jobs numbers or about the number of people who are no longer overdosing on drugs,” she said.

She echoed Lakoff, in effect saying the press should focus on substance and not “ ‘why did he say this’ or ‘why did he do that’ or ‘where is the first lady’? Seriously?” she asks. “That’s what journalism has become.”

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4. For Maine lobstermen, success means both catches and conservation

Conservation efforts are often portrayed as being in opposition to economic interests. But to most Maine lobstermen environmental sustainability is an economic imperative – and a source of pride.

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Most of lobsterman Justin Papkee’s day is spent throwing lobsters back into the ocean. The littlest ones go back. The biggest ones go back. Egg-bearing females go back, with a notch cut in their tail. Lobsters with a notch go back. “This is just how it’s done,” he says. The state of Maine, where Mr. Papkee lives and fishes, has strict lobster laws. They’re designed to make the lobster population and industry sustainable. But these regulations haven’t been imposed on unwilling lobstermen. Maine lobstermen have what has been called a “conservation ethic” that dates back more than a century. And many of these laws come from the lobstermen themselves. As a result, the Maine lobster industry has received recognition as one of the world’s most sustainable fisheries. These sustainability measures have helped Maine lobsters endure short-term environmental challenges and rebound from them. Whether they will make the population resilient to longer-term challenges is still an open question.

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For Maine lobstermen, success means both catches and conservation

It’s 7 a.m. on the Pull n’ Pray. The lobster boat rocks over large swells as the water sparkles in the June morning sun. The grating whirr of the hydraulic winch drowns out the hum of the boat’s motor as it lifts the first lobster trap of the day out of the water. Justin Papkee swings the trap up onto the side of his boat and quickly opens the latch. Suddenly there are lobsters flying through the air.

Mr. Papkee’s blue rubber gloved hand is nearly a blur as he reaches again and again into the open trap, tossing the lobsters back into the water rapid-fire before pulling in the next trap.

Splash. Splash. Splash.

Occasionally he pauses to measure a lobster, or check for a notch or dense clusters of eggs on its tail. After Papkee and his sternman, Jim Ranaghan, have hauled up and sorted through all 16 traps on this line, just one keeper sits in a milk crate on the deck. Then, it’s onto the next set of traps.

This is a worse than average day for the lobsterman, but even on the absolute best days Papkee throws back about half of the lobsters he catches. On those days, he says, it feels like he’s keeping them all by comparison.

Papkee had traveled about 10 miles offshore from Portland to check his traps. It took more than an hour to get to the first of his red and blue buoys. But as he tosses lobster after lobster back into the ocean, Papkee seems unfazed.

“This is just how it’s done,” he says.

Maine has particularly strict rules about which lobsters can be kept. But lobstermen generally don’t resent those laws. In fact, they’re the ones that came up with most of them.

The conservation of natural resources is often portrayed as being in opposition to economic interests, placing the good of the globe over individual livelihoods. But most Maine lobstermen don’t see it that way. They have what has been called a “conservation ethic” that dates back more than a century and has yielded a long list of sustainability rules.

“When you think about this at first glance, it seems crazy. They caught them, why would they want to throw them back?” says Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. “[The lobstermen] are very mindful of the notion that they are the protectors of the resource.”

This has made Maine lobster one of the world’s most sustainable fisheries. In 2016, the region earned certification from the international Marine Stewardship Council for its “rigorous sustainability requirements,” which have also contributed to a boom the industry is currently experiencing. And with climate change presenting a new challenge for Maine’s iconic lobsters, some researchers say, this commitment to conservation may be more important than ever before.

Lobsterman Justin Papkee holds two lobsters caught in his trap on June 14 in Portland, Maine. In his left hand is a lobster above the legal size limit that also is a female bearing eggs, so must be thrown back for two reasons. In his right hand is a legal lobster.
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Eva Botkin-Kowacki/The Christian Science Monitor

Nurturing a ‘conservation ethic’

The duty to protect the resource was ingrained in lobsterman Sonny Beal at just five years old. His father taught him to prioritize the health of the fishery over the weight of his hauls, just like generations before him. He learned to measure lobsters, to check if they were reproductive females, and to notch the tails of any egg-bearing females before throwing them back. Now a lobsterman and father himself, Mr. Beal is teaching his two sons the same.

“I think that we’ve got something really great here and will have something really great for a long time to come because we do take care of it every day,” Beal says. Lobstermen have been passing the tradition of conservation down through generations of sons (and more recently daughters as well) for decades.

“It’s not just our fishery. It’s going to be passed on to future generations. Everyone’s so interconnected in this industry. We all kind of need each other,” says Krista Tripp, who also began lobstering with her father as a child. “These measures are so important.”

It all started in the late 1800s. Well before conservation and sustainability became the domain of environmentalists, Maine lobstermen began taking steps to ensure that there would be lobsters in the future for themselves and their children and grandchildren. Eventually some of these measures became law, like the 1872 law banning the harvest of egg-bearing female lobsters and the 1874 law that established a minimum legal size to harvest lobsters.

But not all lobstermen embraced these conservation measures right away. In the early 1900s some lobstermen ignored the sustainability laws and scrubbed eggs off of lobsters to sell them or kept lobsters that were legally too small to harvest to feed themselves, says James Acheson, a retired anthropologist who spent much of his career studying the Maine lobster industry.

Then, lobster populations plummeted. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, lobster catches dropped to less than half the amount seen just a decade earlier. This was compounded by the economic woes of the Great Depression and close to half of Maine lobstermen went out of business. Those who remained struggled.

At the height of this crisis, some Maine lobstermen wanted to harvest as many lobsters as possible while they still could. But others were willing to try anything to save the future of the industry. The second group won out, and a new sustainability law passed in 1933. The so-called double-gauge law added a maximum size limit to the existing minimum. The idea was to protect the larger female lobsters that produce many more eggs than smaller ones, and the larger males that they prefer to mate with.

In the following years, lobster landings rose. It’s unclear if it was the double-gauge law that did it, Dr. Acheson says, but lobstermen were sold. As a result, the culture began to shift. Lobstermen increasingly supported conservation measures, came up with new ones, and even began to report violations of others to the commissioner and wardens.

But “that conservation ethic isn’t rooted in virtue,” Acheson says. “You have the ethic because it seems to work.”

The double-gauge law persists today. Lobsters with a carapace (body shell) length under 3.25 inches or over 5 inches are illegal to harvest in Maine.

Once this conservation ethic had taken off among Maine lobstermen, lobstermen began taking it upon themselves to expand sustainability practices.

That was the case with the V-notch method, which drew inspiration from a state program that began in 1917. Wardens bought egg-bearing lobsters they found in lobster pounds, marked their tails with a notch, and then tossed them back into the sea. The notch indicated to lobstermen that this was a reproductive female and therefore illegal to harvest. Lobstermen began taking up the practice and cutting a V-notch in the tails of egg-bearing lobsters. The practice caught on and in time became the norm.

Lobstermen put a v-shaped notch in the tail of egg-bearing lobsters (colloquially called "berried" lobsters) that end up in their traps before throwing the lobster back. Any lobster with a v-notch or one carrying eggs is illegal to harvest.
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Eva Botkin-Kowacki/The Christian Science Monitor

Today, lobstermen in Maine are legally required to cut a V-notch into the tail of any egg-bearing lobsters they catch, although it’s a difficult law to enforce without a warden on every boat. Still, many of the reproductive-size female lobsters in Papkee’s traps have a notch, or the remnant of one fading through a few molts. In those cases, he deepens the notch to continue to protect the proven breeder.

“We’re not looking to next year,” Papkee explains while gently returning an egg-bearing lobster that he just notched back in the water. “We’re looking a decade from now.” Lobsters take around seven years, perhaps even more, to reach legal size.

A point of pride

Conservation is a cornerstone of the Maine lobster industry today, and that’s something that lobstermen take great pride in.

“Everybody knows that that’s why the lobster population is the way it is now,” Beal says of the sustainability measures. “People realize that it has helped the industry tremendously since they started applying it … and understand that this is what we need to do to keep this thing going.”

And the fact that lobstermen themselves came up with these sustainability measures rather than having rules imposed upon them is a particular point of pride for Papkee and others. “Sustainability measures are a good thing when fishermen come up with them,” he says. Lobstermen’s hands-on knowledge of lobsters and the ocean is integral, he says.

Conservation measures in Maine go beyond outlining which lobsters can and cannot be harvested. Lobsters can only be harvested using traps, those traps are designed to trap as few illegal lobsters as possible, and zoning laws, trap limits and other licensing and management laws are also designed to help maintain a stable lobster population in the Gulf of Maine.

Most other fisheries have a minimum size law to allow the animals to reproduce before being caught, but that’s not enough, says Robert Steneck, a marine ecologist at the University of Maine. “It’s kind of like, ‘let’s preserve the babies.’ But the obvious problem there is that if you’re really efficient at getting all the mommies, then it sort of renders that management tool moot.” The many laws in Maine aim to protect lobsters at other stages of life, too.

Boom, bust, and resilience

Today, the Maine lobster industry is experiencing an unprecedented boom. Every year starting in 2011, lobstermen have hauled in over 100 million pounds of American lobster, Homarus americanus, twice as much as the previous decade and five times as much as three decades earlier.

What’s behind this bounty? Warmer waters. The chilly waters of the Gulf of Maine had previously had some spots that were too cold for the lobsters, so rising temperatures over recent decades have opened up new habitat for the crustaceans. And more comfortable temperatures also allow lobsters to molt twice in a year instead of just once – and therefore grow faster.

That’s not all, some researchers say. Lobstermen’s conservation ethic is also part of the picture, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in January. Computer modeling suggests that without the sustainability measures, the Maine lobster population would’ve increased by just 242 percent from 1984 to 2014 instead of by 515 percent.

Those conservation measures create resilience, explains study lead author Arnault Le Bris, a research scientist at the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland. “[The lobsters] are able to rebound if there is an intolerable climate condition, or actually even able to capitalize on a favorable condition.”

But the Gulf of Maine is already experiencing extreme warming, and it’s only predicted to continue.

Too much warming could make these waters intolerable for lobsters. That’s what seems to have happened for Maine lobsters’ neighbors in southern New England. From 1997 to 2014, the lobster population declined by 78 percent, according to Dr. Le Bris's research.

So could Maine lobstermen’s conservation ethic help their catch weather the long-term challenge of climate change? Perhaps.

Le Bris and colleagues at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute also modeled what might happen to these lobsters over the next couple decades. Using data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), they found that Maine lobsters will be vulnerable to heat stress just like their southerly neighbors, as ocean warming continues. But, Le Bris says, these conservation measures might help “limit the amplitude of the downtrend that we predict in the coming decades.”

Some are proclaiming that the boom is already coming to an end. In 2017, lobster catches dropped by 20 million pounds – from 132 million in 2016 to 110 million.

But Dr. Steneck says it’s still unclear how long-term ocean warming will affect these bottom-feeders. For example, the unique currents deep in the Gulf of Maine may buffer the bottom-feeders from the rapidly rising surface temperatures.

“I think the rush to obituary may be a bit premature,” Steneck says. There’s still a lot to learn.

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

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Global voices

Worldwide reports on progress

5. Another’s treasure: Colombia’s ‘lord of the books’ plucks tomes from trash

As part of our collaboration with more than 50 newspapers around the world to support solutions journalism, this last story from Colombia is about something dear to many Monitor readers' hearts: the power of books to change lives.

Mark
José Alberto Gutierrez has spent 21 years transforming Colombia with the books he rescues from the garbage. In his home, he lives among thousands of them, saved in stacks.
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César Melgarejo/El Tiempo

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When José Alberto Gutierrez began his job as a garbage truck driver in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1997, he was struck by how many people threw away books. So Mr. Gutierrez and his wife decided to build a community library in their home. Ten years later, the library has grown into Fundación La Fuerza de las Palabras (Power of Words Foundation), an organization that distributes books to vulnerable communities across the country. Gutierrez has rescued and distributed more than 50,000 books to hundreds of community centers and rural schools in Colombia. Only 4 out of 10 students who complete high school in Colombia will graduate from university, according to its Ministry of Education. “The most valuable inheritance we can leave our children is education,” Gutierrez, whom locals call “the lord of the books,” says, adding that dozens of Colombian students have been able to pursue higher education thanks to the foundation. “The world needs more initiatives like this, because in an area that lacks access to many resources, a book becomes a symbol of hope.”

This story is one of several from world news outlets that the Monitor is publishing as part of an international effort to highlight solutions journalism.

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Another’s treasure: Colombia’s ‘lord of the books’ plucks tomes from trash

“The day I fill Colombia with books, I’ll feel like Odysseus when he rescued Penelope and saved Ithaca from the war,” José Alberto Gutierrez says with an air of stoicism. He has dedicated the last two decades of his life to filling more than 450 libraries, schools, and reading centers in Colombia with books recovered from the garbage.

By rescuing books from the trash, the “lord of the books,” as locals call Mr. Gutierrez in Bogotá’s popular neighborhood La Nueva Gloria, has helped more than 22,000 Colombians in vulnerable, mainly rural areas across the country to imagine a better future.

To enter Gutierrez’s house is to go through a labyrinth of thousands of stacked books, covering approximately 160 square feet. Among them are universal classics such as “Gone with the Wind,” by Margaret Mitchell; an English edition of “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; and a collection of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s works – all rescued from the garbage.

The books started showing up here at the end of 1997, when Gutierrez began his job as a garbage truck driver for Bogotá’s waste management company. While working his nightly route on the west side of the city, he was struck by the potential of so many discarded books. With help from his wife, Gutierrez decided to build a community library in his own home. Ten years later it became the Fundación La Fuerza de las Palabras (Power of Words Foundation). Since then, Gutierrez has rescued and distributed more than 50,000 books – spanning subjects such as science, literature, business, and medicine – to hundreds of community centers and rural schools across the country.

La Fuerza de las Palabras’s process is simple yet effective. First, the foundation receives a call from someone, in any area of the country, who wishes to donate or receive books. Then, Gutierrez and his wife select the texts according to their destination – children's books, literary, or scientific. Depending on the distance, the organization will either deliver the books in its own vehicle, or look for the best way to make the delivery. To date, their efforts have allowed them to reach more than 450 territories in the country.

According to figures from the Colombian Ministry of Education, each year only 4 out of every 10 students who complete high school in Colombia will graduate from university. The number is even lower in disadvantaged neighborhoods, such as La Nueva Gloria.

“The most valuable inheritance we can leave our children is education,” Gutierrez says, adding that dozens of students in Colombia have been able to pursue higher education thanks to the foundation.

At the end of 2017, the foundation sent five crates of books by plane to the indigenous community of Huitotacueimaní, in southern Colombia, an area characterized by its jungles and rivers. Days later, one of the leaders of the community replied with a video message saying that all the indigenous communities of the region were waiting for the “lord of the books” – and for more books – with open arms.

Gutierrez has also delivered the works of dozens of Nobel Prize-winning authors, such as fellow Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, and Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, to a group of ex-combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the guerrilla organization that scourged the region for 50 years and recently signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government.

“Reading symbolizes peace and hope in our country. If a book changed my life, imagine the impact it could have in one of these places that has fallen victim to armed conflict and abandonment by the state,” Gutierrez says.

Since he was let go in February by the recycling center where he worked, Gutierrez and his family have been dreaming of building a library museum in Bogotá, which would include a recycling workshop, a book bank, and a collection of literary classics, all with the aim of continuing to bring the world of reading to the most vulnerable sectors of the country. The foundation estimates that the construction of the library museum will require 800 million Colombian pesos ($275,000), which they hope to secure soon.

“The world needs more initiatives like this, because in an area that lacks access to many resources, a book becomes a symbol of hope,” Gutierrez says. “Listen, if humans treated each other as they do in many of the books that I've read, this planet would be governed only by love.”

This story was reported by El Tiempo, a news outlet in Colombia. The Monitor is publishing it as part of an international effort by more than 50 news organizations worldwide to promote solutions journalism. To read other stories in this joint project, please click here

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The Monitor's View

Is love a winning message for Ethiopia?

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Ethiopia is extraordinary in many ways. It weaves together 80 ethnic groups. The median age of its 102 million people is 18. It is the continent’s fastest-growing economy. Now add this: Its young new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, may be the only leader of any country who often tells people, “Love wins.” (That even served as Prime Minister Ahmed’s response after an assailant threw a grenade toward him, killing two people and injuring more than 100.) After taking power in April, he admitted that the government is tainted by corruption, and pledged a crackdown. He tried to lift a climate of fear by releasing political prisoners and ending the blocking of opposition media. Ahmed – who has a a PhD in peace studies, and who is of Muslim and Christian parentage – advises people to cast away hatred and revenge in order to end ethnic fears and resentments. A country with so many differences could bring a blessing, he says, if people listen to each other and “there is understanding based on principles.” To rise above a long history of ethnic conflict, Ethiopia will need love and forgiveness put into action. 

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Is love a winning message for Ethiopia?

As Africa’s second most populous country and its fastest growing economy, Ethiopia is extraordinary in many ways. It weaves together 80 ethnic groups as well as Christians and Muslims. On a continent with the world’s youngest population, the median age of Ethiopia’s 102 million people is 18.

Yet now add to this list a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who took office in April as Africa’s youngest ruler with this extraordinary trait: He could be the only leader of any country who frequently tells people, “Love wins.”

Last Saturday, for example, after he gave a speech to a large and adoring crowd in the capital, Addis Ababa, someone threw a grenade toward him, killing two people and injuring more than a hundred. His response? “Love always wins. Forgiveness will win. Killing others is a defeat.”

After taking office, he apologized for the killing of dissidents under previous leaders. “I ask forgiveness from the bottom of my heart for the many advocates of freedom and justice...” he said.

He admitted the country is in chaos, a result mainly of several years of antigovernment protests. He also admitted the government is tainted by corruption, pledging a crackdown and better rule of law. And he quickly tried to lift a climate of fear by releasing thousands of political prisoners and ending government blockage of opposition media.

His main message during a national tour: “We are now on the path of change and love.”

Dr. Ahmed advises people to cast away a spirit of hatred and revenge in order to end ethnic fears and resentments. To make his point, he made a generous peace offer with neighboring Eritrea over a land dispute that led to a disastrous war two decades ago. He dined with political opponents who had just been released from prison. And he has moved quickly to implement reforms, such as shaking up the much-feared security services and ending a state of emergency.

His biggest drawback is that he represents a ruling coalition, made up of representatives from different groups, that has been in power since 1991. As a young and reformist leader, he may have been chosen by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in large part to preserve its dominance. He, in turn, could be trying to win the people’s support in order to fend off resistance from the party’s old guard and achieve real reform.

His emphasis on love as a national unifier may stem from his pedigree. He has a PhD in peace studies and “social capital.” His father is a Muslim from the largest ethnic group, the Oromo, while his mother is Christian from the second-largest group, Amhara. He speaks several languages, once worked in military intelligence, and earned a master’s degree from the University of Greenwich in London.

To rise above a long history of ethnic conflict, Ethiopia will need love and forgiveness put into action. Ahmed says a country with so many differences could bring a blessing if people listen to each other and “there is understanding based on principles.” He has proposed a commission to look for new ways to blend the country’s ethnicities into a larger political narrative than the shaky EPRDF coalition.

So far, Ahmed has caught the imagination of Ethiopian youth. Many in Saturday’s crowd carried signs that read “One Love, One Ethiopia.” Two days after the blast, dozens of people were lining up to donate blood for the wounded. It was another example of love winning.

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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 commitment to universal dignity

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We can all play a role in upholding a sense of worth and value that’s inherent in each and every one of God’s children.

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A commitment to universal dignity

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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One day shortly after my dad passed on, my mom was walking out of her condo to her car. Just then a garbage truck pulled into the parking lot. The driver got out and called to her, “Mrs. Booth – I want to tell you how sorry I was to hear about your husband’s passing. I truly loved that man. He always stopped to talk with me, to ask after my family and how the job was going. He always made me feel better about things.”

It was a sweet interchange, and it turns out it wasn’t one of a kind! Dad just loved people and naturally made them feel worthy of honor and respect. As a Christian Science practitioner in the business of helping others find healing through prayer, Dad made it his life’s work to see everyone – no matter what race, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation – as God’s beautiful, brilliant, glorious, precious child. The natural result of this was that folks felt uplifted and healed even when he wasn’t specifically praying for them.

Dad’s model for living this way was Christ Jesus. Jesus was by race probably of Middle Eastern descent, by gender male, by religious affiliation Jewish, and by socioeconomic status a blue-collar worker who during his healing ministry was technically unemployed and homeless by today’s standards. But what truly defined him was the love he expressed. It was so palpable that people were drawn to him in droves. This was spiritual love, evidencing God’s love – perceiving that worth and status are not defined by what is seen on the surface but by what we actually are as the spiritual offspring of God, always loved, valued, and worthy.

The Bible includes accounts of multitudes being healed. To me it seems these healings came about because the people felt a more spiritual sense of their wholeness and worth radiating from Jesus; they felt bathed in the love with which Jesus beheld all. Perhaps the most tender accounts are the ones in which Jesus healed those thought to be untouchable – for instance, a leper who was considered contagious (see Matthew 8:2, 3) and a woman with a chronic hemorrhage who was considered unclean (see Matthew 9:20-22). Think of how, through his tender care, the years of indignity and disdain these individuals had suffered melted away.

It was through her deep study of the Bible, especially the life of Christ Jesus, that Mary Baker Eddy discovered Christian Science in the 19th century. Instead of accepting the prevalent view of man (everyone, male and female) as fallen, she came to this conclusion from studying Jesus’ teachings and healings: “Jesus beheld in Science the perfect man, who appeared to him where sinning mortal man appears to mortals. In this perfect man the Saviour saw God’s own likeness, and this correct view of man healed the sick” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” pp. 476-477). It also healed the oppressed, the downtrodden, the outcast, and so forth.

The commitment to behold all humanity in this way, seeing others as God sees His creation, is a commitment to upholding universal dignity. And this is a commitment we can all make. It’s not always easy, however, when a common premise is “survival of the fittest,” implying that our job is not to help others but to be better than they are and get more than they have and to serve our own clan first. Or when there’s a fear that there simply isn’t sufficient time, supply, or love to invest thought in seeing everyone as God does.

But when we really yearn to see through the singular yet wide lens of God’s love, we begin to experience what Christ Jesus described when he said, “If … thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matthew 6:22). From the focal point of divine Love, everyone is worthy of respect and honor. Letting this inform the way we think about and treat others, instead of being focused on gaining a personal share of goodness, manifests God’s infinite goodness, sufficient for all, including ourselves. Upholding universal dignity in this way lifts us, like a rising tide lifts all boats, and we find our own and others’ worth and value equally enhanced by seeing that God’s whole creation is forever glorious!

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Viewfinder

Big shift for an American icon

A biker stands in front of Harley-Davidson motorcycles at a 'Hamburg Harley Days' event in Hamburg, Germany. The US manufacturer announced June 25 plans to move some of its production out of the United States to sidestep tariffs imposed by the European Union in a retaliation against US moves on trade.
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Fabian Bimmer/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( June 26th, 2018 )

Thank you for joining us today. We hope you’ll come back tomorrow when we examine how some untraditional paths to education in France are paying off. 

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