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.

Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

The phrase “shocks the nation” gets overused.

But two hate crimes, decades apart, sent out shock waves whose reverberations echo today.

The kidnapping, torture, and murder of Emmett Till – an African-American Chicago boy – in rural Mississippi became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. The images of his body, found badly beaten and tied with barbed wire to a cotton gin, ignited a nation. Two men were found innocent by an all-white jury. They later confessed their crime to a magazine but were not retried. Both are now dead.

On Thursday, The Associated Press reported that the Justice Department has reopened its investigation into the 1955 murder. Till’s family asked it to do so after a book came out in 2017 in which the woman who claimed the 14-year-old boy cat-called her and grabbed her by the waist admitted her story was “not true.”

“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Carolyn Bryant Donham told research scholar Timothy Tyson.

This summer also marks the anniversary of another hate crime: Twenty years ago on a country road, James Byrd Jr. was walking home in Jasper, Texas. Three white supremacists chained him by his ankles to a truck and dragged him three miles to his death. The three were convicted of capital murder. 

His family forgave his killers years ago but – as they told The New York Times – with hate crimes on the rise, they want to be sure Byrd is never forgotten. The Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing plans to open a museum in Jasper and create an oral history project. 

“It’s not just about remembering the painful details of our brother’s death,” said his sister Louvon Harris. “It’s about keeping his memory alive so that this never happens again.”


Now for our five stories of the day, including a look at unintended consequences and confronting past wrongs.

1. Paid family leave: While US lags behind, more states set policies

While paid family leave remains stalled in D.C., states and companies have taken steps so that more American workers have time to bond with their newborns. A Rhode Island state senator her state’s law speaks to “the values of the state.... It sets the tone for workplace culture,” she says.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Parents hold their children at a fitness club in Norwell, Mass., in this 2013 photo. The state just became one of six in the nation, along with the District of Columbia, to create a paid-leave benefit to help working families.

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For Gayle Goldin, the inequities surrounding paid leave came into sharp focus in 2001. She had to take unpaid time off after adopting a child, while her sister in Montreal got 50 weeks of paid leave. It’s a common challenge. Although a growing number of employers offer paid leave, the hourly-wage workers who make up more than half the US workforce rarely see such benefits. Proponents say paid leave helps the economy as well as families, since it allows more parents to stay in the workforce. With the United States lacking the kind of national paid-leave program that’s common in other advanced economies, Congress is considering Republican legislation. But it’s controversial since it would be funded by reducing Social Security retirement benefits, rather than with a new payroll tax. Meanwhile, states are increasingly taking action. Massachusetts just became the sixth state with a paid-leave law. Ms. Goldin ended up becoming a state senator and helping to pass a law in Rhode Island. “This should not be about winning the boss lottery,” she says.


Paid family leave: While US lags behind, more states set policies

Two years after a campaign in which Republican and Democratic presidential candidates both promised to introduce paid family leave, more US workers now get paid to stay home and bond with newborns. Proponents say this is good for families and for the economy since it allows more parents to stay in the workforce.

But this shift is not the result of federal policy.

Ivanka Trump has promoted the issue but found little support within her father's White House. And while Republicans in Congress support the idea of family leave, they balk at raising taxes to pay for it. Instead, the change is being driven by lawmakers in Democratic-run states and by US companies seeking to retain and recruit employees in tight labor markets.

Among employers, particularly major corporations, the adoption of paid leave has grown rapidly. In a recent survey of personnel managers, more than a third (36 percent) reported providing paid maternity leave to some or all employees. The rate was just 12 percent in 2014, when the same survey was done by the Society of Human Resource Management. More companies also offer paid leave to take care of sick family members.

SOURCE: Society of Human Resource Management
Karen Norris/Staff

Last month Massachusetts joined five other states and the District of Columbia in enacting paid family leave, as part of a hard-fought bargain struck between business and labor that includes a phased-in minimum wage hike to $15 an hour by 2023. Other states with paid-leave laws on the books are California, New Jersey, Washington, New York, and Rhode Island. Other states like Delaware offer leave benefits to all state employees, as have some cities.

But outside of a handful of blue states, private-sector workers must depend on their employers for paid leave. Hourly workers, who make up more than half of the US workforce and are disproportionately African-American and Latino, rarely see such benefits: Only 5 percent are estimated to have access to paid family leave.

“This should not be about winning the boss lottery. It should be accessible to everyone who works in this country,” says Gayle Goldin, a state senator in Rhode Island.

For example, McDonald’s offers paid leave to corporate employees, but the vast majority of its 375,000 workers are hourly and not covered. Starbucks does cover in-store hourly employees, but only for six weeks for new mothers, compared with 18 for salaried workers.

The push for state-level reforms has seen setbacks. In May, Colorado’s Republican-run Senate killed a bill to provide 12 weeks of partially paid family leave. It was the fourth time in five years that such a bill had reached the floor. The same month, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, vetoed a paid-leave bill that had passed the legislature with votes from all sides. (But in Massachusetts, the new law was signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, also a Republican.)

Absent a federal law, the disparity both between states and between job categories could widen further. It mirrors the national divide on wages, creating a checkerboard of wages and labor rules. While the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour hasn’t risen in eight years, more than 25 states now have higher minimum wages, in some cases nearly double the national floor.

“States are moving forward on their own because their populations are demanding this [paid leave]. All working families are facing this challenge,” says Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

Proposal in Congress

Congress is still mulling paid family leave. On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee’s subcommittee on family policy held hearings on the issue, including a proposal backed by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and other Republicans that would provide up to 12 weeks of parental coverage worth around $1,175 a month, less than most state policies. It would be funded not by payroll taxes but by drawing from future Social Security, effectively delaying retirement for parents who dip into their savings. (Ms. Trump attended the hearing but didn’t speak.)

This proposal is appealing to Republicans who don’t want to raise taxes, says Ms. Mathur. But it has drawn sharp criticism both from fiscal conservatives who don’t want to deplete Social Security, and from progressives who see the benefits as too miserly for those most in need.

“It’s a really bad idea,” says Pronita Gupta, who worked on paid leave at the Department of Labor under President Barack Obama. “It will hurt families more than help families.”

A particular concern is that women with low incomes who need time off to take care of babies or sick family members tend to have lower retirement savings, says Ms. Gupta, a program director at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a think tank in Washington.

In theory, even a modest federal paid-leave program would reach workers not covered by employer or state programs. If weekly payouts are too low, though, many working-class parents are likely to forgo it since they need the income (One in four new mothers in 2012 reported going back to work after 10 days.)

A pushback from conservatives is that an overly generous package could become a middle-class entitlement that crowds out private-sector leave plans. Ms. Mathur supports the idea of setting a basic federal floor on which more generous state payouts could be layered. “My biggest worry is that people won’t take it up,” she says.

Replacing lost income isn’t the only headache for working parents: Many worry about losing their jobs. Under a 1993 federal law, workers who take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to take care of newborns or a family health emergency have job protection. But the law exempts small businesses and recent hires, which means 4 in 10 workers aren’t covered.

US lags OECD countries

Of 41 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the US is the only one without federal paid leave. Only 15 percent of US workers received paid leave benefits in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among other industrialized countries in the OECD, the average leave period is 18 weeks.

For Goldin, the inequities surrounding paid leave came into sharp focus in 2001, when she injured her back, and her husband, a lawyer, used up his vacation days to care for her. The same year the couple adopted a child, but since neither had paid leave Goldin had to take unpaid time off. Her sister who lived in Montreal had a baby the same year – and got 50 weeks of paid leave.

“This turned me into an advocate for changing our workplace policies and making them more family friendly,” she says.

Fast forward to 2013 when Goldin was elected to Rhode Island’s state Senate: She worked on a paid-leave bill that passed that year and took effect in 2014. Like most state programs, it is financed via payroll taxes on employees. Its duration – four weeks for family leave – is modest and it covers around 60 percent of average wages, capped at $795 a week.

Goldin is now an adviser to Family Values@Work, a network of 27 state-based coalitions working on family-friendly laws.

She says Rhode Island’s program has won over small business owners who were initially opposed, and has become a selling point for companies recruiting staff to work there. “It’s important not only because they [employees] think they’ll need the leave, but also about the values of the state.... It sets the tone for workplace culture,” she says.

SOURCE: Society of Human Resource Management
Karen Norris/Staff

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2. From new leadership to Clean Power Plan, subtle shifts ripple through EPA

Tumult in the administrator's seat of the EPA has dominated recent headlines. But under the surface, modest shifts in tone and tactics could eventually pave the way for more constructive conversation about climate policy.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Flames, steam, and exhaust rise from the Suncoke Jewell plant in Oakwood, Va. The plant burns coal to make coke, which is used to make steel. The EPA’s proposed replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan hasn’t been made public yet, but it reportedly shifts the targets from overall emissions reductions to a focus on making individual coal-fired plants more energy efficient.

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The change in leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency has gotten a lot of attention, in part due to how polarizing former administrator Scott Pruitt was. Andrew Wheeler, the new acting administrator, plans to stick to the same policies – which include rolling back Obama-era climate policies such as the Clean Power Plan and tougher vehicle emissions standards. He does, however, promise a change in tone and tactics. And one shift seems to be already under way in the Trump administration: a less combative stance on climate science. That may not mean much in the absence of federal climate action, say detractors, but it does allow for more meaningful dialogue about possible solutions. “The real issue has always been not whether the climate is changing but what do we do about it,” says Steven Cohen, a professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “Shifting the discussion to that arena is a better place for it to be.”


1. From new leadership to Clean Power Plan, subtle shifts ripple through EPA

The sudden resignation of Scott Pruitt from the Environmental Protection Agency, following months of ethics investigations and allegations of misbehavior, has prompted a flurry of speculation about where his successor might lead the agency.

The new acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, while not promising any significant shift in policies, is likely to bring differences in tone and tactics. Those changes, in turn, may hint at a modest but significant shift that appears to be already under way within the agency and the Trump administration: a less confrontational stance on climate science.

“Over time the fervent deniers [of human-influenced climate change] are being pushed out” of the administration, says David Bookbinder, chief counsel at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank promoting an open and free society. The shift, he says, is a subtle one. But, “maybe they are admitting that, at least as a legal matter, this is now established.”

That change is unlikely to derail the focus on rolling back regulations, a core tenet of the Trump administration. No one expects Mr. Wheeler to change course on unraveling Obama-era emissions restrictions for power and transportation. But abandoning the overt attacks on climate science could eventually pave the way for more constructive conversation about policy to address the threats of climate change.

A key priority for the agency since President Trump took office has been dismantling the Clean Power Plan, Barack Obama’s signature mechanism for reducing emissions, under the aegis of the Clean Air Act. But there was significant debate over whether the EPA would seek to scrap the rule completely, or replace it with something weaker.

Ultimately, those advocating for the latter won, and on Monday, the agency sent its proposed replacement to the White House for a review. The plan hasn’t been made public yet, though it reportedly shifts the targets from overall emissions reductions to a focus on making individual coal-fired plants more energy-efficient.

One reason for offering a replacement: Some in the agency were concerned that not doing so could lead to lawsuits against the EPA for failing to regulate greenhouse gases, which in 2009 were determined to pose a threat to human health. While many conservatives, including Mr. Wheeler, disagree with that “endangerment finding,” fighting it in court – where it has already been unsuccessfully challenged – would likely be a losing battle.

“To folks in industry, we see [replacing the CPP] with a realistic approach as more sustainable,” says Frank Maisano, a partner at Bracewell's Policy Resolution Group, which does lobbying for energy industry clients. “You're going to put in place something that hopefully will last longer.”

A bargaining chip?

Even many climate activists think the CPP was an imperfect solution – a way to use existing legislation in a somewhat clunky way, given the failure of Congress to craft a bill that more directly targets climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

And its targets – a 32 percent cut in America’s carbon emissions from the power sector by 2030 – were fairly weak, with many states already on track to exceed them simply due to the rise of renewable energy and the market forces that have caused many coal plants to close.

One use for the CPP in the future, in fact, may be more as a bargaining chip that could be used to push Congress to enact climate legislation, says Noah Kaufman, an economist and research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Any weakened standards will likely have no real effect on emissions reductions, he says, but keeping the rule “matters from a legal perspective because any future administration may want to use the same tool” as a way to prod Congress toward meaningful action.

Meanwhile, some observers say that if, in fact, the replacement rule moves to a plant-by-plant determination, as has been reported, in the long run it could be worse for industry.

The CPP’s look at the overall electricity system allowed for a variety of means to find the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions, says Daniel Lashof, the US director of the World Resources Institute, a global organization that promotes environmental sustainability and other goals.

“The irony of what they appear to be trying to do is it seems like it’s the opposite of what industry would actually want,” says Mr. Lashof. “In the short run, it’s a do-nothing rule, but the odd result is that if you stay within that framework, and decide you want to do what the law requires,” it would end up being a far more expensive way to achieve reduced emissions.

Another area where Wheeler will be closely watched is the direction he takes on vehicle emission standards – particularly important given that transportation is responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Mr. Pruitt promised not only to roll back the tougher Obama-era standards that had been negotiated with automakers, but also to challenge California and other states’ right to set their own, stricter standards.

“It will be very important to see what Wheeler decides to do on that, whether he negotiates with California in good faith or continues down that road,” says Lashof.

Changes in tone

Pruitt’s tenure at the EPA was marked from the beginning by combative and secretive overtones; the former administrator had sued the agency 14 times as attorney general of Oklahoma, and quickly moved to try to repeal many signature Obama-era rules. He won accolades from Trump, and some conservatives, for his quick movement to roll back regulation, but those actions weren’t always well thought through, and some have already been overturned in court.  

By contrast, Wheeler is considered lower profile and a Washington insider. He was a lobbyist for the coal industry as well as an aide to Sen. James Inhofe, (R) of Oklahoma, a prominent climate change skeptic, but also began his career as staffer at the EPA who worked on toxic chemical issues. In Wheeler’s first weeks at the EPA earlier this spring, he reportedly spent time meeting with longtime staffers, and he told The Wall Street Journal that he was hoping to “depoliticize” some environmental issues. “You might see a shift in terms of how I talk about some things,” he told the paper.

“He’s a professional,” says Steven Cohen, a professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, as well as a former EPA employee and consultant. “He’s going to be more temperate and more moderate in his approach [than Pruitt], but he’s going to do as little as possible” when it comes to climate action or other environmental protections. [Editor's note:  An error in Professor Cohen's title has been corrected in this paragraph.]

Still, if Professor Cohen and others are critical of the direction this administration’s EPA has taken, they see other reasons to hope.

Cohen notes that some polls have shown a majority of Republicans believe climate change is occurring, with numbers steadily increasing, and notes that while many Americans may not like regulation, they do like clean air and clean water.

“There’s really no support for ending federal environmental law,” Cohen says, and those laws provide a strong framework that makes undoing some of the environmental gains challenging.

On a congressional level, more Republicans in Congress have been joining the Climate Solutions Caucus, which now has 42 GOP House members alongside 42 Democrats supporting bipartisan action on the issue.

What’s more, Janet Peace, senior vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington, says corporations have grown more active over the past 18 months. Some have set targets for buying renewable energy and reducing their carbon footprints. Others have issued climate-risk disclosure reports for their companies.

“There was maybe some complacency during the Obama administration,” says Ms. Peace. “Now you see kind of this groundswell” of companies who are leaning into the issue.

And at the state and local level, momentum is continuing to reduce emissions – in some cases due to locally set targets, and in some cases simply due to market forces, which have made energy sources like wind much more attractive.

Peace and others say that they’re encouraged by those local actions, though they’re not a substitute for federal action.

Partisanship is a big hurdle. But observers note that that the idea of a “red team, blue team” debate about climate science, which Pruitt once championed, was abandoned. They say the move away from confrontational attacks on the science of climate change can hopefully help move dialogue in a more constructive direction.

“The real issue has always been not whether the climate is changing but what do we do about it,” says Cohen. “Shifting the discussion to that arena is a better place for it to be.… If debate focuses on what we can do about the problem, that can’t help but be a healthy thing.”


3. A trade-war boomerang: collateral damage to those who set barriers

President Trump says his get-tough tactics are about addressing unfair practices in global trade. But as penalties and counter-penalties start flying, the results aren't always intentional or predictable.


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In the escalating global conflict over trade, a useful maxim is “be careful what you wish for.” Measures designed to punish an adversary over unfair practices could come back to bite workers in your own country, or those in some other place that’s not directly targeted. When the United States slaps penalties on imports from China, Taiwan faces collateral damage because of its role as a parts supplier. And if China’s retaliation hits US car shipments, German automaker BMW would be pummeled, along with US workers, since that company exports heavily from a South Carolina plant. President Trump hopes that a reset in global trade will bring jobs back to the US. Some of that may happen, but the process could take years. And economists say a trade war would cost more jobs than it creates. It’s a sign of how reliant the world has become on cross-border global supply chains. Darson Chiu, an economist in Taiwan, worries about a huge impact there. “When the tsunami is coming,” he says, “it’s useless to hold an umbrella.”


1. A trade-war boomerang: collateral damage to those who set barriers

If the Trump administration slaps tariffs on foreign autos and China retaliates, the biggest loser in the United States might not be General Motors or Ford. It might be BMW.

Last year, the German company was the largest US auto exporter by value, shipping nearly $8.8 billion worth of BMWs from its South Carolina plant. If the prospect of China hurting one of Europe’s premiere companies in order to punish the US sounds preposterous, then welcome to the world of trade wars and unintended circumstances.

World business has a message for those trade officials from China, Europe, and the United States who are busy trying to calibrate tariffs and countertariffs for maximum political advantage: Be careful what you wish for.

Supply chains are so globally intertwined that tariffs and other trade barriers will produce collateral damage – and some of that damage will hurt your own workers and consumers – or those in nations that aren’t directly targeted. And the danger is that policymakers will underestimate the damage of their moves because of the complexity and mutual dependence of the supply chains.

“The risk is definitely higher than expected,” David Simchi-Levi, a supply chain expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes in an email. Even companies can underestimate the risks to their supply chains. “Companies gravitate towards dealing with the obvious risks from large suppliers or known areas and underestimate the risk from others.”

The principle of collateral damage applies to nations as well as corporations. With a looming surge in US tariffs on Chinese exports, experts in Asia say some of the heaviest impacts could fall in places like Thailand and Taiwan, where much of the economy is bound to supply chains that are intertwined with China.

Job gains? Maybe not.

And governments, particularly the White House, may be overestimating the job gains from moving manufacturing back to the US.

“The job effect would be negative if Trump imposed tariffs on China and [the] EU,” Gregory Daco, head of US economics at Oxford Economics USA, writes in an email. “We estimate that if he follows through on his threats the total jobs loss could cumulate to 500,000.”

One of the most striking examples is the auto industry.

Erik Schelzig/AP/File
Employees at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., work on the assembly of a Passat sedans.

When Mr. Simchi-Levi worked with Ford a few years ago to examine its supply chain, he found that the greatest threats of disruption didn’t come from Ford’s biggest suppliers, but from smaller suppliers that made relatively low-cost components.

Take an auto imported from Mexico. Some three-quarters of the foreign parts – representing an estimated 38 percent of the value of the car – comes from the US, according to a study by Harvard doctoral student Alonso de Gortari. So if proposed US tariffs reduce the number of cars imported from Mexico, then US auto-parts manufacturers will make fewer sales and will likely have to lay off US workers.

Eventually, of course, US workers could make those parts for auto assemblers in the US. But it will take a minimum of three years for domestic and foreign manufacturers to set up factories and train workers, points out Kristin Dziczek, vice president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. In the meantime, foreign-made parts will cost more if US tariffs go into effect.

Wire harnesses – that bundle of wires, terminals, and connectors that run the length of a vehicle – are an example. They’re low-margin, labor-intensive parts no longer made in the US and imported instead from Mexico or elsewhere by workers earning at best a little over $2 an hour. If automakers set up US factories to start making them again, they would have to pay workers seven or eight times that amount, making the part far more expensive.

By some estimates, a 25 percent tariff on cars could boost average new car prices by $5,000 or more.

“It’s a fool’s game,” says Sherman Robinson, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “It’s hard to imagine that [the administration] can do any good messing around with these supply chains.”

While the US can impose damage on China for its allegedly unfair trade practices, tariffs are a blunt instrument that would unsettle Asian economies defined by a web of cross-border connections.

Effects on China's neighbors

Some of the biggest losers will be not Chinese companies but other Asian firms that supply them.

“The US-China trade war will create very significant collateral damage,” says Tu Xinquan, executive dean and trade expert at the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) in Beijing.

In manufacturing, for example, China often acts as a processor of intermediate goods imported from elsewhere and then exported again. Thus, about 40 percent of the total value of the goods exported from China to the US come from foreign sources, says Lin Guijun, vice president of UIBE. While those foreign supplies come from many nations, the US itself represents a slightly bigger slice of the pie than many Asian countries, he says. [Editor's note: The final sentence of this paragraph has been revised to clarify Professor Lin's meaning.]

The interconnection of Asian economies has grown in recent years as they’ve developed economically, and also as a rise in wages and environmental rules in China have pushed some production toward places like Vietnam and Cambodia. The nascent trade skirmish could force changes in those ties but won't end them.

Among Chinese experts, opinion is divided over whether China or other Asian nations will be hit hardest by US tariffs.

China will bear the brunt of a trade war with the US, says Yu Miaojie, deputy director of the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University in Beijing. But other vulnerable countries include Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Taiwan.

The trade war will impact every economy, and perhaps especially Taiwan – not just in information and communications technology, but traditional manufacturing, says Darson Chiu, deputy director of the Macroeconomic Forecasting Center at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research in Taipei. Some 78 percent of Taiwan’s exports are intermediate goods, “so the impact will be huge…. It’s like a tsunami coming, and when the tsunami is coming, it’s useless to hold an umbrella.”


4. Why a nearly 30-year-old list of names is roiling modern Latvia

As a nation transitions from occupied state to democracy, is it better to reveal or destroy the identities of informants in order for a nation to move on? Latvia is still deciding which way to go. 

Ints Kalnins/Reuters/File
A photographer takes a picture inside the walking inner courtyard for prisoners in the former Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) headquarters, popularly known as Corner House, in Riga, Latvia, in April 2014. During the 50 years of the occupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union, the KGB headquarters in Riga became a prominent symbol of totalitarian power.

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There were no tears when the KGB fled Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1991; the Soviet security agency was deeply reviled across the Baltics for its role in their oppression. But in Latvia, the KGB left behind a dossier of some 4,500 people who served as agents and contacts in the 1980s. Ever since, the country’s politicians have debated whether or not to make the list of names public. One of the complicating factors is that the catalog says nothing about what the KGB's contacts actually did, or why. And there are fears that the Soviets may have left the dossier behind to sow uncertainty in the young country. The largest issue may be what happens if all the names are published. Latvians were shocked in 2016 when a famous poet confessed he had been a KGB informant. “I have a feeling that I am a murderer and that I carry the corpse inside me. I have killed my life, myself, and my honesty,” he said.


Why a nearly 30-year-old list of names is roiling modern Latvia

More than a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union, the three former occupied Baltic states are still agonizing over the legacy of their harrowing, respective “Soviet times.”

In the case of Latvia, dealing with that legacy is particularly controversial because of its physical nature: a catalog of 4,500 people who served as agents and contacts for the KGB during the 1980s. Ever since it was left behind in 1991 when the Soviets evacuated, as the Latvians were taking back their independence, politicians have wrestled with the question of whether the list should be made public.

One of the reasons is that the catalog is incomplete: It says nothing about what the contacts actually did, or why. Now, in the wake of a report by the government’s KGB Scientific Commission, this Pandora’s box-like issue has come to the fore again.

“Dealing with the aftermath of totalitarianism is a complicated matter for the countries that were under the domination of the Soviet Union during the cold war,” says Pauls Raudseps, an American journalist of Latvian descent who has been working in Riga since 1990. “However in Latvia’s case the issue is even more complicated because of the incomplete nature of the available KGB materials.”

Although the shadow of the USSR and the KGB still hangs over all three Baltic states, the fact that the KGB was unable to remove all its archives from Latvia means that the process of purging the country of the Soviet occupation is somewhat further behind here.

It is hard to exaggerate the effect that the KGB had on Latvia, says Aiva Rozenberga, director of the Latvian Institute, a government institution that promotes Latvia abroad. “Either at your job or your social activities or when meeting relatives from abroad, you were always surrounded by some ‘eyes’ or ‘ears’ that could put you in danger. There was always a risk that one of your ‘dear colleagues’ or even ‘friends’ could report on what you have said, even what kind of jokes you told.”

This left a hidden layer of “trauma,” as Ms. Rozenberga describes it, one which many Latvians are reluctant to discuss, or even acknowledge, today.

Now, the risk of revisiting that trauma by publicizing the list’s names threatens to wreak havoc on Latvian society, as well as the future of Latvian democracy – which some worry may have been the Soviets’ intent in the first place. That is one of the reasons why Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, who served as president from 1999 to 2007, thrice vetoed the Latvian parliament’s decision to open the archives, once in 2004 and twice in 2006. It is a decision she still stands behind.

“We have to consider the possibility that the KGB deliberately left the incomplete archives in order to create trouble for Latvia,” says Dr. Vīķe-Freiberga. More importantly, “we know that many important files were destroyed and others taken to Moscow” when the Russians evacuated.

Kārlis Kangeris, a former professor and head of the KGB commission, scoffs at the notion that the records were deliberately left incomplete. He says that the manner in which they were left was the accidental result of the haste with which the KGB had to evacuate Latvia – an accident which the government is duty-bound to take advantage of in order to expose the former KGB agents who he feels sure now live and work in Latvia.

Vīķe-Freiberga disagrees. “Just publishing the names of people with an agent’s card seems to me to be insufficient,” says the former president, who remains the country’s best known public figure. “I look forward to getting more information from the commission about exactly how the KGB operated in Latvia.”

Whether that information, or the list itself will become available – as the commission, whose report has been “conceptually” accepted by the parliament, recommended – remains unclear. The imbroglio is further complicated by questions which some have raised about the quality of the Kangeris commission’s work.

“This issue – to open the records or not – continues to be a ‘heavy’ topic for our society, as well as our legislators,” says Annija Emersone, a former journalist who worked as a museum assistant at the former KGB headquarters in Riga, also known as the Corner House, after it was opened to the public in 2014. “However,” she adds, “the challenge of catalyzing the political will and support from the parties in power to enact those recommendations is still ahead of us.”

A poet's confession

A core concern for many here is what happens after the list is finally published.

Latvians got an idea of what may be in store in December 2016, when a celebrated poet confessed to having worked for the tormentors of the Corner House. “I was a KGB agent,” said Jānis Rokpelnis, revealing that his job was to report on the mood of civil society groups. “I have a feeling that I am a murderer and that I carry the corpse inside me. I have killed my life, myself, and my honesty,” he said.

Mr. Rokpelnis’s confession astounded his countrymen. Some praised him for his forthrightness. Others branded him a traitor. What would happen if and when the 4,500 contacts on the fateful list are compelled to explain what they did – or did not do – for the still hated KGB?

That question also weighed on the mind of Valdis Zatlers, the president from 2007 to 2011. It weighed even heavier after Dr. Zatlers took the opportunity to examine the KGB archives himself. “To see some of my friends there was a big surprise,” he says. “Some of them did very nasty things.”

However, although he continues to share many of Vīķe-Freiberga’s reservations about the lustration process, Zatlers says that he has changed his mind about whether the list should see the light of day. He feels it is better now to open the records and let the chips fall where they may. “It makes no sense to keep secrets,” he said. “It’s much better to disclose all the documents and end speculation.”

Even if the dossier is published and the names revealed, it remains an open question if Latvia will ever fully face up to its past and finally put the Soviet time, including the depredations of the KGB, to bed. But perhaps that’s not so unusual, says Otto Ozols, a noted Latvian journalist.

“After all it took the French 40 years to fully expunge the taint of the German occupation as well as bring to justice those who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. It seems that it will take just as long for Latvia to purge itself of the KGB,” he says. “France was only occupied for five years. We were under the shadow of the KGB and its helpers for nearly 50.”



5. Our critics’ picks for the best reads of July

From India's elite to French gastronomy to a saber-wielding Olympian in a hijab to a suburban Beowulf, here are the new July titles that most impressed the Monitor's book critics. 


Our critics’ picks for the best reads of July

1.  "The Billionaire Raj," by James Crabtree
Journalist and National University of Singapore professor James Crabtree spins this examination of the rise of India’s super-elite – and the shocking distance between the nation’s wealthy and its poor – into a highly compelling read. Crabtree’s reporting is top-notch and provides plenty of insight. Welcome to India’s “Gilded Age.”

2.  "What We Were Promised," by Lucy Tan
Beyond divisions of class, culture, and background, a single African ivory bracelet connects a Chinese-American family, the staff who enable their overprivileged lives, and their left-behind Chinese families in Lucy Tan’s intriguing debut novel. Set in Shanghai, made empathic with a multigenerational family saga, embellished with timeless class conflict, this story entertains and enlightens.

3.  "A Bite-Sized History of France," by Stéphane Hénaut and Jeni Mitchell
This impressive book intertwines tales of gastronomy, culture, war, and revolution. Each amuse-bouche-sized chapter tackles a different theme, connecting revolution with potatoes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau with a search for “authentic” French food. Whatever this book lacks in focus, it more than makes up for with brisk wit, imagination, and its shotgun generalist approach to both history and gastronomy.

4.  "Indianapolis," by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic
The 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis led to the greatest loss of life at sea from a single ship in the history of the US Navy. Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic do a fabulous job of bringing this tragedy to life and setting it in its proper context. They follow with the haunting story of the 50-year battle to exonerate the ship’s captain.

5.  "Clock Dance," by Anne Tyler
Willa Drake is caught up in a steady, secure life that offers little fulfillment. When she receives a call for help from halfway across the country, Willa surprises herself by accepting the role of temporary caregiver to a mother-daughter pair of strangers. That decision begins a transformation of Willa’s cautiously constructed life. In Anne Tyler’s effortless, uncluttered prose, the novel beautifully explores an older woman’s search for meaning and agency in her life.

6.  "Proud," by Ibtihaj Muhammad with Lori Tharps
Olympic saber fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad tells what she faced as the first Muslim American woman to compete for Team USA while wearing a hijab. As an African-American, she confronted racism along with religious bigotry. According to Muhammad, her teammates and the coach ostracized her, but she powered through and contributed to Team USA’s bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Her story is inspiring and illuminating.

7.  "Barons of the Sea," by Steven Ujifusa
In the mid-19th century, Americans were consumed with the race to build the sleekest, most advanced “90-day sailer.” These were the famous clipper ships – trim-lined vessels piled high with tall white pyramids of sails, carefully designed to slice through the sea at unprecedented speeds. These ships are the dreams floating before the eyes of all the characters in Steven Ujifusa’s fast-paced and entrancing book.

8.  "The Mere Wife," by Maria Dahvana Headley
Bestselling author Maria Dahvana Headley takes a significant gamble in recasting Old English epic “Beowulf” in the American suburbs – but the gamble pays off. She enhances the themes of the classic with contemporary and feminist accents, creating a work that is both unique and worthy.

9.  "City of Devils," by Paul French
The history of Shanghai’s Old City begins in 1843, when the Chinese city was opened as a foreign port, and comes to an abrupt end in 1932 when Japanese troops invaded. In between Shanghai was a sprawling, hyperenergetic demimonde of opium dens, gambling casinos, and illicit dance halls. Author Paul French tells the gripping story of two of the men who ran this city.

10.  "Verdi," by John Suchet
This new biography of the great Italian composer is an attempt to uncover the man behind the art. Primarily, John Suchet, a classic music host on British radio, offers an introduction to Verdi, taking great pains not to get bogged down in boring details or obscure music theory. His book is full of humorous anecdotes and observations calculated to keep operatic neophytes interested.


The Monitor's View

Trump’s demand for reciprocity with allies

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A common theme in President Trump’s meetings with Western leaders has been his demand for reciprocity between the United States and its allies in both trade and defense spending. Mr. Trump says he is making up for the mistakes of past US presidents. He says they gave away too much in both trade talks and in forming alliances. Instead of seeing the US as a superpower making concessions for the sake of global order, Trump has in effect asked that the US be treated as an equal. Is there a moral claim in Trump’s demand, even if his tactics and tweets can sometimes be crude? Equality is often the basis for reciprocity in relationships. It opens doors for negotiations. It allows for the creation of a social contract in which all sides find it easier to acknowledge the other’s interests. It is hard to tell how US allies will respond. But the fact that these leaders keep meeting is a testament to their hope to find common ground – among equals.


Trump’s demand for reciprocity with allies

Twice in two months President Trump has met with other Western leaders, first at an economic summit in June and this week at a gathering of NATO nations. A common theme? Mr. Trump’s demand for reciprocity  in both trade and defense spending between the United States and its allies.

Trump asked for more access to European markets for American farm goods, for example, while insisting that other NATO countries spend about 3.5 percent of gross national product on their military forces – as the United States does – not the agreed target of 2 percent by 2024.

“All allies have heard President Trump’s message loud and clear,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the summit in Brussels. “We understand that this American president is very serious about defense spending, and this is having a clear impact.”

On trade, Trump has slapped tariffs on imports from allies in an aggressive attempt to win an opening for more exports of US products and services. In response, a few European nations have eased restrictions on US imports.

“At a time when nations have become so unwilling to play by the rules and restore reciprocity, tariffs are a wake-up call to the dangers of a broken trading system that is increasingly unfree,” warns Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, in a Washington Post op-ed.

Trump says he is making up for the mistakes of past US presidents who gave away too much in both trade talks and in forming alliances during the cold war and afterward. Instead of seeing the US as a superpower making generous concessions for the sake of global order, Trump has in effect asked the US to be treated as an equal. Or as Gary Cohn, Trump’s former National Economic Council director, put it: “You treat us the way we treat you, or we’ll treat you the way you treat us.”

In all this, Trump has asked Americans to be patient while he plays tough with demands and tariffs in order to somehow achieve a greater good. “There may be a little pain for a little while, but ultimately for my farmers ... you’re going to do much better,” he told supporters in Michigan last April.

Is there a moral claim in Trump’s demand for reciprocity, even if his tactics and tweets can sometimes be crude?

Equality is often the basis for reciprocity in relationships. It opens doors for negotiations and allows for the creation of a social contract in which all sides find it easier to acknowledge the other’s interests. Yet it is hard to tell how US allies will respond.

In a speech this week, Tony Abbott, former prime minister of Australia, said, “Being America’s partner as well as its friend will be even more important now given Trump’s obsession with reciprocity.”

In each summit with allies, Trump keeps hammering on reciprocity. Many of those allies agree in principle and some are conceding to his demands. A new contract on trade and defense is slowly being written within the Western alliance. The fact that these leaders keep meeting is a testament to their hope to find common ground – among equals.


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.

Morality and freedom

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Today’s column explores a concept of morality that’s liberating, not confining, because it’s based on God’s love for all.


Morality and freedom

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Freedom is a grand and noble concept to aspire to, and something we have an inherent right to enjoy. At the same time, courts and judges around the world are kept very busy trying to define the specific parameters of that freedom. At what point does the exercise of one person’s freedom interfere with another’s? Can we live together in an orderly and peaceful fashion and still feel truly free?

A unique statement on freedom has helped me find an answer to that question. It says: “There is moral freedom in Soul.” This statement is found in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” (p. 58), in which its author, Christian Science discoverer Mary Baker Eddy, uses “Soul” with a capital “S” as another name for God. This idea can have many implications, but what it has inspired me to consider is that freedom in its truest sense must be moral, and morality in its truest sense is freeing – because both our freedom and morality stem from God.

When I first read that sentence, however, I had a very different sense of morality and freedom. I’d grown up thinking that moral law such as the Bible’s Ten Commandments, while necessary to keep society safe, was confining. And I felt that freedom in its purest sense should mean I could do whatever I wanted. It hadn’t occurred to me that laws beginning with the phrase “Thou shalt not” could be liberating.

Encouraged by a mentor, I pondered the Ten Commandments more deeply and began to see them as guardrails ensuring safety and security. They had been revealed to Moses by God, and the Bible explains that God is Love itself. So it follows that to the extent we willingly and even gratefully conform to the spirit of those laws, we feel and experience more of eternal Love’s care for each of us.

To my surprise, that idea felt very freeing. I also thought of the example of Christ Jesus related in the Scriptures, and I could see how moral freedom was at work throughout his life and ministry. He commended and obeyed the Commandments, yet he constantly freed others from limitations such as lack and sickness and helped many break free from the confines of materialistic and sinful thinking.

In doing this, Jesus wasn’t just impressing a need to be moral on others, he was bringing to light man’s spiritual identity as created by God, in which expressing God’s own goodness is the true nature of every man, woman, and child. To acknowledge God as our spiritual creator steers us away from the snares and entrapments of materialism, and into the strength and freedom of our innate spiritual integrity. The more we make ideals like honesty and faithfulness our own and refrain from things like stealing, harming others, or coveting what others have, the more tangibly we experience our God-given freedom from limitation.

Here’s a simple example: I was one of several candidates for a job I felt very qualified for and thought I would enjoy. As I waited to hear whether I’d gotten the position, I was anxious in a way that wasn’t normal for me, so I decided to pray for a more spiritual viewpoint, acknowledging God’s love for everyone applying for the post.

As I did so, I realized that by intensely coveting this position, I was letting myself be overtaken by a very personal sense of what I thought the outcome should be. From experience, though, I knew that pursuing personal ambition couldn’t compare with experiencing what divine Love has in store for His children, which can only be good. What I needed was to understand and trust that divine Love guides each of us to decisions and solutions that benefit not just us, but others, too.

As I prayed along these lines I felt completely at peace. Freedom in this case didn’t come from being able to do whatever I wanted. It came from humbly and lovingly accepting that whatever good God had in store for me would be more than enough to satisfy me.

Did I get the job? I did, in time. The funny thing is I honestly don’t remember if it was at that time, or at a point when the job became available again. That’s how free I was from concern about it.

In the years since then I’ve had other experiences that have illustrated very tangibly to me that divine Love meets our needs, and that conforming to moral law isn’t rigid or confining. Rather, it allows us to move forward wisely and safely, and in ways that bless and help others. And that, in itself, is very freeing.



Hot competition

Stephane Mahe/Reuters
Riders pass burning hay bales during Stage 6 of cycling’s Tour de France – from Brest to Mur-de-Bretagne Guerleden – July 12.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

In Our Next Issue

( July 13th, 2018 )

Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

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