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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
August
06
Monday

The week ahead will mark the first anniversary of the Charlottesville, Va., white nationalist rallies that shook the United States. Staff writer Jessica Mendoza is there now, and staff writers Christa Case Bryant and Patrik Jonsson are teaming up with her for a series this week on the legacy of Charlottesville. The first story is in this issue. 

In reflecting on her reporting so far, Jessica suggests that the legacy isn’t any one thing. “Where you’re coming from really informs what you see afterward,” she told me.

That’s one reason we’ve decided to focus our series on a kaleidoscope of people. In looking at how different people’s lives and outlooks have changed, we hope to examine these different perspectives through compelling stories. From police shootings to politics, different perspectives have shaped how we see news events and revealed fault lines. Exploring these perspectives, while sometimes uncomfortable, helps to reveal why people see the world the way they do. Without that, finding a common way forward is almost impossible.

“I hope there is a possibility to knit these threads together,” Jessica says, “not just to understand what happened, but how we got here in the first place.”

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Now on to our five stories for today, which include stories on Israel’s sense of identity, China’s model for global influence, and one French town’s commitment to the world around it. 

Charlottesville: Lives changed

One year after

1. After a mother’s terrible loss, a new life of activism

Of the lives changed by Charlottesville, Susan Bro’s stands out. Her daughter was killed, and a white supremacist has been accused. Yet to her, the legacy of that day is a need to listen, even if it is uncomfortable.

Mark
Brian Snyder/Reuters
Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., posed with press clippings about – and a portrait of – her daughter in her Charlottesville office last month.

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How do you run a national campaign from a trailer home? Just ask Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed by a white supremacist at the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., protests. Her daughter’s death catapulted Ms. Bro from a life of canning green beans and contemplating retirement to the front lines of a national clash. That clash, revealing deep divisions around issues of race and equality, heritage and constitutional rights, could play out again in an Aug. 12 anniversary rally in Washington this weekend. And it threatens to further roil the country as the United States heads toward a not-so-distant future in which whites will become the minority. Bro has done a lot in a year, opening envelopes of cash sent in by strangers; establishing a foundation in her daughter’s name; traveling around the country speaking about white privilege; and mediating Facebook fights between her friends and Trump-supporting relatives. While Bro still feels anger and periodic waves of grief, she has not only taken a stand against hate but has also found the fortitude to listen to critics. “Don’t automatically discount everybody who comes at you,” says Bro. “They might be right.”

Tomorrow: Meet the teenage activist whose petition to bring down a controversial statue sparked a conflagration.

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After a mother’s terrible loss, a new life of activism

It’s not easy running a national social justice campaign when you live in a trailer and have to worry about things like a leaky roof.

But Susan Bro has embraced that challenge in the year since her daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed by a white supremacist in the 2017 Charlottesville protests.

Many, particularly on the left, have paid homage to Ms. Heyer and made her death a rallying cry for fighting racism and injustice. For Ms. Bro, carrying on her daughter’s legacy has been an uphill battle, whether it’s keeping the fundraising momentum going, or navigating criticism for being too outspoken.

Bro occupies an interesting space in a society in turmoil, as a working-class white ally of people of color. For the past year, she has been pouring her heart into a progressive cause, but also trying to keep the door open to those with differing perspectives – including her own relatives, some of whom are Trump supporters, some of whom have unfriended her on Facebook.

Her daughter’s death catapulted Bro from a life of canning green beans and contemplating retirement to the front lines of a national clash that last year’s Charlottesville protests exposed. That clash, revealing deep divisions around issues of race and equality, heritage and constitutional rights, could play out again in an Aug. 12 anniversary rally in Washington this weekend. And it threatens to further roil the country as the United States heads toward a not-so-distant future in which whites will become the minority. 

While Bro still feels anger and periodic waves of grief, she has not only sought to take a public stand against hate – but has also found the fortitude to listen to critics.

“If they have something negative to say, think about it, absorb it, see what might be true about it,” says Bro in a phone interview. “Don’t automatically discount everybody who comes at you – they might be right.”

Bro has been criticized for her willingness to talk to people from a variety of backgrounds; local activists pressured her not to attend a Listen First Charlottesville event held this spring, aimed at bridging divides in the community. She went anyway.

Bro’s example inspired others, including University of Virginia student president Sarah Kenny. She was writing her thesis on the women of the alt-right, one of whom she witnessed Heyer’s mother interacting with during the Listen First weekend.

“I glimpsed [her] forgive this former neo-Nazi for the ideology that took her daughter’s life,” says Ms. Kenny. “Few experiences have overwhelmed me with awe and hope like this moment of radical reconciliation.”

A costly fight

Heyer, a high-school graduate who had worked her way up to becoming a paralegal in a Charlottesville firm, was making enough money at 32 to live on her own for the first time. She held a second job as a waitress, and was dressed in her black work clothes when she attended the Aug. 12 rally to counterprotest the white supremacists and white nationalists who had come from across the country to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

Heyer’s plan to head to work after attending the rally – and all her plans and hopes for fighting racism and oppression – came to an end when 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio rammed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing her. Or so it seemed. 

“They tried to kill my child to shut her up,” said Bro during a eulogy at her daughter’s funeral. “Well, guess what? You just magnified her.”

Indeed, thanks in no small part to Bro, Heyer’s memory is living on in the fight against injustice.

A biracial schoolmate who remembered Heyer standing up for her on the school bus, started a GoFundMe campaign for the family that raised $225,000 in just a few days.  

Bro didn’t know what to do with it all, says Alfred Wilson, the African-American lawyer who hired Heyer at Miller Law Group in Charlottesville. “What Susan said was, ‘Hey, I don’t want all this money, I shouldn’t be getting this money, what should we do with this?’ ”

So together they established the Heather Heyer Foundation to help fund college educations for people passionate about positive social change.” So far they've given out eight scholarships worth at least $1,000 (they partnered with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation on several of those, providing a total of $5,000 to the students). They are working on creating a $5 million endowment and hope to be able to supply a $40,000 a year scholarship to a student within the next two years.

“Susan likes helping and likes doing things for other people, so I don’t think Heather would be surprised by her doing this,” says Mr. Wilson, though he adds that the understated Heyer might be “mortified” to see her name out there so much. “Instead of saying, ‘Hey, look at me,’ she was more about, ‘I’m going to be there and I’m going to make a change.’ ”

Encounter with a Confederate supporter

Many of the same issues that drove Heyer to counterprotest are still present in Charlottesville a year later, Bro says, citing a lack of affordable housing and police traffic stops that disproportionately target people of color. Though the city council in January elected a new black mayor, Nikuyah Walker, she says Ms. Walker has hit roadblocks in her efforts to bring about significant change.

Bro, for her part, has sought to educate herself more about the African-American experience.

She recently participated in a pilgrimage taking dirt from the lynching site of John Henry James – killed by a mob in Charlottesville in 1898 – to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. There, the jar of dirt joined hundreds of other jars from lynching sites across the US. The group, about 100 strong, rode a bus through the South, stopping at civil rights landmarks and museums along the way.

“She told me that until now she didn’t realize what white privilege was,” says Wilson. “She told me, ‘Alfred, here you are, educated, two degrees, running a law firm, but I walk into the same store that you walk in, and they are going to follow you and not me. That is white privilege.’ ”

As Bro has learned more and taken on a more outspoken role, that’s led to some difficult conversations, including with family members, some of whom are Trump supporters. Bro declined to take a condolence call from the president after he decried the violence “on many sides” at last year’s rally, which many interpreted as assigning moral equivalence to white supremacists and the counterprotesters demonstrating against racism.

Some friends on Facebook have attacked her family members in online conversations, and she’s intervened.

“I try to give them a fair, balanced approach when I can,” she says. “I don’t always do a great job.”

She has also exercised restraint with strangers, including a man driving a truck with a Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate.

He was ahead of her in line at a McDonald’s drive-thru, and she saw him look in his rearview mirror and recognize her. She made a conscious decision not to hate him. When Bro got to the window, she discovered he had paid for her meal.

“I think he’s probably one of the guys who believes in his heart of hearts that it’s all about history and not hate,” says Bro. “And some of those people are truly upset that Heather was killed.”

‘They just hate blindly’

Mr. Fields, the driver who killed Heyer, faces murder charges in a state trial slated to begin in November. And on June 27, a federal jury indicted him on 30 counts – including 29 of hate crime acts.

“The events of Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville are a grim reminder of why the FBI prioritizes its investigations of civil rights violations among the top of its criminal programs. I hope today will also be a reminder to those who are motivated by hate and intent on committing violence; we are going to be there, just as we were in this case,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Adam S. Lee, who oversees the office in Charlottesville, in a statement.

The following week, Fields – who says he is being treated for depression and other mental illnesses – pleaded not guilty. Bro, who attended his plea hearing, says “he’s very young, very messed up.”

As for white supremacist and white nationalist leaders, Bro says she doesn’t think they actually believe much of the vitriol they espouse against Jews and people of color. “I think it’s more about mind control of their followers.”

Jason Kessler, who organized last year’s rally, is planning an anniversary rally in Washington, DC. He had initially sought a permit to hold one in Charlottesville as well, but abruptly withdrew his request.

“Even if they don’t come, there might be the Confederate flaggers, or some of the other groups, that show up,” Bro speculates. But she’s not concerned about their words having any real power.

“They’re just mouthing phrases that don’t even make sense,” she says. “They just hate blindly, they don’t even really know why.”

Coauthoring a children’s book series

Meanwhile, there are mundane problems for Bro to solve, like what to do about the leaky roof of the trailer where she and her husband live.

While being Heyer’s mom may have put Bro in the national spotlight, it hasn’t made her rich. She still lives in the same trailer park she moved into in 1995, about half an hour outside Charlottesville. She and her husband have been gradually renovating their trailer over the past eight years and were nearly done when recent heavy rains found their way through the roof.

Just the other day, she got yet another bill for Heyer’s medical expenses, which have totaled more than $200,000. “I thought we were done with those,” says Bro, who used many of the donations she received to pay those bills. But the funds are running out as the one-year anniversary approaches.

Bro, who has made it her full-time job to carry on Heyer’s legacy, spends much of her time traveling around the country giving talks. She is also coauthoring a children’s series about empathy and empowerment.

There are several fundraisers coming up soon, and Bro is working with a California-based designer who has ties to Charlottesville to design T-shirts commemorating Heyer. Bro says she is grateful for those who have come forward to help with fundraising. But she adds that it can feel “weird” sometimes.

It also strikes her as strange that so much has been made about one white woman’s death, without recognition that so many people of color die untimely deaths on a regular basis – or struggle with oppression and fear.

“If Heather’s death has served to at least wake up the white community that they need to get involved,” says Bro, “I’m pushing that agenda.”

Staff writer Patrik Jonsson contributed reporting.

Part 2: Charlottesville teen goes from targeting statue to taking on system

Part 3: Charlottesville pastors see protest as an act of faith

Part 4: Jason Kessler and the alt-right implosion after Charlottesville

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2. Whose ‘Jewish State’? In Israel, a tiny minority makes its voice heard.

Is Israel only for Jews? A new law more closely binds Israel to its Jewish heritage. But it also leaves out the Druze, who have long been hailed for their patriotism. Minorities can be proud Israelis, too, they say. 

Mark

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Since its passage July 19 by the Israeli parliament, a new law defining Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” has faced a wave of criticism among a wide swath of Jews and Arabs. Many of them see it as a nationalist trampling of Israel’s democracy and minority rights. And for the tiny Druze community, which is celebrated for its military service but has strained relations with other Israeli Arabs, the law is seen as insulting. Since its passage, two Druze officers publicly resigned from the Israeli military, saying they had been reduced to second-class citizens. Now the Druze find themselves at the forefront of a fight for equal rights for all Arab citizens in Israel. On Saturday night, tens of thousands of Druze and other Israelis demonstrated against the nation-state law in Tel Aviv. “We believe it’s a bad law for all minorities, but specifically for those minorities who see themselves as Israelis,’’ says Amir Khnifess, a recent postdoctoral fellow in political science at Georgetown University who runs a center promoting Druze ties to Israel. “What we won’t accept is a law that defines us as second-class citizens.”

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Whose ‘Jewish State’? In Israel, a tiny minority makes its voice heard.

In decades of demonstrations at Rabin Square, it was an unprecedented sight. With Tel Aviv’s 20-story City Hall lit up in the five-colored Druze Arab flag, tens of thousands of Jewish and Druze demonstrators on Saturday chanted in Arabic and Hebrew, “Equality, Equality.”

The outpouring was a protest against Israel’s recently passed “nation state” law, a piece of constitutional legislation enshrining the country’s Jewish character that critics say downgrades Arab citizens of Israel, who make up 21 percent of the population, and omits mention of democratic values.

Participation in the high-profile mass protest was a departure for the Druze, a small religious minority within the larger Arab minority who are celebrated in Israel for their patriotism and military service but have strained relations with other Israeli Arabs.

But the protest against the nation-state law has put the community in a dramatic new position: as leaders in the campaign for equal rights between all Arabs and Jews in Israel.

“I’m happy that there are so many people that are supporting us. I’m happy that we are waving the Druze flag at Rabin Square,” says Aezz Abrukin from the Druze village of Isfiya in northern Israel.

Wearing a shirt with the Jewish Star of David rendered in the colors of the Druze flag, Mr. Abrukin explains that his father was killed serving in Israel’s Border Patrol, and that he flies the Druze and Israeli flag on his jeep every Independence Day.

“The prime minister should support us. He should turn on the television and see what is happening here,” he says. “We need to change this law. I’m not political, but we need a law that will protect our rights, like others.’’

Dubbed, “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” the law has been hailed by supporters like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a necessary formalization of the country’s Jewish identity. Detractors say the law is unnecessary at best, and a nationalist trampling of Israel’s democracy and minority rights at worst.

The legislation elevates the status of Hebrew over Arabic (until now an official language in Israel), encourages “Jewish settlement,” and omits any reference to democracy or equality for Israel’s Arab population. The July 19 passage of the law triggered a wave of criticism among a wide swath of Jews and Arabs.

The Druze, who number about 150,000 out of Israel’s population of nearly 9 million, saw the law as an insult to their patriotism and contribution to the country. In the weeks since the law’s passage, two Druze officers publicly resigned from the Israeli military, bemoaning that they had been reduced to second-class citizens.

“We believe it’s a bad law for all minorities, but specifically for those minorities who see themselves as Israelis,’’ says Amir Khnifess, a recent post-doctoral fellow in political science at Georgetown University who runs a center promoting Druze ties to Israel.

An old alliance

The turnout Saturday night “shows you that the struggle is not unique to the Druze community – it’s also a struggle for every other Israeli who feels hurt,” he says. “We were singing the [Israeli national anthem] ‘Hatikvah,’ and we were united with our Israeli identity, but what we won’t accept is a law that defines us as second-class citizens.”

The cooperation between Israeli Jews and Druze – part of a Middle Eastern community that also forms minorities in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan – extends back to before Israel’s establishment in 1948.

It was an alliance of minorities. Labeled infidels by some Muslim religious leaders, several Druze groups in British Mandatory Palestine threw in their lot with the Zionists, assuming that the Jews’ history of suffering anti-Semitism would make them sensitive to minority rights.

In recent decades, the Druze have enthusiastically embraced service in combat units, while Druze politicians have been elected to the parliament on the ticket of both right-wing and left-wing Zionist political parties. Their patriotism has kept the Druze at a distance from most Christian and Muslim citizens, who, although they seek equal rights as well, increasingly identify as Palestinians and recoil from Zionism. The Druze are often insulted by fellow Arabs as “dogs” of the Zionists.

Now the Druze – despite some initial discussion of a separate deal with the government to address the community’s status –  find themselves at the forefront of a fight for equal rights for all Arab citizens in Israel.

“The wave of demonstration by the Druze community against the nation-state law can be the beginning of a more comprehensive process, in which the Druze could be the spearhead of a struggle for the equality of all Israeli citizen minorities, Muslim and Christians,’’ wrote Israeli author David Grossman on the eve of the rally in the Haaretz newspaper.

Wide support for Druze

The Druze reputation as enthusiastic soldiers earns them legitimacy and sympathy across a wide spectrum of Israelis. Though a survey by Israel’s Walla! News website found that 58 percent of Israelis support the law, 54 percent of respondents in the same poll said the Druze campaign against the law is justified.

“The pain of the Druze is genuine and should be respected,” said Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, of the far-right Jewish Home party, in an interview with Israeli Army Radio Sunday. Shaked nonetheless defended the law and said it shouldn’t be changed.

Despite that respect, the Druze say they face the same discrimination as other minorities in civilian life. The Druze complain they can’t get authorization to build in their villages and suffer discrimination when job hunting.

“It’s easy to identify with the Druze. I was a paratrooper, and I served with them,’’ says Dror Schneider, an engineering consultant who attended the rally and criticizes the discrimination they often face. “If they try to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv, who will rent to another Arab?”

In an effort to mollify the Druze last week, Mr. Netanyahu offered to invest more government funds in Druze villages and pass a law recognizing the status of minorities who serve in Israeli security forces. At the same time, however, Netanyahu and his political allies alleged that the Druze didn’t understand the law and had been misled by Israeli left wingers. Druze leaders ultimately rejected the offer.

“They said this has nothing to do with money, this has to do with our Israeli identity,” says Eran Zinger, a Middle East editor at Israel’s public broadcast corporation, Kan. “Their role is to remind Israelis that first Israel is for [all] Israelis, and only then Israel is for the Jews.”

No separate deals

Though the Druze and other Arab groups speak a different political language, they share the same goal of changing the law or nullifying it, Mr. Zinger says.

A group of Druze Israeli parliamentarians were the first to submit a petition to Israel’s Supreme Court against the law, a move followed by other Israeli opponents of the government. This Saturday, the Druze protest will be followed up by another Rabin Square demonstration by other Arab groups.

While Druze groups aren’t likely to join, Mr. Khnifess says the Druze campaign would continue and that there would be no separate deals with the government.

“That doesn’t solve the problem with the basic law; it complicates the whole situation, and divides all of Israeli society into more groups,’’ he says. “We will continue our struggle, until the law is removed or amended, until it provides equality for all citizens.”

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Patterns

Tracing global connections

3. Trade war drumbeat masks a deeper challenge from China

China’s drive for global influence might seem to mirror that of the Soviet Union during the cold war. But its effort is built on a different sense of power.

Mark

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Tensions between the United States and China may bring to mind the dueling cold war campaigns by the Soviet Union and the US for influence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the 1970s. China has undertaken an ambitious program to parlay its economic clout into strategic influence across the globe. But the historical differences outweigh the parallels. China has a modern economy. And its initiative is far more economically robust. Its trillion-dollar centerpiece, called Belt and Road, funds infrastructure projects in dozens of countries. Typically, those are built by Chinese companies and funded in part by billions of dollars in loans. Some Belt and Road partners may not be able to repay, however, giving Beijing leverage to secure wider gains. That happened in Sri Lanka, where China took control of a port, and worries are growing that Djibouti, home of a US military base, may be in a similar position. How should the US respond? Its recent announcement of $113 million to fund development partnerships across Asia is relatively microscopic. The US is also hampered by strained relations with allies on whom they relied for leverage. 

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Trade war drumbeat masks a deeper challenge from China

Trade War with China! The very phrase conveys the potential gravity of Washington’s campaign to rebalance the relationship between the world’s two largest economies, and address what the United States and many other countries view as unfair commercial practices by the Chinese.

But as sometimes happens, the drumbeat of daily headlines can mask a deeper story: in this case, that trade may not be the main test posed by Chinese policies. A more serious, long-term challenge could lie in the ambitious program being undertaken under President Xi Jinping to parlay China’s economic clout into expanded financial, political, and strategic influence across the globe.

If that sounds familiar, that’s perhaps because of echoes from the dueling cold war campaigns by the Soviet Union and the US for influence in post-colonial Asia, Africa, and Latin America through the late 1970s.

But the historical differences outweigh the parallels. The Chinese initiative is far larger and more economically robust than the Soviets’ mix of aid and arms sales to the developing world. And the USSR was, in some respects, not that much more developed economically than the states it sought to partner and influence.

A muscular drive for new relationships

China, like the old USSR, does have a political system rooted in control by the Communist Party, and increasingly in President Xi himself. But it has a modern economy, with powerful trade and financial links to the rest of the developed world, giving muscle to its drive for new relationships across Asia and Africa. That effort is part of an overall geopolitical strategy, portrayed by Xi as ending China’s relative lack of assertiveness since Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and reconnecting the country with its historic identity as a world power.

Its trillion-dollar centerpiece is called Belt and Road. It aims to revive the old Silk Road trading routes between China and the West through infrastructure projects in dozens of countries, beginning with its near neighbors in central Asia and fanning out across southern Asia and into Africa. The official narrative is that this is a “win-win” for all involved. When the Chinese have come calling – with plans for roads and railways, pipelines and ports, in countries that undeniably need new infrastructure – recipient states have almost invariably said “yes.”

But there’s a rub, increasingly concerning to the US and allied countries. Typically, the projects are built by Chinese companies. They’re funded by a mix of concessionary exports of raw materials back to China and by billions of dollars in loans. A number of China’s Belt and Road partners are already deep in debt, however. They run the risk of not being able to repay, giving Beijing leverage to secure wider geopolitical gains.

This isn’t just theoretical. In Sri Lanka, China built a port on the island nation’s southern coast. Late last year, after protracted negotiations over the Sri Lankans’ inability to repay, Chinese state companies were given control of the facility, a few hundred miles off the coast of India.

Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, is a small state with outsized strategic significance. It sits on the Bab el Mandeb strait, across from Yemen at the foot of the Red Sea, and is home to the only permanent US military base in Africa.

There, too, China has built a port, as well as a railway and other projects. But shortly after opening the port last year, it also inaugurated its first overseas naval base a few miles away. Given the likelihood Djibouti will find it hard to repay its infrastructure loans, there is now concern the government may end up ceding a wider military footprint to the Chinese.

The question for US policymakers has been how to respond. In recent days, the Trump administration has unveiled what seems the beginning of an answer. As the Monitor reported, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a plan to fund infrastructure and development partnerships across Asia, ahead of his own visit to the region, which just concluded.

Still, the initial sum – $113 million – was microscopic compared with Belt and Road. Mr. Pompeo seems aware that a key component in a broader, sustained reply will be coordination with, and support from, allied countries. In fact, that may turn out to be the case in resolving the trade dispute with the Chinese.

So far, the administration has been betting that the imposition of increasingly wide tariffs will bring Beijing to the negotiating table. That could yet happen. An all-out trade war would cause further pain not just to US businesses but China’s economy. Still, amid new tit-for-tat tariff threats, White House economic aide Larry Kudlow has also spoken of efforts to enlist the European Union in a “united front” against Chinese commercial malpractices.

The challenge for Washington is its allies' increasing discomfort with America First policies. The EU remains subject to new US steel and aluminum tariffs imposed earlier this year. In Asia, one of President Trump’s first acts was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement negotiated with allies during the Obama administration as a counterbalance to potential Chinese economic dominance in the region.

The issue of how the US deals with allies in responding to Chinese trade and overseas infrastructure policies has now brought a more fundamental question about the administration’s future course into focus. In a surprise visit last January to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, the president declared: “America First does not mean America alone.” His next words made clear what he meant: that by directing all his policy energies to American economic growth, the rest of the world would benefit, too. But with China, he may be faced with deciding whether America’s own interests can be secured without calling on the kind of alliances previous administrations have long relied upon.

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Briefing

4. As Venezuela’s crises intensify, so do its neighbors’

A failing economy, a desperate dictator, and an apparent assassination attempt point to a Venezuela in crisis. In this briefing, we explain the steps that have led to this moment and the growing urgency for solutions.  

Mark
Carlos Eduardo Ramirez/Reuters
A woman carrying a baby prepares to attempt a crossing into Colombia from Venezuela across the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in San Antonio del Táchira, Venezuela, Aug. 3.

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On Saturday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro claimed to have survived an assassination attempt during a televised address to troops. The culprits? Opponents in the United States and neighboring Colombia, according to Mr. Maduro. While the government makes arrests of alleged masterminds, critics see the crackdown as an attempt to distract the nation – and world – from Venezuela's mounting economic, political, and humanitarian crises. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, but policies under Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, have left the economy struggling, with inflation expected to reach 1 million percent this year. In a 2017 survey, 80 percent of Venezuelans said they had reduced their food consumption to adapt to shortages, and child malnutrition is on the rise. Now, the president’s blaming Colombia could further strain relations in the region as Venezuela’s neighbors struggle to respond to the large numbers of refugees arriving on their doorsteps. Several nearby countries have welcomed refugees, but many are learning on the fly and struggling to balance national issues with the unprecedented influx.

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As Venezuela’s crises intensify, so do its neighbors’

What happened Saturday in Caracas? According to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, he survived an assassination attempt during a televised address to troops. He claims opponents in the United States and neighboring Colombia – including the outgoing president – are responsible for sending explosives-laden drones to kill him. Some witness accounts say a drone hit a nearby building, while local firefighters said there was a gas-tank explosion at an apartment. While the government makes arrests of the alleged masterminds, critics see the crackdown as an attempt to distract the nation – and world – from Venezuela's mounting economic and humanitarian crises.

Mr. Maduro’s accusations move attention away from the fact that some military members scattered after the blast, instead of rushing to protect the president. Breaking rank after the explosion painted the leader as weak and vulnerable, analysts say. But blaming Colombia could raise military tensions and strain already tough relations in the region, as Venezuela’s neighbors struggle to respond to the large numbers of refugees arriving on their doorsteps. Venezuelans are fleeing in droves amid soaring inflation, medical and food shortages, and human rights abuses.

Why are Venezuelans fleeing?

Food shortages, salaries that haven’t kept up with sky-high inflation, and the overall deterioration of the nation’s health system have driven an estimated hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans out of the country. In a 2017 national survey, 80 percent of Venezuelans said they had reduced their food consumption in order to adapt to shortages. Child malnutrition is on the rise, with 16 out of 23 Venezuelan states showing at least 15 percent of children at risk of dying due to malnutrition, according to research by the Catholic charity Caritas.

“We are in an emergency situation. This is a slow-onset emergency: It kills by wearing [people] down, the family is powerless, and the first to die are children,” Susana Raffalli, a leading nutritionist and humanitarian worker studying malnutrition in Venezuela, said in a July interview with a Venezuelan newspaper.

Nearly 80 percent of hospitals surveyed by the nongovernmental organization Red de Médicos por la Salud reported shortages of vital medicines and supplies, and there has been an increase in preventable deaths. 

What does the political crisis look like?

Politics plays a direct role in the humanitarian situation. Mr. Maduro has consolidated power since taking office in 2013, following the death of Hugo Chávez, who also destabilized independent institutions during his 14 years in power. Maduro and his government have blamed the struggling economy on the country’s business class or outside players, like the United States, accusing them of instigating an “economic war.” Last summer, the government held a highly controversial vote on the creation of a Constitutional Assembly, which essentially overrides the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Within the first month of its creation, the body replaced the vocally critical attorney general with a government ally, created a truth commission meant to investigate “acts of violence” at antigovernment protests, and voted to put opposition politicians on trial for treason, among other moves.

At least 15 opposition and former government leaders are now in exile. The opposition has long been divided and continues to struggle to unify its message.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. Why is the economy struggling?

Venezuela has been rocked by inflation for more than a decade – long before Maduro came to power – with the cost of food and other goods going up more quickly than wages. But with soaring oil prices in the 2000s, Chávez’s government discouraged local food production through social welfare policies that kept prices low for consumers. His policies focused on lifting up the poor, but he spent far more of the oil windfall than he saved for future investment. When oil prices began to fall, that lack of savings came back to haunt Venezuela. The government has focused more on paying off foreign debts – and avoiding default – than paying international importers of medicine or food.

Inflation is expected to reach 1 million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The government has put forth a handful of solutions, like printing new currency that will lob off several zeros from its Bolivar notes and vague pledges to reform the currency exchange laws. Some experts suggest gasoline rationing could become a near-term proposal. 

Are neighboring nations pitching in to help?

Absolutely – but many are learning on the fly, and struggling to balance national interests with this unprecedented influx of refugees. Peru, where an estimated 280,000 Venezuelans have fled, has issued temporary resident visas to some 43,000 Venezuelans, which allow access to education, employment, and healthcare. Meanwhile, Colombia, which has shouldered the brunt of the exodus over the past several years, is struggling to balance its own internal challenges (namely the implementation of the peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and a presidential transition) with the estimated 800,000 Venezuelans in need of support. A rule requiring valid identification to access services in Colombia is making the Venezuelan population there more vulnerable, according to a 2018 Washington Office on Latin America report, making them easy targets for recruitment by criminal groups.

In 2017, the United States pledged more than $55 million to South American governments and NGOs responding to the outflow of Venezuelans. Some 18,300 Venezuelans applied for asylum in the US in 2017, more than triple the applicants in 2015.

Are there any solutions on the table?

The government and opposition have engaged in negotiations without much success. First, in 2016, there were talks brokered by the Vatican, and again this year representatives met in the Dominican Republic. Regional bodies like the Organization of American States have repeatedly failed to pass resolutions calling for an end to repression and human rights violations in Venezuela. That, in part, has to do with a strong anti-intervention sentiment across Latin America. US President Trump reportedly questioned the option of invasion, which most observers agree would have more negative effects than positive. However, after the drone incident, some observers worry the explosion – whether truly an assassination attempt or not – could embolden the use of violence in forcing a government transition.

But others are working to use diplomacy and peaceful tactics to find a solution. At the May G7 meeting, members sent a message of solidarity, calling for “a peaceful, negotiated, democratic solution to the crisis in Venezuela.” And many Venezuelan exiles are working from their new homes around the globe to raise awareness and drum up needed international support.

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Global voices

Worldwide reports on progress

5. ‘La vie en vert’: Green living in the French countryside

Our last story today is our final collaboration this summer with Sparknews, which coordinated solutions-oriented articles from more than 50 news outlets worldwide. Here, we share one French town’s quest to go totally green. You can see all the other Sparknews stories we published here.   

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In the village of Langouët in northern France, la vie en rose looks decidedly green. That’s because this community of 600 residents near Rennes, the capital city of Brittany, is one of the most sustainable towns in France. Over the past 20 years, Langouët has been developing a host of green projects including a canteen that serves organic and local produce, sustainable housing, a hamlet of “kitchen-garden houses,” a garden used for teaching permaculture, a community cafe, a solar power plant, and a shared electric car. The village has gained a reputation for being a pioneer in green living, thanks in part to Daniel Cueff, mayor of Langouët and a driving force behind its transition. The town’s success also belongs to local residents, many of whom have loaned their own money to help fund projects, such as a communal learning garden where villagers can study permaculture. “Through this project we also want to create intergenerational bonds; the elders will be able to teach their cultivation techniques to the new arrivals,” Mr. Cueff says. His dream, he says, is to see every one of the villagers get involved in the projects.

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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‘La vie en vert’: Green living in the French countryside

“Small is beautiful” would be an ideal slogan for the village of Langouët in northern France. This community of 600 residents, located near Rennes, the capital city of Brittany, is well on the way to energy autonomy and is aiming for food self-sufficiency, too. Over the past 20 years, Langouët has been developing a host of green projects including a canteen that serves 100 percent organic and local produce, passive social housing which uses little to no active heating, a hamlet of “kitchen-garden houses,” a garden used for teaching permaculture, a community café, a solar power plant, and a shared electric car.

Daniel Cueff, who has been mayor of Langouët since 1999, has been the driving force behind the transition. Mr. Cueff says he can rely on the commitment of the residents to get these projects off the ground – to such an extent that, even in the context of shrinking public coffers, the village has been able to count on its residents to fund its experiments.

“Anything we can do locally, we go for it,” Cueff says. “So why shouldn’t that apply to funding?” This year, the town council borrowed €25,000 ($29,000) from locals. The initiative was so successful that the funds were raised in just two days, from a handful of residents. This wasn’t the first time that Langouët’s council had attempted such a feat. In 2016, it had taken a loan of €40,000 from residents to finance part of the village’s redevelopment.

One of the loans will be used to create a communal learning garden where villagers can study permaculture, which focuses on gentle and natural agricultural methods. “Through this project we also want to create intergenerational bonds; the elders will be able to teach their cultivation techniques to the new arrivals,” Cueff explains. He says his dream is to see every one of the villagers get involved in the projects. “I wanted to contribute to the development of the village and to invest in making a reality the numerous ideas that have come out of our citizens’ workshops,” says Hélène, a Langouët resident who lent €2,000. “The project proposals do interest us as well; we would definitely like to live in a passive house,” adds the Brittany native, while getting out of the village’s shared electric car. 

From a very early stage, the local council has been active in building sustainable social housing. Langouët boasts two hamlets composed of energy-efficient wooden houses that are equipped with solar panels, built in 2005 and 2011. Cueff has been involved in eco-activism from a young age. “We’re working towards a social ecology model,” he explains, gesturing toward the 15 or so wooden houses, located at the entrance of the village and nestled against a backdrop of greenery. “Our local council buys land that we make viable and resell at a low cost so that sustainable housing can be built at an affordable price,” he says.

Each of the homeowners committed 30 days’ work on the building site, assisted by Compagnons Bâtisseurs (Building Companions), a nonprofit that fights for decent housing solutions. “It’s a way of reducing the cost of housing, but it also enables us to get to know our homes, and our neighbors, a lot faster,” explains Sébastien Longechaud, owner of one of the houses, which are adorned with brightly-colored shutters and topped with large solar panels. “We are sensitive to environmental issues and we chose to come and live in Langouët, in one of these wooden houses,” another homeowner, Jérôme Gimenez, says. “Our energy bill is low, around €200 ($230) per year for an 80 square meter (860 square foot) property,” he adds.

The local council wants to take things even further by building a hamlet of “Triple Zero” houses (zero energy, zero carbon, zero waste). Designed by a research laboratory, a first prototype named BioClim House was unveiled this spring and currently presides over a vast plot of land at the entrance of the village. Each house will host a greenhouse on its roof for growing vegetables using permaculture techniques. Langouët could soon come closer to its dream of food self-sufficiency, thanks to these “kitchen-garden houses,” along with the direct farm sales shop, which links up with producers of organic chickens.

Langouët is still a hub of ideas for new projects. “We’re aiming for energy autonomy within the next 10 years, thanks to solar panels and trackers,” the mayor says, referring to the pivoting structures that ensure solar panels are oriented toward the sun, thus increasing their productivity. He discusses plans with neighboring local authorities so he can “take inspiration from what’s being done elsewhere.”

Unsurprisingly, the village has gained a reputation for being a pioneer in the green transition. As a result, inquiries from would-be residents are flooding in. “A resident of Florida, United States, wants to come back to France and asked us if any houses were available,” Langouët’s mayor says proudly. But not every demand can be met. Future residents “will be chosen according to their level of willingness to get involved in the project,” Cueff explains. Those who wish to make this little Breton village their home will need to prove their green credentials.

This story was reported by Le Figaro, a news outlet in France. 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

Climate resilience as a path to clean energy

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Scientists have begun to search for examples of climate adaptation among animals, plants, and humans. Some species, for instance, will find they can survive at higher and cooler elevations. Such adjustments reveal a resiliency built into most species after eons of habitat change. Humans of course are adapting, motivated in part out of an increasing desire to help others in need as well as future generations. Wealthier countries have greater means to adjust to changes in climate. And because of their industrial legacy as early carbon polluters, they bear a moral responsibility to help less-developed countries adapt. Everyone sharing this common home called Earth deserves to thrive, an idea that continues to drive humanity’s increasing desire to cooperate and bring resolve to the issue of climate change. Adaptation requires more than physical changes. Societies must also alter their political and economic structures to build up patterns of resiliency. As more countries move toward adaptation, it might even create greater cooperation in further reducing carbon emissions. The endurance to adapt to weather change may help enable better endurance to adapting to lifestyles that produce less pollution.

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Climate resilience as a path to clean energy

A recent study found many birds in California build nests about a week earlier in the year than their species did nearly a century ago. Why? The earlier time is closer to the temperature for breeding by about 2 degrees F. than a few decades ago. Somehow each new generation of birds learned to adjust to the warming trend.

Worldwide, scientists have begun to search for examples of climate adaptation among animals, plants, and especially humans. Some species, for instance, will find they can survive at higher and cooler elevations. Some may thrive in lower areas to avoid an increase in rain or snow. Such adjustments reveal a resiliency built into most species after eons of habitat change on Earth.

The new weather patterns are likely to persist for decades even as countries try to reduce carbon pollution and head off higher global temperatures. This is driving a new interest in adaptation, notably the need to speed up the response of species that may not be able to change fast enough.

In areas that experience a rise in wildfires, for example, tree species that tolerate greater heat could be planted. For farmers, new types of field crops that can endure drought and heat could be developed.

In the oceans, scientists are experimenting with ways to make coral reefs more resilient to warmer waters. The reefs are crucial breeding grounds in the underwater chain of life. Coral might eventually be able to adapt to warmer temperatures on its own, but the rise in temperature may be just too much, too fast without some help.

Humans of course are adapting, motivated in part by insurance companies demanding higher premiums for weather-related coverage but also out of an increasing desire to help others in need as well as future generations.

In low-lying coastal areas, people are making plans to deal with rising seas. In warming cities, people are creating green spaces and planting trees – proven ways of reducing temperatures in urban “heat islands.” (Cities already may be 2 to 5 degrees warmer than surrounding areas.) White roofs can reflect the sun’s heat away from the ground; “green” roofs become cool leafy gardens. Even the rain falling on roofs can be captured and used for the greening of lawns and gardens.

Wealthier countries have greater means to adjust to changes in climate. And because of their industrial legacy as early carbon polluters, they bear a moral responsibility to help less-developed countries adapt, such as through the global Green Climate Fund. Everyone sharing this common home called Earth deserves to thrive, an idea that continues to drive humanity’s increasing desire to cooperate and bring resolve to the issue of climate change.

Adaptation requires more than physical changes like higher dikes or more air conditioners. Societies must also alter their political and economic structures to build up patterns of resiliency against new types of weather.

As more countries move toward adaptation, it might even create greater cooperation in reducing carbon emissions. The endurance to adapt to weather change may help enable better endurance in adapting to lifestyles that produce less pollution.

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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.

The universal language of the heart

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Inspired by a meaningful visit to a modest chapel in Finland, today’s contributor explores the power of silent prayer to bring hope and healing.

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The universal language of the heart

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Not far from the crowds at the main train station in Helsinki, Finland, is the modest Kamppi Chapel, also known informally as “the quiet chapel.” It holds no regular services, has no famous stained glass windows – in fact, no windows at all. A single candle, a small cross, and a bouquet of flowers are all that adorn the interior, while simple benches offer visitors a quiet place to pause and pray.

What you most notice is the beautiful, restful, restorative silence palpably filled with prayer. Whether you’re a local citizen or a traveler from across the world, here is a space to bring one’s heart to God – to petition for help with a need, or listen for guidance in a decision, or find solace for a deep sorrow.

As I sat in that small chapel, I thought about how many languages those prayers had been offered in over the years. And I recalled something written by Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” a book that’s become invaluable to me: “In divine Science, where prayers are mental, all may avail themselves of God as ‘a very present help in trouble.’ Love is impartial and universal in its adaptation and bestowals” (pp. 12-13).

There’s great comfort in the idea that whatever the difficulty, we can turn in prayer to God, the divine Love that pours out blessing upon all of us. But equally important is that this happens “in divine Science.” How radical to affirm that prayer is not the province of faith alone but also of a Science of spiritual laws that reveal the true nature and power of God. Science can be applied to all situations and isn’t confined to any one language or culture.

Christian Science teaches that God is understandable and knowable. So prayer deepens our understanding of God as infinite Love, eternal Truth, intelligent Mind, bringing progress and healing. A yearning to know Love better restores broken relationships and broken bodies. Yielding to Truth corrects injustices and wrongdoing for individuals and communities. Being guided by the divine Mind points the way forward. Healing is the natural outcome of prayer that experiences something of the underlying spiritual reality of what is and always has been whole and complete, beautiful and pure.

Christ Jesus explained in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount that sincere prayer offered in quiet is heard by God and rewarded (see Matthew 6:6). This was an extraordinary departure from religious practices in Jesus’ own Jewish community as well as those of the surrounding cultures, where worship was a communal event and prayers were uttered out loud by priests and congregants.

Silent prayer, in other words, had real power.

As we realize that prayer involves a profound shift in thought to see more of God right where we are, we find we can pray anywhere and everywhere. The sacred space of prayer is the holy acknowledgment of our inseparability from divine Love, transforming some of life’s most banal moments into gateways of spiritual discovery. And eventually, we realize that our prayers need to be bigger than our own needs. As Mary Baker Eddy wrote: “True prayer is not asking God for love; it is learning to love, and to include all mankind in one affection” (“No and Yes,” p. 39).

One evening, at a Wednesday testimony meeting at my local Church of Christ, Scientist, I found myself deeply touched to think of the meeting’s period of silent prayer as a time of collectively embracing each other with wordless love. And my prayer simply became one of wanting everyone attending (including me) to feel their needs were being met.

Later in the meeting, a visitor shared how he had come to church in great need of inspiration and uplift, and had experienced it during that period of silent prayer. It was an answer to my own need too, as I felt more keenly how God was speaking to each of us in a way we could hear. That man and I were both touched by the prayers of the others there with us as well as all around the world that day. This powerful, united prayer in silence let us feel divine Love’s boundless nature filling us with grace. And that made all the difference for us.

The power of silent prayer, coming from the heart, unites us first with God and ultimately with each other, encompassing all humanity with hope and healing.

Adapted from an editorial published in the August 2018 issue of The Christian Science Journal.

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Viewfinder

A shovel-ready campaign

Paul Sancya/AP
Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer fills a pothole Monday, Aug. 6, during a campaign event in Southfield, Mich. 'It’s time to create an infrastructure bank,' she told a Detroit TV news program. 'I want to fund it with $3 million in Year 1 and get to work.'
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( August 7th, 2018 )

Thanks for joining us today. We hope you’ll come back tomorrow when we visit Chamblee, Ga., one of only seven communities in the United States where women outearn men. 

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August 06, 2018
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