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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
09
Thursday
Noelle Swan
Science Editor

Journalism is built on sources. Reporters count on experts and ordinary citizens to bring nuance and humanity to news events. The sources that reporters select shape the tone and direction of a story.

At the Monitor, we take care to select sources who help move discussions forward rather than further polarize issues. We put careful thought into the political and ideological spectrum represented in each story. Lately, we have been thinking about another kind of balance in sourcing: gender balance.

Women have a lot to say – across business, politics, economics, education – you name it. But are their voices always heard?

We decided to check ourselves on how well we were listening when it came to our own reporting. It turns out that for every 2 women quoted in January 2018, 3 men were featured. These findings suggest we may be reflecting societal disparities in our pages. So we’re trying to pay more attention to making sure both men's and women's voices are being heard.

We’re not interested in setting quotas, but we think we can be more intentional about giving voice to the many thoughtful and qualified women who may not be immediately visible.

Our role as journalists is not to correct societal biases, but we can make an effort to avoid perpetuating them. We see that as a worthwhile part of our mission to “bless all mankind.”

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Now on to our five stories for today, including two explorations of moral credibility and the permanence of past transgressions.

1. Are you what you post? Social media and the accountability debate

When it comes to racism or bigotry, words do matter. Sometimes they result in a person getting fired. But we're seeing the conversation expand to consider nuance and redemption.

Noelle

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From baseball players to journalists and entertainers, prominent Americans have been held to account recently for their past online comments. While it isn’t new for people to lose jobs or social standing because of offensive tweets or outright bigotry, the latest incidents seem to be changing the public conversation. Some thinkers are questioning the rise of trolls who scour the social archives of prominent people and the digital-mob recrimination that can follow. As a generation of young people weaned on the terminals of social media outlets rises in the workforce, employers and others are calling for a focus on nuanced questions. How do people mature and grow over time? What is the intent and context of provocative posts? What’s the boundary between aggressive polemic and bigotry? “I think people should be held responsible for their past selves and posts but with cautious consequences,” says Jill Panté, director of the Lerner Career Services Center at the University of Delaware. “We need to look at the past but also look at the current actions being taken by that person. Your younger self may not be who you are now.”

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Are you what you post? Social media and the accountability debate

Over a decade into the rollicking era of tweets and online posts, the nation is still grappling with the mores of online speech and conduct.

Over the past month or so, a number of high profile journalists, talk show hosts, and entertainment bigwigs have seen their past outpourings resurface in a negative light. A number of young professional athletes, too, have had to answer for racial slurs and anti-gay comments posted when they were teens.

The issue of online vitriol isn’t new, of course. Not a few people have lost their jobs and their social standing after making an ill-advised momentary quip.

But it’s become something of a virtual bloodsport. Online trolls and political rabble-rousers comb through the social media archives of the famous and politically active, looking for past “gotcha” posts that might have crossed a hard-to-define cultural line that marks off the offensive and unacceptable.

Now, after a decade of celebrating the possibilities of free speech online, conversation is turning toward questions of civic responsibility and personal character – notably for employers making decisions on who to hire, or in many cases, who to fire.

More and more, social thinkers and employers are trying to take a more nuanced view of past tweets and social media posts. And many are trying to account for those parts of human complexity that rarely come across in the virtual world.

How do people mature and grow over time? What is the intent and context of provocative posts? What's the boundary between aggressive polemic and bigotry?

“People should be held accountable for what they've posted when it reflects who they are,” says Adrienne McNally, director of an experiential education and civic engagement program at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. “However, for many people, these posts represent momentary lapses in judgment that remain forever on the internet. This is especially true for people that were posting while in their tweens and teens, when they didn't necessarily know who they were and what they stood for.”

Most of the past and present controversies, too, surround two of the nation’s most vexing and divisive political issues: race and sexuality.

A pitcher’s past

Last month, Major League Baseball, which has a scant fan base among black Americans, saw a number of its younger players called out for racist and homophobic posts when they were teens. The Milwaukee Brewers’ All Star relief pitcher Josh Hader, now 24, had tweeted expressions of white supremacy, using the vilest of racial slurs publicly.

“I was 17 years old, and as a child I was immature,” he said, “and obviously I said some things that were inexcusable.” Still, the mostly white crowd in Milwaukee gave him a standing ovation after his first appearance after his youthful tweets were made more widely public, a reaction many observers thought pointed to the nation’s ongoing struggle with racial conflict. MLB officials have since instructed the young pitcher to undergo sensitivity training.

Indeed, as those in their early 20s begin entering the workforce, employers may need to take more subtle approach to the online records of those weaned in the virtual realities of social media, in which offensive teenage utterances are unwittingly blasted out to the world.

For journalists and entertainers, however, offensive racial and sexual comments have sparked a wide-ranging political debate about the meaning of intent and context – or those nuances of human communication that are so difficult to convey in pithy online posts.

‘A lynch mob against Jeong’

Last month, The New York Times hired the accomplished journalist Sarah Jeong, an expert on internet culture and online harassment, to join its editorial board. Born in South Korea, she had tweeted a number of aggressive quips against white people, using the hashtag #CancelWhitePeople, and other profanity-laced tweets. "It's kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men," she tweeted in 2014.

Ms. Jeong, who was the focus of online harassment in the past, said she was mimicking the style of online trolls and intending the language to be understood as parody and satire. “These comments were not aimed at a general audience, because general audiences do not engage in harassment campaigns,” she said in a statement. “I can understand how hurtful these posts are out of context, and would not do it again.”

While saying that such “rhetoric is not acceptable at The Times,” the newspaper defended the hire and extolled Jeong’s work, despite such tweets.

But many conservatives accused the paper of a racist double standard. In February, the Times hired the tech journalist Quinn Norton, only to fire her seven hours later after many online users unearthed some of her past posts, in which she used racial and homosexual slurs and noted her friendship with a notorious neo-Nazi hacker.  

And as a journalist who covered the darker regions of the internet, Ms. Norton was unapologetic about her friendships with “terrible people,” and the contexts of her use of “in-group” language, which included words considered deeply offensive slurs. The Times actually fired her online doppelgänger, she wrote.

“I'm tempted to think there's a pretty fundamental reason that Jeong weathered the storm, while Norton and [others] drowned at sea,” wrote Robby Soave, an editor and conservative thinker at Reason magazine, after a number of conservative users rallied to demand the Times also fire Jeong.

“Norton … committed thought crimes against intersectional progressivism,” Mr. Soave argued. “But ‘white people’ are not an exploited category, according to the kind of thinking popular on college campuses these days, and many leftists therefore do not think it is wrong to malign them. Calling out this hypocrisy is a worthwhile exercise; supporting the lynch mob against Jeong is not.”

Yet many on the left indeed distinguish between racist expressions by various groups with varying levels of social power.

“Of course, racist comments should always be deplored regardless of context or medium, and unfortunately, computer-mediated communication short-circuits the usual inhibitions that censor these kinds of comment,” says Simon Gottschalk, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

“At the same time, some suggest that white racism is significantly different from racism emanating from any minority group for at least one reason,” Professor Gottschalk continues. “White racists often have the power to translate their racism into real negative effects for members of a minority group, while the reverse is not true.”

How much does context matter? 

Yet, social media has often been characterized by aggressive and provocative one-liners, and so-called mean tweets are often celebrated for their snark and humor. And in the long tradition of comedic arts, would-be wags and social wits often push the boundaries of social and racial taboos, attempting to get a rise out of audiences with transgressive or “politically incorrect” statements.

Last month, however, Disney booted James Gunn from the director's chair of the latest entry in the Marvel franchise “Guardians of the Galaxy.” In the past, Mr. Gunn had a provocative sense of humor that intentionally crossed into deeply sensitive topics, tweeting jokes about pedophilia, rape, and AIDS.

And as an alum of Troma Entertainment, a film production company known for its intentionally edgy and transgressive brand of horror films, such humor had long been part of Mr. Gunn’s sensibility. And the cast members of his films have vigorously stood by him.

Indeed, since the time of the comedian Lenny Bruce, transgressive and intentionally offensive jokes have been considered in many ways acceptable, at least in the contexts of self-selecting audiences in the dark cellars of comedy clubs or even the public “roasts” of famous people on TV, including President Trump.

Yet in the vast public arenas of online discourse, such contexts often evaporate. “A message we send in a particular context to a particular other is read in a completely different context by an unintended audience,” says Gottschalk, who authored “The Terminal Self: Everyday Life in Hypermodern Times,” which explores the toll of our increasingly online lives. “This de-contextualization alters the message's original meaning.”

Even so, Gunn issued a public apology, saying he understood the business decision behind his firing, and regretted making jokes online that were “not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped.”

“Even these many years later, I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself then,” he continued. “All I can do now, beyond offering my sincere and heartfelt regret, is to be the best human being I can be: accepting, understanding, committed to equality, and far more thoughtful about my public statements and my obligations to our public discourse.”

Some conservative and liberal thinkers have decried Gunn’s firing, and experts continue to say that context and intent need to be a more significant part of reactions to controversial statements made in the past.

“I think people should be held responsible for their past selves and posts but with cautious consequences,” says Jill Panté, director of the Lerner Career Services Center at the University of Delaware in Newark. “We need to look at the past but also look at the current actions being taken by that person.”

“Your younger self may not be who you are now – most of us learn from our mistakes and try to grow,” Ms. Panté continues. “Seeing those old posts on your feed is just a reminder of the person you aren’t anymore, and it’s time to delete them and move on.”

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Charlottesville: Lives changed

One year after

2. Jason Kessler and the 'alt-right' implosion

Since violence erupted last summer at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., organizer Jason Kessler has publicly rejected the hate that emerged that night. A reprise rally this weekend will test the sincerity of that shift.

Noelle
Steve Helber/AP
Jason Kessler arrived at federal court July 24 for a hearing on his rally permit. Mr. Kessler, an organizer of last summer's deadly white nationalist rally in Virginia, is staging an event this weekend in Washington marking its anniversary.

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No guns. No criticizing African-Americans or Jews. No swastikas. And no brawls. According to organizer Jason Kessler, those are some of the ground rules for this weekend’s Unite the Right protest in Washington – his big opportunity to recover from last year’s disastrous Charlottesville, Va., rally that shook the nation and shattered the self-described alt-right movement. Mr. Kessler says he has distanced himself from the alt-right and has been preaching nonviolence. “It’s the only way to counteract Antifa,” he says. “If we fight back, we become the bad guys.” Whether that represents a tactical shift or a change of heart remains to be seen this weekend. “I think it’s going to be a very big deal – whether people show up or not,” says former white supremacist Christian Picciolini, because Kessler’s actions will show his true colors. He cautions that if Kessler is merely cloaking his message in more palatable wording – as Mr. Picciolini did himself years ago – that could present a threat that is subtler than unabashed white supremacism but equally sinister. Either way, hateful and racist ideologies are persisting, despite the implosion of the alt-right’s leadership since Charlottesville.

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1. Jason Kessler and the 'alt-right' implosion

This weekend is in many ways a test for Jason Kessler.

Mr. Kessler, the organizer of last year’s Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, is staging an anniversary rally in Washington. After a year of being pilloried not only by the left but also his erstwhile allies, this is Kessler’s big opportunity to recover from a disastrous rally that shook the nation and shattered the self-described alt-right movement.

Charlottesville was supposed to be the movement’s coming out party, an emergence from the shadows of internet chat rooms into the national spotlight. Instead, amid the backlash over the anti-Semitic, racist chants and Klan-like imagery of the protesters, some of whom donned brass knuckles and carried assault-style weapons and truncheons, the alt-right has imploded.

In a wide-ranging phone interview, Kessler says he has sought to distance himself from the movement, which he describes as having devolved into an “unhealthy obsession” with Jews. He says he is seeking to stand up for the civil rights of white Americans, and paints a very different picture for this year’s event, which will take place Aug. 12 across from the White House.

No guns. No pepper spray. No criticizing “blacks or Muslims or Jews.” No flags except the Stars and Stripes and the Confederate battle flag, which supporters say is about heritage, not hate. (Anyone with a swastika flag will be told to join the counterprotesters, he insists.) And no brawls with aggressive left-wing groups like Antifa, who, like elements of the alt-right, have been up for a fight.  

“I’ve been telling people we must embrace nonviolent resistance like Jesus Christ or Mahatma Gandhi because it’s the only way to counteract Antifa,” says Kessler. “If we fight back, we become the bad guys.”

Such comments strike a dissonant tone with the events of his rally last year, in which counterprotester Heather Heyer and two state police troopers were killed and dozens were injured. If Kessler and company have forsworn hate and made a genuine commitment to nonviolent protest, they have the opportunity to convince America of that by their actions this weekend.

“I think [the anniversary rally] is going to be a very big deal – whether people show up or not,” says former white supremacist Christian Picciolini, who adds that Kessler and others are likely going to try to use this as a platform to distance themselves from the offensive imagery and slogans of Charlottesville. But unless that comes with a true change of heart, he cautions, it could present a threat that is subtler than unabashed white supremacism but equally sinister.

“People like Jason Kessler are really the most dangerous white supremacists today because they are so good at putting on the suit, using language that is just a little bit more palatable – like what I used to say 30 years ago,” says Mr. Picciolini, who has had numerous interactions with Kessler and says he stands ready to help him, just as he’s helped more than 200 people leave hateful ideologies. “I think their actions are going to speak louder than their words.”

Many of Kessler’s allies from last year are unlikely to show up, beset by internal divisions, lawsuits, and the wrath of Silicon Valley tech firms, which have kicked them off PayPal and other platforms essential to their organizing efforts.

More than a few blame Kessler – and the Charlottesville protests.

“The people at Unite The Right who were doxxed, injured, arrested, harassed, fired from their jobs, shunned by their families, and in one case driven to suicide had a lot of illusions stripped away from them. A lot of them are understandably bitter,” says Greg Johnson, editor-in-chief of the alt-right website Counter-Currents, who says the movement has dramatically contracted due to poor leadership and strategically unsound activism like the Charlottesville rally. “A huge number of people who attended and who watched the disaster from a distance simply disappeared from the movement.... But most of them will be back when the movement offers them a new way forward.”

Indeed, despite the disarray that Charlottesville caused, white supremacy and white nationalism have by no means been defeated.

“While people are celebrating the implosion of the alt-right – and there’s many reasons to do that – when you shake the hornet’s nest and kick it apart, it doesn’t mean your hornet problem is over,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, Calif.

The FBI recorded an increase in the number of hate crimes in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, with more than 7,000 incidents recorded – including disproportionate targeting of African-Americans, Jews, and the LGBT community. Anti-white hate crime is also on the rise, with more incidents against white people in 2016 than Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, or LGBT individuals.

The following year, the number of neo-Nazi groups in the United States grew by 22 percent, amid an overall rise in hate groups, to nearly 1,000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. Heidi Beirich, who tracks extremist groups for SPLC’s Intelligence Project, says she wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another increase this year. 

She calls President Trump a champion for the alt-right’s ideas, implementing policies – such as a border wall – that they have been advocating for years. What’s more, she adds, some of them have started to run themselves. Eight candidates for national office with white supremacist ties are on the GOP ticket in five states. This summer, groups unaffiliated with – and relatively untouched by – Charlottesville have been staging protests on the West Coast.

“That doesn’t indicate to me that this is a losing movement, no matter what has happened to Kessler and company,” says Ms. Beirich.

The genesis of the anniversary rally

The 2017 Unite the Right rally brought together disparate factions, including neo-Nazis, inspired by the ideas of Adolf Hitler and focused on hatred of Jews; white supremacists, who advocate for white domination of other races; and white nationalists, who seek to preserve a white national majority, sometimes through separatism. The alt-right – a term coined by Richard Spencer in 2008 when he vowed to take down the traditional Republican Party – refers to a mix of these elements, which share a core belief of white identity.

Numbering more than 500, Charlottesville was one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in the modern era. In 1977, Skokie, Ill., tried but failed to bar a neo-Nazi rally through a neighborhood that was home to many Holocaust survivors on the grounds that it could cause emotional harm and foment violence. The Supreme Court disagreed. (In the end, a brief and small march took place in Chicago.) In both cases, the American Civil Liberties Union supported the rallies on free-speech grounds. After Charlottesville, where some participants had firearms slung over their shoulders, the ACLU changed its policy to no longer defend armed protesters. Some counterprotesters were also armed.

But it was neo-Nazi James Alex Fields, Jr., who police say rammed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. Kessler’s star fell quickly. 

He was chased away from a podium the next day when he tried to take a stand against political violence. Afterward, he says, he holed up in his Charlottesville home as cars rolled slowly by, his number was leaked, and he received what he describes as a steady stream of “awful, vile” phone calls. One night, he unleashed on Twitter.

“Heather Heyer was a fat, disgusting Communist,” he tweeted, in an outburst he later blamed on drinking too much alcohol too close to taking his sleeping medication. “Communists have killed 94 million. Looks like it was payback time.”

Mr. Spencer denounced the tweet as “morally reprehensible” and disassociated himself from Kessler, as did prominent figures, who held him responsible for the violence and the smearing that followed.

“Basically, I just had a breakdown,” says Kessler of the days after the rally. He believes he was set up as the fall guy for the violence, which he blames largely on law enforcement failing to execute on the security plan Kessler had developed with them. He cites the December report by former US district attorney Thomas Heaphy, which found only one instance on Aug. 12 of a police officer intervening to stop violence between the two sides. “People were just abusing me so badly, and on the other hand they weren’t saying anything about the counterprotesters.”

The idea of an anniversary rally struck Kessler as a way to bring to light his version of events. He calls the dominant media narrative a “cover-up” and says that to let it “go on unchallenged would have killed my spirit.”

Meanwhile, others are challenging him. A lawsuit spearheaded by New York attorney Roberta Kaplan describes the violent rhetoric of Unite the Right protesters leading up to Aug. 12, including in one online forum co-moderated by Kessler, in which participants said things like, “I’m ready to crack skulls.”

“The defendants in this case are being motivated by ideology that denies the dignity of other human beings and taking affirmative steps to plan violence to physically attack people,” says Ms. Kaplan.

The complaint describes those involved – Nazis, Klansmen, white supremacists, and white nationalists – as bringing to Charlottesville “the imagery of the Holocaust, of slavery, of Jim Crow, and of fascism.”

'It's easy to get swallowed up in the hate'

Kessler voted for former President Barack Obama but says the Democratic Party left him when it focused on identity politics.

“I realized – they hate white men, and I’m a white man,” he says. So he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and allied himself with the alt-right movement because they were pro-free speech and anti-political correctness.

“They weren’t afraid to stand up for men or white people or Christians,” says Kessler. But this year, he adds, “It’s been moving more into an arena of an unhealthy obsession with Jews. Everything is about Jews, Jews, Jews.”

And he seems to imply he also got swept up in hatred.

“There’s so much hate in these social issues – it’s easy to get swallowed up in the hate, and easy to react to your critics with hate. It creates a dark cloud over your heart and your soul,” says Kessler, who says he’s turned to his Christian faith and its teachings of love.

As for others, he says many get involved in the movement via the internet, “and they get addicted to shock,” he says. “They find that they can shock by using Hitler imagery.”

Indeed, the internet has proved a huge boon to hate groups, says Beirich. But it is also spilling over into mainstream politics, says Professor Levin, who credits, at least in part, Spencer’s 2008 vow to destroy the traditional Republican Party, which did not allow white nationalists through the door.

“That has happened,” says Levin, citing as an example a 2016 Klan rally in Orange County with signs like “stop illegal immigration” or “stop sharia (Islamic law)” – the same sort of signs one would see at mainstream events. “If 9 or 10 percent of Americans support Nazi or alt-right views, if you go into other wedge issues … and talk about immigration or Muslims, you get a much bigger pool of people you can recruit from.”

Even as the leadership of the alt-right is in crisis, it’s the listeners who are more important than the leaders, argues Jared Taylor, whom the SPLC has called “the cultivated, cosmopolitan face of white supremacy.”

“What ultimately matters is the extent to which these now dissident ideas are gaining better credibility and better acceptance than who happens to be the bearer of this message,” says Mr. Taylor, who runs the online magazine American Renaissance.

The source of Kessler’s grievances

Kessler says he is driven by a fear that white people’s rights are being eroded as they near the point where white people will become a minority in America (which the US Census projects will occur by 2045).

“It’s one thing to have immigration, but to the point where they overwhelm the host population is not right,” he says, referring to white Americans, not the original Native American population. Meanwhile, he says, there are “powerful” groups advocating for minorities, from AIPAC for the Jewish lobby to CAIR for Muslims to La Raza (now UnidosUS) for Hispanics and the NAACP for African-Americans.

“I’m not a neo-Nazi, I’m not even a white nationalist; I’m supporting equal rights and representation for white people,” says Kessler. “Because I think the primary thing is that white people aren’t able to organize as a political constituency without stigma.”

Others would take issue with that self-classification. But it may be true that Kessler started with real grievances, says Carol Swain, author of a prescient 2002 book, “The New White Nationalism.”

“He had a UVA degree but he was working menial low-wage jobs. I’m sure that created a lot of resentment,” says Dr. Swain, an African-American who was born into an impoverished family in rural Virginia and worked her way up to becoming a professor at Princeton and Vanderbilt before retiring last year. “And I think the society we live in today does not necessarily allow white people to address grievances that may be legitimate.”

In her book, which warned of an impending racial clash if the new white nationalism were not properly addressed, Swain argues that the movement’s ideology is just as dangerous as white supremacy and needs to be aired in public forums where its arguments and data can be countered.

But the opposite is happening. Spencer quit his college speaking tour amid lawsuits, frequent protests, and dwindling audiences, and his National Policy Institute has been sued. The League of the South is facing lawsuits, though it held its annual convention in June. The Traditionalist Workers Party fell apart after its leader, Matt Heimbach, was downed by what Beirich calls “a low-end sex scandal.” Figures such as Johnson, who have long advocated private or unannounced gatherings, have gained credibility in the wake of Charlottesville.

“Antifa violence is merely pushing the movement underground where it can grow more rapidly without being thwarted,” he writes in response to emailed questions while traveling abroad. It’s also more cost-effective than staging rallies and dealing with the lawsuits that ensue, he adds, estimating the cost of Charlottesville to the movement at about $1 million. “Online propaganda changes far more minds for far less money.”

Staff writer Jessica Mendoza contributed reporting.

Part 1: A new life for mother whose daughter was killed in Charlottesville

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

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

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3. Argentina rejects legalizing abortion, and ignites a conversation

Latin America could seem a surprising place to debate abortion laws: strongly Catholic, with a growing evangelical population, and increasingly conservative governments. But franker conversations are adding nuance to the discussion.

Noelle
Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Tamara Deisel and her friend Florencia Buena embraced outside Argentina’s Congress Aug. 8 in Buenos Aires, where they had joined a rally to show support for decriminalizing abortion. The Senate rejected a bill to legalize elective abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

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During the Argentine Senate’s 16-hour debate on legalizing abortion last night, the plaza outside was alive with chants and waving flags. Opponents ran into the street waving sky-blue banners and encouraging honks of support. Supporters of legalization, meanwhile, sported the green scarves that have become nearly synonymous with their movement. Early this morning, the Senate’s vote narrowly rejected legalization. But a host of factors have changed Argentina’s conversation about the once-taboo topic and other issues that directly affect women, echoing trends throughout Latin America. Movements like #NiUnaMenos, or Not One Less, have drawn attention to gender-based violence, while the Zika epidemic highlighted reproductive health. Increasing numbers of women are taking seats in parliaments throughout the region, and global initiatives have put a spotlight on maternal mortality, including deaths from illegal abortions. All together, it’s created the opportunity for more open conversations, activists say, even among families. One example? Argentina's former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, now a senator. During her administration, she opposed abortion, but she voted in favor of this week's legalization bill – a change her youngest daughter attributed to family talks around the table.

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1. Argentina rejects legalizing abortion, and ignites a conversation

Noelia Rodriguez sat at a table in front of Argentina’s Congress this week, decorating and selling the green scarves that have become synonymous with the movement to decriminalize abortion in Argentina.

Ms. Rodriguez, who studies communications, is outraged that more than 3,000 women have died from clandestine abortions in her country in the past 35 years, according to activists’ estimates.

But believing in the right to a legal abortion is an opinion she’s kept largely to herself among her devoutly Catholic family – until this summer.

Early Thursday morning, after 16 hours of debate, Argentina’s conservative-leaning Senate rejected a bill to legalize abortion for pregnancies up to 14 weeks. But the flood of attention to the historically taboo topic in the lead-up to the vote has opened new spaces for Argentines – including families like Rodriguez’s – to candidly share their views.

“At first, it was difficult for [my mother] to accept,” Rodriguez says. Her family’s perspective on abortion was shaped by religion, she says, whereas she believes “legalizing abortion is a public health issue.” As more information surfaced about the risks associated with illegal abortion, their perspectives shifted. She convinced her mother and two younger brothers to join her last night, holding vigil in the cold, winter rain as the Senate debated.

The vote, which concluded 38 to 31 against legalization, is just one of the many national conversations in the region over the past few years, from Chile, to El Salvador, to Brazil. Latin America has some of the strictest laws on abortion, with six nations banning it in all circumstances, including rape or when the mother’s life is at risk. Yet the push for legalization has grown, even as governments in the region become more conservative, and staunchly pro-life evangelical congregations grow.

A confluence of factors have merged to crack open discussion on the sensitive topic, experts say, from a new generation of globally-engaged and web-savvy women’s activists to higher women’s representation in political office.

The rhetoric around abortion “is so inflammatory that often times it shuts down any conversation,” says Jocelyn Viterna, a sociology professor at Harvard University who studies abortion legislation in Latin America. Politicians “don’t even want to touch abortion, or the gray areas in the debate, because even bringing up the topic immediately gets you stigmatized.”

But that’s when very public debates about abortion, like what Argentina has experienced this summer, can prompt mobilization and broader change. “When you start to see other Latin American countries” like Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil discussing abortion cases, “it makes it possible for conversations to happen that wouldn’t have ever happened before,” Professor Viterna says.

Shift in debate

Latin America, a traditionally Catholic region with a growing evangelical population, has seen a “big increase” in public support for abortion in the past few years, says Mollie Cohen, an assistant professor of politics at the University of Georgia.

In 2012, there was roughly 56 percent support for abortion only in the most conservative cases, such as saving a mother’s life. That jumped to about 61 percent in 2016-2017, Professor Cohen says. Countries like Chile, Honduras, and Panama saw even more dramatic shifts.

“Something is happening in the public mood and mindset, and I think that’s translating, potentially, into legislation,” Cohen says of the uptick in proposed bills and public movements.

“Civil society [and] women’s movements focused on important issues about domestic violence and rights for women have pushed the agenda to this point after tackling [topics] that were maybe less risky” to broach politically, like legislation to end femicide or to punish domestic violence, says Christopher Sabatini, who lectures on Latin American politics at Columbia University. In Argentina, the 2015 #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less) movement drew attention to gender-based violence and murder. It has gained broad political influence and is credited for its role in pushing reproductive health onto the national agenda.

Other factors have played a role, like international attention on the region’s abortion laws during the 2016 Zika epidemic and related birth defects. There has been a boost in female political representation in the region, as well, which many academics believe helps get issues that directly affect women onto the political docket. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, nearly 29 percent of Latin America’s congressional seats are filled by women, compared with roughly 25 percent four years ago.

Many of the leftist governments that swept into power in the early 2000s, known as The Pink Tide, did not have strong track records for women’s rights, but may have helped lay the groundwork for today’s debates.

“Most progressive governments were not open to transforming abortion legislation after all, but by simply being in power, they likely opened a window for organizing that had been closed in the past,” says Viterna. “We are likely seeing the outcomes of that increased mobilization and organization now.”

She also points to unintended consequences of global initiatives like the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals, which put pressure on governments to decrease maternal mortality rates. Women’s deaths resulting from illegal abortions make the effects of restrictions much more salient, and can have tangible consequences on international funding, Viterna says.

'A central topic'

In Argentina, tens of thousands of demonstrators on both sides of the debate rallied in the rain outside Congress this week. The plaza was alive with passionate chants and waving flags, with legalization supporters and opponents separated by police barricades. Each time the traffic light turned red at the busy intersection, those opposed to the bill would run into the street waving their sky blue banners and encouraging honks of support.

“I think that if we’re debating something, it should be how to help a woman who’s pregnant,” says Corina Garzón, who came from Buenos Aires province to protest against changes to the abortion law. “But you can’t debate what to do with the baby who’s inside the woman’s stomach. The baby has to be born.”

In the evenings, the pro-legalization camp grew livelier: grilling meat, painting their faces in green and glitter, and chanting over the rat-a-tat of drums. In the center of the plaza, demonstrators set up a monument along a police barricade with three photos of women who died from complications during illegal abortions here. An estimated 500,000 women have illegal abortions each year in Argentina, according to Amnesty International.

In 2012, Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled that abortion is legal in specific cases including rape or when the mother’s life is at risk, but it requires often-lengthy steps to gain medical approval. The original penal code from 1921 only allowed abortion if a mentally ill woman was raped.

In June, when the lower chamber of Congress had passed the bill, it drew an estimated 1 million supporters to the streets of Buenos Aires.

“The government is conservative, but the women’s movement is very strong in Argentina,” says Mercedes D’Alessandro, the president of Economía Feminista, a nongovernmental organization that helped spearhead the recent decriminalization movement.

Organizers like Dr. D’Alessandro are convinced the debate has only just begun. She points to the strong social movement that erupted in just a few months since the bill was proposed, and the presidential election just over a year away. “Legal abortion will remain a central topic” of discussion, she says.

President Mauricio Macri, who is opposed to abortion, actually opened the door to discussion during his state of the nation address in March, when he called on Congress to consider a vote. It was a dramatic change from his predecessor Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who quashed debate on the topic during her two terms as president.

But Ms. Kirchner, now a senator, voted in favor of the bill last night. One possible reason for her shift? Family conversations around the table, her youngest daughter has said.

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4. No cameras, cellphones – or socks? Inside the Manafort trial

The Paul Manafort trial has drawn the expected attention of legal and political wonks. But the case has also renewed public interest in the justice system. Our reporter offers the view from inside the courtroom.

Noelle

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Debbie Loving was in the nation’s capital last week to view some real estate when she noticed the trial of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, was about to start. She has been a regular in court every day since. “We got a little addicted,” the New Jersey native explains with a laugh. Mr. Manafort is alleged to have engaged in tax evasion and bank fraud by hiding proceeds of his past work as a political consultant in Ukraine in offshore accounts. It’s a straightforward white-collar prosecution, heavy in financial documents and testimony by accountants – the kind of case that can unfold as the legal equivalent of watching paint dry. Nonetheless, it’s become one of the hottest seats in town. Every morning, as early as 7 a.m., a crowd gathers on the ninth floor of the federal courthouse here. Those standing in line outside the courtroom quickly become fully engaged in lively and well-informed discussions of trial tactics, defense prospects, and – a frequent topic of discussion – the behavior of the judge. “I find it fascinating that you can just walk into a courtroom like this and watch a major trial,” says Kate, who lives in Alexandria.

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No cameras, cellphones – or socks? Inside the Manafort trial

Every morning, like clockwork, a crowd gathers on the 9th  floor of the federal courthouse here. They arrive alone or in twos or threes – some as early as 7 a.m. – to get a bird’s-eye view of the ongoing tax evasion and bank fraud trial of President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

While many of the seats are occupied by news reporters, many others are claimed by curious members of the public hoping to watch a portion of the real-life drama unfolding in Courtroom 900.

“I find it fascinating that you can just walk into a courtroom like this and watch a major trial,” says Kate, who lives in Alexandria.

Debbie Loving is far from home in Colts Neck, N.J. She was in the nation’s capital last week to view some real estate when she noticed the Manafort trial was about to start.

She has been a regular in court every day since. “We got a little addicted,” she explains with a laugh.

The case, United States of America v. Paul J. Manafort, Jr., marks the first major courtroom test of the work of special counsel Robert Mueller. Although his team of agents and prosecutors are tasked with investigating alleged collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia, they are also authorized to prosecute other crimes they discover.

Manafort is alleged to have engaged in tax evasion and bank fraud by hiding proceeds of his past work as a political consultant in Ukraine in offshore accounts. When that work ended and his income dropped, prosecutors say he submitted false information to banks to obtain loans on his property. He was applying for some of the loans while serving as chairman and later as manager of the Trump presidential campaign in mid-2016.

Manafort denies any wrongdoing. 

The case is a straightforward white-collar prosecution, heavy in financial documents and testimony by accountants and tax experts. Such trials often play out as the legal equivalent of watching paint dry.

Nonetheless, it’s one of the hottest seats in town.

Sam lives a train-ride away across the Potomac in Washington. “I found myself following [trial analysis] on Twitter the other day and figured I’d hop on the Metro and see for myself,” he says, inching his way through a long line that snakes across the lobby.

When court security officers open the doors, the assembled throng pours forth into the public gallery. There is no reserved press section, and except for a few seats set aside for the defendant’s wife and some government lawyers, it’s first come, first served.

Every day of the trial, every seat has been taken. To handle the overflow, a courtroom on the 6th  floor has been outfitted with two closed-circuit TVs. The camera angle is fixed and the picture a little grainy. But it allows an additional 100 members of the press and public to watch.

There are no cameras allowed in federal court. To follow a federal trial requires actually going to the courthouse, showing a government-issued photo ID, and passing through security. No computers, no cell phones, no smart watches, no cameras, no tape recorders are allowed. Reporters must use a pen and paper to take notes.

Those standing in line outside the courtroom quickly become fully engaged in lively and well-informed discussions of trial tactics, defense prospects, and the most recent testimony. But one topic looms large in nearly every discussion: the judge.

Judge Ellis

“The judge is very colorful,” one court-watcher offers, diplomatically.

US District Judge T. S. Ellis is a Reagan nominee who has served more than 30 years on the bench. He was born in Bogota, Colombia, is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, and studied law at Oxford University.

Judge Ellis has a well-established reputation as a cantankerous jurist who is not shy about criticizing lawyers in his courtroom and personally directing a trial when, in his view, it is veering off course.

Assistant US Attorney Uzo Asonye was only a few moments into his opening statement, portraying Manafort as a person of substantial wealth who considered himself above the law, when he was loudly interrupted by Ellis.

“Why don’t you focus on the allegations in the indictment?” the judge advised bluntly. “It is not a crime to have a lot of money.”

A different judge might have given the same admonishment quietly at the bench, out of earshot of the newly seated jury. That’s not Ellis’s style.

There is some method to his bombast. He clearly and unambiguously put lawyers on both sides of the case on notice that he would not permit any courtroom shenanigans.

When prosecutors sought to introduce a proposal for expensive home improvements at Manafort’s summer estate in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island, Judge Ellis refused to allow the document to be admitted as evidence. “How is this relevant?” he asked. “Is it just that Mr. Manafort is awash in money?”

Some analysts have criticized Ellis as overplaying his hand and perhaps influencing the jury to the government’s detriment. Others say the judge is pursuing his highest sense of fairness – ensuring the defendant receives a fair trial and the government conducts a prosecution that won’t easily be overturned on appeal.

On the second day of the trial, the judge announced that both sides should refrain from using the term “oligarch” when referring to the wealthy Ukrainian businessmen who financed Manafort’s political consulting work. The term was pejorative, the judge declared, allowing prosecutors to suggest that Manafort “associated with despicable people, so he must be despicable.”

The judge isn’t always right. On Wednesday, Ellis ripped into prosecutors after they revealed that one of their tax experts had been monitoring the trial from the public gallery, saying he usually bars potential witnesses from watching in advance of their own testimony. Prosecutors countered that he’d approved the expert’s attendance. On Thursday, Ellis admitted in open court that he was “probably wrong” to berate the prosecutors.

He said he was capable of making a mistake, and that his judicial robe did not make him anything more than a human.

Gene Rossi, a Washington defense lawyer, served 20 years as a federal prosecutor in Alexandria. He appeared hundreds of times and conducted seven trials before Ellis.

“My body is covered entirely by war wounds from Judge Ellis’s court, and I am proud of every one,” he says. “He is tough. He expects lawyers to be perfect and when you come up short he lets you know.”

Mr. Rossi adds: “I respect him immensely.”

The lawyer says that in 2016 when he retired as a prosecutor, Ellis called him into his chambers for a visit. “At the end of the meeting he stood up and hugged me. He started to cry,” Rossi says, “and so did I.”

No socks

Sometimes interesting aspects of a trial can be found in smaller details. In this case, a sharp-eyed court sketch artist noticed something unusual.

Manafort, seated at the defense table, was dressed in a blue suit, white shirt, tie, and polished black shoes.

This was a man whose discerning taste in fine clothing was well-documented by federal agents. They introduced records that showed Manafort spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on bespoke suits, sport coats, and even $15,000 on an ostrich-skin jacket.

But what caught the sketch artist’s attention was what was missing between Manafort’s shoes and the cuffs of his trousers. He was wearing no socks. 

Manafort is being held in a local jail during the trial. Apparently, the authorities who regulate detainee clothing only issue white socks to prisoners headed to court. Manafort, who has spent more in men’s clothing shops than many Americans spend purchasing a home, apparently refused to wear white socks with a blue suit.

Somewhere in the fashion world there might well be a law about such things. The end result for Manafort: no socks.

The breaking news stampede

When news unexpectedly breaks out in a high-profile trial where no one has access to a cellphone, it can cause a literal commotion – as reporters abruptly bolt from their seats to go file bulletins.

On the second day of the trial, the judge asked why prosecutors were seeking to admit a particular document if they would later be calling Manafort’s former associate, Rick Gates, to testify. Mr. Gates, who pleaded guilty in February, is cooperating with prosecutors, and is considered the prosecution’s star witness.

The prosecutor replied: “He may testify in this case, he may not.”

The comment sent a jolt through the room. Six to eight reporters exited the courtroom in a full sprint.

On the fifth day of trial, during cross-examination of Manafort’s tax accountant, defense lawyer Kevin Downing commented that Gates would be the next witness. Again, a herd of reporters made a dash for the door.

The judge was not amused. He advised those reporters and spectators who had remained in their seats that similar disruptions in the future would not be tolerated.

High drama

The most dramatic moment of the trial, so far, came when Gates actually did take the witness stand.

“Did you commit crimes with Mr. Manafort?” a prosecutor asked.

Gates replied: “I did.”

The cooperating witness then went into substantial detail about how money was hidden in overseas accounts and routed, tax-free, into the US to pay for both his and Manafort’s personal expenses.

Gates also acknowledged that in addition to cheating the US Treasury, he also embezzled “several hundred thousand dollars” from Manafort. He told the jury he fabricated false invoices and directed payment to himself. It was a time when he maintained a flat in London and was involved in an extramarital affair, he admitted.

“I was living beyond my means,” he said. “I regret it. I made a mistake.”

“Was this embezzlement?” defense attorney Downing asked.

“It was embezzlement from Mr. Manafort,” Gates conceded.

Gates’ credibility is critical to the outcome of the trial. Manafort’s lawyers have suggested that Gates was responsible for the diversion of funds, the alleged tax evasion, and the failure to report overseas accounts. They pointed out that without his plea deal, Gates would be facing up to 100 years in prison for his own crimes. In exchange for his testimony against Manafort, the government has agreed to file no objection if Gates’ lawyer asks for probation instead of a prison term. 

Gates testified that he and Manafort were both in control of the offshore accounts and that they both hid the accounts and wire transfers from bookkeepers and accountants.

If convicted, Manafort, in his late sixties, faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. 

Prosecutors are expected to rest their case by Friday. At that point, the defense will have an opportunity to present its own case. 

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. With a smile and a lawnmower, he builds youths’ confidence

Establishing a mentorship program can seem like a costly and onerous task. But in Alabama, one man’s service to the community is supporting the next generation at the same time.

Carmen K. Sisson
Quay Knight dribbles a basketball as Rodney Smith Jr. offers pointers Aug. 1 in Huntsville, Ala. Quay is one of more than 230 youths cutting grass as part of Raising Men Lawn Care Service, a nonprofit organization founded by Mr. Smith.

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Last year, Lamar Knight began cutting grass in Huntsville, Ala., for Rodney Smith Jr. as part of his Raising Men Lawn Care Service. More than 230 young people volunteer with the nonprofit, which has helped mow thousands of lawns in the United States and overseas for those who are disabled or elderly, veterans or single mothers. Mr. Smith recently presented a black T-shirt to Lamar in recognition of the 50 lawns the 13-year-old has mowed. Participants receive a different colored T-shirt for every 10 lawns they mow, somewhat like the karate belt color system. Smith takes his role as mentor seriously, instructing his young grass cutters to shake hands and introduce themselves to homeowners. Eye contact is a must, as is speaking loudly, clearly, and politely. He also has them order their own food when he takes them out to eat. “Rodney is teaching the kids social skills, and that’s something they needed,” says Leslie Knight, mother of Lamar and his brother Quay, a 10-year-old who is also participating. “They didn’t have the social skills, no matter how much I tried to teach them. Working with the public is getting them out of their shyness.”

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With a smile and a lawnmower, he builds youths’ confidence

The two brothers stand in the carport in Huntsville, Ala., and stare up at the cloudy sky, scuffing their shoes against the concrete and frowning. If it rains, they won’t be able to cut grass. A black SUV pulls into the driveway, and their frowns turn to smiles as they rush to greet the man inside — Rodney Smith Jr., whose grin is even bigger than theirs.

Three years ago, Mr. Smith began a volunteer lawn service, cutting grass free for elderly and disabled people as well as veterans and single mothers. He quickly realized the need was greater than one man with a push lawnmower, so he began recruiting youths ages 7 to 17 to give their time and muscle to the cause.

Today, more than 230 young people volunteer with the nonprofit Raising Men Lawn Care Service. Together, they have cut 2,000 lawns in 50 states and four countries. And slowly, Smith has gone from not only being a philanthropist but also a mentor to children in need of a positive male role model.

Lamar Knight, 13, and RaQuaveus “Quay” Knight, 10, began cutting grass for Smith last year. Today, Smith is presenting a black T-shirt to Lamar in recognition of the 50 lawns he has mowed. Participants receive colored T-shirts for every 10 lawns, somewhat like the karate belt system. Quay will have to cut a few more lawns to earn his reward, but he smiles as he watches Lamar pull the black shirt over his head and model it for everyone.

When Smith learns they have been working on their basketball skills, he immediately grabs a nearby ball.

“Well, come on, then,” he says. “Me against you two.”

Initially, the boys’ mother, Leslie Knight, hoped the lawn care service would teach her boys responsibility, work ethic, and community giving. But over the past year, she has seen them mature in ways she never imagined possible. Lamar is more focused and confident, less restless and impulsive. Quay no longer stays inside all day, watching cartoons. Both have lost their fears of power equipment and are more comfortable talking to strangers of all ages.

Smith takes his role as mentor seriously, instructing his young grass cutters to shake hands and introduce themselves to homeowners. Eye contact is a must, as is speaking loudly, clearly, and politely. He also has them order their own food when he takes them out to eat.

“Rodney is teaching the kids social skills, and that’s something they needed,” Ms. Knight says. “They didn’t have the social skills, no matter how much I tried to teach them. Working with the public is getting them out of their shyness.”

Knight knows the pressures young men face, especially those growing up without fathers. She sees a never-ending stream of angry young men passing her yard every day. They run the stop signs in front of her house. They sell drugs on the street corner. Gun shots are so frequent in her neighborhood that she has taught her sons to run to the bathroom and lay down in the bathtub when they hear gunfire. They are able to play basketball today only because they are at their grandfather’s house, where he also stores their bicycles, scooters, and other toys. At home, it’s not safe for them to play outside.

“This is a really good program for kids,” Knight says. “It teaches them to be a blessing to others, to not be selfish. We’re here to serve one another, and the more we come together as a community, the more things can prosper. We can’t prosper in all this violence.”

Huntsville city councilman Devyn Keith is familiar with the impact Smith has on the children he works with. “He teaches the kids that if you see a problem and have the ability or the resources to change it, then it’s not only something you should do, it’s a necessity in order to have a more productive community,” he says. “There is value to be had in reassuring and refortifying good kids to stay good, reminding them that beyond basketball, beyond celebrity, there are a number of roles they can play to have a positive impact.”  

***

Across town, Mary Gibbs leans forward in her brown corduroy chair, peering through her dimly lit living room to see the lanky man opening her unlocked screen door. When she sees Smith’s face, she leans back in her chair and grins.

“Oh, it’s just you,” she says. “Coming back to pick on me some more?”

Ms. Gibbs, 78, has lived in this Huntsville neighborhood for more than half a century, but she doesn’t have company often, so she’s always happy to see the man she affectionately calls her “adopted grandson.” It’s a moniker he wears lightly, with easygoing humility. Years ago, everything was going wrong in his life, and he didn’t know what to do.

“I had a breakdown,” Smith says softly, ignoring the three iPhones constantly buzzing in his hands. “I said to God, ‘look things are not working out here. I need you to use me as your vessel.’ ”

The answer didn’t come that day or the next or even over the next year.

He was a student at Alabama A & M University in Huntsville when he saw an elderly man struggling to cut grass. Smith, a native of Bermuda, says he automatically knew he had to help that man. As he made his last swipe around the yard, Smith felt relief wash over him. This was God’s plan. It had to be, he thought. It felt right.

Since then, his work has been recognized by Queen Elizabeth (Smith’s native Bermuda is part of the British Commonwealth) and by those who supply Smith’s equipment. Briggs & Stratton, a lawnmower engine company, told the Huffington Post in June that Smith’s efforts embody “our company values around empowering people.”

That empowerment quickly made a difference in Mr. Keith’s district. When Keith originally took office, the area had a number of eyesores and problems, from overgrown yards to littering. Residents were frequently fined $70 to $340 for the condition of their yards. Keith and Smith talked often about the problem and even cut grass together from time to time, doubling down on efforts to clean up the district and help those who were unable to mow their own grass or hire a lawn service. 

“He becomes a small chapter in everyone’s life story, some bigger than others,” Keith says. “They remember how Rodney cut their grass or Rodney brought them food. That’s a beautiful story. Huntsville is a better city by having someone like Rodney to call our own.”

Ms. Gibbs says Smith is the answer to her own prayers. As he perches on a chair, skimming through messages on his phones, she talks about her own crucible of faith. Her husband died in 2000, and eventually, her health was too poor to continue her job at Walmart. Her children grew up and moved away. For a while, she paid people $40 to cut less than a quarter-acre of grass. But eventually, even that became cost-prohibitive. The city fined her once because her grass was too high, and that was a constant worry.

As she speaks, her oxygen concentrator hums, its tubing crisscrossing throughout the house and snaking around her chair. Silver and green oxygen tanks flank the walls – if she wants to leave the house to check the mail, the tanks must come with her. Cutting grass is out of the question. A neighbor sometimes cut it for free, but over time, he began cutting it without her knowledge, then banging on her door later, pointing out the freshly-mown lawn and asking for payment. It was stressful.

Now Smith and the children show up every two weeks to cut the grass. In the fall and winter, they blow leaves. The good deed does as much for her emotionally as physically.

“It’s nice to come home to a neat yard,” Gibbs says. “It makes you feel better. They use their own plastic bags and lawn mowers. They don’t charge you for anything.”

Yesterday, she spent $30 to take a cab to the doctor. Having Smith handle the lawn care for free is a relief, she says, because it allows her to use that money for other things like food, medicine, and transportation. Sometimes, like today, he drops in just to say hello and lift her spirits. As he stands to leave, she asks when he’ll return.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” Smith tells her. “I’ve got some trim work to do.”

As Smith walks to his car, Gibbs points out a dog on the television. She loves dogs but can’t have one anymore. She likes it when Smith brings his brown-and-white puppy, Neiko.

“When Rodney first came, I figured he’d cut the grass a few times but eventually wouldn’t come back,” she says. “But then he came back all winter. It gives me somebody to talk to.”

***

Back at their grandfather’s house, Lamar and Quay are losing badly to Smith.

“Better stick to cutting grass, fellas, because basketball is not your game,” he teases. Quay returns the taunt, but Lamar is determined to make the last basket. He misses. Game over.

“All right, you lost, now what do you do?” Smith asks. The boys shake hands and thank him for playing a good game, laughing as he scruffs their hair and mock wrestles with them.

Tomorrow, they’ll cut grass, they say. They’re good at that. Getting better every day.

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The Monitor's View

New contours in international cooperation

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Nationalism may be on the rise and hindering global consensus. But pacts between neighboring nations could be a new norm. Recent examples include those on Arctic fishing, Mediterranean migrants, and African free trade. The 20th-century spirit of international cooperation still exists. It’s just gone local. One regional pact, expected to be signed Aug. 12, follows this trend and is notable because it took 22 years to negotiate and involves a region that confronts complex geopolitics. The five countries that share the Caspian Sea at the heart of the Eurasian continent – Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan – have agreed on a legal convention for using the natural resources of that unique, landlocked body of water while also safeguarding its ecosystem. Each of the countries had to make compromises in order to agree on their respective economic and military zones in the sea. Regional pacts do not often get the attention they deserve in an era of rising geopolitical competition. Yet with a world that is more interconnected than ever, moments of cooperation must be celebrated.

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New contours in international cooperation

With a rise in nationalist politicians in world capitals, humble collaboration among countries on global issues can be hard to come by these days. A survey of scholars last year by the Council on Foreign Relations found international efforts to mitigate the world’s most pressing problems, such as cyberthreats, deserve only a “C-minus.”

Global agreements may indeed be more difficult, yet pacts between neighboring nations could be a new norm. Recent examples include those on Arctic fishing, Mediterranean migrants, and African free trade. The 20th-century spirit of international cooperation still exists. It’s just gone local or, shall we say, neighborly.

One regional pact, expected to be signed Aug. 12, follows this trend and is notable because it took 22 years to negotiate.

The five countries that share the Caspian Sea at the heart of the Eurasian continent – Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan – have agreed on a legal convention for using the natural resources of that unique, landlocked body of water while also safeguarding its ecosystem. Their leaders plan to meet and sign an accord that could change the world’s energy landscape.

The Caspian, which is the size of Japan and holds 40 percent of all the lake water in the world, is known mainly for its sturgeon, which produce the majority of the world’s caviar. But it is the sea’s giant reserves of oil and gas, and the complex geopolitics of building pipelines to energy consumers in Europe and China, that long held up an agreement.

Each of the five countries had to make compromises in order to agree on their respective economic and military zones in the sea. Russia, for example, will no longer be able to block a proposed pipeline from Turkmenistan to Europe. In return, the pact allows only the coastal states to have a military presence on the sea.

The shape of multilateral cooperation today may not be as global as in the past. But the need for cooperation still exists. Regional pacts do not often get the attention they deserve in an era of rising geopolitical competition. Yet with a world that is more interconnected than ever, moments of cooperation must be celebrated.

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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.

Ever-present Fatherhood and the lifting of grief

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After her dad passed on when she was a teen, a growing understanding of God as our always-present divine Father and Mother brought today’s contributor strength, healing, and inspiration to help a grieving friend.

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Ever-present Fatherhood and the lifting of grief

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Few things break a girl’s heart as much as losing her father. So when I saw the deep sadness in the eyes of a young friend a few days after her dad died, my heart was touched – I could relate.

When I was a teenager, my dad passed away suddenly, and I felt so lost. Yet somewhere in my grief, there was a flicker of hope, like a single candle in a dark cave, that somehow I might find my way out of the sadness.

During my childhood, both my mom and my dad – though they were of different faiths – had read the Bible to me. I loved the stories that assured me of the loving care of an ever-present Supreme Being. I believed in the strength of this divine closeness and came to see that I couldn’t possibly be separated from the embrace of the infinitely loving God.

Looking for something to comfort me after my dad’s passing, I turned to this divine presence for assurance and strength. Bible accounts of the ultimate supremacy of God were my rock, and I gained renewed inspiration that sustained me during this difficult time.

For instance, Christ Jesus’ compassion toward children touched my searching heart (see, for example, Matthew 19:13, 14). He loved and healed them, and I sensed that the divine healing power that had lifted children out of suffering long ago could raise me from the sadness that threatened to snuff out my joy and enthusiasm for life.

A beacon of inspiration also came from “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science. Mrs. Eddy experienced the tragic death of her young husband, the passing of her mother, and separation from her child, yet she felt a higher love sustaining her – the love of God, divine Love itself. She wrote, “Father-Mother is the name for Deity, which indicates His tender relationship to His spiritual creation” (p. 332).

This idea of God as our Father and Mother perfectly described how I felt about God during this time. Gradually the flicker of hope in my heart grew brighter. I came to realize that the fathering qualities I cherished in my dad, such as strength, integrity, and unselfishness, really had their source in the Divine. Since God’s goodness is unlimited and infinite, such qualities are therefore not restricted to one human being, but innate in everyone. So while I certainly continued to treasure my dad’s unique expression of these qualities, I saw that they could also be tangibly evidenced in my life through others.

And that is exactly what happened in all kinds of large and small ways. For example, there was the wisdom of a family friend who helped me navigate relationship decisions. I also remember a Swiss colleague of my dad’s who had grown up skiing in the Alps stepped in to help fill my dad’s shoes – ski boots – by patiently guiding my brother and me down the slopes. A couple of years later, Mom remarried. One of my stepdad’s favorite expressions, “The family that bicycles together stays together,” conveys in a humorous way how committed he was to our newly united and very active family.

With each of these relationships, and others, came qualities of care, strength, stability, guidance, fun, and humor – tangible expressions of the Fatherhood that can never really be absent: that of the ever-present Father-Mother God. This was a very meaningful time of growth for me that brought healing from grief.

So years later, when I learned that my young friend’s father had also passed away, I instinctively reached out to hug and comfort her, drawing on the confidence that I’d gained in the love and care of our divine Parent. I felt that what I had experienced might help my sweet friend. So I shared ideas about God’s fathering, mothering love and trusted that she too would find the comfort and healing she needed. Through the continuing support of those around her, and her own spiritual growth, she gradually regained her joyful outlook.

These lessons I learned as a teenager – about God’s love and goodness always being with us – have helped me when other special people in my life have passed away. If sadness threatens to overwhelm me, I humbly open myself to the inseparable relation we all have with our Father-Mother God. This has unfolded fresh, meaningful opportunities to love and be loved.

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Viewfinder

Chair share, no cares

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Festivalgoers recline during the Sziget Festival on a river island in northern Budapest, Hungary, Aug. 9. The prominent music event drew some 500 acts. A firetruck was used to hose down revelers in the soaring heat.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( August 10th, 2018 )

Noelle Swan
Science Editor

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow when we'll visit a temple complex in Siberia that is the de facto Vatican to Russian Buddhists.

Monitor Daily Podcast

August 09, 2018
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