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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
September
12
Wednesday
Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

This week has brought several examples of people reaching across barriers and reexamining long-held ways of doing things in an effort to reach more people.

• In Ethiopia and Eritrea, a literal barrier came down. Leaders of both countries re-opened border crossings after 20 years of civil war – sparking comparisons with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Videos show people dancing and weeping, as families separated by the war at long last got to hug their loved ones.

• St. John’s College, founded in 1696, is announcing a $17,000 price cut for 2019 – from $52,000 a year to $35,000. “We’ve resisted almost every trend in higher education that we consider naughty,” Mark Roosevelt, president of the Santa Fe campus, told The New York Times. Thus, it is jettisoning “prestige pricing.” The college, which offers a classics-based curriculum, wants to be a model of financial accessibility as well as intellectual rigor.

• And in South Carolina, Irmo Mayor Hardy King made headlines this summer for his anti-Muslim posts. This week, he made them again – for holding a town hall forum on Demystifying Islam. What changed? Mr. King says a Muslim resident introduced himself. “That probably did more to humble me, to make me think, ‘Huh, I could use a whole lot more of these people as friends,’” King told the Charleston Post and Courier. “He wasn’t yelling and screaming and hollering and calling me a bigot. He was just a young man with a concern.... It made me think, ‘Maybe I need to rethink this attitude.’ ”

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Now for our five stories of the day, looking at people reexamining everything from medieval studies to vegetarian dining.

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1. Jordan reels after US defunding of Palestinian refugee agency

Defunding UNRWA is just one measure the Trump administration is using to shake up the Middle East status quo. But in Jordan, home to more than 2 million Palestinians, officials fear a 'catastrophe.'

Yvonne
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Palestinians outside an aid distribution center in the southern Gaza Strip rallied Sept. 4 against a United States decision to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The UNRWA budget crisis is also being felt hard by communities across Jordan.

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The Trump administration’s decision to stop $300 million in United States support for UNRWA caught the United Nations relief agency for Palestinians off guard. The ensuing budget crisis is being felt hard by communities across Jordan, home to more than 42 percent of the 5 million registered Palestinian refugees served by UNRWA. The resource-poor country, already struggling to accommodate 1.2 million Syrian refugees, is seeking to rally countries to keep the agency’s vital services from shutting down. On Tuesday, Jordan held an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to discuss the financial crisis. Despite recent pledges from Gulf Arab nations and China, UNRWA still faces a $217 million shortfall in its 2018 budget, and unless it receives the funding by the end of this month it will be forced to close its schools and health centers. Ahmed Ibrahim, a third-generation refugee, praises UNRWA schools as a bright light amid the grim life in his Zarqa refugee camp. “Schools are the only thing children have here, and it is our only hope of lifting ourselves up from the camp,” he says. “If the agency closes the schools, our future will be lost.”

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Jordan reels after US defunding of Palestinian refugee agency

Although never great with numbers, Ahmed Ibrahim says every day he sees the impact of a budget deficit on his home.

Here, in Zarqa Camp, where more than 25,000 people live on one-tenth of a square mile, he says life is changing.

Because of staff shortages at the local UNRWA health clinic, Mr. Ibrahim must now wait up to six hours to see a nurse for his chronic cough – often times he is only seen for a total of three minutes. There are few other options. He, along with 68 percent of camp residents, are uninsured.

Trash in front of his home and across the camp has been piling up since March, when UNRWA, the UN relief agency administering to Palestinian refugees, was forced to lay off most of its part-time street cleaners and sanitation workers following an initial round of US funding cuts.

Each day the third-generation refugee sweeps up the plastic bags, soda cans, newspapers, and the half-torn trash bags strewn along the narrow street he lives on – eventually it will be dumped along with the rest of the trash at one end of the camp on a hillside.

Yet despite the harsher conditions, all praise what many say are the crown jewels of the camp: the UNRWA schools, where 6,000 local children from primary to high school prepare for what residents describe as a “fairer chance at life.”

“Schools are the only thing children have here, and it is our only hope of lifting ourselves up from the camp,” Ibrahim says as he gestures toward makeshift cinderblock houses on either side of the narrow street. “If the agency closes the schools, our future will be lost.”

The decision by the Trump administration to stop $300 million in US support for UNRWA on August 31 caught the agency off guard, and the ensuing budget crisis is being felt hard by communities across Jordan.

Diplomatic appeal

The resource-poor country is seeking to rally the international community to keep the agency’s services from shutting down. Despite recent pledges from Gulf Arab nations and China, UNRWA still faces a $217 million gap in its $1.2 billion budget for 2018, threatening its services to 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

Few are feeling the squeeze tighter than Jordan, home to more than 42 percent of the Palestinian refugees served by UNRWA. Of the 2 million-plus Palestinians in Jordan, more than 400,000 live in 10 refugee camps operated by the agency.

Jordan’s King Abdullah reportedly has played a direct role in appealing to the international community to save UNRWA; using his personal ties to drum up support and funds. 

With many in Amman foreseeing the eventual complete withdrawal of US funds, Jordan has been working behind the scenes since January to rally the EU, Gulf countries, Japan, Sweden, and China to increase their support.

Jordan has particularly emphasized its historical, geographical, and political links to the Gulf Arab countries, arguing that by destabilizing Jordan, a closure of UNRWA would threaten the Gulf’s borders, interests, and security. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar pledged $50 million each to UNRWA this year.

Raad Adayleh/AP
Children attend an official ceremony to return to school at an UNRWA-run school at a Palestinian refugee camp, Al-Wehdat, in Amman, Jordan, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018.

On Tuesday, Jordan held an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers on the sidelines of the Arab League annual meeting in Cairo to discuss ways to bridge UNRWA’s financial crisis.

Yet officials say the Arab world alone cannot rescue UNRWA or secure its future, and cite the following reasons: Saudi Arabia remains embroiled in a costly war in Yemen, Qatar is under an economic blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, and Egypt is battling inflation and a currency crisis amid a painful IMF restructuring program.

UNRWA says that unless it receives the $217 million in funding by the end of this month, it will be forced to stop all services in October, closing its schools and health centers. Officials say they will have no choice; some 66 percent of UNRWA’s budget goes to running 711 schools serving 526,000children across the region.

For Jordan, a catastrophe

It is a scenario Jordanian officials in private call a “catastrophe.” The kingdom, already hosting 1.2 million Syrian refugees, simply cannot fill the void if UNRWA closes, they say.

The Jordanian government faces a $1 billion budget deficit and is facing a debt crisis; the government has already cut back bread and electricity subsidies and is trying to impose a controversial income tax.

Jordan’s government schools are already overburdened by the influx of 120,000 Syrian students, a dramatic increase that has forced many public schools to shorten hours and work on a two-shift system; teaching two different batches of students in the morning and the afternoon.

A record-high 18.7 percent unemployment rate nationwide has forced many Jordanian families to pull their children out of private schools and place them in already-packed public schools; 50,000 students transferred from private to public over the last few months.

But perhaps even a greater blow would be the loss of UNRWA health clinics, which provide services to more than 1 million people in Jordan ranging from check-ups to minor surgeries and maternity wards.

Refugees and Jordanian officials all fear that the ripple effect of UNRWA shuttering its doors will reach far beyond the boundaries of refugee camps.

It is a concern of many like Ismael Suleiman, who was born in Zarqa Camp but moved into neighboring Zarqa city as a young man.

Despite having moved out of the camp, he and his family of five remain reliant on its services. Not having health insurance, when his first child was due to be born, Mr. Suleiman sent his wife to an UNRWA medical clinic at Zarqa Camp. The entire family now goes to the center for checkups, immunizations and treatment – at 10 percent of the cost of uninsured persons at hospitals.

“If the agency closes its health clinics, all of us would be left in a difficult position,” Suleiman says from  behind the counter of his hummus and falafel shop near the entrance to the camp. “We wouldn’t be able to get health care.” 

“It would be disaster for every family.”

It is these personal “disasters” that worry Jordan the most. Nationwide popular protests over economic discontent and taxes here brought down the government three months ago.

While there have been no major protests in camps, community leaders say they are ready to protest any further cut in UNRWA services should they shutter their doors. Jordanian officials say that UNRWA crisis is a matter of “national security and stability.”

New donors?

With the aid of Jordanian diplomacy, UNRWA is working to attract new, “younger” donors including Southeast Asian majority-Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. The agency has also become accredited in many Muslim countries as a religiously certified receiver of zakat tax, the annual 2.5 percent of income and assets Muslims are obliged to pay each year. 

At the end of September, Jordan is hosting a conference along with Sweden and Japan at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York to discuss ways to raise funds for the agency and to make it more financially sustainable – and immune from attempts by the US administration to dismantle it.

“Jordan’s priority is not only to help UNRWA weather the current crisis, but to find ways to make it stable and sustainable in the future to ensure its life-saving services and protect refugees’ rights,” says a Jordanian government source who was not authorized to speak on the subject.

But it remains yet to be seen whether these new avenues will be fruitful or if UNRWA can actually receive the funds in time before shutting its doors. It is a development many across Jordan are watching with bated breath.

“We have been left 70 years without a solution,” says Ibrahim, referring to the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis with Israel's founding in 1948. “If they take away our tools to live, then we will truly have nothing.”

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2. ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ So why aren’t good numbers boosting Trump?

Presidential job approval has historically risen and fallen with the economy. But that truism is more closely correlated to bad economic news than good – and doesn't take into account ‘external shocks.'

Yvonne

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When the economy was humming along with only 3.9 percent jobless in September of 1956, Dwight Eisenhower’s approval rating stood at 68 percent. Richard Nixon had a 63 percent approval rating when unemployment reached that same level in January 1970. Bill Clinton’s approval was 58 percent positive when unemployment hit 3.9 percent in October 2000. Yet today, with unemployment again hitting that same low rate, Trump’s approval stands at just 39.8 percent, according to an average of major polls. The famous adage “it’s the economy, stupid” is generally a reliable guide to the political fortunes of modern presidents – except when it isn’t. Consider Lyndon Johnson. In November of 1967, when United States unemployment was at 3.7 percent, LBJ's approval was just 42 percent. His problem? External shocks: the deadly slog of the war in Vietnam, riots burning out the core of major US cities. In Trump’s case, the external shock is arguably him. Republicans see him as a change agent who makes liberals and reporters uncomfortable. But many independents and most Democrats view him as someone with little regard for the truth or the norms of democracy. 

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‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ So why aren’t good numbers boosting Trump?

Here are some numbers that are good: 4.2, and 3.9. The first is the growth in US Gross Domestic Product for the second quarter of 2018, at an annualized rate. The second is the unemployment rate for August. Both are evidence of a really, really strong economy – though they’re not as historically unique as President Trump sometimes boasts.

Here are some numbers that are bad: 39.8, and 82. The former is the percentage of Americans who approve of the job Mr. Trump is doing, according to an average of major polls at time of writing. That’s ... low. The latter is the percentage chance that Democrats will win control of the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections. That’s high, uncomfortably so if you’re an elected Republican lawmaker. (Both of these are from the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight.)

So here’s the question: Why isn’t the demonstrably excellent economy making Trump more popular? Does this mean the famous adage about American politics, “It’s the economy, stupid,” is no longer true?

Well, we can’t really tell how the economy is affecting Trump’s numbers, for one thing. It could be keeping them higher than they otherwise would be. And the data show “it’s the economy” remains a reliable guide to the political fortunes of presidents in the modern era.

Except when it isn’t.

Let’s step back a bit and try to put Trump’s numbers in a historical context. We’ll use the unemployment rate, since it’s a simple number, it’s good for Trump, and it correlates pretty well with presidential approval ratings over time. (For the most part.)

The current rate is 3.9 percent, as we noted above. When it hit that level for other presidents, what was their approval rating? Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton College, tweeted out some numbers on this recently: Dwight Eisenhower had a 68 percent approval rate when the economy was humming along with only 3.9 percent jobless in September of 1956. Richard Nixon had a 63 percent approval rating when it reached that level in January 1970. Bill Clinton’s approval was 58 percent positive when unemployment was 3.9 percent in October 2000.

Those ratings were all a lot better than Trump’s current number.

But then there’s LBJ. In November of 1967, US unemployment was 3.7 percent, and Lyndon Johnson’s approval was 42 percent. That’s higher than Trump’s current number, but barely.

What was LBJ’s problem? External shocks. The deadly slog of the war in Vietnam dominated front pages. Riots were burning out the core of major US cities. Some white voters disapproved of the administration’s push for civil rights. At times, Washington seemed to be losing control of the country, or at least to be out of touch. Johnson’s job approval peaked at around 80 percent when he took office following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but then basically began a years-long slide, bottoming out at 35 percent in August 1968.

The Christian Science Monitor/File
President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965. Presidential approval ratings in the modern era tend to track closely with the economy – except when they don't.

In Trump’s case, the external shock is arguably Trump himself.

Republicans approve of Trump’s personality and actions in office, seeing him as a truth-teller who makes liberals and mainstream news reporters uncomfortable, and who is taking steps to do what the country has long needed. Many also believe the media aren’t covering positive news enough. In the latest CNN poll, 82 percent of GOP respondents approved of the job the president is doing. 

But many independents and most Democrats view Trump as someone with little regard for the truth or the norms of democracy. The same CNN survey has his approval rating among self-described independents at 31 percent. Among Democrats, it’s five percent. Talk about a partisan split.

So, what are the implications for the “It’s the economy, stupid” truism? The phrase, of course, was made famous in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run, when force-of-nature aide James Carville hung a sign to that effect in the campaign war room.

Well, a few years ago, in the pre-Trump era, Pew Research took a thorough look at how economic numbers affect presidential approval, and concluded “the public response to all [modern] presidents has been shaped to some degree by rising or falling unemployment.”

But the correlation is closer when unemployment gets worse – and particularly when it gets worse precipitously. When it gets better, and changes more slowly, the relationship between the measures is murkier.

Political scientists still consider the economy one of the “fundamentals,” those underlying forces that can affect the outcomes of American politics more profoundly than most actual campaigns. But Trump has clearly upended some of their calculations on this subject, as he has so many other things.

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3. Why a new Turkish mosque stirs old resentments in Albania

Albania is short of mosques, and Turkey is building one in the capital for free. So why are Albanian Muslims not all happy about this?

Yvonne
Michael Colborne
The Great Mosque of Tirana, due to be completed in 2019, sits in the center of Albania's capital. For some in Albania, which was under Ottoman rule for more than four centuries, it is an unwelcome symbol of Turkish influence.

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When completed in 2019, the Great Mosque of Tirana, a hulking new mosque in Albania, will be the biggest in the Balkans, with room for 5,000 worshipers. It’s located in Albania’s capital city, but it looks more like the great old mosques of Istanbul. That’s because Turkey is funding this mosque’s construction. Although Tirana’s Muslims have been asking for a new mosque for decades (after communism, many were left praying on the streets), not all are happy about the new Ottoman-style mosque, including many Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the population. It’s left many in Albania, which was under Ottoman rule for more than four centuries, feeling like pawns in the Turkish president’s games. In fact, many Albanians wonder if the mosque is really for them at all or if it’s part of a new approach to Turkish diplomacy, focusing on exerting soft power and positioning Turkey as defender of Muslims across the Balkans. For now, most Albanians accept the new mosque, but reject Turkish influence. “Turkey’s not a big brother,” says Dorian Shatku after Friday prayers at a local mosque.

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1. Why a new Turkish mosque stirs old resentments in Albania

With its four minarets towering over the Albanian parliament next door, no visitor can miss the Great Mosque of Tirana.

When completed in 2019, the hulking new central mosque will be the biggest in the Balkans, with enough room for 5,000 worshipers. And it more closely resembles the great old mosques of Istanbul than any here in Albania, a country ruled by the Ottoman Empire for over four centuries.

That's because Turkey is funding this mosque’s construction and overseeing its design, at an estimated cost of €30 million ($34 million), as it’s done with dozens across the Balkans and beyond.

Not all Albanians are happy about that – including many Muslims, who make up an estimated 60 percent of the population. Tirana’s new central mosque has already become a symbol for those Muslims who feel like a “discriminated majority” in one of Europe’s few Muslim-majority countries, in the words of prominent Albanian intellectual Fatos Lubonja – and like pawns in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s great game.

Despite Albania’s Muslim majority (the remainder includes 10 percent Roman Catholics and 7 percent Orthodox Christians), there have long been political undercurrents that view Islam as incompatible with being “European,” says Mr. Lubonja, a writer and political analyst.

During Albania’s 19th-century national awakening, he explains, the nascent Albanian intellectual class suppressed religious identity in favor of a non-religious nationalism: “Albanianism.” They chose a national hero, Skanderbeg, who spent decades fighting against Ottoman rule – and, thus, Islam – in the 1400s.

“Muslims here still feel frustrated because of their Muslim identity,” says Lubonja, who spent 17 years as a political prisoner under communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s regime. In Albania, “Islam has always been a synonym for backwardness, the religion of occupiers.”

Rebuilding religious society 

Today Albanian society remains largely secular, due in no small part to Mr. Hoxha’s brutal rule over the country for more than 40 years. He proclaimed Albania an officially atheist state in 1967, and under his rule, mosques across the country were abandoned, destroyed, or converted into museums. After communism collapsed in Albania in the early 1990s, many were reopened.

But not enough. According to Ilir Dizdari, the former head of the Albanian State Committee on Cults (which manages relations between religious communities and the state), today Tirana has the same number of mosques as it did in the 1960s, despite the city’s population having quadrupled.

Tirana’s Muslims have been asking for a new mosque for decades. After communism, many were left praying on the streets or in the Namazgah Park near the parliament building, a popular spot for outdoor prayers during Islamic festivals. While new Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals were built with little controversy after the fall of communism, plans for a new mosque never got off the ground. Even after Albania’s then-President Sali Berisha laid a foundation stone for it in 1992, the Roman Catholic speaker of the country’s parliament protested the plans.

And so that foundation stone in Namazgah Park lay forgotten until 2010, when then-Mayor Edi Rama announced that a new, modernist mosque would finally be built. Mr. Rama’s opponents accused him of playing to the Muslim vote before elections.

As Rama became Albania’s prime minister in 2013, his dedication to a central mosque project coincided with Ankara's mosque-building campaign. The public debate around the mosque soon became a debate about Turkey, and whether a “neo-Ottoman”-style mosque was the right fit in a country that takes great pride in having rebelled against Ottoman rule.

Even the most senior Muslim religious official in Albania, Grand Mufti Skënder Bruçaj, admitted that Turkey’s role in the mosque project had been divisive. However, he stressed that the most important thing for him is that a central mosque is finally being built.

“If we had the money, we would have done something different,” admits Mr. Bruçaj in his offices opposite the construction site. “But things were decided before … it’s not easy for us.”

Some remain irritated that their own government wasn’t willing to fund it.

“The mosque was necessary, but it should have been built by the Albanian state,” says one woman, who declined to give her name, after Friday prayers at the small Kokonozi Mosque near Tirana’s old bazaar.

“That we were unable to build it shows that we are weak,” remarks Gjoka Blebie, on Tirana’s sprawling Skanderbeg Square. “Why not do it ourselves?”

A new Turkish diplomacy 

Many Albanians wonder if the mosque is really for them at all. Niuton Mulleti, a lecturer in political science and international relations at Tirana’s Epoka University, points out how unusual it was that Mr. Erdoğan himself appeared at the mosque’s official groundbreaking ceremony in 2015.

“It would be unimaginable to see the president of Italy at the opening of a Catholic church,” says Professor Mulleti, “and controversial to say the least to see the Greek prime minister at the opening of Tirana’s Orthodox Cathedral.”

The Turkish state, through its international development agency TIKA, is also investing millions in restoring a handful of small Ottoman-era mosques throughout Albania. Such mosque (re)construction efforts are part of a longstanding strategy of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which first came to power in 2002. Under the guidance of former Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Erdoğan embarked on a new approach to Turkish diplomacy that focused on exerting soft power – including across parts of the Balkans with large Muslim populations – in a strategy some have characterized as “neo-Ottoman,” though Mr. Davutoğlu himself rejects the moniker.

That influence has recently served another purpose: Ankara is pressuring Balkan countries to hand over Turkish citizens deemed linked to the “Gülen terrorist organization” – as Turkey classifies the Islamic social movement led by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen – which it blames for a failed coup attempt in 2016.

In 2016, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu even called Albania the “center” for Gülenist activities in the Balkans, while pro-government Turkish media has portrayed Grand Mufti Bruçaj as a Gülen supporter. After initially dragging its heels, Albania’s government has vowed to cooperate in Ankara’s crackdown since Erdoğan’s re-election: Prime Minister Rama recently reaffirmed his support to tackle the Gülen network.

It’s one reason why Erdoğan gains by positioning himself as defender of Muslims across the Balkans and beyond. And while he’s certainly seen this way by some Muslims across the region, this is far from the case in Albania, where Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic model holds little appeal for Albanians who want to eventually join the European Union.

“Turkey’s not a big brother,” Dorian Shatku says after prayers at Kokonozi Mosque. “Most Turks I know oppose Erdoğan.”

'Skyscrapers are the symbol of our new religion'

Elton Hatibi, a researcher who has studied Islam in Albania, sees Albanian politicians’ “Turkophilia” as strategy rather than conviction. “Albania is a small country which knows how to play the ‘big brother’ card well,” he explains.

“But people vote with their feet,” adds Mr. Hatibi. “Albanians once moved to Istanbul to make their fortune. These days, they go to the EU to do real business, and Turkey for holidays.”

Other Albanians have even less time for Erdoğan. In the park next door to the mosque, a group of older men playing chess are more than happy to share their opinions about what’s being built just across the way – and about the man responsible for it.

“Erdoğan is a dictator,” says Agim (who declined to provide a last name), an atheist who grew up in a Muslim family. “He’s worse than Enver Hoxha.”

“While I don’t care much for mosques, particularly not in an Ottoman style, for me the new mosque isn’t the most terrible thing,” reflects Lubonja, the writer and former political prisoner. “Skyscrapers are the symbol of our new religion.”

“Islam could become the religion of the poor, and be instrumentalized against new elites who claim to be European – those same corrupt elites who have promised to bring capitalism and modernity for over 20 years.”

Reporting for this story was supported by Reporters in the Field, a Robert Bosch Stiftung program hosted together with n-ost, a media network. 

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4. How scholars are taking aim at racist views of the Middle Ages

From black military leader Saint Maurice to Arab influences in early Spain, the historical record is helping medieval scholars reclaim an era from a false narrative. Multicultural societies, they say, predate not only the civil rights era, but the Renaissance.

Yvonne

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After the racially charged events of a year ago in Charlottesville, Va., those who study medieval culture found they had a lot to talk about. At issue was the public display of medieval symbols by white nationalist groups, who incorrectly view the Middle Ages in European history as “a pure, white space in which Europe developed the culture that would make the West great,” says Matthew Gabriele, professor of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech University. Academics have long debated how to respond when their fields enter political discourse, and now many medievalists feel called to act. Some are doing so through college speaking tours, others via classrooms, where they are trying to present a fuller picture of the multiculturalism of their studies and hopefully connect with more of their students. Cord Whitaker, a Wellesley College English professor, delivered talks across the country this past school year on how the alt-right has reinterpreted medieval history. He saw a genuine interest in the issue – especially from undergraduate students. “They were very engaged about how this vision of the Middle Ages has been propagated,” he says, “how it’s been maintained, how best to deconstruct it.”

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How scholars are taking aim at racist views of the Middle Ages

Growing up, Matthew Simmons remembers listening to his mother read him stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. But Mr. Simmons says he always felt a disconnect – he was black and the characters in these stories were depicted as white.

When he started college at the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD), he enrolled in a poetry course taught by Katharine Jager, professor of English. Dr. Jager’s classes included medieval writing – but she immediately complicated what most students had read about in fairy tales.

Jager presented historical evidence for people of African descent living in Europe during the Middle Ages and displayed images of the Man of Cheddar – whose remains from thousands of years ago suggest that early inhabitants of England likely had dark brown skin.

For Simmons, this was a revelation. “It was a bit mind-blowing ... here Professor Jager was showing me proof that black people did live in Europe at that time and any one of the Knights of the Round Table could have been a black person,” he says.

Jager is part of a growing wave of medievalists who are rethinking race and representation within their field. Their motivation stems from a troubling trend in American politics: White supremacists, scholars have pointed out, seem enchanted with the Middle Ages. Last year, at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., several self-described white nationalist organizations carried signs and shields decorated with Old English runes and flew flags with medieval military standards.

“We’re in a moment when a lot of departments are asking … to decolonize these spaces,” says Dorothy Kim, an English professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. “We’re not in an ivory tower off to the side … Charlottesville really kind of cemented viscerally that this is going on and the contested space is your college campus.”

The white supremacist fascination with the Middle Ages stems in part from the prevailing, though discredited, notion that Medieval Europe was an ethnically homogeneous white utopia, says Matthew Gabriele, professor of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg.

“They’re very explicit about this,” he says. They believe that “the Middle Ages was a moment before the kind of European ... encounter with Africa, the Americas, and Asia and so it was kind of a pure, white space in which Europe developed the culture that would make the West great.”

Expanding the conversation

But discussions within the academy – particularly those on social media blazoned with #MedievalTwitter – have at times divided scholars over what responsibility they have to speak out against white supremacy.  

Some feel there should be a stronger separation between academia and politics and object to their colleagues’ more progressive efforts, says Richard Utz, professor of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

But efforts to purge racial bias have been building momentum, Dr. Utz says, and despite the painful process, some medievalists see a sense of hope emerging.

An open letter sent this summer to the International Congress of Medieval Studies (ICMS) demanding more race-conscious workshops accrued more than 550 signatures – about 20 percent of average annual conference attendance. As a result, the ICMS announced in July that it would establish a working group to strengthen diversity and reconsider some of the workshops on race that were initially turned down.

Reshaping classroom dynamics

And for those intent on disrupting historical misperceptions and diversifying classrooms, says Dr. Kim, the key is inclusive teaching.

Aside from her presentations on race, Jager from UHD also connects multilingualism and variations of standard English in her teaching of Geoffrey Chaucer with her students who speak different dialects of English.

“I tell them, ‘If you speak Spanglish, you can learn to read Middle English with no difficulty,’ ” she says. “We talk about Chaucer's own multilingual experience and how he was fluent in French and probably Italian and English and could read Latin. And in many ways, their experience as multilingual speakers aligns them with Chaucer’s own literary production.”

Mark-Allan Donaldson, a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, is also invoking that inclusive mindset as he assembles his first syllabus. While teaching historical literature about Alexander the Great, Mr. Donaldson plans to take a detour from Europe and introduce his class to Sundiata, a powerful medieval prince from the Mali Empire in West Africa who emulated the ancient Greek figure.

“That hopefully will be a good way to show that … we have these same kind of journeys, we have these same kind of human experiences, during the medieval period but outside of Europe as well,” he says.

Similar curricular revisions have gained support elsewhere. Last winter, a number of scholars crowdsourced a public bibliography on race and the Middle Ages.

Cord Whitaker, professor of English at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., delivered talks across the country this past school year on how the alt-right has reinterpreted medieval history. He’s seen a genuine interest in the issue – especially from undergraduate students.

“They were very engaged about how this vision of the Middle Ages has been propagated, how it’s been maintained, how best to deconstruct it,” he says.

The Medievalists of Color, a group that predates the Charlottesville rally and for which Whitaker and Kim serve on the steering committee, published a blog post in July that echoes the burgeoning optimism he and some of his colleagues feel.

“[I]t is the younger generation of medievalists ...,” the post says, “taking the greatest risks and making the deepest sacrifices to change the field.” 

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. Stealth vegetarian restaurant seeks to woo diners on taste alone

It’s a belief in change through the taste buds: Can one locavore business grow the ranks of non-meat eaters using flavor, not ideology?

Yvonne
Ann Hermes/Staff
Ayr Muir founded Clover Food Lab in the Boston area. It focuses on in-season, locally sourced vegetables. “It’s a quiet action,” he says. “But I think it’s the most radical environmental action you can take, really: changing what you eat and then influencing others around you.”

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In the United States, the average consumer will eat 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry this year, and meat consumption is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally. Ayr Muir wanted to do something about this, and he wanted to learn about the fast-food industry so he could build a better business model. So he used six weeks of vacation time from a consulting job to work at a Burger King and Panera Bread. (That was after he was rejected from 12 McDonald’s.) Now he’s chief executive officer of Clover Food Lab, a growing business that’s still figuring out how to survive in an industry not yet built to support its commitment to sourcing locally and not serving meat. But Clover doesn’t use the word "vegetarian," because it wants to change the ideas people have about all-vegetable fare. Elina Sendonaris, a college student, goes to meetings where Clover employees and customers present and taste new recipes. The meetings have inspired her personal cooking, as well as her participation in a farm share program. “I’m a fan [of meat], but I think vegetables are pretty cool, too,” she says.

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Stealth vegetarian restaurant seeks to woo diners on taste alone

Ayr Muir stands slightly to the side of the stainless steel table that’s covered in trays holding miniature cups of chilled soups. He is curious and mostly quiet as he tries dish after dish during one of Clover Food Lab’s weekly development meetings. He is equally comfortable pointing out issues or praising a component.

For being the chief executive officer of this restaurant chain, he is very much not the focus of the meeting where employees and customers are presenting and tasting new recipes. Mr. Muir slips out to take a few calls and greets an employee who brought her newborn baby, all over the chatter of 20 or so meeting participants.

The group is tasting everything from coffee and iced tea to vegan egg sandwiches and BLT chilled soup (tempeh bacon and spinach in a puréed tomato soup seasoned with garlic and za’atar).

“I’ve never had that before,” one customer exclaims. Others note how creamy the BLT soup is, and the crispy, full flavor of the tempeh bacon.

That’s exactly Muir’s goal: giving people a new food experience with a focus on in-season, locally sourced vegetables.

“We’re trying to do this very ambitious thing: Take someone who loves meat – and probably a lot of them don’t think they like vegetables, and some of them actually think they hate vegetables – and we’re trying to get that person to make their own decision to change their meals [and] change their habits,” he says.

Clover, which has 10 restaurants and two Whole Foods kiosks in the Boston area, wants to change the ideas people have about all-vegetable fare. Part of that plan? Never using the word vegetarian. Some customers don’t even realize the absence of meat until they’ve eaten at Clover several times, says Lucia Jazayeri, the restaurant chain’s creative director.

In the United States, the average consumer will eat 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry this year, according to the Agriculture Department. So Muir sees the primary mission of Clover as getting people to eat more vegetables. The enterprise, he notes, also supports regional agriculture by sourcing locally, and it gives people an opportunity to learn about the consequences of personal food choices. Clover tries to provide that opportunity without being patronizing, and to that end, Muir named his business after his daughter’s puppet, seeing it as a memorable and friendly name.

“It’s a quiet action, but I think it’s the most radical environmental action you can take, really: changing what you eat and then influencing others around you,” he says.

Clover’s revenues have been growing 50 percent each year, and it currently employs just under 400 people, Muir says. But it’s still figuring out how to survive in an industry not yet built to support its commitment to sourcing locally and not serving meat.

Flipping burgers first

Before Clover launched with a food truck in 2008, Muir used six weeks of vacation time from a consulting job at McKinsey & Co. to work at a Burger King and Panera Bread. That was after he was rejected from 12 McDonald’s. He wanted to learn about the fast-food industry so he could build a better business model. His goal for a meatless venture was inspired by the environmental effect of meat consumption, a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally.

He says that at the Panera where he worked, he never saw a refrigerator, just freezers. Clover has no freezers; rather, the kitchens have refrigerators with see-through doors that reveal clear containers containing grains and colorful vegetables.

At Burger King, he identified what he viewed as small design inefficiencies, such as receipts not grouping items by type, which he felt contributed to low order accuracy. But he was also inspired by those around him, including a shift manager who showed him one way to make cookies: Remove from freezer, place on tray, plop into oven, and press the “cookies” button. Then, in a departure from the official process, she would set another timer that went off slightly before the oven timer. The cookies, she said, were chewy and delicious, and the restaurant sold more of them.

“In this very mechanized, systematized company, despite that, this very human instinct of trying to make things yummy was busting through even at her own [employment] risk,” he says.

At Clover, Muir allows employees to experiment – with boundaries. He specializes in these contained experiments, perhaps a holdover from running materials characterization laboratories and studying materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. At any given time, Clover is experimenting with a few dozen changes, constantly collecting customer feedback through its food development meetings, other food tastings, surveys, and social media. “In a way Clover is a giant R&D project,” Muir says.

The company’s food developers contact suppliers weekly to see what is tasty and available. About 93 percent of Clover’s menu is not fixed. Also, the development meetings offer space for employees and customers to bring in their own ideas, ones that often lead to Clover’s most successful items.

‘Vegetables are pretty cool’

Elina Sendonaris, a student at MIT, is one of the meeting attendees. The meetings have in turn inspired her personal cooking, as well as her participation in a farm share program that Clover runs with Winter Moon Roots Farm in Hadley, Mass. She laughs when asked if she normally doesn’t eat meat: “I’m a fan [of meat], but I think vegetables are pretty cool, too.”

For Muir failure, as long as it’s not harmful to customers or too costly, is part of the process. He tries to be transparent about mistakes, both small and large, often writing about them on the company blog.

In July, Clover paid $79,338 in back wages and liquidated damages to 65 employees after a US Department of Labor investigation found the business paid some employees straight time instead of overtime. Muir responded in a blog post saying that he had not been aware he was misclassifying his food truck managers.

In 2009, Ms. Jazayeri applied to work on a Clover food truck. She remembers that the first time she met Muir, he told her she hadn’t washed the truck correctly. And then he promptly showed her how to do it. He is hands-on and interested in making processes efficient, she says.

He visits several restaurants daily and is “always attuned to the smallest details,” Jazayeri says.

As a child, Muir would wake up to the sound of his father grinding rice for porridge. He didn’t love it then, but he’s a fan now. In fact, he owns a personal grain mill.

When he talks about food, it’s with an awe-filled attention to detail. “He’s not the type of boss that’s just like, ‘Set it and forget it,’ ” Jazayeri says.

She adds, “He really does feel like people should know ... about where their food is coming from and they should become as passionate about food as he is.”

Depending on the season, between 40 and 90 cents of every dollar that Clover spends on food goes to the regional food system, according to the company’s blog. The fact that Clover can provide high-quality “affordable real food” and have the flexibility to work with what’s in season on a large scale excites Michael Docter, owner of Winter Moon Roots Farm, which has been a supplier to Clover for about eight years.

“The nice thing about working with Clover is we’ve always felt like we’re on a team. And that’s not the traditional relationship between buyers and sellers in the produce marketplace. But with Clover, they want it to work,” Mr. Docter says.

For Ethan Sherbondy, Clover’s systems engineer, the restaurant chain offers “vegetarian food without all the ... ceremony and without the holier-than-thou attitude.” A contrast to that, he says, is a scene he witnessed at a vegan restaurant in Cambridge. A woman chased somebody out of the establishment for wearing a leather coat.

“This idea that to change the food system it has to be a war is not something you will find at Clover,” he says.

For more, visit cloverfoodlab.com.

Three other groups with food initiatives

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Osa Conservation applies scientific and other expertise to protecting the biodiversity of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. Take action: Help build a sustainable food system.

Helen Keller International aids vulnerable individuals by combating blindness, poor health, and malnutrition. Take action: Donate money to empower women through gardening.

Warren Majengo Foundation gives stability, security, and support to children in Tanzania who have nowhere else to turn. Take action: Help pay for food for these children.

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The FDA’s crackdown on teen vaping

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On Sept. 12, the Food and Drug Administration launched a coordinated enforcement action aimed at the marketing and selling of e-cigarettes to teenagers. The FDA cited an “epidemic” rise in teen vaping, especially in the popular brand Juul, which entices young people with candy-like flavors. The move follows other efforts this year in the United States to safeguard children, such as a rush among states to keep them from online sports gambling. It follows a global trend toward defending children that has accelerated since the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. Since then, the number of girls and boys doing hazardous work or serving as child soldiers has fallen. On e-cigarettes, the FDA’s core message is this: Children must be protected from becoming addicted to nicotine – even if it means less availability of e-cigarettes for adults trying to use them to curb tobacco habits. The latest data shows a 75 percent increase in e-cigarette use among high school students this year compared with 2017. Another survey shows a rise in teens adding marijuana to vaping products. Those trends make it urgent to help children self-regulate their behavior.

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The FDA’s crackdown on teen vaping

A hallmark of the modern era is the length to which societies will go to protect their most innocent – children. On Sept. 12, for example, the Food and Drug Administration launched its largest coordinated enforcement action in the agency’s history, aimed at the marketing and selling of e-cigarettes to teenagers.

The FDA cited an “epidemic” rise in teen vaping over the past year, especially in the most popular brand, Juul, which entices young people with candylike flavors while delivering a strong dose of nicotine.

The agency’s move follows similar efforts this year in the United States to safeguard children, such as investor pressure on high-tech firms to deal with excessive screen time among kids. Another example is a rush among states to prevent online sports gambling among youths.

Worldwide, recent campaigns to keep children from harm are showing results.

The number of girls and boys doing hazardous work is down more than a third since 2000, according to the International Labor Organization. And since 2014, a United Nations campaign has freed more than 100,000 child soldiers in conflict zones.

Such efforts have steadily accelerated since 1989, when the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. That pact was the most rapidly and widely ratified human rights treaty in history. 

These successes on behalf of kids – and a near-universal presumption of their innocence – can help provide momentum to this new FDA crackdown. The agency has given makers of vaping devices two months to show they can keep them away from minors. And it warned more than 1,100 retailers about selling e-cigarettes to underage buyers.

The FDA’s core message: Children must first be protected from becoming addicted to nicotine even if it means less availability of e-cigarettes for adults trying to use the devices to end their tobacco habits. The latest federal data shows a 75 percent increase in e-cigarette use among high school students this year compared with 2017. Another survey shows a rise in teens adding marijuana to vaping products.

These trends make it urgent to assist children in self-regulating their behavior. The world is well on its way toward this goal with a shared and rising recognition of their innocence.

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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.

Protected and guided during a hurricane

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When today’s contributor was stuck outside without suitable shelter during a hurricane, prayer led to a profound sense of spiritual peace that enabled her to remain calm and find a way to get safely indoors.

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Protected and guided during a hurricane

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Growing up near the ocean in a region where hurricanes occur, I have prepared for and endured these torrential storms numerous times. One hurricane experience, however, was especially memorable to me.

During the hurricane, tempestuous winds impelled my friend and me to wonder whether the house could sustain such an intense storm without damage. We had taken all precautionary steps in boarding up windows and doors, but to reassure ourselves that the house was not being affected by the hurricane, we lingered outside for a few minutes.

Suddenly, a gust of wind caused an oversized door to slam shut, leaving us outside the house. Inside, a very large piece of lumber, which we had used to keep the rugged door closed against strong winds, fell and remained wedged against it. Other possible entrances had been tightly secured, and all of our tools were inside the house. Despite our efforts to open it, the door remained closed. Moreover, the nearest neighbor lived more than a mile away, and the winds were becoming so boisterous that we thought it would be difficult, as well as dangerous, to travel along the long dirt road.

Since we saw no way to get back into the house and no suitable shelter from the storm, the situation seemed hopeless. So I turned wholeheartedly to God, with whom “all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). I had learned in Christian Science that each of us has an essential and eternal relationship to God, who protects and cares for us, His spiritual offspring. The Bible illuminates that we are at one with God. Shedding light on the unchanging wholeness of God’s creation, Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy wrote in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “As a drop of water is one with the ocean, a ray of light one with the sun, even so God and man, Father and son, are one in being” (p. 361). And Scripture tells us, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Prayer centered on our inseparable relationship to God reveals that we forever abide in the safety of God, who is divine Mind. This Mind includes boundless, intelligent ideas, which flow continuously to us as God’s pure expression and dissolve fear, turmoil, and confusion.

In spite of the chaotic winds churning around us, I recalled this promise from the book of Isaiah: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (41:10). This spiritual truth comforted me, and I was overcome with a sense of peace that did not stem from willpower or happenstance, but from trust in God, ever-present and all-powerful Mind.

What happened next occurred very rapidly. My friend found he was able to push vigorously enough against the huge door that the wedged piece of lumber that was behind it shifted, and the door opened a little near the top. Then, despite the robust winds, we both maintained balance while I climbed onto his back and was able to slip through the small opening to remove the lumber. As a result, we were able to get safely inside.

During the remainder of the hurricane, I was thankful and calm because this experience showed me how God’s protection and guidance is there for us throughout any situation. And after the hurricane was over, we determined that there was no damage to the house.

“He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still,” the Bible assures us (Psalms 107:29). The realization that we abide safely in God’s care quiets fear and enables us to think and act clearly and decisively when challenges confront us.

Adapted from an article published in the Feb. 13, 2017, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Steps against the storm

Alex Brandon/AP
Chloe Heeden, 4, from Virginia Beach, Va., drags a sandbag to her father's car Sept. 12, as hurricane Florence moves toward the eastern shore. The National Hurricane Center's projected track had Florence hovering off the southern North Carolina coast from Thursday night until landfall Saturday morning or so, about a day later than previously expected. The track also shifted somewhat south and west, throwing Georgia into peril as Florence moves inland.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( September 13th, 2018 )

Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks so much for spending time with us today. Tomorrow, we’ll have the first of two stories examining how the fall of Lehman Brothers 10 years ago is still reverberating in the economic lives of Americans.

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