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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
December
06
Thursday
Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

Call it snowball diplomacy.

In a combination of civics and winter sports that has charmed the country, a 9-year-old Colorado boy went before his town council this week to argue for the right to bean his little brother with a snowball.

Chapter 2, Section 13 of Severance’s original town charter prohibited the throwing of projectiles – even the frozen variety. (The charter was updated in 2007, but the status of snowballs was reportedly uncertain.)

“I broke the law a lot,” Dane Best told NBC News.

Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, Dane made his case. “Today kids need reasons to play outside,” he said. “The children of Severance want the opportunity to have a snowball fight like the rest of the world.”

The council voted unanimously in favor of wintry mayhem to cheers, and Dane threw out the first entirely legal snowball in Severance in almost 100 years.

“You can change laws,” Dane says of his first foray into local government. “It doesn’t matter how old you are. You can have a voice in your town.”

Not only did Dane have a target in mind – his 4-year-old brother – he also has his sights set on another regulation he thinks has outlived its purpose, he told The Associated Press. The town defines a “pet” as a cat or a dog. Dane has a guinea pig.

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Here are our five stories for the day, including three different takes on the complexity of crossing cultures and borders.

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1. Ads hacked the dream of the internet. Can digital citizens fight back?

In the 1990s, Silicon Valley promised a global virtual community that would level hierarchies and empower individuals. How did that ideal morph into a habit-forming outrage machine that spies on us?

Yvonne

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Anastasia Dedyukhina found success in digital advertising. But in 2015, she became concerned that technology was working against her and reversed the course of her career entirely, becoming an advocate for “digital minimalism.” Technology companies and those who provide content for them are doing everything they can to seize and commodify our attention, and it’s working. “It's not a content problem. It's an infrastructure problem,” says Nathalie Maréchal, a researcher who helps set standards for how tech companies safeguard human rights. The root of the problem lies in the fundamental structuring of the internet around targeted advertising, Dr. Maréchal says. Facebook has pushed the commodification of attention to an extreme, as seen in the trove of internal emails released Wednesday by a member of British Parliament. The way forward, observers say, likely requires a fundamental restructuring of the business models that underpin the tech industry, as well as a broad culture shift. “Maybe,” Dedyukhina says, “working together, we can get to the point when checking your phone in front of other people will stop being cool.”

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Ads hacked the dream of the internet. Can digital citizens fight back?

In 2015, Anastasia Dedyukhina, then a client director for a London digital ad agency, found herself at the peak of her career but at a low point in her emotional life.

“Basically my job was to launch all these new tech products into the markets and convince people to use more technology,” she says. “Having said that, I don’t think I was managing my own devices very well.”

Like many smartphone owners, Dr. Dedyukhina, who holds a PhD in philology from Lomonosov Moscow State University, found herself habitually checking her phone, she says, for no reason. And her attention to her screen began to come at a cost.

“I was very reactive and I was constantly feeling very tired,” Dedyukhina says. Except, she noticed, when she was traveling abroad without a data plan. 

“I realized that I was feeling much lighter. I didn't feel that anxious,” she says. “I like to compare it to this feeling that you’re surrounded by 10 children of different ages, and they all pull you in different directions.”

As with many moral awakenings, the breaking point came when the ghosts started visiting. “I started feeling phantom vibrations, you know, when you have the sensation that your phone is ringing in your pocket, and you don’t even have a pocket.”

Now a coach, author, and public speaker, Dedyukhina runs a consulting company, Consciously Digital, that promotes what she calls “digital minimalism,” a practice that doesn’t promote abandoning technology altogether, but incorporates “time management,” “space management,” “relationship management,” and “self management.” Now, her smartphone sits in a drawer, switched off, without a SIM card, and is used only to summon the occasional Uber.

An infrastructure problem

That so many of us overuse our devices is no accident, says Dedyukhina, but rather the outcome of deliberate design choices made by tech companies that have been incentivized to promote habit-forming behavior.  

And she is far from alone in making this claim. Other critics include former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, who warns of the subtle ways that technology “hijacks” our thinking; San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, who argues that smartphones are pushing those born in the 1990s and later to “the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades;” Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, who last year warned that the social network was “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible;” and University of North Carolina techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who in a TED talk last September said that “we're building this infrastructure of surveillance authoritarianism merely to get people to click on ads.”

In and around Silicon Valley, tech workers are taking pains to protect their children from the products they tout. The New York Times reported last month that childcare contracts drafted by parents in San Francisco and Cupertino are increasingly including demands that nannies hide phones, laptops, TVs, and all other screens from their kids.

These concerns over excessive screen time and its effects share one broad theme: Technology companies and those who provide content for them are doing everything they can to seize and commodify our attention, and it’s working.

What’s more, it’s working in ways that are causing social problems that go far beyond the distraction and isolation normally attributed to smartphones. To better target their users, tech companies gather data on their online behavior, which is then fed into algorithms that choose content aimed at keeping them engaged. And these algorithms are largely unconcerned whether the content is a cat video or a xenophobic conspiracy theory. At the same time, the ability to micro-target potential customers also enables governments to spy on their citizens and manipulate public opinion at home and abroad.

“It's not a content problem. It's an infrastructure problem,” says Nathalie Maréchal, a researcher at Ranking Digital Rights, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that aims to set standards for how tech companies safeguard human rights. “We need to continue to build the consensus and build this understanding of the connection between targeted advertising and media manipulation, and, ultimately, fascism. Because make no mistake, that’s where this is heading if we don’t do something about it.”

Causing much of this dysfunction, Dr. Maréchal argued in a November essay for Motherboard, is the targeted-advertising business model, in which web publishers offer “free” content to users in exchange for behavioral data that gets passed on to advertisers.

“Targeted advertising,” she writes, “provides tools for political advertisers and propagandists to micro-segment audiences in ways that inhibit a common understanding of reality. This creates a perfect storm for authoritarian populists like Rodrigo Duterte, Donald Trump, and [Jair Bolsonaro] to seize power, with dire consequences for human rights.”

Chasing eyeballs

The era of targeted advertising began in 2000, just as the dot-com bubble was bursting. Facing pressure from investors to post a profit, the two-year-old search company Google turned to the vast stores of data that it had gathered from its users as they entered search terms and clicked on results. This data, Google discovered, could be used to predict users’ behavior with an accuracy and precision that previous generations of advertisers could only dream of. Just as the dot-com collapse was wiping out trillions of dollars, Google was turning a profit for the first time. Today, advertising accounts for 84 percent of the company’s revenue.

In the decades since then, targeted advertising has been honed to a fine edge. For instance, when you visit the pages of a typical online newspaper the site collects information about your browsing history, your location, and other demographic details, and sends it to an ad exchange, which submits your profile to advertisers. The advertisers then offer bids, typically cents or fractions of a cent, to show you an ad that has been selected for your profile. The whole bidding process happens automatically, in about a tenth of second, before the page loads.

Facebook has pushed the model to an even further extreme. Think of everything it knows about you even if you're not a particularly heavy user. Every status update; every reply; every like, heart, and angry emoji; every location that you’ve logged in from, Facebook stores it all. Even when you start to write a post, think better of it and delete it, Facebook keeps that, too.

The company even goes out of its way to acquire additional data on you that you don’t knowingly give it. In August, Facebook asked major banks such as JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo to hand over users’ financial data, including checking account balances and transaction histories. 

A trove of internal emails released Wednesday by Damian Collins, a member of the British Parliament, revealed that Facebook engineered ways to mine data from Android users without their permission. Those communications, gathered as part of an investigation into the company's role in spreading misinformation, revealed a quid-pro-quo system where developers who wished to connect their apps to the network must also agree to hand over user data to Facebook.

Even if you don’t have an account, Facebook is likely keeping tabs on you. Earlier this year chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told US Representative Ben Luján (D) of New Mexico that Facebook collects “data of people who have not signed up for Facebook” for security reasons. “This kind of data collection is fundamental to how the internet works,” Facebook later told Reuters.

All of this data collection is in the service of delivering ads. Each individual profile is worth just pennies a day per user, but when you have more than 2 billion monthly users, as Facebook does, those pennies add up.

Profits from ads create a powerful incentive to maximize user engagement, or “chase eyeballs,” in the parlance of online publishing. For news outlets, that creates a pressure to prioritize content that is viral over that which is trustworthy or in the public interest.

For platforms like Facebook and YouTube, it means hiring psychology postdocs to devise ever more ingenious ways to keep users glued to the screen. Design techniques include infinitely scrolling news feeds and video autoplay, features that, like a bottomless bowl of soup, subtly encourage users to consume more than they would otherwise.

Often, the algorithms promote ever more extreme content. In her TED talk, Professor Tufekci of UNC reports watching videos of Donald Trump rallies, only to have YouTube's “up next” algorithm set to autoplay videos promoting white supremacy. When she did the same for Hillary Clinton and  Bernie Sanders rallies, leftist-conspiracy videos streamed forth. “I once watched a video about vegetarianism on YouTube, and YouTube recommended and autoplayed a video on being vegan,” she told the audience. “It's like you’re never hardcore enough for YouTube."

In November, the online magazine The Intercept reported that Facebook’s algorithm had automatically generated the category “people who have expressed an interest or like pages related to White genocide conspiracy theory,” as one of its targeting options for advertisers. The group had 168,000 members.

A way forward?

Even some of Silicon Valley’s biggest promoters acknowledge the sway our devices hold over our thinking. “We don’t let our young son get near the phone” says Rep. Ro Khanna (D) of California, whose district includes the tech giants Apple, Intel, and eBay. “These engineers, they were very clever, they designed programs in a way that’s designed to maximize eyeballs on the screen.”

“We probably need to take a step back,” he continues, “whether it’s social media or whether it is addiction, and have people ask these ethical questions and ask about what the ethical responsibilities are and have tech leaders participate in the solutions.”

Yet Representative Khanna already sees some alternative business models emerging. “I don’t know if it will succeed in the marketplace, but if there’s enough interest in saying that we don't want to be bombarded with ads, you can move more to a subscription model,” he says “I think you may see some of the folks come that way.”

Already, there are signs of a shift under way, driven in part by falling ad rates. A growing number of news outlets are erecting paywalls and trading advertisers for subscribers, reasoning that a direct relationship with their readers would better serve the bottom line in the long run.

In September, Apple implemented screen-time controls in its iOS 12 release, in response to pressure from investors to address smartphone overuse. Now, iPhone owners can monitor how much they’re using their devices and set screen-free times and time limits on individual apps. That same month Twitter announced that it would begin allowing users to switch off its algorithmic timeline and view tweets chronologically. Similarly, this summer Instagram introduced its “you’re all caught up” notification to prevent mindless browsing.

For Nir Eyal, the author of the influential 2014 book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” these shifts are signs that the market is working.

“They are responding to customer feedback,” says Mr. Eyal. “They make the products safer. They make it better.”

While Eyal acknowledges that children should be protected from psychological manipulation by tech companies, he doubts that, except for a small number of genuine internet addicts, most people can’t put down their phones whenever they want. “We can't perpetuate this message that there’s nothing people can do,” he says.  “We are giving these companies more power and more control than they deserve.”

Dedyukhina argues that shifting our behaviors around smartphones will require a broader cultural shift. “I don't think that we should be relying just on the tech companies,” she says. “Maybe, working together, we can get to the point when checking your phone in front of other people will stop being cool.”

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2. From lame-duck lawmakers, hardball politics or undermining of democracy?

Elections are often about divisions. But once the polls have closed, elected officials are expected to find ways to work together. Political observers worry that drive for constructive governance may be eroding.

Yvonne
Robert Killips/Lansing State Journal/AP
People gather to protest at the Capitol Rotunda in Lansing, Mich., Dec. 4. Lame-duck lawmakers in Michigan and Wisconsin are pushing to strip incoming leaders of some powers.

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For the past eight years, Gov. Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin worked with a GOP-controlled Legislature to deal one stunning defeat after another to Democrats in a state once known for its progressive tilt. Now, after Democrat Tony Evers narrowly beat Governor Walker in November, GOP state lawmakers are trying to push through some last-minute laws in their lame-duck session to limit the governor’s powers. The Republican lawmakers defend their actions as normal politics. Hardball maybe, but within bounds. Democrats and other critics beg to differ. The GOP is undermining democracy, they say – ignoring the will of the voters and turning their power dial up to “11.” “It’s a rejection of constitutional democracy,” says Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government at American University. Behind the struggle lies a larger issue: US politics is based on many norms that aren’t explicitly outlined in the US Constitution or the nation’s laws. Two of them, according to Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, are crucial to a functioning democracy: “mutual toleration,” or treating political opponents as rivals on a field of competition, not enemies to be crushed; and “institutional forbearance,” or restraint in use of power. In other words: Don’t test the limits of the law, or obviously violate its spirit.

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From lame-duck lawmakers, hardball politics or undermining of democracy?

US politics is based on many standard practices that aren’t explicitly outlined in the US Constitution or the nation’s laws. Of these norms, two stand out as crucial to a functioning democracy, according to Harvard government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

“Mutual toleration” means treating political opponents as rivals on a field of competition, not enemies to be crushed. “Institutional forbearance” means restraint in use of power. Don’t test the limits of the law, or obviously violate its spirit.

Are GOP lawmakers on track to break these norms in key Midwestern states? Democrats won gubernatorial elections in Wisconsin and Michigan in November. Now Republican-controlled legislators in lame-duck sessions are trying to strip some authority from the governors-elect and other incoming Democratic officials before they take power.

The Republican state lawmakers in question defend their actions as normal politics. Hardball maybe, but within bounds. Democrats and other critics beg to differ. The GOP here is undermining democracy, they say – ignoring the will of the voters and turning their power dial up to “11” while they can.

“I think it’s bad. It’s a rejection of constitutional democracy,” says Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government and fellow with the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.

Wisconsin is perhaps the clearest example of the current controversy.

For the past eight years, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has worked with a GOP-controlled legislature to deal one stunning defeat after another to Democrats in a state once known for its progressive tilt. They’ve cut the benefits and curtailed the power of public sector unions, and passed a so-called right-to-work law over fierce union objections.

Democrat Tony Evers, the state school superintendent, narrowly beat Governor Walker in November as the latter tried for a third term.

Now GOP state lawmakers are trying to push through some last-minute laws in their lame-duck session to limit Wisconsin gubernatorial powers. Among other things, their legislation would curtail early voting, which tends to favor Democrats; give lawmakers, not the governor, the power to appoint members of an economic development board; require the governor to get legislative permission to seek changes in joint federal-state programs; and block Mr. Evers from withdrawing Wisconsin from a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, as Evers promised on the stump to do.

GOP leaders are blunt about the intent of their moves.

“Listen, I’m concerned. I think that Governor-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin,” said Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald at a news conference on Tuesday.

Guardrails of American democracy

Similarly, Republicans in Michigan are fighting to restrict the powers and flexibility of an incoming Democratic governor, attorney general, and secretary of State. Among other things, they’re using a lame-duck session to try to pass legislation allowing lawmakers to intervene in legal proceedings involving state laws the governor or attorney general may be reluctant to defend. Under proposed GOP legislation, oversight of campaign finance law would shift from the governor to lawmakers. 

The Wisconsin and Michigan efforts echo a 2016 North Carolina struggle in which the GOP legislature successfully limited an incoming Democratic governor’s right to appoint various board members, and slashed the number of state officials the governor could appoint, among other things. The moves faced significant legal challenges.

In some ways all these state-level political battles can be framed as normal, if bare-knuckled, stuff. Lame-duck legislative sessions are common, and commonly messy. Changing the makeup of, say, state election boards is not a major alteration in state government. 

On Dec. 5, Matt Glassman, a former Congressional Research Service analyst who is now a fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, tweeted that he’s not a fan of what’s happening in Wisconsin and Michigan, “but there’s also a lot of hyperbole here.”

It’s true that the changes aren’t all big deals, says Michael Wagner, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication whose research focus is the functioning of democracy. But some are, Professor Wagner says. Changes in early voting rules are huge. Many of the proposed alterations to the powers of the governor and attorney general in Wisconsin are aimed at preventing them from supporting Obamacare – a position on which both explicitly campaigned. 

“The Wisconsin state legislature is changing the job description of the governor and the attorney general between Election Day and Inauguration Day. That is not a democratic, peaceful transition of power,” Wagner says.

Norms are the guardrails of American democracy. It’s not written in the Constitution that the president travel to Capitol Hill to deliver a State of the Union, but it’s a norm that they do. At the national level, President Trump has proudly shattered many norms. Chief executives did not use to publicly criticize their own cabinet members, though there’s no law against it. They didn’t use to give overtly political talks with troops as a backdrop. The list goes on.

Mutual toleration and institutional forbearance are among the most important of these guardrails, write Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt in their recent book, “How Democracies Die.” The survival of democratic systems depends on them, because democracy requires a degree of opposition.

“Think of democracy as a game that we want to keep playing indefinitely,” write Levitsky and Ziblatt. “To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow.”

The problem is that using political power to its utmost inspires the other side to do the same. Neither party has a monopoly on the desire for triumph. And if a cycle of retaliation begins, what then? This is a core subject of the Monitor’s “Democracy Under Strain” series. Pieces begin to fly off the machine of American government, which has chugged along since the Constitution’s ratification.

“These things might be legally OK, but they’re still dangerous,” says Professor Edelson of American University. “They’re kind of a warning sign that the system is not working, especially given the national environment.” 

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3. ‘Everything here is complicated’: Trump Tower Moscow’s deeper problem

Much is being made about the legality over then-candidate Donald Trump's attempts to put a Trump Tower in Moscow in 2016. But just how close was he to breaking into Moscow's real estate market?

Yvonne
Christian Hartmann/Reuters
The skyscrapers of the region of Russia's capital known as Moscow City – more formally the Moscow International Business Center – are seen just after sunset in Moscow on July 12.

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As the US has been roiled by reports of President Trump’s efforts to have a Trump Tower built in Moscow in 2016, Russian real estate experts have chuckled. Not because of the suggestions of criminality and political collusion. Rather, they are amused by the sheer incomprehension of the way things are done in Putin-era Russia that has been displayed by the Trump organization in its quest to get a deal. The part of Moscow the Trump organization had long targeted for a Trump Tower is the Moscow City development. Nine skyscrapers have been completed there over the past 15 years or so, with at least six more to come. The Moscow City zone includes a huge shopping mall, more than a hundred restaurants, hotels, vast amounts of office space, and some of the most expensive residential space in Europe. And it also features the full minefield of Russian business obstacles, including corruption, bureaucratic interference, dodgy financing, and opaque ownership. “Everything here is complicated,” says Mikhail Loginov, editor of Stroitelnaya Gazeta, a leading construction industry journal. “The circle of companies working in Moscow is limited. It’s really difficult, though not impossible, for someone new to come in and establish themselves.”

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‘Everything here is complicated’: Trump Tower Moscow’s deeper problem

In the Moscow suburb of Krylatskoe, within sight of the main road to Russia’s most expensive dacha zone, there is a long, yellow-brick, five-story building that had a moment of fame about 25 years ago, but has since faded into obscurity. Yet, even today, if you try to approach the heavily walled and screened-off property, you will be shooed away by very serious-looking armed guards.

Known as the House on Autumn Street, it was the place where, according to many accounts, then-President Boris Yeltsin decided to establish a residence for himself and his top lieutenants. Orders were given, and a half-finished Soviet-era structure was commandeered and repurposed for Kremlin use. Luxurious flats were constructed. Mr. Yeltsin was given the entire top floor; his prime minister, defense minister, and others were intended to occupy the spaces below.

The idea that the country’s top elite might enjoy living together under one roof has a certain pedigree in Russia. Sixty years previously the Bolsheviks had constructed a vast, rambling apartment complex near the Kremlin, nicknamed The House on the Embankment, intended to concentrate top Soviet officials in one common abode. It became a scene of horror during the Stalinist Great Terror a few years later, as secret police vans carted away high-level victims to their deaths almost nightly.

The recollection of that tragic history may be one reason neither Yeltsin nor any of his cohorts appear to have ever moved into the Autumn House. Nobody in Russia has since floated the notion of putting all the leaders into one big home again.

That is, until Felix Sater, a former Soviet émigré in President Trump’s business circle.

Mr. Sater came up with the idea of convincing the Kremlin to help him and his associate, now disgraced Trump attorney Michael Cohen, navigate the shoals of Moscow’s opaque real estate market by giving a $50 million penthouse in the hoped-for Trump World Tower Moscow to Vladimir Putin. The rest of the units could then be sold for $250 million each to Russia’s elite.

It is not known whether Sater ever informed Mr. Trump of his plan, much less Mr. Putin. But he did seem confident that it should work. “All the oligarchs would line up to live in the same building as Putin,” Sater recently told BuzzFeed News.

The plan appears to have been one misjudgment among many. Whether or not pursuit of the project ran afoul of US law – a topic being hotly debated in American politics and media – the yearslong effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow has been largely out of its depth over failures to understand how the Russian system works, experts say. Whatever its ambitions, the project ground to a halt in one of the hottest development zones in Moscow – one that features the full minefield of post-Soviet Russian business obstacles, including corruption, bureaucratic interference, dodgy financing, and opaque ownership.

‘Everything here is complicated’

The part of Moscow the Trump organization had long targeted for a Trump Tower is the Moscow City development. The Canary Wharf-like gaggle of wildly shaped and multicolored skyscrapers that now towers above a former industrial zone by the Moscow River has radically altered Moscow’s Soviet-era cityscape.

Nine skyscrapers have been completed over the past 15 years or so, with at least six more to come. The development includes a huge shopping mall, more than a hundred restaurants, hotels, vast amounts of office space, and some of the most expensive residential space in Europe.

One thing that is missing is the 100-story Trump World Tower Moscow, meant to be the tallest building in Europe, with Trump’s name glowing in huge letters from the summit and a penthouse for Putin on top.

Russian real estate experts chuckle at the story being recounted in the US media – not because of the suggestions of criminality and political collusion, which are roiling Americans. Rather, they are amused by the sheer incomprehension of the way things are done in Putin-era Russia that has been displayed by the Trump organization in its quest to get a deal in Moscow City.

“Everything here is complicated,” says Mikhail Loginov, editor of Stroitelnaya Gazeta, a leading construction industry journal. “The circle of companies working in Moscow is limited. It’s really difficult, though not impossible, for someone new to come in and establish themselves. The city government has its own companies, and it is the city that has the final word on any project.”

It’s not impossible to do the things that the Trump organization wanted to accomplish, says Alexander Shevchuk, a real estate insider who now works as an independent journalist.

“About 10 years ago my boss at the time had talks with Trump’s representative in Moscow, and they went through a lot of ideas. At some point Trump visited to test the waters,” he says. But nothing came of it.

“Was it feasible? Yes, of course. In those golden years [before the 2008 crisis] everything was possible. There were a lot of foreign firms here in those days. A few stayed. Many left after their first experiences in Russia,” he says.

No traction for Trump Tower

Under its energetic mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, the Moscow government has since 2010 overseen a vast project of urban renewal and is currently in the process of uprooting thousands of Soviet-era apartment blocs and replacing them with new units on the edge of town. This gives city authorities a stranglehold on valuable downtown real estate, for which the city's favored companies get first pick.

But Trump’s representatives, Sater and Mr. Cohen, apparently chose a second-tier development company called I.C. Expert Investment, headed by a man named Andrei Rozov who had no track record of downtown Moscow development, with whom to do a deal.

The closest they appear to have gotten was a letter of intent, signed between the Trump group and Mr. Rozov in 2015. It outlines a licensing deal, in which Rozov would acquire the land, find the financing, and build the structure, paying about $4 million to the Trump organization plus a cut of condominium sales in return for the use of Trump’s name. It includes details, such as a spa named after Ivanka Trump and run according to her dictates, but there is no mention of a penthouse for Putin.

That deal, which was not legally binding, apparently went nowhere. It is unknown whether Rozov ever acquired rights to a plot of land in hotly contested Moscow City, or nailed down financing from any major Russian bank. The company, I.C. Expert, refuses to answer any questions about the project.

Last week, Kremlin press spokesman Dmitry Peskov revealed that his office received at least two emails from Cohen in January 2016, asking for Kremlin assistance in getting the Trump Tower project restarted. Mr. Peskov suggested that he was baffled as to why such a request would come to his official address for press inquiries.

“My email address is listed publicly. We receive dozens of emails every week from those who want to build something, want to improve relations, and also from ordinary citizens,” he said. He added that his assistant subsequently advised Cohen to attend the annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum, where he might connect with real Russian business people.

Kremlin sponsorship for a deal would definitely be a strong card if it were real, says Oksana Samborskaya, head of the architecture department of Stroitelnaya Gazeta.

“The Kremlin doesn’t have much to do with Moscow development these days. It’s all in the hands of the Moscow government. Of course, if Putin backed a project that would be key to its success,” she says. “But sending an email to the Kremlin press secretary, no, I don’t see how that could work.”

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4. How a border ‘shutdown’ would look from a border town

For many, daily border crossings are a way of life: Hundreds of thousands of people and a billion-plus dollars in goods legally cross the US-Mexican border every day, making closures a blow to both sides. 

Yvonne

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Antonio Ley crosses into the United States from Mexico five days a week to run his food truck. His commute is one of tens of thousands of daily border crossings that make this region distinctive. But daily crossings may now be at risk. After US Border Patrol agents clashed with Central American migrants late last month, leading to an hourslong closure at the San Ysidro border crossing, President Trump reiterated threats to shutter the US-Mexican border entirely. That could hit Mexico and the US hard, economically: About $1.7 billion in goods and services and hundreds of thousands of people legally cross the US-Mexican border every day. “Closing the border hurts both countries,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center. Many Mexicans blame the closure on the migrant caravan, the estimated 6,000 Central American migrants who arrived in Tijuana in mid-November. “This isn’t going to stop. We are going to see more and more groups traveling to the border like this,” says Maritza Agundez, a lawyer with the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. “This is a humanitarian crisis.” 

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How a border ‘shutdown’ would look from a border town

Antonio Ley’s commute starts off like many around the world: He brings the dog into the house, kisses his daughter goodbye, and heads down a steep hill to catch his bus.

His hourlong trip strays from the ordinary during his bus transfer, when Mr. Ley walks up a winding pedestrian ramp, shows his passport card to armed Mexican and US border agents, and answers a handful of questions, like how much cash he’s carrying. He’s leaving Mexico, where he lives, and entering the US, where he runs a food truck five days a week.

For Ley, who was born and raised in San Diego (and whose father moved in the opposite direction each day to practice law in Tijuana), his commute is one of tens of thousands of daily border crossings – for school, work, shopping, or to visit family and friends  – that make this region distinctive. 

In recent weeks, this tradition of daily crossings has been thrown into flux. After US border patrol agents clashed with a group of unarmed Central American migrants late last month, leading to an hours-long closure at the San Ysidro border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego, President Trump reiterated threats to shutter the US-Mexico border entirely. A border closure could hit Mexico and the US hard, economically: about $1.7 billion in goods and services and hundreds of thousands of people legally cross the US-Mexico border every day.

Many here say Mr. Trump couldn’t possibly follow through, largely due to the economic implications for the US, but others are taking precautions. Some now commute to work with overnight bags, just in case; parents are organizing alternate pick-up for kids who attend schools across the border and emergency childcare for children whose parents work across the border; and Tijuana-based factories are renting storage space in the US so products can reach clients even if the border closes.

“Closing the border hurts both countries. That’s the reality of integrated supply chains and economies,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “It’s a lose-lose situation,” for the US and Mexico, beyond direct border communities.

Mr. Wood doesn’t think closing the border is off the table as a negotiating tool for the US, whether in trying to pressure Mexico to do more about the migrant situation or trying to pressure Congress to pay for Trump’s long-promised border wall. “He is willing to take losses if it gets his point across, whether it’s tariffs or NAFTA renegotiations. Trump wants to get his way,” says Wood.

‘A humanitarian crisis’

On Sunday, Nov. 25, Elizabeth Rivas and her family were planning to cross the border to shop and take photos with Santa in a San Diego mall. Just before they left, Ms. Rivas started receiving messages from neighbors traveling to the US. They texted photos and videos of the melee at the border – migrants running from tear gas, others throwing rocks or sticks, some fleeing into traffic – and told her not to leave the house.

“This kind of situation really disrupts our life,” Rivas says of the border closure. She works in Tijuana, but crosses the border most weekends to run errands or visit friends, and her husband crosses multiple times a day for work during the week.

“The immediate effects [of a border closure] are pretty local,” says David Shirk, an associate professor of international relations at the University of San Diego who focuses on the US-Mexico border. “We see the border as a piece of infrastructure, and I think people in the rest of the country don’t understand it that way. It’s our highway and bridge, but everyone else sees it as this big gate that we can shut.”

Over the past month, the US has deployed active military troops to its southern border, and Trump has amplified pledges to expand the border wall. The calls are framed around the need to secure the border from drugs, crime, terrorism, and illegal migration. Despite the anxiety of another potential border closure, few here blame the US or Mexican governments. The so-called migrant caravan, made up of mostly Honduran migrants seeking work and safety in the US, receives the brunt of frustrations here over last month’s closure and the possibility of more in the future.   

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has also crossed the border, observers say. Even before the border closure, Tijuana residents took to the streets to protest the caravan’s arrival, throwing out slogans like “Mexico first,” and “No illegals.” Tijuana’s mayor was spotted wearing an iconic red baseball cap emblazoned with the words, “Make Tijuana Great Again.” 

An estimated 6,000 Central American migrants arrived in Tijuana with the caravan in mid-November, living in tents in a rundown, open-air sports complex with a clear view of the border wall. Heavy rains turned the space into a swamp last week, complete with a chorus of coughs and whimpering babies. By Thursday night, the government started transferring migrants to another shelter with a concrete floor and partial coverage from the elements. That, too, has been inundated with rain. 

Maritza Agundez, a lawyer with the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, calls the migrant caravan a “geopolitical problem that extends far from our borders.”

“This isn’t going to stop. We are going to see more and more groups traveling to the border like this,” given political unrest in Nicaragua and Honduras, gang violence in El Salvador, and extreme poverty in Guatemala, says Ms. Agundez, who has offered legal advice to caravan members. She believes their current living situation is beyond Mexican or US control, and requires the presence of international humanitarian actors. “This is a humanitarian crisis,” she says. 

Dr. Shirk agrees that the migrant caravan illustrates a problem that goes beyond border issues.

“None of the problems we try to manage at the border start at the border,” Shirk says of the border closures and the backlog of migrants waiting to apply for asylum in the US. “Once the problem has arrived at the border, it’s too late, whether it’s terrorism, immigration, or drugs,” he says. Making changes to the border “is not the answer.”

Privilege and perspective  

At the Alpha Guardian factory in Tijuana, workers on the factory floor are soldering, painting, and baking five-foot-tall safes for export to the US. Like many factories, or maquiladoras, here, they rely on raw materials from Asia and the US, labor in Mexico, and a global market of buyers. 

Screens hanging above employee desks in the logistics room show the GPS location of trucks moving finished products across the border into the US and materials into Mexico. A border closure could have profound effects on the business. Even a temporary closure – or threat of one – can cause a backup at the ports where freight trucks cross. Several years ago, the threat of a taxi strike led to a six-hour delay in crossing times. 

Before the migrant caravan arrived in Tijuana, Alpha Guardian’s logistics manager Roberto Delgado planned to send about 2000 completed safes across the border in advance of orders, in case of a closure.

“This was new for us,” says Mr. Delgado, who adds that the Tijuana chamber of commerce works closely with the local maquiladora association to help mitigate possible impacts on business, like border closures. The company rented storage space in the US to store safes, deciding the cost outweighed the potential losses if their safes were to become stuck in Mexico.

Ley, now in the US part of his commute, aboard a bus that drops him near the lot where he parks his food truck, thinks the focus on border closures is misguided. Standing in front of his truck, Corazón de Tortas, he says crossing the border each day is a “privilege that can’t overshadow the injustices” of what migrants are facing on the border right now. 

“I’m fortunate that I was born a gringo and that I can live in Tijuana but earn dollars in the US,” he says. “If I have to cross at another border crossing to get to work, fine. I will, even if it’s inconvenient.”

Instead of worrying about longer wait times or border closures, he says, the focus should be on “this terrible... human rights situation at our doorstep.”

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Books

5. Young writers deliver novel perspectives on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In sorting through volatile cross-cultural relations, it helps to have familiarity with the dispute. But sometimes having a little distance can help, too. 

Yvonne
Courtesy of Joanna Eldredge Morrissey
Hannah Lillith Assadi’s debut novel, 'Sonora,' looks at a second-generation immigrant’s struggle to come to terms with herself and history. Ms. Assadi was born in the United States to a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father.

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Efforts at valuable cultural exchange between Israelis and Palestinians have often hit a wall. Israel’s Education Ministry kept Dorit Rabinyan’s 2014 novel, “All the Rivers,” out of Israeli high schools, for example, because of its “controversial” subject matter: a love story between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman. Novelist Abbad Yahya was forced into exile amid death threats after his frank 2016 novel, “Crime in Ramallah,” was banned by the Palestinian Authority. But today, Millennial writers of Israeli and Palestinian heritage living in the United States are forging new perspectives on the conflict shaped by their adopted homeland. “Americanness and the characters’ connection to America makes it become this sort of neutral zone,” says Moriel Rothman-Zecher, Israeli-American author of the novel “Sadness Is a White Bird.” In the Holy Land, where names, language, and identity are always political and contested, this new wave of fiction has a better chance to offer a deeper understanding of connectedness, observers say, and to break traditional conventions in literature of cultural separation.

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Young writers deliver novel perspectives on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Author Hannah Lillith Assadi revels in the contradictions of her identity: She was born in the United States to a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father. Her debut novel, “Sonora,” is a paean to the vexing process of how a second-generation immigrant struggles to come to terms with herself and history. 

Israeli-American novelist and poet Moriel Rothman-Zecher explores similar themes in “Sadness Is a White Bird,” revealing the agonizing internal struggle of an American-Israeli man who cannot balance his friendship with two Palestinians and his enrollment in the Israeli army. 

Both are examples of Millennial writers with Israeli and Palestinian heritage living in the US who are forging novel perspectives on the conflict.

“Increasingly it’s people who have lived abroad, who have experienced other ways of being in the world, that are looking critically at their own societies,” says Ranen Omer-Sherman, the JHFE endowed chair in Judaic studies at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. 

Mr. Rothman-Zecher feels that in his novel “the identities are much more woven and complicated” than an easy division of Israelis and Palestinians.

“Americanness and the characters’ connection to America makes it become this sort of neutral zone, that shared space that transports the three of them far away,” he says.

As conflict continues between Israel and the Palestinian territories, cultural exchange – the solution many have lauded as a way to end the conflict – has also suffered. 

Israeli high school teachers were displeased after the Education Ministry decided not to allow Dorit Rabinyan’s 2014 novel, “All the Rivers,” to be taught in Israeli high schools. The novel follows a love affair between a Palestinian man and Israeli woman in New York City. 

Government censorship in the Palestinian territories is even more explicit. A recent report by Human Rights Watch documented the use of arbitrary arrest and torture of dissidents by Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The novelist Abbad Yahya was forced into exile after his 2016 novel, “Crime in Ramallah,” was banned by the Palestinian Authority. He received death threats for the novel’s frank depiction of sex and of political leaders.  

“If we’re talking about cultural work between Arabs and Jews today in Israel, this can be very rare,” says Janan Bsoul, research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking in Tel Aviv. “This whole interaction with Israelis has become limited and narrow.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Both Mahmoud Darwish and Yehuda Amichai, the most respected Palestinian and Israeli poets of their generation, respectively, read each other. But even Mr. Amichai, in a 1992 interview with The Paris Review, expressed a feeling that has only become stronger. “It’s quite difficult for poets to communicate with one another in a society that is politically torn apart...,” he said.

“Sonora” joins several other recent American-Palestinian novels such as Hala Alyan’s “Salt Houses” and Etaf Rum’s “A Woman Is No Man.” While the themes of memory, displacement, and identity figure prominently in all three of them, they tend to resist the political firebrand tone of earlier Palestinian writers like Darwish or Ghassan Kanafani, who were both explicitly tied to a nationalistic Palestinian literature.

“After the Arab Spring, no one looks at the author as representative of the country of Palestine or of the occupation. They might have their own values or their own ideology, and you judge literature based on that,” says Ms. Bsoul.

As Israeli writers leave the country as part of a larger brain drain and write about the occupation from different perspectives, many Palestinian writers, no longer tethered explicitly to a national literature, experience an unmooring. For writers experiencing exile, displacement, and voluntary diaspora, it can become easier to write about their homes and the conflicts embroiled in them, but also more poignant.

“I think with this feeling of porousness and borderlessness, I don’t feel entirely at home in either of the categories of American-Jewish writer or Israeli-Jewish writer,” says Rothman-Zecher. The title of Rothman-Zecher’s “Sadness” is from a poem by Mr. Darwish, and the book is peppered with Hebrew and Arabic transliteration.

In “Sonora,” the main protagonist is named Ahlam by her father, Yosef, but in the presence of others they refer to themselves as the more American-sounding Ariel and Joseph. 

America in this way no longer acts merely as a neutral space to host Israelis and Palestinians, who originally would have little chance at dialogue. It also changes the original culture, creating another with the pieces of the previous one.

“People leave things behind and then find it again,” says Ms. Assadi. “We can never leave home and never return to it.”

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The Monitor's View

For peace in Afghanistan, a new view of women

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In rural areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban continue to deny basic rights to women. Their forces often defeat those of the government in Kabul. Yet after 17 years of democratic gains and popular acceptance of women’s rights in Afghanistan, the Taliban may be compelled to show new views. The United States and Taliban began talks this year, and Afghan women’s groups are demanding that any settlement not compromise their gains. In October, a record number of women stood for office in parliamentary elections. Some 1,700 women now work in the country’s news media. A woman has been named a senior official in the Interior Ministry. In a survey of 15,000 Afghan citizens conducted in July by the Asia Foundation, 8 in 10 Afghan men said they support education for girls, the highest level in years. The Taliban can surely no longer go against this rising support of gender equity. Many issues remain on the table. But the group’s archaic vision of women’s roles cannot be part of any settlement. If the Taliban are to be included in a coalition government, they will have to look at women in new ways.

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For peace in Afghanistan, a new view of women

Eyebrows went up last month among diplomats working on a political settlement to end the long war in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders attending talks in Moscow gave interviews to female journalists. In the 1990s, when the Islamic radical group ruled the country, women were denied work outside the home. Girls could not go to school. In public, women had to be entirely covered in a burqa.

In rural areas they still control, the Taliban continue to deny many basic rights to women. And their forces often defeat those of the elected but weak government in Kabul. Yet not all wars are won in violent battles. Today, after 17 years of democratic gains and popular acceptance of women’s rights in Afghanistan, the Taliban may be compelled to show new views about women.

That would be a critical change for any peace negotiations to succeed. The United States and the Taliban began talks this year and Afghan women’s groups are demanding that any settlement not compromise the hard-won gains in rights made since the US-led ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001.

The Taliban today face a mighty foe in public attitudes about and among Afghan women.

In October, for example, a record number of women stood for office in parliamentary elections. Around 1,700 women now work in the country’s news media. Women attend university in record numbers. In law enforcement, specialized units provide support to women in trouble. And this month, the first woman was appointed as a senior security official in the Interior Ministry.

Yet the most telling shift in thinking is revealed in the latest survey of some 15,000 Afghan citizens, conducted in July by the Asia Foundation.

In this deeply conservative and Muslim country, 8 out of 10 men now support education for girls, the highest level in years. A similar large majority of Afghans say they have “no sympathy” for the Taliban and that women should be allowed to work outside the home.

On two traditional practices involving women, attitudes are changing. Support for the practice of giving away a daughter to settle a debt or a dispute between families is now 9.5 percent, down from 18 percent in just two years. And the acceptance of another practice, a father trading off a daughter to gain a wife for a son, has fallen from 32 percent to 25 percent.

The Taliban can surely no longer go against this steady if slow progress in Afghanistan. Many issues are on the table as peace negotiations inch along, such as the Taliban accepting democracy. But the group’s archaic vision of women’s roles cannot be part of any settlement. If the Taliban are ever included in a coalition government, they will need to look at women in new ways, as some of their leaders did in Moscow.

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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.

Bullying and the love that heals it

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This contributor recounts a time when she was bullied and didn’t know what to do. But when she remembered Jesus’ instruction that we love our enemies – and endeavored to put it into practice – the situation was beautifully resolved and the bullying stopped.

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Bullying and the love that heals it

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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In middle school I was bullied by a boy in my class. In the beginning he imitated everything I did, grinning insolently when he realized that I found it annoying.

Things went from there and culminated, perhaps a week later, in something more physical. As I entered the classroom, he put a bicycle lock around my neck in one quick motion and snapped it shut. Seconds later the teacher walked in, preventing me from doing anything. The boy went off to his seat gloating and laughing, and the other boys thought it was funny as well.

The teacher said nothing when he saw my mortified face, but made the boy take the lock off my neck before he dismissed the class. There were no further repercussions; the boy wasn’t punished, and I was expected to forget the whole thing. But I couldn’t.

That night I knew that something needed to be done to bring about change. I had learned in the Christian Science Sunday School that Jesus told his followers to love their enemies. He said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27, 28, New International Version). In the beginning this seemed impossible. How could I love someone who had humiliated me like this? But I didn’t want to retaliate in any way. I wouldn’t have known how, and I was sure that retaliation would just make things worse.

What I wanted was a permanent solution that would allow both of us to coexist – and thrive – in school. So I endeavored to love, which I felt was the only approach that could secure a permanent solution, and I promised myself that I would let nothing get in the way of my doing this. To help me accomplish that, I wrote on the last page of my notebook: “I need to love Peter F, too” (not his real name). A beautiful verse from a hymn expresses the spirit of my efforts. It reads:

Love with a heart of tenderness
Your enemies and friends;
However hard this may appear,
This quality just mends.
For Love is God in action true,
A presence that is felt;
A healing and a saving power
That will all discord melt.
(Jill Gooding, “Christian Science Hymnal: Hymns 430-603,” No. 519, © CSBD)

Expressing God’s love towards those whom we might call our enemies doesn’t mean that we accept or even tolerate inappropriate or unkind behavior. On the contrary, such love is expressed from the basis of seeing and understanding our fellow man as spiritual and therefore innocent, pure, and harmless. This view naturally acts as a rebuke to any thought or action that isn’t in line with God’s goodness.

The next day, he went back to imitating me, but I knew what I had to do. Each time I felt anxious or upset, I told myself that my job was to love him and to pray to know that God loved both of us. This must mean that God wouldn’t let him harm me or anyone!

After recess a few days later, I saw that my notebook had been opened to the last page. Mortified, I realized he had seen what I had written there! But then I saw that, in his unkempt handwriting, he had replied: “Yes, and I need to love you, too.” To this day I don’t know how he had found my little statement, or why he had even opened my notebook. I had not shown the entry to anyone.

This was the end of the issue. We never talked about it, we never referred to it, and this boy never bothered me again. He had in the past teased other students and even some of the younger teachers, but that also stopped. I, in turn, was never again bullied by anyone.

While there’s a great need for adults to be alert and responsive to bullying, it didn’t occur to me at the time to involve my parents or other teachers. It felt natural to pray and ask God for the right solution, one that would allow both of us to live up to our potential. Looking back, I can see how this led to a permanent solution, one that blessed us both. The boy went on to a rewarding career in a field he loved, and I did the same.

I learned from this that following Jesus’ demands saves us from difficult situations. Doing so was comforting, and I felt empowered and safe. Middle school is often considered a difficult time for kids, but I had been equipped with the best knowledge I could have ever wanted – how to be protected from enemies by loving them – and that made all the difference!

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Viewfinder

King’s crossing

Michael Probst/AP
Figures depicting rock 'n' roll legend Elvis Presley appear, mid-change, on one of three new traffic lights around Elvis Presley Square in the German town of Friedberg, near Frankfurt. (As a US soldier, Presley was stationed here from October 1958 to March 1960.) 'While people are waiting to cross, the singer appears in the red light striking a pose at a microphone,' Deutsche Welle reported. 'When the lights go green Elvis is shown swinging his hips in a famous dance move.'
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 7th, 2018 )

Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks so much for spending time with us today. Come back tomorrow. Staff writer Simon Montlake is in London ahead of five days of debate on Brexit. Debates in Britain's Parliament have a rich history. But do they actually change anything?

Monitor Daily Podcast

December 06, 2018
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