2019
January
14
Monday

Embattled on many fronts, French President Emmanuel Macron has a suggestion for his compatriots: Let’s talk. So he’s kicking off the “The Great National Debate.”

It’s an ambitious, two-month experiment in participatory democracy in which the French can air their deep frustrations over policy and propose solutions in town hall debates, online, or in entries in local “grievance books.” Today, in a lengthy open letter, Mr. Macron encouraged comment on four topics: taxes, green energy, citizenship, and state bureaucracy. He also said the discussion will allow the building of a new “contract for the nation” and “transform anger into solutions.”

That anger has been most visible in sustained and sometimes violent public protests that grew out of a now-withdrawn fuel tax. Macron’s initiative has plenty of critics, who argue its scope is unclear and note the red lines around certain topics. One headline read: “Macron hopes debate can quell French unrest. So did Louis XVI.” A poll last week indicated 41 percent of citizens would participate, while 40 percent would not. But at the very least, Macron is making a high-stakes offer to listen. And, notes Bernard Sanannes, head of the Elabe firm that conducted the poll, “one of the main lessons from the Yellow Vests [protesters] is that there’s a demand of the French public to have their opinions heard.”

Now to our five stories, on democracy in bumpy action, the changing expectations of young adults, and progress against suicide.

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1. Trump pick for ‘top cop’ on hot seat: Is Mueller criticism disqualifying?

As a cabinet member, the attorney general should align with the president, experts say, while protecting the Justice Department from  interference. That balance may be tough to strike.

Amelia

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Last week, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, took to the Senate floor to denounce William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, as “fatally conflicted.” At the center of Senator Schumer’s objection was Mr. Barr’s authorship of a 19-page legal memo last June that criticized the special counsel’s office for advancing a “novel and legally unsupportable reading of the law” to pursue an obstruction of justice case against Mr. Trump in the Russia investigation. As the Senate gears up for what are likely to be highly contentious confirmation hearings starting Tuesday, Democrats are denouncing Barr’s memo as evidence of a bias so strong that he should be disqualified from serving – or at the least should recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. But others say Barr shouldn’t be disqualified simply because he has expressed opinions. Presidents seek to nominate attorneys general who agree with their own views, says John Yoo, a professor at the University of California’s Berkeley Law School. “You are not appointing a judge who is supposed to have no views or is supposed to be neutral. The attorney general is nominated by a president because of their views.”

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Trump pick for ‘top cop’ on hot seat: Is Mueller criticism disqualifying?

Washington is gearing up for what looks to become the most contentious confirmation hearing since last year’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, former Attorney General William Barr will begin two days of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee to examine his fitness to serve in the Trump administration as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

What makes the nomination especially controversial is that as attorney general, Mr. Barr would have the authority to assume full supervision of the ongoing Trump-Russia investigation. It would be within his power to limit or even end an investigation that President Trump has repeatedly denounced as a “witch hunt.”

The stakes have risen even higher in the wake of a recent New York Times report that the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation in May 2017 to determine if Mr. Trump might be secretly working on behalf of Russia.

Such a move by the FBI is unprecedented in US history. Trump critics view it as signaling an out-of-control, possibly treasonous presidency. Trump supporters see it as evidence of an out-of-control, possibly treasonous FBI.

The shocking report will likely provoke an opportunity during the hearings for Barr to present his own view of the supervisory role of an attorney general, particularly how an attorney general must walk a tightrope between running the Justice Department (and FBI) independent of the White House, while also serving as a faithful member of the president’s cabinet. 

Barr, who first served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, is known to be a strong advocate of robust presidential authority. He has been critical of several aspects of the Trump-Russia investigation, including efforts by special counsel Robert Mueller to build an obstruction of justice case against Trump based in part on the president’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.

It was Mr. Comey’s firing and Trump’s subsequent comments about his reasons for doing it that prompted the initiation of the counterintelligence investigation and a related criminal probe of potential obstruction by Trump, according to media reports. 

Democratic members of Congress and many Republicans have long expressed concern that Trump might seek to remove Mr. Mueller and end the Trump-Russia investigation prematurely. Some believe that Trump views Barr as a means to that end. 

Last week, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, took to the Senate floor to denounce Barr as a “fatally conflicted” nominee and a Trump “loyalist.”

“The Senate ... should subject Mr. Barr’s views to the strictest of scrutiny,” he said.

A controversial memo

At the center of Schumer’s objection was Barr’s authorship of a 19-page legal memo that he wrote in June and sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has been supervising the Mueller investigation since its inception in May 2017.

The memo criticizes the special counsel’s office for advancing a “novel and legally unsupportable reading of the law” to facilitate an obstruction of justice case against Trump and to force the president to submit to questioning by Mueller’s team.

“It is untenable as a matter of law and cannot provide a legitimate basis for interrogating the President,” Barr wrote in his memo. “If the DOJ [Department of Justice] is going to take down a democratically-elected President, it is imperative to the health of our system and to our national cohesion that any claim of wrongdoing is solidly based on evidence of a real crime – not a debatable one.”

“It is time to travel well-worn paths; not to veer into novel, unsettled or contested areas of the law; and not to indulge the fantasies by overly-zealous prosecutors,” Barr said.

Schumer and other Democrats have denounced Barr’s memo as evidence of a bias so strong that he should be disqualified from serving as attorney general. In the alternative, many suggest that even if he is confirmed, Barr must recuse himself from supervising the Mueller probe.

Other analysts say there is no automatic requirement that Barr be disqualified or forced to recuse simply because he has expressed opinions in legal memos and elsewhere.

“I don’t think Senator Schumer can cite any ethical rule or legal requirement that would prohibit Barr from serving as attorney general,” says John Yoo, a professor at the University of California’s Berkeley Law School and a former official in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration.

“Everything I’ve seen about that memo suggests he was just writing it in an unsolicited way and wasn’t representing anybody,” Professor Yoo says. “He was just trying to give advice to his former colleagues in the Justice Department. So Barr doesn’t have any legal requirement to recuse himself.”

Presidents seek to nominate attorneys general who agree with their own views on public policy issues, Yoo adds. “You are not appointing a judge who is supposed to have no views or is supposed to be neutral. The attorney general is nominated by a president because of their views.”

Past actions under scrutiny

Some of Barr’s past actions are also expected to spark heated questioning in the hearings. As attorney general during the first Bush administration, Barr recommended pardons for various targets of the Iran-Contra independent counsel, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

Many analysts have been critical of Trump’s use of the pardon power, including his repeated public suggestions that he might pardon individuals swept up in the Trump-Russia investigation. Some observers have denounced such pardon-dangling as potential obstruction of justice.

Barr is also a strong advocate for preserving executive privilege. As such, if confirmed, he would likely emerge as an important ally of the president in the face of a Democratic Congress that is pledging to unleash an aggressive stream of subpoenas and investigations.

Overall, perhaps the thorniest issue presented in the Barr nomination is to what extent he will maintain a measure of independence as attorney general while also serving as an effective member of Trump’s cabinet.

For Barr to satisfy both competing requirements simultaneously will entail something of a high-wire act, analysts say. But it will be necessary to establish Barr’s credibility as attorney general at a time when the Justice Department and FBI are in the midst of historic turmoil.

“The attorney general is not the president’s personal lawyer, and must act independently,” Renee Newman Knake, a legal ethics specialist at the University of Houston Law Center, wrote in an email to the Monitor.

Professor Knake says comments and criticisms made by Barr about the Mueller investigation will not necessarily require his recusal from the Trump-Russia investigation.

“What matters is whether or not, in the capacity as attorney general, Barr acts independently, and protects the Department of Justice from political interference,” she says.

She says senators should ask Barr about his perspective on Justice Department independence, whether he will allow the Mueller investigation to continue, and whether he will recuse himself if he is deemed by career Justice Department ethics officials to have a conflict of interest. 

During his confirmation hearing in 1973 to become Richard Nixon’s attorney general, Elliot Richardson pledged to senators that he would allow the Watergate special prosecutor to complete his work. Later that year, when President Nixon ordered Mr. Richardson to fire the special prosecutor, Richardson resigned instead.

In Barr’s written testimony, released in advance of the hearings, he pledged to allow Mueller to finish the Trump-Russia investigation. 

“I believe it is in the best interest of everyone – the President, Congress, and, most importantly, the American people – that this matter be resolved by allowing the Special Counsel to complete his work,” Barr wrote. “On my watch, Bob [Mueller] will be allowed to complete his work.”

Barr also said he would work to “provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law” regarding Mueller’s anticipated report of the investigation’s results. Under Justice Department rules, the report will be submitted to the attorney general, who will then decide whether to submit it – or parts of it – to Congress and the public. 

“The Senate has a role here in confirmation hearings,” says Dmitry Bam, an associate dean and professor at the University of Maine School of Law. “The role is to ensure that the president is not appointing puppets or lackeys.”

Much of Professor Bam’s scholarship is focused on judicial ethics, but he says there are some parallels with issues arising for other presidential nominees. He notes that judges must maintain a posture of impartiality to preserve public confidence in the judge’s ability to decide cases in a fair and unbiased manner.

A potential attorney general must also be seen to be fairly representing not just the president, but the broader interests of justice.

“Obviously for the head of the Justice Department we expect that person to represent the people of the United States in a sense where there is some independence [from the president], but they are employed by the executive branch,” he says.

Conservative interpretation of presidential power

In his memo criticizing Mueller’s pursuit of an obstruction of justice case against Trump, Barr bases his arguments on a conservative interpretation of presidential power established in the US Constitution.

The so-called unitary executive theory of presidential power holds that the president alone is the chief executive of the nation. The Constitution assigns to him the authority to fire executive officers and to grant pardons, among other powers, and he can’t be held criminally liable for exercising those constitutional powers.

In his memo, Barr says Mueller’s team is advancing an untested theory of obstruction: that by firing Comey, Trump allegedly sought to “corruptly” influence the ongoing Trump-Russia investigation.

Barr does not say the president is immune from obstruction charges. But he says that any obstruction case against the president must be based on a traditional reading of the obstruction statute, a reading that focuses exclusively on concealing or destroying evidence. That means any efforts by Trump to falsify evidence, such as by tampering with a witness or shredding documents or lying under oath, would constitute obstruction of justice, just as it did in cases involving Presidents Nixon and Clinton. 

But Barr rejects the theory that Trump’s firing of Comey is a form of obstruction because it “influenced” an investigation. The president has absolute power to fire an executive officer, such as the FBI director, and under Barr’s view of robust presidential power the president cannot be punished for exercising discretion assigned to him under the Constitution.

Not everyone agrees with Barr’s defense of expansive presidential power. It is an issue of hot debate among legal scholars.

Last month, two University of Chicago law professors denounced Barr’s memo as “poorly reasoned” and said it “seriously damages his credibility and raises questions about his fitness for the Justice Department’s top position.”

In op-ed essays, they accused Barr of sending the memo as a way to advertise his protective services to the Trump administration. “These bizarre statements are not those of a lawyer but of a courtier,” wrote Professors Daniel Hemel and Eric Posner.

Conservative legal columnist Andrew McCarthy came to Barr’s defense in a piece in the National Review, calling the Hemel-Posner position “surprisingly vapid.”

“Bill Barr remains an extraordinarily qualified nominee,” Mr. McCarthy wrote.

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2. As Brexit racks Parliament, British democracy feels the strain

Brexit has posed endless challenges. A key one is whether Britain's venerable democratic system can handle the stresses the debate is putting upon it.

Amelia
Mark Duffy/UK Parliament/AP
Members of Parliament gathered near Commons Speaker John Bercow (r.) during Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons in London Dec. 19. The Brexit debate is slated to pause for a vote Jan. 15.

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John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, is meant to be a neutral figure. Speakers, though members of Parliament, renounce their party and function solely as referees of disputes over procedures – at least in normal times. But the debate over whether Britain should leave the European Union is far from normal times in Westminster. And Brexit is stress-testing the norms on which Britain’s centuries-old democracy depends. Mr. Bercow is at the nexus of many of these stresses, as pro-Brexit members of his former party accuse him of shedding his neutrality in order to tip the scales in favor of Remain. Most recently, Bercow allowed the government’s motion last week to start a five-day Brexit debate to be amended – a decision that historically would not have been made. In this case, it set up the government for a defeat, its second in 24 hours. Pro-Brexit lawmakers erupted in fury, but Bercow declared that he had interpreted the rules as he saw fit. “The rules and regulations and precedents say one thing,” says historian Catherine Haddon, “but actually the uncodified nature of it allowed John Bercow to do what he thought was right....”

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As Brexit racks Parliament, British democracy feels the strain

Britain’s decision to exit the European Union has divided the country and its political parties. But as Parliament prepares to vote Tuesday on the terms of withdrawal, Brexit is also stress-testing the norms on which Britain’s centuries-old democracy depends.

That Britain has no written constitution, but instead relies on statutes, conventions, treaties, and judicial rulings, allows its elected politicians more discretion to act. In the high-stakes battle over Brexit, a sense of restraint has given way to a bare-knuckles contest in which conventions are flouted and rules reinterpreted in ways that could unsettle future democratic governance.

“I think Brexit is pushing the rules of what is normal behavior ever further because it’s such an extraordinary situation,” says Catherine Haddon, a historian and senior fellow at the Institute for Government in London.

The speaker and the government

These tensions are playing out in a variety of interactions between the government and Parliament. The most overt is a battle of wills between Prime Minister Theresa May’s government and John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons.

The speaker is a member of Parliament who casts no votes and acts as a neutral chair of debates and final arbiter of disputes over procedures. Though still a representative of constituents, the speaker renounces affiliation with his or her former party, and has typically operated as a non-partisan referee in Parliament.

But Mr. Bercow, previously a member of Ms. May’s Conservative Party, has come under fire repeatedly from his former bloc amid the highly charged Brexit debate – primarily in the form of accusations that he has shed his neutrality in order to tip the scales in favor of Remain.

Most recently, Bercow allowed the government’s motion last week to start a five-day Brexit debate to be amended. The amendment ended up being put to a vote that the government lost, its second defeat in 24 hours and another blow to the embattled May. She is widely expected to lose Tuesday’s vote on her Brexit agreement.

Such amendments have historically not been permitted; even Bercow’s clerks reportedly advised him against it. But Bercow declared that he had interpreted the rules as he saw fit. 

Pro-Brexit lawmakers erupted in fury. Andrea Leadsom, the Conservative leader of the Commons and a senior ally of May, later accused Bercow of overreach and said the effect would be far greater than a defeat for her government. “It doesn’t just damage me, it damages all of Parliament,” she said on the British channel ITV.

Pro-Brexit MPs allege that Bercow has been working to undermine Brexit in concert with MPs who support a second referendum. He has rejected all allegations of bias, including ownership of an anti-Brexit bumper sticker that he said belonged to his wife. (He has faced separate complaints over harassment and bullying of staff members.)

Bercow insists that he upholds the diversity of opinion in Parliament and its sovereignty. That the controversial amendment passed last week, which imposes a three-day deadline for May to present a Plan B if MPs reject her Brexit deal, showed that his thinking was broadly aligned with that of the House. But it also pointed to the discretionary power of creative thinking.

“The rules and regulations and precedents say one thing, but actually the uncodified nature of it allowed John Bercow to do what he thought was right for the power of Parliament and the sovereignty of Parliament,” says Dr. Haddon.

Partisanship in Parliament?

The complex and arcane rules on how Parliament debates legislation normally go largely unnoticed, says Louise Thompson, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester who studies Parliamentary procedures. Nor would voters pay much attention to Bercow, were it not for the internecine politics of Brexit and the feverish headlines it generates.

“The speaker has to take decisions like this every week, but it’s [about] more boring and mundane stuff,” she says.

Bercow is likely to exercise more discretion over the next few weeks as MPs are clamoring for a chance to vote on alternatives to May’s unpopular Brexit deal. The polarization of views on Brexit, and the fissures within the ruling Conservative Party, will likely make him a lightning rod for all sides. Pro-Conservative newspapers have alleged without evidence that Bercow is plotting with rebel MPs to bypass May’s minority government and propose legislation to stop Brexit.

Even if such speculation is unfounded, the anger of Brexiters towards Bercow and his alleged favoritism could have lasting consequences for how Parliament operates, including the idea of a nonpartisan speaker to whom MPs reflexively defer.

“In the absence of faith in the true impartiality of the Chair, the obvious alternative is for both parties to ditch the next convention down the list, the respectful alternation of which party provides the Speaker, and instead compete to put in place Speakers whom they openly expect to be their partisan servants,” wrote Mark Wallace on his ConservativeHome website.

Such partisanship would bring Parliament more in line with the ways of the US Congress, in which speakers and majority leaders rewrite the rules to support their agendas. But lawmakers in Washington in the past have also felt bound by political convention and a degree of forbearance, a spirit that critics say has eroded in recent decades as polarized parties brook no compromises.

In 2013, then-Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid used the “nuclear option” to end filibusters of senior judges and cabinet ministers, a change that the Republicans subsequently used to confirm President Trump’s choices, even for unqualified or scandal-plagued nominees.

'Brexit has empowered Parliament'

Whereas the US Constitution dictates a separation between executive and legislative branches, Britain’s government is both of the Parliament and accountable to it. The balance of power between the two branches – who has the whip hand in policymaking – is usually a function of the size and cohesion of the ruling party’s bloc of seats in the House of Commons (the upper House of Lords is unelected and no longer has veto powers over legislation).

In May’s case, she leads a minority government that is openly at war over Brexit and her leadership; she promised last month to step down before the next election after more than one-third of MPs voted against her in a show of confidence. From this perspective, defenders of Bercow say he is pushing back against a government that has tried to steamroll Parliament and bend the rules to its advantage.

“The whole Brexit process has empowered Parliament. It’s strengthened the ability of MPs to constrain and annoy the government,” says Dr. Thompson.

Last month Parliament was due to vote on May’s Brexit agreement after five days of debate. On the fourth day, May stood before a jeering House and announced that she had abruptly shelved the vote, which she admitted faced certain defeat.

From his raised chair, Bercow knitted his brow. When he spoke he left little doubt as to his views. “Halting the debate after no fewer than 164 colleagues have taken the trouble to contribute will be thought by many members of this House to be deeply discourteous,” he said.

In a rare move, Parliament voted the previous week to find the government in contempt after it refused to publish its legal advice on the terms of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. “It takes a very angry Parliament to vote that way,” says Haddon.

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A deeper look

3. Becoming an adult: Why more adolescents now say ‘Don’t rush me’

Many parents of young adults are puzzled by their slow roll toward adulthood's traditional markers. Rarely have aspirations changed so dramatically in a generation.

Amelia
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Katie Brownfiel (l.), a student at The College of William and Mary, walks on the Williamsburg, Va., campus. Ms. Brownfiel says she is close to her parents and texts them often. Many young adults are choosing to delay full immersion in what has traditionally been considered "adulthood."

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Getting married? Having children? Buying a house? For many members of iGen or Gen Z, crossing the age-18 line doesn’t trigger aspirations in those directions. It might not even prompt a desire to get a driver’s license – or a job. As they move into a developmental phase called “emerging adulthood,” these young adults are putting off traditional markers of the grown-up world, sometimes holding ambiguous feelings well into their 20s about the very idea of growing up. Some social observers view this apparent slowdown with concern. They see a generation of young people growing up insulated by technology, cocooned, controlled, and ill-prepared for life. But to others the change reflects a reasonable adaptation to a culture that rewards a “slow life” approach, a society markedly different from prior generations. They see youths redefining what it means to transform into and become an adult. Either way, it’s a cultural shift that will have social, economic, and demographic effects for generations to come. “There’s a lot we don’t know,” says David Murphey, who runs the databank at Child Trends, a research center in Bethesda, Md. “It’s a big natural experiment….”

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Becoming an adult: Why more adolescents now say ‘Don’t rush me’

Amy Zhang, age 21, knows her parents would like her to get her driver’s license. They’ve been on her about it for some years now. And while the college senior from Vienna, Va., readily admits that she could get it, she just hasn’t gotten around to it yet, what with coursework and extracurriculars and internships taking up most of her time. 

“I do plan on getting my license,” she says. “I’ve been planning on getting it so long that it’s funny.”

Anyhow, Ms. Zhang says, she has never really needed it. She goes to school at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where she walks to everything. When she is back home in the suburbs she is happy to get rides from her mom, her older sister, or maybe one of her friends. 

And there is something else, Zhang says. A driver’s license always struck her as a symbol that she was growing up – and not necessarily in a good way. 

“It was a departure from childhood,” she says. “You want to have independence and want to be an adult. But at the same time I didn’t want to leave my childhood behind, or feel that I was leaving my family behind.”

Zhang’s perspective – a near flip from that in the 1980s when acquiring a driver’s license was seen as a marker of freedom so compelling it formed the central plot of many a Brat Pack film – is increasingly common. More than a quarter of teenagers today don’t get their license before graduating high school. For those who do, the reasoning often has to do with “making things easier on Mom,” or “my parents pushed me to get it,” rather than a craving for independence, dating, or adult-free social engagements. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Amy Zhang (c.), a senior at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va, runs an editorial meeting for a student-run art/fashion/photography magazine called Rocket.

Indeed, none of those activities seem to particularly interest the generation dubbed iGen, or Gen Z, in the first place. Compared with prior generations, teens across the demographic spectrum are far less likely to go out without parents, date, or drink alcohol, according to a number of national longitudinal studies. They are also less likely to hold a paying job. After 18, they move into a new, widely acknowledged developmental phase called “emerging adulthood,” putting off traditional markers of the grown-up world such as marriage, children, and home ownership. Meanwhile, many of these young people, like Zhang, continue to hold ambiguous feelings well into their 20s about the very idea of growing up. 

“In the last five years it’s been, you know, ‘gotta go to the DMV, hashtag adulting,’ ” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of students at Stanford University and author of the bestselling book “How to Raise an Adult,” referring to the verb form of “adult” that exploded into social media consciousness around 2015. “What they’re saying is ‘I’m not an adult, but today I had to go to the DMV, which is an adult task.’ ”

Many researchers, educators, and parents view this apparent slowdown with concern. They see a generation of young people growing up cocooned, controlled, and ill-prepared for life. College administrators say increasing numbers of students seem unable to function without their parents. Employers wonder what’s wrong with their young workers. Parents look up and realize their 20-year-old doesn’t know how to do the laundry, and seems uninterested in driving anywhere.

But other academics – and many young people themselves – see something different. To them, the change in youth behavior reflects a reasonable adaptation to a culture and society markedly changed from prior generations. They are not simply growing up more slowly, they argue. Instead, they are redefining what it means to transform into and become an adult – a cultural shift that will have social, economic, and demographic effects for generations to come.

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” says David Murphey, who runs the databank at Child Trends, a nonprofit research center based in Bethesda, Md. “It’s a big natural experiment that’s happening under our noses as we speak.”

***

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the author of the book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” started to recognize the breadth of this shift as she pored over some of the country’s largest data sets measuring young Americans’ behavior. 

There are a handful of large national surveys – the Youth Behavior Risk Surveillance System, for instance, run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Monitoring the Future surveys out of the University of Michigan – that have been asking teens the same questions for decades. They are treasure-troves for researchers such as Dr. Twenge who want to analyze and measure large social trends, such as how teenagers spend their time. This was what Twenge was working on when she noticed that teens today were less likely to have a paid job. This wasn’t because they were spending more time on homework, she realized. Eighth- and 10th-graders actually spend about the same time on homework as they did in the 1990s, according to national surveys. While there were many possible economic and social explanations for this particular change, it also seemed to fit with a number of other trends Twenge was noticing: a decline in sexual activity, less time spent physically apart from parents, that driver’s license data.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Annalie Gilbert Keith reads in her room at home, in Deerfield, Mass.

“It’s hard to pinpoint, but at some point I realized there’s a pattern here in adult activities – things that adults do that children don’t,” Twenge recalls. “Adolescents aren’t doing them as much.”

She wanted to understand why. 

One explanation was that children were actually growing up at a slower rate – that today’s 18-year-olds behaved similarly to the 16-year-olds of a generation or two ago. 

Although contrary to the popular view that adolescents today grow up more quickly, this theory started to gather momentum among psychologists. After all, a number of academics suggested, there is much in today’s American society that rewards a “slow life strategy.” Numerous studies show that more years of education lead to increased financial prosperity, waiting to get married leads to lower divorce rates, and delayed childbearing correlates not only with better educational outcomes for children but to increased happiness for mothers.

It was only natural, they argued, that people would start to grow up “slower.”

But Twenge suspected there was something more impacting behavior. She noticed a few other dramatic trends, including a sharp rise in teen anxiety and suicidal thoughts in the early 2010s. 

She wondered: If teens weren’t going out with their friends or sneaking off to parties without adults, if they weren’t doing more homework or going to jobs, what were they doing with their time, and why were they seemingly so unhappy?  

The explanation, she believed, was with a familiar culprit: technology.  

The iPhone was released in 2007, the first iPad in 2010. Since then, the percentage of young people on these devices, and others like them, has skyrocketed. By 2017, more than three-quarters of all American teens owned an iPhone, according to a national market report by the investment firm PiperJaffray. The Pew Research Center found this year that 45 percent of American teens say they are online “almost constantly.” The group Common Sense Media estimated that in 2015 teens spent nine hours a day in cyberspace.  

What this meant, Twenge says, was that while parents focused increasingly on children’s physical safety, young people began to replace in-person encounters with virtual connections from their bedrooms. That meant teens were less likely to face threatening situations, but more likely to lose sleep (directly connected to technology) and get sucked into the sort of online interactions that cause even adults stress (many studies show unhappiness rates increasing with social media use). Children were also not as likely to practice the sort of independent decisionmaking widely considered crucial for development. 

“Like any cultural change there are trade-offs,” she says. “There are some huge advantages. Fewer [teens] are drinking, fewer are having sex. Parents are thrilled about that. The potential downside is that they get to college, they get to the workplace, and they just don’t have the experience of independence. I get college administrators saying they are seeing more students who can’t make the most basic decision without texting their parents.”

***

This was what Ms. Lythcott-Haims saw during her time as dean at Stanford. But she suspected the cause was less about technology and more about parenting.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Palmer Foran (c.), a science major, rehearses with a student-run singing group. The group, called Schola Cantorum, performs Gregorian chants, Baroque and Renaissance music.

When she first got to the university in the late 1990s, she says, before the iPhone had been invented, she and her colleagues noticed that a small but vocal handful of parents seemed to be unusually involved in the lives of their college-aged children. There was the mom registering her son for classes, the dad arguing with professors about grades, the parents jumping into their child’s conflicts with a new roommate. 

“We thought they were so oddly behaved,” she recalls. “It was like, ‘What’s wrong with these parents?’ ”

But by the time she left the university in 2012, this sort of involvement was common. 

“I’d say it was 30 to 40 percent of parents,” Lythcott-Haims says. 

At first, she thought these parents were holding on too tightly to their children because they couldn’t deal with an empty nest. But then she started looking around at the way parents were interacting with their children at younger ages – monitoring “play dates” (a term that barely existed a generation ago), checking homework, supervising sports practices and bike rides. 

“I realized, no, they’ve been holding on too tightly since birth,” she says. “From play to playgrounds to malls and parks and sidewalks and homework, parents were now hovering. With the best of intentions, they were there. Childhood shifted. It used to be the realm of children. Children played with each other. Children biked to school. Now parents began to be there, always hovering within ear shot.”

This observation fits with what Jessica Dym Bartlett, Child Trends’s deputy program director in early childhood development and child welfare, says is relatively new research showing a price of privilege. Anxiety increases in high-expectation environments with ambitious parents, particularly those who don’t spend much time with their children, whether because of work, their children’s packed schedules, or other reasons. These parents spend money and effort curating their children’s experiences to best fit college application profiles, but they don’t give kids space to fail or even get hurt.  

“There is research around resilience that shows you need some exposure to adversity,” Ms. Bartlett says. “You need to develop these coping skills ... [otherwise] they will be overwhelmed.”

Audrey Cummings, a mother of two teens and two 20-somethings living south of Boston, says that she and her husband talk about this regularly. In her town, she sees many adolescents whose schedules are packed with sports practices and other extracurriculars, but who don’t do chores at home and don’t work.

Her 18-year-old son, for instance, says other high school students are incredulous that he and his siblings have to cover their own social spending from money earned from babysitting or refereeing local soccer games. The other students simply take their parents’ credit cards. Meanwhile, her 20-year-old son, who is in college, is one of the few students in his dorm who has ever done his own laundry.

“I wonder if we make life a little too comfortable for these kids growing up,” she says. “I do think that we get kids used to a lifestyle that they certainly can’t sustain if they are out on their own. I don’t know if it’s a parental thing – we’re trying to prove something ourselves. But I don’t think as a generation we’re doing them any favors by all of this.” 

***

Katie Brownfiel, a 20-year-old student at the College of William & Mary from Long Island, N.Y., texts her mom every day. Often she does it while walking between classes, or heading to a slew of extracurricular activities, such as teaching English as a foreign language to local community members, giving tours to prospective students, or tutoring children through Circle K International, the collegiate version of the Kiwanis club. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Katie Brownfiel, 20, says she texts her mom every day, and considers herself ‘super close with her family.’

“I’m really super close with my family,” she says. “I considered them to be my best friends growing up. I call my mom multiple times a day.”

Her classmate, 21-year-old Palmer Foran from Ellicott City, Md., also texts his mother regularly. So does Annalie Gilbert Keith, 18, who texts and FaceTimes her mother from Smith College, only half an hour away from home in Deerfield, Mass. 

But none of the students see this as any sort of crippling dependence. To them, this regular contact with parents, while perhaps surprising to those whose collegiate experience involved collect calls on a common-room landline, is the mature practice of keeping in touch with the people they love. And while all have opinions about mobile technology – and all feel somewhat ambiguous about social media – they appreciate the smartphone as a tool for maintaining connections in a way that lets them simultaneously develop independent lives. 

“I don’t really have the time to make a phone call every day; I also don’t really want to,” says Mr. Foran, who describes his relationship with his parents as “very close.” “I like some degree of separation. I don’t want to feel like a child.”

Ms. Gilbert Keith says there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly “grown up” about ignoring relationships that are important. 

For Gilbert Keith’s mother, Jane Gilbert Keith, this is all both beautiful and somewhat worrying. Jane knows she raised Annalie with a very different parenting style than she experienced in the 1960s, when her own mother would send her outdoors and tell her to be back for supper. She has been more involved and far more cautious in allowing physical independence.

“We live in a fear culture, and I am not immune to it,” she says. 

But she has always been conscious of “getting out of [Annalie’s] way,” as she puts it, and encouraging her daughter to grow into her own person. This is how they have built the close, solid, and respectful relationship they have, she says.

And so she can’t help but be of two minds about those texts. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Annalie Gilbert Keith makes egg salad sandwiches with her mom, Jane, at their home, in Deerfield, Mass. Annalie, a freshman at Smith College, often comes home on weekends.

“Do I love getting texted by my daughter every day? Absolutely,” she says. But at the same time, she worries that parents are far too accessible. “The assumption that everyone is available all the time? I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It would certainly make me anxious.”

***

As researchers studied teensand emerging adults, a few of them started to notice something more fundamental – a change in the very definition of adulthood itself. For many young people today, becoming an adult has less to do with external markers – the house, the marriage, the job – than with how they feel.

“What I’ve found from the beginning ... is that people now view adulthood as things they mark internally,” says Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “It’s the acceptance of oneself, making independent decisions, financial independence. It’s all individualistic.”

This was clear to writer Kelly Williams Brown, as well, and became one of the motivators for writing her “Adulting” blog, and later the bestselling book “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.”

Mostly all those she called for her research, she says, said they didn’t feel like an adult, no matter what their age. “I would call people and tell them that I’m writing about being an adult, and almost down to a person, people would say, ‘I don’t know why you want to talk to me,’ ” she says. 

So she decided to focus on actions. But not those measured by statistics. She decided to write about those small, daily habits that, as she puts it, “hopefully make you a functional happy being.”

“Here is what I’m trying to tell you,” she writes in the introduction of her book. “Adult isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. It’s the act of making correctly those small decisions that fill our day. It’s one that you can practice, and that can be done in concrete steps. And if you slip up and have Diet Coke for breakfast, no one busts in and snatches away your Adult card.”

These individual actions can add up to a generation that is different. Dr. Arnett, who coined the term “emerging adulthood” nearly two decades ago to describe the developmental phase from late teenage years to the late 20s, says young people aren’t necessarily trying to avoid adulthood. 

“They are not saying they don’t want to become adults, they are saying that they want to make those decisions about work, education, parenthood, and so on with care, and when they are ready,” he says.

 Members of this age group today tend to be more politically active and to engage in volunteer work, like Ms. Brownfiel, than prior generations.

They are also more likely to be connected globally, like Zhang, who may not have a driver’s license, but who has studied abroad in Italy and Britain, and has lived and worked in New York City. Relationships with parents tend to be closer and less hierarchical than in earlier generations. And in a world that can feel increasingly unpredictable, many say they put a premium on relationships and spaces that bring security and comfort.

Gilbert Keith, for instance, comes home from college regularly on weekends. Her father was raised in the same house where she grew up, and it is a place where she can reflect, she says. “It gives me a strong sense of being rooted.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Amy Zhang, a senior at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., so far hasn’t gotten around to getting her driver’s license.

Indeed, Ms. Brown believes that many of the decisions young people make today are less about adulthood than about the world they are inheriting.

“I was in high school when 9/11 happened,” she says. “That was a huge shift in perspective in America. We entered the workforce as the Great Recession was happening, or in the aftermath of that. So many of the institutions that have traditionally helped guide people as they make that transition into adulthood are not present anymore.” 

In other words, young people, often graduating with massive student loan debt, do not assume that they will have a long-term stable career at any one company, or necessarily a long-term, stable relationship with any one partner. They don’t expect a “forever” home. The global and political landscapes seem rocky, too. 

Yet, in the end, the forces buffeting this generation may not be all that unusual. As Mr. Murphey of Child Trends puts it: “I think in their lives they’ve seen both huge opportunities for change and evidence of huge opportunities for evil to take root. But what generation hasn’t?” 

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Points of Progress

What's going right

4. Behind a global decline in suicide

The statistics are encouraging in many countries, though not the United States. We asked our reporter to look at what's driving progress, especially among young people. 

Amelia

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In 2018, the global suicide rate was 38 percent lower than its peak in 1994, according to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle. More than 4 million lives have been saved as a result, The Economist reports. In countries like China and India, where both urbanization and social liberation have created new opportunities for women, drops in suicide are dramatic. In Russia, the rate is high but significantly lower than its post-Soviet Union levels in the 1990s. Meanwhile, policies that reduced access to means of suicide – from bans on the herbicide paraquat to gun control laws – contributed to suicide declines in Sri Lanka, South Korea, and Israel. “Not as many people are dying from suicide, and this is very good news for everyone in the world,” says Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the IHME in Seattle. “So many lives have been saved, especially young people and females as well.”

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Behind a global decline in suicide

By some accounts, 2018 was a difficult year – conflicts raged in the Middle East, migrants swung between the difficulties of lives left behind and uncertain futures, and rising populist anger threatened to reshape political landscapes. Yet amid the doom and gloom shone one significant point of progress: The global suicide rate hit its lowest point in two decades.

The rate fell by 38 percent since its peak in 1994, according to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle. More than 4 million lives have been saved as a result, The Economist reports. In countries like China and India, where both urbanization and social liberation have created new opportunities for women, drops in suicide are dramatic. In Russia, the rate is high but significantly lower than its post-Soviet Union levels in the 1990s. Meanwhile, policies that reduced access to means of suicide – from bans on the herbicide paraquat to gun control laws – contributed to suicide declines in Sri Lanka, South Korea, and Israel.  

“There are these shifts happening, where some people might be benefiting from these economic changes, and others are worse off,” says Jane Pearson, chair of the Suicide Research Consortium at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Md. “Means of dying by suicide can start shifting over time, too, but I think overall there’s been some success addressing these issues.” 

Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the IHME in Seattle, agrees. 

“Not as many people are dying from suicide, and this is very good news for everyone in the world,” he says. “So many lives have been saved, especially young people and females as well.” 

This last point – that fewer young people and women are dying by suicide – is most apparent in countries with expanded social freedoms. In both China and India, for example, young rural women have more options, such as making a living on their own in cities or attaining higher levels of education, rather than languishing in abusive or unhappy marriages. And that has played a large role in the drop in suicide rates, says Professor Mokdad.

“We know when a women gets more educated, she’s more likely to manage her finances, she’s more likely to seek medical care ... so we see an improvement in female health in general,” he explains. 

In Russia, a different subpopulation has contributed to dropping suicide rates: middle-aged men. Rates were highest in this group during the 1990s and early 2000s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2000, the age-adjusted suicide rate among Russian men was 85.8 per 100,000 people; the rate among Russian women was approximately one-sixth that number, World Health Organization data show. 

But general quality of life has steadily improved, writes William Pridemore, dean and professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, State University of New York, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. The current political context and economy are both more stable relative to the 1990s, he writes, causing “individuals, families, communities, governments, and societies to be healthier.” 

Accordingly, rates among Russian men sank to 48.3 per 100,000 people in 2016 – a number that, while relatively high, shows a marked decline from the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse. 

Sri Lanka banned the importation of a number of pesticides in the ’90s and again in 2009, when it stopped importing an herbicide called paraquat. The bans are credited with cumulative reductions in suicide, with a decline of 21 percent in the overall rate of suicides between 2011 and 2015.

Similarly, as part of a suicide prevention program, Israel sought to reduce access to firearms. Israel Defense Forces soldiers usually have their weapons with them at all times, but a 2006 rule banned them from bringing firearms home over the weekend. Following the policy change, the country’s total suicide rate decreased by 40 percent; most of the change was due to a decrease in suicide using firearms on weekends. 

These success stories add credence to the idea that restricting the means of self-harm can reduce suicide rates. This could also explain why the United States, unlike most other countries, has seen its suicide rate jump 28 percent during the past two decades: Firearms are widely accessible to Americans, and experts say the 2008 recession and the opioid epidemic have increased the number of those considering suicide. 

“In the US, most suicides are committed through guns, whereas in other parts [of the world], insecticides. If people are considering it, they have access to [guns] easier than anyone else,” says Mokdad. 

Dr. Pearson of NIMH says efforts are under way in the US to promote suicide prevention and firearm safety in tandem, in order to address this issue. “The current approach, as far as physicians see it, is we want to talk about how to use firearms safely,” she says. “We feel like there’s enough common ground between suicide prevention and responsible firearm owners where we can start making some headway at least to have some conversations....” 

Besides access to firearms, there are other factors driving the US suicide rate, Pearson says, including concerns over the economy and the opioid epidemic. Because the rate varies considerably by state and even county, it’s difficult to design a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Yet suicide is also a global phenomenon, Mokdad says, and looking to other countries for solutions would benefit the US.

“It’s time for us in the US to look at other countries and say, what have they done? What systems have they put in place to reduce suicide...? We don’t live by ourselves,” he says. “Other people have faced the same problems in this world.”

SOURCE: The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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5. Beneficial termites? How scientists grew to love a household pest.

Can learning more about a pest turn disgust into admiration? Termites, it turns out, play a significant role in ecosystems, but most people wouldn’t know it.

Amelia

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Termites. Just hearing the word makes most people say, “Ick!” Not Gregg Henderson, though. He says termites can be cute. Dr. Henderson is an entomologist, so his opinion is to be expected. But admiration for the critters is growing – at least among scientists. Termites have long been seen solely as the small vermin that can literally eat people out of house and home. However, some of the same characteristics that make the bugs such good habitat destroyers also make them vital players in many ecosystems. In fact, some ecosystems might collapse without them. Take the arid African savanna, for example. It should be nearly lifeless with its extreme dry seasons. But termite colonies have been found to store enough moisture to make the habitat lush. The latest chapter in the developing story of termite fascination comes out of the Bornean rainforest, where scientists found that termites helped the ecosystem weather an extreme drought. “You have to ask yourself a philosophical question,” says long-time termite researcher J. Scott Turner. “Is the termite a pest, or is the termite just being a termite?”

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Beneficial termites? How scientists grew to love a household pest.

Termites are a lot of things, but most people wouldn’t call them “cute.” Gregg Henderson isn’t most people.

He’s an entomologist, and has studied the social behavior of termites at Louisiana State University for nearly 30 years. Professor Henderson’s affection extends to the termites in his house – the ones he keeps in buckets, that is. But at the university, his job is to conduct research that will help make better baits, insecticides, and other pest control methods.

That dissonance matches most of humanity’s relationship to termites. They’re seen almost solely as small vermin that can literally eat people out of house and home. But characteristics that make the bugs such good habitat destroyers also make them vital players in many ecosystems. In fact, some ecosystems might collapse without them.

Most people don’t care to learn more about the insects beyond how best to kill them.

Even scientists have been slow to catch on. Termite research long focused on how best to eradicate the bugs. But slowly, that has been changing. Discoveries made by a handful of fascinated scientists have inspired more interest.

And the more scientists learn, the more complicated humanity’s relationship with termites can become.

“You have to ask yourself a philosophical question,” says another termite researcher, J. Scott Turner. “Is the termite a pest, or is the termite just being a termite?”

Ecosystem protectors

The latest chapter in the developing story of termite fascination comes out of the Bornean rainforest, where termites helped the ecosystem weather an extreme drought. The discovery, which was accidental, is detailed in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

Researchers wanted to better understand the role termites play in that ecosystem generally. They had set up an experiment that suppressed a termite colony to see what would happen in their absence, with control plots for comparison.

Then, an El Niño drought hit in 2015. So they ran the experiment a second time, during a more typical year.

As it turned out, in the control plots, termite activity during the drought was twice what it was under normal conditions. And, as a result, there was more moisture in the soil, a greater variety of nutrients, and seedlings survived at a higher rate.

“We got quite lucky,” says study co-lead author Louise Ashton, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong. “It wasn’t until the system was under that stress from the drought that the roles of termites in buffering the effects of drought really became apparent.”

This isn’t the first time termites have been found to bring resiliency to an ecosystem. The critters are actually credited with making some of the dry regions in Africa lush.

“Southern Africa’s arid savanna, for example, is really largely constructed by what termites enable other things to do,” says Professor Turner, a physiologist at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., who has spent much of his career studying mound-building termites in southern Africa. The region’s charismatic safari animals have the “humble labors of all the termites” to thank for their survival, he adds.

Most of termites’ influence has to do with water. Like all animals, they have to stay hydrated. But unlike some animals, termites are particularly good at storing water for a dry day.

The insects have help from a different kind of organism: fungi. Researchers have found that termites cultivate a sort of fungus garden within their colony, built from chewed up grass and wood, and inoculated with fungal spores. The fungi are crucial to making termites such good wood eaters. They break down cellulose and lignin (both famously difficult-to-consume compounds) from the plant matter into more easily digestible nutrients.

Importantly for termites’ neighbors, those fungal structures can hold a lot of water. Inside a single colony, Dr. Turner says, there can be a reservoir of about 50 liters of liquid water. During the dry season or a drought, that moisture seeps out into the surrounds and helps organisms as mighty as trees survive.

That seepage can deplete the termites’ reservoir. But, Turner says, termites are particularly adept at gathering more, digging deep down into the ground when they have to, carrying water back to the surface in pouches in their abdomens.

The processes are thought to be similar in other places, such as the Bornean rainforest. But what about the increased nutrients Dr. Ashton and her colleagues found linked to termite activity?

Termites in southern Africa and beyond are known to help redistribute a massive amount of nutrients, too. They bring plant waste from deep in soils and over a wide area back to their mounds, making the structures nutrient hotspots. Then, when wind blows and rain falls, that healthy dirt is spread across the savanna.

One termite trait that enables the critters to be (sometimes) good neighbors is their sociability.

Termite colonies work together as a cohesive unit, explains Henderson, now an emeritus professor at LSU. “They’re doing things that make sense,” he says, like communicating and grooming one another, and calmly following the leader away from danger rather than fleeing in a frenzy. “It’s what’s allowed them to survive and be successful for so long.”

Living in harmony?

The dissonance between the benefits and costs of living with termites are uniquely felt in African agriculture. Termites are voracious grazers, and so are cattle. Farmers don’t always appreciate the competition.

Some farmers opt to wipe out the competitors. Others choose to coexist, often out of a recognition of termites’ propensity for enriching the topsoil.

But it’s not all about healthy dirt. When the mound-building termites are taken out, Turner explains, another kind of termite often takes its place. Entomologists call those “weedy” termites, because they’re more of a pest. While the mound-building termites Turner studies settle into a place for the long haul, a weedy termite colony plunders resources and then moves on to a new habitat conquest.

Termites are quite a diverse group worldwide. But most of the termites species in North America are similar to the African "weedy" termites, Turner says, which probably explains extreme disdain for them. Even Henderson advises not to let them get close.

“As cute as they are,” he says, “don’t let them get in your house. Just watch them in your yard.”

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The Monitor's View

When big nations need a little tête-à-tête

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Today’s world leaders are eager for new ways to gauge public opinion. In Ethiopia, a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, holds “listening rallies” before crowds, seeking advice. Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, takes questions during hour-long press conferences. Now – as described in the intro above – France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, offers his own model. Mr. Macron is famous for breaking the political mode in 2017 by defeating France’s entrenched parties. Now even he is being forced to find what he calls a new “contract for the nation.” He faces a high wall of distrust. To come up with blueprints for solutions, a society must first build bridges of mutual understanding. Techniques like “listening tours” help in pushing people to take a long-term perspective and to show empathy. They are often inclusive and do not define a winning argument from the start. An invitation for deliberation can change the way people talk. It’s unclear what Macron’s national dialogue might unleash. With patience and reflection on the part of the French, however, good ideas can float to the top.

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When big nations need a little tête-à-tête

In the anti-elite politics and protests of today’s democracies, leaders are eager for new ways to gauge public opinion. Many of the old ways – elections, polling, referendums, even Twitter – just seem inadequate to shape consensus.

In Ethiopia, for example, a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, holds “listening rallies” before crowds, seeking advice. “Change can only come,” he tells them, “if we are only able to change ourselves.” Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, takes questions during hourlong press conferences – every workday starting at 7 a.m. and live on YouTube. Such style of leadership – or is it listenership? – reflects a certain self-reflection.

Now France’s beleaguered president, Emmanuel Macron, offers his own model. On Monday he kicked off a two-month national dialogue in response to weeks of “yellow vest” protests against his economic policies.

The French are being encouraged to express opinions at the local level with the help of mayors, either in town hall meetings or in online questionnaires. The topics up for discussion: the environment, democracy, public services, and taxes. Mr. Macron will attend the first meeting on Tuesday in Grand Bourgtheroulde.

“We’ll show we’re a people which is not afraid of talking, exchanging, debating,” he wrote in a letter to the public. “This is how I intend to turn anger into solutions.”

Macron himself is famous for breaking the political mode in 2017 by defeating France’s entrenched parties. His victory was a symbol of Europe’s anti-elite movements of both the left and right. Now even he, after proposing a fuel tax that sparked grass-roots protests in November, is being forced to find what he calls a new “contract for the nation.”

He faces a high wall of distrust. One poll shows few in France believe the “grand débat” will be independent enough to lead to useful solutions. The poll also indicates about 40 percent of people will participate.

The mood is similar to that in many American companies where workers demand fewer bosses and more equality and consultation – or simply bosses who ask questions before giving answers.

To come up with blueprints for solutions, a group or society must first build bridges of mutual understanding. Techniques like “listening tours” help in pushing people to take a long-term perspective and be willing to show empathy. They are often inclusive and do not define a winning argument from the start. An invitation for deliberation can change the way people talk.

Macron’s grass-roots national dialogue – in response to grass-roots protests – is noble in concept. Yet it’s unclear what it might unleash. “In trying to bring fresh air into our democracy, it could quickly degenerate into a free-for-all,” warned the French daily Le Figaro. With patience and reflection on the part of the French, however, good ideas can float to the top.

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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.

Taking the path away from suicide

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When today’s contributor was on the verge of committing suicide, the idea that we are all designed to express God’s joyful, vibrant nature proved lifesaving.

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Taking the path away from suicide

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Globally, suicide rates are down. While further progress is still needed – especially in the United States, an exception to the downward trend – I’m so encouraged by this global statistic. Everyone has the right to feel hope, love, and peace rather than despair.

There was a time in my life when suicide seemed to be the only option. An escalating addiction to drugs; meaningful relationships either dead in the water or dead, period; flunking out of college; and feeling completely cut off from my family – all this made me believe there was nothing to live for. Add to that toxic mix a family history of depression and bipolar disorder.

I left a suicide note on my kitchen table and headed for a notorious spot for “successfully” taking the final leap. But something compelled me to stop on the way to say goodbye to my friends. I didn’t see any of my friends, but the person I did run into, who recognized my distress, gave me a copy of “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy.

Clearly, I never made that final leap. But I did start to read this book, along with the Bible. As I did, some new things came clearly into perspective, while other things that I had thought were true faded out.

At times it can seem that death is the path to peace – that it is a sure way to escape sadness and end our pain. But the Bible calls death “the last enemy that shall be destroyed” (I Corinthians 15:26). If death is an enemy, why would we intentionally walk right into the enemy’s camp?

Reading Science and Health along with the Bible eventually freed me from the suicidal thoughts and impulses. I discovered that I could find a complete, wonderful, totally filled-up life right here, right now. How? The answer was a jolt: by getting to know God.

Simple answer, big implications. Divine Life (another term for God, which I learned from reading Science and Health) is rich, joyous, vibrant – completely satisfying. I discovered that we actually live in this divine Life. We are created by Life and therefore are designed to express Life and enjoy being alive. I’m not talking about the material, mortal life that is so commonly accepted as our actual life, but a spiritual sense of life as the expression of God’s eternal nature. That is our true existence, and it’s an existence that can never end. And an understanding of this gives us a whole new way of looking at our human circumstances and going forward successfully.

As we understand this true sense of being and living as divine Life’s very outcome, our lives can become an amazing new adventure. This sense of life makes death totally undesirable. Discovering our truly inseparable relation to the God who is Life, along with discovering and expressing more of the vital, energetic, increasingly wonderful essence of this divine Life, brings both joy and peace.

Spiritual light reveals solutions – even to what seem like unsolvable problems. I’ve found time and time again that divine Life is that light. To choose life is to accept the presence of God’s light into one’s consciousness and see it reveal genuine solutions to our problems. Turning away from dark thoughts opens us up to the operation of divine Life’s light in our lives. It shows us that no matter how horrible things seem to be, we are worthy individuals. We are worthy of God’s healing answers, because everyone is truly lovable and loved as God’s creation.

I’m so glad I didn’t keep my date with suicide, because now I can attest to the unspeakable joy that comes from choosing life, learning about God as Life, and finding there’s always a good reason to live. I’ve had a very productive and satisfying life. The promise is there for you and everyone. Choosing life also puts our weight on the side that leads to peace – the reliable, lasting peace we so desire. Choosing life means becoming conscious that God, the Giver of all good, is operating in our lives.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the road. But in my experience I’ve seen that we will have what we need to meet these challenges as we continue to choose life rather than follow any temptation to opt out.

Adapted from an article published in the Christian Science Sentinel’s online TeenConnect section, June 12, 2018.

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Viewfinder

Teacher protests in LA

Richard Vogel/AP
Carrie Brown, a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, joined a citywide teacher strike Jan. 14. Tens of thousands of LA teachers went on strike Monday – their first strike in 30 years – after contract negotiations failed in the nation's second-largest school district. The teachers’ demands include smaller class sizes, more support staff, and better pay. (Watch for Monitor coverage this week.)
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( January 15th, 2019 )

Thanks for starting your week with us. Tomorrow congressional reporter Jessica Mendoza looks at the role of Rep. Steve King of Iowa, whose strident anti-immigrant stance is a source of growing discomfort to many in the GOP.

Monitor Daily Podcast

January 14, 2019
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