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2019
February
27
Wednesday

Part of good journalism is to seek out a range of viewpoints rather than just present a story through one lens. But a corollary journalistic responsibility is to weigh the credibility and relevance of viewpoints.

One topic area where the interplay between these two principles comes under particular scrutiny is climate change.

When I recently wrote about the proposed Green New Deal, some of the feedback was along the line of “you seem to just accept climate change without presenting other viewpoints.” With the climate issue moving higher on humanity’s radar, this is an important discussion.

Yes, there’s an “uncertainty factor” in any predictions about how Earth’s climate will be affected by a given level of greenhouse gases. Or will clouds disappear from the sky due to climate change, as one study released this week suggests is possible? That’s hard for scientists to say. But such questions are different from witnessing substantive debate in the scientific community over the basic challenge of rising atmospheric carbon. We at the Monitor will keep watching and listening to the research.

We will also dig into the rigor with which that research has been done and how that relates to the strong consensus within the climate science profession that human emissions are now the leading factor affecting changes in Earth’s climate. I’ll also listen to a planned Trump administration panel featuring voices skeptical of mainstream climate science with that same level of critical rigor.

Now on to our five stories for today.

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D.C. Decoder

1. How Trump’s split-screen presidency encapsulates a divided US

The president’s domestic travails may be peaking at the same moment as one of his critical foreign ventures. Beyond the outcome of the hearing or the summit, what will this test of multifront governing reveal?

Mark
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal lawyer, is sworn in to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington Feb. 27.

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It’s almost a cliché to call the Trump presidency “split screen.” But indeed, that’s what it was on Wednesday. On one side of the screen, President Trump was meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi at a nuclear summit. On the other side, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was calling Mr. Trump a “con man” in an explosive hearing before the House Oversight Committee.

Ironically, during the campaign Trump warned that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be dogged by so many investigations that she would get little done. Is that what’s happening to Trump? “It likely will be his presidency for the foreseeable future,” says American University political scientist Chris Edelson.

It’s true that critics will examine any Trump-Kim deal for signs that the president is producing a weak “deal” to distract from Mr. Cohen’s charges. But any such agreement would face tough examination, say some experts. And past experience shows presidents can produce important work even if hobbled by congressional probes. In June 1973, President Richard Nixon hosted Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at an important summit. That same week, key witness John Dean, Nixon’s lawyer, spoke before the Senate Watergate Committee for the first time.

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1. How Trump’s split-screen presidency encapsulates a divided US

On one side of the screen, President Trump sits pensively, leaning forward, tapping his fingers together. Next to him, a smiling Kim Jong-un takes his seat.

Behind the US and North Korean leaders are a row of their nations’ flags, interspersed, a screen of white, red, and blue. They’re at the start of a summit that American officials hope will lead to curbs on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and perhaps to eventual denuclearization.

On the other side of the screen sits Michael Cohen. The president’s former lawyer is impassive, for the most part, as he testifies before a congressional committee that he believes Mr. Trump to be a “con man” and a “cheat.”

He then gets into a tense, almost-shouting match with Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who’s defending the president. Mr. Cohen has little left to lose – he’s already going to jail.

Just another day, another routine clashing of news images in the split-screen presidency of the 45th chief executive of the United States.

The use of “split-screen” as an image to describe the clashing events and themes of this Washington era is almost a cliché at this point, of course. It’s an obvious way to describe an administration that’s saturated in events and a country that’s divided on partisan lines.

The president takes an action. His critics produce a reaction. As events, they’re separate, different sides of the wide screen. But they’re also intertwined, each one altering, at least a bit, the meaning of the other.

It’s interesting that during the campaign, Trump warned that a Hillary Clinton presidency would have looked like this, as well. “Crooked” Hillary would have been the subject of so many investigations it would hobble her administration, he said.

Instead that’s been the story of Trump, says Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government in the school of public affairs at American University. Trump has been dogged by criticism that inevitably occupies his mind and takes up some of his time.

“That’s been his entire presidency, and I expect it likely will be his presidency for the foreseeable future,” Professor Edelson says.

Leah Millis/Reuters
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shake hands before their one-on-one chat at the second US-North Korea summit, at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, Feb. 27.

Some of Trump’s biggest split-screen days of clashing news have involved foreign travel. He was departing on an Asia tour in November 2017 when special counsel Robert Mueller dropped his first big indictments, against ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort and others.

The president was at Windsor Castle with Queen Elizabeth last July when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking into the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee computers.

But Wednesday was perhaps the most head-swiveling split-screen day yet. Trump greeted Mr. Kim with a public embrace at the beginning of a two-day summit. Then Cohen took the stage in a public hearing before the House Oversight Committee, in the first big event scheduled by the chamber’s new Democratic majority.

Cohen appeared, if not relaxed, at least focused and effective in making the points he wanted to make. Trump had not expected to win, he said, but had thought running for president a great way to market himself and his company.

“Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make the country great,” said Cohen.

The president’s former lawyer showed lawmakers a $35,000 check signed by Trump in August 2017 that he said was partial reimbursement for the hush money paid to adult actress Stormy Daniels.

Cohen claimed to have overheard a phone call to Trump from former associate Roger Stone alerting the then-candidate that Wikileaks was about publish emails that would damage Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

Cohen described a whispered conversation between Trump and Donald Trump Jr. in which the son may have told his father about an upcoming Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and Russians who had Clinton “dirt” to offer.

Partisan reviews

Taking a break from the proceedings, Oversight Committee member Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee said in an interview that much of Cohen’s testimony was very predictable but also very important.

“I hope the nation is watching because this is a very valuable insight to the way the president operated primarily before he was president, but also some during the presidency,” says Representative Cooper.

Republican defenders of the president on the panel felt otherwise, and pointed out that Cohen has already been convicted once of lying to Congress, among other crimes, and is positioning himself to write a book and perhaps engage in profitable television ventures.

But not all GOP members of the panel were harshly negative about the hearing. In a brief interview, Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan says a lot of it was partisan theater, but the panel heard some new things and maybe some new things that could be corroborated.

At one point, Cohen said he had been intoxicated by working for Trump. Representative Amash, asked whether he thinks Republican Trump defenders have been similarly intoxicated, says he thinks that’s true.

“A lot of Republicans have abandoned their principles for the president, and I similarly think a lot of Democrats are abandoning their principles because of the president,” the Michigan Republican says.

Impact on foreign affairs

Can domestic scandals “taint” presidential achievements in foreign affairs? That’s happened in the past, in the sense that presidential opponents have portrayed White House actions taken at moments of domestic policy stress as attempts to distract voters.

President Bill Clinton, for instance, launched cruise missile strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan only three days after testifying in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Critics charged Mr. Clinton was acting to try and get the Lewinsky matter off front pages.

That’s not really a fair charge, says Edelson of American University. In general, chief executives have been able to compartmentalize their serious decision-making.

“That’s not fair to a president. It’s not a good thing for the country,” he says.

In regards to Trump, the nation needs to resolve the issues and allegations swirling around his actions, from hush-money payments to Ms. Daniels to the many items related to special counsel Mueller’s Russia investigation.

“It’s hard for everyone to have this going on,” says Edelson.

Besides Clinton, one other US chief executive who faced a serious split-screen, domestic-international situation was Richard Nixon. In 1973, as the Watergate scandal gained steam, the president increased his diplomatic efforts, including superpower nuclear negotiations.

In June of that year, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev visited Washington. Nixon and he made important progress toward a second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and signed a number of other secondary accords. Transcripts of their discussions show jovial, almost friendly chats. Neither brought up the subject of Watergate allegations.

On Monday, June 25, 1973, the lead story of The New York Times dealt with the end of the summit and the hopes of Nixon and Brezhnev for world peace. Across the page, above the fold, was a story of almost equally prominent play. “Dean On Stand,” it said.

Nixon’s former counsel John Dean was appearing before the Senate Watergate Committee. It was a key moment in the scandal. The next summer, Nixon resigned.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the date Richard Nixon resigned. It was Aug. 9, 1974.

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2. Specter of new arms race has Russia recalling the Soviets’ fate

With new weapons development and the end of the INF treaty, a new nuclear arms race seems all too possible to Russians. Lessons from the last one, which ended in the USSR’s collapse, may prove critical.

Mark
AP/FILE
Soldiers prepare to destroy a ballistic SS-19 missile in the yard of the largest former Soviet military rocket base in Vakulenchuk, Ukraine, in December 1997.

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The prospect of a new nuclear arms race with the United States is dredging up old, cold war-era worries in the minds of many Russians. President Trump has vowed to upgrade the US nuclear arsenal and “outspend and out-innovate all others by far.” But it was Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that Russia will pursue a “symmetrical response” that has reminded many of the failures of the Soviet era.

“Nobody has forgotten that the arms race had a devastating effect on the USSR. The US has a far more developed, wealthy, and flexible economy, which is able to transfer technologies between the civilian and military sectors quickly and efficiently. The Soviet economy was not able to do that, and the situation hasn’t changed much since,” says Pavel Zolotaryov of the Institute of US and Canada Studies in Moscow.

But Russian military thinking has changed since the cold war. Mr. Putin has modernized and reequipped Russia’s conventional forces, but he also abolished the Soviet-era “mass mobilization” army. Russian experts say the goal now is simply to maintain sufficiency in defensive forces, so an arms race may not seem as viable an option.

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Specter of new arms race has Russia recalling the Soviets’ fate

Most Russian schoolchildren hold as true that the Soviet Union collapsed in part because it was foolish enough to engage in a vast global competition with the United States. Key to that competition, they know, was a ruinous arms race that diverted resources from the civilian economy and ultimately bankrupted the country.

The truth may be a bit more complicated. But the need to avoid a fresh arms race with the US, even amid renewed geopolitical tensions, has been a staple of Russian discourse for years. Vladimir Putin has said so over and over again.

Despite a decade-long crash program to reform and reequip Russia’s moribund Soviet-era armed forces, Russian military budgets are actually declining once again. The Kremlin's financial priorities today, it insists, are to modernize national infrastructure and apply resources to meet public needs.

But lately there has been a change in the rhetoric of US-Russia rivalry suggesting old dynamics may be reasserting themselves. The imminent demise of arms control agreements, painstakingly negotiated between the two sides in better times, is removing constraints long taken for granted, threatening a return to unrestrained competition. And that is spurring Russian experts to review the lessons of the Soviet era to ensure Russia doesn’t fall into the same traps that brought its predecessor low.

“A lot of people, including some famous Russians, are very worried about the danger of a renewed arms race,” says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the Institute of US and Canada Studies (ISKRAN) in Moscow, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “And they are speaking out about it.”

Back to the USSR?

US strategic doctrine has shifted from fighting terrorism to a more traditional confrontation with big geopolitical rivals like Russia and China. In his State of the Union address, President Trump called for “full military funding,” including expanding a $1.2-trillion Obama-era plan to upgrade the US nuclear arsenal. “[We] will outspend and out-innovate all others by far,” amid the collapse of the 30-year-old prohibition on midrange ground-based nuclear missiles, he warned.

But it was Mr. Putin’s suggestion that Russia will pursue a “symmetrical response” that revived the old demons of the cold war-era arms race in the minds of many Russians.

One consistent critic is Putin protégé Alexei Kudrin, currently the head of the Russian government’s Accounting Chamber, who has been warning for years that confrontation with the West is a drain on the economy and a threat to Russian hopes of developing democracy.

“Nobody has forgotten that the arms race had a devastating effect on the USSR. The US has a far more developed, wealthy, and flexible economy, which is able to transfer technologies between the civilian and military sectors quickly and efficiently. The Soviet economy was not able to do that, and the situation hasn’t changed much since,” Mr. Zolotaryov says.

The Soviet Union was seduced into an arms race it had little chance of winning for a variety of reasons, experts say, most of which are still operative.

A history of being invaded from different directions led to the creation of a strong, centralized, and militarized Russian state whose answer to external threats was to display strength. The experience of World War II, which ravaged half the country and resulted in the deaths of 25 million, left Russians with a deep-seated need to feel militarily secure. Victory in that war saw the USSR occupy half of Europe and fed long-standing notions of Russia as a great global power. Communist ideology created a pretense of superiority over the West that seemed to be confirmed by the country’s rapid development of atomic weapons, early lead in the space race, and other symbolism-heavy competitions with the US.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
Foreign military attachés and journalists attend a briefing by the Russian Defense Ministry on the 9M729 land-based cruise missile (r.) in Kubinka outside Moscow on Jan. 23. The military was attempting to dispel the US claim that the weapon violates a key nuclear arms pact.

“Russia has seen itself as a great power for the past 200 years. As one czar put it: Russia has only two allies, its army and its navy. There was never much trust in allies or agreements,” says Mikhail Chernysh, an expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow.

“Even when relations were good between Russia and the West and there was dialogue, there was no real understanding,” he says. “Three decades ago the USSR collapsed, its alliance system evaporated, and Russia’s borders shrank to their 17th-century lines. The West might have held off from expanding NATO right up to Russia’s borders, but it didn’t. So no wonder those old historical complexes of Russians are reawakening,” says Mr. Chernysh.

Not the old Russian military

Still, there are major differences between the present situation and the depths of the old cold war, experts say.

For one thing, Soviet military spending was probably as much as 20 percent of GDP at the height of the old arms race, vastly more than what the US – with a much larger, more efficient, and technologically superior economy – was spending. (Russia currently spends 5 percent of its GDP on its military, and that is projected to fall to 3 percent by the end of Putin’s presidential term in 2024.)

Soviet military doctrine envisaged fighting a huge conventional war, on the scale of World War II, which it assumed might grow into a nuclear conflict. To prepare for that coming war, the USSR built and stockpiled vast quantities of conventional weapons and fielded huge armies, which drained the country’s economic resources.

“The Soviet Union feared the US capability to quickly adapt its industry to military effort, as it had in the last war. They had little confidence that the Soviet economy could react so quickly, so they built everything in advance and stockpiled it,” says Alexander Golts, an independent security expert. “For instance, we had 60,000 tanks, more than the rest of the world combined. That was the kind of thing that totally exhausted the Soviet Union.”

Since the USSR’s demise, Russian military doctrine has stressed nuclear weapons as the country’s main deterrent. While far more deadly, they are not nearly so expensive to build and maintain. In recent years, Russia has developed a new generation of nuclear missiles to counter American advances in missile defense.

Though Putin has modernized and reequipped Russia’s conventional forces, he also abolished the Soviet-era “mass mobilization” army and vastly scaled back the amounts of troops and weaponry Russia deploys.

Russian experts say the goal now is simply to maintain sufficiency in defensive forces and not to pursue the kind of military ambitions that the USSR harbored.

“We have to guarantee our own security,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament. “We have a huge territory, rich resources, and a small population. Obviously, we need to be able to defend ourselves.... But we are talking about an ability to react to dangers, not to pose a big threat to our neighbors.”

‘A different world’

Some experts believe the danger of being drawn into a fresh arms race is very real.

“It’s a case of generals preparing for the last war,” says Mr. Golts. “It’s so easy to confront the West again. Just dust off those old plans and old propaganda tropes, and we are ready for it.”

Others say that too much has changed and that the threat of conventional war in Europe has been greatly exaggerated.

“The Russian media and Russian officials constantly talk about how powerful NATO is. But it actually isn’t,” says Andrey Baklitsky, an expert with the Pir Center in Moscow, an independent think tank that focuses on nuclear security. “Force levels on both sides are way down from what they were during the cold war. Nobody in Russia today thinks we need huge armored forces to defend ourselves from NATO.”

Even though geopolitical tensions seem intense and rhetoric is often extreme, it appears more theatrical than real, he says.

“Things are going in a bad direction; that is undeniable,” he says. “But we have had three decades to get to know each other better. During the cold war, when the West held military exercises our Soviet forces went onto alert. People went to their stations in full readiness; there was a lot of pressure. That almost led to accidental nuclear war” as happened in 1983 during the Able Archer drills, he says.

“That’s just not the case anymore. Even with all the deterioration in relations, we are not back to that level. I am quite sure that nobody in the US today views Russia as an existential threat, or vice versa. It’s a different world.”

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3. It’s 40 feet tall and concrete. Is ‘Peace Cross’ a civic or Christian symbol?

Is secularism just common sense neutrality when it comes to public spaces, or is secularism one “ideology” competing among many? 

Mark

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When the Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday to determine the fate of a century-old concrete cross in Bladensburg, Md., many of them had a lot to do with the emotional burdens of history.

Monika Barilla is one of the many area residents who grew up near the site of the 40-foot “Peace Cross,” now officially considered a secular memorial to local boys killed in World War I and maintained by taxpayer dollars. With deep ties to the military and a tradition of devout Christian faith, her family fears the case first brought by the American Humanist Association five years ago is a direct attack on their local heritage.

But Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force veteran, feels a different burden. None of the area’s Jewish soldiers were commemorated by the cross, which carries a heavy meaning for him regardless. “To assume that a cross that is put up like that is supposed to be a symbol ... even for those who are not Christians – that’s an absolute affront that speaks in our name,” he says.

Such religious symbols cases are notoriously convoluted, legal experts say, and the Supreme Court could be poised to issue a new precedent later this year.

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It’s 40 feet tall and concrete. Is ‘Peace Cross’ a civic or Christian symbol?

There are a lot of complicated and painful reasons why Michael “Mikey” Weinstein decided to stand on the steps of the Supreme Court on Wednesday and speak out against the modest support a Maryland municipality provides for its massive World War I memorial, a century-old 40-foot cross.

A lot of these reasons have to do with what could be called the emotional burdens of history – both his own experiences as a Jewish American veteran of the United States Air Force and those of many other Jews who’ve lived in majority-Christian countries throughout the span of time.

It’s history, too, that makes the prominently placed concrete cross in Bladensburg, a town of 10,000 just outside the nation’s capital, such an important and even cherished war monument for many of its local residents, most of whom fully support spending some taxpayer dollars to maintain it on municipal property. It’s a symbol of their civic pride and American identity, some say.

Today, the “Peace Cross,” as locals call it, is officially considered a secular commemoration for everyone in the area who died fighting during World War I, including Jews and those of other faiths. A cross in such a context, many supporters argue, does not have to be viewed as a religious symbol with a sectarian meaning or purpose.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday to determine whether the Bladensburg cross violates the First Amendment’s prohibition of an establishment of religion. Mr. Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, suggested that there just seems something conceptually wrong, if not theologically wrong, with giving a secular meaning to the central symbol of Christianity and then arguing it can apply to people like him.

“To assume that a cross that is put up like that is supposed to be a symbol of honorable service, and in fact a symbol of ultimate service even for those who are not Christians who are killed – that’s an absolute affront that speaks in our name and denies us the ability to fully describe the level of marginalization and humiliation it causes,” Weinstein says in an interview.

Still, the Bladensburg case, first brought in 2014 by local residents and the American Humanist Association, could offer definitive new guidance, legal expert say, for an area of establishment clause jurisprudence that is especially convoluted.

“The court’s decisions and doctrines having to do with religious symbols and displays are notoriously unpredictable and manipulable,” says Richard Garnett, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and the founding director of its law school's Program on Church, State and Society. “For more than three decades, justices’ opinions in these cases have consisted mainly of speculation about the messages various symbols convey to imaginary observers,” he says. The case is in many ways the first clear-cut religious symbols case in almost 15 years.

And with six new justices since then, including a solidly conservative majority, many do not expect the high court to rule against the state commission that pays for the cross’s upkeep. Earlier this month, in a bitterly divided 5-to-4 ruling, the majority denied the request of a Muslim inmate on death row, saying the Alabama prison policy that allowed only for a Christian chaplain to be present could stand.

On Wednesday, a lawyer representing the commission argued that there is precedence for religious symbols to take on independent secular meaning.

“Look above you,” Neal Katyal said to the justices.

Above them is a frieze depicting, among others, Moses carrying the Commandments.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, the case has already highlighted some of the deeply emotional questions facing the country as communities continue to become less white and less Christian.

‘Our Peace Cross’

Monika Barilla is one of the many residents who grew up celebrating Memorial Day at the Peace Cross. The lawsuit brought by the American Humanist Association has felt to her like an emotional burden the past five years, with Christianity itself under attack.

She’s passionate about the long-standing memorial and the local lore surrounding it: A group of mothers in 1921 tried to raise funds to construct the large memorial for 49 of their fallen sons, hoping it could evoke the crosses that stood over the local boys buried far away in Europe.

“The people of Prince George’s County are a strong people, and we fight for what we believe in,” says Ms. Barilla, a Maryland mother of two whose family has roots in the nation’s armed forces. Her father was in the Air Force and her brother was a Marine, she says, and her extended family includes veterans from both World Wars. “It’s just in our blood,” she says.

“To tear down our Peace Cross – that would be the equivalent of someone destroying your family home,” adds Barilla, an employee of Aggregate Industries.

There are hundreds of religious memorials like the Bladensburg cross across the country. Civic pride in cherished local symbols is part of the debate about identity and public symbols and the role of government in protecting the dignity of religious minorities.

Barilla and others are afraid that the seemingly secular principle of “neutrality” could become an aggressive ideological weapon used to reshape the nation’s public spaces.

“It would require a serious devotion to iconoclasm to really strip all elements of religion from our culture and architecture and from the public space,” says Eric Baxter, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which submitted a brief supporting the Bladensburg cross to the Supreme Court.

“I think most Americans don’t want the censorship police going around and trying to remove every element of religion,” Mr. Baxter continues. “And that really does just amount to a hostility to religion in an effort to force a secular veneer on everything that’s happened throughout our history or that’s reflected in our culture.”

Finding a middle ground

Weinstein and others who object to the memorial say that a compromise can be reached and that, for the most part, they do not want these symbols taken down or destroyed. He would have no issue with a private memorial for Christian soldiers, even one so prominent. But his organization found that a number of the 250,000 Jewish American soldiers who served in World War I were from Prince George’s County. None of those killed were among the 49 commemorated.

“One solution for this case might be to turn the memorial into a private memorial in which government is no longer involved,” says John Vile, professor of political science and dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “I think the inclusion of the names of non-Christians on the memorial would also suggest that it was designed to honor all who fell, and not only Christians.”

Conservative justices on the court, past and present, have been critical of a 1971 precedent in a case in which the Supreme Court struck down state support for private and religious schools. It then outlined a three-pronged test to determine whether a state practice violates the establishment clause, saying it must have a secular purpose and must not advance or inhibit the practice of religion or create “excessive entanglement with religion.”

In 2005, however, the Supreme Court didn’t rely on this precedent when it allowed a display of the Ten Commandments to remain on the grounds of the Texas state capitol. Justice Stephen Breyer was the deciding fifth vote, and he ruled that the establishment clause did not require the government to clear government spaces of all religious symbols.

“Such absolutism is not only inconsistent with our national traditions, … [but it] would also tend to promote the kind of social conflict the establishment clause seeks to avoid,” Justice Breyer wrote in his decision in Van Orden v. Perry.

‘The country is changing’

Still, for Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of American Humanist Association, a lot of the social conflict stems from the kinds of majoritarian privileges that Christianity exerts throughout the country at the expense of those who don’t share the faith.

“That doesn’t have quite a lot of foresight in its thinking, because the country is changing,” says Mr. Speckhardt. “Little by little, over the years, there are more and more nonreligious folks, more and more folks from different faiths, and eventually, you know, it’s foreseeable that there will not be a Christian majority forever in this country.”

“And when that happens, is the assumption that everything will slip to whatever the new majority is?” continues Speckhardt. “I don’t think that’s what the folks who are pushing for maintaining crosses like this on government property really would like to see happen. I think that there is some sort of assumption by the other side that Christian values are somehow intertwined with American values, which is something that we as humanists would disagree with.”

While Barilla believes that American humanists are out to undermine Christianity, she’s not concerned if American municipalities might decide to erect a civic memorial with a secularized symbol of another faith, such as Islam, she says.

“I have to say, honestly, I would protect any memorial that is dedicated to any American soldier that is threatened,” says Barilla. “Taxpayers should always be willing to support those soldiers that keep this nation free. I am a Christian, but I don’t care what shape, color, size, or location a monument that is dedicated to a fallen soldier, I will fight to save it.”

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4. Charter schools swap ‘no excuses’ for a gentler approach to discipline

For years many charter schools embraced toughness on infractions small or large. But a shift is under way toward the idea that it's possible to combine high expectations with the nurturing so many students need.

Mark

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One Denver middle school knew it had a problem two years ago when it led the city in the number of students suspended. Since then, what’s happened at this charter school is a journey from a punitive, “no-excuses” style of discipline toward giving positive support to students who are misbehaving or struggling with attendance.

The shift there is echoed in other charter and traditional schools around the country. It’s grounded in recent research on what’s most helpful to kids. That school in Denver, part of the nationwide KIPP network of charter schools, expects about 30 suspensions this academic year, down from 160 in 2016-17. “In academic circles, there’s probably consensus that it’s not beneficial to shame and humiliate kids,” says sociologist Joanne Golann.

In Denver, Maria Peña is a mom whose son was one of those suspended two years ago. This year when the eighth-grader got in an argument, the response was to bring parents and students in to talk. “At the end,” says Ms. Peña, “I was like, wow, I think that was way better.” 

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Charter schools swap ‘no excuses’ for a gentler approach to discipline

Two years ago, a charter school in Denver topped the charts in something no school aims to excel at: suspensions. More than 1 in 3 students at the Knowledge Is Power Program’s Northeast Denver Middle School were suspended from school in 2016-17. The KIPP school’s total, 160, was higher than in any of Denver’s public schools that school year.

“It was pretty obvious that there was a need for change,” says Dave Vaale, a longtime counselor to at-risk youth who was brought in to transform the school’s approach to discipline.

His mandate: to move the school away from a “no-excuses” style of discipline, not just for the sake of reducing suspensions but to improve overall outcomes for students.

It’s part of a significant about-face nationwide in charter schools, including those in the KIPP network of free college-prep schools. Educators are moving away from tough-nosed disciplinary tactics, mirroring a similar trend in mainstream public schools, and going even further recently to ensure their tactical shifts are effective.

The changes can provoke pushback from teachers and even some parents who grew up believing sparing the rod means spoiling the child. But leaders in education say they are finding that it’s possible to combine high expectations with a supportive culture that acknowledges the stresses that children often face at home.

“In the classrooms where this was first happening, it made a huge difference, in terms of classroom management, the culture of the classrooms and in terms of kids’ academic capabilities,” says Kimberlee Sia, chief executive officer of KIPP Colorado. “There wasn’t that nitpicking of all the previous things kids had been disciplined for.”

Mr. Vaale says the Northeast Denver Middle School, where he is now the director of culture, will likely suspend closer to 30 students this year. The changed approach has also coincided with improved attendance and better student morale.

And across the nation in recent years, a growing number of public schools from Los Angeles to Raleigh, N.C., have reduced expulsions or are considering that step. Some districts have eliminated them entirely. In Lansing, Mich., expulsions dropped from 107 district-wide in 2013-14 to zero in 2017-18, for example.

In Denver, the school board began moving in the spring of 2017 to change the district’s strict disciplinary policy to eliminate suspensions of students in Grades 3 and younger, except in instances required by law.

The reason: a growing body of research shows strict approaches are ineffective, potentially discriminatory, and can damage children's futures. Its roots are in the once exalted but now less accepted “broken windows” theory, an approach to crime that spawned zero-tolerance policing in the 1990s. Leaders on both sides of the political aisle now argue these approaches contributed to mass incarceration, now widely seen as one of the nation’s biggest problems.

It’s no secret that KIPP, serving largely students of color, was part of the no-excuses educational movement for years. The program’s leaders believed that sweating the small stuff, even whether kids showed up to school with matching socks, ensured both order and classroom success. Indeed, conformity in the form of uniforms and punishment for not adhering to inflexible rules were the norm at many charter schools nationwide for years.

Dueling models

Debate over the best approach isn’t over. Recently the Trump administration scrapped guidelines cautioning educators against harsher disciplines.

KIPP’s national leadership stated publicly in January that it supported the prior Obama-era guidelines. But KIPP’s 200-plus schools are free to move at their own pace, meaning they are at various stages of completely rethinking how severely kids are punished, as well as how often they are rewarded.

All this comes as researchers generally embrace the idea that gentler tactics lead to improved results.

“In academic circles, there’s probably consensus that it’s not beneficial to shame and humiliate kids,” says Joanne Golann, a sociologist and assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“You still see a lot of people replicating a lot of these harsher approaches, because it’s perceived to work,” adds Dr. Golann, who published a 2018 study on charter school practices along with Chris Torres of Michigan State University. Both she and Dr. Torres observe some charter networks moving toward positive approaches to discipline.

For teachers or parents used to an old-school style of discipline, removing the ability to kick a child out of class can feel like taking a tool out of the toolbox. Teachers balked when Denver’s schools began reducing suspensions several years ago. In Los Angeles, some teachers felt it was leading to unruly classes.

“There’s still pushback” from teachers who miss the clear guidelines of old, says Vaale in Denver, “but as we’ve adapted and seen progress and seen better results, our teachers buy in more and more.”

'I think that was way better.'

Many parents are also buying in.

Maria Peña, a medical assistant and mother of two who lives with her husband in northeast Denver, has seen the changes in KIPP Colorado Schools. Her son Sergio, an eighth-grader, was one of the 160 kids suspended by a KIPP middle school two years ago. To his mom, the suspension meant he might fall behind in his classes and mistakenly get rewarded with a vacation for acting out.

This year, when he got into an argument with another child, both parents and children were brought in for a conversation about the causes of the argument and likely consequences instead.

“At the end, I was like, wow, I think that was way better,” Ms. Peña says.

In interviews focused on six charter school programs that are shedding the no-excuses philosophy, many educators and parents say that despite the challenges associated with institutional change, the benefits outweigh the costs. The new holistic approaches take into account that a student may be acting out because they are traumatized due to a lack of housing, or due to living in close proximity to violence, rather than because of willful defiance.

Ric Zappa is credited with leading KIPP’s Bay Area network of schools away from no-excuses disciplinary practices. He now serves as chief schools officer for Caliber Schools in California.

Caliber doesn’t suspend any of its 1,600 elementary school pupils, 99 percent of whom are students of color. Its schools in Richmond and Vallejo, Calif., each include social and emotional learning, offer access to mental-health clinicians, and have restorative-justice practices that can help students recover from troubles.

“These things are foundational at Caliber. That’s one of the main reasons why I went there,” says Mr. Zappa.

Still keeping expectations high

In Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., Mastery Charter Schools opened in 2001 and now serves 14,000 students.

“We adopted a very traditional school disciplinary model” early on, “rooted in broken windows,” says Scott Gordon, Mastery’s CEO. The belief was “if you sweat little things, bigger things won’t come up, so very clear roles, very clear consequences, lots of consistency.”

Mastery has revamped its approach by embracing the idea of school being “a loving place where kids feel loved and supported” and “high expectations” of students, both in terms of academic performance and discipline, says Mr. Gordon. The changes “felt right and resonated with our kids and with our parents,” but created less clarity for both kids and teachers, he says.

Accelerating its changes in the past year and a half, Mastery set up systems for staff to track data about students in real time. By knowing in minutes rather than days, a ride can sometimes be offered if a student isn’t in school, for instance.

“We’ve learned that it’s not magic and it’s not just believing in the right philosophy. There’s a tree of training support systems and practices that require ... a big lift for schools to deliver on,” says Saliyah Cruz, who was hired by Mastery 18 months ago for a newly created role overseeing student development. “One big lesson learned for us is that it’s a journey that requires real expertise and real execution, follow up, and training.”

[Editor's note: One sentence in this story has been corrected to give an updated estimate of the number of suspensions that will occur at KIPP's Northeast Denver Middle School during the current school year.]

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On Film

5. Three don’t-miss movies for February

The Oscars gave you some movie-viewing guidance. Our critic’s crib sheet for this month includes one of those winners, “Free Solo,” along with a pair of vibrant if less-heralded documentaries and an extraordinary animated film by a Slovenian-born artist. 

Mark
© Ruben Brandt LLC/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
The animated feature “Ruben Brandt, Collector” is the first by by director Milorad Krstić, “which is astonishing,” writes the Monitor’s Peter Rainer, “given its intricacy and inventiveness.”
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Three don’t-miss movies for February

Oscars season may be over, but there are still many intriguing and well-made films to see in theaters. Here are the ones that impressed Monitor film critic Peter Rainer the most this month.

‘Apollo 11’ brings back awe of 1969 moon landing 

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, first manned moon landing, the documentary “Apollo 11” brings back once more the awe of that event. What makes this film different from numerous other such movies is that, in many instances, it utilizes footage never before seen publicly.  

The footage was not cropped, as is the case with so many similar documentaries, and the films were restored and scanned at the highest resolution possible. The result, according to the filmmakers, is the highest-quality digital collection of Apollo 11 footage available. The startling crispness of the imagery makes the experience of watching this film almost like seeing the mission for the first time.

Much of the commentary about this film has focused on the way the moon shot represented perhaps the last time the whole world was uplifted as one. This may be too nostalgic a view of that time, which, after all, was an era when the cold war and the space race were in full swing. Still, the transcendent hopefulness of the Apollo 11 mission strikes a necessary chord today. This was no Arthurian legend. It really happened. The transcendence it instilled, however fleeting, bears repeating. Grade: A- (Rated G.)

‘Ruben Brandt, Collector’ is intricate, inventive

The nightmares of renowned psychotherapist Ruben Brandt are of a special sort: They all involve imagery from famous paintings. And the characters in them are on the attack. To conquer his fears, he believes he has to steal the paintings – 13 in all – in order to defuse their power. 

This is the nutbrain premise for the extraordinary 94-minute animated film “Ruben Brandt, Collector,” directed by the Slovenian-born artist Milorad Krstić, who has lived in Hungary since 1989. This is his first animated feature, which is astonishing given its intricacy and inventiveness. 

In his quest to find peace of mind, Ruben (voiced by Iván Kamarás) recruits four of his patients, all thieves, to pilfer the offending 13 canvases from many of the world’s great museums, including the Louvre, Tate, Uffizi, Hermitage, and Museum of Modern Art. 

At times the imagery overload can be exhausting. Like some of Terry Gilliam’s movies, the surplus of ideas may be too much of a good thing. But “Ruben Brandt,” in its own wacko way, is also making a case for the power of art to both disturb and heal. When Ruben says that art is the key to the troubles of the mind, his meaning is double-edged. Ultimately, what I think Krstić is saying is that we need to look at the world’s glories whole. Beauty should not be locked away. Grade: A- (Rated R for nude images and some violence.)

‘Who Will Write Our History’ gives witness to Nazi atrocities

The documentary “Who Will Write Our History,” directed by Roberta Grossman, brings to life a relatively obscure but vitally important historical chapter from the Holocaust. In November 1940, not long after the Nazis imprisoned some 450,000 Polish Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, a group of about 60 journalists and community leaders headed by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum banded together under the code name Oyneg Shabes to document the Nazi atrocities. 

Grossman mixes historical footage and present-day interviews with reenacted scenes from within the ghetto. (Joan Allen and Adrien Brody, among others, provide voice-overs.) The staged sequences are tastefully done, even if the actors look a bit too well-fed and well-groomed for their dire straits. Most important, all the words that we hear spoken, all the narration taken from the diaries, is word-for-word accurate, without embellishment.

What became of the archive after the Soviets liberated Warsaw? A prewar aerial map enabled workers to eventually uncover two of the three caches. (The third is believed to be located under what is now the Chinese embassy.) More than 60,000 pages of the archives are preserved at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Perhaps some day, the third cache will be uncovered. In any event, this film is itself an important act of historical reclamation. Grade: A- (This film is not rated. It’s in English, Yiddish, and Polish with English subtitles.)

'Free Solo' chronicles efforts of mountain climber to work without aid of ropes or harnesses

The impressive Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo,” directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, is not the kind of movie you want to be watching if you have a fear of heights. It’s about Alex Honnold, a mountain climber whose goal is to scale the almost-3,000-foot sheer granite vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without the aid of any ropes or harnesses. 

Now I’ve long held the belief that people such as Honnold or Philippe Petit or Evel Knievel are not so much brave as lacking the ability to feel fear. And sure enough, a scientist in the movie does a brain scan of Honnold and discovers that his amygdala – the section of the brain researchers say is responsible for detecting fear, among other functions – is practically a no-show. Since it’s clear from the get-go that Honnold survived his climb, I suppose we can all breathe easier watching his quest, but the question for me remains: Why on earth would anybody do this? Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.)

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The Monitor's View

What restrains India, Pakistan from nuclear war

Two ways to read the story

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India and Pakistan have each used an important word to describe strikes on each other over disputed Kashmir: “surgical.” Translation: We know better than to kill civilians on purpose. This is a hint at how well the rivals have learned the rules of war, the Geneva Conventions, that include protection of innocents.

Honoring the lives of civilians on both sides may be one of the big constraints that currently keeps the nuclear-armed neighbors from full-fledged war. Since their independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan have gone to war four times with thousands of civilian casualties. Since the two became fully nuclearized in the late 1990s, they have had to calculate the possible risk of millions of civilian deaths. A new mental constraint has slowly set in. 

India still must learn how to avoid civilian deaths in its suppression of dissent in Kashmir. And Pakistan’s powerful military should adopt a “no first use” doctrine. Together, the two countries might find peace by agreeing that the protection of innocence is a virtue that unites them.

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What restrains India, Pakistan from nuclear war

One lesson of modern war is this: Watch your tongue. It might escalate a conflict. India and Pakistan appear to have absorbed this lesson as seen so far during their latest military flare-up.

In retaliatory strikes following a Feb. 14 terrorist attack in disputed Kashmir, each has used an important word to describe their strikes on each other: “surgical.” Translation: We know better than to kill civilians on purpose. Targets must only include fighting forces.

This is a hint at how well the longtime rivals have learned the rules of war, known as the Geneva Conventions, that include protection of innocents in a conflict. Honoring the lives of civilians on both sides, in fact, may be one of the big constraints that currently keeps the nuclear-armed neighbors from full-fledged war.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, acknowledged as much on Wednesday. “I ask India: With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation?” he said. “It is imperative that we use our heads and act with wisdom.” He suggested the two sides talk out their differences, which are mainly focused on control of a Muslim majority in Kashmir by largely Hindu India.

India was also careful in how it spoke and acted. Its air attacks were aimed only at the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed that claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack despite India’s claim that Pakistan supports the group. Officials called the strikes a “nonmilitary pre-emptive action.”

Since their independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan have gone to war four times (three times over Kashmir) with thousands of civilian casualties. Since the two became fully nuclearized in the late 1990s, they have had to calculate the possible risk of millions of civilian deaths. A new mental constraint has slowly set in, along with frequent pressure from outside powers to restrain military action and their own increasing willingness to abide by international norms.

Despite that, India still must learn how to avoid civilian deaths in its suppression of dissent in Kashmir. And Pakistan’s powerful military should adopt a “no first use” doctrine, meaning it would not be the first to escalate a conventional war into a nuclear war. It must also recognize that support of terrorist groups for any strategic purpose is a dangerous move when both nations have nuclear weapons.

In recent years, the Pakistani people have been rightly outraged whenever American armed drones killed civilians in attacks on terrorist groups like the Taliban in Pakistan. Those sentiments are shared by Indians who decry Pakistan’s support for terrorist attacks on civilians in India.

Together, the two countries might find peace by agreeing that the protection of innocence is a virtue that unites them. Issues like Kashmir would be easier to solve by focusing on such a shared value.

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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.

Blood infection, fever quickly healed

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When today’s contributor faced a life-threatening situation shortly after giving birth, a tangible sense of God’s limitless love melted her fear, and healing immediately followed.

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Blood infection, fever quickly healed

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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I was supposed to be heading home from the hospital with my new baby, but I was too sick to care. I had a fever, and my obstetrician said I’d have to stay put another day. Soon after he left the room, I rapidly began to feel worse and hit the call button, managing only to say “Help” before passing out. It was later determined that I had a serious blood infection.

When I came to, there were two nurses in my room, along with my husband. One of the nurses said the situation was very serious. I could tell from her tone that she meant it, and it occurred to me that she thought I might die.

I remember thinking, “I’ve waited my whole life for this baby, and I’m not going anywhere now.” At that point, I told my husband to call a friend who was also a Christian Science practitioner (someone whose ministry is dedicated to helping others find healing through Christian Science) for help.

When he got the practitioner on the phone, I reached for the receiver and heard my friend say with so much confidence, “‘Perfect love casteth out fear,’ and your life just increased in love one hundredfold with the birth of this baby.” With that, the fever broke (something the nurses were clearly not expecting), and I felt instantly well.

Even better, I felt a love that was so much bigger than even my intense love for my newborn daughter. It was God’s love, and that’s what healed me. It was an incredibly powerful experience.

Since there was nothing for the nurse assigned to me to do, we spent the day chatting. She couldn’t believe that I’d been lucid throughout much of the experience. She said she’d never heard of an adult who’d survived a fever that high without sustaining brain damage.

I hadn’t reasoned out anything or prayed specifically in that moment. The healing happened so quickly that I didn’t have time. But the phrase “perfect love casteth out fear” comes from a section in the Bible discussing the immense love God has for His children and how this wipes out anything in our lives that wouldn’t or couldn’t come from God, who is limitless Love itself.

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, plainly described this spiritual remedy for fever in her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” She wrote, “Destroy fear, and you end fever” (p. 376). That’s what I experienced. I found out that fear dissolves when we catch a glimpse of and/or feel the ever-presence of divine Love – a presence that makes anything that is unlike God impossible. You can’t have limitless good with even a little bit of something bad. That wouldn’t be ever-present good, then, would it? On this basis we can trust that what God created is good. Anything that seems otherwise is a mistaken sense of spiritual reality.

Now, more than two decades later, what I remember most about that day was the all-embracing love I felt from God. The thought of it is always there when I need it most, to remind me of the never-ending love that’s ours all the time, under every circumstance. This kind of understanding and peaceful sense of God’s love has improved not only my health, but also my relationships with friends, family, and even strangers.

God loves each of us endlessly, and as we accept our true nature as the spiritual expression of that love, we can experience how divine Love heals.

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The runway, on the record

Regis Duvignau/Reuters
Audience members take photos at the Maison Margiela show during Paris Fashion Week Feb. 27.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( February 28th, 2019 )

Thanks for being with us today. In our next edition, keep a lookout for a report – with video – from the Florida Keys, where residents see themselves as living proof that adaptation to climate change is possible. Science writer Eva Botkin-Kowacki and videographer Alfredo Sosa will explore the costs that have come along with that adaptation.

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 27, 2019
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