2019
March
06
Wednesday

Where do you begin when your world seems to have fallen apart?

In Alabama, the tornado that swept through rural Lee County last weekend left Makitha Griffin wondering how to pick up the pieces of a shattered life. Five of the 23 people who died were her relatives – two aunts, two uncles, and a cousin. Yet her first instinct was to think of others. “At the end of the day, it was so many other people that needed to be healed,” she told CNN.

So she began to feed the first responders helping survivors. Growing up in Lee County, she said, “everybody was still family whether they were related or not.”

The experience of Arata Isozaki yesterday could not have seemed more remote from those scenes. The architect won the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious award in architecture, for his ingenious blending of Eastern and Western styles and use of empty spaces, known in Japanese as “ma.”

But those lessons were learned in childhood, he says, living near ground zero of the atomic attack on Hiroshima. It impressed on him the power of emptiness and its potential as a canvas for rebirth. “The only possible choice I had was to start from the ruins,” he told The New York Times, “the degree zero where nothing remained.”

His award was recognition for what he has built from those ruins.

Now on to our five stories, which look at the changing calculus of apologies in Washington, a Monitor reporter’s run-in with authoritarianism in Istanbul, and humanity’s long and winding path to collaboration.

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1. Can US help resolve Venezuela crisis? The first hurdle is history.

If the United States wants to help in Venezuela, it first needs to dispel decades-old doubts in Latin America that it really has the region’s best interests at heart.

Mark
Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom many nations have recognized as the country’s rightful leader, greets supporters at a rally against Nicolás Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela, March 4.

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No one disputes that Venezuela, an oil exporter once more prosperous than many European countries, is in a deep political and economic crisis. Or that President Nicolás Maduro is largely responsible. And few think the United States, as the hemisphere’s dominant power, has no legitimate role to play in resolving the crisis.

But the long US history of unilateral intervention in Latin America has left even countries favorable to the US uncertain of its intentions. It’s not just history. Recently US officials spoke of humanitarian assistance and called for the departure of Mr. Maduro in the same breath. Both Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton have referred to Latin America as within America’s sphere of influence.

Some historians see a return to an era that had started to fade. Says Prof. Max Paul Friedman at American University: “We were starting to see signs that the US had given up the idea of resolving disputes by sending in the Marines and forcing resolutions to its liking, but now it seems we might be returning to the bad old days of the imperial approach.”

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Can US help resolve Venezuela crisis? The first hurdle is history.

As the United States opened its humanitarian-aid coffers in recent weeks to send tens of millions of dollars in food and medical supplies to the people of Venezuela, the display of Yankee altruism was not met with universal praise across Latin America.

Instead, some circles in a region with a long history of US heavy-handedness and unilateral interventions decried the action as the “weaponization of humanitarian aid.”

US leaders from the White House, State Department, and Senate (primarily in the person of Florida Republican Marco Rubio) spoke of the assistance and in the same breath called for the departure of Venezuela’s embattled president Nicolás Maduro, resurfacing deeply entrenched suspicions about US intentions and an “our way or regime change” approach to the region.

The controversy swirling around US humanitarian aid to Venezuela underscores how the image of the US as Latin America’s big-stick-wielding policeman and imperial power, once thought to be losing its salience, has come roaring back – and is once again hampering US effectiveness in the region.

“The history of US interventions is seared into the political and cultural consciousness of Latin America, and the way the US is proceeding on the Venezuela crisis surely reconfirms that image for many people,” says Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan historian and professor of Latin American studies at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

“The rhetoric from the Trump administration and the self-evident objective behind actions like the humanitarian aid conform with many popular assumptions about US treatment of Latin America. It’s reopening some old wounds,” he adds – wounds that many experts in the region say in some ways had started to heal.

No one disputes that Venezuela, a top global oil source once more prosperous than many European countries, is in a deep political and economic crisis, or that Mr. Maduro is largely responsible for the collapse. And few think the US, as the hemisphere’s dominant power, has no legitimate role to play in reversing the downward spiral.

But at the same time, the long US history in the region has left even those in Latin America most favorable to the US ambiguous about Washington’s involvement in efforts to help resolve the crisis.

“The crisis in Venezuela is so profound and tragic, and is having such a tremendous impact around the region, that Latin Americans are desperate to find some way to get it resolved,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. “People know this effort is going to include the United States, but at the same time there are widespread hesitations and concerns because of the historic role the US has played in the region.”

The Lima Group

Mr. Shifter notes, for example, that the Lima Group of countries, formed to organize a regional response to Venezuela, explicitly kept the US off its list of participants when it set up shop in August 2017. And separate from the Lima Group, Mexico and Uruguay are working to facilitate dialogue between Venezuela’s warring political factions, distancing themselves even further from the US stance that “Maduro must go.”

Venezuela’s political standoff reached new heights this week when opposition leader and self-proclaimed legitimate president Juan Guaidó returned to Caracas after a week outside the country building support around South America. Mr. Guaidó – who is recognized by more than 50 countries, including the US and many in Europe, as Venezuela’s legitimate president – arrived in the capital Monday to massive throngs of supporters.

At one point Guaidó climbed a scaffold and jubilantly declared the imminent end of the country’s “dictatorship.” But Maduro apparently thought better of his threat to arrest his rival – a move analysts said would have turned Guaidó into an instant martyr.

Instead, Maduro opted to try to let the Guaidó challenge “fizzle out,” Professor Tinker Salas says. At the same time, Maduro, in a desperate bid to shore up his regime, appears to be focused on finding new oil customers (India placed a modest order in February, for example) and working around hardening US sanctions.

In the meantime, Venezuelans continue to go hungry, while thousands leave the country every week across land borders to seek refuge in neighboring Colombia, Brazil, and beyond.

It’s a dire situation the US understandably wants to address. But the rhetoric Trump administration officials are using in conjunction with US actions and the image President Trump is cultivating globally are only complicating US efforts on Venezuela, experts say.

Sphere of influence

Both Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton have referred to Latin America as within America’s sphere of influence, a loaded image that leaves even staunch US supporters cringing, Tinker Salas says. Trump’s appointment of Elliott Abrams as his special Venezuela envoy was also widely taken as a sign of a more muscular US approach to the region. Mr. Abrams is a longtime diplomat with a controversial past of involvement in the Central America wars of the 1980s, including the Iran-Contra arms scandal.

Last weekend Mr. Bolton said in a CNN interview that the Trump administration embraces an updated version of the Monroe Doctrine (the 19th century policy that declared Latin America “hands off” to other global powers), one that demands a “completely democratic hemisphere.”

Bolton raised eyebrows around the hemisphere last fall when he declared a “troika of tyranny” – Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua – in a Florida speech, hinting that under Trump the objective in these cases is regime change.

Trump has also continued to drop the occasional hint that military intervention remains “an option.”

But part of the reason Latin American governments remain suspicious of US paeans to democracy is that in the past such policies covered for military interventions seeking not democracy but pro-US governments. At the same time, Shifter says, Latin Americans look around and don’t see the US under Trump consistently pressuring despots and promoting human rights.

“Even Maduro’s staunchest opponents in the region want to keep some distance from the US and from Trump since they can’t point to evidence that he is really focused on promoting democracy around the world,” he says. Aside from Latin America and in particular Maduro, “the rule they see is Trump’s admiration for strongmen and lack of opposition to autocrats.”

Reviving a fading era

Some historians see the Trump administration’s interventionist polices toward Venezuela and unfriendly regimes in Latin America more broadly as a return to an era that had started to fade.

“We were starting to see signs that the US had given up the idea of resolving disputes by sending in the Marines and forcing resolutions to its liking, but now it seems we might be returning to the bad old days of the imperial approach,” says Max Paul Friedman, a professor specializing in US foreign relations at American University in Washington.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “good neighbor policy” adopted in the 1930s was the first stab at a noninterventionist approach to Latin America, Professor Friedman says. President Barack Obama then went farther in trying to set a new tone in hemispheric relations, he adds, by having his secretary of State, John Kerry, declare the Monroe Doctrine “dead” and establishing relations with Cuba’s communist government.

But the US appears to be shifting back to old practices in its approach to Venezuela, Friedman says, and that leaves Latin America torn between history and democratic aspirations for the region.

That history explains why much-needed food and medicines destined for desperate Venezuelans could end up tagged as a “weaponization of humanitarian aid,” Friedman says.

Noting an earlier instance of the US politicizing humanitarian aid – when it used the cover of aid shipments to funnel arms into cold-war-era Central America – Friedman says it’s not surprising the US aid delivered to Colombia’s border with Venezuela ended up in some eyes symbolizing something other than altruism.

“The US could have tried delivering the aid through a neutral channel like the UN, but the way this was done declared to many that under the Trump administration humanitarian aid is once more an instrument of regime change,” he says. “That raises a lot of ghosts from the past while putting a lot of people at risk.”

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2. Democrats’ hand-wringing over anti-Semitism vote reveals a party in flux

In days of Washington past, the House resolution against anti-Semitism would likely have flown through. But young Democrats are trying to reframe the debate over what an apology actually means.

Mark
Andrew Harnik/AP
Comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., about political influencers pushing ‘allegiance’ to Israel have sparked a House vote on anti-Semitism.

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The House is expected to vote this week on a resolution formally condemning anti-Semitism – the second vote to stem from comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., in as many months.

But even as older House Democrats have sought to censure Representative Omar, younger members have defended her.

“[I]ncidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?’ ” Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted.

The split over what constitutes anti-Semitism and how to deal with it is part of a broader struggle among Democrats as the party strives to present itself as the inclusive countermeasure to President Trump. Though 2018 made a case for focusing on nontraditional and minority voters, it’s also shown that a party trying to build on that approach could find itself rethinking a lot of difficult – and longstanding – issues.

Democrats “are trying to figure out who they are, who they represent,” says sociologist Deana Rohlinger. “These more mainstream politicians are increasingly coming under challenge from people who were outside the Beltway and wanting more of a voice.”

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Democrats’ hand-wringing over anti-Semitism vote reveals a party in flux

Even as they set their sights on opposing President Trump, Democrats are increasingly contending with ugly – and public – internal rifts that distract from the party’s chosen message and undercut its unity.

Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar last week criticized Israel’s political influence in the United States at a bookstore event, setting off a firestorm among top Jewish members of the House of Representatives, who say the remarks play into stereotypes about American Jews and “dual loyalty.”

Now the House is expected to vote on a resolution formally condemning anti-Semitism – the second such vote to stem from comments by Omar in as many months. In early February, the congresswoman tweeted that support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins.” (She has since apologized.)

But while senior House Democrats – such as Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Eliot Engel, and Nita Lowey, all of whom are Jewish – have sought to censure Ms. Omar, younger, more progressive members have defended her.

“It’s not my position to tell people how to feel, or that their hurt is invalid. But incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?’ ” Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted.

The split over what constitutes anti-Semitism and how to deal with it is part of a broader struggle among Democrats as the party strives to present itself as the inclusive, multicultural countermeasure to President Trump. Though the 2018 election made a case for focusing more directly on nontraditional and minority voters, it’s also shown that a party trying to build on that approach could find itself rethinking a lot of difficult – and often longstanding – issues.

Democrats “are trying to figure out who they are, who they represent,” says Deana Rohlinger, a sociologist at Florida State University who studies mass media and political participation. “These more mainstream politicians are increasingly coming under challenge from people who were outside the Beltway and wanting more of a voice.” 

The rift has become fodder for critics, taken attention away from the party’s agenda, and highlighted the uncertainty about what type of candidate has the best chance of defeating Trump in a general election.

Instead of focusing on the expected passage this week of H.R. 1 – the big package of bills laying out House Democrats’ legislative goals for the next two years – Speaker Nancy Pelosi has had to handle ideological conflict within her ranks. She and House majority leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland have had to delay the vote on the anti-Semitism resolution so they could add language around anti-Muslim bias to the draft.

Some Republicans have fanned the flames, recognizing the political benefits of a Democratic Party that seems less pro-Israel than it used to be. At a celebration of the GOP at West Virginia’s capitol last Friday, a poster surfaced that linked Omar’s election to fading memories of the 9/11 attacks. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republicans’ campaign arm, has repeatedly called for Omar’s removal from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Republican Party, especially under Trump, doesn’t face the same kind of pressure to condemn every perceived racist or sexist comment its members make. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 78 percent of Republicans say people these days are too easily offended. Only 37 percent of Democrats agree.

Indeed, the GOP only recently reprimanded Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, for asking why white supremacy was problematic, even though the congressman had been making racially charged remarks for years. Other Republican lawmakers have made what critics called anti-Semitic comments – like accusing billionaires with Jewish roots of buying elections – with much less blowback than Omar has faced.

None of these members have apologized specifically for their remarks. (Representative King, for instance, said only that he regretted “the heartburn that has poured forth” as a result of his comments.)

“There are a lot of Americans who don’t think we need to apologize” for anything, says Carah Ong Whaley, a political science professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. “This is a fault line, a division between the parties.”

On the 2020 campaign trail, divisions in party ideology have forced Democratic presidential candidates to seriously weigh their past positions and how to address them. A public reversal on a polarizing issue – as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York made in saying she “really regretted” her pro-gun position as a House representative – could help in the primaries. But it could turn off voters in more conservative areas in the general election, raising questions about such a candidate’s ability to beat Trump in states that are more purple than blue.

“There are some tensions there,” Professor Whaley says.

Yet some say this internal struggle is necessary if the Democratic Party is serious about embracing diversity. True inclusivity, they say, means dealing head-on with the inevitable conflicts that arise when people with different backgrounds and ideas come together under a single banner. At the same time, it calls for a sense of compassion from leaders and the public – and a recognition that it’s going to take some time for the party to come to terms with all the change it’s undergoing.

“In this political moment, leaders running for president are unable to ignore certain issues and topics,” says Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the political action committee Justice Democrats, which helped elect progressives like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. “There has to be room for growth for people changing their positions. But we have to demand accountability, and we have to challenge their genuineness from people who are hopping on the bandwagon of progressive issues.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, says that it’s important to call out discrimination wherever it occurs and that Omar may not always state her opinions in the best possible way. That doesn’t mean she – or anyone else – is not entitled to some space to learn to do better.

“Apology, graciousness, and the ability to recognize the hurt caused to people and a willingness to continue to grow – what better things could you ask of people?” Ms. Jayapal said in an interview last month. “We should acknowledge that.”

Editor’s note: The quote from Alexandra Rojas has been updated to reflect the fact that the interview took place before the House resolution.

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3. Checking candidates’ claims of just ‘little guy’ donors

The rise of small-dollar political donations points to greater transparency and accountability. But those donations are not nearly the whole picture. 

Mark

Will new self-imposed fundraising rules cut off the influence of big money in politics? Not necessarily. Heading into the 2020 presidential campaign, Democratic candidates are eager to show that they are beholden first and foremost to average voters. And indeed, last fall’s midterm elections saw a surge in small donations. But there are huge pots of money largely beyond the control of candidates. In some races, outside spending – including from super PACs and so-called “dark money” groups – exceeds the total fundraising of the candidate and plays an influential role.

In 2018, liberal dark-money groups outspent conservative dark money for the first time, according to Issue One, which advocates for bipartisan political reform. Though such groups are barred from coordinating directly with campaigns, in the tight-knit world of politics such lines can be blurred. Cultivating a grass-roots fundraising base, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont has done, can help insulate a candidate from pressure to return fundraising favors, but it’s just one step. 

“Successfully raising a lot of money from small donors means you can be independent,” says Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. “It doesn’t mean you will be.” – Christa Case Bryant

SOURCE: The Center for Responsive Politics, ProPublica
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Christa Case Bryant and Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. As Turkey gears up for election, hostility at the vegetable tent

How do autocrats win votes? A scene at a vegetable tent in Turkey – where our reporter was verbally attacked and accused of being a spy – gives a firsthand glimpse.

Mark

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At a discount vegetable market in a tent in Istanbul, set up to woo support for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the atmosphere suddenly turns hostile. “They are spies! They are foreign agents!” shouts one thickly jacketed man in the early-morning line of customers, when an American reporter and his translator begin asking questions.

With Turkey’s economy under stress, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has claimed the nation’s very “survival” is at stake. Turkey, he says, is under attack from manipulative foreign powers and price-gouging middlemen. The vote-buying ploy and the hostile rhetoric are all in the service of the AKP, which lost its majority in last year’s parliamentary election and is polling as low as 30 percent as municipal elections loom on March 31.

So, will offering tomatoes, onions, chickpeas, and potatoes at a fraction of the usual market price help the AKP succeed? It’s working, says a teashop owner in the district. “You have a lot of people say they will not vote for the AKP, but these people [the AKP] can bring the dead back to life,” he says. “One way or another, they will get the votes.”

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As Turkey gears up for election, hostility at the vegetable tent

Despite the morning chill, the Turkish shoppers began lining up to buy state-subsidized vegetables two hours early – and one month before they vote in municipal elections that could see the ruling party pummeled over Turkey’s economic crisis.

There is little hostility, at first, when the ad-hoc market opens: Those in line are happy to be there, they say, to buy tomatoes, onions, chickpeas, and potatoes at a fraction of the usual market price.

The marquee canvas tent in the Üsküdar district of Istanbul is like scores set up across the country – one of several pre-election measures to ease the financial stress on Turkish families announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Inside, where workers bag and weigh produce, banners hang, reading: “An all-out struggle against inflation,” with the hashtag: #turkeywillwin.

But the cut-price vegetable sale soon took on broader aspects of the election campaign, in which Mr. Erdoğan’s combative rhetoric targets “traitors” and claims that Turkey is under attack from manipulative foreign powers and price-gouging middlemen. According to Erdoğan the nation’s very “survival” is at stake.

“They are spies! They are foreign agents!” shouts one thickly jacketed man in the line, when an American reporter and his translator begin asking questions. “They are the ones that started all this in the first place!”

Not all the Turks there agree, and some are willing to speak.

“It’s really crowded, it’s always crowded,” says Hakan, an official salesman wearing blue rubber gloves and a warm black hat as he prepares sacks of spinach. “Thanks to the prime minister and president.... It’s helping people who need it, so the people are really happy – it’s a great service.”

“If it’s not good for us, why would we be here?” asks one man in line who gives the name Kenan. Someone else suggests the visitors had “come from America” to create “propaganda” for the main opposition party.

Declining support for AKP

It’s a touchy time for shoppers at the AKP-organized tent.

During its 17 years at the top of Turkish politics, the AKP and its powerful grassroots machine – led by the charismatic Erdoğan – have won nearly every election in their path.

But the AKP lost its majority in last year’s parliamentary election, and some polls show AKP support as low as 30 percent as the March 31 municipal vote looms.

Adding to the AKP’s challenge, Turkey’s economy has been battered in recent years, with the currency losing one quarter of its value in 2018 alone. And there are reportedly preparations among former AKP big shots to form a new, breakaway party if the AKP does poorly at the polls.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Turkish shoppers line up for cut-price vegetables in Istanbul, Feb. 28, 2019, at one of more than 100 such ‘regulated sale points’ across Turkey organized by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party. Turkey’s economic crisis has deepened, with 20 percent inflation, a surge in food prices, and growing unemployment and bankruptcies.

“This is not a poverty line – it’s not for poor folks,” asserts Kenan, as he details how much cheaper vegetables are here. “We’re on the side of the government, and we always are.... This is a measure for the public good.”

One woman in line is not so charitable: “People are hungry, this is obvious. So why are you asking?” she said.

Within minutes, a security guard approaches, demanding that the reporter leave, and saying that the people in line were threatening to call the police if he does not.

‘All to get votes’

A teashop owner in the same district states what no one in the vegetable line would articulate: “These [vegetable tents] are all for the elections, it’s all to get votes,” says Fatih, who asks that only his first name be used. “They are all just pre-election tricks to get the people’s vote.”

And it’s working, he says, just as it did during the June 2018 election, in which a bare majority – just over 52 percent – gave Erdoğan unprecedented new powers. It was a lackluster result, after months of intense AKP campaigning, and vast payouts to retirees and other tactics that added up to $5.5 billion in new spending.

Analysts at the time said Erdoğan had moved that election forward by 18 months to avoid the negative fallout from an anticipated financial crunch. That crisis has since descended, with 20 percent inflation, a surge in food prices, and growing unemployment and bankruptcies. As recession looms, election promises from the AKP include creating 2.5 million new jobs in 2019.

“You have a lot of people say they will not vote for the AKP, but these people [the AKP] can bring the dead back to life,” says Fatih. “One way or another, they will get the votes.”

For weeks already, Erdoğan has raised the stakes by tirelessly holding at least two campaign rallies a day in different cities, reminding the AKP base in granular detail about everything that has been done for them, from the smallest local services to nation-building big infrastructure projects.

‘Economic assassination’

An increasingly strident part of Erdoğan’s message is that all the AKP’s progress has been made despite powerful enemies, at home and abroad. He likened price gougers to “terrorists.”

“The prices of vegetables were rising abnormally. It was manipulation. It was economic assassination. We couldn’t wait,” Erdoğan said in a television interview on Feb. 26. “When you have these middlemen raising prices, it’s the state’s job to get rid of them.... We won’t let our people get exploited.”

The leader of Turkey, a NATO ally, has also accused the US and the European Union of trying to destabilize the country. Turkey had for six years been under “multi-pronged attacks more than ever before; none of these was a coincidence,” Erdoğan said at a rally last week in eastern Turkey.

But some blame the AKP for mismanagement, like electrical shop owner Yilmaz. He voted twice for the AKP and now “really regrets” that he did. His customers in dire straights bargain over the price of a single light bulb, and he has “given up making a profit.” He says he won’t get married or have children because “I don’t see a future.”

“You know what hope is? New blood – this government has to go,” says Yilmaz. “New people, no matter how bad, are better. The system today is only working for itself. They [the AKP] are treating people as fools.”

Beside the vegetable sale points in a half dozen cities – which in recent days expanded to include legumes, rice, and other staples – Erdoğan in January vowed that the state would pay a portion of electricity bills, and introduced relief from credit card debt at state-run banks.

The opposition newspaper Sözcü echoed other critics, calling the moves an “election bribe.”

“Nobody asks why these people cannot pay their debts. Nobody produces a long-term solution,” columnist Murat Muratoğlu wrote, in a translation by the Al-Monitor website. “Now the election is coming, and if [the government] doesn’t distribute money, it will be buried in the ballot boxes.”

Green grocers struggling

But not everyone is happy about the vegetable fire sale, top among them Turkey’s produce retailers. AKP officials speak triumphantly about how prices have now dropped at big chain stores, but also hit are corner shops, where green grocers are struggling. Across the market all are selling at a loss, according to news reports.

“If this continues, we are done for,” says Metin Fincan, the owner for 23 years of a tiny vegetable kiosk, whose prices – already reduced – are double those at the sale tents.

“People ask, ‘Why is it so expensive? Why are you selling tomatoes for 6 liras [$1.14] a kilogram?’” he says. Mr. Fincan was once able to sell 10 boxes of tomatoes in two days, but now can’t sell five boxes in four days.

“There are thousands of us [green grocers], but millions of them buying cheaper vegetables,” he says, surmising the AKP vote calculation, and adding that Turks easily fall prey to such tactics at election time.

“In the [2018] election the AKP thought they would take a hit, so they gave something to retirees,” says Fincan. “This time they must have looked at the polls and come up with this.”

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5. Breeding peacefulness? How human nature may have arrived at kindness.

Much of human history is a tale of violence begetting violence, and that thread remains. But one scientist says it also might have helped shape us into a more cooperative species.

Mark
Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Bonobos at Planckendael zoo in Brussels, Belgium, play in a style easily confused with fighting. A book released in January argues that humanity's apparent dual nature of kindness and aggression stems from our evolutionary past.

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Are humans inherently aggressive or kind? The question has long been a mainstay of philosophers. But anthropologist Richard Wrangham has shifted that debate into the realm of evolutionary biology.

In his book “The Goodness Paradox,” Dr. Wrangham argues that in our evolutionary past, the most reactively aggressive, domineering males were executed by coalitions of subordinate males. In doing so, our species’ capacity for explosive interpersonal violence declined. But at the same time we evolved a propensity for cold-blooded aggression.

Some scholars caution that this view lends too much credence to the notion that our species is predisposed to murder, which could lead to a pessimistic view that lethal violence is an inherent part of the human condition. For his part, Wrangham argues that it is important to acknowledge the role of violence in our species’ past. At the same time, he urges people to heed the words of Katharine Hepburn’s character in “The African Queen,” when she said, “Nature is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

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Breeding peacefulness? How human nature may have arrived at kindness.

Out of all the days humans have spent fighting wars, Dec. 24, 1914, stands out as particularly subversive. At scattered points along the Western Front in Belgium and France, fighting paused, and German and British forces soldiers began singing Christmas carols.

Then, in defiance of the well-heeled generals at the rear, the mostly working-class combatants on both sides laid down their rifles and tentatively emerged from their trenches. Tales of soccer matches are probably exaggerated, but the soldiers did exchange cigarettes and other trinkets and posed for photos together.

The so-called Christmas Truce is notable for juxtaposing our species’ extremes of kindness and aggression, and it illustrates an age-old question about human nature. How can the same species that will readily snap photos and trade gifts with their supposed enemies also readily slaughter each other by the millions?

“The origins of war and its relationship to questions of human nature is an old debate that goes back to the Enlightenment,” says Brian Ferguson, the director of the peace and conflict studies graduate program at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.

The apparent contradiction in human nature has served as a mainstay in philosophy from ancient Confucian philosophy to the European Enlightenment up through today. A book by a prominent Harvard anthropologist offers a fresh approach to answering these questions. 

British primatologist Richard Wrangham offers a somewhat unsettling view that a certain kind of violence may have enabled the rise of human kindness. His hypothesis draws on findings in evolutionary biology, anthropology, primatology, moral psychology, and is sparking debate among those disciplines’ practitioners.

Courtesy of Alexander Georgiev
Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham has revived an age-old question about the roles of violence and kindness in the evolution of humanity.

Our dual nature

“Humans are very extreme in the direction of the frequency of killing and intergroup aggression,” Professor Wrangham, author of “The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution,” published in the United States in January. “And at the same time, we are extremely an outlier in the fact that our interactions within groups are so extraordinarily docile.”

Even compared to bonobos, the peaceable cousins of chimpanzees, typical daily interactions between humans occur with very little physical violence, Professor Wrangham notes. He and his colleagues suggested in 2012 that, compared to chimps, bonobos show the same shortened skull, smaller teeth, and more gracile features that dogs do compared with wolves, guinea pigs with wild cavies, and domesticated foxes with wild foxes. Bonobos’ tranquility, Wrangham and his colleagues suggest, is the product of self-domestication.

The idea that humans are a domesticated species is as old as Aristotle, and was also considered, but ultimately dismissed, by Charles Darwin. But the evidence today supports the idea more strongly than ever. If you compare the skulls of modern humans with those from the mid-Pleistocene epoch, you’d see that our faces are smaller, flatter, and more juvenile, just like domestic animals compared with their wild counterparts. What’s more, humans have been found to share some of the same genes associated with domestication, ones that are absent in the genomes of our extinct relatives.

A grim explanation

But if it’s true that humans are self-domesticated, how did that happen? And why are we the only domesticated mammal that wages war?

“The question that I’ve been interested in is whether war has always been practiced by humans – even before we were fully human – as an expression of some sort of innate predisposition or drive, or has war developed later?” says Ferguson. “Did war have beginnings that reflect the changing nature of society?”

Wrangham argues that the roots of modern warfare lie in the distinction between “reactive aggression” and “proactive aggression.” An example of reactive aggression might occur when you surprise your cat with a pat on the belly. Proactive aggression is when your cat surprises you by quietly sneaking up and pouncing on your foot. Both involve you getting attacked, but the mechanisms producing the behavior are different.

When you frame it like this, it’s clear that, compared with cats, chimpanzees, bonobos, and other mammals, humans score extremely low in levels of reactive aggression, and extremely high in levels of proactive aggression.

What happened in our past to select for these traits? Wrangham argues that the only plausible explanation is what he calls the “execution hypothesis”: Over several thousand generations of prehistoric human history, organized coalitions of males killed off reactively aggressive males, and, in doing so, shifted the course of human evolution.

“Part of how we've been able to become more peaceful is that we kill off the most violent of our leaders,” says Rose McDermott, a professor of international relations at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “Over long periods of time among large numbers of people, you end up with a more – slightly more – egalitarian system. We breed a kind of peacefulness, at least for the in-group.”

Professor McDermott says Wrangham’s book helps explain some of the “emotional undergirding” of principles such as deterrence, both in warfare and in politics.

“When you think about the relationship between leaders and followers,” she says, “in a democracy where we vote people out of office or much more finally with dictators where populations rise up and assassinate them, there exists a universal recognition that vengeance and the drive for vengeance exists.”

“I think really, really good people are capable of really, really bad things under the right circumstances,” says McDermott. “But if you eliminate the capacity to be really bad, maybe you also eliminate the capacity to be really good.”

Wrangham cites examples of such aggression in hunter-gatherer societies. His examples vary in time and place, from Inuits to Aboriginal Australians, but they follow a similar pattern. A group of males identify a domineering or overly aggressive male and wait for the right opportunity to kill him, without injuring themselves.

The emergence of language, particularly sophisticated language some 100,000 to 60,000 years ago, would have greatly aided such conspiracies. “Once that happens, then everything changes,” says Wrangham. “Individual subordinate males can come together and get rid of a dominant. That seems to me to be the ultimate explanation for why human groups – particularly clearly in small-scale societies – do not have alpha males.”

Texas State anthropologist Jill Pruetz, the director of the Fongoli Savanna Chimpanzee Project in Senegal, suggests that Wrangham’s perceptions of violence among chimpanzees may have been shaped by the particular East African subspecies that he observed, which are typically more violent than the West African chimps she works with. More broadly, she’s skeptical about how much the social arrangements of chimpanzees can inform those of humans living today. [Editor's note: An earlier version confused east with west. The Monitor regrets the error.]

“Richard puts out very provocative and interesting ideas,” she says. “But we have to be careful about applying what we know about chimpanzees and bonobos to living humans.”

Rising above nature

Societies have become, on balance, more tolerant and egalitarian in recent centuries. But the continued existence of war shows that our species never abandoned its propensity for proactive aggression. Proactive aggression probably first evolved with hunting behavior, then adapted itself to intergroup aggression, and then to the kinds of planned executions within groups Wrangham describes.

“Even though intergroup aggression absolutely seems to have been a very important part of our evolutionary past, it does not translate simply into complex warfare,” he says, especially when the leaders are behaving with greater reactive aggression than the troops. “The king can order his minions into battle, and his minions are very unhappy about doing it. And the fact that the minions are being ordered into battle is an evolutionary novelty.”

Professor Ferguson, the director of the peace and conflict studies program at Rutgers, argues that violence observed in so-called primitive societies needs to be viewed in the context of European expansionism and colonialism. Lethal violence among chimpanzees, he says, should also be viewed with similar caveats.

To Ferguson, who has read passages from Wrangham’s book but not the whole thing, insisting that humans are innately warlike can undermine peace. “There’s always going to be conflict,” he says. “But we can find ways of dealing with conflict that don’t involve violent, destructive, killing conflict.”

Near the end of the book, Wrangham makes clear that he opposes capital punishment, and that he is hopeful that warfare will decline as the world moves toward an ever smaller number of independent nation-states.

“The past was very rough,” he says. He then quotes Katharine Hepburn’s character in “The African Queen”: “Nature is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

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The Monitor's View

The Arab Spring springs back

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

Sudan is in the midst of a three-month protest against a dictator who has been in power for 30 years. Last month, Algeria experienced huge demonstrations against a longtime ruler. Several other Arab countries, such as Jordan and Morocco, have seen smaller public protests. 

Middle East experts who pointed out that the uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring had largely failed – except in Tunisia – maintained that the Arab world’s nearly 400 million people were not ready to break free from a history of autocrat or sectarian rule. These latest protests, however, hint that many Arabs have not forgotten the shift in their consciousness that was sparked by a Tunisian fruit seller standing up for his rights. They learned not to fear their rulers or remain passive despite handouts designed to ensure their acquiescence. 

The mental liberation of 2011 may have been buried by the wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen and in the harsh crackdowns in Egypt and the Gulf kingdoms. But once gained, the reversal of old thinking is hard to let go. Given the right conditions, it can reemerge.

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The Arab Spring springs back

The Arab country of Sudan is in the midst of its longest popular protest ever – three months – against a dictator who has been in power for 30 years. Last month, another Arab nation, Algeria, experienced its largest demonstrations in decades against a ruler in power for two decades. Over the past year, several other Arab countries, such as Jordan and Morocco, have seen smaller or shorter public protests, with young people on the front lines.

For Middle East experts who said the surprise uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring largely failed – except in Tunisia – this bubbling up of new dissent comes as a second surprise. The Arab world’s 360 million people were not yet ready to break free from a history of autocrat or sectarian rule, the experts said. Order and stability are still preferred over individual rights, liberty of conscience, and a peaceful rotation of power.

These latest protests, however, hint of something lasting from the heady protest days of eight years ago. In a region that gave us the metaphor of a genie that cannot be put back in its bottle, many Arabs have not forgotten the sudden shift in their consciousness, which was sparked by a Tunisian fruit seller standing up for his rights. They learned not to fear their rulers or to remain passive in politics, despite handouts of jobs or money designed to ensure their acquiescence.

The mental liberation of 2011 may have been buried by the wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen and in the harsh crackdowns in Egypt and the Gulf kingdoms. But once gained, the reversal of old thinking is hard to let go. Given the right conditions, it can reemerge, as it has in Sudan and Algeria.

Sudan’s woes are largely economic and lack freedom. A rising middle class wants to see President Omar al-Bashir go. In Algeria, corruption and inefficiency under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – who seeks a fifth term in office – have pushed people into the streets by the tens of thousands.

Moral progress comes in stages, often in fits and starts. In the Arab world, that progress is still driven by an awakening to the ideals of freedom and civic rights. A half-century ago, such uprisings were foretold by the famous Arab poet Nizar Qabbani:

Arab children,

Corn ears of the future, You will break our chains,

Kill the opium in our heads,

Kill the illusions....

You are the generation that will overcome defeat.

Other parts of the world have experienced mass movements that led to democracy. The Arab world need not be different. The road to freedom is not always straight. But once traveled, freedom is not forgotten.

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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.

A deeper kindness

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  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

For today’s contributor, the idea that true kindness has the power of God, divine Love, behind it made all the difference in defusing a heated situation.

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A deeper kindness

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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The man was very agitated and upset as he spoke. This usually level-headed individual was taking out all of his frustration about a specific situation on me, challenging me to react and respond in kind.

But I didn’t feel that would be a productive path for either of us. Instead I quietly thanked him for the information he’d conveyed to me and said I’d get back to him. Then I went home and considered how to respond.

I take Christ Jesus’ command to “love one another” seriously and try to live it in my daily life. As Jesus’ own example showed, this doesn’t mean avoiding confronting evil or wrongdoing. Sometimes the most loving thing is to take a stand against evil with a rebuke. But in any situation, love, rather than anger, is what enables us to respond in the most productive way. And in this case, it seemed clear to me that kindness was called for.

I regularly turn to the Bible for guidance and healing. So here my prayer began with this verse from Proverbs that seemed to speak directly to the situation: “A soft answer turneth away wrath” (15:1). It didn’t seem fruitful to engage in a prolonged debate with this person. However, I knew that given the depth of his frustration, more was required than surface-level kindness. The response needed to speak to his heart.

I was reminded of a passage from another book I often turn to for inspiration, “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science and founder of this newspaper. She writes of qualities that speak to the power of kindness and its healing effects: “A little more grace, a motive made pure, a few truths tenderly told, a heart softened, a character subdued, a life consecrated, would restore the right action of the mental mechanism, and make manifest the movement of body and soul in accord with God” (p. 354).

As I thought and prayed with these ideas, I considered what I’ve learned in Christian Science about the relation between God and man (a name for all the sons and daughters of God). God’s man is the spiritual image and likeness of God, who is all good, so we cannot be both good and evil. The ability to express kindness, grace, and tenderness is inherent in who we are as God’s children.

So when kindness is called for, we can take it further than following common conventions of courtesy to something God-impelled, acknowledging the power of divine Love to bring harmony and healing. I was determined to express this deeper sense of kindness to this individual in our conversation.

When I called the individual back, almost as soon as the conversation began it became clear to me how afraid and unappreciated he felt, and that he needed to be assured that his voice was heard. At that moment, I felt such love and compassion for him. My prayer for a deeper understanding of kindness led me to feel the gentle power of the divine Love that is God, which had impelled that prayer and which speaks to all hearts.

After almost a half-hour on the phone, during which I patiently listened to him, this man’s whole tone and demeanor had changed. He was acting and speaking like himself again. He’s never acted in an upset way toward me again, nor have I thought of him unkindly. It was an important lesson for me in understanding kindness as a spiritual quality of God, infinite Love, and as a natural expression of our loving identity as God’s children.

Kindness is an inherent quality of God’s man – of all of us. When understood this way, it can bring about a softening of heart and a receptivity to good that bring out the best in us and others around us.

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Viewfinder

Not buying a pollution plan

Ahn Young-joon/AP
Workers wearing masks to protect from air pollution attend a rally against the government’s labor policy in Seoul, South Korea, March 6. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has proposed a joint project with China to use artificial rain to clean the air in Seoul, where an acute increase in pollution has caused alarm.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( March 7th, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us. Please come back tomorrow when we look at why teens say the greatest source of anxiety in their lives is anxiety itself.

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