2019
August
29
Thursday

In today’s issue, our five hand-picked stories explore the drawbacks of an unwritten constitution, the role of unions in the 2020 election, what counts as hate speech, the limitations of assumptions, and how a library has expanded its purpose.

But first, a rise in interest in the complexity of our oceans has had a tangible impact this week. 

Mako sharks – the “cheetahs of the ocean” – gained international protections, along with several other shark species. Eels, sea cucumbers, queen conchs, marine turtles, some corals, sturgeons, and sea horses were also added to the list. Fishing of those species is not banned, but any trade now must be sustainable. These new protections probably wouldn’t have happened without recent shifts in public perceptions of the ocean.

Our relationship with the ocean is often framed by our limited ability to interact with this watery world, leaving us with a misperception that the ocean is static and simple. This summer, my colleague Amanda Paulson and I have explored this dynamic, charismatic ecosystem through “Peering into the deep,” a five-part series on the ocean.

While reporting the series, I challenged myself to adjust my own perception of the ocean. I’ve tried to take time to simply observe and soak in whatever I might experience. One moment in particular stands out to me.

To report the final installment (an audio story in today’s issue), audio producer Rebecca Asoulin and I spent four hours sitting on a dock, observing. As night fell, the water came alive in ways I never imagined possible. A bunch of crabs larger than my fist scuttled across the surface looking for tasty morsels. It was a magical moment – a brief window into the marine world – that I would have missed if I hadn’t opened my mind to the unexpected.

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1. Boris’ move: A tough new test for a democracy with unwritten rules

The cries of “constitutional crisis” coming from the U.K. are likely overstated. But when a constitution is unwritten like Britain’s, even deviation from norms can stir controversy.

Eva
Vudi Xhymshiti/AP
Anti-Brexit demonstrators protest in front of the Houses of Parliament in London after Prime Minister Boris Johnson maneuvered on Wednesday to give his political opponents even less time to block a no-deal Brexit before the Oct. 31 withdrawal deadline.

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The step of suspending, or proroguing, the Parliament of the United Kingdom is a formality before starting a new legislative session. But the gap normally lasts days, not weeks. So when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a five-week break ending little more than a fortnight before the country is due to exit the European Union, it inflamed British politics.

But while Mr. Johnson’s hardball tactics strain political propriety, they’re not quite the nuclear option that some had feared – though they may still intensify a political crisis ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline. By reducing the legislative days available before then, Mr. Johnson’s minority government hopes to strengthen its hand. The risk is that both sides will escalate further, adding to the stress on a democracy that relies on unwritten norms and conventions.

“You have a government that is acting with contempt for Parliament,” says Thom Brooks, a professor at Durham University, England. While British leaders have long chafed at parliamentary scrutiny, they have also felt bound to make their case to MPs. A government that flouts norms to avoid scrutiny “is a real challenge for parliamentary democracy.”

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Boris’ move: A tough new test for a democracy with unwritten rules

When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his decision Wednesday to suspend Parliament for over a month, in an apparent bid to fetter the implacable opposition to his Brexit strategy, he got a raucous response.

John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons – a nonvoting, neutral post – called it a “constitutional outrage.” Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, said it was “a dark day for democracy.” Thousands of protesters gathered outside Parliament to decry the move. By Thursday, 1.5 million people had signed an online petition opposing suspension. And it is facing legal challenges in three separate U.K. courts.

But while Mr. Johnson’s hardball tactics strain political propriety, they’re not quite the nuclear option that some had feared – though they may still intensify a political crisis ahead of Oct. 31, the current deadline for Britain to leave the European Union.

By cutting the parliamentary days available before the deadline, Mr. Johnson’s minority government hopes to strengthen its hand over members of Parliament, including rebels in its own ranks. The risk is that both sides will escalate further, adding to the stress on a democracy that relies on unwritten norms and conventions.

“It’s definitely sharp practice,” says Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at Nottingham University, England. “It’s the context [of Brexit] that makes it outrageous. But the British Constitution allows us to do these things.”

Contempt for Parliament

The tussle between legislature and executive over Brexit has already upended several norms.

When Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, refused last December to publish the government’s legal advice on her Brexit deal, lawmakers voted to hold the government in contempt, a rare rebuke. (Ms. May later shared the legal advice.) Dominic Cummings, a sharp-tongued aide to Mr. Johnson and an architect of the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, was separately found in contempt of Parliament when he refused to testify about alleged irregularities.

“You have a government that is acting with contempt for Parliament,” says Thom Brooks, a professor of law and government at Durham University, England. While British leaders have long chafed at parliamentary scrutiny, they have also felt bound to make their case to MPs. A government that flouts norms to avoid scrutiny “is a real challenge for parliamentary democracy.”

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Mr. Johnson's decision to prorogue Parliament until shortly before the Brexit deadline was top news across the U.K.

The step of suspending, or proroguing, Parliament by royal command is a formality before starting a new legislative session. But the gap normally lasts days, not weeks, and the controversy turns on the timing: Opponents of Mr. Johnson, who took power in July, have been formulating a strategy to stop the United Kingdom leaving the EU without an agreement.

One option under discussion was to pass emergency legislation that tied Mr. Johnson’s hands, as was done to Ms. May. That now looks much harder to achieve on time. Any bills that don’t pass before the end of the session must start over after Oct. 14, when Parliament returns.

The other option to stop a no-deal Brexit is a no-confidence vote to bring down the government. But opposition MPs have struggled for weeks to agree on who should lead an alternative government and what to do about Brexit, beyond seeking another extension from EU leaders weary of British intransigence.

“There’s a clear majority against no deal in the House of Commons. But there isn’t a majority for anything else, and that’s why they’re stuck,” says Mr. Fielding.  

Preparing for no-deal Brexit?

How far Mr. Johnson’s opponents are prepared to go is an open question. So, too, is Mr. Johnson’s political endgame.

His defenders say he was backed into a corner by the scheming of norm-defying MPs determined to stop Brexit, which he has vowed to deliver on time. By neutralizing their schemes, he can go back to his EU counterparts and insist on concessions that Ms. May wasn’t able to win because she couldn’t credibly threaten to walk away.

“He can give the impression that in every sense he’s committed to no-deal Brexit in a way that Theresa May never was,” observes Dr. Brooks.

In his letter to MPs, Mr. Johnson said that a deal may be reached at a summit of European leaders on Oct. 17-18 and that Parliament would then be able to vote on it. He said that “only by showing unity and resolve” could the U.K. secure a deal “that can be passed by Parliament.” 

Still, the chances for such a revised deal appear slim given the gulf between the EU and U.K. on key elements, including intra-Ireland border trade that is under EU rules. Mr. Johnson has said that the so-called Irish backstop – a temporary customs arrangement to prevent the return of a hard border – must be struck from the deal. EU officials have repeatedly rejected this idea.

Rather, Mr. Johnson appears to be preparing for a no-deal Brexit and looking for a political upside, says Mr. Fielding. For millions of voters who want to leave the EU with or without a deal, the outrage over the suspension of Parliament burnishes Mr. Johnson’s image as a risk-taker who puts Brexit first, in contrast to Ms. May’s fitful efforts to build consensus for an orderly departure.

In an increasingly fractured party system, this could be enough to win a snap election that is widely expected after Britain leaves. “He will go to the country as the man who has taken on all these people who tried to stop Brexit,” says Mr. Fielding.

John Strafford, a Conservative activist and former party executive in Beaconsfield, a prosperous London suburb, says Mr. Johnson’s no-holds-bars leadership has fired up the base. “It’s such a difference. For three years we’ve been pessimistic and down in the dumps and getting nowhere. Now people have got hope,” he says. “They can see an end date.”

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Monitor Breakfast

2. Unions aim to roar in 2020

The idea of giving greater voice to workers may be gaining traction. Labor leader Richard Trumka links it not just to economics but also to concerns about the health of an increasingly diverse democracy.

Eva

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Despite its setbacks, or perhaps because of them, organized labor has an energy level that AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka says he hasn’t seen before in his 50 years with the movement.

Unions are pushing for more than just lip service from presidential candidates, which is prompting a flurry of pro-labor proposals from Democratic candidates. Mr. Trumka, speaking at a Monitor Breakfast with reporters Thursday, sees that as a plus for the 2020 campaign. He and other labor leaders say their values are the same basic concerns that resonate with the vast majority of Americans: economic security, inclusiveness, and the principle of democracy.

It remains to be seen how successful unions will be in influencing the nomination process and election outcome. But new polling data from Gallup finds they have been gaining in public esteem, with their favorable rating now at 64%.

“Our nation’s being poisoned by hateful rhetoric and divisive tactics at the highest levels of government,” Mr. Trumka said. “Our labor movement is offering a path forward that’s lit by solidarity.”

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Unions aim to roar in 2020

In the coming presidential election organized labor looks set to wield influence in a way that never really happened in 2016. 

It’s not that union membership nationwide has rebounded. Rather, by its very travails, which in many ways echo the challenges working Americans feel in their own lives, the labor movement seems to be drawing fresh energy.

Polls show it has gained in public esteem. Despite setbacks in court and federal policy, unions have scored some wins in grassroots organizing and in state and local policies. And unlike in 2016, they are pushing for more than just lip service from any candidate that hopes to win their endorsement – prompting a flurry of pro-labor proposals from Democratic candidates.

If unions may be learning to roar again, labor leaders say one reason is that their values are the same basic concerns – over economic security, inclusiveness, the principle of democracy – that resonate with the vast majority of Americans.

“Kitchen-table economics are first and foremost” in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said Thursday, at a Monitor Breakfast with reporters in Washington. Americans “want somebody who’s going to change the rules of the economy to make the country work for workers.”

Behind all this are both financial and social shifts. On the economy, one widespread public concern is that the balance of power between workers and employers has gone off-kilter since the 1970s, and remains skewed even in today’s relatively strong job market. But the idea of a voice for workers also may be gaining wider resonance due to concerns about the health of democracy and the fabric of civic life in an increasingly diverse nation. 

“The union message is a powerful message,” says Paul Frymer, a professor of politics at Princeton University in New Jersey. “The union movement has declined” from its former size, but “the working class has not declined.”

Reaching out

In Mr. Frymer’s view, the labor movement is finding creative ways to reach beyond its own membership, using campaigns such as the Fight for $15 to be a crusader for all workers.

And the potential influence shouldn’t be discounted, he says, even though the union movement has declined in six decades from representing about one-third of workers to about 10.5%. 

“It’s still, as a group, huge,” Mr. Frymer says. “I mean, what other group has the size of unions? The NRA? Not close.”

For his part, Mr. Trumka said that in his more than 50 years of union involvement, starting with Pennsylvania mine workers, “I’ve never felt this much energy and determination from working people.”

In his opening remarks at the breakfast Thursday, he connected that energy to wider political currents, not just to concerns over pay, pensions, and worker safety.

“Working people are rising to meet a moment in history, because we know something is deeply, deeply wrong. Our nation’s being poisoned by hateful rhetoric and divisive tactics at the highest levels of government,” he said, referring pointedly to a rolling up of America’s welcome mat for immigrants, and to polling evidence that many Millennials have lost faith in democracy. 

“Our labor movement is offering a path forward that’s lit by solidarity,” he said.

New setbacks

Not all Americans are rallying to labor’s new roar, by any means. Many remain skeptical of the idea of more union representation as an essential answer to economic or other challenges. 

Even among union ranks, the theme of solidarity doesn’t mean lockstep unity on politics. And the labor movement isn’t immune to internal challenges – as spotlighted this week by FBI raids on United Autoworkers facilities and the homes of the current UAW president and his predecessor in a widening corruption probe. So it remains to be seen if labor will translate its rising energy into having a labor-endorsed nominee win the White House – let alone whether Democrats, if in power, will put a priority on new labor laws. 

Still, a Gallup survey released this week finds Americans’ favorable view of labor unions at 64%, approaching the highest levels seen in 50 years and up sharply from 48% during the Great Recession. 

Mr. Trumka said unions are growing, from the public sector (such as teachers) to large and small private-sector employers. The gains over the past few years haven’t meaningfully reversed the long-term decline, but they could represent a turning point.

For many workers, action on their behalf can’t come too soon. 

 “I am looking for a president who will support higher wages, strong unions, and trainings so we can provide better care,” says April Perales, a home-care worker in Las Vegas who struggles on $11 an hour to help provide for her family. That’s higher than the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and higher than Nevada’s $8.25 floor, but still provides only about $23,000 to someone who works 40 hours a week.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has asked presidential candidates to “walk a day” in the shoes of ordinary workers, and recently Ms. Perales brought candidate Beto O’Rourke of Texas out on the job with her. 

Pro-union or pro forma?

In the past, while capturing most union votes, the Democratic party has often failed to deliver significant pro-labor legislation, even when it has held both the White House and Congress, Mr. Frymer says. Other priorities take center stage.

Will this time be different? 

At least one change is that candidates on the left have begun rolling out more detailed plans than in the past, focused on worker empowerment.

Mr. O’Rourke, for example, has come out with a set of proposals designed to bolster unions.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has an “accountable capitalism” agenda that would make workers a significant force on corporate boards, among other things. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont recently laid out proposals that include radically changing the playing field, so that worker empowerment doesn’t hinge on gaining representation one employer at a time. His idea is to “establish a sectoral collective-bargaining system that will work to set wages, benefits and hours across entire industries, not just employer-by-employer.”

Similarly, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., has embraced “multi-employer” bargaining, and stood alongside Uber drivers in California this month, arguing for union representation in so-called gig jobs where workers are often classified by companies as contractors rather than employees.

While it’s a matter of debate among economists, some researchers say the decline of labor unions has been an important causal factor in the stagnation of income that many workers have experienced. And many argue that reducing inequality of incomes could make the whole economy healthier, as working people spend more and are better able to advance their skills.

“Candidates seem to be much more wholeheartedly embracing labor unions ... than I have seen before,” says David Madland, a labor policy expert at the advocacy arm of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.

“[We’re at] this moment where labor is very, very important to the political system, and is seen as part of the answer to our problems,” he says. 

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3. As South Africa reckons with history, court restricts its ‘Old Flag’

Can a symbol infringe on people’s rights? It may seem odd to debate whether a flag with no words counts as hate speech. But to many South Africans, the apartheid-era flag speaks volumes.

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When South Africa’s “Old Flag” was first created, it was meant as a symbol of unity between British settlers and Dutch-descended Afrikaners. To most South Africans, though, that flag now represents the opposite: decades of segregation under apartheid.

The debate has more than a bit of resonance with U.S. discussions over the Confederate battle flag. But where U.S. law has generally erred toward protecting the freedoms of those who fly it, South Africa has taken a different direction. 

Last week, a court ruled that many displays of the flag constitute hate speech, discrimination, and harassment. The right to use it more widely had been supported by two Afrikaner groups, who argued it was a matter of free speech. “Not a single person is going to be more prosperous in this country because the flag is banned,” says Ernst Roets, of the advocacy group AfriForum.

But opponents claim the flag represents such a dehumanizing system that it threatens citizens’ dignity and equality. 

“There’s been a lot of posturing that we’re a rainbow nation where everyone wants the same things,” says recent university graduate Gugu Resha. “But this [flag issue] is showing the cracks in that story we tell ourselves.”

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As South Africa reckons with history, court restricts its ‘Old Flag’

The flag meant cultural pride. Or it meant hate, pure and simple. It was the icon of a proud history, or a shameful one. It symbolized heritage. It symbolized racism.

Thousands of miles from the American South, the debate that has played out in recent months over whether to restrict the use of South Africa’s apartheid-era national flag has a familiar ring to it.

For the small group supporting the right to display the flag – once the banner of South Africa’s white minority state – the case was about freedom of speech, no matter how offensive. Ban the flag, they argued, and the country’s young democracy would risk limiting the very liberties that countless people had fought and died for in the struggle against apartheid.

For those who supported restrictions on the flag’s use, the banner provoked a violent, degrading history. It had no value in the new South Africa. Like Germany and other European countries that restricted icons associated with Nazism, they argued, the country should recognize some symbols as too hateful and demeaning to be considered free speech.

But if in the United States legal conversations around the Confederate battle flag have generally erred toward protecting the freedoms of those who fly it, in South Africa the same conversation has taken a different direction. Last week, a court here ruled that the flag was a “vivid symbol of white supremacy and black disenfranchisement” and should be banned from display in most contexts. (Educational purposes like museums and journalism, as well as artistic works, were exempted.)

The flag “is a symbol that immortalises the period of a system of racial segregation, racial oppression through apartheid, and of South Africa as an international pariah state that dehumanized the black population,” wrote Judge Phineas Mojapelo, the high court judge who ruled in the case on behalf of South Africa’s special equality courts. “Gratuitous display of the Old Flag constitutes prohibited hate speech, unfair discrimination, and harassment.” 

Reuters/File
Afrikaner children carry flags of the old Boer Republic (right) and the flag South Africa used from 1928 to 1994 (left) during commemoration ceremonies for the centenary of the Boer War. Earlier this month, a South African court ruled that many uses of the "Old Flag" constitute hate speech.

In many ways, the decision is part of wider reckoning in South Africa with symbols of its racist past. Dec. 16, a date that once celebrated colonial-era military conquest, has been replaced with a public holiday commemorating “reconciliation.” Towns have rechristened hundreds of roads named for apartheid and colonial leaders, and in some cases they’ve even changed their own names. Monuments – like the pensive statue of British Empire-maker Cecil Rhodes that sat for decades at the center of the University of Cape Town – have been removed from their perches after protests.

That conversation has rarely been easy. And in a country where people were deliberately and rigidly separated for generations, opinions on the country’s past can be equally distant from one another.

“We’re just not all on the same page when it comes to discussions of our past,” says Gugu Resha, a recent university graduate and the author of the op-ed “Old flag debate is a symptom of a deeper malaise.” 

“There’s been a lot of posturing that we’re a rainbow nation where everyone wants the same things – to have a peaceful country, to have a united country. But this [flag issue] is showing the cracks in that story we tell ourselves.” 

The “Old Flag,” as it was called in court filings, was the flag of a series of governments in South Africa directed by the country’s white minority – which has always made up less than 20% of the country’s total population. It was inaugurated in the late 1920s as a symbol of unity between South Africa’s British settlers and the Afrikaners, a community of mostly Dutch descent that had been living in the region since the 1600s. 

But it remained the flag throughout the apartheid era, the political system of extreme segregation in place between 1948 and 1994, becoming a prominent global symbol of the country’s violent white minority rule.

It has also proved an enduring one. White supremacist Dylann Roof, for example, who killed nine people in an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, posed for a Facebook profile picture in a jacket with the old South African flag stitched onto the breast.

When hundreds of white South Africans gathered in 2017 to protest the killings of white farmers, which some far-right figures have cast as part of a supposed threat of “genocide,” a number of protesters flew the old South African flag. (The notion that there is a campaign of violence against white farmers has been debunked by several sources.) 

The protests spurred the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the nonprofit started by the former South African president, to file a court challenge. It asked to severely restrict the flag’s use on the grounds that it was shorthand for supporting a system that deprived black South Africans of their fundamental rights, and thus threatened the dignity and equality of the majority of South Africa’s population. The flag, argued the foundation’s lawyer, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, was the “most visible symbol of the dehumanising effect” of apartheid on black South Africans.

The flag’s use was supported by two groups representing the Afrikaner community, AfriForum – which often takes on court challenges related to “minority rights” in South Africa – and the Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Associations (FAK). (Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans constitute about 5% of the country’s population.) FAK argued that the flag had “culturally historic value,” while AfriForum contended the flag should be permitted on free speech grounds, and claimed attempts to limit its use were politically motivated.

“The ruling elites can see that their project is failing and they need to do something to show to people that they’re still fighting the revolution,” says Ernst Roets, head of policy and action for AfriForum. “Not a single person is going to be more prosperous in this country because the flag is banned.”

But the court “argued that symbols need to be regulated,” says Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, a legal analyst and head of special projects at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. “Not that they don’t exist. Not that they aren’t a part of history. But that when they’re symbols of hate and oppression they ought to be viewed as such, and considered not as protected speech but as hate speech.”

For Ms. Resha, who was born after the end of apartheid, the continued debate over the flag is a reminder that the history she was taught to consider over and done with still lives in the present.

“History isn’t apolitical. History is made by people – people who can choose the symbols that are important to us,” she says. “We created a new [national] flag; we can create other new symbols of who we are as a nation, too.”

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Peering into the deep

Discovery beneath the waves

4. Wait, fish make noise? Meet the ‘fish listeners.’

The ocean has long been called a silent world. But such assumptions about unexplored places limit our understanding of our own planet – and our ability to be good stewards of it. This audio story is the final installment of the five-part series “Peering into the deep.”

Eva
Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Rodney Rountree, "the fish listener," a marine biologist and adjunct associate professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, prepares for a night listening session at the Cotuit town dock on July 24, 2019, in Cotuit, Massachusetts.

We know this question has been keeping so many of you up at night: What does a cusk eel chorus sound like?

We often think of the ocean as a silent world, completely separate from our own. But it’s not so silent, and we’re not so separate. The ocean is quite noisy, and we’re making it even noisier, which has major ramifications that we’re just beginning to understand.

So yes, fish make sounds, and we have the audio to prove it.

Marine ecologist Leila Hatch and fellow fish listener Rodney Rountree – a.k.a. “Captain Kirk of the fish world” – serve as guides to the soundscape of the sea.

Listen to the full audio story below. 

Note: This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story.

LISTEN: Wait, fish make noise? Meet the fish listeners.

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5. The hottest ticket in Canada: A noisy library with much more than books

Think of libraries, and you think of books. But what are they really there for: community, learning, exploration? Calgary is the latest city reimagining how to serve those needs.

Eva
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The new Calgary Central Library in Alberta has drawn more than a million visitors since it opened in November 2018. The $185 million, six-level building includes a encapsulated light rail line and a stairway that spirals upward 85 feet to the skylight.

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Calgary’s new Central Library is not really about the books. With recording studios for podcasters, language services for new immigrants, and the quiet reading room on the highest floor, it’s the new place in Canada right now, an architectural gem so unique that a light rail train runs through its foundation. Built in a fashion that recalls a ship, it also stands as a show of resistance for an oil city that’s been dragged into a multiyear slump.

Sarah Meilleur, the library’s director of service delivery, says the space, which opened in November 2018, is more relevant than ever. “Public libraries can be seen as a refuge when people aren’t going to work anymore,” she says. “They can use many of the digital resources that we have, as well as gain new skills.”

Already drawing more than a million visitors, Central Library has also become a de facto service center for homeless people and those who might not be welcome elsewhere. “That role has been forced on them because other social services are dwindling,” says Aritha van Herk, a bibliophile and local professor. “But they have picked up that task with so much generosity.”

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The hottest ticket in Canada: A noisy library with much more than books

It’s the week of the Calgary Stampede, one of the best-known rodeos on the North American circuit, drawing over 1.27 million visitors this year.

But first, Robert Sulea has something more pressing to show his mom, who is visiting from southern Michigan: the library. “It’s amazing, it’s absolutely beautiful,” he gushes as the pair look up to the oculus skylight, which bathes the building in summer sunlight.

Young and sharp-looking, Mr. Sulea, who works in the oil and gas industry, doesn’t look particularly bookish. But then again, Calgary’s new Central Library is not really about the books. It’s the new place in Canada right now, an architectural gem so unique that a light rail train runs through its foundation. Built in a fashion that recalls a ship, it also stands as a show of resistance for an oil city that’s been dragged into a multiyear slump.

“When the library was begun the city was in a boom situation. But [amid recession] there was an insistence that it wasn’t going to be dumped,” says Aritha van Herk, an author and writing professor at the University of Calgary. “Now that’s Calgary. ... It’s the energy of this city and its determination to always move forward. It’s not a surprise that this library is shaped like the prow of a ship moving ahead.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Lionel Peyachew's 'Education is the New Buffalo' stands in a concourse at the Calgary Central Library. One of the First Nation artists featured at the library, Mr. Peyachew chose to honor the buffalo as the universal symbol for all indigenous people and as a legacy for survival for all cultures.

Given harder times – often measured by the nearly 25% vacancy rate for downtown offices – the $245 million (Canadian; U.S. $185 million) project could appear incongruous.

But Sarah Meilleur, the library’s director of service delivery, insists that the decline makes the new addition more relevant than ever. “Public libraries can be seen as a refuge when people aren’t going to work anymore,” she says. “They can use the computer, they can use many of the digital resources that we have, as well as gain new skills.” 

Well before 9 a.m., when library doors open, a crowd has already formed. Ms. Meilleur takes visitors on a tour, pointing out the highlights of the building – starting with the exterior archway, built to echo the Chinook arch, cloud formations unique to Calgary as warm winds come over the mountains from the west in wintertime. In the lobby is the “book-scalator,” the 21st-century mode of book-returning that’s a hit among kids.

We walk past meeting spaces, where anyone with a library card can book a room – a member of the Persian book club or the board of the Ultimate Frisbee league. There are recording studios for budding podcasters. There are lockers to check out and store laptops and language and orientation services for new immigrants.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The oval-shaped Calgary Central Library uses translucent fritted glass panels on its façade. The sculpture 'Trio,' by artist Christian Moeller, incorporates pendulum-like movement. One of its three pieces is located on another side of the building. Mr. Moeller's works were partly chosen for their whimsical quality.

We are quickly ushered through the teen area, to not pollute the space with adult presence. “On a Friday night there can be upwards of 100 teens spending time in the library, which is pretty incredible, to think that the library has become a destination for teenagers,” says Ms. Meilleur. “We’re cool.” 

Libraries are apparently cool among millennials too. A 2017 Pew study showed that 53% of the youngest adults in the U.S. say they used a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months, the highest percentage among age segments.

Calgary’s new public library is intended to get quieter as one ascends. In fact it’s only on the top floor, in the wood-paneled “TD Great Reading Room,” that the space begins to resemble the kind of spot more typically associated with a library.

This fact irks some locals. “I like the building. I don’t think it has enough books in it,” gripes Darryl Green, a retired plumber who visits thrice weekly. “I find it noisy. Libraries, we didn’t talk in them, and they were all real quiet. But that’s not what happens now. Now we have forgone that just to get people in the doors. So you have people doing drumming downstairs and stuff like that. It’s not really what a library is.”

On this point, Calgary is certainly not alone. Libraries across the globe, from Finland to Qatar, are becoming tourist attractions in their own right. Calgary’s new library propelled the city to The New York Times’ annual “52 Places to Go” list for 2019. And Time magazine included it in its “World’s 100 Greatest Places of 2019” edition. During its opening days last November, more than 52,000 visited, and since then the number has grown to 1.2 million (although that’s still just a bit less than the number during 10 days of the Calgary Stampede this July). 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An oversized chess game sits in front of an art installation called 'Fish,' by Los Angeles-based Christian Moeller, at the Calgary Central Library. 'Fish' is composed of more than 10,000 books in 12 colors.

It’s also become a de facto service center, open to the homeless or those addicted to drugs. “That role has been forced on them because other social services are dwindling,” says Professor Van Herk, a bibliophile who makes a point of visiting a library in every new place she goes and who has lost count of her tally. “But they have picked up that task with so much generosity.”

Its very presence, connecting the once-ailing East Village to downtown with an archway, is a statement, where city hall famously “turned its back” on the neighborhood with a solid wall. 

Two homeless friends, who don’t wish to share their names, are reading magazines on a recent afternoon. They come daily. They were regulars at the old library too, but here they sit at the “prow,” in a living-room setting looking out on their city. It can get stuffy, says one. They agree with Mr. Green that it can be loud. But when asked to use one word to describe what this place means, one replies “openness.” The other says “welcome.”

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The Monitor's View

Philippines challenges China’s mischief on the seas

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This weekend, protesters will be out again on Hong Kong’s streets, challenging China’s concept of rule of law. They are not alone. On Thursday, the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, went to Beijing to deliver a similar message that China must accept the international norm that rule of law is a value for all, not an arbitrary tool of the powerful.

In recent years, the Philippines has borne the brunt of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s campaign to dominate much of the South China Sea, even many submerged rocks hundreds of miles from China’s shores. In 2016, most of Beijing’s “historical” claims were rejected by an international arbitration panel in a case brought by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Mr. Duterte is under pressure at home to stand up for global rules about ownership and use of offshore waters. His voice now joins the chorus of the Hong Kong protesters who see rule of law as universal, not capricious under a party or person.

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Philippines challenges China’s mischief on the seas

This weekend, protesters will be out again on Hong Kong’s streets, challenging China’s concept of rule of law. Last year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping made clear that rule of law merely means “the law of governing by the Communist Party.” Yet the protesters are not alone on the world scene. On Thursday, the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, went to Beijing to deliver a similar message directly to Mr. Xi. The gist of the message: China must accept the international norm that rule of law is a value for all, not an arbitrary tool of the powerful.

In recent years, the Philippines has borne the brunt of Mr. Xi’s campaign to dominate much of the South China Sea, even many submerged rocks hundreds of miles from China’s shores. In 2016, most of Beijing’s “historical” claims were rejected by an international arbitration panel in a case brought by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China does not accept the ruling. In other words, it remains an outlaw under international law. And lately, Chinese vessels have stepped up maritime harassment near the Philippines as well as in the waters of two other Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam and Malaysia.

In June, a Chinese trawler hit and sank a Philippine boat, leaving 22 fishermen stranded. As a result, public outrage exploded in the Philippines against China’s illegal encroachment on the country’s watery turf. A month earlier, the Philippine Supreme Court had ordered the government to protect the country’s maritime environment against illegal Chinese activity. The Philippine military has been especially upset that China has built a military base on Mischief Reef, a low-tide feature on the continental shelf of the Philippines.

“China’s artificial island building program at Mischief Reef is the single greatest obstacle to an orderly settlement of disputes in the South China Sea,” write two scholars at Ontario’s University of Waterloo, David Welch and Kobi Logendrarajah.

Until these recent events, Mr. Duterte had mostly befriended China and accepted promises of financial aid. Now under pressure to stand up for global rules about ownership and use of offshore waters, he is finally protesting China’s affront to international law. His voice now joins the chorus of the Hong Kong protesters who see rule of law as universal, not capricious under a party or person.

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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.

When the light dawns

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Sometimes we may feel confused, agitated, and in the dark. Calling on the divine Mind, or God, for help brings clarity and light.

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When the light dawns

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Recently my mare became a first-time mom. The delivery went perfectly. But when the newborn foal tried to get to his feet to nurse, the mare suddenly became so afraid and agitated by this new, alien presence in her stall that she wouldn’t let the foal get near her.

Those of us present knew the baby had to quickly get his first important drink of milk, so we restrained the mare. The moment the foal finally drank, the mare “got it.” This was her baby, who needed her care. In a nanosecond her whole demeanor changed. She became calm, attentive, protective. You might say the light dawned.

Sometimes we may feel like my mare did: confused, agitated, and in the dark. We yearn for clarity, for that burst of light that obliterates every bit of darkness.

In situations like that, I find it helpful to remember a powerful verse found in the Bible: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). To me this says that when we turn to God as the source of all light, then confusion, agitation, and doubt can vanish in a moment.

This idea has always meant a lot to me. Over and over when I’ve needed this light, I’ve asked God to show me what I need to know. This is one way of praying – consciously opening my thought to become more aware of God’s radiant presence.

I found myself in need of this divine illumination when I’d applied to grad school and been turned down by my school of choice. Graduate work truly felt like the right next step for me, but without an acceptance I had no idea what to do.

I’ve learned through reading the Bible and “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by the discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, that God is an intelligent, all-knowing, entirely good God. In God’s kingdom, in the spiritual reality of existence, there is no darkness.

When we are cognizant of this reality, we become more conscious of divine light, which reveals to us whatever is needed. Answers and solutions that were not immediately discernible before become apparent as mental darkness – such as ignorance, fear, or negativity – is dissolved by this light.

So one Sunday, I prayed in this simple way: “God, what?” I knew that opening my thinking to the divine presence would shed light on things. What did I need to know to see God’s goodness more tangibly, to find my path forward?

Instantly, the name of a university I knew nothing about came to mind so clearly that I thought, “That’s where I’m going.”

It wasn’t as simple as it sounded. I applied, as I had with the other school, and got rejected again. But because of the light that had dawned for me so clearly, I felt inspired to take the unusual step of writing back and asking the admission staff to reconsider. And I was grateful but not surprised when they said yes and even offered me a teaching assistantship. The opportunity proved to be a perfect fit.

What’s so cool about the light of divine inspiration is that it’s instant. Just as light and dark can’t exist together, problems can’t exist in God’s creation. As we gain a clearer understanding of God as infinitely loving and good, solutions to things that seemed unsolvable are revealed. Jesus showed this to be the case over and over again in his ministry; his spiritual clarity led to instant healing countless times.

This light is always available, even though it may not always be evident immediately. Here’s the reason why, as Science and Health explains: “Divine Science, the Word of God, saith to the darkness upon the face of error, ‘God is All-in-all,’ and the light of ever-present Love illumines the universe” (p. 503).

As we turn in prayer to this divine light, it will show us whatever we need to know. It is constant, reliable. When we call on the divine Mind, or God, for help and yield to this divine illumination, we can watch the scene shift as the light dawns.

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Viewfinder

In relief

Jon Nazca/Reuters
A migrant child intercepted off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea waves as she waits to disembark from a rescue boat at the port of Malaga, southern Spain, Aug. 29, 2019.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( August 30th, 2019 )

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story exploring how and why Iran and Israel are crossing red lines to hit each other militarily. What changed?

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