2019
September
11
Wednesday

Today’s stories explore California’s role as national trendsetter, John Bolton’s departure, efforts to eradicate hate, the first televised political debate in a young democracy, and one reporter’s journey into a new language.

But first, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, xenophobia – particularly Islamophobia – rose. Some Americans have sought to counter that divisiveness and fear with unity and compassion. 

“We owe more than division and discord to those who perished from the attacks and those who served in its aftermath,” said Jay Winuk, whose brother Glenn, a volunteer firefighter and EMT, died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Mr. Winuk co-founded “9/11 Day” an organization that promotes service and unity. “The anniversary of 9/11 should be a reminder to us all about our common humanity and the opportunity we have to help people and communities in need.”

At the very spot where a plane crashed into the Pentagon now stands a chapel where employees of all faiths can pray together. Manal Ezzat, a 9/11 survivor who was an engineer at the Pentagon and is Muslim, led the team that created that space. “We just wanted to make it a peaceful place that could help wipe away the tragedy,” she told The Washington Post.

An annual Unity Walk also draws people of different faiths together in Washington to commemorate 9/11.

“There are so many forces in American society, in human society actually, that simply tell us we were not intended to live together in peace or in harmony,” the archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, said during the opening ceremony of the 14th annual Unity Walk. “This celebration is the anti-venom to that thinking – not only were we intended to walk together, we are intended to live together in harmony. We were intended to walk together into the future.”

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1. California redefines gig economy. Will rest of country follow?

Has the world been California-ized? Beyond Silicon Valley and Hollywood, the fifth-largest economy is also setting trends for environmental and other industry regulations.

Eva

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As California winds up its first legislative session under complete Democratic control this week, it’s taking up pathbreaking legislation. Perhaps the most groundbreaking might be the redefinition of what it means to be a worker in today’s flexible “gig” economy. A controversial bill passed Tuesday by the state Senate, which Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he will sign, could remake 1 million jobs from Uber to DoorDash.

It is just one of several measures that would reinforce California’s image as a national trendsetter: New laws include the nation’s first trapping ban on fur animals and a crackdown on doctors granting vaccine exemptions. 

“It’s something that other states will look at,” says California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, of the gig economy legislation that would turn independent contractors for companies like Lyft into employees with protections. Even if the companies succeed in some later modification, whatever the ultimate outcome, it’s bound to have a national impact, observers say.

Why? Because “we’re big,” says Dr. Jeffe. “We’re the fifth-largest economy in the world.”

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California redefines gig economy. Will rest of country follow?

As California winds up its first legislative session under complete Democratic control this week, it’s taking up pathbreaking legislation.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking is the redefinition of what it means to be a worker in today’s flexible “gig” economy. A controversial bill passed Tuesday by the state Senate, which Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he will sign, could remake 1 million jobs from Uber to DoorDash.

It is just one of several measures that would reinforce California’s image as a national trendsetter: New laws include the nation’s first trapping ban on fur animals and a crackdown on doctors granting vaccine exemptions. Still on the agenda is the possible approval of legislation to force single-use plastics manufacturers to make their products recyclable.

“It’s something that other states will look at,” says California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, of the gig economy legislation that would turn independent contractors for companies like Lyft into employees with protections. Even if the companies succeed in some later modification, whatever the ultimate outcome, it’s bound to have a national impact, observers say.

Why? Because “we’re big,” says Dr. Jeffe. “We’re the fifth-largest economy in the world.”

California’s size and economic might, its diverse population, its frontier and entrepreneurial spirit – these are key reasons why the nation’s most populous state has that “as goes, so goes” reputation. The state has essentially served as a tabula rasa, or clean slate, for Americans, says Erendina Delgadillo, associate curator of history at the Oakland Museum of California.

Fifteen years ago, the state’s eminent historian, the late Kevin Starr, told the Monitor that California’s influence – from the environment, to fashion, to cuisine – was “done.” In a “very big sense,” he said, “the battle is over. The country has been California-ized.”

One could argue that the world has been California-ized, given the reach of Silicon Valley’s tech giants, of Hollywood, and of the state’s environmental mandates and regulations.

This summer, for example, automakers Honda, Ford, Volkswagen, and BMW struck a deal to adopt the state’s higher tailpipe emissions standards, rather than go with the Trump administration’s plans for lower national standards. More automakers are expected to sign on with California, even as the administration moves to revoke the state’s ability to set its own emissions standards.

“I don’t want to play into the smugness thing, but when it comes to the environment, California has not just been a leader in the United States, but a global leader,” says Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez speaks at rally calling for passage of her measure to limit when companies can label workers independent contractors in Sacramento, Aug. 28, 2019. The Senate passed the bill Tuesday, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he will sign it into law.

But in this period of intense political polarization, some of California’s values appeal more to blue states than red ones – especially as they eye the high-tax state’s severe challenges with housing, homelessness, and education.

“There are many states that don’t want to take the direction of California,” observes Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego. On issues such as gun control and immigration, “it’s created legislation that other like-minded states will follow, but that red states will absolutely rebel against.”

California, for instance, was the first state to ban assault-style weapons (this after a fatal 1989 mass school shooting with a semi-automatic rifle in Stockton). There is also a law banning high-capacity magazines, whose constitutionality is being decided in the courts. But a young man was able to buy a semi-automatic rifle in Nevada, drive it over the border to California, and use it to kill three people and wound nearly 30 others at the popular garlic festival in Gilroy in July.

Meanwhile, scores of cities and counties across the country have declared themselves sanctuaries for unauthorized immigrants. But only California, Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, and Vermont – all blue states – have passed statewide laws limiting deportation cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to Pacific Standard, which reports on social and environmental justice.

Interestingly, it was business considerations that motivated automakers to cut a deal with California on tailpipe emissions, says Mr. Elkind. Together, California and the 13 states, plus Washington, DC., that follow its standards account for about 35% of the U.S. auto market.

California could well get caught up in a legal battle with the administration over its ability to set its own emission standards, with automakers looking at years of uncertainty ahead. So it made sense to strike a deal with California, given the legal uncertainty and the possibility of having to produce vehicles to meet two different standards – a national one, set by the Trump administration, and the stricter one followed by California and the other states.

“There’s strong legal reasons that created strong business reasons for why the automakers needed to cut this deal now,” says Mr. Elkind.

But behind the market and business forces driving the state’s national impact on auto emissions and other climate-related areas, lies California’s historic and broad dedication to the environment generally. “The political support for climate is a values question,” says Mr. Elkind – one that has bipartisan support in California and increasingly in the nation, he says.

That translates into state mandates and regulations – mandates on renewable energy, on electric storage, on low-carbon fuels, on building and appliance standards. “These mandates – you hear business complaining about it, but you’ve seen it scale up,” he says.

Dr. Jeffe, the political analyst, points to California’s leadership role in the resistance to the Trump administration – obviously a role not endorsed nationwide but one of national consequence, given the dozens of lawsuits it has filed against the administration. The state also played a role in Democrats retaking Congress last year. And of course, there’s California Sen. Kamala Harris’ long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination.

“The most important trend, now, I think, is the trend of California to fight back against Donald Trump every time he tries to stab us in the back on immigration, on water, on the environment,” she says.

Perhaps even some of the state’s more controversial attitudes, such as its stance on unauthorized immigrants, will eventually spread more widely, she says. Non-Hispanic white people are now in the minority in California. “As demography changes across the nation, we’ll have to watch to see whether California is influential in the direction of the culture.”

Larry Gerston, a political scientist and analyst lecturing at the University of California Santa Cruz, admits the state has serious problems. He suggests it can perhaps act as a “canary in a coal mine” and point the way in solving them.

But he doesn’t doubt the Golden State will continue to lead the nation on many fronts – though some outcomes may not be known for another 20 years, given issues that are still in play.

And yet, he’s certain about one thing. “You won’t be buying a fossil-fuel car in 20 years. You just won’t. You’ll see them in museums.”

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2. Trump and Bolton: Why their relationship chilled

In the relationship between a president and a top adviser, both style and substance matter. President Trump is citing policy disagreements with John Bolton, but clashing styles may have mattered even more.

Eva
Evan Vucci/AP/File
National security adviser John Bolton (right) looks on during an Oval Office meeting between President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House in Washington, May 22, 2018. The president said he often "strongly disagreed" with Mr. Bolton.

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Whether it was by firing or resignation, national security adviser John Bolton’s departure from President Donald Trump’s White House had seemed inevitable for a while.

What spelled his doom, former officials and national security analysts say, was not his strong views on foreign-policy issues. The president found that appealing. Rather, it was Mr. Bolton’s take-charge approach to issues that annoyed a president who may appreciate hearing different viewpoints but does not like being pushed in directions his gut tells him he doesn’t want to go. Moreover, the president does not tolerate any suggestion that anyone but him is in charge.

“It’s not that the president doesn’t like hearing from people with different points of view, he does,” says James Carafano at the Heritage Foundation. “It’s really about the relationship with the president, and how he feels the process is going.”

What happens after Mr. Bolton’s departure? Some with knowledge of the president’s preferences expect to see more high-profile diplomatic initiatives, such as another North Korean summit or revived diplomacy with the Taliban. Some even speculate that Mr. Trump could push for the ultimate showstopper, a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations later this month.

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Trump and Bolton: Why their relationship chilled

The idea of a team of rivals serving the president best by offering an array of passionately held and clashing views for the chief executive to ponder has been around since at least Abraham Lincoln.

And for the last 17 months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the White House has depicted the president as relishing the strong and often conflicting positions within his national security team – and above all between Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and the famously self-assertive and acerbic national security adviser, John Bolton.

That portrayal took a hit Tuesday when Mr. Trump abruptly announced through a tweet that he was firing Mr. Bolton, with whom he said he had often “strongly disagreed.” Mr. Bolton said he had resigned.

The president went on to hint at the widely known reality that Mr. Bolton had increasingly found himself the White House odd man out – both in personality and in viewpoint on issues from Iran to North Korea and Afghanistan.

“I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions,” Mr. Trump tweeted, “as did others in the Administration.”

Whether it was by firing or resignation, Mr. Bolton’s departure had seemed inevitable for a while.

Yet what spelled the doom of Mr. Trump’s third national security adviser in less than three years was not so much his strong views on key foreign-policy issues, former officials and national security analysts say. Rather, it was his take-charge approach to issues, among them Iran and Venezuela, that annoyed a president who may appreciate hearing different viewpoints but does not like being pushed in directions his gut tells him he doesn’t want to go.

Moreover, the president does not tolerate any suggestion, particularly to the press or the public generally, that anyone but him is in charge.

“Trump likes a multiplicity of advisers presenting a variety of approaches, but he is very averse to situations where his advisers are ganging up on him and leading him to a certain line of thinking – that he does not like,” says Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “It’s one thing if the president hasn’t decided what to do, but it’s quite another if the president has decided to go left, and his adviser is there saying, ‘No no no, you’ve got to go right.’”

Qualities that attracted

Indeed Professor Feaver, who directed national security strategy planning during President George W. Bush’s second term, says it was some of Mr. Bolton’s same qualities that originally drew Mr. Trump’s interest – above all his frequent smart, attack-dog commentaries on foreign policy, usually on Fox News – that ended up souring the relationship between the two.

“At the very same time [in 2017] that the president’s advisers were advising him to stay in the JCPOA,” the six-nation nuclear agreement with Iran, “there was John Bolton on TV saying very effectively and compellingly to the president’s ears that what the president wanted to do – which was to get out of the JCPOA – was the right thing to do,” Professor Feaver says.

But before long it would be precisely that public assertiveness that would begin irritating Mr. Trump. In particular, he was put off by Mr. Bolton’s early interaction with the press that suggested he was running the Iran and Venezuela policies.

When Mr. Bolton’s entourage suggested over the weekend to some media contacts that it was Mr. Bolton who had prevailed in squelching a surprise Camp David meeting with the Taliban to sign a peace deal ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan, it was seen by some as the last straw. And that despite the president having indeed agreed with his national security adviser by nixing the high-profile meeting.

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
From left, national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and President Donald Trump, in the Oval Office, Feb. 7, 2019. Former officials and analysts say Mr. Bolton’s take-charge approach to issues annoyed the president.

By this spring, relations between the president and his national security adviser had chilled considerably, as Mr. Bolton seemed increasingly dissonant with the president’s preference for big deals and showy diplomacy, such as his three unprecedented meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Indeed, at the same time in late June that Mr. Trump was crossing the border between the two Koreas to meet Mr. Kim for the third time, Mr. Bolton was in Mongolia – dispatched there by a president who wanted an adviser who had called for regime change in North Korea nowhere in sight.

“I temper John”

And then there was Iran. Mr. Trump was fine with Mr. Pompeo’s “maximum pressure” campaign largely reliant on increasingly tough sanctions to get Tehran to the negotiating table. But he was less comfortable with Mr. Bolton’s push for a more belligerent approach to the Iranian regime.

When Mr. Trump at the last minute called off a military strike on Iran in retaliation for the shoot-down in June of a U.S. drone, some White House and State Department officials quipped privately that Mr. Bolton had brought the president to within 10 minutes of a war he didn’t want.

“I temper John, which is pretty amazing,” Mr. Trump mused last spring.

For some analysts with close contacts with the Trump White House, Mr. Bolton’s departure is a clear sign that the president had concluded the administration’s foreign-policy decision-making process wasn’t working anymore.

“It’s not that the president doesn’t like hearing from people with different points of view, he does,” says James Carafano, director of foreign-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “It’s really about the relationship with the president, and how he feels the process is going – and clearly the president had decided the decision-making process had bogged down.”

Mr. Carafano notes that the president turned to Mr. Bolton at another point in his presidency when he felt the process had slowed and was tempering his instincts for bold diplomatic action. “The president wanted to move to a faster execution of foreign policy than he was getting” with former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, he says, “and he got that more aggressive execution with Bolton and Pompeo coming in.”

But with the sharp differences that were dividing the national security team – including between Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo – the process was once again slowing beyond the president’s tolerance, says Mr. Carafano, who has close links to the White House.

Who’s next?

The question now shifts to whom Mr. Trump will name to replace Mr. Bolton – and what signals he will send by the choice he makes.

With Mr. Bolton out of the way, some with close knowledge of Mr. Trump’s foreign-policy preferences say they expect to see more of the showman’s high-profile diplomatic initiatives, including such possibilities as another summit with North Korea’s Mr. Kim and revived diplomacy with the Taliban to get an Afghanistan peace deal before next year’s election.

Some even speculate that Mr. Trump could push for the ultimate showstopper, a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly session in New York later this month.

What no one expects to see is another national security adviser with the brash personality and big public presence of John Bolton.

“If I had to guess I’d say it would be someone who is aligned with Mike Pompeo, because right now Pompeo has the most influential voice with the president on national security issues,” says Duke’s Dr. Feaver. Indeed, one name being tossed around as a potential candidate for the job is Brian Hook, Secretary Pompeo’s senior policy adviser on Iran.

“And this time around the president may go for someone with a lower public profile who can make the trains run on time,” he adds, “and cut down on the drama.”

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3. When keepers of the peace harbor hate

To root out hate, you first have to identify it. Technology has helped to reveal a thread of racism running through some U.S. police forces. That’s the first step. Now what?

Eva

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In the past, when a law enforcement officer shared a racist comment or joke, it typically stayed in the room. Today, as technology mediates an ever-increasing portion of our social lives, such remarks can become matters of public debate years after they’ve been expressed.

In recent months, a series of reports has revealed thousands of instances of police sharing racist, xenophobic, and white supremacist imagery and memes on Facebook. Most cops are not racist, says Heather Taylor, an African American night watch homicide sergeant with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. “But if you think that there are no white supremacists, you’re definitely wrong. You’re definitely wrong.”

The best way to prevent white supremacists from wearing the badge, says Sergeant Taylor, is not to hire them in the first place. “The prescription is better screening and hiring,” she says. “We can’t hold on to people just because they run the fastest, they shoot the best, they meet all of these criteria that are important law-enforcement-wise, but when it comes to being moral and ethically sound, we can’t pass these people through our academies.”

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When keepers of the peace harbor hate

If you ask Heather Taylor, an African American night watch homicide sergeant with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, if some of her co-workers are white supremacists, she will respond with an unequivocal yes.

Most cops are not racist, she says, “But if you think that there are no white supremacists, you’re definitely wrong. You’re definitely wrong.”

She notes that there are currently six pending investigations for racial discrimination in the SLMPD, and that one case was recently resolved with a $1.1 million settlement. “We are in the news every other week,” she says.

St. Louis’ police department is hardly alone in struggling with racism in its ranks. What is relatively new, however, are ways to expose officers who may be undermining public trust in law enforcement.

A series of reports from The Center for Investigative Reporting earlier this year found active-duty police officers posting racist memes on Facebook, prompting more than 50 police departments across the United States to take action. In July, ProPublica uncovered a group of 9,500 current and retired U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers posting xenophobic and white supremacist imagery on Facebook. The Plain View Project, established by a group of Philadelphia attorneys in 2016, has cataloged more than 5,000 Facebook posts and comments by police officers in eight cities that include racist imagery and encourage violence against ethnic minorities.

In June, Sergeant Taylor and the Ethical Society of Police demanded the immediate dismissal of St. Louis police officers exposed by the Plain View Project. The officers were found to have made Facebook posts that traffic in racist stereotypes, promote the Confederate battle flag, compare Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan, joke about extrajudicial executions, and vilify Muslims.

St. Louis police officers had posted these inflammatory messages publicly on Facebook between 2013 and 2017, but they remained unnoticed until the Plain View Project posted them in its online database in June. 

In the past, when someone shared a racist comment or joke with a friend, colleague, or family member, it typically stayed in the room. Today, as technology mediates an ever-increasing portion of our social lives, such remarks can become matters of public debate years after they’ve been expressed.

And when these remarks resurface, sometimes years later, they force two questions central to one of the biggest civil rights debates of our time: To what extent does white supremacy find a home in American policing? And how can it be best addressed?

To some, those questions presume too sweeping an indictment of the force.

“Let’s put aside the notion that there’s rampant racism in law enforcement,” says Jeff Roorda, business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the union representing St. Louis Metro Police. “That’s a false narrative.”

Mr. Roorda, who worked as a police officer for 17 years and is the author of the 2016 book “The War on Police: How the Ferguson Effect Is Making America Unsafe,” points out that many of the posts amassed by the Plain View Project are just variations on the logo of the Punisher, a Marvel Comics character. Many others express opinions held by a wide swath of Americans, he says.

“I challenge you to find any profession with less occurrence of racist posts,” says Mr. Roorda. “We expect to be held to a higher standard. What we can’t handle is being held to an impossible standard.”

“[The Ethical Society] has a history of addressing racial inequality,” he says, “but in the last few years their president [Sergeant Taylor] has been radicalized.” 

Prosecutors’ role

To Vida Johnson, a Georgetown University law professor and a criminal defense attorney, the job of dealing with police with white supremacist beliefs is best handled outside the department.

One potential solution, Professor Johnson argued in an article in the Lewis & Clark Law Review in April, is for jurists to expand their enforcement of the Brady doctrine, a pretrial discovery rule that prosecutors must disclose to the defense any material exculpatory evidence, and the related Giglio doctrine, which requires disclosure of any such evidence that could be used to impeach the credibility of prosecution witnesses, including police officers.

“There is no doubt,” Professor Johnson wrote, “that membership in a hate group or ascribing to racist beliefs would be fodder for cross-examination of an officer and useful to the defense.”

Having an outside group perform these background checks would help relieve police departments of the burden of policing themselves, says Professor Johnson. “Because of the ‘blue wall of silence,’ it’s really hard to expose these officers, because officers have to rely on one another,” she says.

Professor Johnson argues that prosecutors are well placed to help screen police officers for racist beliefs and affiliations with white supremacist groups. “If a prosecutor’s office saw it as their role to really look into their witnesses carefully, and particularly police officers who represent the government, they would be making sure these checks were done,” she says.

“I think that’s just the culture of police departments,” says Professor Johnson. “And until we change that it’s going to be hard to separate the good guys from the bad guys.”

Confronting history

White supremacy and American law enforcement share a long history together. The earliest forms of organized policing were slave patrols, and for much of U.S. history, through slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, police have played a key role in upholding a racist social order. And the problem didn’t vanish at the end of the 20th century; in 2006, the FBI sounded the alarm that so-called ghost skins – members of neo-Nazi or other hate groups posing as members of civilized society – had joined police departments across the United States. 

“White supremacist groups in the 1980s and 1990s started promoting a strategy they refer to as infiltration,” says Pete Simi, a sociologist who studies domestic terror at Chapman University in Orange, California. 

“We have no idea how effective or really widespread the strategy has actually been,” says Professor Simi, who co-wrote the 2010 book “American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate.”

For Sergeant Taylor, membership in a hate group is only one form that white supremacy can take.

“Sometimes it’s systemic,” she writes in a text message shortly after our interview. “Sometimes it’s as simple as racist words in an email group about President Obama being inferior, Facebook posts, an officer joining a group that hates Muslims, a supervisor refusing to allow someone in a specialized or coveted unit he or she supervises because of their hair, or denying an officer a promotion because they’re too ‘ethnic’ for them.” 

The best way to prevent white supremacists from wearing the badge, says Sergeant Taylor, is not to hire them in the first place. But she stresses that it is also important to screen police officers continuously throughout their career. 

“The prescription is better screening and hiring,” says Sergeant Taylor. “We can’t hold on to people just because they run the fastest, they shoot the best, they meet all of these criteria that are important law-enforcement-wise, but when it comes to being moral and ethically sound, we can’t pass these people through our academies.”

The Ethical Society advocates community policing – where officers aim to strengthen social bonds with the populations they police. Last year, the group expanded and began accepting members from the St. Louis County Police Department, which is directly responsible for policing the unincorporated areas of the county. That department also contracts with several municipalities in the county to serve as their police department.

In 2015, in response to younger black officers leaving the department, the Ethical Society founded a free “Pre-Academy” program for those considering a career in law enforcement. The program is open to people of all races and genders, ages 19 and older. 

All instructors are previous or current police academy instructors who take prospective recruits through a miniaturized version of a real academy. They meet twice weekly for three-hour classes on constitutional law, criminal investigation and report writing, fitness and nutrition, and a class on maintaining emotional wellness.

The program is aimed at ensuring that the demographic makeup of the police department reflects that of the city. According to the SLMPD’S 2018 Annual Report, two-thirds of the department’s commissioned officers are white, 30% are black, and about 3% are “other.” The city of St. Louis, by comparison, is 45% white and 49% black, according to U.S. census data.

Sergeant Taylor is proud of the program, but she recognizes its limits. “Everything we do with our 10-week academy with screening people and trying to double check their character, you’ll still have officers who will fail. That’s just human nature,” she says.

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4. Tired of TV debates? In Arab world, they’re historic, and inspiring.

Americans may take televised candidate debates for granted, but there are parts of the world that have been starving for this staple of democracy. Our reporter was on hand to witness history in Tunisia.

Eva
Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
Viewers watch a televised debate among presidential candidates at a cafe in central Tunis, Tunisia, Sept. 7, 2019.

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The 2011 Arab Spring’s sole success story, Tunisia holds its second-ever free presidential elections Sept. 15. But the most remarkable feature of the voters’ two-week crash course on the many candidates has been three nights of televised debates. For the first time in the Arab world, leading candidates took to a stage to debate policy and defend their track records. Across the region, the broadcasts are shattering taboos over challenging authority and raising expectations Arab citizens have of their leaders.

“This is a moment of pride for us Tunisians – a chance to remember why our revolution and struggle was all worth it,” says Walid Ben Mohammed, a Tunis taxi driver. “Rather than our next head of our state acting like they are the boss of us, he or she has to plead with us as if they are applying for a job.”

Candidates even used some of their platform to promote Tunisia’s democracy to help other Arab states embarking on a democratic transition.

“In Algeria and Sudan people are looking to us as a model and will demand presidential candidates articulate their programs on national television,” says Tarek Tahlawi, a Tunisian political analyst.

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Tired of TV debates? In Arab world, they’re historic, and inspiring.

Two-dozen presidential candidates vying over multiple nights to make their case to the people via television ...

While political debates have become fatiguingly familiar for Americans, in Tunisia they have been something else entirely – historic.

For the first time in the Arab world, leading presidential candidates took to a stage this week to debate policy and defend their track records. The debates in Tunisia’s capital on three consecutive nights ending Sept. 9 were broadcast across the region – shattering taboos over challenging authority and raising the expectations Arab citizens have of their leaders.

Tunisia, the Arab world’s purest democracy and the Arab Spring’s sole lasting success story, is holding its second-ever free presidential elections Sept. 15.

Due to the hybrid nature of the Tunisian political system of a president and a prime minister, the subjects of the debates were limited to the specific realms of the president: national security, foreign policy, and the military.

But even Western viewers would have found many familiar subjects: climate change, the death penalty, and how to best combat terrorism.

Outgoing Prime Minister Youssef Chahed touted his “tough-on-terror” credentials by listing the terrorist cells that were busted under his premiership, while candidates such as former caretaker president and human rights activist Moncef Marzouki promised to “make the economy work” for citizens.

Other subjects were unique to the Arab world: how to help mediate peace in neighboring Libya, mending ties with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the Palestinian cause, and the explosive question of normalizing ties with Israel.

Others were national hot-button issues unique to Tunisia. Should Tunisia ban the full-face niqab veil for security reasons? What are candidates’ solutions to prevent Tunisians from trying to migrate to Europe illegally and drowning off its coasts?

Making history

The debates were the result of five years of campaigning by the Munathara Initiative, a Tunisia-based organization that holds politically themed debates across the Arab world. The debates were the most extensive and inclusive ever between Arab political candidates.

The only precedent in the region was in 2012, when a private television channel held a debate between two of the nine candidates for Egypt’s presidency; but the final two choices on the ballot, including the eventual president, Mohammed Morsi, were not involved or held to scrutiny.

“We wanted these debates to inspire other Arabs with what is possible, and Tunisia again is showing the region what is possible once more,” says Belabbes Benkredda, founder and CEO of Munathara, which is Arabic for debate.

“This is the antithesis of the fragmentation we have witnessed in our public discourse across the world. … By having all these broadcasters come together to air these debates, everyone is taking part in a shared reality.”

Alternative facts have been an issue in a young democracy such as Tunisia, where many media outlets are tied to political parties. Gulf Arab countries and Turkey also have used their regional media networks to support rival Tunisian parties and politicians, creating local and regional echo chambers.

Munathara, working with Tunisia’s Independent High Electoral Commission (ISIE) and the country’s equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission, devised a debate format based on Colombian and Mexican models in which candidates are given 90 seconds to respond to specific questions from moderators.

Courtesy of Munathara Initiative
Candidates take the podium in the first of three nights of historic presidential debates in Tunis, Tunisia, on Sept. 7, 2019.

As part of a compromise with the 11 Tunisian channels, organizers agreed to make the debates less confrontational, with minimal interaction among the candidates themselves – the lone criticism by the Tunisian media.

Yet, according to Tunisians themselves, if the debates lacked in drama or verbal fisticuffs, they made up for it simply by having leaders detail their policies and defend themselves within 90 seconds, or face being cut off by the journalist moderators.

“This is a moment of pride for us Tunisians – a chance to remember why our revolution and struggle was all worth it,” says Walid Ben Mohammed, a Tunis taxi driver. “Rather than our next head of our state acting like they are the boss of us, he or she has to plead with us as if they are applying for a job.”

The format made the Arab world’s first presidential debates more policy-focused than personality-driven.

Rather than “he said, she said” grandstanding or crowd-pleasing slogans, candidates were forced to quickly delve into the details – or lack thereof – of their plans for national security, intelligence services, protecting the borders, diplomacy, and Tunisian foreign policy toward Europe and Africa.

Accountability

To reinforce accountability for the country’s next leader, the debates included a “99 days” section, in which the candidates were given 99 seconds to articulate their pledges for their first 99 days in office.

Moderators later asked for a show of hands from the candidates to pledge to come back on national television for their 100th day in office to review their 99-day promises and defend whether or not they have achieved them.

In the debates, 99-day promises have included “reviewing trade agreements” and “making France apologize for its decades of colonization of Tunisia.”

“Everyone is getting similar questions, no one is getting preferable treatment,” says Mounira Jaylani, a mother of four from Hay Tadhamin, a marginalized neighborhood in the capital. “These debates prove that these candidates have to earn our trust and answer to us as president, not only answer to their parties.”

In addition to rekindling faith in a beleaguered democratic process, the debates were hailed as a “positive success” in Arab and Tunisian media, as well as fodder for radio talk shows.

Tunisian daily newspaper Al Chourouk gave a rundown of each candidate’s performance, offering unusually blunt critiques and criticisms of a potential soon-to-be Arab head of state.

The newspaper noted that although Islamist Ennahda candidate Abdul Fateh al Mouro “emphasized his oratory skills” in the debates, “he seemed to try to be appealing to viewers simply through his eloquence rather than making an actual argument.”

Abeer Mousa, an apologist for dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, “looked like she was following a script and her usual fire was absent”; former Prime Minister Mahdi Jumaa seemed to be “too low-energy for a candidate trying to convince voters”; while independent Amr Mansour was “hopeless, providing incomplete and unconvincing answers and appeared to be unprepared.”

Regional reach

In addition to running on 11 local private and public channels, the Tunisian debates were carried live by satellite networks from Libya, Iraq, and Algeria – as well as by Al Jazeera Live, which beams for free into the homes of 100 million Arab viewers across the region.

The historic nature of the debates was not lost on members of the Arab media, who filled Tunisian state Al Wataniya studios on Saturday during technical setup, literally filming the electric cables being connected for the first Arab presidential debates.

This is particularly true for neighboring Algeria, embroiled in a contentious political transition after protesters forced out longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April; and for Sudan, where civilians and the military have entered a democratic transition after a monthslong showdown that saw hundreds killed.

Candidates even used some of their platform to promote Tunisia’s democratic model as a tool to help other Arab states embarking on a democratic transition.

“In Algeria and Sudan people are looking to us as a model and will demand presidential candidates articulate their programs on national television,” says Tarek Tahlawi, a Tunisian political analyst who served as a debates adviser to one of the candidates.

“Because in Tunisia we really do not know who will be our president, and it is a position candidates have to earn.”

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Reporter’s notebook

5. What I learned at French school

French came to Africa through conquest. But today it belongs to schoolchildren in Seychelles and doctors in Congo just as much as office workers from France, writes the Monitor’s Ryan Lenora Brown.

Eva
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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Last year, in a restaurant in Congo, I asked a waiter for directions in what I thought was passable French.

“Sorry,” he said in response, “I don’t speak English.”

But as a journalist in Africa, home to most of the world’s Francophone countries, having hopeless French skills isn’t an option. So for seven weeks this summer, I swore off English and immersed myself in language school at Middlebury College.

Still, when my new classmates asked why I wanted to study French, I felt sheepish about learning a European language to talk to more Africans. Why wasn’t I studying Swahili or Wolof, I wondered, Zulu or Yoruba? Yes, French was more widely spoken in Africa than any of those languages. But it was also the language of colonialism, spread by violence and conquest.

But the longer I walked around inside the French language, the more I realized how narrow my perception of the language had been. If French is the language of Molière, Balzac, and Camus, it is also the language of Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, and Mariama Bâ. French’s future, and much of the world’s, is in Africa.

That story had always been there. I just had to learn how to see it.

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What I learned at French school

“So why are you studying French?”

During my early days at Middlebury College’s French immersion school this summer, I heard this question again and again. It was delivered in a wide variety of accents, with varying levels of grammatical acumen, by dozens of my classmates, who like me, had all taken a pledge to only speak French for the duration of our seven-week program.

I asked it too. Of opera singers and doctors. Of doctoral students and jazz musicians. And as I stumbled through these introductory conversations, I learned that there were the students who needed French, the students who loved it, and the students who merely tolerated its presence in their lives.

During my decadelong on-again, off-again relationship with the French language, I had mostly been part of the third category. The apathetic. I always liked the idea of speaking French, which seemed to me wispy and delicate, quieter than English even when spoken at the same volume.

But when it came to the actual speaking, I was hopeless, and I’d mostly given up on changing that. (Last year, in a restaurant in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, I asked a waiter for directions in what I thought was passable French. “Sorry,” he said in response, “I don’t speak English.”)

So why was I studying French, anyway? 

When asked by my new classmates, I stuttered over my response, and not only because of my middling language skills. “Because I am a journalist who wants to work in all the countries of Africa,” I tried. “Because I want to write stories that are not a stereotype,” I ventured. “And because French is spoken by many Africans.” 

As I said the words, I felt sheepish about them. Here I was, reciting my desire to learn a European language to talk to more Africans. Why wasn’t I studying Swahili or Wolof, I wondered, Zulu or Yoruba? Yes, French was more widely spoken in Africa than any of those languages. Yes, it was the official language of 21 African countries. But it was also the language of colonialism, spread by violence and conquest.

Even as I thought about this, I flung myself into the program. Each day was cluttered with four hours of class and as many of homework, plus two dozen extracurricular activities en français, from a student radio show to aqua aerobics. The primary effects, at least at first, were daily headaches, the result of hours feeling my way through conversations I’d only half understood. How do you dkzklgwe? Someone would ask. Yes? I’d reply.

French words, as anyone who’s studied the language knows well, aren’t crisp. They begin strong, and then frequently dissolve without warning in the center, leaving a string of unpronounced letters trailing behind them. At the same time, sounds seem to melt together, creating sentences that felt to me less like a string of individual words and more like water rushing from a tap, a continuous thing with no discernible beginning or end.

Il a mis le pied, a French person might say. ”He set foot.” Or had they said il a mille pieds, meaning ”He has a thousand feet”? Hard to say, because the pronunciation of those two sentences is identical.

Not to mention – there never seem to be enough consonants to go around. “Il a haï Haïti,” my phonetics CD prompted me to repeat one July afternoon. “He hated Haiti.” But even as I tried to repeat the phrase, I’d already made up my mind. I would never hate Haiti, or know anyone who did, because there was no way I’d get through a sentence that sounded like this: ee lah ah ee ah ee tee.

Still, I began to notice that with every passing week, the world was cracking open a little wider. One day, I learned the past conditional. In the days that followed, suddenly, the world was full of regret and reproach. You could have gone. I should have done it. Another week, I wrestled the subjonctif, which I was told was not a verb tense but a verb mood, meaning that it expressed not when an action was happening but what you thought about it. The subjonctif told you something was wanted, it was regretted, it was necessary. The subjonctif was the expression of desire, and of longing. Like so many things in French, it made no sense to me, and it made so much sense to me at the same time.

And the longer I walked around inside the French language, the more I realized how narrow my own perception of the language had been. If once it had been the language of the French, it now belonged as much – if not more – to its other speakers.

There are more francophones in Congo than in Belgium or Switzerland. There are far more African French speakers than European ones. If French is the language of Molière, Balzac, and Camus, it is also the language of Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, and Mariama Bâ. In 2014, a study by a French investment bank claimed that by 2050, French could be the most spoken language in the world, largely because of demographic booms in francophone Africa. The study assumed that everyone in countries where French is an official language is a French speaker – far from the truth. But one point isn’t up for debate: French’s future, and much of the world’s, is in Africa.

Inside the French language, I realized by the end of the summer, is the same kind of story I like to tell more broadly: of resistance, rebellion, and reappropriation. Of people taking something forced upon them and making it their own. That story had always been there. I just had to learn how to see it.

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The Monitor's View

A continental model for gender parity

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With so many women running for president in the United States, Americans might want to keep an eye on what Europe has lately achieved in female leadership for its top governing institutions. It has become a model for gender inclusivity.

In July, two women were chosen by European Union leaders for the first time to head the bloc’s most powerful executive bodies. And now nearly half of the incoming European commissioners will be women. A similar achievement can be found in the European Parliament.

In the U.S., women are entering corporate boardrooms at a record rate, yet in politics the pace has been uneven. In the House of Representatives, 23.4% are female.

The EU still struggles as a political body over issues like climate policy, industrial strategy, and military unity. It especially struggles to compete with the U.S. and China. But with women running its top institutions, it can claim a new style of leadership, starting with greater inclusivity. On that score it is already a great power.

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A continental model for gender parity

With so many women running for president in the United States, Americans might want to keep an eye on what Europe has lately achieved in female leadership for its top governing institutions. It has become a model for gender inclusivity.

In July, two women were chosen by European Union leaders for the first time to head the bloc’s most powerful executive bodies. Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund, was picked to manage the European Central Bank. And Ursula von der Leyen, who was Germany’s first female defense minister, was given the nod to run the European Commission, the EU’s administrative arm with some 32,000 employees.

Then on Tuesday, the drive for gender parity in what is the world’s second-largest economy became even more impressive. Ms. von der Leyen revealed that nearly half of her 27 commissioners would be women, up from a third under her male predecessor. Even national parliaments in Europe have yet to reach such a high proportion.

A similar achievement can be found in the European Parliament (which is expected to approve the two female candidates soon). Women make up 41% of that elected body, up from 15% in 1979. One reason for the increase is that more countries require political parties to nominate a certain proportion of women in elections.

In the U.S., women are entering corporate boardrooms at a record rate, yet in politics the pace has been uneven. In the House of Representatives, 23.4% are female. Europe has had the benefit of many women as national leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have pushed the EU toward gender equality. Ms. von der Leyen has gone a step further by naming women to important posts as commissioners for digital innovation, defense, and immigration.

The EU still struggles as a political body over issues like climate policy, industrial strategy, and military unity. It especially struggles to compete with the U.S. and China. But with women running its top institutions, it can claim a new style of leadership, starting with greater inclusivity. On that score it is already a great power.

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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.

Be a part of this new day

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Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, commentators announced that the world would never be the same. Each of us can be a force for good, today and every day, by letting God’s love dissolve prejudice and hate in our thoughts.

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Be a part of this new day

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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After the shattering acts of terrorism that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, I wanted to pray – but where could I start? The pictures of the New York City scene were horrific. Then there was the plane crash just a short way east of where I lived in Pittsburgh. How could I get beyond the screams and carnage?

Yet, there was a simple fact that I had experienced all my life: God, goodness itself, is present and acting. I had confidence in the power and presence of that goodness. I could begin simply by acknowledging that comforting presence. It was speaking to me, and to all of God’s creation. That had to be my starting point.

My first test by fire, literally, had been more than 30 years before, during the race riots and the burning of Pittsburgh. There I had learned, in the midst of hatred, revenge, and violence, to turn away from judging and blaming. I saw the flames, and condemned all. But I soon realized that I really needed to break out of just reacting. I realized my need to learn to forgive and to love.

Over the next several months, at the university where I taught, I created a living arrangement that brought together black and white students interested in learning how to overcome racism. God was showing me that instead of reacting to all that hostility, I could act, confident in God’s underlying goodness. “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy speaks of God as “divine Principle, Love, underlying, overlying, and encompassing all true being” (p. 496).

In this Pittsburgh experience I saw that God had never stopped loving His creation. By becoming conscious of the ongoing action of divine Love, I was being equipped to help my community in a very practical way. I was being awakened from a kind of hypnotic trance, fascinated by pictures of a world where there are oppressors and victims, a world where skin color defines your place in society. That unjust world had seemed so real.

This awakening showed me something of what Jesus called “the kingdom of heaven.” As he said, it’s not distant, but “at hand” (Matthew 4:17). I saw that I could hold that spiritual vision in consciousness. This broke the hypnotic trance. It freed me. And on Sept. 11, 2001, that again became my starting point: a fuller sense of God, good, present and acting.

Now that another anniversary of 9/11 is upon us, we need a new day. A new sense of the day we are living. Science and Health speaks of “day” as “the irradiance of Life” (p. 584). Irradiance means sending forth radiant light. Light is often the symbol for truth, integrity, clarity, freshness. Today is the Lord’s day, full of light. Terrorism, fear, hatred, prejudice all depend on the absence of light.

We are setting forth in this freshness of a new day. In this day, this irradiance of divine Life, good things happen. Divine Love is present, guiding. The Berlin Wall crumbles. Arab youth reaches, sometimes successfully, for freedom and integrity.

How can we live this new day? We need to lose the “we” versus “they.” Instead it’s just “us,” every one of us created by the same loving, divine source. With God, Love, as our guide, we begin to overcome prejudiced ways of seeing others. Learning to love our neighbor will keep our day radiant with light. To do that, we have to see not with the physical senses, but with our spiritual sense. (This is the sense that can tell good from evil.)

And what do we see, using this sense? We see the true, spiritual nature of our neighbors. And guess what! It is so beautiful, it becomes natural to love.

This is not a call for complacency. Jesus himself warned his disciples, “Ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled” (Matthew 24:6). The good news is that Jesus’ teachings enable us to deal with these challenges. He alerted us to not absorb the world’s prejudices and materialistic approach, and to not be shocked by its sometimes ugly appearance. Jesus gave us the means of dealing with this by teaching us to love.

We can do that. We can go forth into the world, as Mrs. Eddy writes, “with a charity broad enough to cover the whole world’s evil, and sweet enough to neutralize what is bitter in it” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 224). In this way we will prove right the 9/11 commentators who predicted that the world would never be the same. We can be a part of that change. We can enter this arena, this new day, irradiant with Life, God, and joyous to see, greet, and love each other as individual parts of God’s creation.

Adapted from an article published in the Sept. 5, 2011, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

A day to remember

Matt York/AP
Stephanie Friend and her dog Tatum stand among nearly 3,000 flags at sunrise Sept. 11, 2019, in Tempe, Arizona, as she listens to the reading of the names of those killed on 9/11. The flags are part of the annual Tempe Healing Field 9/11 memorial.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( September 12th, 2019 )

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow. We’ll look at whether or not the long expected “purpling” of Texas politics is happening. Also, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz will be our guest at the Monitor Breakfast tomorrow.

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