2019
September
23
Monday
Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Today we look at how shifting political norms test the Constitution, where multinationalism is spurned and sought, completeness (despite discomfort) in a historical record, and promises around social equity in higher ed.

First, the weekend was bookended by a climate strike and today’s action summit

Urgency can bring out fighters. “We need to get angry and understand what is at stake,” teen climate activist Greta Thunberg told Democracy Now recently. For Emily Atkin, anger was the motivator for her blog, Heated. “I strongly believe that anger, carefully directed, is essential to ... effective action,” she told the Columbia Journalism Review

But hope is a motivator, too, even among longtime warriors you’d expect to be tired. 

“We have the technology we need,” Al Gore wrote yesterday in The New York Times, calling for the will to deploy it. “We’re dancing as nimbly as we can,” wrote Bill McKibben in Time, writing from an imagined 2050, a time of global trust, “and so far we haven’t crashed.” 

Hope is not a strategy, but it can be a constructive orientation. One essayist worries that nurturing her son’s love for nature – not just teaching him to combat its perceived enemies – might set him up for a hard future if losses mount. 

“[K]ids who play in the woods become adults who [take] care of the planet,” writes Rebecca Hesiman in High Country News. “But ultimately, it wasn’t the statistics that made up my mind. It was a feeling – hope. Taking our son camping has become my stubborn way of hanging onto hope that a beautiful future is still possible.”

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1. Trump-Ukraine scandal lights up Washington. Cue oversight debate.

The latest news about a presidency that’s been stress-testing constitutional limits got Monitor editors talking about shifting “norms between the laws,” and how U.S. democracy might adjust.

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President Donald Trump’s apparent pressure on the leader of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son may have increased the chances that House Democrats will eventually charge him with articles of impeachment.

It may also reveal the limits of the Constitution when it comes to checks on presidential behavior, particularly national security and international affairs.

The president’s critics charge that he is clearly violating the law by withholding from Congress a whistleblower complaint that reportedly details his interactions with Ukraine about the Bidens. The White House has improperly interfered with a valid inspector general investigation of the whistleblower’s allegations, Democrats say.

But under the Constitution’s Article 2 presidents have discretion to conduct U.S. foreign policy in secret. The president is in charge of U.S. intelligence and classified information. This could allow a legal basis for the White House to sit on the whistleblower’s complaint.

Thus impeachment might be the only way to hold President Trump accountable in this instance, if Democrats choose to impeach. But Republican support in the Senate means it is highly unlikely the president would be removed from office – a type of partisan division the Founders didn’t foresee.

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1. Trump-Ukraine scandal lights up Washington. Cue oversight debate.

President Donald Trump’s apparent pressure on the leader of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son is only the latest norm-busting behavior from a United States chief executive who has long reveled in pushing past barriers that constrained his predecessors.

From revoking California’s ability to limit auto pollution, to attempting to add a citizenship question to the Census, to declaring a national emergency to build his border wall, President Trump has tried in numerous ways to take contentious actions he wants, sometimes against the advice of his own Cabinet members.

The legality of many of these actions remains to be seen. Lawsuits may clog the courts for years to come.

But if nothing else the Trump presidency has underscored the limits of the Constitution in regards to checks on presidential behavior. The Founding Fathers perhaps did not envision an Oval Office occupant such as him – and a Congress so riven by partisanship it cannot effectively restrain the executive branch of government.

“Formal constitutional checks are difficult. It’s always been difficult for Congress to wield the power it’s been given ... even before President Trump,” says Douglas Kriner, a professor in the department of government at Cornell University.

This is particularly true in the area of national security. Article 2 of the Constitution vests considerable authority in the president to say and do unpalatable things in the secret conduct of foreign relations. That is dangerous discretion, but has long been thought worth it on balance, noted Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith on Twitter last week.

“Trump has been challenging this principle, in various guises, for almost three years,” the conservative Professor Goldsmith tweeted following the Ukraine revelations. “He has shown time and again the extent to which our constitutional system assumes and relies on a president with a modicum of national fidelity, and decent judgment, and reasonableness.”

Ukraine, in context 

President Trump’s critics have long thought his interactions with foreign leaders have sometimes exhibited questionable judgment.

In May 2017, he infuriated U.S. and Israeli intelligence leaders by disclosing highly classified Israeli capabilities in a meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He also told Russian officials that firing “nut job” FBI Director James Comey took “great pressure” off him.

President Trump has taken steps to conceal his conversations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin by limiting the presence of other U.S. officials and, at one point, taking control of his interpreter’s notes.

“What I say to him is none of your business,” he told reporters in June.

This is some of the context for the current uproar over Mr. Biden and Ukraine.

What’s known is that the director of national intelligence, after consultation with the Department of Justice and apparently the White House, is withholding from Congress a whistleblower complaint made by someone within the intelligence community. News reports and Mr. Trump’s own statements have made clear that it involves in some manner a discussion between the U.S. president and Volodymyr Zelenskiy – who took office in May as Ukraine’s president – about Hunter Biden’s business interests in Ukraine when his father was vice president. 

Democrats say the administration is clearly violating the law by refusing to pass along a valid whistleblower allegation, as the statute in question requires. They also charge that the White House has improperly interfered with a valid inspector general investigation of the whistleblower’s charges. The whole point of having an official whistleblower process is to protect against such meddling, critics point out.

But under the Constitution’s Article 2 presidents have great power to conduct U.S. foreign policy in secret. The president is in charge of U.S. intelligence and classified information. Some legal experts say this could allow a legitimate basis for the White House to sit on the whistleblower’s complaint.

Any legal challenge in this instance would enter a “constitutional thicket” wrote legal expert and former FBI agent Asha Rangappa in The Washington Post on September 20.

Partisan roadblocks

The normal process of congressional oversight would be one way for House Democrats to respond in this instance to President Trump’s denial of information and allegations that he targeted a political rival using presidential powers. Committees could call administration witnesses and subpoena documents to try and determine the facts of the case.

But Democrats have been trying that for months, ever since the publication of Mueller Report, and it has not been working very well. The administration has stonewalled, withholding documents and instructing witnesses to remain mum. Court challenges promise to drag on for months, if not years.

“Oversight is a way for Congress to try and put political pressure on the White House by bringing things to light. And one of the big advantages [of that] is Congress can hold hearings with one swing of a chair’s gavel,” says Mr. Kriner, co-author of “Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power.”

But that check is totally dependent on Congress being able to get access to the information it needs. “What we’re seeing is a level of obstruction that’s really unprecedented,” says Mr. Kriner.

Democrats also charge that Republicans within Congress are abetting that obstruction. The Founding Fathers envisioned that the legislative branch and the executive branch would be natural rivals and compete for power. They did not count on partisanship so powerful that parties would be the rivals, dividing Congress and weakening its ability to respond to a unified executive.

“The theory of the system is designed, in this case, so that members of Congress would use their tools, which are many. But that depends on members of Congress setting aside partisan considerations . . . It’s not automatic. It requires people to do their jobs,” says Chris Edelson, assistant professor in the department of government at American University and author of “Power Without Constraint: The Post-9/11 Presidency and National Security.”

Unless a few key Republicans revolt against President Trump and bring the rest of the caucus with them, this situation won’t change. Thus the president has figured out that congressional enforcement mechanisms are mostly notional, says Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow in national security and cybersecurity at the public policy research firm R Street.

If the House begins a formal impeachment process, it would most likely expedite cases in the courts dealing with oversight access, says Mr. Rosenzweig. The question then would be: Would they actually take the vote to impeach President Trump?

If the process does not move along “the failure to act will inevitably result in the wholesale weakening of institutions and processes that undergird American democracy,” he says.

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2. Climate summit: Can UN push nations to act more, talk less?

In the realm of global problem-solving, multilateralism seems out of favor these days. So how can an organization synonymous with that approach attack climate change?

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United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking recently about climate change, said humanity is “in a race, and right now we’re losing that race.”

That sense of urgency is why, says Luis Alfonso de Alba, the secretary-general’s special envoy, Mr. Guterres insisted on calling a climate action summit at the U.N. Monday even if the global winds have turned against multilateral action. It’s a sense of urgency coupled with the conviction that the race can still be won, through action and redoubled commitment.

So rather than trying to get the U.N.’s 193 member states to agree to the same goals, Monday’s summit is focusing on how each country is addressing the crisis, and how each can do more. And it is showcasing the most promising innovations for limiting global temperature rise, highlighting best practices in adapting to what’s already happening, and encouraging their wider implementation.

The envoy, who traveled extensively in advance of the summit, sees a cause for optimism. “Countries are no longer looking for excuses,” he says. “What I’ve seen is that everybody is proud to show how they are implementing their commitments” and are anxious to learn more. “That’s why we are having this summit.”

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Climate summit: Can UN push nations to act more, talk less?

When United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres decided to hold a high-level climate summit in conjunction with this year’s General Assembly this week, he was well aware of the paradox of his initiative.

In essence, he would be calling on the world’s leaders to take part in a decidedly multilateral event addressing what many experts and ordinary people – especially the world’s youth – consider to be the most urgent issue facing humanity. Yet he would be doing so at a time when global impulses have turned sharply away from multilateral action.

Mr. Guterres’ answer was to try to tap into global trends rather than fight them.

Rather than trying to get the U.N.’s 193 member states – big and small, rich and poor, developed and developing – to agree to the same goals, Monday’s summit is focusing on individual countries: how each is addressing the climate crisis, and how each can do more.

Whether it’s big carbon emitters acting to reduce their footprint, or small contributors to the problem taking big steps to adapt to the impact of climate change, the focus is on the actions that countries are taking – to mitigate the human activities leading to rising temperatures, and, increasingly, to adapt to the impact.

Instead of a blame game, more chronicling of the dire consequences of climate change, or pursuit of global accord on a crisis that more of humanity is experiencing firsthand each year, the idea is to encourage action.

Thus Monday’s summit is showcasing the most promising innovations for limiting the projected global temperature rise, highlighting best practices and progress in adapting to what’s already happening, and encouraging their wider implementation.

“Paris is an agreement negotiated among member states, and it is a great achievement,” says Luis Alfonso de Alba, the secretary-general’s special envoy for the climate summit, referring to the 2015 international climate accord aimed at curtailing global carbon emissions and thus limiting the rise in global temperatures. “But we are not any longer at the stage of negotiation,” he says. “Now we are at the stage of implementation, and in implementation the role of multilateralism is very different.”

The focus now is less on talk and more on action, “finding ways for all the members of the U.N. family to coordinate much better and turn to implementation,” Mr. de Alba adds, “in an effort that goes country by country and encompasses all regions of the world.”

Indeed Mr. Guterres, in opening Monday’s gathering, declared: “This not a climate talks summit, we have had enough talk. This is a climate action summit.”

Aides to the secretary-general say the U.N. leader is “well aware” of the turn against conventional multilateralism and the challenge that presents to efforts to address any global issue. Yet while U.N. officials note with a certain sense of relief that Monday’s summit will not rise or fall based on a negotiated outcome or any one country’s participation, they also underscore the urgency of the crisis that compelled the secretary-general to find a way to keep climate at the top of the global agenda.

“It’s quite evident the political will is still lacking – if you compare [today] to where we were at the time of Paris, it’s not at its best,” says Mr. de Alba, a Mexican diplomat whom Mr. Guterres tapped in part because of his experience with climate diplomacy as far back as the failed 2009 Copenhagen summit.  

“That lack of political will is one of the reasons for this summit,” he says. “We need to correct that.”

New commitments required

But not with a big come-together negotiating session. Instead, Mr. Guterres sent out invitations to world leaders offering them a turn on the coveted U.N. global stage – but only if it is for the purpose of making new commitments to the climate fight: new emissions reductions, mitigation actions such as reforestation, or commitments to implement innovative ideas for adapting to the impacts of climate change.

The focus on action coincides with Mr. Guterres’ call for countries to update – meaning above all to increase – their Paris agreement commitments, known in U.N. bureaucratese as NDCs, or nationally determined contributions.

Over the past months that Mr. Guterres has dispatched his climate summit envoy around the world to galvanize global action, the urgency of the crisis has become only more evident. Scientific reports are finding even faster global temperature increases than anticipated, and accelerated polar ice-sheet melting is leading to faster ocean-level rises. The frequency of once-in-a-generation severe weather events has accelerated.

Yet despite the seemingly daily onslaught of bad and even frightening news, Mr. de Alba has infused his globe-trotting with specific language that highlights the positive arguments for taking action and the motivational aspects of addressing a global existential crisis by tapping into the human spirit.

He speaks of the “opportunities of action.” For example: the economic activity generated by a shift to renewable energy resources, the rising living standards that can accompany developing countries’ efforts to shift to sustainable development, and the benefits for all, including private enterprise, of spreading the “tools for climate action” to all corners of the globe.

“There are opportunities associated with changing the trajectory we are on, and governments need to be more aware of that and more active in implementing the tools for climate action,” Mr. de Alba says.

“Virtuous cycle”

Asked for examples, he cites two without hesitation: how solar and wind energy-production projects have enabled developing countries to take electricity to some of their more remote and least-served areas, enabling more children to attend lighted schools (and to study after the sun goes down) and small farmers to become more efficient and productive; and how in the decade since the Copenhagen summit, renewable energy sources have gone from the distant and prohibitively expensive ideal to the less expensive option (compared with fossil fuels) for a rapidly growing portion of humanity.

“We see that a virtuous cycle is developing,” he says, “where [governments] are looking at the opportunities and benefits for their people” in taking aggressive action to reduce emissions and to adapt to the changes already occurring.

Another encouraging sign that Mr. de Alba says has justified promoting the climate action summit in positive and encouraging terms rather than with dire and depressing admonitions is the development of a global youth movement for climate action. In recognition of that movement, the U.N. held a youth climate summit Saturday that drew activists as young as teenagers from across the globe who are imagining and implementing ways of addressing climate change at the grassroots level.  

Aides to Mr. Guterres say he remains “sanguine” in part because of the way nongovernmental actors – from civil society and youth activists to private businesses – are pressing sometimes lagging governments to do more. They note the U.N. chief likes to cite the case of the United States – a major emitter where states and municipalities are joining large corporations, environmental activists, and climate scientists to take action, even as the federal government lags behind.

About 60 countries prepared to unveil new commitments on climate action attended the summit. The U.S. was pointedly absent from the summit stage – even though President Donald Trump was in the U.N. building and made a brief surprise appearance to hear Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak. Brazil, under fire in recent weeks over unusually extensive burning in the Amazon rain forest, also did not attend.

Still, Mr. Guterres said in his opening remarks that the global response to his call for concrete action gave him hope that the world has reached a “turning point” in the battle against climate change.

Global headwinds

As a good emissary should, Mr. de Alba reflects the chief’s goals and outlook, including his optimism.

Yes, after some initial post-Paris successes, global carbon emissions are again on the rise. And yes, signals are flashing that the wide-ranging effects of climate change are strengthening and accelerating. As Mr. Guterres told journalists at the U.N. recently, “We are in a race, and right now we’re losing that race.”

That’s why the U.N. chief insisted on calling a climate action summit even if the global winds have turned against multilateral action, Mr. de Alba says.

But the conviction that the race can still be won, through action and redoubled commitment by every country, is also what justifies a sense of optimism, he says.  

“Countries are no longer looking for excuses not to implement the commitments they’ve made,” Mr. de Alba says. Citing a visit he made to a vast solar energy installation in Morocco, where officials enthusiastically detailed how their country is reducing its carbon emissions, he says, “What I’ve seen is that everybody is proud to show how they are implementing their commitments” – and indeed they are anxious to learn about innovations for doing more.

“That’s why we are having this summit,” Mr. de Alba says. “If ever we needed a multilateral system to take action” on a global issue, “it is precisely now.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated to include comments by Secretary-General Guterres at the opening of the summit.

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3. After attack on refinery, Saudis souring on go-it-alone posture

This story looks into an inverse situation: a thought shift in Saudi Arabia. After years of engaging primarily with the U.S. and United Arab Emirates, the kingdom aims to rekindle ties with Europe.

Hamad l Mohammed/Reuters
Men work at the damaged site of a Saudi Aramco oil facility in Buqayq, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 20, 2019.

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For the past five years, Saudi Arabia has acted on the regional stage as the Arab world’s lone “superpower.” Criticisms of its policies in the West were met with diplomatic and economic reprisals. The only relationships that truly mattered were with the Trump White House and its Gulf partner, the United Arab Emirates.

Yet the U.S. refusal to retaliate after Iran shot down an American drone in June was widely interpreted as signaling President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to go to war with Iran. Now, after the Saudi refinery attack, a U.S. pledge to deploy additional forces to the region is being seen as largely symbolic.

Riyadh has been changing tack, returning to multilateralism, diplomacy, and even restraint in the wake of an attack that has exposed its near-isolation on the world stage.

“Saudi Arabia understands that there is a greater chance of an effective military pushback against Iran ... with an international coalition,” says Firas Maksad, an adjunct professor at George Washington University. “In many ways this would be a return to traditional Saudi diplomacy, which is a much more cautious and inclusive approach than it has been the past couple of years.”

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After attack on refinery, Saudis souring on go-it-alone posture

Considering the scope of the region’s conflicts, the announcement that the United States would deploy additional defensive troops to Saudi Arabia and position a naval destroyer in the Persian Gulf suggests a largely symbolic build-up.

The move, in response to the drone and missile attack on the Saudi oil facility Sept. 14, highlights not only Riyadh’s vulnerability to attacks from regional rival Iran, but the limits of President Donald Trump’s support for a close foreign ally.

Saudi Arabia has taken note – and has been changing its tone.

After four years of an aggressive, go-it-alone policy bolstered by President Trump’s support, Saudi Arabia is returning to multilateralism, diplomacy, media messaging, and even restraint in the wake of an attack on its economic life blood that has exposed its near-isolation on the world stage.

“Saudi Arabia understands that there is a greater chance of an effective military pushback against Iran – and the president is more willing to entertain one – with an international coalition,” says Firas Maksad, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and observer of Saudi affairs. 

“In many ways this would be a return to traditional Saudi diplomacy, which is a much more cautious and inclusive approach than it has been the past couple of years.”

Change of direction

For the past five years, Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, has acted on the regional stage as the Arab world’s lone “superpower,” and at times, some diplomats say, as “a bully.”  

In 2015, after Sweden criticized its human rights record, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Stockholm and canceled business visas for Swedish nationals.

In 2018, after Canada’s foreign minister called for the release of jailed Saudi women’s rights activists, Riyadh announced an economic boycott of Canada, canceled state-airline Saudia flights to Toronto, and pulled 16,000 Saudi citizens studying in Canada on government scholarships.

The only relationships that truly mattered were with the Trump White House and its Gulf neighbor and partner, the UAE.

Yet with the lack of U.S. retaliation after Iran shot down an American drone in June, which was widely interpreted here as signaling President Trump’s unwillingness to go to war with Iran, and in light of an increasingly unpredictable White House, the Saudis have changed tack.

In one of its first steps after last week’s Aramco attack, which halted 50% of Saudi oil production, Riyadh called for an international investigation, inviting Europe, the U.S., Russia, China, and others to view the evidence and take part in forensic investigations.

Last week, Saudi Arabia joined the International Maritime Security Construct, the U.S.-led maritime defense coalition that patrols and monitors the tense Gulf seaways.

Riyadh has also been reaching out to allies other than the U.S. for diplomatic and political support, including Europe and China, which has become the largest importer of Saudi oil and relies on the kingdom’s crude for 18% of its needs.

As part of its push for international support, Saudi Arabia even addressed head-on the Yemen war, which has turned many Western publics against it and has made Riyadh political kryptonite for European and even American politicians.

In an interview with the BBC, the Saudi ambassador to the U.K., Prince Khaled bin Bander, voiced “regret” over the Yemen war, which he portrayed nevertheless as necessary, and said the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi “was a stain on Saudi Arabia, a stain on our culture, our people, our government – I wish it didn’t happen.”

Messaging

Key to building its case following the Aramco attack has been messaging, as Saudi Arabia vies for diplomatic support leading up to the United Nations General Assembly meeting this week in New York.

Saudi Arabia has called on international and regional press repeatedly in recent days, holding real-time press conferences to discuss in detail the attack, oil production, and even displaying the remnants of the missiles and drones themselves.

Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters
Remains of missiles that the Saudi government says were used to attack an Aramco oil facility are displayed during a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 18, 2019.

It is a change of approach for the opaque kingdom, which although it has always strived to receive better press in the West, has struggled to shake off its traditional aversion to transparency and has instead relied heavily on Washington-based public relations firms and lobbyists to sandblast its image rather than provide media access.

“They are very much aware that communication has always been a problem for them,” says Ali Shihabi, a U.S.-based Saudi commentator and analyst.

Saudi Arabia has been careful in its language, describing the attacks as “Iran-sponsored.” Riyadh and its surrogates have repeated that Saudi Arabia “does not want escalation” and “does not want conflict,” reminding the international community that its oil infrastructure is the single “most important energy source in the world.”

“I think you are now seeing a new, more judicious use of power and a much more thoughtful approach to things in Saudi Arabia now than you saw before,” says Mr. Shihabi.  

“This is partially due to the lessons learned over the past year, and partially due to the arrival of new people effectively in the circle of power.”

Value of restraint

Although claims of “restraint” conveniently paper over Saudi Arabia’s inability to wage direct warfare on Iran and its limited options without full U.S. military action, they also serve another purpose: shaping the narrative. 

Those in the kingdom have taken note that amid the chaos in oil markets, media coverage of Saudi press conferences, and images of the burning Aramco facilities and clouds of smoke choking the sky, all eyes are on Saudi Arabia and less is being mentioned of its disastrous war in Yemen.

There is a growing belief in Riyadh that the path of Saudi rehabilitation on the world stage – and isolation of Iran – runs through showing restraint, transparency, and even vulnerability.

“This attack shows that Saudi is on the defense, is the victim, and this is a moment we should hang on to as long as possible by showing transparency and open communication with the world,” says a Saudi diplomatic source.

Even Arab allies are unable or unwilling to help; Egypt is embroiled in an economic crisis while Sudan, a major source of ground troops, is consumed with a political transition following a popular revolution.

The UAE has recently parted ways with Saudi Arabia on the Yemen war and has withdrawn from the conflict amid a rising backlash against Abu Dhabi in Washington. It also remains concerned that in any military escalation, Iran will strike the Emirates’ financial capital, Dubai.

The feeling of isolation is being reflected in the state-influenced Saudi press, such as a recent column in Saudi daily Okaz titled “We have no ally but ourselves.”

“If we are to deal with the situation with impartiality and clarity, it requires the knowledge that ... the allies of yesterday will not return today as they once were.”

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4. Slave trade revisited: For Ghanaian archaeology team, past is personal

To compel future change, historical accounts must be complete, even when they’re uncomfortable. We look at an effort in Ghana to unpack the complicated roles of some African communities in the slave trade.

Courtesy of the Christiansborg Archeological Heritage Project
An artist's rendering of the former Danish slave fort known as Christiansborg Castle, in Ghana's capital, Accra. Today, the fort is the site of an archaeological dig that explores, among other topics, the role some Ghanaians played in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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For the past few summers, Ghanaian English archaeologist Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann has found herself unearthing a difficult history – quite literally.

Christiansborg Castle, a three-story former slaving fort with bright white walls, juts out into the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Ghana. This is the site Dr. Engmann has been excavating. And this is the site, she has learned, where her own great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was once the Danish governor, overseeing the sale of thousands of human beings bound for the Danish West Indies.

“It’s something that takes a long time to process,” she says. “Even now, I’m still processing it.”

Like many slavers, he started a family in Ghana, who went on to work in the slave trade. Each summer, she gathers a team of local Ghanaians, many of whom have Danish last names like hers, and together they sift through the ground where their ancestors worked and lived. 

It’s timely work, particularly as the world commemorates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves in what is now the United States. It has also been difficult, because it means reckoning with the complicated roles that Africans played – and not only as slavery’s victims. But who better to uncover the history of Christiansborg, Dr. Engmann reasons, than the people that history belongs to?

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Slave trade revisited: For Ghanaian archaeology team, past is personal

Growing up, when people asked Ghanaian-English archaeologist Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann why she had a Danish last name, she had an easy answer.

It came from her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, a Danish missionary who had settled on Ghana’s coast in the 1700s and started a family there.

It was an easy answer, yes. But, she’s since learned, it was also untrue.

Well, not completely. There had been a Danish man in Ghana named Carl Gustav Engmann, and Rachel was his direct descendant. But that was where the similarities between the family lore and the truth began and ended.

Because Carl Gustav Engmann wasn’t a missionary. He was the governor of a slaving fort, his job to oversee the sale of thousands of human beings bound for the Danish West Indies. And like many slavers, he started a family in Ghana, who went on to work in the slave trade themselves.

So that – not a mission to spread the gospel, not the adventuring of a pious Dane – was how there came to be a line of Ghanaian Engmanns.

Over the past several years, Dr. Engmann, now an assistant professor of African studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, has dedicated herself to unearthing that difficult history – quite literally. Each summer, she gathers a team of Ghanaians, many of whom have last names like hers – the Lutterodts and the Richters, the Reindorfs and the Svanikers – and together they sift through the ground beneath Christiansborg Castle, the former slaving fort in the Ghanaian capital in which their ancestors lived and worked.

It’s timely work, particularly as the world commemorates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves in British North America, and the long shadow it cast over the modern world. [Editor’s note: This article has been modified to reflect the correct significance of the year 1619 in the history of the transatlantic slave trade.] But the project has also, at times, been profoundly difficult, because it has meant reckoning with the complicated roles that Africans played. In Ghana, like much of West Africa, they were not just slavery’s victims but also in some cases among its proponents, participants who made possible the trade of people bound for labor half a world away.

“We’re not at a point in Ghana yet where we’re talking openly about our heritage as slavers,” Dr. Engmann says. “But if we want to tell complicated and nuanced histories, if we want to give Africans agency in how we talk about slavery, we have to acknowledge that they had the agency to be collaborators as well as resisters.”

Courtesy of the Christiansborg Archeological Heritage Project
Ghanaian employees sift through the ground beneath Christiansborg Castle, a former slaving fort in the Ghanaian capital. Some members of the team have ancestors who lived and worked at the fort.

Dr. Engmann’s journey to this project began more than a decade ago, when an aunt told her casually that Carl Engmann’s name was inscribed on a water cistern at Christiansborg Castle, a three-story former slave fort that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean in the Osu neighborhood of Accra, the Ghanaian capital.

It was an odd place for a missionary’s name to be, and so Dr. Engmann began to look for answers. She pored over family trees sketched out by a grand-uncle, and then records in the Danish National Archives.

By the time she finished, her family’s history had been warped into an almost unrecognizable shape. They were no longer the descendants of a missionary, but of a slave trader.

“It’s something that takes a long time to process,” she says. “Even now, I’m still processing it.”

The weight of that discovery, indeed, followed Dr. Engmann as she finished her doctorate and began her career as an archaeologist in the United States. There, she found spirited discussions happening among her fellow archaeologists about the profession’s past – which was strongly linked to the exploration of “exotic” societies during the colonial period – and its potential future as a more inclusive discipline.

Wanting to play a role in that transformation, she decided to return to Ghana, where she asked the Ghanaian government for permission to excavate on the castle grounds.

And then she went looking for a team.

But instead of shipping in a gaggle of eager American archaeology students to sift through the earth, Dr. Engmann decided to recruit more locally. So locally, in fact, that she barely had to leave the castle grounds.

Just on the other side of the fort’s bright white walls lived a community largely descended, like Dr. Engmann, from Danish slave traders and their local Ga wives. Who better to uncover the history of Christiansborg, she reasoned, than the people whom that history belonged to?

One of those descendants was Malik Ludvig Lutterodt, who in 2015 was casting around for a job to help pay his tuition as a business student at a local university. A friend mentioned that the Christiansborg project was recruiting community members, and Mr. Lutterodt thought, “Sure, fine, I need a way to pay my fees, so why not?”

But quickly, his interest deepened.

Jumbled in the ground beneath him, he realized, were many histories, because the castle had lived many lives. As the team worked, they found beads, clay pipes, and shards of Chinese pottery from the era of the slave trade. But there were also the foundations of a pre-colonial kitchen, along with worn coins, medals, and other relics of the building’s later uses – first as the seat of the British colonial government, and later as an office and official residence of the president of Ghana.

Each year the team returns, he says, they uncover more and more buried in the ground here.

“My whole life, this castle was beside my house but I never really knew its history,” he says. “And if not for this project, it would still be that way. Our history would still be underground.”

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Q&A

5. Who gets ahead with higher ed?

Finally, how does society advance equity for its citizens? Access to learning is a good start. This author interview looks into whether delivery has lived up to the promises.

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The idea of education as a common good, once a bedrock principle in American society, is slipping, according to Paul Tough, a journalist and author of “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.” 

In an interview with the Monitor’s senior education writer, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, Mr. Tough says that people generally agree on the need for higher education to become more equitable and more accessible to students from traditionally underrepresented communities. “But the idea that higher education is only for certain people is a stubborn and persistent one,” he says. 

When the GI Bill passed toward the end of World War II, he says, some elites pushed back on helping soldiers access a college education. “They were wrong,” adds Mr. Tough. “When all those GIs came back ... they did great in college, and their success transformed not only their lives but the nation.”

Mr. Tough argues that Americans’ perception of higher education has evolved from a collective good to a consumer good – a scarce resource that cues competition. But now there’s a need to reassert “basic principles of fairness and equity, and helping others as well as helping yourself,” he says.

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Who gets ahead with higher ed?

Paul Tough spent six years following students as they waited out admissions decisions, scraped together tuition, and navigated the currents of college life. In his new book, “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us,” he also brings a critical eye to the SATs and admissions, explaining why higher education’s rhetoric around promoting social mobility doesn’t match reality. He spoke with the Monitor’s senior education writer, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo.

Why are the words “the years that matter most” in the title, and who is the “us”?

The years after high school have become this critical time in terms of social mobility. The “us” is certainly individual students who are trying to make their way through college. But it’s also the country as a whole. Those individual mobility questions (who is admitted where, how successful they are) ... connect to the health of the economy, the health of our democracy. When you have a dynamic country with lots of opportunity to change your life, people are more ambitious, people are more satisfied.

With the Varsity Blues scandal, there’s been a lot of talk not only about criminal cheating, but also about legal advantages for wealthy families in admissions. What are the incentives that seem to pull against institutions’ public rhetoric about equity?

At selective institutions, especially ones that are not the very richest, it became clear that a lot of the pressure is simply to admit kids with money. When you work in admissions, your job is to raise enough tuition to keep the institution afloat. More students are applying to more colleges ... which means institutions need help figuring out who will accept their offer. More admissions offices are turning to consultants. ... The effect of using those consultants is that it automates and turbocharges this process of [leaning] toward accepting more rich kids.

Has inequity in higher education actually gotten worse over time?

At many highly selective institutions, equity has gone down. They’re admitting fewer low-income students than they were before. The other trend ... is that we are pulling back funding from public higher education ... which really used to be the main driver of social mobility.

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes Or Breaks Us” by Paul Tough, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pp.

Are any attempts to improve the success of traditionally underrepresented students working? 

There’s a lot more investment in student success. Those efforts are starting to make a difference. In the past, a lot of institutions just took the attitude that it was sink or swim for their students. The University of Texas and others are now questioning that idea. What they’re showing is that if universities pay a little bit of attention to how their students are doing – particularly students from less well-resourced high schools – they can make a huge impact on how likely those students are to succeed. 

Is there a consensus that equity gaps in higher education need to be solved?

There’s probably a majority opinion [among the public] that higher education should become more equitable. 

At the very end of [World War II], after the GI Bill had passed but before the war ended and the GIs returned, there was this backlash against it from certain segments of elites in higher education ... [who said,] if we let these uneducated sons of farmers and dockworkers into our institutions, it’s going to be a disaster. They were wrong. When all those GIs came back ... they did great in college, and their success transformed not only their lives but the nation. But the idea that higher education is only for certain people is a stubborn and persistent one.

What can readers learn through the students you profile?

The big picture is that for individual students, higher education remains the most effective way for them to achieve huge social mobility, and when it works it really works. There are encouraging and optimistic stories in the book about young people who start with very little, and a college education just completely transforms their lives. 

The other picture is, even within those happy stories, how hard social mobility is on a personal level. Social mobility often means leaving elements of your family and your culture and your history behind. It often creates complicated dynamics within families. 

What is a key moral issue that underlies these discussions?

[At one time in American history] there was this common belief that most Americans had, that our collective public education benefits us all. We have lost that idea in many ways. We now think about higher education more as a consumer good than as a collective good. And we tend to feel that it’s a scarce resource that we need to compete for rather than share. There is a moral aspect to it. It is about basic principles of fairness and equity, and helping others as well as helping yourself.

After immersing yourself in this topic for six years, do you see a solution?

There are initiatives I found encouraging. But is this a question of adjusting and tweaking, or is it a question of a GI Bill-level revolution in higher education? My conclusion is that the changes have to be systemic. 

What was it like to take a freshman calculus class for a whole semester at UT Austin, with Professor Uri Treisman, who has promoted successful teaching methods that reach diverse students?

It gave me this opportunity to embed myself in the lives of a lot of students at once, to understand how they were all experiencing this same course. It was definitely my favorite experience. [I watched] Ivonne, a student with relatively low SAT scores, overcome those obstacles and succeed ... and go on to be a math major.

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The Monitor's View

Israeli Arabs make plain Israel’s identity

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In a Sept. 17 election, the one-fifth of Israeli citizens who are Arab and often demonized by some far-right Jewish leaders went to the polls in near-record numbers. Some 60% voted compared with 49% just five months ago. A coalition of four mainly Arab parties, known as the Joint List, won 13 seats in the Knesset, making it the third-largest grouping in Israel’s 120-seat parliament.

Then on Sunday, in a rare engagement with Israeli democracy, three of the four parties endorsed a Zionist center-right candidate, ex-military chief Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, as the leader best able to form a coalition government after an inclusive election. The main reason for their endorsement was to end the “politics of fear and hate, the inequality and division.”

As a democracy that also serves as a homeland for Jews, Israel has yet to live up to ideals such as equality among citizens. Yet just as in other democracies also dealing with vulnerable or suppressed minorities, it is often the minorities who most strongly demand inclusion, dignity, and respect. To them, democracy is a way to embrace, not divide.

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Israeli Arabs make plain Israel’s identity

By force of its impartial civic values, a democracy has a way of elevating the identity of its citizens beyond ethnicity, religion, gender, or even ideology. Sometimes voters, especially the most vulnerable, simply want practical help from elected leaders. In Iraq, the often-suppressed Sunni minority now actively cast ballots. In Turkey, minority Kurds embrace elections despite widespread discrimination. The latest example comes from Israel.

In a Sept. 17 election, the one-fifth of Israeli citizens who are Arab and often demonized by some far-right Jewish leaders went to the polls in near-record numbers. Some 60% voted compared with 49% just five months ago. A coalition of four mainly Arab parties, known as the Joint List, won 13 seats in the Knesset, making it the third-largest grouping in Israel’s 120-seat parliament.

Then on Sunday, in a rare engagement with Israeli democracy, three of the four parties endorsed a Zionist center-right candidate, ex-military chief Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, as the leader best able to form a coalition government after an inclusive election. The main reason for their endorsement was to end the “politics of fear and hate, the inequality and division.”

To illustrate their potential new role, the leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, tweeted a passage from the book of Psalms: “The stone which the builders rejected is become the chief cornerstone.” The jockeying to form a new government could take weeks.

The four parties are under pressure from grassroots Israeli Arabs to work within the government, especially to oust longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and end the political persecution. At a practical level, crime is rising in Arab-dominated areas. More Arabs now work more closely with the majority Jews in Israel’s workplaces. They seek equality in resources, law enforcement, and other aspects of democratic life. Although some Israeli Arabs verbally support terrorist attacks on Israel, most are tired of being characterized as a domestic threat. A recent poll found a majority identify as Arab Israelis rather than as Palestinians.

As a democracy that also serves as a homeland for Jews, Israel has yet to live up to ideals such as equality among citizens. Yet just as in other democracies also dealing with vulnerable or suppressed minorities, it is often the minorities who most strongly demand inclusion, dignity, and respect. To them, democracy is a way to embrace, not divide.

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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.

Deliverance from slavery

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As we understand more of our innate freedom as God’s children, it leads us to greater freedom in our lives. A woman experienced this firsthand, gaining the courage to leave an abusive boyfriend as well as finding lasting freedom from feelings of shame.

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Deliverance from slavery

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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The castle door I was looking at, which led down a few stone steps to where the slave ships had been, once served as the point of no return for many of the millions of Africans forcibly transported to the Americas. It was chilling to feel the dank walls of the castle dungeons.

The tour I took of the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana moved me deeply, and the most touching part of the tour was the young tour guide’s final words. His plaintive plea that visitors move their hearts beyond hatred and indifference to universal brotherliness and love still rings in my ears almost 10 years later.

There are still all kinds of slavery in the world, from the tragic enslavement of individuals to the more subtle loss of freedom to enslaving habits. The call to abolish slavery in every form remains. I’ve found hope in something the prophet Isaiah wrote about 3,000 years ago: “Is not this the fast that I [God] have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6).

Christian Science brings the perspective that above all human conditions, situations, and history, the eternal nature of every individual is spiritual, free, and always progressing. This is because God is infinite, unopposed Love and creates us in His image and likeness. On this basis Jesus healed and reformed people. As we understand more of our present spiritual freedom, it leads us to greater freedom in our lives and empowers us to help others prove their freedom, too.

A friend of mine needed to gain that liberating understanding of her spiritual freedom while at university some years ago, when her boyfriend became increasingly demeaning, controlling, and abusive. He constantly criticized and belittled her and didn’t support her academics, extracurricular activities, preferences, or moral choices. He told her that “cool girls drink” and pressured her into having sex. She resisted, but only to a degree, and then felt bad about that. But she also knew that her boyfriend’s behavior was unacceptable.

The turning point came when one day he got angry at her for no reason, and in front of other people slammed her against a wall and yelled at her. She went home knowing things had to change.

And they did change, though not easily. My friend knew in her heart that true happiness and freedom come from God and His love alone. We can never be robbed of these gifts.

The Bible illustrates that. It includes many accounts of people finding freedom of all kinds, including from other people, circumstances, heartbreak, and disease. In an extended passage in her main book, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” the discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, discusses the liberating power of God that the Bible reveals (see pp. 224-228). She describes how Jesus showed the way for all to find their freedom as children of God, infinite Spirit.

The Bible’s message of divinely demonstrated freedom has given humanity a higher platform of human rights. In the face of divine Love, oppression falls. A truer sense of our spiritual nature as reflections, or offspring, of this divine Love paves the way for us to tangibly experience this.

That’s what my friend found. Her realization of the potential for healing grew stronger than the feelings of shame. She gradually but finally found the courage to stay away from the man and realized that she didn’t even have to talk to him at all. She slowly began to put her life back together and went on to marry. She has a wonderful husband and son and remains unburdened by that previous relationship.

Everyone has a right to refuse limiting, enslaving thoughts. We do this by taking a stand at each moment, including this moment, to accept as legitimate only thoughts that God intends for us – light-filled thoughts that banish fear of being controlled or a desire to control another. And no matter how oppressed or cast down we may feel, we can listen for those freeing thoughts that God is always providing us. Divine Love, by its very nature, delivers from mental anguish and oppression and guides to freedom and dominion.

In this respect, I find the hymn “Amazing Grace” so inspiring, not just because of the words themselves, but because the man who wrote them, John Newton, ultimately renounced his former profession as a slave trader. God’s truly amazing grace enables us to find our own mental freedom and to help others find theirs. That grace – that freely given, unopposable love of God – “break[s] every yoke” and empowers us to show forth brotherliness and love.

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Viewfinder

Basking

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
A dog rests on the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun on Sept. 21, 2019, in Teotihuacán, Mexico. The city of Teotihuacán was built by hand more than a thousand years before the swooping arrival of the Nahuatl-speaking Aztec in central Mexico.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( September 24th, 2019 )

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Come back tomorrow. Sara Miller Llana will be reporting from Toronto. Amid a fairly binary conversation about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s character, she has been listening for the nuanced perspectives of minority voters in that city. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

September 23, 2019
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