2019
October
02
Wednesday

Today, we look at diverging views of democracy, fairness in college admissions, LGBTQ rights in Poland, one country charting a path forward, and the equalizing effect of cafe culture.

One year ago, Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to pick up a marriage certificate. He never emerged.

The journalist’s murder by an assassination squad – and its blatant daylight circumstances – shocked the world.

U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing. He denies that and says he had no prior knowledge of the plan.

Howard LaFranchi, our senior foreign diplomacy reporter, reported on the murder and its aftermath. The big fear, at the time, he says, “was that Saudi Arabia was too important to pressure or ostracize, too important to sanction, for the United States and for the West. That has sadly turned out to be very much the case.”

Mourners attended a memorial in Istanbul Tuesday, including the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, a Yemeni Nobel laureate, and Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, where Mr. Khashoggi was a foreign affairs columnist and where the Saudi national often criticized the crown prince’s regime.

Howard describes the situation as a mixed picture. “When was the last time you saw this kind of recognition of a state killing of a journalist? On the other hand, it doesn’t seem that much really has changed.”

Mr. Khashoggi’s fiancée has not given up the fight.

“I take heart in something I heard often during my visit [to Washington]: Though little progress has been made until now, it does not have to remain this way,” Hatice Cengiz wrote in The Washington Post. “It’s not too late. I continue to hope the United States decides to stand for what is right. In the meantime, I will continue seeking justice for Jamal – and hope that people and governments the world over will join me in my quest.”

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Patterns

Tracing global connections

1. Impeachment, Brexit, and the battle to define democracy

In two leading democracies, citizens’ visions of core principles of government have diverged sharply. That’s undermining confidence, and helping to feed nationalism and populism.

Yvonne

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Crises in two of the world’s leading democracies are prompting sharp debate over what democracy looks like – or what it should look like – in a world in which nationalism and populism are on the rise, and where confidence in existing institutions has been on the wane.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to pull the country out of the European Union by the end of this month, leading to a historic showdown with Parliament. But who speaks for the people? Traditionally, it’s been Parliament. But the holding of a referendum in 2016 on Brexit has allowed Mr. Johnson to argue his approach truly expresses the popular will.

Across the Atlantic, as an impeachment inquiry intensifies, the debate is strikingly similar to that in Britain.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California has said the behavior of President Donald Trump is not how democracy is supposed to work. But Mr. Trump has presented himself as a president bent on unblocking a Washington “system” that’s trying to frustrate the will of millions of “real” Americans.

When Britain and the U.S. do next go to the polls, they’ll face an unprecedentedly explicit choice about what kind of democratic government they favor.

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Impeachment, Brexit, and the battle to define democracy

“This is what democracy looks like!” Those six simple words have emerged as the rallying call for countless political protests worldwide in the past few years.

But if you put a question mark at the end, they go to the heart of a crisis facing two of the world’s leading democratic countries: the United States and Britain. In the U.S., at immediate issue is the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump. In Britain, it’s the prospect of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s taking the country out of the European Union without any agreed-upon transition deal.

Both crises involve something even more fundamental: a clash of sharply divergent visions of government. They amount to a fight over what democracy looks like – or what it should look like – in a world in which nationalism and populism are on the rise, and where citizens’ confidence in the existing institutions of democratic government has been on the wane.

The Brexit clock

First, to Britain. Mr. Johnson has vowed, “do or die,” to get out of the EU by the end of this month, and that has led to a historic showdown between the prime minister and Parliament. Indeed, the head of the British Supreme Court, weighing in on Parliament’s side last week, cited a four-centuries-old legal judgment as precedent.

The battle boils down to who can claim the right to speak for the people. Traditionally, it’s been Parliament, which holds ultimate sovereignty under the British system. That’s why the court voided Mr. Johnson’s decision to disband it for a five-week period in the run-up to the Brexit deadline.

But the holding of a national referendum in 2016 on whether to leave the EU, which the “leave” side won narrowly, has allowed the prime minister to argue his full-steam-ahead approach truly expresses the will of the people.

In an increasingly febrile political atmosphere, it’s impossible to say when, how, and conceivably even whether Britain will leave the EU. The opposition parties in Parliament have been consulting among themselves on possible further action aimed at definitively preventing a no-deal Brexit. The prime minister has persisted in keeping that option open if he can’t get the EU to accept amendments on the agreement it reached with his predecessor, Theresa May.

Yet one thing is clear: There will be a new general election long before it is currently scheduled, in 2022, and the battle over defining British democracy will loom large.

Mr. Johnson’s rivals and critics argue that Parliament has simply been doing its job: acting in good conscience and centuries-old tradition to prevent a form of Brexit that would cause the country real harm. Mr. Johnson portrays Parliament as embodying an out-of-touch elite, arrogantly seeking to override the referendum result. The solution, he suggests, is strong and determined leadership, a readiness to shake things up, get things done, and deliver on the popular mandate.

The impeachment debate

If that sounds familiar, of course, it’s because on the other side of the Atlantic, it was much the same argument Mr. Trump made when campaigning for the U.S. presidency. And as the Democratic Party leadership in the House of Representatives accelerates moves toward his possible impeachment, the debate over what democracy is, or should be, is strikingly similar to that in Britain.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee will be a central figure in the impeachment investigation, drew the dividing lines starkly in remarks last week.

Accusing Mr. Trump of having violated the trust of his office by trying to get the government of Ukraine to investigate his potential rival in the 2020 election, Joe Biden, Representative Schiff said this behavior was not how democracy is supposed to work. “This is democracy,” he declared, with a nod toward the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes of California. “What you saw in this committee is democracy, as ugly as it can be, as personal as it can be, as infuriating as it can be. This is democracy.”

But is it? Mr. Trump, not just in his intervention with Ukraine but on issues ranging from tariffs on China to a border wall, has presented himself as a president bent on unblocking an out-of-touch Washington “system” that’s trying to frustrate the will of the millions of “real” Americans who voted for him.

And unless he’s actually impeached, and removed from office by the Senate, that argument – as in Britain – will soon be fought out through the ballot box.

In countering it, his opponents will rely on centuries-old examples of the importance of core democratic principles like constitutional checks and balances and a universally applied rule of law. But even before Mr. Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum, a constellation of concerns had soured many voters on the entire political system. They were disheartened especially by disparities in wealth and opportunity, frustrations only magnified by the world economic crash of a decade ago. Mr. Trump’s election victory, and the Brexit vote, were less causes than symptoms.

When Britain and the U.S. do next go to the polls, they’ll face an unprecedentedly explicit choice about what kind of democratic government they favor.

And whatever the outcome, it’s wise to keep in mind one key lesson from the Brexit referendum. That exercise turned out not to be a contest for voters’ hearts and minds. Instead, it often seemed to pit hearts against minds. The “remain” campaign did make a forceful and articulate case for the benefits of staying in the EU, and the potential risks of leaving. The pro-Brexit camp seemed far more successful, however, in tapping into the passions – anger and resentment, nationalism and patriotic pride – of voters who had ceased to feel represented, or in some cases understood, by their government.

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2. Harvard won, but battle over race-based admissions isn’t finished

It’s a question of fairness. That’s what both supporters and opponents say about considering race in college admissions. A judge ruled yesterday in favor of Harvard, but it’s a question likely to be considered again by higher courts.

Yvonne

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A federal judge in a highly anticipated case ruled in favor of Harvard this week, finding the university does not discriminate against Asian Americans in its admissions practices. Even so, interpretations of race and its role within higher education are still very much in flux. It’s not just court cases and laws that shape these views, but also a larger backdrop of the nation’s attempt to come to grips with a history of race and inequality. 

Affirmative action is a major hot button in that context, but on a practical level, it’s not a focal point for a large swath of American colleges.

“The number of universities that use race in admissions has always been a small fraction of the higher education landscape, but it is dwindling over the past 20 years,” says Matthew Johnson, a history professor at Texas Tech University.

With the pressure still on, many selective colleges and universities have been steering themselves toward “race neutral” policies to dodge the volleys of affirmative action opponents, even before any potential ban from the Supreme Court materializes. Now, though, even race-neutral strategies – such as relying more on socioeconomic factors to diversify an incoming class – are also becoming targets of scrutiny.

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Harvard won, but battle over race-based admissions isn’t finished

A federal judge decided this week that Harvard does not discriminate against Asian American applicants. But the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard case – expected to eventually be appealed up to the Supreme Court – is just one arrow in the quiver of affirmative action opponents. 

More cases are in the works, from a federal lawsuit against the University of North Carolina to a state suit against the University of Texas, all aiming at race-based admissions. “The ultimate goal is to eliminate the use of race and ethnicity in the admissions process,” Edward Blum, SFFA’s president, told the Monitor during a phone interview before the Harvard decision. “We believe a student’s race should not help that student or harm that student in his or her application to any college in the country,” said Mr. Blum, who is involved in the other two suits as well. 

Interpretations of race and its role within higher education are still very much in flux. It’s not just court cases and laws that shape these views, but also a larger backdrop of the nation’s attempt to come to grips with a long history of race and inequality. 

Affirmative action is a major hot button in that context, but on a practical level, it’s not a focal point for a large swath of American colleges.

“The number of universities that use race in admissions has always been a small fraction of the higher education landscape, but it is dwindling over the past 20 years,” says Matthew Johnson, an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University.

Judge Allison Burroughs ruled strongly in favor of Harvard, but she did not espouse a view that race-conscious admissions policies will be justifiable forever, nor did she let the college off the hook for imperfections in its admissions system. She recommended implicit bias training and continued monitoring of admissions data. 

Quoting from the Supreme Court in its 2016 Fisher II decision on behalf of the University of Texas, Austin, she wrote that the university must “scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program ... and engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies.” 

It’s not just universities, but parents and students themselves who should be engaging in more reflection, suggests Ethan, an Asian American freshman at Harvard who asked that his last name not be used. “The most important thing regarding this discussion is that where you go is not going to decide how successful you’re going to be,” he says, noting a cultural tendency within the Asian American community to focus perhaps too heavily on the elite institutions. “The university is a part of your identity, but if it’s such a determining factor of identity, I think that’s not a healthy mindset,” he says. 

Sitting outside the Harvard Science Center on Wednesday morning, Ethan adds that if the case does go to the Supreme Court, “Harvard needs to argue convincingly that, yes, diversity is something that is really key to our university and our environment.” But he also understands the frustrations of Asian American prospective college students, he says, recognizing that he’s speaking from a position of privilege being at the university.

The “race neutral” option

With the pressure still on, many selective colleges and universities have been steering themselves toward “race neutral” policies to dodge the volleys of affirmative action opponents, even before any potential ban from the Supreme Court materializes. Now, though, even race-neutral strategies – such as relying more on socioeconomic factors to diversify an incoming class – are also becoming targets of scrutiny, if not outright attack.

Particularly in states with laws against affirmative action in admissions, universities often create race-neutral systems to diversify their student bodies. The courts so far haven’t precisely defined what counts as race neutral, Professor Johnson says, so currently “there are lots of ways you can kind of capture race without really capturing race on the surface.”

In California, where voters opted to ban race-conscious admissions in 1996 via Proposition 209, a lawsuit is under way with the ultimate goal of making sure the University of California isn’t “cheating” by surreptitiously “using race consciously to bring about racial outcomes,” says Richard Sander, a UCLA economist and law professor, whose data methodologies and arguments criticizing affirmative action have long been controversial.  

Last November, he joined forces with the Asian American Community Services Center in filing the public records lawsuit against the University of California regents.

Professor Sander’s contested “mismatch” theory argues that when race is no longer used in admissions, a higher caliber of students among underrepresented minorities are attracted to apply, and when they don’t feel stigmatized, they remain and graduate at higher rates.

He studied Prop 209 with previous data, and wants to update his research because in 2007, UCLA shifted away from a demonstrably race-neutral admissions approach to a “holistic” process, which he and other critics claim is less transparent and has reintroduced race into the calculation. 

If this leads to a discrimination lawsuit against the UC system, it could launch a sort of Stage II of the anti-affirmative action mission. That’s because even if the Supreme Court eventually bans the use of race in admissions, “some court has to come up with how you ensure universities are obeying the law,” Professor Sander says. 

Spokeswoman Claire Doan said in an email that responding to Professor Sander’s records request “would impose an extensive burden on University resources and is not required by state law,” and noted UC’s commitment to “fairness and transparency” in admissions.

But advocates for racial equity are concerned. For California to lose the race-neutral approach to promoting diversity would mean “a decline again in underrepresented minority students in the UC system,” Professor Johnson says. 

Defending the status quo

Many universities and even corporations would be likely to come together to defend race-conscious admissions if the issue winds up back on the Supreme Court docket, says Professor Johnson from Texas Tech.

Such supporters would have plenty to draw from in Judge Burroughs’ ruling in the SFFA v. Harvard case in U.S. District Court in Boston. The decision, dated Sept. 30, emphasizes the need for consideration of race in admissions as a temporary measure to get society to a point of equality that nullifies such a need. 

“The students who are admitted to Harvard and choose to attend will live and learn surrounded by all sorts of people, with all sorts of experiences, beliefs and talents,” she wrote. “They will have the opportunity to know and understand one another beyond race, as whole individuals with unique histories and experiences. It is this, at Harvard and elsewhere that will move us, one day, to the point where we see that race is a fact, but not the defining fact and not the fact that tells us what is important, but we are not there yet.” Until then, she noted, policies like Harvard’s, which use race in a narrowly tailored way, “will have an important place in society ...” 

The University of Texas, whose use of race in admissions was approved by the Supreme Court in 2016, is still having to defend its policies against Mr. Blum. His challenge this spring in state court alleging that UT admissions practices violate the Texas constitution is a sign of his “recalcitrance and hostility,”  Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a May 20 statement, vowing to push back against his “all-out assault against racial diversity efforts at our nation’s colleges and universities.” 

Yet despite such rallying cries to defend the schools that do consider race in admissions, many selective colleges have voluntarily put down that tool. It’s common in higher education circles now to discuss much broader definitions of diversity – touting factors such as geographic and international diversity – and to substitute economic backgrounds for racial factors, even in states where race-conscious admissions is still allowed.

“I haven’t seen any race-neutral policy that still doesn’t disadvantage underrepresented students of color to a greater degree than other students,” says Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust. 

Judge Burroughs essentially agreed, saying any race-neutral alternatives proposed by SFFA, in her analysis, would not suffice to achieve similar racial diversity to what Harvard currently values.

If opponents of affirmative action were really concerned about fairness, they should also be outraged about things like legacy admissions and athletic recruiting in certain sports, which tend to favor white and wealthy students, Mr. Del Pilar says. 

It hasn’t been Mr. Blum's primary mission to remove legacy admissions. But he agrees to some extent that schools like Harvard would be better served by dropping a range of preferences for certain applicants, such as the sons and daughters of employees and alumni, and they would then “naturally have a unique freshman class,” he says. 

SFFA v. Harvard is the first affirmative action case Professor Johnson has seen where legacy preferences haven’t been ignored. During the trial, reducing those preferences came up as one possible way to help diversify without using race.

Given the public consternation over this year’s “Varsity Blues” scandal and the awareness it raised, it could be to the advantage of affirmative action opponents to signal that message more clearly to the public, Professor Johnson says. It would show they are “perhaps interested in all of the preferences that the rich get as well, and they’re trying to take them both on at the same time.”

Staff writer Dwight Weingarten contributed reporting from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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3. As Poland's election heats up, so does anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Why?

Poland has never been an easy place for the LGBTQ community to get by. But they are feeling a new level of persecution as the ruling party turns sexuality into a political issue ahead of parliamentary elections.

Yvonne
Dominique Soguel
Marcin Nikrant, the mayor of the Polish village of Leśniewo, is openly gay and has been reelected twice.

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It has never been easy for people who don’t conform to heterosexual norms in Poland. The country recognizes few of the rights that the rest of the EU does, like same-sex marriage or civil unions, adoption rights, and protections from hate speech.

But these are particularly tough times, as Poland’s spiritual leaders and ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) have turned sexuality into an issue ahead of parliamentary elections on Oct. 13. And the Polish LGBTQ community is struggling to find ways to respond to the increased pressures that the campaign is stirring up.

Most members of the community worry about the implications of another PiS victory – the most likely outcome according to recent polls. The most alarming scenario would be a PiS supermajority in parliament that allows them to change the constitution.

“We are afraid that not only will there be consent to aggression and violence against us,” says Misza Czerniak of the Faith and Rainbow Foundation, which advocates for acceptance of the LGBTQ community in both churches and society, “but also there will be no legal framework for monitoring such crimes.”

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1. As Poland's election heats up, so does anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Why?

Marcin Nikrant, the mayor of this village just a few miles inland from Poland’s northern coast, is angry.

Not at the people of Leśniewo, to whom he has devoted nearly nine years. Mr. Nikrant is openly gay, something uncommon in conservative, Catholic Poland. But he has proven popular, leaving his mark with neat road signs and decorative bus stops.

But now, after winning over his village of 1,700, he sees his efforts at bridge-building being undermined by negative rhetoric coming from the highest levels of Polish leadership. In August, the archbishop of Kraków warned the country was confronting a “rainbow plague.” Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński – widely viewed as the nation’s de facto leader – said Poland was “dealing with a direct attack on the family and children.” He called the entire “LGBT movement” an “import” that threatens Polish identity and national survival.

It has never been easy for people who don’t conform to heterosexual norms in Poland. The country recognizes few of the rights that the rest of the European Union does, like same-sex marriage or civil unions, adoption rights, and protections from hate speech. But these are particularly tough times, as Poland’s spiritual leaders and ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) have turned sexuality into an issue ahead of parliamentary elections on Oct. 13. And the Polish LGBTQ community is struggling to find ways to respond to the increased pressures that the campaign is stirring up.

“I am really angry,” Mr. Nikrant says. “I don’t know what words I should use to talk to people, to tell them [the LGBTQ community] is not your enemy. ... The most annoying is that the Catholic Church takes part in this propaganda.”

Targeting the LGBTQ community

Many feel as if the clock has been dialed back two decades. The first LGBTQ Pride parade was held in Warsaw in 2001 – a landmark moment in the staunchly Catholic, former Communist bloc nation. Mr. Nikrant says it helped get important conversations going among families and the wider nation. Since then, the event has been observed annually in the Polish capital and spread to other towns.

But this election, PiS has opted to use the debate over sexuality as a way to get its supporters to the polls. And the party “has a history of scapegoating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people ... under the rubric of ‘gender ideology,’” notes Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Kaczyński, the leader of PiS since 2003, “tells everyone that it is wrong to hold [Pride] parades,” says Mr. Nikrant. “He gives people [an incentive] to attack. People think, ‘OK, if he can say these things, why can’t we?’”

The mayor sees that himself on Facebook. “It’s behind my back, but I can read it,” he says, listing off the kind of insults he comes across. “There are people who do not have a problem writing these kind of things under their name. Even here in Leśniewo. And when we see each other in the village street, it’s like this conversation did not take place.”

For now, such people are the exception rather than the rule in the village. While some of his voters were upset when they learned that he was gay, he easily won another two terms. When he goes to the senior ball, he does not hesitate to dress up like Elvis or dance with his long-term partner, Jarek. And he is quick to fundraise for a local boy's medical operation – even if the local priests won't allow him to do so on church grounds. Besides being gay, Mr. Nikrant is also an atheist.

Dominique Soguel
Locals attend mass in Leśniewo, Poland. The church priests and Mayor Nikrant, who is also an atheist, do not see eye to eye.

“The attitude has changed because he works a lot in the community and the village,” says Anna Lanc, one of several churchgoers backing the mayor. “He did a lot of things all on his own. They used to look at him in a very bad way because he is gay. Now they accept him.”

The power of conversation and direct contact

Anna Ekielska, a board member of Gdańsk-based association Tolerado which provides workshops and counseling for members of the LGBTQ community, considers herself a hard-wired optimist. But she says that the growing flurry of emails from young people who are struggling with rising homophobia as they try to understand their sexual identity gives her cause for concern.

Indeed, the far-right, ultranationalist All-Polish Youth group has unleashed homophobic rhetoric at counter-Pride rallies at several towns across the country. Sporting plastic overalls and blue gloves, they “disinfected” the streets after the first Pride march held in Katowice this year – part of a broader “LGBT-free zone” concept being pushed by right-wing organizations and publications.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

While such views are far from a majority, Poland still lags behind the rest of Europe in terms of acceptance of its gay community. About half of Poles (49%) believe that homosexual or bisexual people should have the same rights as heterosexuals, compared to three-quarters (76%) of Europeans, according to Eurobarometer.

“Our mission is for the LGBT society to be considered part of the broader society,” says Ms. Ekielska. “That should be the default set-up. LGBT has existed, still exists, and will exist. Maybe this is a step. Before the LGBT issue was not visible, that had a good side and it its bad side. Now it is visible. Maybe it will turn out all right.”

Most members of the community worry about the implications of another PiS victory – the most likely outcome according to recent polls. The most alarming scenario for those defending LGBTQ rights would be a PiS supermajority in parliament which allows them to change the constitution.

“We are afraid that not only will there be consent to aggression and violence against us, but also there will be no legal framework for monitoring such crimes,” says Misza Czerniak, a board member of the Faith and Rainbow Foundation, which advocates for acceptance of the LGBTQ community in both churches and society. Mr. Czerniak is a Russian native, but found love in Poland and founded an LGBTQ church choir in Warsaw.

Urszula, a Polish lesbian who declined to give her last name, prefers to keep a lower profile, but says she is determined to keep up the fight for LGBTQ rights even if things turn sour. She helps young people prepare for the confirmation sacrament in her parish. Her family does not know she is a lesbian, but some people in her church do. “I’m not ashamed of it, but I am afraid that it may be misunderstood and that people might disown me,” she says.

One of the priests she directly works with accepts her identity, but another, who is responsible for the broader church community, asked her to keep it quiet – or at least not to flaunt it – if she wishes to remain a member. So far it hasn’t been a major issue, not even at confessions, in large part because she has never been in a same-sex relationship. That could change.

“I told the priests because I believe in the power of conversation and direct contact with another person,” she says. “My personal experience shows that when someone gets to know us better, they often change their minds about our community. People start to be positive about us.”

Editors note: The story has been updated to correct when Mr. Kaczyński assumed leadership of PiS.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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A letter from

Pasadena, California

4. After 22-year regime, ‘We need the truth’

To chart a new path forward, Gambia is taking a clear look back. Testimonies of the former regime’s abuses are unraveling myths of the past – but also bringing complicated emotions to the surface.

Yvonne
Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters/File
Supporters of President-elect Adama Barrow celebrate his election victory in Banjul, Gambia, on Dec. 2, 2016. Mr. Barrow's win brought an end to the 22-year rule of Yahya Jammeh. The Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission is investigating abuses during the era.

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As a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal between 2013 and 2016, I used to travel through Gambia: a finger-shaped country of 2 million that cuts right through Senegal’s middle. Once, while crossing the Gambia River, I too loudly (and stupidly) called the then-president, the erratic and oppressive Yahya Jammeh, a kangaado – a crazy person. My Gambian travel partner quickly shushed me, and I resolved to never discuss politics in Gambia again.

Just a few years later, when I returned as a journalist, it was as if a veil had been lifted. Mr. Jammeh had lost an election and fled the country, and Gambians were reveling in their new freedom to say whatever they pleased. But many people, including myself, remained unaware of the breadth of the violence and repression. 

No more. From the back of share taxis, to the offices of government officials, to vendors in the market, the country is saturated in testimony from the new Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission. The TRRC has the nation’s full attention, especially the disturbing testimonies of hit men known as “the junglers.”

“We always heard the rumors of one or two disappearances here and there,” says Awa Kasama, a housecleaner. “But when you put it all together, you see how terrible [Mr. Jammeh’s] government was.”

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After 22-year regime, ‘We need the truth’

In the bright, sterile lobby of a former hotel, I sat with a group of widows, journalists, and other Gambians. Ahead of us two men – one in military camouflage, the other in a grand, silver boubou robe – stared at each other across a makeshift courtroom.

“You used to eat at his house?” lead counsel Essa Faal asked, referring to a man named Haruna Jammeh, who disappeared in July 2005.

“Yes, counsel,” replied Sgt. Omar Jallow in his characteristic deadpan.

“You were friends with him?”

“Yes, counsel.”

“He helped you?”

“Yes, counsel.”

“You executed him in cold blood?”

“Yes, counsel.”

It was a scene I could hardly have imagined the first time I came to Gambia, in 2014, when then-President Yahya Jammeh’s face stared at you from billboards and people avoided discussing presidential politics in public. Now, a quarter century after the coup that brought Mr. Jammeh to power, here was one of the ex-president’s most feared hit men spilling his secrets to the entire nation.

It has been 2 1/2 years since Mr. Jammeh lost an election and fled to Equatorial Guinea, ending his 22 years of eccentric, oppressive rule. And the way to build a more just future, the new government has decided, is to establish a record of the truth – following in the footsteps of dozens of other countries emerging from trauma. The Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) began broadcasting testimonies in January, and Gambia has been riveted ever since.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Kolda, Senegal, between 2013 and 2016, I used to travel through Gambia – a finger-shaped country of 2 million that cuts right through Senegal’s middle – on my way back and forth from the Senegalese capital, Dakar. Once, while crossing the Gambia River, I too loudly (and stupidly) called the then-president a kangaado – a crazy person in the Fula language. My Gambian travel partner quickly shushed me, telling me we did not know who else was on the ferry. Embarrassed, I resolved to never discuss politics in Gambia again. 

When I returned as a journalist in 2017, soon after Mr. Jammeh fled, it was as if a veil was lifted. People were reveling in their new freedom to say whatever they pleased. But at the same time, expressions of nostalgia for the Jammeh era were also common, especially amid paralyzing water and electricity cuts. Many people, including myself, remained unaware of the breadth of the violence and repression used to maintain Mr. Jammeh’s power.

And now, the atmosphere has drastically changed yet again.

From the back of share taxis, to the offices of government officials, to vendors in the market, the country is saturated in testimony. The broadcasts have the names of the TRRC lawyers, victims, and most of all, the perpetrators on everyone’s tongue.

Abdourahman Bah sells electronics with his father in the bustling Serekunda market, a few miles south of the capital. He says that since the testimonies began, they’ve seen a small uptick in radio sales. “Come back on Monday,” he tells me on a weekend afternoon. “You’ll see, the whole market will be listening.”

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters/File
Gambia's former President Yahya Jammeh, who fled the country in January 2017 after losing a presidential election, smiles during a rally in Banjul, Gambia, Nov. 29, 2016.

He’s not exaggerating. The TRRC has the nation’s full attention, especially the disturbing testimonies of Mr. Jammeh’s squad of hit men known as “the junglers.”

“It’s just too much,” a young woman told me at a party. When her co-workers turn it on, she puts on headphones to block the noise. “Sometimes I start crying when I hear about the horrible things that happened to people.”

The commission is not a court; it is an investigatory body given two years to probe human rights abuses and advise on reforms and prosecutions. Perpetrators may hope that detailing their crimes will bring amnesty. And perhaps some “just want to pour out their heart and see where their fate lies,” says Mariama Singhateh, a co-counsel at the TRRC. 

That sentiment is mirrored in other conversations I have around town. “When you do something bad, you must get the weight off your chest,” Mamadou Jawo, a vendor who sells trinkets near the TRRC, told me after a particularly brutal testimony.

Others see more cynical ploys.

At the bus station, waiting for the seven-seater van to fill up, I struck up a chat with vendor Lamin Cisse. Conversation turned to the TRRC, and Mr. Lamin – still a fan of the former president – claimed that the junglers must be lying. 

“They have been in prison since 2017,” he said incredulously. “Of course, they will say whatever lies they tell them to go free.”

After testifying, a number of the junglers have been released from detention, where they had been held without charge since 2017. The attorney general was quick to stress that the junglers have not been given amnesty, and would be called to testify in future criminal proceedings. However, the families of victims felt betrayed.

When I first met Ayeshah Jammeh in 2017, she told me the first step toward any kind of personal reconciliation would be learning the truth of what happened to her father, Haruna Jammeh – the former president’s cousin. All she knew for sure was that one day, 14 years ago, he did not come home from work.

Hearing Omar Jallow testify about murdering her father brought some relief, she told me, but has also dredged up painful memories. His release was “an insult,” she said. “There can never be reconciliation until these killers are brought to justice.”

Beyond those most affected by the regime, nostalgia is fading, and giving way to anger. 

I happened to be getting out of a share taxi as demonstrators gathered around a police station, hurling insults and stones over the wall. Inside the station was Yankuba Touray, one of Mr. Jammeh’s right-hand men, who had refused to testify and was promptly arrested. Police eventually fired tear gas to disperse the crowd – which pelted the van with Mr. Touray in it with stones – in order to exit the station and transfer him. Just before the van surged out of the compound, the crowd began chanting the motto of the TRRC: “Never again. Never again.”

The TRRC is a mirror for Gambian society, executive secretary Baba Galleh Jallow tells me, finishing his breakfast sandwich and sweeping the crumbs off his desk. In addition to reconciliation between individuals, “there is also need for reconciliation between political perception and political reality.”

It’s that reconciliation I’ve had the privilege of watching, in many small ways. “Could Gambians really do this?” Awa Kasama, a cleaner who works at my neighbor’s house, asked me back in May. Before the junglers testified at the TRRC in July and August, many still believed that the worst of the crimes were committed by foreign hit men. 

Afterward, I visited Ms. Kasama at her house and turned her question back on her. 

“Yes, there were some wicked, wicked Gambians who did these terrible things,” she replied. “We always heard the rumors of one or two disappearances here and there. ... But when you put it all together, you see how terrible [Mr. Jammeh’s] government was.”

That bigger picture is where co-counsel Singhateh puts her trust as well.

“We need the truth,” she says. “The truth is what will bring healing to this country.” 

James Courtright, a master’s candidate studying human rights and policy at Columbia University, worked in Gambia this summer as an intern with the #Jammeh2Justice coalition, a group of nongovernmental organizations working to bring Mr. Jammeh before a court of law. The coalition is not affiliated with the TRRC.

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5. Taste of Tunisia: Cafe culture is democratic, and uplifting

Where does one go to get a real feel for a place? Cafes may not be unique to Tunisia, but they are both a crossroads and a haven where all can afford a seat. They are Tunisia’s “great equalizer.”

Yvonne

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In Tunisia, whether you are people-watching at a dreamy blue-and-white cliffside town, in a farming village, or in the southern deserts, there is always a cafe with an espresso machine at the ready. The cafes are for all people, of all ages, at nearly all times of day: young and old, singles and families, bankers, hipsters, butchers, and Sufi sheikhs.

They are the hubs of cultural, economic, and social life. And of course political. A tradition of early morning cafe gatherings to listen to the news gave rise to 20th-century political activism – and Tunisia’s nationalist movement that overthrew French occupation.

And the coffee is affordable. A shot of espresso can go for around 26 cents, making the daily ritual accessible for people of all backgrounds and cafes a haven for those who have nowhere to go.

On the Kerkennah Islands, fishermen who have lost their boats and livelihoods to low yields from a polluted sea sit around cafes, often running up a monthly tab that barely reaches $6. Says Ahmed, finishing his espresso: “If you can’t afford the rent, you can always afford a coffee.”

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Taste of Tunisia: Cafe culture is democratic, and uplifting

On the beach. On the highway. On the docks. In the middle of the desert.

In Tunisia, a cafe is never more than a few feet away; and you are never more than a few hours from your next shot of espresso.

The center of daily life in this North African country is more of an endless sprawl – cafe chairs and tables spill onto every street, the corniche, and along narrow, old city streets paved with cobblestones.

These are not your commuter Starbucks; these are the hubs of cultural, political, economic, and social life.

And even when you run out of news or gossip and the last drop of brew has been sipped, these java joints revert to their natural and most basic appeal: a pleasant place to sit and watch the world go by.

Whether you are people-watching at the dreamy blue-and-white cliffside town of Sidi Bou Said – the neighborhood of Tunisia’s rich and powerful – in a farming village, or in the southern deserts, there is always a cafe with an espresso machine and an affordable shot at the ready.

If cafes in other Arab countries are often associated with young people puffing away at shisha water pipes to blaring music, the Tunisian cafe is for all people, of all ages, at nearly all times of day.

Young and old, singles and families, bankers, hipsters, butchers, and Sufi sheikhs can all be found ordering tiny glasses of espresso or a macchiato-like shot of milk and espresso called capucin.

In Tunisia, the cafe is the great equalizer.

At 6 a.m., people by the dozen are already streaming into the cafes, newspaper in one hand, croissant in the other, to sit down and start their day before clocking in at work.  

Well on toward midnight, cafes are the place to hold meetings, job interviews, catch up with friends, and provide the neutral ground for a nervous first date.

Coffee for all

The key to the Tunisian coffee house is its versatility.

On a Wednesday night at Saf Saf cafe in northern Tunis, a football match is being played on a screen in one room, presidential debates on the other, a group of five young men and women in their 30s debate economic reforms and Marxism, two men in their 60s play backgammon, while teenagers in colorful jalabiyas take selfies to commemorate their girls’ night out.

It’s also amazingly affordable. A shot of espresso can go for around 0.8 Tunisian dinars (TND), just 26 cents, making the daily ritual accessible for people of all backgrounds, and cafes a haven for those who have nowhere to go.

On the Kerkennah Islands east of Sfax, fishermen who have lost their boats and livelihoods to low yields from a polluted sea sit around cafes nursing coffees, often running up a monthly tab that barely reaches $6.

“If you can’t afford the rent, you can always afford a coffee,” Ahmed, a 21-year-old fisherman, says as he knocks back his last drop of espresso.

For Tunisians looking for a steady business, coffee is a sure bet, says Mouz Barhoum.

For 16 years, he has run a cafe on the beach in La Marsa, an upscale Tunis neighborhood, offering espresso to those who wish to sit on the sand and face the Mediterranean for an upmarket, but not unreasonable, 3 TND, about $1.

“The reason Tunisians go to the cafe is because when we have free time, we don’t want to sit at home and be inactive,” Mr. Barhoum says as he pulls another shot from the espresso machine.

“We want to talk, study, read, to see people or be seen. There is no better place than a cafe – and no better drink than coffee.”

A political history

The beverage was first introduced to Tunisia in the 16th century by the Ottomans, who controlled the country as an important maritime outpost.

By the 19th century, prior to the French occupation, there were 150 cafes in Tunisia serving up tea and Turkish coffee, the thick brew in a brass kettle, which can still be found today. 

But today the coffee of choice is by far the espresso, introduced after the arrival of the French in the late 19th century.

The cafe ritual also links the spiritual to the political.

The devout who pray the fijr sunrise prayer often step out from the mosque’s door and walk a few yards to the nearby cafe to chat with friends and neighbors and listen to news radio.

It was this tradition that helped give rise to 20th-century political activism – the launching pad for Tunisia’s nationalist movement that overthrew the yoke of French occupation.

During the holiday of Eid al-Adha, a family affair in many Muslim communities, Tunisians pray morning prayers at Zaitouna Mosque, and, in what seems like a procession, head to the nearest cafe to share the season’s greetings with a festive brew.

 “We drink coffee in this life,” says Fatma, a mother of three, following Friday prayers in Tunis’ old city. “The afterlife is up to God.”

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The Monitor's View

Quick legal comfort to end the opioid crisis

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Of all the solutions that might end the opioid epidemic in the U.S., one is about to ripen this month in a Cleveland courtroom. Or perhaps outside the courtroom. Judge Dan Polster has been working to devise a clever pathway for local governments and the opioid industry to negotiate a settlement over what to do about the drug crisis rather than fight it out for years in court while being uncertain of the outcome, either in assigning blame or the size of compensation.

The judge hopes a quick and mediated resolution will bring much-needed money from both opioid makers and distributors to local programs aimed at curbing the crisis. In return, the industry can avoid legal responsibility and costly legal fees. Both sides could enjoy what is called a “peace dividend.”

With an estimated 130 people dying every day in the U.S. from opioid-related overdoses, Judge Polster says the litigants must think through the problem together, “not as a fight to be won or lost.” A settlement would bring a measure of healing to communities and families ripped apart by opioid addiction.

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Quick legal comfort to end the opioid crisis

Of all the solutions that might end the opioid epidemic in the U.S., one is about to ripen this month in a Cleveland courtroom. Or perhaps outside the courtroom.

Since 2017, federal Judge Dan Polster has been working to devise a clever pathway for local governments and the opioid industry to negotiate a settlement over what to do about the drug crisis rather than fight it out for years in court while being uncertain of the outcome, either in assigning blame or the size of compensation.

The judge hopes a quick and mediated resolution will bring much-needed money from both opioid makers and distributors to local programs aimed at curbing the crisis. In return, the industry can avoid legal responsibility and costly legal fees. Both sides could enjoy what is called a “peace dividend.”

With an estimated 130 people dying every day in the U.S. from opioid-related overdoses, Judge Polster says the litigants must think through the problem together, “not as a fight to be won or lost.” To focus their minds, he is ready to start a trial on Oct. 21 that would serve as a “bellwether” for further litigation. His unusual tactics may already be working. On Tuesday, health care giant Johnson & Johnson became the latest company to settle.

Judge Polster is setting a precedent for similar court battles over contested damages from harmful products. He has consolidated thousands of cases from across the country and set up two simultaneous tracks, settlement and litigation. Last month, he ruled that all 33,000 counties, cities, and towns can be part of a “negotiation class.” At least 75% of those governments would need to approve a settlement that would be binding.

He also outlined ways for a settlement to fairly distribute money based on need. He said the new “class” is a “powerful, creative, and helpful” option that “is more likely to promote global settlement than it is ... to impede it.”

Dozens of state attorneys general, who assume they can litigate for billions more than they might get in a settlement, oppose the process. But it is local governments, where the opioid crisis is more acutely felt, that seem to want a quick solution. Many probably agree with the judge’s advice that “it’s almost never productive to get the other side angry. ... They lash out and hurt you and themselves.” Most of all, a settlement would bring a measure of healing to communities and families ripped apart by opioid addiction.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

When our views become entrenched, what’s next?

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Too often, an exchange of ideas becomes an imposing of one’s opinions. But letting God, Love, impel our thoughts and actions dissolves willfulness and self-righteousness that can hamper progress and harmony.

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When our views become entrenched, what’s next?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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“The trouble is,” said my friend, “we love to argue ideas, but instead of coming together and agreeing, or respectfully disagreeing, we become more and more entrenched in our own corners, and it gets louder and louder until we explode!”

I understood what she meant. How often the exchange of ideas can quickly become just the opposite – the aggressive imposing of one’s opinions. “Entrenchment” is a word heard often in the media as an acceptable position to take, mistakenly being regarded as implying strength and resilience when in fact it is just the opposite, indicating inflexibility and limitation. An experience from some years ago came to mind.

I got into a dispute with a local bank when they lost the house deeds attached to our mortgage, which we needed to prove our land boundary. I telephoned various managers, wrote letters, bullied staff into searching basements, and complained endlessly. This went on for a significant period of time. Entrenched in a self-righteousness that was based on “the injustice of it all,” I made little progress with healing or resolution.

One day, exhausted by all this willful effort, I gave up screaming and took a pause. For the first time in many months, I turned to God with a simple prayer: “Dear Father-Mother God, help.” It was a deeply humbling experience. I started to cry, and while praying humbly to God for a release from the tension, I felt the tender embrace of my all-loving Father-Mother God comforting me. I dropped all sense of injustice, vowing to let divine Love govern my thoughts and actions.

The beautiful teachings of Christian Science emphasize the importance of striving to live according to Christ Jesus’ teachings and example. I searched the Bible for the deeper meaning of his lifework and became more interested in his capacity to forgive his accusers. I began to forgive all who were involved, including myself for getting so entrenched in the problem. God loves us all and leads us forward in productive, healing ways.

Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy writes, “Through the channels of material sense, of worldly policy, pomp, and pride, cometh no success in Truth” (“Retrospection and Introspection,” p. 79). Christian Science has helped me see the difference between healing, spiritual thoughts from God, which constitute reality, and materialistic thoughts, which stem from a false view of man as mortal, stuck in matter, and governed by human will.

As I began identifying myself as a spiritual idea of God, intact and whole, I also started to recognize that my approach to fixing the problem was based in a stubborn personal sense of how I thought things should be worked out. Shifting my approach to letting the entire situation rest in God’s care, which included letting God, Love, guide my thinking and its mental dialogues, I began to feel at peace in a happier, calmer trust in God. This helped me break free from yielding to self-will and thinking of myself as a helpless victim. I became “unentrenched,” and I felt free.

I was no longer fighting but listening to spiritual ideas. These ideas were revealing new ways I could witness more of the living Christ, Truth, in my life. From there, much progress was made – and the bank eventually found the deeds! All the issues relating to the trouble were resolved harmoniously, one by one, through prayer and reconciliation.

In the face of divine Love’s all-embracing power, self-justification and self-righteousness lose their supposed ability to manipulate us. For in divine Love there is no discord, only peace and an ever-unfolding sense of spiritual well-being, grace, and substance.

Through prayer we can gain confidence in God’s power to loosen and dissolve entrenched beliefs. In this way we are empowered to witness the activity of Christ, Truth, which dissolves selfish resistance, illuminates the darkest places of human thought, and reveals a new way forward.

Adapted from an article published in the Sept. 23, 2019, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Don’t mind if I do

Gonzalo Fuentes Top Pictures/Reuters
An audience member in a black hat jumps into the Chanel Spring/Summer 2020 women's ready-to-wear collection show during Paris Fashion Week in Paris, Oct. 1, 2019. The woman was later escorted to the exit by security.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( October 3rd, 2019 )

Thanks for joining us today. Tomorrow, we’ll have a look at how a greater emphasis on speed and skill in professional hockey has resulted in fewer fights on the ice.

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