2019
October
08
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Our five hand-picked stories today explore the values driving a U.S. policy shift in Syria, the U.S. high court’s approach to LGBTQ rights, the legal basis for impeachment, the future of innovation in Detroit, and a symbol of rebirth in New Orleans.

“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” That tweet by the Houston Rockets’ general manager put the National Basketball Association in the middle of a global values clash.

China’s response was fast and furious: Rockets merchandise was pulled from online and mainland stores. TV broadcasts of the Rockets were banned – as were two NBA preseason games scheduled to be played in China this week.

To China, the tweet is an affront to national sovereignty. And the world’s second biggest economy brooks no dissent. U.S. companies are regularly punished for crossing such red lines. 

But basketball is big in China (worth an estimated $4 billion). Initially, the NBA’s response to China’s rebuke was tepid. Yes, the NBA’s brand is one of liberal activism. Unlike the NFL, NBA stars openly support Black Lives Matter. An LGBTQ bathroom bill prompted the league to move the 2017 All-Star Game out of North Carolina. That’s why the “most woke sports league” drew sharp criticism – from the left and right  – for not challenging Chinese censorship. 

On Tuesday, the NBA came down on the side of democratic values. “This is about far more than growing our business. Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA – and will continue to do so,” Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. 

The NBA can afford to take this stand. It’s a monopoly of the best: LeBron James only plays in the NBA. The league is playing long ball, banking on China’s love for the game to ultimately win out.

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1. Syria: Does sudden Trump move undermine US reliability?

Security and loyalty are cited as core conservative values. We look at why President Trump decided to abandon a U.S. ally in Syria.

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Hussein Malla/AP/File
A U.S. soldier on his armored vehicle on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, northern Syria, April 4, 2018.

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President Donald Trump has long made clear his aim to get the United States fully and finally out of its long Middle East wars. Any move to remove U.S. troops from harm’s way fits with his end goal. 

But the sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria was a surprise, oddly announced in a late Sunday night White House statement, after an earlier call Mr. Trump had with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It raised questions about U.S. commitments to a longtime military ally – in this case the Kurds who were instrumental in the defeat of ISIS in Syria – and about the reliability of U.S. national security policy. 

While analyst Benjamin Friedman argues that, “The interests of the Kurds should not … be used as a pretext to keep troops in Syria forever,” he says he deplores the impulsive manner of the decision. And Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close national security adviser of Mr. Trump's, decried “the impulsive decision by the president” as “shortsighted and irresponsible.” Calling in to “Fox & Friends,” he said the decision would be “a stain on America’s honor.”

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Syria: Does sudden Trump move undermine US reliability?

President Donald Trump’s surprise Sunday night decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syrian territory and acquiesce to a Turkish offensive there set off alarms in Washington that America was abandoning its Kurdish allies – and opening the door to an ISIS comeback.

It could also be seen as Trump being Trump.

The president has long made clear his aim to get the United States fully and finally out of its long Middle East wars. Any move to remove U.S. troops from potential harm’s way fits with his end goal.

Moreover, he has also displayed a readiness to make foreign policy decisions off-the-cuff and based on his own gut instincts – even if against the advice of his national security circle, as seems to be the case here.

But the withdrawal – oddly announced in a late Sunday White House statement, after an earlier call Mr. Trump had with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – also raises questions about U.S. commitments to a longtime military ally and about the formulation and reliability of U.S. national security policy.

The U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were instrumental in defeating the Islamic State in northern Syria. But the Kurds’ aspirations for regional autonomy have complicated the relations between the U.S. and its NATO ally Turkey, which sees the Kurds’ presence on its border as a threat and labels their fighters terrorists.

Concerned that the Kurds face an imminent Turkish onslaught with U.S. forces out of the way, both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders expressed alarm Monday over the president’s decision and what looked like the abandonment of longtime U.S. goals in Syria.

The uproar prompted a White House phone briefing with reporters late Monday afternoon, in which a senior administration official insisted the president’s decision was neither abandonment of the Kurds nor the U.S. withdrawal of its last troops from Syria – something the president himself alluded to in tweets Monday.

According to the official, President Erdoğan made it clear in Sunday’s phone call that Turkey’s military operation into northern Syria was imminent – and as a result, the president decided to reassign U.S. special forces there to other areas away from potential fighting. Pentagon sources said about 100 U.S. personnel were relocated.

“For anyone to characterize [the president’s decision to move those troops] as somehow being a green light for a massacre is irresponsible and doesn’t comport with the reality,” the senior official said.

Diverging interests

Some U.S. policy analysts were quick to defend the essence of Mr. Trump’s decision, if not the manner in which it was made. 

“The U.S. military should be quickly withdrawn from Syria – in fact, it should have entirely left already,” says Benjamin Friedman, policy director for Defense Priorities, a Washington group that argues for a strong defense posture that avoids U.S. entanglement in foreign conflicts.

As for the Kurds, Mr. Friedman adds that “the U.S. cannot guarantee the safety of the Kurds short of war with Turkey. The interests of the Kurds should not take precedence over U.S. interests ... nor be used as a pretext to keep troops in Syria forever.” 

But others – among them some of the most faithful advocates for Mr. Trump’s foreign policy – warn that the Syria decision will weaken the U.S. image as a reliable ally and only buoy its adversaries in the region – from Iran to the remnants of ISIS that remain in the region and which have recently shown renewed signs of life.

“President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria’s border with Turkey and abandon the Kurds is a betrayal of a key partner in our fight against ISIS,” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said in a statement Monday, noting that the president “took this step against the advice of our diplomats and military leaders.”

“The Trump Doctrine continues,” he added. “Abandon allies and embolden adversaries.”

Perhaps more striking was the number of Republican leaders who questioned the president’s decision, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Trump administration’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. 

And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close national security adviser of Mr. Trump’s, blasted what he called “the impulsive decision by the president” as “shortsighted and irresponsible.”

Calling in Monday to air his dismay on “Fox & Friends,” a morning news show Mr. Trump is known to watch, Senator Graham added that the decision would go down as “a stain on America’s honor.”

“Ridiculous endless wars”

Since the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump has been clear about his objective to get the U.S. out of what he calls “these ridiculous endless wars.” Concerning Syria, he abruptly announced a full withdrawal of U.S. troops last December – only to be convinced to leave a rump force of about 1,000 troops to work with the Kurdish-led forces in the battle to defeat ISIS.

But that precipitous decision led to the departure of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. And there were signs this time around that Mr. Trump again made his decision on his own – and soon after a phone call with a foreign leader, Mr. Erdoğan, and without the input of national security advisers.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters pose for a photo in Baghouz, Syria, after the Kurdish-led SDF declared the area free of Islamic State militants on March 23, 2019.

As recently as Friday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he had “made very clear” to his Turkish counterpart that the U.S. would not tolerate any unilateral military action in northern Syria by Turkish forces. Then over the weekend, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson reiterated that any Turkish military action “would be a grave concern” for the U.S. because it would “undermine our shared interest of a secure northeast Syria and the enduring defeat of ISIS.” 

But Sunday night the White House released a statement saying the president had spoken with Mr. Erdoğan, and that “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria.”

The statement went on to say that “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation,” and that U.S. forces, “having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.” 

In the call with reporters Monday, the senior official noted that the U.S. had been successful for two years in dissuading Turkey from launching an attack on Kurdish forces in northern Syria, but that Turkey was now adamant about proceeding. Turkey has a large military and is a NATO ally, the official noted, suggesting Mr. Trump had abandoned efforts to further forestall a Turkish operation.

And while Mr. Trump may not have announced the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops from Syria at this time, his references to that objective in tweets Monday sowed confusion about whether or not he had made that decision.

Gift to adversaries

Some analysts see the U.S. departure from Syria as a gift to a range of America’s adversaries, from Russia, and Syria’s autocratic President Bashar al-Assad, to the approximately 15,000 ISIS fighters that the Pentagon estimates still operate in Syria and Iraq.

And then there is Iran, whose largely unchecked military aspirations across the Middle East, including in Syria, have consistently been labeled by the Trump administration as “malign activity” presenting the strategically critical Middle East with perhaps its top security challenge. 

The U.S. departure from northern Syria, some analysts note, could pave the way for Iranian forces to move in and complete a long-sought strategic asset – a land bridge from Iran and across friendly territory (in Iraq and Syria) to Iranian allies in Lebanon.

Mr. Friedman of Defense Priorities says it was never realistic to think that the modest force of U.S. troops remaining in Syria would be able to take on the long list of strategic goals that seemed to be assigned to it.

Noting that the list included “checking the Iranians, pressuring Assad, protecting the Kurds, and going after whatever ISIS remnants we could,” he said it was “ambitious to say the least, especially with 1,000 troops.”

Still, even though he supports the president’s efforts to end the U.S. military presence in Syria, Mr. Friedman says he deplores both the impulsive nature of Sunday’s decision as well as the broader chaotic national security decision-making process behind it.

“The problem is not the goal of swift U.S. withdrawal, contrary to conventional wisdom in Washington,” he says. “The problem is the muddled national security process that failed to remove U.S. forces after the complete defeat of the ISIS caliphate.”

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2. Fired for being gay: LGBTQ rights return to Supreme Court

The right to individual dignity was at the heart of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s LGBTQ decisions, say legal scholars. The court may now apply a different set of values on such issues.

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The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments today on whether federal law prohibits employment discrimination against LGBTQ people. The law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits employers from discharging individuals “because of such individual’s ... sex.” Whether Title VII’s protections include sexual orientation or gender identity has divided appeals courts, and so the high court is stepping in.

Tuesday’s trio of cases could have significant consequences not only for the civil rights of LGBTQ Americans, but also the Supreme Court’s institutional legitimacy, some argue. All eyes will be on the court’s five conservative justices. Today’s questions in particular represent not just an interesting test of the textualist and originalist judicial philosophies many say they adhere to, but a signal of how the court will depart from the gay rights jurisprudence crafted by retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“The real-world impacts of the case are hugely important,” says Steven Schwinn, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, John Marshall Law School. “Stepping back from the real world impacts, it’s a case that potentially signals the direction the court may go with regard to [LGBTQ] rights in the future.”

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Fired for being gay: LGBTQ rights return to Supreme Court

Sometimes, to make female clients feel more comfortable while they were strapped together on a tandem jump, skydiving instructor Donald Zarda would tell them he is gay. After his employer, Altitude Express, learned of this, he was fired.

Gerald Bostock, a former child welfare services coordinator for Georgia’s Clayton County, says he was fired for a similar reason. Aimee Stephens, meanwhile, says she was fired from her job at a Detroit funeral home because she had just come out as transgender.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday on whether federal law prohibits employment discrimination against LGBTQ people. The law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits employers from discharging individuals “because of such individual’s ... sex.” Whether Title VII’s protections include sexual orientation or gender identity has divided appeals courts, and so the high court is stepping in.

The trio of cases could have significant consequences not only for the civil rights of LGBTQ Americans, but also the Supreme Court’s institutional legitimacy, some argue. All eyes will be on the court’s five conservative justices in their first full term together. Today’s questions in particular represent not just an interesting test of the textualist and originalist judicial philosophies many say they adhere to, but a signal of how the court will depart from the relatively liberal gay rights jurisprudence crafted by the recently retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“The real-world impacts of the case are hugely important,” says Steven Schwinn, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, John Marshall Law School. “Stepping back from the real world impacts, it’s a case that potentially signals the direction the court may go with regard to [LGBTQ] rights in the future.”

Philosophy test

Textualism and originalism, broadly speaking, call for statutes to be interpreted as written and for the Constitution to be interpreted as the Framers originally intended. When Justice Antonin Scalia joined the court in 1986, originalism was a relatively fringe philosophy only he and a few other judges adhered to, but it has since become one of the dominant methods of judicial interpretation.

Three committed textualists now sit on the high court: Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas. The Title VII cases offer a unique test of that philosophy, experts say.

A focus on the plain text of the statute – the core of textualism as a method of judicial interpretation – makes it hard to conclude that gay and transgender employees aren’t protected by Title VII, some argue. If a woman is fired because she is sexually attracted to other women, for example, then she is being treated differently from a woman who is sexually attracted to men, in violation of the law.

Opponents counter that when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, its original intent was to prohibit employers from treating members of one sex worse than similarly situated members of the other sex. Congress has also never updated the law to explicitly protect employees fired due to their sexual orientation, they point out.

“The ordinary meaning of ‘sex’ is biologically male or female; it does not include sexual orientation,” wrote the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in a brief supporting the employers. And “for more than 40 years, Congress has repeatedly declined to pass bills adding sexual orientation to the list of protected traits in Title VII.”

The employees counter that this argument ignores some of the Supreme Court’s own past rulings – in particular its rulings on racial discrimination. The court struck down laws banning interracial cohabitation and interracial marriage on the grounds that discrimination on the basis of a person’s association with another person of a different race is unconstitutional.

Since then, the court has also ruled that sex-based stereotypes (in some cases) and same-sex sexual harassment are both actionable under Title VII. In the latter ruling, Justice Scalia wrote that while Congress may not have intended as much in 1964, the law should be interpreted to cover “reasonably comparable evils.”

“That’s the bind I see these textualists in,” says Kimberly West-Faulcon, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Will they stick to the rules of textualism as previously articulated to them? Or will they deviate?”

During oral arguments, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Pamela Karlan, representing Mr. Bostock, how she would respond to the argument that sexual orientation discrimination could not have been in Congress’s mind when it originally passed Title VII. “I think you read the words of the statute. And this court has recognized again and again forms of sex discrimination that were not in Congress’s contemplation in 1964,” Ms. Karlan replied.

“Most courts didn’t find sexual harassment to be actionable until this court did,” she added. In another case “this court recognized that discrimination against a woman who cursed like a sailor, walked like a man, and didn’t wear makeup was reachable under Title VII.’”

This could be where the significance of the decision extends beyond the interests of LGBTQ employees across the country, some experts say.

“The Supreme Court’s legitimacy rests upon a perception that its members are applying existing law in a neutral manner,” wrote William Eskridge, a professor at Yale Law School in a blog post. “The credibility of textualism as a neutral methodology depends on the court’s deciding cases like Bostock’s without regard to partisan biases.”

But more than one justice argued that to apply the law in the manner the plaintiffs’ are arguing would be to usurp Congress’ role.

Justice Samuel Alito said that if Title VII is broadened to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, people will say it’s “a big policy issue” and “a different policy issue from the one that Congress thought it was addressing in 1964.”

“Congress has been asked repeatedly in the years since 1964 to address this question,” he added. “Congress has declined or failed to act on these requests. And if the court takes this up and interprets this 1964 statute to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, we will be acting exactly like a legislature.”

During arguments in Ms. Stephens’ case, Justice Neil Gorsuch seemed the most ambivalent of his conservative colleagues. “I’m with you on the textual evidence. It’s close, OK?’ he told David Cole, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, who represented Ms. Stephens. But “at the end of the day, should [a justice] take into consideration the massive social upheaval that would be entailed in such a decision?”

Lawrence Hurley/Reuters
Gerald Bostock, who says he lost his job because he is gay, stands outside his home in Atlanta on Sept. 9, 2019.

“Equal dignity for individuals”

Arguments against interpreting Title VII so that it protects LGBTQ employees are not limited to textualism and originalism. A number of faith-based organizations have filed briefs warning that interpreting Title VII to protect LGBTQ employees would jeopardize employers who may only want to hire people whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with their faith.

“I think both sides have a pretty good case,” says Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. “It wouldn’t be outrageous if the court ruled against the [employees] here, because there are plausible arguments for it, but I agree that it’s not very obvious that [sexual orientation] wouldn’t be covered.”

For this reason, the absence of Justice Kennedy may not be felt too keenly. But if the current court does decide that LGBTQ employees are protected by Title VII, Professor Somin says, it would likely focus on textualism grounds.

However the cases are decided, the approach Justice Kennedy took with gay rights cases – a focus on the right to individual dignity for every American – is unlikely to be seen, in a majority opinion at least, for some time.

“Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations,” wrote Justice Kennedy in the landmark 2015 opinion legalizing same-sex marriage. “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.”

It is that view of gay rights by the Supreme Court that could now be lost, at least among the conservative justices.

Justice Kennedy “encompassed both equal protection principles and due process principles, but I also think he was speaking at a higher level ... talking about equal dignity for individuals,” says Professor Schwinn.

“I don’t think Justice Kavanaugh is going to share that view, and I don’t think other conservatives share that view,” he adds. “I don’t think that kind of analysis, that kind of language, is going to be in the court’s jurisprudence on this.”

Indeed, while Justice Kennedy often supported protecting and expanding gay rights, he did so in a narrow fashion – often permitting exceptions and carve-outs on religious grounds, for example. As such, “it would be easy for those who are now on the court to distinguish [his] cases without really having to overturn them,” says Professor West-Faulcon.

In other words, the rights Justice Kennedy helped secure for LGBTQ Americans are unlikely to disappear, she adds, but they “could be in danger of becoming idiosyncratic opinions that only apply in one particular context at one particular time.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3 p.m. to include reporting from Tuesday’s oral arguments at the Supreme Court.

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The Explainer

3. Is the House impeachment inquiry illegitimate? Three questions.

The impeachment process is built on a false legal foundation, says the White House. Our reporter looks at what history – and the rules – tell us about this issue.

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The House of Representatives still has not voted on any resolution authorizing an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she doesn’t need to take such a step. But many Republicans say that without a formal vote, the current impeachment process is just a typical House oversight action, and does not require extra White House deference in regards to provision of documents or witness testimony.

On Tuesday, the White House sent a letter to House Democratic leaders saying it would refuse to participate in the inquiry, charging that it lacks “any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections.” Earlier, the White House blocked the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon D. Sondland, from speaking with investigators from three House committees. President Trump tweeted that he would “love” to have Mr. Sondland testify, but the process was a “totally compromised kangaroo court.”

In the two presidential impeachments of the modern era, the House did have an official vote on a resolution authorizing the way ahead. That’s important precedent.

But House rules don’t appear to require such a step. 

“The Constitution is very clear about impeachment, but it is also not specific,” says Matt Glassman, an expert on legislative procedure at Georgetown University, in a recent podcast on impeachment.

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Is the House impeachment inquiry illegitimate? Three questions.

When is an inquiry into impeachment an official impeachment inquiry?

That question is not as absurd as it sounds. The House of Representatives still has not voted on any resolution authorizing an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, as lawmakers did before the start of proceedings against Richard Nixon in 1973 and Bill Clinton in 1998.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has shown little inclination to take such a step. “If we want to do it, we’ll do it. If we don’t, we don’t,” Speaker Pelosi told the editorial board of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week.

But many Republicans say that without such a vote, the current impeachment process is just a typical House oversight action, and does not require extra White House deference in regards to provision of documents, witness testimony, and other information.

On Tuesday, the White House sent a letter to House Democratic leaders saying it would refuse to participate in the inquiry, charging that it lacks “any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the White House blocked the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon D. Sondland, from speaking with investigators from three House committees. President Trump tweeted that he would “love” to have Mr. Sondland testify, but that the process was a “totally compromised kangaroo court.”

“Republican’s [sic] rights have been taken away,” he tweeted.

Who’s right? Here are three questions about this crucial procedural matter.

1. How does impeachment begin? 

The Constitution vests impeachment powers in the House of Representatives. Beyond that, the House votes on its own procedural rules. That leaves lots of room for interpretation and leeway for alternate beginnings.

“The Constitution is very clear about impeachment, but it is also not specific,” says Matt Glassman, an expert on legislative procedure at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, in a recent podcast.

In the two presidential impeachments of the modern era, the House did have an official kickoff vote on a resolution authorizing the way ahead. That’s important precedent, and could make voters and Republican officials view the process as more serious.

But House rules don’t appear to require such a step. And it typically has not been used in impeachments of other officials, notably federal judges, which begin in the Judiciary Committee and go to the full House after the panel has completed its investigation.

“The impeachment process may be initiated as the result of various actions and events, including the receipt and referral of information from an outside source, investigations by congressional committees under their general authority, or the introduction of articles of impeachment in the form of a House resolution,” says a Congressional Research Service overview of current House impeachment rules.

2. Why hasn’t Speaker Pelosi put it to a vote? 

There are both political and procedural reasons why Speaker Pelosi might not want to hold an impeachment-opening vote, or see it as necessary.

Drawing up such a resolution would be both difficult and politically risky. Democrats might find themselves divided over what to include. Should impeachment focus only on President Trump’s actions in regards to Ukraine, or should it refer back to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation or other controversial aspects of his presidency? 

While moderate Democrats may feel the party has been driven to impeachment by presidential actions, that does not mean they want to take any more votes on it than they have to.

In addition, House rules have changed. During the Nixon and Clinton eras, House committee chairmen did not have subpoena authority, and needed an inquiry-beginning vote to grant that power. Today the House majority has unilateral subpoena power, removing a big incentive for such a vote.

Speaker Pelosi may also be holding an impeachment-inquiry vote in reserve, in case she needs it to convince the courts to force the White House to turn over documents or testimony.

3. Why are Republicans pressing the matter? 

The White House has its own procedural and political reasons for demanding a vote – which mirror those of House Democrats.

Republicans may want an impeachment vote to provide subpoena power to the House minority. That would allow them to carry out a parallel investigation of the actions of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden in Ukraine, or to call witnesses they feel could debunk charges made against President Trump.

In the Nixon and Clinton cases, the kickoff vote did provide such authority to minority members. In practice, however, its impact could be limited, as the actual issuance of subpoenas would likely still be subject to full committee votes in which Democrats would triumph.

The GOP may also believe it can use this issue to raise doubts about the process in the eyes of voters. Last week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California sent Speaker Pelosi a letter calling for impeachment to be put on hold “until transparent and equitable rules and procedures are established.” 

Speaker Pelosi declined.

“This is almost entirely about framing the narrative,” William Howell, a professor of American politics at the University of Chicago, told the Los Angeles Times.

Note: This post has been updated to include the latest developments.

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4. GM’s future is electric. That poses challenge for Motor City workers.

For a century “Detroit” has been a synonym for the auto industry. Talks between GM and striking autoworkers are partly about whether its innovative role as car-making capital will persist.

David
Rebecca Cook/Reuters
Striking United Auto Workers walk the picket line in Hamtramck, Michigan, on Sept. 25, 2019. The General Motors assembly plant there is scheduled to close, and the company has reportedly backtracked on an offer to build electric pickup trucks there.

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Can Motor City thrive if the motor is electric? That’s a big question General Motors and striking autoworkers are wrestling with as they bargain over a new labor contract.

Facing a once-in-a-century technological tsunami from electric and autonomous vehicles, the automaker wants flexibility on wages and work arrangements to prepare for the change. Keeping wages for temporary workers low might help the company produce the batteries and other key components of future vehicles.

The union also wants Detroit to prosper – by creating as many well-paid, middle-class jobs as it can when the new technologies come on board. But even if jobs can stay in Michigan, there’s a catch: Electric vehicles have fewer components and are far simpler to assemble than conventional cars. That means fewer union workers will be needed.

In the end, both sides need each other, says Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “The UAW is going to have to give GM some flexibility. But GM will have to build into their flexibility some higher costs.”

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GM’s future is electric. That poses challenge for Motor City workers.

For a once-in-a-century shift that will upend the auto industry, General Motors’ foray into the future is decidedly modest.

Its battery plant – the first U.S.-based battery assembly facility owned by any major automaker – is tucked away in the back of a large industrial park here in Brownstone Township, a suburb of Detroit. The plant entrance, built into a loading dock, looks virtually indistinguishable from the scores of other loading docks here, except for the glass doors and concrete steps with bright yellow banisters. Fewer than 50 employees work here, assembling batteries and rooftop modules for GM’s Cruise, an electric, potentially driverless, GM taxi that is being tested in San Francisco.

The Brownstone plant illustrates the dilemma facing the automaker and workers: How do you prepare for a technological shift that looks inevitable, but whose arrival date is far from certain? That question hangs heavily over the contract talks between GM and the United Auto Workers (UAW), whose strike against the automaker has stretched into its fourth week. But it’s also a reason for compromise, because the technology threatens to disrupt Detroit’s position in the global auto industry and may portend the outsourcing of key, valuable components to other parts of the country or the world. Both sides have an interest in avoiding that.

“It’s going to be they realize that they have to come to an agreement,” says Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “And the UAW is going to have to give GM some flexibility. But GM will have to build into their flexibility some higher costs.”

The technologies of electrification and automation are so disruptive – some experts put it on par with the triumph of the internal combustion engine a century ago – that it’s anybody’s guess who will build the most valuable components – or where. 

In the wake of Tesla’s success in Fremont, California, electric vehicle start-ups are popping up on the West Coast. Eager not to be left behind, Germany and eight other European nations agreed last month to set up a consortium for producing EV battery cells, although details still have to be worked out. China represents the biggest threat to the Motor City with its vast push to create an EV industry. By some estimates, it already has more than 60% of the world’s EV battery manufacturing capacity.

Detroit’s Big Three – as well as the union representing workers, the United Auto Workers – are keenly aware of the threat.

A center of automotive talent

Detroit has so many advantages, including a broad base of engineers and workers with deep experience in building cars, that some observers say the threat is overblown.

“There’s no chance that Detroit is going to shrink or be less important than it is today,” says Jim Taylor, a former GM executive and now co-CEO of Seres, an EV company based in California and owned by Chinese automaker Sokon. No matter if batteries and autonomous navigation are added to cars, there is still a recognizable vehicle to assemble and Detroit excels at that, he adds.

Others say the disruption of Detroit has already begun. “Do the mainstream automakers become the buggy-whip manufacturers of a bygone era? I don’t know,” says Bob Kruse, another veteran of GM who is now chief technology officer at Karma Automotive, a luxury plug-in hybrid company in California. (Mr. Kruse makes clear he’s not speaking for the company, which is owned by Wanxiang Group in China.) “It depends on how quickly they recognize what is happening and adapt.”

Both California EV companies have opened tech centers in the Detroit area to take advantage of the region’s engineering talent.  

Detroit’s future also may depend on which way the technology evolves: as incremental improvements or an unforeseen breakthrough or series of breakthroughs, says Professor Gordon.

The first path could help Tesla and the Chinese automakers who have already made large commitments to existing technology. The second path could rapidly boost the fortunes of one of the many EV startups.

For their part, GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler are keeping their options open, pushing to add hybrid options to existing models rather than committing to a raft of new EVs. In contract talks, GM reportedly proposed reopening its Hamtramck, Michigan, plant with production of an electric truck and its Lordstown, Ohio, plant by producing EV batteries there. But some reports now say GM has withdrawn that proposal in the ongoing talks.

Even here at the Brownstone facility, GM shifted battery production away from the plant and cut the workforce by nearly half earlier this year. Brownstone now assembles batteries exclusively for the Cruise program. The batteries for the Chevy Bolt, GM’s flagship all-electric car, are made by LG Chem, a South Korean company.

While GM is eager to preserve such flexibility in contract talks, given the uncertain future, the UAW wants to create a more stable workforce by bringing temporary workers up to union wages more quickly. Those workers currently make about half of what full-time UAW employees earn.

But the union also wants to maintain jobs in Detroit, where it has had the most success organizing workers. And that puts the union in a tough spot. How does it encourage GM and the other automakers to make batteries with union labor at places like Brownstone, often at a cost of $30 or more per hour, when they can buy batteries from LG Chem, which reportedly pays its workers $16 an hour?

“This [technological] shift is an opportunity to re-invest in U.S. manufacturing. But this opportunity will be lost if EVs or their components are imported or made by low-road suppliers who underpay workers,” the union said in a report calling for a new U.S. industrial policy. 

Fewer workers needed

Even if battery assembly grows in the U.S., EVs remain a threat for the union. Electric drivetrains are much simpler to assemble than internal combustion engines and they eliminate the need for a transmission, exhaust and emissions systems, and a fuel tank. That means it will take fewer workers to assemble them. In March, the director of the union’s research division said EVs could lead to the loss of 35,000 UAW jobs, just over a quarter of the total union workforce employed by the Big Three.

For all the hype about electric cars, they still account for less than 2% of U.S. auto sales. One big factor: They cost more than conventional cars, due to the high cost of batteries. Those costs have fallen dramatically in the last decade and should fall to the point EVs become cost-competitive with conventional cars sometime in the 2020s, many analysts say.

Driverless cars look to be even more far off in the future. But in some areas, that technology could speed the adoption of EVs, according to the UAW report. For example, an office park could adopt electric driverless shuttles, because the driving environment is more predictable than city streets and because EVs are less costly to run and maintain than conventional buses, making it easier to justify the higher upfront cost.

“I can assure you that 50 years from now, all of our personal transportation needs will be met with electric propulsion,” says Mr. Kruse of Karma Automotive, which expects to build and ship about 500 of its new hybrid Revero GT this year, with a starting price of $130,000. But technological adoption “is a slow process. It takes time.”

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5. In New Orleans, making music from hurricane leftovers

After a natural disaster, how can a city’s healing be supported? The Music Box Village offers a portrait of post-Katrina resilience in New Orleans.

David
Stephen Humphries/The Christian Science Monitor
Leah Hennessy, lead creative producer of the Music Box Village in New Orleans, pulls levers that expel compressed gas through horns on an exhibit titled "The Delphine," created by Swoon and Darryl Reeves in collaboration with the New Orleans Master Crafts Guild.

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If inventor Rube Goldberg were to transform a junkyard into musical architecture, it might resemble the Music Box Village. By day, it is an interactive playground for tourists. By night, it’s a live music venue for exploratory musicians.

More than that, it’s a metaphor for the extraordinary revitalization of New Orleans. On the eve of its 10th anniversary next month, the community center is a testament to the artists who had a vision of creating something beautiful from the detritus left by Hurricane Katrina – a physical representation of perseverance. The once-nomadic Music Box installation settled in its permanent location three years ago. But its genesis dates back to the aftermath of Katrina. 

“It was a very depressing era when there were people still stranded out of town and a lot of the old familiar sites and neighborhoods were still ruined,” recalls Doug MacCash, a features writer for The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. “There’s a couple of wonderful things about the Music Box, and one of them was there was a great spirit of ‘we’re going to come back.’ There was a spirit of defiance.” 

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In New Orleans, making music from hurricane leftovers

Leah Hennessy steps into a telephone booth in the center of the Music Box Village, a permanent outdoor arts exhibition, and lifts the receiver. There’s no dial tone. The booth is an unusual musical instrument, one of the many exhibits that Ms. Hennessy oversees as the venue’s lead creative producer. When she sings “You Are My Sunshine” into the mouthpiece, a horn-shaped speaker on top of the booth broadcasts her voice. The horn starts to rotate like a weather vane in a gale. In a nifty effect, it distorts Ms. Hennessy’s voice so that it warbles like a gramophone record.

If inventor Rube Goldberg were to transform a junkyard into musical architecture, it might resemble the Music Box Village. By day, it is an interactive playground for tourists. By night, it’s a live music venue for exploratory musicians. More than that, it’s a metaphor for the extraordinary revitalization of New Orleans. On the eve of its 10th anniversary next month, the community center is a testament to the artists who had a vision of creating something beautiful from the detritus left by Hurricane Katrina – a physical representation of perseverance. 

“It’s become one of the cultural institutions that I would say is on your must-see list,” says Doug MacCash, features writer for The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. “The Music Box was literally built out of the ruins. The clapboards, and the salvaged materials, and all the found objects that went into those little structures were very familiar to us. Those were the sorts of things that were piled on the curbs from the damage.”

Tod Seelie/Courtesy of The Music Box Village
Music Box Village is a permanent outdoor interactive arts exhibition in New Orleans. By day, it is an interactive playground for tourists. By night, it’s a live music venue for exploratory musicians.

“We’re going to come back”

The Music Box Village sits next to train tracks on the industrial edge of New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood. The village walls, a patchwork of corrugated iron strips, give it the outward appearance of a fortress straight out of “Mad Max.” Today, Delaney Martin – co-founder and artistic director of New Orleans Airlift, the parent nonprofit organization of the Music Box Village – sits outside with her drowsy baby while Ms. Hennessy demonstrates a nearby installation. She tugs on ropes that make ceiling fan-like blades and tubes spin around to generate tranquil drone sounds. Ms. Martin’s baby doesn’t stir.

The once-nomadic Music Box installation settled in this permanent location three years ago. But its genesis dates back to the aftermath of Katrina. 

“It was a very depressing era when there were people still stranded out of town and a lot of the old familiar sites and neighborhoods were still ruined,” recalls Mr. MacCash. “There’s a couple of wonderful things about the Music Box, and one of them was there was a great spirit of ‘we’re going to come back.’ There was a spirit of defiance.” 

Airlift co-founders Jay Pennington and Ms. Martin wanted to draw audiences to the desiccated city by transforming a dilapidated Creole cottage into an artist gallery and performance space. Mr. Pennington invited the renowned New York-based mixed-media artist known as Swoon to revamp the house. 

The result was an ambitious concept: Transform the house into musical architecture that musicians could play. Their idea may have been sound, but the building’s structure wasn’t. It collapsed. Swoon’s ambitious design for a replacement house was deemed too expensive. Despite the setbacks, Ms. Martin envisioned an opportunity to invite 25 local artists to create small-scale variants of the musical architecture idea.

Melissa Stryker/Courtesy of The Music Box Village/File
Theris Valdery, of the Black Feather Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, performs at the original Music Box in 2011.

“I had this vision of a shantytown sound laboratory,” says Ms. Martin. “We had all this wood from the falling-down Creole cottage and I said, ‘OK we have this raw material. Let’s all get together and we’ll build tiny little houses that don’t cost a lot of money.’”

Some of the original installations survive in the Music Box Village. Some travel as mobile installations to other cities. No installation is alike. Inside a wooden cabin, loose floorboards trigger electronic sounds. A metallic gazebo features an array of levers that blast compressed air through brass-band horns welded into the structure’s exoskeleton. Up in a treehouse-like “drum kitchen,” percussion instruments are fashioned from pots, pans, and, well, everything including the sink.

Building communities

The Music Box Village constructed a replica of its quirky phone booth for Orléans, the French twin sister town of New Orleans. It’s all part of Airlift’s mission to foster connection between communities, both local and abroad. 

Its latest installation, “Elevator Pitch,” arose from a 2019 partnership with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center as part of their Year of Music. Co-designed by sound artist Christine Sun Kim, who is deaf, the exhibit consists of a grounded elevator in which the buttons inside next to the doors trigger shouts recorded by 13 deaf people. The vibrations approximate how deaf people experience sound. 

There’s no central stage, so up to 1,000 attendees can enjoy close proximity to local performers or even notable guests such as Solange Knowles, Peaches, Norah Jones, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Performers are encouraged to incorporate the installations into their music. 

Ms. Hennessy excitedly recalls how the adventurous indie rock band Animal Collective utilized many of these instruments to create new music during a memorable 2018 show.

The Music Box Village also hosts local performers as part of its mission to connect New Orleans artists. Last year, it hosted an ambitious performance by New Orleans composer Tucker Fuller, the Polymnia Quartet, and students of the Homer A. Plessy Community School. Mr. Tucker’s composition, “Ode to NOLA: A Musical Collage,” utilized boxes in the village to create musical motifs that represented the mood and feel of each of the city’s neighborhoods. Fifth and sixth grade students had to follow a conductor to know when to play the musical sculptures.

“The preliminary visit [to the village] was an entire field trip for the whole school,” says Kate Withrow, a violinist in the Polymnia Quartet, who also teaches strings at the school. “The students could just come in and tinker on the instruments to get a feel for them before we even started on the composition. [The Music Box Village] philosophy in terms of making these instruments available to students all over the city is very apparent.”

The Music Box Village has an ambitious wish list for the future, including the addition of recording facilities, Dolby surround sound, and an upper level accessible via the elevator. 

“We’re hoping that we are doing something slightly new in music,” says Ms. Martin. “On a history-of-music level, the kind of spatial phonics that happen and the way we see people at our concerts and the way the music is happening all around you, we’d like to think that we are contributing something to the way music is experienced and heard.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Leah Hennessy’s title in the photo caption, and to clarify the design process with Swoon and how visiting musicians interact with the venue.

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The Monitor's View

Life without plastic? The idea gains a big player.

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The war on plastics is finally getting a backbone of steel. On Monday, the world’s third-largest producer of consumer goods, Unilever, announced it plans to collect back more plastic than it sells within the next five years. If you doubt the British-Dutch multinational is serious, consider this: It is already testing refilling stations for shampoo and laundry detergent in Southeast Asia. Consumers must bring their own containers.

Unilever’s move is a giant leap in a global campaign to persuade companies to keep plastics out of the environment and to design alternatives that are less polluting, especially for ocean life. Many other corporations have made similar pledges, but Unilever’s is very specific. By 2025, it promises to collect and process almost the same amount of plastic that it now uses and to halve its use of virgin plastic.

Young people who want a plastic-free future are savvy enough to know when a company is merely signaling an eco-virtue rather than acting on it. Unilever’s radical goals bear close watching for achieving results. Yet its announcement at least sets an example of how firms are trying to balance private gain with social good.

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Life without plastic? The idea gains a big player.

With ethically discerning young people on the front lines, the war on plastics is finally getting a backbone of steel. On Monday, the world’s third-largest producer of consumer goods, Unilever, announced it plans to collect back more plastic than it sells within the next five years.

If you doubt the British-Dutch multinational is serious, consider this: It is already testing refilling stations for shampoo and laundry detergent in Southeast Asia. Consumers must bring their own containers.

Unilever’s move is a giant leap in a global campaign to persuade companies to keep plastics out of the environment and to design alternatives that are less polluting, especially for ocean life. Many other corporations have made similar pledges, but Unilever’s is very specific. By 2025, it promises to collect and process almost the same amount of plastic that it now uses and to halve its use of virgin plastic. It is investing or forming partnerships in the waste-handling industry. And as it researches new materials, such as plant-based “bioplastics,” it will join with other companies in green innovation.

While it still must produce value for stockholders, Unilever plans to be more values-driven. As a manufacturer, it wants to take responsibility for where its products end up long after they are sold, or to create what is called a “circular economy.” Like many other firms, it wants to lead consumer trends in eco-sustainability – such as avoiding plastic – and not just follow them. To establish credibility and transparency, it is using third-party organizations to verify its products are meeting standards.

Currently, only about 9% of plastic is recycled. And while campaigns to end single-use plastic are gaining traction – eliminating plastic bags, plastic straws, and plastic microbeads – much of the world still relies on other forms of plastic. Consumer pressure helps, but much of the initiative and research depends on companies coming up with alternative materials and embracing the use of recycled plastic.

Most of all, companies must persuade consumers that pro-environment products do not come with personal sacrifice. Adopting a sustainable lifestyle can represent “a pathway to a more satisfied life,” says Kate Laffan, a behavioral scientist at the London School of Economics.

Young people who want a plastic-free future are savvy enough to know when a company is merely signaling an eco-virtue rather than acting on it. Unilever’s radical goals bear close watching for achieving results. Yet its announcement at least sets an example of how firms are trying to balance private gain with social good.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

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

A basis for harmony and diversity, together

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It often seems as if conflict and diversity – racial, cultural, or otherwise – go hand in hand. But recognizing one another as unique, valued members of God’s family brings harmony to our interactions.

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A basis for harmony and diversity, together

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Throughout the world’s population, one very prominent characteristic is our diversity – cultural, racial, and otherwise. Even the individuals within any particular group are unique. But do these differences make us susceptible to envy, distrust, and revenge? At times it would certainly seem that way.

Yet I’ve increasingly been rethinking this premise, based on something I’ve found to be helpful and healing in many areas of life – exploring the nature of God and what we are as God’s creation. It’s made me question whether cultural and racial discord is truly inevitable.

The Bible asks some insightful questions that we might apply to this timeless topic: “Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother?” (Malachi 2:10).

As God’s children, we each have perpetual membership in the same precious divine family. If God were both evil and good, then both goodness and evil would be present in God’s creations. If God is purely and absolutely good, however – as the divine Science of Christ reveals Deity to be – then the essence of God’s creations must also be good, including being free from any pull toward animosity.

God is also divine Spirit, so we, as God’s wonderful creation, are each entirely spiritual. The offspring of God aren’t defined by skin color or any other material label any more than infinite Spirit could be. The true nature of everyone is unique and completely beyond the confines of matter, expressing fully and only the beautiful, good, and permanent qualities of God.

As we gain a fuller understanding of this spiritual reality, including all the spectacular diversity of God’s spiritual creation, we can’t help but feel much more united with our fellow men and women of all backgrounds. “Progress takes off human shackles,” explains Christian Science Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy in her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” (p. 256). She continues: “The finite must yield to the infinite. Advancing to a higher plane of action, thought rises from the material sense to the spiritual, from the scholastic to the inspirational, and from the mortal to the immortal.”

I saw some proof of this in my college years on my summer baseball team, which was quite diverse. As a result of racial unrest, there had been riots in our state. Instead of this inharmony spilling over onto our team, though, we ended up becoming a very close group. Our league consisted of teams located throughout northern California, and we really enjoyed traveling and being together.

We weren’t overlooking one another’s diversities. Rather, we genuinely appreciated what made us all unique. I loved seeing in my friends a myriad of evidences of divine Spirit expressing itself – through qualities such as joy, selflessness, and strength – in refreshingly individual ways. Every day, I strove to see my teammates as entirely spiritual, not limited by matter, fear, history, and so on. After those happy seasons were over, I remained close with many of those friends.

Rather than creating us all as clones, the divine Spirit who is God has bestowed all of creation with clear diversity and with heartening and encouraging freedoms, including freedom from hatred and fear. “The Lord our God is one Lord,” explains the Old Testament, a message later taught by Christ Jesus (Deuteronomy 6:4, Mark 12:29). This one God expresses Himself in diverse reflections of His oneness – in His individual, unique children, just as a wide variety of plants make a rich garden.

“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit,” says the Bible (see I Corinthians 12:4). All existence is thoroughly enriched by the uniqueness of God’s spiritual creation. We exist to show forth the permanence and goodness, the power and love, of the infinite Spirit that is God. And recognizing the God-bestowed diversity of God’s family enriches our interactions with more harmony.

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Viewfinder

In a yellow wood

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
A woman walks under autumn trees in Moscow on Oct. 8, 2019.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( October 9th, 2019 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about how the Nobel Prize winners for physics reshaped our view of the cosmos.

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