2019
November
19
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Today’s five hand-picked stories cover the Republican point man on impeachment, Delaware’s efforts to make a fairer justice system, resilience amid the Venice floods, a Lebanese warlord’s path to progress, and Venezuela’s musical gift to Argentina. 

First, a homeowners' association in San Antonio, Texas, figured they were justified in asking the Simonis family to remove their Christmas decorations from the front lawn. After all, who puts out an inflatable snowman on Nov. 1? Way too early, right?

But here’s the catch: Claudia Simonis is eight months pregnant with their third child. The couple figured they’d get the decorations up sooner rather than later. When the HOA disagreed, Ms. Simonis posted the cease & desist notice on the neighborhood Facebook page. 

I’m not a fan of the ever-earlier commercial creep of Christmas. But in my book pregnant moms get a pass on most things. And homeowners' associations can be obnoxiously rules-oriented. It turns out this HOA has no written rules about the timing of holiday decorations. And the Simonis family has apparently spurred a minirebellion: Some neighbors are backing them by putting Christmas decorations on their own lawns. 

We’re not talking a pro-democracy protest movement here – more of a social-media fueled Inflated Santa Spring. But there’s something irresistible about that kind of neighborly support and etiquette disobedience.

Too early for whimsical representations of joy? Maybe. But that little robot snowman that goes on my newsroom desk each year – I just pulled it out.

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1. On impeachment, Jim Jordan goes for the takedown

To understand the Ohio congressman’s prominent and pugnacious role in defending President Trump, it helps to know a bit about wrestling.

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He cut his teeth in Congress grilling witnesses on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. A college wrestling champion, he helped drive former Republican Speaker John Boehner into early retirement. 

Now, Rep. Jim Jordan has emerged as the GOP’s point man in the public phase of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. 

Allies say the Ohio congressman has a knack for building – in clear, easy-to-understand soundbites – an impeachment counternarrative. Where Democrats allege that Mr. Trump improperly used his office to try to get a foreign government to investigate a political rival, Mr. Jordan argues the president’s opponents are trying to connect unrelated events, based largely on hearsay, to undo the 2016 election. 

“The Democrats have never accepted the will of the American people,” Mr. Jordan declared Tuesday. “They’ve been out to get the president since the day he was elected.”

Unlike his colleagues, Mr. Jordan regularly shows up to the hearings sans jacket. He interrupts, corrects, and claps back.

“In wrestling, you get points for something called a takedown. And you lose points for stalling,” says David Niven, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. “That’s entirely Jim Jordan’s approach to politics.” 

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On impeachment, Jim Jordan goes for the takedown

He made his name in Congress as an uncompromising brawler. A college wrestling champion, he cut his teeth on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, grilling witnesses in high-profile hearings. He later co-founded the hard-line House Freedom Caucus that helped drive former Republican Speaker John Boehner into early retirement. 

Now Rep. Jim Jordan has emerged as the GOP’s point man in the public phase of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. 

Unlike his colleagues, the Ohio congressman regularly shows up to the hearings sans jacket, in just shirtsleeves and tie. He interrupts, corrects, and claps back. On Friday, during the testimony of former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee’s Democratic chair, tried to cut Mr. Jordan off after the latter had reached his five-minute limit for questioning. “My indulgence is wearing out,” Mr. Schiff said.

“Our indulgence wore out with you a long time ago, Mr. Chairman,” Mr. Jordan retorted. 

Observers say the Ohio congressman is particularly skilled at building – in clear, easy-to-understand sound bites – an impeachment counternarrative. Where Democrats allege that Mr. Trump improperly used his office to try to get a foreign government to investigate a political rival, Mr. Jordan and other Republicans argue that the president’s opponents are trying to connect unrelated events, based largely on hearsay, to undo the result of the 2016 election. 

“The Democrats have never accepted the will of the American people,” Mr. Jordan declared Tuesday. “They’ve been out to get the president since the day he was elected.”

“[Mr. Jordan] is someone who has built a reputation as an attack dog, someone who is media savvy, someone who is a stalwart supporter of the president and who has the skill necessary to take the lead for the GOP,” says Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic Ohio state representative and now an executive in residence at American University. 

Mr. Jordan’s return to the limelight after a failed attempt last year to challenge Rep. Kevin McCarthy for minority leader also reflects the extent to which spectacle is central to the impeachment process. 

In today’s polarized political landscape, the outcome seems almost preordained: that the Democratic-controlled House will vote to impeach the president, and the Republican-led Senate will vote to acquit him. Public opinion polls on impeachment have hardly budged in the weeks since the probe began, and an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll this week found that nearly two-thirds of respondents could not envision any new information changing their minds on the matter. 

Which means the televised hearings are in many ways about theatrics – with each side appealing to its own voters’ emotions and trying to make a case that will help turn them out for next year’s elections. 

“Political implications are all that’s left at this point,” Ms. Cafaro says.

A wrestler’s approach to politics

Friday’s exchange between Mr. Jordan and Mr. Schiff was one of a number of clashes between the two men since impeachment hearings went public. Mr. Jordan objects frequently, whether it’s to urge the chair to publish yet-unreleased transcripts from the committee’s closed-door depositions, or to accuse him of withholding the name of the whistleblower who first brought attention to Mr. Trump’s now-famous July 25 call with the president of Ukraine. (Mr. Schiff denies that he knows who the person is, and has vowed to protect the person’s identity.) 

Witnesses aren’t spared, either. On Tuesday, Mr. Jordan tried to undermine the credibility of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, reading from a deposition transcript that appeared to raise questions about the National Security Council official’s judgment, and suggesting a possible connection to the whistleblower. “Your colleagues felt that there were times that you leaked information,” Mr. Jordan said. “Any idea why they have those impressions?” Colonel Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient who served in Iraq, called the suggestion “preposterous.”  

Last week, Mr. Jordan went after William Taylor, the top United States diplomat in Ukraine, insisting that Mr. Taylor’s information was suspect. “And you’re their star witness,” Mr. Jordan said. “I’ve seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.”

GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina applauded his colleague the next day. “He’s probably one of the best at not only preparation, but delivery,” he says. “He certainly did an outstanding job.” 

A four-time high school state wrestling champion, Mr. Jordan went on to win two NCAA Division I titles for the University of Wisconsin-Madison before becoming an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University. (The congressman has recently come under fire for allegedly ignoring reports that the team doctor at Ohio State had been sexually abusing players on the team – an accusation Mr. Jordan denies.) 

In politics, Mr. Jordan racked up underdog wins – including a surprise victory in 2000 against veteran state Rep. Jim Buchy in the Republican primary for state Senate – mainly by outworking his opponents. 

He was elected to Congress in 2006, running far to the right on issues like tax reform and welfare and as an adamant abortion foe. His refusal to compromise on conservative positions later helped him land the top post in the Republican Study Committee, a powerful bloc shaping policy in the GOP caucus. 

He proved himself a pugnacious interrogator when the Oversight Committee investigated the Internal Revenue Service for targeting conservative organizations that sought tax exemptions, and then Planned Parenthood over allegations of selling fetal tissue from abortions.  

His star rose further in 2015, when he drew media attention for his aggressive questioning of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the probe into the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya. In January of that year, Mr. Jordan also joined eight other Republicans in forming the House Freedom Caucus. 

The group’s goal was to challenge GOP leadership, which its members thought wasn’t fighting hard enough for conservative priorities. Mr. Jordan was chair when the caucus led the charge against then-Speaker Boehner, who wound up leaving Congress before the term was up. 

Mr. Boehner would later call Mr. Jordan a “legislative terrorist” – among other, more colorful names. 

“In wrestling, you get points for something called a takedown. And you lose points for stalling,” says David Niven, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. “That’s entirely Jim Jordan’s approach to politics.” 

Back in the spotlight

Just before the public impeachment hearings began, Republican leadership temporarily reassigned Mr. Jordan from the Oversight Committee, where he serves as ranking member, to Intelligence, which is in charge of the inquiry. The move, which necessitated bumping Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford from the roster, is permitted under House rules, though not exactly common. 

To Democrats, Mr. Jordan’s new role is just another sign of Republicans’ determination to focus on style and not the substance of the impeachment inquiry. “Our proper constitutional function is to try to determine what happened,” says Oversight Committee member Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland. “They instead put someone up as a polemicist.” 

Republicans acknowledge Mr. Jordan’s bare-knuckle style is a big reason he got the job. “It’s not a secret that he’s one of the president’s strongest defenders,” says a GOP aide to the Oversight Committee.

But his experience on past investigations, and his presence at every deposition during the closed-door portion of the impeachment inquiry, are just as important, they say. “He understands investigations,” the aide says. “He knows appropriate ways of approaching witnesses in open hearings.” 

“We have other members who are phenomenal analysts,” notes GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. But Mr. Jordan combines “those analytical skills with excellent performance skills.” 

Some observers note that Mr. Jordan’s prominence also takes the pressure off other Republicans – especially those from less-safe districts – to vocally defend the president. “There are plenty of Republicans who would not want to be in that position,” says Herb Asher, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State. “In some ways, he’s doing [them] a favor.”

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2. What’s the best way to ensure impartial judges?

Our reporter looks at one state’s approach to building trust in the judicial system. How should judges be chosen without making them seem beholden to political interests?

David

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States have wrestled with the best way to select judges since America’s founding. But with concerns rising about the volume of money pouring into judicial election campaigns around the country, some are hoping that a Delaware case could prompt another long overdue reform movement.

Unlike almost any state court system in the country, courts in Delaware are subject to a partisan balancing requirement. Judges affiliated with one political party can have no more than a “bare majority” on the state’s three highest courts, while the remaining seats must be held by judges affiliated with the “other major political party.”

Retired attorney James Adams, an independent, sued because these requirements block him from becoming a judge. Last April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit agreed with him, ruling that the partisan balance requirement violated his freedom of association rights.

The Supreme Court is considering this month whether to hear Delaware’s appeal of the ruling. “Part of what comes into play in this Delaware case is how much freedom are you going to give states to structure a system to restore ... public confidence in the system,” says Alicia Bannon of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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What’s the best way to ensure impartial judges?

Delaware is home to one of the most highly respected state judiciaries in the country, and for more than a decade James Adams has wanted to be a part of it. The retired attorney will never have a chance to serve on one of the state’s highest courts, however, because he is not a registered Republican or Democrat.

Unlike almost any state court system in the country, courts in Delaware are subject to a partisan balancing requirement. Judges affiliated with one political party can have no more than a “bare majority” on the state’s three highest courts, while the remaining seats must be held by judges affiliated with the “other major political party.”

Those two provisions in the state constitution that have enforced partisan balancing for more than a century are there to safeguard and reinforce the courts’ reputations as objective and nonpartisan institutions. That reputation, many experts contend, is a big reason why more than half the corporations on the New York Stock Exchange have chosen to incorporate there.

SOURCE: Delaware Division of Corporations
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

But as skilled and respected as Delaware’s high courts may be, the state’s partisan balancing requirements are unconstitutional, Mr. Adams, an independent, is arguing in a lawsuit. Last April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit agreed with him, ruling that the partisan balance requirement violated his freedom of association rights.

“Even though it has historically produced an excellent judiciary,” wrote Judge Theodore A. McKee in a concurring opinion, those provisions in Delaware’s constitution “cannot survive this First Amendment challenge.”

“Paradoxically, by elevating one’s political affiliation to a condition precedent to eligibility for appointment to the bench,” he added, “Delaware has institutionalized the role of political affiliation rather than negated it.”

Delaware Gov. John Carney has appealed the 3rd Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is still trying to shake its own partisan cloud one year on from Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s politically toxic confirmation.

States have wrestled with the best way to select judges since America’s founding, with a few bursts of reform morphing the status quo. With concerns rising about the volume of money pouring into judicial election campaigns around the country, some are hoping that the Delaware case could prompt another long overdue reform movement.

Henry Gass and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“There tend to have been reform waves over time,” says Alicia Bannon, leader of the Fair Court Project at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“In recent years there have been relatively modest changes,” she adds. “But we haven’t seen a major effort in states to review how they choose judges.”

Meanwhile, judicial election campaigns have become increasingly politicized and increasingly well financed. Between 2000 and 2009, 20 of 22 states that used contested elections for their supreme courts set spending records, according to a 2017 American Bar Association report. Between 2010 and 2017, five states set new spending records for contested supreme court elections, including a national record $21.4 million in the 2015 Pennsylvania Supreme Court election.

At its most benign, an intensive campaign can drain how much time judges can commit to studying cases and writing opinions. Campaigns have grown more negative, some studies have found. Other studies have shown that judges deliver harsher sentences in election years, and favor parties who support their reelection campaigns

“Ultimately it’s really important that judges have a sufficient level of independence from [politics], and that they’re able to do their jobs and decide cases based on what they think the law requires,” says Ms. Bannon. “What we’ve seen in these partisan elections is it’s increasingly hard for judges to do that.”

In his concurring opinion, Judge McKee – who has served as a judge in a jurisdiction requiring partisan judicial elections – questioned some of the criticism of such elections. Campaign contributions, for example, are “irrelevant” to how partisan elections can damage the judiciary. How they could cause damage, he wrote is “the extent to which it can undermine the public’s faith in the judges who are elected.” 

David Finger, an attorney who represented Mr. Adams at the 3rd Circuit, agrees.

“When you have elected judges, judges are going to try to appeal to the electorate,” he says. “It’s very important to the ability of our judicial system that judges be, and be seen as, independent from outside influence.”

SOURCE: Brennan Center for Justice
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

In the wake of Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation last year, during which he decried an allegation of sexual assault during high school as “an orchestrated hit” by Democrats, and a number of 5-4 decisions along partisan lines in big cases, public opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court has become increasingly polarized. Republicans have a positive view of the high court. Democrats do not.

Partisan views of the judiciary are not a good thing for the nation’s highest court or any of the courts below it, says Mr. Finger. But that doesn’t mean partisan balancing is a solution.

“To uphold the First Amendment is a higher value than the concept of making good appearances for the sake of the political times,” he says.

“Ideally we want the best and the brightest regardless of political affiliation,” he adds. “I don’t think you’re going to find any state [system] that’s perfect, because human beings aren’t perfect, but there are many states out there who have judiciaries of which they can be proud. 

The Supreme Court is considering this month whether to hear Delaware’s appeal of the 3rd Circuit ruling. If the justices end up ruling on the case, court watchers like Ms. Bannon hope it could spark a new wave of judicial selection reforms.

“Part of what comes into play in this Delaware case is how much freedom are you going to give states to structure a system to restore some of those values, like public confidence in the system,” she says.

The Brennan Center hasn’t taken a position on the case, she adds, but “I think states are probably overdue for looking again at their systems.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct David Finger’s first name.

SOURCE: Brennan Center for Justice
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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Climate realities

An occasional series

3. High tide in the city of canals. New normal for Venice?

Venice may be the latest poster city for the ravages of climate change. But it’s also a soggy example of human generosity and resilience. 

David
Andrea Merola/ANSA/AP
A woman tries to cross a flooded street during high water in Venice, Italy, Nov. 15, 2019. Over the course of a week, three high tides hit Venice with a magnitude it has rarely experienced.

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Over the course of a week, three high tides hit Venice with a magnitude it has rarely experienced. The threat has focused global attention on the formidable challenges this city faces, from climate change to the impact of mass tourism and population decline. 

The most dramatic high tide, which reached about 6 feet, was the worst that Venice has endured since the great flood of 1966 that looms large in collective memory. 

The rapid succession of acqua alta, or high tides, had a catastrophic effect on local infrastructure. There are also worries that the floods could be a tipping point for many Venetians. The city’s population has declined from 175,000 in 1950 to just 52,000 now.

A glimmer of hope did emerge from the unprecedented flooding. Hundreds of volunteers arrived from all over Italy to help clean up the worst of the damage. Some converged on a celebrated bookshop in the heart of the city. Ironically named Acqua Alta, the store was badly affected by the flooding, with the water turning hundreds of books into soggy pulp. 

Chiara Tonello, one of the bookshop staff, says, “We have to endure.”

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High tide in the city of canals. New normal for Venice?

Like all Venetians, Paolo Brandolisio is accustomed to dealing with the high tides that periodically hit the city.

As a maker of slender wooden oars for gondolas, he knows well the ever-shifting dynamics of Venice’s watery world. But he was shocked, like so many others, by the unprecedented series of tides the city suffered over the last week.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot more high tides. It’s the frequency that is concerning,” says Mr. Brandolisio, standing knee-deep in his flooded workshop, where he makes and repairs oars for Venice’s 450 gondoliers.

He managed to save his most precious pieces of machinery, including a lathe and an electric belt saw, but a machine for sucking up sawdust was lost to the flood as well as supplies of timber, including much-valued chunks of walnut wood. 

“I’ve got a lot of clearing up to do,” he says, ruefully watching a sleek black cormorant paddle past his front door, along what would normally be a dry alleyway. 

Over the course of a week, three high tides hit Venice with a magnitude it has rarely experienced. The threat has focused global attention on the formidable challenges this city faces, from climate change to the impact of mass tourism and population decline.  

The most dramatic high tide, which reached 1.87 meters (about 6 feet), was the worst the city of canals had endured since the great 1.94-meter flood of 1966 that looms large in collective memory. 

The rapid succession of acqua alta, or high tides, had a catastrophic effect. Dozens of churches, including Venice’s iconic St. Mark’s Basilica, have been damaged by the corrosive salt water that swept in from the lagoon. The owners of shops, bars, and restaurants had to resort to portable pumping machines to sluice the dirty water out of their premises.

As eerie flood-warning sirens sounded over the city, dead seagulls floated past luxury fashion outlets, while the force of one flood was so great that it swept a sturdy newspaper kiosk off its foundations. It sank to the bottom of a canal.

There are worries that the floods could be a tipping point for many of the city’s inhabitants, including artisans like Mr. Brandolisio who help make up Venice’s unique social fabric. The city’s population has declined from 175,000 in 1950 to 60,000 a decade ago and just 52,000 now. 

In a pharmacy near the Rialto Bridge, an electronic counter chronicles the exodus in bright red numbers. Venetians are pushed out by high rents, the cloying impact of more than 20 million tourists each year, and the daily difficulties of living here. This is a city with no cars and no big supermarkets. Groceries have to be carted home in little trolleys, up and down the stone steps of the numerous arched bridges.

AP/File
The Doge's Palace (left) and St. George's Church (center) sit several feet underwater in Venice, Italy, during an infamous flood in 1966. The high-water mark hit 74 inches on Nov. 12, 2019, flooding more than 85% of the city.

Venice’s last chance?

A glimmer of hope did emerge from the unprecedented flooding. Hundreds of volunteers arrived from all over Italy to help clean up the worst of the damage. 

Some converged on a celebrated bookshop in the heart of the city where volumes are stacked high on shelves and crammed into an old gondola and enamel baths. Ironically named Acqua Alta, the store was badly affected by the flooding, with the water turning hundreds of books into soggy pulp. 

A group of young Italians turned up to offer help in moving dry books to higher ground.

“We came to give a hand,” says Camilla Frank, who is Venice born and bred. “The high tides are happening more often. The city is not prepared for these extraordinary events. And it’s getting worse.”

Sloshing around in knee-high water, the volunteers worked around half a dozen cats that sat on piles of books and looked on nonchalantly.

“These floods have been really incredible, as bad as the big flood of 1966,” says Chiara Tonello, one of the bookshop staff. “We have to endure, we have to keep going because unfortunately a lot of people are abandoning Venice.” 

Venetians are discussing population decline and other key issues ahead of a Dec. 1 referendum on whether the city should be cut in half administratively.

Currently, Venice City Council administers not just historic Venice – the islands in the lagoon – but also a big chunk of territory on the mainland called Mestre, an area of refineries and container terminals, as well as Marghera, an industrial port. 

Campaigners who are in favor of the split say the referendum is crunch time for Venice – a chance for the city to have its own dedicated mayor.

“A mayor looking after just Venice would have more time to dedicate to the things that really matter to the city,” says Jane da Mosto, head of We Are Here Venice, a think tank working on the acute challenges facing the UNESCO World Heritage city. “Under the present system, mayors cannot keep up with the complexity of running two very different cities.”

Venice’s leaders should be actively luring new residents to make up for the population decline, says Dr. da Mosto, an environmental scientist.

“The quality of life here is so attractive that it should be like putting a pot of honey in front of bees,” she says.

New hotels should be obliged to donate money to public housing in order to keep Venetians in the city, she suggests. Restaurants should be compelled to employ a certain percentage of people who live in Venice. Research institutions, universities, and other organizations should be lured to the city, bringing new jobs, in order to move away from the tourism monoculture.

“I definitely think Venice can be saved,” says Dr. da Mosto. “But the referendum is the last chance for Venice.”

Still no “Moses”

A plan to try to protect the city from high tides is deeply contentious. It is a flood barrier called Moses, after the Old Testament figure who held back the waves of the Red Sea. 

It involves 78 massive hinged gates affixed to the seafloor across the three narrow channels that separate Venice’s lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. When a high tide of 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) or more is forecast, the 300-ton panels will rise up and block the sea.

But the infrastructure project has been dogged with problems. Work began in 2003 and was supposed to have been completed several years ago. There have also been huge cost overruns – it was meant to have cost around €2.5 billion ($2.8 billion), but so far €5.5 billion ($6.1 billion) has been spent. Five years ago, 30 people connected with the flood barrier were arrested in a massive corruption scandal, accused of embezzling public funds.

There may not be much public confidence in Moses, but for now it is the only game in town. 

“There is no plan B,” Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of Venice, told the Italian press last week. “Too much money has been spent but we need to get it working as soon as possible.”

Mention the project to many Venetians – it is known as Mose in Italian – and many raise their eyebrows or snort with derision.

“It’s a scandal – an old, inadequate project that has still not been finished,” says Matteo Secchi, the president of an activist group called Venessia.com – a nod to the city’s name in Venetian dialect. “The Dutch used to have half their country underwater but they manage to prosper. We should have given the project to them. They have the expertise.”

The new normal 

In a flooded alleyway in the Castello district, bags of rubbish float in the water and locals splash their way through the flood in rubber galoshes. 

Poking his head out of his front door, Alessandro Guggia is concerned that the high tides are eroding not just the fabric of the city but the morale of its inhabitants. 

“We are used to flooding and we know how to deal with it, but my generation has never seen anything like this,” says Mr. Guggia, who works in a hotel. 

Like many Venetians, he blames the shifting weather phenomena squarely on climate change.

“About 90% of my classmates from school have left Venice because living here is a constant battle,” he says. “Sooner or later, people’s resilience will run out.”

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

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4. ‘Without a shot’: How a local warlord aims to break Hezbollah’s hold

In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a Shiite warlord says what the people need now are better services not Hezbollah’s military muscle.

David

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Al-Hajj Mohamed Ja’afar led 1,000 armed members of his tribe into battle in Syria, where his militia fought with Russian support against Islamic State jihadists. He was fighting on the same side of the Syrian civil war as the militarily and politically powerful Hezbollah, but at home in Lebanon they are rivals.

Since last year Mr. Ja’afar has vowed to take on Lebanon’s political elite and improve people’s lives in the long-neglected Bekaa Valley. And he sees an opportunity in the anti-corruption protests that have targeted Lebanon’s sectarian leadership. All he needs, he says, is foreign financial support to “change the calculations” of Bekaa residents, and turn them away from Hezbollah.

Mr. Ja’afar says Hezbollah, which was founded as an anti-Israel resistance force, is worthy of respect, but he has different priorities.

“If I get the resources, I can take the whole area not by fighting, but by giving [people] what they need. They don’t have schools. They don’t have food,” he says. “By receiving support, we can tell Hezbollah, ‘You are on your own. You want to liberate Palestine? Go ahead. We want better lives for our families.’”

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‘Without a shot’: How a local warlord aims to break Hezbollah’s hold

Al-Hajj Mohamed Ja’afar looks more like an unassuming businessman than a powerful Lebanese Shiite tribal warlord hunting for an infusion of cash to challenge Hezbollah in his native Bekaa Valley.

Interviewed in Qasr – a village on the northeast edge of Lebanon overlooking farms, orchards, and Syrian battlefields – Mr. Ja’afar is clean shaven and dressed in a dark blue windbreaker, dress trousers, and sensible shoes.

But from their homes in a region of Lebanon known more for smuggling and lethal tribal disputes he led 1,000 armed members of his Ja’afar tribe into battle in Syria. His militia fought as a unit of Syria’s Russia-backed V Corps. With Russian air support, they helped oust Islamic State jihadists from Palmyra in 2016, and later fought in Deir Ezzor.

All told, Mr. Ja’afar lost 47 men in Syria, and says he “won many awards” from Russian commanders and kudos from President Vladimir Putin. Video footage on his phone shows him in Syria – wearing the same Everyman windbreaker – inspecting military hardware and meeting Russian commanders.

But since last year he has vowed to return to Lebanon to take on the political elite and improve lives in the long-neglected Bekaa Valley, where the Shiite militia Hezbollah has heavy influence, as well as its training bases.

Mr. Ja’afar sees an opportunity in the nationwide protests that erupted on Oct. 17 and have targeted Lebanon’s chronic sectarian and corrupt ruling system – tainting Hezbollah along the way. With foreign financial support, he says, he could “change the calculations” of Bekaa residents, and turn them away from Hezbollah.

“We aren’t asking to fight Hezbollah head on; the whole country knows how [worthy of] respect they are,” says Mr. Ja’afar, fingering a pair of black prayer beads with silver overlay as cigars from a humidor are offered to guests.

“By receiving support, we can tell Hezbollah, ‘You are on your own. You want to liberate Palestine? Go ahead. We want better lives for our families,’” says Mr. Ja’afar.

What the people need

He says 1,500 members of his tribe fight with Hezbollah for $600 per month, “but come back from Syria broke. They keep you poor.” He says if he had the resources he could “guarantee” that such Hezbollah fighters would cross to his side.

“If I get the resources, I can take the whole area not by fighting, but by giving [people] what they need. They don’t have schools. They don’t have food,” says Mr. Ja’afar. “I will not go on the stand and badmouth Hezbollah, but [do it] through reforms. If that happens, Hezbollah will be finished in this area.”

Mr. Ja’afar claims he could attract 10,000 fighters to his cause. The Bekaa clans they would come from – including his own – have long had a love-hate relationship with Hezbollah.

The Bekaa Valley produced many of the original fighters for Hezbollah when it was founded to fight Israel in 1982, though the Shiite militia’s primary recruiting pool has shifted to its strongholds in southern Lebanon, adjacent to the front with Israel, and in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

While his Dir al-Watan (Homeland Shield) militia fought alongside Hezbollah in Syria – with government troops, Iranian advisers, and Russian support – Mr. Ja’afar says he was warned in 2017 by a Russian officer of a Hezbollah plot to assassinate him. Possibly, he suggests, because his stature had grown into a political threat.

Syrian Central Military Media,/AP/File
Hezbollah fighters advance up a hill holding Lebanese, Syrian, and their own flags in the mountainous region of Qalamoun, Syria, Aug 28, 2017.

Already, the militia leader is wanted by the Lebanese government for a blood feud that started with the killing of his son at a Lebanese Army intelligence checkpoint in 2016. He reportedly orchestrated a revenge killing of the perpetrator near Damascus.

But strategically, Mr. Ja’afar sees Hezbollah as overstretched beyond Syria in Iraq and Yemen, and therefore vulnerable at home.

Hezbollah “got too big”

“Now Hezbollah is hanging by a thread, anyone can come along” to challenge them, he says. “The Russians told me, ‘If anything goes wrong in Lebanon, then Hezbollah will take over the country.’ But the Russians are not studying the tribes.

“Hezbollah can be brought down without a shot, if you bring factories and resources and what people want,” asserts Mr. Ja’afar. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall. They don’t care about people. They got too big, and they are corrupt. ... They eat the whole loaf and give you a crumb, that is their tactic. We want to change that.”

And there is much to change, in a region renowned for smuggling of all kinds, and lawlessness.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“For a while now, there’s been resentment about the fact that particular area feels marginalized, both in terms of development and economy, and that is why these grumblings come about,” says Aymenn al-Tamimi, a Ph.D. researcher at Swansea University in Wales, who has interviewed Mr. Ja’afar several times.

In those interviews, Mr. Ja’afar has said his forces “are available for the Syrian command.” Every time he mentions Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he uses the phrase “may God protect him.” In 2018, he told Mr. Tamimi that the Syrian government was “victorious over global imperialism – that is, America – and more than 80 countries,” funded by Persian Gulf states.

Yet now he says he is looking for foreign support and wouldn’t rule out Gulf or even British cash.

“They want to set up their own party to represent their interests, not ideologically breaking from the resistance axis as a whole but trying to better represent the interests of that area,” says Mr. Tamimi, noting that state services are poor and that electricity came no more than six hours at a time during his visits.

“But I don’t think it’s going to happen immediately, because setting up a political party in Lebanon requires money, and it’s difficult for new names to break in,” he says. “The problem is you can talk big like that, but you need far more resources to set up your own party and challenge Amal and Hezbollah.”

A weakened narrative

Still, Hezbollah has been one of the targets of Lebanese protesters who view them as part of a sectarian ruling elite that has done little to prevent the suffering of their fellow citizens. The raison d’être for Hezbollah’s founding – ending Israeli occupation and defending Lebanon – has receded since the last Hezbollah-Israeli war in 2006.

“It’s becoming harder and harder for Hezbollah to sustain the resistance narrative ... when years pass and there’s no conflict with Israel,” says Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel.”

“This is particularly true in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, which are geographically distant from the front with Israel,” says Mr. Blanford, who has interviewed Mr. Ja’afar several times. “These areas were never really occupied anyway. In the Bekaa there are very tribal dynamics, where the tribes come first. So Hezbollah has always had trouble trying to placate the tribes.”

And that trouble will continue, if Mr. Ja’afar has his way – and can find any money. He says his ambitions reach beyond the forested hillsides of the western Bekaa into the rest of Lebanon, to remove “these politicians who made it, upon the blood of the people.”

“They brainwashed these people and use sectarian issues,” says Mr. Ja’afar about Lebanon’s competing ruling elites, echoing the sentiment of many protesters. “If they have a problem among themselves, the Lebanese people pay dearly. When they become friends, the people again suffer.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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5. These musicians fled home – but brought the music with them

Musicians fleeing Venezuela are enhancing Argentina’s cultural landscape and are expressing gratitude – through performances – to their generous hosts.

David
Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Latin Vox Machine musicians play in La Plata subway station in Buenos Aires, Argentina, including saxophonist César Pérez and violinist Elizabeth Gordones.

Two ways to read the story

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Four and a half million Venezuelans have fled their country’s crisis, with most heading to nearby nations like Colombia. But thousands have gone farther south to Argentina – including, to Omar Zambrano’s surprise, fellow musicians.

Mr. Zambrano, a Venezuelan pianist, was just scraping by when he arrived in Buenos Aires a few years ago. Chatting with buskers around the city, he discovered that Latin America’s cultural capital was now home to dozens of Venezuelan musicians, many of whom trained at the same world-renowned El Sistema schools.

Today, he is the founder and executive director of Latin Vox Machine, an orchestra of 150 musicians, most of whom are Venezuelan refugees, playing everything from classical to big band to tango in some of the city’s top cultural venues.

Argentina is reeling from its own economic troubles. But on the whole, this country of immigrants is still welcoming them. Now, if these refugee musicians play in subways or parks, they’re playing for donations – but also, they say, as their way of saying thank you.

“When we’re performing in concerts or more formal settings now,” says violinist Elizabeth Gordones, “we always have people coming up to us saying, ‘We know you from the subway, thank you for sharing your art with us.’”

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These musicians fled home – but brought the music with them

The music wafting along the platform of La Plata subway station on a recent springtime Saturday afternoon is so beautiful that people hastening to the exits stop to listen, and some turn back. 

Children down the platform loosen a parent’s grip to approach and get a closer look at the violin and saxophone players.

When the quartet segues into “Por Una Cabeza,” a beloved tango tune, smiles broaden, feet glide and tap. The applause is enthusiastic, and even though Argentina is reeling from a deep recession, a few small bills and coins are dropped into an open violin case.

It was music like this that intrigued Omar Zambrano one day, nearly two years ago, on another Buenos Aires subway platform. Mr. Zambrano, a recently arrived Venezuelan refugee and classically trained pianist, had himself taken to playing small gigs to scrape together a living in his new home.

Something prompted him to approach the French horn player – might he also be Venezuelan?

He was.

This got Mr. Zambrano wondering about all the other public musicians he’d seen in the Argentine capital. What he discovered amazed him: Buenos Aires was now home to dozens of Venezuelan musicians, many of whom had trained at the same world-renowned El Sistema music schools that had once made Caracas an international center of youth musical instruction.

And this discovery gave Mr. Zambrano an idea. Today he is founder and executive director of Latin Vox Machine, an orchestra of 150 musicians – 80% of whom are Venezuelan refugees – that now plays everything from classical music to big band jazz (and of course tango) to thunderous applause in some of Buenos Aires’ top cultural venues.

“We have been so well-received here, the Argentines really are receptive of people and ideas from outside,” says Mr. Zambrano, standing outside the Kirchner Cultural Center in central Buenos Aires – a venue he says “has become one of our homes.”

“People here have demonstrated so many of humanity’s values towards us, like welcome and solidarity,” he adds, “and in return we are giving back our music and our talents as a way of showing our gratitude.”

What the Venezuelans of Latin Vox Machine embody to their new neighbors is the idea – under severe strain, as countries including the United States roll up their welcome mats – that refugees and immigrants enrich the country they settle in beyond any burdens they cause.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Omar Zambrano, executive director and founder of Latin Vox Machine, stands outside Kirchner Cultural Center in central Buenos Aires, where the group of mostly Venezuelan refugee musicians has played.

3,000 miles from home

Like millions of other Venezuelans, the musicians that would become Latin Vox Machine had reached a point where they decided they could no longer survive amid their country’s economic and social collapse. This year, the number of Venezuelan refugees has reached 4.5 million, making the refugee crisis one of the worst in the world today. 

But while most Venezuelans have settled closer to home, many musicians have gone farther south, drawn both by Buenos Aires’ reputation as Latin America’s cultural capital, and by Argentina’s reputation as a country built by immigrants and still largely welcoming them.

The Argentine government estimates that nearly 200,000 Venezuelans have settled here since their home country’s crisis touched off an exodus three years ago.

And in a relatively short time, many of those refugees have begun making contributions to their new home. As one example, they are rejuvenating down-on-their-luck neighborhoods by opening areperas – sandwich shops serving the popular arepa, a corn-flour bun stuffed with typical Venezuelan stewed or barbecued meats – in shuttered storefronts. 

And then there is the music.

“Argentina makes a strong commitment to receiving those who have had to leave their countries as refugees, giving them support as they in return enrich our society,” said Argentina’s deputy foreign minister, Gustavo Zlauvinen, at a Latin Vox Machine concert marking United Nations Day last month.

Appreciative audience

Perhaps more surprising in a country with rising unemployment and faltering living standards is the warmth that Argentines on the whole continue to show towards immigrants and refugees.

Back at La Plata subway station, no one in the impromptu audience that comes and goes around the musicians is telling them to go home.

“As many as need to come, they can come,” says Monica Gatti, a domestic worker who leads what she describes as a “modest life” in the adjacent Boedo neighborhood. “They work hard, they bring us culture, as these young people are, and they are introducing us to foods we didn’t know before – do you know about arepas?” she asks.

Perhaps most important of all for her, Ms. Gatti adds, is that “despite everything that has happened to them, they are happy – that’s a good lesson for us Argentines.”

Across the platform, Homero Portero, a building materials supplier, says Argentina has a tradition of openness, and he is glad it’s alive and well.

“These people are not a burden, no way!” he says, pointing out that he too was once down on his luck, so he knows what it means to receive a helping hand.

“But the truth is, these young people are bringing us a richness, adding to our country with their intellectual capacity,” Mr. Portero says. “That is why I do not agree with the policies of your Mr. Trump, who wants to close America’s door, which after all is a country of immigrants like Argentina,” he adds. “My view is these young people are giving of themselves, so we should give back.”

Gift of music

Many of the musicians of Latin Vox Machine have jobs that have nothing to do with music: as waiters, nannies, shop clerks. The most fortunate ones give private lessons, or work part-time in music schools. Some have been taken on by small orchestras.

But almost all of them spend at least a small part of their week in the subway or in the parks: playing for donations, yes, but also as their way of saying thank you.

“When we’re performing in concerts or more formal settings now we always have people coming up to us saying, ‘We know you from the subway, thank you for sharing your art with us,’” says Elizabeth Gordones, one of the violinists playing at La Plata station and a former music teacher at El Sistema. “Like most of us, I feel like it’s important to continue giving back to the people who have been so generous with us.”

Listening to Ms. Gordones, the rest of the subway quartet nod in agreement.

“Little by little, many of us are finding other jobs or positions that allow us to continue with our music, and I think for all of us, Latin Vox Machine has been a tremendous gift,” says César Pérez, a former teacher of saxophone and bassoon at El Sistema. “When Omar [Zambrano] raises the baton and we’re all together, it’s magic.”

And yet Mr. Pérez, too, makes a point to continue playing in the subway. 

“We like to think we’re breaking up the monotony of the work day for people, or maybe bringing some joy into life for someone who isn’t feeling any,” he says. “It’s our way of making life a little easier for them,” he adds, “the way Argentina has received us at a difficult time and made life better for us.”

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The Monitor's View

A triumph of truth about China’s detention camps

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China has many prisoners of conscience but perhaps none like Wang Yongzhi. Five years ago, according to leaked documents, the Communist Party official was assigned the task of forcing tens of thousands of minority Uyghurs into indoctrination camps in western China. The party leaders wanted to eradicate Muslim culture and to show “absolutely no mercy” in doing so.

But then, in a change of heart, Mr. Wang did feel mercy. He told others it was okay for Muslims to read the Quran. He quietly released more than 7,000 of the detainees. Later he was arrested and prosecuted. We know this story because another party official, equally courageous, secretly released 403 pages of internal party documents.

In all, at least 12,000 party members were investigated for allegedly not doing their job in suppressing the Uyghurs. It remains unclear what has happened to them. Yet the fact remains that many if not most displayed a conscience about helping innocent people avoid harsh treatment in concentration camps.

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A triumph of truth about China’s detention camps

China has many prisoners of conscience but perhaps none like Wang Yongzhi. Five years ago, according to newly leaked documents, the Communist Party official was assigned the task of forcing tens of thousands of minority Uyghurs into indoctrination camps in western China. The party leaders wanted to eradicate Muslim culture and to show “absolutely no mercy” in doing so.

“Wipe them out completely,” Mr. Wang told subordinates. “Destroy them root and branch.”

But then, in a change of heart, Mr. Wang did feel mercy, especially after more than a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities were held in camps in Xinjiang region and mistreated.

Worried about the harm to relations between China’s Han majority and its minorities, he told others it was OK for Muslims to read the Quran and that party officials should read it to understand Uyghur culture. He quietly released more than 7,000 of the detainees. Later he was arrested and prosecuted. Since 2017, Mr. Wang’s whereabouts have been unknown.

“He refused,” one document said, “to round up everyone who should be rounded up.”

We know this story because another party official, equally courageous, secretly released 403 pages of internal party documents to The New York Times. That anonymous official was also motivated to end what is now called a cultural cleansing of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. The documents give a behind-the-scenes picture of a party so fearful for its survival that it is willing to paint any group as an enemy to stay in power.

In all, at least 12,000 party members were investigated for allegedly not doing their job in this repression It remains unclear what has happened to them. Yet the fact remains that many if not most displayed a conscience about helping innocent people avoid harsh treatment in concentration camps.

More than 70 years ago, George Kennan, an American diplomat and Russia expert, wrote that the Soviet Union, whose regime he said was driven mainly by fear for its survival, would eventually weaken and collapse. His prediction was prophetic. Within the ruling Communist Party, internal dissent over evil acts helped end the Soviet empire.

China’s ruling party may be in a similar place. As it keeps cracking down on innocent groups, such as pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, it risks having its underlying fears and its evil acts exposed by its own officials. Such courage in recognizing the right of individual conscience is what challenges the party’s motives and actions from within.  As with those 7,000 Uyghurs freed by Mr. Wang, what is right has triumphed.

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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.

LOVE

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  • Read or Listen ( 2 Min. )

Here’s a poetic piece that explores the power of a simple question: “Will you love?”

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LOVE

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Long dry spell … little inspiration … few healings …
   a whole lot of turmoil … a DROUGHT.
One night on mental bended knees I humbly asked,
“Father, what do I need to know?”
Then I waited. I vowed to stay as long as it took to get an answer
– and was startled at the quickness of the reply.
   A question answered my question. Three simple words:

“WILL YOU LOVE?”

Instantly, all confusion; pressure; the trying to figure out
   the whats, whys, wheres, whens, hows CEASED in
   the POWER of those three simple words:
“Will you love?”
Would I love when I thought I couldn’t … when I didn’t want to …?
   Would I love when it didn’t even seem fair to do so …?
Would I love when I got nothing in return …
   when I would be hated for it … when no one else would or could?

“I LOVED YOU FIRST, YOU KNOW.”*

I could love because God, divine Love itself, was the source …
   filling me to overflow with love so I could naturally express Love.
Love itself would show me how.
I was not to be surprised if it looked much different than I expected.

Love might say no, when everything in me yearned to say yes.
Love might say yes, when every fiber of my being pleaded to say no.
Love might say go, when I so wanted to stay put.
And Love might say wait, when I felt ready to MOVE, push on, and GO.

If I listened and trusted, I would always be led.
My only responsibility was to give an answer to that question:
   “Will you love?”

Long pause.              I listen.             It must be an honest,
   from-the-heart-core answer.   Not to be taken lightly.

Then … I vowed, …

“I    will    love.”

*See I John 4:19.

Originally published in the July 1, 2019, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Keeping flames at bay

Dean Lewins/AAP/Reuters
A New South Wales Fire and Rescue officer works to protect the Colo Heights Public School from the Gospers Mountain fire near Colo Heights, Australia, Nov. 19, 2019.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( November 20th, 2019 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about the college alternative to “cancel culture” – emerging interfaith and interpolitical discussions.

Before you go, you may have noticed a mix-up with our “jump links” to individual stories at the top of yesterday’s package. Apologies for the inconvenience, but while we’re talking about it, we’d love to hear what you think of that feature. Let us know if you use those links.

Monitor Daily Podcast

November 19, 2019
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