2020
February
13
Thursday

Rarely have the multiplication tables brought this much joy.

At Lucky Candy, a bodega in the Bronx, cashier Ahmed Alwan will ask the person checking out a math question. (What’s 10 times 10 minus 50?) If they answer correctly, they have five seconds to grab anything in the store for free. (Except the cat.) Mr. Alwan, a student at Bronx Community College, covers the amount from his own pocket.

His videos on Instagram and TikTok show patrons grabbing bananas, chips – and once the entire nut rack – as Mr. Alwan slowly counts down from five. 

So many people in his neighborhood are struggling, he says, and this is his way of helping them save a little money. The math was to make them smile.

How does his boss feel about the freebies?

Saleh Aobad, the owner and Mr. Alwan’s dad, is very proud.

“It’s great to see him do good and help out the community, and most importantly represent Islam,” Mr. Aobad, an immigrant from Yemen, told CNN.

Mr. Alwan, who started working at 14, has long been quietly generous, extending credit to regulars who need food and giving bananas, rolls, and coffee to people he sees sleeping outside. 

Since the videos have gone viral, he says, it’s changed the shop’s relationship with the community. He’d like to help more people, so he’s set up a GoFundMe page.

“I have been seeing a lot of happy faces,” he writes. “I hope to inspire others to always be kindhearted.”

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1. Bloomberg bets old rules of politics no longer apply. He may be right.

Bypassing early states while blanketing airwaves elsewhere, the former New York mayor tries to chart a new path to the presidency – showing how U.S. politics are being changed by digital and targeted messaging, and the power of money.

Yvonne

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Michael Bloomberg is running both a stealth and carpet-bomb campaign. Until recently, he’s been deemphasizing retail politics, communicating with voters via online ads, YouTube videos, and television spots blanketing both national and local airwaves – especially in the 14 states participating in next month’s mammoth Super Tuesday vote.

And it may be working. Even as New Hampshire voters were confirming Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg as the early Democratic front-runners on Tuesday, the former mayor of New York – who announced his candidacy too late to get on the ballots of the first four states – vaulted to 3rd place in national polls.

Critics accuse the billionaire of trying to buy the nomination, and argue the former Republican is an unlikely standard-bearer for a party that has been shifting left.

But even if he doesn’t win, he’s revealing how much presidential politics are changing – not unlike another wealthy New Yorker, who in 2016 dispensed with various political traditions and harnessed the digital worlds of social media and precision data in new ways. 

“Between [Trump and Bloomberg], what I think they’re doing is demonstrating the end of traditional political organizations as we know them,” says Ken Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in New York.

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Bloomberg bets old rules of politics no longer apply. He may be right.

Just a month ago, most political observers believed former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination for president were decidedly not very good.

The New York billionaire announced his candidacy too late to get his name on the ballots of the first four states. And in the modern era, no candidate – Republican or Democrat – has won their party’s nomination without placing at least 2nd in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Bill Clinton was the only candidate to capture the nomination without winning at least one of the two.

But Mayor Bloomberg believes he can do what has never been done before. Perceiving a political landscape radically altered by the plate tectonics of digital media and targeted messaging – as well as Democratic voters’ growing antipathy toward the influence of two overwhelmingly white states – he saw a path that didn’t involve glad-handing in Iowa and New Hampshire living rooms.

In some ways, Mr. Bloomberg is running both a stealth and carpet-bomb campaign. Until recently, he’s been deemphasizing retail politics, instead communicating with voters via targeted online ads, YouTube videos, and traditional television spots that are blanketing both national and local airwaves – especially in the 14 states participating in next month’s mammoth Super Tuesday vote.

And it may be working. Even as New Hampshire voters were confirming Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg as the early Democratic front-runners on Tuesday, the three-term mayor from New York vaulted to third place in national polls.

Mr. Bloomberg’s late-entry gambit has proven particularly prescient on two fronts: It presumed a collapse by former Vice President Joe Biden, whose campaign is now on the ropes after poor results in Iowa and New Hampshire. It also banked on Senator Sanders – whom many Democratic voters believe is too liberal to beat President Donald Trump – emerging as an early front-runner.

Still, Mr. Bloomberg faces a number of hurdles. Critics accuse the billionaire of trying to buy the nomination, and argue the former Republican is an unlikely standard-bearer for a party that has been shifting left. His most glaring weakness may be the legacy of New York’s stop-and-frisk police tactic, which a federal judge ruled racially biased and unconstitutional near the end of his three-term tenure. 

The former mayor will not appear on ballots in the South Carolina primary later this month, in which African-American voters will have their first significant say in the race for the Democratic nomination. But his campaign believes he will emerge as a serious force on Super Tuesday, when nearly a third of the overall delegates to the convention will be awarded in a single day. 

Even if he doesn’t win the nomination, experts say the success he’s already demonstrated reveals how much presidential politics are changing. Four years ago, another wealthy New Yorker, Donald Trump, also confounded experts as he dispensed with various traditions of presidential politics, harnessing the boundless digital worlds of social media and the wizardry of precision data and targeted online ads. 

“Between the both of them, what I think they’re doing is demonstrating the end of traditional political organizations as we know them,” says Ken Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in New York.

Paul Hayes/Caledonian-Record/AP
The name of Democratic candidate and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is written on the tote board, Feb. 11, 2020, in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, as primary balloting in the state got underway. Mr. Bloomberg, as a write-in candidate, received three of the five votes cast during the midnight vote.

A $2 billion campaign

What makes all this possible, of course, is money. The world’s 13th richest man, Mr. Bloomberg appears ready to spend at least $2 billion of his personal fortune on this electoral strategy, some news reports say. His paid campaign staff is already three times larger than that of Mr. Trump, five times larger than that of Mr. Biden, and twice that of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, according to Axios

Last week, after the Iowa caucuses became a national punchline, the Bloomberg campaign pounced, announcing it would double its current advertising efforts, which already topped $350 million, expand the messaging to new markets, and hire more paid staff in 40 states.     

“While other campaigns have been focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, our campaign has been building a massive operation in some of the biggest battleground states across the country that is unmatched and will be critical to defeating Trump in November,” says Sabrina Singh, senior national spokesperson for the Bloomberg campaign. Indeed, the campaign is building an infrastructure and operation parallel to – and perhaps larger than – the Democratic Party’s own national organization. 

“What’s so unprecedented is the amount of money Bloomberg can spend without needing the party,” says Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University in New York. “The purpose of political parties is to give you institutional support, and when you no longer need that support, you have to wonder, what is the role of the party?”

It’s all indicative of larger structural changes that have been reshaping American politics over the past decade, says Robert Boatright, professor and chair of the department of political science at Clark University. He points to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which found that political spending is a form of protected speech under the Constitution, and lifted limits on spending by corporations and unions.   

“While Bloomberg’s strategy is kind of novel – skipping the first few states – the emergence of his candidacy isn’t,” Professor Boatright says. “The ability of both the Democratic and Republican parties to confer the nomination in an organized way has been destroyed by the Citizens United decision and by the declining use of public funding in presidential elections.”  

Just a few wealthy super PAC donors were able to boost Republican candidates in 2012 and 2016 who wouldn’t have made it off the ground in previous cycles, he says. And while most Democratic candidates have spoken out against Citizens United and eschewed the use of super PACs, “instead we get people like [Tom] Steyer and Bloomberg, who are financing themselves,” Professor Boatright says.

Others note that Mr. Bloomberg has committed to keeping his resources on the ground, even if he’s not the nominee. “So regardless of where he ends up in the nominating process, he’s going to have an impact,” says Mara Suttmann-Lea, professor of government at Connecticut College. 

Stop-and-frisk

Unlike President Trump’s made-for-TV showmanship, Mr. Bloomberg projects a kind of technocratic competence that, at least so far, has skated above the rancorous ideological conflicts now raging in American politics. And as top-tier Democratic candidates increasingly attack one another, the former mayor has been focusing his barbs exclusively on the president, as if adapting Ronald Reagan’s famous 11th commandment to read: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Democrat.”    

As he’s risen in the polls, however, he’s inevitably attracting more scrutiny. An audio recording of Mr. Bloomberg discussing the stop-and-frisk policy in 2015, posted online this week by a supporter of Senator Sanders, may be a sign of what’s to come.

When he announced his candidacy in November, Mr. Bloomberg apologized for the controversial tactic, saying it was wrong. But the recording presents a stark reminder of his once-adamant support for stop-and-frisk. 

“The way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them,” Mr. Bloomberg says on the recording. “Murderers and murder victims fit one M.O. ... They are male, minorities, 16-25. That’s true in New York, that’s true in virtually every city. ... You’ve got to get the guns out of the hands of people that are getting killed.”

It remains to be seen whether the issue will dampen what has been a remarkable surge in national polls, particularly among black voters. In just over a month, Mr. Bloomberg tripled his support nationwide, including garnering the backing of 22% of black voters according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday. Mr. Biden, the top choice of black voters for months, dropped to 27% from 52% in Quinnipiac’s previous poll. 

“My gut feeling is that black voters in 2020 will take an approach towards Bloomberg in a way similar to some white Trump voters in 2016,” says Professor Greer. “It’s not a popular thing to say or to do, it’s not popular to say, ‘Oh, I’m supporting Bloomberg,’ but I think some black voters are just keeping quiet.”

Significantly, a number of powerful black mayors have endorsed Mr. Bloomberg. Muriel Bowser in Washington, D.C., Michael Tubbs in Stockton, California, Steve Benjamin in Columbia, South Carolina, Sylvester Turner in Houston, Texas, and Vi Lyles of Charlotte, North Carolina, have all thrown their support behind him. “I think that he realizes the mistake of the past,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who also endorsed Mayor Bloomberg, told NPR this week.

In an ad that began to run last week, the Bloomberg campaign invoked the legacy of President Barack Obama, showing an old clip of the popular former president praising the New York mayor. “It’s like a dagger in the heart for the Biden campaign,” says Professor Sherrill, who will be on a slate of New York City delegates supporting Mayor Buttigieg.

And while critics don’t see him generating the necessary enthusiasm among the Democratic base to defeat President Trump, others say Mr. Trump himself will provide enough motivation. 

“The ultimate uniter of the Republican Party in 2016 was beating Hillary Clinton,” says Kent Syler, professor of political science and public policy at Middle Tennessee State University. “The ultimate uniter of the Democrats this time will be beating Donald Trump.”

Either way, Professor Greer notes that many of her students seem to be talking about Mr. Bloomberg. They’ve all been exposed to a steady stream of Bloomberg campaign ads on YouTube. Indeed, her 8-year-old niece can recite a Bloomberg ad “verbatim.”

“Something is happening,” she says. “He’s resonating with people.”

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2. How a tiny African nation stood up for human rights

Gambia is a country of 2 million people, 7,000 miles from Myanmar. In its case at The Hague, there's a reminder that just as human rights are universal, so too is the power – and responsibility – to protect them.

Yvonne
Peter Dejong/AP
Gambia's Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou waits for judges to enter the International Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 23, 2020. The United Nations' top court ordered Myanmar to protect its Rohingya minority and prevent destruction of evidence related to accusations of genocide.

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Gambia is a sliver of riverbank running through the center of Senegal: the smallest country on Africa’s mainland, and one of the smallest in the world.

It’s also 7,000 miles from Myanmar, with few ties between them. 

And yet it’s Gambia that has brought Myanmar to the U.N.’s top court, to face accusations of genocide against its Rohingya minority. Last month, the International Court of Justice handed down a unanimous decision that Myanmar must take emergency measures to preserve evidence and prevent further violence. It’s a provisional measure in a larger case that may take years, and prove hard to enforce. But the ruling was still historic: in part, because it was the first time in the court’s history that the plaintiff wasn’t a nation connected to the alleged crimes.  

Gambia itself was no stranger to abuses under former President Yahya Jammeh. But the country was once a regional leader on human rights. And the case is a reminder of the outsized influence that small countries can – and do – play in international justice.

“Any country in the world could have done this, but it was the Gambia that did,” says Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, of the Institute for Security Studies. “That means something.”

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How a tiny African nation stood up for human rights

When the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled last month that Myanmar must take immediate action to protect its “extremely vulnerable” Rohingya minority, the decision was historic. But not only because it may mark a turning point in the international campaign to hold the country’s government accountable for an alleged genocide. 

It was historic, too, because of who brought the case to the court. For the first time in the seven-decade history of the ICJ, the plaintiff wasn’t a nation connected to the crimes it said were committed.

It wasn’t one of Myanmar’s neighbors, or even a regional power flexing its muscle. 

It was Gambia.

A sliver of riverbank running through the center of Senegal, Gambia is the smallest country on Africa’s mainland, and one of the smallest in the world. It’s also 7,000 miles away from Myanmar, with little in the way of cultural or diplomatic ties between them.

But its campaign to protect the Rohingya is a reminder of the outsized influence that small countries can – and often do – play in the international justice system, and the precedents they can help to set.

“Any country in the world could have done this, but it was the Gambia that did,” says Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, head of special projects and an expert in international criminal justice at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. “That means something.”

Gambia’s campaign to protect the Rohingya began in May of 2018, when the country’s attorney general and justice minister, Abubacarr Tambadou, visited a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, with a delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The stories of mass murder and rape he heard there called to mind his decade working as a prosecutor at the United Nations tribunal to try those responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Peter Dejong/AP
Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, right, and Yasmin Ullah of the Rohingya community, left, react outside the International Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 23, 2020, after the court ordered Myanmar take all measures in its power to prevent genocide against the Rohingya.

“I saw genocide written all over these stories,” he recalled in an interview with Reuters last year.

With the OIC’s backing, Mr. Tambadou’s office filed a lawsuit at the ICJ, the United Nations’ top court, in November last year, alleging that Myanmar had committed genocide against the Rohingya and asking that the court order the country to protect the group from further persecution. Myanmar has acknowledged war crimes, but repeatedly denied that genocide took place. 

Because every U.N. member state has equal standing in the ICJ, it didn’t matter that Gambia was much smaller than Myanmar, or far from its borders. All that mattered, Ms. Maunganidze notes, was the strength of the case it assembled from UN reports and other investigations into the violence.

But for Gambia, the case was also personal.

“Twenty-two years of a brutal dictatorship has taught us how to use our voice,” Mr. Tambadou told Reuters, referring to the rule of former President Yahya Jammeh, who was at last ousted from power in the country’s 2016 election. “We know too well how it feels like to be unable to tell your story to the world, to be unable to share your pain in the hope that someone out there will hear and help.”

Mr. Jammeh’s repressive rule, which included the killings and common arrests of anti-government activists, journalists, and other members of the opposition, was all the more painful for what preceded it.

In the first two decades of its independence, which it won in 1965, Gambia had been a regional human rights leader, notes Oumar Ba, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta who studies international criminal justice. Under its then-president Dawda Jawara, Gambia hosted the experts assigned to draft an African human rights charter, which eventually became the 1981 Banjul Charter. Since the late 1980s, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has been based in Banjul, Gambia’s capital.   

Gambia’s role in shaping the continent’s human rights record was abruptly interrupted in 1994, when Mr. Jammeh overthrew Mr. Jawara in a military coup. For the next 22 years, Gambians suffered “a whole range of human rights violations,” according to a report by Amnesty International, “including unlawful detention, torture while in detention, unfair trials, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions.”

“Right now the government of Gambia is trying to retake that mantel and go back to that position of leadership that it had in the region before Jammeh took power,” Professor Ba says.

Gambia’s stand is not without complications. In recent months, the country’s president, Adama Barrow, has faced repeated criticism for reneging on a promise to step down from office after three years, and for a violent crackdown on protests calling for him to step down, which left dozens wounded.

The contradiction between the Gambia’s international stand and its domestic troubles “is a tension within the state itself,” Ms. Maunganidze says. Like any country, the Gambia’s government is not a monolith, and contains both officials who support its leadership in international human rights and others for whom it is far less important. But crucially, she notes, “the fact that the process proceeded the way it did means it wasn’t blocked, even if it wasn’t something everyone in government agreed with.”   

The ICJ’s order is provisional, but orders Myanmar’s government to take emergency measures to protect the Rohingya while the case continues, and to preserve any evidence connected to the allegations of genocide. The case itself could take years to formally decide, and Myanmar may flout the orders. 

But from the perspective of international justice, Gambia’s stand at the ICJ is still important, says Ms. Maunganidze, even beyond Myanmar’s specific case.

“This case could serve as a precedent for forcing states to take action on genocide,” she says. “That is significant in its own right.”

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3. German conservatives resist wind power, but not for reasons you’d think

In the U.S., resistance to renewable energy sources is often grounded in doubts about climate change. But in Germany, conservative citizens’ groups see wind farms as the wrong solution to a real problem.

Yvonne
Michael Probst/AP
Wind turbines on a hill are surrounded by fog and clouds near Frankfurt, Germany, on Jan. 6, 2020.

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Germany is relying on renewable energy to help meet its goals of ending domestic nuclear power generation by 2022 and coal by 2038. But there is pushback against some alternative energy – wind energy in particular – as nearly 1,000 citizens’ initiatives have sprung up all over Germany to gum up the renewable rollout.

But unlike conservative resistance to alternative energy in the United States, German activists aren’t so much opposed to renewable energy in principle as they are to its current practice. They want to be heard on how sources like wind power are used and deployed in their communities.

Rainer Ebeling, the spokesman for the citizens’ initiative against wind farms in the district of Crussow, feels politicians have ignored communities like his as they negotiated Germany’s energy future. He doesn’t support coal use, which “destroys the environment,” nor is he against wind, he says. He simply feels that wind power is a less than fully effective choice.

Further, Mr. Ebeling says, the energy debate has moved away from the original goal of reducing CO2. “We have around 30,000 wind parks, and so far the CO2 levels have not been reduced.”

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German conservatives resist wind power, but not for reasons you’d think

The winter cold was biting, the black night illuminated only by flashlight and streetlamp, but still the group gathered at their tiny town square.

They were scientists and engineers, local shopkeepers and retired teachers, all determined to keep wind companies out of a nearby forest. The group shuns the word “activist,” but no word better describes how they’ve been able to slow the progress of wind power in this part of rural Germany for more than a decade.

“Nature is gone. There are no birds to be heard. We cannot eat money,” blares music from a speaker held by Erika Otto, who wrote the lyrics. Illuminated by the orange-yellow glare of a streetlamp, a scientist stepped into the circle and spoke about wind turbines’ “low efficiency.”

“The damage done to the earth by wind parks is irreversible,” announced Waltraud Plarre, an unofficial group leader of this citizens’ initiative, named “Save Brandenburg” after the state in which Schwielowsee lies. Later, Ms. Plarre pointed out that Germany exports most wind power produced, even as energy prices for the consumer have skyrocketed. “It’s insanity.”

Without renewables, Germany will be unable to meet goals set by parliament decreeing no nuclear power generation by 2022, and no coal by 2038. The European Union’s Green New Deal – which aims for net-zero carbon emissions or the world’s second largest economy by 2050 – is more ambitious than the U.S. version. It’s also celebrated as potentially achievable.

But even as concerns about climate change are reaching fever pitch, nearly 1,000 such citizens’ initiatives like “Save Brandenburg” have sprung up all over Germany to gum up the renewable rollout. And unlike conservative resistance to alternative energy in the United States, German activists aren’t so much opposed to renewable energy in principle as they are to its current practice. They want to be heard on how sources like wind power are used and deployed in their communities.

“They didn’t approach the people at all,” says Rainer Ebeling, a fervent anti-wind voice who lives just outside Berlin. “And, the federal government tells us we don’t have alternatives other than wind. But that’s not the case.”

Frustration with the wind

The quest for renewable energy has gotten off to a rocky start in Germany, despite a strong, high-quality supply chain and ambitious policy targets.

It’s not enough to simply declare policy goals pushing fossil fuels out the door; you need renewables to replace it, analysts say.

“We need not only phase-out, but phase in,” said Matthias Zelinger, energy policy spokesperson for VDMA, Europe’s largest engineering industry association. “We have serious problems. We are no longer in the front-runners.”

Germany’s next moves are important for the global energy sector, says energy economist Andreas Löschel, chair of a commission advising the German government on the energy transition. Germany is the first industrial, coal-reliant country to declare it will move out of coal. And German standards – in the construction and auto industries, for example – have a way of setting the standard for industry in Europe, he says, if not the rest of the world.

But wind energy’s regulatory environment has been stifling. Getting permits for wind and solar installations can take three to five years, or even longer when projects draw the attention of local activists such as those in Schwielowsee.

As a result, capacity-building in Germany’s wind industry has stalled. In 2018 only about 750 onshore wind turbines were installed, a drop of about half from the previous year, with installations in 2019 and 2020 expected to notch in even lower. Solar hasn’t proved a reliable alternative, and Germany will shut down its last nuclear power plant in 2022.

That’s compelling investors to apply outside Germany to install projects, says Mr. Zelinger. A rising public sentiment against wind is taking hold, not only via the citizens’ initiatives but also, in some cases, via government.

Last year, a district in the Saale-Orla region of Germany, where the far-right draws significant political power, offered €2,000 ($2,170) per initiative to fund investigations of the environmental effects of wind projects. The highly unusual proposal to scrutinize renewable energy drew national media attention in Germany, and seven applications were made, according to the district administrative office.

“What are the country’s energy goals?”

Renewables might be more acceptable if the people most affected rolled out the welcome mat. It’s about, Mr. Zelinger says, striking the right balance between “the needs of local communities and the global good.” One possible solution to the community issue, he suggests: “Everyone who ‘sees’ a windmill should get electricity for free.”

Mr. Ebeling is one of those. He’s lived in the same house for nearly 40 years. For decades he had a pristine view of the neighboring national park, but now his house is surrounded by windmills. He sees 25 out the east-facing window, and another 10 or so out the other side.

Mr. Ebeling feels politicians have ignored communities like his as they negotiated Germany’s energy future.

He doesn’t support coal use, which “destroys the environment,” nor is he against wind, he says. He simply feels that wind power is a less than fully effective choice, which Germany has embraced without researching its effects – or the alternatives. Further, Mr. Ebeling says, the energy debate has moved away from the original goal of reducing CO2. “We have around 30,000 wind parks, and so far the CO2 levels have not been reduced,” he says.

That brings up the activists’ main point. They want the debate to get back to fundamental questions: What are the country’s energy goals? What’s the best way to get there? “But we’re not breaking through to the politicians with our arguments,” Mr. Ebeling says.

Back in Schwielowsee at the anti-wind protest, the group began to disperse as the black night got even darker. These aren’t the “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, advocates of yesteryear, who spoke of altered seascapes and turbine blades that failed to turn when the wind idled. This new, anti-wind movement in Germany gathers people of all stripes who speak knowledgeably of topics such as carbon sequestration, groundwater recharge rates, and negative market prices. Their arguments come at wind from all sides, as they rattle off export statistics and efficiency percentages.

Günter Rauhut says other renewables pack more punch. “Hydropower is a small horse, but it has a lot of power. It’s extremely effective,” says the retired engineer, who contends politicians need to examine other options.

Their efforts – town-square protests, lobbying, and meeting with politicians – have paid off in ways big and small. In Schwielowsee, the energy company Prokon’s efforts to build a large wind park failed, a plan for 18 wind turbines had been reduced to seven, and an official two-year wind-power moratorium has gone into effect. Still, says Ms. Plarre, the organizer, there’s more work to do – Notus Energy has submitted an application to build those seven turbines in 2022, and the city council approved the development contract, which is an important first step.

“I am not a lobbyist for nuclear power,” she says. “I’m simply suggesting that there are new methods and alternatives that don’t have the same consequences [as wind parks].”

Karen Norris/Staff
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4. What do babies and warring groups have in common? Altruism.

Kindness is often considered something that humans have to learn. But displays of altruism in surprising places suggest there’s more to the story.

Yvonne

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Where does altruism come from? Two studies published last week suggest kindness may be more deeply embedded in humans than previously thought. 

One study found that 19-month-old babies will spontaneously share fruit with an unfamiliar adult, even if the babies were hungry. In the other study researchers examined cooperation in the scarce and often violent environments of northwest Kenyan pastoralists. 

Both studies complicate the view that human nature is inherently selfish, revealing the complex roles that culture and social learning play in cultivating the cooperative traits of our species.

“The pendulum tends to swing in human knowledge,” says Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. “The weight of the evidence is increasingly on the side of humans and many animals being very, very cooperative and altruistic in many ways.”

The research suggests that human altruism is conditioned by both nature and nurture.

“We need to understand [cooperation] in its complexity,” says Sarah Mathew, an assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. “Our capacity for culture is the product of genetic evolution.”

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What do babies and warring groups have in common? Altruism.

Infants, it seems safe to say, are pretty selfish. They scream at you when you don’t give them attention. They reflexively grab everything – Dad’s teacup, Mom’s eyeglasses, Fluffy’s tail – within the reach of their chubby little arms. They demand to be held all the time. And, just when you think you’ve finally put them down for a nap, they start screaming again.

It’s no wonder, then, that the viewpoint that humans are essentially self-interested has enjoyed such popular support over the centuries. But that perspective may be waning. And human kindness might be more deeply rooted than previously thought. A pair of studies published last week reveal altruism in surprising places: among babies and frequently warring groups.

“In the ‘80s and the ‘90s, there was an emphasis on highlighting the competitive side of human nature,” says Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. “But the pendulum tends to swing in human knowledge. And so now ... I do think that the weight of the evidence is increasingly on the side of humans – and many animals – being very, very cooperative and altruistic in many ways.”

As for babies, they might not be as selfish as they first seem. 

Dr. Barragan is the lead author of a study that looks at altruism among these drooling, tiny humans. He and his colleagues presented tasty, kid-friendly fruit – bananas, blueberries, and half-grapes – to hungry 19-month-olds. When they were paired with an unfamiliar adult who appeared hungry, more than half of them shared it with the stranger.

“[The babies] clearly were fascinated by the fruit. They were drooling all over it,” he says. “But, of course, many of them still shared.”

This study expands on earlier work that reveals that babies as young as 18 months will, with very little prompting, open a door for unfamiliar grownups or retrieve an item that they dropped. Humans, it seems, become cued in to the apparent needs of others nearly from the get-go.

But is it genes? Or culture? 

Today, a huge swath of apparently selfless acts in animals – from honeybee martyrdom to bat friendship – can be explained from a “gene’s-eye view,” from the perspective of chemical arrangements on DNA molecules whose sole purpose is to copy themselves. Evolutionary biologists often talk about altruism falling into two different camps. First there’s “kin selection,” in which apparent kindness to relatives helps promote your common genes. Then there’s “reciprocal altruism,” in which a tit for tat “you remove the insects from my back and I’ll remove the insects from yours” policy undergirds relationships between nonrelatives, or even among unrelated species. 

This gene-centered perspective often suggests a dim view of our innate moral faculties. As Richard Dawkins put it in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene,” “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

But in recent years, scientists like Dr. Barragan have been taking a closer look at our species’s assumed selfishness. And it seems we may have more of a propensity for kindness and cooperation than previously thought.  

Some observers have taken studies like his to mean that humans are inherently generous, that, alongside our selfish genes that promote cooperation only when it maximizes chances of replicating, we possess a “selfless gene” that encourages kindness.

Or maybe not. Dr. Barragan and his colleagues, whose study appeared last Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports, found that not all of the infants were equal sharers. Those with siblings, the study found, were more likely to share than only children were. Babies from Asian and Latino families were also more likely to share. Compared with Europeans, these cultures are considered relatively “interdependent,” says Dr. Barragan.

“It’s very clear that some infants were more ready to help,” he says. “We don’t ascribe that to a genetic reason. We ascribe it to social experience.”

We seem to be the only species to routinely share high-value resources with strangers without an experimental mechanism, says Dr. Barragan. Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, don’t readily share food like this, and certainly not with strangers. 

None of this is to deny that our species’ distinct capacity for altruism is an evolved trait. But culture plays an essential role in making it happen. 

“We’re all pastoralists”

Extraordinary acts of cooperation can emerge even in some of the world’s most challenging environments.

In northwest Kenya, life among itinerant livestock farmers is marked by violence. As land suitable for grazing vanishes due to climate change, they engage in dangerous armed cattle raids. But amid this deprivation and intergroup warfare, researchers have also counted acts of cooperation and altruism.

“It’s very hard to point to and to count and to be very empirical about the subtle ways that, on an everyday basis, we are cooperative,” says anthropologist Carla Handley, who has studied people in the region for 15 years. Her team at Arizona State University measured genetic relatedness and cultural variation across nine different clans spanning four ethnic groups in Kenya. Their findings were published in Nature Communications, also last Tuesday.

For instance, Dr. Handley says that members of the Borana people will sometimes approach members of one of their frequent antagonists, the Samburu people, to request water and pasture for their cattle. 

“‘At the end of the day,’ people say, ‘we are all pastoralists,’” says Dr. Handley. “‘We suffer thirst in the same way. We all suffer hunger in the same way.’”

Finding common ground

This kind of complex, multilayered altruism – in which some resources, but not others, are shared depending on various cultural markers – cannot be explained entirely via kin selection, say the researchers. And, because these interactions are transient and with strangers, they can’t be entirely accounted for by a reciprocal altruism model, either.

Instead, the researchers propose that cultural group selection can explain our species’s unique propensity for altruism.

Cultural group selection posits that, as groups compete with one another, cultural norms that give a group a competitive edge will arise, and, much in the same way that beneficial physical traits are reinforced through competition, there might be a genetic basis. One of those cultural norms is cooperation.

“We need to understand it in its complexity,” says Sarah Mathew, an assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. “Our capacity for culture is the product of genetic evolution.”

If humanity’s propensity for altruism was forged by intergroup competition, say the researchers, this could explain why, across cultures, humans feel obliged to cooperate with nonrelatives, so long as they exhibit the same cultural norms. 

Our species’s cooperative dispositions, narrow as they may be, can be leveraged to address global problems like climate change, suggests Dr. Handley. The key, she says, is to find the universals.

“There are commonalities that can serve as stepping stones to bettering ourselves and solving large-scale issues,” she says. “That gives me hope.”

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On Film

5. Is another version of Austen’s ‘Emma’ worth your time? Yes.

With modern gender dynamics in perpetual flux, the old rules for making movie romances no longer have quite the same sway, suggests film critic Peter Rainer. Many of the more memorable recent romantic movies are set not in the incendiary present, he says, but in the past. The new “Emma” joins their company.

Yvonne
Focus Features/Courtesy of Box Hill Films
Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Emma in the latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel about misguided affections.
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Is another version of Austen’s ‘Emma’ worth your time? Yes.

How fitting that a new movie version of Jane Austen’s “Emma” should appear around Valentine’s Day. I don’t mean to trivialize Austen, whose comprehension of the human comedy went far beyond greeting card platitudes. But she might well have approved of the timing, if only because “Emma” is one of her most ardent tributes to love’s dizzying permutations.

Directed by Autumn de Wilde, in her feature debut, and scripted by Man Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton, this latest movie adaptation sustains a consistent note of measured mirth. As in the novel, the romantic flippancies have a serious core because at stake is nothing less than the prospect of an enduring happiness.

Spoiled, vain 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), who adores her doddering father (Bill Nighy), fancies herself a matchmaker and so she intrudes to often disastrous effect in the lives of those she most dotes upon. She single-handedly persuades her meek protégé Harriet (Mia Goth) to spurn the welcome proposal of a lovesick farmer in the expectation that a finer catch, the fatuous Reverend Elton (Josh O’Connor), will come through. But Elton, to Emma’s astonished dismay, has eyes only for Emma. And so it goes.

When the equally fine 1996 adaptation of Austen’s novel starring Gwyneth Paltrow came out, I wrote that, despite her impositions, to reject Emma is to reject a large measure of our own blundering selves, the part for which we perhaps have the tenderest feelings. Emma exists as a force of nature, and since we recognize so much of her nature in ourselves, our response to her has a solicitous, protective quality. We are placed in the position of her several suitors: We want to see her happy. 

It’s to de Wilde and Catton’s credit that this aspect of the novel comes through undiminished. There have been other respectable “Emma” adaptations, including several for British TV. But I am most fond of Amy Heckerling’s savvy “Clueless,” with Alicia Silverstone as Cher, a Beverly Hills Emma adrift in the malls. My favorites among the scores of other Austen movies – not the least because they best capture the Austen spirit – are Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility,” scripted by and starring Emma Thompson; the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice” with Keira Knightley as a touching, scrappy Elizabeth Bennet; the 1995 BBC version featuring Colin Firth, the thinking woman’s hunk, as Mr. Darcy; and the 1940 version, co-written by Aldous Huxley, with Laurence Olivier in full syllable-splitting mode as Darcy. (The ad line for that film – “When pretty girls t-e-a-s-e-d men into marriage!” – is a promo I am fairly sure Austen would not have approved of.)

One of the pleasures of the new “Emma” is, let’s face it, its retroness. With modern gender dynamics in perpetual, divisive flux, the old rules for making movie romances no longer have quite the same sway. This flux presents a necessary challenge for a new generation of filmmakers who have come up through the #MeToo era, a challenge that, for the most part, has yet to be met. It’s perhaps no accident that the most acclaimed coupling in contemporary movies is not between humans. It’s between Sally Hawkins’ cleaning lady and the fish-gill creature in “The Shape of Water.”  

Many of the more memorable recent romantic movies are set not in the incendiary present but in the past, such as “Little Women,” particularly the scenes between Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet; or “La La Land,” which takes place in a swoony present that is made to seem like the past; or “A Star Is Born,” which revamps an oft-remade war horse. I can’t think of a more piercing romantic film in recent years than “Brooklyn,” set in the 1950s, with Ronan as a homesick Irish immigrant attempting to reconcile the confusions of her ardor.

The intricacies of romantic emotion reside in these films. The new “Emma” joins their company. Jane Austen speaks to us as clearly now as she did some 200 years ago. Maybe what is retro isn’t so retro after all. 

(Rated PG for brief partial nudity.)

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The Monitor's View

Justice for Darfur, healing for Sudan

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Once in the global spotlight for mass atrocities, Sudan signaled this week that it would turn over its ousted dictator, Omar al-Bashir, to the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed during his 30-year reign. A decade ago, Mr. Bashir was the first sitting president indicted by the ICC. He was also the first leader charged with genocide. If tried and convicted, his case would help affirm the court’s role as a global dispenser of universal justice for the worst of crimes.

Yet just as important, Sudan’s transitional governing council is in a race to sign peace pacts with rebel movements long suppressed by Mr. Bashir, especially in Darfur. That western region suffered the most under his rule following a 2003 insurgency. For all the innocent people in Darfur and other regions, said council member Mohamed Hassan al-Taishi, “we cannot achieve justice and heal wounds” unless those indicted by the ICC appear before the court. In other words, an international trial of Mr. Bashir would help speed up the process of reconciliation among Sudan’s 40 million people.

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Justice for Darfur, healing for Sudan

Once in the global spotlight for mass atrocities, Sudan signaled this week that it would turn over its ousted dictator, Omar al-Bashir, to the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed during his 30-year reign. A decade ago, Mr. Bashir was the first sitting president indicted by the ICC. He was also the first leader charged with genocide. If tried and convicted, his case would help affirm the court’s role as a global dispenser of universal justice for the worst of crimes. It would send a message to dictators everywhere.

Yet while that significance is worth pointing out, Sudan itself has another reason to let an international court in The Hague put Mr. Bashir on the docket – one that points to a core reason for justice.

Yes, a fledgling new government in Africa’s third-largest country admits that its own courts might not be ready to try the former leader fairly. Many judges were appointed by Mr. Bashir. And the still-powerful military may not want a domestic airing of its role in war crimes. The military has a hand in the 11-member transitional council trying to kick-start democracy, less than a year after a peaceful uprising led to Mr. Bashir’s ouster.

More importantly, the transitional council is in a race to sign peace pacts with rebel movements long suppressed by Mr. Bashir, especially in Darfur. That western region suffered the most under his rule following a 2003 insurgency. More than 300,000 people were killed and some 2.5 million Darfurians were forced to flee. Several ethnic groups were targeted for elimination.

For all the innocent people in Darfur and other regions, said council member Mohamed Hassan al-Taishi, “we cannot achieve justice and heal wounds” unless those indicted by the ICC appear before the court. In other words, an international trial of Mr. Bashir would help speed up the process of reconciliation among Sudan’s 40 million people.

One of the council’s five “pillars” for achieving peace in Sudan is an accountability for past human rights abuses. Once Mr. Bashir is before the ICC, a great measure of justice is assured. And along with it, national healing might be better assured.

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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.

Thinking for ourselves

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How can we challenge the tendency to follow or believe something unthinkingly? By turning directly to God, the divine Mind that invigorates thought with fresh inspiration, wisdom, and even healing.

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Thinking for ourselves

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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“The time for thinkers has come.”

These words written over 100 years ago by Mary Baker Eddy in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” (p. vii) characterized Christian Science not as a dogmatic religion but as a movement to awaken and revolutionize thought.

Yet religious practice has not always roused, awakened, or revolutionized how we think about God, but has often closed minds and dulled thought. So we each must consider in what ways we might be accepting various forms of dogma and rote ways of thinking – and how we can be alert to challenge the tendency to follow anything unthinkingly in our hearts and minds.

The radical solution that Christian Science offers to these tendencies relates to the origin of thought. Fundamentally, Science identifies good, constructive ideas as originating in a divine consciousness, or divine Mind, the one consciousness of the universe. Each one of us reflects this divine Mind, or universal divine consciousness.

Even though it feels as though we go through life with our own personal mind that is influenced by other personal minds – sometimes with inspiration and sometimes with negativity – and even though each day’s news seems to parade before us developments of a bunch of evil minds doing bad things in the world, the fact is, there is only one source of actual thought: the one Mind that is the only consciousness. How do we begin to realize this and make it practical in our experience?

Consider this incisive observation about God by the discoverer of Christian Science: “As mortals awake from their dream of material sensation, this adorable, all-inclusive God, and all earth’s hieroglyphics of Love, are understood; and infinite Mind is seen kindling the stars, rolling the worlds, reflecting all space and Life, – but not life in matter. Wisely governing, informing the universe, this Mind is Truth, – not laws of matter. Infinitely just, merciful, and wise, this Mind is Love, – but not fallible love” (Mary Baker Eddy, “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” pp. 331-332).

Can you hear in this passage how the fundamental concept of thinking for ourselves is yielding to the direction and governance of the one divine Mind? Key to this yielding is knowing the essential unity of God, divine Mind, and Mind’s ideas, each one of us.

One primary way to experience this unity with God is to keep yielding to all real thought as originating with God, or divine goodness. Our work is to discern between thoughts that are unlike God and thoughts that come from the divine influence in consciousness, or the divine Mind. This divine Mind is the only Mind we have, and it impels us to become more familiar with the qualities of true consciousness.

The radical nature of thinking for ourselves has roots in Christ Jesus’ teachings. His revolutionary ideas turned upside down and inside out the predominant thinking of the time, and they continue to awaken us today. To seek first the kingdom of heaven and know that all human needs will be met (see Matthew 6:31-33) is to first commune with God and then see how this transforms our experience, inside and out, one heart at a time.

As we explore Jesus’ teachings, we find that his point about seeking God’s heavenly kingdom was preceded by inviting listeners to rethink their sense of divinity (see Matthew 4:17). He taught that anyone could pray and engage directly with God, rather than just accepting what others said about God. We can each trust God for every need.

Prayer along these lines, then, is an active and individual engagement with God. It is not an unthinking repetition of words that somehow calls forth something beyond our imagination. It is to feel and experience the divine presence right with us. This is what brings healing and transformation to our lives and helps us see how our needs can be met.

The tendency of the human mind is to look to an expert, a guru, or someone knowledgeable separate from ourselves that we can follow for wisdom and assistance. But as Jesus showed, it is the direct encounter with God that changes us. While support from others can help move thought forward, it is in feeling directly God’s presence that we find peace and, ultimately, healing.

Adapted from an editorial published in the Dec. 16, 2019, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

When life gives you lemons

Eric Gaillard/Reuters
A sculpture made with lemons and oranges is seen during the 87th Lemon Festival around the theme "Parties around the world" in Menton, France, Feb. 13, 2020.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( February 14th, 2020 )

Thanks for joining us today. Tomorrow, we’ll have a story about Dallas’ innocence detectives – two exonerated men dedicated to getting people out of prison who, like them, should never have been there in the first place. 

Also a quick correction: We ran a series of graphics on renewable energy adoption on Feb. 3 that included an incorrect unit of measure for a graph highlighting renewables in Texas. The correct unit is megawatt hours.

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February 13, 2020
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