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There came a point when Veronica Quiroga realized she could do more. A senior at Fordham University in New York last year, Ms. Quiroga saw her beloved Bronx devastated by the pandemic. So she did what she thought she could do best: She gave her neighbors a voice.
The result was the Bronx COVID-19 Oral History Project, and the Monitor talked with Ms. Quiroga this week about the inspiration and insight she found along the way. The webinar is part of our Finding Resilience project, and you can watch it here.
For Ms. Quiroga, the realization of her own power and agency came with a broader sense of healing, she tells me. “The healing of my own self during a time of uncertainty, adversity, and grief resulted in me partnering with individuals who undoubtedly all wanted to offer a space of ‘recovery’ for Bronxites.” The project gave those who participated not only a space for their grief, but also a venue to speak of the remarkable compassion, community, and resilience expressed. It just took a decision “to actively participate in the history that I had cared so much to preserve and protect,” Ms. Quiroga says.
One goal of our events is to inspire action. We’d love to hear your stories of how moments of transformation have helped you bring healing and resilience to your communities, helping to uplift others. Please send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be sure to share them.
There’s no simple way to close Guantanamo Bay. According to one former prosecutor, political courage may be the key to justice in this case.
The Biden administration wants to shutter Guantanamo Bay, but how to do that remains unclear.
Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, military commission proceedings for the plotters are still in the pretrial phase. The earliest estimate for a 9/11 trial to begin is 2024.
Some fault the military courts for being ineffective. Only eight convictions have been won in the past two decades – half of which were overturned. Federal courts, by contrast, have secured more than 660 terrorism convictions since 9/11. The trials for the Benghazi attacks were conducted in federal court, for example, with guilty charges for all.
Others fault the military courts for being unjust. Air Force officer Omar Ashmawy, a former prosecutor of Guantanamo detainees, is among them.
Even if the worst-case scenario happened, he says, it would be worth suspending military commissions and trying the cases in federal court. “Maybe some of them get acquitted. Maybe they return to the battlefield,” he says. “But if we cannot try these individuals with the protection that we would expect to give to ourselves and our own citizens, then they shouldn’t be tried. They should be released.”
“Indefinite confinement, without any meaningful rights, is simply too damaging to the soul of the U.S.,” he concludes.
When Omar Ashmawy, then a United States Air Force officer, volunteered for the job of prosecuting Guantanamo Bay detainees in 2007, he had high hopes for America’s prospects of dispensing justice.
“I believed in the idea that military tribunals historically have been a way for nation-states to resolve crimes against humanity, and I think terrorism very much qualifies as a crime against humanity,” he says.
The Supreme Court had recently ruled that the Bush administration’s process for trying terrorist suspects violated their rights – as well as the Geneva Conventions – by, among other things, barring defendants from viewing the evidence against them. That was a promising development, he thought.
At the same time, someone he “very much respected” was the Defense Department’s chief prosecutor at the time. “If that individual was willing to put his name behind the process, then that was something I was comfortable doing as well.”
But just a few weeks after Mr. Ashmawy reported for duty, that same individual resigned in protest, saying he no longer believed that fair trials for the suspects were possible.
“I guess if there was any moment that drove home my concerns, it was that one – but it was really just the beginning,” he says. “It was a slow, incremental revelation that the more you saw behind the curtain, the less you really could trust the process. I went in thinking I could do good.” As time went on, he concluded that he was “more or less assisting a system that was not geared towards doing what it was arguably set up to do.”
Public statements of disillusionment like Mr. Ashmawy’s have long been a catalyst in demands to shut down the detention center, which critics argue is an ugly stain on the democratic ideals of the United States – particularly when coupled with the documented torture of those held there.
The Biden administration wants to shutter the prison. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers in advance of his January confirmation hearings that he believes it should be closed, adding that he would “direct my staff to work with other administration officials to develop a path forward for the remaining” detainees.
Despite there being no obvious path forward for some of the prisoners – most of whom have been held for 20 years without trial – the administration appears to be working quietly to move them out of Guantanamo and turn the page on what many see as a failure of justice.
“There definitely are things going on behind the scenes, names that have been given to me of different people who are taking different pieces of it,” says Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham University School of Law’s Center on National Security.
While former President Barack Obama put closing the prison at the center of his platform, only to see his marquee goal thwarted over the course of his two terms, President Joe Biden has held his plan close to the vest.
“I understand the preference for doing this quietly, rather than with a lot of fanfare, and I think that’s right. It’s the lesson from Obama: the quieter the better,” says Dr. Greenberg.
“Just in terms of the size of the population, it’s a small bus of people,” adds Michel Paradis, a senior attorney for the Department of Defense who is regularly appointed to represent Guantanamo Bay detainees. “You can figure that out.”
The population of the detention center has been reduced from some 675 in its heyday in 2003 to 39 today. Ten more detainees have been cleared for release, provided the White House can find other countries willing to take them and adhere to U.S. surveillance requirements. An additional 17 are eligible for evaluation by a periodic review board to determine whether they can be transferred, if they are not found to pose “a continuing significant threat” to the U.S.
At the same time, 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, military commission proceedings for the plotters are still in the pretrial phase. After a 17-month pause during the coronavirus pandemic, jury selection – meant to start last January – has not yet gotten underway. The earliest estimate for a 9/11 trial to begin is 2024.
Some are wondering why the trials are plodding ahead at all. Aside from their myriad delays and well-documented legal shortcomings, military courts have garnered just eight convictions in the past two decades – half of which have been overturned – at a total cost, in operations and trials, of more than $6 billion.
Federal courts, by contrast, have secured more than 660 terrorism convictions since 9/11 – including more than 110 in which the defendant was captured abroad – with a conviction rate upward of 90%. The trials for the Benghazi attacks of 2012 were conducted in federal court, for example, with guilty charges for all and “almost no fanfare,” Dr. Paradis says.
“The idea that you couldn’t mount a successful, just, and transparent trial of the alleged 9/11 plotters in federal courts is just belied” by these figures, he notes. “The civil libertarian in me has anxiety on this point, but it’s actually not that hard to convict people” of terrorism in America. “These federal crimes are written extremely broadly.”
But federal trials have not been an option, since lawmakers have for years woven prohibitions barring the Pentagon from bringing suspects to U.S. soil into the annual defense budget.
Last month, however, the House version of the $768 billion 2022 National Defense Authorization Act ended this ban with a bipartisan vote.
The Senate still needs to pass its own version of the bill, which currently includes the prohibition. And eight Republican senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas and James Inhofe of Iowa, wrote a letter in May to Mr. Biden expressing concern that “the 40 remaining detainees are all high risk.”
Federal prisons holding them would be enticing terrorist targets, lawmakers have argued. “Consider the propaganda value for ISIS if it successfully sprang a hardened Gitmo terrorist on American soil,” Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania said in a 2016 hearing. “Anyone who thinks this is impossible is suffering from, as the 9/11 Commission put it, a ‘failure of imagination.’ ”
Major County Sheriffs of America, which represents sheriff’s offices from the largest counties, has weighed in as well, warning that “detainees deemed too dangerous to release should not be brought to the homeland where they will pose a threat to the local communities we serve.”
Such “pearl clutching” concerns that Guantanamo Bay detainees could not be safely held in a federal prison are “ludicrous,” Dr. Paradis says. The U.S. houses “more and worse people in regular prisons every day.”
The men are also 20 hard years older; Trump-era renovation plans for Guantanamo Bay include provisions for wheelchair ramps. “So the idea that we have to be worried about two dozen individuals as if they were somehow the X-Men is propaganda,” Dr. Paradis adds. “It’s fear-mongering.”
Yet even if the worst-case scenario happened, it would be worth suspending military commissions altogether and trying the cases in federal court, says Mr. Ashmawy, the Air Force prosecutor. “Maybe some of them get acquitted. Maybe they return to the battlefield,” he says. “But if we cannot try these individuals with the protection that we would expect to give to ourselves and our own citizens, then they shouldn’t be tried. They should be released.”
He pauses. “That’s a very difficult thing to say, because it comes with a certain sacrifice – but the prison at Guantanamo Bay is an unsolvable problem unless someone is going to make a decision to accept a level of political risk.”
To date, the Biden administration has shown this sort of “political courage and an incredible ability to ignore the criticism that’s tied to these old and stale debates – to take the hard knocks” in places like Afghanistan, for example, Dr. Paradis says.
Such willingness to take on political and even physical risk is vital for democracy, says Mr. Ashmawy, a first-generation American whose father is from Egypt and mother from Italy. “I always felt like our family experience was very blessed, and I wanted to do something to give back to this country. The military seemed to me like the best way to do that.”
Yet his experience prosecuting Guantanamo Bay detainees for military commissions convinced Mr. Ashmawy that it’s not a process worthy of the America he admires. This view crystallized for him after he secured a guilty verdict in August 2008 against Osama bin Laden’s personal driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan.
The military jury concluded that he provided material support to Al Qaeda, but acquitted him of terrorism conspiracy charges. Mr. Hamdan was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison, with credit for the five years he’d already served at Guantanamo Bay.
Then came the twist. “An official statement was made that whatever his sentence by a military jury, it didn’t matter,” Mr. Ashmawy recalls. A Pentagon spokesman said that even after Mr. Hamdan had completed his sentence, the DOD could continue to classify him as an enemy combatant and detain him indefinitely. “The longer this charade has continued, the easier the decision was in my mind [to stop prosecuting detainees],” Mr. Ashmawy says. “I mean, how much longer are we going to hold them? Forty years? It’s already been 20. Is the plan to hold them until they die?”
It’s a question that emerged this week in the first case involving a Guantanamo Bay detainee heard by the Supreme Court in more than a decade. The detainee known as Abu Zubaydah challenged U.S. government efforts to block testimony about torture at secret CIA “black sites.” The treatment of Mr. Zubaydah – including intensive waterboarding and being locked in what was essentially a coffin for hundreds of hours – was among the most appalling revelations in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 report. The CIA ultimately concluded that Mr. Zubaydah “was not a member of Al Qaeda,” yet he has remained in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay. “I don’t understand why he’s still there after 14 years,” Justice Stephen Breyer said during oral arguments Wednesday.
Mr. Hamdan, for his part, was transferred to Yemen in November 2008 and released under supervision by the government there in January 2009. In 2012, his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and he was acquitted of all charges.
This move was to the credit of the U.S. federal courts, Mr. Ashmawy says. “Indefinite confinement, without any meaningful rights,” he adds, “is simply too damaging to the soul of the U.S. to accept.”
Editor's note: An editing error in Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's quote has been corrected.
Afghan midwives occupy a rare nexus that is a conundrum for the Taliban: The job requires educated women to perform lifesaving work that the Taliban will not allow a male doctor to do.
Midwifery has made impressive gains in Afghanistan, once one of the most dangerous countries in the world to give birth. The rate of maternal deaths dropped from 1,600 per 100,000 live births in 2002, to 638 in 2017.
But since the archconservative Taliban returned to power in mid-August, the nation’s midwives have confronted difficult challenges, including a lack of pay, difficulty in safely getting to work, and uncertainty that the Taliban worldview will accept the midwives working – and the advanced education their profession requires.
There are glimmers of hope. The United Nations’ agency for reproductive health operates 172 “family health houses” in 10 of Afghanistan’s remotest provinces. In 2020 alone, those facilities conducted more than 11,000 safe deliveries, and a further 9,500 in the first six months of 2021. The agency hopes to expand its operations, though funding for even its existing work is now in doubt.
But will the midwives’ success ensure Taliban acceptance? That may not be easy, says Heather Barr at Human Rights Watch.
“The Taliban need midwives, or at least their wives and children and daughters need midwives,” she says. But she adds: “I think [the Taliban are] entirely capable of saying, ‘It’s more important to enforce rules that limit women’s freedom of movement than to reduce maternal and infant mortality.’”
After years of saving the lives of Afghan mothers and their newborn babies, the veteran midwife was shocked this week when a long-haired Taliban commander and two fighters entered the clinic where she worked in a remote corner of southeast Afghanistan.
The Taliban insulted the staff, saying women “have no right to go out or work at all” and that their freedoms of the last 20 years – being educated, working in offices, “attending meetings with men,” and going out without a male guardian – had “ruined Afghanistan.”
“Midwives are not necessary in society, because death is in the hands of God, and only God can save mothers’ lives,” railed the Taliban commander, according to the midwife in Paktika province, who asked not to be named for her safety.
“They do not respect the work of doctors or midwives at all, so [the commander] does not want to educate his daughters and forbids them to learn, so that they do not even think about being doctors or midwives someday,” says the midwife. “This kind of insult causes us to lose our morale and discourages us from work.”
Such insults are just one challenge faced by legions of Afghan midwives since the archconservative Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in mid-August.
Midwives occupy a rare nexus that is a conundrum for the jihadis: Modern midwifery requires educated women to perform lifesaving work, which benefits the Taliban’s own wives, mothers, and daughters.
But that necessity rubs up against many Taliban rules – applied haphazardly from region to region, so far – that restrict women’s education and movement.
There are some successes of continuity of midwife services, especially with a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) program in remote areas.
But how Afghan midwives fare will be a key metric of how far the Taliban will accept the much-expanded role of women in society since the jihadis were ousted from power in 2001.
Back then, there were just 467 trained midwives in the entire country, according to U.N. figures – a number that has soared to more than 15,000 midwives today. Widely respected in their communities for their lifesaving service, midwives have overseen dramatic drops in maternal and infant death rates, which once made Afghanistan one of the most dangerous countries in the world to give birth.
New challenges today include a lack of pay by the new Taliban authorities, difficulty in safely getting to work, and uncertainty that the Taliban worldview will accept the midwives working – and the advanced education they require.
“Under the Taliban right now, midwives are like frontline health care providers,” says an Afghan midwife who received death threats and is no longer in the country, but remains in daily contact with colleagues inside. “Under this situation they have a lot of stress ... like when they leave the house, they’re thinking, ‘What will happen to me on the way? What will happen to my family? What will happen in the hospital?’”
“Right now they are losing all their achievements and hope,” she says. “I’m sure if it continues like this, Afghanistan will become the worst country, with the highest maternal mortality.”
Still, there are some glimmers of hope. They include those of the UNFPA, the U.N.’s agency for reproductive health, which operates 172 “family health houses” in 10 of Afghanistan’s remotest provinces. In 2020 alone, those community-based facilities conducted more than 11,000 safe deliveries, and a further 9,500 in the first six months of 2021.
Such numbers have continued with barely a blip, despite Taliban control. That’s because access to the health houses – and even which women will be chosen to train two years to be certified midwives – have been negotiated within remote communities by elders talking to local Afghan nongovernmental organizations, says Dr. Aleksandar Bodiroza, the UNFPA Afghanistan country representative.
Most midwifery school students have now returned to class, after staying home during the first weeks of Taliban rule, he says. The two health houses that closed have reopened. Many already operated under Taliban control for years.
“I think it is all about assessing the consequences of preventing midwives [from] delivering those services,” says Dr. Bodiroza, who is based in Kabul. “In a situation where every day we hear news of closing of educational institutions for girls ... we are able to mobilize the community and send women to get education in midwifery schools delivered in urban settings,” he says.
“So far, this has not been challenged by the Taliban.”
One reason was clear when Dr. Bodiroza recently visited a village high in the mountains of central Daikundi province. The head of the local council, a religious figure, said that before 2016, women died “on a weekly basis.” But after the UNFPA opened the local health house, “not a single woman died giving birth.”
The UNFPA program of family health houses services 4 million Afghans, just 10% of the population. It has plans to expand ninefold, to open a total of 1,500 family health houses to better serve remote regions. But even the current level is at risk, due to the World Bank and Western donors halting aid flows since the Taliban takeover.
With poverty chronic, hunger widespread, and a health system on the brink of collapse as winter approaches, the U.N. warns of a looming humanitarian “catastrophe.” It has made an emergency appeal for $606 million through the end of 2021.
The UNFPA warns, in a worst-case scenario, that total closure of the health system would result in tens of thousands of additional maternal deaths by 2025.
“We are now talking about losing, in the next two years, all the gains from the past 10 years in terms of maternal health and reduction in maternal mortality ... if we don’t find a sustainable solution,” says Dr. Bodiroza.
Those gains have been impressive. In 2009, for example, the U.N. Children’s Fund said Afghan women were confronted with a lifetime risk of death from childbirth of 1 in 8, the second-highest in the world.
By 2014, the U.N. said Afghanistan had become “a regional leader in the midwifery profession, and a model for reducing maternal mortality.” The rate of maternal deaths dropped dramatically from 1,600 per 100,000 live births in 2002, to 638 in 2017.
Using those milestones to obtain blanket Taliban acceptance may not be easy, says Heather Barr, associate director of women’s rights and a former Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“The Taliban need midwives, or at least their wives and children and daughters need midwives. But the Taliban seem to have a pretty high tolerance for letting their people suffer,” says Ms. Barr, contacted in Islamabad, Pakistan. “I think they’re entirely capable of saying, ‘It’s more important to enforce rules that limit women’s freedom of movement than to reduce maternal and infant mortality.’”
The power of Taliban rules was exemplified to Ms. Barr last spring, when she interviewed a woman in Kabul. During the Taliban’s previous tenure in power, the woman had chosen to give birth at home and alone, rather than risk stepping outside and being seen without a male guardian by the Taliban.
“Afghan women don’t have the option for despair,” says Ms. Barr. “The vast majority of Afghan women have not left the country, and will not leave the country. So they’re going to have to find a way to live in these circumstances.”
And that is not proving easy, even for devoted midwives like one in eastern Nangarhar province. The Taliban have forced midwives to work without pay or transport, and many have left the country, says the midwife, who asked not to be identified for her safety.
How difficult are these days? This midwife says a colleague was stopped by the Taliban last week, without a male guardian, for example. The colleague was beaten and had her smartphone broken.
In addition, this midwife fears rumors that the Islamic State intends to assassinate midwives – just as ISIS jihadis attacked a maternity hospital in Kabul in May 2020, killing 24 people, including mothers and pregnant women.
“When I went to my job before, I enjoyed my work, and serving people, especially mothers,” says the midwife. “But now ... I feel like I am going to prison, because our work environment is under Taliban control, and they don’t respect women who work.”
“Their behavior with us is like with animals,” says the midwife. “I am sure if they continue like this, and don’t change their behavior with women ... Afghanistan will return back to the dark period like the 1990s.”
Hidayatullah Noorzai contributed reporting for this article.
The pandemic is accelerating a thirst for options beyond public schools. But what effect might that have on students and public education in general? New Hampshire is an emerging laboratory.
Across the United States, a number of mostly Republican-led states acted this year to provide parents access to state funding for educational options outside of traditional public schools.
Programs created by legislators range from education savings accounts in Kentucky and West Virginia, to an expanded tax-credit scholarship program in Nevada. In New Hampshire, state funds are being used for learning pods and to offer aid for private school tuition, tutoring, or home-schooling costs.
At a time when the pandemic has sparked culture wars over public health measures and teaching about systemic racism, some advocates suggest that school choice policies can help lower tensions by allowing families to select schools that align with their values.
Supporters of more options are declaring 2021 the “year of educational choice,” while some public school backers warn of fracturing support for the role public education plays in cultivating a strong democracy.
Most Americans share an “overarching view” that a well-educated populace is desirable for the country’s success, yet many are divided on how to achieve that goal, says Joseph Waddington, a professor at the University of Kentucky.
“It’s a question of how we do that,” he says, “and that’s where factions of individualism versus collectivism come into play.”
Caroline Simmonds recently spotted an advertisement on Facebook for free learning pods in New Hampshire. The mom of two eagerly signed up to learn more.
“The pandemic pushed me over the edge,” says Ms. Simmonds, in an interview after attending a learning pod information session. “I’ve never been a big fan of the public schools, but once COVID hit, I was like, something has to be done.”
Ms. Simmonds, who wants her children to have smaller classes and the option not to wear masks, stuck with public school in Manchester last year. Now she’s considering withdrawing her kids to join new tuition-free learning pods sponsored by the state.
In New Hampshire and elsewhere across the United States, a number of mostly Republican-led states acted this year to provide parents like Ms. Simmonds access to state funding for educational options outside of traditional public schools. School choice advocates are declaring 2021 the “year of educational choice,” while some public school backers warn of fracturing support for the role public education plays in cultivating a strong democracy.
Most Americans share an “overarching view” that a well-educated populace is desirable for the country’s success, yet many are divided on how to achieve that goal, says Joseph Waddington, an associate professor of education at the University of Kentucky.
“It’s a question of how we do that, and that’s where factions of individualism versus collectivism come into play, and are some of the root motivating factors not just driving conversations around education, but so many of the prevalent conversations around society today,” he says.
In 2021, state legislators created seven new school choice programs in seven states, and expanded 21 existing programs in 14 states, according to EdChoice, a school choice advocacy organization. Programs range from education savings accounts in Kentucky and West Virginia, to an expanded tax-credit scholarship program in Nevada.
“Not only were there more bills than we usually see, but the types of programs, the expansiveness of the programs, that’s what really sets this year apart,” says Michael McShane, director of national research at EdChoice.
For supporters of school choice, the COVID-19 disruption proved that more alternatives are needed in public education. They cite parent demand, as evidenced by the 3% drop in public school enrollment between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, and the 7% increase in charter school enrollment and doubling of the home-schooling rates during that same time. An appetite for education options will continue, they say.
Opponents warn that the wave of legislation is an effort to take advantage of a health crisis to push an agenda that will weaken funding for public education and undermine the American promise to provide all students with a quality education.
“Public education is the singular institution in the United States of America that says, come to us and we will treat you all on equal terms,” says Derek W. Black, author of “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy.” Without strong public schools, Americans risk falling education levels and more polarization, he says.
“This nation was founded on the idea of educated voters. It was also fully evident, and remains true today, that a good number of us if forced to get education on our own either couldn’t afford it or wouldn’t go do it,” Professor Black says.
Struggles over public education were already flaring before the pandemic in ideologically divided New Hampshire, a state where Democratic candidates have won the electoral votes in the past five presidential elections, yet Republicans currently control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. The state’s education commissioner has drawn criticism for his lack of professional experience in education and decision to home-school his seven children.
Nationally, Republican lawmakers are more likely to vote for school choice policies. A recent analysis by researchers for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) of a sampling of state school choice laws passed between 1990 and 2021 showed choice programs were overwhelmingly passed with votes by Republican lawmakers.
Republican leaders in New Hampshire developed two new school choice programs this year. In April, the state’s education commissioner used federal COVID-19 relief funds to sign a $6 million contract with Prenda, a private microschool company, to run K-8 learning pods for small groups of students to address pandemic learning losses. In June, state legislators created Education Freedom Accounts, an education savings account program that allows qualifying families to receive state funds for use on private school tuition, tutoring, or home-schooling costs.
About 100 students are signed up for community learning pods in New Hampshire through Prenda as of late September, according to company CEO Kelly Smith, and six public school districts have signed on to create school district pods. None of the district pods have formed so far due to operational challenges like finding space and staff.
As of Oct. 1, more than 1,500 applications for Education Freedom Accounts have been completed and sent to the state’s Department of Education, according to Kate Baker Demers, executive director of the New Hampshire Children’s Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit scholarship organization currently administering the program.
The education savings account attracted Allison Dyer, from Nashua, whose daughter attended public school for two years before enrolling this school year at a Roman Catholic school where she isn’t required to wear a mask. The single mother says she budgeted initial funds for private school tuition, but rising food and gas costs are burdensome. She applied for an Education Freedom Account and hopes to receive funding in November.
Sending any state funding to private options worries Megan Tuttle, president of NEA-NH, the state’s largest teachers union, noting that public schools serve about 90% of New Hampshire students and pointing to studies showing that New Hampshire ranks highly on educational outcomes.
“When public schools were put into place, the idea was we know we’re paying for this as a public because we want our future to be positive,” she says. She criticizes using taxpayer money for private schools, which she doesn’t think have the same level of “accountability or transparency.”
Professor Waddington, who researches the impact of school choice programs, says research on outcomes is mixed with some successes and failures. He says that research overwhelmingly points to poor results from virtual charter schools and wonders about recent moves in states like West Virginia to expand that option.
“[It] makes one question whether or not legislators’ priorities are on providing kids with quality opportunities, or whether or not they are emboldened and embracing this general concept of freedom to choose,” he says.
At a time when the pandemic has sparked culture wars over public health measures and teaching about systemic racism, some advocates suggest that school choice policies can help lower tensions by allowing families to select schools that align with their values.
“What it does is it lowers the stakes of those debates and lowers temperatures because you aren’t caught by a zero-sum game; either you get what you want from public money or not,” says Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the libertarian Cato Institute.
Robert Pondiscio, an advocate for school choice and a senior fellow at AEI, a right-of-center think tank, expresses some concern about encouraging choice policies as a means of lowering the stakes of pandemic culture wars.
“I’m troubled by a version of choice that is limited to conflict avoidance. The argument for choice [should be] to enhance the richness of education,” says Mr. Pondiscio.
Instead of focusing on school choice as a means to give parents money and let them sort out school quality, U.S. policymakers should more seriously consider educational pluralism as a model, suggests Ashley Berner, director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University and author of “No One Way to School.” She points to countries like the Netherlands and United Kingdom and parts of Canada, where governments fund a variety of schools, including religious options, and maintain performance standards that schools must meet.
Other observers point to innovations within public schools, such as alternative schools and magnet schools, that deserve more attention and replication.
Mr. McShane of EdChoice says “the stars aligned” this year and he doesn’t expect as many school choice bills to pass state legislatures in 2022. He hopes that as more families participate, a political constituency grows and programs continue to expand.
Back in New Hampshire, Ms. Dyer explains that she’s withdrawing her child from public schools in part because she feels the school board isn’t involving parents enough with decisions.
That’s a lament that Keri Rodrigues, a Massachusetts mom, says she hears often. Ms. Rodrigues is founding president of the National Parents Union, a group representing parents traditionally underrepresented in education advocacy work such as parents of color, foster parents, and formerly incarcerated parents. The group has received funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which has also funded school choice endeavors.
Ms. Rodrigues says the status quo in education wasn’t working for many families before the pandemic, and she believes parents will insist on more educational options in the future, through public school innovations or other school models.
“Whether we like it or not, parents are participating in school boards. They are raising their voices and organizing online and offline; they are more invested,” she says. “They plan to continue being engaged going forward.”
In Manchester, Ms. Simmonds says she thinks a pod could be a good fit for her children after listening to the pitch from Prenda in a Panera Bread cafe. She’s taking steps toward enrolling, but will watch the program closely for its outcomes.
“If I join I’ll take it a year at a time, and make sure they’re learning and it’s not just play,” she says. “This seems a little like unschooling and I see the beauty in that, but I do also see the benefits of a structured classroom.”
Who can participate in science? In Africa, that may hinge on what language you speak. A new effort to dismantle these barriers is underway, promising to merge Indigenous knowledge and modern science.
Africa is a land of scientific riches, from archaeological evidence of early human societies to thousands of fallen meteorites. Yet many African languages lack the vocabulary to participate in their study.
Science writer Sibusiso Biyela is trying to change that. He’s a partner and self-titled “decolonization consultant” on a project called Decolonise Science, led by the linguist collective Masakhane. The group is partnering with public research paper archive AfricArXiv to translate 180 scientific papers into six Indigenous African languages by early 2022.
The work will require developing new words for languages that lack terms for “microbes,” “evolution,” or “dinosaur.” The group hopes to share their results with governments, publishers, scientists, and journalists to help encourage scientific conversation.
The teaching of science in official government languages – often coming before students are fluent in said language – can create disconnects, says Mr. Biyela, and sends an exclusionary message about who belongs in science.
“[Children are] told that your language isn’t sufficient for understanding the universe,” he says. “And the issue with that is that if you leave your language behind, [you] leave a lot of the principles and the values of the culture that come with it.”
As a child growing up in rural South Africa, Sibusiso Biyela was surrounded by science. Specifically, he remembers seeing Venus nearly every morning and every night.
But for the longest time, Mr. Biyela, now a science writer, didn’t know he was looking at Venus. He had been taught about Earth’s planetary neighbor in school in English, but what he saw was Ikhwezi, the isiZulu name for the wandering celestial body long studied and observed by native South Africans and used to measure the passing of the year.
He was about 15 before he realized Venus and Ikhwezi were the same thing, Mr. Biyela says. “There was never that connection made [in school] in the first place. It just felt like such a betrayal that I know so many things in English that I should know in isiZulu as well.”
Mr. Biyela’s story is not unique. The teaching of science in official government languages across Africa – often coming before students are fluent in said languages – can create disconnects, he says. Concepts are memorized, but sometimes without deeper understanding outside the classroom. More broadly, critics say the omission of Indigenous languages sends an exclusionary message about who belongs in science – both in Africa and abroad.
Mr. Biyela is now part of a group trying to change that. He’s a partner and self-titled “decolonization consultant” on a project called Decolonise Science, led by a team of researchers across the continent who form the linguist collective Masakhane. In August, they partnered with public research paper archive AfricArXiv to identify 180 scientific papers written in English, French, Arabic, and Portuguese. Masakhane is working on translating these papers into six Indigenous African languages by early 2022, starting with the English tranche.
The work will require developing new words for languages that lack terms for “microbes,” “evolution,” or “dinosaur,” and the group hopes to share its results with governments, publishers, scientists, and journalists to help encourage scientific conversation in local languages. It’s also working to strengthen online translation systems.
“Most researchers learn or get their instruction in colonial languages,” says Johannsen Obanda, community manager at AfricArXiv. This creates a feedback loop, he says, where it becomes hard to discuss science in local languages, whether in primary schools, in labs, or during public health campaigns. “There are also people who hold Indigenous knowledge,” Mr. Obanda adds, often related to agriculture, biology, or, like Mr. Biyela saw each night, astronomy. “And they also deserve a space in scholarly communication.”
During the wave of decolonization in the 1960s, most schools across the continent retained their colonial languages as the medium of instruction. Slowly, those barriers have been broken down, subject by subject and grade by grade, though policies and courses available can vary widely even within a country. Some, like Kenya and Senegal, are seeing early results from local-language childhood education programs that are starting to scale up from their pilot phases – but decolonizing education remains easier said than done.
“It takes a substantial amount of resources to develop the [educational] material,” says Benjamin Piper, senior director for Africa education at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute. Languages that have strong oral traditions, he adds, need writing structures to be created and agreed upon – something that takes time, resources, and money.
Another problem is sheer language diversity, even within countries, Mr. Piper says. “So how do you implement an effective [local language] program in schools where the teacher doesn’t speak the language?”
Creating tools and translations won’t guarantee their widespread use. It will be up to government officials to actually implement changes to science curricula, and up to researchers, teachers, journalists, and publishers to embrace those languages and translations in writing and teaching.
Mr. Biyela doesn’t see any other option but to try. When local languages are left out of science classes, children are “told that your language isn’t sufficient for understanding the universe,” he says. “And the issue with that is that if you leave your language behind, [you] leave a lot of the principles and the values of the culture that come with it.”
When Robert Plot published the first-known drawing of a dinosaur bone in 1677, his native English language didn’t have a word for such a creature. It wasn’t until 1842 that Sir Richard Owen coined the umbrella term “dinosaur,” meaning “terrible lizard.” The name spread across the continent, to dinosaure in French, dinosaurio in Spanish, and so on.
It spread to South Africa, too, via English and the Dutch-based Afrikaans language spoken by Boer settlers – but not to isiZulu. In 2018, when Mr. Biyela was writing an article for an isiZulu-language news site about the discovery of a new dinosaur species in Free State province, he took a shot at it, colorfully describing and explaining dinosaurs, which he dubbed isilwane sasemandulo, literally meaning “ancient animal.”
South Africa’s history offers clues on how to update scientific lexicons. In the 20th century, Mr. Biyela notes, the apartheid government worked to integrate Afrikaans and science, to catch it up to speed with English, which was the dominant scientific language. Though it’s a racist injustice that the same wasn’t done for Indigenous languages, he says, it’s also proof that the merging of science can be done with isiZulu, too.
In some ways, science being stuck in European languages is out of step with other linguistic developments on the continent. In Senegal, for example, Wolof-language television news and dramas have proliferated over recent years. BBC has broadcast in Hausa and Somali since the 1950s, and added pidgin English in 2017. In West Africa, Radio France International has recently added Fulani and Mandinka programs.
The domination of English in science writing isn’t a problem limited to Africa, either: Researchers around the world have voiced concern about the language’s hegemony in science writing, and the lack of translations available for research papers. Even for multilingual scientists, there’s a certain speed and comfortability that comes with being able to read in the researcher’s native tongue, whether it’s Dutch or Hausa.
The African languages chosen by Masakhane translators – isiZulu, Northern Sotho, Yoruba, Hausa, Luganda, and Amharic – are intentional. They span borders and are good root languages, Mr. Biyela says, offering an easy pathway for speakers of similar dialects.
By playing a small role in helping close the gaps between colonial and local languages, Mr. Biyela can now see himself coming full circle from where he started as an inquisitive boy.
“It’s been a real epiphany,” he says. He started out feeling fortunate that he learned English quickly, and then thinking, hopelessly, that science couldn’t be decoupled from the language. “Later finding out about decolonization, and then finding out I can play a part in doing it ... I feel very inspired again for the first time in a long time.”
As the latest James Bond movie is released, the Monitor’s film critic considers what kind of big-screen spy today’s world really needs.
The new James Bond movie “No Time To Die” is the 25th official entry in the franchise and the fifth and last starring Daniel Craig. It will likely be the entry point for many moviegoers reluctant until now to reembrace the big-screen experience. It offers up the requisite thrills, stunts, and bad guys. Beautiful people abound, and 007 still knows how to fill out a tux. I had a reasonably good time at it.
But, as I watched this latest installment – overlong at 163 minutes – the thought also occurred to me: Has James Bond become irrelevant? Perhaps he never was relevant, but certainly, as a Cold War-era icon, he embodied, for both men and women, a large swath of that generation’s fantasies about masculinity and how to look supercool while rescuing the globe from imminent destruction. Does this sort of thing play today?
In “No Time To Die,” directed by Cary JoJi Fukunaga, we are presented yet again with the generic template: The odious Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek, in a surprisingly pallid performance) is mass-producing a DNA-targeted pathogen that can quickly obliterate entire nations. It’s up to Bond, reluctantly coming out of retirement after his last stint in “Spectre,” to save the day – and the world.
This description makes the film sound much campier than it is. There’s no “Austin Powers” in this film’s genes. This should not come as a surprise. Craig first played Bond 15 years ago in “Casino Royale,” and, unlike his predecessors – notably Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan – he was rough-hewn and feral. I welcomed the makeover at the time but, in Craig’s subsequent appearances, the sullen moodiness grew tiresome. He overcorrected.
In “No Time To Die,” Bond, in a carry-over from “Spectre,” remains entranced with the glossily beautiful psychologist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), even when it appears she has betrayed him. This is a secret agent whose real secret, it turns out, is that he’s kind of a softy. He even gets a mite emotional over a kidnapped girl’s stuffed rabbit.
From a dramatic standpoint, all this moodiness makes sense: It gives Bond some unexplored terrain – namely, himself – to plumb. By contrast, the action sequences are nothing we haven’t seen before, and often, better.
The filmmakers seem to recognize there is only so much that can be done to top the franchise’s legacy of derring-do, and so they emphasize instead Bond’s incipient soulfulness. Others in the cast – including Lashana Lynch’s Nomi, the female agent who has temporarily inherited the retired Bond’s 007 designation, or, too briefly, the CIA operative Paloma (a spirited Ana de Armas, who appeared opposite Craig in “Knives Out”) – perform a fair amount of the knockabout theatrics. It could even be argued that the techno-whiz Q (Ben Whishaw), and not Bond, is the real hero here. It is he who maps out the treacherous trajectory that Bond dutifully follows in the final elimination round with Safin. With all the talk about who should be the next James Bond, perhaps the solution is hiding in plain sight. Why not a supernerd?
What “No Time To Die” grudgingly acknowledges is that the world is too intractable, too dangerous, for any one person to rescue. This admission is made, as usual, with hardly any explicit reference to real-life menace. Bond villains since the Cold War, with few exceptions, have almost always been otherworldly loonies. This is one big reason the franchise up to now has been such an escapist joyride. The only global catastrophes in them are make-believe.
Much as we might wish it to be otherwise, “No Time To Die” comes out at a time, and in a world, where it may no longer be possible to escape in the same way. Bond may still be relevant to our fantasy lives, but for him to be a savior of worlds, I suspect another makeover will be required.
Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “No Time To Die” is available in theaters.
Nine months into the Biden presidency and a new but divided Congress, the political debate in the United States may be going far beyond policy issues. In a new survey, more than half of both Biden and Trump voters view elected officials from the opposing party as “presenting a clear and present danger to American democracy.”
These are merely perceptions, of course, but they play out in Washington with attacks on the alleged motives of individual lawmakers who hold up legislation. Such outliers in Congress are charged with anti-democratic behavior, or a violation of basic governing principles.
Among voters, more than two-thirds say those in the opposing party want to eliminate the influence of progressive or traditional values in American life and culture, according to the same poll.
One solution is to ask if such beliefs about what others believe are true. Probably not. “Polls show that both Democrats and Republicans highly value democratic principles,” one study finds. “Both Democrats and Republicans ... severely underestimate opposing party members’ support for those same characteristics.”
The reality is that voters do share core democratic values. The simplest truth is often the easiest cure.
Nine months into the Biden presidency and a new but divided Congress, the political debate in the United States may be going far beyond policy issues, such as money for what has long been a bipartisan favorite, transportation infrastructure. In a new survey, more than half of both Biden and Trump voters view elected officials from the opposing party as “presenting a clear and present danger to American democracy.” More than 40% on each side say the same about anyone who strongly supports the opposing party.
These are merely perceptions, of course, but they play out in Washington with attacks on the alleged motives of individual lawmakers who hold up legislation. Such outliers in Congress are charged with anti-democratic behavior, or a violation of basic governing principles. Among voters, more than two-thirds say those in the opposing party want to eliminate the influence of progressive or traditional values in American life and culture, according to the same poll, which was conducted for the University of Virginia and Project Home Fire in July and August.
The choice of language also can get strident. A majority of Democrats say Republicans are fascists. A majority of Republicans see Democrats as socialists.
These sorts of mass beliefs about the democratic credentials of fellow Americans can hardly be ignored. “Simply put – we need a real plan to heal our fractured democracy,” says Larry Schack of Project Home Fire, an initiative to find common ground in politics.
One plan is to ask if such beliefs about what others believe are true. Probably not, say researchers from The New School for Social Research, Brown University, the University of Bath, and the University of Pennsylvania.
“Polls show that both Democrats and Republicans highly value democratic principles,” the researchers write. “Both Democrats and Republicans ... severely underestimate opposing party members’ support for those same characteristics.”
In other words, Americans are caught in a partisan misjudgment of each other. “In turn,” the study finds, “this discrepancy may fuel a downward spiral of democratic practice.”
That last point does not always play out in Congress. Despite polarization among lawmakers, there has been no increase in the share of legislation enacted on party-line votes since 2011, according to political scientists James Curry at the University of Utah and Frances Lee at Princeton University. Majority parties have sought out substantial support of the minority for major bills.
In his inaugural address in January, President Joe Biden urged Americans to “see one another.” As president, he has not always lived up to that calling to see the truth about others. But neither have many Americans. The reality is that voters do share core democratic values.
The simplest truth is often the easiest cure.
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.
Sometimes it can be tempting to blame others for our own wrongdoing. But as a woman recently experienced, it’s never too late to experience the healing and reformation that come when we stop clinging to self-justification and humbly open our hearts to God’s merciful love.
Many of us have had interactions which, in hindsight, we realize we could have handled better. Sometimes we may even walk away from people we once loved – and who once loved us – because of a character nuisance known as self-justification.
Definitions of “justification” include vindication or defense. But to vindicate or to defend oneself doesn’t necessarily bring true healing. I recently realized that my own self-justification relating to something I’d done decades earlier was keeping me from moving forward.
My behavior was something I am not proud of. It altered my relationship with someone I loved very much. While I apologized and was forgiven, at the time I hadn’t understood the depth of what is needed in a true apology.
In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, wrote: “Sorrow for wrong-doing is but one step towards reform and the very easiest step. The next and great step required by wisdom is the test of our sincerity, – namely, reformation” (p. 5).
Well, that helped me realize recently that I was lacking in the humility to let go of the notion that my actions toward this loved one had been justified because of another’s behavior. God could never give permission for love to be taken away or carelessly abused.
In fact, what we learn of love, we learn of God. As the Bible points out, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). And it is striking that so many who were healed by Christ Jesus were ready to stop defending, justifying, or rationalizing the problem or past behavior, and were truly hungry for the fresh start the Savior gave them.
God’s devotion to our well-being never wavers. Our role is to reflect the goodness that God bestows on us. Mercy is found not only through divine justice, but also through selflessness and humility.
Self-justification slows progress. It keeps us from showing lasting mercy toward ourselves or others. Where God is – and God is everywhere – the full expression of divine Love is. This Love is not personal. God, the totality of Love itself, holds all life as spiritual, precious, and perfect. The depth of honesty is the full expression of divine Truth. There is never a moment where a separate cause or influence exists that can diminish the spiritual qualities of integrity and love. As God is Love and we are His expression, we are designed to radiate love through every pore. The fullness of life, joy, purity, intelligence, prosperity, mercy, and grace is always present because God is always present.
Humbly recognizing these spiritual facts is where true healing begins to happen. Even the most entrenched self-justification gives way to the light of pure Love that redeems, reforms, and heals.
As I embraced these truths, this lesson came to fruition for me. Perhaps after 30 years the self-justification may have seemed unimportant, and the easier thing may have seemed to just let it slide. But I now saw that there was no justification or defense for my unloving actions. What I’d done was wrong.
With self-justification no longer holding me back, I sat down with this individual and shared what I had learned. Our relationship is richer for that! And this healing also allowed me to let go of any residual resentment for what I’d experienced that had served as the basis for justifying my wrongdoing.
Mrs. Eddy wrote in her book “Retrospection and Introspection”: “Mere historic incidents and personal events are frivolous and of no moment, unless they illustrate the ethics of Truth. To this end, but only to this end, such narrations may be admissible and advisable; but if spiritual conclusions are separated from their premises, the nexus is lost, and the argument, with its rightful conclusions, becomes correspondingly obscure. The human history needs to be revised, and the material record expunged” (pp. 21-22). Healing can happen for any of us when we have the humility to let go of the excuse to blame others for our own missteps. Then the cobwebs of resentment and self-justification are wiped away, and we are changed for the better.
Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when our Dwight Weingarten looks at one area where Congress might actually find some common ground: protecting the privacy of our data.