2019
October
15
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

In today’s edition, our five hand-picked stories cover Turkey’s quest to protect itself, shifting political values in Ohio, censorship in Russia, the relevance of biblical morality today, and the mind-set of Gen Xers.

First, jokes about economics are legion: “Why was astrology invented? So economics would seem like an accurate science.”

But the winners of the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences are changing that perception, one experiment at a time.

Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Michael Kremer of Harvard University won for “obtaining reliable answers about the best ways to fight global poverty.” Their work underscores a major shift in economics from ivory tower theories to street-level testing.

To help the poor, you have to start by jettisoning stereotypes. “Put away your preconceptions, and instead try and bring in a scientific and vigorous mindset. The key is to experiment,” Professor Duflo told the BBC. She is only the second woman to win the economics prize.

Big problems are broken into bite-sized questions. For example, if education is a path out of poverty, how do you get kids to stay in school? 

More schools? More teachers? Free school meals? Eliminate fees? Through a series of experiments in India and Africa, they found that simply telling parents about the benefits of education was 14 times more cost effective than free meals or hiring more teachers.

Over two decades, their approach of using randomized controlled trials has been applied to health care, microloans, gender equality, and crime reduction.

Economics is becoming a field that’s “humble, pragmatic, experimental and always tied to real people’s problems, especially those most in need,” writes Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith.

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1. In Turkey, killing ‘terrorists’ in Syria sold as worth the cost

Despite new economic sanctions, Turkey isn’t likely to stop its military advance into Syria. As Ankara sees it, this is about self-preservation.

David
Ugur Can/DHA/AP
Turkish forces advance toward the Kurdish-held town of Manbij, Syria, Oct.14, 2019. A U.S. military spokesman says U.S. forces have left Manbij as part of their withdrawal from northern Syria.

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In the Middle East, regional chess pieces have been moving as dramatically in the past week as at any point in Syria’s devastating eight-year civil war. Shortly after President Donald Trump pulled U.S. forces out of northern Syria, Turkey launched its long-planned incursion into the area, aimed at killing or driving out Kurdish “terrorists” from a 20-mile-deep buffer zone along its southern border.

It sparked the displacement of 160,000 civilians, according to the United Nations, and prompted the escape of hundreds of ISIS prisoners being held by Kurdish forces. But perhaps more ominously for Turkey, Russian-backed Syrian government troops have returned to areas they have not held for years after Russia mediated a tactical alliance between the Kurds and Syria.

Yet Turkey is signaling that it will press on with its map-altering offensive, despite Mr. Trump’s threats to “destroy” its economy.

“Turkey’s main policy is, ‘This is not a war, this is fighting against terrorism,’” says Metehan Demir, a defense analyst in Ankara. “If Turkey steps back from this position its national honor will be seriously damaged ... because Turkish authorities, the Turkish state, many times promised its people that these terrorists would be wiped out from the area.”

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In Turkey, killing ‘terrorists’ in Syria sold as worth the cost

Turkish television audiences – far from the widespread U.S. and European criticism of Turkey’s week-long incursion into northern Syria – watched helmet-cam video of their front-line troops raiding a prison emptied of its Islamic State militants.

The “terrorists” of a Kurdish-led militia, which ran the prison and was armed and trained for years by the United States to fight against ISIS, had “set free the [ISIS] militants in an attempt to fuel chaos,” the viewers were told.

“The folly of trusting a terrorist group for keeping watch over another is exposed for all,” said a senior Turkish official.

Imparted was one clear message: Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” – to create a 20-mile-deep “safe zone” across northern Syria and kill all militants there – is a necessary and precise anti-terrorist operation aimed, officials say, at protecting Turkish citizens from the menace of a Kurdish statelet from which militants can attack.

Another clear message: Turkey will press on with its map-altering offensive, despite threats to “destroy” its economy from President Donald Trump, who is widely seen to have greenlighted the Turkish operation in a call Oct. 6 with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In a first step, Mr. Trump said he would “immediately stop” negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal, again raise tariffs on Turkish steel to 50%, and sanction current and former officials.

The launch of the Turkish offensive with little warning, shortly after Mr. Trump promised that U.S. troops would get out of the way, has already had far-reaching consequences, many of them problematic for Turkey and Mr. Erdoğan, whose motives, say some analysts, were political as well as strategic.

It sparked the displacement of 160,000 civilians, according to the United Nations, and prompted the escape of hundreds of ISIS prisoners so far, out of tens of thousands of jihadists and their families in prisons and in camps.

But perhaps more ominously for Turkey, as the U.S. precipitously pulled back, it has enabled the return of Russian-backed Syrian government troops to areas they have not held for years. The troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad moved in at the invitation of America’s former Kurdish militia allies and with Moscow’s mediation of a tactical alliance that the Kurds entered to survive. On Tuesday, Moscow said its forces also were patrolling the northern zone.

“National honor”

As the regional chess pieces move – as dramatically in the past week as at any point in Syria’s devastating eight-year war – experts say there are many reasons Mr. Erdoğan is not likely to yet bow to White House calls for a cease-fire.

“Turkey’s main policy is, ‘This is not a war, this is fighting against terrorism.’ It has long been on the agenda, for years,” says Metehan Demir, a defense analyst based in Ankara.

Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which lead the 50,000-strong Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought Turkey for decades and has also been on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. The U.S.-supported and funded SDF lost 11,000 members in the fight against ISIS in northern Syria over several years.

“If Turkey steps back from this position its national honor will be seriously damaged ... because Turkish authorities, the Turkish state, many times promised its people that these terrorists would be wiped out from the area,” says Mr. Demir.

“In my opinion, most all the people, all of the country, are united behind this operation because Turkish people are so tired ... of the bombings and terrorist attacks that killed thousands of people,” says Mr. Demir. “Turkish people mostly believe this operation will put an end to these terrorist attacks against Turkey.”

Emrah Gurel/AP
With Turkey defying growing condemnation from its NATO allies to press ahead with its invasion, Turkish soldiers pass a truck transporting armored personnel carriers at the border with Syria in Karkamis, southeastern Turkey, Oct. 15, 2019.

From 2015 to early 2017, especially, Turkey was afflicted by numerous high-casualty terrorist attacks, including in Istanbul against Ataturk Airport and the Reina nightclub. Many were claimed by ISIS, but the PKK also repeatedly struck targets – mostly Turkish security forces – as its four-decade battle against the Turkish state resumed.

American support for the Syrian Kurds has triggered deep unease in NATO-ally Turkey and been a key factor in ongoing U.S.-Turkey tensions. Mr. Trump prevented a Turkish incursion last December, concerned that it might jeopardize the safety of U.S. troops.

But the U.S. policy reversal followed a single Sunday call between the two presidents. The White House issued a statement at 11 p.m. on Oct. 6, noting that Turkey’s long-desired military offensive was coming. It began shortly thereafter, on Oct. 9.

U.S. sanctions

By then Mr. Trump, responding to a bipartisan outcry in the U.S. against a perceived “betrayal” of Kurdish allies, vowed that he would “destroy” Turkey’s economy if it stepped out of line. Turkish tanks rolled into northern Syria with little preparation to deal with imprisoned ISIS cadres or civilian refugee flows.

In addition to the measures Mr. Trump signed Monday, sanctions legislation with bipartisan support is being prepared in Congress. And the foreign ministers of all 28 European Union members agreed unanimously Monday to stop selling arms to Turkey.

Mr. Erdoğan has been calm in the face of such outside pressure, dismissing the risk of sanctions on Turkey’s fragile economy.

“We are determined to take our operation to the end,” Mr. Erdoğan said in a speech in Azerbaijan on Monday. “We will finish what we started. A hoisted flag does not come down.”

Speaking earlier in Istanbul, he said: “Those who think they can make Turkey turn back with these threats are gravely mistaken,” adding that the Turkish Armed Forces could crush Syrian Kurds “in a couple of days” if it weren’t taking care to avoid civilian casualties.

“We work as precise as a jeweler and show utmost efforts not to allow even one civilian’s nosebleed,” he claimed.

Among the incursion’s engagements being highlighted by Turkey’s Ministry of Defense was a drone strike on an ammunition truck. A ministry video said the strike “destroyed the baby killer … terrorists” who target residential areas with mortars, as they prepared for “new massacres.”

Miscalculation?

But Mr. Erdoğan’s plan to control a buffer zone in northern Syria – with one stated aim to provide a “safe” resettlement place for 2 million of the Syrian civil war refugees currently in Turkey – may already have been undone by the swift return to northeast Syria of Mr. Assad’s forces.

“Turkey has miscalculated by failing to anticipate the rapprochement between Assad’s forces and the Syrian Kurdish fighters, facilitated by Russia,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank in London.

“One cannot separate the military adventure in Syria from the domestic politics in Turkey,” says Mr. Hakura. “Turkey is facing a severe economic crisis.... Shifting the agenda to the war in Syria is an attempt to play at the Turkish sense of nationalism and insecurity, [but] the game plan has been shredded by Russia.”

He says “damaging blowback” is also likely to come from U.S. sanctions, imposed by a Congress widely hostile to Mr. Erdoğan.

Still, Turkey does have “legitimate grievances,” says Mr. Hakura, and has complained since the Obama administration about the U.S. friendship with Syrian Kurdish militias.

“Turkey does fear the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Syria, and perhaps eventual independence, [which could] fuel irredentist claims by Turkey’s own Kurdish population, and lead to the fragmentation of the country,” says Mr. Hakura. “That is an ingrained fear in Turkey since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.”

And that fear is what plays best at home in Turkey, says Mr. Demir, the analyst in Ankara.

“Turkey will definitely go on, until all targets are cleared,” he says. “Turkish people believe that the operation will target only terrorists and their hideouts, and Turkey many times insisted that this is not an invasion, not an incursion, not a war, and does not actually aim to invade Syria for good.”

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2. Ohio is used to picking the president. Will they this time?

Ohio used to be a key swing state in presidential elections. But it's tilted red. Ahead of the latest TV debate, our reporter looks at why Democrats see an opening there. 

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Ohio has voted for the winner in every presidential race since 1964. But the Buckeye State may be losing its status of national bellwether, as the political tint of the state has shifted from purple to red.

Still, Democrats seem unwilling to write off Ohio just yet. And tonight, they’ll be out in force in Westerville, the tony northern Columbus suburb hosting the latest presidential debate.

If Ohio is emblematic of working-class America’s shift toward the Republican Party, Westerville offers a counternarrative, as a suburb where Democrat was once considered a four letter word.

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Ohio is used to picking the president. Will they this time?

When Valerie Cumming heard that the Democratic Party wanted to hold its fourth presidential primary debate in Westerville, she thought it was a prank.

“It [blew] my mind. I mean, I’m thrilled, it’s like Christmas to me – but I think it’s hilarious that the first three debates were in Miami and Houston and Detroit, and the fourth one is in Westerville,” says Ms. Cumming, who serves as vice mayor for the Columbus suburb. “I don’t think it would have happened here 10 years ago, or even five years ago.”

Two years ago, Ms. Cumming and another progressive Democrat won seats on the Westerville City Council – an unthinkable prospect for an area long considered a bastion of Republicanism in Ohio, but a shift that matched the national trend of white, wealthy suburban voters fleeing the Republican Party to vote blue.  

Yet while the suburban vote was key to Democrats’ historic “blue wave” in last year’s midterm elections, the party’s momentum in Westerville did not translate into statewide success in Ohio. That’s because the state’s rural areas and eastern, Appalachian counties have been racing further red. In 2018, Republicans won the Ohio governorship for the seventh time in eight elections, and swept all of Ohio’s statewide executive offices. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won reelection, but Democrats failed to flip any U.S. House seats in the Buckeye State.

Ohio has voted for the winner in every presidential race since 1964 – the longest “winning” streak of any state. But the 2018 results, combined with Donald Trump’s easy win here in 2016, left many analysts wondering whether Ohio is still a political bellwether. Indeed, after decades of attention, with both parties pouring in money and resources every four years, some have been questioning whether Democrats should even try to contest it in 2020.

“Ohio has been relegated to a ‘potential’ swing state,” says David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati. “We’ve gone from the big star of the show to an also-ran with aspirations.”

Still, Democrats seem unwilling to write off Ohio just yet. An Emerson poll from early October showed Mr. Trump’s approval rating underwater in Ohio, with 43% approval and 51% disapproval. No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio, and it is hard to see a path to victory for Mr. Trump that doesn’t include it. David Pepper, the state’s Democratic Party chair, says that Democrats can at least make the president work for it.

“I think of ourselves as sort of the left tackle,” he says. “If we’re out blocking, if we’re making Trump come here every week and spend a ton of money here so that he’s not up in Wisconsin because he’s sweating it out Ohio, that’s how we win the election.”

Swing no longer

While the state has long reflected the country’s prevailing mood in voting for the president, it no longer reflects the country’s changing demographics. It is whiter and has more residents without a bachelor’s degree than the national average – groups Republicans have made inroads with in the last decade. 

“If these divisions in the electorate get sharper, I think you’d expect to see Ohio vote more Republican compared to the national average than it has historically,” says Kyle Kondik, an elections forecaster at the University of Virginia and author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.” 

Nick Everhart, a Republican strategist in Ohio, puts it even more bluntly: “It’s very hard to imagine a scenario where Donald Trump doesn’t win Ohio in 2020,” he says in a text message.

Of course, circumstances could change: “An economic slowdown, coupled with a Biden nomination, could certainly create a more competitive Ohio,” Mr. Everhart adds. But for now, “it’s a safe bet to assume that the GOP map to a Trump re-elect absolutely includes Ohio in the lock column.”

Other swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania have similar demographics to Ohio, but they possess big urban centers that help fuel Democratic support. Ohio is more suburban than urban, and its suburbs are more historically conservative than in other states. Cincinnati’s metro area voted 59.5% for Mr. Trump in 2016, according to David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College.

Professor Hopkins’ research shows that, contrary to the prevailing narrative, not all suburbs are trending blue. Democratic support has increased in the suburbs outside the top 20 metros nationwide, but Republicans have gained ground in smaller suburbs, giving Mr. Trump the strongest showing in such places of any candidate since Ronald Reagan. 

“The challenge for the Democrats: Can [the bigger suburbs] move fast enough in their direction to compensate for losing all these small town and small suburb votes elsewhere in the state?” says Mr. Hopkins. “So far, the answer is obviously no. But if they somehow are able to stop hemorrhaging small town votes and build on their surge in Columbus, then certainly that would change the calculation.”

Shifting suburbs

Westerville’s Republican roots run deep. The tony northern Columbus suburb helped kick-start Prohibition, and its prevailing politics have long mirrored those of former governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, who lives nearby.

Mr. Trump upended all that, says Bill Wood, who started the Westerville Progressive Alliance with his wife in 2008. The shifting positions were evident when he knocked on doors for last year’s special election for the 12th Congressional District – a seat Republicans just barely hung onto, with the results too close to call for weeks. Longtime Republicans were voting Democratic for the first time in their lives. 

“I’m a white guy in my 60s, and I’m talking to another white guy in his 60s. I think the power of me looking like them and coming to the door saying, ‘I’m supporting this Democratic candidate’ – in what would have been a Republican precinct in a Republican town – [it] gives them the opportunity for them to say to me, ‘I’m disgusted by this too,’” says Mr. Wood. 

Until a few years ago, Democrat was a four-letter word in Westerville, agrees Ms. Cumming. Even she, a lifelong progressive, wouldn’t publicly identify herself as a Democrat. That’s changed, though. Scores of young families moved to the area and have catalyzed the nascent progressive movement. 

But while the president’s actions have repelled suburban voters in places like Westerville, many working-class voters remain enthusiastic supporters, even though the president’s promises to revive their factories have not materialized

Demonizing Mr. Trump will likely backfire with those voters, says David Betras, the former chair of the Mahoning County Democratic Party.

“You cannot get a voter to vote for you if the first thing out of your mouth is, ‘Oh you like Trump? You’re a racist, you’re a bigot,’” he says. “If you want someone to vote for you, do not insult them.”

Senator Brown won his Senate re-election campaign in 2018 because he talked issues – trade, health care – and did not brand Trump voters as anathema, Mr. Betras says. “You’ve got to give people a reason to vote, and saying Donald Trump’s an idiot is not a reason that’s going to get people to go vote.”

Yet Senator Brown lost ground in every county along the state’s eastern edge and in several northeastern counties relative to his 2012 win. Only Cuyahoga and Summit counties – where Cleveland and Akron are located, respectively – ran well ahead of their 2012 vote totals.

“The Democrats have been losing ground in white working-class America for a couple decades now, at least,” says Mr. Kondik. “I think Trump hyper-charged trends that were already occurring. There have been countervailing changes in the state, it’s just that when Trump sent those changes in overdrive, the changes really hurt Democrats in the state.”

Boosting minority turnout has helped Democrats in other states overcome that shift among the white working class, but Ohio is 80% white with little in-migration from people of color. The state’s recent purge of the voter rolls could further complicate efforts to drum up support among African Americans.

“We’ve got to do some work,” says Ron McGuire, director of the Ohio Democratic Party’s minority engagement program. “We’ve got to get Democrats excited again.”

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3. Insults to Putin come with a fine. But is the cost to the Kremlin greater?

If you want to stop online criticism of a government official, will a punishment work? We look at Russia’s efforts to quell disrespect.

David
Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin Photo/AP
In this undated photo released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Russian President Vladimir Putin rests on a hill in Siberia during a hike ahead of his Oct. 7 birthday.

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Six months ago, the Russian government enacted a law criminalizing online displays of disrespect toward Russia’s state symbols, institutions, and leaders. Now, the cost of insulting President Vladimir Putin has become clear: about $470, judging by the 45 cases that have been filed. But is the law really deterring criticism of the government?

Kirill Poputnikov, who was fined after taking a picture of insulting graffiti and posting it on Facebook, says no. “I think this just makes peoples’ attitude toward the authorities become worse,” he says. “How can anyone make you respect him through force?”

Masha Lipman, editor of Russian affairs journal Point & Counterpoint, says that the law’s creation and application are probably not a Kremlin project. “I don’t think this is the work of Putin personally. Not every piece of legislation is about him,” she says. But “if you are a judge and you are looking at this kind of case where a defendant is charged with disrespecting Putin, it would take special courage to say there is no case here. That would be bucking the trend, and would get you noticed for your nonconformism.”

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Insults to Putin come with a fine. But is the cost to the Kremlin greater?

Kirill Poputnikov was upset by what he saw.

Somebody had spray-painted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name, followed by a vile Russian obscenity, across the stately columns of the police headquarters in his hometown of Yaroslavl. Mr. Poputnikov, an architect by profession, snapped a picture and later posted it on his Facebook page to start a discussion among his friends.

The events that followed his posting last March illustrate the bizarre applications of new legislation intended to punish egregious online displays of disrespect toward Russia’s state symbols, institutions, and leaders.

Mr. Poputnikov was charged and convicted of slandering the president – one of the first to run afoul of the law. Over the past six months, 45 cases have been opened, and of those that resulted in fines, the average penalty has been $470. But punishment can rise as high as a $1,500 fine or 15 days in prison.

Mr. Poputnikov appealed, protesting that his intent was not to offend but merely to report on a public occurrence. But last month the appeals court judge slapped him down, ruling that “Poputnikov was aware that he was spreading negative information about Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Oddly enough, nobody has ever ordered him to take down the supposedly incendiary post, and it can be found on his Facebook page to this day.

The experience has deeply affected Mr. Poputnikov, and he has begun taking an intense interest in the way Russian courts treat people like himself.

“The trial was really weird. From the very beginning it was clear how it was going to turn out,” he says. “No evidence was presented, no experts testified, nor were my arguments that I never intended to insult anybody taken into account. It was clear that it was necessary to punish me.”

He says he has received hundreds of messages of support, and only one that criticized him for posting the picture.

“I think this just makes peoples’ attitude toward the authorities become worse,” he says. “How can anyone make you respect him through force?”

“Counterproductive for the authorities”

That raises some important questions, at a time when Russian opinion polls show that trust in the authorities is in decline, about how public confidence and civil discourse are to be established and maintained.

Some experts argue that the law is part of a general offensive by a frightened Kremlin against all open political expression, and particularly aimed at nipping any kind of organized opposition in the bud. Others suggest that this, and other laws, are ham-handed attempts by pro-Kremlin lawmakers to churn out legislation they think the authorities want, but which backfires and creates embarrassments instead.

The law against disrespecting authorities is just the latest in a suite of legislation in recent years whose stated aims are to crack down on “extremism,” limit “fake news,” and prevent foreign meddling in Russian cyberspace. The lawmakers who framed the legislation argue that they are tackling the same kinds of challenges that Western societies are facing, and using similar tools to do so.

The main author of the law on respecting authorities, Senator Andrei Klishas, insists that it does not limit legitimate criticism, but imposes punishments only for those who express themselves using obscenities or mockery and other forms of gross disrespect. “That is, you do not just use some kind of expression, you consciously use it in order to harm [the official’s] reputation or insult him. The judge will determine its presence, it has always been like this in all countries,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “When communicating with authorities, you need to show respect, because they did not appear out of nowhere, they are the result of people’s choice.”

Of the 45 cases so far launched, 26 involved insults directed at Mr. Putin. The rest concerned local governors, the United Russia party, and security officials, according to a report issued last week by the human rights group Agora.

“I don’t think this is the work of Putin personally. Not every piece of legislation is about him,” says Masha Lipman, editor of Point & Counterpoint, a journal of Russian affairs published by George Washington University. “The government has become much more repressive since [Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin in] 2012, and has been increasingly intolerant toward political opposition and criticisms that go beyond words. But now we see that it’s words too. The longer this trend persists, the more it expands.”

About three times more people are arrested for online offenses than offline ones, say experts.

“The internet has become a dangerous place for citizens to express themselves,” says Sarkis Darinyan, chief legal officer for Roskomsvoboda, a nongovernmental organization that fights for a free internet.

“Of course these laws have a chilling impact, and will increase the tendency for people to censor themselves. But in the longer run, it has the effect of making many people more tech-savvy, find ways to preserve their anonymity, encrypt their data, and protect themselves. It fuels the dark web. It drives people to seek more information, and therefore it is counterproductive for the authorities because it increases opposition.”

Punishing the provinces?

Many of the cases, such as Mr. Poputnikov’s, have occurred out in Russia’s provinces where local police and judges may be just trying to create the impression that they are hard at work defending the state, says Ms. Lipman.

“For local police, extremism is easiest to find online. You don’t even have to leave your office,” she says. “This has generated a trend of looking for perpetrators on the web rather than on the ground.”

The courts rarely make an effort to see things the defendant’s way – as Mr. Poputnikov learned the hard way – because they are fully under the sway of authorities, she adds.

“If you are a judge and you are looking at this kind of case where a defendant is charged with disrespecting Putin, it would take special courage to say there is no case here. That would be bucking the trend, and would get you noticed for your nonconformism. That is very rare in Russia,” she says.

Some analysts point to the fact that the number of new cases under the disrespect law have been tapering off, after spiking at 14 in June, to suggest that authorities may be recognizing that prosecuting people for their Facebook postings may bring counterproductive results.

“The reaction in the mass media to some of these cases was quite intense, so it is likely that the Moscow government decided to tamp down the zeal of prosecutors in the provinces, leading to a reduction in the number of cases,” says Anton Gorodetsky, a Moscow legal expert. “The authorities probably hadn’t been expecting there would be so many cases in the regions, sometimes based on rather excessive interpretations of the law.

“It would be good to recognize that, in the 21st century, it is rather pointless to try and control the vectors of political and social debate by means of such laws, since the main consequence of it is public irritation.”

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The Ten

How people use the Commandments in daily life

4. The Commandments as a moral source code in modern life

We asked ordinary people of faith to share what “the Ten” mean to them personally to shed light on how 21st-century believers find meaning in ancient religious ideas. First in a series.

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Karen Norris/Staff

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The most famous shalts and shalt-nots, the Ten Commandments can seem sidelined in discussions of modern morality. For years a political lightning rod, and scorned by some as archaic, the Ten Commandments are conspicuously avoided lest they religionize the public square. As Wendy Smith, professor of management at the University of Delaware’s Lerner School of Business, put it, “There’s a huge sense that you don’t talk about religion in the workplace.” 

But emerging research links the Commandments – one of the world’s oldest compliance codes – with universally embraced values like generosity and honesty, and suggests that dismissing them may be a mistake.

Ultimately, while the shoulds and oughts can provide a road map, they go only so far in forming moral character, says Robert Louis Wilken, professor emeritus of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia. Role models – parents, aunts and uncles, adults in the religious community – do the heavy lifting.

“People act on what they’re drawn to, on what they love,” he says. “They see someone who does something good and say, ‘I’d like to be like that.’”

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The Commandments as a moral source code in modern life

In schools, workplaces, and legislatures, an army of would-be Jiminy Crickets is fast at work targeting bad behavior. If the world’s moral compass sometimes seems askew, these policymakers, administrators, and HR departments have fixes aplenty – seminars and webinars, podcasts and programs, learning modules, curricula, and handbooks. There are ethics codes, integrity tools, anti-corruption protocols and best practices to encourage seemingly no-brainer morals, respect, and personal integrity: Don’t hit on your underlings. Don’t pad the expense account. Don’t bully the kindergartners. 

The most famous shalts and shalt-nots, the Ten Commandments, can seem sidelined in all this. For years a political lightning rod, and scorned by some as archaic, the Ten Commandments are conspicuously avoided lest they religionize the public square. As Wendy Smith, professor of management at the University of Delaware’s Lerner School of Business, put it, “There’s a huge sense that you don’t talk about religion in the workplace.” 

But emerging research links the Commandments – one of the world’s oldest compliance codes – with universally embraced values like generosity and honesty, and suggests that dismissing them may be a mistake.

In that spirit, the Monitor asked ordinary people of faith who value the Commandments to share what “The Ten” mean to them personally, how they try to apply them in daily life, how they succeed, and how they fail. In the process, we hope to shed light on how 21st-century believers continue to find meaning in ancient religious ideas.

One of those profiled says he found answers while praying in prison. “If I was always good in Your mind I realize there must be a purpose for me,” Desmon “Dez” Rogers says. Once a drug dealer, he began to live, he said, “as if there’s a God.”

Ethics as a core concept

Secular ethics education became a “core concept” in business school education in the 1990s, according to Professor Smith, and developed into a compartmentalized field of study on its own, “like accounting.” Now, corporate decision-making is under the lens, as vocal millennials push employers on issues such as sustainability, immigration, and the environment. Investors aim not only to meet their own environmental, social, and governance criteria, but to demonstrate positive-impact choices. 

Whether received as essential guidance, cynical window dressing, or overly controlling interference, the demand for compliance – along with its correlate, transparency – guards the door to institutional and community life now: “Submit to tobacco screening if you want to work for us.” “Conform to U.N. principles if you want me to work for you.” “Drop your energy source if you want me to buy from you.”

But is compliance possible in spirit, not just in metrics? Observers warn that a band-aid regulatory approach to the #outrage of the day may quell the Twitter roar, but can’t possibly address every moral contingency. Some suggest a refocus on the foundational principles of personal morality, such as the Commandments, as a more effective course. 

“Transparency and integrity are opposites,” says Hugh Whelchel, executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics in McLean, Virginia. “If I don’t trust you, I want to see what you are doing. But you can’t watch someone 24/7.” 

Moral codes and personal growth

Data show a clear correlation between religious behavior, such as prayer and worship, and behavior considered to be virtuous, like frequent volunteering and giving to charity, according to Christian B. Miller, Wake Forest University professor of philosophy and author of the book “Character Gap. How Good Are We?” And familiarity with moral codes like the Commandments and the Golden Rule are associated with lower incidence of cheating in all areas of life.

While the Ten’s checklist may not seem to inspire sophisticated moral questioning the way a more nuanced approach would, a serious grappling allows room for personal growth and social consciousness. Is the “bearing false witness” injunction limited to courtroom testimony, for example? Or should it also stop you from reposting a smear just because it advances your political cause?

Research shows that, during periods of serious moral choice, adults tend to reflect back on Sunday school-type concepts, says Charles Kalish, director for science at the Society for Research in Child Development. “This is when instruction in moral codes like the Ten Commandments becomes important: ‘Now I have the resources to help me think through this,’” he says. “They help you articulate a justification for moral behavior.”

Though church attendance is in decline, that doesn’t mean the United States is a nation of unbelievers. In fact, according to a 2016 Gallup poll, 89% of Americans said they believe in God. And Commandment-codified values in law and commerce have long anchored community life. Since before Moses brought them down from Mount Sinai, many of the famous “shalt-nots” so central to Christians and Jews were promoted by ancient Greeks, and today permeate much of Eastern and Western religion, as well as secular society. 

The injunction against stealing, for example, forms the basis of property rights, says Mr. Whelchel. “If someone says they want to take your laptop, what do you automatically say? ‘No you can’t have my laptop. It’s mine.’” So, too, integrity. Who among us doesn’t covet his neighbor’s honest auto mechanic?  Beyond that, the Commandments point the way toward essential virtues like truthfulness, integrity, respect, fidelity, and compassion.

All moral training – whether labeled as secular or not – rests on a specific philosophy, says Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. Do only the consequences of actions matter? Is fairness the chief motivator? Minimizing suffering? Can humans left to their own devices generally be trusted to choose good?

Professor Smith is skeptical of the increasingly popular “character movement” in education, he said, because its underlying philosophy is not clear. Eventually, kids want to know why they should do what they’re asked to do. “It’s hard to take those [religious] ethics and translate them into neutral terms and have them stick too long.” While some of the Commandments (like “Thou shalt not kill”) are obvious, others are more subjective. Consider No. 10, he says. Without the religious take on coveting, when a child asks “why should I be happy with what I have?” there’s not necessarily anything to tell him.

Ultimately, while the shoulds and oughts can provide a road map, they go only so far in forming moral character, says Robert Louis Wilken, professor emeritus of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia. Role models – parents, aunts and uncles, adults within the religious community – do the heavy lifting. “People act on what they’re drawn to, on what they love,” he says. “They see someone who does something good and say, ‘I’d like to be like that.’”

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5. In race for president, Gen Xers are finding reality bites

Gen Xers often have a distrust of politics. Our Gen X reporter looks at why this generation of Democratic presidential candidates isn’t finding much traction in the polls.

David
Mike Blake/Reuters
Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (center) speaks as entrepreneur Andrew Yang (left) and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro listen during the 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Houston Sept. 12, 2019.

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Flannel-clad slackers they are not. The 14 Democratic presidential hopefuls who count as Gen Xers defy that image in appearance and ambition. But in performance, they are slouching toward nowhere. Of the five Gen Xers who will take part in tonight’s debate – Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang – all are polling with single-digit support.

For an election that should be the political prime for Generation X, the floundering of its candidates suggests doubts about the Xer brand among voters of this generation as much as any other. In algebra, ‘x’ is the unknown variable – and from the start, uncertainty marked the generation. Gen Xers grew up as the country’s divorce and violent crime rates soared and the AIDS epidemic emerged. The savings and loan crisis erupted, the real estate market collapsed, and a bipartisan torrent of corruption poured forth from Washington.

If generational vagueness, coupled with a long-held suspicion of politics, keeps Gen X from ever winning the White House, they would ironically make history in absentia – an unknown variable to the last.

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In race for president, Gen Xers are finding reality bites

You remember Generation X. Or maybe you don’t. It’s not your fault. History has more or less ignored my cohort since the oldest among us began turning 30 about a quarter-century ago, as if we exist but don’t much matter. Sort of like MTV.

Decisive proof of our irrelevance has arrived with the 2020 presidential race. Five of the 12 candidates who qualified for Tuesday’s fourth Democratic debate represent Gen X. Yet their combined polling numbers barely crack double digits. In appearance and ambition, they defy the enduring image of Xers as flannel-clad slackers. But in performance, they’re still slouching toward nowhere.

Considering our age, this decade should be the political prime of Generation X, typically defined as those born from 1965 to 1980 or sometimes 1961 to 1981. At least we showed up for the 2020 campaign – give us that much. Under the broader time frame, 14 Democratic candidates from this cycle count as Xers, including the quintet who will take part in tonight’s debate: Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang.

But even with a critical mass in the field this time around – after Gen X Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio failed to win the Republican nomination in 2016 – our generation is finding itself upstaged once again by our elders and juniors.

Among the five leading Democratic candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders hail from the silent generation; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren belongs to the baby boomers; and millennials claim Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The lone Xer is Senator Harris, whose support lately appears to be fading even in her home state of California.

In many respects, Gen X’s meager showing seems fitting, given our status as the overlooked middle child of generations. A smaller cohort wedged between the behemoths of the baby boomers and millennials, we lack their collective self-esteem – or self-regard, depending on your view. If boomers are the Me Generation and millennials are Generation Me, Xers could be dubbed Generation Meh.

Our ambivalence about political life persists into middle age. It isn’t that our spurious reputation for apathy prevents us from voting; Generation X turns up at the polls in respectable numbers. But the futile 2016 bids of Senators Cruz and Rubio and the floundering of this year’s Gen X candidates suggest doubts about the Xer brand among voters in our own generation as much as any other.

A possible reason for the muted support arises from the riddle of self-identity that shadows Gen X. In algebra, ‘x’ is the unknown variable – and from the start, uncertainty marked our generation.

We grew up as the country’s divorce and violent crime rates soared and the AIDS epidemic emerged and spread. The savings and loan crisis erupted, the real estate market collapsed, and the economy fell into a recession in the early 1990s. All the while, a bipartisan torrent of corruption poured forth from Washington, ranging from the Iran-Contra affair and the Keating Five to the House Post Office scandal and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

The venality and vice in D.C. sowed a mistrust of politicians and politics in Generation X. As we flailed in an economy weakened, in part, by the avarice of elected officials, the idea of one day seeking office held little allure. We were unsure of what we wanted but knew it wasn’t that. Why devote our lives to perpetuating deception?

The Gen X candidate who most embodies that ambivalence is Mr. O’Rourke, the former congressman and punk rocker from El Paso, Texas. Last year, seeking to unseat Senator Cruz, a fellow Texan and Xer, he ran a kind of anti-campaign that drew donations from across the country and captivated the national media. Beyond his skateboarding skills and sweat-stained shirts, he displayed a disarming willingness to admit he didn’t possess all the answers.

Mr. O’Rourke’s aversion to polished assuredness nearly carried him to an upset. But the same quality hobbled him on the national stage early in the presidential race. His conflicted journey of self-discovery made him appear indecisive and out of his depth, as if forever trapped in the parallel Gen X world of “Reality Bites.”

More recently, following a mass shooting in El Paso, he has altered his public persona, echoing the raw, sometimes profane anger of gun control supporters and calling for a ban on semiautomatic rifles. Pundits have talked about Mr. O’Rourke and his campaign gaining clarity, yet he continues to lag in the polls. His message has found shape but he remains indistinct.

Meanwhile, Senator Harris, the leading Gen X candidate, has proven unable to solve the puzzle of her ambiguity, even after serving 15 years in various political offices. In a recent New Yorker profile, she mused out loud about her inability to define herself to voters. “The challenge is, I think, people rightly want to have a sense of who somebody is,” she told the magazine. “I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently, ’cause I know I need to frame it.”

Judging from her sinking poll numbers, voters appear disinclined to trust a candidate who still struggles to “frame” her identity in her mid-50s. One trait shared by the other four top Democratic contenders is persuasive self-conviction. They have figured themselves out. Nobody wants a question mark for president, not even Xers.

Then again, perhaps Senator Harris simply reflects the lasting identity crisis that afflicts Generation X as a whole. A survey a few years ago revealed that only 41% of Xers associate as part of their cohort. The rest identify as baby boomers, millennials, or nothing at all.

If generational vagueness, coupled with a long-held suspicion of politics, keeps Gen X from ever winning the White House, we would make history in absentia – an apt capstone for a cohort that embraced irony as a lifestyle. The latest polls show that many Xers find older or younger candidates more appealing than those from our own generation. In the end, maybe the politicians most like us are the ones we trust the least.

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The Monitor's View

New poverty-busters get their due

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Global poverty has been cut by more than half in the past couple of decades and one reason may be a new type of poverty-buster. A new branch of economics has radically changed views about poor people and what they are capable of. On Monday, three leaders in the field were honored with the 2019 Nobel prize in economics.

The three, Michael Kremer of Harvard University, and Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, both of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have pioneered an experiment-based approach to ending poverty, doing real-world testing one microproject at a time. The premise is that poor people are already smart decision-makers who, with well-tested incentives to learn and earn, can lift themselves up. In India, for example, Professor Banerjee tested ways to help low-performing students and found certain types of remedial tutoring brought the most progress.

The researchers keep looking for the ultimate basis of hope. One scholarly study cites hope as a “spiritual trust in God or other transcendental force.” Whatever the source, this new field, now aptly honored with a Nobel, is changing expectations about what poor people are able to do.

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New poverty-busters get their due

Global poverty has been cut by more than half in the past couple of decades and one reason may be a new type of poverty-buster. A new branch of economics has radically changed views about poor people and what they are capable of. On Monday, three leaders in the field were honored with the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

The three, Michael Kremer of Harvard University, and Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, both of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have pioneered an experiment-based approach to ending poverty, doing real-world testing one microproject at a time rather than relying on the kind of big theories and statistical arguments found in traditional economics. 

Here’s how Dr. Duflo explains the approach: “It starts from the idea that the poor are often reduced to caricatures and even the people that try to help them do not actually understand what are the deep roots of [their] problems.”

“What we try to do in our approach is to say, ‘Look, let’s try to unpack the problems one-by-one and address them as rigorously and scientifically as possible’,” she added.

The premise is that poor people are already smart decision-makers who, with well-tested incentives to learn and earn, can lift themselves up. “A little bit of hope can allow people to realize their potential,” Dr. Duflo says.

Hope, of course, is not a strategy, as generals like to say. These economists and their followers have tested dozens of modest interventions to find out which ones work. Often the problem is not a lack of resources but a tailoring of assistance that emphasizes motivation and inspiration through example. Poor people are asked to offer perceptions of themselves or to identify the poorest among them.

Starting from these self-conceptions, various solutions are tested through “randomized control trials.” In India, for example, Dr. Banerjee tested ways to help low-performing students and found certain types of remedial tutoring brought the most progress. This individualized approach is now used for more than 5 million Indian children. In another project, researchers found farmers were more likely to adopt temporary subsidies for fertilizers rather than permanent assistance. In their eyes, the temporary aid better honored their sensibilities.

The researchers keep looking for the ultimate basis of hope. They know it rests on more than wishful thinking, new aspirations, or the freedom to define one’s future. One scholarly study cites hope as a “spiritual trust in God or other transcendental force.” Whatever the source, this new field, now aptly honored with a Nobel, is changing expectations about what poor people are able to do. The research has shown a resilience equal to the people it studies.

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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.

The truth that set me free

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When a woman severely injured her toe during a weeklong hike, she found hope as well as healing in Jesus’ teaching about truth and freedom. Each of us can also find genuine healing by going deep with God’s inspiration. 

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The truth that set me free

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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What if we could find relief from pain that was both immediate and permanent?

I’ve seen from experience that this isn’t a pipe dream. One time I was hiking with a group of students on the ridge of a mountain in New Zealand, with a 40-lb pack, over rocky and uneven terrain, with rain, hail, and 50 kph winds. This was a tough day to be hiking! On top of it all, it seemed I had broken my toe the day before.

I’ve always found the Bible an invaluable resource. One passage I love is where Christ Jesus referred to knowing the truth and being set free (see John 8:32). So what was this truth that I needed to know?

Searching for answers, I spent the entire hike that day praying, mentally communing with God each step of the way. There is a statement in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, that says, “There is no pain in Truth, and no truth in pain …” (p. 113).

I couldn’t see how this could possibly be true. When I have experienced pain, it has always felt quite real! But with each painful step on this mountain ridge, I urgently wanted to understand this statement.

I thought of a Bible story about a man named Jacob. He was on his way to see his brother Esau many years after having stolen his inheritance (see Genesis 32:22-31). During the night, he “wrestled” with an angel, refusing to let go until the angel blessed him, which it did. We might think of this blessing as being set free from what was at the root of his struggle – perhaps jealousy, arrogance, deceit.

This encouraged me. Like Jacob, I was determined to hold on to this statement, to ponder and be receptive to inspiration about it, until the understanding came and I was helped by it. And I’m grateful to say that it did.

What came to me was the truth about God as loving and good, and of our relation to the Divine. If God is All and only good, as the divine Science of Christ reveals, He could never create or cause anything but good – which would therefore exclude pain. I also reasoned that because God is Love (see I John 4:8), He could never create or cause pain for His beloved children, the very expression of His love, which all of us are.

Therefore, if God didn’t create or cause pain, and God is all-powerful, then injury or pain simply could not be the truth about me or any of God’s creation. These ideas comforted and uplifted me.

I also thought about the spiritual definition of “rock” found in the Glossary of Science and Health. It says in part, “Spiritual foundation; Truth” (p. 593). Accidentally kicking a large, hidden rock really hard in bare feet the day before was the cause of my current predicament. However, I realized that, even if I could “kick” Truth, God, divine Spirit, it could not result in pain or injury. And our spiritual foundation, or relation to the Divine, can never be broken.

I continued to hold on to these ideas until they made sense to me – not just on an intellectual level, but until I felt their truth deep within me.

At that point, I found my freedom: The pain completely vanished. I was able to hike the rest of the day, as well as for the rest of the weeklong hike, completely free from pain. Within a week or two of the injury, the toe returned to a normal shape, size, and color. I was also able to participate in all the other activities for the rest of our two-month trip with complete freedom.

Since then, I have applied these ideas to other challenges that have arisen and have found quick healing and resolution.

Each of us can turn to God, divine Truth itself, for the inspiration that frees us from pain or suffering of any kind.

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Viewfinder

The sentence that turned Spain upside down

Alvaro Barrientos/AP
A man places a Basque flag (left) and a Catalonian independence flag (right) near giant upside-down paintings of late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (left) and Spanish King Felipe VI ahead of a protest in support of Catalonia's independence movement in Bilbao, Spain, on Oct. 15, 2019. Spain's Supreme Court on Monday sentenced nine prominent former Catalan politicians and activists for terms of nine to 13 years for illegally promoting the Catalonia region's independence. The ruling has spurred protests across Catalonia, and in particular at the airport in Barcelona, where dozens of flights have been canceled due to demonstrations there.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( October 16th, 2019 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about California’s big fire-prevention blackout and why smaller solutions might be better.

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