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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
December
14
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

As good information spreads, so does its power to do good.

That quality modifier is important. It requires a belief that professional journalists deserve plaudits like this week’s Person of the Year nod, for those who’ve been killed or imprisoned, from Time magazine.

It requires a belief that work guided by fairness deserves protection from those who would squelch it to hold power. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that the number of journalists jailed worldwide – more than 250 in each of the past three years – is the highest since it began tracking the number in 1990.

Also making news: word that half the world’s population is now internet-connected. Add-ons in African countries drove the total gains by one reckoning, soaring from 2.1 percent connected in 2005 to more than 24 percent in 2018.

That’s significant. Even as big players wrestle for the reins of social media, employing some deeply questionable means, new voices are coursing through it. Real danger lurks where those voices pass disinformation. Authoritarians can hijack narratives.

But some voices are credentialed. And some share a thirst for justice. Just one example: In a new roundup of emerging trends, the journalism-watcher Nieman Lab features a forecast from Joel Konopo, managing partner of the Botswana-based INK Centre for Investigative Journalism.

“I believe 2019 is the year that a majority of young disenfranchised Africans and digital influencers will use the power of hashtag movements to demand greater responsibility from their leaders,” Mr. Konopo wrote. “This will be hard to ignore.”

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Now to our five stories for your Friday, from the power of compromise and cooperation to a therapeutic new use for art. 

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1. Stuck between China and US, Canada finds itself ‘alone in the world’

Newer rivalries can really test alliances in flux. Canada’s current standoff with China is important for Ottawa – in large part for what it says about Canada’s relations with its southern neighbor.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/AP
Supporters gather outside British Columbia’s Supreme Court in Vancouver on Dec. 11, the third day of a bail hearing for Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies.

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The arrest of Chinese telecom Huawei’s chief financial officer at the international airport in Vancouver on Dec. 1 has sparked a conflict between Canada and China – one that escalated this week with the detention of two Canadians in China. But perhaps more problematic for Ottawa, it has been placed in the middle of a bigger battle between China and the United States. Canada casts itself as the secondary player with no choice but to respond to the US Justice Department's request for Meng Wanzhou's arrest under a long-standing extradition treaty. Yet the fallout presents Ottawa with tough choices. The Canadian government has been seeking to bolster economic and political ties with China to reduce its dependence on the US, particularly as President Trump has challenged the status quo in the US-Canadian trade relationship. China's furious response to Ms. Meng's arrest, combined with the lack of diplomatic support from the US, shows just how difficult that will be. “I think it's a wake-up call,” says Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China. “Canadian public opinion will take note of this whole situation, and it will be more difficult for the government to pursue its engagement strategy with China.”

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Stuck between China and US, Canada finds itself ‘alone in the world’

Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States would not back Canada in a geopolitical standoff.

But that was before the coming of President Trump. Since his inauguration, Canadians have found Washington to be an antagonist as often as an ally, in instances ranging from NAFTA renegotiations to insults directed at their prime minister, Justin Trudeau. And in cases when Canada would normally have received the support of its southern neighbor – a diplomatic tiff with Saudi Arabia, for instance – it stood alone.

In reaction, Ottawa has been seeking a place in this shifting international landscape, in part bolstered by economic and political ties with China to reduce its dependence on the US.

The events of the past two weeks show just how difficult that will be.

The arrest of Chinese telecom Huawei’s chief financial officer at the international airport in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Dec. 1 has sparked conflict between Canada and China – one that escalated this week with the detention of two Canadians in China. But perhaps more problematic for Ottawa, it has been placed in the middle of a much bigger battle between China and the US.

Canada casts itself as the secondary player in the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, with no choice but to respond to the US Justice Department's request under a long-standing extradition treaty. Yet the fallout presents tough primary choices ahead, both political and economic, as Ottawa positions itself between two superpowers it can’t count on.

“I think it's a wake-up call,” says Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China. “Canadian public opinion will take note of this whole situation and it will be more difficult for the government to pursue its engagement strategy with China.”

Big trouble in China

Ms. Meng's arrest has made global headlines, in no small part because many view it as the coming of proxy wars in trade and technology between China and the US that will impact all players – especially those most dependent on the two powers.

The Canadian government has sought to downplay the politics surrounding the matter. Facing pointed threats from China for the arrest of the executive of the Chinese telecommunications giant, Canadian officials have emphasized this is a purely judicial matter. The US is seeking the extradition of Ms. Meng, who they accuse of fraud related to US sanctions on Iran.

But China is furious, while Mr. Trump waded into the matter this week, ratcheting up political tensions and exemplifying to many Canadians how little they can count on their long-time ally.

The Canadian government has been seeking to negotiate a free trade deal with China, particularly as the US under Trump has imposed tariffs and challenged the status quo in the US-Canadian trade relationship. Those efforts had been hampered, most recently with the new North America free trade deal, known as USMCA, that place restrictions on pacts made with “non-market” economies.

A diplomatic spat with Beijing was the last thing Canada wanted. But China responded harshly, detaining Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat in Beijing and currently with the International Crisis Group, and businessman Michael Spavor, who facilitates trips to North Korea. On Thursday, China said both are accused of undermining China’s national security, though it's perceived in Canada as retribution. Their detentions could shake the Canadian public's trust in a deeper Sino-Canadian relationship.

Philip Calvert, a former Canadian diplomat and senior fellow at the China Institute at the University of Alberta, says the incident doesn’t change Canada's views on diversification from the US. But it could add impetus to put more emphasis on other markets beside China, such as the European Union or other Asian countries.

It could also impact the expansion of Huawei and 5G technology into Canada. Huawei enjoys a significant presence in Canada, symbolized by its sponsorship of the most Canadian of pastimes, “Hockey Night in Canada.” Ottawa has yet to decide on allowing Huawei to participate in Canada's 5G network when it launches, unlike the majority of Canada's' co-members in the “Five Eyes” intelligence partnership, which have barred Huawei equipment due to national security concerns.

“This situation is unlikely to make the Canadian government more sympathetic to Huawei,” Dr. Calvert says.

This is not the first time that Canada and China have found themselves in a diplomatic crisis. In 2014, the Canadian government arrested a Chinese citizen accused of hacking and extradited him to the US. Two Canadian aid workers, the Garratts, were then detained a week later in China and accused of spying, a case also perceived as retribution.

Canada’s international trade diversification minister, Jim Carr, responded to Mr. Kovrig's arrest earlier this week, seeking to downplay risk to the commercial relationship. “We have a sophisticated, complicated relationship with China that dates back decades and I'm sure will endure,” he told the local press. “There are business leaders in China now, there are more who plan to go.”

But the road is far from clear, says Mr. Saint-Jacques. “It’s like hitting a patch of black ice, and your car is turning around, and you don't know when you will end up in the ditch."

Stuck in the middle

Canada’s relationship with the US might be even more damaged. Trump weighed into the crisis this week, saying he’d intervene in the Meng case if it served US interests in free trade – fueling perceptions that it is a political, not judicial, matter, and greatly complicating Canada's position.

In fact, some point to the incident as further evidence that Canada must move out from under the thumb of the US. It was expected that China would come to a vigorous defense of Huawei, its flagship company and a symbol of its global reach and prowess, much the way Apple is to America.

Historically Canada and the US have been two of the closest allies in the world. But Lynette Ong, a China expert at the University of Toronto, says economic lockstep with the US is not compatible with the current era.

“Canada doesn’t have much bargaining power vis-à-vis China. But Canada is really the face of this conflict, Canada is making the arrest … while the US is acting as if it is in the background of the conflict,” she says. “In a way, this is going to be Canada’s future. This is only the beginning of coming economic conflicts between two major powers.”

It’s yet another example of a lonelier world for Canada, says Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor of international relations at Carleton University in Ottawa. She says it shares parallels with a spat between Ottawa and Riyadh this summer, after Canada accused Saudi Arabia of human rights violations and no allies, including the US, came to its defense. This time the fight is with China, but once again Canada doesn’t know where to turn.

“Canada has been worried about becoming victim to a contest between a Trump-run America and an assertive China. And here we are in a proxy war,” she says. “In a lot of ways, Canada has never been more alone in the world.”

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2. As UN climate summit winds down, signs of a path forward?

Delegates at the UN climate talks are tasked with uniting some 200 nations behind a single set of rules. The process has been somewhat unwieldy. But it has also shone a light on the power of compromise.

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As the 2018 UN climate summit comes to a close, the enormity of the challenge of forging a unified path toward a low-carbon future has never been more apparent. Delegations bring to the table diverse priorities that reflect their respective economic climates, political perspectives, and levels of dedication to collective global goals. Despite the logjams that occur, moments of breakthrough happen, particularly during the last few days of the two-week conference and as alliances and coalitions form on the sidelines. Once the final outcome is agreed upon this weekend, there will be plenty of opinions on whether the negotiations have done what they needed. But one thing is already clear: This summit is just the beginning of the process. “How we do this is not going to stop in Katowice,” says Yamide Dagnet of the World Resource Institute. “What we want are strong guideposts to go at least in the right direction – to make it a race to the top and not a race to the bottom.”

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As UN climate summit winds down, signs of a path forward?

How do 197 countries, representing vastly different circumstances, interests, and political realities back home, arrive at consensus around the details of how they’ll tackle climate change?

The enormity of the challenge is one reason the 2015 Paris Agreement was hailed as such a landmark achievement, and it’s why negotiators this week in Katowice have been struggling to achieve the goals of this year’s 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known by everyone as COP24.

The urgency of the problem has never been clearer, with a recent report emphasizing that just 12 years remain to drastically reduce global carbon emissions or face stark consequences. And current targets set under Paris fall far short of what is needed.

The challenges of finding a path forward are also daunting, and some of the barriers go to the heart of nations’ differing values and circumstances. Delegations bring diverse priorities that reflect their respective economic climates, political perspectives, and levels of dedication to collective global goals.

This has been hailed as the most important COP since the 2015 summit launched the Paris Agreement. This year’s attendees are tasked with finalizing a rulebook that lays out just how the Paris goals will be achieved, ensuring countries are prepared to set tougher emissions targets by 2020, and tackling the problem of financing help for developing nations. The results of these two weeks of negotiations are likely to come this weekend, and while talks have often seemed sluggish, observers say that’s partly the reality of an unwieldy process that’s both frustrating and necessary.

“This is the only place where there’s a global framework to solve the global problem,” says Lou Leonard, senior vice president for climate and energy at the World Wildlife Fund.

Conflicting priorities

One challenge is that there is no standard for how nations set their ambitions for emissions reduction targets.

“That means we need to use all of the tricks of creating processes and political moments and pressure and momentum,” Mr. Leonard says. “It’s like the physics of geopolitics.”

“You need to put it all together into a process that puts pressure on countries to do things they may not always want to do, but they feel compelled to do,” he adds. “We did that in Paris in 2015 ... and we need to do it again.”

Some of the most basic tensions are rooted in countries’ differing economic climates and the extent to which they’re already seeing the effects of climate change. Wide variations in those circumstances mean that nations come to the table with very different senses of how to prioritize the actions they take, says Harjeet Singh, the global lead on climate change for the international development organization ActionAid.

For many developing countries, he says, the top priority is securing immediate assistance for people who have been harmed by floods, storms, or other disasters. After that comes investment in adaptation efforts to be better prepared for future disasters, and finally, if there are enough resources, shifting away from fossil fuels and mitigating emissions. But for developed countries, priorities are the reverse.

“Very naturally, developed countries are far more interested in mitigation. Then they talk about transparency, and they want to see robust reporting. The problem is, they stop at that,” says Mr. Singh.

“If everybody is going to be thinking from their own perspective, and not even willing to appreciate what the other country is going through, we will only be fighting and not honestly negotiating,” he says. “We are talking to developing countries whose houses are on fire, and their first priority is to put out that fire.”

To help with that, developing nations have asked for references to “loss and damage” to be put into the final COP document – a term for international aid that can help with those direct impacts – but it’s an issue that developed countries are reluctant to engage with.

Breaking through gridlock

Despite the logjams that occur, moments of breakthrough happen, particularly during the last few days of the two-week conference and as alliances and coalitions form on the sidelines.

On Thursday, for instance, China signaled it would be open to using “uniform” rules for cutting emissions that would apply to all countries, a point Chinese officials had been reluctant to sign onto. China’s change of heart came after the European Union agreed to include a voluntary component, with countries choosing when they’re ready to join, up to a deadline.

Andy Wong/AP/File
A delivery man rides an electric bike past steam emitted by an under-street heating pipe near a construction site shrouded by a smoggy haze in Beijing. China is the world's largest carbon emitter.

 

And on Wednesday, another step forward came when a “high-ambition coalition” – including island states such as Fiji and the Marshall Islands; Latin American countries such as Colombia and Mexico; and major developed nations such as Germany, New Zealand, and Britain – pledged to significantly ramp up ambition on their 2020 emissions targets.

A coalition of Small Island Developing States has been able to amplify the voices of these small nations here – as they did in Paris – far beyond the reach of their typical political clout. With their very existence at stake, island nations have the most to lose and are on the front lines of the climate change battle, earning them a significant role of moral authority at these talks. Often, they try (with mixed success) to be bridge-builders between developed and developing countries.

This year, Fiji brought the Pacific tradition of using storytelling to build empathy and bridge divides with the Talanoa Dialogue. Participants – which have included nongovernmental organizations and businesses as well as countries – have been participating in round tables for the past year, and the process culminated this week in Katowice. In a diplomatic process that often seems mired in constant revisions of text and technical nuances, a dialogue that hinges on empathy stands out.

“The Talanoa Dialogue has brought this idea of storytelling and inclusivity and the ability to speak human to human about climate change,” says Cassie Flynn, a climate change adviser for the United Nations who advised the prime minister of Fiji as he hosted last year’s COP23. “The fact that countries who have maybe been in different groups, or on different sides of different issues, can come together as people all experiencing the impacts of climate change, and people wanting to do something about climate, and really start to talk about it in a human way ... that is really game-changing.”

Beyond Katowice

Once the final outcome is agreed upon this weekend, there will be plenty of opinions on whether the negotiations have done what they needed: whether the rulebook is robust enough on issues like transparency and reporting; whether there are enough financing mechanisms in place to help countries get where they need to go; whether there is a strong mandate for countries to ramp up their ambition on emissions targets by 2020 and match the scale of their action to the urgency of the problem.

While Paris was the pivotal breakthrough when it comes to international cooperation on climate, negotiators say that in some ways what they’re trying to accomplish now – moving from abstract goals to a detailed roadmap for implementation – is even more complicated.

“If the Paris Agreement was a clock, we are figuring out the gears of that clock,” says Ms. Flynn. “We’re figuring out how big they have to be, and how they fit together. They all have to fit together in a way that makes that clock run, and figuring out the gears of this clock is incredibly challenging.... No system like this has ever been created before. We’re creating it as we go.”

In many ways, COP24 is just the beginning of this process.

“How we do this is not going to stop in Katowice,” says Yamide Dagnet, a senior associate with the World Resource Institute’s International Climate Action Initiative. “What we want are strong guideposts to go at least in the right direction – to make it a race to the top and not a race to the bottom.”

One of the biggest challenges is with the incongruities in timing – both in the negotiation process and the geological one. Where the rulebook needs to be agreed upon by this weekend, the commitments on finance and ambition that some developing countries want in exchange for agreeing to tougher transparency and reporting rules may not come fully for another year or two.

And there’s a tension between the slowness of the diplomatic process and the increasing severity of climate change.

A constant backdrop to these talks has been the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October report warning of the dangers of going past 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F.) of warming. On Dec. 5, the Global Carbon Project released its annual data on carbon emissions, showing that emissions are rising for the second year in a row. And this past Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual Arctic Report Card, showing that surface air there continues to warm at twice the rate seen around rest of the globe, with effects that cascade down to lower latitudes.

“Things are accelerating. Climate change, arctic melting – all these things get faster the worse they get,” says Jesse Young, a senior adviser on climate and energy for Oxfam America and a former adviser to the US special envoy on climate change. “This process needs to sync up with the severity the crisis demands.”

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

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A letter from

Capitol Hill

3. Many farewell speeches, one message: Senate must learn to cooperate

To watch these senators from the press gallery is to be reminded of their genuine interest in serving their constituents – and of the challenge of politics today, our congressional correspondent writes.

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It’s an emotional time in the Senate, as those who won’t be returning say goodbye to colleagues, staff, and constituents – notably through reflective “farewell” speeches on the Senate floor, where senators sometimes have to pause to collect themselves. Whether the comments come from one-termers like Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota or long-timers like Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, one theme connects their messages: Senators must work together if they are going to address America’s tough problems. “The Senate as an institution is in crisis,” said Senator Hatch, who after 42 years is the longest-serving Republican senator in history. “The committee process lies in shambles, regular order is a relic of the past, and compromise – once the guiding credo of this great institution – is now synonymous with surrender.” Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democratic moderate who lost in November, was blunt – with a touch of humor. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was worried about this place,” she said. Every family has an embarrassing uncle, and the Senate has “too many embarrassing uncles.”

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Many farewell speeches, one message: Senate must learn to cooperate

Coming off the Senate floor on Tuesday, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota met with a young constituent. The girl, dressed in holiday red, gave the senator a little book with photos that showed how she advocated for the Democrat, who lost her reelection bid in November.

As the two sat side by side in the chandeliered anteroom, Senator Heitkamp slowly turning the pages of her gift, the lawmaker began to tear up. Pressing the book to her heart, she told the girl, “This is the best present I ever got – besides my children!”

It’s an emotional time in the Senate, as those who won’t be returning say goodbye to colleagues, staff, and constituents – notably through reflective “farewell” speeches on the Senate floor, where senators sometimes have to pause to collect themselves. Whether the comments come from one-termers like Heitkamp or long-timers like Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, one theme connects their messages: Senators must work together if they are going to address America’s tough problems.

Even as the chamber seemed to move at the speed of light this week – passing a consequential farm bill, #MeToo legislation to govern sexual harassment in Congress, and a rebuke to the Saudi crown prince – outgoing senators warned of deep dysfunction and division, and some offered advice on how to fix the institution they love.

“You all might aspire to greatness individually, but that’s not where your power is. The power of the United States Senate is in the collective membership of the Senate,” Heitkamp said, summing up her message in a brief interview. Her advice is to “check your ideology at the door and think about the problem, think about the facts, think about what we need to do that’s going to change outcomes, and do it respectfully.”

But that’s hardly the general practice, as election after election, the Senate hardens into two ideological camps and the center gets smaller and smaller. In November, several moderate Democrats went down in defeat, while a couple Republican critics of the president are retiring.

“If I’m writing a headline on 2018, it’s the death of the moderates,” says Heitkamp. She crossed her party on issues such as the Keystone pipeline and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, yet could not survive in a state that President Trump won by more than 35 points.

Hard truths were uttered this week.

“The Senate as an institution is in crisis,” said Senator Hatch, who after 42 years is the longest-serving Republican senator in history. “The committee process lies in shambles, regular order is a relic of the past, and compromise – once the guiding credo of this great institution – is now synonymous with surrender.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, another moderate who lost in November, was blunt – with a touch of humor.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was worried about this place,” she said. Every family has an embarrassing uncle, and the Senate has “too many embarrassing uncles.”

People need to “quit” calling it the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” the two-term senator said, adding it won’t live up to that description until it recovers from polarization, the fear of taking tough votes, writing legislation behind closed doors, and passing giant spending bills with contents unknown to most lawmakers.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, an outspoken critic of the president, harked back three decades to make a point about the fragile nature of democracy. It can come – as it did when the Iron Curtain fell and democracies sprang up around the world – and it can go, as authoritarianism again flourishes.

“Let us recognize from this place here today that the shadow of tyranny is once again enveloping parts of the globe. And let us recognize as authoritarianism reasserts itself in country after country that we are by no means immune,” he said.

When asked for his message to newcomers about to take office, Senator Flake urged them to “Take a risk and reach across the aisle, and don’t be boxed in by partisanship.”

Several senators also tried to rouse their colleagues to embrace the “better angels” of their nature, as President Abraham Lincoln put it.

That begins with a return to comity and “genuine good feeling” among colleagues, said Hatch. A songwriter with gold and platinum albums to his name, he described comity as the “cartilage” of the Senate – “that soft connective tissue that cushions impact between opposing joints.”

Lest anyone think he’s an old man “waxing nostalgic” for some golden age that never existed, he cited his long friendship with Sen. Ted Kennedy, the late liberal lion from Massachusetts. “Teddy and I were a case study in contradictions,” he said, yet the ideological polar opposites came together over major legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and health care for children.

Heitkamp, too, pointed out that finding common ground has been done before and can become more common, citing several examples from her own experience, including a carbon-capture bill that became law.

“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find that sweet spot ... that one good idea that everybody can get behind.” With carbon capture, she found the place “between the [climate-change] deniers and the people who are genuinely terrified of what’s going to happen.”

To watch these senators from the press gallery is to be reminded of their genuine interest in serving their constituents – and of the challenge of politics today.

On the Senate floor, they are generally preaching to their friends, to colleagues and staff from their own party who listen from their desks or seats along the edge of the chamber, and to family seated in the balcony above. Only a handful from the opposing party usually show up: the other senator from their state or fellow committee members who give appreciative remarks.

One wonders if anyone is really listening.

Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who stood to give several tributes to her departing colleagues on both sides of the aisle, says the speeches “do cause people to stop and think” about a better way and restoring the civility and compromise that used to exist. The recent memorial service for President George H.W. Bush did that, too, she says.

“The problem is that it seems to be so fleeting. Right after we buried the 41st president, we had this colossal fight at the White House” over the budget, the wall, and a partial government shutdown.

With a week to reach an agreement before hundreds of thousands of government workers could face unpaid furlough over the holidays, that fight has yet to be resolved.

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4. Israel booms with babies as developed world’s birth rates plummet. Here’s why.

Israel is not the only developed county to subsidize parenthood, so why is its birthrate an outlier? The centrality of the family is one reason, as are tribalism, nationalism, and history.

Dina Kraft
Current and expectant parents attend BabyLand, a recent event held in Tel Aviv that offered discounted products for babies and young children. Israel has the highest per capita rate of population growth in the developed world.

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Israel is having a baby boom, and now has the highest per capita rate of population growth in the developed world. Families here have an average of 3.1 children, compared with 1.7 in other developed countries. At this rate Israel’s population, which currently numbers 8.7 million, could soar to 15 million by 2050. What makes fertility distinctive here is a unique combination of societal messages and policies. Foremost is a lingering post-Holocaust imperative to replace the 6 million who were murdered, but the list also includes fears of Arab demographic dominance and of the next impending war, and economic incentives from the government that include bankrolling fertility treatments. Alon Tal, a professor of public policy at Tel Aviv University, has been sounding a warning about Israel’s exponential population growth, which he says has already made it the most crowded country in the developed world. But Orna Donath, a sociologist who researches motherhood, says the trend has deep roots. Driving it, she says, “is the collective fear of annihilation. It continues to haunt us, and children are seen as symbolizing a continuance of life, of survival.” 

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Israel booms with babies as developed world’s birth rates plummet. Here’s why.

At the entrance of an event called BabyLand, expectant mothers and their partners – along with tired-looking, newly minted parents – lined up to receive bulging bags of free baby products.

Over the course of the three-day event, 50,000 people paraded through the balloon-festooned convention center, some pushing strollers occupied by two or three young children.

Religious, secular, Arab, and Jewish, they were on a mission: shopping for discounted diapers and baby formula and perusing stalls offering the latest versions of snack containers and sheets for bed-wetters.

Pro-natalist Israel is having a sustained baby boom, and now has the highest per capita rate of population growth in the developed world, experts say.

Families here have an average of 3.1 children, compared with 1.7 in other developed countries. At this rate Israel’s population, which currently numbers 8.7 million, could soar to 15 million by 2050.

The importance of having children is a focus in Israel as it is in most parts of the world, but what makes the attitude distinctive in the country’s Jewish sector is a unique combination of societal messages and policies. Foremost is a lingering post-Holocaust imperative to replace the 6 million who were murdered, but the list also includes fears of Arab demographic dominance and of the next impending war, and economic incentives from the government that include bankrolling fertility treatments, even in-vitro fertilization.

Driving this focus, argues Orna Donath, a sociologist who researches motherhood, “is the collective fear of annihilation. It continues to haunt us, and children are seen as symbolizing a continuance of life, of survival.”

Birthrates have long been especially high among ultra-Orthodox Jews, a small if highly visible minority in Israel, with the average family having close to seven children, although that number has begun to drop slightly in the past decade.

But even among secular Jews, three children is the norm. Families with one and even two children are often looked upon with pity. People often assume the parent or parents must have fertility issues or are “selfish,” says Daphna Birenbaum Carmeli, a sociologist at Haifa University who researches Israel’s pro-natalist policies.

SOURCE: International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database, October 2018
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Karen Norris/Staff

Societal message

It’s the intensity of this fixation on family that makes Israel different from its counterparts in Europe and the United States, argues Elly Teman, a medical anthropologist and senior lecturer at Ruppin College, in central Israel.

“In America you are an individual who is not necessarily going to live close to your parents. But in Israel the whole basis of society is familial,” Dr. Teman says. “The metaphors used describing the nation as one body, one family, is an example of this. It often comes out when we are having a security crisis. The idea of family as the basic unit of Jewish society adds to this narrative: This is how Jews have always survived.”

The Jewish state also has a sizeable Arab minority that makes up some 20 percent of the population. But with the exception of the semi-nomadic Bedouin, who tend to be poorer than other Arabs and have a birthrate of 5.5 children, the birthrate among other Arab families has been dropping as more have joined the middle class. Today the rate stands at 3.1 children per family, the same overall rate as Israeli Jews.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meanwhile, even when it is on a low-intensity flame, still places Israel in the category of what experts call a “war society.”

Mix that with being a small country and, “We hear that if we don’t have enough citizens, we don’t have enough soldiers. And people are acting on those messages [whether] they are aware they are or not,” says Teman, referring to the Jewish sector.

The Israeli attitude toward children and families affects immigrants, as well, Teman says. She points to the example of the wave of immigrants who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Those who came as adults usually had one child. By contrast, those who came as teenagers and absorbed the societal message have – for the most part – gone on to have two to three children.

“There is pressure on people here, a message that the only way to be included in society is through having children,” says Teman.

There has also been a baby boom among members of Israel’s gay community, who, through having children, have found social acceptance that had eluded them before.

State support

In Israel women typically return to work after a paid 14-week maternity leave covered by the government. Those who opt to stay home longer have their jobs guaranteed for a year.

Still, in many European countries with low birthrates, there is comparatively even more state support for women and families who have children. That can make a real difference when the cost of living is high. And the cost of living in Israel, like its birthrate, is among the highest in the Western world.

But while elsewhere in the West, middle-class families might limit the number of children they have because of the cost of raising them, in Israel that rationale is heard less frequently.

Ron Ganot, who was selling collapsible, lightweight wagons for children at the BabyLand event, says he and his wife are expecting their third child. Family is central to his life, he says, and he gets together every week with relatives.

“We definitely need more money, and we have rising expenses,” he says, “but I want a large family and the cost of living won’t stop us.”

In addition to receiving maternity leave and job protection, any Israeli woman of child-bearing age who is struggling to conceive, Arab or Jew, is eligible for nearly full state funding of in-vitro fertilization treatment (IVF) until she has two children. And despite its expense, there is hardly any criticism of this policy, says Dr. Birenbaum Carmeli, the Haifa University sociologist.

Some women have had as many as 25 attempts at IVF, and she says she came across two women in her research who had 37 attempts.

“When we ask women how many cycles are they willing to go through, their reply is the same: ‘As much as is takes,’” she says.

Conversely, she observes, the state does very little to encourage or facilitate adoption, which in most cases requires an international search.

“My own theory is that Israel cultivates this notion of a tribe, of bio-connectivity,” she says, to cement the Jewish people to their return to this, their ancient homeland. That’s why, she argues, “The whole issue of fertility and infertility is connected with nationalism.”

Counter arguments?

Alon Tal, a professor of public policy at Tel Aviv University, has been among the lone voices in Israel sounding a warning about Israel’s exponential population growth, which he says has already made it the most crowded country in the developed world.

“We have a narrative that has not told people of the terrible end results,” he says. He cites the state’s own estimates that in just over 20 years there may be five million more citizens living here, with all that implies for rising housing prices, ballooning traffic, jobs, mounting greenhouse emissions, and the education system.

Dr. Tal, author of the book, “The Land is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel,” calls for an end to government subsidies provided to families with children, including preferential rights for public housing and child allowances.

Most importantly, he adds; “Empower women, empower women. All the rest is commentary.”

Dr. Donath, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is the author of a book “Regretting Motherhood,” which has now been translated into 11 languages and was based on her research on Israeli Jewish women. Her findings, she says, reflect the voice of backlash, among a small number of women, against societal pressure that assumes all women want to be mothers.

“They saw it (motherhood) as a heavy responsibility, a loss of time, their private lives. Even though all of them said they loved their children, they also said they hated being mothers,” says Donath of the women she interviewed for the book.

At the BabyLand event, Galia Sharabi, a teacher and Orthodox Jewish mother of five, says having children was a priority. Pushing her stroller through the exhibits, she says she does not see family size as a decision to be determined by economics or population trends.

“A family brings happiness,” she says.

SOURCE: International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database, October 2018
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Karen Norris/Staff
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5. Prescription art: Take in two museums and call me in the morning

Can sending patients to view art be a therapeutic tool? An experiment in Montreal is testing new ways of thinking about treatment and healing.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Robert Kertesz, a Montreal retiree, participates in the Art Hive, a drop-in workshop at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts, which has expanded programs that address wellness via art.

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At a time when the health community is grasping for solutions to over-prescribing and over-testing, “social prescribing” – in which practitioners look at community activities and nonclinical services as a more holistic approach to wellness – is gaining renewed attention. And in Montreal that is manifesting in a very specific way: Doctors can use their prescription pads to order visits to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for patients. More broadly, doctors increasingly see the role of choirs, sports teams, and arts programs as a key to social inclusion and health outcomes for everyone from Alzheimer’s patients to those diagnosed with anxiety or depression. British studies have also measured a decline in use of the national health system when social prescribing is employed. In the case of art museums in particular, supporters of social prescribing say doctor-ordered visits can carve out crucial space for stillness and observation and provide an antidote to social exclusion. “It’s not just doctors prescribing pills, but patients taking action and putting in their own hands their own healing,” says Yan Yee Poon, an art therapist working at the MMFA. “Art speaks to everyone. We can all find something in it we need.”

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Prescription art: Take in two museums and call me in the morning

The five pavilions that comprise the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, one of Canada’s most prominent institutions, draw their share of art lovers, of tourists, and of ragtag school groups.

But they aren’t the only visitors inspecting the fall foliage depicted by Tom Thomson and Canada’s “Group of Seven” artists or experiencing works of French painters from Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot to Henri Matisse.

During any given week, there are deaf teens and young adults viewing the works as part of their education in how to overcome obstacles to communication through art. Women with eating disorders listen as guides share points about works that might encourage expression of their emotions around body image. Visitors diagnosed with Alzheimer’s explore themes such as nature and family to stimulate conversation that can sometimes help to evoke memories.

Those efforts were so successful that the MMFA has expanded them in an unusual way: by partnering with the Médecins francophones du Canada, a membership association for French-speaking doctors, who can use their prescription pads to order visits to the museum for patients in lieu of perhaps medicine or a follow-up doctor’s appointment.

At a time when the health community is grasping for solutions to over-prescribing and over-testing, “social prescribing” – in which practitioners look at community activities and nonclinical services as a more holistic approach to wellness – is gaining renewed attention. In the case of art museums in particular, supporters say doctor-ordered visits can carve out crucial space for stillness and observation and provide an antidote to social exclusion.

“It’s not just doctors prescribing pills but patients taking action and putting in their own hands their own healing,” says Yan Yee Poon, an art therapist working at the MMFA on a recent day. “Art speaks to everyone. We can all find something in it we need.”

The year-long experiment, which allows each doctor to issue up to 50 prescriptions that give patients free admission to the MMFA, comes as social prescribing, which took off in Britain, is growing. Doctors increasingly see the role of choirs, sports teams, and arts programs as a key to social inclusion and health outcomes for everyone from patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s to those with anxiety or depression. British studies have also measured a decline in use of the national health system when social prescribing is utilized.

This month the Royal Ontario Museum announced that health-care and social service providers can prescribe visits to the Toronto institution to promote health and well-being. It begins in January.

‘A solution they didn’t know was there’

The MMFA has a long commitment to fostering wellness through arts, of which the project, the first of its kind in Canada, is just the latest expression. Marilyn Lajeunesse, educational programs officer, says the health component grew out of the “Sharing the Museum” initiative to make the museum more inclusive. In its 19th year, the program revealed how much populations in need benefited from being part of the museum community. “We started realizing that visits to the museum were quite beneficial to not only people with psychological issues but people who are fragile in the first place,” she says.

Today the MMFA estimates some 300,000 people partake in their educational, cultural, community-based, and art therapy programs. They employ a full-time art therapist, which they say is the first for any museum. To measure it all, the museum is currently participating in 10 clinical studies supervised by its Art and Health Advisory Committee, chaired by Rémi Quirion, chief scientist of Quebec. They have housed an Art Hive, a twice-weekly session allowing the community to drop in to make art, since 2017.

Robert Kertesz, a retired Montrealer, is at the Art Hive on recent Sunday afternoon, applying India ink to the base of a clay structure of fanciful characters. He says it was inspired by a Tom Petty video, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” based on “Alice in Wonderland.” Mr. Kertesz, who learned about the Art Hive through a seniors program he joined, says even though he doesn’t consider himself a nervous person, it’s still calming to be here – to get out of the house and spend time with people, listening to music, and creating. For those who are depressed or can’t sleep well, he adds, art can be an enormous aid.

“They might be prompted to find a solution they didn’t know was there,” he says.

Ms. Poon, who is working at the Art Hive this day, says that creating art allows people to explore their feelings at a certain distance that often feels safer. But prescriptions to the museum, she says, are an empowerment tool too.

Nicole Parent, the director general of Médecins francophones du Canada, says the healing process of art is not prescriptive. “It might be a moment to step away from stress and anxiety.” Contemplating a piece of art might generate positive feelings as a patient reflects on his or her life, Dr. Parent, an epidemiologist, says, “or it could be a dark piece in which they recognize themselves.” In either case, she says, it can provide an awakening.

The MMFA says that art’s role in healing might be viewed the way mindfulness or meditation is today, or exercise and diet in the past. Upon the unveiling of the plan, Nathalie Bondil, the MMFA director general, said, “In the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century.”

Or as Kertesz puts it, “It feels good to be creative. It’s been therapeutic. I’m not afraid to use the word. ... It’s just a very positive place.”

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The Monitor's View

What strips power from today’s emperors

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In democracies, public challenges to leaders’ authority help rein in personal power. Little of that happens under authoritarian regimes, especially if a leader claims absolute power. Last spring President Xi Jinping achieved life tenure as “supreme leader.” Most of his critics are easily silenced. For Mr. Xi, the greatest threat comes from large religious groups, such as Muslims in China’s Xinjiang. They regard secular power as necessary but lesser to the power of faith. One of China's most prominent Protestants is Wang Yi, pastor of an independent Christian church in Sichuan province. On Dec. 8, he posted a “meditation” on Xi’s crackdown on religious groups and the Caesar-like worship of the Communist Party chief. Treating a leader like an emperor, he wrote, is incompatible with “all those who uphold freedom of the mind and thought.” The next day, he was detained. In democracies, dramatic challenges to a leader serve as reminders that while secular and certainly personal power is not eternal, the ideas that sustain democracy, like freedom and equality, are. China sees few reminders of this sort. When they happen, they deserve notice.

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What strips power from today’s emperors

 In democracies, leaders are often reminded, outside regular elections, about the source of their authority and how that responsibility is to be exercised. Take these events just in recent days:

In the United States, Democrats in the House limited Nancy Pelosi’s next tenure as speaker to four years.

In France, after the “yellow vest” protests, President Emmanuel Macron had to endure a no-confidence vote in Parliament (he won).

In a much-divided Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May’s ruling party took a vote on her future leadership (she won). 

Such public trials help rein in personal power. They force alternative ideas to the fore. They compel citizens to reassess the principles behind their choices at the ballot box. They highlight the values of stable democracy, such as equality, individual rights, and accountability.

Little of that happens under authoritarian regimes, especially if a leader claims absolute power and tries to build a cult of idolatry masked as ideology. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is getting close to this point. He has few checks on power and portrays himself as an ideal, muscular patriot. China, in contrast, may already be at such a point.

Last spring President Xi Jinping achieved life tenure as “supreme leader,” or the personification of power. He has launched a campaign depicting himself as an icon of virtue who must be seen in heroic and paternalistic images. His ideas are required reading. A new song extols him with the title “To Follow You is to Follow the Sun.”

Only a few intellectuals or human rights activists in China have challenged this personality cult. Mostly they warn that rulers who practice “totalitarian politics” must rule mainly by fear. Most of these critics are easily silenced by various means.

For Mr. Xi, the greatest threat comes from large religious groups, such as Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region or Buddhists in Tibet. They regard secular power as necessary but lesser to the power of faith and perhaps subservient to it.

The fastest growing religious group in China is the Protestants. One of the most prominent Protestants is Wang Yi, a former human rights lawyer who is pastor of an independent Christian church, Early Rain, in Chengdu in Sichuan province. On Dec. 8, he posted a 7,300-word “meditation” on Xi’s crackdown on religious groups and the Caesar-like worship of the Communist Party chief.

He did not call for Xi’s ouster. Rather, he wrote that treating a leader like an emperor is incompatible with “all those who uphold freedom of the mind and thought.”

The next day, Mr. Wang and about 100 people in his church were detained. He and his wife are charged with “inciting to subvert state power.”Just before the roundup, the church issued a statement: “Lord, help us to have the Christian’s conscience and courage to resist this ‘Orwellian nonsense’ with more positive Gospel action and higher praise. Without love, there is no courage.”

In the US, Britain, France, and other democracies, dramatic challenges to a leader receive much of the world’s attention. They serve as reminders that, while secular and certainly personal power is not eternal, the ideas that sustain it, like freedom and equality, are.

China sees few reminders of this sort. Yet when they happen, they deserve notice. Wang and his wife face up to 15 years in prison. But as much as any election or party challenge in a democracy, they have now pointed to the right source of authority in the governance of China. It lies not in person.

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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.

‘Let every heart prepare him room’

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When plans to tackle a Christmas to-do list were interrupted, today’s contributor felt the grace of Christ replace frustration with joy, and an opportunity to help friends in need benefited all involved.

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‘Let every heart prepare him room’

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Before the birth of Jesus, the prophet John cried, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3). John wasn’t talking about buying and wrapping gifts, baking Christmas cookies, or decorating and lighting the perfect tree. So with everything else we need to do before Christmas, how might we best and most meaningfully prepare?

I have found that cherishing who Jesus was and what the Christ represents is a good place to start. Echoing John’s words, the beloved carol “Joy to the World” implores, “Let every heart prepare him room.” Besides celebrating the remarkable birth of Jesus, couldn’t this refer to honoring the spirit of Christly love Jesus taught and lived?

When my son was a toddler, we only had one car, making it very hard for me to do errands while my husband was at work. One day, just before Christmas, my husband unexpectedly had an alternate way to get to work and left the car home for me. This was so valuable to me, as I had a long list of holiday errands to accomplish.

But before I left the house, my landlord called to ask if I could babysit her son for the morning. Then a neighbor needed someone to care for her mother, who could not be left home alone, for a bit. Not having the heart to say no to either friend, I agreed to both requests, silently fuming with resentment. It just didn’t seem fair!

Those thoughts were anything but Christlike. But it’s the Christ that Christmas is all about. Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, makes a unique distinction between the man Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem, and his divine title, the Christ. Jesus’ life of preaching, teaching, and healing embodied the highest example of man’s true identity, made in the image and likeness of God. The Christ is the eternal divine nature that Jesus so clearly reflected and so purely lived. In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” Mrs. Eddy notes: “The advent of Jesus of Nazareth marked the first century of the Christian era, but the Christ is without beginning of years or end of days. Throughout all generations both before and after the Christian era, the Christ, as the spiritual idea, – the reflection of God, – has come with some measure of power and grace to all prepared to receive Christ, Truth” (p. 333).

As the morning wore on, I felt the grace of Christ lifting my resentment, with frustration yielding to joy. The children (mine and the boy I was babysitting), my neighbor’s mom, and I had a sweet time doing Christmas crafts. I realized that despite my well-intentioned plans with the car, the best way to prepare for the holidays that particular day was to help meet the needs of these two friends. Gratitude for the opportunity to give of my time and show Christly compassion replaced residual anger and worry. And soon a new strategy for streamlining my long list of errands occurred to me so that I could still get them done.

When everyone had gone home and my son awoke from his nap, we went on our way. At each stop we made, everything went so smoothly that it was as if the items I needed leaped off the shelves and flew into our cart. By the end of the day, I had done much more than I had thought possible, from helping two friends in need to accomplishing everything on my to-do list in record time.

Finding ways to express Christly love is a great way to prepare for the holidays. It not only celebrates the birth of Jesus, but perhaps most importantly it honors the eternal Christ-spirit that he lived. This Christmas and all year through, each of us can experience the healing effects of making room in our heart for the Christ – what the familiar carol describes as “the glories of His righteousness / And wonders of His love.”

A version of this article ran in the Dec. 6, 2018, issue of The Foxboro Reporter.

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Viewfinder

Finding a way to live together

Ann Hermes/Staff
An electric fence separates local tourists from a wild elephant near Sri Lanka’s Udawalawe National Park. Found primarily in India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, Asian elephants are under greater threat than their African counterparts, which are poached for their ivory. The chief threat to Asian elephants is habitat loss. Attracted by crops, elephants venture into populated areas. Farmers seeking to protect their lands use guns and firecrackers and mount night watches that sometimes lead to fatal encounters. The government has moved to confine elephants to national parks, but the efforts haven’t been as effective as hoped. The best solutions, some suggest, may be local ones. “The only mechanisms I have faith in are small-scale electric fences, encircling homesteads or small cultivation plots without impeding elephant movement and foraging in a major way,” says Manori Gunawardena of the Born Free Foundation. “These are largely community-based and managed.” (For more images, click the blue button below.) – Ann Hermes, staff
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 17th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Have a good weekend. On Monday our migration series, On the Move, shifts to Tanzania. Its solution to asylum-seeker debates: Give everyone citizenship overnight. Ryan Lenora Brown checks in. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

December 14, 2018
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