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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.

August
18
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Statuary speaks to us. This past week has driven that home.

What it’s saying depends partly on the care of the listener.

One walking route from the Monitor newsroom to Boston Common – a site being prepared for a Saturday rally organized by groups calling themselves “libertarian” and “conservative” – leads down the middle of the city’s Commonwealth Avenue Mall, a broad and leafy thoroughfare.

The mall offers at least one monument per block. There’s a Cork-born Irishman who became state rep, a West African writer first brought to this Colonial port as a slave. There’s naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, in cap and windbreaker. “Dream dreams then write them,” his plaque reads, “aye, but live them first.”

That’s uncontroversial. Inspiring, even. Beyond the plaque, however, some of Morison’s writings have been called out for exhibiting racist undertones. “No Great Man is all great,” wrote The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr in a piece on Boston monuments this summer.

But can knowing where we started help us to see progress? How might that be brought home?

Watch for a story soon from Richmond, Va., by the Monitor’s Story Hinckley. In that city, once capital of the Confederacy, a young African-American mayor promoted – and then withdrew – a plan to remind without lionizing. The idea: Add words of critical context to statues along the city’s Monument Avenue. 

If the statues now end up coming down, might something in that same spirit replace them?

Now, to our five stories for today.

1. In cities that vote blue, no immunity from racism

Prejudice is easy to recognize when it’s overt; surfacing its more subtle forms is harder. But the importance of doing so is starting to be recognized in cities that have long considered themselves progressive bastions.

 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe growing racial tensions nationally are punctuating a complicated truth in Portland, Ore., and other so-called liberal whitopias – that structural racism may be harder to see, but can be just as insidious as the “blood and soil” chants heard in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend. From Minneapolis to Portland, the moral equivocation of President Trump on the deadly violence in Charlottesville is highlighting “the hypocrisy of white people around our activism,” says Jessie Daniels, author of “White Lies” and a sociologist at the City University of New York. Indeed, she says, cities where every coffee shop is plastered with “All Are Welcome” posters tend to be the very ones where many white residents display “a kind of ignorance, an inability to see and understand the world that we have created. It is where we get this shock, this amazement, at overt white supremacy.” In that way, as Portland focuses new economic development efforts on the black community and rethinks its housing policy, the city offers a glimpse of a work in progress – a journey to not just absolve past racial sins, but to stop committing them.

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1. In cities that vote blue, no immunity from racism

As she has watched white leftists engage in street battles with white nationalists on Portland’s waterfront, Debi Smith has been struck with a sense of gratitude for those willing to fight, in a sense, for her.

But for the life-long Pacific Northwest resident, who is African-American, her thankfulness comes with a caveat grounded in personal experience and history.

After all, Ms. Smith has also watched black people, by both choice and force of circumstances, leaving the City of Roses, their numbers declining since 2010. Progressive to its core, Portland is also America’s whitest big city – in part the troubling legacy of Oregon’s founding goal in the 19th century of creating a white utopia through exclusionary laws.

Here in a city of hops and hipsters, where Republicans have been all but banished, Ms. Smith’s properties have been vandalized with racist graffiti – a particularly sore point since they are one of the only black families left in what was once the core of black Portland, around the corner from where Duke Ellington used to hang out.

“Portland is, in fact, a white utopia, so, for black people, that means race is always there,” says Smith, a Human Resources manager for Multnomah County, where the percentage of registered Republicans dropped from 24 percent in 2001 to 14 percent in 2014. “Trump unleashed a lot of racial hatred, but there are a lot of old-school folks even here in Portland who are still very uncomfortable with black people.”

The growing tensions nationally are punctuating a complicated truth in Portland and other so-called liberal “whitopias” – that structural racism may be harder to see, but can be just as insidious as the “blood and soil” chants heard in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend.

From Minneapolis to Portland, the moral equivocation of President Trump on the deadly violence in Charlottesville is, thus, highlighting “the hypocrisy of white people around our activism,” says Jessie Daniels, author of “White Lies” and a sociologist at the City University of New York.

Indeed, she says, cities where every coffee shop is plastered with “All Are Welcome” posters tend to be the very ones where many white residents display “a kind of ignorance, an inability to see and understand the world that we have created. It is where we get this shock, this amazement, at overt white supremacy.”

‘A major, unique thing going on here’

In that way, as Portland focuses new economic development efforts on the black community and rethinks its housing policy, the city offers a glimpse of a work in progress – a journey to not just absolve past racial sins, but to stop committing them.

“You recognize that there is a major, unique thing going on here,” says Ellis “Ray” Leary, a black Portland resident. “What bubbles up is this thing with a progressive veneer that covers a sinister underbelly. The question now is: How does that translate into a positive regard for black people going forward, and what is the impact of that on … [liberal white] cities in America?”

In recent days, clashes over Confederate monuments and free speech rights for hard-right rallies are spilling into American streets and dominating the news. Portlanders have clashed over similar issues, repeatedly since last fall, with fists, sticks, and silly string.

Three people were killed during last weekend's clashes in Charlottesville, including a female counter-protester who was run over by a Nazi sympathizer in an act being investigated as domestic terrorism.

So far, city officials have pointed to outside agitators as the culprits. But in Charlottesville, the organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally is a local. And Richard Spencer, a self-described alt-right white nationalist who greeted Trump’s inauguration with a “Hail Trump!” salute, attended the University of Virginia.

“Signs declaring allegiance to the principles of diversity and inclusion dot the landscape here ... performative progressivism,” writes University of Virginia Prof. Nicole Hemmer in Vox. “But Charlottesville is not as comprehensively liberal as the visuals suggest.”

Going beyond the surface

Indeed, in Portland and elsewhere, simply confronting phalanxes of white nationalists on the streets may fail to address the hypocrisy Ms. Daniels refers to and, she adds, “betrays only a surface understanding of white supremacy.” 

Earlier this year, a black farmer in Charlottesville, Chris Newman, noted on Facebook, “It isn't Richard Spencer calling the cops on me for farming while Black. It’s nervous White women in yoga pants with ‘I'm with Her’ and ‘Coexist’ stickers on their German SUVs.”

“When we think about the history of race and racism, we have a kind of collective sensibility that these are things that happened in the South,” says Portland native Neda Maghbouleh, author of “The Limits of Whiteness,” and a sociologist at the University of Toronto. “But there’s a pattern of really big immigration cases that started in Portland, one which centers on a naturalization examiner in the 1920s, who would habitually reject applications of naturalization from the Middle East, claiming that they don’t meet the requirements as free white people. Understanding that was a full-circle moment for me – a smoking gun.”

Barack Obama speaks to supporters at a presidential campaign rally in Portland, Ore., on May 18, 2008. Some Portland natives say the photo, showing a sea of largely white faces, reveals the city's flawed track record on racial inclusion.
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Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP/File

Similar to other progressive West Coast enclaves – from Seattle to San Francisco – African-Americans are exiting long-held Portland neighborhoods in droves. Census numbers show 10,000 African-Americans moved from areas near the city’s center to its edge suburbs between 2000 and 2010, and the Manhattan Institute found that trend continuing into this decade, with 11.5 percent of the remaining population leaving between 2010 and 2014. Black Americans make up only 3.1 percent of Oregon’s population; the national average is 13 percent. Blacks seem to be finding more and better opportunities in areas with more diversity: the South, the Midwest and the Northeast, in that order.

Considering choices 

Walidah Imarisha, a local poet and author of “Angels with Dirty Faces,” says, “Portlanders still frame this idea of where people live as a choice, and that if black people aren’t there it’s a choice they are making.”

People often relocate for positive as well as negative reasons, of course. But she says that if the changes in Portland were largely positive, black household wealth would be increasing along with that of white households, instead of black neighborhoods being steamrolled by development and gentrification.

The few US counties where black wealth exceeds white wealth are largely in the South and Midwest, around diverse cities such as Chicago and Atlanta. Boston, Minneapolis, and Portland, on the other hand, are failing to generate black wealth. In Minnesota, minority households have median incomes about 50 percent of their white counterparts, down from 74 percent in 1960.

Last year, the Boston Federal Reserve Bank found that for every $1 of white wealth in Massachusetts’ liberal bastion of Boston, African-Americans claim 2 cents. Charlottesville is among the top 3 percent of US cities when it comes to racial wealth inequality.

And as white Portlanders have grown richer, the median black income has fallen – to less than $30,000 per year. The city’s criminal justice system sends black kids to juvenile detention at four to five times the rate of white kids, for the same misdeeds, according to a Portland State University report. Oregon and Portland have “been slow to dismantle overtly racist policies,” with the effect of “limiting the ways our community has been able to advance and thrive,” the report concludes.

Settled largely by New Englanders, Oregon enshrined white supremacy in its original Constitution, punishing blacks with six lashes for overstaying a two-year welcome. Exclusionary policies didn’t end until the 1990s, when redlining – an illegal process of keeping black homeowners out of certain neighborhoods – ended.

In its wake, the hipster haven of “Portlandia” emerged. Many of that popular comedy show’s skits have been filmed in the city’s former black neighborhoods – with nary a black person in sight.

Mr. Leary, the Portland resident, calls the plight of black Americans in Portland “a great social crime” perpetrated not by overt white supremacists, but well-meaning liberal whites.

‘People care about each other’

To be sure, for many white residents, like Brian Drew, the pushback by Portlanders against white nationalists suggests a different story. Portland just hired its first female African-American police chief, Danielle Outlaw, and has a long history of promoting black candidates to positions of power. The city has some 5,000 black-owned businesses and a robust population of black professionals, many of whom work in progressive headquarters of Nike, Intel, and Adidas. The Portland Housing Authority says by 2020 it will have created 2,200 new homes for low-income Portlanders in the downtown area.

On a sunny Portland afternoon, Mr. Drew, a software engineer, is watching a fundraising basketball tournament in a town that clearly relishes black culture. Blues and jazz abound, and basketball is the city’s unofficial sport. “Portland is the best of all worlds, rolled into one,” he says. “People care about each other. It’s a collective.”

But according to Ms. Maghbouleh, a 2008 Associated Press photograph of candidate Barack Obama visiting the city sums up the paradox. In the stunning picture, President Obama gazes out – on a sea of white faces.

“Portland is a utopian city – if you are white and wealthy,” adds Ms. Imarisha, the poet, adding that it was designed that way. 

Now that legacy is proving stubborn to dislodge, in sometimes tragic ways.

Police say that in late May, Jeremy Christian, a one-time Bernie Sanders supporter who had marched at a white nationalist rally, began harassing two minority women on the city’s light rail MAX line. Three men tried to intercede when Mr. Christian, according to police, produced a knife and stabbed two of them to death.

The deaths fueled more violent clashes by political extremists and have left the city raw.

But it also broke open the “bubble” of Portland’s white history, says Portland State University sociologist Randy Blazak.

“Portland is libertine and a little bit libertarian,” he says. “We are free from the traditional halls of power because we are way out here in the corner of the country. But it creates this strange mix of perception of being very progressive … within this privileged position of racial history in Portland, which is removed from reality. That’s why the MAX murders were shocking to so many white people, but not shocking to so many people of color.”

Randy Smith, a black jazz musician, leans back against his Rolls Royce, which he keeps unlocked in his driveway. He acknowledges that, at its worst, the black neighborhood in the Lower Albina neighborhood was rife with vice. Now, thanks to his mom, Betty Smith, the family has grown wealthy as she bought up 11 properties, in a neighborhood where the average home price has skyrocketed past $400,000 as black residents left, unable to afford to buy or rent.

Despite his family’s prosperity, Mr. Smith mourns the lack of “a sense of togetherness" for the black community.

Leary, for his part, sees a growing recognition that Portland has become “too white.” He says the city’s leaders are realizing there are economic implications to the failure of the city to address its legacy of forced segregation and exclusion of minorities.

“The fact is, black culture brought creativity, the work force, the flavor to this city,” he says. “Now there is an all-hands-on-deck effort to recapture a catalytic sense of place for us. But I don’t know if it can be recaptured.”

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2. In the ashes of Grenfell, evidence of more than flames

The continuing investigation of London’s devastating high-rise fire says a lot about how the wealthy city accommodates its poor – or fails to. 

People protest against the local authority in control of the response to the Grenfell Tower fire ahead of a meeting of Kensington and Chelsea Council in western London July 19. The fire at the residential bloc left dozens dead.
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Ben Stevens/PA/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe Grenfell fire in London, which killed at least 80 people, exposed the shoddy standards and lax regulations governing Britain’s housing stock. But the other exposé at Grenfell, one that packs a political punch, is the vanishing toeholds for the working poor in a city of global wealth, rapid gentrification, and a shrinking welfare state. As the cash-strapped councils that administer London's core functions, including public housing, have courted private developers to build more homes, public-housing residents have been squeezed out of Britain’s capital. A 2015 report found that while council regeneration projects nearly doubled the number of homes to 67,601, including affordable units for middle-class families, “social housing” shrank by 8,000 units. Even the apparent gains in mid-priced properties are mixed, says Paul Watt, reader in urban studies at Birkbeck College in the University of London. “Affordable” is defined as 80 percent of market rates, which rise with redevelopment and displace longtime residents. “The only genuinely affordable element is social rented housing, and that’s going down,” he says.

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2. In the ashes of Grenfell, evidence of more than flames

It was just after 1 a.m. when Tomassina Hessel heard the knock on her door. Wake up, shouted a neighbor. “The tower is on fire!”

The tower was Grenfell, a 24-story residential block that Ms. Hessel’s low-rise building abutted, part of the same public-housing estate. She ran to the window and saw the flames rippling up the side of the tower; when she cracked it open she heard the screams.

When it came time to evacuate, she carried Jesse, her 3-year-old son, down four flights of stairs of her building, which wasn’t burning. Grenfell Tower was a torch in the dark night, a charnel house that would claim at least 80 lives in London’s deadliest fire since the Nazi bombing in World War II.

Nine weeks on, Hessel is living in a hotel room with her son, one of hundreds of evacuees from the estate. Some have moved back into the undamaged buildings, but most are waiting on offers of rehousing, unsure if they want to live in the shadow of the blackened tower. “We need to know what happened with the tower and about the fire safety in our building,” says Hessel.

The Grenfell fire exposed the shoddy standards and lax regulations governing Britain’s housing stock. Police have opened a criminal investigation into why a tower refurbished last year with public money and clad with cut-price aluminum went up in flames so rapidly and thoroughly.

But the other exposé at Grenfell, one that packs a political punch, is the vanishing toeholds for the working poor in a city of global wealth, rapid gentrification, and a shrinking welfare state. As the cash-strapped councils that administer London's core functions, including public housing, have courted private developers to build more homes, public-housing residents have been squeezed out by what critics call the “social cleansing” of Britain’s capital.

That the number of public-housing units in London has not kept pace with demand is not news. But the tragedy at Grenfell has shone a spotlight on housing policy and raised questions over who benefits from London’s real-estate boom – and who falls through the cracks. 

London’s housing crisis has been decades in the making, says Paul Watt, reader in urban studies at Birkbeck College in the University of London. The media’s attention has primarily been on the plight of middle-class renters who can’t afford to buy homes without family money, rather than the pressure on working-class Londoners who rely on public subsidies.

A judge leading an official inquiry into the fire said this week that its remit wouldn’t include a review of social housing policy, despite calls from local residents to do so. For many service workers on low wages though, “social housing” is virtually the only affordable option in much of London, where house prices have risen fivefold since 1995.

“The dominant narrative of the last decades has been that social housing is full of wasters and scroungers who can’t get on the housing ladder. I think what Grenfell has done is re-humanized social housing and made the issue of social-housing provision much more important,” Mr. Watt says.

Mixed community

Britain’s postwar reconstruction leaned heavily on public housing that was not just for the poor but as “the living tapestry of a mixed community,” in the words of their political architect. Victorian slums were cleared and replaced by modern apartment blocks. This wave of social housing continued into the 1970s when Grenfell Tower went up in North Kensington.

In 1981, 35 percent of Londoners rented from their council or a nonprofit association. Then came Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative prime minister who led the privatization of public assets, including the discounted sale of council-owned homes to their tenants. This policy initially boosted homeownership but was coupled with a freeze on new social housing. Over time, more households ended up in the private rental market. This land grab has intensified in recent years as the ruling Conservative Party has slashed housing subsidies and grants to local government in order to balance its budget. A 2016 parliamentary report found that 40 percent of former council homes belonged to landlords with multiple units.

Councils also began to unwind their direct role in social housing. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), home to Britain’s wealthiest ZIP codes, handed off management of Grenfell and other estates to a nonprofit management agency. This agency has been heavily criticized for ignoring residents’ repeated complaints over fire safety.

On the streets around Grenfell, the posters on bus stops, brick walls, and storefronts tell their own story. Photos of missing residents posted in the first frantic days have faded; appeals for information have been replaced by handwritten RIPs and tributes. Many of the names are Muslim. Some were Asian and North African immigrants, say residents, along with other ethnic minorities living in the building, part of London’s multicultural stew. 

“It takes years to build a community,” says Hessel, who was born in Germany and raised in London. “This community is so tight woven.”

Hessel moved into the estate in 2004 after becoming homeless as a student. She didn’t finish her degree but found work in catering and administration before taking time off when Jesse was born. The rent on her two-bedroom apartment is £550 ($700) a month, well below market rates in a neighborhood just a few miles from the prime properties of Notting Hill Gate and Kensington Palace.

Before the fire, Hessel had plans to start a digital marketing business, send her son to daycare, and find a private rental. She wanted to stay in the neighborhood, even if it meant paying £2,000 ($2,570) a month so they had access to public services and schools in a wealthy district. “I want to make sure that my son and I get the best out of life. We don’t want to remain poor.”

That proximity to wealth, and existing gentrification, has led to interest in Grenfell from developers. In 2009, consultants recommended that RBKC demolish the tower block in order to build a mix of luxury and affordable housing on the site. That plan was never pursued. Instead, the council decided on a renovation of Grenfell that added more units and lower-floor facilities.

Another addition: New aluminum siding and insulation. Last year the council’s then leader praised the renovation. “It is remarkable to see first-hand how the cladding has lifted the external appearance of the tower and how the improvements inside people’s homes will make a big difference to their day-to-day lives,” said Nicholas Paget-Brown, who resigned after the fire.

Driving out low-income tenants?

While Grenfell was spared the wrecking ball, councils across London have pursued ambitious regeneration projects that critics say inevitably push out low-income tenants and homeowners.

Conservative think tanks argue that decaying public housing located in expensive districts offer a partial solution to London’s chronic lack of housing. By selling sought-after land to private developers, councils can increase housing density, ease upward pressure on private rents, and free up resources for social housing elsewhere.

London’s elected assembly issued a report in 2015 on council regeneration projects over the past decade. It found that the number of homes had nearly doubled to 67,601, including affordable units for middle-class families, while “social housing” shrank by 8,000 units.

Even the apparent gains in mid-priced properties are mixed, says Mr. Watt. Affordable is defined as 80 percent of market rates, which rise with redevelopment and displace longtime residents. “The only genuinely affordable element is social rented housing, and that’s going down,” he says.

Stephen Timms, an opposition lawmaker in East London, often sees constituents about to lose their privately rented homes. But councils no longer have spare units, even to house families that face eviction, so they look for social housing in other cities. “Some that are becoming homeless are being told, here’s a place for you in Birmingham,” says Mr. Timms.

For families with jobs in London and kids in local schools, that’s a terrible bind. “It’s causing huge hardship and I think over time it will undermine the viability of London,” he says.

Asked in 2010 about government cuts in housing subsidies, then-Mayor Boris Johnson said he opposed the “social cleansing” of low-income renters. "The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs,” he said.

But that is what critics say is happening and why communities like Grenfell feel so embattled in the face of council redevelopment plans that make them feel like unwanted guests.

“Many want the poor to leave London. They believe that if you’re in social housing you must be on welfare. This is nonsense,” says Chris Imafidon, an educator and local resident.

Seeing the big picture

A week after the fire, Hessel went back to her apartment. “I walked in and I walked out. I left everything,” she says. Since then, she’s gone back to retrieve documents and collect toys for Jesse. But she’s not ready to move back and is weighing her options for temporary rehousing.

After the fire, Jesse seemed fine. But one night his father – the couple aren’t together – was reading him a book when Jesse told him that his house had burned down. It was the first time he had spoken of the incident. “He imagined that it had happened to him,” says Hessel.

Lately Hessel has begun rethinking her career plans. Helping brands to market online no longer seems such a worthwhile goal, she says. Her involvement with Grenfell survivors and activist groups, and exposure to the workings of government and emergency services, got her thinking about community engagement and why Grenfell residents were ignored for so long. Perhaps this is what she should be doing with her life, she muses.

“I was aware of all of the issues. I was angry about all these issues. But I was isolated. I didn’t know how to go about doing anything,” she says. Now she sees the big picture – and what’s missing. “The government needs to start investing in social housing.”

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3. In GOP Congress, an emerging mantra: Focus on the legislation

Many Republican lawmakers may be frustrated with President Trump and a White House that keeps roiling (as with Steve Bannon’s dismissal today). But they’re soldiering on. Why? Because how could they not? They’re doing the nation’s business. 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadAmid a slew of GOP criticism of President Trump following last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Va., Sen. Bob Corker’s comments were particularly stark. The president, the Tennessee senator said, has yet to demonstrate the stability, competence, or understanding of America’s character – without which the country will be “in great peril.” This latest blowup widens internal GOP divisions ahead of a full fall that includes the president’s marquee item, tax reform. Yet Mr. Trump and his party on the Hill share a common agenda that keeps them tied to each other through political storms. So the Republican Congress is likely to soldier on with Trump, whose support they need for big legislation. The problem is his leverage is disappearing, say some observers. “Trump’s ability to persuade members to do something is almost zero right now,” says Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant in Texas and a former senior Senate aide. “He’s wasting his political capital on things that are not central to his agenda. It’s a little bit like spending your allowance on candy.”

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3. In GOP Congress, an emerging mantra: Focus on the legislation

It is perhaps the most serious, direct criticism of President Trump by one of his fellow Republicans in Congress since his remarks about last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Va.

On Thursday, Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters in his home state of Tennessee that Mr. Trump has yet to demonstrate the “stability” or “competence” to be a successful president – which the world needs, he said. Nor has the president recently shown that he “understands the character of this nation.”

Without these things, the senator continued, the country will be “in great peril.”

That kind of warning, along with a slew of targeted and implied rebukes of Trump from Republican lawmakers, again raises the question of whether relations between the president and his party in Congress have reached a breaking point.

Again, the answer is no, because of the two sides’ mutual interest in their agenda. But this latest blow-up widens the internal party divisions ahead of a full fall that includes the president’s marquee item, tax reform. And it puts in doubt his ability to sell this and other issues to the Congress and the nation, observers say.

“Trump’s ability to persuade members to do something is almost zero right now,” says Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant in Texas and a former senior Senate aide. “He’s wasting his political capital on things that are not central to his agenda. It’s a little bit like spending your allowance on candy.”

Keeping their heads down

And yet, the fact remains that the White House and his party on the Hill share a common agenda that keeps them tied to each other through political storms: the pre-election “Access Hollywood” scandal, the clash over the Russia investigations, the failure of Obamacare “repeal and replace,” and Trump’s repeated public scolding of lawmakers, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

“It doesn’t matter what the president says, it’s what he signs that’s the key to keeping the majorities in Congress,” says John Feehery, who was the spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois.

What Republicans need to do is “keep their heads down” and get their work done so they have something to show voters in the midterm elections of 2018, says Mr. Feehery. When they return from their August recess after Labor Day, they need to deal with the national debt ceiling, the budget, and – Republicans hope – pass a tax reform bill by the end of the year.

None of these are going to be easy.

Divisions over debt ceiling, budget

Republicans are divided over raising the debt ceiling – the equivalent of paying the nation’s credit card bill for expenses already incurred. In the past, hard-line conservatives have used the debt ceiling to exact savings in spending, taking the nation to the brink of default. The White House wants a “clean” raising of the debt limit with no conditions and no drama.

The budget is another tough one. It includes political landmines like the president’s southern border wall and military spending increases for which Democrats will want higher domestic spending in return. Meanwhile, the details of tax reform, which Republicans still plan to pass on their own, have yet to be fleshed out – and it’s the details that spark the divisions.

Helping to bridge these differences, whether they are between Republicans or between the parties, is an important job of a president. Yet some political analysts are now saying that, effectively, the president is not playing this role.

“There’s no president to lead the way,” says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank.

Instead, he’s caught up by distractions and controversy, which are contributing to approval ratings of less than 40 percent. The president decided to remove one of those distractions, with news reports on Friday indicating that controversial advisor Steve Bannon is now out as the president's chief strategist.

“After this week, it will be well-nigh impossible for Trump to get any Democratic votes on controversial legislation” because he is so toxic to Democrats, says John Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. Democrats are are now pushing censure of the president in the House.

Needed: Presidential sales job

At the same time, a big lift like tax reform requires presidential focus and a presidential sales job. And while Trump is known for his dealmaking, an unpopular president often has a hard time selling his agenda, even if the unpopularity has nothing to do with the task at hand, explains Prof. Pitney.

“The trouble is, with something big, you need a president, and they don’t have it,” says Professor Pitney. He is reminded of President Nixon, who proposed what Pitney calls “Obamacare 1.0.” But it didn’t go anywhere, “because Nixon was already politically dead.”

These are harsh critiques, and not everybody completely buys them.

Elections, not impeachment, 'the natural breaking point'

Feehery warns “establishment Republicans” that Trump has strengthened support with his base since Charlottesville, not weakened it. He says lawmakers should not digress from their legislative agenda just because they don’t like what the president says.

Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma is admittedly concerned about “strains” with the White House that have been exacerbated by the president’s characterization of many people who marched with white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville as “very fine” people.

“This isn’t a bunch of innocent people. There’s not a moral equivalency here,” says Congressman Cole.

But like Feehery, Cole, who is close to the House GOP leadership, urges everyone to take a collective deep breath, because “we have a lot in common. We can’t be successful without each other.”

He points to the accomplishments of the past six months, which, besides the GOP goals of a Supreme Court justice and regulation rollbacks, include bipartisan passage of Veterans Affairs reform and anti-human-trafficking legislation. The trifecta of health care, tax reform, and infrastructure remain undone, he says, but therein lies the incentive.

Elections – rather than an unrealistic impeachment – are “the natural breaking point,” as Cole defines it. “My advice to the president and our guys is, if you don’t produce, you won’t be in the majority.”

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4. Russia closes the door on a neo-Nazi website

Self-described "alt-right" groups have not hidden their admiration for Russia’s strongman president, based in part on an assumption of many shared values. That reveals how little they know of Vladimir Putin’s philosophy – and Russia's history.

 

The 30 Sec. ReadAfter neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer found its US registration rejected in the aftermath of its disparaging comments about Charlottesville protest victim Heather Heyer, it briefly found a new haven with a Russian web registrant. The publication subsequently claimed on its front page that Donald Trump personally arranged the RU domain for it in a phone call with Vladimir Putin. That, however, is unlikely – and not just because the site's registration was quickly terminated by Russian authorities for promotion of extremist ideologies. The love affair that American “alt-right” activists and white nationalists seem to have with Mr. Putin looks largely one-sided. In fact, says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, there’s very little tolerance in Russia for the kind of philosophy that the “alt-right” espouses. “In Russia itself, hard-line nationalists face very tough pressures. They are the most heavily persecuted type of political activists.” Nor is there any evidence that Putin, who runs a sprawling multiethnic and multi-confessional country, holds any ethno-nationalist or white supremacist views.

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4. Russia closes the door on a neo-Nazi website

Russian critics have long worried about the propensity of the country’s communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor (RKZ), to cast an overly wide net in censoring “extremist” content on the internet.

But when RKZ brought its weight to bear against The Daily Stormer, a US-based neo-Nazi group whose hate-laced website briefly came to be registered on Russian servers, it was a satisfying moment for even the most strident RKZ gadflies.

“This is one of the few times when we can feel like RKZ’s intervention is totally warranted,” says Alexey Kovalev, a blogger and media critic. “Normally they are looking for ways to declare any kind of opposition website as extremist.”

The Daily Stormer has been getting chased around the internet in what looks like an international game of whack-a-mole in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend, where one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed by an attendee of protests by the so-called alt-right, an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and populism. The Daily Stormer published articles disparaging Ms. Heyer, leading the Stormer’s site registration to be canceled by its registrar for violation of terms of service.

The site tried to register a domain name with several other companies and was rejected each time, before finally finding a brief haven under a Russian RU domain name. The publication subsequently claimed on its front page that Donald Trump personally arranged the RU domain for it in a phone call with Vladimir Putin.

That, however, is unlikely.

“You can get a domain in about five minutes” from several private companies that peddle them over the global internet, says Andrei Kolesnikov, director of the non-state coordination center for RU domain names. “It’s just as easy to open one in Ukraine, Moldova, Morocco, or just about any other zone. Russia is no safe harbor. But RKZ is watching, and if they get complaints they can shut it down, no matter who owns it.”

And shut it down they did in less than a day – quite quickly, by Russian standards – after Russian social media activists swamped RKZ with complaints. The watchdog quickly instructed the domain names coordination center to deregister the Daily Stormer. It did so, and posted an explanation on its website.

Strange bedfellows?

The Daily Stormer’s dubious claim of Mr. Putin’s involvement calls attention to the one-sided love affair that American “alt-right” activists and white nationalists appear to have with Putin amid the tensions laid bare by Mr. Trump’s chaotic presidency.

Also, it seems likely to feed suspicions that somehow the Kremlin has been using the odd pro-Trump alignment of far-right agitators, anti-Semites, and white nationalists to spread Russian propaganda, deepen discord, and further weaken US democracy.

Some US conservatives, including Trump, have expressed admiration of Putin as a “strong leader.” Other symmetries could be that Putin seems to be a devout Christian who has allowed the Russian Orthodox Church unprecedented leeway to promote its socially-conservative domestic agenda. Putin, and the Russian media in general, tend to sympathize with anti-globalist forces, particularly if they are seen to be driving wedges in the West’s anti-Russia unity.

And Putin has, since his arrival in power, promoted what might be described as a “make Russia great again” agenda, elevating national identity and interests over internationalist currents.

“There was a time when all sorts of people got invited to Moscow,” says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. That would include Texas separatistsEuroskeptics, US gun lovers, religious-right types, and other conservatives. Putin famously (or perhaps infamously) dined with Trump adviser Michael Flynn – who was briefly White House national security adviser – at an RT event in Moscow in 2015.

“I don’t think it was connected with sharing ideological views. It was more a matter of ‘those who criticize your opponents are your friends,’” says Mr. Petrov.

Fallow ground for nationalism

In fact, says Petrov, there’s very little tolerance in Russia for the kind of philosophy that the “alt-right” espouses. “In Russia itself, hard-line nationalists face very tough pressures. They are the most heavily persecuted type of political activists.”

Nor is there any evidence that Putin, who runs a sprawling multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country, holds any ethno-nationalist or white supremacist views. Nor has he ever been associated with anti-Semitism. Under his leadership Russia has taken a hard turn toward intolerant social conservatism, but there seems little doubt it enjoys widespread popularity.

“Putin is a pragmatist and a consummate populist. He’s interested in keeping power in Russia, and can be quite flexible about that,” says Petrov. “I doubt he has an interest in building any international alliances based on ideology, or anything like that.”

Mr. Kovalev also says he’s very dubious about allegations of an axis between the Kremlin and the American “alt-right.”

“There seems to be very little cross-over in ideas, maybe a few vague similarities,” he says. “Mostly it seems to be based on the fact that one of the leaders of the ‘alt-right’ in the US, Richard Spencer, was married to a Russian woman. But she doesn’t come off as anyone that has contacts with the Russian government. It all looks pretty empty....

“In general, I’m skeptical of this idea that Putin is waging a campaign to sow chaos in the US via the ‘alt-right.’ It’s lazy conjecture to blame outside forces for things that are going wrong in your own country. It sounds more like what Russian officials always try to do.”

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5. In weekend’s eclipse, a bright opportunity for solar science

There have been hundreds of total solar eclipses since Galileo first aimed his telescope skyward. But each eclipse offers a few minutes to glean more insight into our nearest star’s deepest mysteries.

A 'diamond ring' shape is seen during the 2016 total solar eclipse in Indonesia. The photo was taken by Bob Baer and Sarah Kovac, participants in the Citizen CATE Experiment. For the 2017 eclipse over the United States, the National Science Foundation is funding a movie project nicknamed Citizen CATE in which more than 200 trained volunteers equipped with small telescopes and tripods will observe the sun at 68 locations in the exact same way. The thousands of images from the citizen scientists will be combined for a movie of the usually hard-to-see sun’s edge.
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R. Baer, S. Kovac/Citizen CATE Experiment/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAmericans all over the country are preparing to catch a glimpse this coming Monday of the first total solar eclipse to hit the United States since 1979. The Great American Eclipse promises to dazzle laymen and scientists alike. But solar scientists, in particular, couldn't be more excited. Every eclipse offers a few minutes to glean more insight into our nearest star’s deepest mysteries. And each time, scientists are equipped with more sophisticated technology to study the phenomenon. After all, America’s last eclipse hit the same year as the first Sony Walkman. Next week’s eclipse offers an opportunity to gather data that early astronomers could never have imagined, thanks to the networked computers sitting in most people’s pockets. Researchers are enlisting amateur astronomers to help gather as much data as possible during the fleeting event. One project invites smartphone users to contribute images to a megamovie that will offer scientists a unique window into how the sun's corona changes over time. Click expand to learn more about how to view the eclipse safely and where to learn about additional citizen science projects.

Path of totality

SOURCE: NASA
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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5. In weekend’s eclipse, a bright opportunity for solar science

On Aug. 21 the moon and the sun are set to align in a way not witnessed in the United States since 1979. The Great American Eclipse will cast a shadowy path from Oregon to South Carolina. And solar scientists could not be more excited.

There have been hundreds of total solar eclipses since Galileo first aimed his telescope skyward. But each eclipse offers a few minutes to glean more insight into our nearest star’s deepest mysteries. 

Images collected even 20 years ago were taken with devices “100 times worse” than today’s, says Jay Pasachoff, an astronomer and veteran eclipse hunter. “We can take more images and more specialized images than we used to be able to,” he says. After all, America’s last eclipse hit the same year as the first Sony Walkman.

By concealing the light from the sun’s photosphere, eclipses have helped reveal startling facts about the cosmos. In 1919, astronomers observed starlight bending from the sun’s gravitational pull, supporting Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And in one of the earliest examples of citizen science, astronomer Edmond Halley asked fellow Englishmen to time the 1715 eclipse; he used that data to improve future eclipse predictions.

Next week’s eclipse offers an opportunity Halley could never have imagined, thanks to the networked computers sitting in most people’s pockets. The moon’s shadow skims across the ground at supersonic speed, capping individual observation time at less than three minutes.

A Google-University of California, Berkeley collaboration aims to enlist smartphone users across the country to stitch together “Eclipse Megamovie 2017” spanning the 90-minute duration. The movie will offer scientists a unique window into how the corona changes over time. The data will be made publicly available for researchers all over the world.

Such a film could help unravel the “coronal heating problem.” Eclipses provide a rare glimpse at the corona, the wreath of particles usually drowned out by the star’s glare. Observers of an 1879 eclipse thought they had detected a new element (dubbed “coronium”), but their finding turned out to be far more revolutionary: a mysteriously intense heat that somehow denuded iron atoms of their electrons.

The sun’s corona, astronomers would eventually conclude, must be hundreds of times as hot as its surface, a paradox one NASA scientist likened to putting a frying pan on a block of ice and watching it boil water. Professor Pasachoff has devoted much of his professional life to exploring this puzzle. He has chased more than 60 eclipses all over the globe, and this time he’ll be watching from Salem, Ore., a location chosen “based on 20 years of cloudiness statistics.”

Eclipse enthusiasts hoping to follow Pasachoff’s example should plan for dense traffic, as immense interest is predicted to overwhelm the capacity of many rural areas in the razor-thin path of totality. NASA recommends arriving a day early with food, water, toilet paper, and eclipse glasses for safe observation. Those outside the path of totality, even as far north as Maine, can still view a partial eclipse with proper eye protection, provided weather doesn't cloud the sky. (Test your eclipse glasses with a flashlight before risking a glance at the sun.) Check out NASA's eclipse page for information on additional citizen science opportunities.

And if hopes of seeing this eclipse are dashed by clouds or crowds, would-be citizen scientists will have a second chance on April 8, 2024, when another lunar shadow shades states from Texas to Maine.

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The Monitor's View

A common thread in curbing racist expression

 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe choices that Americans are making in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Va., about public expressions of hate and racism rely first and foremost on upholding the ability of everyone, either alone or through collective democratic means, to control what enters one’s consciousness. This sounds so basic as to be trite, but it has been key over centuries in eroding the false claims about race. Keeping watch over one’s thinking also helps keep open the possibility for racists to realize they still have a choice and can question their views. Racist groups often rely on intimidation to express themselves. Their rhetoric and rallies are often threatening and coercive. In contrast, those who guard their thoughts from racism rely on freedom of conscience and peaceful persuasion. And that option can make all the difference as the United States confronts the legacies and challenges of the notion that society define people by skin color.

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A common thread in curbing racist expression

After last weekend’s violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., many Americans feel a need to make better choices about public expressions of racism, such as in Confederate symbols or hate-filled Facebook postings. The responses are quite diverse, ranging from the farcical to the coercive, which makes it important to look for a common thread that ultimately makes a difference.

In a “Saturday Night Live” skit, comedian Tina Fey urged Americans to respond to neo-Nazi hatred by ordering “a cake with the American flag on it ... and just eat it.” That is the “ignore it” response.

In contrast, HBO’s “Vice News Tonight” ran a half-hour documentary with an insider account of the white nationalist movement, showing vivid portrayals of the marchers in Charlottesville and their cause. The video has been viewed more than 36 million times. That is the “expose it” option.

Perhaps the easiest response comes from governments now questioning their past endorsements of racist expression in the public square. Dozens of cities and states are searching for Confederate memorials or signs erected decades ago and deciding whether to remove them. This is the “not in the public’s name” option. But this effort has its limits as many well-known figures in history are tainted by racism or who did good far beyond their errors.

Then there is the “disarm it” option, or taking away potential physical harm from racist expression. In Boston, for example, the city has ordered that an Aug. 19 rally by a right-wing group – and a counterprotest – not include sticks, guns, or anything that could be used as a weapon or to hide one. That rule is in contrast to the presence of guns and sticks – as well as a car used to strike counterprotesters – at the Virginia protests.

Boston’s protective action is similar to a new stance by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU, in response to criticism of its usual defense of free speech, has decided not to defend the rights of hate groups if they allow guns at their rallies.

A variation of the ACLU’s response comes from internet companies such as Google and GoDaddy. Many high-tech firms are beefing up the policing of their websites for hate speech that might incite violence. As private companies, they can censor views in ways government should not. Yet in the era of democratized information, in which political and social groups have multiple digital platforms, this “private ban” option also has its limits. Big media are no longer the gatekeepers of public thinking.

A common thread in all these options is a heightened recognition of the need for individuals to stand guard over what ideas or images to allow into their thinking. The choices that Americans are now making about public expressions of hate and racism rely first and foremost on upholding the ability of everyone, either alone or through collective democratic means, to control what enters one’s consciousness.

This sounds so basic as to be trite, but it has been key over centuries in eroding the false claims about race. Keeping watch over one’s thinking also helps keep open the possibility for racists to realize they still have a choice and can question their views.

Racist groups often rely on intimidation to express themselves. Their rhetoric and rallies are often threatening and coercive. In contrast, those who guard their thoughts from racism rely on freedom of conscience and peaceful persuasion. And that option can make all the difference as the United States confronts the legacies and challenges of the notion that society define people by skin color.

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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.

Overcoming hate

 

It’s hard not to be dismayed by events such as what recently took place in Charlottesville, Va., and Barcelona, Spain. But there’s great strength to be found in letting divine Love lead us forward. It’s not about overlooking hate or wrongdoing. Rather, it’s a question of loving others enough to acknowledge that no one is beyond God’s healing, redeeming power. “I make strong demands on love, call for active witnesses to prove it, and noble sacrifices and grand achievements as its results,” writes Mary Baker Eddy (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 250). Instead of getting caught up in animosity or fear that things will never change, we can yield to the infinite strength of divine Love and bear witness to the reformation and harmony it inspires.

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Overcoming hate

Like many, I’ve been trying not to be dismayed by the hatred we’ve recently seen expressed, such as in Charlottesville, Va., and Barcelona, Spain. I’ve been moved to pray about the situation, affirming daily that God, divine Love, created us all as spiritual and capable of expressing great love.

For decades now, the Bible has been my rock through good times and bad, and I’ve found Christ Jesus’ strength in the face of hate to be inspiring – as well as healing.

The Gospels make clear that Jesus was no wimp in the face of evil. On more than one occasion he denounced wrongdoing in very explicit terms. But he also pointed out the way to a better, purer life that truly belongs to everyone, in which we are all the sons and daughters of divine Love, God.

Jesus proved how this spiritual understanding of our relation to God can keep us safe from hatred when a mob marched him to the edge of a hill, intending to throw him off it and kill him. The Bible says, “But he passing through the midst of them went his way” (Luke 4:30).

All that Jesus did he did out of love, even loving those who hated him. And he expected others to be able to follow suit. Jesus’ “bottom line” to his disciples was, “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). To me, obeying this command includes acknowledging that no one is beyond divine Love’s healing, redeeming power, even when hate seems the most entrenched.

A prime example of such a change is the man we now know as the Apostle Paul. For years he had hunted down Christ Jesus’ followers. And while he could imprison them unjustly, and even stand by as at least one of them was murdered, he couldn’t stop the prayers of those he was persecuting.

Eventually his life and character were transformed through a realization of the power of Christly love, which was shown by the willingness of one of those early followers of Jesus, called Ananias. He expressed that love in the face of the violence Paul, as Saul, had aimed at them. Once a hate-filled, self-righteous man, Paul became a powerful example of Love’s power to redeem the wrongdoer and save the innocent.

Daily, as I read the news reports, I ask myself, “Am I able to love enough to see even those that express hate as truly being the spiritual children of God, instead of hateful mortals?” I’d be lying if I said this was easy. Nor is the love I am striving for simply a way to paper over the challenges posed by these events. But I have been inspired by an article called “Love,” in which Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy writes, “I make strong demands on love, call for active witnesses to prove it, and noble sacrifices and grand achievements as its results” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 250).

There’s great strength to be found in turning our thoughts to God’s care and yielding to divine Love. Then, instead of getting caught up in self-justification or the fear that things will never change, our hearts can respond to Love’s perspective – affirming and discerning the spiritual truth that Love governs all – even when current events don’t reflect that.

A statement Paul made in a letter to Roman followers of Christ Jesus after the turnaround in his character has a strong message for these times. After enumerating the Bible teachings about not committing adultery, killing, stealing, lying, or coveting, Paul writes, “and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (see Romans 13:8-10).

The law of Love, God, is infinitely more powerful than hatred, and I am praying to see this divine law at work to free both the haters and the targets of their hatred from being subject to animosity and fear.

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Viewfinder

A moment, today

Rest for a gatherer

A laborer reclines on a pile of recyclables at a yard in Peshawar, Pakistan, Aug. 17.
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Fayaz Aziz/Reuters
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In Our Next Issue

( August 21st, 2017 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Thanks for reading today. Come back Monday. Among the stories that we’ll be sharing: one on China’s effort to create one of the world’s most expansive national park networks – in part to prevent a furthering of damage wrought by rapid economic growth. 

Also: Here’s a bonus read for your weekend. A recent graduate of the University of Virginia, Story Hinckley (also mentioned at the top of this package) writes about her years in Charlottesville, and coming to terms today with her school’s complicated racial history

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