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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
07
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Religion and politics are the no-gos of polite dinner parties. Church and state are meant in most regards to be American democracy’s oil and water.

Overlaps are inevitable, and interesting. Some now view climate change, for example, as “a theological emergency.” In Britain a tribunal wrestles with whether veganism is a belief that should be given religious protections.

What if some of the pro-social precepts that guide many faith traditions – from the most formally ritualized religions to ones rooted in a more secular fellowship – were applied to “cultivating a culture of citizenship”?

That’s the idea behind Civic Saturday, an offshoot of Citizen University, a Seattle-based nonprofit founded in 2016 by former White House policy adviser Eric Liu. Its stated goal is to promote agency, not an agenda. Participants sing together. They read texts of “civic scripture,” like the preamble to the Constitution.

“Whichever faith or tradition you’re from, organized religion has figured out a few things over the millennia about how to bring people together,” Mr. Liu told NationSwell, “about how to create a language of common purpose and … use text to spark people’s reckoning with their own shortcomings, weaknesses, and aspirations.”

Liu’s work: reaching out to the unaffiliated. “[T]hey’ve been hungering for a sense of purposeful shared community,” he told his interviewer, “[one] that elevates questions of moral challenge right now.”

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Now to our five stories for your Friday, including a look at the deepening reach of #MeToo, an update on a harrowing Afghan saga, and a check-in from Britain’s Parliament about why debaters may be losing their mojo.

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1. A moral test at climate summit: What do rich nations owe poorer ones?

The Paris Agreement showed a spirit of unified commitment. Now leaders of wealthy nations need to size up a slipperier obligation. It calls for outreach to countries not in their club. 

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Climate change, by nature, is a global problem. Each ton of carbon dioxide affects the climate, whether emitted in Stockholm or Shanghai. At the heart of the Paris Agreement in 2015 is a bargain among nations to nudge one another toward ambitious commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in an effort to stabilize global temperatures. The bargain also called on rich nations to help developing ones adapt. Now comes a test of the “we’re in this together” spirit. At the COP24, this year’s United Nations climate summit, a key task is to firm up plans for developed nations to contribute more than $100 billion a year by 2020 to help other countries. “[The developed world] has to take historical responsibility for this,” says Nigerian climate official Peter Tarfa, noting the outsize emissions of industrialized nations. But the rationale is also pragmatic. More support translates into lower emissions in places with rising populations and aspirations for middle-class lifestyles. “It’s not a question of forcing developed countries to pay,” Dr. Tarfa says. It’s getting them “to see the benefits of such action.”

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1. A moral test at climate summit: What do rich nations owe poorer ones?

In 2015, the Paris Agreement on climate change rallied the world’s nations around a sense of collective resolve, a spirit of “We’re all in this together.”

Leaders embraced the idea that this global-scale problem requires ambitious action from every nation to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. They also agreed that wealthier nations should help finance the efforts of poorer ones.

Now the spirit of togetherness is being tested.

Some of that money has already started to flow. But a key moment has arrived. Three years later, it’s the appointed time to firm up plans to hit a $100-billion-a-year target for such international transfers by 2020 – and to expand this “climate finance” further from there.

The national and global initiatives are intertwined. Without help, developing nations will be less able to pursue ambitious targets for low-carbon economies. Officials from postcolonial and developing nations in the “global south” say industrialized nations should bring more money to the table – for everyone’s sake.

“If developed economies put off their climate payments any longer, the Paris Agreement temperature goals will slip out of reach, with tragic consequences for people and planet," J. Antônio Marcondes, chief negotiator for Brazil, writes in an email to the Monitor. “These finance commitments were not mere ornaments to the Paris Agreement. They were fundamental elements in the balance of the Agreement which must be fully delivered for developed countries to meet their historical responsibilities, and for developing countries to reach an even higher gear.”

A higher gear may be vital. The outlook appears daunting on several fronts.

This week came news that, despite global efforts to date, the world’s greenhouse emissions continue to rise, driven especially by increases in China and India. Meanwhile, the United States under President Trump has backed away from its Paris climate commitments, and recent protests prompted the French government to cancel a gas tax designed to curb reliance on fossil fuels.

Still, with all the challenges there’s also hope and a tangible sense of determined optimism in Katowice, Poland, at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known for short as COP24. The ethos of “we’re in this together” hasn’t died out.

“The expected commitments that we’re hearing from developed countries are all positive,” says Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, director of sustainable finance at the World Resources Institute think tank, speaking by phone from Poland. “We don't know yet what the numbers are going to be precisely, but we do know that there’s a collective sense that this has to be done.”

He notes that, ahead of the summit for climate officials, Germany said it will contribute $1.7 billion to the Green Climate Fund for developing nations, nearly twice the support it gave the last time industrialized nations replenished that fund. That would push Germany toward the top tier of contributors, on a per capita basis.

And the World Bank pledged this week to devote $200 billion over five years to help poorer nations develop their economies in climate-smart ways.

‘Historical responsibility’

To some degree the Green Climate Fund is still earning the trust of donor and recipient nations alike. Some see room for the fund to make decisions both faster and with enhanced safeguards against misuse of the money.

Still, there’s fairly wide support for the general concept behind the Green Climate Fund. The reasons voiced by officials and nongovernment organizations are both moral and pragmatic.

“The emissions come mostly from developed countries. If you look at the emissions produced by a small island in the Pacific, it's almost zero, but the country can disappear because of rising sea levels,” says Simon Wilson, head of communications at the Green Climate Fund.

“[The developed world] has to take historical responsibility for this,” says Peter Tarfa, director of Nigeria’s Department of Climate Change.

But Mr. Wilson also notes the business opportunities for private-sector firms. And Dr. Tarfa also frames the the issue more broadly.

“It’s not a question of forcing developed countries to pay, it’s a question of getting developed countries to see the benefits of such action and meeting their obligations,” Tarfa says. Reduced emissions bring a benefit to the whole planet. And helping nations adapt to the effects of climate change can mean a reduction in conflict and forced migration.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters/File
A power official works on an electric pole along a street in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital. Nigerian officials say that Green Climate Fund support will help the country to diversify energy sources to include more renewables as it moves to expand electricity access.

Nations like Nigeria don’t expect richer nations to pay for all their climate responses. But the needs are significant, and with aid they can do more.  

“In Nigeria one of the major challenges is access to electricity. We would like to have more investments in clean sources of energy,” Tarfa says. “We also need environmentally friendly and affordable buildings, because the population is increasing dramatically. Other issues are clean transport and smart agriculture to maximize harvest.”

One atmosphere

Each ton of carbon dioxide affects the global climate whether it was emitted in Stockholm or Shanghai. And increasingly the carbon pollution stems from developing economies where growing populations aspire to join the global middle class. Some say these economies, from Asia to Africa and Latin America, are also where each dollar invested can have the biggest effect.

“More support translates into more action, and that benefits the whole planet,” says a spokesperson for Brazil’s climate delegation, via email, calling Brazil’s clean-energy aspirations “transformational” and “cost efficient.”

The vastness of the global task – slashing greenhouse emissions to stabilize global temperatures while also embracing the rise of a global middle class – brings complexity.

How much money is needed, and where? For what kinds of investments?

“We look at China, we think, ‘Oh they have all this money.’ ... It’s kind of going through the Industrial Revolution on steroids,” says Kate Gordon, an Oakland-based expert with Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “Sometimes we forget the scale of the challenge they’re facing to try to grow a middle class and grow a developed-country economy in a sustainable way.”

She says “the scale of doing that in China and India and other countries is bigger than the amount of money that they have to deal with it.”

Even when the general need is acknowledged, part of the challenge is building developed-nation commitment to climate finance.

In France, the recent protests by yellow-vested citizens revolved around a fuel tax with revenue going toward deficit reduction, leaving working-class citizens feeling penalized by a new burden on their finances. The uproar doesn’t mean that all action on climate change will be unpopular, but hints at how questions of fairness can be crucial.

“France points to the absolute need to think through the local impacts of macroeconomic policy, [since] ultimately climate policy is economic policy,” says Ms. Gordon.

“There has to be a very careful political strategy to explain to the public why these initiatives and these efforts matter, both domestic and international,” says Dr. Martinez-Diaz of the World Resources Institute. Canada has designed a carbon tax, he notes, so that it recycles revenue back to taxpayers, while giving incentives to move away from fossil fuels.

Building momentum

Climate policymakers also need to ensure accountability in the process for distributing funds even as they try to scale up the dollar volume. The Green Climate Fund isn’t the only channel for climate finance. But it’s a major one, and has been designed with safeguards to ensure careful review of the projects that get funded.

So far its outflows toward climate projects are small – some $1.6 billion in commitments – compared with its longer term goals. But it’s active already in 96 nations.

“In Egypt ... [our project is] building the largest solar park in the world,” says the Fund’s Mr. Wilson.

“We think that it is a good model where, at least in principle, decision-making ... (through the Board) relies on a system which gives equal voice to developing and developed countries,” says Brice Boehmer of the Berlin-based watchdog group Transparency International, speaking via email. He sees room for the fund to add further safeguards, such as support for whistleblowers and “consultation and participation of civil society.”

But in his view, such objectives “shouldn’t be used as an excuse by developed countries and donors to stop or slow down the disbursements of climate finance.”

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2. Revival of a high-profile sex-crime case offers hints of a deeper justice

Here’s a big wrinkle in the #MeToo story: The investigation into one 2008 plea deal is greatly expanding the idea of accountability.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Protesters gather for a march against sexual violence in Los Angeles early this year. Survivors of sexual assault have continued to press for more changes to the justice system.

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The investigation into the Jeffrey Epstein plea deal, another landmark in the #MeToo era, raises the question of how far society has come in the effort to hold perpetrators of sex crimes accountable – and to restore to victims the sense of worthiness often stolen from them twice, once by the victimizer and again by inadequate systems of justice. Efforts by law enforcement, advocates, and researchers show some progress on these fronts. In Tennessee, lawmakers have been persuaded to prohibit charging minors with prostitution and since 2011 have passed about 40 more laws to better address trafficking. And even in the years leading up to the Epstein case, federal prosecutors in southern Florida were already trying to get the maximum prison time for such crimes. Better-informed juries have also emerged as survivors of sexual assault have stepped forward to tell the media their stories. Michael Dolce, a survivor and a Florida-based lawyer who works on such cases, sees a noticeable shift. “People seem to understand better why delayed reporting occurs, what the impact is of sex crimes … and how sex criminals mislead people into believing that they're safe when they’re not.” 

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Revival of a high-profile sex-crime case offers hints of a deeper justice

In 2008, multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein went to jail for 13 months after pleading guilty to state child sex crime charges.

He had struck a plea deal with prosecutors, allowing him to avoid potential federal charges of sexually molesting and trafficking a network of girls at his Palm Beach, Fla., mansion and elsewhere. Such a case, if proved, could have led to life in prison, the Miami Herald reported last week.

The investigative series lays out how Mr. Epstein’s connections appear to have contributed to a lenient sentence. It has prompted calls for a Department of Justice investigation, as well as scrutiny of Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, who oversaw the plea deal as the US attorney for the Southern District of Florida at the time.

Another landmark in the #MeToo era, it raises the question of how far society has come in the effort to hold perpetrators of sex crimes accountable – and to restore to victims the sense of worthiness often stolen from them twice, once by the victimizer and again by inadequate systems of justice.

“This is the only crime that I’m aware of where routinely the victim is put on trial,” accused of making up stories to get money, for instance, or of consenting when barely a teenager, says Michael Dolce, a survivor of childhood sexual assault and a Florida-based lawyer who works on such cases at Cohen Milstein.

A number of civil cases against Epstein have been settled. And this week, a legal dispute between Epstein and one of the lawyers representing some of his accusers was also settled, closing the door to an anticipated opportunity for them to testify. But they haven’t given up hope for more criminal charges because a case is pending against the US government that could void the plea deal. They say the deal was kept secret from victims in violation of a federal law requiring crime victims to be kept informed.

Uma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post/AP/File
Jeffrey Epstein appears in custody in West Palm Beach, Fla., July 30, 2008. Progress has been made in sex-crime prosecutions and victim services since the time Mr. Epstein made what some observers refer to as a 'sweetheart deal.'

“As soon as that deal was signed, they silenced my voice and the voices of all of Jeffrey Epstein’s other victims,” Courtney Wild told the Herald. She was 14 when she met Epstein, and said she was lured into what investigators describe as a sexual pyramid scheme, with girls being paid to bring other girls to Epstein.

Roy Black, one of Epstein's lawyers, has denied that Epstein received a “sweetheart deal” and conspired to violate victims’ rights, The Associated Press reports.

Progress has been made in sex-crime prosecutions and victim services, a variety of experts say. Yet the Epstein story can help expose underlying attitudes still in need of an overhaul: the minimization and blame people commonly face when they report sex crimes. 

‘A demand-driven crime’

In the years that the Epstein case and its aftermath were playing out in Florida, Marjorie Quin was helping to bring about a sea change in the handling of child sex crimes and trafficking in Tennessee.

When she began overseeing missing-child cases for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) in 2007, as an assistant special agent in charge, she says the link between missing children and trafficking was starting to become clear. But the system often treated the young people involved in terms of prostitution, as if they were making a choice.

By 2011, with 85 percent of Tennessee counties reporting child-trafficking cases, she and others had persuaded lawmakers to prohibit charging minors with prostitution.

Since then, the state has passed about 40 more laws to better address trafficking. Shared Hope International, a nonprofit that grades such efforts, recently gave Tennessee the highest score in its “Protected Innocence” report

Just as people have come to understand that domestic violence isn’t a private family matter, there’s a need for a similar long-term “shift in hearts and minds in the way that we view this criminal activity as a society,” says Ms. Quin, who retired from the TBI this year and is a criminal justice professor at Cumberland University.

One key improvement so far: recognizing that “trafficking is a demand-driven crime.”

When the TBI put up fake online ads to try to catch people predisposed to commit child sex crimes, they’d receive 200 to 400 calls a day in one city, she says. In 2016, a new Tennessee law allowed investigators to pose as minors for sting operations.

“I was shocked at the number of men who really are looking to buy kids,” she says. The men ran the gamut economically and racially, “and we prosecuted them all.”

When victims don’t see their cases prosecuted, “the message they get is, ‘I don’t count … and nobody cares what happened to me,’ ” Quin says.

Better-informed juries 

Even in the years leading up to the Epstein case, federal prosecutors in southern Florida were already “extremely aggressive and concerned about getting the maximum [prison] time possible” for such crimes, says Marcos Jiménez, referring to his tenure as US attorney there from 2002 to 2005, immediately preceding Mr. Acosta. The current US attorney there did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Jiménez says Acosta was well regarded and did a good job overall, but he characterizes the arrangement for Epstein as “appalling,” based on details laid out by the Herald.

It’s possible the government would keep secret something it gets in exchange for a plea, but anything short of “a matter of national security” would make it difficult to justify even considering such a deal, says Jiménez, now in private practice in Coral Gables, Fla.

The US Department of Labor did not respond to requests for comment, but when asked briefly about it during his hearing to become secretary of Labor, Acosta said, “it is not unusual to have an indictment that says these are all the places we can go, yet at the end of the day, based on the evidence, professionals within a prosecutor’s office decide that a plea that guarantees that someone goes to jail, that guarantees that someone register generally, and that guarantees other outcomes is a good thing.”

Epstein did have to register as a sex offender. His jail time included long periods of work release in his office during the day, the Herald notes.

Jiménez says he was particularly disturbed by the steps the Herald reported that prosecutors and Epstein’s defense lawyers took to keep information about the plea deal away from the victims. 

“It's particularly egregious in this case, where you had so many young women who were looking forward to having their day in court…. That should give us all pause,” says Meredith Dank, director of The Exploitation and Resiliency Project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Many cases don’t get as far as a plea deal. Young people who have been sexually abused or trafficked are often reluctant to talk, either out of shame or fear of being criminally charged. They are sometimes judged harshly for any involvement in risky behavior, such as the use of alcohol or drugs. 

“It’s kind of a powerlessness…. Some people may be sympathetic towards them, but many parts of the system don't really see them as worth worrying about,” says Linda Williams, director of Wellesley College’s Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative in Massachusetts. 

She led a study of 500 child sexual abuse cases referred for state-level prosecution over five years. Only 20 percent were prosecuted, and many of those ended up being dismissed, she says. (Most were not trafficking cases.)

Overall, the criminal justice system has improved in recent years as there’s been “more of a focus on making sure there is not a prejudice against female victims,” Jiménez says.

Better-informed juries have also emerged as survivors of sexual assault have stepped forward and partnered with the media to tell their stories, Mr. Dolce says: “People seem to understand better why delayed reporting occurs, what the impact is of sex crimes … and how sex criminals mislead people into believing that they're safe when they’re not.” 

For help or concerns about a crime please contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s toll-free hotline at 1-888-373-7888, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673

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3. On eve of an ‘alt’ Nobel, questions about future of storied literature prize

Scandal around the Nobel literature award rocked a source of Swedish pride. As a flawed but still-prestigious institution reels, what will it take to restore credibility? 

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This weekend, Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé will collect the New Academy Prize, the so-called alternative Nobel. It was created by an ad hoc group of Swedish writers and artists as a replacement for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was canceled amid a sexual harassment scandal at the Swedish Academy, which chooses the Nobel winners. But for all the good feelings the New Academy Prize has engendered, the fact is it was only intended as a one-off replacement award. The Swedish Academy intended to return next year, reorganized and ready to choose two literature winners, one for 2018 and another for 2019. However the reclusive academy itself remains fractured over the scandal and other issues, making that scenario problematic. “The future of the Nobel Prize is a huge question mark, with the Nobel Foundation [the organization which actually funds the prize] undecided – or at least not officially decided – about whether there will be a prize in 2019,” says Madelaine Levy, literary editor for Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet.

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On eve of an ‘alt’ Nobel, questions about future of storied literature prize

This weekend, Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Conde arrives in Stockholm to collect the New Academy Prize, the so-called alternative Nobel conjured up by an ad hoc group of Swedish writers and artists as a replacement for the Nobel Prize in Literature. That prize, which is awarded by the Swedish Academy, was canceled this year following a scandal triggered by allegations of sexual harassment by Claude Arnault, husband of academy member Katarina Frostenson.

The organizers of the impromptu New Academy, founded by journalist and author Alexandra Pascalidou, hope that their “people’s choice” prize and the transparent manner by which the winner was ultimately chosen, will help stanch the wound to Sweden’s reputation that the scandal caused. No doubt there will be toasts all around this Sunday as Ms. Pascalidou and her colleagues celebrate their do-it-yourself award.

The toasts are deserved, says Madelaine Levy, literary editor for leading Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet. “In a year when the Nobel Prize is sadly missed,” Pascalidou and her colleagues “have put literary fiction of the highest rank in the spotlight – which is a feat in itself and one that they should be proud of,” Ms. Levy says.

She and other Swedish critics also approve of the choice of Ms. Conde. “A most worthy winner,” Levy says of the French-Caribbean writer, who has published more than 20 novels. “If the prize invites Swedish audiences – as well as others – to discover her work, I will be more than pleased.”

But what of the future of the Nobel itself? For all the good feelings and deserved attention to Conde’s work the New Academy Prize has engendered, the fact is it was only intended as a one-off replacement award for the “original” Nobel. The Swedish Academy announced that next year it hopes that its reorganized ten-member Nobel committee, including five members from outside the academy, will choose two winners, one for 2018 and another for 2019.

However, the reclusive academy itself remains fractured over the Arnault affair and other issues, making that scenario problematic. “Conflict is still ripe within the academy,” says Levy. “There is now only one woman working actively within the academy. The status of several members is unclear, as is Katarina Frostenson’s, whose presence is no longer wanted by a majority of the remaining members.” The fact that Ms. Frostenson’s husband, Mr. Arnault, in October was sentenced for rape to two years in prison, didn’t help matters.

As a result, according to Levy, “the future of the Nobel Prize is a huge question mark, with the Nobel Foundation [the organization which actually funds the prize] undecided – or at least not officially decided – about whether there will be a prize in 2019.”

Meanwhile Swedes and other disheartened admirers of the Swedish model are appalled at what the scandal and ongoing infighting within the academy have done to Sweden itself. “The huge crisis inside the Swedish Academy has certainly damaged the academy and Swedish society,” says Jukka Petäjä, literary critic of Finland’s leading newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, “not to mention Sweden’s reputation as a model of transparency, justness, and sexual equality.”

These are the very same ideals that the organizers of the New Academy Prize seek to reinvigorate with their unorthodox laurel. The first round of nominees was chosen by a group of Swedish librarians before being narrowed to four finalists by an international poll in which more than 30,000 bibliophiles participated.

“We wanted to show the world that we are people who were willing to stand up and challenge the conservative traditions of the old academy and create an award which reflected the progressive, transparent, gender-equal Sweden we are proud of,” says Pascalidou.

But what happens if the Nobel is canceled again? As much as they enjoyed the process of creating the New Academy Prize, Pascalidou’s fellow prize-workers doubt that they could once again donate hundreds of hours of their time. “It was fantastic to be part of it,” says Sara Larsson, a novelist who handles press for the New Academy. “But most of us would not be able to do this again.”

Janerik Henriksson/TT News Agency/AP
Maryse Conde, an author from Guadeloupe, appears via videolink at Stockholm City Library in October after she was awarded the New Academy Prize. A group of Swedish librarians and an international poll of 30,000 bibliophiles helped select the winner. Ms. Conde is to receive the award on Dec. 9.

The institution’s lowest ebb

This is not the first time that the academy has known scandal, Levy points out, recalling the expulsion in 1794 of founding member Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt, who was sentenced to death. “That was pretty spectacular for those involved too,” she says.

The academy, along with the prestige of the Nobel, has also suffered from several recent controversies, including the very public row that broke out in 1989 when it refused to discuss a motion in support of Salman Rushdie after a fatwa was issued against the writer. In response, two members dissociated themselves from the royal institution. (Academy members, who are appointed by the king, can not officially resign.)

Nor has the academy’s choices of laureates always been well received, particularly in the English-speaking world, where writers of the caliber of Willa Cather, James Baldwin, and Philip Roth have been overlooked. “The academy has had a difficult reputation for decades, particularly in the US, for being too obscure, arbitrary, and unjust to Anglo-American literature,” says Mr. Petäjä. Also, the controversial decision to award the prize to Bob Dylan in 2016, as well as the singer’s boorish behavior after the announcement, “had a negative impact.”

Still, the current crisis is the institution’s lowest ebb, he says. Levy agrees. “This is definitely the worst scandal in our lifetime.”

Nevertheless Petäjä is cautiously optimistic. “If the reorganized Nobel committee within the academy manages to pick a pair of laureates with strong qualities for next year it is possible that the academy can restore the authority of the prize.”

“Whether or not it will be able to pick one, no less two, is a big ‘if,’ ” he adds. “We will know more in January after the new committee actually meets.”

“Internationally, I believe most people aren’t familiar with the [Arault] affair,” says Levy, “so a restored prize and two worthy winners who actually accept it despite the furor will probably restore its reputation to some extent.”

Sofi Oksanen, Finland’s best-selling novelist and who was nominated for The New Academy Prize, is also distressed about the prospect of another cancellation for practical reasons.

“Translated fiction is having a hard time everywhere at the moment, and in many countries the Nobel winner is the best selling book,” says Ms. Oksanen, whose novel “Purge” has been translated in more than 50 language territories. “Everywhere the lists of translated fiction are being cut. Translated fiction is a window onto the world and the less windows we have the smaller our perspective becomes.”

“So yes, the Nobel still matters,” Oksanen says.

In the meantime, the Finnish-Estonian writer says that she will wear her nomination for the Nobel’s replacement award, the New Academy Prize, “as a badge of honor.”

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Update on a Monitor story

4. ‘We added you to the list’: A death threat unveils Taliban campaign of fear

Afghanistan’s insurgents have been tenacious – in battle, in gathering intelligence, and in manipulating Afghans they seek to control. Our reporter’s story begins at a wedding in Kabul in 2015. 

Scott Peterson/Getty images/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Afghan boys stood beside a car decorated for newlyweds outside a wedding hall in Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2015. A brief visit by an American reporter at a Pashtun wedding prompted a series of Taliban death threats to the Afghans who escorted the reporter.

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Swept up in the jubilation of a cease-fire last June between Afghan and Taliban forces, Abdullah ventured back to his Taliban-controlled home village in Wardak province for the first time in a decade. What awaited him was the horrifying realization that an episode from 2-1/2 years before, when he drove an American reporter to a Pashtun wedding in Kabul, had landed him firmly on the insurgents’ kill list. “When we saw you over there with the American, we added you to the list [of those] we would immediately behead,” one Taliban leader told Abdullah. “All people there thought I was absolutely an infidel,” Abdullah says about his home village. “Because they are illiterate, all people accept what the Taliban says.” The episode provides a lesson in the Taliban’s depth of penetration in the Afghan capital, and in their ability to intimidate fellow Afghans apart from their battlefield gains. Abdullah says he was only spared because of his overt religiosity and the fact of the cease-fire. “When I prepared to go, they told me: ‘We had a plan to behead you. Don’t come anymore without a cease-fire.... Don’t contact us. It’s not good for you.’ ”

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‘We added you to the list’: A death threat unveils Taliban campaign of fear

The young Afghan man never thought a 15-minute visit with an American reporter to a glittering wedding celebration in Kabul could have such long-standing and potentially lethal consequences – or yield a Taliban plan to kill him.

Abdullah did not even leave the parking lot that fateful night, three years ago. But he had driven the American in his car, and, at the ethnic Pashtun wedding, Taliban insurgents were among the hundreds in attendance.

The result has been an abject lesson in the Taliban intelligence’s depth of penetration in the Afghan capital, and in the long memories and scale of antipathy these Islamist militants hold against Western-leaning Afghans and those they consider spies and traitors.

Abdullah felt that fear this June when he returned for the first time in years to his Taliban-controlled home village in Wardak province, west of Kabul, during a short cease-fire between Taliban and government forces. It was 2-1/2 years after the wedding.

“When we saw you over there with the American, we added you to the list [of those] we would immediately behead,” one Taliban leader told Abdullah, whose name is a pseudonym to protect his identity. He is a Pashtun, a member of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, which forms the bulk of support for the Taliban.

“All people there thought I was absolutely an infidel,” Abdullah says about his home village. “Because they are illiterate, all people accept what the Taliban says. That community is radicalized.”

That proven ability to widely and effectively intimidate fellow Afghans whom the Taliban see as enemies and unbelievers has only added to the growing sense of foreboding in the capital, Kabul, as the Taliban continue to make battlefield gains against US- and NATO-backed Afghan forces, most recently in western Ghazni province.

So far, back-channel talks between the United States and Taliban have not borne fruit. Since last year, the Trump administration has stepped up airstrikes and increased US troop numbers.

But away from the shooting war with Western forces, the Taliban have been waging a far quieter battle to bring despair to Afghans – not just through high-profile suicide bombings in Kabul and the targeting of Afghan security forces, but with the extensive use of threats and fear.

For Abdullah, the 2015 wedding was a problem from the start. Even though he stayed in the parking lot, his friend – also a Pashtun, and like Abdullah known to the wedding party – escorted this reporter into the Paris Castle wedding hall to visit for a few awkward moments.

Traditional music played from the small stage, and in the men’s section all eyes focused on the unexpected and unwelcome Western visitor.

“They think very badly toward me, that I am a bad Muslim, an infidel, for bringing you here,” Abdullah’s friend said in hushed tones at the wedding.

After the wedding, threats

Two days later, his family started receiving telephone warnings, accusing him of facilitating an American spy “collecting information” at the wedding, to “prepare a plan with coalition forces to destroy us.”

Within days, he had to move house with his wife and two children, after men came knocking at their door in the middle of the night.

But that was not the end of the story. The car had been photographed in the parking lot during the wedding, and Abdullah’s family also began receiving calls from people accusing their son of being a traitor, charging that he had “left his religion.”  

Abdullah had in years received death threats, when he was involved in a US-funded development program in Wardak in 2013. But after the 2015 wedding, the Taliban promised to issue a “formal warning.”

And indeed they did, as the young Afghan found out last June, when he was swept up in the jubilation of the unprecedented cease-fire and ventured back to his home village for the first time in a decade.

Taliban fighters had come to Kabul, checking in their guns with the police and eating ice cream, recalls the Afghan. In the opposite direction, roads to Taliban areas were clogged with people going back briefly to home areas, relatively safe from the war that has largely defined their lives since the US first orchestrated the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.

“Government and Taliban fighters hugged each other, took selfies, sang and danced together, and exchanged flowers and gifts,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in a July report on the peacemaking implications of the cease-fire. “Tens of thousands of Afghans crossed battle lines to visit friends and kin.... Most of the country, particularly areas that suffer the worst violence, saw scenes of joy and optimism unknown for years.”

Saved by prayer

The three-day truce was “instructive for future peace efforts,” wrote ICG, because it “showed the depth of most Afghans’ yearning for an end to the war” – among government and Taliban combatants alike – and critically that both sides “exert significant control over their forces.”

Such optics impressed Afghans more used to the taste of bad news than optimism. Against the express wishes of his father in Kabul, Abdullah joined relatives on their return to Wardak.

Along the way, he was reassured by the obvious presence of both Afghan security forces and Taliban, all armed, intermingling and celebrating. At one point, Abdullah stopped to pray along the road. When one Taliban fighter saw him, he was shocked.

“When I was in my village, I thought that all the Afghan Army and police, and all the people in Kabul, are infidels – they are not Muslim,” the Taliban fighter told Abdullah. “All the [Taliban] leaders told me: ‘If you see them, kill them.’ But you are Muslim. You are offering prayers.”

The Talib said he could not shoot upon a fellow Muslim, and would go back to his village, “put away my weapon and never use it, because now I know how important is peace.”

Such sentiments, however, were not enough to clear the Taliban charge sheet against Abdullah, despite strong family connections: His grandfather was a shop owner who decades ago often helped out the poor local cleric, and the family reputation was good.

Display of intelligence prowess

But meeting face to face with local Taliban leaders, Abdullah had a hard time allaying their suspicions. He prevailed, he says, convincing them that Americans he knew respected Islam and Afghan traditions.

Yet he blanched when they responded to his description of insecurity in Kabul, and the number of suicide bombings. One Taliban leader told him: “Suicide attackers are only targeting infidels. It’s really good. We are praying to God for them to be successful.”

And in his own case, they demonstrated their intelligence prowess by giving him details of a meeting where he was spotted working alongside an American official at a large Wardak gathering five years before. They also detailed how they had photographed the mystery American’s visit to the wedding, and Abdullah and his car in the parking lot.

They made clear that Abdullah’s neck was only saved by his overt religiosity, respect for his family, and the fact of the short cease-fire.

“When I prepared to go, they told me: ‘We had a plan to behead you. Don’t come anymore without a cease-fire,’ ” recalls Abdullah of the Taliban’s final words for him. “Stay in Kabul. Work everywhere you want. But don’t contact us. It’s not good for you. And please, take care. But sometimes, if you find some money, help us.”

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Brexit debate

5. Repartee still abounds at Parliament. But has it lost its power to persuade?

When he’s not touting the superiority of European chocolate, British-born staffer Simon Montlake displays a debater’s sharp wit at our morning meetings. Flying him home to report on shifts in parliamentary sparring? We could see no argument against it.

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Witty repartee, rousing oratory, and cut-and-thrust rhetoric are considered the essence of British parliamentary debate. For centuries, the demands of oral debate have sharpened the wits of lawmakers and leaders. But today the verbal jousting often ends up more as pantomime than persuasion. Rarely does an issue come to a vote without members of Parliament taking positions before all the arguments are heard. Even on a vote as critical as Brexit, the most consequential in half a century, the call of the orator is muted; what is billed as a clash of titans seeking a red-hot truth becomes a routine roll call. Parliament has also become less central to the nation’s political conversation, as debates over matters of state have moved out of the chambers and tearooms of Westminster and into the studios of a 24-hour news media. And MPs must engage more directly and more intensely with their constituents than their postwar predecessors who enjoyed a slower pace of news, says political researcher Ruth Fox. So when they rise to explain their stance in the Brexit debate there are no bombshells. “They probably announced it already on Twitter or Facebook,” she says.

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Repartee still abounds at Parliament. But has it lost its power to persuade?

Night had fallen when Sarah Jones rose from the green-upholstered bench in the House of Commons. Ms. Jones, the member of Parliament for Croydon, noted the late hour and what Oliver Cromwell had said in 1653 on dissolving the so-called Long Parliament.

“You have sat here too long for any good you are doing,” she quoted.

A baritone chuckle erupted from the opposite bench.

Ms. Jones smiled. “Nevertheless we carry on,” she said.

She then used her allotted seven minutes on the third day of the Brexit debate to lambast the failures of the Brexit agreement and the failure of government to properly inform Parliament during the negotiations. She accused ministers of using speeches to the House “as a kind of parliamentary CalPol [pain reliever] to keep the babies quiet.”

“Oh, I like that,” said a colleague on the row in front, turning around to Jones.

Witty repartee, rousing oratory, and cut-and-thrust rhetoric are considered the essence of British parliamentary debate. The dry, dutiful speeches and written testimony of Congress has no place on the floor of Parliament, where MPs carry bundles of paper mostly to wave at their rivals. For centuries, the demands of oral debate has sharpened the wits of lawmakers and leaders and tested their mettle in the braying bullpen that Parliament sometimes resembles.

But today the verbal jousting often ends up more as pantomime than persuasion. Rarely does an issue come to a vote without MPs taking positions before all the arguments are heard. Even on a vote as critical as Brexit, the most consequential in a half-century, the call of the orator is muted; what is billed as a clash of titans seeking a red-hot truth becomes a routine roll call.

Some blame the dug-in battle lines of Brexit.

“I doubt anyone has changed their mind, not just in the Commons, but across the country,” says Michael Deacon, the Daily Telegraph’s parliamentary sketch writer, a venerable, semi-satirical role once inhabited by Charles Dickens. “If anything, people on both sides are becoming more fanatical, more furiously certain.”

Others look back to golden eras of parliamentary speechifying, the patriotic oratory of Winston Churchill, who told the House in 1940 he had nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” to a national-unity government. Or the tireless moralizing of William Wilberforce, who took 18 years to persuade Parliament to end slavery in the British Empire in 1833.

By comparison, Britain’s modern politicians seem too bloodless or meek to rouse their peers. Parliament has also become less central to the nation’s political conversation, as debates over matters of state have moved out of the chambers and tearooms of Westminster and into the studios of a 24-hour news media. Newspapers no longer publish lengthy reports on the previous day’s parliamentary proceedings. When Prime Minister Theresa May sought to push back at the critics of her beleaguered Brexit deal on Thursday, she subjected herself to a relentless 23-minute grilling on a BBC radio show.

MPs must engage more directly and more intensely with their constituents than their postwar predecessors who enjoyed a slower pace of news, says Ruth Fox, head of research at the Hansard Society, an independent political research institute in London. So when they rise to explain their stance in the Brexit debate there are no bombshells. “They probably announced it already on Twitter or Facebook,” she says.

Still, MPs have to think on their feet and speak extemporaneously, particularly if they sit in government. And to do so in a way that is polite, droll, and perhaps a little supercilious.

‘Brexecuted’ politics

One aspect of parliamentary debate is that all speakers, including the prime minister, must take interruptions, though just as a comedian handles hecklers, it can be turned to advantage.

On Thursday, Chancellor Philip Hammond was making fitful progress in extolling the economic benefits of May’s Brexit agreement. A Labour MP, Steve McCabe, insisted on making a point.

“Will the chancellor give way?” he asked, rising to his feet.

“In the absence of any better offers, I will give way to the honorable gentleman,” Mr. Hammond replied, as he sat down.

“The chancellor is as kind as he is funny,” responded Mr. McCabe.

A different knock against MPs is that their gladiatorial debates are an elitist parlor game that are at odds with the ways of modern Britain. Viewers at home see “a pantomime farce” in the chamber and ask why anyone can get away with that kind of behavior at work, says Ms. Fox.

Speaker John Bercow, a Conservative MP who is obliged to be a neutral referee and rule-setter, seems to spend half his time calling MPs to order and scolding them for “sedentary chundering,” or yelling from their seats.

Yet this charge of elitism may be misplaced. Some of the great parliamentary debaters of the 20th century emerged not from the fancy prep schools and universities of the upper classes but the union halls and Methodist meetings that favored the orator and the tactician alike.

And the power of parliamentary persuasion is not entirely lost. In 2015, Hilary Benn, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, defied his own leadership to make a passionate speech in favor of military action in Syria that is credited with moving war-weary MPs to back the government’s motion.

Perhaps the repetitive rows over Brexit in its excruciating details have become an impediment to rhetorical reasoning. “At no point in parliamentary history, except during world wars, can debate have been so suffocatingly narrow,” says Mr. Deacon. “Normal politics has been Brexecuted.”

There was a hint of weariness on Thursday when John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor, rose to deliver his riposte to Hammond’s testimony. As he complained that the deal was not bringing the country together, David Morris, a Conservative MP rose from the opposite bench.

“I am listening with intent to what the right honorable gentleman is saying, which is very measured,” he told the House. “Speaking apolitically and being measured myself, I ask whether he would please consider voting for this deal, so that we can all move on with our lives.”

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The Monitor's View

Look who’s ponying up for climate change

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The financing numbers around climate change look daunting. The world needs investments of $5 trillion to $7 trillion every year to meet United Nations goals for 2030. And despite commitments made in Paris three years ago, governments have yet to pony up nearly that kind of cash. One answer may lie in a dramatic shift in private financial institutions, more of which now see gold in going green. Most of the new investments in climate finance were in renewable energy and energy efficiency – in areas such as “smart” buildings and precision irrigation. The fastest change may be in Europe. The shift toward such projects reflects a broader trend among investors to redefine metrics. The “bottom line” has shifted toward ESG: environmental concerns, social goals, and governance issues within corporations. ESG investing is growing about 12 percent per year, by one account. It remains unclear how much private money will help meet the UN goals on climate change. But for now, investors have put their finger to the wind and decided they have a stake – and an opportunity – in solving the issue.

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Look who’s ponying up for climate change

To the hundreds of delegates gathered in Poland this month for the latest United Nations conference on climate change, the financing numbers look daunting. The world needs investments of $5 trillion to $7 trillion every year to meet the UN climate goals for 2030.

Finance ministers at the meeting are scratching their heads, looking for answers. Despite commitments made in Paris three years ago to lower greenhouse emissions, governments have yet to pony up nearly that kind of cash.

One answer may lie in a dramatic shift in private financial institutions to see gold in going green. “Awareness of climate risk in the financial sector has increased over the past few years,” states a UN report prepared for the conference. From 2013-14 to 2015-16, climate finance increased by 17 percent.

Most of the new investments were in renewable energy and energy efficiency, such as smart buildings and precision irrigation, while much of the financing has been through bonds. The fastest change may be in Europe. Earlier this year, the European Commission set targets for banks and other financial institutions to engage in “sustainable finance.”

The shift toward climate-related projects reflects a broader trend among investors to redefine the metrics used to calculate long-term risks. The “bottom line” has shifted toward what is called ESG: environmental concerns, social goals, and governance issues within corporations. Activist shareholders who once demanded a focus on ESG are becoming more welcome in boardrooms.

ESG investing is growing about 12 percent per year, according to Pictet Asset Management, and will make up about two-thirds of assets managed by global funds by 2020. Driving the shift is a sudden interest among institutional investors to take ESG seriously.

In a survey released last month of 500 investment officers in five countries (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan), 63 percent reported that this change has taken place in the past year. Nearly 90 percent have changed their voting procedures with shareholders to be more attentive on ESG.

“Investor ESG focus is now pervasive,” concludes Edelman, the communications marketing firm that conducted the survey.

The world’s political ambitions to set goals on climate change are being “matched by an equal level of commitment and determination from the world’s financial communities,” finds the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group of the world’s largest economies.

It is still unclear how much private money will help meet the UN goals on climate change. One purpose of the Poland gathering was to push governments to put hard numbers on their spending for national climate goals. But for now, investors have put their finger to the wind and decided they have a stake – and an opportunity – in solving the issue.

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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.

A houseparent, a bus, and our God-given capabilities

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Today’s column explores the idea that ability is not simply a human attribute that may be in short supply. Ability is unlimited and inherent in all of God’s children.

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A houseparent, a bus, and our God-given capabilities

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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“He (or she) is so capable!” Have you ever said that about someone, thinking that you’re not?

It can be all too easy to feel inadequate when really we are more than adequate. That happened to an individual who is one of the most widely respected figures in history. The Hebrew leader Moses was at first overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy, yet the Bible relates how he was later able to free the captive Israelites from slavery by following God’s constant guidance. This is just one of many inspiring examples in the Bible that show that God, Spirit, is the perpetual source of all ability.

Though our own spheres of responsibility might not include something so grand, deepening our understanding of our own and others’ relation to God opens the way to see that at every moment we actually have all we need to be able to do what we rightfully need to.

Some years ago I had to learn to drive a school bus as part of my houseparent duties at a boarding school. I deeply doubted at the time that I could do what was necessary to get a commercial driver’s license. This included, among other things, backing up using only the mirrors for reference and passing a test about the mechanics of the bus and the parts under the hood. Not my forte, or so I thought.

For years it has been natural for me to turn to God for answers when faced with obstacles, and this was no exception. I persistently prayed, trusting God to help me in my sincere desire to do my work well. My prayer was to realize that everyone is capable of expressing good and recognizing good in others under all circumstances, because we are God’s dearly loved and cared for children. As His entirely spiritual offspring, or ideas, we reflect His limitless ability, and are therefore fully equipped with all that is right and good – with infinite capabilities.

Praying with these ideas, I found I was able to listen with greater calm for God’s, divine Love’s, care and direction. This freed me from giving in to frustration and discouragement, and my confidence strengthened little by little.

After many hours of study and practice, I passed every necessary test. I even began to enjoy driving a bus! But most important, I gained a deeper sense of God’s presence with me. I could sum up this time with these words from the Living Bible: “For I can do everything God asks me to with the help of Christ who gives me the strength and power” (Philippians 4:13).

The Christ is always here to help no matter what the demand is. Jesus, through his singular expression of the Christ – the divine nature, which includes all God-given spiritual qualities, faculties, and ideas – proved the power of God’s abundant goodness. He showed forth the ever-available capacity of God by letting his every motive, thought, and act be impelled by divine Love for Love’s glory. From this basis he healed and improved lives everywhere he went.

Receptivity to the Christ awakens within one’s own thought the unrestricted spiritual potential of everyone. It’s empowering. Christian Science shows that all can experience more of their innate capabilities as God’s child. Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science, brought this Science to humanity through unceasingly leaning on God to guide her. In her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” she wrote, “The miracle of grace is no miracle to Love. Jesus demonstrated the inability of corporeality, as well as the infinite ability of Spirit, thus helping erring human sense to flee from its own convictions and seek safety in divine Science” (p. 494).

We can fulfill our activities joyfully and efficaciously because this is what Love causes us to do. Dark thoughts of anxiety and failure vanish in the light of this spiritual fact. Glimpsing it can even impel us to tackle a new demand with vigor and expectancy.

Turning to God in prayer and feeling His loving embrace of our worth enables us to look beyond accepting capability as simply a human attribute that may be in short supply. We feel God lifting us to know that ability is something we all possess without limitation as expressions of God. It encourages ourselves and others to move forward with whatever is ours to do.

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Viewfinder

A muralist’s take on the times

Toby Melville/Reuters
A large mural attributed to the British artist Banksy depicts a star in the European Union flag being chipped away. It appeared at the Port of Dover, in southeast England. Debate over Britain’s exit from the EU continues.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 10th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Have a good weekend, and see you Monday. Twenty years ago, observers worried that apathy was the biggest threat to the American psyche. Today, that seems quaint. How can Americans turn off the outrage machine that urges them to get angry about, well, everything? Harry Bruinius reports. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

December 07, 2018
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