2019
June
21
Friday

Welcome to your Daily. Today we look at what the U.S. wants from Iran, a college admissions case that tests the boundaries of forgiveness, how forest preservation can ease water woes, shows that highlight (and may help heal) social injustice, and the poignant subtext of “Toy Story 4.” 

First, a little bit about simple acts that can lift us all. 

This week I read a story that made me immediately think every Monitor subscriber should read this. So that is what I am going to ask you to do today. Please read this story.

To be honest, it’s too lovely to give away spoilers here. But I will say that this is the kind of story that most media put behind the wall of “good news” or “feel-good stories.” To me, the Monitor recognizes that it is so much more than that.

This story shows us that even when human life seems darkest and most hopeless, there is a light, even if it is just a scruffy stray dog named Chica. And it shows us that there is a Kenny in every one of us, and that we can profoundly change lives through the simple act of being good.

These are not just “feel good” lessons; they are intimate to each one of us, and they speak to our remarkable ability to, step by step, turn darkness into light.

Did you notice? This intro column looks different. Many of you say you want a quick take on the Daily’s contents to shorten your scroll. The links in the top paragraph will jump you to whichever story you choose. Helpful? Let me know at editor@csmonitor.com.

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1. Amid risk of US-Iran war, presidential signaling is key

Caught between a desire to punish Iran for downing a U.S. drone and a desire not to become entangled once again in the Middle East, the Trump administration faces a pivotal moment.

Mark
Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/AP
In Tehran, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division, looks at debris Friday from what the division describes as the U.S. drone that was shot down on Thursday.

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President Donald Trump’s Iran strategy seems to be a policy of two approaches running at full tilt in opposite directions. In canceling an armed attack on Iranian military sites Thursday night, Mr. Trump appeared to show restraint and a desire to keep American actions proportional to Iranian provocations. In the jargon of international relations theory, he was being de-escalatory, in the sort of way that just might open a window to diplomacy.

But of course it was Mr. Trump himself who had ordered the launching of the attack he pulled back. In the nonwake of an action that he decided should not happen after all, the president continued to talk in a bellicose manner. On Friday he tweeted that the U.S. military remained “ready to go.”

“It still leaves us in a very tense situation that could rapidly escalate,” says Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. 

Hard-liners on both sides may want further confrontation for their own purposes. If Mr. Trump truly does not want to involve the U.S. in another Middle East conflict that produces another failed or tottering state, now is the time for negotiators to start talking, Ms. Slavin says. 

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Amid risk of US-Iran war, presidential signaling is key

President Donald Trump’s extraordinary Thursday evening approval and cancellation of an attack on Iran has not de-escalated a very tense situation so much as paused it, while wrapping American intentions in yet another layer of mystery.

But a pause could be better than a continued upward spiral. By refraining from a kinetic response to Iran’s shoot-down of a Global Hawk surveillance drone, Mr. Trump, purposefully or not, could allow Iran the opportunity to come to the negotiating table as a comparative equal. The Iranians would not appear to be compelled to bargain by the weight of U.S. bombs, according to Rob Malley, president of the International Crisis Group and a former Middle East adviser in the Obama administration.

“Perhaps his decision (so far) not to strike Iran opens up [a] small window for diplomacy,” tweeted Mr. Malley on Friday.

In a larger sense, U.S. strategy on Iran now appears to be the equivalent of two trains on different tracks, proceeding full speed in opposite directions.

In canceling a military strike reportedly after planes were airborne and ships moving into position, Mr. Trump appeared eager to publicly show restraint and a desire to respond proportionately to Iranian provocations. This would be consistent with his “America First” promise as a candidate to keep the U.S. out of endless Middle Eastern wars.

But of course it was Mr. Trump himself who had ordered the launching of the attack he pulled back, following bellicose language such as a tweet that Iran had made “a very bad mistake” in shooting down the U.S. drone.

In the nonwake of an action that he decided should not happen after all, the president continued to talk in a combative manner. On Friday he tweeted that the U.S. military remained “ready to go.”

“It still leaves us in a very tense situation that could rapidly escalate,” says Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. 

Hard-liners on both sides may want further confrontation for their own purposes.

In Iran, some leaders might see conflict as a way to rally a population demoralized by the bite of U.S. economic sanctions. In the U.S., National Security Adviser John Bolton, and to some extent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have pushed for out-and-out regime change as a means to curb Iran’s regional ambitions and abuses.

If Mr. Trump truly does not want to involve the United States in another Middle East conflict that produces another failed or tottering state, now is the time for negotiators to start talking, says Ms. Slavin.

“I’m really waiting to see the Trump administration name perhaps a special envoy of demonstrated success ... to begin talks,” she says.

The opacity of the U.S. approach to Iran remains a problem going forward. What are the Trump administration’s specific goals?

Mr. Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran because, he said, it was a “bad deal” that did not curb Iranian nuclear capability in perpetuity, nor address other issues such as Iran’s support of militant groups in Syria and elsewhere. But how might that be accomplished? Via a new nuclear pact, or a destabilized Iranian government, or full-on regime replacement? The administration’s answer to this seems to be to apply crippling economic sanctions and see what develops.

Plus, what happened on Thursday? Was the last-minute wave-off of the U.S. attack truly caused by a change of heart on the part of Mr. Trump, as he described? Were aides who wanted him to change his mind behind quick leaks to the media? Or was it a pre-planned action and leak to try to present the president as both tough and restrained?

In any case, the Friday reaction to the whole affair broke along some surprising lines. While much of the response was predictable and partisan, some Republicans grumbled that Mr. Trump looked weak in allowing Iran to destroy U.S. aircraft with impunity. Some Democrats who are typically fierce critics of the administration allowed as how the result, so far, was better than fighting.

“I don’t think that people should be jumping down the president’s throat for wanting to think this through and make sure that neither side miscalculates and we don’t inadvertently end up in a war with Iran,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, chairman of the House intelligence committee.

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A deeper look

2. Kyle Kashuv case: What does forgiveness mean in modern America?

A Harvard University admissions case is raising a question that echoes widely in the age of social media: Where should the boundaries of forgiveness begin and end?

Mark

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This week, Harvard revoked the admission of conservative teen activist Kyle Kashuv. Two years ago as a minor, Mr. Kashuv made offensive remarks, including racial slurs, in a series of texts and in a Google document shared among friends. He has since apologized. 

The ensuing debate over whether Mr. Kashuv should be admitted to Harvard hinges on whether a teenager merits a measure of grace. Answers tend to reflect partisan lines. Conservatives claim that liberals’ judgment on the matter is clouded by bias against a Parkland School shooting survivor who is opposed to gun control. The left’s riposte is that going to Harvard is not a guaranteed right and that college admissions are based on judging people by what they did when they were 16. Then they bring up instances where the right was similarly unmerciful.

At some point, observers say, the restoration of civility has to start with a willingness to offer grace toward one’s opponents. Brad Cran, a self-described leftist and former poet laureate for Vancouver, says that has to start with empathy, a recognition that all of us make mistakes. “If you don’t believe in forgiveness then you’re living a cynical, glib life,” he says.

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Kyle Kashuv case: What does forgiveness mean in modern America?

When is an apology not enough?

Public figures who’ve expressed remorse for their abhorrent speech haven’t always been spared the consequences – not even when offenses date back many years. Kevin Hart lost out on hosting this year’s Oscars. Disney initially fired “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn. And, this week, Harvard rescinded its admission offer to conservative teen activist Kyle Kashuv.

The ensuing debate over whether Mr. Kashuv should be admitted to the nation’s preeminent ivy league school hinges on whether a teenager merits a measure of grace. Answers to that question tend to reflect partisan lines. Conservatives claim that liberals’ judgment on the matter is clouded by bias against a Parkland School shooting survivor who is opposed to gun control. The left’s riposte is that going to Harvard is not a guaranteed right and that college admissions are based on judging people by what they did when they were 16. Then they bring up instances where the right was similarly unmerciful.

The debate might suggest perpetual gridlock in such matters. But some observers believe it’s possible to find a common framework that both facilitates tangible justice and encourages good faith among political opponents. The way forward, they say, lies in a robust dialogue of what it really means to forgive and to repent.

“Forgiveness involves restorative justice in that it implies some kind of a confession and maybe also reparation. But where that kind of step has been taken, that opens the possibility of leading a different life with a different mindset,” says Donald Shriver, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary and author of “An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics.” “We Christians are sure that everybody has been guilty of some sin and to forget that is to is to retreat into pride and forgetfulness.”

Mr. Kashuv’s transgression dates back nearly two years to when he was a minor. The teen repeatedly wrote a racial slur, used an anti-Semitic phrase (even though he is Jewish), and denigrated a girl in a series of texts and in a Google document shared among friends. (Among Mr. Kashuv’s youthful indiscretions: naively believing that what one writes online will forever remain private.) When the documents came to light last month, Mr. Kashuv offered an unequivocal mea culpa for using “callous and inflammatory” words in an attempt to be as “as shocking as possible.”

‘We are wrestling with what forgiveness looks like’

Harvard has said it won’t publicly comment on its decision to revoke Mr. Kashuv’s place. But plenty of other people have weighed in on the matter.

“We’re all gonna get on Twitter now and talk about this individual human being as if they are here on Earth to be a container for all of our emotions about the current political environment,” says Sarah Stewart Holland, a liberal who hosts the “Pantsuit Politics” podcast with her conservative friend Beth Silvers.

Ms. Holland and Ms. Silvers, both mothers who live in Kentucky, approached their podcast discussion of Mr. Kashuv in ways that they advocate in their recent book, “I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-filled Conversations.”  

Ms. Holland says her conservative friend helped her see that too much symbolism is vested in Harvard – this discussion wouldn’t be happening if, say, Mr. Kashuv had been rejected by the University of Connecticut.

Ms. Silvers says her liberal friend helped her realize this news story is colored by other previous controversies that have obscured what she believes is the core question at the heart of this particular case.

“In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, especially, we are wrestling with what forgiveness looks like,” says Ms. Silvers. “Who is allowed to evolve versus who is allowed to be punished forever…. That is a really different question than, ‘What is an appropriate level of accountability for a teenager, as a teenager, for saying something racist?’”

Teenagers as targets of public shaming

Until recently, it was uncommon for what some have dubbed “cancel culture” to focus on indiscretions committed before someone came of legal age. But, unlike criminal records, comments by teenagers on Twitter aren’t under seal. And increasingly, those cringeworthy posts have been retweeted in a bid to create embarrassing news stories. In December, Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray had just accepted the Heisman trophy when, hours later, anti-gay tweets he’d made a teenager resurfaced. Similarly, someone drew attention to Josh Hader’s inflammatory tweets as a teen at the very moment the Milwaukee Brewers pitcher was on the mound of last year’s All-Star game. Since then, two other baseball stars have had to apologize for rash comments they made during their formative years on social media.

The press, too, not only reports on faux pas by public figures during their high-school years, but also those of regular teenagers. Case in point: When a Utah girl posted a picture of herself wearing a traditional Chinese dress, which she found at a thrift store, to prom last year, many articles were written about whether she was guilty of cultural appropriation. And when a video of MAGA hat-wearing high-schoolers from Covington, Kentucky, went viral earlier this year the boy at the center of the controversy was quickly identified and vilified.

“We should not be naming and shaming kids unless this is serious criminal behavior,” says Robby Soave, author of “Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.” “It is now very easy to create a record of your worst behavior and have that come back to haunt you. Which means I think it’s even more important to practice forgiveness of these kinds of things.”  

Michael Conroy/AP
Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., speaks at the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum in Indianapolis in April 2019.

An advocate for non-gun control safety measures to protect schools, Mr. Kashuv has spoken at conservative conferences and been photographed with the president. As he and others noted, the attacks have been bipartisan – coming from both the left and far-right activists such as Mike Cernovich and Laura Loomer. (Ms. Loomer did not respond to the Monitor’s request for an interview.)

“There is no genuine desire on their parts to make their target a better person, to see the error of their ways,” says Stacey Matthews, a conservative columnist for North State Journal, a statewide newspaper in North Carolina. “If it was, they'd approach the person personally rather than ‘outing’ them. The shaming is done because of petty reasons like personal grudges or political differences.”

Some commentators, including Mr. Soave, say that losing a place at Harvard is a rather harsh punishment for Mr. Kashuv, especially considering how he has comported himself since it became public.

“If someone can go through that process of reflection and come back and actually take responsibility, accountability for it as well as he has done, and still get the hammer, then what is that saying to anyone for the possibility of redemption?” says Brad Cran, a self-described leftist who recently wrote an article for Quillette titled, “Lessons in Forgiveness, from a Bicycle Thief.”

Consequences and character-building

Over at Slate, admissions consultant Hanna Stotland, who specializes in educational crisis management, had a diametrically opposite take.

“Ben Shapiro, David Brooks, and Reason’s Robby Soave have all made the same point in recent days,” she wrote. “But these people have it backward. Kashuv has a shot at redemption because Harvard revoked his acceptance. Consequences and redemption are not in tension. In fact, they go hand in hand.”

Everyday Americans may see valid observations amid the finger-pointing and whataboutism. But, at some point, others say, the restoration of civility has to start with a willingness to offer grace toward one’s opponents. Mr. Cran, who was Vancouver’s poet laureate from 2009 to 2011, says that has to start with empathy, a recognition that all of us make mistakes.

He believes there’s a reason why many people can’t bring themselves to forgive people such as Mr. Kashuv. To do so would mean they’d have to relinquish their narrative that those on the other side are evil.

“If you don’t believe in forgiveness then you’re living a cynical, glib life,” he says.

But should forgiveness be unconditional?

“You forgive someone and it’s done. If they go back on their word at a later point, that’s when the conditions start,” says Ms. Matthews. “As I wrote in a column earlier this year on the [Virginia Gov.] Ralph Northam blackface scandal, people are flawed and they’re going to make mistakes in life. But they can learn from the mistakes, be forgiven, and be better people as they get older. They don’t have to be punished for an eternity. It’s OK to accept someone’s apology and move on if you believe they are being sincere.”

Other disgraced public figures have rebounded following a time-out period of atonement. Mr. Gunn was eventually reinstated as director of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” and Kevin Hart is back on TV with his Comedy Central series “Hart of the City.” Mr. Kashuv’s future may well depend on how others perceive him going forward.

Ms. Silvers, for one, wonders whether his new notoriety may result in a career founded upon the identity politics of playing up a sense of victimhood. She hopes he will leave the apology tour of cable news behind and earn forgiveness through the humility of his actions.

“I’d like to see proof,” concurs Jeanne Safer, the liberal-leaning author of “I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics: How to Protect your Intimate Relationships in a Poisonous Partisan World.” She wishes Harvard had opted for a more Solomonic choice of delaying its decision on Mr Kashuv’s admission. “My thought was, ‘How about giving him an extra year?’ Let’s see what you do.”

No one possesses an emotional X-ray machine to see into Mr. Kashuv’s heart. And very few observers who’ve offered judgment have endured a mass shooting or can attest, firsthand, how that experience might transform a person. Podcast host Ms. Holland, for one, offers a cautionary note about how one might view the Parkland shooting survivors.

“Even though they have become public figures, in a sense they’re still kids,” she says. “And I think it’s important for adults, even those of us who are not actually directly connected to them, to think of them that way.”

Mr. Shriver, the theologian, cautions that character-building isn’t accomplished all at once. Speaking from his personal experience of the civil rights movement, he advises that society needs to allow for a process of growth if repentance is to be achieved through understanding.

“I was born in Virginia and participated in one way or another in the customs around a segregated society. And it took me years to understand the harms that segregation did to my neighbors,” he says. “This is a learning process that we need to give people time and scope and freedom to explore. If we don’t have that freedom to explore, we will cover up the past without confessing its evils. And that’s where a certain amount of patience, what I call forbearance, is important.”

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3. When water demand rises, this Montana town invests in forests

Here's one cheap way to purify the water supply: Let trees do it. One Montana town is learning what places like Boston and New York already know. Cities and forests can get along quite nicely.

Mark
Doug Struck
Whitefish, Montana, is nestled beside Whitefish Lake in the Rocky Mountains. Access to streams, which gave the town the cleanest and cheapest water, was threatened by development, so the town used an increasingly popular strategy of buying rights to the forest.

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When Whitefish, Montana, a town of 7,000 nestled in the Rocky Mountains, saw rising demand for water, it gulped at the cost of trying to filter and treat dirtier water from its lake.

This decision wasn’t solely for the environment. Compared with man-made water treatment facilities, trees offer a cheap and efficient way to filter rain and snow. Indeed, they are so effective that five major U.S. cities – New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon – can pump unfiltered water from distant pristine watersheds to customer homes.

“Protecting forests of watersheds makes economic sense,” says Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld. “And it’s a much different way of traditionally looking at a public water supply infrastructure.”

The model for this practice is New York City, which took the controversial step two decades ago of spending $2 billion to protect a watershed in the Catskill Mountains. The investment paid off.

“People are not necessarily doing it because they love trees,” says University of Massachusetts ecologist Paul K. Barten, who says he coined the term “forests to faucets.” “They are doing it because it’s a lot less expensive.” 

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When water demand rises, this Montana town invests in forests

When the appetite for high-priced housing threatened the water source of this picturesque mountain town, the residents raised taxes and spent money on forests.

Three years later, when rising tourism upped the summer demand for water, more money was raised to buy more forests.

The equation used by local and state officials, nonprofit groups, and private residents was straightforward: It’s cheaper and easier to have the forests cleanse the water than to throw chemicals and machinery at the task.

“Protecting forests of watersheds makes economic sense,” says John Muhlfeld, the mayor of this town of 7,000 nestled in Montana’s Rocky Mountains. “And it’s a much different way of traditionally looking at a public water supply infrastructure.”

Forests to faucets

Whitefish’s embrace of the idea of preserving forests to protect its water supply is evidence of the growing adoption of a tactic that once seemed risky, and is now proving immensely successful for big cities and small towns alike.

As town planners look at the high cost of building water filtration plants and operating them year after year, the thought of letting the trees do it becomes a budgetary no-brainer.

And the trees do it well. The natural filtering process that rain and snow undergo in seeping through forest canopies and forest beds, slowly toward streams and lakes, is so effective that five major cities in the United States – New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon – can pump unfiltered water from distant pristine watersheds to customer homes.   

New York is the poster-city example in this country. Twenty years ago, the city engaged in a wrenching political battle over whether to build a $6 billion water filtration plant that would cost $300 million per year to filter water for the city. Instead it gambled and spent $2 billion to protect the forested watershed in the Catskill Mountains, 125 miles away, the source of 90% of the city’s water. It was a bold and controversial decision – and it worked.

“Here we are, 20 years later they have been meeting the safe drinking water standards through tropical storms and superstorms,” says Paul K. Barten, one of the junior architects of the original Catskills program who now chairs a current National Academy review of the system. “It has become an international example of what watershed protection can accomplish.”

“People are not necessarily doing it because they love trees,” he says. “They are doing it because it’s a lot less expensive.” Dr. Barten says he coined the term “forests to faucets” – now used widely for the technique – 15 years ago for a University of Massachusetts Amherst program he heads.

Doug Struck
Heidi Van Everen, executive director of the Whitefish Legacy Partners, on the Whitefish trail created on property preserved for the town's drinking water. The deal appealed to everyone; it was good for water, recreation, wildlife and scenic beauty, she says.

A gentleman’s handshake’

The concept really wasn’t new, Dr. Barten notes. The Swiss in the 1300s “connected the dots: When we cleared the forest above our village, we have avalanches or soil loss that destroys the village. We shouldn’t do it.” Europe widely adopted that conservation ethic – and still today preserves twice as much land, proportionately, as the U.S.

The state and national park programs that began to emerge in the U.S. 150 years ago, and evolved at the prodding of such visionaries as John Muir, Frederick Olmsted, Gifford Pinchot, and Teddy Roosevelt, now preserve 13% of U.S. land, according to the World Bank. Another 56 million acres are held by various forms of private or public “trusts” that allow some use but prohibit development, according to the Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C.

In the case of Whitefish, that meant keeping land for logging. The Haskill Basin northeast of town was forestland owned for more than a century by the Stoltze lumber company. The city collected its water from two small streams on the property. Access to the water had always been guaranteed by “no more than a gentleman’s handshake,” says Mayor Muhlfeld.

But over the years, development pressures loomed larger as Whitefish blossomed into a high-end, expensive resort town sprouting multimillion-dollar second homes.

Voting ‘yes’ for water

Stoltze “could have gotten an offer that they couldn’t refuse,” says Kris Tempel, a biologist at the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency. She and Alan Wood, a resource conservation manager at the agency, had been putting together conservation easements for years, “but we had never done a project this expensive,” says Mr. Wood in his office in Kalispell, where nail holes in the wall are covered by a bear hide. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence we could do it.”

The Trust for Public Land thought they could. The nonprofit helped bring together $9 million from federal conservation funds. And Stoltze agreed to take a $4 million cut on the $21 million price of giving away development rights to its 3,000 acres in Haskill Basin.

“Once lands are developed they are hard to undevelop,” notes Dick Dolan, a director of the Trust for Public Land in Bozeman. “We are trying to get ahead of the curve and preserve for future generations what we have.”

But that left a shortfall of $8 million. City residents had balked before about increasing the town’s “resort tax” on restaurants, lodging, and retail. But in 2015, after a “Vote Yes for Water” campaign by the mayor and others, residents gave an overwhelming 84% approval to a 1% tax increase. Late last year, the purchase of another 13,000-acre property helped protect a watershed for Whitehead Lake, a secondary source of water for the town.

From Stumptown to sustainability

The public support is a change in a place where encroachment on private land is viewed with suspicion, says Mr. Wood. 

“Twenty years ago there was a lot of opposition” to these proposals, he says. “People would say, ‘You’re spending money we don’t have to lock up land we need.’”

But this deal “gave everyone what they wanted,” says Mr. Wood. The town kept its access to clean and cheap water. Stoltze can keep harvesting timber on the land, employing an average of 110 workers. Lumber companies had crudely formed Whitefish – its original name was “Stumptown” – but Mr. Wood and others say the selective “sustainable” timbering done by Stoltze is healthy for the forest.

“We’ve been doing it for over 100 years, and we’re able to find the balance,” says Paul McKenzie, land and resource manager for Stoltze.

Just as important, perhaps, was guaranteeing public access to the forests. The deals will help a community group, Whitehead Legacy Partners, create a 55-mile trail around Whitefish. About 42 miles have been built, and already the trail is used about 130,000 times a year by bikers, hikers, and joggers, says Heidi Van Everen, executive director of the group.

“When I moved here 12 years ago, people didn’t want to talk about conservation,” Ms. Van Everen says, as four bikers steer carefully around her on the wooded trail, shaded by towering western red cedars and Douglas firs. “It was too controversial. It was this left-wing crazy stuff.

“People now understand conservation means protecting our scenic backdrop, protecting our drinking water, supporting wildlife, allowing hunting,” she says. “I feel like there is so much more of ‘Let’s find common ground and figure out what we can agree on.’”

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4. How ‘When They See Us’ is affecting views of justice system

A Netflix miniseries about the Central Park Five is technically about a gross miscarriage of justice in New York City 30 years ago. But for many viewers, it is just as much about today.

Mark
NETFLIX
In the Netflix series ‘When They See Us,’ Marquis Rodriguez (l.) plays Raymond Santana, one of five young men wrongly convicted of rape in 1989. The program has caused public backlash against investigators and prosecutors involved in the case.

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“When They See Us” was the most-watched show on Netflix for seven days following its release at the end of May. It has continued to attract plaudits and criticism and has spurred a public backlash against investigators and prosecutors involved in the 1989 rape case. It is also the latest in a steady stream of documentaries and drama series exploring flaws in the American criminal justice system.

The four-part program follows the teenagers known as the Central Park Five from their arrests through their prison terms to their official exoneration in 2002. Similar series and documentaries have led to new charges or reexamination of convictions. “When They See Us” can’t have that kind of impact, as the men are already exonerated, and the result seems to have been more muddled targets for viewer outrage. The demand for consequences for prosecutors and detectives involved in the case has already resulted in a loss of livelihood in some instances. 

The show illustrates flaws that could be fixed with legislation and rule changes, says John Raphling, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “That’s only going to happen,” he says, “as people understand how the system really works.”

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1. How ‘When They See Us’ is affecting views of justice system

When the drama “When They See Us” first came out last month, James Peterson had been afraid to watch it. He knew it wouldn’t be a happy story, but when he finally hit play and the first beats of Special Ed’s rap “I Got It Made” raised the curtain on the hit Netflix miniseries, he couldn’t help but start nodding along.

He was back in April 1989, his senior year of high school and the year when the so-called Central Park Five case made national headlines. Academy Award-nominated director Ava DuVernay has dramatized the case of five young teenagers of color who were falsely convicted of beating and raping Trisha Meili, a white female jogger in the park – convictions that hinged decisively on confessions they made to police in the hours after the attack, confessions the men contend were coerced.

The four-part series follows the teenagers from their arrests through their prison terms and reentry to their official exoneration in 2002. It was the most-watched show on Netflix for seven days following its release on May 31. Since then it has continued to attract plaudits and criticism and has spurred a public backlash against investigators and prosecutors involved in the 1989 rape case. It is also the latest in a steady stream of documentaries and drama series exploring flaws in the American criminal justice system.

“When They See Us” seems to have taken this genre to a new level, observers say. The case’s well-documented procedural twists and turns are married with an intimate focus on the experiences of the five teens and their families, with it all punctuated by frequent (and sometimes blunt) hints that many of the biases and injustices seen in the case remain in the justice system – and society – today. Injustice is simultaneously recounted and foreshadowed. 

“There’s not much in ‘When They See Us’ that I wasn’t aware of, [criminal justice] system-wise, but to see it dramatized, and to be connected to the pain and anguish of those families, was something,” says Dr. Peterson, an author and expert on race, politics, and popular culture.

“It’s not a happy story; it’s not a big super sci-fi narrative,” he adds. “This is our reality depicted on film in a way that strikes like lightning.”

NETFLIX
Antron McCray (l.) with Caleel Harris, the young actor who portrays him in ‘When They See Us.’ The four-part dramatic series follows five teenagers from their arrests through their prison terms and reentry to their official exoneration in 2002.

Similar series and documentaries have led to new charges, or reexamination of convictions. “When They See Us” can’t have that kind of impact – Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise have already been exonerated – and the result seems to have been more muddled targets for viewer outrage. There is a widespread demand for consequences for the prosecutors and detectives involved in the case. Ms. DuVernay has said she hopes the series makes the criminal justice system itself a target for outrage and reform. 

“Can we interrogate what’s happened in the past to safeguard ourselves from it happening in the future?” she said on “CBS This Morning” last month. “That’s why I’m such a student of history. I like to embed historical context in my work. We can only, kind of, better the situation if we realize the details of what happened.”

Past events, present ire

The pop culture focus on injustices has predictably led to calls for justice, or at least accountability. 

documentary released this year detailing sexual abuse allegations against R&B singer Robert “R.” Kelly led to new charges. The podcast “Serial” and the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” launched in 2014 and 2015 respectively, drew national attention to appeals by Adnan Syed and Brendan Dassey against their murder convictions, which had been the subjects of the two shows’ debut seasons.

“When They See Us” has focused public ire on Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, the assistant district attorneys who led the prosecution of the Central Park Five. 

Ms. Lederer, still an assistant DA, announced last week that she will not return to a teaching position at Columbia Law School, after students presented a petition of 10,000 signatures protesting her position. This week, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. dismissed calls to fire her from his office. Ms. Fairstein, who left the district attorney’s office in 2002 and has become a successful author, was dropped by her book publisher last week and forced to resign from several charity boards as outrage over the case rekindled. More than 25,000 people have signed a petition calling for her to be prosecuted.

Ms. Fairstein has criticized the series, writing in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that it is “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.” This week President Donald Trump also declined to apologize for the newspaper ads he took out in 1989, telling reporters, “There were two sides to that. They admitted their guilt.”

But the reflex toward “cancel culture” – the social media-driven blacklisting of individuals after a controversy – may not be the only lens through which to look at the response to “When They See Us.” Ms. DuVernay said last month the series was partly about finding a way “to safeguard ourselves from it happening in the future.”

“One of my challenges around cancel culture is it goes to judgment sometimes too quickly, and in that sense we’re just like our criminal justice system,” says Dr. Peterson.

Reaction to the storytelling

In Texas, Vickye Murray is visiting Austin, spending a hot afternoon earlier this week at the George Washington Carver Museum with her sister and two friends. She says one scene, from the second episode of the series (mild spoiler follows), stuck out to her.

Sharonne Salaam is walking her son through a scrum of reporters to the courthouse for his trial. She is ignoring shouted questions, until one reporter asks if she has any response to Mr. Trump calling for the death penalty for her son. She spins around, clearly not having seen the full-page ads Mr. Trump had taken out in some local newspapers that read “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” 

“What did you say? What did you say?” Ms. Salaam repeats, her face a mask of anger and fear, before turning back around to hug her son.

“That stuck out to me,” Ms. Murray says, “because I think there are so many politicians who pass laws, but if it happened to their family they wouldn’t want to pass that law.” 

Although not a politician at that point, Mr. Trump features prominently in the series compared with other public figures of the time. (Then-Mayor Ed Koch, for example, called it “the crime of the century” and described the five teenagers as “monsters.”) It’s a creative decision that illustrates how Ms. DuVernay links past to present through the series.

Dr. Peterson remembers when he initially became sure the case against the five teenagers was problematic: when the mostly white media first began reporting on the groups of teens “wilding” in the park that night. The word was both seized on and misinterpreted. 

African Americans generally pronounce it “wilin’” and define it the way the Urban Dictionary does in this version: “any racy activity that exhibits a lack of wisdom or any common sense.” At the time, the media viewed wilding the way the Oxford English Dictionary now defines it: “a gang of youths ... going on a protracted and violent rampage.”

“The show depicts that immediately,” Dr. Peterson says. “It takes this misunderstanding of the vernacular to create this image of packs of black and brown teens roaming the park.” 

The case came at an inflection point for the American justice system. The crack cocaine epidemic had just begun to ravage poor communities of color in New York and violent crime was skyrocketing, but the tough-on-crime reactions of mandatory minimum sentences and mass incarceration – which have disproportionately targeted people of color – were still a few years away.

“It created tremendous momentum for the twin policies of ‘broken windows policing’ and ‘stop and frisk,’ which would be the central approaches to policing of the [Rudolph] Giuliani and [Michael] Bloomberg administrations, leading to massive arrests of young men of color for quality-of-life crimes,” says Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University and lifelong New Yorker who who grew up in Brooklyn.

Platform-specific approach 

This level of detail and nuance – the Special Ed opening, the attention to Mr. Trump, the focus on wilding and media coverage – may have been possible only on a platform like Netflix, says Mark Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University.

“Network [television] wasn’t going to cover this. Cable might have, but I’m not sure [Ms. DuVernay] would have had the [same] freedom,” he adds. 

It could have been a film, but then it likely would have had to be at least one hour shorter, “and there’s no guarantee people will actually go to the theater,” he continues. “With Netflix, Hulu, streaming services, it allows it to come to the people in ways that people don’t have to work hard to get to it.”

The series also illustrates specific flaws in the justice system that could be fixed with legislation and rule changes, says John Raphling, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who spent more than two decades as a criminal defense lawyer in California. Some jurisdictions have created commissions to investigate and review, and assign discipline for, prosecutorial misconduct. Bail reform could also mean less pretrial detention, which can be used as a threat to coerce confessions.

“There are a lot of discrete changes that can be made as well as more systemic changes,” adds Mr. Raphling. “That’s only going to happen as people understand how the system really works.”

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On Film

5. Woody and Buzz make a satisfying return in ‘Toy Story 4’

The glowing subtext of the witty and inventive “Toy Story 4” has resonance for all: What happens when we no longer feel useful?

Mark
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Woody and Buzz make a satisfying return in ‘Toy Story 4’

For many of us, the big question coming into “Toy Story 4” was, of course, “Why?” From every standpoint except commercial expediency, there was scant reason for Pixar to sequelize the glorious “Toy Story 3,” which nine years ago capped the franchise with a perfect denouement. How many movie trilogies can you name where the third entry was the best? (Except for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” I can’t think of any.) Creating a fourth anywhere as good would appear to be an impossibility.

Unlike “Toy Story 3,” “Toy Story 4” is not a masterpiece, but I was almost relieved about that. It doesn’t put you through the emotional wringer the way its predecessor did, but it’s consistently inventive, funny, witty, and heartfelt. In other words, it’s a lot better than it has any right to be. It’s more than good enough to justify its existence.

The new film picks up with college-bound Andy’s toys now the playmates of little Bonnie. Woody (voiced, feelingly as always, by Tom Hanks) oversees the assemblage, but he’s no longer a favorite toy.

He still sees it as his mission to look after Bonnie. So when she fearfully begins her first day in kindergarten, he hides inside her backpack and surreptitiously facilitates a project where she fashions a creature out of a plastic spork, pipe cleaners, wooden craft sticks, and googly eyes. Her beloved Forky (Tony Hale) becomes her new favorite toy, even though, cobbled together from trash can odds and ends, Forky has other ideas. The concept of a “toy” is alien to him. He keeps hopping back into wastebaskets because that’s where he thinks he belongs.

Woody proudly announces to his cohorts that Bonnie has literally “made a new friend.” But then Forky goes missing during a family outing in an RV to an outdoor carnival, winding up stowed away in a local antique store. Woody springs to the rescue, aided by, among others, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively), Canadian stunt motorcyclist Duke Caboom (a hilariously amped-up Keanu Reeves), and Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who rejoins the fray after elatedly enjoying her independence. (Her touching separation from Woody comes soon after the film begins.)

Their chief nemeses are Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), the antique store’s Ginger doll, and her ventriloquist dummy henchmen. Gabby wants Woody’s voice box. Her scenes have an eeriness that at times seems more “Twilight Zone” than Disney, but that’s appropriate. Whether we are humans or knickknacks, toys are not always our friends.

What gave “Toy Story 3” its deep poignancy was the crushing realization that even favorite toys are eventually discarded. More so than ever, Woody has to face up to this fact in “Toy Story 4.” If a toy exists to be loved by a child, what then is its reason for being if it is no longer loved?

Director Josh Cooley and his writers, Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, don’t pour on the pathos, which is just as well. I’m not a big fan of being hit over the head with life lessons when I go to the movies. Instead, the filmmakers have concocted a comic wingding, full of marvelous slapstick and sight gags, into which the more heartfelt moments are subtly woven. All of which makes this film, as was also true of the other “Toy Story” movies, but especially “Toy Story 3,” as accessible for adults as for children.

It should be past debate that wonderful children’s movies, almost by definition, are also wonderful for adults. Who would relegate, say, “E.T.” or “The Black Stallion” or Alfonso Cuarón’s “A Little Princess” to the realm of kid flicks? The glowing subtext of “Toy Story 4” has resonance for everybody: What happens to us when we no longer feel useful? If the “Toy Story” franchise were to end right here I would be more than happy, but then again, I felt this way nine years ago with “Toy Story 3.” Never say never.

Editor’s note: This review has been updated to correct the name of the young girl who inherited Andy’s toys. Her name is Bonnie.

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The Monitor's View

What can restrain a US-Iran conflict

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As Iran and the United States inch closer toward a possible military confrontation in the Persian Gulf, it is worth noting another type of battleground in the Middle East – one that may help limit a wider war. It is the battle to protect innocent civilians in the many conflicts involving Iran and other Middle Eastern powers.

On Tuesday, for example, the United Nations Security Council met in emergency session to throw a spotlight on recent mass killings by the Iran-backed regime in Syria. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted to block a multibillion-dollar weapons deal with Saudi Arabia out of concern over the killing of civilians in Yemen in a proxy war with Iran. Also on Thursday, a court in London ruled the British government had ignored whether Saudi airstrikes in Yemen were killing civilians in selling arms to the kingdom.

Such victories for humanitarian law do not make as much news as Iran’s downing of a U.S. military drone or the U.S. preparation for a counterattack. Yet they send a message of restraint and a signal that much of the world is demanding respect for innocent life in a conflict.

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What can restrain a US-Iran conflict

As Iran and the United States inch closer toward a possible military confrontation in the Persian Gulf, it is worth noting another type of battleground in the Middle East – one that may help limit a wider war.

It is the battle to protect innocent civilians in the many conflicts involving Iran and other Middle Eastern powers.

On Tuesday, for example, the United Nations Security Council met in emergency session to throw a spotlight on recent mass killings by the Iran-backed regime in Syria. U.N. officials say Syrian planes are dropping barrel bombs on hospitals and similar targets in Idlib province. At least 230 people have died in bombings in the past six weeks.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted to block a multibillion-dollar weapons deal with Saudi Arabia out of concern over the killing of civilians in Yemen. The U.N. says more than 7,000 civilians have been killed in the four-year-long war, with 65% of the deaths attributed to airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition trying to defeat Iran-backed rebels.

In breaking with President Donald Trump on the arms sale, Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham made this argument for the measure: Saudi Arabia “cannot have a strategic relationship with the United States and behave in a fashion that shows no respect for human dignity, no respect for international norms.”

Also on Thursday, a court in London ruled the British government had ignored whether Saudi airstrikes in Yemen were killing civilians in selling arms to the kingdom. About half of the Saudi air force is made up of aircraft supplied by the U.K. The neglect of civilian casualties violated humanitarian law, the court found. The U.K. will now have to assure there is “no clear risk” of British weapons being used to strike civilians in Yemen.

Such victories for humanitarian law do not make as much news as Iran’s downing of a U.S. military drone or the U.S. preparation for a counterattack. Yet they send a message of restraint and a signal that much of the world is demanding respect for innocent life in a conflict.

This sort of moral pressure can help open a door for peace talks and a diplomatic settlement. Sometimes the battleground in a conflict is not all rockets and bullets but rather appeals to conscience to embrace a shared virtue.

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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.

Chasing grumpy clouds away

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When a family outing became plagued with irritability and frustration, a church service brought much-needed spiritual refreshment, enabling the family to see how God’s harmony dispels the “clouds” that would obscure our God-given joy and patience.

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Chasing grumpy clouds away

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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You might think that after months of anticipating our family trip to the beach we would be thrilled to be there together. But no. Just a couple of days of fun in the sun had left my husband, our 8-year-old daughter, and me pretty exhausted and irritable.

When I had had about enough of the situation, I announced – much to my husband’s and daughter’s dismay – that we would be going to church that evening. It was Wednesday, so there was a service at the local branch Church of Christ, Scientist.

You should have seen their faces. You would have thought I was dishing out a terrible punishment as they changed from swimsuits into street clothes. And honestly, maybe I had been thinking “So there! This will straighten everyone up!” Little did I realize just how much good we were all going to get out of the visit.

For both my husband and my daughter, it was their first time attending one of these Wednesday evening meetings. Each service includes passages from the Bible and the Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, on a topical theme. There is also singing, time for quiet prayer, and sharing of personal testimonies of inspiration and healings stemming from the study and practice of Christian Science.

I will never forget what happened to us during that service. I began to feel peaceful and relaxed. Our restless daughter quieted. The frown wrinkles on my husband’s face ironed out smoothly.

After the service, our girl skipped happily to the car, and my husband said, “Thanks. I feel better.” And what followed was one of our happiest family trips ever.

What had happened? I don’t suppose that the physical act of going into a church caused this shift. But taking a break to engage with God’s law of harmony certainly did produce a healing change.

Science and Health gives a simple definition of Christian Science as “the natural law of harmony which overcomes discord” (p. 134). So simple and direct. The complete sentence reads, “The true Logos is demonstrably Christian Science, the natural law of harmony which overcomes discord, – not because this Science is supernatural or preternatural, nor because it is an infraction of divine law, but because it is the immutable law of God, good.”

“Logos,” as a Bible concept, refers to the Word of God, which is seen in God’s law of good, of harmony, always in operation. This divine power isn’t a supernatural presence that comes and goes. It enables us to understand the pure, natural good in everyone as God’s creation – an understanding of true, spiritual identity that is present, accessible, and intrinsic to all life.

Any glimpse of the fundamental truth of God’s all-goodness is an encounter with the healing Christ, the divine nature Jesus expressed, showing us what we are – the spiritual good that we are made of. Christ brings the law of harmony to bear in the minutiae of our lives. This transformative coming of the Christ is what Jesus spoke of when he said, “Ye, therefore, now, indeed, have sorrow; and again I will see you, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one doth take from you” (John 16:22, Young’s Literal Translation). Yielding time and attention to the Christ, we welcome a joy that doesn’t fade in our experience; it illumines it.

Science and Health explains, “Whatever inspires with wisdom, Truth, or Love – be it song, sermon, or Science – blesses the human family with crumbs of comfort from Christ’s table, feeding the hungry and giving living waters to the thirsty” (p. 234). For our family that night, much-needed spiritual refreshment – the opportunity to engage with the unalterable, ageless, healing law of God, or divine good – was found at church.

Each of us, whether we’re at church or elsewhere, can let Christ lift clouds of irritation, frustration, and whatever else would hide our God-given sense of joy. This helps not just us but those around us too. And who wouldn’t want that on a family beach trip – or anywhere?

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Viewfinder

Celebrating the sun

Aijaz Rahi/AP
Revelers meditate at sunrise as thousands gather at the ancient stone circle Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, near Salisbury, England, June 21, 2019.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( June 24th, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back Monday when we look at how, as Eastern European democracies gradually corrode amid the collapse of an independent media, one country is seeing the start of a rebellion.

Monitor Daily Podcast

June 21, 2019
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