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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
January
12
Friday
David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

On New Year’s Eve, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a call for empathy:

“My wishes for the New Year are for us to become aware again of that which holds us together at heart; that we focus again on what we have in common; and for us to strive to have more consideration for others ... paying attention, truly listening, and showing understanding for others.”

Many interpreted this as a statement about Germany’s tumultuous embrace of more than a million refugees. But today, it looks like a road map for political compromise. 

On Friday, four long months after the elections, German leaders took a big step toward forming a new government. They’re not there yet. But the three major political parties (conservative, center-right, and center-left) have a preliminary deal for a new coalition government. 

After 12 years at the helm, many doubted Ms. Merkel could do it. Despite a strong economy, Germany’s widening rich-poor gap is creating new social fissures. Her party lost ground and a far-right party now sits in parliament.

Merkel struggled as never before, but her persistence paid off. It’s not a done deal yet. But for Merkel, long seen as the most powerful woman in the world, it’s the first sign of progress.

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Now for our five stories selected to illustrate forgiveness, justice, and paths to progress in the world.

1. Why presidential language matters

Do leaders have a moral obligation to choose their words carefully? After President Trump's remarks Thursday, our reporters look at the history of US presidential language and why we now may be in a period in which words can matter more than actions.

David
 

The 30 Sec. ReadPresidents are normally very controlled in their use of language. They know they’re on stage virtually all the time and that everything they say can, and will, be used against them by their critics. When they speak harshly – or swear – they generally do so for effect. Lyndon Johnson would berate individual lawmakers because he wanted to bend them to his will, not just to express emotions. But President Trump’s incendiary outburst Thursday during a meeting with lawmakers about a possible bipartisan immigration deal was yet another breach in presidential norms. In dismissing developing countries with a scatological slur, and rejecting immigrants from those countries while embracing those from Norway, Mr. Trump used harsh words in a divisive manner. (On Friday, he disputed the use of the offensive language.) The incident seemed reflective of the president’s apparent disinterest in uniting the nation beyond his electoral base, or the world. “One of the most powerful weapons in achieving this end is language,” says Brian Balogh, a history professor at the University of Virginia. “Using language that appeals broadly, and avoiding language that infuriates, demeans, incites, is crucial to achieving this end.”

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1. Why presidential language matters

Presidents don’t normally talk like this.

“This,” of course, refers to President Trump’s words on Thursday during a discussion with lawmakers about a possible bipartisan immigration deal, during which he made incendiary and vulgar remarks about people from developing countries.

Chief executives do swear. They have yelled. Oval Office walls have heard rough and intemperate language.

That’s not the point, say historians. The worst aspect of Mr. Trump’s outburst, they say, may have been its divisiveness. When presidents sort groups of voters, and groups of nations, into categories they like and dislike, the results aren’t always pretty. It’s a tactic that can be wrong, and ineffective. On both domestic and foreign issues US chief executives often need all the allies they can get.

Most presidents feel a responsibility to reach out beyond their core constituencies, says Brian Balogh, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and co-host of the podcast, “BackStory.

“One of the most powerful weapons in achieving this end is language,” Dr. Balogh writes in response to a reporter’s email. “Using language that appeals broadly, and avoiding language that infuriates, demeans, incites, is crucial to achieving this end.”

Trump has operated differently from Day 1 of his presidency. He appears to believe (and his supporters say) that speaking his mind got him elected, so he’ll continue to do that, whatever the media say or his staff tells him.

When words matter more

The flip side of this may be that his fiercest critics get as upset – or more so – about what he says as about what he does. An example of this in the 2016 campaign may have been the “Access Hollywood” tape, says David O’Connell, a professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

The vulgar language and attitudes displayed on the tape angered many people more than the specific stories of women who then came forward to allege that Trump had sexually harassed or assaulted them, says Professor O’Connell. The same effect may be at work this week on immigration, with Trump’s dismissive references to particular countries producing more outrage than actual policy changes affecting immigrations from those places.

“The controversy reflects a shift in political society, where words now seem for a lot of people to matter more than actions, rather than the other way around,” says O’Connell.

At the moment it is not entirely clear what occurred during Trump’s meeting with a small group of lawmakers to discuss a proposed deal on immigration. Initial reports were that Trump erupted when he found that the deal, struck by a bipartisan group of senators, allocated some legal immigration slots to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations.

Trump allegedly used a scatological slur to describe these countries, asked why the United States would want people from Haiti, and wondered why the US could not get more immigrants from nations such as Norway, whose prime minister visited Washington this week.

On Friday morning, after the controversy generated by the words had swirled for more than 12 hours, Trump tweeted a vague apology in which he denied saying anything derogatory about Haiti or Haitian immigrants, but said nothing about the rest of alleged discussion.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, who attended the meeting in question, repeated on Friday that the president did use a harsh scatological obscenity, and said that Trump said “things which were hate-filled, vile, and racist.”

It isn’t entirely unprecedented for a presidential administration to use coarse language in a meeting large enough to be semi-public, or even in a public forum. The interesting thing is that such a duty usually falls to the vice president, says Balogh. Consider the Nixon team: Vice President Spiro Agnew was the attack dog, railing in speeches against the media as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” President Nixon swore like a sailor in private, but in public he tried hard to use unifying rhetoric at a time of national social unrest.

In the Trump administration, it is the president who is the attack dog, while the vice president takes the high road, notes Balogh.

Speaking to the whole country

Swearing per se is not the issue. As noted, Nixon’s tapes were full of deleted expletives. Barack Obama used a cattle-related expletive to describe Mitt Romney in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. Harry Truman once questioned Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s parentage in explicit terms.

It is more about being careful to not needlessly divide Americans into categories and to at least make a rhetorical attempt to speak to the whole country, some say. That is all lumped together under the expectation that an occupant of the Oval Office will “act presidential,” says Patrick Miller, professor of political science at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, via email.

“In essence, we have often expected them to act better and more dignified than we do as ordinary citizens,” says Dr. Miller.

This is one of the many presidential norms that Trump does not worry about. His supporters see his tell-it-like-he-sees-it approach as refreshing authenticity. His critics see it as crass and worse. The immigration-related remarks are particularly troubling because they are so racially-tinged, say critics: Trump is rejecting citizens of poor black nations as inherently less valuable people than those of a richer white country.

“In this specific case, Trump’s comments, while crude, vulgar, and obscene, really should not come as a surprise in terms of their racist import,” says Brooks Simpson, a history professor at Arizona State University, via email.

In political terms, they may not be helpful, as well. While his base may see them as truth-telling, it is unlikely that anyone not already prone to back Trump would be swayed by such language. Meanwhile, swing state Florida is home to a large Haitian population. Trump has made some small gains during his presidency among African-American males, which could be at risk. Overall, college-educated voters tend to shun the uproar and circus-like atmosphere generated by the president's tweets and remarks.

In international terms, the words could matter as well. Haiti was one of the 35 nations that abstained during the United Nations Jerusalem vote several weeks ago, earning it an invitation to a party held by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley for countries that backed the US position. Norway? It voted contrary to what the White House wished.

“During the cold war, it was important [for US presidents] to play the role of being the leader, or the potential leader, of countries in the world who wanted a freer existence,” says Thomas De Luca, director of international studies at Fordham University in New York.

“It’s almost that right now we have the opposite,” says Professor De Luca. “There’s a willingness to say in public things that, intentionally or not, are deeply offensive to lots of people in the world.”

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2. Tech addiction, and tech companies' role in fighting it

Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to recalibrate Facebook newsfeeds to prioritize social interactions over revenue-generating content is the latest signal that the tech industry may be shifting priorities: seeing quality time as more valuable than the quantity of time spent online.

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Sydney Lee, friend Addison Andrade, and Maddie Lee (from l. to r.) use their cellphones in Mountain View, Calif. The Lee family works together on using social media responsibly. Some tech-industry insiders and investors say technology firms should do more to help young people avoid smartphone overuse.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
 

The 30 Sec. ReadEveryone with a smartphone knows how habit-forming a mobile device can be, especially for teenagers. Aside from personal willpower, is there anything that can be done to stop our apps from swallowing ever more of our time and attention? A growing chorus of technologists say corporations should back away from using behavioral psychology to get us hooked. Now two shareholders controlling about $2 billion in Apple stock are asking the company to offer more tools for parents to limit their kids' screen time. "What the research suggests is that being on your phone up to about two hours a day is fine for happiness and mental health and well-being," says San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, who helped draft the investors’ letter. She notes that Apple's business model doesn’t hinge on users spending more time on devices. "I do think this is an opportunity for Apple to lead the way,” she says, “and it should be a win-win for them."

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2. Tech addiction, and tech companies' role in fighting it

For months, the whispers had been growing louder in tech circles: Influential tech companies are using techniques to grab so much of people’s attention that it bordered on fostering addiction.

The charges came from high-profile former employees and venture capitalists, who said the companies were doing it on purpose.

This week, those concerns spread to the investment world and ensnared another high-tech titan, as a prominent hedge fund and a major pension fund joined in an open call for Apple to offer parents tools to limit their children’s use of iPhones and other devices.

All this represents a marked shift among powerbrokers for the high-tech industry, where large firms like Apple and Google have generally been held in high regard among investors, even those concerned with corporations’ social impact. The reason may be, in part, that the ubiquity of apps and smartphones is only now – and slowly – being met with a focus on negative side-effects.

The rising discussion also lays bare a fundamental tension in the tech industry: Profits are often linked to keeping consumers glued to their screens, despite evidence that the devices come with risks as well as benefits. The recent outcry may be an early sign of pressure on tech firms to align their business models closer to what’s valuable to consumers – shifts that some companies, including the pioneering social-media giant Facebook, already appear to be making.

“This makes sense for both kids and for Apple shareholders,” says Charles Penner, a partner at the activist hedge fund Jana Partners, which wrote the open letter Saturday along with the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS). “Apple can enhance its brand by proving to parents that it takes kids’ safety seriously.”

Challenging the attention economy

The safety concerns are many, of course, including inappropriate content and online scams or predators, but one of the most basic is the sheer amount of an individual’s time the devices can absorb.

“What the research suggests is that being on your phone up to about two hours a day is fine for happiness and mental health and well-being,” says San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood” and a co-author of the shareholder letter.

But when that daily screen time is exceeded, risk factors for suicide rise sharply, according to her research. The average American teenager spends more than 4 and a half hours a day using a smartphone, not counting texting and talking.

And it’s not just kids who are getting hooked. In 2017 the marketing firm Flurry found that the time the average American spent each day on a mobile device has crossed the five-hour mark. Between 2015 and 2017, adult media consumption jumped 97 minutes per day, virtually all of it due to an increase in smartphone use, according to Nielsen, a global measurement and data analytics company based in New York.

“There’s a ton of great stuff happening on these platforms,” Scott Galloway, a vocal critic of the big companies’ business practices and New York University marketing professor, told a New York conference in November. “But until about three months ago, that is literally all we talked about. We have to have an adult conversation about both the upsides and the downsides. And I feel for the first time, we’re having an adult conversation.”

Some of the sharpest criticism has come from former executives of and investors in the firms themselves.

In November, Sean Parker, the creator of Napster and the first president of Facebook, told Axios that the social network was deliberately designed with the aim of “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” to  ”consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.”

Mr. Parker’s remarks were echoed by Facebook-engineer-turned-venture-capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, who in an expletive-laden talk at Stanford Graduate School of Business in November expressed  ”tremendous guilt” at helping to create “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” that are “destroying how society works.” Roger McNamee, an investor in Facebook and Google wrote in USA Today in August that he is “terrified“ by the damage done by these companies, which he says borrow techniques from the gambling industry.

Even the creator of Facebook’s “like” button – Silicon Valley programmer Justin Rosenstein – now rues the feature. He uses an iPhone that has been disabled from downloading any apps.

Time for a new business model?

Getting these companies to change is hard, when their entire business model depends on getting millions of users to stay on their platforms for as long as possible. That is why Jana Partners and CalSTRS, who between them control about $2 billion in Apple stock, have focused on Apple, whose iPhone is a huge conduit to the potentially addictive apps.

“Apple’s business model is not dependent on users spending more time on the device,” says Dr. Twenge. “I do think this is an opportunity for Apple to lead the way, and it should be a win-win for them because parents might be more willing to buy phones for their teens and their kids if they’re safer.”

In a statement responding to the investors’ letter, Apple pointed out that its devices already have parental controls. The company also plans “even more robust” controls, according to its statement. “Apple has always looked out for kids, and we work hard to create powerful products that inspire, entertain and educate children while also helping parents protect them online.”

In a blog post Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a major change to the company's news feed. In light of psychological research, some carried out by Facebook, that shows that users tend to be happier when connecting with friends than passively consuming posts, Mr. Zuckerberg says that the news feed will place a bigger emphasis on posts from friends and family, while downplaying content from news media and other businesses.

The move could hurt profits, he wrote. “By making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down. But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable.” 

The pressure on the tech industry comes as watchdog groups have already been trying to help consumers find healthier behaviors. One movement called Time Well Spent offers a range of consumer tips, such as minimizing the number of automatic notifications.

It’s not clear if the criticism of tech-firm “attention mining” has yet made a dent in the industry’s reputation among investors, even socially responsible ones.

“I don’t see it right now as an issue in the investment world,” says Shawn Lesser, co-founder of Big Path Capital, an impact-investing firm. Technologies “are tools.... It depends on how you use them.”

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3. Peru debates meaning of reconciliation

With the pardon of former President Alberto Fujimori, Peruvians are digesting a complicated stew of values and principles, including the integrity of the justice system, forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation, and a history of impunity.

Demonstrators shout slogans as they hold photographs of people who disappeared during the government of former President Alberto Fujimori, in Lima, Peru, on Jan. 11. Relatives of those killed or disappeared during Mr. Fujimori's decade-long rule protested his being pardoned from his prison sentence.
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Martin Mejia/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadWhen Peru’s former President Alberto Fujimori was pardoned from his 25-year-sentence for corruption and human rights abuses late last month, a debate about reconciliation shot into the spotlight. The pardon is the latest chapter in Peru’s efforts to come to terms with the political violence that erupted here nearly 40 years ago, when an estimated 70,000 people were killed amid a communist insurgency and the government's fierce crackdown. “You can’t achieve reconciliation with lies,” one of tens of thousands of Peruvian protesters said during a seven-hour-long march last night. The government says the pardon is key to helping Peru heal its still-deep wounds, and some citizens agree it’s time to look ahead. But for victims of violence authorized under Mr. Fujimori between 1990 and 2000, his release is a huge blow. Still, Fujimori’s pardon after serving less than 10 years of his sentence doesn’t negate the importance of his case, one analyst says. He is still the only president worldwide to be extradited and tried by a court in his home country, and “culpability does not magically disappear with this pardon,” she says.

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3. Peru debates meaning of reconciliation

Javier Ríos was 8 years old when he was killed by a death squad operating on the margins of Peru’s Army in November 1991. His father and 13 other people were shot execution-style at the same barbecue in Barrios Altos, an inner-city neighborhood in Peru’s capital.

“Not a day goes by when I do not think of him. He would be 35 today – a man,” says his mother, Rosa Rojas. “All these years and not a single authority has apologized for what they did to our family.”

No one has apologized, but someone was held accountable: The president at the time, Alberto Fujimori, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2009 for authorizing the Barrios Altos killings and other human rights violations.

But Ms. Rojas and tens of thousands of other Peruvians took to the streets this week to protest a Christmas Eve pardon that President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski granted Mr. Fujimori. The divisive former leader was released after serving less than 10 years of his sentence.

The pardon is the latest chapter in Peru’s efforts to come to terms with the impact of political violence that erupted here nearly 40 years ago. And there’s a lot at stake, from faith in governing institutions to trust of fellow citizens – to whether Peru’s legacy of being one of the first nations in the world to convict a former president in national courts will become moot.

Peru’s government declared 2018 the “year of dialogue and national reconciliation,” defending the pardon on the grounds that Fujimori is ill and his release could foster understanding. On Jan. 9, Mr. Kuczynski shuffled his Cabinet, bringing in nine new ministers he said would help heal the nation’s wounds.

The pardon doesn’t mean “impunity for Fujimori [but] forgiveness given his health,” Prime Minister Mercedes Aráoz wrote in a Jan. 7 opinion piece.

But critics believe the pardon institutionalizes impunity and will further polarize this country of 31 million people. A survey by Datum Internacional published today found 52 percent support the president’s decision, but only 32 percent believe it will lead to reconciliation.

“This is not only an illegal pardon, but the continuation of a betrayal that began in 1990,” says María Chirinos, a homemaker at Thursday’s seven-hour, peaceful march against Fujimori’s release and against Kuczynski for granting it.

“Our presidents say one thing and do another. Look around ... you can’t achieve reconciliation with lies.”

Humanitarian relief vs. political move

Fujimori, who held office for a decade, has been a lighting rod in the country since his come-from-nowhere election in 1990. The pardon has put him squarely at the center of a decades-long debate on how to deal with the legacy of a brutal internal conflict that began in 1980.

He took office when Peru’s economy was in tatters, with the economy shrinking by double digits and inflation at 7,000 percent. The Shining Path communist insurgency was terrorizing society and had the state on the run in a large part of the country. An estimated 70,000 people were killed or went missing during the internal conflict between 1980 and 2000, the majority at the hands of the Shining Path.

Fujimori is credited with reforms that got the economy growing again, and for stopping the threat of insurgency: Leaders from the Shining Path and a smaller revolutionary group were arrested in 1992. But the heavy-handed tactics used to clamp down on the insurgencies split society.

In 2000, a wide-ranging corruption scandal unraveled Fujimori’s grip on power. He fled Peru late that year and was impeached. He was arrested in neighboring Chile in 2005, trying to return home. He was extradited and found guilty in five cases, including for the killings in Barrios Altos.

His pardon came during the worst political crisis since the corruption scandal that brought down his government 17 years prior.

Kuczynski faced an impeachment hearing on Dec. 21 for lying to a congressional committee in a corruption probe. He would have joined Fujimori as the only president impeached in Peru’s modern history, but Congress fell eight votes short of the 87 needed to remove him. The president survived thanks to a move by Congressman Kenji Fujimori, the former president’s son. He and nine colleagues abstained, giving Kuczynski his margin of victory.

The government denies it negotiated the pardon, but 78 percent of Peruvians in the Datum poll believe a deal was made to save Kuczynski in exchange for Fujimori’s release. The president could face another impeachment hearing because of the pardon, and a case will be made against his decision Feb. 2 at the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The pardon is “a political decision dressed as a humanitarian pardon,” says Gloria Cano, director of the Lima-based Pro-Human Rights Association that will argue before the court. “We are opposed to the way this pardon was expedited.”

'Pardon or no pardon'

The legacy of political violence hangs over many nations across Latin America, and pardons and other legal maneuvers to heal these complicated histories of political violence haven’t been showing results, says Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and author of a book on political violence in Peru who was present for Fujimori’s sentencing.

“Governments have tried to decree reconciliation in the past using different terminology, but they have never worked. I do not see how this [pardon] is going to lead to national reconciliation,” she says.

Protesters at Thursday’s march, whether carrying signs or chanting slogans, were clear on two points they find necessary for their sense of reconciliation: Fujimori should be in prison, and Kuczynski should resign, and be jailed, too.

Cristina Planas, a sculptor who crafted large fiberglass vulture heads that were paraded in the march, said civil society has to take a stand. “We have a corrupt president pardoning another corrupt president. It is insulting and I think it is time we said enough is enough,” she says. 

Elena Vargas, who runs a small stand selling soft drinks, says she doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. The only way to move forward is for the country to stop looking back at Fujimori’s presidency and Peru’s violent past. “Fujimori did many good things for this country. He made mistakes and paid for them. Keeping him in jail would be wrong,” she says.

Fujimori’s release is a blow to the fight against impunity, Ms. Burt says, but the case remains important: He is still the only president worldwide to be extradited and tried by a court in his home country.

“Fujimori’s verdict was upheld on appeal and resisted dozens of petitions filed by Fujimori’s lawyers over the years,” Burt says. His “culpability does not magically disappear with this pardon. He was found guilty by a court of law, and that fact stands, pardon or no pardon.” 

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4. Is it wise to blacklist boycotters?

When facing a boycott, is the best response a blacklist? Israel, a democracy, now wrestles with how to protect its reputation and global identity from what it considers unfair criticism.

David
 

The 30 Sec. ReadNew Zealand pop star Lorde’s cancellation of her June concert in Tel Aviv likely meant little for Israel’s security or robust economy. But for some Israelis, it stung nonetheless. She canceled after activists for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement known as BDS urged her to stand against what they say is Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Her move put a spotlight back on BDS, which advocates academic and cultural boycotts of Israel in addition to an economic one. That feeds into Israeli fears of international isolation. This week Israel blacklisted 20 groups that support the boycott, barring its members from entering the country. BDS is widely reviled among Israeli Jews, but official reactions, like the blacklist, illustrate a basic dilemma. Critics denounced it as violating the country’s democratic ideals. “I think that BDS is not an existential threat to Israel unless Israel acts in a way to make it one,” says Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. “By overreacting with blacklists, you do more damage than good.”

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4. Is it wise to blacklist boycotters?

Israel ratcheted up its battle this week against one of its most high-profile public enemies – not a hostile country or a terrorist organization, but a movement that seeks to isolate it internationally as part of a campaign for Palestinian rights.

Israel’s target: the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, known as BDS, which calls for an international boycott of Israeli companies and academic and cultural institutions, including professors and artists.

How to respond to BDS, which is widely reviled among Israeli Jews but attracts the support of some liberal Jewish groups, is debated both within Israel and among Jews abroad. For those who oppose BDS there is a nagging question: Which is worse for Israel and its stature, BDS or Israeli moves to defeat it?

The movement arguably threatens neither Israel’s existence nor its security, but it does affect the Israelis’ yearning for acceptance. And it taps into fears, both existential and practical, that delegitimization could gain a serious foothold in public opinion internationally and make Israel into a pariah nation, causing deep economic damage.

This latest Israeli salvo came in the form of a blacklisting of 20 organizations at the vanguard of the BDS movement, declaring that their members, as of March 1st, will be barred entry from the country for security reasons.

The publication of the blacklist followed shortly after New Zealand pop star Lorde’s high-profile decision in December to cancel her scheduled June concert in Tel Aviv. She canceled after activists urged her to boycott the show, asking her to stand against what they called the occupation and the oppression of Palestinians.

The cancellation threw the spotlight back on BDS after a relative lull in international attention.

Lorde performs at the Outside Lands Music Festival at Golden Gate Park on Aug. 13, 2017, in San Francisco. In December, under pressure from BDS supporters, she announced cancellation of a scheduled June concert in Tel Aviv.
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Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Israel’s blacklist move immediately drew fire, including from the targeted organizations themselves (among them a Jewish organization called Jewish Voice for Peace and the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee) and their supporters, who said it was only further evidence of Israel’s repression.

Perils of overreaction

Opposition to the blacklist, however, also was voiced by some in Israel and abroad who don’t support BDS. They consider the move to be not only counterproductive, but corrosive to the country’s democratic ideals and its notion of itself as an open society. And, they say, it may even violate its very laws.

“I think that BDS is not an existential threat to Israel unless Israel acts in a way to make it one,” says Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

“By overreacting with blacklists, you do more damage than good,” he argues. “It is damaging Israel’s reputation abroad, and nothing BDS people could do,” he adds, could be worse than what the government is doing itself.

“But it plays well in the Likud,” he continues, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing ruling party, “and it looks like Israel is being tough.”

Looking “tough” can take various forms, from the passing of a new “entry law” in March that enabled the blacklist, to more personalized attacks. But such measures can also become double-edged swords.

For example, Israeli authorities recently held up the travel permit of Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the BDS movement, who was trying to accompany his mother, a cancer patient, to Jordan for surgery.

Those who argue for actively countering BDS say that if the movement is not stymied, Israel might come to be seen as the apartheid state the movement accuses it of being. And that, they say, could hurt Israel militarily as well, creating a situation where every action Israel takes in its defense is defined as a war crime, limiting the country’s freedom to maneuver.

“Because that’s their (BDS) language: ‘Israel is always wrong,’ ” says Professor Rynhold.

Impact on economy?

Fueling the perceived urgency to aggressively go on the attack have been declarations by Israeli politicians that BDS constitutes a genuine threat with anti-Semitic influences. The government has earmarked some $25 million to counter the movement’s reach, and news of debates and events like “Israel Apartheid Week” – especially on US college campuses and in Europe – gets a lot of attention in Israeli media.

But Rynhold maintains that Israel’s robust economy, which this past year surpassed $100 billion in exports, would not be significantly hit even if boycotts had some impact.

“Yes, they could make Israeli companies suffer, but could they get leverage to change any policies?  The answer is no,” he says. “What is at stake … is not that BDS will bring Israel to its knees. The only way that would happen is if the United States adopted BDS, and we are a long, long way from that.”

The BDS movement emerged in 2005 as a coalition of Palestinian human rights activists calling for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the “right of return” of Palestinians who were displaced or fled the fighting in 1948 that led to Israel’s independence.

Israelis have long argued that the “right of return” would overwhelm the country’s Jewish majority and effectively spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state, which the government argues is the real aim of the BDS movement.

The anti-apartheid model

BDS activists’ playbook on the boycott was modeled on the anti-apartheid boycott movement of the 1980s and 1990s that is credited by some with helping to end apartheid rule in South Africa. Activists say it proved its effectiveness in both damaging the country’s economy and labeling it as a pariah nation.  

Israel’s blacklist was made possible by an amendment to the March 2017 “Law of Entry,” which made it legal to block the leaders of BDS organizations from entering Israel.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) blasted the law, saying it “violates the most basic tenets of democracy by making political opinions a consideration that may prevent non-citizens from entering Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Sharon Abraham-Weiss, executive director of ACRI, the country’s version of the ACLU, said the law and now the blacklist speak to the sense of a growing intolerance for criticism by Israel’s government.

“We are concerned that the space for freedom of speech, which is a pillar of democracy, is shrinking. In a democratic country you want to hear various positions. And to limit criticism does not allow this kind of fundamental discourse,” she says.

Impact on Palestinians

ACRI is also concerned, she says, that the law and the blacklist will make things harder for residents of East Jerusalem and other Palestinians.

Sari Bashi, the Israel/Palestine advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, and, like Abraham-Weiss, a human rights lawyer, is also concerned about the impact the Entry Law and now the blacklist will have on Palestinians themselves.

“One concern is that the law does not ban entry only to Israel but also to the West Bank and Gaza for reasons that have nothing to do with security. It prevents Palestinians from in many cases meeting their foreign supporters, and further isolates residents of the occupied territories,” Ms. Bashi says.

She says many Palestinians living abroad hold foreign citizenship and rely on visas to Israel to access the West Bank and Gaza, and argues that using the litmus test of political opinion as a condition for reaching Gaza and the West Bank is actually illegal under international law.

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Speaking of America

Last of five parts

5. 'I'm not where I want to be'

In the final installment of our five-part series about Americans, our reporter visits Appalachia, where many voters support President Trump and see his combative (or even vulgar) communication style as authentic.

David
 

The 30 Sec. ReadInez, Ky., is a fitting place to end a reporter's journey listening to Americans talk about their country. The town of 718 spreads ramshackle along a creek in a pocket of hills. It is a smattering of doublewide trailers and weathered frame homes, with a handful of handsome brick houses. The average household income is less than $23,000. The poverty rate is more than 30 percent, and those with jobs expect to get laid off regularly. Lyndon Johnson came to Inez in 1964 to launch his war on poverty. Folks here shrug when asked what good it did. Donald Trump won the county with 89 percent of the vote. A year on, few have second thoughts. “The reason I voted for Trump was because I wanted a change,” says Thelma Moore, who has worked as the assistant manager of the town's only motel for 23 years. “I love this job,” she says. Her husband works at a coal plant, as does one of her sons. “I do have more hope for my husband’s job. I really do.” But Ms. Moore has seen enough. Her two sons have started families not far away. She wants them to leave Appalachia, even though she did not. “I know now. I’m older and I know what it’s going to be like 20, 30 years from now. They are going to look back, and they are going to wish that they had moved.” 

Karen Norris/Staff
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5. 'I'm not where I want to be'

The road to Inez cuts through hard rock, and the Appalachian Mountains close in tight on those stubborn enough to live in the land’s creases.

Thelma Moore has lived here all her life. She is not sure why. “I didn’t know any different. I started having children, and that was it.”

She wants her two sons to get out, but they have not gone far.

This is coal country. And Trump country. And poor country – “dying,” in the assessment of the mayor of Inez, Ed Daniels, who spent 43 years in coal plants. It is a fitting place to end a reporting journey listening to Americans talk about their country.

Few on this route have more cause for hope than the people of Inez. The town of 718 spreads ramshackle along a creek in the pocket of rugged hills near West Virginia. It is a smattering of double-wide trailers and weathered frame homes, with just a handful of handsome brick houses. The average household income is less than $23,000. The poverty rate is more than 30 percent, and those with jobs expect to get laid off regularly.

Lyndon B. Johnson came to Inez in 1964 to launch his war on poverty. Folks here merely shrug when asked what good it did. Donald Trump won Martin County with 89 percent of the vote. His vow to “Make America Great Again” was irresistible. A year on, few have second thoughts.

“The reason I voted for Trump was because I wanted a change,” says Ms. Moore, who is the assistant manager of the only motel in town. She has worked there for 23 years. “I love this job,” she says.

Her husband works at a coal plant, as does one of her sons. Her father worked at a coal plant.

Her grandfather was a coal miner. Coal dust is ground into the seams of this town, and Mr. Trump promised to revive the dying industry.

“He is working on it and he has helped it some,” Moore says. “I do have more hope for my husband’s job. I really do.” And she applauds Trump’s gutting of clean power plant rules crafted by the Obama administration to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. “I think that’s going to help.”

But Trump remains popular here as much for his disruptive style as his avowed goals.

Residents of Appalachia have watched from behind their mountains as the country has changed, and Trump’s thumb-in-your-eye combativeness brings cheers.

“He doesn’t care about what he says – he tries to not hide it,” Moore says. “He says what’s on his mind, and that’s what I’m going to try to do this year. That’s my New Year’s resolution.”

If the cries from Washington are over Trump’s falsehoods, the investigation into his campaign’s dalliances with the Russians, or his schoolboy taunts of North Korea’s nuclear-armed dictator, those voices don’t make it up these hollows. People seem genuinely surprised when asked about Trump’s disdain for facts; they see his rhetoric as honesty.

“One of the things I appreciate about him is he is real,” says Jim Booth, a man who comes closest to owning Inez. “You know exactly what he’s thinking.”

Mr. Booth is a long-time supporter of Trump. He has personal reasons: Booth owns several of the coal mines in the region, and says he has used his coal money to buy motels, restaurants, insurance, and other businesses – from Miss Ida’s Tea Room to the string of Zip Zone convenience stores. He owns “just about anything that’s worth owning in Inez,” says one town resident.

A soft-spoken man, Booth flashes anger at Trump’s predecessor, while chatting in his Inez office adorned with a photo of Booth as a young coal miner and a thank-you note from Diane Sawyer for an 2009 interview.

“We hit some really tough times when Obama was president. He said he was going to bankrupt us and, by God, he just about did,” he says. “If we hadn’t gotten a new administration, I don’t know where I’d be in the coal business – probably not even in the business.” (In a 2008 interview, then-candidate Barack Obama explained his support for a cap-and-trade system to charge industries for their greenhouse gas pollution. Under such a system, Mr. Obama noted, "If someone wants to build a new coal-fired power plant they can, but it will bankrupt them because they will be charged a huge sum for all the greenhouse gas that's being emitted.")

Booth closed the last coal mine in Martin County last year, but workers commute to other mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. Booth says he expects this year to nearly double the 4-1/2 million tons of coal pulled from his mines in 2016. “We’re making a comeback,” he says. Because of Trump? “Oh yeah.”

If that does bring a small flush of money to Inez, it will help weave the pattern of booms and busts. A visitor to Inez nearly 30 years ago saw a town choked in dust from a relentless parade of coal trucks hauling the results of a coal boom then.

But Moore has seen enough. Her two sons have started families not far away. She wants them to leave Appalachia, even though she did not. “I know now. I’m older and I know what it’s going to be like 20, 30 years from now. They are going to look back, and they are going to wish that they had moved.”

She does.

“Yes, I do. I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything, I guess. I know I have, but I feel like that sometimes. Maybe because I’m still here in Martin County. I’m not where I want to be.

“But isn’t that the goal of everyone?” she muses. “To keep on dreaming and going?”

( 939 words )
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The Monitor's View

Tunisia’s revolution, Act 2

 

The 30 Sec. ReadSeven years after the Arab Spring felled its first dictator – in Tunisia, on Jan. 14, 2011 – the Arab world has largely fallen into war or more autocracy. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the region accounts for half the world’s refugees. Yet demands for individual dignity remain strong. That was clear this week in Tunisia, where protests against austerity measures have mostly been tolerated. The elected prime minister went out to talk to demonstrators, and police appeared sympathetic to youths left jobless by a stagnant economy. Media covered the outburst. In a 2016 survey by Arab Barometer, two-thirds of those in the region say they could criticize government without fear. “Citizens will increasingly use activism, albeit in forms different from those associated with the Arab Spring, to influence the fate of their countries,” states a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Youths in Tunisia resent unemployment and corruption. Public debt is 70 percent of gross national product. A fifth of workers are government-employed. Austerity is necessary for economic growth.  Democratic revolutions like Tunisia’s are foremost about liberty for the individual. Yet with liberty comes the need to define the collective good, often through individual sacrifice. The protests are part of that process.

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Tunisia’s revolution, Act 2

Seven years after the Arab Spring felled its first dictator – Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, 2011 – the Arab world has largely fallen into war or more autocracy. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the region accounts for half of the world’s refugees. Yet popular demands for individual dignity remain strong. That was made clear this past week in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began. Days of street protests against austerity measures have mostly been tolerated.

The country’s duly elected prime minister, Youssef Chahed, even went to the streets to talk to demonstrators – a type of accountability hardly imagined elsewhere in the region. He pleaded for people to accept the necessary belt-tightening. Police appeared sympathetic to the cries of youths left jobless by a stagnant economy. And the media covered the public outburst without restraint.

Such freedom of dissent may be one legacy of the Arab Spring. In a 2016 survey by Arab Barometer, two-thirds of those in the region say they could criticize the government without fear. Arabs may not have many civil liberties. Yet many more now feel a liberty of conscience.

“Arab citizens are unlikely to remain docile as socioeconomic stresses increase and welfare systems are curtailed in the years to come,” states a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Citizens will increasingly use activism, albeit in forms different from those associated with the Arab Spring, to influence the fate of their countries.”

As in many democracies, youths in Tunisia resent the lack of job opportunities and a persistence of corruption. They are also upset about the long-range demands of foreign creditors who insist the government rein in subsidies. Public debt is 70 percent of gross national product. A fifth of all Tunisian workers are employed by the government, an unsustainable situation. Austerity is necessary for economic growth and the creation of private jobs.

Democratic revolutions like Tunisia’s are first and foremost about liberty for the individual. That lesson helped the country’s Islamist party, Ennahda, fully embrace democracy. Yet with liberty comes the need to define the collective good, often through individual sacrifice. The current protests are part of that process.

As it did seven years ago, the rest of the Arab world can watch as Tunisia again provides a model of reform. This time, the lesson is in how to build a healthier and more inclusive economy.

( 395 words )
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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.

Building a just society through God’s love

 

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said. And the Nobel Peace Prize winner also expressed a commitment not to “defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.” What precious building blocks these ideas are for making a kinder, gentler society. Everyone’s real nature is loving and lovable, like our divine creator’s, because God is divine Love itself, and our true identity is God’s spiritual image and likeness. Not all thoughts and actions we encounter are in line with this spiritual truth. But nobody is destined to do wrong, or incapable of reform. Holding to everyone’s real identity as the reflection of divine Love is the basis for building a just society. This kind of Christly love is a powerful force for social change and healing.

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Building a just society through God’s love

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was 35 years old when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was the youngest person to have received it at that time. This grand achievement was in recognition of his efforts to end racial segregation and discrimination in the United States – entirely through nonviolent means. Dr. King’s inspiring message uplifted social consciousness and advanced his movement beyond civil rights to include human rights globally. Every January since 1986, the US has observed a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

One marvels that despite the rage and violence King faced, he embraced nonviolence as the most effective way to end injustice. In his book “Stride Toward Freedom” he states that his commitment to nonviolence was in seeking not to “defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.” At another time, he said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

What precious building blocks these ideals are for making a kinder, gentler society. In considering how I might contribute to this kind of world, I’ve found it helpful to know that God is divine Love itself, and our true identity is God’s spiritual image and likeness, the very expression of Love. Injustice appears to be a normal part of life from a material sense of ourselves, but everyone’s real, spiritual nature is loving and lovable, like our divine creator’s. Of course, not all thoughts and actions we encounter are in line with this spiritual truth, but nobody is destined to do wrong, or incapable of reform.

I saw this when confronting social injustice in my work as a college professor and mentor-supervisor to student teachers in different school settings, where the inequity in educational resources between rich and poor school districts was startling. In one particular district, the children came from economically disadvantaged homes. I knew from experience that these children would require a level of instruction that was active and hands-on in order to engage them in learning the material.

At times, when I encountered teaching that didn’t engage the students or give them a fair chance, I prayed for God’s guidance. I trusted that the attributes of divine Love – justice, mercy, and wisdom – were in operation and would be manifested in the experience of the children in God’s own way.

One time I supervised a teacher who’d worked in schools with vast resources, and now was working with these students. His teaching was by rote and not engaging, and when I challenged him on this, I sensed that he had low expectations of this group of children. To me, this was an example of social injustice and educational inequality playing out in the classroom.

I prayed to see that each child was truly spiritual and complete as a child of God, reflecting divine Mind’s intelligence. I also knew that each individual is receptive to this truth. As I did so, I was guided to offer to help the teacher drastically adjust his lesson plans. As a result, he ended up consistently and joyfully applying his own creative concepts to his teaching, and the children happily responded. What a difference! The transformation was quite deep. After he finished this placement, he let me know how much this experience had helped him, and he even asked me for teaching references.

There is no doubt that since the 1960s, good progress has been made in reducing discrimination; however, there’s more to be done. No matter where in the world we live, or what our background is, we can let an understanding of God as Love and of everyone as Love’s reflection inspire our words and deeds. In this way, we can contribute to the work of building a just society as the norm for all.

( 625 words )
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Viewfinder

The view from Lagos

Pedestrians shop in a roadside market in Lagos, Nigeria, Jan. 12. African countries Friday reacted in shock to reports that President Trump Thursday reportedly questioned why the United States would accept more immigrants from Haiti and '[expletive deleted] countries' in Africa rather than places like Norway in rejecting a bipartisan immigration deal. On Friday he denied using that language. 'The African Union Commission is frankly alarmed at statements by the president of the United States when referring to migrants of African countries and others in such contemptuous terms,' said Ebba Kalondo, spokeswoman for the African Union. 'Considering the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the US during the Atlantic slave trade, this flies in the face of all accepted behavior and practice.'
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Sunday Alamba/AP
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( January 16th, 2018 )

David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Thanks for joining us. We wish you the best on this three-day weekend in the US honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We’ll be back Tuesday, but watch for a special note from our editor Monday.

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