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Green Giant

By Adrian Higgins
Green Giant
Jeff Koons' sculpture Split-Rocker at Glenstone is composed of tens of thousands of flowering plants. This side is the dinosaur side, which is made up of magenta, orange, and yellow flowers. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Jennifer Heffner for The Washington Post)

Even if it were not alive, the sculpture known as "Split-Rocker" would be a mind-blowing thing. At 37 feet high and set atop a domed hill, it is surely the most playful if not wondrous piece of artwork at Glenstone, the world-class private art museum on 200 acres in Potomac, Md. And yes, "Split-Rocker" is alive. From mid-spring to mid-fall, 24,000 annuals produce maybe a million blossoms to turn the sculpture into a tapestry of nature's modulated hues.

Crowning a meadow to the side of the Glenstone entrance, "Split-Rocker" is bemusing and strangely powerful, but it has felt like something of an aside as you make your way through the vast campus to the Gallery, the lakeside exhibition building. This is about to change.

A major expansion of Glenstone, in the works for five years and due for completion later this year, will shift the center of gravity away from the Gallery to a new museum that is seven times as large, with "Split-Rocker" becoming the signal sculpture on the landscape, offering its gaze and orientation directly to the new building. This anticipated role drove founders Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales to acquire the work and place it in its prominent spot in 2013.

"Split-Rocker" is the creation of Jeff Koons, perhaps America's most famous contemporary artist and one of its most polarizing. To some, he is a genius who elevates the banal into work powerful enough to alter our imagination and to rekindle childhood wonderment. Others see him as an artist who skillfully caters to an art market where the hyper-rich go to have fun while investing their money.

Koons is best known for his "Balloon Dog," fashioned from highly polished and colored stainless steel. Its orange version, one of five, sold for $58.4 million in 2013, making it the most expensive sculpture by a living artist. At 10 feet high, "Balloon Dog" is big but not monumental. Its mirror-like curves provide sharp, discernible surfaces. By contrast, "Split-Rocker" reads as a gigantic fuzzy green folly on the landscape.

As you approach "Split-Rocker" up a curving path, you see that it represents the heads of two child's rockers, sliced nose to nape and stuck together. One is of a toy pony, the other a dinosaur. The two sides don't quite align; the eye of the dino points forward, the eye of the pony looking out. They each have an identical yellow handle.

Art scholars see something of cubism in its fragmentation, but without the angst. Its playfulness is undeniable, and while it forces the viewer to think about the shallowness of our consumer society, it does so without apparent irony or subversiveness. As the critic Peter Schjeldahl has written: "It takes real effort not to enjoy the charm" of "Split-Rocker" and its predecessor, "Puppy."

For Emily Rales, the museum's director, "Split-Rocker" also brings together the three essential worlds of Glenstone: art, architecture and garden.

She calmly pondered "Split-Rocker" on a warm, breezy morning last May: "We always knew this would be a site for a major piece of sculpture because it was at an elevation above everything else. We looked for a long time for a showcase sculpture like this and eliminated a lot of things, and this finally came to us for sale. It was in the possession of a French collector, and we knew immediately when we saw pictures of it that it would be perfect for here, its scale and the way it combines horticulture with art. It brings everything together in a beautiful way."

I asked her how much it cost as a sense of crassness washed over me. "I can't tell you that," she said. "It was quite significant. What we were most worried about was the maintenance, because that's a cost that never goes away."

The gardener in me wanted to know: How do you grow the blessed thing? Stuffed with tender annuals, it must be replanted each year.

If you know how challenging it can be to keep a hanging basket of half a dozen plants going through the season - with the constant demands of watering, feeding, deadheading and grooming - imagine what that must be like with many thousands of annuals, and most of them reachable only with a cherry picker.

To wrap my head around it, I asked to be there for its spring planting, undertaken after the last frost of the season. In addition to Rales, the team included curatorial administrator Nora Cafritz, deputy superintendent of grounds Matt Partain and several technicians aloft in cherry pickers. Oh, and "Split-Rocker's" very own gardener, Chris Ryan.

To install the sculpture, Glenstone first had to build a platform of architectural concrete measuring 30 1/2 feet by 36 1/2 feet. Ryan positioned a footstool so we could climb onto the platform for a closer look. He knows "Split-Rocker" inside out. Literally.

I clambered atop the plinth and followed him into the beast. You enter in the small gap between the contours of each head. It is like stepping into a cave, or maybe the way a mouse feels were it to nest in a motorcycle helmet. The interior is cluttered with a metal superstructure fashioned from steel pipes. If you had X-ray vision, you could see that the stainless-steel shell is a honeycomb of 240 compartments, each containing potting soil, irrigation tubes and the plant roots. The exterior wall consists of a blanket of perforated geotextile fabric through which the annuals are planted.

Inside, ranks of white PVC pipes with red valves attest to an elaborate irrigation system, with 37 zones. Each watering takes more than 700 gallons, and provides Ryan the opportunity to add fertilizer and fungicide, both organic. The compartments drain back into a cistern to control and conserve the water. Often, the pipes weepdown upon him, which might be welcome in the heat of summer except the droplets often contain fertilizer made from liquefied fish.

In spring, the sculpture was naked in its outer fabric, sort of like a sheep after shearing, though it was a deep green with areas marked by sections delineated in thick black lines. These zones dictated the color of the flowers and were chosen by the artist. If the blooms were the pigment, the planting team became the artist's brushes.

In general, the left side, that of the dinosaur, is smothered in hot colors. The right side, the pony, has a cooler palette of blues, whites, pinks and lavenders.

"Jeff was very involved in the first planting, and since then we have been able to maintain his vision," said Cafritz. "This is a little like painting by numbers, so we know every color at every step." She was clad all in black, including her vinyl gloves, which made her yellow safety harness pop. I noticed that Partain, decked out in khaki, was also wearing a harness, but in a screaming lime green. Perhaps it was the distorting backdrop of the sculpture, but the scene took on a dreamlike quality. I imagined the pair of them rappelling up and down "Split-Rocker" as if they were in some Cirque du Soleil number. It was a ridiculous notion - they were readying for the cherry pickers - but I wondered if the mojo of the sculpture had been creating its own aura of surreality.

Thinking about the plants would bring me back to Earth. They were arranged carefully in their flats by color. Various annuals were mixed together; the blends consisted of five to seven different annuals, but all of the same approximate hue. They would be matched to the appropriate area of "Split-Rocker." These mixtures, not yet in bloom, had been assembled earlier by the Glenstone team working with its grower, TSB Enterprises, in Middletown, Md.

They included verbenas, begonias, marigolds, vincas, impatiens, lantanas, bidens, petunias and calibrachoas. Some were suited for the shadier sides of the sculpture, others for the full afternoon sun, about 15 plant species totaling 70 varieties. I asked if I could plant a section, and soon I was coaxing marigolds and New Guinea impatiens from their cells and threading them through the holes toward the base of the dinosaur side. I firmed the soil around the roots, knowing that they would dry out without good contact. It's not every day that you help Jeff Koons realize his artistic vision. I kept the thought to myself.

I returned six weeks later on a hot July day to see how the plants had filled out. Blossoms of differing colors and wide-ranging forms entirely covered the fabric skin. From afar, the color organization was evident. The muzzle of the dinosaur was draped in yellows and golds, but the side of the head was a cascade of hot pinks, red and orange. On the pony, the mane was marked by pink and white stripes falling vertically. The side of the face was a medley of coral pink, magenta pink, blues, lavender and white.

As I got close to the sculpture, however, its forms blurred into a waterfall of mixed annuals. Close up, it had morphed from a piece of art into flower beds in strange planes. I could see the enormousness of Ryan's challenge.

"Split-Rocker" is so large that it is no one thing, horticulturally. The flowers under the chin function as a huge hanging basket. The sides are what gardeners today call a living wall. The top is an undulating rooftop garden, one surely with issues of unrelenting sun, high wind and dryness. Conversely, the flowers in the chin are cast in shade and prone to unavoidable waterlogging.

At the back, the vertical ridge of the mane produces an area that is in constant shade, not the best place for these sun-loving annuals.

Ryan spends many hours aloft in a cherry picker to stay in control of "Split-Rocker." This is during hours or days when Glenstone is closed. (Note well: Glenstone is closed until May, when a new Louise Bourgeois exhibition opens. Admission is free, but visitors need an appointment.) He removes dead and congested plants, cuts off faded blooms and grooms areas that have become shaggy. He hand-waters many of the plants missed by the irrigation tubes.

Some just need to be replaced as the hot weeks wear on: The alyssum around the eyes, for example, might be replaced with vinca, or the bidens under the handles substituted for yellow flowering lantana.

The summer morning air was sticky and the temperature already 93 degrees, so we squeezed inside "Split-Rocker" to get out of the sun. I noticed two life-size, plastic peregrine falcons resting on a shelf within the skull. "The biggest challenge this year has been the starling infestation," Ryan said. He had positioned the decoys on "Split-Rocker" to scare off the starlings, which had begun to build nests and were pulling plants out of their sockets. "I started with one, but I thought they were getting used to it," he said. "Sure enough, it worked."

Through the season, he may replace as much as 5 percent of the plants to fill gaps caused by natural losses. "It's typical to lose flowers; there's no way to keep them all alive." Deer have been known to reach the platform and munch on some blooms, but rarely.

Ryan studied plant science at the University of Maryland and thought he would wind up as a golf course groundskeeper. When he's at parties and the like, I asked, how does he begin to explain what he does for a living? "Most people don't believe it's a job," he said.

In November, the freezes turn the annuals brown and lifeless. After they are all removed, Ryan confronts his principal winter chore: replenishing the soil lost to compaction and erosion. He uses the exterior planting holes to repack the boxes. He adds as much as seven tons of fresh planting mix each winter, stuffing in the soil with a stick. It's a cold and bleak task. "There's no break in maintaining a giant living sculpture," he said.

"We did a study to see how complicated and expensive it would be to maintain this," Rales told me. Even that diligence couldn't anticipate the rigors of such a challenging horticultural feat. "It was definitely more than we thought it would be," she said, with a laugh. "But Mitch and I couldn't let go of this opportunity."

"The first two years there were lots of mistakes," she said. The first was erecting scaffolding to plant it, a problem now averted with the cherry pickers. "Originally, it took a week to plant it, and now it's one day," she said.

The annuals that flourished in France would not hold up as well in the heat and humidity of Maryland.

"We did a test with perennials one year," Rales said. "It seemed labor-intensive and wasteful to plant every season. We thought we could achieve the same effect by planting selected areas with perennials. But it didn't work; it wasn't as crisp and precise."

One year, a whole area turned brown as the plants succumbed to disease, but Rales was steadfast in her aversion to chemical fungicides. Even with the watering system figured out, the heat and humidity take their toll. Varietal selection is key to success.

"Every time I see a plant die I get a little worried, but I have learned not to worry too much," Ryan said.

Koons' obsessiveness with materials and fabricating techniques is well known and has brought him to moments of financial peril. When he was creating his "Balloon Dog" sculptures he reportedly first got a balloon artist to make 85 versions before he was satisfied, and then CAT-scanned the winner.

What strikes me about "Split-Rocker" is that once he unleashed nature on his work, he could no longer be Jeff Koons, the control freak. (I tried several times to reach him for this article but was unsuccessful.)

Koons put his own spin on it during an earlier showing of "Split-Rocker" at Versailles, when he told an interviewer: "The balance between control and giving up control reminds us of the polarity of existence."

He has also said that the three states of being for this sculpture - creation, change and death - bestow on the observer a "concept of mortality and how life is a cycle."

I suspect he had a limited understanding of what it would take to cultivate a Chia Pet that is channeling Godzilla. No matter, we're glad it all came together to blossom on a hill in suburban Maryland.

As Emily Rales puts so well, "Who doesn't love flowers?"

Why you've never heard of the six Chinese men who survived the Titanic

By Amy B Wang
Why you've never heard of the six Chinese men who survived the Titanic
The RMS Titanic. MUST CREDIT: Library of Congress.

In the early hours of April 15, 1912, a lifeboat navigated the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, its skeleton crew scanning the dark, debris-littered surface for any sign of life. Hours earlier, the unthinkable had happened: The RMS Titanic, a majestic ocean liner deemed "unsinkable," had struck an iceberg and slowly disappeared into the sea on its maiden voyage.

Hundreds of passengers fled in lifeboats. Hundreds more perished, going down with the ship or freezing to death in the icy water. The only one of Titanic's lifeboats to turn back to the wreckage found body after body - until it discovered a young Chinese man, still alive, clinging to a piece of wood.

That man would be one of six Chinese passengers who survived the Titanic, a little-known fact about the historic disaster that has largely remained untold or distorted, owing to a racially hostile environment toward Chinese people in the West at the turn of the 20th century.

Now, the lives of these men - who they were, how they survived that fateful night and why they were barred from entering the United States - are being examined in a new documentary, "The Six," by Arthur Jones and Steven Schwankert.

"There were something like 700 Titanic survivors. They've all been so 'claimed,' if all the claims to be believed," Jones, a Shanghai-based filmmaker, told The Washington Post. "These were the only guys amongst those 700 that no one had ever claimed. They just completely disappeared. Why did they get ignored?"

On April 10, 1912, the Titanic set off on her maiden voyage to the United States from Southampton, England, with 2,229 passengers and crew members. The ship was supposed to arrive a week later at its transatlantic destination: New York City.

Instead, around 11:30 p.m. on April 14, the Titanic struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland and began to take on water. Within hours, the massive ocean liner had cleaved in two and - with hundreds still trapped on board - was swallowed by the frigid waters of what is now known as "Iceberg Alley."

About 1,500 people died in the tragedy. About 700 passengers survived and were plucked from their lifeboats by the RMS Carpathia the next morning.

The ill-fated voyage has been immortalized in countless documentaries, books and museums - and in the tin-whistled opening bars of a certain Celine Dion song now indelibly associated with the shipwreck, thanks to James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster film. (Be honest: The tune is in your head as you read this.)

Over the past century, volumes have been written about hundreds of the Titanic's victims and survivors, their life stories preserved in astonishing detail by history books and their descendants. However, for six Chinese passengers who survived the sinking, their ties to the Titanic have all but vanished.

Schwankert first brought up the possibility of a Titanic project to Jones in 2014. Jones dismissed the idea at first. For starters, the longtime documentary partners were in the midst of another project.

But also: It was the Titanic, Schwankert recalled Jones saying.

"Everything's been done," Schwankert said they thought. "There's nothing new to say about it. And this was not so long after the 100th anniversary" of the 1912 voyage.

Still, he pressed on. The New Jersey native, who has lived in China for 22 years, had recently researched the Titanic and come across a brief mention of six Chinese survivors. But the more he tried to find out about the six, the more dead ends he hit.

"It really started to bother me. Like, why don't we know?" Schwankert said. "Like any history project, you start pulling the threads, and it just seemed like the thread didn't lead anywhere."

Before long, he had persuaded Jones to abandon their original project and launch "The Six."

With little to go on at first but the passenger manifest and list of survivors, the team set up a simple website, whoarethesix.com, to crowdsource tips. The invisibility of the six Chinese survivors is such that, even in China, Jones and Schwankert find themselves telling people: Yes, there were, in fact, Chinese passengers on the Titanic.

Eight Chinese nationals boarded the ship at Southampton, to be exact. Their names appear in rigid cursive on a single ticket for third-class passengers: Ah Lam, Fang Lang, Len Lam, Cheong Foo, Chang Chip, Ling Hee, Lee Bing and Lee Ling.

Through two years of painstaking documentation, the filmmakers determined that the men in the group probably knew one another beforehand, having worked together as professional sailors on various ships in Britain. Because of an ongoing coal strike there, the men were being transferred by their company to a freighter docked in New York, the Annetta, which was to take them to Cuba.

"The reason they were traveling on Titanic in the first place is for work," Schwankert said. "They were professional mariners, and they were being seconded from their company in the U.K. to go and work on the companies in North America."

Their trip would not go as planned, of course.

How the eight men responded as the Titanic began taking on water may never be known. They would have been traveling in steerage, the lowest class of cabins, where the survival rate for non-British men was only about 20 percent.

What was documented is that one of the Chinese men was later found clinging to a large piece of floating wood by the one main lifeboat that chose to return to the wreckage to search for signs of life. Five others escaped in lifeboats. Notably, four were in "Collapsible C," a backup escape vessel with canvas siding that was one of the last lifeboats to be lowered from the ship.

They happened to share the same lifeboat as Joseph Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic. Ismay, who was later pilloried for saving himself instead of going down with the ship despite being such a high-ranking official, testified in official inquiries that "four Chinamen were in the boat" in which he had escaped. The ship's quartermaster, George T. Rowe, was on "Collapsible C" as well and also testified to the presence of the Chinese passengers, though he suggested they had "found" the four men "between the seats" only at daybreak.

Schwankert noted that the official testimony was instrumental in getting their research started on the Chinese survivors.

"Let me put it this way: I view the Chinese passengers as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Titanic," Schwankert said. "They're not major characters. But they pop up at really opportune moments in the story. . . . In the beginning, Ismay's testimony was really some of the only information that we had that even verified that they even existed."

Even after the Carpathia arrived in New York on April 18, 1912, the troubles for the six Chinese men were not over. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, the group of survivors was not permitted to enter the United States. They were instead forced to board the Annetta, their intended ship of transfer, and the next day departed the country, bound for fruit ships in the Caribbean.

This is where Jones and Schwankert diverge slightly in their interpretation of how the Chinese survivors were treated. Schwankert acknowledged that the Chinese Exclusion Act - the only law in U.S. history to explicitly exclude a group on the basis of ethnicity - prevented the men from entering the country, but he noted that they were always meant to transfer to the Annetta and move on south.

However, Jones pointed out that other survivors were allowed to bypass screening at Ellis Island or received medical aid because of the trauma they had just experienced. The Chinese men were not.

"Do we call it deportation, or do we just say they were in transit?" Jones asks. "I think if we call it in transit, we miss that . . . they were not treated humanely. We know they lost close friends on board. And yet they weren't given the option of staying. Not only did they have to leave in 24 hours on board [the Annetta], they were held overnight in custody. They were detained."

Both agree that the attitude toward Chinese and other Asian minorities then was hostile, as evidenced in the tone of the few newspaper articles that mention them at the time. For instance, in an unsourced April 19, 1912, Brooklyn Daily Eagle article headlined "Heroism of Anglo-Saxon Sailors Stands Out in Disaster," the Chinese passengers are described as almost inhuman and regarded with the utmost suspicion.

"The one dark spot is the fact that in the bottom of one lifeboat which left the Titanic were found, wedged beneath the seats, the bodies of two dead Chinese coolies and eight living ones," the article stated. "They were creatures on their way to New York to join a sailing ship for the Orient, and who, at the first sign of danger, had sprung into the lifeboats . . . They were trampled upon by the women who were lowered into the boats later, and two of them crushed to death."

The questionable passenger count notwithstanding, Schwankert said there is no evidence that the men stowed away or took the place of women and children on "Collapsible C," which was not filled when it was discovered. In fact, the documentary team's efforts include building a life-size replica of "Collapsible C" to prove that it would have been impossible for four men to hide at all, let alone overnight.

"The other news articles that you read about the Chinese men, there is this sense that they were somehow not entitled to seats on lifeboats," Schwankert said. "Ismay was called a coward or certainly painted as a coward for not going down with the ship and for taking a place in the lifeboat. But there was another first-class gentleman in collapsible lifeboat C. . . . He gets in the boat and he basically gets off scot-free. No one ever criticizes him for surviving."

It has taken more than two years for Jones and Schwankert, with a team of about a half-dozen researchers, to fact-check every detail they can find about the lives of the six survivors. Their research and interviews have taken them to London, Liverpool, both coasts of the United States, Cuba, the Caribbean, Canada and back to China. Against the odds, they have been able to track down several descendants of the six men - many of whom had never connected their relatives to the historic disaster.

"The Titanic is such a weird thing to study when you get into it because, on the one hand, there is so much information out there about the Titanic," Schwankert said. "Not just sort of general info but also misinformation - but then there's also some incredible detail out there that various people have put together. Then you come up with a specific question like ours . . . and there's nothing."

(Cameron, to his credit, filmed a scene in "Titanic" in which a Chinese man is rescued from a wooden plank in the water. It was later deleted, though the clip can be found in the director's cut and on YouTube. Cameron's representative said Tuesday that he was in the middle of a film shoot and could not immediately respond to an interview request.)

"The Six" documentary is in production and is to be released this year or next.

"The most important thing is that they're given their rightful place in history," Schwankert said. He also hopes that the documentary will "prove that they were not cowards, that they didn't live at the expense of others who didn't survive."

In a sense, he added, the Titanic is just a small part of the story for these men, who probably hailed from Guangdong province in China and now have descendants across the world.

"The great thing about their stories is that they cut across such a huge swath of issues for the Chinese diaspora at the turn of the 20th century," Schwankert said. "The fact that these men went on and ended up in all these diverse places, I think it shows a lot of the political currents and economic currents of the time. To be honest, for them, surviving the Titanic was not necessarily the biggest obstacle in their life. It was just one moment of adversity that they had to face in a lifetime of adversity."

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Part of a continuing series about events of the past that remain relevant.

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Video: Could both Rose and Jack fit on that door at the end of Titanic? Hannah Jewell and Anna Rothschild use science and history to solve this 20-year-old question.(David Jorgenson/The Washington Post)

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Review: Scooters might revolutionize urban transport - if it wasn't for stupid humans

By Geoffrey A. Fowler and Hayley Tsukayama
Review: Scooters might revolutionize urban transport - if it wasn't for stupid humans
Motorized scooters, like these from Bird and Spin, have been showing up in cities around the U.S. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris

You'll find them obstructing sidewalks in Austin, draped on trash cans in San Francisco and tipped over like dominoes in Los Angeles.

In Washington, D.C., National Park Service workers dredged two of them from where Rock Creek flows into the Potomac.

They're Internet-connected scooters, and a bunch of well-funded tech start-ups think they might just upend how we get around cities. First they have to survive a speed bump: jerks.

Companies including Bird Rides, LimeBike, Spin and Waybots this spring flooded a half-dozen cities with the motorized two-wheelers. Then came a wave of scooters behaving badly. And in some cities, the era of startups disrupting first and seeking forgiveness later seems to have worn out its welcome.

"I'm going to go back and live in the 1850s and I'm going to hitch up my horse somewhere and see how the scooters like that," said Sherrie Matza during a hearing about the scooter scourge at San Francisco's City Hall on Monday.

We've been riding motorized scooters around San Francisco to get a handle on all the fuss. What makes these upright rides different from children's toys is their motors. They zip up to 15 miles per hour, which can make getting around five times faster than walking - but also a hair-raising test of balance. You do, undoubtedly, look goofy riding one.

These scooters also have GPS and data connections. Using a smartphone app, you can locate one nearby and unlock it for as little as $1. But it's up to you to ride responsibly and park out of the way.

Evidence suggests many people don't. "It now feels strange when I'm not tripping over one or almost getting clipped by someone zooming by each day," said Alex Kummert, who commutes on foot into San Francisco's Financial District.

Call it the eternal optimism - or is it willful ignorance? - of tech start-ups. Dockless scooters follow a wave of shared transport technologies that started with Uber cars, then expanded to shared commuter vans, and more recently added "leave them anywhere" shared bikes such as Ofo and Jump. Yet even in the months after hard-charging Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick got ousted, the scooter startups are being caught not thinking through the consequences of their technology - and drawing from Uber's old playbook of charging into cities and skipping city hall.

Austin has impounded more than 50 scooters. San Francisco seized 66, and on Monday its city attorney sent three companies a cease-and-desist letter calling their services a "public nuisance" and saying they were "endangering public health and safety."

Cities are struggling to figure out how to manage transport options that aren't built around personal cars. Where, exactly, are scooters supposed to be stored - should you have to pay for parking? Scooters laid haphazardly on sidewalks and in front of doors are a serious impediment for wheelchairs and the elderly. (PSA: To not be a jerk, the correct way to park is at a bike stand or against a wall, away from pedestrians and entryways.)

And what happens when streets are filled with hot-rodders whizzing by and scaring the bejesus out of people? Scooters can also be a danger to riders: Many people ride them on sidewalks and without helmets, flouting the law. Santa Monica, California, officials have made hundreds of traffic stops because of the electric scooters and say children and adults have suffered head traumas and arm fractures. (PSA part two: Invest in a helmet and ride scooters on streets or bike paths - never on steep slopes and never on sidewalks.)

Some of the scooter startups haven't exactly been asking for permission. Bird, which has raised $115 million from venture capitalists, was founded by former Uber executive Travis VanderZanden. After Bird launched in Santa Monica last fall the company paid $300,000 to settle a complaint from the city for not having a proper license. San Francisco and Austin are now weighing regulations, and in Washington the scooters are covered under an existing dockless pilot program.

Tensions are particularly high in San Francisco, a dense city that was also the first to encounter Uber. Scooters dominated a meeting Monday in City Hall as lawmakers, citing hundreds of citizen complaints, weighed how to regulate them.

"It is clear that many of these companies continue to build their corporate empires off of a basic premise: making massive profit always trumps protecting the public, and innovation is only possible by cutting corners," said Aaron Peskin, a city supervisor.

"It would be very nice if the tech bros could come in and ask for permission instead of asking for forgiveness," he said.

The long line to present citizen comment swung between disability and pedestrian-rights activists to scooter fans in hoodies. "I think the scooters run amok are actually a plot of the young people to kill off all us old farts so they can have our rent-controlled apartments," said Fran Taylor, a San Francisco resident at the hearing.

Others praised how shared scooters let them decrease the cost of getting around. "Sometimes I need to get from place to place downtown, five six blocks at a time, and the convenience of the Bird has been very helpful for me," said Jack Strong, a contractor.

The scooter companies say their interests are aligned with cities that want to cut down on congestion and the environmental impact of cars. "Rides are going to have to shift to some new technologies, and we think we've found something that can really help," said Carl Hansen, Bird's director of government affairs. "Bikes fall over. Any transportation technology is going to have its issues."

The human element may be the key to winning over regulators - but is a hard issue to crack. Why do people flout rider rules, not to mention torture the scooters?

"These are edge cases," said Spin president Euwyn Poon of inconsiderate scooter parkers. After a while, he said, the issues will drop - thanks to a combination of efforts to weed out rude riders and the fact that people get used to new vehicles over time. "They become part of the city and part of the street," he said.

Many of the scooters' companion apps warn that you are not supposed to ride on sidewalks, remind you to wear a helmet and even ask you to scan your drivers' license. Bird and LimeBike said they would start requiring riders to submit a photo of where they park.

In China, where dockless bikes are now ridden by millions, the idea of shared transportation tech has been a hit but has also taken its toll. Some cities in China have far more bikes than there is demand, leaving sidewalks no place to walk or with piles of mangled bikes.

Ofo, China's largest dockless bike provider, says the solution is education. "People are going to park them incorrectly in the early days," says Chris Taylor, Ofo's head in North America where the company launched operations last year. But over time, he says, people learn what the "furniture zone" is on sidewalks.

"People just need to be responsible and know the limits," said Patrick Tao, 37, after taking his first ride on a Bird in San Francisco on Tuesday. He parked his scooter, which had a flat tire, next to a bike rack.

He thinks the tech could have a future, but acknowledges, "There is always going to be some a--- who ruins it."

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

The United States is mortgaging its future

By catherine rampell
The United States is mortgaging its future

THE MILLENNIAL VIEW

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Rampell clients only)

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

American exceptionalism has meant many things over the years, often referring to our spirit and commitment to individual liberty.

Today it could refer to our exceptional fiscal recklessness.

In its newly released April 2018 Fiscal Monitor, the International Monetary Fund projected that the United States is the only -- yes, (BEG ITAL)only(END ITAL) -- advanced economy in the world expected to have its debt burden get worse over the next five years.

Every other rich country, including perennial fiscal basket cases such as Greece and Italy, is projected to lower its debt as a share of its economy. That is thanks in large part to the global economic recovery, which is bringing in more tax revenue and reducing the need for expensive automatic stabilizers such as unemployment benefits.

Here in the United States, though, we've taken our economic recovery and squandered it.

In December, Republicans passed massive, top-heavy tax cuts; this year, Congress oversaw a run-up in new spending. The result: trillion-dollar annual deficits as far as the eye can see.

In fact, within a decade, our debt-to-GDP ratio will be at its highest level since 1946. That year, of course, we had good reason for loading up on debt: We had just fought World War II. Today, with unemployment at an 18-year low and the country enjoying one of the longest recoveries on record, it is difficult to explain why we've spilled so much red ink.

Which is exactly why economists and international institutions have been advising the United States not to fritter away this opportunity to get our fiscal house in order.

"Because growth is good, we say, 'When the sun is shining, please fix the roof,'" IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde told me during an interview last month. "Build buffers, use your fiscal space to actually do the structural reforms that will improve your overall productivity and your capacity to resist" economic challenges.

Instead of taking this advice, Republican leadership is now eyeing even (BEG ITAL)more(END ITAL) deficit-financed tax cuts.

This week, outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan said the House planned to make permanent the individual tax cuts currently set to expire in 2025. This would add trillions of dollars to long-term deficits.

Trump administration officials have likewise expressed interest in more and different tax cuts, including on capital gains. This would make the existing GOP tax overhaul even more plutocratic, since households making more than $1 million account for about two-thirds of all capital-gains income, according to the IRS.

This type of behavior has sometimes earned fiscal scolding along the lines of: Households have to spend within their means; why can't the feds? Such criticisms are misguided. Governments are not, in fact, like households, and deficits are not a moral issue. But running up our debt, especially at the current moment, does have economic consequences.

First and foremost, it means we will have less room to maneuver when -- not if -- we next have a recession and actually need to stimulate the economy.

Second, as the economy recovers, interest rates will continue to rise. Which means our already enormous debt burden will become increasingly expensive -- and force us to cut funds for things we'd much prefer to spend money on. In its recent budget outlook, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that under existing law, we'll spend more on interest than on our entire military by 2023.

And third, in the long run, high government-debt levels are bad for growth.

That's because government debt can crowd out private investment; there is a finite amount of capital out there, and the more that is drawn to U.S. Treasurys, the less there is available for entrepreneurs and private businesses.

In other words, we're mortgaging our future. And for what? Not investments in things that might actually pay off, such as infrastructure or human-capital development, but tax cuts for the rich. This is not how a big-boy country, the richest and most economically sophisticated in the world, is supposed to behave.

In fact, we're making the very same policy mistakes that we -- and international institutions -- have historically admonished poorer, less economically advanced countries for committing. Up to and including silly protectionist measures that will make our own consumers and businesses worse off.

"I used to work at the IMF where we, for emerging markets, would ask questions such as who is going to buy the government debt and what will the currency implications be and how much faith does the rest of the world have in the ability of this country to pay back their debt," says Torsten Slok, the chief international economist at Deutsche Bank.

"Now," he says, "I'm getting the same questions from investors about the United States."

Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The Senate must confirm Pompeo

By marc a. thiessen
The Senate must confirm Pompeo

MARC A. THIESSEN COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, April 20, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, April 19, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Thiessen clients only)

By MARC A. THIESSEN

WASHINGTON -- For the first time in the history of the republic, it appears increasingly likely that a majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote against the president's nominee for secretary of state. If this happens, it would be a black mark not on Mike Pompeo's record, but on the reputation of this once-storied committee.

There are no instances of a secretary of state nominee ever receiving an unfavorable committee vote since such votes were first publicly recorded in 1925 (before that, the committee voted in closed session). Democrat John Kerry was approved in a unanimous voice vote, including from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who opposes Pompeo. Democrat Hillary Clinton was approved 16 to 1, despite concerns about foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation. Madeleine Albright was approved unanimously, with the strong support of my former boss, the committee's conservative then-chairman, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who called Albright "a tough and courageous lady" and voted for her despite saying that she was "sincerely wrong" in some of her foreign policy views.

Other Democrats, including Warren Christopher and Cyrus Vance, were also approved unanimously in committee, as were Republicans Colin Powell, James Baker and George Shultz. Indeed, no secretary of state going all the way back to Henry Kissinger had ever received more than two negative votes in the Foreign Relations Committee -- until Donald Trump became president.

Last year, all 10 Democrats on the committee voted "no" to Rex Tillerson's nomination, making him the first secretary of state in history to be approved on a party-line vote. Now, thanks to the opposition from those 10 Democrats and Paul, it appears that Pompeo could soon become the first secretary of state nominee in history to receive a negative recommendation from the committee.

There is simply no excuse for this. There are no ethical questions hanging over Pompeo's nomination. He has engaged in no disqualifying personal conduct. And no one questions that he is extraordinarily qualified for the job. Indeed, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said that Pompeo "has a clear record of public service to his nation -- in uniform, in Congress, and as the director of the CIA." Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he believes that Pompeo "will work hard to restore morale at State and work to supplement, not atrophy, the diplomatic tools at the Secretary of State's disposal." Yet both are voting against him. Indeed, nine of the committee's 10 Democrats have already declared their opposition to Pompeo -- including two, Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., -- who voted for him to lead the CIA.

Their opposition comes just as President Trump is preparing for a high-stakes nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Pompeo recently returned from North Korea, where he met with Kim and laid the groundwork for this historic meeting. Democrats ought to ask themselves how their actions will be seen in Pyongyang. To deliver such an undeserved rebuke to Pompeo at such a critical diplomatic moment would be a shameful abdication of the committee's responsibilities.

It would also breach two centuries of precedent in which the committee has carefully examined the credentials and qualifications of the president's nominee for secretary of state but acknowledged that the president should have his choice of who should be his chief diplomatic adviser. It is one thing for senators to use a nomination as leverage to gain commitments on specific policy matters. (Helms insisted that Albright work with him on his plans to reform the United Nations and reorganize the State Department, which she did.) Effective senators understand how to use the nomination process to win policy fights. But for senators to vote down a highly qualified nominee over their disdain for the president is completely unwarranted and, quite frankly, a breach of Senate norms.

A negative vote would hurt the Foreign Relations Committee more than Pompeo. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will bring his nomination to the floor regardless of what the committee does, and it is expected that some Democrats -- such as Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who has publicly announced her support -- will vote for him. And when Pompeo is confirmed by the full Senate, he would be more than justified in determining that the State Department is best served by working closely with the appropriators and Senate leadership, and bypassing a committee that can't make policy, can't legislate and can't lead.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

Trump's foreign policy is more like international lurching

By eugene robinson
Trump's foreign policy is more like international lurching

EUGENE ROBINSON COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, April 20, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, April 19, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Robinson clients only)

WRITETHRU: 3rd graf, 1st sentence: "Kim Jong Un" sted "Kin Jong Un"

By EUGENE ROBINSON

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration is succeeding wildly at one thing: sowing utter confusion about its foreign policy.

Perhaps "foreign policy" is the wrong term. "International lurchings" might be more apt. Allies and adversaries alike are having to learn which pronouncements to take seriously, which to ignore and which are likely to be countermanded by presidential tweet.

Trump announces he has accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, whose nuclear arms and ballistic missiles have provoked a dangerous crisis. No groundwork for such a meeting has been laid, so the president dispatches an envoy on a secret mission to Pyongyang -- not a diplomat but CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Trump couldn't send his secretary of state since, at the moment, he doesn't have one. Pompeo is his nominee for the job.

On Wednesday, the president says he really, truly intends to go through with the meeting -- unless it seems the encounter will not be productive, in which case he won't meet with Kim after all. If there is a meeting but it doesn't seem sufficiently "fruitful," Trump says, "I will respectfully leave the meeting and we'll continue what we're doing or whatever it is that we'll continue, but something will happen."

Got that? "Something will happen." The possible outcomes range from hurt feelings to nuclear war.

On another front, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley went on television Sunday to deliver what sounded like a clear message: There will be new sanctions against Russia.

That makes sense. The Russians interfered with our election, according to intelligence officials. Moscow continues to support and defend the Syrian butcher Bashar Assad, who recently used chemical weapons again against civilians. And our British allies accuse the Russians of using a powerful nerve agent in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian intelligence officer living in England.

So Haley's announcement of new sanctions was appropriate. But there won't be any. That news came from, of all people, Trump's new chief economic adviser, former television pundit Larry Kudlow. Pressed into duty on the foreign affairs front, Kudlow told reporters that Haley "got ahead of the curve" and that "there might have been some momentary confusion."

Haley was not amused. Her retort was memorable: "With all due respect, I don't get confused."

The rest of us do, though. Asked Wednesday to clarify the policy, Trump went on a rant about how no one has ever been as tough on Russia as he has -- a laughable claim -- and then waxed poetic (for Trump) about how nice it would be if the United States and Russia could just be friends.

The question was finally settled when Russian officials said they have been assured by the administration that there will be no new sanctions. If the Russkies are the most reliable source of information, maybe we should ask them who'll win the 2020 election.

If the aim of foreign policy were to keep everybody guessing, Trump would be a smashing success. But that is no proper goal for the leader of the free world. Rhetorically, at least, the United States used to stand for freedom, democracy and human rights throughout the world. Now, apparently, we have an administration that sees foreign relations as a zero-sum game in which others must lose so that we may win.

But the Trump administration doesn't even seem capable of deciding what winning looks like. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. As critics predicted, China took advantage of that decision to launch a major initiative to dominate trade in Asia. Last week, Trump reportedly ordered officials to look into rejoining the TPP. This week, the White House said no, we're staying out.

Trump sent 2,000 U.S. troops into Syria to help drive out the Islamic State -- despite his campaign pledge not to get involved in such wars -- and had considerable success. But recently, according to widespread reports, he has been demanding an immediate withdrawal, which military officials say would leave behind a chaotic, blood-soaked breeding ground for terrorism. Who knows what the president will ultimately decide?

The Trump administration sees no reason to criticize authoritarian leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and, of course, Vladimir Putin in Russia. By contrast, the president is chilly toward staunch allies who do not go out of their way to flatter him, such as Angela Merkel of Germany.

To brief Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his meeting this week with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, I'd have told him one thing: Whatever you do, don't beat him at golf.

Eugene Robinson's email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Space: the new frontier of warfare

By david ignatius
Space: the new frontier of warfare

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, April 20, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, April 19, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Ignatius clients only)

By DAVID IGNATIUS

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Sitting at the controls of a Boeing space-flight simulator, "docking" the company's planned "Starliner" craft with an imaginary space station, you begin to understand why the Pentagon is so focused on such advanced systems.

Space is the new frontier of warfare. That was the theme of a "Space Symposium" here this week that gathered thousands of military and corporate experts from around the globe. A version of the Boeing simulator may someday be training the 21st-century version of fighter pilots.

The future battle may be in the heavens. But you can already see a turf war developing over who should control U.S. space-warfighting capability -- with the White House, Congress and the military services jockeying over how to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars and scores of senior Pentagon command positions. But let's start with the threat, as described by U.S. military officials here.

Since the glory days of the first moon walk in 1969, Americans have had a benign view of space, as an area of uncontested U.S. dominance. When we thought about adversaries, they were from another planet. But animating nearly every military presentation here was the message that China and Russia are now aggressively challenging U.S. primacy in space -- potentially threatening satellites used for military communications, targeting and battlefield management.

"I cannot think of a military mission that does not depend on space," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told the symposium, warning that "Russia and China are developing capabilities to disable our satellites." Gen. Dave Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, repeated like a mantra the phrase "Always the predator, never the prey," in describing how his service views its mission in space.

An arms race in space, as dreadful as that sounds, is already underway. As the throngs at the symposium attest, it will be a bonanza for the Pentagon and its contractors. But there's broad agreement among analysts that the vulnerability of U.S. systems to attack is real.

"The threat is quite serious," says Bob Work, who was deputy defense secretary in the Obama administration. He notes that Russia and China have demonstrated the ability to jam space communications, blind optical sensors with lasers, launch direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons, and operate co-orbital anti-satellite weapons. Work says that when the Pentagon first described space threats to President Obama in June 2013, officials warned him that the space-arms race "has already started."

"For the last 10 years, our competitive advantage in space has eroded steadily," argues John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense who heads the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There is genuine alarm at the scale and momentum of the activities of our adversaries," he says.

Though there's broad agreement that the U.S. needs to defend its space-based assets better, there's a political argument about who should have responsibility for that mission. The Air Force, not surprisingly, insists that it should take the lead. Goldfein told the symposium that the Air Force now is responsible for 90 percent of the military's space activities, and that it will bring to future space operations "the same passion and sense of ownership we apply to air."

But some skeptics in Congress and the Trump administration argue that the U.S. needs a new "space force" to oversee the emerging domain of battle. The House proposed last year that this space component should be quasi-independent of the Air Force, the way the Marines operate alongside the Navy; the Senate disagreed. President Trump seemed initially to favor a separate space force, but officials say the administration is studying the issue.

The Air Force lost credibility with Congress over the past decade, Hamre argues, because of concerns that it was slow to recognize the threat from adversaries and was "unwilling to sacrifice other programs to fix the increasingly obvious shortcomings in the space program." But Work argues that because of the bureaucratic confusion and delay involved, creating a new force probably isn't sensible.

The Air Force's best argument for retaining primacy is that it's ready to take risks, and even tolerate failures, in building the systems that will quickly reduce U.S. vulnerability. Wilson told me that in her office, she displays some artifacts from the first U.S. spy satellite program, known as "Corona," to remind herself and Air Force colleagues that "good failure" can be essential. Corona failed 12 tests in a row before it finally succeeded.

"We built exquisite glass houses in a world without stones," Wilson told the symposium. But the old era of uncontested space appears to be over.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

America does have a 'deep state' -- of law

By fareed zakaria
America does have a 'deep state' -- of law

FAREED ZAKARIA COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, April 20, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, April 19, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Zakaria clients only)

By FAREED ZAKARIA

NEW YORK -- The most remarkable parts of James Comey's memoir are not about Donald Trump. We already knew most of the interesting revelations, and some of the others are gossip and color commentary. But in his discussion of the George W. Bush administration, Comey is far more revealing and highlights something crucial and hopeful about America -- the role of lawyers and our legal culture.

Many of the battles the Trump administration is having with the so-called deep state are reruns of battles from the Bush years. As Comey recounts in detail, after 9/11 the Bush administration put in place a surveillance program called "Stellar Wind" that Justice Department lawyers decided, on review, was illegal. Comey, who in March 2004 was deputy attorney general (and filling in for his boss, John Ashcroft, who was ill), refused to renew the program.

White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales decided to head to Ashcroft's hospital room to pressure him to sign the reauthorization documents over Comey's objections. On learning of this, Comey raced to the hospital and asked then-FBI Director Robert Mueller to join him for moral support. It turned out Ashcroft didn't need any prodding; he turned Card and Gonzales away. Mueller, who arrived a few minutes afterward, said to the bedridden attorney general, who was technically his boss, "In every man's life there comes a time when the good Lord tests him. You passed your test tonight." Comey writes that he felt like crying. "The law had held."

Round Two happened over torture. The Bush administration wanted to claim that its "enhanced interrogation techniques" were lawful. Comey believed they were not, as did the chief counsel at the Justice Department, Jack Goldsmith. So Comey pushed back as much as he could.

In all these cases, the pressure from the White House was intense, including a stunning exchange that Comey recounts between himself and President Bush. "I say what the law is for the executive branch," Bush explained to his sub-Cabinet appointee. Comey responded, "You do, sir. But only I can say what the Justice Department can certify as lawful. And we can't here. We have done our best, but as Martin Luther said, 'Here I stand. I can do no other.'"

What is striking about these episodes is not only that Comey and Mueller were subordinates who owed their jobs to Bush, but also that they were Republicans. Yet the two of them have consistently put their obligations to the law and the country above personal loyalty and partisan politics.

This behavior may be a product of personal character, but it is also formed by legal training. The story is really not just about Mueller and Comey but about the lawyers in various parts of the government who believe that it is crucial for the country that the government operate within the law -- even if the president wishes otherwise. Recall that when Trump wanted to fire Mueller last June, White House counsel Don McGahn reportedly threatened to resign in protest.

Just before leaving the Bush administration, Comey gave a speech to the National Security Agency in which he said, "It is the job of a good lawyer to say 'yes.' It is as much the job of a good lawyer to say 'no.' 'No' is much, much harder. 'No' must be spoken into a storm of crisis, with loud voices all around, with lives hanging in the balance. 'No' is often the undoing of a career."

One of the oft-repeated criticisms of America is that it has too many lawyers. Maybe, but one of the country's great strengths is its legal culture. As I've written before, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that without a class of patriotic and selfless aristocrats, America could fall prey to demagogues and populists. But he took comfort in the fact that, as he put it, American aristocracy can be found "at the bar or on the bench." Tocqueville saw that lawyers, with their sense of civic duty, created a "form of public accountability that would help preserve the blessings of democracy without allowing its untrammeled vices."

Comey's memoir reveals that America does indeed have a deep state. It is one of law and lawyers. And we should be deeply grateful for it.

Fareed Zakaria's email address is fareed.zakaria.gps@turner.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Evangelicals can't advance human dignity by dehumanizing others

By michael gerson
Evangelicals can't advance human dignity by dehumanizing others

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, April 20, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, April 19, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

By MICHAEL GERSON

WASHINGTON -- If the stages of a social movement are emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization and decline, the reaction against the Trump evangelicals among other evangelicals is still in the emergence stage. But one significant act of coalescence took place recently at Wheaton College, where a group of 50 ethnically and denominationally diverse evangelical leaders met to discuss the sad state of their movement.

The setting was appropriate. Wheaton (my alma mater) was founded by abolitionist evangelicals in the mid-19th century. Its first president, Jonathan Blanchard, was an anti-slavery agitator and founder of radical newspapers. The college was a station on the Underground Railroad. Many northern evangelical leaders of that time were malcontents in the cause of human dignity.

Who could possibly describe the evangelical movement in those terms today? The predominant narrative of white evangelicalism is tribal rather than universal: Christians, who once set America's moral and political terms, are under legal and cultural siege by the forces of secularism. Now they must find political allies and fight back before they are thrown to the lions.

This attitude is understandable from any group that has lost cultural standing. But it reduces evangelicalism to the status of any political interest seeking to restore its status. And it involves a certain view of power -- the belief in power as political clout.

Enter the group that met at Wheaton, which included some of the most prominent pastors, theologians and writers of the evangelical world. Many are disturbed by the identification of their faith with a certain kind of white-grievance populism, which cuts them off from the best of their history, from their non-white neighbors, from the next generation and from predominately non-white global evangelicalism.

But the stated goal of the leaders who gathered at Wheaton is not to push a politicized faith in a different political direction. It is to provide an alternative evangelical narrative -- a more positive model of social engagement than the anger, resentment and desperation of many Trump evangelical leaders.

People like me can point out the naivete and political self-sabotage of the Trump evangelicals. But the groundwork for a new narrative will ultimately be theological, which makes the Wheaton consultation strategically significant. There were many political views and denominational traditions represented in the room. But any thinker who takes the authority of the Bible seriously must wrestle with the meaning and implications of one idea: the kingdom of God.

Forgive me a short theology lesson, but how evangelicals understand this concept determines much about the nature of their political engagement, which determines much about the quality of American politics.

If you look at his words, Jesus did not preach a new religion. He announced the arrival of a kingdom. "The kingdom of God has come near," he said. It is intended to be a message of dawning hope and liberation. "The spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised."

This kingdom -- against the Messianic expectation of some of his followers -- did not involve a revolt against the Roman Empire. It is, Jesus said, "not of this world." He claimed that the rule or reign of God had broken into human history in some new and different way. And the evidence is provided by people who will live by the values of this divine kingdom in the midst of every earthly kingdom. Believers are essentially called to be emissaries or ambassadors.

The nature of this kingdom determines how it is properly advanced -- not law by law but life by life. You can't advance a vision of liberation by oppressing the conscience of others. You can't advance a vision of human dignity by dehumanizing others. You can't advance a vision of peace with violent and demeaning language.

This involves an entirely different view of power -- power for the sake of the powerless. It involves a different definition of influence -- bringing a modicum of grace and justice into the world around us, including the political world.

This does not mean that evangelicals should be indifferent to their own rights and religious freedom. It does mean that an evangelicalism defined by the defense of its own rights rather than the dignity and sanctity of every life has lost its way. And there are signs -- faint, early signs -- that an alternative is coalescing.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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