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Residents Jay Standish (l.) and Ben Provan chat over dinner at their shared house in Berkeley, Calif. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

Better together? A new generation try

By Editor-at-Large / 04.02.14

Hey, let’s all get a place together. Seriously, we could find an old house and split the costs.

Think of the money we’d save! And the fun we’d have! You like to cook, Julie’s an ace in the garden, and Mike is, well, I’m not sure, but he’s fun to hang out with. Whaddaya think?

A proposal like that was probably first floated by 20-somethings at a Neolithic cookout. Each generation invents the idea of pals and peers moving in together. You can see evidence of the communal ethic in ancient abbeys and monasteries; Utopian experiments such as Brook Farm and Fruitlands; the Israeli kibbutzim; and a series of looser affiliations such as the early 20th-century Bloomsbury set and the late ’60s back-to-the-land movement. It’s a theme played out in endless situation comedies cloned from the “Friends” franchise. 

Communes and other forms of co-living seem practical and economical. There’s also an element of youthful idealism involved, and a dash of rebellion against social convention. Why pay for six roofs when six people can live under one? Why do what everybody else does? And think of the fun!

Getting a place together makes sense, but for most of history it hasn’t worked. Chore disputes, personality differences, hygiene failings, slacking, nagging, and a simple craving for privacy (to start a family or just to be alone) are the usual reasons communes and shared houses crack up and roommates go their separate ways. 

But with every new generation – hello, Millennials – the shared housing idea comes back. Maybe this time is different. As you’ll see in a Monitor cover story, there are new reasons to think so. Economics, for instance: Do you know what homes cost in San Francisco or New York? Something else is astir as well, something not quite as jejune as best-friends-forever declarations. Housing might well be the next frontier in the sharing economy (see our Oct. 1, 2012, cover story) in which new technology, new business models, and new generational preferences are shifting away from buying and holding to borrowing and returning. 

The markets for cars, bicycles, overnight stays, higher education, couture dresses, and dozens more goods and services have felt the effects of the peer-to-peer movement. Younger generations are driving the trend, but older generations – especially empty-nester baby boomers – are taking notice. Keeping up a house alone isn’t always easy; assisted living isn’t always desirable. And so, as one sharing-economy analyst tells contributor Timothy May, the time seems ripe to “hack” housing.

But can that hack overcome the problem that has wrecked shared housing throughout the ages? The balance between a fair distribution of duties and nitpicking flummoxes most roommates. For every Oscar there’s a Felix. For every house rule, there’s a rule breaker. Bike and car sharers don’t have to deal with dirty dishes, a penchant for garlic and curry (guilty), or an occasional midnight drum solo. Even standard apartment dwellers, condo owners, and suburban neighbors fall out over such matters.

Still, if a new generation’s ingenuity can be coupled with a spirit of generosity and acceptance, healthy communities will result. Whether under the same roof, on the same street, or orbiting around the same set of enthusiasms or beliefs, communities allow people to learn from each other, support one another, and enjoy companionship, if only for a short time. That’s all that any generation has ever wanted. That – and we could save money. And think of the fun we could have.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at

Russian pride was on display at a Moscow rally March 18 in support of Crimea joining Russia. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

The news bubble around Vladimir Putin

By Editor-at-Large / 04.02.14

The other day on the RT website you could browse through a photo gallery of baby polar bears at Munich’s zoo, click on a “Larry King Now” video featuring the suspendered TV icon chatting with “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan, and get a rundown on the news. There was a follow-up on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a report on Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex, and a lot about Kosovo

Why Kosovo? It wasn’t a subject most other news outlets were focusing on. But RT, the news operation formerly known as Russia Today (and examined in-depth in our March 31 issue by Fred Weir and Sabra Ayres), is a Russian version of that Manhattan-centric New Yorker cartoon with Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans in the foreground and the United States on the far horizon.  

RT isn’t unique in having a nationalistic point of view. CCTV, backed by the Chinese government, follows a similar formula. So, in differing degrees, do Al Jazeera, Iran’s Press TV, the Voice of America, and the BBC. But through RT you can see the world as Vladimir Putin and his advisers see it. 

Kosovo, one RT commentator recently argued, was NATO using violence to engineer the separation of an ethnic enclave from a sovereign state. Compare that with the relatively peaceful “preemptive” secession of Crimea. NATO is aggressive and expansionist in the RT scheme of things, and rightists, fascists, and anti-Russian elements are stirring throughout EuropeA Monitor cover story considers the implications of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Ukraine, Kosovo, Germany, and the trauma of invasions by Napoleon and Hitler, Tatars and Mongols are in the forefront of Russia’s historical memory.Mr. Putin’s media have tapped into that. What started as a slant on the news to justify Russian foreign policy, however, may have infected the Russian leader’s worldview.

That’s the analysis of Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of State during the Kosovo war. She speaks Russian, has met Putin, and, as the daughter of a twice-exiled Czech diplomat (first from the Nazis and then communists), has an abiding interest in Eastern Europe. 

We spoke recently following a lecture she delivered at Principia College in Elsah, Ill. Putin is rewriting world history, Dr. Albright says. “He sees himself as helping Russians regain some sense of honor. They were an empire. He has identified himself with the glory of the Russian past.” But what he omits from his worldview is that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the US worked to shore up Russia and other nations that emerged, aided them financially, and brought them into the international system. Albright herself told then-President Boris Yeltsin that Russia would be welcome as a member of NATO. 

Putin is also rewriting Eastern Europe’s history. Crimea and Kosovo are “not even vaguely similar,” she says, citing the documented record of Serbian “ethnic cleansing,” the eight years of negotiations that attempted to keep Kosovo part of Serbia, United Nations-supervised elections, and the 105 countries that have recognized Kosovo’s independence. 

The Russian leader has built a new Russian media to project his version of history. But the stories we tell to persuade others often succeed only in persuading ourselves. As Albright puts it, Putin is likely “living in a parallel universe of the propaganda that he himself has perpetrated.” 

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at

Officer Mike Steiger patrols a beach in Avalon, N.J. (Ann Hermes/Staff/File)

What our freedom demands

By / 03.23.14

Freedom opens up choice in what we think, do, and say, and how we live. No wonder people around the world long for it, fight for it, and die for a right that they know they were born with and are entitled to but which has been kept from them because of tyranny, prejudice, ideology, economics, history, or an accident of birth. 

Freedom has spread across the planet in recent decades. Its progress is not always immediate or permanent. For every Wenceslas Square in Prague there’s a Tiananmen Square in Beijing. For every Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011 there is a Tahrir Square in 2013. Still, even if there are detours, the allure of freedom is undiminished.

In time, freedom will prevail. But then, when choice is abundant and options plentiful, there comes a critical moment. A free human can take a little or a lot from the buffet table, enjoy life in its variety or seek only its pleasures. Is freedom a license to indulge, or is there something more we should do with it? Freedom doesn’t say. Freedom leaves our options open.

In a kind of greed-is-good twist of pretzel logic, free people today are often urged to think of themselves as consumers. Consumer confidence is cheered, consumer prices tracked, consumer rights protected. At one level, that’s understandable. Employment relies on consumer demand. The commonweal is funded by taxes on consumer transactions. But until recently, there was a counterbalancing aspect to consumption as the highest and best activity of free people. That would be self-control. Self-control is the choice not to consume, not to live by the YOLO code (“you only live once”). Self-control prevents new forms of enslavement such as crime, addiction, exploitation of others, debasement of character.

The need for self-control as a partner with freedom has been recognized in every society. Lao Tzu advocated it in ancient China, Plato in Greece, Horace in Rome, Benjamin Franklin in America. Helen Keller, Mohandas Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and virtually every current self-improvement guru has championed it.

Sorry if this sounds a little preachy. A Monitor cover story is on a subject that is tragic and disturbing and also close to home: the explosive use of heroin in North America, and even more so, in New England, and, frankly, in the part of New England where I live. One acquaintance’s son is in prison and his young wife dead of an overdose. Another has been through rehab. As you’ll see in Kristina Lindborg’s report, these are people who are struggling with a multitude of post-freedom factors: hedonism, the pain-pill culture of modern medicine, the cheap availability of heroin, and, perhaps most important, a paucity of spirituality.

That last point isn’t trivial in an age when skepticism, secularism, and smug atheism are considered cool. There’s a cost to switching off our spiritual sense. In early Christianity, the newfound feeling of freedom from sin, the past, and materialism was so thrilling that early theologians worked overtime to make sure the message was not interpreted as anything goes, that those freed did not think of themselves as mere consumers.

St. Paul urged discipline: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” Freedom, he knew, cannot survive without self-control.

John Yemma is editor at large of the Monitor. He can be reached at

A sculptural pushback on alternative-energy policy stood near the Chancellery in Berlin last March. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The never-ending energy transition

By Editor-at-Large / 03.10.14

Energy’s unending transition

A friend who lives in the historical district of a historical town wants to put solar panels on her roof. To her, it’s a practical decision with a nice environmental benefit. Home Depot signed her up. The panels seem to blend in with the black shingles on the side of her house; her roof is high; neighboring houses are close. It’s hard to see how the installation would disrupt the street’s ambiance. In the mock-ups, it’s hard to see the panels at all. But the local historical commission has twice ruled that solar panels are not in keeping with the early-American character of the street.

I’m not here to argue her case or to criticize a citizens’ board that is trying to preserve a street’s historical legacy. The commissioners might be right. My friend might be right. What’s interesting to me is the selective cropping we do when it comes to energy and other modern conveniences. Overhead wires hang like bunting on her street. Cars snug up to the curbs. Mercury vapor lights loom overhead. A generous eye could see a kind of Ashcan School beauty in all of that overlapping infrastructure, but if you were looking for early America you would need to be extremely aggressive at cropping.

Infrastructure isn’t pretty. Pipelines and tailpipes make modern life possible. A small candle in a window is romantic as long as it isn’t our only light source. We need our energy, but we try not to think about where it comes from. A hissing refinery complex on the Saudi Arabian coast, a pipeline cutting through the Nebraska Sandhills, a shoal off Nantucket jammed with wind turbines – while you can have a grudging appreciation for the engineering know-how and the scale of energy infrastructure, most people would rather not see how their juice is made.

Right now is probably the most everything-goes moment in energy choices that the world has ever known. We’re simultaneously splitting atoms, wood, and hydrocarbons. We’re tapping the heat of the planet and harnessing its wind and waves. We are harvesting sunshine, squeezing fuel out of corn and sugar cane, and fracturing shale. We’re pouring billions of dollars and the best minds in science into fusion projects around the world. We are making progress with energy efficiency. 

We’re all over the map. We need to be. Population growth and economic growth are ravenous maws for energy. Waste streams are giant problems for the environment.

Nowhere is energy experimentation more aggressively being pursued than in Germany. In a Monitor cover story, David Unger takes us on a tour of the Energiewende – or “energy transition” – that Germany has embarked on. By 2022, the country plans to be free from nuclear power. Three decades later, it plans to be getting 80 percent of its electricity from renewables. It is paying the price with some of Europe’s highest electricity bills, and there are growing concerns that the country risks losing business to cheaper-energy countries such as the surging, energy-from-fracking United States.

Germany’s race to a renewable future is purposeful, but there won’t be a finish line. Adjustments will always be needed as economic, environmental, and other factors change. There will be a heavier emphasis on renewables but still a need for coal and hydrocarbons. As on my friend’s street, energy sources will overlap. We can’t go back to a time before electrical grids. We won’t have a future without them. We’ll always be in transition.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at

Customs officers in Dongguan, China, stand guard in front of confiscated ivory products made from elephant tusks. (Vincent Yu/AP)

An appetite larger than Earth

By Editor-at-Large / 03.03.14

The history of the world up to about 100 years ago could be told in the conquest of nature. Predators were subdued, the wilderness was tamed, resources tapped, rivers controlled. Laced with roads, electric grids, pipelines, and information networks, the planet is now under active human management. The long human quest for survival succeeded.

Now success is the problem. At the dawn of the 20th century, there were fewer than 2 billion of us. Population has tripled since then. Affluence has spread. Nature is being stressed.  

Since Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” in 1963, warnings about the human impact on the environment have grown ever more urgent. Carbon emissions, ocean pollution, rain-forest depletion, polar melting – it takes nothing away from the seriousness of the warnings (whether delivered by scientists, environmentalists, or writers, such as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, or Elizabeth Kolbert) to note that the scale of the problem has inured many people to the message. 

The fate of Earth is a complex equation. What can be done? The answer seems to be, nothing simple. Many things must be done at many different levels.

Take one part of the equation: China. The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimates that at the start of the 21st century just 4 percent of urban Chinese were in the middle class. In 2012, 68 percent were – and the trend is accelerating. That rapid rise in affluence has caused Chinese companies to travel deep into Africa in search of resources, which is what European colonial powers once did. But as wildlife advocate Jane Goodall recently observed, “China is bigger, and the technology has improved.” Scale makes a big difference.

Where once only the rich in China could afford objects made from ivory, the burgeoning middle class now can. That has made poaching of African wildlife a major problem. Solving the problem requires many different efforts at many levels of the supply-demand equation: public education campaigns in Africa to raise awareness of the importance of animals to the tourist trade; high-tech policing; DNA tracking; public education campaigns in China (martial artist Jackie Chan stars in a series of new public-service ads in China aimed at discouraging the buying of wildlife contraband). Slowly but surely, these and other efforts will change hearts and minds. Whether in Beijing, the African savanna, or New York, humans can learn to manage their appetites. 

There are many different ways of approaching this problem. In a Monitor cover story (read it here), Mike Pflanz shows us one effort, riding along with a former Australian commando and a group of gamekeepers as they patrol Zimbabwe’s Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Reserve. Damien Mander may seem like an old colonial character with his bush jacket and military tactics. But look closer. He’s a strong advocate of education. He’s a vegan. He is just trying to hold the line while Africans and Chinese master the negative aspects of supply and demand. 

They will. Human success has been a good thing. Human excess hasn’t been. But just as we’ve learned to manage nature, the 7 billion of us now on the planet can learn to manage ourselves. Nature needs us to do that.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at

children played games online at a community center in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File)

Toward a global collaboration

By Editor-at-Large / 02.28.14

 It was probably the mid-1920s when the automobile (a word that doesn’t show up in literature searches until the late 19th century) crossed the line from modern marvel to commonplace conveyance, when that amazing technology of horseless locomotion became simply “a ride” or “a lift.” 

Air travel lost its magic more recently. People were rhapsodizing about flight as late as the 1970s. An Eastern Airlines commercial around that time flew viewers above the clouds and put a lump in their throats by calling its fleet “the wings of man.” (It was 1959 when I first flew, but I remember it vividly: a DC-7 from Tokyo to Honolulu to Los Angeles; a tiny window that my siblings and I took turns looking out of; the package of Fig Newtons from the friendly stewardess. It was awesome. Now flying is just “a trip.”)

We’re doubtlessly approaching the point of ho-hum with the Internet. The once-thrilling adventure of surfing and browsing is as dated as Beanie Babies and the “Macarena.” But before we get all been-there-done-that, take a look at a new Monitor cover story. You’ll see how the worldwide web of knowledge – the true intent of the Internet even if it sometimes seems more famous for updating and time-wasting – has penetrated the far corners of the globe.

But even that isn’t especially surprising. What it yields is.

Prodigies, geniuses, and kids who stand out from the crowd exist in every age and culture. Some are born with special talents. Many simply apply themselves. Some become world famous. Many live their lives in quiet obscurity – which isn’t always a bad thing. They might channel their talents along locally important lines, teaching others physics or developing a new water pump for farmers.

With the leapfrogging made possible by the Internet, the young and talented are increasingly tapping into high-level knowledge and connecting with one another. Even that may seem a little expected given the spread of Massive Open Online Courses, which Laura Pappano explored in our June 3, 2013, issue. In a followup, Laura shows you what happens when knowledge penetrates even the world’s most remote areas: how top-tier institutions such as Harvard and MIT use MOOCs to engage and recruit the brightest students anywhere – Mongolia, India, Pakistan.

It gets better. This is not a story of the exceptional and talented turning their back on their native lands and joining the cosmopolitan elite. Sure, that could happen. But these young people frequently plan to apply what they learn in the land of their origin. These are mental travelers at home in Cambridge, Mass.; and Ulan Bator, Mongolia; and participating in Coursera’s “Modern and Contemporary Poetry” MOOC – the kind of individuals that Thomas Hardy described as carrying “like planets, their atmosphere along with them in their orbits.”

Like the automobile, the airplane, TV, and other technologies, the Internet is a mixed blessing. Everyone knows about its downsides. This week, consider its upside: The next steps in science, literature, music, and a thousand disciplines likely won’t emerge from one nation. They will develop collaboratively on a network that connects the best and brightest no matter where they are. If the World Wide Web is no longer especially remarkable, it’s encouraging at least to see its original purpose being fulfilled: not just to amuse us, but to make all of us better and brighter. 

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at

Marzia Sarwary helps daughter Hawaa adjust her hijab at a makespace meeting to discuss religion in McLean, Va. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

People constantly adapt. So do their beliefs.

By Editor-at-Large / 02.16.14

Adaptation is constantly at work in biology. What succeeds in one place often needs amending in another. Sometimes the change is superficial. A chameleon temporarily sports a new color. Sometimes the change is so profound that it’s hard to connect the dots. The family resemblance between parakeets and dinosaurs or whales and their land-based ancestors takes some serious scholarship.

Religious beliefs adapt, too. They emerge in one culture – 6th century BC Nepal, Ur of the Chaldees, Roman-era Israel, 6th century AD Arabia. They grow up clothed in the colors, traditions, language, and metaphors of their native lands. Then they go on the road. Time, geography, and circumstances change them. Some of the adaptations are superficial. Most of us no longer anoint our heads with oil, measure height in cubits, or rend our garments in distress. Ancient dietary guidelines and scriptural references to ewe lambs and lion’s whelps can mystify a 21st-century reader.

Moral standards are perhaps the most difficult to reconcile when religious tradition meets modern society. Is it right to marry someone of another faith, charge or pay interest, shake hands across gender lines? How much is essential to believers; how much got attached to the religious message in its journey through history?

In a Monitor cover story, Lee Lawrence explores Islam in America. At one level, she is looking at how Islam has traveled from its tribal, desert origins into the raucous pluralism of American culture. At another level, she is looking at the ever-changing thinking of individuals who are Muslims and Americans.

First and second generations differ. Brothers and sisters differ. Americans from Iranian, Somali, Indonesian, Pakistani, or 30 other cultural traditions differ. They might or might not adhere to Muslim modesty codes. And which codes? Those handed down by the Quran? By an imam? By a mom? A young American Muslim might dress like her classmates or be stylishly conservative. That can mean a colorful scarf or the full hijab. And the next day or two years later, a different choice may be made.

Adaptation isn’t just a two-way street. It is a multilane superhighway. American culture thrives because of it. If not, we’d all still be wearing knee breeches and only mouthing the self-evident truth of universal equality. Adaptation opens the door to innovation and freedom, which is how the future is made not just in New York and Los Angeles but in Cairo and Kabul. 

A second-generation convert to Islam may partner with non-Muslims on a restaurant venture and (like believers of other faiths and nonbelievers with scruples) figure out how to accommodate a public that doesn’t share a belief in alcohol abstention. There are workarounds. There are compromises. That can take place at a locavore cafe in Putney, Vt., or a Mexican cantina in the United Arab Emirates. 

Some non-Muslims wonder if Islam is different because of its harsh sanctions on blasphemy and apostasy, the strictures of sharia, the militancy of fundamentalists. But as a Pew Research Center poll last year made clear, the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims vary vastly on those issues by age, region, and education.

In other generations, suspicions ran deep about the commitment of Roman Catholics and Jews, Germans and Japanese to the American idea. The American idea has proved resilient so far. Why wouldn’t that be the case as Muslims enter the American mainstream? 

Cultures adapt. They change America. America changes them. And individuals are always changing their minds. 

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at

A worker dug a ditch for water lines in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in 2006, two years after a devastating tsunami. (Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

We're learning smarter ways to help

By Editor-at-Large / 02.09.14

In a disaster, rapid response is essential. Time is short. Lives hang in the balance. First aid, clean water, safe food, blankets, and beds are dispatched, but help always seems too slow, suffering too prolonged. Finally – after what seems like weeks but is only hours or days (but still an eternity for those in the disaster zone) – helicopters hover, hospital ships drop anchor, aid convoys plow inland, and first-aid tents and feeding stations swing into action.

It’s just about then, as rescue turns to recovery, that the world loses interest. The immediacy of a disaster – aerial views of roofless homes, interviews with grieving refugees, videos of the earth shaking and tides surging – rivets attention far more than what comes next. Chapter 2 is slow, the methodical work of buckets, wheelbarrows, hammers, and saws, the first steps toward rebuilding and resuming a normal life. 

But getting recovery right is crucial. This is where corruption, theft, and waste are most likely and where unmet needs can prolong suffering and stir unrest.

Recovery is also a moment of opportunity. As Peter Ford reports from the typhoon-damaged central Philippines in a Monitor cover story (read it here), there’s a better way to help a shattered community rebuild than by sending in armies of fresh rebuilders from afar. The best practice, disaster recovery specialists now believe, is to encourage survivors to reconstruct their own homes, farms, businesses, and factories. This can mean everything from supplying power tools to offering engineering advice, providing on-the-spot business coaching to giving out no-strings cash.

This hands-off approach jump-starts the local economy by making it self -reliant rather than aid -reliant. As well-meaning as volunteers and relief agencies are when they put money and muscle into rebuilding, their very involvement can slow the hiring of survivors who need work. A steady flow of food and supplies from across the seas can deter the regrowth of native supply chains. Local entrepreneurs understand the tastes and interests of their neighbors, even if that sometimes means the cash they receive stocks shelves with KitKat bars and cigarettes. It’s a start, at least, on the road back to normal.

Self-empowerment isn’t a universal solution. As Peter points out, it doesn’t work in every recovery effort, especially in extremely poor, repressed, corrupt, or conflict-ridden regions. But when it can be employed, smart recovery replaces “we know better” with “you can do it.” 

 Natural disasters have long been tests of faith. When an earthquake shattered Portugal’s capital in 1755, clerics blamed the people’s wickedness. But the Enlightenment was stirring, and the people began to doubt that tired, old explanation. Scientists suspected geology and engineering. Governments considered how to prepare for the worst and respond when the worst occurred. Lisbon rebuilt.

Almost four centuries later, we have a better understanding of quakes, floods, fires, and famines. So we prepare. But we are still surprised. That was the case with the 2004 South Asian tsunami, hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2008 Chinese earthquake, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2011 Japanese tsunami, superstorm Sandy in 2012, and dozens of lesser disasters every year.

Disasters still test our faith. A practical demonstration of faith, however, is evident the day after disaster strikes: We rebuild.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at

People power was on display against Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2012. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP/File)

Sochi Olympics: What true heroism means

By Editor / 02.06.14

Everybody loves heroes. The public bestows laurel wreaths and pays attention when they endorse soft drinks. Sculptors idealize them; poets lionize them. And it doesn’t stop there. For most of history, dragon slayers and Gordian knot cutters have been elevated to king and emperor, whether suitable or not.

Like most societies, the Greeks loved their heroes. Their literature is jammed with tales of Olympian gods and goddesses. They pledged political allegiance to Perseus and Alexander. But rule by hero has its limits. Heroes are easy to elevate but hard to institutionalize. When the strongest or cleverest hero is gone – or worse, when the hero proves despotic or incompetent – what then?

The Greek solution was democracy. If the people rule, there will always be continuity. But from the earliest experiments in democracy to today’s, a fundamental problem has been evident. A hero learns at the feet of mentors, muses, and sages. What about everyone else? If government is on the shoulders of everyone, everyone needs to be smart, strong, and valorous. The Greeks called that paideia, the careful building of character through education of body, mind, and spirit.

Most societies accept the need for mental education, for literacy, numeracy, logic, and problem-solving. The global tech economy requires that. The ancient Greeks strongly supported that, too. But they were just as keen on physical education. The earliest Greek city-states convened athletic contests. The Olympic Games were one of many competitions always under way.

Pinnacle contests like the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the World Cup showcase the world’s best athletes. But democracies require more than just admiration of the physically gifted, the mentally acute, or the spiritually reverent. As Pericles noted in his famed Funeral Oration, a democracy needs citizens with qualities that make them adaptable to the “most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace.”

The 2014 Olympic Winter Games take place in a nation led by a man whose personal style tends toward the heroic (just check out Vladimir Putin’s man-of-action photo archive) and authoritarian. (See this excellent Monitor cover story for background and context.) For Russia or any country to become a true democracy – and for the United States and any democracy to remain democratic – the many need not only to be trusted to govern but must be prepared to do so. Attention to education of body, mind, and spirit isn’t just an ancient ideal. It is essential to democracy. 

The spirit of the Olympics is not just individual glory; it should be a universal embrace of humanity’s betterment.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at

President Obama entered the stadium before speaking at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa last month. (Pete Souza/The White House)

The presidency: A job shapes a jobholder

By Editor / 01.26.14

Eight years is a long time to be the “first citizen” of a supercomplex, supercontentious superpower.  Eight years inevitably brings both anni horribiles and mirabiles. There are inaugural balls, glittering state dinners, white-gloved ovations. As time passes, policies are botched, scandals stir, and the political chessboard becomes more difficult.

An American president is not a superhero but is expected to act like one. Criticism? Nothing is over the line – comedy, parody, insult, threat. This was true of George W. Bush and William J. Clinton and is also true of Barack H. Obama. Thomas Jefferson was only the third president but his trenchant observation still holds: “No man will ever carry out of that office the reputation which carried him into it.”

You can see that in Mr. Obama. His 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” was introspective and candid, the personal journey of a young man whose way in life was still an open book. He was about to put his foot in political waters, but the future was uncertain. He could have washed out, landed a teaching job, gone into business. Almost 20 years later, he is in the sixth year of the presidency. Like those Shepard Fairey “Hope” posters, his “hope and change” campaign and early presidency have faded with time. Successors are already jockeying for position. A year from now, presidential hopefuls will be eyeing the Iowa caucuses.

None of which means Obama is a lame duck. As Linda Feldmann shows in a Monitor cover story, this president, like others before him, wields the enormous power of the executive branch and can use proven, if controversial, tools to push policies that he can’t get through a gridlocked Congress.

Doing so, however, comes at a cost. This is a president who campaigned on the need for change, who was deeply skeptical of the national security state, who vowed to close the Guantánamo detention center, and who criticized his predecessor for circumventing Congress. He has changed his mind on all those issues. He is on a track that will at least match George W. Bush’s use of executive action. 

But then, the presidency isn’t a job that can be made into what the jobholder wants it to be. Maneuvering room is limited. Domestic and international conditions can’t be ignored. The job shapes the jobholder.

Perhaps that is why statesmen like Lucius Cincinnatus of ancient Rome and George Washington of early America are revered. To join a cause or fight a fight and then lay down your authority gracefully seems profoundly democratic. At one time or another, most presidents have undoubtedly thought “I don’t need this.” But there are few circumstances that allow a responsible person to leave the party early. Keeping calm and carrying on is at least as noble and twice as hard.

Whether you favor the current president or not, his has been a unique journey across color lines and time zones, a search for identity and a remarkable road to the White House. A Shepard Fairey tale would have ended there, amid cheers and declarations of hope. The continuing story, however, involves tactics and maneuvers and compromise, the down-and-dirty and pragmatic necessity of politics, the job of the presidency more than the ideal of it. That is a change that the young Barack Obama almost certainly never dreamed about. 

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at

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