Replacing despair with hope in rural America

Christa Case Bryant’s cover story on Estonia’s efforts to foil Russian hackers is a study on alertness. And I introduce the authors of “Tightrope.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff/File
A rusting truck sits in a garage located on the main road in Okeene, Oklahoma.

As regular readers will know, I occasionally use this space to acquaint you with thinkers and readers who embody the Monitor spirit. So this week brought a dilemma: Discuss Christa Case Bryant’s wonderful cover story or share my conversation with two of the most remarkable journalists of our lifetimes?

In the end, I’ll let you enjoy Christa’s cover story about Estonia’s efforts to foil Russian interference on your own. At its heart, it’s about how true alertness is not in alarm or disquiet, but rather is the natural outgrowth of communal purpose. And Estonia shows us how powerful that can be.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, for their parts, have shown the world how powerful journalism can be. The married couple won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the 1989 democracy protests in China, then Mr. Kristof won another for his coverage of the Darfur genocide in Sudan. But what matters far more is the good their journalism has done. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa affectionately called Mr. Kristof an “honorary African” for his role in alleviating suffering on the continent.

Last month, I interviewed them about their new book, “Tightrope.” That same desire to help and heal pours from its pages. They profile the rural Oregon town where Mr. Kristof grew up and examine with heartbreaking intimacy why so many of his childhood friends have turned to drugs and crime, falling into poverty and dying early. It is a compassionate look at the rural anger and despair that has provided essential fuel for the rise of President Donald Trump.

Yet the book isn’t about politics. It is about hope – the deep yearning for it in places like Yamhill, Oregon, and how the country might rekindle it. And here’s the couple’s conclusion: By making our own government an enemy during the past 50 years, Americans have handcuffed one of the most effective ways to spread opportunity – and the hope that comes with it – to those who feel it is lost.

To some readers, “Tightrope” might seem like a hymn to big government. But I don’t think it is. It says we are spending too much money on the back end (prisons and health care) because we don’t spend enough money on the front end (education and child development).

More than that, it probes what government actually is. In one poignant passage, it speaks of how Canadian authorities rushed in to help those hurt by General Motors plant closures while American authorities did little. What sense of community and caring does that convey? The proof is in the outcomes, where America lags most other developed nations on a host of social indexes. 

Allowing millions of fellow Americans to fall into poverty and despair is not inevitable, Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn argue, it is a choice. Whether in America or Estonia, a broad and deep sense of community can do the seemingly impossible.

You can listen to the audio interview with Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn online here.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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