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At around noon today, a nationwide manhunt ended. Steve Stephens was accused of murdering an elderly man and posting the video to Facebook. He was cornered by police in Erie, Pa., Tuesday and committed suicide. Even before police found Mr. Stephens, we in the newsroom were struggling with the significance of the event. Has murder become entertainment in a society coarsened by social media? What should Facebook do to stop such posts in the future?
But there was an overlooked question, too. Is this really a problem of technology or of social media? Technology and social media simply amplify us, our best – and our worst. Yes, technology can be made a better tool. But perhaps the best way to improve social media is to improve ourselves.
Should public money go to religious schools? Thirty-eight states say no. But the Supreme Court is hearing a case tomorrow that could change all that and reshape school voucher programs nationwide. At issue: America's bedrock views of religion and education.
Dig beneath the rubber playground at issue in the latest case before the US Supreme Court and you’ll find potentially momentous implications for the nationwide debate over school voucher programs – and public funding of private religious schools. In 2012, a religious preschool in Columbia, Mo., was denied a state grant to resurface its playground. Missouri, like 37 other states, has an amendment in its Constitution prohibiting direct government aid to religious schools. But a court ruling in favor of the preschool could invalidate those amendments – allow the rolling out of vouchers nationwide. And that could be pivotal for American churches in terms of both their enrollment and their income. In Milwaukee, home to the country’s first school choice program, which includes vouchers, Catholic churches now get more revenue from vouchers than any other source, according to research by Daniel Hungerman, an economist at the University of Notre Dame. “When you think about school choice, and when you think about American religion, in the coming decades the future of those two things may be very much intertwined,” he says.
Dig beneath the rubber playground surface at issue in the latest landmark case before the United States Supreme Court and you’ll find a tricky question – a conundrum born out of the gray area between the Constitution’s two key religious protection provisions.
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find potentially momentous implications for the nationwide debate over school choice voucher programs.
The case to be argued before the high court on Wednesday – now with a full complement of nine justices after Justice Neil Gorsuch took his seat at the bench this week – dates back to 2012, when the Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., applied for a state grant to fund the resurfacing of its preschool’s playground with recycled tire rubber. While the state ranked the church’s application fifth out of the 44 it received, it denied the application, citing a provision in the Missouri constitution – known colloquially as a Blaine amendment – that prohibits money from the state treasury from going “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”
Trinity Lutheran challenged the decision in federal court, saying it violated both the free exercise and equal protection provisions of the First Amendment, but both the district court and the 8th Circuit court of Appeals ruled for Missouri. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case 15 months ago, and the unusually long wait before arguments (the longest such delay in 2015 was 12 months) is one sign of how contentious the case could be, with the justices possibly delaying until a ninth justice took office to avoid a 4-to-4 tie. (Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens announced a change in the state policy last week, saying religious organizations are now eligible for those grants, but the case itself is still scheduled to proceed.)
The Trinity case could just be the beginning of “a pivotal period” for the school voucher movement in America, says Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas.
“It’s either going to reach escape velocity and just become a much more prominent part of our education system,” he says, “or it’s going to be heavily constrained in this moment.”
The core question is complex, asking at what point separating church and state becomes so involved that it harms churches. But what does it have to do with vouchers programs?
The answer lies in the Blaine amendments. Modeled on – and named after – a failed amendment to the federal constitution proposed by 19th-century Republican Congressman James Blaine, they are provisions in state constitutions that prohibit direct government aid to parochial schools (provisions that historians believe were motivated by a fear of Catholic teachings infiltrating schools).
Missouri is one of 38 states with such an amendment, and since about two-thirds of schools participating in voucher programs across the country are religious – according to research from Professor Wolf – Blaine amendments have for decades been an obstacle to implementing voucher programs around the country.
If the Supreme Court were to issue a decision supporting Missouri’s Blaine amendment, it “would restrict” the options parents have to enroll their children in private schools, strengthening prohibitions against funding for religious schools, says Wolf, who supports school choice.
On the flip side, if the court rules broadly the other way then it could invalidate Blaine amendments nationwide, and voucher programs could grow exponentially.
“To rule against the Blaine Amendments would open the door to subsidizing religious schools with public dollars,” wrote Diane Ravitch, a public schools advocate and former assistant Education secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration, in The Washington Post.
As with many Supreme Court cases however, broad decisions are the least likely kinds of decisions.
Firstly, the justices may choose to re-tread safer ground already covered by the court. In 1947’s Everson v. Board of Education, the high court ruled that it would not be unconstitutional for a state to provide to parochial schools services like busing and emergency services protection that are “indisputably marked off from the religious function” of the school. The justices could decide that Missouri’s recycled tire program falls into the category of bus and fire services, which wouldn’t touch the federal constitutionality of school voucher programs writ large.
The court may also have a better case waiting in the wings.
The justices have agreed to hear arguments in a case out of Colorado, where the state supreme court struck down a school voucher program there because it would violate the state's Blaine amendment. Lower courts around the country have offered starkly different interpretations of various Blaine amendments – supreme courts in Wisconsin and Arizona ruled the opposite way from Colorado, for example – which is a classic precursor to Supreme Court intervention.
“If the church wins in Trinity Lutheran, Douglas County [the Colorado case] will probably be vacated and remanded to the Supreme Court of Colorado,” writes Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, in an email to the Monitor.
“Whatever that court decides would tee up the schools issue for the Supreme Court,” he adds. “A win on the merits for Douglas County would probably make [Blaine amendments] mostly irrelevant.”
Either way, the Supreme Court is likely to make a big decision on voucher programs soon, and that decision could also be pivotal for American churches generally.
In Milwaukee, home to the country’s first ever school choice program (created in 1990), Catholic churches now get more revenue from vouchers than any other source, according to research from Daniel Hungerman, an associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
“The legal landscape [around school choice] going forward is going to matter a lot for the bottom line of churches,” he says. “When you think about school choice, and when you think about American religion, in the coming decades the future of those two things may be very much intertwined.”
Donald Trump's presidency has been a disaster. This, of course, is about all you hear from many sources. But one important group disagrees: His supporters. They don't see a floundering president, they see one finding his footing – and deserving a little time.
President Trump values results above all, GOP strategists say. And so do many of his supporters – who are giving him time to achieve them. Polls show most Trump voters are sticking with him so far, despite some early failures: The travel ban is stuck in court and Obamacare remains unrepealed. They're also not worried by Trump's shift on a range of issues, from intervening in Syria to supporting a NATO he once called obsolete. Those policy reversals come as a more moderate, pragmatic approach is ascendant at the White House – at least in some areas. In a new Pew Research survey, 92 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say Trump has done as well or better than they expected. Only seven percent say he’s done worse. For Trump’s supporters, recent drama at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue matters less than whether Trump can fulfill his most important promises: to make their lives better and give Americans a better sense of security. “The daily up and down won’t matter as much as, does the economy continue to improve, do they actually come up with some solutions on health care, are they able to resolve Syria and North Korea,” says Thomas Schwartz, a political historian at Vanderbilt University. “Those things will be much more important by the time you get to the midterms and the 2020 election.”
President Trump’s rocky first months in office haven’t much bothered his voters. At least, not yet.
Yes, there have been lots of stories from the Rust Belt about stirrings of discontent among the Trump faithful. But those are mostly anecdotal and so far data – meaning polls – don’t back that thesis up.
For instance, in a big new Pew Research survey fully 92 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say Mr. Trump has done as well or better than they expected. Only 7 percent say he’s done worse.
What this means is that Trump’s base remains intact. In turn, his ability to lead and pressure the GOP-controlled Congress probably does too. After all, Congress as a whole is less popular than he is. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s job approval rating, in that same Pew poll, is an abysmal 29 percent. That low number could damage Representative Ryan’s ability to drive any upcoming tax reform effort.
But Republicans haven’t yet become a populist-tinged Party of Trump. Chaos matters. The administration’s flopped travel ban is still stuck in the courts. Obamacare remains, stubbornly, unrepealed. Tax reform is receding into the distance. Trump’s GOP backing might dwindle as well.
“His support even among Republicans is a mile wide but an inch deep,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
Of course, many Democrats can’t believe that Trump’s standing in the GOP remains as solid as it is. To them, his administration has been a rolling disaster, a circus of misstatements and poorly planned initiatives.
You can see this in Gallup’s rolling daily average of Trump’s general job approval rating. For the week of April 10 to 16, only 10 percent of Democrats gave a thumbs-up to Trump’s performance as president. That’s a historically low figure, even by today’s partisan standards. And it was an improvement from the previous week, when the comparable figure was only 6 percent.
In contrast, Trump’s job approval among Republicans for the week of April 10 to 16 was 87 percent. That’s comparable to the support past presidents had from their own party at a similar point in their administrations.
"He's trying his best," says Loletta Evans, who's been a waitress for 34 years at Morrison's Drive In in Logan, West Virginia. "They are fighting him tooth and toenail, but he is trying. Of course, I do pray for him every night ... I would like to see him do good and I think his heart is in the right place."
Ms. Evans, a septuagenarian who has lived in Logan all her life, says that in her view, Congress and the Senate need to stop fighting the president's initiatives. "If they want to turn this country around, they're going to have to get together."
Trump’s overall job approval ratings are quite low, especially for a chief executive who’s been in office only a few months. But as the above split shows, that’s not due to widespread opposition. It’s due to intense disapproval from the other party (and, to a lesser extent, independents).
Those ratings are higher than Paul Ryan’s, however. If the struggle to be titular head of the Republican Party were a battle of numbers – and to some extent it is – than the president would beat the speaker. Ryan’s positive job approval is 29 percent, versus almost twice as many, 54 percent, who disapprove of the job he’s doing.
To some extent that rating may come with the position. Congress as an institution isn’t popular, and the House Speaker is the personification of Congress. But it is also something of a referendum on Ryan. His predecessor John Boehner had better numbers at a similar point in his own speakership. So did Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Even Newt Gingrich, the Republican firebrand House leader, had somewhat better poll ratings in 1995, according to Pew.
Ryan may just be suffering an image letdown. For years he’s positioned himself as a legislative whiz-kid who could pass big, meaty bills if given unified control of Washington. In his first chance, with the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act, he failed badly. That’s inevitably going to damage his ability to frame any upcoming tax reform debate, vis-a-vis the White House.
“The Obamacare debacle made him look feckless, at best,” says Dr. Engel at SMU.
For his part, Trump may have run as an outsider, a populist beholden to no one in the establishment wing of the GOP. But rank-and-file Republicans are now the bedrock of his political support. That includes the prototypical Trump voter – a white male without a college degree – as well as other demographic categories of party members.
So if Trump’s standing in the Republican Party slumps even a modest amount, the result on his overall numbers could be dramatic. And there are some warning signs. The just-released Pew poll shows somewhat bipartisan concern about Trump’s decisionmaking process, for example. About 30 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents judged it “too impulsive.”
And continued problems with his agenda could well cost Trump some GOP erosion in the months ahead.
The president’s problems with Congress are only going to continue, judges Engel. Trump has just passed through the easiest portion of his administration – the first part of his first term – and has missed picking even the low-hanging fruit, in this view. The travel ban was badly mishandled, the Obamacare non-repeal even more so. As a candidate who ran partly on a promise to be a great dealmaker, Trump has proved remarkably unable to strike any agreements at all, even with different factions in his own party.
“I’d put the vast majority of blame on Trump himself,” says Engel.
That said, there are some signs Trump is learning in office, Engel adds. That’s a valuable trait for a chief executive. His foreign policy seems increasingly mainstream GOP, despite his campaign promises to get NATO allies to pay up and to confront China on trade.
Will that make GOP voters happy – or do they really expect an “America First,” inward turn? The answer to that question could help determine Trump’s popularity, and by extension his ability to maneuver in Washington, over the rest of his first year in office.
Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report from West Virginia.
Are young Americans yearning for a return of traditional gender roles, with women staying at home? That's what one recent study appeared to suggest. But diving deeper, we found that the research shows an unsettled society is perhaps just seeking a little more mother love.
For many Americans, the election loss of Hillary Clinton was a pretty clear sign that feminist views aren't on an unstoppable upward trend. But here's a different layer of the story: Polls find that even the young have been trending traditional when it comes to gender roles. As of 2014 fully 58 percent of high school seniors favored a family in which the father worked and the mother stayed home.
What’s happening isn’t all about turning back the clock. Yes, it partly reflects the staying power of traditional views. But the shift may be more about the ideal of any parent – mother or father – being at home to help kids through increasingly busy and structured days. For instance, the same surveys find a strengthening view that women should have equal opportunities in the workplace to men.
Some researchers say the surveys may reveal a deeper need – for America's workplaces to adapt. Sociologist Dan Carlson says: “Our current lack of supportive institutions and policies to help families integrate work and family life has begun to take its toll.”
Brianna Hoffman had a lot going on growing up. She was a three-sport athlete, played multiple instruments in the school band, and pulled late nights and constant rehearsals working stage crew for her high school’s theater productions in Hampstead, N.H. She couldn’t have done it all, she says, without her mom, who was mostly stay-at-home while her father worked in sales at a small power equipment company.
“It was better to have one parent [at home],” she says. “My mom was always there, she could help me with my homework and drive me to stuff. I wouldn’t have been able to have all of those experiences if she wasn’t there to … I don’t want to say be my taxi, but we’ve always joked about that a little bit.”
Ms. Hoffman, now a senior at Syracuse University in New York, thinks her family’s arrangement, with one parent working and one wrangling childcare and household duties, is ideal. “I don’t think it matters which parent stays home, but it was better to have someone there,” she says. And her views on the matter are increasingly common among people her age.
In fact, among young adults, support for this type of traditional family structure has been on the rise for the past 20 years, while a preference for two working parents is falling out of favor, according to a batch of reports released in March by the Council on Contemporary Families.
In one survey, which has tracked the attitudes of a cross section of the country’s high school seniors for the past four decades, only 42 percent of respondents in 1994 thought a family in which the father worked and the mother stayed at home was the “best” possible arrangement. By 2014, that was the majority view, with 58 percent support.
What’s happening isn’t all about turning back the clock on gender roles in US society. Part of it, yes, reflects the staying power of "the status quo" for men and women, especially among the religious. But the shift may be more about the ideal of a parent – mother or father – being at home: At the same time that young Americans’ views on what the family dynamic should be are skewing more traditional, there is a strengthening penchant for women to have equal opportunities in the workplace.
Still, the trend line on parental roles, which holds true for female and (more so) for male respondents, has confounded researchers, and anyone who would expect social views to get uniformly more progressive among younger generations.
“Kids today answer these questions the same way my cohort did during the Reagan administration,” says David Cotter, a sociologist who co-wrote the new analysis of high school seniors' attitudes in the Monitoring the Future survey, which has been conducted since 1975. “I don’t think I would have guessed that. I’d guess that it would become more egalitarian over time.”
Experts have come up with a few possible reasons for the disconnect: The US population has an increasing share of Latinos, who have more traditional views on gender and family, for example. But more prominent are theories that have to do with family stability and the failure of the US workplace to adapt to the needs of families with two working parents.
Out of sheer economic necessity, those are now more the rule than the exception: Both parents work in 66 percent of married couples with children, but have higher expenses (like health care and child care), than single-income families did a few decades ago. At the same time, the share of women as the sole or primary breadwinner is increasing, but that trend is present primarily among lower-income households, so it’s not exactly a sign of have-it-all moms on the rise.
Even families with more financial stability, the experts argue, are overextended. “Some youths who saw their parents experiencing disagreements and stresses as they tried to integrate work and family without supportive policies may have concluded that a male-breadwinner arrangement would have made family life easier,” writes sociologist Dan Carlson in response to the new research.
Hoffman, the college student, agrees. “I have friends my age with two parents working, and it doesn’t seem like they are nearly as close with their parents,” she says. “It’s not dinner with your parents; it’s sitting with a microwave dinner, watching TV.”
“In the 1950s, one two-parent family was expected to give about 40 hours a week to the labor market,” says Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She says that essentially doubled as women entered the workforce en masse in the 1980s, and in the 2000s the time commitment of work may seem greater still.
“No really successful worker is assumed to have responsibilities to anyone but himself,” she says. “If you feel the negative consequences of parents not being able to juggle everything, there’s a way in which you might think, this doesn’t work, let’s go back to the good old days.”
That may be counterintuitive, observers note: For one, health-care, college, and other costs are showing no signs of returning to 1950s levels. And two-income households are better able to weather times of financial stress, such as a job loss or health crisis.
Also, young people on the whole have more progressive views on gender roles than their parents or even their elder Millennial peers; many in Professor Risman’s research reject the construct of gender altogether.
Carlson adds that there’s evidence that a more equal division of household and child-care duties between couples makes everyone happier. But that research finding doesn’t necessarily make it easy to implement load-sharing in practice.
“Our current lack of supportive institutions and policies to help families integrate work and family life has begun to take its toll,” he writes. “If something is not done soon to structurally support the egalitarian arrangements that research now shows to be best for most relationships, people may no longer want them to begin with.”
In fact, the recent poll findings may have drawn attention in part because they come on the heels of a rocky period in the march toward gender equality. Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominee of a major political party, lost the presidential election, and the new administration aims to roll back some current policies that promote abortion rights and workplace protections for women. Russia decriminalized domestic violence in February. Proud public declarations of sexist attitudes seem rampant: In March, for example a Polish lawmaker argued that women should make less money than men on the basis that they are “weaker, smaller, and less intelligent.”
There are hints of this more pernicious brand of sexism in the polling data, too: A small but growing number of high school seniors are more likely to agree that the “husband should make all the important decisions in the family ” than they were 20 years ago, suggesting “a significant minority of youths have reverted to an endorsement of male supremacy,” according to researchers.
“Young women used to believe, I’m equal, [feminism] was my mother and grandmother’s issue, I’m beyond that,” says Risman. “That has been shattered like broken glass. You can’t possibly believe right now that your rights are safe as a woman.”
But young adults’ attitudes toward gender aren’t entirely sliding back to the 1950s. Even as the preference for more traditional family roles is increasing, so is support for women to have equal footing in the workplace. Professor Cotter, of Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., analyzed responses of high school seniors along with Joanna Pepin at the University of Maryland. The two researchers found increased agreement, over time, with the idea that women and men should have equal opportunities in the workplace.
Notably, they also found agreement that working mothers can have just as strong a bond with their children as stay-at-home moms.
Risman has uncovered this contradiction in her own field research interviewing young adults in the Chicago area for the forthcoming book, “Where Will the Millennials Take us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure.” Even young people with the most traditional views on gender, typically from religious families, supported equality in the public sphere, or the workplace, even as at home “there were strong, distinct roles for men and women.”
The global story about refugees at the moment, we all know, is about disruption and backlash. But not everywhere. In Ethiopia, taking in refugees from a former enemy represents an opportunity to change how the world sees Ethiopia.
Ethiopia might be the last place you’d expect an Eritrean to feel welcome: after a 30-year civil war for Eritrean independence that killed tens of thousands, not to mention a still-smoldering border dispute, politicians might typically promise to put up walls – not to open doors. But Ethiopia has welcomed 165,000 people fleeing the authoritarian government to its north, which is one of the world’s most repressive regimes. But more than generosity motivates Ethiopia: Its welcoming policy could help counter international criticism of its sharp crackdowns on domestic protests, and there's international aid to be found in welcoming asylum-seekers, since European countries are eager to short-circuit more arrivals to their shores. The more open door can contribute to strong regional relationships over time, says Jennifer Riggan, a professor at Arcadia University. As she sums it up, “Ethiopia's response is to manage the gate, and figure out how it can benefit from these inevitable flows of people.”
When Yordanos and her two young children slipped safely across the Mereb riverbed between Eritrea and Ethiopia late one recent night, they thought the worst of their journey into exile was over. The smuggler had done his job, and they were safely over the border.
Then they heard the hyenas.
Yordanos and her children began to yell for help, their panicked calls fading into the solid darkness. Suddenly, she saw a group of Ethiopian soldiers coming towards them. The men comforted the young families, and then escorted them to the nearby town of Badme. “They were like brothers to us,” says Yordanos, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of reprisals from the Eritrean government against her relatives at home.
In some regards, Ethiopia – and in particular this sliver of Ethiopia’s arid north – is the last place you might expect an Eritrean refugee like Yordanos to receive a warm welcome. In 1998, after all, an Eritrean invasion of this sleepy border town touched off a two-year war between the two countries that cost tens of thousands of lives and more than $4.5 billion, along with destroying most of the then-flourishing network of trade between the two countries. And before that conflict, Eritreans fought a 30-year civil war for independence from Ethiopia, which ended only in 1991.
Even today, the ashes of those conflicts still smolder. The internationally-brokered peace settlement ending the 1998-2000 war decreed that Ethiopia should give the town of Badme back to Eritrea, which claims it as historical land. But Ethiopia never did, and border clashes between the two countries’ militaries continue into the present. [Editor's note: This story has been edited to specify the area granted to Eritrea by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission in 2002.]
Still, Yordanos’ story is not uncommon. Fleeing enforced, indefinite military service, illegal imprisonment, and torture, about 165,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers currently live in Ethiopia, according to the United Nations. Upon arrival and registration, they are automatically granted refugee status, and the country continues to welcome more. In February of this year alone, 3,367 new Eritrean refugees arrived in the country, according to Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA).
“We differentiate between the government and its people,” says Estifanos Gebremedhin, the head of the legal and protection department at ARRA. “We are the same people, we share the same blood, even the same grandfathers.”
The reasons for that openness, indeed, owe much to shared history. As in many parts of Africa, colonialism sliced much of this region apart in illogical ways (though Ethiopia itself was never colonized), sowing political conflicts between members of the same community that have persisted to the present day. For much of the roughly 600-mile Ethiopian-Eritrean border, people on both sides share the same language – Tigrinya – as well as Orthodox religion and cultural traditions.
“It’s only the Eritrean government creating problems, not the people,” says Benyamin, a resident of Axum, a town in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, who didn’t give his last name. “I haven’t got relatives in Eritrea but many people here do. Some from the refugee camps go to the university here.”
But there may also be more strategic reasons for Ethiopia’s open-door policy, experts say.
“Ethiopia strongly believes that generous hosting of refugees will be good for regional relationships down the road,” says Jennifer Riggan, an associate professor of international studies at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, who studies Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia.
There’s also an increasing amount of money in hosting refugees, some highlight, as the international community tries to block secondary migration to Europe. One recent example was the joint initiative announced by Britain, the European Union, and the World Bank to fund the building of two industrial parks in Ethiopia to generate about 100,000 jobs, at a cost of $500 million, with Ethiopia required to grant employment rights to 30,000 refugees as part of the deal.
It might also be a way of countering international controversy about the Oromo protests and shoring up Ethiopia’s standing in the world, according to Milena Belloni, a researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, who is currently writing a book about Eritrean refugees. The protests, which roiled the country's largest region throughout 2016, have prompted a government crackdown that left hundreds of Ethiopians dead and sharply curtailed basic freedoms, according to human rights groups.
Either way, Ethiopia’s approach is in marked contrast to the strategies of reducing migrant flows that are being adopted in much of the West, Dr. Riggan says.
“Ethiopia's response is to manage the gate, and figure out how it can benefit from these inevitable flows of people,” she notes. “I definitely think Ethiopia's approach is the wiser and more realistic one.”
After Yordanos, her children, and another mother and her two children who crossed with them were collected by the soldiers near Badme, they were taken into town and left at a so-called “entry point,” a cluster of disheveled government buildings. From there, refugees join the bureaucratic and logistic conveyor belt that assigns them asylum status and moves them to one of four refugee camps in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
There, relationships between refugees and locals do sometimes grow strained, particularly as both groups compete for scarce shared resources like firewood and cattle pastures. And many Eritrean refugees regard Ethiopia as only a stopover point on their journey to the West. In 2013, there was unrest in all four camps, with riots in two camps, Adi Harush and Mai Aini, when refugees demanded more opportunities for international resettlement and protested authorities' alleged corruption.
“People recognize the shared culture and ethnic background, and that helps for many things, but there’s still distrust because of the 30-year-war [for independence], and mostly due to 1998-2000 border conflict and related mass displacement,” says Dr. Belloni. “There’s a double narrative.”
In addition to the camps, meanwhile, thousands more Eritreans live in Ethiopia outside the asylum system, both legally and illegally. About 650 miles south of the border, in the capital Addis Ababa, whole neighborhoods function as Eritrean enclaves, where the distinctive, guttural sounds of Tigrinya pour out of cafes with Italian-sounding names like Lattria Piccolo, a nod to Eritrea’s history as an Italian colony.
But even here, homesickness sometimes creeps in.
“Life is difficult here, it’s expensive, and people’s behavior changes here,” says Yonathon, an Eritrean former journalist living in the Mebrat Hail suburb of Addis Ababa, an Eritrean area. “You can’t replicate home.”
When we wanted to tell a can-do story about addressing climate change, we went to the pipsqueak Danish island of Samsø. They're energy independent now and hailed as an environmental leader. Just don't tell them that. They didn't care about climate change, really. They cared about making their community better.
At the outset of an interview with a Dutch journalist, Søren Hermansen apologizes for being tired. He’s just returned to Denmark from a 21-day trip to Australia, where he gave 15 lectures and attended numerous other events. The reporter asks Mr. Hermansen how the Australians discovered him, a community leader on a Danish island half the size of Martha’s Vineyard that’s home to just 3,750 people and a few shaggy sheep. “I’m famous,” says Hermansen, adding that he isn’t boasting, it’s just a statement of fact.
Hermansen and his tiny island of Samsø have become recognized around the world for attaining energy independence. The island met this goal 10 years ago using a mix of wind, solar, and biomass, and now it’s working toward one of the utopian goals of environmentalists everywhere – eliminating all fossil fuels, by 2030.
The story of how a relatively poor island where many of the locals considered environmentalism a bourgeois pastime became one of the planet’s purest examples of sustainability has captivated people from Sydney to Seattle who hope that their communities might follow a similar path. Today the Samsø Energy Academy, created to coordinate and promote the island’s energy work, receives more annual visitors than there are inhabitants on the island.
Hermansen, an unassuming man with a sturdy build and a ready grin, was listed as one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Environment” in 2008 alongside then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has also won some of the environmental community’s most prestigious honors, including the Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development. Twenty years into the island’s energy revolution, Hermansen has gone from an anonymous vegetable farmer to a celebrity at international environmental events – the George Clooney of green kilowatts.
“Samsø has turned into this little fairy tale about energy,” says Hermansen, sitting in the academy building, which is itself a testament to sustainability, built from recyclable materials and outfitted with rainwater toilets. “We became the living proof of practical policy at work.”
What’s surprising is that Samsø residents have achieved all this fame without inventing anything new. They haven’t come up with some breakthrough idea. They haven’t conquered cold fusion or discovered a new form of energy. Instead, they’ve simply used existing green technologies and shown what a community can do when it rallies around a practical goal.
Perhaps more important, they have proved that renewable energy can be harnessed in an economical way. Indeed, many of the farmers on the island are now making good money from selling electric power generated by collectively owned windmills and wind turbines. For them, whirring blades and solar panels have become a bank vault.
“I would say [energy independence] can be done everywhere, but if it was easy to make this process [work], it would have already been done,” says Michael Kristensen, energy adviser and project manager at the Samsø Energy Academy.
Before talking specifically about Samsø, it’s important to dispel a few myths about Denmark. Most outsiders view the Scandinavian nation as a paragon of progressivism.
It is, after all, a place where bicycles outnumber cars in the capital city of Copenhagen, more than 40 percent of electricity comes from wind, and by 2022 the nation plans to recycle 50 percent of all household waste. This is to say nothing of the country’s liberal social policies, such as giving new parents a total of 52 weeks of combined maternity and paternity leave.
Yet, for all its greenness, Denmark is not an ecological Eden. It has just 0.08 percent of the world’s population but produces 0.12 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. It has the world’s fourth-largest per capita ecological footprint, which means Danes require an area of land 2-1/2 times the size of their country to have enough natural resources – such as cropland, forests, fish stocks – to sustain their population.
“Denmark is not an environmental Utopia. We’re still sinners in terms of emitting greenhouse gases and in terms of our ecological footprint,” says Lars Kjerulf Petersen, who studies society and the environment at Denmark’s Aarhus University. Still, he adds, “We are aware of the problems, so we are doing something.”
Historically, Denmark’s energy policies paralleled those of other industrialized nations, until the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Back then more than 90 percent of Denmark’s energy came from petroleum, almost all of it imported. At the Copenhagen headquarters of Rambøll, a Danish international sustainability consulting firm, Søren Hansen shows a black-and-white photo of Denmark’s capital city choked with cars. Imagine James Dean’s Los Angeles with centuries-old buildings instead of a Hollywood sign.
“We come from a background where we were exactly like the US,” says Mr. Hansen, a project director at Rambøll. “All Copenhagen, all Denmark, was planned for cars and run on fossil fuel. We were absolutely certain before 1972 that the energy supply was infinite.”
But the Arab oil embargo and the energy crisis in the 1970s shifted perceptions. Lines formed at gas stations. The government imposed strict regulations on energy use, such as not allowing cars on the road on Sundays and forcing people to turn off lights in buildings.
“It takes 10 years to build up an economy, but it takes one month to ruin it completely,” says Hansen. “The whole community of Denmark had a wake-up call.”
Fortuitously, Denmark discovered its own petroleum resources in the North Sea, which alleviated some pressure. But it also took additional steps to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. It rigorously began developing wind power and other renewables.
On the eve of the energy crisis, Samsø was no different than the rest of Denmark. What ultimately pulled residents on the island toward green power wasn’t the promise of renewable energy as much as the fear of something else – a nuclear power plant.
Denmark was considering building its first nuclear station, and many Samsø residents, including Hermansen – who at the time was growing cucumbers, squash, and the island’s famous potatoes (Samsø Gold) – worried that local communities would lose control over their electrical supply to one centralized utility. So he and about 20 other families invested in a small wind turbine in the early 1980s.
In the years that followed, Hermansen studied environmentalism at college, got involved in organic farming, and often tinkered with his community’s wind turbine.
“I was up there fixing it all the time because it was an old windmill and it broke down,” says Hermansen. “I’m a farmer so I knew how to fix it like any other machine.”
Things might have gone on like this indefinitely had it not been for a 1997 competition sponsored by the Danish government. Following its Kyoto Protocol pledge to reduce greenhouse gases by 21 percent, Denmark launched a competition for one of its communities to become energy independent within 10 years. Samsø won and was charged with implementing a 10-year plan to achieve this milestone. Victory did not come with any special funding and would require the island to apply for government support the same as any other municipality looking to go green.
The plan they decided on relied on building a network of collectively controlled wind turbines both on land and offshore. Locals could buy shares in them and rather than unilaterally placing the turbines in the best spot to catch the wind, they also considered where the turbines would be least jarring aesthetically.
Additionally, residents were encouraged to get rid of oil heaters and replace them with more-efficient heating from district plants. Although the heating plants still emit carbon pollutants, they burn wood chips and straw grown by farmers as opposed to oil imported from Saudi Arabia and other petrostates.
Hermansen was brought on as the first employee to work on the transition and sell the plan to the locals. “It was not because of my technical skills. It was more because I’m a good communicator,” he says. “I’m a little bit noisy in the community.”
If you spend any time with Hermansen, it’s not difficult to understand why he got the job. He has an easygoing mien that makes him feel like a longtime friend at first introduction. Within a few minutes, you’re tempted to hand over the password to your bank account.
When he travels abroad for conferences, he prefers to hang out with his driver – if the organizers provide him with a chauffeur – at his favorite local eatery rather than try something Zagat-rated. Though he works full time at the Energy Academy, he comes to the office dressed like someone proud to have never worn a suit to work. He has tight-cropped hair, wire-rim glasses, and Paul Newman blue eyes.
Hermansen began his sales effort by reaching out to skeptical farmers, relying on his natural instincts as a community organizer. If any of them resisted the plan, he visited them at home. As a former teacher on the island, he sometimes noticed a picture of their children and recognized their son or daughter.
“Then I would call [the kids] and say, ‘Your old stubborn daddy! You need to talk to him because if you do this, if you improve the standard of your house, it will be easier to sell later on at a better price. You’ll inherit more money and your old man will have a better, warmer, higher quality life for the remainder of his life,’ ” says Hermansen. “ ‘What’s in it for me?’ was the driver, not the overall climate change aspect or that this whole island is going to be green and really nice.”
It didn’t hurt that Samsø is a tightknit community. The island has been inhabited since at least the Stone Age, and residents are proud of a tiny canal that the Vikings, who once used Samsø as a meeting place, dug across the narrowest stretch of land more than 1,200 years ago. Families extend back generations, and those who grew up here, like Hermansen, refer to themselves as “born islanders.”
Many of them live in houses with red-tile roofs, farm strawberry and potato fields, and raise pigs and hirsute sheep. Not a single traffic light exists on the island.
While Samsø has seen a modest influx of outsiders seeking a more pastoral life, Hermansen was careful not to let newcomers play too big a role in the island’s green crusade. He wanted to avoid confirming the suspicions of locals, many of whom are independent and conservative, that sustainable energy was the exclusive purview of big-city liberals.
He was aided in his campaign by what at first seemed like a serious misfortune. A local slaughterhouse had just closed down, taking with it about 100 jobs, a massive loss for a small island. Hermansen, however, saw an opportunity.
Rather than selling people on the long-term benefits of sustainability, such as increased property values or part-ownership of a windmill, he pitched the immediate availability of about 30 jobs, which included erecting green infrastructure and digging trenches for district heating pipes.
By 2003, Samsø had built an offshore wind farm that for several months was the world’s largest and produced enough electricity that locals could begin exporting some to the mainland. By 2007, it had met its goal of energy independence.
Since then, a green ethos has permeated almost every aspect of life on the island. Residents have made their homes more energy efficient, installing thermal solar hot water systems and fuel-stingy appliances. The fairways of a local golf course are groomed with an electric lawnmower. Farmers produce organic cheese and butter.
In pursuit of the goal to become free of fossil fuel within 13 years, half of the vehicles owned by the Samsø municipality are electric. The island now has the most electric cars per capita in Denmark.
To a certain extent, the mechanics of how Samsø became energy independent isn’t the most interesting part of this Danish “fairy tale.” It’s an island with strong winds and a small population. Putting up wind turbines made sense, solar was a natural outgrowth, and district heating was far more logical than using individual household oil heaters.
What makes the island a place people travel around the world to study is how Hermansen and his colleagues convinced an independent collection of farmers who didn’t care much – if at all – about climate change to become green evangelists.
During a presentation to a Korean delegation that visited Samsø looking for inspiration, it’s clear from the visitors’ questions that the biggest impediment to sustainability is local residents. For example, one Korean asks if those on Samsø were worried about how wind turbines would look and sound. How were the residents persuaded that the wind blades wouldn’t be an eyesore and that going green was a good idea – was it with economic or environmental arguments? (The short answers: Yes and both.)
Hermansen has found that talking about big issues like global warming does little to motivate people. Even if they accept that climate change is a problem, most don’t think that their individual actions can do much to affect the world’s thermometers. During a recent trip to Australia, Hermansen visited the nation’s coal country, where locals were skeptical that burning a bit of black rock Down Under could affect the climate in Singapore or Saskatchewan.
“If you focus on climate change, then it becomes really abstract,” he says. “I think most people are aware of it and fear climate change as they feared the cold war. We can’t really do anything about it, but we know about it and feel bad.”
Instead, he focuses on how small steps can provide direct benefits to people.
Take Jørgen Tranberg, for instance. Mr. Tranberg, a Samsø farmer, was one of the first investors in the island’s green revolution after it won the competition in 1997. He put up 6 million Danish krone ($870,000) for an early windmill. He says it paid for itself in less than seven years and since then he’s gone on to invest 30 million Danish krone ($4.34 million) in wind turbines throughout Europe.
He believes no one should invest in a windmill unless it is economically beneficial, but sees the larger virtues of renewables. “It’s good for my children and grandchildren,” he says. “They don’t need to ... ask Putin or the Middle East if they can get a cup of oil.”
In many ways, Samsø’s strategy in pushing energy independence reflects the Danish national ethos. Across the country, improving the environment tends to be talked about as a quality of life issue rather than a way to address an existential threat.
When Copenhagen began cleaning up its polluted harbor, Lykke Leonardsen says it started as an environmental necessity but quickly received enthusiastic support from many of the locals who wanted to be able to swim in it again. Now in the summer the shores are packed with swimmers and sunbathers.
“The key thing about Copenhagen is that we are pursuing sustainability not as a goal in itself but in combination with the whole livability issue,” says Mr. Leonardsen, head of resilient and sustainable city solutions for the city of Copenhagen.
“We’re not talking about sacrifices when it comes to sustainability but actually about how we can use the sustainability agenda to create a more attractive, more livable city for the citizens.”
Inevitably, the question that drives interest in a place like Samsø is, Can other communities replicate its success? When Hermansen meets visitors on the island or gives talks around the world, he says he’s often asked if the formula used here will work in a big city.
Of course not, he says. Cities have massive bureaucracies in place to manage complicated systems such as the power grid, waste management, and water. It would be unreasonable to think that officials can easily change and erect a wind turbine on every street corner or use rainwater to flush every toilet.
But even if some of the projects can’t be copied, the processes that lead to a greener lifestyle can.
“You could have a city talk about how can we make rooftop solar on this block and urban gardening on that one,” he says. “This is already happening in many cities.”
If the story of Samsø is a fairy tale like something from the annals of beloved Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, the clearest moral may be that it isn’t about wind turbines or straw-burning heating plants. It’s about the spirit behind them.
Or, as the king of clean kilowatts himself, puts it:
“I don’t wake up every morning and think how do I save a polar bear today, and most people don’t,” says Hermansen. “The drive for me is still to engage the community and keep this community alive, meaning we need kids in the schools, we need active people in the process, keeping the local culture and events going.”
About half of Turk voters indicated in a weekend referendum that they prefer the secular system of government set up by the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
But slightly more than half of the voters want a new accommodation of religion – and that might be welcomed – except for the fact that it will soon concentrate many powers in the hands of one person. Democracy itself, in other words, may be at stake, perhaps leading Turkey toward the Iran model that blends religious and secular authority.
If anything, religious faith calls for humility in ruling over others, not coercion. At the same time, secular rulers must recognize that the moral precepts of governance, such as rights and liberties, have their origins in religion.
As long as Turkish voters are in charge, they can keep searching for the right balance.
For nearly a century, Turkey’s political history has been one of largely secular rule over a mostly Muslim people. Its model of balancing divine faith and earthly governance, however, may soon be sharply reshaped. In an April 16 referendum, Turkish voters narrowly approved a plan to grant semi-authoritarian powers to a presidency now controlled by a man who founded the governing Islamist party.
The vote itself remains contested because of a crackdown on dissent since last July by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Yet the plebiscite’s near-even split did make clear that Turks have now joined the rest of the Muslim world in the struggle to redefine the proper role of religion in the public sphere.
From Tunisia to Indonesia, the rise of radical Islam has forced Muslims to debate the overlap of mosque and state. In Turkey, President Erdogan has promised to “raise pious generations,” a goal he could soon pursue by dictate. The approved changes to the Constitution are expected to keep him in office until 2029 and will give him strong powers over the legislature and judiciary. Yet about half of Turk voters indicated they prefer the secular system set up by the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. His reforms undercut the notion of religion as a source of authority for the state in a diverse society.
At the same time, the Ataturk model also repressed many outward expressions of faith, such as women wearing head coverings. The fact that Turkey may now be swinging the pendulum toward a new accommodation of religion might be welcomed – except for the fact that its democracy will soon concentrate many powers in the hands of one person. Democracy itself, in other words, may be at stake, perhaps leading Turkey toward the Iran model that blends religious and secular authority.
If anything, religious faith calls for humility in ruling over others, not coercion, and a wide respect for the dignity of the individual in choosing faith. At the same time, secular rulers must recognize that that the moral precepts of governance, such as rights and liberties, have their origins in religion.
Turkey could easily be the world’s most important Muslim country. Both its economy and its military are the largest in the Middle East. And it has long served as a bridge between East and West, serving as a member of NATO while regarding itself as the leader of the Muslim world.
It has also struggled over its national identity, not only in matters of faith but in dealing with ethnic minorities and in its leanings toward being European.
A country that straddles the Bosphorus can also learn to straddle the sometimes difficult divide between Islam and modern governance. Ataturk may have gone too far in secular governance, but now Erdogan could also go too far the other way. As long as Turkish voters are in charge and Erdogan does not further erode the democratic process, they can keep searching for the right balance.
Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.
Stranded in at a remote border crossing without any resources, one might instinctively reach out to pray for help. Praying not out of fear, but out of love – out of an understanding that Love is a higher power, and that all are included in Love's care – was an inspiration that provided real help for two travelers whose car broke down in the desert on a 12,500 mile journey to India. Their prayers were answered by passing strangers in a way they had never imagined. God's love provides, everywhere.
A number of years ago a friend and I decided to drive from our homes in South East England to Bombay (now Mumbai), India. Then we would continue by ship to Australia. Preparations took at least a year, but finally we set off in a ten-year-old rear-engined Volkswagen “Beetle.”
For a few weeks all went well until we arrived at a remote border crossing, where neither fuel nor currency exchange was available. An American traveler kindly changed a small amount of English money into the local currency, and with this we continued on our way.
Our progress, however, was slow. We had a problem with our car’s engine cutting out, which we believed was being caused by dust from the desert road being drawn into the rear-engine compartment. We had stopped repeatedly to clean the engine, but at sunset, when the car once again came to a halt after we covered only a few more miles, we decided to camp beside the road for the night. This was long before mobile phones, and we had no means of contacting anyone.
So with an immobilized car, insufficient fuel to reach the next town, and no means of communication, I began praying. Both my friend and I were students of Christian Science, and it felt natural for me to turn to God, whom I understood to be infinite Spirit, and therefore everywhere. God is also Love, and Love’s spiritual children (including you, me, and everyone) cannot be separated from God’s ever-presence. So while it appeared that we were alone in a desert, as I prayed to better understand God as infinite Love I felt confident that help would come, although I did not know how or from where.
Meanwhile we prepared a meal and wrote up our daily journal – and continued praying. I felt complete trust in God, infinite Love, the creator of us all. Divine Love does not allow any harm to come to its creation.
After some time the light of our camp lantern attracted the attention of a passing vehicle, which turned off the road and stopped. Four German students asked to camp nearby. We welcomed these young men, and over a meal we chatted and exchanged travel experiences.
The next morning we explained our situation and then saw that the students’ vehicle was a VW camper van whose engine was similar to that of our car. At their suggestion we swapped and tested engine parts to determine which, if any, of our parts weren’t functioning. During this process, the parts underwent some needed cleaning. When they were put back into place, our car’s engine finally sprang into life.
At that we all cheered, but we still needed fuel. That was no problem. The camper carried extra fuel in cans on its roof, and we bought a canful with the money changed by the Americans at the border. We were able to fill our tank with that canful. Now, with our car back on the road, we moved along, giving thanks to God all the way.
To this day I am in awe at this complete answer to our prayers. The VW camper was the only vehicle that had appeared from any direction over several hours.
Throughout the three-month trip of nearly 12,500 miles, we met with so much friendship and kindness, which reminded me of this statement by the founder of the Monitor: “One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself;’…” (Mary Baker Eddy, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 340).
Even if it seems we’re alone and without help, each of us can turn to God and feel the presence and care of divine Love.
This article was adapted from an article in the April 10, 2017, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.
Below: Revelers take part in a water fight during the Songkran Festival to celebrate the Thai New Year in Bangkok on Friday.
Thank you for taking the time to think more deeply about the day’s news and how perspective matters. Come back tomorrow, we’re working on this question: Are Earth's simplest creatures capable of benevolence?