2018
May
07
Monday

In her 67 years at a New York law firm, Sylvia Bloom was known for taking the subway to work every day until she retired at age 96. What no one – including her family – knew, was that she amassed more than $9 million on her secretary’s salary.

That secret came out recently when her estate made a posthumous $6 million donation to a local charity that offers college scholarships to needy students. Ms. Bloom’s story is wonderful, showing the savvy of an independent, Depression-era woman who copied her bosses’ investments. But it also speaks something very American: Americans across all income levels have long given generously. “This is different from the patterns in any other country,” writes the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Since the Great Recession, however, something has shifted. Middle- and low-income Americans are giving less. Giving continues to go up, thanks to the rich, but there’s a social question here. Smaller-scale donors tend to give closer to home – to projects that might not have a high profile or slick fundraising campaigns. The result of those smaller donations has been good works woven seamlessly into virtually every community nationwide by the generosity of the community itself.

"Aristocratic societies always contain ... a small number of very powerful and wealthy citizens each of whom has the ability to perform great enterprises single-handed,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840. What made America exceptional, he added, was its citizens’ zeal to band together in common purpose and support. In other words, its Sylvia Blooms. 

Here are our five stories for today, including a look at the pull of populist thinking, the hope of a Baghdad renaissance, and the debate over what art actually is.  

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1. Going to Mars, to learn about Earth

When trying to understand ourselves, sometimes it helps to look to our neighbors. As NASA sets course for Mars once again, we examine how important the Red Planet has become in understanding planets, including our own.

Mark
NASA/AP
NASA's InSight mission to Mars, which launched on May 5, is expected to become the first to directly study the deep interior of a planet other than our own. In this artist's illustration, the InSight lander drills into the planet's surface.

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NASA’s successful launch of the InSight mission to Mars on Saturday marked humans’ 45th attempted excursion to the Red Planet. About half of those have been successful. Planetary scientists have high hopes for this latest mission, which is set to be the first to directly study the deep interior of a planet other than our own. Through all those missions, scientists have learned a lot about Mars. But Mars missions are about much more than just Mars. The information gleaned during these missions has opened the door to planetary science at a cosmic level. And in that process, the Red Planet has also given us a better understanding of our blue world. For all of their differences today, Earth and its three closest neighbors, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, are all thought to have originated from the same rocky material in the early days of the solar system. By studying the interior of Mars and how it might resemble or differ from Earth’s, scientists hope to gain insight into some of humanity’s deepest existential questions.

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Going to Mars, to learn about Earth

A streak of rocket fire pierced the foggy predawn skies of southern California Saturday, as NASA sent off its latest Mars mission.

The InSight mission is set to rack up a series of “firsts.” It’s already NASA’s first interplanetary launch from the West Coast. It will also be the first time CubeSats will deploy in deep space. And, if the mission is successful, it will be the first time that scientists gather direct data on the interior of another planet and detect quakes on another planet.

Despite all these firsts, the mission marks the 45th time humans have sent robotic envoys to uncover Mars’s secrets (although only about half of those missions are considered a success).

“I think it’s fair to say that our level of understanding of Mars is now only second to Earth in the solar system by the sheer number of missions that we’ve sent to Mars,” says Ashwin Vasavada, project scientist for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Through all those missions, scientists have learned a lot about Mars. But Mars missions are about much more than just Mars. The information gleaned during these missions has opened the door to planetary science at a cosmic level. And in that process, the Red Planet has also given us a better understanding of our blue world.

In grade school science classes, students learn that science requires plentiful data to analyze patterns and come up with testable models to explain a phenomenon. If scientists have just one example of, say, a planet, they cannot confidently extrapolate that therefore every planet must look just like that one.

And there is just one planet that we know intimately: our own. So planetary scientists have launched mission after mission to gather data on the other worlds in our solar system and spot new planets beyond.

“Every time we go to another body and acquire a new type of data, we get a chance to test out all of the theories that we’ve developed for Earth and see if they really stand up when we bring in another case,” says Suzanne Smrekar, deputy principal investigator for the InSight mission.

These missions have revealed tantalizing glimpses of worlds surprisingly unlike our own. But with flybys and orbiters scoping out most of the other planets in our solar system, scientists are just beginning to scratch the surface in understanding these worlds.

Marina Behabetz/Lockheed Martin Space/NASA/AP
Technicians inspect the InSight lander during a test of the expansion of its solar arrays in Denver, Colo. InSight is expected to land on Mars in late November.

But with Mars, the data has gone deeper. Decades of orbiters and rovers have yielded data that are bringing the Red Planet into sharper focus – and building a second model of a planet for scientists to test their theories against.

“It helps us put things into context,” says Tanya Harrison, the director of research for the Space Technology and Science (“NewSpace”) Initiative at Arizona State University and a science team collaborator on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity. “If you were a geologist, you wouldn’t just go pick up a rock in Scotland and then try to extrapolate the entire history of the Earth from that one rock. It’s kind of the same thing if you just look at one planet and try to take that and apply it to the entire solar system.”

And that’s exactly what scientist want to do: reconstruct the history of our nearest neighbors.

“There are some deep existential questions that looking at the comparative histories of the planets can help answer,” says Selby Cull-Hearth, a planetary scientist at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. For example, she says, “One of the great driving questions of our existence is, why are we here? How did this happen?”

Earth and three of its neighbors – Mars, Venus, and Mercury – are all thought to have originated from the same rocky material in the early days of the solar system. But today, they all look dramatically different. Mercury is a super dense, hot and fiery yet icy enigma. Venus is a super hot, molten, sulphur-clouded orb. Earth is a dynamic water world. And Mars is a frozen red desert. “It’s baffling why we should get such different outcomes,” Dr. Cull-Hearth says.

Two paths diverged in a solar system

Mars is a great place to start. It’s relatively easy to get to (a trip to Mars takes less than a year), it bears some striking similarities to Earth, but has some key differences too.

“Scientists like to have controlled experiments, and then you turn a knob and you see what happens,” Dr. Vasavada explains. “When you look at it that way, Mars has turned knobs that are not able to be turned on Earth.”

For example, scientists have uncovered extensive evidence that rain once fell on Mars, filling up lakes and rivers – much like the lush Earth life thrives on today. But some 2 to 3 billion years ago, that Martian hydrological cycle ground to a near halt. Understanding how that happened is one of planetary scientists’ big questions.

There are some ideas. Today, Mars has an extremely thin atmosphere. On Earth, the atmosphere serves as a blanket of sorts to keep the surface of the planet warm enough for liquid water. So what happened to Mars’s atmosphere? Some scientists have suggested that it was stripped away by the solar wind – a barrage of charged particles flowing from the sun.

On Earth, the atmosphere is protected from that process by a global magnetic field. So the idea is that Mars must have lost its magnetic field at some point. The magnetic field on Earth is thought to be created by the convection of fluid in the core. So if scientists discover that Mars has a solid, inactive core, that data would support this model.

One hitch in that idea is that Mars still does seem to have a bit of a magnetosphere. NASA’s MAVEN orbiter mission spotted some aurora activity, which is thought to require a magnetic field of some sort. 

Groundbreaking InSight

The InSight mission (aka Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) may help resolve some of this puzzle.

When the lander touches down on the Red Planet in November, it will deploy a small suite of instruments programmed to study the planet’s mysterious magnetosphere, the internal heat flow, and the structure of the interior.

Mars’s surface has been thoroughly mapped by orbiters, but scientists have only been able to model its interior based on external gravity data until now. So they know Mars has a core, but they don’t know what it’s made of, how big it is, or if it’s geologically active.

SOURCE: SEIS InSight
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

InSight mission scientists plan to use “marsquakes” to figure out what’s inside the Red Planet. Although Mars is not thought to have tectonic plates like those on Earth that shift and grind against each other, triggering earthquakes, a planet can shake and quake for other reasons. Mars is cooling and shrinking, so the crust likely cracks from time to time under that pressure, triggering a marsquake. Impactors can also jostle the planet.

The InSight seismometer is so sensitive it can pick up quivers the size of a single atom all over the planet. Because seismic waves move through different materials at different speeds and angles, scientists can use marsquake data to figure out the structure and composition of the interior of the planet.

With all the data InSight gathers, scientists hope to piece together the structure of the interior of Mars, which could have implications beyond Mars, too.

Without plate tectonics turning over its crust, Mars’s interior has probably remained largely the same since its formation, Dr. Smrekar says. As a result, the inside of the Red Planet offers a snapshot of the materials that are the building blocks for the terrestrial planets. It could offer many clues into the early evolution of these planets. 

“It’s going to give us our first real look at the interior structure of another planet beyond Earth,” Dr. Harrison says. “And if it’s what we expect, if it’s what we think we should see based on what we understand from Earth, then that’s great. It helps us validate our models. But maybe we’ll get there and find something completely unexpected. Then it becomes one of those instances when we have to rethink what is happening.”

SOURCE: SEIS InSight
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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2. West Virginia sees fight play out over mantle of 'Trumpism'

Anti-establishment furor helped propel Donald Trump into the White House. But can the president control the political forces he’s unleashed? GOP leaders are furiously trying to halt the momentum of a former coal magnate who says he’s “Trumpier than Trump.”

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In more conventional times, Don Blankenship would be nobody’s poster boy for a US Senate candidate. He’s an ex-con who doesn’t smile much and uses racially tinged language. But the wealthy West Virginia coal baron also speaks his mind, bad-mouths the GOP establishment, and wants to make America great again – just like another first-time candidate named Donald who rode that message all the way to the White House. And like President Trump, Mr. Blankenship is poised for a possible upset win, at least in the Republican primary. If he captures the nomination, it would make vulnerable Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin far more likely to win reelection. But local analysts say it can’t be overstated how tired West Virginians are of politics as usual. “Since at least John F. Kennedy, West Virginians have had politicians come to the state and say, ‘I have a plan to fix things.’ And they haven’t fixed it yet,” says Patrick Hickey, a political science professor at West Virginia University. “So, people have become very skeptical of government, and skeptical of traditional politicians. And that’s where Blankenship’s appeal lies.”

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1. West Virginia sees fight play out over mantle of 'Trumpism'

In more conventional times, Don Blankenship would be nobody’s poster boy for a successful US Senate candidate. He’s an ex-con who doesn’t smile much, uses racially tinged language, and maintains his primary residence three time zones away.

But the West Virginia coal baron is also wealthy, speaks his mind, bad-mouths the GOP establishment, and wants to make America great again – just like another first-time candidate named Donald who rode that message all the way to the White House a year and a half ago.

And like President Trump, Mr. Blankenship is poised for a possible upset win – at least in the Republican primary. Blankenship is surging in polls ahead of Tuesday’s vote, GOP strategists say, and in a crowded field, he could capture the nomination with a plurality. That would spell a major missed opportunity for the Republican Party in November, making a vulnerable Democrat – Sen. Joe Manchin – far more likely to win reelection.

“Remember Alabama,” Mr. Trump tweeted Monday, a reference to Democrat Doug Jones’s own improbable Senate victory last December against a controversial Trumpian Republican, Judge Roy Moore. Trump also stated that Blankenship can’t win in November.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
The coal-mining town of Whitesville, W.Va., recently came together at this memorial to mark eight years since an April 2010 accident killed 29 miners, making it the deadliest mining accident in 40 years. Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy Co., which owned the mine, served a year in prison and is now running for US Senate. The Democratic incumbent, Sen. Joe Manchin, donated the flowers pictured here when he attended the memorial service last month.

Trump’s tweet, coming on the heels of several by his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., attacking Blankenship last week, represents a remarkable turn for a president who is now essentially campaigning against his own revolution. Trump has inspired countless novice candidates across the country, who see no limit to their ability to win public office at a time when Americans are tired of politics as usual and have lost faith in government and other institutions.

Here in Bluefield, a coal-mining town in the rolling hills near the Virginia border, voters who’ve come to hear Blankenship are eager to see a Republican win in November. But they’re also thinking: Who speaks for me? After a Fox News debate last week in which the top two GOP candidates went after each other, some began moving toward Blankenship, who until recently was placing third in polls.

“A month ago, I’d probably have voted for Morrisey,” says retired coal miner Ron Thompson, referring to state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a tea party Republican.

Now, Mr. Thompson says, he’s leaning toward Blankenship. Thompson appears unfazed by the 2010 accident at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine when Blankenship was Massey CEO, which killed 29 men in the deadliest mining accident in 40 years. Blankenship claims his prosecution over the disaster and the year he spent in prison were unjust.

Thompson seems to agree. “People got killed, it happens,” he says. “Somewhere down the line, somebody wasn’t doing their job.”

The fact that the wealthy Blankenship now maintains his primary residence in Nevada, and that he uses racially tinged language when speaking of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s in-laws, who hail from Taiwan, doesn’t come up in conversations with voters.

Blankenship’s message centers on jobs, schools, guns, abortion, and the opioid epidemic. And he insists he’s not running as a carbon copy of Trump. “I think [Trump] shoots from the hip a lot. I’m far more analytical,” Blankenship told a reporter after the Bluefield town hall.

But he’s definitely tapped into the same anti-establishment, anti-Washington strain of thought that propelled Trump to the presidency. The other leading candidate in the GOP primary here, Rep. Evan Jenkins, has the backing of the party establishment. If Morrisey or Congressman Jenkins wins on Tuesday, either would have an excellent shot at defeating Senator Manchin in November. And that would set back the Democratic goal of retaking the Senate, which Republicans currently control with just a 51-49 majority.

Blankenship announced his campaign only in January, but spent his own money on TV ads, quickly reintroducing himself to voters and boosting attention to his message. And if there’s a definite Trumpian strain to Blankenship’s appeal, which is blunt and plainspoken, it comes with a West Virginia twist, born of his upbringing here. Unlike Trump, Blankenship was raised by a single mom, and came up poor.

The man who would become known as the King of Coal used an outhouse in his childhood, he said in a brief interview with the Monitor after the event. When he got a job in the coal mines as a teenager, he reveled in being able to shower in a heated room. And while he now enjoys a far more luxurious life, he is conscious that many in his state are growing up in similar circumstances. One year, he had his team ask schoolchildren in Boone County what they would like for Christmas, and several of them said groceries.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Roger Toler (l.) and his two brothers (c.) along with Wayne Addair (r.) came to a town hall event in Bluefield, W.Va., to show their support for US Senate candidate Don Blankenship, a coal baron who recently served a year in prison. The decline of coal in southern West Virginia has hit them hard; Mr. Toler's heating and air conditioning business has gone from 23 employees to just two, while his brother Mark Toler (back right) saw his mine security business of 360 employees collapse entirely.

“There’s a rural populism that Don Blankenship in many respects embodies,” says Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, whose political action committee endorsed Jenkins. “He does speak for a populist point of view, and these are not new positions [for him]. He’s always been more interested in fair trade than free trade.”

Blankenship also isn’t somebody who “tries to hide,” says Mr. Roberts, who has known Blankenship for years. In last week’s debate, “he didn’t say, ‘No, I don’t own a home in Las Vegas,’ ” Roberts notes. Blankenship acknowledged that fact, and added that he probably pays “more taxes than anybody on this stage to West Virginia,” eliciting cheers from the audience.

Blankenship does push back on his role in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. He was convicted of conspiring to violate federal safety standards, a misdemeanor, and served one year in federal prison. On the trail, he has recast that episode into a talking point, calling it a “frame job” and blaming the Obama Department of Justice.

But in Whitesville, the town of about 450 in Boone County where the accident occurred, Blankenship is not remembered fondly by some.

“He’s a smart businessman, but he is absolutely ruthless,” says a former manager who worked for Blankenship for nine years. He requested anonymity because he is now a federal employee and is barred from partisan commentary.

Still, some Republicans say his opponents aren’t any better.

“There is three of the worst candidates I’ve ever seen to replace him,” says Deke Mylam, who says he has only voted for a Democrat once. “[Blankenship] is a known criminal whereas the other two are suspected criminals.”

Indeed, the other two major Republicans in the race also have image challenges. Morrisey is originally from New Jersey – making him “an outsider” – and was a lobbyist in Washington. He and his wife both did work for pharmaceutical companies, and as attorney general he has come under fire for not taking a harder line against drug companies that poured prescription opioids into the state hardest-hit by the opioid crisis.

Jenkins’s “sin” is that until 2013, he was a Democrat. That’s easy to explain, in a state that until fairly recently was solidly Democratic, but has swung hard toward the Republican Party. Trump won the state in 2016 by 42 points. Jenkins is also a sitting member of Congress, one of the most unpopular institutions in the country.

A super political action committee aligned with Senator McConnell has run ads against Blankenship, who referred to the majority leader’s wife’s family as “China people” and dubbed McConnell “Cocaine Mitch,” apparently over a controversy involving his in-laws’ shipping company. He then reportedly used the term “Negro” while defending himself against charges of racism. Other outside groups seeking to sway the primary have added to the free-for-all feel in the final days – including national Democrats attacking both Morrisey and Jenkins, in an apparent effort to boost Blankenship.

Trump, for his part, told voters in his tweet Monday to vote for either Jenkins or Morrisey. But the danger is that the mainstream GOP vote winds up divided between those two, allowing Blankenship to win with as little as 35 percent.

Local political analysts say it can’t be overstated how tired West Virginians are of politics as usual.

“Since at least John F. Kennedy, West Virginians have had politicians come to the state and say, ‘I have a plan to fix things.’ And they haven’t fixed it yet,” says Patrick Hickey, a political science professor at West Virginia University. “So people have become very skeptical of government, and skeptical of traditional politicians. And that’s where Blankenship’s appeal lies.”

Back in Bluefield, voters at the town hall gathered over gigantic Cobb salads and plates of fried food – courtesy of Blankenship – and talked about hot-button issues, from abortion and underfunded schools to the national debt and the poor standard of living in West Virginia, where some folks still don’t have indoor plumbing, clean drinking water, proper sewer lines, or reliable cellphone and high-speed Internet service.

But most of all, they seem fed up with the politicians in Washington. And so, on the coattails of one outsider’s ascension to the White House, they’re looking to catapult another into the Senate – to further disrupt things for members of the establishment.

“They don’t like non-politicians coming and upsetting their apple cart,” says voter Allen Vest of Princeton, W.Va., who says he became intrigued by Blankenship during the Fox debate last week.

“I just saw two kids pointing fingers at each other, and one man trying to talk,” Mr. Vest says, contrasting Blankenship with opponents Morrisey and Jenkins. “He’s got an uphill battle, but I’m going to support him.”

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3. In Baghdad, cautiously embracing a return to normalcy

Blast walls are coming down and streets are reopening as Baghdad sheds the visual reminders of war's long grip. But is it enough to just wish peace into existence? Iraqis are keeping an eye on ISIS, but the fatigue with fighting and yearning for normalcy are changing the face of the city.

Mark
Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
An Iraqi family eats in a fast-food restaurant at the Baghdad Mall in the upscale Mansour district of Baghdad in April. With the defeat of the Islamic State last year and a steep drop in attacks and casualties in Baghdad, Iraqis say they are feeling a greater sense of normalcy and safety.

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The result can be seen everywhere in Baghdad: Relaxed Iraqis shop until midnight; laugh, eat, and socialize at fast-food restaurants and hipster coffee shops; or barbecue perch along the Tigris River, where US troops used to dodge bullets. Iraqis are almost giddy with the normalcy that has been emerging in their lives since Islamic State was forced out of its last major stronghold in early 2017. Glitzy malls are opening with high-end shops that inspire confidence; incubators for business start-ups signify new opportunities; and families are flocking to an ever-increasing number of amusement parks. Heralding the change – and suggesting that Iraq is finally emerging from a long litany of war – is the physical transformation on the ground: more open roads, fewer checkpoints, disappearing blast walls. “The roads really do feel different, and you feel like you can breathe,” says an Iraqi analyst. “People are tired of sectarianism, tired of violence, tired of fighting. They just want to move on with life, to develop the country. They want good schools, good hospitals, good roads, and good paying jobs…. Is that so much to ask?”

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In Baghdad, cautiously embracing a return to normalcy

The ceremony opening a small road along the Tigris River in Baghdad could hardly have been more modest – or more symbolic of how normalcy has begun to unfurl across the Iraqi capital for the first time in decades.

A single red ribbon stretched across the road, one end taped to a wood vase full of plastic flowers, the other end to a cyclone fence. Blocking the road were two battered concrete barriers.

A crane was readied, and the chief of the Baghdad Operations Command (BOC), Lt. Gen. Jalil al-Rubaie, arrived with a security escort bristling with firepower, also symbolic.

The general cut the ribbon and watched as the concrete barriers were chained up and removed.

The message of the road openings – it was the 800th to be opened in the Iraqi capital since late 2016 – is that “Baghdad is safe, and now everything is normal,” General Rubaie said.

Iraqis are doing everything they can to make Baghdad “as beautiful and safe” as it was before 2003, he says, but acknowledges that security challenges persist. The Islamic State (ISIS) “is not finished. Militarily it is finished on the ground,” he says, but ISIS “cells” still pose a threat against Baghdad.

“But we work hard to stop them,” he vows.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Iraqis shop late into the night as they experience a new sense of normal life in the upscale Mansour district of Baghdad, April 13, 2018.

Indeed, such ISIS cells remain active: One group, dressed up in Iraqi military uniforms and masks, last week attacked Tarmiya, a farming area 25 miles north of Baghdad whose residents had a history of opposing ISIS. The militants killed 21 civilians in an area under BOC control, at a time when Iraqi security forces are on high alert before parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12.

ISIS has vowed to disrupt that vote, in which politicians are campaigning – in a key sign of postwar normalization – on bread-and-butter instead of security issues.

Despite the episodes of violence, Iraqis are almost giddy with the unaccustomed degree of normalcy that has been emerging in their lives since ISIS was forced out of its last major stronghold in Mosul, in early 2017. The threat of suicide bombs, killings, kidnappings, and insecurity has palpably receded, and casualty figures have dropped sharply.

Glitzy malls are opening with high-end shops that inspire confidence; incubators for business start-ups signify new opportunities for young Iraqi entrepreneurs; families are flocking to an ever-increasing number of amusement parks; even the world soccer federation has resumed international games in Iraq – just not yet in Baghdad’s new stadium.

Heralding the change, and suggesting that Iraq is finally emerging from a long litany of war, sanctions, US occupation, insurgency, and ethnic cleansing that has left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, is the physical transformation on the ground.

Not only have 800 roads – more than 80 percent of the capital’s closed avenues – reopened in Baghdad, but Iraqi forces have also removed 281 traffic-choking checkpoints. Also gone are 73,000 segments of 15-foot-high concrete blast walls, more than half of the total in the city, which turned Baghdad into an urban maze and shielded and separated Iraqis from one another. 

“You are seeing buildings and streets that you haven’t seen in literally a decade,” says an Iraqi analyst who is close to the government and asked not to be named, because of the sensitivity of his job.

“The roads really do feel different, and you feel like you can breathe. You are not claustrophobic in your own neighborhood,” says the analyst. The plan is for all blast walls to be removed and placed in a ring around the city, miles out.

“It’s not like everybody all of a sudden had a Zen moment. It’s that people are tired of sectarianism, tired of violence, tired of fighting,” says the analyst. “They just want to move on with life, to develop the country. They want good schools, good hospitals, good roads and good paying jobs, and to go on vacation once or twice a year. Is that so much to ask? It really is that simple.”

Until last year, even aspiring to such change and sense of safety seemed out of reach. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had until last year spent 80 percent of this time on the anti-ISIS fight and just 20 percent governing, according to one source, who says that figure has been reversed.

And statistics tell the story: The death toll in Baghdad from terrorist attacks in all of 2017 was less than that of just two days in 2006, military officials say, back when 100 to 120 Baghdadis were dying violent deaths every day.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
An Iraqi couple walks hand in hand April 14, 2018, as families experiencing a new sense of normal life visit the vast Baghdad Island amusement park on the northern outskirts of the capital. It was once a US military base referred to as "Bandit Island," set amid date palms riddled with Al Qaeda jihadists.

The result can be seen everywhere in Baghdad, where relaxed Iraqis shop with their families until midnight; laugh, eat and socialize at fast-food restaurants and hipster coffee shops; or barbecue perch during picnics along the Tigris River, where American troops used to dodge bullets and roadside bombs.

The Baghdad Mall in the upscale Mansour district is a bright example of the new confidence, with its glass edifice and high-end shops stuffed with items from everywhere.

Mohammed Laith Kadhim was only 9 years old when US forces invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein. Today he sprays perfume on passing customers to entice them into the clothes shop where he works.

His hair is spiked up two inches in a style favored by Iraqi youths. With jeans and thin white T-shirt that are skin tight, Mr. Kadhim says there are “signs of optimism,” even if jobs are scarce.

“The important thing is all families are feeling safe and find what they need in the malls and restaurants,” he says.

Reflecting on the security situation he grew up with, after US troops arrived, he says, “Now the situation is much better, but maybe at any moment it could change. We can’t predict.”

The United Nations tallied 68 civilian deaths in April due to terrorism and armed conflict nationwide – just 8 of those in Baghdad – which is the lowest number by its figures since at least 2008. The overall trend has steadily improved.

“It’s not like ISIS isn’t trying to conduct terrorist attacks,” says the analyst. “They’re trying. But our intelligence services are now that much better that they are able to catch them.”

The uncertainty hasn’t kept many from investing in Iraq’s future. Rusted hulks of car bombs still dot back streets of the Jadriya district. Bullet holes still pockmark buildings around Haifa Street, a former Al Qaeda stronghold downtown. Some hotels targeted by truck bombs remain abandoned.

Incubating enterprise

But emerging from the ruins are places like The Station, a modern co-working space that opened in February to encourage Iraq’s growing crop of entrepreneurs. With its 65 rough wood table-desks, high-speed internet, 3D printer, and gear for working on robotics in a “maker space,” the place could be a start-up incubator anywhere in the US or Europe.

“A lot of Iraqi youth feel jealous and thought, ‘Why doesn’t Iraq have such a thing?’” says Mohammad Samarraie, who helped market The Station and heads his own advertising company.

“Baghdad needs this. We are a country that is coming out of war. We want positivity in society, we want entrepreneurship to be in Baghdad,” says Mr. Samarraie.

“It’s not going to change the situation of Iraqi youth in a day or a night, but it needs someone to step through and say, ‘I’m going to do it’… and someone will follow them, and the impact will start to be,” he says.

“It’s now or never. This is the right time for Iraq and Baghdad to move on,” says Samarraie. “When we see the people who come here daily, we feel positive, because [it is] they are who is going to change the future.”

Among them is Dina Najim, an Iraqi social media strategist who moved from Virginia with her husband last year because Baghdad security had improved so much. They still have a home in the US, as a backup, but the company she works for has seven desks at The Station.

“We saw a big change in our society. We like the idea that we want to develop our community and work with them,” says Mrs. Najim.

“The population now is more young, they want to make a difference. When they graduate from university they don’t want to go to government, they want to start their own projects,” she says. “Students came here, saw The Station, which gave them inspiration to start their own business. They are thinking differently.”

Such changes could not be more dramatic for analysts who lived in Baghdad during some of its darkest days. For them, the improving metrics of normalization are obvious – and the chances of reverting back are growing smaller as Iraqis revel in daily life.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Grilling perch for the Iraqi dish "masgouf" April 14, 2018, as families visit the vast Baghdad Island amusement park on the northern outskirts of the capital on the Tigris River, which was once a US military base.

“Baghdad is definitely the best it’s ever been since 2003, in terms of security, in terms of freedom of people, and demilitarization of the city,” says Sajad Jiyad, head of the Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, a think tank in Baghdad. He first returned just weeks after US troops and Iraqis toppled the statue of Hussein.

Universities are setting records for admissions, year after year, he notes. The number of hours of electricity each day has grown; casualty figures from violent attacks are at an “all-time low” since 2003.

“You can drive from Basra [Iraq’s southern city] all the way to Sinjar [on the northern border] and you have no problems. Before you would struggle, even between areas,” says Mr. Jiyad.

But he says the gains are reversible. “It’s not set in stone that we will never go back to where we were,” says Jiyad. “We don’t think the factors are there, to push us back, because people have come together, there is more nationalism now.”

The 'people's issues'

After so much bloodletting and squandered opportunity, though, Iraqis have seen their latest demon ISIS largely vanquished, and security and intelligence services rebuilt and increasingly effective. That trajectory is reflected in the run-up to the election.

“Nobody is talking about the Sunni-Shiite issue. Now it’s about services: What are you doing to fight corruption? How many jobs are you providing? These are people’s issues now,” says Jiyad. “Nobody has the stomach to keep seeing wars; Iraqis are fed up with wars. Anybody who goes out there and says, ‘Let’s go fight!’ will be pelted and told to shut the hell up, because people have had enough.”

That is the message of a video produced by the Baghdad Operations Command in April that highlights progress, reminding Iraqis that when the BOC started work in 2007 it was hard for Iraqis to leave their houses, “terrorism controlled two-thirds of Baghdad … car bombs roamed the streets,” and “public gardens were turned into mass graves.”

The video states that 2017 accounted for only 5 percent of the number of incidents of the previous five years in Baghdad. Some 131 weapons depots were discovered in 2017, and 51 gangs broken up that year, resulting in the freeing of 22 captives. A critical factor has been improved intelligence.

“People are cooperating with security forces, because they feel they are doing something good for them,” says the BOC spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim Attiyah. “Life is coming back.”

Peace has meant booming business for official gun sellers in Baghdad, since licenses are now being issued for pistols and hunting rifles and shotguns, in a bid to control them. In Mansour, the walls of the Alak al-Sahara gun shop are hung with an arsenal of firepower, like any gun show in the US. And customers never stop coming.

“All Iraqis from children to old men like weapons,” says gun merchant Ali Abu Rukaya, checking a pistol for bullets before handing it over for a sale.

“We have lived with wars and civil wars, and it’s continued for decades,” says Mr. Rukaya. “People come here and are comforted about buying because it’s also legal.”

The surge in sales is in part an indication that continued criminality is a concern for many.

“The situation got better from terrorists, but not from individual crimes,” says Ali Ahmed, 27, as he shells out $3,250 for an Italian 9mm pistol. He wants it for personal protection, since his job is in Abu Ghraib, a less-safe area west of Baghdad.

Return to 'Bandit Island'

Such concerns could not be further from the vast amusement park called Baghdad Island on the northern outskirts of the capital, which existed for Saddam-era elite after it was completed in 1982. Later it was used as a base by American troops who, surrounded by its insurgent-infested palm groves, dubbed it “Bandit Island.”

Today it has a vast water park with tubular slides, rides, and picnic areas along the Tigris, and has been buoyed by $55 million so far in private investment. Early season numbers have doubled this year compared with last, with some 40,000 Iraqis passing through the gates each Friday and on holidays.

“People are becoming more optimistic about the situation, they know the game and their mentality is changing,” says Walid Jabbur Salman, one of three private investors who intend to invest a total of $150 million into the 2-year project – just one of a score of amusement parks now in Baghdad.

Mr. Salman fondly remembers coming here with a girlfriend in 1986, when Baghdad Island was the largest park of its kind in the Middle East.

“It was a golden time then, people kept their houses unlocked, we didn’t feel any fear,” says Salman. “We are trying to reach that high level [of security] again.”

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4. The fall of Gibson: Where have all the guitar heroes gone?

For more than 50 years, rock was synonymous with the electric guitar, and the electric guitar was synonymous with Gibson. When that iconic company filed for bankruptcy last week, it put a punctuation mark on just how much electronic dance music and hip-hop have transformed America's music scene.

Mark

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Rock has come back from the brink of death many times, including when Nirvana took out “hair metal” (considered by many a mercy killing) with the release of “Nevermind” in 1991. Just a year later, Neil Young prophesied in “Natural Beauty”: “I heard a perfect echo die into an anonymous wall of digital sound.” The current nadir cannot be denied: Americans just aren’t as in love with the electric guitar as they once were. Last week, Gibson Brands, maker of the iconic Les Paul ax, filed for bankruptcy. Sales of electric guitars have fallen by nearly a third since 2006, with rock fading in favor of electronic dance music, hip-hop, and computerized chords. “Gibson’s guitars are found at ground zero for almost every modern genre of American music,” says John Troutman, curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution. For Tim Montana and other musicians, the Gibson bankruptcy is a reckoning of sorts. “It makes you think about how many guys have worked there, how many lives it has changed, how much music has been made,” says Mr. Montana, frontman for the Shrednecks. “Whatever the catalyst, to be that big and not figure it out, OK, it’s a bummer.”

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The fall of Gibson: Where have all the guitar heroes gone?

Growing up off-the-grid in the rural West, Tim Montana still remembers that moment, at 6, when he received a nylon-string guitar as a gift. He learned to play it by candlelight. It led to the moment when ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons handed him a Gibson Les Paul guitar right off the Nashville, Tenn., factory line in 2013.

Mr. Montana, whose anthem "This Beard Came Here to Party" was adopted by the Boston Red Sox in the 2013 pennant run, was rocked like much of the music world last week when global luthier Gibson Brands, maker of the iconic Les Paul ax, filed for bankruptcy. The company is leaving flagging revenues and $100 million of debt as it seeks bankruptcy protection in order to keep the doors open.

Popular music is more diverse and eclectic than ever, driven as much by synth musings and syncopation as power chords and soaring solos. And Gibson's fall is in part a global economics story about branding, innovation, conglomeration, and lifestyle. But for Montana and countless other musicians, the Gibson bankruptcy is a reckoning of sorts: The electric guitar has lost its shine. Not only has the actual guitar hero gone missing –  the creator of "Guitar Hero" went out of business.

"Just to see a giant company like [Gibson] file for bankruptcy, it makes you think about how many guys have worked there, how many lives it has changed, how much music has been made," says Montana, who commissioned a commemorative Gibson guitar for the late "American Sniper" Chris Kyle, which sold at a charity auction for $117,000. "Whatever the catalyst [for the bankruptcy], to be that big and not figure it out, OK, it's a bummer."

Undeniably rock and roll has come back from the brink of death many times, including when Nirvana took out "hair metal" (considered by many as a mercy killing) with the release of "Nevermind" in 1991. Just a year later, however, Neil Young prophesied in "Natural Beauty": "I have  heard a perfect echo die into an anonymous wall of digital sound."

The current nadir cannot be denied: Americans just aren't as in love with the electric guitar as they once were. Sales have fallen by nearly a third since 2006, with rock fading in favor of electronic dance music, hip-hop, and computerized chords. The past two years have seen some of the biggest rock musicians – Prince, Tom Petty – pass away. Chuck Berry was laid to rest last year, his beloved cherry-red Gibson bolted to the coffin.

Dave Grohl, a member of Nirvana and frontman for The Foo Fighters, noted recently that the face of punk rock today is hip-hop artist Lil Pump, whose music features R-rated, misogynistic rhymes, but not guitar chords.

"Playing electric guitar is not half as cool as it was 10 years ago and electronic instruments, to be fair, provide a lot more creative opportunities than a guitar," says University of Alabama at Birmingham historian André Millard, editor of "The Electric Guitar." On the other hand, Gibson's current woes don't "necessarily reflect back on the guitar playing fraternity that much. It's still a rite of passage for many young people to play electric guitar."

From Mother Maybelle to Slash

It is all a faint echo from when Mother Maybelle Carter became the nation's first guitar hero. The country titan introduced the "Carter scratch" picking style in the 1930s, showcasing her Gibson L-5 archtop. The Gibson legends only piled up from there, from Elvis to U2's The Edge, from Neil Young to Slash of Guns 'n' Roses.

"Gibson's guitars are found at ground zero for almost every modern genre of American music," says John Troutman, the curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. "Even before the days of electric amplification, you could find guitars in practically every vernacular American genre, from jazz, to hillbilly, to blues, corridos, and polka. Musicians have always looked for the best tools to capture the sounds in their head, and for vernacular music throughout most of the 20th century, those sounds included guitars."

Founded in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1902 and later relocated to Nashville, Gibson led the way by creating high-end instruments at scale. But then innovation gave way to streamlining and cost-cutting. And when Gibson did innovate in the past few years with its auto-tuning "guitar robot," it seemed to epitomize a company with a "reverse Midas touch," says Nashville guitar historian George Gruhn. Outgoing CEO Henry Juszkiewicz wanted to turn the firm into a "music lifestyle" company, but costly acquisitions at high interest rates ultimately sank it. Going forward, the company vows to refocus on its core products: electric guitars made in Nashville and acoustics made in Bozeman, Mont.

Gibson's struggles are intertwined with those of Guitar Center, which is also in dire straits. Fender, too, is struggling, but has kept afloat by bending toward less-expensive guitars, and looking more aggressively at trends. Ukuleles are one current growth market.

Electrified guitar music is "absolutely not" dead, says Mr. Gruhn, co-author of "Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars." But "there are plenty of changes going on ... demographic changes, technological changes, a changing economy, and the baby boomers, who were some of the best customers the guitar industry has ever had, have aged upward and are no longer in the active acquisition phase of their life cycle. And a lot of the Millennials enjoy rap and hip-hop and electronic dance music that doesn't in any way incorporate guitars or even recognizable musical instruments."

Rebel yell, accompanied by strings

Yet string-driven music has been a backdrop from the beginning of America, the expression of a revolt against puritanism espoused by authority figures in general, whether the king or "the man."

When he stepped into a tavern, John Adams "would have heard white men fiddling Irish reels and black men pounding out driving African rhythms on hand drums, rattles, and wooden blocks ... a hybrid, flagrantly sexual sound that was the first American urban party music," as Thaddeus Russell writes in "A Renegade History of the United States."

The electric guitar, in many ways, became in the '50s and '60s – with its syncopated, buzz-heavy, feedback screeching, accompanist – the sound of uniquely American independence. The electric sound is so charged with rebellion and sexuality that "your clothes can catch fire," rocker-troubadour Bob Dylan told AARP magazine last year.

Jimi Hendrix wove it all into a screaming national anthem at Woodstock in 1968, and explained afterward: "I'm American, so I played it. We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, see."

Channeling that unique American static has fallen to a different group of shredders, however.

Taylor Swift, guitar hero

Half of teenagers in a recent poll said their personal guitar hero is Taylor Swift, whose open chord stylings seem simplistic compared to, say, Jimmy Page's four-chord striations.

"Interestingly ... while you can still hear guitars everywhere, you certainly don't see them as much anymore, or associate them with the latest hits or cutting edge music," says Mr. Troutman, author of "Kīkā Kila: How the Hawaiian steel guitar changed the sound of modern music." Notable exceptions, he says, are female guitar players like Ms. Swift, Annie Clark (of St. Vincent) and Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes), who "have taken the lead role in promising electric guitars another day in the sun."

"Ultimately, design innovations seem less critical to the coming of that day than the musical vision of the artists who hold guitars in their hands."

Montana agrees. To him, the tactile nature of the Les Paul, its raw, soul-channeling power, remains his creative outlet.

"I love the Les Paul, love the way it sounds, I have to get my back adjusted all the time by the chiropractor," says Montana, the frontman for the Shrednecks. "It's a big piece of wood – you can crank it on that thing."

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5. Can an algorithm be art? Digital steps forward again.

Art and technology have always been intertwined. But each new twist on that collaboration revives old questions about how to define art and the artist.

Mark

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Digital artists have long faced criticism from art-world purists who challenge the idea that art created with computers qualifies as “real art.” But for Hamid Naderi Yeganeh, the computer is just another artistic tool. The Iranian mathematician and digital artist uses mathematical equations to create intricate geometric designs, as well as birds, flowers, and other features of the natural world. This kind of collaboration between artist and machine rekindles perennial questions about what constitutes art and who deserves attribution. For his geometric work, Mr. Yeganeh readily shares credit with the computer. More recently, however, he has branched out into renderings of real-life objects. That process requires more intentional planning on the part of the artist, he explains. In this case, “the computer plays the role of a brush. So the artist takes 100 percent of the credit,” he says. But to others, the question of “whose art is it?” is more philosophical rather than technical. Does any work of art truly belong to a single artist?

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Can an algorithm be art? Digital steps forward again.

Hamid Naderi Yeganeh is not a typical artist. Instead of using pencils, brushes, or even a digital stylus, his medium of choice is math.

Using mathematical formulas, the Iranian mathematician and digital artist programs computers to draw looping geometric designs, as well as birds, flowers, and other features of the natural world. This kind of collaboration between artist and machine rekindles perennial questions about what constitutes art and who deserves attribution.

“An artwork is never wholly independent; someone else made the canvas, someone else made the brushes, someone else made the paint,” says Richard Rinehart, director of the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. “And those things are not incidental. They are incredibly important to the art world.”

And digital artwork, created using computational technologies, involves even more people than painting, says Mr. Rinehart. 

Digital art is nearly as old as computers. From fractal art and graphic design software to photo-editing and digital animation tools, artists have for decades employed computational tools to produce and enhance art.

Digital artists have long faced criticism from art-world purists, who challenge the idea that art created with computers qualifies as “real art.”

That idea has withered over time, as digital art has found gallery space in modern art museums. Even some traditional fine art museums such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum now have computer art collections.

Courtesy of Hamid Naderi Yeganeh
'Carnation'

When Mr. Yeganeh started making digital art in 2014, he set out to see what kind of art a computer would produce using his trigonometric functions. For these images, the computer plays an essential role and deserves 50 percent of the credit, he says.

“After a while, I understood I could draw real-life things by using mathematical equations,” says Yeganeh. 

This process requires more intentional planning on the part of the artist, he explains. He begins with a clear vision for the end product and uses a step-by-step process to find the appropriate mathematical function to make that vision a reality. 

When producing these pieces, “the computer plays the role of a brush. So the artist takes 100 percent of the credit,” he says.

But to Rinehart, the question “Whose art is it?” is more philosophical than technical.

Courtesy of Hamid Naderi Yeganeh
'Ball Dahlia'

One theory, put forth by French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes in the 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” suggests that the viewer plays an integral role in realizing a work of art. Barthes urged the art world to expand the idea of “author” to include both artist and viewer.

That idea spawned a slew of philosophical questions, Rinehart says: “Who is the author? Is there one solitary genius [behind] any work of art? Or is every work of art really the social production of the environment in which it came, including dozens if not hundreds of other people?”

The introduction of artificial intelligence into digital art brings more than just a machine into the process, Rinehart says. AI is part of a social fabric. Behind every program, there are people. Any AI is going to be heavily influenced by the people who wrote the program. The creators of the underlying code are influencing the artwork, and their aesthetic choices are built into the code.

Yeganeh agrees that the role of the programmer can never be fully disentangled from the product. “Computers make it possible for us to explore beautiful patterns quickly,” Yeganeh says. “My computer can’t determine the most beautiful shapes. It is my job to find the most beautiful shapes. So I don’t think computer-made art clashes with human creativity, but it can change the role of artists.”

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The Monitor's View

Let Iranians decide the regime’s future

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President Trump says he will decide by May 12 whether to renew sanctions on Iran if the 2015 nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic is not fixed. He should hold off for now. Nearly 40 years after a revolution resulted in a self-designated cleric being Iran’s ruler, the country is facing widespread resistance, fueled by the anger and disillusionment of its people. The near-absolute rule of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has resulted in a few groups controlling much of Iran’s oil-derived wealth. The regime may be rotting from within as various factions argue over issues such as the high cost of supporting proxy forces in the region. And the ingenuity of Iranians to reclaim their liberties should not be underestimated. (To bypass rising censorship, for example, dissenters have taken to writing words of protest on paper money for all to read. One popular slogan: “Our enemy is right here. They say it is America.”) Mr. Trump may be tempted to push hard at this wobbly dictatorship. But it would be better to see if Iranians can push from within to topple a house built on sand. 

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Let Iranians decide the regime’s future

President Trump says he will decide by May 12 whether to renew sanctions on Iran if the 2015 nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic is not fixed. He cites Iran’s military threats against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other nations in the region.

Yet he should hold off for now. One big threat in the Middle East may be the rising anger and disillusionment of the Iranian people toward their own regime.

For six months, Iran has witnessed political protests and labor strikes by people ranging from drought-stricken farmers to veil-less women to the country’s non-Persian minorities to the powerful but hard-pressed bazaari merchants.

Unemployment is near an all-time high. Many banks are insolvent. The value of Iran’s currency has fallen by more than a third, forcing the regime to effectively curtail foreign travel and to put people in jail for buying dollars or euros on the black market. The regime also has tried to stem unrest with a ban on Telegram, a popular messaging app used by about half of Iran’s 80 million people.

The ingenuity of Iranians to reclaim their individual liberties should not be underestimated. To bypass rising censorship, for example, dissenters have taken to writing words of protest on paper money for all to read. One popular slogan: “Our enemy is right here. They say it is America.” And in a popular video clip, soccer fans could be heard shouting the name of the shah, who was deposed in 1979.

Any new sanctions aimed at containing Iran hardly seem necessary when the regime is already contained by its own mistakes. The near-absolute rule of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has resulted in absolute favoritism toward a few groups controlling much of Iran’s oil-derived wealth. The regime also may be rotting from within as various factions argue over issues such as the high cost of supporting proxy forces in the region, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Syrian Army.

For the United States, patience toward Iran rather economic aggression would be a wise course. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted at this during his recent confirmation hearings when he stated: “The Iranian people are about done with trying to figure out how it is that they’re going to benefit from the place they find themselves [in] today.” 

Nearly 40 years after a revolution resulted in a self-designated cleric becoming Iran’s top ruler, the country is facing its most widespread resistance. Since most sanctions were lifted in 2016, the regime has failed to attract enough foreign investment to meet the expectation of its well-educated people. Mr. Trump may be tempted to push hard at this wobbly dictatorship. But it would be better to see if Iranians can push from within to topple a house built on sand.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Prayer beyond words

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True prayer isn’t just asking for goodness, love, and peace. It is letting God show us how to live them.

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Prayer beyond words

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Recently I learned of a strong example of what it means to live consistently with our prayers. Hiroshima, Japan, the first city that experienced having a nuclear bomb dropped on it, flourishes today, beautiful and vibrant. While hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city every year offer prayers, many of its citizens also pray for and are devoted to the elimination of nuclear weapons. In 1949 at Hiroshima’s request the Japanese parliament declared it a City of Peace, which makes it a natural location for the many peace conferences it hosts. Its mayor serves as the president of Mayors for Peace. A corps of volunteer guides helps visitors understand the city and its strong stand for peace and for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Clearly the desire of the people of Hiroshima is having an impact.

Without a doubt, true prayer involves not just words but the practical expression of goodness, kindness, and love – qualities that prove the sincerity of our prayer. Prayer finds its expression in a change of one’s own heart and in one’s life. It becomes practical when it brings about a change of thought for the better; it’s inseparable from the action that flows from and illustrates that change of thought.

So true prayer doesn’t just remain at the mental or verbal level – it is lived! This may mean that we simply express more patience and goodwill toward others as a result of our prayer, or, as in Hiroshima, prayer may result in taking action that stimulates progress and positive change on a wider scale. In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, pinpoints the natural relationship between prayer and working for change. She writes: “In public prayer we often go beyond our convictions, beyond the honest standpoint of fervent desire. If we are not secretly yearning and openly striving for the accomplishment of all we ask, our prayers are ‘vain repetitions,’ such as the heathen use. If our petitions are sincere, we labor for what we ask; and our Father, who seeth in secret, will reward us openly” (p. 13).

Sometimes we may be tricked into thinking of prayer and action as being on two sides of a room – prayer on one side and action on the other. But prayer and the genuine expression of that prayer – taking form in a greater expression of compassion leading to inspired human actions – are inseparable and stand as one. Are we willing to live consistently with our prayers, no matter what we might feel led to do, or give up, in order to do so? For example, we cannot sincerely pray for the honesty of public officials and then cheat on our taxes. Nor can we pray for the elimination of violence and then allow ourselves to explode in rage at a friend or family member.

I have found that for prayer to be effective, it must be based on what is spiritually true about God and His creation. Jesus came to redeem us from a false, limited sense of ourselves and others and to show our true nature as the perfect, spiritual expressions of infinite Spirit, God. Understanding this true sense of identity gives us a strong basis from which to pray and act in a way that brings healing. Prayer grounded in this truth of man’s relation to God has the power to reform and improve our own character, improve the quality of life of those around us, and contribute to humanity’s progress. 

Mrs. Eddy writes: “What we most need is the prayer of fervent desire for growth in grace, expressed in patience, meekness, love, and good deeds” (Science and Health, p. 4). As we understand and grow in the expression of God’s goodness in our own lives, our prayers go beyond words to being an effective and powerful force for good.

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Viewfinder

Madame Mayor

Gerald Herbert/AP
Newly elected New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is greeted by supporters as she dances in a parade after her inauguration in New Orleans May 7. She is the first woman to hold the job since the city’s founding 300 years ago. Addressing a large crowd in her inaugural address, Ms. Cantrell said: "There's only you and me and the work before us."
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and courtesy of Hamid Naderi Yeganeh. )
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In Our Next Issue

( May 8th, 2018 )

Thanks for joining us today. We hope you’ll come back tomorrow. Correspondent Fred Weir has looked into the new Russian budget and found some surprising things. We’d also like to draw your attention to a story on CSMonitor.com today about a sexual harassment scandal connected with the world's most prestigious literary prize. It is forcing the international cultural establishment to rethink its values. Please click here to read it. 

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May 07, 2018
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