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2018
August
27
Monday

These are trying times for the Catholic Church in Ireland. In 1979, the only previous time a pope visited, half the country – 2.5 million people – flocked to see him in person. More generally, 90 percent of Irish Catholics attended mass weekly.

This week, Pope Francis’s visit has been marked by fallout from abuse scandals, and only 30 percent of Irish Catholics attend mass weekly. The shift is stunning.

In many respects, the Irish Catholic Church is dealing with the same cultural head winds facing all organized religion in the West. Yet there is an added element. The Catholic Church in Ireland long held a position of even greater influence than the government itself. “The priests thought they were more powerful than the police, and they were right,” an Irish man told the Jesuit magazine America earlier this year.

During the past 40 years, Ireland has flourished, and its people’s horizons have broadened. Generations-old abuses and coverups, including the infamous Magdalene laundries, are jarringly out of step with a new optimism. Yet still, the reporter for America magazine noted, faith there resonates deeply – the inspiration of holiday services, the enduring affection for the parish priest.

And thought is stirring about how to build on that good. “We need a church that is relevant more than it is dominant,” the archbishop of Dublin told America magazine. “The Irish church has to change gear. And has to notice that the gear has changed.”

Now, here are our five stories for today, including an unusual look at the power of the people in Russia, the enduring togetherness at some Texas schools after hurricane Harvey, and the legacy of an American senator who stood for something greater than himself.  

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1. Is America's distrust of 'elites' becoming more toxic?

America’s willingness to overlook credentials – to think anyone can do anything – has been a unique element of its exceptional success. But political polarization is turning it into something toxic. 

Mark

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There’s an American tradition of looking side-eye at those with pedigreed résumés. It’s sort of a baked-in emphasis on self-reliance and “rugged individualism” in the American character, scholars say, and it’s played a role in a number of populist movements since the nation’s founding. As President Lyndon Johnson once put it, “self-styled intellectuals ... are more concerned with the trivia and the superficial than they are with the things that have really built America.” But as Americans have become more politically polarized, this emphasis on self-reliance has morphed into more than a tradition of anti-intellectual shade. More Americans see an existential threat in those with different views. “What I think we see going on now, is an attack on experts as individuals, as people – demonizing those experts who disagree with our ideological viewpoints, and denigrating their professionalism,” says Matt Motta, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Indeed, President Trump has challenged the professionalism of the highest rungs of US law enforcement – not only “angry Democrats” but also long-respected Republicans with sterling reputations and impeccable résumés, like special counsel Robert Mueller and even the late Arizona Sen. John McCain. Asheley Landrum, a professor of science communication at the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, says, “The more that influential people give us a reason to mistrust one another, the more distrusting we get, and the more cynical we become of other people’s motives.”

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Is America's distrust of 'elites' becoming more toxic?

There’s a not-so-subtle side-eye tradition in America when it comes to its credentialed elites.  

The muckety-mucks who make a mess of things, the “pointy-headed college professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight,” the Ivy-educated class of experts and government bureaucrats who pull the levers of power from afar.

It often stands hand-in-hand with a reciprocal tradition of heroism for the self-made man who, armed with instinct, self-reliance, and force of will, forgoes the Ivy towers and makes a fortune through a more native creativity, unrestrained and unadulterated.

“I think it’s almost baked into the American character,” says Wendy Rahn, a professor of political science the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, noting that historians have long traced a mindset of social egalitarianism that distinguished Americans from European distinctions based on birth and class.

“So to the extent that ‘experts’ are seen as violating that normative order, I think that there’s always been a suspicion that ‘they don't live in the real world,’ ” continues Professor Rahn, an expert in populist movements. “‘We have experience and common sense’ – some elite with education and credentials who claims to know more than we do has never sat very well with people.”

While this tradition of looking askance at those with pedigreed résumés has also stood behind many and various populist movements in American history, scholars say, it has begun to morph into more than angry glares. Instead of a baked-in emphasis on self-reliance and “rugged individualism,” more and more Americans see an existential threat in the political other’s corrupt character and way of seeing the world. 

Indeed, many of the populist appeals President Trump tweets out to his followers fall into patterns seen even before the nation’s founding, scholars say. Suspicion of experts is “a long-lasting American tradition,” says Claude Fischer, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “And I think there’s also a long-lasting American tradition to ride that politically.”

In the 1952 presidential race, Dwight Eisenhower accused his opponent Adlai Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois, of using “aristocratic explanations in Harvard words.” President Lyndon Johnson said “self-styled intellectuals ... are more concerned with the trivia and the superficial than they are with the things that have really built America.” Spiro Agnew, vice president during the Nixon administration, called the press “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

“But I think that the backlash against experts that we see today is different,” says Matt Motta, a postdoctoral fellow studying the politics of science communication at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Both sides still tend to appeal to experts when it’s convenient for them, when the experts agree with what they have to say.”

“But then, what I think we see going on now, is an attack on experts as individuals, as people – demonizing those experts who disagree with our ideological viewpoints, and denigrating their professionalism,” Dr. Motta says.

Mr. Trump’s outsider presidency itself can be seen as a manifestation of this anti-elite strain. And the president has fed it: Not just an effete corps of snobs, Mr. Trump now calls reporters the “enemy of the people.” The president has also challenged the professionalism of the highest rungs of US law enforcement – affixing the title of “angry Democrats” to Republicans with sterling reputations and impeccable résumés. These include the special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush. The Mexican ancestry of a judge born in Indiana and presiding over a class-action lawsuit involving one of his companies, Trump said, itself made the judge biased against him.

“The more that influential people give us a reason to mistrust one another, the more distrusting we get, and the more cynical we become of other people’s motives,” says Asheley Landrum, a professor of science communication at the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Not only does this tear at the national fabric, it also casually ignores that, in fact, the role of experts is essential. “We do have to operate in a society that has a division of cognitive labor, where we have experts, and we need to rely on one another because we don’t have the time or resources to be experts in everything,” Professor Landrum says.

Still, America’s general distrust of elites, many historians say, is nevertheless part of a tradition of independence and individualism that many believe has made the country “exceptional.” It unmoors individuals from hoary traditions, and along with a “history is bunk” mindset, a spirit of self-reliance with an emphasis on experience enables a free-wheeling creativity, especially in industry and technology, yielding accomplishments rarely matched during the past two centuries.

“But I guess the thing that worries me is just how much more politicized every aspect of American life has become from university life to the press and even athletics,” says Rahn. “That to me is more fundamental than kind of the populism that’s landed on top of it, and that’s a much more difficult tide to turn back.”

From climate change to GMOs

In the realm of science, too, traditional skepticism toward experts has also fueled vexing polarization. For those like Motta who trace American attitudes toward science and scientific consensus, the most glaring manifestation of distrust remains attitudes toward climate change on the right. 

“But one of the things that I often tell people is that it’s important to recognize that while the distrust of scientists and while the rejection of scientific consensus is more common on the ideological right, it exists on the ideological left as well,” says Motta. “It is less common, but there are certain issues on which liberals look a lot like conservatives in their rejection of science and scientific expertise.”

For example, the issue of genetically modified organisms has long galvanized widespread opposition from left-wing groups. But like climate change, there is a broad scientific consensus among researchers: There is no factual evidence that GMOs present any risks to health.  

“For some of the most anti-GMO activists, however, it’s more ideological,” says Rahn. “It’s more anti-corporate, anti-global capitalism, but I think for ordinary people, it’s mostly just not understanding what technology is all about and the fact that it’s food – it seems impure somehow.”

Political polarization has transformed a general distrust of experts into various kinds of conspiracy theories. Opponents of both climate change and GMOs often point to funding sources, whether from industry sources or the government, and question the integrity and professionalism of researchers, suggesting they provide the findings they’re essentially paid to report.  

“There are a lot of people out there who hold low levels of trust of a lot of different political institutions and related institutions,” says Motta. “And we know that these people tend to be more prone to conspiratorial thinking, and are more likely to latch onto conspiracy theories and to not trust information coming from the government.” 

Beyond American individualism

There are exceptions: So far, distrust of professional expertise has not extended to certain professions, such as commercial pilot, astronaut, and structural and nuclear engineers.

“Now in people’s practical lives, people rely on having doctors who really are credentialed experts, and they turn to lawyers when they need lawyers,” says Professor Fischer. “Still, this theme that anybody’s opinion is as good as anybody else’s opinion is, I think, very deep in American society.”

“But the extent to which Trump and Trump-like speakers call on things like the defense of white Christian identity, they’re operating on what you might say is a different part of the American musical score – I mean, this is a different set of issues than just being expressions of American individualism,” he says, referring to the country's cultural battles over race, religion, and sexuality.

In fact, the current emphasis on race and immigration in the current populist movement is hardly a celebration of rugged individualism, championed especially by conservative libertarians. “If you’re a true libertarian, the fact that you’re born in this country or not born in this country, the fact that you’re white or you’re black, you speak English or you don’t speak English, is supposed to be irrelevant,” says Fischer. “It’s your performance in a sort of open market of competition that’s supposed to be the only thing that’s supposed to matter.”

The irony of the growing cynicism and and even demonization of credentialed elites, says Landrum, is the fact that in a world getting exponentially more complex, people necessarily have to rely on experts.  

“I think that a lot of this populism that we see now is some of that cynicism starting to take hold,” she says. “And trust is somewhat fragile in our institutions, in our authorities.”

“Americans do have this sort of special historical rebel attitude, or this idea of independence on the frontier where, we can do most things ourselves – you know, a local reliance, a self-reliance, an American kind of individualism,” Landrum continues, especially in her home state of Texas. “But we still have the problem of not having the time or ability to do it on our own. We have to rely on each other – we don’t have the time or mental resources to know everything.”

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2. The Kremlin pushes pension reform – and the Russian public pushes back

The phrase “Russian democracy” often elicits a wink and a nudge in the West. But very occasionally, the Russian people rise up to make their voices heard. This summer, it has happened, revealing frustrations that often simmer below the surface.

Mark
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A woman holds a poster rejecting the rise in the pension ages to 65 for men and 63 for women, during a rally in Moscow on Aug. 21. Russians are protesting government plans to hike the retirement age, in a rare challenge to President Vladimir Putin's leadership.

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Thousands of people have demonstrated angrily in Russian cities in recent weeks. Debates in the usually sedate Russian parliament have been fierce. It's all because the long-taboo issue of pension reform is back on the table in Russia. The plan is to raise the basic retirement age from the Soviet-era level of 55 for women to 63, and for men from 60 to 65. But public opinion polls show a whopping 9 out of 10 people oppose the reform. Due to the collapse of birthrates in the 1990s and despite recent improvements, the balance between retired and employed Russians is set to worsen sharply in coming decades. But whatever the economic need, the abruptness of the measure – coming on the heels of several years of falling real incomes and combined with the lack of any preparatory public discussion about it – appears to have created a social response that the government was unprepared for. “If someone was planning to retire next year, now they can't,” says Masha Lipman, editor of the political journal Counterpoint. “It's really easy to understand a thing like this. Hence this outpouring of anger. People feel cheated, robbed, taken advantage of.”

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The Kremlin pushes pension reform – and the Russian public pushes back

It is potentially the biggest political challenge for the Kremlin since 2005.

That was the year that the government's plans to reform the Soviet-era system of social benefits were derailed by mass disobedience from veterans and pensioners. It is probably the memory of those protests that has kept Russia from considering raising its pension ages for more than a dozen years.

But now, the long-taboo issue of pension reform is back on the table. A law working its way through the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, would significantly raise the pension age for retiring Russians as early as next Jan. 1. And like a surprise summer storm, the proposal has shattered Russia's social peace.

Thousands of people have demonstrated angrily in Moscow and other Russian cities in recent weeks, debates in the usually sedate Duma have been fierce – with all parties other than the ruling United Russia voting against the bill in its first reading – while public opinion polls show a whopping 9 out of 10 people oppose the reform. It is even stirring a grassroots effort to block the law via popular referendum, the first Russia has seen in 25 years.

“Issues like this should be discussed with people before they decide to impose them,” says Vladimir Kashkarov, a Communist Party activist in the Siberian region of Altai, who has joined an initiative committee with over 100 other local people to gather signatures to demand a nationwide referendum on the reform.

“When a few people in the United Russia party in the Duma can just decide like that for everybody, they have no right to call it democracy,” he says. “People should have their say. And, out here in Siberia, our lives are hard and our salaries are low. People cannot survive without their pensions.”

‘People feel cheated’

The proposed pension reform is similar to those being enacted in some Western countries, and it's been long advocated by liberal advisers to the Russian government. The plan is to introduce a step-by-step raising of the basic retirement age from the Soviet-era level of 55 for women to 63, and for men from 60 to 65.

It was never going to be popular. But it has been put forward now due to a sense that the recently re-elected Vladimir Putin has enough accumulated political capital to push through unpopular decisions like this. And experts assert that the current pension system is unsustainable amid economic stagnation and a worsening demographic situation.

But the abruptness of the measure – coming on the heels of several years of falling real incomes and combined with the lack of any preparatory public discussion about it – appear to have created a social response that the government was unprepared for.

“This plan to change the pension age has become a lightning rod for all sorts of discontent,” says Masha Lipman, editor of Counterpoint, a Russian-language political journal published by George Washington University. “People are upset about corruption, lack of access to health care and other services, high-handed officials who won't give up their own privileges, and, of course, the immediacy of this measure. If someone was planning to retire next year, now they can't. It's really easy to understand a thing like this. Hence this outpouring of anger. People feel cheated, robbed, taken advantage of.”

Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with local officials in Kaliningrad, Russia, on July 20. Putin appears to trying to tamp down public distress over a proposal to raise the national retirement age, saying he will listen to 'all opinions' on the matter.

According to the Russian Federal State Statistics Service, or Rosstat, life expectancy was 66 for men and 77 for women in 2016. There are currently 36 million pensioners in Russia, with 73 million employed people. But, due to the collapse of birthrates in the 1990s and despite recent improvements, the balance between retired and employed Russians is set to worsen sharply in coming decades.

State contributions to keep the pension fund topped off have been growing for years. Although Mr. Putin has pledged to focus on social needs in his new term, including roads, education, and health care, there is going to have to be belt-tightening and cutbacks in other areas, experts say.

“The main reason the government decided to do this is to reduce transfers from the federal budget to the pension fund,” says Oksana Sinyavskaya, a social policy expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “But we should be under no illusions that after raising the retirement age, all the problems in our pension system will be solved. We need a much wider package of measures, in the pension system and the labor market. Much depends on how that will proceed in future.”

Softening the blow?

But first the Kremlin is going to have to address the mounting political challenge it has unleashed. Focus groups conducted by the independent Levada public opinion agency found a general mood of dissatisfaction with government priorities that seem to put people's needs last.

“Many respondents felt that change was inevitable, yet they were not quite prepared for it. People admitted that there is no money in state coffers but attributed that to the costs of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the 2018 World Cup, and Russia’s ongoing intervention in Syria. Respondents complained about Russia being ‘too engrossed in defense and military operations in recent years,’ being ‘saddled with Crimea,’ and having to rebuild war-torn Syria,” writes Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the Levada-Center.

“Indeed, the public increasingly believes that the government’s goal is to implement another ‘scheme to take away people’s money.’ The belief that reforms always end up hurting the people emerged during the 1990s, and, nowadays, people speak in similar terms about the pension reform plan,” he writes.

The Russian media is now speculating that Mr. Putin will offer some concessions as he takes to the road to visit various regions this week, to soften the reform and tamp down public reaction.

Perhaps to let off steam, the Central Election Commission (CEC) agreed earlier this month to permit the first referendum in 25 years to take place on this issue, if activists can raise 2 million signatures in at least 42 Russian regions in the next month and a half.

That sounds like it should be simple to do. But activists complain they are not being permitted to register their initiative groups for signature-gathering. The CEC only allows one group per region to collect signatures, and it's been first come, first serve as to who gets to do so in any particular locale.

That leaves the broader referendum effort fractured among multiple groups that aren't cooperating – for example in Moscow, a mayoral candidate named Ilya Sviridov has registered, leaving Communist Party workers furious at being turned away. And some even say fake groups have signed up to stymie the signature effort in some regions.

“Everybody involved, including the Communist leadership, is interested in no referendum taking place,” says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the left-wing Institute of Globalization and Social Movements. “But nobody wants things getting out of control, with people taking to the streets, so we have to have this charade of political activity. It will go on for some time, and it might even get interesting, but in the end it will be like our elections – with the preordained result being what we have to live with.”

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3. Back to school in Texas, one year after a hurricane

Hurricane Harvey created a "we're in this together" atmosphere among schools in some of the hardest-hit cities, like Port Aransas, Texas. A year on, the camaraderie lingers, as does the cleanup. 

Mark

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When hurricane Harvey hit last year, an estimated 1.4 million Texas students were impacted, including those in the Gulf Coast island town of Port Aransas. The small district serves fewer than 500 students, but the Category 4 hurricane took a heavy toll: $12.5 million in damage, with no building left untouched. Before Port Aransas schools started reopening in mid-October, most K-12 students were enrolled in the Flour Bluff Independent School District in nearby Corpus Christi. To ease the transition, Port Aransas educators remained a visible presence, keeping their students grounded and up to date on the recovery progress. Students in the two districts bonded with each other. As a new school year begins, Port Aransas educators talk about the changes they’ve seen. “Our kids don’t take anything for granted, because they know anything can be taken away at any time,” says Port Aransas High School principal Jim Potts. “The students aren’t bucking us on doors being locked. They’re not questioning being on time or being accountable, because they know we care about them.”

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Back to school in Texas, one year after a hurricane

It’s the end of the school day, and kindergarten teacher Katy Spofford is all smiles as she makes her way to the lobby of H.G. Olsen Elementary School in Port Aransas, Texas. Outside, the sun glares hot upon bare-backed roofers and hard-hatted road crews throughout this coastal town as recovery continues from hurricane Harvey. But inside, H.G. Olsen is an air-conditioned oasis of color-coordinated calm the first week of school.

The Port Aransas Independent School District is small, with three campuses serving fewer than 500 students, and the Category 4 hurricane took a heavy toll, racking up $12.5 million in damage and leaving no building untouched.

The story was the same throughout Texas, where an estimated 1.4 million students were impacted, and school districts scrambled to make repairs.

In Port Aransas, schools had only been in session a few days when the storm hit, replacing beach-happy bliss with cataclysmic chaos.

Boats lay strewn across the roadways, draped in live electrical wires. Dead fish littered the high school track. Natural gas mingled with ground water. More than 2,500 homes in the city of 4,000 residents were heavily damaged or destroyed.

The schools suffered such catastrophic damage that they were unable to reopen until mid-October, and every class had to be held in portables. By Christmas, the elementary and high school students were back in their buildings, but the middle schoolers, who lost their roof, were unable to return to their building until the end of last school year.

Mrs. Spofford felt helpless. She had spent a quarter of her life – her entire teaching career – in the classroom at H.G. Olsen, and though she had only spent a few days with her newest students, she worried about them. Her own home had not been damaged, but most of her students and colleagues had lost everything.

Nearby schools make room 

Many families took temporary residence on nearby Padre Island, which was relatively unscathed, and most Port Aransas students enrolled in the Flour Bluff Independent School District in nearby Corpus Christi. It was reassuring to know that their education was being taken care of, but still, teachers and school administrators worried. Flour Bluff is a massive district, serving 5,700 students – more than the entire population of Port Aransas. How would the children – already caught in an untenable situation – adjust to their new environment?

Port Aransas High School Principal Jim Potts had an idea. He had just taken the helm at the school after vacating his position as an assistant principal at Flour Bluff High School, so he knew the challenges the students from the smaller schools would face, and he still had a close working relationship with his former colleagues.

Together, they devised a plan – Flour Bluff would tend to the educational needs of the K-12 students, but the Port Aransas educators would remain a visible presence, keeping their students grounded and up-to-date on the recovery progress.

On the first day of class, the Port Aransas principals and teachers went to their respective schools in Flour Bluff, greeting their students and doling out equal amounts of hugs and reassurance. Some, like Mr. Potts, showed up every morning to say hello and answer questions.

Others, like Spofford, volunteered for daily lunch duty. An outsider might have seen a soft-spoken teacher helping students open milk cartons, but being there every afternoon helped her, too. 

“Even after only three days together, they were my babies, and it was hard to let them go,” Spofford says, clutching her hands to her heart. “Kids are very resilient – they love their teachers and they’re excited to go to school. But we knew the most important thing was to love on the kids.”

Potts feels the interaction was equally beneficial to the older children, who looked to him for daily progress reports.

“Emotionally, it helped our students to see their teachers in the hallways and have them say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ or ‘We’re almost there,’ ” he says. “It gave them a sense of hope of when they could come home.”

Still, they had to maintain balance between encouragement and coddling, so they were careful to remain in the background, allowing the Flour Bluff teachers to do their jobs, even when teaching styles differed.

Likewise, Flour Bluff administrators were careful to make the Port Aransas students feel included but not absorbed. They printed t-shirts with logos from both districts. Port Aransas doesn’t have a football team, so during Homecoming Week, Flour Bluff high schoolers made chrysanthemum corsages in the Port Aransas school colors as well as their own.

The students handled the transition well. Although the Texas Education Agency gave a special accountability reprieve to 109 school districts impacted by the hurricane, Port Aransas didn’t need it. They, along with Flour Bluff ISD, achieved an “A” on the state’s accountability report card, with Port Aransas High School achieving seven distinction designations for academic achievement in the 2017-2018 school year.

Swapping stories and gratitude

The two districts remain close, as do many of the students. The cross-country track teams recently met for breakfast and a morning run along the beach. Potts still talks to his former colleagues often, and teachers from both districts swap stories about “their” students when they run into one another at H-E-B, the local grocery store. In the foyer at Brundrett Middle School in Port Aransas, more than 30 flags from schools across the country serve as a daily reminder to students of everyone who sent donations and helped when they were in need.

Every floor tile, every shingle, every steel beam, every desk – they’re all held with new respect. Even school rules are being upheld cheerfully in the 2018-19 school year, which started Aug. 20, including new ones addressing campus safety. 

“Our kids don’t take anything for granted, because they know anything can be taken away at any time,” Potts says. “The students aren’t bucking us on doors being locked. They’re not questioning being on time or being accountable, because they know we care about them.”

Even the youngest have found a new gratitude for everyday things. Last Thanksgiving, Spofford gave her class a routine assignment – write about the thing for which they were most grateful.

“I had this one student,” Spofford says, her eyes glistening. “She wrote that she was thankful for upstairs. That’s it. She was thankful her family had an upstairs.”

A place to shelter during the storm. A place to sleep when the waters had receded. A place to call home in this close-knit community.

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4. Remembering John McCain: the quintessential patriot

John McCain left such a deep impression on the United States partly because his character left such a deep impression on those he met. Three Monitor writers who saw him up close share their portraits of the late senator. 

Mark
Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Sen. John McCain addresses the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., Sept. 4, 2008. The longtime Arizona senator ran twice for president.

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Sen. John McCain was a legend in American politics. From his survival as a prisoner who endured torture during the Vietnam War to his four decades in Congress representing Arizona, he stood as a fiercely independent and courageous man, sometimes hot-tempered and famously blunt. The Republican ran twice for president. Above all else, perhaps, McCain advocated a return to what he saw as core American values – and a sense of common purpose. Former Monitor staff writer and Navy pilot Brad Knickerbocker first encountered McCain during basic jet training in 1965, where, he writes, “I got a taste of McCain’s infamous temper.... When I encountered him again years later, the first thing he said as we shook hands was: ‘I’m sorry for the way I was then.’ I was a little startled – and impressed.” His grit and occasional outbursts remained part of his personality, but there was also a measure of humility, as well as a fierce sense of personal honor that had been honed under terrifying conditions.

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2. Remembering John McCain: the quintessential patriot

Sen. John McCain was a legend in American politics. From his survival as a prisoner who endured torture during the Vietnam War to his four decades in Congress representing Arizona, he stood as a fiercely independent and courageous man, sometimes hot-tempered and famously blunt. The Republican ran twice for president. Even in his final stretch, unwell at his home in Arizona and unable to cast votes on Capitol Hill, Senator McCain still reveled in public life, putting out press releases with sharp opinions and publishing one final memoir in May. Above all else, perhaps, McCain advocated a return to what he saw as core American values – and a sense of common purpose. In his various life chapters, Monitor reporters, past and present, had an opportunity to interact with and observe him up close. They share some of their impressions here.

AP
Lt. Commander John McCain III, a POW for more than five years, waved to well wishers March 18, 1973 after arriving at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. At left was his first wife, Carol, and son Doug. McCain went on to serve more than 40 years in Congress as first a representative and then senator from Arizona.

***

As John Sidney McCain III came of age, there was little doubt that he would enter the family business.

His grandfather and father – John Sidney McCain Sr. and John Sidney McCain Jr. – had graduated from the US Naval Academy, advancing to become combat-tested, highly-decorated four-star admirals.

At Annapolis, the younger John McCain was among the rowdier midshipmen, racking up demerits, lucky to have graduated fifth from the bottom of his class in 1958. He was a lightweight boxer known for being a hothead.

As a student naval aviator in basic jet training in 1965, I got a taste of McCain’s infamous temper.

A flight instructor, McCain began the pre-flight briefing hollering obscenities and personal abuse, which continued during the flight and through the post-flight debriefing back in the ready room. Sometimes when flying, he’d take off his kneeboard and whack student pilots – including me – on the helmet.

When I encountered him again years later, the first thing he said as we shook hands was: “I’m sorry for the way I was then.” I was a little startled – and impressed.

His grit and occasional outbursts remained part of his personality, but there was also a measure of humility, as well as a fierce sense of personal honor that had been honed under terrifying conditions.

In 1967, on his 23rd  combat mission over North Vietnam, McCain’s A-4 Skyhawk jet was blasted out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. He had broken both arms and a leg in the violent ejection, and he was to endure more than five years of brutal captivity, including long periods of isolation and torture. His posture and limited arm movements half a century later were reminders of the mistreatment, in particular being trussed up in ropes tight enough to dislocate shoulders.

Like most military pilots, McCain had a reputation for physical toughness and macho independence. But in the end, he and his fellow POWs survived on tenderness, community, and a different kind of mental and spiritual strength.

Of his fellow prisoners McCain wrote in “Faith of my Fathers,” his 1999 family memoir: “They were a lantern for me, a lantern of courage and faith that illuminated the way home with honor, and I struggled against panic and despair to stay in its light.”

As a Republican United States senator, McCain publicly defended fellow senators John Kerry and Robert Kerrey – both decorated Vietnam vets and both Democrats – when they came under political attack. He worked with then-Senator Kerry on war-related issues, including those involving missing American soldiers.

McCain also spoke out strongly against the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture. In May, he opposed the nomination of Gina Haspel, who had supervised one of the sites where waterboarding occurred, to lead the CIA.

“I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the US not only joined, but for the most part authored,” he said in a Senate statement in 2014.

For him, again, it was a matter of honor.

– Brad Knickerbocker

***

As a presidential candidate, McCain was one-of-a-kind. While most of his competitors avoided or even feared reporters, Senator McCain welcomed our company. His hours-long rolling press conferences in a van called the Straight Talk Express were legendary. He cracked jokes – some in the Henny Youngman “take my wife, please” genre, many of them unprintable – and argued policy with gusto.

I sat down for one-on-one interviews with McCain twice, once during each of his presidential campaigns, and found a reflective man. The first time, over lunch at the diner in Peterborough, N.H., we talked about his temperament – and whether voters would see him as “presidential.”

McCain said proudly that, in the 10 months of the 2000 campaign to date, “no one has ever been able to say I’ve lost my temper.” And he still seemed shaken by an episode several years before when he got angry with his young son, and shook him hard by the arm. “I don’t know if he remembers that, but I sure do,” he said.

The second time we spoke was in 2008, when he chose the former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate – a choice he later came to regard as a mistake. In that second interview, the topic was faith. As a public servant, McCain was known for his strongly held policy views and hard-charging style, and was never a darling of the religious right. But beneath that lay a deep faith in God that he said got him through his captivity in Vietnam, “and got me through honorably.”

In our interview, McCain spoke of the informal Sunday church services he had with his fellow prisoners, toward the end of the war when they were out of isolation. McCain was named room chaplain, “not because the senior ranking officer thought I was imbued with any particular extra brand of religion, but because I knew all of the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed,” he said.

On the stump, McCain often told the story of the prison guard who stood beside him silently one Christmas Day, and drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal. “My friends, I will never forget that man,” McCain told voters at a town hall in 2007, his voice choked with emotion.

At a later McCain town hall I attended, in Fort Myers, Fla., the senator demonstrated his skill with voters. An antiwar heckler stood and interrupted McCain; instead of ignoring him or yelling back, McCain handed him the microphone.

But the 2008 campaign moment that McCain may be most remembered for came a month before the election. A woman at a town hall disparaged McCain’s opponent, Barack Obama, as an “Arab,” and McCain firmly but politely cut her off.

“No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”

Almost 10 years later, such insistence on civility has grown increasingly rare in American politics. By 2016, McCain’s enduring friendship with the Democratic vice president, Joe Biden, was so unusual it merited an award.

By the end of his Senate career, McCain still struggled at times to keep his cool. But he never stopped trying, and for that – and many other qualities – he will long be remembered.

– Linda Feldmann

***

Five years ago, when I began covering Congress for the Monitor, my predecessor, Gail Chaddock, showed me around the Capitol. She stopped at the top of a grand marble staircase, and pointed to an enormous, gold-framed canvas, Battle of Lake Erieby William Henry Powell.

It was John McCain’s favorite painting in the Senate, she said. The heroic Oliver Hazard Perry is depicted standing in a rowboat, his outstretched arm pointing the way through cannon smoke and choppy water, as his wounded crew pulls toward victory over a British fleet in the War of 1812.

McCain had shared his love for the painting at a time when he was under attack from members of his own party for working across the aisle, trying to avoid a default on the national debt. “Do you see yourself in [it]?” Gail had asked him, assuming he would relate to Commodore Perry.

But to her surprise, he pointed to a different figure – a near-drowned sailor clinging to a piece of wreckage in the bottom-right corner. “I see myself as him,” he laughed, an obvious comment on the beating he was getting from his Republican colleagues.

In truth, McCain was both these men – the leader and the drowning sailor. That’s what happens when you dare to work with the other side on contentious issues, as McCain did repeatedly over his six terms as a US senator (he served two terms in the House before that).

As chairman of the Armed Services Committee, McCain was known as a defense hawk, fighting for military spending and the men and women who serve in the armed forces. He believed in the projection of American power, and he sharply criticized presidents – Democratic and Republican – who did not meet his national security standards.

But he also regularly worked with Democrats, which put him in the crosshairs of his own party.

He championed bipartisan restrictions on campaign finance in the face of stiff resistance from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky. The reforms became law in 2002, but later the Supreme Court struck down a key part as an infringement on free speech.

McCain also teamed with the Senate’s leading liberal, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, to give unauthorized immigrants a path to legal status. That was ideological heresy to many Republicans. Although the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, the GOP-controlled House never took it up.

More recently, Americans might remember McCain for his dramatic late-night – and unexpected – thumbs down in July 2017 that killed the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. He objected that the bill didn’t go through the regular, bipartisan process.

Two days before that vote, McCain, just back from the surgery that uncovered his illness, gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, denouncing political tribalism as the worst he’d ever seen. He dressed down his colleagues for putting winning above all else and failing to engage with the other side – as frustrating and slow as that can be.

“Let’s see if we can pass something that will be imperfect, full of compromises, and not very pleasing to implacable partisans on either side – but that might provide workable solutions to problems Americans are struggling with today.”

A call to the Senate’s higher self by a man with more experience than many on that floor. When he was done, the entire Senate rose in applause. It was an emotional, candid, patriotic speech – and it was quintessential McCain. 

– Francine Kiefer

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5. Spare some change? Helping the poor in a cashless society.

Big technological shifts can often leave the poor behind, at least at first. But a nonprofit in England is attempting the reverse with mobile payments that promote spontaneous generosity.

Mark

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As more people are comfortable going without cash, panhandlers, who rely on small donations from passersby for food and other necessities, are feeling the squeeze. Attempting to help is Greater Change, a not-for-profit venture in Cambridge, England, that aims to facilitate mobile payments to people facing homelessness while also helping them save for long-term needs. “This is trying to tackle an increasingly cashless society,” says Alex McCallion, the program’s founder “and trying to tackle a problem where people are less generous, or don't give at all, because they wonder if their money is actually helping.” But some observers see a dehumanizing element in the system, which allows donors to scan a QR code worn by the person in need and view the individual's profile. “Instead of just giving money out of the goodness of your heart,” says James Shearer, a formerly homeless journalist who founded Spare Change News, a street newspaper in Boston, “now you're picking and choosing.”

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Spare some change? Helping the poor in a cashless society.

“Sorry. I don’t have cash,” is one of the most common phrases panhandlers hear from passersby, if they hear anything at all.

And it’s becoming truer each year: In 2016, Gallup found that just 24 percent of respondents made “all” or “most” of their purchases with cash, down from 36 percent who said they did so five years earlier. The polling company attributes this trend to the rise in digital payments and mobile credit card readers.

“It’s a real problem for us,” says Michael Shorey, a former panhandler who now sells Spare Change News, a Boston-area biweekly street newspaper, across the street from Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Mass. Created to help people experiencing homelessness, each issue sells for $2, cash, of which Mr. Shorey earns $1.50. “People are always asking me if I have one of those things I can chip my phone in.”

In a city of the same name, more than 3,000 miles east, is a venture attempting to address the challenge that today’s cashless society poses to people in need. Greater Change, a not-for-profit program in Cambridge, England, aims to facilitate mobile cash transfers to people experiencing homelessness or who are in vulnerable housing situations.

The program offers panhandlers a QR code, such as the kind used for online tickets, on a lanyard. Passersby can scan the code, which brings up a biography of the person in need and an option to donate.

But they don’t get the money straight away. Instead, participants meet with a support worker, who helps them to set a savings goal for a purchase that could make a long-term difference, such as a passport, which is needed for work in Britain, or a rent deposit. Once the goal is met, the money goes directly to the passport office, to a landlord that has been vetted by the support worker, or whomever provides the needed good or service.

Thanks in part to anonymous matching donations, the program has helped 11 people reach their savings goals so far, says Alex McCallion, the social entrepreneur and recent Oxford graduate who founded the project within Aspire Oxford, a charity that offers stable jobs to people facing barriers to employment.

“This is trying to tackle an increasingly cashless society,” says Mr. McCallion, “and trying to tackle a problem where people are less generous, or don't give at all, because they wonder if their money is actually helping in the long run.”

Since its launch, Greater Change, which was incubated at Oxford University, has received considerable attention from the British press. “People have been getting funded quickly,” thanks in part to the news coverage, says McCallion. 

But not all coverage has been wholly positive. Some reports have expressed unease at the idea of asking the needy to wear identifying insignia, a practice that recalls the notorious “beggars’ badges” required by some communities in England, Scotland, and Ireland between the 16th and 19th centuries, as more and more people were driven to vagrancy after losing access to communal land.

“It’s designed to increase the overall amount of money given to help poor people,” says David Hitchcock, a historian at Canterbury Christ Church University who specializes in homelessness in early modern England. “But that always goes hand-in-hand with a desire to differentiate the people who deserve help from the people who don't.”

Others warn that the giving mechanism encourages would-be donors to stand in judgement of the poor, looking at their online profile instead of interacting with the person in front of them. “Instead of just giving money out of the goodness of your heart, now you're picking and choosing,” says journalist James Shearer, who in 1992 helped found Spare Change News in Cambridge, Mass. “It takes away the human interaction.”

McCallion emphasizes that, unlike the beggars’ badges of old, the QR codes are entirely optional: They can be put on a card, for instance, instead of worn around the neck. Or they could not be used at all. Similarly, participants concerned about privacy need not use their real names or a photo in their bio. “It’s designed with a lot of flexibility in mind,” says McCallion, “keeping it such that people can use it the way they want to use it.”

He also points out that office workers can often be seen wearing scannable badges without shame, perhaps suggesting that any discomfort with the technology is really a displacement of our discomfort with homelessness itself.

In addition to creating opportunities for charitable matching, Greater Change’s system has one other advantage over cash: It can’t be stolen. Practically speaking, a QR code is no different from a piece of paper with a web address on it. Stealing one won’t give you access to anyone’s bank account, and they can be easily replaced.

The pervasiveness of theft in the homeless community was highlighted when Shorey, the Spare Change vendor near Harvard, had a bag containing his Spare Change vendor ID badge stolen out from under him while he spoke with a reporter.

“It’s not a big deal,” he shrugged. “It happens a lot.”

Shorey doubts that Greater Change’s savings system would work for panhandlers in the United States. “They need the money right away,” he says, pointing out a bench where, he says, a number of homeless people have been found dead in recent years.

McCallion, who has been working with homeless populations for about four years and says that he initially experimented with a system where donations could be immediately redeemed for food and other necessities, but that, at least in Oxford, those short-term needs were already being met by charities and social services. If Greater Change were to export its program to other countries, it would adjust accordingly, McCallion says.

Dr. Hitchcock, the Christ Church historian, is skeptical of a genuine dichotomy between short-term and long-term donations. “It's probably a bit of a false choice,” he says, “you can probably do both if you're a generous person and you want to help. You could download this app and donate money and ask a homeless person what they want.” 

It’s that last one – looking up from your phone to interact with the person in need – that some say is the first step to addressing homelessness. “It's about making the connection,” says Shearer, the Spare Change founder who himself experienced homelessness a number of times. “I tell people, when you walk past homeless people, just smile, talk to them. They’re human beings."

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The Monitor's View

McCain’s mutiny against war bitterness

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To those who spent time with John McCain, his qualities of character are what will be remembered most. For his military service and as a prisoner of war from 1967 to 1973, he will always be viewed by Americans as heroic. Yet one quality will stand out in the history books because it was the moral force that helped heal a rupture between two nations, Vietnam and the United States. Despite the years of torture that he suffered as a POW, Senator McCain decided not to be bound by bitterness but to forgive. It was a choice based on the New Testament precept of “love your enemies.” In 1995, his magnanimity toward a then-unified Vietnam provided the political cover in Congress for President Bill Clinton to establish diplomatic relations with Hanoi. McCain’s forgiveness was an invitation to a different future between former adversaries. “My job has been reconciliation and healing,” he told CNN in 1999. Just a few years earlier, Nelson Mandela had been released from 27 years in a South African prison. In a 2005 book about 35 virtuous character traits, McCain used a chapter about forgiveness to focus on Mandela, noting how he had helped his countrymen forgive one another. He included this quote: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Today, Vietnam and the US have found they have too much in common not to maintain close relations. As the world remembers McCain, it can also recall how a man with a good and heroic heart found some capacity to forgive and thus provided the moral groundwork for those close ties.

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McCain’s mutiny against war bitterness

To those who spent time with John McCain, his qualities of character are what will be remembered most. The longtime Arizona Republican senator was honest and humble about himself. He lived a life of honor and duty. His colleagues called him a maverick. In his younger days, his mother called him a scamp. For his military service and as a prisoner of war from 1967 to 1973, he will always be viewed by Americans as heroic.

Yet one quality will stand out in the history books because it was the moral force that helped heal a rupture between two nations, Vietnam and the United States, in the late 20th century.

Despite the years of torture that he suffered as a POW in a Hanoi jail, Mr. McCain decided not to be bound by bitterness but to forgive. In 1995, his magnanimity toward a then-unified Vietnam provided the political cover in Congress for President Bill Clinton – who had avoided serving in the war – to establish diplomatic relations with Hanoi. McCain’s forgiveness was an invitation to a different future between former adversaries. “My job has been reconciliation and healing,” he told CNN in 1999.

His embrace of Vietnam may not have been widely noticed at the time because the world was newly inspired by a similar use of forgiveness in public reconciliation.

Just a few years earlier, Nelson Mandela had been released from 27 years in a South African prison. Without an atom of anger, he embraced the white society that had imposed apartheid on the majority blacks. 

In a 2005 book about 35 virtuous character traits, McCain used a chapter about forgiveness to focus on Mandela, noting how he had helped his countrymen forgive one another. He included this quote from Mandela: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

McCain’s role in reconciling Vietnam and the US is not just a nice piece of history. It is the kind that allows us to see beyond the limits of the senses, as American historian John Lewis Gaddis has written. When human events are transformed by qualities of character, history transcends time and space with a wider view.

Despite his essential role in normalizing ties with Vietnam, McCain was critical of the communist rulers who still suppress their people. And he could never bring himself to personally forgive those who tortured him or who killed his fellow POWs. Then again, many of the Vietnamese who suffered during the war could not forgive American troops.

Many post-conflict societies that have achieved some reconciliation, such as Rwanda and Northern Ireland, relied to a degree on contrition and forgiveness. Entire nations, if not every individual, can and often must move beyond hostility to healing.

Today, Vietnam and the US have found they have too much in common not to maintain close relations. As the world remembers McCain, it can also recall how a man with a good and heroic heart found some capacity to forgive and thus provided the moral groundwork for those close ties.

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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.

Move past labels – with love

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No matter what labels we might be given, nothing can keep us from loving others when we understand we are all the children of God.

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Move past labels – with love

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I had the opportunity to travel to my uncle’s ranch in South Africa for a two-month visit. During this time, I learned that the staff who worked on the farm played a weekly soccer game against neighboring farms. I asked if I could join sometime, but they quickly said no, it wasn’t possible.

Later, one of the men explained to me that they wanted to keep the games to just the Xhosa and Zulu workers as participants – it wasn’t personal, but they weren’t comfortable with me joining in. My cousin told me that I was excluded because I was white; this soccer game was something they could call their own, without having to share it with whites or with the boss’s family.

Knowing well the history of race inequality in South Africa, I felt my cousin’s explanation of what was really behind the decision to exclude me gave me perspective and much compassion. I wanted to show them the kind of person I really was, and follow the golden rule of treating them as I would want to be treated. I strove to continue to treat them with respect and straightforwardness. I knew this could only help lift any labels being put on me, as well as any labels the staff might have had put on them.

I’ve been particularly helped by the Lord’s Prayer when praying to address situations that involve labeling of any kind (see Matthew 6:9-13). Jesus introduces it to his audience by saying, “After this manner therefore pray ye.” To me, this introduction is saying “pray with this attitude – the spirit behind the words.” So, for example, in the opening line, “Our Father which art in heaven,” part of the meaning there to me is being willing to accept that, in Christ, Truth, the family of man is one, all residing with the Father.

A spiritual interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, given in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” by Mary Baker Eddy, brings even more light to the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. It states: “Our Father-Mother God, all-harmonious” (p. 16). God is our Father and Mother, and this perfect Father-Mother knows us as spiritual, holding us in heavenly harmony. If God is “all-harmonious,” then as God’s children, we, too, must express harmony, spirituality, and goodness. Our role, then, is to treat others with love and respect, as brothers and sisters in Truth. It’s not up to us to make others agree with us if we feel mislabeled. Given all the history behind their decision, it would have been insensitive of me to try and convince the staff at my uncle’s ranch to look past the color of my skin and let me play. But it was my responsibility to treat them based on the truth that we are all children of the same God. 

A couple of weeks later, I was reading out on the lawn when one of the young men came running by and asked if I was willing to join their team that day. They were short a man for that afternoon’s soccer game. I happily agreed, and we proceeded to play. Although I got a few funny looks from both my new teammates and our opponents, I was able to prove my worth to the team, and we enjoyed a thrilling match. Just before we were about to stop, a huge rainstorm rolled in, and instead of ending with congratulatory high-fives, we concluded by helping each other home in the torrential downpour.

As we were making our way back to our respective lodgings, one of the men pulled me aside to thank me for joining them. He said he would like it if I played with them for the rest of the time I was on the farm. I was really grateful for this fresh welcome, and I enjoyed some lovely talks and new connections with several of the young men during the rest of my time there.

I am so grateful that I can turn to God – God being the only one who can really label us – and listen to His guidance in how I should respond to anyone, in any situation. No matter the labels that others may give us, we have the right to act from the basis of what we are truly made to be: God’s children, and therefore brothers and sisters to everyone we meet.

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Viewfinder

When the cows come home

R S Iyer/AP
Cows and calves displaced during floods in the southern state of Kerala, India, are brought back to their keepers on Aug. 27. The once-in-a-century flooding has caused more than $3 billion in damage, washing out roads and buildings and damaging crops. Volunteers have leaped into action, including a team of Sikhs who cleaned out a waterlogged church in time for a Christian community to hold its Sunday mass. A 'message of humanity and communal harmony was given by our volunteers in these testing times,' said one.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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( August 28th, 2018 )

Thank you of joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when we dive into the new trade deal struck between the United States and Mexico, which could offer innovative help for workers in both countries.

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