2019
February
11
Monday
Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Welcome to the top of another go-go news week.

Many of the headlines will expose divides. So let’s take a moment to think about how compassion and community share a prefix that means “together.”

Here’s some inspiration, in two acts:

In Toronto, Rabbi Zale Newman befriended a Holocaust survivor named Eddie Ford. Mr. Ford had no network, so Mr. Newman had promised to arrange for him a Jewish funeral. The time for that came. Newman needed 10 men – for the next day. It would be 16 below zero.

Newman turned to Facebook and rounded up a few kind souls, then went to bed figuring that would have to do.

Two hundred people would turn up at the graveside.

“I’m not a mushy guy,” Newman told The Washington Post. “But I went home and cried for an hour.”

Sometimes community just happens. Sometimes it’s more intentional.

Glenda and Raphael Savitz moved to Newton, Mass., in 2016. Their daughter, Samantha, arrived a few months later. Samantha was born deaf. Her parents set about learning to sign in order to perform every parent’s task: assisting development and growth.

What they didn’t know was that about 20 neighbors would, too. Not wanting to be denied a connection to the newest child in their midst, they quietly hired an instructor and worked on proficiency. And now, the dividends.

“American Sign Language has become the second tongue now spoken on one end of Islington Road,” writes the Boston Globe’s Thomas Farragher. “Why? Because that’s Samantha Savitz’s language. And there was no way her neighbors were going to let her practice it alone.”

Now to our five stories for your Monday.

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1. As Iran’s revolution turns 40, a consensus: Things must change

The Islamic Revolution promised justice and prosperity. In the eyes of many Iranians, it delivered security but little else. The question now: What will a people do with their disillusionment? 

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
A celebrant displays a portrait of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as she makes the victory sign at a rally marking the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 11.

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After 40 years, the annual celebration marking Iran’s Islamic Revolution has barely changed: Anti-US and anti-Israel posters are held aloft, flags are torched, and martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War are venerated. Today hundreds of thousands of Iranians across the country braved snow and freezing rain to march.

But for many, the official triumphalism masks a moment of disillusion and hopelessness. Iranians enjoy security and improvements in education, health, and other areas, but government infighting and corruption and public perceptions of inequality are exacting a high price. “There is a sense of failure in many things, especially this huge gap between rich and poor,” says a veteran observer in Tehran.

Citing economic protests last year in towns where regime support has long been a given, another analyst says the country has reached a turning point. “The Islamic Republic was not a likable government all the time, but it was tolerable and something we could bargain with. It brought stability, and we voted for them.” But now the leaders have lost the people’s support, the analyst adds, and they know it, calling the gap between state and society “quite a danger for the Islamic Republic.”

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As Iran’s revolution turns 40, a consensus: Things must change

Recirculating more and more these days, as Iranians assess both the sweet and bitter fruit of 40 years of Islamic Revolution, is a video taken on the plane carrying Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.

He is about to end years of exile and touch down in Tehran.

Known by his followers as bot shekan, the “idol smasher,” Mr. Khomeini was about to sweep away 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran – and a shah who was a staunch American, Israeli, and Western ally.

Khomeini aimed to install instead an Islamic Republic that promised justice, prosperity, and a popular “government of God” that would virulently oppose the United States and Israel.

Today it is clear that Utopia never arrived: The Islamic Republic reels from an ever-growing gap between rich and poor and wide social divisions. It is afflicted by corruption, an economy crippled by US sanctions, and vicious political infighting that has left many Iranians bereft of hope about their future – and believing that the revolution has failed to fulfill its promises.

But on that day four decades ago, as Khomeini was airborne, millions of Iranians awaited their savior, at the airport and in turmoil across the capital. Street fights would escalate between revolutionaries and shah loyalists until a “glorious victory” was declared on Feb. 11, 1979.

In the video the ayatollah, on the plane in a window seat and wearing a stern look and black turban, is asked what his feelings are.

“Nothing,” said Khomeini, whose revolution still rocks global politics after four decades. And then he repeated, “Nothing.”

Today hundreds of thousands of Iranians braved snow and freezing rain to march across the country to mark the 40th anniversary of a revolution that raised expectations but has had bittersweet results. For many Iranians, the official triumphalism masks a moment of deep uncertainty, of disillusion and hopelessness that pervades their lives.

“After 40 years, the Islamic Republic has no similarity to its past,” says a political analyst and Tehran resident who asked not to be named. “It is a corrupted government…. It has some cover of religion, but is not religious. No justice. [There is] nothing [achieved] about the goals that the revolution had: justice, equality, participation of all the people. Nothing.”

AP/FIle
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's exiled religious leader, emerges from a plane at Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 1, 1979. His arrival on the chartered Air France Boeing 747 40 years ago marked a moment that has changed the country ever since.

One result is a reckoning that looked as unlikely in 1979 as it looks inevitable today about what steps Iran’s leaders can take to reform and reinvigorate the revolution. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for example, last week set a four-month deadline to restructure the budget system. Yet corruption has never been systematically taken on, and Iran’s parallel intelligence arms often work at odds with each other, trying to unmask “infiltrators” and spies.

A turning point

But much more is at stake as Iranians watch their currency shrivel in value and ask whether the return on a generation-long investment in revolution – including perennial anti-Americanism – has been worth the high cost.

“It’s a turning point in the Islamic Republic, because it’s the first time that the majority of people don’t like them,” says the analyst, citing economic protests that last year hit small towns and villages, where regime support has long been a given. “The Islamic Republic was not a likable government all the time, but it was tolerable and something we could bargain with. It brought stability, and we voted for them. All participation gave them a guarantee to stay and have stability, and they could say, ‘We have the people’s support.’ ”

“But now they don’t have it, and they do understand that,” says the analyst. “It’s quite a danger for the Islamic Republic, such a gap [with] people, between state and society.”

Still, the annual celebration has barely changed and today, as in the past, attracted Iranians from across the social spectrum, including a number of Westernized youth among the legions of more conservative and religious devotees. Anti-US and anti-Israel posters were held aloft, and flags were torched. Martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s were venerated, and devotees with loudspeakers led chants of “Death to America!”

At the 29th anniversary, a Monitor reporter watched an anti-American effigy contest, in which grim depictions of Uncle Sam vied to win a gold coin prize. And at the 35th birthday party, children took part in building waist-high toy Styrofoam centrifuges, used to enrich uranium, in a competition dubbed “Nuclear scientists of the next generation.”

Yet now the Khomeini “nothing” video is being recirculated by regime opponents to suggest that Iran’s most famous personality of the last century – and the revolution he fomented – cared little for the welfare of Iran’s people.

“If we had any wisdom, we should have understood from that very ‘nothing’ answer what was lying ahead for us,” one critic tweeted. “Alas, we were deaf and blind.”

Indeed, the Revolution raised unrealistic expectations. Khomeini himself, speaking shortly after his plane touched down on Feb. 1, 1979, told Iranians that “in addition to providing you a rich, satisfying life” – complete with a new home, free utilities, and free bus rides, he said – “we will exalt your souls.”

But such spiritual purity appears to be a rare commodity nowadays. Instead, this year most senior officials – aware that the periodic economic protests in 2018 were more widespread than ever and often targeted the leadership – tempered their enthusiasm.

Amid reports of shortages, price rises, and rationing of red meat, for instance, President Hassan Rouhani in recent days said Iran is “facing the biggest pressure and economic sanctions in the past 40 years.” He asked Iranians not to blame his “dutiful” government.

The cost of corruption

But many blame chronic incompetence and mismanagement, and have done so on this day for years.

“Happy? Are you kidding me? Of course not,” says Amir, a 30-something driver for Tehran’s “Snap” online taxi service. Five years ago he had his own small business renting luxury cars for ceremonies and weddings.

“The worst thing about this revolution has been the lack of the rule of law. Officials circumvent their own laws, and this has gone down to all levels of the public,” he says.

His business “turned upside down,” and he now struggles to make ends meet. “You don’t have any economic security because of the corruption. I have no future,” he adds.

That problem echoes widely, and not just on the streets.

“Our politicians are problem-creators rather than problem-solvers,” said conservative analyst Amir Mohebian in a late-January interview with the Iranian newspaper Arman. “The government should keep in mind that protests from the lower class have every potential to turn radical.”

Official President website/Reuters
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 11, 2019.

Despite such views, Mr. Khamenei sought to reinforce the pillars of the revolution in a speech Friday, saying the nation’s “massive presence” on the streets “scares and breaks the enemy [as] an embodiment of national resolve and unity.”

“Death to the USA!” chants did not mean an end to the American nation, he clarified, but death to its rulers. He named President Trump and others.

Yet, according to reformist analyst Sadegh Zibakalam, that anti-imperialism campaign has “served as a poison and inflicted the biggest harm upon the Islamic Republic,” since the original discourse of the revolution “was about freedom and democracy.”

“If you force our radical and hard-line revolutionary people into not using the name ‘America’ in their speeches, they will have nothing to say,” Mr. Zibakalam said in a public debate last December. “They have been hiding behind this for 40 years, refusing to address the fundamental issues.”

‘At least we have security’

Still, for some Iranians, the revolutionary glass remains half full.

“I’m happy because at least we have security,” says Haj Esmaeel Malayeri, a rich, religious, and bearded businessman in his late 60s in west Tehran.

“It’s not Utopia, I know. But take a look around. All our neighbors are in misery and instability,” he says. “Let’s be fair. This revolution has been facing pressure from almost all world powers, but it has managed to survive, and that’s enough to make us feel happy.”

But perceptions of inequality are exacting a high price.

“There is a sense of failure in many things, especially this huge gap between rich and poor,” says a veteran observer in Tehran who asked not to be named. Indeed, social media posts showed some marchers today carrying signs with the slogans “No to embezzlement,” and “No to aghazadehs,” the derogatory term for the well-connected, rich, and ostentatious offspring of the elite.

For most Iranians, life has improved “very much” since 1979 in terms of education, health, roads, and communication, the observer says, but adds that a majority of ordinary Iranians sympathized with the 2018 protests, even if they did not participate.

“Maybe this is a lesson to learn that riots aren’t the way out,” he says. “But what is the way out? Nobody has the answer. So that adds to the feeling of frustration that nothing is getting better.”

One solution may lie in accountability for corruption, suggests the reformist newspaper Ghanoon. An article last week called for an end to luxurious displays in front of fellow Iranians “who have no bread to eat.”

“Isn’t it better … to bring to justice all those institutions which are tasked with auditing and supervision and ask them why they were fast asleep this whole time?” asked the newspaper. “The monarchical lifestyle keeps parading itself before the eyes of our common people in the form of fancy cars with arrogant drivers who break the hearts of the needy.”

But politics still trumps the economy in revolutionary Iran.

“There are certain people in our country who insist on extremism,” the reformist lawmaker Mahmoud Sadeghi railed last week. “We have to be worried about what the hard-liners have in store for the future of our country.”

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2. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Warren comes out swinging

Some of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s self-branding has colored opinions about her political viability. Now the would-be nominee is testing Democrats’ taste for second chances – and its calculus about winning – as much as her own persistence.

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Desperate to oust an incumbent president whom many regard as racist, Democrats have been moving swiftly to condemn any insensitivity within their own ranks – part of a burgeoning reckoning on racism that’s being compared to the MeToo movement. In this new climate, the controversy over Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s claims to Native American heritage have undercut her position as a 2020 frontrunner, not to mention as someone who has fought for decades to help the most vulnerable in America, including minorities.

Boston Globe editorial said Senator Warren had “missed her moment” in 2016. Even in her neighborhood of Cambridge, Mass., some who laud her work as a senator say they wish she would just focus on that role. If there’s one consistent theme in Warren’s life, however, it’s refusing to give up.

As she formally announced her bid for the White House on Saturday, she pointed to surrounding textile mills where, a century ago, a group of women launched a strike that grew to include 20,000 workers and led to one of the nation’s first minimum wage laws. “These workers – led by women – didn’t have much,” she said. “Nevertheless ... they persisted!”

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Nevertheless, Elizabeth Warren comes out swinging

America is a country of second chances. 

Bankruptcy tests that principle, Elizabeth Warren once told a Harvard law student of hers. “Bankruptcy is about how our system treats people when they lose everything,” she said, when he asked her why she chose to study one of the most arcane areas of the law.

He was the scion of one of America’s most storied political families, she the daughter of a janitor father who suddenly fell ill and a mother who got a minimum-wage job at Sears to keep them afloat.   

This weekend, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D) of Massachusetts recounted that story before welcoming his former professor to the stage in Lawrence, Mass., introducing her as “the next president of the United States, Elizabeth Warren” to ebullient cheers from the crowd.

But before Senator Warren can dole out second chances from the White House, she may need one herself.

A torrent of criticism over her claims to Native American heritage – given new life last week with the unearthing of a handwritten 1986 registration card for the Texas bar in which she identified her race as “American Indian” – has generated doubts about her political judgment and viability. 

Desperate to oust an incumbent president whom many regard as racist, Democrats have been moving swiftly to condemn any taint of racial or cultural insensitivity within their own ranks, such as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook photos – part of a burgeoning reckoning on racism that’s being compared to the MeToo movement. In this new climate, Warren’s Native American claims have cast a pall over her nascent campaign, undercutting her position as a 2020 frontrunner, not to mention as someone who has fought for decades to help the most vulnerable in America, including minorities.

Democrats are “doing a lot of soul-searching,” says Steve Jarding, a Democratic consultant and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, adding that the party needs a candidate who lives up to its values. “But you can’t be too severe in the other direction either.... I can find a saint – but if the saint is a horrible candidate, the saint isn’t going to win.”

An op-ed in The Sacramento Bee, while lauding Warren’s smarts and unapologetic progressivism, called the Native American controversy a “devastating scandal for a campaign, with questions of character wrapped in explosive racial issues.” Democratic strategist Mike Feldman tweeted that “it’s hard to overstate how much damage Warren has done to herself in the invisible primary,” the behind-the-scenes contest for money, staff, and flattering media coverage in the run-up to next year’s primary elections.

Before the latest Native American claims emerged, a Boston Globe editorial said Warren had “missed her moment” in 2016 and cast strong doubt on whether her progressive agenda would garner enough appeal in 2020 – noting that even in liberal Massachusetts, the Republican governor got more votes than she did last fall. Even on the streets of her upscale neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., some who laud her work as a newly reelected US senator say they wish she would just focus on that important role.   

If there’s one theme in Elizabeth Warren’s life, however, it’s refusing to give up.

A metaphor in brick

As Warren took the stage on Saturday, dressed in a long black pea coat and turquoise scarf, she told the crowd a story – a story that had unfolded in the brick buildings towering above them.

A century ago, in these textile mills, she recounted, business was booming, but workers were suffering, surviving on beans and scraps of bread. Outraged by a sudden cut in their pay, a group of women launched a strike in the dead of winter that eventually grew to include 20,000 workers. Soon after, Massachusetts passed one of the nation’s first minimum wage laws.

“These workers – led by women – didn’t have much,” she said. “Nevertheless ... they persisted!” That line, of course, has been a rallying cry for Warren ever since Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said it about her, after Senate Republicans voted to silence Warren while she was in the middle of objecting to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions’s nomination for attorney general. 

The enthusiastic crowd included a diverse range of voters, from high school students to military veterans in Rolling Thunder motorcycle jackets. And although some in the crowd said it was too early to pick a favorite candidate, many were already sold on Warren.

“If she gets to be my president, I will be the happiest man alive,” said Oscar Burgos, a high school senior who walked three miles to get to the event, his hooded sweatshirt cinched tight over his forehead.

“We’ve seen her start the race as an underdog before,” said Boston city councilor Michelle Wu, citing Warren as a major reason for her own foray into politics. 

Indeed, when Warren entered her first race for senator of Massachusetts, she trailed Republican incumbent Scott Brown by nearly 20 percentage points. She went on to beat him, 54 percent to 48 percent.

Former Senator Brown hit Warren hard on claims she had identified herself as Native American to advance her career. She countered by saying she had believed the stories her mother had told her of their Cherokee heritage, and while proud of that family history, she had never used it for professional or political gain. Trump later revived the issue, taunting her as “Pocahontas,” and Warren responded by getting a DNA test showing she had Cherokee ancestry somewhere between six and 10 generations back – a move that many saw as tone-deaf, conflating heritage with tribal affiliation. Last week, Warren apologized.

Multiple Boston Globe investigations have determined that race did not play a role in Warren’s hiring at Harvard Law School, and even the Texas bar card unearthed last week by the Washington Post was issued after she already had been admitted. Still, her handling of the entire issue has been widely lambasted as showing poor political judgment, with critics saying it shows a proclivity for dishonesty.

Democratic strategist Mark Mellman says it will ultimately be up to the voters to decide whether Warren is the best candidate to go up against President Trump.

“The decision those voters make is very likely going to be a wiser decision than the decision any pundit makes before the campaign starts,” he says, cautioning against premature calls for her to step down.

Voters will care far less about her Native American heritage claims than about the issues that affect their day-to-day lives, says Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, whose organization recruited Warren to run in the 2012 Senate race.

Instead, Mr. Trump’s jabs at Warren over the issue – such as calling her “Pocahontas” – may come across as out of touch and offensive. Trump is already drawing fire for a weekend tweet in which he asked whether Warren will “run as our first Native American presidential candidate,” and added “See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!” – a line some took as a reference to the Trail of Tears.   

“If voters are at their kitchen tables talking about their high medical bills, college costs, and a corrupt political system, and Elizabeth Warren is directly addressing those issues while Donald Trump is yapping about a form that zero real voters care about, Trump will make the choice easy for voters,” Mr. Green says. “He fears her. That’s why he’s attacking her.” 

Still, some Democrats are concerned that her handling of the issue so far has revealed a lack of political deftness that could be detrimental in a campaign against the president.

“People will look at it and say, ‘If this is how you handled this, how are you going to come up against him if you’re the nominee, and every day he’s throwing grenades at you?’ ” says Mr. Jarding of Harvard.  

‘The man in the White House’

When Warren gets going about how the wealthy have rigged the economy and political system of America, she doesn’t sound like a woman who lives on a quaint street in Cambridge, amid Victorian homes restored to perfection and Priuses bearing bumper stickers like “War is not the answer.” There is a raw indignation that makes her have to pause for breath.

Significantly, she wastes hardly any time talking about the man in the crosshairs of her supporters and her party.

“The man in the White House is not the cause of what’s broken; he’s just the latest – and most extreme – symptom of what’s gone wrong in America,” she says, calling Trump the product of a system that boosts the wealthy at the expense of the poor. “It won’t be enough to just undo the terrible acts of this administration. We can’t afford to just tinker around the edges – a tax credit here, a regulation there. Our fight is for big, structural change.”

In a 14-page speech, she lays out plans to readjust the balance in economics and politics, generating some of the biggest cheers with her vows to tackle student debt, hold Wall Street bankers accountable, and refuse to take their money for her campaign.

“I’m really committed to her,” said Brian Perry, a bricklayer and Air Force veteran wearing a Red Sox hat and plaid shirt. Like everyone interviewed at the rally, he sees the criticism of her Native American heritage claims as a “nonissue.”

“Her greatest resistance is going to be from the Democratic Party bosses,” he says. “It’s not necessarily because the Native American issue is a liability. It’s because she doesn’t want to accept corporate money.”

Back in Warren’s Cambridge neighborhood, Kimbell DiCero is worried that Democratic infighting in general is killing off the party’s momentum from the midterm elections and could undermine its larger goals.

“It’s like toddlers,” says Ms. DiCero, a child psychologist who says she racked up a lot of student debt while pursuing a PhD. “These guys are just fighting over something – I don’t know what – in order to find the candidate who has both ideological and personal purity.”

But Warren has proven her chops with toddlers, too.

As a young mother, she had lined up everything she needed to accomplish her dream of entering law school – except for child care for her nearly 2-year-old daughter, Amelia. When she finally found a place, they required all children to be reliably potty-trained. Warren had five days to clear this last hurdle.

“All I can say is, I stand before you today courtesy of three bags of M&Ms and a cooperative toddler,” she told the crowd. “Since that day, I’ve never let anyone tell me that anything is ‘too hard.’ ”

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3. Macron asks a restive France: What would you like to change?

Even in the best of times, many French feel their government isn't listening to them, and today that is especially true. Can a “national debate” counteract their malaise, or will it feed into skepticism?

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For the next several weeks, French President Emmanuel Macron has called on the people to offer up their suggestions on better ways of governing in terms of the economy, education, the environment, security, and more. While many view France’s “great national debate” with skepticism, the initiative offers the French a chance to address their government and address the concerns of the “Yellow Vest” protesters who have been demonstrating over the past several months.

The current government has taken its cues from King Louis XVI, who in 1789 ordered lists of grievances from the working class, peasants, and middle class as a way to express themselves directly to the monarchy. Claire Andrieu, a professor at Sciences Po Paris, says this was a major political event and has remained in the national memory because the resulting answers were conserved. This is something the current administration hopes will come to fruition as well.

The grievances of 1789 “talked a lot about fiscal inequality; the nobility was largely exempt from paying taxes, while the bourgeoisie and especially peasants were affected,” says Professor Andrieu. “Today in the ‘Yellow Vest’ movement, there are strong anti-fiscal overtones.”

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Macron asks a restive France: What would you like to change?

It’s a chamber usually dedicated to governmental debate, but this time, things are different.

Here in the assembly room of the Hotel de Ville, Paris’s town hall, council members have been replaced with local citizens, and law proposals have given way to public comment. There’s a “videomaton,” a makeshift video-recording booth for people to express their thoughts on camera, as well as a whiteboard to jot down suggestions for change.

It is all part of France’s “great national debate,” an effort to quell the raging “Yellow Vest” protests that have shaken the nation since mid-November. For the next several weeks, French President Emmanuel Macron has called on the people to offer up their suggestions on better ways of governing in terms of the economy, education, the environment, security, and more.

While many view the national debate with skepticism, the initiative offers the French a chance to address their government and participate in decisionmaking for the first time since the French Revolution. Though its outcome remains unclear, the debate has provided a peaceful platform for citizen engagement and could be the boost the French need to restore their faith in the nation.

“Finally, it’s a real forum where people have the choice in how the law is written; it’s not imposed,” says Jean Isnardi, a Parisian who has stopped into the Hotel de Ville during his lunch break to contribute to what the town hall has dubbed a “free expression” day. “I think the debate can improve the malaise we’re experiencing in France.”

‘Better to talk than not to talk’

In Romainville, an economically struggling suburb of Paris, the town hall is filled on a weekday night with locals looking to contribute to the debate. While some of the concerns are the same as those in Paris or anywhere in the country – housing taxes, buying power, and security – others are unique to Paris’s banlieue.

For Marie Ange, the lack of work and increasing safety issues in her neighborhood have brought her here, while Rafika Kaddour says immigration and social diversity are pressing issues for her suburb, where immigrants make up 23 percent of the population and poverty touches 27 percent.

Marie Coasne, one of the few young people in the room, says the format is interesting even if she doesn’t know what will come of the debates. “I don’t know if we can talk about hope yet, but I wanted to seize this opportunity,” she says. “If we do, we won’t have any regrets. We will have tried.”

Mr. Macron announced the national debate initiative in mid-January as a way for the French to voice their grievances in an increasingly tense national atmosphere. In his open letter that launched the debate, Macron put forward more than 30 questions and four general themes for the public to focus on: taxes, the organization of state administrations, the environment, and democracy.

He called upon mayors, deputies, and citizens to organize the debates in what he hoped would be town hall-style gatherings, though the formats are left up to local leaders to decide. Once the debates conclude on March 15, he said he will take the answers and study them for a month, after which he will come back to the public with the results, though he hasn’t said exactly what that will mean.

“I’m skeptical about what these debates will change concretely, but what’s positive is the fact that it allows for debate in and of itself,” says Guillaume Gourgues, a lecturer in political science at the Université Lumière Lyon 2, who studies participatory democracy. “It’s always better to talk than not to talk…. It’s especially good for those who have become disinterested in politics.”

Growing inequality

Much of the uncertainty about how the debates will play out stems from the fact that the initiative is a first for France. Not since the French Revolution has the government provided a public forum for citizens to formally express their thoughts on the state of the nation. The current government has taken its cues from King Louis XVI, who in 1789 ordered “cahier de doléances” – lists of grievances from the working class, peasants, and middle class as a way to express themselves directly to the monarchy.

Claire Andrieu, a professor of contemporary history at Sciences Po Paris, says there is a significant parallel between the monarchical practice and that of the current Fifth Republic.

In 1789, “the cahier des doléances talked a lot about fiscal inequality; the nobility was largely exempt from paying taxes, while the bourgeoisie and especially peasants were affected,” says Professor Andrieu. “Today in the Yellow Vest movement, there are strong anti-fiscal overtones.”

In 2017, Macron abolished an annual tax on the wealthy, which has caused many to call him elitist and out of touch with the people.

Andrieu says the act of asking for the cahier de doléances was a major political event in the 18th century and has remained in the national memory because the resulting answers were conserved. This is something the current administration hopes will come to fruition as well.

“Our intention is to collect the concerns of the people and transmit them to the national government,” says Pauline Véron, Paris’s deputy mayor of citizen engagement. “If the same themes emerge, we could be looking at reforms or referendums. We obviously want these debates to result in something concrete.”

Could the debates work too well?

But it is exactly the result of these debates – and the potential for society-altering changes – that have some French people concerned.

“I’m worried that the debates could result in a referendum,” says Dorsaf Meddef of Paris in the Hotel de Ville. “I think the current mood in France is too tense, too angry, to conduct a referendum.”

One of the demands of Yellow Vest protesters is instating Citizens’ Initiative Referendums (RIC) – a practice currently employed in a handful of European countries like Switzerland, where citizens are regularly asked to vote on policies. But it could be a risky move for the country as well as for Macron; in 1969, President Charles de Gaulle was forced to resign as a result of a referendum.

Some say turning to examples from other European countries is a better answer than conducting a national debate. Gerd-Rainer Horn, a professor of political history at Paris’s Sciences Po, says that in Germany the Green party was born out of the country’s major anti-nuclear movement in the early 1970s. By 1983, the Greens had made their entry into the parliament, offering a voice to the people before spreading to other parts of Europe. Now Green parties exist in most European countries.

And in Spain, the Indignados anti-austerity movement – which saw upward of 8 million Spaniards taking part in months of protest events – gave way to the Podemos party, which is now the second largest political party in Spain.

“Whether the formation of a new political party is always necessary for change is hard to predict,” says Dr. Horn. “But if nothing gives voice to a movement, it dies out.”

A recent OpinionWay poll has shown that 67 percent of those surveyed think Macron’s national debate is a good thing. Dr. Gourgues, the political scientist, says that while the debates haven’t yet been enough to quell the Yellow Vest protesters completely, they’re allowing for a political engagement for even the most disenchanted.

“There are many different types of debates forming around the country [because of this initiative], not just those organized by the government,” says Gourgues. “People feel involved in public affairs, and it’s a first for many. As a result, they want to continue to debate and push their ideas forward, whether it’s within the official confines of the national debate or not.”

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4. Putting the sun in Sunshine state? Florida’s about-face on solar power.

Solar power has long been a pet issue for progressives and environmentalists. We look at a US state where utilities are starting to embrace the technology for reasons of their own.

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Floridians know all about sunshine. But until recently the Sunshine State hasn’t fully taken advantage of its most abundant resource. That trend is shifting. In January the state’s largest power company fired up more than a million solar panels and announced plans to install 30 million more by 2030. This rapid acceleration reflects a broader shift happening nationally. But Florida’s solar power story is unique.

Many leading solar energy states have embraced the technology as part of a legislative push to diversify the energy sector in pursuit of emissions reductions. Policymakers in Florida, however, have not set specific renewable energy requirements. Instead, Florida’s foray into solar is a testament to the increasing economic viability of solar technology.

“It is simply undeniable now that this is often the lowest cost source of generation,” says Ethan Zindler of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “So [as a utility] you can pat yourself on the back for doing something environmentally conscious, but at the same time, you’re also actually doing something to procure power at the lowest cost for your customers.”

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Putting the sun in Sunshine state? Florida’s about-face on solar power.

There’s a new crop sprouting in southern Florida. Amid fields of sweet corn, squash, and okra dotting the landscape outside Miami, rows and rows of solar panels now soak up the Florida sunshine. Azure skies tinge the deep black solar cells blue. They stand like silent sentinels awaiting activation.

On a windy day in mid-January, only some panels are turning the golden rays into electricity for testing. Elsewhere in the 465-acre field, construction workers in fluorescent vests and hard hats step through weeds to reach clusters of wires dangling at the ends of each row, waiting to be connected to the rest of the facility.

Despite being the Sunshine State, Florida has long lagged when it comes to tapping into the abundant rays overhead. But now that is changing as utility companies in the state have begun to recognize solar power as a vital component of a diverse energy future.

“The utilities are putting out solar like you wouldn’t believe,” says James Fenton, director of the University of Central Florida’s Florida Solar Energy Center.

Florida power companies haven't always been so solar-friendly. In 2016 the industry spent $20 million on a ballot initiative that could have undercut the expansion of residential solar power. But as solar has become more economically viable, the state’s utility companies now see opportunity more than competition in the technology.

Florida utilities’ newfound embrace for solar power echoes trends seen across the country, as the renewable energy source has shifted from a fringe indulgence for wealthy environmentalists to becoming a conventional part of power production.

“Five years ago it was more of an emerging technology,” says Maggie Clark, senior manager of state affairs for the Southeast region at the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). “As it’s become a mainstream energy resource,” she says, “there’s an element of comfort with it [for utilities,] as just any other generating asset.”

With abundant sunshine, Florida ranks ninth in the United States for solar potential. But as recently as 2015, just one-tenth of a percent of the state’s power came from the sun.

But something recently shifted.

On Jan. 31 the state’s largest power company, Florida Power & Light, fired up more than a million solar panels totaling nearly 300 megawatts of capacity across four new solar fields, including the Miami-Dade County project. FPL brought eight such power plants online in 2018, bringing the company’s total solar power capacity to more than 1,200 megawatts. And in January, FPL pledged to install an additional 30 million panels by 2030, which could multiply the utility’s solar-generated electricity by almost 10-fold. The state’s next largest power provider, Duke Energy Florida, also has plans to have more than 700 megawatts worth of solar power by 2023.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Florida Power & Light Company’s Miami-Dade Solar Energy Center went online on Jan. 31, and is equipped to generate 74.5 megawatts of power, enough to power approximately 15,000 Florida homes.

Even with these latest additions, solar is still a bit player in Florida. At the end of 2018, solar power made up just 1.07 percent of the state’s energy portfolio, according to the SEIA reports. But the rapid acceleration reflects a broader shift happening nationally.

The US currently derives 1.3 percent of all electricity from solar power, enough to power 11.3 million American homes. Analysts expect that, within the next few years, solar growth will continue apace and surpass wind power, which currently contributes 6 percent of US electricity. Combined, the two renewables could soon represent a 10 percent share of the national pie, as early as this year.

But Florida’s solar story is unique. And some of the ways Florida stands out among states make it a particularly good indicator of the renewable energy’s newfound status as mainstream.

Many leading solar energy states, such as Massachusetts, Vermont, and California, have installed solar as part of a legislative push to diversify the energy sector in pursuit of emissions reductions. Policymakers in Florida, however, have not set specific renewable energy requirements or even aspirational goals.

That’s probably part of why the Sunshine State has not led the charge toward solar energy. Additionally, utility companies in Florida hold a lot of power, with monopolies over the parts of the state they serve. So Florida’s foray into solar has largely hinged on them.

And the utilities want to maintain their control over the market, says Professor Fenton of the University of Central Florida. In 2016, they fought to amend a law that required them to purchase the electricity generated by customers’ rooftop panels at the net retail rate. Their opposition wasn’t to the technology per se, says Fenton, but to its impact on their operations.

As such, the recent foray into solar is a testament to the increasing economic viability of solar power.

Just in the past five years, the cost of solar panels has fallen by 43 percent, according to SEIA reports, making solar cost competitive with traditional forms of generation.

“It is simply undeniable now that this is often the lowest cost source of generation,” says Ethan Zindler, the head of US research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “So you can pat yourself on the back for doing something environmentally conscious, but at the same time, you’re also actually doing something to procure power at the lowest cost for your customers.”

In Florida, 2016 was a turning point, as utility companies ramped up solar field installations. In 2015, just 43 megawatts of solar power capacity was added across the state, according to SEIA numbers. That number jumped to 405 in 2016, 758 in 2017, and 839 in 2018. Florida now boasts more than 2,000 megawatts of solar electric capacity.

FPL’s installations were a large contribution to that rise. The company opened three new solar fields in 2016, and 12 more since then. Each of those solar centers has a generating capacity of 74.5 megawatts.

“[In 2016], the price point was just becoming right for us to be able to have it make economic sense for our customers for us to go and begin building large solar energy centers,” FPL spokeswoman Alys Daly says. Previously, the company had only built three solar fields since its first in 2009. And now, she says, “we’re in the midst of one of the largest solar expansions in the country.”

For solar activists, this shift is cause for cautious celebration. “It’s a terrific thing,” says Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund. “We are 100 percent supportive of what the utilities are doing.” But, she adds, “we want even more solar.”

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

 

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Points of Progress

What's going right

5. In Pakistan, safer paths to precious water

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of access to water. Here’s a story of local persistence amid incremental gains. 

Mahwish Qayyum
Allah Wasai (c.) collects water with a hand pump installed by the nonprofit Alkhidmat Foundation outside Peshawar, Pakistan, in July 2016.

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When overflowing toilets forced then-Pakistani third-grader Nasra Ilyas to try to find privacy elsewhere in 2016, she was spotted by a boy who made vulgar comments. After that she stopped eating or drinking before school. In Pakistan, lack of access to sanitary facilities and clean water can hinder even the simplest of tasks, including washing and cooking.

In 2018, the nonprofit WaterAid reported that 20 percent of the country’s poorest citizens lacked any easy access to clean water. That could be changing. While NGOs have helped draw attention to water issues, on-the-ground solutions have also been implemented. In Nasra’s primary school in Peshawar, four toilets now provide a safe facility. A hand pump in one Peshawar tent settlement means that women can get water without facing harassers on the way to a canal. 

Environmental concerns remain. Scientists warn that new demands on the water table could cause a deeper shortage as soon as 2025. But overall, Pakistan has seen improvement. In 2018, WaterAid ranked it the fifth most improved in water access worldwide. More than 44.3 million people gained sources of water. 

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In Pakistan, safer paths to precious water

In Pakistan, lack of access to sanitary facilities and clean water can hinder even the simplest of daily tasks. In particular, low-income women say they often run the risk of being sexually harassed when fetching water or when they are forced to openly defecate.

For Allah Wasai, a woman living in a makeshift settlement of tents in the southern area of the city of Peshawar, harassment was a daily occurrence when she did household work. “I used to fetch water for washing, cooking, and drinking from a canal. The harassers used to annoy me along the way,” she says. To avoid them, she adopted an erratic schedule for her chores. Robina Bibi, another woman from the tent settlement, says she was grabbed by men swimming in the canal when she went to collect water.

Ms. Wasai’s and Ms. Bibi’s situations are not uncommon in Pakistan. In 2018, the nonprofit WaterAid reported that approximately 20 percent of the country’s poorest citizens do not have access to clean water close to their homes.

Meanwhile, when third-grader Nasra Ilyas went to primary school each day, she often found the toilets there were clogged and overflowing. The situation meant a humiliating and dangerous experience any time she needed to relieve herself. “Because of the dysfunctional toilets, I answered the call of the nature in the open,” she says. “A young boy passing through the street made vulgar comments.” After the experience, she says she stopped eating or drinking before school so that it would never happen again. 

Lack of toilets in schools is a widespread global issue. In 2018, WaterAid reported that 1 in 5 primary schools and 1 in 8 secondary schools worldwide do not have any toilets. It’s a problem that disproportionately affects developing African and Asian countries with booming populations.

But Wasai, Bibi, and Nasra have benefited from a spate of improvements to water sources and sanitary facilities made in Pakistan in the past few years. Hizbullah Khan, chairman of the environmental sciences department at the University of Peshawar, says nongovernmental organizations such as WASH, UNICEF, and WaterAid Pakistan have helped raise awareness of the need for improvements. “Access to clean drinking water ... prevents people [from contracting] water-borne diseases and [shields] women from harassment,” he adds.

While NGOs have helped draw attention to water and sanitation issues, on-the-ground solutions have also been implemented by local organizations and governments. In Nasra’s primary school in Peshawar, four toilets constructed in 2016 now provide a safe facility for her and other schoolchildren. They were built by the government of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, where Peshawar is located, thanks to efforts of the centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. According to Zia Ullah Bangash, an adviser to the chief minister in KP, the PTI government is acknowledging its responsibility to provide basic facilities – including water and toilets – in state-run schools. Mr. Bangash says the toilets in Nasra’s school are among some 37,700 built in government schools in KP between 2014 and 2018; more than 12,000 schools have received water and sanitation facilities.   

And the Alkhidmat Foundation – a nonprofit organization with a grass-roots network that provides humanitarian relief across Pakistan – installed a hand pump in Wasai’s Peshawar tent settlement. She and other women can use it close to their homes, instead of facing harassers on the way to the canal. 

Syed Adil Hussain manages the Alkhidmat Foundation’s Clean Water program for KP. He says the water source placed in the tent settlement was one of 2,300 hand pumps, filtration plants, and wells installed by his organization in KP between 2014 and 2017. In Peshawar alone, the organization has installed 300 pumps.

Overall, Pakistan has seen marked improvement in providing access to clean water. In 2018, WaterAid ranked it the fifth most improved in water access worldwide, determined by the number of people reached: More than 44.3 million people gained sources of water. 

While humanitarian concerns are being addressed, environmental concerns remain. Scientists warn that the new demands on the water table could cause a water shortage as soon as 2025.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hussain emphasizes that improved access to water, sanitation, and toilets reduces harassment, ensures dignity for women, and prevents diseases. Most importantly, he says, it has improved Pakistan’s reputation. 

In the tent settlement, Wasai is reaping the benefits of the hand pump. “[It] protected us from the [harassment] and ensured a secured environment,” she says.

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The Monitor's View

The harsh light on Iran’s Islamic Revolution

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Today, Iran celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, which overthrew a monarchy and put in its place absolute rule by a Muslim cleric. But that model of governance was not a big part of the celebrations, and for good reason. Many Muslims inside and outside Iran have shown they prefer a strong say in who rules their societies. Even the Islamic State, crushed in Iraq and Syria, cheered demonstrations against the Tehran regime in late 2017 and early 2018, when thousands of Iranians went to the streets chanting “We don’t want an Islamic Republic.”

The Iranian revolution has accomplished much. It expanded education, especially for girls. It freed Iran of entanglement with big powers. But the ruling mullahs have driven the economy into negative growth. Their policies have forced many Iranians to go abroad for opportunities. And even as it tries to keep the facade of a nominal democracy, the regime has suppressed dissent.

Most Muslims cherish freedom of conscience and rule of law for their mixed societies. Many in the Middle East may not yet have such liberties. But such universal values, not Iran’s revolutionary model, are worth celebrating.

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The harsh light on Iran’s Islamic Revolution

On Monday, Iran celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, which overthrew a monarchy and put in its place absolute rule by a Muslim cleric. That model of governance, however, was not a big part of the celebrations, and for good reason. Many Muslims inside and outside Iran have shown they prefer a strong say in who rules their societies.

Popular demand for accountable government was not expected when the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious Shiite scholar, assumed power in 1979. At the heart of the revolution was his notion that all affairs of state should be subject to one Islamic leader, starting with him. He also chose his successor, the current ruler, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“I hope that [Iran] will become a model for all the meek and Muslim nations in the world,” Ayatollah Khomeini said in 1980. Now, four decades later, the model known as “guardianship of the jurist” still holds sway in Iran but only through ruthless force and mass imprisonment. It is openly challenged by protesters, political dissidents, and prominent clerics who insist on equality of citizenship. And it is almost universally rejected in the rest of the Middle East.

Even the Islamic State, crushed in Iraq and Syria, cheered on demonstrations against the Tehran regime in late 2017 and early 2018. Thousands of Iranians, angered by worsening economic conditions, went to the streets chanting “We don’t want an Islamic republic” and “Clerics! Get lost.”

The Iranian revolution has accomplished much. It expanded education, especially for girls. And it freed Iran of entanglement with big powers. But the ruling mullahs have driven the economy into negative growth. Their policies have forced many Iranians to go abroad for freedom or opportunities. And even as it tries to keep the facade of a nominal democracy, the regime has suppressed dissent, such as a violent crackdown on mass protests in 2009 as well as in cyberspace.

Neighboring countries, especially those with large populations of Shiite Muslims, have also rebelled against Iran’s attempt to export its governing model. Last May in a free election, Iraq voters preferred parties that oppose Iran’s influence. In the Arab Spring of 2011, the majority Shiites in Bahrain were protesting for democracy, not clerical rule. In Lebanon, the powerful and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia is wary of alienating the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups. Only in Syria does Iran hold some power. But that country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, rules like a regular dictator, not one who claims divine authority.

Iran’s theocracy was set up on the premise that the revolution would perish unless it expanded beyond its borders. It has not expanded in large part because many popular Shiite clerics, such as Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, reject the idea of clerics running secular government. Many of Iran’s most famous prisoners have been once-prominent clerics who championed separation of mosque and state.

Most all Muslims cherish freedom of conscience and rule of law for their mixed societies. Many in the Middle East not yet have such liberties. But they, not Iran’s revolutionary model, are worth celebrating.

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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.

Powerful protest

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Today’s contributor considers how a spiritual approach to “protest” isn’t a secondary option but one that actively supports and even impels positive change.

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Powerful protest

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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When one encounters injustice or something else just plain wrong, it can stir a protest from deep within. To take exception to and challenge evil is a normal response, but are some methods of protest more effective than others?

I have found that an approach based on Christ Jesus’ teachings can help move protest beyond mere outcry to a fruitful healing stand that supports and even impels positive change.

Years ago at work I encountered a policy that I felt could negatively impact clients. I brought the problem to the attention of my superiors, but to no avail. The policy remained. Undeterred, I decided to raise these concerns with my colleagues, hoping that a collective protest among us could force management’s hand and lead to course correction. But this resulted only in the censuring of my colleagues. After all this, I stood alone in my protest.

Frustrated and disheartened, I reached out to a friend who was a Christian Science practitioner to help me know what to do next. It is not the job of Christian Science practitioners to offer advice, but they do encourage and support one’s prayers to find spiritual solutions to problems. This practitioner pointed out to me the emphasis that Christian Science places on the power of unspoken thoughts. Monitor founder and Christian Science discoverer Mary Baker Eddy wrote: “Thoughts unspoken are not unknown to the divine Mind. Desire is prayer; and no loss can occur from trusting God with our desires, that they may be moulded and exalted before they take form in words and in deeds” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 1).

I began to realize that while I had been resting all my expectations of change on whether or not my perspective was being heard and accepted by other people, God always hears the sincere heart’s desire. This realization enables us to elevate our concept of “protest” from a mere argument to a deeper understanding of and trust in God – the one true Mind of His creation, including each of us – as good.

I saw that a more Christly, prayerful approach to protest could bring the needed healing to the situation. Jesus’ teachings helped me see that in the attempt to solve problems it is important to pray for oneself rather than for a personally desired outcome, because what we perceive as another person’s (or an organization’s) problem may be a “mote” or speck of dust compared to an enormous “beam” that is impeding our own clear vision (see Matthew 7:3-5).

I recognized that the “beam” in my eye was the fear that a bad policy had more power than God did. I realized that I could protest against that fear rather than the policy. I didn’t want to ignore the policy, but for the moment this seemed the more pressing need. So I prayed to more fully understand God’s presence and power to care for His creation.

I found peace as I realized that everyone’s safety and security, including that of the company’s clients, rests in our inviolable relation to God, who cares for all the conditions requisite for our well-being. I further recognized that the company’s management was also safely cared for by the one divine Mind. This Mind sends inspiration to each one of us in a way we can understand.

Soon a client found a workaround that completely exempted her from the effects of that particular policy. Other clients followed her lead – a fact observed by management, precipitating a change in policy that ultimately benefited the company and clients alike.

Prayer isn’t a sidestep to protest. It isn’t a cop-out or a backup move when actions don’t seem to be producing the change we would like. Devoted, heartfelt prayer that opens one’s heart to God’s good governance and care of His creation is a unique, powerful, and Christly form of protest. It can lift us out of an excessive focus on problems, bringing the inspiration that comes from a greater awareness of Mind, God, as the source of right and just solutions.

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Viewfinder

A bone to picket

David Zalubowski/AP
Ollie wears a protest sign as his owner, Ryan Marini, walks a picket line Feb. 11. Mr. Marini works as a teacher at South High School in Denver. A strike that began Monday is the first for teachers in Colorado in 25 years after failed negotiations with the school district over base pay.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( February 12th, 2019 )

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Come back tomorrow. Our chief diplomatic writer will be looking at what the absence of a US ambassador to the UN says about the near-term future of American diplomacy. And at how the world seems inclined to react.

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 11, 2019
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