2019
April
16
Tuesday

When Bea Johnson’s family of four moved most of their possessions into a storage unit in 2006, they thought their foray into living with just the bare necessities would be temporary. But the year of downsized living changed the family’s perspective on stuff – and prompted them to develop a zero waste lifestyle.

“Twelve years ago, if I had heard about a zero waste family, I would’ve thought ‘this is just for hippies.’ But no,” says Ms. Johnson. The lifestyle hasn’t cramped the fashionista’s style.

Today, the household produces just a pint-sized jar of trash in a year. What goes in the jar, you ask? “Right now in the jar we have a piece of duct tape that was stuck to someone’s shoe when they came in,” Ms. Johnson says. Also destined for the jar: her husband’s contact lenses.

The Johnsons’ story has become something of a guidepost for environmentally minded households through Ms. Johnson’s blog and bestselling book, “Zero Waste Home.”

“My job is not to tell people how to live their lives,” she told me in a recent interview, “but rather to show them that it is possible to live without trash … and you can actually live better in doing so.”

Ms. Johnson’s journey is rooted in a sense of environmental stewardship. But, she says, living simply has yielded unexpected personal benefits, too.

“We’ve discovered a life that is based on being instead of having. And that, to us, is what makes life richer.”

Now to our five stories for today. We’ll look at how communities cope with the loss of a cultural icon, why a university has become a beacon of hope for young Kurds in northern Syria, and another approach to waste reduction: packaging-free grocery stores.

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1. After Notre Dame fire, Paris can learn from others’ lessons in loss

The Notre Dame fire represents a major cultural loss for Paris. But communities around the world, from Warsaw to New York, offer evidence that recovery is possible.

Eva
Thibault Camus/AP
Notre Dame Cathedral is pictured from the top of the Montparnasse Tower in Paris April 16.

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The fire that ravaged Notre Dame in Paris on Monday night has shocked France. The flames came close to destroying the cathedral, and they gave the country pause for thought at a time when it has been torn by angry social protests. President Emmanuel Macron appealed to citizens’ sense of their common history as he pledged to rebuild the damaged church.

Paris is not the only city to have suffered in this fashion. Others have suddenly lost cultural icons in a variety of ways – New York saw terrorists bring down the Twin Towers and kill thousands in 2001, Adolf Hitler blew up Warsaw’s royal palace, and a conflagration destroyed Brazil’s National Museum last year.

How well these cities and communities have coped with their losses, and tried to overcome them, seems to depend heavily on how deeply they can draw on what holds them together, and turn their backs on what sets them apart. Paris appears to be on the right track. “This has prompted a coming together, a sense of solidarity,” said one Parisian as he snapped a photo of Notre Dame.

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After Notre Dame fire, Paris can learn from others’ lessons in loss

As dawn broke over Notre Dame on Tuesday, small fires still smoldered. Its ancient timber-framed roof and spire had gone up in smoke. But the cathedral stood firm, an imposing, massive presence that Monday’s blaze disfigured but did not destroy.

Parisians were in shock. The spectacular flames had come close to destroying one of their city’s most precious icons and it will take years to restore the building. But the near-catastrophe has reminded a city shaken in recent months by violent social protests of what its citizens have in common: their history.

“I’ve noticed that this has prompted a coming together, a sense of solidarity,” says Alain Meunier, who had stopped on his way to work to take a smartphone picture of Notre Dame. “There is a strong collective emotion.”

Other cities around the world, from Rio de Janeiro to New York to Warsaw, have lost symbolic cultural buildings over the years. How successful they have been in overcoming those losses seems to depend largely on how deeply they have been able to draw on what their residents have in common.

French President Emmanuel Macron appealed to that sort of shared heritage on Monday evening, speaking in front of Notre Dame as it burned. “We were able to build this cathedral, and to enlarge and improve it over the centuries,” he said. “And we will rebuild this cathedral, all together; it is certainly part of French destiny.”

Mr. Macron’s announcement of an international donation drive to fund the cathedral’s restoration met with quick success. Three of France’s richest people, Bernard Arnault who owns LVMH, rival luxury goods magnate François Pinault, and L’Oreal owner Françoise Bettencourt Meyers have pledged 500 million euros between them and the Paris city government promised 100 million more.

A bigger and better castle

The authorities in Warsaw relied on similar patronage in the 1970s when they set about rebuilding the ancient Royal Castle, which had been “a symbol of Poland’s independence and sovereignty” and a powerful element of Poles’ national identity, according to the castle’s curator, Bozena Radzio.

That, she says, explains why Adolf Hitler ordered that the fortress should be blown up during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, along with the city’s Old Town that had already been badly damaged in fighting.

After World War II, Poland’s new Communist rulers also found the castle too symbolic to want to restore it; its associations with royalty and with a parliament that had drawn up Europe’s first liberal Constitution in 1791 were too strong.

They did, however, rebuild the old city in the 1950s, in approximate fashion: They based their plans partly on paintings by the 18th-century Italian artist Canaletto the Younger that had been saved from the castle before its destruction. But the reconstruction of a part of the city that had been almost completely obliterated during the war was very popular among Poles who saw it as new evidence of their survival skills.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters/File
People walk in front of the Royal Castle in Warsaw's Old Town in November 2010.

Only in the 1970s, when the government sought ways of appeasing popular unrest, did the authorities begin to reconstruct the castle in a project 90% funded by private donations from around the world.

Again, the architects used a fairly free hand. “Neither the castle … nor the Old Town were rebuilt exactly as they looked before the war,” says Jaroslaw Trybus, former deputy director of the Museum of Warsaw. “The castle before the war seemed quite low and it had bad proportions. It is bigger today and workers used better construction materials.”

Authentic or not, the building “has grown so strongly into the cityscape that it is difficult to imagine the place without it, says Ms. Radzio. “Many young people do not even know that it was destroyed during the war.”

‘We all worked together’

That is scarcely the case in lower Manhattan in New York, where the iconic World Trade Center towers collapsed on Sept. 11,  2001, killing thousands, after Al Qaeda terrorists crashed passenger planes into them.

But New Yorkers discovered – if only briefly – an unusual unity in the wake of that disaster, setting aside their normal differences.

“We all worked together, we refocused. It felt like we came together as city dwellers, thinking of ourselves as being on the same team, on the same side,” says Edy Nathan, a therapist in New York who was just beginning to work with trauma victims at the time.

“We were one, and it actually felt sadly amazing,” she adds. “What could we be if we all worked together regardless of our differences?”

But such emotional experiences soon evaporated under the pressure of colossal turf fights and clashing opinions about how the Twin Towers site should be rebuilt.

The governor of New York at the time, George Pataki, set up a panel to adjudicate between the competing interests jockeying for influence in one of the densest cultural and economic centers in the United States – and to distribute nearly $10 billion in federal funds.

Christophe Ena/AP
People pray as Notre Dame Cathedral burns in Paris April 15.

These experts ran a global competition for architects and urban planners to submit innovative ideas for both new buildings and new urban spaces on the site.

These plans thrilled Tom Stoelker, who remembers the visceral reactions he felt when he was in lower Manhattan that September day, witnessing the burning towers and their collapse. “I immediately thought, ‘Will they rebuild it?’” he says, and was “so inspired” by the prospect of excitingly new buildings that he went back to school and later became a journalist covering architecture around the world.

“Yesterday, I thought the same about rebuilding [Notre Dame], and what could be saved,” Mr. Stoelker says.

In the end, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the private billionaire developer Larry Silverstein overruled an innovative plan to rebuild the site and chose a more traditional, and often very controversial, approach.

“Paris might have an easier time of it … because they’re going to be looking at a restoration,” says Mr. Stoelker. “At Notre Dame, they’re going to be working with something that exists, and in an area steeped in history.”

A long way to go in Rio?

The National Museum of Brazil was steeped in history too. It was Latin America’s largest museum and its biggest repository of archives. But it has not existed since a massive fire destroyed it and most of its contents last September.

The museum was housed in a former royal palace amidst an extraordinary park, but it was a largely forgotten and poorly maintained institution. It could hardly be further from the high finance and high politics of Manhattan, or less like the global cultural icon that is Notre Dame.

Few Brazilians, save a small group of academic anthropologists and natural science researchers who made the museum their home, appreciated the value of its collection and archives. Sitting in a working class district of Rio it attracted few wealthy visitors, though it was often the first museum that children from poorer areas visited.

Underfunded and underappreciated, the National Museum went up in flames shortly before fiercely fought and deeply divisive presidential elections that Jair Bolsonaro won. Brazil had no time to digest its loss before the country was consumed by angry political battles that deepened social divisions and left little space for a common approach to the museum’s possible rebirth.

Ricardo Moraes/Reuters
Men work on the restoration of the National Museum of Brazil after its devastating September 2018 fire in Rio de Janeiro Feb. 12.

“We have thousands of problems,” says Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima, a professor of ethnology at the museum. “The fire was another tragedy of the numerous tragedies that we are suffering through now, and I don’t believe that Cariocas [Rio residents] have got over it.”

“So few people knew about the National Museum,” laments Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette, who earned his Ph.D there. “We still don’t know if we will be able to rebuild everything and the world has moved on.”

Dr. Blanchette can only dream of the sort of pledge President Macron made to France on Monday evening, that “we will rebuild Notre Dame because the French expect it, because our history deserves it, and because it is our profound destiny.”

“In 40 years from now, the average person will be able to go into Notre Dame and not be able to tell there had been a fire,” says Dr. Blanchette. “Forty years from now, there is a good chance the National Museum will still be in ruins.”

Monika Rebala in Warsaw, Poland; Harry Bruinius in New York; and Kiratiana Freelon in Rio de Janeiro contributed reporting to this article.

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Democracy under strain

2. Is America’s media divide destroying democracy?

Fox News in the Trump Era has been labeled “state TV.” Conservatives have complained about liberal media bias for decades. Separate media spheres have created separate realities – and a growing challenge for unity. Seventh in our “Democracy Under Strain” series.

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One of the defining aspects of modern politics is that voters on the right and left are consuming entirely different diets of news. “Why didn’t The New York Times cover [story X] on page one?” is a common complaint from conservatives. “Why did Fox ignore [this thing President Donald Trump did]” liberals retort.

In some ways, the talk about Americans trapped in news echo chambers may be exaggerated. That’s because the people who routinely bemoan the other side’s “fake news” are also the most dedicated partisans – and a relatively small share of the population. Yet this doesn’t mean biased or distorted information has little effect.

Consider the case of the flatulent cows. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake recently said that when she interviews likely 2020 swing voters, a surprising number will repeat a false statement that the Democrats’ “Green New Deal” would shut down dairy farms because cattle generate large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. The Green New Deal proposes no such thing. But a supporting document put out by the office of liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., made a joke about the problem of cow flatulence. From this, conservative websites and Fox commentators spun the narrative of a “cow ban” – and the fiction ultimately seeped far beyond the right-wing bubble. It’s just one example of the challenge a bifurcated media creates for American politics and unity.

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Is America’s media divide destroying democracy?

Sometimes it seems as if the deepest divide in American politics is not so much between Republicans and Democrats as between voters who watch Fox News, and those who don’t.

For instance, 84% of Fox-viewing Republicans support President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a border wall, according to a March Navigator Research survey. But among the rest of America – including members of the GOP who don’t watch Fox – only 21 percent think the emergency is a good idea.

Splits like this have led to a lot of recent critical examination of Fox’s role in the modern U.S media ecosystem. Critics have called it “state TV” for the Trump era, and traced the entwining relationships between Fox executives and on-air stars and administration officials and government regulators.

But focusing on the role of one outlet, however big and influential, ignores the larger context of an entire American media ecosystem increasingly divided between an insular conservative wing, and a center-left wing derided and praised as the “MSM” (mainstream media).

It’s a partition that produces not so much dual echo chambers as different realities. It’s not just that the two media spheres have divergent attitudes toward the same stories. Often, they chase different stories entirely – which the other side barely hears about at all.

One of the defining aspects of modern politics is that the base voters of the Republican and Democratic parties are consuming entirely different diets of news. 

This reality isn’t a phenomenon born in the Age of Trump. Conservative activists have worked with varying degrees of success to create print and broadcast outlets that explicitly promote their beliefs since the 1950s. Their big breakthrough came with the rise of Ronald Reagan. Now they have a powerful sphere of influence that features TV and talk radio stars and increasingly aggressive online sites.

“I would not say it is just Fox News. It is that entire conservative media bubble that matters,” says Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.”

‘Go back to Puerto Rico!’

To see how America’s media division can lead to misunderstanding – and perhaps worse – let’s take a look at a specific incident that happened on the floor of the House of Representatives in January.

It was in the midst of the government shutdown. Tensions between the parties were high. The House had already adjourned for the week, so C-SPAN cameras were off. Groups of Republicans and Democrats were milling about, and Rep. Tony Cardenas, a California Democrat of Mexican heritage, was waiting to speak.

“Go back to Puerto Rico!” yelled a Republican, later identified as Rep. Jason Smith from Missouri.

Congressman Cardenas and his fellow Democrats were shocked. They thought it was an ethnically tinged slur hurled at a lawmaker who happened to look Hispanic. It was the kind of insult he’d heard as a kid, said Mr. Cardenas.

But that was not the case, Congressman Smith said later in an apology. His barb had been aimed at all the Democrats – 30 of whom had spent the previous weekend on a fundraising jaunt in San Juan organized by an arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Chuck Burton/AP/File
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow speaks during a Democratic presidential forum at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Nov. 6, 2015. In the Trump era, Ms. Maddow has turned politics into prime-time entertainment for liberals worried about the state of the presidency.

The trip had been heavily covered by conservative media, with the general theme of “Democrats leave Washington for a tropical boondoggle during the government shutdown.” But it was barely mentioned on non-conservative outlets – and as a result the Democratic lawmakers hadn’t gotten the reference. (As part of his apology, Mr. Smith said that he and Mr. Cardenas should get to know each other better.)

“That people need this explained suggests that the ‘Dems partied in Puerto Rico’ stuff didn’t reach escape velocity out of Fox News,” tweeted Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel at the time.

It’s far from the only story that didn’t cross the partisan barrier. “Uranium One,” a story involving then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s alleged involvement in the sale of American uranium reserves to the Russian state nuclear company was heavily discussed on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh’s show, and other conservative outlets in 2017. It received much less attention on non-conservative media. Mr. Limbaugh and others saw this as evidence of overt liberal bias. The MSM explanation was that the pieces of the purported conspiracy didn’t add up.

The Seth Rich murder received similar bifurcated treatment. Mr. Rich, an employee of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), was killed near his Washington apartment on July 10, 2016. Online conspiracy theorists quickly began whispering, without evidence, that the young Democratic operative, not Russia, had leaked a trove of DNC emails to WikiLeaks and paid with his life.

In the spring of 2017 the story exploded onto Fox News, which picked up a piece from a local D.C. affiliate alleging that Mr. Rich had contacted WikiLeaks and that law enforcement was covering up the trail. Popular host Sean Hannity ran numerous prime time segments on this false theory.

But the Rich story soon fell apart in a tangle of recanting sources and false claims. Fox officially retracted it a few days after it first ran. Non-conservative media focused heavily on the case’s collapse – the liberal-leaning Vox site, for instance, ran a post headlined “The Bonkers Seth Rich Conspiracy Theory – Explained.”

Two separate spheres 

What do the courses run by these stories say about the structure of American media today?

What they illustrate is that there is not one media ecosystem, but two separate spheres that respond to different incentives and operate in very different manners, says Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization of American Politics.”

One of these spheres is comprised of right-leaning media, from Fox News to Breitbart and talk radio hosts such as Mr. Limbaugh. The other is a center-left composite of everything else, from the legacy newscasts of the old broadcast networks to most daily newspapers and new liberal internet sites.

To find out how news moves through these spheres, Professor Benkler and his co-authors used data analysis tools to study hyperlink connections, Facebook shares, and other marking aspects of some 4 million stories from the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the first year of the Trump presidency. Their study showed that right-leaning audiences concentrated to a large extent on right-leaning outlets insulated from the rest of the media. Center and left-leaning audiences spread their attention more broadly and focused in particular on what is often labeled the MSM.

This disparity is driven in part by the fact that the center-left in U.S. politics is a broad spectrum that includes ideological, racial, and ethnic diversity. The right is more ideologically focused and remains predominantly white and Christian.

“You just don’t have the same obvious coherence on the left. That’s the shape of political identity in America,” says Professor Benkler.

Both sides like to hear news that reaffirms their deeply held beliefs and identities. That’s just human nature, perhaps unfortunately. Many committed Democrats gravitate toward stories online that promise to expose GOP hypocrisy. Many conservatives chuckle at talk radio hosts who say the “Democrat Party” would institute socialism in America – if they could only figure out what it is.

On the center-left, such stories are vetted and constrained by the structure of the system. Center-left readers and viewers tend to be exposed to a fairly wide range of outlets, many with strong traditional fact-checking mechanisms.

But on the right, says Professor Benkler, those barriers are weaker or even nonexistent. Smaller, more radical conservative media outlets compete to see who can be more ideologically pure and define the accepted political narrative. The result is what he calls a “propaganda feedback loop” – an insular dynamic in which false information and outright conspiracy theories can thrive.

“We’re looking at the present state of a system that has really been developing for 40 years,” he says.

Bias that’s invisible to liberals 

To conservatives, the defining feature of U.S. media is not “feedback loops” – but left-leaning bias so pervasive that it’s invisible to liberals.

They’ve felt that way since the early development years of American conservative media in the wake of World War II. By the early 1950s, the nation’s nascent right wing was frustrated and angry with the political status quo in general and the media in particular. The Cold War foreign policy consensus, in which most Democrats and Republicans backed a steady containment of international communism, was weak-kneed, in the conservative view. Why not push for actual victory?

Conservatives of the time were also staunchly anti-union and religious, and they felt neither position received enough attention and support from establishment newspapers and radio networks. Some believed the creation of right-leaning media organizations – not just PR efforts – was the answer.

“There was a real belief that their ideas just weren’t in circulation, and that if the ideas got out there, they could trigger conservatism,” says Dr. Hemmer of the University of Virginia.

Broadcaster Clarence Manion, book publisher Henry Regnery, and magazine publisher William Rusher emerged as new conservative leaders. With their radio shows and book clubs and the newsletter Human Events, they were organizing a movement as much as spreading a doctrine to the larger public.

Along the way, they established some ideological tenets that remain foundational for conservative media today. First, and perhaps most importantly, they insisted that existing media were not just ignoring their concerns about particular issues, but were wearing masks of “objectivity.” They crafted and popularized the idea of liberal media bias, writes Dr. Hemmer in “Messengers of the Right.”

“This concept – that established media were not neutral but slanted towards liberalism – not only shaped the [conservative] movement but remade American journalism,” she writes.

It may be hard to believe today, but in the 1950s this was a radical idea. The media reflected the bipartisan approach to the times, a sort of economic liberalism combined with right-leaning foreign policy, that historian Arthur Schlesinger described in his influential book “The Vital Center.” Dispassionate neutrality was supposed to be a feature of the American system.

In its infancy, conservative media also gathered together into a self-referential and mutually supportive network. If the National Review was opposing a new highway program, for instance, it would point to a piece in Human Events that drew in turn on a person who had appeared on Manion’s radio program. 

This built like-minded audiences and provided intellectual underpinning. It also fostered an alternative, exclusionary media environment in which the truth of an assertion was judged on where it came from as much as by what it said.

“They’re building up a separate political reality, a conversation that increasingly does not reference outside sources,” says Dr. Hemmer of the movement’s early years.

Fast forward to 1985. Messengers of the right had entered the halls of political power. President Ronald Reagan was the keynote speaker at a Plaza Hotel gala in New York honoring the National Review’s 30th anniversary. President Reagan told the crowd he’d been a Democrat until he sneaked a look at his first issue of N.R. “in a plain brown wrapper.”

In 1988, radio personality Rush Limbaugh’s political talk show went national. It was a new kind of ideological communication, that was “meant to provoke as much as proselytize,” Hemmer writes. It proved explosively popular. By 1992, Mr. Limbaugh was so important a voice in Republican politics that when he arrived at the White House for a short visit, President George H.W. Bush carried his bag inside.

In 1996, media mogul Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News, following a failed attempt to buy CNN. Though Mr. Limbaugh and his fellow conservative talk show hosts remained popular (and remain so today), Fox rose to become the dominant voice on the right, thanks in large part to its prime time lineup of sharp-edged opinion hosts.

In 2018, Fox was the most watched cable network in America. In prime time it draws about 2.4 million viewers on average, depending on the flow of news and the identity of the on-air host.

Fox’s dominance among Republicans – and its isolation from Democrats – can be seen in a few statistics from the 2016 presidential election. Fox was the main source of campaign news by far among Trump voters, according to Pew Research Center data. Forty percent of Trump backers named it as their chief resource for political information, with no other outlet coming even close. But Clinton voters spread their news diet widely among news sources like NPR and CNN and newspapers like The New York Times and others, with none of them individually dominant. Only 3% of Clinton supporters named Fox News as their primary source.

Narrow but deep  

It’s easy to bemoan the split nature of news and news consumption in America. For those of us who consume a lot of news, it’s in our face every day. Sometimes Fox News and CNN seem to be covering different Americas. “Why didn’t The New York Times cover [story X] on page one?” is a common complaint from conservatives. “Why did Fox ignore [this thing President Trump did],” liberals retort.

But the talk about Americans trapped in news echo bubbles may also be exaggerated. That’s because the people who routinely bemoan the other side’s “fake news” are also the ones most prone to seek out information that reaffirms their own beliefs.

“Echo chambers are narrow but deep – most people aren’t in them, but the ones who are, [are] disproportionately politically active and influential,” says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, in an email.

Dr. Nyhan was co-author of the 2018 Knight Foundation report “Avoiding the echo chamber about echo chambers: Why selective exposure to like-minded political news is less prevalent than you think.”

Media outlets with a significant partisan slant simply do not reach most of the U.S. population, according to the Knight report.

MSNBC, on the liberal side, comes close to Fox’s 2.4 million viewership with its most popular programs, while lagging behind Fox overall in the ratings.

But taken together, the old warhorses of the MSM – the CBS, NBC, and ABC nightly news broadcasts – reached some 24 million viewers a night in 2018. The Sunday morning political talk shows reached a total of about 10 million.

Meanwhile, top entertainment shows such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” can hit 17 million viewers or more per episode, even in today’s fragmented world of networks, cable, and streaming video choices. Political programming is a niche, not a main course.

The same pattern holds for online news and information consumption.

Yet this doesn’t mean biased or distorted information has little effect. The biggest impact of echo chambers comes from what media scholars call “two-step flow” – others might just call it “talking to friends, relatives, and colleagues”.

Step One: Political junkies hear something within their preferred media sphere that confirms their partisan beliefs. Step Two: They talk about it, repeatedly, to people who have much less news context and are not themselves big news consumers. Result: biased, distorted, or outright false information can spread far beyond the audience of its initial source.

This process applies to the opinion shows on Fox News where hosts often engage in fiery polemics, says Dr. Nyhan. “The Fox audience is relatively small, but it plays a key role in funneling misinformation to the Republican base and to GOP activists, elites, and elected officials, including most importantly the President of the United States,” he writes in an email.

Consider the case of the flatulent cows. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake recently said that when she interviews likely 2020 swing voters, a surprising number will repeat a false statement made by Mr. Trump and GOP allies that the Democrats’ “Green New Deal” proposes shutting down dairy farms and beef production because cattle generate large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas.

The Green New Deal proposes no such thing. But a supporting document put out by the office of liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., made a joke about the problem of cow flatulence. From this, conservative web sites and Fox commentators spun the narrative of a “cow ban,” and injected it into right-wing political conversation.

Dedicated Fox viewer Mr. Trump picked up this assertion and repeated it for his supporters. At a rally in El Paso, Texas, in February he said that under the Green New Deal “you’re not allowed to own cows anymore.” 

That’s not true, reported the Associated Press in a fact-check story on the rally. “[Mr.] Trump chose to ignore the actual provisions of the plan,” the AP wrote.

It’s just one more example of the challenge a bifurcated media creates for American politics and unity. The different spheres convey not just different views, but different identities, different realities, different emotional worlds.

“At the end of the day, if one side most trusts Fox News, Hannity, Limbaugh, and Beck, and the other side most trusts NPR, the BBC, PBS, and The New York Times, one cannot expect both sides to be equally informed or equally capable of telling truth from identity-confirming fiction,” write Professor Benkler and his co-authors in “Network Propaganda.”

Other parts of the “Democracy Under Strain” series:

Part 1: A system under strain: Is US democracy showing real cracks? 

Part 2: Neutral no more: Can Supreme Court survive an era of extreme partisanship? 

Part 3: Amid complaints of a rigged system, one woman’s effort to end gerrymandering 

Part 4: Risk of a new civil war? Today ‘us’ and ‘them’ differs from the 1850s. 

Part 5: The deep roots of America’s rural-urban political divide

Part 6: Parties over? Republicans, Democrats, and the Howard Schultz challenge.

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3. At a new university, Syrian Kurds build their own future

Universities educate people, but they also support nations. For the Kurds of northern Syria clinging to their hard-won autonomy, Rojava University is providing the tools to build a community’s future.

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After the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011, the nation’s Kurds established a solid degree of self-governance in the northeast. Kurdish nationalists refer to much of that area as Rojava – the western part of a Greater Kurdistan that also encompasses parts of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Rojava University, established in July 2016, has emerged as a beacon for the patriotic dreams of a generation of young Kurds.

Academic opportunities are expanding to meet society’s needs. Some of the faculties already in place reflect strategic vision – such as agricultural and petroleum engineering. Rojava also offers degrees in education, science, fine arts, finance administration, Kurdish literature, and genealogy.

“We paid a lot to establish this university,” says Massoud Mohammed, a computer engineer, lecturer, and administrator at the university. “I am happy teaching here and I want to pay what I must to build this society and make a better future.”

Yasmeen Suleimam is putting her heart and soul into Kurdish literature. “I want to strengthen my knowledge of Kurdish and teach the next generation,” she says. “This was the patriotic thing to do, so I chose it.”

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At a new university, Syrian Kurds build their own future

Which university to attend? For Fatmah, a Kurdish college student in northern Syria, it had been an especially difficult choice.

The daughter of a welder and a housewife, she dreamed of studying construction engineering. But the stresses of the Syrian conflict – clashes in her hometown of Hassakeh between Kurdish and regime forces, attacks by Islamic State jihadists, and their entrenchment nearby – took their toll: lower grades and a failed first attempt at university entry exams.

When she passed in 2017, this time to study accounting, she “factored every scenario,” she says, sitting by a stove with family and friends.

Her first option was the government-run Euphrates University, an established institution right in Hassakeh. The other was the newly founded Rojava University, a nation-building institution that tugged at her Kurdish heartstrings, but was in Qamishli, about two hours away, owing to poor road conditions and checkpoints.

Doubtful of the long-term viability of Rojava University, even though one of her brothers was a founding member, she went with the hometown option.

“I thought maybe Rojava University would only last a year or two,” she says. “Now I regret not going there. Maybe I will teach there once I get my degree.”

The academic trenches

After conflict erupted in 2011, Syria’s Kurds established a solid degree of self-governance in northern and eastern Syria as regime forces withdrew to focus their fight on other fronts. Kurdish nationalists refer to much of the territory under their control as Rojava – the western part of a Greater Kurdistan that also encompasses parts of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey.

The Kurds, who proved a solid ally of the United States in the fight against Islamic State, will be reluctant to give up their hard-won autonomy if peace should ever return to Syria. And Rojava University, established in July 2016, has emerged as a beacon of Kurdish dreams. It has come to represent the academic trenches of a generation of Kurds eager to contribute to the strengthening of their society, economy, and political life.

The cafeteria on campus – in a sleepy neighborhood in the west of Qamishli, just two kilometers from the government-controlled airport – is abuzz at lunchtime with chatter ranging from the lighthearted to the serious. Dozens of students converge at a lecture hall to hear a visiting American scholar.

Some of the university’s faculties that are already in place reflect strategic vision – such as agricultural engineering and petroleum engineering, important pillars for the economic success of the region.

 

Dominique Soguel
A greenhouse at Rojava University in Qamishli, Syria, March 19, 2019. Agriculture still contributes about a quarter of Syria’s GDP, and agricultural engineering is considered an important pillar for the economic success of the Kurdish northern region.

Despite the war, agriculture still contributes about a quarter of Syria’s gross domestic product, and a study by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization found that roughly two-thirds of Syrian households grow food for consumption.

And Syrian Kurds currently control important oil fields. While the roads of these oil-rich areas may be rough, the oil pumps run perfectly smoothly, a much higher priority.

Rojava also offers degrees in education, science, fine arts, finance administration, Kurdish literature, and genealogy.

Answering society’s needs

“Each faculty was opened on the basis of the needs and opportunities of our society,” says Massoud Mohammed, one of four deputies at the university, which like all institutions in the Kurdish-controlled region has a co-presidency to ensure gender parity.

Until now, and to meet the region’s needs, says Mr. Mohammed, the university was running on a fast-track program. That meant, among other things, that an engineering degree could be obtained in two years rather than 3-1/2.

Rojava’s curriculum drew from other universities in the region that have internationally recognized degrees, including in Beirut, Cairo, and Iraqi Kurdistan. The first graduating class numbered 120 students. The goal now is to roll out master’s programs, to ensure that the diplomas issued are recognized beyond Rojava, and that the university stays open come what may.

“Our aim in establishing this university was to build specialists who can work in different fields of Rojava,” adds Mr. Mohammed, who is also a computer engineer and lecturer at the university. “I am happy teaching here and I want to pay what I must to build this society and make a better future,” he says. “We paid a lot to establish this university and schools and other organizations in Rojava. We will not leave them. This university has to be accepted by the government of Damascus if we have a peace process.”

That sentiment is echoed across a faculty of 150 teachers, all but two of whom are natives of the region, and a student body of nearly 1,000. Points of pride include an emphasis on morality as well as academic excellence; regular evaluations rather than the high-stakes annual exams that make or break the future of Syrian students enrolled at government-run institutions; and a culture of dialogue, with students having regular opportunities to interact with their teachers as peers.

The university also took in Kurdish students from Afrin who were displaced after Turkey occupied their town in Aleppo province, providing them with free dorms and a stipend. One of them is Runi Manan.

“I was studying dermatology, but that was not available here so I switched to biology,” he says. “My dream is to become a doctor.”

‘The patriotic thing to do’

For Elend, who comes from a landowning family, the obvious choice was agriculture. “Our region is rich in agriculture and it desperately needs to be developed,” she says on the sidelines of a class held inside a greenhouse.

Others, like Yasmeen Suleimam from Hassakeh, are putting their heart and soul into Kurdish literature. “I want to strengthen my knowledge of Kurdish and teach the next generation,” she says. “This was the patriotic thing to do, so I chose it.”

Syria’s Kurds are acutely aware that for now their patriotic dreams require successful coexistence with other ethnic and linguistic minorities, as well as Arabs who dispute many of their territorial claims.

In a strategy that mirrors the one used by Syrian governments for decades, inclusiveness is built into different institutions, from the military to the educational. A sixth-grade classroom in Qamishli had just one Arabic-speaking female student studying on her own, an opportunity for which she was deeply grateful. Next door, a Kurdish girl was just one of dozens learning English from a university teacher who moved to the city from Latakia.

The power of education was not lost on either girl. Asked separately what they would like to be when they grew up, each answered with a giant shy smile: “A teacher.”

Fatmah, who is now feeling more confident about Kurdish gains despite the uncertainty surrounding their alliance with the United States, also wants to be a teacher after she finishes her degree. Where? At least that choice is clear: at Rojava University.

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4. Nebraskans talk extreme weather. Just don’t call it climate change.

The severe flooding that inundated Nebraska last month washed away fields, bridges, and roads. But the extreme weather is also starting to sway residents’ thinking about climate.

Eva
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Corn and soybean farmer Chad Christianson looks at the erosion of his cornfield from the flooding of Maple Creek, on April 2 in Fremont, Nebraska. Many parts of the state flooded after heavy rains hit frozen, saturated ground.

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“I don’t know about climate change,” says Chad Christianson, a Nebraska corn and soybean farmer. “But I think the weather is going to be more extreme going forward.” That sentiment is percolating in rural Nebraska, where residents are still bailing out from last month’s epic flood, the most widespread in memory. As such extreme weather events pile up, some say they are beginning to change hearts and minds here – not politically but practically.

Part of the change in thought is coming from farmers themselves, especially those involved with the small but growing regenerative farming movement.

Just don’t call it climate change.

The term climate change has become so politicized that it’s not readily accepted in rural America, even with the extreme weather. But a subtle shift does seem to be taking hold. When Yale University social scientists assessed public opinion about climate change last year, they found that 64% of Nebraskans believed climate change was happening. That was up 6 points from their 2014 survey but still 6 points behind the national average.

Many people remain skeptical of climate projections, but as local pastor Richard Randolph says, “people are beginning to change.”

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Nebraskans talk extreme weather. Just don’t call it climate change.

The flood carried away edges of his fields, dumped up to 6 inches of useless sand on his fertile loam, and deposited, incongruously, the elastic band of a pair of Hanes underwear on a bush. But everywhere Chad Christianson looks, all he sees is green.

The green rye he planted last fall stands in sharp contrast to the brown soil and cornstalks. More importantly, it held the soil in place in all but the most flooded areas of his fields, lessening the waters’ impact. It’s a first step in Mr. Christianson’s push to become more weather-resilient.

“I don’t know about climate change,” Mr. Christianson says. “But I think the weather is going to be more extreme going forward.”

It’s a sentiment that is percolating here in rural Nebraska. With the state still in recovery mode, many Nebraskans say it’s early for them to start contemplating the long-term implications of last month’s epic flood, the most widespread in memory. But as such extreme weather events pile up, some say they are beginning to change hearts and minds here – not politically but practically.

“This [flood] didn’t come out of nowhere but it went beyond almost anyone’s expectations,” says Tyler Williams, an educator with the extension service at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which works with farmers. “So I definitely think people in the agricultural world are thinking: ‘All right. I’ve got to fix something, do something different.’”

Part of the change in thought is coming from farmers themselves, especially those involved with the small but growing regenerative farming movement.

“Conversations were already happening before the flood,” says Graham Christensen, a fifth-generation farmer and president of GC Resolve, a grassroots community-development business. “But after the flood a lot more folks are like, ‘Yeah, I have never seen that; my dad has never seen that; my grandpa has never seen that. This is a pattern that’s emerging.’”

The movement, which focuses on the health of soil, emphasizes techniques like planting cover crops as a way to keep more roots in the soil, beyond the corn and soybean plants that many farmers raise in rotation. These roots keep more nutrients in the soil, make it easier for water to drain (which improves flood resilience), and keep more water stored in the soil (which improves drought-resistance). That’s key for farmers like Mr. Christianson here in Fremont.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Rye grows in between rows of last year's corn stubble on Chad Christianson's farm, on April 2 in Fremont, Nebraska. Mr. Christianson has adopted the cover crop method of regenerative agriculture – planting an over-winter crop, rye, to help keep moisture and nutrients in the soil.

Just don’t call it climate change.

“We are not necessarily going around and saying, ‘Hey, climate change, climate change, climate change!” says Mr. Christensen of GC Resolve, who travels the state preaching regenerative agriculture. “We’re more focused on rallying around the solution, which is better soil-health principles.”

The term climate change has become so politicized that it’s not readily accepted in rural America, even with the extreme weather. Most pastors in the state are afraid of addressing the issue for fear of splitting their congregations, according to a 2015 University of Nebraska-Lincoln report.

A couple comes out of a Lynch, Nebraska, donation center with six gallon jugs of emergency water because the floods have intermittently made their water unsafe. Does the extreme weather imply climate change? “No,” she answers. “No,” he answers, then gives a short lecture on avoiding preconceived ideas.

Skeptics have a point. Last month’s flooding was the result of such a fluky combination of snow, rain, frozen ground, and rapid melt that even warming advocates admit that it alone may not be a harbinger of change to come. But previous events – flooding of the Missouri River in 2011, an increasing number of intense rain events, and one of the 10 coldest Februaries on record – have residents reassessing the future.

“It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to ignore,” says Kim Morrow, a behavior change expert at Verdis Group, a sustainability and climate resiliency advisory group based in Omaha.

When Yale University social scientists assessed public opinion about climate change last year, they found that 64% of Nebraskans believed climate change was happening. That was up 6 points from their 2014 survey – a rise consistent with the slow change in a swath of red states from Idaho to Kentucky – but still 6 points behind the national average.

The Yale research also reveals an urban-rural split. In Lancaster County, home of Lincoln and the university, 72% of people said change was happening. In rural counties farther west, barely half do.  

“Yes, I think it’s still political and divided, but people are beginning to change,” says the Rev. Richard Randolph, senior pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln. He has submitted to this year’s Nebraska-Kansas annual conference of the United Methodist Church a petition calling on churches to become better informed about global warming and to set goals for reducing their carbon footprints. “For the most part, I pastor a church that’s moderate to progressive theologically. And so I think if anything, my congregation is sometimes frustrated with me for not being more out there on global warming.”

But the Rev. Andy Alexander, director of the Collaborative Ministry Office at Creighton, a Catholic university in Omaha, is not seeing much of a shift at all. “People are skeptical about that kind of thinking, which they call projection,” he says. Even if they acknowledge they need to be more prepared for chancier weather in the future, they’re not making a link between their present practices and warming.

“I don’t hear people saying our use of fossil fuels is leading to this problem,” he says. And they’re not making the broader connections Pope Francis has made between warming’s impact on the poor and the selfishness and greed that keeps nations from reducing that impact by changing their ways, he adds. “I don’t hear anybody saying that.”

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5. Is grocery packaging necessary? Not for these shops.

The advent of modern food packaging has given us portability, freshness, and a lot of waste. Could a return to a simpler kind of grocery store help us live more lightly on the planet? 

Eva
Ann Hermes/Staff
Katerina Bogatireva founded Precycle, a zero-waste, package-free grocery store in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, in December 2018 after struggling to eliminate packaging from her own grocery trips.

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It’s undeniable that lightweight packaging makes grocery shopping easier. But all that plastic, paperboard, and foil comes at a steep cost to the environment.

Is there a better way? Brooklyn resident Katerina Bogatireva thinks so. She owns Precycle, a grocery store where shoppers can buy their fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, spices, and other ingredients using their own receptacles, or with reusable containers sold there. Despite the inconvenience of carrying containers to the store, people are buying into it, says Ms. Bogatireva. Precycle has a loyalty program and already about 1,200 people have signed up.

Precycle is one of a handful of package-free shops popping up around the United States, a modern trend that harks back to an earlier era. “The advent of modern packaging is often tied to the change from crackers in a barrel at the store to prepackaged crackers that could sit on the shelf and stay fresh and crispy for a lot longer,” says Susan Selke, director of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “Could we conceivably go back to that cracker barrel-style economy? Maybe. But it would involve drastic societal changes.”

This story was produced in conjunction with Earth Beats, a Sparknews collaboration highlighting environmental solutions for Earth Day.

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Is grocery packaging necessary? Not for these shops.

Brooklyn resident Katerina Bogatireva had long carried reusable bags to the grocery store and rejected single-use plastic water bottles. But when her son, Sepand, was in kindergarten, she stepped up her game.

After having a sustainability lesson in school, she says, “He was very concerned. And he said, ‘Mummy, do you know how long plastic will remain in the landfill?’ And that sort of broke my heart.”

For Ms. Bogatireva, that moment spurred a lifestyle change that led to a business venture. Now, four years later, she owns a grocery store called Precycle, where shoppers can buy their fruits and vegetables, pastas and grains, flours and legumes, and oils and vinegars without the packaging that typically comes with them.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Spices on sale at Precycle in Brooklyn.

Precycle isn’t the only packaging-free business cropping up in recent years. There’s also Zero market in Colorado, Fillgood.co in California, and Package Free Shop, also in Brooklyn. And large corporations are starting to take notice, too. Companies like Starbucks, Nestlé, Häagen-Dazs, Procter & Gamble, and others are taking steps to reduce their packaging waste.

Starbucks has made plans to ditch plastic straws, Nestlé pledged to make its packaging entirely recyclable or reusable, and British grocer Iceland has promised to eliminate plastic packaging from its own brand products.

This comes as part of a broader cultural shift in the popular environmental movement, from touting recycling to emphasizing efforts to reuse and reduce consumption of single-use items like bags, cutlery, and containers. And if this approach continues to catch on, that could say something about what people value.

“Plastic is everywhere in our economy,” says Thomas Kinnaman, an environmental economist at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. So if companies like Precycle take off, he says, it will signal that people really do want to find another way, despite the benefits plastic packaging can provide.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Sean Van Doornum buys produce at Precycle, a package-free grocery store, on March 12 in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Customers bring in containers to purchase items.

One benefit of plastic packaging has been convenience. If grocery goods are already portioned out into lightweight packaging and plastic bags are on hand, the only things shoppers need to bring to the store are themselves and their wallets. Furthermore, such packaging has allowed for the development of convenience items like pre-made meals and individual snack bags for children's lunches.

Opting to avoid packaging entirely can be particularly inconvenient, says Ms. Bogatireva. When she decided to reduce her own contributions to landfills, she found that she had to cobble together her shopping trips, stopping at multiple stores and farmers markets to find the items she needed without the plastic. Precycle grew out of that hassle, officially opening its doors in December 2018 to make it easier for consumers to choose packaging-free options.

Here’s how it works: Customers bring their own containers to Precycle, or buy reusable vessels sold there. When they enter the store, they have to weigh their empty containers, which they then weigh again at checkout to know how much to pay for. Despite the inconvenience of carrying containers to the store, people are buying into it, says Ms. Bogatireva. Precycle has a loyalty program and already about 1,200 people have signed up.

Another benefit of packaging that has become integral to modern society is its ability to make something perishable last much longer, says Susan Selke, director of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Ann Hermes/Staff
From left, Dana Lupton and Julia Harrison from Wilton, Connecticut, speak with Katerina Bogatireva at Precycle, a package-free grocery store, on March 12 in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

“The advent of modern packaging is often tied to the change from crackers in a barrel at the store to prepackaged crackers that could sit on the shelf and stay fresh and crispy for a lot longer,” she says. “Could we conceivably go back to that cracker barrel-style economy? Maybe. But it would involve drastic societal changes.”

That is a limitation for Precycle, says Ms. Bogatireva. As a result, the store primarily carries ingredients rather than ready-made foods. But even then, there are challenges. Ms. Bogatireva has no plans to stock meat or fish, but customers want cheese, so she has opted for wax-wrapped cheeses, and encourages customers to make candles from the wax.

Not everyone is inclined to make these lifestyle choices, says Dr. Kinnaman. But those who do are often doing a sort of informal cost-benefit analysis – weighing factors like the convenience and nonperishability against the guilt they may feel for filling up their trash cans and their understanding of the danger to the environment posed by that waste.

Some things are beyond individual consumers’ actions, though. “My biggest challenge is to reduce waste as a business, says Ms. Bogatireva. It’s tricky to find suppliers that use no single-use packaging whatsoever. For Precycle, she opts for suppliers who use recyclable packaging, like cardboard, when there isn’t a waste-free way to transport products.

“The idea is to do what you can,” she says. “Every little bit counts.”

This story was produced in conjunction with Earth Beats, a Sparknews collaboration highlighting environmental solutions for Earth Day.

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The Monitor's View

The rebirth of Notre Dame’s purpose

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When tourists flock to Paris, they often gather at the Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum, Montmartre, or Champs-Élysées. Yet the most popular gathering place has been Notre Dame Cathedral. Its near-destruction by fire on April 15 helped to prove why.

During the giant blaze, hundreds of people in the City of Lights gathered to pray and sing. Others collected donations to restore it. Around the globe, people gathered in a mix of disbelief and reverence to learn of the damage. Just like its purpose nine centuries ago, this house of worship brought people together to affirm higher purposes.

Winston Churchill best described how a structure can feed back to its purpose. We shape our buildings and in turn they shape us, he said. The world’s most treasured buildings help circle us back to the grand ideas that led to their existence. They can be temples for worship, towers for learning, or simple structures for creativity. They are the domiciles of dominion over the values we cherish. Their materiality can be consumed by fire. But out of the ashes the same aspirations can arise. Those of Notre Dame will too.

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The rebirth of Notre Dame’s purpose

When tourists flock to Paris, they often gather at the Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum, Montmartre, or Champs-Élysées. Yet the most popular gathering place – at about 13 million visitors a year – has been Notre Dame Cathedral. Its near-destruction by fire on April 15 helped to prove why.

During the giant blaze, hundreds of people in the City of Lights gathered to pray and sing. Others collected donations by the millions of euros to restore it. Around the globe, people gathered by a TV or a smart phone and, in a mix of disbelief and reverence, first learned of the damage to an icon that seemed so permanent. Just like its purpose nine centuries ago, this house of worship brought people together to affirm higher purposes.

For some, the purpose today lies simply in the wonder and beauty of the cathedral’s Gothic architecture: the flying buttresses, soaring spires, and peering gargoyles on a small island in the heart of France’s capital. Others see inspiration in its long human history; site of the coronation of kings, the beatification of Jeanne d’Arc, and fictional works such as Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.”

Hugo saw the structure as a “vast symphony in stone.” Yet he also called it as “powerful and fecund as the divine creation.” Christian churches, of course, are not really about the buildings. At a deeper level, they are an expression of spiritual yearnings and insights, often reflected in architectural elements that serve as reminders for believers.

Winston Churchill best described how a structure can feed back to its purpose. After a German bomb destroyed the House of Commons in 1941, members of Parliament squabbled over whether to restore it or expand it with large spaces and conveniences. Churchill reminded the MPs that the tight quarters of the House helped bring “intimacy of debate and discussion, that freedom and that sense of urgency and excitement.” In other words, he said, we shape our buildings and in turn they shape us.

The world’s most treasured buildings help circle us back to the grand ideas that led to their existence. They can be temples for worship, towers for learning, or simple structures for creativity. They are the domiciles of dominion over the values we cherish. Their materiality can be consumed by fire. But out of the ashes the same aspirations can arise. Those of Notre Dame will too.

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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.

When the stings in our life are healed

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A swift healing of a jellyfish sting brought today’s contributor new inspiration about the power of God’s cleansing love to heal “stings” of all types.

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When the stings in our life are healed

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Jellyfish of all sorts live in the world’s oceans, and extending from their bodies are tentacles with many little stinging cells. When food, such as a fish or crustacean, brushes against the tentacles, little darts in the cells impale the prey. These stinging cells can be used only once, after which the jellyfish must grow new ones.

One day while scuba diving, I swam through a very beautiful jellyfish’s tentacle and got stung up and down my right forearm. It hurt quite a bit, and I saw on my arm the distinct line of stings. When I got to the surface and removed my diving gear, my arm was more swollen and the line of stings more pronounced.

I had driven a car to that spot on the shore, and as I was driving back I prayed for myself, something I’ve found helpful so many times. Often when I pray, I like to just quietly be conscious of God’s tangible presence, and God reveals inspiring ideas that bring a completely new light to whatever might be troubling me. It’s a gentle, loving activity, and I can feel God’s power behind it.

Here is what happened that day as I prayed. As I was turning right at a corner, an idea struck me: Because I’d brushed against its tentacle, I’d made the jellyfish use up many of the stinging cells it needed to get its food. All of a sudden – and this may sound funny – I felt sorry for what I’d unintentionally done to this jellyfish, and also felt such love for it. It was a sincere love, like the kind I would feel for a child. I knew that this love was simply a reflection of the deep love God has for His creation.

Then, as I finished turning that corner and straightened out the car, I saw that the line of stings was completely gone from that arm. The skin was perfectly smooth and clear, just like the skin on my other arm. I was entirely healed in that instant. And as a side note, from that day forward, whenever I have brushed against any jellyfish tentacles or fire coral, I have had no reaction at all.

As you can imagine, this was one of those life experiences that really got me thinking. I know from reading the Bible that God is Love (see I John 4:16). That day, it was the power and presence of the Love that is God that completely changed my perspective, and healing was the result. The book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, explains how this divine Love operates in our lives. It says, “Love inspires, illumines, designates, and leads the way” (p. 454).

This Love continues to inspire and lead me in new ways of thinking. I have begun to see more clearly that when we get stung – not just by jellyfish, but by people’s acts, or maybe by our life circumstances – we can prayerfully behold God’s deep, cleansing love for all. When honestly, humbly embraced, God’s love thoroughly transforms us. No wonder Jesus counseled, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

It would be so nice if I could say that since my healing of the jellyfish sting, I have always responded to people’s stings in this Christian manner, feeling and acknowledging God’s love for them. I haven’t. But you know what? There are many times when I have! And I’m finding that a devotion to expressing God’s love in response to someone’s stinging offense, intentional or not, makes it possible to have more control over how we feel, supporting a healing of the situation by preventing us from reacting to the stings in the first place.

“Keep yourselves in the love of God,” says the Bible (Jude 1:21). Keeping our thoughts and actions immersed in God’s ever-present love is a powerful force for good, bringing healing one sting at a time.

Adapted from an article published in the April 15, 2019, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

An early egg hunt

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
Western lowland gorilla Fatou eats a hard-boiled Easter egg during a media event at the zoo in Berlin April 16.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( April 17th, 2019 )

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow for a report from Pylypovychi, Ukraine, a small agricultural village about 30 miles from Kiev. Its community is struggling over whether its church should remain Russian Orthodox or join the new Ukrainian patriarchate – a debate playing out in congregations across the country, pitting national and religious identities against each other.

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