2019
May
06
Monday

Walking through Boston in May connects me with a rite of passage that always brings a smile. Newly minted college grads float down the street, resplendent in robe and mortarboard, feet appearing to hover slightly off the ground. Admirers hover and buzz and snap photos. Someone shepherds a bouquet of flowers; younger siblings look on in awe.

Even as higher ed struggles amid a season of scandal and withering criticism, these scenes are a reminder of the good that happens on many a campus – of the power of a degree to transform lives and the act of recognizing that to bring out our better angels.

Some gestures are heart-warming. Take Stephan Wilson’s graduation from Central Michigan University. His mom, Sharonda Wilson, was of course going to be there, though it meant she’d miss her own graduation at Ferris State. But CMU President Bob Davies did a workaround. While she stood on stage at CMU alongside her son, he awarded Ms. Wilson her FSU degree. Tears flowed and the audience rose to cheer.

Other acts aim to heal a heart-wrenching wrong. In 1956, Autherine Lucy Foster became the first African American to enroll at the University of Alabama. She was expelled days later amid intense protests. But last Friday she received an honorary doctorate from the school (from which her daughter also graduated and she earned a master’s in 1992). “I sat down last night, and when I thought about it, I was crying,” she told the Tuscaloosa News. “That is a wonderful campus out there.”

Now to our five stories, which focus on bringing forward important conversations – about religion in politics, South African history, and DNA privacy. 

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A deeper look

1. Faith comes to fore in 2020 Democratic field

In the political arena, expressions of religious faith have tended to come largely from conservatives. But with so many hot-button social issues at stake, more Democrats are sharing how faith guides their lives. 

Amelia
Bebeto Matthews/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg, from South Bend, Indiana, and civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton (r.), president of National Action Network, pray before their lunch meeting at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, New York, April 29.

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Presidential aspirants in the Democratic Party have tended to keep their religious beliefs separate from their politics when making their electoral pitch.

“In the last couple of years it seems that the only people comfortable publicly talking about their faith tend to be on the conservative end, both theologically and politically,” says Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. 

Among the candidates seeking the 2020 presidential nomination, however, there appears to be more appetite for speaking about their faith and using it to explain their positions and policies.

Questions about inequality and immigration have reframed long-standing debates about the role of faith in politics while at the same time highlighting many of the seismic cultural shifts that have transformed America’s religious landscape, observers say. As a result, more progressives have begun to urge candidates to express the faith that makes them tick.

“It’s very important that people understand what the core of my value system is,” Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey tells the Monitor. “I’m a big believer that faith without works is dead.”

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1. Faith comes to fore in 2020 Democratic field

When Bob Vander Plaats invited several Democratic presidential hopefuls to speak at his Family Leadership Summit in Iowa in July, a lot of people did a double take.

The summit is a gathering of socially conservative and politically powerful Evangelicals, and many consider Mr. Vander Plaats, the president of The Family Leader, to be something of a Republican kingmaker in the first of the nation’s nomination contests. It’s long been a must-attend for Republicans vying for Evangelical votes in their Iowa caucus. But no Democrat had ever been invited to speak there.

But like so many others this past month, Mr. Vander Plaats heard more Democratic candidates talking about their Christian faith in ways that broke with past election cycles and even in terms that Evangelicals like him hold dear.

“It just seems like a lot of them are talking about their faith as the centerpiece of their lives or even citing Scripture to explain their political beliefs,” Mr. Vander Plaats says.

He saw his invitation as a way to take up the candidates on their calls for unity and to try to bridge a nation’s polarized politics.

“There’s no gotcha questions, but just questions to basically provide an opportunity for a candidate to express who they are, what makes them tick, and what makes them reach the policies they are thinking about,” he says. “We want to hear who you are and what you’re for and what we can expect under your leadership.”

Brian Frank/Reuters/File
Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, in 2014.

So far, most of the seven Democratic hopefuls he invited late last month have already declined, saying that they object to the summit’s treatment of their LGBTQ constituents’ rights.

“I welcome any opportunity to talk about how faith guides me, but I cannot – in good conscience – attend an event put on by an organization that preaches bigotry and sows hate against the LGBTQ community,” Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey tweeted.

Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also declined the invitation. So did Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who is gay, and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who also declined saying the Evangelical group has “unapologetically provided a forum for dangerous anti-LGBTQ hate speech on numerous occasions.”

Still, Mr. Vander Plaats’ unlikely invitations point to simmering changes underway within mainstream political parties and the nation as a whole, many scholars say.

In general, liberals in the Democratic Party, even those of a devout faith, have favored “a secularist view” of the separation of church and state in which faith is a private and devotional matter while politics and governing are public and secular.

But on the right and the left, the issues of same-sex marriage, abortion, and the nation’s policies towards immigrants, minorities, and the poor have each been charged with religious questions, especially about the meaning of the teachings of Jesus and the message of Christianity.

These questions have in many ways reframed the nation’s long-standing debates about the role of faith in politics while at the same highlighting many of the seismic cultural shifts that have transformed America’s religious landscape, observers say.

What makes them tick

Indeed, many progressives have begun to echo religious conservatives like Mr. Vander Plaats, urging candidates to express the faith that makes them tick.

“I will say that in my nine years in the Senate, I’ve been struck by how many of my Democratic colleagues rely upon their faith, their personal religious values and experience, to motivate and inform their commitment to public service, and yet how few of them ever talk about that publicly,” Sen. Christopher Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, tells the Monitor.   

“In the last couple of years it seems that the only people comfortable publicly talking about their faith tend to be on the conservative end, both theologically and politically,” he adds.

He believes progressive values can’t be just secular values. “The American people have a very wide range of theological and political views and would benefit from hearing how progressive Christians see an intersection between their political views and their faith views,” Senator Coons says. “So I’ve encouraged a number of my colleagues to be more forthcoming about it.”

Evan Vucci/AP
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla. (l.), President Donald Trump, and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. (r.), pray during the National Prayer Breakfast Feb. 7 in Washington.

 

White Evangelicals have long marched in lockstep with Republicans. Yet at the same time some have begun to question their religious subgroup’s outsize commitment to the GOP. And when it comes to same-sex marriage, nearly half of those under 35 – who are more likely to have met or befriended gay, lesbian, or transgender people – have begun to embrace a view of the Bible and a still-conservative theological perspective that nonetheless supports same-sex marriage.

And while that is far from the case for Mr. Vander Plaats, he has a deeply personal reason to invite Democrats to speak at the Family Leadership Summit: namely, to honor the legacy of Donna Red Wing, the late leader of One Iowa, the state’s largest LGBTQ organization.

Their relationship started with a series of conversations over coffee, Mr. Vander Plaats says, and bloomed into a deep if unlikely friendship. “Even though we had deep disagreements on some foundational issues as it related to marriage or God’s desire for sexuality, we also found out we had a lot of common ground,” he says.

“As I’ve told many, I would have done just about anything for Donna and that I truly loved Donna,” he says. After she passed away over a year ago, her family asked him to give her eulogy at a Universalist Unitarian Church.

A polarizing presidency 

Still, the polarizing presidency of Donald Trump and the full-throated support he continues to receive from white Evangelicals has led religious progressives to press Democratic candidates to articulate their deepest moral and religious underpinnings.

“What I see happening with some of the candidates is that they are being pushed by the movement,” says the Rev. Dr. William Barber II of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, whose Moral Mondays movement has made him a national civil-rights figure.

He says Democrats are responding to voters who are using their faith to proclaim “a national call for a moral revival.”

Julie Bennett/AP
Rev. William Barber II, leader of the Moral Mondays movement, speaks during a town hall meeting in Hayneville, Ala. on Feb 21, 2019.

Indeed, like many black Protestants, Dr. Barber’s preaching and political activism spring from many of the historical elements of the Evangelical tradition. And unlike some of those in the traditions of mainline liberalism, he maintains an orthodox view of many of the traditional pillars of the Christian faith.

“What we’re beginning to see, and what we’re glad to see, is not so much the emergence of a ‘religious left’ or a ‘progressive Christianity.’ That is really not a way to talk about Christianity. That’s not biblical, and that’s not theological,” he says. 

‘A human perspective’

Senator Booker is one of the 2020 candidates who references Dr. Barber’s moral leadership. He’s also said that Democrats shouldn’t cede faith-based persuasion to Republicans and has drawn notice for weaving stories of his faith into campaign speeches.

“But I don’t come about this from a party perspective,” Senator Booker tells the Monitor. “I come to it from a human perspective. And for me it’s very important that people understand what the core of my value system is. I’m a big believer that you should speak your truth and religion has deeply – my faith is at the center of my life.” 

Cliff Owen/AP
Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., addresses the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner reception in Washington Sept. 15, 2018. Sen. Booker describes his Christian faith as being central to his life.

“So it’s something I think that all people should talk about,” says Senator Booker. “And again, I say it very openly in my remarks often: I’d rather hang out with a nice atheist than a mean Christian any day of the week. And some of the most soulful people with the strongest moral compasses are people who don’t subscribe to a religion. But as for me, my faith is sort of the foundation upon which I stand and the motivating force in so much of what I do.”

“I’m a big believer that faith without works is dead,” he continues, citing a famous verse from the book of James in the New Testament. “And it’s not necessarily even what you say. It’s what you do that speaks.”

A civil rights movement

That certainly applies to Dr. Barber, who models his activism on the civil disobedience traditions of the civil rights movement. His new Poor People’s Campaign picks up where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been working before his assassination in 1968.

But there has been a more aggressive religious tenor to Dr. Barber’s civil rights activism, many observers note. As he offers a “prophetic moral critique” of the political views of his religiously conservative counterparts, he has begun to challenge their Christian orthodoxy in no uncertain terms.

“We are challenging those who would go in with the president and pray over him and consecrate him and give him cover so he can prey on people who are the most vulnerable,” says Dr. Barber. “We’re challenging this kind of hypocritical faith that says, ‘Well, we’ll overlook everything Trump does so long as he’s against abortion.’”

“What we’re looking at is what kind of public policy violence is being covered up by this extreme and sometimes heretical presentation of the Gospel that refuses to critique injustice,” he continues. “An orthodox view of Jesus sees how, even in his first sermon, he lifted up the poor, the broken, and the unaccepted. So if a person’s spirituality does not produce a quarrel with the sins of injustice, then one’s spirituality, or claim of spirituality, is at least suspect.”

Jim Young/Reuters/File
Gretchen Larson recites the Pledge of Allegiance before the the start of the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, July 18, 2015. The Family Leader, a conservative organization, has invited several Democratic presidential candidates to speak at its 2019 summit.

But as progressives claim the mantle of orthodoxy and the true meaning of Jesus’ message, scholars like Bill Leonard, professor emeritus at the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, sees what might be an alternative “religio-spiritual vision.”

This has been especially true of Mayor Buttigieg, who last month affirmed that “the left is rightly committed to a separation of church and state” in an interview with USA Today. “But we need to not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.”

Many took note of how he grounds his marriage to his husband, Chasten Glezman, a junior high school teacher, in his Christian faith. “My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man. And yes ... it has moved me closer to God,” he recently told a gathering of the Victory Fund, which helps LGBTQ candidates win office.

Yet at the same time Mayor Buttigieg has urged those who support LGBTQ rights not to “drag” those who don’t over to their point of view. “If someone feels harassed and put upon by us, at the very moment we’re demanding tolerance and acceptance, one consequence is that we can leave them with nowhere to go but the religious right.”

A values campaign

Scholars like Mara Suttmann-Lea, professor of government at Connecticut College in New London, says Mayor Buttigieg has focused on such humility to bolster an explicit values campaign. “As he wrote in his book, he wants to move beyond a superficial political strategy that is based on capturing constituency groups, and that has helped him brand himself as a leader whose values are able to connect across a very diverse coalition,” she says.

Professor Leonard agrees. “Part of Mayor Pete’s approach – indeed, his ‘witness’ – is his willingness to talk not only about his sexuality but to claim a spiritual ‘center’ that informs his entire personhood,” he says.

And it could be a particular millennial approach to faith, a “spirituality movement of the times,” he continues. “He finds his spirituality in the progressive Episcopal communion, not as doctrinal mandate but as ‘centering’ relationships, horizontal and vertical,” Professor Leonard says. “He articulates that spirituality not as moral diatribe against the ‘heretics’ but as a force in his own life. He’s also not afraid to own that spiritual side of himself, not as sectarian but as a connection to the larger and even more diverse ecumenical and interfaith constituency.”

But can religious progressives find common cause with conservative Evangelicals like Mr. Vander Plaats? In his view, marriage is between one man and one woman, and homosexuality is a sin; he also differs on how Christians should heed Jesus’ teachings on the poor.

“There can still be differences in policy,” Mr. Vander Plaats says. “People can say, no, the government should provide assistance for the poor, the government should step up and do this. But there is another side that says government should ... make sure that we continue to be the most generous country in the world for the poor” by promoting free enterprise.

“And the best thing we can do is offer them a job, and the other thing we can do is to encourage the church and people of faith to have the means and the tools to reach out, because they’d be way better at that than any government program.”

He’s still hoping some of the Democrats will change their minds and decide to attend his summit in Iowa in July.

“It’s no secret that we live in divisive and polarizing times,” he wrote over the weekend in an op-ed for the Des Moines Register. “My fear is we are embracing hatred versus understanding when we encounter disagreement. We are witnessing and growing numb to the senseless acts of violence in synagogues, churches, and nightclubs. There has to be a better way,”

“One way is to model what civility looks like,” Mr. Vander Plaats continued. “Thus, I encourage the leading Democratic hopefuls to accept my sincere offer for an honest, transparent, and civil conversation in a safe environment. While we may not leave agreeing and supporting one another, we’ll leave better and we’ll model a better way.”

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2. Texas Republicans propose raising taxes. Here’s why.

Tax increases and Texas may seem like an oxymoron. But the red state is grappling with trying to keep taxes low while not betraying voters and core conservative values.

Amelia

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It’s not often that Republicans in Texas seek to emulate California. But then it’s not often that Republicans in Texas advocate for a tax increase. That is exactly what the state’s GOP leaders are doing this week: calling for legislators to support a sales tax increase that would help fund a decrease in property taxes. The proposal has been criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike and is evidence to some that the “Texas model” of low taxes and small government is being tested like never before.

No state has embodied that fiscally conservative ideal as much as Texas in recent decades. While the state is far from an economic crisis and the proposed sales and property “tax swap” far from certain to pass, the debate has raised larger questions about its future. Has the bill come due after years of low taxes and low investment in public services? Or does the state need to rein in its spending so it isn’t forced to increase taxes, as other low-tax states like Kansas and Louisiana have in recent years?

“Republicans govern on these big bright lines, and if you cross it you’re going to run afoul of many in the party who see tax increases as abhorrent regardless of how they come around,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston.

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Texas Republicans propose raising taxes. Here’s why.

It’s not often that Republicans in Texas seek to emulate California. But then it’s not often that Republicans in Texas advocate for a tax increase.

That is exactly what the state’s GOP leaders are doing this week: calling for legislators to support a sales tax increase that would help fund a decrease in property taxes. It comes after years of mounting pressure from voters to both increase state funding to public schools and lower property taxes, which provide the bulk of public education funding in Texas. The proposed “tax swap” solution has sparked a wider debate around Republican values and how to best exercise the fiscal conservatism Republicans have, for decades, heralded as the key to prosperity.

No state has embodied that fiscally conservative ideal as much as Texas, but as legislators here try, again, to reconcile the demand for increased education spending with the demand for property tax relief, the so-called “Texas model” of low taxes and small government is being tested like never before.

While the state is far from an economic crisis, some see the current stand-off as evidence that the Texas model has run its course and that more state investment in public services is needed. For some conservatives, the stand-off shows the need for a stronger commitment to fiscally conservative principles, lest Texas join Kansas, Louisiana and other conservative states that saw tax cuts backfire, leading to Democratic takeovers and tax increases.

Politically, with Texas Republicans likely to face both primary challenges from the right and a motivated Democratic turnout in upcoming elections, the consequences could be significant.

“Republicans govern on these big bright lines, and if you cross it you’re going to run afoul of many in the party who see tax increases as abhorrent regardless of how they come around,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston.

Texas “is in better shape than other [conservative] states have been that have been forced to raise taxes,” he adds. But it also has “so many ways to limit how they raise and spend revenue that it’s very hard to increase it when they need to. [And] that’s been a problem for Texas government for a long time.”

‘Texans are sick of small ball’

The Texas legislature is considering two bills that would increase the state sales tax by 1 percentage point, with the resulting 7.25% rate equaling California’s as the highest state sales tax in the country and raising about $5 billion to lower property taxes. Only eight states have higher property taxes than Texas.

In a joint press conference Friday with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Dennis Bonnen, the Republican speaker of the House, said that “Texans are sick of small ball.”

“Texans want to open up a property tax bill and see that it is lower and not have to squint to notice,” he added.

This is the last week in which the state House can pass bills, but at the moment, neither looks likely to pass. Most Democrats in the legislature are opposing the tax increase, a situation “which has left many of us feeling like hell has actually frozen over,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, in a press conference this morning.

In particular, Democrats say moving the tax burden from property to sales would have a disproportionate impact on lower income Texans, a so-called “regressive” tax. Under one of the tax swap bills, Texans earning less than $100,000 a year would pay more than they do now,while those earning more than $100,000 would pay less, according to an analysis by the state’s legislative budget board. (Some Republicans dispute that analysis.)

Another concern is that sales taxes are volatile, tied to consumer spending that can fluctuate year over year.

“It’s not a reliable source of revenue for funding public education,” says Dick Lavine, a senior fiscal analyst at the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. “Those kids are going to be there every single year, and there’s always more of them than in the year past.”

Property taxes provide about half the funding for Texas public schools, a share that has been growing as direct state investment has been declining. That imbalance is at the root of the school finance and property tax reform debates here, but that low state investment is not just limited to public education, according to Mr. Lavine. Spending on infrastructure has also declined, along with spending on mental health care and child protective services.

“At some point Texas is going to have to meet the needs of its people in the 21st century,” says Mr. Lavine. “At some point you can’t go on claiming your success is based on low taxes and low services. That time has passed.”

‘Difficult decisions to make later’

Republicans coming out against the tax swap proposal are doing so for much different reasons.

Not only is voting for any kind of tax increase politically risky for Republicans, but some believe “you don’t need to raise taxes to lower others,” says Professor Rottinghaus.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican, is one of them. “It doesn’t matter if it’s income tax, property tax, sales tax, or whatever tax, I’m not voting for an increase,” he told the Houston Chronicle.

He is also skeptical because tax swaps have not often worked. In 2006, the Texas legislature reduced property taxes by increasing some taxes on businesses. While there was some short-term relief, property taxes increased again soon after. New Jersey and Connecticut also both approved sales tax swaps, but neither could sustain the savings for more than a few years.

“It’s just very difficult to do a state-for-local tax swap without having winners and losers,” says Jared Walczak, a senior policy analyst at the Tax Foundation.

Some conservative groups say the current stand-off over how to offset lower property taxes is a result of the state government progressively spending outside its means, a leftward trend that needs correcting. If Texas kept its spending in line with population growth and inflation, billions of dollars would be freed up that could be used to lower property taxes without an offsetting tax increase, according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).

Furthermore, reining in spending would help Texas avoid the backlash experienced in Kansas and Louisiana. Both states made dramatic tax cuts that later proved unpopular, leading to electoral defeats and tax increases. While those states didn’t pair their tax cuts with an offsetting tax increase, the lack of “fiscal restraint” concerns Vance Ginn, senior economist at the TPPF.

“We would have to come back and raise taxes or cut spending,” he adds. “There would be more difficult decisions to be made later if fiscal restraint isn’t practiced today.”

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3. Mining wrote South Africa’s history. Does it have a future?

As South Africans go to the polls this week, few industries symbolize what’s at stake like mining. And few towns tell the social consequences of the mining industry’s rise and fall like Kimberley.

Amelia
Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
An informal diamond miner at work in the city of Kimberley, South Africa. Such miners trawl sites that were once formal mines in search of diamonds that have been left behind.

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Each day, on the hour, tourists in Kimberley, South Africa, queue up to tour The Big Hole. It’s aptly named: an abandoned mining site that spans the length of almost five football fields and plunges 50 stories below ground level.

A century ago, this was a boom town. But in recent decades, the industry’s decline has left behind a massive gap, and not just a literal one. Gold and diamond mining steered the history of South Africa, endings its days as a sleepy colonial backwater and helping to lay the ground for apartheid. But today, 25 years into democracy, mining is in decline without a clear replacement – a struggle that speaks to the country’s broader challenges tackling inequality and economic rot. On the eve of elections, current President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to revive the industry, while his left-wing opponents vow more radical redistribution. But many here are skeptical.

Every day, thousands of people comb through the old mines, in search of crumbs left behind – highly dangerous, often unprofitable work. But “one day you could find a big diamond, and it could change everything,” says Elisa Louw, a representative for an informal miners’ association. “Diamonds like that, they have a holiness to them.” 

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Mining wrote South Africa’s history. Does it have a future?

On a glassy blue March day, on a cratered field flanked by tin shacks, a man named Shimi sinks his hands deep into the dirt that once made his country rich beyond reason.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a few miles from this spot, another man, whose name was recorded for history only as Swartbooi (“black boy”), found a diamond so big that it warped the entire history of South Africa. Now Shimi is trying to do the same. 

Actually, Shimi doesn’t really need the history-warping kind of diamond. The rent-paying kind would do. The new-shoe buying type. The type of diamond that means he has enough cornmeal for a few more months.

“If you’re lucky, with this work, you find enough to live,” says Shimi, who asked that his last name not be used because of the illegal nature of his work, as he carries another bucket of dirt to the homemade sifter he uses to search for diamonds in this old mine dump.

The minerals hidden in the seams of the earth below Shimi’s feet have steered the history of South Africa. By the turn of the 20th century, Swartbooi’s discovery had transformed South Africa from a sleepy colonial backwater to the world’s largest producer of both diamonds and gold, and one of its fastest-growing economies. Indeed, the quantity of diamonds was so vast that it helped transform how we see the rock itself, from an ultra-lux commodity for the super-wealthy to a necessary middle-class possession. 

Meanwhile, mining shaped the trajectory South Africa in other ways as well, hastening the dispossession of millions of its residents from their land and creating the system of cheap black migrant labor that became the bedrock of its economy. By doing so, it helped lay the foundations for apartheid. And later, the industry’s massive earnings would help for decades to insulate South Africa’s white regime against calls for transformation.

But now, mining is declining dramatically, and without a clear replacement. In the 1980s, mining accounted for a fifth of South Africa’s gross domestic product. Today, it is 8 percent. The gold industry today employs some 100,000 people – one-fifth of what it did at its height. Those figures are part of a broader picture of economic rot. Formal unemployment here hovers between 25 and 30 percent, and two major rating agencies, S&P and Fitch, have downgraded the country’s economy to so-called junk status in the past two years.

In Kimberley, the onetime mining boom town where streets are named for mines and the people they made rich, the decline has left behind an even more massive gap. Quite literally. Each day, on the hour, tourists queue up near the city center to tour The Big Hole, an abandoned mining site that spans the length of almost five football fields and plunges 700 feet – about 50 stories – below ground level.

Against this backdrop, South Africa is now preparing, on May 8, to elect its next president. For many, the country’s struggling economy will be at the heart of that choice. And few industries symbolize what’s at stake like the country’s onetime economic engine, mining.

“In this country, the majority of people are just getting by,” says Kabelo Bontsi, another informal diamond miner in Kimberley. “We vote because that’s the benefit of freedom. But are you really free if you don’t benefit economically? Can you be politically free if you’re not economically free as well?”

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
A shot of The Big Hole in Kimberley, South Africa, which was, at the turn of the 20th century, the largest diamond mine in the world. It fell into disuse during World War I and now serves as an attraction for tourists.

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The word for informal miners like Shimi and Mr. Bontsi in South Africa is zama zama, which comes from a Zulu verb: to take a chance.

Every day, in Kimberley and the crumbling towns that surround it, thousands of people take their own chance, combing through old mines and piles of their tailings in search of the crumbs the mining companies left behind when these spots ceased to be profitable decades ago. 

The zama zamas’ methods are little different from the first miners’ who scoured the ground here a century and a half ago. They crush rocks by hand and then pass the dust through a fine sieve, looking for the tiny shards of clear rock that refuse to break apart.

Because most of these miners work illegally, their numbers are notoriously hard to record. But one recent study from the Open Society Foundation estimated that there are between 10,000 and 30,000 currently working in South Africa. Altogether, the informal mining industry is worth about U.S.$500 million annually (by comparison, the legal mining industry produces about $45 billion per year). In Kimberley, thanks to a deal struck by mining companies, zama zamas, and local government, some informal miners now work legally with state-issued permits. Others – like Shimi – continue to do the work illegally.

But for individual miners, the winnings are generally small. Most of the miners the Monitor spoke to said they’d never found a diamond worth more than a few hundred dollars – and even those can come months or years apart.

Still, informal digging carries the same charged energy it did a century ago.

“Even when people have nothing, they prefer to work here rather than clean or do piece jobs because at least they work for themselves,” says Elisa Louw, a representative for Batho Pele, an association of informal miners here. “And one day you could find a big diamond, and it could change everything.”

“Diamonds like that,”  she says, “they have a holiness in them.”

South Africa’s current president, the African National Congress’ Cyril Ramaphosa, has promised that if he is reelected May 8 – and he almost certainly will be – he will bring economic development to places like Kimberley, where many say informal mining is their only viable work. A former trade unionist in the mines and later a mining executive, Mr. Ramaphosa has promised to revive the industry, which has been buffeted in recent decades by challenges like increasing costs, competition, and labor disputes.

But in places like Kimberley, his proposals face skepticism – and a sharp challenge from a left-wing opposition party called the Economic Freedom Fighters. Created by a fiery former ANC activist named Julius Malema in 2013, the party has gained support – and notoriety – for its radical proposals to shift the balance of wealth in one of the world’s most unequal countries.

Among them: The EFF says that if it wins an electoral majority, it will nationalize the country’s mines, distributing their earnings among the black communities that have historically built key industries while seeing little of their enormous profits.

“All you have to do is look around you to see that communities here didn’t benefit from the discovery of diamonds,” says Aubrey Baartman, head of the EFF in the Northern Cape Province, where Kimberley is located. “All we are asking is for a government that provides for its own people.”

But the EFF, which is expected to take about 10 percent of the vote, isn’t exactly known for asking nicely for what it wants. Its leaders, led by Mr. Malema, advocate frequently for members to take over unoccupied or underused parcels of land. (In Kimberley, locals accuse the group of being behind several recent land grabs on mine sites, though Mr. Baartman vehemently denies the charge.)

But many here say they’re doubtful of the motives behind these land takeovers.

“People are poor in this country because they don’t have land, because their land was stolen from them, that is true,” says Sabata-Mpho Mokae, a local novelist and historian. But like many here, he believes that groups that call for land redistribution are often doing so largely to win votes, without a clear idea of what would happen next. “Politicians are also capitalizing on [people’s] suffering,” he says.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
A tourist snaps a photo of an old mine shaft at The Big Hole, a former diamond mine turned historical attraction in Kimberley, South Africa.

 

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On July 16, 1871, two years after Swartbooi found a diamond in a riverbed outside Kimberley, another man, Esau Damoense, sank a shovel into the rust-colored ground in what is now the city center and pulled another hard, clear speck of rock from the dirt.  

While Swartbooi’s diamond had touched off a rush to the area, Mr. Damoense’s began the excavation of one of the most important diamond mines in the world. The land Mr. Demoense stood on belonged to a family called the De Beers. And in the years after his discovery, it was chopped and dug and plundered. As thousands tilled the earth in search of diamonds, what had once been a hill became first a ditch, then a gully, then an abyss. 

Meanwhile, a city sprang up all around it. Originally called New Rush, the place changed its name in 1873 to Kimberley. Like many mining settlements, it was a brusquely cosmopolitan place, where the collision of so many people from around the world often scrambled the social order. In the city’s early days, it had black civil servants and black prospectors. Black men with high enough incomes were allowed to vote in local elections. One of South Africa’s most important intellectuals, Sol Plaatje, who also co-founded the ANC, got his start in Kimberley as a telegraph messenger. 

But that racial mobility spooked many white residents of mining cities like Kimberley and Johannesburg, and working-class white workers began to push for formal divisions to protect them against competition from black miners.

By the 1960s, when Mr. Damoense’s grandson Andrew Damoense was in high school, not only was Kimberley rigidly segregated, but the role of black South Africans like his own family had been all but written out of mining history.

“If we learned about Kimberley at all, it was about how wealthy this city was. We learned about how it had the first streetlights in the Southern Hemisphere,” he says. “But mostly, history was Napoleon. History was what happened in Europe, not here.”

Today, visitors to the site can wander through a rehabilitated version of Kimberley’s old town, which backed up against the mine. There are quaint old shoe stores and antique shops, a barber and a church and a little tin shack made up to look like the ones where diggers sold their diamonds to buyers a century ago. Still, to many who visit, the history feels incomplete.

“People ask me a lot, What happened to the black men who made all these important discoveries [of diamonds]?” says Jackie Mokwena, a tour guide at The Big Hole.

For many, though, the answer is already clear: nothing. Those men didn’t get rich. They didn’t get written into history books. Their communities saw little of the wealth they unearthed.

And that is still true today. A little outside town, while Ms. Mokwena walks another group of tourists to the edge of The Big Hole, a group of kids plays soccer on a field scratched out from tailings taken from that very mine. Overhead, the leaders of the three major political parties – the ANC, the EFF, and the Democratic Alliance – smile widely from campaign posters tacked to electrical poles.

Shimi sits nearby, taking slow drags from his cigarette and watching the neighborhood stream by. Come Wednesday, he says, he won’t be casting a ballot for any of them.

“Nothing changes,” he says. “Voting is a waste of time.”

He drops the stub of his cigarette into the dust, sinks his hands into the dirt, and returns to work.

 Reporter’s Notebook

As I stepped forward to pay my admission fee for Kimberley’s Big Hole – the abandoned open-pit diamond mine that sits smack in the center of town – the cashier looked at me apologetically.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “No tours today.” And then by way of explanation, “load shedding.”

Load shedding. In recent years, this has become a South African term of art, a sterile way of describing the rolling power outages instituted by the state electricity company to keep its aging grid from collapsing. When I visited Kimberley in early April, the entire country was experiencing scheduled power outages multiple times per week.

Kimberley was a striking place to be during load shedding because it was a reminder of the city’s slow fall from grace. In 1882, just a few years after its founding, Kimberley became the first city in the Southern Hemisphere to have electric street lights. It had them, its residents still proudly explain, even before London.

Back then, Kimberley was a boom town, chaotic and roughly cosmopolitan. But then diamond mining began to decline. Today, the city’s streets are largely empty, even at rush hour. Potholes crater the roads in even the chicest of neighborhoods. In an ornate synagogue just outside the city center, a caretaker still sweeps the floors and dusts the seats daily, though only about 15 people a week come to services here, says that caretaker, Freddy Panthle.

“Kimberley has lots of troubles now,” he says. “Everyone who can leave, they have left.”

He went back to sweeping. The lights were still out.

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4. Whom does your DNA belong to? Hint, it’s not just you.

It seems like yet another cautionary tale in a data-hungry internet age: The DNA tests many have seen as a private quest instead are proving to have far-reaching and sometimes dark implications.

Amelia

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When you spit into the tube of a DNA test kit, like the ones provided by 23andme or Ancestry, you’re probably not the only one salivating over your genetic information. Personalized genetic testing, which promises customers information about ancestry, lost relatives, or hidden traits, is a booming industry, with tens of millions of home kits sold last year.

But privacy advocates say that those who use the kits may be giving up private information not just about themselves, but also about distant relatives they’ve never met. This spillover effect, say observers, could erode the common good in ways that we cannot anticipate. 

Katie Hasson, a researcher at the Center for Genetics and Society, compares the way some people share their genetic information with personal genomics companies to the way we share personal data with social media companies.

“A few years ago, it seemed really innocuous to put your friends and your likes and whatever daily happenings on Facebook,” she says. "Now ... we’re seeing that when your personal information is monetized by private companies, it’s used for all kinds of things that you didn’t want.”

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Whom does your DNA belong to? Hint, it’s not just you.

When you submit your DNA to a personal genomics company like Ancestry or 23andme, you’re not just uncovering secrets about yourself, but potentially about other people.

That’s what Dani Shapiro learned after she spat into a tube and sent it to Ancestry for testing.

“It really was very much in the spirit of a lark,” says the novelist and memoirist. “It was just this recreational feeling of, ‘Oh, maybe we’ll discover second cousins or third cousins.’”

What she found instead challenged her very sense of self.

As Ms. Shapiro describes in her bestselling memoir, “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love,” published in January, the DNA test found that she was only half Ashkenazi Eastern European, not the 100% that she had always thought. And there was a name that she didn’t recognize, identified as a first cousin. The truth was unavoidable: The man who raised her was not her biological father.

“It’s like the lights blinked on,” she says. “After the initial shock and disruption and disorientation, things about myself that I had not understood became very clear.”

Ms. Shapiro’s discovery illuminates the two faces of home DNA testing: Genetic information, by its very nature, cannot exist in isolation. Any secrets that you uncover in your own genes will also be uncovered in those genes you share with others. As home testing becomes increasingly popular, with tens of millions of kits sold each year, society is only beginning to feel the tension between consumer freedom and collective privacy.   

In Ms. Shapiro’s case, she determined that her parents, who had since died, had sought treatment at a fertility clinic in 1961. At the time, a common practice in male infertility cases was to mix donor sperm – typically that of medical students – with that of the intended father. Donors were promised anonymity, records were destroyed, and parents were instructed to pretend it never happened.

And yet, despite all the clinic’s efforts to purge evidence and maintain ambiguity, Ms. Shapiro managed to track down her biological father, a retired physician with a wife and three children, in just 36 hours.

“It really didn’t take any kind of expert anything,” she says. “It took Facebook and Google and a couple of hunches.”

Ms. Shapiro’s biological father, whom she describes as a “very private guy,” never submitted his genetic information to Ancestry or any other genealogical DNA testing service. But one of his many nephews did, and that was all Ms. Shapiro needed.

Bring the whole family

This spillover effect is prompting some observers to suggest that the way we frame genetic privacy is too individualized to account for the ways that DNA binds us together.

“Online genetic testing really exposes these connections between people,” says Jennifer King, the director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

“When you make this individual choice to upload a genetic sample to a site, you’ve brought along everybody you’re directly related to, as well as potentially your current or future children and grandchildren, and presumably you have not asked any of those people for their consent.”

So far, more than 26 million people have taken a home DNA test, with as many people purchasing kits in 2018 as in all prior years combined, according to a report by MIT Technology Review.

The business is dominated by two companies: Ancestry, based in Lehi, Utah, and 23andme, based in Mountain View, California. And around them has spawned a cottage industry of smaller companies that let users upload their raw DNA data from Ancestry or 23andme in exchange for the identities of long-lost relatives or for what are claimed to be genetically personalized tips on nutrition, fitness, and even romance.

A study published in the journal Science last year looked at one such free database, GEDMatch, which contains the profiles of 0.5% of the U.S. population, and found that it could be used to identify 60% of Americans of European descent. With 2% of the U.S. population, this figure would increase to more than 90%, the researchers found.

Nothing to hide?

Last year, authorities in California used information from GEDMatch to track down and convict the U.S. Navy veteran and former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo, the so-called Golden State Killer who committed at least 13 murders and more than 50 rapes in California in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mr. DeAngelo himself had not submitted his DNA to any service, but, just as with Ms. Shapiro’s biological father, that wasn’t necessary. A profile of one of the killer’s relatives was in the database, and that was all that law enforcement needed.

Since then GEDMatch has become the de facto DNA database for law enforcement, leading to dozens more cold-case arrests for rape and murder.

But Dr. King worries that, when these databases make users’ genetic profiles available to law enforcement, a slippery slope lies ahead. “I should be able to opt out of that,” she says. “Otherwise we start opening up a world where you have law enforcement able to engage in fairly intrusive searches of innocent people without any burden of proof. ... You start moving from serial killers to traffic tickets.”

“People who think that they have nothing to hide usually have a lot of social advantages that other people don’t,” she adds.

Far-reaching effects

Internationally, the picture grows even more complicated, as policies set in one country could have impacts on the other side of a globe.

Owned by a Chinese holding company, the for-profit Genomics Medicine Ireland Ltd. announced last November that it planned to build a database of 400,000 participants in Ireland, about 6% of the island’s population. Because the Irish are more closely related to each other than are other European populations, such a database would contain information about a huge proportion of the Irish citizenry.

But it doesn’t stop there. From the middle of the 19th century up through the 1980s, Ireland experienced a massive emigration of its population. Ireland’s emigrants and their descendants are thought to number some 70 million.

“Because the diaspora is so large, you can then make some fairly educated guesses on an international level,” says Róisín Costello, a privacy researcher at the Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute at Trinity College in Dublin. “That’s obviously extremely concerning.”

Like Dr. King, Ms. Costello suggests that the way we tend to frame privacy as an individual right, one that each customer can negotiate on their own with a corporation, has the potential to erode the greater good.

“There’s no sense that privacy might be in fact a collective good that can be collectively eroded by small individual actions that cumulatively build to a societal impact that is much greater than that,” says Ms. Costello.

Like Facebook, but for DNA

Dr. King notes that there are currently few legal restrictions in the United States on how DNA testing companies can use your data. “Right now, I would say they’re being fairly conservative and not doing things like selling it and not using it for advertising purposes,” she says. “But there’s no reason why they couldn’t do that in the future.”

Most experts agree that new rules are needed to clarify how personal genetic information can and cannot be used, but to do so you first need to determine what rules already exist, which is itself no small task. But as of last month, a team of lawyers, doctors, and other scholars say they have completed it. Created by the University of Minnesota and Vanderbilt University, the three-year, $2 million LawSeq project is a searchable database of every federal and state law, regulation, and official guideline currently regulating the field of genomics, marking the first step toward a more comprehensive genetic privacy regime.

Katie Hasson, a researcher at the Center for Genetics and Society, draws a comparison between the business models of genetic testing companies with that of Facebook, whose reputation has suffered in recent years following revelations about the ways in which the social network monetizes users’ profiles.

“A few years ago, it seemed really innocuous to put your friends and your likes and whatever daily happenings on Facebook,” she says. "Now ... we’re seeing that when your personal information is monetized by private companies, it's used for all kinds of things that you didn’t want. The effects can go beyond what you would imagine.”

Certainly one of these effects, one unimagined by earlier generations, is that the concept of anonymous sperm donation is quickly becoming incoherent, making about as much sense as the concept of anonymously sharing your social security number.  

“What stuns me is that in 2019 there are still anonymous sperm donors and anonymous egg donors. That is absurd,” says Ms. Shapiro. “They can’t be anonymous. They won’t be anonymous.

“My biological father did not do a DNA test,” she says. “We’re all identifiable and findable.”

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5. In ‘Our Man,’ a beautifully written tale of an ‘almost great’ life

Can one man embody a country's image of its role in the world? In his new book about Richard Holbrooke, George Packer paints a powerful picture of a fading era and a diplomatic life “lived as if the world needed an American hand to help set things right.”

Amelia

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George Packer’s biography of diplomat Richard Holbrooke, best known for brokering the Dayton Accords that ended the Balkan wars of the 1990s, is also an elegy for the vision of American power that Holbrooke represented.

Holbrooke, who began his career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Vietnam and ended it as President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was a big man with a big ego and big appetites, and his flaws ensured that he remained “almost great,” says Packer, who won the National Book Award for his 2013 “The Unwinding.”

“Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness – they were not so different from Holbrooke’s. He was our man,” he writes in his insightful, compelling book “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.”

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In ‘Our Man,’ a beautifully written tale of an ‘almost great’ life

A friend who noticed my copy of George Packer’s “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century” asked me, “Holbrooke, he was secretary of state, right?” 

He was not, but he ardently wished to be, and the mistake is perhaps suggestive of how close he got. Holbrooke, who began his career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Vietnam and ended it as President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is best known for negotiating the Dayton Accords that created a truce in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. He was a big man with a big ego and big appetites, and his flaws ensured that he remained, in Packer’s words, “almost great.” Why tell his story? For one, he’s a compelling character who led a fascinating life. But more importantly, Packer’s mesmerizing biography is an elegy not just for his subject but for the vision of American power that he represented.

Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of 2013’s National Book Award-winning “The Unwinding,” establishes Holbrooke as metaphor from the outset. “Our feeling that we could do anything gave us the Marshall Plan and Vietnam, the peace at Dayton and the endless Afghan war,” he declares in the introduction. “Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness – they were not so different from Holbrooke’s. He was our man.”

As a young diplomat in Vietnam in the early 1960s, Holbrooke was an idealist. But after seven years embroiled in the conflict, he summed up Vietnam with what he called “one simple, horrible truth: we didn’t belong there, we had no business doing what we were doing, even the good parts of it.” The lessons he learned there were formative.

Holbrooke served in Democratic administrations and waited out Republican presidencies with lucrative jobs in investment banking. He was an assistant secretary of state in the Carter administration, but President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, disliked him, which prevented him from rising. He was President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Germany but again had made a powerful enemy, in this case Secretary of State Warren Christopher, an austere man who found Holbrooke’s bombast distasteful. 

But when Clinton finally became convinced that the United States ought to intervene to stop the ethnic bloodshed in Bosnia, even Christopher supported Holbrooke, a fierce and early advocate for U.S. intervention in the region, to lead the delegation. “The same traits of character that made the secretary of state shudder – the self-dramatization, the aggressiveness – would be more than a match for the Balkan warlords,” Packer writes. The chapters on Holbrooke’s diplomacy in the former Yugoslavia – relentless, fast-paced, insistent, bullying – are the heart of the book.

When it came to how the U.S. should deploy its power, Packer writes, “Dayton did not mark a new path in the American story. It was closer to the end of something.” Holbrooke believed that in the post-Cold War era, America’s superpower status gave the country the responsibility to manage humanitarian crises and political chaos around the world, but the idea never took hold.

The diplomat had enjoyed a good relationship with Hillary Clinton, and if she had won the 2008 presidential campaign, perhaps she would have rewarded his loyalty with the job he’d long wanted. Instead, she became secretary of state under Obama. She found a place for Holbrooke, putting him to work on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but he saw echoes of the Vietnam quagmire and couldn’t stop talking about them, becoming, in Packer’s words, “a Vietnam bore.” 

Obama, who disliked drama and didn’t care for being lectured to, made clear to his staff that he didn’t want Holbrooke around.

Packer acknowledges, at the end of this insightful and beautifully written book, that Holbrooke’s memory will fade, along with “the idea of a life lived as if the world needed an American hand to help set things right.” In December 2010, Holbrooke fell ill and was rushed to the hospital, where he died. Even as they rode in the ambulance, Holbrooke protested to his deputy, “I have so much to do.”

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The Monitor's View

A special insight on species extinction

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Last week in Paris, more than 100 nations signed onto a massive study on the future of the Earth’s ecosystem. The study’s key forecast: About an eighth of plant and animal species face extinction, many “within decades.” Yet the report also offered ways to regain an equilibrium between humans and nature. Its first recommendation: transform humanity’s diverse “visions of a good life.”

Progress itself, in other words, must be redefined from “the current limited paradigm” of economic output – which has grown fourfold since 1970 while world population has doubled. “Business as usual is a disaster,” said Sir Robert Watson, co-author of the study.

Instead, people must start to factor the nearly immeasurable contributions of the natural world into concepts of wealth, such as the inspiration it provides and its support of individual identity. This so-called natural capital, while difficult to quantify, can be a foundation for slowing the extinction of species.

Mr. Watson says changing the way land and water are used can “help us have a better quality of life.” But first the stewards of the environment must rethink their definition of a rewarding life.

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A special insight on species extinction

Last week in Paris, more than 100 nations signed onto a massive study on the future of the Earth’s ecosystem. The study’s key forecast, based on years of research: About an eighth of plant and animal species face extinction, many “within decades.”

Yet beyond the shock of this “grim” estimate, the report also offered ways to regain an equilibrium between humans and nature. Its first recommendation: transform humanity’s diverse “visions of a good life.”

Different societies, it acknowledged, have differing ideas of how much either material or spiritual “components” determine the quality of existence. The report suggests people adopt a vision that does not “entail ever-increasing material consumption.”

Progress itself, in other words, must be redefined from “the current limited paradigm” of economic output – which has grown fourfold since 1970 while world population has doubled.

“Business as usual is a disaster,” said Sir Robert Watson, co-author of the study and chair of the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Instead, people must start to factor in the nearly immeasurable contributions of the natural world into concepts of wealth, such as the inspiration it provides and its support of individual identity. “The diversity of nature maintains humanity’s ability to choose alternatives in the face of an uncertain future,” the study states. This so-called natural capital, while difficult to quantify, can be a foundation for slowing the extinction of species.

The approach already has a strong foothold. More than 15% of land is protected from most human activity. In addition, indigenous people remain a model for conservation. About a quarter of land or water is under the care of indigenous peoples, much of it in better ecological shape than other parts of the world.

The report is the UN’s first comprehensive overview of biological diversity. It comes ahead of a meeting this fall of nations that have signed up for a global treaty on the topic and that seek a consensus on conservation. Mr. Watson says changing the way land and water is used can “help us have a better quality of life.” But first the stewards of the environment must rethink their definition of a rewarding life.

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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.

The perfect selfie

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Today’s contributor explores a sense of identity that goes beyond complexion, build, and DNA: a spiritual way of looking at ourselves and others that brings out the best in us.

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The perfect selfie

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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My friend’s selfie had surpassed 1,000 “likes” on Instagram, and she was elated. It had taken her over 100 attempts to get the “perfect” selfie that she ended up posting, she told me. Well, 100 attempts, plus filtering and editing the photo so that it was truly perfect according to Instagram standards.

My friend’s technique for the perfect selfie included the following: A flattering angle. Ideal lighting. Presenting her face so she could maximize her best features and play down others. The list goes on, but here’s my takeaway: Taking the perfect selfie is mainly about trying to hide all of your perceived flaws through a combination of good camera work, strategic posing, and heavy editing.

In a way, it’s a metaphor for life. If we can just conceal everything about us that’s bad, maybe people will like us – maybe we’ll have friends, make the right connections, and find a way to succeed. Maybe we can “filter” our lives so that our flaws stay hidden and people see only the picture-perfect view that we’ve worked so hard to create.

While it’s completely natural to want to be good and to be perceived as good, what I’ve learned from studying Christian Science is that the perfect selfie approach to our lives gets it all wrong. Rather, our starting point should be our flawless, eternal state as God’s children.

Pause on that for a second. Flawlessness isn’t where we end up after a ton of editing and filtering. Flawlessness is where we begin.

This doesn’t mean that we’re perfect according to the world’s standards. Actually, from this worldly, or mortal, standpoint, no one ever measures up. The standard of perfection is always changing, and we can always find something about ourselves or others to nitpick and criticize.

So the perfection we’re talking about doesn’t involve having a certain personality or body type. Christian Science explains that this genuine perfection isn’t even up to us. It’s God-given, and it’s based on a totally different way of thinking about our identity: as spiritual – immortal, not mortal. Our one true identity is not in a physical body with a certain complexion, build, or DNA makeup. It’s the image of God – of the radiance and beauty of divine Love, the intelligence, capability, and completeness of the Mind that is God. In fact, those are just a handful of the infinite qualities of God that make up our lovely, flawless individuality.

I’m learning that I have so much more to give, and so much more love, poise, and patience with which to give it, when I reflect on this spiritual self, or selfie, first thing each morning. When I’m struggling with things I don’t like about myself, it’s helpful to remember that I’m actually not imperfect trying to become perfect. I’m not defined by what happened yesterday or last week, nor am I destined to repeat past mistakes. Right now, this moment and always, I am totally good and purely spiritual.

And these radical ideas have an actual impact. As I see more of my flawless, spiritual nature, the material view of myself becomes less compelling, and unlovely qualities gradually disappear.

I often check back in with this perfect image throughout the day, especially in those moments when I don’t feel great about myself. Remembering what I am as God’s likeness reorients me and helps me handle challenges with more grace. Another of my friends, with whom I shared some of these ideas, said that since she’s begun taking a little time at the beginning of each day to acknowledge the qualities she possesses and can naturally express as God’s daughter, she’s felt happier, securer, and more peaceful.

This perfect self we’re talking about may not get 1,000 likes on Instagram. But it captures the real, true us – more flawless and beautiful than we can imagine, totally lovable, and perfectly equipped to bring out the best in ourselves and in others.

Adapted from an article published in the Christian Science Sentinel’s online TeenConnect section, Aug. 7, 2017.

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Viewfinder

‘Oyez, oyez, oyez’

Alastair Grant/AP
Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead official Town Crier Chris Brown announces news of the birth of a baby boy to Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, outside Windsor Castle in England May 6.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( May 7th, 2019 )

Thanks for starting your week with us. Tomorrow Dina Kraft will look at the fighting between Israel and Gaza and the debate over whether Israel's hard line is the most effective approach. 

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