2019
May
22
Wednesday

No matter who triumphs in the National Basketball Association playoff game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors tomorrow, there will be a clear winner: Africa.

On one side is the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek-born son of Nigerian immigrants who is rapidly becoming the best basketball player on the planet. On the other are rising Raptors star Pascal Siakim of Cameroon and General Manager Masai Ujiri, a Nigerian seen by many as one of the game’s shrewdest executives.  

The NBA’s connection with Africa is growing. The league now frequently plays a preseason game in Africa, and another of the league’s transcendent young talents is Cameroon’s Joel Embiid. Mr. Ujiri says there are “10 Embiids walking around” Africa waiting to be discovered.

That effort begins in earnest next year, when the NBA launches a pan-African professional league of 12 teams. The benefits for the NBA are obvious. But the symbol for Africa is potentially even more potent. The continent is still struggling to overcome lingering colonial views of its art, justice, people, and economy. The NBA venture can be the reverse, a mutual investment in the promise of Africa’s future.

“This new league could be the most important lens through which Africa’s history of vibrant talent, culture, history and beauty is celebrated,” write a Kenyan lawyer and his colleague in the Toronto Star. “It might just be the world stage Africans have long dreamed of, and patiently waited for.”

Our five stories for today include a look at one of the paradoxes of hyperpartisanship, a first-person account of what it’s like to vote with nearly a billion friends, and why fashion’s repeated cultural faux pas are eminently avoidable.

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1. It’s populism vs. liberal democracy as EU goes to the polls

The vote for the European Union parliament this week is one of the most consequential in the organization's history. At issue is the spirit of Europe's post-World War II identity. 

Mark
Jane Barlow/PA/AP
Election staff member Scott Russell carries one of hundreds of polling station signs being dispatched ahead of the European Parliamentary election in Edinburgh, Scotland, May 22.

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Starting on Thursday, European voters in 28 countries over five days will take part in the second-largest democratic exercise in the world. And the election will reveal just how strong the politicians seeking to undermine the European Union really are.

For decades the parliament has been controlled by a “grand coalition” of center-right and center-left political groups. But the two big centrist political families are projected to lose about 70 seats each; a variety of Europhobic parties are expected to pick most of them up and to control one-third of the parliament. These parties range from Euroskeptics dubious about the value of more integration to outright enemies of the whole idea of a European Union.

“After the elections,” says Jan Techau, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., a Berlin-based think tank, “the European Union will look like the new Europe” where populist parties are prominent in almost every nation. And he adds that “the EU is a compromise machine.” If the next parliament and other key EU bodies include significant numbers of anti-EU politicians, he says, “that is going to get more difficult.”

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It’s populism vs. liberal democracy as EU goes to the polls

This could be crunch time for the European Union.

As voters elect a new continent-wide parliament this week, both supporters of the European Union and its opponents are casting the poll as a defining moment for the future of the bloc – and perhaps for liberal democracy.

“It is for you to decide whether Europe, and the values of progress that it embodies, are to be more than just a passing episode in history,” French President Emmanuel Macron wrote in an open letter to Europe’s 400 million electors, warning them against far-right nationalists.

Mr. Macron’s chief rival and virulent EU critic Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, foresees “the awakening of the people” that will presage “a Europe of free sovereign nations,” as she declared at a weekend rally of European nationalists in Milan.

The rhetoric on both sides, designed to galvanize supporters, may be overblown. But the election will reveal just how strong the politicians seeking to undermine the EU really are. And they could win enough seats to stall the union’s integration drive, says Susi Dennison, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “We are coming to a crossroads.”

The rise of the Europopulists

Starting on Thursday, over five days, European voters in 28 countries will take part in the second largest democratic exercise in the world, after India’s elections. They will choose the 751 members of the European Parliament, which has increasingly asserted its authority in recent years.

The parliament scrutinizes and votes on all legislation proposed by the EU’s executive, the European Commission. It often amends bills significantly. Members also have the power to name the commission’s president – the top job in Europe – and to oversee the EU budget.

For decades the parliament has been controlled by a “grand coalition” of center-right and center-left political groups. At stake this year is “whether the center holds,” says Cas Mudde, a Dutch expert on populism who teaches at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.

Opinion polls suggest that it probably can hang on, but with a weakened grip, by bringing in new partners. The two big centrist political families are projected to lose about 70 seats each; a variety of Europhobic parties are expected to pick most of them up and to control one-third of the parliament. These parties range from Euroskeptics dubious about the value of more integration to outright enemies of the whole idea of a European Union.

Luca Bruno/AP
From left, Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom; Matteo Salvini of Italy's League party; Jörg Meuthen, leader of Alternative For Germany party; and France's National Rally leader Marine Le Pen attend a rally of European nationalist parties organized by Mr. Salvini in Milan, Italy, on May 18.

“People are questioning the system and less likely to vote for the status quo,” says Ms. Dennison. “Anti-European parties are doing well at presenting themselves as change.”

Such anti-establishment parties have boomed since the last European elections in 2014, fueled by increasing economic inequality, an influx of migrants in 2015 and 2016, and a widespread sense among voters that their voices are not heard.

Right-wing populist parties have joined governments in Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Austria. The British exemplar of the trend, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, will win the European elections in the United Kingdom and Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly National Front) is running neck and neck with Mr. Macron’s party.

They feel the wind in their sails. “Thirty years ago we thought that Europe was our future,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – self-declared herald of “illiberal democracy” – told a meeting of his supporters last year. “Today we believe that we are Europe’s future. Go for it!”

“After the elections,” says Jan Techau, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., a Berlin-based think tank, “the European Union will look like the new Europe” where populist parties are prominent in almost every nation.

‘Changing Europe from the inside’

Until recently, almost all of them were advocating pulling out of the EU, or from its common currency, the euro. Not anymore. Withdrawal has not proven to be a vote-winning policy anywhere but Britain, because, despite the rising tide of identity populism, the EU is broadly popular with large majorities of voters across the continent. A recent Eurobarometer poll found that 68% of respondents thought membership in the bloc had been good for their country, the highest proportion since 1983.

So now, Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister of Italy, head of his political party The League, and leader of an emerging European alliance of populist-nationalist parties, has adopted the same approach as most of his colleagues: to try to reform the EU.

With enough allies, Ms. Le Pen told foreign journalists earlier this year, “we can legitimately envisage changing Europe from the inside, modifying the very nature of the European Union, because we are strong enough.”

Where once the anti-EU forces used the European parliament mainly as a stage for their rhetoric, “now they see an interest in having a European project and they are thinking more strategically about how to work,” says Ms. Dennison.

That could spell trouble from the start in a finely balanced parliament. If the anti-establishment parties work together “they will probably be able to frustrate and oppose further integration” on the financial and other fronts, predicts Professor Mudde.

And if their representatives are elected in the numbers they are expecting, the pressure will be on rival pro-EU delegates – including Greens, Socialists, Conservatives, and Liberals – to work closely together. Whether such a broad spectrum of parties will be able to agree on matters like who should head the European Commission is still unclear.

Adding to the complications, national governments each nominate one of the 28 commissioners, the EU equivalent of ministers. Populist governments in Hungary, Poland, and Italy might choose to nominate candidates who do not share the union’s professed values and purposes, although the incoming president of the commission can turn a candidate down if he does not think the nominee could win parliamentary approval.

“The EU is a compromise machine,” says Mr. Techau. If the next commission, the parliament, and the European Council (consisting of the heads of government) all include significant numbers of national-populist politicians, he points out, “that is going to get more difficult.”

If she has her way, Ms. Le Pen says, “things will be turned completely upside down.”

Nationalists of Europe, unite?

To be effective, though, the anti-Europeans will have to work as a disciplined alliance. Mr. Salvini has been seeking to build a unified group, but this will not be easy. Currently they remain divided among three different blocs in the parliament.

Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, has been trying fruitlessly for months to unite Europe’s disparate national-populist forces into a single organization that he has called “The Movement.” But some are pro-American, others pro-Russian; some favor free markets, others lean toward protectionism; parties such as Mr. Orban’s Fidesz are aggressively Christian, the National Rally in France is deliberately secular.

“It is a long road to unity,” acknowledges Ms. Le Pen.

But even disunited, the anti-establishment parties could prove a disruptive force in the parliament and beyond. “The potential is there for the EU to eat itself from inside,” says Ms. Dennison. “But this is not the end of the road. The battle will not be won or lost this time.”

Dominique Moisi, a veteran political observer in Paris now advising the Montaigne think tank, who sees echoes of the 1930s in today’s rise of the far-right, agrees. “History is not yet written,” he says. “History is hesitating.”

• Dominique Soguel in Milan contributed reporting to this article.

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2. Both parties agree infrastructure needs fixing. So why hasn’t it happened?

It can be hard for Congress to pass legislation when there are sharp partisan differences. But on infrastructure, there’s actually plenty of agreement. Turns out, these days, that can be a problem, too.

Mark

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When President Donald Trump took office some two and a half years ago, two-thirds of Americans regarded improving the nation’s infrastructure as “very important.” Last December, again, Americans ranked infrastructure as one of the top priorities for the incoming Congress.

Yet despite another infrastructure meeting today between Mr. Trump and Democratic leaders, there’s little evidence of a deal on the horizon. Funding remains a sticking point. An analysis by the American Society of Civil Engineers showed that it would cost nearly $4.6 trillion to repair the countries bridges, dams, and sewage systems. 

Infrastructure is also not a big topic on the campaign trail. Aside from trillion-dollar proposals by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, it has been largely absent from the 2020 conversation.

Why would an issue with so much bipartisan agreement be garnering so little traction or attention? For precisely that reason: because it doesn’t allow candidates to draw a clear contrast. “The basic position is just let’s fix it,” says Laura Stoker, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “This is a really hard issue to differentiate [between] the parties or to differentiate you from someone else.”

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Both parties agree infrastructure needs fixing. So why hasn’t it happened?

In the wee hours of the morning on Nov. 9, 2016, Donald Trump took to the podium for the first time as president-elect and promised to “begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation.”

“We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” the former real estate mogul vowed. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure – which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

It was Mr. Trump’s most popular campaign promise, with two-thirds of Americans saying they saw more infrastructure spending as “very important.”

Two and a half years later, the promise remains unfulfilled. Despite yet another meeting today between the president and congressional leaders to discuss the matter, there’s little evidence of any kind of deal on the horizon.

Mr. Trump told reporters after today’s meeting that there could be no progress on infrastructure until Democrats stopped their investigations of him, saying “You can go down the investigation track or you can go down the investment track.” Democrats called that a convenient excuse. “We are interested in doing infrastructure,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “It’s clear the president isn’t.”

Yet Americans’ priorities haven’t changed. A Politico poll late last year showed that Americans thought improving the country’s infrastructure was the third most important issue for the incoming Congress – and that was before floodwaters drowned most of the heartland.

On its face, infrastructure seems like prime stump speech material for the Democrats running in the 2020 presidential race: serious needs, bipartisan support, and an opportunity to highlight Mr. Trump’s failure to deliver. And yet, aside from trillion-dollar proposals by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, infrastructure has been largely absent from the campaign conversation. Even the media is ignoring it: Politico’s overview of the “big 2020 issues” doesn’t include infrastructure.

Why would an issue with so much bipartisan agreement be garnering so little traction or attention? For precisely that reason.

“With infrastructure, the basic position is just let’s fix it; let’s improve it. Everybody agrees with that objective,” says Laura Stoker, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. As a candidate, “you want to do something that gives you an edge over your competitors. And this is a really hard issue to differentiate [between] the parties or to differentiate you from someone else.”

If distinction is more useful in politics, then the broad consensus around infrastructure may paradoxically be proving unhelpful. Ms. Stoker calls it a “loser” issue, especially with 23 Democrats vying for the same slice of the electoral pie.

Unsafe water, crumbling bridges

Americans’ concern about the state of the nation’s infrastructure is warranted. Unsafe drinking water threatens 21 million people annually, traffic congestion stole nearly 100 hours from the average American last year, and floods buckled hundreds of miles of levees across the heartland this spring and obliterated millions of acres of crops.

Nearly 40% of bridges are 50 years old or more, and 9% of them are structurally deficient, according to the 2017 infrastructure “report card” from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Not to mention a looming “silver tsunami” as workers in many infrastructure industries like construction and aviation near retirement.

Yet getting any legislation passed to address these challenges appears all but impossible. Publicly, both parties support an infrastructure bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Schumer have been trying for weeks to work out a $2 trillion deal with Mr. Trump. However, even as negotiations were going on, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney cast doubt on the bill’s prospects.

Funding remains the sticking point. An ASCE analysis showed that it would cost nearly $4.6 trillion to repair’s the countries bridges, dams, and sewage systems. 

“Infrastructure is a good talking point. But then to actually do something about it is extraordinarily difficult, not only politically, but logistically and financially,” says Joseph Kane, a Brookings Institution senior policy analyst.

The bills also languish because of the infighting between the nearly 20 industries that fall under the broad umbrella of infrastructure.

“There are such vast needs across multiple modes, just within the machinations of Congress,” says Jake Varn, a policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It’s a very complicated process to cobble together a bill that addresses highways and water systems and broadband and transit.”

‘Fix the Damn Roads’

While the presidential hopefuls may be largely ignoring infrastructure, some down-ballot candidates have recently demonstrated how to use it effectively on the campaign trail. Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won the 2018 Michigan gubernatorial race largely on her platform to “Fix the Damn Roads.” A promise to resolve traffic issues propelled Democrat Danica Roem to the Virginia House of Representatives in 2017.

Voters respond best when candidates emphasize how infrastructure impacts their daily lives, as with commutes or drinking water. But its wide reach expands its relevance, says Mr. Varn.

“Infrastructure is an intersectional issue: It impacts education; it impacts housing; it impacts climate,” he says. “I think a lot of candidates are picking one big plank issue that they’re hoping to get voters to focus on, and they’re interweaving their infrastructure proposals through those lenses.” Indeed, many of the more ambitious plans to address climate change – such as the one put forward by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee – do tackle infrastructure as part of that agenda.

Ultimately, what becomes politically relevant depends on who takes up a given issue and how much bandwidth voters have to process the message, says Ms. Stoker.

“You have to have clear policy proposals, you have to have clear points of delineation between the parties, and all of that has to take time to develop,” she says. “And it’s competing with everything else for people’s attention.”

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A deeper look

3. In California town destroyed by fire, a search for meaning

Paradise, California, is a portrait of what happens long after TV cameras leave following a disaster. What residents are finding is that emotional recovery, like rebuilding itself, takes care and patience.

Mark

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Last November, the deadliest wildfire in California history killed 85 people and razed almost 14,000 homes in the town of Paradise. Six months later, a sense of stunned disbelief lingers among thousands of displaced residents.

“We lost more than our home,” says Pam Fender, who lived in Paradise with her husband for 25 years. “We lost our community. We lost our way of life.”

Residents reeling from the fire’s aftermath have sought support from crisis workers, mental health therapists, clergy, and most often from each other.

“What we tell people is ‘There’s no timeline. Heal at your own pace,’” says Jake Fender, Ms. Fender’s son, who helps run a disaster crisis counseling program. “Because the truth is, nobody knows how long it’s going to take.”

The town’s gradual rebuilding poses a conundrum for residents coping with the emotional trauma wrought by the fire. Their fondness for Paradise conflicts with an awareness that the place they knew has vanished.

Margaret Kelly, who lost her home of 40 years and her job, has turned to hiking and biking to ease her mind. But doubts about the town’s future trail her.

“The world came together to help Paradise,” she says. “I just hope people don’t forget us.”

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In California town destroyed by fire, a search for meaning

The deadliest wildfire in California history turned Jim Denison’s trailer home into a neighborhood of one. Last November, as flames devoured the town of Paradise and thousands of residents fled, he fought back with a garden hose. He doused his trailer and yard with water while houses around him burned and gray ash fell from the blackened sky.

Six months later, Mr. Denison, who moved to Paradise in 1979, passes his days by taking a chainsaw to fallen trees to supply wood for the stove that heats his trailer. He tinkers with the 1968 Chevrolet pickup truck that he saved from the fire and plucks Merle Haggard tunes on his electric guitar. He tries to forget the emptiness that surrounds him.

“There’s not much left,” says Mr. Denison, an Air Force veteran and retired landscape worker. Cleanup crews have removed the debris of destroyed homes near his property and spread dirt across the vacant lots. The brown patches of soil resemble bandages stretched across scars on the land. “The people you knew aren’t living here anymore. You miss having them around. It’s kind of lonely.”

Last fall’s Camp fire killed 85 people, razed almost 14,000 homes, and displaced more than 50,000 residents in and around Paradise. In the town of 27,000 people tucked into the Sierra Nevada foothills, the blaze torched hundreds of businesses, 90% of the housing stock, and the fabric of everyday life.

The fire inflicted devastation so extreme that, six months into a recovery expected to last several years, a sense of stunned disbelief lingers among residents. Thousands remain scattered across the region in temporary housing as they ponder whether to return to Paradise. They cope at once with individual adversity and the collective loss of their community, a place they cherished as much for its close-knit familiarity as for its bucolic setting.

Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor
Jim Denison stands outside his trailer home in Paradise, Calif., six months after the deadliest wildfire in state history swept through the town, killing 85 people and destroying almost 14,000 homes. Mr. Denison saved his home by dousing it with water from a garden hose.

“What can you do?” says Gail Costello, who had lived in Paradise with her husband since 2000. The couple moved 15 miles away to Chico after the fire gutted their home, and they doubt they will rebuild. “You’ll be waiting for years for the town to be put back together. And what will it be like then? You won’t have the connections you had before.”

Residents reeling from emotional trauma in the fire’s aftermath have sought support from crisis workers, mental health therapists, clergy – and, most often, from each other. California Hope, a disaster crisis counseling program in Butte County funded by the Federal Emergency and Management Agency (FEMA), has provided free group and individual services to more than 13,000 people affected by the fire.

“No one’s prepared for the scale of something like this – not even the government,” says Jake Fender, the program’s manager. The Camp fire incinerated his parents’ house in Paradise, where he and his siblings grew up.

“This is the worst thing that’s happened to almost everyone who lived here. So what we tell people is ‘There’s no timeline – heal at your own pace.’ Because the truth is, nobody knows how long it’s going to take.”

‘Every day there’s a struggle’

State authorities last week pinned the cause of the Camp fire on power lines owned and operated by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. For residents attempting to regain their bearings, the fire’s origin matters less than its enduring fallout.

The intense heat created a mix of gases that seeped into the town’s underground piping and contaminated its water supply, forcing thousands of residents to rely on bottled water handed out at distribution sites in the area.

One donation center that occupies a vacant church in Paradise attracts an average of 150 people a day who pick up water, clothing, cleaning supplies, and other essential items. Many also come for the compassion and solace that the staff freely dispenses.

Margie Hensley, the center’s manager, pointed to a pair of rooms in a corner of the old church set aside for residents to meet with counselors. “You give them some water, and they’ll suddenly open up about what they’re going through,” she says. “A lot of it is about listening. You just try to be present in their emotions.”

Jenny Ryan stopped by the center on a recent afternoon to look for clothes for her fourth-grade daughter. In one blow, the fire claimed their house and the livelihood that Ms. Ryan earned by selling collectible baseball cards on eBay that had belonged to her late father.

“Every day there’s a struggle, there’s drama,” she says. Her house stood within walking distance of her daughter’s school in Paradise; now they live in an RV a half-hour drive away. Echoing the frustration of other residents, she has battled FEMA over obtaining temporary housing and her insurance company over the payout for her home.

The conversations with staffers at the center offer Ms. Ryan a respite from the spin cycle of her despair and anxiety. “Just being able to tell somebody about your situation at the moment can make such a huge difference,” she says. “It lets you get outside your head for a minute.”

In the first months after the fire, Eddie DeAnda, a crisis outreach worker with California Hope who assists residents at the distribution center, traveled to emergency shelters to aid survivors. He first encountered Mr. Denison at one and found a man lost within himself.

After fire officials lifted the evacuation order for Paradise, Mr. Denison visited his home. A notice posted on the door listed repairs required by the county as a condition of living there. He lacked the $4,000 that the work would cost, and as days gave way to weeks at the shelter, he grew despondent. He felt marooned.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Camp fire survivor Zachary Byrd poses where his home was located before it was destroyed by last year's wildfire, in Paradise, Calif. April 22.

Mr. DeAnda contacted public agencies and nonprofit groups that helped reconnect Mr. Denison’s home to the water system, obtained a generator for him, and replaced the trailer’s shattered windows. Moving home restored his sense of self-reliance even as he came back to a neighborhood scorched and deserted.

“I was getting kind of hopeless there in the shelter,” he says. “At least here I have more to do. I have more control over my life again.”

Mr. Denison’s return home proved almost as heartening for Mr. DeAnda, whose relief that the fire spared his own house is shot through with grief over the sweeping destruction of the community.

“Serving people who lost everything has been healing for me too,” he says. “It gives you the feeling that you’re doing something. You’re not just thinking or wishing you could help. You’re doing it.”

‘That electric-jangling feeling’

The pre-wildfire version of Paradise still exists in street view images on Google Maps. The photos show homes, schools, and businesses – dentist offices, motels, bars, McDonald’s – in unburned form. The town appears whole.

In the dystopian present, Paradise lies in ruins. Yet as work crews continue to haul away piles of rubble, charred vehicles, and trees the color of coal, the tableau reveals evidence of resilience.

Here and there, businesses are reopening, houses are rising. Children scamper around a school playground and climb a jungle gym. A church group has posted yard signs along roads that carry messages of encouragement: “Stay Strong,” “We’re In This Together,” “You Are Loved!”

The slow and uneven emotional recovery of fire survivors, meanwhile, occurs out of view. The demand for mental health services in Butte County has overwhelmed the capacity of clinicians, as residents face a wait of four to eight weeks for an appointment.

“The reality is the need for help is greater than the supply of providers,” says Luke Buyert, the lead pastor at Lifespring Church in Chico. He has joined with several other pastors across the county to form a Camp fire “response team” to fortify the efforts of nonprofit and community groups that offer emotional support services. “You just try to meet people and listen to them and give them a chance to sort through what they’re feeling.”

The Camp fire destroyed or damaged eight of the nine schools in Paradise, and an estimated 3,800 of the area’s 4,200 students lost their homes. District officials found space for students in schools elsewhere in the county, and in neighboring Concow, administrators reopened an abandoned school to provide classrooms for about 100 elementary and middle-school students.

The fire leveled the house of Melanie Quave, the school’s assistant principal, who describes working with students as a vital part of her own healing process.

“The kids help you in the sense that there’s a reason not to be sad and there’s a reason to work harder,” she says. “You feel this sense of ‘I got to do more because of the kiddos.’ Your mind isn’t on yourself.”

The gradual rebuilding of Paradise poses a conundrum for displaced residents coping with the emotional trauma wrought by the fire. Their fondness for the town and its people conflicts with an awareness that the place they knew has vanished.

Pam and Dean Fender, Mr. Fender’s parents, had lived in their house for 25 years when the fire ignited last fall. In the ensuing months, the retired couple have split their time between staying with friends in Chico and with their daughter in Washington. Her home overlooks Puget Sound, and the views of the water have proved a balm on their frayed nerves.

“It’s helped us get rid of that electric-jangling feeling,” Ms. Fender says. The couple has drawn strength from a large circle of friends in Chico, most of whom lost their homes in Paradise, and the shared experience has tightened their bond. They gather to play music, swap stories of problems with insurance companies, and talk about whether to return.

“Someone will say, ‘Are you going to rebuild? I’ll rebuild if you rebuild.’ But there’s more to it than that,” Ms. Fender says. “We lost more than our home. We lost our community. We lost our way of life.”

A similar uncertainty persists for Margaret and Kevin Kelly, who belong to the same group of friends and whose home of 40 years went up in flames. Ms. Kelly, who lost her job when the fire severely damaged the hospital where she worked, has turned to hiking and biking to calm her thoughts. But doubts about the town’s future trail her.

“The world came together to help Paradise,” she says, her voice choking with emotion. “I just hope people don’t forget us.”

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A letter from

Kolkata, India

4. Lessons from an election with 900 million voters

Many fear that the rise of Hindu nationalism has tied ‘Indianness’ to religion. But being Indian also means taking part – every day – in the largest democratic experiment on earth.

Mark

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When India’s elections, the largest democratic exercise in the world, kicked off April 11, reporter Sarita Santoshini was there to see it – there to vote, in fact.

In her home state of Assam in India’s far northeast, she and her parents drove to the school where voting machines had been set up (and, it turned out, frequently broke down), and she then waited her turn in a long line of women.

This Sunday, the last of the seven waves of voting found her in the city of Kolkata, where political tensions have sometimes flared into violence. As she walked from neighborhood to neighborhood taking in the on-edge atmosphere, she asked some of the country’s 900 million eligible voters what had brought them out to the polls amid the tension.

For some, it was jobs and the economy. But she also heard concerns about this staggeringly diverse country’s sense of unity. Many fear that polarization is on the rise and that animosity toward minorities is building – and finding sanction from politicians.

“I have been urging people to vote sensibly because I believe that democracy is at threat,” one voter told her in a largely Muslim neighborhood. “There have been clashes along religious and caste lines in the rest of the country. This was never the case in West Bengal. It’s slowly being provoked here as well, and we should stop that.”

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Lessons from an election with 900 million voters

It was a balmy April morning when I went with my parents to vote, driving to a high school at the end of a small town in Assam, my home state. My father had suggested that we cast our votes before noon to avoid any rush. But as we walked inside the gates at 11 a.m., the queues were already long. I soon learned, through chatter around us, that the voting machine had broken down three times that morning. Even as polling staff scrambled to get it fixed, voters had continued to patiently wait their turns.

Along with me in the women’s queue were young girls in salwar kameez and women in white-patterned mekhela chadors and brightly painted lips, exchanging greetings and asking each other about their journeys. Most had arrived here in Rajgarh the previous day, journeying by buses and trains from the towns where they now lived and worked. Two benches had been set on either side, where women took turns resting their tired feet. Each time a senior citizen joined the queue, there was a slight commotion as she was led to the front so she need not wait.

It was the first phase of the largest democratic exercise on earth: India’s general elections. It takes 39 days, about 1 million polling booths, and around 5 million security forces and election workers to reach the country’s nearly 900 million eligible voters. And this Thursday, it will all be over: India’s 1.3 billion citizens will learn if Prime Minister Narendra Modi has won a second term.

SOURCE: *Election Commission of India, Scroll.in
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Karen Norris

The Election Commission has gone to great lengths to try to ensure that no voter is left out. In the remote state of Arunachal Pradesh tucked at the border between China and Myanmar, one polling team’s journey included a helicopter ride and a daylong walk. Another team of six officers traveled for two days to a village near the Tibetan border, setting up a voting booth in a tin shed for a single voter.

But this general election, however grand, also carries with it the shadow of division.

Five years ago, Mr. Modi rode into office on promises of economic growth. But today, with the unemployment rate higher than it’s been in decades, many associate his administration more with Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, than creating jobs. To fans, it’s an overdue resurgence of national pride. To critics, it’s a dangerous turn toward polarization and conflict.

In Kolkata, where I now live, voters went to the polls on Sunday, May 19 – the very last wave. Curious, I walked down College Street, which had made news days before. Clashes between supporters of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and West Bengal state’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) at Vidyasagar College had brought down a bust of the college’s namesake, an eminent Bengali scholar – one of several violent incidents in the lead-up to the vote.

As I approached the college’s polling site, a tense hush took hold. Large troops of security forces made regular check-ins. Inside neighborhood lanes, men gathered to quietly discuss their votes, while TMC workers around a table helped people find their names on the voter list and directed them to booths. Many voters condemned the violence and blamed it on the BJP, telling me they no longer trusted its promises of development.

Businessman Abhishek Agarwal, however, called the recent scuffles normal politics, irrelevant to his decision. In the BJP, he sees clear agendas and decision-making.

“The nation comes first. I have friends abroad, and they tell me that now we are being recognized as Indians,” he told me. “We are doing very well internationally under Modi.”

As the morning wore on, I left the subdued scene on College Street for the commotion of Sonagachi, Asia’s largest sex district – where police vehicles raced towards a tense scene between TMC and BJP workers and supporters – and hailed a taxi to Park Circus, a Muslim neighborhood. Roughly a quarter of West Bengal state’s residents are Muslim – a cause of frequent complaint for some Hindu residents, who say the number is growing and blame the TMC.

People arrived on bikes and rickshaws to cast their vote inside a school opposite a spacious field where kids played a game of cricket. Farmida Hussain, a housewife, sat under the shade of a tree to catch her breath. “It’s the time of roza [fasting, for Ramadan], so the walk here has made me a bit tired,” she said, wiping her face with a handkerchief.

Politicians are using religion to stir up supporters, Ms. Hussain said, but that shouldn't guide their votes. “When a school is built or a water tap set up, it does not selectively benefit a Hindu or a Muslim; it benefits everyone living there.”

“I have been urging people to vote sensibly because I believe that democracy is at threat,” voter Shahnawaz Khan told me as he waited for his wife to finish her ballot. “There have been clashes along religious and caste lines in the rest of the country. This was never the case in West Bengal. It’s slowly being provoked here as well, and we should stop that.” Of all the hate crimes committed between 2009 and 2019, 91% took place after May 2014 – the month Mr. Modi’s administration began – according to the Hate Crime Watch database. Most targeted minorities, especially Muslims.

Driving back through the near-empty city, I looked at the faint spot of black ink still visible on the nail of my left index finger – a reminder of my own voting experience in Assam.

Inside the school, officers admitted two voters at a time, checking IDs and looking for names in their thick stacks of paper. My index finger was marked with indelible black ink, my signature recorded in a register, and off I was sent to the electronic voting machine, with a button against the name and party symbol of each candidate.

Filled with both hope and dread, I took a deep breath and pushed. A beep confirmed my vote, and for a few seconds, a slip with my chosen party’s symbol appeared behind the glass, then slid into a locked box.

I walked out silently. It was hard to shake off the heavy weight of responsibility.

“I live in India, so it is my duty to come out and vote no matter what,” embroidery worker Sheikh Abdul Kalam told me Sunday as he waited outside a polling booth. “This is my identity. I can’t give it up.”

SOURCE: *Election Commission of India, Scroll.in
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Karen Norris
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5. No blackface turtlenecks: How clothes shape cultural understanding

Sometimes fashion designers make dreadful decisions, inadvertently mocking entire groups of people. But the answer is easy: more diversity in the design room. And often it is a financial boon, too.

Mark
Ann Hermes/Staff
Brandice Daniel, founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row, poses for a portrait in her home on May 10 in New York. Harlem’s Fashion Row highlights and promotes multicultural fashion designers.

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When a friend texted Brandice Daniel a photo of a Gucci sweater that evoked the image of blackface, she was deeply disappointed. But as founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row, Ms. Daniel, who is African American, saw a chance for progress. Raised in Memphis, Tennessee, she says lessons from the civil rights movement are often on her mind.

“If history teaches us anything, it is that usually things get worse before it gets better,” says Ms. Daniel. Mulling over the sweater, she thought, “There’s a benefit here.”

Her openness to possibilities was validated by an invitation to attend a meeting alongside other industry influencers of color in Harlem with Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s chief executive officer. Soon after, Gucci announced a sweeping new diversity initiative. 

Fashion brands are increasingly calling on the expertise of individuals like Ms. Daniel – a veteran resource for designers of color – to help launch diversity initiatives. As the imperative for inclusivity grows, however, the challenge remains for these campaigns to avoid tokenism.

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No blackface turtlenecks: How clothes shape cultural understanding

Headwear resembling a Sikh turban. Slip-on shoes that evoke blackface. A hoodie modeled by a young black child that reads “Coolest monkey in the jungle.” Culturally insensitive – and often racist – missteps by fashion brands seem to pop up every few weeks, prompting outraged tweets and company apologies.  

As recently as February, Gucci was embroiled in a controversy over a black turtleneck with a garish red mouth that reminded many people of blackface.

When a friend texted Brandice Daniel a photo of the sweater, she was deeply disappointed. But as founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row, Ms. Daniel, who is African American, saw a chance for progress. Raised in Memphis, Tennessee, she says lessons from the civil rights movement are often on her mind.

“If history teaches us anything, it is that usually things get worse before it gets better,” says Ms. Daniel. Mulling over the sweater, she thought, “There’s a benefit here.”

Her openness to possibilities was validated by an invitation to attend a meeting alongside other industry influencers of color in Harlem with Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s chief executive officer. Soon after, Gucci announced a sweeping new diversity initiative. 

Fashion brands are increasingly calling on the expertise of individuals like Ms. Daniel – a veteran resource for designers of color – to help launch diversity initiatives. As the imperative for inclusivity grows, however, the challenge remains for these campaigns to avoid tokenism.

‘I am a Black man before I am a brand’

Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day was one of the first and fiercest voices to call out Gucci about the sweater.

The luxury streetwear pioneer rose to fame in the 1980s for stitching together the worlds of high fashion and hip-hop through his knockoff designs. Gucci was accused of appropriating one of Mr. Day’s iconic jackets in 2017, but now he and Gucci partner on an appointment-only atelier in Harlem – an homage to his original boutique.

“I am a Black man before I am a brand,” he wrote on Instagram in February, announcing Gucci had agreed to meet. “There cannot be inclusivity without accountability.”

Ms. Daniel says Mr. Day, who declined to be interviewed for this story, invited her to join the meeting with Gucci’s top brass in Harlem. After that meeting, Gucci announced a four-pronged diversity initiative that spans from talent acquisition to scholarships.

Prada also announced a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council in February after retracting a keychain that drew ire for resembling blackface imagery. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay along with artist and activist Theaster Gates, who’s partnered with the brand before, will co-lead. Following backlash in 2018, fast fashion retailer H&M, which was responsible for the “coolest monkey” hoodie, created a diversity campaign that includes training in how to avoid unconscious bias.

Antonio Calanni/AP/File
Models display items – including a turban that some Sikhs found offensive – from Gucci’s women’s fall/winter 2018-2019 collection, presented during the Milan Fashion Week, in Milan, Italy. A similar Gucci turban turned up for sale online at Nordstrom for $800.

But despite what some call progress, slip-ups still occur.  

Last week, social media lit up with protests against Gucci and Nordstrom when news surfaced that the “Indy Full Turban,” for which Gucci had been roundly criticized last year at the Milan spring fashion show, was for sale online. Sikhs accused Gucci of culturally appropriating their commonly worn turban, known as a dastaar.

“The turban is not just an accessory to monetize; it’s a religious article of faith that millions of Sikhs view as sacred,” tweeted advocacy organization Sikh Coalition.

Nordstrom apologized last Wednesday and said it would stop carrying the product, tweeting, “It was never our intent to disrespect this religious and cultural symbol.” (Gucci had not commented as of press time.)

Fashion fails get such viral call-outs because a product’s target audience spans well beyond those who can afford to buy it. (The Gucci sweater cost $890.) Millions of people absorb high fashion through magazines and social media “as a kind of iconography of their daily life,” says Rhonda Garelick, a fashion columnist for New York Magazine’s The Cut.

“We all consume fashion whether we buy it or not,” says Ms. Garelick.

Gucci’s Mr. Bizzarri has claimed the offensive sweater wasn’t intentional, Women’s Wear Daily reported, and said the company actually debuted the red-lipped design at a 2018 runway show without incident before this year’s social media call-out.

“We apologized because of this mistake, because of this ignorance,” Mr. Bizzarri told an audience at Parsons School of Design. “We are coming from a different culture. We are Italian. We don’t know all the cultural differences.”

But in a globalized market, critics say, there’s no excuse for such knowledge gaps. Ludovica Cesareo, assistant professor of marketing at Lehigh University, says companies must conduct extensive market research that takes cultural and other issues into account before selling to a region. European brands’ unawareness of some aspects of American culture could point to poor research, or a dearth of employees who could preempt those missteps.

“The fact that social media amplifies each occurrence tenfold should be an even greater warning sign and deterrent, forcing these companies to better understand the market they’re about to enter,” Dr. Cesareo wrote in an email.

Building bridges

Ms. Daniel moved from Tennessee to New York in 2005. Dissatisfied by the lack of platforms for designers of color, she created her own two years later. As CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row (HFR), Ms. Daniel has supported the careers of more than 75 multicultural designers. She’s also partnered with Google and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a prominent trade association.

A decade into Harlem’s Fashion Row, Ms. Daniel yearned for a brand partnership that would validate underrepresented designers and pair them with a label that consumers already trusted.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Fashion designer Undra Duncan, of Undra Celeste New York, poses for a portrait in her design studio on May 11 in New York.

A call from Nike answered her prayers. Ms. Daniel convened designers Fe Noel, Kimberly Goldson, and Undra Duncan to co-design a women’s athletic shoe with LeBron James.

The sleek white sneaker sold out within minutes.

On Friday, the same team will release another basketball sneaker, this one in yellow.

“All of these projects that I’ve worked on with HFR have just always been a blessing to me,” says Ms. Duncan, the designer behind Undra Celeste New York.

While grateful for the visibility, Ms. Duncan also says she counts on her own hard work to grow her brand. But as industry inequality persists, Ms. Duncan supports the new diversity campaigns as a way to “change the narrative of the black creative.”

“The only thing I am concerned about is if it’s a marketing thing, and then in a year if it blows over, they get their press impressions, and then it’s back to business as usual,” she says.

Skeptics say new hires and trainings are ways for companies to save face without committing to deeper institutional change.

“I think the best way to ensure designers are not tokenized is by hiring designers that are qualified for the role. This is not about hiring designers just because they are black,” but rather because an individual is both qualified and a person of color, says Ms. Daniel.

To find these talents, she says design houses need to look beyond their usual circles. That’s where Harlem’s Fashion Row can help.

“Our goal is to open their pool by providing designers they may have never found using their traditional approach to talent recruitment,” adds Ms. Daniel.

Gatekeepers, meet Gen Z

Some fashion-savvy celebrities aren’t waiting around for the industry to change. Pop star Rihanna is launching her own luxury fashion line, called Fenty, later this week. She told The New York Times Style Magazine that she wants to disrupt the high fashion industry by eliminating runway shows and selling her clothing direct to buyers online. 

Aside from celebrities, most designers must work their way up. Fashion observers say investing in the rising generation is vital for improving diversity in the professional pipeline. Both Prada and Gucci campaigns involve entry-level opportunities like scholarships and internships – industry rites of passage. The companies are planning partnerships with universities and colleges around the world.

Critic Ms. Garelick, who teaches fashion studies at Parsons, says fashion schools need gifted students and faculty from diverse backgrounds. Syllabi should also be reviewed with fresh eyes “to see what biases we’re blind to.”

“We need to be as critically minded as we tell our students they should be,” she says.

Ms. Duncan and Ms. Daniel both squeeze in time to mentor young professionals. And for the more established talents she’s helped cultivate, Ms. Daniel says she receives weekly emails from brands asking for help connecting to multicultural designers. It’s a hopeful sign.

“At the end of the day, everyone just wants to be seen and heard.”

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The Monitor's View

In a world of autocrats, the humble stand out

Two ways to read the story

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In an era of strongman rule from Egypt to China, it is refreshing to see a new leader on the world scene who tries not to act like a personal hero but operates with compelling modesty. On Monday, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was sworn in as the elected president of Ukraine. One of his first requests? Don’t hang his picture in government offices.

The novice politician won a landslide victory based on his popularity in a TV show in which he plays a humble schoolteacher elevated to the presidency. As a real-life president, he continued the theme of humility by walking to his inauguration, refusing an honor guard, and eschewing the haughty ways of the oligarchy that has dominated one of Europe’s poorest countries.

By its claim to openness, self-reflection, and denial of taking credit, humility is a great way to learn. Today’s autocrats pretend they are all-knowing, which leads them to make critical mistakes and demand personal rule without checks and balances.

Russians are noting how much Mr. Zelenskiy differs from their president. In his inauguration, Vladimir Putin arrived in a bulletproof car with the streets of Moscow cleared of people.

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In a world of autocrats, the humble stand out

In an era of strongman rule from Egypt to China, it is refreshing to see a new leader on the world scene who tries not to act like a personal hero but operates with compelling modesty. On Monday, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was sworn in as the elected president of Ukraine. One of his first requests? Don’t hang his picture in government offices.

“The president is not an icon, not an idol. Put there [on the walls] photos of your children, and look into their eyes before taking every decision,” said the father of two in an address to the Ukrainian people.

The novice politician won a landslide victory based on his popularity in a TV show in which he plays a humble schoolteacher comically elevated to the presidency. As a real-life president, he continued the theme of humility by walking to his inauguration, refusing an honor guard, and eschewing the haughty ways of the oligarchy that has dominated one of Europe’s poorest country. “People must come to power who will serve the public,” he said.

Whether Mr. Zelenskiy can resist the temptations of personal power, secrecy, and unaccountability remains to be seen. He promised “fewer words and more action” to end both deep-seated corruption and Russia’s hold on parts of Ukraine. Tough decisions must be made. And he faces tough opponents in Parliament. His humility could easily be taken as weakness.

Still, by its claim to openness, self-reflection, and denial of taking credit, humility is a great way to learn. Today’s autocrats pretend they are all-knowing, which leads them to make critical mistakes and demand personal rule without checks and balances. They practice certitude over kindness, ruthlessness over listening. Opponents are to be exploited or crushed, not seen as worthy of respect.

In many ways, Ukraine’s new leader resembles Joko Widodo of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation. He officially won a second term as president on Tuesday. Even his opponents see this common man, once a furniture maker, as clean, honest, and humble. “My government is about harmony and opposing extremism,” he told a reporter.

His folksy, humble style is much admired by people in Asia living under dictatorships. In the same way, Russians are noting how much Mr. Zelenskiy differs from their president. In his inauguration, some in Russian media noted, Vladimir Putin arrived in a bulletproof car with the streets of Moscow cleared of people.

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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.

‘Keeping our head’ in the face of animosity

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With European Parliament elections just around the corner, today’s contributor explores how seeing others the way God made them can help us keep our cool and foster harmony even in contentious situations.

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‘Keeping our head’ in the face of animosity

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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“If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you. ...”

To me these first lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” epitomize both the vision and the precariousness of the political atmosphere in the run-up to the European Parliament elections, which will be held May 23-26. For instance, today, when I glanced at my Twitter feed, I saw a cacophony of hatred voiced and learned of a party leader in my country who’d been showered with a milkshake by an angry protester.

Yet this sort of thing is not new, as Kipling’s poem – written more than 100 years ago – indicates. How do we keep our head when chaos and animosity seem to reign?

I’ve found inspiration in the biblical story of Job, who faced terrible hardship, loss, and grief. But quietly, perhaps almost desperately, he says, “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth” (Job 19:25).

This may sound more apocalyptic than rational. But I’ve found this redemptive quality of the universal God really can lift us out of unrest and bring resolution and peace.

Once when I was working in my local Christian Science Reading Room, a bookstore and quiet venue for prayer and study that is open to all, a man came in and started talking very aggressively to me. I was shocked by his behavior. But then I felt encouraged by what I’d been learning from my study of Christian Science about everyone’s true nature. As God’s children we are made in His image and likeness – not angry mortals, but pure and spiritual reflections of God’s nature. Because God is pure Love (see I John 4:8) and the one true Mind, then I could accept and know that this man who was confronting me had the God-given ability to express kindness and rationality. While what he was saying was certainly uncalled for, I realized that it was not an expression of his true self.

This helped me remain calm, and the man soon quieted down. We had a normal conversation before he left.

My refusing to accept the man’s verbal aggression as an inescapable part of him, but seeing him as a child of God, was not a psychological tactic but a recognition of the profound spiritual truth of what we are as the spiritual expressions of God’s goodness. This had the effect of bringing my own thoughts and words into line with God’s harmony – or as Jesus called it, the kingdom of heaven, which is always at hand – in support of a peaceful outcome.

Mary Baker Eddy, whose understanding of Christ Jesus’ mission brought the world Christian Science, once wrote to church members of the value of understanding that “God is divine Love, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite; hence it is enough for you and me to know that our ‘Redeemer liveth’ and intercedeth for us” (“The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” pp. 135-136). God is not far off but active here and now, there for everyone to turn to, right where strife and turmoil threaten.

Each of us, in Europe and beyond, can hold on to this and let God’s view of His children guide how we interact with others. Then, like Kipling wrote at the end of his poem, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,/ And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” (Or daughter!) So, we can feel and express more of the peace so needed in the world.

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Viewfinder

Midair meeting of the minds

Marko Drobnjakovic/AP
Richard Browning (r.), the inventor of the Gravity jet suit, and an associate fly over a lake in Belgrade using Browning’s invention May 22. Browning, CEO of Gravity Industries, did a presentation ahead of the World Minds conference held in the Serbian capital May 23.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( May 23rd, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us today. Tomorrow our Beijing staff writer, Ann Scott Tyson, will look beyond the United States and China to explore how the trade war between the two countries is touching far more of the globe.

Monitor Daily Podcast

May 22, 2019
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