2019
August
05
Monday

Welcome to the Monitor Daily. Today, we report on white supremacy terrorism, the Assad regime's abuse of Syrian refugees, climate change and socialism, cushy camping, and the work of novelist Kate Atkinson.

But first:  As staff writer Henry Gass made his way to El Paso, Texas, last night, he received sympathetic nods when people heard he was a journalist. A woman boarding the same plane wished him good luck. The hotel attendant who checked Henry in at midnight shook his head. “I can’t believe it,” he said, adding that he finally had to change the TV channel in the deserted lobby so as not to hear any more news.

This morning, Henry went to the Cielo Vista Mall and watched as people placed flowers, candles, and crosses. Agonizing questions hung in the air: What is happening? Are our communities strong? What can we do?

These are among the toughest assignments for journalists. Henry also covered the 2017 shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which killed 26 people. “Part of me just really wants not to bother people,” he says. “But especially now, I want to let the rest of the country know how people here are thinking and feeling.” Those people, whom he’ll be talking to in-depth over the next couple of days, include recent and generations-old immigrants, such as the woman handing out water bottles near the mall. She tells Henry her grandmother immigrated from Mexico, “doing it right” and building a good life in a nearby neighborhood.

For now, he takes heart in the signs he’s seeing: “El Paso Strong.” “Forever 915” (the city’s area code). And the small piece of cardboard on which the flags of Mexico and Texas sit side by side.  

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1. Rising white nationalist terror leaves its calling card

Minority communities have long said killings by white nationalist extremists should be called terrorism. There’s now a willingness among law enforcement and some conservatives to do just that.

Amelia
Leah Millis/Reuters
President Donald Trump speaks about the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, Aug. 5, 2019.

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This weekend’s mass shootings, including the 22 people murdered in El Paso, Texas, and the nine shot and killed in Dayton, Ohio, have led many Americans to look more deeply at the troubling white supremacist subculture that has become visible, and violent, in the past two years. In particular, both law enforcement and some Republican leaders referred to the massacre at a Walmart filled with back-to-school shoppers as “white terrorism.”

“This generation of young white men don’t simply dislike the ‘other,’” says Juliette Kayyem, chair of the homeland security program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “They view America as a zero-sum game, that the other is going to replace them.”

As she points out, many young white men understand that they are the last generation in the United States in which white births outnumbered those of minorities.

“This sense of the ‘great replacement’ is a core feature of what explains the violence,” says Professor Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. “Essentially, it’s either them or me.”

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1. Rising white nationalist terror leaves its calling card

When Brian Levin talked to neo-Nazi extremists in the 1980s, many explained that singular acts of violence were like “branded messages.” They were meant to inspire those across the country who might share their views of white supremacy and the preservation of a white America. 

“They called it ‘propaganda of the deed,’” says Mr. Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “And because this white supremacist movement favors leaderless resistance within its folklore, this notion was more about loners and small cells doing horrible, violent acts to bring the rest of the white community in with them, in order to stop the ‘degeneration’ of society.”

But in what he calls “propaganda of the deed 2.0,” American white supremacists, like their extremist counterparts in groups like Islamic State, have formed vast online networks. In the digital age, a symbolic ritual of violence is no longer enough, he and other terror experts say.

“Now you have to frame it and contextualize it on the internet,” Mr. Levin says. “It’s like these shooters are inscribing new chapters in this book of evil, while hoping there will be others to sign into the next chapter and the guestbook, as well.”

For many Americans, the word “terrorism” often evokes images of jihadist violence. But since last year, white supremacist terror has dominated headlines with mass shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the slaughter of 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The mass shooting Saturday at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, has become a tipping point for the country as it begins to come to grips with what even some Republican leaders are calling “white terrorism.”

The suspect allegedly cross-referenced his own manifesto with that of the Christchurch terrorist and, like him and others, posted on the social media site 8chan just before his rampage.

This weekend’s mass shootings, including the 22 people murdered in Texas and the nine shot and killed in Dayton, Ohio, have led many Americans to look more deeply at the troubling white supremacist subculture that has become more visible, and violent, in the past two years.

(Mark Lambie/The El Paso Times/AP
Twin sisters Jessica Torres, left, and Danielle Novoa hold an American flag during the Hope Border Institute prayer vigil for the victims of Saturday's mass shooting at a shopping complex, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019 in El Paso, Texas.

“The current administration as well as the previous administration have wanted to paint a picture of terrorism, that it only comes from overseas,” says Daryl Johnson, former analyst at the Department of Homeland Security and author of “Rightwing Resurgence.” “When it comes from within and [is] carried out by whites, it goes against what you want the public perception to be. And that, in turn, goes against the whole war on terror.”

Democrats have worried for years that zero-sum rhetoric about immigration could be inspiring to white domestic terrorists. On Monday, former President Barack Obama made a rare public statement urging rhetorical restraint and noting that nativist language encourages those “who see themselves obligated to act violently to preserve white supremacy.” All of us “have to behave with the values of tolerance and diversity that should be the hallmark of our democracy.” He also wrote that “both law enforcement and internet platforms need to come up with better strategies to reduce the influence of these hate groups.”

On Sunday, many Republican leaders, including Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, began to say that white nationalist terrorism is becoming a significant problem in the United States. Agreeing in a tweet, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote, “George is right. Killing random civilians to spread a political message is terrorism. FBI classifies it as domestic terrorism, but ‘white terrorism’ is more precise. Many of the killers are lone-wolf losers indoctrinated to hate through the internet, just like Islamic terrorists.”

Terror attacks around the world have receded since 2014, falling from about 17,000 in 2014 to about 11,000 in 2017, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. In the Middle East, terror attacks have fallen almost 40%.

“They view America as a zero-sum game”

But the U.S. has seen a recent surge, experts say, led by a more visible and aggressive community of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. There were 65 terror-related incidents in the U.S. in 2017, up from 6 in 2006. Of these, 37 were tied to anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, or other racist, xenophobic motivations, according to an analysis by Quartz. 

“This generation of young white men don’t simply dislike the ‘other,’” says Juliette Kayyem, chair of the homeland security program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “They view America as a zero-sum game, that the other is going to replace them.”

As she points out, many young white men understand that they are the last generation in the U.S. in which white births outnumbered those of minorities. As the Census Bureau reported seven years ago, minorities, led by Hispanics, were the majority of newborns in the U.S. 

“This sense of the ‘great replacement’ is a core feature of what explains the violence,” says Professor Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. “Essentially, it’s either them or me.”

And she and many others believe that the race-fueled rhetoric of President Donald Trump has helped to contribute to a political climate in which white supremacists feel emboldened to express their ideas about the threat the country’s fast-changing demographics pose to their vision of a white America. 

“The fundamental problem is that Trump’s discourse is empowering lots and lots of people to believe that they have a right to hate, and some people are taking it as a right to strike out,” says Victor Asal, director of the Center for Policy Research at State University of New York at Albany. 

In recent weeks, the president has mocked his opponents, tweeting that elected officials such as Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should “go back to where they came from,” even as supporters at one of his rallies chanted “send her back.” 

At a rally in Florida in May, as the president highlighted a caravan of immigrants heading toward the border, he rhetorically asked, “How do you stop these people?” Someone in the audience shouted, “Shoot them!” The president smirked, shook his head, and said, “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement.”

But experts point out, too, that the growing number of terror-related incidents in the U.S. is not limited to neo-Nazi and white nationalist violence. 

“If this stuff keeps going on, we may see responses of violence from the other direction, which would make it worse,” says Mr. Asal.

“What is so chilling is that, yes, white supremacy is most ascendant, but it is the most ascendant in a rising pool of extremism, including hard left and anti-fascist activity, and also heightened violent Salafi jihadism,” adds Mr. Levin.

Danger in making martyrs of criminals

Yet the country’s polarized political climate has in many ways made it more difficult to combat extremist violence on the right and left, many experts say. 

The FBI struggles with addressing ideology, mostly because it is wary of making martyrs out of criminals, which can fuel violence. It is a mindset learned in part during the 1990s with the tragic results of the fire at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in which 76 people died, and the disastrous endgame at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in which an FBI stakeout of a separatist family ended in the deaths of a U.S. marshal and a mother and son. Both incidents were cited by terrorist Timothy McVeigh as inspiration for the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

“We chased the criminal tactics of terrorist suspects, rather than labeling them in a pejorative sense, which then gave them political standing,” says former FBI agent Michael German, who infiltrated right-wing extremist cells in the 1990s. “If you are a bomber or a murderer, we don’t have to discuss your political affiliations and give you that platform. If we make you a terrorist, we make you a martyr, and when we are making politics the front line of that conversation, we are undermining the rule of law, because it automatically doesn’t look fair.”

Condemning “racism, bigotry, and white supremacy” at a press conference on Monday, Mr. Trump said that “we are outraged and sickened by this monstrous evil.” In response to it, he opened the door to new gun restrictions, including broadening “red flag” laws that enable authorities to seize guns from unstable people.

But on Twitter, he claimed to his followers that the media – “Fake News” – and violent video games may be factors in the uptick of white terrorism on his watch.

“It is not out of our control to mobilize our counterterrorism resources to significantly suppress those who are moving toward violence on the far-right,” says Charles Strozier, founding director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College in New York. “We have that power in our hands.”

“The problem is that, politically, the way in which right-wing terrorism has been dealt with at the top, by Trump, is with ambivalence, which legitimizes the spread of hate and then generates on the margins the reality – not the possibility – of real violence by people who turn that political ideology into action,” Mr. Strozier continues.

After senior clergy at the National Cathedral chastised the president for a lack of moral leadership last week, the Rev. Dr. Leonard Hamlin Sr. had a different take Sunday as he tried to make sense of the violence and loss of life. “Our real challenge,” he told congregants, “is to look within. If you are honest ... all of us need to be transformed a little bit more.”

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2. Why Syria is telling refugees they’re not welcome home

Stories of harsh treatment of refugees who return are deterring most from making the journey. The Assad regime may be creating a potent pressure point for neighbors burdened by refugee populations.

Amelia

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With the Syrian civil war winding down, the Arab world opened its arms to President Bashar al-Assad, and Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey made plans for a return home. But in recent months, returning refugees have been detained or disappeared. And the word is getting out to Syrian refugee communities: Not all are welcome home.

According to a March survey by the U.N.’s refugee agency, the vast majority, 75.2%, of Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt say they desire to return one day. However, only 5.9% expressed willingness to return within the next year – citing violence, targeted reprisals, and forced conscription into the Syrian army.

With the refugee populations a burden to their host countries, observers say Damascus is leveraging its position to return to the Arab stage not only as an actor, but as a major player. “It was always clear that the regime would try to use refugees as leverage as the regime has few cards in its hands,” says Michael Young, senior editor at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.

But some hold out hope that the historically practical Assad regime will return to reconciliation as the most profitable path forward.

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Why Syria is telling refugees they’re not welcome home

When President Bashar al-Assad of Syria cemented his victory after a long civil war in late 2018, Arab states were quick to welcome him back into the fold.

De-escalation zones were enforced with Russia, reconciliation pacts were signed with rebel forces across the country at Gulf Arabs’ urging, and borders were reopened.

Gulf countries lined up to invest in Syria, Jordanians and Lebanese pledged to help with the country’s rebuild, and Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey made plans for a return home.

Along the way, something went horribly wrong.

In recent months, refugees have been detained or disappeared since returning home.

Syrians in Jordan tell the Monitor that relatives who made the journey home – having allegedly been forced to give their family members’ names and contacts to Syrian intelligence under interrogation and torture – have warned them not to follow.

If the word “return” stirred hope just a few months ago, Ghazi Hamad and his Syrian refugee compatriots now shudder at its mention.

“When the borders opened, our hearts soared because we thought we had the chance to go home again,” Mr. Hamad, a retired carpenter from Homs, says from the Jordanian border town of Mafraq, a few miles south of Syria.

The few neighbors and friends who have made the return journey to Syria and reported back tell the same story.

“They welcome you warmly at the border and stamp your passport, but once you walk a few yards into Syria, you disappear.”

According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 2,000 refugees have been detained since returning to Syria over the past two years. Activists say thousands more have disappeared from areas reclaimed by the regime.

The message, they say, is clear: Not all are welcome back to Syria.

Leverage

With the Assad regime essentially holding millions of refugees hostage and rejecting diplomacy, Arab states and the international community are struggling with how to engage a regime that is firmly in control of a devastated nation, but seemingly in no mood for reconciliation.

According to the United Nations, 25,000 Syrians have returned home from Jordan since the reopening of borders in October 2018 – around 2% of the 1.2 million Syrian refugees in the kingdom.

Lebanese authorities said 172,000 of the 1.5 million estimated Syrians in their country have returned to their homeland since December 2017.

According to a March survey by the U.N.’s refugee agency, the vast majority, 75.2%, of Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt say they desire to return one day.

However, only 5.9% expressed willingness to return within the next year – citing violence, targeted reprisals, and forced conscription into the Syrian army.

Further complicating matters, Damascus has blocked the return of thousands of refugees on security grounds.

Observers say it is all by design.

“It was always clear that the regime would try to use refugees as leverage, as the regime has few cards in its hands,” says Michael Young, senior editor at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.

Omar Sanadiki/Reuters/File
A Syrian refugee girl who left Lebanon looks through a window as she arrives in Qalamoun, Syria, June 28, 2018.

Regional observers, officials, and Western diplomats say they believe the regime is deliberately targeting, arresting, and torturing refugees to discourage large-scale returns.

It is a potent pressure point for neighbors burdened by the refugee populations.

In Lebanon, where unemployment is 15% and infrastructure has been strained, anti-refugee sentiment is at fever pitch and pressure is mounting on the government to expel Syrians.

Although such anti-refugee sentiment has not emerged in Jordan, the country is struggling with 20% unemployment and a debt crisis that forced Amman to raise taxes and end subsidies.

Damascus sees this as a chance not only to punish neighbors that did not stand by Mr. Assad, but also to strengthen its position at the negotiation table.

“The neighboring states where [the refugees] fled to are at best lukewarm to the Assad regime,” says Daniel Byman, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. “I think this is a regime that … will not hesitate to use any bargaining chip – whether to get aid, or recognition, or reduce pressure in any situation.”

Security and smuggling

Refugees are not the only target in Mr. Assad’s scramble for advantage.

Jordanians, who have been flocking to Damascus in the thousands to explore business opportunities and import goods since the reopening of the Jordan-Syria border in October 2018, have increasingly become leverage.

In recent months, dozens of Jordanians have been detained by Syrian authorities and disappeared without notification, and as many as 30 Jordanians remain in prison, according to Jordan’s Foreign Ministry.

Damascus has refused to respond to Jordanian officials’ inquiries, raising frustrations in Amman.

Jordanian officials complain too that the amount of cheap and counterfeit Syrian goods flowing into Jordanian markets has grown exponentially since President Assad cemented his control on the border region, harming Jordanian manufacturers and robbing cash-strapped Jordan of tax revenue.

In Lebanon, contraband gasoline, tobacco, and agricultural goods are costing the treasury up to $600 million each year in lost revenues and hurting local farmers, according to official estimates.

Officials privately refer to Syrian complicity in the smuggling as “economic warfare.”

Officials and Western diplomats also expect Mr. Assad to bill himself as a linchpin of regional security, backed by the thinly veiled threat of lifting the lid on the turmoil still brewing in his country to spill over to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan and allowing the remnants of Islamic State to regroup, gather, and attack the West.

“You expect Syria to use every weapon they can lay their hands on, whether it is smuggling, refugees, or instigating any other type of unrest at its borders,” says Fares Braizat, chairman at NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, an Amman-based geopolitical think tank.

What Syria – and Iran – want

Observers say Damascus is leveraging its position to gain international recognition in Western capitals, and to return to the Arab stage not only as an actor, but as a major player.

Moreover, the Syrian regime wants access to financing and materials to rebuild the country on its terms – to funnel humanitarian aid and reconstruction funds to its allies, regime-linked companies, and communities loyal to Mr. Assad.

In Lebanon, where Syria dominated with its security presence for decades until 2005, when nationwide protests forced it to pull out of the country, Mr. Assad is eyeing a chance to turn back the clock and once again have influence in his neighbor.

“Essentially, they want a say in Lebanese government policy and who becomes prime minister,” says Mr. Young, the Carnegie analyst.

Also driving Mr. Assad’s defiance is Iran’s influence in Syria.

With enmity toward the Gulf, and viewing states such as Jordan as interlocutors for the United States, Tehran is sabotaging reconciliation between Syria and the Arab world.

“Iran is making sure that its allies are blocking every single step that is taken by any Arab country to improve relations with Syria – especially Jordan,” says Mr. Braizat, the Jordanian analyst.

“Iran does not want Jordan to have normal relationship with these countries, unless Jordan pays a political price with Iran by being sympathetic to its position.”

Vengeance or pragmatism?

The question remains: What to do with a regime like Mr. Assad’s?

Arab states are keeping their hands outstretched for potential reciprocation, but have put on hold all previous plans to offer money and investments in Syria.

The international community too is in a holding pattern, waiting for a breakthrough on humanitarian access within Syria as the first step toward forging a final political solution in the country.

This has created a cycle: The Assad regime remains defiant to pressure the international community for concessions, while this very defiance makes reconciling with Damascus politically toxic for most Western and Arab states.

But hope remains that, as often in the Middle East, conditions may suddenly change to bring Damascus to the table.

“I see this regime as somewhat vengeful and still having a lot of unfinished business, but at the same time this is a weak regime that has been historically pragmatic,” says Mr. Byman, the Brookings fellow.

“We may see external changes or a recognition from the regime that they have gained as much as they can from defiance and that reconciliation will be a more profitable path.”

In the meantime, Mr. Hamad and others wonder what price they must pay until that day comes.

“Deals will be struck, but our lives are the currency,” Mr. Hamad says.

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3. What does climate change have to do with socialism?

For many climate skeptics, it's not all about the science. Instead, the issue speaks to deeply held views of the relationship between government and free enterprise.

Amelia

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After years of denying or deflecting mainstream climate science, a growing number of GOP lawmakers – from Lindsey Graham to Matt Gaetz – have begun to break ranks. But one faction in the conservative movement continues to push against such calls. They maintain that the agenda for climate action is part of a socialist plot to undermine the American way of life.

“What they’re trying to do is to destroy our way of life and they’re succeeding,” one attendee at the Heartland Institute’s July conference in Washington, D.C., told attendees.

That the Heartland Institute calls itself a free-market think tank is telling: Climate denial in the U.S. is deeply rooted in an anti-government ideology that sees virtually all regulations, including curbs on carbon emissions, as leftist attacks on free enterprise. 

“Climate skepticism is deeply rooted in the foundational priors on the right,” says Jerry Taylor, president of the centrist Niskanen Center.

In his former role as director of energy and environmental policy at the Cato Institute, Mr. Taylor took the skeptics’ side, downplaying the risk of unchecked carbon emissions. He left after deciding that he was pushing “weak and misleading” science to buttress libertarian policies.

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What does climate change have to do with socialism?

As public concern over global warming grows, more Republicans have begun to break ranks. After years of denying or deflecting mainstream climate science, GOP lawmakers are pivoting toward a belated acceptance of man-made warming and calling for bipartisan action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and boost investment in clean energy.

But one faction in the conservative movement continues to push against such calls with warnings that the agenda for climate action is part of a socialist plot to undermine the American way of life. 

“It’s a climate delusion. It’s a climate collusion,” James Taylor, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, told an audience of around 250 gathered at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for the institute’s 13th International Conference on Climate Change in late July.

Other speakers argued that any warming of the Earth is part of a natural cycle and not the result of human activity, as record heat swept through Europe, toppling records in France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Chicago-based Heartland is part of a nesting group of right-wing organizations that for decades have sought to undermine public confidence in mainstream climate science. It publishes “climate realist” books and articles that find their way into Republican platforms and into the media, and has tried to push materials into schools.

That it calls itself a free-market think tank is telling: Climate denial in the U.S. is deeply rooted in an anti-government ideology that sees virtually all regulations, including curbs on carbon emissions, as leftist attacks on free enterprise. 

A socialist plot?

To such ideologues the Green New Deal proposed by Democrats in Congress is proof of their long-standing fear that a climate crisis is an excuse to re-engineer the U.S. economy as a top-down system. 

Jay Lehr, a groundwater hydrologist, assured the Heartland conference that carbon emissions had “zero effect” on planetary temperatures and oceanic levels. Accepting the 2019 Dauntless Purveyor of Climate Truth Award, he said capitalism was under assault. “What they’re trying to do is to destroy our way of life and they’re succeeding. We’ve got to stop them,” he said.  

Critics say this blending of fringe science and free-market fundamentalism is the handmaiden of fossil fuel producers seeking to protect their economic interests. Peer-reviewed studies have tracked how oil companies and major donors like the Koch Family Foundations influence the agenda of climate-skeptic organizations. 

But their agendas also express a particular worldview, says Jean-Daniel Collomb, a French academic who studies U.S. political thought. To U.S. libertarians, such as the Koch brothers, who own oil refineries and pipelines that would be affected by carbon pricing, opposition to climate regulations is both self-serving – and an ideological exigency. 

“They’re trying to salvage their profit margins but also to protect an approach to the economy that they favor,” says Mr. Collomb, a professor of American studies at Jean Moulin University in Lyon, France. To take climate change seriously would be to open the door to a “radical questioning of the way that you run your economy and the role of the government.” 

Moreover, “nobody likes to admit that they’re wrong,” says Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center in Washington, a centrist think tank. 

He should know: In his former role as director of energy and environmental policy at the Cato Institute he took the skeptics’ side, downplaying the risk of unchecked carbon emissions. He left Cato after 23 years in 2014 after deciding that he was pushing “weak and misleading” science to buttress libertarian policies. Now he favors carbon taxes and other market-based solutions.

“Climate skepticism is deeply rooted in the foundational priors on the right,” he says. “If you accept the mainstream narrative about climate change it suggests a course of action that is anathema to people on the right.”  

Those people include James Taylor, the Heartland senior fellow, who is his brother. Jerry Taylor says he’s given up trying to persuade him to reconsider his views. “He’s a guy who is rewarded for being a gunslinger in this debate, and so was I,” he says. 

A uniquely American challenge

This ideological battle sets the United States apart from other countries where climate science is settled fact. In Europe, for example, several far-right parties like Alternative for Germany and the U.K. Independence Party are climate deniers, but none are in power. Britain’s Conservative-run government recently committed to zero carbon emissions by mid-century.

By contrast, climate deniers have a powerful ally in the White House. President Donald Trump, who disputes man-made warming and lauds coal and other fossil fuels, tapped a Heartland associate, Myron Ebell, to lead his transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Ebell told the conference that a “deep state” was thwarting President Trump’s climate agenda. 

“I don’t do partisan politics,” he said. “But I would say this. ... All six of the [Democratic] Senators running for president are sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution. Virtually all of them have said they believe in keeping [fossil fuels] in the ground.” 

Delegates heard a more supportive message from Tom McClintock, a Republican congressman from California. He conceded that “temperatures are gently rising” and “oceans are slowly rising” in a speech that disparaged Democrats as “Chicken Littles” for seeking curbs on fossil fuels, an industry that has funded his electoral campaigns.

For all the invective, some experts see an ongoing shift in the climate debate in which Heartland may be a lagging indicator of political and social change. 

A shifting tide

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which in 2009 claimed that carbon accumulation was beneficial for the planet, recently called for action on global warming, which it framed as a response to its members’ desire to seek “sensible solutions” to a reality that was affecting their businesses. 

Others making a similar pivot include Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster and strategist, who told a Senate committee last week that he regretted his past work to help to stall action on climate. In 2001, he advised Republicans to speak about climate change, not global warming, while also sowing doubt about the science that informed policy. Now he said the tide had turned. 

“Americans believe climate change is real, and that number goes up every single month,” he told the Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. 

While there’s a partisan divide on climate-related opinion, younger Republicans are more likely to echo the concerns expressed by most Democrats about man-made warming and to support bipartisan solutions. In April, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that clean-energy policy could be a winner for Republicans. “If you want this party to grow – people from 18 to 35 believe in climate change whether you do or not,” he told an Earth Day event in Dallas. 

Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and staunch Trump ally, has also tried to put a conservative stamp on climate policy with his “Green Real Deal,” which he introduced in the U.S. Congress in April. More Republicans in Florida have begun to work across the aisle on climate change, an issue that has grown increasingly salient in their flooding-prone state. 

That demographic was largely absent from the Heartland conference, which drew a mix of retired scientists and engineers, conservative and libertarian activists, corporate lobbyists, and businesspeople. Attendees of previous conferences said this one was fairly modest compared to lavish multiday events held in New York and Las Vegas. 

A “gentler” form of denial?

Not all “climate realists” at Heartland reject man-made warming, though they hotly dispute the scale and the likely effects. Even those who grudgingly accepted warming, however, were quick to offer up political and economic reasons for the U.S. not to curb fossil fuels. 

“Their models don’t work. The world is not falling apart. The world is not coming to an end. That’s one argument,” says Steve Milloy, a lawyer and longtime consultant for tobacco and coal companies. 

“The other argument is the impracticality and the politics [of climate taxes]. Who wants to pay for all of this?” he asks.  

Expect more such lines of attack from groups like Heartland that are losing the public battle over global warming, says Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and author of several books on the climate-denial industry. 

“As climate change denial shifts from outright denial of the physical science to denial of the scale and magnitude of the threat, the need for action, and the viability of decarbonization of our economy, fossil fuel front organizations like the Heartland Institute too are evolving in their rhetoric toward the ‘kinder, gentler’ form of denial,” he says via email. 

This includes claims that warming will be beneficial for some regions and that, whatever the dire effects, it will be cheaper to adapt to a hot planet, or attempt to geoengineer the environment, than to decarbonize the world economy. Most economists, however, conclude the opposite: Mitigation is an insurance policy against a climatic disaster that can’t be unwound. 

Mr. Taylor, the Heartland fellow, says his organization will continue to contest mainstream science and argue there is room for doubt. Still, he adds, “if the scientific evidence changes I hope that we will be at the forefront of noting that.” 

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A deeper look

4. Camping with 300-thread-count sheets

More than a few people think the term “happy camper” is an oxymoron. Enter “glamping,” where you can experience nature all around you – just from a far more comfortable vantage point.

Amelia
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The writer enjoys the view from his tent at Under Canvas Zion, a glamping site in Virgin, Utah. Glamping, short for glamorous camping, brings resort-style services to the wild.

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It’s afternoon when my wife and I arrive at our Moab, Utah, “glamping” location to find a winding gravel drive, rolling land, and scattered in the brush some 40 safari tents the color of desert bone. We park, throw our luggage on a golf cart, and are piloted to our tent – a “deluxe,” $274-a-night tent with private bath. There’s a canopy-shaded porch and two chairs. We unzip the tent flaps and enter an interior designed as though Teddy Roosevelt might show up.

Glamping, a mashup of “glamorous” and “camping,” is a full-on thing. Google searches for it just reached 100 times their total a decade ago. There are some 35,000 glamping possibilities on Glamping Hub, a kind of Airbnb for the industry. The industry is forecast to reach $1 billion by 2024. 

Everyone we talk to has a theory about why it’s so popular. The practicality of not owning camping gear, the desire to escape devices, the hunger for experiences, the stress relief. And then there’s the sheer natural beauty. You can’t cross the American West without thinking how unconscionably, inexpressibly, unfathomably beautiful this is. When you’re glamping, the world is with you, and you feel it. 

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Camping with 300-thread-count sheets

It’s just past dawn and my wife and I stop for coffee – well, I’m getting coffee, Melanie’s getting Mountain Dew – at the last gas station for miles, in Torrey, Utah. “Torrey: The Middle of Nowhere,” explains a dusty T-shirt in the sales bin. “And That’s the Way We Like It.”

A friendly man fixing his coffee next to me asks, “Out here camping?” 

“Sort of,” I say. “We’re glamping.”

“Glamping,” he repeats.

“Short for ‘glamorous camping,’” I tell him. “All the camping, none of the work. Tents all prepped for you. Beds. French soap. Campfires you don’t have to build.”

He looks at me narrowly for a moment and adds some creamer. “Ah. The army tents.”

“Not army,” I say. “Safari.”

“Riiiight,” he says, and laughs. “Well that sounds pricier.” Then he says, “Looks like it’d be cool, though.”

And then he’s off, tucking himself into a 30-year-old Porsche retooled with matte paint and off-road tires, before I can parry his skepticism with my data – how Google searches for glamping just reached 100 times their total a decade ago, how private equity investors decided that even minority stakes in modest eight-site glamping chains are worth $17 million. How glamping established its hottest hotbed in southern Utah, much of which my wife and I are traversing as we speak. (My wife being Monitor photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman, whose pictures document the trip.)

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Glamping tents at Under Canvas Zion sit among the sagebrush near Zion National Park in Utah.

I would have told him how glamping is a full-on thing. Which is why we’re on the road for this summer travel piece in the first place, putting it to the test: Exactly what is glamping, anyway? Is there a secret to why it’s grown so hot? What’s it like to do it?

What I could not have told him, because I only learned it later, is that there’s another story here, too. Because whatever else it may be, glamping is also a mirror, showing  us something about our 21st-century lives – our social media fixations, our compressed existences in cubicles, our dreams of adventure (but not without 300 thread count sheets).

And I could not have told him about Amy Affeld and glamping’s tipping point, the day in July 2017 when Ms. Affeld, proprietor of the Utah glamping site BaseCamp 37˚, looked out past one of her luxury tents and wondered, “Why is that girl twirling in my sagebrush?”

Turns out, there are reasons. Reasons why glamping happened at all. Reasons why we’ve hit peak glamping now. Reasons for the twirling. 

So we fuel ourselves in Torrey and head out to look for them.

From Torrey we follow the Fremont River through Capitol Reef National Park toward Moab and the first of three “glampgrounds” we’ll sample. And we’ll get to that.

But first, you’ll have some questions. Or at least a handful of our friends did when a recent dinner party morphed into an impromptu glamping Q&A.

Really? “Glamping?”

Yep. Somebody mashed up “glamorous” and “camping,” and it stuck. Genius, really. It made the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016.

OK, so what makes camping glamping? What’s the difference?

The bed, for starters. Melanie and I enjoyed three of them, all king-size, all artisanally styled and astonishingly comfortable. And all – this might go without saying but is ultimately the point – already set up when we got there. Says Sarah Dusek, co-founder of Under Canvas, one of the premier glamping chains in the United States: “Glamping offers you everything you love about camping without everything you hate – the hassle of setup and sleeping on the ground.”

Beyond that, even glamping providers themselves debate definitions. Scan the 35,000 glamping possibilities on Glamping Hub (a kind of Airbnb for the industry) and you’ll find treehouses, yurts, small cabins, decommissioned Airstreams, Conestoga wagons, tepees, and every manner of tent. And you’ll find them in locations ranging from an off-grid wilderness to a subdivision in an existing campground (with recreational vehicles stacked nearby) to the marginally private yard of someone’s marginally rural house. All of these count as “some form of unique camping accommodation” that can be bundled under the glamping rubric, says Toby O’Rourke, chief executive officer of Kampgrounds of America, the world’s largest campground chain. KOA offers at least one of these forms at roughly 100 of its 520 locations.

Wait, I could be glamping in a treehouse?

Nah. For our purposes let’s stick to the emerging standard and stipulate that real glamping involves 1) a tent, 2) with a bed to die for, 3) in nature. Plus a “fire experience,” as industry people call it.

And s’mores. For some reason, there are always s’mores. (No joke: The s’mores fire is where Melanie and I met our fellow glampers – couples, families, dogs – because it convened people in a way conventional campgrounds don’t.)

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The folk group Joey and Friends performs at dusk around a campfire, while guests make s’mores.

And this is a legit phenomenon?

It is! So is camping in general, topped by glamping as the standout. More Americans camped in 2018 than during any other year in history, and of the 78 million who journeyed into the woods, half said they planned to “experience glamping” in the coming year, more than double the prior year’s response.

Is it expensive? 

Can be. But prices vary madly. Glamping Hub shows plenty of options below $100, but once you’re into the kinds of digs you always see in pictures, prices rise. On our trip we paid a low of $159 and a high of $274 – the latter a tent with a shower, wood stove, and leather chairs. Of course, if your tastes are more refined you can try The Resort at Paws Up, in Montana, where a one-bedroom tent can top $2,600 a night. (In fairness, that includes your meals. And a butler.)

Rule of thumb: Glamping usually costs about the same as a good bed-and-breakfast, but if you’re a plutocrat you can find places to spend like one.

Food, bathrooms, Wi-Fi, electricity for my laptop – how much civilization is there in the wild?

The critical fact to recognize is that for all the glam, what’s mostly happening here is camping. The cook is mostly you, the Wi-Fi mostly nonexistent, the bathrooms mostly shared.

Of course, offerings vary – we were always given batteries to charge our phones, twice we had private baths, and one place (Under Canvas Zion) had a cafe where we enjoyed a foodie-level dinner. Generally we made breakfasts on one of the communal grills (oatmeal with raisins and chopped nuts) and had dinners like most glampers, at restaurants in nearby towns. And then we had the s’mores.

All this sounds a lot like the camp cabins of yore, only in canvas. Could it just be a fad?

Maybe. (Though seriously, those beds are not to be underestimated.)

How does it really feel?

Let’s see.

It’s afternoon when Melanie and I arrive at Under Canvas’ Moab location to find a winding gravel drive, rolling land, and scattered in the brush some 40 safari tents the color of desert bone. Our greeter – everyone gets a greeter – is Marquette Korff, late of drama school. (And it shows. In a good way.)

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“Don't worry. These babies can handle 60 miles per hour!" – Marquette Korff, a greeter at Under Canvas Moab, noting how the tents can withstand strong winds, just as one kicked up.

We park, throw our luggage on a golf cart, and are piloted to our tent – “deluxe” this time, $274 a night, private bath included. There’s a platform weathered like bark, a canopy-shaded porch, two chairs. We unzip the tent flaps, unzip the bug screen, and enter an interior designed as though Teddy Roosevelt might show up.

Ms. Korff orients us – everyone gets oriented. She explains the pull-chain shower and “green” toiletries, the on-demand water heater, the wood stove, the phone chargers and white-noise machines and adjustable lanterns and battery-powered fans. The rules. (Quiet after 10! Don’t step on the desert crust!) The menu for optional food delivery (like room service, but with a higher markup). 

Suddenly a violent wind kicks up. “Don’t worry,” shouts Ms. Korff, “these babies can handle 60 miles per hour!” She points at the snapping tent, the straining anchor ropes.

In the distance a rainstorm sweeps over Arches National Park and the far La Sal Mountains, still snowy even though it’s 92 degrees in Moab. Lightning jumps.

Tonight, Ms. Korff is telling us, there will be a guitar player by the fire. And s’mores. Nearby glampers might be playing cornhole, boccie, badminton, or adult-sized Jenga, she says. There are yoga mats. Options.

Or, I’m thinking, Melanie and I could sit on our tent porch facing the opposite direction and watch the light change over a cream and violet landscape that’s wild for 50 miles. We could savor the desert air cooling 30 degrees on our skin.

Meanwhile the bed looks, well, amazing – and I want to try it. I start hauling our luggage from the golf cart when my photographer wife hollers above the wind, “Don’t put our junk in yet! I’ve got to get this before we mess it up!” Photographers.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A glamping tent at Under Canvas Moab in southern Utah sits on a wooden platform and is equipped with a king-size bed, full bathroom, and other civilized accouterments.

So while she squats and pirouettes and aims her various lenses at who knows what, I wait, and listen again to the wind against the tent and watch the sandstone fins and towers of Arches alternately glow and dissolve in skittering patches of sun. 

And I’m thinking, I just got here. But I could get used to this.

More questions.

If this glamping thing is so good, why didn’t it happen before?

That’s the million-dollar question – maybe the billion-dollar question, since $1 billion is what  the glamping industry is forecast to reach by 2024, according to the hospitality research firm Arizton.

From its inception in 2005 when the term “glamping” first appeared, through its early bloom in Europe to its U.S. introduction by Under Canvas in 2012 outside Yellowstone, glamping looked a lot like the sort of innovation that happens in every industry: a minor tweak of an already existing phenomenon. Hey, what if instead of permanent cabins we had permanent tents? What if instead of cots we had beds? What if instead of camping we called it glamping?

Everyone we talk to also has a theory about why it’s so popular. “It’s about a new practicality,” says BaseCamp 37˚’s Ms. Affeld, “especially among millennials.” Young people today increasingly don’t own cars (use Uber) or homes (rent little apartments) or the gear that conventional campers need (“where you gonna put all that stuff?” says Ms. Affeld). So use somebody else’s.

Then there’s the desire millennials, empty nesters – virtually everyone –  have to escape the tyranny of their devices, to actually feel like a family or bond with a friend. It’s what Under Canvas executive May Lilley calls a hunger “for experiences more than things.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Guest host Neanna Bodycomb relaxes in a hammock at dusk at BaseCamp 37˚, a glamping site in Kanab, Utah.

“People are so disconnected,” says Neanna Bodycomb, a New York glamping aficionado and part-time BaseCamp 37˚ host. “For a while we’ve been so all about Silicon Valley and our devices and every neat new thing. But now we see what it’s cost us.”

Part of that cost, say experts, is society-wide stress, to which campers think a tent and a beautiful tableau is a perfect antidote. Since 2012 the North American Camping Report, by Cairn Consulting Group (underwritten by KOA), has tracked what campers hope to get out of their experiences in the wild. The two highest-ranked “impacts” are differing kinds of stress reduction. And among camping styles, glamping may be the most soothing.

“You slow up, maybe you even stop,” says Rachael Rhode, guest experience coordinator at Under Canvas Moab. “We do the work for you.”

None of these factors, though – not the practical issues, nor the prizing of the real over the virtual, nor the stress reduction – would likely have caused glamping to catch fire without the accelerant of social media. And by social media, we mean Instagram.

For even as people are fleeing to their Ritz-Carlton tents to escape their devices, many are using their devices to chronicle their time in Ritz-Carlton tents. In this brave new age of the online influencer, says Ms. Lilley, nothing has spread glamping like the testimony of the proliferating mommy bloggers, luxury-travel diarists, and RV nomads, Instagramming as they go. Even children are posting travelogues about their experiences on YouTube. “Peer-to-peer means far more than any paid advertising I could do,” she says.

Which brings us to the sagebrush twirling that Ms. Affeld has grown so accustomed to. After all, what’s more Instagrammable than someone posing amid the mesquite, or in a lantern-lit safari tent at the golden hour on a grassy escarpment? What’s a better backdrop for, well, you – for you living your best life, in pictures?

“Oh my gosh, you should see them,” says Ms. Rhode, “all of them looking for stories to tell. They see [glamping] on Instagram and say, ‘I’ve gotta do that.’ We’ve got girls that come decked for the photos – the hats, the dresses. ... I mean it’s a blast, obviously, but I still can’t help asking them, ‘Um, you bring any hiking boots?’”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“We've got girls that come decked for the photos – the hats, the dresses....I mean it's a blast, obviously, but I still can't help asking them, 'Um, did you bring any hiking boots?’” – Rachael Rhode, guest coordinator, Under Canvas Moab

And do they?

Ms. Rhode thinks about it. Sometimes, she says. Since, you know, the hikes are pretty Instagrammable, too.

As it happens, Melanie and I have brought hiking boots – and, as we glamp, we manage to use them in four of Utah’s famous big five national parks, including in Bryce Canyon, on what has to be the Most Beautiful Walk in the World. But that’s another story.

Most days we rise early – to beat the heat, to miss the crowds – but not so early that we miss hearing each camp come to life. As the morning light grows from cobalt to lavender to rose across the view beyond the open tent flap, you catch the tiny sounds – footfalls on gravel, a tent zipper. Campground sounds, the sounds of a community in open air – but peculiarly crystalline, like the way voices sound when they carry to your blanket across a beach. 

From Moab and Arches we circle south to Kanab, and Ms. Affeld’s place at BaseCamp 37˚, where our tent is so close to Arizona that a sign in the brush divides time zones between Mountain and Pacific. From there we skirt Bryce again and pass through Zion National Park, to another of Under Canvas’ locations, on Zion’s western edge. Another terra cotta canyon, more stands of juniper, taller spires of silvered granite. Another stage set of the spectacular American West.

And maybe here is where we should note a fact that it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge despite feeling too clichéd to mention, which is this: You can’t cross the American West without thinking, a thousand times a day, how unconscionably, inexpressibly, unfathomably beautiful this is. So beautiful it would be stupid to try describing it. Even the delicious photographs on these pages can’t quite take that beauty’s measure, because they miss the third dimension of it, the sheer exhilaration of the expanse. The silence. The air.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An approaching thunderstorm turns the sky purple near Under Canvas Moab glamping site.

(Please don’t tell my wife.)

Clichéd though it is, the beauty matters. Glamping isn’t glamping without it. 

And maybe one of the things glamping is trying to show us is that when it comes to beauty like that, none of us should be too long without it, either.

Last question. This one voiced by a friend who looked at Melanie’s photos and listened to our stories and was plenty envious but still paused, still said:

I don’t know, what’s the magic? Looks cool, but would I like it? Should I glamp?

Depends, I tell her. Keep in mind there could be crying kids four tents over, and your neighbor could decide to fly his swarm-of-bees-sounding drone before breakfast. Sometimes it’s too hot, sometimes it’s too cold, sometimes it rains and you need a poncho to reach the bathroom. It’s camping. Weather happens. People happen.

But maybe you like weather and feel like you haven’t been in it enough. Maybe you sleep better in the cold (the linen comforter helps). Maybe you haven’t been surprised enough lately and haven’t seen nearly enough beauty. Maybe you’d like a reason to put down your phone.

It turns out there is a secret to glamping, in the end. It’s almost too obvious. The secret is the tent. Maybe glamping really is just a cabin with canvas walls. But maybe it’s those canvas walls that make all the difference – how thin a membrane they are, how little they separate you from whatever is on their other side. From the wind that moves the tent flanks like they’re breathing, from the creaking poles lashed together with ropes, from all that beauty that’s so close.

When you’re glamping, there’s all that preposterous comfort, of course, but there’s also all the camping. The world is greatly with you, and you feel it. And whatever everyday cocoon you came from is gone, because the moment is just too present to be escaped.

So, how does glamping feel? Like that, I tell our friend. It feels like that. How does that sound?

To which she says, “Perfect! I’m in!”

Then she smiles. “And I know just what to wear.”

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Books

5. ‘A good day is when you’ve written a good sentence’

Novelist Kate Atkinson doesn’t shy away from confronting evil, but her stories aren’t in its thrall. She’s more interested in the search for truth.

Amelia
Euan Myles/Courtesy of Little, Brown and Co.
Kate Atkinson

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In Kate Atkinson’s mysteries – as well as her novels set during World War II (“Life After Life,” “A God in Ruins,” “Transcription”) – the focus is on intimate inner lives. That includes the bad guys. In her new mystery “Big Sky,” she explores the growing conscience of a human trafficking accomplice while still holding him accountable for his actions. As for her detective Jackson Brodie? The stoic Yorkshireman “understands his role in life is to protect the innocent,” she says.

What are the characteristics that make Jackson “the last good man standing”? “I understand that kind of harsh poverty that is in his background, and the tragedy as well. And so I think a lot of his background is my father’s, whereas his actual character is probably closer to mine, in a way,” she says. “I try not to use him as a mouthpiece because that would be too tempting.”

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‘A good day is when you’ve written a good sentence’

Unlike most serial detectives, Jackson Brodie doesn’t always save the day. He doesn’t always get the girl. And in “Big Sky,” Kate Atkinson’s fifth book to feature Jackson, he isn’t even the main character. 

“He’s just, in many ways, the thread that pulls the story through,” admits the author, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. “He might have been sidelined a bit much in this book. I may need to bring him back a bit, give him a more central role.”

In Ms. Atkinson’s often-humorous mysteries – as well as her novels set during World War II (“Life After Life,” “A God in Ruins,” “Transcription”) – the focus is on intimate inner lives. That includes the bad guys. In “Big Sky,” she explores the growing conscience of a human trafficking accomplice while still holding him accountable for his actions. As for Jackson? The stoic Yorkshireman “understands his role in life is to protect the innocent,” she says.

The Monitor asked Ms. Atkinson about World War II, themes in her work, and more.

Many writers depict crimes in lurid detail. But you don’t. Why?

It’s about the emotion behind it, and that’s the thing that you have to capture. Often it’s when something’s offstage that you feel it the most. There’s no point in relaying butchery if you’re not going to get some kind of emotion out of it. So, yeah, I’m not terribly interested in writing about gory detail, I have to say. Or fights!

In “Big Sky,” Jackson Brodie remains a country music enthusiast. Are you a fan, too? 

I’ve been listening to country music for about the last 40 years. I like things that tell a story. I really like Miranda Lambert, actually; she is my current favorite.

Jason Isaacs played Jackson in the BBC television adaptations. Has he influenced how you now imagine the character in your books?

I am on very good terms with Jason, and I think he does a great job on the audio books, and he did a great job as Jackson. But he’s not my Jackson, although he likes to think he is. I do not see Jason’s face when I’m writing Jackson and that’s a good thing, for me anyway. I’m sure a lot of people who watch the series now see that face, but that’s fine. 

What are the characteristics that make Jackson “the last good man standing”?

I understand that kind of harsh poverty that is in his background, and the tragedy as well. And so I think a lot of his background is my father’s, whereas his actual character is probably closer to mine, in a way. I try not to use him as a mouthpiece because that would be too tempting. But he does tend to reflect my thoughts about Brexit, for example, and Yorkshire.

But you don’t get much more political than that. Why? 

Well I don’t think it’s the job of a novelist to be political. To be polemical, rather. Because then it becomes boring and you may as well write a newspaper article. I think that the duty of all art, in a way, is not to be didactic but to entertain. But it’s not my job to tell people what I believe politically. I think it’s a personal thing. 

Do you see a connective thematic thread running through your work?

A lot of it is about truth. Particularly in “A God In Ruins” and “Life After Life,” it was about understanding one’s self and what that means in one’s place in the world. In “Transcription,” too, I suppose. Whereas with crime novels, it’s more about the truth of your character.

A recurring theme in your work, especially “Big Sky” and “A God in Ruins,” is one of generational differences. Why? 

I think my generation, and a couple of generations below me, we have been taught a lot more history. And so you see things more in context, and I think Jackson’s very aware of that. His history is no longer relevant because it’s incomprehensible. 

I had really quite a lot of letters after “A God in Ruins” was published from the grown-up children of bomber crew. It was very emotional. They were saying, “I understand now why my father was like he was,” or “I understand now what he went through.” And in a way fiction is an opportunity to re-create something in a way that communicates, I think. That generation in the Second World War, they didn’t want to talk about the war. It was over. It was done. And I think we have to go back now and unpick those experiences if we want to understand them. 

You wrote a trio of books mainly set in Britain during World War II. What sparked your fascination with that era?

Out of all the wars, in a way, the Second World War was unique. I mean all wars are the same; they all end up with people being killed. I think the Second World War was something that cannot be replicated just because of the technological advances. That’s the last time that very ordinary people were put into very extraordinary circumstances. Although I feel I missed it and even though we did have a very good war, I hope that you never have to go through that.

Like the character Rhoda in “Big Sky,” you once worked in a hotel. Did you enjoy the people-watching?

I was too young to appreciate how many people were passing through my hands, who they were. I used to work with old people as well, later on, and that was interesting because they always had a story to tell that no one else wanted to listen to. I’ve always liked jobs where I can steal people’s lives, basically. Writers are the ultimate voyeurs and the ultimate vultures as well. You know, you’re always looking for a good story. 

On a good day of writing, do you ever marvel at the flow of ideas?

I always remember listening to Anne Fine on the radio; she was a children’s author. She said, “A good day is when you’ve written a good sentence.” And I have held to that mantra ever since.

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The Monitor's View

Safe spaces for young men adrift (and with guns)

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At vigils for those slain in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, local leaders did for the crowds what should have been done for the two angry gunmen before they attacked: restoring their connections to others, whether it be through family, schools, civic communities, workplaces, or faith groups.

Too many recent mass killings have been by young men adrift in society, often with mental or emotional disturbances. Many are easy prey for radical online groups that give them a sense of belonging and a violent path to appear as martyred heroes.

New laws and tougher enforcement can do only so much to end mass killings. Even curbing bigoted political rhetoric, hardening security in public places, or banning violent video games will not deal with the root cause: disturbed young people prone to kill. What’s needed is a broader embrace by all of society to spot and then coach and counsel those dealing with loneliness, depression, anger, and similar conditions.

The urgent task is to reach estranged young men drawn to violent ideologies and help them feel worthy of love and respect.

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Safe spaces for young men adrift (and with guns)

At a vigil Sunday for the nine people killed in the Dayton, Ohio, massacre, Mayor Nan Whaley was forced to calm an angry crowd. Many shouted “do something” about gun violence. The mayor’s response: “There will be time to take action. But let us come together as a community as we work to heal. We are here to heal tonight.”

At Sunday’s vigil in El Paso for the 22 people killed by a young Texas man, people also were searching for solutions to mass murder, such as a crackdown on “white terrorists” and social media. U.S. Rep Veronica Escobar said that El Pasoans must first console each other and honor the victims.

“If there’s one thing we can do, it’s that we can demonstrate to the country what we need now. It’s simple, it’s love,” she said.

In both vigils, local leaders were doing for the angry crowd what should have been done for the two angry gunmen before they attacked: restoring their connections to others, whether it be family, schools, civic communities, workplace, or faith groups.

Too many recent mass killings have been by young men adrift in society, often with mental or emotional disturbances. Many are easy prey for radical online groups that give them a sense of belonging and a violent path to appear as martyred heroes. 

“Our religious and community institutions, the glue that bonds us are declining as a central force in society while the politicization of every aspect of life rises,” wrote U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, himself a victim of a 2017 mass gun attack, after the El Paso killings. “These shooters turn to hatred and violence.”

New laws and tougher enforcement can do only so much to end mass killings. Even curbing bigoted political rhetoric, hardening security in public places, or banning violent video games will not deal with the root cause: disturbed young people prone to kill. What’s needed is a broader embrace by all of society to spot and then coach and counsel those dealing with loneliness, depression, anger, and similar conditions.

A good example is “friendship benches,” an idea started in Zimbabwe and that has spread to New York, London, and elsewhere. These are nontraditional safe spaces, such as a public bench, in which trained people invite strangers to discuss their problems for free and in anonymity. If the problems are severe, professional services are offered. Another example is the Chatty Cafe Scheme, a similar offer to sit in cafes and examine one’s self with a volunteer counselor.

A pioneer in such community-based counseling, Vikram Patel of Harvard Medical School, says that the help many people need to manage their emotions or mental health can be found in neighborhoods and homes. The focus should be on the quality of social relations. “Many people will mock the idea of love being a potent medicine,” he writes, but love is the “most powerful intervention.”

Everyone has a right to mental health, he says, and that health can be encouraged by teachers, clergy, and anyone in a person’s life – even strangers on a bench.

The most urgent task is to reach estranged young men drawn to violent ideologies and help them feel worthy of love and respect.

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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.

Their light still shines

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Too often we hear heartbreaking news reports of lives lost to senseless violence, as Americans did twice in one weekend. But we can find comfort and hope by understanding that inextinguishable divine light shines in everyone, eternally.

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Their light still shines

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Like many around the world today, I have been greatly disturbed by this weekend’s attacks in Texas and Ohio resulting in loss of innocent life. Such events are truly heartbreaking.

In thinking about these senseless tragedies, I find inspiration and comfort in an image from another event that was in the news earlier this year. The day after the Notre Dame Cathedral became engulfed in flames and the iconic spire collapsed, news photos showed votive candles that had been lit in loving prayer before the fire and were still burning brightly. This scene of surviving light amid destruction offered hope to many.

Could this idea of continuing light hold a message of hope in the face of other, more devastating events as well?

To find out, I did what I usually do when I want and need to find answers to pressing questions such as these: I turned to my Bible and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, who experienced – and overcame – much tragedy in her own life. I started with an idea at the beginning of the Bible; it talks of God and how He created man.

In Genesis, it says that man (a generic term for all of us) was made in the image and likeness of God. In her Bible companion book and textbook on Christian Science, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mrs. Eddy wrote, “Man is not God, but like a ray of light which comes from the sun, man, the outcome of God, reflects God” (p. 250). This points to our real nature as God’s spiritual offspring or reflection. A Bible passage I find especially helpful is in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said, “Ye are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). And the Gospel of John describes the divine nature Jesus expressed – the Christ – as “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (1:9).

Putting these ideas together, I reasoned that the light that each one of us expresses or reflects must be as eternal as its source, God. Not even the darkest act or tragedy can come between or separate anyone from the light of universal divine Love, God.

Science and Health states: “Man is the idea of Spirit; he reflects the beatific presence, illuming the universe with light. Man is deathless, spiritual” (p. 266). Senseless acts of violence need to stop. But I am heartened by what I’m learning about the real nature of everyone, eternally lit by the light of divine Love. Though individuals may pass from our view, I am convinced that the light we all express still shines. And this includes those who commit terrible acts, as well. They are not beyond the reforming reach of divine Love’s light, which is so bright it can dissolve the darkness of fear, anger, and other destructive elements.

This verse from the 1932 “Christian Science Hymnal” brings me hope and inspires my prayers for a world in which the true nature of man increasingly prevails over the darkened sense of man as perpetrating, or suffering from, senseless tragedies:

Lift up thy light, O man, arise and shine,
Steadfast while loud the storms of life assail;
Immortal ray of that great Light divine,
’Gainst whose all-power no tempest shall prevail.
(Celia Thaxter, No. 172)

In the days and weeks following these tragic events, I pray that those mourning family and friends might feel in their hearts how the true, spiritual nature of each loved one is still shining brightly as God’s reflection.

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Viewfinder

City on strike

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
An older woman is helped by a demonstrator after police fired tear gas in Hong Kong Aug. 5, 2019. Tens of thousands of people calling for democratic reforms brought parts of Hong Kong to a standstill on the fifth consecutive day of mass demonstrations, in the first general strike in more than 50 years.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( August 6th, 2019 )

In the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, we’re seeing more Republicans condemning white supremacy in clear language. Washington reporters Jessica Mendoza and Linda Feldmann will look at what the shift represents.

Monitor Daily Podcast

August 05, 2019
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