2019
November
25
Monday
Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Welcome back. Today we look at a White House vision (not yet a plan) for the Mideast, democracy’s near-term win in Hong Kong, the environment as a global voting issue, the decline of British political civility, and personhood for nonhuman animals.

First, to begin a week that celebrates gratitude, a moment on one of its companion attributes: humility. 

Wildfires didn’t end when the reports out of California slowed. The burning flared up elsewhere, notably in parts of Australia. This fiery age – at least one fire historian warns of a dawning Pyrocene era – is often attributed to the same human activity that speeds climate change. 

But human action can also be a salve. Work in the science of firefighting, for example, is surging. Computer simulations in labs teach about the role of terrain in containment. Radar and lidar pull data from ash clouds. 

Some approaches to prevention and damage mitigation are much more organic. Certain forms of permaculture – planned agriculture that closely mimics nature – may help burned-out regions grow back less vulnerable to flooding, desertification, and flames. 

Humility means an openness to applying old wisdom to a modern scourge. 

And so, some researchers have been listening to the Karuk Tribe of Northern California and southern Oregon about their centuries of adaptive land management and knowledge of the interplay among humans, animals, plants, and fire. Others aim to tap not only modern Australian tactics for fighting bush fires but also Aboriginal practices, which include low-intensity “patch burning.” 

With each wildfire season, a greater readiness? That could be an opportunity for gratitude, too.

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1. In Hong Kong elections, the message is clear. The next step may not be.

Yes, democracy just had a moment in Hong Kong. Our writer looks at the importance of keeping such milestones in context – as opportunities to keep momentum toward shifting thought.

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Sunday night, as Hong Kong voters stepped out of their polling station into narrow, winding streets, many said they welcomed the chance to make themselves heard with ballots.

For six months, the Chinese territory has been convulsed by protests demanding greater autonomy and government accountability. By early Monday, voters’ message about the movement was clear: an unprecedented victory for independent and pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong’s district council elections. Amid record voter turnout, they won nearly 400 of the 18 councils’ 452 seats, while pro-Beijing representatives lost more than 230 – belying the idea that a “silent majority” supports the government.

“This is a window of opportunity, a turning point possibly for [Chief Executive Carrie Lam] to steer her way out of this political crisis,” says Kenneth Chan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

The district councils may not have much power. But as Hong Kong’s most directly elected body, their composition is symbolically important. Translating voters’ hopes for change into reform, though, may be a struggle. 

Fergus Leung, a medical student and first-time candidate who had just defeated an incumbent, smiled as he held flowers from well-wishers.

“The majority of Hong Kong people finally realize that democratization is the only way for Hong Kong in the future,” he said.

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In Hong Kong elections, the message is clear. The next step may not be.

The Hong Kong vote-counting room was still packed with public observers at nearly 3:00 a.m. on Monday, when election officials named Fergus Leung the victor in the Kwun Lung district council race, eliciting celebratory cheers from the energized crowd.

Mr. Leung, a first-time candidate and university student, defeated an incumbent from a pro-Beijing party in a pattern repeated across Hong Kong in Sunday’s local elections, in which unprecedented numbers of Hong Kong voters rejected the pro-Beijing establishment and handed a landslide win to democrats.

“It’s a milestone in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement,” Mr. Leung said of the election, which drew a historically high voter registration of 4.1 million people and record turnout of 71%. Many view the election, which unfolded peacefully, as a clear public mandate for the protesters’ demands for greater autonomy and government accountability.

“The majority of Hong Kong people finally realize that democratization is the only way for Hong Kong in the future…and they really want to make a change,” said a smiling Mr. Leung, holding a bouquet of flowers from well-wishers.

Pro-democracy and independent candidates won nearly 400 of the 452 seats, giving them control over 17 of the 18 district councils. The pro-Beijing camp lost more than 230 district seats, including those of several high-profile lawmakers, while taking only about 60. Overall votes for both camps increased since the 2015 election, but the pro-democracy electorate was so large that some analysts describe it as a “tsunami.”

The strong sentiments at the polling stations matched those that have played out in Hong Kong’s streets for nearly six months. Mass protests erupted in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory in June over a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed some suspects to be sent to China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party. That bill was withdrawn in October, but protester demands have broadened to include an independent investigation of police actions, amnesty for arrested protesters, and universal suffrage.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
A Hong Kong voter waiting for results at a counting station holds up her phone as she monitors election results across Hong Kong on Nov. 25, 2019. The election saw historically high turnout and was widely viewed as an endorsement of the democratic aspirations of Hong Kong's electorate.

“We want some change,” said Mr. Li, a teacher, upon leaving the polling station in Kwun Lung on Sunday night. “We want to fight for the [protesters’] demands.” (Mr. Li declined to give his full name.)

The councils are Hong Kong’s most democratic bodies, since its chief executive and half of its legislature are not directly elected – making the democrats’ win symbolically powerful. But representatives may face an uphill battle turning their victory into meaningful reform.

‘A window of opportunity’

In response to a stark election rebuke that many analysts described as a referendum against Hong Kong’s leadership, Chief Executive Carrie Lam issued a statement saying her government “will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect.”

Critics, however, said a more tangible, positive response is required from Mrs. Lam as well as her superiors in Beijing. “If they misjudge the situation again” and resort “to heavy use of police force against the protesters, they are inviting a new round of confrontations,” says Kenneth Chan, associate professor and director of the Comparative Governance and Public Policy Research Centre at Hong Kong Baptist University.

“This is a window of opportunity, a turning point possibly for [Mrs. Lam] to steer her way out of this political crisis,” by offering concessions to de-escalate the deadlock and end clashes between police and protesters, Professor Chan says.

Pro-democracy party leaders agreed.

“Given the results of yesterday’s elections, there is really no excuse for Carrie Lam not to accede to the five demands” of the protesters, says Alan Leong, chairman of Hong Kong’s liberal democratic Civic Party, which ran 36 candidates in Sunday’s elections and won 32 seats – the most ever for the party.

One immediate, minor concession Mrs. Lam could make, Mr. Leong says, is to order the police force to end its siege of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where dozens of student protesters are surrounded and in hiding following a weeklong standoff. (On Monday, police announced they would enter the campus to negotiate, but not arrest students on the spot, as concerns grow about their well-being.)

Ultimately, Mr. Leong and other democrats say, Mrs. Lam should personally take responsibility for the rock-bottom trust in her leadership and government, as shown by public opinion polls and Sunday’s election results, and step down.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Newly elected Hong Kong district councilor Fergus Leung, an independent and pro-democracy candidate, celebrates his victory over a pro-Beijing incumbent in the northwestern Hong Kong Island neighborhood of Kwun Lung Nov. 25, 2019. Mr. Leung, a university student, has been active in Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

Analysts, however, generally agree that Mrs. Lam must follow directions from Beijing. “Our autonomy has been eroded to such an extent that the chief executive of Hong Kong could not say more [about the elections] than ‘OK, noted with thanks,’” says Professor Chan. “Clearly, she is waiting for instructions and orders from Beijing to plan her next moves. That is the reason she has lost any credibility in the eyes of the Hong Kong people.”

The election defeat is a setback not only for Mrs. Lam but for Beijing’s assertion that most Hong Kongers are a “silent majority” that support the government. China’s state media did not comment directly on the election outcome, but repeated calls for restoring order and opposing foreign interference in Hong Kong.

New kids on the block

For its part, the newly elected grassroots pro-democracy candidates must overcome challenges of relative inexperience and loose organization, analysts say. “It’s a huge learning curve. These newly minted politicians are very young,” says Stan Hok-Wui Wong, a social scientist at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who researches Hong Kong’s elections. “I have two current students elected.”

Hong Kong’s 18 district councils are advisory bodies without substantial policymaking power. But they deliver funds for cultural, environmental, and other community activities, and in that way develop a base of political support. Winning the majority of district council seats significantly increases the democrats’ leverage in the 1,200-strong committee that elects Hong Kong’s chief executive.

A bigger issue is the lack of a unified organization – both among new candidates who emerged from Hong Kong’s fluid, leaderless protest movement, as well as among traditional opposition parties. “The lack of coherence has plagued [the opposition] for decades,” Professor Wong says. “No one has a magic formula for solving it.”

Such coordination will be vital for the democratic camp to translate their local election gains into more seats in Hong Kong’s lawmaking body, the Legislative Council, in elections scheduled for September 2020.

As they stepped out of the polling station into the narrow, winding streets of northwestern Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town neighborhood on Sunday night, many voters said they welcomed the chance to make themselves heard with ballots.

“This is very peaceful, no blood, no fire, and can tell everyone what Hong Kong people support,” says Mrs. Chen, a pro-establishment voter who says she thinks democracy is important but worries about the risks Hong Kong’s youths face in the streets.

Down the block, Mr. Yam, a recent engineering graduate, says a victory at the polls could “slow down the protests” by electing local officials who can voice popular demands to the government. (Mrs. Chen and Mr. Yam declined to give their first names.)

The democrats have pledged not only to push forward protesters’ aspirations, but to “get down to the business of revamping the system of governance from the bottom up,” such as by breaking up pork barrels, Professor Chan says.

Raising his arms and pumping his fists in the air moments after his victory, Mr. Leung, a medical student, promised to contend for Hong Kong people on all fronts. “I hope that we can really do a great job and show people that other than fighting for democracy, we can also take care of the residents properly in the next few years.”

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2. What peace plan? How Trump tips his hand on Mideast ‘realities.’

This next piece probes another long-simmering tension with rising stakes. Policies can be as ephemeral as the term-limited presidents who hatch them, but some have more indelible effects than others. 

Mussa Qawasma/Reuters
Palestinian demonstrators pray as Israeli troops stand guard during a protest against Jewish settlements in Surif, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Nov. 22, 2019.

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When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States no longer regarded Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as illegal under international law, he was reversing more than four decades of U.S. policy.

That followed relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. What about the goal of nurturing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

“The collective impact of these decisions is to effectively drive one of the parties away from the negotiating table,” says Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. “The decision on settlements is just a reaffirmation of the already quite strong sense that the U.S. is out of the game as an honest broker.”

James Carafano, at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says he recognizes that the standard response to President Donald Trump’s actions is that “they threaten the peace process,” but he says the “reality” is that “the peace process was already dead” – doomed, he adds, by one party’s refusal to sit down at the negotiating table.

“People say, ‘You can’t do these things,’ but the administration is saying, ‘What has been done for so long isn’t working, so we’re flipping things on their head.’”

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What peace plan? How Trump tips his hand on Mideast ‘realities.’

From the outset of his presidency, Donald Trump has relished tossing aside long-held and bipartisan fixtures of U.S. foreign policy he felt were no longer working – no more so, it has seemed, than in his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That impulse was again on display last week, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States was reversing more than four decades of policy followed by Republican and Democratic presidents alike that held that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal under international law.

The settlement policy reversal, coming as it did in the midst of an impeachment inquiry in Washington and political upheaval in Israel, raised a bevy of questions about timing and motivation.

Was the announcement, which seemed to come out of the blue, designed to boost a beleaguered Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of holding on to Israel’s premiership, some wondered – or was its aim to distract from Washington’s impeachment hearings?

What seems indisputable is that the legitimizing of Israeli settlements was another in a string of presidential decisions that have given Israel long-coveted U.S. policy shifts without asking anything in return. In addition to alienating the Palestinians, the decisions appear to have closed the door further on the traditional “two-state solution” for resolving the conflict – the vision of “two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Previous key reversals by President Trump of longstanding U.S. policy include the December 2017 decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to recognize the disputed city as Israel’s capital. The settlements decision, then, added another pro-Israel block to the foundation of the president’s long-anticipated but repeatedly delayed Middle East peace plan. 

Other reversals of long-held U.S. policy include recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights – signaling U.S. acceptance of annexation of territory seized in war – and closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington (the Palestinians’ not-quite embassy to the U.S.). The U.S. also decided to defund the United Nations’ Palestinian relief agency UNRWA.

“All of these decisions are significant, but one of the biggest changes is simply that this administration, starting with the president, has stopped citing the two-state solution as the goal,” says Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

“With that North Star gone, without that guiding objective as the basis for U.S. policymaking,” she adds, “these decisions they are taking move the U.S. farther away from the [two-state] goal.”

Moreover, the announcement further removed the U.S. from its traditional role as a go-between in the conflict who could be trusted by both sides to act as an arbiter in negotiations for a final settlement.

“The collective impact of these decisions is to effectively drive one of the parties away from the negotiating table,” says Ms. Kurtzer-Ellenbogen. “The decision on settlements is just a reaffirmation of the already quite strong sense that the U.S. is out of the game as an honest broker.”

Ammar Awad/Reuters/File
Motorcyclists from the Israeli Samson Riders motorcycle club ride through the streets of Jerusalem with U.S. flags on their way from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to its new location in Jerusalem, May 13, 2018.

In announcing the reversal of a 1978 State Department legal opinion finding settlements in the West Bank a violation of the Geneva Convention, Secretary Pompeo said the decision reflects “the reality on the ground” and the “unique facts, history, and circumstances of the West Bank.” It should not, he said, be construed as a broad finding on international territorial disputes.

Mr. Pompeo’s reference to “reality” echoed a similar justification for the embassy move to Jerusalem, which President Trump said was “nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality.”

Such references to recognizing “realities” have led some experts to conclude that the administration is actually setting a new baseline from which an eventual peace deal would be negotiated.

But for some advocates of the administration’s actions, the president is simply moving ahead, step by step, with measures designed to break the “status quo” of a conflict that has not moved any closer to resolution on the basis of long-held but outdated assumptions.

“People say, ‘You can’t do these things,’ but the administration is saying, ‘What has been done for so long isn’t working, so we’re flipping things on their head,’” says James Carafano, director of foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“The finding on settlements is consistent with what the Trump administration has done in the past, which is basically telling the Palestinians, ‘Don’t assume the status quo is going to be there forever that had discouraged you from getting serious on negotiations,’” he says.

“If you don’t move the embassy, hold on to this idea that the settlements are illegal, and continue to give [the Palestinians] bucket-loads of money,” he adds, “where is the pressure to deal?”

Mr. Carafano recognizes that the standard response to the president’s actions is that “they threaten the peace process,” but he says the “reality” is that “the peace process was already dead” – doomed, he adds, by one party’s refusal to sit down at the negotiating table.

Deeming any discussion of the administration’s “vision” for a final peace deal as the wrong focal point at a time when the Palestinians reject any negotiations, Mr. Carafano says wondering if the administration’s plan will be “one-state or two-state” is like “asking someone what kind of wedding you’re going to have.”

“Will it be a destination wedding, or just family?” he says. “But then if you ask ‘Are you actually dating anybody?’ the answer is, ‘Well, no,’” he adds. “You need a relationship, or in this case the two parties negotiating, first.”

Yet while Mr. Carafano says the administration’s moves can be seen in part as “punishing” the Palestinians for shunning the negotiating table, other experts say it’s the decisions that have pushed the Palestinians into their corner.

“Each issue, each of these decisions by the administration can be argued on its merits, but taken together they have offered nothing to the Palestinians as an incentive to get back” to negotiating, says David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process. “The U.S. has a finite number of cards to play,” he says, “and they should be played in ways that offer win-win situations and reduce the divides,” he says.

Instead of one-sided decisions, the U.S. should “do these things in a way that would call for some quid pro quos that would shrink the differences [between the two parties] and not expand them,” he says.

Mr. Makovsky, co-author of a recent book on Israeli leaders, “Be Strong and of Good Courage,” says the Trump administration recognizes the time is not right to launch its peace plan, given Israel’s political uncertainties and the political context at home.

But he says what the administration is unveiling is “more a vision than a plan” at this point, perhaps waiting as long as the 2020 election and Mr. Trump’s potential second term to move forward with a plan.

And no matter what happens in 2020, Mr. Makovsky adds, some aspects of the president’s policy decisions are now part of the landscape for good. Among Democratic presidential candidates and with a potential Democratic administration, he says, “I think the debate is going to be, ‘OK, what from Trump’s decisions are we going to keep, and which should we aim to change?”

For example, he says the U.S. Embassy will stay in Jerusalem – although a future administration could move to soften the move by opening a consulate for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Mr. Carafano of the Heritage Foundation says the message being sent by the administration even without a peace plan’s release is that the Palestinian people can have a bright future if they reject the status quo benefitting only their “leadership elites.”

But others worry the administration’s decisions, especially absent any effort to work with both sides, are only reinforcing the most extreme elements in each corner and reducing further the prospect for a peace settlement.

“I am concerned that the practical impact of the settlements announcement will be that it signals to settlers all over the West Bank that the way is open to expanding settlements now,” says Mr. Makovsky, who hosts the podcast “Decision Points: The U.S.-Israel Relationship.”

More broadly, he says the latest decision may only encourage some in the Israeli leadership to say, “Things may not be the same in the U.S. in another year, so we should move now with decisions and to extract from the U.S. whatever we can get.”

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Patterns

Tracing global connections

3. Around the globe, going green at the ballot box

Climate change is all about adaptation – and, globally, more political parties are making adjustments in their platforms on that issue. That, too, is responsive: Voters keep pushing the environment to center stage.

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Ahead of December polls, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been trying keep focus on Brexit. But other issues have been vying for headlines ­– few of them more dramatically than the environment.

His own government recently announced a moratorium on fracking after a significant tremor at one site. Then rival parties went into high gear over how to reach “net-zero” in carbon emissions by 2050. 

This week will see Britain’s first-ever televised election debate solely on climate change.

Such focus is growing internationally, as politicians recognize that votes are at stake.

Green parties made major gains this year in European Parliament elections. In October parliamentary elections in Switzerland, where voters have literally been watching Alpine glaciers melt, climate change was the overriding issue. Two green parties made significant gains. In Germany, the Greens are now behind only Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party.

Yet in Germany and the Netherlands, right-wing parties have also been making advances. In Australia, where wildfires focused attention on a rollback of environmental measures, the deputy prime minister dismissed critics as “woke greenies.”

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Around the globe, going green at the ballot box

We’ve heard the term “political arms race” before. Yet now we’re seeing a political trunks race, as in tree trunks – a sign that, in elections across the globe, climate change and environmental issues are becoming a major battleground.

The “trunks race” has broken out in Britain, ahead of a snap December election that Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson had assumed – and certainly hoped – would be all about Brexit, the question of pulling the U.K. out of its decades-long membership in the European Union.    

But while Mr. Johnson has been trying to keep the focus on Brexit, other issues have been vying for the headlines. And few of them more dramatically than the environment. The first sign that his own government was alert to voter concerns in that area came in its announcement earlier this month of a moratorium on shale-gas extraction – fracking – in the wake of a significant earth tremor at one site in the north of England.

Then, as the election campaigning was getting underway, the trunks race began, with rival parties promising to plant tens of millions of new trees each year as part of efforts to fulfill Britain’s commitment to reach “net-zero” in carbon emissions by the year 2050.

The Conservatives said they’d be planting 30 million new trees annually by 2025. The Liberal Democrats countered that they would plant 60 million. The Labour Party has said it, too, would be unveiling an “ambitious” tree-planting pledge at some stage. Its formal campaign manifesto, released this week, meanwhile promised £250 billion – about $320 billion – in new investment to fund “green apprenticeships” and help people purchase electric cars. 

In part, all of this reflects a growing international focus on climate change, sparked by teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and the “climate strikes” she has inspired among students around the world. In the past year, the organization Extinction Rebellion has also launched a campaign of civil disobedience that brought parts of London to a standstill, along with similar demonstrations in a number of other cities in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.

But the main reason climate change is becoming a more prominent electoral issue is because political parties seem to recognize that, to a far greater extent than before, votes are at stake. Popular trust in mainstream parties and their leaders has been eroding. Populist movements, often focused around a series of emotionally charged issues, have surged.

And while the main issues of contention in recent years, especially in Europe, have been immigration, migration, and asylum, now the spotlight is falling increasingly on climate change.

For far-right populists, the growth of environmental protests is something to be opposed. They argue it’s just another sign of “privileged elites” ignoring the economic costs of the actions that they’re pressing for, and lacking interest in the genuine, bread-and-butter needs of the less privileged.

Yet a number of surveys, in Britain and other countries, suggests an increase in voters, especially young voters, who see climate-change action as an important factor in how they’ll cast their ballots. In a recent U.K. poll, 54% said climate change would affect how they vote in next month’s election. Among people under the age of 25, that figure was 74%.

Indeed, this week will see Britain’s first-ever televised election debate solely on climate change. Prime Minister Johnson, alone among the party leaders, is expected to stay away – but mostly, it seems likely, for reasons of campaign strategy. He has been steadfastly resisting the idea of including anyone but the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in face-to-face debates. He’s hoping voters will view the election as a binary choice, and that they’ll make it primarily on the basis of his vow to “get Brexit done.”

The climate-politics picture elsewhere in Europe varies. Green parties made major gains in this year’s elections for the European Parliament. During campaigning for last month’s parliamentary elections in Switzerland, where voters have quite literally been watching their Alpine glaciers melt, climate change was the overriding issue. A pair of green parties made significant gains.

In Germany, too, a majority now tells the pollsters that climate change is a top political priority. Students have been staging climate-protest walkouts. The Greens have risen dramatically in the polls. They’re now in second place behind only the Christian Democrats of Chancellor Angela Merkel, and her government has proposed new tax-and-subsidy measures aimed at curbing emissions.

Yet in both Germany and the Netherlands, right-wing parties have also been making advances – by denouncing climate-change activists as elitist scare-mongers whose proposals would damage their countries’ economies.

And in Australia, fierce wildfires have focused attention, and pressure, on the government’s rollback of environmental measures and its backing for additional coal mining. Yet the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, responded earlier this month by dismissing the climate-policy critics as a bunch of “woke greenies.”

The most important electoral test of growing climate-change concerns is likely to come a year from now, in the United States. With U.S. politics currently dominated by the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, and by the crowded race to choose his Democratic Party challenger, it’s too early to say how prominently environmental questions may feature in the campaign for next November’s election.

But it seems likely the Democrats, whoever emerges as their candidate, will see climate change as an import rallying point in key parts of the electorate: above all, young voters, but also others opposed to Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and his retreat from previous American administrations’ environmental protection policies. To judge by the president’s approach in the past several years, it seems likely his campaign will adopt the “woke greenie” response, emphasize the economic costs of action against climate change, and seek to focus the campaign on other issues such as immigration.

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A deeper look

4. Civility lost: Nasty tone permeates British politics

Amid Brexit and endless elections, the sun appears to be setting for civility in British politics. Our writer – a generally genial Briton – looks at how democracy can function if political debate gets too personal.

Jessica Taylor/House of Commons/AP
Opposition MPs look on in Parliament on Sept. 25, 2019, venting their pent-up anger over Prime Minister Boris Johnson's failed attempt to suspend the legislative body.

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British politics have never attracted the faint of heart. But amid debate over Brexit and a seeming incessant series of referendums and elections, many say bullying, insults, and threats have become commonplace in British political life. And as the current election campaign in the United Kingdom moves into top gear, many politicians fear that things could get even worse.

Some see the new fractious and intolerant tone of political argument – in Parliament, on the streets, and online – as somehow “un-British”: out of step with a supposed tradition of fair play and polite pragmatism. When think tank British Future carried out a values survey in 2013, the most important characteristic of “being British” was found to be “respect for people’s right to free speech, even if you don’t agree with them.” But that sentiment appears to have changed.

“I don’t want to take the passion out of politics. Heated exchanges are good, and massive disagreement is absolutely crucial” in a democracy, says Stewart Wood, a Labour member of the House of Lords. But “the line has been blurred between political differences and personal attacks.”

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Civility lost: Nasty tone permeates British politics

The admonition was authoritative and stark. “Intimidation in public life presents a threat to the very nature of representative democracy in the U.K.”

But that warning two years ago from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, an independent body advising then-Prime Minister Theresa May, fell on deaf ears. Bullying, insults, and threats have become commonplace in British political life since. And as the current election campaign in the United Kingdom moves into top gear, many politicians fear that things could get even worse.

Some of them can’t face that prospect.

“Nobody in any job should have to put up with threats, aggressive emails, being shouted at in the street, sworn at on social media, nor have to install panic alarms at home,” Heidi Allen, a former Conservative member of Parliament, wrote to her constituents explaining why she is not running for reelection next month.

The “nastiness and intimidation” of public life had “exhausted” her, she wrote.

So toxic has the political atmosphere grown – fouled largely by angry disagreement over Brexit, which has split the country in two – that a quixotic group of prominent political figures last month launched an award for civility in politics “celebrating politicians who behave with courtesy and decency to one another.”

“Politics have gone from occasional belligerence to a default mode of aggression,” worries Stewart Wood, a Labour member of the House of Lords behind the £3,000 ($3,800) prize. “It’s like the Wild West; there aren’t any rules anymore about how you engage in politics.”

The prize “won’t change the world,” he says, “but we want to shine a spotlight on people who make a difference.”

A lost temperateness

British politics have never attracted the faint of heart. Winston Churchill once left the House of Commons with blood streaming down his face after an opposition member had thrown the parliamentary rulebook at him, and Norman Tebbitt, one of Margaret Thatcher’s ministers, thought his career got a boost when a Labour leader called him a “semi-housetrained polecat.”

Nor is fury a stranger to Britain’s streets: The yearlong miners’ strike against pit closures in 1984-85 expressed the genuine rage felt in many communities. But when Jo Cox, a Labour MP campaigning to stay in the European Union, was murdered just before the Brexit referendum in 2016, her assassination was the first of a sitting MP since 1812 that was unrelated to Irish nationalism.

Matt Dunham/AP/File
Staff from the Labour Party pay their respects outside the House of Parliament in London on June 17, 2016, to their colleague Jo Cox, the member of Parliament shot to death in northern England.

Some see the new fractious and intolerant tone of political argument – in Parliament, on the streets, and online – as somehow “un-British”: out of step with a supposed tradition of fair play and polite pragmatism. When the London-based think tank British Future carried out a values survey in 2013, the most important characteristic of “being British” was found to be “respect for people’s right to free speech, even if you don’t agree with them.”

“People would like to have that self-image of temperateness back,” says Sunder Katwala, who runs British Future. “There’s a hankering after things we share that bring us together.”

Nonetheless, “the country is polarized at the moment, and defiance of publicly accepted norms of expression is at a peak,” says Annemarie Walter, a political analyst at Nottingham University. At the same time, she adds, “the British public seems more accepting of certain types of behavior than they were in the past.”

“I’m not a snowflake,” says Lord Wood. “I don’t want to take the passion out of politics. Heated exchanges are good, and massive disagreement is absolutely crucial” in a democracy. But “the line has been blurred between political differences and personal attacks,” he says. “I want to redraw it, and the award is a device to draw attention to this.”

The taint of Brexit

A powerful catalyst for the changes that have swept through British political life is the debate over whether and how Britain should leave the European Union – a debate still unresolved 3 1/2 years after voters in a referendum chose narrowly in favor of Brexit.

Brexit, which is a major theme of the current election campaign, has become much more than a question of trade relationships and has come to involve citizens’ sense of identity. “People cleave to their position on Brexit more strongly than to their political party choice,” says Anand Menon, an expert on U.K.-EU relations at King’s College London.

“It has become fundamental to how we define ourselves, and just like the culture wars in the United States, people are genuinely angry,” Professor Menon adds.

And they are expressing that anger in increasingly aggressive – sometimes illegal – fashion. Notably Anna Soubry, a former Conservative MP who supports remaining in the EU, was subjected to a lengthy torrent of abuse as she was being interviewed on live TV outside Parliament. A nearby protester repeatedly called her a “Nazi” and a “traitor”; he was later given a suspended prison sentence.

Earlier, Ms. Soubry had received death threats on Twitter and over the phone calling for her to be “Jo Coxed,” a reference to the murdered Labour MP.

Many MPs, especially women, have suffered such abuse, which is often sexist, racist, or obscene on social media. During the last general election campaign in 2017, senior Labour politician Diane Abbott, who is black, received almost half of the abusive tweets sent to female MPs, a report by Amnesty International found.

Ms. Abbott told Amnesty’s researchers that she received hundreds of racist letters a day, some illustrated with swastikas and pictures of monkeys. “It’s the volume of it which makes it so debilitating, so corrosive, and so upsetting,” she said. “And the sheer level of hatred that people are showing.”

Some women MPs complained in Parliament that the warlike language pro-Brexit Prime Minister Boris Johnson was using to attack opponents, such as “surrender” and “betrayal,” risked triggering more threats against them and perhaps real violence. His dismissal of such fears as “humbug” caused uproar.

Unsocial media

Fueling and facilitating the trend to incivility and worse is social media.

Alison Goldsworthy, a former campaigner for the Liberal Democrats who now heads the Depolarization Project at Stanford University, first noticed that during the Scottish referendum on independence from the United Kingdom in 2014.

“We engage most strongly with things we feel strongest about,” she points out, “so campaigners were encouraged to take more and more hard-line positions to get that engagement. Facebook recommends that campaigners be provocative. So there is a race to the bottom.”

And when campaigners succeed in stoking emotions, their supporters can express those emotions as rudely and as extremely as they like with a few anonymous and unaccountable clicks of the keyboard.

Mr. Katwala, of British Future, cautions against mistaking online arguments for real-life opinions. “At the school gate or in the pub, where people chat, they are quite civil,” he says. “Online you only see the other side’s hyperpartisans.”

When British Future organized a national conversation about immigration last year, it asked participants to say on a scale of 1 to 10 whether immigration had had a positive or negative impact on the U.K. Most people who answered a pollster's questions and those in panels were somewhere in the middle. When asked the same question in an open online survey, a majority of respondents chose either the minimum or maximum score.

The highly polarized atmosphere online distorts reality, Mr. Katwala points out, “but a lot of our politics is being driven by thinking that online polarization is how everyone thinks.”

Political polarization

At the same time, there is little doubt that political tensions in Britain are particularly fierce because the two main political parties have been taken over by their more extreme members.

Most of the Conservative Party’s 160,000 members are older white men, of whom a majority would rather see the U.K. pull out of the EU with no deal than any other scenario, even if that did significant damage to the economy, two polls earlier this year found.

In the Labour Party, the Momentum faction – strongly supportive of leader Jeremy Corbyn’s unashamedly socialist platform – has attracted hundreds of thousands of new party members who have radicalized Labour’s grassroots.

With them, complain Jewish Labour Party activists and MPs, came a wave of anti-Semitic online comments and talk at party events that went well beyond sympathy for the Palestinian cause to taint political discourse with a particularly insidious brand of incivility.

“I used to get a bit of abuse 10 years ago when I spoke about Israel,” says Dame Louise Ellman, who represented a Liverpool constituency in Parliament for 22 years. “But it became much worse later,” she says, after membership in her constituency Labour Party increased fivefold upon Mr. Corbyn’s election as party leader, “which brought some very unpleasant views.”

Dame Louise resigned from the Labour Party last month, complaining that “Jewish members have been bullied, abused, and driven out” of a party in which “anti-Semites have felt comfortable and vile conspiracy theories have been propagated.” She is not standing in the coming election.

Earlier this year another prominent Jewish MP, Luciana Berger, left the Labour Party arguing that anti-Semitism there was an expression of “a tribal conviction that anyone with a different view or perspective is a deadly enemy.

“Whereas it once existed only on the fringes of left or right, it now surfaces in the mainstream, and is given the soapbox and megaphone of social media,” Ms. Berger wrote in the Observer weekly. “It is pure poison.”

Looking for moderation

Societal leaders have weighed in on behalf of civility in political life. The archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican church, recently warned Mr. Johnson against “inflammatory” language, saying that “in a time of deep uncertainty, a much smaller amount of petrol is a much more dangerous thing than it was in a time when people were secure.”

And Queen Elizabeth, in her traditional Christmas message to the nation last year, said that “even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a good first step towards greater understanding.”

Whether their injunctions will weigh more heavily than the Committee on Standards in Public Life is open to doubt. “The election campaign will make politics more emotional, more intense,” says Dame Louise. “I suspect that personal threats and abuse won’t go away very easily.”

Some observers suggest that an eventual resolution of the Brexit question, one way or another, would clear the path to a more consensual and civil way of doing politics. “There is a strong sentiment that if we can get over this, we can start to put things together” again, says Mr. Katwala.

Others are dubious. “Political entrepreneurs have seen what you can do when you mobilize identity” in the way Brexit campaigners on both sides have done, says Professor Menon. “There will always be people out there willing to make use of that.”

Nor does he see any immediate signs that either of the two major parties will move back to the moderate center, which might have presaged a reversal of the current tendency to incivility.

Mr. Katwala believes that fewer opportunities to vote might have a calming influence. By the end of this year, the electorate will have been through three general elections, two European elections, and two referendums since 2014; that has kept the political temperature high.

Instead, Mr. Katwala would like to see more of the sort of national conversation that British Future fostered around immigration last year in 60 cities and towns. Panels of citizens sitting down around a table to talk things over face to face, which means they are concerned to be polite, “hold inherently civilizing debates,” he says.

What chance for reform?

It would help, suggests political scientist Annemarie Walter, if Britain had an electoral system that resulted more often in coalition governments, as in Germany or the Netherlands, which “inherently have mechanisms to limit incivility.”

“When politicians have to work together after elections, that discourages negative campaigning,” Dr. Walter says. “If they are too hostile, or overstep social norms, others may refuse to work with them.”

But neither of the large British parties has any interest in abandoning the “first past the post” system that minimizes smaller parties’ chances of success, and they seem unlikely to introduce any reforms to that system.

Rather, says Ms. Goldsworthy, who from her perch at the Depolarization Project is also helping to organize the “civility in politics” award, “it takes some kind of a shock to the system to get people to change. I think we are approaching the time when that will be the only way to turn things around.”

Whether it comes from a shock or less violent cause, “ultimately it will have to be a cultural change” in British political life “that makes people find it unacceptable to behave like that,” says Lord Wood. And it is up to politicians to lead the way. “It has to come from a determination among MPs to show restraint.”

Otherwise, he says, “when Brexit eventually dies down, I fear we will find that the aggressive way of doing politics will have become the norm.”

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5. ‘Property’ or ‘person’? How animal rights could open new moral frontier.

Finally, applying “personhood” to animals isn’t about personification or anthropomorphism. Our writer probed the moral dimension of a movement – now facing legal tests – that aims to extend respect to all living creatures.

Natacha Pisarenko/AP/File
Sandra, an orangutan, was living in a Buenos Aires zoo and became known worldwide after an Argentine court issued a ruling that she was entitled to some of the legal rights enjoyed by humans. Sandra moved to a sanctuary this month.

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Current law classifies animals as things, with no legal standing. But in recent decades, science has revealed that some animals appear to share traits once believed to be unique to humans. Activists and legal scholars have been working to shift the status of our fellow animals from property to person. This month an orangutan named Sandra moved to a new home in a Florida sanctuary after a judge in Argentina ruled that Sandra had the right to live in better conditions than the zoo where she’s spent most of her life.    

Yet by expanding the concept of personhood, we end up measuring nonhuman animals’ moral standing in terms of traits that are important to us, says philosopher Lori Gruen, and not the things that makes animals’ lives meaningful to them.

“Part of the worry I have is that it’s too much of a human-centered framework,” she says. “And it would also leave out some of the animals who might not seem as close to us cognitively or emotionally, but who are nonetheless worthy of thinking about as ethical beings that deserve our attention.”

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‘Property’ or ‘person’? How animal rights could open new moral frontier.

In a forested reserve in central Florida, Sandra is settling in to her new home. Thanks to a 2015 ruling by a judge in Argentina, her new life represents another hole in the increasingly porous wall separating humans from nonhuman animals.

The 33-year-old orangutan is, according to Buenos Aires Judge Elena Liberatori, a “nonhuman person,” and thus entitled to some of the legal protections enjoyed by Homo sapiens, including the right to humane living conditions, which she is now enjoying at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida.

For Minnie, an Asian elephant at a Connecticut petting zoo, a move to a sanctuary is not so clear. In a last ditch effort to apply the “person” label to Minnie, the Florida-based nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project filed a supplemental brief with the Connecticut Appellate Court arguing that, as a person, Minnie has rights of bodily liberty protected by habeas corpus (a writ not issued in the Argentine ruling). The appellate court could hear the issue as early as January.

Sandra’s resettlement and the legal wrangling over Minnie are this month just the latest instances of a broader shift in how the public is understanding the moral considerability of nonhuman animals. Current law classifies animals as things, with no legal standing. In recent decades, science has revealed that a variety of nonhuman animals appear to share traits once believed to be unique to humans. Philosophers, activists, and legal scholars, spurred on by an increasingly animal-conscious public, have been working to establish the moral standing of our fellow animals, to shift their status from property to person.

“There’s definitely more concern about nonhuman animals than even 10 years ago,” says Lori Gruen, a philosopher at Wesleyan University who specializes in animal ethics. “I think it’s also true that so many people are continuing to use animals in a variety of contexts.”

This concern applies to not only high-profile cases like Sandra and Minnie, but to the thousands of elephants, dolphins, orcas, chimpanzees, and other mammals known for their sophisticated cognitive abilities that are held in laboratories, zoos, animal theme parks, and roadside attractions.

Among these are more than 44 elderly chimpanzees at the National Institutes of Health-supported Alamogordo primate laboratory in New Mexico. The chimps were originally set to be settled at a federal chimp sanctuary in Louisiana, but the NIH reversed its decision, after concluding that the chimps were not healthy enough to be relocated.

Professor Gruen and many animal welfare groups have denounced the reversal. “Chimpanzees are remarkable individuals who are tremendously resilient,” she wrote in an email to the Monitor. “We have caused them to suffer in innumerable ways. Keeping them away from a more satisfying life at the sanctuary because of what we have done to them doesn’t make sense ethically.”

Surveyed people say

Public sentiment in the US regarding nonhuman animals seems to be shifting in favor of animal rights. In 2015, Gallup found that nearly a third of Americans said animals should be given “the same rights as people,” up from 2008 when just 25% said so. Just 3% in the recent survey said animals “required little protection from harm and exploitation.”

The trend may be accelerating: A 2018 poll that replicates the Gallup poll questions found that nearly half of U.S. respondents said animals should enjoy the same rights as humans, and that nearly 9 out of 10 support some form of legal rights for animals.

But Garrett Broad, the Fordham University communications professor who conducted the poll, cautions that “rights” and “animals” can mean different things to different people, as he learned while conducting focus groups.

“I found actually a wide variety of actual perceptions within those groups about what rights they actually think animals should have,” he says. “Some folks in answering that question, in their mind’s eye, were really only thinking about companion animals like dogs and cats.”

Nevertheless, the rise in support for animal rights is paying off, at least for some animals.

In September, California joined New Jersey and Hawaii in banning traveling animal acts involving most animals. These state bans have shut down a number of circuses around the country, including two of the biggest: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Cole Bros. Circus.

“I’m hopeful – not necessarily optimistic – that in the next few decades we’ll really start to ask what a future political and cultural system might look like that gives animals the consideration that I and many others think they deserve,” says Professor Broad.

Personhood, or something else entirely

But should that future system assign personhood status to animals? Professor Gruen, whose website, The Last 1,000, tracks the remaining chimps being used in American biomedical and behavioral research, isn’t so sure. She agrees that, classifying, say, a chimpanzee, as an item of property falls short. “There’s something special about their cognitive capacities and their emotional capacities and their ways of being that make them quite different than, you know, toasters,” she says.

Yet she cautions that, by expanding the concept of personhood, we end up measuring nonhuman animals’ moral considerability in terms of traits that are important to us – such as problem-solving ability – and not the things that makes animals’ lives meaningful to themselves.

“Part of the worry I have is that it’s too much of a human-centered framework,” she says. “And it would also leave out some of the animals who might not seem as close to us cognitively or emotionally, but who are nonetheless worthy of thinking about as ethical beings that deserve our attention.”

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The Monitor's View

Europe wins a big anti-corruption battle

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For the past 12 years, ever since it joined the European Union, Romania has been the epicenter of the bloc’s attempts to boost the integrity of public officials in its 28 member states. In an election on Sunday, Romania showed just how a European country can make steady if erratic progress toward honest governance – with frequent nudges from the EU. By a wide margin, voters reelected President Klaus Iohannis for a second term.

His reelection comes after the ouster of the ruling Social Democratic Party in October. Its former leader, Liviu Dragnea, was sent to prison for corruption last spring.

While the EU was instrumental in pushing Romania to clean up its government, just as effective has been the rise of civil-society groups along with frequent mass protests – one as large as half a million people. The protests, said Mr. Iohannis, reflect “the desire of people to have their ... dignity respected.” In gratitude, the people have reelected him as president.

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Europe wins a big anti-corruption battle

For the past 12 years, ever since it joined the European Union, Romania has been the epicenter of the bloc’s attempts to boost the integrity of public officials in its 28 member states. The EU itself, according to watchdog Transparency International, “still has a long way to go to tackle corruption effectively.” Yet in an election on Sunday, Romania showed how a European country can make steady if erratic progress toward honest governance – with frequent nudges from the EU.

By a wide margin, voters in the Black Sea nation reelected President Klaus Iohannis for a second term. Since 2014, the former physics teacher has championed anti-corruption efforts, mainly by standing up for an independent judiciary. He even joined a mass protest in 2017 against a corrupt ruling party in Parliament. The protest was one of many in recent years that signaled a rising public mood against corruption and toward what Mr. Iohannis calls a “modern, European, normal Romania.”

His reelection comes after the ouster of the ruling Social Democratic Party in October. Its former leader, Liviu Dragnea, was sent to prison for corruption last spring. The party also lost big in elections for the European Parliament in May. Voters were fed up after the party eroded law enforcement institutions that had won hundreds of convictions against corrupt officials. Romania even has a party, the Save Romania Union, almost solely dedicated to eradicating graft.

These successes are remarkable in a country where more than a quarter of the 20 million population makes less than $5.50 a day. About half of Romanians are peasants, the highest percentage in the EU.

A new prime minister, Ludovic Orban of the National Liberal Party and an ally of the president, now faces the task of restoring rule of law and reducing a bloated bureaucracy built on nepotism and political loyalty. High levels of corruption have kept Romania out of the EU’s passport-free travel zone and hindered its adoption of the euro. Like other former communist states, this NATO member-state needs stable and corruption-free governance to fend off Russia’s attempts to restore its Soviet-era influence.

While the EU was instrumental in pushing Romania to clean up its government, just as effective has been the rise of civil-society groups along with frequent mass protests – one as large as half a million people. The protests, said Mr. Iohannis, reflect “the desire of people to have their ... dignity respected.” In gratitude, the people have reelected him as president.

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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.

What’s the point?

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When life feels monotonous or futile, we can find freshness and inspiration in our divinely ordained purpose: to make evident the goodness and energy of the Divine.

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What’s the point?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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It can be really hard to get up in the morning when you feel as though it would be just as well if you stayed in bed. Most of us have probably faced moments like this. The same toothpaste, the same breakfast, the same commute, lie before us, and we may wonder, “What’s the point?”

Whether these feelings come subtly, like background noise to a mundane routine, or are accompanied by a deeper depression and hopelessness, no one deserves to live under this kind of mental oppression.

When I’ve been faced with an overwhelming sense of futility, I’ve found it helpful to pray. Bible verses have often brought peace and rejuvenation. Other times, a line from the “Christian Science Hymnal” will speak to me in a way that breaks through intense feelings of discouragement or dullness. For instance, there’s this one: “today hath need of thee” (William H. Burleigh, No. 6).

This points to an encouraging sense of purpose. In fact, each of us, as God’s spiritual creation, has an essential, divinely ordained role: to make evident the goodness of the Divine. As children of the Divine, we are the spiritual expression of God, reflecting the present, infinite activity of divine Life itself.

And we can bring that out in our day-to-day lives by understanding and accepting the truth that this is what we are. Doing so gives us the freedom and freshness to exchange a predetermined measure of what will constitute a successful day for a willingness to yield to God’s guidance and inspiration.

Often this results in surprise outcomes that enrich our experience and open our hearts to benefiting others in unplanned ways. As another hymn promises: “Hushed in the grandeur of a heart’s awakening, / Unfolds a joy unknown till found in Him” (Susan F. Campbell, No. 149).

That “heart’s awakening” can come to each of us naturally as we recognize our grand purpose as the very expression of God, the manifestation of divine Love. There is no greater joy than to live with the knowledge of this purpose. God, our infinitely intelligent creator, certainly would not make something that has no function in the universe. It is exhilarating to know that when our thoughts and actions are based in the spiritual reality that we are the very expression of God’s love, they contribute to the greater good in tangible ways.

This approach to our day also leaves us feeling less burdened and more refreshed, even in the midst of demanding or monotonous schedules. Two powerful antidotes to dullness in daily life are gratitude and selflessness. When I have been more awake to even the small evidences of God’s goodness surrounding me throughout the day, and when I have honestly desired to help make others’ days more uplifted, I have found myself feeling stronger, freer, and much more inspired, as if each moment is an adventure.

The prophets in the Bible imparted the message of our divine purpose in beautiful ways, such as this verse from Isaiah: “The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring” (58:11, New Living Translation). We are not personally responsible for generating the energy to live this way. Divine Spirit, the source of all being, animates and guides each of us to be what we were created to be: selfless, joyful, purposeful.

In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, gives this blessing, which I’ve found to be a perfect way to begin my day: “Let us feel the divine energy of Spirit, bringing us into newness of life and recognizing no mortal nor material power as able to destroy” (p. 249). Nothing can destroy the peace and purpose God has given everyone. We can let the “divine energy of Spirit” get us out of bed and enliven us to feel blessed and be a blessing to the world. There is nothing predictable or routine about living that way!

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Honored guest

KCNA/Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits with a female company of troops, in an undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency on Nov. 25, 2019.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( November 26th, 2019 )

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Come back tomorrow. We’ll be looking at how the current impeachment saga has prompted, for some, recollections (and some reconsideration) of the tumultuous days of Watergate.

Monitor Daily Podcast

November 25, 2019
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