2020
July
29
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Monitor Daily Podcast

July 29, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

In a first, Americans want more immigration, not less

A shift has been occurring in U.S. attitudes toward immigration. And it may be a surprise, given that Donald Trump won both the Republican nomination and the White House in 2016 as an immigration hawk. 

He tapped into long-standing concerns among many Americans about loose borders and rapid demographic change. But a poll released this month by Gallup found that, for the first time in its surveys, Americans lean generally toward more rather than less immigration.

The late-spring poll found that 34% of U.S. adults would like to see immigration increase, while 28% would prefer a decrease (and 36% support the current volume). From the 1960s through the 1990s, by contrast, support for more immigration never exceeded 10% in Gallup surveys. The gradual rise in support since then is strongest among Democrats and political independents, but is also visible among Republicans.

The reasons may be many, but some of the backdrop is economic. The foreign-born share of the workforce has been rising in recent decades, and many people recognize the contributions of immigrants as innovators and entrepreneurs. 

Recent turmoil over whether foreign students should be kicked out (or barred from arrival), while not directly about immigration, hints at the economic stakes of cultural diversity.

The presence of those students creates jobs, fuels research, and supports educational programs for native-born students as well, say researchers at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Welcoming foreign students has also increased the United States’ soft power,” the researchers say, as “millions of foreign students ... have returned to their home countries, largely with warm feelings about their education and the country that provided it.”

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The ultimate high ground: Russia and US try to set rules for space weapons

When it comes to combat in space, there are no agreed-upon rules. Last week’s alleged satellite-weapon test by Russia underscores the need for space-going nations to reach an understanding on orbital militarization.

Mark
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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Last week the U.S. Space Force accused Russia of deploying a “projectile weapon” in near-Earth orbit close to a U.S. spy satellite. Though nothing was destroyed, the militarization of space has become increasingly urgent in recent years.

The United States has been complaining for more than a year about Russia’s use of a maneuverable new breed of “inspector” satellites that can spy on U.S. satellites and might be employed as weapons. The Russians, for their part, argue that the U.S. has developed elaborate Earth-based weaponry capable of attacking an adversary’s satellite network in war.

Both sides clearly agree that it’s high time to sit down and at least begin a conversation about it. Russian and U.S. negotiators met in Vienna this week to discuss the issue.

Weaponizing space “can lead to a hugely expensive and destabilizing arms race,” says Vladimir Dvorkin of the Center for International Security at the Russian research institution IMEMO. “Right now there are no laws against the deployment of conventional weapons in Earth orbit. ... We really need to sit down and come to an agreement.”

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1. The ultimate high ground: Russia and US try to set rules for space weapons

Russian and U.S. negotiators met in Vienna this week to discuss a danger that has become increasingly urgent in recent years: how to curb the militarization of space.

Unless a new treaty, or at least a general understanding, is soon established, experts say, the future of human activity on “the final frontier” is going to look more like Star Wars than Star Trek.

There’s a lot to talk about. Last week the newly-minted U.S. Space Force accused Russia of deploying a “projectile weapon” in near-Earth orbit close to a U.S. spy satellite. Though nothing was destroyed, the United States has been complaining for over a year about Russia’s use of a maneuverable new breed of “inspector” satellites that can spy on U.S. satellites and might be employed as weapons.

The Russians, for their part, argue that the U.S. has developed elaborate Earth-based weaponry capable of attacking an adversary’s satellite network in war. Both sides clearly agree that it’s high time to sit down and at least begin a conversation about it.

“If this process of weaponizing space gets going, it can lead to a hugely expensive and destabilizing arms race,” says Vladimir Dvorkin, an expert with the Center for International Security at IMEMO, a major Russian research institution under the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Right now there are no laws against the deployment of conventional weapons in Earth orbit, either the kind that can hit other objects in space or the kind that can hit the Earth. We really need to sit down and come to an agreement.”

Satellite strategy

The only major international treaty that regulates the militarization of space, the Outer Space Treaty, was signed at the dawn of the space age in 1967. It bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit, but does nothing to limit the multitude of military and dual-purpose technologies that have since proliferated or are under active development. They include spy satellites, electronic warfare platforms, global positioning and targeting systems, missile interceptors, and laser weapons.

The U.S. accuses Russia of fielding a new type of vehicle, which is able to scoot around under its own power, spying on other satellites and potentially destroying them. Specifically, the discussion is about Kosmos 2543, which was launched from a larger Russian satellite, Kosmos 2542, in December 2019. The Russians insist that the new vehicle, which has snuggled up to both Russian and U.S. satellites since appearing, is just an “inspector” satellite whose job is basic reconnaissance. But earlier this month Kosmos 2543 itself disgorged a new object from its body that the U.S. Space Force judged to be some sort of projectile weapon which, firing under its own tiny engine power, could easily be used to destroy another satellite.

“This is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems,” said Gen. John Raymond, U.S. Space Force chief of space operations, in an official statement, “and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.”

The Russians say it’s just a probe, intended to help the inspection work of the larger vehicle. But it’s a whole new situation, and it raises a host of questions, says Andrei Baklitsky, a security expert with MGIMO, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

“This issue is pretty fuzzy,” he says. “Once you have something in space that can maneuver with its own engine power, you effectively have a weapon. It doesn’t take much to knock out a satellite. But, of course, for it to be an actual war-fighting threat you would need to have an awful lot of them already positioned in Earth orbit, not just one.”

The Russian satellite-killer test – if it was that – was far from unprecedented. During the Cold War both the U.S. and the Soviet Union experimented with ways to destroy enemy space infrastructure, sometimes involving nuclear weapons. After signing the Outer Space Treaty, efforts switched to more targeted methods. In 1985, the U.S. successfully destroyed an American target satellite using an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile fired from a high-flying F-15 fighter. In 2008, the U.S. employed a sea-based Aegis missile defense weapon to shoot down a huge U.S. reconnaissance satellite with hazardous fuel compounds on board, in an operation billed as intended to ensure public safety but criticized for its military implications.

A year earlier China destroyed one of its own satellites using an ASAT missile, an operation that left large amounts of hazardous debris floating in orbit. India conducted a similar test last year.

The rise of Space Force

Russian analysts say that Moscow is deeply worried about the secretive U.S. military program in space, which now has an official face in the form of the U.S. Space Force, a new branch of the U.S. military. Among its missions is the operation of the mysterious X-37B, an unmanned version of the old Space Shuttle. The two ships in the U.S. squadron have already had five secret space flights, logging a total of nearly eight years in orbit. The Russians claim that the X-37B does much the same tasks that their Kosmos satellites do, including positioning maneuverable “inspector” satellites in Earth orbit.

The Space Force is reportedly due to reveal an official doctrine for fighting war in space in the next month, something that Russian analysts warn might lead inexorably into a new space arms race.

“Russia’s concern isn’t so much about any particular U.S. weapons or activity in space at present,” says Mr. Baklitsky. “But we do worry that now there is a permanent U.S. Space Force, and it is producing its own war-fighting doctrine, that we could have an unstoppable process. This renders any effort to find strategic stability on Earth much more complicated.”

At the same time, some Russian analysts fret about the collapse of U.S.-Russian space cooperation, whose heyday was in Cold War times, but which continued until recently in connection with the International Space Station. But Russia has declined to join NASA’s Artemis program, which plans to put people back on the moon by 2024. Recently the Russian space agency Roscosmos reacted angrily to President Donald Trump’s April order to allow mining on the moon, even in the absence of any international treaties to regulate it.

Russia has since announced that it will partner with China to build a research station on the moon, a move that will do little to resolve Earthly tensions.

“Whatever else happened, space cooperation was always a shining light, evidence that countries could cooperate for the common good,” says Andrei Ionin, an independent Russian expert. “Such projects always played a stabilizing role. But now it seems everyone will go their separate ways when it comes to exploring the moon. Every man for himself is hardly the way to improve international cooperation.”

Editor's note: The original version misidentified the institution at which Andrei Baklitsky works.

Patterns

Tracing global connections

Democracy is under fire, but also underrated

The behavior of federal paramilitary forces in Portland has raised rule-of-law questions that go to the heart of democracy. They also point to another issue: that democracy ultimately depends on more than just rules and regulations.

Mark

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Video from Portland, Oregon, showing federal paramilitary forces detaining protesters and driving them away in unmarked cars has aroused some disturbing memories from my past as a foreign correspondent in places such as South Africa, Lebanon, and Iran.

The U.S. agents are not death squads. But they don’t always wear unit insignia, they don’t identify themselves, and some of them are clearly disregarding the usual standards of identification, accountability, and redress that apply to civilian police.

That raises questions about the rule of law, but it also suggests that the underpinnings of democracy, based on common assumptions of what behavior is acceptable, are weaker than they once were, both at home and abroad.

International democracy watchers say that autocracy is on the rise, from India to Hungary, and that the majority of the world’s governments are now autocratic. But at the same time, ordinary citizens support democracy by large margins, even if they are disappointed by the way it works in practice.

To misquote Mark Twain, reports of democracy’s death may prove to be exaggerated.

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2. Democracy is under fire, but also underrated

Of all the scenes of anger and confrontation from the ongoing street battles in Portland, Oregon, one video in particular has hit home for me: footage of a pair of federal agents in full camouflage gear detaining a solitary, unresistant protester, bundling him into an unmarked minivan and taking him away.

It aroused almost visceral echoes from my years as a foreign correspondent: memories of marauding Syrian “peacekeeping” troops on the streets of Beirut, South African forces in the sprawling black township of Soweto under apartheid, or the pasdaran, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, in the early years of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic.

The circumstances in Portland are different. Nobody has disappeared, and the paramilitaries in Portland are not death squads. The myriad issues their behavior has raised since they were deployed under an executive order by President Donald Trump to protect federal buildings are still being debated and litigated.

But this much is clear from the minivan scene and other videos that are, for me, eerily reminiscent. It’s that the men in camouflage, whatever their other role or duties, have been acting as a de facto police force, and that some of them are disregarding the usual standards of identification, accountability, and redress that apply to civilian police.

Their unit insignia are often unclear and sometimes, it seems, nonexistent. They wear no body cameras. They answer no questions. Such personal interaction as they’ve had with the citizens they’re policing seems to have been overwhelmingly nonverbal. In another viral video from Portland, a middle-aged U.S. Navy veteran can be seen trying to engage several of the troops in conversation. He is beaten with a baton and pepper-sprayed.

There are those who see all this as a departure from a fundamental tenet of American democracy: the rule of law. One of the millions who viewed the video of the protester being taken away in the van was Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. He tweeted: “Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters.”

Twilight of democracy?

But the events in Portland have highlighted another issue, one that has echoed recently in dozens of countries around the world. It goes beyond the specific legal framework with which the U.S. and other democracies circumscribe policing and the maintenance of public order.

It is that democracy ultimately depends on more than just rules and regulations. Equally important is the web of accepted norms built up and embedded in people’s minds over time. They define, by political and popular consensus, what is accepted as proper or seen as simply not done.

That’s the lens that may best clarify the events in Portland and beyond. Because this unwritten underpinning of democratic government is proving increasingly fragile.

This is a development explored in a new book by journalist and historian Anne Applebaum. Called “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” it’s a personal reflection on how some of her fellow center-right conservative thinkers have come to accept and support the erosion of democratic principles, whether in Poland or Hungary, Spain or the United States.

A range of explanations has been suggested for why populism, and specifically the recent authoritarian strain of populism, has erupted now. Among them: the economic strains and dislocations of globalization; waning trust in established political parties and institutions; the relentlessly, angrily adversarial use of social media.

Ms. Applebaum observes, darkly, “given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”

In my experience, very few of the people I’ve met in the countries I’ve reported from would voluntarily choose to live under authoritarian rule rather than enjoy individual freedoms. But I think part of what Ms. Applebaum’s book is getting at is this: Democracy is not the natural political order of things. It can be messy. It involves give and take. It rarely delivers quick fixes. It is incremental. Also, it is often frustrating.

Autocrats rise, democrats fight back

What is undeniable is that the recent trend has been toward norm-busting populist leaders. Two measures of democracy around the world – taken by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Swedish-based V-Dem organization – have discerned a global shift toward more autocratic government.

The EIU report’s “average global score” for democracy in 2019 was the lowest since the group began its surveys in 2006. V-Dem’s Democracy Report 2020 rated a majority of countries as autocracies for the first time since 2001. It listed its first European Union state – Hungary – as nondemocratic, terming it an “electoral authoritarian regime.”

V-Dem still defines the U.S. as a democracy, but groups it with countries experiencing “significant and substantial autocratization.” The EIU has dropped the U.S. from its list of full democracies, downgrading it, along with Hungary and Poland and around 60 other countries, to a “flawed democracy.”

The EIU report, however, does make a telling observation: People may be unhappy with the way democracy works in practice, but they have not lost faith in the ideal.

Citing surveys from the Pew Research Center, the EIU notes that “global attitudes toward democracy have … revealed a disjuncture between still-high levels of public support for democracy across the globe and deep popular disappointment with the functioning of democracy.”

And V-Dem points out that while authoritarianism, autocracy, and assaults on independent media and academic freedoms are all on the rise, so is the global number of pro-democracy demonstrations. “The share of countries with substantial pro-democracy mass protests rose from 27 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2019,” it reports.

Indeed, like so much else in the increasingly fluid tide of contemporary world politics, the two democracy studies, Ms. Applebaum’s book, and even the confrontations in Portland suggest that the final word on democracy has not yet been spoken.

Or, to misquote Mark Twain, that reports of its death may prove to be exaggerated.

‘Our voice matters’: Promoting female composers in classical music

What role do female composers play in American music? Clarice Assad works in a largely white, male field, fusing her U.S. and Brazilian influences to inspire symphony audiences and young performers alike. 

Mark
Marcelo Macaue/Courtesy of Clarice Assad
Composer Clarice Assad has more than 70 works to her name. She recently helped a group of U.S. girls create a piece based on Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman.”

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Clarice Assad has learned to look to the back of the room for the shy girls, the ones who are afraid to step up to the microphone and lead with their voices. The Grammy-nominated Brazilian American composer and performer understands what that’s like. She was shy once, too.

Her innovative style and ability to draw music out of anyone are part of what makes Ms. Assad a repeat contributor at the Albany Symphony in New York, and why she was commissioned to help a group of girls compose a pop piece based on Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman” for its American Music Festival last year, a multiday event in June 2019 celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

The project fit Ms. Assad’s mission, to help others embrace new ways of thinking about music. She regularly blends jazz and classical genres and champions the voices of female and minority artists in the largely white, male orchestra industry.

Working with girls over the past decade gives Ms. Assad hope. “We are here to stay and our voice matters as much as any other voices.”

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3. ‘Our voice matters’: Promoting female composers in classical music

Clarice Assad has learned to look to the back of the room for the shy girls, the ones who are afraid to step up to the microphone and lead with their voices. The Brazilian American composer and performer – whose ability to fuse jazz and classical music leaves symphony audiences wanting more – understands what that’s like. She was shy once, too.

“You have to find the balance as a mentor, you know. Everybody has their own way to shine,” she says in a phone interview with the Monitor. “Some of them are very interested, but they can’t really get up to the mic, unless you nudge them ... in a very kind and loving way.”

Her innovative style and ability to draw music out of anyone are part of what makes Ms. Assad a repeat contributor at the Albany Symphony in New York, and why she was commissioned to help a group of girls compose a pop piece based on Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman” for its American Music Festival “Sing Out! New York” last year. The multiday event in June 2019 celebrated not only the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, but also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising that launched the gay rights movement.

Ms. Assad “is one of my absolute favorite creative people on the planet,” says David Alan Miller, the music director and conductor of the Albany Symphony. “She’s so magical, her thinking, her music-making, the way she expresses herself. ... I don’t really know of any other composer working in America who can cross genres, or can blend genres between Brazilian jazz, for example, and the grand orchestral tradition the way she can.” 

Born in Rio de Janeiro, the Grammy-nominated composer has lived in Brazil, France, and the United States, where she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music. Musical ability runs in the family. Her father, Sérgio Assad, forms part of an international classical guitar duo with her uncle, Odair Assad. Her aunt is singer-songwriter and guitarist Badi Assad. All are innovative composers combining classical and jazz traditions fused with Brazilian rhythms and Middle Eastern sounds. They frequently collaborate and perform together to notable acclaim.

The Albany Symphony, with its focus on living composers, regularly commissions new works from Ms. Assad, and she’s a popular performer at the annual American Music Festival. The orchestra industry remains largely risk averse, says Mr. Miller, and that means being reluctant to embrace new and unusual voices, such as that of Ms. Assad, who has more than 70 works to her name.

A recent study by the Institute for Composer Diversity reported that of the 4,066 works scheduled to be performed by 120 American orchestras in the 2019-20 season, only 8% are by women. And that number is a jump from the 2014-15 season, when female composers made up 1.8% of total works performed. That doesn’t mean orchestral works by female composers aren’t available; the Institute for Composer Diversity cites 7,410 in its database.  

Programming an orchestral season is a complicated formula of personal preferences of artistic directors, conductors, solo artists, funders, and audiences. Orchestras tend to choose works by mainly deceased, white European men. And because scores are expensive to reproduce, orchestras are more likely to draw from their established libraries. 

But there are signs of progress. The League of American Orchestras has been sponsoring emerging female composers since 2014. For the 2019-20 season, many orchestras planned special programs featuring compositions by women to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment – although many were canceled because of COVID-19.

An eye for innovation 

For her part, Ms. Assad seeks to help others embrace new ways of thinking about music. Her award-winning Voxploration programs, which focus on songwriting and improvisation workshops, have attracted participants across the U.S., Brazil, Europe, and the Middle East.

When asked to help commemorate the legacies of famous New York residents Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth for “Sing Out! New York,” Ms. Assad was drawn to Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman.” Delivered in 1851 at the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, it is largely recognized as one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches in U.S. history. (Although, according to the National Park Service, there is debate around whether the phrase “ain’t I a woman” was added later by someone else.)

In partnership with the Albany chapter of Girls Inc., a national mentoring organization that works to develop leadership qualities in girls ages 6 to 18, Ms. Assad held a workshop with about 10 girls to first study “Ain’t I a Woman” and then draw from their own lives to create lyrics and a melody. Some of the girls had musical experience, but composing was new to all of them.

The song created by the group, and performed by a local girls’ chorus, was the centerpiece of a work that included an actress delivering Truth’s speech with accompaniment by the orchestra. It concluded with Ms. Assad leading an audience call and response, weaving echoes of the past with voices of the present.

“I thought about it ... like a mosaic because there were so many little pieces to put together and they were all pretty and powerful in their own way,” says Ms. Assad. “But they didn’t necessarily go together, so I had to find a way to glue them all.” 

Wlodek Chrzanowski/Courtesy of Clarice Assad
Brazilian American composer Clarice Assad performs in Tychy, Poland. She is one of several internationally known musicians in her family.

“A safe and positive environment”

Rishita Nagothi, a rising senior at Tech Valley High School, said she found a new confidence about her singing from the workshop and performance.

“The workshop was really fun, and I loved it,” says Rishita in an email. “I really don’t see myself as a singer or good at music, but Clarice was really encouraging and created a safe and positive environment, which made me feel comfortable.” 

Learning about Truth was eye-opening to Suchi Mehta, a rising senior at Niskayuna High School not far from Albany.

“[The workshop] kind of changed how I look at things, because when we learn about the women’s rights movement we look at women like Susan B. Anthony and white women and their role in it. [And when we learn about abolition] we look at Frederick Douglass, a black man’s perspective on it,” says Suchi in a video call. The intersection of those, she notes, is African American women. “And we don’t really get to see their perspectives as much in schools,” she says. “So now I look for those other perspectives more.” 

Working with girls over the past decade – and the orchestra world’s season focused on women – gives Ms. Assad hope. “That whole year [2019-20] was about women composers. But, you know, we don’t want one year to be the vote for us and then nothing. We want that to keep going,” she says. “So we’ll just have to keep on thinking, ‘We are here to stay and our voice matters as much as any other voices.’”

Get carried away with the best audiobooks of July

Authenticity is woven through each of our four audiobook choices for July, which include not only the return of a certain celebrated detective, but also journeys toward self-discovery and identity. 

Mark

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Listening to audiobooks is a special pleasure, as the narrators’ voices connect directly with the imagination, whether they are fictional creations, like Sherlock Holmes, or real people, like the woman who reinvents herself after a divorce. Sometimes, the voices are full of rueful humor, as they describe struggles for understanding and compassion, as in the two novels.

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4. Get carried away with the best audiobooks of July

The best audiobooks of July include a new adventure for a beloved detective, a memoir about learning to surf, and two novels that explore assumptions about race using the lens of humor. 

“Sherlock Holmes: The Voice of Treason” by George Mann and Cavan Scott
Full cast recording; Audible Studios; eight hours

At the heart of this entertaining romp is a plot to kidnap Queen Victoria and eventually undermine the entire British Empire. In a fine ensemble of voice actors, Nicholas Boulton is a standout as Holmes, boasting an authoritative manner and sense of the dramatic. This story is reminiscent of an old-time radio drama, complete with sound effects, lots of voices, and music. Expect twists and plenty of intrigue in a tale that is very close to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original mysteries. Grade: A-

“Rockaway: Surfing Headlong Into a New Life” by Diane Cardwell
Read by the author; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; eight hours and 10 minutes

Diane Cardwell has a comfortable, inviting style that makes it easy for listeners to slide into this story of loss and renewal. Her narration does not do her words justice, as she is more than a little unpolished, but her journey is a delight. In midlife, after a divorce, Cardwell moved to Rockaway, a community in the Queens area of New York. She learned to surf, bought a bungalow, survived Hurricane Sandy, and found an authentic circle of friends among the bohemians and surf enthusiasts living by the beach. Grade: B+

“Members Only” by Sameer Pandya
Read by Sunil Malhotra; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 10 hours and 30 minutes

Sameer Pandya uses humor to examine and deconstruct American racism in this fictional narrative. Bombay-born Raj is a U.S. citizen juggling marriage, parenthood, and a difficult work environment – all while trying to devote time to his tennis club, where he and his family are the only people of color. His life implodes when he inadvertently makes a racist joke while interviewing an African American couple for prospective membership at the club; eventually, the white members blow everything out of proportion and turn on him. Narrator Sunil Malhotra perfectly captures the warmhearted, fumbling, frustrated protagonist at the heart of this insightful debut novel. Grade: B+

“Black Card” by Chris L. Terry
Read by Leon Nixon; HighBridge Audio; six hours and 20 minutes

Author Chris L. Terry deserves credit for skillfully juggling pathos, humor, and anger in a novel that captures the pigeonholing experienced by biracial people trying to fit into a society that looks for either/or categorization. Terry’s nameless narrator, born to a Black father and a white mother, has ginger hair and green eyes and can “pass” for white. While playing in a punk band, he tries to find his footing as a Black man in a country that would have him camouflage into white culture; listeners will note certain similarities between Terry’s life and the journey of his fictional narrator. The story is powerful and entertaining, and Leon Nixon smoothly delivers Terry’s sly humor, perfectly capturing the roiling emotions of a young man searching for his truest self. Grade: B+

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A moment in the US for deep listening

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A national unsettling caused by the pandemic and the racial justice movement may have opened an opportunity to change the way Americans debate issues. Joint research by the University of California, Berkeley and Yale University has found that listening during a political discussion is more persuasive than debating. It is also the secret to finding common ground on divisive issues.

A first step is to frame a dialogue as a learning experience for all sides. Otherwise each person’s initial views may only harden. A study published in May engaged nearly 7,000 U.S. voters in conversations about immigration and transgender rights. Those framed as arguments about policy choices tended to reinforce views already held. When participants were exposed to personal narratives on the same issues, gaps narrowed.

There is still time to change the nature of the national discussion. While the outward responses to the pandemic and racial injustice have made for a restive summer, they have also opened quieter spaces for dialogue. In recognizing this, the heightened empathy can elevate the tone of the campaign. A robust contest of ideas involves more than speaking. Deeper listening can strengthen democracy, too.

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A moment in the US for deep listening

In early April, a minor earthquake rattled the Mexican town of Petatlán. In pre-pandemic times, the seismic signals would have been difficult to pick out from all the vibrations of human activity that ground-monitoring instruments can also detect. But shutdowns from COVID-19 have produced a long period of reduced seismic noise from people, enabling geologists to identify natural tremors as seldom before.

These scientists are not alone in taking advantage of the new quiet. With fewer ships at sea, marine biologists have noted changes in the way humpback whales communicate with each other.

In both cases, this kind of deep listening may lead to advances in earthquake detection or reshape strategies to protect whales.

Could the same idea be applied to today’s politics? Have both the pandemic and the racial justice movement opened up an unsettling moment in the U.S. to enable broader listening?

Joint research by the University of California, Berkeley and Yale University has found that listening during a political discussion is more persuasive than debating. It is also the secret to finding common ground on divisive issues.

A first step is to frame a dialogue as a learning experience for all sides. Otherwise each person’s initial views may only harden. A study published in May engaged nearly 7,000 U.S. voters in conversations about immigration and transgender rights. Those framed as arguments about policy choices tended to reinforce views already held. When participants were exposed to personal narratives on the same issues, gaps narrowed.

Arguments generate counterarguments, researchers found. “When we talk about persuasion, we talk so much about how to make the most effective arguments,” said David Broockman, a UC Berkeley professor who led the study, in an interview with Berkeley News. “But we don’t talk so much about how to be a good listener. ... We might have more in common than we think.”

In particularly divisive elections, voters often cast ballots against candidates they oppose rather than for candidates they support. Just before the 2016 presidential election, for example, a Pew poll found that 53% of Republican voters were motivated to vote against Hillary Clinton while 44% said they were motivated to vote for Donald Trump. For the coming election, a Democracy Fund poll looked at the “net enthusiasm” – the share of voters who find a candidate “very unfavorable” minus those who find the candidate “very favorable.” It showed that Americans have low expectations. Both presidential candidates have a negative net enthusiasm among likely voters: Joe Biden at minus 3%, President Trump at minus 23%.

There is still time to change the nature of the national discussion. While the outward responses to the pandemic and racial injustice have made for a restive summer, they have also opened quieter spaces for dialogue. In recognizing this, the heightened empathy can elevate the tone of the campaign. A robust contest of ideas involves more than speaking. Deeper listening can strengthen democracy, too.

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.

God’s love heals grief

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Devastated by her husband’s unexpected death, a woman turned wholeheartedly to God for comfort. Her prayers brought inspiration, renewal, and a tangible sense of God’s love that lifted the pull of grief.

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1. God’s love heals grief

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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It was a very difficult time in my life. My husband, my dearest earthly friend, had unexpectedly passed on. On a daily basis, I struggled to stay above water, so to speak. I also felt great sadness for my three children, who were very close to their dad. He wouldn’t be there anymore with his quirky humor, with the special bond he had with each of them. We were always laughing when he was with us. But now, as grateful as I was for the immense outpouring of love family, friends, and church members showered on me and my children during this time, life seemed dreary and empty for all of us.

I felt my faith was really being tested. I had been a student of Christian Science since college, and I had experienced many beautiful healings, both for myself and my family – including the healing of eczema, fever, severe head pain, and earache, to name a few. But navigating this grief, I felt like “a stranger in a strange land,” as a Bible verse says (Exodus 2:22).

Seeking healing, I turned to God with my whole heart and soul. I thought of Jesus’ beautiful teaching, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). J.B. Phillips’ translation of this verse reads, “How happy are those who know what sorrow means for they will be given courage and comfort!” (“The New Testament in Modern English”).

I certainly knew what sorrow meant, and this verse brought an inner assurance that I would have the courage to go forward, find comfort, and feel God’s pure love for me. Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, encourages, “Divine Love is never so near as when all earthly joys seem most afar” (“The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” p. 290).

I was increasingly feeling God’s nearness. It was like a tiny bright light shining in the darkness. And the light was getting a little brighter all the time. I felt a confidence that God was guiding me forward. I had found full-time employment that enabled me to meet the family’s everyday needs. I was active in my church.

But sometimes I would still feel a lonely ache in my heart and just start sobbing. One day, more than a year after my husband’s passing, I wondered if I would ever feel truly happy and peaceful again. I called a dear friend and asked her if she would pray for me. She lovingly agreed and encouraged me to consider the idea “I love my life.”

To be honest, I wasn’t so sure I loved my life. But this became a healing prayer for me, a little song of gratitude that made it hard not to smile. It wasn’t a mantra to mindlessly repeat, but an idea to ponder and understand. It led to a growing realization that God is infinite Life, the source of infinite good in everyone’s life.

My friend also gave me a different way to think about being “alone”: as “all one with God.” This was a beautiful concept. I was one with God. And my husband, though not here with me humanly, was also one with God. No one can ever be separated from our creator, Life itself, who created us as the spiritual image of the Divine. In an address to members of her church in 1899, Mary Baker Eddy said, “Where God is we can meet, and where God is we can never part” (Miscellany, p. 131).

I realized, “Of course I love my life. My real life is in God.” As I came to more fully glimpse this spiritual reality, gradually and gratefully I was healed of the sorrow and grief. Through God’s ever-present love, I faced what had once seemed insurmountable and had come out of it spiritually renewed.

“The night is far spent, the day is at hand,” reads a Bible verse (Romans 13:12). Each of us can experience how the light of God’s love dissolves the darkness of sorrow, bringing the dawn of a new day. With this comes the renewing of a joy and peace that no one can take away.

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Moment of remembrance

Themba Hadebe/AP
Church caretakers Silva Cossa (left) and Leonard Makuya add a ribbon representing a South African who died from COVID-19 to a fence at St. James Presbyterian church in Johannesburg July 29, 2020. South Africa has been experiencing a surge in the virus while also confronting a government corruption scandal.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Join us again tomorrow, when we’ll look at the coming launch of NASA’s newest Mars rover, Perseverance, and its quest for signatures of life on the red planet.

Finally, our apologies to baseball fans. In Tuesday’s intro story we incorrectly identified one of the Major League Baseball teams in Florida: They are the Miami Marlins.

More issues

2020
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