2020
August
06
Thursday

Monitor Daily Podcast

August 06, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

Musicians pitch their tents at a different kind of Bandcamp

During the pandemic, many musicians have enrolled in Bandcamp. No, I don’t mean a place where young music geeks spend summers scaring woodland creatures with squawking clarinets and burping tubas. Bandcamp is a burgeoning online music company where artists stream music and sell CDs, vinyl, and merchandise directly to fans.

As I documented in a recent story, professional musicians have struggled to make a living since the quarantine quashed most live shows. Bandcamp has stepped up to help. Since March it has waived all its fees for artists on four occasions. Artists and labels made a cumulative $20 million over those days. Starting tomorrow, Bandcamp will waive its revenue share on the first Friday of each month through the rest of 2020.

“Every time Bandcamp announces the waiving of fees, my inbox gets a bumper crop of PayPal notices,” singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop says via email. “Every little bit helps ... especially for the little guys.”

Bandcamp has long been renowned for supporting racial and social justice organizations. And it has facilitated ways for artists to easily donate to their favorite charities and causes.

“The platform provided a way for me to offer up some fresh side project recordings as added incentive for people to give to The Movement For Black Lives,” enthuses Ms. Hoop.

She adds, “This direct support and honest pay fortifies the sense of give-and-take within the artist/platform relationship.”

A deeper look

How Trump is moving heaven and earth to motivate evangelical voters

President Donald Trump’s election strategy includes courting Christian conservatives who helped vote him into office. But how durable will their support be during a year of turbulent change?

Eva Marie Uzcategui/Reuters
Guillermo Maldonado (left), the pastor of El Rey Jesus church, prays for President Donald Trump before he addressed evangelical supporters in Miami on Jan. 3, 2020. Conservative voters of faith, as much as any other group, must remain motivated to vote for Mr. Trump if he is to win a second term.

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On Jan. 3 – a lifetime ago, it seems – a racially diverse crowd of thousands packed a suburban Miami megachurch for the launch of Evangelicals for Trump. The star attraction was Mr. Trump himself, who helicoptered in on Marine One.

The campaign event was a threefer: It ginned up enthusiasm for Mr. Trump’s reelection among evangelical Christians; it targeted Latino voters by taking place at one of the largest Latino evangelical churches in the country; and it was in Florida, the nation’s biggest electoral battleground. 

Little did anyone know that the United States would soon be deep in crisis. Three months before Election Day, Mr. Trump’s reelection prospects are in grave peril amid a pandemic, double-digit unemployment, and a national reckoning on race. 

Evangelicals comprise more than a third of his base. The president’s judicial appointments and stance on abortion have solidified his support among this constituency. Though their numbers are shrinking.

It’s essential that conservative voters of faith stick with him – and stay motivated to vote, even under trying circumstances – if the president is to win a second term. As historian John Fea says, “He needs every one of those votes.”

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1. How Trump is moving heaven and earth to motivate evangelical voters

It was an instantly iconic moment: President Donald Trump, standing in front of historic St. John’s Church near the White House, holding a Bible aloft.

The night before, the church’s basement had been set ablaze by protesters, one of many acts of defiance across the country sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis. On this evening, federal police had used a chemical irritant to clear demonstrators who were protesting at the nearby park, allowing Mr. Trump to walk to the church unimpeded.

To the president’s critics, the photo-op represented a cynical attempt to wrap himself – a man not known for piety – in the imagery of faith. To the president’s supporters, the message was clear: He was going to stand tough under God’s watchful eye. 

“He was making a very clear statement: ‘We won’t be forced into hiding,’” says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and an informal Trump adviser. 

Mr. Perkins suggests the president could have had a racially diverse group of clergy accompany him to the church and pray together for the nation. Mr. Trump had brought along a group of aides, many focused on national security and all white. 

But the religious imagery alone served its purpose: It sent yet another signal to a large and crucial portion of his political base, religious conservatives, that he’s with them. 

Patrick Semansky/AP
President Donald Trump holds a Bible outside St. John’s Church near the White House. The photo-op was controversial because federal police cleared protesters so he could walk to the church unimpeded.

Three months before Election Day, Mr. Trump’s reelection prospects are in grave peril amid a pandemic, double-digit unemployment, and a national reckoning on race.

It’s essential that conservative voters of faith, as much as any other group, stick with him – and stay motivated to vote, even under trying circumstances – if the president is to win a second term.

“He needs every one of those votes,” says John Fea, a historian at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and the author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” 

Politically-incorrect appeal

On Jan. 3 – a lifetime ago, it seems – a racially diverse crowd of thousands packed a suburban Miami megachurch for the launch of Evangelicals for Trump. The star attraction was Mr. Trump himself, who helicoptered in on Marine One from his Mar-a-Lago estate to the north. 

“Jesus is my saviour, Trump is my president,” proclaimed a sign, star-spangled in red, white, and blue and held aloft by a rallygoer.

Part religious revival and part “Make America Great Again” rally, the campaign event was a threefer: It ginned up enthusiasm for Mr. Trump’s reelection among evangelical Christians; it targeted Latino voters by taking place at one of the largest Latino evangelical churches in the country, El Rey Jesus; and it was in Florida, the nation’s biggest electoral battleground. 

Stars of evangelical conservatism turned out in force to support the president, hot on the heels of controversy over an editorial in Christianity Today supporting Mr. Trump’s impeachment and calling for his removal from office over questions of character.  

But, rallygoers made clear, any quirks of character or past immorality are beside the point. God often uses “flawed people” to achieve righteous goals, they say. And Mr. Trump is with them to the bitter end on the matters they hold most dear, from opposing abortion and LGBTQ rights to support for Israel and religious freedom. 

“I like that he’s politically incorrect,” says a nurse named Malu, who declines to give her last name. She’s wearing a Trump T-shirt, a MAGA hat, and a gold cross around her neck, and is excited to be at her first Trump event. “He’s like your uncle. He says stuff, but he’s trying to restore American values, like Ronald Reagan.” 

Lynne Sladky/AP
Jorge Alfonso waits to get into the El Rey Jesus church in Miami, where President Donald Trump held a rally for evangelical supporters on Jan. 3, 2020. The Trump campaign has been trying to woo Latino and Black Evangelicals to expand his base of support among religious conservatives.

Little did anyone know, among the prayerful and joyous Miami crowd, that the United States would soon be deep in crisis. Suddenly Mr. Trump faces severe headwinds in his reelection fight, and he is counting on the steadfast support of Evangelicals – more than a third of his base – as well as other core supporters.

“This election is all about people who would crawl across broken glass to vote,” Mr. Perkins says. 

The latest polls show the president’s overall favorability trending downward, including a sharp decline among white Roman Catholics. But white evangelical Protestant support for Mr. Trump remains remarkably stable, after spiking upward in March and sinking back to its previous level. 

In July, 63% of white Evangelicals viewed President Trump favorably, the same as in May, according to the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. That’s virtually equal to the 64% of white Evangelicals who viewed Mr. Trump favorably last year, on average, in PRRI polls.

In contrast, white Catholic support for Mr. Trump has declined from an average of 48% in 2019 to 36% in July 2020. But even holding on to record levels of support from white evangelical Protestants may not be enough to win reelection, because their proportion of the electorate is shrinking. A decade ago, they represented 21% of all voters, according to PRRI. Four years ago, that figure was 17%. Now it’s 15%. 

That decline has also taken place in key battleground states, such as Michigan, where white evangelical Protestants now account for 15% of the population, down from 18% in 2016.

In short, Mr. Trump has even less margin for error than he did in 2016, when he won 81% of white evangelical Protestant voters nationally (with a 61% favorability rating). 

“Remember, favorability is not the vote,” says Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer of PRRI. “If history is a guide, especially among base groups, we may have as much as 20 percentage points who say, ‘I don’t really like the guy, but I’m going to vote for him anyway.’” 

Mr. Trump is going all out to hold on to conservative voters of faith. To fight abortion, he has defunded Planned Parenthood and filled federal courts with anti-abortion judges. He has eased enforcement of the so-called Johnson Amendment, which bars religious groups from endorsing or opposing political candidates. He reversed Obama-era protections for transgender people. He moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a long-held goal not just of conservative Jews but also Christian conservatives. 

In January, Mr. Trump became the first president to address the annual March for Life in person. In May, he declared churches “essential,” and called on them to reopen. On June 1, he took his famous walk to St. John’s Church. The next day, he took a bow to conservative Catholics, laying a wreath at the shrine to Saint John Paul II in Washington, and then signed an executive order aimed at advancing international religious freedom. 

Most religious conservatives applauded the moves, but not all. Mr. Trump’s handling of civil unrest – specifically, a threat to use the military to quell the protests – sparked rare criticism from televangelist Pat Robertson.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
A group of interfaith religious leaders protests against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump for his tough stands on immigration and other issues in New York in June 2016.

“It seems like now is the time to say, ‘I understand your pain, I want to comfort you, I think it’s time we love each other,’” Mr. Robertson said June 2 on his TV show “The 700 Club.” But he was alone among major evangelical Trump supporters to push back on the president’s rhetoric.

Most crucial to religious conservatives, Mr. Trump has secured Senate confirmation for 200 federal judges, including two Supreme Court justices. It is in the federal courts where the long-held dream of overturning nationwide abortion rights, enshrined in the Roe v. Wade ruling, resides. 

The surprise decision in June by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to uphold civil rights for LGBTQ people appeared to deal a blow to the president’s standing with Evangelicals. After all, Mr. Trump had put Mr. Gorsuch on the Supreme Court with the full expectation that he would advance their causes. 

But Christian conservative leaders say the disappointing Gorsuch opinion – mitigated soon thereafter by his vote to uphold an anti-abortion Louisiana law – will only motivate social conservatives more. The real problem, they say, is Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican appointee who disappoints conservatives regularly. 

“At this point, what Roberts does only increases our intensity and desire for a second Trump term, so we can have one or two or more Supreme Court picks,” says Ralph Reed, a political strategist and founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. 

If Evangelicals stay home on Nov. 3, Mr. Reed warns, Democratic nominee Joe Biden will win, “and we will wind up with a 38-year-old radical feminist version of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” on the Supreme Court. 

“Crisis of conscience”

Perhaps no figure is as important to Mr. Trump’s prospects with voters of faith than a Pentecostal televangelist from Florida named Paula White. She leads the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, has participated in countless gatherings of faith leaders to meet with and pray for the president, and now, amid the pandemic, is a fixture on campaign webcasts of Evangelicals for Trump. 

Pastor White and Mr. Trump go way back. In 2002, the then-New York real estate developer saw her preaching on television, and gave her a call. “He said, ‘You’ve got the “it” factor,’” Pastor White recounts at an Evangelicals for Trump event at a church near Cincinnati in early March. “I said, ‘No, sir, we call that the anointing.’”

Soon, she says, they met in person and became fast friends. Pastor White has been Mr. Trump’s personal pastor ever since, and helped him secure major evangelical support in 2016. And she was the first female clergy member to deliver a prayer at a presidential inauguration. 

But her role in the Trump orbit is not without controversy. Pastor White is associated with the so-called prosperity gospel – a belief that God promises wealth and physical well-being to the faithful (and sometimes the heaviest tithers). Some Evangelicals criticize the doctrine as transactional.

For Mr. Trump, the White connection makes sense. Growing up, he and his family attended sermons by the Christian minister Norman Vincent Peale, similarly controversial among traditional theologians for the message captured in his bestseller, “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

Tom Brenner/Reuters
An audience member stands during a song ahead of Mr. Trump’s remarks at an Evangelicals for Trump event at a church in Miami in January 2020.

Mr. Trump has never been an easy fit with more conventional religious conservatives. In January 2016, he stumbled in a speech at the evangelical Liberty University by referring to “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians” and cursed twice. 

But he turned his missteps into a positive. “We’re going to protect Christianity,” he told the Liberty convocation. “I don’t have to be politically correct.” 

As to Mr. Trump’s personal faith, views differ. Most Americans don’t see the president as religious, and fewer than half think he’s Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. In the evangelical world, some leaders call him a “baby Christian,” someone just beginning his faith journey. 

Others see his professions of faith to be purely transactional and politically motivated. Rachel Laser, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, characterizes the relationship this way: “You give me your vote and I’ll give you special privileges and do all I can to codify your worldview in our government. Both parties have delivered.”

For the doubters, Vice President Mike Pence is a reassuring presence, as a man who speaks comfortably about his evangelical Christian faith and serves as an emissary to the GOP’s religious conservative base.

Mr. Reed, the Christian political strategist, says he was skeptical of Mr. Trump’s religious bona fides when they first met 10 years ago. After all, the New Yorker was a known “social liberal,” thrice married, and prone to vulgar language. Then he heard Mr. Trump talk about his change of view on abortion over a friend’s experience with an unplanned pregnancy and decision to keep the baby. Mr. Reed says he thinks Mr. Trump is sincere. 

But “frankly, even if he came to his positions on the issues for reasons of political calculus, rather than a genuine change of heart, what’s the law against that?” says Mr. Reed, author of the book “For God and Country: The Christian Case for Trump.” “So we punish him because he’s smart?”

Still, many evangelical voters want a president who sincerely believes in what he’s doing, not just for the sake of winning and keeping power. At the Evangelicals for Trump event in early March, held at Solid Rock Church near Cincinnati, no one expressed doubts about Mr. Trump. 

“The Bible says he wouldn’t be there if God hadn’t put him there,” says Marilyn Woods, a caregiver from Springdale, Ohio. 

And, she adds, “he is more and more surrounded by strong Christians,” calling it a sign of how the president values faith. Ms. Woods offers names: Vice President Pence, Housing Secretary Ben Carson, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr – the last being a devout Roman Catholic. 

Another attendee says he judges Mr. Trump not by his words but by his actions. “Politicians say the right things, but don’t do the right things,” says John Settlage, a pastor in a small rural Ohio church. “The Scripture is full of imperfect people who carried out His work.” 

He cites King David from the Bible – a sinner who is redeemed for doing good. Others call Mr. Trump a “modern-day Cyrus,” the Persian king who is a figure of deliverance in the books of Isaiah and Daniel. 

“Some people say, ‘We see all these signs that God has chosen him, and therefore we’ll back him to the death,’” says Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. “I don’t think that belief can be shaken.”

Indeed, the steadfast support of Evangelicals for Trump demonstrates her point. 

Mr. Trump’s favorability rating among white evangelical Protestants had actually spiked in March to 77% in the PRRI poll – a “rally around the flag” effect over the pandemic – and then settled back to where it was, says Dr. Jones, author of the new book "White Too Long." 

The same holds true of the public’s view of his coronavirus response, which was initially relatively high and then sank – including among white evangelical Protestants. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in mid-July showed 68% of white evangelical Protestants approve of Mr. Trump’s performance on the pandemic, still a strong rating but a drop of 16 percentage points since late May. Overall, 38% of Americans approve of Mr. Trump’s handling of the virus. 

Still, despite all of the president’s challenges, he continues to win some converts. A prominent example is Albert Mohler, head of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who described a “crisis of conscience” for religious conservatives in 2016, and didn’t vote for either major-party candidate. In April, he announced he’ll vote for Mr. Trump. 

But he still has reservations, calling Mr. Trump “an embarrassment to evangelical Christianity” in a New Yorker interview. 

“My shift is from reluctantly not voting for him in 2016 to what you might call reluctantly voting for him in 2020, and hoping for his reelection, because the alternative is increasingly unthinkable,” Mr. Mohler said. 

At the same time, there are Evangelicals who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 but already know they can’t do so again. Bill Werts, an engineer from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, had hopes for Mr. Trump, especially with Mr. Pence at his side. But things soured for Mr. Werts a while ago. 

“Caging the brown children at the border was a big one for me. I kept asking myself, are these the Christian values I’ve stood for all my life?” says Mr. Werts, who calls himself a “patriot, lifelong pro-lifer, and anti-racist.”

Mr. Werts now attends a new church, has reregistered as a Democrat, and plans to vote for Mr. Biden, albeit unenthusiastically.

In fact, Professor Fea of Messiah College sees potential for more Biden votes among moderate white evangelical Protestants like Mr. Werts – people who identify as “pro-life” and see the path to fighting abortion not through conservative judges but by tackling poverty. “They’re hanging on Joe Biden’s every word,” Professor Fea says. “But don’t talk about Roe v. Wade, talk about a plan to reduce the number of abortions.”

Every vote counts

As the white evangelical Protestant population shrinks, the Trump campaign sees growth potential in the faith communities of people of color. Black Voices for Trump and Latinos for Trump do regular outreach via web events that include a religious dimension. In late July, the campaign held an in-person Evangelicals for Trump event in Atlanta, featuring prominent African American religious figures in a clear effort to reach Black voters.

In 2016, Mr. Trump won only 8% of the African American vote and 28% of the Latino vote – but every vote counts, especially in battleground states like Florida. Thus the launch of Evangelicals for Trump in south Florida, with its large population of Latino immigrants, including many who fled the socialism of Cuba and Venezuela. 

But placing any hope on Latino and Black Evangelicals may be a fool’s errand, say experts on religion and politics. A majority of Black voters identify as Evangelical or “born again,” though religiosity in the Black population is declining, as it is among Americans overall. And religious affiliation among African Americans isn’t a predictor of vote choice, says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. 

Mr. Trump often says to Black voters “you’ve got nothing to lose” by supporting him. “That taps into this idea that Blacks are a captured minority and that Democrats take them for granted,” Professor Gillespie says. “But if the alternative is someone who uses racist language, then that doesn’t work.” 

Other observers suggest that Mr. Trump’s outreach to voters of color is mostly “virtue signaling” as a way to show white voters that he’s not racist.

Within the Latino community, which is predominantly Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestants represent just a fraction of the vote. And many live in states that vote solidly Democratic, such as California and New York.

Four years ago, 41% of Latino Evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump, according to the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Research Institute. Now amid the pandemic, which has taken a disproportionate toll on people of color, voters in these hard-hit communities are likely basing their votes more on bread-and-butter issues – income security, health care, education – than on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, says Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, a professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. “Right now, nothing is a bigger issue for Latinos than their economic devastation and the pandemic,” Professor Sánchez-Walsh says. 

She notes that many Latinos work in blue-collar jobs and have been deemed essential, risking exposure to the virus, or alternatively, are now unemployed. “How do Latino evangelical pastors and political operatives turn that around for Trump?” she asks. “I don’t know.”

Then there’s the immigration issue. Before Mr. Trump’s appearance at El Rey Jesus in January, lead pastor Guillermo Maldonado – a Honduran immigrant – told his congregation that those who are in the U.S. without legal documents need not fear deportation if they attend the event, according to the Miami Herald.

But even among Latino voters, the immigration issue cuts two ways. Some who came to the U.S. legally are among the president’s strongest defenders on the issue. At the January event, when Mr. Trump touted his border wall and criticized “loopholes” in U.S. immigration law, the crowd cheered. 

Pastor Maldonado earned his own cheers, as one of the most prominent Hispanic religious leaders in the country – and an adherent of the prosperity gospel. 

But the pastor’s opening prayer on that Friday night in January was all about Mr. Trump, as the president stood in a multiethnic embrace of faith leaders. Among those also on stage were Pastor White, his spiritual adviser; Alveda King, the niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and Cissie Graham Lynch, granddaughter of the Rev. Billy Graham. 

“We come together from all denominations, all races together, as the Bible says, to pray for those in authority,” Pastor Maldonado said.

Soon, it was Mr. Trump’s turn to speak. God is “on our side,” he said, to thunderous applause.

For Lebanese, government dysfunction has a new, tragic cost

As the shock waves of Beirut’s deadly explosion reverberate through an already beleaguered Lebanon, some believe that resistance to political reform within the country may soon crumble under domestic and international pressure. 

Hussein Malla/AP
An aerial photo shows the scene of a mammoth blast that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 5, 2020. A ragged crater, at right, was created by the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored for years with few safeguards, despite warnings.

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For many Lebanese, the culprit of the Beirut explosion that has claimed more than 150 lives and left up to 300,000 homeless is an ingrained political culture of incompetence and corruption that allowed a hazardous material to be stored for years at the port with minimal safeguards.

Ironically, the system of unaccountable sectarian fiefdoms was codified by the very power-sharing agreement that helped end the country’s 15-year civil war. Anger at that system, and at the elites who have profited from it, is what sent Lebanese protesters into the streets last fall.

Yet the Beirut event is so dramatic, analysts say, it could become a catalyst for reform, not only by reinvigorating the anti-establishment protests, but also, perhaps, by ensuring that the flow of donor aid now beginning to pour into the country is channeled through “clean” hands and not given directly to the government.

“These serial economic crises don’t quite capture the frustration and humiliation of daily life in Lebanon – the lying and cheating involved in navigating it, the sectarian pettiness, the corruption, the power cuts, the disappearing savings, the currency collapse,” says Faysal Itani at Georgetown University. “No sane or decent person would accept to live that way,” he says.

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2. For Lebanese, government dysfunction has a new, tragic cost

Faysal Itani hasn’t forgotten the sweltering summer he worked at the Beirut port as a teenager in the late 1990s, because after 15 years of civil war, it was a rare period of hope, optimism, and rebuilding for Lebanon.

Forced to take the menial job by his father as a “character-building exercise,” Mr. Itani inputted shipping data into obsolete computers at an aged administrative complex. Fellow workers teased him for his enthusiasm, “but spirits were high enough, and things did get done.”

By then, the rejuvenated face of Beirut had already changed dramatically since the end of the war in 1990, when Mr. Itani used to play a game with his father about who could be the first to spot a building not scarred by fighting.

Yet Lebanon’s tragedy was far from over, a reality reflected in the downward trajectory from those days of optimism, directly through decades of government dysfunction and corruption, to the mammoth explosion at the port Tuesday.

The blast, one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history, was attributed to 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. The substance – just two tons of it were used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – was stored with few safeguards after being offloaded in 2014 from a ship that ran into legal trouble and was abandoned by its Russian owner. Multiple warnings from lawyers, customs officials, and state security organs to remove the material were ignored.

The blast has claimed 157 lives so far, injured 5,000, left up to 300,000 homeless, wrought an estimated $3 billion in damages, and decimated a sizable portion of the city – along with any residual credibility of Lebanon’s widely despised ruling elite.

Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
A view on Aug. 5, 2020 shows damaged buildings near the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area.

Still, the event was so dramatic, analysts say, it could become a catalyst for reform, not only by reinvigorating the anti-establishment protests that swept the country last fall and winter, but also, perhaps, by ensuring that the flow of donor aid now beginning to pour into the country is channeled through “clean” hands and not given directly to the government.

Indeed for many Lebanese – already reeling from a pandemic and collapsing economy – the culprit of the explosion is an ingrained political culture of incompetence and corruption stemming from calcified and unaccountable sectarian fiefdoms that fail to provide services, have enriched and empowered a few, and brought misery and poverty to most. It was a system codified, ironically, by the very power-sharing agreement that helped end the civil war.

“These serial economic crises don’t quite capture the frustration and humiliation of daily life in Lebanon – the lying and cheating involved in navigating it, the sectarian pettiness, the corruption, the power cuts, the disappearing savings, the currency collapse,” says Mr. Itani, who today is a deputy director at the Center for Global Policy and adjunct professor of Middle East politics at Georgetown University in Washington.

“No sane or decent person would accept to live that way,” says Mr. Itani. Even by the early 2000s it was “clear this experiment was falling apart.”

Anger has only grown as Lebanese sweep up the glass from the destruction of one third of their capital. Trending on social media are the words, in Arabic, “Hang up the nooses,” in reference to toppling the sectarian ruling class – the top demand of protesters who took to the streets nationwide last October.

A Lebanese surgeon, Bassam Osman, summed up his emotions on Twitter after ending 52 hours of nonstop work treating patients.

“The greatest feeling is not sadness, not anger, not despair, it is abandonment,” wrote Dr. Osman, a surgeon at the American University of Beirut Medical Center.

“We already lost all hope in ... a criminal personnel that is governing us against our will,” he wrote. “People don’t want to hear that they are strong or they will rise. They are not. They are broken, they are helpless, they are abandoned. … They need something to lean on, at least for a breath.”

Thibault Camus/Reuters
President Emmanuel Macron of France, Lebanon's former colonial power, gestures as he visits a devastated street in Beirut, Aug. 6, 2020.

Lebanese officials announced that several past and present port officials had been put under house arrest. Prime Minister Hassan Diab vowed that the explosion “will not fly by without accountability,” and that those responsible “will pay the price.”

And yet, when President Emmanuel Macron of France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, arrived Thursday, he upstaged every member of Lebanon’s political elite by visiting devastated parts of Beirut before any of them had.

Mr. Macron was mobbed by crowds in the street calling for the “fall of the regime” and for revolution. He replied by saying he would “talk to all political forces to ask them for a new pact.”

“What is also needed is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era,” he said, adding that Lebanon would “continue to sink” without reforms.

Rami Khouri, a professor of journalism and the director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut, says Lebanon’s immediate focus is the humanitarian emergency, but a political reckoning is inevitable.

“There is going to be intense political focus on finally forcing the government to actually act responsibly, or get out of the way, and hold the real people accountable for this particular crime,” says Professor Khouri, contacted in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If there are trials and the guilty are imprisoned, he says, it could “open the door” to ending impunity and going after those who are responsible for but failed to keep electricity running, water clean, and garbage collected.

The presence of such a large stockpile of hazardous chemicals in Beirut for so many years, for example, “is typical of many levels of incompetence in many different arenas – we just don’t know about them,” Professor Khouri says.

Hussein Malla/AP
A woman takes pictures on her phone of a damaged church, after Tuesday's explosion in the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 5, 2020.

“What’s going on with people distributing obsolete food, or medicine that’s no good? Or giving licenses away to people surreptitiously? There are so many things being done by government officials to make money, and we just don’t know about them,” he says. “It just happened that this, literally and figuratively, exploded into the open.”

But perhaps even more corrosive to Lebanon’s social fabric over the decades has been the steady assault on good governance wrought by the system of dividing political posts and spoils – and thereby economic goodies – according to sect.

“People are hired for political or sectarian affiliation rather than competence, are demoralized, and are compromised by corruption,” says Mr. Itani, who is not surprised that those in charge “did not care enough” to solve the problem at the port.

“It’s difficult to convey how this looks up close without a long series of anecdotes, but the notion of public good and civic duty in Lebanon is absent,” he says.

One place to start could be handling the influx of aid by an oversight body composed of a few respected individuals, charitable societies, donors, and others with “clean” hands, says Mr. Khouri of AUB.

“Their job is to disperse the money and monitor how it is spent, quickly and properly where it is needed – not to go buy cars for somebody’s cousin,” says Mr. Khouri.

Mr. Macron also heard worry from the streets that foreign aid will be stolen. “I guarantee you this: Aid will not go to corrupt hands,” he said.

Yet Mr. Khouri hopes his consortium idea could have a broader impact.

“The most important thing is this would be a model for beginning the process of reforms, that the government no longer has full sovereignty,” he says.

“That sends the message: ‘Your people don’t trust you, and we [donors] don’t trust you. And that’s because you’ve shown for the last 30 years you’re not trustworthy. You’ve failed your people.’”

The Explainer

Trump’s environmental rollbacks: A four-year tide of regulatory change

The trend of government regulation is perennially one of rising volume. The Trump administration is trying mightily to bend that curve downward – resulting in clashes over economic liberty and protecting Earth’s climate.

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Days after entering office, President Donald Trump made a promise: He would eliminate two rules for every one signed into existence. Since then, he has sought to make good on that pledge and more – touting his reversal of a “regulatory assault” on the economy and individual liberty.

But it has come with controversy, with many Americans disagreeing with moves that have been particularly sweeping in the arena of environmental policy. More than 100 rollbacks have been launched over issues as diverse as toxic substances, energy extraction, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) efforts to combat climate change. The graphics with this story explore the trends (click the “deep read” to see them all).

Some legal experts say that the changes, while often resting on shaky scientific ground, could in some cases leave a lasting legacy – undermining the leeway of future environmental policymakers to set a different course.

“They’re advancing these regulatory changes that create more flexibility,” says Caitlin McCoy, a staff attorney at Harvard Law School’s environmental and energy law program. “But in the process they’re trying to ... reduce EPA’s authority well into the future to ever try to come back under a new administration.”

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3. Trump’s environmental rollbacks: A four-year tide of regulatory change

Days after entering office, President Donald Trump made a promise: He would eliminate two rules for every one signed into existence.

Since then, he has sought to make good on that pledge and more – touting his reversal of a “regulatory assault” on the economy at a White House event on July 16, saying, “The American people know best how to run their own lives.”

Although many Americans have praised the president’s deregulation efforts, many disagree with a loosening of rules that has been particularly sweeping in the arena of environmental policy. As the graphics with this story illustrate, more than 100 rollbacks have been launched, over issues as diverse as toxic substances, energy extraction, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) efforts to combat climate change.

Some legal experts say that the changes, despite often resting on shaky scientific ground, could in some cases leave a lasting legacy – undermining the leeway of future environmental policymakers to set a different course.

“They’re advancing these regulatory changes that create more flexibility, but in the process they’re trying to ... reduce EPA’s authority well into the future to ever try to come back under a new administration,” says Caitlin McCoy, a staff attorney at the Harvard Law School’s environmental and energy law program.

SOURCE: Chart 1: Keith Belton and John Graham of Indiana University (published by Cato Institute), Chart 2: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (with Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy)
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Timmy Broderick, Correspondent; Mark Trumbull and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

When the EPA replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy rule last June, it not only marked a momentous win for Mr. Trump’s deregulatory project. It also finalized a narrower meaning for the phrase “best system of emissions reductions” for the country’s power plants. The administration’s new legal interpretation could be tricky to undo, says Ms. McCoy.

If elected president, Joe Biden would “have to confront the fact that, a year earlier, the same agency said they didn’t have that authority” to mandate cleaner electricity, she says. Administrations may change, “but through the lens of administrative law, it’s the EPA, and it’s supposed to have a certain amount of consistency all the way through.”

SOURCE: Columbia University Law School’s Sabin Center deregulation tracker
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Timmy Broderick, Correspondent; Mark Trumbull and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Other experts have questioned the analyses used to justify these rollbacks. The Government Accountability Office recently released a report detailing how the EPA and other agencies have dramatically understated the “social cost of carbon,” the costs to society of greenhouse gas emissions that spur climate change. The EPA’s own scientists disavowed arguments justifying another major Trump rollback, the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule. The change, replacing Obama-era fuel economy targets for new cars, is projected to add emissions equal to an extra 5 million cars on the road by 2025 alone, according to federal forecasts. A typical car today emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

SOURCE: Pew Research Center
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Timmy Broderick, Correspondent; Mark Trumbull and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

In some cases, Trump administration efforts are hitting delays and possibly brick walls. The Administrative Procedure Act requires that a new rule must have a “reasoned explanation” for it to be sound – or withstand a lawsuit, says Bethany Davis Noll of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law.

“The facts show that [SAFE] is harmful,” says Ms. Davis Noll. “And so [the EPA] is doing shoddy stuff monkeying with the numbers to try to get away from that conclusion.”

If some Trump moves leave a lasting mark, in other cases the president’s actions could face reversals – notably in cases where his policies lack strong economic or scientific footing. “I think most presidents want some kind of legacy,” Ms. Davis Noll says, and in her view “that’s what he hasn’t managed to accomplish.”

SOURCE: Harvard Law School Environmental & Energy Law Program’s regulatory rollback tracker, Brookings Institution “Tracking deregulation in the Trump era”, The New York Times environmental rollback tracker, federal agency websites
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Timmy Broderick, Correspondent; Mark Trumbull and Jacob Turcotte/Staff
SOURCE: Chart 1: Keith Belton and John Graham of Indiana University (published by Cato Institute), Chart 2: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (with Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy), Chart 3: Columbia University Law School’s Sabin Center deregulation tracker
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Timmy Broderick, Correspondent; Mark Trumbull and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Pandemic empties tourist traps in Europe: Crisis or opportunity?

Normally at this time of year, major European cities would be bustling with visitors taking selfies. The implosion of tourism has hit hard. Some people are wondering how to make local economies more durable and less dependent upon sightseers.

Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters
A seagull is seen by the Grand Canal amid the coronavirus pandemic in Venice, Italy, July 9, 2020. Tourists are making a timid return, but officials say they do not want the crowds to swell to their previous size.

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Europe’s top travel destinations are almost empty this year, as tourists stay at home rather than risk contracting COVID-19.

That has meant a severe economic impact on countries such as Italy, Spain, and Greece, which rely heavily on international tourism. But some European cities are using the unaccustomed peace and quiet to rethink their whole approach to tourists.

Places like Venice, in Italy, and Barcelona, in Spain, have found themselves completely swamped by foreign tourists in recent years, as affordable mass tourism brought millions of people to their canals and streets.

That has led to a backlash from local residents concerned that the spirit of their hometowns is being destroyed. So this year, officials and citizens’ groups in Europe are re-imagining tourism so as to soften its impact and make places less economically reliant on visitors.

There is much talk of “sustainable” tourism. But that means lower numbers and fewer profits. When the pandemic has passed, tourism operators will be strongly tempted to rebuild their businesses quickly in traditional fashion. But for those taking a longer view, says Patrick Torrent, the head of tourism in Catalonia, “there will never be a better time to change models.”

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4. Pandemic empties tourist traps in Europe: Crisis or opportunity?

In Venice, empty gondolas rock at their moorings on the Grand Canal; in Barcelona, desolate shopping streets lie silent.

The coronavirus has taken a devastating toll on European tourist destinations. But some of them, which once groaned uncomfortably under the weight of visitors, are taking the pandemic as a chance to reinvent themselves, to break their profitable but destructive habit of mass tourism.

“Coronavirus has changed the world,” says Paola Mar, in charge of tourism planning and management at the Venice city council. “It is an opportunity for us, an accelerator of change.”

The Italian city of Venice normally hosts an average of 55,000 tourists (more than the city’s population) each day, many of them day-trippers from cruise ships. The countrywide lockdown imposed on March 9 brought visitor numbers down to zero.

Tourists are now making a timid return, but officials say they do not want the crowds to swell to their previous size. Venice hopes to attract fewer tourists who would stay longer, says Ms. Mar. In the works is an “access tax” to discourage day-trippers, which would run to $12 in the high season.

At the same time, efforts are underway to encourage Venetians to stay in Venice, rather than flee to cheaper housing on the mainland. That means jobs, says Carolyn Smith, a researcher with the nonprofit We Are Here Venice, who would like to see the city become a hub for high-tech startups and a home for traditional crafts such as boat-building.

“People need to work, so we need viable economic alternatives” to mass tourism, says Ms. Smith, who lives in Venice and co-wrote a recent report on the city’s post-COVID-19 future. “I have friends here who have degrees, but there are no jobs so they earn a living taking tourists to their Airbnb apartments.”

The city “has become a by-word for the worst excesses of tourism,” the report says, so there is “intense scrutiny as to how Venice will respond to the global drop in tourism.”

Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters
A restaurant employee wears a protective face mask while standing on St. Mark's Square amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Venice, Italy, July 9, 2020. The country's National Tourism Agency warns the sector will not recover before 2023.

It could start by regulating Airbnb, suggests Ms. Smith, following the example of Barcelona and Berlin, both of which have restricted the number of Airbnb apartments.

Maurizio Ugolini, who manages seven Airbnb apartments in the city, says such ideas are great in normal times but the focus now should be on recovery. Many families count on rental property for income so it would be unfair to suddenly limit the number of nights they can rent or to strip them of their permits, he argues. “Venice needs the type of tourism that sleeps in Venice … that buys groceries, that integrates with the locals, that lives the city like a Venetian even for just a few days,” he says. “What we do not need are those huge crowds coming for the day and making even walking through the streets impossible.”

But the $3.5 billion that tourism injected into the Venetian economy last year was of huge benefit to a sinking city in continuous need of money for maintenance, he points out.

Italy’s National Tourism Agency warns the sector will not recover before 2023, so there is time to rethink the next phase. “We are not going to solve the problems overnight, but we can use this critical window of opportunity,” says Ms. Smith. “People are talking about the problem and things are moving forward.”

“Space for reflection”

Similar soul-searching is underway in Barcelona. Shops along Passeig de Gràcia, which by some estimates account for almost a third of all tourist purchases in Spain, are shuttered or open only briefly. The usually overpacked beachfront has room, if anyone wanted to take it.

“We never imagined that we’d reach this level of paralysis,” says Patrick Torrent, executive director at the Catalan Tourist Board. But “this situation has made it possible to generate space for reflection on the tourism model that we want,” he adds.

He expects that sustainable tourism, respectful not only of the environment but also of Barcelona’s society and culture, will gain ground in his city. Sustainability, he points out, is a central tenet of European recovery plans, from the European Commission’s pledge to “strengthen the green transformation” of EU tourism, to the Spanish government’s recovery package for the sector and the Catalan regional government’s own road maps for the future. 

Albert Gea/Reuters
A woman looks at masks displayed at a souvenir shop amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Barcelona, Spain, July 27, 2020. The pandemic has highlighted the dangers of Barcelona’s economic dependency on foreign international tourism.

“The sector is aware that there will never be a better time to change models,” he says.

Others are less optimistic, worrying that rescue packages will simply finance a return to business as usual in a city where tourism accounts for 12% of gross domestic product and roughly 9% of jobs – more in historic neighborhoods boasting the architectural legacy of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí or beachfront developments like the Vila Olímpica.

Claudio Milano, a social anthropologist at the Ostelea Tourism Management School, is skeptical. Part of the problem, he says, is that cities like Barcelona emerged from the 2008 crisis by focusing their economy on tourism services linked to the rise of the gig economy, such as Airbnb and Uber, rather than on local residents’ needs.

Dr. Milano is worried that many in the tourism industry are “talking about reactivation along the same lines and the same paradigms that we had pre-COVID: increase arrivals and maximize profits. These are the same indicators that led us to worry about over-tourism,” he warns.

Social activists in Barcelona have long advocated “degrowth.” Mass tourism, they complain, has pushed up house prices and forced families out as investors buy to rent, replaced neighborhood stores with shabby souvenir shops, made restaurants unaffordable to locals, clogged public transport, and brought noise levels incompatible with a good night’s sleep.

“All these factors make daily life so complicated for people that even if they can afford the rent, they give up,” says Daniel Pardo of the Assemblea de Barris pel Decreixement Turístic (ABDT). “No one wants their life to be a war.”

The ABDT, the Neighborhood Assembly for Decreased Tourism, is part of a European network pushing for the creation of sustainable cities. Now it is focusing its research on how to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with policies that contribute to diversifying the economy while not overlooking long-running issues such as climate change.  

Mr. Pardo takes no pleasure in the pendulum swing from overtourism to no tourism. “This is not degrowth,” he stresses. “This is a massive socioeconomic crisis. It’s a drama. What we wanted was a planned process of social and economic transformation.” 

The pandemic has highlighted the dangers of Barcelona’s economic dependency on foreign international tourism. In the short term, experts believe, the city could make up some of its losses by boosting domestic tourism, but what is required in the long term is economic diversification.

Ernest Cañada, who studies mass tourism in Catalonia, says it won’t be simple, but the region could start by fostering reindustrialization, encouraging agricultural activity and boosting the care sector and high-tech.

“We are in a moment of conflict over what is going to happen,” says Mr. Cañada. “There are forces pushing for a simple reactivation of the tourism sector and forces that bet on transformation. In the middle of all that there is a lot of suffering.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The African cartoonists drawing themselves into the story

When I grew up in South Africa, I read comics from France and Belgium such as “Asterix” and “Tintin.” Their adventures set in Egypt and the Congo depicted Africa in a dim light. Now, African cartoonists are telling stories that offer vibrant views of the continent. 

Courtesy of Tayo Fatunla
Tayo Fatunla, a Nigerian artist, is the creator of "Our Roots," a comic series about Black historical figures from Barack Obama to the first Nigerian Olympic bobsledding team. His work is featured in the Afropolitan Comics exhibit.

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France, where comics have a particularly rich tradition, may be sponsoring the “Year of the Comic.” But that doesn’t mean all of the artists it’s celebrating are from France – far from it.

A virtual exhibition of African cartoonists, for example, called “Afropolitan Comics,” showcases work from across the continent. It includes a sci-fi thriller, whose heroine is a teenage water spirit who keeps flunking water spirit school, and “Our Roots,” a visual encyclopedia of Black historical figures. Many of the artists grew up loving the world of classic French bandes dessinées, as comics are called, yet wondered where the Black characters – and artists – were.

Joëlle Épée Mandengue, a Cameroonian cartoonist who co-curated the exhibition, says she realized that if she wanted to see herself in comics, she’d have to draw them herself. And she did. Her signature comic, “The Diary of Ebène Duta,” follows the adventures of a Black teenager in Belgium, where Ms. Épée Mandengue herself attended university.

“When you say Marvel, or manga, or Asterix, people from all over can immediately imagine the world you’re talking about,” says Ms. Épée Mandengue. “We wanted the same to be true for comic artists working in Africa.”

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5. The African cartoonists drawing themselves into the story

Joëlle Épée Mandengue was raised on a steady diet of Disney princesses. As a child in Cameroon, whenever she got angry or overwhelmed, her parents knew the quickest way to calm her was to pop in a video and press play on the story of Snow White, Cinderella, or Beauty and the Beast.

And there was one princess who Ms. Épée Mandengue grew to admire above all others. Ariel, the Little Mermaid, struck her as a different kind of heroine – one “fighting to meet the expectations she had for her own life,” she says. “I like her because she was longing for a world she wasn’t a part of.”

Ms. Épée Mandengue knew that kind of longing well. Since the moment she’d first begun to watch Disney cartoons, she’d dreamed of creating something like them. But she quickly banished the thought from her head. It wasn’t practical, her parents said. And anyway, she knew who made the cartoons she loved. Most of them were men; most of them were white. When she imagined herself as an artist then, she felt like Ariel, trying to play a role she hadn’t been cast into.

Courtesy of Joëlle Epée Mandengue
Joëlle Epée Mandengue, an artist and comic book writer from Cameroon, works under the name Elyon’s. She is a co-curator of "Afropolitan Comics," a virtual exhibition of comics by African artists.

Two decades and a successful comic book series later, however, Ms. Épée Mandengue, who writes under the name Elyon’s, has engineered her own happy ending. And not only for herself. This year, she co-curated a virtual exhibition of African cartoons called “Afropolitan Comics,” which showcases work by artists from across the continent.

“When you say Marvel, or manga, or Asterix, people from all over can immediately imagine the world you’re talking about,” she says. “We wanted the same to be true for comic artists working in Africa.”

Year of the comic

The exhibition website features samples of comic strips from across the continent: from a sci-fi thriller whose heroine is a teenage Mami Wati – a West African water spirit – who keeps flunking water spirit school; to “Our Roots,” a visual encyclopedia of Black historical figures from Barack Obama to Seun Adigun, captain of the first Nigerian Olympic bobsledding team.

“This is a quick engaging way for people to start learning histories maybe they were never taught in school,” says Tayo Fatunla, the Nigerian comic book artist behind “Our Roots.” After all, he reasoned, what better way to get people to love their history than to make it beautiful?

The Afropolitan Comics exhibit also had the backing of one of the world’s most comic-obsessed societies, France. It was sponsored by the French Institute of South Africa and la Cité internationale de la bande dessinée et de l’image, a massive French comic book museum and library, as part of a global, French-led celebration of the “Year of the Comic” in 2020.

“In France, comics are acknowledged as a serious form of art, and seen as an important artistic tradition,” says Selen Daver, the cultural attaché for the French Institute. In 2019, indeed, the French bought 48 million comic books, accounting for 16% of all book sales. “So within that tradition it was really important for us to also give space to African comic artists telling their own stories.”

Many of the artists whose work is showcased on Afropolitan Comics grew up steeped in the world of classic French bandes dessinées. But even as they devoured them, their relationship to the comics they loved was often an ambivalent one. Why were the only Black characters they saw the Africans who hovered around Tintin during his adventures in the Congo, “look[ing] like monkeys and talk[ing] like imbeciles” as the British Commission for Racial Equality described the book in 2007.

“At some point I realized, most of the comics I love are made by white men, and I’m a Black woman,” says Ms. Épée Mandengue. If she wanted to see herself on those pages, she realized, she’d have to be the one to draw it. And she did. Her signature comic, “The Diary of Ebène Duta,” follows the adventures of a Black teenager in Belgium, where Ms. Épée Mandengue herself attended university.

“You speak really good French,” a classmate of Ebène Duta’s tells her in one early scene. “For an African, that’s really rare.”

Courtesy of Joëlle Epée Mandengue
Work in Joëlle Epée Mandengue's signature comic, “The Diary of Ebène Duta," which follows the adventures of a Black teenager in Belgium.

Unexpected upside

For Mr. Fatunla, the Nigerian artist, comics have always been a medium for talking about heavy subjects in a way that is accessible and engaging. He cut his teeth drawing political cartoons for Nigerian newspapers, and has spent much of his career making art based on his original “Our Roots” series, exploring the legacies of the African diaspora around the world.

“I want to show people that Black excellence exists everywhere,” he says, whether it be in the form of Yaa Asantewaa, a 19th-century queen in present-day Ghana who led a revolt against British colonialism; or Wizkid, a 21st-century Nigerian pop star. 

Courtesy of Tayo Fatunla
Tayo Fatunla is a Nigerian comic book artist. “I want to show people that Black excellence exists everywhere,” says Mr. Fatunla.

The creators of Afropolitan Comics hope that the works featured will eventually form part of an in-person exhibition in France. But there has been an unexpected upside to making an art exhibition during a pandemic too. Because it is virtual, its reach is global.

“I would like this to reach new audiences and people who have no idea that this rich tradition of comics is happening on the continent already,” says Ms. Daver of the French Institute. “I hope it will attract people who hadn’t thought to look to Africa for comics before.”

And for young artists in Africa, the message of Afropolitan Comics is even simpler. Your stories matter. You belong.

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Lebanon’s post-blast embrace of reform

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Most of Lebanon’s citizens were not directly harmed by Tuesday’s horrific blast in Beirut. Yet many responded as if they were. The causes for the disaster are so deep in society – a culture of corruption, negligence, and militarized sectarianism – that thousands of Lebanese rushed to aid the victims, clean the streets, and care for the newly homeless people. Their outpouring of compassion was a way to start a clamor to hold officials to account and also reform a broken democracy.

Nations often go into soul-searching mode after a large and preventable tragedy. In Lebanon, people already do not trust the official inquiry into why tons of an explosive chemical were left in a port warehouse for six years.

The age of smartphones and social media may have altered how people view disasters. Information and images about an incident flow more widely and quickly. In a study, criminal prosecutions after non-terrorist disasters increased by 317% in the first 16 years of this century compared with similar prosecutions for all of the 20th century.

Humanity has entered a new culture of vigorous enforcement. Is Lebanon now adopting this culture, one that rests on a foundation of equality, transparency, and freedom?

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Lebanon’s post-blast embrace of reform

Most of Lebanon’s 6 million citizens were not directly harmed by Tuesday’s horrific blast in the capital, Beirut. Yet many responded as if they were. The causes for the disaster are so deep in society and government – a culture of corruption, negligence, and militarized sectarianism – that thousands of Lebanese rushed to aid the victims, clean the streets, and care for the nearly 300,000 homeless people. Their outpouring of compassion was a way to start a clamor to hold officials to account and also reform a broken democracy.

Nations often go into soul-searching mode after a large and preventable tragedy. The Soviet Union collapsed in part because of rising public mistrust after the Chernobyl nuclear accident. South Korea entered a period of reform after a 2014 ferry disaster killed 302 people, including 250 students. In Mexico, earthquakes in 1985 and in 2017 helped expose widespread corruption and led to major advances in democracy. In Romania, a tragic nightclub fire in 2015 led to anti-corruption reform.

In Lebanon, people already do not trust the official inquiry into why tons of an explosive chemical were left in a port warehouse for six years. Many are calling for an international investigation. French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut Thursday and said he delivered “home truths” to the country’s leaders.

The age of smartphones and social media may have altered how people view disasters. Information and images about an incident flow more widely and quickly. A consensus on responsibility and reform is easier to achieve. This is why China’s autocratic leaders so quickly suppressed information about the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan and the early mistakes in countering it.

Perhaps a good example of modern reactions to mass tragedy was the 2013 collapse of an eight-story building in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000. The international exposure of shoddy construction led to unusually swift reforms in safety standards.

The world is learning how to hold leaders to account and to demand basic reforms. In a study by law professor Denis Binder of Chapman University, criminal prosecutions after non-terrorist disasters increased by 317% in the first 16 years of this century compared with similar prosecutions for all of the 20th century. His study also found South Korea to be the most proactive in reforming itself after major incidents, such as the ferry sinking as well as collapses of bridges and buildings.

He says humanity has entered a “new culture of vigorous enforcement.” Is Lebanon now adopting this culture, one that rests on a foundation of equality, transparency, and freedom? If the quick embrace of the blast’s victims by the Lebanese is any sign, the country is on a path of reform.

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.

Words that help and heal

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What we say matters. And when we let God, good, motivate the way we express ourselves, this inspires confidence and healing, rather than fear or hostility.

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1. Words that help and heal

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Most of us can recall times we thoughtlessly said something to someone and then longed with all our heart to take it back and start over with kindness and support. Now, given the ease of being able to express thoughts, feelings, and opinions online, we have even more opportunities to choose whether we communicate in a moral and humane way or not.

It’s worth taking a second look at what’s motivating our words. I’ve found that what we say – or don’t say, for that matter – and when we say it can become more than just empty words when our thought is aligned with God. When God’s goodness impels our words, this can benefit everyone involved.

My study of Christian Science has led me to look to Christ Jesus as the model for Christian living. His deep, humble unity with God impelled all he said and did. It gave him the confidence to remain silent when challenged by those opposed to his teaching and healing, to ask a question that cut through material superficiality, and to assert with complete authority the truth about our relation to God, our divine Parent. “I say only what I am told to by the one who sent me; and he is Truth,” Jesus said (John 8:26, Living Bible).

This was the basis from which Jesus not only spoke and acted but also healed. He proved God’s presence by yielding to divine Love’s guidance of his every motive and thought.

Not that words alone do anything, but they are edifying when they truly represent the spiritual power and presence of God. There is an incident in the Bible where Jesus is aggressively confronted by an angry group of religious leaders ready to stone a woman who was caught in adultery. Wanting to put Jesus on the spot, they asked him persistently what he thought about stoning her, as they considered it required under Moses’ law.

Jesus, silent and without a single indication of reactiveness, stoops down and starts writing on the ground. Although there is no way of knowing Jesus’ exact thoughts, it is easy to imagine him pausing to turn away from the human circumstances and opinions to listen to God, Love, the very source of his being.

When Jesus finally stood up, his merciful words silenced the criticism of the angry group and lifted the condemnation from the woman. He told the group, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). One by one, they left without harming her. Then with authority Jesus told the woman that he did not condemn her, either, but counseled her not to sin anymore.

The Christ, as described in Mary Baker Eddy’s primary book, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” is “the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness” (p. 332). Each of us can strive to follow Jesus’ example and let what we express to others reflect the divine messages of love, purity, and strength that God communicates to each of us.

An opportunity to find the right words came to me once after an incident when I overcame feeling frozen with fear before a singing performance. In my moment of need before my performance, I had turned wholeheartedly to God in prayer, as I have found helpful many times over the years.

As I did so, I felt God’s love wash over me like a wave, enabling me to tangibly feel my true, spiritual nature as the expression of divine Love. The fear melted, and I performed with absolute freedom.

Right after, a young man who had noticed how nervous I’d been before came to me to ask for encouragement before his performance. It was easy to let that fearless clarity I’d glimpsed of our unity with God, divine Love, impel my response. I told this young man, with absolute assurance, to trust God. This was minutes before he went on stage, and the words had an impact. He was so happy after he finished his wonderful performance.

Making sure our thoughts are aligned with the goodness that God is pouring forth ceaselessly to each of us, enables us to speak words that naturally edify, bring hope, and inspire comfort.

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75 years after Hiroshima

Eugene Hoshiko/AP
Kazumi Matsui (right), mayor of Hiroshima, and the family of the deceased bow before they place the list of victims of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima Memorial Cenotaph during the ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the bombing, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park Aug. 6, 2020, in Japan.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thanks for reading today’s package of stories. If you’ve been missing the postponed Olympic Games, then come back tomorrow. We’ve created a video of the international sporting event’s most inspiring moments from years past.

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