2020
September
22
Tuesday

Monitor Daily Podcast

September 22, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

Are trees intelligent? Is the universe conscious?

Consciousness and intelligence have been thorny problems for science from the beginning. How does a felt experience arise from a physical thing? What actually is intelligence? Science still can’t fully answer these questions. But the search is worth following.

Take trees. Not so long ago, intelligent trees would have seemed the stuff of elves and ents and “Lord of the Rings.” But scientists now know what J.R.R. Tolkien imagined: Trees can communicate with one another, warn one another, even recognize their own offspring and help them grow. “There could be whole ways of being we don’t even have words for,” noted a Q&A with scientist Suzanne Simard in Nautilus.

And it goes beyond Earth. Quantum physics has already scrambled our sense of perspective, suggesting that much of the universe exists in uncertainty until observed by a conscious being. That has led some scientists and mathematicians to suggest consciousness might exist beyond any material self. It’s not that rocks can think, says Annaka Harris, author of “Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind.” It’s that consciousness might exist as a universal field – a matrix that pervades the universe, like spacetime.

It’s a controversial idea. But for a species that is perhaps too often convinced of the certainty of what it thinks, it is a wonderfully humbling reminder of how much remains to be understood.

A deeper look

Armed protesters in America create stress test for police

Armed protests are revealing that the legal boundaries of the right to bear arms are not nearly as well defined as the right to free speech. That is leading to significant uncertainty. 

Mark
Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters
An armed far-right militia member fist-bumps a police officer in riot gear as various militia groups stage rallies at the Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia, August 15, 2020.

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Clashes like one in August at Georgia’s Stone Mountain – site of a massive bas-relief of Confederate icons, carved by the Ku Klux Klan – have become increasingly common in the U.S. as armed bands of civilians have roamed sometimes far from home to engage protesters, or protest themselves.

But what happens when First Amendment free speech rights are mixed together with Second Amendment gun rights guarantees in the same space?

If nothing else this potentially combustible combination poses unprecedented difficulty for law enforcement, even in states such as Georgia where the law explicitly prohibits public gathering of unauthorized “military bodies.”

When everyone’s armed what’s a police officer to do? In emotional and fluid situations, officers have to not only recognize rights, but figure out protest and counterprotest alliances and conflicts as unidentified people – many dressed in paramilitary garb – mill about carrying military-style rifles.

“You see these kinds of [armed conflicts] happen on the news maybe in a different country or even a different state, and you’re just, like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy, I can’t believe it,’” says a Virginia police officer. “Then you’re put smack dab in the middle of it and you’re, like, ‘Wow, this is real.’”

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1. Armed protesters in America create stress test for police

On a steamy Georgia summer day, the militiamen came. They came with long rifles around their shoulders and handguns stashed in the waist bands of athletic shorts.

After Stone Mountain Park denied a permit for an armed protest by an Alabama militia on Aug. 15, “that meant that everything was going to be in our yard, on our side of the mountain,” says Jasmine Little, a Stone Mountain city councilor.

Indeed, the armed group of white Alabamians proceeded to the Stone Mountain village square, where they were met by a larger group of counter-protesters, some of whom were also armed.

Residents were urged to stay out of the area, given the uncertainty of what might happen with all that weaponry around. Meanwhile – in the summer of 2020, with protests breaking out all across the nation – police decided to stay back.

When shouting and swearing escalated into brawls, police in riot gear finally moved in to break it up. Protesters had some bumps and bruises, but no officers were hurt and property was not destroyed. As a result, no one was arrested. The outcome was seen as a victory by Stone Mountain Police Chief Chancey Troutman, who declared, “All sides had their say.”

Clashes like this one at Stone Mountain – the founding site of the Ku Klux Klan, which features a massive bas relief of Confederate icons – have become increasingly common in the U.S. as armed bands of civilians have roamed sometimes far from home to engage protesters, or protest themselves.

But what happens when First Amendment free speech rights are mixed together with Second Amendment gun rights guarantees in the same space?

If nothing else this potentially combustible combination poses unprecedented difficulty for law enforcement, even in states such as Georgia where the law explicitly prohibits public gathering of unauthorized “military bodies.”

When everyone’s armed, what’s a cop to do? In emotional and fluid situations, officers have to not only recognize rights, but figure out protest and counter-protest alliances and conflicts as unidentified people – many dressed in paramilitary garb – mill about carrying military-style rifles.

“You see these kinds of [armed conflicts] happen on the news maybe in a different country or even a different state, and you’re just, like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy, I can’t believe it,’” says a Virginia police officer, who asked that his name not be used because he had not been authorized to speak to the press. “Then you’re put smack dab in the middle of it and you’re, like, ‘Wow, this is real.’”

At the same time, police, like everyone else, have biases – both implicit and explicit – that affect their decisions. Researchers say these can partly determine who is singled out for aggressive enforcement, who is given the benefit of the doubt, and who might even be welcomed as a partner in a tense situation.

Meanwhile Black Lives Matter protests have sparked a national conversation on how, or whether, to reform policing in America, and the country is plummeting toward a presidential election where many on both sides feel democracy itself is on the ballot. Amid this tumult existing laws and policing norms about the clash of guns and protest slogans can feel inadequate or even unenforceable.

 “It’s a basic question of law enforcement: What is the law and what are the facts on the ground?” says Saul Cornell, author of “‘A Well Regulated Militia’: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control.” “How are [police] supposed to enforce the law when there are people walking around with AR-15s and Kalashnikovs? We’re in this post-modern moment where the performances and fictions that we create seem to be more relevant than the laws we write.”

Rise of armed protests

Primarily white men armed with rifles began to appear at protests in 2016. The events became far more commonplace this year amid a painful pandemic and President Trump urging Americans to “liberate” their states from lockdowns. In Michigan this spring, stunned lawmakers watched as state police allowed armed groups into the Capitol, where some yelled down from the balcony. One lawmaker donned a flak jacket.

Black militias have also appeared in some cities. One such group marched in protest at Stone Mountain on July 4.

Though cooler heads have mostly prevailed, a few clashes have become violent. To some, the outcome of these incidents indicates there is a double standard in how police treat different groups of Americans.

Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters
Protesters exchange words as various militia groups stage rallies at the Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia, August 15, 2020.

For instance, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, gave armed white teenager Kyle Rittenhouse a water bottle and chatted amiably with him before he allegedly killed two people and injured a third during a night of protests. Days later Kenosha police arrested at gunpoint at a gas station a crew of Seattle cooks, known as the Riot Kitchen, who said they traveled to the city to feed protesters. Officers believed the cooks’ jerry cans might be bombs.

Earlier this month, police in Olympia, Washington, shot and killed a left-wing extremist, Michael Forest Reinoehl. Mr. Reinoehl was wanted by Oregon authorities on suspicion of targeting and killing a right-wing Patriot Prayer counter-protester in Portland.

Meanwhile, some states have enforced inconsistently laws intended to prohibit armed protests.

Like Georgia, North Carolina has a plainly written law that prohibits armed protest. Police in Greensboro, North Carolina, applied it this summer, arresting six armed Black protesters for violating it in June. Meanwhile, three armed white men, including one with a history of training with white supremacists, appeared at the same protests yet were not taken into custody, according to local media reports.

Those paradoxes suggest that police in some locales are, in fact, navigating difficult decisions about who can and can’t act with impunity in a protest zone – and that race and a long rifle on a shoulder can play into that decision.

Indeed, some critics believe that police and armed white vigilantes are working together to bolster a social order dominated by whites. Former North Carolina lawyer Lewis Pitts calls it “political policing.”

“Historical parallels can be seen even in federal counterintelligence programs during the 1960s, when it wasn’t just the local country bumpkin sheriff but the FBI saying about the Klan that they’re just good old boys and, ‘Sure,  we’ve got to hold them to some account,’ but there wasn’t the same feeling of the threat,” says Mr. Pitts. “But now we don’t see the equal protection of law. It becomes an ideological misuse of law.”

Uncharted legal territory

To be sure, officers are navigating a maze of state, local, and federal laws, and ordinances as they try to keep the peace.

And in some ways, they are in uncharted legal territory. The interaction of free speech with legally carried weapons has not really been litigated by the Supreme Court. The landmark 2008 high court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller affirmed an individual right to bear arms. But the decision touched on, not armed protesters, but whether Americans should be able, as Justice Anthony Kennedy mused, to fight off a grizzly bear.

Many states ban armed public gatherings. But 31 states now also allow the open carrying of a handgun without any special license or permit, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Concealed carry of firearms, once rare, is now commonplace – 15 states allow concealed carry of weapons without permits. The evolution of self-defense laws has raised difficult questions about who can claim them, when, and why? Who gets aggressively policed and who gets a pass?

“We’re in sort of a real-time development of the Second Amendment law,” says Tim Zick, a professor of government and citizenship at William & Mary School of Law. “And we already have a preexisting established First Amendment law and doctrine. ... People are trying to figure out, are they compatible? ... Does one fundamentally undermine the other?”

Andrew Selsky/AP
Armed right-wing protesters in support of President Donald Trump stand in front of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. Hundreds of people gathered on Labor Day in a small town south of Portland for a pro-President Donald Trump vehicle rally, just over a week after member of a far-right group was fatally shot after a Trump caravan went through Oregon's largest city. Later, pro-Trump supporters and counter-protesters clashed at Oregon's Capitol.

For police officers like the one in Virginia, the answer is elusive.

“When you watch videos, it definitely seems that there is a double standard,” he says. “You can’t deny it.”

He points to recent incidents in Minnesota and Wisconsin as evidence of that.

“It’s really disappointing we can’t get everything to an equal level of treatment,” says the officer, who carries stickers in his cruiser to hand out to kids. “It makes every other police officer in the country look terrible.”

At the same time, he says, policing is such a complicated job that each incident can be viewed in many different ways. He policed a large armed protest this year, but wasn’t concerned because it was permitted and peaceful. More raucous protests at night, where laws are being broken, changes the dynamics and response, he says.

Ordinances against gun carry in protest are difficult to enforce, he says, because it’s not always clear whether someone is part of an event or protest or a bystander. (The North Carolina law, for one, also bans armed bystanders.)

Arresting armed protesters, in this officer’s mind, means that “you’re kind of infringing on someone’s Second Amendment right. But at the same time, you can exercise your Second Amendment right – just ... leave [the gun] in your vehicle. My thought process is, if you don’t feel safe in that protest without your firearm, then don’t go to that protest.”

“Manifestations of bias”

The Brennan Center for Justice has found evidence of “unconscious manifestations of bias” in police response to protests. But some bias may be more overt – federal agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, have also warned about explicit expressions of white supremacy inside some police forces, as well as “active links” between white supremacist militia members and some law enforcement officials.

The Trump administration has sought to downplay those threats, pointing to protesters as the real threat to public safety. Attorney General William Barr, in a conference call with U.S. attorneys earlier this month, encouraged prosecutors to be aggressive in pressing charges against violent protesters, including possibly charging them with plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. On Sept. 21, the Justice Department named New York City; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle as “anarchist jurisdictions” that have permitted violence and property destruction to persist, and thus are at risk of losing federal aid.

More broadly, in interviews with dozens of police chiefs in Michigan, Arizona, and California, the sociologist Jennifer Carlson found that police and armed, far-right demonstrators do not so much openly collude as make common cause in fast-moving, dynamic situations on the street.

“Mass shootings are a key reference point that police use when talking about why they see private armed civilians as sort of a net positive for policing,” says Ms. Carlson, author of “Policing the Second Amendment,” published this month.

On the other hand, says Dr. Carlson, “police definitely don’t like open-carriers. They’re a pain. They’re an annoyance. But they talk about it more as a public nuisance than an aggressive crime.”

But on the ground, as police are under scrutiny from both the public and many elected officials, the bonds between cops and armed “citizen protectors” – who see gun-carry as a civic duty and responsibility – have likely strengthened, Ms. Carlson finds in her work.

“We’re in this long, long shadow of the war on crime, this idea that crime is a central social problem, and that all bets are off when dealing with problems of crime and disorder,” she says. “This is where Americans throw down to address social problems. And that whole apparatus is wrapped up in racial ideologies that are aggravated in the context of ... apocalyptic thinking – this idea that 2020 is the season finale of the series, ‘America.’”

“Where do we go from here?”

Indeed, for some who study the strength of democracy in nations around the world, the rise of armed vigilantes in America is reminiscent of what happens in weakening democracies on the verge of authoritarian rule.

 “I think that’s why it’s such an ugly election: People are recognizing it’s a constitutional crisis that the country is in, and where do we go from here?” says Emira Woods, a founding board member of Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity, a network of pan-African social movements.

Racial justice protesters are “demanding that the country divest from what has brought harm to our communities since the slave patrols – and let’s instead envision a society that works for all of us,” says Ms. Woods.

For many militia members, mob rule in the streets comprises the real threat to democracy.

Virginia militia member Kurt Feigel says he doesn’t like elected leaders leaning on police to let people “run wild in the streets,” but he also takes issue with policies that have led to the militarization of policing.

He has joined permitted rallies, but has not traveled to confront protesters. He meets monthly with the sheriff, not, he says, to coordinate, but to keep him apprised of the group’s activities.

“I look at law enforcement as a barrier between the victim and perpetrator – so that if somebody commits a crime against me, I don’t have to feel the need to take vengeance on them. The law will do that for me,” says Mr. Feigel, commander of the Bedford Militia in Bedford County. “So when the law is not allowed to do that for me, then you start having vigilantism, where you have people just saying, ‘Well, fine, I’ll just do it myself.’”

Patterns

Tracing global connections

Supreme Court battle could tarnish global luster of US judiciary

True, the U.S. Supreme Court has never been immune to politics. Yet the depth of partisanship over Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s successor could affect perceptions abroad that it is a gold standard.

Mark

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The political fight that has broken out in Washington over when and how to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court is about more than the name of her successor. Fundamentally it is about how far politics should encroach on the judiciary.

That is an issue that has surfaced in a number of other countries recently, from the Philippines to Turkey, where authoritarian strongmen have reined in troublesome judges. The U.S. is a far more robust democracy, but the Supreme Court has never been completely immune from politics.

Franklin Roosevelt tried to expand the court, to “pack” it, but his own Democratic Party stymied the move in Congress. Such an outcome would be most unlikely today; the Senate confirmation process has grown increasingly partisan, especially so since the administration of Barack Obama.

If President Donald Trump gets his nominee onto the Supreme Court, Joe Biden – should he win the election – might be tempted to retaliate by following in FDR’s footsteps. But he has always preferred compromise, and might try to reform the institution, with term limits and a set retirement age, to free the highest court in the land from partisan political dogfights.

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2. Supreme Court battle could tarnish global luster of US judiciary

Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be remembered for many things: as an extraordinary legal mind and jurist, a battler for equal rights, and an unlikely icon of popular culture dubbed RBG in her later years. And now for a fiercely partisan battle over how, when, and by whom she will be succeeded on the bench.

Yet seen through a wider lens – the history of America’s highest court and a host of cautionary examples worldwide in the past few years – the unfolding succession fight is about something more than just who follows Justice Ginsburg, who died last week.

Ultimately, it’s about the rule of law: the idea that a legal system, mediated by judges independent of political pressures or favoritism, applies equally to all.

That standard has never been perfectly implemented. But at a time when politicians in America and elsewhere are trying ever harder to influence the judicial process, it is about a critical, real-world question: how far such encroachment can or should go.

In the United States, it’s also about the place of the Supreme Court, whose justices must be approved by the Senate, in a democracy built on the balance of separate and competing power centers: the judiciary, Congress, and the presidency.

With leading Republicans insisting President Donald Trump be able to fill the court seat either before or immediately after the elections in six weeks’ time, and Democrats threatening to retaliate by adding new justices under a potential President Joe Biden, a dramatically changed court may emerge no matter which side prevails.

And that would have international repercussions.

In my long experience as a foreign correspondent I was often struck by how the U.S. judiciary, and America’s system of checks and balances, are viewed as a gold standard of constitutional democracy.

I still vividly recall the reaction of friends in Europe and Asia to one particular court ruling, in the 1974 case of the United States v. Nixon. The justices ruled unanimously that the president had to hand over tape recordings during Watergate. The first response: astonishment. The second, a heartbeat later: admiration.

Strongmen vs. the judiciary

There has been no shortage recently of international examples of the way in which political sway over the judiciary can prove a key tool in authoritarian rule. Strongman regimes from Egypt and the Philippines to Venezuela have manipulated, evaded, or quashed independent legal processes.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reassigned or fired thousands of judges. And to the consternation of the European Union, two member states, the “illiberal democracies” of Hungary and Poland, have also moved to bring the courts under political control.

The U.S. remains a far more robust democracy. In the debate around the future of the Supreme Court, neither side is seeking all-out political control over the justice system. Besides, the high court’s history suggests that justices, no matter who appoints them, are conscious of the need to safeguard the body’s stature and independence.

T. Cambre Pierce/AP/File
U.S. Sen. Joe Biden tells members of the media that he will have a full, fair, and thorough hearing on Judge Robert Bork in 1987. Bork was President Ronald Reagan's nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy and Mr. Biden opposed his appointment.

But the court has never been completely immune to politics. Even the idea of expanding its size for political reasons has a precedent: Franklin Roosevelt, frustrated by opposition to his New Deal in the 1930s, embarked on an attempt to expand – “pack” – the Supreme Court.

There’s a key difference between then and now: FDR’s own Democratic Party blocked that move in Congress.

In the decades since, growing polarization in the U.S. has affected the way in which the court is viewed. For many Republican supporters, especially on the right of the party, the court has ventured too actively into political battles over issues such as gay rights, or women’s right to abortion.

Those on the other side of the argument, though, resent efforts by conservative groups and the Trump administration to “rebalance” the court and reverse those legal changes. That resentment is further fueled by polling that suggests a wide majority of Americans would oppose such a reversal.

This is not the first time that former Vice President Biden finds himself embroiled in a debate over the Supreme Court’s relationship with politics and society. It was he, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987, who oversaw what was then a rare rejection of a presidential nominee to the high court, Ronald Reagan’s choice of the conservative Robert Bork.

Mr. Biden rooted his argument at the time not in politics, but broad principle: whether the Constitution should be seen as a static document, or a living blueprint that adapted to evolving American social circumstances and values.

Increased partisanship

Still, by the time RBG was confirmed in 1993, her margin of Senate endorsement – 96 to 3 – remained more typical. As late as 2005, George W. Bush’s nomination of the current chief justice, John Roberts, was confirmed by 78 votes to 22.

The increasingly partisan nature of the confirmation process became clear during President Barack Obama’s administration. More than 30 Republican senators voted against his two nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. When a further vacancy arose around 10 months before the last election, the Republican-controlled Senate refused even to hold hearings on Mr. Obama’s nominee.

If Mr. Trump succeeds in placing a conservative in Justice Ginsburg’s seat, cementing the partisanship around America’s highest court, Mr. Biden would be under huge pressure to expand the court if he won the November election.

That would allow him both to balance Mr. Trump’s replacement for Justice Ginsburg and make up for the Republicans’ refusal to allow Mr. Obama his final nominee.

But Mr. Biden’s political life has been rooted in trying to achieve bipartisan compromise. He could well be minded to try to get all sides to agree on a reform of the way justices are installed.

Currently they are named for life. The imposition of term limits and a set retirement age are among the changes suggested by U.S. legal commentators as a way to free the highest court in the land from politically partisan dogfights.

The Explainer

Mail-in voting 101: How to make your ballot count

Vote-by-mail is expected to be crucial in this fall’s election. The concern is that many ballots could be rejected because of human error. Here are steps to avoid common mistakes.

Mark

Two ways to read the story

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  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

With the pandemic, mail-in voting appears set to reach record levels this year. The risk of fraud has become a topic of contention, yet experts say the biggest problems have to do with human error rather than malfeasance. So it pays to learn the rules.

Requirements vary by state and sometimes even at the local level. Most voters will be allowed to vote by mail this fall if they wish, but generally an application is needed. Nine states and the District of Columbia are sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters. 

Voting experts recommend being early – both in applying for ballots and sending them in. Doing so, they say, will help ease the burden on the postal system, allow voters flexibility to correct potential mistakes, and make the Nov. 3 vote count closer to the eventual total.

“The vast majority of Americans are not going to have problems,” says Myrna Perez, director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center for Justice. “What we don’t want is for people to be hearing about all the problems and all the glitches and feel like their vote doesn’t matter.”

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3. Mail-in voting 101: How to make your ballot count

Dropping your vote in the mail may sound convenient, but what if you’ve never done this before and the stakes in the election seem, well, pretty high? 

All across the United States, including in hotly contested states from Arizona to Florida, many Americans are in precisely that position.

Nov. 3 may be Election Day, but in response to the coronavirus pandemic the process of voting is already underway. Physical voting stations will still play a major role in 2020. But, in an election year marked by unusual levels of social and political turmoil, absentee and mail-in voting appear set to reach record levels. 

Will this process work? How do people make sure their vote counts? 

Although the risk of fraud with mail-in ballots has become a topic of contention, experts say the biggest problems have to do with human error rather than malfeasance. In New York City this summer, some primary races remained undecided for about six weeks after voting day, and an unusually high 1 in 5 mail-in ballots were rejected for being late or improperly filled out.

The lesson: Especially for citizens using those methods for the first time, careful planning is essential.

The Monitor spoke with multiple election experts for advice on how voters can properly mail their ballots this fall. They say it’s largely a matter of following directions and meeting deadlines. If you want to vote by mail, they recommend following these steps.

1. Know your area

Since each state manages its own elections, the American voting system comes in 50 parts, each with its own quirks. Requirements can also vary at the local level, which means voters need to understand their specific options and rules when making a plan. 

Important information is available on city, county, or state election websites. Either there or over the phone, people can check if they are registered to vote and even eligible for mail-in voting.

In all but five states, Americans concerned about COVID-19 will be able to vote by mail

Most states require constituents to apply for a mailed ballot online, in person, over the phone, or through the mail. Some states are mailing applications to all registered voters. Nine states and the District of Columbia are going even further: They are automatically sending mail-in ballots to all eligible voters. 

SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures; state election websites
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Karen Norris/Staff

2. Know your deadlines – and be early


In states where mail-in ballots must be requested, voters need to know the deadline for requesting them. In turn, there are deadlines for completed ballots to be sent in. In many states they must be postmarked by Election Day, but in many others they must be received by Election Day. Knowing the difference can be vital.

Two states – Louisiana and Vermont – require that ballots must be received a day before the election. 

With vote-by-mail volume expected to be so high this year, experts also recommend that voters apply for and mail their ballots as early as possible, rather than waiting until closer to Election Day. Doing so, they say, will help ease the burden on the postal system, allow voters flexibility to correct potential mistakes, and make the Nov. 3 vote count closer to the eventual total.

Some states let voters track their mailed ballots, and some also alert voters of mistakes on their ballot. To know their vote arrives safely, correctly, and on time, an earlier vote is a better vote.

“Go ahead and literally today – probably yesterday – make sure to get those requests in and turn that [ballot] right back around,” says Andrea Hailey, CEO of Vote.org. “Every year we say have a plan. This year, in the middle of a pandemic, it’s more important than ever to give yourself as much time as possible.”

SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures; state election websites
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Karen Norris/Staff

3. Follow directions

The benefit of mail-in voting lies mostly in its safety and convenience. Its drawback is that a disproportionately high number of mailed ballots are disqualified, usually as a result of human error.

Without in-person election officials and real-time feedback, citizens are more prone to mistakes. And such mistakes are likely to be more common this year, with so many Americans voting from home for the first time. In years past, the number of disqualified ballots has been as large as or larger than a candidate’s margin of victory.

“Being careful about following the rules, about filling out bubbles or making sure you filled out the correct lines, is even more important when voting by mail,” says John Fortier, director of governmental studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There are not the checking mechanisms that you have at the polling place.”

The best way to avoid potential pitfalls is to read and follow all the directions closely, say Mr. Fortier and other experts. A very small number of locales have special technical requirements, like getting the ballot notarized. Others require a signature that matches one on record, most often taken from a driver’s license – and which voters can update or check on their state electoral board online or over the phone.

The electoral ballot will also include information for its return – whether voters can send it by mail, drop it off in person, or leave it in a dropbox. Some states will include pre-authorized postage with the ballot, while others make voters attach it themselves.

4. Have faith

With so much misinformation circulating about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service and voting by mail, experts warn against cynicism, which could chill turnout. Other misconceptions about voting by mail – that the ballots are only counted in close elections, for example – might have a similar effect, says Mr. Fortier.

“The vast majority of Americans are not going to have problems,” says Myrna Perez, director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center for Justice. “What we don’t want is for people to be hearing about all the problems and all the glitches and feel like their vote doesn’t matter.”

Despite the extra steps it may require, she says, voting at home is safe and trustworthy. There will be complications. The pandemic has put enormous strain on America’s election infrastructure. But glitches or disqualified ballots are by far the exception, not the rule, says Ms. Perez.

If citizens still worry about voting by mail, she says, they should remember that in-person polling places will still be open and that other options are available.

And ... consider getting involved

Since many people will still vote in person, volunteering at a polling center can be enormously helpful. As the coronavirus depresses volunteer turnout, younger voters at less risk from COVID-19 can make a major contribution by working the polls, says Ms. Hailey.

While voting is a collective right, she says, it’s also somewhat of a collective responsibility. This election will occur under chaotic circumstances, but if Americans play their part, they can make sure the election itself isn’t chaotic. 

“To avoid disenfranchisement and long lines we’re really encouraging a new generation of voters to step up and volunteer to become poll workers to make sure that everyone in their community can have their voice heard,” says Ms. Hailey.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.

SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures; state election websites
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Noah Robertson and Karen Norris/Staff

Q&A

‘Strategic empathy’: H.R. McMaster on foreign policy and China

Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster says he wants his new book to help Americans understand the world better. Our Ann Scott Tyson talked to him about China.

Mark
Evan Vucci/AP/File
H.R. McMaster, then the U.S. national security adviser, participates in a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 25, 2018. Mr. McMaster’s new book, “Battlegrounds,” covers his 34-year military career and his year in the Trump White House.

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Two years after leaving the White House, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster is looking back at U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War – and finds it deeply flawed. The reason? “Strategic narcissism,” an overly U.S.-centric worldview that has blinded American policymakers.

Lieutenant General McMaster, a historian and highly decorated commander, examines that pattern in his wide-ranging new book, “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.” Overall, his goal is to inspire Americans to educate themselves about the world, and to strengthen U.S. “strategic empathy,” which he views as essential for foreign policy success. 

In this interview, he speaks with the Monitor about one increasingly urgent focus of U.S. strategy: China. The general, who was centrally involved in a major policy shift away from engagement and toward competition and confrontation, discusses Beijing’s aims, Thucydides’ trap, and what keeps him up at night.

“China is anything but monolithic, and we ought to strive to have positive relations with Chinese people and with entities that are not directly connected to or doing the work of the Communist Party,” he says. “The problem is the space available to do that is diminishing.”

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4. ‘Strategic empathy’: H.R. McMaster on foreign policy and China

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, national security adviser to President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2018, explains in the first line of his new book, “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World,” why he chose not to write a tell-all memoir of his time in the White House. 

“I wanted to ... help transcend the vitriol of partisan political discourse,” writes Mr. McMaster, a historian, author, and highly decorated commander who led U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Now retired from the military and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Mr. McMaster instead examines U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War and finds it deeply flawed. The reason? “Strategic narcissism,” an overly U.S.-centric worldview that has blinded American policymakers. In taking the job of national security adviser, Mr. McMaster says he sought to “close gaps between reality overseas and fantasy in Washington.” 

His wide-ranging account reexamines U.S. policy from Russia and China to Iran and North Korea, and from South Asia and the Middle East to the new arenas of space and cyberwar. His goal? To inspire Americans to educate themselves about the world, and to strengthen U.S. “strategic empathy,” which he views as essential for foreign policy success. Here, he speaks with the Monitor about one increasingly urgent focus of U.S. strategy: China.

Q. You were centrally involved in crafting a major shift in U.S. policy toward China – away from engagement and toward competition and confrontation. Why do you believe hopes for engagement were misplaced? What changed?

There were reasons to continue to hope. As a historian, I am sensitive to try to understand better the perspective at the time. In the ’90s there were encouraging signs, all the way up to [Chinese leader] Hu Jintao. But right after the 2008 financial crisis, a shift happened [in China]. It should have been an inescapable conclusion that China wouldn’t play by the rules, that China wasn’t going to liberalize its economy or its form of governance. That shift also occurred during a crisis of confidence in our free-market economic system, in our financial system, in who we were as a people to some extent. There were divisions in our own society, frustrations with long and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for many the conventional wisdom was that it was time just to manage America’s decline.

Q. To what extent has U.S. involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the global war on terrorism, distracted Washington from China’s rise?

The argument is Iraq was an unwise choice, and the unanticipated costs and consequences there were what shook our confidence. I think what emboldened China more than that was a combination of the financial crisis and the unenforced red line in Syria in 2013-14. You can draw almost a direct line between that decision and [China’s] militarization and building of islands in the South China Sea. I think they just thought we’re over, we’re not going to challenge any power militarily, not even a weak Assad regime that committed mass murder against civilians with some of the most heinous weapons on earth.

Q. Around the same time, Harvard Professor Graham Allison’s “Thucydides’ trap” idea [that war is likely when an emerging power challenges a dominant power] was gaining currency in China. What’s your take on that?

There is this false dilemma posed. Graham Allison is more nuanced than this, but the interpretation of his Thucydides’ trap analogy is that you face a dilemma between passivity and accommodation on one hand, and confrontation and disastrous war on the other. But I believe we had been on the path to confrontation because we had done nothing to compete effectively. I think our passivity was why, in large measure, the Chinese Communist Party was emboldened.

I think there has to be a flat-out rejection by the whole world of the Chinese Communist Party narrative that we are just trying to keep them down, that we are trying to block the path of a rising power because we are the status quo power – the Thucydides’ trap conventional wisdom that has emerged.

Q. What do you believe China’s leaders intend for the country’s expanded world role?

What is clear is they want to subvert the international order as it exists, and replace it with a new order that is more sympathetic to China’s interests.    

They are trying to establish exclusionary areas of primacy across the Indo-Pacific. That could be by buying a base in Djibouti, connecting it to a port in Sri Lanka. It is also the militarization in the South China Sea. It’s their action in the East China Sea and around the Senkaku Islands. It’s the coercion of the South Korean government, as the first step in trying to drive the United States off the peninsula. It’s the threatening of Taiwan. It’s the Himalayan border. Piece it together. 

They also want to challenge the United States globally. That is why they are building a dam in Ecuador, and trading debt for equity, but also getting a lock on all of Ecuador’s oil exports. It’s not an economic investment. It’s a way to gain influence. Combine that with what they are trying to do with the communications infrastructure, and data standards and protocols. They want preponderant influence over the global logistics system and the emerging data economy. In addition, they are exporting their authoritarian, mercantilist model all over the world. 

The stakes are high, because if China wins this competition, the world will be less free, less prosperous, and less safe. So it’s a competition worth getting behind now. 

Q. In your book, you talk about China’s insecurity and the fear that goes hand in hand with its ambition. Do you see validity in China’s concern about internal division and instability, and the problems it would cause for the United States and the world if China were to become less stable? 

I would just say, take a poll in Xinjiang about it, how’s it working out for them? Ask the people in Hong Kong. The whole conventional wisdom was we have more to fear from a weak China than from a strong China. I don’t see that. I don’t think it was true then when President Obama said it, and I don’t think it is true now.

Q. What keeps you up at night when you think about China?

What I think could happen is Chinese Communist Party leaders will become more anxious about losing their exclusive grip on power. What they will do to reduce that risk is to intensify the establishment of the Orwellian surveillance police state internally, and they will begin to aggressively pursue “national rejuvenation” externally with maybe a move on Taiwan. We already see threatening behavior toward Taiwan and attacks against India on the Himalayan frontier. 

Do they think they are already in a position of relative strength? This is what is dangerous. What if the People’s Liberation Army believes the steady diet of propaganda they are being fed? What are the chances they will be more likely to precipitate an incident? 

Q. What do you see as the ideal global role of China and its relationship with the U.S.?

China is anything but monolithic, and we ought to strive to have positive relations with Chinese people and with entities that are not directly connected to or doing the work of the Communist Party. The problem is the space available to do that is diminishing.

Has guaranteed basic income's time arrived? Canada may find out.

The idea of universal basic income has been piloted in several cities worldwide but never gotten a broad test. Amid the pandemic, Canada is considering taking that step.

Mark
Jessie Golem
Dan, Justine, their daughter, Julia, and their unborn son, Orion, benefited from a basic income pilot project in Hamilton, Ontario. Jessie Golem took photos of the participants of the program in August 2018, after it was canceled.

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For decades, the idea of a guaranteed basic wage has been seen as a left-wing fantasy. But now that citizens around the world have become dependent on a government check, an idea that once lived on the fringe has shifted more mainstream. And it may get a test run in Canada.

The idea has been formally endorsed by many groups, from the Anglican Church of Canada to the United Steelworkers. A poll in May shows 62% of respondents in Canada would support a guaranteed income program paid for by the government.

A group of Liberal lawmakers called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make basic income a top policy resolution at the party’s November convention. Many are awaiting the government’s speech Wednesday to open a new session of Parliament for hints of the country’s future social safety net.

The idea faces huge hurdles – from cost to societal disdain for “getting something for nothing” – but the pandemic has born a new group that understands intimately how fragile economic security can be.

“People in the middle class who thought they were pretty secure, all of a sudden discovered they’re not,” says Sheila Regehr of the Basic Income Canada Network.

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5. Has guaranteed basic income's time arrived? Canada may find out.

Jessie Golem knows the stigma of poverty. She’s been called a leech and parasite. She’s heard more times than she can count, “Go get a job.”

In fact, she always had multiple jobs. But piano lessons, gigs in dog walking, and a budding photography business – a 60-to-80-hour weekly hustle – left her just enough to pay her rent in Hamilton.

It wasn’t until she became part of a pilot program in Ontario, receiving a basic income supplement of $1,400 a month, that her working life finally came together. “It was really awesome watching my photography business grow,” she says. “I drew up a whole business plan and had a financial projection that I would only have needed to be on the basic income pilot for two of the three years.”

That pilot ended after its first year with a change in provincial government in 2018 – frustrating the centuries-old idea of a guaranteed basic wage that has never taken off beyond limited experiments in the last 50 years. But now that millions of Canadians have experienced what it’s like to lose a job or had hours cut back with no recourse, now that citizens around the world have only been able to find a way forward with a government check, an idea that once lived on the fringe has become more mainstream.

Driving the discussion in recent years are technological disruption and artificial intelligence, as well as structural economic systems behind a global gig economy. The idea faces huge hurdles – from cost to societal disdain for “getting something for nothing” – but the pandemic has born a new group that understands intimately how fragile economic security can be.

“People in the middle class who thought they were pretty secure, all of a sudden discovered they’re not,” says Sheila Regehr, chairperson for the Basic Income Canada Network.

A call for basic income

Since March, the idea in Canada has been formally endorsed by many groups, from the Anglican Church of Canada to the United Steelworkers, when unions have traditionally worried streamlining welfare into a basic income program could imply a loss of public jobs and services, Ms. Regehr says.

A group of Liberal lawmakers called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a minority government with the leftist New Democrats, to make basic income a top policy resolution at the party’s November convention. Many are awaiting the government’s throne speech Wednesday to open a new session of Parliament for hints of the country’s future social safety net.

Basic income has been piloted from Finland to Stockton, California. Former American presidential contender Andrew Yang proposed a monthly $1,000 check to all Americans. That’s universal basic income (UBI). In Canada, the pilot project acts as a supplement, something akin to a policy already in place for seniors to guarantee none will fall below the poverty line. The idea remains highly contentious. One news item on the CBC about it drew more than 17,500 comments. 

But attitudes are shifting, here and abroad. In a poll carried out by Public Square Research in May, 62% of respondents in Canada said they’d support a guaranteed income program paid for by the government. A majority is in favor in the European Union, where Germany and Spain are attempting new policies.

Even in the U.S., where work is “imbued with an almost religious significance,” says Matt Zwolinski, director of the Center for Ethics, Economics and Public Policy at the University of San Diego, the issue is gaining traction in municipalities across the country. He says governments have gotten more comfortable in how quickly they can issue payments, and what a lifeline they’ve been during the pandemic. And society has gotten more comfortable with them too.

A conservative case for basic income

A basic income has long been viewed as a left-wing, utopian ideal, but throughout history support has also come from the right, including famously the economist Milton Friedman. And now the pandemic also added a moral imperative, especially as it’s so heavily hit minorities, women, and the poor, says Mr. Zwolinski.

“There’s an idea behind a basic income guarantee … that we ought to have some kind of floor below which nobody is allowed to sink,” he says. “And that, I think, is a really appealing idea that transcends a lot of the standard political division between left and right, because it’s not a radically egalitarian proposal. … It’s saying regardless of how rich we allow people to become in society, we ought to make sure that everybody has at least enough to get by.”

Jessie Golem
Called "Humans of Basic Income," the basic income recipients photo exhibit has received widespread attention and helped humanize the people behind the stipends, like Sarah of Hamilton, Ontario.

Here in Canada, one of the staunchest supporters of a basic income is Hugh Segal, a former Conservative senator who designed the Ontario pilot that Ms. Golem participated in. He points to a parliamentary budget officer report from 2018 that estimated the cost of the program would be $76 billion but would be eventually be offset by savings of some $30 billion in current welfare programs.

Mr. Segal argues that any program would be offset by billions in administrative savings, while paying a dignified wage without the disincentives to work built into current welfare policies. “And that’s without counting any of the savings we would get in the healthcare system, the penal system, and elsewhere by reducing the pathologies of poverty.”

With the rise of artificial intelligence, basic income has been touted as a modern response to a new economy, why people like Elon Musk support it. James Collura, a recipient in the Ontario pilot, studied economics at McMaster University in Hamilton and got a part-time job as a bank teller. He quickly learned that the better he accomplished his job to move clients online, the more his job became obsolete.

A guaranteed income gave him the space to reflect. He changed jobs – even though the new one had no benefits – to a flotation therapy and wellness center. That center had to close its doors when the pandemic hit. He then qualified for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), or what he calls “UBI round two,” which he has used to take an even more spiritual path. Today he lives in a monastic Buddhist community in Hamilton, where he is working on a permaculture food forest project. He says he feels as stable as anyone could. “And I think right now, we need people to feel safe and secure so that we can actually work together and not feel so anxious and afraid.”

“A small minority will always game the system”

Mr. Segal bristles at criticism that recipients “sit on the couch eating bonbons.” In a review of his pilot, which included 4,000 participants in Hamilton, Lindsay, and Thunder Bay, a basic income motivated the vast majority to find a better-paying job. Participants said they felt healthier, more mentally secure, and freer from addictions like alcohol. Similar results were found in a larger project from Manitoba in the 1970s. A small minority will always game the system, Mr. Segal says. The same percentage, he adds, will game Wall Street.

“We all have an aversion to the notion that you get something for nothing. But we have a whole series of what I would call ‘free money processes’ now in the system,” he says, like taxation rates in industrialized countries that are lower for companies to implement new technologies than hire employees.

Mr. Zwolinski says there have been limits to studies on workforce implications because no experiment has lasted long enough. “If I tell you that I’m going to give you a thousand dollars a month for the next 12 months and then I’m going to stop, you’re not going to retire,” he says. “But if I tell you I’m going to do this for the rest of your life, that might very well have a more profound impact on your participation in the labor market.”

Maria Anyusheda, an environmental science graduate whose daughter toddles around a park on a recent day in Hamilton, says she could use the support. With a basic income she would start looking for a job. Yet she wonders if that’s the most targeted approach to reduce inequalities. “To help the greatest number of women, they should provide available and affordable day care,” she says. (Amid the pandemic, women’s participation in the Canadian workforce fell to its lowest level in three decades, according to a July Royal Bank of Canada study.)

Ms. Golem has tried to humanize the idea. When the Ontario pilot ended, she created a photography exhibit called “Humans of Basic Income” that captures the stories behind the stipends. Now the pandemic has made poverty even more relatable, she says, as she nervously awaits Mr. Trudeau’s plans on basic income. “When the economy crashed, it highlighted that we’re all way more fragile than we think we are.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.

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Teaching America’s past with a common goal

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Last week, President Donald Trump introduced a new issue into the election campaign: how to teach United States history. He announced the creation of a “1776 Commission” that would “restore patriotic education to our schools.” It is the latest attempt to influence the teaching of U.S. history. A bill in the House would put money toward helping students confront racism in discussions of history. A Senate measure would cut funding to any school district that relies on the 1619 Project. That refers to articles in The New York Times from last year that highlight the role of slavery in the nation’s beginnings and that are now being used by several schools as teaching tools.

What can unite different approaches to teaching history is their common focus on instilling critical thinking skills – or the ability to discover and discern the facts and meaning of history.

In countries that rely on a system of self-government, training students to distinguish fact from opinion and to rely on reason to draw conclusions is a way to uncover and defeat any social ill. History itself shows the power of intelligence to lift up the thinking of society.

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Teaching America’s past with a common goal

Last week, on the occasion of Constitution Day (Sept. 17), President Donald Trump tried to introduce a new issue into the election campaign: how to teach United States history. He announced the creation of a “1776 Commission” that would “restore patriotic education to our schools.” He wants students to learn “the magnificent truth” of America’s past rather than a new approach in some schools that, he claims, tries “to make students ashamed of their own history.”

The federal government, of course, has very little control over K-12 curriculum in local education. Still, the new commission adds to other recent attempts to influence the teaching of U.S. history.

A bill in the House, for example, would put money toward helping “students confront racism and prejudice in common discussions of literature and history.” On the Senate side, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton proposes legislation to cut funding to any school district that relies on the 1619 Project. That refers to articles in The New York Times from last year that highlight the role of slavery in the nation’s beginnings and that are now being used by several schools as teaching tools. The 1619 Project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, says its purpose is to help Americans “to work to live up to the majestic ideas of our founding.”

Whether schools should emphasize “the magnificent truth” of America’s past (Mr. Trump) or highlight social injustices to further the country’s “majestic ideals” (New York Times) does not seem like an unbridgeable difference for local school boards and teachers. In fact, the teaching of history, along with civics education, often adjusts to current conditions. “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife,” said famed educator John Dewey.

In particular, civics education – or the teaching of the rights and duties of citizenship – seems to be improving. Achievement levels in that topic rose for white, Black, and Hispanic students between 1998 and 2018, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

What can unite different approaches to teaching history is their common focus on instilling critical thinking skills – or the ability to discover and discern the facts and meaning of history.

Mr. Trump, for example, criticized the Smithsonian Institution for recently publishing a description of “whiteness” as an emphasis on “objective, rational linear thinking.” The institution promptly took down the description. And the House funding bill requires anti-racist education to “support critical thinking skills.”

In countries that rely on a system of self-government, training students to be honest seekers of historical truth – to distinguish fact from opinion and to rely on reason to draw conclusions – is a way to uncover and defeat any social ill. History itself shows the power of intelligence to lift up the thinking of society. Those mental faculties have long allowed Americans to face the past, learn from it, and chart a new course forward.

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 promise of care through fire and flood

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Whether we’re facing extreme weather events in person or yearning to help those who are, we can find inspiration and help in the biblical promise that God’s powerful, healing care is at hand – as a woman experienced firsthand.

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1. God’s promise of care through fire and flood

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Some years ago, I had been reading a passage from the weekly Christian Science Bible Lesson. It was the prophet Isaiah assuring his people that God had said: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee” (Isaiah 43:2).

I could see that it wasn’t just a beautiful metaphor. It was articulating how precise and how complete God’s care of us actually is.

Later that morning, as I was preparing breakfast for the family, I turned my back to our gas stove. Our son looked up at me and said in astonishment, “Mom, you’re on fire!” In fact, my clothing had ignited when it drifted across the burner, and flames were shooting up my back.

Instantly, that Bible verse came to thought. I felt no fear, just a deep sense of being loved and cared for. And without any fuss, I stopped, dropped, and rolled, extinguishing the flames. But what so impressed me was that my hair was not even singed, nor was there anything but the slightest fraying of a hem on my vest. It was as if it had never happened.

Christian Science has taught me there’s a divine law behind God’s promises of care. A law that is universal and inclusive of all, and one we can see applying to our current needs as we reach out in prayer.

Later that same week, after days of rain, the river near our home burst its banks and flooded the area. I watched the dark waters edge up our backyard to within a few feet of our daughter’s bedroom. That reassurance of the divine care of all creation, so continuously present with God, who is unchanging and eternal Love, again filled my heart with calm and trust. By afternoon, though the rains had continued, the waters gently receded, leaving our home untouched.

These two experiences of protection have encouraged me as I’ve prayed to support those feeling besieged by forest fires as well as those deluged by hurricanes. The prophet Isaiah was right. No matter what we’re facing, we can find God is with us. God’s care is never an empty promise, but a spiritual law to meet our needs.

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Castle in the sky

Michael Bager/Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters
Fog surrounds the Mansion Egeskov on the island of Funen, Denmark, Sept. 22, 2020. Funen, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, is sometimes said to look like the setting of one of his fairy tales.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow. The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of 11 women accepted at Harvard Law School in 1956. Monitor staffer Kendra Nordin Beato’s mother was also among them, Kendra shares in an essay.

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