2020
October
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Monitor Daily Podcast

October 09, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

As a pandemic spreads hunger, a UN program has stepped up

“If we don’t act now we are going to have famine of biblical proportions.”

That’s what the executive director of the World Food Program, David Beasley, told the Monitor in May. He was talking about the potential for food insecurity in developing nations due to what he called a “perfect storm” of events: a refugee humanitarian crisis, a plague of locusts in East Africa, and a pandemic sweeping through food-vulnerable nations.

The need is still great. But the World Food Program has stepped up in a time of crisis, according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee. On Friday the committee awarded this United Nations agency the Nobel Peace Prize for 2020.

“In the face of the pandemic, the World Food Program has demonstrated an impressive ability to intensify its efforts,” Berit Reiss-Anderson, the chair of the Nobel committee, said in making the announcement.

The Monitor covered the pandemic and hunger – and the WFP – a few months ago. One big problem, as Howard LaFranchi reported, was that when nations such as India go into lockdown it eliminates millions of menial and informal jobs, affecting millions of families who had been getting by. Supply chains are disrupted, impoverishing farmers and wasting precious food.

As to the peace prize, it’s easy to interpret the Nobel committee’s choice as a rebuke of a U.S. president who is dismissive of multilateralism and spoke about winning the award himself after he was nominated by a right-wing Norwegian lawmaker.

However, the U.S. has nearly doubled its funding of the WFP over the past three years, points out Mr. Beasley – himself a can-do former Republican governor of South Carolina. He rejects the view that the U.S. is withdrawing from its leadership role.

On Friday Mr. Beasley said the peace prize belongs to the WFP family.

“They’re out there in the most difficult, complex places in the world,” he said.

The Explainer

Trump says he’s feeling great. Critics raise the 25th Amendment.

Focus shifted this week from the president’s physical health to a torrent of tweets and videos, along with White House plans that left even some allies wide-eyed. How serious are some of the concerns?

Peter

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President Donald Trump appears eager to return to the campaign trail, following his COVID-19 diagnosis Oct. 1. On Friday, he called in to the Rush Limbaugh radio show for a two-hour “virtual MAGA rally,” and was scheduled to do an on-camera interview with a physician on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” 

The day before, White House physician Sean Conley announced that the president should be able to safely “return to public engagements” on Saturday, though medical experts who have not been treating the president question whether this is wise. The president’s spokespeople still won’t say when he last tested negative for the virus. 

The most delicate question is whether Mr. Trump’s medical treatment – some of it experimental – has affected him in ways beyond his physical condition. Mr. Trump’s freewheeling speaking style has long included incomplete and contradictory thoughts, and supporters love him for the authenticity they say it represents. 

But among opponents, the president’s behavior and statements this week have been cause for alarm, sparking renewed discussion about the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for a temporary transfer of power when a president becomes incapacitated. On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled legislation to create a bipartisan commission of medical experts to evaluate presidents for removal. 

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1. Trump says he’s feeling great. Critics raise the 25th Amendment.

The election is 25 days away, and President Donald Trump’s political prognosis is not good. He’s losing altitude in major national polls – and more crucially, is sinking in key battleground states that will decide the winner in the Electoral College.

It would be a tough time for any incumbent running for reelection. But for President Trump, whose brand is all about winning, the pressure seems especially intense. Mr. Trump says he’s eager to return to the campaign trail, following his COVID-19 diagnosis Oct. 1. On Friday, he called in to the Rush Limbaugh radio show for a two-hour “virtual MAGA rally,” and was scheduled to do an on-camera interview with a physician on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”  

On Saturday, he plans to host hundreds of people on the White House lawn, addressing a group of “peaceful protesters for law and order” from the balcony, according to multiple media outlets. Monday, he is scheduled to travel to Florida for a campaign rally.

White House physician Sean Conley announced Thursday that Mr. Trump had completed his therapy and should be able to safely “return to public engagements” on Saturday. Medical experts who have not been treating the president question whether clearing him for public events this soon is wise. The president’s spokespeople still won’t say when he last tested negative for the virus. 

The political universe is not taking the news frenzy quietly. 

“The past week was bizarre, berserk, almost biblical,” writes former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan in a Wall Street Journal column

The most delicate question is whether Mr. Trump’s medical treatment – some of it experimental – has affected him in ways beyond his physical condition. His abrupt announcement Monday that he was calling off talks with congressional Democrats over a new stimulus package until after Election Day raised eyebrows among members of his own party, even as Republicans blamed Democrats for holding up a deal. 

The president soon reversed himself, tweeting on Friday: “Covid Relief Negotiations are moving along. Go Big!” But the damage caused by Mr. Trump’s statement Monday seems to be lingering. 

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas warned on CNBC that the election “could be a bloodbath of Watergate proportions” for the GOP if things don’t turn around. 

Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a most loyal soldier for Mr. Trump on Capitol Hill, said pointedly that he has not been to the White House since Aug. 6, citing its lax approach to virus safety measures. 

The remaining two presidential debates remain in limbo, as the co-chair of the nonpartisan debate commission, Frank Fahrenkopf, has refused to clear Mr. Trump to participate in the town-hall style debate scheduled for Oct. 15. The commission announced Thursday that the debate would be virtual, given Mr. Trump’s health. The president responded by saying he would not attend.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has been tweeting out videos that seem to show a president increasingly anxious about the approaching election. 

“You’re not vulnerable, but they like to say the vulnerable, but you’re the least vulnerable – but for this one thing you are vulnerable,” Mr. Trump said in a video that he labeled in all-caps: “TO MY FAVORITE PEOPLE IN THE WORLD!” 

He was speaking to voters over age 65, a group he won four years ago but is currently losing to Democratic nominee Joe Biden, according to polls. Older Americans have been especially hard hit by the virus. 

A major caveat is in order: Mr. Trump’s free-wheeling speaking style has long included incomplete thoughts and ambiguities, not to mention contradictions. His supporters love him for the authenticity they say it represents, as well as his enthusiasm and energy. 

But among opponents, the president’s behavior and statements since his COVID-19 diagnosis are cause for alarm, and have sparked renewed discussion about the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment provides for a temporary transfer of power when a president becomes incapacitated, and can be invoked either by the president himself, or by the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet. 

Congress does not have a formal role in implementing the 25th Amendment. But on Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled legislation to create a bipartisan commission of medical experts to evaluate presidents for removal. 

“This legislation applies to future presidents, but we are reminded of the necessity of action by the health of the current president,” Speaker Pelosi said.

In a response, Senator McConnell’s communications director, David Popp, pushed back by calling attention to the fact that former Vice President Biden is several years older than Mr. Trump. 

“Only Speaker Pelosi could find a way to offend both President Trump and candidate Biden with this political stunt,” Mr. Popp tweeted. 

Many American voters are already deciding, through early voting, whether they want another four years of Mr. Trump. By Nov. 3, we may well have the answer. 

China, increasingly mighty, still learning how to project power

If you can't be both feared and loved, Machiavelli wrote, pick fear. As public opinions about China sour around the globe, Beijing appears to be taking a two-track approach to soft power.

Peter
Peter Nicholls/Reuters/File
A supporter of China's President Xi Jinping waves a Chinese flag opposite Big Ben in Parliament Square ahead of Xi's address to both Houses of Parliament, in London, Britain, October 20, 2015.

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China has risen to be an economic superpower. But a soft power superpower? Not so fast.

In many liberal democracies, unfavorable opinions toward China are at a high, according to a poll released this week by Pew Research Center. Criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus is a significant factor, but the souring of public opinion was underway for at least two years before, possibly impacted by developments like mass protests in Hong Kong and internment camps in Xinjiang. 

It’s complicated Beijing’s bid to inspire support for its authoritarian model. But in response, the government appears to be taking a two-track approach: adopting a combative stance toward liberal democracies, while promoting its model among weaker and authoritarian-leaning regimes. Leaders may be purposefully projecting a tougher image toward the West, some experts suggest, symbolized by what has been dubbed “wolf warrior” diplomacy, named for a blockbuster action movie.

“You started to see this more assertive diplomatic stance as the U.S.-China trade war heated up, and with Beijing beginning to realize it needed to set the domestic stage for what was going to be a protracted struggle with the United States,” says Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor at Cornell University.

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2. China, increasingly mighty, still learning how to project power

China is struggling to wield soft power even as it rises as an economic superpower, complicating Beijing’s bid to inspire support for its authoritarian model and vision for reforming global governance, according to recent polls and China experts.

Instead, public attitudes toward Beijing and Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping have dramatically worsened, at least in many wealthy countries, despite their growing consensus that China is now the world’s top economy. 

In response, Beijing appears to be taking a two-track approach, experts say, adopting a combative stance toward liberal democracies while promoting its model among weaker and authoritarian-leaning regimes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

“You started to see this more assertive diplomatic stance as the U.S.-China trade war heated up, and with Beijing beginning to realize it needed to set the domestic stage for what was going to be a protracted struggle with the United States,” says Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor at Cornell University and author of “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations.”

On average, three quarters of people surveyed in 14 countries with advanced economies in North America, Western Europe, East Asia, and Australia held negative views toward China and lacked confidence that Mr. Xi will do the right thing in world affairs, according to a Pew Research Center poll released this week. In most of those countries, the unfavorable opinion toward China hit its highest level since the polling began 12 years ago.

“China just doesn’t have much capacity for soft power, and there is not much of a magnanimous element to the way China operates around the world,” says James McGregor, chairman of the greater China region for APCO Worldwide, a consulting firm. “China treats the world the same way it treats its own citizens and how government officials treat each other – it’s all transactional, it’s all about the one with the most power saying what goes,” says Mr. McGregor, who has lived in China for three decades.    

Widespread criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak is significantly impacting opinion, with almost two-thirds of those surveyed by Pew saying Beijing handled it badly. Concerns have centered on Beijing’s delayed reporting of the virus and suppression of whistleblower doctors.

But the souring of public opinion was underway for at least two years before the pandemic, Pew polling shows. Other possible impacts include major developments such as Hong Kong’s mass protests in 2019 against Beijing’s encroachment on the territory’s promised autonomy; China’s internment of an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in camps in the western region of Xinjiang, starting in 2017; and the growing U.S.-China rift over trade, technology, and other issues.

Leah Millis/Reuters
Imam Talib Shareef waits to speak as he gathers with others near the White House to call on the U.S. government to respond to Beijing's alleged abuses of the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority in China, near the White House in Washington, July 3, 2020.

“China can do a much better job at telling its own story,” says Jia Qingguo, professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies. “China has not been very good at explaining … problematic areas, like Xinjiang,” he says.

“Wolf warrior” approach

China’s leaders may also be purposefully projecting a tougher image toward the West, some experts suggest, symbolized by what has been dubbed “wolf warrior” diplomacy, after a blockbuster Chinese action movie. For example, in recent years Chinese diplomats have taken to Twitter – which is banned in China – to advance often stridently nationalistic messages.

“By September 2019, you had Xi Jinping encouraging cadres to ‘dare to struggle’ and ‘be good at fighting,’ and giving Foreign Ministry spokespeople like Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying a much longer leash to engage in all sorts of brazen social media messaging,” says Professor Weiss.

This combativeness may reflect a view in Beijing that aggressively asserting China’s interests can in some cases yield better results than a more persuasive approach, Professor Weiss and other experts say.

“They may have judged that it is better to be feared than to be loved,” says Professor Weiss. “They are certainly not winning hearts and minds with their current strategy.”

Amid accelerating hard power competition with the United States, Beijing is likely to be less concerned about its image than about getting what it wants, says Robert Ross, a professor at Boston College and an expert on China’s security policy. “If China is going to exercise its power, there will be critics,” he says. “The question is whether the gains are worth it [and] is it worth the criticism on the front pages of newspapers.”

Dual strategy

Meanwhile, experts point out that attitudes toward China are not uniform across the globe. Beijing maintains a favorable image in some countries, such as Nigeria, while its model appeals to like-minded authoritarian states such as Cambodia. “China doesn’t always have to act, there is a degree of noncoerced followership,” says Rosemary Foot, senior research fellow in international relations at the University of Oxford.

This reflects in part Beijing’s dual strategy when it comes to soft power.

China’s leaders “are still presenting themselves as a model that is superior to Western liberal democracies in the way they managed the pandemic, and that narrative and effort to shape the outside perception is very much targeting the global south,” says Nadège Rolland, senior fellow in political and security affairs at The National Bureau of Asian Research.

“In the Western countries, we have been more the recipient of the wolf warrior diplomacy, but some of that is a way for China to position itself as a country that stands up for itself …. and that is appealing in a way for portions of the global south,” she says.

It’s a pragmatic approach in which China targets developing countries in Eurasia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa – the “soft underbelly of Western influence,” Ms. Rolland says.

“It’s like the Leninist principle: ‘Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed. If you encounter steel, withdraw.’ So the steel right now is felt in advanced industrial democracies, in the U.S., in Asia, in Europe,” she says, as they push back on China’s human rights record and military expansion.

“So instead of pushing harder, you use those efforts in other parts of the world more amenable to your views,” she says – countries that “could then become your partners and vote with you at the U.N. and be your friends on the international stage whenever you need voices to back you up on what you are doing in the Xinjiang region or things like that. This is what we are starting to see.”

A deeper look

Setting ‘good fires’ to reduce the West’s wildfire risk

As the West deals with a season of infernos, Florida may offer lessons. Officials there see fire of the right kind as a friend – and enlist public support for prescribed burns that sustain ecosystems and enhance public safety.

Peter
Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News/AP
Brett Williams with the Eglin Wildland Fire Center keeps an eye on a prescribed burn on the Eglin Air Force Base reservation near Fort Walton Beach, Florida, on Feb. 13, 2015. Each year, Florida sets "good fires" to treat more than 2 million acres, the most of any state.

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Smoke from the recent explosion of wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington drifted as far as the East Coast. In the view of Kevin Hiers, a wildland fire scientist in Florida, the haze offered clear proof of the West’s failed fire and forest management policies. “Until we break out of the suppression-first mentality, things will stay the same,” he says.

Mr. Hiers emphasizes a different approach: prescribed burning, which involves setting fires on public or private lands under controlled conditions. The process targets brush, grasses, and other accumulated vegetation, along with dead and downed trees, to improve ecosystem health and reduce the fuels that power wildfires.

Each year, Florida sets fires to treat more than 2 million acres, the most of any state. California, by contrast, burns only about 125,000 acres a year, despite having 20 million acres in need of treatment, by one Stanford University estimate.

Prescribed fire advocates regard the West’s season of infernos as a chance to reset its approach. “The wildfires have done the convincing for us,” says Sasha Berleman, a fire ecologist who runs a prescribed burn training program based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Everyone is in agreement now – we need more prescribed fire.”

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3. Setting ‘good fires’ to reduce the West’s wildfire risk

The wildfires burning across the American West for the past two months have scorched millions of acres of land and scarred the region’s collective psyche. As residents wait for the ashen air and ambient dread to lift, the devastation from Southern California to northern Washington has surpassed that of even the “Big Blowup” of 1910. 

The weeks of uncertainty – marked by orange skies and lung-stinging smoke, emergency warnings and mass evacuations – have burdened people with acute fire fatigue. Or most people. As flames incinerate wide swaths of landscape, Jeremy Bailey suggests that the West needs more fire.

That’s right: more.

“When I wake up, I’m not thinking about where to put fire out. I’m thinking about where I can put fire on the ground,” says Mr. Bailey, director of the Nature Conservancy’s prescribed fire training program.

Prescribed burning involves setting fires on public or private lands under controlled conditions. The process targets brush, grasses, and other accumulated vegetation, along with dead and downed trees, to improve ecosystem health and reduce the fuels that power wildfires.

“Every day is a burn day,” says Mr. Bailey, a former longtime wildland firefighter who now teaches the practice of applying “good fire” to the land. “We just have to be smart about it.”

He and fellow prescribed fire advocates regard this season of infernos as a chance to reset the West’s approach to fire and forest management, with broad use of controlled burns to lower the region’s extreme wildfire risk and nurture resilient natural lands.

The prevailing strategy for managing wildfires emerged after the Big Blowup more than a century ago, when ferocious winds propelled fires across Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Three million acres burned as entire towns fell to the flames and at least 85 people died.

In the aftermath, the U.S. Forest Service, founded five years earlier, adopted an aggressive suppression policy, vowing to extinguish most fires as quickly as possible to protect lives, property, and timber. The model ignored the long-term potential for overgrowth to feed ever bigger wildfires and inhibit new vegetation.

Fast forward to 2020. Federal and state fire agencies in the West continue to emphasize suppression over prescribed burning, tree thinning, brush clearing, and other “treatments” for wildfire fuels. The imbalance has wrought forests clogged with trees and understory primed to burn and susceptible to disease as climate change creates warmer, drier conditions – an equation that has increased the number, size, and intensity of wildfires.

The problem appears most acute in California, where a prolonged drought and bark beetle infestation have killed an estimated 150 million trees, providing a copious supply of kindling. This year’s wildfires have torched more than 4 million acres, and include five of the six largest blazes in state history and the first to top 1 million acres. 

The scale of destruction from natural fires contrasts with California’s limited use of controlled burning. Public and private land managers set fires to treat about 125,000 acres a year – or 6% of Florida’s annual total of more than 2 million acres, the most of any state.

Brian Melley/AP/File
Firefighter Charles VeaVea (right) pours flame from a drip torch as his supervisor, Isaias Garcia, monitors a prescribed fire in Kings Canyon National Park in California, June 11, 2019. Prescribed burns are considered one of the best ways to prevent catastrophic destruction, but their use falls woefully short of goals in the West.

The disparity arises, in part, from differences in climate, weather patterns, precipitation, and terrain between the two states. But Florida’s embrace of prescribed burning also traces to a deeper public understanding of the benefits of fire on the landscape, a communal awareness that Mr. Bailey and other advocates seek to cultivate in the West. They envision a prescribed fire alliance of public agencies, communities, nonprofit groups, and private landholders – ranchers, Native American tribes, everyday homeowners – that can work to heal the land after a century of fire suppression.

“We’re trying to encourage a cultural shift in our relationship with wildfire,” says Sasha Berleman, a fire ecologist who runs a prescribed burn training program based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Fire isn’t going away, so let’s change how we’re living with it.”

“It’s everybody’s responsibility”

Smoke from the West’s explosion of wildfires drifted as far as the East Coast. In the view of Kevin Hiers, a wildland fire scientist, the haze offered clear proof of failed fire and forest management policies.

“Until we break out of the suppression-first mentality, things will stay the same,” he says. Mr. Hiers leads a prescribed fire training program for Tall Timbers, a nonprofit research center in Tallahassee, Florida, that Outside Magazine has called “the most evangelical prescribed-burning organization on the planet.” “And if things stay the same, you know what the future looks like. It’s the present.”

Controlled burns in woodlands can prevent wildfires from erupting into megafires – typically defined as a blaze that burns more than 100,000 acres – by clearing away undergrowth to deprive advancing flames of fuel. The burned and unburned areas in a treated tract form a mosaic that preserves enough habitat for biodiversity and ample space for older, more fire-resistant trees to thrive.

“If we only let fire burn in the most extreme conditions, then we’re not going to have resilient forests because everything gets destroyed,” Mr. Hiers says. “With prescribed burning, we’re putting fire on the ground under the best possible conditions so we can maintain forest health.”

Florida imposes a less stringent liability standard for damages that result from controlled burning compared with California, Oregon, and Washington. Research shows that concerns over liability for an escaped fire deter public and private land managers in Western states from conducting burns.

Their reluctance persists even as prescribed fires seldom break away. The National Interagency Fire Center analyzed controlled burns on federal lands in 2012 and found that fewer than 1% – 14 of 16,600 – overran containment lines.

Florida’s fire and forest officials promote prescribed fire as a practice that sustains ecosystems and serves the public interest. “People here have a different relationship with fire,” Mr. Hiers says. “They don’t see it as only destructive.”

Florida offers liability protection to residents who complete a training course and follow state guidelines for setting prescribed fires – and by enlisting their help, state agencies save money and manpower. In two recent surveys, public land managers in Western states identified a lack of funding and personnel as the most common obstacles to increasing prescribed fire efforts.

Their lament, beyond the reality of limited resources, illuminates an enduring bias. California, Oregon, and Washington each rely on a single state agency to handle both fire response and forest management. As climate change extends the wildfire season, draining budgets and firefighters alike, plans for applying “good fire” drop down the priority list while fuel loads rise ever higher, according to Sarah McCaffrey, who co-wrote both reports.

“Most ecologists agree that if we don’t do more prescribed burning now, we’re going to face greater consequences down the line,” says Ms. McCaffrey, a research social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service in Fort Collins, Colorado. “But when you have only one organization doing suppression and prescribed burning, bad fire seasons suck up all the resources.”

The 12 largest wildfires in California history have occurred since 2000, and during that span, the fire season has grown by 75 days. The state’s primary fire response and forest management agency, known as Cal Fire, spent $635 million on suppression in fiscal year 2018-19, and its ranks include 9,700 full-time and seasonal firefighters.

The department assigns some 150 personnel to prescribed fire crews that burn 20,000 to 50,000 acres a year. The small numbers appear smaller still in light of a Stanford University study that estimated the state would need to treat 20 million acres, or almost one-fifth of its land area, to lower the threat of destructive wildfires. 

State officials announced an agreement with the Forest Service in August to treat 1 million acres of wildlands a year by 2025 through prescribed fire and other methods. Yet this year’s cataclysm – 8,200 structures burned, 31 people dead – magnifies that public agencies will require the aid of residents to revitalize California’s ailing natural lands, asserts Stephen Pyne, the author of more than a dozen books on wildfire.

Noah Berger/AP/File
A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, California, on Nov. 8, 2018. Some experts say blazes like this one (which killed 85 people) have awakened public officials and residents to the potential use of controlled burns to reduce fire risks.

“If you treat prescribed fire like a public service like Florida does, you can help people understand that fire isn’t somebody else’s responsibility,” says Mr. Pyne, an emeritus professor of environmental history at Arizona State University. “It’s everybody’s responsibility.”

Restoring balance

Ms. Berleman speaks the language of good fire as director of Fire Forward. As part of the training program, an initiative of Audubon Canyon Ranch, a nonprofit conservation group north of San Francisco, she has conducted prescribed burns in and around Bay Area wine country. The sessions offer participants – local park officials, homeowners, college students – a chance to hold a drip torch and learn the art and science of putting fire on the ground.

She lays out the science for each project in granular detail in an inch-thick document she gives to city and state fire officials to obtain permits. She explains the burn’s purpose, scope, and length; the ecological benefits of thinning vegetation; and the safety measures to prevent flames from escaping.

The art in her work takes the form of teaching participants about fire’s role in restoring balance to forests and grasslands, and about an individual’s role as a caretaker of nature.

“All of us have a lot of responsibility in how we steward our landscapes,” Ms. Berleman says. She has performed small-scale prescribed burns in Marin, Napa, and Sonoma counties, where wildfires in August were the area’s second direct hit since 2017. She relates that recent blazes – including the Camp Fire that killed 85 people in and around the town of Paradise in 2018 – awakened public officials and residents to the potential of controlled burns.

“In the last three years, we haven’t had to do much convincing,” Ms. Berleman says. “The wildfires have done the convincing for us. Everyone is in agreement now – we need more prescribed fire.”

The familiarity of Floridians with the practice enables fire officials and private landholders to organize burns year-round there without fear of complaints about smoke derailing a project, a common obstacle in the West. Mr. Bailey, who holds prescribed fire training sessions across Western states, wants to foster the same kind of awareness among its residents.

“What you have in Florida is a culture of burning where, even if you’re not a burner, you don’t automatically call 911 when you see smoke because you know what’s going on,” he says.

A trio of U.S. senators has proposed legislation to pump $300 million into prescribed burning initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels. The funding could bring more prescribed burns to the fire-prone areas of California that 11 million residents call home, among them Bill Tripp.

A member of the Karuk Tribe, Mr. Tripp suggests that more freedom for Native Americans to apply good fire to ancestral lands would hold cultural resonance. He works for the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources near California’s border with Oregon, where massive wildfires claimed 15 lives last month. He has fought for decades with little success to persuade state and federal officials to grant approval to the tribe for cultural burns – burns that he asserts would have saved lives and homes last month.

“What the fires this year show is the scale of the problem – with the overgrowth and all the fuels – is too big for any of the agencies to fix,” he says. “The forests are covered in leaves and dead trees. Let us and other tribes use fire to help the land.”

Can you dance to it? The world takes on the ‘Jerusalema’ challenge.

Bound by the pandemic this year, people from around the world now also have something more joyful in common: a hit song and a dance with deeply South African roots.

Peter
Denis Farrell/AP
People dance to "Jerusalema," the gospel-influenced house song by South African record producer Master KG and singer Nomcebo, in Johannesburg, Sept. 6, 2020. The dance challenge has inspired amateurs everywhere, and the song is being covered in both the original Zulu and other languages.

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On a continent where culture is often taken by outsiders and repackaged, the South African song “Jerusalema” has flipped the script.

After an Angolan dance troupe recorded themselves dancing to a hit South African house track by DJ Master KG and vocalist Nomcebo in February, they sparked a global phenomenon. The dance challenge has been embraced by everyone from lawyers to firemen and flash mobs. Sung in Zulu, the lyrics are gospel-esque, and among the most enthusiastic takers of the challenge have been people of the cloth.

The song owes some popularity to the strange internet alchemies of 2020 and the pandemic that forced creative at-home entertainment. “But it’s rare that a global movement like this starts here and then is imitated by the world,” says Moky Makura, an expert in perceptions of Africa. Moments like this are important, she says, not only for helping change how the world sees Africa, but also because they help shift how Africans see themselves.

Even South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called upon his country to join the challenge after weathering six months of the pandemic, remembering “those who have lost their lives, and to quietly rejoice in the remarkable and diverse heritage of our nation.”

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4. Can you dance to it? The world takes on the ‘Jerusalema’ challenge.

It began in December, and at first it was isolated. You probably didn’t know about it if you didn’t live nearby, or if you didn’t know someone who did.

But by February, it had begun to jump borders – first regionally, then around the world. By summer, it had become a feature of daily life from Angola to Hungary to Canada. World leaders spoke of it on national television. Health care workers rallied around it.

“It,” of course, was the “Jerusalema” dance challenge.

When an Angolan dance troupe recorded themselves dancing to a hit South African house track by DJ Master KG and vocalist Nomcebo in February, they sparked a viral phenomenon that has since lapped the globe. Zimbabwe’s most renowned human rights lawyer recorded a version of the dance; so did a team of Romanian firefighters, and a few dozen socially distanced flash mobs around the world. 

To date, “Jerusalema” has been streamed more than 96 million times on Spotify, and is one of the top searches globally on the music identification application Shazam. It hit the top five charts in Belgium, France, Hungary, Netherlands, and Switzerland and was No. 1 on Billboard’s world digital song sales chart in mid-September. 

The song owes much of its popularity to the strange internet alchemies of 2020 – when a global pandemic forced creative forms of at-home entertainment and helped internet trends hop across regions and oceans. But on a continent where culture has often been taken by outsiders to be repackaged for Western audiences (think Louis Vuitton models walking the catwalk in checked scarves and shirts “inspired” by Kenya’s Maasai), “Jerusalema” also flipped that cultural script.

“It’s common to hear that somebody has taken something that they saw on the continent and co-opted it to make it a global product,” says Moky Makura, the executive director of Africa No Filter, which researches how Africa is portrayed in regional and global media. “But it’s rare that a global movement like this starts here and then is imitated by the world.”

Nardus Engelbrecht/AP
To mark Heritage Day, South Africans in Cape Town respond on Sept. 24, 2020, to President Cyril Ramaphosa's call to take up the "Jerusalema" dance challenge in celebration, and to "reflect on the difficult journey" the country has traveled during the pandemic.

Indeed, in 2019 a study by the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center showed that Americans were more than twice as likely to see a negative depiction of Africa on TV as a positive one – if they saw any portrayals of Africa at all. Viewers were seven times as likely to see references to Europe on TV as to Africa, and nearly half of references to the continent on TV referred only to a nebulous “Africa,” rather than any specific country.

“Jerusalema,” on the other hand, can be traced to very particular roots. In December, South African DJ Master KG called singer Nomcebo late at night from his Johannesburg recording studio. He’d just written a new track and wanted her to sing the vocals. She came immediately, and by the next morning, the two had a rough cut of the song.

“Jerusalema” became a hit song in South Africa that Southern Hemisphere summer. But it was only after Angolan dance studio Fenomenos do Semba recorded themselves dancing to the song as they ate lunch in February that the song began to go viral. 

Sung in Zulu, the song’s lyrics are gospel-esque. “Jerusalem is my home / Guide me / Take me with You / Do not leave me here,” sings Nomcebo in the opening lines.

It is perhaps little surprise, then, that among the most enthusiastic takers of the “Jerusalema” challenge have been people of the cloth. There have been “Jerusalema” dances from the Catholic archdiocese of Montreal and a group of novice nuns in rural South Africa, among others. In September, one Swedish Lutheran church announced that it would be closing services with a song “that says something about our longing.”

“So let us not only go, but also dance in peace,” a voice announces, as the track began to pump from the church’s speakers. 

But it is perhaps in South Africa itself, where “Jerusalema” was born, that the dance has taken its strongest hold. In mid-September, the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, addressed the country on live television, as he had more than a dozen times since the coronavirus pandemic began here in March.

As case numbers continued to decline, he explained, the country would continue to reopen, unbanning large gatherings and opening its borders. But that didn’t mean the pandemic was over. With a public holiday called Heritage Day coming up the following week, he urged his fellow South Africans to stay home with family “to reflect on the difficult journey we have all traveled.”

“And there can be no better celebration of our South African-ness,” he continued, “than joining the global phenomenon that is the ‘Jerusalema’ dance challenge.”

For Ms. Makura, the expert in global perceptions of Africa, moments like this are important, not only for helping change how the world sees Africa, but also because they slowly help shift how Africans see themselves.

“Negative stories reinforce negative narratives, and those narratives have a real impact on young people growing up on this continent. They are told by the world they are helpless, and eventually they believe they are helpless too,” she says.

“But here you see an African song that caught on globally. It wasn’t dependent on anyone else for its popularity.”

Television

Grab the remote and watch how TV is changing this fall

With theaters largely closed, Americans are turning to small screens for escape. But TV production is still catching up from pandemic lockdowns in the spring. What does that mean for programming now – and in the coming year? 

Peter
Courtesy of HBO Max
Actor and singer Selena Gomez's new cooking show, "Selena + Chef," was created during the pandemic lockdowns. The program, streaming on HBO Max, has been picked up for a second season.

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This fall, viewers should expect what they see on the small screen to look a bit different: More game shows and reality offerings – and programs remaining on hiatus. Already, audiences have been replaced with laugh tracks, and there is more talk of computer-generated settings and characters. 

Even with the industry finding a path forward, and some fan favorites like “The Mandalorian” and “This Is Us” on track to return this month, there is still uncertainty about the pipeline for new programming, with a pull toward unscripted shows until the pandemic subsides. As they navigate the new landscape, producers and directors across formats are being presented with opportunities to rethink how they create.  

“Selena + Chef,” starring Selena Gomez, was developed during the pandemic. The singer and actor collaborated with Grammy-winning executive producer Aaron Saidman, who wanted a program that could be responsibly and safely produced, he says.

With safety accounted for, he encouraged the star and crew to focus on being as authentic as possible – a necessity for unscripted shows. The result, he says, is “you could just do your job and make a great television.” 

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5. Grab the remote and watch how TV is changing this fall

Nothing is the same these days, including what Americans will be seeing on television for the next few months. 

Viewers should expect a lot of game shows and reality offerings – and for some programs to remain on pause. PBS’s beloved “Antiques Roadshow,” for example, is on extended hiatus until it is safe for attendees to once again mingle publicly with their favorite objets d’art.

As people channel-surf this fall, they will see the approaches showrunners are experimenting with to continue to bring programs to TVs and tablets. Already, audiences have often been replaced with laugh tracks, interview shows are conducted remotely, and there is more talk of computer-generated settings and characters. It’s a time of rethinking not just of formats, but of content, too.

“You may not be able to have a sitcom set in the present, where everyone is sitting around not wearing masks. So they may go back to the ’50s or the ’60s or the ’70s,” suggests Bob White, who has been teaching television, video production, and animation at Simmons University in Boston for more than 50 years.

Besides reaching into the past, studios may also offer more comforting, easy-to-digest fare, he says. Nostalgia is already driving game show reboots like “Weakest Link” on NBC and ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” which returns for a second season on Oct. 18 after hustling to finish production in March on the eve of lockdowns in the United States.  

Due to the spring and summer shutdown, more shows will be rolling out new seasons later than usual throughout the fall. Fan favorites like “The Mandalorian” on Disney+ and NBC’s “This Is Us,” which plans to incorporate both the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, will return later this month. Programs featuring essential workers, arriving between now and December, also plan to tackle the current health crisis. Among them are ABC’s “Black-ish” and NBC’s “Chicago Fire.” Some shows will now be seen in 2021, including “Rutherford Falls,” a comedy featuring the largest Indigenous writing staff ever hired for a U.S. TV show. It’s set to stream on the Peacock platform from NBCUniversal.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File
Cast members Pedro Pascal and Gina Carano pose at the premiere for the Disney+ series "The Mandalorian" in Los Angeles, Nov. 13, 2019.

A push to problem solve

Unions and guilds negotiated new safety guidelines with studios in recent weeks. But even with the industry finding a path forward, there is still uncertainty about the pipeline for new programming, with a pull toward unscripted shows until the pandemic subsides. As they navigate the new landscape, producers and directors across formats are being presented with opportunities to rethink how they create.  

Like a lot of people, actor and singer Selena Gomez wanted to use her time at home during lockdown to become a better cook. She collaborated with executive producer Aaron Saidman of Industrial Media’s The Intellectual Property Corporation, whom she’d worked with previously, to create “Selena + Chef,” streaming on HBO Max and picked up for a second season.

Mr. Saidman, who won an Emmy for the A&E series “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath,” had never undertaken this kind of show before, but he wanted a program that could be responsibly and safely produced during the pandemic, he says. He sent a cleaning crew into Ms. Gomez’s home and sanitized everything, set up cameras, and then sanitized again. The same was done with the chefs helping her each week. Everyone behind the scenes wore masks and kept their distance. Cameras in the house were operated from outside. With safety accounted for, he encouraged the star and crew to focus on the production, so that “authenticity could come forward.”  

“You could just do your job and make a great television,” he says. “In an unscripted TV show people really need to be themselves.”

Given that creating television is not a socially distanced process, adaptation has been key to moving forward. Michael Hunold, a veteran gaffer, or electrician, living in upstate New York, has been working on a show with pandemic protocols in place. He can’t mention the name contractually, but says it is a big-budget, successful program in its third season. The return to work is precipitated by strict observance of COVID-19 protocols, he says, and the budget to allow protective measures to be put into place.

In the past, green and blue screens were used to create expensive looking backgrounds when a production budget didn’t allow for more, Mr. Hunold says, but now such technology might become the standard – including more actors created by CGI – given pandemic restrictions. “Every environment that isn’t being done digitally will be an extremely controlled environment,” he says.

In the spring, due to the shutdowns, NBC tried animating part of the season finale of crime drama “The Blacklist” to fill in gaps, with mixed reactions from fans. 

Professor White agrees that the trend could be toward a combination of real and computer-generated content. “The lines will be blurred,” between what’s real and what’s manipulated, he says. He adds that he doesn’t plan to teach his courses any differently than before, given that the need for strong stories will not change. 

Changing perspective 

The increased use of technology could also turn out to have an upside, observers say. Mr. Saidman, one of several executive producers on “Selena + Chef” including Ms. Gomez, had an “aha” moment when he realized on the first day of shooting that he was working at home in his pajamas and that perhaps it wasn’t as “essential” for him to be on set as he once thought.

“There are important creative reasons that a producer goes to the set,” he says, but adds that there “was certainly a moment where we realized through technology that there’s perhaps an efficiency that we might not have stumbled upon [pre-COVID-19].”

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A resiliency lens on ending hunger

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In June as the pandemic was hitting more countries, the leading humanitarian organization – the World Food Program – announced it would undertake the biggest response in its history. It planned to meet head-on an upsurge in the number of victims of hunger. For this “impressive ability to intensify its efforts,” the Nobel committee awarded this year’s peace prize to the WFP on Friday.

While the WFP described the prize as “humbling,” it also wanted the world to know about its ongoing shift in approach. Like many aid organizations, the WFP is seeing poor people less as victims or beneficiaries of other people’s largesse and more as people capable to deal with a disaster with strength and intelligence. Its programs are now designed to let local people identify community priorities and drive the agenda for both emergency relief and for building up their water and land resources as well as self-governance to ensure food security.

Efforts at peacemaking have long relied on changing the perception of each individual’s worth – whether in ending wars or famines. Now with the WFP rewarded for its fight against hunger, it can also be honored for how it honors those it helps.

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A resiliency lens on ending hunger

In June as the pandemic was hitting more countries, the leading humanitarian organization – the World Food Program (WFP) – announced it would undertake the biggest response in its history. It planned to meet head-on an upsurge in the number of victims of hunger – from 97 million worldwide before the pandemic to an estimated 138 million.

For this “impressive ability to intensify its efforts,” the Nobel committee awarded this year’s peace prize to the WFP on Friday. The committee also cited the agency’s work in preventing “the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

While the WFP described the prize as both “humbling” and a “proud moment,” spokesman Tomson Phiri also wanted the world to know about its ongoing shift in approach. “One of the beauties of WFP activities is that not only do we provide food for today and tomorrow, but we also are equipping people with the knowledge, the means to sustain themselves for the next day and the days after,” he said.

Like many aid organizations, the WFP is seeing poor people less as victims or beneficiaries of other people’s largesse and more as people capable to deal with a disaster with strength and intelligence. Its programs are now designed to let local people identify community priorities and drive the agenda for both emergency relief and for building up their water and land resources as well as self-governance to ensure food security.

“It’s not just about humanitarian dollars. How do we use every humanitarian dollar for a developmental opportunity?” WFP Executive Director David Beasley recently told Congress.

Or as the former head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, José Graziano da Silva, put it, “To save lives, we also have to save livelihoods.”

This emphasis on individual resiliency and community-led development took off in 2015 when the United Nations set a goal to end persistent hunger by 2030. The U.N. called for participatory decision-making “at all levels,” not just a top-down approach driven by governments and international groups.

For its part, the WFP has invested in early warning systems to detect famine as well as the rehabilitation of forests, water ponds, irrigation systems, and feeder roads. The agency has become better at probing how people in poverty perceive themselves. This “growing body of experience ... allows us to put resilience-building at the heart of our programs,” according to the agency’s website.

Efforts at peacemaking have long relied on changing the perception of each individual’s worth – whether in ending wars or famines. Now with the WFP rewarded for its fight against hunger, it can also be honored for how it honors those it helps.

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.

There are no bad carrots!

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For one food bank volunteer, a tip about carrots helped her do more than package produce – it sparked a spiritual insight that led to the healing of a problem with her limbs.

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1. There are no bad carrots!

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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My daughter and I were on the way to the local food bank where our family regularly sorts, boxes, bags, and delivers food for members of our community. As we were driving, I was quietly wondering how I would be able to carry out my duties that afternoon, as I was experiencing some pain and mobility restriction in my arms and legs.

An answer came quickly: “How could I not be able to carry out my duties, to serve God and my fellow men and women, if God is the source of my being and action – if everything I do is actuated by God and God’s great love for me and each one of His children?”

This was based on what I’d learned in Christian Science about the true nature of everyone as the spiritual offspring of God, divine Love. Comforting words, which assured me God’s love was present to sustain me in my desire to be of service to others, came to mind from a loved hymn by 19th-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier: “Then, brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother, / For where love dwells, the peace of God is there” (“Christian Science Hymnal,” No. 217). And Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, states in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures”: “The depth, breadth, height, might, majesty, and glory of infinite Love fill all space. That is enough!” (p. 520).

Divine Love is enough. Infinite Love is more than sufficient to support our desire to serve – and in turn to supply needed nourishment for neighbors in our community.

Inspired by these ideas, I gathered with the other volunteers in the warehouse, where the volunteer coordinator announced that we would be boxing 22,000 pounds of carrots! Usually, when we sort and box any type of fresh produce, we are trained how to discern between a good fruit or vegetable and a bad one. On this day, though, the coordinator said in a full voice with a broad smile, “There are no bad carrots!”

I smiled to myself as another thought came to me: “Yes, and there are no bad children of God!”

There are no bad children of God because God made us in the pure, flawless, and spiritual image of the Divine. No spoils or imperfections, no pain, nothing wanting. All made to serve and bless, to freely express qualities such as love, compassion, and joy.

As we got to work in the warehouse, I couldn’t help but notice the wonderful attributes being expressed by the group. The volunteers putting carrots into boxes as fast as they could were expressing energy and joy; others working together to fill one box after another conveyed brotherly love. Efficiency was expressed by some who filled two boxes at a time, and artistry and order was shown by others who took care to arrange the carrots “just so.” Those who carried the carrot-filled boxes to the pallets expressed generosity. The staff who forklifted the filled pallets to the trucks for delivery exhibited orderliness and alertness.

The volunteer coordinator sent us off at the end of our shift with a tremendous amount of gratitude. And there was another happy outcome, too: I realized that I was free from the problems with my limbs – a wonderful example of the healing that happens when we realize that we are the unspoiled, flawless children of God.

To me this experience was truly a living, current-day example of what we read in the Bible: “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:4). As we let a Spirit-impelled love for humanity motivate our thoughts and activities, we are empowered to express God’s love in a wonderfully rich mosaic of ways. Dedication, joy, care, orderliness, brotherly love, productivity, beauty, strength, generosity, health, gratitude – such qualities are God-given, ours to reflect in all we do.

In this way each of us can take a step toward proving that among God’s children there are indeed no bad carrots – not me, not you, not anyone!

Viewfinder

On farms, a good crop of art

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Two-lane roads named after letters of the alphabet wind through rural Sauk County, Wisconsin. Red barns and silos dot the landscape. Cows – of both the dairy and beef varieties – meander through fields or rest in corrals. Corn, beans, and wheat grow on the rolling hills. Leaves are turning orange and red. This bucolic landscape is punctuated by art installations placed on farm fields as part of Fermentation Fest’s eighth annual Farm/Art DTour, a 50-mile self-guided cultural tour. Signs alert drivers when the next stop is coming up. “For thousands of years, farmers in cultures around the world interwove dance, music, and art through rituals of planting and harvest in celebration of the land, soil, and those who care for it,” explains the map of the event. “Through a contemporary approach, and within this timeless context, we continue that tradition.” Click on "View gallery" to see more images. – Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff photographer
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Come back Tuesday, when we'll have a preview of the Judge Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court hearings opening in the Senate.

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