2020
October
29
Thursday

Monitor Daily Podcast

October 29, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

American compassion: Wildfires show it’s still there

Kim Campbell
Culture & Education Editor

In Colorado, we’ve been inhaling smoke for months from some of the largest wildfires in the history of the state and region.

A snowstorm Sunday helped slow the raging fires and allowed people to breathe again. With the moisture came a chance to take in something else: the American thankfulness and generosity that have been overshadowed in a heated election year.

One Coloradan whose cabin was spared tweeted “tears of gratitude” to the members of Engine 1446 from Meeker who left him a note apologizing for not being able to save his shed and explaining why they damaged a fence to protect his home. “If this note finds you we must have done something right,” the firefighters wrote. “Things got really hot we stayed as long as possible.” 

An inn owner in Boulder let people affected by evacuation orders – and their pets – stay for free. And viewers of NBC affiliate 9News donated more than half a million dollars to the Red Cross of Colorado and Wyoming through the station’s “Word of Thanks” weekly $5 micro-giving campaign.

“Everybody’s dropping all the hate and they’re just gathering together regardless of what walk of life they come from,” Hilary Embrey, who lost her home in the Cameron Peak fire, told 9News.

When the smoke cleared in Colorado, the compassion was still there. A hint of what’s possible for the rest of the U.S. after next week’s election.

‘This is a good news story’: Voters turn out early in historic numbers

While there has been much hand-wringing over the state of democracy in the United States, one sign points to health: the record numbers of Americans enthusiastically showing up to vote for president.

Kim
Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Veteran Mike Drop's home in northern Pennsylvania is surrounded by pro-Trump lawn signs. Mr. Drop goes outside every morning in his pajamas to restake and rehang his Biden 2020 gear, brought inside the night before for safekeeping.

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With five days still to go before Election Day, Texas has recorded nearly 95% of its total 2016 votes. North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida have already banked more than 75% of their 2016 totals.

As one of the most divisive campaign seasons in modern history enters its final days, there may be at least one silver lining: Voters appear to be more engaged than ever. According to Gallup, over two-thirds of Americans say they are “more enthusiastic than usual” about voting, the highest rate ever recorded.  

Already, some of that engagement has been manifested through unprecedented early voting figures. More than 79 million Americans have voted so far, almost 60% of 2016’s total voter turnout, according to the U.S. Elections Project, a turnout-tracking database run by Michael McDonald at the University of Florida.

“We’ve never seen these kinds of numbers before,” says Professor McDonald. “We were worried about the conduct of the election in the middle of a pandemic. We were very concerned about the mail-in ballots that have been sent being returned all at the end,” he says. “This is a good news story.”

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1. ‘This is a good news story’: Voters turn out early in historic numbers

Michael Drop was never a “sign guy” before this election.

Most of his neighbors in northeast Pennsylvania favored Donald Trump in 2016 – and judging by this year’s signs, are enthusiastically supporting his reelection. Indeed, Mr. Drop’s home is flanked on all sides by flags and banners for Trump-Pence 2020.

But while Mr. Drop used to keep quiet about his political preferences, this year he has a new ritual. Every morning, the retiree and veteran gets up early to hang a Biden flag off his front porch and stake several Biden 2020 yard signs along his white picket fence. And every night, to prevent theft or damage, he brings it all back inside for safekeeping. 

“The guy around here who used to have one Trump sign? Now he has three, and a flag. So I told my daughter to Amazon some Biden flags for me,” says Mr. Drop. “I’m sort of a little rebel here. ... But I’m proud of it.” 

As one of the most divisive campaign seasons in modern history enters its final days, there may be at least one silver lining to the nation’s polarized politics: Voters appear to be more engaged than ever. According to Gallup, over two-thirds of Americans say they are “more enthusiastic than usual” about voting in this year’s election, the highest rate ever recorded.  

Already, some of that engagement has been manifested through unprecedented early voting figures. More than 79 million Americans have voted so far, which is almost 60% of 2016’s total voter turnout, according to the U.S. Elections Project, a turnout-tracking database run by Michael McDonald at the University of Florida. And while it’s too early to know for sure, it’s possible 2020 will have record turnout overall – one sign of a healthy, not ailing, democracy. 

“We’ve never seen these kinds of numbers before,” says Professor McDonald. “We were worried about the conduct of the election in the middle of a pandemic. We were very concerned about the mail-in ballots that have been sent being returned all at the end,” he says. “This is a good news story.”

SOURCE: Opinion data: Pew Research Center; 2000-08 early voting data: US Census; 2012-20 early voting data: US Elections Project
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Jacob Turcotte and Story Hinckley/Staff

An early surge

With five days still to go before Election Day, Texas has recorded nearly 95% of its total 2016 votes. North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida have already banked more than 75% of their 2016 totals. 

It’s possible this mostly reflects a change in when Americans are voting, rather than pointing to a spike in total turnout. Because of the pandemic, most states expanded their early voting options in the hopes of reducing the numbers at polling locations on Election Day.

Still, if overall turnout does wind up breaking records this year, one reason – along with the widespread perception of higher-than-usual stakes – might be that states made voting easier.

This year, 43 states plus the District of Columbia offered in-person voting ahead of Election Day. At least 12 – including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa – sent mail-in ballot applications to all voters. Others went even further, automatically mailing actual ballots to all voters. Several states, such as Minnesota and Pennsylvania, extended their deadlines for mail-in and absentee ballots to be received, while a dozen others changed their laws regarding eligibility for mail-in and absentee voting, allowing any registered voter to choose that option. 

“The numbers of people who have actually voted early or by mail are just off the charts,” says John Fortier, director of governmental studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center and an expert on early and absentee voting. Still, he cautions against reading too much into the “tea leaves,” saying, “we often see a pattern of people showing up at the earliest day something becomes available.”

Certainly, many of the voters taking advantage of the new rules are not new voters. Jennifer Kornegay, a veterinary technician waiting in line with a few dozen other masked voters at the Fairfax County Government Center in northern Virginia, says she always votes in presidential elections, but this is her first time voting early. She heard news reports about long lines, and since she will be working a late shift on Election Day, she didn’t want to risk missing her chance to vote. 

Virginia opened some polling locations as early as Sept. 18, with the Fairfax County Office of Elections announcing it would begin offering Saturday hours one week ahead of schedule to accommodate record numbers of early voters. In mid-October, Fairfax County opened 14 satellite voting locations – almost twice the number of satellite sites it typically opens. 

With less than a week to go before Election Day, more than 300,000 votes have been cast in Fairfax County – more than half of the total votes cast for president in 2016.

“It’s amazing that so many people are willing to turn out and wait hours to vote,” says Ms. Kornegay, who brought her young son Joshua with her. Enthusiasm, she says, seems “way higher than in years past.” 

Partisan patterns

Judging by the states that report party registration data, Democrats currently hold a wide advantage in mail-in ballot requests and return rates, whereas Republicans hold a slight lead among early in-person voting. While Democrats may have a slight lead in overall returns so far, that’s been typical in recent election cycles, when Republicans often make up lost ground on Election Day.  

“We’re in the third quarter, and we know that the Republicans have a strong end game,” says Professor McDonald. “Do the Democrats have enough to withstand what the Republicans are going to do in the 4th quarter?”

Rather than focusing on the early vote, Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report suggests that “motivation to vote” is the best metric to measure enthusiasm. On that score, an Oct. 22 Quinnipiac University poll found that 68% of likely voters said they were more motivated to vote than in past presidential elections – a 15% increase from 2016.

Likewise, according to Pew Research, 83% of registered voters say it “really matters” who wins the presidency this year, the highest share in two decades of surveys. And as Mr. Fortier notes, 2018 saw the highest voter turnout for a midterm election in four decades: “a case where there was [apparent] enthusiasm, and it was borne out by higher turnout.” 

The U.S. hasn’t seen more than 60% of its voting age population turn out since the 1960s. Some experts believe this year could reach as high as 65%.

Vote.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan voter registration platform, has seen “exponential growth” in the use of its services this year, says CEO Andrea Hailey – “unlike anything that Vote.org has seen before.” Use of the site really started to pick up around January, she says, far earlier than typical. They saw another surge this summer, amid the protests over racial justice. 

“During the protests, people started to find out more about what was happening in their communities. People started asking questions like, ‘Who’s in charge?’” says Ms. Hailey. “The activism was transferring into registering to vote.”

For many on the right, the protests – and the destruction that sometimes accompanied them – had a similarly motivating effect.

Dan Hunsinger, the police chief for Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, leans against the wall in the Luzerne County Republican headquarters. He’s waiting for an event featuring Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who gained national attention for pointing guns at protesters who entered their gated community. Chief Hunsinger says he’s never attended a political event like this before – but decided that this year, sitting on the sidelines wasn’t an option.

“I’m scared of what would happen if the liberals got control of our country,” he says. “From seeing everything [Trump’s] accomplished, I’m more of an avid supporter than ever before.”

“My whole family voted for Trump in 2016,” echoes Gary Hontz, a semi-retired truck driver from Schickshinny. “But we support him more now, because he’s done everything he said he’d do.”

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Susie Connors (left), a retired teacher, and Jackie Bush-Holcomb, a real estate assistant, say this election has made them more engaged than ever in politics in Scranton, Pennyslvania, Sept. 30, 2020.

Signs of enthusiasm

The enthusiasm seen across the political spectrum this year may reverberate well into the future. Typically, if someone participates in two or more elections, they are likely to become a lifelong voter, notes Vote.org’s Ms. Hailey. 

“People are paying attention to voting and civics in a way we have never seen,” she says. “Now we have a new generation of voters who will participate.”

According to the data firm TargetSmart, 11% of 2020's early voters – more than 7.6 million people – are between the ages of 18 and 29. This is more than double the number of young early voters who participated in 2016.

Walking around Nay Aug Park in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jackie Bush-Holcomb lists all the ways she’s volunteered to help the Biden campaign over the past few months. She’s delivered signs, paid $500 to put up a pro-Biden billboard off the highway, and is a part of the Facebook group of almost 500 local women who walk together weekly, decked out in Biden-Harris campaign gear.

“I have never been more involved in politics than I am right now,” says Ms. Bush-Holcomb, who works with her husband, a real estate agent. 

“We’ve never had people call us [for signs] like this,” says Susie Connors, a retired teacher walking with Ms. Bush-Holcomb. “I got a call Monday from my hairdresser,” she adds. “Three weeks ago, she was afraid to put a sign up. And now she said, ‘Nope. I’m doing it.’”

Campaigns and political scientists generally dismiss the predictive power of lawn signs; as the old joke goes, “lawn signs don’t vote.” Still, that doesn’t mean signs are completely meaningless, says Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University and expert on voter outreach. 

Professor Green led a 2016 study in which he and other political scientists examined the role of lawn signs in four different campaigns. On average, they helped increase a candidate’s vote share by almost 2 percentage points. In a close election where every vote counts, that’s an effect worth noting. But there’s an important caveat.

“There is a big difference between saying what they predict, and what they cause,” says Professor Green. Lawn signs are a type of advertisement; their quantity does not predict the winner. 

They can, however, be a finger in the wind. Tom Corbett, a Republican who served as the governor of Pennsylvania from 2011 to 2015, remembers driving around outside Pittsburgh ahead of the 2016 election and being surprised at the number of Trump lawn signs. 

“That’s when I thought, ‘It might actually be closer than people think,’” says Mr. Corbett. “Signs are a show of enthusiasm, a willingness to show who you will support.”

SOURCE: Opinion data: Pew Research Center; 2000-08 early voting data: US Census; 2012-20 early voting data: US Elections Project
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Jacob Turcotte and Story Hinckley/Staff

Judging ‘Obamacare’: Justice Barrett’s first high-profile case

A Supreme Court challenge to the constitutionality of “Obamacare” could directly affect 20 million Americans, and it will be a signal of how the new justice, Amy Coney Barrett, allies with the conservative majority.

Kim

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The future of the Affordable Care Act dominated Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing and will be one of the first big cases the newly seated justice hears.

The challenge from several Republican-led states to the constitutionality of the ACA, also known as “Obamacare,” has immense practical implications – roughly 20 million Americans could be at risk of losing health insurance – and will be a first signal of how the court’s new conservative majority may approach politicized cases.

Justice Barrett is expected to strengthen the court’s conservative majority. But which conservative justices she aligns with is an open question.

That wing isn’t “a coherent or uniformly predictable voting bloc,” says Roman Martinez, a partner at Latham & Watkins and a former clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts and, when he was on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “You’ll see some heated debates within that group of six justices,” he adds. 

The fate of the ACA, to be argued on Nov. 10, could hinge on a recent debate the conservatives had over “severability” – whether an entire law should be struck down if one provision is unconstitutional.

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2. Judging ‘Obamacare’: Justice Barrett’s first high-profile case

Amy Coney Barrett joined the U.S. Supreme Court this week – replacing the liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last month – and is expected to further strengthen the court’s conservative majority. 

Which conservative justices she aligns with, though, will be an open question in some cases. Even in terms of general judicial philosophies – like originalism, which interprets the Constitution as the framers originally intended, and textualism, which interprets statutes based on a strict reading of the text – the justices differ over how to apply them. On more specific legal doctrines and questions, there have been further differences of opinion.

One of the first cases Justice Barrett will hear argued – on Nov. 10 – is a challenge from several Republican-led states to the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), known as “Obamacare.”

The case, which dominated Justice Barrett’s confirmation hearing, is one of the most high-profile cases of the term. If the law is struck down, roughly 20 million Americans would be at risk of losing health insurance. And the case importantly will be a first signal for how the court’s new conservative majority may approach politicized cases.

The case poses potentially complex questions for the conservative wing of the court, from arcane doctrines on standing and severability to broader philosophies around the role of the Supreme Court itself. And it will offer an early example of how U.S. law will largely be shaped in the coming years: by debates, and disagreements, between those conservative justices.

That wing isn’t “a coherent or uniformly predictable voting bloc,” says Roman Martinez, a partner at Latham & Watkins and a former clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts and, when he was on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“You’ll see some heated debates within that group of six justices,” he adds, potentially including in this ACA case. “That internal debate on that side will be very interesting to continue to watch.”

Jim Lo Scalzo/AP
Justice Amy Coney Barrett took the bench this week, fortifying the Supreme Court's conservative majority.

Without mandate, can Obamacare stand?  

The case to be argued at the Supreme Court on Nov. 10 is the third challenge to the ACA the court will have heard since its passage in 2010 and concerns the law’s “individual mandate” – the requirement that Americans have health insurance or pay a monetary penalty.

In the first challenge to the ACA’s constitutionality in 2012, the court – led by Chief Justice Roberts – controversially upheld the law by interpreting the individual mandate as permissible under Congress’ taxation powers. This year’s challenge stems from Congress reducing that penalty to zero in its 2017 tax cut bill.

Eighteen states, led by Texas, then sued, arguing that because the individual mandate now has no monetary penalty, it’s now not a tax and thus unconstitutional. Further they argue that because the mandate is unconstitutional, it renders the whole ACA unconstitutional as well.

The case poses three questions to the justices, including whether the mandate is still constitutional and whether the states should be able to bring the case at all – a threshold question known as “standing.” 

If a majority of justices agree with Texas on those two questions, it’s the next question, on “severability” – whether, if the mandate is unconstitutional, the entire ACA falls – that could potentially doom the law.

“If there’s one issue on which the case could turn, it’s severability,” says Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

Severability is not a glamorous doctrine, nor is it one that has produced sharp ideological divides between justices, but there are some disagreements. Some statutes include explicit clauses instructing courts on whether provisions are severable or not. But when there isn’t such a clause, what should courts do?

Scalpel vs. bulldozer   

Last July – notably, with the ACA case already looming – slight disagreements on that question surfaced on the court. In opinions from two conservatives, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh, a majority of the court made clear that, absent explicit instructions to the contrary, courts should favor preserving a statute while severing its unconstitutional section.

“We think it clear that Congress would prefer that we use a scalpel rather than a bulldozer in curing the constitutional defect we identify today,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts in a ruling related to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

In a different opinion a week later, Justice Kavanaugh reached a similar conclusion regarding a law regulating robocalls. “The Court’s precedents reflect a decisive preference for surgical severance rather than wholesale destruction,” he wrote.

The surgery metaphor used by both justices isn’t a coincidence, thinks Abbe Gluck, a professor at Yale Law School.

Severability “has generally been uncontroversial at the court,” she says. So it’s significant that both decisions – by a 7-2 margin, no less – “reaffirmed the court’s long-standing rule that there’s a strong presumption in favor of severability.”

The two justices who dissented from those opinions – fellow conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch – seemed to argue for a narrower view of severability than the majority. Justice Thomas, specifically, criticized the court’s severability doctrine for including “nebulous” inquiries into “hypothetical congressional intent.” 

As for the newest justice, in an exchange with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina during her confirmation hearing this month, Justice Barrett said that “the presumption is always in favor of severability.”

An important caveat here is that the presumption of severability is just that, a presumption. 

“Presumptions can change depending on the facts of the case,” says Jennifer Nou, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. “The outcomes of previous cases aren’t necessarily telling since severability analyses are statute-specific.”

Texas and the U.S. Department of Justice argue that the whole ACA must be struck down with the mandate because the 2010 Congress – which passed the law and intended them to be inseverable – is “the only valid and relevant expression of congressional intent.”

Critics say that argument diminishes the intent of the 2017 Congress, which is more relevant. While the 2010 Congress may have viewed the mandate as a central component of the ACA, the 2017 Congress, by zeroing the mandate out, intended for the law to operate without it, they argue.

Those critics include Professor Somin and Professor Gluck, who joined an amicus brief with other professors who, while having disagreed on ACA litigation in the past, all agree that the rest of the law should be upheld if the mandate is struck down.

“That’s why you’ve got all of these strange bedfellows coming together on this case,” says Professor Gluck. “It’s unconstitutional to entrench the views of an earlier Congress over the views of a later Congress.”

“This challenge is trying to play a clever game with millions of people’s lives,” she adds. “It really shows the danger of politics in the law.” 

ACA litigation might be as political as it gets – the law has survived seven challenges in the Supreme Court and more than 1,000 in the lower courts, largely from Republican officials, since 2010. And while the case will come after Election Day, it will test the strength of the court’s insulation from national politics.

How the justices interpret severability in the case, if they even reach that question after considering standing and the constitutionality of the mandate, will determine the fate of the ACA, and be an early marker of what to expect from the court’s new conservative majority.

For Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh, at least, severability “is grounded in judicial restraint, and thinking the court’s role is not to overturn what Congress does unless there is a clear justification,” says Mr. Martinez, who has argued nine cases at the Supreme Court. They both “see severability as one doctrine to help keep judges within their proper role.”

Justice Barrett has, in a few ways, made her views on the case, and the court’s ACA rulings, clear. In a 2017 law review article she criticized Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion upholding the law in 2012. And in September she participated in a mock court hearing on the case at William & Mary Law School. The mock court voted unanimously to keep the law in place – three judges ruled that the states lacked standing to bring the case, and five ruled that while the individual mandate is unconstitutional it could be “severed” from the rest of the law – but it’s unclear how she voted.

Rethinking the News

A space for constructive conversations

Why Black Americans say both parties are failing them (audio)

Ahead of the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, the Republican-led city is attempting to reconcile the past with how far it still needs to go. We wondered, how are Black Tulsans finding their political agency? 

Kim
Samantha Laine Perfas/The Christian Science Monitor
Robert Turner, pastor of the Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, marches to City Hall from the church and back, calling for reparations for the victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, on Sept. 30, 2020.

Tulsa is gearing up for the centennial of the 1921 race massacre, a violent incident of racism that almost entirely destroyed the city’s Black community 100 years ago. The commemoration is putting a spotlight on Black Tulsans’ long, painful struggle toward racial equality – a struggle echoed throughout U.S. history in Black communities across the country. Coupled with a divisive presidential election in which race and racism are central issues, the sense among many Black voters in Tulsa is that neither party really has their interests at heart. 

“They feel it doesn’t matter either way, Republican or Democrat,” says Mareo Johnson, a local pastor and founder of Black Lives Matter Tulsa. “Nothing is going to change in my situation, my circumstance, my surroundings.” 

America understands the election primarily through partisan politics. Each side is claiming the soul of the nation is at stake. But what about the voters whom both parties have failed – not just today, but consistently and systematically, for generations? How do they decide whom to support? And where do they find hope? 

In this episode of “Rethinking the News,” we speak to Black Tulsans about their politics, and see what lessons the rest of the country can learn from the city’s struggle to find racial unity. – Jessica Mendoza and Samantha Laine Perfas

“Rethinking the News” is a podcast that aims to make room for constructive conversations across a range of perspectives, and bring Monitor journalism straight to your ears. To learn more about the podcast and find new episodes, please visit our page

This story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story here.

Black Wall Street: ‘The Illusion of Inclusion’

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The war is popular in Azerbaijan and Armenia. But some call for peace.

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the divide it represents seem intractable. But that hasn’t stopped some in both Azerbaijan and Armenia from defying public sentiments to issue calls for peace.

Kim
AP
A woman prays in the Holy Savior Cathedral, damaged by shelling by Azerbaijan's artillery, in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh, Oct. 18, 2020. While Azeris and Armenians have broadly supported the fighting over the contested region, there are nascent peace movements among both peoples.

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The month-old war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is the latest eruption of a long-running, bitter conflict steeped in existential fears and ancestral hatreds. As wars usually do, it has generated an intense rally-round-the-flag effect in both societies and their diasporas.

So it’s extraordinary that a few people in each country have found the courage to take a public stand against what they see as the madness unfolding around them.

Small and apparently unconnected groups in Armenia and Azerbaijan have signed open letters that call for peace. The signatories appear to be primarily young, leftish students, intellectuals, and activists. Though marginalized, they make a strong case to their respective societies that this war is in the interests of neither population, and that a reasonable peace settlement would open the door to economic prosperity and greater democracy in both countries.

“They say truth is the first casualty in war, and that has certainly happened here,” says Giyas Ibrahim, one of the signatories of the Azeri letter. “Our position, of course, has prompted a lot of people to label us as traitors. But someone needs to say that this war is a lie that serves the interests of only a few.”

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4. The war is popular in Azerbaijan and Armenia. But some call for peace.

The month-old war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is the latest eruption of a long-running, bitter conflict steeped in existential fears and ancestral hatreds. As wars usually do, it has generated an intense rally-round-the-flag effect in both societies and their diasporas.

So it’s extraordinary that a few people in each country have found the courage to take a public stand against what they see as the madness unfolding around them.

Small and apparently unconnected groups in Armenia and Azerbaijan have signed open letters that call for peace. The letters also condemn the nationalist passions, war propaganda, and special interests – as well as the neo-imperial powers, Russia and Turkey – that they see as encouraging and exploiting the conflict.

The signatories appear to be primarily young, leftish students, intellectuals, and activists. Though marginalized – at least one Azeri signatory is now in prison for his anti-war stand – they make a strong case to their respective societies that this war is in the interests of neither population, should have been prevented by diplomacy decades ago, and that a reasonable peace settlement would open the door to economic prosperity and greater democracy in both countries.

“They say truth is the first casualty in war, and that has certainly happened here,” says Giyas Ibrahim, one of the signatories of the Azeri letter. “Our position, of course, has prompted a lot of people to label us as traitors. But someone needs to say that this war is a lie that serves the interests of only a few, such as arms dealers and imperialists.”

“It’s very hard to be objective”

Mr. Ibrahim, who was reportedly arrested for making “anti-war statements online” shortly after his email exchange with the Monitor, says that “this war has already claimed the lives of many young people, who might not have gone to die if they hadn’t been fed by the state with incessant militaristic and nationalist propaganda. It has always been possible to solve this conflict humanely.”

That is an extremely unpopular position in Azerbaijan. Arif Yunusov, an Azeri security expert whose mother was Armenian, says he has tried over the years to promote dialogue, and received a lot of abuse for his efforts.

“In the midst of a war it’s very hard to be objective,” he says. “It’s either black or white. No colors. That’s particularly true of ethnic and religious conflicts like this. My wife and I have operated a joint Azeri-Armenian peace website for years, in an effort to get a conversation going among Azeris about this. We’ve been called traitors and Armenian spies for our efforts.”

Umit Bektas/Reuters
Iman Abisiv carries his belongings from his damaged home in Terter, Azerbaijan, after the beginning of a cease-fire to halt fighting over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Oct. 10, 2020. At least one Azeri peace activist has been arrested for making “anti-war statements online.”

The Armenian letter, signed by about two dozen public activists, similarly blames the war on narrow nationalism, capitalist greed, and pot-stirring by outside powers. “War catastrophically changes people, their perceptions, and ability to imagine peace,” it says.

The letter lays out a series of steps that might be taken, not just to end the war but to reverse decades of misunderstanding, animosity, and ethnic injustice, in order to create a lasting peace in the region.

One of the Armenian signatories, Gayane Ayvazyan, a Yerevan-based historian, says that Armenians generally want peace, but they are absorbed by a long-standing certainty that conflict is inevitable and military security is the only answer.

“Armenians witnessed a huge national tragedy just over a century ago,” when at least 1.5 million Armenians – once a large minority in Turkey – were slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks, she says. “This terrible trauma is still remembered. The Turkish factor in the present conflict makes people believe that we are seeing the continuation of the Armenian Genocide, and that this is a war for self-preservation.”

“The majority of society supports this war”

During Soviet times Armenians and Azeris lived together more or less peacefully, often as neighbors in the same places. But amid the Soviet twilight, in a series of reciprocal pogroms, about half a million Armenians were forcibly expelled from Azerbaijan, and around 200,000 Azeris from Armenia.

The Armenian-majority territory of Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence in 1988, and in the subsequent war, the victorious Armenians occupied seven mainly Azeri regions, which they claim are necessary “buffer zones.” From those territories they ethnically cleansed around 600,000 Azeris, many of whom still live in forlorn refugee camps near the Iranian border.

For almost 30 years the unresolved conflict has festered. All attempts by international negotiators to frame a settlement – in which Armenia would return the occupied Azeri territories in exchange for peace, the return of refugees to their homes, and negotiations about an acceptable status for Nagorno-Karabakh – have foundered while both sides prepared for renewed war.

“As for Karabakh, I don’t think either side has an adequate attitude about it,” says Ms. Ayvazyan. “Leaders have never taken the idea of a negotiated settlement seriously. Everyone maintained a maximal position, hoping to get everything without having to make compromises.”

Azerbaijan is a dynastic post-Soviet dictatorship fueled by oil money. Signatories of the Azeri letter say the refugee problem needs to be solved, and people must be returned to their homes. But they blame the country’s authoritarian leader, Ilham Aliyev, for using the issue of lost lands and refugees to distract people from deepening social problems, poverty, and other sources of dissatisfaction with his rule.

“The majority of society supports this war,” says Bahruz Samadov, a signatory of the Azeri letter who is currently studying in Prague. “That’s because the authorities have been preparing people for war, forming the enemy image of Armenians, for many years. The image was that the implacable enemy doesn’t want to return what belongs to us, no political solution exists and the only way is war. ...

“Before the war people felt apathy towards the authorities and the political system, but now they solidarize with the authorities and support all their measures. Alternative voices are suppressed, and any actions by the authorities are justified,” he adds. “These are totalitarian tendencies.”

Missed opportunities

Armenia is a democracy, and its society appears to allow wider debate and shows a fair degree of tolerance toward its peace-oriented dissenters.

“People of my age remember that Azeris and Armenians once lived together as neighbors,” says Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the independent Caucasus Institute in Yerevan. “But young people today see Azeris in some kind of caricature. There is no contact between people anymore. Isolation and lack of communication generates certain feelings, here and there.”

Ms. Ayvazyan, the peace activist, says Armenian society missed a major opportunity by failing to deal with the war issue during its euphoric democratic revolution two years ago.

“The Karabakh conflict wasn’t treated as part of the civil protest agenda” during that popular upsurge, she says. “It was considered frozen. But now it’s clear that we cannot go forward to full democracy while bypassing this conflict. No matter how this war ends, it will teach us that lesson. There is no future without finding ways to establish dialogue for peace.”

Editor's note: The original version misstated Mr. Yunusov's family connections with Armenia.

Patterns

Tracing global connections

In shift to green energy, a matter of when, not if

A major geopolitical shift could slowly be taking shape as the world’s 20th-century focus on access to oil gives way to competition for the technologies and resources needed to power a cleaner-energy economy.

Kim

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Sometimes a moment of high election-campaign drama can obscure an important political trend. That could well prove true of President Donald Trump’s debate dust-up with Democratic challenger Joe Biden over oil and gas policy.

While the candidates were sparring, there have been growing signs that many other countries now view a shift toward lower-carbon energy sources as inevitable, the only question being how quickly it will happen. A major report from the International Energy Agency this month suggests they’re right. 

The signs of a shift in attitude are coming from a range of governments as well as international business leaders.

That shift is partly catalyzed by growing popular concern, and activism, on climate change. But there are new economic drivers as well, especially the huge economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The European Union, with its nearly $900 billion recovery plan, has pledged net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. China has announced a net-zero target of 2060. Britain hopes to harness the North Sea’s windswept waters to become “the Saudi Arabia of wind.” 

In the U.S., the long-term future of oil, gas, and other energy industries could ultimately depend less on political decisions than on changing market forces.

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5. In shift to green energy, a matter of when, not if

It was a moment of high drama in the final debate of the American presidential campaign: the accusation by President Donald Trump that Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s climate change proposals would “destroy the oil industry” in the United States.

And while Mr. Biden is actually proposing only to cut federal subsidies for oil, and “transition” to cleaner energy sources, President Trump clearly hopes the issue will resonate with industry-dependent voters in key states like Pennsylvania, Texas, and Ohio.

But no matter who wins the Nov. 3 election, their dispute could end up proving academic.

Even as the candidates sparred, key voices in the wider world – governments and corporate leaders, analysts and investors – have been asking a different question: not whether there will be a major move away from high-carbon energy sources like oil, but when

A full-scale shift is probably many years away, if only given the likelihood of continuing demand for oil in developing economies, as well as for industries like petrochemicals.

Yet the timetable seems to be accelerating. And the overall direction of travel – toward lower-carbon energy sources – is unmistakable. 

Growing consumer awareness and activism around climate change is one major catalyst. But there are new drivers as well, above all the economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The modeling is changing

The picture is made strikingly clear in the latest annual report by the International Energy Agency, called World Energy Outlook 2020 and published this month. It sets out four alternative scenarios, tracing not just the implications of various climate policy choices, but the huge economic effects of the pandemic.

All its models foresee an increasingly dominant role for solar energy in generating electricity, and a steady decline for coal. The importance of wind turbines is also projected to increase.

The report does expect a post-pandemic rebound in demand for oil. But even under its most conservative scenario – a fairly rapid economic recovery, and no major new climate change policy initiatives – demand is projected to level off in the 2030s. The report adds that the fall in oil demand and price during the pandemic has been focusing the minds of investors, and governments in oil-dependent countries, on the longer-term need to diversify.

That message has already hit home in many developed countries. And as governments prepare huge packages of investments, subsidies, and incentives to restart their economies, cleaner energy sources like solar, wind, and hydrogen are getting a closer look. A number of countries have already mandated a shift away from selling new gasoline-powered automobiles in favor of electric vehicles. 

The 27-member European Union, with its nearly $900 billion recovery plan, has pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

Britain has made the same pledge. With revenues from North Sea oil fields on the wane, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has expressed his hopes to sow the sea’s windswept waters with energy turbines and make the country “the Saudi Arabia of wind.” 

China – the world’s second-largest economy and largest carbon emitter – has announced it will become net-zero by 2060.

How such pledges are turned into action remains to be seen.

China continues to commission old-style coal power stations – and provide them as part of its Belt and Road infrastructure deals with countries across Asia and Africa. But just as Xi Jinping’s government has sought to stake out a major place in high-tech, it may well be seeking a leading role in a greener world energy economy. China already makes most of the world’s solar panels.

Business is changing, too

The business world seems to be changing as well.

The auto industry is a prime example, nowhere more so than in Germany. Top manufacturers there at first shrugged off the prospect of a wide-scale move to electric cars. Now, galvanized by the success of America’s Tesla, they’re scrambling. The German government has also announced a major investment in a national network of charging points. 

Japan’s Honda recently announced it is getting out of the Formula One engine business. The stated reason: to focus on new electric car-engine technologies, in response to what the company called a “once-in-one-hundred-years period of great transformation.” 

In Australia, still a major coal exporter, the government is backing a new power station project in a western desert area: a “green hydrogen” complex where the world’s largest solar and wind energy farm would power the production of carbon-free hydrogen for export to Asia.

Signs of change are even appearing in the oil industry. In Europe, France’s Total, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP have announced plans to begin transitioning from reliance on oil and invest in lower-carbon energy sources.

The American take

American companies are still betting on oil and gas remaining by far the world’s main source of energy, while hoping to address climate change concerns through mitigating technologies like the capture and storage of carbon emissions. Since natural gas seems likely to remain in high demand as economies transition to cleaner energy, there are no major signs yet of European-style diversification.

Nor has there been any sign of a major move away from an increasingly controversial source of U.S. oil and gas: hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale rock. Mr. Trump has made that an election issue as well, for while Mr. Biden has made it clear he’s not going to try to end fracking, he would ban new sites on federal land.

Yet the huge expansion of fracking in recent years – making America energy independent and opening up new export markets – was achieved through large-scale, speculative investment and borrowing, against the promise of long-term profit. That hasn’t materialized.

So it may turn out that, like the energy-mix changes gathering pace elsewhere in the world, the future of fracking could be decided less by politics than by new market forces. Over time, we may see a major geopolitical shift as the world’s 20th -century focus on access to oil supplies in regions like the Middle East gives way to a new kind of competition: for the technologies, resources, and equipment needed to power a cleaner-energy economy.

On Film

‘Time’ and ‘The Antidote’ offer path to unity in a divisive time

What can filmmakers bring to a divided society? Movie critic Peter Rainer shares what he appreciates about two recent documentaries that suggest community and empathy as a way forward. 

Kim
Amazon Studios
In the documentary “Time,” Fox Rich (left) fights for the release of her husband, Robert, who was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
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6. ‘Time’ and ‘The Antidote’ offer path to unity in a divisive time

In this extremely divisive and politicized era, it’s nice to know there exists a subset of nonfiction films that take a longer view. What I appreciate most about a pair of recent documentaries – “Time” and “The Antidote” – is that, in their own very different ways, they seek to address and heal these divisions.

“Time,” which centers in highly personal terms on the stark disparity in how justice is handed down along racial lines, is the more overtly political of these two films. But what stood out for me is the raw, human material undergirding its message.

In 1997, Sibil Fox Richardson, who goes by Fox Rich, and husband Robert Richardson decided to open a hip-hop clothing store in Shreveport, Louisiana. Desperate for cash, they made the gravest mistake of their lives and attempted to rob a credit union. Rich, who drove the getaway car, took a plea deal and served 3 1/2 years. Robert received 60 years without benefit of probation, pardon, or suspension of sentence.

Over the course of their next two decades of separation, Rich, mother to their six boys, recorded over 100 hours of home movies documenting for Robert the family life occurring outside the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It is this footage, plus newer material – all shot in black and white – that makes up the film’s emotional core. This is not a movie about a false conviction. Directed by Garrett Bradley, it’s about the wrongfulness of the extreme punishment meted out to a Black man. It’s also about how Rich, who raised her boys alone, became a fierce public advocate for sentencing reform, declaring that “the prison system is nothing but slavery.”

Moving back and forth as it does from past and present, the uniformly black-and-white footage resonantly interweaves the story in a way that a stricter chronology could not have accomplished. We see Rich’s little boys, including her twins named Freedom and Justus, romping and showboating and then we see them as young adults, fatherless but game to make their father proud. In one of the film’s highlights, the twins’ beaming older brother Remington is filmed at his dental school graduation. Robert’s only tangible presence in the home is a watchful and abiding life-size cardboard cutout of him.

In contrast to most movies about incarceration, fiction or nonfiction, “Time” focuses on the effects of imprisonment on the family left behind. Rich’s day job is running a successful car dealership but her real work – her mission – is to forge a more forgiving prison system. She also apologizes and asks for forgiveness from those she wronged: her family, her church members, and the frightened witnesses to her crime. She believes that God has allowed her to use her voice for the voiceless. Petitioning for her husband’s release, and continually let down by the courts, she nevertheless pushes on unbowed. Rich is one of the more galvanizing heroes in the movies right now, and I’m glad it’s the real person, and not an actor, we are seeing up there on the screen. 

Brand New Story/Cinetic Media
In the “The Antidote,” which aims to examine “the roles that kindness, decency, compassion and respect play in a civilized, democratic society,” a baby visits a fourth grade class in Seattle to help students explore empathy.

The title for “The Antidote,” directed by Kahane Cooperman and John Hoffman, is intended literally. It wants to be a movie about, to quote its promotional material, “the roles that kindness, decency, compassion and respect play in a civilized, democratic society.” This is a tall order, and the film, which chronicles the life-giving humaneness of almost a dozen communities across America, is sometimes scattershot.

But there are some marvelous moments: A community activist in Indianapolis organizes Black preteens into a thriving boys and girls bicycle club. In Boston, a nurse tends to scared homeless people by first washing their feet as a way to earn their trust and initiate their care. In Anchorage, Alaska, a local refugee agency brings in a large Congolese family after it has endured 17 years in a Rwandan refugee camp. My favorite sequence is a fourth grade class in Seattle where once a month a baby is brought in so the children can react to the infant and explore their empathy. It’s left to 9-year-old Brody to express what we all feel: “Without kindness we’d all be maniacs!” The power of community reverberates throughout this film.   

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. 

“Time” (PG-13) is available on Amazon Prime Video. “The Antidote” (not rated) is arriving on video on demand platforms in November. It can also be viewed now for a fee via this site: https://theantidotemovie.com/watch/

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The Monitor's View

A thirst to rethink droughts

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Nearly half of the continental United States is experiencing prolonged drought, according to federal scientists. Globally, more than 2 billion people live in countries experiencing what the United Nations calls high water stress. The effects of climate change are neither consistent nor uniform. In recent years, for example, the Midwest has experienced both widespread flooding and persistent drought. Yet as water experts grapple with understanding these unusual weather patterns, assumptions about water are shifting as well.

As Jens Berggren, a Swedish sustainability expert, told Deutsche Welle, “It’s not a lack of water per se, it’s a lack of water governance.” If people could reduce water use by almost half, he said, that would “give ample opportunity to meet all our needs.”

Adapting to a changing planet requires more than a physical response to scarcity. It entails seeing abundance in people’s ability to innovate, join together in common cause, and be open to letting go of destructive behavior. Those traits are not scarce. And neither is humanity’s ability to draw upon them.

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A thirst to rethink droughts

Nearly half of the continental United States is experiencing prolonged drought, according to federal scientists. Precipitation models predict that winter will provide little relief in much of the West and South. An independent study found the last two decades in the Southwest to be the driest continuous stretch since the 1500s.

On the other side of the continent, half of the Northeast had reached the levels of “severe” or “extreme” by September. At this moment, 72 million Americans are living in drought conditions. Globally, more than 2 billion people live in countries experiencing what the United Nations calls high water stress.

The effects of climate change are neither consistent nor uniform. In recent years, for example, the Midwest has experienced both widespread flooding and persistent drought. Yet as water experts grapple with understanding these unusual weather patterns, assumptions about water are shifting as well. As Jens Berggren, a Swedish sustainability expert, told Deutsche Welle, “It’s not a lack of water per se, it’s a lack of water governance.” If people could reduce water use by almost half, he said, that would “give ample opportunity to meet all our needs.”

Last year researchers in Finland asked a novel question: Can there be water scarcity with an abundance of water? Despite Finland having ample water resources and typically no significant dry season, the study found that local drought-like effects were being caused by population concentration, drainage of wetlands, and inefficient water use. The finding led to a rethink of human development in order to find a balance with water resources.

A good example of a place that did reset its harmony with nature is Cape Town, South Africa. In March 2018, following three years of severe drought, the city’s main reservoir had fallen to 11% capacity. This month it reached overflow capacity. A return of better-than-average rainfall helped, but the real change was civic. The city imposed strict water-use practices, and residents quickly adapted. Researchers of this mass shift found “thirsty participants share water more often equally with powerless, anonymous others than they do money.” Cape Town is now better poised to avoid water stress because people created different lifestyles.

Adapting to a changing planet requires more than a physical response to scarcity. It entails seeing abundance in people’s ability to innovate, join together in common cause, and be open to letting go of destructive behavior. Those traits are not scarce. And neither is humanity’s ability to draw upon them.

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.

Volunteering in this election – to pray

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Wanting to feel that he’s doing everything he can to support the upcoming U.S. presidential election, an experienced political campaign staffer and volunteer has committed himself to being a “prayer volunteer.” The result? Less feeling “churned up” by politics and an inner peace and love that have led to notably improved interactions with others.

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1. Volunteering in this election – to pray

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Have you ever had a job where you work 16-hour days, seven days a week, for months on end, racing toward a looming deadline? It’s stressful, to say the least, but can also be very rewarding if you’re dedicating yourself to a cause that you believe is helping make the world a better place.

That appeal is part of what drew me to political campaign work some years ago, serving as a volunteer as well as a staffer on U.S. presidential and midterm election campaigns. Now, here we are in another election, where both sides are suggesting that the stakes couldn’t be higher, and I find myself wanting to roll up my sleeves and jump back into the scramble so that I can feel that I’m doing everything in my power to help.

But this time around, I have felt inspired to engage in a different way – to prioritize appealing to a higher power. I have committed myself to being a prayer volunteer.

To me, this is not stepping back and avoiding work, but rather is stepping up to the challenge with renewed dedication. Prayer in Christian Science is very active. It isn’t simply reciting words and hoping for something to happen, nor is it asking for a certain candidate to win. Prayer is learning more and more about God as absolute, infinite Love, and letting the light of divine Truth shine on all aspects of my life – especially where I encounter division, injustice, tumult, and evil. And even simply in reading election news or political commentary on social media, there is no shortage of opportunities to let the light of Truth shine through.

Part of my “volunteer prayer work” includes reading a weekly Bible Lesson, which is found in the “Christian Science Quarterly” and includes passages from the Bible and “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science. Early on in my prayer work, a particular passage from Science and Health stood out to me in a new light, and it has since become a central point of my prayer:

“Human sense may well marvel at discord, while, to a diviner sense, harmony is the real and discord the unreal. ... We may well be perplexed at human fear; and still more astounded at hatred, which lifts its hydra head, showing its horns in the many inventions of evil. But why should we stand aghast at nothingness?” (p. 563).

Discord, fear, and hatred are, unfortunately, not uncommon reactions when it comes to politics. But rather than getting caught up in the whirlwind of conflict and anxiousness, we can pray to see that the whirlwind itself doesn’t actually have the substance it seems to have. The true, entirely spiritual world of God’s creating includes only goodness; anything else is a suggestion that God is not absolute. Christian Science explains that God fills all space, is all-powerful, and is good itself. The spiritual reality, then, is that there are no dueling powers of good and evil; there is no other legitimate power than the one and only, supreme and infinite God, good.

The Bible explains the quality of God’s creation, saying, “God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

This doesn’t mean we just bury our heads in the sand when politics get ugly. It means acknowledging that God, the divine Mind, governs all of creation, including every single one of us – and therefore we have a God-given ability to not give in to the temptation to react in fear or hatred. When I pray in this way, I no longer find myself churned up by the political scene. Instead, I feel a deep assurance of inner peace and love for all, which informs my interactions with others about politics and any other issue.

As the electorate casts ballots for this U.S. presidential election, perhaps you will join me – wherever you live, and whatever your nationality – in pitching in together as prayer volunteers! Science and Health urges, “Let us rejoice that we are subject to the divine ‘powers that be’” (p. 249). No matter the outcome of this election, or the next, we can always let divine goodness, rather than hostility, inform our response.

Some more great ideas! To read or listen to an article in The Christian Science Journal on God’s true government of people and nations titled, “Rising above partisanship,” please click through to www.JSH-Online.com. There is no paywall for this content.

Viewfinder

New sorrow – and new security measures

Eric Gaillard/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron meets rescue workers on Oct. 29, 2020, after an attacker armed with a knife killed at least three people at a Catholic church in Nice, prompting the government to raise its security alert status to the highest level. It was the third attack in two months in France that appeared linked to caricatures of the prophet Muhammad that are controversial to Muslims, but are protected by France's free-speech laws.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Kim Campbell
Culture & Education Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow when international editor Peter Ford explores which people and governments from around the world would like to see President Trump win next week.

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