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Monitor Daily Podcast

February 22, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Doing good business: What Texas showed

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Acts of compassion continued to flow in Texas even when electricity, natural gas, and safe drinking water did not. Power has now largely been restored. Water lags. Questions loom. 

Last week in this space a colleague described person-to-person (and person-to-wildlife) moments of grace during the crisis.

But capitalism creates a cold juncture of tragedy and opportunism, and the compassion response of businesses has been uneven. Some customers of deregulated power providers saw electric bills surge to $1,000 a day, triggering calls over the weekend to mitigate. A billionaire natural-gas producer last week reportedly described “hitting the jackpot” while on an earnings call.

Still, questionable corporate ethics is never the whole story. The closer a business gets to its customer community, it seems, the more it views success through the lens of service, and the more humanity is manifested. 

And so, a Houston furniture store owner with heat, a serial good Samaritan, saw his rooms full of beds and recliners as places of free temporary respite, with pandemic precautions. And the grocery chain H-E-B, another perennial hero, waved grocery-laden customers past its knocked-out registers when an outage hit

It did so quietly, but shoppers did not let the act go unrecognized. “This is the America that I know,” one posted on Facebook. “Despite all the negative we hear/see being reported daily. ... America and most Americans are still kind, thoughtful, generous, and caring.”

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Biden’s high-wire act: Big goals and a fast-closing window

President Biden has favored cross-aisle governance for his entire political career. Leveraging his party’s edge gets him more speed. Can he blend what seem to be competing approaches?

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From COVID-19 relief to immigration, infrastructure, and climate change, President Joe Biden is swinging for the fences on domestic priorities that would both address the immediate crises and set the nation on a course dramatically different from that of his predecessor. 

It’s a precarious high-wire act, and time is of the essence. Democrats control the House and Senate by the slimmest of margins, and three of the last four presidents saw their party lose control of at least one congressional chamber after just two years.

For Mr. Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, the competing impulses are stark: His legislative past is rooted in bipartisanship, but he also needs to get things done, especially in ways that improve Americans’ lives tangibly and immediately. Thus, the willingness to try to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package with just Democratic votes.

“Every day that goes by that Congress can’t get aid to people, the higher the level of mistrust of Congress and the president’s ability to get things done,” says Susan MacManus, an emeritus political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

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Biden’s high-wire act: Big goals and a fast-closing window

Patrick Semansky/AP
President Joe Biden speaks during a virtual event with the Munich Security Conference in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 19, 2021, in Washington.

If history is any guide, President Joe Biden may well have just two years – tops – to get big measures through a narrowly divided Congress. And his agenda is as packed and urgent as any for a new president since Franklin Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression. 

From COVID-19 and economic relief, to immigration, infrastructure, and climate change, President Biden is swinging for the fences on priorities that would both address the immediate crises and set the nation on a course dramatically different from that of his predecessor. 

On the international stage, too, Mr. Biden is making his mark. On Friday, he made his debut by video conference with top global allies focused on the pandemic, climate, the world economy, security, and China. 

But it’s on domestic policy where an American president most often needs Congress’s approval, including permission to deploy federal funds. And there, Mr. Biden’s high-wire act may be the most precarious. Democrats control the House and Senate by the slimmest of margins, and the 2022 midterms already loom large. In three of the last four presidencies, the new chief executive’s party lost control of at least one congressional chamber after just two years, hampering their ability to implement major initiatives. 

Evan Vucci/AP
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (left) and other Democratic lawmakers to discuss a COVID-19 relief package in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Feb. 3, 2021. Biden’s push for a giant COVID-19 relief bill is pitting his instincts to work toward a bipartisan deal against the demands of an urgent crisis.

For Mr. Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, the competing impulses are stark: His legislative past is rooted in bipartisanship but he also wants and needs to get things done, especially in ways that improve Americans’ lives tangibly and immediately. Thus, the willingness to try to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package with just Democratic votes.

“The principal question, the political strategic question, confronting the Biden administration now is whether the COVID-19 bill is the template for the other big proposals or whether it’s an exception to a more consensual, cross-party mode of governance,” says William Galston, former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House. 

The answer may be a hybrid: Work hard to bring Republicans on board for legislation with bipartisan potential, but when push comes to shove, be willing to go it alone with Democratic votes. Even maintaining unity among Capitol Hill’s ideologically diverse Democrats – from Sen. Joe Manchin of deep-red West Virginia to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a progressive independent – has already tested Mr. Biden’s political skill. 

Senator Manchin’s rejection Friday of Neera Tanden for budget director, citing her past attacks on both Democrats and Republicans and imperiling her nomination, is a stark example of how just one vote in a 50-50 Senate can have a profound impact. 

In addition, it is the more centrist Democratic senators, including Mr. Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who oppose ditching the filibuster; thus the need to pass most legislation with 60 votes. On COVID-19 relief, Democrats are using a budgetary rule that allows bills to pass the Senate by majority vote – though the provision raising the federal minimum wage to $15 may not qualify for consideration under that rule, known as “reconciliation.” The House takes up the bill this week; Senate action is expected next week. 

Despite Mr. Biden’s frequent calls for unity and bipartisanship at a time of national crisis, he needs results – fast, Democrats say.

“The No. 1 commitment he made to people was to combat COVID and combat the economic devastation, and he’s doing that,” says Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. “He’s shown that he’s putting his shoulder into getting that done with the rescue plan.” 

Another option for Democrats eager to notch victories is to break off the most popular pieces of big legislative packages and pass those separately.

One example is comprehensive immigration reform. With Mr. Biden’s blessing, congressional Democrats last week released a long-promised plan, including an eight-year pathway to citizenship for most people in the country illegally. The plan is a long shot – the last such sweeping reform passed in 1986 – but during the campaign, Mr. Biden and the Democrats promised to try. They say it’s the right thing to do in a nation built on immigration.

Opponents immediately tarred the path to citizenship as “amnesty,” and there’s already talk among Democrats of passing one popular element – granting legal status to so-called Dreamers – as stand-alone legislation. That, at least, would help young people brought illegally into the U.S. as children, who gained access to work permits and temporary protection from deportation under President Barack Obama. 

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
Demonstrators with the New York Immigration Coalition rallied to ask President-elect Joe Biden to prioritize immigration reform in New York on Nov. 9, 2020. Immigrant-rights activists are gearing up to try to push through Congress a comprehensive reform bill that would open a pathway to citizenship for up to 11 million people.

There’s no doubt Mr. Biden, who served eight years as President Obama’s vice president, absorbed the lessons of that period. At the state level, especially in red states, some Democratic leaders talk about the need for pragmatism. 

“Any forward momentum that we have on immigration is a step in the right direction,” says Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and a progressive activist. “If we try to do everything, we give Republicans too much wiggle room to say, ‘There’s too much in the bill.’” 

In Washington, some veterans of legislative wars warn against giving up on doing big things too easily. Bobby Juliano, a consultant with ties to organized labor, says “breaking off” the Dreamers into a separate bill from the get-go means giving up leverage to pass the whole package. 

“Once you start stripping away silver bullets, then it’s diminution time,” says Mr. Juliano, a decadeslong Biden ally. 

Still, for Democrats in red states like Nebraska, the saying “don’t make perfect the enemy of the good” looms large. In another example, Ms. Kleeb accepts Mr. Biden’s early willingness, if need be, to drop the minimum wage increase from the COVID-19 relief bill. That measure is a long-held goal of progressives and popular among Americans, but seen as problematic among many Republicans and some more-conservative Democrats, including Mr. Manchin, especially at a time when smaller businesses in particular are having trouble keeping their doors open.  

“As a progressive, I want to see that, of course. But I also know the political reality,” says Ms. Kleeb of the “fight for $15.” “As we head into 2022, we need to have some very concrete results that we can show voters so I can pick up state legislative seats and that congressional seat that we should have won in the last cycle.” 

Susan MacManus, an emeritus political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, also stresses Mr. Biden’s need to improve Americans’ lives in tangible ways in his opening sprint in office. 

“Every day that goes by that Congress can’t get aid to people, the higher the level of mistrust of Congress and the president’s ability to get things done,” Professor MacManus says.

If Mr. Biden and the Democrats are seen as failing, she says, that could hurt them among key voter groups in the 2022 midterms.

“You want to lose suburban women? Just keep the kids out of school even longer,” she says. 

In fact, of all the promises Mr. Biden has made, reopening the majority of K-8 schools by the end of his first 100 days may be among the most important. Ongoing school closures since the pandemic began almost a year ago have been devastating for children and parents alike, especially women, many of whom have had to drop out of the workforce. 

Mr. Biden can’t reopen schools by executive action. That’s a matter of state and local control, though federal funds in the COVID-19 relief bill are meant to help make reopening safe. Teachers unions, a mainstay of the Democratic Party, have pushed back on reopening in some localities, complicating the politics. 

The president has also run afoul of labor interests, with his Day One move to end construction on the Keystone XL pipeline, which cost unionized jobs. Still, that action pleased climate activists – including Ms. Kleeb, who long fought the pipeline.

All together, Mr. Biden’s agenda and executive actions so far demonstrate the challenge of navigating competing interests and keeping his allies happy at least some of the time, even as he disappoints them at other times. 

Still, the overarching Biden modus operandi centers on the need to move fast – and logging an impressive record by his 100th day in office, April 30. The clock is ticking. Some 500,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19, a milestone that Mr. Biden planned to commemorate Monday evening with remarks and a candle-lighting ceremony. He has ordered flags flown at half-staff for the next five days in honor of those lost to the pandemic.

If even one Democratic senator were to switch parties (not seen as likely) or vacate their seat and be replaced by a Republican, the party would lose its majority and thus the ability to pass legislation and confirm officials and judges along party lines. 

“The more closely divided the country is politically, the more incentive there is to accelerate the process,” says Mr. Galston, chair in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “You don’t know how long you’ll have the power to do what you want.” 

A deeper look

Can a new generation change Palestinian politics?

Generational impatience with the views and values of entrenched politicians can be a big catalyst for change. What might it mean for one of the Mideast’s most stymied movements?

Fatima Abdulkarim
Haya Rimawi, a radio producer, on the streets of Ramallah, West Bank, Jan. 14, 2021. “I want to vote for young people who can relate to our daily lives,” she says.

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Among Palestinians, the multigenerational political gap between leaders and led is glaring. According to official statistics, 69% of Palestinians are under the age of 29. They face an entrenched leadership – personified by President Mahmoud Abbas, age 85 – that came of age in contexts entirely different from their own.

Young Palestinians say the leadership is out of step with their views and values, and that correcting that is a more urgent priority – even a prerequisite – to achieving national independence. An obstacle to change is the Palestinian Authority, which has concentrated power in what they see as a corrupt presidency that has stacked the courts and ruled without parliamentary oversight.

Young Palestinians’ distrust in their leaders has deepened after years of failure to improve economic conditions, secure political or human rights, or advance statehood, while elites built villas in Ramallah and Amman. Now a deal has been set for elections in May.

“The only way to combat the old guard is by restoring legitimacy and competency to our institutions,” says Sari Irshaid, a lawyer. “The only path is through reform.”

“Palestinian youths just want to have functioning organizations,” says analyst Alaa Tartir. “In the end, they want to be heard and to take ownership of their future.”

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Can a new generation change Palestinian politics?

Haya Rimawi cannot remember the last Palestinian election.

The producer at a Ramallah radio station, who was a young girl when elections were last held 15 years ago, says for her and her peers, the political “old guard” has been the only guard.

“Ever since I was born, I have heard the same politicians’ names over and over again, rotating in and out of the same positions,” says Ms. Rimawi, now 25. “It can’t continue like this.”

Exhibit A is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. At 85, he is the very embodiment of the old guard; he remains in office 12 years after his mandate expired.

The multigenerational gap between leaders and led is glaring. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 69% of Palestinians are under the age of 29, while 24% are between the ages of 18 and 29.

They face an entrenched leadership that came of age during the First Intifada in the late 1980s or, like Mr. Abbas, earlier in exile in Tunisia and Lebanon, in contexts entirely different from their own. Millennials and Generation Z Palestinians say the leadership is out of step with their views and values, and that correcting that is a more urgent priority – and even a prerequisite – to achieving the ultimate goal of national independence.

Yet as rivals Fatah and Hamas finalize a deal to hold the first Palestinian elections since 2006 this May, an entire generation that has grown up since the Israel-PLO Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority in the early 1990s will be able to vote for the first time. That could be a game-changer.

“I want to vote for young people who can relate to our daily lives,” Ms. Rimawi says.

A different reality

Life for Palestinians in the occupied territories has changed dramatically since the 2006 election, which saw Hamas take a surprise majority – largely in protest against Fatah’s corruption – and prompted parliament’s dissolution.

Fighting between Fatah and Hamas divided Palestinian society into cantons.

In the West Bank, an increasingly autocratic Palestinian Authority (PA) has restricted speech freedoms and reduced a diverse and vibrant Palestinian political ecosystem to what in practice amounts to a one-party state. In Gaza, Hamas rules with an iron fist.

Young Palestinians’ distrust in their leaders has deepened after years of failure to improve economic conditions, secure political or human rights, or advance statehood, while PA elites and their business partners built villas in Ramallah and Amman. Over the last two years their sense of isolation increased, perceiving that even Arab allies had turned their backs on the Palestinian cause.

“An entire generation has been intentionally misled and left out of the picture,” says Sari Irshaid, a 26-year-old lawyer from Ramallah, who describes a “political and economic hierarchy” in Palestinian society in which youths “sit at the bottom.”

“The sad reality,” he says, “is the old guard is more than just a sitting unelected president.”

Nasser Nasser/AP
A pandemic lockdown in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. Young Palestinians’ distrust in their leaders has deepened after years of failure to improve economic conditions.

What young Palestinians want

Young Palestinians’ views on their future, the conflict with Israel, statehood, and society are as diverse as their backgrounds – from Jerusalem to Gaza City, and upper-middle-class urbanites to aid-dependent households in refugee camps.

But all young Palestinians agree upon one major issue: the need to reform their institutions, leadership, and political groups. Many say the whole system needs an overhaul.

“The only way to combat the old guard is by restoring legitimacy and competency to our institutions and bodies,” says Mr. Irshaid, the lawyer. “The only path is through reform.”

They say an obstacle to change is the PA, which has concentrated power in what they see as a corrupt presidency that has stacked the courts and ruled without parliamentary oversight.

In a 2019 survey by Arab Barometer, 84% of respondents in the West Bank and 81% in Gaza said state corruption existed to a large or medium extent. Many believe the corruption is holding the economy back and hurting job creation, but that the presidency’s stranglehold over the courts makes a real anti-graft campaign and convictions in the West Bank an “impossibility.”

Government jobs – key sources of employment in the West Bank – are handed out to loyalists, keeping thousands of families dependent on the PA inner circle. Fat government contracts and land deals are given to cronies, while businessmen and -women allied with Mr. Abbas dominate various economic sectors in near-monopolies.

The favoritism undercuts attempts by technocrat would-be reformers like former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to modernize the Palestinian economy and spur job creation for increasingly educated youth. Though lauded in the West, Mr. Fayyad was seen by many here as too close to the system.

That system rumbles along without creating wealth or opportunity for the many.

In 2019, prior to the pandemic, 60% of youth in Gaza and 28% in the West Bank were unemployed. In 2020, the rates jumped to 70% in Gaza and 30% in the West Bank, largely due to COVID-19.

“Ownership of their future”

“Youth want reform because they want organizations that can be held accountable by them, deliver for them, be effective and have a future vision,” says Alaa Tartir, program director at Al Shabaka Palestinian Policy Network.

He says this groundswell demand for reform is “driven by all the failures of the current political system and parties,” and a perception that Fatah and Hamas are reinforcing and benefiting from a status quo that has put Palestinians’ lives and aspirations on hold.

Both Fatah and Hamas have youth organizations, but participants, while deployed to populate protests, are taught not to question leadership and are kept out of the parties’ decision-making processes.

“Palestinian youths just want to have functioning organizations, they want to have legitimate political parties,” Mr. Tartir says. “In the end, they want to be heard and to take ownership of their future.”

Young Palestinians say reform is the key to addressing their main causes: reuniting Palestinian society; improving the economy; and having freedom of movement, a decent job, and a dignified life. Then, they say, an “end to the occupation.”

Tahani Mustafa, a researcher at the International Crisis Group, says Palestinians now find themselves in a “tragic situation” in which “criticizing the PA is celebrated to be as heroic as throwing a rock against Israeli forces.”

“There isn’t anything Palestinians haven’t tried or practiced in terms of strategy – whether violent or non-violent – and nothing has offered them a fraction of what they were promised or aspire to, which is basically dignity, freedom, and some sort of sovereignty,” she says.

“The main priority for Palestinian youth is to have a civic order that just allows them to be, to move around freely, to get a good job, to live a normal life – not to be confined to permit regimes and checkpoints.”

Muath Barghouti, a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate, says due to what he sees as their tacit cooperation with Israeli authorities in order to target political rivals, Mr. Abbas and his allies “cannot be trusted to stay on top of our political pyramid.”

“Reform is the only way to put the Palestinian-Israeli conflict back on the table and reclaim the path to liberation,” Mr. Barghouti says as he walks in downtown Ramallah.

Fatima Abdulkarim
Muath Barghouthi, an unemployed university student, at a shopping district in Ramallah, Jan. 14, 2021. He says the path to liberation is through political reform.

Last time around

Young Palestinians looking for change may take a cue from the Arab Spring.

The last wave of Palestinian activism was ignited by the popular protests for democracy that swept the Arab World, inspiring youth coalitions to galvanize around issues including rights, Palestinian reconciliation, and the environment from 2011-13.

Alarmed by leaderless youth movements’ ability to drive thousands of Palestinians into the streets outside the control of traditional political parties subservient to the PA or Hamas, the established authorities engaged in violent crackdowns and systematic targeting of youth activists. It was a campaign that young Palestinians say was given an assist by Israel.

One West Bank youth activist tells the Monitor that amid this shrinking space for dissent he recently was arbitrarily arrested by PA security services.

Like many, he says, he is no longer publicly vocal about his political views for fear of retribution toward his family, an increasingly common practice in the West Bank – an uncle fired from his government post, a father demoted, a brother losing his business license. He has friends who have been arrested and sent to the courts for the simple act of a Facebook post.

As a result, politically conscious young professionals have since shied away from the political sphere, coalescing instead around narrower issues. One such cause is Talaat, or coming out, a women’s rights movement that was ignited in 2019 in response to violence against women. Others include protests against unfair laws and a movement protesting the telecom company’s West Bank monopoly and exorbitant fees.

“Palestine is full of capable and inspiring young leaders who can replace those currently in power,” says 32-year-old community mobilizer Fadi Quran. “But repression from both the PA and Israel has prevented us from taking leading roles in the public sphere.”  

Currently, discussions are ongoing among remnants of Arab Spring-era Palestinian youth movements and activists – now in their 30s – on whether to form a “youth list” to pose an alternative to Fatah and Hamas. Smaller, local youth movements are also organizing at the city level.

Fatima Abdulkarim
Ibrahim Khreisheh, secretary-general of the Palestinian Legislative Council, at his office at the now-deserted parliament building, Jan. 14, 2021.

Faith in the system

The three-month window before the May polls is a challenge to young people organizing for the first time – an obstacle many believe was deliberately placed by Fatah and Hamas, who are now rushing toward polls after 15 years of stalling.  

Another obstacle is a lack of confidence.

“I would consider voting in parliamentary elections if there is a list of young candidates who will enhance our economic situation and create stable jobs,” says Ahmed Nasser, a 30-year-old salesman at a menswear shop in Ramallah.

“But without the guarantee that we can end the monopoly of the older generation, I will not go and vote.”

Such a lack of faith is deepened by suspicions that Mr. Abbas is only pursuing elections to burnish his democratic credentials and curry favor with the Biden administration. 

Young Palestinians are also suspicious of the international community, which they believe has been silent or complicit in Mr. Abbas’s crackdown on dissent to keep a stable, predictable peace partner in place.

Concerns abound that Hamas and Fatah will tip the electoral scales in their respective territories to arrive at a predetermined outcome as part of a power-sharing agreement.  

Yet observers, such as Abaher El-Sakka, professor of sociology at Birzeit University, say change is coming from young Palestinians, no matter whether their leadership allows them to take part in free elections.

“The real clout of the younger generations is their readiness to take to the streets and force change,” Mr. El-Sakka says, warning, “whether it is through elections or not.”

New generation from another time

At Ramallah’s Youth Plaza stands the Palestinian Legislative Council, empty and still since 2006. Still, that is, except for cigarette smoke and voices coming from a third-floor office, the only occupied room in the building.

This is where Ibrahim Khreisheh, secretary-general of parliament, shows up for work each day to “protect” the legislative body “until we regain the right of democratic elections.”

When he was elected to the post in 2006, Mr. Khreisheh was a rising young political star, a 39-year-old seen as from the “new generation” of Fatah leaders. He is now 54 and still waiting for change he says is long overdue.

“Continuing without an election is the most dangerous thing for the Palestinian people at this point in time of our history,” Mr. Khreisheh says, noting the ongoing economic downturn, Palestinians’ diplomatic isolation, and tensions building up over some Israelis’ persistent annexation plans.

Speaking while Hamas and Fatah were still hammering out the election agreement, Mr. Khreisheh says he and many of his generation, like today’s youth, have become increasingly disillusioned with the top leadership, warning of “an explosion of violence” should they refuse to reform.

“The current leadership use the term ‘renew legitimacy’ when describing these elections,” he says. “This means that they are inherently aware that their legitimacy is in crisis.”

Amid pandemic’s isolation, French students turn to each other for support

This next story, from France, is also about agency. Students who feel underserved by the system are finding their own ways of fighting social isolation and other pandemic effects.

Laurent Cipriani/AP
A student wearing a mask saying 'Students muzzled' holds a sign representing a computer as a jail cell during a protest calling for more government support for university students during the pandemic in Lyon, France, Jan. 26, 2021.

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Since France’s first pandemic lockdown nearly one year ago, university campuses have been shuttered and students have been limited to full-time online learning. Unlike other schools here, where in-person teaching opened up this past fall, university students have been left behind.

One consequence has been the social and academic isolation of online learning. Many college students have also lost part-time jobs and are struggling to pay rent, leading to a newfound financial uncertainty. Others have moved home or dropped out of school. A cluster of recent suicide attempts has highlighted the urgent need for more mental health and financial support for students.

“College students were already a vulnerable population before the pandemic, and their particular anxieties and difficulties will exist after the pandemic is over,” says Florian Tirana, a student and president of the nonprofit listening service Nightline France. “Our overall goal is to remove the taboo surrounding mental health, and offer the right information so this topic becomes normalized.”

Aid groups are also trying to reduce the stigma about asking for financial help. Anti-food-waste program Linkee sets up distribution stations close to college campuses five days a week, providing an estimated 25,000 meals per week to college students in need.

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Amid pandemic’s isolation, French students turn to each other for support

It’s a Wednesday night, just after sunset. On a remote street hidden from view, hundreds of college students stand in a line that snakes around the block, waiting to collect bags of donated food. Volunteers meander through the crowd offering hot tea, as a jazz band from the Paris Conservatory of Music plays to boost morale.

Myriam and Deborah, friends from Marseille, have been waiting in below-freezing temperatures for a half-hour with another half-hour to go, but they say it’s worth it. “I moved to Paris for school and had all these initial expenses, and then it was impossible to find a part-time job because of the pandemic,” says Myriam, a first-year law student who has been living off a meager internship. “It’s so difficult.”

“I haven’t attended my online classes since October,” says Deborah, a graduate student in philosophy. “I’m giving myself until next week to get back on track. I really don’t want to drop out.”

Since France’s first lockdown nearly one year ago, university campuses have been shuttered and students have been limited to full-time online learning. Unlike other schools here, where in-person teaching opened up this past fall, university students have been left behind.

Colette Davidson
University students line up in the 13th arrondissement of Paris in freezing temperatures to pick up food donations from the nonprofit Linkee on Feb. 11, 2021.

The social and academic isolation of online learning is only one consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic for college students. Many have lost part-time jobs and are struggling to pay rent, leading to a newfound financial uncertainty. Others have moved home or dropped out of school. A cluster of recent suicide attempts has highlighted the urgent need for more mental health and financial support for students.

The French government allowed in-person teaching to begin on a limited basis in late January and has implemented a handful of initiatives to support students financially. But students say these offers are mere “bread crumbs” and don’t begin to scratch the surface of the damage wreaked by the pandemic. They’re not waiting for top-down directives. Instead students are banding together, creating support groups and services in order to find solutions and be heard.

“We feel forgotten by the system but moreover, we feel sacrificed,” says Jean Robert, a third-year political science student in Montpellier and member of the student movement Étudiants Fantômes – “ghost students.” “We don’t understand why we can’t go to class when all other levels can, as if we’re the cause of COVID-19 cases exploding across the country because we aren’t behaving well. It’s not too late to let us go back to class, but now we also need psychological and financial support.”

“Completely demoralized”

Students across the country have gone public about their distress – from financial woes to social isolation.

COVID-19 restrictions have resulted in students losing their jobs babysitting or in restaurants, cutting their individual incomes by several hundred euros per month, which they rely on for food, rent, or necessities. French companies – dealing with their own pandemic-caused setbacks – are struggling to integrate students into internship programs, which in turn sows uncertainty about students’ future. 

Dropout rates have been hard to calculate officially, but students themselves note a drop in motivation as classes continue in front of a screen. First-year students, who may have arrived on campus just as lockdowns went into effect, have struggled to find community. In January, two students attempted suicide at their student housing in Lyon, and a student in Paris took her life after telling friends of her social and academic isolation.

“I have students who are far from home, stuck in tiny apartments, and can’t find the motivation to work or even get up in the morning,” says Anne Delaigue, a psychotherapist who treats doctoral students at the Polytechnic Institute of Paris. “They’re completely demoralized, worried, and isolated, which translates into a sense of doubt about their overall abilities. It’s extremely difficult to work when you’re totally unstimulated.”

University professors and student groups have sounded the alarm about a rising student crisis since the fall. But it came to a head last month when Frédérique Vidal, France’s minister of higher education, hinted that the reason university campuses had remained closed was due to student irresponsibility. During a visit to a Paris university, Ms. Vidal said that COVID-19 was being spread by le brassage – students meeting one another in cafes or in the school cafeteria.

The comments caused a firestorm. A Montpellier student wrote an open letter to the minister in consternation and another created the “Étudiants Fantômes” Twitter hashtag. In the space of one day, the hashtag had been tweeted more than 70,000 times by students demanding the government do more.

The French government has responded to the growing crisis with a handful of measures. Since Jan. 25, students can purchase two meals per day at college cafeterias for €1 each. They now have the option of returning to class one day per week. And starting Feb. 1, they are being offered a “psy check,” which allows for three free 45-minute sessions with a psychotherapist.

But student groups say the measures don’t address the deeper impact the pandemic has had on college students, and that the government’s piecemeal measures aren’t enough. A student in Metz posted a photo of his meager €1 state-funded meal on Twitter in rebuttal, while professionals say the “psy check” doesn’t make up for the dearth of available mental health services. A recent study by the nonprofit listening hotline Nightline France showed that there was only one university psychologist available per 30,000 students in France. 

“Some students are waiting four to six months to get an appointment with a therapist,” says Ms. Delaigue. “It’s unbearable, especially for those in a state of crisis.”

“There is no shame in asking for help”

For starters, student groups are fighting to destigmatize mental health problems and show the importance of reaching out to others to maintain social links. The Étudiants Fantômes movement is positioning itself to become a proper nonprofit, which will include a mental health arm. And Nightline France has created a website dedicated to student resources, from suicide prevention hotlines to addiction services. 

“College students were already a vulnerable population before the pandemic, and their particular anxieties and difficulties will exist after the pandemic is over,” says Florian Tirana, a college student and the president of Nightline France. “Our overall goal is to remove the taboo surrounding mental health, and offer the right information so this topic becomes normalized and something we can talk about freely.”

Christophe Ena/AP
Claudia Danae Diaz Axtble, an international student in engineering physics, gets free food organized by Linkee, a Paris-based anti-food-waste program, in Paris, Feb. 4, 2021.

Aid groups are also trying to reduce the stigma about asking for financial help. Anti-food-waste program Linkee sets up distribution stations close to college campuses five days a week, sometimes three times per day, providing an estimated 25,000 meals per week to college students in need.

“Many of these students are not used to asking for this type of aid and have never had to take handouts,” says Alexis Carer, a press representative for Linkee. “We want our food donations to happen in the best circumstances, to show there is no shame in asking for help.”

Campuses around the country have joined the effort. A corner room within the hallways of the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris holds bags of food donations, which students can sign up to take home. It’s bringing students back onto campus, as classes here slowly get underway. Universities are only allowed to operate at 20% capacity and most students are only coming for one class per week. But many are braving regional trains, early waking hours, and even COVID-19 to find social interaction once again.

“Now, for many of my students it’s not mandatory to come back to class, but they’re coming anyway,” says Nancy Nottingham, an adjunct professor in business English at Sorbonne Nouvelle, who has been teaching online classes for the past three months. “They’ve missed being together and with their teachers.”

“I live alone and don’t have family here; I’ve been studying at home for the past three months without much social contact,” says Tianyi, a Chinese graduate student in applied foreign languages. “It’s really helpful to be able to come back to class. I really appreciate the gesture. We’re kind of risking our lives by being here, but I feel that it’s worth it.”

A deeper look

Seeds and beyond: Native Americans embrace ‘food sovereignty’

Reclaiming agricultural and culinary heritage is more than just symbolic. It can also be a way of repairing cultural damage inflicted when old ways were supplanted.

Richard Mertens
Daniel Cornelius, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, grows native flint corn in Stoughton, Wisconsin. He is part of a growing “food sovereignty” movement among Native Americans.

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Luke Kapayou, who grew up on the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama, Iowa, noticed as he got older that fewer people were gardening. So he resolved to keep growing traditional beans and squash, and he began to seek out other varieties both on and off the settlement.

“I don’t know, I think I believe these seeds are sacred,” he says. “It makes me want to keep growing them, and I want to make sure our kids keep growing them.”

Seeds are a key part of a rising “food sovereignty” movement among Native Americans, an effort aimed at increasing local food production and reviving Indigenous practices that involve agriculture and food preparation. But it’s not all about seeds. Native Americans are also raising bison, spearing fish, and picking chokecherries. And there are a growing number of chefs who are promoting Native cuisine, among them Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota and recipient of a James Beard Award.

“People are seeing the weakness within our current food system,” says Rebecca Webster, who with her husband grows corn and other traditional crops on the Oneida reservation, near Green Bay, Wisconsin. “They want to know where their food is coming from. They want to take control back.”

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Seeds and beyond: Native Americans embrace ‘food sovereignty’

Last spring, as COVID-19 swept the nation, Daniel Cornelius planted. A member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, he lives in the rolling farm country south of Madison, where he planted carrots and tomatoes, as well as traditional Native American crops – beans, pumpkins, and corn in hues ranging from cream to deep red and bearing names like Tuscarora white, Mohawk yellow, and Bear Island flint.

He helped others plant, too. In June he took his small walk-behind tractor north to help members of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa start gardens, heaping the soil in long mounded rows in imitation of traditional planting hills. He brought squash seeds to the reservation of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, where members have been building raised beds after ancient Menominee practice. He tapped box-elder trees for syrup and gathered wild rice, and in September he brought them to a bartering event on the Oneida reservation, near Green Bay, where he traded them for peppers, quail eggs, and corn soup.

“Almost everyone wanted that box-elder syrup,” he says.

Mr. Cornelius is part of a growing “food sovereignty” movement among Native Americans, an effort aimed at increasing local food production and reviving Indigenous agricultural and culinary practices. It’s a broad-ranging movement that includes families growing vegetables in backyard gardens and an ever-expanding network of regional and national organizations devoted to fostering intertribal cooperation, sharing agricultural know-how, and promoting the use and preservation of traditional crop varieties.

“People are hungry – literally hungry to eat these foods,” says Mr. Cornelius, who is also a technical adviser for the Intertribal Agriculture Council, based in Billings, Montana, and an instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But also, in a more figurative sense, they’re just hungry for knowledge.”

For many Native Americans, the return to traditional foods is part of a wider effort to “decolonize” their people, a way to repair the economic and cultural damage inflicted by European Americans who drove them from their lands, confined them to reservations, sent them to boarding schools, and tried to sever them from their old ways. It means not just planting old seeds but reviving the economic and cultural life, the ceremonies, the customs and beliefs, around food and food production.

In a practical sense, food sovereignty offers a path toward greater self-sufficiency and economic opportunity in poor communities. Perhaps more critical are its potential benefits for public health. Native Americans face high rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other conditions that food sovereignty advocates say result from a dependence on processed foods.

Courtesy of Rebecca Webster
A bowl of Cornplanter yellow beans that Rebecca and Stephen Webster grew last year on the Oneida reservation, near Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Websters grow 20 kinds of beans, many of them acquired from Seed Savers Exchange, which has recently become involved in helping Native Americans recover old varieties.

“We’ve got to get back to a diet and food system that our bodies and our babies can handle,” says Gary Besaw, head of the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems on the Menominee reservation.

Since it emerged a year ago, COVID-19 has given new urgency to these efforts. The coronavirus hit Native American communities hard: In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Native Americans and Alaskan Natives were 3 1/2 times more likely than white Americans to become infected with the virus. Yet, while COVID-19 has revealed the vulnerability of Native peoples, it has also inspired more of them to plant, fish, gather, and hunt.

“People are seeing the weakness within our current food system,” says Rebecca Webster, who with her husband, Stephen, grows corn and other traditional crops on the Oneida reservation. “They want to know where their food is coming from. They want to take control back.”

Much of the food sovereignty movement focuses on seeds: growing and preserving them, as well as finding and distributing old and not-yet-forgotten varieties. Some of this work requires research, like figuring out where a seed company acquired its varieties long ago. It also involves hunting down a variety that someone has been growing – and then producing enough seed to share. Organizations like Seed Savers Exchange, based in Decorah, Iowa, and long devoted to promoting heirloom seeds, have in recent years been growing Native varieties and sending out seeds to a small number of established growers. In addition, an expanding universe of workshops and YouTube videos is available to teach aspiring growers how to use Native agricultural techniques.

The “Three Sisters”

The most popular seeds are the “Three Sisters” of Indigenous agriculture: corn, beans, and squash. They are traditionally grown together in mounds, as the Websters do on the Oneida reservation. The cornstalks serve as a trellis for the bean vines, while the beans, which are legumes, enrich the soil for the corn. The squash sprawls out all around. A modification of this strategy is to grow the corn and beans in mounded rows, with squash on the ends. Many Native growers also plant tobacco and sunflowers.

When the pandemic struck, the demand for seeds soared. People had more time at home; they also were rattled by local food shortages. On the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama, Iowa, Shelley Buffalo, local foods coordinator for the Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative, grappled with a “huge increase” in requests for seeds. “There were many people who were gardening for the first time,” she says. Appeals to the Traditional Native American Farmers Association “nearly depleted what we had,” says Clayton Brascoupé, a farmer in Tesuque Pueblo, New Mexico, and the group’s program director.

“There were people contacting us from a lot of new places,” he says. “They said, ‘Can you send seed?’”

But it’s not all about seeds. Native Americans are also raising bison, spearing fish, picking chokecherries, harvesting wild rice – and much more.

It’s a movement that touches every tribe in the United States and reflects both the geographical and historical diversity of Native American communities. The Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma raises bison on lands recovered from lead and zinc mining and operates its own meat processing plant. The Muckleshoot of Washington state have hosted workshops on how to fillet a salmon and slice up an elk. Ndée Bikíyaa, or People’s Farm, is trying to revive agriculture among Arizona’s White Mountain Apache. Minnesota’s Red Lake Ojibwe sell mail-order wild rice and chokeberry jam. And in Hugo, Minnesota, just outside the Twin Cities, the organization Dream of Wild Health teaches Native children how to garden; a program for teenagers is called Garden Warriors.

Dana Thompson/Courtesy of Sioux Chef
Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota and recipient of a James Beard Award, is the founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef business in Minneapolis. He directs a food lab devoted to teaching Native culinary approaches.

“This year was a big wake-up call for our tribe,” says Greg Johnson, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band and an expert in cooking muskellunge, a predatory fish found in northern lakes, which he does by wrapping it in birch bark and baking it in the ground, under a fire. Mr. Johnson says that worries over the food supply sent twice the number of his band than usual out to spear walleyed pike in northern Wisconsin lakes early last spring, a tradition among his people. More people hunted deer later in the year; he taught some of them how to can the venison.

“In many respects, for me it was really good to see that,” he says. “There were people you never thought would get wild rice. There were people who you never thought would get wild medicines. It was really incredible.”

Chef participation, too

Getting the food is only part of the movement. A growing number of chefs are promoting Native cuisine, among them Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota and recipient of a James Beard Award. The founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef business in Minneapolis, Mr. Sherman directs a food lab devoted to teaching Native culinary approaches. COVID-19 delayed his plan to open a restaurant, but it inspired a new form of outreach: ready-to-eat meals prepared in the Twin Cities and distributed to Native communities around the region. By December, a crew of 24 workers was sending 6,000 meals a week. It distributed 500 meal kits before the holidays, including the fixings for what Mr. Sherman describes as a Native grain bowl – Potawatomi corn, bison meat, dried blueberries, and puffed wild rice. “That was a fun one,” he says.

Efforts to revive Native foods are not new. Mr. Brascoupé recalls an intertribal meeting in Gallup, New Mexico, in 1992 at which older farmers voiced concerns about their dwindling numbers. “They also saw a decline in people’s health,” he says. “They tied those two together.”

In the years since, Mr. Brascoupé has seen a steady increase in the ranks of Native farmers. And what started as a rural movement, he says, has moved to cities, where many Native Americans live – to community gardening and programs teaching Native gardening and culture to children. Mr. Brascoupé attributes much of the resurgence not to tribal initiatives, which have become widespread, but to younger individuals carrying on the work of their elders. Once a young farmer himself, he now has grandchildren who farm.

“A lot of what we see now started with young people,” Mr. Brascoupé says. “It was more from the bottom up than the top down, from tribal governments.”

Courtesy of Dream of Wild Health
The organization Dream of Wild Health teaches Native children how to garden and includes a program for teenagers called Garden Warriors. Here, seed keeper and seed regeneration manager Jessika Greendeer (far left) works with youth to harvest corn on July 25, 2020, in Hugo, Minnesota.

Indeed, the food sovereignty movement builds upon the perseverance and determination of individuals and families who have worked over many years to keep Native food traditions alive. One of these people is Luke Kapayou, who grew up on the Meskwaki Settlement. “When I was growing up, all of us, we had to help with the gardens,” he recalls. “Most of the families had their own gardens.”

As Mr. Kapayou got older, however, he noticed that fewer people were gardening. And those still doing it were planting fewer old varieties – mainly just corn, the most prized of Native foods. He resolved to keep growing traditional beans and squash, and he began to seek out other varieties both on and off the settlement. He consulted old ethnographies. He even tried – unsuccessfully – to track down seeds at a New York museum.

“Most of the seeds that me and my family are growing in our garden are what my parents and great-grandparents were growing,” he says. “They’ve been growing for a thousand years. I don’t know, I think I believe these seeds are sacred. They’re very special. It makes me want to keep growing them, and I want to make sure our kids keep growing them.”

Plenty of challenges

Despite its successes, the food sovereignty movement still faces plenty of challenges. Growing old crop varieties can be labor-intensive: If done in the traditional way, they are planted and harvested by hand, with the three main crops – corn, beans, and squash – planted together. Also, growers need to take care that nearby field crops, especially corn, don’t cross-pollinate with traditional varieties. And it takes time to preserve the foods – usually by drying – and to cook them up in traditional dishes, such as corn soup, which Mr. Kapayou prepares outside in an old kettle over a wood fire. In addition, efforts to take advantage of Native treaty rights for hunting and fishing continue to meet resistance – as when a group of non-Native people harassed Mr. Johnson while he speared walleyes at a Wisconsin lake last April.

Nor is it easy to get people to renounce modern processed foods. Nicky Buck knows this well. A member of the Prairie Island Indian Community in Minnesota, she grew up behind a McDonald’s and ate sugar sandwiches as a child – and developed kidney disease as an adult. Today she eats – and promotes – Native foods in her community.

“You just have to retrain your palate,” she says. “You have to decolonize your palate.”

Decolonizing the palates of the young poses a special challenge. Parents make sloppy Joes out of bison meat and substitute flint corn for wheat pasta. Ms. Webster, the mother of two teenage daughters, says, “We’re trying to show that corn is cool enough even though there’s a frozen pizza looking at them.”

The gardening itself may occasion a complaint from younger ones, but it’s good family time. Indeed, the food sovereignty movement is often about bringing people together – growing, harvesting, trading seeds and food, and, of course, eating. A Native foods cooperative on the Oneida reservation has 15 member families and saw more applications to join last year than ever before. “There are a lot of folks showing interest,” says Lea Zeise, who manages the co-op.

A year-round effort

Food sovereignty is a year-round effort. Over the winter, gardeners have been cooking up what they harvested and preserved in the fall – the dried beans, the canned venison, the corn boiled and dried and stored in glass jars. In northern Wisconsin, members of the Lac du Flambeau Band were busy with winter spearing, chopping holes through 28 inches of ice to get to the fish.

“We’re going to get as many muskies as we can,” says Mr. Johnson. “We have a lot of younger people who want to do this.”

Others are looking forward to spring – planning their gardens, shelling dried corn for seed, and in some cases looking beyond the pandemic to a resumption of the workshops and conferences that have helped spread the food sovereignty movement. “People can’t wait to get together,” says Mr. Cornelius.

In the meantime, Mr. Cornelius, like other food sovereignty advocates, is heavily booked on Zoom. He’s also full of plans for his own farming. In midwinter he was thinking he should plant his greenhouse soon. He was also trying to figure out how to tap more trees in early spring, including a stand of silver maples on land he just bought last year – 51 acres, mostly woods, plus the derelict buildings of an old dairy farm. He hopes to bring in cattle. His friends say he should raise bison. Maybe someday, he tells them.

“One step at a time,” he says.

Essay

‘We ring in the spring together’: Sharing the secrets of maple sugaring

A community united around common purpose gains collective strength and gets to relish the privilege of good company. Our essayist celebrates a time-honored rural task.

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Snowdrops have been flowering for a week. The texting begins. The sap is rising in the maples.

We come from nearby, an eclectic group with different backgrounds and political beliefs. We’re as young as 3 and as old as a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. 

“Why is this better than anything else?” someone asks. Perhaps it’s that the running sap signals winter’s long hibernation is drawing to a close, and exploding spring is about to pounce. It’s that we get to use our legs and hands, head and heart. 

Riding in the back of the truck through the woods feels timeless, perfect. We hold onto the truck’s gunwales, the wind cooling the sweat we just earned carrying two five-gallon buckets nearly full of sap, without spilling.

Back at the sugarhouse, we share homemade cider or donuts. Once the sun has set, we congregate around the evaporator, harassing whoever built up the fire too high or not high enough. The occasional drop of condensation hits our skin, a kind of baptism, as we ring in the spring together.

For some in the maple syrup business, it’s now a high-tech, high-stakes operation made more precarious by climate change. The Monitor’s director of photography, Alfredo Sosa, recently visited syrup-makers in Vermont. Watch the video below for their story.

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‘We ring in the spring together’: Sharing the secrets of maple sugaring

David Duprey/AP/File
Maple sap drips from an old-style metal spile into a bucket in Alexander, New York.

We check weather reports four times a day. Snowdrops have been flowering for a week, the aconite about to burst.

The texting begins.

We meet on a Sunday. We come from nearby: an eclectic group of people with different backgrounds and political beliefs, the kind of group we hear doesn’t exist much anymore. We’re as young as 3 and as old as a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this year. We wear hiking boots, sometimes metal spikes if the ice is bad. The sugar maples love hard-to-get-to ridges and ravines.

There’s Randy, the doyen of the enterprise. It’s his sugarhouse, his buckets, lids, and spiles, his truck. Most important, it’s his lifetime of knowledge. He tells stories of maple sugaring as a kid and rival sugar gangs making it look as though one of the other gang leaders tapped a telephone pole.

There’s Bill, who, after Randy drills the hole into the tree, lightly hammers in the plastic spile, or spout. Lynn, his wife, makes dynamite venison burgers we’ll eat by the fire. Ralph makes a mean ham and bean soup that accompanies the biggest collection day. His wife, Robin, made the bags for carrying pails and lids so we have free hands to steady ourselves in the woods. Tom, the expert welder, kept the old evaporator limping along for years. His wife, Sally, is a reverend who blesses our operation out of earshot.

And there is Nan, Randy’s wife, who lets this whole thing go on, year after year, from late winter into dawning spring. She tolerates mud from our cars and boots, the glowing sugar shack in the deep night. The rest of us are mostly younger, some of us children and grandchildren of the “originals,” some of us simply neighbors who had the good fortune of moving to this rural road. We’ve been at it long enough to pretend to be full of our own stories. We ask a lot of questions that the originals mostly answer, sometimes even honestly. We retell the story of finding the unfortunate dead flying squirrel in one of the buckets as if it were our own.

“Why is this better than anything else?” Bill asks. I say I don’t know, but I try to explain it to myself every year. Perhaps it’s that the running sap signals winter’s long hibernation is drawing to a close, and exploding spring is about to pounce. It’s that we get to use our legs and hands, head and heart. We tramp our land and our neighbors’ land, sharing in this rich bounty of maple trees.

Back at the sugarhouse, we share homemade cider or donuts. We watch steam rise and smell fine sugared air. The sun lingers longer, radiating a strengthening warmth on our dark vests and jackets. Once the sun has set, we all move inside the little shack, congregating around the evaporator, harassing whoever built up the fire too high or not high enough. The occasional drop of condensation hits our skin, a kind of baptism, as we ring in the spring together.

For some in the maple syrup business, it’s now a high tech, high stakes operation made more precarious by climate change. The Monitor’s director of photography, Alfredo Sosa, recently visited syrup-makers in Vermont. Watch the video below for their story.

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Taking measure of Biden’s unity call

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Throughout his candidacy, Joe Biden pledged to seek national unity, a call heard in many democracies. A first test came during the post-election transition as he reached out to governors – many of whom still had not acknowledged his victory – to coordinate the vaccine rollout and other pandemic responses. Now the challenge of restoring civility and consensus to American politics shifts to Congress as it takes up his proposals. As those debates unfold, merely counting how Republicans and Democrats vote may be an unreliable way to measure unity. What matters more is tone and motive.

One politics-watcher who expresses cautious hope is Frank Luntz, a pollster who spent three decades helping Republicans craft their messaging. “What the public really wants is a government that is more efficient and more accountable,” Mr. Luntz told members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of centrist Republicans and Democrats.

The challenge for the country’s elected leaders is to be more impartial toward each other and less partisan in their political causes. By definition, impartiality encompasses all. The best place to embrace it is in the halls of government in Washington and other democracies.

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Taking measure of Biden’s unity call

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Judge Merrick Garland, center, nominee to be U.S. Attorney General, speaks with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, left, and committee chairman Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., as he arrives for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Feb. 22.

Throughout his candidacy and into his presidency, Joe Biden pledged to seek national unity, a call heard in many democracies. He even tried to fend off doubts he could find it. A first test came during the post-election transition as he reached out to governors – many of whom still had not acknowledged his victory – to coordinate the vaccine rollout and other pandemic responses.

Now a few weeks into his term, the challenge of restoring civility and consensus to American politics shifts to Congress as it takes up his proposals on the economy and immigration. As those debates unfold, merely counting how Republicans and Democrats vote may be an unreliable way to measure unity. What matters more is tone and motive.

The current Biden proposals are just a start. They will be followed by measures to address other divisive issues such as climate change and racial injustice. Finding unity, skeptics say, is something of a fool’s errand. Progressives eager for bold change want to draw the president leftward. Republicans are still smarting from the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump and dealing with their own divisions.

One politics-watcher who expresses cautious hope is Frank Luntz, a pollster who spent three decades helping Republicans craft their messaging. Now he is trying to move Congress beyond partisan rancor. “What the public really wants is a government that is more efficient and more accountable,” Mr. Luntz told members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of centrist Republicans and Democrats. “More efficient, so we learn to do more with less. More effective, so we stop doing what we cannot do well. And more accountable, so that when we make more mistakes, people know that they can have those mistakes fixed. If you demonstrate efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability, you will restore public trust.”

A similar point was made about U.S. politics by Matthew Syed, columnist for The Times in the United Kingdom:

“The deliberative function of democracy relies on listening to the other side, judging an argument on merit rather than the identity of the person who expresses it, and recognizing that no single ideological faction has a monopoly on truth. It is about appreciating that it is often in the coming together of opposing ideas that both sides find, somewhat to their surprise, that we have found a synthesis that transcends both. And isn’t this a subtle and rather beautiful thing?”

For Biden, the most experienced legislator to sit in the Oval Office since Lyndon Johnson, strenuous debate that includes listening is not something to avoid. It is essential to rebuilding trust.

“There is no ability in a democracy for it to function without the ability for it to reach consensus,” he said in January. “Unity requires that you eliminate the vitriol. If you pass a piece of legislation that breaks down on party lines but it gets passed, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t unity. It just means it wasn’t bipartisan.”

The challenge for the country’s elected leaders is to be more impartial toward each other and less partisan in their political causes. By definition, impartiality encompasses all. The best place to embrace it is in the halls of government in Washington.

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.

Watching our expectations

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Sometimes we may feel uncertain, unhappy, or anxious about what’s in store. Considering a spiritual basis for our expectations of the future can bring hope, joy, and peace, as a woman experienced when a friendship took an unexpected turn.

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Watching our expectations

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Things don’t always go as expected, as was the case for many last year. Now everyone is wondering what this year will bring. Our expectations for the future – the next year or even the next hour – and what is behind those expectations are of no small importance. They can determine whether we are anxious or at peace as we look forward.

But like the biblical Psalmist who said, as the Darby version puts it, “Upon God alone, O my soul, rest peacefully; for my expectation is from him” (Psalms 62:5), we can find a quiet peace when we turn to God to define and solidify our expectations. This paves the way for freedom and progress regardless of what things look like at a given moment.

Turning to God, Spirit, as the source from which infinite good flows out is a reliable spiritual basis for looking ahead with an expectancy of good. Man, the generic term for God’s spiritual creation that includes each of us, always receives wholeheartedly all that God gives. This spiritual reality gives us the courage to welcome God’s promise of good, and to look forward with greater hope free from dread or trepidation.

This spiritual basis can be immensely helpful in clarifying whether our expectations are rooted in God’s permanent, inexhaustible good, or in things that can vacillate. And I have found in my study of Christian Science over the years that maintaining spiritually focused expectations sometimes brings a much-needed and different result than anticipated.

This proved to be true some 30 years ago when what I thought was a solid friendship went awry for no apparent reason. My friend very unexpectedly decided she wanted a break from our friendship. I was shocked to say the least, because our relationship had felt so supportive to me.

I brooded over this, thinking she at least owed me an explanation. As the months went on without hearing from her, it became clear to me that I had counted on this friendship as a determinant of my overall happiness. Now what was going to happen?

As natural as it is to have loving and giving relationships, expecting another person to be our ultimate source of love and happiness is actually pretty limiting. So I prayed, as I had done so many times over the years in unsettling circumstances. I prayed for a greater understanding that both my friend and I were tributary to God, divine Love, who imparts joy to everyone. Because we are children of God and under God’s care, it is God that relates us to one another – sweetly and harmoniously. God’s care is something we can expect to always be there, even as human relationships change.

These ideas brought more peace and brightened my outlook. I felt certain that God would guide me. Then, one day when I was in a church where the congregation was saying the Lord’s Prayer together, I was struck by the line, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy gives this spiritual interpretation of that line: “And Love is reflected in love” (p. 17).

I had this clarity that divine Love never owes something, is never trying to fill a void or a lack, because it is ever present. God is constantly giving blessings, as the endless source of love for everyone. As divine Love’s spiritual likeness, both my friend and I were receiving this fullness of good every moment, with no vacuums or dark spaces. I felt the power of this truth cleansing me right then of any hurt and emptiness.

Shortly after this, my friend and I had occasion to connect again in a very natural way. Her explanation of what she’d been going through and her apology touched my heart. Our relationship did change in terms of time spent together, but it retained respect and affection.

Trusting Love in each moment to guide our motives, desires, and steps in a progressive way will shape and safeguard tomorrow. It enables us to expect the full spectrum of good that supplies what we need each day.

Some more great ideas! To hear a podcast discussion about God as the source of all movement, please click through to the latest edition of Sentinel Watch on www.JSH-Online.com titled “Omniaction: God’s unlabored motion includes you.” There is no paywall for this podcast.

Viewfinder

The champ

Loren Elliott/Reuters
Australian Open champion Japan's Naomi Osaka poses with the trophy at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 21, 2021.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Come back tomorrow. Paid sick leave is not federally mandated in Canada. We’ll look at why some small-business owners have begun volunteering it – and may be shifting an old narrative claiming that having more benefits for employees necessarily means a loss for employers.

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