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Monitor Daily Podcast

February 24, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Pandemic lessons on a 3,000-mile solo Atlantic crossing

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

It’s the ultimate in social distancing: Alone in a boat for 70 days on end.

On Saturday, Jasmine Harrison, 21, became the youngest woman to row solo across the Atlantic, traversing from the Canary Islands to Antigua.

She missed her family, her dogs, and cold drinking water. But she wasn’t lonely. “They always say that loneliness is one of the biggest sort of issues, but I’ve not really found that. ... It’s actually taken me quite a long time to actually realize that I’m by myself,” she told the BBC.

In a time of lockdowns, Ms. Harrison embraced her alone time. Yes, she did call her mum almost daily on a satellite phone. But she says she relished the feeling of freedom and independence, even on a tiny boat.

Of course, the 3,000-mile journey was challenging. She rowed 12 hours a day, capsized twice, and was almost hit by a ship. But she also encountered whales, a baby turtle, pilot fish, and was escorted by a pod of Risso’s dolphins for a few days. And Ms. Harrison raised more than $26,000 for two charities, the Blue Marine Foundation and ShelterBox.

The swimming teacher from Thirsk, England, says she hopes to flip the narrative on the pandemic, which has reduced opportunities and options for many people (as we noted in our 21 in '21 project). “I just want to inspire people to change your mindset to what you can do, not what you can’t,” she told The Guardian.

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From savior to bully: Is Cuomo’s hardball style falling out of favor?

Ethical and legal questions dog Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s use of misleading information and pugnacious style. Our reporter looks at whether a generational shift in leadership values is emerging in New York.

David

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One year ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was becoming as popular as he’d ever been, his daily briefings from the early epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis bipartisan must-see TV.

Now New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, has released a report finding the governor undercounted pandemic deaths at nursing homes by about 40%, leaving out residents who died in hospitals. In addition, under his pandemic management, some patients who were diagnosed with the virus were sent back, which some believe may have contributed to the death toll at New York’s nursing homes.

What’s more, his aggressive tone in response to the report is drawing its own criticism that may signal a generational change surrounding the values of leadership. Mr. Cuomo’s penchant for intimidating those who oppose him, some say, is out of step with contemporary movements to curb abusive behavior in the workplace – including in professional sports, where a younger generation has rejected the drill sergeant style of leadership.

Stephen Farnsworth, a scholar on leadership and media studies, says “After four years of presidential bullying and a toxic White House workplace, many Americans – particularly Democratic voters – seem to have had enough of petulant, combative public officials.”

From savior to bully: Is Cuomo’s hardball style falling out of favor?

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Seth Wenig/AP
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at a COVID-19 vaccination site in the Brooklyn borough of New York on Feb. 22, 2021.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the three-term Democrat who has wielded power in one of the nation’s most influential states for over a decade, has long been known for his bare-knuckle, backroom style of political leadership.

In many ways, the art of intimidation and humiliation has long been part of New York’s “three men in a room” traditions, in which political power tilts toward the dealmaking of the governor and the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly.

But over the past week, even as revelations about Governor Cuomo’s handling of the number of COVID-19 fatalities at New York nursing homes upended his national reputation, the story took a dramatic turn. Members of a newer and younger cohort of state legislators began to push back against the well-known pit bull tactics of New York’s governor. 

Filled with plotlines of hubris and reversals of fortune, the story of New York’s governor over the past year has almost been Shakespearean. And it follows on the heels of the defeat of former President Donald Trump – another politician from New York with a pugnacious brand of swagger, famous for dealmaking and demanding personal loyalty – who was brought down by the pandemic. The once-in-a-century event has been so big that its attendant problems have stymied politicians of both parties, from managers like Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to technocrats like California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. But that particularly bellicose style that brought both Mr. Trump and Mr. Cuomo to power has come under fire from a new generation who are not nostalgic for the 1980s.

Reputation for pandemic leadership

One year ago, Governor Cuomo was becoming as popular as he’d ever been, his daily briefings from the early epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis bipartisan must-see TV. Projecting a leadership style both empathetic and urgent, he inspired celebrity crushes, songs and memes on social media, and a state counterpoint to what many saw as the federal government’s inadequacies – a boon to the vaunting ambition of any would-be presidential aspirant. 

“Everyone in New York had relatives and friends calling from all over the country, saying, ‘Wow, your governor,’” says Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University in New York.

But at the end of last month, New York’s progressive attorney general, Letitia James, released a report that found the governor had been undercounting the number of COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes by about 40%, leaving out those residents who died in hospitals. In addition, under his pandemic management, some patients who were diagnosed with the virus were sent back, which some believe may have contributed to the death toll at New York’s nursing homes. 

Governor Cuomo had in fact touted New York’s low rate of nursing home deaths compared to the rest of the country, a rate based on the incomplete numbers. Then, when confronted with the way his administration categorized its data, he also brusquely dismissed the criticism: “But who cares? [A percentage] died in a hospital, died in a nursing home,” Mr. Cuomo said. “They died.”

In the past week, both the FBI and the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn have opened preliminary investigations into how the Cuomo administration handled the data from nursing home deaths. A Marist Poll released Tuesday found that more than 60% of registered voters believe the governor either acted unethically or illegally with regard to nursing homes.

The controversy cut straight to the heart of the kinds of leadership skills that made him so celebrated during the early days of the pandemic.   

“It was as if, OK, you misled us about nursing homes, one of our most vulnerable populations: our bubbies, our nannas, our poppops,” says Professor Greer. “What else are we being misled about? And his answers raise a lot more questions ... and I don’t think he’s interested in answering them.”

“Albany Machiavelli”

But the crisis deepened even more when Mr. Cuomo lashed out against Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat from Queens, who had been a critic of the governor’s handling of nursing home data for months. In public and in private, the governor exploded in a way that long-time observers of New York politics found both familiar and in many ways unremarkable. 

“Over the past 35, 40 years, almost everyone has had some kind of run-in with that side of his personality,” says Ken Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in New York, noting the governor has had an “enforcer’s” mentality since he was the campaign manager for his late father, the former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

On Wednesday, a former aide detailed allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation against the governor in an essay on Medium. Mr. Cuomo has denied the allegations, and on Wednesday his spokesman characterized them as false in a statement to The New York Times.

A number of Democratic legislators have begun to stand up to the governor’s strong-arm tactics in ways not necessarily seen in the past, and in some ways signaling less tolerance for the older ways of applying pressure to keep coalitions in line.

And despite his reputation as a deft politician, his aggressive, if not abusive, ways of intimidating those who oppose him is out of step with contemporary movements to curb abusive behavior in the workplace – including in professional sports, where a younger generation has rejected the drill sergeant style of leadership.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins rebuked the governor this month in what observers say was an unusually bold statement criticizing his handling of the nursing home data. A group of 14 Democratic legislators, including Assemblyman Kim, asked the legislature to strip Governor Cuomo of the emergency powers issued during the pandemic. 

“After four years of presidential bullying and a toxic White House workplace, many Americans – particularly Democratic voters – seem to have had enough of petulant, combative public officials,” says Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

“Governor Cuomo, once seen as a reassuring voice of professionalism thanks to his effective handling of COVID, now seems like an out-of-touch Albany Machiavelli, quick to employ tantrums and cover-ups,” he says.

The progressive wing of the Democratic party, too, has promoted an ethos that values cooperation and consensus, eschewing hierarchies in general and resisting political structures that concentrate power in individual party leaders. 

“There is a new cohort of people who are in power in Albany now, particularly people of color,” says Professor Sherrill, noting that women and people of color (all Democrats in this case) together comprise a narrow majority in the 63-member state Senate and 75 of the 150 members of the Assembly – a dramatic change from just a few years ago when white men comprised the demographic majority of both chambers.

“They are a generation younger than the people who were in power before, and they are not people who would just get used to ‘Andrew being Andrew’ the way the previous generation did,” Professor Sherrill says. 

In many ways, the pandemic only masked the profound transformation of the New York legislature. 

John Minchillo/AP/File
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s briefings at the Jacob Javits Center last spring, like this one on March 24, were seen as bipartisan appointment TV during the beginning of the pandemic. His approval ratings, which soared in 2020, have fallen since allegations that his administration concealed the number of nursing home deaths.

Governor Cuomo has long governed as a fiscal conservative, demanding a restrained budget each year and generally resisting the kinds of progressive proposals that cost money. 

“He’s compensated for this with his competence and by having enough liberal positions that people didn’t oppose him as much as they might oppose someone who likes to push people around and who does settle scores,” Professor Sherrill says.

Laws on liberal priorities such as marriage equality and gun control “provided him cover with the Democrats, despite his not having a left wing economic approach,” he adds. And Governor Cuomo was able to find a useful and powerful middle ground between what had long been a Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic Assembly. 

This is no longer the case, and Democrats now comprise a supermajority in both chambers, including a generation of progressives eager to spend more and unwilling to tolerate the politics of bullying.  

“People believe this is not the way that a democracy should have to work,” says Professor Greer. “There are other ways where adults, who ostensibly have the people in the forefront of their minds, should be able to articulate our vision in a way that’s not damaging to our colleagues.”  

“We’ve seen him rise like a phoenix from the ashes before,” she continues. “But if this iteration of Andrew Cuomo seemed to be very strong, very powerful, especially after he became this national figure during COVID, all that goes away, right? If you’re saying ‘mission accomplished’ and we find out that you’re cooking the books, all of that goodwill just goes away.”

Voters look at both major parties and ask, is this all there is?

Most Americans agree the two-party system is broken, hindering rather than helping solve societal problems. We look at whether the time for a viable third party has arrived.

David
Jason Redmond/Reuters/File
Libertarian Jeff Jared of Kirkland, Washington, holds a sign in support of third parties before former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz spoke during his book tour in Seattle on Jan. 31, 2019. Mr. Schultz considered running for the White House as an independent in the 2020 cycle, but ultimately opted against it.

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America’s two-party system has been entrenched throughout much of the nation’s history. Changing it would be difficult if not impossible, requiring substantial money and coordination, as well as structural changes such as the adoption of ranked-choice voting.

But party crackups have happened before: The current Republican Party was founded in 1854 amid the rubble of the Whig Party’s irreconcilable differences over slavery.

And right now, a growing number of voters seem to feel the system isn’t working. According to a February Gallup Poll, a record 62% of voters say the Republican and Democratic parties do “such a poor job” representing the American people that a new third party is needed. The dissatisfaction is particularly acute on the Republican side, with 63% of GOP voters agreeing with that statement, compared with 46% of Democrats.

Many third-party proponents say the two major parties aren’t capable of addressing the nation’s substantial challenges – blaming Washington gridlock on a binary political structure that rewards opposition more than cooperation.

“People are genuinely concerned or afraid of what the future holds,” says Darcy Richardson, national chair of the Alliance Party, which was created in 2019. “People are beginning to look around and think ‘Is this as good as it’s going to get?’”

Voters look at both major parties and ask, is this all there is?

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At a time when the nation’s partisan divide appears nearly insurmountable – with Republicans and Democrats in Congress unable to agree on much of anything – a growing number of Americans appear to be saying “a pox on both your houses.”

According to a February Gallup Poll, a record 62% of voters say the Republican and Democratic parties do “such a poor job” representing the American people that a new third party is needed. The dissatisfaction is particularly acute on the Republican side, with 63% of GOP voters agreeing with that statement, compared with 46% of Democrats.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have been under strain in recent years, as their far-right and far-left wings have played more prominent roles. For Democrats, that tension was on display in the past two presidential primaries, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders drew sizable and passionate crowds but ultimately came up short against more mainstream rivals.

But it’s the Republican Party that seems to be nearing a possible breaking point in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s loss and the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Some of Mr. Trump’s supporters, frustrated with establishment officials they view as disloyal, have floated the idea of a new political party, although Trump advisers deny that the former president has third-party ambitions. A recent Suffolk University/USA Today poll of Trump voters found that 46% would support a “Trump Party” while just 27% would stick with the GOP instead.

Mr. Trump’s Republican critics, meanwhile, are pondering their own alternatives. Earlier this month, more than 120 former Republican politicians and operatives held a Zoom call to discuss a new party that would focus on “principled conservatism.” 

America’s two-party system has been entrenched throughout much of the nation’s history. Breaking up that political duopoly would be difficult if not impossible, say experts, requiring substantial money and coordination, as well as structural changes such as the adoption of ranked-choice voting.

But party crackups have happened before: The current Republican Party was founded in 1854 amid the rubble of the Whig Party’s irreconcilable differences over slavery.

And a growing number of voters seem to feel the system isn’t working. According to Gallup, just 37% of Americans view the Republican Party favorably right now, while 48% hold a favorable view of the Democrats. Many third-party adherents say the two major parties are no longer capable of addressing the nation’s substantial challenges – blaming Washington gridlock on a binary political structure that rewards opposition more than cooperation.

“People are genuinely concerned or afraid of what the future holds,” says Darcy Richardson, national chair and 2020 vice presidential nominee of the Alliance Party, which was created in 2019. “People are beginning to look around and think ‘Is this as good as it’s going to get? Are these parties going to solve the pressing problems we have?’”

Party registrations dropping

Of the 31 states that track party data, many saw registrations for both major parties go down after Election Day – and then drop again following the riot at the Capitol, particularly among Republicans. Some of those changes may have been due to states cleaning up their voter rolls, but in many cases, the size of the shifts likely also reflects voter intent.

In Colorado, more than 2,300 Republican voters left the GOP between November and January – followed by nearly 14,500 who left the GOP after Jan. 6. Colorado’s Democratic Party, meanwhile, has lost around 2,800 voters since November. Last month alone, Florida’s Republican Party lost more than 30,000 voters and its Democratic Party lost almost 17,000. So far in 2021, more than 11,500 voters have left the GOP in Pennsylvania, and almost 2,700 have left the Democratic Party. 

Meanwhile, third parties have witnessed the opposite trend. 

Since Election Day, Colorado’s Libertarian and Constitution parties have gained hundreds of voters each, while “unaffiliated” rose by more than 9,000 voters between November and January – and then by 23,000 voters in the month of January alone. Likewise, Florida’s “minor party” category gained almost 9,600 voters in January. In Pennsylvania, “other” has received more than three times as many online voter applications in 2021 as “Republican.”

The Libertarian Party’s voter registration overall in January 2021 was up 20% over January 2020, says Joe Bishop-Henchman, chair of the party’s national committee, which he calls “very unusual” for a non-election year.

“We’re hearing from people who watched what happened at the Capitol, and they’re saying, ‘That’s not my party,’” says Mr. Bishop-Henchman. “It’s a bright time for us.” 

“It’s unbelievable,” agrees David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida who is now chairman of the Serve America Movement, or SAM Party. SAM, a center-right group, was founded in 2017 by former officials in the George W. Bush administration. 

“We started to see an uptick in December – and then Jan. 6 happened, and it exploded,” says Mr. Jolly, who is considering a run for Florida’s governorship. “Our organic traffic into our website and social media accounts is up well over 1,000 percent.”

Dustin Chambers/Reuters
A man wears a shirt reading "Trump Party" at a campaign event for then-President Donald Trump in Macon, Georgia, Oct. 16, 2020.

A new “Patriot” Party

Among many right-leaning populists, mounting frustration with the status quo has spurred the creation of a number of fledgling groups with variations on the name “MAGA Patriot Party.”

High school friends Brian Dow and Joe Faletra reconnected on Facebook last year after posting criticisms of the Republican Party. Both men voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and again in 2020 and they liked his “America First” agenda. But they also agreed his character was “not ideal.”

So late last year, after Mr. Trump lost the election, they founded The American Patriot Party of the United States, or TAPPUS for short. They rented office space in a strip mall in St. Petersburg, Florida, and created a Facebook group. By the end of January, it had 46,000 members, with thousands more waiting to be approved.

The Facebook group wound up being taken down, because it “started morphing into an ‘I love the right’ page,” says Mr. Faletra, with members sharing misinformation about election fraud and violent conspiracy theories – something neither of the two founders say they supported. 

But they remain undeterred in their efforts to forge a new political path forward, which they see as a repudiation of both major parties.

“This isn’t about being a Trump supporter or Biden supporter,” says Mr. Faletra. “I don’t think our party would support either of these politicians at this point.” 

“If you look at the opportunities that exist in places where constituents are upset with their officials, that’s what we’re hoping to exploit,” adds Mr. Dow. “With the alignment today, if you are going to represent the Republican or Democratic Party, you are immediately ostracizing 50% of the population.” 

The spoiler argument 

Still, creating a real alternative to the two-party system in the U.S. strikes most experts as highly unlikely.

Without changing the current winner-take-all voting structure, forming a viable third party is “virtually impossible,” says Lee Drutman, a political scientist and author of the book “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.”

Unlike countries with proportional representation, America’s system encourages party consolidation, since any one major party would gain a huge advantage if its opposition were to splinter. Voters, recalling that Ross Perot’s 1992 independent presidential bid likely cost President George H.W. Bush his reelection, and that votes in key states for the Green Party’s Jill Stein may have cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election, tend to consolidate themselves as well.

“The biggest challenge as an independent is what they call the spoiler argument,” says Neal Simon, who ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent in Maryland in 2018. “When I was campaigning, I would meet Democrats who would say, ‘I’d really like to support you, but I’m afraid if I support you it’s the equivalent of supporting a Republican,’ and then I’d meet Republicans who would say the same thing.”

To fix this, many electoral reform proponents suggest ranked-choice voting. Currently in place in Maine and just passed in Alaska via ballot measure, it allows voters to rank the candidates rather than just voting for one. If no candidate receives an outright majority of first-choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest is eliminated and the rankings are re-tallied, until someone reaches a majority. That way, voters who prefer a minor-party candidate don’t have to worry about “throwing away” their vote.  

Minor-party candidates and independents (who aren’t affiliated with any party) often struggle with low polling numbers and have to work overtime to attract media attention – a chicken-and-egg problem. Many fail to clear the polling threshold required to participate in debates – which, of course, are an important tool to boost candidates’ visibility. 

In the past, overcoming that challenge has often required significant personal wealth. In 1992, Mr. Perot circumvented the media exposure dilemma by buying expensive 30-minute political infomercials, which gave him the name recognition necessary to qualify for debates. 

Then there are the logistical hurdles. Requirements to get on the ballot vary between states and races. Typically, it’s a combination of signatures and fees. Some states require party registration for voters to participate in primary elections. Minor parties can also lose state recognition for poor turnout, as the Constitution and Green parties did in North Carolina last month. 

“Sure, it’s cool to start your own political party, but [third-party proponents] should also be supporting campaigns to change ballot-access laws,” such as the Fair Representation Act that was introduced in Congress last year, says Mr. Drutman. 

“We don’t appreciate what an anomaly the United States’ two-party system is,” he continues. “Prior to Jan. 6, I would have said I can’t envision [the creation of a successful third party]. But in the last month and a half … the number of conversations that I’ve had where people are like, ‘You know what, maybe it’s not so crazy,’” suggests that something might be changing, he says. “What we think is possible is what we decide is possible.”

Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Neal Simon ran for governor of Maryland. It was the U.S. Senate.

Can Germany police an extremist party without playing politics?

Shaped by its Nazi past, German democracy has provisions that can curb the free speech and individual rights of extremists. What might other democracies learn from Germany?

David

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German far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is already being monitored in three German states over concerns about its activities. But the AfD may soon be declared unconstitutional following the conclusion of a two-year federal investigation. That would put the party under state surveillance, just months away from federal elections.

The situation taps into a global debate: How should democracies best stamp out extremism, while still paying heed to civil rights and individual freedoms?

The AfD found political success amid Europe's migration crisis, when it adopted a nationalist, anti-immigration platform. But it has also played loose with facts and its leaders have also declared Islam incompatible with German culture. This activity is part of what the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) would declare in violation of the German constitution’s provisions for human dignity, principle of democracy, and other tenets.

Experts say that whatever the BfV decides, its system is designed to be firewalled from politics. The court will pursue any legal actions in such a way that basic civil rights are weighed, says sociologist Aletta Diefenbach. “Some consider [declaring it unconstitutional] a good way to demonstrate the AfD is not a democratic party and that it’s a dangerous party. It’s a first step.”

Can Germany police an extremist party without playing politics?

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Jörg Carstensen/dpa/Newscom/File
Norbert Kleinwächter, a member of the Alternative for Germany party, speaks at the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, in Berlin on Nov. 13, 2019.

Norbert Kleinwächter is well aware of the staggering powers held by Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).

The far-right political party of which he is a member, Alternative for Germany (AfD), is already being monitored in three German states over concerns about its activities. Now, the AfD may be declared unconstitutional following the conclusion of a two-year investigation by the BfV. That would put the party – and potentially every member – under state surveillance, just seven months away from federal elections.

Mr. Kleinwächter is undeterred. “I stand by the things I do and say. I have no anti-democratic goals.”

In the wake of the U.S. Capitol riots, after which far-right groups have drawn the scrutiny of U.S. federal officials, the German situation taps into a global debate: How should democracies best stamp out extremism, while still paying heed to civil rights and individual freedoms? With its focus on the AfD, a party that swept into the German parliament on a platform that included anti-Muslim rhetoric, the federal office is focusing on its largest and most mainstream target yet.

“In comparison to the U.S., history has given Germany greater recognition of the dangers for democracy, in particular, of inciting rhetoric against minorities,” says Aletta Diefenbach, a sociologist at the Free University of Berlin. “Therefore, there’s greater [societal] acceptance of restrictions for freedom of expression, and for a party being classified as right-wing extremist by the federal constitution. But [the designation] doesn’t solve the problem that people think like this, and that they organize. That’s a problem that the whole of society has to solve.”

A hard course for the AfD

Though founded in 2013 to resist European Union integration, the AfD found its first major political success a few years later when, amid Europe’s migration crisis, it adopted a nationalist, anti-immigration platform. A portion of its membership initially derived from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, whose right flank broke off in part over what it viewed as her too-lenient migration policies. The AfD swiftly doubled its membership and took seats in both state legislatures and the Bundestag, the national parliament. Pre-pandemic, the AfD was polling with support across Germany in the mid-20 percentages.

The AfD’s social media strategies were wildly successful, toying with emotions but also playing loose with facts. For example, it has overstated the number of migrants seeking asylum, falsely claimed that foreigners commit more crimes in Germany, and cautioned that Europe was becoming “Eurabia” with ads depicting white women surrounded by Muslim men. Its leaders have declared Islam incompatible with German culture.

This activity is part of what the BfV would declare in violation of the German constitution’s provisions for human dignity, principle of democracy, and other tenets.

Launched right after World War II, the BfV was a young democracy’s effort to ensure, in part, that Nazi ideologies never again took hold. Its monitoring powers are vast: It can surveil, wiretap, infiltrate, and use paid informants to assess domestic threats. Typical targets in recent years have been extremism on the far-left and far-right, terrorism, cults, and organized crime.

The AfD’s momentum waned during the pandemic, as Germans turned to Ms. Merkel and her coalition for leadership amid the crisis. And being labeled “unconstitutional” would hand the AfD an unprecedented set of challenges.

The party had already seen a spate of resignations amid knowledge that its activities were being considered by the BfV for possible observation. But it will likely become even more difficult to fundraise, says Berlin AfD politician Götz Frömming, and membership is down to single-digit percentages in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, after years of momentum there. Police officers, judges, and other civil servants might be further deterred from joining.

“Surveillance goes hand in hand with further public stigmatization,” says Dr. Frömming. “This affects us in the exercise of our democratic rights and duties, such as holding party meetings. It’s already difficult for us to even find spaces where we can gather.”

Justice or politics?

The threat of observation has prompted grumbling from AfD members. “We never said we want to deport German nationals just because they are Muslims or foreigners,” says Roland Hartwig, an AfD parliamentarian from western Germany. Until recently, Mr. Hartwig oversaw an AfD working group that studied what words or actions might be in constitutional violation. “Our goals are just to have controlled immigration. We want to decide who can come in and stay here.”

The government and media “will never stop defaming us,” says Matthias Büttner, an AfD parliamentarian. “Instead we should stand tall and oppose this regime of injustice.”

Moderate AfD members clarify they’re not criticizing the gathering of the information, or even the office itself, which was meant to protect Germany against extremist threats. Rather, they’re decrying what they see as a calculated political move to hurt them ahead of federal elections in September.

“The problematic step is when the information is evaluated,” says Markus Dossenbach, chief of staff for two AfD members of the Bundestag and a former CDU member. “Subjective opinion comes into play when evaluating this information. That’s where the political manipulation is seen. As soon as anyone within the AfD says anything out of line, the reaction is to say the entire party needs to be put under surveillance. This is the easiest way to block financial support, to block new members from joining, and to steal back a few voters from the moderate side.”

Ms. Merkel and her coalition parties have denied any political motivation, with leadership declining to advise the federal office on the matter. The BfV “must make a free decision on the matter, otherwise the impression could quickly arise that parties were trying to use [the office] for their own purposes,” parliamentary group vice-chairman Thorsten Frei told a newspaper editorial team in early 2021.

Experts say that the observation system is designed to be firewalled from politics, in part via a clear set of criteria according to which the classification of “unconstitutional” is made. The court will pursue any legal actions in such a way that basic civil rights are weighed, adds Dr. Diefenbach. “Some consider [declaring it unconstitutional] a good way to demonstrate the AfD is not a democratic party and that it’s a dangerous party. It’s a first step.”

Limited support for the AfD

The party will contest any decision in court, and its legal actions so far may have delayed the office’s “unconstitutional” designation, which was expected several weeks ago. Further legal action could take years to wind its way through the courts, though the office could launch surveillance in the meantime.

Ultimately though, AfD may be fighting against the tide; a majority of the public is in favor of placing the party under observation, according to a 2018 survey. A 2020 report found two-thirds surveyed agreed with the decision to place the party’s extremist wing Der Flügel under surveillance.

Over the long term, the “unconstitutional” declaration would only be the first move in a complicated fight against extremism. After all, the AfD’s success indicates deep societal rifts, analysts say.

A 2019 German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency found that the number of racist and discriminatory incidents across the country has doubled since 2015. And, a recent survey found that more than a third of Germans wouldn’t rent to immigrants.

“There’s a relevant number of hard-boiled racists and anti-Semites and maybe even far-right extremists, and they might be able to control their statements in the short term, but not in the long run,” says Fabian Virchow, head of a research unit on far-right extremism at the University of Applied Sciences in Dusseldorf. “And the structures of society are still largely white, such as administration and police. It’s a long way to go to change the soil from which these parties are born.”

Essay

Disruption from the inside: Using privilege to fight injustice

Our commentator examines what history – specifically a 1968 all-white protest – tells us about addressing injustice today, such as white privilege and the Jan. 6 Capitol assault. 

David
William A. Smith/AP/File
The Rev. Daniel Berrigan (right) and defense lawyer William M. Kunstler of New York talk with reporters in Baltimore, Maryland, Nov. 9, 1968, after Father Berrigan and eight other Catholics were sentenced to prison after being convicted of burning Selective Service records to protest the Vietnam War.

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On May 17, 1968, at the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, nine Roman Catholic anti-war activists, known today as the Catonsville Nine, stole and destroyed the records of those most likely to be drafted into the Vietnam War. As they expected, they were arrested and tried, and each one was sentenced to prison.

Superficial similarities exist between the Catonsville Nine and the Capitol rioters: Both involved an all-white or mostly white group who broke into a federal space and destroyed federal property. All nine in 1968 and many in 2021 claimed they possessed a holy mandate.

But the differences are far more striking:  

  • The Catonsville Nine were rooted firmly in facts, not lies or conspiracy theories.
  • They made explicit their intention of ceasing violence, not fomenting it.
  • They fully expected legal consequences, not special immunity.

The Catonsville Nine are helping me answer the question of what to do with whiteness – with this broad constellation of ill-gotten privileges and benefits accrued simply by being deemed white.

Whiteness is never neutral. But it becomes a mechanism for bringing about justice when white people use their unearned power and privilege to undercut whiteness, when we use the system’s trust in us to fracture racism and oppression.

Disruption from the inside: Using privilege to fight injustice

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An all-white group trespassed and ransacked a federal office. The flustered protestations of a few clerical workers notwithstanding, the nine-member group gained entry unimpeded and stole what they had come for. Toting two large wire bins full of their loot, the nine descended the building’s staircase and exited onto an adjacent parking lot, where they started a fire. Standing shoulder to shoulder at its edge, two women and seven men (two in clergy collars) made the sign of the cross, joined hands, and prayed. They were a picture of midcentury, white, middle-class domesticity: clean-cut men in suits and ties; sleek women in belted sundresses and flats.

But this was no suburban backyard barbecue. The kindling was 378 draft files. The igniter fluid: homemade napalm, a recipe lifted from the U.S. Army’s “Special Forces Handbook.” When the police arrived, an officer sprayed the contents of a fire extinguisher onto the flames, sending shards of charred paper swirling into the bright spring air. The nine were then loaded into the back of a police van.

This was May 17, 1968, outside the local Selective Service office in the Washington suburb of Catonsville, Maryland, where nine Roman Catholic anti-war activists stole and destroyed 1-A files, the records of those most likely to be drafted into the Vietnam War. This group of lay people and clergy came to be known as the Catonsville Nine; the most well-known among them were the Berrigan brothers, Philip and Daniel, priests long involved in the peace movement. In a highly publicized federal trial, the nine were found guilty of destruction of U.S. property, destruction of Selective Service files, and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967.  Each member was sentenced to two or more years in prison. “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children,” Daniel Berrigan told the court.

The Catonsville Nine vs. the Capitol rioters

On Jan. 6, 2021, and in the days following the assault on the Capitol, my thoughts turned to the Catonsville Nine. A longtime admirer of Daniel Berrigan and his writing, especially his blistering commentary on American violence during the Vietnam era, I returned to his account of Catonsville; I watched and rewatched black-and-white footage of the event. The contrasting visions of justice, the contrasting deployments of whiteness, between the events of May 17, 1968, and those of Jan. 6, 2021, are dizzying.

The surface similarities make the contrasts that much more significant: Both involved an all-white or mostly white group who broke into a federal space and destroyed federal property. Also, all nine in 1968 and many in 2021 claimed they possessed a holy mandate.

But it’s how the two groups radically depart from each other, their divergent moral visions and methods, that I find so compelling and instructive as a white person living in America today searching for a useable past:  

  • The Catonsville Nine were rooted firmly in the facts, not lies or conspiracy theories. By 1968, America’s fraught involvement in the Vietnam War was no secret, including the use of chemical warfare (napalm), the killing of innocents, and the drafting of non-affluent American men to prop up the war effort.
  • Unlike the Capitol rioters, the Catonsville Nine were not attempting to overthrow democratic processes. Nor was their goal to destroy people in some apocalyptic showdown. Their action had no encouragement from a powerful figure; rather, a humble commitment to conscience motivated each individual. They considered it their somber duty to try to stop American killing, to prevent the deaths of American soldiers and Vietnamese alike.
  • The unarmed Catonsville Nine made explicit their intention of ceasing violence, not fomenting it. Their action emerged from self-conscious commitments to the nonviolence traditions of Jesus, Thoreau, Gandhi, King. At the fire’s edge, Daniel Berrigan declared, “We make our prayer in the name of that God whose name is peace and decency and unity and love.”
  • The group fully expected legal consequences, not special immunity. They knew that their trespasses would not be forgiven, that their lives would only get harder in the time-honored tradition of Thoreauvian civil disobedience.

Whiteness is never neutral

I have gravitated to the Catonsville Nine, in these days especially, because I need to see a group of white people telling the truth with their mouths and their actions. I need to be in the presence of white people who bring justice in their wake, not death or its denial, not pomposity or passivity. I desperately need to see them, especially the ones who are religiously motivated, with skin in the right game.

Representation matters, the recovery of a useable past matters – even, or perhaps especially, for white people in America for whom strong traditions of collective justice-making among our ilk are few and far between. This is not a matter of sorting out “good” white people from “bad” in some tedious parsing of discrete individuals (although individuals do need to be held accountable). The larger target is whiteness – the elevation of white people, culture, and customs as the norm, and the patterns of domination this elevation licenses.

The Catonsville Nine are helping me answer the question of what to do with whiteness – with this broad constellation of ill-gotten privileges and benefits accrued simply by being deemed white.

Whiteness is never neutral. I know no insurrectionists or avowed white supremacists and could never imagine myself or my white friends participating in such mayhem and violence. Yet as an inheritor and carrier of whiteness, I do know what it is to look the other way, to rationalize, to downplay injustice. I know a lot about not rocking the boat, going along to get along – about the will to make things quiet rather than make them right. I know a lot about not fracturing a certain order meant for my benefit at the expense of others.

The fact is there could not be an all-Black Catonsville Nine. Suspicion would be raised, alarm bells sounded, access denied, deadly force threatened or used. The scene at the draft board was distinctly white – a group presumed innocent, assumed benign to the authorities. Beforehand, one of the nine, Tom Lewis, had scouted the building where the office was located, under the pretense of wanting to rent the basement for his wedding reception – a scenario nearly impossible to imagine in that almost all-white suburb had Tom been Black.

Disrupting the order from the inside

The Catonsville Nine used their access to do what they were uniquely positioned to do because of their whiteness: to upend and disrupt the order from the inside.

And this is the central and perhaps only great hope of being white in America – to subvert presumptions about being white, to undermine notions that we will “play nice,” to be a turncoat: a traitor to whiteness who uses the oppressor’s prejudice against itself.

Whiteness becomes a mechanism for bringing about justice when white people use our unearned power and privilege to undercut, to rebel against, whiteness. We must use the system’s reflexive trust in us to reveal that we are not to be trusted with being white, that we will fracture the “good order” of racism and every form of oppression – from the sanctuary to the statehouse, the boardroom to the ballot box. That we prefer the burning of paper instead of children.

Enacting this great hope will come at a cost. Daniel Berrigan described the “revulsion” they endured as “ecumenical” – from all sides. The upshot, however, might be the preservation of our souls.

Lynn Casteel Harper is an author and ordained Baptist minister serving older adults in her New York City congregation.

Difference-maker

Be like Fauci? Pandemic inspires surge in med school applications.

What makes people devote their lives to serving others? Inspired by the selfless courage of health care workers, more students are channeling a desire to serve into the medical profession. We talked to students about what drives that choice.

David
Noah Robertson/The Christian Science Monitor
Ryan Farmer, seen here at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, is preparing a portfolio after finishing his medical school application test, Feb. 15, 2021.

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When Ryan Farmer dressed up as Dr. Anthony Fauci last Halloween, he was trying on more than a costume. He was embracing a calling.

He’s not sure what kind of doctor he wants to become. But inspired by the selflessness and community service of medical workers over the past year, Mr. Farmer is now preparing his application for medical school.

“All of those people who’ve been sacrificing so many things in their lives to help all of us,” he says. “Those are the people I want to be.”

Across the country, medical school applications are soaring, up 18% this past year, an enormous jump for the field.

Perhaps not since 9/11 – when droves of young people followed the career footsteps of first responders, soldiers, and firefighters – have current events shaped the area of work people pursue, says Mary McSweeney, assistant dean for admissions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health.

“People who go into medicine want to help people,” says Dr. McSweeney, “and this is the ultimate time to help people.”

Be like Fauci? Pandemic inspires surge in med school applications.

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Wearing khakis, glasses, a tie, a lab coat, and some dry shampoo for a touch of gray hair, Ryan Farmer added the pièce de résistance to his Halloween costume last year – a simple name tag reading “Dr. Fauci.” 

With that, Mr. Farmer had become the nation’s top expert on infectious disease. In a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic, there hardly could’ve been a more appropriate outfit. To Mr. Farmer, it was more than a costume. It was a calling.

A senior at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Mr. Farmer is now preparing his application for medical school. He may not be tomorrow’s Anthony Fauci. He’s not even sure what kind of doctor he wants to become. But inspired by the selflessness and community service of medical workers over the past year, Mr. Farmer hopes to eventually wear his lab coat at work each day and not just on Halloween.

“I think the kind of people who have stepped up all around the country are the kind of people we need more of,” he says. “I want to be a part of that community.”

Across the country, many young people planning their careers share the same sentiment, and are taking steps to make it a reality. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), medical school applications for this year rose 18%, an enormous jump for the field. While these applicants won’t practice during the COVID-19 pandemic, their increase is tangible evidence of a rally-round-the-flag effect in public health and medicine, which could help stave off a looming shortage of medical workers in the next decade.

Perhaps not since 9/11 – when droves of young people followed the career footsteps of first responders, soldiers, and firefighters – have current events shaped the area of work people pursue, says Mary McSweeney, assistant dean for admissions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health.

“People who go into medicine want to help people,” says Dr. McSweeney, “and this is the ultimate time to help people.”

Over the past 20 years, medical school applications have risen only slightly, just 2.5%, despite a 16% growth in population. That makes this past year’s near 20% jump an almost unprecedented aberration,  says Geoffrey Young, the senior director of student affairs and programs at the AAMC. 

A number of factors are likely driving that surge, he says. 

For some it may come down to simple logistics. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Hearts adorn a home in Hingham, Massachusetts, to thank area doctors and nurses, March 25, 2020.

To be competitive, medical school applicants must start building a portfolio in their first year of college. Yet the gap between a portfolio and an application can be wide. A rise in free time during the pandemic, says Dr. Young, may be giving young people more time to apply. 

But the pandemic has also given public health officials broader visibility among the public. The so-called Fauci Effect, named after Dr. Fauci, may inspire increased interest in medicine and public health for years to come as students enter college during the pandemic, says Dr. Young.

Such attention could bring a welcome boost in funding for medical schools and internship programs, perhaps helping remedy an impending physician shortage projected by the AAMC. 

“This has been a really great opportunity to be able to teach public health, because when you have a pandemic going on, obviously it’s captured the entire nation’s interest and it gives a real context,” says Dr. McSweeney.

A spotlight on public health

For those already studying medicine and public health, the pandemic has added resonance to their education.  

Samantha Banks applied for the University of Washington’s master’s in epidemiology program because she wanted a career that met people’s needs in real time. Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly a formative moment in Ms. Banks’ education coincided with a formative moment in the field at large. 

“COVID might have put the spotlight on public health a little bit more than anything else,” she says, now in her second semester in the program and still deciding where she wants to work after graduating – a choice the pandemic is certain to affect.

In contrast, across the country in Norfolk, Virginia, Ashley Carter has known what she wants to be since she was 10 years old. “COVID or no COVID, I was going to do the same thing I’m doing now,” says Ms. Carter, in her first year studying to be a neurosurgeon at Eastern Virginia Medical School. 

Still, the pandemic has validated her idea of what doctors do: prepare for and respond to emergencies. 

Amid such a turbulent year, with the pandemic forcing her first two semesters of medical school online, the example set by medical workers reminds her of what she aspires to be. Some may look to Dr. Fauci, she says, but there are millions of other medical workers in the United States who don’t have a camera on them. 

“Every nurse, every doctor, every sanitation worker, every single person who is a part of the health care system, to make it run and sustain the system in general throughout this time, is a hero to me,” says Ms. Carter.

Someone to look up to

Jenny Shen, a researcher at Columbia University Medical Center, is one of those near-anonymous employees. 

In 2015, Ms. Shen left her job in banking and enrolled in a biostatistics program at Columbia, where she’s worked since graduating.

It was difficult at first, she says, adjusting to the patience required in the field. Her research didn’t have a clear destination, and at times she wondered if she made the right choice. 

But since the pandemic Ms. Shen has seen the ability of her field to meet the needs of the moment. Though her existing research has continued, she’s also contributed to COVID-19 research and data collection in a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

For her, the last year has been a live lesson on the importance of medicine and public health – especially the example set by her co-workers. 

“During April, May, that darkest time in New York City, I saw my colleagues were so brave to go to the hospital,” she says. “They really, really inspired me.”

Even though he’s years younger than Ms. Shen and only has a vague idea of his future, Mr. Farmer, the senior at William & Mary, finds inspiration in the same place. 

“All of those people who’ve been sacrificing so many things in their lives to help all of us,” he says. “Those are the people I want to be.”

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How might pro sports bounce back?

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Ratings for televised sports in the United States have been down during the pandemic, sometimes dramatically. Even this year’s Super Bowl game was down 9% compared with 2020. No one answer explains what’s happening. But a few hypotheses make sense.

For one thing, in 2020 many sports had their seasons abbreviated or shifted to later in the year. And with fewer workers commuting, that time separating the workday from relaxing in front of TV at home disappeared. One other reason: Viewers’ time for sports may have been squeezed by big news on COVID-19 and the 2020 presidential election. Trying to figure out how pro sports will adjust during this year presents a challenge.

One example: Groups of fans now are creating “watchalongs,” turning down the audio on their sets and then offering their own commentary to friends via social media.

Fans may be stuck at home for a while more, but they will eventually find a way to express their joy of sports. The letdowns of the past year could result in an innovative comeback later this year.

How might pro sports bounce back?

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A big screen displays fans watching a Premier League soccer match between Leeds United and Southampton in Leeds, Britain, Feb. 23.

In mid-February, two National Hockey League games were played in the great outdoors at scenic Lake Tahoe on a temporary rink. The teams battled it out surrounded by mountains, trees, and a spectacular lake – but no fans in stands.

The players agreed they loved the venue, just as predicted by Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer, in The New York Times. “Once the puck is dropped the players will feel a little like they’re playing back when they were kids, for the love of the game.”

The NHL has played games outdoors in the past but hoped the change would seem even more refreshing to fans watching on TV and cooped up inside during a pandemic. Future games in New York’s Central Park and on the National Mall in Washington remain a possibility.

Surprisingly, ratings for televised sports in the United States have been down during the pandemic, sometimes dramatically. The NHL suffered a 61% drop in viewers for its Stanley Cup Final. Viewers of the National Basketball Association Finals dropped 51%, and Major League Baseball’s World Series was its lowest rated, with a 30% dip from the previous year. Even this year’s Feb. 7 Super Bowl game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers was down 9% compared with 2020.

No one answer explains what’s happening. But a few hypotheses make sense to those who follow sports and media.

For one thing, in 2020 many sports had their seasons abbreviated or shifted to later in the year. By last fall professional baseball, football, hockey, soccer, and basketball were all available for viewing at the same time. Not to mention golf’s prestigious Masters Tournament, pushed back from its traditional spring tee time.

With fewer workers commuting, that time separating the workday from relaxing in front of TV at home disappeared.

“People’s behaviors are shifting,” Senior Vice President Daniel Cohen at Octagon, a sports marketing agency, told SportsPro. “If you’re going to be working from home from 8 to 6:30 every day, are you going to turn on that baseball game or are you going to go for your bike ride now?” s

One other reason: Viewers’ time for sports may have been squeezed by big news on COVID-19 and the 2020 presidential election. Catching up on highlights via a phone app might have sufficed.

Trying to figure out how professional sports will adjust during this year presents a challenge. Most pro leagues’ financial models include big contributions from ticket and concession sales to live attendees, not stadiums populated by cardboard cutouts of fans. If a quick return to something approaching normal attendance isn’t possible, the ramifications could be severe.

In one bright spot outside the U.S., home TV viewing of Britain’s Premier League soccer matches jumped 13% this past year, caused in part by the closure of pubs and other traditional viewing venues. A recent showdown between rivals Manchester United and Liverpool yielded a record audience.

As with all sports, the matches provide “so many new stories to enjoy, so many more scores to argue over,” soccer podcaster Musa Okwonga told the Financial Times.

Groups of fans now are creating “watchalongs,” turning down the audio on their sets and then offering their own commentary to friends via social media.

Fans may be stuck at home for a while more, but they will eventually find a way to express their joy of sports. The letdowns of the past year could result in an innovative comeback later this year.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

God’s character and ‘the heart of divinity’

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Reasoning from a spiritual standpoint when faced with discomfort, a man was healed by realizing that he could only ever express good qualities – qualities that have their source in God.

God’s character and ‘the heart of divinity’

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

I was coming back from a walk one day and noticed a fair amount of debris by the side of the road. There happened to be a couple of plastic bags as well, so I decided to start bagging what I could. At one point, I saw a familiar figure – a man sitting on a wall where I’d frequently seen him in the past. I thought to myself, “He sits there all the time; why isn’t he helping out to clean things up?”

Almost immediately, my neck and shoulders started to feel more than uncomfortable, and I had a hard time moving them. While completing the pick-up efforts, I prayed to God in accord with the teachings of Christian Science, discovered by Mary Baker Eddy. I affirmed that I was truly spiritual, God’s perfect offspring – and therefore not material. I reasoned that I was free from material beliefs of any kind.

On returning home, I began to do some self-assessment and realized that my discordant physical condition was just reflecting a discordant state of thought – some judgmental self-righteousness. However, the truths I affirmed earlier came to mind again, and I saw that God’s offspring could never truly express anything but the goodness of God’s character, so to speak – God’s very nature. This meant that I could express only qualities that have their source in God, such as love, consideration, thoughtfulness, respect, humility.

So, how could being judgmental or self-righteous ever truly be a part of me? It couldn’t. And the same things were true as well for the man I had seen. As I prayed with these ideas, I felt a change in my physical condition, and I was totally free of any discordant symptoms the next day.

In thinking further about God’s character, these words from “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mrs. Eddy come to mind: “Through spiritual sense you can discern the heart of divinity…” (p. 258). We might think about the “heart of divinity” as another way of referring to God’s character. And Science and Health talks further about spiritual sense as the ability to comprehend Spirit, God (see p. 209).

So, we learn more – comprehend more – about God and God’s heart, His nature as our all-loving, all-wise, and all-good divine Parent, as we tune in to spiritual sense. And our ability to stay with spiritual sense expands and grows through experiences in our daily lives when we choose to see spiritual reality, as opposed to a material view of discordant mental or physical conditions. That’s what happened to me that day on my walk.

Ultimately, it stands to reason that, as we learn more about God, we learn more about ourselves. And as we all begin to accept this uplifted view – spiritual reality – we will find ourselves manifesting more and more of the heart of divinity, God’s character, and the Godlike, good qualities that naturally belong to us as divine Spirit’s offspring.

Viewfinder

Paws for a refresh

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
A worker feeds a cat at the Ailuromania Cat Cafe, which offers therapy to humans and adoption to cats in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 24, 2021. (The cafe's name comes from a word that means a perhaps-excessive love of – what else? – cats.)
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about third acts, when older adults shift gears and try new careers. 

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