2021
May
13
Thursday

Monitor Daily Podcast

May 13, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

On the road, signs point to economic comeback

When we take a road trip, I play a game. I try to spot out-of-state license plates. So this past weekend, when it came time to pick up my daughter Grace from college in Rochester, New York, I was eager to see how many states I could rack up – my unofficial scorecard for recovery from the pandemic.

Of course, we eliminated almost all trips in the past year. Even driving around local roads in Boston, it proved harder to spot out-of-state plates as traffic dropped. Last year, Boston roadways lost their ranking as the most congested in America. We’re now No. 4, behind New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. But when an Alaska plate passed me a few days before the Rochester trip, I knew something was up.

The trip was fast and smooth. Interstate 90 through Massachusetts and New York felt about average. I bagged 37 states, pretty typical for a two-day trip in ordinary times. (Yes, that counts the Alaska plate because, east of the Mississippi, it’s the second-hardest to find after Hawaii.)

For the Memorial Day weekend, AAA expects 60% more Americans will hit the road than last year. That’s still 6 million fewer cars than pre-pandemic levels. But if you listen carefully, you can hear the roar of comeback.

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Where US-backed diplomacy is on the march in the Middle East

Despite the convulsion of Israeli-Palestinian violence, there are signs that the arrival of a diplomacy-first Biden administration has accelerated a “diplomatic spring” across much of the Middle East.

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After eight years of frosty relations, Egypt and Turkey held their first high-level talks last week to move toward “normalized ties.” Not to be outdone, Qatar advanced its detente with Egypt; Saudi Arabia and Syria held secret talks in Damascus; and the Turkish foreign minister traveled to Riyadh this week to repair ties.

The overtures are adding to the ongoing dialogue between the region’s primary rival powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Despite the violence convulsing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dialogue and diplomacy are in the air this spring across much of the Middle East. Competitors that had divided the region have come together to call “truce.”

Although this surge of diplomacy may be driven by realpolitik more than by a real change of heart, the Biden administration has accelerated the process, using its status as a key ally for other regional actors to push their dialogues further along.

“All the major regional powers have probably come to the realization that in this game of nations they were playing the past 10 years, no one can score a knockout, nobody is capable of a total win,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political analyst. “Everyone is in the mood to de-escalate.”

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Where US-backed diplomacy is on the march in the Middle East

Saudi Press Agency/Reuters
The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, meets with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 11, 2021.

In a Middle East region where an old conflict has erupted anew, the official resets in diplomatic ties have been, nevertheless, as many as they have been momentous.

After eight years of frosty relations, withdrawn ambassadors, rivalry, and recriminations, Egypt and Turkey held their first high-level talks last week to move toward “normalized ties.”

Not to be outdone, Qatar advanced its detente with Egypt; Saudi Arabia and Syria held secret talks in Damascus to reestablish ties; and the Turkish foreign minister traveled to Riyadh this week to repair relations with Saudi Arabia.

The diplomatic overtures are adding to the ongoing dialogue between the region’s primary rival powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and efforts to wind down the Yemen war.

Despite the violence convulsing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dialogue and diplomacy are in the air this spring across much of the Middle East. Rivals that had divided the region the past decade with competition for influence, territory, and resources have come together to call for a truce.

Behind this sudden diplomatic push, analysts say, is a fatigue among regional powers over the cost of interventions, trade wars, and economic crises at home, and an eagerness to formalize the status quo.

Although these detentes may be driven by realpolitik more than by a real change of heart, the arrival of a diplomacy-first Biden administration has accelerated the Mideast’s “diplomatic spring.”

Even as Washington is coming under increased pressure to do more than urge restraint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is using its status as a key ally for other regional actors to push their dialogues further along, and to put an end – at least for now – to the rivalries and proxy wars that have destabilized the region.

Fresh off a trip last week to the region, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said the Biden administration’s focus on de-escalation and diplomacy “has had an immediate, positive impact,” noting that “the grass shoots of dialogue are emerging between historic rivals.”

“It is clear that Middle Eastern leaders see the Biden administration’s priority on settling conflict,” Senator Murphy said in a press call Monday, citing the “encouraging” and “positive” signs in efforts to end the Yemen conflict, Saudi-Iran talks, and an end to the rift among Gulf Arab countries.

Cementing gains

The regional powers’ gains in the past decade have been many.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates achieved economic, political, and even military footholds in North Africa and the Horn. Turkey secured maritime concessions off the Libyan coast, and a buffer zone in northern Syria. Egypt has influence over eastern Libya, its neighbor to the west.

Diplomatic sources say regional actors have reached an “understanding” over a common interest in maintaining their individual gains, rather than competing for more.

“All the major regional powers have probably come to the realization that in this game of nations they were playing the past 10 years, no one can score a knockout, nobody is capable of a total win,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political analyst. “So now it seems they are counting what they have gained from the competition.”

It was during the 2011 Arab Spring in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, where the decade of intensified regional rivalries began and two rival axes took shape.

Turkey, along with Qatar, supported political Islamist groups following the popular uprisings that overthrew Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE – concerned that Arab Spring uprisings would reach their doorsteps and suspicious of Ankara- and Doha- backed Islamists – supported the rise of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted the democratically elected Islamist Mohammed Morsi in a military coup.

Nariman El-Mofty/AP
Sedat Onal (seated third from right), a Turkish Foreign Ministry deputy, meets with Hamdi Sanad Loza, Egyptian deputy foreign minister, and their delegations, at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in Cairo, May 5, 2021.

Points of contention

This month’s reset in Turkish-Egyptian ties is based on Libya, another conflict state where the Turkey-Qatar and UAE-Saudi-Egypt axes competed. 

Both Ankara and Cairo have found they can work with Libya’s recently formed Government of National Unity, and increasingly see it as in their interest that the new billionaire businessman-led government stays in power.

Although the sides have not resolved their core ideological differences, the sticking point in the rivalry between the two axes – Islamist movements – is increasingly becoming moot.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been dismantled, jailed, and repressed in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while Islamists have increasingly lost at the polls in Tunisia, Morocco, and elsewhere.

“The Muslim Brotherhood ... did not have the impact everyone expected – they did not topple the regime in Egypt, they did not come back to power, and they did not witness a renaissance,” says Mr. Abdulla, noting that Qatar and Turkey have found diminishing returns in Islamists.

Regional powers have also backed off their weaponized media coverage, halting a polarizing us-versus-them narrative and restraining state-owned media in Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates.

Turkey, faced with Cairo’s request to extradite Egyptian opposition figures and Islamists for trial, instead muted figures residing in Turkey and stopped their activism, shutting down popular YouTube channels.

Power of the pandemic

With its economic downturns, observers say the coronavirus pandemic was a tipping point for many regional powers whose ambitious regional designs had already left them “overstretched” and “vulnerable.”

Oil prices and tourism plummeted, investments and state subsidies dried up, and economies contracted.

“One important reason for dialogue right now is the pandemic,” says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“If you are a Mohammed bin Salman, COVID-19 and public unrest due to restrictions and lockdowns become a much greater threat at home than the Houthis” in Yemen.

“Competition and rivalry have become pointless and [are] draining the energy and resources of all sides,” says Birol Baskan, a fellow at the Middle East Institute. “The pandemic made it even worse.”

U.S. as “midwife”

Regional analysts and Arab officials say the Biden administration has played a crucial role in “accelerating” this diplomatic spring, even “midwifing” the detentes.

Analysts say this push for regional dialogue and de-escalation comes as part of a desire by the Biden administration to shift its focus and energy to challenges at home, climate change, and competition with China.

Key to President Joe Biden’s approach was encouraging a change in Saudi Arabia’s behavior by suspending support for the war in Yemen and pursuing accommodation with Iran.

Other powers are taking cues from a Saudi kingdom that is suddenly pursuing diplomacy to achieve its goals and contain Iran’s influence through nonmilitary means and are following suit, analysts and officials say.  

“It is not a coincidence that almost immediately after the election of President Biden, you saw the rift [among Gulf Arab countries] get on a pathway to being healed,” Senator Murphy said. “It’s not a coincidence that after President Biden was sworn in, you saw the Iranians and the Saudis starting to talk to each other.”

Will this diplomatic spring bloom into a new era of cooperation – or even end competition? It seems too early to say.

“The one threat on the horizon to these de-escalations and understandings is the situation in Jerusalem and violence between the Israelis and Palestinians,” says Mr. Riedel.  

“If the situation in Jerusalem continues to get worse, and we see a third intifada – that could immediately polarize the region again, and Iran would be the big winner.”

For now, says Mr. Abdulla, the Emirati analyst, “everyone is in the mood to de-escalate, and we have seen it backed up by actions on the ground, too.”

“But are regional powers just buying time to compose themselves and compete again, or is this a long-term strategic shift? We are only in the first five minutes of this process; we will have to wait and see.”

At odds with West, Kremlin lashes out at indie media in Russia

Russia may not be at war with the West, but it is increasingly using a warlike sensibility in its domestic rhetoric and policy. And that’s having a real cost for civil society.

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As U.S.-Russian relations plumb new depths, opposition-minded Russian activists are getting a painful taste of an experience that was very familiar to Soviet-era dissidents: The worse relations got between the USSR and the West, the harder the Kremlin cracked down on its domestic critics.

In recent months, Russian authorities have introduced what many are calling a new paradigm of authoritarian repression. Many activists who had hitherto been officially tolerated have been arrested, and formerly acceptable civil society groups shut down.

What most of these new prosecutions have in common is an explicit effort by authorities to link internal dissent with the alleged machinations of the external foe. The list of groups deemed to be “foreign agents,” meaning actors who influence domestic politics while receiving funding from outside sources, now potentially includes almost any independent media and their employees.

Among those is the popular news outlet Meduza, which was labeled a “foreign agent,” without explanation, by Russia’s justice ministry in April.

“Our situation now is quite dire,” says Alexey Kovalev, an investigations editor with Meduza. “Before this, Russian companies saw us as a reputable news organization, with responsible content. Already most of our advertisers have fled.”

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At odds with West, Kremlin lashes out at indie media in Russia

Francesca Ebel/AP/File
Colleagues and friends of Ivan Golunov, a journalist for the independent website Meduza who was detained by police, observe a one-person protest at the Russian Internal Ministry building in Moscow on June 7, 2019. That event ended favorably for Mr. Golunov and Meduza, but the Kremlin's new restrictions on the outlet threaten its coverage in Russia.

Until last month, news outlet Meduza had been enjoying remarkable success in its coverage of Russia.

Though headquartered beyond the reach of Russian authorities in neighboring Latvia, Meduza has maintained a full staff of reporters and editors in Russia, and focused most of its tough and widely acclaimed reporting on Russian affairs. It financed itself through advertising revenue generated in Russia and fees for “sponsored content” mainly produced for Russian companies, including state corporations. Last year Meduza calculated its regular Russian readership at about 14 million.

But that all changed in April when, without explanation, the Russian Justice Ministry branded Meduza a “foreign agent.” The new official designation immediately sent advertisers running for the hills.

“Our situation now is quite dire,” says Alexey Kovalev, an investigations editor with Meduza. “Before this, Russian companies saw us as a reputable news organization, with responsible content. Already most of our advertisers have fled.”

Meduza is not alone. As U.S.-Russian relations plumb new depths, opposition-minded Russian activists are getting a painful taste of an experience that was very familiar to Soviet-era dissidents: The worse relations got between the USSR and the West, the harder the Kremlin cracked down on its domestic critics.

In recent months, Russian authorities have redrawn the boundaries of acceptable political discourse, and have introduced what many are calling a new paradigm of authoritarian repression, ending the more relaxed early decades of the Putin era. Many activists who had hitherto been officially tolerated have been arrested, and formerly acceptable civil society groups shut down. What most of these new prosecutions have in common is an explicit effort by authorities to link internal dissent with the alleged machinations of the external foe. The list of groups deemed to be “foreign agents,” meaning actors who influence domestic politics while receiving funding from outside sources, has been expanded and now potentially includes almost any independent media and their employees.

While the urge to blame nefarious foreign meddling for internal discord is hardly unique to Russian political culture, it has long been an effective tool wielded by Moscow authorities to socially isolate and demonize domestic opponents by tarring them with enemy associations. But, amid the worst slump in Russia’s relations with the West since the peak of the Cold War, it has become the Kremlin’s go-to explanation for a sweeping crackdown on domestic political opposition.

“It’s not about what Russian leaders think, it’s what they fear,” says Masha Lipman, editor of Counterpoint, a journal of Russian affairs published by George Washington University. “We are witnessing this downward spiral in relations, day by day. In the Kremlin they wonder just how much more hostile could the West become toward Russia? The deeper those animosities become, the tougher Russian authorities are on those people at home that are seen as sympathetic to the West.

“The logic becomes that if you are criticizing the Russian government, then you are acting in the interests of the West, maybe even at their direction,” she says.

Branding critics as foreign agents

The most prominent target so far is imprisoned anti-corruption champion Alexei Navalny, accused of being a tool of Western intelligence services. Many of his key supporters, and even his lawyer, have been arrested in the past couple of weeks. Mr. Navalny’s nationwide network of support groups has dissolved itself in anticipation of being labeled “extremists” under the law and forcibly shut down.

For Meduza, says Mr. Kovalev, the fact that it earned most of its revenue inside Russia, and not from any kind of foreign entities, has been turned against it by the “foreign agent” label. Now any publication on Meduza’s Russian website, or any reposting of it on social media, must be prefaced with a paragraph of large-type text that warns readers that the following content “fulfills the functions of a foreign agent” inside Russia.

Ints Kalnins/Reuters/File
Journalists work in the independent media outlet Meduza's office in Riga, Latvia, March 30, 2015. Though headquartered outside Russia, Meduza is focused squarely on Russian news and investigations, and draws much of its income from Russian advertisers.

“That ‘foreign agent’ warning is 221 characters long; it takes up almost an entire tweet,” he says. “Our Twitter feed, which had 1.3 million subscribers, has been rendered useless,” says Mr. Kovalev. “And it’s clear that this is not about the ‘foreign’ thing at all, but the ‘agent’ thing, implying that we are the puppet of some outside force. Which we are not. Meduza has never taken direction from any government, or other agency, or anyone but our own editorial board.”

Supporters of the law claim that the extension of “foreign agent” labeling to media outlets was in response to a U.S. decision to compel the Kremlin-funded, English-language TV network RT to register as a “foreign agent” three years ago. They also point to what they call anti-Russian steps taken by other governments, such as the recent closure of three allegedly “pro-Russian” TV stations in Ukraine. A recent crackdown on state-funded Russian news outlets in Latvia, where Meduza is based, is another justification often mentioned by pro-Kremlin Russian commentators.

Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, says that Russian leaders perceive a new level of hostility from the West, particularly the United States, and that means that Russia needs to take preemptive measures to protect itself.

“We have seen false charges against Russian leaders, accusing Putin of trying to poison Navalny, and then Joe Biden calling Putin a ‘killer.’ Russia has information that Western secret services were planning a coup d’etat in Belarus. We know that they are planning to interfere in the upcoming Duma [parliamentary] elections in September,” he says. “This is a whole new level of hostility against Russia. It creates a state of emergency, and it must be responded to.”

Evidence suggests that majorities in Russia accept their government’s explanations and many are prepared to believe that Kremlin opponents like Mr. Navalny are working at the behest of Western interests.

“This method of branding critics as foreign agents works,” says Ms. Lipman. “Of course it depends on age, and social group, but at the end of the day people look at things like the constant sanctions against Russia, and they agree with the claim that the West is seeking to harm us.”

Mr. Kovalev, the Meduza editor, agrees that independent journalists and civil society activists may be in some sense hostages to international tensions. “Of course we would be targeted in this geopolitical game,” he says. “That explains it, but doesn’t justify it.”

He adds, “I have never seen things so bad. More and more people are getting arrested, and maybe it’s just because they haven’t come for me yet, but I don’t feel apocalyptic. Maybe Russian civil society is strong enough to survive. ... These are old people in the Kremlin. We are younger; we can outlive them.”

The Respect Project

Bridging the conflicts that divide us

Between religious and LGBTQ rights, what does fairness look like?

The clash between religious and LGBTQ rights is one of the most acrimonious in U.S. politics. But two women’s efforts show how mutual respect can reveal common ground and human connection. Part 3 in the Monitor’s Respect Project.

Isaac Hale/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP
Brigham Young University junior David Shill sports a rainbow-colored shirt in support of Rainbow Day as he walks on campus in Provo, Utah, March 4, 2021, in support of the campus LGBTQ community.

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On one side was Casey Pick, advocate and lawyer for LGBTQ young people, determined to protect transgender youth who had long been “treated like a political football.”

On the other was Kim Colby, who had fought for religious freedom in cases before the United States Supreme Court and was seen as “always the last to concede.”

The goal was for the two women and others to explore whether mutual respect could alter the ferocity of the nation’s political battles. Was it possible to find a legislative compromise for issues that both sides see in identity-defining, existential terms?

It was the beginning of the Fairness for All movement. Partisans on both sides have rejected the group’s efforts as “an affront to existing civil rights protections” or as offering “quite minimal” protections. But at the heart of the movement is a model for democratic pluralism and a question: “What are we willing to forgo in order for the other person to be made better?”

For Ms. Pick and Ms. Colby, it forged a moment of grace – and a hug – that demonstrated the principles they were fighting for.

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Between religious and LGBTQ rights, what does fairness look like?

Casey Pick has always viewed Kim Colby with a certain amount of wary respect. 

Both are accomplished attorneys, and both are advocates for causes that cut to the heart of their deepest selves. They are on opposite sides of what has been one of the nation’s most divisive and intensely personal political debates – about sex, gender, and the civic integrity of religious belief.

Ms. Pick fights for policies that support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) young people, especially transgender youth in crisis. Over the years she’s “crossed swords” with Ms. Colby, one of the country’s leading religious freedom advocates, in face-to-face encounters, competing legal briefs, and policy clashes before legislatures.

“Kim was always one of the tougher negotiators to be in a room with,” Ms. Pick says of Ms. Colby, who’s fought for religious freedom in cases before the United States Supreme Court. “She’s somebody in the room who’s always the last to concede on their side.”

“But it’s also amazing that, for all those ways that she’s so tough and guarded, she also just gives off a hell of a maternal vibe,” Ms. Pick adds.

Neither friends nor colleagues, really, each has cautiously participated over the years in a little-known effort to try to find a different approach to the nation’s media-labeled “culture wars.” In their personal capacities, they’ve been part of a nationwide group of legal scholars, advocates, and legislators exploring whether mutual respect can alter the ferocity of the nation’s political battles.

The movement calls itself Fairness for All, and its goal is to find a legislative compromise for issues that both sides see in identity-defining, existential terms.

To do that, it roots itself in a set of civic principles rather than specific policies – principles that must necessarily precede any possible solutions to these vexing national questions. 

“How do we get to a postmodern society in which we’re not so fragmented, when, you know, we know our neighbors again, or we think of each other as neighbors, or we think of each other’s humanity first?” says Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, who has helped organize the Fairness for All movement. “Or when we think, what are we willing to forgo in order for the other person to be made better?”

Courtesy of Casey Pick
Attorney Casey Pick fights for civil liberties for LGBTQ Americans, especially trans youth in crisis.

More than self-interest

Within any adversarial system of law or democratic governance, the pursuit of perceived self-interests is often unavoidable and necessary. But it need not be the only motivator, many participants say.

“I became involved because I care about religious freedom, and I was interested in finding out whether there were people, those who want to open up the Civil Rights Act to protect sexual orientation and gender identity, who were also willing to even discuss protecting religious freedom,” says Ms. Colby. “In my experience, it’s been a fairly small set of people.”

Yet even such a small effort has meaning. At the heart of Fairness for All is a model of democratic pluralism, says Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, which has played a role in the Fairness for All movement. “It transcends the superficiality that can sometimes come from living alongside each other, because living alongside each other actually makes you angry, it gives you frustration, and maybe you feel like you can just say, OK, I’m done with you then.”

There is also a model for what success could look like. Part of the inspiration for Fairness for All remains the experiences of religious conservatives and LGBTQ people in Utah, one of the most conservative states in the U.S. After a bruising battle over same-sex marriage years ago, the sides began to talk together in earnest, expressing their mutual vulnerabilities and purposing to listen to each other, as many have described.

As a result, Utah remains the only conservative state to add new protections for LGBTQ people in its civil rights statutes. At the same time, it also bolstered its religious freedom protections, carving out spaces for certain vendors, government clerks, and others to remain true to their religious conscience.

“You don’t just say, I’m done with you,” says Ms. Hoogstra. “You’ve got to figure it out. You’re committed. You’ve made these promises to respect each other and persevere. And that doesn’t mean you just get to give up now.”

The connections made within Fairness for All have been both professional and profound.

Nearly 4 1/2 years ago, Ms. Pick says it was Ms. Colby who, as much as anyone else, provided her strength, comfort, and love during one of the most vulnerable moments of her life.

Courtesy of Kim Colby
Kim Colby has represented religious groups in cases heard by the United States Supreme Court.

“I let her hug me”

Both of them were part of a three-day retreat in December 2016 that included a group of eight legal scholars and advocates, four from each side. 

Mutual vulnerability animated each side as the group sought a way to hammer out legislation that would honor the integrity of sincerely held religious beliefs while also expanding protections for LGBTQ people.

“Many religious people, but not all of them, of course, are concerned about how they are going to be treated in the coming days,” says Ms. Colby.

She notes how the traditions of Judaism and Christianity, as well as Islam, have for more than 2,000 years maintained that marriage between a man and a woman remains a sacred institution, and a fundamental part of God’s plan.

“How will those with traditional religious beliefs live out their ability to do what they believe God requires of them, or wants them to do?” she asks.

“That is very much a part of their core identity,” she says. “And as a matter of our place in culture, we’re basically being told now that we have to assume all of the risk – that these changes will be made one way or the other, and that, you know, we just have to sit by and assume that religious freedom will be OK.”

It is difficult to trust the other side when many label religious principles as a “freedom to discriminate,” or when simply holding a traditional view of marriage can result in ridicule and social ostracization.

That is one reason Ms. Colby emerged as one of the tougher negotiators in the room as the group addressed questions about wedding vendors participating in the ritual aspects of same-sex marriage, religious adoption agencies receiving federal funds, and gaps in civil rights laws that leave many LGBTQ Americans without legal recourse against discrimination.

“The more time I spend working on these issues, the more aware I am of just how many members of our community, and especially our youth, are hurting because ... they’re still just being treated like a political football, which is hard as heck on people’s psyche,” says Ms. Pick.

She quickly emerged as Ms. Colby’s outspoken “archrival,” others at the meeting say.

But the night before the retreat began, Ms. Pick learned her grandmother had died. Having already lost her mother and father, she felt a wave of grief difficult to describe, she says. 

A few people knew what she was going through. But she didn’t want to make her loss a distraction. “I mean, you don’t walk into a room like that, with so much at stake, and – there’s no crying in baseball,” Ms. Pick says.

In one of the early sessions, she and Ms. Colby were going at it “hammers and tongs,” she says, debating an especially sensitive question: What kinds of organizations can be considered religious, and thus protected under the nation’s laws in special ways?

Ms. Pick had to leave the room at times, however, to make the numbing logistical decisions necessary after a loved one dies: changing airline tickets, arranging the funeral, and informing others. In the middle of one of their breaks, she was in the hallway, near a corner, weeping quietly on the phone.

She looked up. Ms. Colby was standing a few feet away. When their eyes met, Ms. Colby held out her arms.  

“And I let her hug me,” Ms. Pick says. “And it was just as powerful a moment as I have experienced. I was so exhausted, and I could only think it should have been my father, or somebody else, another family member to deal with all of this, but they were all gone.”

“So I was very much feeling the loss of my parents, and now one of the most important people in the world to me, my grandmother, so it was just – I will always remember that moment when she saw me as a human being and acted as,” she says, pausing. “At that moment, she was a mother to me.”

Ms. Colby says it was a meaningful moment for her, too. 

“I really liked Casey – I liked everyone in the room,” she says. “But yeah, we were disagreeing pretty strongly on religious employers. I don’t remember if I found out that her grandmother had died just then, or if I had known that the night before. But it was clear that her grandmother had been her emotional support.”

“I just was amazed that she was able to focus on the work with all of the emotions she was going through,” she says. “This is very intense and draining work, and how is she doing this? My heart just went out to her and, you know, we hugged, and I think we even prayed together.”

“And then we went back in the room, and we started disagreeing again,” Ms. Colby says.

Inspiring respect

Their shared experience made a deep impression on the other negotiators, says Ms. Hoogstra of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.

“Those willing to repair deep rifts between communities also need inspiration,” she wrote in an essay with Professor Wilson, describing the three-day retreat. “They need to believe it is possible to heal old wounds, even if against long odds.”

“You can find those places where people with the deepest of differences can live alongside each other in a democracy,” she adds in an interview. “And it’s not based on whether you agree; it’s based on a set of virtues and civic values.”

The legislation Ms. Pick and Ms. Colby helped shape at the three-day retreat is similar to what has been called the “Utah compromise.” The bill was introduced to Congress in December 2019 by GOP Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah as the Fairness for All Act. Most religious conservatives and LGBTQ advocates rejected the concept, however.

Major advocacy groups like Human Rights Campaign have called it “an affront to existing civil rights protections” – a bill with “massive loopholes and carve-outs” that make its protections substandard, a compromise that would never be tolerated if applied to other civil rights categories like race. 

Conservative religious groups including the Family Research Council decried the “unfairness of Fairness for All,” calling it a poorly drafted bill with “quite minimal” religious liberty protections that would only bring more, not less, civil litigation.

Today, Ms. Pick and Ms. Colby are on opposite sides of the Equality Act currently before Congress. The bill would amend federal civil rights laws to include explicit protections for LGBTQ people, while also curtailing certain exceptions for people with traditional religious beliefs and eliminating appeals to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The bill is a case study in the acrimony that pervades the nation’s divides. It passed the U.S. House earlier this year in a sharply partisan vote but is unlikely to pass the Senate.

Looking back on the Fairness for All project, Ms. Pick recalls the swirl of emotions that led her to write a poem about the experience. It is titled “Grace at a Greasy Spoon, or When Two Professional Christians Asked the Professional Lesbian to Pray,” and she shared parts with the Monitor. 

Even if my jaw felt rusty,
Even if my prayers are rarely spoken,
Even if I’d come armed for war,
Even as I’d hoped for peace,

In the moment it took to bow my head, I wondered,
Was I being honored? Tested? Accepted?
There was no way to know.

And though I could not close my eyes,
Could not wholly set old fears aside,
I could offer up a silent prayer for the words to come, and hope
For something true.

Books

At this reading festival, kids pick the winners and authors are rock stars

A beloved children’s literature festival, where children pick the winning authors, might not be able to meet in person this year. But for kids, authors, and librarians alike, it’s more important than ever.

Ontario Library Association
An enthusiastic reader earns her Junior Librarian credentials at the Forest of Reading Festival in Toronto in May 2019.

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In a typical year at the Forest of Reading, Canada’s largest K-12 reading festival, some 15,000 children flock to the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto to vote on – and meet – the authors they love best, in an event that turns writers into “rock stars” for three days each May.

Committees read dozens if not hundreds of books over the summer and whittle the list down to the festival nominees. After returning to school in the fall, more than 270,000 students will spend the year reading them before they vote in the spring. The event culminates in Toronto – with satellite events held throughout towns across Ontario.

This year though, for the second time under the pandemic, the festival will be virtual again. But the passions are no less. And in some ways, it is more cherished in a school year marked by sudden closures to in-person learning.

“Reading, of course, can be an escape from the present troubles, or it can comfort or can give flight to that imagination, or help children process all these difficult emotions,” says Ruth Gretsinger, a co-chair of the program. “So in these times, running the Forest of Reading festival is more important than ever.”

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At this reading festival, kids pick the winners and authors are rock stars

Wesley King, a Canadian young-adult author, was in fifth grade when he first voted in a little children’s book festival in Ontario. He cast his ballot for “Silverwing,” about the adventures of a young bat. The book hooked him on reading, and its author became something of an early idol for him.

Two decades later, Mr. King’s first book, “The Vindico,” was nominated in that same festival. And he found himself competing with “Silverwing” author Kenneth Oppel. But more important to Mr. King was the full circle that was suddenly so obvious. He was once a kid “out there,” he says, rooting for the author he now shared the stage with (and ended up beating).

For Ontario teacher-librarian Ruth Gretsinger, who has mentored thousands of students in this reading program, it was the clearest proof of why a children’s literary festival is so important. “It showed something has come of it somewhere along the line,” she says. “It may take years down the road, but it does bear fruit.”

Welcome to Forest of Reading, Canada’s largest K-12 reading festival, where the kids vote on the authors they love best, and both come together in an event that turns writers into “rock stars” for three days each May.

In a typical year, the Ontario Library Association event draws some 15,000 children to the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. Six thousand of them might fill an auditorium; 600 will wait in line to get their favorite book signed.

Ontario Library Association
Author and illustrator Jacques Goldstyn meets his young fans and shows them some quick tips on drawing at the Forest of Reading Festival in Toronto in May 2019.

In a second year under pandemic, the May 18-20 event will be virtual again. But the passions are no less. And in some ways, it is more cherished in a school year marked by sudden closures to in-person learning and where almost no extracurricular activities could be held.

“Reading is one of those things that a lot of people turned to in this pandemic,” says Ms. Gretsinger, who teaches in Niagara and is a co-chair of the program. “Reading, of course, can be an escape from the present troubles, or it can comfort or can give flight to that imagination, or help children process all these difficult emotions. So in these times, running the Forest of Reading festival is more important than ever.”

Forest of Reading has always been a passion project. The committees, which consist of about 150 volunteers from library and school sectors, will read dozens if not hundreds of books over the summer and whittle the list down to the nominees. “It’s an exorbitant amount of reading,” says Meredith Tutching, the director of the reading program.

Kids return to school in the fall clamoring for their age group’s lists, and then more than 270,000 students will spend the year reading, either in English or in French, before they vote in the spring. The event culminates in Toronto, with satellite events held throughout towns across Ontario.

Mr. King, who might be better known in the U.S. for The Wizenard Series, which he wrote with the late Kobe Bryant, says the enthusiasm from the children is something to behold. “You walk into some hockey arena or a big auditorium and then everyone’s just standing up and cheering and screaming at once,” he says. “And then when you go to sign books afterwards, you’ll have 500 or 600 kids in line. You don’t see 500 to 600 people in line at a regular bookstore. I was totally blown away the first year.”

Isabelle Hobbs, the other co-chair and a teacher-librarian in the Durham region, helped shape the program from its very beginning. She particularly recalls those students who had never opened a book before participating in the program, but then find themselves so impassioned at the festival that they are visibly angered when “their book” doesn’t win.

Ontario Library Association
Readers search through books to purchase their favorite titles at the Forest of Reading Festival in Toronto in May 2019.

It’s the lifelong reading habit that matters most to her, forged in students like Thomas Nedanis, whom she recalls as one of her more enthusiastic participants. “I signed up for every reading club she had,” he says today, now in his junior year. His high school doesn’t participate in the program, but he still looks at the nominee list and reads the books he’s interested in. “I just find that I lose myself in a book.”

A major driver of the festival is getting Canadian kids to read Canadian authors, a fact that previously couldn’t be taken for granted. “Growing up I was immersed in American authors because that’s usually what you saw,” says Ms. Hobbs. “For me it was all about Nancy Drew.”

For readers of nominated author Tanaz Bhathena, whose new fantasy “Hunted by the Sky” is set in medieval India, they get to identify with female protagonists. “They love seeing themselves represented, especially young Canadian readers who are of Indian descent,” says Ms. Bhathena. “These kids love the fact that they can see themselves being heroes instead of just side characters or villains.”

Mr. King’s new book, “Sara and the Search for Normal,” is nominated this year, his sixth book to be selected. The plot revolves around a middle schooler’s struggles with mental health – a theme that kids across Canada can identify with this year, as everyone is seeking out “normal.”

Forest of Reading won’t, of course, be exactly the same under the pandemic. “But I think it’s a big deal that they still have something that they’ve had in other years,” says Ms. Hobbs, of the program going forward despite all of the limitations. “I’m almost tearing as I say this, holy cow. But it’s some little sense of normal for them.”

Film

Only so-so at your chosen path? ‘The Disciple’ offers a relatable journey.

The pursuit of a career in performance can lead to success – or mediocrity. In the film “The Disciple,” a devotee of Hindustani classical music comes to terms with his abilities in a way that’s relatable to us all.

NETFLIX
Aditya Modak plays an aspiring Hindustani classical musician in “The Disciple.”
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Only so-so at your chosen path? ‘The Disciple’ offers a relatable journey.

Does a movie about a devoted modern-day practitioner of Hindustani classical music sound overly esoteric? “The Disciple,” written and directed by Chaitanya Tamhane, is anything but. What it’s really about is the spiritual balm that great art can provide.

Sharad (Aditya Modak) is a 24-year-old vocalist in the ancient tradition who studies and performs with his longtime musical guru, or Guruji (Arun Dravid). Like his father before him in this rarefied realm, he craves renown for his artistry. But Sharad’s father (Kiran Yadnyopavit) died without achieving recognition and, although his ambitions are high, Sharad seems bound for the same path. Hearing him perform in the musical competitions he never wins, it’s clear he has talent, not greatness.

But this is not intended as a movie about what a genius must endure on the path to success. Sharad’s story is much more relatable than that. By the end of the film, he must come to terms with the fact that he feels deeply for an art form he can never come close to mastering. This realization is filled with rue, and yet there is a measure of wisdom in his uneasy acceptance of its verdict.

A fair share of heartbreak precedes this revelation. Sharad lives an almost ascetic existence, unhappily sharing a home in Mumbai, India, with his worrying grandmother (Neela Khedkar) and working a meager day job reissuing tapes of old and neglected Hindustan musicians. He has no real friends, no girlfriends, no hobbies. Whatever physical pleasure he allows himself is only briefly glimpsed. At night, he drives around the city on his motorbike listening on his earphones to the secretly taped lectures of the late, legendary Maai (voiced by Sumitra Bhave), a singer whose fabled performances were never recorded and who taught both Guruji and his father. “Learn to be lonely and hungry,” she says.

Sharad imagines himself her spiritual heir but no matter how cloistered he aspires to be, the workaday world he inhabits doesn’t allow for that. It’s a world where East-meets-West commercialization reigns. We see him watch an “American Idol”-like TV show where a shy young Mumbai girl, singing in the traditional style, is the unexpected winner. Later on he witnesses, with quiet disgust, TV clips of her rise to Bollywood-style fame. Sharad’s disgust is almost too pure, and writer-director Tamhane, although he may share some of Sharad’s antipathy, recognizes this. As fierce as his passion for traditional music is, there is also something limiting and punitive about Sharad’s disdain for any culture he deems lesser – in other words, for just about everything.

Sharad knows that classical Hindustani music, with its mellifluous, dissonant tonal shifts and improvisations, has never been a popular art form in India. Certainly not in modern times. He is standing up for an ancient art that his generation is untouched by.  

When the film jumps ahead some years, we see Sharad caring for his ailing Guruji and making his living teaching traditional music to high schoolers. In a particularly piercing sequence, one of his students, accompanied by his mother, asks Sharad’s permission to join a Western-classical fusion band. He quickly acquiesces but then adds, if this happens, to not come back. Elsewhere, during an arranged get-together, a cynical music critic (wonderfully played by Prasad Vanarse) casually punctures the myths of Sharad’s idols. Sharad throws a drink in his face. Humbled by circumstance, he is still enraptured by his illusions.

By the end, we can see that Sharad has made a kind of peace with his station in life. He’s married, with a young daughter, and seeing them together and happy is a kind of gift. Some things, the movie seems to be saying, are even more important than art. In the film’s closing shot, Sharad and his family are traveling by train as a young busker, singing traditional songs, moves through the compartment. It’s the perfect finale to all that has come before.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “The Disciple,” available on Netflix, is in the Marathi language with English subtitles. It’s rated TV-MA, for mature audiences.

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Venezuela’s ruler taps a moral force

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Dictatorships are not supposed to do this: On May 4, the autocratic regime of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro appointed two independent civic activists to a five-member government body that runs elections. The United States and others jumped on the small concession by Mr. Maduro as a possible first step toward a return of democracy. Yet the move may have a deeper meaning, one seen lately in many countries where autocrats have failed to respond well to the pandemic.

Venezuela has a rising number of volunteers in independent civic groups trying to end the country’s political and humanitarian crisis. In fact, the two appointees were nominated by the Civic Forum, a nongovernmental coalition. As his legitimacy has faded, Mr. Maduro could be trying to adorn his government with trusted figures from grassroots organizations, filling a void in moral leadership.

Democracies rely on selfless individuals who form associations that uplift society. Even under authoritarian regimes, people find ways to express this natural freedom of association. At times, dictators inclined to suppress such activity may tap into it. Their own failings help make the civic good of civil society stand out.

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Venezuela’s ruler taps a moral force

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Roberto Picon, who was imprisoned for his pro-democracy activism, stands at the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, May 4, after being appointed to the National Electoral Council.

Dictatorships are not supposed to do this: On May 4, the autocratic regime of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro appointed two independent civic activists to a five-member government body that runs elections. One appointee, Roberto Picón, had even spent six months in prison for trying to save what little democracy remains in a country short on freedoms and long on repression by fear.

The United States and others jumped on the small concession by Mr. Maduro as a possible first step toward a return of democracy. A few days later, the leading opposition figure, Juan Guaidó, dropped his stance that Mr. Maduro must leave office before elections are held.

Yet the move may have a deeper meaning, one seen lately in many countries where autocrats have failed to respond well to the pandemic.

Venezuela has a rising number of volunteers in independent civic groups trying to end the country’s political and humanitarian crisis. In fact, the two appointees were nominated by the Civic Forum, a nongovernmental coalition of trade unions, religious groups, academics, and others. As his legitimacy has faded, Mr. Maduro could be trying to adorn his government with trusted figures from grassroots organizations, filling a void in moral leadership.

“Venezuelan civil society is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force,” states a May 6 report by the International Crisis Group. In particular, the report says, the Civic Forum has been active in dealing with COVID-19, seeking economic reforms, and relieving widespread suffering.

Under the Maduro regime, Venezuela’s economy has collapsed. It is now Latin America’s worst humanitarian emergency. In April, the government finally agreed to allow the World Food Program into the country and feed 1.5 million children. Venezuela ranks fourth in the world in terms of food insecurity.

Democracies rely on the small platoons of selfless individuals who form independent associations that uplift society, whether to ensure rule of law or to feed hungry people. Even under authoritarian regimes, people find ways to express this natural freedom of association. At times, dictators inclined to suppress such activity may tap into it. Their own failings help make the civic good of civil society stand out.

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.

Constancy during change

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If we’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious about changing circumstances, considering the unchanging nature of God’s goodness and care for all is a healing place to start.

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Constancy during change

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Sometimes we long to “change it up” – a change of pace, scenery, routine, or perspective. That’s normal. Then there are those not-so-easy changes that at first glance we may not relish at all, such as a sudden relationship breakup or some unexpected shift in work or activity.

It has been said that the only constant is change. But I’ve actually found it more useful to ponder what is unchanging, even as circumstances shift: God’s unvarying and infinite care for us as His children.

A Bible verse from the Evangelical Heritage Version highlights this: “All of us who reflect the Lord’s glory with an unveiled face are being transformed into his own image, from one degree of glory to another. This too is from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (II Corinthians 3:18). For me, this promise implies the unstoppable outpouring of the infinite glory of Spirit, God, regardless of the changes happening on the human scene. This outpouring from God is the pure goodness of His own spiritual qualities and ideas – the spiritual reality, which can be experienced now, by everyone.

Mary Baker Eddy – who discovered Christian Science, wrote its textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” and established the Church of Christ, Scientist – faced many challenging changes throughout her life. But her deep love for and ever-growing understanding of Spirit’s unalterable love for all of us as God’s wholly good and spiritual offspring brought healing, inspiration, and strength, as well as clarity about the way to go forward despite the constantly changing circumstances of her own life.

Can we really feel God’s graciousness and steadfastness evidenced as going “from one degree of glory to another,” even when events seem unstable and unsteady? Truly we can.

There was a time many years ago when job titles and responsibilities at the organization where I was working took a completely different direction overnight. I really felt at sea.

So this was a time for prayer, which had always served me well and brought answers over the years. I really desired to be blessed, and to bless others, through this situation, even though at that moment the blessing sure wasn’t in sight.

I prayed to more consistently treasure and live what God created me to be: the kind and compassionate expression of divine joy. I also saw that I needed to strive more diligently to hear and obey God’s guidance with all my heart. I prayed for the stillness to feel God’s love that would never change one iota, no matter what was going on around me.

Through prayer, it became clearer to me that as the spiritual image of God, we can’t help but move in accord with Spirit. This is the one and only legitimate reality, and this spiritual fact makes it natural to yield to God’s caring direction. I felt more anchored in God’s – divine Love’s – permanent peace for all, even in the currents of human change.

Soon this enabled me to willingly accept a request from the organization to travel to another state to fulfill a special need for about six months. I was deeply grateful not only for the new perspectives that this opportunity provided, but also for the deeper understanding I gained of God’s immutable, pure goodness that never changes, regardless of circumstances. That feeling of peace remained even after that particular work ended, which enabled me to take new steps forward.

Right where things seem to be uncertain and vacillating, we can pray to feel God’s ceaseless, tender care, and experience more and more what it means to go “from one degree of glory to another.”

Viewfinder

Defying gravity

Eric Gay/AP
A cyclist rides through a skateboard park in Austin, Texas, on May 12, 2021.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

That’s a wrap for today. Be sure to join us tomorrow when we take a look at women’s pro soccer in England. And if you haven’t signed up yet, please join us for an online event next Tuesday, May 18: “A master class in building respect across deep divides.” This Respect Project event features two Monitor writers and is hosted by Amelia Newcomb, our managing editor.

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