2021
June
03
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Monitor Daily Podcast

June 03, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

How to break the culture wars

Thirty years ago, author James Davison Hunter looked over American politics with foreboding. In his book “Culture Wars,” he lamented how politics was being taken over by cultural issues on which compromise was impossible. Back then, it was mostly just abortion. Today, he told Politico in a recent interview, it’s so much more, too: “Part of our problem is that we have politicized everything.”

The “whole point of civil society,” Professor Hunter said, is to provide the mediation that prevents violence. The Constitution provides the framework, but it depends on citizens to do the work. But what happens when they don’t – when they instead use politics as a tool to attempt to not only defeat their opponents but also impose their will on them? “Part of what’s troubling is that I’m beginning to see signs of the justification for violence on both sides,” he said.

Much has been said about the threats to American democracy, but for Professor Hunter, this expansion of the culture wars is one of the deepest drivers. By his reckoning, the only peaceful way out is to find a way to break their hold. “Talk through the conflicts,” he said. “And whatever you do, don’t just simply impose your view on anyone else. You have to talk them through.”

“What is going to underwrite liberal democracy in the 21st century?” he asked. That is the question America must find a fresh answer to, together.

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A deeper look

Climate versus jobs? Not in this heartland state.

Progress within the clean energy sector may be pushing the debate about climate change toward irrelevance. Across the Midwest – from wind farms to R&D labs – farmers are finding climate action is good business. 

Mark
Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Farmers Andrew Bowman (right) and brother-in-law Matt Hulsizer, partners in an 1,800-acre soybean and corn farm, cringe at cries of climate action. But they are proponents of a profitable wind energy business in Illinois' Knox County. Mr. Bowman helped negotiate a contract with Orion Energy for a 300-megawatt wind farm that is bringing in extra money for farmers and tax revenues for roads and schools in the county.

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For five generations, Andrew Bowman’s family has worked the land here farming soybeans and corn.

Now he hopes to have a new resource to harvest soon: wind.

A new clean energy project – a 100-turbine wind farm here in Illinois’ Knox County – would generate tax revenue for the local school, fire department, and library, and offer an income stream to farmers who lease land to the project.

For Mr. Bowman and many of his farming colleagues, tending soil and harvesting wind for clean energy – initiatives that climate experts say reduce carbon emissions – is not about fighting climate change but simply about taking the best steps economically.

This, say scholars, is a tremendous shift.

For years, the narrative of climate action was one of trade-offs and costs – the environment and economy at odds. But from Midwest cornfields to R&D labs, there’s evidence climate action is merging with economic progress, pushing the debate about climate change toward irrelevance while creating new opportunities and connections for those across the ideological spectrum.

“What we’re seeing today,” says Bob Keefe, executive director of E2, a business group focused on environmental action, “is that there’s never been more clarity about the economic costs of climate change, or the economic potential of climate action.”

Climate versus jobs? Not in this heartland state.

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For five generations, Andrew Bowman’s family has worked the land in Oneida, population 700-ish – a flat and fertile swath of Illinois his father always said was good for growing crops and kids. Today, he farms soybeans and corn, as well as specialty popcorn, which he sells under the label Pilot Knob Comforts.

Mr. Bowman hopes to have a new resource to harvest soon, as well: wind.

This past year, Mr. Bowman took a lead representing local landowners in negotiating with Orion Renewable Energy Group, one of the many companies installing wind farms across Illinois, to build a new 100-turbine project in his part of Knox County. Clean energy would not only help keep the local school open and support the fire department and library, he says, but would also offer a new income stream to farmers who agree to lease some of their land for the project – some $30 million over 25 years, according to the proposal.

“It’s going to be life-changing for people who sign up,” Mr. Bowman says.

For Mr. Bowman, embracing wind power is part of stewarding the land for the next generation – and one of many steps he and his brother-in-law, Matt Hulsizer, have taken to ensure resiliency on their 1,800 acres. They are acutely focused on soil health, low tillage, and reducing fuel consumption; they have tried organic practices and are investigating cover crops to retain nutrients and prevent erosion.

But none of this is because they are trying to fight climate change.

They care deeply about the environment, they say; after all, they live and work in it. But they cringe at the cries for climate action, and they bristle when city people suggest their outdoor, low-consumption life is problematic. (“The difference between growing up on dirt and growing up on asphalt,” Mr. Hulsizer says.) If human-made climate change is happening, they say – something they find dubious – they doubt there’s much anyone can do to stop it.

For them, tending soil and harvesting wind for clean energy – two initiatives climate scholars say are crucial for reducing carbon emissions – is simply about taking the best steps economically.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Five generations of Andrew Bowman's family have farmed land in Oneida, Illinois. Mr. Bowman, here on a newly planted cornfield in May 2021, took a lead role in negotiating with Orion Renewable Energy Group for the installation of a 100-turbine wind farm that is expected to bring a new $30 million revenue stream over 25 years for Knox County farmers.

And that, scholars point out, is a tremendous shift.

For years, the dominant narrative of climate action was one of trade-offs and costs – that saving the world as we know it meant taking hard steps to reduce carbon emissions, and likely sacrificing jobs and lifestyle in the process.

Over the past months, the Biden administration has worked to change this storyline, explicitly connecting “climate” with “good-paying union jobs,” and tying climate action to massive government investment and redevelopment. But travel across Illinois – a state that reflects the country’s political profile, with solidly red rural areas and a few blue cities – and one sees something more. Economic shifts, whether around clean energy or electric vehicles, regenerative agriculture or green construction, may be starting to defuse much of the debate over climate change.

Instead, climate action has merged with economic progress – particularly when it comes to clean energy. And although climate activists say this awakening won’t by itself put the nation on track to meet the Paris Agreement goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, some suggest it is making that path less arduous, while creating new opportunities and connections for those across the ideological spectrum.

“There’s an argument that’s been around for a long time, that somehow the economy and the environment are at odds and we can’t do two things at once,” says Bob Keefe, executive director of E2, an organization of business groups focused on environmental action. “What we’re seeing today is that there’s never been more clarity about the economic costs of climate change, or the economic potential of climate action.”

Harvesting clean energy is climate action 

The narrative of “climate versus jobs,” though, is an enduring one.

For decades, environmental protection has been presented in terms of extra costs such as regulations on businesses, requirements for companies, and restrictions on activities. While this wasn’t always divisive – the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency were both highly bipartisan measures, for instance – it has increasingly become a dividing line between big-government Democrats and anti-regulation Republicans.

Where the left has seen necessary checks on industry for the preservation of the natural world, and the potential for a clean environment to lead to new economic prosperity, the right has seen challenges to businesses, job losses, and economic hardship. Both sides have studies that support their views.

Climate action has followed a similar pattern.

Although a bipartisan issue as recently as the 1980s (George H.W. Bush campaigned for president on climate action and criticized Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis for supporting coal), climate change has evolved into one of the country’s most politically divisive issues. For years, Democrats have reported caring about climate change far more than Republicans – and have also been more willing to sacrifice economically to prevent what they believe is a looming environmental catastrophe.

Until recently, few on either side of the aisle argued that addressing climate change would be a win-win for jobs and the environment.

But that, says an increasingly bipartisan collection of advocates, is exactly what it is.

“We’ve seen that constant conversation about jobs versus climate action,” says Catrina Rorke, vice president of policy for the Climate Leadership Council, a centrist bipartisan group that promotes policies to price carbon. “We think it’s woefully incorrect. We think aggressive climate action can actually unlock a lot of economic activity.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
A wind turbine blade awaits repairs in early May 2021 at Invengery’s Grand Ridge Energy Center. The power generation facility in Illinois' LaSalle County combines wind, solar, and battery storage to produce enough energy to power more than 54,000 homes.

In large part, says Stephen Cohen, former director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, this is because a climate action economy is simply a modern economy – one that is moving away from a stagnating World War II-era industrial approach and into a newly automated, technologically innovative, and cleaner system.

“It’s 100 years later and it’s time to modernize,” he says. “We need to do these things for climate change reasons, but also the modern economy requires modernization. ... Most of the farsighted businesspeople – they know all of this. It’s how they think about the world.”

This isn’t just about fossil fuels versus clean energy, he and others say. From the auto industry’s shift to electric vehicles, with all of the connected grid and battery production, to the construction industry’s work retrofitting old buildings, to wind and solar energy jobs, the impact of climate-connected development is broad. It is also spurring a new wave of innovation and entrepreneurship, scholars say.

None of this means the end to the underlying political tension surrounding climate action: wariness on the right that government efforts to stabilize global temperatures will erode economic freedom, and concern among progressives that a focus on market-based solutions will distract from needed changes in consumption patterns and lifestyle.

Nor does this new economy benefit everyone. In any industrial shift, Dr. Cohen points out, some skills and jobs become obsolete. And when it comes to a climate-connected economy, those hardships are concentrated in particular communities, such as in West Virginia and Wyoming, that were built around fossil fuel extraction. In other words, it’s easy to focus on the story of a coal town dying because of a shift in the energy sector. The hardship is concentrated. It’s harder to tell a story when the benefits are diffuse, and everywhere.

“The losers are more specific and more easily identified – the winners might not exist yet,” says Wolfram Schlenker, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute.

Still, Americans increasingly see a price to pay if rising temperatures go unchecked. The number of Americans who believe global warming will harm people in the United States a great or moderate amount grew from 51% in 2014 to 61% last year, according to polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Here in Illinois and elsewhere, most workers have jobs that aren’t directly focused on climate change. But “green” growth, from the booming renewables market to energy-efficient construction projects, is everywhere. 

As a trip across the state shows, the positive economic story of industry that could be categorized as climate-related – even if those involved wouldn’t categorize it as such – is getting easier to observe.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Wind turbines are now as common on the horizon as grain bins in Illinois' LaSalle County.

Can a fungi protein patty beat the chicken nugget?

In a warehouse in the old Union Stockyards complex on the South Side of Chicago, the historic center of America’s meat production, lab-coated technicians last month harvested their first batch of Fy, a fungi protein grown from a small sample of microorganisms found in an acidic pool in Yellowstone National Park.

This tiny protein has unique properties that, with a bit of food science added in, can mimic the shape and texture of a variety of meat and dairy products, says Thomas Jonas, chief executive officer of Nature’s Fynd.

And his company has plans to do just that – in a big way.

Fy, Mr. Jonas says, could become the “most competitive protein in the world.” It is grown without sunlight, soil or rain; it ferments with simple sugars and other natural inputs, not too different from growing a sourdough yeast. It uses a fraction of the greenhouse gasses needed to create a chicken nugget, burger or yogurt. Nature Fynd’s first products, to be released later this year, will be a meatless patty and dairy-free cream cheese. Pre-orders quickly sold out.

For Mr. Jonas, Nature’s Fynd is all about climate action. Agriculture, he points out, is considered one of the top producers of greenhouse gases; the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that meat and dairy production itself accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions. Creating an easy alternative to meat, one that both tastes good and is accessible to people throughout the world, could make a huge impact for environmental sustainability, he says.

“The reality is that for our generation there’s no bigger challenge than climate change,” Mr. Jonas says. “It will touch every single facet of every single part of our lives. ... We need to be part of a system where habits on a fundamental level are changed. That’s not to say you’re a bad person if you eat meat. There’s no villain here. The challenge here is about offering solutions that make the switch easy.”

Nature’s Fynd now employs 100 people between its Chicago manufacturing and production center and a research lab in Bozeman, Montana. Bill Gates’ climate venture capital group, Breakthrough Energy, has also invested heavily in the company – last year, it and Generation Investment Management LLP, a dedicated sustainable investment firm, mobilized $80 million of new funding.

That sort of capital influx is crucial for the type of innovation and development that not only helps fight climate change, but also spreads economic gain across a community, advocates say. This month, the Biden administration has made new commitments to up government research and development funding, as well as to smooth the way for new private investment. Both, advocates say, are vital.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Winthrop Phippen, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Western Illinois University, runs a pennycress – aka stinkweed – breeding program. Surrounded here in a field of the plant, he is working to turn it into a commercially viable cover crop that can be processed into jet fuel.

Across the state, Western Illinois University agriculture professor Winthrop Phippen knows all about the importance of investment. For more than a decade, he has run a breeding program in Macomb, Illinois, focusing on pennycress, a plant with unique potential not only as a cover crop for farmers, but also as a source of sustainable jet fuel. In 2019, he won a $10 million federal grant to bolster his work.

The common name for pennycress is stinkweed, a moniker that both presents a bit of a public relations issue and belies some of the plant’s important qualities. Pennycress is, indeed, a common weed in the Midwest – and one that neither deer nor rabbits eat. But as a quick-growing plant, happy in this rich soil, pennycress not only attracts pollinators but also could be planted and harvested in between the corn and soybean rotation.

“Pennycress is really unique, in that it is one of the few oilseeds that have a really short growing season,” Dr. Phippen says.

Rather than the expanse of dirt that blankets Illinois in early spring, he says, fields of pennycress could be bringing in new income to farmers and supporting the effort to decarbonize the aviation industry. It would also help the soil sequester carbon, keeping it from entering the atmosphere – something Mark Rhea, owner of Agricultural Resource Management Inc., a company that helps manage farmland in the region, found particularly interesting.

Mr. Rhea was talking to Dr. Phippen about the possibilities of pennycress recently at the university’s outdoor breeding lab – 80-foot rows of waving, spring-green pennycress.

A for-profit company called CoverCress has partnered with Dr. Phippen and others to create a version of the plant with a seed husk more appealing to animals, to hopefully give farmers even more incentive to plant it. But just the carbon sequestration potential itself, Mr. Rhea says, is increasingly financially appealing to his clients. For years, he says, the carbon credit market has offered farmers only a few dollars an acre. Now, with the for-profit sector focusing on net-zero promises – pledges to reduce or offset its carbon emissions by the middle of the century – many expect that payment to go up to between $20 and $50 an acre.

“That starts to entice people,” he says. “Soil health – it’s becoming more of a catchword. In the past year or two, there are a lot more companies offering carbon credits if you’re doing certain practices.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Mark Rhea, a farm management consultant, visited the Western Illinois University’s pennycress research facility in Macomb, Illinois, in early May 2021. He anticipates that the payments for carbon sequestration for farmers planting the crop could rise from just a few dollars an acre today to between $20 and $50 an acre by midcentury.

“Peace of mind” on the wind

This effort to reduce – or offset – carbon emissions has been fueling businesses across Illinois. One of the country’s 13 carbon capture plants is in Decatur, toward the south center of the state. An hour north, in the city of Normal, electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian has retrofitted an old Mitsubishi plant to produce its new electric adventure trucks. The company, which expects to employ 2,700 people at its plant by next year, sold out of the first version of its pickups within a week of allowing preorders. A report by the trade group Advanced Energy Economy earlier this year said that Illinois was poised to nearly double the number of electric transportation jobs by 2024, from an estimated 5,200 to more than 9,000.

And there is wind.

Drive across central Illinois and one can see how this is the fastest-growing wind energy state in the Midwest. Wind farms, with turbines towering over cornfields, have become big business here. Companies such as Orion Energy, which worked with Mr. Bowman, the Knox County farmer, have invested $13 billion in the state, according to Power Up Illinois, an advocacy group for clean energy. Wind and solar property taxes totaled $41.4 million in 2019 and now support 13,400 jobs in the state, the group says.

These companies also pay $41.8 million in annual lease payments to farmers.

“They’re a blessing, they really are,” says David Senn, a farmer in Tazewell County, southeast of Peoria, who now grows his crops around five turbines. “I can’t say enough about what the windmills are doing.”

Mr. Senn says that when the wind farm in his area was first proposed, some residents pushed back against it. But those criticisms have stopped, he says, now that people have seen not only the financial benefit to farmers, but also the tax revenue for roads and schools.

Indeed, northeast of Peoria in the city of Wenona, with a population of about 1,000, construction workers are starting a full, energy-efficient renovation of the middle school. Kari Rockwell, superintendent of the Fieldcrest Community School District, says the work was only possible because of new wind farm projects that are slated to add nearly $2 million to her budget in their first year.

“Our school district has decades’ worth of work that is very, very necessary on our buildings,” she says. “What we’ve seen is that the influx of money from wind farms gives local communities peace of mind in funding these projects.”

Indeed, perhaps more than in any other industry, progress within the clean energy sector may be pushing the debate about climate change toward irrelevance.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
The Fieldcrest Middle School in Wenona, Illinois, was under renovation in early May 2021, with funding thanks to projected income from a new wind project in the district. Plans call for it to be an energy-efficient, LEED-certified building.

Tyler Duvelius, spokesman for the Conservative Energy Network advocacy group, says this is because more people simply see the economic opportunity in clean energy – as well as the possibility for U.S. energy independence. And clean energy is a booming employment opportunity, he says.

“There are 3.3. million clean energy jobs in America right now,” Mr. Duvelius says. “These jobs pay 25% more than the national median. One in 5 are in construction. There are plenty more in the clean energy supply chain. We’re looking at traditional, American jobs.”

But it’s not only jobs.

As Ken Springer, the economic development coordinator for Knox County, points out, many rural counties do not have the labor force to attract other industries. But because solar and wind farms do not need much labor once they are built, they can still locate in these areas, and still help the economy through lease payments and property taxes.

And according to a recent Brookings Institution report, most of the counties likely to benefit from clean energy lean Republican.

“Eighty percent plus of all clean energy projects are built in red, Republican districts,” says Jeff Danielson, central region director for the American Clean Power lobbying group. “That would not happen if they were not aware of and understood the economic value of those projects in their districts. ... So, as in all politics these days, you can find division. But scratch the surface a little deeper in clean energy and there is broad bipartisan support. Not everybody has the same reasons, and that’s important to acknowledge, but there is bipartisan support for clean energy.”

This is what Mr. Springer found during the effort to lure Orion Energy’s proposed wind farm – the one that Mr. Bowman, the farmer, helped negotiate.

Two years earlier, in 2018, Knox County had split over a proposed solar project.

“We had a legit protest,” Mr. Springer recalls.

So many people showed up to the zoning board meeting that they couldn’t fit in the room. People were holding signs that read, “no green energy in Knox County.”

But last year, Knox County commissioners voted 14-1 to approve Orion Energy’s proposed wind farm. Part of that, Mr. Springer says, is because of the work the company did to answer questions; part of it was that residents could see how wind energy has helped neighboring communities.

Mr. Bowman, for instance, is eager for his children’s school to get a desperately needed infusion of cash. Although the teachers and community there are wonderful, he says, the facilities are so bad right now that he worries about retaining staff.

“The wind turbines couldn’t come at a better time,” he says.

Patterns

Tracing global connections

Biden looks to foreign allies for a Russia policy with teeth

At two meetings with U.S. allies this month, President Biden will try to thrash out a common policy on Russia, before his summit with Vladimir Putin in Geneva. It won’t be easy.

Mark

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President Joe Biden will be attending a string of international summits this month, and at all of them he will have one overriding priority: to agree with U.S. allies on a new Russia strategy, one that encompasses diplomatic engagement and real accountability for President Vladimir Putin’s human rights violations and aggression abroad.

It won’t be easy. A succession of U.S. administrations has tried and failed, and Mr. Putin is only growing more authoritarian and combative. Mr. Biden is ready to be frank with the Russian president when they meet in Geneva June 16, but his problem is how to give his message teeth.

For that, he will likely need help from his allies, who he will be meeting in two forums – NATO and the G-7, the group of economically advanced nations – before his summit with Mr. Putin.

So far, international economic and diplomatic sanctions have not deterred the Kremlin from invading neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, nor from locking up opposition leaders such as Alexei Navalny.

President Biden may be wondering whether the time has not come to start freezing or confiscating the overseas assets of Mr. Putin himself and those of his family and friends. And that will take close cooperation with Washington’s friends.

Biden looks to foreign allies for a Russia policy with teeth

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Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to U.S. President Joe Biden as he attends a virtual global climate summit via a video link in Moscow, April 22, 2021.

For President Joe Biden, it’s suddenly summit season. Three in the next two weeks, with one overriding aim: a new Russia strategy encompassing both diplomatic engagement and real accountability for President Vladimir Putin’s human rights violations at home and aggression abroad.

Sounds difficult? It is. Successive U.S. administrations have failed to achieve it – ever since George W. Bush emerged from a 2001 summit saying he’d got a sense of Mr. Putin’s “soul” and predicting “very constructive” ties with Moscow.

Since then, Mr. Putin has become more authoritarian and internationally combative. That only makes President Biden’s challenge even more daunting.

That’s especially true when it comes to making Mr. Putin pay a price for his actions. Economic and diplomatic sanctions – the traditional U.S. fallback option – seem to have had little impact on Mr. Putin’s policies. New tools, coordinated and consistently applied with allies, could well be needed.

President Biden will make his move toward diplomatic engagement at a June 16 summit with Mr. Putin in the Swiss city of Geneva. He’s already facing criticism from Republican Party politicians, and some Russian opposition figures, for agreeing to the meeting.

Why “reward” the Russian leader, he’s being asked, who has jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, after trying to poison him? Or when Russia, having annexed Crimea from neighboring Ukraine, has gathered thousands of troops on its border? Or when the Kremlin has backed its ally, Belarus, in last month’s hijacking of a civilian jet to arrest opposition figures?

And why meet amid escalating Russian cyberattacks on America and its European allies?

The Biden administration sees the summit differently, not as a reward but a step toward restoring “predictability and stability” to the U.S. relationship with Moscow, in the words of White House press secretary Jen Psaki. That, Mr. Biden feels, means cooperating, if possible, on matters of mutual interest: arms control, climate change, the pandemic, even perhaps trouble spots like the Middle East. With his main foreign-policy emphasis on China, he’d like to avoid a wholly adversarial relationship with the Kremlin.

Still, U.S. officials say that when he sits down with his Russian counterpart he will not engage in happy talk. It will be straight talk: frankly critical of Russia’s human rights record, its cyber-aggression, and on Ukraine and Belarus.

Yet the main difficulty he will face is not what to say to Mr. Putin. It will be how to give his message teeth. And that will mean finding tools to curb Russian actions more effectively than in the past – and, critically, getting support for this from U.S. allies.

That’s where the other two summits, in the run-up to Geneva, come in.

The first convenes next week, hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on England’s southwest coast, bringing together leaders of the G-7 group of economically advanced countries.

Then Mr. Biden will travel to Belgium for a June 14 summit of the transatlantic defense alliance, NATO.

NATO is key to his strategy. With its recent deployments on its eastern flank and a major military preparedness exercise this month, the alliance is signaling its readiness to fend off any Russian threat to its European members, including the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, or to onetime Soviet satellites such as Poland and Hungary.

Though the NATO summit will address a range of security matters, the agenda highlights two issues sure to figure in the Biden-Putin talks a few days later: “Russia’s aggressive actions” and “cyberattacks.”

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian sailors salute as they stand guard at the Northern Fleet's flagship, the Pyotr Veilikiy (Peter the Great) missile cruiser, at its Arctic base of Severomorsk, Russia, on May 13, 2021. Adm. Alexander Moiseyev, commander of Russia's Northern Fleet, described the increased military activities by NATO near the country's borders as a threat to regional security.

Yet ironically, it could be the G-7 meeting that proves most important.

G-7 meetings traditionally deal with broader world economic and social questions. Officially, Russia is not on the agenda 

But Mr. Biden needs European help to hold Mr. Putin to account, and he’ll be sharing the G-7 conference table with key players including the leaders of Germany, France, and the European Union.

They agree on the issues of concern, and they’ve coordinated sanctions against Russian officials and institutions in recent years.

But the Europeans also have economic ties with Russia that they are reluctant to risk, most controversially the undersea Nord Stream-2 pipeline that will carry Russian natural gas to Germany, a project strongly opposed across party lines in the United States. In what seemed a goodwill gesture to help win European buy-in on his broader strategy toward Moscow, Mr. Biden last month lifted sanctions on companies helping to build the pipeline.

Now, he’ll be meeting the allies at a time when some Russia-policy experts, as well as Mr. Navalny and his senior aides, have urged more closely targeted sanctions that would freeze or confiscate the overseas assets of Mr. Putin, his family, and the oligarchs in his political orbit.

Much of those oligarchs’ wealth has been funneled through London’s financial markets or laundered in major real estate holdings. While the U.K. government has taken some countermeasures in recent years, a true U.S.-European effort to exert more effective influence on Russian policy would require stronger action.

For signs of whether that’s likely to happen, the upcoming G-7 summit could be a good place to start.

Mexico midterms: Why AMLO still has voters’ hopes on his side

Populists worldwide have been criticized for their handling of the pandemic. But some, like Mexico’s president, keep strong support nonetheless. What does he symbolize for his supporters?

Mark

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Political analysts in Mexico say President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is “made of Teflon.” Since taking office in 2018, the populist has weathered multiple setbacks – not to mention that Mexico has one of the world’s highest death tolls from COVID-19. Yet more than a year into the pandemic, he maintains hearty approval ratings, and many observers expect his party to have strong showings in midterm elections this weekend.

When his government is evaluated on specific issues, like security or the economy, it garners substantially lower marks than the president himself. So what’s his superpower? Analysts say his popularity comes down to a handful of populist traits, like prioritizing poor people (at least in his rhetoric), and a lack of opposition. But perhaps above all, what Mr. López Obrador has going for him is his ability to instill hope, despite scant concrete progress.

Mr. López Obrador has become “the incarnation of hope that things could be different,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, of Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching. The president stokes public anger – pinning problems on the elite and the corrupt and politicians who came before him – while buoying hope that only he has the answers to decades of Mexican woes.

Mexico midterms: Why AMLO still has voters’ hopes on his side

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Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his wife, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, attend a ceremony marking the 700th anniversary of the founding of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, at the Templo Mayor archeological site in Mexico City, May 13, 2021.

Estefanía Veloz, a lawyer and feminist in Mexico City, halted her longtime support for Mexico’s ruling Morena party earlier this year, after it backed a candidate accused of rape.

But she never stopped supporting its founder, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Though he disappointed her with his treatment of feminist concerns and management of the pandemic, Ms. Veloz counts herself among the roughly 60% of Mexicans who approve of his leadership.

“He’s not listening [to feminists] but that’s not surprising: He’s 67. It’s like trying to get your dad to understand this complicated movement,” she says. What gives her hope is that he still has another three years to come around, a track record of fighting for the “underdog,” and a cabinet brimming with women – plus a chance to gain more power in the lower house of Congress in Sunday’s midterm elections, which would allow him to push ahead with his vision for a transformed Mexico.

While populist leaders around the globe have suffered political blows from mismanaging the pandemicMexico lost more than 320,000 lives, one of the highest death tolls worldwide – Mr. López Obrador maintains hearty approval ratings. Political analysts say he’s “made of Teflon.” He’s survived multiple setbacks over the past 2 1/2 years, from gasoline shortages and the pandemic to burning bridges with former allies. When his government is evaluated on specific issues, like security or the economy, it garners substantially lower marks (28% and 25% approval, respectively).

Rebecca Blackwell/AP/File
A masked feminist protester holds up an image of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, marked with the Spanish phrase "Indifferent president" outside Mexico's Human Rights Commission, which activists had occupied, in Mexico City, Sept. 9, 2020. The activists say the government has been slow to protect or support women who have suffered abuse.

Analysts say his popularity comes down to a handful of populist traits – like playing into historic polarization, prioritizing poor people (at least in his rhetoric), and controlling the media narrative through daily press conferences ­– and a lack of opposition. But perhaps above all, what Mr. López Obrador has going for him is his ability to instill hope, despite scant concrete progress.

When Mr. López Obrador was elected in 2018, “he became the incarnation of public anger [with established politicians and parties], and the incarnation of hope that things could be different,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, an associate professor at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), who produced a podcast episode digging into why the president maintains such high public support.

“We tend to think of hope and anger as opposite political feelings, but the truth is they came hand-in-hand in Mexico,” he says. And Mr. López Obrador continues to stoke public anger – pinning the nation’s problems on the elite and the corrupt and politicians who came before him – while buoying hope that only he has the answers to decades of Mexican woes.

Dropping the ball

When COVID-19 hit, Latin American populists from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega to Mr. López Obrador mostly looked the other way – with the exception of El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele took a more hard-line approach.

Will Grant, author of “Populista: The Rise of Latin America’s 21st Century Strongmen,” says he was initially surprised by how many populist leaders essentially didn’t react to COVID-19. “I would have thought we’d see more of a cover thrown over the most vulnerable,” Mr. Grant says. Instead, many leaders “sold this idea that it was no big deal. They had it, they got over it, and it fed into the narrative that they aren’t weak, it’s not something to be scared of, and there’s no need to close down the economy.”

But it’s not just Mr. López Obrador who’s been forgiven for a laissez-faire response. Many politicians in Latin America likely benefited from the global nature of the pandemic, says Amy Erica Smith, an associate professor at Iowa State University who studies how citizens engage with authoritarian and democratic governments. Leaders have “framed the pandemic as ‘Well, I didn’t cause this,’” she says. “They’ve had a lot of leeway in framing the pandemic in ways that reduce the blame attached to them.”

There is frustration with leaders, no doubt. “But people don’t know where to really place the anger. [COVID-19] is an act of God. It wasn’t created by one person or political party,” says Nicolás Saldías, an analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

There’s also a socioeconomic element to the lack of public backlash. “Part of the reason incumbents aren’t being held more accountable is that the working and lower classes are used to not being well served by their political system,” Professor Smith says. Support such as unconditional cash transfers for poor people in Mexico and pandemic-relief cash transfers in Brazil have helped some populists weather the crisis as well.

“Alone at the top”

Polls project Mr. Lopez Obrador’s party, Morena, will have a strong showing in this weekend’s midterms, when some 20,000 municipal, state, and national positions are up for grabs. In the lower house of Congress, Morena’s coalition is expected to fall just short of the supermajority needed to make numerous constitutional changes. These are reforms that have critics fearful the president will try to further erode democratic checks and balances in the name of “transformation.”

“The Mexican electorate is more strategic and smarter than anyone ever gives it credit for,” says Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University. “They know how to exact punishment and dole out rewards and how to make political corrections,” he says. “I have the suspicion that the electorate is fixing to use the ballot box to exact a cost for the lack of the government’s COVID-19 strategy.”

However, this may manifest itself more at the local level, Mr. Bravo says.

Ms. Veloz doesn’t think she’s alone in being unhappy with Morena, yet she’s still planning on casting her vote for them. For her, it’s largely a desire to keep Mr. López Obrador working for a better Mexico. “The president is constantly talking about how we need a majority in Congress to keep the transformation going,” she says of his plans to root out corruption, hold people who are rich and powerful to account, and create more opportunities for poor people.

But it’s also a lack of alternatives. She describes a recent meme that tells people not to vote for Morena because it is just like the PRI, a party that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years and is often associated with corruption and cronyism. The meme goes on to say “Who should I vote for, then?” The answer: “The PRI.”

Since the president’s election three years ago, “there hasn’t been an effort by opposition parties to really come to terms with the decision of Mexican voters [to reject the establishment] and for parties to reinvent themselves to become viable or attractive again,” says Mr. Bravo. “There’s an inertia driving López Obrador’s approval ratings. He seems to be alone at the top, with no real leadership alternative disputing his narrative or politicizing his failures or bringing him to task.”

Juan Miguel, a bricklayer in Mexico City who asked not to use his last name, says it’s been a “terrible year” for his family: Two uncles and a cousin died from COVID-19. His wife lost her job and his kids are still out of school. He doesn’t blame the president, who has “tried very hard,” he says. And although he hasn’t been impressed with Morena legislators, he plans to support the party.

“It’s what’s good for the president, and that’s what’s good for the country,” he says.

Difference-maker

Sew it goes: The Sewing Machine Project stitches lives back together

Earning a living does more than put food on the table and money in the bank. It builds pride and hope. The Sewing Machine Project helps people do both.

Mark
Courtesy of Margaret Jankowski
Students in a 2013 sewing class test their new skills on a suite of machines donated by The Sewing Machine Project to a community center in New Orleans. So far, the project has shipped 3,350 machines to places in the U.S. and abroad.

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She’d learned to sew as a little girl, but it was a 2004 tsunami that helped Margaret Jankowski understand the real value of a sewing machine.

Images of destruction riveted viewers around the world, but what touched Ms. Jankowski most deeply was the story of a woman returning to her ruined village in Sri Lanka to find that her sewing machine – her only source of income – was gone.

“I could easily make a living without my sewing machine,” Ms. Jankowski recalls thinking. “That wasn’t true of this woman.” She resolved to send sewing machines to Sri Lanka, thinking that she might be able to round up machines that people were trying to get rid of. 

In the 16 years since, The Sewing Machine Project, as Ms. Jankowski has dubbed her organization, has shipped 3,350 machines around the world – and across town.

“Sewing is very empowering,” says Gigi Salka of Zaman International, a nonprofit that uses machines donated by Ms. Jankowski’s Sewing Machine Project in sewing classes for refugee and immigrant women in Detroit. “You see it in a population that’s lost hope; the ability to create a product is very powerful to them. They’re so proud. They walk around saying, ‘I made this.’”

Sew it goes: The Sewing Machine Project stitches lives back together

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A tsunami helped Margaret Jankowski understand the real value of a sewing machine.

Like many girls of her generation, she had learned to sew at an early age. Her mother taught her on an old Singer Featherweight, and she learned the basics by hemming her father’s handkerchiefs. As an adult, she bought her own clothes off the rack but sewed for her first child, crafting little woolen coats that impressed other mothers. She taught classes at a sewing shop, “preaching the gospel of sewing,” she says, including how to make “pajamas comfortable enough to live in.”

Then, in December 2004, a tsunami hit Sri Lanka and other coasts around the Indian Ocean, leveling communities, hurling wooden fishing boats far inland, and killing 230,000 people. Images of the destruction riveted viewers around the world. But what touched Ms. Jankowski most deeply was the story of a woman returning to her ruined village. The woman had worked for years to save enough to buy a sewing machine, enabling her to work as a tailor and giving her a future. Now it was gone.

“I could easily make a living without my sewing machine,” Ms. Jankowski recalls thinking. “That wasn’t true of this woman.”

She resolved to send sewing machines to Sri Lanka. “I thought maybe I could collect a few of these machines that people are getting rid of anyway,” she says. She explained her idea on a local news program and was inundated with machines. She raised money for voltage converters and shipping, and in 2005, with the help of the American Hindu Association, sent five boxes each to five orphanages in India and Sri Lanka, each packed with toys, medical supplies, fabric, and the most precious cargo – a sewing machine.

Richard Mertens
The Sewing Machine Project sends machines all over the world, taking care to match the right machines with the right sewers. This old Singer has been specially fitted with a hand crank for use in areas in Guatemala without reliable power.

“They were used to sew for kids,” she says. “They were also used to teach kids a trade, which I felt was really important.”

It didn’t end there. Ms. Jankowski went on to start The Sewing Machine Project, a small organization that redistributes used machines. It’s a mission that springs from a love for an old craft and a belief in its practical and redemptive possibilities today. “We look at ourselves as the ones who provide the tools,” Ms. Jankowski says simply.

In 16 years the project has shipped 3,350 machines around the world – and across town. It’s sent them to coffee pickers in Guatemala, women who help vulnerable girls in Guam, and war widows in Kosovo. It’s sent them to programs that help refugee women in Detroit, incarcerated women in Mississippi, and sewers of Mardi Gras outfits in New Orleans. It’s bundled them off to libraries.

In these and other places, unwanted machines find new uses. In many places sewing can be a livelihood, whether in a factory job or at home. For those trapped in poverty, Ms. Jankowski says, sewing “is a way out.”

Richard Mertens
Margaret Jankowski (foreground), the founder and director of The Sewing Machine Project, packs sewing machines for shipment to Guatemala with volunteer Annette Bollig at a Lutheran church in Madison, Wisconsin, in March 2021. The project grew out of an effort in 2005 to send used sewing machines to help victims of the 2004 tsunami in South Asia.

“I made this”

Sewing is also a way forward for immigrant and refugee women in Detroit, says Gigi Salka. Ms. Salka is the director of the B.O.O.S.T. training program at Zaman International, a nonprofit that serves poor and marginalized women and children, including immigrants and refugees, in the Detroit area. In 2016, the group received 15 machines, plus an embroidery machine, a serger, and an industrial sewing machine, to start classes for refugee and immigrant women from Yemen, Syria, and other war-ravaged countries. Zaman began offering a two-year sewing instruction program. Graduates earn money doing alterations and creating made-to-order clothing, often from their homes. 

“A lot of our clients have a lot of barriers – language, transportation, child care,” says Ms. Salka. “Entrepreneurship has done well for them.”      

The pandemic disrupted the classes but also created new opportunities for the women. “We gave them fabric. They took machines home. They made masks,” Ms. Salka says. “In a population where five dollars makes a big difference, any supplemental income, any extra dollar is a dollar they can have.”

The sewing has helped the women in other ways, Ms. Salka says. “Sewing is very empowering. You see it in a population that’s lost hope; the ability to create a product is very powerful to them. They’re so proud. They walk around saying, ‘I made this.’”

This idea is being tested in Rankin County, Mississippi, where a local woman, Renee Smith, persuaded prison officials to allow her to start a sewing program for women in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Her aim was to get help producing reusable menstrual pads for girls in countries like Uganda and Haiti where girls frequently stay home from school while menstruating, or quit school altogether because they lack access to sanitary supplies. Ms. Smith and the inmates prepared backpacks filled with menstrual pads and cotton underwear.

The inmates were glad to have something to do, she says, but sewing for distant schoolgirls also gave them a sense of purpose. Sometimes she brought photos of these faraway beneficiaries of their work. One inmate stuck a picture of a girl in Uganda to her sewing machine. “They know they’re making a difference in the life of someone else,” she says. “To me that’s huge.”

Courtesy of Margaret Jankowski
People pick out donated sewing machines during a 2007 distribution event at the Grace Episcopal Church in New Orleans. The Sewing Machine Project ran eight to 10 distributions out of this church in the years after Hurricane Katrina.

Recovery through sewing

Some of the biggest beneficiaries of The Sewing Machine Project have been the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, an African American community known for the elaborate feathered and beaded suits they wear for Mardi Gras. That effort, too, started with a disaster. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the city, hitting African American neighborhoods especially hard. Cherice Harrison-Nelson, also known as Queen Reesie and an early collaborator with The Sewing Machine Project, says that making Mardi Gras suits is an important cottage industry in the city, but that many people lost their machines in the hurricane.

“It’s [an] economic challenge when you don’t have your sewing machine that you make your hustle, or your side hustle, with,” she says. Since the hurricane, The Sewing Machine Project has given out hundreds of machines in New Orleans, many to creators of Mardi Gras costumes.

Other machines have ended up closer to home. Trisha Juisto was released from the Sauk County jail to a halfway house in Madison, where she joined a sewing class as she strove to overcome dependence on methamphetamines and cocaine.

She was nervous at first. In high school she had failed home economics, in part because she hadn’t finished a pillow case project. “I still had it in my mind that I screwed up as a kid, and that I can’t sew.”

But she persisted. She learned enough fundamentals to finally sew a tote bag, with straps and three pockets, two on the outside and one on the inside.

“I’ve got so many compliments on my bag,” she says. “It makes you feel really good.” She hopes to learn enough that she can someday take a machine home and sew on her own. She has children whose clothes need mending and altering; she also hopes to earn money by doing jobs for other people. “I want to learn how to fix clothes,” she says. “That’s a big thing.”

Herreast Harrison/Courtesy of Cherice Harrison-Nelson
A flag girl sews at the Guardians Institute in New Orleans ahead of Mardi Gras 2009, four years after the damage from Hurricane Katrina inspired Margaret Jankowski and The Sewing Machine Project to begin sending sewing machines to the city.

It hasn’t all gone smoothly at The Sewing Machine Project. There have been stumbles along the way, lessons learned. It had to tighten its guidelines for donations; the machines have to be fully functional. It found that programs that teach sewing, like Zaman International in Detroit, prefer just one kind of machine; a hodgepodge of Singers, Brothers, and Berninas just complicates the learning. That’s why in 2018 Ms. Jankowski solicited a gift of 500 new machines from the Brother sewing machine company – including 25 that went to Detroit.

Ms. Jankowski and a small group of volunteers run The Sewing Machine Project out of a Lutheran church on Madison’s south side, just across the street from Lake Monona. On a recent morning, Ms. Jankowski and Annette Bollig, a longtime volunteer, are there to pack up machines to send to Guatemala. Machines on racks crowd the room. The machines are tested and lubricated before they get sent out; those that fail are banished to the hallway. Big plastic bins holding huge quantities of sewing supplies sit stacked against the walls.

As the morning sun pours in, the two women swathe machines in bubble wrap and place them in cardboard boxes. Then they pack as much fabric and supplies around them as they can – spools of thread, buttons, tape measures, bobbins, seam rippers, and other essentials. “We’re kind of heavily loading this shipment with supplies because where they’re living they’re so remote,” Ms. Jankowski says.

She would like to do more. “I probably get 10 to 15 emails a week from international groups saying, ‘Can we get some sewing machines?’” she says. “We don’t have the money.” She dreams of starting sewing schools in villages, but says, “We can’t do that now.” Still, she’s a little taken aback when she reflects on how far the project has come since it started, on an impulse, really, after the 2004 tsunami.

“At the beginning I didn’t know if there was enough need,” she says as the day’s packing draws to a close. “Good Lord, there’s plenty of need.”

Visit TheSewingMachineProject.org to learn more.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct an attribution error. The comments from Zaman International were made by Gigi Salka.

Television

Looking at slavery without looking away. The challenge of ‘Underground Railroad.’

Popular culture often stokes discussions about race and history. In “The Underground Railroad,” a TV adaptation of a prize-winning novel, the question the main character faces, a Monitor reviewer says, is also one for today: Where can Black people be free? 

Mark
Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios
Zsane Jhe, Thuso Mbedu, and Aubriana Davis star in "The Underground Railroad," adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead.

Looking at slavery without looking away. The challenge of ‘Underground Railroad.’

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The Underground Railroad,” Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, is a fantastical trip into America’s brutal past. On the Randall plantation in Georgia, young Cora, played by Thuso Mbedu, dreams of freedom. Her future is forever changed when an enslaved man, Cesar (Aaron Pierre), tells her of the Underground Railroad and takes her as his good luck charm when he escapes. 

We soon discover that this railroad is no analogy but real, running on rails secreted underground, complete with conductors both whimsical and reluctant. Cora travels beneath the antebellum South, searching for a place where she can plant the seeds her mother left behind when she escaped while Cora was just a girl.

In each state she emerges above ground to a new world, sometimes kind, often cruel, and always hunted by Ridgeway, played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, the same slave catcher that hunted – and never caught – her mother. He is bent on returning Cora, and also hopes to get her to reveal the secrets of her mother’s escape and the legendary railroad he believes exists but can never find. 

However far from the plantation Cora goes, she keeps finding ways that her life and liberty are threatened simply because she is Black. Her journey is a prequel to Tuskegee, Tulsa, and today. The terrors she faces are the precursors to today’s systemic racism – health inequities, police brutality, and videos of Black death, potent reminders of the lingering power of white supremacy. The question Cora faces throughout her journey is the same question of our own time: Where can Black people be free?

“The Underground Railroad” is by turns both beautiful and terrible. The 10 episodes vary in length, each a stop along the journey detailing a place and digging into new characters, each a story unto itself. The period is depicted in rich detail by actors who seem to belong to Jenkins’ dark, fiery world, one that looks more like Hades than the American South. 

Magical realism is a powerful tool for authors to help us imagine alternate universes, with stories based in reality where magic creates just enough room to envision other possibilities. Whitehead’s novel follows in the tradition of authors like Gabriel García Márquez who brilliantly cataloged the upheaval in postcolonial Columbia, where a magical town named Macondo became a space for survival. Here, “The Underground Railroad” is grounded in the real history of slavery but opens up the world for Cora so that escape is possible.

The series has been criticized by some viewers as glorifying the horrors of slavery, but there’s no glory here. It is interesting that films depicting slavery are often criticized for their violence whereas whole genres of superhero movies and crime shows are happily consumed without complaint. Perhaps some viewers find the violence more tolerable when it is easy to associate with the hero instead of the hand that cracks the whip.

That being said, the moments of violence here are difficult to watch. Jenkins – an Academy Award-winning screenwriter who directed, co-produced, and helped write the series – unflinchingly depicts the realities of slavery. Violence often interrupts blossoming Black joy. Every time Cora starts to feel free, she – and we with her – is reminded that white supremacy is relentless. The violence does not feel gratuitous, but it’s soul crushing all the same. 

After watching the series, the burning world of “The Underground Railroad” haunted my dreams. Like the videos of Black people killed by police, we each have to decide our own capacity to watch. The series follows the book fairly faithfully, so if viewing violence is not for you, the book can take you on the parallel journey with some distance from the haunting images. 

The series’ quiet moments are equally haunting, shading in characters with nuance and depth. Jenkins takes time to show us the complex connection between prey and predator. Cora, no mere victim fueled by animal fear, is driven by a deeply human desire for real freedom, carrying faithfully all of those she’s lost. Ridgeway too has a story, one that is neither sympathetic nor cartoonish in its depiction of evil. He is a man with no spirit, who shapes himself into a vessel for hate to feed his own weaknesses and insecurities with the resilience of the captured.

Stories – even slave narratives – are often told through the white gaze: We look at white characters and through their eyes, centering the white experience. In this series, Jenkins flips this, inviting us to look through the eyes of Black characters. Point-of-view shots pull us into Black bodies to feel their joy and their terror: the hand shaking with fear that cannot pump the rail car fast enough, the humanity in a finger gently stroking an okra seed that’s the start of a new life. Jenkins creates moments of silence throughout the series, where characters look out at the viewer. Characters look into us, letting the action drop away and leaving us in silent communion that recalls the work of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović.

“The Underground Railroad” allows us to find connection and meaning in the dark and familiar past, where magic doesn’t mean witches or wizards but instead blazes pathways to worlds where we might yet live. For those who feel able to bear witness, Jenkins’ searing images capture the violence that pinned Black people to the bottom of the racial hierarchy, while Whitehead’s reimagined railroad leaves us room to keep traveling to find hope. Cora’s journey reminds us that there’s always a possibility to create a new beginning at any moment. Her destination, like our own, is a world that doesn’t now exist, a world where people can be safe, free, and fully human.

Susan X Jane works to create more equitable environments as the principal of Navigators Consulting. “The Underground Railroad” is available on Amazon Prime Video. It is rated TV-MA, for ages 18 and above.

 

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Why Israel may never be the same

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Democracies around the world can take a cue from what just happened in Israel. After six weeks of negotiations, eight of the country’s 13 parties, with views as far apart as Venus and Mars, were able to forge a political alliance. If approved by parliament in coming days, this once-unthinkable team will form a new government that, as coalition leader Yair Lapid said, will “respect those who oppose it” while trying to “find the shared good.”

His words reflect a public sentiment in favor of what Mr. Lapid calls “national healing.” The pandemic, an economic crisis, an 11-day war with Hamas, and four inconclusive elections in two years, as well as fatigue with the 12-year rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have set the conditions for an unusual unity government.

In a region of the world where history more often divides than unites, Mr. Lapid boldly states, “We’re not here to fight about the past but for the future.” His first success has been to see his political opponents differently. “I believe in the good intentions of my future partners,” he said after forming the coalition. No matter what comes next, Israel may never be the same.

Why Israel may never be the same

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United Arab List Raam/REUTERS
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (left), Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (middle), and United Arab List party leader Mansour Abbas sit together in Tel Aviv, Israel, June 2.

Democracies around the world can take a cue from what just happened in Israel. After six weeks of negotiations, eight of the country’s 13 parties, with views as far apart as Venus and Mars, were able to forge a political alliance. If approved by parliament in coming days, this once-unthinkable team will form a new government that, as coalition leader Yair Lapid said, will “respect those who oppose it” while trying to “find the shared good.”

Such words are rare in the knock-’em-sock-’em politics of a country riven by more than its fair share of fractures. Yet they reflect a public sentiment in favor of what Mr. Lapid calls “national healing.” The pandemic, an economic crisis, an 11-day war with Hamas, and four inconclusive elections in two years, as well as fatigue with the 12-year rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have set the conditions for an unusual unity government.

Just as important was Mr. Lapid’s role. When Israel’s president chose him May 5 as the architect in designing a new government, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party (There Is a Future) had to first reach deep into his past political failures and apply a lesson of modesty. Instead of becoming prime minister, he chose Naftali Bennett, leader of a small right-wing party, to take the job for two years. If the coalition survives that long, Mr. Lapid will then get his turn. Such sacrifice would be a first in Israel.

Another first was bringing in an Israeli Arab party, Ra’am, to help form the coalition. That will help create a spirit of reconciliation after weeks of Arab-Jewish domestic violence during the war with Hamas in Gaza. “The government will do everything it can to unite every part of Israeli society,” Mr. Lapid said. “We will focus on what can be done, instead of arguing over what is impossible.”

He claims only a centrist party can play such a role in convincing the left and right to make difficult compromises for a common goal. Yet he also claims Israelis have had “enough of anger and hate.” The coalition’s main goal, he says, is to take the country out of “the crisis within us” with a period of “quiet” politics that are “cleaner, decent.”

In a region of the world where history more often divides than unites, Mr. Lapid boldly states, “We’re not here to fight about the past but for the future.” His first success has been to see his political opponents differently. “I believe in the good intentions of my future partners,” he said after forming the coalition. No matter what comes next, Israel may never be the same.

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.

Go forward with God’s grace

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“Grace and Truth are potent beyond all other means and methods,” Mary Baker Eddy wrote. Turning to divine Truth empowers us to feel and express God’s healing, unifying grace, even when difficulties arise.

Go forward with God’s grace

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Some years ago, two friends and I were hiking in the Dolomites in Italy. Just a few steps up the trail, my friends sped up and left me behind. Unhelpfully, my thoughts began circling around the question, “Why me?” Suddenly, I stumbled, twisted my ankle, and fell.

When my friends and I reconnected and got back to the hotel, I recognized that I had to change my self-focused thinking. When things don’t turn out well, we can’t turn our back on God, good. I had experienced before that God’s ever-present grace is sufficient to help in all kinds of situations.

The Bible mentions the word “grace” over 150 times. Multiple letters that the Apostle Paul wrote open with this greeting: “Grace be to you and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul also urges followers not to dismiss the gift of God’s grace.

Paul’s own life points to the power of God’s grace. One day, as he walked along the road to Damascus, despite his previous cruelty to followers of Christ Jesus, he discovered God’s grace, right there, saving him. It was the start of a new sense of higher purpose to serve God, divine Love, and preach the message of Christ.

The discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, described receptivity to grace as essential: “What we most need is the prayer of fervent desire for growth in grace, expressed in patience, meekness, love, and good deeds” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 4). The desire to express such qualities enhances spiritual growth, but how do we practice grace during difficult situations?

One way is to regard a problem as an opportunity to affirm and prove that there is no other legitimate power besides God, good. When we listen for the Christ-message of God’s loving presence that God is constantly delivering to us as His beloved offspring, we gain the inspiration needed to work through a difficulty of our own or to help others. Accepting Christ, divine Truth, is growing in grace. And as we yield to God’s gracious all-goodness, we realize healing. As Science and Health explains, “Grace and Truth are potent beyond all other means and methods” (p. 67).

So there in my hotel room, for about an hour I reached out to God in prayer. However, the pain in my ankle didn’t let up, and when I hobbled to the bathroom, my other foot stepped on a splinter. The thought came, “Oh, no, not another painful problem.”

But this actually made me laugh out loud, not because the situation was humorous, but because I realized that I didn’t need to wallow in self-pity and drama. Jesus healed problems with spiritual authority, and taught that anyone who follows his teachings and example can, too. The inspiration from my prayers earlier enabled me to compose myself, and I successfully removed the splinter.

Soon my friends brought me dinner, and their graciousness reminded me that we each express God’s grace in our own way. This understanding brought me relief and comfort, and I found I could easily forgive them for having gone ahead on the trail earlier. By the end of dinner, the ankle pain and swelling had lessened.

Then I found myself worrying about the next day. We would be driving for hours, and our rental car was a stick shift, so both of my feet would need to be strong to use the brake and the clutch. What if I couldn’t do my part to help with the driving?

Throughout the night, I continued praying to God. There’s a hymn in the “Christian Science Hymnal” that begins:

They who seek the throne of grace,
Find that throne in every place:
If we live a life of prayer,
God is present everywhere.
(Oliver Holden, No. 341)

To me, a “throne of grace” is a place of elevated, divinely inspired thought. Through prayerful, spiritual listening, my thought was lifted from fear to trusting in divine Truth’s loving care, and a conviction that I could go forward with God’s grace.

When I woke the next morning, I could walk normally, and I drove all day with freedom and joy. The healing was complete, and when we arrived at our destination, I silently thanked God.

We are all capable of experiencing God’s amazing grace, which heals and unifies.

Looking for more timely inspiration like this? Check out the “Related stories” below; explore other recent content from the Monitor’s daily Christian Science Perspective column; or sign up for the free weekly newsletters for this column or the Christian Science Sentinel, a sister publication of the Monitor.

Viewfinder

An inside perspective

Peter Nicholls/Reuters
Hannah Vitos of the Blenheim Art Foundation poses for a photograph inside artist Ai Weiwei's Gilded Cage (2017) sculpture on the grounds of Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, England, on June 2, 2021. The work was originally created for the "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" multimedia exhibition in New York, which addressed the international migrant crisis and the constraints of life as a refugee.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us. Please come back tomorrow when our Chelsea Sheasley looks at the uproar around teaching critical race theory. It highlights deeper questions about the best way to instruct young people about their identities and role in the world.

Finally, we invite you to meet the humanitarians solving community problems. Meet your fellow Monitor subscribers. Join the conversations at Community Connect webinar events. These events – and reporter profiles – are included in your subscription. It’s our way of connecting you with the work of good Samaritans in the world.

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