2021
June
17
Thursday

Monitor Daily Podcast

June 17, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

How a ‘green vortex’ can supercharge climate action

U.S. climate policy has led to no small amount of controversy and hand-wringing. The data show a planet hurtling toward crisis while American policy is the crooked line of a nation divided on the issue.

But maybe the “green vortex” matters even more, writes The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer. The United States, he notes, is currently hitting key emissions targets laid out in President Barack Obama’s 2009 climate bill, even though the bill never passed Congress.

The reasons are simple. A positive feedback loop of innovation and demand has made going greener profitable. The Monitor’s Stephanie Hanes recently chronicled how this dynamic looks to farmers in the cornfields of Illinois. Mr. Meyer calls this “practice makes improvement.” The more we do something, the better we get at it. “Over the past half decade, [this] has driven down the cost of semiconductors, solar panels, and electric vehicles.”

To Mr. Meyer and others, it represents the hopeful edge of the climate challenge. Yes, governments can help, such as with subsidies to spur profitability earlier. But real change happens as the feedback loop accelerates.

“There’s so much energy spent on trying to convince people what we should do about climate change,” international affairs professor Nina Kelsey tells Mr. Meyer. But going forward, she says, the most effective course is to accelerate the vortex – to supercharge the efforts that make fighting climate change profitable.

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Supreme Court’s day of culture war surprises

The Supreme Court may, like America itself, be more partisan than ever. But Thursday offered two big cases that did not break along predictable party lines. “That’s significant,” says one expert.

Mark

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The U.S. Supreme Court remains capable of issuing surprise big decisions that don’t break predictably along partisan lines.

That may be one important takeaway from Thursday’s major rulings, in which a court dominated by Republican nominees upheld the Affordable Care Act for the third time, and liberal justices joined in a unanimous decision that Philadelphia cannot bar a Catholic agency that refused to work with same-sex couples from screening foster parents.

“We hear all the time about divisions and polarization and culture wars and all that stuff. But this is a 9-0 ruling in a case involving religion and gay rights. And that’s significant,” says Richard Garnett, director of the Program on Church, State, and Society at the University of Notre Dame School of Law, referring to the foster parent case.

Closely watched, hot-button issues are not often decided unanimously at the high court. 

In fact, there is clearly a strong desire among the justices, liberal as well as conservative, to find common ground and identify areas of religious liberty in which there can be broad agreement, says Walter Olson of the Cato Institute. 

“They have to realize that there is that commitment by all nine justices, and they’re serious about it. ... They all care about religious liberty,” says Mr. Olson.

Supreme Court’s day of culture war surprises

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Kevin Wolf/AP
Human Rights Campaign staff and volunteers rally on the steps of the Supreme Court on June 17, 2021, in Washington after the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Philadelphia must renew its contract with a Catholic agency that refuses to work with LGBTQ foster parents.

The U.S. Supreme Court remains capable of issuing surprise big decisions that don’t break predictably along partisan lines.

That may be one important takeaway from Thursday’s major rulings, in which a court dominated by Republican nominees upheld the Affordable Care Act for the third time, and liberal justices joined in a unanimous decision that Philadelphia cannot bar a Catholic agency that refused to work with same-sex couples from screening foster parents.

“We hear all the time about divisions and polarization and culture wars and all that stuff. But this is a 9-0 ruling in a case involving religion and gay rights. And that’s significant,” says Richard Garnett, director of the Program on Church, State, and Society at the University of Notre Dame School of Law, referring to the foster parent case.

The ruling on the Affordable Care Act – the big government-provided health care expansion passed during the presidency of Barack Obama – may mark the conclusion of a particularly bitter and lengthy political struggle.

Republicans have tried, and failed, to end what they judge an expensive act of government overreach since its inception. While it may be possible for opponents to mount yet another legal attack, its margin of protection in the high court is growing, with Thursday’s 7-2 ruling perhaps sending the message that ACA is the law of the land.

Upward of 21 million people would have lost their health insurance if the Supreme Court had struck down the law, according to some estimates.

Opponents have shown remarkable energy in opposing the law, and may continue to try to do so, says Steven Schwinn, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago Law School.

“With each passing court case, and each passing Congress, the ACA becomes more entrenched in our health-care system and in our law. People have come to rely upon it, states have come to rely upon it,” says Professor Schwinn. 

ACA’s third trip to the Supreme Court

The case concerning the ACA, California v. Texas, represents the third time the high court has declined to strike down the law since Congress passed it in 2010. In 2012, the court ruled 5-4 that the law represented a constitutional use of Congress’ “taxing power” – with Chief Justice John Roberts providing the decisive vote.

In 2017, as part of its tax cut, Congress reduced to $0 the penalty for violating a provision of the law – known as the “individual mandate” – requiring most Americans to carry some health insurance coverage. Texas and 17 other states filed a lawsuit claiming that because the mandate now has no monetary penalty it can’t be considered a tax, and thus the whole law is unconstitutional. (Two individuals later joined Texas as plaintiffs. Because the Trump administration took the side of Texas, 16 states and the District of Columbia – led by California – stepped in to defend the law.)

Oral argument in the case came weeks after Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court, solidifying a supermajority of six conservative justices. Given that composition, some court watchers believed this case would spell the end of the law.

To prevail, however, Texas would have to clear a series of hurdles. In today’s decision, seven justices – including Justice Barrett – agreed that it fell at the first one: standing.

Standing is a threshold question that essentially asks if a party should have the ability to bring a case in the first place. Plaintiffs must claim “a particularized individual harm” that can likely be “redressed by the requested relief,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion

“Neither the individual nor the state plaintiffs have shown that the injury they will suffer or have suffered is ‘fairly traceable’ to the ‘allegedly unlawful conduct’ of which they complain,” he added.

A religious liberty boundary holds

The case concerning the Catholic foster agency, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, can be considered a big win for advocates of religious liberty, but perhaps not as big as some would have liked, particularly given the Supreme Court’s increasingly sympathetic views of religious liberty claims.

In 2018, a Philadelphia newspaper reported that Catholic Social Services – a Roman Catholic Church-affiliated foster care agency that had been contracted with the city for over 50 years – would not consider couples in same-sex marriages as prospective foster parents. That refusal, the city of Philadelphia said, violated a local nondiscrimination ordinance, and the city’s Department of Human Services said it would no longer refer children to CSS.

The agency, and three of its foster parents, sued, claiming the referral freeze violated the First Amendment’s free exercise and free speech clauses. Lower courts sided with Philadelphia, noting in particular that the city’s nondiscrimination provision was constitutional because it applied equally to all religions, a precedent the high court laid out in the 1990 decision Employment Division v. Smith.

Appealing to the Supreme Court, CSS and the foster parents also asked the justices whether Smith should be revisited. In today’s fractured but unanimous opinion, the court ruled that Philadelphia’s refusal to contract with the agency violates the free exercise clause, as Philadelphia allows exceptions to its policies for some other agencies than CSS.

“If a law is already making exceptions, then religious people have a Constitutional right to say, ‘why not for us, if you’re making exceptions for other people?’” says Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies in Washington.

The ruling didn’t consider whether the city’s actions also violated the free speech clause. Perhaps more important, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, the case “falls outside Smith” because Philadelphia’s non-discrimination policies “do not meet the requirement of being neutral and generally applicable.” 

Smith, written by the conservative judicial titan Justice Antonin Scalia, is a significant boundary-marking precedent in First Amendment law. In a country where sincerely held religious beliefs are protected, but can conflict with other laws, Smith holds that religious entities can only exempt themselves from laws if they restrict their free exercise rights specifically. Overturning Smith could open the door to religious entities exempting themselves from laws that affect large swaths of society.

How did the court get to 9-0?

Groups that back LGBTQ rights said that the Philadelphia decision did not establish a license to discriminate based on religious beliefs. But they were still disappointed with the ruling, as many had filed friend of court briefs in support of the city.

In fact, no same-sex couple has ever applied to CSS for foster parent status. Other agencies continue to work with LGBTQ couples in Philadelphia who want to take in children who need a home.

“This case is of great symbolic importance to the gay rights movement. They really don’t like religious exemptions, but it’s not of much practical importance because no one’s being turned away,” says Douglas Laycock, a professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

But why the 9-0 vote? Closely watched, hot-button issues are not often decided unanimously at the high court. 

There is clearly a strong desire among the justices, liberal as well as conservative, to find common ground and identify areas of religious liberty in which there can be broad agreement, says Mr. Olson of the Cato Institute. 

Chief Justice Roberts and other conservatives have some worries that people could lose confidence in their rulings, and the liberal justices also realize that some people are suspicious of the court as a secular institution.

“They have to realize that there is that commitment by all nine justices, and they’re serious about it. ... They all care about religious liberty,” says Mr. Olson.

Staff writers Harry Bruinius and Noah Robertson contributed to this report.

Israeli-Arab party makes history. But will Israeli Arabs benefit?

When an Islamic party helped form Israel’s new government, it set up a momentous test. Success could change the nation. Failure could severely damage Arab confidence in Israeli politics.

Mark
David Goldman/AP
A man walks past a synagogue that sits across from a church and a mosque in what is known as the triangle of religions in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod in central Israel, May 30, 2021.

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Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political legacy can be seen in part through the prism of his relations with Arab citizens. He spent years demonizing them as a threat to Israel, especially at election time. But this year he pivoted to court a small Islamic party, Raam. Ironically, this paved the way for right-wingers in the “change” coalition that defeated Mr. Netanyahu to accept the Arab party as a partner.

Many Arab citizens are wary, however, of Raam’s decision to join a government that includes former Netanyahu allies. They fear Raam, whose coalition agreement focuses on socioeconomic pledges, might abandon the broader struggle for equality and Palestinian rights.

Rula Daoud, who works for equality and social justice in Israel, is among those Palestinian citizens of Israel who say they are not joyful about the new government.

If Raam leader Mansour Abbas “is really successful, it says that if you give up on a certain ideology you can survive, which is bad for us as a Palestinian community,” she says. “And if he fails you can say, ‘We have tried everything, but still have no voice, no influence.’

“I see this as a lose-lose situation,” she says. “But maybe I should be more optimistic.”

Israeli-Arab party makes history. But will Israeli Arabs benefit?

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A taboo in Israel was broken this week when an Arab party joined a ruling coalition for the first time in decades.

The inclusion of the small Islamic Raam party was the final puzzle piece needed to topple Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister after 12 years in power, but it represents an enormous political gamble.

If joining achieves the goal of uplifting the Arab minority, which historically has been marginalized and lags behind the Jewish majority in almost every indicator, from education and infrastructure to income levels, it could change the face of the nation.

If it fails at a time when the majority of Arab-Israeli voters support a seat at the decision-making table, it could destroy their confidence in Israeli politics.

“Is it a game-changer? That’s the most important question to be asked, and it’s not easy to answer because the test will be in the future,” says Sammy Smooha, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Haifa and expert on Arab-Jewish ties in the country. “But as we’ve known Arab and Jewish politics in Israel until now, it’s a very significant change.”

Professor Smooha notes that since 1948, Arab parties were only engaged in the politics of opposition, because they did not want to join governments, but also to a large extent, because of exclusion.

“We now have an Arab national political party that is eager to be part of a government and to play the game of Israeli politics, something we’ve never had before,” he says.

Netanyahu paved the way

Mr. Netanyahu’s political legacy can be seen in part through the prism of his relations with Arab citizens, whom he spent years demonizing as a threat to the country, especially during election campaigns.

But this year, after Israel’s fourth election in two years, and seeing his political survival at stake, he pivoted to court the socially conservative Raam, whose name is the Hebrew acronym for United Arab List. The irony is that this paved the way for right-wingers in the “change” coalition arrayed against Mr. Netanyahu to accept Raam’s four Knesset members as partners, creating this breakthrough moment.

Yet many Arab citizens are wary of the decision to sit in a government led initially by former Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennett. He leads a right-wing party and once headed the Jewish settlement movement. They fear Raam, whose coalition agreement focuses on socioeconomic pledges, might abandon the broader struggle for equality and Palestinian rights.

So it’s a high-stakes move for Raam leader Mansour Abbas, a dentist turned politician who grew up in a mixed Christian, Muslim, and Druze village in the Galilee, where he learned early the art of compromise. He must deliver on his promise of improving the lives of Arab citizens, and avoid being seen as a fig leaf for inequality within the new government.

United Arab List Raam/Reuters
Raam party leader Mansour Abbas (right), Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (center), and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (left) sit together in Ramat Gan, Israel, June 2, 2021.

The challenge is all the more acute amid the soaring mutual Jewish-Arab mistrust and fear following unprecedented internecine violence in May, when tensions over Jerusalem and Israel’s most recent war with Hamas in Gaza boiled over into the streets of mixed Jewish-Arab cities.

The Joint List, the umbrella Arab political party from which Raam broke off this year, voted Sunday against the new government, which was approved by just one vote in parliament. It was an intentional rebuke of Raam, whom they see as betraying the wider Arab public by not making social justice and equality issues, alongside the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, a condition for joining the coalition.

“Being in the government cannot be a goal in itself if it means taking responsibility for a political platform of this government, so no, I don’t share in the celebration,” says Yousef Jabareen, a law professor and former Joint List Knesset member. “I don’t see this as an historic moment. For me it’s a sad moment because I’m afraid Raam will serve as cover for the government strengthening the occupation and settlements and continuing discriminatory policies.”

Risks for all parties

Although Dr. Jabareen’s party was the first Arab party to champion the idea of joining a coalition, the point was, he says, not to join any government, and certainly not one with a majority of right-wing coalition partners.

The unity of this new, fragile coalition – spanning parties from the right, left, and center – is an illusion, he argues.

“Whenever security tensions arise, whether it’s another war with Gaza, or another [police] invasion of Al-Aqsa Mosque” in Jerusalem, “or brutal attacks on Arab demonstrators, the Arab youth will raise their voice against the government and specifically Raam, for giving it legitimacy,” he says.

Arik Rudnitzky, a researcher in the Israel Democracy Institute’s Arab-Jewish Relations Program, notes, however, “There’s great risks here for all the parties involved in this unusual coalition.

“All have a lot to lose, so it’s either they watch one another’s backs or lose all together,” he says. “Perhaps that will serve to bind them together in order to make this coalition hold on for at least a couple of years if not a full term.”

The difference in approach between Raam and The Joint List is one of pragmatism versus ideology, says Dr. Rudnitzky, an ongoing debate within the diverse Arab electorate.

Raam has taken a page from ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that have sat in the majority of Israel’s coalitions (though notably, not the new one) no matter what their politics, as long as they deliver on funding for their communities.

Ariel Schalit/AP
Mansour Abbas, leader of the Raam party, speaks during a Knesset session in Jerusalem, June 13, 2021. The support of Mr. Abbas' party enabled Naftali Bennett to oust Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

But Raam has crossed all the traditional “red lines” for an Arab party. The absence of a focus on national Palestinian issues, long a thorn in the side of right-wing Jewish parties that used it as a way to cast doubt on Arab parties’ loyalty to Israel, makes Raam more acceptable to the Jewish majority as a whole, Professor Smooha argues.

“It sharpens the distinction between a ‘good Arab’ and a ‘bad Arab,” he says. “A ‘bad Arab’ is seen as subversive for having a Palestinian identity, and can even be seen as a traitor.”

Mr. Bennett himself had called Dr. Abbas “a supporter of terror” in the past, something he apologized for in a recent television interview where he hailed him as “a decent man ... a brave leader.”

“Run out of options”

The shift that Dr. Abbas has embraced is reflected in the surveys showing the Arab public’s view that it’s time to have a seat at the table.

“They have run out of options as nothing else has led to the changes they seek – so they need a change,” says Muhammed Khalaily, a researcher in the Arab society program at the Israel Democracy Institute.

One area where Raam needs to deliver is government recognition of some of the Bedouin villages in Israel’s Negev desert, largely shantytowns without access to basic services like electricity or water. The party’s main electoral support comes from Bedouin communities. Other goals are significantly increased budgets to address decades of systemic neglect of Arab towns, schools, and basic infrastructure, and repeal of a law that disproportionately punishes Arab citizens for constructing homes without permits.

Rula Daoud, an activist in Standing Together, a grassroots organization of Jews and Arabs working for equality and social justice in Israel, lives in Lod, a mixed city that saw the worst of the Arab-Jewish violence in May.

She is among those Palestinian citizens of Israel who say they are not joyful about the new government, although she is relieved Mr. Netanyahu is no longer in power.

“I can’t be joyful today because tomorrow we are not going to wake up to be equal,” Ms. Daoud says, adding she resents Dr. Abbas for playing up to what she sees as the “good Arab” role.

“If he is really successful, it says that if you give up on a certain ideology you can survive, which is bad for us as a Palestinian community in Israel,” she says. “And if he fails you can say, ‘We have tried everything, but still have no voice, no influence.’

“I see this as a lose-lose situation. But maybe I should be more optimistic,” she says. “The one good thing is finally the Palestinian community is not embracing just one way of thinking.”

Mr. Khalaily, noting that Arab parties have been in the opposition for years, says, “It is an historic moment, a significant change for Arab parties to get off the bench and onto the court [of government]. But there’s still no proof it will bear fruit.”

The Explainer

Juneteenth and the belated message of emancipation

One of several markers along the road to ending slavery, Juneteenth is both a commemoration of freedom and an acknowledgment of the rigors involved in achieving it.

Mark

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Juneteenth, recognized annually on June 19, celebrates the end of slavery across the Confederacy. On that date in 1865, the message of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed more than two years earlier, finally reached the residents of Galveston, Texas, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger presented General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. ...

During last summer’s protests against racial injustice, Juneteenth gained national prominence. This week, Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill making it the first new federal holiday in almost 40 years. President Joe Biden signed it into law Thursday afternoon.  

While recognizing Juneteenth’s Texas roots, Robert Greene II, a visiting professor of history at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, welcomes the idea of it becoming a national holiday. “It would be up to African Americans, however,” he writes, “to work hard to make sure the holiday is both a solemn occasion of remembering the end of slavery and a celebration of African American life in the United States.”

Juneteenth and the belated message of emancipation

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Kathleen Flynn/Reuters/File
Baby Dolls celebrate Juneteenth at the ancestor oak tree in New Orleans’ Congo Square on June 20, 2020, the day after Juneteenth.

Juneteenth, the emancipation celebration recognized annually on June 19, captures the essence of an American ideal – freedom and justice for all.

The holiday is a source of cultural pride and power for many African Americans. And in the face of last year’s social justice uprisings, it is enjoying a resurgence, including recognition beyond the Black community.

“Emancipation days are humanitarian,” writes Wayne O’Bryant, a historian and author. “Just as the American civil rights movement inspired freedom movements around the world, our celebration of Juneteenth as a freedom holiday can inspire others to celebrate and commemorate other emancipation days globally.”

What does Juneteenth have to do with the end of slavery?

American history suggests that chattel slavery ended upon the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, which is commonly thought to have freed all enslaved people in the United States on Jan. 1, 1863. 

However, a closer study indicates otherwise. Not until 30 months later, on June 19, 1865, did the law of the proclamation reach the residents of Galveston, Texas, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger presented General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

And yet, Juneteenth is just one marker in a three-year emancipatory process, beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation and ending with ratification of the 13th Amendment:

  • January 1, 1863: Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed enslaved people in much of the Confederacy. It did not free those enslaved in Union states or border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia).
  • April 9, 1865: Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant, which marks the beginning of the end of the Civil War.
  • June 19, 1865: Roughly 2,000 federal troops arrive in Galveston, Texas, relaying the message of the Emancipation Proclamation and Major General Granger’s instructions in General Order No. 3. This is the day commemorated by Juneteenth.
  • Dec. 6, 1865: The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery is ratified, legally freeing all enslaved people, including those in the North and in border states.

The contrast and confusion surrounding this emancipatory period is a function of the “monumental hypocrisy of what the United States of America claimed to be,” writes Mr. O’Bryant, who is a charter member of the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, which is scheduled to open in 2022. “In the Declaration of Independence, it says that ‘all men are created equal’ and that they have a God-given right to ‘Liberty.’ … Yet when it came to people of African descent, the United States of America had state-sanctioned slavery.”

How did Juneteenth become a federal holiday?

On Tuesday, the Senate voted unanimously to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, and yesterday the House approved the bill by a vote of 415-14. President Joe Biden signed the bill Thursday afternoon, making it the first new holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. “This is a day of profound weight and profound power, a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take,” the president said before signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. “I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another,” he added.

While lawmakers have discussed the holiday before, the push to move forward likely came from last year’s police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, on the heels of earlier such deaths, which invigorated a social justice movement that had global reach. 

The June 19 commemoration received further attention last year when former President Donald Trump proposed a June 19 campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the Tulsa Race Massacre took place. The rally was moved to June 20.

Robert Greene II, a visiting professor of history at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, welcomes the idea of Juneteenth being a national holiday. “Remember that Juneteenth has a specifically Texan context to it, and we do not want to lose sight of that,” Dr. Greene writes in a message, noting Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book, “On Juneteenth,” which explores the holiday’s Texas roots. “At the same time, Juneteenth could be a way for individual states to also memorialize the celebrations of the end of enslavement crafted by African Americans in those places.” 

“It would be up to African Americans, however, to work hard to make sure the holiday is both a solemn occasion of remembering the end of slavery and a celebration of African American life in the United States,” he adds, noting a concern about Juneteenth being “commercialized” in the midst of widespread celebration.

What can Juneteenth teach us about other Emancipation Days?

While Juneteenth is the nation’s most recognized commemoration of African Americans’ emancipation, it is not the only such celebration, Dr. Greene notes. The District of Columbia (April 16), Florida (May 20), Georgia (the Saturday closest to May 29), Kentucky (Aug. 8), Maryland (Nov. 1), and parts of Mississippi (May 8) all celebrate Emancipation Days. An appreciation and deep dive into such commemorations can inspire renewed purpose and discussion, he explains.

In addition, Dr. Greene points out, “Emancipation Day was often celebrated on January 1 in many African American communities across the nation, well into the 20th century. While we associate New Year’s Day with ringing in the new year and college football, perhaps Juneteenth can be the spark for new celebrations of Emancipation Day.”

Dr. Greene continues, “The origins of ‘Watch Night’ services among African Americans – as the commemoration of Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation on the evening and early morning of December 31, 1862, and January 1, 1863 – could also be discussed once again on a wide scale, thanks to Juneteenth.” 

The ideal of freedom is the “highest ideal for humans all over the world,” notes Mr. O’Bryant, the author, and a focus on that ideal can and should have a global effect.

Editor’s note: This story was updated after President Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Film

‘Sisters on Track’ and ‘City of Ali’ bring athletes to life

Top athletes gain fame for what they do on the field. But these films show we can learn – about them and about ourselves – from their relatable, non-superhuman side, too.

Mark
Derek Howard/Netflix
The lives and coaching of New York-based runners Brooke, Rainn, and Tai Sheppard are featured in the documentary “Sisters on Track."

‘Sisters on Track’ and ‘City of Ali’ bring athletes to life

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When judging exceptional athletes, we often consider their achievements and not their beginnings. We like to believe it would not have mattered where these prodigies came from or how they were raised. Two new sports-centric documentaries – “Sisters on Track,” about three New York girls who became junior track stars, and “City of Ali,” which traces Muhammad Ali’s upbringing in Louisville, Kentucky – reverse the standard narrative. 

Co-directed by Corinne van der Borch, a Dutch filmmaker based in New York, and Tone Grøttjord-Glenne, a Norwegian documentarian, “Sisters on Track” follows the Sheppard siblings over a period of approximately three years as they come of age in and out of the media glare. In 2016, as the film begins, Brooke (then 10), Rainn (11), and Tai (12), having participated in the AAU Junior Olympic Games, are featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated Kids magazine as SportsKids of the Year. They are interviewed on TV’s “The View.” The girls and their single mother, Tonia Handy, who have been living in shelters, are gifted by entertainer Tyler Perry with a spacious, furnished apartment for two rent-free years. 

Jean Bell, the girls’ track coach, is in many ways the film’s true centerpiece. A lawyer who has been coaching girls’ athletics for over 30 years, Bell, who was raised in the housing projects, recruited the sisters to join Jeuness Track Club, which she founded.

She knows the fleetingness of fame and speaks sadly of athletes she has “lost to the streets.” (The sisters lost a brother years earlier when he was shot by another teen.) She says, “Any girl I can help is a victory.” She doesn’t mean victory on the athletic field. She believes that education is the only way they’ll make it in life. An athletic scholarship to college will help get them there. 

When Rainn’s grades slip, or when Tai is suspended for classroom insubordination, Bell is caring but volubly disappointed. She wants the girls to know they have it in them to be much bigger than this. “Sisters on Track” starts out as a flashy success story about headline-making kids but turns into something much more meaningful: a tribute to the value of being strong in spirit. (4 out of 5 stars)

Abramorama
In “City of Ali,” people in Louisville, Kentucky, honor Muhammad Ali after his death in 2016.

Muhammad Ali, in his prime, was arguably the most famous and culturally noteworthy person on the planet. He had as much charisma as any movie star and a nonpareil athleticism that at times made even the brutal sport of boxing seem almost balletic. Born Cassius Clay Jr. in 1942 in a mostly segregated neighborhood in Louisville – he changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 – he never turned away from his roots. “City of Ali,” directed by Graham Shelby, focuses on the globally televised public memorial on June 10, 2016, for Ali in Louisville – a memorial an ailing Ali himself planned with his wife, Lonnie. 

The film is decidedly hagiographic but, in a time of heightened racial unrest, it’s worth being reminded of the fighter Ali’s origins. When he was 12, he discovered his new bicycle was stolen and told the white investigating policeman, Joe E. Martin, he was going to “whup” the thief. Asked if he knew how to box, he said no but it didn’t matter. Amused by this moxie, Martin, who was also a boxing coach, encouraged Ali to join the city’s only integrated gym. They became lifelong friends. A Black coach, Fred Stoner, was equally instrumental in forging Ali’s dance-and-jab style. When a consortium of 11 white businessmen backed his boxing ascent, it was a Black lawyer and activist, Alberta Jones, who safeguarded his contract. 

Ali knew how beloved he was but his braggadocio was essentially performance art. He held a much more encompassing view of celebrity. The quote from Ali that opens the film could also serve as its testament: “I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world.” (4 out of 5 stars)

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Sisters on Track,” rated TV-PG, is available starting June 24 on Netflix. “City of Ali” is unrated and is available to stream via www.cityofali.com/watch.

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Taiwan’s creative shield against China’s bullying

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In its most threatening move yet against Taiwan, China flew the largest-ever number of military aircraft in a single day near the island nation on Tuesday. Beijing’s attempts to intimidate Taiwan led The Economist magazine to declare in April that the island is the most dangerous place on earth. Yet a Chinese invasion has not happened. Why not? One reason may be other news this week about this democracy 100 miles off the coast of China.

In a ranking of countries by economic competitiveness, Taiwan has reached the Top 10, rising from 11th to 8th. Among populations over 20 million, it is now first. China ranks 16th. The survey admired Taiwan’s “dynamism” and “open and positive attitudes, best represented by the fact Taiwan manufactures 84% of the world’s most advanced computer chips.

The mainland’s high dependence on Taiwanese advanced electronics is a strong deterrence to a military takeover of the island. An invasion would be so disruptive to Chinese high-tech companies that it would set back the Communist Party’s goal of national “economic rejuvenation” by 2049.

In other words, the freedoms that Taiwanese people enjoy have created a level of high-tech innovation that could be its best defense.

Taiwan’s creative shield against China’s bullying

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Reuters
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks to a industry trade body in Taipei last August.

In its most threatening move yet against Taiwan, China flew the largest-ever number of military aircraft in a single day near the island nation on Tuesday. Beijing’s escalating attempts to intimidate the people of Taiwan with displays of force led The Economist magazine to declare in April that the island is the most dangerous place on earth. Yet a Chinese invasion has not happened. Why not? One reason may be other big news this week about this thriving democracy 100 miles off the coast of autocratic China.

In a global ranking of countries by economic competitiveness, Taiwan has reached the Top 10, rising from 11th to 8th. Among populations over 20 million, it is now first, according to the Institute for Management Development (IMD), a business school in Switzerland.

China ranked only 16th in global competitiveness while its recent stranglehold on Hong Kong’s freedoms has caused that territory to drop from 5th to 7th in the rankings.

The IMD admires Taiwan’s “dynamism” and “open and positive attitudes,” giving it the agility to innovate and adapt to global supply chains, represented by the fact Taiwan manufactures 84% of the world’s most advanced computer chips. Taiwanese electronic parts in the latest iPad Pro from Apple account for 18.5% of all components in value, according to Nikkei business news, up from 1.7%.

Last year, Taiwan replaced South Korea as China’s top source of goods imports, “owing to innovation and specialty production in the Taiwanese market,” according to The Economist Intelligence Unit. The mainland’s high dependence on imports of Taiwanese advanced electronics is a strong deterrence to a military takeover of the island. An invasion would be so disruptive to Chinese high-tech companies that it would set back the Communist Party’s goal of national “economic rejuvenation” by 2049.

In other words, the freedoms that Taiwanese people enjoy have created a level of high-tech innovation that could be its best defense.

As part of her drive to improve innovation in Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen is promoting English learning across much of society. She has set a goal of making Taiwan a bilingual country by 2030, a move that will draw more foreign talent to its research labs and help create a better entrepreneurial culture.

Such steps will enhance a spirit of creativity that only political freedom and rule of law can nurture. They are also practical shields against China’s bullying.

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.

I don’t have any racist thoughts … do I?

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Caught off guard by the reflex fear he felt when a Black man approached him on the side of the road, a white man realized he could do better when it came to loving his neighbor. He found a powerful starting point in the idea that we are all God’s children, created to express harmony and love. It’s a message we can all take to heart as Juneteenth approaches – and every day.

I don’t have any racist thoughts … do I?

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

“With one Father, even God, the whole family of man would be brethren; and with one Mind and that God, or good, the brotherhood of man would consist of Love and Truth, and have unity of Principle and spiritual power which constitute divine Science.”

That powerful statement is from “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science (pp. 469-470). I had read it countless times, and thought I was taking to heart this idea that as God’s children we are all one family. But sometimes racist thoughts are so subtle we don’t even realize we have them until something happens to wake us up to the need to deal with them.

My own perception that I am a white man without any racist thoughts was called into question by the reflex fear I felt one night when my wife and I exited the highway with a flat tire and a large Black man pulled up right behind us, got out of his car, and came over to us.

A few minutes later, all I was feeling was immense gratitude. After I’d cautiously rolled down the window and hesitantly gotten out of the car, the man had taken the spare tire and jack out of my trunk, changed the tire, and refused to allow me to pay him for his kindness. He said he was brought up to help people in trouble whenever he could.

His actions made me think of the prophet Malachi’s profound questions in the Bible: “Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10).

The passage quoted at the beginning of this article elucidates this concept. It points to this fundamental teaching of Christian Science: that God, Spirit, is the one and only source and creator. With Spirit as our divine Parent, our true nature is therefore spiritual, not material. God’s children are not divided by physical attributes, forever competing against each other for good. Divine Spirit is not a race or a color. The sons and daughters of God’s creating are the pure spiritual reflection of divine light.

This spiritual identity includes intelligence, strength, and pure goodness, without a single element of inharmony or fear. And all of God’s children are immeasurably valued and cared for. There is no competition for God’s love, which is infinite and all-inclusive.

These spiritual facts offer a strong basis for bringing harmony, peace, and joy to our interactions with people of all races and backgrounds. But it’s not enough to merely acknowledge our spiritual unity with one another. We can’t just talk the talk – we’ve got to walk the walk. Christ Jesus didn’t just preach the good news of our inseparable relation to God; he demonstrated it through his healing work. As the Bible says, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). The man who changed my tire demonstrated a level of love for his fellow man that caused me to recognize I could do better.

As we make the effort to see others the way God sees them, we bring a spirit of peace, brotherhood, and freedom from fear to our interactions. I still have some things to learn. But I’m striving to understand, and more faithfully think and act consistently with, this profound statement on the basis and potential of loving our neighbors as ourselves: “One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself;’ annihilates ... whatever is wrong in social, civil, criminal, political, and religious codes; equalizes the sexes;...” (Science and Health, p. 340).

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

Heat wave

Kent Porter/The Press Democrat/AP
Gerry Huddleston of Santa Rosa, California, cools off in the shallow water of the Russian River on June 16, 2021, at the Veterans Memorial Beach in Healdsburg, California. An unusually early and long-lasting heat wave brought more triple-digit temperatures to a large swath of the U.S. West on Wednesday.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Before you go, please take a look at our columnist Jacqueline Adams’ reflections on the new federal holiday. And come back tomorrow for our profile of Vice President Kamala Harris.

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