2021
September
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Monitor Daily Podcast

September 30, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

The ‘spiritual economy’ of a unique auction

When Monitor reader and friend Duncan Newcomer went to explore an “emotional value auction” recently, he didn’t know quite what to expect. They’re happening in town fairs across Maine, and they look like an indoor yard sale. But there’s a twist.

All the items had personal notes. The owner of a 100-year-old cast aluminum teakettle had stolen it as a teenager. “Never have forgiven myself for that transgression and I kept the kettle all these years to remind me lest I forget,” the note read. A chicken creamer always made its owner’s husband gag at the sight of cream pouring out of the chicken’s mouth – a happy memory from a hard marriage.

So how were things exchanged? With a note of one’s own. The owner would decide who got it based on the response. “I was not prepared to see something that I wanted so much,” Duncan says. The 2019 red-and-gold Chinese appointment calendar was useless. But it was exquisite, and it awakened his fascination with all things Chinese. To the owner, a Chinese college student, it was a link to home, brought to Maine to fight loneliness.

When Duncan wrote his bid, he was not even thinking about how he would also find a friend when he received the book, hand-delivered by the student and her artist mentor. “Breaking out of COVID isolation never felt so good or valuable,” he says. “Something different, not consumerist capitalism, some spiritual economy was suggested.”       

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Are progressives the bloc of ‘no’? They say no.

Amid deepening polarization, both parties have had to contend with increasingly feisty wings. The infrastructure bill shows how Democrats are managing theirs.

Mark
Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters
Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walk down the steps before taking a photo with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to honor National Recovery Month at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Sept. 27, 2021. Representative Omar is the whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has been gaining in influence.

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How do you say “no” constructively? The increasingly influential Congressional Progressive Caucus faced that question this week as tensions among Democrats mounted over two bills central to President Joe Biden’s agenda: a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion budget to fund sweeping social reforms.

The standoff underscores both the opportunity and challenge that progressives face. They seek to exercise newfound influence to the maximum benefit of their voters and their party, without sparking a backlash that could hurt both. And damage the Biden administration.

“It would be a huge blow if this just collapsed on them,” says Matthew Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute in Washington. Conversely, he adds, if both bills pass, Democrats could tout a significant list of achievements in their upcoming campaigns.

Many see themselves, and the country, as standing at a pivotal moment in which government has a moral responsibility to step in and help. And they believe their policies could energize the Democratic base and prevent a Republican resurgence at the polls in next year’s midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race.

But if they overestimate the country’s appetite for such sweeping reforms, at a time when Democrats only narrowly control the House and Senate, it could damage their own goals and President Biden’s agenda. 

Are progressives the bloc of ‘no’? They say no.

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At the start of this crucial week for Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Ilhan Omar walked out of the House of Representatives with arms wrapped around each other, looking more like longtime pals than politicians engaged in a high-stakes negotiation. 

It’s a scene that would have been hard to imagine not long ago, when the speaker issued a rare public rebuke of the Minnesota lawmaker, who during her three years in Congress has tangled not only with then-President Donald Trump but also with her own party. 

But Representative Omar is also the whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, responsible for corralling its members when it comes time to vote. And that caucus has grown dramatically from a once-marginal group to nearly half of House Democrats today, giving it significant leverage. 

Late Thursday afternoon, Ms. Omar and fellow progressives were holding firm in their threat to torpedo a vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that had passed the Senate with full Democratic support and 19 Republicans. Though progressives have agreed to support that bill, they aim to force moderate Senate Democrats to first back their massive Build Back Better Act, which includes sweeping social reforms and climate change measures.

The standoff underscores both the opportunity and challenge that progressives now face. They are seeking to exercise their newfound influence to the maximum benefit of their voters and their party, without sparking a backlash that could hurt both. And damage the Biden administration.

“It would be a huge blow if this just collapsed on them,” says Matthew Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute in Washington. Conversely, he adds, if both bills pass, it could offer Democrats a significant list of achievements to tout in their 2022 and 2024 campaigns. 

Many see themselves, and the country, as standing at a pivotal moment in which government has a moral responsibility to step in and help. And they believe their policies could energize the Democratic base and prevent a Republican resurgence at the polls in next year’s midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race.

But if they overestimate the country’s appetite for such sweeping reforms, at a time when Democrats only narrowly control the House and Senate, it could damage their own goals and President Joe Biden’s agenda. 

The caucus’s willingness to block one of the president’s key priorities – even temporarily – has led to comparisons with the GOP’s conservative Freedom Caucus. In members’ effort to promote small government and fiscal discipline, they frequently bedeviled their party’s leadership over the past decade, dooming Republican legislation on health care and immigration, and provoking government shutdowns. 

Progressives, not surprisingly, reject that comparison. They insist they’re not seeking to disrupt the Democratic Party or undermine its leadership, but to influence it in a constructive way.

“We are for advocating for government to fully function on behalf of the people,” says Representative Omar. “Our role here is to try to remind our caucus that if we say we are the party of the people and of working families, then our policies should reflect that.”

Or as Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who heads the Progressive Caucus, put it: “The Freedom Caucus is a caucus of no; we’re a caucus of yes.” 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington testifies about her decision to have an abortion, on Sept. 30, 2021, during a House hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Representative Jayapal, who heads her party's Progressive Caucus, rejects comparisons with the Republican Freedom Caucus, saying it "is a caucus of no; we’re a caucus of yes."

Still, for all their projected optimism, Democratic leadership might privately disagree with Representative Jayapal’s assessment. The longer the current stalemate drags on, the greater the chance that Senate moderates could respond to the left’s hardball tactics by simply walking away from the budget negotiations. 

A big-tent party

The Build Back Better bill would deliver on many progressive priorities. It includes initiatives ranging from expanded health care benefits and paid maternity leave to free community college and climate change measures. A poll commissioned by progressives showed that 54% of voters in 10 battleground states supported the $3.5 trillion bill, compared with 43% who disapproved. The poll had a margin of error of 4.5 points. 

Democrats plan to pass the bill through a process known as budget reconciliation. But they will need the votes of every Senate Democrat, and on Wednesday Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia called it “fiscal insanity” to spend so much in the wake of already massive amounts of government spending to address pandemic-related needs.

He and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who helped negotiate the bipartisan infrastructure bill, had not made any definitive counterproposals for a budget deal until Thursday, when a memo leaked showing Senator Manchin had told the president this summer that his top line was $1.5 trillion. The Democrat from West Virginia also said any expansion of Medicaid in the reconciliation bill would have to include the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used to cover abortion expenses.

So on the last day of fiscal year 2021, Democratic leadership was facing an unenviable trio of challenges: passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill; scrambling to fund the government temporarily to avoid a partial shutdown (this bill cleared Congress late Thursday); and raising the debt ceiling before Oct. 18, when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned all extraordinary measures would be exhausted and the United States would default on its debt. 

“We’re a big-tent party, and we’re going to get this done,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the moderate Democratic co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus earlier this week. Speaking to progressives’ role, he added, “I think they’ve been very constructive in our conversations.” 

“They’re stiffening their spine”

In the past, Democratic leadership has tended to cater to party centrists, who often hail from swing districts or states and face tough reelection battles. At times, that has meant weakening or even stripping out progressive priorities from Democratic legislation.

But as progressives have grown in numbers and gained more leverage within the party, they’ve become increasingly bold in asserting their demands.

“They’re stiffening their spine,” says Professor Glassman of Georgetown.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont talks to reporters ahead of a test vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal that senators brokered with President Joe Biden, on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 21, 2021. Senator Sanders has urged fellow progressives in Congress to link passage of the infrastructure bill to success on passing a budget with new spending on health care and climate change.

One reason is that Democratic voters themselves have shifted significantly to the left in recent years. Some of that may be credited to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the first chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which he co-founded in 1991 with five other representatives. Back then, the democratic socialist who embraced a crusader role saw very few of his proposed laws passed. 

But after two surprisingly successful presidential campaigns that drew legions of young supporters and arguably shifted the center of gravity in the Democratic Party, Senator Sanders – now chairman of the Senate Budget Committee – and his allies find themselves in a very different position.

Many progressives have been pointing out that it’s President Biden’s agenda – not just their own – that they’re fighting for. “This agenda is not some fringe wish list; it is the president’s agenda,” said Representative Jayapal earlier this week.

“Whether it was the primary campaign, or whether this is where [Mr. Biden’s] heart always has been, he has genuinely adopted a lot of progressive goals,” says Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who co-chaired Mr. Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. “And so we have supported the president.”

“We had a deal”

Now the president is in a bind, however, with progressives vowing not to support the infrastructure bill unless or until Senate Democrats commit to the much larger reconciliation bill. Much of the president’s domestic agenda is included in these two bills, and he has been hosting a flurry of meetings all week to try to persuade the different wings to come together.

Senator Sanders, the sole member of the Senate in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been urging his fellow caucus members in the House not to support the infrastructure bill until the budget is passed. “We had a deal,” he said, referring to Democratic leaders’ agreement that the bills would advance in tandem, to assure passage of both. 

In light of that, progressives’ refusal to support an infrastructure bill before the other is agreed on could be seen as an effort to hold colleagues to their promise, says DeWayne Lucas, associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. 

“Their main concern right now is they’ve made these deals with moderates,” says Professor Lucas, noting that in the past when progressives had smaller numbers, their fellow Democrats didn’t always make good on such deals. “Now one of the issues for the progressive caucus is how to ensure that they get what was promised to them.” If anyone is a disrupter, he adds, it’s Senator Sinema, who may be embracing the “maverick” brand of Arizona. 

Part of the reason progressives are holding firm is the pressure from grassroots activists. About a dozen protesters chanted outside the Senate today as Senator Manchin spoke to reporters, saying he would be willing to support a $1.5 trillion budget – a quarter of the $6 trillion that Senator Sanders originally wanted. 

“This package as it is at $3.5 trillion is already the compromise,” says David Winston, co-chair of the “Medicare for All” working group of the metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America, who sports a Sanders shirt. Fellow protesters held a pink heart with the handwritten slogan, “Invest in people not war” and a large banner reading, “No reconciliation, no deal!” 

Staff writer Dwight Weingarten contributed reporting.

Under government attack, Salvadoran judges seek international remedy

When an authoritarian leader runs roughshod over the law, where can judges turn? In El Salvador, some judges are turning to the international community for help.

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In El Salvador, the populist president, Nayib Bukele, is dismissing judges by the dozen, including all five members of the Constitutional Court. He says he is trying to root out corruption. Critics fear he is seeking to eliminate democratic constraints on his autocratic rule.

But now that the top courts are in the hands of President Bukele’s allies, there is nothing that ousted judges can do except seek international justice. That’s what they have done, appealing to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its associated court.

That court has reinstated Latin American judges before, but not often, and only after years of investigation. By the time it rules on the El Salvador case, the country’s democracy could be fatally wounded, activists in San Salvador worry.

International pressure is mounting: The U.S. government imposed sanctions this month on the new judges who replaced the illegally fired Constitutional Court justices. But the IACHR “has to work quickly” says one human rights advocate, because Mr. Bukele “is on the path to a dictatorship.”

Under government attack, Salvadoran judges seek international remedy

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Jose Cabezas/Reuters/File
Magistrates Luis Suarez Magana, Elsy Duenas Lovos, Jose Angel Perez Chacon, and Hector Nahum Perez Garcia (left to right) stand to take the oath on May 1 after Congress removed the previous Constitutional Court members at President Nayib Bukele's behest.

El Salvador’s five legitimate Constitutional Court judges, among the last bastions of their country’s democracy, were in a quandary.

The judges were illegally fired this May by a legislature loyal to populist President Nayib Bukele, so their normal recourse for redress would be … the Constitutional Court. But now that the legislative assembly has packed the bench with judges supportive of the government, they could hardly expect a fair hearing.

So, in an unusual move, the ousted justices are appealing to the international justice system, in the form of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). It’s a long shot, but a lot is hanging on their move, says Katya Salazar, executive director of the Latin America-focused Due Process of Law Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.

President Bukele is “on the path to a dictatorship. He already broke the democratic rules,” warns Ms. Salazar. The IACHR “has to work quickly.”

Judicial independence is under attack by authoritarian leaders across Latin America. In recent months, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tried (but failed) to extend a Supreme Court judge’s term in defiance of the country’s constitution, Guatemala’s attorney general fired the country’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro threatened to stop complying with Supreme Court rulings if one of its judges did not resign.

In El Salvador, the new Constitutional Court judges are already transforming the political landscape. Hours after their predecessors filed their petition to the IACHR, the new court ruled that President Bukele – Latin America’s first millennial president – can run for two consecutive terms of office, ignoring an explicit ban on such a maneuver in the constitution.

Last weekend, the Supreme Court named nearly 100 new judges as part of a controversial judicial reform that forces magistrates into retirement at age 60 or after 30 years of service and allows the 15-judge Supreme Court to arbitrarily transfer judges to new courts.

Salvador Melendez/AP
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele delivers his annual address to the nation before Congress on June 1, 2021. He has alarmed pro-democracy activists with his assault on the judiciary and hints that he might run for reelection despite a constitutional ban.

“We hope that the Inter-American system responds quickly … because of the seriousness that this represents, not just for the judges, but for the country and our democracy,” says Salvadoran Judge Juan Antonio Durán, one of the few working judges to publicly criticize the Bukele government.

He was transferred from the capital, San Salvador, to a provincial court on Sept. 26, in what he sees as retaliation against him. 

The IACHR and its associated court have successfully restored judges in the past, such as in Honduras in 2015. But the judgment only came down six years after the judges had been illegally dismissed in the wake of a military coup.

“By the time the case is decided, the political, institutional, and democratic situation can be completely different,” acknowledges Ariel Dulitzky, a former assistant executive secretary of the IACHR who is now director of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas.

So Mr. Durán and his fellow judges are seeking other means to pressure the Bukele administration, including appeals to the U.S. embassy.

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department added the illegally appointed Salvadoran Constitutional Court judges to the Engel List of corrupt and undemocratic Central American officials. The list is named for Eliot Engel, the former congressman who wrote legislation providing for travel bans and other sanctions, such as an asset freeze, on those listed.

“All efforts are important,” Mr. Durán says. “We’ve taken the legal path, both international and national, the diplomatic path, the political path, and in the streets.”

Jose Cabezas/Reuters/File
People hold a banner reading "Bukele coup plotter" as they protest against the removal of Constitutional Court judges and the attorney general by the Salvadoran Congress, in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 2, 2021.

While judges and civil society activists in El Salvador pressure the Salvadoran government to restore democratic institutions, the IACHR case can bolster their efforts, explains Mr. Dulitzky. Each step – hearings, country visits, and reports – requires outreach by the judges and attracts renewed media attention, which can help garner support. Requiring the state to justify its position can sometimes lead to settlements and negotiations. An international court case can also expose cracks within governments and encourage dissenters to come forward.

“The process of the Inter-American system is as important as the outcome,” says Mr. Dulitzky.

Meanwhile, President Bukele and his New Ideas party continue to pass new reforms. They argue that their changes to the justice system will rid the country of corruption, a hot-button issue for Salvadorans who have lost faith in the country’s two traditional parties after high-profile corruption scandals.

According to a May 2021 poll, nearly 80% of Salvadorans said they believed Mr. Bukele was doing a good job after two years in office. 

“Whoever doesn’t have money to pay off a judge pays with jail time,” complains Amadeo Lopez, a rural teacher and Bukele supporter. “What this president is doing is better than what the others have done.”

Mr. Bukele has become increasingly defensive in the face of criticism since taking office in June 2019, and often uses his Twitter account to air his grievances.

When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris condemned the dismissal of the five Constitutional Court judges he tweeted a message to “the international community” that “we are cleaning our house ... and that’s none of your business.”

That attitude does not bode well for compliance with any IACHR ruling, which largely relies on a government’s willingness to adhere to its international human rights commitments.

“The panorama is bleak,” says Astrid Valencia, a Central America researcher at Amnesty International. “But this shouldn’t deter the work of denouncing, documenting, and bringing the attention of key international actors.”

The Explainer

How ‘name, image, likeness’ rights change the game for NCAA athletes

The NCAA’s new policy permitting college athletes to profit on their name, image, and likeness rights is a sea change in college sports – and should empower student-athletes.

Mark
Doug Murray/AP
Softball player Riley Ennis, like all NCAA female athletes at Florida Atlantic University, was invited earlier this month to sign endorsement deals with the NHL’s Florida Panthers.

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The National Collegiate Athletic Association interim policy, as of July 1, lets more than 480,000 athletes monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL), marking a dramatic shift for college sports. Through brand partnerships, athletes can now turn their successes on the field into cash in their pockets.

Many schools are providing brand-building education so athletes can learn how to market themselves.

“Community connection is what creates the deal,” says Kamron Cox, NIL program coordinator at the University of Illinois. Mr. Cox anticipates that most athletes will profit through endorsement deals with local businesses, like a sandwich shop or pizza joint.

But that also means the rule change could favor athletes who already benefit from established networks and media focus.

“All of the inequities, all of the power bases that are already there within the current sports world infrastructure are still going to be there,” explains Mary Jo Kane, professor emerita at University of Minnesota.

Social media, however, could open new avenues, especially for savvy brand builders.

“[Social media] is removing the gatekeeper position of mainstream media and it puts the power and control on the athletes,” says Thilo Kunkel, associate professor of sport business at Temple University.

How ‘name, image, likeness’ rights change the game for NCAA athletes

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College sports have long captured the hearts of fans around the nation who wear team colors to cheer on their favorite amateur athletes. And for a long time, colleges and universities have profited from their athletes’ stardom.

But this fall – for the first time – athletes can reap the financial rewards of their success, too.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) interim policy, as of July 1, lets more than 480,000 athletes monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL), marking a dramatic shift for college sports. Through brand partnerships, athletes can now turn their successes on the field into cash in their pockets.

Why now?

Whether college athletes should be compensated for their NIL rights has been debated for years. In 2009, a UCLA basketball player sued the association after his likeness was used in a video game without his permission and without payment.

Over the next decade, athletes started advocating for their publicity rights directly to state and local legislators, says Braly Keller, NIL specialist at Opendorse. “Through those voices ... it started to snowball,” he says.

In 2019, California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act which allowed athletes to earn compensation for their NIL starting in 2023. Florida moved up the timeline, passing a similar bill that went into effect July 1, 2021.

To avoid giving individual states an unfair recruitment advantage, the NCAA drafted a new policy, but before it was put to a vote, the Department of Justice flagged it for containing a potential antitrust violation. Not wanting to subject itself to further litigation after the Supreme Court ruled this summer that the NCAA violated antitrust laws by limiting non-cash, educational benefits for athletes, the NCAA implemented a bare bones interim policy with two main stipulations: athletes cannot be paid for on-field performance and schools cannot offer impermissible incentives to attend.

“We’ve seen the NCAA really turn over the keys right to the schools … giving the schools a lot more power,” says Mr. Keller.

Who benefits?

It’s not just Olympians or Heisman Trophy winners who can cash in on the rule change. Athletes across the three divisions could see new opportunities – though deals will vary based on sport, institution, and even position.

Many schools are providing brand-building education so athletes can learn how to market themselves.

“Community connection is what creates the deal,” says Kamron Cox, NIL program coordinator at the University of Illinois. Mr. Cox anticipates that most athletes will profit through endorsement deals with local businesses – partnering with a sandwich shop or pizza joint hoping to draw hungry students.

But that also means the rule change could favor athletes who already benefit from established networks and media focus.

“All of the inequities, all of the power bases that are already there within the current sports world infrastructure are still going to be there,” explains Mary Jo Kane, professor emerita at University of Minnesota and founder of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.

Social media, however, could open new avenues, especially for savvy brand builders.

“[Social media] is removing the gatekeeper position of mainstream media and it puts the power and control on the athletes,” says Thilo Kunkel, associate professor of sport business at Temple University and director of the Sport Industry Research Center.

What concerns does it introduce?

With the contours of policy left to states and schools, rules vary around university logos, prohibited categories of deals, and steps for disclosure.

Dr. Kunkel worries some students might get lost in the complexity. “The education does matter, particularly for those athletes who are not the superstars,” he says. While athletes profiting significantly will be able to hire agents and marketing advisers, others will be juggling the roles of student, athlete, and businessperson.

On top of time management, Mr. Cox says the main challenge is making sure that students are creating healthy brands, but overall he feels a greater investment from community networks will help athletes set sail.

“Before there was a sense that a number of student athletes had some real value that was not maximized,” he says. “I think [athletes] can develop things now that can continue to be an asset … for the rest of [their] career.”

Commentary

From college prep to Mideast peace: Stop talking and start collaborating

Are talking and listening the best ways to connect with others? Our correspondent was deeply moved by a different approach.

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For transformative connections with others, we need to shift from squaring off head-to-head to collaborating side by side. 

My own experiences with such 90-degree pivots have run deep. In the summer of 1999, I volunteered as a writing coach at a college-readiness workshop. For four days, 25 adults came together to help 40 low-income 11th graders complete their entire college application process. The community was as racially and economically diverse as any I’ve known, then or since.   

We never talked about race, class, education, or opportunity. We were singularly focused on the students’ applications. From a college list to financial aid forms to the Common App to a personal essay – the students started with none of it and ended with all of it. On the last morning, as we reflected on what we’d accomplished, everybody cried.

Too often these days, even the most enlightened efforts to avoid talking past each other are just another form of head-to-head engagement. We’re told to be “active listeners” and to have a “growth mindset.” But none of those strategies would have gotten a single college application filled out. For that, we had to pivot from head-to-head to shoulder to shoulder, working on a common project.

From college prep to Mideast peace: Stop talking and start collaborating

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Ann Hermes/Staff/File
President Donald Trump supporter Joanne King speaks to Lamar Whitfield with the No More Foundation about their opposing views at a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Sept. 1, 2020. Instead of squaring off, our correspondent recommends collaborating side by side.

Truly meaningful human engagement is rarely ever head-to-head. It’s shoulder to shoulder. People don’t move from wariness to trust, from enemies to allies, from transactional engagements to covenantal encounters by working on each other, but by working with each other. Transformative connection takes turning 90 degrees – from squaring off to collaborating side by side.   

My own experiences with such 90-degree pivots have run deep. In the summer of 1999, I volunteered as a writing coach at a workshop run by College Summit, now called PeerForward, at the University of Chicago. For four days, 25 adults came together to help 40 low-income 11th graders complete their entire college application process.

Most of us wouldn’t have crossed paths in the normal course of business. Along with the eight writing coaches, who came from various fields outside education, there were five (skeptical) public school teachers, three (overworked) independent college counselors, two (deeply wise) rap directors, four (intensely passionate) College Summit staff members, and three (grateful) student alums. The community was as racially and economically diverse as any I’ve known, then or since.   

In those intense four days, we never talked about race, class, education, or opportunity. We were singularly focused on the students’ applications. From a college list to financial aid forms to the Common App to a personal essay – the students started with none of it and ended with all of it. On the last morning, as we stood together in the closing circle to reflect on what we'd accomplished, everybody cried.

The experience was so moving that I left my job as counsel to then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to help scale the organization.

Nearly everyone who has ever participated in a PeerForward workshop – including Janet Reno herself, two summers later – has said it was one of the most profound experiences of their life. Working shoulder to shoulder with each other and the students, we adults were as transformed as the kids.   

Moshe Zusman/Courtesy of Kinney Zalesne
E. Kinney Zalesne experienced the benefits of working side by side with others when she volunteered in 1999 as a writing coach at a summer workshop for low-income students applying to college. "Working shoulder-to-shoulder with each other and the students, we adults were as transformed as the kids," she writes.

A new shoulder-to-shoulder effort

I thought about that closing circle this past summer, some 22 years later, as I stood on the roof deck of a friend’s Washington, D.C., apartment with a group of Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians. The gathering was the launch of Heart of a Nation, an organization “bringing together progressive Americans, progressive Israelis and progressive Palestinians to make all three societies better,” as the website explains.

Has head-to-head engagement been tried in the Middle East? Incessantly, didactically, painfully.

Can devoted progressives from all three societies work side by side – not on our mutual grievances, but on our shared passions, including human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and climate – and in the process, maybe nurture some trust that will help us move forward together? I don’t know, but we’re going to try our best.   

Too often these days, even the most enlightened efforts to avoid talking past each other are just another form of head-to-head engagement. We’re told to be “active listeners” – to let the other person’s words seep into our brain. We’re told to have a “growth mindset” – to be more open to the possibility that our biases and assumptions are wrong, and the other person’s, right. Or we’re told to find “common ground,” as if I occupy some block of mental terrain and you occupy another, and if we can just find some overlapping real estate, we can build from this “place” of agreement.     

None of those strategies would have gotten a single college essay written or application filled out. For that, we had to pivot – from head-to-head to shoulder to shoulder, working side by side on a common project. That’s our stance heading into Heart of a Nation, too.

Communities of purpose

There’s a footnote to the college workshop story, with yet another community of purpose spawned from it. The director of that workshop, a young Yale graduate and first-generation college-goer himself, was Jaime Harrison. Today, you may know him as the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and the 2020 U.S. Senate candidate who nearly toppled Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. 

Jaime and I are now working on a women’s executive network, dedicated to drawing out under-engaged corporate women – many of whom compete fiercely with one another by day – to work together on the weekends with top women in government on leadership challenges, public-private solutions, and priority-setting for the future.   

Can intentional communities – built across race, class, generation, nationality, and professional identity – advance trust and the common good if they stop talking at, past, and about one another, and instead work together on causes they’re equally devoted to? It seems like our best hope.   

In the age of COVID, human conversation has, for many of us, been literally reduced to head-to-head engagement – square boxes of virtual heads bobbing at one another with a seemingly endless supply of words. As we try to emerge, and to forge and deepen the relationships the world desperately needs to move forward, maybe we can get off our obsession with knocking heads and find new ways to stand shoulder to shoulder. Such a pivot could change everything.

E. Kinney Zalesne is the former president of College Summit, a member of the Executive Committee of Heart of a Nation, and the founding chair of the DNC’s Women’s Executive Network.

Film

Lights, camera, exhibits: Movie museum debuts

What role should a new museum about movies play? As Monitor film critic Peter Rainer sees it, beyond reveling in ruby slippers, the goal should be to inspire visitors to literally think big.

Mark
Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
A guest holds a real Oscar statuette inside “The Oscars Experience” during a media preview of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, Sept. 21.

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Hollywood may be the dream capital of the world, but as an industry, it has always been shockingly negligent about preserving its heritage. 

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the first major American museum devoted to movies, should serve as a vital corrective when it opens Sept. 30.

A museum can be many things to many people, and if Bruce the shark from “Jaws” or C-3PO from “Star Wars” haul in the tourists, so be it. Then maybe, just maybe, some among them will discover great Indian director Satyajit Ray or the films of the remarkable, nearly forgotten 1930s Hollywood actor Anna May Wong. Or maybe they’ll read about Oscar Micheaux, the first major African American filmmaker, whose career spanned both the silent and sound eras.

The museum, first and foremost, is a celebration of the big-screen experience. This is as it should be. We need to be reminded of the sheer bigness of movies, their power to overwhelm. This is especially important for the younger museumgoers, who may otherwise be content watching movies on a computer screen or even a smartphone. A new generation of filmgoers – and filmmakers – needs to know all that movies can be. 

Lights, camera, exhibits: Movie museum debuts

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For movie lovers in general, and Angelenos in particular, the official public opening on Sept. 30 of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is a welcome event indeed. First announced in 2012, with an original opening date of 2017, the long-delayed project for a time seemed as illusory as a spectral special effect.

Hollywood may be the dream capital of the world but, as an industry, it has always been shockingly negligent about preserving its heritage – as opposed to France, whose Paris-based Cinémathèque Française, founded in 1936, remains the gold standard for archived astonishments. The Academy Museum, the first major American museum devoted to movies – at 300,000 square feet – should serve as a vital corrective.

Because of the changes in how we experience movies, the extended postponement may actually be a blessing. The pre-pandemic world of 2017 – before #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, not to mention streaming – is significantly different from today. If, as film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, movies are our national theater, then the plots and cast of characters have expanded. Not enough certainly but, still, a compelling work in progress – like the museum itself.

Integral to understanding

One of the hurdles the new museum will face is how to promote, indeed revel in, the idea that the life and lore of cinema are not some dry slab of scholarship. Museums are often regarded warily by general audiences as “educational,” but that taint need not apply here. The history of movies – how they were made, who made them, and the folklore that formed them – is as integral to our understanding of America and the world as any other cultural discipline. 

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” are on display at a preview, Sept. 21, 2021.

As I see it, the Academy Museum, which is the brainchild of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the people who bring you the Oscars – represents a worthy attempt to span the predilections of both the casual moviegoer and the hardcore cineaste. The programs and exhibits announced for its inaugural and beyond are a potpourri of cinephilia. 

Screenings of “The Wizard of Oz,” complete with live orchestra, on Sept. 30, are among the first public events in the main, 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater. Elsewhere in the museum, Dorothy’s ruby slippers – the “Mona Lisa”of this collection – are on proud display, along with an entire room devoted to the making of “The Wizard of Oz.” 

The masterful Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) – a true wizard in his realm – has a full gallery devoted to his lifework. (I can’t wait to visit and see this for myself.) A permanent core exhibition is meant to guide visitors through film history in ways that don’t downplay the racism and sexism that are also a part of that history. Throughout October, the museum will show Oscar-winning or nominated horror films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” which, in the ways it subverts racial tropes, is much more than merely horrific.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, in the works for almost a decade, is officially open as of Sept. 30.

Films by female directors such as Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County, U.S.A.”) and Lina Wertmüller (“Seven Beauties”), the first woman nominated for an Oscar for directing, will be screened. Film composers will be featured in a gallery exhibition curated by Hildur Guðnadóttir, who scored “Joker,” starring Joaquin Phoenix.  

All in all, the museum’s first few months will offer more than 100 film programs and events, including retrospectives of the films of Jane Campion and the great Indian director Satyajit Ray, who was given an honorary Oscar in 1992. Many of his films have been beautifully restored over the years by the academy. I consider his movies the pinnacle of film art. Any opportunity for moviegoers to see them on the big screen is reason enough for the museum to exist. 

Back to those ruby slippers. I have never felt any special attachment to movie artifacts. For those who fetishize remnants, however, the museum has plenty of them (some of which can be viewed online, too), including the alien from “Alien,” the sled from “Citizen Kane,” the Dude’s duds from “The Big Lebowski,” a fiberglass shark dubbed Bruce from “Jaws,” a costume from one of the female guards in “Black Panther,” and a model of C-3PO from “Star Wars.” 

Chris Pizzello/AP/File
A replica of the shark featured in the 1975 film “Jaws” (photo top), dubbed Bruce, is prepared for exhibition at the Academy Museum, Nov. 20, 2020.

For me, movies exist in an imaginary realm that transcends the sheer physicality of props. But I recognize that a museum can be many things to many people, and if Bruce the shark hauls in the tourists, so be it. Then maybe, just maybe, some among them will discover Ray or the films of the remarkable, nearly forgotten 1930s Hollywood actor Anna May Wong, or read about Oscar Micheaux, the first major African American filmmaker, whose career spanned both the silent and sound eras.

The biggest challenge facing the museum, it seems to me, is how to fulfill the mission of Jacqueline Stewart – its chief artistic and programming officer (also an estimable host on Turner Classic Movies). In an announcement from the museum, she says the aim is to “share the art and science of cinema.” How do you decide what to share? How do you determine what is essential to the history of cinema when that essence changes all the time? 

Context is all-important. A film like “Gone With the Wind,” for example, is deeply illustrative of how Hollywood’s racial prejudices have, and have not, evolved. One of the fascinations of films is how they reflect, whether consciously, reflexively, or unknowingly, the temper of the times. They themselves become artifacts of the eras in which they were made. And the best of them, of course, both typify and transcend those eras.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Museumgoers can visit a model from "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," seen here at a recent preview.

All that movies can be

Although a virtual component is impending, the museum, first and foremost, is a celebration of the big-screen experience. This is as it should be. We need to be reminded of the sheer bigness of movies, their power to overwhelm. This is especially important for the younger museumgoers, who may otherwise be content watching movies on a computer screen or smartphone. A new generation of filmgoers – and filmmakers – needs to know all that movies can be. 

A movie museum that attempts to inspire its visitors to think big is more than a glorified exercise in nostalgia. It’s a necessity. It’s also a reminder that the real movie museum is the cathedral of dreams that we movie lovers carry around inside our heads.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. 

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What Washington can agree on

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It has been difficult to find much coolheaded bipartisanship during Washington’s hothouse debate over two spending bills on infrastructure. Yet one aspect has drawn many Democratic and Republican lawmakers together. They want honest accounting for such massive spending, which could top $4 trillion. Fraud and waste of taxpayers’ money serve neither party.

One example is a set of bipartisan bills in the Senate to update the False Claims Act. That statute, called the “Lincoln Law” after being enacted during the Civil War, penalizes anyone who files false claims to the government. After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress pumped more than $800 billion into the economy, but with enough transparency and oversight provisions to be called a relative success in preventing fraud and waste. Similar provisions were put into last year’s CARES Act (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act).

The lesser of the two infrastructure bills in the House does have measures to prevent corruption. Much more can surely be added. But with the recent history of both large and emergency spending since 2008, Washington does have an active and largely bipartisan debate on fraud prevention.

What Washington can agree on

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Members of a band celebrate during a ribbon cutting ceremony to open the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., Sept. 7.

It has been difficult to find much coolheaded bipartisanship during Washington’s hothouse debate over two spending bills on infrastructure. Yet one aspect has drawn many Democratic and Republican lawmakers together. They want honest accounting for such massive spending, which could top $4 trillion. Fraud and waste of taxpayers’ money serve neither party.

One example is a set of bipartisan bills in the Senate to update the False Claims Act. That statute, called the “Lincoln Law” after being enacted during the Civil War, penalizes anyone who files false claims to the government. “In light of the trillions of dollars that Congress has appropriated recently for COVID relief, these bills are needed, more than ever, to fight the significant amounts of fraud that we are already seeing,” says Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress pumped more than $800 billion into the economy, but with enough transparency and oversight provisions to be called a relative success in preventing fraud and waste. The package included $416 million to increase the number of inspectors general. Investigators were able to recover $11 billion from corrupt diversions of the money.

Similar provisions were put into last year’s CARES Act (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) and other related pandemic relief legislation that hav spent some $5 trillion. Critics wanted even tougher measures, especially in protecting whistleblowers. But the Justice Department has been able to recover at least $2 billion from fraudulent claims.

In addition, the CARES Act set up a special group of federal inspectors general called the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. It is now seen as a model in overseeing massive federal programs.

The lesser of the two infrastructure bills in the House does have measures to prevent corruption, such as awarding grants on a competitive basis and allocating money for transparent oversight of spending. Much more can surely be added. But with the recent history of both large and emergency spending since 2008, Washington does have an active and largely bipartisan debate on fraud prevention. Such honest governance may provide a baseline for bipartisanship in passing at least one infrastructure bill.

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.

Our greatest opportunity

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Healing in Christian Science not only includes cures for our ills, but also transforms the way we see the world around us and opens the door to even greater good.

Our greatest opportunity

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

I’ve had some wonderful opportunities in my life, such as being able to go to college and to do some world travel. But since learning about Christian Science, I’ve begun to pursue an opportunity that I find far eclipses any other: the opportunity to gain a more spiritual view of life.

In the late 1800s, a devout Christian by the name of Mary Baker Eddy discovered a scientific approach to Christianity that enables its followers to prove the presence, power, and goodness of God through healing of disease, sins, and other troubles. She named it Christian Science, and it’s based on what Jesus taught and demonstrated 2,000 years ago.

And while it’s a wonderful thing to be cured of a disease, Christian Science offers something even bigger, too – an opportunity that’s embedded in the healing process.

Years ago I had a number of warts on my hands. They sure bothered me, and while there were means for having them removed medically, I was interested in taking this Christian healing approach. My previous experience had shown me that when a problem is healed through prayer in Christian Science, the problem doesn’t return. Also, I find that such prayer leads to a deeper understanding of our nature as it relates to God, and consequently experiencing more of the good that this includes.

Whether we have a problem at the moment or not, there is a subject here that’s worth exploring. Throughout the Bible, and especially in Jesus’ teachings, there’s a message of God and His creation being of a spiritual and not material nature. The book of John explains that “God is a Spirit” (4:24) and “In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (1:4). So the essential, eternal identity of everything is spiritual and perfect like God, and all creation expresses qualities such as intelligence, purpose, and health.

This is more than an intellectual consideration. It points us to an escape from the imperfections, troubles, calamities of matter. We have the innate capacity to know and express in our lives the good news of our flawless, eternal nature as children of God.

That’s what I experienced with those warts, which all disappeared over a period of a few days as a result of a beautiful breakthrough in prayer. I gained more of an awareness of my life in God, and the warts never returned. (You can read more about this healing in my testimony “Prayer took me somewhere I’d never been before” in the Christian Science Sentinel.)

Making a commitment to spiritual growth brings great security, healing, and full opportunity. In her writings, Mrs. Eddy explains the way, and much of it is very pleasant in terms of looking within divine consciousness to know the Love and Spirit that are God and the basis of life.

Sometimes it can seem tougher or more radical. For instance, in Mrs. Eddy’s book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” she urges, “Deny the existence of matter, and you can destroy the belief in material conditions” (p. 368). Denying and doing what denies matter as the substance of our true nature can seem pretty revolutionary. But limits, conditions, processes of matter are not part of what the divine Spirit has put in place. Committing to denying matter or the material view of existence leads the way to healing and freedom even beyond the problem at hand. This is the opportunity to be found in a purely spiritual approach to a problem, which brings about the fullest good for all involved.

Our world today is suffering in a number of ways. And maybe to help us stay motivated to be of help to others, we can see the situation as being a need and even an opportunity to see past material conditions in our lives and discover the spiritual reality. This glorifies our divine creator and opens the door to so much good.

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A home run for charity

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President Joe Biden visits the Republican dugout during the congressional baseball game at Nationals Park, Sept. 29, 2021, in Washington. He is pictured with Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga of Michigan on his right in the foreground and two other players. The annual baseball game between congressional Republicans and Democrats raises money for charity.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when our Erika Page looks at a book club where formerly incarcerated people help each other – and themselves – to find healing.

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