2021
October
14
Thursday

Monitor Daily Podcast

October 14, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Ideals, realities, and the tempering force of pragmatism

Let me share with you one of the more unpopular words in politics and society today: pragmatism. Recently, we had occasion to highlight pragmatism in our cover story about the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In a polarized world, her career was a stark reminder of its power.

Today’s issue throws light on that idea from a different perspective. Our first three stories are about wildly different things: Democrats’ struggle to get their agenda through Congress, China seeking a balance between state control and free enterprise, and nations turning back to coal amid an energy crunch. But running beneath each of them is a common theme: pragmatism.

Will the Democrats find a way to push legislation through, or will the party be undone by its own internal orthodoxies? Can China bend its Communist orthodoxies enough to create better educational opportunities? And how do even the greenest nations meet energy needs when their best-laid plans go awry?

Pragmatism can have the scent of capitulation. But at a time when so few people agree on anything, and solutions can seem so daunting as to feel impossible, pragmatism can also reveal what steps forward are possible now.

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Why Democrats may be facing a generation in the wilderness

Democrats face serious electoral challenges in 2022 and beyond, which raises the stakes for what they're doing now. But does that mean they should aim high or tread lightly?

Mark

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This fall, Democrats have struggled to push their legislative agenda through Congress. They’ve argued among themselves, put off votes, and radically trimmed bills to try to get past the fact that their margin in the House is tissue-thin and in the Senate barely exists.

But what if, in terms of political power, this is as good as it gets for the party for years to come? 

That’s a discussion that’s exploded among activists as they take a hard look at upcoming elections. Democrats could easily lose both the House and Senate in 2022, given the map of seats up for grabs and the truism that the party that holds the White House typically loses ground in midterm votes.

Beyond that, things actually look worse. The concentration of Democratic voters in cities, and the dispersion of Republican voters throughout rural areas, gives the GOP a built-in advantage in the Senate and the Electoral College. Educational polarization may be accelerating this trend.

Given this, some members want to use their current majority to enact as many big, meaningful changes as they can. Others argue if the party is seen as overreaching, it will only further alienate the very voters it must win back if it has any hope of holding onto power.

Why Democrats may be facing a generation in the wilderness

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden arrive to meet with House Democrats to rescue his social and economic agenda, at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 1, 2021.

This fall, Democrats have struggled to push their legislative agenda through Congress. They’ve argued among themselves, put off votes, and radically trimmed bills to try to get past the fact that their margin in the House is tissue-thin and in the Senate barely exists.

But what if, in terms of political power, this is as good as it gets for the Democratic Party for years to come? What if, electorally-speaking, they are doomed? 

That’s a discussion that’s exploded among party activists and officials in recent days as they take a hard look at their prospects in upcoming elections. Democrats could easily lose both the House and Senate in 2022, given the map of seats up for grabs and the truism that the party that holds the White House typically loses ground in midterm votes.

Beyond that, things actually look worse, according to some Democratic strategists and political experts. The concentration of Democratic voters in cities, and the dispersion of Republican voters throughout rural and exurban areas, gives the GOP a built-in advantage in the Senate and the Electoral College. Educational polarization – voters with college degrees moving to Democrats, and non-college voters shifting to the GOP – may be accelerating this geographic trend.

Democrats’ underlying fear is that an era of minority rule may lie ahead. Given the partisan bias of the Electoral College, due to the number of thinly-populated safe red states, Democrats have to win 52% of the popular vote just to have a 50-50 chance of winning the White House, according to one estimate. The Senate has even more of a partisan lean – it may be effectively 6 to 7 points redder than the country as a whole.

Given this situation, and a Republican Party in thrall to former President Donald Trump’s false election conspiracies, what should Democrats do? Some members want to use their current majority to enact as many big, meaningful changes as they can – believing this may be their last chance for a while. Others argue if the party is seen as overreaching, it will only further alienate the very voters it must win back if it has any hope of holding onto power.

At the heart of this debate among Democrats is a key issue: is it possible, or desirable, to win back some of the white working-class voters who have moved en masse to Mr. Trump in recent years?

“In an era when so much of this is no longer worked out behind closed doors, we are seeing the Democratic Party negotiating among its members in public. That’s really instructive,” says Daniel Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Whose voices do they want to elevate?” 

Eric Gay/AP
Democratic congressional candidate Rochelle Garza, second from right, holds a conversation over issues at a backyard house party in Brownsville, Texas on Sept. 24, 2021. A push to combat climate change could create political liabilities in energy rich areas, including South Texas, where winning Hispanic voters back could prove critical to the party's hopes of retaining control of Congress during next year's midterms.

Is ‘popularism’ the way forward?

The discussion about the Democratic Party’s future has been simmering for some time, but hit a boil last week when New York Times writer Ezra Klein published a lengthy interview with David Shor, a Democratic data expert whose electoral outlook for the party is particularly gloomy.

The bad news for Democrats is rooted in structural imbalance, in Mr. Shor’s view. The Senate privileges rural states – Wyoming has as much power in the chamber as California. The GOP created some Western states in the late 1800s, such as North and South Dakota and Montana, in part to provide reliable party votes, which they still do.

Overlaid on that today is a Democratic coalition that’s increasingly diverse and urban. In recent years, college-educated voters have moved toward Democrats, and non-college-educated voters – both white as well as some Black and Hispanic – have become increasingly Republican. The Trump era accelerated that movement, locking in the GOP’s ability to win national power with a minority of votes.

To break this cycle, Democrats need to win back states that lean Republican, according to Mr. Shor. But at its top levels, the party is dominated by a cosmopolitan, progressive elite that doesn’t understand rural and working-class voters.

Mr. Shor’s answer to this is something that, for lack of a better word, pundits call “popularism”: Find out what residents of GOP-leaning states want, and then talk mostly about those things. More “Add dental coverage to Medicare,” Less “Defund the police.”

A closely divided country

One rejoinder to the assertion that Democrats are about to step over a political abyss is that the history of recent partisan division shows the U.S. to be a closely divided country in which neither party is completely out of power for long – but neither controls the White House and both chambers of Congress for very long, either. 

Since 1980, America has held 11 presidential elections. Republicans have won six, and Democrats five. 

Add in midterm congressional elections, and since 1980 Democrats have won a majority in the House 11 times, and Republicans 10. In the Senate those numbers are reversed: Republicans have won control 11 times, and Democrats 10.

Past results don’t ensure future ones, and most experts agree that Democrats face an uphill climb in the Senate. But they are a reminder that contingencies matter. Four years ago, who predicted Georgia would vote for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020, and elect two Democratic senators?

“I don’t think they are facing a generation in the wilderness,” says Professor Hopkins.

That said, Democrats pursue political power for a different reason than Republicans, Dr. Hopkins adds. Democrats have policy agendas they pursue, and legislative items to enact, in part due to demands from the diverse factions of their party coalition. Movement requires the trifecta – control of the presidency, House, and Senate. That’s something they’ve achieved after only three elections since 1980.

Thus the current push for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and $2 trillion social spending legislation, despite narrow margins of congressional control. Party leaders worry this may be their last window to make big changes on pressing issues such as climate change and help for working parents for some time.

As to “popularism,” some experts think it overstates the power of political communication, and the power of political parties to brand themselves. In an age of instant social media Democratic activists will do their best to push forward their own issues even if they contravene leaders’ intentions. The thriving conservative news universe will do its best to stamp Democrats as the party of “critical race theory” and the cancellation of Dr. Seuss.

And calling for renewed attention to low-education voters in red states may implicitly mean, “play down issues important to Black and Hispanic communities in an effort to regain white working-class votes.”

“The meta data point that I think Shor misunderstands is the country’s changing racial composition,” says Steve Phillips, founder of the political media organization Democracy in Color and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

A changing electorate

The U.S. is rapidly approaching a population in which people of color will represent a majority, says Mr. Phillips. Close to 90% of Black voters support the Democratic Party, he says. Since 1986, an average of 79% of people of color have voted Democratic.

In the 2020 election, President Joe Biden won 7 million more votes from people of color than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, Mr. Phillips notes. 

Donald Trump had a larger increase in voters of color, causing some Democrats to worry about their party’s erosion among Hispanic and Black conservative men, in particular. But Democrats still win large majorities of non-white voters, Mr. Phillips notes.

“If the lion’s share of one sector of the population supports Democrats, and that sector is getting bigger, than that does not translate into decades in the wilderness,” he says.

Instead of funding communication strategies for red-leaning states, the party hierarchy should spend money on replicating what former state representative and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams accomplished in Georgia, says Mr. Phillips. She organized at the grassroots level and flipped her state blue.

“You need to move many millions of dollars into civic engagement groups who work in communities of color to increase the voter turnout of those communities,” he says. “That’s what happened in Georgia, Virginia, and Arizona, and that’s why all those states have gone Democratic.”

Cram school is out, forever. Why Chinese parents aren’t rejoicing.

China’s long-running tussle between state control and free enterprise is entering a new phase. Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s latest target is connected to his push to reduce inequality.

Mark
Kin Cheung/AP/File
Students wait to attend tutoring sessions after school at an academy in Hong Kong, Dec. 4, 2013. In Hong Kong, attending an after-school tutorial academy is standard practice for many students.

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Many Chinese parents feel compelled to enroll their children in after-school tutoring to prepare them for a standardized university entrance exam that determines if they get a spot at top universities. That has given rise to a $100 billion for-profit tutoring industry that provided job opportunities for recent university graduates. 

In recent months, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has all but sunk many private tutoring firms by banning weekend classes and blocking foreign investment, among other sweeping restrictions. This has wiped billions of dollars in value from stocks in those companies.

The squeeze on tutoring is part of a broader crackdown on sectors of China’s economy in which private companies are judged to have been given too free a hand to make profits. Mr. Xi has expressed concern about rising inequality in China and cast his campaign as an effort to put “common prosperity” first. 

But Mr. Xi confronts major challenges to reducing inequality. And canceling weekend cram schools may not matter to the rich who can afford private tutors, while putting pressure on middle-class families for whom such classes functioned as child care while they worked. 

“We have to spend more time educating them on weekends and holidays,” says Li Liangjie, the father of two young sons. 

Cram school is out, forever. Why Chinese parents aren’t rejoicing.

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Over the past decade, Wang Wenjing rose in the ranks of China’s private tutoring industry, advancing from teaching English to managing operations in one of the country’s biggest online cram schools.

But since the government announced sweeping restraints on private tutoring this summer – part of Beijing’s campaign to tighten the reins on large swaths of the private sector – Ms. Wang has watched the once booming business free fall.

Dozens of new rules published in July forbid for-profit tutoring of core school subjects and banned such teaching on weekends and holidays, while barring the tutoring companies from raising capital or receiving foreign investment. The measures have crushed the value of an industry once estimated to be worth more than $100 billion.

Ms. Wang, who is operations director at Homework Help in Beijing, expects many tutoring firms to go bankrupt. “Many of my friends and colleagues lost their jobs in July or August and still have not found other work,” she says by phone from Beijing. Homework Help had to close nine of its 14 branches in cities around the country and has laid off about half of its workforce, or about 20,000 people, she says.

The sudden blow to Ms. Wang’s industry is just one example of how Chinese leader Xi Jinping has taken aim at what are considered the excesses of capitalism in the country. Among the targets of the government’s new policies, regulations, and fines are online marketplace Alibaba, ride-hailing app Didi, and food-delivery platform Meituan, along with real estate developers and the video-gaming industry.

Florence Lo/Reuters
The sign of the online learning app of Chinese private tutoring service provider Gaotu Techedu Inc. is seen next to its mobile app in this photo illustration taken Aug. 20, 2021. China has cracked down on for-profit tutoring companies, erasing billions of dollars in value from their stocks.

Mr. Xi has called for-profit tutoring a “stubborn malady” that has driven up the cost of education, burdening families and discouraging couples from having more children as China’s population grays.

Many Chinese parents feel compelled to enroll their children in after-school tutoring – often starting as early as kindergarten – to prepare them for a standardized university entrance exam and give them an advantage in the intense competition for spots at top universities.

The overarching goal of Mr. Xi’s campaign is what he calls “common prosperity,” a Maoist-era political slogan. In the late 1970s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping upended that model of collective ownership to allow, in his words, “some people and regions” to “get rich first.” Under that formula, China’s market economy took off, generating vast new wealth over the past 40 years, but also great inequality, worse than that in India and slightly less than in the United States, according to World Bank data.

Today, Mr. Xi seeks a middle way between egalitarianism and capitalism – one that strikes a balance between expanding China’s economic pie and dividing it more equally. He is highlighting a new vision of “common prosperity” as a unifying theme leading up to next fall’s 20th Party Congress, at which Mr. Xi is expected to claim a third term as Communist Party general secretary, breaking with recent precedent.

“Common prosperity is an essential requirement of socialism,” Mr. Xi told a meeting of the party’s Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs in August, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

“Social fairness”

In affirming his support for the large population of Chinese who are less well off, Mr. Xi is underscoring his faith in Marxism and the party’s ultimate goals, while also keeping the wealthiest entrepreneurs in check. The aim is to “expand the size of the middle-income group, increase earnings for the low-income groups, [and] adjust excessive incomes … to promote social fairness,” Xinhua said the meeting stressed.

But Mr. Xi confronts major challenges to reducing inequality. China is experiencing mounting economic pressures, as the rate of growth and productivity continues to fall and the population ages.

Such trends leave only a limited window of about a decade for China to attempt to maintain robust growth, say experts in China’s economy. This time crunch, in turn, partly explains why Mr. Xi has adopted some heavy-handed regulatory policies to try to force change in big businesses such as private tutoring. Mr. Xi’s model is one of accelerating top-down state intervention in the market that China expert Barry Naughton describes as “grand steerage.”

“Xi demonstrates a desire to directly shape many aspects of China’s economic, physical and cultural reality,” says Professor Naughton, a China economy expert at the University of California, San Diego. “The impending 20th Party Congress definitely explains the timing, because it puts pressure on Xi now to come up with a big, over-arching program … that justifies his ascension to a new level of power,” he says. “That probably explains the ‘common prosperity’ slogan.”

Indeed, concern that the wave of regulation, along with other factors, will hurt China’s manufacturing engine and prospects for economic growth is already being reflected in U.S. financial firms’ lower projections for the expansion of China’s gross domestic product in the fourth quarter.

For example, restrictions on the private tutoring business are hurting the job prospects of recent college graduates. The unemployment rate for Chinese 16 to 24 years old was 15.3% in August, according to official statistics, as a record 9.09 million students graduated this year.

Ms. Wang says her company alone normally hires about 5,000 college graduates each year but has had to rescind most of its job offers. “We told them I’m sorry, but your offer is canceled,” she says.

Reuters/File
Chinese university students apply for private tutoring jobs outside an employment agency in Xian, Shaanxi province, July 22, 2001. The students were eager to find summer jobs to offset rising tuition costs in China.

Interviews with private tutors and parents raise questions about whether China’s crackdown on the industry is having the intended impacts of reducing inequality, easing educational costs and pressures on families, and thereby encouraging couples to have more children.

Zhang Xiaoyan, the upwardly mobile daughter of farmers, says her income working for a private tutoring startup has fallen by almost half to about $780 a month. Each week, Ms. Zhang travels about five hours to teach Chinese to elementary school students in Shandong province. But since weekend classes were canceled and replaced with weekday evening sessions, she must pay to stay in a dormitory near the school during the week, not just on weekends, further draining her income.

While she supports the government’s goal of easing pressure on families and students, Ms. Zhang says it has come at a high personal cost. Her plan to move to another city to advance her tutoring career has been dashed. “I never thought this would happen so fast,” she says.

Chinese parents also question whether the policy will level the playing field of China’s ultra-competitive education system. “For the rich people, I believe they can find better education resources at any time,” says Li Liangjie, the father of two sons ages 5 and 9 in Luoyang, Henan province. Since wealthy Chinese can afford individual tutors to replace cram school classes, middle-class families who can’t may end up losing out.

But some people, including professors, support the new policy, saying China’s education rat race is making children miserable and sapping their thirst to learn once they reach the coveted universities.

Chinese university students “are not just burnt out, they have no motivation,” says Professor Dingxin Zhao, dean of the sociology department at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China. “They are so smart and well trained. They are like professional piano players. They can watch U.S. movies without translation. But they don’t read, they are very lethargic, and if you ask for homework, they go to Google,” he says.

Weekend classes put on hold

The restrictions on private tutoring have complicated life for Chinese parents who rely on weekend classes for child care. A manager at a state-owned manufacturing firm, Mr. Li and his wife must work on Saturday, when their sons used to study English.

“We have to spend more time educating them on weekends and holidays,” he says. “I believe that all parents who care about their children’s education will not let them play all day. From this perspective, cram schools are more economical choices.”

For Chen Yahui, an English tutor and the mother of two sons, the restrictions on for-profit tutoring have been a double whammy – sharply reducing her salary at one cram school and cutting the weekend Chinese classes that her older son attended at another cram school. Ms. Chen says in some ways the new policy has added to parents’ burden.

As for the possibility of having a third child – allowed this year when the government lifted a two-child limit after census data revealed sharply falling birthrates – Ms. Chen says it’s out of the question, both for her and for most people she knows.

The costs of having another child, income lost during pregnancy, and the time and energy required for child-rearing are simply too much, she says. “No one is considering a third child,” she says.

Ms. Chen is personally torn between the obligation she feels now to tutor her own children – and her preference not to cross the line between her role as a mother and that of a teacher.

“I may have more responsibility to help them at home. This puts pressure on my time and energy,” she says. Before, “I just had the role of ‘mama.’”

Patterns

Tracing global connections

New scramble for coal a reminder of how hard it is to go green

On the eve of a climate summit calling for lower carbon emissions, demand for fossil fuels has spiked. That could shift the focus to the nuts-and-bolts business of actual achievements.

Mark

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It’s ironic, to say the least. Just weeks before a global climate summit where governments will be asked to pledge ever lower carbon emissions, demand for fossil fuels is surging.

That’s partly because the economic rebound from COVID-19 lockdowns is stronger than expected, partly because of cold weather in China, partly because winds have not been blowing hard enough in Europe to power wind farms.

But the sudden spike in demand for coal and natural gas certainly raises the stakes for the most important climate change conference since the 2015 Paris Agreement, taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. It also serves as a stark reminder of just how far the world’s developed economies remain from kicking their carbon habit.

It may also have the salutary effect of shifting the summit’s focus away from announcing targets and commitments, toward the nuts-and-bolts business of actually meeting them.

That would please Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, who complained recently that governments’ promises of greener policies were just “blah, blah, blah.”

“This is all we hear from our so-called leaders,” she said. “Words that sound great, but so far have led to no action.”

New scramble for coal a reminder of how hard it is to go green

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Virginia Mayo/AP
Steam billows from a nuclear power plant next to utility lines in Doel, Belgium. Weeks before leaders gather for a U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, scientific reports are warning that more needs to be done to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

In the blue corner, the world’s accelerating drive to stem carbon emissions and turn back global warming. In the red corner, a sudden spike this month in global demand for fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal.

There’s a heavyweight fight going on over energy priorities, and it has dramatically raised the stakes for the most important international climate change conference since the Paris Agreement of 2015, due to open in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of the month.

But it has also done something else, which could fundamentally change the debate over climate change: It has provided a stark reminder of just how far the world’s developed economies remain from kicking their carbon habit.

And it is shifting the focus away from the fine words of targets and commitments toward the nuts-and-bolts business of actually meeting them amid real-world economic pressures and technological constraints.

As ever, it was Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, whose climate activism has spurred a worldwide youth movement, who put it most succinctly. Promises of greener policies from the United States, Britain, and a number of other governments were “blah, blah, blah,” she declared last month.

“This is all we hear from our so-called leaders: words that sound great, but so far have led to no action,” she told a youth climate conference convened as part of the run-up to Glasgow.

None of this reduces the importance of the declared goals of the Glasgow summit – significantly tighter commitments to emissions cuts by the advanced economies along with billions of dollars to help poorer countries go greener. Without that, climate experts reaffirmed last month, there’s simply no prospect of meeting the Paris aim of leveling off global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius – 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit – above pre-industrial levels. 

Yet even amid final preparations for the summit, Britain, mainland European nations, and China were all scrambling for increased supplies of fossil fuels to keep industries running, lights turned on, and homes heated. 

Mark Schiefelbein/AP/File
Smoke and steam rise from chimneys at a Chinese coal-fired power plant. A recent report by Climate Action Tracker says China, the world's top carbon emitter, has taken “highly insufficient” measures to meet global warming targets agreed in 2015.

Why now? The pandemic has played a part. When COVID-19 forced economies to slow or shut down, demand for energy fell, and production and supply along with it. Now, the economic rebound has been far stronger than forecast.

Climate, ironically, is also partly responsible.

In China, last year’s unexpectedly cold winter hiked demand for fuel. To meet that demand, the government depleted its supplies of natural gas, because the Chinese authorities had begun to wean their country off the highest-emitting fuel of all, coal.

In Europe, despite new investment in wind power, uncommonly calm weather conditions in the North Sea have stilled turbines, limiting their ability to take up the slack.

Nuclear power might have helped in the past. Yet many countries have shied away from approving new reactors since the 2011 reactor accident in Fukushima, Japan. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has cut its nuclear power generation by 75% since 2011 and will eliminate it entirely next year.

China has brought its huge financial heft to an international bidding war for tight natural gas supplies. But it still has had to impose power restrictions as winter again begins to bite, and the government is ordering coal suppliers to ramp up production again. It may even have to ease its trade sanctions on Australia – imposed in retaliation against the Australians’ call for an inquiry into the origin of COVID-19 – and resume coal imports from there.

Before all of this, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, the key cheerleaders for a breakthrough agreement in Glasgow, had been pressing for additional commitments to move away from coal. That’s still their hope – but against a real-world background where even ambitious new pledges will be viewed more skeptically.

Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters
Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks as she joins students holding a Fridays for Future climate strike. She has dismissed government pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions as "blah, blah, blah" and called for concrete action.

“We can still turn this around,” Ms. Thunberg said, but only with “drastic annual emission cuts, unlike anything the world has ever seen.”

That scale of action seems far beyond what Glasgow is likely to accomplish, especially amid the current energy crunch. Mr. Kerry, in an otherwise upbeat take this week on what to expect, said the aim was to use the conference to create a “critical mass” of new emissions commitments that would keep the 1.5 degrees C target “in reach.”

But Ms. Thunberg’s impatience was echoed by one of the expected speakers in Glasgow, Britain’s Prince Charles, a longtime advocate of green causes.

Echoing her words, the heir to the British throne told the BBC it was a good thing that representatives of nearly 200 countries would be meeting in a few weeks’ time to discuss how to combat climate change.

“But they just talk,” he added. “The problem is to get action.” 

‘My talent is in the water.’ Black South Africans embrace kayaking.

Black South Africans, who were once excluded from kayaking, have embraced the sport in Soweto, where a Black-run club brings new talent to the fore. 

Mark
Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Juliet Mzibeli (front) is 12 and has been kayaking with the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (SCARC) since she was nine.

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South Africans love sports, but the legacies of segregation and colonialism cast a long shadow, particularly when it comes to integration in sports. There are controversial racial quotas for national teams in most major sports. But for the 75 young Black kayakers that paddle for a club in Soweto, their generation believes they can play whichever sport they choose.  

The Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club is run by Nkosi Mzolo, a firefighter and paramedic, who learned to paddle as a youth and has since competed many times in Africa’s largest kayak race along the Msunduzi River. Most young paddlers must first learn how to swim before they can dip a paddle. Under apartheid, Black South Africans were barred from most pools and beaches, so many Black parents today can’t teach their kids how to swim because they don’t know themselves. 

The club is free to members and raises money from sponsors so that paddlers can participate in regional competitions. Just as important as competing for trophies is that the club, founded in 2003, has given thousands of kids a passion they might never have otherwise found. 

“My talent is in the water,” says Chwayita Fanteni, who is 16 and has been paddling for three years. “I like the energy I get from winning.” 

‘My talent is in the water.’ Black South Africans embrace kayaking.

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As a kid growing up in South Africa, Nkosi Mzolo and his friends had a front-row seat each summer to Africa’s largest river kayak race, a 75-mile endurance paddle over bone-rattling rapids.

But as he sat on the banks of the Msunduzi River near Durban watching the paddlers stream by in a rainbow of bright spandex, he couldn’t imagine being in their shoes. “I thought that was a sport for white people,” he says.

But Mr. Mzolo happened to grow up straddling a revolution. When he was born, in 1988, Black South Africans like Mr. Mzolo couldn’t vote or live in most parts of the country, let alone play sports with white people. By the time he was 12, though, paddling was changing in post-apartheid South Africa.

A local Black kayaker invited Mr. Mzolo to learn the sport. Then in 2007, Mr. Mzolo caught the attention of a wealthy, white hobby kayaker in Johannesburg, who paid for him to train as a firefighter and paramedic, and eventually hired him as a kayaking coach. Now Mr. Mzolo runs a canoe club that trains Black paddlers, opening up a world to them, just as it opened to him.

“Canoeing pulled my life off the course it was on and put me on a different one,” he says.

Today, he coaches more than 75 young, Black kayakers in Soweto, near Johannesburg, hoping the sport, known to South Africans as canoeing, might do the same for them. “I want to give them something in their lives to look forward to,” he says.

In a sports-mad country still wrestling with the legacies of segregation and colonialism, integration in sports is a deeply political issue. During apartheid, South Africa was banned from international competitions like the Olympics for refusing to send racially mixed teams. Today, there are controversial racial quotas for the national teams in most major sports. But Mr. Mzolo’s paddlers are part of a generation that grew up thinking they could play whichever sport they chose.  

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Members of the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club practice near the Orlando Cooling Towers, which were built in the 1950s to help provide electricity to white residents of Johannesburg, while nearby Black residents of Soweto lived in darkness.

The club Mr. Mzolo now leads, the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (SCARC), was started in 2003 by Brad Fisher, the advertising executive and paddler who sponsored Mr. Mzolo’s education. He later hired Mr. Mzolo, who was working as a gardener in Johannesburg, as one of the club’s early coaching recruits.

Since then, the club has trained some of the country’s top Black paddlers. Mr. Mzolo himself has gone on to finish the Dusi Canoe Marathon, the long-haul race he watched as a boy, 17 times. But more importantly for coaches like Mr. Mzolo, the club has given thousands of kids a passion they might never have otherwise found.

“My talent is in the water,” says Chwayita Fanteni, who is 16 and has been paddling for three years. “I like the energy I get from winning.” 

On a recent afternoon, as cars buzzed past nearby on an arterial road, Ms. Fanteni dipped her paddle into the Orlando Dam and pushed off, joining her teammates on a paddle around the 1.5-mile long dam. Behind them, the sun ducked behind a pair of decommissioned electrical cooling towers.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Nhlamulo Mahwayi (left) and Juliet Mzibeli finish a practice with the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club on Sept. 27, 2021. Both 12-year-olds have been with the club since they were nine. Their goal, both say, is to compete in the Olympics.

The young paddlers trained at SCARC compete in a league with teams across Gauteng, the province where Johannesburg is located, and often travel across the country for races. Gauteng has 16 recreational paddling clubs, scattered across formerly white and Black areas. South Africans have had kayaking success on the world stage, including Hank McGregor, who has won 11 gold medals at the Canoe Marathon World Championships.

For the young paddlers training at Power Park in Soweto, there is also an idol closer to home. Siseko Ntondini, an elite kayaker who was the first Black paddler to make the podium at the Dusi, grew up in an informal settlement not far from here, and got his start at SCARC.

“My goal is to go to Russia. For the Olympics,” says Nhlamulo Mahwayi, who is 12 and has been training with SCARC since he was nine. So far, he’s only been as far as Cape Town, which he rates as “so fun and so clean. I saw people surfing.”

Like many of the young paddlers here, when Mr. Mahwayi joined the club in 2018, he didn’t know how to swim.

“Ninety-five percent of these kids, I would say, they come here not knowing how to swim at all,” says Mr. Mzolo. That too is a legacy of apartheid, which barred Black South Africans from most pools and beaches. Today, many parents never teach their kids how to swim because they themselves don’t know how to.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Members of the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club gather after practice near the Orlando Dam, where they train, Sept. 27, 2021.

New recruits to SCARC, then, often spend months in a nearby public pool before they ever dip a paddle in the water.

“No, it wasn’t hard. It just took time,” says Juliet Mzibeli, who is also 12 and has been canoeing since she was nine. Her answers are short and blunt. She doesn’t have time to speak to a journalist for long – the few hours between the end of school and sunset are precious, and they’re for canoeing.

Mr. Mzolo comes here when he can, when he isn’t working a night shift as a firefighter and paramedic, or sleeping one off; on other days he sends his junior coaches, young men who came up through the club themselves. It’s exhausting, he says, but nowhere near the worry he felt last year when the club was closed for five months during South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown.

During those months, he spent his days rushing COVID-19 patients to hospitals, and his nights wondering how his athletes were doing, many attempting to do homeschooling with no internet, computers, or even sometimes electricity. Some lived in informal settlements with no reliable water or power. Many of their parents had lost their jobs.

With public facilities like parks and dams closed, the club couldn’t train. Mr. Mzolo went door to door visiting his athletes and bringing food parcels to their families – just as he often did before the pandemic. The club, which is free to join, raises money from corporate sponsorships and personal donations to cover the cost of equipment and entry fees for competitions.

In 2007, a young paddler in the club drowned during a training here. “After he died, we tried to understand what had happened, because he knew how to swim,” Mr. Mzolo says. “The only thing that we could think is that he didn’t have much strength because maybe he came to training hungry.”

Since then, he says, the club has provided monthly food parcels to all its members. On a recent afternoon, the coaches arrived in a minibus loaded with heavy bags of cornmeal, rice, tinned beans, and oil, enough for every athlete to take home a share.

“Looking at myself, I started where these kids are,” he says. “Now I’m trying to be part of their journey.”

Essay

An autumn harvest of joy – and apples

Do not despair of the computer generation’s zeal for nature, our essayist argues. Given an introduction and some coaching, they may run you ragged.

Mark
Andreas Arnold/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP/File
A mother gives her daughter a boost to pick apples in an orchard in Hessen, Germany. Pick-your-own harvesters receive an excellent discount here.

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Apple trees can live to tremendous ages. Their hardiness crescendos with the advent of the apple harvest. 

The joy of apple picking is contagious. I invited Sebastian, a little boy I mentor in the Big Brothers program, to come along on the adventure. Skeptical that something unrelated to the computer could be fun, he nevertheless joined me. On the ride to the orchard I taught the lad to pronounce Spitzenberg, Nonpareil, and Hubbardston Nonesuch – three types of apples. 

A child learns fast. Within minutes, Sebastian was a resident species. He ran down the long rows of trees, calling out to me, “Macouns! I found the Macouns!”

As I watched Sebastian scurry among the trees, it struck me that the tables had turned: He was the teacher, and I the child being taught by example that apple picking is, at root, joyous.

We filled our canvas totes, but for Sebastian it wasn’t enough. “But there are still so many apples left,” he lamented, as if it were our duty to pick them all. I spoke quietly to him about the idea of sharing and sufficiency. He relented when I promised that there would be future apple harvests. 

I didn’t dare tell him that I was simply tired.

An autumn harvest of joy – and apples

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Apple trees are not generally graceful things. There’s a kind of determined gnarliness about them, a tendency to go every which way in the joints. Like children, they can be wayward, as if saying, “You can tend me, but don’t try to bend me.” They can live to tremendous ages, and they are able to withstand all manner of insults, from brutal Maine winters to searingly hot summers to lightning strikes. Through it all they go on bearing, defiantly, as if every affront were a fresh invigoration.

This virtue of hardiness crescendos with the advent of the apple harvest. All along the roadways the signs go up: “Pick your own!”

I never have to be told twice. 

I have found that apple orchardists are some of the most dedicated and impassioned folks around. If they were singers or poets, their verses would be full of the most wonderful syllables: Esopus Spitzenburg, Orange Pippin, Summer Rambo, Westfield Seek-No-Further, Old Nonpareil, Northern Spy, Sops of Wine ... 

It is the allure of these names that draws me to local orchards, where I am often greeted like a prodigal, too long gone from apple picking. Now, having mended my ways, I’ve returned with my canvas tote bags.

I am convinced that the joy of apple picking is contagious. To this end, during the recent apple season, I invited Sebastian, a little boy I mentor in the Big Brothers program, to come along on the adventure. Skeptical at first that something unrelated to the computer could be fun, he nevertheless joined me. On the ride to the orchard I talked up the apples big time, teaching the lad to pronounce Spitzenberg, Nonpareil, and Hubbardston Nonesuch. Then I challenged him to say them backward. By the time we arrived at the orchard, he was primed and eager. 

A child, having empty pockets and a mind uncluttered with responsibilities, learns fast. Within minutes of our arrival Sebastian had adapted to the environment of the orchard, as if he were a resident species in his own right. I could barely keep up as he ran down the long rows of trees, calling out to me, “Macouns! I found the Macouns!”

Apple picking is rewarding. It’s fun. It’s also an education. And, needless to say, it’s work. From the tart, smallish Pink Lady to the sweet, grapefruit-sized Wolf River, an orchard offers variety in size, heft, and, of course, taste. As I watched little Sebastian scurry among the trees, straining to reach the biggest apple, or the reddest, or simply what he judged to be the prettiest, it struck me that the tables had been turned: He was the teacher, and I the child being taught by example that apple picking is, at root, a joyous enterprise.

We filled our totes to overflowing, but for Sebastian it wasn’t enough. Turning back toward the trees, he lamented, “But there are still so many apples left,” as if it were our duty to pick them all. I spoke quietly to him about the idea of sharing and sufficiency. He nodded, but I could still feel the longing in his heart for just one more McIntosh or Honeycrisp

He seemed to relent only when I promised, insofar as it was mine to promise, that there would be future apple harvests. (I didn’t dare tell him that I was simply tired.)

As we drove home, the car filled with the achingly sweet aroma of fresh, fresh apples, my last thoughts before dropping Sebastian off with his gleanings were the words of Robert Frost, who seems to have been witness to our experience (in “After Apple-Picking”):

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill

... and there may be two or three

Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

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When kids hit homers in China

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Sports can lift young people’s attitude by raising their sense of accomplishment. In China today, where baseball is a relatively minor sport, a documentary film released last year called “Tough Out” is telling the story of how youth baseball has transformed the lives of so-called left-behind children, orphans or those abandoned by parents unable to care for them. Sun Lingfeng, a former captain of China’s Olympic baseball team, formed the baseball program to help these children gain a better sense of themselves and to provide the opportunity for a brighter future. The film has won popularity and acclaim in China.

The film’s director, Xu Huijing, who knew nothing about baseball when he began the project, said he wanted to show that these children were not beyond help, that “human nature is good. ... No matter the circumstances, no matter how bad the situation, that ‘goodness’ is always there.”

Young people, even those seeming to be weighed down by poverty or low self-esteem, can find this higher gift that sports provide. When given the opportunity to express themselves on an athletic field, they can drop that baggage – and soar.

When kids hit homers in China

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A 13-year-old third baseman cannot catch a foul ball during the Little League World Series Championship in August in Williamsport, PA.

Sports are regularly touted as a boon to the young – not just because they involve exercise. Sports can teach teamwork, patience, and learning how to lose (or not get your own way) gracefully. In the 21st century, sports also offer youth a break from digital screens.

Sports can lift young people’s attitude by raising their sense of accomplishment. In the late 19th century, institutions housing patients with depression or other mental ills often formed baseball teams. “The beneficial effect of the national game upon those whose minds have been depressed or disturbed is very marked,” noted one report in 1899. “The patients in whom it had hitherto been impossible to arouse a healthy interest in anything, seemed to awaken and become brighter at the crack of the sharp base hit.”

In China today, where baseball is a relatively minor sport, a documentary film released last year called “Tough Out” is telling the story of how youth baseball has transformed the lives of so-called left-behind children, orphans or those abandoned by parents unable to care for them. Sun Lingfeng, a former captain of China’s Olympic baseball team, formed the baseball program to help these children gain a better sense of themselves and to provide the opportunity for a brighter future.

The film has won popularity and acclaim in China. The young players have even been able to visit the United States. Some, Mr. Sun hopes, may eventually earn scholarships to colleges or even play professionally.

The film’s director, Xu Huijing, who knew nothing about baseball when he began the project, said he wanted to show that these children were not beyond help, that “human nature is good. ... No matter the circumstances, no matter how bad the situation, that ‘goodness’ is always there.”

Many youth baseball programs around the U.S. also aim to support underserved kids. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, former major league player Morris Madden has founded the Metro Reds, a program that makes baseball affordable and available to disadvantage youths. “We’re here not to make Major League Baseball players. We’re here to make major league citizens,” Mr. Madden told a local television station. “Nine out of 10 kids that come through our program at least start higher-level education after high school.”

Right now, the MLB playoffs in the U.S. are determining the two teams that will face each other in the World Series, beginning Oct. 26. Fans with patience for the more leisurely pace of baseball compared with, say, football or basketball, are being rewarded with displays of remarkable athleticism and grace, as well as mental skills such as poise and perseverance. At its best, the sport is not so much about who can achieve fame and fortune but who best exemplifies those enduring qualities.

Young people, even those seeming to be weighed down by poverty or low self-esteem, can find this higher gift that sports provide. When given the opportunity to express themselves on an athletic field, they can drop that baggage – and soar.

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.

‘Keeping watch’ as we watch the news

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How can we consume the news in a productive, regenerating way? Starting from a spiritual standpoint is a valuable first step.

‘Keeping watch’ as we watch the news

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Over the past few years I’d been spending a lot more time watching television news, and news alerts were pinging on my phone, demanding, “Stop everything and read me now!” While there’s value in being informed about what’s going on in the world around us, this felt almost like an addiction. I’ve found, though, that “blissful” ignorance isn’t a solution, either.

In thinking about this, an idea I’ve found so helpful is that God, good, is the one divine Mind. This all-knowing Mind can know nothing unlike itself, so it can’t actually know evil. Referring to this infinite Mind, God, the Bible says, “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Habakkuk 1:13).

As God’s creation, the reflection of Mind, we have an inherent inclination to love our neighbor as ourselves – but not through obsessive preoccupation with what’s going on around us, looking the other way, or declaring that we are above it all. We can strive instead to watch or read the news as disciples following the example of Christ Jesus, who fearlessly confronted evil in the name of Almighty God, and who healed multitudes even as he was moved with compassion for them.

In other words, we can consume news as a dedicated spiritual thinker and healer, rather than as a helpless, frustrated onlooker. Here are some things I’ve learned about putting this into practice.

First, we can notice any anger, prejudice, ignorance, or lack – common themes presented in the news – coming to our own consciousness. It might seem that these disturbing things are “out there” in the thoughts of others and that we can’t control them. But we can search our own thought and root these traits out there.

That’s not always easy! They may be very subtle and seem perfectly justified. But Jesus taught us to cast the log out of our own eye before we try to remove the splinter from another’s (see Matthew 7:3-5). And as God’s own children, the expression of divine goodness, we are inherently capable of nurturing qualities such as patience, fairness, and generosity in the way we think about and interact with others.

Second, we can abandon the self-focused approach of consuming news merely to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe or to reinforce our own opinions. We can be motivated by genuine, God-inspired care and concern for people outside our inner circle.

Third, we can refuse to accept as intractable any social, political, or other discord, no matter how severe the particular circumstances might seem. Mary Baker Eddy, a follower of Jesus and the discoverer of Christian Science, wrote, “No evidence before the material senses can close my eyes to the scientific proof that God, good, is supreme” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 277). Each day we can take this stand. We can challenge fear, skepticism, or jaded feelings with the truth that “God, good, is supreme.”

Of course, merely quoting such statements or simply thinking about them doesn’t bring about the needed transformation, but understanding and living in accordance with these ideals does much for our own regeneration and contributes to making the world a better place. It’s about actively turning to God, divine Love, to find solutions, and letting this Love replace discordant thinking with Christly, healing compassion.

For instance, I’ve found it’s important to be merciful in our thoughts about those tasked with either reporting or commenting on social issues. Even though we might disagree with the substance of information or the way in which it’s conveyed, we can strive to let divine Truth and Love, rather than self-righteousness and self-justification, guide our own thoughts.

Finally, we can celebrate the good we do see as we watch or read the news, and recognize this good as evidence of God’s irresistible power. This means being alert to progress, expecting it, and rejoicing in it when it happens. When we do that, we find that we look at the world not with fear, frustration, or ignorance, but with a deeper love, a purer peace, and an expectant trust in God, good.

Adapted from an article published in the Sept. 6, 2021, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Attention to detail

Fayaz Aziz/Reuters
Ismail, a painter, paints a decoration piece at his studio in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Oct. 14, 2021.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when we look at a French town where the nation’s first elected official with Down syndrome is proving that her unique perspective is an asset to her community.

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