2021
October
15
Friday

Monitor Daily Podcast

October 15, 2021
Loading the player...

TODAY’S INTRO

Prize-winning ‘toxic avenger’ turns Superfund sites into art

Peter Grier
Washington editor

Old coal mines. Shuttered auto plants. A decrepit U.S. Navy yard.

Promising sites for landscape architecture? They don’t sound like it. But one pioneering designer takes such rough grounds and transforms them into beautiful places that honor what happened there, using reclaimed materials, grasses and trees, and imagination.

Her name is Julie Bargmann, and she’s a professor at the University of Virginia and founder of the design studio D.I.R.T., an acronym that stands for Dump It Right There. This week she won the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize, a new award intended to boost visibility for the discipline.

As a child, crammed into the family station wagon, Professor Bargmann was fascinated by the refineries and other industrial sites on the New Jersey Turnpike. 

As an adult, she’s used a passive treatment system to turn a toxic area in a Pennsylvania mining town into public art space. She convinced Ford to use plants that clean contaminated soil in disused areas of the automaker’s River Rouge Complex near Detroit.

She planted cherry trees in reclaimed rubble at the shuttered Philadelphia Navy Yard, helping transform it into retailer Urban Outfitters’ headquarters. 

“I have been called the ‘toxic avenger,’ and I’m like, really, do I want to strap on that cape? And in a lot of ways I do, not to save people but to engage them in such a way that they can be agents of change for the landscape,” said Ms. Bargmann in a video released to coincide with the prize announcement.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Biden won’t shield Trump records. Will he regret it?

Current presidents always become past presidents – which is why they have backed one another on the question of executive privilege. But in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot, President Joe Biden is breaking that norm.

Peter
Craig Ruttle/AP/File
Steve Bannon leaves federal court, Aug. 20, 2020, after pleading not guilty to charges that he defrauded donors to an online fundraising scheme to build a southern border wall. On Tuesday, Congress is voting on bringing criminal charges against Mr. Bannon, an informal adviser of former President Donald Trump, for not complying with a subpoena about the Jan. 6 riot.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

The House panel investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol plans next Tuesday to recommend criminal charges against Steve Bannon – a onetime adviser to former President Donald Trump – for not complying with a congressional subpoena.

Thus will launch the next phase of a brewing clash between President Joe Biden and former President Trump over “executive privilege” – a loosely defined concept that applies to the president and top White House aides, and has rarely been tested in court. 

It is a fight that could reshape the presidency permanently, as another norm is eroded: the practice by a sitting president of protecting the confidentiality of his predecessor’s communications with advisers. 

The risks involved are great. President Biden could lose his own confidentiality protections once he leaves office. And Congress could be revealed as toothless by issuing subpoenas that ultimately go nowhere.

There are also potential political ramifications ahead of the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential race – a contest Mr. Trump himself may enter. 

“Presidents have largely supported the privilege claims of their predecessors out of interest, not only of their office but also self-interest,” says Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. “Current presidents will eventually become past presidents.” 

Biden won’t shield Trump records. Will he regret it?

Collapse

The gauntlet has been thrown down. The House panel investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol plans next Tuesday to recommend criminal charges against Steve Bannon – a onetime adviser to former President Donald Trump – for not complying with a congressional subpoena.

Thus will launch the next phase of a brewing clash between President Joe Biden and former President Trump over “executive privilege” – a loosely defined concept that applies to the president and top White House aides, and has rarely been tested in court. 

It is a fight that could reshape the presidency permanently, as another norm is eroded: the practice by a sitting president of protecting the confidentiality of his predecessor’s communications with advisers. 

The risks involved are great. President Biden could lose his own confidentiality protections once he leaves office. And Congress could be revealed as toothless by issuing subpoenas that ultimately go nowhere.

There are also potential political ramifications, as both parties seek to keep their supporters energized ahead of the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential race – a contest Mr. Trump himself may enter. 

The House select committee, among its lines of inquiry, is investigating the actions of Mr. Trump and his advisers in the run-up to and on Jan. 6. On that day, a pro-Trump mob invaded the U.S. Capitol aiming to overturn the 2020 election result as Congress tallied electoral votes.

Mr. Biden could, in theory, have aligned himself with Mr. Trump in protecting the larger prerogatives of the presidency.  

“All presidents have powerful incentives to expand their power, guard their discretion, and block efforts by the adjoining branches to meddle in their affairs,” says William Howell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “So there’s a long history of presidents trying to build up an expansive notion of executive power, because it plays to their collective benefit.” 

But in the current battle, the extraordinary events of Jan. 6 have led Trump critics – including the Biden White House – to conclude that executive privilege should not apply. Such a privilege, seen as protecting the ability of a president to confer freely with aides, does not appear in the Constitution. Rather, the Supreme Court has asserted that executive privilege falls under the doctrine of separation of powers, though the court has recognized exceptions.

AP/File
Sen. Sam Irvin looks over a subpoena intended for President Richard Nixon, July 23, 1973. After Nixon tried to claim executive privilege during the Watergate scandal to avoid handing over incriminating materials, the Supreme Court ruled that there were exceptions to that privilege.

Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and 9/11 all triggered exceptions to executive privilege. In the latter two instances, the presidents involved voluntarily turned over documents. But during the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon resisted handing over tape recordings, resulting in a Supreme Court ruling that established a precedent limiting a president’s ability to claim executive privilege. 

The Bannon case is the House panel’s highest-profile action to date. If Mr. Bannon is held in contempt, as expected, his case goes to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution. Mr. Bannon’s lawyer says his client, in refusing to provide testimony or documents, is acting on a directive from Mr. Trump, who is trying to claim executive privilege even as a former president. The fact that Mr. Bannon was only an informal adviser to Mr. Trump, having left the White House in 2017, may further weaken the claim of privilege.

But the way the Biden White House has handled the Jan. 6 committee’s expansive request to the National Archives for Trump-era documents has raised some eyebrows. Under the Presidential Records Act, a president’s records are shielded for at least five years after leaving office. Exceptions can be made, and former presidents can weigh in on such requests. But under a later executive order, only the current president can formally invoke executive privilege to prevent documents’ release. 

On Oct. 8, President Biden declined to support Mr. Trump’s request to withhold documents from the Jan. 6 committee. The die has been cast. Some say he may come to regret that decision. 

“This is a dangerous precedent to discard,” says Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. “Presidents have largely supported the privilege claims of their predecessors out of interest, not only of their office but also self-interest. Current presidents will eventually become past presidents.” 

If Mr. Trump becomes president again, or even if a Trump-allied Republican wins, chances are high that the Biden archive will be seen as fair game. 

The current wrangling comes amid intense partisanship. The House select committee is itself the product of a political impasse: The original bipartisan effort to form a committee fell apart, and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ended up naming all nine members – seven Democrats and two Republicans, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, both of whom had voted to impeach Mr. Trump for “incitement of insurrection.” 

Mr. Trump said in an August statement that “executive privilege will be defended,” a suggestion that he will sue – though he has yet to do so. Lawsuits could bog down the committee’s work, conceivably until the November 2022 midterms, which could well usher in a House Republican majority and the end of any congressional effort to address the events of Jan. 6. 

Some legal observers have suggested that a Trump lawsuit could backfire on him, if documents come to light containing evidence of criminal conduct on or before Jan. 6. 

But others say Mr. Trump has nothing to lose by testing the executive privilege claim in court.

“He’s not the president,” says Saikrishna Prakash, a professor at the University of Virginia law school. “When you’re president and you lose an executive privilege case, it affects your ability to claim privilege for the rest of your term.”

He adds, “I don’t think Trump is going to care about asserting privilege, losing, then jeopardizing his privilege claims in a second term.” 

For the Democratic-run Congress, the risk is that it votes to hold recalcitrant witnesses in contempt, and nothing comes of it. That has happened in many past cases of contempt of Congress, including in 2012, when former Attorney General Eric Holder failed to turn over documents related to the Fast and Furious “gun-walking” scandal.

On paper, defying a congressional subpoena is punishable with a fine and up to 12 months in jail. But in general, the law is toothless in conflicts between Congress and the executive branch. If a case involves a member of the president’s administration, his Justice Department won’t be inclined to prosecute. In other instances, courts have concluded that the matter is political and not requiring a judicial remedy.

Nuclear deal: Tough talk aside, can Russia and China get Iran to the table?

Recent U.S. admonitions that time is running out for a revived Iran nuclear deal are out of sync with U.S. actions to keep the door open. For all sides, the rationale for a deal persists.

Peter
Vahid Salemi/AP/File
A technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, Feb. 3, 2007. Since former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran has enriched uranium to a higher degree of purity, one of the challenges diplomats face in ongoing talks to bring the U.S. back into the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

The tone in Washington this week was decidedly downbeat on the prospects for restarting talks with Iran on a revived nuclear deal. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked of “Iran’s refusal to engage in good faith,” and warned: “We are prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course.”

But beneath the tough talk are a number of economic and regional political factors that suggest a resumption of diplomacy is still more likely than not. They include Iran’s need for relief from U.S. sanctions and President Joe Biden’s hopes of avoiding a nuclear crisis that could overtake his domestic agenda.

Other factors include Iran’s growing relations with Russia and China; and Israel’s less strident opposition to a deal former President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

“The bottom line is that restoring the deal serves the best interests of both Iran and the United States,” says Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington.

“If the talks to restore the [deal] fail, the likelihood of a nuclear crisis, the likelihood of a return to a coercive sanctions strategy, the likelihood of military strikes, all of it goes up,” she adds. “But those likelihoods don’t benefit [Iranian President Ebrahim] Raisi, and they don’t benefit Biden.”

Nuclear deal: Tough talk aside, can Russia and China get Iran to the table?

Collapse

When it comes to prospects for restarting talks with Tehran aimed at restoring the tattered 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the tone in Washington this week has been decidedly downbeat.

“With every passing day and Iran’s refusal to engage in good faith, the runway gets short,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday as he met in Washington with foreign ministers from Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

The top U.S. diplomat then delved into a little saber-rattling. “We are prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course” – meaning if Iran doesn’t put a halt to continuing advances in its nuclear program and get back to the negotiating table.

But beneath the public pessimism and tough talk are a number of economic and regional political factors that suggest a resumption of diplomacy between two arch adversaries – and revival of the 2015 international agreement that temporarily closed Iran’s pathway to a nuclear weapon – is still more likely than not.

Those factors include big-ticket pressures like Iran’s need for relief from U.S.-imposed economic sanctions and President Joe Biden’s hopes of avoiding a nuclear crisis that could overtake his domestic agenda.

A range of factors

But other, more subtle factors favoring diplomacy include Iran’s growing relations with two big regional powers – Russia and China; Iran’s fraught but budding relations with its Persian Gulf neighbors, including Saudi Arabia; and Israel’s less strident opposition to a U.S. return to a deal former President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

Even the spike in global energy costs is contributing to mounting pressure on Iran to return to indirect talks with the United States on restoring the nuclear accord, some analysts argue.

How do oil prices fit into a list of glimmers favoring diplomacy?

Consider this: China, one of six powers that signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, with Iran, finds its economy hampered by energy shortages and rising prices. Beijing would welcome the eased access to Iran’s oil that would accompany a revived deal.

At the same time, oil-producer Iran – its economy stuck in the doldrums despite recent modest growth – would very much like to reap the benefits from the rising prices that a return to licit oil sales would offer, some international analysts say.

And as Tehran’s recent accession to membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation suggests, the Iranians have been putting more of their economic eggs into the China basket and are aiming for bilateral economic ties to flourish.

The alternative serves no one

Yet even with all those factors contributing, the key driver of a return to talks is going to be a decision from the two main protagonists – the U.S. and especially Iran – that the alternative to dialogue serves no one.

“The bottom line is that restoring the deal serves the best interests of both Iran and the United States,” says Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington.

“If the talks to restore the JCPOA fail, the likelihood of a nuclear crisis, the likelihood of a return to a coercive sanctions strategy, the likelihood of military strikes, all of it goes up,” she adds. “But those likelihoods don’t benefit [Iranian President Ebrahim] Raisi, and they don’t benefit Biden.”

Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
The Iranian ambassador to the U.N.'s Vienna-based organizations, Kazem Gharibabadi, leaves a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission, in Vienna, Austria, May 25, 2021.

President Biden entered the White House pledging to restore the JCPOA, and earlier this year it appeared that a U.S. return to the deal – and returning Iran to compliance with the deal’s nuclear limitations – was imminent. (Once the U.S. pulled out in 2018, Iran questioned the deal’s validity and eventually returned to prohibited activities. Those include spinning increasingly sophisticated centrifuges delivering a higher purity of highly enriched uranium, a key step on the road to building a nuclear weapon).

But the sixth round of talks ended in April without an agreement, and then the hard-liner Mr. Raisi was elected president in June.

Speculation over a return to Vienna for a seventh round of talks has since followed the path of a roller coaster, with sudden ascents of optimism followed by chutes of despair.

The last two weeks are a case in point. Last week Iran’s new foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said in Moscow that Iran was finalizing diplomatic consultations and “will soon restore our negotiations in Vienna.” But that was followed this week by plummeting hopes and warnings from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then Secretary Blinken, that the diplomatic window is closing.

U.S. actions vs. words

For some U.S.-Iran analysts, the Biden administration has largely itself to blame for the stalled diplomacy and the failure to coax Iran back to the Vienna table, since the U.S. has never backed up its warnings with any actions.

“The Americans keep talking about how hopes for diplomacy are growing dim, opportunities are diminishing, a window is shutting, but ultimately their rhetoric doesn’t sync with their behavior, and what their behavior says is that they really are trying very hard to keep the door open,” says Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow specializing in Iranian security and political issues at Washington’s Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

In response, he adds, Iran’s new class of hard-liners is finding a “certain glee” in “turning the superpower into the supplicant” and “trying to tempt Washington into premature sanctions relief.” Those in power in Tehran now are “more risk tolerant and escalation friendly, and more keen to drive a harder bargain.”

This does not mean Tehran won’t eventually return to the Vienna talks and even the JCPOA, Mr. Ben Taleblu says. But he says Iran is demonstrating the objective it intends to pursue if it does return to the negotiating table: “Get more but offer less.”

Still, not all Iranians are on board with the Raisi government’s maximalist approach to nuclear diplomacy.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the former foreign minister who was former Secretary of State John Kerry’s Iranian counterpart in negotiating the JCPOA, said in a public online chat last week that Iran had an “opportunity” to return to the deal “while keeping its dignity intact,” according to the Amwaj.media website.

Mr. Zarif also quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin telling him that, “If, when the U.S. declares that it wishes to return to the JCPOA, Iran takes a hard line, then the whole world will turn against” Iran – something Mr. Putin added was already happening.

Iran’s “Eastern orientation”

The role of Russia and China in getting Tehran to “yes” may be crucial. Mr. Ben Taleblu notes that the Iranians have long talked about an “Eastern orientation” of their foreign policy as a way to offset Western influence. And while that reorientation may be a long-term goal, he says it points to where Iran is headed – and suggests that Tehran may prefer not to alienate either Moscow or Beijing by precipitating a regional crisis.

“Politically Moscow matters to Iran, but economically Beijing matters much more, and the Iranians can’t easily disregard that right now” given their weak economy, he says.

Ms. Davenport of the Arms Control Association adds that even if China is unwilling to exert Moscow’s style of overt pressure on Tehran, Beijing clearly prefers a return of the JCPOA.

“The greater access to the Iranian oil market that would accompany a deal would clearly benefit China in a variety of ways,” she says, adding that “from the big-picture perspective, Chinese interests suffer if there’s an escalation of tensions and conflict in the region.”

Just how much that kind of external factor matters to Tehran remains to be seen.

For Mr. Ben Taleblu, the U.S. needs to move beyond rhetoric and show some teeth if it wants to get Iran back to Vienna. And he’s not alone in thinking something has to happen soon.

For now, Ms. Davenport says she sees Iran’s nuclear advances as aimed primarily at “increasing Iran’s leverage” in eventual talks. But she worries that some of the advances Iran is making are getting to a point of no return.

“My concern is that the advances Iran is making will become more difficult to reverse over the next few months,” she says. And if over that period Iran’s hard-liners continue to play hard to get and meet the Americans with new demands, she says, “that delay could be fatal.”

Staff writer Scott Peterson in London contributed to this report.

Difference-maker

Éléonore Laloux helps France see disability differently

Disability is often seen as an impediment. But Éléonore Laloux – France’s first elected official with Down syndrome – is proving that her unique perspective is an asset to her town.

Peter

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Inside Arras City Hall, city council member Éléonore Laloux barely fills out her desk chair, but her persona and vision are outsized.

Ms. Laloux is the first and so far only person with Down syndrome to be elected to public office in France. Last year, she was put in charge of inclusion and happiness in Arras, bringing an effervescent energy to city decisions. Ms. Laloux has utilized her lived experience and innovative ideas to make sure inclusion and accessibility are a part of every city initiative.

Her commitment is paying off. Today, Ms. Laloux officially receives membership in the prestigious National Order of Merit, France’s second-highest national order after the Legion of Honor.

Ms. Laloux’s mere presence has transformed Arras into a model of accessibility and inclusion, and can have an impact on towns across France, experts say. Projects completed or in the works include a virtual tour of a famous belfry, verbal instructions at crosswalks, and easier-to-see street signs.

“For me, people with disabilities, visible or invisible, are full members of society and have the right to have the same access as everyone else,” says Ms. Laloux.

Éléonore Laloux helps France see disability differently

Collapse
Colette Davidson
City council member Éléonore Laloux is leading efforts in Arras, France, to make the town more accepting of people with disabilities.

The northern French town of Arras is known for its giants. Draped in folkloric dress, four 13-foot statues made of painted wicker stand inside the tourist office off the regal Hôtel de Ville, and are brought out during town festivals to dance high above the crowds.

A few winding streets down, encircled by colorful flower beds, is the Arras City Hall. Inside, city council member Éléonore Laloux barely fills out her desk chair but her persona and vision outsize any of the Arras giants.

“I’m a very committed and dynamic person, and I like to be out working with people,” says Ms. Laloux. She’s become a household name in Arras and regularly receives congratulations from locals for her dedication to her work. “I want to fulfill my mandate, be happy, and make other people happy. ... I love what I do.”

Ms. Laloux is the first and so far only person with Down syndrome to be elected to public office in France. Last year, she was put in charge of inclusion and happiness in Arras, bringing an effervescent energy to city decisions. Alongside Mayor Frédéric Leturque, Ms. Laloux has utilized her lived experience and innovative ideas to make sure inclusion and accessibility are a part of every city initiative – from education to transportation to tourism. 

Colette Davidson
Draped in folkloric dress, the Arras "giants" come out to dance during town festivals.

Her commitment is paying off. Today, Ms. Laloux officially receives membership in the prestigious National Order of Merit, France’s second highest national order after the Legion of Honor.

As she looks ahead to her second of six years in office, Ms. Laloux is not just helping the city rethink what inclusion means, but also changing minds about what it’s like to live with a disability as well as what those with cognitive disabilities are capable of.

“Inclusion isn’t something that we just think about; it’s not a generous act. It’s our duty,” says Mr. Leturque, who put forward Ms. Laloux as a candidate last year. “Eléonore has helped the entire town progress in terms of how we see disability.”

“Down Syndrome, So What?”

Working as a city council member is just one of Ms. Laloux’s many activities. She works 15 hours a week at the local hospital in the billing department, and keeps a packed volunteer schedule. She acts as a spokesperson for les Amis d’Eléonore, a collective that works with parents of children with Down syndrome, and is on the board of Down Up, a nonprofit her father launched to seek more recognition of those with intellectual disabilities. 

Seven years ago, she co-wrote her biography, “Triso et alors!” (“Down Syndrome, So What?”), and was featured in a documentary about living with Down syndrome. But it’s her work as city council member that has ignited her passion. 

A recent trip to London inspired her to put forward three accessibility projects now set to be realized: stoplights that count down and give verbal instructions to walk or wait for people with visual or hearing impairments, street signs that are easier to see for children or people in wheelchairs, and an “incluthon” next summer to unite people with disabilities through sports and cultural activities.

Ms. Laloux is also helping the town launch the region’s first “nudge,” an Amsterdam-born concept that creates playful reminders to help locals take better care of their city – such as putting the image of a basketball hoop above a garbage can to invite people to properly throw away trash. She also has her sights set on creating Arras’s first dog park.

Colette Davidson
Since the election of Eléonore Laloux in Arras, the town’s tourist office has joined the cause to increase accessibility, starting with a virtual tour of the town’s famed town hall belfry.

“After that trip, I was really inspired,” says Ms. Laloux. “For me, people with disabilities, visible or invisible, are full members of society and have the right to have the same access as everyone else.”

France doesn’t take census-type statistics on people with disabilities, but Ms. Laloux is one of the few French people with a visible disability to hold a political position here. Her mere presence has transformed Arras into a model of accessibility and inclusion, and can have an impact on towns across France, says Pierre-Yves Baudot, a sociologist at the University of Paris Dauphine who specializes in politics and disability rights. 

“You can’t have someone in Laloux’s situation and nothing comes of it,” says Dr. Baudot. “We need more people living with disabilities in political positions who can speak for themselves and say, ‘These are our obstacles to mobility. This is what we need.’ It forces places to enact change.”

The focus of much of Ms. Laloux’s initiatives has been aimed at locals, but her ideas on inclusion are having an impact on the tourism sector. Thousands of visitors come every year to meander through the Arras streets lined with Flemish Baroque-style townhouses as well as its town hall and belfry, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005.

The tourist office has created a virtual tour of the historic belfry, currently inaccessible to those unable to climb stairs, and is looking to create tours of the city in sign language. It also utilizes the city’s “picto-access” system, an online page that assesses sites in Arras for accessibility. It’s all part of a broader rethinking of the town.

“Éléonore has helped raise more awareness for people here that no matter your disability, everyone has a place in society,” says Aurélie Vilcocq, director of tourism information.

Putting a little color into life

Ms. Laloux credits her parents for pushing her to reach her full potential and says they always believed in her. She has lived independently since 2011 in an apartment in Arras and enjoys cooking, theater, and playing the electric guitar. “I love rock, especially Bob Dylan,” she says.

While she is adept at issues of accessibility and inclusivity at City Hall, she sometimes struggles to organize thoughts or put plans into action. Technician Ludovic Galland helps her with everyday operations, such as breaking down complex political and strategic jargon, and fellow council member Sylvie Noclercq – Ms. Laloux’s “godmother” of sorts – works with her to prepare for meetings or put a final finesse on her proposals. Ms. Noclercq says that Ms. Laloux has brought a needed freshness to City Hall.

“She’s very spontaneous, and brings a nice, uplifting energy,” says Ms. Noclercq. “It allows everyone to loosen up a bit, to be more natural and not take ourselves so seriously.” 

And aside from the political arena, Ms. Laloux was educated in the mainstream education system, holds a day job, and is integrated into her community. “She is the perfect example of inclusivity in all areas of life,” says David Leclercq, general director of the disability rights group APEI in nearby Valenciennes. “Her perseverance and tenacity can help others dare to face their own obstacles, as well as find innovative solutions to challenges.”

Now that COVID-19 infections are starting to drop and the country has implemented a mandatory health pass for most public venues, Ms. Laloux relishes in the joy she sees returning to her constituents. After all, her ability to bring happiness to others is one of the reasons she was elected.

“I want to see people happy, out for a drink or at a restaurant, hanging out with friends and family. ... I want to put a little color into life,” says Ms. Laloux. “It feels really nice to have a bit of color.” 

In Pictures

Joshua Tree: Visions and vistas in the high desert

The desert can evoke adjectives like punishing and oppressive. But in Joshua Tree National Park, our photographer and essayist find an irresistible allure – of art, of beauty, and of a landscape that feels older than time.

Peter
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Sculptures made from discarded objects such as trays (foreground) by Noah Purifoy are on display at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art. Joshua Tree, California, is known for its visual treasures, both natural and constructed.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

Joshua Tree, they say, is a state of mind.

You enter Joshua Tree National Park at sundown or sunrise, or you find yourself the lone wanderer at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art, or you sit under a veranda on the ghostly main street of a long-disused movie set, and the place begins to work on you.

Contradictions emerge. Both Joshua Tree the town and Joshua Tree the park are strangely new. Yet the landscape feels older than time, and remorseless, and reduced to mere elements: rock, sand, and sage, against which the famous Joshua trees themselves stand like miracles.

And then there’s the vibe. “It’s a little bohemian paradise – the yin to Palm Springs’ yang,” claims a friend of ours, Ted Nelson, who’d spent the winter of 2020-21 falling in love with Joshua Tree.

In June it was quiet – and hot, we tell him later. “Yeah, well,” says Mr. Nelson. “Maybe don’t go to the desert in June?”

Noted. And yet: Could it be that summer is exactly when to go to the desert – when it is most itself?

Click the “deep read” to explore Joshua Tree through photos.

Joshua Tree: Visions and vistas in the high desert

Collapse

Joshua Tree, they say, is a state of mind. But when the temperature is 109 degrees Fahrenheit – as it is on this June visit – it’s the state of one’s body that demands attention.

We carry water everywhere, start thinking no hat brim is too broad, hunt shade like it’s the Grail. We’re in the Mojave Desert; even a breeze feels like the hot breath of an unfriendly animal.

But then you get used to it. Evening falls. The temperature drops to 98 degrees and you hear people say they come for the cool. (Indeed, Palm Springs had been 118 degrees when we passed it 34 miles down the road.) Then you enter Joshua Tree National Park at sundown or sunrise, or you find yourself the lone wanderer at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art, or you sit under a veranda on the ghostly main street of a long-disused movie set, and the place begins to work on you.

Contradictions emerge. Both Joshua Tree the town and Joshua Tree the park are strangely new – the national park designation was conferred only 27 years ago, and until 1943 the town had no post office. Yet the landscape feels older than time, and remorseless, and reduced to mere elements: rock, sand, and sage, against which the famous Joshua trees themselves stand like miracles.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Morning arrives in the Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park. Two distinct desert ecosystems meet in the park.

And then there’s the vibe. “It’s a little bohemian paradise – the yin to Palm Springs’ yang,” claims a friend of ours, Ted Nelson, who’d spent the winter of 2020-21 falling in love with Joshua Tree while remotely running his marketing firm from a rented dwelling on the edge of town. In November, when he’d arrived, he alternated Zoom calls with runs in the desert and explorations by all-terrain vehicle. At night there were coffeehouses, art galleries, music shows. Tattoos were legion. 

In June it was quieter than that, we tell him later. “Yeah, well,” says Mr. Nelson after describing the splendor of November highs in the 70s. “Maybe don’t go to the desert in June?”

Noted. And yet: Could it be that summer is exactly when to go to the desert – when it is most itself?

We’ll ponder that. As soon as we can find some air conditioning. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Colored lights glow from the retro trailers at Hicksville Trailer Palace. Accommodations are decorated in different themes.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Sculptures by Noah Purifoy are on display at the museum, which has more than 100 works of art. Mr. Purifoy, who also co-founded the Watts Towers Art Center in Los Angeles, worked here from 1989 until his death in 2004.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A coyote walks through Joshua Tree National Park.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An old tanker truck is adorned with a painting of the Doors’ Jim Morrison.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Visitors stand atop a rock formation in Joshua Tree National Park.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Joshua trees, for which the park is named, are members of the agave family.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A fence surrounds a home outside the town of Joshua Tree.

Other headline stories we’re watching

(Get live updates throughout the day.)

The Monitor's View

Saving Lebanon by the light of justice

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

On Thursday, gunmen battled in the streets of Lebanon’s capital, using automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. And all for what? Because a Middle East country not known for an independent judiciary is divided over a judge trying to hold politicians accountable for a massive disaster.

The street fighting broke out during a protest by the two main Shiite parties – Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. They want Judge Tarek Bitar removed from an investigation of a massive blast of ammonium nitrate in 2020 that killed more than 200 people. As the judge’s probe has drawn closer to possibly implicating those two groups, Hezbollah has vowed to remove the judge by force.

With no ties to a political party, Mr. Bitar has inspired a new hope in Lebanon. “We are now understanding – society as a whole – what it means to have a judiciary that is strong enough to face politicians,” says Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer with the watchdog Legal Agenda.

On the day after the gunfight in Beirut, most public institutions were closed for a day of mourning. It was a tribute to those lost. Yet it also was a way to say that might should not triumph over right.

Saving Lebanon by the light of justice

Collapse
AP
A monument depicting a gavel that represents justice stands in front of grain silos that were gutted in a massive August 2020 explosion in Beirut, Lebanon.

For nearly five hours Thursday, gunmen battled in the streets of Lebanon’s capital, using automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. At least six people were killed and dozens wounded. And all for what? Because a Middle East country not known for an independent judiciary is divided over a judge trying to hold politicians accountable for a massive disaster and bring a degree of justice that young Lebanese are demanding.

The street fighting broke out during a protest by the two main Shiite parties – Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. They want Judge Tarek Bitar removed from an investigation of a massive blast of ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut in 2020 that killed more than 200 people, wounded more than 6,000, and devastated entire neighborhoods. As the judge’s probe has drawn closer to possibly implicating those two groups, Hezbollah has vowed to remove the judge by force. A militant group supported by Iran, it has the weapons to possibly do so.

Lebanon’s judges are often manipulated by politicians. Yet Judge Bitar, widely known for his integrity, has affirmed that he will spare no effort to reach the truth about the blast. “My only concern is to satisfy God and my conscience, and to convince the victims and their families that what I do serves justice,” he said after being appointed to the case in February.

The judge’s determination may have been emboldened by large protests in 2019 that saw young people crying out to end a corrupt system of governance that divvies up power between religion-based parties. With no ties to a political party, Mr. Bitar has inspired a new hope in Lebanon. “We are now understanding – society as a whole – what it means to have a judiciary that is strong enough to face politicians,” Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer with the watchdog Legal Agenda, told the The National news site.

A Catholic, Mr. Bitar became known as an independent magistrate when he headed the Beirut Criminal Court. He also became known for trying to end the culture of impunity that protects corrupt leaders and diminishes the idea of equality before the law.

His investigation “is definitely a lot of pressure on one person, but it’s also a very important milestone in our history,” Ms. Frangieh said. “It will determine the future of our country: We continue in the cycle of impunity or we break it.”

On the day after the gunfight in Beirut, most public institutions were closed for a day of mourning. It was a tribute to those lost. Yet it also was a way to say that might should not triumph over right.

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.

Public speaking and the welcoming warmth of Love

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

We all have a God-given ability to fearlessly express love, poise, and strength – even in front of a group.

Public speaking and the welcoming warmth of Love

Collapse
Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

When God told Moses He had a holy task for him – freeing the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt – Moses was doubtful (see Exodus, chaps. 3-4). His doubts about himself included being “slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” But God cut through Moses’ resistance with this powerful assurance: “Certainly I will be with thee.” And so He was, for Moses triumphed in freeing the children of Israel and leading them to the Promised Land. And their journey ends with a song of praise to God that the Bible attributes to Moses (see Deuteronomy 32).

Many can relate to Moses’ feelings of inadequacy. For instance, studies show that many of us are afraid of public speaking. But as Moses learned, we can trust God to provide the capacity to perform the tasks that rightfully need doing.

The Bible teaches that God is all-powerful, infinite, divine Spirit. Wherever we are, God is right there with us, protecting, guiding, encouraging, strengthening. And spiritual woman and man, made in God’s likeness – the true nature of everyone, as God’s child – forever express God-given poise, confidence, courage, and grace. Fears of being judged or ridiculed by others can be overcome through prayer that brings a steady conviction that God is the power behind right ideas and our ability to express them clearly. Recognizing these spiritual facts empowers us to successfully accomplish honest work in our daily lives.

I used to feel very uncomfortable about speaking before a group of my peers in school, work, church, and other meetings. But I had a transforming experience years ago that vanquished that fear, along with sweaty palms, quaking voice, and anxiety.

I’d been asked to introduce a speaker at an event sponsored by my church. I’d written, memorized, and rehearsed the introduction. But as the event loomed, nervousness overtook me. I didn’t feel up to the task and hoped for a way out.

One evening I sought advice from my fellow church members. One of them looked at me with great kindness and said, “Let them (the audience members) feel the welcoming warmth of Love (God).”

Words cannot describe how deeply this response touched me. It rang true and eased my heart, immediately freeing me from fear. My view of myself changed at once from harassed mortal to cherished child of God. We truly reflect God, divine Spirit, as His wholly spiritual idea.

I rejected the notion that I was a fearful mortal, subject to any kind of phobia. Two Bible verses quickly came to mind: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear” (I John 4:18) and “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7). Divine Love provides us with clarity, focus, poise, eloquence, and grace.

One way to think about nervousness is as a representation of mortal ego. Christian Science explains that God is the only legitimate Ego, which we each reflect. In the textbook of Christian Science, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy writes: “The understanding that the Ego is Mind, and that there is but one Mind or intelligence, begins at once to destroy the errors of mortal sense and to supply the truth of immortal sense.... If man is governed by the law of divine Mind, his body is in submission to everlasting Life and Truth and Love” (p. 216).

As I saw more clearly that this activity was not about me personally but was an opportunity to express Christly love toward our community, peace and joy filled my heart.

The night of the talk, the church was packed. Despite the large crowd, I felt only love, joy, and warmth, not nerves. The introduction went smoothly, and the event was well received.

After this experience, I found myself actually enjoying participating in weekly staff meetings at work, Wednesday testimony meetings at church, and other gatherings. I spoke with a newfound freedom and peace, and still do, confident in my God-given ability to share in a meaningful, helpful way.

We have a choice: Instead of entertaining nerves or self-centered thoughts and fears, we can lean on and realize the omnipresence and omnipotence of God, the divine Mind, and recognize our true spiritual nature as God’s radiant, fearless, loving child. And then our unselfish expression of love for God and our fellow man takes wing and soars.

Adapted from an article published in the May 17, 2021, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

Viewfinder

Shh. Listen.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
The statue Water's Soul by Jaume Plensa is seen in Jersey City, New Jersey, Oct. 14, 2021. The artist hopes the 72-foot-tall installation will encourage people to listen to the water.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Peter Grier
Washington editor

Come back Monday, when we’ll have a story on the effects of the biggest dam removal project in U.S. history.

More issues

2021
October
15
Friday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.