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Monitor Daily Podcast

November 17, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

A winning lesson in communication under the Friday night lights

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

For a long time, the football team at the California School for the Deaf, Riverside, was a perennial loser. For seven straight years, they struggled. Opponents would often harass them over their hearing loss, too.

Until now.

This season the Southern California high school team is undefeated. Yes, these are superb athletes, but that’s only part of the story. Football often relies on audible elements. In fact, when a quarterback changes a play at the last minute based on the opponent’s defense, it’s called an “audible.” The QB yells a code word or numbers to describe the new play to teammates. There are also verbal cues to tell the center when to hike the ball. The Seattle Seahawks fans have twice set world records for crowd noise, preventing opposing teams from hearing signals. 

But this all-deaf team has remade the game to fit its strengths, communicating swiftly and effectively via hand signals. No huddle needed. “I would say be careful in thinking that you have an advantage,” coach Aaron Williams of Desert Christian High School told The New York Times after a lopsided loss to the Riverside Cubs last week. “They communicate better than any team I have ever coached against.”

On Friday, the Cubs play in the semifinals of the Southern California division championship. But win or lose, they’ve taken what many would consider an obstacle and turned it into a steppingstone to success. You might say they’re already champions.

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A deeper look

Where Rep. Pramila Jayapal got her spine

At the hinge of history – and President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation – is Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington. She’s a champion of progressive priorities who, our reporter finds, is described as not the type to bow to Democratic Party authority, seniority, or the status quo.

David
Elaine Thompson/AP
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal smiles during an interview on Nov. 12, 2021, in Seattle. Ms. Jayapal has rapidly ascended into the top tiers of U.S. politics, bringing with her the progressive street cred she amassed in Seattle and a political sensibility she has decisively wielded in Washington, D.C.

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Why did Pramila Jayapal, a congresswoman with less than five years of experience, have the courage (or audacity) to go toe-to-toe with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? In short, because she sees legislating as a moral imperative, rather than a necessarily messy form of sausage-making.  

Representative Jayapal twice held up votes this fall on a bipartisan infrastructure bill until her caucus got assurances that the party’s moderates would be on board with progressive priorities in the Build Back Better Act. The delay left President Joe Biden without wins to tout ahead of key elections in Virginia and New Jersey, or at the recent United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland – a stand some say undermined him and the Democratic Party.

Her defenders, however, say it’s about time progressives began asserting themselves as a force to be reckoned with. And even many moderate Democrats say they respect her for standing on principle.

“She is a very forceful human being. I don’t mean that in an unpleasant or obnoxious way – but she has very strong values and she sticks by those values,” says former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. “If you interact with her for any period of time, you will discover that she has a very strong spine.”

Where Rep. Pramila Jayapal got her spine

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The president of the United States had come to Capitol Hill to try to seal a deal on his domestic agenda before heading to Europe. But progressives and moderate Democrats were at an impasse. 

So Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, marched across the Capitol to meet with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, one of the moderate holdouts, in her basement hideaway. It’s that kind of determination that has helped her quickly become one of the most powerful Democrats in the House. But with less than five years under her belt, she’s still learning to navigate the labyrinth of hallways on the Hill. On the way, an aide accompanying her had to stop and ask a Capitol Police officer for directions.

Representative Jayapal comes across as direct and driven – even if she hasn’t always known exactly where she’s going. Her life arc runs from India to Indonesia, from Wall Street to an MBA at Northwestern to a lonely job crisscrossing the Midwest selling medical supplies from a blue Ford Aerostar. She found her passion in Seattle, where she built the largest immigrant rights organization in Washington state – a path that eventually took her into politics.

Now she’s in the national spotlight, as the leader of a 96-member progressive bloc that’s flexing its political muscle as never before. As the House nears a vote on the president’s signature Build Back Better bill, allies are crediting Ms. Jayapal with bringing a host of longstanding progressive priorities – everything from universal pre-K and paid family leave to expansion of the Affordable Care Act – one step closer to reality.  

“If you keep your eyes on the prize each step of the way, then you are always grounded in what you need to do,” says the congresswoman in a phone interview.

Her vision of legislating as a moral imperative, rather than a necessarily messy form of sausage-making, helps explain why Ms. Jayapal had the courage (or the audacity) to go toe-to-toe with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Without flinching, Ms. Jayapal twice held up votes the speaker had promised on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill until her caucus got assurances that the party’s moderates would be on board with the larger social spending package. The delay left President Biden without a victory to tout ahead of key elections in Virginia and New Jersey, and with no climate change measures to promote at the recent U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland – a stand some say caused unnecessary damage. 

“They sent Biden over there, and he’s standing on stage in Glasgow with his pants down around his ankles,” says a veteran Democrat, who describes Ms. Jayapal as a dangerous combination of ambitious and green. “You never do that to your leader.” 

Susan Walsh/AP
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (center), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, along with other lawmakers, talks with reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington on Oct. 19, 2021, following their meeting with President Joe Biden. Ms. Jayapal is joined by other Democratic members of the House (from left): Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Barbara Lee of California, and Ritchie Torres of New York.

Her defenders, however, say it’s about time progressives began asserting themselves as a force to be reckoned with. They champion Ms. Jayapal as a strong advocate for women and people of color, who isn’t afraid to use every iota of power she can.

Even many moderate Democrats say they respect her for standing on principle. For better or worse, she’s not the type to bow to authority, seniority, or the status quo.

“She is a very forceful human being. I don’t mean that in an unpleasant or obnoxious way – but she has very strong values and she sticks by those values,” says former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who worked with her on a social justice initiative in the 2000s. “If you interact with her for any period of time, you will discover that she has a very strong spine.”

A fresh start

Sept. 11, 2001, was supposed to be a fresh start for Pramila Jayapal. Recently divorced and struggling to care for a child with persistent health challenges who had been born prematurely at 1 lb., 14 oz., she had just moved into a new home the day before.

Then, in the pre-dawn darkness, a friend called her from the East Coast, alerting her to the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers, as she describes in her 2020 book “Use the Power You Have.” Amid stacks of moving boxes, she hooked up her TV and watched the terrorist attacks unfold. Within 24 hours, immigrants like her were being targeted in hate crimes. 

For the first time since she had flown halfway around the world as an Indian teenager to attend Georgetown University, she felt scared in America, she wrote. But she also felt impelled to do something.

And so, Ms. Jayapal made a fresh start after all – one that was not just about a new life for herself, but for her fellow immigrants. She created an immigrant rights organization called Hate Free Zone, which she later renamed OneAmerica. 

Though her Seattle-based organization was modest in size, she caught the attention of immigrant rights leaders in Washington, D.C. She also developed relationships with labor groups, the business community, and local government leaders in Washington state. She was named to a committee on income inequality that helped Seattle establish a $15 minimum wage, and was tapped to co-chair a commission to find a new Seattle police chief. 

Her fellow chair on that commission was Ron Sims, a former King County executive who went on to serve as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. He calls Ms. Jayapal an incredible listener, with “a memory like the Library of Congress.” Still, when she decided to run for state senate in 2014, Mr. Sims didn’t think she could win.

“You had to pay dues – you had to work campaigns and be mentored for a gazillion years,” he says. “All of a sudden, she said, ‘I’m going to run.’ And people were saying, ‘It’s not your turn.’”

Ms. Jayapal won the election not by leaning on the party machine, but by inventing a new part for it: immigrants who had never voted before.

Two years later, she ran for Congress and won, defeating a fellow progressive state senator who faulted her for a poor record sponsoring legislation. She countered that it was unrealistic to expect that her bills, most of which aimed to help minorities and other disadvantaged people, would be taken up in a GOP-run legislature. 

In January 2017, as Donald Trump prepared to enter the White House, Ms. Jayapal became the first Indian-American woman to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.  

Organizing from the inside

As an organizer, Ms. Jayapal expressed cynicism about elected officials, even from her own party, once calling President Obama the nation’s Deporter-in-Chief. So when she decided to run, she wrote in her book, it was to organize from the inside.

After winning a second term in Congress, she became co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus alongside Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. She soon spearheaded reforms aimed at making the bloc more disciplined and influential – including raising dues to hire new staff, requiring members to vote as a bloc when at least two-thirds of the caucus agrees on a position, and consolidating leadership. In January 2021, Ms. Jayapal became the sole chair.

“I am in awe of how well Pramila has done in Congress,” says Washington state Sen. Karen Keiser, who made a similar shift from advocating to legislating. She adds that Congress seems like a far more challenging environment than the state legislature, given the constant leaks and glare. “I think her ability to organize a progressive caucus in the House that stuck together through thick and thin over the last 12 months … that’s a phenomenal accomplishment.”

Ms. Jayapal says the lessons and principles of organizing have indeed been key to her approach in Congress, including building a strong, cohesive team; identifying priorities early; and having clear messaging – always articulating both to herself and others why the caucus is taking a certain position. 

“One thing I have a lot of respect for with Pramila is she’s always clear about where she stands,” says Roxana Norouzi, who just became executive director of OneAmerica after starting as an intern under Ms. Jayapal. “I think that builds trust.” 

Al Drago/Reuters
Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona attends a meeting with Representative Jayapal and others (not pictured) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Oct. 28, 2021. The Congresswomen have not always seen eye to eye on Democratic priorities.

The Freedom Caucus of the left?

As progressives and moderates butted heads this fall, some Democrats questioned Ms. Jayapal’s decision to hold out for a bigger spending package, essentially telling her, “Something is better than nothing.”

That view may gain more sway if concerns about inflation, which have grown sharper in recent weeks, wind up hindering the bill’s path in the Senate.

Ms. Jayapal responds by saying compromise should come at the end of negotiations – not the beginning. 

“We hadn’t even fought for the entire agenda yet,” she says, crediting her strategy of holding up the infrastructure vote and tying it to the budget bill with jump-starting negotiations between key stakeholders, reaching agreement on a framework, and then getting legislative text.

Still, the extended process has heightened tensions within the party. After the first vote on infrastructure was delayed, lead moderate Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey criticized the progressive bloc for using “Freedom Caucus tactics,” referring to the notoriously disruptive conservative group.

“This far left faction is willing to put the President’s entire agenda, including this historic bipartisan infrastructure package, at risk,” he said in a statement. “They’ve put civility and bipartisan governing at risk.”

Even some who share Ms. Jayapal’s priorities say her efforts to extract more from moderates may have hurt the party’s overall strategy.

“She’s for the right things. There isn’t a single thing I’ve heard her say she’s for that I’m not for,” says her predecessor, former Rep. Jim McDermott, who served from 1989 to 2016. But he adds, at a time when American democracy is in crisis, Democrats can’t afford to lose the battle at hand in hopes of winning a larger victory that might ultimately elude them.  

“It’s like landing at Normandy in the D-Day invasion,” he says. “You can’t go to Berlin on the first day.”  

At various points in her career, Representative Jayapal has chosen to withhold her troops until they could take “Berlin,” so to speak.

In 2006, when Congress was working to pass comprehensive immigration reform, Ms. Jayapal, then an immigration activist, took “a hard, principled position” against the bill because of conservative provisions it included, such as increased enforcement and surveillance, says Rich Stolz, who was then at the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., and was working with Ms. Jayapal and other leaders on immigration.

The bill, which many saw as the last, best chance at fixing a broken immigration system, ultimately died. Still, Mr. Stolz credits Ms. Jayapal for holding true to her principles. “She was a minority voice that wouldn’t allow simple acceptance of something we were handed at the time.”

At other times, she pushed hard but was willing to accept a compromise in the end. David Rolf, founder of SEIU 775, which represents long-term care workers, and co-chair of the Seattle Income Inequality Advisory Committee, recalls one night when he called Ms. Jayapal to update her about a proposal to phase in a higher minimum wage. 

“‘David – we just can’t take that, we have to push back. There’s no reason McDonald’s shouldn’t go to $15 right now!’” he recalls her telling him. Eventually, the committee agreed to a $15 per hour minimum wage, but phased in over seven years. “She wasn’t willing to say yes to a highly imperfect deal, and that strengthened my hand in negotiating with the business-side counterparts.”

“Principled compromise”

In her current role, Representative Jayapal has faced competing pressures from within and without; the White House, Democratic leaders, and members of her own progressive caucus have at times all been pushing for different things. She is willing to negotiate, but she’s always looking for “principled compromise.”

“Saying you’re at 100, I’m at zero, so we should end up at 50 – that doesn’t really work if you’re talking about kids in cages,” she says. 

Still, she agreed to cut the Build Back Better Act’s price tag from $3.5 trillion to $2.1 trillion – mainly by reducing the duration of many programs, thus preserving its “transformational” nature and leaving the door open for future Congresses to extend them. And she allowed it to be decoupled from the infrastructure bill, overriding the objections of half a dozen members of her caucus who voted no on that bill – despite a written agreement from moderates to support the Build Back Better Act pending a nonpartisan cost estimate.

House Democratic leaders say they expect to pass this second bill before the Thanksgiving recess; then it will have to get through the Senate, where moderate Democratic members have expressed strong skepticism about aspects of the House version of the bill.

Mr. Stolz, who succeeded Ms. Jayapal as OneAmerica’s executive director, says, in the end, she may not be able to deliver all that immigrant rights advocates had hoped for, but he doesn’t expect her to ease up.

“I’ve known her long enough to trust that she also has a plan for what happens [next],” he says. “She’s always thinking ahead.”

Paul Gosar, censure, and the further decline of civility in Congress

What’s the right response when a social media cartoon meme crosses the line into uncivil attack or perhaps even an incitement to violence? In the case of Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, loyalty colors the response on both sides of the U.S. congressional aisle.

David

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On Wednesday, Democrats in the House of Representatives, joined by two Republicans, voted to censure Rep. Paul Gosar and strip him of his committee assignments for tweeting an altered cartoon video that depicted him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and brandishing two swords at President Joe Biden.

If nothing else, the incident demonstrated the depth of animosity that has developed between the majority and minority parties in the House. To Democrats, there was nothing amusing about the Japanese anime-style clip. They saw it as a ratcheted-up example of the threats of violence that have emanated from some corners of the Republican Party in recent years.

“Depictions of violence can foment actual violence and jeopardize the safety of elected officials, as witnessed in this chamber on January 6, 2021,” read the censure resolution.

This isn’t the first time this year that the Democratic majority has moved to sanction a GOP lawmaker. In February, the House voted to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia of her committee assignments in response to a list of antisemitic and racist social media posts, including some that appeared to endorse violence against Democratic members of Congress.

Paul Gosar, censure, and the further decline of civility in Congress

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
On Wednesday, the Democratic-led House voted to strip GOP Rep. Paul Gosar of his committee assignments for tweeting a video showing a character with his face killing a figure with Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's face.

GOP Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, like many Americans in the age of Facebook and Twitter, has discovered that posting something inflammatory on social media can have consequences in the real world.

On Wednesday, Democrats in the House of Representatives, joined by two Republicans, voted to censure Representative Gosar and strip him of his committee assignments for tweeting an altered cartoon video that depicted him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and brandishing two swords at President Joe Biden.

If nothing else, the incident demonstrated the depth of animosity that has developed between the majority and minority parties in the House. To Democrats, there was nothing amusing or entertaining about the Japanese anime-style clip. They saw it as a ratcheted-up example of the menacing threats of violence that have emanated from some corners of the Republican Party in recent years.

“Depictions of violence can foment actual violence and jeopardize the safety of elected officials, as witnessed in this chamber on January 6, 2021,” read the censure resolution.

Democrats also expressed outrage at what they said the incident revealed about GOP priorities. Many Republicans have been bashing their 13 fellow party members who broke ranks and voted in favor of President Biden’s infrastructure bill. But the party seems willing to let Mr. Gosar’s video slide, despite the lawmaker’s documented history of consorting with white nationalists.

“The fact that they would not take some action themselves or make some comments themselves ... is a testament that perhaps they are rationalizing, as they rationalize other types of criminal behavior, this particular action,” said Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland on Tuesday at his weekly meeting with reporters. 

Republicans countered that the Democratic outrage was largely political, a kind of pearl-clutching by politicians professing to be upset by something Mr. Gosar clearly intended as a joke. 

The GOP also argued the retaliation went too far. If the Democrats had simply tried to rebuke Mr. Gosar, they might have drawn a more bipartisan vote. But by expanding the punishment to remove him from committees, the Democrats turned the vote into a larger issue, said GOP leaders – namely, whether the majority can dictate to the minority who can sit on important House panels. They predicted it will invite a dangerous tit-for-tat retaliation in future Congresses.

“That’s a dangerous, dark road for the institution to go down,” said Rep. Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, on Tuesday.

After calling the resolution an “abuse of power,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy concluded his floor speech in defense of Mr. Gosar by saying, “A new standard will continue to be applied in the future.“

Mr. Gosar himself appeared to try to distance himself from the video. He apologized to GOP members for the situation, blaming his staff for the incident. In a statement, he called the clip a “symbolic cartoon” and “not real life.”

He told conservative media that the whole thing was an attempt to reach out to younger voters who use social media as a form of communication, perhaps inadvertently emphasizing the dangers of older politicians without experience in the medium trying to use memes and other visual entertainment as a means of expression.

This isn’t the first time this year that the Democratic majority has moved to sanction a GOP lawmaker over perceived threats. In February, the House voted to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia of her committee assignments in response to a list of antisemitic and racist social media posts made prior to her election, including some that appeared to endorse violence against Democratic members of Congress.

As recently as two years ago, the GOP responded to a similar controversy by moving to police its own caucus. In January 2019, Republican House leaders removed Rep. Steve King of Iowa from the Judiciary and Agriculture committees following an interview with The New York Times in which he said, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization – how did that language become offensive?”

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report from Congress.

Patterns

Tracing global connections

Migrants in Belarus challenge Europeans to show their values

One of the most difficult places to balance compassion and rule of law is at a nation’s border. Our London columnist weighs EU choices as Middle East migrants are encouraged by Belarus to cross into Poland. 

David

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One of President Joe Biden’s favorite refrains is that the defining geopolitical contest of our time is between “democracy and autocracy.”

Just such a struggle is playing out now on the Poland-Belarus border. The autocratic Belarus government knows what it is doing: encouraging thousands of Middle East migrants to cross into Poland.

But the reason this is so sensitive is that democratic Europe does not know what it is doing. The European Union has not managed to agree on a humane and efficient way of distinguishing political refugees from economic migrants. So Poland’s response, as a front-line EU member state, is simply to unroll the razor wire, send in 15,000 troops, and stop everyone from coming in.

If President Biden is right, this will not be the last time that countries such as Belarus, and its patron, Russia, seek to needle their European neighbors. That could prove a further spur for democracies to agree among themselves how to express their values when it comes to foreigners seeking refuge.

Migrants in Belarus challenge Europeans to show their values

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Maxim Guchek/BelTA /AP
Migrant children stand in front of a barbed wire fence and Polish service members at the Belarus-Poland border. There are signs that Belarusian forces are seeking to ease the tense standoff by directing migrants away from the border.

It’s been said so often by U.S. President Joe Biden that it has become almost a rhetorical refrain: that the defining geopolitical contest of our time is between “democracy and autocracy.” And that seems to be exactly the contest that is playing out this week in the heart of Europe, on the Belarusian border with Poland.

On the one hand, the Kremlin-backed dictator of Belarus is using thousands of increasingly desperate Middle East refugees and migrants as a political weapon against the European Union.

But within the EU, the crisis has raised questions about what its democratic values actually demand of governments when it comes to welcoming – or not – those seeking refuge within their borders.

The EU states are showing a united front in response to the challenge from Belarus. They are angry at the way in which its president, Alexander Lukashenko, has deliberately eased entry requirements for refugees and migrants from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and directed them westward to the border with EU member-state Poland.

His aim seems to be to pressure the Europeans into removing the sanctions they’ve imposed since he won reelection last year in what international monitors deemed a rigged vote, which was followed by a violent crackdown on ensuing street protests.

If so, that effort has failed. The EU’s foreign ministers this week announced plans for further sanctions, rebuffing what its foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, termed the “instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes.”

Still, below the surface of EU unity is a fault line: between the founding Western European members of the union and some of the newer members, such as Poland, that were once in the Soviet orbit and are now self-styled “illiberal democracies.”

While there has been unanimous agreement on the need to hold Mr. Lukashenko responsible for what’s happening, some politicians and pundits in Western Europe have criticized the Polish response: serried ranks of troops along the razor-wire border fence, with orders to keep the desperate migrants out and prevent aid workers, journalists, and other outside observers from entering the area.

And with Belarus encouraging the increasingly desperate refugees and migrants to attempt to breach the border, Polish troops have not just been holding firm. On Tuesday they responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Nikolai Petrov/BelTA/Reuters
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko chairs a meeting dedicated to the migrant crisis on the Belarus-Poland border, in Minsk, Belarus, Nov. 16, 2021.

EU leaders, however, have been reluctant to voice public criticism of the Warsaw government’s muscular reactions. And that’s because they are afraid of laying bare a question pregnant with values and policy challenges that they have been dodging for years.

That question is how, or indeed whether, a community formally committed to democracy and human rights should respond to people seeking protection in Europe from what international refugee law defines as a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or politician opinion” in their home countries. And how to distinguish them from economic migrants in search of a better life.

Six years ago, a huge influx of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, more than a million in all, tested the EU’s unity almost to the breaking point. The crisis was eased when Chancellor Angela Merkel took the political risk of admitting most of them into Germany.

But a bid to put in place a “quota system” – under which other states would help resettle the refugees – met with resistance, especially on the EU’s eastern edge.

And the EU as a whole decided to do everything it could to avert another surge, and the questions it would raise. The main plank in that policy has been the payment of billions of dollars to the autocratic leader on its southern flank, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to look after migrants and refugees in his own country, rather than let them head for Europe.

The EU’s inability to draw up a refugee policy, as well as Poland’s especially acute opposition to all Middle East immigration, has made Europe vulnerable to Mr. Lukashenko’s use of refugees as a political weapon in his standoff with the EU.

And while Russia, Mr. Lukashenko’s indispensable ally and financial backer, has insisted it’s had nothing to do with the border crisis, Moscow, too, is clearly aware of the EU’s difficulties and divisions on the issue. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, referring to the Turkey deal, this week pointedly suggested the Europeans simply pay Mr. Lukashenko and the crisis would go away.

Yet Mr. Lukashenko is not the first to use refugees as a political lever. The Turkish president himself has periodically hinted at reopening the refugee floodgates at times of tension with the EU or the United States.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin used the same tactic five years ago, allowing more than 1,000 migrants to leave Russia at the border with Finland, until Helsinki dropped some of the sanctions it had imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Nor is it likely to be the last such instance of the “democracy versus autocracy” struggle highlighted by President Biden. That could be a further spur for democracies to agree among themselves on how to express their values when it comes to foreigners seeking refuge.

Fearing authoritarianism, young Peruvians battle constitutional change

One of the weaknesses of a democracy is that it can be unraveled by voters and those they elect. Our reporter examines concerns that Peru’s leftist populist leader plans to follow Venezuela’s path of dismantling democratic institutions. 

David

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Lucas Ghersi is a young constitutional lawyer in Lima, Peru, leading a campaign against a new constitution promised under President Pedro Castillo. He worries that the Peruvian leader, a former elementary school teacher who squeaked out a victory in July, plans to use a constituent assembly to amass more power for himself, and thus lead the Andean nation down a path of authoritarianism. 

With their campaign at home, the Peruvians join other Latin American youths fighting against ruling classes and for democratic movements. In Peru, the battle is in many ways preemptive. The new Peruvian president has only been in office for four months and is politically weak.

But Mr. Ghersi and the young activists leading a “no” campaign against a charter rewrite say they can’t take any chances: Recent regional history shows that complacency is the authoritarian’s friend.

“We don’t want Peru to be the sheep that walks into the slaughterhouse of democracy,” Mr. Ghersi says. “We want to stand up while there is time and stop that from happening.”

Fearing authoritarianism, young Peruvians battle constitutional change

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Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters
Opponents of Peruvian President Pedro Castillo gather as Prime Minister Mirtha Vásquez faces a critical vote of no confidence from the opposition-led Congress in Lima, Peru, Nov. 4, 2021.

On busy Jirón de la Unión in the Peruvian capital’s historic center, young fathers relent to children begging for electric-colored cotton candy, while couples wait in line for a just-from-the-fryer churro with arequipe, a liquidy caramel dear to Limeños.         

Few of those strolling the tidy pedestrian street acknowledge a group of activists, mostly young people, arrayed in T-shirts emblazoned with “No to communism!” and holding aloft signs declaring “No to the constituent assembly.”

But occasionally a passerby stops to inquire about the group, and – if the activists can make their case – to sign a petition to stop Peru’s self-declared “Marxist-Leninist” president, Pedro Castillo, from succeeding in delivering a new constitution through a constituent assembly.

A new charter was a campaign promise of Mr. Castillo, a former elementary school teacher. But after Mr. Castillo’s surprise victory in a bitterly won race in July, his critics worry he plans to lead Peru down the path of other Latin American countries where democracy has withered. From the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro to Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, the region’s leftist populists have used constitutional reform and weak institutions to consolidate power. 

Now a group of young Peruvians is determined to not let the same happen at home. In their fight, they join young counterparts across the continent who are leading political and social movements against the ruling classes to drive change.

In Argentina, armies of young women have mobilized to demand greater gender equality, last year succeeding in a hard-fought campaign to legalize abortion. In Chile in 2019, it was largely youths fed up with watching their country’s rising prosperity pass them by who filled the streets, brought Chile to a standstill, and won economic concessions and a process to deliver a replacement to the Pinochet dictatorship-era constitution.

John Minchillo/Reuters
Pedro Castillo, president of Peru, arrives for the 76th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, Sept. 21, 2021.

And in Cuba, young people are at the forefront of an unprecedented protest movement pressing the government on deteriorating economic conditions and human rights abuses. Tensions were high in Havana Monday as authorities squelched a planned national day of protest, including with house arrests of dissidents.

“We don’t want our dear Peru to become another Venezuela,” says Armando Tapia, part of the small group seeking signatures on a recent Sunday afternoon. “Hugo Chávez stayed in power by rewriting the constitution first,” he says, “and our president wants to follow in those footsteps. We say no!”

“Slaughterhouse of democracy”

In some ways their “no” campaign is preemptive. President Castillo has only been in power for four months after eking out a victory with 20% of the first-round vote. Though he was backed by the Marxist Free Peru, he has since irked the party after replacing his far-left prime minister with a more moderate one who recently said constitutional reform is not a priority.

Still, Lucas Ghersi, the young constitutional lawyer leading the “no” campaign, says they can’t take any chances: Recent regional history shows that complacency is the authoritarian’s friend.

“We don’t want Peru to be the sheep that walks into the slaughterhouse of democracy,” he says. “We want to stand up while there is time and stop that from happening.”

Speaking in his office in a tony section of Lima, he is surrounded by stacks of some of the 1.3 million signatures his group has collected so far. He says he aims for an effort so overwhelming – collecting 3 million signatures in all – that it forces Congress to approve a national referendum on President Castillo’s constituent assembly plan.

The son of a high-profile Lima lawyer father and a media darling among the anti-Castillo press, Mr. Ghersi recognizes he is the son of privilege. Some critics insist his campaign is really about preserving the status quo, including Peru’s pro-market-economy constitution.

He maintains his campaign is not about class but about safeguarding the freedoms – including the freedom to improve oneself economically – of all Peruvians.         

It was many of the poorest Peruvians who wanted this change in the first place. Peru’s constitution was written at the end of the rule of the country’s last dictator, Alberto Fujimori. Amendments over the years have resulted in a notoriously weak presidency, exacerbating Peruvian political instability. Over the span of one week last year, the country had three different presidents, a level of political turmoil that had demonstrators in the streets demanding a new constitution.

The case for change

The constitution does need refreshing, says Milagros Campos, a constitutional scholar at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, especially to forge a stronger presidency. But Mr. Castillo’s constitutional rewrite proposal today faces widespread opposition, with nearly 80% of Peruvians opposed to a complete overhaul.

Many of them simply distrust the president’s real motivations. Older Peruvians who lived through military dictatorship and the dark years of the Shining Path, the Marxist and Maoist-inspired group that waged a deadly guerrilla war in the 1980s and early 1990s, fear a return to their past. 

For younger Peruvians who only know Shining Path and military dictatorship from history books, Mr. Ghersi adds, it’s the real-time experience of authoritarianism’s rise around the region that drives them. They’ve seen 1 million Venezuelan refugees arrive in Peru, according to the United Nations, many of them youths.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Lucas Ghersi, leader of the "No to a constituent assembly" campaign, shows a stack of signatures in support of his cause in his office in Lima, Peru, this month.

Institutional reform doesn’t figure on most Peruvians’ priority list either, says Professor Campos. “There are more poor Peruvians than a few years ago. People are worried about jobs and getting by,” she says. After a period of remarkable economic growth and rising prosperity, Peru was hit hard by the pandemic and growth crashed. “There’s a feeling that constitutional reform is not the change people need right now to improve their lives.”

An expert in Latin American constitutions, Professor Campos says the region’s many efforts at constitutional reform over recent years have largely fallen into two categories: political reforms, as in Bolivia and Ecuador, that have concentrated executive power; and the response to demands for economic and social reforms to dated constitutions, as in Chile and Colombia, that empower elites.

Peru’s case is more complex, she says, because it’s a mix of all these factors at once. In this context Professor Campos says the campaign against a constitutional assembly stands out as a “no” to any change – not the solution she believes Peru needs, or wants.

“The president’s idea of a new constitution is a little radical, and I understand the worries that it would open up the country to too many uncertainties or that the process to get to this new constitution would not be open to all Peruvians,” says Annie Mego, an occupational psychologist at an insurance company. “That doesn’t mean there should be no change,” she says, citing victims’ rights and stronger anti-corruption laws as her priorities.

Mr. Ghersi maintains that the campaign is not aimed at leaving Peru’s constitution untouched – for example he supports reforming the unicameral Congress to include a Senate.

But he says he first remains focused on the bigger goal of stopping Peru’s slide into authoritarian rule.

“I don’t speak for everyone supporting this campaign,” he says, “but what motivates me personally is the desire not to lose the dream and the promise that is Peru.”

The tales trees tell – from history to climate change

How much of climate change is naturally occurring or human-induced? Our reporter talks to scientists who are collaborating globally to unlock centuries of climate history written in wood, ice, and stone long before humans trod the Earth.   

David
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Professor Valerie Trouet, with the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, stands with a tree slab in Tucson, Oct. 15, 2021. The slab was cut from a giant, 1,700-year-old sequoia that fell in a storm in Sequoia National Park.

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The Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research in Tucson, Arizona, is the world’s oldest dendrochronology lab. Scientists here focus on everything from dating archeological samples to better understanding the patterns of the jet stream, the westerly air current that influences temperatures across the globe.

They are also using their research to help explain climate science.

The width of a tree ring, scientists know, can indicate environmental stressors. A particularly dry year in the Southwest, for instance, might result in a narrower band, since the tree was not able to grow as much as it might in a wetter year. A year with plenty of water and warmth, depending on the tree’s location, might lead to a wider ring. Sometimes, a year leaves such a notable ring that scientists are able to use it as a timeline marker.

The records are clear. While the earth has, indeed, gone through patterns of warmer and colder temperature, the change since humans began burning fossil fuels has been dramatic.

As Edward Cook, director of Columbia University’s Tree-Ring Lab, explains, “Tree rings can help us at least reduce the uncertainty in what we can say about how warm it is today relative to the past, before greenhouse gas forcing was a significant issue.”

The tales trees tell – from history to climate change

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For generations, essential clues to the earth’s climate sat underneath the stadium at the University of Arizona, piled into stacks and crammed into plastic bins. There were slices of ancient redwood trees, charcoal pieces from historic ruins, and carefully extracted cores from some of the oldest living trees on earth – all holding information about fires, floods, droughts, and patterns of extreme weather. 

The scientists who studied these samples would stay home on football game nights, recalls Valerie Trouet, now a distinguished scholar at the university’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. The stomping on the bleachers above them was just too loud for the delicate task of counting tree rings, or for finding the patterns that could reveal a climate timeline stretching thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution. 

Besides, there wasn’t any parking.

But the working conditions have improved dramatically. A university curator is busy relocating those tens of thousands of wood samples into a state-of-the-art archive contained in the department’s own building, designed to evoke a treehouse on the University of Arizona’s Tucson campus. And the scientists who study tree rings – dendrochronology, as the field is called – are finding that their work is becoming increasingly recognized as crucial in the fight against climate change. 

“We’re really sitting on this nexus between climatology, ecology, and then human history,” says Dr. Trouet, who recently published a general audience book called “Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings.” “That intersection is what we need right now.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building is seen at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, Oct. 15, 2021. The tree-ring lab was started in 1937 and recently moved from underneath the football stadium to its new home in this modern building designed to evoke a treehouse.

The Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research is the world’s oldest dendrochronology lab, and still one of the most renowned. Scientists here focus on everything from dating archeological samples – their work rewrote the history of the cliff dwellers at Arizona’s Tonto National Monument, for instance – to better understanding the patterns of the jet stream, the westerly air current that influences temperatures across the globe.

They are also using their research to explain climate science to a broad lay audience.

In a field often focused on the impact of invisible airborne molecules, tree-ring research stands out for being decidedly tangible. After all, many people have counted the rings on a tree stump; elementary school children learn that each ring marks a year of a tree’s life.

But there is far more information contained in these markings. 

The stories trees tell

The width of a tree ring, scientists know, can indicate environmental stressors. A particularly dry year in the Southwest, for instance, might result in a narrower band, since the tree was not able to grow as much as it might in a wetter year. The same goes for cold in northern regions. A year with plenty of water and warmth, depending on the tree’s location, might lead to a wider ring. Wildfires leave scars in a tree’s wood; an insect infestation leaves a mark.

Sometimes, a year leaves such a notable ring that scientists are able to use it as a timeline marker. In her book, for instance, Dr. Trouet writes of recognizing at a glance the tree-ring signatures for the late 18th century in trees from California’s Sierra Nevada, which she studied. The year 1783 was narrow, 1792 was wide, 1795 was narrow, and so on. When researchers identify those signatures in multiple trees, they can connect the data and make a longer timeline.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A tree slab on exhibit in the Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building at the University of Arizona is marked with the years corresponding to its rings, in Tucson, Oct. 15, 2021.

And these timelines, reaching thousands of years into the past, help answer a central question of the modern climate change conversation: Are the world’s temperatures, along with extreme weather events like drought and floods, part of a natural pattern, or are they caused by human behavior?

In this effort, dendrochronologists’ work is part of a larger, relatively new field called paleoclimatology, or the study of ancient climate. Whether from ice cores drilled from the Arctic ice sheet, which contains air bubbles trapped from millennia past, or the sedimentary layers in lakes and oceans, scientists are looking at natural systems to help determine the climate long before humans developed temperature-recording devices.

“We don’t have a thermometer telling us what it looked like in the 1400s,” says Kristy Dahl, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But we do have records from earth systems, if we know how to unlock these secrets.”

To piece these global timelines together, dendrochronologists collect pencil-width samples, or cores, from trees across the world. They also investigate old wood from tree stumps or archeological sites, or even from logs preserved along riverbeds, such as bald cypress wood that sank in southern U.S. rivers.

In New York, researchers with the Tree-Ring Lab at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory are looking for old wood used in historic city buildings to gain insight into the climatic conditions for the Northeast’s first growth forests, which were cut down generations ago. At the University of Arizona, Peter Brewer, curator of collections at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, is organizing not only southwestern collections and slabs of giant sequoias, but samples of wood from across the world.

“This is a nice collection from Turkey,” he said one recent afternoon, pulling out a labeled container from his new archive. The wood in his hands was from the tomb of King Midas. “It’s central to the Aegean Greece timeline,” he explained.

And these records are clear. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Peter Brewer, curator of collections at the Tree-Ring Lab at the University of Arizona, stands by a tree slab from a giant sequoia, in Tucson, Oct. 15, 2021. This slab shows evidence of wildfires. Scientists can use tree rings to study many things, including fires, climate change, and how the jet stream changed after the Industrial Revolution.

The trees’ verdict on climate change

While the earth has, indeed, gone through patterns of warmer and colder temperature – as well as megadroughts and floods – the change since humans began burning fossil fuels has been dramatic.

“Tree rings can help us at least reduce the uncertainty in what we can say about how warm it is today relative to the past, before greenhouse gas forcing was a significant issue,” says Edward Cook, director of Columbia’s Tree-Ring Lab.

Dendrochronologists share their findings on the online International Tree-Ring Data Bank, which lets other scientists use models from across the world. This is particularly important as researchers begin to push the field from location-specific insights – the temperature history of the southwestern United States, for instance – to more global climate systems. 

Dr. Trouet, for instance, is now investigating the variability of the jet stream, the winds in the higher atmosphere that form a border between colder Arctic air and the warmer air of the tropics. Scientists know that the jet stream is not static and that variations in where and how it flows impact climate across the northern hemisphere, such as recent “snowmageddon” events in the southern United States.

But until recently, scientists did not have much information on whether or how fluctuation in the jet stream was part of human-caused climate change. They simply hadn’t been measuring it for all that long.

“There are some aspects of anthropogenic climate change that we know quite well,” says Dr. Trouet. “We know that it’s getting warmer, we know it’s going to continue to get warmer, we know that as it gets warmer, it gets drier. ... But there are some other aspects that we don’t understand well. ... Our idea was to use tree rings to study how the jet stream has changed in the past – specifically before the Industrial Revolution, before we started putting so much CO2 into the atmosphere.”

To do this, her team has compared tree-ring records from England and the Balkans, finding patterns in those locations’ comparative yearly temperatures that indicate jet stream movement. Dr. Trouet has about 800 years of data at this point, she says, and has already published findings from the past 300 years. 

Once again, the trees are pointing to significant, human-caused climate change. 

“It’s not like the jet stream is much further north now than it was in the past,” she says. “But what has happened is that there are much more extremes in its position. ... It goes much further north one summer and much further south another summer. These extremes are ... creating the extremes in the climate.”

Now, says Dr. Cook, scientists are working to learn even more from trees.

“We understand that there’s a lot more information contained in the annual tree ring,” he says, from the density of the wood to its isotopic composition. Continuing to unlock those secrets, he says, will let scientists “greatly improve and increase the amount of information we have on climate.”

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Why Africa’s bright spots catch US attention

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President Joe Biden has finally sent his highest-ranking official to visit sub-Saharan Africa. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kenya with stops planned in Senegal and Nigeria. While the trip is aimed at addressing Africa’s current crises – conflicts, coups, and COVID-19 – a quiet emphasis has also been placed on building up Africa’s success stories. In particular, U.S. officials have lately been visiting Niger, the world’s poorest country and one with conflicts along its borders with Mali, Libya, Chad, and Nigeria.

Niger’s new leader, Mohamed Bazoum, took office in April after a fair election. While his top goal is security against roving terrorist groups, he has sought to strengthen the country’s democracy and to tackle terrorism “at its roots,” mainly by elevating the lives of women and girls.

In sending its officials to Africa, the Biden administration has chosen countries already doing well but seen as able to do more. Lifting up models like Niger can help other countries in Africa currently in a muddle.

Why Africa’s bright spots catch US attention

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Mohamed Bazoum, Niger's president

Terrorist bombs in Uganda. A civil war in Ethiopia. Deadly pro-democracy protests in military-ruled Sudan. And these events in Africa are only ones that are grabbing headlines. So far this year, the continent has seen a quadrupling of coups compared with last year, or the highest in four decades. In July, the United Nations declared that Africa has become the region of the world most affected by terror. 

“Do African lives not matter?” asked Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., of the international community in July.

After 10 months in office, President Joe Biden has finally sent his highest-ranking official to visit sub-Saharan Africa. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kenya with stops planned in Senegal and Nigeria. While the trip is aimed at addressing Africa’s current crises – conflicts, coups, and COVID-19 – a quiet emphasis has also been placed on building up Africa’s success stories. In particular, U.S. officials have lately been visiting Niger, the world’s poorest country and one with conflicts along its borders with Mali, Libya, Chad, and Nigeria.

“There are bright spots across the continent,” said Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield in October, but Niger “is an extraordinary country where they have had the first turnover of power to an elected president.”

Niger’s new leader, Mohamed Bazoum, took office in April after a fair election. While his top goal is security against roving terrorist groups, he has sought to strengthen the country’s democracy and to tackle terrorism “at its roots,” mainly by elevating the lives of women and girls.

He has appointed women in his Cabinet and recruited hundreds of women into the military because they can engage with rural women in isolated areas to provide security. But his long-term goal is to better educate girls. Many leave school by age 13 and, on average, have two babies by age 18. As a result, Niger has the world’s highest birthrate.

Terrorists find it easy to recruit fighters in Africa’s poorest nations like Niger. While soldiers from the United States and Europe are in the country helping it battle such militants, Mr. Bazoum has kept the focus on economic and social progress as well as more inclusive governance.

“Though by no means perfect, the experience of Niger shows that it is possible for states in the Sahel to overcome the legacy of a violent and divided past,” wrote scholar Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos in a Chatham House report.

In sending its officials to Africa, the Biden administration has chosen countries already doing well but seen as able to do more. Lifting up models like Niger can help other countries in Africa currently in a muddle.

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.

‘Mark’ the man and woman of God’s creating

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From a material perspective, nobody’s perfect. But recognizing that God created everyone as spiritual, whole, and pure empowers us to experience – and help others experience – a higher standard of health and harmony.

‘Mark’ the man and woman of God’s creating

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

When my children were in elementary school, they played soccer through a local sports program. Before each game, the coach would assign each child a player on the opposing team to “mark.” That meant to focus on and stay right with the player at all times, rather than meandering around the field of play. Sometimes the coach would even say, “Mark that player so closely you feel like you’re in their shirt! Stay right with them.”

The importance of this was not lost on the young athletes, and the better they each marked their player, the better the game went for them.

I think of this sometimes when I read in the Bible, “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace” (Psalms 37:37). Practically speaking, who is “the perfect man” we are to “mark”? How do we do that? And why should we?

Well, it is clear there is no perfect human being, so the “perfect man” must be a higher, more spiritual concept of man than we experience with our material senses. In fact, the teachings of Christian Science help us see that the “perfect man” is the spiritual man (meaning all of us) of God’s creating, made in the image of divine Spirit.

The textbook of Christian Science explains: “The Scriptures inform us that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Matter is not that likeness. The likeness of Spirit cannot be so unlike Spirit.... Man is idea, the image, of Love; he is not physique. He is the compound idea of God, including all right ideas;...” (Mary Baker Eddy, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 475).

It is this spiritual understanding of everyone’s true nature as God’s child that we are to “mark,” to look to continually. We do this by keeping the correct spiritual concept of man foremost in our thoughts.

This doesn’t mean putting our heads in the sand when we or someone we encounter is not well or acting wrongly. Rather, we can silently affirm that everyone’s true nature is one of harmony, health, and integrity, because God, Spirit, is all good. Understanding this enables us to overcome illness or bad character traits, and to help others do the same.

And the endgame is peace, as the Psalmist assures us. How empowering to know we can feel and express greater peace in our lives by keeping the man of God’s creating securely in thought.

Jesus Christ healed by constantly acknowledging as legitimate only the perfect, upright man of God’s creating, the flawless idea of divine Spirit. Once as he was leaving a city called Jericho, a blind man called out to him. Jesus asked him what he would like him to do for him. When the fellow responded that he wanted to receive his sight, Jesus assured him that his faith had made him whole. Indeed, the man was instantly well (see Mark 10:46-52).

As we practice marking the perfect man, we too can witness healing. For example, recently our son was in touch to say their 4-year-old had accidentally hammered his own thumb with a rock while playing outside. Now the little boy was getting ready for bed, and he was in pain and crying, and couldn’t settle down. Our son asked if I would pray, and of course I was happy to do so.

Immediately I started to “mark the perfect man” – to mentally affirm that this sweet boy was the child of God, therefore always safe and well in God’s care, and never susceptible to accidents or harm of any kind. God bestows only good on His children, so nothing jarring or painful can touch one’s peace and joy in any way. Everyone, including this little boy, has a God-given right and ability to be free from injury and pain.

In a short time, our daughter-in-law texted to say the child had stopped crying and settled down, and was sleeping peacefully. The little boy never mentioned his thumb again and had a happy, regular day the next day.

Marking the perfect man, keeping the high ideal of God’s man always before us, brings greater joy, harmony, and health to our own experience and to that of others we encounter along the way.

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Seeking higher ground

Jesse Winter/Reuters
Residents of Abbotsford struggle to rescue stranded cattle from a farm after record rainstorms caused flooding and mudslides in British Columbia, Nov. 16, 2021. Neighboring Washington state also was grappling with flooding. In Abbotsford, rescue boats were working to save several hundred people, with efforts ongoing.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on an essay about bighorn sheep and discovering the power of patience. 

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