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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2017
October
17
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

A Democrat and a Republican have a handshake deal on health-care insurance.

No, really.  A small but important bipartisan deal was reached Tuesday that could help stabilize the health insurance markets. And President Trump quickly gave his nod of approval.

For Democrats, it continues "Obamacare" subsidies to insurers for two years, maintaining lower out-of-pocket costs for low-income consumers. Last week, Mr. Trump said he would cut off those subsidies.

For Republicans, the draft of the deal gives more power to states, said Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, offering “more flexibility in the variety of choices they can give to consumers.”

Now, the hard work starts for Senator Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. They’ve got to bring along their Senate colleagues.

But Alexander and Senator Murray have set an example of a path to progress. At a time when so many politicians seek principled positions over results, they offer a model of compromise that gives both sides something they consider important, while putting American consumers first.

That’s a breath of political fresh air.

~

Now five news stories selected to highlight resilience, diversity, and bridge-building – at work.

1. Living with Assad: a region struggles to come to terms

With ISIS losing the capital of its ‘caliphate’ in Syria on Tuesday, the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad looks increasingly secure. Now, neighboring nations, especially Lebanon, must figure out what reengagement with him looks like.

David
 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe assessment last week by the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Middle East Center is harsh. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime “has all but destroyed Syria, destabilized the neighborhood, roiled the politics of Europe, facilitated the rise of [Islamic State] and Al Qaeda, and created the signature humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century.” Yet Mr. Assad is still in power and, propped up by allies Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, looks to remain so. Which means that neighboring countries are beginning to ponder if, how, and when relations can, or should, be restored with Damascus. Lately, Jordan has been signaling it is ready to reengage with Damascus, despite having hosted Syrian rebel training camps run by American and British special forces. The debate is perhaps most poignant in Lebanon. In late 2012, Saad Hariri, a leading critic of Assad whom he blames for the death of his father in 2005, described the Syrian leader as a “beast who has lost humanitarian and political ethics.” However, today, Mr. Hariri is prime minister of a government that includes members of Hezbollah, Assad’s ally, and his tone has softened considerably as Assad's hold on power grows more assured.

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1. Living with Assad: a region struggles to come to terms

After more than six years of bloodshed and destruction, Bashar al-Assad’s hold on the presidency of Syria seems assured for now, which leaves neighboring countries beginning to ponder if, how, and when relations can, or should, be restored with Damascus.

The issue for Syria’s neighbors is more than a tactical one. The civil war has convulsed the region. Nearly half a million people have been killed, 117,000 have been detained or simply disappeared. In addition, 6 million have been internally displaced and another 4.8 million have swarmed into neighboring countries and migrated en masse to Europe and around the world.

The Assad regime stands accused of crimes against humanity for using chemical agents against its own citizens. And President Assad’s opponents in the region have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to opposition forces dedicated to removing him from power. Can regional leaders ignore that brutal legacy and resume ties once the fighting ends?

Certainly, the war in Syria is far from over. Assad holds only about 60 percent of the country, and that is largely due to the military support provided by his allies – Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization, and other Shiite paramilitary forces drawn from Iraq and further afield. The armed opposition groups maintain their grip on Idlib province in northern Syria, and US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces control much of the northeast of the country.

“We are probably entering a period where Assad will rule over a weak regime controlling only part of Syria, with considerable help from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia,” says Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian diplomat and politician who is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is not a sustainable formula, but one born out of necessity while the Russians, in particular, look for an exit strategy. This may take years, but it is difficult to see Assad turning the clock back to pre-2011.”

Nevertheless, the war does appear to be entering a less intensive phase, which raises the question of how Assad’s Syria can be reconciled with other Middle East countries, some of which – like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan – have openly sided with the Syrian regime’s enemies since the beginning of the conflict.

Will Assad be shunned as a regional pariah, his regime starved of reconstruction aid, and any talks regarding Syria’s future conducted via Moscow and Tehran? Or will cold strategic politics prevail, gradually allowing Syria’s neighbors to restore relations with a regime that, as described last week by Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Middle East Center, “has all-but destroyed Syria, destabilized the neighborhood, roiled the politics of Europe, facilitated the rise of ISIS and Al Qaeda, and created the signature humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century?”

Pressing debate in Lebanon

The debate about if and when to restore full ties with Syria is topping the political agenda in Lebanon, Syria’s tiny neighbor to the West. Lebanon has a complex and at times violent history with Syria that has left the country sharply divided between supporters and opponents of Assad.

In late 2012, Saad Hariri, a leading critic of Assad whom he blames for the death of his father in 2005, described the Syrian leader as a "beast who has lost humanitarian and political ethics," adding that he would be brought to trial for "bloodshed in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq and for killing children and massacring the Syrian people."

However, today, Mr. Hariri is prime minister of a government that includes members of Hezbollah, Assad's battlefield ally. He is still opposed to Assad but his tone has softened considerably as Assad's hold on power grows more assured.

In June 2012, the Lebanese government had declared a policy of disassociation with the Syria conflict, effectively a stance of neutrality to avoid any potentially dangerous spillover. However, the following year, Hezbollah began intervening militarily in the Syrian war, helping shore up the regime in Damascus but stirring anger and resentment from Assad’s opponents in Lebanon.

With Assad gaining ground in Syria this year, his allies in Lebanon are displaying greater confidence and are pushing for a full normalization of ties. A Lebanese ambassador to Damascus was appointed in July. The following month, three government ministers ignored Prime Minister Hariri's protestations and attended the Damascus International Fair, an event designed to showcase that Syria was ready to resume business with the world.

Last month, the pro-Damascus Syrian Social Nationalist Party closed off a normally traffic-clogged street in the bustling Hamra district of Beirut to stage a paramilitary parade with dozens of uniformed men. While the event is an annual commemoration of an act of resistance against Israeli troops occupying the city in 1982, its scale this year was much larger than usual and was widely interpreted as a display of muscle-flexing confidence.

While Hariri and his allies are resisting a full resumption of ties with Damascus, analysts believe it is inevitable that at some point relations will resume as normal. Lebanese businessmen, at least those close to Assad, are already eyeing the possibility of potentially lucrative reconstruction contracts in Syria. In northern Lebanon, Tripoli is expanding its port and planning to build a railway to connect to the Syrian network in anticipation of becoming a logistical hub for Syria’s reconstruction.

“Once Syria is brought completely back into the fold, Lebanon is not going to have much of a choice on that front. Eventually there will be some sort of normalization of relations,” says Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Signals from Jordan

Lately, Syria’s southern neighbor Jordan has been signaling that it is ready to reengage with Damascus, despite having hosted Syrian rebel training camps run by American and British special forces. Last month, a Jordanian government spokesman said the relationship with Syria was “likely to take a positive turn.”

Negotiations are ongoing in order to stabilize southern Syria adjacent to the Jordanian frontier ahead of reopening the main border crossing. The move will allow Lebanese and Syrian goods to flow south and once more access markets in the Persian Gulf. Stability in southern Syria will also create a safer environment for most of the 650,000 registered Syrian refugees to return to their homes.

“Jordan's main priorities are … keeping the borders safe and helping create conditions under which the refugees can go home,” says Mr. Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister. “Syrian refugees have made it clear that short of ironclad guarantees for their safety, they will not go back, while Jordan has declared that there will not be any involuntary return. Syrian refugees in Jordan are clear that such safety guarantees cannot be given while the Assad regime stays.”

Perhaps the most ardent regional opponent to Assad’s rule was Saudi Arabia. In the years before the Syria war broke out in 2011, the Saudi-Syrian relationship had been marked by bitter disputes, with a strong personal animus, and attempted reconciliations. Under King Abdullah, who died in 2015, Saudi Arabia sought, unsuccessfully, to end Assad’s close alliance with Iran and return him to the Arab fold. When the rebellion against Assad morphed into armed conflict, Riyadh was one of the strongest backers of nascent rebel groups.

Still, since King Salman ascended the throne on the death of his half-brother in 2015, Saudi Arabia has had to grapple with a war in Yemen, Shiite unrest in its eastern province, Iranian power expansion across the Middle East, and a downturn in oil prices which has had an impact on the kingdom’s economy. The goal of overthrowing Assad has diminished in importance.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has been reaching out to Russia, Syria’s staunch ally, in recognition that it is becoming the region’s indispensable new power broker. King Salman recently visited Moscow, where a deal is being struck for the kingdom to purchase the long-range S-400 anti-aircraft system.

“My guess is that the Saudis are just not going to deal with the Syria issue for a while, partly because they don't know what to do, partly because they are tied down in Yemen, and partly because they're dealing with how to balance their feelings about Iran with their feeling about their new buddies in Moscow,” says Thomas W. Lippman, a Saudi expert and a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Turkey's agenda

Turkey also has reshaped its strategic calculus toward Syria. Like Saudi Arabia, Ankara was a staunch supporter of Syrian rebel groups, which benefited from Turkey’s proximity to northern Syria. Relations deteriorated between Russia and Turkey in late 2015 when a Russian aircraft was shot down over the Turkish-Syrian border. But in the past year, as Russian influence in the region has ascended, the two countries have rebuilt their ties and Ankara has focused more closely on looming Kurdish nationalist aspirations in neighboring Iraq and Syria rather than continuing to seek Assad’s ouster.

“Turkey’s priority in Syria is the Kurds, that is, physically making sure there isn’t a contiguous Kurdish entity on its southern flank and politically preventing a formal federal arrangement,” says Asli Aydintaşbaş, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Iraqi Kurds pushing for independence and Syrian Kurds gaining ground in the northeast of the country have helped drive Turkey’s desire for a rapprochement with Moscow, if not directly with the Assad regime.

“Ankara doesn’t need to shake hands formally with Damascus,” Ms. Aydintaşbaş says. “The sentiment is, that by talking to Russia, they are also indirectly coordinating with Damascus.”

But Ankara is expected to retain its links to some of the opposition groups in northern Syria. The Turkish army’s recent incursion in Syria’s northern Idlib province was a deliberate move to “stabilize the border but also to make sure that moderate opposition isn’t entirely crushed by Russia and Damascus,” Aydintaşbaş says.

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2. Grit and the gridiron help revive a hard-hit Texas town

You’ve probably read stories about generosity and neighborliness after a hurricane. But don’t miss this one about a little Texan town with its own unique blend of self-reliance, faith, family, and (since this is Texas) football.

David
The sun sets on South Alamo Street in Refugio, Texas, a town that is slowly recovering from damage caused by hurricane Harvey.
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Carmen K. Sisson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
 

The 30 Sec. ReadA ragtag pilgrimage of school buses and pickup trucks inches along the faded gray ribbon that is US Highway 183, but there are no honking horns, no dirty looks, no one who seems to be texting while driving. Instead, drivers and passengers wave to neighbors as they begin the two-hour journey to Seguin, Texas, for a Refugio Bobcats high school football game. If passersby are troubled by the roadside scenery left altered by hurricane Harvey – mangled businesses, homes like broken dollhouses – you can’t tell. Places like Refugio, Texas, normally just anonymous drive-by towns, have emerged as testaments to both the power of the people and the triumph of the human spirit. All are focusing on the future to overcome a calamitous present. Yet each town brings its own identity to the work of revival. While Refugio is comforting those most affected, it’s also tapping into a Texas culture of self-reliance and a local reservoir of humanity that is often magnified in small towns. This pilgrimage was on a Friday. Friday means football. And in a few hours, heartache would give way to the magic of pigskin and sweat, dedication and dreams. 

Karen Norris/Staff
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2. Grit and the gridiron help revive a hard-hit Texas town

It’s only 3 p.m., but North Alamo Street is beginning to resemble a Texas ghost town. “Closed” signs tilt from mud-flecked doors. An errant piece of corrugated tin scrapes restlessly against a sagging fence post. A tattered American flag whips in the breeze, clanging against a bent flagpole. 

Hurricane Harvey left an indelible mark on Refugio and other small communities in what’s called Texas’ Coastal Bend, battering buildings and replacing bucolic bliss with chaos. But the streets in this town of 2,890 people are not empty because of the hurricane – they are empty in spite of it. It’s a brisk nod of Texas defiance in the face of overwhelming loss. A tip of the hat to the unifying roles of faith, family, and football as Texans begin to rebuild a way of life that neither war nor weather has managed to vanquish.

In the library, director Tina McGuill ushers a family toward a computer. The library got a new roof this summer, and though the hurricane removed a few shingles, all but 170 of the library’s 17,000 books were spared. Even more important, the library reopened quickly, allowing locals to use fax machines, copiers, computers, and internet access to connect with insurance agents, charity organizations, the state unemployment office, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

More than 75 percent of the town’s structures were damaged, some merely losing windows, others collapsing completely beneath the weight of uprooted, century-old mesquite trees. Every day brings new paperwork for beleaguered homeowners. But today is Friday. And in a few hours, heartache will give way to the magic of pigskin and sweat, dedication and dreams.

“There’s a saying around here,” Ms. ­McGuill says. “Last one out of town, turn the lights off. Football is the glue that holds this town’s spirit together.”

Refugio High School staffers Lisa Herring and Lynette Markert chat in the school’s foyer, which was recon-figured to serve as an office after the school was damaged in the hurricane.
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Carmen K. Sisson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In some ways, coastal Texas was ravaged twice by the lingering storm, which made landfall Aug. 25 in Rockport as a Category 4 hurricane. Winds in excess of 130 miles per hour lashed the coast for hours. Then the system stalled, dumping more than 51 inches of rain on the Lone Star State. Flood-prone cities such as Houston were quickly inundated, and a coastal crisis became a statewide catastrophe.

As disaster relief organizations struggled to get to areas that were hit the hardest, the media glare focused on the dramatic water rescues under way in Houston and its suburbs. Small coastal cities such as Rockport and Aransas Pass were often overlooked, even though, weeks later, they are still barely passable. Some areas have only recently gotten power and water restored. Post offices have shifted mail services to other cities. Residents of Rockport are living 60 miles away in a Motel 6 in Beeville.

Yet places like Refugio, normally an anonymous drive-by town between Houston and Corpus Christi, have emerged as hopeful testaments to both the power of the people and the triumph of the human spirit. In one sense, Refugio is no different from other small towns across this fall’s Crescent of Catastrophe. It could be Immokalee, Fla.; or Marigot, St. Martin; or Fajardo, Puerto Rico – all communities caught in a primal struggle somewhere between survival and recovery. All places where residents are leaning on each other to defy destruction. All places focusing on the future to overcome a calamitous present.

Yet each town brings its own identity to the process of revival, too. While Refugio is summoning a universal impulse to comfort the stricken, it is also tapping into a Texas culture of self-reliance and a local reservoir of humanity that is often magnified in small towns – here more than most.

For it isn’t the tourists, the president, the cavalry, or the militia that is saving Refugio. It is the people themselves.

This may be the most civil traffic jam in the United States. A ragtag pilgrimage of school buses and pickup trucks inches north along the narrow, faded gray ribbon that is US Highway 183, but there are no honking horns, no dirty looks, no one who seems to be texting while driving.

Instead, drivers and passengers smile and wave to neighbors as they begin the two-hour journey to Seguin, Texas, where the Refugio Bobcats will face the Navarro Panthers in the third football game of the season. If passersby are troubled by the roadside scenery – mangled businesses, gutted apartments, faceless homes laid open like broken dollhouses – you can’t tell. 

The Bobcats are overmatched tonight. Their school enrollment is half the size of Navarro’s, but both teams are good enough that they have to travel far to find opponents willing to play them. Last year, Refugio’s defense caught Navarro by surprise, allowing the team to eke out a 14-6 win. This year, the Bobcats have more to prove. 

Hurricane Harvey ravaged their field, destroying their scoreboard and parts of their school building. Players dragged family members to safety, holding plywood against broken windows and ignoring the rain as their homes caved in around them. Many lost everything and took refuge in the only home they had left – the team’s locker room, where Red Cross cots and blankets still vie for space with piles of mattresses, cases of water bottles, stacks of donated hygiene kits, and weights they’ve barely had time or energy to touch. 

In late September, a key player, junior defensive back Casey Henderson, fractured two vertebrae in his neck while making a tackle. Head coach Jason Herring broke down in tears in the hospital room. Football had been an escape for Casey and his brother, Sylvester, after they lost their home in the storm.

But the Bobcats aren’t feeling sorry for themselves. Like the rest of Refugio’s residents, they stumbled outside after the storm to a world they no longer recognized. But when they looked across their tree-strewn yards, they saw a familiar sight – the faces of their neighbors. So they crawled out of the rubble, traded their football gloves for work gloves, and began helping their community rebuild. While they worked on their neighbors’ homes, other neighbors worked on theirs. And more than a month later, things are starting to look better in Refugio. 

Tonight, the town is hoping to score another win. 

Refugio High School football coach Jason Herring talks to his team after a game in Seguin, Texas. Many team members slept in the school’s weight room after their homes were destroyed by the hurricane.
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Carmen K. Sisson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Melissa Gonzales is on her way to the game, too – a reward following a long week. As superintendent of the Refugio Independent School District, Ms. Gonzales has found inspiration in the students’ resilience, even as she fights overwhelming exhaustion and frustration. 

She evacuated during the storm, but her husband, Sheriff Raul “Pinky” Gonzales, stayed behind. He called after the storm and described a chaotic scene of power lines covering the roadways and failed communications systems that left them cut off from nearby towns.

He’d issued a mandatory evacuation, but many didn’t have the money to leave. He retained access to several school buses in case they needed them, but by the time people decided to go, the storm was too severe, and there was nowhere to flee. 

“Don’t come back yet,” he told his wife. But fear gnawed at her, and when she ­talked to Mr. Herring, he felt the same way. They had to know how their school and their students had fared.

Before the hurricane hit, the newly renovated school was days away from opening. Gonzales had not even received the new keys. Semi trucks were en route to deliver new furniture, and she had to make a choice – allow them to come, putting the shipment at risk if the town took a direct hit from Harvey, or reject them and risk opening school with no office desks and chairs. She told them to come.

As Gonzales and Herring stood in Refugio after the storm, staring at the standing water and scattered roofs, they turned with disbelief as their phones began buzzing with text messages. Students – some in shelters, others sitting in their ruined homes – wanted to know if school would start on time. Football players wanted to know when to show up for practice. 

“They were standing there in devastation with nothing to look forward to,” Gonzales says. “We needed our kids to have something positive. Kids who had nothing to come back to wanted to come back to practice.”

Teachers also wanted to return. Sixteen of the district’s 152 employees have nowhere to live, and FEMA is only offering housing for individuals, not families. The district was able to pull enough makeshift classrooms together to begin school, but teachers and staff members are stashed into random corners in the hallways. 

They lack copiers, printers, computers, desks, keys, and even textbooks. They struggle all day in their damaged school, stumble into shelters and damaged homes at night, and pray on Sundays in church services that, in some cases, are now being held at the elementary school and local funeral parlor.

As Gonzales fields phone calls and emails, she still manages a smile for employees who poke their heads inside her office door, making requests that on any normal day would be easy to accommodate. Earlier in the week, Gonzales broke down while trying to find a paper necessary to request public assistance. Her careful composure melted, and she fled the administration office, driving back to her two-story house, which sustained $80,000 in damage, and her yard, which is now festooned with tree limbs and shingles. She sat in her car and cried, then turned around and drove back to the office. Another employee helped her find the needed form. And another day came to a merciful end.

“I’m not complaining,” Gonzales says. “We’re doing just fine. I keep reminding myself how fortunate we are. But I have staff on a modest salary driving in every day [from temporary lodgings]. I’m not OK with that. I want my children and my staff to have homes. They had little to begin with, and now they have far less.”

More than 60 percent of the district’s 740 students are Hispanic, and more than 70 percent of the students are eligible for free lunch.

But poverty may be no match for another Refugio characteristic – pride. The school is the centerpiece of the community, and the football team is the nucleus, but what’s going on here runs deeper than that. The people of Refugio have a strong, ethnocentric identity and a grit and determination born of being raised in harder times than these. 

They live in a community where English and Spanish are spoken interchangeably, and racial equality is the norm, not the exception. Everyone is expected to do their best, whether they are in the classroom, on the football field, or at the workplace. 

“We’re very proud of who we are,” Gonzales says. “Many people have lived here for generations, and there is a commitment to excellence in every way. We only accept the best.”

She extends that expectation to herself as well. “I’m not content with us just educating kids,” she says. “Our goal is to stand in the gap for these kids and meet whatever need we need to meet.”

Other town leaders seem to adhere to that philosophy, too. Friday morning, over a breakfast of huevos rancheros and migas at La Ribera diner, Sheriff Gonzales compares progress reports with First Baptist Church pastor T. Wayne Price.

Gonzales rode out the storm at the county courthouse with his fellow employees. Together, they watched as water poured through the roof and the double doors bulged in a futile effort to hold back the wind. Two of his deputies lost homes. 

“I’m starting to see people psychologically affected,” Gonzales says. “They’ve seen a lot, but this storm punched them for hours. They’re human.”

The sheriff’s past experience as a game warden helped him quickly garner outside help for the area, but it was the townspeople themselves who grabbed their chain saws and nail guns and got to work. He believes he will soon have housing for his displaced deputies, and his own life is finding some normalcy, too. After working for weeks out of his pickup truck, the sheriff is moving to a temporary space at a nearby office plaza.

Ms. Gonzales believes she will soon have housing for her displaced teachers, and a visit to the injured football player was encouraging – he is clamoring to begin physical therapy so he can return to his teammates. While he’s in the hospital, volunteers are repairing his family’s house.

Mr. Price’s church lost almost everything in the storm, and the sanctuary was destroyed – stripped to ribbons of pink insulation and dotted with damp pages of ruined hymnals and Bibles. More than 95 of his members were affected or displaced by the storm, but every day brings the promise of recovery closer to reality.

“Our people are doing much better,” Price says. “Our sheriff and county judge were sent from God.”

Gonzales, shifting uneasily next to him, flushes almost as pink as the long-sleeved shirt he is wearing and lifts his white cowboy hat.

“Soon I won’t be able to wear this,” he jokes, noting that all this praise might lead to a swelled head.

None of this means that people haven’t had hard questions for their pastors and for God. Price tries to reassure them by being honest, forthright, and presenting biblical truths.

“We’re being real but being positive,” Price says. “It’s not pseudo-hype. As hundreds of volunteers come to help, the promises are being borne out. We hurt. We cry. But we do not lose faith.”

Two residents of Refugio, Texas, load mesquite logs onto a trailer. Hurricane Harvey downed a large number of trees in the area, many of which are being cut up for firewood and barbecues.
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Carmen K. Sisson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Across town, Union Baptist Church Pastor Eugene Lewis preaches a similar message. His congregation only has a dozen members, but they’re close. They were devastated when they couldn’t hold services in their unassuming blue-and-white church because it was too damaged. Mr. Lewis, who lost his home in the storm, encouraged parishioners
to attend one of the other churches in town or use the time on Sundays to help neighbors.

Before the storm, he tried to assuage their fears. “I told them, ‘If you get called home, there’s a home that will never be taken away,’ ” he says. “ ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength.’ ”

He is encouraged by what he sees in Refugio. The town seems closer now. People are letting go of nitpicky quarrels because their priorities have shifted. One parishioner had avoided a friend for a long time because of an argument. Now the friends have mended fences, literally and figuratively.

“If the Lord had wanted to wipe Refugio off the map, he could have,” Lewis says. “We have so much to be thankful for.”

At the game with Navarro, the Refugio Bobcats are struggling, but their fans haven’t stopped cheering since they arrived. Though there are fewer people here than the 2,000 who usually attend away games, the visitors’ stand is packed anyway.

The game gets off to a rough start, with Navarro scoring three touchdowns while holding Refugio to 10 points. In the second half, Refugio fights back. But eventually the team trudges off the field with its first loss of the season, 21-17.

Fans like Philip Lewis and Douglas Franklin are unperturbed. Even though he suffered major roof and fence damage to his house, Mr. Lewis would never miss a game on a Friday night. 

“These drives don’t mean nothing to me,” he says. “I’m a Bobcat fan. Football brings us back to earth. It keeps our spirits up.”

Mr. Franklin went out into the height of the storm to rescue his grown children, whose apartment was collapsing. He has been stunned by the influx of volunteers, but the town’s esprit de corps doesn’t surprise him at all.

“We almost breathe football here,” he says, laughing. “That’s the only thing we really have. When it’s this time of year, it doesn’t matter – if there’s a game, I’m going. We back our Bobcats.”

And together, they all back their town. 

At the end of the game, parents, friends, and cheerleaders storm the field waving cameras and cellphones, clamoring for photos like paparazzi at a rock concert. 

“Do that again,” coos Alexa Valenzuela, motioning for Bobcat running back Jacobe Avery to place his helmet on his 1-year-old’s head. Though Jacobe lost his home and the Burger King where he worked, he still has his family – and his team. 

“After the hurricane, the coaches said we should get back ASAP,” Jacobe says. “It made us feel more comfortable. We went around roofing houses.”

The Bobcats’ coach knows that this time on the field – win or lose – is what will mend his boys. They kneel before him, staring at the grass, waiting to be rebuked for their performance. He chides them for a moment, then softens his tone. 

“You look at me,” he says to one player. “All of you. Look at me. Keep your heads high. You played a heck of a game. So don’t you dare hang your heads. I am proud of you.” 

One by one, they lift their heads and make eye contact, allowing him to scruff their hair, cuff their shoulders, hug them. Next week they will play again. Maybe they will win or maybe they will lose. But no matter the outcome, they will survive.

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3. The city where diversity crowds out the poles

Political polarization can tear families and nations apart. But Stockton, Calif., offers a portrait of a city strengthened by its ethnic and political diversity.

David
 

The 30 Sec. ReadWhat happens when people with a broad range of histories, ethnicities, and ideologies rely on one another within the same community? You get Stockton, Calif. A city whose long ties to agriculture have helped it retain a streak of classic conservatism, Stockton has a population today that is 70 percent people of color and 15 percent noncitizens. Immigrants both authorized and unauthorized work and live with conservative landowners, growers, and businesspeople – and family values, hard work, and individual merit are principles that sit side by side with opportunity, tolerance, and equality. Immigrant advocates here are less inclined to alienate those on the opposite end of the political spectrum by shutting down Republican voices. Local conservatives tend to be more open to immigration reforms that involve pathways to citizenship. “We see all kinds of different people walk through here,” says Mike Fleming, speaking of both Stockton and the farm-supply business his family has run here since 1941. “Once they come in, we've got to make them feel welcome.”

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3. The city where diversity crowds out the poles

When customers walk into Farmers Feed Co., Mike Fleming’s first priority is to make them feel at ease. He goes out of his way to befriend his clientele, “whether they spend a dollar or $300.” When he sees a customer struggling to speak English, he uses his bit of Spanish to communicate with them.

“When they see me – I’m a white guy – actually speaking Spanish, they see me kind of being vulnerable and putting myself out there for them,” says Mr. Fleming, whose family-owned pet and farm supply business has stood at 1302 East Miner Street near downtown Stockton since 1941. “It makes them feel more comfortable … and that’s what I like.”

It’s an approach to immigrant communities that popular narratives don’t often associate with Trump supporters – and Fleming did vote for the president last November.

But it is, Fleming says, pretty typical of Stockton.

A city whose historic ties to agriculture have helped it retain a streak of classic conservatism, Stockton’s population today is 70 percent people of color and 15 percent non-citizens. Immigrants both documented and undocumented work and live with conservative landowners, growers, and businessmen – and family values, hard work, and individual merit are principles that sit side-by-side with opportunity, tolerance, and equality.  

The result is that Stockton – and the San Joaquin Valley in general – provide a snapshot of an increasingly rare reality in 2017 America: what happens when people with a broad range of histories, ethnicities, and ideologies rely on one another within the same community. Immigrant advocates here are less inclined to alienate those on the opposite end of the political spectrum by shutting down Republican voices. Local conservatives also tend to be more open to immigration reforms that involve pathways to citizenship for undocumented workers. “We see all kinds of different people walk through here,” Fleming notes, referring to both his store and his city. “Once they come in, we've got to make them feel welcome.”

“In communities where a lot of undocumented immigrants live and work, people are more sympathetic to them,” notes Sarah Trumble, deputy director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington. “The places most concerned about immigrants are places where [immigration] is not a part of their daily lives.”

Mayor Michael Tubbs sits at his office in City Hall on Sept. 28, 2017, in Stockton, Calif. Mr. Tubbs, the youngest mayor in Stockton's history, says he believes the diversity of thought and history among residents gives the city more room for compromise and less room for extremism. 'It's easy to say, "Get these people out, build the wall," when it's "these people," ' he says. 'When you put a live person in front of them, like their hairdresser or their kid's best friend, then it's different.'
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Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor

No room for an echo chamber

Few people wrestle with that dynamic more than Michael Tubbs, Stockton’s 27-year-old mayor. In many ways Mr. Tubbs embodies the wave of liberalism that has been sweeping across California for the past three decades: In November, he ran a grassroots campaign as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Anthony Silva, promising to promote diversity, reduce violence, and create more jobs. He won with 70 percent of the vote and became the city’s first black mayor and the youngest in its history.

Yet as a Stockton native – he was raised in South Stockton by a single mother – Tubbs is very aware of the complex racial and political dynamics at play in his city. “You could be in a meeting and you’d never know so-and-so was a big supporter of Bill O’Reilly, or so-and-so voted for Trump and gave a lot of money to his campaign,” he says. “Because we’re forced to come together, the conversations aren’t in an echo chamber.”

Given that reality, a city official who wants to get things done has little room to pander to one side or the other with extreme positions on polarizing issues like immigration, Tubbs says. For instance, while he and his city council passed a resolution in February affirming their support for the local immigrant community and the police department’s hands-off policy toward immigration enforcement, Tubbs says he keeps an open line of communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the region.

Just because he disagrees with a group or individual or what they represent, he says, “that’s not going to stop me from having a conversation if I need to have a conversation with you. I think this community gets that.”

José Rodriguez certainly does. As president and chief executive officer of El Concilio – a social services organization that caters to immigrant families across the Central Valley – he’s sensitive to the plight of undocumented workers. “But we have to be strategic about how and where we advocate for the community,” Mr. Rodriguez says. That could mean, for example, approaching sheriff’s departments and city leaders with a lighter touch than they might if they operated in a more liberal enclave. “We don’t necessarily go up there and ask them to take a public position supporting undocumented immigrants. That approach can be counterproductive,” he says. “We work individually … quietly.”

The same is true of Bruno Joseph Cerri, co-owner of Cerri Family Feed in South Stockton. A self-professed conservative, he values individual effort and is reluctant to suggest that undocumented workers should get a free pass into the country. But as a family man – not to mention the great-great-grandson of Italian immigrants – he empathizes with those who risk everything for a shot at a better life for their kids. “If I was in a pickle too, I would go out and pick tomatoes myself, if it means supporting my family,” he says. “I’d do whatever.”

'Us' instead of 'them'

This isn’t to say that Stockton is a political utopia where Republicans and Democrats live in harmony. In the past decade the city has dealt with bankruptcy, a spike in violent crime, and clashes between police and protesters – events charged with political, socioeconomic, and racial tension. But interviews with Stockton residents and community leaders do suggest that when people view one another as part of the same group – when they are able to empathize with one another because they live and work together – compromise and compassion are more likely to become viable options. “It’s easy to say, ‘Get these people out, build the wall,’ when it’s ‘these people,’ ” Tubbs says. “When you put a live person in front of them, like their hairdresser or their kid’s best friend, then it’s different.”

In a 2016 article, University of California, Berkeley, researchers john a. powell and Stephen Menendian use the term “othering” to describe the processes and conditions that deny certain groups full membership in society, and thus breed and bolster group-based inequality. Othering, they write, is at the heart of policies that marginalize some groups while advancing others – from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which outright banned Chinese workers from becoming citizens, to more insidious patterns of residential segregation that deny poor communities of color access to resources.

Forming personal relationships with people from other groups could help combat prejudice and racism and move hearts and minds toward empathy, Mr. Menendian says. But he’s skeptical that it’s enough to shake the structures of inequity that perpetuate negative attitudes in the first place.

"Institutional forces have a life of their own once put into motion,” Menendian says. “If you focus on institutional relationships” – like the connection between voting districts and political polarization, or between state budgets and prison construction – “you can do a better job of moving toward equality in the policy sphere.”

From where Tubbs is standing, however, that’s exactly what he and his team are trying to do. By forging ties with people from a range of backgrounds and with a range of beliefs and opinions, he is better able to govern a constituency that is as diverse in ideology as it is in ethnicity. He sees it as being a pragmatist rather than a purist.

“We’re not just making policy for people who are 3,000 miles away or 100 miles away,” Tubbs says. “We’re making policy for people we’re going to see at church tomorrow or that we’re going to see at dinner. And presidents come and go, but policy is what stays on the books.”

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Discomfort Zone

Experiences that transform

4. At a citizen conference, some US-Russia engagement

US-Russia relations may be at their worst in recent memory. But a gathering of “citizen diplomats” from both countries underscores that bridge-building starts with face-to-face conversations  – and real listening.

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The 30 Sec. ReadSitting around a big table, after a break for tea and rolls, the American delegates finally dropped the M-word. As in “meddling.” Russia’s meddling in US elections had soured American attitudes toward Russia, the delegates told their Russian counterparts at the Dartmouth Conference, a dialogue initiative between the two countries. And it had tied President Trump’s hands in his stated goal of improving US-Russian relations. The response of one Russian delegate was telling: Those who believe the meddling story are just blindly following the US media. In other words: It’s fake news. “UFOs are also of interest to the American press,” he said. “This is simply not a topic of bilateral relations. It is a domestic US issue.” The two sides had to agree to disagree and retreat to their parallel universes. But they stayed at the table, ready to keep talking about other serious matters at hand: arms control, Syria, Iran, North Korea. After 2-1/2 days of conversation, held late last month, the two delegations drafted specific policy recommendations for their governments. Joint medical endeavors are already taking place, and a dialogue of religious figures is in the works. The overarching point was clear: The United States and Russia need to engage, at all levels, on a range of issues.

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4. At a citizen conference, some US-Russia engagement

It was the proverbial elephant in the room.

We had spent the morning around a big table in quiet, careful conversation, American and Russian “citizen diplomats” bemoaning the sorry state of our countries’ relations. But the M-word – meddling – hadn’t come up.

Meddling, that is, by the Russian government in last year’s US presidential election, according to an explosive report issued in January by the US intelligence community. And meddling that, it now appears, was more widespread than previously imagined, amid growing evidence that Russian trolls and automated bots used social media to promote Donald Trump and exploit divisions within American society.

Such meddling continues to this day, warn experts on digital manipulation.

And so, after a break for tea and rolls, the moment arrived. We in the US delegation of the Dartmouth Conference, a 57-year-old dialogue initiative aimed at brainstorming solutions to the deep challenges in US-Russian relations, went there. We dropped the M-word.

This issue of meddling, the Russians were told, had soured American attitudes toward Russia, and tied President Trump’s hands in his stated goal of improving US-Russian relations.

The response of one Russian delegate was telling: The Americans have presented no evidence, and those who believe the meddling story are just blindly following the US media. In other words, it's “fake news.”

“UFOs are also of interest to the American press,” the Russian said. “This is simply not a topic of bilateral relations. It is a domestic US issue.”

Other Russians painted their country as a victim of “Russo-phobia.” One called it laughable that a country as powerful as the US could be vulnerable to such election interference.

After that initial flash of tension, we essentially let the subject go. We had to agree to disagree, and retreat to our parallel universes. And really, there is so much more to US-Russian relations than this latest turn downward, which has led to expulsions of diplomatic personnel and the seizure of diplomatic properties on both sides.

So we stayed at the table, ready to keep talking about the serious matters at hand: arms control, Syria, Iran, North Korea. After two and a half days of dialogue, held late last month, the two delegations drafted specific policy recommendations for their governments. Joint medical endeavors are already taking place, and a dialogue of religious figures is in the works. The overarching point was clear: The US and Russia need to engage, at all levels, on the range of issues.

Later, in a meeting with the US delegation at the Russian Foreign Ministry, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov expressed hope that relations had reached bottom, and that constructive dialogue could proceed.

“For the moment,” Mr. Ryabkov said, “I believe what we need most is to put an end to this cycle of tit-for-tat actions, this cycle of deterioration in our relationship, to stabilize it, and then to use some time in order to find solutions of at least some of the issues before us.”

A history of meeting and talking

Russians and Americans have a storied history of meeting and talking, even at the depths of the cold war. At Zavidovo, the Foreign Ministry-run retreat where we met, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev once hosted Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s top foreign policy adviser. Mr. Brezhnev shot a wild boar for Dr. Kissinger, much to Kissinger’s discomfort. (He ended up donating the mounted head of “Boris the boar” to the Kennan Institute in Washington, where it hangs on the wall.)

The Brezhnev-Kissinger hunting trip took place in 1973 during the era of detente, when US-Soviet relations were relatively relaxed. Today, veteran diplomats on both sides say the bilateral relationship is the worst they’ve ever seen in their careers. And they can’t guarantee it won’t sink even further.

In our meeting at the Foreign Ministry, Ryabkov quotes Polish poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec to make his point: “When we reach the bottom, we believe this is the end, but then someone knocks from beneath.”

The Americans laugh ruefully. Still Ryabkov, who meets regularly with US Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon to address “irritants” in the bilateral relationship, describes himself as “very hopeful” about US-Russian relations – and “very comfortable in keeping our business going” with Mr. Shannon.

Shannon is “a very knowledgeable person, highly professional, which helps because you, at all times, know where you’ll find him,” Ryabkov told me and another US delegate in an interview. He spoke in fluent English.

After our interview, conducted in front of the US delegation, Ryabkov turned the tables and posed questions to the Americans. The off-the-record dialogue that ensued with the citizen diplomats – some of them former senior US government officials – demonstrated what the Dartmouth process is all about: listening.

"It was a perfect example of sustained dialogue," which involves "listening deeply enough to be changed by what we hear,” says the Rev. Mark Farr, president of the Sustained Dialogue Institute in Washington and a Dartmouth delegate.

This is not to suggest that the conversation changed anybody’s views. The change, says Reverend Farr, occurs at the level of connection between participants – and a willingness to work together toward a mutually agreeable solution.

Ryabkov insists that any personal chemistry with Shannon is beside the point. But the human dimension of diplomacy – both official and unofficial – cannot be denied. It is what drives the Ohio-based Kettering Foundation to help organize Dartmouth dialogues, as part of its study of nongovernmental diplomacy.

At Zavidovo, the human aspect came through in all the shared meals, walks in the woods, and an excursion down the Volga River, which included a visit to a 14th-century Russian Orthodox church.

An interfaith dialogue

One American delegate, John Unger, seemed particularly taken by the ancient church and its trove of icons. His interest was understandable: He’s the pastor for three congregations in Harpers Ferry, W.V. – Lutheran, Episcopal, and United Methodist.

On the eve of our return to the US, a package arrived for Reverend Unger: an icon from Kazan, Russia, depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus – a gift to Unger’s churches from another Dartmouth delegate, the Russian Orthodox leader of Kazan and Tatarstan.

Unger and other religious leaders, including a leading Russian Muslim cleric, are working to pull together an interfaith dialogue in Kazan next year. Terrorism, hate groups, and drugs are matters of deep concern in both countries.

“I feel as if this icon is a window into Kazan,” Unger says. “Maybe it’s their connection to us, transporting us from one culture to another and our struggle that’s common to humanity.”

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5. These librarians step up to help guard digital privacy

If your concept of a public library revolves around books, you may be surprised by a program that puts librarians at the frontiers of privacy, freedom, and technology.

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Visitors use the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library.
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Michael Noble Jr./AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadWe often think of the public library as decidedly old-school, but some privacy advocates see it as an ideal forum to train people how to think about digital privacy. In August, the Library Freedom Project – a group that trains librarians around the country on privacy tools and surveillance threats – received $250,000 from the federal government to teach librarians how to secure their online services and how to teach members of the community to avoid digital snooping from corporations, criminal hackers, and even the government itself. It all sounds surprisingly anti-establishment for such a traditional institution, but as society’s sole public space dedicated to sharing information, public libraries have long been an arena for conflicts over intellectual freedom. “Libraries teaching this stuff can really have a big effect on getting them into wider adoption,” says Alison Macrina, the project’s founder and director. “There are a lot of libraries. They reach a lot of people. They are a place where a lot of people already get introduced to new technologies.”

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5. These librarians step up to help guard digital privacy

A group of privacy advocates want to help you protect your digital privacy using a public institution built for the analog age: your local public library.

In August, New York University and the Library Freedom Project – an organization that trains librarians on using privacy tools to protect intellectual freedom – received a $250,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency. Its purpose: to train librarians to implement secure protocols on their own web services, and to teach members of the community to evade the prying eyes of governments, corporations, and criminal hackers. According to the Library Freedom Project’s website, the group aims to create what it calls “a privacy-centric paradigm shift in libraries and the communities they serve.” 

As society’s sole public space dedicated to collecting and sharing information, public libraries have long been a flashpoint for conflicts over censorship, surveillance, and secrecy. The digital age has accelerated these conflicts, placing librarians squarely between the government’s and corporations’ desire to pursue their interests and the public’s desire to learn how to seek information in private.

“Libraries teaching this stuff can really have a big effect on getting them into wider adoption,” says Alison Macrina, the project’s founder and director. “There are a lot of libraries. They reach a lot of people. They are a place where a lot of people already get introduced to new technologies.”

According to a 2013 Pew survey, 61 percent of Americans ages 16 and older say they have a library card to one of the nearly 9,000 public libraries in the United States. For those without internet at home, work, or school, the public library is a primary point of online access.

Opening secure portals to the public

In recent years, the Library Freedom Project has taught thousands of librarians how to use Tor, a network that enables anonymous web browsing by randomly routing traffic through thousands of relays located around the globe. In 2015, a library in Lebanon, N.H., became the country’s first library to run a Tor exit relay, which connects the traffic to the rest of the internet. Dozens more libraries have followed suit, hosting relays or installing the Tor Browser on their public computers over objections from the Department of Homeland Security, which argued that criminals could use the browser to hide online activities.

The group has also helped dozens of libraries implement HTTPS, the secure version of Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which determines how data is sent between a browser and a website. Using HTTP allows intermediary network nodes to inspect the data as it travels through them, like a postcard sent through the postal service. HTTPS encrypts the data, making it more like a sealed envelope.

With the funds from this newest grant, the group plans to offer online courses that teach librarians throughout the United States about surveillance threats; their legal rights and responsibilities; and how to install and use privacy-enhancing software, such as Signal, a messaging service that offers end-to-end encryption.

These digital tools are necessary, say proponents, because libraries are one of the few remaining spaces open to people from all walks of life – and one of the only places where one can sit for a long time without being asked to buy something. For those without internet access, the library represents a lifeline to the larger world, the only place to seek information about employment, social services, and housing. In many communities, the library is the only place that offers free computer classes. The elderly, who are frequently targeted by fraudsters with fake anti-virus programs and phishing attempts, tend to use the library more than younger adults, and many older Americans rely on libraries for technology training.

“We have largely dismantled the social safety net in the United States,” says Macrina. “So a lot of the services that people would rely on for things like finding a job or getting basic adult education or just having a place to go, they don’t exist anymore. And the library has taken all of them on.”

“Google would love to be a library, only they’re not,” says Jessamyn West, a library advocate, technologist, and writer who created the influential blog librarian.net. “Amazon would love to be a library, only they’re not. And part of that is because they make certain choices about including and excluding people, and partly because it’s really hard to serve everybody.”

Bound with politics

Libraries have existed in one form or another since at least the Early Bronze Age, but the public lending library as we understand it today first emerged in mid-19th century Britain – initially, thanks to social reformers who argued that the laboring classes were spending too much time in drinking establishments. In the United States, wealthy philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John Jacob Astor donated money to build libraries, which, in the words of Carnegie, are “the best agencies for improving the masses of the people because they only help those who help themselves.”

The creations of these captains of industry drew praise from none other than Bolshevist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, who in a 1913 Pravda column praised New York City’s public library system’s accessibility, speed, and convenience. “Such is the way things are done in New York,” wrote Lenin. “And in Russia?”

From the very beginning, public libraries have been entwined with class politics. During the parliamentary debate over the Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1850, which established Britain’s public library system, Tory parliamentarian Richard Spooner warned that public libraries would be “converted into normal schools of agitation.” 

Spooner wasn’t entirely wrong: Pew data from 2015 shows that community activists and those who try to influence the government are more likely than others to visit libraries and bookmobiles.

And despite being supported largely by public funds, the library profession itself has a long history of opposing state power. In 1939, as the world was preparing for total war, the American Library Association (ALA) adopted the Library Bill of Rights, which guarantees everyone’s right to access books and other materials regardless of their “origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” In 1953, at the height of McCarthyism, the ALA released the Freedom to Read Statement, which condemned the suppression of reading material as a “denial of the fundamental premise of democracy.” And in 1967, amid growing urban unrest and opposition to US involvement in Vietnam, the ALA founded its Office of Intellectual Freedom, which aims to safeguard the First Amendment rights of all library users.

“We’re anti-censorship,” Ms. West says of librarians. “We will sign onto legislation at a national level that impacts people’s access to information.”

Following the 9/11 terror attacks, Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act, which gave US domestic intelligence agencies broad powers to obtain information about members of the public, including library records, with warrants or subpoenas from a secret court. A provision called Section 215, which expired in 2015, imposed a “gag order” prohibiting librarians from disclosing such requests.

The ALA opposed the provision. To circumvent the gag rule, West created and distributed “warrant canaries,” signs to be posted in prominent places that read “The FBI has not been here (watch very closely for the removal of this sign)” – the reasoning being that, while Section 215 imposed rules against disclosing the existence of secret subpoenas, it said nothing about disclosing their nonexistence.

It may seem contradictory to have a society where taxpayer-funded institutions are actively combatting the efforts of other taxpayer-funded institutions, but American governance has never been monolithic. Indeed, the grant for the Library Freedom Project is named in honor of Laura Bush, whose husband as president kickstarted the current expansion of the surveillance state, an irony that Macrina appreciates. Considering how libraries challenge the status quo, “It baffles me that they’re still around,” she says.

But that’s just one way libraries have gone against the grain. “Libraries are basically anarchic,” says West, likening them to mutual aid societies such as fire departments, fraternal organizations, and early insurance plans. “They work together in a kind of cooperation that you don’t see as much in anything that’s sort of intentionally put together.”

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The Monitor's View

One big reason ISIS lost the capital of its caliphate

 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe defeat of the so-called Islamic State in its one-time stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, was aided by the silent defiance of the city’s Muslims. Many never bought into the ISIS notion that religious belief can be enforced, and that violence can triumph over individual conscience. The lesson from the slow demise of ISIS – and of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, another theocracy long ruled by the power of the gun – is that people will not easily give up their liberty of religious belief, or their understanding that God speaks to each individual and not only to a select few. The real liberation of Raqqa took shape in the thoughts of its residents, long before anti-ISIS soldiers entered the city.

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One big reason ISIS lost the capital of its caliphate

After a four-month battle, American-backed forces in Syria captured Raqqa on Oct. 17, taking back a city that was the center of power for Islamic State’s “caliphate” since 2014. While the victory was a military one, the real heroes may be the Muslim civilians forced to live under the harsh rule of Islamic State (ISIS) but who silently withheld support. Many never bought into the ISIS notion that religious belief can be enforced, and that violence can triumph over individual conscience.

In fact, one of the best “weapons” used to help liberate ISIS-controlled cities in Syria, Iraq, and Libya over the past two years has been media interviews with Muslims who experienced the group’s brutality. Their tales have been so damaging to the ISIS propaganda machine that the group released an audio clip in September with this command from its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

“Behold, soldiers of Islam and supporters of the Caliphate everywhere!... Make the centers of information of those infidels your targets.”

Despite Mr. Baghdadi’s call to censor the truth about ISIS, journalists will now start to interview many of the 200,000 people who lived in Raqqa, a city on the banks of the Euphrates River. Their stories of quiet defiance, like the stories that came out after the liberation of Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq, will no doubt resonate in the few remaining ISIS-controlled areas.

Another theocracy long ruled by the power of the gun is also collapsing. The militant Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip has lost so much support because of its misrule that it agreed in early October to let the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank take over control of civilian functions in Gaza.

The lesson from the slow demise of both ISIS and Hamas is that people will not easily give up their liberty of religious belief, or their understanding that God speaks to each individual and not only to a select few. The real liberation of Raqqa took shape in the thoughts of its residents, long before anti-ISIS soldiers entered the city.

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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.

Refining the conversation through love

 

Political polarization and animosity find a way into even the most tranquil of places. But as contributor Ellen J. Wolf shares, it is here where we can set the stage for healing. In following the great teaching “love one another” she found a way to cut through a hateful rant and see her neighbors as not only capable of loving, but actually created to love others. Sharing this thought in the form of a question brought her neighbors some peace – a peace we can come to in the greater stage of the world. 

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Refining the conversation through love

“Don’t you think it would make a difference if we all just loved each other more?” That was my gentle question to a friend this past summer.

The backstory is that the bandwagon of political hate and outrage so prevalent right now had made its way to my little corner of the world in the most tranquil spot I know: my neighborhood swimming pool.

For many years, my fellow swimmers and I have enjoyed interesting conversations and camaraderie. This year, though, while the friendships were as lovely as ever, the discussions were infiltrated with contempt about politics. Sharp criticism, hatred, and even speculation about the party affiliations and viewpoints of fellow community members found their way to “the island,” as we like to call it – and it saddened me to see my friends caught up in such rancor.

I had been praying about how I might be able to contribute to the concord the world so desperately needs, starting with our small scenario. I certainly valued what others had to say but felt that dialogue based on animosity was not going to be productive. What I knew to be constructive was the Christ, the love of God that Jesus exemplified, which epitomizes brotherly kindness and promotes peace on earth.

Throughout his healing ministry, Jesus taught his followers to “love one another” and “have peace one with another” (John 15:17 and Mark 9:50, respectively). He showed that this love, which comes from God, is inherent to our being as children of God. And he taught that all individuals are to be valued and respected, without exception, by recognizing their divinely bestowed innocence.

As a Christian Scientist, I have come to learn that following Jesus’ command to love in this way brings not only the most satisfaction but also concrete healing. In small and big things, I’ve found that when my thoughts and actions are increasingly aware of God as all-powerful divine Love, the effect is more joyful, purposeful, and restorative.

So there I was, sitting down with everyone after a swim and listening to the most heated rant of the season. My heart went out to my outspoken friend who was so upset. I knew that hostility was not part of her, or anyone’s, identity as God’s child. I also knew our God-given spiritual nature is tender and compassionate, pure and perfect. In spite of what was being said, the spiritual fact was that each of us is really inherently thoughtful, caring, kind, and understanding.

I listened for God’s guidance on how to respond. I was then led to ask my question. At first, my friend didn’t hear me over her tirade, so I asked it again, and then once more: “Don’t you think it would make a difference if we all just loved each other more?” That time she heard me, quieted down, and softly responded, “Yes, I guess it would.” I noticed that others at the table were listening too. That question silenced the turmoil, and I didn’t hear another hateful or reactionary remark the rest of the summer.

The harmonious Principle of divine Love’s healing power is something we can always turn to and express to improve whatever conversation or situation we are in. As Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, encourages, we can make “our words golden rays in the sunlight of our deeds,” (“Christian Healing,” p. 19) and take heart in their healing effect.

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Viewfinder

Fire in Europe’s southwest

A farmer walks his livestock past vegetation scorched by a wildfire in San Martin de Cereixedo, in northern Spain’s Galicia region, Oct. 17. Portugal, too, has experienced widespread fires. At least 39 people have been killed in wildfires across the Iberian Peninsula. Weather conditions are blamed, though some fires may have been intentionally set.
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Vincent West/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( October 18th, 2017 )

David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We're working on a story about how the language around sexual harassment and assault – from casting couch jokes to locker room talk – perpetuates a culture of silence, compliance, and shame.

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