2023
January
31
Tuesday

Monitor Daily Podcast

January 31, 2023
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TODAY’S INTRO

How pigs saved a lobsterman

For much of his life, Brady Darius Perry was a lobsterman. His island of Spanish Wells in the Bahamas revolved around the fishery; his friends and family members spent their years catching the spiny lobsters that are mostly shipped off to international restaurant chains and markets.

Here, fishers don’t set traps. They dive along the ocean floor to retrieve the crustaceans from human-made shelters. Mr. Perry spent days and weeks this way, he told me, rope-towed by a boat past sharks and needle fish and coral reefs. But then Hurricane Matthew hit, and that storm, which scientists say was extra fierce because of warmer ocean temperatures, destroyed his family’s underwater lobster infrastructure.

It would have cost millions to rebuild their business, he told me. And so, they pivoted.  

Around that time, he explains, tourists were flocking to the Exumas, another chain of islands in the Bahamas, to see the “swimming pigs” – a small porcine community that lives on the beach. (If you’re doing a double take here, that’s OK. I did, too. You can read more about it in my article in today’s issue.)   

Mr. Perry figured the pigs would be popular where he lives, too. With other locals, he started Pig Island – and a new tourist industry. 

I met Mr. Perry late last year on his boat, Da Salty Pig, part of his family’s Da Salty Pig Adventures charter service. The pigs get people here, he said with a smile, but then he can share the other ecological jewels of his home – the white sandbars and soft stingrays and flourishing reefs.

I asked if he missed fishing. We adapted, he answered with a shrug.  

Indeed, I thought, global warming is forcing adaptations across the world – in economics and lifestyles, politics and habitats.  

Often, these shifts involve loss. People must reimagine their homes and futures. But Mr. Perry reminded me there can be surprises that accompany change – even some as joyfully ludicrous as pigs on a tropical beach.

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Why South Korea is considering a nuclear weapons program

Growing threats from North Korea have some in South Korea calling for a nuclear weapons program. Experts say what’s needed is a strengthening of trust and a commitment to cooperation under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

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President Yoon Suk-yeol warned earlier this month that South Korea might go nuclear if security keeps deteriorating on the Korean Peninsula. Although he later walked back the comments, Mr. Yoon’s willingness to raise the nuclear option publicly reflects its growing popularity among South Koreans, 71% of whom favor their country developing its own nuclear arsenal, according to a recent poll.

Such a move would be very costly, but some consider it necessary as North Korea ramps up its nuclear capabilities and other geopolitical shifts – such as Russia’s nuclear saber rattling – cast doubt on the United States’ guarantee to retaliate against an attack, as mandated by its nuclear umbrella treaty.

Nevertheless, Seoul and Washington have reiterated that they are working together to strengthen their deterrence strategy. The countries’ defense heads pledged Tuesday to hold a tabletop exercise in February on response options to the North Korean nuclear threat. 

“Reliable U.S.-extended deterrence would be a more effective deterrent than South Korea pursuing its own nuclear program,” says Rachel Minyoung Lee, former North Korea analyst for the U.S. government. But at a time when anxieties are running high, she says Washington must take steps to build greater trust. “South Koreans need stronger assurances from the U.S.”

Why South Korea is considering a nuclear weapons program

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Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center) attends a ceremony of donating a 600mm super-large multiple launch rocket system at a garden of the Workers' Party of Korea headquarters in Pyongyang, North Korea, Dec. 31, 2022. Some consider it necessary for South Korea to develop its own nuclear arsenal as North Korea ramps up its nuclear capabilities.

Political momentum is growing in South Korea for acquiring nuclear weapons – a fringe idea only a few years ago – amid frustration over North Korea’s aggressive ramping up of its nuclear arms and missile capabilities.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol warned earlier this month that his country might go nuclear if security keeps deteriorating on the Korean Peninsula. Although he later walked back the comments, Mr. Yoon’s willingness to raise the nuclear option publicly reflects its popularity among South Koreans, 71% of whom favor their country developing its own nuclear arsenal, according to a poll last year.

“The South Koreans are very concerned about deterring a whole range of North Korean activities,” says Ankit Panda, Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The perception is that the only way to deter … is having nuclear weapons of your own.” 

The debate over nuclear weapons reveals a deepening sense of insecurity in South Korea stemming not only from North Korean provocations but also from China’s increasing nuclear arsenal and Russia’s nuclear saber rattling. And, experts say, it has serious implications not only for South Korea and security in Northeast Asia, but also for the global nonproliferation regime.

“It’s a rare and remarkable moment any time a U.S. ally moots acquisition of nuclear weapons,” says Mr. Panda. “It sets off alarm bells in Washington.”

Nevertheless, both Seoul and Washington have reiterated that they are working together to solidify their alliance and strengthen their deterrence against North Korea – a priority of both the Yoon and Biden administrations. 

South Korea Presidential Office/Yonhap/AP
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a meeting in Seoul, South Korea, on Jan. 31, 2023. Mr. Austin on Tuesday said the United States will strengthen joint training and operational planning with South Korea in response to a growing North Korean nuclear threat.

On Tuesday in Seoul, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup held talks and pledged to bolster planning and expand joint exercises to deter North Korea. In February, the two sides will hold a tabletop exercise to facilitate “response options to deal with the DPRK [North Korean] nuclear threat,” they said in a joint statement.

“Right now we have the United States that provides us with a nuclear deterrent,” says retired Lt. Gen. In-Bum Chun, former commander of the Republic of Korea Special Warfare Command. “But we are more concerned than we used to be,” he says. “Korean people are looking for answers.” 

New security environment

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this month directed his country to mass-produce nuclear weapons, while heralding a new law that allows Pyongyang to launch preemptive nuclear strikes. He also called for North Korea to develop a more powerful intercontinental ballistic missile, following the testing of more than 90 ballistic and cruise missiles last year. And experts say North Korea may be preparing for a seventh nuclear test – the first since 2017.

“Given all of the advancements that North Korea has made in their nuclear weapons program, and changes in the geopolitical environment, there’s been a lot more anxiety in South Korea about how they deal with a nuclear North Korea – and what the U.S. would actually do,” says Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and director of Stimson’s 38 North Program.

South Korea’s concern has grown along with Pyongyang’s ability to put the continental U.S. at risk. Despite the presence of 28,500 U.S. troops in their country, South Koreans have doubts about whether they can rely on what is known as the U.S. nuclear umbrella, or “extended deterrence,” whereby the U.S. is bound by a treaty to swiftly retaliate for any attack on South Korea.

“Even when the U.S.-ROK [Republic of Korea] alliance is strong, when North Korea intensifies its provocations,” questions arise about the “United States’ credibility of extending nuclear and conventional deterrence,” says Ji-Young Lee, associate professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Studies. “This is … a reflection of North Korea creating another layer of crisis.”

Moreover, South Koreans are drawing a troubling lesson from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Moscow’s use of nuclear threats to deter the U.S. and other countries from intervening directly. 

South Korea is “watching how the U.S. has reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” says Ms. Town. “That really raises anxieties … like what happens if North Korea were to attack? Would the U.S. show a similar restraint?”

Ahn Young-joon/AP
U.S. Army soldiers conduct a joint military drill between South Korea and the United States in Paju, South Korea, on Jan. 13, 2023. In February, the two sides will hold a tabletop exercise on response options to the North Korean nuclear threat.

South Koreans warm to nuclear armament

South Korea’s weighing of the nuclear route gained the spotlight with the 2022 election of Mr. Yoon, a populist and conservative leader whose hard-line approach toward Pyongyang contrasts sharply with his predecessor Moon Jae-in’s focus on reconciliation.

Mr. Yoon has aligned South Korea’s overall foreign policy more closely with that of the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific strategy. He has emphasized strengthening deterrence through the trilateral partnership between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, which in November condemned Pyongyang’s multiple missile launches and promised a joint response if North Korea conducts a seventh nuclear test.

In this context, Mr. Yoon’s statements on the nuclear option are intended as more of a warning to Pyongyang, says Dr. Lee. But Mr. Yoon and other South Korean officials are reportedly interested in the U.S. deploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, three decades after Washington removed them in 1991. Washington has stated it does not support the idea.

Many South Koreans do, says Lieutenant General Chun. They think that “maybe a balance will be created on the Korean Peninsula, and North and South will both understand unification by force is out the window,” he explains.

A report on North Korea released this month by a U.S. think tank recommends Washington and Seoul should engage in preliminary planning for such a possible option. 

“The allies should consider tabletop planning exercises for the possible redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea,” said the report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It stressed such planning should be “pre-decisional.” “The timeline and scope of weapons, such as low-yield nuclear SLCMs [submarine-launched cruise missiles] or gravity bombs, should be left deliberately ambiguous,” it said.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
People watch North Korea's missile launch displayed at the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea, on Jan. 27, 2023. South Korea’s government said Friday it will promote civilian efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea in hopes of softening a diplomatic freeze deepened by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s growing nuclear ambitions.

Need for trust

Even if discussions were to take place on the possible redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea, experts say South Korea is unlikely in the foreseeable future to develop its own nuclear weapons given the damage that would cause to the U.S.-South Korean alliance, the global nonproliferation regime, and South Korea’s economic interests, including its civilian nuclear industry. Such a move would make a crisis with the North more dangerous.

“If Seoul had nukes, the threats of North Korea would stay the same or get worse,” says Mr. Panda. 

A better alternative, they say, is for the U.S. to improve its extended deterrence capabilities – something U.S. officials say is underway.

“Strong, reliable U.S.-extended deterrence would be a more effective deterrent than South Korea pursuing its own nuclear program,” says Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with the Open Nuclear Network, an Austria-based organization with the mission of reducing the risk of nuclear conflict.

Equally important, Washington must take steps to build greater trust in the U.S. commitment to safeguarding South Korea. “The South Korean people are the ones who are within range of North Korea’s tactical nuclear weapons and their means of delivery,” says Ms. Lee, a former North Korea analyst for the U.S. government. “South Koreans need stronger assurances from the U.S.”

The Explainer

Congress takes up COVID origins: A primer on the debate

House Republicans say they are trying to get needed transparency on how the pandemic started, but others worry a partisan probe will further muddy the waters.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
A security person moves journalists away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, Feb. 3, 2021. More than three years after a novel coronavirus was discovered, there is still a rancorous debate over how the pandemic began.
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Three years after the pandemic began in Wuhan, China, there is still a rancorous debate over what triggered it. 

U.S. public health officials and many scientists say the available evidence strongly indicates that the novel coronavirus spilled over from wildlife to humans, as happened in previous outbreaks. They consider the question virtually settled.

But a lack of transparency from China – as well as, critics charge, the United States – has allowed speculation to persist that the pandemic may have started with an inadvertent lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Whether that’s the case or not, some say the failure to be forthcoming has undermined the public trust needed to build consensus and move forward.

The stakes are immense, with U.S.-China relations and funding for scientific research and pandemic prevention hanging in the balance. 

House Republicans are now poised to use their new majority to deploy Congress’ investigatory powers. The first hearing will be held tomorrow, Feb. 1.

Democratic Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois, a physicist, says Congress can play a key role in establishing greater transparency and improving international protocols.

“This is a common interest of all humanity,” he says.

Congress takes up COVID origins: A primer on the debate

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It’s been more than three years since a novel coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China, sparking a global pandemic that’s been blamed for 6.8 million deaths. Yet there is still a rancorous debate over how it began. 

U.S. public health officials and many scientists say the available evidence strongly indicates that the virus spilled over from wildlife to humans, as happened in many previous outbreaks. They consider the question virtually settled.

But a lack of transparency from China – as well as, critics charge, the United States – has allowed speculation to persist that it could have started with a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). And whether or not a lab leak is to blame, critics say the failure to be forthcoming and to disclose conflicts of interests has undermined the public trust needed to build consensus and move forward.

The stakes are immense, with U.S.-China relations and funding for scientific research and pandemic prevention all hanging in the balance. Lawmakers, public interest groups, and scientists concerned about risky lab practices argue that if a lab leak occurred, it’s vital to understand what happened and adjust international protocols. Scientists convinced of a spillover, however, worry that giving oxygen to what they see as a demonstrably incorrect hypothesis could put a damper on virus research that could help prevent future pandemics. 

For better or worse, House Republicans are now unleashing Congress’ investigatory powers. The first hearing, on developing more capabilities for quickly determining a pandemic’s origin, will be held tomorrow, Feb. 1.

What is the debate about?

The natural origins theory refers to a scenario by which the virus spilled over to humans from animals, likely in a Wuhan live wildlife market that sold species pinpointed as the source of the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, such as badgers. The lab leak theory, on the other hand, posits that scientists working with bat coronaviruses in a lab inadvertently allowed one such virus to jump to humans. The WIV houses one of the biggest collections of bat coronaviruses in the world. 

Early on in the pandemic, public health officials and prominent scientists came out in support of the natural origins theory, with some dismissing other possible explanations as “conspiracy theories.” In May 2021, however, a group of scientists signed a letter in Science magazine saying the lab leak theory remained viable, and advocating a transparent investigation into both hypotheses. 

One of those scientists, Michael Worobey, wound up spearheading a peer-reviewed paper in Science the following summer that scientific colleagues and many in the media hailed as the most definitive case yet for a natural origin. The head of the University of Arizona’s ecology and evolutionary biology department, Dr. Worobey had previously studied the origin of the AIDS epidemic. 

He and his coauthors analyzed data from a range of sources, including 155 of the earliest COVID-19 cases shared by China, and identified the Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan as the pandemic’s epicenter. The findings, Dr. Worobey says, are on par with a famous cluster map pinpointing a water pump in London’s Soho neighborhood as the source of an 1854 cholera outbreak. 

The authors acknowledged that the available evidence was incomplete, and the intermediary species through which the virus could have passed from bats to humans has yet to be identified. But Dr. Worobey says their analyses indicate that there is an “extremely low” likelihood that the pandemic could have started with a lab leak. 

A companion piece he coauthored describes two separate outbreaks at the Huanan market. For a WIV lab leak to trigger those, Dr. Worobey says, an infected lab worker would have had to travel nearly 10 miles through a city of 11 million without leaving a trace – at least five times. “It’s just ridiculous,” he says. 

Those findings, however, rely on data provided by China to the World Health Organization (WHO) about early COVID-19 cases. And some of Dr. Worobey’s fellow signees on the May 2021 letter – Jesse Bloom, Alina Chan, and David Relman – are skeptical that that data was complete.

“It’s all surmised largely through the filter of the Chinese authorities,” says Dr. Relman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
Members of the World Health Organization team shake hands with their Chinese counterpart after a press conference at the end of the WHO-China joint investigation in Wuhan, China, Feb. 9, 2021.

What investigations have been undertaken so far?

The first major investigation into the origins of COVID-19 was conducted jointly by the World Health Organization and China. Investigators spent a few hours at the WIV and their March 2021 report devoted just three of 313 pages to the lab leak hypothesis, deeming it “extremely unlikely.” A WHO-convened advisory group later said that both hypotheses warranted further investigation but more data was needed.

In May 2021, President Joe Biden called for a 90-day review into the matter by the U.S. intelligence community. In their 17-page report, all agencies agreed that both the natural origins and lab leak hypotheses were plausible. Four “elements,” the report said, leaned toward natural origins, with low confidence, while one assessed with moderate confidence that it was most likely a lab leak. Others said more information was needed. 

Dozens of Monitor inquiries, including to the White House and the Departments of State, Defense, and Health and Human Services (HHS), failed to turn up any other investigations. 

That contrasts with other national crises. Within three years of 9/11, a bipartisan commission published a 600-plus-page report analyzing what led up to the attack and how to prevent another one. In the last Congress, both the House and Senate introduced bipartisan bills to establish a similar commission on the COVID-19 pandemic, but neither came to a vote.

The Biden administration is not waiting for answers on COVID origins to shape its pandemic prevention and preparedness efforts. A newly updated National Biodefense Strategy outlines how to counter biological threats, including cross-border disease outbreaks and the “increasing” risk of lab leaks. In its $1.7 trillion budget last month, Congress increased discretionary funding for some of those programs, aimed at preventing greater costs down the line.  

“To us, it’s a very strong return on the taxpayer dollar,” says Raj Panjabi, senior director for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council.

How have transparency concerns shaped the debate?

One factor keeping the origins debate alive has been China’s tight control of information. The Chinese government refused to share raw data on early cases with the WHO, and has required COVID-19 studies to be vetted by the government. A WIV database of viruses has been offline since February 2020, with a group called DRASTIC claiming in a preprint paper that external access was cut off as early as Sept. 2019, though that is disputed.

Increasingly, critics are shifting their attention to the U.S., particularly the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Leading up to the pandemic, the NIH was funding research on the potential for bat coronaviruses to jump to humans – with the goal of preventing a pandemic. NIH awarded a $3.1 million grant to a New York-based nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance, which then funneled about $600,000 to WIV. 

Those who still suspect a lab leak want the NIH to provide more details on the lab’s research interests, capabilities, and safety protocols. They say the agency has been unusually slow to respond to both congressional inquiries and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and has heavily redacted documents before releasing them. 

“In 35 years of doing this, I have never personally bumped up against a stonewalling effort as I have from the NIH regarding the origins of COVID-19,” says Gary Ruskin, an advocate for transparency in public health and former partner of Ralph Nader. His small nonprofit, Right to Know, has filed FOIA lawsuits against NIH and eight other federal government entities

In written answers to the Monitor, NIH said it fully intends to respond to FOIA requests but is working through a pandemic backlog. “In many cases, the litigation process further slowed response time,” NIH added.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and her GOP colleagues on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who have been trying to get information from health officials since March 2021, wrote to NIH in late November expressing concern over its “persistent lack of transparency.” 

They want to know more about the WIV’s virus collection and biosafety record and NIH’s oversight of coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab. HHS’s inspector general recently conducted an audit of NIH’s grant to EcoHealth Alliance, faulting both the agency and the nonprofit for lack of oversight. EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak told the Monitor in a written statement that the organization, which researches emerging diseases with the goal of preventing future pandemics, “complied in a timely manner with every request from NIH and other funding agencies, providing tens of thousands of pages of documents.”

Those convinced by the evidence for a natural origin say going down a rabbit hole of “what ifs?” about a lab leak is counterproductive at best, since it’s impossible to prove a negative. And they worry that political or policy agendas, including the decade-long effort to put more guardrails on virus research, could color investigations.

“What I see going on is an incredible victory on the part of people who want to muddy the waters,” says Dr. Worobey. 

Democratic Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois, a physicist, says there are very few theories that can be disproved to a determined conspiracy theorist. But he says “a lot more transparency” is needed in order to see where the preponderance of evidence lies. 

A key lesson from the pandemic, he adds, is that nearly every entity, from nursing homes to national governments, had some incentive not to be fully transparent. “One of the major jobs of Congress, and the public through FOIAs, [is] to make sure that the natural tendency to keep things like mistakes secret doesn’t win the day,” says Representative Foster, who as chair of the House Science oversight subcommittee in the last Congress held a rare bipartisan hearing on COVID origins. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Anthony Fauci, then-director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies before a Senate committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 20, 2021. Dr. Fauci retired in December 2022, after more than five decades of service.

Can Congress overcome partisan politics to get answers?

During the last Congress, partisan divides over the COVID origin question were already emerging. The GOP minority produced House and Senate reports that pointed to a lab leak as the more likely scenario. Democrats, who held the authority to call hearings and subpoena witnesses and documents that might have provided a fuller picture, declined to join in. 

At a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing last fall, Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado touted her past work improving CDC lab biosafety but rejected her GOP colleagues’ call for the Biden administration to provide documents on U.S.-funded virus research at the WIV. She accused them of engaging in a “witch hunt” and drawing “unfounded connections” between NIH-funded research and the pandemic’s origin.

Democratic committee staff declined repeated requests to further explain Democratic reluctance to probe NIH-funded research at the WIV, or their broader views on when congressional oversight of labs is warranted.

It’s no secret, however, that Democrats have been appalled at Republicans’ treatment of Dr. Anthony Fauci, a veteran NIH official and prominent presidential adviser during the pandemic who Representative DeGette noted had received death threats. Public sparring matches in congressional hearings between Dr. Fauci and GOP lawmakers, which often went viral, struck many Democrats as more about scoring political points than getting answers. Dr. Fauci retired in December.

Now in the majority, House Republicans this month established a new select subcommittee to investigate the pandemic – including the origin question and in particular whether U.S.-funded virus research could be to blame, something public health officials and scientists have flatly denied. The 12-member panel – seven Republicans and five Democrats appointed by their respective leaders – will be chaired by an Ohio podiatric surgeon, GOP Rep. Brad Wenstrup. 

Meanwhile, Chair Rodgers – whose Energy and Commerce committee has legislative jurisdiction over the NIH – is hosting her first COVID origins hearing tomorrow, Feb. 1. 

“It’s the No. 1 public health issue,” says the congresswoman from Washington state, who plans to subpoena – among others – Dr. Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, the recently retired head of NIH. 

A key area of concern is how HHS reviews grants involving risky virus research. A Jan. 18 report from the Government Accountability Office called for more transparency and oversight, noting that the NIH – which issued 82,000 grants last year alone – flagged only three grants for departmental review in five years. 

Last week, a federal biosecurity panel voted unanimously to approve new recommendations, according to STAT News. But some expressed concern that the effort to establish more guardrails could wrap virus research in red tape.

A recent public letter from more than 150 virologists this month echoed those concerns. They said they stood ready to lend their expertise in congressional hearings about how best to conduct research on human pathogens, but warned against “ill-informed condemnation” of their work.

“It’s going to end up really marginalizing efforts to prevent the next pandemic from a natural source,” says Dr. Worobey.

Representative Foster, the physicist, says Congress may not be the best mechanism to lead a COVID origins investigation, given how few lawmakers have a scientific background. He would prefer that Congress commission a set of outside experts to look into it. 

The 9/11 commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, convened dozens of experts to draw up a road map and relevant materials for such a commission. But with no commission in sight, the group plans to produce their own report in April. 

A key goal, says Mr. Foster, would be to produce a congressional report that is not only accepted by the U.S. and its allies but also countries with which the U.S. has little in common, given what he sees as the need to develop more robust international protocols around virus research, with auditing and enforcement mechanisms. 

To that end, Mr. Foster says members of Congress and their staffers should take the time to read the scientific studies, understand the ideal path forward, and engage with the rest of the world to make that happen. “This is a common interest of all humanity,” he says.

(Editor’s noteThis story has been updated to provide more context around when the WIV database of viruses was taken offline.)

Amid Hindu nationalism, Delhi rediscovers its Muslim past

Islamophobia in India is rising – but so is interest in Delhi’s historically Muslim neighborhoods, and respect for the capital’s multicultural heritage. For some tour guides and historians, that’s cause for hope.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Anas Khan, creator of the Unzip Delhi history and walking tours website, leads a group through the Mehrauli Archaeological Park in South Delhi, Nov. 5, 2022. Mr. Khan sees growing interest in his walking tours and history-themed blogs as evidence that more people want to celebrate Delhi's multicultural roots.
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Blossoming interest in Delhi’s roots as a mosaic of cultures and religions can be seen in everything from the newfound “hot” status of historical neighborhoods to the rising popularity of local history blogs and walking tours.

Historians and sociologists say the wave of interest is at least in part a response to growing Hindu nationalism and discrimination against the country’s large Muslim minority. Some argue it signals a shift in how Indians view their history – as something that should be respected, examined, and learned from. Yet skeptics say the small slice of the population with interest in history will never match the majority who are indifferent and susceptible to alternative versions of Delhi’s heritage.

Nevertheless, that desire to counter rising intolerance is one reason software engineer Zain Patel spent hours touring Delhi’s oldest neighborhoods on a recent work trip.

“I absolutely think more Indians are wanting to know more about the very old mix of cultures that made us who we are,” says Mr. Patel, who’s from Mumbai. “Nationalism and thinking we are the product of one main culture is more prevalent and it’s spreading, but I think knowing the truth about our past is one small way to stand up to the hatred.”

Amid Hindu nationalism, Delhi rediscovers its Muslim past

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Anas Khan pauses outside a 16th-century jewel of an Islamic tomb in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park and draws in his audience.

“Delhi from its beginnings was a city of culture, of unity, and tolerance among many different people. It was a city whose great gift to the world was Urdu,” he tells the group of 35 Delhiites and other Indians. “A beautiful language that took form from the mixing of the Arabic and Farsi and other languages those different people spoke.”

Up to this point, the youthful Delhi historian’s walking tour has been a straight recounting of the origins of the medieval city that would become India’s capital – with a few tales of jinns, or genies, and unrequited royal love thrown in to hold everyone’s interest.

But now Mr. Khan shifts to the present.

“That Delhi of unity and tolerance is disappearing; we are losing its richness and the lessons it can teach us,” he says. As a few nods spread across his group, he concludes, “I hope you will share some of the stories you heard of our common history and help preserve our heritage for the future.”

Blossoming interest in the city’s roots as a mosaic of cultures and religions – especially among Delhi’s young and cosmopolitan population – can be seen in everything from the newfound “hot” status of historical neighborhoods like Mehrauli to the rising popularity of local history blogs and walking tours like Mr. Khan’s.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
New Delhi oral historian Aanchal Malhotra poses at the Agrasen Ki Baoli, a historical step well, in central Delhi, Nov. 7, 2022. She's noticed a shift in how Indians view their history "as a way to understand how we are a product of many different cultures and influences."

Historians and sociologists say the wave of interest is at least in part a response to growing Hindu nationalism, discrimination against the country’s large Muslim minority, and intolerance of “outside” influences. Some argue it signals a shift in how Indians view their history – as something that should be respected, examined, and learned from.

“For a long time, people weren’t interested in history or they buried it as a way to shut out the sad and painful parts of India’s past,” says Aanchal Malhotra, an oral historian who has specialized in chronicling average Indians’ experiences during the country’s 1947 Partition.

“But what we’re seeing now is something different: more people drawn to history as a way to understand how we are a product of many different cultures and influences,” she adds. “To some extent that understanding can help to counter the intolerance and rejection of others we see occurring today.”

Mehrauli calling

That desire to counter rising intolerance and marginalization with the help of history is one reason Zain Patel signed on to the Mehrauli archaeological tour. The young software engineer from Mumbai says he purposely chose to spend a few hours of a work trip to Delhi visiting some of the oldest areas of the city.

“I absolutely think more Indians are wanting to know more about the very old mix of cultures that made us who we are,” he says. “Nationalism and thinking we are the product of one main culture is more prevalent and it’s spreading, but I think knowing the truth about our past is one small way to stand up to the hatred.”

Yet for some skeptics, the small slice of the population with interest in history will never match the large majority who are indifferent and susceptible to alternative versions of Delhi’s heritage.

“If anything, there’s a growing chasm between the small percentage who take an interest in history and value our cultural influences, and the many who just don’t care,” says Ekta Chauhan, an oral historian who focuses on South Delhi’s historical Muslim neighborhoods.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Oral historian Ekta Chauhan stands outside Khirki Mosque in Khirki village, southern Delhi, in November 2022. Ms. Chauhan grew up and conducts walking tours in Khirki village, and says she's seen the Hindus in the neighborhood shift from honoring the most significant monument in their midst to disparaging it as someone else’s heritage.

It’s almost certainly no coincidence that one of the focal points of this multicultural heritage boom is Mehrauli, a neighborhood in the south of the capital that hugs the vestiges of Delhi’s first major Islamic constructions, built nearly a millennium ago. 

The neighborhood’s 12th-century minaret Qutub Minar towers over streets increasingly dominated by bookshops, art galleries, Indian designer boutiques, and trendy restaurants that both reflect and cater to the growing young professional class.

For many of these young people, work and high-rise apartment living is in Gurgaon, a satellite city on New Delhi’s eastern flank where the offices of high-tech companies and other multinationals are clustered. But for others, it’s the historical and culturally rich districts like Mehrauli that are calling.

“I dare say Gurgaon is in some ways more cosmopolitan than Mehrauli, but it can also feel a bit like Dubai,” says Chiranjiv Sawhney, who works at Apple in Gurgaon but recently moved with his wife to Mehrauli, where he’s made a point of going on a couple of walking tours.

“We were drawn to the history, the culture, and parks. That was something Delhi offered,” he says.

Evidence suggests Mr. Sawhney is not alone. A variety of Delhi historical websites have popped up in recent years, while social media postings on local history and heritage have mushroomed – including on TikTok, where young users are feeding the growth.

Mr. Khan cites his Unzip Delhi website, which grew out of the first walking tours he started conducting in 2018. Visits to his historical storytelling site took off once lockdown ended – and, Mr. Khan surmises, as acts of cultural intolerance and anti-minority violence spiked again. Unzip Delhi’s Instagram page now has more than 130,000 followers. The restarted (and expanded) walking tours, each limited to 50 participants, usually sell out. 

“For sure, part of the growth after the pandemic was just from people desperate to get out and do things again,” says Mr. Khan. “But there’s also this hunger people have to understand where Delhi came from and how that past relates to events and trends in our society today.”

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Participants of Anas Khan’s walking tour of Mehrauli Archaeological Park assemble outside a mosque and madrassa to hear Mr. Khan’s tales of life in Delhi under Muslim rule, in South Delhi, Nov. 5, 2022.

False narratives creep in

That upbeat outlook on Delhi’s history boom is not shared by all, even among the city’s growing number of oral historians.

“I hear the argument that more people are interested in history and our multicultural roots, but I think it’s more wishful thinking than true,” says Ms. Chauhan, who focuses on Khirki village just east of Mehrauli – one of the 350 “historical villages” she says are scattered around urban Delhi.

“When I do my historical walks I get 25 to 30 people, and I think, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’” she says. “But then I think, ‘Really, how many people can I reach like this?’ Even if you are generous and say 1% are really interested in knowing and understanding cultural influences, that still leaves the mass that doesn’t care – or worse, accepts the fake versions of our past.”

Ms. Chauhan cites the case of Khirki Mosque, an imposing 14th-century structure located down sinewy alleyways in Khirki village. Over recent years, as relations between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority have deteriorated, the neighborhood’s perception of its signature monument has changed as well, she says. Stories that the building was built as a fort and was never a mosque are gaining ground. 

“I grew up here, and I’ve seen this change in the neighborhood and in my own family from caring for this site to treating it with indifference and even disparaging it for being someone else’s heritage,” says Ms. Chauhan, who describes her family as upper-caste Hindu. 

For Mr. Khan of Unzip Delhi, the growing interest in his walking tours and history-themed blogs is not just a flash in the pan but evidence that more people want to know about the past as a way to celebrate the cultural variety that makes their city what it is.    

To that end, he says the themes and messaging of his walks have shifted as the tours have returned post-pandemic.

“During the pandemic I tried to include stories of hope and perseverance from the past, to say, ‘Like people back then, we’ll get through this and be back together soon,’” he says. “Now I tell more stories of love and community as a way to stand up to the hatred growing around us.”

How teachers in France aim to build a confident society

In France, strict classrooms are giving way to ones where feelings are discussed more openly. How might that shift change student experiences – and French society? 

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The Bienfaisance preschool in Paris is one of a growing number of institutions that are working to change the way public education functions in France. What was once a distanced, authoritative approach is beginning to resemble a model more common in North America – one that promotes student well-being and positive relationships between students and teachers.

At the heart of the shift are teaching methods that promote the emotional bond between caregiver and child.

Progress has been slow on a national scale – in a country where education is highly centralized and results often hard to come by. But educators at the grassroots level are getting on board, as more research points to the link between emotional well-being at school and its benefits in adulthood. 

“If we can help people build a sense of attachment and security at school during childhood, they will be able to better handle uncertainties in life,” says Michel Delage, a psychiatrist at the nonprofit Vivre en Famille and a specialist in secure attachment theory. “There’s no doubt that what we learn at school affects how we act as adults.” 

How teachers in France aim to build a confident society

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Colette Davidson
Preschool teacher Marie Mallet leads her class in role-play to help students identify emotions and learn to work through conflict at the Bienfaisance preschool in Paris, Dec. 6, 2022.

At the Bienfaisance preschool, Docteur Doux – Doctor Gentle – has given new meaning to being sent to the principal’s office.

The child-sized teddy bear sits under a tent in a cozy corner of Principal Caroline Loiseau’s office, in what has been dubbed the “Infirmary of Emotions.”

Shelves of calming toys offer children the opportunity to manage big feelings. There are glowing bouncy balls, bubble wrap and – the students’ favorite – a shoebox fashioned into an angry face, where kids can stuff crumpled pieces of paper into the awaiting mouth. Today, a 4-year-old sits with Docteur Doux, as she gets over being pushed by a classmate at recess.

“How are you feeling? Is this helping you to calm you down?” asks Ms. Loiseau, squatting down next to the young girl in her Paris office, handing her a fidget toy.

“At first, when we asked students how they were, they could only nod or shake their heads,” Ms. Loiseau says. “Now, they can identify their emotions.”

Gone are the days of being “sent to the corner” or learning by humiliation – at least here. Upstairs, teacher Marie Mallet helps children name and handle emotions by doing role-play games to practice resolving conflict three times a week. And despite the setting, a visit to Docteur Doux and the Infirmary of Emotions is not a punishment. Children are encouraged to go there as part of a wider effort by the school to promote emotional awareness, among students as well as teaching staff. 

The Bienfaisance preschool is one of a growing number of institutions that are working to change the way public education functions in France. What was once a distanced, authoritative approach is beginning to resemble a model more common in North America – one that promotes student well-being and positive relationships between students and teachers.

At the heart of the shift are teaching methods that combine cognitive science and secure attachment theory, which promotes the emotional bond between caregiver and child.

Progress has been slow on a national scale – in a country where education is highly centralized and results often hard to come by. But educators at the grassroots level are getting on board, as more research points to the link between emotional well-being at school and its benefits in adulthood. 

“If we can help people build a sense of attachment and security at school during childhood, they will be able to better handle uncertainties in life,” says Michel Delage, a psychiatrist at the nonprofit Vivre en Famille (Living with Family) and a specialist in secure attachment theory. “There’s no doubt that what we learn at school affects how we act as adults.” 

Colette Davidson
In a special corner of the principal’s office at the Bienfaisance preschool in Paris, children can interact with a number of calming toys, including Docteur Doux (Doctor Gentle) – a teddy bear that helps students deal with strong emotions.

Defining teacher roles

These ideas are blossoming in a country where ambiguity remains about how much teachers should act as “substitute parents” or fill emotional gaps. Some of that is rooted in lingering conceptions that once drove the country’s approach to learning: Instruction was for teachers; education – nourishing and raising – was for parents.

“Previous teaching methods were based on authority, discipline, and the child who obeys. It was never contested,” says Philippe Fabry, an independent educator in child protection and social work. “But now, we’re in a society based more on autonomy. In order to develop autonomy, you need to build self-confidence. And attachment, or feeling secure, is a determining factor in having self-confidence.” 

“In France, these ideas have always been spoken about in relation to the family, not school, but this is a mistake,” he adds.

In 2015, France’s Education Ministry made changes to the national program to reflect society’s evolution. Teachers of all grade levels were encouraged to help children grow as individuals and cooperate with others, as well as help them express their feelings and develop a sense of self. 

Those who work with children say a range of students can benefit from this kind of shift, but especially those who are already struggling. According to a 2021 report on well-being in France, students in fifth grade from low-income areas showed a markedly lower level of self-confidence than their peers.

“We have students who are very intelligent but because they’re at the lower end of the social ladder, they don’t succeed,” says Mr Fabry. “In France we have a real problem with social advancement. How can we better invest in people? Having confidence in them and making them feel secure in school are some things that can help.” 

One way French schools – public and private – are investing in the future is by joining hands with cogni’classes, an initiative of the nonprofit Apprendre et Former Avec les Sciences Cognitives (Learn and Train With Cognitive Sciences) that is now used in more than 4,000 classes from preschool to high school – including several at Bienfaisance. As part of the program, which dates back to 2011, participating schools commit to taking a more experimental approach to teaching and helping students build confidence, in an effort to reduce learning difficulties.

Though their school is not part of the cogni’classes program, educators at the French-English bilingual Lab School Paris, a private secular school, use data and experimentation to identify ways to support learning. That includes making school feel like a safe space.

“A specific feature of French students is that when they don’t know an answer on a multiple-choice test, they will leave it blank instead of taking a guess,” says Pascale Haag, a psychologist and the scientific director of Lab School Paris, where she studies the latest education research. “In France, there is a big fear of making a mistake or giving the wrong answer. And yet, research also shows us that when students feel safe in class, they express themselves. If they don’t understand, they’ll ask.” 

Observers say this intense desire to avoid error may come from an ingrained cultural tendency toward mockery in social interactions, even in classroom settings, which makes the French sensitive to ridicule.

“It depends on what led up to them being mocked, and each person will experience their own errors differently,” says Michel Forsé, a director of research emeritus at the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research and an expert in well-being. “But if someone feels good in their skin, they’ll let an error roll off their back. Those who don’t will be much more affected.”

“Never too early to start”

Changing old habits is still a work in progress in Nyasha Hicks’ grade four classroom at Lab School Paris. During a morning exercise, students sit at their desks solving math problems, and raise their hands when they finish. Ms. Hicks gives them their time, which they diligently write down. One boy is disappointed when he finishes after the others.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Ms. Hicks, moving between the intentionally arranged semicircle of desks. “We’re not comparing ourselves with other people!”  

A model that promotes student confidence and well-being can be a hard sell in France, which still relies heavily on a system of competition from the elementary to university level. The results of the national baccalauréat graduation exam for high school seniors, for example, are made public online.

Not all teachers are on board either, and some say that may be a generational issue. Ms. Mallet, from the Bienfaisance school, says that learning about fostering students’ psycho-emotional health was part of her teacher training in 2018. But those who entered the field decades ago may have brushed off the ministry’s advice in 2015 or lack proper training.

“As teachers, we’re visited by inspectors from time to time but it’s very rare,” says Ms. Mallet. “If you’ve been a teacher for 40 years and haven’t been inspected for 20, you may not know about new methods. You stay in your old methods of teaching, of humiliating students, and no one says anything because no one sees it. It’s a big problem.”

Educators at Lab School Paris as well as at the Bienfaisance preschool hope that in time, more French schools will see the benefits of a teaching approach that aims to build more confident students. 

“We hope that what we’re putting in place will be carried through into kindergarten and beyond. In fact, we need to continue our entire lives,” says Ms. Loiseau. “If we want adults to feel good in their own skin and in life, we need to think about the words we choose. It’s never too early to start.”

When pigs swim ... and Bahama tourists dive in with them

Sometimes joy arrives in unexpected ways. In the Bahamas, which have long boasted sparkling beaches and turquoise waters, the hottest attractions now have snouts, hoofs, and a willingness to hang out with humans.

Stephanie Hanes/The Christian Science Monitor
A resident piglet on Pig Island, a swimming pig destination off the coast of Eleuthera, Bahamas, on Nov. 22, 2022.
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“We don’t like to resort travel,” says Gina Goldman from Los Angeles. “We like to adventure. Once we heard there were pigs here, we couldn’t get here fast enough.”

As she speaks, she is stroking the head of a now-sleeping piglet she has befriended.

Here in the Bahamas, islands with pristine beaches have also become known for pig excursions. During the past decade, the activity has exploded in popularity. Visitors to the Bahamas walk by floor-to-ceiling photographs of pigs on the way to baggage claim. 

The pigs’ popularity speaks to joy, our relationship with animals, economics, and, perhaps, just plain weirdness. The activity is not without controversy. Critics see it as exploitative of the pigs. Some pigs have nipped at humans. Even some locals involved in the tours have scratched their heads at tourists’ fascination.

But Jesse Higgs, who works with the four-footed inhabitants of Pig Island, says he’s come to understand how there is, indeed, something simply joyful about pigs on a beach.

“I love it,” he says. “They all have different personalities.” The pig named Brownie, for instance, is his favorite. “I can’t call it work no more.”

When pigs swim ... and Bahama tourists dive in with them

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It was another day in paradise for Wilbur, Midnight, Frank, and family when captain Roy Pinder appeared in his gleaming white boat, motoring toward their sugar-sand beach.  

They looked up, perhaps curiously, perhaps expectant. 

Or perhaps they were just bored. This, after all, was not the first boat to arrive at their narrow island. 

Mr. Pinder (or Crazy Roy, as he’s known in these parts) anchored a short distance offshore. His guests, a family from Los Angeles, slipped excitedly into the turquoise water, smartphones lifted above the gentle waves. 

As the visitors neared the sand, Frank and friends hoisted themselves up, tilted their heads, and began ambling toward the water. Soon, they were in the surf, paddling over to the Angelenos.  

The visitors let out delighted shrieks. They took photos. They took selfies. They gasped and giggled. 

“Go on,” Mr. Pinder said, handing out sticks with chicken dogs. “You can feed them.” 

Stephanie Hanes/The Christian Science Monitor
Gina Goldman of Los Angeles cuddles a piglet on Pig Island on Nov. 22, 2022, while a family member takes photos.

The visitors happily obliged. 

“Can I pick him up?”

“Oh my gosh, sooooooo cute!”

Gina Goldman cradled one of Frank’s youngest relations like a baby.  

“Walter,” she called to her husband. “Congratulations,” she said, showing the new little one in their care.

This, it turns out, is what happens when pigs swim.  

For that’s what Frank, Wilber, and crew are – pigs. Not a unique breed of wild Caribbean pigs. Not a long-lost species of water pigs. They’re just pigs. On a beach. In the Bahamas. And they swim. Because, it turns out, pigs can do that. 

But they are something more, as well; something that speaks to joy, our relationship with animals, economics, and, perhaps, just plain weirdness. For the past seven years, this head-scratching combination of surf, sun, and swine – or “swimming with the pigs,” as it is advertised – has become one of this country’s most popular and promoted tourism attractions, one that seems poised to expand even further throughout the Caribbean.

Indeed, since the first pig excursions began in the mid-2010s in the Exumas, a relatively remote chain of islands here, the activity has exploded in popularity. Every major island in the Bahamas now has a pig beach. Cruise ship companies with their own resorts and private beaches have their own private pigs. Visitors to the Bahamas disembark from their planes in Nassau and walk by floor-to-ceiling photographs of pigs on the way to baggage claim. 

And tourists like Ms. Goldman and her family seek out the experience.

“We don’t like to resort travel,” she said, still stroking the now-sleeping piglet’s head. “We like to adventure. Once we heard there were pigs here, we couldn’t get here fast enough.”

According to some reports, pig tourism brings tens of millions of dollars into the Bahamian economy. And now the phenomenon may be spreading further. Recently, entrepreneurs in the neighboring island of Antigua started advertising their own pig beach attraction, called Pigs Paradise. (This caused not a little eye rolling among Bahamians, who had already claimed the title Pigs of Paradise.) 

Stephanie Hanes/The Christian Science Monitor
Jesse Higgs, a pig trainer and caretaker, works with the local herd on Pig Island on Nov. 22, 2022.

“It works everywhere,” says Brady Darius Perry, a Bahamian boat captain whose family owns Da Salty Pig charters out of Spanish Wells, at the northern end of the island of Eleuthera. He and his family, who had been in the lobstering industry, helped import pigs to this beach after a hurricane wiped out their fishing equipment. “People really like it. Most of the time that’s what they come here to see – the pigs.”

It was never supposed to be this way, says T.R. Todd, an author and public relations executive who, in some ways, is responsible for the porcine craze.

Beach + pigs = marketing magic

Once a journalist based in Nassau, the capital city here, Mr. Todd only heard about the pigs after he had started a marketing job with Peter Nicholson, a Canadian developer with projects in the Exumas. He remembers doing a double take when Mr. Nicholson off-handedly mentioned the swimming pigs who lived on one of the nearby, otherwise uninhabited islands. 

Swimming pigs? Mr. Todd remembers asking. What?

It turned out there were quite a few rumors about these creatures, he recalls. Some people said they were left over from the pirates who once hid in the islands. Others suspected that the pigs were shipwreck survivors. But most people believed they were put there by local homesteaders who wanted pigs, but not the stench or conflict with neighbors that pigs can entail.

Whatever the reason, the animals had started to amuse some of the residents, and then some of the tourists, particularly because they paddled out to the boats that stopped by, hoping to get some food.  

Mr. Todd realized immediately that there was a marketing opportunity here; something different than the normal palm trees and bikinis and sun-drenched beaches. And so he began promoting the “swimming pigs” and arranging ways for tourists to see them.

At first, some of the neighboring resorts were decidedly not on board. Pigs did not fit into their upscale brand, they insisted. But it turned out that the high-end guests adored the pigs. And then, in 2016, the reality show “The Bachelor” filmed an episode in the Exumas, in part thanks to the invitation of Mr. Todd, his employer, and the Bahamian government. And one of the key dates on the show was with the pigs.  

That show launched the swimming pigs into full celebrity status.

Stephanie Hanes/The Christian Science Monitor
A resident pig on Pig Island, a swimming pig destination off the coast of Eleuthera, Bahamas, on Nov. 22, 2022.

“It really blew up,” Mr. Todd recalls. “That’s when the government realized, this is lightning in a bottle. It just spread, and it spread really quickly.”

Part of the appeal, he theorizes, is the juxtaposition of beach and, well, pig – an animal that is both loved and reviled, and typically associated with mud pits and filth.

“The Bahamas is gorgeous,” he says. “It’s crystal clear and so pristine; when you see a pig ...” 

It also suggests the joy humans get from connecting with animals, he says, as well as a widespread desire for surprise and novelty. 

And then, of course, there’s social media.

A selfie with a pig is pretty much at the top of the bucket list for tourists who come to the Bahamas, according to multiple boat captains here. And sure enough, scroll through the websites for Bahamian charter companies and tour operators and there is photo after photo of human with pig; search for “swimming pigs” on Instagram and there are thousands of similar shots. 

Exploitation, or bonding?

This popularity has started to create some controversy. In 2017, pigs on the original Pig Beach in the Exumas began dying; government officials and some animal rights groups suspected mistreatment from tourists – or at least overfeeding – as a cause. (Veterinarians who investigated believe a combination of factors, including dehydration, were likely responsible.) 

Stephanie Hanes/The Christian Science Monitor
The Bahamian government estimates that the swimming pigs bring in millions of tourist dollars. There are now swimming pig locations on all of the country’s major islands. Here is an advertisement for one pig excursion on the island of Eleuthera.

Since then, a local group called the Swimming Pig Association has been monitoring and caring for the Exumas pigs, who, according to Mr. Todd, are today as healthy and happy as one might expect a pig on a beach to be. But there is still some pushback. “Pig attacks” have been caught on camera – instances where pigs, seemingly annoyed by endless selfies, have turned around and nipped the tourists making fishy faces with them. Some vegan groups have suggested that the pig tourism is exploitative and have encouraged visitors to keep their distance.  

(Less exploitative than bacon, says Jesse Higgs, one of the pig trainers and caretakers on Pig Island off Eleuthera. His colleague, Andre Pierre, shrugs. “Pigs are gangsters,” Mr. Pierre says.)

Still, the vast majority of pig experiences are peaceful, according to those in the tourism industry. And the pigs themselves fare far better than their compatriots, they suggest. At Pig Island, for instance, Mr. Higgs and Mr. Pierre keep watch over the pigs – making sure they are fed, watered, and comfortable. They train the residents to swim, roll over, sit, and stay, and they keep a close watch for any signs of aggression.

They admit to having wondered at first about tourists’ fascination with the pig. 

(Mr. Pinder, the boat captain, still has some skepticism. “I don’t know why they like them,” says the former lobsterman. “Cuz I don’t. Except on my plate.”)

But now that they’ve spent time with the creatures, they understand, they say. There is, indeed, something simply joyful about pigs on a beach.

“I love it,” Mr. Higgs says. “They all have different personalities.” The pig named Brownie, for instance, is his favorite. “I can’t call it work no more.”

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Saving democracy by shielding judges

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The world rarely sees leaders of one democracy laying down the law to other leaders about the need for independent courts. Yet that was the extraordinary scene in Jerusalem on Monday. An official of the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, warned the official of another country, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, about a proposed measure that would allow parliament to override Supreme Court rulings by a slim majority.

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Israelis have protested against the proposed changes. Mr. Blinken said Israeli-U.S. ties are rooted in shared principles of “equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, [and] the rule of law.”

An erosion of democracy worldwide has led to similar cases of leaders defending a core safeguard of individual rights and civic equality. A separate judiciary is crucial to enforcing constitutional principles that protect people from the overreach of a majority.

Saving democracy by shielding judges

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Reuters
A justice symbol stands near the grain silo damaged during the 2020 port blast in Beirut, Lebanon.

The world rarely sees leaders of one democracy laying down the law to other leaders about the need for independent courts. Yet in an extraordinary scene in Jerusalem on Monday, an official of the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, warned the official of another country, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, about a proposed measure that would allow parliament to override Supreme Court rulings by a slim majority.

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Israelis have protested against the proposed changes. Mr. Blinken said Israeli-U.S. ties are rooted in shared principles of “equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, [and] the rule of law.” He praised President Isaac Herzog for trying to build a consensus “on the question of judicial reform.”

An erosion of democracy worldwide has led to similar cases of leaders defending what is a core safeguard of individual rights and civic equality – a separate judiciary tasked to enforce constitutional principles that protect people from the overreach of a majority.

The European Union has gone after two member states, Hungary and Poland, for trying to undermine the courts as co-equal branches of government. Britain seeks to salvage what remains of judicial independence in its former colony, Hong Kong, as China imposes authoritarian rule in the territory. India’s ruling party has been accused by the opposition of trying to “capture” the judiciary in an attempt to control the nomination of judges.

Last year, the American Bar Association set up a task force to train people on how judicial independence protects individual rights and government institutions. In December, the ABA issued a “tool kit” to help people around the globe identify trends in threats to judicial independence.

“When individuals can expect their disputes to be resolved impartially and free from outside influence, this fosters trust within the judicial system – which is not possible if judges can be captured by the state or special interest groups,” states the ABA.

Perhaps the world’s most embattled and heroic defender of judicial independence is Judge Tarek Bitar in Lebanon, a fragile Mideast state nearing political and economic collapse.

He was tasked two years ago with probing official negligence in the 2020 blast of ammonium nitrate at the Port of Beirut that killed more than 200 people and destroyed entire neighborhoods. His investigation has been thwarted by a political elite – especially the powerful Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah – that fears being found complicit in the use of the chemical for bomb-making and in one of the largest nonnuclear explosions in history.

Suhail Abboud, head of Lebanon’s Supreme Judicial Council, said Lebanon cannot have an independent judiciary without completing the investigation.

Judge Bitar, widely known for his integrity and political neutrality, remains popular among Lebanese, according to a 2021 Gallup Poll. “My only concern is to satisfy God and my conscience, and to convince the victims and their families that what I do serves justice,” he said of the probe. He and his family live under armed guard.

Last week, he charged eight people in the investigation, including the chief public prosecutor, security chief, and a former prime minister. Also, nearly a third of Lebanese lawmakers backed his actions while a large group of judges condemned attempts to thwart the investigation.

Judge Bitar “symbolizes hope that justice may one day be served in a country where impunity has long been the norm,” stated a Reuters story. Lebanon’s future may depend on a little-appreciated aspect of democracy: judicial independence. It has joined a list of other places where courts are under siege – yet where people are embracing the principle of equality before law. 

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.

‘Go get the book’

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The timeless truths found in the Bible-based textbook of Christian Science inspire progress and healing – as a woman experienced firsthand when she found herself in challenging times and began reading the book.

‘Go get the book’

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Having been raised in a traditional Christian home, I remember my mother encouraging me to think, pray, and listen to God’s leading. Not that I listened all the time, but I certainly was taught with a love for and openness to Spirit, God. After graduating from high school, I was curious about different religious denominations and philosophies, so I visited churches and other places of worship.

In college, I read many books on contemporary metaphysics and spiritual thought. How to achieve peace and harmony was on people’s minds, and I was seeking God.

I had picked up “The Life of Mary Baker Eddy” by Sibyl Wilbur at my local library, which absolutely captivated me. In it, I read about this 19th-century American woman who’d dealt with poor health, limited resources, and intense family issues but always had a deep love of the Bible and of God. She pressed on through tough experiences to complete the task with which God had entrusted her: sharing her discovery of Christian Science with the world.

She ultimately triumphed and became an author, teacher, public speaker, and one of the most well-known religious leaders of her day. I was, and still am, deeply touched by her persistence, trust, and humility.

Within the year, I found myself in challenging times. My business was being undermined by serious marital problems, and the chaos and emotional roller coaster were taking a toll on my health.

As I prayed, I heard a directive from God: “Go get the book.” Somehow, I knew this meant the Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” which Mrs. Eddy wrote. Obediently, I went to a local bookstore to purchase it. I started to read the Preface, which begins, “To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, to-day is big with blessings” (p. vii), and I listened. I listened for insight, hope, inspiration ... healing.

As I continued on with the first chapter, I felt comforted by the Lord’s Prayer given to us by Christ Jesus, which is paired with Mrs. Eddy’s deep spiritual sense of each line (see pp. 16-17). Remembering a note in Sibyl Wilbur’s biography about the last one hundred pages of Science and Health, I next read those precious testimonies of healing from people just like me – suffering, open, receptive to new concepts.

Oh, how grateful I am that Mrs. Eddy included these voices, to share her message of healing and hope with humanity! Some said encouraging things; for example, one individual kept reading Science and Health even though they didn’t understand it all. Another referenced a Bible quote that describes a transformation taking place: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (II Corinthians 5:17).

This encouraged me. I didn’t understand everything, but light was coming into my consciousness. I noticed I was more peaceful and hopeful, knowing that God is “no respecter of persons” – that what He does for one, He will do for all, as explained in Acts 10:34, 35.

Within a short time, I was completely free from the health issues and able to resume my work as a real estate broker. Although it was a challenging step to take, my husband and I ended our marriage by mutual agreement.

But even better than the resolution of these difficulties, I was filled with joy and delight in the Lord. Throughout those early experiences I learned to wait for the next right thought before moving forward. It’s been over 28 years since I first picked up Science and Health, and I continue to listen for God’s direction.

As we press on in life, looking for the next right step, we can turn to – and yield to – the healing truths found in the Holy Bible and Science and Health.

Adapted from an article published in the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Sounds of Baghdad

Hadi Mizban/AP
Members of the recently founded National Band for Iraqi Musical Heritage play to an enthusiastic audience at the Iraqi National Theatre in Baghdad on Jan. 30, 2023. The group's instruments include the guitarlike oud; the nay, a traditional Arab reed flute; and the qanun, a harpsichordlike instrument famous in Iraqi songs.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Please join us again tomorrow, when we’ll be covering how Democrats might put a different state first in the presidential primary elections. Meanwhile, in an arts story, you’ll learn why musician Ibrahim Maalouf’s trumpet has an extra valve.

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