Seeing the future
The Dec. 30, 2019 & Jan. 6, 2020 cover story, “The world in 2050,” was an interesting article. I’d like to provide another perspective and perhaps a longer view.
The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. There have been five mass extinction events during that time. In one, more than 80% of all life on Earth died – yet here we are today. Homo sapiens is between 200,000 and 300,000 years old. We went from the wilderness to the moon in that time. It really takes just an eye blink to develop advanced technology and civilization. The last mass extinction event was about 66 million years ago: the Chicxulub impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. That’s easily enough time for 150 civilizations like ours to have developed and then gone extinct.
It seems to me that for Earth, life itself seems to be the goal – it doesn’t have to be humans. We like to think we are special, but we may not be. We might want to ponder that for a while as we make our plans.
As a devoted Monitor reader for many decades, the Dec. 30, 2019 & Jan. 6, 2020 cover story, “The world in 2050,” has me swinging from the rafters for joy. Is it controversial? Yes. Is it fair? Yes. What’s more than fascinating to me is how the Monitor reporters go about their coverage. And I have friends to whom I’ve introduced it who agree that it is the best newspaper around.
We have a choice. We don’t have to be a part of all that technology will offer in the years to come, but it’s still prudent to be aware of it. So thank you to each and every person on staff and involved in production for making it possible to have the Monitor in my life.
An all-time high of 63,000 children were adopted across the United States through the foster care system in 2018, an almost 25% increase since 2014. The upturn largely reflects the thousands of families that have been broken by the opioid crisis – forcing children to be placed in new homes. But the rise also shows successful efforts by states to promote adoption, especially those hit hard by the crisis, such as West Virginia and Louisiana. Next to living with their biological parents, children succeed best when in a stable household with adoptive parents, rather than moving between families in the foster care system, experts say. (Pew Charitable Trusts)
A new coalition government between Austria’s People’s Party and Green Party means that for the first time in the country’s history, its Cabinet is majority female. Nine of the 17 ministers will be women, reflecting the population’s demographic of slightly more women than men. After months of negotiations following an election last year in which no party won a majority, returning Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced his government’s two main focuses would be immigration and the environment. Mr. Kurz has regained the title of the world’s youngest leader at 33, as the People’s Party and the Greens also mark their first attempt to govern together. (Deutsche Welle)
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in Burundi in 2014 has uncovered 4,000 mass graves, a result of multiple state conflicts since independence in the 1960s. The findings, while sobering, are a starting point for the public to forgive and “forge a peaceful future for Burundi’s generations,” said commission Chairman Pierre-Claver Ndayicariye. In its two years of investigation, the commission has identified more than 140,000 Burundians who died as a result of ethnic conflict in the state, particularly between the minority Tutsi and majority Hutu groups. Many graves and remains have yet to be identified, says Mr. Ndayicariye, but he hopes confronting past trauma will help relatives and communities heal and move forward. (BBC, Reuters)
A centenarian tortoise named Diego who fathered more than one-third of its living species is returning to its island of origin on the Galápagos from a captive breeding program on the islands to join hundreds of his progeny. Diego was one of 15 tortoises selected for the program, which was begun in the mid-1960s to save the species, the Chelonoidis hoodensis. Prior to that, Diego had lived in the San Diego Zoo for about 30 years. Out of the 2,000 tortoises bred in the program, Diego fathered nearly 800 of them, meaning he is responsible for about 40% of those on the Galápagos island of Española. “There’s a feeling of happiness to have the possibility of returning that tortoise to his natural state,” said Jorge Carrion, director of the Galapagos National Park. (BBC)
Farmers are embracing an agricultural evolution, which uses innovative methods such as dike gardens, or growing vegetables in sacks beside rivers, to succeed in a shifting environment. Even as climate change threatens to displace 1 in 7 people in Bangladesh by 2050, the country is adapting. These new methods have helped some farmers increase their harvests nearly fivefold. Others are surviving by turning to new professions, such as fish farming and shrimp farming, which have been made more profitable by rising sea levels. (The Guardian)
After declining from around 200 in the 1990s to only 84 in 2018, the Irrawaddy dolphin – a beluga-whalelike species native to Southeast Asia – is increasing in number. Last year, its population rose to 92, as conservation measures addressing its two major causes of death – dams and fishing nets – took effect. “When the river dolphin is doing well, you know there’s enough fish in the river. You know the water is clean. You know there’s natural habitat. So when the dolphin is doing well, people will do well,” said Daphne Willems of the Global River Dolphin Initiative for the World Wildlife Fund. (NPR)
The Hungarian hamlet of Bodrogkeresztúr is fast becoming a major pilgrimage site for Jews around the world who want to pray at the grave of a rabbi in hopes of miraculous intervention.
But their presence in the village – which had a significant Jewish population until its deportation in 1944 – has sparked a delicate debate among the locals. Some would like them gone, viewing them as foreigners as well as Jews. Others argue that they have a right to return.
Yeshaya Steiner, also known as Rebbe Shaya’la, lived in Bodrogkeresztúr in the early 20th century. His former home and his nearby grave have become a key stop for pilgrims. On a busy weekend, more than 20,000 religious visitors may tour this village of just 1,000 residents.
Some villagers are unhappy with the Jewish visitors’ arrival. “They should go back to where they came from. I do not care that they used to live here,” says Timea, a woman in her thirties.
But others see their return as only fair. “They have the right to be here as their ancestors were unjustly taken away and killed in 1944,” says Tibor Földesi, a villager.
This Hungarian hamlet offers many attractions to visitors from abroad: a picturesque landscape, historical sights. The region in which it lies is even recognized as part of UNESCO’s world heritage program for its centuries-long culture of winemaking.
But the latest influx of visitors to Bodrogkeresztúr are coming for a very different reason – and are shining a light on the village’s history.
Bodrogkeresztúr is fast becoming a major pilgrimage site for Jews around the world who want to pray at the grave of a rabbi in hopes of miraculous intervention. Their presence in the village – which had a significant Jewish population until its deportation in 1944 – has sparked a delicate debate among the locals. Some would like them gone, viewing them as foreigners as well as Jews. Others argue that they have a right to return.
The debate is particularly loaded in Hungary, where far-right politicians often say that Jews have no place. Such views resonate strongly in poorer, rural communities. Estimates of the prevalence of anti-Semitism among Hungarians vary: András Kovács, a professor at Central European University in Budapest says about 30% hold such views, while the New York-based Anti-Defamation League puts the rate at 42%.
Judit Kuknyó, a mother of four who regularly crosses paths with the religious Jewish groups at the local food store, is not concerned by the newcomers. “They have their traditions and holidays, we have ours,” she says. She is baffled by peers who cast them as “strangers.”
“I think they are afraid of the unknown and forget that this used to be a Jewish village,” she says. “[The villagers] just want to come back to what used to be theirs.”
The draw of the wonder rabbi
Yeshaya Steiner, also known as Rebbe Shaya’la, lived in Bodrogkeresztúr in the early 20th century. The Jews of Kerestir – the Yiddish name of this verdant village – were ardent believers in his wisdom. Rebbe Shaya’la gained fame as a miracle worker; tens of thousands of Central European Hasidic Jews visited his court regularly until his death in 1925. Miracles ascribed to him fill three books: They range from curing sick children to saving marriages.
“The soul lives forever, whoever will come to me to pray after my death, I will help,” he predicted.
The revival of Judaism in Hungary, increasingly digitally savvy believers, and the designation of religious sites on Google Maps and Waze have given him fresh fame. Many here link the publication of a book on Rebbe Shaya’la’s miracles in English to the increase in visitors.
A key stop for pilgrims is the former house of Rebbe Shaya’la on Kossuth Street, which American descendants bought in the 1970s. Since then, relatives have come to pray at the house and his nearby grave.
“My father was born in this house, survived the war, and fled to the States after 1949,” says Ms. Ruben, a great granddaughter of Rebbe Shaya’la who declined to give her first name. “The older I get, the more it hurts to think about what happened to my family here.”
During the Cold War, visits by religious relatives to communist Hungary tended to be short. Discussing the disappearance of the Jewish community was taboo.
But that has changed. Four years ago, the rebbe’s descendants expanded to the house next door to cater to a growing number of visitors.
On a busy weekend, more than 20,000 religious visitors may tour this village of just 1,000 residents. The Jewish shelter offers lodging, free meals, and places to pray. The owners say these are not business ventures and that they pay for costs that run as high as $5,000 a day. They believe this is a mitzvah, or good deed, from the Hebrew word for commandment.
Female members of the Kerestir community come to Hungary three to four times per year. They split their time between praying and ensuring the smooth administration of the rebbe’s former home and the free kitchen.
An American Hasidic cook and his Hungarian non-Jewish helpers work in perfect harmony despite the language barrier. Together they whip up kosher Hungarian dishes for up to 100 people per day. The food is provided free of charge although donations are accepted.
“It is spiritually uplifting to be here,” says Chayala Hecht-Lasky, mother of four boys. “I have known about this place for quite some time. More and more people hear about the miracles. … We know some people whom he helped already.”
Jewish pilgrims to Hungary typically follow a 90-plus-mile-long route spanning 10 villages which is known as the “footsteps of the wonder rabbis.” It cuts across small cemeteries, run-down synagogues, ritual baths, houses of famous Jewish families, and former yeshivas (Orthodox Jewish seminaries).
Rebbe Shaya’la is the most famous of five wonder rabbis who lived on this path. Mariann Frank, director of the Hasidic visitors center, says she also receives Christian priests with their congregations. “We are happy to receive people here because it helps to understand the life and the role of the Jewish people in former rural Hungary,” she says.
“They have the right to be here”
Some villagers are unhappy with the Jewish visitors’ arrival though, and their focus on Rebbe Shaya’la’s grave over other local features. Many want them gone.
“They should go back to where they came from. I do not care that they used to live here,” says Timea, a woman in her thirties. “They are coming back and buying up the whole village. They have already bought at least 25 family houses and they don’t want to stop.”
Some worry this influx is affecting property prices and the demographic makeup of the community. Houses are for sale all along the trail. Around 10 buildings in Bodrogkeresztúr have been purchased by Jews who came from abroad. Villagers say that real estate prices went up by 10 to 15 times since large scale arrivals began in 2015.
But some say that’s not the newcomers’ fault. “They have the right to be here as their ancestors were unjustly taken away and killed in 1944,” says Tibor Földesi, a villager. “Hungarians who managed to do business with them like them. Those who couldn’t, don’t.”
He adds that some locals seem to be approaching house sales with Jewish stereotypes in mind. “Most people try to sell their house at very high prices to them, and if they fail, they say it is [the Jews’] fault.”
Moshe Friedlander, a rabbi who supervises a Jewish guesthouse in Bodrogkeresztúr, says that religious Jewish tourism is creating jobs in the village, which could help build bridges. Religious Jews in the village employ non-Jewish people on the Sabbath, the day when they are forbidden to work. And Hungarians work as cooks, waiters, cleaners, drivers, and errand runners even beyond the one holy day of the week. At least a dozen villagers are working for the Hasidic Jews who run guesthouses. Jewish visitors rent cars, pay drivers, sleep at the various hotels, buy local goods, and visit local private doctors.
“I hope that coming back here helps the locals getting to know us again,” says Rabbi Friedlander. “They can see that Jewish people are not like what the Nazis said they were.”
Singer Lizzo is a contender for the most Grammys at Sunday’s awards show. She is breaking industry records, and as a full-figured black woman rapper, Lizzo celebrates her complexity in a society that remains determined to devalue it.
Body-shaming by other public figures is a reminder that the world has a particular vitriol for confident, visible, and successful black women. Lizzo has also had to deal with rap’s notorious misogyny. But women rappers aren’t expected to stylistically embrace either androgyny or hypersexuality anymore; they are doing what feels natural to them. Lizzo is not only capitalizing on this shift; she is defying – and defining – what it means to be beautiful.
Lizzo is wholly aware that creating your own niche in hip-hop as a curvy black woman, in fact, makes you a bigger target. When she pointed out the double standard between herself and male rappers, she was met with ire. But it is more productive to keep making your art than defending it. With recent appearances in the film “Hustlers” and on Saturday Night Live, Lizzo is securing her place in music. Her reign shows no sign of letting up.
Unpacking Lizzo’s steady and fascinating rise in music proves to be as layered as the artist herself.
Named entertainer of the year for 2019 by both The Associated Press and Time magazine, the singer and rapper is also a contender for the most Grammy awards of any artist at Sunday’s awards show. Three of those are for her song “Truth Hurts,” off her third studio album, released in 2017. Last September, she broke a major Billboard record when the song became the longest-running No. 1 single by a female rapper, without other featured artists, in the chart’s history. She is also the first black solo female R&B singer to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 since 2012.
Women rappers have been pushing hip-hop culture forward since the genre’s inception. However, what made “Truth Hurts” so popular two years after its release wasn’t just its undeniable catchiness or bold declarations of resilience and self-worth. As a full-figured black woman rapper, Lizzo celebrates her complexity in a society that remains determined to devalue it. She has recently experienced body-shaming from public figures like author Boyce Watkins and fitness guru Jillian Michaels. Their commentary serves as a cruel reminder that the world has a particular vitriol for confident, visible, and successful black women.
Lizzo has also had to deal with rap’s notorious misogyny and general exclusion of women. The current renaissance finally gives listeners a bevy of female lyricists to choose from, including Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Tierra Whack, Rapsody, Noname, and Leikeli47. There is no longer just one domineering presence at the forefront.
Women rappers aren’t expected to stylistically embrace either androgyny or hypersexuality anymore; they are doing what feels natural to them. Lizzo is not only capitalizing on this palpable shift in rap; she is defying – and defining – what it means to be beautiful.
We saw it at last June’s BET Awards as she sported a white bodice while dancing and playing the flute onstage. (She holds a degree in classical flute performance.) That live rendition of “Truth Hurts” earned her a standing ovation and even brought Rihanna to her feet, gazing in awe. Lizzo continued to showcase her infectious energy at August’s MTV Video Music Awards. Just like at the BET Awards, the stage at the VMAs was full of black female backup dancers of all shapes and sizes, as Lizzo impressed onlookers in a bright yellow leotard. The message of the night – in true alignment with her discography – was one of self-love and empowerment.
As expected, Lizzo’s rap skills are criticized and called into question more than those of her male counterparts. Pitchfork writer Rawiya Kameir infamously rated “Cuz I Love You” a 6.5 out of 10, saying some songs were “burdened with overwrought production, awkward turns of phrase, and ham-handed rapping.” Lizzo replied, in a now deleted tweet, “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.” After public backlash, she sent another tweet inviting music journalists to her studio.
Lizzo is wholly aware that creating your own niche in hip-hop as a curvy black woman, in fact, makes you a bigger target. When she pointed out the double standard between herself and male rappers, she was met with ire. But it is more productive to keep making your art than defending it. With a cameo in the film “Hustlers,” a set at last year’s Made in America music festival in which Beyoncé took notice, and a monumental live performance last month on Saturday Night Live, Lizzo is rightfully securing her place in music. And her reign shows no sign of letting up.
The Senate trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress began in earnest on Tuesday with wrangling over rules, but its endpoint appears to be a foregone conclusion. The Constitution sets a high bar – a two-thirds vote, or 67 senators – to convict and remove a president from office. That’s hard to imagine in a chamber controlled by the president’s own party.
And yet Republicans and Democrats are furiously strategizing – not to change the end result, but to shape public opinion.
Unlike President Trump, the last two presidents threatened by impeachment – Bill Clinton in 1999 and Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 – were not facing reelection. And while it’s true that most polls show a nation evenly divided on the question of impeachment and removal, this election won’t be decided at the national level, but in swing states.
At the end of this trial, what will voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida think about the president? Likewise, how will voters view endangered senators up for reelection?
“Republicans have complained that this is a political process, but for many of the senators taking votes, I think it has a major political impact,” says Jessica Taylor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
The pitched partisan battles over procedure and witnesses. The solemn scene of all 100 senators sitting quietly at their desks. The chief justice of the United States presiding over the impeachment trial of a president – only the third in U.S. history.
The Senate trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress began in earnest on Tuesday with wrangling over rules, but its endpoint appears to be a foregone conclusion. The Constitution sets a high bar – a two-thirds vote, or 67 senators – to convict and remove a president from office. That’s hard to imagine this time, in a chamber controlled by the president’s own party.
And yet Republicans and Democrats are furiously strategizing – not to change the end result, but to shape public opinion, says Steven Smith, an expert on the Senate at Washington University in St. Louis. “This really isn’t about convicting the president, obviously, so the real question is whether or not the political context is evolving in a way that favors one side or the other.”
Unlike President Trump, the last two presidents threatened by impeachment – Bill Clinton in 1999 and Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 – were not facing reelection. And while it’s true that most polls show a nation evenly divided on the question of impeaching and removing the president, this election won’t be decided at the national level, but in swing states.
At the end of this trial, what will voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida think about the president? Likewise, how will voters view endangered Republican senators up for reelection – such as Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona? Both took a hit in approval ratings in the latest state-by-state Morning Consult poll, with Senator Collins now the least-popular senator in the country – quite a slide for a senator with a history as a political bridge-builder.
“Republicans have complained that this is a political process, but for many of the senators taking votes, I think it has a major political impact on their own political fortunes going into 2020,” says Jessica Taylor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Democrats have comparatively few competitive seats to defend, but for Doug Jones of Alabama, the most vulnerable Democrat, a vote to convict “could be his death sentence,” she says.
House vote set the stage
In the Democrat-controlled House, under the leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Democrats voted with near-unanimity on Dec. 18 to impeach, charging that the president abused his power by pressuring the government of Ukraine to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, and Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, for his personal electoral benefit, and then obstructing Congress as it sought to investigate.
But the Senate is not the House. It has its own rules and is a more unpredictable body, led by its own wily, strategic politician, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Democrats on Tuesday accused the majority leader of a “cover-up” and complicity with the White House by introducing rules that would compress the time frame for arguments and putting off the question of calling witnesses and documents. Under pressure, Senator McConnell agreed to expand the timetable for arguments from two days to three (and 24 hours total) for each side.
Democrats say that witnesses and documents are essential to a fair trial, and that unlike in the Clinton trial, they have not been able to question all relevant witnesses in advance. An attempt by Democrats to subpoena documents failed late Tuesday in a vote along party lines.
A rift over witnesses
With Republicans holding a 53-seat majority, Democrats need four GOP senators to join them in the call for witnesses such as former national security adviser John Bolton. It’s not clear that they will get them, though Senator Collins has said “it is likely” that she will support a call for witnesses, but only after both sides have made their cases and senators have submitted written questions – as was agreed on in the Clinton trial.
Of course, witnesses perceived as friendly to one side may prove not to be. “It’s unlikely that the Republicans will approve witnesses for the House managers without witnesses for the defense, and then honestly, all bets are off. Who knows what will come of that. It’s going to be a circus,” says Professor Smith.
The president will be represented in the chamber by the White House legal team, his personal lawyers, and celebrity attorneys, including Ken Starr, the special prosecutor who triggered the impeachment of Mr. Clinton, and Harvard constitutional law professor Alan Dershowitz.
The White House case
Over the holiday weekend, the White House submitted its first legal defense of the president. It does not dispute the basic facts of a request to investigate the Bidens and the withholding of military aid to Ukraine. But it describes the two articles of impeachment as a “brazen political act” and denounces the “rigged process” that brought them to the Senate.
The legal brief contends there was no abuse of power because the president broke no law and foreign policy is the domain of the president – not Congress.
As for obstructing Congress, the president’s legal team argues he has constitutional authority to protect the powers of the executive branch, and “asserting legal defenses and privileges is not ‘obstruction.’” The two articles of impeachment do not “remotely approach” the constitutional threshold for removing a president from office, they say.
The president himself remains a “wild card” in all this, says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the center-left Brookings Institution. Majority Leader McConnell and other Republicans have been able to “corral him away from his instincts” to get behind what’s in his best interest – a short, streamlined trial.
“But the president is watching this on TV, and will see those House managers go over his conduct, which he will take very personally,” says Ms. Binder. “Is the president going to fire off tweets, or get the Republicans to do a different kind of defense?”
The Democrats, on the other hand, want to lengthen the trial, allowing time for more evidence to come to light – as happened last week with Lev Parnas, a former associate of Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, and last week’s finding by the independent Government Accountability Office that the president acted illegally in withholding congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine.
“The House managers will want [people] to pay as much attention to the trial as possible. Whatever they can do to make it more attractive to public viewing, the better for them,” says Don Ritchie, former Senate historian. “The president’s defenders will want to minimize this, and get it over as quickly as possible.”
Both sides will be making their case to the public – not really to the senators, he says. With President Clinton, Americans knew of his sexual relations with a White House intern and that he lied about it under oath, but they differed over whether it was an impeachable offense. The same is true now, says Mr. Ritchie.
“Quite frankly, everybody knows what this president’s doing. The question is, is it proper for him to be doing this or not?” he says. “People are going to have to sort that out for themselves.”
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The cover story “Holiday foresters” in the Dec. 23 Monitor Weekly brought smiles to me. In 1959, our family moved to the country in York County in Pennsylvania. One of the first things my parents did was plant pine seedlings, which grew to become Christmas trees. This was my first business, which was advertised every December in the Monitor’s classified ads. The best reward was sharing a feeling of joy with the families coming to cut their own trees!
Carlie Jacobs Beisel
I was very uncomfortable as I read “Holiday foresters,” because a more “authentic” article would not have focused solely on the millennials who can afford to own a car and buy gas, and have the time and the money to make a foray into the countryside to cut and purchase their own Christmas tree.
My grandchildren are millennials with families who can afford to do such activities. But I’m quite aware that many more millennial families cannot undertake this “authentic” outing because they are not financially able to do so. Perhaps the Monitor can publish something letting us know how poor and cash-strapped millennials celebrate “authentically.”
I love reading the Monitor Weekly, which I get from my public library, and my favorite article in every issue is “A Christian Science Perspective.” Each column always seems so pertinent to me, often mirroring a situation or circumstance I may be dealing with at the time.
The essay in the Nov. 25 issue, “Gratitude heals” by Michelle Boccanfuso Nanouche, was especially meaningful for me, and I send her my gratitude.
I want to thank everyone at the Monitor for such uplifting and inspiring articles, and for its unbiased and balanced reporting – a refreshing change from much of today’s news.
The editorial “Visit a prison, make the US safer” in the Dec. 16 Monitor Weekly stated, “More than two-thirds of inmates released from state prisons are rearrested within three years.” Perhaps the solution is to require classes on behavior to encourage a better lifestyle. Classes might also be given to train prisoners in the job skills needed in their areas.
Months of anti-government protests in Iraq have rejuvenated the theological dispute between the religious rulers of Iraq and Iran and their rival views about the role clerics should play in politics. At stake is leadership of the world’s 200 million-plus Shiites.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani articulates a more liberal interpretation that respects a secular state in Iraq. That’s in contrast to the system of absolute clerical rule in Iran, led by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which has dominated Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
To be sure, Ayatollah Sistani still wields great political influence. In recent months, his Friday prayer sermons have removed a prime minister, eased a violent crackdown – the worst of the violence reportedly the result of hard-line guidance from Iran – and warned against any foreign intervention in Iraq.
But limiting Iran’s influence has not been easy, given the critical role it played against the Islamic State in Iraq.
“Lots of Iraqis believe in Iran,” says Hisham al-Hashemi, a security analyst with the European Institute of Peace. “They believe in it as an Islamic Revolution, and the right for this revolution to cross borders everywhere.”
NAJAF, Iraq; and LONDON
United briefly in their mourning over the assassination of Iran’s most powerful military commander, Qassem Soleimani, two rival titans of the Shiite Muslim world both paid their respects.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the reclusive top religious authority in Iraq, sent his son to greet the funeral procession as it filled the shrine city of Najaf with mourners.
And he sent his condolences to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his longtime rival for influence over the Shiite world.
But when Ayatollah Khamenei called for “severe revenge” against the United States, Grand Ayatollah Sistani called on all parties “to behave with self-restraint.”
The divergent responses encapsulate one facet of a broader theological contest – newly rejuvenated by months of anti-government protests in Iraq – between the religious rulers of Iraq and Iran, and their two very different worldviews about the role that Shiite clerics should play in politics and daily life.
At stake, analysts note, is leadership of the world’s 200 million-plus Shiites. And as Iraq’s protests have unfolded since Oct. 1, the pressure points between these two tectonic plates of Shiite politics are being exposed and redefined like never before.
Ayatollah Sistani articulates a more liberal interpretation that respects a secular state in Iraq. That stands in contrast to the system of absolute clerical rule in Iran, called velayat-e faqih, which is led by Ayatollah Khamenei and has dominated Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“He supports our desires,” says Ali, a young Iraqi in Najaf, where Ayatollah Sistani leads a powerful Islamic seminary. The majority of Iraqis, says Ali, sitting in a protest tent hung with three posters of Ayatollah Sistani that outline his views, “are waiting for [his] call.”
To be sure, Ayatollah Sistani still wields great political influence. His authority has been on display during months of Friday prayer sermons, where his words have removed a prime minister, eased a violent crackdown that has taken some 460 lives – the worst of the violence reportedly the result of hard-line guidance from Iran – and warned against any foreign intervention in Iraq.
A liberal political Shiism
In the recent sermons “we have seen more liberal, political Shiism being spelled out than in the hundred years before,” says an Iraqi government analyst, a native of Najaf who asked not to be further identified.
“If we are to mention a single factor that prevented a totally bloody crackdown against the protests, it would be [Ayatollah Sistani’s] Friday sermons,” says the analyst. “And by doing so, he has put a limit on the Iranian approach. He stopped Iraqis taking Iranian advice.”
By contrast, in addition to their core demands for political change, Iraqi protesters have burned portraits of Ayatollah Khamenei, sacked Iranian consulates, and attacked Iran-backed Shiite parties and militia groups in their anger over Iran’s extensive influence.
“We are seeing these two schools – at least the Iraqi, Sistani one – taking clearer shape, under pressure of these events,” says the analyst. “It seems that [Sistani] is shifting away even farther from velayat-e faqih into a different, yet-to-be-clearly-spelled-out Shi’i theory of governance, that is definitely more liberal, that does not see instructing people as one of the duties of an ayatollah.”
Yet in the religious-political construct of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei is in charge of the perpetual revolution and has final say in all affairs of state. As the personification of the faqih, Ayatollah Khamenei is meant to be the official representative of the infallible 12th Shiite saint, Imam Mahdi, who disappeared centuries ago.
“It is well-known – this is not a secret – Sistani is more on the side of tolerance and coexistence,” says Abbas Kadhim, head of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
“Khamenei and the velayat-e faqih system is [based] more on the exclusive claim to authority,” says Mr. Kadhim, who is from Najaf. The Iranian system refers to Ayatollah Khamenei as the “guardian” of all Muslims, whether they believe they should follow him or not.
“The only reason they tolerate other voices outside Iran is because they don’t have authority over those,” says Mr. Kadhim. “So from Sistani’s perspective, if velayat-e faqih takes control of Iraq, there will be no Sistani, or there will be Sistani under house arrest. … These guys in Najaf are fighting for their own very existence.”
Secular vs. clerical rule
The style of these towering rivals also could not be more different. Ayatollah Sistani has some 600 representatives across Iraq, and a global network beyond. He earned public reverence with careful, infrequent intervention that “helped Iraq a great deal to save the day every time the country was about to fall apart,” says Mr. Kadhim.
That respect has been enhanced, he says, by “not micromanaging the daily public life of Iraqis … because he’s not like what you see in Iran, or a place like Saudi Arabia … where there is a religious police mentality.”
In Iran, however, every public and social step is scrutinized and controlled by laws such as mandatory head-covering for women. Every aspect of politics is officially defined by devotion to velayat-e faqih, which was a marginal Shiite concept for centuries until it was put into practice four decades ago by the first leader of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Under Ayatollah Sistani’s leadership, the Najaf seminary “has successfully revived a traditional approach to Shia politics as a rival to velayat-e faqih,” writes Ali Mamouri, a former seminarian, in a September analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“In articulating his own version … Sistani refers explicitly to velayat-e insan (state guardianship by the people), as opposed to velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist),” or clerical rule, writes Mr. Mamouri.
Protests in Iraq
As Iraq’s protests grew to become the most widespread since the U.S. invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein, there was an indirect back-and-forth dialogue between the Iranian and Iraqi Shiite schools.
When Ayatollah Khamenei instructed “those who love Iraq” to stamp out insecurity, for example, Ayatollah Sistani declared his stance against a violent crackdown. When Ayatollah Khamenei called the Iraqi protests a foreign-backed “sedition” – as Iranian officials label any anti-government protests in their own country – Ayatollah Sistani backed the protesters’ call for change and told the government to “recalculate” its decision not to step down.
And clearly irritated by Iran’s continuing intrusions, Ayatollah Sistani in December called for the new government to be formed “without foreign interference.”
“With Iran gaining influence across the region, Tehran is eager to claim moral leadership over the more than 200 million Shiites around the world,” wrote Mr. Mamouri for the Al-Monitor website in April 2018.
“With Sistani pushing 90 and facing persistent rumors of ill health, Khamenei and his allies see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take over Najaf, the spiritual capital of the Shiite world,” he wrote. “Its most immediate impact will be felt on Iraq’s capacity to continue charting its own path in the shadow of the Islamic theocracy next door.”
Boosting that capacity for Iraq has been an uphill battle for Ayatollah Sistani, despite his vast authority.
“Let’s face it: The style of the Iranian leadership is the style of a state, not a religion or a religious leadership,” says Mr. Kadhim of the Atlantic Council, noting that states have a monopoly over violence, as does the faqih in Iran.
Ayatollah Sistani, by contrast, “does not have a claim of monopoly, or even a shared responsibility or right to use violence,” says Mr. Kadhim. “He is an absolutely non-violent man. He doesn’t believe in coercion.”
Restraint and respect
In addition, Ayatollah Sistani has refused to meet “hard-liners,” such as figures close to Ayatollah Khamenei, including the Lebanese Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
His attempts to integrate Iraq’s Iran-backed Shiite militias into the state military – against Ayatollah Khamenei’s express wishes – “have limited Iranian influence,” writes Mr. Mamouri for the Washington Institute.
Mr. Sistani has also demonstrated restraint in another way, by choosing not to turn Iraq into a clerical-run system like Iran.
“Sistani could turn Iraq into velayat-e faqih not tomorrow, but this evening, if he wants,” adds Mr. Kadhim. “Yet he doesn’t, and that is an important distinction. Sistani’s lack of inclination to assume a lot of power … deserves a lot of respect.”
It’s respect he also gets from Iran, despite the dispute.
“Khamenei respects Sistani very much. He also respects the fatwas of Sistani, even if they are against him,” says Hisham al-Hashemi, a Baghdad-based security analyst with the European Institute of Peace. “I know lots of Khamenei’s followers. They have very firm instructions not to talk [negatively] about Sistani in any way.”
But for Ayatollah Sistani, limiting Iran’s influence has not been easy, given the critical role that Tehran played in 2014 to halt the Islamic State’s lightning advance, and in supporting Iraq’s Shiite militias.
“Lots of Iraqis believe in Iran, therefore their beliefs oblige them to work for Iran,” says Mr. Hashemi. “They don’t believe in Iran as a geography or a neighbor, they believe in it as an Islamic Revolution, and the right for this revolution to cross borders everywhere.”
The Trump administration’s full-bore assault on environmental regulations has been unprecedented. And it’s taking on not just recent Obama-era environmental regulations, it’s also aiming to reform bedrock laws that have shaped federal environmental policy for 50 years.
The latest target is the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1970 law that requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of projects. President Trump wants to impose new deadlines on such studies and also narrow the range of what could be considered. Supporters of his proposal say it would reduce unnecessary delay. Critics say he’s launched an all-out campaign against environmental regulation, targeting at least 50 significant rules.
How far the president will get is another question. Experts say some of his changes will be overturned by the courts. “Trump is doing overreach, and getting his comeuppance in the courts,” says environmental historian Douglas Brinkley. “But it looks good [to his supporters] in 2020.”
Boulder, Colo., and Washington
It was 1970. Congress was wrestling with whether to give the right-of-way necessary to build a huge, 800-mile oil pipeline across Alaska, when a district judge blocked the project, using a brand new law requiring federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of projects.
“The Interior Department was stunned,” recalls William Reilly, a staff member in the Nixon administration at the time and later Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator. The law’s environmental impact statements, common today, were completely novel at the time. Even the authors of the statute, he says, “never anticipated it would have that effect.”
Exactly 50 years later, that law – the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – is under attack. The Trump administration last week announced proposed reforms to the act that would significantly reduce its scope. It’s the latest move in an unprecedented effort to roll back not only recent Obama-era environmental regulations but also some of the bedrock laws that have shaped federal environment policy since the 1970s.
“It’s not unique in being a pushback against regulation, or even in favoring the energy industry, but it’s unique in just how relentless it has been, and how many regulations they’ve tried to undo,” says Daniel Farber, a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley. There have been at least 50 significant environmental regulations President Trump has targeted, Professor Farber notes. “They’re leaving no stone unturned.”
For Mr. Trump, who as a developer has had his own battles with environmental reviews, it’s a pendulum swing that is long overdue.
“The United States will not be able to compete and prosper in the 21st century if we continue to allow a broken and outdated bureaucratic system hold us back from building what we need: the roads, the airports, the schools, everything,” he said last week in announcing proposed changes to NEPA.
Environmental consideration versus delay
Critics of the act, who often complain about lengthy environmental reviews and the impact statements required for major projects, welcomed his proposal, which would not only impose new deadlines on such studies but would also narrow the range of what could be considered.
“This is not about anti-regulation,” says Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. “It’s about having a smart process in place and a certain process in place, so that we can get decisions that will unlock the investment necessary to get these projects built as critical infrastructure.” If there’s no certainty about when a project will be approved, it’s harder to attract investors, he adds.
But others note that NEPA has played a critical role simply by ensuring that the environment gets consideration.
“It’s something that says: ‘Consider, reflect. Is this something you want to do? Is this the best way to do it? Are there any other ways you could do it?’” says Mr. Reilly, the former EPA administrator.
In the case of the trans-Alaska pipeline, it took more than four years of wrangling, an Arab oil embargo, and a special act of Congress before the permits were approved.
But Mr. Reilly recalls the chairman of the oil company in charge telling him that the final project was more robust and sound as a result of the environmental-review process. “In the eyes of the person most closely concerned about it, it was a very constructive intervention,” he says.
A 2016 Congressional Research Service report says critics overstate the permitting process’ effect on project delays. Insufficient data, lack of funds, and state and local issues are far more likely to increase project length than environmental reviews.
Some projects languish in permit purgatory for up to a decade, but the vast majority do not. The average length of time for a full environmental impact statement takes 4.5 years, according to the Council on Environmental Quality. Furthermore, only 1% of projects within the NEPA umbrella complete an EIS, according to a 2014 Governmental Accountability Office report.
Many people want a speedier process, acknowledge Mr. Reilly and others. And if that were the administration’s sole objective, the proposed changes would be less controversial. But by narrowing the range of projects that require environmental review and no longer requiring consideration of a project’s “cumulative” effects – which, under President Barack Obama, were expanded to include long-term climate change impacts – the administration is targeting the backbone of U.S. environmental policy for 50 years.
Beyond Obama-era regulations
Early deregulation efforts from the Trump Administration targeted Obama-era rules: the “Clean Water Rule” that defined what waters are subject to federal water protection; the Clean Power Plan, designed to regulate carbon dioxide pollution; and methane rules, regulating the release of a potent greenhouse gas. One of Trump’s most controversial actions, the legality of which is still being tested in the courts, has been an attempted reduction of two National Monument designations in Utah. And there is evidence of a significant shift toward less enforcement of regulations and policies that remain on the books.
Whittling away the government’s regulatory structures has always been part of Mr. Trump’s agenda, but his dismantling of the EPA is unique, says Caitlin McCoy, a fellow in the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School who tracks such changes. Changing NEPA is the latest sign that the administration wants to undermine the statutory foundations of the EPA.
“They’re trying to take away the very things that the agency relies upon to do its job and to really severely damage its legal authority to function,” she says. “With other agencies, it’s similar, like, yes, we’re relaxing some of these tax rates, but it’s not like we’re trying to keep the IRS from doing audits.”
It’s not clear how successful the administration will be.
“For at least some of these regulations, the appeals will not hold up in court,” says Professor Farber. It’s not clear in the case of NEPA, for instance, whether Trump has the power to drastically reinterpret a major law enacted by Congress.
But for Trump, the payoff politically, showing his determination to undo environmental regulations that many view as overly burdensome, may be enough.
“Trump is doing overreach, and getting his comeuppance in the courts,” says Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University. “But it looks good [to his supporters] in 2020.”
Early in December, former Vice President Joe Biden embarked on a “No Malarkey!” campaign tour across Iowa. The word’s definition – “insincere or foolish talk” – was emblazoned across the side of his tour bus, in case people were unfamiliar with this piece of 1920s slang.
No one, or at least no member of Congress, says malarkey more than Mr. Biden does. Its connotation is avuncular and proudly old-fashioned, implying that the “youngsters” who spout it are inexperienced or foolish, not malicious. Saying “That’s a bunch of malarkey!” is a kinder, funnier way to accuse someone of stretching the truth or lying.
The word malarkey was first used in the United States but may derive from the Irish surname Mullarkey. This origin clearly appeals to Mr. Biden, who often brings up his Irish heritage. If he goes barnstorming again, though, there are lots of equally wonderful words for “nonsense” that would look great on a bus.
Many of these words, just like malarkey, contain a “k” sound, which, by some measures, is the funniest sound in the English language. In his 1972 play, “The Sunshine Boys,” Neil Simon has a comedian explain this old vaudeville principle that words with “k” in them are funny. “Cup cake is funny … Tomato is not funny,” he declares. Pickle, chicken, Cleveland, and cockroach all make the list, too.
Words such as bunkum, its shortened form bunk, hokum, and poppycock take advantage of the humor inherent in the “k” sound. What better way to suggest that something is silly or nonsensical than by referring to it with a word that itself makes people chuckle. Bunkum is the oldest and has an etymology that sounds like an urban legend, but happens to be true. When the U.S. House of Representatives was debating the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which divided the country into slaveholding and “free” states, a representative from North Carolina began a long speech, in which he said very little. When he was asked to stop wasting everyone’s time, he replied that he could not, as he had to “make a speech for Buncombe,” to show his constituents back home that he was doing his job. Buncombe quickly became bunkum and then bunk, all of which mean, again, “insincere or foolish talk.”
In the early 20th century, bunkum combined with hocus-pocus to produce hokum. At first this was theater slang for “melodramatic, exaggerated acting,” but today it too denotes “nonsense.” Poppycock can refer either to a brand of popcorn or to “empty talk or writing.”
Next week, we’ll talk about more words that make a folksy and amusing, yet potentially still strong, anti-nonsense statement. I would probably make a trip to Iowa to see the “No Jiggery-pokery!” tour roll through.