Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on remembering Desmond Tutu, a moral giant:
With the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the world celebrates a moral giant who helped lead South Africa toward freedom and battled injustice everywhere he found it. Archbishop Tutu died Sunday in Cape Town. He was 90.
His disarming laugh belied his steely, unflagging commitment to freedom for all South Africans. Archbishop Tutu helped lead his nation out of apartheid, the evil of state-mandated racial subordination that enforced white minority rule in South Africa for most of the 20th century.
In 1975, he became the first Black Anglican dean of Johannesburg. In 1976, he was also named the bishop of Lesotho. Two years later, he was appointed the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches.
During the 1980s, as international opposition to apartheid stiffened, Archbishop Tutu used his platform within the Anglican church to speak out against a brutal and unrepentant government that refused to acknowledge the humanity of Black South Africans, some of whom were brutalized and murdered by security forces.
He earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, during a spike of domestic opposition to the apartheid regime.
Until the release in the early 1990s of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for nearly three decades for opposing apartheid, Desmond Tutu was the country’s most visible — and, arguably, most influential nonviolent freedom fighter.
Archbishop Tutu considered apartheid the cause for violence in his country, but his principled commitment to nonviolence and his willingness to criticize violence, whether perpetrated by members of the African National Congress or the South African police, irritated many who believed his moderation aided the status quo. But in the eyes of much of the world, his principles strengthened his moral authority.
A man of peace who took the radical admonitions of the Gospel to love one’s enemies seriously, Desmond Tutu made no moral distinction between those who resorted to violence for political reform and those who enforced white supremacy backed by the power of the state.
In 1995, South African President Nelson Mandela named Desmond Tutu chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and charged him with documenting the previous regime’s human rights violations. In exchange for amnesty, those who upheld and brutally enforced apartheid were compelled to acknowledge their crimes during televised hearings that riveted the world.
Many victims and their survivors also testified, putting a human face on the relentless violence that characterized life under apartheid.
The commission hearings were considered a public relations success for Archbishop Tutu and Mandela, though little changed structurally in the immediate aftermath. Whites still owned most of the best land; the economic benefits for the Black majority were fleeting. Freedom would mean an ongoing struggle to make South Africa a land of opportunity for all.
Desmond Tutu was not afraid to use his moral authority wherever it was needed. He spoke out, with equal force, against Black elected leaders in his country. He supported the country’s emerging LGBTQ movement and, without equivocation, championed the Palestinian cause. He denounced dictators on the African continent, supported Tibet’s struggle against China, and criticized the American occupation of Iraq.
With the exception of the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, few clergy of any faith had his power to command public attention. Desmond Tutu’s moral authority came from suffering with the people he dared to speak for. That he could do so with a round of laughter shows how rare, beautiful and irreplaceable Desmond Tutu was.
The Guardian on Africa developing in its own way:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So opens Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Set in London and Paris during the late 1700s and the lead-up to the French Revolution, the novel was a warning about what happens when wealth funnels upwards while the masses stagnate. Nowhere do the best and worst of times collide with more geopolitical force than in Africa.
African writers swept the board for literature awards from the Nobel to the Booker, while seven out of eight children in the continent’s sub-Saharan region are unable to read by the age of 10. This year the continent was home to the slowest internet speeds on the planet, as African judges granted the world’s first patent given to a robot inventor. About 50 million Africans are expected to fall into extreme poverty in 2021, when the continent’s richest billionaires have seen their wealth increase by a fifth.
Globalisation has polarised societies, an effect that has been supercharged during the pandemic. This pattern is not unusual in other nations, but to apply it to Africa suggests that it possesses a unity beyond the mere geographic. African nations have huddled together in the face of climate and Covid storms – with good reason. Instead of rewarding African scientists for identifying the threat of Omicron, the west imposed travel bans on the continent. The suspicion is that had the Sars-CoV-2 virus been found in Africa, it would have been cut off.
The pandemic has made visible a world being shaped to Africa’s disadvantage. Low vaccination rates are a reason for the emergence of dangerous coronavirus variants, so why let just 8% of 1.3 billion Africans be fully vaccinated? The industrialised world won’t issue Africa a vaccine patent waiver, and foreign aid is just 2% of the continent’s GDP. So African nations can’t manufacture their own cheap medicines and lack the foreign exchange to cushion distribution costs.
Despite having played a negligible role in creating the climate crisis, African countries already find themselves paying a heavy price for it. The EU plans to introduce greenhouse gas taxes on imports that will pull a carbon curtain across the Mediterranean. Carlos Lopes of the University of Cape Town says African train projects built by Chinese companies are not using the low-carbon technology rolled out at home.
The performance of Africa has been described as the worst economic tragedy of the 20th century. Commonplace explanations don’t bear much scrutiny. Statistics can show that the closer a country is to the equator, the poorer it is. Yet no one would argue that slow growth caused a country to get closer to the equator. Africa has been destabilised by conflict, but that has, says Prof Lopes, not stopped Thailand developing an export base. One controversial argument is that too few, not too many, colonisers were the problem. The theory goes that higher levels of European settlement led to more productive institutions. However, the historian Morten Jerven, in his book The Wealth and Poverty of African States, says that real wages stagnated in the settler economies of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, whereas in the peasant economies of Uganda and Ghana, real wages rose.
Africa was not colonised because it was poor. European powers occupied and divided up the continent in the 19th century because it was rich. Africa was once a breadbasket; how did it earn a reputation for being a basket case? One reason is an extractive economic model that promotes African development via foreign direct investment, export-led growth and financial liberalisation. This web, according to Tunisian economist Fadhel Kaboub, drains nearly $2tn annually from the developing world.
Today, African economies export low-value-added goods relative to their imports. Instead of growing their own food to feed their people, countries import foodstuffs. While some nations export crude hydrocarbons, many more import refined petrochemicals such as gasoline. The right to bring in these essentials is handed over to a politically connected business “rentier” class that has a vested interest in the status quo. There is a demand for jobs, a hunger for education and a desperate need for health in Africa. Yet leaders are caught in a dilemma: if they create money to spend on social cohesion, they risk increasing food, energy and capital goods imports, and increasing their trade deficit. That puts downward pressure on the national currency. A weak exchange rate means that imports of basic necessities will be more expensive. History is littered with examples of violent revolutions preceded by price spikes.
An alternative strategy
Economic orthodoxy has no answer. Its textbooks would have African governments instructing central banks to borrow US dollars to prop up the local currency and prioritising foreign creditors with austerity. Africa’s stunted development demonstrates that poor states continue to be impoverished by being integrated into the world system through a relationship of unequal economic exchange with wealthy states. An alternative African strategy would see governments spending on public services and on increasing food and renewable energy sovereignty, while cracking down on corruption.
This provides a way out of the current development trap. In their book Africa’s Last Colonial Currency, Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla suggest that, instead of importing food and burning through foreign reserves, African states should produce food at home, as land, work and knowhow are abundant. “If they financed the development of their agriculture, they wouldn’t reduce their foreign exchange reserves; on the contrary, they would save money.”
State-owned enterprises and a competitive domestic private sector would help Africa evade activities demanded by the global north. As African countries become increasingly digital, data will be power in economic governance – and local entities must be its custodian, not transnational corporations. Trade agreements between countries of similar income levels are more beneficial for them compared with the World Trade Organization’s framework. The African Continental Free Trade Area, created by 54 of the 55 AU nations, is a good start. African economies would benefit by producing green industrial goods that rich countries take for granted, but whose mass production has not reached the continent. It would be in Europe’s interest to help – as more Africans would be able to find jobs at home, pressure to migrate would ease. Africa is caught between history and geography. Understanding how and why it got to where it is today will help the continent move forward in the future.
The Wall Street Journal on population shifts during the pandemic:
The pandemic has changed America in many ways, and one major change is the migration from states that locked down their economies and schools the most to those that kept them largely open.
That’s the underreported news in last week’s Census Bureau state population and domestic migration estimates from July 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021. Data used for this year’s Congressional reapportionment was based on where people claimed to live on April 1, 2020. But what a difference 15 months of lockdowns made.
Illinois’s population declined by another 141,039 between spring 2020 and this past summer as 151,512 people on net left the state for other states. California lost 300,387 amid a net out-migration of 429,283 residents. The biggest loser—you already know this—was New York, whose population shrunk 365,336 due to an outflow of 406,257 residents.
On the other hand, Texas added 382,436 new residents, including 211,289 from other states. Florida gained 242,941 in population as 263,958 people from other states flooded in. Florida’s population growth would have been greater if not for the high number of Covid deaths, which is a result of its older population. Same for Arizona whose population grew by 124,814.
Migration from high- to low-tax states—especially those in the Sun Belt—has been going on for well over a decade. But the trend picked up during the pandemic, as Democratic states tended to impose the strictest lockdowns and school closures while those governed by Republicans allowed most businesses and schools to stay open after spring 2020.
California’s net outflow surged 75% between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021 compared to the same period from 2018 to 2019. New York’s out-migration doubled. On the other hand, Texas’s inflow increased by 40%, and Florida’s swelled by more than half. The flight out of Illinois also accelerated.
Connecticut for the first time since 2011 had a net increase in migration from other states. That’s probably due to many New York office workers moving as employers in Manhattan shifted to remote work. But Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont also pushed to keep schools open last winter, and he imposed fewer pandemic restrictions than did former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The Covid data tracking outfit Rational Ground calculated that the 25 states with most in-person learning during the 2020-2021 school year gained 822,064 people on net from other states. It’s impossible to quantify precisely the cause-and-effect impact of school closures and lockdowns on population migration. But the correlation is clear from the data.
There’s also the impact of rising taxes. Although Washington State (which has no income tax) before the pandemic had been drawing people from other states, it saw a small net outflow this past year. Gov. Jay Inslee’s severe lockdowns and school closures are probably culprits. But the state isn’t helping by imposing a 7% tax on capital gains exceeding $250,000 that will take effect Jan. 1. Remote work has made high earners more mobile, and raising their taxes is fiscally self-destructive.
Mr. Cuomo is the king of self-destruction. In the spring he signed legislation raising income taxes on individuals making more than $1 million even as tax revenues surged. The top state-and-local combined rate climbed to 14.8% from 12.7% on income of more than $25 million. Good luck to Eric Adams, New York City’s mayor-elect, who is forced to plead with high earners to return from Florida.
Many GOP-led states including Tennessee, Idaho and Arkansas have cut taxes during the pandemic. More than a dozen such as Georgia, Missouri and West Virginia also expanded school choice, as did a few governed by Democrats such as Kansas and Pennsylvania.
The pandemic—let’s hope—is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It has caused enormous social and economic upheaval, along with population shifts that won’t repeat every year. Yet it has also heightened the distinction between Republican lawmakers who strive to protect individual freedom, even amid crisis, and Democrats who impose more government control.
Differences in policies and political values won’t recede with the virus, and it’s clear from the census data which side is winning the contest for talent and taxpayers.
The Los Angeles Times on a bit of hope in latest COVID-19 surge:
The terrible year of 2020 ended with a glimmer of hope. While the United States and California were in the grip of the worst surge yet of the pandemic, the first vaccines against COVID-19 were being distributed to healthcare workers and plans were underway for the largest immunization rollout in the nation’s history.
At that point, it looked like 2021 would be the year that the U.S. got a handle on the pandemic.
Alas, it was not to be. Too many people rejected the free vaccinations and chose to flout simple infection-control methods like mask-wearing, leaving the door open for the more infectious Delta variant. Then, in November, the world was shaken by the emergence of an even more infectious strain of the coronavirus, Omicron, which has quickly overtaken Delta to become the dominant strain in the U.S.
In the end, more Americans died of COVID-19 in 2021 than in 2020. As of Tuesday, nearly 820,000 Americans have died from the disease, which is considerably more than those thought to have died during the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic. And with a second winter surge well underway, the dying will continue into 2022.
But there is some hope as data trickle in about Omicron. Early studies out of Britain and South Africa and initial data from U.S. hospitals support what healthcare professionals have been reporting anecdotally for weeks — that Omicron appears less likely than earlier strains to result in serious illness and hospitalization, especially for vaccinated people.
If the data hold, it would be a tremendous relief given that Omicron replicates and spreads with terrifying speed, even among vaccinated people. And it could mean that the coronavirus is on the path to a mild, endemic state that would put an end to the pandemic.
Now, here’s where we temper this sliver of hope with stark reality. Even if Omicron is just half as lethal (as some data suggest) it is still quite deadly — just not as much as we feared. And even if it’s relatively mild for many of those who are fully vaccinated, tens of millions of Americans remain unvaccinated, including children under 5 who are not yet cleared for COVID-19 shots and whose numbers are increasing in hospitals.
It’s nice to have a tiny bit of good news as 2021 ends in another round of canceled plans and overtaxed hospitals. We should use this occasion to double down on public health protections, such as placing vaccination and testing restrictions on domestic air travel, and to increase vaccination and booster shots. The pandemic may not be over, but it’s possible that with effort, 2022 may really be a better, less deadly year.
The Dallas Morning News on Texas cowboys, oil barons and Juneteenth:
The brilliance of award-winning historian and Harvard law professor Annette Gordon-Reed is her ability to tell the stories of those whose voices and experiences have been marginalized.
In her groundbreaking scholarship on Thomas Jefferson and enslaved Sally Hemings, Gordon-Reed debunked conventional historical narratives, revealing complex, instructive truths about the relationship. Now, in On Juneteenth, a collection of essays about Texas, Gordon-Reed’s family and the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas learned of their emancipation, the historian whose Texas family tree extends on her mother’s side to the 1820s and on her father’s side at least to the 1860s, speaks truth to Texas lore with incisive clarity. She’s a worthy finalist for 2021 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year.
Born in Livingston and raised in nearby Conroe, Gordon-Reed says Texas is a special place filled with larger-than-life legends and outsized stories of cowboys, ranchers and oilmen that perpetuate inspiring, if not always accurate, themes of Texas’ exceptionalism.
But there is another side of Texas, one of cumbersome social and racial blemishes, such as slave plantations, cotton fields and Jim Crow, which are as significant to Texas’ origin story as ranching and oil, she contends. It is uncomfortable for many to confront, but it is a sign of maturity when these truths, some of which touch the legends of heroes of the Alamo, are laid bare, she argues.
“The choice of slavery was deliberate, and that reality is hard to square with a desire to present a pristine and heroic origin story about the settlement of Texas,” writes Gordon-Reed. As a consequence, she contends, slavery is often dismissed as an unfortunate event with “no sense of the institution’s centrality” in Texas.
So as Juneteenth “supposedly closed the door on (slavery)… it opened another tragic phase in the state and country’s history.” The rallying cry of states’ rights, championed in Texas history as a celebration of freedom and independence, was anything but that to freed people and their descendants who endured Jim Crow and codified segregation. Or as she asks, “states rights to do what?”
Such complexity is the takeaway from Juneteenth, the book and now national holiday. History is neither just the past nor an unambiguous forecast of the future. It is a narrative told frequently from perspectives that resist painful truths and complicated elaborations. And from that narrative arise traditions, relationships and viewpoints that minimize imperfections and anything that falls outside conventional understanding. Gordon-Reed tells the stories that must be told, connects the present to the past and unites what she has called “great man history” with “history from the bottom up.”
“History is always being revised (and) people don’t like it when there are new and different questions asked about material that they feel is familiar to them,” she said during a recent interview with Mass Humanities, a nonprofit that promotes the humanities. “It’s a process that has to be, given that we always find new information and new ways to look at material.”
Gordon-Reed’s reflections unearth the twists of Texas history, embrace authenticity, agonizing though this may be, and compel a much overdue reckoning with reality.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune on NASA’s new telescope:
Like many other packages delivered on Dec. 25, a new telescope arrived in space Saturday with some assembly required.
The gradual unfolding of the James Webb Space Telescope, currently en route to its station 930,000 miles from Earth, is high drama. The long years of development, complete with the invention of several new technologies and the investment of billions of dollars, now depend for their success on many things going right.
With hundreds of things that could go wrong on its 29-day journey, Webb — which is named after the man who led NASA from 1961 to 1968 — represents a gamble of appropriately astronomical proportions.
But the potential payoff is cosmically huge as well.
“This telescope will be able to see back in time significantly farther than other telescopes can,” said James Flaten, associate director of NASA’s Minnesota Space Grant Consortium. “Being so much bigger than anything else that’s available, it will be able to see things that are significantly fainter, and hence things that are significantly farther away. Which basically means significantly older.”
In conversation with an editorial writer, Flaten pointed out that Webb’s light-gathering mirror, at 6.5 meters across, is significantly larger than that of the Hubble Space Telescope, which measures just 2.4 meters. But Webb has another advantage: its ability to see infrared light. That will allow it to peer through the veil of dust that obscures some regions of space.
“A whole bunch of stuff that we currently can’t see well at all will become visible,” he said. “And considering how large it is, it can see significantly fainter things, and hence it can see things that are older. The reason being that the older something is, the farther away it is and the fainter it is.”
A NASA tracking tool shows the projected timetable for various benchmarks in the telescope’s mission. By now, Webb has cleared the moon’s orbit and will soon deploy its multilayered sunscreen and unfold the gold-coated mirror. A specially designed cooling system will keep the observatory cold enough to pick up infrared light from distant targets.
It’s all delicate, and critical, and inaccessible to any conceivable repair if something should go wrong. Webb’s eventual position, balanced between the gravitational influences of Earth and the sun, is four times farther away than the moon. NASA could, and did, send crews to repair Hubble, but Webb will be on its own.
Assuming all goes well, Webb will show us wonders; but as Flaten noted, “it’s a little hard to say what they will be.” No one has seen the universe as it looked quite so fresh from the Big Bang. And Webb should be able to give us a much better look at planets outside our solar system — even allowing scientists to determine the contents of any atmospheres they find.
Flaten cautioned that Webb is not designed to search for life elsewhere in the universe, although it should be able to find indications of liquid water or other conditions that might make life more likely. Of course, other kinds of life may turn out to thrive in environments that we would consider hostile. It’s all a question of your perspective.
And if Webb does what it’s designed to do, our perspective may be about to change.
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