"I knew that history was my life's calling."
On Bank of America's That Made All the Difference podcast, Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch shares his journey and present-day work creating exhibits that inspire visitors to help our country live up to its ideals.
A few weeks ago, a Signal reader emailed me to ask why so much of our coverage of the world is so damn dark. Aren't there any good news stories out there?
He's right, of course, and I said so. I assured him that every time it's my turn to write a lead story, I think about that.
We do look for hopeful stories, or at least humor, every day — and they're not hard to find. But we usually end up writing about threats and crises because those stories seem so much more important and so urgent in a given week.
I was thinking about this as I combed through the news for a lead for today's edition of Signal. Here are the stories I considered:
- COVID's lambda variant hits Latin America.
- Many Afghans are lining up for passports to escape the coming bloodbath and oppression that will follow the Taliban takeover once the US withdraws.
- The political crisis in Tunisia triggers a surge in social media manipulation from other countries.
- A new study warns that climate change is reaching a tipping point.
- America's political divide is widening (even further!) as hearings begin on the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
- China appears to be building a missile silo field.
Now, let's take a moment to question the clarity of our vision of today's world. Here's a thought experiment.
Think of a science-fiction film that takes place on Earth in the future. Any film that fits that description…
A few options to consider: Blade Runner, Soylent Green, Mad Max, Metropolis, The Hunger Games, Strange Days, Escape from New York, A Clockwork Orange, V for Vendetta, Rollerball, District 9, Fahrenheit 451, THX1138, and 1984.
Notice a pattern?
Apparently, the future is a violent place of darkness, devastation, and dystopia. So, are the films listed above — and the books that many of them are based on — a prescient warning of collapsing societies and a coming new Dark Age? Or worse?
I'm old enough to remember The Day After, a TV movie that aired across America in 1983 which graphically depicted a nuclear war as very few people had seen it before. Here's a local New York City TV news story from 38 years ago that captured the horrified nationwide reaction.
Now for a sanity check.
Read any of the progress reports on UN Sustainable Development Goals from recent years, and you'll come away with new faith in what human beings can do, despite the COVID setbacks. People live longer, healthier lives than ever before. They have more and better opportunities to work, learn, invent new things, build, and prosper. Many people whom we consider poor have gadgets in their pockets that give them powers the Sun King could never have imagined.
Life just isn't as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" as it used to be, and nobody's eating Soylent Green — though it sure does seem like a bunch of our billionaires can't wait to get out of here.
Yes, the bad news is real too. Gains can be lost. Climate change is happening, and COVID continues to evolve and kill. Technological changes in the way we get information about the world can distort our vision, and political polarization is truly dangerous. Wars continue, refugee numbers are rising, and inequality of opportunity can't be ignored.
These are real threats and losses, and they're shaping our present and future. We must try to understand these threats, because there's nothing inevitable about human progress.
Yet, humans adapt, and our capacity to invent solutions should never be underestimated. The world has emerged more secure and more prosperous following the great wars of the past. Many people faced with crisis do cooperate to make things better. We survived the Cold War. We got through 1984 and 2001. Blade Runner was set in the year 2019.
Your Signal authors will keep writing about crises and turmoil, because these stories deserve your attention.
But we don't underestimate the human capacity for positive change, and neither should you.
Tell us what you think, Signal readers. Agree? Disagree? What are we missing?
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There's a lot of doom and gloom in the world these days, and much cause for pessimism. Still, the advent of new technologies and scientific advancements has lifted billions out of poverty and increased quality of life for many over the last half century. Since 1990, global average life expectancy has increased by eight years to 73, while GDP per capita has also grown exponentially, doubling over the past decade alone. We take a look at how life expectancy and GDP per capita have evolved globally from 1960-2019.
Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:
Why can't President Biden order a vaccine mandate for all Americans?
Well, the reason is it's out of his powers. The one of the fundamental challenges in the pandemic is that the federal government has actually been fairly limited in the steps they can take to stop the spread of the virus. So, that's why you've seen President Biden order masks on transit, mass transit, airplanes, and the like. But he can't order masks in workplaces because that's not within his power. That power lies within state governments. State governments and other entities, like employers, can require vaccinations before you come into their buildings, or you come back to school, or you go to work in your office. But the federal government can't do that. What Biden is doing is, allegedly, supposedly going to announce a mandate for federal workers to get vaccinated.
He announced that all healthcare workers at the Veterans administration get vaccinated earlier this week. He could also, in theory, order a vaccine mandate at the military. But the Defense Secretary Austin has suggested he's hesitant to do so until there's full FDA approval of the vaccine. And this is really an ongoing challenge for the president. While he has a lot of ideas about what he wants other people to do, wearing masks and so forth, he can't force them to do it. So, until states pick this up and they probably won't, the vaccine mandates are not going to become a thing and the Delta variant will continue to spread.
Is the Delta variant putting our economy at risk?
The answer is maybe. I think probably the biggest risk to the economy is that people who catch the Delta variant, or people who are scared of catching the Delta variant, don't show up for work. There already are labor shortages across the economy, particularly in the service sector. And if you look around the globe at the supply chains that are heavily integrated into the US economy, Delta variant outbreaks there could mean an increase in shortages of semiconductors or other parts that the US is already short on as the economy roars back to life. Another possible issue is that businesses remain closed because they can't find workers or that parents, don't have child care if their schools close down once again. So, this isn't necessarily going to wreck the US economy or derail the recovery, but it is going to continue to be a drag as long as people are concerned about the spread of the Delta variant.
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American gymnast Sunisa "Suni" Lee, 18, stunned spectators around the world with her breathtaking performance in Tokyo Thursday that earned her the gold.
Here are some interesting facts about Suni Lee, the gymnast queen:
- Suni's parents emigrated to the US from Laos, and are both Hmong, an ethnic group spread out throughout parts of Southeast Asia. Lee's triumph is the biggest accomplishment for an American Hmong.
- The Lees were a family of modest means after moving to Minnesota. Suni's father, John, built a four-foot-long balancing beam out of a spare mattress for Suni to practice on as a kid, which still stands in their backyard.
- In 2019, just before Suni was set to participate in the US National Gymnastics Championships, John got into a terrible accident while helping a friend trim a tree, which left him paralyzed from the waist down.
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July 29, 2021
"Super Mario" takes his chances: Less than five months after becoming Italy's consensus prime minister, Mario Draghi's coalition government is on shaky ground over Draghi's proposed judicial reforms. "Super Mario" — as he's known for saving the Eurozone as European Central Bank chief during the financial crisis — wants to dramatically speed up Italy's famously slow courts. But his push to reduce judicial backlogs is opposed both by the populist 5-Star Movement, the coalition government's biggest party, and by prosecutors because many cases could be scrapped before reaching a verdict. Draghi, upset that this resistance is stalling his other initiatives to cut Italian red tape, has decided to roll the dice anyway: he'll put his plan to overhaul the courts to a no-confidence vote in parliament. If Draghi wins, he gets the reforms passed without debate; if he loses, the PM technically has to resign, but he'll keep his job because he has enough votes even if the 5-Star Movement bows out of the coalition.
Colombia suddenly a US migration hotspot: US immigration from Latin America significantly slowed in 2020 due to the pandemic. But that's all changed as land borders have reopened. In recent weeks, a record number of migrants have attempted to cross the Darien Gap — dangerous rainforest terrain that straddles Panama and Colombia, and a major crossing point for South Americans trying to reach the US. (Many people die while making the precarious journey; often they are attacked either by wild animals or targeted by gangs.) Panama says 42,000 US-bound migrants have crossed into the country this year alone, up from 8,594 in all of 2020. Meanwhile, the Colombian border town of Necoclí is stretched to its limits, with 1,000 migrants arriving daily, overwhelming its scarce resources and fragile infrastructure. What's more, US authorities are reporting a surge in migration from conflict-plagued Haiti and Cuba. It's a massive concern given that many Latin American countries are experiencing explosive COVID outbreaks.A liquid flashpoint in Crimea: As a peninsula surrounded by waves, Crimea doesn't leap to mind as a place that lacks for water, but the saltiness of the Black Sea is nothing compared to the latest local acrimony (paywall) between Russia and Ukraine — this time over precisely that: water. After Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the Ukrainian government cut off a Soviet-era canal that supplied 85 percent of the region's fresh water. Moscow, a little breathlessly, says that this amounts to an attempted "genocide", and is struggling to figure out how to provide drinking water to the more than 2 million residents of the peninsula, most of whom are very happy to be part of Russia again, even if it leaves them a little dry. Kyiv meanwhile is worried that Russia's thirst for Ukrainian territory isn't slaked just yet, and that in addition to backing a separatist enclave in the country's east, the Kremlin might make a move on some nearby rivers that could supply Crimea.
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July 29, 2021
700: Roughly 700 people arrested for joining the unprecedented July 11 anti-government protests in Cuba are still being held by the regime. They may now face mass show trials as Havana continues to crack down on dissent following the biggest challenge to its power in decades.
4.8 billion: Tunisian President Kais Saied has offered hundreds of tycoons suspected of looting state coffers and evading taxes the opportunity to pay the state $4.6 billion in order to avoid prosecution and jail time. Saied, who this week dissolved the government and parliament, desperately needs cash to jump-start the country's ailing economy.
20 million: There will be 20 million fewer Americans living in poverty this year than in 2018, a decline of almost 45 percent and the sharpest reduction ever in such a short period of time. This is largely due to a huge yet temporary COVID-fueled expansion of the US social safety net.
3: Three Armenian soldiers were killed in clashes with troops from Azerbaijan in contested Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan has asked Russia to send forces to patrol the border, as tensions are rising again almost a year after Armenians and Azeris fought a weeks-long war over the disputed region.
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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:What is going on in Bosnia with Bosnian Serbs boycotting all major institutions?
Well, it's a reaction against a decision that was taken by the outgoing high representative during his very last days, after 12 years of having done very little in this respect, to have a law banning any denial of Srebrenica and other genocides. But this issue goes to very many other aspects of the Bosnian situation. So, it has created a political crisis that will be somewhat difficult to resolve.
Why is the Northern Ireland Protocol blocked?
It's not really blocked. It's just that the Boris Johnson government has suddenly changed its mind. It is the protocol for how to handle the difficult question of Northern Ireland, preserving the Good Friday Agreement in spite of Brexit, that was signed by and celebrated by Boris Johnson himself. And suddenly he's found out that there are some complicated aspects from the UK point of view in that agreement. That's always the case with compromises. And now he wants to amend it or change it and back out of it. And so far, Brussels is thinking, "eh, agreement-disagreement."
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