For They Were Strangers, and They Fed Me (May)

In May 2019, the Rights Writers discussed what perspectives have been left out of the major debates on their topics and how including them increase understanding or contribute to progress of the issue.

Last week, lonely and drowning in homework, I went home. Not to my home – plane tickets to Wisconsin are expensive, so I haven’t flown back since Christmas break – but about 20 minutes off campus, to a little one-story ranch which reminded me of the houses on the street where I grew up. This was a required visit to check up on my mentee in the Kenan Institute’s SuWA program, which pairs female Duke students with immigrant women to foster English skills, but as I walked through her door, I felt instantly at peace. I had expected to stay maybe an hour, ensuring the living situation met my mentee’s needs and perhaps filling out some paperwork. Instead, as sunset streaked the sky, I sat eating Jordan almonds on my mentee’s back porch and playing with her sister’s baby. We talked about her own time at university (she found her pharmaceuticals degree fascinating and wishes she could use it in America), her love for The Addams Family and poetry, and her willingness to get any job at all to keep busy and help provide for her family. By now, it had been almost two hours since I’d arrived, and I had a paper due the next morning; I pulled out my phone to check for nearby Ubers.

But as I did so, her sister’s husband stuck his head out the screen door, inviting me to stay for dinner. It wasn’t a hard decision – with spices wafting out the window and hand-cut fries bubbling in hot oil, I was suddenly ravenous, despite the almonds. We ate pasta and meat, steamed broccoli and brussels sprouts, bread hot from the oven, the fries. Though this wasn’t my own family gathered to dine together, I still felt nourished in body and spirit, temporarily liberated from the frenzy of Duke life. The fat gray cat rubbed against my leg under the table. I felt at home, at peace. Later, riding back to campus, I realized I’d spent over four hours with the family.

Family Meal
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Why do I tell this personal story in my final post as a Rights Writer, when I’ve been writing all semester about the migration stances and statements of people far more globally significant than me, in Germany, a country thousands of miles from my home? For this last prompt which asks me to turn the coin on its head, I wanted to make an example of the sort of rhetoric I believe is vital for us to take up: narratives which bloom from flesh and blood, stories which can acknowledge both trauma and hope, which work in and through lived experience.

We know that stories are more persuasive than pure statistics. Data help us draw comparisons and illustrate the scope of problems, but as the numbers involved grow larger, especially into six and seven figures, our ability to comprehend their true scale evaporates. Although migration policy directly impacts the lives of millions of individual people, each with their own memories, loved ones, and aspirations, politicians’ numerically-centered pronouncements implicitly brand migrants as units in a broader sociopolitical machine. This type of discourse risks convincing citizens that migrants’ only value stems from their economic contributions to society – which are considerable, but, if exclusively focused on, can obscure each individual’s humanity. We must look beyond the financial benefits immigration offers to society to the vital importance of preserving the rights to freedom of expression and safety from physical violence, inalienable to people everywhere.

Christina Boswell, who has consulted for humanitarian organizations including the UNHCR and now teaches politics at the University of Edinburgh, proposes a new model for migration debates. She writes that migrant advocates often perceive xenophobia as stemming exclusively from ignorance and as curable by data demonstrating the contributions migrants make. While this is sometimes true, she argues, immigrants often also become targets for citizens’ existing economic and social anxieties. In this latter case – for instance, when right-wing politicians convince the jobless that their unemployment continues because migrants have “stolen” their positions – progressive parties and the media can help combat xenophobia by amplifying authentic refugee narratives rather than data. Germany has already put this technique to good use, she writes: in the early 2000s, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) slowly overhauled immigration discourse by emphasizing the value skilled immigrants could offer to a 21st-century economy, making possible the liberal migration policy current Chancellor Angela Merkel has championed. Today, rhetoric can serve a crucial role in re-stoking empathy in a debate which risks becoming a tangle of statistics. If every German who supports the far-right Alternative for Germany party could read immigrants’ stories and understand the poverty, violence, and destruction forcing them to leave their homelands and make the lengthy, arduous journey to Europe, they would be far less likely to stereotype and fear the other.

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As an eighteen-year-old Duke freshman, I often feel powerless to work for justice in others’ lives. I don’t have a college degree or vast sums of time or money to donate, nor do I have much specific expertise to offer. What I can do, however, is share my experience receiving profound kindness and hospitality from those many Americans never have the chance to interact with. Statistics are valuable and should inform migration policy, but politicians, journalists, and all those who want to change the human heart must focus on the table and the people sitting around it. They must make real for all of us the immigrant women ladling food onto our plates like our own mothers, the babies cooing gently in their high chairs, the love radiating like light through the room.

Empathy as National Identity: Lessons from Sweden for Germany (April)

In April 2019, the Rights Writers discussed the role of advocacy groups and social movements in promoting human rights and social justice in their area.

“It is a serious situation,” German politician Michael Richter told press in July 2015, “but I am not frightened or intimidated.” Richter, a steadfast supporter of migrant asylum and then-leader of Die Linke’s (a populist, socialist party whose German name means “The Left”) caucus on the Freital city council, made this response to a right-wing attack which exploded his parked car. Troubling nationalist sentiment has certainly taken root in Germany in the past decade, but progressive critics continue to parallel its rise. Die Linke and the rest of the German left have reliably championed migrants’ rights – it is telling that four years after his car’s bombing, Richter’s Twitter indicates that, still active in politics, he has ascended to the rank of Kreisgeschäftsführer, a county executive. Still, migrant advocates in Germany have much to learn from comparative perspective. Sweden, in particular, a nation which earned the nickname “the most open country in the world” for its welcoming culture, offers an admirable assimilation infrastructure – but the alt-right’s recent rise there underscores the strain refugee influxes can apply to even the most steadfast hospitality.

Though both countries face the same obligations to asylum-seekers under central EU documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on Human Rights, and the Refugee Convention, Sweden demonstrates more positive sentiment towards refugees and takes in more migrants per capita than Germany – in 2014, 5700 asylum-seekers per million Swedish, to Germany’s 1337. (Both countries, however, far exceed the median number of refugee acceptances throughout Europe.) Par Frohnert, a Swedish historian of refugee policy, writes that Sweden’s extraordinary welcoming nature originated in 1942, when it abandoned its traditional homogeneity to accept Norwegians fleeing Nazi persecution, and has continued – with Estonians and Danish Jews towards the close of the war, Iranians and Somalis in the 1980s, and Bosnians in the 1990s – ever since. Hospitality became a badge of honor, a signifier of moral integrity, for the small nation. Today, a bureaucracy which Foreign Affairs reporter James Traub termed “remarkably calm and quiet” welcomes migrants, then grants them access to free food, healthcare, and quality Swedish lessons. Organizations like Refugees Welcome Sweden and The Welcome Movement support governmental efforts by pairing migrants with Swedes who help them integrate into Swedish society. This efficient welfare state reliably produces excellent migrant outcomes: a 2017 survey voted Sweden the world’s best country for immigrants.

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What differs between Sweden, then, and Germany, where Angela Merkel has staked her chancellorship on refugee issues and, though their political toll has been heavy, stands by her inclusive policies? The political landscapes of each country are similar, with large centrist parties (Merkel’s CDU, the Social Democrats in Sweden, et al.) advocating for inclusive immigration while facing continued challenges from the right (the Alternative for Germany and Sweden Democrats). Leftist parties like the Marxist Vänsterpartiet in Sweden mirror equivalents in Germany: the Social Democratic Party, which has opposed efforts to roll back Merkel’s decisions; the Green Party, whose commitment to addressing climate change as a driver for migration has found an eager audience in German youth; and Die Linke, which, broadly skeptical of borders, envisions a future where “No one is illegal.” As in Sweden, humanitarian organizations, most prominently Human Rights Watch, the International Organization for Migration, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, have fought for migrants’ rights to physical safety and freedom from religious persecution. Though Germany’s bureaucracy has proven poorer than Sweden’s at processing refugees, a new crop of charities has sped assimilation by teaching migrants skills, such as design trades, art-museum docenting, and programming, likely to boost their economic power. The advantages which set Sweden’s hospitality above Germany’s (and far above other European nations which have no Holocausts to atone for) seem, then, to be cultural and entrenched, producing disparities in bureaucratic efficiency – Sweden’s refugee processing is so good, it seems, because it remains a priority – rather than arising from them. Though it’s likely impossible to teach acceptance at a national level, Germany may make progress by continuing to combat Islamophobic, anti-refugee rhetoric, per Merkel’s example, and by further improving its administrative processes.

Though Sweden’s example is admirable, its expanded welcome in the wake of the Syrian Civil War has not come without consequences. As welcome committees served greater and greater numbers of refugees cinnamon buns and offered them comfortable couches, costs within the system shot up and threatened existing social-service funds, forcing Sweden to tighten entry requirements and pare back provisions for reunifying migrant families. More disturbingly, the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), who only recently rebranded away from their Neo-Nazi beginnings, have exploited latent resentment of migrants for their own gain, rising from electoral insignificance to poll at around 20% by early 2016. Centrist Swedes have struggled to determine best responses to this savvy party, which has cut ties with its radical youth wing to avoid appearing openly fascist and convinced media outlets against labeling it as discriminatory. Rather than allow the SD’s proposals to become mainstream, Swedish Social Democrats and other leftists should continue to condemn xenophobia, as they have done reliably in the past. Additionally, they should continue to encourage other Western nations to lighten the logistical and financial burden such a large quantity of migrants places on Swedish systems.

Swedish Support for Refugees
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One lesson is clear from the commonalities between Swedish and German policy. Though countries vary in the strength of their infrastructure and accepting cultures form effective institutions, major refugee influxes may still strain popular generosity to its breaking point. It may be too late to completely undo the xenophobia recent tensions have wrought in Germany and Sweden, but the world must learn for the future that taking in the most vulnerable peoples is a responsibility we all share.

Absolutism, the Media, and the German Migration Debate (March)

In March 2019, the Rights Writers explore the role the media has played in covering their issues and what effects it has had — positive and negative.

Denial: UN High Commissioner Says No ‘Real’ Migrant Crisis in Europe,” the Breitbart headline proclaims. The Financial Times writes, in contrast, of a “war of words,” the Guardian of a “migration row [that] risks aiding authoritarians.” Coverage of migration to Germany and the political rhetoric at work surrounding it has varied widely among both domestic and foreign outlets, often closely tracking publications’ political leanings. The process of admitting migrants is dense and depressing, heavy with paperwork which scrutinizes asylum-seekers’ lives to determine whether they truly face security risks in their homelands. Research indicates, perhaps unsurprisingly due to competition and profit motives, that journalists have tended to publish superficial reporting rather than fully contextualize these procedures, but in doing so, they risk allowing extremist politicians to dictate the narrative around migration and mislead both Germany and the world.

A report published in late 2015 by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), a registered UK charity which produces ethics resources for reporters and publications examining trends in media ethics, elegantly summarizes several potential pitfalls in documenting European migration. Foremost is a question of language: according to the EJN, referring to the mass entry of foreigners into Europe as a “migrant crisis,” rather than a “refugee crisis,” is dangerously inaccurate. The EJN report warns that the public perceives the term “migrant” as tinged with economic motivations, in contrast to the word “refugee,” which evokes those “fleeing war or persecution (EJN 16).” Because, as the report states, humanitarian agencies agree that most foreigners who enter Germany fall under the latter classification, to misrepresent refugees – even unintentionally – as opportunistic is to stoke the same xenophobia which has too recently given rise to exponentially multiplying attacks on German migrants, placing refugees’ human right to physical security at risk even in their new home.

protest on front steps

Yet in refining the terminology they deploy to discuss migration, journalists also risk implying that the true economic migrants entering the German system are somehow unworthy, undeserving of Western life. They must balance, too, defending from nationalist assault the demonstrable benefits immigrants (whether economic migrants or refugees) provide for Germany’s aging population with offering legitimate criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration policy. Most analysts now agree that Merkel’s 2015 “open door” policy, which stated that Germany would place no caps on the migrants it accepted and resulted in over one million people migrating to Germany in 2015 alone, has posed many logistical challenges despite its positive intentions.

All this is to say that delivering the comprehensive, unbiased journalism the West has traditionally expected of its “fourth estate” about this crisis is astonishingly difficult. It is nonetheless apparent that far-right coverage like Breitbart’s “Migrant Crisis Live Wire,” an aggregate of the inflammatory stories (German headlines include “Syrian Migrant Lured Children from Playground” and “Sex Offenders Took Part in Flagship Integration Project”) the notoriously partisan site ran about migration across Europe from 2015 to 2016, has damaged attempts at and sensible policy crafting. Centrist efforts to combat movements like the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), whose leaders have claimed that Germany no longer needs to bear national shame for the Holocaust, and PEGIDA, whose acronym translates to “Patriot Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” necessarily weaken when the nationalist right co-opts press outlets to push its dog-whistle-laden narrative of events.

In their attempt to combat such xenophobic coverage, however, left-leaning press outlets have themselves invited allegations of bias. Provoking particular controversy were a series of sexual assaults which occurred in Cologne on December 31st, 2015 and continued into the New Year. Though the attacks were eventually revealed to have been committed largely by migrants of North African descent, much of the German news media, as reporter Matthew Karnitschnig writes for Politico’s European offshoot, was initially resistant to promoting these allegations or covering the story at all. On the same day that the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), a deeply reliable outlet whose politics mirror The Nation, published an editorial conjecturing that the attackers were homegrown extremists, the Cologne police confirmed their migrant identity. The international conservative press responded with predictable self-congratulation: Alex Jones’ far-right InfoWars website published a “report” on what it termed “media covering up” the true culprits of the rapes, with outlets including Breitbart and the UK’s Daily Mail following suit. This incident legitimized the far right’s ability to claim that mainstream German newspapers misrepresent the truth to citizens out of favor towards Islam or foreigners, a narrative which will have disastrous consequences if left unchecked.  


Though the pace of the German migrant influx has slowed since its apex in 2015, Germany’s and the world’s needs for responsible reporting on the crisis are still powerful as ever. Highly partisan outlets like SZ and Breitbart have often failed to offer comprehensive coverage, but center-right publications like Die Welt and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung often provide a fuller spectrum of opinions (recent pieces on Die Welt address both politicians’ calls for “preventative detention” of asylum seekers and heightened hate crime statistics).  They still fail, however, to consistently live up to the Ethical Journalism Network’s recommendations to connect with and tell the stories of individual migrants, to demand access to policy specifics, and to name hate speech for what it is. If German journalists fail to step up and answer the moral imperative – to become government watchdogs, to offer stories on the real issues regardless of how many clicks they produce – that xenophobic violence poses to them, they will be complicit in the loss of innocent lives.

Misrepresentation and Uncertainty in Trump-German Relations (February)

For February 2019, the Rights Writers discuss their issues in the context of US political discourse (including public opinion), particularly in light of the two-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Though its practical ramifications unfold on the opposite side of the globe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration policy has offered endless fascination for American President Donald Trump. Trump has regularly mocked German leaders’ liberalizing policies. Since Merkel’s 2015 introduction of an open-door policy – a refusal to cap the number of migrants, largely refugees driven from their homes by the Syrian Civil War, that Germany would accept – led to the entry of over one million foreigners into her nation, however, he has suggested that migrants in particular threaten Germany’s national character. His consistent misrepresentation of Merkel’s decisions and their impact reveals a desire to weaponize Germany’s migration crisis in support of his own xenophobic narratives about immigrants to the United States.

In October 2015, five months after commencing his presidential run, Trump made his first public criticism of Merkel’s migration policy. Terming it “insane,” he predicted a refugee influx would foment riots and terrorism. His analysis suggesting Germany simply “get all the countries together” to “do a safe zone [in Syria] for people where they could live” reflected a poor understanding of regional dynamics, yet he did not hesitate to extend it to the United States. Comparing migrants to the inhabitants of a modern Trojan Horse, he cautioned America against accepting even 10,000 refugees, less than one hundredth of the number Germany had welcomed that same year.

After his inauguration, Trump refrained for nearly a year from specific criticism of Merkel’s migration policy, though he did complain about Germany’s export surplus with the United States and its defense spending. On June 18, 2018, however, swamped by backlash over his administration’s zero-tolerance policy, which separated migrant parents from their children at the border by reclassifying illegal immigration as a criminal offense, he tweeted a return to his unsubstantiated claims about Merkel’s Germany: “Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” The timing of this post is hardly coincidental: in the week prior, more than 600 “Families Belong Together” rallies hosted throughout all 50 states had forced Trump to reckon with the tremendous unpopularity of his immigration policy. This tweet, and another in which he  demonstrate his attempts to marshal Merkel’s chaotic 2015 – most experts now agree that, though Merkel’s hospitality was sincere and well-founded, Germany at the time was logistically unprepared to accept such enormous numbers of migrants – into evidence for an entirely different sort of immigration debate, one offering far fewer hopefuls refuge in the West yet detaining more of them in more cruel facilities. Ultimately, however, this transparent play failed to make its desired mark, and two days later, Trump ended the policy via executive order.


Clearly, Merkel’s policy has lingered in the Trumpian psyche; the same is true for Trump’s remarks about the German migration debate. Opinions about their impact, however, vary. Regarding last June’s tweetstorm, Krishnadev Calamur argued in The Atlantic that Trump’s explosions serve not to stoke anger about a perceived crisis but, thanks to his sheer unpopularity, to bolster the Merkel regime. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party – Merkel’s hard-right, isolationist opposition which has revived Nazi terminology yet managed to win seats in the national legislature – seems, in contrast, to believe that Trump is a sound bet. Its cochairs, Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen, were among the first to call with congratulations after his 2016 election victory. What is obvious, in the wake of a U.S. government shutdown over funding for Trump’s border wall (a question which remains to be resolved) and a recent Pew Research study showing that 58% of Germans wish immigration to their country would slow, is that in both nations, discourse around migration topics remains acrimonious and thorny, with no present sign of a resolution to come.

As the Merkel era draws to a close in Germany –the Chancellor recently resigned her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chairmanship, but will serve out the maximum of two years remaining in her executive term – and Trump grapples with his party’s lost ground in the immigration-focused 2018 midterms, little certainty exists for the future of U.S.-German relations. Merkel’s successor within the CDU is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has stated her opposition to the 2015 open-door policy, so a slight rightward shift on migration is likely in Germany, if the CDU protects its influence from AfD encroachment. Whether Trump will successfully bludgeon and stonewall his border-wall objectives into reality is less clear. Although the halfway mark of Trump’s presidential term recently dawned, his relationship with Germany, and the future of migration policy in both nations, is hazier and more obtuse than ever.


Language Matters: German Rhetoric and the Struggle for Migrant Human Rights (January)

For our first month, January 2019, the Rights Writers introduce their topics and give an overview of the main actors and debates.

“Things can’t carry on as they are,” said Angela Merkel, resigning her post as leader of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on October 29th, 2018. “The time has come to open a new chapter.” Merkel will see out her term as German chancellor to its completion – in 2021, unless she loses a vote of confidence in the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament, before then – but late last year, her party and its partners suffered devastating defeats in two elections widely considered a referendum on Merkel’s immigration policy. In the western state of Hesse, the CDU barely clung to control in coalition with the Green Party, while in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, sister party to the CDU, surrendered the majority it held for all but three years since the close of World War II. Throughout my semester with the Kenan Rights Writers program, I hope to examine the forces which precipitated the close of the Merkel era, especially the rhetoric at work across the German political spectrum on migration.


By Jacques Grießmayer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6894366


Though Merkel has governed Germany since 2005, her center-right party (by German standards – the CDU embraces government intervention to strengthen competition and opportunity, while also favoring the European Union) has faced heavy attacks from the far right for several years. Merkel characterized her momentous 2015 decision to accept one million refugees swept primarily by the Syrian Civil War into Germany, which, as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, was obligated to honor their human right to seek refuge from persecution, as “what is morally and legally required of [Germany]. Nothing more, nothing less,” but German nationalists have countered her position with xenophobic rhetoric.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, founded in 2013, exploded in popularity when it shifted its focus in 2015 from anti-EU lobbying to criticism of Merkel’s migration policy. No matter the circumstances which drive individuals to flee their homelands, AfD argues, Germany should abolish individual immigration hearings and immediately deport criminally offending migrants and those whose extended-stay petitions are denied. AfD’s leaders have also advocated for making international development aid contingent on reduced emigration, which they claim will rescue a nebulously-defined German Vaterland – here, AfD’s Bjorn Höcke deploys the term tainted by Nazi adoption – from impending destruction.

Despite their harshness, AfD’s demands have found favor with the German populace. In 2017, AfD won seats in the national Bundestag for the first time, and its capture of 13.1% of the vote in Hesse and 10.2% in Bavaria, to win its first seats in both states’ parliaments, was the ultimate catalyst for Merkel’s resignation.

The party’s anti-immigration broadsides, however, are far from the only far-right perspective saturating German public discourse. Founded in 2014 by butcher’s son and former nightclub owner Lutz Bachmann, the PEGIDA movement, whose acronym translates to “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” has built support throughout Germany and overseas, hosting marches as far-flung as Oslo and Toronto. Its membership runs the gamut from known leaders of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party to more ordinary citizens who, as a German shopkeeper put it to the New York Times, “don’t really know why they are going along” but have nonetheless been caught up in Bachmann’s political theater.


Derbrauni [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pegida-Demonstration_16._Dezember_2018_(2).jpg


Yet despite its seeming homegrown innocuousness, PEGIDA and its offshoots have demonstrably sown harm and violence throughout Germany. From the second to the third quarter in 2015, attacks on migrants and hostels more than doubled, following 2014’s tripling of 2013 numbers. These assaults swelled further in 2016 to almost ten every day – injuring 560 people, of whom 43 were children. Following Höcke’s revival of the Hitler epithet lügenpresse, “lying-press,” journalists, too, have become a target both verbal and physical: a 2015 march organized by LEGIDA, PEGIDA’s Leipzig branch, turned nasty when protesters began spitting on journalists and attempting to disable their camera equipment, then assaulting police who arrived to quell the violence.

So as Deutschland’s stalwart Merkel, who fused her own Christian faith with Muslim ritual to celebrate German diversity and migrants’ rights, enters the twilight of her reign with nationalism seething ahead of her, I hope to examine the past. It seems astonishing that Germany, which only decades ago reckoned with Nazism’s obliteration of its institutions and still outlaws National-Socialist imagery, has so fully recovered its taste for extremism, but I believe the rise of its new right offers insight about the profound power rhetoric holds.

PEGIDA and AfD have already grasped the sway their words can grant them. Preying on the disillusioned, who have long felt that mainstream politicians like Merkel manipulate constituents; the impoverished, whose job anxieties the far-right stokes; and conservatives alienated by Merkel’s leftward shifts on gay marriage and immigration, they weaponize language evocative of a prosperous, if genocidal, German past to erode human rights in the present. Merkel, in contrast, invested enormous political capital in moderating these groups’ influence and, by doing so, likely mitigated the further outbreak of nationalism.

For the duration of the Rights Writers program this semester, I intend to focus largely on German discourse, though next month I will examine these migration debates in the context of the United States. Throughout, I hope to discuss the human rights often at stake for migrants – educational opportunities, healthcare access, and safety from violence, among others – and the ways in which rhetoric concretely promotes or endangers them. I’m grateful for the opportunity to examine these issues in greater depth and for the reminder that, abstract and detached though it may seem, language matters, our words have impact, and, when carefully poised in support of human rights and justice, they may yet be able to shape our world for the better.