Apr 29th 2016

The Improbable Reformers

MOSCOW – Over the last few years, Pope Francis has reinvigorated the Catholic Church’s core message with passionate criticism of unbridled capitalism and a new, more progressive worldview. In the United States primaries, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign is doing much the same for the Democratic Party – and for US politics more broadly.

Sanders’s message borrows substantially from the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and its call to arms against economic inequality. But even before Sanders emerged as a contender for the Democratic nomination, Francis won the hearts of millions with a similar message.

Francis has denounced the “widening gap between those who have more and those who must be content with the crumbs.” His vision of “a church that is poor and for the poor” has earned him the moniker the “People’s Pope.” It should therefore not be surprising that last year, he invited the author and OWS activist Naomi Klein to attend a conference on the environment that he was hosting in Rome.

This year, Sanders addressed the same gathering, arguing that climate change is the most serious security threat facing the world. His long-held beliefs on the topic mirror those of Francis, who, in a groundbreaking encyclical, aligned himself with the scientific community on climate change. Both Sanders and Francis link environmental degradation to unbridled capitalism, emphasizing that the world’s poorest suffer disproportionately from the environmental impact of activities that often enrich the world’s wealthiest.

Even on topics relating to love and family, Francis is more progressive than his predecessors. Though church doctrine still holds that marriage is a union between a man and a woman that cannot be broken, his language of tolerance toward homosexuals and the divorced is earthshaking, if not quite groundbreaking.

There is another interesting commonality between Sanders and Francis: both are well into their eighth decade. At first glance, it seems odd that these pensionable men are among the leading figures echoing and inspiring the young in seeking revolutionary change. Yet, on reflection, the connection is not surprising. After all, when it comes to indignation about the world’s injustices, the old can be just as passionate as the young.

The impact of Sanders and Francis on young people is intensified by the sense that, for both men, truth and morality matter more than self-importance or enrichment. They both appear modest – Francis has rejected his predecessors’ monarchical lifestyle, and Sanders’s estimated net worth is significantly below-average for a US senator – and, for all their progressiveness, thoroughly un-modern.

Moreover, Sanders and Francis are relative outsiders. Sanders may have a long career in US politics, but he represents the small liberal state of Vermont, and he passionately denounces the big money that is most politicians’ lifeblood. For his part, Francis is the first pope from Latin America, and the first to condemn economic inequality with such intensity.

Of course, Francis is not the first pope to address the topic. In fact, this year’s Papal conference celebrated the 15th anniversary of an encyclical by Pope John Paul II about the ethical pitfalls of the market economy and globalization.

But John Paul II, originally from Soviet-bloc Poland, also staunchly opposed communism; indeed, he played an important role in bringing about that system’s downfall in Central and Eastern Europe. While neither Francis nor Sanders is advocating communism, both seek to revive, to varying extents, communism’s original aspiration to create a brotherhood among all people.

Mikhail Gorbachev – another revolutionary of humanity and decency – had a similar aspiration in the 1980s. Interestingly, he took inspiration from John Paul II’s argument that people are not free unless they determine their system of government and help create their own laws, and tried to advance democratization within the rigid Soviet system.

By bringing a message of justice to communism’s victims, Gorbachev firmly believed that he could reinvigorate the Soviet Union’s dying ideology. And, for a moment, he did. When the Gorbachev-led 19th National Communist Party Congress was broadcast on television in 1988, the country breathlessly watched its young leader publicly debate his reform ideas, most notably with Andrei Sakharov, a famed nuclear physicist and dissident human-rights activist.

Ultimately, of course, the Soviet Union’s ossified structure could not be saved; but, thanks in large part to Gorbachev’s fundamental decency, the USSR’s demise in 1991 was rather peaceful. He created an environment in which demands for radical change led to compromise, not rage – in sharp contrast to, say, the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.

Like Francis and Sanders, Gorbachev was an improbable reformer. Despite rising to power with the support of the KGB, he did not surrender his thought processes to that machine, in the way that President Vladimir Putin clearly has. Likewise, far from fitting the mold of the Democratic machine, Sanders is working to pull the party back “to the social democratic left where it belongs.” And many in the Vatican today cannot fathom Francis’s approach, viewing his messages of mercy as a “watering down” of the Catholic doctrine.

The opponents of Sanders and Francis may not be old, but they represent the old, while the improbable reformers, though elderly, are speaking for the young. In August 1991, an attempted coup against Gorbachev failed because he had the support of young people, both on the streets of Moscow and other cities and in the tanks and junior officer corps of the Soviet Union. That is the power of young people – a power that Sanders has tapped. Should Hillary Clinton beat him for the Democratic nomination, as seems likely, she will ignore it at her peril.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "
Feb 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "In 2010 Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Buenos Aires' Universidad del CEMA, created the world's first - and only - Center for Creativity Economics.  During the next ten years, the CCE presented a number of short courses and seminars.  But the most important of its events was an annual lecture by an Argentine artist, who was given a Creative Career Award."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "It’s not hard to see why. Although AI systems outperform humans in tasks that are often associated with a “high level of intelligence” (playing chess, Go, or Jeopardy), they are nowhere close to excelling at tasks that humans can master with little to no training (such as understanding jokes). What we call “common sense” is actually a massive base of tacit knowledge – the cumulative effect of experiencing the world and learning about it since childhood. Coding common-sense knowledge and feeding it into AI systems is an unresolved challenge. Although AI will continue to solve some difficult problems, it is a long way from performing many tasks that children undertake as a matter of course."
Feb 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to being fit and healthy, we’re often reminded to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day. This can be a frustrating target to achieve, especially when we’re busy with work and other commitments. Most of us know by now that 10,000 steps is recommended everywhere as a target to achieve – and yet where did this number actually come from?"
Feb 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "This so-called elite supposedly conspires to monopolise academic employment and research grants. Its alleged objective is to deny divine authority, and the ultimate beneficiary and prime mover is Satan.Such beliefs derive from the doctrine of biblical infallibility, long accepted as integral to the faith of numerous evangelical and Baptist churches throughout the world, including the Free Church of Scotland. But I would argue that the present-day creationist movement is a fully fledged conspiracy theory. It meets all the criteria, offering a complete parallel universe with its own organisations and rules of evidence, and claims that the scientific establishment promoting evolution is an arrogant and morally corrupt elite."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ageing is so far known to be caused by nine biological mechanisms, sometimes called the “hallmarks of ageing”. In order to prevent ageing in our tissues, cells, and molecules, we need to be able to slow or prevent these hallmarks of ageing from taking place. While there are numerous treatments currently being investigated, two approaches currently show the most promise in slowing the development of age-related disease. .... One area researchers are investigating is looking at whether any medicines already exist which could tackle ageing. This method is advantageous in that billions of pounds have already been spent on testing the safety and efficacy of these drugs and they are already in routine clinical use in humans. Two in particular are promising candidates."
Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "The ageing global population is the greatest challenge faced by 21st-century healthcare systems. Even COVID-19 is, in a sense, a disease of ageing. The risk of death from the virus roughly doubles for every nine years of life, a pattern that is almost identical to a host of other illnesses. But why are old people vulnerable to so many different things? It turns out that a major hallmark of the ageing process in many mammals is inflammation. By that, I don’t mean intense local response we typically associate with an infected wound, but a low grade, grinding, inflammatory background noise that grows louder the longer we live. This “inflammaging” has been shown to contribute to the development of atherosclerosis (the buildup of fat in arteries), diabetes, high blood pressure , frailty, cancer and cognitive decline."
Jan 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Anthropos is Greek for human.... The term is used to convey how, for the first time in history, the Earth is being transformed by one species – homo sapiens. ...... The idea of the Anthropocene can seem overwhelming and can generate anxiety and fear. It can be hard to see past notions of imminent apocalypse or technological salvation. Both, in a sense, are equally paralysing – requiring us to do nothing. .. I consider the Anthropocene as an invitation to think differently about human relationships with nature and other species. Evidence suggests this reorientation is already happening and there are grounds for optimism."
Jan 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "During the second world war, Nazi Germany banned all listening to foreign radio stations. Germans who overlooked their duty to ignore foreign broadcasts faced penalties ranging from imprisonment to execution. The British government imposed no comparable ban which would have been incompatible with the principles for which it had gone to war. That’s not to say, though, that it wasn’t alarmed by the popularity of German stations. Most effective among the Nazis broadcasting to the UK was William Joyce. This Irish-American fascist, known in Britain as “Lord Haw-Haw”, won a large audience during the “phoney war” in 1939 and early 1940, with his trademark call sign delivered in his unmistakable accent: 'Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling'. "
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The revelation of Trump’s hour-long recorded call with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, over this past weekend crossed a new line – a line that not only set a high-water mark of moral reprehensibility, but a legal line as well, specifically in his pressuring Raffensperger to 'find the 11,780 votes' that would hand Trump the state and his veiled threat (' it’s going to be very costly…') if Raffensperger failed to comply. ........ Raffensperger – who has been forced to endure intense pressure, intimidation and threats – has proven himself to be a man of integrity and principle."
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "A final, perhaps more sinister, possibility is that Johnson knows exactly what he is doing. His political style evokes a unique blend of dishevelled buffoon and privileged Etonian. He is someone who likes to bring good news and doesn’t take life too seriously. Making tough, controversial decisions threatens this persona and so hiding in the shadows until his hand is forced helps him to reconcile his identity threat."
Dec 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "The resultant loss of land, the growing impoverishment of its citizens, and the hostile actions of Israeli occupation forces and settlers have forced many Bethlehemites to leave their beloved city and homeland. Given these accumulated violations of human rights and their impact on Christians and Muslims, alike, one might expect Christians in the West to speak out in defense of these residents of the little town they celebrate each year.  That, sadly, is not to be – most especially (and I might add ironically) among powerful Christian conservative groups in the US which, after all, claim to be the defenders of their co-religionists world-wide."
Dec 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "Worldwide, people donate hundreds of billions of dollars to charity. In the United States alone, charitable donations amounted to about $450 billion last year. As 2020 draws to a close, perhaps you or members of your family are considering giving to charity. But there are, literally, millions of charities. Which should you choose?"
Dec 1st 2020
EXTRACT: " The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde – From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, examining the immense influence of this art critic, editor, publisher, collector and anarchist............A crucial feature of anarchism is the emphasis on the individual as the fundamental building block, the essential point of departure for any human association whatever. The individual was characterized by Grave in 1899 as a social creature who should be “left free to attach himself according to his tendencies, his affinities, free to seek out those with him whom his liberty and aptitudes can agree.” "
Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."