Hopey and Changey: Iran's New President and the Vatican's New Pope

A good way to routinely bum yourself out is to set "Google News" as your Internet home page. But last night, something magical happened on that usual grid of gloom: The top stories were good news: Pope Francis and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the elderly men recently chosen to lead their respective communities, had again made headlines for words of kindness and reconciliation.

In Hassan Rouhani's Washington Post essay, which the paper's online editors perversely paired with a photo of bile merchant Rush Limbaugh, the Iranian president wrote that "security is pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others, with disastrous consequences." This is true of both international conflicts and domestic politics. Iran, like its longterm rivals Israel and the United States, has been so obsessed with identity and security that people have been pushed out of the equation.

As a moderate cleric/politician in a nation divided not just by religious observance but by the deepening poverty of a once middle-class country targeted by four decades of American economic warfare, Rouhani is burdened with all the world's problems of religion, money, extremism and modernism. Iran has had a moderate intellectual president before, when Rouhani's friend Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997. Khatami was gone by 2005, swept away by a combination of inflation, conservative clerics at home, and the usual meddling of America and Israel. Rouhani wished the world's Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah and has pledged to create a more open Iranian society that gets along with its neighbors, which is already more than Khatami was able to do over eight years.

Pope Francis has dedicated himself to cleaning up the Vatican's extremely filthy house while asking the Church's traditional foes—gays, women, atheists, humanists, other denominations—to find common ground on fighting economic inequality. Francis is the first Jesuit to serve as pope, and the Jesuit sense of service and community is everywhere in Francis' public statements, private phone calls to sad people, and in his astonishing Twitter feed—which sounds more like the radical activism of Dorothy Day than the platitudes of Vatican royalty.

"There is no such thing as low-cost Christianity," he said on Twitter on September 5. "Following Jesus means swimming against the tide, renouncing evil and selfishness." The lengthy interview with Francis published this week by Catholic newspapers is well worth reading in its entirety, as Francis attempts to create a new mission for a massive international organization that has lurched from one vile crisis to another during the papacy of his extremist predecessor. It is almost impossible to live a life like Jesus did—Jesus himself only managed three years of such public radicalism before he was executed by the Empire that would later adopt and transform his movement—but Francis' apparent dedication to the outcasts and downtrodden is welcome in a world where even the very richest countries publicly mock and castigate their poor.

Lots of regular people still say nice words, but very few of the ruling class even go to the trouble anymore. Washington and its state governments are mostly engaged in Brutalism, the late-capitalist method of stomping the four out of five Americans who are poor while entwining the richest corporations within the surveillance state. Europe, with no further need to offer an alternative to the Soviet Union's influence, punishes its population with austerity, a political philosophy that constantly demeans and penalizes those who failed to achieve great wealth in a system forever rigged by false scarcity.

Francis and Rouhani are not the only big names offering a little hope and change to a world battered by inequality and evil. New York's likely new mayor, Bill de Blasio, emerged from the usual crowd of technocrats and sleazebags by being a seemingly decent person with a modestly humane message. And the 21st Century "Pink Tide" of popular leftist governments in Latin America—including Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador—are overlooked in the United States because of our media's habit of only following Europe, Israel and Washington's traditional rivals.

This very public behavior by Francis and Rouhani is meaningful because the Vatican and Iran are objects of endless of media fascination. These old dudes are heard, and they are heard by the masses. And that's why our new favorite celebrities are a couple of geriatric religious types. Here's to hoping their words end up meaning something.

[Photos via Getty Images and Associated Press.]