Predicting the future: Pope Francis, President Rouhani, Attorney General Holder

newspapersIn a small trunk, here in my office are a select group of newspapers, saved because, at the time, they seemed to represent momentous events:  9/11, Bush v. Gore, death of Pope John Paul II, Watergate, impeachment of Clinton, fall of the Berlin Wall.  All have across the top, large-print headlines.  Today, I am adding to the collection the first which does not have the same bold typeset.

The paper on Friday, September 20, 2013 carried three separate stories, only two of them on the front page, which signaled what could be historic, transformational changes.  It may be difficult to predict history, and my experiment here may ultimately fail, but these do seem like shifts which will alter the shape of slices of our history over the last 50 years.

First is what looks like may be a thaw in U.S. relations with Iran.  The article, on the right hand columns of the New York Times, may only report the latest in a series of signals since the election in June of Iran’s  new president, Rouhani.  However, it reveals an exchange of letters between President Obama and President Rouhani exploring the possibility of direct negotiations between the two countries, who have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 hostage crisis.  The official who discussed the exchange of letters was a senior advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, seeming to indicate the latter’s acceptance with an opening.

Next is what looks like a re-direction of the Catholic Church’s social priorities.  The new Pope Francis released the content of an interview he had given to a Jesuit Catholic journal in August where he pointed to a need for the church to be a “home for all.” He went on, charting a course for the Church to drop its “obsession” with abortion and contraception.  On homosexuality, he asked an open-ended question wondering “when God looks at a gay person does He endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”  Sounds a little like Jesus answering the efforts of the Pharisees to entrap him.

The third is the reversal of a policy of aggressive prosecution of drug crimes.  The Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech laying out the practical steps to reduce the extended sentencing of lower level drug crimes.  Those harsh, often mandatory, sentencing rules have been enacted in various U.S. jurisdictions since the 1970s, the most well-known being California’s “three-strikes” provision in 1994.  While changing the 1984 federal anti-drug act would require Congressional approval, Holder has instructed prosecutors to take steps in implementing the law, like not indicating the amount of drugs possessed by the accused.  This would avoid triggering the automatic mandatory sentence.

Friday’s paper was not the first indication of any of these transformational shifts: the new Pope had indicated as early as his installment his concern for the poor as a fundamental focus for the church; the Iran’s President Rouhani had been sending signals of accommodation with the West since his election; and Attorney General Holder in August announced his decision to review sentencing guidelines.

Also, despite the important role played by each of the three individuals, pressure had been building for some time in each area to force the decisions each have taken.  Sanctions aimed at Iran’s atomic weapons program are hurting the general population.  Catholics are leaving the church, and important constituencies in the Democratic Party have latched on to overcrowding and disparate treatment between racial groups in sentencing to push for these changes.

Neither are these three pronouncements yet set on a straight, direct course towards fulfillment.  In their infancy, each can be reversed, and it is more than likely that they will proceed on meandering paths in pursuit of the goals elaborated.  Some accuse Iran of stalling, of engaging in a public relations campaign, to delay further international condemnation.  The articles point to the Pope moving beyond the traditional power structure in the Vatican, and Congress can easily step in and halt any changes in Holder’s sentencing proposals.

Still, they each represent what could be fundamental changes.  Comparisons to past historic transformational figures like Gorbachev, Sadat or Pope John Paul II are in the air.  It is enough to make me add this front page to my small collection.

But before I do, my eye catches a fourth article, below the fold in Friday’s edition of the New York Times.  This one reports on a resurgence of the textile industry in the U.S., one that is heavily automated, with many fewer workers, but one which would reduce the cost of transportation, as well as the potential for terrible tragedies like the collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh.  Maybe, just maybe, it is this one which foretells the most consequential shift, one that would have a greater impact in the daily lives of people around the globe.

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