(My column for January 2014…)

For me, 2013 didn’t go out with a bang: it went out with a cough and a wheeze and a snore. After a year-end barrage of long workdays, a persistent chest bug sent me to bed around 9 PM on New Year’s Eve, and I didn’t stir till late the next morning. It was just as well; I was perfectly happy to be done with a year that had brought more than its share of challenges.

But don’t get me wrong – not everything was dire in 2013. Even in the midst of all the stress and difficulties, a number of new developments – dare I say, “game-changers”? – emerged that give me some hope for 2014 and the years ahead.

POPE FRANCIS: The moment that I saw that the new pope had chosen the name “Francis,” I broke out in an ear-to-ear grin – it was very clear what implications such a choice was meant to convey. For decades, the Catholic faithful were kept focused primarily on the hot-button sexual issues of homosexuality and abortion, to the detriment of the Church’s powerful (and equally unambivalent) teachings about economic and social justice. (I am convinced that this was no accident, by the way; it has well-suited certain interests to have the gaze of the faithful steered away from the seamier aspects of modern capitalism, which frankly cannot withstand a great deal of moral scrutiny.) Pope Francis’ ascension, and his call for a reappraisal of the Church’s priorities in the face of current economic realities, have shattered some very cozy arrangements in the halls of Vatican power. At the same time, he reminds us all that power and influence can be wielded effectively while maintaining an attitude of service and humility – indeed, that such an attitude can be powerful in and of itself.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: In the course of less than a year, the young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai rebounded from being the victim of a point-blank assassination attempt to eldering the President of the United States about the American use of drones in her country. In attempting to get rid of her, the Taliban instead created a potent counterforce to their brand of Islamic fundamentalism, one far more powerful than a dozen NATO brigades. Hopefully, she will also prove to be more powerful than the Western machinery of celebrity, or the political machinations of those who might try to exploit her image.

RICHMOND, CALIFORNIA: This community in the suburbs of San Francisco, the largest municipality in the country with a Green Party mayor, sent ripples of fear through financial circles last year. The city council has raised the possibility of using the city’s powers of eminent domain to seize the mortgages of foreclosable properties, restructure the debts, and theerby make it possible for homeowners to stay in their homes. The idea is starting to spread – Newark and Irvington NJ are among the many cities also considering similar strategies. (See for more information.)

These are but three examples. I could also mention the elections of unrepentant leftists like Mayor Bill DiBlasio in New York, and City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant in Seattle. There’s a man in Wisconsin named Amar Kaleka who is gearing up to unseat Paul Ryan in Wisconsin – Kaleka’s father was a local Sikh leader who was shot by a white supremacist. Robert Reich’s documentary “Inequality for All” has added fuel to the growing discussion about the longterm effects of income and wealth distribution in the US.

I don’t expect 2014 to be a cakewalk – far from it, in fact. I’ll go on the record now with a prediction: it’s gonna be a hard, messy slog. But I am more hopeful now than I was a year ago – and it will be up to us to make that hope grow into new realities.


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