“When Jimmy Met Bernie” sounds like it could be the title of a buddy comedy in which two men experience hilarious pitfalls as they set out to save the planet. Yet, for the invitation-only crowd gathered at the Carter Center in Atlanta Monday night, this meeting between former POTUS Jimmy Carter and current U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders went beyond laughter to gravitas. There were a few jokes, yes, but also a vital discussion about the state of human rights and the direction in which America should be headed next. Watching this pair of political crusaders gab and ideate for nearly an hour felt like the only colorful, hopeful page ripped from the dark, comic-book saga led by the current administration.
Each year, the Carter Center's annual Human Rights Defenders Forum brings together more than 70 activists, scholars, and community leaders from around the globe to navigate the challenges of protecting human rights. In an era of rising authoritarianism and at a time when many governments are curtailing public debate and activism, 2017’s gathering, “Freedom from Fear: Securing Rights in Challenging Times,” convenes a diverse group of voices – from the Black Lives Matter movement and members of Standing Rock to Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, Russia’s Freedom Files, Nigeria’s Kudirat Initiative for Democracy and others.
During the May 8 evening forum (smartly moderated by Carter Center Senior Policy Adviser on Human Rights and Special Representative on Women and Girls, Karin Ryan), Carter said “We’ve slipped backwards all over the world” in regard to basic human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom from arbitrary detention– a gradual sliding process he says began before the 2016 election. He added that, given today’s swell of nationalism in America, people in other countries “can no longer see [the U.S.A.] as a beacon of light for the future.”
Both Carter and Sanders agreed that the increasing disparity between rich and poor people worldwide contributes to human rights violations and problems with healthcare, education and equal opportunity. Sanders, 75, warned about “the growth of oligarchy in America;” Carter, 92, lamented the loss of faith “in truth, in fellow citizens, and in public officials.” The Georgia native then affirmed to the defenders in the room the importance of the link between peace and human rights, noting that his four years in the White House were primarily war-free, and that as a Christian, he “worships the Prince of Peace, not the Prince of War.” Making light of President Trump’s proposed military spending budget, Sanders followed Carter’s statement with a reference to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 speech, which warned of the dangers of the Military Industrial Complex.
Watching Carter and Sanders interact was a rare treat. Carter told the audience he’d voted for Sanders in the 2016 primaries and was “glad” Sanders agreed with him on so many issues. The evening ended on an optimistic note, as Sanders rallied for a “progressive agenda that will include all Americans,” not just the wealthy and powerful.
Perhaps as enjoyable as the discussion forum itself was my glimpse of Sanders’ and Carters’ arrivals at the Carter Center. Up a long staircase from the lobby to Carter’s office, each bound handily (Carter’s agility and stamina never ceases to amaze) toward a room full of Andy Warhol portraits of the former President. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. They may not be headed for roles in a summer blockbuster, but this duo of public servants cares about humanity when everything feels upside down, human rights are imperiled, and the arts and sciences are disdained. Somebody, please sew them a set of matching superhero capes.