There seems to be a general feeling these days that things in this country are, well, bad. On a very large scale. What can we do in the face of corporate scandal? Nuclear proliferation? Outsourcing? Moral decay? Television commercials? It's easy to lose hope of changing anything for the better. But we can fortify our resolve to create a more just and sustainable world with two new anthologies that seek to bolster an increasingly elusive resource—hope.
In Hope Dies Last, one of our country's greatest oral historians, Studs Terkel, uses his keen interviewer's eye to craft more than 50 conversational essays demonstrating that hope, the universal engine of human progress, still exists—from the sobered dreams of older generations to the pragmatic idealism of the new one.
Now age 91, Terkel has interviewed celebrities and average people to portray the Great Depression, World War II, and the American Dream. Now, speaking to “the inheritors of the legacy of the past,” he traces a genealogy of American activism, in which labor laws were won and civil rights were forged despite corruption and despair.
Clancy Segal, a 75-year-old leftist, recalls how being harassed by FBI agents strengthened his principles (“J. Edgar Hoover validated my existence.”). Leroy Orange reflects on two decades inside death row, now that he has been found wholly innocent and released (“…if I gave up completely, I would just die.”); Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness, speaks from Baghdad about her efforts to reveal the plight of innocent war victims.
For Terkel, American history offers perpetual reminders that corruption and lies can be bested with open dialogue and a little American ‘can-do'. These casual, intimate portraits of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances reflect his belief that the hallmark of activism is simply an indomitable spirit.
Paul Loeb, editor of The Impossible Will Take a Little While, on the other hand, asserts that hope is less a mere symptom of an optimistic personality than an active mission.
Acknowledging that most of us already face demanding day-to-day responsibilities, he argues that apathy and despair aren't consequences of our inability to cope with the “looming realities” of the world, but of “looking at life through too narrow a lens.”
Loeb asks a series of open-ended questions: What gives people like Nelson Mandela the vision, strength and courage to persist through brutality and boredom? How can we forgive our oppressors? What takes us beyond mere survival and allows us to see the broader picture? Loeb assembles more than 60 essays and poems by Desmond Tutu, Václav Havel, Arundhati Roy, Alice Walker and others to answer the questions. He casts a wide net with this uneven collection, hoping perhaps that each of us can be inspired with passion for democracy and justice if we hear it spoken in our own language.
In Loeb's introduction, he describes his own determined optimism to see that, despite degradations to humanity and the environment, the world still possesses a capacity for renewal: “During my travels, I start out weighed down by the ills of the world and my personal obsessions. By a few miles in, the burden invariably lifts. I see the landscape with fresh eyes.”
Most inspiring to me are the concrete stories: Nelson Mandela describing his survival in prison on Robben Island; Tony Kushner rejecting despair, because “dull and electoral and tedious and not especially pure” efforts have changed the world; Loeb describing the “real” Rosa Parks, whose long years in the civil rights movement gave her the courage to refuse to give up her seat on the bus. All of these demonstrate that seemingly instantaneous miracles of progress actually took “many people taking small steps together over a long period of time.”
As Jim Wallis, editor of the evangelical magazine Sojourners says, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.” Or rather, as the activists profiled in these collections did, making the evidence change.