Betting on better times

23rd July 2004 at 01:00
Does hope really spring eternal? David Self gets a glimpse of the promised land

Hope Dies Last: making a difference in an indifferent world By Studs Terkel Granta Books pound;14.99

Thirty years ago, I left the classroom for BBC school radio. As a novice producer I was sent to make some recordings in a youth centre in a disadvantaged area of Peterborough. As I finished interviewing an angry and alienated young black man, I turned pastoral and offered an optimistic platitude. I can still hear the venom as he spat back: "Don't give me hope." The very first sentence of Studs Terkel's latest book explains the extraordinary strength of his reaction. "Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up."

In all sorts of ways, this is a genuinely remarkable book. It may even come to be seen as a political or historical turning point. In it, the 92-year-old oral historian (one of radio's most gifted interviewers) presents a series of conversations with some 50 Americans in which they discuss the role hope has played and continues to play in their lives. His interviewees include senators, rights workers, activists, liberals and arch-conservatives. He treats them all with respect and, in return, they share some illuminating insights.

Notable among them is Deborah Bayly, the principal of a tiny alternative school in Chicago. Aged 20, she did teaching practice in a public school, supervised by "a black man who carried a loaded gun, got a new Cadillac every year, and told the kids that if anybody touched his car, he'd shoot them". When he interrupted her class, she told him to be quiet.

Later, she reacted against "traditional schools where strict things were being taught, with adults not following their own rules". Refusing to sell her home in an area being gentrified, she hung a banner from her house:

"Buyers beware. Noisy white trash lives here." Thirty years on, she's still in her house and her school, seeing the disenfranchised "get something good".

There are other equally inspirational characters here, from the famous to the unknown. The singer Pete Seeger talks about his passion to clean up the heavily polluted Hudson river, changing the concept of nimbyism ("not in my back yard") to nimbi: "now I must be involved". Another Chicago teacher mocks the contradictory oxymorons favoured by the Right such as "business ethics" and "military intelligence", while an American Arab knows how many Iraqi babies died because of UN sanctions and accepts being called a sand nigger. He still feels he belongs in the US.

Then there are the politicians, the economist J K Galbraith and the captains of industry. The latter include Wallace Rasmussen, who started out by peddling handbills for 10 cents a hundred and retired a multi-millionaire. He blames his country's present problems on greed. "A lot of it comes from people in our educational system who are teaching things in business colleges that are not for the benefit of the world but for the benefit of themselves. Egomaniacs."

Hope takes many forms. There is a chilling interview with Paul Tibbets, the general who piloted the plane that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. He is still full of determination to keep the US safe from its enemies and would happily drop another bomb on today's terrorists. "I'd wipe 'em out.

You're gonna kill innocent people at the same time. That's their tough luck for being there."

The fascinating thing about this seemingly disparate collection of memories and opinions is that, as you read them in sequence, they become an artful history of the US, written post 911. As Terkel says in his introduction:

"As we enter the new millennium, hope appears to be an American attribute that has vanished." But, typically, he qualifies that with: "It ain't necessarily so."

His interviews with people of widely differing ages show how hope sprang up among the oppressed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It wasn't just Roosevelt's New Deal that recognised the needs of the many: there was pressure from below, with neighbourhoods defying bailiffs and trade unionists seeking fair employment. He sees a similar reaction in the 1960s "led by students from all sorts of campuses". They were the ones, along with the African-Americans, who ended segregation and racial discrimination and a "misadventure" in Vietnam. It is, incidentally, one of the delights of this book that it rehabilitates the 1960s as an era of idealism and political activism.

He then brings us to our present chaos and terror, "in no small way attributed to the wantonness of our appointed chieftain and his armchair warriors". But even now, Terkel, obviously a brilliant listener, hears the murmurings of hope, again springing up. He encourages the time-poor:

"Activism need not be a profession." He shows how it can take the form of writing letters to the press and politicians; of joining protests and marches - whether we are environmentalists, feminists or small investors cheated by Enronism. "It's the stuff of neighbourhood."

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