It is a privilege to have the opportunity to speak to you today about hope. I could, in the season of the inauguration of a new president who has boldly endorsed the audacity of hope and who, indeed, has given hope to people in every part of the world, speak about Obama and his views on hope. But I will be bold enough—audacious enough– to give you my own views on hope. I invite you to join me in reflecting on the necessity for hope.
I am fully aware that I am preaching to the choir when I speak to the Kiwanis Club about the necessity for hope. You as a group exist to help your community, both local and global. You would not and could not do that without the hope that things can and should be better than they are in this world—and that you can help to make them better. So I know that you are hopeful women and men. But since I believe that it is a good idea to speak to choirs—and especially this choir– as I know that you exist to be agents for constructive change—I am very happy to share my ideas with you, and to hear your views as well. It is my hope that our discussion will inspire you to do even more than you do. We all have more capacity than we use to effect constructive change. Still, the needs in our community and throughout the world—are far greater than are our capacities to meet them. In short, the enormity and complexity of existing needs require more of our time, our energy and our ingenuity.
We live in the best and worst of times. Our economy has been in a downward spiral only rivaled by the crash of 1929. Our reputation in the world has been on a similar trajectory. The world is getting too warm even though it often feels too cold. While some of us lavish in excess and worry about such problems as obesity and anorexia, there are many millions in the world who are starving and need to worry about whether they and their children will have enough food to survive; some of them will never have a clean glass of water in their entire lives. Public policy over the past eight years has been driven by fear; the terrorist acts of 9/11, 2001 made fear the operative policy-driver in our country. Unfortunately we expanded our military and security concerns exponentially while not giving consideration to using our considerable intellectual capacities to analyze the causes for the unspeakable acts of terror that were perpetrated against us. We need to understand more about why we—and a number of nations in the western world—have been targeted for these acts of violence. We need to ask ourselves whether there is something we can do about who we are to make us more respected and trusted in the world. I mean that in no way as an apology for terrorist acts, but I do mean it as an important factor in making this world a safer place for all its people. Security has many dimensions and its challenges are not only military.
Our public policy, both national and international, should be based on the defining characteristic of our age—interdependence. We must acknowledge that interdependence is our reality—and see the world as a global community where it is more important than ever to live together in harmony.
We must recognize that the divide between haves and have-nots has been growing and the proportion is now a real threat to our own well being. It’s not just about altruism—it’s about pragmatism. If that divide continues to grow in our increasingly interdependent world, we simply cannot turn our backs on it and live in comfort and security while others—probably the vast majority—live their all too short lives without any hope of escaping poverty and disease—and without hope of having any control over their own personal destinies. In short, based on our hope of a more just and humane world, we must translate that hope, which we are privileged to have, into actions that change this very dangerous imbalance, so that all people have reason to hope.
We must have hope—hope that we have the power to change things for the better, and that combination of altruism and pragmatism—the will and the practical skills to effect change. We need to understand that our society will only remain free in the real sense of the word if we work toward the goals of “liberty and justice for all.” At the outset of this Obama era, we must– and I believe we will– confront the growing gap between rich and poor, a situation which is morally unacceptable and pragmatically speaking, dangerous.
My work focuses on strengthening democracy and the culture of interdependence by making people understand that we ordinary people, enjoying the rights and assuming the responsibilities of citizenship—are as necessary to democratic society as is a good constitution, honest elections and a charismatic leader. Notwithstanding the fact that we need good leadership to inspire and motivate us, we need for people to understand the power that they have as citizens. Terrorist acts, by and large, are exercises of hopelessness. Martyrdom—dying for your values—your religion or your nation– rather than living for your values, your religion or your nation—does not improve society. People who resort to terrorism, demonizing others, blaming others for their problems, and deciding that they have the right to take action against those “others,” may feel powerful in the short term, but do not, by their actions, gain access to a better life. We’re mindful and passionate about stopping nuclear proliferation—but anger and resentment can inspire people to use much less complex weapons to do their damage.
I propose that we take a broader view of security, going beyond the military to education and diplomacy, which will have at least as powerful an impact on our security. Pundits call this soft power—but it is not soft in terms of its effectiveness. If you look at some of the most challenging, long-lasting conflicts of our time, and their resolutions—I refer in particular to Northern Ireland and South Africa, you will note that soft power was an important aspect of their long overdue peaceful resolutions.
I speak in praise of hope because it is a necessity for progressive change. It gives us the audacity to insist on the rule of law. We can only opt for this enlightened approach to governance because we have reason to hope that our neighbors as well as we will obey the laws that are created by and for the people. We can only promote the free flow of ideas in the press and elsewhere because we have reason to hope that for the most part we will hear the opinions of our very diverse population and we can endure and benefit from a very wide range of views. In fact I would say that our greatness as a nation derives from our diversity. We as a nation are living proof that we can learn to live with and respect people who are very different from us—not necessarily because we learn to agree with one another, but as the Princeton philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, observes so wisely, we get used to each other. Getting used to each is not perhaps as romantic or spiritual as learning to love each other, but as imperfect people in an imperfect world, let’s latch on to it! It may be as good as it gets!
We Americans have taken a giant step forward not only by electing our first African American president, but by electing a man of remarkable intelligence and integrity. We have delivered up to our new president the most daunting challenges imaginable, in the hope that he will deliver us into an era of promise. And we have restored in the world the hope that our leader will work together with all nations to bring about a new era of cooperation and harmony.
Obama’s vision is the beginning of our “new hope “which is neither naïve nor brash; it is, rather, cautious optimism founded on our belief in democracy, in our extraordinary leader, and in our power as citizens.
But that “new hope” will be for naught if it does not energize and inspire us to seize the moment by rededicating ourselves to what the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis termed the most important job in our democracy—that of the citizen. Obama has made it clear that the task ahead—running this country and leading the world—is not a one-man job. It is our job. It will take all of us. Democracy is not about charismatic leaders—it is about the everyday actions of people like us, enjoying our rights as individuals and assuming our responsibilities as citizens. The responsibility that we Americans have—not only for our own personal destinies but for the public good, is our most precious legacy. It is our job—no one else’s—to live up to that legacy and pass it on to our children and grandchildren.