Back in 1995 a distinguished committee of colleagues and I, perhaps presumptuously, determined to define and rank the basic elements of democracy, in preparation for a handbook we were working on. Though the list contained the obvious essentials, like the rule of law, freedom of the press and the rights and responsibilities of citizens, we ranked first “trust, goodwill and idealism.” I would be more succinct now and simply call that first imperative hope.

President-elect Barack Obama speaks of the audacity of hope. I invite you to reflect on the necessity for hope in building, sustaining and healing a democratic society.

Acts of terrorism, dependent on men and women willing to die, differ from democratic process dramatically and tragically, because they are acts of hopelessness. Hope ranges from cautious optimism to instrumental optimism to rose-colored-glasses optimism — from the sublime to the ridiculous — or at least from the sensible to the naive.

I advocate for 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 hope and trust that our neighbors and we will obey the laws that are created by and for the people. We can only promote the free flow of ideas because we trust that we will hear the truths and opinions of our diverse population and we can benefit from a wide range of views.

Terrorism is the instrument of the hopeless and powerless. It requires a lot of ingenuity and yes, audacity, but it is at the same time, nihilism incarnate, killing for killing’s sake out of the despair generated by systems that have no place for citizens. Citizens build societies that thrive by virtue of their law-given rights and responsibilities. There is no more effective way to make the changes that stretch a society, helping it to come closer to such ideals as “liberty and justice for all.”

The Obama presidency comes at the best and worst of times. Perhaps every generation finds itself in that Dickensian predicament. We Americans have taken an important step forward not only by electing our first African-American president, but by electing a man of intelligence and integrity. At the same time we find ourselves in our worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And so we are giving our new president a daunting challenge with the hope that he will deliver us into an era of promise.

Obama brings hope to Americans and to the world. We hope that the tragedies of the last decades, born of many factors, including the collapse of the old world order, which left us, in the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt, “between the no longer and the not yet,” will be replaced by an era of promise to all the world’s people. The candidate of change is the beginning of our “new hope”— a cautious optimism founded in our belief in democracy and in an extraordinary leader.

But that “new hope” will be to naught if it does not energize and inspire us to rededicate ourselves to what the late 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. Democracy is not about charismatic leaders alone — it is played out in the everyday actions of people like us enjoying our rights as individuals and assuming the responsibilities of citizenship.

The Times-Tribune
Publication Date: January 10, 2009

Audacity, necessity of hope