When America Talked, He Listened



In a season when Americans are being strenuously talked to about their politics, their future and their nation, we lost one of our greatest listeners last week.

Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian, died on Friday. At age 96, he lived through most of the last century, and with his books and his radio show he documented much of it. His work dealt with the perspective and experiences of people across the spectrum of modern American history, driven by his belief that everyone had something to say if they thought someone was listening. As Terkel once put it:

I've always felt, in all my books, that there's a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence - providing they have the facts, providing they have the information."

He was unapologetically liberal, and had been so for long enough to earn one of the highest badges of honor for people in his generation: he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

And he never stopped. In 2006, he was part of a lawsuit to stop AT&T from giving citizen's phone records to the federal government without a court order. Last year, at age 95, he participated in rallies advocating universal health care.

An educated, compassionate rabblerouser, he frequently used a term we're hearing often in the current presidential campaign: hope. Here's his view on it:

I think it's realistic to have hope. One can be a perverse idealist and say the easiest thing: 'I despair. The world's no good.' That's a perverse idealist. It's practical to hope, because the hope is for us to survive as a human species. That's very realistic."

And, from another interview:

With optimism, you look upon the sunny side of things. People say, 'Studs, you're an optimist.' I never said I was an optimist. I have hope because what's the alternative to hope? Despair? If you have despair, you might as well put your head in the oven."

I hope generations of Americans will continue to read Terkel's books. Here's to another dead hero.

-- Ian McNulty

Add a comment