Sometimes hope is just what’s needed


I remember exactly what I was doing: watching television, quietly weeping.

There, in brilliant September sunlight outside the White House in 1993, I saw Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat extend their right arms in front of President Bill Clinton and shake hands as their respective foreign ministers signed a Declaration of Principles that pointed toward a meaningful Middle East peace.

In his brief remarks, Rabin said it was difficult to attest to an agreement with a long-sworn enemy. But it was time. “Enough of blood and tears,” Rabin said. “Enough.” And with the taste of my own tears on my lips, I watched these men and said to myself, “I never thought I’d live to see such a moment.”

It is true, of course, that barely two years after that glorious moment on the South Lawn, Rabin was shot dead at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, that Arafat could not deliver on his pledge and that Clinton squandered the promise of his intellect and his great heart by indulging his vulgar inclinations.

But the point is that hope lived in that moment in 1993, and that hope — hope alone, even in the absence of achievements — has a transformative power for which it is never credited: It alters our relationship with our civic world and with each other.

Friday’s announcement that the Norwegian Nobel Committee is awarding this year’s Peace Prize to President Barack Obama is 271 words of passive-voiced diplo-speak. It mentions nuclear arms and climate change and “dialogue and negotiations” as the preferred “instruments” for resolving conflicts. The statement also obliquely refers to the disastrous practices of Obama’s predecessor as president.

Obama’s political and ideological opposition, now led mainly by radio and cable hosts, lost no time flailing away at the Nobel honor. Comics and pundits on all points of the political spectrum mocked and parodied the award mercilessly.

Even Obama supporters worried, as they do about everything, that shadowy right-wing forces will diabolically use the award to derail (choose one or more) health care reformation, environmental restoration, aid to education, foreclosure mediation, economic dispensation and/or gay rights.

But buried in the third paragraph of the Nobel committee’s four-paragraph release is, I think, the core of the matter: “Only very rarely,” it reads, “has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.”

This is not something Obama has yet to do. It is something he already has done.

In 21st-century American political circles, hope doesn’t get much respect. It’s a soft virtue, not a tough one, and it seems vaguely effeminate. The concept suggests a kind of light-headed idealism of no value to a hard-knuckled political street fighter.

In fact, hope is primal. People want it, need it, hunger for it. Hope beats in the heart of every parent from the second his or her child takes its first breath. It is the essence of being in love. It makes overcoming challenges possible, and it is bound up in the pride a family feels when its first daughter or son graduates from college.

Hope is the prerequisite for achievement in all human endeavors, everything from personal relationships to community service, from starting and running a business to creating a piece of art, from designing a scientific experiment to agitating for social and political change.

Tyrants know this, which is why crushing hope is their top priority. People without hope have no expectations. Hopelessness breeds paralysis. Paralysis ensures control.

Hope, on the other hand, nurtures expectations and aspirations. It fuels and sustains the desire for freedom to pursue a better life. Enhancing the human condition necessarily begins with hope.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee seems to know this, too. More to the point, it seems to know that the rest of the world looks to the United States for reassurance and encouragement and that when the United States is hopeful, it’s contagious.

I was not a hopeful young adult. After the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the catastrophe of Vietnam and the criminal stain of Watergate, I took my place in society with great regard for individuals but little for institutions. Worse, I had no real hope for significant change in the dysfunctional world I saw around me.

And then, I saw things happen that I never imagined were possible. In 1978, Menachim Begin and Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords, initiating a peace between Israel and Egypt that endures to this day. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and two years after that, the feared and despised Soviet Union dissolved into nothingness. Then the obscenity of apartheid ended in South Africa, and in 1994, Nelson Mandela became its president. A few years later, the Good Friday Agreement held out the hope of an end to civil war in Northern Ireland.

America lost hope on September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks staggered us, clouded our sense of ourselves. Our leaders at the time, small-minded anachronistic bullies, exploited our fear and cemented their power. They crushed hope with vows of a war without end while their mercantile allies plundered our natural resources and looted our economy to the brink of collapse.

I don’t know if the Norwegian Nobel Committee saw Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. I did, and I sensed that something was in the wind. I felt it again and again during last year’s campaign, no more so than when I watched Obama’s astonishing speech on race.

On the night of Nov. 4, 2008, I again saw something I thought I never would live to see: the election of an African-American president of the United States. And I again felt what I had felt in 1989, 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1998: hope.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s award to Obama honors this simple truth: In the pursuit of peace, there is extraordinary value in the ability to instill hope.

Eric Mink, a former newspaper columnist and editor in St. Louis and New York, teaches film at Webster University. His e-mail address is [email protected].