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We lost a great human being when Studs Terkel died on Friday at 96.
A man of great wit and intelligence and erudition, he didn't lord it over people. Instead, he was one with the people. He loved the human comedy, and saw in each individual, and especially the unsung, the poetry and music of their lives.
In his book "Working," he clued us in to his philosophy with this little rumination on the tape recorder:
"It can be . . . a means of blackmail, an instrument of the police state or, as is most often the case, a transmitter of the banal. . . . It can be used to capture the voice of a celebrity, whose answers are ever ready and flow through all the expected straits. I have yet to be astonished by one. It can be used to capture the thoughts of the non-celebrated--on the steps of a public housing project, in a frame bungalow, in a furnished apartment, in a parked car—and these "statistics" become persons, each one unique. I am constantly astonished."
To celebrate the non-celebrated: This was his life's work. To give to every human being the dignity and respect of listening, truly listening.
Studs was a man on the left. Red-baited in the McCarthy period, he had trouble finding work for several years. But he never renounced his beliefs. And he never ratted people out. He stood with labor, he stood with women, he stood with blacks, he stood with gays. He was around for the Great Depression, and he understood how the monied interests played havoc with the lives of everyday people, and he recognized the importance of a democratic government--our government--siding with the people instead of the powerful. He knew what FDR and the New Deal did for people. Hell, he was an actor for the WPA. And he knew we need a new New Deal now.
A supporter of Barack Obama and a lifelong resident of Chicago, Terkel grasped the racial divide that has so marred this country for so long. Yeah, he wrote a book about it. It's called "Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession." At the end of that book, he interviews Lloyd King, the 31-year-old son of a white mom and a black dad. "The real tragedy between blacks and whites in America is not that we hate each other," King told Terkel. "The real tragedy is that we love and admire each other. . . . The tragedy lies in the complex folds of this love and admiration, which is somehow twisted into intolerance. We're like a married couple that got started on the wrong foot." King said at the end of the interview: "I am guardedly optimistic."
So was Terkel. Or maybe it's more accurate to say he was unguardedly optimistic, and in being so open, he let everybody in, including hope.