The other night I went to cafe here in Honolulu that I had been hoping to visit before leaving. I entered, was politely seated, handed the menu, and decided what I wanted.
Off in the corner a man sat at a table, alone, like I was. He was reading something intently. It looked like a periodical or magazine of some sort. But he was also reading with a pen in hand, writing on the pages from time to time, and underlining sentences.
I don’t see that often. In fact, I don’t see it anywhere these days except at the university. I wondered what he was reading, if he was a teacher or a scholar who lived here. The entire experience was refreshing.
As I was leaving the restaurant, I went over to ask him what he was reading. He showed me an issue of The Nation and pointed to an essay, Indignez-Vous, by Stephane Hessel, a writer-philosopher whose book of the same name recently was at the top of the best seller list in France
At once I set out to find the issue with Hessel’s essay. In his introduction to the piece Charles Glass writes about the 93 year old Hessel who is of German Jewish ancestry and whose family moved to France in 1924. While serving in the French army in 1940, he was captured, sent to a POW camp, eventually escaped and joined de Gaulle’s band of Free French resistants. The Gestapo captured him while serving in one of the resistance networks, sent him the Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps from which he escaped once again. After the war he was a key figure in drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Glass attributes the popularity of Hessel’s slim but forceful Indignez-vous! to the “public’s need for a voice to articulate popular resentment of ruling-class ruthlessness, police brutality, stark income disparities, banking and political corruption, and victimization of the poor and immigrants.” Will the book have any readership in this country? It is highly unlikely, although one might fervently wish so.
In the essay Hessel expresses his outrage at any betrayal of the Universal Declaration. He asks his readers in France to remember the history of their nation and reaffirm its highest achievements. “It is up to us, all of us together, to ensure that our society remains one to be proud of: not this society of undocumented workers and deportations…not the society were our retirement and other gains of social security are being called into question; not this society where the media are in the hands of the rich.”
He says all of these social rights were at the core of the Resistance’s program but now they are under attack. “The motivation that underlay the Resistance was outrage. We, the Veterans of the Resistance movements and fighting forces of Free France, call on the younger generations to revive and carry forward the tradition of the Resistance and its ideas. We say to you: take over, keep going, get angry.”
Hessel clearly believes that historical progress is made by successive challenges to injustices and that each individual is responsible for contributing to this task. The great challenges he feels most outraged against are the immense gap between the very poor and the very rich, “which never ceases to expand” and the gradual eroding of human rights and “the state of the planet.”
He also feels passionately that “The worst possible outlook is indifference that says, “I can’t do anything about it: I’ll jut get by.” And throughout it seems that he is primarily addressing the young. “To the young, I say: look around you, you will find things that make you justifiably angry—the treatment of immigrants, illegal aliens and Roma. You will see concrete situations that provoke you to act as a real citizen. Seek and you shall find!”
The spirit of the French resistance lives on and Hessel’s reminder is a powerful manifesto of outrage against the many injustices that remain in contemporary society today. “To you who will create the twenty-first century, we say, from the bottom of our hearts,
TO CREATE IS TO RESIST.
TO RESIST IS TO CREATE”
I don’t think I’ve ever read a more compelling call to action. How fortunate that I went to the cafe that night, that a person was reading Hessel’s essay and that I didn’t succumb to my normal hesitancy to ask someone what they are reading.