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Who we lost in 2008, and what we need to learn from them.

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Dec. 31st, 2008 | 02:16 pm
mood: okayPersonal life update is next.

Year-end blog entry 1/2.

You don't need to ask a journalist to realize what a difficult year this was, in macro. Most any American could tell you stories about losing their job (or being unable to find one in the first place), shrinking investments, a bruising presidential campaign, or other woes that point to serious trouble. For me, 2008 led me to realize that each successive year is not destined to be better than the last, and in fact can be much worse. I'm confident that we'll survive the turmoil, but in order to do so, I think we need to take lessons from some of the folks that died in this year. I'm certain that we could learn something form every name, major and unknown, that didn't live to see the end of this year. Heath Ledger. Johnnie Carr. Michael Crichton. Charlton Heston. David Foster Wallace. Yves Saint Laurent. But I feel the following people lived lives that will be most instructive to us all.

I'm heartened by the reemergence of political activism surrounding the November elections, especially when young people have been called lazy and unworthy of inheriting responsibility from the older generation simply because of our age. I hope that Barack Obama's election and the passage of Proposition 8 won't be the end of it, though, because activists like these never ended their work.

Stephanie Tubbs Jones was best known for her close connection to Hillary's presidential campaign, which ended only two months before her death. But I remember her best as the woman who tried to halt the certification of Ohio's electoral votes in the 2004 election until the multiple reported problems could be investigated. I'm sure that most people, whether watching her on C-SPAN like I was or just reading about her stand before the House, dismissed it as sour grapes or a diversionary tactic from what seemed to be a given fact: that George W. Bush was going to be elected again. But what I saw was a woman who cared about the democratic process and wasn't going to accept that it was being tromped upon again, this time in her home state.

Harriet McBryde Johnson was a disability rights lawyer in South Carolina, and confirmed for me that, yes, this type of practice is civil rights law. You may know her from her contributions to the New York Times Magazine, in particular the first one in 2003, on her debates and conversations with Peter Singer on the value of life. Here was a woman who refused to accept someone else's accounting of the worth of her own life, and I hope that we can take that to heart. You alone know the value and the worth and the point of living your own life as you want to, whether you are the woman in the wheelchair, the boy who likes boys, or the daughter of dairy farmers who wants to be a theologian, or whatever. On a similar note, Mildred Loving, one half of the namesake couple that prevailed in Loving v. Virginia after a long and humiliating battle with the state on interracial marriage, died May 2. Her life was a testament to what I hope we are still striving for: love who you want and be happy, for your country and your neighbors do not know better than you how to live. In the madness of Proposition 8 (and she did express her support for gay marriage last year) I feel somewhat betrayed by the people and churches who think denying rights to me will help them. It wasn't true in 1965, and it isn't true now.

My hope is also that the serious tone of this year, and probably 2009, won't lead us to give up on the passions and whims that make life whole. Though the stakes of keeping fun and adventure in your life are certainly smaller than defending your rights, I still worry that we'll underestimate their importance. Steve Fossett disappeared during what was to be a short plane ride in September 2007 and his remains were not found for over a year, an abrupt end to what seemed like limitless potential. I think every Organization Man can relate to the story of leaving the white collar behind to fly planes around the world and set speed sailing records. There's nothing wrong with the desire, and he showed that seizing the chance to actually do it is another way to live life.

Sir Edmund Hillary, who performed similar record-breaking feats but with less technology and in an earlier generation, was the adventurer with a conscience, an important balance to pay attention to. After becoming the first to reach the summit of Mt. Everest and the first to reach the South Pole in 40 years, he was still a modest guy who was passionate about undertaking such feats in the right way. His longtime pledge to help the people of Nepal and not to support the attitude of achieving record-breaking feats at all costs are more influential to me than climbing that mountain, and we need more people with his attitude in our world.

Our writers and journalists, those whom I would ask for a reckoning of how we're doing in life, were particularly heavy losses this year. On the other side of the world but always relevant to our lives was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the author who unapologetically wrote about the endless difficulty that was the Soviet Union. Having spent years first in the gulag and then in exile, the novelist knew suffering and was not about to let it go unrecorded. If this sounds like a daunting addition to your reading list, I would recommend Cancer Ward, which was based on his own experience contracting cancer and finally receiving treatment. The hospital where the story is set, while physically very different from those of his other works, still shows a stark and unforgiving world, where doctors are not particularly respected and the suffering of each individual is not guaranteed to be relieved or even noticed.

Back in the U.S., Studs Terkel, whose long life in Chicago gave him endless material for radio shows and newspaper columns and books, was a chronicler of the everyday Chicagoan. And in a year when Obama and Blagojevich and Emanuel made Illinois seem both larger than life and quite foreign, I think we need the reality check that he could always provide. For a place I don't know too well yet, I like Illinois very much and will be exploring it more extensively in 2009; this cat's life was devoted to showing its very best, its people. In the arena of political journalism, we were shocked by the sudden death of Tim Russert while on the job at NBC. The presidential election that passed without his insightful contributions (and occasional grillings) didn't feel quite right to me; he had the rare qualifications to report the stories that we should know and that weren't going to be told otherwise, and to make connections where we often did not. It was a sorely needed role with our outgoing president in the White House, and I still think it will be important to dig deeper and not accept that what we can see as the whole story with a new president coming.

From top to bottom: Harriet McBryde Johnson; Stephanie Tubbs Jones, photo from Flickr user dtramos; Mildred and Richard Loving; David Foster Wallace autograph, photo from Ann Althouse; Tim Russert, photo from alonglens; Studs Terkel, photo from TrustyNick, reproduced under Creative Commons licenses.


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from: crazykidben
date: Jan. 1st, 2009 12:27 am (UTC)

I've got a personal story to share and an activist to add to your list, as taken from ARA's website:

Andrea Scamihorn

"Anti-Racist Action lost a comrade to 'natural' causes this weekend.
As many of you may have already heard, a friend and comrade passed away this weekend. Many of you know Andrea, formerly of Muncie ARA. She died from carbon monoxide poisoning in her apartment in Chile, the day before she was scheduled to return to the United States."

She was active locally as well as internationally, raising awareness about racism and other injustices in the United States as well as teaching English in Chile.

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from: silverthief2
date: Jan. 1st, 2009 08:10 am (UTC)

I read about her on your blog, and she sounds amazing. She was so young.

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