Stéphane Hessel lived for nearly a century and almost everything he achieved in that time was extraordinary. He fought in the French Resistance; he was captured by the Nazis, sent to Buchenwald, waterboarded; he was in the room as they drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not the least of his achievements was Indignez-vous!
Who would have believed that a 30-page political pamphlet written by a nonagenarian diplomat would be translated into 15 languages, and spark protest movements across the world? This was the essay that was poking out of the pockets of students in Tunis and Basra, and it was one of the direct influences on the Occupy movement in the US.
He was amazed by its success, but it came at the right time. Unlike many more important political thinkers, Hessel wrote essays rather than tomes; and instead of post-modern jargon his sentences have the simplicity of experience: he lived through it all and had nothing to prove. Even those who disagreed most strongly with him granted him that much.
For a man in his nineties he is refreshingly un-mellow. He is pissed-off about the state of the world, and his point is that you should be too. It may have been more clear-cut to face the Nazis than to face modern politcal elites, but that doesn't mean there are fewer things to be outraged over today. Hessel touches on three areas which particularly exercise his fury – the growing gap between rich and poor, the treatment of immigrants, and the fate of the Palestinians – but the main thing is that you find something that annoys you, and focus on it. That
is how changes are made. La pire des attitudes est l'indifference
: the worst attitude is indifference.
Hessel was an optimist, not a doom-monger. The necessity of hope is part of the point of Indignez-vous!
and one of its most appealing features – and god knows it's good to see that this stance is not just the preserve of the young. Admittedly, some people have taken Hessel's message in some odd directions, but for him the specific targets were secondary to the fact of provoking a reaction. Idealism and political naïveté might be irritating, but they are infinitely preferable to not caring at all.