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Speak Out Against Injustice, says Famed Oral Historian - 2002-08-28

One of the best-known oral historians in the United States says Americans need to be more willing to speak out against injustices in the workplace and elsewhere in society. But Chicago-based writer and activist Studs Terkel says the economic downturn and last year's terrorist attacks on the United States seem to have left many Americans less inclined to express outrage.

Studs Terkel has written numerous books over the years, in which ordinary people tell their stories about life at work, race relations, death and other matters. He calls it, "celebrating the uncelebrated."

"If I ask any student, 'Who built the pyramids?' the immediate reaction is, 'The Pharaohs!' The Pharaohs did not lift a finger. Mrs. Pharaoh's hands were as immaculately manicured as were [the actress] Elizabeth Taylor's as Cleopatra," related Mr. Terkel, speaking recently at the American Psychological Association meeting in Chicago. He expressed worries over increasing unemployment and the growth of low-wage jobs, without benefits like health care in the United States. He says if there were ever a time for workers to speak out, this is it. But Americans seem to have lost their sense of outrage.

The well-publicized corporate scandals at companies like Enron and WorldCom have cost countless people their jobs and retirement savings, he said, yet too many Americans seem content to shrug their shoulders and consider the scandals "business as usual."

Mr. Terkel says the federal government should be doing more to help workers affected by recent corporate scandals, but that many people seem reluctant to criticize the Bush administration at a time when it is leading a war against terrorism.

"We do not mind big government spending when it comes to the Pentagon [defense], but when it comes to health, education and welfare, that is something else. So something has happened to our sense of outrage. We have been cut off from our own history," he said.

Mr. Terkel says the news from the workplace is not all bad. For example, there are more women and minorities in professional occupations than there were 50 years ago.

"I tell college kids, half the law schools are women, half the medical schools are women," said Mr. Terkel. "When I went to law school at the University of Chicago [there were] 200 law students, two were women, two black faces: one was an African-American and one the prince of a French protectorate in East Africa."

Mr. Terkel says technology continues to play a role in people's lives. He credits technological advances in medicine with saving his life several years ago during a bout with heart trouble. But as today's high-tech workplace is able to get by with fewer people than it did one or two decades ago, Mr. Terkel says companies seem less interested in keeping or hiring older workers.

"So, here we are, living longer - more septuagenarians, more octogenarians - and yet, at the age of 50, people wonder when they are going to be fired, retired, because a younger horse [person] may come in...without the pension, without seniority, without unions. It is a crazy situation: We are living longer, but the idea of being useful becomes less and less and less and less."

Despite having just turned 90years old, there is little danger that Mr. Terkel will face unemployment anytime soon. He works at the Chicago Historical Society, cataloguing thousands of interviews he conducted during a 45-year radio career. Mr. Terkel is also working on his next book. It will be about hope.