It's hard to travel or send words out of the US now. How can any American expect to be welcomed in the rest of the world when we have imposed the narcissistic and disastrous George Bush on it? I could explain that almost none of his policies has majority support here. Even among those who voted for him, a poll showed that 60% to 80% thought they were voting for the opposite of his actual positions: they supported the comprehensive test ban treaty (he didn't); they supported the Kyoto treaty on global warming (he didn't); they supported the international criminal court (he threatened to sanction any nation that did); and so on. This tells you a lot about the level of information in mass media that prefer celebrities, yelling matches and advertising to investigating what is and isn't accurate.
But never fear, Americans are being punished. Having re-elected Bush as a wartime president, we have to watch him alienating more allies and inspiring more people to join the war against us every day.
Still, I have hope. I have hope because majority opinion has turned against the invasion of Iraq in far less time that it took to wake up to Vietnam. I have hope because Bush's selling-off of the US government, one function at a time, has stumbled on the privatization of social security. I have hope because Americans are finally connecting, via the internet, with what the rest of the world thinks. I have hope because the only long-term solution to rightwing extremism was visible in the last election; I've seen people willing to vote before, but for the first time I saw people fighting to vote. Only an end to our status as one of the lowest-voting democracies in the world can keep a focused and financed minority from cutting through the majority like a hot knife through butter.
Hard times have made me realize that hope might be the most American of qualities, the reason why many immigrants come here and our best export by far. When I've lived in other countries, it's what I've been most homesick for. After all, unless we make a place in our imaginations for what could be, there's not much point in believing in anything. You might say I'm a hopeaholic.
I owe this not only to being born here, but to working as a feminist organizer. Terminal hopefulness is an occupational hazard. None the less, I've come to feel that hope is natural, a necessity of human evolution - and hopelessness has to be carefully taught by those who benefit from the status quo. Here's why.
I had the good luck of missing school until I was 12 or so. My parents thought that seeing the country from a trailer or caravan was as educational as a classroom, so I escaped the discouragement that, especially in my generation, came with it. I wasn't taught that boys and girls were practically different species, that America was "discovered" when the first white guy set foot on it, or that Europe deserved more space in my textbooks than Asia and Africa combined. I didn't even learn that people at the top were smarter than people at the bottom.
Instead I grew up seeing with my own eyes, following my curiosity, falling in love with books and learning mostly from being around grown-ups - which, except for the books, was the way kids had been raised for most of human history. With no one to tell me that some people were born to poverty or that women weren't leaders, but married or gave birth to them, I just assumed that hope could lead anyone anywhere.
Needless to say, school hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn't prepared for gender obsession, race and class complexities or the new-to-me idea that war, male leadership and a God who mysteriously resembled the ruling class were inevitable. Soon I gave in and became an adolescent trying to fit in, pretending I didn't know what I knew, and keeping my hopes to myself - a stage that lasted through college. I owe the beginnings of rebirth to living in India for a couple of years and falling in with a group of Gandhians, then coming home to the Kennedys, the civil rights movement and protests against the war in Vietnam.
But most women, me included, stayed in our traditional places until we began to gather, listen to each other's stories and learn that the subordinate roles we played, even in otherwise admirable movements, weren't just or inevitable. Soon a national and international feminist movement was challenging the notion that what happened to men was political, but what happened to women was cultural; that the first could be changed, but the second could not. I had the feeling of coming home, of waking from an inauthentic life. I didn't think this refound self-authority was more important than external authority, but it wasn't less important either.
Since then, I've spent decades listening to kids before and after social roles hit. Faced with some inequality, the younger ones say "It's not fair!" - as if some primordial expectation of empathy and cooperation helps the species survive. By the time they are teenagers, social pressures have nourished or starved this hope. I suspect that a natural need for fairness, or any whisper of it that survives, is the root from which social justice movements grow.
So hope is contagious. With that in mind, I offer you a few of my hopes from early and late in life.
I hope we learn that whatever is done to children, they are likely to do to society. If we can raise even one generation without violence, we have no idea what might be possible on Spaceship Earth.
I hope that spirituality overwhelms religion. I say this because spirituality links, religion ranks; spirituality sees God in all living things, religion rations out God to some more than others; spirituality celebrates life, religion celebrates life after death.
I hope we choose self-authority over hierarchy. We will have to, because the purpose of the latter is to undermine the former.
I hope we learn that the end doesn't justify the means; on the contrary, the means create the ends.
I hope that racism is finally seen as a fiction invented to justify the taking over of land and power. This remains true whether its objects are Africans or Arabs, Jews or the Kwei/San people.
I hope the female half of the world takes back control of the means of reproduction: our own bodies. After all, women are in the original secondary spot because some men wanted to control reproduction, establish paternity and ownership of children and force the bearing of more workers, more soldiers. That's how we got into this mess. Reversing it is the only way to get out.
I hope that men break out of the masculine prison that: a) justifies males dominating females; b) separates men from the full circle of their human qualities; and c) cons the many men at the bottom into endangering their lives to protect the few men at the top.
All these hopes become much more practical when you consider that either/or thinking, patriarchy, hierarchy, nationalism and monotheism, and much more that we've wrongly been sold as inevitable, have been confined to less than 5% of human history. We won't be the first to strive toward such hopes.
Will this fragile Spaceship Earth survive long enough? Only if we act on our hopes every day.
Gloria Steinem is a writer and activist. Her books include Moving Beyond Words and Revolution from Within.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers Limited