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The New Yorker’s February anniversary cover by artist John W Tomac is beautiful and profound: it speaks directly to the fear and uncertainty of our present moment. That said, with much respect for Tomac’s elegant statement, I felt like an obvious alternative storyline needed addressing:

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Tomac’s New Yorker cover (left), Wofford’s revision (right)

It’s important to acknowledge the frustration and helplessness that many are feeling right now, which is what Tomac’s image does so poignantly. Still, my personal sense is that in order to feel empowered to take action, it’s equally vital to keep envisioning the courage to move forward. By tweaking one iconic image and pairing it unexpectedly with another iconic image, this is just a quick, nerdy example of how new possibilities can emerge. The mere hint of something looking like a lightsaber in my version at right automatically creates a kind of neural shortcut to other associations.

Beyond my own 5 minutes of fun with Photoshop, it’s been interesting watching the many ways that artists and activists are presently harnessing the power of existing pop culture, cinema, comedy and all manner of embedded Jungian-hero tropes in their imagery and narratives to bolster their messages.

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To me, what’s present in the best of this maelstrom of creative output and serious silliness is a profound sense of hope, and a willingness to undertake this journey– not naïveté or optimism in some blank sense, but hope in the very specific sense expressed in this brief essay by the great Václav Havel, another improbable president of an entirely different ilk: it’s wise and absurd in all of my favorite ways.

Never Hope Against Hope, Václav Havel*, Esquire Magazine, 1993

(*Confusing byline in link, but this is Esquire’s 2011 repost of Havel’s essay. Original 1993 scan here. If you know any Czech history, the year this was originally published only adds to its potency.)

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

Vaclav Havel, 1990. Tomki Nemec
Vaclav Havel, Dec 14, 1990. photograph: Tomki Nemec

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