Rebecca Solnit on Hope in the Shadows

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I want to end 2004, as is seasonally appropriate, on a note of constrained hope and who better to call on to make the case for hope than Rebecca Solnit, the author of Hope in the Dark. Below she updates her book, small in girth but mighty in scope (and recommended at this site many times). Her new piece, “Hope at Midnight,” suggests ways in which a widening of the lenses through which we’ve been taking in our post-election world might free us briefly from the confines of The Last Empire, and remind us that elsewhere on this modest planet people are at work on futures imagined quite differently from the grim ones the Bush administration offers us all.

To add a brief note of my own to hers: If it weren’t for one factor, I would, even in the wake of the recent election, be quite optimistic. After all, we are the creation of George Bush. In a mere three years, the flickering of a historical eyelash, he almost single-handedly has given life and vitality to the political Internet, while creating an antiwar and anti-him movement of surprising size, one that nearly lifted a recalcitrant candidate into the presidency. What took the right in America years and years after the Goldwater debacle of 1964, we — whoever or whatever we are in this strange, new world — seem to be doing at a double-march pace. It’s invigorating to watch. Imagine, then, along with all the expectable destruction and mayhem, what our President might be capable of producing in the four years to come.

One major constraint on my optimism, however, is that I do fear our planet is on a time clock called global warming and species extinction (topics I return to with a certain dogged regularity, even though I know they’re not the most popular at Tomdispatch). I fear we don’t have the stretches of time that all complex movements need to come into their own, not with an administration so intent on eating the Earth.

With this dispatch, I’m signing off until early in the New Year, and in doing so I want to offer thanks to every reader who took the time to visit this site in the last twelve months, or signed up for the dispatches, or passed one of them on to friends and acquaintances. I thank every writer who wrote for Tomdispatch out of conviction or the goodness of his or her (unpaid) heart. I thank all the political sites — each fascinating in its own way — that generously posted material from Tomdispatch. I especially thank all those of you who wrote in to encourage my endeavors, or criticize them, or tell me your thoughts, or something about your lives, or argue with some author, or suggest sites I should be looking at, or writers I shouldn’t miss, or books I should read, or pieces to consider, or directions to go. If only I were five or ten or fifteen people

Your letters are the secret adventure at Tomdispatch, transporting me into realms I couldn’t have imagined. All of you, in all of your variety, from all over the United States and the world, give me hope. I try my best to read everything you send my way. I only wish I had time to respond with the sort of care and attention your letters deserve. I offer another year of apologies to those of you who tried to submit pieces to me. As part of my attempt to remain sane at this sideline that ate my life, I don’t, sadly enough, take submissions.

A special note to the military families, soldiers, and others who have written in about our Iraqi occupation: Hang in there. My greatest wish is that somehow we can manage to bring our troops in Iraq home to their families in 2005.

A final small prayer to unknown gods for letting me stumble across Nick Turse, who is now — thanks to the kind support of that wonderful duo Hamilton Fish and Taya Grobow at the Nation Institute — my part-time research assistant at the site.

With my few days off, I’ll have a chance to finish the book that, as it happens, has completely engrossed me this week, Rebecca Solnit’s (yes, truly) River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West about the moment in California back in the 1870s when our virtual world began. To all of you, then, a fine holiday. See you in 2005! Tom

Hope at Midnight
By Rebecca Solnit

Most of the acute despair felt in the wake of the U.S. election has faded into general depression or a sense that all the effort, or even any effort, is futile, but I still wonder about the intensity of that gloom. And I’m still an advocate for hope.

One of the starkest contrasts of the campaign was that Bush was selling hope — even if false hope, something pretty indistinguishable from lies. After all, his good news mostly consisted of the assertion that the economy was doing just great, the war was being won, and America was safer. Or maybe hope — which is the belief that another world is possible, not that it isn’t necessary — is a misnomer for the message that everything is fine, just go back to sleep. Kerry had the sorry job of saying that actually the war was a disaster, that we’d made millions of new enemies, that we were a whole lot less safe, and that the economy was tanking, and he never figured out any creative way to frame the bad news and the demands that such news makes. As a product, Bush was more tightly packaged, prodding the American people along with the carrot of false hopes and the stick of false fears. Or perhaps displaced fears is a better term — for the feelings are real but the phenomena onto which they are projected aren’t.

I went to Reno just before the election to do get-out-the-vote stuff, and that last week I had the same sense of lightheartedness as did almost everyone else I know, as though we were coming up for parole on what had seemed a life sentence, as though there might be a cure for our loathsome, painful disease. The end of the era of Bush suddenly seemed likely — because of polls, because of countless unlikely volunteers like me giving the Kerry campaign momentum, because we felt lucky for a change. I didn’t know how heavily Bush’s presidency weighed on me until I tried on the idea of a world without him.

I mean, Kerry was not the captain of my dreams, but he was going to be pretty good for a few environmental things I care about, and having a “reality-based” person with an interest in international laws and treaties at the helm would have been nice. It was deeply dismaying that some fifty-something million people, give or take all those contested votes, thought Bush was okay — though he didn’t win the majority of voters, since 40% (a larger share than either candidate got) stayed home, and those who voted for him are a tiny unpopular minority in the larger world. And as Noam Chomsky points out, the election was largely a triumph of marketing, a manufactured drama that had little to do with the real desires and values of the electorate. “A large majority of the public believe,” he wrote, citing polling statistics, “that the US should accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court, sign the Kyoto protocols, allow the UN to take the lead in international crises, and rely on diplomatic and economic measures more than military ones in the ‘war on terror.'”

Late in the election season, I vowed to keep away from what I thought of as “the Conversation,” that tailspin of mutual wailing about how bad everything is, a recitation of the usual evidence against us that just dug any hope and imagination down into a dank little foxhole of curled-up despair. (One exciting opportunity the left often offers is that of being your own prosecutor, making the case against your own hopes and desires.) Now I listen to people having that conversation, wondering what it is we get from it — the certainty of despair? Is even that kind of certainty, a despair as false as Bush’s hope, so worth pursuing? Let me try to make instead the case for realism and for not giving up.

Locating the Future

What strikes you when you come out of a deep depression or get close to a depressive is the utter selfishness of misery, its shallow, stuck, inward gaze. Which is why the political imagination is better fueled by looking deeper and farther. The larger world: it was as though it disappeared during that season, as though there were only two places left on the planet — Iraq, like hell on Earth, and the United States rotting out from the center. The U.S. is certainly the central focus of the world’s military might, and its war in the heart of the Middle East for control of the global oil supply matters a lot. The suffering of Iraqis matters and so do the deaths of more than a hundred thousand of them, along with the more than 1,200 American kids. This is where the future is being bashed in.

But there are places we hardly notice where it looks like the future is being invented — notably South America. When I think about this fall’s elections, I think of them as a trio. You already know all about the one in the U.S. In Uruguay, after not four years of creepy governments but a hundred and seventy years — ever since Andrew Jackson was president here — the people got a good leftist government. As Eduardo Galeano joyfully wrote:

“A few days before the election of the President of the planet in North America, in South America elections and a plebiscite were held in a little-known, almost secret country called Uruguay. In these elections, for the first time in the country’s history, the left won. And in the plebiscite, for the first time in world history, the privatization of water was rejected by popular vote, asserting that water is the right of all people The country is unrecognizable. Uruguayans, so unbelieving that even nihilism was beyond them, have started to believe, and with fervor. And today this melancholic and subdued people, who at first glance might be Argentineans on valium, are dancing on air. The winners have a tremendous burden of responsibility. This rebirth of faith and revival of happiness must be watched over carefully. We should recall every day how right Carlos Quijano was when he said that sins against hope are the only sins beyond forgiveness and redemption.”

The U.S. is in many ways the world’s big problem; South America is one place that looks like it’s coming up with solutions. In Chile, huge protests against the Bush administration and its policies went on for several days, better than any we’ve had at home since the war broke out. Maybe Chile is the center of the world; maybe the fact that the country has evolved from a terrifying military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet to a democracy where people can be outspoken in their passion for justice on the other side of the world matters as much as our decline. Despair there in the Pinochet era was more justified than here under Bush. And as longtime Chile observer Roger Burbach wrote after those demonstrations, “There is indeed a Chilean alternative to Bush: it is to pursue former dictators and the real terrorists by using international law and building a global international criminal system that will be based on an egalitarian economic system that empowers people at the grass roots to build their own future.”

In Venezuela this August, voters reaffirmed “Washington’s biggest headache,” anti-Bush populist Hugo Chavez, in a US-backed referendum meant to topple him. This spring, Argentina’s current president, Nestor Kirchner, backed by the country’s popular rebellion against neoliberalism, defied the International Monetary Fund; Uruguayans voted against water privatization; Bolivians fought against water and natural gas privatization so fiercely they chased their neoliberal president into exile in Miami in October of 2003.

Which is not to say, forget Iraq, forget the U.S.; just, remember Uruguay, remember Chile, remember the extraordinary movements against privatization and for justice, democracy, land reform and indigenous rights in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Venezuela. Not one or the other, but both. Latin America is important on the face of it because these communities are inventing a better politics of means and of ends. That continent is also important because twenty years or so ago, almost all those countries were run by violent dictators. We know how the slide into tyranny and fear takes place, but how does the slow clambering out of it unfold? That’s something we are going to need to know, because Bush is halfway through an eight-year reign, not at the start of a thousand-year Reich, so far as we can tell.

The third election at the center of the world this autumn was in the Ukraine, where voter fraud, dioxin poisoning, media control, and foreign manipulations (by both the U.S. and Russia) culminated in a ruckus in the streets, and a revote is due the day after Christmas. A brave resistance, camping out day and night in the streets, chanting and dancing, pushing into the parliament, prevailed. The Ukrainians look like they will get, for their trouble, not a saint, not a perfect leader, but at least a sense of their own power. Few more sinister choices can be imagined than that between the Kremlin’s candidate and the CIA’s. Still, it makes you wonder what would have happened if we had had the passion Ukrainians have, if we had surrounded the Capitol, camping out by the hundreds of thousands on the Mall, demanding that the 2000 election be invalidated because of the evident fraud and disenfranchisement in Florida. Of course, election frauds here in 2000 and 2004 were never as clear-cut. Despite all the flaws, the Ukrainians in the street recalled the nonviolent revolutions in Central Europe fifteen years ago.

For history will remember 2004 not with the microscopic lens of we who lived through it the way aphids traverse a rose, but with a telescopic eye that sees it as part of the stream of wild changes that exploded in 1989 in one of the greatest years of revolutions the world has ever seen, the first great harvest of seeds sown years and decades before. That was the year students sat down in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and demanded democracy, the year that the long struggle of Solidarity in Poland paid off with a democracy, that Czechoslovakia’s protracted struggle for liberty culminated in the Velvet Revolution, the year Hungary freed itself, the year the Berlin Wall fell, and the beginning of the end of the apartheid era arrived. Nobody, including the Soviets, woke up on January 1, 1989, thinking that their empire had only a few hundred days left.

Counting Backward, Looking Forward

That was fifteen years ago. Chomsky, who is not prone to irrational exuberance, remarked in his election commentary, “The world is pretty awful today, but it is far better than yesterday, not only with regard to unwillingness to tolerate aggression, but also in many other ways, which we now tend to take for granted.”

Ten years ago last April, South Africa held the elections that spelled the real end of the apartheid era and made that once most unlikely of candidates, Nelson Mandela, president of a democratic nation. On New Year’s Day of 1994, the day that NAFTA went into effect, a group of indigenous men and women walked out of the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, onto the main stage of history. Nobody else on December 31, 1993, expected the following day to be anything unusual, though the implementation of NAFTA was clearly going to be a long slow death sentence for Mexican farmers. The arrival of the Zapatistas emblematized a wider revolution on the part of the hemisphere’s indigenous people, including a revolt against the official version of history. Their version asserted that Columbus was just a colonist, not a discoverer, that the five centuries of genocide had not been altogether successful, and that the people who were supposed to be conquered and extinct weren’t necessarily either. Since then, they have been a part of the revolutions in many parts of South America.

Five years ago, on April 1, 1999, the Canadian government officially gave their homeland back to the Inuit, who now govern an independent province about the size of Europe (with a population about the size of a town you’ve never heard of), almost a quarter of the land mass of this second-largest nation on earth. Plagued with financial troubles — a hugely diffuse subarctic province is expensive — Nunavut is nevertheless a triumph of perseverance over the official version of the possible. Five years ago, the Zapatistas and other indigenous people were part of the global uprising against the World Trade Organization as it met in Seattle. Five years ago on November 30, the world took a sudden left turn when a bunch of activists shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization. The WTO was looming up as the most powerful institution the world had ever known, a force to push transnational capitalism’s privileges into every corner of the Earth. Five years ago, on November 29, 1999, the WTO looked like an unstoppable tank that would crush everything in its path. One day later, the shutdown in Seattle signaled the beginning of its decline, and last year’s WTO meeting in Cancun — when indigenous Yucatan campesinos led Korean farmers and a multitude of activists from a global network of resistance — tipped the tank into a ditch, where its wheels are still spinning.

On that day when Seattle seemed like the center of the world, there was a sister action in Bangalore, India, focusing on Monsanto, which once brought the world the dioxin-laced herbicide Agent Orange and has lately been bringing it a cornucopia of genetically modified crops whose main features seemed to be resistance to Monsanto pesticides and enhancement of Monsanto profits. The corporation that so embodied the WTO’s threats has since 1999 closed its European office, been widely attacked in India, given up on commercializing its GMO wheat, stopped trying to spread GMO canola in Australia, been unable to collect royalties on GMO soybeans grown in South America, and this year reported record losses. Citizens in Italy recently turned 13 of its 20 regions and 1500 towns into “GMO-free zones,” as did citizens in a few California counties. The huge corporation Sygenta also cancelled all its research and marketing programs for GMO products in Europe because of popular outcry. Europeans have achieved significant successes in limiting the reach of GMO foods and agriculture into that continent.

These stories of liberation have been running concurrently with the rise of the Bush administration and its leap into war. And India’s election in May of 2004 threw out the Hindu fundamentalist BJP — not to replace it with an ideal government but with the Congress Party, the equivalent, more or less, of the Democrats here. “For many of us who feel estranged from mainstream politics, there are rare, ephemeral moments of celebration,” said Arundhati Roy after that election.

This is what the world usually looks like, not like Uruguay this fall, not like the US, but like both. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” His forgotten next sentence is, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” You wonder what made Nelson Mandela hopeful in 1973, what made Czech dissident Vaclav Havel keep poking at the authorities in 1979, what kept the indigenous peoples of the Americas going from 1492 to 1992 when their fortunes began to turn a little, what made the people of Uruguay bother to come out to vote after 170 years of bipartisan oligarchy, the people of Chile continue resisting at hideous cost against the Pinochet regime. And you remember that the world turned on Pinochet in 1998, that his own country will likely try him as a criminal, that his old crony Henry Kissinger is afraid to leave the United States for fear of international justice. Is it so impossible then, with another twenty years or so of heading in the direction the world’s been heading, the direction the US government is trying to head off, to imagine that Bush may one day find himself in a war-crimes tribunal?

I could count back in other ways, I could count forty years to the birth of the free speech movement in 1964, fifty to the end of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reign of terror, sixty to 1944, when all Europe was in ruins and terror and hunger and the Third Reich was just beginning to look conquerable. I could count back a century to a Republican president, Teddy R, who was belligerent abroad but decent at home, utterly unlike most modern members of his party in his passion for environmental preservation and trust-busting the big corporations — and yet he was president of a country in which for all intents and purposes only white men had rights and only a marginalized few ever imagined it would be otherwise. But that is truly the past.

The last fifteen years in Poland and Venezuela, in rural Mexico and downtown Seattle are the wide-open present in which we live. And what distinguishes all these hallmarks I have selected — the case for the defense of hope — is that they are about the power that lies on the edges, in the shadows, with forgotten, discounted, marginal and ordinary people, not the privileged and spotlighted. It is that power on the edges, the power of the powerless, that undermines the WTO, troubles Monsanto, overthrew a president in Bolivia and election results in the Ukraine, and makes the war in Iraq unwinnable.

Hope at the Edges

The US election was bound to be depressing, since its very nature was to fix our gaze upon national electoral politics, the arena in which they have lots of power and we have hardly any. At these times, the world is organized like a theater; politicians are what’s on stage; and the message is that this and nowhere else is where the fate of the world is decided. It’s easy to let your gaze lock onto the limelight, helped along by all the mainstream media. And staring at a bright light makes it hard to see in the dark areas around and beyond. It takes time for your eyes to adjust. The brightly lit stage is an arena of tremendous power, but of almost no creativity. Much is decided there, but what is at stake comes from elsewhere. I wonder nowadays if the fear of the Other — communists, gays, lesbians, immigrants, terrorists — displaces into safe terms the very real recognition that change comes from the edge. Those with a stake in the status quo are there to protect the center not just from assault, but from imagination and transformation. But change will come anyway.

Take gay rights: I’ve been watching with fascination the Supreme Court rule on that issue. In the summer of 2003, the Justices overturned centuries of laws criminalizing same-sex sex because even nonstraight people had a constitutional right of privacy, and a few weeks ago they declined to reverse the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry. Now, you can look directly at our nine gentlepersons in black and see the power that they wield, but you can also look beyond and around them and see that they are just ratifying changes that were made not by senators or judges but by grassroots activists and cultural workers, not just the ones who brought the lawsuits, but all the entertainers and writers and people who dared to speak up and come out, who eclipsed the old images of nonstraightness as a rare and dangerous aberration rather than a broad and ineradicable swathe of the mainstream.

This is how culture makes politics; the Supreme Court saw what was legal and commonsensical in ways that would have been impossible had not these heroes and heroines changed the very terms of the world. I mean, Bush says he is in favor of civil unions but against gay marriage, which is a step forward, delivered in a viciously backhanded manner. And if you look at the votes against gay marriage and at homophobia inside and outside the military, they look like the reactions of an endangered species, one that is going to fade away with people who came of age before Ellen DeGeneres and other queer TV figures, and out kids and teachers in Utah high schools, and hate crimes legislation, and countless small gestures of courage and visibility. (Military watchdog Steve Ralls writes, “Fifty percent of junior enlisted service members say that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey. The number is a significant increase since 1992, when two similar surveys found 16 percent of male service members held the same view.”)

Not fade quickly, not without the attacks that are a backlash against change that will probably come anyway. Not that the world is going to be perfect and safe anytime soon or ever, but the kind of criminalization and repression of the nonstraight that was normal in, say, 1965, is gone in many places. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and New Zealand recently introduced civil union rights. Belgium and the Netherlands have legalized same-sex marriage, while Spain — Spain! land of the Inquisition, land of Franco’s ultra-right-wing dictatorship until 1975 — and Canada are close to legalization.

And never mind the anyone-but-ourselves-to-blame Democrats who make same-sex marriage the fall guy (or gal) for the election outcome, when they might as well criticize Kerry’s failure to capture easy constituencies, like the Latinos in the three southwestern states — Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico — who could’ve swung the election. Then, there’s the interesting background tale of how Clinton, Gore, Feinstein, et al. campaigned furiously for mainstream Democrat Gavin Newsom to become mayor of San Francisco rather than Green Party contender Matt Gonzalez. After all, it was Mayor Newsom who shook off his backers and turned San Francisco into the gay-marriage Mecca the rest of the world watched in February and March. But then, if the Greens had cared as much about a winnable election as they did about running a presidential candidate in pursuit of 5% of the vote in 2000, maybe they would’ve done more for Gonzalez, who lost the mayoral election by about the same percentage Kerry lost the national one.

The Wobblies used to say, “Don’t mourn, organize!” Do both. The election was deeply depressing, and I’m not arguing against being depressed. I’m just arguing against giving up. And for broadening the arena of evidence under consideration, since the world is larger than the United States and mostly in defiance of it, not to mention utterly unpredictable.

And besides which, if you give up, you’ll hate yourself in the morning. If you act, you may or may not have the impact you intend, but you know what the consequences of passivity are. Insurrection is the honorable way to go, and you can be a small victory just by being in public, in touch, and outspoken — one person who hasn’t been conquered. Don’t do the Administration the favor of conquering yourself.

Rebecca Solnit is a writer and activist based in San Francisco and a regular Tomdispatch contributor. The ideas here were generated as she revisited her June 2004 book Hope in the Dark for a new edition.

Copyright C2004 Rebecca Solnit