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192 pages, Paperback
First published April 1, 2004
In the past couple of years two great waves of despair have come in — or perhaps waves is too energetic a term since the despair felt like a stall, a becalming, a running aground. The more recent despair was over the presidential election in the US, thought as Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano commented, George W. Bush was running for President of the World. And he won, despite the opposition of most of the people in the world, despite the polls, despite the fact that a majority of US voters did not choose him — or John Kerry; 40% of the electorate stayed home, despite a surge of organization and activism by progressives and leftists who didn't even agree with Kerry on so very much, despite the terrible record of violence and destruction Bush had accrued, despite the stark disaster the Iraq war had become. He won. Which is to say the world lost.
"Hope locates itself in the premises that we don't know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.... [Hope is] the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand."Rebecca Solnit did a third edition update of this book in the early months of 2016, originally published in 2004 after the re-election of George W. Bush. The audience is clear, people disappointed in his re-election, struggling with burnout and feeling like their work is just spinning their wheels and treading water. It is meant to be encouraging for that group and other activists, pointing out historical events where activism has had a significant impact, from preventing environmental destruction to starting a revolution.
"The African writer Laurens Van Der Post once said that no great new leaders were emerging because it was time for us to cease to be followers."For a few days following the presidential election of 2016, the publisher made the eBook available for free. I was grasping at anything, and downloaded it, thinking I might be able to read it in the future.
"Despair is ... a form of impatience as well as of certainty."But I was curious. I have liked what Solnit had to say before, from mansplaining to Iceland. So I peeked in and found myself returning to it between other reads. It's funny, while a lot of what she is saying has a lot of relevance, the feeling is still different now. Some of what Solnit points out about how ideas change and become mainstream over time must also be true about racism and sexism if they are true about more liberal leaning ideals. I do wonder what she is thinking, if she's worried about her work being truly undone (she has contributed significantly to environmental activism), if the change in tide is troubling, or if she can still step back the way she is able to in these pages. I suppose I will wait for the fourth edition, or another essay.
"[History] is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension.... It will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal... Hope calls for action."As always, Solnit is impeccably researched, and I appreciated her very thorough and engaging endnotes. Her concepts near the end of the coyote created world, and being willing to step past doctrine and engage with new partners and new ways of thinking is really where I think we should all be focusing right now.
Left despair has many causes and many varieties. There are those who think that turning the official version inside out is enough. To say that the emperor has no clothes is a nice anti-authoritarian gesture, but to say that everything is without exception going straight to hell is not an authoritarian vision but only an inverted of the mainstream’s “everything’s fine”. Then, failure and marginalisation are safe - you can see the conservatives who run the United States claim to be embattled outsiders, because that means they can deny their responsibility for how things are and their power to make change, and because it is a sense of being threatened that rallies their troops. The activists who deny their own power and possibility likewise choose to shake off their sense of obligation: if they are doomed to lose, they don’t have to do very much except situate themselves as beautiful losers or at least virtuous ones.
Both versions are defeatist because they are static. What’s missing from these two ways of telling is an ability to recognise a situation in which you are travelling and have not arrived, in which you have cause both to celebrate and fight, in which the world is always being made and never finished. [...] “We are winning” said the graffiti in Seattle, not “We have won”. It’s a way of telling in which you can feel successful without feeling smug, in which you can feel challenged without feeling defeated. Most victories will be temporary, or incomplete, or compromised in some way, and we might as well celebrate them as well as the stunning victories that come from time to time.
Hollywood movies and too many government pandemic plans still presume that most of us are cowards or brutes, that we panic, trample each other, rampage, or freeze helplessly in moments of crisis and chaos. Most of us believe this, even though it is a slander against the species, an obliteration of what actually happens, and a crippling blow to our ability to prepare for disasters. Hollywood likes this view because it paves the way for movies starring some superman in the foreground and hordes of stamping, screaming extras. Without stupid, helpless people to save, heroes become unnecessary. Or rather, without them, it turns out we are all heroes.
A friend born in the 1950s reminds me that his generation in their youth really expected a revolution - the old kind where people march with weapons and overthrow the government and establish a utopia - and were permanently disappointed that it hadn’t come to pass. When I was young, people still jestingly said, “After the revolution,” but the catchphrase came from the idea that regime change was how to change everything, and nothing short of regime change mattered. Though everything had changed - not enough on many fronts, but tremendously.