Dec 12, 2013
Too Soon to Tell: The Case for Hope, Continued
Posted on May 21, 2013
By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.
Ten years ago, my part of the world was full of valiant opposition to the new wars being launched far away and at home—and of despair. And like despairing people everywhere, whether in a personal depression or a political tailspin, these activists believed the future would look more or less like the present. If there was nothing else they were confident about, at least they were confident about that. Ten years ago, as a contrarian and a person who prefers not to see others suffer, I tried to undermine despair with the case for hope.
A decade later, the present is still contaminated by the crimes of that era, but so much has changed. Not necessarily for the better—a decade ago, most spoke of climate change as a distant problem, and then it caught up with us in 10,000 ways. But not entirely for the worse either—the vigorous climate movement we needed arose in that decade and is growing now. If there is one thing we can draw from where we are now and where we were then, it’s that the unimaginable is ordinary, and the way forward is almost never a straight path you can glance down, but a labyrinth of surprises, gifts, and afflictions you prepare for by accepting your blind spots as well as your intuitions.
The despairing of May 2003 were convinced of one true thing, that we had not stopped the invasion of Iraq, but they extrapolated from that a series of false assumptions about our failures and our powerlessness across time and space. They assumed—like the neoconservatives themselves—that those neocons would be atop the world for a long time to come. Instead, the neocon and neoliberal ideologies have been widely reviled and renounced around the world; the Republicans’ demographic hemorrhage has weakened them in this country; the failures of their wars are evident to everyone; and though they still grasp fearsome power, everything has indeed changed. Everything changes: there lies most of our hope and some of our fear.
I’ve seen extraordinary change in my lifetime, some of it in the last decade. I was born in a country that had been galvanized and unsettled by the civil rights movement, but still lacked a meaningful environmental movement, women’s movement, or queer rights movement (beyond a couple of small organizations founded in California in the 1950s). Half a century ago, to be gay or lesbian was to live in hiding or be treated as mentally ill or criminal. That 12 states and several countries would legalize same-sex marriage was beyond imaginable then. It wasn’t even on the table in 2003. San Francisco’s spring run of same-sex weddings in 2004 flung open the doors through which so many have passed since.
Hope and history are sisters: one looks forward and one looks back, and they make the world spacious enough to move through freely. Obliviousness to the past and to the mutability of all things imprisons you in a shrunken present. Hopelessness often comes out of that amnesia, out of forgetting that everything is in motion, everything changes. We have a great deal of history of defeat, suffering, cruelty, and loss, and everyone should know it. But that’s not all we have.
There’s the people’s history, the counterhistory that you didn’t necessarily get in school and don’t usually get on the news: the history of the battles we’ve won, of the rights we’ve gained, of the differences between then and now that those who live in forgetfulness lack. This is often the history of how individuals came together to produce that behemoth civil society, which stands astride nations and topples regimes—and mostly does it without weapons or armies. It’s a history that undermines most of what you’ve been told about authority and violence and your own powerlessness.
Civil society is our power, our joy, and our possibility, and it has written a lot of the history in the last few years, as well as the last half century. If you doubt our power, see how it terrifies those at the top, and remember that they fight it best by convincing us it doesn’t exist. It does exist, though, like lava beneath the earth, and when it erupts, the surface of the earth is remade.
Things change. And people sometimes have the power to make that happen, if and when they come together and act (and occasionally act alone, as did writers Rachel Carson and Harriet Beecher Stowe—or Mohammed Bouazizi, the young man whose suicide triggered the Arab Spring).
If you fix your eye on where we started out, you’ll see that we’ve come a long way by those means. If you look forward, you’ll see that we have a long way to go—and that sometimes we go backward when we forget that we fought for the eight-hour workday or workplace safety or women’s rights or voting rights or affordable education, forget that we won them, that they’re precious, and that we can lose them again. There’s much to be proud of, there’s much to mourn, there’s much yet to do, and the job of doing it is ours, a heavy gift to carry. And it’s made to be carried, by people who are unstoppable, who are movements, who are change itself.
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