November 25, 2015
The Arc of Justice and the Long Run
Posted on Dec 23, 2013
By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch
Maps of the Unpredictable
Whenever I look around me, I wonder what old things are about to bear fruit, what seemingly solid institutions might soon rupture, and what seeds we might now be planting whose harvest will come at some unpredictable moment in the future. The most magnificent person I met in 2013 quoted a line from Michel Foucault to me: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” Someone saves a life or educates a person or tells her a story that upends everything she assumed. The transformation may be subtle or crucial or world changing, next year or in 100 years, or maybe in a millennium. You can’t always trace it but everything, everyone has a genealogy.
In her forthcoming book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, Sarah Lewis tells how a white teenager in Austin, Texas, named Charles Black heard a black trumpet player in the 1930s who changed his thinking—and so our lives. He was riveted and transformed by the beauty of New Orleans jazzman Louis Armstrong’s music, so much so that he began to reconsider the segregated world he had grown up in. “It is impossible to overstate the significance of a 16-year-old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black,” he recalled decades later. As a lawyer dedicated to racial equality and civil rights, he would in 1954 help overturn segregation nationwide, aiding the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case ending segregation (and overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, the failed anti-segregation lawsuit launched in New Orleans 60 years earlier).
How do you explain what Louis Armstrong’s music does? Can you draw a map of the United States in which the sound of a trumpeter in 1930s Texas reaches back to moments of liberation created by slaves in Congo Square and forward to the Supreme Court of 1954?
Square, Site wide
Or how do you chart the way in which the capture of three young American hikers by Iranian border guards on the Iraq-Iran border in 2009 and their imprisonment—the men for 781 days—became the occasion for secret talks between the U.S. and Iran that led to the interim nuclear agreement signed last month? Can you draw a map of the world in which three idealistic young people out on a walk become prisoners and then catalysts?
Looking back, one of those three prisoners, Shane Bauer, wrote, “One of my fears in prison was that our detention was only going to fuel hostility between Iran and the U.S. It feels good to know that those two miserable years led to something, that could lead to something better than what was before.”
Bauer later added:
“The reason our tragedy led to an opening between the United States and Iran was that many people were actively working to end our suffering. To do so, our friends and families had to strive to build a bridge between the U.S. and Iran when the two governments were refusing to do it themselves. Sarah [Shourd, the third prisoner] is not a politician and she has no desire to be, but when she was released a year before Josh and me, she made herself into a skilled and unrelenting diplomat, strengthening connections between Oman and the U.S. that ultimately led to these talks.”
A decade ago I began writing about hope, an orientation that has nothing to do with optimism. Optimism says that everything will be fine no matter what, just as pessimism says that it will be dismal no matter what. Hope is a sense of the grand mystery of it all, the knowledge that we don’t know how it will turn out, that anything is possible. It means recognizing that the sound of a trumpet at a school dance in Austin, Texas, may resound in the Supreme Court 20 years later; that an unfortunate hike in the borderlands might help turn two countries away from war; that Edward Snowden, a young NSA contractor and the biggest surprise of this year, might revolt against that agency’s sinister invasions of privacy and be surprised himself by the vehemence of the global reaction to his leaked data; that culture which left Africa more than 200 years ago might return to that continent as a tool for liberation—that we don’t know what we do does.
That Massachusetts pear tree is still bearing fruit almost 400 years after it was planted. The planter of that tree also helped instigate the war against the Pequots, who were massacred in 1637. “The survivors were sold into slavery or given over to neighboring tribes. The colonists even barred the use of the Pequot name, ‘in order to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth,’ as the leader of the raiding party later wrote,” according to the New York Times.
For centuries thereafter, that Native American nation was described as extinct, erased, gone. It was written about in the past tense when mentioned at all. In the 1970s, however, the Pequots achieved federal recognition, entitling them to the rights that Native American tribes have as “subject sovereign nations”; in the 1980s, they opened a bingo hall on their reservation in Connecticut; in the 1990s, it became the biggest casino in the western world. (Just for the record, I’m not a fan of the gambling industry, but I am of unpredictable narratives.)
With the enormous income from that project, the tribe funded a Native American history museum that opened in 1998, also the biggest of its kind. The new empire of the Pequots has been on rocky ground since the financial meltdown of 2008, but the fact that it arose at all is astonishing more than 150 years after Herman Melville stuck a ship called the Pequod in the middle of his novel Moby Dick and mentioned that it was named after a people “now extinct as the ancient Medes.” Are there are longer odds in New England than that a people long pronounced gone would end up profiting from the bad-math optimism of their neighbors?
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