Being at the End of the Year: Reflections on Hope

by Mark Chmiel

For Andrew Wimmer

Exuberance is Beauty.
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell[1]

 

It’s been a rough year. Just considering the big picture, to think of Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and Rafah, is enough to make me gasp, gnash my teeth, and ache.  How much malice and violence can I, can we know of, witness, take in before we go nuts?  How much?

I think of loved ones I saw immediately after the election, and they looked as if they were headed to the most tragic funeral imaginable. Sure, they eventually got out of that profound funk, but it was scary to witness.  I felt out of it for a couple of days but then one day in class at Saint Louis University, I felt strangely buoyed: Thank God, the election is over. It’s time to get back to work.

The work goes on, whether Bush or Kerry is in the White House. Both  support American Empire.  And for me and some of my friends, Kerry would likely have been as dreadful in office on the Palestinian issue as Bush has been (as Clinton also was).

The work goes on.  And it is this reason that I am giving, for the New Year, a book to many of my friends.  It’s not a long book, right at 150 pages.  It’s not a difficult book; in fact, it’s quite enjoyable, and I think, it’s a must read for an aspiring, committed, and/or weary activist, citizen and/or human being.  It’s by Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Stories, Wild Possibilities (New York: Nation Books, 2004).

When’s a good time to read Solnit’s book? When you’re in one of those moods where you say, with exasperation, “Nothing can really be changed.”  When you perceive how the other side always seems to be winning, and you feel like the Beatles’s 1965 song, “I’m a Loser” has exclusive relevance to your side (whatever that side is). When life seems so grim that you’d rather stay at home, stay in the kitchen, or stay in bed.  When you think you’ve got nothing to offer. When your friends (without conspiring) all tell you on the same day that you seem to be wearing a long face these past few weeks. When you realize that fury has take up permanent lodging in your soul.  When you’ve gotten so used to cursing the opposition, you don’t even notice it anymore. Then, read or reread Solnit.

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One of the illuminating themes of Solnit’s book is the question of how social change occurs. She points out that it doesn’t happen in a linear fashion—for example, we go to a protest on February 15th, 2003 and millions around the world do so also, and that, and that alone, stops the U.S. war on Iraq from happening.[2]  Solnit puts it pithily: “History is like the weather, not like checkers.”[3]  In other words, history can change, like that, and has changed like that, but we are somehow blinded to the radically changed world we live in today, because of so much overt struggle and countless initiatives made over these last decades.  Because out history “changed like the weather,” we are oblivious to the vast differences of our life now, as, say, compared to forty years ago. Forty years ago, when I was a lad of four, my parents couldn’t imagine how the feminist movement would change American culture. Indeed, many of my students are often blasé about feminism, as they have no historical sense of how different, how much harder, how limiting things were four decades ago.

Here’s Solnit on her book’s title and subject: “Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change in the weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.”[4]

I don’t know who said it first, my best friend and I have taken turns saying this to one another over twenty years, but when one of us feels despairing and moans that there’s nothing to be done, the other will shoot back, “You don’t know what’s gonna happen!”  Early in her book, Solnit writes, “Anything could happen, and whether we act or nor has everything to do with it.”[5]  Precisely.

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Yet, some days it’s hard to feel hopeful when looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  So much needless suffering and death and destruction.  But I try to remember events in the past year since several of us returned from Palestine and then I consider it a victory that hundreds, maybe thousands of people, from all over the world have traveled to Palestine and worked with the International Solidarity Movement.[6] Why is this a victory?  It’s a victory not that the Israeli occupation has ended, the principal goal of the ISM.  It hasn’t, and Jewish-only settlements continue to be built, Palestinians are still thereby dispossessed. What’s a victory is that these internationalistas have returned home after 2 weeks, 2 months, 12 months to their communities and uttered the word, “Palestine,” when still, for so many, Palestine doesn’t exist, it’s not real.  What’s a victory is that the International Court of Justice (the World Court) declared this past summer that Israel’s apartheid wall is illegal and harmful to Palestinians, something ISM activists had long been saying. What’s a victory is that these international volunteers for peace have helped tens of thousands of Americans  and British and Australians and Swedes and Canadians and Italians  (but who can give an accurate accounting?) better understand that the generating force of the conflict is not suicide bombers, but the illegal Israeli military occupation.

What’s a victory is that the story of Rachel Corrie—killed by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003—has circulated among innumerable of people and opened the door for others to realize that such violations occur daily, hourly to the Palestinian people.[7] What’s a victory is that because of these ISMers, thousands have made the connections: between the U.S. military occupation in Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, between Caterpillar’s manufacture of bulldozers and Israel’s use of them in illegal activities against innocent civilians, between U.S. economic and military largesse to Israel and Israel’s on-going brutality toward the Palestinians.

What’s a victory is that in communities all over the U.S., people are seeing independent films and documentaries that present the conflict from the standpoint of the Palestinians, for a change. What’s a victory is that consumers are buying Palestinian olive oil and learning about the blood, sweat, and tears that bring that bottle to us. What’s a victory is that students are organizing divestment campaigns on their university campuses. What’s still another victory that folks of all ages are finding their voices to protest George Bush’s and Ariel Sharon’s policies. What’s a victory that in synagogues and churches (not just mosques) ordinary Americans are meeting and hearing from ordinary Palestinian-Americans as to what their lives have been like—in Palestine and in the Diaspora.

Solnit helps me realize anew, we cannot calculate the effects of even one grassroots group, like the ISM.   I agree, and think of Jesus’ teaching:  “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed feel along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and since it had no root it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.  And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”[8]

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We attend to our studies, we work at our jobs, we eat our dinners on the run, we go to protests, we grumble about not having enough time or enough money.  We ask and wonder: When will real change ever happen, it takes so long!  Solnit raises these galvanizing questions: “Who, two decades ago, could have imagined a world in which the Soviet Union had vanished and the Internet had arrived? Who then dreamed that the political prisoner Nelson Mandela would become president of a transformed South Africa? Who foresaw the resurgence of the indigenous world of which the Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico is only the most visible face? Who, four decades ago, could have conceived of the changed status  of all who are nonwhite, nonmale, or nonstraight, the wide-open conversations about power, nature, economics, and ecologies?”[9]    For Solnit, imagination and hope are inextricably intertwined.  Our imagination.  Ay, here’s the rub, our imaginations have become colonized, consumerized, or deformed.  We can’t imagine a different future. We’re condemned, some of us, to making peace with THE WAY THINGS ARE.[10]

Our imaginations need to be resurrected, so that we can imagine a future where Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians are living peaceably. A future where women aren’t raped every 8 minutes in “the greatest country in the world” or “the freest country”  or whatever amnesiac  and upbeat honorific our politicians give us.  A future where renting ourselves on the labor market to survive will be looked upon the way we now look at slavery.  A future where our oceans, rivers, lakes, and forests are seen and appreciated as mysteries rather than opportunities for exploitation. A future when activists aren’t always so glum.  A future when Martin Luther King’s “dream” is not paid lip service to, but is rather the air we breathe and the circles we move in.

Having just been referring to Czech dissident Vaclav Havel’s enthusiasm for rock n’ roll, consider Solnit’s linkage of things we too often compartmentalize:  “One could trace the equally strange trajectory that created rock and roll out of African and Scots-Irish musical traditions in the American South, then sent rock and roll around the world, so that a sound that had once been endemic to the South was intrinsic to dissent in the European East. Or the ricocheting trajectory by which Thoreau, abolitionists, Tolstoy, women suffragists, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and various others had, over the course of more than a century, wrought a doctrine of civil disobedience and nonviolence that would become standard liberatory equipment in every part of the world. If atomic bombs are the worst invention of the twentieth century, this practice [nonviolence] might be the best, as well as the antithesis of those bombs. Or perhaps the music should be counted, too. (That both the civil rights movement and the music came out of the African-American South to change the world suggests a startling, resistant richness under all that poverty and oppression and suggests, yet again, the strange workings of history.)”[11]

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One of Solnit’s insights I want to be especially aware of in the year ahead is her criticism of the Puritan streak in activist circles.  She writes, “There’s a kind of activism that’s more about bolstering identity than achieving results, one that sometimes seems to make the Left the true heirs of the Puritans. Puritanical in that the point becomes the demonstration of one’s own virtue rather than the realization of results. And puritanical because the somber pleasure of condemning things is the most enduring part of that legacy, along with the sense of personal superiority that comes from pleasure denied. Despair, bad news, grimness bolster an identity the teller can affect, one that is masculine, stern, disillusioned, tough enough to face facts.”[12]

How many of us have been that stern, disillisuioned, grimville-meister?  I confess, I have!  Basta ya!    But Solnit notes a counter-movement: “If there were purist or Puritan tendencies in earlier waves of activism, this [current wave in the global justice movement] is generously, joyously impure, with the impurity that comes from mixing and circulating and stirring things up.”[13] This impurity can be seen in crossing rigid ideological  boundaries, the refusal of “if you’re on this side, you can’t possibly talk to that side.” Such impurity is the negation of polarization and demonization.  It’s even fraternizing with the “enemy.”  All of this reminds me of that great anti-Puritan activist, Emma Goldman’s oft-quoted, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

In summertime, especially, there are friends who are true enthusiasts for gardening. For them, gardening is something they do everyday, not because they have to, but because they want to. It’s an everyday practice, like meditation is for monks.  Solnit is calling us to a more expansive sense of activism, of engagement not just for emergencies (“There’s going to be a war,” some cry in near hysteria, “we must do something NOW”) but as much a part of our lives as gardening is for others.  It’s what we do, day in, day out, nurturing life, being mindful and responsible in all kinds of undramatic and seemingly unnoticeable activities.  Like gardening, activism as an everyday practice  meets a human need for connection, creativity, and a rootedness in the bigger picture. We could think of activism the way Solnit writes about resistance: “Resistance is usually portrayed as a duty, but it can be a pleasure, an education, a revelation.”[14]

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Antonio Gramsci, a leader of the Italian Communist Party and a member of the Parliament, was arrested by Mussolini’s Fascist government in 1926.  At his trial, Gramsci’s prosecutor appealed to the judge:  “We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years.”[15]  While in jail, Gramsci kept a series of notebooks that, after his death,  have influenced activists and intellectuals around the world.  The prosecutor failed.[16]

Gramsci was fond of a maxim originally penned by French writer Romain Rolland: “Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.”  Here’s Solnit at her Gramscian best: “This is the earth. It will never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction. There is tremendous devastation now. In the time it takes you to read this book, acres of rain forest will vanish, a species will go extinct, people will be raped, killed, dispossessed, die of preventable causes. We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, and undermine its sources and foundations: these are victories. A better world, yes; a perfect world, never.”[17] Pessimism of the intelligence—cruelty will always be with us—optimism of the will—we can reduce it, outlaw it, and undermine it.

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s movie, Stardust Memories, where Martians come to earth, and Woody Allen’s character, Sandy Bates, seeks their wisdom about the meaning of life, and has this exchange with them:

Sandy Bates: But shouldn’t I stop making movies and do something that counts, like-like helping blind people or becoming a missionary or something?

Voice of Martian: Let me tell you, you’re not the missionary type. You’d never last. And-and incidentally, you’re also not Superman; you’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.

Do we want to do humankind a real service?  Pick one of the following for the new year: Nurture the imagination. Don’t be so predictable.  Persevere. Refuse to isolate. Take more photographs. More art and music, less preaching. Invite, rather than guilt-trip. Cultivate cheerfulness and fearlessness. Get in the thick of things. Practice deliberate acts of defiance.  Take modest risks, and see how those feel. Up the ante. Start an affinity group and begin doing actions, projects, and interventions together. Sow seeds. Seek first the kingdom of wild possibilities.

[1] William Blake, The Portable Blake, ed. Alfred Kazin (New Ork: Viking Press, 1974), 255.

[2] Still, Solnit makes the following affirming observations: “We were able to oppose a war on Iraq without endorsing Saddam Hussein. We are able to oppose a war with compassion for the troops who fought it … We were not against the United States and for Iraq; we were against the war, and many of us were against all war, all weapons of mass destruction, and all violence, everywhere. We are not just an antiwar movement. We are a peace movement.”  Solnit, Hope in the Dark, 23-24.

[3] Ibid., 59.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6]  http://www.palsolidarity.org.

[7]  http://www.rachelcorrie.org.

[8] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1991), xiv.

[9] Solnit, Hope in the Dark, 1-2.

[10] Solnit suggests we would do well to imagine how it used to be, “We inhabit, in ordinary daylight, a future that was unimaginably dark a few decades ago, when people found the end of the world easier to envision than the impending changes—in everyday roles, thoughts, practices—that not even the wildest science fiction anticipated. Perhaps we should not have adjusted to it so easily. It would be better if we were astonished every day.” Ibid., 29.

[11] Ibid., 31-32.

[12] Ibid., 15-16.

[13] Ibid., 105.

[14] Ibid., 68.

[15] Quoted in Dante Germino, Antonio Gramsci:  Architect of a New Politics (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 198.

[16] See the standard collection, Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York:  International Publishers, 1971).

[17] Solnit, Hope in the Dark, 82.