I read a blog post recently where the author commented about being in an unmotivated state. He sounded depressed. My suggestion to him was exercise and help someone. Exercise has been shown to relieve depression. Helping another person, even in a small way, has helped relieve depression in everyone I know who struggled with non-severe and non-clinical depression.
My comment received a supportive reply (I really wish I had kept a link to the comment), and further comment that helping others as a way to combat depression was a thought she had read in Hope in the Dark. I put a hold on the book and read it when it dropped into my reading queue.
The book was written about finding hope to keep trying to change the world for the better, during the Bush Jr. administration. Solnit let us know through this book that while, yes, what the administration was doing was bad, citizens were pushing back. Many, many people said no, this is not acceptable, and pushed back on the bad policies and bad laws.
Any shimmer of hope of progress since that administration has certainly turned to despair in this administration, with its obvious greed, corruption, bigotry, racism, and misogyny.
Solnit comments on this many times in the book, about how despair is one part of the activism spectrum; that even during the darkest despair, there is still hope.
The book reminded me of early 2017, when Eric went to a rally protesting Cheetoh's not releasing his tax records. Oh, how innocent we all were then. Brother Chris was looped into a text conversation that Eric, who was doing his part in the protests calling for the returns, started. Chris' responses were just so damn negative and defeated. "Oh, why do that, it won't do any good." and "That's dumb, nothing will change." Rather than doing something (anything), he gave up without trying.
We dropped him from the conversation and kept chatting. That day, we learned that Chris gives up, doesn't believe in change, and doesn't believe that an individual can make a difference.
Solnit addresses that, too, in the book, that some people give up without trying.
This book might not be life-changing, but I strongly recommend it for everyone, especially anyone who is losing hope (or has already lost it) in these ugly times. If nothing else, these ugly times have created a generation that will be politically active.
It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction.
It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative.
Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.
Making an injury visible and public is often the first step in remedying it, and political change often follows culture, as what was long tolerated is seen to be intolerable, or what was overlooked becomes obvious.
“Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair,” the theologian Walter Brueggeman noted.
Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.
In that essay, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Zinn continues,
The struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invisible in their determination to hold onto it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience—whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, or workers and intellectuals in Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union itself.
Those who doubt that these moments matter should note how terrified the authorities and elites are when they erupt. That fear signifies their recognition that popular power is real enough to overturn regimes and rewrite the social contract.
Paul Goodman famously wrote, “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!”
And yet, and of course, everything in the mainstream media suggests that popular resistance is ridiculous, pointless, or criminal, unless it is far away, was long ago, or, ideally, both. These are the forces that prefer the giant remain asleep.
And this is why Chris didn't move.
How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners?
What strikes you when you come out of a deep depression or get close to a depressed person is the utter self-absorption of misery.
South America was neoliberalism’s great laboratory, and now it’s the site of the greatest revolts against that pernicious economic doctrine (which might be most tersely defined as the cult of unfettered international capitalism and privatization of goods and services behind what gets called globalization—and might more accurately be called corporate globalization and the commodification of absolutely everything).
The despair that keeps coming up is a loss of belief that the struggle is worthwhile.
In the name of the so-called War on Terror, which seems to inculcate terror at home and enact it abroad, we were encouraged to fear our neighbors, each other, strangers (particularly Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim people or people who looked that way), to spy on them, to lock ourselves up, to privatize ourselves.
This is the lasting damage from Bush Dos.
I think of Bush’s constant deployment of false hope—that we were going to win the war in Iraq, that his wars had made US citizens and the world safer, that the domestic economy was doing fine (and that the environment is not even a subject for discussion). Perhaps hope is the wrong word for these assertions, not that another world is possible, but that it is unnecessary, that everything is fine—now go back to sleep. Such speech aims to tranquilize and disempower the populace, to keep us isolated and at home, seduced into helplessness, just as more direct tyrannies seek to terrify citizens into isolation.
Another part of the Puritan legacy is the belief that no one should have joy or abundance until everyone does, a belief that’s austere at one end, in the deprivation it endorses, and fantastical in the other, since it awaits a universal utopia. Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited.
Though oil politics had much to do with what had happened, we were not asked to give up driving or vehicles that gulp huge amounts of fuel; we were asked to go shopping and to spy on our neighbors. It seemed as though the Bush administration recognized this extraordinary possibility of the moment and did everything it could to suppress it, for nothing is more dangerous to them than that sense of citizenship, fearlessness, and communion with the world that is distinct from the blind patriotism driven by fear.
History is like weather, not like checkers. (And you, if you’re lucky and seize the day, are like that butterfly.) Like weather in its complexity, in its shifts, in the way something triggers its opposite, just as a heat wave sucks the fog off the ocean and makes my town gray and clammy after a few days of baking, weather in its moods, in its slowness, in its suddenness. A game of checkers ends. The weather never does. That’s why you can’t save anything. Saving is the wrong word, one invoked over and over again, for almost every cause.
Saving suggests a laying up where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt; it imagines an extraction from the dangerous, unstable, ever-changing process called life on earth. But life is never so tidy and final. Only death is. Environmentalists like to say that defeats are permanent, victories temporary.
If you’re lucky, you carry a torch into that dark of Virginia Woolf’s, and if you’re really lucky you’ll sometimes see to whom you’ve passed it, as I did on that day (and if you’re polite, you’ll remember who handed it to you).
Benjamin’s angel tells us history is what happens, but the Angel of Alternate History tells that our acts count, that we are making history all the time, because of what doesn’t happen as well as what does.
Only that angel can see the atrocities not unfolding, but we could learn to study effects more closely. Instead we don’t look, and a radical change too soon becomes status quo.
The Angel of History says, “Terrible,” but this angel says, “Could be worse.”
They’re both right, but the latter angel gives us grounds to act.
Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible. Perfectionists can find fault with anything, and no one has higher standards in this regard than leftists.
Their grumpiness is often the grumpiness of perfectionists who hold that anything less than total victory is failure, a premise that makes it easy to give up at the start or to disparage the victories that are possible. This is Earth. It will never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction.
The radical center, as writer and New Mexico land manager William DeBuys defines it, is “a departure from business as usual,” is, he continues, not bigoted. By that I mean that, to do this kind of work, you don’t question where somebody is from or what kind of hat he or she wears, you focus on where that person is willing to go and whether he or she is willing to work constructively on matters of mutual interest.
Nothing is ever so good that it can’t stand a little revision, and nothing is ever so impossible and broken down that a try at fixing it is out of the question.
Velasquez, the founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, says, “Number one, I don’t consider anybody opposition. I just consider anyone either misinformed or miseducated or downright wrong-thinking. That’s the way I look at people, and I believe that what we do, getting justice for migrant workers is the good and right thing in life to do and everyone ought to be on our side.”
To be antidoctrinal is to open yourself up to new and unexpected alliances, to new networks of power. It’s to reject the static utopia in favor of the improvisational journey.
We are trying to build a politics of process, where the only certainty is doing what feels right at the right time and in the right place—a politics that doesn’t wait (interesting how wait and hope are the same words in Spanish) but acts in the moment, not to create something in the future but to build in the present, it’s the politics of the here and now. When we are asked how are we going to build a new world, our answer is, “We don’t know, but let’s build it together.”
It’s an enormous challenge, because in a chaotic world people need something to hold onto and something to hold them, if all is uncertain, if uncertainty is the only certainty, then the uprooted, the fragile, those that crave something to give them meaning in their lives, simply get washed away by the flood and flux of an unsure universe.
For them, hope is often found in certainty. Not necessarily certainty rooted in a predictable future, but certainty that they are doing the right thing with their lives .
The philosopher Alphonso Lingus says, “We really have to free the notion of liberation and revolution from the idea of permanently setting up some other kind of society.”
Zapatista scholar John Holloway has a manifesto of a book out called Change the World Without Taking Power, a similar argument that the revolution is an end in itself that fails its spirit and its ideals when it becomes the next institutional power.
There is a vast area of do-it-yourself activity directed towards changing the world that does not have the state as its focus and that does not aim at gaining positions of power. It is an arena in which the old distinctions between reform and revolution no longer seem relevant, simply because the question of who controls the state is not the focus of attention.
The question is about negotiating a viable relationship between the local and the global, not signing up with one and shutting out the other.
The best way to resist a monolithic institution or corporation is not with a monolithic movement but with multiplicity itself.
The United States is the most disproportionate producer of climate change, governed by the most disregardful administration. This country often seems like a train heading for a wreck, with a gullible, apolitical, easily distracted population bloating itself on television’s political distortions and repellent vision of human life, with the runaway rates of consumption, the violent interventions around the world, the malignancy of domestic fundamentalism, the burgeoning prison and impoverished and unhinged populations, the decay of democracy, and on and on. It’s hard to see radical change in the United States, and easy to see how necessary it is. I spend a lot of time looking at my country in horror.
Profound change for the better does occur, even though it can be difficult to see because one of the most common effects of success is to be taken for granted. What looks perfectly ordinary after the fact would often have seemed like a miracle before it.
Few remember that there was no significant US homeless population before the 1980s, that Ronald Reagan’s new society and economy created these swollen ranks of street people.
They were only defeated when their resilience was stolen from them by clichés, by the invisibility of what they accomplished that extraordinary morning, and by the very word “terrorism,” which suggests that they, or we, were all terrified. The distortion, even obliteration, of what actually happened was a necessary precursor to launching the obscene response that culminated in a war on Iraq, a war we lost (even if some of us don’t know that yet), and the loss of civil liberties and democratic principles that went with it.
When the planes became missiles and the towers became torches and then shards and clouds of dust, many were afraid, but few if any panicked, other than the president, who was far away from danger.
Flights 11 and 175 struck the towers. Hundreds of thousands of people rescued each other and themselves, evacuating the buildings and the area, helped in the first minutes, then hours, by those around them.
Adam Mayblum, who walked down from the eighty-seventh floor of the north tower with some of his coworkers, wrote on the Internet immediately afterward:
“They failed in terrorizing us. We were calm. If you want to kill us, leave us alone because we will do it by ourselves. If you want to make us stronger, attack and we unite. This is the ultimate failure of terrorism against the United States.”
We failed, however, when we let our own government and media do what that small band from the other side of the earth could not.
Without stupid, helpless people to save, heroes become unnecessary. Or rather, without them, it turns out that we are all heroes.
Governments like the grim view for a similar reason: it justifies their existence as repressive, controlling, hostile forces, rather than collaborators with brave and powerful citizenries.
Americans are good at the mingled complacency and despair that says things cannot change, will not change, and we do not have power to change them.
Much has changed; much needs to change; being able to celebrate or at least recognize milestones and victories and keep working is what the times require of us. Instead, a lot of people seem to be looking for trouble, the trouble that reinforces their dismal worldview. Everything that’s not perfect is failed, disappointing, a betrayal. There’s idealism in there, but also unrealistic expectations, ones that cannot meet with anything but disappointment. Perfectionists often position themselves on the sidelines, from which they point out that nothing is good enough.
I’ve often seen, say, a landmark piece of climate legislation hailed as a victory and celebrated by people working hardest on the issue, but dismissed and disparaged by those who are doing little or nothing for the cause in question. They don’t actually know what work went into producing the legislation, what it will achieve, and what odds were overcome to get it.
They may fear that celebrating anything means undermining the dissatisfaction that drives us—if dissatisfaction drives us rather than parks us in the parking lot of the disconsolate.
Maybe an underlying problem is that despair isn’t even an ideological position but a habit and a reflex. I have found, during my adventures in squandering time on social media, that a lot of people respond to almost any achievement, positive development, or outright victory with “yes but.” Naysaying becomes a habit. Yes, this completely glorious thing had just happened, but the entity that achieved it had done something bad at another point in history. Yes, the anguish of this group was ended, but somewhere some other perhaps unrelated group was suffering hideously. It boiled down to: we can’t talk about good things until there are no more bad things. Which, given that the supply of bad things is inexhaustible, and more bad things are always arising, means that we can’t talk about good things at all. Ever.