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Rebecca Solnit: How to Find Hope in a New Era of Darkness

Jan 23 2017 6:53 PM
Rebecca Solnit: How to Find Hope in a New Era of Darkness

In the shadow of Trump's inauguration, Solnit revisits the lessons of her landmark book, "Hope in the Dark," to explain why despair during this time is premature.

The murkiness of this moment in history and the inscrutability of the future can be balms for the weary soul of the Trump resister, according to author Rebecca Solnit. Her book, "Hope in the Dark," written during the height of the Bush administration's awfulness, has recently become required reading in activist circles. Charting the work of social movements, popular uprisings, and grassroots activists —which often, initially, goes unnoticed — Solnit illustrates how the uprisings that begin on the streets can upend the status quo and topple authoritarian regimes.

In Solnit's view, hope is a necessary component to this kind of revolution. Neither Polyanna-esque nor naive, the hope she champions comes from the idea that we simply don't yet know what will happen in the future. And because we don't know what kind of earth-altering activism will emerge during the Trump years, despair is premature.

We talked on Trump's inauguration day about the benefits of living in a "wildly destabilized" time and why she recommends staring at some tranquil paintings in between fighting for the soul of your democracy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In your book, you write, "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." What gives you hope on Trump's inauguration day?

This was a book written during the Bush era and it's really about habits of mind — what stories do we tell ourselves, what histories do we remember, what strategies and tactics do we take. I see a lot of remarkable things happening right now. A lot of people who've never been active before are trying to be active; a lot of groups that have done great stuff all along — from Planned Parenthood, to the Center for Constitutional Rights to 350.org — are doing extraordinary things.

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Part of what's challenging about my beloved comrades of the left is that many of them believe that if we celebrate something, then we'll stop fighting. So we see great victories — like the one at Standing Rock last fall— and too many are eager to point out that this is not the second coming of the Lord and everything isn't perfect for everyone yet. I don't think celebration makes people give up. But defeatism and that kind of holier-than-thou perfectionism or the "You're doing it wrong" brigade makes people give up. People are really good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, you could say.

There's a lot that's winnable, and we're in a wildly destabilized era where we can really make big changes we couldn't have under Obama or Clinton — possibly profound changes in the Democratic party and in how we think about popular power and building new movements and setting big goals. "Hope in the Dark" is about the reality that we don't know what will happen next, and in that uncertainty is room to act. But what's going to be really difficult, and what I saw in the nuclear freeze movement in the early 80s, is that people think if we don't win tomorrow or we don't achieve exactly what we've set out to do then we've achieved nothing or we lost. Success often takes years or decades and often a number of extraordinary benefits take place along the way that are indirect or unanticipated and those absolutely matter. We need a complex calculus not a simple arithmetic of victory, success, and impact.

Photo courtesy Rebecca Solnit

What do you think of public intellectuals like Masha Gessen who believe the best way to prepare for a Trump administration is to monitor Trumpian drift in the media and imagine all the things that could go wrong? Is there a way to be hopeful while keeping all of the possible worst case scenarios in the back of your mind?

I think optimism is refusing to look at the worst case scenarios, pessimism is believing in our powerlessness, which lets us off the hook, while hope is looking at the worst case scenarios and being realistic about what we can do about it. Realistic and ambitious.

I've been around a lot of major illness in the last decade — this is what being middle-aged is all about. Hope is not that you don't have cancer if you do; hope is not that if you have cancer it will magically go away. Hope is that if you do these really difficult, painful things then you might be in the percentage of people who survive this disease. There's a kind of hope I'm into that is not wishful thinking or willful obliviousness.

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We also need to acknowledge that this is a full-frontal attack on almost everything simultaneously. I remember a moment in Bush's pre-9/11 trajectory when they attacked everything simultaneously on a Friday afternoon. It was like, "Am I going to protect the environment or reproductive rights or free speech or deregulation of emissions that will result in 50,000 deaths a year?" You know, we're going to be attacked on all fronts — including our right to protest. And it already is ugly and horrible, and we have to describe it accurately, and also remember that sometimes we win. The medical analogy is: you have to diagnose the disease, not pretend it doesn't exist. So we need to diagnose the war on democracy, our environment, women — really anyone who isn't a straight, affluent white man — and we need to pursue all of that.

If you think of your rights as a space that you occupy, occupy all of that space. Fill it up. Don't say, "Oh I've shrunk into this little corner so I won't even be there when you take the rest of my acreage away from me."

If you think of your rights as a space that you occupy, occupy all of that space. Fill it up.

People say, "Isn't it dangerous to speak up?" Well, right after the election, when I set out to see how we could stop Trump, there were only a few of us and I was a bit scared. But if millions of us do it — like the Danes did under the Nazis —well, they can arrest 10,000 people, but they can't arrest 10 million people. Let's be 10 million people or 100 million people standing up for these things.

What has it been like to have a book written in the thick of the Bush administration suddenly become relevant again?

I'm really glad that my ideas are circulating. It helped that Haymarket decided to put the book out there for free, a day after the election. We got 32,000 downloads in nine days. What is the term for a runaway bestseller where nothing is for sale?

But I wish, of course, that we would have elected some hyper-progressive person and that we were putting the finishing touches on an awesome climate platform rather than dealing with climate deniers. I would be happy if the book wasn't particularly needed, but I'm really glad to be of use. I'm glad people are taking it to heart.

This will probably be a terrible year but we may start planting seeds that bear fruit next year or after that. Look at how they overthrew the regime in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and you can see some of the seeds were planted in the seventies with Charter 77, the resistance coalition formed in 1976, and some of the heroes came out of the 1968 revolution that was crushed by the Soviet Union's tanks. In 1969, it would be really easy to say that 1968 did nothing but in 1989, you realize that 1968 mattered. I want people to keep these long views. It really becomes a matter of faith because we don't yet know what will be useful or successful. There are no simple timelines.

In your book, you note that the scale of protests are often discounted. I'm thinking now about the protest in L.A. which seemed much bigger than the 8,000 people reported by mainstream media outlets. What do you think of efforts today to mischaracterize protests — either by focusing entirely on the violent fringes, discounting their size, or claiming that the protesters themselves are "fake" and paid for by liberal organizations?

Activists pose a genuine threat to the status quo because we actually have changed it time and again. Those in power don't want to acknowledge that so they prefer to portray us as thugs or as ineffectual dreamers.For example, with the very successful shutdown of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in late 1999, there was some property destruction and a huge amount of police violence, which the mainstream media morphed into a myth of activist violence and used to justify crackdowns on first-amendment activities in the Bush years. It was a lie; we were dangerous not because we were criminal or harming human beings, but because we could change the world.

Activists pose a genuine threat to the status quo because we actually have changed it time and again.

Today we're not reliant on the mainstream media to describe reality. We have seen that we have the capacity to wage counter campaigns and to make our own news. The task for journalists is to describe movements and activism and popular power accurately, whether that means debunking defamation or dismantling stories of its ineffectuality.

The will of the people is a powerful and fearsome thing. But remember, when we achieve something the authorities will always give some reason for the change that has nothing to do with activism. We need learn to take credit and do our own assessment and not rely on them. You'll see with newspapers like the New York Times, which is overly in love with the status quo, they tend to report the officials and authorities as delivering an objective and true version rather than just another interested party with its own spin. And so storytelling is essential to this. That's what my book is about: here's stories of how we won; here's stories about how to avoid falling into overly optimistic or pessimistic or "instant results guaranteed" thinking; here's why we need complex stories to address our complex problems.

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Stories tell us what to do, and if you're not conscious and aware and creative in your storytelling, you become a victim of stories that do not help you: stories that undermine you; stories that disempower you; stories that tell you you're doomed; stories that tell you you're no one; stories that tell you you're worthless.

They may tell a story about why we need a Muslim registry to be saved. We'll need to tell a story about how Muslims are our brothers and sisters with equal human rights; we are a country that does not discriminate based on religion and that's one of our deepest and most sacred principles.

You've always been both an activist and a writer who follows her passions, whether it's writing "A Field Guide to Getting Lost" or a historical book about post Civil War California. What do you make of writers who brand themselves along more narrow lines and do you think the era of Trump will spur more of them to write about politics?

We are all citizens and we all have an obligation to engage, particularly in a crisis and this is one of the direst crises this country has ever faced. How we engage, really, there's a lot of room for it. When I was in my twenties, I read a lot of art history, and I learned about artists who made beautiful cubist paintings by day but then went to support the Spanish Civil War in meetings by night. Silvia Townsend Warner, who wrote exquisite fiction—her work was apolitical but she drove an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War. You don't have to make political art and a lot of people who aren't passionate that way may end up making bad propaganda. Maybe your job is to write beautiful apolitical poetry and also register 1,000 people to vote.

Our joylessness doesn't help anyone; our empathy and solidarity and actions can.

There's also a wonderful essay by Lawrence Weschler called "Vermeer in Bosnia." It's about going to the International War Crimes Tribunal in Bosnia and asking one of the judges how he was able to sit through years and years of hideous stories of neighbors raping and torturing and massacring neighbors. He pauses for a moment and then his face brightens and he says, "Well, after I'm done working I go look at the Vermeers."

He wrote about the Vermeers — which are these very tranquil paintings of water and light and sky— being painted during their own turbulent times. I think we also need beauty and pleasure and joy. We need beauty and respite and joy, and we don't need to have our noses in the crisis every single minute. You know, maybe your profession and vocation is also your political work, maybe it isn't. There's no one size fits all. We all need to write our own battle songs now. And joy and pleasure, life needs to go on. No one is sitting in desperate circumstances on the other side of the world and saying, "I want people to eat really shitty food and be grumpy in their upper- middle- class American lifestyles because that will help me." Our joylessness doesn't help anyone; our empathy and solidarity and actions can.

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