I worked for years as an editor at Pantheon Books. Its publisher, maybe the most adventurous in the business, was Andre Schiffrin. Among his many accomplishments, he "discovered" Studs Terkel (already a well-known Chicago radio personality), published his first oral history (Division Street: America), and made him a bestseller. Sometime after I arrived at Pantheon in the mid-1970s, he asked me to take a last look at a new manuscript by Studs. It was the equivalent of sending the second team onto the field, but it began my own long relationship with the famed oral historian. He was an experience -- a small man who, when he wasn't listening professionally in a fashion beyond compare, never stopped talking. In doing so, he had an almost magical way of making those around him feel larger than life. Later, I would be the editor for two of his oral histories, one on death and the other on hope (in that splendid order and the second with the Studs-appropriate title Hope Dies Last).
Last October, Bill Moyers interviewed me about the dismal state of American politics. As our conversation was ending, he suddenly asked: "What keeps you going against all the evidence?" At that moment, Studs came to mind. I mentioned editing "one of the greats of our world" and responded this way: "It turned out that when he wrote his book about hope, it was all about activists and the basic point he made was: in good times you could just be hopeful about your life. You didn't have to be an activist. You didn't have to be an anything. In bad times, if you want to be hopeful, you have to take a step. You've got to take some step to do something in the world. And in that sense, TomDispatch is my medicine against despair. So what makes me hopeful is doing TomDispatch."
All true. But I realize now that it wasn't quite a full response. I had left out one crucial figure in my life: Rebecca Solnit, who taught me how to hope in a world that seemed dismal indeed. She was the one who -- I've written about it before -- slipped through the barely ajar door of my life in May 2003, at a moment as grim and dreary as any in my political experience. The largest antiwar movement ever to protest a war that had yet to happen had just packed its tents and gone home in despair, while Baghdad was occupied by American troops and George W. Bush and his top officials were in their "mission accomplished" triumphalist mode. Many activists then feared that they would remain so forever and would have dismissed out of hand someone who suggested that their Pax Americana dreams of domination would begin unraveling in mere weeks (as happened), not decades or centuries.
Ten years ago, exactly to the day, I published Rebecca's miraculous piece "Acts of Hope," which she would later expand into her book Hope in the Dark. It was written to welcome that "darkness" which seemed already to be enveloping us. It was written with a sense of how the expectable unravels, of how the future surprises us, often enough with offerings not of horror but of hope.
With few people can you ever say, she (or he) changed my life, changed the very way I understand our world. For me, she's one of the few -- and she's still doing it with her miraculous new book (out in June), The Faraway Nearby. She taught me how to look into that future darkness with hope. Like Studs, she taught me that acting, even while not knowing, is a powerful antidote to despair. So it means the world to me that she's returned to the subject of hope to celebrate the tenth anniversary of her arrival in my life and at TomDispatch. Tom
Too Soon to Tell
The Case for Hope, Continued
By Rebecca Solnit
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.
If you take the long view, you'll see how startlingly, how unexpectedly but regularly things change. Not by magic, but by the incremental effect of countless acts of courage, love, and commitment, the small drops that wear away stones and carve new landscapes, and sometimes by torrents of popular will that change the world suddenly. To say that is not to say that it will all come out fine in the end regardless. I'm just telling you that everything is in motion, and sometimes we are ourselves that movement.
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.