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Rebecca Solnit: Success is for the Stubborn

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Rebecca Solnit arrived at TomDispatch as a ray of light in a moment of darkness.  It was May 2003.  The largest anti-war demonstrations in history -- organized across the planet before an expected war had even broken out -- were so over.  The Bush administration had done exactly what its top officials had long desired to do (certain as they were that unleashing American military power on Iraq was the key to a future Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East and a future Pax Republicana at home).  They had invaded Iraq, taken the capital, proclaimed "mission accomplished," named the giant base they were setting up on the edge of Baghdad "Camp Victory," and were in the midst of major self-celebrations.  By then, they had no doubt that the sun would never dare set on the unique country they were leading, and that the imperial Romans and Brits had been pikers by comparison.

On the other hand, the antiwar movement had essentially declared failure.  In the U.S., many of the antiwarriors had already packed up their tents and headed for home in a state of depression.  The fact that there had never been a demonstration of global will quite like what they had managed to put together lost its meaning in the face of a war and an administration that, in reality, they never had a chance of stopping. 

That was the moment of Solnit's arrival at TomDispatch.  Once there, she stared ahead into everything dismal and dreary, and in "Acts of Hope," her first piece for the site, insisted that there were far worse things than the darkness of the future; that somewhere in it might indeed lie the very worst of times, but no less likely, the very best of times; and that, in the darkness itself, there was always the comfort of hope. 

Even then, as activists headed home, she took the longest of long views.  She wrote, "Despair presumes it knows what will happen next. But who, two decades ago, would have imagined that the Canadian government would give a huge swathe of the north back to its indigenous people, or that the imprisoned Nelson Mandela would become president of a free South Africa?" 

So many years later, the Bush administration's dreams are rubble, its monuments -- the largest embassy on the planet in Baghdad and the hundreds of abandoned American military bases in Iraq -- stand as testimony to just who, in the end, had to head for home in humiliation.  And what of our dreams?  Our hopes?  Charred at the edges perhaps, but unlike theirs, alive and well, as that surprise of last year the Occupy movement showed.

My meeting with Solnit in Internet-land in the spring of 2003 felt inspirational (a word I've seldom used in my life).  Her essay, which would later become the book Hope in the Dark, changed the way I looked at the world, the way I still assess success and failure.  It reminded me that, while the short haul matters, the long haul matters so much more.  And so, at 68, already a fair distance into the longest of hauls, I see my main achievement at TomDispatch in simple terms: a decade after its unexpected founding, I'm still here, still plugging away, still imagining a world without empire, a different kind of America.  That is, I suspect, a modest but real accomplishment. 

Today, almost a decade after her initial appearance at this website, Solnit returns on the first anniversary of the Occupy movement to her most essential theme: hope and the long haul. And I don't mind saying that, almost a decade later, I still find it inspirational. Tom

Occupy Your Victories
Occupy Wall Street's First Anniversary
By Rebecca Solnit

Occupy is now a year old.  A year is an almost ridiculous measure of time for much of what matters: at one year old, Georgia O'Keeffe was not a great painter, and Bessie Smith wasn't much of a singer. One year into the Civil Rights Movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was still in progress, catalyzed by the unknown secretary of the local NAACP chapter and a preacher from Atlanta -- by, that is, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Occupy, our bouncing baby, was born with such struggle and joy a year ago, and here we are, 12 long months later.

Occupy didn't seem remarkable on September 17, 2011, and not a lot of people were looking at it when it was mostly young people heading for Manhattan's Zuccotti Park. But its most remarkable aspect turned out to be its staying power: it didn't declare victory or defeat and go home. It decided it was home and settled in for two catalytic months.

Tents and general assemblies and the acts, tools, and ideas of Occupy exploded across the nation and the western world from Alaska to New Zealand, and some parts of the eastern world -- Occupy Hong Kong was going strong until last week. For a while, it was easy to see that this baby was something big, but then most, though not all, of the urban encampments were busted, and the movement became something subtler. But don't let them tell you it went away.

The most startling question anyone asked me last year was, "What is Occupy's 10-year plan?"

Who takes the long view? Americans have a tendency to think of activism like a slot machine, and if it doesn't come up three jailed bankers or three clear victories fast, you've wasted your quarters. And yet hardly any activists ever define what victory would really look like, so who knows if we'll ever get there?

Sometimes we do get three clear victories, but because it took a while or because no one was sure what victory consisted of, hardly anyone realizes a celebration is in order, or sometimes even notices. We get more victories than anyone imagines, but they are usually indirect, incomplete, slow to arrive, and situations where our influence can be assumed but not proven -- and yet each of them is worth counting.  

More Than a Handful of Victories

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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