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General News    H3'ed 8/1/11

Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, Hope for the Hell of It

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p>If someone asked you, last July, to lay odds on the possibility that in 365 days, popular protests in the Middle East would have toppled autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, led to the liberation of half of another dictatorship in Libya by a rebel insurgency, and left another repressive state, Yemen, effectively leaderless, while energizing youth across the region in countries ranging from Syria to Bahrain to put their lives on the line, day after day, month after month, a million-to-one would have been a conservative guess.

Nonetheless, a year later, the Arab Spring has turned to summer and while it's hardly all bread and roses (more like breadlessness and discontent), people are still in the streets, fighting for freedoms that Arabs weren't even supposed to want.  In the meantime, formerly secure strongmen sputter, quake, and brandish concession after concession (as well as the butts of rifles and the barrels of machine guns).  How it will all end is anybody's guess, but the future remains wide open.  And not only in the Middle East: everywhere, along with nightmares and despair, there are victories and emerging possibilities.  You just have to open your eyes and have the right person to guide you, which, at TomDispatch, means only one thing: Rebecca Solnit.  Tom

Hope: The Care and Feeding Of
By Rebecca Solnit

Recently, Nelson Mandela turned 93, and his nation celebrated noisily, even attempting to break the world record for the most people simultaneously singing "Happy Birthday." This was the man who, on trial by the South African government in 1964, stood a good chance of being sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Given life in prison instead, he was supposed to be silenced.  Story over.  

You know the rest, though it wasn't inevitable that he'd be released and become the president of a post-apartheid South Africa. Admittedly, it's a country with myriad flaws and still suffers from economic apartheid, but who wouldn't agree that it's changed?  Activism changed it; more activism could change it further.

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch, who'd amassed a vast media empire, banked billions of dollars, and been listed by Forbes as the world's 13th most powerful person, must have thought he had it made these past few decades.  Now, his empire is crumbling and his crimes and corrosive influence (which were never exactly secret) are being examined by everyone. You never know what'll happen next.

About 1,600 years ago, Boethius put it this way in The Consolations of Philosophy, written while he, like Mandela, was in prison for treason: "As thus she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand, and presses on, fortune now tramples fiercely on a fearsome king, and now deceives no less a conquered man by raising from the ground his humbled face."

Still, that wheel didn't just turn.  It took some good journalism -- thank you, reporters of the Guardian! -- to bring Murdoch to his knees. Just as it took some dedicated activism to break Mandela out of prison and overcome the apartheid era.

Everything changes. Sometimes you have to change it yourself.

Unpredictability is grounds for hope, though please don't mistake hope for optimism. Optimism and pessimism are siblings in their certainty.  They believe they know what will happen next, with one slight difference: optimists expect everything to turn out nicely without any effort being expended toward that goal. Pessimists assume that we're doomed and there's nothing to do about it except try to infect everyone else with despair while there's still time.

Hope, on the other hand, is based on uncertainty, on the much more realistic premise that we don't know what will happen next.  The next thing up might be as terrible as a giant tsunami smashing 100 miles of coastal communities or as marvelous as a new species of butterfly being discovered (as happened recently in Northern Ireland). When it comes to the worst we face, nature itself has resilience, surprises, and unpredictabilities. But the real territory for hope isn't nature; it's the possibilities we possess for acting, changing, mattering -- including when it comes to nature.

Burger King CEO Apologizes to Farmworkers

Not all hopes are created equal, and sometimes their failure is the good news. The mass murderer who rampaged through Norway last week hoped to change that country forever. Sophisticated when it came to plotting a massacre and building a bomb, he was naà ve when it came to political cause and effect. He attacked the ruling Labor Party in its office headquarters and its youth summer camp. The consequences will almost certainly be the opposite of what he hoped for.  

His bloodbath is unlikely to aid the advance of an anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic right-wing agenda. It will expose what is vicious about the far right in Europe and elsewhere, bring more careful scrutiny to extremists at that end of the spectrum, and likely help discredit politicians who pander to them.  

If we're lucky, it might even have some repercussions in the United States, where demonizing immigrants and encouraging violence are common right-wing tactics (discredited a little in January when Tucson Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and Sarah Palin was rebuked for the map on her Facebook page with crosshairs over Giffords' district).

History's pendulum tendencies always need to be factored in, and such assassins for the far right, like Timothy McVeigh before them, may do for that ideology what the Symbionese Liberation Army and Baader-Meinhof did for the left four decades ago. Think of a wheel of fortune.

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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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