01 March 2017, Category: book review
If you are a woolly liberal like me, someone who believes in compassion for all and the importance of civil liberties, then these are dark times. The prevalent mood, both in the UK and the USA appears to be an inward turning nationalism, a conservative rhetoric that is looking backwards to some imagined age rather than forward to the future. There’s an emphasis on military spending and reducing the state. The hard-won luxuries we enjoy, such as the NHS, are continually being eroded, while at the same time the super rich refuse to pay any more tax. The gap between the rich and poor is growing. Trump is in the White House, whereas in the UK we have the authoritarian Theresa May hell bent on sending the country over a cliff. It’s easy to despair and hard to see any hope.
That is why I am so thankful for Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, which I came across via Josie Long on the wonderful Book Shambles podcast. It’s a small volume, written in 2003 and updated since, but is even more relevant to the contemporary world we find ourselves in. Solnit is a brilliant activist and writer and she eloquently explores the necessity of hope when the world seems at it’s worst. She tells a brief history of how the world has been changed in the last years, saying:
Together we are very powerful, and we have a seldom-told, seldom-remembered history of victories and transformations that can give us confidence that yes, we can change the world because we have many times before. You row forward looking back, and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future.
Because of this intricate history of social movements, it is essential reading for anyone despairing. Yes, times may be difficult now. Yes, there will be difficult challenges ahead. But Solnit argues that it is essential to keep looking at how far we have come as a society. Even since the book was written we have seen huge advances in LGBTQ rights, for example, to the point where allowing same-sex marriage became a no-brainer for most people, an essential cornerstone of a civilised society. The pace of change has been drastic and rapid, and by seeing the progress we have made we can look ever forward.
Solnit also argues that although much activism doesn’t have a clear end point, it nevertheless has an impact on thoughts and politics, often with surprising rapidity. She compares activism to the work happening backstage, saying:
Pay attention to the inventive arenas that exert political power outside that stage or change the contents of the drama onstage. From the places that you have been instructed to ignore or rendered unable to see come the stories that change the world, and it is here that culture has the power to shape politics and ordinary people have the power to change the world.>
Culture is therefore an essential tool to change the world. It changes people’s minds, slowly but surely. It’s another reason to write or create art, as an act of defiance. You might not reach many people, but you never know what impact your work might have further down the road. Creation is essential to resist the lies and nonsense you are being fed everyday. You get the chance to tell a new story, one that is more inclusive and fairer. Art therefore becomes political.
Throughout the book, Solnit argues again and again that hope is not passive. She emphasises hope as an active desire to change things, seeing a better vision of the world and trying to bring it closer to reality. It’s in the little actions throughout your life, in the journey to an unknown destination. Hope is the driving force that inspires great actions, not despair. Despair is passive, which is possibly why it is useful to keep people in their place. Hope, in contrast, allows you to get out the door and start to convince people. I’ve struggled with this. I’m a white, straight cis male. I am exceptionally privileged in every way. Solnit talks to this privilege and how it can limit us from taking action:
And then there were my people, middle-class white people. It was as though many of us didn’t know how to be this other kind of person, this person who could speak of big dreams, of high ideals, of deep emotions, as though something more small-scale and sarcastic was the reduced version of self that remained to us.
This section spoke to me deeply. By having everything I needed, it has limited my vision and curbed my high ideals as I continually seek the middle ground. It’s an emphasis on the self as well that can be so destructive, instead of what you can do for others. If anything good has come out of the car wreck of last year, it is the hope that people will be incensed and galvanised enough to take action and become activists. Indeed, I have become more political and willing to take action. People have realised that their rights and liberties are not guaranteed and can be taken away by the greedy and the opportunistic.
One of the most inspiring proofs of this was the women’s marches that occurred around the world immediately after Trump’s inauguration. It was incredibly inspiring to see so many women marching for their rights, in defiance of Trump and his casual misogyny. The media reported it as a failure and as pointless because Trump didn’t immediately resign. But that wasn’t the aim. The aim was to plant the seeds of resistance that will carry us through the next few years and inspire us to action. As I watched so many women bravely defy the norm and march against injustice, I felt the faintest stirrings of hope, buried since Brexit. I thought of Solnit’s description of the protests against the Iraq war:
Those tens of millions worldwide constituted something unprecedented, one of the ruptures that have ushered in a new era. They are one reason to hope for the future.
Solnit writes much more eloquently than I ever could. This slim volume is essential reading for these times and I urge to read it. Her writing perfectly captures the urge to improve the world and to fight against all odds, no matter how high the obstacles.