This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s anti-oil-company
campaign and the ten thousand faces of Occupy now changing the world. Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com.
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
book A Paradise Built in Hell is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010
Forgive me if I
briefly take my eyes off the prize to brush away some flies, but the buzzing
has gone on for some time. I have a grand goal, and that is to counter the
Republican right with its deep desire to annihilate everything I love and to
move toward far more radical goals than the Democrats ever truly support. In
the course of pursuing that, however, I’ve come up against the habits of my
presumed allies again and again.
O rancid sector
of the far left, please stop your grousing! Compared to you, Eeyore sounds like
a Teletubby. If I gave you a pony, you would not only be furious that not
everyone has a pony, but you would pick on the pony for not being radical
enough until it wept big, sad, hot pony tears. Because what we’re talking about
here is not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude, and one
that is poisoning us. Not just me, but you, us, and our possibilities.
Leftists Explain Things to Me
often emerges around electoral politics. Look, Obama does bad things and I
deplore them, though not with a lot of fuss, since they’re hardly a surprise.
He sometimes also does not-bad things, and I sometimes mention them in passing,
and mentioning them does not negate the reality of the bad things.
The same has
been true of other politicians: the recent governor of my state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was in some respects quite good on
climate change. Yet it was impossible for me to say so to a radical without
receiving an earful about all the other ways in which Schwarzenegger was
terrible, as if the speaker had a news scoop, as if he or she thought I had
been living under a rock, as if the presence of bad things made the existence
of good ones irrelevant. As a result, it was impossible to discuss what
Schwarzenegger was doing on climate change (and unnecessary for my
interlocutors to know about it, no less figure out how to use it).
So here I want
to lay out an insanely obvious principle that apparently needs clarification. There
are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even
though the bad things are bad. The mentioning of something good does not
require the automatic assertion of a bad thing. The good thing might be an
interesting avenue to pursue in itself if you want to get anywhere. In that
context, the bad thing has all the safety of a dead end. And yes, much in the
realm of electoral politics is hideous, but since it also shapes quite a bit of
the world, if you want to be political or even informed you have to pay
attention to it and maybe even work with it.
constantly encounter a response that presumes the job at hand is to figure out
what’s wrong, even when dealing with an actual victory, or a constructive
development. Recently, I mentioned that California’s
current attorney general, Kamala Harris, is anti-death penalty and also acting
in good ways to defend people against foreclosure. A snarky Berkeley professor’s immediate response
began, “Excuse me, she’s anti-death penalty, but let the record show that her
office condoned the illegal purchase of lethal injection drugs.”
are not allowed to celebrate the fact that the attorney general for 12% of all
Americans is pretty cool in a few key ways or figure out where that could take
us. My respondent was attempting to crush my ebullience and wither the
discussion, and what purpose exactly does that serve?
This kind of
response often has an air of punishing or condemning those who are less
radical, and it is exactly the opposite of movement- or alliance-building.
Those who don’t simply exit the premises will be that much more cautious about
opening their mouths. Except to bitch, the acceptable currency of the realm.
My friend Jaime
Cortez, a magnificent person and writer, sent this my way: “At a dinner party
recently, I expressed my pleasure that some parts of Obamacare passed, and
starting 2014, the picture would be improved. I was regaled with reminders of
the horrors of the drone program that Obama supports, and reminded how
inadequate Obamacare was. I responded that it is not perfect, but it was an
incremental improvement, and I was glad for it. But really, I felt dumb and
flat-footed for being grateful.”
Emperor Is Naked and Uninteresting
Maybe it’s part
of our country’s Puritan heritage, of demonstrating one’s own purity and
superiority rather than focusing on fixing problems or being compassionate.
Maybe it comes from people who grew up in the mainstream and felt like the kid
who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, that there were naked lies,
hypocrisies, and corruptions in the system.
Believe me, a
lot of us already know most of the dimples on the imperial derriere by now, and
there are other things worth discussing. Often, it’s not the emperor that’s the
important news anyway, but the peasants in their revolts and even their
triumphs, while this mindset I’m trying to describe remains locked on the
emperor, in fury and maybe in self-affirmation.
When you’re a
hammer everything looks like a nail, but that’s not a good reason to continue
to pound down anything in the vicinity. Consider what needs to be raised up as
well. Consider our powers, our victories, our possibilities; ask yourself just
what you’re contributing, what kind of story you’re telling, and what kind you
want to be telling.
with the first occupiers of Zuccotti
Park on the first
anniversary of Occupy, I listened to one lovely young man talking about the
rage his peers, particularly his gender, often have. But, he added, fury is not
a tactic or a strategy, though it might sometimes provide the necessary energy
for getting things done.
There are so
many ways to imagine this mindset — or maybe its many mindsets with many
origins — in which so many are mired. Perhaps one version devolves from
academic debate, which at its best is a constructive, collaborative building of
an argument through testing and challenge, but at its worst represents the
habitual tearing down of everything, and encourages a subculture of sourness
that couldn’t be less productive.
Can you imagine how far the Civil Rights Movement would
have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever
good enough? To hell with integrating the Montgomery
public transit system when the problem was so much larger!
Gandhi’s salt marchers bitching all the way to the sea, or the Zapatistas, if Subcomandante Marcos was merely the master
kvetcher of the Lacandon jungle, or an Aung San Suu Kyi who conducted herself
like a caustic American pundit. Why did the Egyptian revolutionary who told me
about being tortured repeatedly seem so much less bitter than many of those I
run into here who have never suffered such harm?
idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants
the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t — and that it never
will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really,
people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through
élan, esprit du corps, fierce hope, and generous hearts.
We talk about
prefigurative politics, the idea that you can embody your goal. This
is often discussed as doing your political organizing through direct-democratic
means, but not as being heroic in your spirit or generous in your gestures.
of this indiscriminate biliousness is the statement that gets aired every four
years: that in presidential elections we are asked to choose the lesser of two
evils. Now, this is not an analysis or an insight; it is a cliché, and a very
tired one, and it often comes in the same package as the insistence that there
is no difference between the candidates. You can reframe it, however, by
saying: we get a choice, and not choosing at all can be tantamount in its
consequences to choosing the greater of two evils.
marriage rights or discrimination protection or access to health care is not
the lesser of two evils. If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that
fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate
suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values
perfectly. Yet people are willing to use this “evils” slogan to wrap up all the
infinite complexity of the fate of the Earth and everything living on it and
throw it away.
I don’t love
electoral politics, particularly the national variety. I generally find such
elections depressing and look for real hope to the people-powered movements
around the globe and subtler social and imaginative shifts toward more
compassion and more creativity. Still, every four years we are asked if we want
to have our foot trod upon or sawed off at the ankle without anesthetic. The
usual reply on the left is that there’s no difference between the two
experiences and they prefer that Che Guevara give them a spa pedicure. Now, the
Che pedicure is not actually one of the available options, though surely in
heaven we will all have our toenails painted camo green by El Jefe.
transpires, there’s something to be said for actually examining the
differences. In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer
to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it’s that the people in question won’t
be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access,
and so forth are not at stake.
immigrant writes me, “The Democratic Party is not our friend: it is
the only party we can negotiate with.” Or as a Nevada
activist friend put it, “Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don’t vote or whatever, but
those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it
electoral politics is as riddled with corporate money and lobbyists as a
long-dead dog with maggots, and deeply mired in the manure of the status quo —
and everyone knows it. (So stop those news bulletins, please.) People who told
me back in 2000 that there was no difference between Bush and Gore never got
back to me afterward.
I didn’t like
Gore, the ex-NAFTA-advocate and pro-WTO shill, but I knew that the differences
did matter, especially to the most vulnerable among us, whether to people in
Africa dying from the early impacts of climate change or to the shift since 2000 that has turned
our nation from a place where more than two-thirds of women had abortion rights
in their states to one where less
than half of them have those rights. Liberals often concentrate on domestic
policy, where education, health care, and economic justice matter more and
where Democrats are sometimes decent, even lifesaving, while radicals are often
obsessed with foreign policy to the exclusion of all else.
I’m with those
who are horrified by Obama’s presidential drone wars, his dismal inaction on global climate treaties,
and his administration’s soaring numbers of deportations of undocumented
immigrants. That some of you find his actions so repugnant you may not vote for
him, or that you find the whole electoral political system poisonous, I also
demonstration in support of Bradley Manning this month, I was handed a postcard
of a dead child with the caption “Tell this child the Democrats are the
lesser of two evils.” It behooves us not to use the dead for our own
devices, but that child did die thanks to an Obama Administration policy.
Others live because of the way that same administration has provided health insurance for millions of poor children or, for
example, reinstated environmental regulations that save thousands of lives.
You could argue
that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote
for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer
children. Virtually all U.S.
presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an
You don’t have
to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its
complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that
when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting
than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the
cultivation of recreational bitterness.
poisons you and it poisons the people you feed it to, and with it you drive
away a lot of people who don’t like poison. You don’t have to punish those who
do choose to participate. Actually, you don’t have to punish anyone, period.
Could Be Heroes
We are facing a
radical right that has abandoned all interest in truth and fact. We face not only
their specific policies, but a kind of cultural decay that comes from not
valuing truth, not trying to understand the complexities and nuances of our
situation, and not making empathy a force with which to act. To oppose them
requires us to be different from them, and that begins with both empathy and
intelligence, which are not as separate as we have often been told.
means celebrating what you have in common with potential allies, not punishing
them for often-minor differences. It means developing a more complex
understanding of the matters under consideration than the cartoonish black and
white that both left and the right tend to fall back on.
is a way of disengaging from both the facts on the ground and the obligations those
facts bring to bear on your life. As Michael Eric Dyson recently put it, “What is not good are ideals and rhetorics that
don’t have the possibility of changing the condition that you analyze.
Otherwise, you’re engaging in a form of rhetorical narcissism and ideological
self-preoccupation that has no consequence on the material conditions of
actually existing poor people.”
Nine years ago
I began writing about hope, and I eventually began to refer to my project as
“snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.” All
that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse
for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of
saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that
the differences don’t matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is
acceptable. If you’re privileged you can then go home and watch bad TV or
reinforce your grumpiness with equally grumpy friends.
are often much more hopeful than that — the Coalition of Immokalee
Workers, that amazingly effective immigrant farmworkers’ rights group, is
hopeful because quitting for them would mean surrendering to modern-day
slavery, dire poverty, hunger, or death, not cable-TV reruns. They’re hopeful
and they’re powerful, and they went up against Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Safeway,
Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, and they won.
human-rights activist Harvey Milk was hopeful, even though when he was
assassinated gays and lesbians had almost no rights (but had just won two major
victories in which he played a role). He famously said, “You have to give
In terms of the
rights since won by gays and lesbians, where we are now would undoubtedly amaze
Milk, and we got there step by step, one pragmatic and imperfect victory at a
time — with so many more yet to be won. To be hopeful means to be uncertain
about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change
all the way down to the bottom of your heart.
really only two questions for activists: What do you want to achieve? And who
do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of
every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making
yourself, and you might as do it with generosity and kindness and style.
That is the
small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want
victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think
about what they would look like.