Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities — December 16, 2017

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

Just the title in stark white text on a black background -- see, this is HOPEFUL, and the background is DARK I was directed to this book because, well, Trump. It was written in the depths of the Bush years, after that terrible president had been reelected in 2004 and many of us spent the day crying. (I remember exactly where I was when I heard: on a train back from New Hampshire. My friend, who lived in Ireland at the time, texted me to tell me that Kerry had conceded. I found it striking that someone in Ireland knew about this before I did.)

It’s hard to dispute the thesis of this book: that history moves in ways you absolutely could not predict, that progressive causes have made strides that would have been unthinkable decades ago, that entire categories of liberation for which we didn’t even have words in the 1970s (think “transgender”) are now almost considered inevitable, and that — to put it very simply — what else are you going to do in times of desperation apart from fight? What option do you have other than to be hopeful that your actions can make the world a better place? In short: you have reason for hope, and you have no choice but to use that hope to fight to improve the world. Written in the depths of despair, I imagine this book lifted some spirits.

I think it would be better as a blog post, honestly. As a book read twelve-plus years after the fact, it feels dated, and it calls to mind the observation that the Democratic Party is less a unified ideological front than a loosely joined coalition. The book’s examples center on the reaction to global capitalism, embodied in the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, and she repeatedly quotes the Zapatistas’ Subcommandante Marcos. That’s fine if that’s what you’re into, and maybe I should be into it, but these feel like lefty shibboleths. A certain class of lefty during a certain era was supposed to be enraged by NAFTA, and Solnit speaks to that class. Should I be a member of that class? Should I join hands with the Zapatistas in a rebellion against global capitalism? I don’t know … maybe? In 1999 this sort of belief was the price of admission to American liberalism. Today it looks like a bunch of unrelated things thrown together in the pot. Does anything really join the Zapatistas with opposition to the WTO?

For a time I know that people were concerned about supranational trade agreements that would, we worried, allow corporations to sue governments whenever any public policy led to reduced profits. (In the context of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I believe the term is “investor dispute settlement”.) Solnit singles out the Methanex suit, which I looked up and which appears to have gone nowhere. Maybe all our fears were for nought? Or maybe, instead, this exactly proves Solnit’s point that activists’ vast accomplishments have been unsung — that part of how we have to measure our accomplishments is by how much worse it could have been. That’s certainly true: people have a very hard time with counterfactuals.

I wonder how Solnit would update this book for 2017. I know a lot of people who are watching the Trump administration warily, wondering when it’s time to flee the United States; Charlottesville was not reassuring to American Jews (or, presumably, to Muslims, or to any number of other non-white non-Christians). Solnit’s book seems largely focused on the sort of political activism by which my actions altruistically help those whom I may never meet; how would she update it when the question on many people’s minds is whether they and their families are safe in Trump’s America? The darkness out of which Solnit wants to pull us has grown darker. What would Solnit have said to Jews in 1930s Germany? Is there hope in the dark for them, too?

Her book actually feels quaint now. We’ve gone from wondering how we can save Mexico from the ravages of NAFTA to wondering how we’ll protect Muslims in our own country. At one level the answer is the same as it was when Solnit wrote Hope In The Dark: keep fighting, keep hoping, and know that history unfolds in unpredictable ways. At another level, though, maybe there comes a time when you need to stop fighting and seek shelter. Maybe we’re there, maybe we’re not, but Solnit’s book is not necessarily prepared for that possibility.

So I can hold to the general message of staying hopeful, continuing to fight so long as you’re able, and remembering how far we’ve come. And maybe I should just leave it there. Maybe all the rest is flexible detail.