Thirteen Years On, Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark Offers a Vision for Defiance, Not Despair, in the Age of Trump

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Thirteen Years On, Rebecca Solnit's <i>Hope in the Dark</i> Offers a Vision for Defiance, Not Despair, in the Age of Trump

On Friday, a man who has lied, cheated, insulted, threatened and groped his way through life was sworn in as President of the United States of America. After nearly two years of a farcical and corroding electoral process that revealed little more than a dark, powerful sense of alienation and resentment, it was finally done. No more speculative pieces about how this institution or that would step in where the others had failed; no more reassuring platitudes about how the office would tame the man. The moment well over half the voting population has been dreading, the moment few—including, perhaps, the man himself—had thought possible, has finally arrived. Donald Trump, a former reality TV star and a businessman of ill repute, is now the President.

On Saturday, millions gathered in cities across the U.S. and the world to voice their anger, frustration and fear at the fact that that man—a model of ignorance, misogyny and utter narcissism—was being handed the levers of utmost power. More than a few protesters’ signs reflected disbelief. “Wtf?” “I Can’t Believe This Shit.” “Meh. Ugh. Omfg.” And, my personal favorite: “We F#cked Up Bigly.” But there was another feeling in the air on Saturday when I joined an enormous crowd in the Women’s March on Washington: hope. It was a tenuous feeling—a far cry from the waves of emotion that surged through Washington eight years ago—and contingent, too. Yet there it was, best exemplified, in my opinion, in the following two chants:

“We will not go away / welcome to your first day!”

“Donald, escucha / estamos en la lucha!”

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“Sometime before the election was over,” Rebecca Solnit writes in her slim 2004 treatise Hope in the Dark, “I vowed to keep away from what I thought of as ‘the Conversation,’ the tailspin of mutual wailing about how bad everything was, a recitation of the evidence against us—one exciting opportunity the left offers is of being your own prosecutor—that just buried any hope and imagination down into a dank little foxhole of curled-up despair.”

Solnit wrote this paragraph after the election that handed George W. Bush a second term in office despite massive opposition from leftists, liberals and progressives of all stripes. The re-election of a man who had proven to be as foolish as he had seemed, who had led the country into an illegitimate war that had already become the quagmire it remains today, was a devastating blow to those who couldn’t imagine that Americans would make the same mistake twice.

It’s a curious paragraph to read in the aftermath of the election of Trump, whose candidacy and election was opposed not only by progressives, but by many Bush-era conservative technocrats and mainstream Republicans alike. Trump’s election has certainly unleashed millions of “Conversations”—raise your hand if that’s you—and with good reason: he has threatened to deport millions of immigrants, command the armed forces to use torture and revoke healthcare for 20 million Americans—all while stoking an ethnocentric, rage-filled rhetoric and praising autocrats around the globe. His actions, meanwhile, offer little comfort: he has appointed a loan shark to lead the Treasury department, an heiress completely ignorant of education policy to lead the Education Department, a surgeon whose spokesperson had previously declared him incapable of running a governmental agency to Housing and Urban Development, and a man previously deemed too racist to be a federal judge to Attorney General. Not only that, but the election gave us a brutal demonstration in how fragmented and top-heavy the Democratic Party really is—an easy phenomenon to overlook during Obama’s eight years in office.

Trump’s election made fools of engaged citizens and political professionals across the policy spectrum, of liberals and conservatives and radicals, too. Ignoring or walking away from these realities—as Solnit seems to call for in that paragraph—seems insane. But Hope in the Dark is far from a call to inaction; instead, it calls to replace despair with hope, and works as something of an atlas for sustainable, generative resistance.

Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not the things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.

This must have been a difficult argument to make in 2004 and 2005; making it today, when the full impact of the Trump presidency has yet to settle in, feels even harder. Haymarket Books, which published Hope in the Dark in 2004, issued a revised edition in late 2016, with an updated preface and conclusion, but it seems clear from the writing that Solnit—like most of us—did not foresee that the dark forces that propelled Trump to become the Republican nominee would lift him into office.

Seen in our weird new national light, the book sometimes resorts to a kind of “Go, team!” optimism that goes too far. Solnit’s claim that the anti-war demonstrations of early 2003 “may have saved a few thousand or a few tens of thousands of lives” in Iraq is not only unprovable, it seems to be an argument designed to comfort the guilty egos of those whose lives weren’t at risk in the first place. Yet the book’s best moments avoid this type of sentimental thinking. Instead, Solnit views hope not as a “lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky” but as an “ax you break down doors with in an emergency…hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

In service of arguing for the importance of hope, Solnit writes that we must take stock of the important victories made by feminists, civil rights advocates and environmentalists without resorting to the “naïve cynicism” that holds that “everything that is not perfect is failed, disappointing, a betrayal…perfectionists often position themselves on the sidelines, from which they point out that nothing is good enough.” This is a tendency seen most readily on social media, where Solnit has found a happy home for her pithy reactions to the day’s news. “On social media…a lot of people respond to almost any achievement, positive development, or outright victory with ‘yes but.’ Naysaying becomes a habit.” For Solnit, this kind of thinking—similar in tone to “The Conversation”—leads to one place: depressed inaction. Taking the time to note and celebrate a victory—no matter how contingent—is the stuff that allows people to continue to move forward, she argues.

Further, as she points out, the future is by definition unknown—and while the dark is a fearful place, it is also open to change. Solnit uses historical examples to explain how a years-in-the-making shift in consciousness can erupt in a single moment. This kind of analysis places emphasis not on what’s happening on stage, but what’s happening in the crowd, far from the spotlights. In one of the more memorable example, she writes about how an organizer with Women Strike for Peace, an anti-nuclear organizing group, felt

foolish and futile…standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House. Years later she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock—who had become one of the most high-profile activists on the issue—say that the turning point for him was spotting a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself.

Solnit is not interested in drawing a direct line between action and effect, preferring to envision history as a “crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension.” In her reading of history, the American Revolution began in the years when the colonists’ began to organize around issues of representation, not when the first weapons were drawn. The same goes for gay marriage, which went from being “inconceivable” to the law of the land in a few decades.

The fight, Solnit argues, is frustrating—an important reminder to those of us who came home from the marches around the world on Saturday feeling satisfied with having made our voices heard. Trump has promised terrible things, and as Masha Gessen reminds us, we would do well to believe him. Yet resigning ourselves to our fate—or to fighting among ourselves—is the surest way of allowing him to achieve his twisted vision. No, taking one day to march in the streets isn’t enough. But it’s a start. As Solnit writes, “It’s always too soon to go home.”

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