‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.’
I really feel that quote.
As a child I gave myself a fledgling mission–make the world better. Eventually it was clear, this was harder than it should be.
Huge problems plague the world–racism, war, ecological collapse, poverty, etc. Some people even work 9 to 5 at making life worse! (like private health insurance that tries to take your money and deny your coverage, or neo-conservatives who want to make war just because, or nazis).
A lot of us agree on what is needed. We know the world should not be dominated by corporations. We know we should be building a sustainable society so that future generations, and the Earth itself, can flourish. We know people shouldn’t work all day and be unable to afford basic necessities like food, shelter, and medicine (personally I think we should all have our basic needs met regardless of what we do).
People who agree on obvious goals of human survival ARE the numerical majority. Still, political power is held by those committed to domination and exploitation. The majority are not represented. We do not live in a democracy (here’s a post about that), and thinking that we do causes us to continually pursue ineffective political strategies.
But there is something else that gets in our way.
Seeds of depression abound in this frustrating world, and the opiate of the masses is HOPE.
Hope is the problem.
Hope lets Us off the Hook
I will go into the problems with hope, but first I want to discuss something fundamental–how stuff happens.
If I want to build a ladder, what do I do? I research how a ladder is made. I get the materials I need. I do the labor to transform those materials into a ladder. Pretty simple; research, gather, create.
If I wanted a world where everyone had the resources they needed, first I would research money and how it is spread. Second, I would identify where to gain more access to money. Third, I would organize people to claim that money.
Ok so getting our needs met is more complicated than building a ladder, but the point is basically that we get stuff done if we have a plan and do the labor. The general process of poor people getting their needs met could mean labor unions fighting for workers, political advocacy for social programs (health care, social security, etc.), changing the tax system, deposing the current political class, etc.
How does this relate to hope? In a nutshell, people talk about hope INSTEAD OF talking about getting things done.
I am not completely opposed to hope. Hope provides a sort of inspiration that feels good but is fleeting. Embracers of hope usually make one very good point. People need to believe they can make a difference. In a hurting world, we crave hope.
I’ve both worked in and attended Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations, where sermons are usually filled with hopeful words and songs. Many come to experience a weekly dose of good feelings and a sense that life will work out. These congregations do good work. I’m particularly proud of the congregation I worked at (Cedar Lane) and how they’ve provided physical sanctuary (here’s some info and I encourage people to support). The problem is congregations will often speak about, and subtly give themselves credit for, work that is more transformative than what they actually do.
I compare mainstream liberal institutions to the struggles of frontline activists fighting to hold police accountable for racist murder, or generally challenge the callousness of capitalism and the heavy-handed authority of the state. Those on the frontlines are often literally fighting for their lives, and they are largely ignored by more mainstream and “respectable” institutions who claim to support the same causes (the Democratic Party is the worst).
Often the hardest working people are those most dismissed in society. I know life is complicated and we can’t all do it all, but struggling people really need their true humanity to be seen. That means a transference of economic and political power and a real reckoning with our history. This is far beyond hope and feeling good.
Planning and working gets us what we need. Hope does not; and I suspect an over reliance on hope prevents us from diving in.
Hope as a Political Goal
Now I want to distinguish between hope as a feeling, which can be wonderful, and hope as a political goal. Hope as a political goal occurs when we gather together with people who hold our similar political interests, but the main purpose of the gathering is to make us feel good. Maybe in many cases this is fine. We need solace. We need good feelings, experienced with tender togetherness.
However, when hope becomes the central thrust of what we do, I would argue that hope is actually pacifying us and complimenting the exploitation and oppression we believe we oppose. Hope allows the bad people to oppress while the good people console themselves, it’ll all get better somehow someday.
We do not recognize, we are the ones the world is waiting for. Who else would it be?
The thing is that people have limited time to attend gatherings. If all we do is attend stuff that makes us feel good, we’re not actually going outside ourselves. We are not connecting to the work of living with mutuality. We are not doing the fundamental labor that makes things happen. And all that other stuff, connecting with people, going outside our own feelings, laboring to make things happen–this is the work of true transformation.
It often feels hard and painful.
I remember, for example, when I was first called a racist. It was in college. Based in my own self-centered experience, I was shocked, pained, and put off. But really I was being challenged to expand my mind and see a world filled with people who suffer racism, people I am alienated from because of my white privilege.
With an expanded perception I realized that calling me racist is actually calling me to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and how we shape each other’s world.
My wife regularly informs me of how I’ve been trained to exploit her. She is telling me how I can be a better person, which I can see if I choose to step outside myself and listen. This is how we do the actual work, and it has almost nothing to do with hope.
The Democratic Party
Political hope mainly seems to be about convincing people in the slow gradual progressive change that is promised by the Democratic Party. Liberals like to use examples of historical progress that illustrate why we should hope. They don’t say get active. They don’t tell us to storm the Bastille. They say wait and trust our betters, and frequently end up using our hope against us.
Obama exemplified the politics of hope. He argued for hope and change and it was obvious his presidency would not have been possible without a series of incomplete changes to US racism. He also deported more immigrants than any president prior. Bill Clinton greatly expanded racist systems of policing and incarceration, but he looked so empathetic and seemed to promise much when he said “I feel your pain.”
The politics of hope assumes a fairly constant and linear understanding of human progress, sometimes explained with the quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Whenever I hear that quote I wonder what indigenous people would say who were beset by disease and genocide when European settlers/conquerors/explorers first came to the Western hemisphere. I wonder about Africans who were stolen into slavery. I wonder about the people targeted in the Nazi Holocaust.
History is filled with mass destruction and the uprooting of people’s lives and culture. I wonder, how do we fit their lives into this story of linear progress? If we are always progressing, how did these horrors come to be, and what exactly does it mean to bend towards justice?
Now I know, people hear this sort of thing as disparaging and it is precisely these sorts of horrors that make people reach for hope. I also know that the pain of historical trauma can be so great that the only thing you can do is try to feel like you can at least just be alright in this world. If we could move beyond hope, we might even realize that what we really need is healing. I believe, one of the things our generations are called to do, is to reach past what is easy, beyond hope, and embrace something more profound and lasting.
I have my own thing, I don’t know what to call it, but I think it gives me the same stuff people crave when they look for hope. Basically I remind myself that life is both wonderful and horrible and, to live well, I have to use the wonderful parts to help me struggle with the horrible parts. I don’t need convincing that change for the better is possible. I know I’ve made the world better because, through my planning and labor, I have seen beautiful outcomes.
The most painful part is there will always be something I know should be done that I do not have the power to make happen. My first bit of activism was the anti-war movement. It was a lesson in powerlessness. I also know, when I combine my power with others, together we can make amazing things happen. I have seen it many times.
We all have to wrestle with our power and powerlessness, with the work it takes to live together, and with oppressors who wish to keep us under thumb. I guess the thing I want to ask of all the lovely people out there with limited free time: seek less hope and more transformation.
(Note: after this I think I’ll write more about what the politics of healing might look like. I’m also thinking about how the politics of hope has us always looking for a savior, and why that is consistently a failing strategy for liberation. It’s a big issue every election, and I predict it will become a big issue regarding the social democrats–they’re better than mainstream democrats but they are not saviors).