Resistance Reading: Hope in the Dark

Before the election I read lots of political news. I knew it wasn’t just “to keep myself informed” but because it was interesting in a horrible way, and because the outrage and sense of being right that I get when I read angry, articulate people who agree with me, is enjoyable, if maddening.

It still is. Not attractive, right? Not being my best self.

But after the election I resolved to read political news only with the purpose of figuring out what I could do. And I’ve been more politically active in the last month before than in the rest of my life combined. Something that has kept me motivated is reading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. She writes about the importance of taking action, of organizing for justice and progress. She writes about how small actions influence others and have consequences that we may not see for many years, if ever. She writes about a small group of anti-nuclear protesters standing in the rain outside the Capitol, and how a statesman saw them, and thought that if women with so little support, in terrible weather, felt this strongly about the issue, it was maybe worth more thought on his part.

She tells many stories like that. Some have come to ill, like Venezuela’s change in leadership. Some have been invisible; as she notes, a species saved from extinction is a preservation of the status quo–nothing looks different.

She also illuminated the difference for me between hope and optimism. Optimism may be false and even dangerous right now–things may not work out for the best, in fact they probably won’t for many people. Hope is a different thing; it is a spark that lights the darkness. When Pandora opened the box, and found hope inside as well, it did not negate all the evil that had been let out. Rebecca Solnit’s version of hope means “another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

She argues for activism as a lifelong pursuit. Battles may be won and lost, but the war is never truly won, and ground gained is not kept except with action. The mistakes we–I–have made as an inactive person with progressive ideas, are mistakes of inaction, of believing that because women have reproductive rights now in the US, that cannot be taken away, it does not need to be defended, and even expanded. Or if it does, that work should be done by someone else, career activists, people other than me.

One could get discouraged by the never-ending nature of the fight for more equality, better outcomes for everyone, social justice, but I think that can be a source of hope as well. I see so many well-intentioned progressive writers saying, “Don’t focus on that, focus on this, because that won’t work.” Well, that might not work, but we can learn from it, and if you don’t try, it definitely won’t work. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. People are capable of focusing on more than one thing at once, of trying one thing, taking a stand–which is not invisible–and then standing for the next thing.

As the early example of the small protest in the rain shows, standing up is important in and of itself. It gives questions to some, and courage to others. It says: “this matters”. In a country where oil companies that cause oil spills that contaminate the water are not called criminals, but those protesting that contamination and trying to prevent at are, it is important to point out that is wrong, as loudly as possible.

In Hope In The Dark, Rebecca Solnit looks at long-term changes in societal norms, and how those came about. Gayness used to be barely whispered about in polite society, within the memory of many living people. But gay people and their allies said you must pay attention to this, this is important, and over a generation, it went from a dirty secret to widely accepted, almost inconceivable–at least in certain circles–that gayness has anything wrong with it, though there is still far to go there too. These issues always move from fringe “crazies” agitating about an issue, through to the mainstream, and that movement is made of individual choices, conversations, protests, letters, droplets of water that carve a new path in rock.

Finally, Solnit points out that in times of crisis, people do not, actually, behave as The Walking Dead, and so much pop culture, would have us believe, with people taking advantage of lawlessness to harm one another. Instead, workers in the World Trade Center carried a paralyzed accountant down 70 flights of stairs, even fearing that the building could collapse under them at any moment. Boat owners from all around the Gulf went to New Orleans to rescue people stranded on their roofs, in defiance of the coast guard. As Solnit reminds us, no one said: if I can’t save everyone, there’s no point. They knew there was a point in saving one person. If this election showed us that we are worse than we think, perhaps it can also remind us that we are better than we think, that crisis can bring out the best in us if we let it.

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Resistance Reading: An Introduction

library-425730_640When I was in my 20s, I read extensively about Germany in WWII. I was seriously dating a Jewish man, and seriously considering converting to Judaism. At the same time, I was reckoning with my vaguely Germanic family background. My obsessions (now bearing fruit as a trilogy of long novels) are in Germanic history and myth, the same myth twisted by the Nazi party for its own imagery.

The question, the obsession, the object of my search, was how could they do it? Would I, asked to do what German soldiers, SS officers, ordinary people, or highly placed officials, do what they had done, or would I resist? I didn’t know. It’s easy to tell yourself you would, but you don’t know until you’re in the situation. So I read widely, vast numbers of books about genocide and its perpetrators. About Nazi doctors, and SS officers, about ordinary Germans, and resistance fighters. I learned that after the war, many said that they had feared being killed if they resisted, but I also learned about many who refused orders, and were only transferred to a different unit. Resisting did not carry the penalty that many feared it did. Denmark, conquered, discovered this, and saved their Jews, going almost unpunished as they did so.

Masha Gessen, a reporter in Putin’s Russia for many years, made a list of how to deal with encroaching fascism, authoritarianism, whatever you want to call it, and one of the items on the list is, “Don’t obey in advance.” Require them to make their threats, loudly, where everyone can hear.

I hope that all of us who fear that the election of Trump is the beginning of the end of the American experiment, and the rise of an authoritarian superpower are overreacting. I hope that people can laugh at us in four, eight, twenty years. I want to be wrong with all my heart.

But I don’t want that hope to blind me to what is really happening. To mistake the desire for things to be okay with them actually being okay.

When Trump was elected, I was despondent, for reasons both selfish and, hopefully, not. I’ve never wanted to find out what I would do in extreme circumstances, if I had to choose between my life and what I believe is right. Or even between my comfort and my beliefs. I wanted to be an author, and maybe teach creative writing. Or go back to working at a tech company if I couldn’t sustain myself with writing–but no matter what, to enjoy the fruits of privilege, to vote and give to charity sometimes, to sign petitions against injustice, and maybe sometimes go to protests. To read political news and get angry, but rarely do more than that.

When Trump was elected, I realized that not only could I not do that in the future, but that I shouldn’t have been doing that in the past. That I am incredibly lucky to be able to ignore the problems that grind other people down, take their lives, their livelihoods, see them facing horrific injustices, and only engage on my own schedule.

I didn’t want to think about putting my body between police and Muslims. Or being put on a list of dissidents. Or having to flee, or help others flee. I still don’t. I want to prevent us from getting there.

In researching my novels, I learned that vikings believed that the day of a person’s death was ordained, but between birth and death, they had a good deal of free will. But if you’re going into battle, you may as well fight bravely. If it is your day to die, then you will die bravely. If it is not your day to die, then you will gain honor and glory for fighting bravely. Easy to say, hard to do.

Every culture tries to grapple with death in its own way. In the affluent west, for us lucky, privileged few, we don’t have to think about it very often. Trump’s election has given me, and many others, a glimpse of a chaotic future, a preview of life asking us questions we don’t want to have to answer, and fear that we may not answer bravely.

Masha Gessen also says that one of the advantages we have over the Jews in the ghettos, who did not know if it was better to collaborate somewhat with their Nazi captors, to provide lists that today determine who will be fed, and tomorrow determine who will be killed, or to resist, is that we have history to draw from. We know what has been tried and what has worked or failed to work. If we look, we can see the signs, the patterns of history being written again in our present times, and we can choose a different path. Authoritarianism thrives on making accomplices, and whithers without them.

In the coming years, I will be reading books of the resistance, books of history and philosophy that teach us how to resist, how to hope, how to have moral courage, books that tell us what has worked and what has failed. This is in addition to doing daily, weekly, and monthly actions, because my antidote to despair is doing–not just reading and writing, but turning that reading and writing into action.

My first book, which I just finished reading, is Hope In the Dark by Rebecca Solnit, and it has indeed given me hope, which I hope to pass onto you in my next post.

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