These past two weeks have been riddled with news that could douse the flame of even the brightest of spirits.
The relentless bombing of Gaza, the cycle of prejudice and violence that is drawing more and more of the world into its maw, the death spiral of Ukraine and the rise of a muscular Russian militarism that almost certainly played a role in the downing of a civilian airliner, the murder of Eric Garner in New York—his last words “I can’t breathe” seem to speak for all people of color who struggle with militarized policing.
Our world is an ugly one, and its darkest impulses seem to rise newly invigorated from the ashes of each successive tragedy as a monster with a thousand faces, many of them sporting Cheshire grins as they spout the latest trends in memetic prejudice. In the wake of the downing of MH17 we’ve been treated not only to the terrifying spectres a plane crash always summons, but also to the unfortunate reality that some of our fellow leftists seem more interested in providing ideological cover for Russian militarism as a stick in the eye of American militarism (which was as depressing as watching something similar happen with regard to Venezuela).
Times like this are tailor-made for nihilism and bespoke oblivion. Why have hope or optimism when events conspire to make a mockery of it all? Why fight for a better world when the winds of change seem to cheat us at every turn? How can we change the world even as we struggle to battle the puppet-master demons of ideological dogmatism?
For the Night is Dark, And Full of Hope
Rebecca Solnit is perhaps the left’s most eloquent tribune for hope, in all of its unknowing glory. In a 2009 essay about Virginia Woolf’s strange optimism, she explained why it is precisely our lack of knowledge about the future that should give us comfort in difficult times. “The future is dark,” wrote Woolf in a private journal, “which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” Solnit is positively in love with the line, because it succinctly conveys the pregnancy of unknown tomorrows.
Pessimism and cynicism make claims upon the future that defy reason. As Solnit puts it so well,
“Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in [writer Laurence] Gonzales’ resonant phrase.”
The unknown is activism’s medium. We dare to imagine the unthinkable. These are not confident designs about what the future will be, but rather our hopes given form, turning them into cynosures that guide us through the troubled waters of the present. We do not preach the comfortable triumphalism of progress that pretends the future makes itself. That would be truly naive. What we believe, instead, is that the future is uncertain and thus we have a chance at shaping it for the better. Rather than confident proclamations about what tomorrow holds, we, at our best, celebrate the possibility of what it might one day hold, what it could be.
Through the open seam of that uncertainty, we can drive a movement.
Politics, goes the old saw, is the “art of the possible,” but feminism has always imagined something grander for itself—much as every liberation movement of the last two centuries has, as our collective imagination aspired to heavens beyond the grasp of our ancestors. Feminist movements have aspired to the unimaginable, to the impossible, to the unthinkable.
We did not allow ourselves to be bowed by the staggering terrors of our present. We knew that somewhere in the shadows of tomorrow lurked the elusive source of our hopes. We had faith that our labours would, one day, bear the fruit our children deserve. Time and again, this is what has moved us. The darkness of the future yet concealed stars that were just waiting to shine.
The Wages of Cynicism
It seems cheap to say that we need to have hope simply because of that basic human limitation of not knowing what the future holds. It may be, in Solnit’s words, “too early to tell” whether we have truly succeeded or failed in our efforts. But that feels, in its way, deeply unsatisfying. When measured against the damage done by the U.S. Supreme Court to the promise of democracy for women and people of color, does that darkness really portend anything other than yet more pain?
My answer to that is that relinquishing the future to our fevered nightmares is less an acceptance of reality than an unwitting effort at shaping it.
Cynicism is the greatest enemy we face in our struggles, even above and beyond the terrors of oppression, because it robs us of the energy we need to actually change our circumstances.
Cynicism is what individuates us, isolating us from one another, stilling our political action. It is what drives down voter turnout, keeps us away from protests, makes us all too eager for fatal compromise rather than meaningful change. Cynicism in the face of our challenges constitutes the final victory of our society’s myriad terrors, for it surrenders the independence and brightness of our imaginations to the brutal logic of the present.
This, at last, is what is rotting liberal democracy from within: a sirensong that seduces us into thinking that our political participation, the very lifeblood of the system, is a waste of time. Radicals and leftists manifest their own variants of this, of course, which take the shape of withering declamations of hope itself: every supposed political victory, they say, is merely a Trojan horse of fatal compromises. Every “reform” begets newer, more sophisticated oppression. There is no escape. Nevermind that this sort of cynicism is a perfect fit with the aspirations of the privileged, who need to monopolise the levers of political influence and control and find useful allies in radicals who demand we voluntarily abscond from democratic engagement.
Here, the activists are prisoners of their lofty aspirations, scorning the long and winding staircase that we must ascend to reach our dreams.
Neither the political-apathetic nor the embittered radical puritan offers a real solution to our problems. They merely attempt to discipline the future into a knowable shape, to tame the terror by making it predictable.
Instead of embracing the uncertainty we face, we see it as validation of our worst fears, especially when it feels like the world is collapsing around us.
Though the Heavens Fall
An old Latin legal phrase beloved of jurists and popularly misquoted or misspoken in the U.S. is some variant of fiat justitia ruat caelum, “let justice be done though the heavens fall.” In mainstream use, it is interpreted to mean that justice, as defined by the speaker, must be done regardless of its consequences. In other words, even if the carriage of justice makes the heavens fall, it must be done. This has always struck me as unforgivable arrogance, to say nothing of enabling the “ends justify the means” mentality that has lead us to tragedy so many times in the past.
The interpretation I prefer, very different from the arrogant mainstream meaning, is exemplified by an admittedly unusual source: Samara, a character in Mass Effect 2 and 3. Samara, an alien justicar who lives by a rigid code of ethics and laws, righting wrongs across the galaxy, is found, in the third game, investigating an interstellar monastery that has fallen eerily silent. Her own offspring, she fears, could be the cause. She carries out this investigation in the midst of a galactic invasion, knowing that what transpired at the monastery may well be related, and demand a response. It is, she says, “my responsibility, and it is one that cannot be abandoned, even as our galaxy crumbles.”
Therein, for me, lies the better, more humble truth behind fiat justitia ruat caelum: We do not make the heavens fall, but justice remains our responsibility even if it does. Perhaps most especially so. All around the world, the heavens do seem to have opened up and crumbled to earth. Tragedy after tragedy plays out on our streets, in bombed out hospitals, at 32,000 feet, in austere courtrooms.
But that is all the more reason for us to not abandon our responsibility to dream and fight for the forgotten futures that these tragedies threaten to rob from us. What we as activists bring is that hope in the midst of the heavens’ collapse, to those who seek shelter amid the gloom.
Our memory of the future must be gloriously uncertain, hazy, and chaotic; out of that disordered cyclone comes hope. It is that thought of the glorious darkness before us that must sustain us.
Even as our world crumbles.