Editor’s Note: Alan started this as an entry for Weekend Reading, but it got a little long. So we’re publishing it alone.
“It’s always too soon to calculate effect,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her book Hope in the Dark, a poetic call for action in the face of dark odds. Here’s an early passage that captures her essential point:
A woman from [Women’s Strike for Peace, an American organization protesting atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons] told of how foolish and futile she had felt 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’s book is one long argument that the spark of change skips and jumps through us to others we may never meet, and it is argued with Solnit’s usual lucidity and eloquence. She weaves in heartening anecdotes of citizen action that led to unexpected and distant effects: a peace movement in Nevada in the 1980s that inspired an improbably successful parallel effort in the Soviet Union. A poet whose letter against war ignited a wave of thousands of poets for peace. Writers whose lonely scribbling blossomed after their deaths into whole new philosophies of social change.
Solnit illustrates how invisible are the benefits of our actions, and that much we take for granted today is the result of past actions by people like us: no more polio, more democracy, no more Cold War, less war in general, greater respect for human rights, greater equality by race and sex, and more. We therefore have every reason to act out, speak out, and stand up for our best values, she implies. We just might succeed.
Solnit writes so beautifully that it’s tempting to just sing along. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately: chanting along to Solnit ever since I read her divestment call. But in the end, with this book, I couldn’t. I learned that you can, in fact, read too much Rebecca Solnit. And I can name the moment when I made this discovery. It was when she started going on, and on and on, about the Zapatistas.
Granted, the Zapatistas made for good copy: a romantic story about revolutionaries transformed by the indigenous communities they went to serve. And she wrote her book in the time before they’d slipped down the back side of the hype cycle. But still. The Zapatistas were, from the beginning, destined to be a temporary eruption of euphoric revolutionary ardor. The fact that Solnit put them at the center of her argument for hope gave me the twitchy feeling I used to get back in the 1980s when anti-nuclear activists started talking up, earnestly and credulously, a particular New Age myth (well rebutted even at the time) called the Hundredth Monkey Effect. It was a crazy notion that when you teach the right number of people an important new idea, it would suddenly and miraculously spread to everyone on the planet. It was a bogus theory, and bad theory tends to lead to ill-chosen, futile actions. (Or worse: witness unadulterated free market ideology, Marxism-Leninism, and religious fundamentalism of several varieties.) Lionizing the Zapatistas as of more than regional interest just strikes me as cockamamie.
The Zapatistas aside, I certainly agree with Ms. Solnit that there’s an abundance of hope. On the other hand, I could write a book (not as beautifully as she) stitching together anecdotes of activism that has had no discernible impact whatsoever, even many years later. The fact that people win the lottery does not mean that playing the lottery is a rational choice.
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Did the nuclear freeze campaign and the Pledge of Resistance against US intervention in Central America, both of which I was briefly involved with in college, change anything? Maybe, but arguably, I should have devoted my time to causes with better strategies and less self-righteousness.
Advocates mounted a long string of environmental ballot measures in Oregon in the 1990s, and they all lost. Maybe losing one ballot measure after another was secretly and unexpectedly the best way forward. Or maybe the people who organized and mounted those campaigns would have spent their efforts better on other undertakings: recruiting and supporting a new cadre of local elected officials who shared their values, for example, or building support gradually for a single priority, rather than going for broke on one after another.
In cases such as these, the important question is not, “What hidden good has come of these outpourings of citizen energy?” The important question is, “What could we do better?”
Hope, for me, comes from believing there is a plausible path to victory. It comes from having a plan—a plan for each change we seek. It also comes from having developed in ourselves and our organizations a set of traits that are indispensable: We have to be smart, organized, hard-working, perceptive, creative, insightful, nimble, well-connected, well-funded—and lucky.
It wouldn’t be fair to expect Rebecca Solnit to provide guidance about all these things. It’s not her job, as a writer, to create a manual for social-change leadership. (It’s closer to the job of people in positions like mine, actually.) Still, I wanted her to acknowledge that hope flows not only from the serendipity of history. It flows also from good plans well executed.