Rebecca Solnit on Hope, Lies, and Making Change
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. In our editorial meeting this week, even through the speaker phone connecting me with the team in New York, the staff detected in my voice a slight - suicidal despondency. Why so glum, chum, they wanted to know. And I said, [SIGHS] it’s just that we’re all so f[BLEEP]. It’s hard to drag my sorry self out of bed in the morning. This is when producer Alana Casanova-Burgess chimed in, Bob, have you read Hope in the Dark?
She was referring to the book of encouragement and call to action by left-wing activist/philosopher Rebecca Solnit, who expresses optimism about the future based not on naïveté or denial but on lessons of history. Solnit is impatient with despair, not only because it paralyzes political action but because she says it is historically indefensible. Occasioned by the invasion of Iraq, the book became so popular lately with the demoralized demographic that Solnit herself has [LAUGHS] only one copy remaining to her name. Wouldn’t it be swell, Bob, for you to speak to Rebecca Solnit? Rebecca, welcome to On the Media.
REBECCA SOLNIT: Good morning or afternoon over there in New York.
BOB GARFIELD: So the dark in your title Hope in the Dark isn’t about the darkest hours but about the impossibility of knowing the future, which you say dependably surprises and rewards us. Can you start off, please, by reading from the beginning of your first essay, “Looking into Darkness”?
REBECCA SOLNIT: With pleasure. “On January 18th, 1915, six months into the first world war, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, ‘The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.’ Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfillment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward. But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.
Who two decades ago could have imagined a world in which the Soviet Union had vanished and the Internet had arrived? Who then dreamed that the political prisoner Nelson Mandela would become president of a transformed South Africa? Who foresaw the resurgence of the indigenous world of which the Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico is only the most visible face? Who four decades ago could have conceived of the changed status of all who are nonwhite, nonmale or nonstraight, the wide-open conversations about power, nature, economies and ecologies?
There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things that we could not have dreamed of.”
BOB GARFIELD: I want to read you a note from a father to his three daughters on election night, after the kids had pledged a compact to invest their next four years in looking inwards towards the family and relationships and the things that mattered to them the most. The note went as follows: “Yes, we must look inwards and cherish one another, holding onto our precious love where our own values seem so under attack. But please, we must not retreat from the world, we must never stop believing in and fighting for what is just and sane. Loathe as I am to be a backseat driver in your lives, I do implore you, be courageous. Live your life fighting the fight.”
I'm intimately familiar with those sentiments because I wrote them, but notwithstanding my encouragement to my daughters, no matter what the scope of history one day will provide, in the foreseeable future we are likely as a society to go abruptly and maybe irretrievably backwards on civil rights, human rights, climate, sanity. Isn’t a man permitted to be morose and [LAUGHS] desperate without surrendering? Isn’t that a reasonable reaction to horrible events?
REBECCA SOLNIT: You’re talking about two different things, how do we feel and what do we do. And I'm not telling people how to feel, I’m telling people that there is scope for action. One of the great conundrums is that unless we believe there are possibilities we don't act, but the possibilities only exist if we seize them. And so, a lot of what I've been trying to do is encourage people to recognize there is an extraordinary history of popular power in the US but also around the world. I'm not an optimist, as you said in your introduction. Optimism believes that everything will be fine, no matter what we do and, therefore, we don't have to do a damn thing. Pessimism is the mirror image of that - that believes that everything's going to hell in a hand basket, and it gets us off the hook. We don't have to do anything.
Hope for me is deeply tied to the fact that we don't know what will happen. This gives us grounds to act. And the Trump administration is such an amplifier of uncertainty. Will the guy have some kind of breakdown? Will he get impeached? Will he start World War IV? Will the Republican Party split? Will the Democratic Party find its backbone? So I think that there's grounds to stay engaged, while being clear that terrible things are happening and we should mourn them.
BOB GARFIELD: I mentioned in the introduction your impatience with what you see as the kind of self-indulgence of despair. And I couldn't help but notice that because [LAUGHS] I took it as a personal affront. In the context of the gulf war you call that kind of self-indulgence “The Conversation.” Could you read that passage?
REBECCA SOLNIT: “Sometime before the election [George Bush’s relection in 2004] was over, 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 us is of being your own persecutor – and it just buried any hope and imagination down in a dank little foxhole of curled-up despair. Now I watch people having it, wondering what it is we get from it. The certainty of despair – is even that kind of certainty so worth pursuing? … Stories trap us, stories free us. We live and die by stories. But hearing people have ‘The Conversation’ is hearing them tell themselves a story they believe is being told to them. What other stories can be told? How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners?”
BOB GARFIELD: Is there a place in this calculus though for the issue of running out of time, particularly with the environment? If there's a place for despair, might that be it?
REBECCA SOLNIT: You keep wanting to talk about despair and I'm just not very interested in it. The situation on climate, which I spent a lot of time looking at and trying to do something about as an activist, is really bleak but there's wiggle room in there. You know, a lot of extraordinary stuff is happening and it’s happening in very complex ways. One thing that not very many people have noticed, because it's a change so incremental, is that the technology of renewable non-carbon energy has evolved so dramatically over the last dozen years that we’re in a completely different place than we were at the beginning of the millennium. Bloomberg News ran a story yesterday that within the decade solar power is likely to be cheaper than coal, which is the cheapest fossil fuel. We actually have the energy solutions and they are being adapted pretty rapidly in a lot of places.
You know, we also are looking at the Antarctic ice shelf cracking. We’re looking at sea level rise. We’re looking at chaotic weather. We're in a very deep crisis. You know, and I want people to be able to hold both of those things. We’re not talking about a future that's already written.
BOB GARFIELD: The occasion for this encounter session is that my particular handwringing and you talking me down acts as a proxy for others in the audience who are feeling approximately the same way I am. But I just want to move away from that for just one moment and ask you about the role of the media.
REBECCA SOLNIT: What we get from the mainstream media over and over and over is a story that what we do doesn't matter. We have had huge impacts. We have changed what constitutes what's acceptable and ordinary in innumerable ways. You can tell the story of same-sex marriages, oh, the Supreme Court in its beneficence handed this nice thing down to us, but the Supreme Court decided that this was normal because millions of people had transformed our society in powerful ways over decades about what was normal, and so they did what seemed reasonable, but we defined what reasonable is.
And that's the kind of thing I want people to hang onto because we’re going to have to define what's ethical, what's acceptable, what's realistic, what's true. Particularly as we enter this regime made almost entirely out of lies, there's going to be a fight over who defines reality and what’s true and who we believe.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, stipulated, the future is inscrutable. But humor me, [LAUGHS] please, tell me everything’s gonna be all right?
REBECCA SOLNIT: It’s not gonna be all right. It’s gonna be really interesting and some beautiful and remarkable things are going to happen, and a lot of destruction that’s underway - is not entirely reversible as regards the climate. But again, there’s wiggle room. You know, the day after New Orleans flooded, hundreds or maybe thousands of boat owners from inside the city and as far away as Texas went into the city with their boats to rescue people from rooftops and attics. Thousands of people were saved. And in the months and years after Hurricane Katrina, the biggest volunteer effort took place in American history. And it really changed - you know, that city could be dead and it's not dead. I mean, some very good things came out of that. The future is not yet written. What the story is depends on what we make it, and that's really what I'm here to say.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Rebecca, thank you very much.
REBECCA SOLNIT: You’re welcome, doing my best. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Rebecca Solnit is a writer, historian and activist. She’s the author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.
That’s it for this week show. On The Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Sara Qari, Leah Feder and Ellie Lightfoot. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Terence Bernardo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.