Hope is an orientation, a way of scanning the wall for cracks — or building ladders — rather than staring at its obdurate expanse. It’s a worldview, but one informed by experience and the knowledge that people have power; that the power people possess matters; that change has been made by populist movements and dedicated individuals in the past; and that it will be again.
Dissent in this country has become largely a culture of diagnosis rather than prescription, of describing what is wrong with them, rather than what is possible for us. But even in English, a robust minority tradition can be found. There are a handful of books that I think of as “the secret library of hope.” None of them deny the awful things going on, but they approach them as if the future is still open to intervention rather than an inevitability. In describing how the world actually gets changed, they give us the tools to change it again.
Here, then, are some of the regulars in my secret political library of hope, along with some new candidates:
Monks, Slaves, Prisoners and the Power from Beneath
When the monks of Burma/Myanmar led an insurrection in September simply by walking through the streets of their cities in their deep-red robes, accompanied by ever more members of civil society, the military junta which had run that country for more than four decades responded with violence. That’s one measure of how powerful and threatening the insurrection was. (That totalitarian regimes tend to ban gatherings of more than a few people is the best confirmation of the strength that exists in unarmed numbers of us.)
After the crackdown, after the visually stunning, deeply inspiring walks came to a bloody end, quite a lot of mainstream politicians and pundits pronounced the insurrection dead, violence triumphant — as though this play had just one act, as though its protagonists were naïve and weak-willed. I knew they were wrong, but the argument I rested on wasn’t my own: I went back to Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, by far the most original and ambitious of the many histories of nonviolence to appear in recent years.
When it came out as the current war began in the spring of 2003, the book was mocked for its dismissal of the effectiveness of violence, but Schell’s explanation of how superior military power failed abysmally in Vietnam was a prophesy waiting to be fulfilled in Iraq. Schell himself is much taken with the philosopher Hannah Arendt, whom he quotes saying, in 1969:
“To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.”
I hope that his equally trenchant explanation of the power of nonviolence is fulfilled in Burma. Schell has been a diligent historian and philosopher of nuclear weapons since his 1982 bestseller The Fate of the Earth, but this book traces the rise of nonviolence as the other half of the history of the violent twentieth century.
That’s what books in a library of hope consist of — not a denial of the horrors of recent history, but an exploration of the other tendencies, avenues, and achievements that are too often overlooked. After all, to return to Burma, much has already changed there since September: Burma’s greatest supporter, China, has been forced to denounce the crackdown and may be vulnerable to more pre-Olympics pressure on the subject; India has declared a moratorium on selling arms to the country; a number of companies have withdrawn from doing business there; and the U.S. Congress just unanimously passed a bill, HR 3890, to increase sanctions, freeze the junta’s assets in U.S. institutions, and close a loophole that allowed Chevron to profit spectacularly from its business in Burma.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was elected as Burma’s head of state in 1990 and has, ever since, been under house arrest or otherwise restricted. She nonetheless remains the leader of, as well as a wise, gentle, fearless voice for, that country’s opposition. Since the uprising, her silencing has begun to dissolve amid meetings with a UN envoy and members of her own political party; some believe she may be on her way to being freed. The Burmese people were hit with hideous, pervasive violence, but they have not surrendered: small acts of resistance and large plans for liberation continue.
The best argument for hope is how easy it ought to be for the rest of us to raise its banner, when we look at who has carried it through unimaginably harsh conditions: Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom recounts his unflagging dedication to his country’s liberation (imperfect though it may still be); Rigoberta Menchu dodged death squads to become a champion of indigenous rights, a Nobel laureate, and a recent presidential candidate in Guatemala; Oscar Oliveira proved that a bunch of poor people in Bolivia can beat Bechtel Corporation largely by nonviolent means, as he recounts in !Cochabamba!; and Nobel Laureate and Burmese national icon Aung San Suu Kyi radiates — even from the page — an extraordinary calm and patience, perhaps the result of her decades of Buddhist practice. She remarks, toward the end of The Voice of Hope, a collection of conversations with her about Burma, Buddhism, politics, and her own situation, “Yes I do have hope because I’m working. I’m doing my bit to try to make the world a better place, so I naturally have hope for it. But obviously, those who are doing nothing to improve the world have no hope for it.”
For a book about those who did their bit beautifully long ago, don’t miss Adam Hochschild’s gripping Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. It begins with a handful of London Quakers who decided in the 1780s to abolish the institution of slavery in the British Empire and then, step by unpredictable step, did just that. It’s an exhilarating book simply as the history of a movement from beginning to end, and so suggests how many other remarkable movements await their historian; others, from the women’s movement to rights for queers to many environmental struggles, still await their completion. If only people carried, as part of their standard equipment, a sense of the often-incremental, unpredictable ways in which change is wrought and the powers that civil society actually possesses, they might go forward more confidently to wrestle with the wrongs of our time, seeing that we have already won many times before…
TO SEE THE REST OF THE BOOKS IN REBECCA SOLNIT’S SECRET LIBRARY OF HOPE GO TO TOMDISPATCH.COM
Rebecca Solnit blurbed a lot of books this year, wrote the foreword for Marisa Handler’s Loyal to the Sky, and provided editorial services on another book of her brother’s, this time with conscientious objector Aimee Allison: the counter-recruitment manual Army of None. Her own book for 2007 is Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, a collection of 36 essays including several that first appeared as Tomdispatches. She is the author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.
Copyright 2007 Rebecca Solnit
[City Lights Books in San Francisco will be doing a window display of Solnit’s “secret library of hope,” starting Tuesday, December 18th, with the books she’s chosen specially stickered and available inside the store along with her Tomdispatch essay.]