Rebecca Solnit originally published Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities in 2004, so a lot of it centers on the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. I read the third edition, published in 2015, which includes a long and lovely newly written foreword.
The premise of the book is that “The future is dark,” but “with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave” (p. 5). Which is kind of cool.
Also, the title of the book tends to make me start singing “Scars to Your Beautiful” by Alessia Cara: “There’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark…” Just wanted to share.
Anyhow, here are a few scattered thoughts about the book and some of the things that stood out to me from it.
1. I renewed this book from the library twice before finally getting around to reading it. As someone who wants the world to be better, but who also often struggles to believe that it really could be, I figured from this book’s title that it would be a good one for me to read. But other books seemed to promise more achievable things. A book could teach me about a particular time in history, or about a particular person’s life. But could it give me a renewed sense of hope? I’m not sure. That seemed like a lot to ask.
The book did deliver, though, in the sense that Solnit speaks eloquently, directly, and beautifully to a lot of the defeatist and cynical pessimism I sometimes tend to feel.
I think that Christian faith, at its best, does something like this, too: it helps us look truthfully at the world in all its brokenness, and also have reason to hope, and inspiration to act in ways that bring love and justice into being. Solnit’s book is kind of a secular version of that. It doesn’t downplay the darkness, but does aim to inspire hope and positive action in the middle of it.
I say this with the caveat that Solnit is an activist on the left of the U.S. political spectrum (strange and totally off-kilter as this spectrum may be). Personally, I pretty much agree with her vision of what progress looks like, so that worked well for me. But if you’re not really the left activist type, I’m not sure how the book would strike you. (Maybe give it a read anyway and let me know?)
2. If the book delivered on the “hope in the dark” part of its title, I feel like it also delivered on the “untold histories” part. There’s so much I didn’t know about the late 1990s and early 2000s.
To be fair, I was in middle school and high school during that time. But I think a lot of today’s (Gen Z) teenagers are a lot more politically aware and engaged than I was at their age, which seems to imply that it would have indeed been possible for me to pay more attention to the world at that time. I think I was mostly too busy trying to build a resume that would impress colleges and stuff, which is not a spectacular excuse.
I also feel like recent history (both U.S. and world) was pretty lacking in my education. I feel like I learned a lot of U.S history from the colonial era up through the 1960s, and then I don’t really remember anything after that. There was so much political struggle, and realignment, and just a lot of impactful stuff going on in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and I’ve just begun to pick it up in bits and pieces as an adult (mostly as I’ve tried to figure out what the hell went wrong in the American church).
Of course, the early 2000s would have been current events when I was in high school. My high school history/government teacher did give us weekly current events quizzes, and I often did poorly on them. I also remember these quizzes as much more of a “name the major news headlines of the week” kind of thing than a “let’s talk about the implications of all of this, what we think about it, what it means” kind of thing—I don’t remember much deeper discussion of these things.
So yeah, if you’re interested in little-known activist stories—super helpful, for anyone trying to change stuff now—and/or history around the millennium, this is your book. Activist stories, in particular, tend to get written out of school curricula and history books, by people who would rather not have kids grow up thinking they could really change things. So I think it’s worthwhile to seek out books like this, which tell a different kind of story.
3. I thought some of the stuff Solnit wrote about (George W.) Bush was pretty interesting, in that people said a lot of similar things about Trump during his presidency.
“The United States is the most disproportionate producer of climate change, governed by the most disregardful administration. This country often seems like a train heading for a wreck, with a gullible, apolitical, easily distracted population bloating itself on television’s political distortions and repellent vision of human life, with the runaway malignancy of domestic fundamentalism, the burgeoning prison and impoverished and unhinged populations, the decay of democracy, and on and on…I spend a lot of time looking at my country in horror.
And a lot of time saying ‘But’ . . . But some plants die from the center and grow outward; the official United States seems like the rotten center of a flourishing world, for elsewhere, particularly around the edges, and even in the margins of this country, beautiful insurrections are flowering. American electoral politics is not the most hopeful direction to look in, and yet the very disastrousness seems something to offer possibility. The Bush administration seems to be doing what every previous administration was too prudent to do: pursuing its unenlightened self-interest so recklessly that it is undermining US standing in the world and the economy that underwrite that standing” (pp. 107-8).
Doesn’t that sound like it could have been written about the Trump era? Disregardful administration. Domestic fundamentalism. Decay of democracy. A lot of time looking in horror. The rotten center of a world that flourishes around the edges with beautiful uprisings, protests, movements. (“Insurrections” may not be quite the right word after January 6, 2021.) And, perhaps Trump-iest of all, an administration pursuing its unenlightened self-interest unusually recklessly.
I think it’s good to be reminded that these things didn’t start with Trump—and sobering, too, because it means they didn’t end with him, either. A lot of them are what America—or at least parts of it—have been for quite a while. And, for quite a while, there have also been beautiful resistance movements that really have made a difference.
4. I liked Solnit’s thoughts on joy. “Another part of the Puritan legacy,” she writes, “is the belief that no one should have joy or abundance until everyone does, a belief that’s austere at one end, in the deprivation it endorses, and fantastical in the other, since it awaits a universal utopia. Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited…Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection” (p. 24).
I like the idea that “joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism.” I also find it hard. It can feel wrong to enjoy life when you know others are suffering. The empathy in me cries out and won’t be mollified.
On the one hand, this is good—it’s good to feel something about someone else’s suffering. That’s what makes us human. And, hopefully, it moves us to act to try to alleviate that suffering—to try to build a more just world where more people can flourish.
But then there’s also the “in the meanwhile,” which is, really, as long as we live. This present age, as the New Testament might refer to it. In this age there will always be evil, and suffering, and some people being greedy while others experience pain and even death because of it. If we don’t allow ourselves to experience joy while this is still the case, we will never allow ourselves to experience joy in this life.
I like the idea of joy as “a fine initial act of insurrection.” Joy is, in itself, a form of resistance to everything that would steal joy—not just from others, but from us, too.
5. Relatedly, I appreciate Solnit’s reflections on perfection and perfectionism.
She writes, “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible. Perfectionists can find fault with anything, and no one has higher standards in this regard than leftists…We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its sources and foundation: these are victories. A better world, yes; a perfect world, never” (pp. 77-78).
I feel like people often talk about perfectionism in individualistic terms. You know, like you’re working on a project at work, or writing an essay for school, or something like that, and you’re having a hard time calling it finished and good enough, because it isn’t perfect. (Hi, fellow enneagram “1”s.)
I thought it was helpful, though, and more new to me, to think of perfectionism in terms of collective change and progress. It’s not just a personal thing. It’s also a movement thing. Perfectionism doesn’t just mess up our personal lives or our work at our jobs, it also messes up activism and political change.
Just as we might want to learn to stop expecting perfection from ourselves personally, we might also need to learn to stop expecting perfection in the world in general—to work for that better world, and to celebrate any changes that happen in that direction, however incomplete they might be.
Solnit also writes, “Much has changed; much needs to change; being able to celebrate or at least recognize milestones and victories and keep working is what the times require of us….Perfectionists often position themselves on the sidelines, from which they point out that nothing is good enough…The naively cynical measure a piece of legislation, a victory, a milestone not against the past or the limits of the possible but against their ideas of perfection, and as this book reminds you, perfection is a yardstick by which everything falls short” (p. 140).
I feel that. It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and critique—to be cynical about everything that looks like it could be progress, because it’s never good enough. It’s never perfect. It’s harder—but necessary—to stay engaged, to refuse to use the impossibility of perfection as an excuse not to do anything, or not to celebrate the good things that are being done.
6. In Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza’s book The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart (also worth reading!), Garza writes about coming together in diverse coalitions, across different groups and with lots of different kinds of people—different groups and people who all have a particular interest in common, even if not a whole lot else. Solnit’s book reminded me of that.
Garza writes, “when it comes to politics, when it comes to governing, when it comes to building power, being small is something we cannot afford. And while I feel most comfortable around people who think like me and share my experiences, the longer I’m in the practice of building a movement, the more I realize that movement building isn’t about finding your tribe—it’s about growing your tribe across difference to focus on a common set of goals. It’s about being able to solve real problems in people’s lives, and it’s about changing how we think about and express who we are together” (p. 136).
Solnit writes—similarly, I think—of “a new kind of activism in which coalitions can be based on what wildly different groups have in common and difference can be set aside; a coalition requires difference as a cult does not, and sometimes it seems like the ideological litmus test of earlier movements moved them toward cultism” (pp. 87-88).
I like this, and I also find it challenging (in a good way). It’s easy to get caught up in worrying about whether we all agree on all the things. It’s harder, but much more powerful, to build alliances across lots and lots of differences, based on the one thing (or set of things) we have in common. Groups that effectively have ideological purity tests for membership often remain so small they never get much done. But there is a lot we can get done if we learn to work together, across our ideological differences, about the things that concern us all.
7. Solnit is not a quick read. I’ve read three books by her now (the other two: Recollections of My Nonexistence, which is her memoir, and her essay collection Men Explain Things to Me), and I find her writing both very beautiful and kind of convoluted. In Recollections of My Nonexistence, she actually writes about this—how she wanted to write in a way that was more nuanced, gentle, complex, and meandering than a lot of the more stereotypically masculine ways of writing that tend to dominate journalism and nonfiction.
I’m not sure how I feel about connecting gender to writing styles, but it was definitely interesting. I think Solnit is brilliant, and I think her writing is lovely. It’s just not easy to read. It makes me stop and think, and sometimes stop and read a sentence multiple times to make sure I’m following it.
So, maybe save this book for a time when you have a bit of spare brain power to spend on it. It’s worth it, I think.