Dear Rebecca Solnit: Wish I'd said that re hope and the political left

There is an author named Rebecca Solnit (pictured) who has been writing for something called the TomDispatch since May 2003, right after the Iraq war began, and the opposition to that arbitrary conflict felt dispirited. Her clear-headed writing helped many to figure out their next moves.

She has written a great piece called The Rain on Our Parade: Letter to My Dismal Allies, which I will quote at great length, but you should read the whole thing. After that, you should read her classic from 2008, Men Explain Things to Me: Facts Didn’t Get in Their Way, which is both seriously true and occasionally quite funny.
Dear Allies,

Forgive me if I briefly take my eyes off the prize to brush away some flies, but the buzzing has gone on for some time. I have a grand goal, and that is to counter the Republican right with its deep desire to annihilate everything I love and to move toward far more radical goals than the Democrats ever truly support. In the course of pursuing that, however, I’ve come up against the habits of my presumed allies again and again.

O rancid sector of the far left, please stop your grousing! Compared to you, Eeyore sounds like a Teletubby… Because what we’re talking about here is not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude, and one that is poisoning us. Not just me, but you, us, and our possibilities.

Leftists Explain Things to Me

The poison often emerges around electoral politics. Look, Obama does bad things and I deplore them, though not with a lot of fuss, since they’re hardly a surprise. He sometimes also does not-bad things, and I sometimes mention them in passing, and mentioning them does not negate the reality of the bad things.

The same has been true of other politicians… it was impossible for me to say so to a radical without receiving an earful about all the other ways in which [a politician] was terrible, as if the speaker had a news scoop, as if he or she thought I had been living under a rock, as if the presence of bad things made the existence of good ones irrelevant…

So here I want to lay out an insanely obvious principle that apparently needs clarification. There are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even though the bad things are bad. The mentioning of something good does not require the automatic assertion of a bad thing. The good thing might be an interesting avenue to pursue in itself if you want to get anywhere. In that context, the bad thing has all the safety of a dead end. And yes, much in the realm of electoral politics is hideous, but since it also shapes quite a bit of the world, if you want to be political or even informed you have to pay attention to it and maybe even work with it.

Instead, I constantly encounter a response that presumes the job at hand is to figure out what’s wrong, even when dealing with an actual victory, or a constructive development…

Apparently, we are not allowed to celebrate… My respondent was attempting to crush my ebullience and wither the discussion, and what purpose exactly does that serve?

This kind of response often has an air of punishing or condemning those who are less radical, and it is exactly the opposite of movement- or alliance-building. Those who don’t simply exit the premises will be that much more cautious about opening their mouths. Except to bitch, the acceptable currency of the realm…

The Emperor Is Naked and Uninteresting

Maybe it’s part of our country’s Puritan heritage, of demonstrating one’s own purity and superiority rather than focusing on fixing problems or being compassionate…

When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail, but that’s not a good reason to continue to pound down anything in the vicinity. Consider what needs to be raised up as well. Consider our powers, our victories, our possibilities; ask yourself just what you’re contributing, what kind of story you’re telling, and what kind you want to be telling…

Can you imagine how far the Civil Rights Movement would have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough? To hell with integrating the Montgomery public transit system when the problem was so much larger!…

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t — and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope, and generous hearts…

Left-Wing Vote Suppression

One manifestation of this indiscriminate biliousness is the statement that gets aired every four years: that in presidential elections we are asked to choose the lesser of two evils. Now, this is not an analysis or an insight; it is a cliché, and a very tired one, and it often comes in the same package as the insistence that there is no difference between the candidates. You can reframe it, however, by saying: we get a choice, and not choosing at all can be tantamount in its consequences to choosing the greater of two evils.

But having marriage rights or discrimination protection or access to health care is not the lesser of two evils. If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values perfectly. Yet people are willing to use this “evils” slogan to wrap up all the infinite complexity of the fate of the Earth and everything living on it and throw it away.

I don’t love electoral politics, particularly the national variety… Still, every four years we are asked if we want to have our foot trod upon or sawed off at the ankle without anesthetic. The usual reply on the left is that there’s no difference between the two experiences and they prefer that Che Guevara give them a spa pedicure…

Before that transpires, there’s something to be said for actually examining the differences. In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it’s that the people in question won’t be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access, and so forth are not at stake…

Presidential electoral politics is as riddled with corporate money and lobbyists as a long-dead dog with maggots, and deeply mired in the manure of the status quo — and everyone knows it. (So stop those news bulletins, please.) People who told me back in 2000 that there was no difference between Bush and Gore never got back to me afterward.

I didn’t like Gore, the ex-NAFTA-advocate and pro-WTO shill, but I knew that the differences did matter, especially to the most vulnerable among us…

I’m with those who are horrified by Obama’s presidential drone wars, his dismal inaction on global climate treaties, and his administration’s soaring numbers of deportations of undocumented immigrants. That some of you find his actions so repugnant you may not vote for him, or that you find the whole electoral political system poisonous, I also understand.

At a demonstration…, I was handed a postcard of a dead child with the caption “Tell this child the Democrats are the lesser of two evils.” …that child did die thanks to an Obama Administration [war] policy. Others live because of the way that same administration has provided health insurance for millions of poor children or, for example, reinstated environmental regulations that save thousands of lives.

You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children. Virtually all U.S. presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an immoral system.

You don’t have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.

Bitterness poisons you and it poisons the people you feed it to, and with it you drive away a lot of people… You don’t have to punish those who do choose to participate. Actually, you don’t have to punish anyone, period.

We Could Be Heroes

We are facing a radical right that has abandoned all interest in truth and fact. We face not only their specific policies, but a kind of cultural decay that comes from not valuing truth, not trying to understand the complexities and nuances of our situation, and not making empathy a force with which to act. To oppose them requires us to be different from them, and that begins with both empathy and intelligence, which are not as separate as we have often been told.

Being different means celebrating what you have in common with potential allies, not punishing them for often-minor differences. It means developing a more complex understanding of the matters under consideration than the cartoonish black and white that both left and the right tend to fall back on.

Dismissiveness is a way of disengaging from both the facts on the ground and the obligations those facts bring to bear on your life. As Michael Eric Dyson recently put it, “What is not good are ideals and rhetorics that don’t have the possibility of changing the condition that you analyze. Otherwise, you’re engaging in a form of rhetorical narcissism and ideological self-preoccupation that has no consequence on the material conditions of actually existing poor people.”

Nine years ago I began writing about hope, and I eventually began to refer to my project as “snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.” All that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that the differences don’t matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is acceptable. If you’re privileged you can then go home and watch bad TV or reinforce your grumpiness with equally grumpy friends.

The desperate are often much more hopeful than that… They’re hopeful and they’re powerful, and they went up against [companies], and they won.

The great human-rights activist Harvey Milk was hopeful, even though when he was assassinated gays and lesbians had almost no rights (but had just won two major victories in which he played a role). He famously said, “You have to give people hope.”

In terms of the rights since won by gays and lesbians, where we are now would undoubtedly amaze Milk, and we got there step by step, one pragmatic and imperfect victory at a time — with so many more yet to be won. To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.

There are really only two questions for activists: What do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style.

That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.


All I can add is that she well describes my complaint about the Obama Administration. I do not believe, at all, that a Romney administration would be better on those particular issues, and would very likely be worse.

I do understand of voting with ideological purity. I’ve voted for President, four times out of ten, for a third party candidate, including, in 1980, for environmental pioneer Barry Commoner, who died this week. I’m not saying one ought not to vote for a third party candidate; if you live in Utah (which surely will go to Romney) or the District of Columbia (Obama’s a lock), go vote for your ideal candidate, who, BTW, will not win. But if you’re in an even possible swing state, vote for the candidate who has a chance to win who best represents your viewpoint.

0 thoughts on “Dear Rebecca Solnit: Wish I'd said that re hope and the political left”

  1. She describes very well what I consider the central lesson of the election of 2000; idealism is important, but it must be tempered by PRAGMATISM; because it can always be worse. Politics IS an ugly sausage-making process; but, it’s one of the few tools we have to affect the course of our nation’s evolution.


  2. I have no doubt that Der Mittster will take Soonerland: in 2008, the Democratic ticket finished first in exactly 0 of 77 counties, and the state hasn’t drifted leftward in the interim. But I have no third-party option, since this state makes it as difficult as possible for anyone not sporting D or R to get on the freaking ballot.


  3. My son is a strong believer in the idea of voting 3rd party. Here, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t make a danged bit of difference, though I still can’t quite get past the idea that it’s a “wasted” vote. On the other hand, I also can’t abide the idea that *any* vote could be considered a wasted vote, and what I really wish we had was a strictly popular vote. Would that allow a third party to win? Not this year. Probably not for a couple of election cycles, but I’m convinced that once *everyone* could believe their vote really does count and then exercised that vote as they truly believe, we would begin to see a difference in our political landscape.


  4. Roger, this was like meat and potatoes for me. I understand Rebecca’s problem with all the partisan bitching back and forth. It’s why I listen to Rush AND Randi – the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and for me, that’s a bit farther to the left.

    Her gripes with the president are mine, too. Drones, in particular; that policy strikes me as cowardly and repulsive. Some kid playing PacMan with real lives from a remote computer, not having to face what’s been done in the aftermath.

    Mitt Romney seems to think all women should be like his wife. He is delusional in that area… he doesn’t believe in abortion, so no woman should have one. Ditto birth control, and I’m sure there is an underlying religious component there. Compare that to Barack Obama, who thinks women have brains – and who is really the only true Protestant in the pack, as Ryan and Biden are Catholics, and Romney is tied to a sect that has distanced themselves from the Bible over many years.

    I engage in lively discussion with a few trusted friends. I do chide my nieces that they “drank their mom’s Kool-aid” because they are young women who claim to be miles ahead of their mother idealogically, yet are still voting the Republican ticket. Tried explaining the birth control conundrum to them, especially the single mom niece who wants to get laid, and it’s on deaf ears.

    The indoctrination of our youth through religious-fearful home schooling (which has a science curriculum that excludes Darwin, rather than teaching that and Creationism side by side)is troubling, since we are so behind the rest of the world in math and science, and half the yahoos teaching their children have skewed moral values, teach abstinence, and often end up raising their own grandchildren.

    America is also being forcibly dumbed down by corporate media (trying explaining Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch to a Tea Party person). One must do a lot of research and keep learning. I believe that’s part of Rebecca’s idea, too… strive to learn as much as you can to make an educated decision.

    I’m not going to be saying I didn’t vote for Romney because his running mate looks too much like the teacher Mr. Shuster on Glee. I will be saying I voted FOR the president who got handed a bag of shit by Pres. Bush and at least had the guts to put the Chinese war debt ON THE BOOKS. Who hasn’t done everything I want, and some things I don’t like… but who has integrity and doesn’t say horrible things about me and mine only when he thinks he’s just talking to rich people (47% speech). LGBTQ rights have a long way to go, but straight allies like me have helped. An activist is not an activist if s/he is fighting for her/his own cause, own benefits.

    Thanks, Roger. Now I’m all steamed up at 1:30 in the morning. My own fault for coming on your blog late at night!!! Oh, I talked to Christine Smith and we are hooked up by email. Cool, huh? Peace, Amy


  5. The late great Molly Ivins noted that the so-called “left” was often too serious, like they were all waiting to celebrate when they accomplished their goals against the corporate minority. She pointed out that rallies and protests are much more enthusiastic if you have a barbecue with beer.


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