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The Radical Notion of Hope (redux)
At a time when there are plenty of reasons to doubt and despair, acknowledge what hurts you and plot your next move
So now it’s my turn in the COVID barrel (first time), although luckily it seems to be a relatively mild case eased by the heroic work of scientists who developed life-saving vaccines.
Rather than skip publishing today altogether, I’m sharing this essay from Dec. 16, 2022. I hope you agree that focusing on the radical notion of hope is a valuable way to spend some minutes of your day. Stay well, everyone!
Remember what happened two months before the midterm elections? President Joe Biden stood in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and rang an alarm bell. It was a choice that had plenty of detractors, many of whom were the targets of his unfiltered tough talk who felt threatened by his clarity. “Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election—either they win or they were cheated,” he explained. And this:
MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love. They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fanned the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country…We each have to reject political violence with the moral clarity and conviction this nation can muster now.
Two months later, on Nov. 3, five days before election night, he spoke again about the need to stand up for democracy. It was just a few days after a homicidal assailant smashed the skull of Paul Pelosi with a hammer after breaking into his home and chillingly asking, “Where’s Nancy? Where’s Nancy?”
Those words reminded Biden of the mob that had used the same words during the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, causing him to ring the alarm bell once more: “It was an enraged mob that had been whipped up into a frenzy by a President repeating over and over again the Big Lie that the election of 2020 had been stolen,” he said. “It’s a lie that fueled the dangerous rise in political violence and voter intimidation over the past two years.”
After giving several examples, he went on, his sober words hardening:
This institution—this intimidation and this violence against Democrats and Republicans and nonpartisan officials just doing their jobs are the consequence of lies told for power and profit, lies of conspiracy and malice, lies repeated over and over that generate a cycle of anger, hate, vitriol and even violence. In this moment, we have to confront those lies with the truth. The very future of our nation depends on it…Make no mistake—democracy is on the ballot for us all.
This was the message the president decided was necessary to convey. He did so despite more than a few detractors who thought he should be emphasizing inflation and the economy. But he did not let up or change his approach.
And if you look closely at what he said in those final days before the midterms, what underlies his alarm was resounding hope that Americans could and would do the right thing. It had the rhythm of poetry.
“We, the people, must decide whether we will have fair and free elections and every vote counts,” he asserted. “We, the people, must decide whether we’re going to sustain a republic where reality is accepted, the law is obeyed, and your vote is truly sacred. We, the people, must decide whether the rule of law will prevail or whether we’ll allow the dark forces to thirst—that thirst for power put ahead of the principles that we—have long guided us.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about the spectrum from alarm and fear to hope and optimism. Much of this is focused on the climate crisis and the question of whether a doubtful, indifferent or even despairing public may be more motivated by stories of alarm or ones of hope.
Even among those who are clear that climate change is real and that something must be done, I question what it will take to convince them to recognize the urgency and act now. In fact, I’ve devoted several classes with both undergraduate and graduate students to studying different kinds of narratives and stylistic approaches to confronting climate-related issues and their potential to drive positive change.
In an essay for The Washington Post Magazine, the talented staff writer David Montgomery wrote about climate despair and his grief after the death of his brother in a mudslide. (Montgomery was one of the winners of the first Climate Narratives Prize that I co-led.) His search for environmental hope led him to Jennifer Atkinson and her podcast Facing It.
“Grief is one of the great unacknowledged paths to hope and compassion,” Atkinson says in her podcast. “Some argue that it may be our greatest ally in the age of climate crisis.” In a subsequent conversation with Montgomery, she told him, “Grief ultimately leads us to action. And hope in action is the only kind of hope that will save us now.”
Ten days before the midterms, thrashing around my hotel room in Potsdam, Germany in an uncertain effort to say something useful, I started to write a dispatch describing why so many Europeans were sharing their disbelief in how fragile and perilous the state of American democracy appeared to be. But it didn’t feel right. It didn’t seem to me to be a useful exercise that close to the election.
Instead, as you may recall, I detailed a baker’s dozen of assertions about what I believe, what I value and what I refuse to give up on. I was not willing to assume the Republicans would take back the majority, that Americans would be ruled by cynicism, that cruelty would dominate over compassion, that democracy, truth and justice would not ultimately win the day.
While I had no sure idea what the outcome of the election would be, the final two thoughts were grounded in what I hoped was reasonable optimism: “No, I’m not giving up on America because this is far from the first time that the American experiment was in grave danger (see: the Civil War) and the majority has proven before that it’s not about to let the fascists rule our world (see: WWII).” And, “No I’m not giving up on hope because then the losers win. That cannot stand.”
The failure of a presumed Red Wave to usher in a GOP majority in the Senate and win a big majority in the House told me that Biden’s words of alarm and the need to push back against the election deniers and the enemies of democracy had a positive impact. But along the spectrum between alarm and hope, I believe that his and others’ warnings were effective because of the underlying and hopeful belief that democracy is something worth saving.
My purpose here is not just to look back at what happened, but ask myself as I reflect on the nation’s predicaments and possibilities whether I’m getting the balance right between hope and alarm. It’s a question I’ll continue to ask myself before writing every dispatch. (The very title of this newsletter, the double use of “America” must be—as I suggested when I launched this—both “a plea and an ode.”)
I return to the wise conclusion from David Montgomery’s essay. “True hope is not an opiate whose purpose is to make us feel better,” he writes, adding, “Hope takes root in suffering and sadness.”
And while this closing paragraph is focused on the climate crisis, I urge you to consider his thought when you’re having doubts and fears about our democracy, the hostility that’s poisoning the body politic, the Trumpist cruelty that continues to be worn as a badge of honor, the tragic recklessness of the narcissistic billionaire Elon Musk, the murderous madness of Vladimir Putin and his war on Ukraine, or a host of other challenges facing America and the globe, including the degradation of the planet.
As Montgomery puts it, “So if you feel defeated or disheartened about the climate, I say: Good. Embrace your despair. And then step into the hope of your next move.”
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