I’ve been absent from this blog for the past few weeks, but it hasn’t all been basking in the glory of my math prowess. In fact, I barely had time to celebrate the fact that I had actually passed my College Algebra course when I came down with Covid, despite getting all recommended vaccines and being oh-so-careful. At any rate, I’m just about back to normal now, but Covid is not a walk in the park. The initial symptoms aren’t too bad–pretty much the same as the side effects from the vaccine–but the aftermath of fatigue, lethargy, and depression lasted for a few weeks. My takeaway is that it’s definitely worth taking all the precautions now that most of the rest of the world seems to have blithely abandoned in order to avoid getting Covid.
At any rate, I emerged from my Covid quarantine a few weeks ago, just in time to address the local League of Women Voters unit at their annual meeting. My days of being a candidate are behind me, but that makes me all the more appreciative of the people who are still active and who are working to improve the political landscape of the United States. To be honest, I feel more than a little guilty at not joining in their efforts more actively, so the least I could do, I told myself, is to speak to them when they ask me to. Then I decided that my speech, such as it was, could make a good blog post, so here goes. The topic is, as the Belle of Amherst would call it, that “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”
We face many problems in our world today: a lingering pandemic, mass shootings, long-standing prejudice, violence, partisan hatred… the list goes on and on. But perhaps the most serious one, because it affects so many others, is the decay of democracy in our country. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but for now, I just want to say that even though this is a humdinger of a problem, the message I’d like to give today is that there is good reason to hope for change, because change is always possible. Good things as well as bad things are happening in the world, and so optimism should not be banished from the range of emotions we feel as we confront our future. Hope, as author Rebecca Solnit points out in her book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, is one of many viable responses to the dire problems that we face. We must not be afraid to hope. It’s easy to be attracted to pessimism when we are afraid to hope. Hope is frightening, because we realize that when we hope for the best, we might well be proven wrong when our hopes fail to materialize. And yet we must not be afraid of being proven wrong. Frankly, the world would be a much better place if we all were more willing to take a chance on being wrong. After all, fear of being proven wrong often prevents us from acting to make the changes we so desperately need and desire.
I also want to point out that the problems with democracy that we’re now experiencing should come as no surprise to us. There’s a kind of odd comfort in realizing that as far back as 1840, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville identified some serious issues in democracy in his book Democracy in America. He pointed out that while popular sovereignty (or democracy) could work very well at the local level, where people find it easy to be well informed on issues and where power is limited, three problems lie in wait at the national level to mar the democratic experiment:
- Competent people are willing to leave politics in the hands of less competent people;
- People’s belief in the idea of innate equality could give them a false sense of their capabilities and a dangerous sense of omnipotence;
- Excessive individualism and the pursuit of material wealth could result in apathy.
I think it’s fair to say that we have seen all three things come to pass in recent years. And I, like many other people, have often been tempted to throw my hands up in disgust and divorce myself from the political realm. But, as Naomi Klein says in her book This Changes Everything, “If we are to have any hope of making the kind of civilizational leap required of this fateful decade, we will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy — the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics.”
But here’s the interesting thing: that picture of humanity as innately selfish and greedy is beginning to change. We’re beginning to realize that it’s an imperfect picture, one that was built on a misunderstanding, or at the very least on an overemphasis, of a Darwinian belief in the survival of the fittest. We need to offset this view of human nature with Peter Kropotkin’s view, as he presented it in his work Mutual Aid, of evolution depending as much on cooperation as on competition. Scientists and philosophers are now working on amending our view of nature to correct this faulty emphasis on competition; for example, biologists like Suzanne Simard (Finding the Mother Tree) have shown that natural systems are much more physically connected than previously thought, just as primatologist Frans de Waal (The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society) has demonstrated that empathy and cooperation have contributed as much, if not more, to the survival of humanity through the ages.
So there is reason to hope for change, for a different perspective. What we need right now is enough hope, and determination, and endurance to get us through these rapidly changing times. We need to remember that while we ourselves might not be around to enjoy the things these changes will bring, our children will, and so will their children. And we need to be willing to lay the foundation for those changes right now.
Change is something that can be difficult to navigate. Back in 1952, Edna Ferber wrote a passage in her book Giant (so much better than the movie) in which the main character’s wise father talks to his daughter, who is troubled by all she’s seen and experienced in Texas:
“The world will [change]. It’s changing at a rate that takes my breath away. Everything has speeded up, like those terrific engines they’ve invented these past few years… Your [husband] won’t change, nor you, but your children will take another big step: enormous step, probably. Some call it revolution, but it’s evolution, really. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast. Horrible to be caught in it, helpless. But no matter how appalled you are by what you see…, you’re still interested, aren’t you?”
“Fascinated! But rebelling most of the time.”
“What could be more exciting! As long as you’re fascinated, and as long as you keep on fighting the things you think are wrong, you’re living. It isn’t the evil people in the world who do the most harm, it’s the sweet do-nothings that can destroy us. Dolce far niente–that’s the thing to avoid in this terrible and wonderful world….
So first of all, we need to buckle in for a wild ride while true change has a chance to occur. But we also need nurture a fierce belief in the possibility of this change actually happening. And for that, I’ll point to another writer who gives me the tools to hope: Rutger Bregman. In his book Utopia for Realists, he has this to say about the power of belief, which is closely linked to our ability to hope:
Those who swear by rationality, nuance, and compromise fail to grasp how ideas govern the world. A worldview is not a Lego set where a block is added here, removed there. It’s a fortress that is defended tooth and nail, with all possible reinforcements, until the pressure becomes so overpowering that the walls cave in.
If we want to change the world we live in, then, we need to apply that pressure constantly, relentlessly, until we begin to destroy those walls, that fortress of belief that prevents us from restoring the democratic values we believe in. As Bregman says, “if we want to change the world, we need to be unrealistic, unreasonable, and impossible.”
And yet, as important as it is to hope, to believe in this change, Robert Reich reminds us that “hope is not enough. In order for real change to occur, the locus of power in the system will have to change.” Nevertheless, Reich himself is hopeful about the future. In his book The System: Who Rigged It and How We Fix It, he explains why:
History shows that whenever we have stalled or slipped, the nation’s forward movement has depended on the active engagement and commitment of vast numbers of Americans who are morally outraged by how far our economy and our democracy have strayed from our ideal and are committed to move beyond outrage to real reform.
He goes on to remind us that we need to “be organized and energized, not just for a particular election but for an ongoing movement, not just for a particular policy but to reclaim democracy so an abundance of good policies are possible.” What we need, he argues, is “a common understanding of what it means to be a citizen with responsibilities for the greater good.” He ends the book with a rousing pep talk: “Your outrage and your commitment are needed once again.”
These are powerful words, and they are therapeutic in restoring a sense of hope. I can do little more than echo them. So I’ll just leave you with the following few thoughts.
For those of you engaged in the fight to restore our democratic values, I urge you to stay engaged, enraged, and determined to change the structure of American politics from the ground up.
On a personal note: Take care of yourself. Pace yourself. Do what you personally can, and don’t feel badly about what you cannot do. Don’t focus on the negative. And take time to remind yourself of the successes you’ve had, no matter how small. Be willing to celebrate and share them.
And most of all, have hope! We are all, in a variety of ways, fighting the good fight. And in this fight, hope may well be the most important weapon we have. In the words of the Welsh literary critic Raymond Williams:
To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.
Thank you for your commitment to democracy. Keep up the good fight, and keep hoping for positive change.