Recently, Nelson Mandela turned 93, and his nation celebrated noisily, even attempting to break the world record for the most people simultaneously singing “Happy Birthday.” This was the man who, on trial by the South African government in 1964, stood a good chance of being sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Given life in prison instead, he was supposed to be silenced. Story over.
You know the rest, though it wasn’t inevitable that he’d be released and become the president of a post-apartheid South Africa. Admittedly, it’s a country with myriad flaws and still suffers from economic apartheid, but who wouldn’t agree that it’s changed? Activism changed it; more activism could change it further.
Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch, who’d amassed a vast media empire, banked billions of dollars, and been listed by Forbes as the world’s 13th most powerful person, must have thought he had it made these past few decades. Now, his empire is crumbling and his crimes and corrosive influence (which were never exactly secret) are being examined by everyone. You never know what’ll happen next.
About 1,600 years ago, Boethius put it this way in The Consolations of Philosophy, written while he, like Mandela, was in prison for treason: “As thus she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand, and presses on, fortune now tramples fiercely on a fearsome king, and now deceives no less a conquered man by raising from the ground his humbled face.”
Still, that wheel didn’t just turn. It took some good journalism—thank you, reporters of the Guardian!—to bring Murdoch to his knees. Just as it took some dedicated activism to break Mandela out of prison and overcome the apartheid era.
Everything changes. Sometimes you have to change it yourself.
Why We Revolt
When and how does the moment come when people stop believing in the power that has ruled them?
Unpredictability is grounds for hope, though please don’t mistake hope for optimism. Optimism and pessimism are siblings in their certainty. They believe they know what will happen next, with one slight difference: optimists expect everything to turn out nicely without any effort being expended toward that goal. Pessimists assume that we’re doomed and there’s nothing to do about it except try to infect everyone else with despair while there’s still time.
Hope, on the other hand, is based on uncertainty, on the much more realistic premise that we don’t know what will happen next. The next thing up might be as terrible as a giant tsunami smashing 100 miles of coastal communities or as marvelous as a new species of butterfly being discovered (as happened recently in Northern Ireland). When it comes to the worst we face, nature itself has resilience, surprises, and unpredictabilities. But the real territory for hope isn’t nature; it’s the possibilities we possess for acting, changing, mattering—including when it comes to nature.
A Swinging Pendulum
Not all hopes are created equal, and sometimes their failure is the good news. The mass murderer who rampaged through Norway last week hoped to change that country forever. Sophisticated when it came to plotting a massacre and building a bomb, he was naïve when it came to political cause and effect. He attacked the ruling Labor Party in its office headquarters and its youth summer camp. The consequences will almost certainly be the opposite of what he hoped for.
His bloodbath is unlikely to aid the advance of an anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic right-wing agenda. It will expose what is vicious about the far right in Europe and elsewhere, bring more careful scrutiny to extremists at that end of the spectrum, and likely help discredit politicians who pander to them.
If we’re lucky, it might even have some repercussions in the United States, where demonizing immigrants and encouraging violence are common right-wing tactics (discredited a little in January when Tucson Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and Sarah Palin was rebuked for the map on her Facebook page with crosshairs over Giffords’ district).
History’s pendulum tendencies always need to be factored in, and such assassins for the far right, like Timothy McVeigh before them, may do for that ideology what the Symbionese Liberation Army and Baader-Meinhof did for the left four decades ago. Think of a wheel of fortune.
Russell Pearce, the powerful Arizona state senator who created and promoted SB 1070, the 2010 state law punishing all brown-skinned immigrants (and people who resemble them), is up for recall on the November ballot. He will have to fight to be reelected in the special recall election (though a court challenge to the petitions has been mounted).
At a Tea Party event in May, Pearce dismissed the efforts that have now put his career on the line this way: “People know who these folks are, they've tried it before, they're simply open-border anarchists who have no respect for the law. We'll deal with it."
Oh, and about that Tea Party which the media was romancing with stories inflating its scale and significance not so long ago: its national convention got cancelled for lack of attendance. Meanwhile, Palin’s documentary “The Undefeated” has been… well, defeated at the box office, big time.
The wheel of fortune spins, and sometimes it even comes up our way. Sometimes we win. Look at the people who led that recall drive on Pearce. At one point, it seemed beyond unlikely. “Russell Pearce Recall Drive Supporters Face Uphill Battle,” said a typical headline in the unsympathetic Arizona Republic. They persevered anyway. Which is why they won their special election. They turned the damn wheel themselves.
Hope is not about guarantees and certainties. You don’t know you’ll win, but you don’t know you’ll lose either, so why not try?
No one is more remarkable in this light than the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a nearly two-decades-old organization of mostly immigrant and undocumented farmworkers in a particularly bleak part of Florida. They pick tomatoes at a rate of 32 pounds for 50 cents, meaning they have to pick more than two tons in a workday to walk out with the equivalent of a minimum wage. (Most U.S. farmworkers make less than $1,000 per month, and thanks to a New Deal compromise three-quarters of a century old, they are not guaranteed a minimum wage, overtime pay, or the right to organize and bargain collectively.)
This tiny group of profoundly marginalized people decided to fight the biggest food corporations on earth—and they won. Ten years ago they started a campaign for “fair food,” pressuring the major buyers of those tomatoes to pay more. Within four years, with the help of college-student organizers and brilliant strategy, they got Taco Bell to meet all their demands, and by 2007 McDonald’s had fallen in line.
Florida growers managed to stop a penny-a-pound increase in payment, but Burger King (whose CEO personally apologized to them) and Whole Foods got on board, and in 2010 food corporations Aramark and Sodexo signed on as well. They’re taking on Trader Joe’s this summer, and given their track record…
Watch them. Or join them.
The News You Don’t Get
Speaking of the little-known Coalition of Immokalee Workers, you’re not likely to get a good picture of the state of the world right now from the mainstream media (which is why alternative media like TomDispatch.com matter so much). Mainstream outlets don’t cover a lot of what we might consider the good news and they don’t necessarily shed much light on the bad news, even when they notice it.
The Casey Anthony trial got infinitely more coverage in Florida than that state’s refusal to accept $50 million from the federal government to prevent child abuse. Sometimes it seems that the more you read and watch the MSM, the less you know. They don’t add up the details to give you the big picture, and they often do a remarkably good job of distracting you from the issues that matter and the real machinations of power.
They are Goliath, not David, and their reporting on David’s victories (and Goliath’s failures and weaknesses) will never be particularly satisfactory. They are definitely not interested in popular power, except when it’s a color revolution far away.
And don’t forget to factor in media attention deficit disorder, whereby a terrible story will just sort of peter out because something hotter comes along. The reporters go home, and the readers are left hanging. In Japan this spring, news of the nuclear power plant crisis eclipsed news of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people, and there just haven’t been many updates. Heard anything about the BP spill in the Gulf lately? It’s not over either. The biggest fire in New Mexico’s history—more than 160 square miles—has slipped from national coverage amid other weather disasters, and yet it’s still burning as I write.
The left-wing media is guilty of this too. You probably don’t even remember the last time you heard about East Timor. The mainstream media never spent inordinate amounts of time or space on it, but it was a big story on the left throughout the 1990s.
East Timor was then a war-ravaged, colonized corner of the Indonesian empire and it was in the news because of the way the Indonesian government had invaded and brutalized it from 1975 to 1999. Since its liberation in 2002, however, hardly anyone says anything about the democratic republic of East Timor. There are evidently other things that require our attention so much more.
When it stopped being one of the world’s most appalling tragedies, it fell off the media map. It got better, but few noticed. You can think of journalists and political analysts as doctors who treat the sick and not the well, but who forget that sickness is not therefore and inevitably the ubiquitous human condition.
You have to learn to tell the story yourself. For example, some weeks ago, The New York Times led the global media with a story suggesting that the sexual-assault-on-a-maid-in-a-New-York-hotel case against (now former) International Monetary Fund (IMF) director Dominique Strauss-Kahn was likely to be dropped. Actually, that turned out to be an overstatement. It hasn’t been, and there are as yet no indications that it will be.
If you accepted the Times interpretation, however, the prosecution, and maybe feminism and justice were already defeated. Tell the story a different way, however, and you might react differently as well: a man with, apparently, a long track record of barbaric behavior was outed and lost his (colossal) power as a result.
After all, Strauss-Kahn resigned from the IMF. And recently another alleged victim of his sexual violence stepped forward saying, “I want to be heard because perhaps, finally, there's a chance I will be listened to.” She was not alone. Thanks to what happened in New York, sexual politics in France changed, with assault and harassment charges suddenly on the rise now that women think they might have a chance of being listened to.
In the meantime, the dubious doings of the IMF, an organization that assaults whole nations economically, were further exposed. Think of the IMF as the global version of an inner-city lending or furniture-selling racket that lures in the desperate—people who need a small loan, poor countries that need a bailout—and bleeds them for years, bending them to its will.
Nor has it been a good year for the men who are accustomed to ruling the world, whether via a global string of tabloids, the IMF, or by holding dictatorial power in any of a string of Arab states. They are being held accountable in ways they clearly never anticipated. You can add the former and present tyrants of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and a few other countries to the list of men whom the wheel of fortune has knocked down or rocked lately, and you know that the rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are scared.
And here’s a hopeful story that didn’t get a lot of play: rebellious Egyptians prevented their interim government from taking an IMF loan. Years earlier, Argentina had freed itself from the IMF and its imposition of economic measures that favor international corporations (while immiserating ordinary citizens), thanks to loans from oil-rich Venezuela. Freedom from the IMF, the World Bank, and the United States is, in fact, part of the remarkable achievement of Latin America in the past decade—and part of what you probably haven’t read much about.
It’s nice that the Arab Spring continues to get attention into the summer of its discontent, but hardly anyone adds up the amazing developments in South America over the past dozen years: a very successful revolution in slo-mo in which even Peru elected a progressive this summer. And yet the elected officials—including Brazil’s first woman president, a former left-wing insurgent, political prisoner, and torture victim—are just the tip of the iceberg. Indigenous resurgences, growing popular environmental and human rights movements, reborn civil societies, and a new language of political possibility matter more.
Climate of Resistance
You probably also haven’t heard much, if anything, about the sixty-one First Nations—as Canadians call them; we’d call them sovereign tribes—that have signed on to oppose building a tar-sands pipeline across western Canada. And speaking of climate change, you might not know that environmental activists in the U.S. have prevented more than 100 coal-fired power plants from being built here, a signal victory when it comes to keeping more greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, and so a signal victory for the climate movement.
If you were just reading your local newspaper or watching the TV news, you also might not know that a potentially massive action to protest the possibility of President Obama approving a new tar-sands pipeline that would stretch from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico is taking place in Washington this August. Nor might you realize that antinuclear activists have been successful in preventing any new nuclear power plants from being completed in this country since the 1970s—by raising public awareness and safety standards high enough to make them unprofitable. Of course, they would always have been unprofitable if the private profiteers who build them had to pay for insurance and radioactive waste disposal (costs that you, dear taxpayer, are expected to pick up for them).
Mostly the news on climate change, when attention is paid, focuses on the fact that it’s here in terrifying form: heat waves, gigantic forest fires, torrential floods, record tornadoes, massive droughts, the increasingly usual faces of the apocalypse. By the way, 223 heat records were just broken in the summer heat wave that has gripped North America, and that number is still rising.
What’s ignored is that we could do something about it, that people are doing something about it. Australia, for instance, just passed a stiff carbon tax, and while some climate activists don’t consider that a particularly constructive way to go, it is a case of a large nation trying to take a serious step to address a truly threatening problem.
More importantly, a host of small and not-so-small nongovernmental organizations across the world are doing a host of things about it. Speaking of surprises, recently Mayor Bloomberg of New York gave $50 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, about the biggest and most unexpected contribution to the climate-change campaign in this country.
Another World Is Here
It’s hard for me not to get distracted by victories that matter. There are not nearly enough of them and they’re not on the scale I... well, hope for, but they are evidence of what’s possible. Sometimes they’re tiny. There was a traffic accident the other day in my hometown, and the local newspaper said that the doctor who was killed was married with children. A day or two later, a bigger feature made it clear that the deceased man had left behind a husband as well as two children, and I was pleased to see that, amid a private tragedy, what was once extraordinary is now ordinary. Victory sometimes seems so quotidian that you have to look twice to notice it. And if you’re not careful, you’ll forget what heroic toil over so many decades transformed the world, making the impossible become ordinary.
Think of hope as something that requires care and feeding. You feed it by finding news sources that give you information about alternative movements, overseas developments, and new possibilities. You feed it by choosing companions who are neither apolitical nor defeatist. (Good place to find them: the climate movement.) Or you feed it by feeding your friends who do feel defeated or as if nothing they could do might matter. You feed it with a surly insurrectionary attitude: if you’re tempted to feel powerless and passive, remember that the bogeyman we call “they” wants you to feel that way. And then don’t.
Certainly, you feed hope by being aware of the big picture that the news doesn’t give you. For example, look at the past dozen years when it comes to putting a halt to or undermining free-trade agreements and organizations, and educating the public about how the innocuous-sounding term “free trade” means sabotaging local, regional, or even national control over labor, environmental, health, and economic conditions. Free-trade agreements free up corporations from regulations and laws, so that nothing impedes their profits.
Successes against “free trade” are, by now, pervasive and generally too subtle for many people to notice. In 1999, five years after the Clinton administration brought us the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to oppose corporate globalization was to be considered, at best, on the radical fringe and at worst (in the words of super-rich New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman), part of a "Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix.” By 2008, however, free-trade agreements were so unpopular that Hillary Clinton felt obliged to lie during her presidential race, claiming she had always been against NAFTA.
In those same 1990s, the World Trade Organization was gearing up to run the world for the sake of the corporations—before, that is, it hit the first round of a buzz saw of protest in Seattle in 1999. By 2003, it was clearly an organization in trouble and never became the powerhouse it was planned to be.
The Free Trade Area of the Americas that was supposed to put the whole hemisphere in corporate harness was stillborn, thanks to the amazing anti-corporate-globalization and anti-Washington-consensus mentalities existing in many Latin American nations (and governments as well). And in these years, the IMF and the World Bank became far more widely known, feared, and loathed, thanks to activists on the streets and in the media who made their exploitative natures visible.
In 2011, we live in a different world. The corporations still have way too much power and influence. But activists have undermined the institutions by which they sought to increase that power and the facts about their unholy penetration into policymaking have become a lot clearer and more widely known. That is at least a good foundation which sets us up to get to work on the big fight between profit and humanity (in part via revolts against corporate personhood—the endowing of corporations with citizens’ rights—across the country).
I don't love the old anti-globalization movement slogan "another world is possible," simply because that world has always been here—in acts of altruism, generosity, and democracy; in organizations, movements, and communities that embody the best of what humanity has to offer; in what’s still so valuable in older ways of being that are not yet lost; in the methods and the lives of groups ranging from small farmers to indigenous hunters and gatherers. We just need to be better at seeing what is already magnificent and heroic, nearby and far away, and know that alternatives are already here waiting, like so many invitations, to be taken up.
That’s certainly a foundation that hope can build on, but don’t think that’s hope. Hope lies in the future. Look at what’s already here. If 61 native nations oppose a tar-sands pipeline, it’s because they’ve survived the last 519 years of Euro-invasive attempts to eliminate their rights, their identities, and sometimes their lives. They’re still here. So are the Immokalee workers. And the feminists. And the climate-change activists. And Nelson Mandela. So are you. Do something hopeful about it, just for the hell of it. There’s no reason not to.
Copyright 2011 Rebecca Solnit. Reposted with the kind permission of , where this article first appeared.
Václav Havel called it “the power of the powerless.” How regular people, from Denmark to Liberia, have stood up to power—and won.
Rebecca Solnit: Lessons of dedication, solidarity, love, and recovery, five years after Katrina.
Wisconsin and beyond: While wealth and power concentrate in the hands of a few, the rights, jobs, and services that everyday Americans depend on are on the line. Across the country, people are rising up to defend them.