Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hope against hope

There's hope and there's hope.

Following a link from How to Save the World, I found Derrick Jensen's broadside against hope. This is a few years old but somehow I missed it back then. I've been reading Jensen since 2000--A Language Older Than Words was one of my books in the aftermath of 9/11-- and always with a conflicted mixture of admiration and deep reticence; part of me wants to thump the table and say yes!, and head for the door with the dynamite; and part of me says, Wait a second. I am not going to weigh these responses against each other in this post; Jensen's work is the subject for a whole other essay. He's the best-spoken representative of primitivism I know, and if I don't always agree with him, it's primarily because I wonder what he's doing not blowing up dams, given what he believes. But all I want to do here is distill the gist of his take on hope. It opens with a sentiment that is bound to be one of your recurring thoughts if you read Jensen much:
The most common words I hear spoken by any environmentalists anywhere are, We’re fucked.
Jensen could be fairly described as going out of his way to make sure that if you read a single one of his essays, you get this message. It is certainly one he has taken to heart, and he thinks you should too:
Frankly, I don’t have much hope. But I think that’s a good thing. Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.... [I]t isn’t only false hopes that keep those who go along enchained. It is hope itself.... The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in [Pandora's] box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.... hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless. I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it.... When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.... [W]hen you give up on hope...you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you...In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems.... When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they—those in power—cannot really touch you anymore.... And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.
Listening the other day to Chris Hedges discuss The Death of the Liberal Class, I heard him mention the upcoming protest at which he and several others plan to cuff themselves to the White House fence. This, Hedges tells us, is what he thinks hope will look like "from now on." He lists a lot of things that hope is not, and sounds for all the world like Jensen saying what hope is:
Hope is not trusting in the ultimate goodness of Barack Obama, who, like Herod of old, sold out his people. It is not having a positive attitude or pretending that happy thoughts and false optimism will make the world better. Hope is not about chanting packaged campaign slogans or trusting in the better nature of the Democratic Party. Hope does not mean that our protests will suddenly awaken the dead consciences, the atrophied souls, of the plutocrats running Halliburton, Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil or the government.
Then Hedges gets down to business, his rhetoric (which I admire even as I shy from it) flying high:
Hope knows that unless we physically defy government control we are complicit in the violence of the state. All who resist keep hope alive. All who succumb to fear, despair and apathy become enemies of hope. They become, in their passivity, agents of injustice. If the enemies of hope are finally victorious, the poison of violence will become not only the language of power but the language of opposition. And those who resist with nonviolence are in times like these the thin line of defense between a civil society and its disintegration.
Hedges begins to sound a bit like St. Paul on Love:
Hope has a cost. Hope is not comfortable or easy. Hope requires personal risk. Hope does not come with the right attitude. Hope is not about peace of mind. Hope is an action. Hope is doing something. The more futile, the more useless, the more irrelevant and incomprehensible an act of rebellion is, the vaster and the more potent hope becomes. Hope never makes sense. Hope is weak, unorganized and absurd. Hope, which is always nonviolent, exposes in its powerlessness the lies, fraud and coercion employed by the state. Hope does not believe in force. Hope knows that an injustice visited on our neighbor is an injustice visited on us all. Hope posits that people are drawn to the good by the good. This is the secret of hope’s power and it is why it can never finally be defeated.... Any act of rebellion, any physical defiance of those who make war, of those who perpetuate corporate greed and are responsible for state crimes, anything that seeks to draw the good to the good, nourishes our souls and holds out the possibility that we can touch and transform the souls of others. Hope affirms that which we must affirm. And every act that imparts hope is a victory in itself.
Rhetoric aside, I'll go on record here and acknowledge that I'm more than 3/4 persuaded that Jensen and the other environmentalists he cites are right: it is a matter of time before the planet is a plastic-piled slag heap, and no amount of course-correction is going to avert it. And all my instincts veer towards believing Hedges as well; aside from a tremendous popular uprising such as I cannot realistically imagine, the world is headed straight for the depths of Kunstler's Long Emergency. If I don't jump on this apocalyptic bandwagon wholeheartedly, it's partly because I desperately want to be wrong about this (as my self-description runs, I am a teacher & fellow-student among school children, which means I have a professional commitment to a degree of believing in a livable future); partly because I don't completely trust my reactions on this (call this alienation or prudence as you wish).

Most of all, though, I don't join the chorus of doomsayers because I think that the fundamental issue is deeper than economic or ecological meltdown, whether or not these come. The deep question, as regards human choices, is not what will happen?, but who will you be when it happens? Hope is inextricably bound up in this. It is not by chance that Kant's three fundamental questions were "What can I know?", "What ought I to do?", and "What may I hope?". As to this last: are Hedges and Jensen's differences a matter of semantics? I don't think so. Jensen's jeremiad seems to me fundamentally (albeit negatively) theologically informed; he's taking aim at any orientation towards anything other than the committed human agent, and precisely to this degree it is implicated in the pattern it denounces. Jensen is closer to the truth when he affirms the goodness of life despite all the reasons to give up; and when he names love as his motive, I can't help but be moved by him; but his language has run away from him when he divorces love from hope.

Kierkegaard knew better: Love hopes all things, and yet is never put to shame. Hope is oriented not to any particular outcome in this world, but to a further context that will obtain no matter what occurs in this world--and yet, this world is where we stand oriented (or not) towards that context.

Hedges, in affirming hope in terms so close to Jensen's denial of it, is more conscious of its orientation, as one might expect from one who claims not to believe in atheists. Hope is fundamentally entwined with love and with faith, its fellow virtues, and in its eschatologically orientation is bound to look, as Hedges notes, absurd to the rulers of this world. Jensen, too, sees it as absurd, and he is quite consistent in giving it up, but he does not thereby exit absurdity; it's his glory that like Camus' Sisyphus he struggles on up the hill anyway. Whether he knows it or not, he is following the word of Christ to St. Silouan the Athonite: "Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not."

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