Thursday, April 23, 2020

Action in the dark

Hope Essay #4 (Others: #1; #2; #3; #5; #6; #7)

In the previous essay, I wrote about Rebecca Solnit’s call to action, Hope in the Dark, but also my belief in the importance of epistemic humility—awareness of your own ignorance. I shared some of the many doubts I have about my own political judgement and how professional ethics have encouraged me to cultivate a stance of impartiality, especially in the classroom.

But what if epistemic humility is just an excuse for inaction? What if impartiality blinds us to the truth? In the last essay, I wrote about the professional ethic of impartiality in journalism. But some journalists have started to wonder if their attempts to be impartial and balanced allow bad actors to manipulate them and promote untruths and false equivalency on issues where one side is clearly right.  Shows like Jim Lehrer’s PBS NewsHour seem so intent on fairness to both sides that you would expect them to get a flat Earther into the studio in a segment on the shape of the Earth.

As for regular citizens, not voting is the most common form of political impartiality. What if the 40 to 50 percent of eligible voters who stay home on Election Day are the better people—more willing to sacrifice personal interests to promote the common good—and their absence from elections amplifies the votes of those who are animated by selfish interests and who are less concerned with the greater good and the rights of other citizens?

It’s probably true that self-interest is a more powerful motivator than concern for the greater good, or the long term health of the collective, especially among an individualistic people. A study of the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 found that for every dollar corporations spent lobbying Congress to pass it, they got $220 in tax benefits. (University of Kansas, Raquel Alexander). Compare that incentive for political involvement to the disincentive for voting in one of the increasing number of places where you have to line up for hours to get to the voting booth. Bernie Sanders’ canvassers knocked on 471,000 doors just in New Hampshire this primary season. What was the return on THAT investment? Certainly nothing like the 22,000% return on lobbying for the Jobs Creation Act. Maybe the difference isn’t between better or worse citizens, but what kind of motives drive people to act? What if some citizens are more politically engaged because they see a clearer connection between public policies, their political efforts and their hopes for the future?

Virginia Woolf, writing in 1915, in the early months of what would be a long World War, said something that has got us thinking about hoping and groping in darkness toward a better future. Events that came after 1915 didn’t offer much reason to think that good guys with wise policies are guaranteed to triumph by default. In fact it appeared to William Butler Yeats, writing in the war’s aftermath, in 1919—the year when the victors imposed a punitive peace on Germany—that:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The decades that followed Yeats’ publication of “The Second Coming” seemed to confirm this impression, as fascists outmaneuvered weak-kneed liberals in Europe and spawned a second and even more horrific and widespread World War. Today, there is much talk of a revival of fascistic impulses and a decline in democracy. On March 4, 2020, for example, Freedom House, the democracy-promoting website, published a story with this headline:

Established democracies are in decline: Despite mass protests in every region, world suffers 14th consecutive year of deterioration in political rights and civil liberties.

Another rough beast seems to be slouching toward Bethlehem.* Is there anything we can do to head it off?

I’m not optimistic, but I do have hope that democracy can be strengthened and we can do a better job of coming together to act for the common good. I’ve been struggling to articulate that sense of hope and to bring this series of essays to a merciful end. The next blog post will be the last in this series (I hope) and offer some tentative suggestions for guiding democratic action toward a hopeful future.

Other Hope Essays: #1; #2; #3; #4; #5;#6

*Yeats' poem is the most pillaged poem in the English Language, according to The Paris Review. Sorry.  I couldn’t resist.


  1. Another great essay leaving me with lots of intriging and important questions. But let's put hope out to pasture, take some advice from the "winners" and replace hope with ambition, determination, and unshakeable resolve.

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    2. Forget about hope for a minute. What about adding a third thing to your list: a realistic assessment of the conditions we're working in. Let's say I wanted to play third base for the Boston Red Sox next year. Would ambition, determination, and unshakeable resolve be enough to make that dream come true? No (I'm 60 and afraid of fastballs); we need to begin with realistic hopes for the future. If you don't like the word hope, we could say a "realistic plan" or "a viable goal." I think it's silly to ban the word hope from our vocabulary. Anyone who is working toward a goal, whether they use that word or not, certainly hopes they will achieve it.

    3. The argument against hope, as I've heard it explained, goes like this. Hope is a lot like worry. They're two sides of the same coin, held together with a rim of delusion. Just as worrying about the future is counterproductive, so is hoping or wishing. The problem has to do with attachment to an outcome. One: it might not happen. That's dissappointing. Two: it might happen but with it all the unintended consequenses as you pointed out in your essay. Be careful what you hope for. You might not get it. Or even worse, you might. Here's a relevant quote about successful entrpreneurs: "Paradoxically, successful entrepreneurs never concern themselves with outcomes. Rather, they focus directly on the process. They never worry about how a given project turns out or what others may think about any failurs they may happen to encounter." Failures also have unintended outcomes, often surprisingly favorable. So, I still say, lets stop worrying and hoping and instead let's just keep on keeping on, focusing on doing the best we can while leaving the outcome to you-know-who.

    4. There's a lot of value in what you are saying. I've been building a stone wall in between reading and writing and thinking during my sabbatical. I lug rocks out of the woods, carry them up to the hill, and then arrange them around the boarder of where we park our cars. I'm doing it because I enjoy the process. I find that lifting and carrying heavy rocks is more satisfying than running on a treadmill and lifting weighs at the gym (and probably better exercise) and because it's fun to try to get these oddly shaped rocks to fit (more or less) together without falling over. It's like putting a puzzle together. I'm not sure if this wall will be eroded by heavy rains, get pushed over by the plow next winter, or just succumb to the combined forces of gravity and amateur masonry. I will not cry about wasted efforts, because I will have gotten the benefits of the exercise this summer. Still, these are not my "preferred outcomes." My preferred outcomes are: the wall stands for a long time, and it looks nice, like the rock walls I see up and down my street. These outcomes are more than just incidental to my efforts, they are the sine qua non. Like building muscle, living longer, good cardio health are the preferred out come of going to the gym. No one I know would spend time at a gym if those outcomes were not at least possible. I wouldn't carry the rocks up the hill without at least the possibility of getting a stone wall in the end. I believe the entrepreneurs you mention have some sort of preferred outcome in mind when they embark on a venture. Yes, as you say, like me with my stone wall, they focus more on the process and not the outcome as they work. By the way, this is also how I got through graduate school when the market for college professors collapsed because they started mostly hiring adjuncts. Can we agree on everything I've just said up to now?

      Most English speaking people, I think, would not have a problem with calling a "preferred outcome" a hope. I see your problem with it, though. You think it is synonymous with a wish and you worry about "attachment to an outcome." On the first point, I think the problem is with the language. Solnit makes what might be an arbitrary distinction between hope and optimism. But I think that she is pretty clear that she is defining hope in a way that you would approve of: a goal or preferred outcome that you can shoot for. Still, I think we agree that the language doesn't make a clear enough distinction between the kind of hope or optimism that we see as healthy and counter-productive.

      I agree with your concern about attachment to and outcome. I think that a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters are guilty of that. They feel that all their work canvassing has been a waste and I fear that they will use his defeat as an excuse to eschew politics. Instead they should see that though their desired outcome didn't come true, something pretty amazing did happen in the way that the Democratic Party has moved left as a result of his campaigns.

    5. There’s not much for me to disagree with in all that you’ve just said. But, nonetheless, there is an argument to be made, not just against hope, but against preferred outcomes as well. Being more of a rationalist and a skeptic, no longer the mystic I once was, it will be hard to make the argument with a straight face because it’s pretty radical and requires a mystical outlook. Although, I might add, I’m more of an agnostic than an atheist regarding these things, not quite ready to let go completely of the possibility that mysticism has something to offer, that the Buddha, for example, actually attained Liberation & Awakening, and that the door to Nirvana remains open to those willing to knock. So maybe I can disagree with what you’ve just said. Here’s a poem I frequently recite when I find myself wanting things to go my way, when I’ve been hopeful, and when my hopes have been dashed, especially when they’ve been dashed.

      The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.

      When likes and dislikes are both set aside, everything becomes clear and undistorted.

      Make the slightest distinction and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

      While it’s seems highly unlikely that anyone could survive, never mind enjoy themselves, absent a fair amount of healthy preferences, I must admit the more preferences I’ve learned to do without, the happier I seem to be getting. Admittedly I had a lot of unhealthy preferences. Still when I’m able to renounce even a healthy preference, one that life is denying me, I’m certainly the better for having done so. As a hedonist, I once lived by the motto: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” I had lots of unhealthy preferences and I overdid them all. When I couldn’t, for one reason or another, I suffered. So I learned to tone down some of my preferences and eliminate others. As a recovering hedonist, I now live by the motto: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” Today my preferences are generally healthier and more wholesome, including, I would argue, my preference to live without preferences and to live without hope, something I now enjoy overdoing. As a bumper sticker I once saw so elegantly put it: “I feel so much better now that I given up all hope.” I haven’t given up all hope or all preferred outcomes; but I’m working on it. Whether I succeed or not is irrelevant.

    6. During the lockdown, I’m watching the TV series Breaking Bad. In last night’s episode, Walter White is getting his chemo treatment and checking out with the cashier and she hands him a button that says HOPE is the best medicine. White is a victim of a political system controlled by insurance company lobbyists, I assume, and that’s why he needs to sell meth to get his treatments paid for. He would have been delusional to think that he could solve his problem by calling his Congressman. It’s a good example of when hope in a political outcome is delusional. The next scene after he makes his payment shows him throwing the HOPE button in the trash. This may be the best argument against hope that we could come up with—against political hope, anyway. But White hasn’t given up on hoping for a particular outcome. He wants to survive cancer and provide for his family, and he’s getting it done through his own actions, not passively or optimistically hoping it will happen. The difference here is not between hoping and not hoping, but between passive pie-in-the-sky useless hope (which Solnit calls optimism) and hard-headed, realistic hope that inspires action that has a viable chance of bringing about the desired result. It’s also between hoping for a collective and a private solution.

      I’m coming to realize that these essays are less about whether we should have hope or not, and more about when to pin our hopes on private outcomes and when to hope, and act, for collective outcomes via politics. I don’t blame Walt for throwing his hope button away (I actually thought “right on” when he did it, though I’m not saying I approve of the particular solution he came up with for his personal problem—I would have taken the charity offered by the friends who stole his ideas and started a successful business). I would also add that your renunciation of preferred outcomes and hope, helps you to achieve a preferred outcome: a steady emotional state that is never buffeted by disappointment and finds pleasure in work itself, or what a certain writer calls “flow.”

      Both you and Walt have decided that the political system is not worth investing your time trying to change. I don’t blame you. In the short term, at least, you will get more results for yourself by putting your time into solving your own problems using whatever resources you can scrounge up after the insurance companies, corporations, billionaires and lobbyists have taken their share. You are following the rather persuasive advice that Booker T. Washington gave to black people in the South in the era of Jim Crow, lynching and disenfranchisement, when political action was more likely to get you killed than to solve your problems. Thank goodness, though, that some black people in America (notabley W.E.B Du Bois) kept working toward long-term political solutions and that Jim Crow, lynching, and disenfranchisement have ended.

      Then again, James C. Scott would tell us that Walter White’s actions are indirectly political. By breaking the law, he is undermining the smooth operation of the system, and when enough people do that, the system has to change in response. Scott’s research documents such things. We might also say that people who renounce politics and focus only on the personal are also contributing to a political end, preservation the continued smooth operation of the system as it is.

  2. PS. Here's another term for "preferred outcome." A "credible plan to win." I got this from labor organizer Jane McAlevey, who I'm going to write about as a "hope monger" in an upcoming Hope Essay.

  3. Well now after reading this I have a lot to worry about and I hope my "preferred outcome" will win out in the end.