Hope in the Dark, 2004 - Transcript of Interview

  • Hans Fischer    Welcome to SwissEduc. My name is Hans Fischer and my guest is Rebecca Solnit. Welcome, Rebecca.
    Rebecca Solnit    It's a pleasure to be here.
    HF    In your book "Hope in the Dark" you talk about our times. Why in the dark, what is wrong with our times?
    RS    That sentence that gave me the title is the one by from Virginia Woolf from her journal written during the First World War. In the journal she says, "The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think." Which I think is a magnificent sentence. We often use the word darkness to suggest something that's gloomy, that's sad, that's scary, that's evil. But for Virginia Woolf in this sentence it really seems to me that the future is unknowable; that the future is mysterious. And dark in that sense I think is enormously rich and full of hope, because despair often comes from a sense that the future looks very much like the present. That we know what the future is going to be. Where as hope, I think, is really worded in uncertainty, in a sense that anything is possible that we don't know what will happen and so we shouldn't give up.
    HF    You mention two world views. The world of Yahweh and the world of Coyote. Could you tell us how you understand these two worlds.
    RS    Yeah, yeah, I'm about ... you know animosity to Christianity and Judaism in that world tradition, I was taught.
    HF    That would be the world of Yahweh.
    EA    Yea, yea, I used Yahweh to mean a world that's supposed to work according to a pretty simple moral, arithmetic world. Where good people do always do good thing, bad people can only achieve bad things. And things are pretty predictable. That theory that I propose comes from the Coyote stories of Native Americans, which are wonderful, wonderful stories. In native American mythology, not for every tribe, but for many tribes, Coyote creates the world. He's the creator. And instead of being all powerful, all wise and extremely dignified, he's a joker, a clown, a trickster, a prankster. And he often gets himself into enormous trouble, and then he gets out again. And he's extremely funny and so it's a much funnier world view, in which the world is very improvisational and surprisingly funny and thing go wrong but you might survive. It's a much more relaxed world view.
    HF    You say that a group, which rests on a leader, can only be as strong as he is. That there the people are followers, and that we should actually cease to be that. Is it possible to have a world without leaders?
    RS    I think that you see a lot of movements now where there are people who are looked at as leaders, who are really spokes people, coordinators, organizers, but not really leaders. And I see a lot of times people want a leader, 'cause they assume that's what works. And I look at the movement and it says the only thing that this person is leading them, but he is like the hood ornament on a car. They are moving him, they are the engine that's moving the car forward and he just happens to be out in front.
    HF    Wow, that's a beautiful picture. In your book you talk about safe danger. What is that?
    RS    I think that a lot of times we're so afraid we don't even want to talk about what we're really afraid of and so we blame it on something else instead. And so safe dangers for me are the things we point to as what's really scary, but the ... You know you can look at the United States right now and see that the dangers we discover with hurricane Katrina were poverty, lack of investment and infrastructure, racism, lack of social services, lack an unorganized intelligent and compassionate government. And none of these, you know .. but the war on terror was not dealing with any of these things. The war on terror gave the Bush Administration a safe danger and didn't look at ... and allowed people to not look at all the other dangers that are being created. So that's one example, but I often see people switching. You know you saw that in the 1950's when everybody was afraid of communism, you know, in America where it wasn't a threat. And often I think that things that pose real threats to us, we don't even name and we don't even want to look at.
    HF    You say that activism is an attempt to change something, to build something better - yet it isn't reliable you also say and it is changing. Can we live without certainty and security?
    RS    We don't have any choice. I think that when you're in prison you have a certain kind of certainty and reliability. You know what you have for breakfast the next day and you may even know when you are parole the day is, when you get out of prison. But life, you know, life if you are free is pretty uncertain. And I think it can actually be quite wonderful that you the outcome. And I think also there are a lot people think about political change in history as so they've never gotten past addition and substraction in most basic formulas. And I think that we need a kind of algebra and calculus for how the world gets changed. Somebody said to me yesterday, that the Zapatistas, the indigenous revolutionaries in Mexico, did not succeed eleven years after they began their revolution. But they are still there which for me is a success. Then what was the nature of their success. Would their success have been to realize every single one of their goals? If so then they have not yet been a success. But what if it just takes another forty or fifty or hundred years to realize then, will they then be a success? What about the fact that the Zapatistas inspired indigenous peoples all over the Americas and activists all over the world to rethink what revolution could be, what social change could be, to transform the very language in which we think about politics and the very categories in which we think about liberation and community and justice. On all those ground the Zapatistas are an enormous success. But that's not a one plus equals two, that's an X. plus Y equals, divided by two equals....
    HF    Could you explain that.
    RS    I am not scientific, you know. It's been a long time since I've had algebra, I just trying to suggest a much more complex formula. And so I think often that the uncertainty means that you don't count on success because you may not achieve it in your life time. It often takes fifty years or more to make a major change to get one in the vote to ban slavery, to change the consciousness of a culture, to achieve equal rights for homosexuals. And a lot of people think that if you don't get it in a year or five years it's a failure. So there is that kind of uncertainty where a lot of people can not worry about what they don't get. But I also wanted to see what they do get often. You can say that the American Civil Rights Movement was not entirely a success because the laws were changed but there is still racism and discrimination and still terrible poverty among the African Americans. But you can look at how the American Civil Rights Movement inspired people in Eastern Europe and South Africa and all over the world to use these techniques in the 80's and the 90's and the present to achieve justice and equality and make the world better. And see then ... in some ways Martin Luther King, Jr. is not dead yet and that these things are not over yet. And therefore there is a wonderful uncertainty of ... we never really finish with the project, so we may never win, but we might still be winning.
    HF    So can we say success is not, as we think, having reached the goal, rather the way.
    RS    Yeah, 'cause I think we all ... you know there is a real desire on the part of activists who arrive in paradise. And I think paradise might be very boring. Paradise makes no demands on us; everything is good, everything is safe. There are no questions to be asked, no work to be done. We don't have to grow as individuals; we don't have to test our own morality and our own belief systems. We don't have to argue, and that just sounds really boring to me. And so I think that we can move towards a better world. And the world we live in now in many ways is a better world than it was fifty years ago. Many people who had fewer right then including women, homosexuals, people of color, colonized people have a great deal more now. And this doesn't mean that we now live in a world without racism and sexism and other troubles. But we live in a world, in which enormous transformation has been wrought and will continue to be worked on. And that's the kind of change that I see where every ... once slavery was eliminated from the United States you could see the next problem. And people often also think that you fix one, you focus on this problem, you fix it and then you'll be done. Rather than that you defeat this particular form of oppression, and then you can move on to the nest task.
    HF    Rebecca thank you very much.
    RS    Thank you.

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