Hope is an orientation, a way of scanning the wall for cracks–or building ladders–rather than staring at its obdurate expanse. It’s a world view, but one informed by experience and the knowledge that people have power; that the power people possess matters; that change has been made by populist movements and dedicated individuals in the past; and that it will be again.
Dissent in this country has become largely a culture of diagnosis rather than prescription, of describing what is wrong with them, rather than what is possible for us. But even in English, a robust minority tradition can be found. There are a handful of books that I think of as “the secret library of hope.” None of them deny the awful things going on, but they approach them as if the future is still open to intervention rather than an inevitability. In describing how the world actually gets changed, they give us the tools to change it again.
Here, then, are some of the regulars in my secret political library of hope, along with some new candidates:
The Power from Beneath
When the monks of Burma/Myanmar led an insurrection in September simply by walking through the streets of their cities in their deep-red robes, accompanied by ever more members of civil society, the military junta which had run that country for more than four decades responded with violence. That’s one measure of how powerful and threatening the insurrection was. (That totalitarian regimes tend to ban gatherings of more than a few people is the best confirmation of the strength that exists in unarmed numbers of us.)
After the crackdown, after the visually stunning, deeply inspiring walks came to a bloody end, quite a lot of mainstream politicians and pundits pronounced the insurrection dead, violence triumphant–as though this play had just one act, as though its protagonists were naive and weak-willed. I knew they were wrong, but the argument I rested on wasn’t my own: I went back to Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, by far the most original and ambitious of the many histories of nonviolence to appear in recent years.
When it came out as the current war began in the spring of 2003, the book was mocked for its dismissal of the effectiveness of violence, but Schell’s explanation of how superior military power failed abysmally in Vietnam was a prophesy waiting to be fulfilled in Iraq. Schell himself is much taken with the philosopher Hannah Arendt, whom he quotes saying, in 1969:
“To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.”
I hope that his equally trenchant explanation of the power of nonviolence is fulfilled in Burma. Schell has been a diligent historian and philosopher of nuclear weapons since his 1982 bestseller The Fate of the Earth, but this book traces the rise of nonviolence as the other half of the history of the violent twentieth century.
That’s what books in a library of hope consist of–not a denial of the horrors of recent history, but an exploration of the other tendencies, avenues, and achievements that are too often overlooked. After all, to return to Burma, much has already changed there since September: Burma’s greatest supporter, China, has been forced to denounce the crackdown and may be vulnerable to more pre-Olympics pressure on the subject; India has declared a moratorium on selling arms to the country; a number of companies have withdrawn from doing business there; and the US Congress just unanimously passed a bill, HR 3890, to increase sanctions, freeze the junta’s assets in US institutions, and close a loophole that allowed Chevron to profit spectacularly from its business in Burma.