ALEX BRANDON/AP PHOTO
One day last July I sat next to the Salvadoran-American musician David Molina on a long bus ride. He showed me his pictures of Carnival in Paucartambo in the Peruvian Andes, and when he was done I showed him mine of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The indigenous town at nearly 10,000 feet holds a raucous celebration with fireworks, costumes, people throwing stuff, playing with fire, kidnapping strangers and keeping them hostage at feasts, drinking in quantity, kids staying up into the small hours–the rules are all broken, and the first rule is the one of shyness and separation. New Orleans is about as different from Paucartambo as could be, starting with the fact that parts of it are below sea level, but it too keeps alive the old tradition of Carnival–not just on Mardi Gras, the last day of Carnival season, before Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, but all through the weeks from Twelfth Night, January 5, when it begins. What happens in Carnival is complicated. But let me send another float through this parade of ideas first.
Six years ago I wrote a book about hope. A few years later I went to look at the worst things that happen to people and found some more hope in the resilience, the inventiveness, the bravery and occasionally the long-term subversion with which people respond. It culminated in another fairly hopeful book, based on the surprising evidence of what actually happens in disaster. Civil society happens, and sometimes joy in that society; institutional failure often also transpires. Sometimes a power struggle to re-establish the status quo follows, and sometimes the status quo wins, sometimes it doesn’t. Which is to say, sometimes we win, though that’s far from inevitable. This is grounds to be hopeful. Now, being hopeful seems to me like it’s preferable to being hopeless, but for six years I’ve been talking about these books in public. This means I’ve also been running into people at readings, talks and interviews who are furiously attached to hopelessness, to narratives of despair and decline, to belief in an omniscient them who always wins and a feeble us who always loses. To keep hold of this complex, they have to skew the evidence, and they do. They cherry-pick. They turn complex facts into simple stories. They constitute a significant sector of the left.
I don’t believe that they represent the whole left; rather, it seems the self-appointed spokespeople for the left are both more privileged than the left as such and more attached to defeat. Defeat for the privileged means cynicism and an excuse for doing little or nothing; defeat for the oppressed means surrender to hideous or fatal conditions, which might be why hope has of late come from people like the Zapatistas, the indigenous campesinos of Mexico’s poorest state, or the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the incredible undocumented-immigrant farmworkers organization that forced Taco Bell and then McDonald’s into negotiations. Hope, in the myth of Pandora’s box, is what is left behind after everything else has fled; those who hang on to everything else seem to give up or overlook hope. So they often say we always lose.