Sunday, January 8, 2017

'We Have to Resist': A Conversation With Rebecca Solnit

The difference between hope and optimism, and the dangers 
of activism without a plan.
It is difficult to define Rebecca Solnit. Is she an historian, a cultural theorist, a journalist, an activist? She cites reserved intellectuals like John Berger and Lawrence Weschler as influences, and she is also on the front lines of protest: she was an outspoken proponent of Occupy Wall Street; she was in Standing Rock, at the Dakota Access Pipeline, where protestors recently gained an unexpected victory; and she co-founded the Stop Trump project, which ideologically resists the U.S. President-Elect while uncovering the potential malfeasance that led to his election in the first place.
Born in Connecticut and educated at San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley, the 55-year-old has been an independent writer living in northern California since 1988. She’s authored seventeen books, ranging in topic from art to politics to geography to community to feminism. She won the Lannan Literary Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she’s currently a contributing editor at Harper’s, where she writes the bimonthly Easy Chair column.
Her essay “Hope in the Dark,” which she gave away as a free ebook after Trump was elected, was written twelve years ago as an instructive piece on what went wrong with the Iraq War protests. Its relevance resurged after Trump was elected.
I spoke with Solnit about reclaiming the notion that political protest works, understanding the role of hope, the lessons of Hilary Clinton’s defeat, not ceding resistance, and whether Trump was even elected president at all.
* * *
Trump will soon be sworn in as the 45th president. What does effective activism look like going forward?
I think preparing for his presidency means a lot of things. It’s not like past dealings, where I can say, okay, I totally disagree with you about fracking or this piece of foreign policy, and I can go after them. Instead, it’s like, oh my God these people are going after education and aid to needy families and foreign policy and weapons and veterans benefits, and pipelines and coal, and the Paris Climate Agreement.
I’ve started the Stop Trump project with the great organizer from Movement Strategy Center, Taj James. It’s a long shot but lots of things are long shots. Ending apartheid in South Africa is a long shot. Breaking the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe is a long shot. We felt that challenging the legitimacy of Trump’s election strengthens civil society and weakens Trump as we head into this very likely transition, in ways that really matter.
So I think, firstly, in preparing for it, it is necessary to enter from a place of strength. Timothy Snyder issued a great list of ways to survive an authoritarian regime. One was, essentially, don’t surrender in advance and don’t let fear limit your exercise of your rights and your powers. So Taj and I are really trying to get people to engage in this passionate moment, a moment that’s not quite an uprising but a moment of extraordinary engagement.
You write often on “hope” — what’s its role in this post-election climate?
It’s very important to say that hope is not optimism. Optimism is a sense that everything’s going to be fine no matter what we do. Hope is something completely different. The kind of activist hope I believe in is that, although we don’t know what will happen, that uncertainty still means there’s grounds for intervening even without being sure of the outcome. You can see it, for instance, with the extraordinary victory at Standing Rock. Or with Jill Stein deciding to pursue the recount. There are so many things that remind us that we don’t really know what’s going to happen next.
So hope for me means believing that it’s worth doing something, even when nothing is obvious. You look at the great campaigns of civil rights: the end of apartheid, the Keystone Pipeline, marriage equality, so many other things, and you see people pursuing these things when it doesn’t seem likely and it doesn’t seem easy. I want people to remember that hope is about looking towards the future, but what I think strengthens it is the past, which shows us that sometimes we win.

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