“Let us not return to what was normal, but reach toward what is next.”— Amanda Gorman
The Optimism of Uncertainty
Every January for the past several years I’ve joined activists in front of the White House to protest the indefinite detention of 40 Muslim men at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. This year, January 11 marked the 18th anniversary of the prison’s opening.
I took the train to Washington in January with a mixture of anxiety and dread. Anxiety that no one would show up, because who even remembers that the Guantanamo prison is still open? Dread because this would be yet another year where, regardless of how many people did make the effort to travel to the White House to protest, the protests would be falling on deaf ears: Donald Trump, whose support is needed to close the prison, couldn’t care less.
Still, there was something beautiful in the annual ritual. This year I had a filmmaker and cameraman with me, and the short film they created captures that. It shows ordinary Americans of all ages traveling from across the country to Washington, DC. Many of them fast for several days before the event, in solidarity with the men who’ve undertaken hunger strikes in the prison. They gather and sleep on the floor of a local church until the day of the anniversary, when they put on orange jumpsuits and black hoods to represent the plight of the 40 men still indefinitely detained, most without charge or trial, in the US military prison in Cuba.
This year, we marched from the White House to the Trump International Hotel.
“I don’t think there’s any futility in that,” Reverend Ron Stief, director of the National Religious Campaign against Torture, told us. “Human rights is a long game… We owe it to the detainees who remain there never to stop.”
The president may not have been listening, but the protesters were connecting with each other, while calling the attention of passersby who knew nothing at all about their cause.
“What is Guantanamo?” a young woman who’d recently come to the US from Argentina asked me as I stood among the crowd at the rally, listening to the various speakers. She’d been drawn to the protest while walking through Lafayette Park that sunny Saturday afternoon. I explained what it was; she stayed to listen longer.
Most activists are exhausted these days, and our actions can easily feel futile. But it’s helpful to remember we’re all playing a long game, and that there’s beauty, even joy, in just showing up for it: to support one another, to raise our voices together, and to call everyone’s attention to something larger than ourselves.
In his essay, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” the historian Howard Zinn wrote:
Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.
An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
Bernie Sanders, the Optimist
One of the most common criticisms I hear of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is that he’s too angry.
Americans are famous for being upbeat and optimistic. We’re raised to believe in “the American Dream” in which anyone can rise up from poverty to be a huge success. Anger –- particularly about the reality that lots of people don’t have access to that dream — doesn’t fit so well into that equation. (Unless, perhaps, it’s satisfied by scapegoating other people — the Donald Trump strategy.)
Hope, on the other hand, has always been a runaway bestseller. Bill Clinton, “the man from Hope” – his hometown in Arkansas – is still one of the most popular American presidents ever. And Barack Obama got himself elected promoting “the Audacity of Hope,” as he called his 2006 memoir. His vague promises of hope allowed the electorate to project all sorts of their own hopes and dreams onto him. Seven years later, many are sorely disappointed.
Thomas Frank, in his 2014 Salon essay The Hope Diet, cynically dismissed all the hopefulness in American politics as a way of duping the citizenry into complacency while leaders do what they want. Rather than a motivating force to engage the public, hope is something politicians “bring with them…ensuring this fanciful substance flows our way doesn’t require them actually to, you know, enact anything we’re hoping for. On the contrary, they can do things (like Clinton’s deregulation or Obama’s spying program) that actually harm their constituents, and then tell us, as Barack Obama tweeted after the 2012 election, the definition of hope is you still believe, even when it’s hard… This is the opposite of accountability.”
Perpetual war, extreme inequality and rampant injustice seem to be the norm these days, so one can be forgiven for feeling a little less hopeful. I think that’s why Bernie Sanders’ anger can seem, at least to some of us, highly appropriate.
Anger makes us uncomfortable, but it can be motivating. It signals something is wrong. And being on the lookout for something wrong may be the appropriate approach to the systems and institutions that hold so much power in our society. One can be angry at, or even cynical about, those institutions, and still be optimistic about individual human potential for change.
It’s a stark contrast to the approach of Donald Trump. Like Sanders, Trump is angry and cynical – but his wrath is aimed at specific groups of people, such as immigrants and Muslims. He’s not a cynic about our institutions, which have helped him amass huge wealth while providing only a $7.25 federal minimum wage that Trump has suggested is “too high.”
Although the media doesn’t generally tout Sanders as an optimist, it strikes me that his views are highly optimistic about human potential. This sort of view is encapsulated by the work of leading “positive” psychologists, such as the Harvard researcher Ellen Langer. In her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, Langer explores how beliefs about aging affect and in some cases dictate our physical and mental experience of it. (This is also relevant to the criticism that Sanders is “too old” to be president.) Langer is not concerned with the statistical probability of something happening. She’s interested in what can happen. That’s far more motivating and relevant when you’re talking about make change. For example, I don’t really care if it’s statistically unlikely that I’ll run a marathon next year. If I really want to do that (I don’t, particularly, but you get the idea) there’s a lot I can do to make it happen.
That to me is what hope is about, whether personal or political. It’s what motivates and encourages us to improve our lives and our world.
I think it’s why I like Bernie Sanders. There’s something about his willingness to see and state clearly the powerful influence of concentrated wealth in our society and its control over all of our major systems and institutions that’s refreshing. It may come across as angry, but it’s not pessimistic. His candidacy is all about offering the possibility of a new form of governance that roots out that outsized influence.
Of course, his ability to actually accomplish that within the existing American political system is another matter – and may reasonably influence whether voters wants to place their hopes in him. Still, it’s a good example of how one can be appropriately cynical about systems and institutions, and still be optimistic about the possibility of well-meaning individuals to join together to change them.