Rebecca Solnit on 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 yet 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.
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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.
Is social media a viable platform for serious activism?
Social media is not a substitute for activism, but — at least since the shutdown of the World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting in Seattle in 1999 — we’ve seen that social media allows us to communicate directly and articulate our own points of view in ways that count. I know an Arab Spring activist who credits her survival to her Twitter following — the fact that someone arrested with her was able to tweet their arrest. She was sexually assaulted, had her arm and hand broken, but was not killed.
Social media is a double-edged sword. I joke that Twitter is the world’s greatest means of sending rape and death threats to outspoken feminists that the world has ever seen. At the same time, you do see counter-narratives and communities and organizing happening through social media. It’s a tool, and it’s a tool worth using; in fact, in a lot of ways, it’s an inevitable tool, too. It’s scary seeing the role of social media and the internet in this election with fake news, with a host of things that emerge from social media. I don’t think the tools are neutral, but I think they can be used.
Besides the obvious answer of Electoral College laws, what explains Clinton’s defeat?
Oh man, this was the weirdest election ever, and one thing you can say is that — as David Roberts said in a really nice piece in Vox — it was everything. His piece critiqued the men who were obsessively talking about what a weak candidate Clinton was, which of course was their way of saying we didn’t support her and that’s her fault. Many are very excited to blame her, but seriously, Clinton faced obstacles no candidate has ever faced, and she still won the popular vote by a 2.8-million-vote margin. That’s larger than the margin with which a number of previous people — Nixon and Kennedy, notably — won their elections and became president.
She faced everything: she faced misogyny, she faced a mainstream media that let the right-wing make a much bigger kerfuffle out of the email server business than it deserved to be; she faced crazy narratives in which she was the scapegoat responsible for things her husband did during his eight years as president; she was made completely responsible for Iraq, although she only voted for it — as the scholar Stephen Zunes points out — after it was inevitable; she was made completely responsible for pretty much everything in the Obama administration; she faced the email hack that was leaked that was clearly designed to sabotage her campaign as effectively as possible. And she faced the FBI and James Comey doing his best to sabotage the election in the last week and a half. She also faced misogyny, which was huge. There were all these weird questions that we don’t even ask of male candidates, and she was placed in this impossible space in which women are supposed to exist — like how they must not be too feminine because then they don’t have authority, but they must not be angry because women aren’t supposed to get angry; they’re supposed to show leadership, which men show partly by getting angry since male anger is seen as a sign of strength; women are criticized for being weak after not showing the anger that is associated with strength in men but unattractiveness in women. Since every woman must be pleasing in ways that are never demanded of men; look at the crazy discourse on Clinton’s voice and the unsolicited advice, while Sanders shouted and Trump squealed and screamed. It was these kind of obscene things.
So what the hell is she to do here? She plowed through a perfect storm and came out ahead in the popular vote. That’s kind of amazing.
A Clinton loss was no doubt still a big surprise to those on the left. How does this election inform the left’s decisions going forward?
Well, a lot of people didn’t believe that Trump could win and believed that they could not vote or do a protest vote because somebody else would make Clinton win. Many were so deeply absorbed by their hatred or their rage over the primary they never really turned to contemplate the only two real choices in the November election. And they were confident they could hate and tear down Clinton and trust that she would win anyway (and she might have without the FBI, or maybe she did, but the results were manipulated; we don’t know now). People thought: I don’t have to treat this as an emergency. I heard the very astute observation that a lot of people were like anti-vaxxers who trust that other people will vaccinate their kids and provide herd immunity so they don’t have to do it.
I thought that Trump posed a threat to democracy and to human rights and to the whole tenor of our country. It was a national emergency, like a threat of war. It really should have been “all-hands-on-deck.” I understand a lot of the things that are flawed about Clinton, but I know that this wave of hate crimes we’re seeing — this triumphalism of anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and racist and misogynist activity — would not have resulted from a Clinton victory. There are the direct consequences of policies that Trump and his team may carry out themselves, but there’s also a symbolic effect that must not be discounted of how profoundly hate has been given a license. It is happening in ways that are literally terrifying for a lot of people. With a huge spike in hate crimes in schools the day after the election, children were weeping and were afraid to leave the house; a lot of teachers had students whose parents were undocumented, who are afraid that their parents will be taken away while they’re at school. Adults had reasonable fears too and many have been attacked, verbally assaulted, intimidated, and told this is no longer their country — it’s happened to friends of mine. Swastikas and menacing graffiti proliferate. It really is already a reign of terror, and we haven’t even had the transfer of power.
Going back to thinking about the left though, it’s a very simple thing that the perfect is the enemy of the good. You can see in other places, other countries that people get that; sometimes you have to choose a candidate you don’t love to prevent a much greater harm from taking place. We have models like harm-reduction that actually say the lesser of two evils is a lot better. There’s a need for strategic thinking because there’s all these people who are just very angry and really acted like their vote was some sort of personal definition of who they were rather than for the greater good.
There are 330 million people in this country. Maybe the candidate’s not going to be a perfect expression of who you are, but democracy means we have to find some kind of common ground. The difference between the language of consumerism and the language of citizenship was perfected down to the former and in place of the latter a lot.
Might the relentlessness and persistence of the protestors who recently succeeded with the Dakota Access Pipeline be a blueprint for political protests going forward?
I think what we saw at Standing Rock was the beauty of a vision, the beauty of solidarity, and idealism, which were really, profoundly affecting. I went there briefly, and I wish I could have stayed there much, much longer. You saw not just an attempt to stop the pipeline and protect the water, but also an intersection between racial justice and human rights and environmental and climate justice, between many, many communities including tribes from all over North America and beyond. This was a coalition not just to stop one pipeline but to turn the direction of half a millennium of history away from the dehumanization and dispossession of Native Americans and begin a new era, of respect, reconciliation, power, and rights. It was changing something deep, as we saw when some of the 2000 veterans who came to support knelt to ask for forgiveness for what the army had done over the centuries.
I think something we can learn from movements like that is that the indirect effects matter. The consequences are broad and deep beyond whether or not you achieve one impact. You can see that with Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, where they change the culture and the conversation. They have different political effects, and it won’t always be that Tuesday caused this direct consequence on Wednesday. We’re going to need to be strong; we’re going to need to have solidarity; we’re going to need to be stubborn, and we’re going to need to push when it’s not safe or easy and victory isn’t obviously in sight. That’s always been true of activism. Whether it’s getting women to vote, which took about 880 years or removing most of the discrimination against gay, lesbian, and trans people — not that that’s done — it’s all of those things. But it’s never easy.
How do people reclaim the notion of activism as a viable political tool?
There’s a really good point my friend Astra Taylor made about this. She wrote a beautiful piece that was, essentially, against activism when activism means just running around doing stuff without a strategy, without a long-term plan versus organizing. Activism essentially means just being active, whereas organizing means being strategic and connected. I think there’s always an attempt by the status quo as well as conservatives to discredit activism although conservatives don’t discredit their activism, which, it should be said, is often very, very effective. The Tea Party and some of the campaigns we’ve seen around open-carry laws and things. I think that history lets us know that this stuff really works. Not always, not every time, not when people just rush around because they’re excited for a moment, but when people hang in for the long run and are strategic — sometimes we win.
Is it possible that Trump might do something redeeming or valuable for America?
I think he’s deeply erratic, and he does have some positions — like against trade deals — that are fine. If he decides to, there are some good things he could do, but he clearly has no idea how the government works, what his job is, and he has no deep understanding of these policies. He has come to destroy, and he might turn out to be very good at that. We may make great coalitions to resist or shift the very nature of this nation in interesting ways, but the threatened destruction is real and horrific, a toxic cloud no silver lining can redeem.
But should people attempt to find a sense of unity with him? Or should we try to oppose him in every way, as many would say Republicans did with Obama?
I think you can support a specific thing or policy, but we don’t have to give up and surrender and give him blanket approval and cede our resistance. We know for a fact that there will be a tremendous attacks on human rights, tremendous attempts to rig the economy to make it work better for the super wealthy and be more punitive for the poor and vulnerable — attacks on education, on healthcare — and so many other things that are already being setup to happen. We cannot give up on those things. We have to resist.