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From the Faraway Nearby

Our Storied Future

Never underestimate the power of an idea

by Rebecca Solnit

Published in the January/February 2008 issue of Orion magazine



Painting: David Alfaro Siqueiros

THE EUROPEAN tradition loves opposites. One that Hannah Arendt dwelt upon in The Human Condition is the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. For Arendt, the active life was the life lived in the world, the life of making, laboring, and acting; the contemplative life was the monastic and philosophical life, life on the sidelines. But contemplation is what gave the monks of Burma the tranquil courage to walk out of their monasteries and temples last fall, chanting the Metta Sutta of compassion for all beings amid rows of heavily armed soldiers prepared to kill them. It was as moving, as brave, and as defiant an exercise of nonviolence and spiritual strength in action as we may ever see, those boys and men in robes the color of blood standing up to the military junta that has long ruled their country. The ethics of their contemplative life demanded action.

The same was true for many Vietnamese monks during the U.S. war on that country. Action and contemplation can be parts of the same life. The latter gives us the depth, the ethics, the imagination, and the understanding to become active, to work for what we believe. And action brings our contemplative work to life, gives it purpose and meaning; compassion may be learned by meditation but it can only be realized by some form of engagement. I know I have learned much by reading and writing, but I have also learned by traveling, by encountering, by watching history firsthand and sometimes participating in it. There is no divide.

An equally disabling distinction, handed down from Plato, is the one between representation and reality. This exiling of representations to the realm of the irrelevant, the inactive, the opposite of acts and actualities, trivializes the power of words and ideas. Campaigns of destruction always begin with language and symbols—even calling a forest a natural resource makes it easier to see it as board feet. People die of ideas all the time. The representation of people as loathsome or invasive, for example, is often the first step toward brutalizing or exterminating them. The anthropologist Hugh Raffles points out that the Nazis made constant analogies between Jews and insects and then made the metaphors real by using the insecticide Zyklon B to murder some of us in the gas chambers. Ideas matter. This is what Patrick Reinsborough, founder of San Francisco–based Smart Meme, calls “the battle of the story.” There are battles in the streets and then there are battles over which metaphors and images will be used to tell those stories and, ultimately, which version of history will shape the memories and imaginations that guide and limit the future. To write, to make art and film, to work as a journalist or an educator can be a radical act, one that blurs the lines between action and contemplation by employing ideas as tools to make the world as well as understand it. 

I often joke that I want to be a Latin American intellectual—a loose rubric for the remarkable contributions of Ariel Dorfman, Eduardo Galeano, Elena Poniatowska, Gabriel García Márquez, Subcomandante Marcos, and many more writers from south of the border—because these writers offer great examples of the union of the active and contemplative lives, the union of art and politics. They do not believe, as so many English-speaking writers do, that there could be, let alone should be, an art that is not political. Apolitical art and artless politics are the fruit of a divide-and-conquer strategy that weakens both; art and politics ignite each other and need each other. The idea that political art must degenerate into propaganda or unsubtle screed is also misguided. There is enormous beauty in the way Galeano and Marcos, for example, write about politics, a poetics of policy and possibility, of seeing the unexpected and teasing out the meaning. And there is hope. As Galeano said on the radio recently, “We are all obliged to live life as a duty, but secretly willing to live it as a feast.” And sometimes the feast is not on luxuries and private pleasure, but on braveries and public hopes.

Another dichotomy that we can throw out immediately is the false opposition between the naïve and the cynical. English-speaking writers too often believe that you are one or the other. But cynicism is itself naïve. I often hear people make cynical statements in defiance of actual history—you can’t change anything, they control everything, we’re powerless, it never works—as if there had been no civil rights movement and no feminist movement; as though to be gay or lesbian in 1960, when it was considered both a crime and a mental disease, were the same as today; as though unarmed citizens had not overthrown dozens of governments in recent decades. Yet cynicism, defeatism, and despair are often considered to be signs of worldliness.

At a conference where I’d stood up to celebrate the Zapatistas as an example of revolution in our time, a powerful man from an environmental foundation later hissed at me angrily, in private, “The Zapatistas lost.” He was so attached to their failure, as so many U.S. progressives are attached to failure and defeat, to the excuse for doing less, hoping less, dreaming less. If not much is possible, not much is demanded of us. He meant that they had not succeeded in what he imagined to be their goal, abolishing the Mexican government in Chiapas or in Mexico altogether. But they have survived, and that is one victory. They have created autonomous areas in Chiapas, another. And their greatest victory has been a victory of art, of story, of the revolutionary vita contemplativa: they have inspired people around the world to rethink power, participation, revolution, and the possible in the most beautiful and unexpected ways. When the Zapatistas rose up on the day that NAFTA went into effect, most people around the world knew little and cared less about neoliberalism, corporate globalization, and the economic forces that shape our lives; that has all changed, in part because of them.

Despair is a luxury. If I despair I can drive a Yukon and watch bad television. Despair makes no demand upon us; hope demands everything. For people around the world, in places like Burma and Chiapas, giving up means accepting hideous conditions of life, or death. Despair is cheap for us, expensive for them. What does it mean to be radical, to tell radical stories in our time, to win the battle of the story? The North American tradition seems to focus its activity on the exposé, the telling of the grim underside of what we know: the food is poison, the system is corrupt, the leaders are lying, the war is failing. There is a place for this, but you cannot base a revolution on the bad things the status quo forgot to mention. You need to tell the stories they are not telling, to learn to see where they are blind, to look at how the great changes of the world come from the shadows and the margins, not center stage, to see where we’re winning and that we can win something that matters, if not everything all the time. 

Thus the Latin American intellectuals: having survived coups, gone into exile, faced off dictatorships, seen their countries taken over by generals and neoliberals, seen destitution and death squads, they understand that cynicism is naïve and hope is radical. The mainstream story about the Burmese insurrection last fall was that the monks rose up spontaneously and naïvely, met with an unexpected crackdown, and were quickly defeated. It was a story with no imagination for how history unfolds, told even while competing stories about fissures and defections in the Burmese army emerged, small acts of resistance and great determination continued among the Burmese citizenry, and activists around the world organized in solidarity with the ongoing uprising. As citizens engaged in the daily task of remaking the world, we get to choose our stories—the stories that divide and conquer or those that tie things together with possibility.

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Rebecca Solnit is the author of -- among other titles -- Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics.

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