Hope v. Despair

If you believe that you can help make change for the better, you have reason for hope. Starting therapy, which is based on the idea that understanding leads to personal growth, change and less pain in life, is an expression of hope. Marching in protests is an expression of hope. Supporting friends who have made even small changes for the better, an affirmation of hope. Hope is a precondition for creative action of all kinds. Despair, a firm belief that no positive fundamental change can ever be accomplished, that we are as we were born, the world is what it is and nobody can change any of that, results in a hardened certainty about the grimness of life that nobody can influence.

Raised by two frustrated, anger-prone parents, broken by their own strong-willed mothers, I was never taught that it’s possible (and smart) to take a breath, remain silent for a moment, think a bit more, consider the effect of my reaction. You could say I was trained to have a handicap — when something aggravates you, get mad and vent loudly. The reflex to get angry is still strong in me, when a computer has its way with me I can be heard to snarl and yell like I’m in a barehanded fight to the death with a young, energetic Mr. Hitler, armed with a Bowie knife. Seeing the terrible impact getting angry all the time had on my life, I set out to become milder in my reactions. Over many years, I’ve made some progress.

My father snarled when I brought this progress up twenty years ago or so. No, he insisted, you changed only your superficial reactions, not your reflex to fly into a rage. I pointed out that changing my reactions meant I am more often able to control my reflex to fly into a rage.

“I’ve seen big a change in you,” my mother said, as she passed through the room, on her way to the bedroom to read a murder mystery. It is hard to express how much her passing comment moved me, fortified my efforts to change even more. Particularly since it was spoken early into my attempt to become a less angry person.

That change may not fix everything that’s broken is often cited, by Positive Change Skeptics, as proof that real, fundamental change is impossible. To me, if I get angry 40% less than I used to, am more consistently able to not hurt those around me by taking anger out on them, I consider that change very valuable. To those who insist we are what we are, and foolish hope of change is a game for chumps, a paltry 40% less anger is the same as telling everybody to fuck themselves. I hope I will not infuriate anyone by admitting I have no idea by what percentage I’ve lessened my angry reactions, I pull the 40% stat out of my ass by way of random illustration.

Without hope, without faith in our power to choose more wisely than we did when we were children, the only alternative is a pessimistic acceptance of every bit of negativity we encounter as the natural order. Remove hope and you have only a grim acceptance of a bitter world, run by evil people, a brutish place where you get as much as you can before some other syphilitic rat bastard tries to steal it from you.

We are living in a moment of mass despair, millions worldwide taking desperate action out of their sense of hopelessness. There are many reasons for despair. Humans are destroying the planet we live on, quickly, irrevocably, much faster than even the most pessimistic climate scientists predicted. The economic system that prevails on our dying planet is unashamedly extractive, not sustainable and it exploits most people who work for it.

The powerful could give a shit what happens after they’re gone, if piping toxic tar sand thousands of miles to toxically extract more gasoline from it will increase their vast wealth, fuck “water protecters” and “tree huggers” and “climate alarmists” and “climate scientists” and everyone else who has a concern about unsustainable, deadly levels of toxins released into our air and water. You fund influential “think tanks”, hire lobbyists, judges, goons to beat protesters up, sic dogs on ’em, strip search ’em. Have legislatures pass laws labeling every demonstrator an eco-terrorist, put ’em all in jail. People can’t change, we are an irredeemably evil bunch, fuck it — set it all on fire, let God sort through the ashes.

Deaths of despair in this country last year, all other forms of suicides excluded, included a U.S. record 87,000 drug overdose deaths, an average of 238 a day. Nothing can change, China stole all the jobs, the radical left stole the rigged election from the only man who can protect us from a cabal of powerful Satanist cannibal pedophiles, what is the point, what is the fucking point? Doctor, I need more Oxycontin!

Despair is understandable. It’s also deadly. If the news is too depressing to watch (which it is, by design), if it fills you with despair that there is not a moment when hope can simply be allowed to breathe, you learn to tune it out. This exhausted disengagement works to the advantage of despair and grievance mongers.

When the Georgia run-off resulted in a narrow Senate majority for new president Biden, the forces of reaction immediately sent an angry lynch mob to storm the Capitol, their violence erasing all celebrations of a resurgence of democracy in Georgia. Almost at the moment Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd (after a short trial during which there were dozens more police killings across the country), a sheriff in North Carolina refused to release videos of someone killed by police. It fills you with a sense of dread, of despair for even the hope of anything getting better.

Watch the affable Joe Manchin insist, with every appearance of measured reasonableness, that the only way out of this viciously deadlocked and divisive partisan political hellscape is by working together, reaching across the aisle to those who support the unfounded claim that Biden stole a rigged election from their party leader, and compromising on changes to proposals that are already compromises. What’s wrong with $11 an hour minimum wage, y’all? Not as much as what generous Amazon pays, but, heck, a lot better than the $7.25 the Fair Labor Standards Act requires all American employers to pay certain workers not exempt from the law because they make tip money as well [1]. Hard not to feel a bit of the old despair, a flash of the old anger.

That’s when it is important to remember things like this. Manchin takes this conservative position because he represents one of the poorest, Reddest states in the nation. Created in 1863, West Virginian’s primary industry has long been coal mining. Trump promised to send West Virginians back to work in the coal mines, and they apparently loved him for it. West Virginia voted for Trump in 2020 by an 40% margin. Now– tell me, if Biden crafted a law to spend billions in recovered corporate tax dollars to revitalize the devastated economy of places like West Virginia, investing money for massive job retraining, new sustainable industries, health care for all, funding internal infrastructure projects hiring thousands, giving West Virginians new hope for the future, would Manchin still not be able to take a reasonable position on weakening or eliminating the filibuster? Would it not give someone like Manchin political cover to insist that the minority filibustering should at least be required to hold the floor and actually argue the merits of why they are blocking debate on the bill they’re obstructing?

It is easy and natural to give in to despair, particularly when every reasonable hope you can muster is continually and deliberately pissed on by unscrupulous powerful people who do not care about justice in any form, except to hoard more of its prerogative to selectively withhold justice for themselves.

The words of Trump’s new internet sensation Frederick Douglass are worth considering here:

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.

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Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

Given the choice between hope and despair, I’ll choose hope every time. It’s not really that much of a contest.

[1]

Manchin’s state already has a more generous $8.75 hourly minimum wage (a state could hardly be less generous than the $7.25 minimum wage 19 U.S. states still have). Ironically, DC is the only US jurisdiction that currently has a $15 minimum wage, $3.25 more than surrounding state Maryland. Kyrsten Sinema’s (of the parody of McCain’s famous thumbs down on Trump’s attempt to abolish the Affordable Care Act, in opposing a $15 national minimum wage) state of Arizona already has an $11 minimum wage, so, you know, enough is enough…

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