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Hope in the Dark
Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
Rebecca Solnit
read on December 6, 2018

I read this book hoping for guidance or wisdom on how to react and maintain hope in today's political reality in the United States, despite knowing that Solnit originally wrote this in 2005 as a reaction to the Iraqi war and broadly the G.W. Bush presidency. And, from the outset, that made me hold something against it. Not because anything in the book is wrong or bad advice, but I can't in my head get past the comparison of that era to this one. It doesn't seem possible to me that any reasonable reaction or advice for that situation could be appropriate to this one.

Nothing in the book was bad, or wrong. (Well, except for the bit praising the revolution in Venezula that led to Hugo Chavez's authoritarian dismantling of that country -- that didn't age well). And, in fact, it does seem like a good reaction to an alarming-but-not-existential threat to western liberal democratic values. Solnit encourages the reader to act, shows example after example of how progress is always fought for, and is never easy. The book is a call to action.

But for me the message comes too close to the notion that 'the moral arc of history bends towards justice'. I'm strongly against the idea that liberalism and western democratic values represent some kind of absolute moral truth. There's that old saying that if every book on Earth disappeared today, in fifty thousand years humans would have recreated all the science textbooks - chemistry and physics and biology would all be rediscovered the same as they are today - but that the Bible and Quran, or the Iliad and Odyssey, etc, would be lost forever. The idea of course being that those sciences represent an absolute truth about the universe, whereas story books are only an idea. I think western democratic liberalism is only an idea, not a truth. There is no great force that has pushed us towards it, or that will keep us moving in a democratically progressive direction. What we have now is fragile, and if we lose it there is no guarantee, or even reasonable expectation, that it should return.

Author Bio:

Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of twenty books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster, including a trilogy of atlases and the books The Mother of All Questions, Hope in the Dark, Men Explain Things to Me; The Faraway Nearby; A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; A Field Guide to Getting Lost; Wanderlust: A History of Walking; and River of Shadows, Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (for which she received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award). A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a columnist at Harper’s.