ast month, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden had a public conversation about democracy, transparency, whistleblowing and more. In the course of it, Snowden – who was of course Skyping in from Moscow – said that without Ellsberg’s example he would not have done what he did to expose the extent to which the NSA was spying on millions of ordinary people. It was an extraordinary declaration. It meant that the consequences of Ellsberg’s release of the top-secret Pentagon Papers in 1971 were not limited to the impact on a presidency and a war in the 1970s. The consequences were not limited to people alive at that moment. His act was to have an impact on people decades later – Snowden was born 12 years after Ellsberg risked his future for the sake of his principles. Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective, and remembering this is reason to live by principle and act in hope that what you do matters, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious.
The most important effects are often the most indirect. I sometimes wonder when I’m at a mass march like the Women’s March a month ago whether the reason it matters is because some unknown young person is going to find her purpose in life that will only be evident to the rest of us when she changes the world in 20 years, when she becomes a great liberator.
I began talking about hope in 2003, in the bleak days after the war in Iraq was launched. Fourteen years later, I use the term hope because it navigates a way forward between the false certainties of optimism and of pessimism, and the complacency or passivity that goes with both. Optimism assumes that all will go well without our effort; pessimism assumes it’s all irredeemable; both let us stay home and do nothing. Hope for me has meant a sense that the future is unpredictable, and that we don’t actually know what will happen, but know we may be able write it ourselves.
Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written. It’s informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and what role we may play in it. Hope looks forward, but it draws its energies from the past, from knowing histories, including our victories, and their complexities and imperfections. It means not being the perfect that is the enemy of the good, not snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, not assuming you know what will happen when the future is unwritten, and part of what happens is up to us.
We are complex creatures. Hope and anguish can coexist within us and in our movements and analyses. There’s a scene in the new movie about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, in which Robert Kennedy predicts, in 1968, that in 40 years there will be a black president. It’s an astonishing prophecy since four decades later Barack Obama wins the presidential election, but Baldwin jeers at it because the way Kennedy has presented it does not acknowledge that even the most magnificent pie in the sky might comfort white people who don’t like racism but doesn’t wash away the pain and indignation of black people suffering that racism in the here and now. Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, early on described the movement’s mission as “rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams”. The vision of a better future doesn’t have to deny the crimes and sufferings of the present; it matters because of that horror.
I have been moved and thrilled and amazed by the strength, breadth, depth and generosity of the resistance to the Trump administration and its agenda. I did not anticipate anything so bold, so pervasive, something that would include state governments, many government employees from governors and mayors to workers in many federal departments, small towns in red states, new organizations like the 6,000 chapters of Indivisible reportedly formed since the election, new and fortified immigrant-rights groups, religious groups, one of the biggest demonstrations in American history with the Women’s March on 21 January, and so much more.
I’ve also been worried about whether it will endure. Newcomers often think that results are either immediate or they’re nonexistent. That if you don’t succeed straight away, you failed. Such a framework makes many give up and go back home when the momentum is building and victories are within reach. This is a dangerous mistake I’ve seen over and over. What follows is the defense of a complex calculus of change, instead of the simple arithmetic of short-term cause and effect.
There’s a bookstore I love in Manhattan, the Housing Works bookshop, which I’ve gone to for years for a bite to eat and a superb selection of used books. Last October my friend Gavin Browning, who works at Columbia University but volunteers with Housing Works, reminded me what the name means. Housing Works is a spinoff of Act Up, the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power, founded at the height of the Aids crisis, to push for access to experimental drugs, bring awareness to the direness of the epidemic, and not go gentle into that bad night of premature death.
What did Act Up do? The group of furious, fierce activists, many of them dangerously ill and dying, changed how we think about Aids. They pushed to speed up drug trials, deal with the many symptoms and complications of Aids together, pushed on policy, education, outreach, funding. They taught people with Aids and their allies in other countries how to fight the drug companies for affordable access to what they needed. And win.