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Friday, September 21, 2012

September 21, 2012: American Hope Part Five

[Inspired by my current book project and much else in contemporary American culture and society, this week’s series focuses on hope in America. Your texts, takes, and thoughts very welcome for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On the unquestionable limits of hope, and how we might respond to them.
Toward the beginning of The Two Towers (2002), the second film in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, a new character, the banished Rohirrim warrior Éomer, warns three of our returning heroes, “Do not trust to hope. It has forsaken these lands.” On the specific question he is addressing—whether Merry and Pippin, the two hobbits for whom these three characters are searching, are still alive—Éomer is proven wrong by subsequent events. That, and many other details of the film’s arc, might suggest that he is likewise wrong more generally, that the forces for good can and should still trust to hope to carry them through. But I don’t believe it’s anywhere near that simple. For one thing, the events of the film and the trilogy as a whole take a terrible toll on those forces for good—lives lost and others forever changed, cities abandoned and destroyed, and so on. And for another, whatever victories good does achieve by the film and trilogy’s end cannot necessarily be attributed to hope, but rather to a desperate refusal to surrender even when all hope seems lost.
Is that the same thing, or at least a distinction without a significant difference? Perhaps—certainly something must inspire us to continue even when we feel that there is no hope, and maybe we thus would have to call that inspiration a secret, desperate, unyielding hope nonetheless. But on the other hand, if continuing to struggle in the absence of hope is defined as simply another form of hope, then we risk reducing the idea to one of those empty signifiers that means everything and nothing. So let’s call that source of unyielding struggle something different: perseverance, resilience, stubbornness, pride. It’s not a bad thing by any means, and can even comprise something to admire and emulate—there are few situations where surrendering the fight and giving in to the worst is the right decision—but it is a desperate one, a last resort, a perspective that we must resist as much as possible (since it can very easily lead to despair, to cynicism, to a sense that both the fight itself and what we’re fighting for don’t ultimately matter, and more). Which is to say, while the absence of hope does not necessarily imply a giving in to the worst—there’s a spectrum in between those two extremes—it’s a lot closer to that than we should want to go unless we have no other choice.
Which leads me, to put my cards on the table, to right now. To a presidential election in which one campaign has relied almost entirely on lies, perhaps to appeal to a base in which a majority of registered voters believe the current president to have been born in another country. To a world in which a war between Israel and Iran—a war which would almost certainly involve numerous other nations, the U.S. among them—seems at times almost unavoidable. To a future where, by virtually every meaningful measure and analysis, many of the worst effects of global climate change have become almost a certainty. Those are just a few of the many reasons why it feels as if we American Studiers, we Americans, we humans must heed Éomer’s advice and stop trusting to hope. But there’s another option, and it’s at the core of my new book project: that we should find hope by engaging with the darkest histories and realities. Fortunately for us, we have some pretty great models for doing so, in the powerfully realistic yet ultimately hopeful novels that I’ll be reading in that book. To paraphrase the final section of Obama’s DNC speech, they give me hope.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So one more chance: what do you think? Texts, takes, thoughts on hope in America for that weekend post?
9/21 Memory Day nominee: Edouard Glissant!

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