Despair Is a Lie We Tell Ourselves
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This essay appears in ' The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (Basic Books),' by 'Soul of a Citizen' author Paul Rogat Loeb.
A Chicago cab driver recently told me, "If there's a supernova 60 light years away from here, the world will be totally wiped out. We don't stand a chance." He gave me something to think about, namely the fact that life, each individual life and our collective life on the planet, is a teleological game. It is not infinite, like Bush's justice. It has an ending, and so the future you put your faith in is not, in fact, limitless.
Given the catastrophic failure here and abroad of the Kyoto global warming accords, given our newfound post 9-11 imperialist exuberance, given the sagging of the world's economy and the IMF-directed refusal to see any solutions beyond making poor people suffer even more than they always do in the hopes of reviving a market that only ever revives long enough to make the rich even richer, given the eagerness in Washington to explore new and tinier kinds of nuclear bombs, well, it's sort of optimistic to believe it's a supernova that's going to get us. It's clear that what's much more likely to get us, if we are got, is our present condition of living in a world run by miscreants while the people of the world either have no access to power or have access but have forgotten how to get it and why it is important to have it.
Since I was a little kid I've been told I have choices, the right to make a choice. Though I've never been dumb enough to believe that was literally true, I've also never been dumb enough to be literal. I have always believed I could choose to believe, or not believe, that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
I do not believe the wicked always win. I believe our despair is a lie we are telling ourselves. In many other periods of history, people, ordinary citizens, routinely set aside hours, days, time in their lives for doing the work of politics, some of which is glam and revolutionary and some of which is dull and electoral and tedious and not especially pure – and the world changed because of the work they did. That's what we're starting now. It requires setting aside the time to do it, and then doing it. Not any single one of us has to or possibly can save the world, but together in some sort of concert, in even not-especially-coordinated concert, with all of us working where we see work to be done, the world will change. And we have to do it by showing up places, our bodies in places, turn off the fucking computers, leave the Web and the Net – and show up, our bodies at meetings and demos and rallies and leafletting corners.
Because this is a moment in history that needs us to begin, each of us every day at her or his own pace, slowly and surely rediscovering how to be politically active, how to organize our disparate energies into effective group action – and I choose to believe we will do what is required. Act. Organize. Assemble. Oppose. Resist. Find a place a cause a group a friend and start, today, now now now, continue continue continue. Being politically active is for the citizens of a democracy maybe the best way of speaking to God and hearing Her answer: You exist. If we are active, if we are activist, She replies to us: You specifically exist. Mazel tov. Now get busy, She replies. Maintain the world by changing the world.
So when the supernova comes to get us we don't want to be disappointed in ourselves. We should hope to be able to say proudly to the supernova, that angel of death, "Hello supernova, we have been expecting you, we know all about you, because in our schools we teach science and not creationism, and so we have been expecting you, everywhere everyone has been expecting you, except Texas. And we would like to say, supernova, in the moment before we are returned by your protean fire to our previous inchoate state, clouds of incandescent atomic vapor, we'd like to declare that we have tried our best and worked hard to make a good and just and free and peaceful world, a world that is better for our having been here, at least we believe it is."
Tony Kushner is the author of 'Angels in America' (Theater Communications Group, 2003) and 'Homebody/Kabul' (Theater Communications Group, 2002). His newest book is 'Save Your Democratic Citizen Soul' (New Press, 2003). This essay is adapted from his talks at Chicago's Columbia College and New York's Cooper Union.