Hope at Midnight

Most of the acute despair felt in the wake of the U.S. election has faded into general depression or a sense that all the effort, or even any effort, is futile, but I still wonder about the intensity of that gloom. And I'm still an advocate for hope.

One of the starkest contrasts of the campaign was that Bush was selling hope – even if false hope, something pretty indistinguishable from lies. After all, his good news mostly consisted of the assertion that the economy was doing just great, the war was being won, and America was safer. Or maybe hope – which is the belief that another world is possible, not that it isn't necessary – is a misnomer for the message that everything is fine, just go back to sleep. Kerry had the sorry job of saying that actually the war was a disaster, that we'd made millions of new enemies, that we were a whole lot less safe, and that the economy was tanking, and he never figured out any creative way to frame the bad news and the demands that such news makes. As a product, Bush was more tightly packaged, prodding the American people along with the carrot of false hopes and the stick of false fears. Or perhaps displaced fears is a better term – for the feelings are real but the phenomena onto which they are projected aren't.

I went to Reno just before the election to do get-out-the-vote stuff, and that last week I had the same sense of lightheartedness as did almost everyone else I know, as though we were coming up for parole on what had seemed a life sentence, as though there might be a cure for our loathsome, painful disease. The end of the era of Bush suddenly seemed likely – because of polls, because of countless unlikely volunteers like me giving the Kerry campaign momentum, because we felt lucky for a change. I didn't know how heavily Bush's presidency weighed on me until I tried on the idea of a world without him.

I mean, Kerry was not the captain of my dreams, but he was going to be pretty good for a few environmental things I care about, and having a "reality-based" person with an interest in international laws and treaties at the helm would have been nice. It was deeply dismaying that some fifty-something million people, give or take all those contested votes, thought Bush was okay – though he didn't win the majority of voters, since 40% (a larger majority than either candidate got) stayed home, and those who voted for him are a tiny unpopular minority in the larger world. And as Noam Chomsky points out, the election was largely a triumph of marketing, a manufactured drama that had little to do with the real desires and values of the electorate. "A large majority of the public believe," he wrote, citing polling statistics, "that the US should accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court, sign the Kyoto protocols, allow the UN to take the lead in international crises, and rely on diplomatic and economic measures more than military ones in the 'war on terror.'"

Late in the election season, I vowed to keep away from what I thought of as "the Conversation," that tailspin of mutual wailing about how bad everything is, a recitation of the usual evidence against us that just dug any hope and imagination down into a dank little foxhole of curled-up despair. (One exciting opportunity the left often offers is that of being your own prosecutor, making the case against your own hopes and desires.) Now I listen to people having that conversation, wondering what it is we get from it – the certainty of despair? Is even that kind of certainty, a despair as false as Bush's hope, so worth pursuing? Let me try to make instead the case for realism and for not giving up.

Locating the Future

What strikes you when you come out of a deep depression or get close to a depressive is the utter selfishness of misery, its shallow, stuck, inward gaze. Which is why the political imagination is better fueled by looking deeper and farther. The larger world: it was as though it disappeared during that season, as though there were only two places left on the planet – Iraq, like hell on Earth, and the United States rotting out from the center. The U.S. is certainly the central focus of the world's military might, and its war in the heart of the Middle East for control of the global oil supply matters a lot. The suffering of Iraqis matters and so do the deaths of more than a hundred thousand of them, along with the more than 1,200 American kids. This is where the future is being bashed in.

But there are places we hardly notice where it looks like the future is being invented – notably South America. When I think about this fall's elections, I think of them as a trio. You already know all about the one in the U.S. In Uruguay, after not four years of creepy governments but a hundred and seventy years – ever since Andrew Jackson was president here – the people got a good leftist government. As Eduardo Galeano joyfully wrote:

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