FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

To Be Hopeful in Bad Times

Photograph Source: Suds12 – CC BY-SA 4.0

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.  What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.  And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

– Howard Zinn

Recently, I’ve been reading a few blog posts from those related in some form or another to the “environmental community” that appear to make a tiresome appeal for nihilism as a response to our dire collective condition. Some of them couch their apathy in the coded language of empathy, but it is really a thinly veiled sadism. In other words; “I feel your pain but I’m not going to do a damn thing about it. Even if I could it wouldn’t matter, and there is nothing you can do about it either.” There is also a sad kind of apologism for the world’s injustices laced in much of this nihilism, albeit in false, New Agey interpretations of Zen Buddhist principles.

One blog post I read recently said:

“Whatever appears ‘wrong’ in this world, it is not the fault of evil or deranged people, or despots, or stupidity, or ‘the system’. Everyone is doing their best, the only thing they can apparently do given their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, and no one has agency or control over what they apparently do. Because there is no one to do anything, no agency, no wrong or right, no ‘system’, no free will, no time in which anything can be done. Just appearances, for no reason. Just wondrous expressions of everything.”

In this line of “logic” the Holocaust, apartheid, war and war crimes, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, Native American and indigenous genocide, mass graves, colonialism, imperialism, discrimination, economic oppression, willful destruction of ecological systems by corporations, animal cruelty, racism, misogyny, and other kinds of brutality are all just “wondrous expressions of everything.” And the leaders and benefactors of such atrocities were merely “doing their best.” In a time of resurgent and aggressive global fascism, this statement is beyond appalling. It is downright dangerous. Unsurprisingly, I have found that the vast majority of the people who espouse such viewpoints are generally white, male, hetero, with some economic stability, who comfortably reside in the West or global north.

The same blog lamented: “I am inspired by activists but acknowledge that all their courageous and dangerous work will ultimately be futile and fruitless.” So much for recognition of the valiant efforts of the resistance to the Nazis, or the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, or Nat Turner’s rebellion against slavers. So much for any recognition of the mass movements for women’s suffrage or LGBT rights, or that ended the Vietnam War, or Jim Crow, or segregation, or child labour. So much for solidarity with those fighting for their lives and the lives of their children and the living earth today.

Today’s brand of nihilism is married to the rise of global fascism. They feed off each other in an insidious way that neutralizes opposition and dissent. When a people are denuded of their inherent value through constant demoralizing language, dispossession from the commons, and alienation from one another they become atomized, and thus fodder for the powerful to use in whatever way they see fit. Donald Trump is emblematic of this use of language. His scapegoating of vulnerable populations, ridicule, threats, and seemingly endless mendacity have the power to reinforce a quality of nihilistic passivity. Other leaders around the world are employing similar tactics to chilling effect.

Humanity is facing enormous existential threats, from the convergence of climate change catastrophe, nuclear proliferation, militarism, the degeneration of democratic norms, entrenched economic inequity, and biospheric collapse. And we as a species are not impervious to extinction. We are, after all, simply another species on this planet; one which is responsible for its current collapsing state. But this should not indicate that we are any less important than any other species either, nor should it allow for apologism for barbarity. Nihilism reduces evil to some fictitious philosophical puzzle. It is not. Therefore we should call this kind of rebranded apathy what it is: a cop out born of privilege, apathy and complacency. And its resurgence in an age of ascendant fascism is no accident either. It explains why activists and whistleblowers are being ridiculed, harassed, persecuted, and murdered around the world in record numbers by powerful forces who feel emboldened and unrestrained.

It bears reminding that most people of conscience do not enter into activism because it’s fun or glamorous. They don’t do it because they are saintly or because they will win either. They do it because they are forced to. Because of the endless litany of injustices meted out to them or those they love. Because they are conscious of what matters. And because they have literal skin in the game. They do it when their homes are being demolished by an occupying army, or when a corporation is building a dam that threatens their way of life, or when police are gunning down their sons and daughters, or when they see animals being mercilessly slaughtered for greed or status, or  when a military is torturing or drone bombing their weddings or funerals, or when an oil company is drilling in their fishing waters, or when a forest or mountaintop they love is being denuded or removed, or when they are refused or charged for healthcare or decent housing or education, or when they are treated as less than human because of their gender, or skin colour, or religion, or physical ability, or sexuality, or when they are treated like slaves for the profit of a few.

We all feel nihilistic and misanthropic at times. Every day, in fact. I know I do. It is part of the human condition to feel that way. Sometimes it can be so overwhelming one does not know how to handle it. So we should express that frustration and despair, facing our grief honestly as a daily practice, crushing and demoralizing as it is. And we should take care of ourselves in that regard. But I remind myself that most of the world does not have the luxury to sit and pontificate on how “futile and fruitless” taking action is when their lives and the lives of those they love and the living biosphere are being threatened with immediate annihilation via organized systems of exploitation.

Those who suggest we make peace with some notion that everything, including our existence, is meaningless do not take into account that as human beings we are the ones responsible for adding meaning to it. Of course that meaning is relatively subjective in isolation. But collectively it has the agency to affect real change. Meaning is born of suffering and it can lead individuals and groups of people toward solidarity, resilience, and true transformation. It can alleviate unnecessary pain, provide a balm to the wounded, salvage sanctuaries where life can flourish, and stop imminent destruction, atrocity or even war.

Taking action is not “futile and fruitless” as those unaffected directly by injustice or oppression would suggest. And although it will not end injustice, brutality or suffering for all time, we should remember that it isn’t meant to. As Howard Zinn made clear, we possess an agency that transcends the brutality of our times. Indeed, “winning” is not essential to it, neither is achieving some fantastical notion of utopia. Our defiance to barbarism is the victory, and this is where nihilism fails on all counts.

More articles by:

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
September 20, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Unipolar Governance of the Multipolar World
Rob Urie
Strike for the Environment, Strike for Social Justice, Strike!
Miguel Gutierrez
El Desmadre: The Colonial Roots of Anti-Mexican Violence
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Pompeo and Circumstance
Andrew Levine
Why Democrats Really Should Not All Get Along But Sometimes Must Anyway
Louis Proyect
A Rebellion for the Wild West
T.J. Coles
A Taste of Their Own Medicine: the Politicians Who Robbed Iranians and Libyans Fear the Same for Brexit Britain
H. Bruce Franklin
How We Launched Our Forever War in the Middle East
Lee Hall
Mayor Obedience Training, From the Pet Products Industry
Louis Yako
Working in America: Paychecks for Silence
Michael D. Yates
Radical Education
Jonathan Cook
Israelis Have Shown Netanyahu the Door. Can He Inflict More Damage Before He Exits?
Valerie Reynoso
The Rising Monopoly of Monsanto-Bayer
John Steppling
American Psychopathy
Ralph Nader
25 Ways the Canadian Health Care System is Better than Obamacare for the 2020 Elections
Ramzy Baroud
Apartheid Made Official: Deal of the Century is a Ploy and Annexation is the New Reality
Vincent Emanuele
Small Town Values
John Feffer
The Threat of Bolton Has Retreated, But Not the Threat of War
David Rosen
Evangelicals, Abstinence, Abortion and the Mainstreaming of Sex
Judy Rohrer
“Make ‘America’ White Again”: White Resentment Under the Obama & Trump Presidencies
John W. Whitehead
The Police State’s Language of Force
Kathleen Wallace
Noblesse the Sleaze
Farzana Versey
Why Should Kashmiris be Indian?
Nyla Ali Khan
Why Are Modi and His Cohort Paranoid About Diversity?
Shawn Fremstad
The Official U.S. Poverty Rate is Based on a Hopelessly Out-of-Date Metric
Mel Gurtov
No War for Saudi Oil!
Robert Koehler
‘I’m Afraid You Have Humans’
David Swanson
Every Peace Group and Activist Should Join Strike DC for the Earth’s Climate
Scott Owen
In Defense of Non-violent Actions in Revolutionary Times
Jesse Jackson
Can America Break Its Gun Addiction?
Priti Gulati Cox
Sidewalk Museum of Congress: Who Says Kansas is Flat?
Mohamad Shaaf
The Current Political Crisis: Its Roots in Concentrated Capital with the Resulting Concentrated Political Power
Max Moran
Revolving Door Project Probes Thiel’s White House Connection
Arshad Khan
Unhappy India
Nick Pemberton
Norman Fucking Rockwell! and 24 Other Favorite Albums
Nicky Reid
The Bigotry of ‘Hate Speech’ and Facebook Fascism
Paul Armentano
To Make Vaping Safer, Legalize Cannabis
Jill Richardson
Punching Through Bad Headlines
Jessicah Pierre
What the Felicity Huffman Scandal Says About America
John Kendall Hawkins
Draining the Swamp, From the Beginning of Time
Julian Rose
Four Funerals and a Wedding: A Brief History of the War on Humanity
Victor Grossman
Film, Music and Elections in Germany
Charles R. Larson
Review: Ahmet Altan’s “I Will Never See the World Again”
David Yearsley
Jazz is Activism
Elliot Sperber
Captains of Industry 
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail