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Rebecca Solnit Wants a Joyous, Inviting Left — Not an Angry, Puritanical One

This first installment is about the fight for progress, what our movements get right, what they get wrong, why they must learn to celebrate their own victories and grow more inclusive, how we should think and talk about America as a country

Dance of Youth, Pablo Picasso

Rebecca Solnit is one of our preeminent thinkers about change. How we make it, how we live with it, how people cope with despair at the lack of it, where people locate hope that it may once again grow possible. She is a writer and an activist and a philosopher — and, for so many change makers, a beacon of evidence-based hope.

In this moment full of panic and despair, she was who I needed to talk to. So I’m thrilled to bring you part one of an extraordinary conversation we just had.

I wish neither to spoil it nor to boil it down, and I would ask that you just trust me on this one. But this first installment is about the fight for progress, what our movements get right, what they get wrong, why they must learn to celebrate their own victories and grow more inclusive, how we should think and talk about America as a country, and so much more.

I sort of asked Rebecca to sort me out about a lot of the things I have been struggling with myself these days. She didn’t disappoint.

Part one of this conversation runs today, the second part tomorrow. And then, before long, we will be doing a thematically separate conversation with her on the subjects of technology, artificial intelligence, and more.

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I wanted to start with the election, and ask you to look at the position of the Biden campaign, thinking about all of your work on the relationship of movement to establishment power. I think Biden's very interesting because you could make a case, a very Hope in the Dark case, that he was moved drastically on climate and on economics by progressive movements. On Israel and Gaza, it’s fair to say he has been much harder for movements to move.

How would you reflect on the Biden presidency and campaign and role in history, relative to movements and this idea of pressure?

One thing I have taken to saying a lot is that amnesia leads to despair and it also leads to powerlessness. People don't trace the trajectory of change. For example, you can look at marriage equality as something the Supreme Court kindly handed down and see it as being about power reposing in an elite minority.

Or you can see marriage equality as the outcome of both the feminist demand that marriage be a freely negotiated relationship between equals, which makes same-sex marriage more imaginable, and the bravery of millions of queer people coming out of the closet telling their friends and family, “This is who I am.”

So that the Supreme Court decides this is normal and acceptable because normal and acceptable has become a radically different thing by 2015. I’m leaving aside the question of what the Supreme Court is now. 

And on the Biden campaign, I just saw, actually, the New York Times Pitchbot guy joking about Biden being forced to adopt the Sunrise Movement's platform or something like that. He usually pokes at the right; here he was trying to poke at the left, and he actually did get this one right. 

You can look at the Inflation Reduction Act as something handed down by the Senate, but there's a wonderful documentary film called To the End that traces the birth of the Sunrise Movement, their launching of the Green New Deal, its introduction in Congress by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in particular, the way the Green New Deal really shapes Biden's climate platform, which becomes Build Back Better, which becomes the Inflation Reduction Act, in its sadly whittled-down version thanks to Joe Manchin.

The short-term version of the story is the Senate gives us something. The long-term version is young people organizing, achieving something remarkable over a four-year period of time. And I think that a lot of American hopelessness, despair, cynicism, and defeatism is so tied to the inability to trace the arc of change.


Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I think it bends in a lot of different directions, but to see it bend at all, you have to see across broad swaths of time. And people aren't very good at doing that right now. They tend to forget what happened last month, last year, let alone what’s happened over 10 or 20 or 50 years.

It feels like — and you've written about this — that acknowledging victory is just something alien to the personalities of so many people who are otherwise really incredible fighters for a better future. What is it that makes so many people — people who you and I know and admire — so reluctant to acknowledge victory, the victories of their own movements?

I don't fully understand it because I am all for celebrating them, but I do feel like there's something deeply puritanical in the left and progressive movements that I also think is pretty wrongheaded. There's a weird sense that somehow being grumpy and negative is a form of solidarity with the oppressed.

And then you go and look at actually oppressed people: the Zapatistas, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, people facing climate change head-on in the small Pacific Island nations, and they're not grumpy and defeatist. And I don't think anybody in a gulag, in a famine, feels like, “Someone is sitting on their nice sofa at home in the United States feeling grumpy and that's very helpful.”

Also, there's a whole equation between being serious and radical with being tough in a very masculine mode that doesn't invite in a lot of good cheer and celebration. And there's a kind of absolutist idea that doesn't accept imperfect and interim victories, even though that's probably all we'll ever get because the total revolution, paradise on earth, is not in my view going to happen.

And it's funny, because I often see a kind of moving-the-goalposts thing where if I say something positive has happened, the response will be, “Well, but what about this? We just won this victory, but we need to also do that.” People will dilute the victory by pointing to something that isn't a victory, that should be a victory.

It's very weird to me as a habit, and something I think more and more is how people come into the left because they care about justice, they care about the environment, they care about human rights, and a lot of what happens to them is that they learn to model their behavior on the behavior of people who are already there.

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