rn:Beyond Cynicism in struggle for a better world


Jan Slakov

From: "Carolyn Ballard" <•••@••.•••>
To: "Jan Slakov" <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Hope in the Face of Impossibility
Date: Tue, 18 Dec 2001 09:52:52 -0800

<snip>  Jensen expresses so well all the feelings and thoughts I've had in
the last few months since 911.  And despite frequent bouts of despair and a
sense of hopelessness, I -- like Jensen -- keep coming back to the belief
that it is far wiser to be "naive" and hopeful than to be cynical and "hip."

Note from Jan: One of my favourite bits is this: 

"The joy is in the struggle. <snip>

            I realize that this struggle doesn't seem appealing to many. I
have heard lots of people lately say that they can't cope with the
complexity of politics. It seems too much, too big, too confusing. All they
can handle, they say, is to focus on their individual lives and do the best
to fix their lives. I think these folks misunderstand not just their moral
obligation but the nature of progress, individual and collective. We don't
fix ourselves in isolation. We don't build decent lives by cutting ourselves
off from problems just because they are complex."
18, 2001      
 <snip>       Published on Monday, December 17, 2001 on Common Dreams  
            Critical Hope: Radical Citizenship in Reactionary Times  
            by Robert Jensen 
            [A talk to Independent Allies, San Antonio, TX, December 6, 2001] 
            After a recent antiwar talk in which I sharply criticized U.S.
foreign policy, a student asked me, "Don't you find it hard to live being so
cynical?" When I responded that I thought my comments were critical but not
cynical, he looked at me funny and said, "But how can being so critical not
make you cynical?" 

            The student was equating any critique of injustice produced by
institutions and systems of power with cynicism about people. His question
made me realize how easy is cynicism and how difficult is sustained critique
in this culture, which shouldn't surprise us. People with power are
perfectly happy for the population to be cynical, because that tends to
paralyze people and leads to passivity. Those same powerful people also do
their best to derail critique -- the process of working to understand the
nature of things around us and offering judgments about them -- because that
tends to energize people and leads to resistance. 

            Understanding the difference between critique and cynicism --
and the difference between hope and optimism -- is crucial to the future of
any struggle against injustice. At this moment in history, those struggles
must not only be about trying to win changes in policies but also about the
reinvigoration of public life -- a call for participation, for politics, for
radical citizenship in reactionary times. 

            I don't use radical and reactionary in this case to describe
specific political positions, left versus right. I am talking instead about
an approach not just to politics, narrowly defined, but to the central
questions of what it means to be a human being in connection with others. I
think the world we live in is reactionary because it is trying to squeeze
those important human dimensions out of us in the political sphere and
constrict the range of discussion so much that politics does seem to many to
be useless. I want to argue that our only hope is to be radical, to be
political, and to be radical in public politically. 

            To do that, I will talk about my own journey from cynicism to
hope, my own struggle both for greater understanding of my self and an
understanding of something greater than me. I am going to talk about love
and justice. I am going to risk being seen as naive or self-indulgent or
just plain silly. That's OK; I'm just a good-natured hick from North Dakota.
We're generally plodding and slow and often don't realize we're being naive,
or when people are making fun of us for it. 

            Let me start the story when I was younger, in my teens and 20s.
I saw that the world was in pretty awful shape. When I looked around at the
world, I saw a whole lot of pain. The United States had just ended its
terrorist campaign in Southeast Asia -- what we commonly call the Vietnam
War -- and was pursuing another by proxy in Central America; rich people
seemed unconcerned that their luxury was built on the backs of the suffering
of literally billions of poor people around the world; people all over the
place were still getting kicked around simply because they were women or
non-white or gay or different in some fashion; and many people seemed not to
care that the ecosystem that sustained our lives was in collapse. 

            I looked around at all this, and I got cynical. Human beings, it
seemed to me, were pretty unpleasant creatures. Human nature, I assumed, had
to be pretty rotten for all this suffering to go on and on, generation after
generation. Even with the advances in social justice -- and there have been
advances, such as the end of slavery, greater recognition of the basic
rights of women, etc. -- it is hard to be upbeat moving out of the 20th
century, one of the most brutal and bloody in human history, into the 21st
century, which promises to be just as, if not more, brutal. 

            Being cynical appeared to have some advantages. I could step
back from all the chaos and be hip. I could make jokes about how stupid
people were. I could pretend not to care. I could turn away from the
suffering of others because I, one of the hip and cynical, understood just
how pathetic a species we were. I thought I was the one who saw it all so

            I stayed cynical, and disengaged, for some time. The fact that I
was working at newspapers didn't help; for journalists, cynicism is an
occupational hazard that takes great intelligence and maturity to resist,
and I didn't possess either quality in adequate amounts. So cynical I
stayed, until I went to graduate school and was given the luxury of time to
read, think, and study. Lots of people go to graduate school and become
cynics, or their cynicism deepens; universities can do that to people. But I
got lucky and met some exceptional people -- many of them outside the
university -- who helped me see another way. 

            For me, that way began with feminism. I read a lot and listened
to women. I started to not only learn about gender and sexism, but I also
picked up a new way to understand the world, a new method of inquiry for
examining the ideas and institutions that shape our world. I learned to look
at how systems and structures of power operate. I learned to see past the
surface to the core elements of those systems and structures. When I did
that, I realized that things were far worse than I had thought -- the world
was in more trouble than I had ever imagined. I learned about new levels of
suffering and oppression. 

            That's when I stopped being cynical and began to feel full of hope. 

            That may seem counterintuitive. How did a deepening sense of the
scale and scope of injustice and suffering make me hopeful? The answer is
simple. For all those years, I was cynical for two basic reasons: I had the
wrong view of human nature, and I didn't understand how the world worked. I
thought the evil and stupidity all around me were the product of an
inherently evil and stupid human nature, and therefore I didn't see any way
to fight against injustice. It all seemed beyond our control. 

            Once I started to understand the nature of illegitimate
structures of authority, I realized that in fact people (including me) were
not inherently evil or stupid, and that human nature (including mine) was
complex and sometimes maddening, but not inherently aimed at the destruction
of the world. I came to realize that the authority structures that so bent
our lives were powerful and deeply entrenched. 

            I also realized that most of the channels that the dominant
culture offered us for working to make the world a better place were
themselves deeply embedded in those authority structures, so that often the
solutions were part of the problem. I realized that the analysis and action
that could save us had to be more radical than I ever could have imagined. I
also realized that at the moment in history in which I lived, there were
relatively few people who would agree with any of this: People had begun to
talk about a "postfeminist" age; the attacks on affirmative action and
ethnic studies were emerging; the fall of the Berlin Wall "proved" that
capitalism was the only possible economic system; and the United States was
celebrating the slaughter of the Gulf War. 

            So, at the moment I realized the depth of the problem and the
forces stacked against justice, I got hopeful. The hope comes not from some
delusional state, but from what I would argue is a sensible assessment of
the situation. Cynicism might be an appropriate reaction to injustice that
can't be changed. Hope is an appropriate response to a task that, while
difficult, is imaginable. And once I could understand the structural forces
that produced injustice, I could imagine what a world without those forces
-- and hence without the injustice -- might look like. And I could imagine
what activities and actions and ideas it would take to get us there. And I
could look around, and look back into history, and realize that lots of
people have understood this and that I hadn't stumbled onto a new idea. 

            In other words, I finally figured out that I should get to work. 

            So hope emerged out of cynicism. I began to see the power of
radical analysis and the importance of collective action. I began to take
the long view, to see that we face a struggle, but that it is not a
pointless struggle. The exact choices we should make as we struggle are not
always clear, but the framework for making choices is there. 

            Hope and optimism 

            I have hope, but that does not mean I am optimistic. 

            Just as we have to distinguish between critique and cynicism, we
have to realize that hope is not synonymous with optimism. I am hopeful, but
I am not necessarily always optimistic, at least not about the short-term
possibilities. These systems and structures of power, these illegitimate
structures of authority, are deeply entrenched. They will not be dislodged
easily or quickly. Optimism and pessimism should hang on questions of fact
-- we should be optimistic when the facts argue for optimism. 

            For example, I am against the illegitimate structure of
authority called the corporation. I want to see different forms of economic
organization emerge. I am hopeful about the possibilities but not optimistic
that in my lifetime I will see the demise of capitalism, corporations, and
wage slavery. Still, I will do certain things to work toward that. 

            The same can be said of the problem of U.S. aggression against
innocent people in the rest of the world, particularly these days in
Afghanistan, where the aggression is most intense. Given the bloody record
of the United States in the past 50 years and the seemingly limitless
capacity of U.S. officials to kill without conscience, I must confess I am
not optimistic that such aggression will stop anytime soon, in large part
because those corporate structures that drive the killing are still around.
But I will do certain things to work against it. 

            Or take the large state research university. I am concerned
about how the needs of students are systematically ignored and the needs of
corporate funders are privileged, how critical thinking is squashed not by
accident but by design. I am concerned about the illegitimate structures of
authority that I work in and that compel me to act in ways against the
interests of students. I am not optimistic that the structure of big
research universities is going to change anytime soon. But I will do certain
things to work against the structures. 

            So, why would I do any of those things if my expectations of
short-term success are so low? One reason is that I could be wrong about my
assessment of the likelihood of change. I've been wrong about a lot of
things in my life; the list grows every day. For all I know, corporate
capitalism is on the verge of collapse, and if we just keep the pressure on
it will start to unravel tomorrow. Or perhaps public discontent with
murderous U.S. foreign policy is just about ready to crystallize and
mobilize people. Or perhaps the contradictions of these behemoth
universities are becoming so apparent that the illegitimate structures of
authority are about to give way to something that deserves the label "higher

            History is too complex and contingent for any of us to make
predictions. We simply don't have the intellectual tools to understand with
much precision how and why people and societies change. History is a rough
guide, but it offers no social-change equation. Still, there's really no
reasonable alternative except to keep plugging away. Basically, there are
two choices, which are common sense but that I didn't figure out until I
heard them articulated by Noam Chomsky: We can either predict the worst --
that no change is possible -- and not act, in which case we guarantee there
will be no change. Or we can understand that change always is possible, even
in the face of great odds, and act on that assumption, which creates the
possibility of progress. (See Chomsky's interview with Michael Albert at

            Every great struggle for justice in human history began as a
lost cause. When Gabriel Prosser made plans to take Richmond, Virginia, in
1800, the first large-scale organized slave revolt, he was fighting a lost
cause, for which he was hanged. When eight Quakers got together in 1814 in
Jonesboro, Tennessee, to form the first white anti-slavery society in the
United States (the Tennessee Society for the Manumission of Slaves) they
were fighting a lost cause. A lost cause that eventually won. 

            But that can't be the only answer to the question "why should I
be politically active." We are human beings, not machines, and we all have
needs. It is hard to sustain yourself in difficult work if the only reward
is the possibility that somewhere down the line your work may have some
positive effect, though you may be long dead. That's a lot to ask of people.
We all want more than that out of life. We want joy and love. At least every
now and then, we want to have a good time, including a good time while
engaged in our work. No political movement can sustain itself indefinitely
without understanding that, not just because people need -- and have a right
-- to be happy, but because if there is no joy in it, then movements are
more likely to be dangerous. The joy -- the celebration of being human and
being alive in connection with others -- is what must fuel the drive for

            People find joy in many different ways. As many people over the
years have pointed out, one source of joy is in the struggle. I have spent a
lot of time in the past few years doing political work, and some of that
work isn't terribly fun. Collating photocopies for a meeting for a
progressive political cause isn't any more fun than collating photocopies
for a meeting at a marketing company. But it is different in some ways: It
puts you in contact with like-minded people. It sparks conversation. It
creates space in which you can think and feel your way through difficult
questions. It's a great place to laugh as you staple. It provides the
context for connections that go beyond superficial acquaintanceships. 

            The joy is in the struggle, but not just because in struggle one
connects to decent people. The joy is also in the pain of struggle. Joy is
multilayered -- one key aspect of it is discovery, and one way we discover
things about ourselves and others is through pain. Struggle confronts pain,
and confronting pain is part of joy. The pain is there, in all our lives;
there is no human life without pain. Pain can become part of joy when it is
confronted. Struggle confronts pain. Struggle produces joy. 

            The joy is in the struggle. The struggle is not just the
struggle against illegitimate structures of authority in the abstract. The
struggles are in each of us -- struggles to find the facts, to analyze
clearly, to imagine solutions, to join with others in collective action for
justice, and struggles to understand ourselves in relation to each other and
ourselves as we engage in all these activities. 

            I realize that this struggle doesn't seem appealing to many. I
have heard lots of people lately say that they can't cope with the
complexity of politics. It seems too much, too big, too confusing. All they
can handle, they say, is to focus on their individual lives and do the best
to fix their lives. I think these folks misunderstand not just their moral
obligation but the nature of progress, individual and collective. We don't
fix ourselves in isolation. We don't build decent lives by cutting ourselves
off from problems just because they are complex. Yes, there are times when
difficult situations force us to turn inward and deal with pressing problems
in our lives. I have done that, and I see no need to apologize for it. But I
am arguing against the permanent division of our lives into these artificial
categories. Our problems are never wholly individual, and hence they can't
be fixed in individual ways. Part of the solution is always to be found in
the bigger struggle, in which we all have a part. 

            I have learned that there is great joy in that bigger struggle.
And that leads us back to the abandonment of cynicism and the embrace of
hope. Cynicism is a sophomoric and self-indulgent retreat from the world and
all its problems. Hope is a mature and loving embrace of the world and all
its promise. That does not mean one should have unfounded or naive hope.
Wendell Berry reminds us that history shows that "massive human failure" is
possible, but: 

            "[H]ope is one of our duties. A part of our obligation to our
own being and to our descendants is to study our life and our condition,
searching always for the authentic underpinnings of hope. And if we look,
these underpinnings can still be found." [Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community
(New York: Pantheon, 1993), p. 11.] 

            Hope is one of our duties. But that does not mean it is always
easy. There are many times, especially since September 11, that I have had
to struggle to hold onto hope. The combination of seeing the World Trade
Center towers fall in an instance and then watching the unfolding of an
illegal and immoral war on Afghanistan has tested my own sense of hope. I
managed to hold on for a couple of months, but in the few days before I sat
down to write this I could feel my sense of hope fading. At the same time
that I have been writing and thinking about the war, I also have been
continuing my work on sexual violence and pornography. Both spark the same
feeling in my gut -- despair over how cruel people, especially men, can be.
When I have to face humans' willingness to inflict pain -- and ability to
find pleasure in inflicting pain -- whether in the realm of the global or
the intimate, some part of me wants to die; I can't bear it. Maybe some part
of me does die. 

            In the few days before I wrote this, I especially was having
trouble in the mornings; lying awake in bed in the dark; trying to reclaim
that sense of hope so that getting out of bed would make sense; trying not
to think about the war but realizing that not thinking about it would be
even worse; dying a little bit inside every morning, in the dark. 

            But those authentic underpinnings of hope remain. On the day I
wrote this, I had a meeting with a student on my campus who had read
something I had written about the war and wanted to talk. She said she
didn't have anything in particular to ask me. She just wanted to talk to
someone who didn't think she was crazy. All around her at work and school,
people -- pro, con or neutral -- were refusing to talk about the war, she
said. So we talked for a bit. We did politics, in a small way, the way
politics is most often done. We talked about how she might organize a
political group on campus. But maybe more important, we shored up each
other's sense of hope. We could talk about the pain and craziness of the war
without turning away. 

            Real hope -- the belief in the authentic underpinnings of hope
-- is radical. A belief that people are not evil and stupid, not consigned
merely to live out pre-determined roles in illegitimate structures of
authority, is radical. The willingness to act publicly on that hope and that
belief is radical. 

            We all live in a society that would prefer that we not be
radical, that we not understand any of this. We live in a society that
prefers productive but passive people. I work at a university that is part
of that society, and has many of the same problems. Many classes at the
university are either explicitly or implicitly designed to convince students
that everything I have argued here is fundamentally loony. The same goes for
much of what comes to us through the commercial mass media. Some of what I
say indeed may be misguided; as I said, I understand that I could be, and
often am, wrong. 

            But, even if I'm wrong in some ways, I'd rather be wrong with
hope than cynicism. I'd rather be naive than hip. I'd rather work for a just
and sustainable world and fail than abandon the hope. I understand that this
position is not wholly logical; it is based on a sense of how we can best
make good on the gifts that come with being part of the human community. It
is based on a faith in something common to us all, a capacity that is
difficult to name, but which is perhaps best summed up by a phrase once used
by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Our task simply put, Freire said, is
"to change some conditions that appear to me as obviously against the beauty
of being human." [Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), p. 131.] 

            In the end, that is the central hope: We can join together to
help build not a utopia but a world in which we can struggle -- individually
and collectively, through the pain and with joy -- to get as close as we can
to the beauty of being human. 

            Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of
Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book
Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream. He
can be reached at •••@••.•••. Other writings are available
online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/home.htm. 

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