On Hopelessness

I find myself contemplating a very disturbing possibility: I may not live long enough to see a happy ending.

The scourge of nationalism and rampant income inequality took a terrible toll on this planet less than a century ago. Millions of people died, hopeless. They never saw the end of the war, the concentration camps, the murder. Their lives ended amidst an overwhelming moral darkness.

A similar moral darkness is upon us today.

Of course, here in America, we are conditioned by our movies, our literature, our t.v. shows to expect a modestly happy ending even in our tragedies. In “Breaking Bad,” for example, Walt dies at the end, but he heroically rescues Jesse Pinkman. Jesse’s emotionally wrenching moment of escape gives us a much needed catharsis after a very long, dark journey.

Perhaps it is testament to the power of white privilege that I assumed I would not die during terrifying times – or at least never considered that I would.

At the end of “The Dark Knight Rises,” we see an overwrought Alfred weeping over the grave of Bruce Wayne, only to discover a few scenes later that Bruce has survived and taken Alfred’s advice to disappear from Gotham forever. Once again, we are rewarded, not punished for our faith in a happy ending.

Here in America – we are expected to believe – no ending is ever really unhappy.

Yet recently it occurred to me that my death and those of millions of other Americans may very well come before this dark era comes to a close.

Perhaps it is childish to come to this realization in my late fifties. Perhaps it is testament to the power of white privilege that I assumed I would not die during terrifying times – or at least never considered that I would.

I trace the thought back to watching Ava DuVernay’s vital film “Selma.” There is a scene in the film in which Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother and grandfather are running from Alabama State Troopers who are attacking a peaceful march. When they duck into a diner and try to blend in, the state troopers rush in and shoot him to death without hesitation. As an actual tragedy, it was profoundly upsetting to watch. As a metaphor for lost hope, it persists like a poorly healed wound.

“Selma” is a film filled with wounds both physical and emotional. It has its cathartic moment, yes, the march from Selma to Montgomery; but like so many films about African-Americans and civil rights abuses, it is at best cautiously optimistic. Hope for a better world, a better country, King and his fellow civil rights activists knew, must be tempered by the reality of power.

In an interview with Mehdi Hasan of The Intercept recently, documentary director Michael Moore responded to a question about “hope” by saying, “No, not hope! I’m against hope. I’m against hope. Hope is dead! Stop hoping! Do what Greta (Thunberg), the 16-year-old from Sweden… You know what she says? She says, ‘I’m sick of all you adults telling me to hope. I want action. No more sitting around hoping. We all have to act. We have to act now.’”

Thunberg is right. Hope is a fragile defense at best. Against this darkness that currently consumes our nation, it offers almost no protection at all.

Consider:

The crisis of gun violence in the United States has persisted now for decades, and thousands are slaughtered senselessly, brutally every year. In fact, more children die from gun shot wounds than die from cancer each year. Yet, to this day, our politicians in Washington offer no solutions other than “thoughts and prayers” after each horrific event.

Noah Pozner’s hope was not rewarded. The 6-year-old and 19 other children were  murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School by Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old armed with an AR-15 rifle and two semi-automatic pistols.

Atatiana Jefferson’s hope was not rewarded. The 28-year-old African-American woman was shot to death by a police officer while playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew in her own bedroom.

Muhlaysia Booker’s hope was not rewarded. The 23-year-old transgender woman was found shot to death in Dallas, Texas, just a month after she had been filmed being viciously beaten by Edward Thomas and other men.

Hope, like love, requires more than itself to truly lift us out of misery, violence and injustice.

In 2008, Barack Obama had a chance to do something in response to the epidemic of mass shootings. He had a super majority in Congress. Only one year earlier, a 23-year-old student at Virginia Tech University killed thirty-three students and teachers, and wounded seventeen others. Armed with a 9-millimeter handgun and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, Seung Hui Cho chained doors shut to a classroom building and went room to room shooting students and teachers. The attack lasted 10 minutes.

Yet, Obama and the Democratic Congress did nothing to address the epidemic of gun violence. By the time of the Sandy Hook massacre, in 2016, Obama was so politically weak that all he could do was hold a televised “town hall” on gun violence.

Thoughts and prayers continue to go unanswered. According to data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive (GVA), which tracks every mass shooting in the country, there have been 385 mass shootings in 2019 alone, and the year isn’t over yet.

Our hope is not rewarded. We die, far more than we should, in the grip of terror and misery.

But it isn’t just guns that kill us.

In Flint, Michigan, 12 people have died from “exposure to waterborne legionella bacteria during the 18 months that the city of Flint drew its water from the Flint River in 2014 and 2015. “ Subsequent investigation suggests that as many as 115 have actually died from the tainted water. Politicians continue to ignore the crisis.

In northern California, 42 people died and over 5,500 homes were destroyed during last year’s wildfires. Our current president suggested that forest management personnel should rake all the leaves up to prevent the fires.

We Americans export hopelessness as well, and we are close allies with some of the most vicious governments on the planet

In October of 2018, Jamaal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based journalist working for The Washington Post, walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and was subsequently murdered by Saudi political operatives. His body was then dismembered and disposed of, never to be found. For once, politicians on both sides of the aisle were outraged. Yet, our current president vetoed three bipartisan Congressional resolutions to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabian military forces armed with U.S.-supplied weapons have killed over 100,000 people since 2014. Saudi forces have killed over 12,000 civilians and the conflict has no end in sight. Saudi Arabia continues to buy more U.S.-manufactured weapons than any other country on the planet.

The United States military is currently engaged in conflicts in “Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Niger — all under the banner of the same war authority granted in the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force to fight al-Qaeda-linked militants.” Most Americans are utterly unaware of this.

In the almost twenty years U.S. military forces have been at war in Afghanistan, over 147,000 people have died, including 38,000 civilians. Again, there is no end in sight for the conflict.

On Thursday of this week, Senate Democrats voted overwhelmingly to approve a $750 billion budget for the Pentagon, despite protest that Trump – their sworn political enemy, so they say – may misappropriate funds to further expand the detention centers at our southern border. In fact, Democrats have voted for military budget increases each year Trump has been in office. The US military budget has gone from $619 billion in 2016 to $700 billion in 2018 to $716 billion in 2019.  Only four Democrats voted against the latest measure, along with Independent Senator Bernie Sanders.

Paying for war is apparently essential, no matter how high the cost. Paying for the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens, however, not so much. In that spirit, the Trump administration is also proposing a change to the rules of eligibility for SNAP, the program that provides food stamps to needy families. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than three million people in 39 states would lose benefits as a result of the new rules.

Oh, and by the way, nearly 45,000 Americans die each year in large part because they can’t afford healthcare. Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi – the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, and who is worth over $100 million dollars – recently said during an interview that she was “not a big fan” of Medicare for All. This, sadly, is the person who is supposed to be fighting for us against big businesses, billionaires and corrupt politicians.

It is undeniable that we live in a country of devastatingly cruel endings, not of happy ones. They lurk around the corner, peer in through our windows, seep into our homes, and reach across the globe. Our elected representatives deliver them on an almost daily basis.

And the odds are good that we won’t see the end of these injustices, these horrors, ourselves. We probably know this, all of us, on some level. Yet the world is half-full of people still protesting, still trying to create a better planet, a better humanity. The fight against oppression and injustice, however hobbled, goes on.

Martin Luther King, Jr., noted that “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” I believe that today we are extraordinarily hopeless because we are extraordinarily powerless. Hope, like love, requires more than itself to truly lift us out of misery, violence and injustice. For many of us, the moral darkness will never recede. As Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, “…those that will not break, (the world) kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too…”

May we all rest in peace.

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