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Radical Hope (by Anne M. Martínez)

Date:20 January 2017
Harvard rally to support undocumented students
Harvard rally to support undocumented students

On the eve of the 2016 U.S. presidential election I was in Denmark, preparing to give a lecture on my research the following day. I was nearly a week into the flu, and as the evening passed, I started to lose my voice. Little did I know, this literal loss of voice would dovetail with a figurative loss of voice in the morning, upon learning the news of the U.S. presidential election. Intellectually, I knew that Hillary Clinton was not going to save America from neoliberalism’s social and economic ills, and that the emboldened racist dog whistles of the Age of Obama would expand to misogynist dog whistles were Clinton elected. But she was an important symbol of what could/should/might/won’t be possible in America, at least for another four years. Knowing that the early 21st century stealth racist rhetoric had just transformed into an overtly white supremacist declaration, I retreated for a few days, to try to get well, to try to protect myself, to try to heal from the trauma of having a raging bigot as president of my home country. Here, more than two months later, I am still trying to find my voice again. As an American, as a woman in this particular election, as a Mexican American woman, this election has not just long-term ramifications, but quite immediate ones for many people I hold near and dear.

I voted for Clinton. I knew she would continue the neo-liberal policies that have decimated the American working class, and likely maintain the status quo, at best, where immigration policy is concerned. And I feared that the spike in more open racism by congressional republicans, and eventually Americans more broadly, that we experienced in the Obama years would be echoed in a spike in sexism directed toward or swirling around a woman president. Instead, of course, we have open season on pretty much anyone who isn’t straight, white, and male – note the straight, white, male – oh, and unspeakably rich – cabinet assembling before us.

As noted in many posts, columns, op-eds, the majority of Americans voters, who did not choose the president-elect, are suffering right now. "We live in a country that ignored all of those values that we would hold our kids accountable for," in the words of Greg Popovich. For many communities of color, this was more a disappointment than a shock. As At Lands Edge, a Los Angeles cultural organizing and activist collective wrote in their post-election statement,

"Indeed, the way the presidential campaign was run and the way the election was won has a long historical precedence in our country. Yet, we are not merely the inheritors of such legacies of oppression. We are the descendants of its adversaries. For generations, activists and revolutionaries have fought against the talons of white supremacy. Today, that fight continues."

But the dread that so many are living with now – immigrants, people of color, queer people, women, the precariat – that America isn’t who we imagined it could be; that a segment of American society is responding in no uncertain terms to the progress toward equality that was imagined, if not achieved, in the Obama years.

After some initial trauma and recovery, it is more pressing than ever that every American use their voice to guard the rights, the procedures, the press, and the very language of democracy.

Junot Diaz’s post-election reflection drew my attention to Jonathan Lear’s book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Lear uses the life of Plenty Coups (1848-1932), a Crow Indian chief who survived, and in fact thrived in the Crow transition from independence, to an alliance with the United States against the Sioux, and eventual confinement to the reservation. Lear embraces Crow cultural traditions, and through Plenty Coups’s words proposes a means to process the inconceivable vulnerability of a person and a people in a time of traumatic change. Radical hope, Lear writes,

"recognizes that one is at some kind of practical horizon without trying to peek over it.… It is committed to the bare idea that something good will emerge…. There is no implication that one can glimpse what lies beyond the horizons of one’s historically situated understanding. Indeed, this form of commitment is impressive in part because it acknowledges that no such grasp is possible....Because Plenty Coups sees that a traditional way of life is coming to an end, he is in a position to embrace a peculiar form of hopefulness. It is basically the hope for revival: for coming back to life in a form that is not yet intelligible" (94-5).

Despite our disappointment, our devastation, our depression in facing today’s transition, we must consider the ways that, as noted above, we not only inherited the historical legacy that produced this election result; we also inherited the means to resist it. We must love this country, even though it doesn’t love us back. We must continue to go high, even when they go low. We must invest in a future that though inconceivably far away, and increasingly out of reach, must be possible. And glimpses of those investments are visible everywhere. Sanctuary campuses and cities, Japanese American internees responses to calls for monitoring or detaining Muslims in America, safety pins, the women’s march, the array of corporations and organizations that are supporting the women’s march and other inauguration day demonstrations must remind us, every day, that we are the majority. The system worked for the people it was designed by and for, but that does not mean it always will.

As noted at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, "the holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words." Our work, as American studies scholars, is to continue to guard the language of democracy, equality, and radical hope.