Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The overcoming of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. The demand that they should abandon illusions about their conditions is the demand to give up conditions that require illusions.
Whether or not you share Karl Marx’s view of religion, you might still concede his general point—that seeing through the desperate fabrications of the heart is a crucial first step toward political progress. Yet while clear sight may be necessary for change to occur, it does not guarantee it. Facing what we take to be reality can also lead us to conclude that progress is not forthcoming. Indeed the more difficult it becomes to imagine a better world, the more readily we appease ourselves with illusions about meaning and redemption. When we cannot handle the truth, we do not handle it. If we are to disarm political illusions, we must believe that real political progress is feasible. But is it?
Certainly some of our hefty hopes have been recently revealed as wishful thinking, if not mass delusion. The popular uprising known as the Arab Spring was seen by many as a leap forward in the struggle against tyranny in the Middle East, but it has since been supplanted by violent conflicts, a gruesome civil war in Syria and the harrowing rise of ISIS. And in my own country, Israel, everything that has happened since the peace accords of the early Nineties—from the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in November of 1995 and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, to the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, to the Gaza campaigns in the last decade, and through the current eruption of violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel-Palestine—has been viewed by Israelis and Palestinians as a continuous, unyielding and brutal refutation of the possibility of peace, which is, for us, the only possibility of progress.
If I were to describe the effect this string of events has had on Israelis since the Nineties I would say this: first we lost our faith in the possibility of change (despair), then we lost our will to change (resignation). Politics ceased to be a realm of action and became a realm of reaction; goals were replaced by appearances; survival took the place of achievement. Struggles against systemic injustices were superseded by struggles against public misrepresentations. Indignation replaced resistance to power as the paradigm of political action.
But this shift in emphasis is not unique to the Middle East; it is, I believe, a global phenomenon. Desperation with regard to the possibility of effecting significant political change has led many around the world to adopt an expressive approach to politics. We proceed as if the true goal of political acts in general, and of protests in particular, is not to change political conditions but to adequately express our experience of these conditions. The relevant illusion in this case is not religious, but it is an illusion nonetheless—an illusion about political significance, whereby the fundamental political question—“What to do?”—is wrongly perceived as subordinate to the question of public appraisal: “How to appear?”
The politics of expression acknowledges the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that stand in the way of progress by, effectively, renouncing the desire for progress. We may not be able to change political conditions, it indicates, but we can endlessly redescribe them.
An eloquent example of a deeply informed disbelief in political progress can be found in the recent work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In a profile piece published last July in New York magazine, Coates says that since Obama’s election in 2008 he has become “radicalized,” by which he means that his view of race in America has become bleaker and his verdict more damning. At one point, Coates is depicted as having had an epiphany while walking back from a frustrating encounter with President Obama:
The warm optimism of the early civil-rights movement (the insistence that the universe has a moral arc, the sense of destiny in the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome”) echoed in Obama, but Baldwin had not shared “all of this sentiment and melodrama; he was just so cold,” said Coates. “Baldwin was saying, ‘You should be aware that failure is a distinct possibility.’ That was so freeing.” Coates called Christopher Jackson and asked him why no one wrote like Baldwin anymore, and the editor suggested that he try.
Toni Morrison described the result of Coates’s attempt, Between the World and Me, as filling the void left by Baldwin’s death. The book, written as a letter to Coates’s fifteen-year-old son, takes its form from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which contains an essay in the form of a letter to Baldwin’s fifteen-year-old nephew. Coates recounts the path he has taken toward the realization that white supremacy and the destruction of the black body are, as he calls it, “American heritage.” Systemic racism is not an aberration of the American dream, Coates tells his son, but a necessary condition for it: “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own.”
There will be no progress, Coates seems to say; moreover, the peculiarly American faith in progress carries with it an indifference toward suffering. “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice,” he tells his son:
The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. … Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. … So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
All that is left is the struggle. But if there is no hope for progress, what is the struggle for? To answer this question, Coates resorts to “the old rule” of the streets, an ideal of loyalty to one’s friends even in the face of great danger. When confronted with the likelihood of defeat, one must stand up and fight, not for victory but for the sake of holding strong: “We knew we did not lay down the direction of the street, but despite that, we could—and must—fashion the way of our walk. … The struggle, in and of itself, has meaning.” The struggle, according to Coates, is not a means to an end but a way of life.
In her New York Times review of Between the World and Me, the civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander expresses her admiration for Coates’s work, but she also confesses a certain discomfort. “Little hope is offered [by Coates] that freedom or equality will ever be a reality for black people in America,” says Alexander. “If his son held out any hope that the emerging racial justice movement on the streets of Ferguson, New York City or Baltimore or beyond might change hearts and minds, Coates seems determined to quash it.” As Alexander notes, Coates’s inspiration, James Baldwin, did not take such a bleak tone in his letter to his nephew. Of those “who are losing their grasp of reality,” Baldwin tells his nephew the following:
These men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. … It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.
Alexander shares Baldwin’s belief, suggesting that even if there is only a “slim” chance of progress, “believing in this possibility” is a practical necessity for those fighting for racial equality.
In her own book, The New Jim Crow, Alexander argues that mass incarceration constitutes a racial caste system that has replaced Jim Crow, which in turn had replaced slavery. The oppression of African Americans persists even as it takes new forms and guises. But unlike Coates, Alexander does not forgo hopes for justice and progress. Rather, she wishes to expose moral and political stagnation—that is, to expose the still-thriving caste system that is the U.S. criminal system—in order to enable progress. “We must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral,” she writes; “we must believe it is possible.” Alexander wants to rally the civil rights community against mass incarceration in order to dismantle it.
Although Coates’s plea to respect the loss of those who will not be saved is worth heeding, it need not conflict with Alexander’s plea to preserve faith in the possibility of freedom and equality. It is true that no person’s life is of merely instrumental value, but that is not to say that one’s life has noinstrumental value, or that one shouldn’t cherish this aspect of one’s life. Coates’s own pride in and commitment to a tradition of black struggle exemplifies the point. Each brick in the road to justice is a uniquely valuable world unto itself, but it is also embedded in a larger world, a heritage, a community and a history. To believe that the struggle might lead to change does not commit one to devaluing or dismissing the losses incurred along the way, nor should it make one more forgiving or less indignant toward past and present perpetrators.
But now an even stronger objection to the belief in justice looms. Both Alexander and Coates agree (as Baldwin acknowledged before them) that the prospect of progress is small. Coates’s disenchanted worldview is most persuasive when we consider the grim aftermath of past hopes. How can one claim to rid oneself of illusions while putting one’s faith in an ideal, the possibility of which is countered by the weight of American history, by the certainty of blood and oppression? Put more succinctly, it seems that a belief in progress is at least as illusory as despair is intolerable.
It is no coincidence that Coates’s skepticism about justice aligns with his atheism. “I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals,” Coates writes, “The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings.” Baldwin, on the other hand, does have old Negro spirituals. The line with which he chooses to end the letter to his nephew is taken from one of them and is meant to provoke faith in the darkest moments of despair: The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.
Baldwin was anything but naïve with respect to race relations in America; he certainly did not deceive himself about the likelihood of change. But the faith he urges upon his nephew does not turn on degrees of likelihood. Faith against the odds was his plight. As he once put it in a television interview: “I can’t be a pessimist, because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So I am forced to be an optimist.”
In “The Will to Believe,” William James says that whether an individual is justified in subscribing to religious faith depends on whether religion presents the individual with what he calls a genuine option. Genuine options, according to James, are unique, high-stakes choices between incompatible alternatives, where it is impossible to avoid choosing one way or the other. Religious faith presents such an option, for each of us has a unique opportunity to live by the truth of religion—if it is indeed true—and the choice is unavoidable. James does not argue for or against religious faith, but he does claim that we should not be criticized for making either choice: “In either case we act, taking our life in our hands.”
We encounter a similar predicament, a genuine option, with respect to political faith. The option of faith in progress is unique and the stakes are significant, for our choice dictates the shape, direction and meaning of our lives. We can thus apply James’s defense of the choice of religious faith, despite the lack of supporting “evidence” to guarantee the wisdom of our choice, to the case of political faith as well:
To preach skepticism to us as a duty until “sufficient evidence” for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being in error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what, forsooth, is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?
We can say, with James, that those who fall into despair fear the dupery of hope as much as those who have faith in progress fear the dupery of despondency. Both sides of the debate share the same, uneasy boat, for each is confronted with the same genuine option, the resolution of which cannot be fully determined by reason.
The trouble is that the alleged freedom to either believe in progress or not believe in progress seems incompatible with Baldwin’s sense that he is forced to believe as well as with Coates’s sense that he cannot believe. Even if there is a small chance of progress, says Coates, the evidence against it is overwhelming. What is so impossible about justifying such a skeptical stance? If we want to say what prevents us from considering human life “as an academic matter,” as Baldwin put it, we cannot be satisfied with an argument that faith in progress is as reasonable as its rejection. Rather, we need to explain why faith in progress is imperative.
The case of religious faith seems different from the case of political faith in at least one important respect: whether individuals believe in a religious hypothesis has no bearing on the truth of that hypothesis, whereas whether individuals believe in political progress might have a significant impact on whether political progress in fact prevails. The possibility of progress may depend, to a considerable degree, on us—those whose actions will either bring it about or thwart it. As Baldwin perceived, we are not in the academic position of merely observing human life and reporting on it; we are compelled to take part in human life and shape it. Our own optimism, combined with that of others, might therefore itself constitute reason for optimism.
Aware of this possibility, James considers predicaments in which faith in a fact itself brings it about that the fact obtains. The examples he provides—“a government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team”—are instances of social cooperation in which the end result is a consequence of the “preliminary faith” of the involved persons. A “whole train of passengers,” he writes,
will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. And where faith in a fact can help create the fact, that would be an insane logic which should say that faith running ahead of scientific evidence is the “lowest kind of immorality” into which a thinking being can fall.
The possibility of political progress might depend on widespread faith that progress will prevail. Yet even this does not settle the question. If I accept that my belief in progress makes it more likely that progress will prevail, this gives me a reason to want to believe in progress. It does not, however, answer the question that daunts me: Will progress prevail? Faith in progress, one might assume, is the capacity to sincerely, directly and wholeheartedly respond to this question: yes, it will.
But perhaps this is too strong. Faith in progress might not require wholeheartedly believing that progress will prevail, only wholeheartedly believing that whether progress will prevail depends on us—that is, depends on what we believe and do. Both despair about the future and faith in the promise of prophecy make agency redundant, because both drive a wedge between the future and one’s choices with regard to it. The kind of faith required for action that puts an end to conditions of suffering and illusion is not faith in the truth of progress but faith in the feasibility of progress. And since political progress depends on change that can only be brought about through collective effort, political faith requires more than faith in one’s own agency—it also requires solidarity: faith in one’s political peers.
The historical evidence would still seem to speak against the feasibility of such change. Do we not deceive ourselves in pursuing such unlikely goals? But the creation of something new is always unlikely, at least in the sense that it disrupts established regularities. To create something new is to throw oneself against the teachings of the past, to believe against the odds. “All progress,” said George Bernard Shaw, “depends on the unreasonable man.” We may add: the man or woman who believed in progress is made reasonable after the fact.
So although the struggle has meaning in and of itself, as Coates says, it also has a goal to which it aspires and in which there must be faith, as Baldwin and Alexander insist. Even if progress—such as the attainment of justice and equality for black people in America—is unlikely, faith in the feasibility of the unlikely is not contrary to reason. Rather it is a condition for the creation of something new. A struggle without hope is a mere gesture, necessarily falling short of action; an endorsement of a hopeless struggle is a disengaged nod. Political faith is a condition for progress.
DISILLUSIONED POLITICAL FAITH
There is, perhaps, a kernel of truth in the politics of expression. “The basic error of all materialism in politics,” says Hannah Arendt, “is to overlook the inevitability with which men disclose themselves as subjects, as distinct and unique persons, even when they wholly concentrate upon reaching an altogether worldly, material object.” In other words, we show who we are and make manifest our non-instrumental value even when we are acting in the service of concrete political goals. The problem with the politics of expression is that it makes self-expression itself the goal of politics, as opposed to the byproduct of pursuing a goal. Therefore even a concern with expression should lead us back to the feasibility of progress, for only by acting for the sake of progress do we fully express the burden of our condition. Our pursuit of progress will reveal much about who we are, how we experience the world and the nature of the suffering we yearn to end. But such expressions are made possible by a realistic belief in the feasibility of progress: a disillusioned political faith.
In the spring of 2008, a demonstration was held in the Palestinian city of Hebron on the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the first Israeli settlement. Israeli activists and Palestinian residents of Hebron marched down Shuhada Street, the main road leading to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Twenty years ago, after the murder of 29 Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs by American-Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein, Israeli authorities closed down this main street, purportedly in order to prevent retaliation. The street has remained closed to Palestinians ever since, despite the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court that it ought to be reopened.
We marched together, a majority of Israeli activists together with several Palestinian residents, all wearing black t-shirts with an inscription in white letters: “I HAVE A DREAM.” Soon enough the settlers arrived to attack us, the police joined to arrest us and our Palestinian friends had to flee to save themselves. We spent a few hours in the Hebron police department, and a few of us spent a night in jail. We expected as much. But as we walked down Shuhada Street, settlers and police looked at us with rage and amazement because the street was for once open, if ever so briefly.
Image credits: Sheila Pree Bright, 1960 Who series