U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Apparently, No One Knows What Rebellions Are Built On.

Many commentators on the Star Wars film Rogue One focused on the most clearly stated bit of political commentary in the film: rebellions, the protagonist insists in a pivotal scene, are built on hope. As they pointed out, given our now daily news feed of horrors, this feels as much like a necessary belief as a proposition to be considered. Still, some disagreed. Present among my social media feeds were those who insisted that rebellions are actually built on anger, not hope. Of course, the easy way to solve this riddle is to say that both are required: anger intense enough to make acquiescence or accommodation unacceptable, and hope vibrant enough to maintain the will to carry on when things look dire.

A less popular view holds that hope isn’t necessary at all. In Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Derrick Bell argues that the fight against anti-black racism must carry on in spite of “the permanence of racism.” Here, hope can even be a detriment to the struggle – placing any faith in legal equality, Bell argues, has outlived even the emotional service it once provided. “The worship of equality rules as having absolute power benefits whites by preserving a benevolent but fictional self-image, and such worship benefits blacks by preserving hope,” he writes. “But I think we’ve arrived at a place in history where the harms of such worship outweigh its benefits.”[1] Bell articulates a vision of struggle that does not require even the possibility of eventual triumph; human beings struggle against oppression because to live any other way is inconsistent with human dignity, and this in itself is sufficient reason to persevere.

Such an idea is a hard sell to a public practically addicted to the narrative of hope. (One wonders, when watching another ESPN special on a victim of cancer who “never gave up,” when, exactly, it is acceptable in the minds of Americans to realize and acknowledge the reality of death.) And, given our current times, I wouldn’t recommend propagating the idea that struggle against injustice can be hopeless, especially since it is the marginalized that will suffer the most from any demoralized cop-out by those among the privileged currently mobilizing against the new regime.

However, the idea that hope could be a detriment to building resistance is also an idea that has been floated in more mainstream venues. Interestingly enough, this is the master theory of the archetypal authoritarian figure in The Hunger Games, easily the most popular series of recent films to deal directly with questions of power and rebellion. In the first film, he quizzes the hapless director of the games about why, exactly, they even allow a winner to emerge. (Meanwhile the gamemaker is thinking, “I don’t know, why do I have this ridiculous facial hair?”) “Hope,” he explains. “It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous.”

Although someone (who happens to live in my house) insists this is a throwaway, armchair bit of political theorizing, I’m not so sure. Consider the damage that has been done by the Clintonite branch of the Democratic Party that hoped that our political institutions would stop Trump; or Obama’s dogged, inexplicable, and ultimately irresponsible insistence on maintaining a norm of nonpartisan, collaborative politics that simply doesn’t exist and has prevented his party from fighting the monsters in our midst. To have the sort of substantial hope required for sustained rebellion, it seems more of us first need to lose all hope in the norms and practices that have, up till now, provided some small measure of protection.

But then again, who knows? From movies to political discourse, it seems apparent that Americans are not sure what rebellions are built on. But, good news!: we might soon find out.

[1] Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 101.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks Robin. After reading this, I was struck by the idea that this seems to have a relation to success narratives, no? What do you think? In other words, the message of hope in say, Obama’s campaign, adapted certain tropes of the success narrative, in that his own story involved his unlikely rise from obscurity. Obama’s story was a spectacular combination of success narrative and bildungsroman, Pilgrims Progress, conversion narrative, the whole nine, his coming into maturity, spending time in a kind of slough of despond, etc. This certainly was supported by a book like Dreams from My Father, which was really effective in that way.

    I sometimes teach a class called “Success and Failure in American Life” and it’s primarily about failure. Yet I worry about whether that’s good for students or not, especially those who want to be hopeful. One dangerous outcome could be a collapse into a kind of fantastic, even corruscating irony for its own sake, where rather than resist, people retreat or become prematurely grayheaded, as if nothing is new under the sun so nothing should be ventured. Maybe this has certain racial/class dimensions, I’m not certain. Some of my brighter students of considerable privilege have become “bored in the USA” (to quote from the ironist Father John Misty), without any follow-through on the other side. Yet, narratives of failure need retelling over and over again it seems to me.

    I love that you’ve used music here. Listening to the Minutemen might make one want to break stuff sometimes:

    “No hope, see…that’s what gives me guts,” shouts D. Boon:


    • Peter, it’s so interesting that you brought up Father John Misty’s “Bored in the USA” in this context. The other day I played it to a friend of mine who is a person of color about that song and told him how much I like it. His response was that this song could only have been written by a super-privileged white dude. So on point!

    • Peter!, with comments like these, who needs posts?!

      Seriously I think you are spot on. As for how to both make young Americans aware of the reality (and political causes) of failure without pushing them towards cynicism, you’ve got me. Eran is right that so much of that is rooted in privilege; you might not have hope, but you’re not forced to struggle every day to survive, so boredom results. One would hope that they will come to see that “success” is always enabled by a broader public; that you can’t think of these narratives in the traditional American terms of individualism, that you have to realize we must have solidarity; that would seem to lead only in a political direction.

      But to convince them of that you have to reprogram their entire Western individualist outlook so um, good luck with that! In other words I’m not of much help here.

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