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