Beyond Hope, A 'Gratifying Life'

Abe Osheroff on the Struggle for a Better World

After a recent talk about the struggle for social justice and the
threats to the ecosystem, a student lingered, waiting to talk to me alone, as
if he had something to confess.

"I feel so overwhelmed," he finally said, wondering aloud
if political organizing could really make a difference. The young man said he
often felt depressed, not about the circumstances of his own life but about the
possibilities for change. Finally, he looked at me and asked, "Once you
see what's happening -- I mean really see it -- how are you supposed to
act like everything is going to be OK?"

I hear such concerns often, from young and older people alike. Perhaps
the questions are rationalizations for political inaction for some people,
attempts to persuade themselves that there's no reason to join
left/progressive movements. But most of the people I meet who struggle with
this question are activists, engaged in all kinds of worthy projects. They
aren't looking for a reason to drop out but are trying to face honestly
the state of the world. They want to stay engaged but recognize the depth of
multiple crises -- economic, political, cultural, and ecological.

Some organizers respond to such concerns with upbeat assurances that if we just
get more people on board and work a little bit harder, the problems will be
solved -- if not tomorrow, certainly within some reasonable period of time. I
used to say things like that, but now I think it's more honest, and
potentially effective, to acknowledge how massive the obstacles that need to be
overcome really are. We must not only recognize that the world's
resources distributed in a profoundly unjust way and the systems in which we
live are fundamentally unsustainable ecologically, but also understand
there's no guarantee that this state of affairs can be reversed or even
substantially slowed down. There are, in fact, lots of reasons to suspect that
many of our fundamental problems have no solutions, at least no solutions in
any framework we currently understand.

Some have challenged me: Why give in to such despair? My response: If
honest emotional responses based on rational assessments lead committed
activists to feel despair, why try to bury that? It's better to grapple
with those emotions and assessments than to respond with empty platitudes.

The damage to the ecosystem may mean that a large-scale human presence
on the planet cannot continue much longer. The obsession with self-interest
cultivated by capitalism may be so deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary
identity that real solidarity in affluent societies is no longer possible. The
deskilling and dependency that comes with a high-energy/high-technology society
has eroded crucial traditional skills. Mass-media corporations have eroticized
violence and commodified intimacy at an unprecedented level, globally.

None of this is crazy apocalypticism, but rather a sober assessment of
the reality around us. Rather than deny the despair that flows from that
assessment, we need to find a way to deal with it.

When I got home from that speaking engagement, I re-read an interview I
conducted with lifelong radical activist Abe Osheroff,
who was the subject of a documentary film I produced.
His reflections on these subjects, excerpted below, have helped me struggle
with my own despair. In my conversations with Osheroff, he never looked away
from these difficult subjects, and he also never abandoned his commitment to
politics, right up to this death at the age of 92.

Robert Jensen:
I've heard you use the term "long-distance runner" before. Is
that the key -- the notion that we have to be in it for the long haul and not
expect things to change dramatically all at once?

Not the long haul -- the endless haul.

RJ: What's
the difference between long and endless?

AO: Oh yeah,
there's a difference. We will never win the fight. We will influence the
players. We may be able to make life better in many ways. We will blunt the
shit that the government and the corporations throw at us. But we'll
always be coping with things. My view is that there's no destination for
the train I'm on. No destination, just a direction. No final station on
that train. There's no final destination, no socialist society where we
will all be able to sit back and have a wonderful life. Bullshit!

RJ: No utopias.

AO: Nowhere near
utopia. In fact, we'll never get completely out of hell. But we can make
some progress. In my lifetime, with all of its limitations, the movement has
achieved some incredible things. Forty-some years ago it was still possible to
hang a black person in Holmes County,
Mississippi, and not get
arrested. Right where I worked, the year previous, they hung a black person in
public, with half of the fucking county eating box lunches and watching it.
We've come a long way, in many ways. Women? Whatever the limitations they
face, women have made a lot of progress in this country. Gay people? They have
had their defeats, their ups and downs, but with successes, too. On all these
things, at times the train breaks down, somebody fucks up the tracks, but
it'll get back on the track and go on. There's no way in the world
you can stop it.

In this country, one of the biggest problems we have as leftists is
that there are so many strong reasons for not
being an activist, in the sense that it's possible for people -- even if
they're mediocre, but if they're aggressive enough -- to make a
good life in this country. It's the easiest country in the world to
become a millionaire. On the plus side, it's also the easiest country to
be a radical. The potential penalties are very small. I have put in less than
six months jail time in a whole lifetime of radical activism in this country. I
would have been dead 30 times over in 20 countries I can think of.

RJ: So, we have
this affluent country in which it's easy to avoid political engagement
and obligation and most people are afraid of any risk. It's also a
country in which people -- whatever their politics -- are used to instant
gratification. Then you come along and talk about a direction, not a
destination, and the endless haul. Do you find it hard to ask people to be

AO: I talk to
people about getting rid of hope and faith. And the strange effect of it is
that it makes them more hopeful. I don't deprive them of that if
that's what they need at that stage of their development. But personally,
I'm not hopeful because I think hope is a kind of religion, and religions
don't work. If you're hopeful you're going to suffer
disappointments, whether it's politics or your personal life. You can
care about things, you can want things to happen, you can work to make things
happen without being hopeful. The way I guarantee not being too disappointed is
to not put too much hope onto things.

Take this conversation between you and me, for example. Sure, I hope
that we'll get something out of it. I want something to come out of it
because I don't have a lot of energy these days and I'm careful
about how I spend it. But if this interaction were a total waste, I
wouldn't be upset very much. All that said, sometimes I wish I could be
more hopeful. Sometimes I miss that.

RJ: Why is that?

AO: Because
hope is comfortable. Because sometimes the way I think makes me very lonely, a
kind of intellectual loneliness.

RJ: I use these
terms differently. I make a distinction, as have others over the years, between
optimism and hope. I'm not optimistic. If you ask me whether I think that
economy is going to be fundamentally fairer in a year, I would say no.
I'm not optimistic about that, because it's a question of rational
assessment, and things seem to be going the other way in the short
term. But I think there's a way to use the term
"hope" that taps into our belief that -- in that endless haul you
talk about -- humans have the capacity to be decent. I suppose it's about
having reasonable expectations, which is what you are talking about. I'm
just using different words, perhaps.

AO: Yea, it may be
a difference in how we use the same terms. Sometimes people I deal with
describe me as cynical. I tell them, "Where do you come up with that
shit? Cynicism normally leads to inactivity. I'm 14 times more active
than you are. You don't do shit, and you're labeling me
cynical? If anybody's fucking cynical, it's you." Those
people have yielded to society's bullshit, and I think I've refused
to yield. I'm not optimistic, and I'm not pessimistic. I'm
none of those things. I'm me -- learning, exploring, and, fortunately,
along the way I discovered a way of living that is very gratifying. Let's
start with that. I live a gratifying life. I ask people if they want to live
one. If they do, I'll tell them some ideas on how it can be done.


The documentary "Abe Osheroff: One foot in the grave, the other
still dancing," has just been released by the Media Education Foundation
at a special price of $19.95. To order, go to

The transcript of the complete interview with Osheroff is online at

For more information on Osheroff, visit

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