Zadie Smith’s “On Optimism and Despair”

Last week I wrote about George Will’s nostalgia for an education focused purely on founding fathers and supposedly enduring civil rights.  In the meantime, Zadie Smith’s acceptance speech for the 2016 Welt Literature Prize lends great nuance to these questions of tradition, politics, and civil rights.

Smith writes: “Meanwhile the dream of time travel—for new presidents, literary journalists, and writers alike—is just that: a dream. And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too. If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. For a black woman the expanse of livable history is so much shorter. What would I have been and what would I have done—or more to the point, what would have been done to me—in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960? I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West African ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.

But neither do I believe in time travel. I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history. We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride. I took pride in my neighborhood, in my childhood, back in 1999. It was not perfect but it was filled with possibility. If the clouds have rolled in over my fiction it is not because what was perfect has been proved empty but because what was becoming possible—and is still experienced as possible by millions—is now denied as if it never did and never could exist.”

Smith’s speech examines the spaces between optimism and despair, especially in this post-election period.  Several weeks ago I wrote a poem in Spanish with one particular line that says, “¿Cómo sonreír un optimismo todavía no sentido?” (“How to smile an optimism not yet felt?”).  The question itself should reveal both despair (in Spanish, “desesperación”; the undoing of hope) and some distant certainty that smiles and optimism will—must—return.  I see in these emotional spaces the fraught question of civility, a code that tells us how to be good winners and losers, or who is supposed to be quiet now, or even who should timidly accept tyranny.  To paraphrase Smith, this code tells us to ignore the possible and deny that it ever existed.  Over this past month my mind and heart have walked these spaces of despair, with their craggy outcrops of impositions of civility, wondering not only how we as a nation can climb up and out, but also how we as individuals and small groups can do so.

A few weeks back another professor from my town and I sat together at a sports event.  I respect this person’s work and work ethic and was enjoying our conversation about rather mundane topics—sports, the weather, work responsibilities.  The conversation took a sudden turn when she commented that we probably shouldn’t talk politics.  We hadn’t been even close to talking politics, and so I was taken aback by this prophylactic measure.  I replied, “Sure, that’s fine,” and then my interlocutor proceeded to detail all the political reasons for which we shouldn’t discuss politics.  This seemed to me to be “talking politics,” and so I wondered if maybe just I wasn’t supposed to talk politics.  I listened, got quietly (but maybe noticeably) steamed, and then said, somewhat huffily, “I think you’re right; let’s not talk politics.”  At the next day’s sporting event, we did not speak.  Our exchange from the first day and the silence of the next day seemed awkward, maybe even shameful, somehow.  There was no meeting halfway, no optimism, just a barely polite exchange.

As I thought back on our conversation, I tried to figure out which elements of it contributed to the next day’s silence and came up with three (recognizing that the person with whom I was speaking would have her own reasons for this):  (1)  I sensed that my conversation partner had already prepared herself for an antagonistic conversation and would therefore find one, no matter how I participated; (2) I felt silenced by this code of “not talking politics” while actually talking politics; and (3) my conversation partner declared herself to be a “one-issue voter,” which also meant that little could be added to any debate that might have ensued.  These three issues will challenge many of us as we attempt to understand our friends, colleagues, and neighbors over the next few years, I believe.

Nicholas Kristof has talked about the University as a liberal “echo chamber” whose professors don’t know or talk to people who voted for Trump.  This has not been my experience at all.  Most professors I know have friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues who voted for Trump, and more than a few professors I know voted for Trump.  Most professors I know read voraciously and variously.  If there is an element of truth to the echo chamber thesis, though, might it not counterbalance the many professions and work contexts that are “conservative echo chambers” (e.g. the proposed cabinet of the president-elect)?

Two university professors, much of whose pedagogical work is guiding discussions, were unable to have this conversation two weeks after the election.  I see my own role in this as tinged with the despair mapped by Zadie Smith.  In a way, it feels like having a hopeful conversation about the future of the United States over the next four years (and well beyond, given where we’ll end up) at this moment is traitorous.  It gives the president-elect undeserved credit and support.  It makes me meek and says I won’t fight for what’s right.  What is the opposite of feeling optimistic or feeling hopeful in this political context?  I believe it is oppression, and oppression must challenge conversations based on being polite and “well-behaved.”

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