Lois: What's the S stand for?
Clark: It's not an S. On my world it's a symbol of hope.
Lois: Well, here it's an S.
- Man of Steel (2013)
Commenting on the recent passing of three people he disliked -- Margaret Thatcher, the conservative activist Howard Phillips and USA Today founder Al Neuharth -- Thomas Frank gives all of them credit in his July Harper's column for aggressive commitment to their goals. From there, inevitably, he turns to lament the utter absence of similar aggression in the modern American left. Noting that Neuharth once described his newspaper as "the journalism of hope." Frank lashes out at liberals' preoccupation with hope as a theme or slogan.
Here was the empty word for the age, the perfect virtue for an era of false promises and no alternatives, and a mandatory element of Democratic campaign-speak ever since (think of Jesse Jackson's "Keep hope alive," Clinton's touching faith in "a place called Hope," John Edwards's "Hope is on the way," and Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope). What "hope" came to mean in those days was: be credulous. Don't stop thinking about tomorrow. Have faith that things might just work out, even though they never do and nobody in power has any intention of reversing the neocon tide.
Democrats don't mean it that way, but Frank sees "hope" as the opposite of action. To illustrate his point, he writes: "We no longer discuss nationalizing the steel industry, say, or enacting any sort of full-employment proposal. Changes like that are off the table." So is ultimate political victory. While Thatcher and Phillips were open about their desire to destroy the left as a political force -- Neuharth was a centrist whom Frank credits for opposing the invasion of Iraq -- Frank sees no equivalent commitment on the left. He perceives a liberal hope that everyone will eventually see reason where there should be more aggressive confrontation, more demands, etc. A historian of the "conquest of cool" through which corporate culture co-opts all counterculture, Frank longs to see an uncompromising attitude on the left to match what he's seen on the right for the last thirty years. News that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting an exhibit of punk fashion, including punk-inspired haute couture, disgusts him, proving his thesis yet again.
Can there be positive change in the absence of "hope?" Is hope as passive a quality as Frank charges? It is when it's no more than a campaign slogan, as it has been under Obama. As Republicans who deride Obama as a "messiah" would readily note, the last two presidential campaigns have been more about hope in Obama as a charismatic leader than about hope in the people's ability to make their own will reality. Liberals still put their trust (or faith) in leaders while seeming to share the general lack of faith in the capacity of political will (not to mention the general will) to reshape the world. Americans too quickly reject the old notions that we can make the world a better place for everybody simply because we want to; that we have a right to make demands, even when someone says we want "something for nothing;" that a better life for everyone is an end unto itself that doesn't need to be justified to skeptics by proving that people have "earned" it. But we seem to live in an era where no one believes that "property is theft," -- not that that was ever true -- but many seem to take for granted that politics is theft. That belief will inhibit people. Too many today ask: what right do I have to demand anything? We seem in danger of forgetting that the perpetuation of life is really the highest value, and quite enough to justify plenty of demands -- even those that may seem impossible to satisfy right now or right away. At a certain point, surrendering the right to demand might mean surrendering the right to live. But I like to believe -- I was gong to write hope -- that our instinct for self-preservation will kick in before that point. If it does, we may see more of the politics Thomas Frank is looking for.