Among my friends and acquaintances, I hear frequent expressions of despair arising from the precarity of democracy in Europe, the United States, and around the world. Rising authoritarianism is threatening to upend the world as we know it. I have always believed political action is an antidote to despair, that win or lose, activism asserts my own agency, making me feel less powerless. When I read the description of David Shulman’s Freedom and Despair I thought he was making a similar argument.
Shulman’s argument is actually quite different. He finds that there is freedom in despair. That one should act anyway, but despair itself is a kind of freedom. Of course, he distinguishes between internal and external freedom, this is the freedom of the soul, the kind that can never be owned or imprisoned. In his words, “I recommend despair as a place to start. It is in the nature of acting, of doing the right thing, that despair recedes at least for a moment, and its place is taken by something else: hopeless hope, for example. Those who work these furrows know that hope is not contingent. Sometimes the worse things get, the more hope there is, for hope is an act of the deeper self, or the freer part of the person.” This is despair that is not helpless, but itself is a source of hope, because when you act knowing you will still lose, your resistance is liberating.
A good portion of the book describes Shulman’s activism with Ta’ayush, a grassroots solidarity organization supporting the Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills who are being dispossessed by illegal settlements and the Israeli army’s eagerness to ignore court orders and the law in aid of those settlers. It is desperate, dangerous, and they have so much stacked against them, but they struggle on.
Freedom and Despair is an interesting book and Shulman’s work with Ta’ayush is inspiring. He understands building solidarity and the euphoria of shared risk and resistance. I think it promises more than it delivers in explaining his idea of how despair creates freedom. I mean, we have all heard “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.” and the idea of having nothing to lose as a spur to activism exists. But that’s not his point. It’s more metaphysical than that. He wrote, “I also discovered its unexpected beauty, once I was able to use it— the strange beauty of fighting a hopeless battle. And again: the more hopeless it is, the more hope one generates in oneself by recycling despair, by embracing the inner and outer torment as a gift, for that is what it truly is. Among the many good things that life offers, there is the goodness of struggling uphill against impossible odds.”
Shulman wrote about truth, conscience, freedom, morality, and despair. These are weighty concepts that he has come to understand through activism. This book offers keen insight into how we can think about activism and agency and the freedom we can find through resistance.
There are also some great quotes in the book such as this one from a friend his friend, A a rabbi named Jim Ponest, “If you have to believe in something, it means you think it’s not true.” From another friend, Yaron Ezrahi, “A clean conscience is one that has not been used.” I hope I remember it when I get an opportunity to use it aptly. This is the kind of book you want to put on the middle shelf, the one you can easily reach when you need it, in those moments when you need to remind yourself that hopeless battles are still worth fighting.
I received an e-galley of Freedom and Despair: Notes from the South Hebron Hills from the publisher through NetGalley. It will be released October 4th, 2018.
- Freedom and Despair: Notes from the South Hebron Hills at the University of Chicago Press
- David Shulman faculty page and Wikipedia page