been assigned to talk about solutions to the pressing problems we
face, but I've never been very good at following orders. So, instead
I'm going to talk about the problem with solutions.
The assignment came from our first "Last
Sunday" event in November, which we hoped would bring together the
secular and spiritual, the political and the social. The
standing-room-only audience generated a lot of positive energy that
night, but that doesn't mean the event -- or the ideas animating it --
were immune from criticism. And, this being Austin, we heard from lots
of folks about what they thought those shortcomings were.
Two consistent themes emerged from the feedback, captured in this
"Don't spend so much of our precious time telling us about the
problems. We already know (most of) the problems. Instead,
spend more time telling us about solutions that we, as individuals,
and as a group, can do. We are looking for HOPE. Show us how we
can be part of the solution."
"We already know the problems -- tell us about solutions."
Over and over I've heard that, not just after Last Sunday, but ever
since I started doing political organizing. While I understand the
sentiment, I want to suggest that the first claim is inaccurate, and
the second request is dangerous.
First, we -- not just the so-called
"masses" out there, but we in here -- have not yet fully grasped the
nature of the problems we face. Second, as we are struggling to come
to terms with the depth of those problems, we have yet to face the
fact that there are no solutions. In other words: (1) None of us is as
smart as we would like to think, and (2) as we start to recognize our
own collective ignorance, we will have to face not just what we can do
but what we can't.
Perhaps paradoxically, that is where I find hope -- in facing honestly
the condition of the world that we have desecrated and the limits of
human intelligence to reconsecrate that world. It is only from those
realizations, I believe, that meaningful action is possible.
When I say we don't know the problems, I don't mean we aren't aware of
what is plainly in front of us: Disastrously destructive wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan, a house-of-cards economy, enduring racism and sexism,
cascading ecological crises, and a corrosive culture that values
profit over people. But how deep does our analysis go? How well do we
really understand the inherent pathology of capitalism and patriotism?
How many of us have dared to stare down the ugliness and raw brutality
at the core of white supremacy and patriarchy?
And have we honestly assessed the tension between those aspects of our
human nature (our capacity for greed and violence) that created those
problems and those aspects (our capacity for solidarity and love) that
make transcending these problems possible? As the song goes, "all you
need is love," but the problem is we also have a lot more than love
swirling around in each of us.
We have to face the fact that we are a species that has, in the words
of Wes Jackson, gotten very good at exploiting the energy-rich carbon
in this world's soils, forests, and fossil fuels to enrich ourselves
at the expense of others. That's part of human nature. Now we have to
do what no other species has had to do -- self-consciously practice
restraint at what we do best in such bad ways. That is no small task,
but our ability to name that task and imagine accomplishing it also is
part of human nature.
If we all really understood the problems in this sense, we might not
be so quick to demand solutions -- if by that term we mean clear
public-policy choices that can be implemented in the relatively short
term. Such a yearning for short-term solutions is, I believe, the best
indication that one hasn't come to terms with the depth of the
Take the problem of oil -- both that we are running out and that
burning what's left will accelerate rapid climate change. A demand for
solutions can lead to the corporate boondoggle of corn-based ethanol
or the hazy illusions around biodiesel, instead of helping us face a
more troubling reality: There is no viable alternative to petroleum
for a car-based transportation system that it is fundamentally
unsustainable. What are the possible "solutions" to that "problem,"
which we all allegedly know about, other than to radically curtail the
way we move ourselves about?
This doesn't mean there's nothing we can do. It doesn't mean there
aren't things we should do. There are actions we can take, and we have
to work hard to make sure we take the best possible actions to try to
reverse the direction of a world headed for the cliff. In the realm of
portable liquid fuels, economically and ecologically it's clear that
corn-based ethanol is a loser that should be abandoned, while
biodiesel has limited possibilities that should be pursued, but
realistically. But as we pursue those "solutions," we also have to
face a fact: There are no solutions that will allow us to continue to
live this way. There is only the struggle to find something new, with
no guarantees we will find our way.
Why press such a seemingly dour scenario? Because anything else is
illusion, and illusions can never carry us home. Illusions inevitably
fall away, leaving people feeling abandoned, depressed, and hopeless.
Illusions are not practical.
Ruthlessly rejecting illusions is not the same as giving up hope. But
we have to be clear that hope isn't something to be found out in the
world; it's a feature of our humanity that each of us has to either
claim or abandon. It's a state of being, not a function of the state
of the world.
When I make this argument, I am often told that illusions are
necessary, that people can't handle this level of honesty. I take that
to mean that the person making this judgment about other people's
limitations actually is really saying "I need my illusions
because I can't handle this level of honesty." I say that with
no arrogance, knowing how I struggle to handle it.
The only way I can keep up that struggle is collectively, in
community, through conversation. That's what Last Sunday is about. We
did not create this space to pretend that those of us on stage know
all the right questions, let alone the answers. We have no solutions
to offer. Instead, we offer an invitation and an invocation, a place
and a space -- and, okay, yes, we offer our sense of hope, of what can
come from coming together.
But that hope must begin with honesty. Here's my honest statement:
I stand before you in a profound state of grief for the state of the
world. For me, Last Sunday is about creating a place to feel that,
honestly. Last month, Jim Rigby quoted the anarchist Emma Goldman on
the subject of joy in politics, reminding us that we should reject any
revolution in which we can't dance.
But just as important, I won't be part of any revolution in which I
can't cry. I think we have to recognize this grief. We have to demand
that the revolution be one in which we not only can dance, but cry as
One of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, talks of coming to terms
with "the human estate of grief and joy." What an apt way to describe
the essence of what it means to be human. When we face honestly our
place in the world, we recognize the need to cry and to dance. We
recognize that each requires the other.
Last Sunday, whatever else it may be, is the attempt to name that
estate honestly, to claim that estate responsibly, to remind ourselves
of how much work we have to do if we are to live there with hope.
Robert Jensen is a journalism
professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of
Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of
The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and
Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity
(City Lights Books). He can be reached at
This article is based on remarks to the second "Last Sunday" community
gathering in Austin, TX, December 29, 2006.