Monday, February 04, 2008

Morale and Hope are Necessarily Distinct

Almost 5 years ago during correspondence with Paul Loeb about the question of hope in political movements, he asked me to submit my thoughts in essay form for a book that he was editing. I submitted something on the important distinction that I see between morale and hope, but as far as I know Loeb did not publish it.

The context for our discussions included the rising anger among moderate-to-liberal voters over the emerging realizations that the Bush Administration's justifications for war were built on lies. Loeb wrote that he was concerned that those who fought for peace were going to lose hope with the prospect of the 2004 elections on the horizon. I was concerned that Mr. Loeb was conflating hope with morale.

On the eve of Super Tuesday, I am concerned again about the way the word "hope" is being batted about the campaigns. I am once again concerned that "hope" is getting trivialized, shorn of its extraordinary quality in the service of a motivational and political purpose.

Here is some of what I wrote in 2003:

Morale has mostly to do with stopping wars and winning presidential elections for the time being. Hope is the constant, gnawing, driven awareness that the mere accomplishment of strategic and political goals is insufficient to the larger vision of justice. Morale depends on motivational leaders who keep the spirits of their followers from lagging. Hope already accepts that tragedy and defeat are a part of life and even so looks to the promise that right will overcome, if not now then later.
But conflating morale and hope as I believe some in political campaigns do is confusing the now with the later.

Hope and morale function separately:
I can have profound hope even at my morale’s lowest point. Likewise, I can despair of any ultimate hope yet gladly—even cynically—take pride in helping to leverage the end of a dubious federal policy. High morale and profound hope are not the same things. Every once and a while—and unquestionably the current situation is one of those “whiles”—groups need a morale boost. Usually, almost always, groups also require an erstwhile hope based on revelations that are, in the words of Michael Walzer, “already in our possession, incorporated, as it were, long ago, familiar and well-thumbed by now.”
Morale rises vigorous and new on the clarion call of an Achilles-like hero; hope is an old spiritual sung together in the depths of a Birmingham jail.

In spite of the historic nature of this election season, hope does not come from any presidential candidate, even as our morale may be lifted by his oration or the symbolism of her power rising:
One does not lift up people’s hopes from the top as one affirms their goals and lifts their morale. Hope is not detachable from the communities hopefully generated. Hope occurs most effectively in the face-to-face, familial, congregational, and associational networks that constitute the nanoengines of national and international movements. And hope is just as vital to social movements as morale is. Hope reminds us that successes and stronger social ties do not inevitably lead to greater levels of humanity. In fact, hope reminds us of Reinhold Niebuhr’s point that any group may at any time act more inhumanely than individuals—and “our” groups are not immune.
There is a chastened, humble quality to hope that is not the gloating, taunting hubris and self-pride of morale. Not that morale is not necessary, but that it is limited by hope's hard awareness of limitations and violations.

But most of all hope cannot be tied to winning more than it is tied to goodness:
Hope reminds us that when we lose (and we will lose from time to time), our loss cannot tip the balances ultimately toward injustice, because a good-bigger-than-our-own must triumph in the end. Hope causes us to reflect on the ways that winning may cost us more if we settle for less than we should in order to obtain greater power and influence.
And, if hope puts winning in a smaller perspective, I do not see the same hope that to which campaigns appeal. It feels more like hope co opted in the service of morale and triumph.

I remain unconvinced that hope and winning live easily side-to-side, because as the Spanish Catholic philosopher Miguel de Unamuno writes, once possession is achieved there is no longer a question of hope because possession erases hope. And yet, politics is first about possession and winning, and so, how can there be any hope beyond the ebb and flow of simple morale in political strategy?

As in 2003, I don't argue that we should not strive to win. And in 2008, I'm not arguing that people who vote sacrifice their hope. I merely maintain that we keep movement morale in proper perspective to extraordinary hope, which ought to temper rather than be swallowed by our responses to both winning and losing ordinary elections.

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