Beacon of Hope in Troubled Times

Image of beacon of light from the starry sky
Photo by Nate Bittinger

When will the aliens come to rescue humanity? How will the revolution start? Why don’t those few leaders with a moral compass stand up to speak truth to illegitimate power? Where is that flashing beacon of hope?

The Beacon that is Literature

I see little on the horizon to answer these questions. So, I turn to literature. And having neglected some literary landmarks over the years, I dove into Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 “ambigous utopia,” The Dispossessed. A tale of two worlds cut off from each other by centuries of distrust—the larger planet, Urras, resembling earth with its wars and extreme inequality between rich and poor; and the other, Anarres, a  bleak and impoverished moon settled by utopian anarchists—it is a timely story, indeed.

Told through the philosophical voice of Shevek, a physicist from the moon who endeavors to reunite the worlds, it is impossible not to apply its lessons to the current state of affairs in the world. The riots that took place in Hamburg during the G20 summit this last week (anarchist driven perhaps, but also the expression of ordinary people looking for their own beacon of hope) aptly illustrates the anger and frustration.

Freedom and Responsibility

I’ve only just begun the book, but a passage struck me last night, compelling me to ponder the relationship between “order” and “orders,” between freedom and responsibility. The scene involves an argument the young Shevek has with a friend (Tirin) over the reasons why no one from the moon has visited the mother planet, Urras. “We are forbidden,” Tirin, says. To which Shevek replies:

Forbidden? . . . Who forbids? . . . Order is not ‘orders.’ We don’t leave Anarres because we are Anarres. Being Tirin, you can’t leave Tirin’s skin. You might like to try being somebody else to see what it’s like, but you can’t. But are you kept from it by force? What force? What laws, government, police? None. Simply our own being, our nature as Odonians, responsible to one another. And that responsibility is our freedom. To avoid it would be to lose our freedom. Would you really like to live in a society where you have no freedom, no choice, only the false option of obedience to the law, or disobedience followed by punishment? Would you really want to go live in a prison?

Certainly the book strikes a chord with me now. I still suffer a deep distress and pervasive melancholy over the election results of last year. And the ongoing assaults to our collective sanity and well-being from the current administration only amplify those feelings. Like others, I threatened (however hollowly) to move to Canada once the “Orange Menace” took office. But echoing Shevek above, I am America. I might like to see what it is like to be Canadian, but I can’t, really. The laws of either country notwithstanding, America is the skin I wear, no matter how deplorable I find nationalism.

Our Responsibility to Others is Our Freedom

Sadly, as Samuel Johnson said in 1775, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” My deeper distress comes not from the fact that such an unabashed scoundrel operates in the world, but that so many of my fellow Americans voted for him.  Sure, his followers saw him as the law-and-order candidate. The candidate who would protect our freedoms. But “order” in this case comes down to “orders.” And what a slew of executive orders we have seen. I don’t believe those “patriots” most given to “bullhorning” our freedom—those for example, who flaunt giant flags on their pickup trucks—take freedom to be the same thing I do…or patriotism for that matter.

Not that they don’t make a connection between freedom and responsibility. Not that we don’t have to fight for our freedom godammit. But what that brand of American seems to care about most is the infringement of their particular freedoms: to own assault weapons; to remove regulations that interfere with their own financial gain; to use the excuse of “religious freedom” to deny services to groups of “others”; to secure their own piece of the pie even if it means others get none. It’s a freedom enforced by law, not one defined by our responsibility to each other.

Freedom or the Totalitarian State?

These themes are nothing new of course. In thinking about all this, I pulled from the shelf Erich Fromm’s psychoanalytical classic Escape From Freedom. From the back cover of my husband’s 1967 Avon edition:

If man cannot live with freedom, he will probably turn fascist. . . Using the fundamentals of psychoanalysis as probing agents, Dr. Fromm reveals the illness of contemporary civilization as seen by its willingness to submit to totalitarian rule. While the rise of democracy set certain men free in a political sense, it has simultaneously given birth to a society in which the individual feels isolated, dehumanized, and alienated. This situation has frequently resulted in blind devotion to a Leader, abject submission to an all-powerful State, and barbarous politics of aggression and mass murder.

Is this where we are in the United States at this moment? On the brink of fascism? Or have I overindulged in “fake news” put out by the “false media”? Considering that de-legitimization and restraint of the press is a common tool of despots, (witness the now closed White House press conferences), I don’t think I am overreacting.

So, I look for a beacon of hope. While our would-be fuhrer tweets his messianic diatribes to the angry dispossessed, I throw my lot in with the thinkers: with the writers and artists and filmmakers and educators who keep the intellectual flame alive. At least we are not burning books…yet.

As for beacons, thanks to Charli Mills and Carrot Ranch for Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge July 6provoking these thoughts with her prompt of beacon for this week’s flash fiction challenge.


I search the night sky. As if the answer were there. As if science fiction were true and benevolent aliens could save us. Why bother? I see nothing. The stars are snuffed out.

Here below flames rip at cars and barricades and shop fronts—bonfires of fury and pain. The undercurrent of violence deafens me, pulls me down on streets wet from water cannons. My hands bleed from the bricks I have thrown.

You pull my arm. You scream. The maelstrom snatches your words and eats them.

But I follow at last—you—a brighter beacon than the flames.

16 thoughts on “Beacon of Hope in Troubled Times

  1. You are not over reacting Jeanne. The madman at large came in like Satan and appealed to the ignorant and the weak in hopes of promises of fulfillment. He’s in thick with the Russian’s taking lessons from him on how to rule the world with greed for him and his cronies. I even believe ‘fake news’ was orchestrated with the help of Putin. It’s astounding to actually know people who defend this evil madman, unfortunately I’ve had to sever ties as you can’t unbrainwash people until his evil edicts fall upon those exactly who hold him in high esteem and find out they’ve been fooled. Stay strong and stand your ground, unite with those who know better and soon enough Mueller will save the day. 🙂

    1. Standing my ground here Debby. What astonishes me now is the silence of those who voted for him, among them close family members. I hope they are eating their remorse in that silence. Nothing he has done is surprising in light of his entire career–so well documented! And each day brings more damning revelations, more revolting images of the blatant, shameless abuse of power. Not to mention the smaller but infuriating presumptions on the part of his family– witness the audacity of Ivanka taking a seat at the G20 presidents’ table when the madman vacated it for a spell. So yes, time to unite if we can. And hope that we can overturn this tsunami that has overtake the country.

  2. So much wisdom in this post, Jeanne, so much truth, and much to think about.
    Your flash sums up the situation well. I wish it was a better situation to write about. Sometimes I think we have to rely on those aliens to get us out of the situation in which we find ourselves, and have to wonder how we got here in the first place. Ignorance and fear. They don’t get us anywhere good.

    1. As for the aliens saving humanity, I was thinking of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, which I linked to that line. Another very provocative SF read. If they do come, we may not like the plans they have for us. Of course the struggle has gone on for centuries. Why can we not seem to embrace the Enlightenment value of individual freedom without corrupting it? Well, you provided the answer to that one: ignorance and fear. I applaud you for battling that first human failing. Universal education is another promise of the Enlightenment that has only partly been realized, and not due (completely) to lack of opportunity but to complacency and laziness on the part of so many citizens. Stand with the teachers. They (you) are our real beacon of hope.

  3. You write so eloquently about troubling times. And what amn insight, that while we may toy with the idea of “becoming” Canadian, our hearts and responsibility belong to America.

    1. Yes, you are so right, Deborah. So many will say, “If you don’t like the country, then leave it.” How preposterous! The whole point is to try on an individual level to protect our freedoms. The right in this country has so effectively appropriated the mantle of patriotism, when it’s really just nationalism many of them promote. Those who burn flags also love this country. They too are patriots. I may cringe at such an action, but they too see their responsibility to try to improve things. Guess I took off on a tangent, there, but you got me thinking again. Thanks for dropping in!

  4. What a lovely angry post and Flash, Jeanne. I like how you’ve picked out the distinction between order and orders. A leader doesn’t exist without followers who have a responsibility both not to undermine the legitimacy of the position but to call them out on those occasions they use their power irresponsibly. You’re doing a good job of that here.

    1. Thanks to Ursula Le Guin for making me think about that distinction. Sadly, so many followers of the populist nationalist movements here and abroad want to do just that–undermine the legitimacy of legitimately elected government and worse, twist our perceptions of just who is using power irresponsibly. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Brilliant Jeanne! I love the way you connected your anger to transform it to hope through the writing of Ursula Le Guin, the psychology of Erich Fromme, and the painfully honest words of Samuel Jackson. This a framework to unveil and piece together the bits and bytes we are only allowed to see, and uplifting hope.

    1. Thanks Tery. You and I have talked about the situation in our country and the need to find some kind of outlet for the current frustration and anger. Recently I am trying to tear myself away from the news and read more. The former just throws fuel on the fire, while the latter, I think, provides a kind of sustenance for us, and reminds us of what we really value.

  6. Jeanne, your posting is so eloquent, and so true. I think that all of us who care about what’s happening in our country are truly under reacting. Why is this? Where are the voices like yours? For the first time, I’ve finally read an article (in Nautilus), where Brian Gallagher writes about how truly mentally ill Donald really is, and what his simplified language means. He writes what I’ve been thinking and feeling for over a year. Why is this the first time I’m reading this? I’ll email this article to you.

    Your Flash is beautiful and so tender Jeanne. Thanks for voicing that. I love reading your thoughts.

    1. So good to see you here Suzanne! Can’t wait to read the article. Part of what is so frustrating is the total denial on the part of the GOP and the Donald’s supporters in the face of his egregious actions and those of his family. I think the current term is “gaslighting,” the attempt to undermine a person’s sense of what is really going on. I read something too recently on how his language is actually very clear, and it has the intended effect on his followers. But his thoughts! That is another thing. How can anyone not see the extreme pathology in his messages and actions. Well, it makes for good TV, which is another problem entirely! And thanks so much for the kind words on the flash. Will respond to your email separately.

  7. Well. So much has been said already. I have to agree with the comments. This situation is…beyond words. Yet you did a damn good job of it. 😉 And the flash is fantastic.

    1. Nice to see you here Sarah. Thanks for dropping by. I agree, it is sometimes a challenge to put thoughts into words when the actions of others (especially on the scale we are seeing) leave you speechless. That’s one good thing about flash fiction challenges though…the prompts always provoke those words!

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