There has been a lot of chatter these days about hope, especially with Obama using it as a campaign slogan. It is exciting to see so many people excited and mobilized by the idea of hope during this election campaign. Yet it is easy and perhaps instinctive for philosophers to dismiss hope as naive emotion. I was reminded of this when I recently came across, in a colleague’s paper, Kafka’s quip, “Oh [there is], plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” Kafka’s sentiment is dark, but it isn’t too dark. While you and I are doomed, the people that follow may have some of that hope, which is part of an infinite supply somewhere out there beyond our sight and grasp.
How to access that hope in dark times is the subject of Jonathan Lear’s new book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Destruction (Harvard 2007). The book is a fascinating analysis of the life of the Sioux leader, Plenty Coups and his attempt to steer his people to a new way of existing after the collapse of the Sioux’s traditional way of life. Radical Hope draws on a variety of philosophical methods and literature to discuss the destruction of the Sioux world, including the collapse of its central concepts (mainly courage), and the possibility of hope.
I was very impressed with Lear’s sustained analysis of Plenty Coup’s life, dream life, and politics. Often major works in philosophy turn away from America—and frequently toward the Ancient World—for narratives to illustrate their analyses. Lear didn’t. Instead he delivered an insightful work about radical hope that was richly detailed with an American narrative. For this reason, Lear’s book is a work of American philosophy about American identity. I look forward to reading more books like Lear’s.
I wondered, however, as I read the book, how will the few philosophers out there who’ve been working in Native American philosophy react to this book? Lear doesn’t engage that literature. Indeed, a reader who is unfamiliar with the extent of work done on Native American philosophy may get the false impression that this work is unique in its taking up of Native American issues in U.S. philosophy.
In addition that question, I have a lingering worry about the book: Lear’s argument that Plenty Coups’ decision to ally with the U.S. government and to fight with U.S. troops against the Sioux, who were the traditional enemies of the Crow, was courageous and an example of “radical hope” was too quick—and too convenient from the perspectives of critics of U.S. policies toward Native Americans tribes. Much of Lear’s argument pivots on his claim that Plenty Coup was “facing up to reality” and “exercising good judgment” about the military force of the U.S. government. With all due respect to Plenty Coups, maybe he got lucky—there was no reality to apprehend in dealings with the U.S. government. The U.S. government’s dealings with the Native American tribes was capricious, exploitative, and brutal. “Reality” shifted with American demands. Sitting Bull was, in such a situation, just as rational to continue attacks against the U.S. government.
By the way, my colleague who authored the paper on Kafka wasn’t such a fan of Lear’s conclusions, and maybe for reasons similar to my worries above. Within oppressive governments “reality” is hard to pin down and is manipulated by the powerful. The movements of raw, capricious force is not something that serves as a reliable foundation for any sort of hope, radical or not.