Somewhere deep in the fertile Valleys of Michael Chabon's wonderful novel of human chaos and redemption, 'Wonder Boys,' the author makes the point that being in denial can be a crucial component in experiencing hope. That in believing situations and lives can be improved, we may first have to convince ourselves that they are not as bad as they appear in more complex reality.
So, in extreme circumstances, achieving an ultimate victory may not be possible without being able to ignore how much more likely defeat is: ask Churchill. I first read 'Wonder Boys' after seeing the movie around 15 years ago, and I must admit that I found the thesis rather difficult to accept then. I still viewed hope as a purely positive dynamic without which forward movement, progress if you like, wasn't possible. First we'd hope for an improvement in this or that, and then, soon enough, we'd be motivated to make that change happen, taking account of various facts and actual possibilities.
A lot of things have happened in the intervening years, things that have forced me to reconsider my opinion of hope. I didn't change my perspective all at once. The little gremlin of dissatisfaction initially appeared courtesy of Robin Cook and Barack Obama. Robin Cook's introduction of the word 'ethical’ in his explanation of the UK's new foreign policy gave me an unexpected charge of energy. He offered more volts than I had expected with that one word. Later, watching Obama's first presidential campaign being held up by the twin pillars of 'hope and change,' I was shocked again. Then we invaded Iraq. Then the camp at Guantanamo Bay was not closed, as Obama had promised, and the proper application of the rule of law was postponed once more.
It became clear that a lot of bad or inconvenient things have to be denied, set aside and ignored, in order to make space for the sense of hope that is so important to our human condition. That is what Michael Chabon expressed so well in 'Wonder Boys.' Now, if we look around with open eyes, we can see the new twin pillars of denial and hope working very closely together in many people's minds. This allows them to believe that proposed actions and ideas that make little sense in a wider context are precisely the things that we should be doing and thinking.
Thus, in the UK, supporters of Brexit are happy to deny the likely serious medium-term damage to Britain's fragile economy that their great crusade will cause. The subsequent reverie of hope has made any kind of planned preparedness impossible because there is obviously no need to fix a problem that does not exist.
At the same time, those who oppose Brexit are desperate to deny that it will actually happen and, instead, pin their considerable hopes on a second referendum to overturn the result of the first one. In their own overflowing reverie of hope they ignore the possibility that any second referendum will go the same way as the first, citing the flood of hopeful opinion polls in their favour. They also set aside the likely severe long-term damage that such an exercise will do to what remains of the UK's collective political culture.
This is not to say that Brexiteers and Remainers should not continue to hope for whatever it is they are hoping for. It is simply that the accompanying festival of irrational denial, on both sides, is driving the country to disaster.
In the USA we see a president talking exclusively to, and receiving unquestioning support from, the Christian Right. This is possible because the American Christian Right seem determined to deny the rather obvious fact that the president may be the most un-Christian holder of the office in the history of that country.
They despised Obama, but it was not he who took young children away from their parents and threw them in cages. It is not Obama who is dismantling a healthcare system that helped poor people – it is their man Trump. It is Trump who is throwing America's poor to the mercy of the corporate insurance industry, with the British to follow suit in the case of a no-deal Brexit. There is no 'suffering the little children,' and the meek are not blessed in the Christian Right's America. Nor do they mind Trump's public infidelity, or his difficulty with the concept of truth. The Christian Right in America have found their white political saviour, but the price they have had to pay is to stop being Christian. Now, they are simply the American Right.
In our own little country, the political party most keen to see an independent Scotland utterly denies the need for a credible economic vision to be put to the people before the excruciatingly named Indyref2 can take place. The fact that many of those who voted No in indyref1 were and are waiting for an explanation of how Scotland can thrive alone is, apparently, a fact worth ignoring. Hope, a lot of noise and, in the Yes campaign's case, laziness, will surely triumph in the end.
Denial and hope form a powerful coalition these days. Where hope was once a strong first base for future action, it has now, itself
, become the action. There seems no longer to be planning, modelling, considering options, understanding consequences, nor proper impact assessments, especially where Brexit is concerned.
Our elected representatives, party managers, thinkers and senior civil servants are imagined to be our best educated and most experienced, and yet they are clearly finding it increasingly difficult to create comprehensive solutions to our many serious and complex problems. That hope is not enough cannot be denied.