Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow people lived his life in hope. At least, that is the thesis offered by Jonathan Lear in Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Plenty Coups hoped for a good future for the Crow people, a future in which they would keep their land and maintain their cultural identify as Crow. And he held this hope in spite of his belief, grounded in visions he experienced as a boy, that the coming of white people to the plains would irrevocably change the Crow way of life.
Lear says this is “radical” hope. Radical hope looks forward to a good future even when the very concepts one uses to describe a good future have been robbed of their meaning. The Crow people had a rich traditional way of life; centered on nomadism, buffalo hunting, and intermittent warfare against rival tribes. Their traditions included religious rites (such as the boy Plenty Coups’ vision quest), sacred dances, celebrations of successful hunts and raids, and many other things. White domination devastated the Crow way of life; by this Lear means not just that the Crow lost their independence but that they lost what philosophers call “thick” concepts of the good life that the future would hold. Plenty Coups had only the “thin” concept that the future would be good after the storm.
Lear wants to make Plenty Coups available as an exemplar of wisdom for secular people. He recognizes, of course, that Plenty Coups’ hope was grounded in religious beliefs. Plenty Coups and the Crow elders interpreted the boy’s visions as messages from the Great Spirit, telling the Crow people to imitate the Chickadee, to listen and adapt. Nevertheless, Lear denies that religious beliefs are necessary for radical hope. He says that the goodness of the world is greater than finite people can possibly know. Even secular people may rationally believe this. Therefore, Lear argues, even secular people can hold to hope in times of cultural devastation.
Lear says nothing about which forms of cultural devastation that might threaten his readers. What are the great anxieties of our culture? Disastrous climate change? Terrorists who obtain and use nuclear weapons? A failure of liberal political regimes such that, when faced with terrorism, liberal states collapse into tyranny? Technological horrors as depicted in science fiction dystopias? A 21st century version of Big Brother? Each of Lear’s readers is free to read Lear’s interpretation of Plenty Coups in light of her own deep fears.
Radical hope is not an ostrich-like denial that bad things may come. Lear emphasizes the realism expressed in Plenty Coups’ visions (and the interpretation the elders placed on them). Native American tribes had no way to prevent the onslaught of European invaders. White trappers would be followed by white miners, white settlers, and white soldiers. The invaders would bring their own definitions of justice, by which they forced the natives off their land, killing as many as necessary to take possession. Crow leaders—to the degree they understood the situation in terms of realpolitik—knew that Plenty Coups’ vision was true. The storm is coming, and we cannot stop it.
Our situation is different. We do not know that any of the “storms” we fear are unavoidable. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the effects of climate change will be mitigated, that terror groups will be defeated, that liberal government will meet 21st century challenges, and that we will gain the wisdom to rightly use new technologies. Nevertheless, we may say: it is possible that a storm is coming. Radical hope enables one to look for a good future no matter how bad the storm.
But radical hope is not a Pollyannaish belief that everything will turn out fine. The good future we hope for will be different that what we expect. Lear underscores the depth of the disaster experienced by the Crow (and other tribes as well, but his focus in on Plenty Coups’ people). The Crow had to learn a revised set of moral concepts. Courage is still a virtue—but what is courage in this new age? Courage no longer means planting a coup stick in battle. It may mean facing a new age resolutely, even when many traditional behaviors no longer make sense. As Lear understands him, Plenty Coups led his people to a new and deeper understanding of virtue and of the good life.
If one of our deep fears comes to pass, we will need radical hope. The concepts we use now to describe human flourishing may need to change. Jonathan Lear never says this explicitly, but I think it is implied by his argument.
Here is an example.
The dictator of North Korea threatened this week that his country has intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry his nuclear weapons to targets all over the world, from Seoul to Washington, D.C. Does North Korea actually have this capacity? Military and technical experts express some doubts, but it seems clear that North Korea aims to have such powers soon. Does Kim Jong Un merely intend to bully his neighbors? Would he actually use such weapons? We may hope (a kind of extreme hope) that Un would have sanity sufficient to restrain himself and never use nuclear weapons. But what if Kim Jong Un is as unstable as some news reports say he is?
Suppose North Korea fired missiles and destroyed Seoul, Tokyo, and Seattle (to pick a random North American city). The international response would be immediate and overwhelming, for no political leader could tolerate letting North Korea fire a second round of missiles. Let us suppose that retaliation, led by the United States, was carefully limited to strikes against North Korea. (We may imagine that China endorsed retaliation against Kim Jong Un, so long as China was not attacked.) But let us further suppose that somehow, either directly as a result of attacks on North Korea or because of sabotage by Korean fanatics, fifteen or twenty large nuclear weapons were detonated in North Korea. What we are imagining is a North Korea turned into an atomic wasteland.
This scenario is not the doomsday story that haunted the cold war, the annihilation of humanity. Most of the world’s people would survive. But our future would be changed in unpredictable ways. Nuclear fallout would hit South Korea, China and Japan first, but its effects would spread worldwide. Radiation poisoning would affect tens of millions of people. Just as important would be the social and political fallout—but we cannot predict what it would be. What would governments do to try to prevent a recurrence of the Korean catastrophe? What “lessons” would be learned by terrorist organizations? How would ordinary people conceive a good life in a post-catastrophe world?
The Korea example is not the worst “storm” that might afflict our world. Nevertheless, we may hope. We may hope for a good future, even if we are not sure what a “good future” might look like.