Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)
For almost 40 years, feminist, environmentalist, and human rights advocate Rebecca Solnit has shepherded activists and animated a spirit of community.
Her more than 20 books—on subjects as disparate as natural disasters, origin myths and folk tales, tech’s effect on the humanities—supplemented by dispatches from some of this century’s most consequential political events like Occupy, The Women’s March, Standing Rock—have earned her street cred, garnered critical acclaim, and amplified her reputation as muse.
Then comes the torch-carrying, genital-grabbing age of Trump, when emotion is whacking the sense out of reason and truth, when rectitude, it seems, is all but dead . . . Solnit’s new collection of prose, Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) arrives like the cavalry. Rebecca Solnit, by any other name, is on a rescue and rally mission.
In a foreword to this rousing collection, Solnit swiftly establishes a unifying theme. Her scepter is language. “It begins with naming,” she writes. “The first step in the process of liberation.” The essays here cover enormous territory, but the distance between, say, the homeless now in San Francisco (“No Way In, No Way Out”) and Acoma Pueblo warriors of the 16th century (“The Monument Wars”), is bridged by Solnit’s dedication to storytelling, to sharing a lexicon that galvanizes belief in amelioration.
“To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt—or important or possible. A key to the work of changing the world is changing the story, the names.”
She lasers salient, if predictable, examples of freighted words, gender and race specific, e.g. “shrill, slutty, hysterical,” “uppity, lurking, loitering,” then provides examples of new coinage that flips focus, “walking-while-Black,” “prison-industrial complex,” “affirmative consent,” “unburnable carbon.” Solnit notes Silicon Valley’s vernacular, where memes like “sharing economy” and “openness” appear to disguise intention. Terms like “surveillance capitalism” push back.
Solnit reminds us that precision and clarity in language matter “as gestures of respect,” a deceptively simple recognition that could be used to fortify civil discourse. She motivates with an idea that was once axiomatic: We are only as good as our word. One’s word as bond was first prescribed in the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers and, reporting its persistence, is now a hiphop meme (hear Wu-Tang Clan) signaling integrity.
“If your word is junk, lies, disposable pitches, you’re nothing.” She’s talking to you, Donald Trump.
Arguably, the most topical entries in this collection have been written since the 2016 election, and nowhere are Solnit’s polemics more likely to incite appreciative whoops from her fans. In a suitably aggrieved commentary “Milestones in Misogyny,” she writes, “Hillary Clinton was all that stood between us and an unstable, ignorant, infinitely vulgar, climate-change denying, white nationalist with authoritarian ambitions and kleptocractic plans.” America is likened to “a battered woman, badgered, lied to, threatened, gaslighted, betrayed and robbed by a grifter.”
The essay titled “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” showcases Solnit’s singular knack of seeing around an object, to look, in this case, at “the obliviousness of the privileged” and the importance of equality. She references F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in which the rich “‘smashed up things and creatures, then retreated back into their money or vast carelessness.’” She compares the current president’s special ignorance to “going mad on a desert island, only with sycophants and room service.”
As if in acknowledgement of the need for a sense of justice in whatever form is available, Solnit imagines the dung heap that awaits this president’s landing from a final free fall. “When he plunges into it, he will be, at last, a self-made man.”
Widening an examination of the nightmare she tags “electoral catastrophe,” Solnit brings stunning data to “Twenty Million Missing Storytellers,” a lament for the estimated number of disenfranchised voters in 2016. We’re asked to imagine what the country would be like if millions of votes had not been suppressed or discouraged. “The party of white grievance would be defunct. But the Democratic Party would be different, too, if it had to answer to more young people, more poor people, more nonwhite people . . . It would change the story.”
Solnit bears down on the significance of Hannah Arendt’s expression “banality of evil” and the sudden popularity of The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which Arendt wrote in 1951, “To authoritarians, language is a weapon, usually deployed in the service of an emotional half-truth: something you believe to be true, even if it isn’t.” We, as Solnit remarks, should not be surprised by apparent prescience.
In fact, Solnit displays a talent for prophecy. She seems to identify zeitgeist long before mainstream assimilation. The word “mansplaining” was created in response to Solnit’s original essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” Another word she’s made revelatory is “wandering,” having devoted several books to lyrical explorations of its meanings that include all the psychological hikes, strolls, and marathon runs that occupy daydreaming, remembering, imagining the future.
Solnit’s rhetorical style reflects a leviathan curiosity and a palpable pleasure in thinking things through. Her idiosyncratic lists and complex tropes are sometimes long runways for liftoffs or landings of big ideas. She’s in the business of linking. In “Preaching to the Choir,” Solnit names “correspondence” as means and mission, connecting an exchange of letters, the existence of affinities, and the kinship that is strengthened through conversation.
No essay in Call Them by Their True Names is without its gems; each one uses the author’s panoramic reading in history, science, and philosophy to encourage readers’ close examination. “Collaborate with chance,” is Solnit’s memorably gnomic reconfiguration of Edgar Allan Poe’s declaration that “All experience in matters of philosophical discovery teaches us that it is the unforeseen upon which we should calculate.”
Consider a vision of the unknowable future from within Solnit’s signature exaltation: hope as a banner of interconnectedness. “Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written. It’s an informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and the role we might play in it. Hope looks forward but draws its energies from the past, from knowing histories, including our victories, and their complexities and imperfections.”