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November 13, 2018

Call Them by Their True Names, by Rebecca Solnit

While I really liked Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions when I read it during the spring of last year, there was something about its tone that didn’t ring quite right. “There is a Rebecca Solnit book for every moment,” I wrote in my review, and there is indeed, but I think The Mother of All Questions was supposed to arrive in a different kind of moment, the kind that so many of us were expecting when America was on the cusp of electing its first woman president back in November of 2016. There was an optimism to the collection that seemed incongruous with 2017 in general—celebrating 2014 as a watershed in which women finally began to be listened to and believed when they shared stories of violence, for example. When just two years later a man who bragged about sexual assault would be elected to his country’s highest office—some watershed, I thought. Like most things in 2017, it was depressing and I wondered if maybe Solnit didn’t have her finger on the cultural zeitgeist after all.

18 months later, however, my position has shifted. I was revisiting the essay on 2014 (“An Insurrectionary Year”) the other week, and realized that 2014 was only part of the beginning of the project of changing the way we look at women, and violence, and power, and that while the backlash is full-on four years later, it’s only because the project is really happening. A watershed, of course, is never about just moment, and it’s about ideas that are out there now and can’t be packed away again. Of course, society is still struggling to reconcile all this, but it’s happening. Nobody ever said it would be easy, and it’s not as hopeless as I thought.

Which is the point of Solnit’s latest collection, Call Them By Their True Names, which has a freshness and vibrancy that her previous book (along with everything else in 2017) may have been lacking. Solnit has been busy since then writing for outlets including The Guardian and LitHub, but I think I encountered most of the essays in this book for the very first time, and she continues the same message she began with her collection Hope in the Dark in 2004, about the grounds for hope lying in the fact that nobody ever knows what is going to happen next—and 2016 only underlines that. She writes about Trump and Clinton—and on white left-leaning men and Clinton, “They saw the loss as theirs rather than ours and they blamed her for it, as though election was a gift they withheld from her because she did not deserve it or did not attract them.” About the men whose misogyny has since been made implicit by #MeToo, who turned out to be the same men who’d been defining cultural conversations for decades and had been instrumental in the way Hillary Clinton was presented in her presidential bid—and Solnit connects the voices missing in these conversations to the votes that are missing from democracy after years of voters suppression by various means. I loved her essay “Preaching to the Choir” in which she interrogates that metaphor—”And is there no purpose in getting preached to, in gathering with your compatriots? Why else do we go to church but to sing, to pray a little, to ease our souls, to see our friends, and to hear the sermon?”

She writes about climate change, the prison industrial complex, gentrification in her native San Francisco, the fight to remove Confederate statues, the meaning of the protests at Standing Rock, and also, as always, about hope. The final essay in the book is “In Praise of Indirect Consequences,” which brings me back to 2014, and 2017, and how you never really know what’s going to happen, the hope implicit in uncertainty. “Hope is a belief that what we do might matters an understanding that the future is not yet written.” She writes that she did not anticipate and was “moved and thrilled and amazed by the strength, breadth, depth, and generosity of the resistance to the Trump administration and its agenda.” But she is concerned it might not endure:

“Newcomers often think that results are either immediate or they’re nonexistent…This is a dangerous mistake I’ve seen over and over. To see where we are, you need a complex calculus of change instead of the simple arithmetic of short-term cause-and-effect.”

And then: “The only power adequate to stop tyranny and destruction is civil society, which is the great majority of us when we remember our power and come together.”

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