Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) – Rebecca Solnit

I read this book over Christmas (yes, I know it was a long time ago, but I’m doing my best to catch up) and despite it being quite short (just under 200 pages) it took me several days to finish it. Every time I stopped reading it I didn’t feel like going back. Don’t get me wrong it is a fantastic, passionate and urgent collection of essays. It’s just very depressing.

In this collection of essays, Solnit focuses on the current situation. The language being her starting point, as she argues that things we cannot or will not name cannot be fought. Because words matter. This resonated with me a lot, as I had various versions of this argument with my friends multiple times over the last few years. Often I am the only humanist (is that the right word in English? Let me know in comments, it’s definitely not my first language) in the room and therefore may be a bit oversensitive to language, but I do firmly believe that words matter.

They can put us in a position of power or victim, they can change our perception of the world and how others see us or things important to us. Solnit focuses on another aspect of this argument – what has no name remains unseen, cannot be understood and no action can be taken in response to it. And many bad and ugly things go unnamed in this world.

If they have names they usually are euphemisms or metaphors, hiding the ugly truth, allowing us to look the other way. So what Solnit proceeds to do, is writing a series of texts where she calls those things by their true names, and those are not nice names by any means. She shoves them right in front of our eyes and does not let us look away. This is why I found this book so difficult. It is harsh, depressing and devastating, especially when we remember that she only writes about things that took place in the last two years.

She writes a lot about Trump and to Trump, but the essay I found chilling was the one about Hillary Clinton’s campaign ( was not following the campaign closely) and how viciously she was attacked. Often purely for the fact that she was a woman who dared to reach for power. Solnit also writes about rage and how susceptible to manipulation it makes us. How cynicism turns into inaction and derision for actions of others.

She does write about ‘preaching to the choir’, this did make me think because I used that exact phrase in my review of ‘Men Explain Things to Me. In her text, she tries to dismantle the negative meaning of the phrase, stressing the importance of the dialogue with people who we disagree with, but also the community building importance of talking to likeminded people.

There are multiple other topics discussed in this slim tome, such as climate change being violence, racially motivated killings, the lasting presence of the Confederate flag and the meaning it conveys. All of them sad, painful but true and important to talk about and acknowledge honestly.

More importantly, though, this book is a call to action. Solnit holds each and every one of us accountable to do something about it. Gives examples of movements that even if they failed in their immediate goal, managed to initiate a profound change that rippled through the world. She draws a line of non-violent social change from suffragettes through Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Occupy Wall Street Movement (I am simplifying her argument for the sake of brevity).

It is an important book, don’t let it bring you down. Let is slap you in the face with reality and push you to do something, big or small, globally or in your local community, but remembering that nothing will change for the better unless we make it so.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @vkphotospace.com 

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