I know it is a lot of quotes, but I did find this book very important and Solnit has a gift of writing succinctly and directly about the things we’d rather not consider.
Naming is the first step in the process of liberation.
There are so many ways to tell a lie. You can lie by ignoring whole regions of impact, omitting crucial information, or unhitching cause and effect; by falsifying information by distortion and disproportion, or by using names that are euphemisms for violence or slander for legitimate activities, so that white kids are “hanging out” but the Black kids are “loitering” or “lurking”. Language can erase, distort, point in the wrong direction, throw out decoys and distractions. It can bury the bodies or uncover them.
Being careful and precise about language is one way to oppose the disintegration of meaning, to encourage the beloved community and the conversations that inculcate hope and vision.
You can take the woman out of the church but not the church out of the woman. Or so I used to think, as my lapsed Catholic mother carried out dramas of temptation, sin, and redemption by means of ice cream and broccoli, or froze with fear at the idea of having made a mistake. She had left behind the rites and the celebrations but not the anxiety that all mistakes were unforgivable. So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good, it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.
If the perfect is the enemy of the good, maybe imperfection is its friend.
The rich kids I met in college were flailing as though they wanted to find walls around them, leaping from their inherited heights as though there to be gravity and to hit the ground, but parents and privilege kept throwing out safety nets and buffers, kept padding the walls and picking up the pieces, so that all their acts were meaningless, literally inconsequential. They floated like astronauts in outer space.
“When Hillary Clinton raises her voice, she loses.” One could get the impression that a woman should campaign in a sultry whisper, but, of course, if she did that she would not project power. But if she did project power she would fail as a woman, since power, in this framework, is a male prerogative, which is to say that the setup was not intended to include women.
By figures on both the right and the left, Clinton was held to be more responsible for her husband’s policies than he was, more responsible for the war in Iraq than the rarely mentioned Bush administration, responsible for Obama’s policies as though he had carried out her agenda rather than she his. These narratives cast her as demoness with unlimited powers, or as a wicked woman, because she’d had power and aspired to have power again. One got the impression that any power a woman had was too much, and that a lot of men found women very scary.
Mentioning that Clinton had won the popular vote upset many men I am in contact with, though they would or could not conceive of it that way. I write at the time: “With their deep belief in their own special monopoly on objectivity, slightly too many white men assure me that there is no misogyny in their subjective assessments or even no subjectivity and no emotion driving them, and there are no grounds for other opinions since theirs is not an opinion.”
But these men of the left were so dedicated to Clinton’s status as a loser that they wanted Trump to win, because it vindicated something that went deeper than their commitment to almost anything else. They insisted on tautology – that Clinton lost because she was a loser – and dismissed all other factors.
A lot of people, particularly white men, could not bear her, and that is as good a reason as any for Trump’s victory. Over and over again, I heard men declare that she had failed to make them vote for her.
But who is missing from the American narrative? It’s not only the women directors, the Black screenwriters, the not-so-misogynist lead journalists in the mainstream.
If you boil the strange soup of contemporary right-wing ideology down to a sort of bouillon cube, you find the idea that things are not connected to other things, that people are not connected to other people, and that they are all better off unconnected. The core values are individual freedom and individual responsibility: yourself for yourself, on your own.
“There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thacher said in an interview in 1987. The rest of her famous remark is less frequently quoted: “There is [a] living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us is prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”
The loner taketh not, nor does he give; he scorneth the social and relies on himself alone.
Himself. Women, in this mode of thinking, are too interactive in their tendency to gather and ally rather than fight or flee, and in their fluid boundaries. In fact, what is sometimes regarded as an inconsistency in the contemporary right-wing platform – the desire to regulate women’s reproductive activity in particular, and sexuality in general, while deregulating everything else – is only inconsistent if you regard women as people. If you regard women as an undifferentiated part of nature, their bodies are just another place a man has every right to go.
But more often, lashing out is a way to avoid looking inward. A 2001 study by Jennifer Lerner and Dacher Keltner found that feeling angry made people as optimistic about the outcome of a situation as feeling happy. In other words, anger may make people miserable, but it also makes them more confident and crowds out other, more introspective miseries: pain, fear, guilt, uncertainty, vulnerability. We’d rather be mad than sad.
For our species with its imaginative and narrative capacities, challenge to one’s status, beliefs, and advantages also register as threats. Human anger is a response to insecurity both literal and imagined, to any sense that our physical or social or emotional welfare is at risk. Attacks of fury can bring on strokes and heart attacks and blood clots. We routinely die of rage.
I wonder if I hear the phrase preaching to the choir often now, because we have, in our everyday practices, pared our communications down to the bone and beyond. Almost no one I know calls friends merely to have the kind of long, reflective, intimate conversations that were common in earlier decades; phones are for practical exchanges – renegotiating plans, checking in on arrangements. Emails, which in the 1990s seemed to resemble letters, now resemble texting, brief bursts of words in a small space, not to be composed as art, archived or mused over much.
Because revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.
Racism is so embedded that if we were to cease to honoring slaveholders, we would have to rename cities and counties and the state of Washington; sexism is so deeply entrenched that the great women of history are largely missing from our streets and squares. What is to be done with a landscape whose features carry the legacy of violence? Do we tear down what’s already standing? Do we work towards parity by erecting new buildings, new monuments? Do we recontextualize or reclaim what is already there?
Objective is a fiction that there is some neutral ground, some political no man’s land you can hang out in, you and the mainstream media. Even what you deem worthy to report and whom you quote is a political decision.
This work will only matter if it’s sustained. To sustain it, people have to believe that the myriad small, incremental actions matter. That they matter even when the consequences aren’t immediate or obvious.
My review of Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @vkphotospace.com
One thought on “Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) – Rebecca Solnit – Quotes”
I love every book I’ve read by Rebecca Solnit. I have this one ready to read. I need to get around to it soon!
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