Resistance is Never Futile

Rebecca Solnit, Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)

Granta, 176pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781783784974

reviewed by Stephanie Sy-Quia

Rebecca Solnit’s 20th book consists, like a couple of its predecessors, The Mother of All Questions and The Atlas of Trouble and Spaciousness, of her pieces from the preceding few years. Anyone who has been a close follower of hers will recognise much of the book’s contents from The Guardian or Harper’s (where she is the first woman to write the magazine’s ‘Easy Chair’ essay). Here, they have been grouped under slightly obscure headings: ‘American Edges’ includes essays on the institutional violence of climate change, gentrification in San Francisco, or the conflicts surrounding Confederate monuments in the South. Perhaps more predictably, ‘American Emotions’ covers the ideology of isolation and the place of rage in political discourse (‘behind the questions of who has the right to be angry is the questions of who is allowed to act on anger’). The context is American, and the time is now.

Many of the essays in Call Them By Their True Names are re-workings or reiterations of what is arguably her most impressive, paradigm-shifting work, Hope in the Dark (2004), a manifesto for activism even in the face of certain immediate failure. She wrote its anchoring essay in the wake of the Iraq War’s beginning, as a way of ‘speaking directly to the inner life of the politics of the moment, to the emotions and perceptions that underlie our political positions and engagements.’ It covers direct action movements at the turn of the millennium: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Zapatista uprising in 1994, the World Trade Organisation shut-down in Seattle in 1999, the anti-war protests of 2003. There are a mix of failures and successes, but only if you are judging both in the immediate short-term, and confined to their historical moment.

As an illustration of what has become by now her trademark thesis, one of Call Them By Their True Names’s reprises of Hope in the Dark takes the example of a joint talk that Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg gave in February 2017. Ellsberg, while working as an analyst for the Pentagon, leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and contributed to a sea change in public opinion over the Vietnam War. Snowden was Skyping in from Moscow and credited his decision to expose NSA surveillance to Ellsberg’s earlier leak. ‘It was an extraordinary declaration,’ Solnit writes,

‘It meant that the consequences of Ellsberg’s release of the top-secret Pentagon Papers in 1971 were not limited to the impact on a presidency and a war in the 1970s. The consequences were not limited to people alive at that moment. His act was to have an impact on people decades later - Snowden was born twelve years after Ellsberg risked his future for the sake of his principles. Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective, and remembering this is a reason to live by principle and act in the hope that what you do matters, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious.’

It is a belief that can be summed up by a placard commonly seen at anti-Trump protests: ‘Resistance is fertile’. The original phrase is of course from Star Trek: ‘resistance is futile’, the maxim of invading armies. But resistance is never futile. It scatters seeds and we do not know when they will germinate or how long they will lie dormant: ‘a tree grows . . . will there be fruit, shade, habitat for birds, more seeds, a forest, wood to build a cradle or a house? You don’t know.’ 

The American crises of Call Them By Their True Names are crises of self-knowing, of history myopically told, and of reckonings yet to be had. ‘In the monument wars,’ Solnit writes in the essay of the same name, which addresses Confederate monuments of the South, ‘as we excavate our history like an archaeological site – or a crime scene – we have a chance to arrive at new conclusions, nominate new heroes’. The immutability of past, present, and their players is another huge focus of Solnit’s career, explored in books such as Storming the Gates of Paradise (2007) and her mammoth feat of reporting, A Paradise Built in Hell (2009). While the former sets about debunking lone cowboy myths of the American West, the latter proves, thoroughly and insistently, that after disasters (she chooses as her case studied three earthquakes, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina), societies do not descend into Hobbesian fantasies of looting and rape, but become temporary utopias of mutual aid and resource-sharing. Particularly in the wake of Katrina, she was horrified by the mainstream media’s treatment of those stranded in the Superdome or left on their roofs while the levees broke, and so she went to report on it, in an effort to change the story.

She addresses this in the book at hand, in ‘Break the Story’, an essay adapted from a commencement speech she gave at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism (of which she is an alumna): ‘The art of being fully conscious in personal life,’ she writes, means being aware of the ‘ambient stories’ which ‘surround us like air’. A journalist’s job is to report on simultaneous stories: ‘the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday’, and sometimes to ‘break open or break apart’ the harmful ones. ‘Every bad story is a prison; breaking the story breaks someone out of prison. It’s liberation work. It matters.’ The American stories she takes on include American dreams, dreams in the (Ta-Nehisi) Coatesian sense of the phrase: the delusions of those who are unconscious. With her characteristic blend of poetry and an eagle’s eye for historical detail, she commands us all to pull them up by their mandrake roots, look them in the eye, and see what type of soil they grow in.

Her writing is a reminder that civil society, in which she remains an undaunted believer, is more powerful now than it has ever been, because we know of all those who ran into the darkness before us. ‘We are carried along by the heroines and heroes who came before and opened the doors of possibility and imagination’, she writes in ‘In Praise of Indirect Consequences’. Our deeds today are for the future, but they are also for those who precede us. ‘I feel like I’m being watched by my foreparents, who were enslaved,’ as Bryan Stevenson, public defence attorney and author of Just Mercy, interviewed in Pacific Standard, put it. ‘And because they’re watching, I can’t stop. I can’t act as if I can’t do this, that we can’t create something better and bigger. And, you know, when you’re surrounded by a community of witnesses like that, it will inspire you to do things you might not otherwise be able to do.’

I had a conversation recently with a friend older than I, who had been 20 when he participated in the Genoa G8 protests in the summer of 2001. Two hundred thousand people expressed their opposition to the world’s eight most powerful countries’ monopoly over the planet’s agenda, and they were met with tear gas and nighttime raids on the places where they slept. Bolstered by the precedent of similar protests in Seattle and Prague (in 1999 against the WTO and in 2000 against the IMF and World Bank respectively), it was the biggest news item of the summer. Until September 11th, and the war that followed. 

The imagination for radically rethinking our economic models and figuring out how to live lighter on this planet of ours is not only bold and wide and beautiful, but has been there for decades. Many of us have been misled by the weapons of mass distraction, which can take many forms. One particularly dangerous shape they can assume is the opinion that such movements and claims belong to fringe groups – threatening, crazy, laughable people who threaten our tucked-up lives and are therefore undeserving of our attention. Solnit’s examination of our politics’ inner life has allowed us to see the flows beneath the flotilla, the forest and the trees together at once. It has equipped us to make demands in accordance with the length and magnitude of the fights we have ahead. And it assures us that we are never, ever acting alone.