Author(s): Rebecca Solnit
In this powerful and wide-ranging collection of essays, Rebecca Solnit turns her attention to the war at home. This is a war, she says, "with so many casualties that we should call it by its true name, this war with so many dead by police, by violent ex-husbands and partners and lovers, by people pursuing power and profit at the point of a gun or just shooting first and figuring out who they hit later."
To get to the root of these American crises, she contends that "to acknowledge this state of war is to admit the need for peace," countering the despair of our age with a dose of solidarity, creativity, and hope.
In a time of political, social and environmental crises, it’s easy to dismiss the issues and be subsumed by your own ideology - and be enraged by another’s viewpoint. We all will find ourselves both challenged and heartened by journalist, critic and activist Rebecca Solnit’s latest series of essays, Call Them by Their True Names. These essays are focused on the country she lives in, its politics and history, and the stories that paint a portrait of a country in crisis and the response to these crises, yet her language and her arguments are universal: her themes are issues that should concern us all - injustice, inequality, violence and hope. The introductory essay lays the groundwork for the reader’s approach to the subject matter. As the title suggests, she is urging us to consider the ways in which society (politicians, media, lobbyists, spin doctors) and we, as individuals, describe situations and issues, often hiding the true meaning behind false language. What we call things, and how we call it out, matters - language is crucial to understanding and hence to communication. Solnit argues that it is only when we call things by their true names that we can counter them or converse in meaningful (and change-provoking) dialogue. From the 2016 American elections, where she pinpoints the disenfranchisement of millions of voters ( in 'Twenty Million Missing Storytellers') as a pivotal tool to a conservative victory, to the ‘loneliness’ of Donald Trump - an individual isolated from the real mechanisms of the political system and ultimately, you get the impression from Solnit's analysis, doomed to failure of his own making - to the reasons why Hilary Clinton was demonised even by the left-leaning media and critics, Solnit calls out the lazy thinking and the ease with which certain catch-phrases and language are used to explain away the results. She then goes on to think and articulate the emotional structures that underpin some of this thinking. In the essay 'Preaching to the Choir' she considers the wisdom of talking with or to those who hold the same or similar political beliefs. She draws on psychological research - it is easier to move people closer to your viewpoint than to change someone’s mind from an opposing position - and with this in mind, wonders why the focus of political elections has been on the ‘swing voter’ or the undecided. In 'Naive Cynicism', Solnit critiques those who fall back on rhetoric on all sides of the political spectrum, and is particularly damning of those on the left who have found it easier to be cynical and use language as a tool to undermine the actions or small achievements of their colleagues. 'Facing the Furies' deals with anger and violence as political tools and whether they are useful or even advisable. The third part of the collection looks at specific and pivotal happenings that illustrate Solnit’s ideas. There are thought-provoking and important essays about climate change and resistance: 'Climate Change is Violence', 'The Light from Standing Rock'; the annexation of California and what borders mean: 'Blood on the Foundation'; and inequality and its repercussions: 'Death by Gentrification'. The final three essays lay out a way of thinking about the future by engaging in the present: the importance of community, communication and the indirect consequences of action, and why utilising language that embraces facts and history rather than spin or empty phrases is vitally important. Solnit is biting and savage in her analysis, yet also hopeful and admiring of the power of activism.