When I find myself in times of trouble, Rebecca Solnit comes to me. But her advice is never simply to let it be. Quite the opposite, the essays in her latest collection “Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)” encourage us to fight, in both word and action, against the forces of injustice, inequality and apathy that threaten the integrity of American society.
Solnit is perhaps best known for writing on feminism in her earlier essay collections “Men Explain Things to Me” and “The Mother of All Questions,” but after writing over 20 books and countless essays, Solnit proves an insightful observer in a diverse range of subjects, from environmental activism to the history of walking to the culture of San Francisco. The essays in “Call Them By Their True Names” are exemplary of Solnit’s omnivorous appetite, and her ability to weave her own obsessions into a vibrant and complex image of American life.
In the both grossly and charmingly titled “Armpit Wax,” Solnit meditates on how the creation myths of different cultures tint the lens through which we consider questions of perfection, grace and redemption; in the more somber “Death by Gentrification,” Solnit does a deep forensic dive into the 2014 police killing of Alex Nieto to explore how it reflects on larger issues of displacement and inequity in rapidly gentrifying San Francisco neighborhoods; in “The Ideology of Isolation,” Solnit connects the American “cowboy ethos” of rough-and-tumble self-sufficiency to the disintegration of objective truth. Somewhere in this nimble navigation between the historical and the contemporary, the philosophical and the concrete, Solnit offers a remarkably clear-eyed understanding of American society, and pulls off the neat trick of untangling some wildly complicated issues into a comprehensible form without ever denying their complexity.
Tying together the disparate subjects of these essays is Solnit’s interest in the power of language, both as a diagnostic tool for larger social issues and a weapon by which those issues can be obscured or distorted in the public eye, which she identifies as “one of the crises of this moment.” Though Solnit doesn’t shy away from the cerebral and abstract, her interest in language is deeply practical, coming from her history as a progressive activist. She writes, “Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.”
And “changing the world,” as grand a claim as that may seem, is the explicit goal of these essays. While that may seem naive to some, Solnit argues that it’s absolutely essential in her essay on “Naive Cynicism,” which she defines as the attitude that the world cannot be transformed in any substantial or ideal way, and therefore there’s no point in trying. Solnit argues that we must meet naive cynicism with practical idealism in the form of action: “What we do begins with what we believe we can do. It begins with being open to the possibilities and interested in the complexities.”
This prevailing emphasis on hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, makes Solnit a steady and necessary voice of the resistance. While her own values lie unapologetically on the far-left of the political spectrum, her mission applies to anyone seeking a more just, more progressive social order, with a grounding in evidence-based reform. In a time when every week seems to bring a new defeat for minorities, for women and for the environment, Solnit reminds us that our actions matter even when they seem trivial.
“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 … You do what you can do; you do your best; what what you do does is not up to you.”