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

by Rebecca Solnit

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4281359,446 (4.13)28
"Changing the world means changing the story, the names, and the language with which we describe it. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness in the face of injustice and violence. In this powerful and wide-ranging collection, Solnit turns her attention to battles over meaning, place, language, and belonging at the heart of the defining crises of our time. She explores the way emotions shape political life, electoral politics, police shootings and gentrification, the life of an extraordinary man on death row, the pipeline protest at Standing Rock, and the existential threat posed by climate change."--… (more)

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» See also 28 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
For a collection of topical essays this book served me as a reminder of how we got to the disarray of politics and the divide in our society. More than that, Solnit analyzes and resists our tendency to live with lies and euphemisms rather than face hard facts. It heartens me to know that some commentators are not simply rambling on about our problems but actually addressing them. ( )
  nmele | Mar 25, 2022 |
These essays are about hope, but hope as a verb. Hope as something you do, you act on. Whether it works or not, you keep doing hope. ( )
  wunder | Feb 3, 2022 |
This is another brilliant collection by Rebecca Solnit, who seems to me to be a very wise woman. Some of the pieces are very hopeful, in a modest, realistic, way. Solnit recognizes that things don't usually turn on a dime. People have to think about new ideas before they adopt them. Solnit speaks strongly, but she doesn't engage in pointless recriminations or savaging of (most) people. I particularly like her acceptance of imperfection, her condemnation of naive cynicism, and her recognition that things, like taking advantage of the poor and the marginalized is really a form of violence.

I am quite sincere in what I just said. I ask to be excused for spending most on this review on one particular essay that I didn't like and found upsetting, but it always takes so much longer to explain why one disagrees that to praise what one agrees with -- the latter tends to speak for itself. Anger, and its associated issue, forgiveness, is a very important issue for me. This is going to be an essay in its own right and may therefore be skipped as not really part of a review.

● It is Solnit's "Facing the Furies" essay that I have trouble with. It seems rather odd in a collection that seems to almost vibrate with anger, even if carefully expressed, and indignation. I needed to pause between essays, partly so that I could think about them, but also to take a rest from the intensity. After reading this essay, I felt that two women whom I believe consider themselves to be feminists, trivialize rape. I am sure that I am missing excellent essays and insightful wisdom, but I haven’t brought myself to read any more of Solnit yet.

● The essay seem a bit disjointed to me. Annoyance, anger, fury, and rage, are mixed together with little distinction as are serious offenses and annoyances. Solnit several times quotes Martha Nussbaum, whose Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, I consider to be a waste of trees. I realize that just because one quotes someone, doesn’t mean that one agrees with everything they say, but I can’t see why she quoted her and this book at all. Neither Nussbaum nor Solnit seem to distinguish between being angry, displaying anger, and correctly displaying anger.

● Nussbaum quotes Aristotle in building her definition of anger as a desire for payback. As she notes, Aristotle also said: "Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy." Nussbaum doesn't find him authoritative in when he clearly believes that anger is sometime appropriate. I think that using only the word "pay-back" to describe the focus is anger is inadequate and tendentious. I believe that displaying 80%-90% of anger is a waste - that's where weighing its value and its consequences is important.

● I think anger is very useful when being reasonable isn't working, and I need to stand up for myself, especially given all my training in being an inoffensive doormat. Then anger is a source of strength - when I am angry, I think faster, I'm more articulate and bolder. The expression still needs to be managed. I consider myself to have failed if I yell, curse, or sling insults, let alone use any violence. I use what I call anger to push for a resolution, without being fobbed off by vague promises or facile excuses, to set boundaries, something that women are notoriously discouraged from doing, by making it clear that there will be consequences if they are crossed. I reserve yelling for people who will neither listen nor stop pressing their own views. Rather oddly, Solnit quotes Kelly Sundberg who was raised as a conservative Christian, and the fact that they place a high value of women being forgiving, which she apparently deplores.

● Jean Safer, in her book, Forgiving and Not Forgiving, pointed out that the importance of forgiving, or overlooking, as Nussbaum might prefer, depends in part on the value of our relationship with the offender. The same goes for anger. There is also a distinction between wanting to tell someone off and being willing to get into an argument to do so.

● As Hilary Jacobs Hendel and Juli Fraga say in their NPR article: "Feeling ragey? Don't bury your anger, process it. Here's how:"

"While anger is common, many of us have a conflicted relationship with it. So often we're told that expressing our outrage makes us a "hothead" or means we have "issues." In other words, we're taught to feel bad about our anger. This is why it can be a revelation to learn that feeling angry isn't a character flaw — in fact, it has a biological purpose. Our emotions never hurt anyone. It's what we do with them that matters. [ . . . ]

"But there are two types of anger: core and defensive. Core anger is a response to a perceived violation. This is why threats of physical violence, character assaults, and feeling wronged can evoke it. Without it, we wouldn't be able to speak up when someone makes a racist remark or set a boundary when a co-worker is rude."

● Many people suppose that if one hasn't forgiven someone, one is constantly grinding their teeth in anger, or drinking poison hoping that someone else will die, as it is sometimes put. I wonder if Solnit and Nussbaum are doing something of the sort with anger. No, there are a number of people that I have never forgiven (as I define the word, it has a lot of definitions) whom I almost never think about. Some people call that forgiveness, I call that getting over it. If I am able to avoid them, they are no longer an active problem, and I put the anger that I needed to deal with them in storage.

● Joseph Carroll, in his book, Literary Darwinism, suggests that the humanities need to be grounded in a more thorough understanding of scientific studies, in Nussbaum's case, in things like game theory and evolutionary psychology. Societies requires reciprocity among their members to function, and sanctions to discourage people who attempt to cheat or get a free ride. Societal even if not cosmic balance. Even if one does not believe in evolutionary psychology as an inherited trait, it does offer insights into the purposes of some human behavior.

● What does jailing an offender do for the victim? It can make them safe, at least for a little while. Rapists, and other offenders, like domestic abusers, often threaten or promise to return. It also lets them know that we agree that they have been wronged and that it matters. Solnit praises Michael Dukakkis, who was asked in a debate, if he would want the death penalty if his own wife was raped and murdered. Dukkakis affirms his long-standing opposition to the death penalty, which is fine with me. What bothers me is the vague talk of better ways to handle violent crime. I've heard that too often from the well-meaning. Perhaps they would like to be a little more specific? Men of Science (as Karl Menninger liked to say) have not convinced me that they can treat and then release the person safely back into society. In his book Think Again, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong quotes the American Psychological Association, "Report of the Task Force on the Role Psychology in the Criminal Justice system":

'Psychiatrists and clinical psychologist are trained in diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, but lawyers sometimes ask them to predict future crimes by defendants. Are they authorities in this area? No, according to their own professional organization: "It does appear from reading the research that the validity of psychological predictions of dangerous behavior, at least in the sentencing and release situation we are considering, is extremely poor, so poor, that one could oppose their use on the strictly empirical grounds that psychologists are not professionally competent to make such judgements." In short, authorities on psychiatric diagnosis and treatment are not authorities on prediction of criminal behavior.'

● Solnit starts out this essay with Kenny Roger's "Coward of the County," in which the main character, Tommy, avenges the gang rape of his wife or girlfriend, Becky, by beating up the perpetrators. I'll look at this several different ways.

● Nussbaum also uses a case of rape as an example, coincidentally naming the victim Rebecca. Instead of looking at things through Rebecca's eyes, she uses the point of view of Rebecca's close friend, Amanda. Oddly enough, neither Nussbaum nor Solnit ever consider very much how the victim Becky/Rebecca might feel. Rape wasn't a convincing example for Nussbaum to use. She thinks it is ridiculous is Amanda sees the rape as a down-grading of herself (or apparently Rebecca). In the first place, since she has specified that it is a stranger rape, she apparently doesn't think that they should take it personally, despite the fact that it happened to Rebecca personally, let alone should Amanda feel that her dignity is assaulted. Considering how rape is treated in this country and throughout the world, if rape isn't taken as downgrading a woman, I certainly take it to be a signifier of the contempt in which women are commonly held, and rapists to be reinforcing that contempt. Nussbaum thinks Becky/Rebecca should react to being raped by abandoning their “narcissistic anger” and recognize the need to preserve the dignity of their rapists. I think that rapists should give up their narcissistic behavior. Funny how Nussbaum doesn't seem to think that victims might feel that their dignity is diminished.

● Presumably, Nussbaum thinks that the women in the #MeToo movement have it all wrong. As I noted, she feels that anything that isn't illegal is trivial, and should be overlooked. I am younger than Nussbaum, and I can remember Jim Crow laws, poll taxes and literacy tests for Black people who wanted to exercise their right to vote, laws against miscegenation, and the tolerance of discrimination against ethnic and racial minorities, women, and anyone in the LGBTIAS2 categories, (I've probably missed something.) Those were not illegal at the time, so according to Nussbaum's standards, they were trivial, and presumably all the Civil Rights movements have all been misguided. As the hymn says: "Time makes ancient good uncouth / They must ever up and onward / Who would keep abreast of truth." It's denouncing "trivia" as unacceptable that makes it become illegal.

● I also read Jean Briggs' Never in Anger, about a certain group of Inuit that she studied. At least Solnit recognized that Briggs didn't think that they were never angry, just that they exercised self-control. Having tried to do the same, I find that I am less angry, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to be angry about. Nussbaum chose to ignore that. Briggs also wrote:

"Readers of Canadian Inuit ethnography, my own Never in Anger (1970) in particular, have sometimes concluded that Inuit are always and everywhere pacific. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Murder was known in many—perhaps all—Inuit societies, and in some it seems to have been a very frequent occurrence (e.g., Rasmussen 1932: 17). Feuding was an obligation in some societies (e.g., Oswalt 1967: 184–185; Spencer 1959: 71) and there were cases in which the community took it upon itself to dispose of a person who was widely feared; for example, a recidivist murderer or someone who was violently insane. " (Citation

● So, back to Becky/Rebecca. How would she feel? Judging what was appropriate for her husband, I would have to know what would have happened if it was reported to the law. Would they call her a lying slut who was out to ruin the reputations of three good men, pillars of society? Will they tell her that she was attacked by the governor’s sons, and there’s no way they’ll be arrested. Tell her that she should stop wearing provocative skirts that don't cover her ankles? Would they take a rape kit and never analyze it? Would they try to convince her that there was no real harm done, and it was best to avoid an unpleasant trial? Is this the sort of lawless place where one needs to make it clear on one's own that there WILL be consequences. Is he more likely to get arrested than her assailants? I don't think that either Solnit or Nussbaum deals adequately with Becky/Rebecca's rape, especially from her side.

● Solnit ignores the conditional nature of both the advice Tommy gets from his father, as does he ("Walk away from trouble if you can"), and Tommy's final statement ("Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.") Everyone, male, female, intersex, nonbinary, or gender-fluid, or any other genders will need to fight sometimes, even if it isn't physical. Properly managed anger is a help.

(Believe it or not, this is shorter than the original) ( )
  PuddinTame | Nov 26, 2021 |
Ms Solnit is brilliant, as always, but she isn't always edited well by her publisher who, in her 4th essay collection for Hey Day books has once again, put her work in kind of a jumbled nonsense of a pile. If you can stand that these essays seem thrown about like yesterday's laundry, you'll be fine. On their own, they are magical, particularly "Preaching to the Choir" ( )
  Smokler | Jan 3, 2021 |
I've read a lot of Solnit's work, and I particularly like the essays in this collection. ( )
  KimMeyer | Sep 8, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rebecca Solnitprimary authorall editionscalculated
Campbell, CassandraNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hansson, HelenaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weintraub, AbbyCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how "a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name."
So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because it is not only the enemy of the good, it's also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun. ("Armpit Wax," p.5)
These supple stories, unalarmed by improvisation, failure, and sex, remind me of jazz. In contrast the creator in the Old Testament is a tyrannical composer whose score can only be performed one right way. The angel with the flaming sword drove out of Eden because we talked to snakes and made a bad food choice about fruit snacks. Everything that followed was an affliction and a curse. Redemption was required, because perfection was the standard by which everything would be measured. And by which everything falls short.

But if you give up on grace, you can give up on the fall. You can start enjoying stuff that is only pretty good. ("Armpit Wax," p.7)
I have often run across men (and rarely, but not never, women) who have become so powerful that there is no one around to tell them when they are cruel, wrong, foolish, absurd, repugnant. In the end there is no one else in their world, because when you are not willing to hear how others feel, what others need, when you do not care, you are not willing to acknowledge other's existence. That's how it's lonely at the top. It is as if these petty tyrants live in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity, and they are buffered from the consequences of their failures.

"They were careless people," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the rich couple at the heart of The Great Gatsby. "They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." Some of us are surrounded by destructive people who tell us we're worthless when we're endlessly valuable, that we're stupid when we're smart, that we're failing even when we succeed. But the opposite of people who drag you down isn't people who build you up and butter you up. It's equals who hold you accountable, true mirrors who reflect back who you are and what you're doing. ("The Loneliness of Donald Trump," p. 13)
Most new ideas begin in the margins or shadows and move toward the center. They are often something that a few people thought, something that seemed radical or edgy or a bit too much, or just something hardly anyone noticed or felt strongly about. If they were ideas about justice, they were considered extreme or unrealistic. Then the idea kept traveling, and by the end of the journey it was what everyone had always thought. Or, rather, what they thought they had always thought, because it's convenient to ignore that they used to not pay attention or had thought something completely different, something that now looks like discrimination or cluelessness. A new idea is like a new species: it evolves; it expands its habitat; it changes the ecosystem around it; and then it fits in as though it was always there, as though we as a nation had always condemned slavery or believed women deserved the vote or thought nonstraight people were entitled to the same rights as straight people. ("Twenty Million Missing Storytellers," p. 33)
Naive cynics shoot down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of any situation. They take aim at the less cynical, so that cynicism becomes a defensive posture and the avoidance of dissent. They recruit through brutality. If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. But expecting perfection is naive; failing to perceive value by using an impossible standard of measure is even more so. Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards. They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete and compromised -- but also because the openness of hope is dangerous, and in war, self-defense comes first. Naive cynicism is absolutist; its practitioners assume that anything you don't deplore, you wholeheartedly endorse. But denouncing anything less than perfection as morally compromising means pursuing aggrandizement of the self, not engagement with a place or system, or community, as the highest priority. ("Naive Cynicism," p. 53)
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"Changing the world means changing the story, the names, and the language with which we describe it. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness in the face of injustice and violence. In this powerful and wide-ranging collection, Solnit turns her attention to battles over meaning, place, language, and belonging at the heart of the defining crises of our time. She explores the way emotions shape political life, electoral politics, police shootings and gentrification, the life of an extraordinary man on death row, the pipeline protest at Standing Rock, and the existential threat posed by climate change."--

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