Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit
Haymarket Books, 2018
A Review by Pam Munter
Our country has not been so politically divided since the Civil War. Take a look at the New York Times Best Seller list and you’ll see most of the books anchored on one side of the political continuum or the other. Civility seems to be in remission, making conversation challenging, on and off social media. A welcomed articulate voice in this volatile wilderness belongs to Rebecca Solnit. Her latest book is Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) (published by Haymarket Books, 2018), in which she makes the case for the power of language to determine truth. Words have their own agency and renaming realities can sway opinions; for instance, phrases such as “enhanced interrogation,” “family reunification,” and “welfare queens” disguise the harsh realities behind the words. “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 home and vision.”
Solnit is a feminist, historian and activist, the author of more than 20 books. Call Them by Their True Names consists of a series of wide-ranging essays, written from 2006 to 2018. The pieces are dense, often steeped in a rich historical background. Among her recurring themes is the maltreatment of Native Americans and other people of color. But her favorite target is Donald Trump—not so much his politics, which have been dissected elsewhere, but the effects created by his vaulted white male privilege. She likens him to Jay Gatsby, also a rich and powerful man who found himself lonely at the top. These are men “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 others’ existence.” Unlike Trump and Gatsby, most of us learn from setbacks and difficulties, she reminds us, and “We get used to a world that is not always about us.”
Her targets broaden as she explores the rise of misogyny in our culture, using the demonization of Hillary Clinton as its apotheosis. Solnit writes that Clinton was “in the bulls-eye of misogyny,” her “very existence seemed to infuriate a lot of people.” More generally, she writes, women and minorities have been disenfranchised by various and largely partisan means, from purging voter rolls and closing precincts, to persistent gerrymandering. She estimates more than twenty million voters were disenfranchised in the last election, with the numbers likely increasing in the future. “Voting is a way to shape the national narrative,” she writes, essential to the maintenance of democracy.
In an essay entitled, “Climate Change is Violence,” she writes, “People revolt when their lives are unbearable. Sometimes material reality creates that…droughts, plagues, storms, floods. Climate change will increase hunger as food prices rise and food production falters.” And she includes the perils of gentrification as another way to displace minorities and increase homelessness. She alleges social decline was propelled by the inequality that escalated during the Reagan Era. “Few people were homeless before the 1980s.” She recalls a time “when real wages were higher, responsibility for taxes more equitably distributed, and a far stronger safety net caught more of those who fell.”
In spite of these depressing trends, Solnit maintains that increased public engagement can bring society back into equilibrium. She fervently hopes resistance will endure, but cites other political movements that flared briefly then disappeared, i.e., Act Up, Occupy Wall Street and anti-nuclear groups. “I am not convinced we are winning, but I am glad we are at last fighting.”
Throughout the book, she entreats people to speak up, weigh in. We need to recognize when conflicts are invented to polarize society, when “facts” have been contaminated by falsity. When we rely on clichés and slogans, “Words deteriorate into a slush of vague intention.” Civil disobedience is mandatory and a proven pathway to social change. Echoing the book’s title, she writes, “Naming is the first step in the process of liberation.”
Solnit’s words are forceful and compelling, more so when she orients the reader with her informed sense of history. But her personal invective can fling her momentarily off the balance beam, the occasional stridence likely tolerable only for true believers. Her writing style is sometimes overgrown, her sentences long, and, ironically, too seldom returns to the overarching theme of the precision of language. Even while acknowledging the difficulties writing a book about contemporary events within the 24-hour news cycle, the collection seems uneven and scattered. Anger is not an emotion in scarce supply these days. While it’s refreshing to see the intellect on display here, more cohesive editing and polemic pruning would have been helpful and even hospitable to readers on the right of her political spectrum.
She leaves us with the trust and the hope we’ll pick up the dropped ball, pay attention, watch our language, take responsibility. “The search for meaning is in how you live your life but also in how you describe it and what else is around you.”
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986) and is a contributor to many others. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in more than 100 publications. Her play Life Without was produced by S2S2S, and nominated four times by the Desert Theatre League, including the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing and Outstanding Play (staged reading). She’s a Pushcart nominee and has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018.