What a pity that Rebecca Solnit does not get a chance in this engaging essay collection to give us her take on the extraordinary furore surrounding Geoffrey Boycott’s knighthood. True, it’s a story with unmistakably English accents: a cricket-loving, female ex-prime minister, applauded for introducing a domestic violence bill into parliament, granting a top honour to a man with a conviction for violence. But in other ways, the Boycott disaster treads familiar ground for Solnit, who here examines an Anglo-American culture that has changed out of all recognition, thanks to serial waves of activism, yet so often proceeds as if it is business as usual. Under the old rules, powerful or talented white men are honoured and protected, whatever their private actions, while those they harm too often remain marginalised or victimised for telling the truth.
It has become fashionable to lampoon anger at a white, male establishment as an irrational excess of political correctness. Solnit largely evades this charge through her attention to detail, and the lightness of her writing. She eschews the kind of outraged prose that makes even sympathetic readers recoil in defensiveness or yawn at impending overkill. This is not accidental. In one essay entitled “All the Rage”, she concludes, “Most great activists – from Ida B Wells to Harvey Milk are motivated by love… their urges are primarily protective, not vengeful. Love is essential; anger is perhaps optional.”
In place of righteous fury, she pokes gentle fun. “Unconscious Bias Is Running for President Again” is a shrewd exploration of how we judge political charisma and how few women are deemed to have it, all of which means we keep choosing the same kind of leaders over and over again. (Joe Biden for president anyone?)
Each of these essays circles the simple, central message of the title: who gets to tell what story, and why the old narratives urgently need to change. Solnit wants to bring to the fore all those who have been for so long pushed to the back of our political and cultural life, and to celebrate those movements that have made it possible: MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion. While she insists on the importance of collective effort, there are paeans of praise here for new kids on the block such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg, and she includes a moving letter of thanks to Christine Blasey Ford, whose anguished evidence in the Brett Kavanaugh Senate hearings in 2018 transfixed a nation.
Solnit can be sharp-tongued when needed. In “The Fall of Men Has Been Greatly Exaggerated” she forensically analyses a single tweet, later deleted, relating to early accusations against Kavanaugh, perfectly unpacking the “loopily malicious self-delusion” of the writer, who is trying to excuse another man’s bad behaviour through grossly stereotyping women: a tweet which belongs in “the museum of misogyny”. She is brilliant on the assault on abortion rights in the US, and the appalling propagation of lies and double standards that now underpin growing legislative control of women’s bodies.
But Solnit ranges far wider than the deeply depressing current political scene. Like the nature writer Robert Macfarlane, she explores landscapes and language: meditating on the varied meanings of single words, from “country” to “invade”, “isolate” to “alienate”. Listening to an older friend’s recollection of long-forgotten political activists, “I felt the long reach of a city that we both inhabited… the coherence of a storied landscape.” Travelling the New York subway, passing near to the Rockefeller Center, Columbus Circle and Washington Square, she notes how “a horde of dead men with live identities haunt New York City”. Women, meanwhile, figure less as actual people whose achievements deserve to be marked than as “allegories and nobodies”, as in the Statue of Liberty.
Solnit speaks such considered, quotable sense, it is tempting to see her as an early victor in our ugly culture wars, here producing a first draft of a new sort of history. I am not so sure; the fate of the intersectional movements that Solnit represents and celebrates still depends on the outcome of any number of battles currently being fought around climate, democracy, race and gender. But, at the very least, Solnit’s work alerts us to the all-important task of recording and elucidating the challenges of our age, so that today’s campaigners may not be interred by their most vengeful enemies, and their wisdom, wit and courage lost to future generations.
Melissa Benn’s most recent book is “Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service” (Verso)
Whose Story is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters
Granta, 192pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control