Rebecca Solnit, Author and Activist Who Saw #MeToo Coming, Calls for ‘Revolution in Masculinity’

It is easy to wonder whether Rebecca Solnit—author of 21 books, columnist for The Guardian and Harper's, seasoned activist—can really be one person. Her output is prolific; her range of references expansive. Her work circulates on social media in a way that few other writers can rival. And age 57, there is even the surreal sense that Solnit is only just getting started.

Through the years, Solnit has written incisively on subjects spanning photography and philosophy, feminism and climate change, becoming one of the most prominent figures on the American left. Yet something about her style, stature, and devout following have also made her, in the eyes of her readers, more than a writer. For them, Solnit is a resource: of hope and guidance in turbulent times, a poignant quote always at hand.

As someone who has spent decades writing about and acting on issues that now dominate present-day politics, she is imbued with the powers of prescience—at times appearing as more of a mystic than a critic. A recent New York Times interview described her as “a wise female elder” and awarded her the epithet: “The Voice of the Resistance.” A similarly minded profile in The Daily Telegraph headlined her as “the woman who predicted #MeToo.”

Solnit has been publishing her writing since the 1980s, but it was a viral essay, written in 2008 and titled “Men Explain Things to Me” (now heralded as the inspiration for the word “mansplaining”), that saw her popularity soar. This recognition made many of her older books, the first of which was published in 1991, receive second leases of life. Hope in the Dark, for example, was originally published in 2004 as a paean to the power and possibilities of activism, and then re-published in 2016, selling out in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election victory.

At the heart of Solnit’s stardom is her distinctive optimism, one that does not shy away from how bad things really are. She is as aware of the challenges to be faced as of the reasons why they can be overcome—a conviction that underlines almost all her writing, not least her latest collection of essays Call Them by Their True Names published in September 2018.

Few writers have eyes so well-adjusted to finding hope in the dark and so, in a world beset by a dizzying array of crises, perhaps it is no surprise that her following is only growing. She spoke to Newsweek about the balance between optimism and despair, the worrying rise of authoritarianism, and reasons to be cheerful. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Are there moments—such as now perhaps—when you find the balance between hope and despair harder to maintain? Is it shifting, or is America just becoming, as ever, better and worse at the same time?
I have never felt more uncertain about what is going to happen or that the stakes are higher. Things we considered immovable, unbudgeable, are now sliding and slipping all over the place, and in that there’s room for both wonderful and terrible consequences.

A lot of the terrible ones are unfolding now and [will do] for the near future, with deregulation of fossil fuels, attacks on trans people, refugees, children, students and other vulnerable populations, as well as stuff like fact, truth and the rule of law. That is looming very large in the foreground.

In the background is a rising generation that is, overall (with, of course, exceptions), more multiethnic, more inclusive, more radical in their imaginations and hopes, less attached to capitalism, authority and hierarchies, as well as conventions and sexuality.... I sometimes feel that if we can hold back the destructiveness of this dying old white way until they take over, everything will be fine, but of course we’re only holding back some of it. And climate change, an issue I now work on as a board member of the climate policy-and-action group Oil Change International, can’t wait—and even those political leaders who say the right things are mostly not doing enough.

This all reminds me of what Jamie Henn, 350.org’s communications director, told me a few years ago when I asked him how he felt we were doing: “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart.” That’s still a good description—or, as you say, better and worse at the same time. Since the USA is not a population, but multiple contesting constituencies.

How do you see the big battles—and America’s crises—having changed since you started writing about them?
Well, feminism has done a great deal to excavate a lot of buried crimes, corruptions and core beliefs, and that’s been pretty amazing—in the last six years we’ve begun having the global conversation about the epidemic of violence against women I’ve been waiting for (and occasionally trying to instigate) for decades.

The global climate movement has grown bigger, stronger, smarter and a lot of institutions from cities and corporations to nation-states and the U.N. have gotten engaged, while the technology to leave fossil fuels behind now exists as it did not at the millennium.

Native Americans were emerging from cultural erasure when I began working with and writing about some of them, and that has continued apace, with a big leap around Standing Rock.

But whether this revival of racist, homophobic, misogynist authoritarianism is a backlash against positive change or a major new force that we will be battling for a while doesn’t seem clear. Perhaps because what it is depends on what we do about it.

You often write about how ideas move from the margins of society to the center over time. As you’ve noted, we’ve seen this with feminism and #MeToo in a big way. It’s already a political force. What do you see as its strengths and how can it continue to evolve and establish itself?  
I think it’s a mistake to see #MeToo as some new thing that came out of the blue. It is the harvest from seeds planted decades earlier, part of the work feminism has been doing for half a century and more around women’s rights and equality.... It joins the great work done on domestic violence, campus rape, street harassment, etc. in recent years and over decades. Remember, Anita Hill was talking about this stuff in 1991.

I’m looking at Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery, and she writes about all the women who told their stories of rape and incest for the first time in the 1970s because the women’s movement of the time created places, audiences, forms of support to do so. That there are decades later so many stories to be told for the first time conveys a sense of how vast the epidemic is, and how it continued after this first round of storytelling (often with abuse of women who were not even born then). What gets called #MeToo is one bit of feminism exposing stories of sexual abuse and harassment mostly in the workplace.

We need to root out the problem where it begins: With the people—mostly men—who think they have the right and who have the desire to harm others in this way. To think anything else is like imagining that people of color could fix racism without white people changing. We need a revolution in masculinity so that degrading, violating, and terrorizing other people is not seen as fun or as enhancing of one’s identity and membership in any group, or even be imaginable, really. This is work that men in particular need to do, within themselves and with each other. Some of it is happening, but we need more.

Are there other ideas that you’ve seen on the margins that you’d like to see move into the center?
So many! Among them that leaving fossil fuel behind is not a renunciation that will make our lives poorer, but a departure from an era of literal poisons and poisonous, corrosive power relations.

Do you see your writing as a form of activism—a way of assisting the movement of ideas from the margins and changing the language?
It’s not a simple mechanism to move things but a contribution to a conversation—but yeah, sometimes it’s part of the process of bringing things in from the cold and the shadows. This process involves people in many roles: educators, scholars, advocates, people on the ground, people who are good at slogans and social media, maybe legislators or lawyers, writers….

To finish, two questions: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
The trucker cap on Western Shoshone elder Carrie Dann, circa 1992: “Don’t Let The Bastards Get You Down.” Reiterated by my friend, Jaime Cortez, writer and artist, as “Haters gonna hate” a decade or so later. And then around 2016, a great poet, a black woman, addressing the endless expectations and demands put on women writers: “I’m not here to breastfeed America.” Three versions of the same thing: Other people have their junk; it’s theirs, not yours.

And what’s the best piece of advice you can give?
Don’t ask what’s going to happen; be what happens. Which segues into my eternal return to that paraphrase of Terminator 2: “The future is not yet written.”

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