Rebecca Solnit. Photo: suppliedTHE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF TROUBLE AND SPACIOUSNESSBy Rebecca Solnit. Trinity University Press. $43.
San Francisco activist and writer Rebecca Solnit is noted for her irreverent piece Men Explain Things to Me. When first published in 2008, it quickly led to the term “mansplain” and the converse “womansplain”. Her latest essay collection, following up The Faraway Nearby, gathers 29 items first published over 2006-2014.
Instinctively, Solnit favours equality and community over hierarchy and individuality. “I come from the left,” she declares, “and my task is clearly telling the other, overlooked histories of hope, popular power, subversion and possibility.” This sentinel task welcomes the non-violent fall of the Berlin Wall, but fears the American military complex. It canvasses politics, society, geography, environment, cities, and disasters. It meanders through America, Mexico, Iceland, the Arctic, Haiti and Japan.
A common Solnit caution is, mistrust the right, when they say they’re on your side. The American “right wooed rural white people (and then screwed them), the left neglected them at best”. Don’t believe the left, Solnit also warns, when they insist “everything is awful”.
Her essays are allusive and digressive, sometimes arch or experimental in style. Journey to the Center is one that lost me, but Rattlesnake in Mailbox brings its point home. This being California, the title comes from real life, from the 1970s and an attempted cult murder. Another group, the SLA, notably used a “communal toothbrush” and kidnapped the heiress Patty Hearst. But did not those 1970s excesses also galvanise San Francisco communities? That spurred along the civic reformers George Moscone and Harvey Milk – who really were murdered. If Solnit’s “earnest” 1970s punk generation failed to spot the right resurging and inequality widening, they weren’t alone. Yet her summary is that the 1970s were “as generative as they were terrible”, bestowing durable advances in health awareness and minority rights.
Also bequeathed to California are “monuments to public [war] expenditure”. These are obsolete defence barracks and bunkers dotting the San Francisco Bay area. In The Visibility Wars, Solnit recalls being taken to Nevada’s remote nuclear test sites. Though her country retains the biggest military, with hundreds of bases spread over dozens of countries, somehow the war footing remains “invisible to most Americans”. Occasionally, that war may become visible, through the surveillance and policing of dissent.
Regarding America’s “futile” war on drugs, Solnit sends Mexico an apology. Americans she types as “miserable optimists” conditioned to take personal blame for their imperfections and failures. So their resulting pain is “exported” to Mexico and returns in the form of drugs. A better Mexico emerges, in a heartfelt account of the Zapatistas of Chiapas state. This 2008 essay sees their rebel movement as feminist from the start, a government that “obeys” rather than tramples the people.
With hindsight, the Zapatistas are not having an easy road. Ditto the Arab Spring, subject of an approving 2011 piece. But this resilient optimist is not to be bowed. She celebrates the huge not-for-cash Iceberg Economy that gives and receives in our families and communities. Similarly, numberless small and non-violent exchanges can lead to societal change. Hence “American society has changed profoundly over the past half-century, for those among us who are not male, or straight, or white, or Christian”. It’s a good point, also applicable to Australia.
At the time of the 2008-09 global financial crisis, Solnit took Iceland as an instructive example of government failing the community, or vice versa. The crash wrought by Iceland’s over-geared banks, she then concluded, had been a while coming. She quoted Icelandic author Andri Magnason on the prior 30-year “clearance sale” of Iceland’s natural assets. Maybe the people politely accepted civic waywardness for too long. “Which is to say that representative democracy fails, wherever its citizens let it fail, even on a charming island with a thousand-year democratic tradition.”
The essay Climate Change is Violence is a blunt instrument. Other environmental pieces are more nuanced. Detroit Arcadia and Revolutionary Plots consider the restorative prospects for urban agriculture. Oil and Water taps neighbourhood impacts of the notorious 2010 BP oil “spill” in the Gulf of Mexico. Winged Mercury dredges the environmental detritus of California’s 19th century gold rush, particularly the toxic mercury legacy. Dry Lands is Solnit’s alternate 2009 history of the perennially precipitous politics of California water extraction. With that state since fallen into a drought for the ages, her history retains relevance.
Ironically, her edgy San Francisco has now become a dormitory for Silicon Valley salarymen. In a 2013 essay, she jibes at their exclusive “Google Buses” for commuting. A later piece mentions how the Valley titans, apparently overcoming their usual disdain for Big Government, were revealed to be data dealing with the National Security Agency.
Stephen Saunders is a Canberra reviewer.
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