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Web Exclusive: Rebecca Solnit Reads from “The Mother of All Questions”; Discusses Hope & Resistance

Web ExclusiveMarch 28, 2017
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Part 2 of our conversation with Rebecca Solnit, one of the nation’s most celebrated writers. She’s the author of more than 20 books, including, most recently, “The Mother of All Questions.”

Watch Part 1: Rebecca Solnit on Climate Change, Resistance, Misogyny and 'The Mother of All Questions'

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with Rebecca Solnit, the writer, historian, the activist, author of more than 20 books, including, most recently, The Mother of All Questions. Let’s start there. We ended Part 1 of our conversation with “the mother of all questions,” but if you can talk again about what that means to you?

REBECCA SOLNIT: Yeah, “The Mother of All Questions” was, you know, sort of a joke title for those questions that try and—that are really not questions. They’re statements that—you know, “Why don’t you have children?” is saying, “You should have children. I’m going to harass you for not having children.” It happened to me in an interview that was supposed to be about a political book of mine. The guy spent the first 15 minutes just sort of hounding me about my reproductive choices and couldn’t find any of the answers adequate. And I know a lot of younger friends of mine are being harassed about those questions.

It’s really—it’s the kind of questions that attempt to reduce women to breeding units, to assume that reproductive activity and personal life is public business, as women’s bodies often and even usually are. It’s part of the larger idea that there’s a one-size-fits-all recipe for happiness we should all conform to, despite the fact we know lots of people who have conformed to it and aren’t happy. And, you know, it’s a kind of punitive normalizing force against which I think we can raise subtler questions about the nature of happiness or maybe question the idea that happiness is what we’re here for. Maybe we’re here for meaning and purpose and, you know, other things. And somewhere in that essay, I say there are so many other things to love. And I know the way you love your work, and you’re passionate about democracy and social justice, etc. There’s a lot of other kinds of love that we don’t talk nearly enough about, I’ve been trying really hard to talk about for 20 years.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to chapter three of your book, “Silence: The Cages.” Talk about the silencing of people, good silence, bad silence, what quiet means.

REBECCA SOLNIT: Yeah, this is a big essay that’s the big new part of the book. Many of the other essays have been published in The Guardian and Harper’s. And I really set out thinking I was going to write about how women are silenced. And there are innumerable ways, and with silence really standing in for powerlessness, because to have a voice, which means not just being able to utter words, but to have them respected when you say “no,” which is what the campus consent laws are about, to have a voice in the fate of your body, which is what reproductive rights mean, to have a voice in a society, which is what voting rights mean, are all things that we’re still struggling for in different ways. And, you know, so—but I realized, as I wrote it, that we needed to talk about how men are silenced, as well, that there’s a kind of reciprocity of silences in conventional roles, which both men and women have revolted against, but, you know, in a revolution still underway.

And I distinguished silence from quiet for the sake of this essay, because we have so many blurry overlapping words in English. And quiet is the choice to be in tranquility, to withdraw, to be—maybe to look inward. Silence, I wanted to use for that lack of voice enforced from outside.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about the issue of sexual assault and sexual violence, from Roger Ailes to Bill Cosby. Now you have a self-confessed sexual assaulter as the president of the United States. You have women who have made charges against him, who have described what he—who have alleged what he did to them. He said he would sue them right after the election. He has not. He, himself, in a videotape so many people heard, talked about not being able to help himself—

REBECCA SOLNIT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —as he went after women, just grabbing them. What does this mean to you?

REBECCA SOLNIT: You know, it’s appalling that that didn’t stop him, that people were willing to vote for him anyway, that people were willing to disbelieve the just—you know, these women, or give their voice no weight, when they talked about somebody who was committing felonious sexual assaults. And—but more broadly, we are in this interesting moment where Cosby got away with it for half a century, Roger Ailes got away with it for decades, we’ve seen a lot of people who got away with these things for a long time, not getting away with them now.

I believe passionately that assaults on women, from domestic violence to street harassment and stranger assault to campus rape and the other kinds of sexual violence we live in, is an epidemic. It’s a war. It’s a crisis. And I’ve tried for decades now, it feels like, to try and get people to see how profoundly it limits women’s ability to participate fully, to be free, to be equal. And, you know, it’s a crisis that’s gone on so long that it’s just become the norm. And maybe we should just call it patriarchy.

But things are changing. And the woman who finally spoke out against Roger Ailes was heard, and a lot of other women came forward to support her, which is how it’s often happened, with Cosby, with many cases, of real solidarity and support in between women to testify, to reinforce each other’s voices, because women’s voices are so often discredited as part of that silencing. So, I think we’re in a transformative time.

I also think we’re in the midst of a huge backlash. I think it could go either way. When I speak hopefully, it’s never like this—it’s not optimism: “This will happen. We can all kick back.” It’s “There’s room here for us, if we do—if we fight with all our might, to change things for the better.” And feminism has changed things so profoundly in our lifetimes that I’m still hopeful about it, despite having the pussy-grabber-in-chief in the White House, despite this sort of new alt-right misogyny and this administration.

AMY GOODMAN: You helped popularize the word “mansplaining.” What does that mean to you?

REBECCA SOLNIT: Yeah, I wrote an essay in 2008 called “Men Explain Things to Me,” and some anonymous blogger, who I still wish would come forward, coined the word “mansplaining” the next week, which now is in 34 languages. It’s in The Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a normal part of the vocabulary. It’s about that circumstance, which happened to me this week, in which a man assumes he knows, and a woman doesn’t, and when in fact the reverse is true. And I met a woman last night who’s a financial expert, who has a young man in her department explaining to her something that he doesn’t fully understand, and she’s the—you know, the departmental chair—expert on. So, it’s the assumption that knowledge is somehow inherent in the male condition, ignorance in the female condition, you know, that kind of patronizing bullying, taking up too much room in the conversation, you know.

And the example that I used in that essay, which has had quite a life, the first example I used—there are many—is a man telling me about the very important book I should know about, that turned out to be a book I wrote, but he wouldn’t slow down long enough to hear my friend Sally keep saying, “That’s her book. That’s her book.” So a man told me I should read this book that—

AMY GOODMAN: That you had written.

REBECCA SOLNIT: That I had written, yes. That’s mansplaining at its finest.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you understand your book better once he explained it to you?

REBECCA SOLNIT: No.

AMY GOODMAN: How about reading a section—

REBECCA SOLNIT: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: —from The Mother of All Questions. Again, we’re speaking to Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian, activist. She’s author of 20 books, this her latest.

REBECCA SOLNIT: I’m going to read the last couple paragraphs from the “Short History of Silence.”

[reading] “There is always something unsaid and yet to be said, always someone struggling to find the words and the will to tell her story. Every day each of us invents the world and the self who meets that world, opens up or closes down space for others within that. Silence is forever being broken, and then like waves lapping over the footprints, the sandcastles and washed-up shells and seaweed, silence rises again.

“We make ourselves in part out of our stories about ourselves and our world, separately and together. The great feminist experiment of remaking the world by remaking our ideas of gender and challenging who has the right to break the silence has been wildly successful and remains extremely incomplete. Undoing the social frameworks of millennia is not the work of a generation or a few decades but a process of creation and destruction that is epic in scope and often embattled in execution. It is work that involves the smallest everyday gestures and exchanges and the changing of laws, beliefs, politics, and culture at the national and international scale.

“The task of calling things by their true names, of telling the truth to the best of our abilities, of knowing how we got here, of listening particularly to those who have been silenced in the past, of seeing how the myriad stories fit together and break apart, of using any privilege we may have been handed to undo privilege or expand its scope is each of our tasks. It’s how we make the world.”

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca Solnit, reading from her book The Mother of All Questions. In this era of Trump, talk about what’s gone on for you in your community, inside yourself, once he was elected and once you see what has transpired since, in this period which is far less than his first 100 days.

REBECCA SOLNIT: I’m—one of the things I talk about in the book is it’s a misnomer that a reaction to danger is fight or flight. That was based on studying male rodents and male human beings. There’s a third sort of gather and tend and—tend and befriend, they call it. And that’s what I saw immediately after the election. People reached out to say, “How are you? I’m here with you. We’re in this together.” There’s been this massive wave of sort of solidarity and people, I think, not being nitpicky about small differences, because across huge differences—you know, your Catholic friends, your Muslim friends, your secular friends, your anarchist friends, your Marxist friends—are all opposed to this administration, in many cases. And so, there’s been this extraordinary expression and action of solidarity, people standing up for each other, that’s been beautiful. It has been incredibly exciting. I’m not nostalgic for who we would have been under a Hillary Clinton presidency, which is who we were under a Barack Obama presidency—namely, insufficiently engaged and deeply divided within ourselves on the left and—you know, and in the mainstream. So I see tremendous possibility. But I also see this can fizzle out.

I wrote a book about disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell, about the extraordinary way people come together after disasters. We’re not social Darwinist barbarians. We’re not nature, red in tooth and claw. We’re beautifully, anarchistically resourceful, communitarian, full of mutual aid, in the moments after a disaster. And this confirms that the Trump administration is a huge disaster, like a war, like an earthquake, like a hurricane, that people have come together from.

But do they understand their own power? Can they exercise it, build on it, make something permanent out of it, hang on to it, do the slow, painstaking work of rebuilding a society? Because I think we need to do nothing less than that, and recognizing, as the radical right has, that you need to work on local elections, in school boards. You need to address, you know, how districts are drawn up. You need to address who gets to vote in our elections. Can we do that long, slow work of rebuilding? I think it’s possible, as it never has been before, to really shift radically the level of participation, the set of ideals, the nature of the parties, and do something extraordinary, but only if people believe it’s possible, if they can stick together to some extent, which doesn’t mean smoothing over racism or sexism or, you know, or limiting what we do in those ways, but means seeing—understanding what we have in common and articulating in a way that’s energized and inspiring, claiming that power and really doing what’s possible with it.

So that’s what I’m hoping for. And every day we see horrible and disgusting things coming from this administration. But they’re chaotic. They’re weak. They don’t know how to govern. And the chaos and disarray, I think, is full of possibility for us. I think that it’s not a given, but there’s real possibilities of just taking them apart and watching them collapse.

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca Solnit, I want to thank you for spending this time with us, writer, historian, activist, author of 20 books, most recently, The Mother of All Questions. She is a columnist at Harper’s, as well. Her most recent piece, we’ll link to, at The Guardian, titled “Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option.”

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our interview with Rebecca Solnit, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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