- Rebecca Solnitwriter, historian and activist. Her acclaimed essay “Men Explain Things to Me” is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. Solnit is the author of 20 books, including Hope in the Dark and, most recently, The Mother of All Questions. She is a contributing editor to Harper’s, where she is the first woman to regularly write the “Easy Chair” column.
Extended interview with author and activist Rebecca Solnit. Her acclaimed essay “Men Explain Things to Me” is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, with Part 2 of our conversation with Rebecca Solnit—Rebecca Solnit, the historian, the essayist, the writer, the activist, her acclaimed essay “Men Explain Things to Me” celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. In fact, she’s in New York; tonight she’ll be doing a big event at Cooper Union. Among her books, Hope in the Dark and, most recently, Mother of All Questions. She’s contributing editor to Harper’s, where she’s the first woman to regularly write the “Easy Chair” column.
I want to ask you about that. First woman to write the “Easy Chair” column?
REBECCA SOLNIT: You know, it’s really embarrassing being Jackie Robinson in the 21st century. When I think about Harper’s, it’s like, “Why didn’t they hire Willa Cather in 1911? Why didn’t they hire Hannah Arendt in 1950?” But it took a while, but there I am, in a chair that isn’t always easy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about this, your recent book, The Mother of All Questions? What’s that about?
REBECCA SOLNIT: It’s another anthology of feminist essays, with a major new essay in it that hadn’t been published before called “A Short History of Silence,” looking more broadly at this question of how pretty much everyone in this culture get silenced one way or another in the kind of reciprocal silences of men and women, and the strategies, from the kind of deep cultural imperatives to, you know, things like, as we were talking about, nondisclosure agreements that silence women.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But what is this, reciprocal silences between men and women? How are men silenced? Is that what it suggests?
REBECCA SOLNIT: There’s a beautiful line by bell hooks, I would have to flip through the book to dig up, about how men—the first violence of violent men is against themselves, you know, something that I think is really important, that before you can commit violence against someone else, you have to have killed off something within yourself, some of the empathy, connectedness, that I think is inherent in undamaged human beings. So, and then, more broadly, all the things men can’t say, aren’t supposed to feel, aren’t supposed to be. You know, men also have strict codes of enforcement about what they can do and say, you know, which a lot of them—speaking as somebody who grew up among gay men in San Francisco—have broken free of, but a lot of them haven’t.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you read to us? You are a wonderful writer. Can you read to us from The Mother of All Questions? Again, Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian, activist, her latest book, The Mother of All Questions, with new essays in it.
REBECCA SOLNIT: “If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and a disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations.”
And I wrote that before the Harvey Weinstein incident and used Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which I found so compelling when it happened in 2011, you know, and how it played out, in both the good and bad ways—the ways that she was attacked, the way that she nevertheless, like Anita Hill, who was also attacked, you know, exerted tremendous power, and in some ways transformative power. So…
“Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo. Those who embody it, often at the cost of extraordinary silences with themselves, move to the center; those who embody what is not heard or what violates those who rise on silence are cast out. By redefining whose voices are valued, we redefine our society and its values.”
And, you know, this is such a broad thing, whether you’re talking about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has given a voice to undocumented farmworkers, about these kids, a million strong, standing up and making children’s voices heard, voices against gun violence or this new phase of the women’s movement or so many of the other voices we’ve heard. There is an extraordinary redistribution of power going on in this moment. And I find it pretty thrilling and kind of hopeful, despite everything.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in the piece we discussed in Part 1 of the interview, your Harper’s piece, one of the things that you also say is that “when the powerful insist that nobody knows, what they mean is that their acts are witnessed by nobodies. Nobody knows.” So, can you talk about that, the importance of that? And also, especially in the context of what—the incident that you just mentioned, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF director at the time, in 2011, when he assaulted this maid in a hotel in New York City, talk about the power differential there and how, of course, he must have perceived her as nobody.
REBECCA SOLNIT: Yeah, there’s a wonderful essay by David Graeber in The Guardian, that came out, you know, in the wake of this #MeToo moment, about his mother’s own sort of trauma with sexual harassment in a New York theater, you know, in the mid-20th century, where he talks about seeing another story, you know, being a man who wasn’t that, you could say, “woke”—seeing another story about a hotel worker being assaulted by a powerful man the same week, thinking, “Is this a weird coincidence?” and then realizing, like, “This must happen all the time, and we just don’t hear about it.”
And you see, whether it’s Donald Trump saying the 19 women charging him with sexual assault and harassment are all liars; the way people insisted that the women coming forward to talk about Bill Cosby were all making stuff up, so that we’re being told that Cosby’s word had more power than five women, 10 women, 20 women, eventually 60 women; and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Weinstein. And there is an assumption that I can discredit this woman, no one will listen to them, I can shame them into silence, I can sue them into silence with legal threats.
The Stormy Daniels case is pretty amazing. I have so much admiration for her fearlessness and her wit. And she is going after the most powerful man in the world, and she may bring him down. I understand other women are emerging with similar stories, in addition to those 19 women I mentioned before. And she’s saying, “No, I don’t have any reason to keep this secret, and I will not be silent.” And you can see that assumption—that Trump did this on an assumption of silence, and that when that’s broken, the powerful are scared.
And that happens—you know, I write a lot about feminism, but I always see it as analogous to other situations of inequality, of unequal voices. And, you know, you hear about people who are considered to be low-ranking, the people who are the servants, people—you know, children, people who—you know, police against people they’ve arrested. And we’ve heard this so many times with Black Lives Matter, the police saying, “This is what happened,” and it’s partly thanks to cellphone video that we’ve been able to finally convince a lot of people who weren’t willing to believe the others that actually the police lie a lot, and this person was shot in the back, that this person did not have a weapon, this person was not posing a threat. You know, and I think that there’s a kind of democracy of voices that creates a regime of truth, and an inequality that creates a kind of regime of lies, and that some of—as power differential shifts, economy of truth and voice shifts, in ways that are pretty fascinating.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how these movements feed on each other. You have the immigrants’ rights movement, President Trump, you know, talking about how he loves the young people protected by DACA, and then he withdraws the protections of DACA from them. You, of course, have the #MeToo movement, of course the videotape of Trump saying, “I can’t help myself. I just grab women”—right?—”grab their genitals.”
REBECCA SOLNIT: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You have, right now, the students from Parkland. We just learned about another young woman who was killed, a high school student in Alabama, so people are saying people should be silent for 18 minutes instead of 17. Let’s not forget that black children are killed 10 times more often than white children by guns, people using guns. But one movement after another, the kind of intensity that is building in the era of Trump.
REBECCA SOLNIT: You know, I think that all of these are movements of democratization, to bring everyone to the table, to give everyone a voice, to treat everyone with respect. That goes for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which I’ve admired immensely for 15 years or more, and, you know, for Black Lives Matter, for the incredible resurgence of Native voices around Standing Rock and other pipeline movements.
AMY GOODMAN: An interesting thing on this point, I was just a forum in Brooklyn where a Native American historian was saying, “Let’s not forget that the #NoDAPL movement, that gained its strength under Obama, who was very late to this game.” The Black Lives Matter movement also built during the Democratic years, the years when the Democratic Party was in the ascension, you know, when President Obama—
REBECCA SOLNIT: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —the first African-American president, was president.
REBECCA SOLNIT: You know, presidents don’t fix everything, you know, that movements do. And it’s interesting now, because we have a regime that’s kind of the most sloppily vicious we’ve ever had. But I don’t feel like they’re winning. I do see these extraordinary movements, sometimes symbolic things, like the replacement of a Confederate statue with a statue of Harriet Tubman last week or this week, and, you know, Richard Spencer being kind of outshouted off college campuses, kind of giving up on his strategy. You know, I see so much stuff where they currently hold the official power, but there’s not official power that matters, a cultural power that’s coming.
And two things that have made me so hopeful this—well, hopeful for a while, is the fact that 50 percent of the people under 18 in this country are not white. The Republican Party’s grasp on power is failing it, because they are the power of white grievance that depend on voter suppression. The voting rights movements are taking away that suppression. And then, also, just a new study came out that said that white Protestants are only 43 percent of this country. My whole life, I’ve been told that like, well, white Protestants are the dominant culture, and ultimately they’re going to have their way, and the rest of us are just on the fringe and are going to have to defer to them. But that’s not actually true anymore. They’re only 43 percent of the population. And we are entering a culture that is going to—that is already more diverse, in which white people are not going to be the majority for long.
I’m in California, which is a white minority state. And, you know, I see this rising cultural power. I see the way that the kids coming out of Parkland, who have reached out to kind of urban youth facing other kinds of gun violence, you know, already are intersectional, already get that you can—when you talk about violence, you need to talk about race and gender and class, as well. And I think that there is this democratization, this horizontalism, this inclusion, and this rejection of violence, which is itself a kind of authoritarianism that I have a right to determine whether you live or die, I have to a right to impose on you in this ultimate way. So I think that there is an extraordinary transformation of values and of voices that we’re seeing now, that may prevail.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to go back specifically to something you said about the #MeToo movement. In a piece for Oprah.com, you wrote, quote, “One of the greatest dangers is that in resisting your enemy, or defeating him, you become him. This is why, though punishment of sexual harassers may be necessary and appropriate, punitiveness and retaliation will not take us where we need to go.” Could you explain why you think that and what you think needs to take us where we need to go?
REBECCA SOLNIT: Yeah, and a lot of anti-feminists like to think that feminists are just man-haters who are punitive with no sense of proportion, as some of the recent arguments have had it. But I think, actually, our arguments have been very different, that in fact the problems we face are cultural problems. They’re deeply entrenched in the culture. It’s not like you can fire these 36 men or these 365 men or these 179,000 men, and we’re going to solve the problem of sexual harassment. These things are built into a culture that values us differently, that gives us different levels of access and power.
And the only—you know, and for me, the transformation that will matter is undoing the desire to do these things and undoing the desire to use guns as symbols of masculinity, the desire to—you know, to rape people, the desire to brutalize people. And, you know, I see that transformation at work in the way people are raising their children, boys and girls, in the ways that we’re thinking about gender and undoing some of the binaries, and the sort of delegitimization of violence that’s been going on steadily for the last half-century. And so, it’s a big, deep cultural project that’s well underway and that may, in centuries to come, to look like a huge revolution, and a revolution the way they happen in this era, which isn’t necessarily regime change, but transformation of things that are even bigger, deeper and more powerful.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what’s your response to people who have been critical of the #MeToo movement, who have been saying that it’s really—it’s gone too far, that it’s leveled all the distinctions between various forms of violence against women, and at this point it may even be doing a disservice by encompassing too much?
REBECCA SOLNIT: You know, I won’t say that I—well, I think some of the allegations are more serious than others. But I think it’s—what’s gone too far is misogyny, because a woman is raped every minute or two in this country, a woman is beaten about every 11 seconds in this country, more than a woman a day is murdered in sort of—by partners or former partners, and, you know, other forms of harassment are epidemic. You know, is that this movement will have gone far enough when these things are no longer something that impacts women’s lives every day and, you know, curtails freedom and power and confidence and equality. So it hasn’t gone nearly far enough. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t sort of mistakes and sloppiness and confusion and etc., and that every person involved is perfect and clear and totally on the mark.
AMY GOODMAN: The connection—
REBECCA SOLNIT: But—
AMY GOODMAN: The connection between mass shootings and violence against women? So often it has been found that those usually white solitary men who have been involved in these mass shootings have either abused, killed, beaten a girlfriend, a mother, a partner. Even the shooter who we actually know so little about, astoundingly, in Las Vegas, that, you know, shot from the Mandalay Bay hotel down at this country music concert, the Starbucks workers saying he used to come in; they dreaded him coming in every day with his partner and berating her as they would get coffee. From that to, you know, the—Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook, the first one he killed was his mother, then he went to the school.
REBECCA SOLNIT: And the guy who massacred 50 people at the nightclub in Florida, in Orlando, had—
AMY GOODMAN: Omar Mateen at Pulse.
REBECCA SOLNIT: Yes, also had a history of domestic violence. And the guy who murdered women at—people at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado a few years ago. You know, I think that the—
AMY GOODMAN: And now the latest, the three people, white men, who were just arrested for the attack on the Minnesota mosque, that happened quite a while ago, also an attempted attack on a women’s health clinic in Illinois, one of them, a sheriff’s deputy, had submitted plans to try to get the contract to build Trump’s wall on the southern border.
REBECCA SOLNIT: Oh, my god. Well, there are so many connections—and we’ve covered some of them—that there is a strong link between domestic violence and mass shooters, although mass shootings are rare, and domestic violence is shockingly common. But I think there’s an—there is, in violence, an authoritarianism. We talk about other things, about the psychology and etc. But the assumption that I have the right to control you, I have the right to punish you, what I want matters, what you want doesn’t. And violence is a kind of voice of asserting what should be and of erasing other people’s voices, either by refusing to let them say no, you know, to self-determine, or by annihilating their voice altogether by shooting them.
And in the Bay Area, we just had a terrible shooting of three women at a veterans’ facility, including Jennifer Gonzales, who was six months pregnant, by an enraged veteran who took them hostage. And, you know, I went online to say this shouldn’t happen, this is an epidemic. And I just did a search with a few words and was able to find dozens of stories that weren’t reported about, you know, spousal murder, murder-suicides, women being murdered, one of whom’s body was burnt, etc. We have an epidemic, and it is horrific.
The fact that we’re finally talking about it, which we were not five or six years ago—we were not really supposed to say that there’s a problem with men, that this is about gender. We were not connecting the dots. And the fact that we are—and I hang out with doctors a lot. I always feel like diagnosis is the beginning of treatment, and sometimes of cure. And I feel like one of the breakthroughs is we’ve finally been allowed to publicly, collectively, audibly diagnose what the problem is. And that’s part of moving forward to change the situation. And that’s exciting.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the mother—what is the mother of all questions?
REBECCA SOLNIT: Oh, god, that’s—you know, it’s the intrusive questions women get asked—Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you have children?—that are really sort of saying like this is what all women should be. It’s the punitive questions trying to herd you, punish you for not being—for not conforming, shame you for not conforming, and, you know, question your dissent, and—you know, and about the fact that often for a woman there is no right answer. There’s that famous scene in The Breakfast Club where they want to know if she’s a virgin, and she bursts out that if she says yes, they’ll shame her; if she says no, they’ll shame her. The mother of all questions is the state of being a woman, to which there is no right answer except refusing the framing of those questions.
AMY GOODMAN: And the 80 books no woman should read?
REBECCA SOLNIT: Oh, that was a really fun thing I did for the wonderful website LitHub. Esquire had this awful piece, which they’ve since apologized for and amended, called “80 Books Every Man Should Read,” 79 of which were by men. And they weren’t about what literature should do, I think, which is to make us more empathic, to make us understand the experience of people who aren’t like us, of other races and genders, etc. They were really books chosen and that instructed you on how to be a man, and the descriptions were kind of embarrassingly macho, as though books, overall, helping you kind of hunker down in your little bunker of machismo.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you give us a couple of examples?
REBECCA SOLNIT: Oh, my god. They talked about The Grapes of Wrath and said it’s all about the titty. And—was I not supposed to say that? You know, and they said something kind of gross about Flannery O’Connor, who was the only woman in the list of 80 writers, and things like that. So I joked about 80 books no women should read, because there are a lot of books that I grew up with, I think that are still being taught, that really tell women that they’re lesser than, their stories are not central, that they’re playthings or ornaments or handmaidens to the hero’s journey, which is the real story.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are a couple of examples of those?
REBECCA SOLNIT: Oh, Lolita, in which the fact that it’s a book about child rape is often de-emphasized, which prompted me to write “Men Explain Lolita to Me” as a sequel, when I got a lot of blowback for that. Pretty much everything by Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller and, you know, what’s called the mid-century misogynists, books by people like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow and so much more. And, you know, there’s even—
AMY GOODMAN: And your favorite authors?
REBECCA SOLNIT: Oh, who are my favorite authors? Oh, god, that’s, you know, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Arundhati Roy, James Baldwin, Subcomandante Marcos, who I always thought should have gotten the Nobel for Literature, and so many more.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian, activist. Her acclaimed essay “Men Explain Things to Me” is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. She’s the author of, oh, 20 books, including Hope in the Dark and, most recently, The Mother of All Questions.
This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org.