Resisting the Rage That Paralyzes: Rebecca Solnit Writes of Organized Anger

Inertia is understandable these days. But Standing Rock's sweeping coalition and today's activists' use of the past should give—dare we say it?—some hope.

[PHOTO: A crowd holds cross-shaped signs saying
Protesters ask New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to stop the city's business dealings with corporations supporting the Dakota Access pipeline in February 2017. The Standing Rock movement represented one of the nation's most significant outpourings of activist energy, uniting tribal nations, environmental groups, and international advocates. Timothy Clary/AFP/Getty Images

People in my circle are pretty despondent these days for obvious reasons: the potential reversal of Roe v. Wade; in-your-face racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and sexism; gun violence and school shootings; Islamophobia and hatred of immigrants; and environmental calamity, among the most blatant.

We demonstrate. We sign petitions. We donate money and time.

And still. And still …

Rebecca Solnit’s latest collection, Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)—writings penned between 2006 and 2018—does not sugarcoat these atrocities. At the same time, the collection does not languish in despair but instead reminds us to take a long view of both history and political struggle.

“In Praise of Indirect Consequences,” one of 17 pieces in the compilation, charts the often-unanticipated ways that one action can affect another. For example, whistleblower Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who revealed the U.S. government’s extensive, illegal surveillance programs to the press—an act that led to charges of violating the Espionage Act of 1917—was influenced by Daniel Ellsberg, whose 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers occurred a dozen years before Snowden was born.

“Actions often ripple far beyond the immediate objective,” Solnit writes, “and remembering this is a reason to live by principle and act in the hope that what you do matters, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this statement incredibly comforting.

Likewise, the same essay recounts the long-term impact of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and notes that a spinoff organization called Housing Works has, for 28 years, provided a wide array of direct services to low-income New Yorkers living with HIV. Similarly, while progressives are no longer occupying the town squares in their communities, an untold number of former Occupiers persist in fighting for prison abolition, tuition-free colleges, single-payer health insurance, and the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Then there’s Standing Rock, the North Dakota spot that brought hundreds of activists together to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) that was slated to run through land considered sacred by the Standing Rock Sioux. In “The Light from Standing Rock,” Solnit points out that resisters included constituencies that had rarely, if ever, worked in tandem, including 180 tribal nations, environmentalists, and faith-based and social justice groups holding diverse political beliefs.

“The movement at Standing Rock may yet stop a pipeline,” Solnit writes. “Whether it does or not, it has brought together perhaps the greatest single gathering of Native North Americans (from Canada as well as the United States) ever, and that has been a profound and moving watershed for the growth of a transnational network of solidarity, the affirmation of cultural identities and political rights.”

Where these alliances will lead is unknowable, but Solnit reports that the spirit of cooperation and mutual respect unleashed by Standing Rock continues to influence everyone whose life was touched by the encampment. This alone, she concludes, is worth celebrating. Indeed.

In “Naïve Cynicism,” she berates those on the left who pooh-pooh incremental victories as unworthy of acknowledgment. “Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards,” she explains. “They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised—but also because the openness of hope is dangerous, and in war, self-defense comes first.”

This attitude led many progressives to oppose Hillary Clinton since she was surely not the socialist-feminist leader many of us wanted. Still, the bold-faced sexism that greeted her campaign remains undeniable. “Milestones in Misogyny” tells that tale, and 20 months into the Trump presidency, the recounting of insults lobbed at Clinton makes for an infuriating read.

The fact that Trump retweeted a supporter who asked, “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?” set the stage for a nonstop verbal pummeling that painted Clinton as a pathologically driven and ambitious shrew, a shrill harpy who was overly emotional, humorless, and “crooked.”

She was also lambasted for invoking “identity politics,” as if she campaigned solely on so-called “women’s issues”—abortion, contraception, equal pay for equal work, and policies to punish sexual abusers, harassers, and rapists. Of course, her campaign platform was considerably broader than that, and Solnit reports the findings of Vox journalist David Roberts who analyzed word frequency in more than 600 Clinton speeches; his research found that Clinton most frequently talked about economic issues and used the words “jobs,” “worker,” and “college” more than terms such as “racism,” “abortion,” or “women’s rights.”

Speaking of women and sexism, “Twenty Million Missing Storytellers” addresses the dearth of female movie directors, Black screenwriters, and media moguls. It zooms in on the unmistakable result: The stories we see, read, and hear are typically determined by white men in suits. Needless to say, the repercussions of this impinge upon our personal and political lives. According to Solnit, “the idea that had begun with the men who decided who would make movies and what stories we would hear moved on to the men who decided how politicians would be depicted and what would be emphasized (Clinton’s emails) and what wouldn’t (Trump’s mob ties, lies, bankruptcies, lawsuits, sexual assaults). It shaped an election; you can imagine another outcome, had other people been in charge of framing it.”

If you’re feeling pissed off about this, you’re not alone, but Solnit cautions her readers to temper this impulse. “Rage is not quite the same thing as outrage,” she writes. “You might say that the latter is motivated less by wrath at what has been done than by empathy for those it has been done to.”

Fair enough. But I’ll argue that rage—not blind rage that makes us act irrationally and speak inarticulately, but good old-fashioned fury at injustice—is an important foundation upon which to build liberatory social movements. Yes, we can, and maybe should, be guided by love, but anger and resentment can be useful in helping us develop a vision for a more egalitarian and just world. What’s key, clearly, is knowing how and when to use or relinquish resentment, but there are no roadmaps for this. That, simply, is the work of strategizing and fomenting tactical responses to oppression and hate.

But Solnit is on it and hits a variety of other themes in this eclectic anthology: gentrification; homelessness; police brutality; the necessity of boosting morale by “preaching to the choir;” the uses and misuses of language; and criminal injustice. It’s an inspiring and important book, a cogent reminder to keep on keeping on despite Trump and despite the horrible news that fills our airwaves, newspapers, and computer screens.

“We don’t know what will happen next,” Solnit cautions, “and have to live on principles, hunches, and lessons from history .… In this moment of right-wing and white-supremacist triumphalism, we are hearing a lot about hate crimes: beatings, insults, swastikas, threats, and more. But also rising into view is another America, with another set of beliefs, the people who stand up for racial justice, for the vulnerable, for women and LGBTQ people, for science, and for democracy.”

As Solnit tells us, despite the temptation to throw up our hands and retreat into self-protective silos, we can’t allow ourselves to become immobilized. If we do, the reactionaries will overtake those of us who want transformation. And, should we do nothing, we will only have ourselves to blame.