On Wednesday, September 30, the Dart Center hosted a conversation with Guardian columnist, essayist, historian and feminist activist Rebecca Solnit, where she explored how journalists and news consumers can rethink what questions to ask and how to reimagine a sense of the possible in this moment of pervasive crisis.
Watch the full event video here:
Below are some of the themes addressed in the discussion. The text has been condensed and edited.
For a full transcript of the conversation, click here.
On the first election debate
It felt like we got to see who Trump is, for those who haven’t already overdosed on who he is. It doesn’t feel like it changed anything. Things that are already there got worse. He’d been saying things in support of white supremacy, in various ways, before he ran for office. It wasn’t new and different. He’s been dogwhistling, but also shouting in plain english, his wild enthusiasm for racism, xenophobia and white supremacy, with a light sprinkling of anti-semitism, all the way through.
On the overlap between violent political rhetoric and physical violence
My favorite essay in the last few years was Michelle Alexander writing in the New York Times with an article titled, “We Are Not The Resistance”. She argues that we, the people who believe in racial equality, justice, feminism, human rights etcetera, are not the resistance. They are the resistance; we are the river that the dam will not ultimately stop. It’s a very hopeful piece.
We are in this tremendous backlash of whiteness and maleness; it feels like hegemonic centuries and millennia are coming to an end, and are fighting back. These people have nothing to fear, they’re going to be like everybody else, except without people like them to terrorize them. Their idea is if you don't have everything, you have nothing.
The violence in political speech feels like it's kind of breaking out of speech and political discourse; I think there’s been 60-something incidents of people ploughing cars into protests since George Floyd’s death.
There’s this interesting thing you see with a lot of freedom movements: that as long as the powerful don't have to exercise their power, the violence of their power isn't obvious. It’s when the slaves run away that the bloodhounds, guns and skin lashes come out; it’s when the women leave their husbands that the homicide threats get strongest. What’s going on right now, specifically with Trump, is that America is an abused woman who has left her abuser, which is the most dangerous time for an abused woman; it’s when the threats and intimidation and gaslighting ramp up.
On the lessons we can learn from past disasters
The media and elite mythology is that ordinary people are chaotic, savage, untrustworthy, incompentent, and therefore need strong authority over them—the justification for turning Hurricane Katrina into essentially a Command and Control rather than a rescue operation. Ordinary people tend to respond with generosity, creativity, talent for improvisation, and by reaching out. Ordinary people are often magnificent; the default settings take over of who we really want to be when capitalism and advertising aren't telling us to be selfish, alienated consumers.
The authorities tend to be mostly focused on their own wellbeing and survival and do a lot of corrupt and greedy things to take care of themselves; you can see that in the way the Trump administration has handled the pandemic, with a focus on what's good for themselves.
These are moments that terrify governments and elites because they provide an opening for change from below. And so things can get a lot worse, they can get a lot better, but they create a crisis. Things are wide open, people start to question their government, their faith in authority, how systems work. Out of those questions often comes a kind of anti-authoritarian insurgency.
On the tension between governance and science
Conservatives have been at war with science because science has said: your petrochemicals, your pesticides, your mining, your extractive industries are harming human life and the natural world—we want to regulate them.
This is part of the ideology of isolation: it starts with, “I have absolute right.” And ultimately becomes, “I have absolutely the right to whatever information I most like, whether or not it's based on facts and science and evidence or not.”
We’ve also had almost uniquely in this country a war on science with a pretense that there are two sides to the climate debate, which the mainstream media really bought into. That has been a huge handicap in this country.
I don't think the government and scientists have been waltzing harmoniously together at all.
On the democratization of storytelling
Authority is subject to abuse and part of the abuse it’s invested in is determining what the story is. So much of my feminist work has been about voice: who gets to tell the story; who is allowed to be audible, credible, and consequential.
My great intellectual awakening was the Native Americans breaking the story that this continent was discovered, that it was virgin wilderness, that native people had disappeared. What happens when you change who tells the story, where the story is centered?
Unequal power results in a warping of storytelling which at its very worst becomes the lies that are inherent to totalitarianism.
What I'm seeking in my writing is to explore what a democracy of information, a democracy of voice, a democracy of storytelling looks like.
On breaking the story
We live and breathe stories. They shape us. A great story is a magic carpet; it’s a pair of wings; it’s liberating. It helps you move through the world and see yourself and others. But so many stories are traps and prisons and balls and chains.
What I've tried to do as a writer is break the story that is conventional, the story that assumes or normalizes something, or leaves someone or something out. My book on disaster is about breaking the story of what people think about disasters, that in a disaster people loot and rampage and panic.That narrative is a justification for authoritarianism: that other people are chaotic and therefore we need strong authority to hold them in control.
If you break that story and tell a different story in which most people are actually pretty communitarian, altruistic and respond well in these situations, you’re telling a different story about human nature, which leads immediately to a different sense of possibilities in the urgency of the moment, and what political possibilities are in everyday life.
For me, breaking stories is about seeing what is oppressive and limiting about a framework and finding a broader, more inclusive framework.
On meaningful reckoning
There’s a story we on the left tell all the time, which is that we are starting from scratch because nothing has happened. I think it has begun. I look at a lot of indigenous leadership in South and Central America and North America; I look at their rethinking of the history of the Americas and our relationship to nature, and I see a lot of things shifting.
It is happening. It's about how we amplify it, feed it, support it. How do we let the people leading it continue to do the good work they are doing
On stories of trauma and self-care
I’m full of contradictions. On the one hand I'm glad we are in a moment that is acknowledging just how much trauma there is. At the same time, I think these stories are often told as if we’re incredibly fragile, as though we’re made out of porcelain or glass—once you’re broken you remain broken. And I think that is kind of a dangerous framework. Often what I'm looking for is the grey area. How do we acknowledge the full impact of trauma whilst helping people see themselves as resilient and capable?