Event Transcript: Hope in the Dark
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.
Below is a lightly-edited transcript of the conversation. You can watch the full event video here.
Bruce Shapiro: Welcome to Hope in the Dark: A Conversation with Rebecca Solnit. I'm Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which is a project of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. We're a resource center, idea lab and networking vehicle devoted to effective, ethical and innovative reporting on violence, crisis and tragedy, and their aftermath. We look at the core questions of how stories get told about the hardest and most difficult events in everything from the sphere of intimate family violence up to war and international human rights. We also look at the impact that kind of work can have on journalists. But a big piece of what we do is thinking, having a conversation about ideas: ideas about violence, ideas about society, ideas about storytelling and fact-finding and lines of accountability.
And that's why we're here tonight at a challenging moment for the world and a challenging moment for the United States. We're here with Rebecca Solnit. Rebecca Solnit is a writer, essayist, feminist, activist, environmental activist.
One of the fun things about introducing Rebecca Solnit and planning a conversation like this, is I get to look at her books. And at the flyleaf of each, there's this little bio. And the little bio always says: Rebecca Solnit was born in California. She's the winner of all her various awards, and then it will say this is her 15th book, or she's the author of 16 books. On every flap, the number keeps going up and we're now, I think, up to 20.
I'm not going to tell you the names of all of them but there are a few particularly pertinent ones. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, one of her older books, one however from which we took the title for this conversation. It seems appropriate to this time as it was back in the aftermath of 9/11 and the aftermath of the Iraq war. Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays), her wonderful memoir, Recollections of my Non-Existence, and a trio of atlases about great American cities, New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. We may get to talk about those later. So Rebecca, welcome. Thank you for being here.
Rebecca Solnit: Lovely to be in the virtual here from San Francisco to New York.
Bruce Shapiro: And I'm in the virtual here in New Haven. We probably have some number of people from all over the world with us tonight. Folks, the way this conversation is going to go is that for the first while, Rebecca and I will talk, kick some ideas back and forth and eventually we'll go over to Q&A. When we do that, I'll ask you to use the Q&A function which is in your Zoom menu. We're doing this rather than putting faces up because it solves bandwidth problems and all the other hazards of Zoom life, about which we all know too much.
Rebecca, I had this very careful literary opening planned of where I was going to kind of lead us. But then last night happened. And for anyone in the audience who had their head in a bubble or someone who's coming to this recording later, we're speaking on the evening after the first presidential debate, if that's the word, between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. I got to ask you, what did you see last night? What did we all see?
Rebecca Solnit: There's a very strange business around Donald Trump where he does something horrific and people respond to it with surprise even though it's the same horrific thing. This man has been screaming, and yelling, and lying, and assaulting women, and assaulting facts and journalists and the media, and the truth, all along. I think he's a little more desperate and unhinged because of the New York Times great piece on his tax troubles, the fact that he's a financial disaster, the fact that criminal prosecutions will pounce on him if he doesn't win the election and he looks unlikely to win it, if we have a free and fair election, but there's a fight...
Chris Wallace did this whole ridiculous, "Who knew this would happen?" And it's like, well, everyone who saw the 2016 debates and has been paying attention to who he is, and you should be one of them. So it was odd; Chris Wallace seemed really weak, and surprised, and ineffectual. It felt like we got to see who Trump was. And for those who weren't already overdosed on who he is, it doesn't feel like it changed anything except that the things that are already there got worse and he's been saying things in support of white supremacy in various ways before he ran for election like taking out the full page ad, calling for the execution of the Central Park Five.
He was supporting the white supremacists in Charlottesville three summers ago but the thing he said about the Proud Boys was pretty gross. But it wasn't new and different, and he's been dog whistling, but also shouting in plain english his wild enthusiasm for racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy with light sprinklings of anti-Semitism all the way through.
Bruce Shapiro: You've written a lot about violence, both the impact of violence in your own life, the impact socially about violence against women, other kinds of violence, the place of violence in American history, and you have this nice sentence in one of your essays where you say that the threat of violence takes up residence in your mind. It does strike me that we'd become accustomed to a high degree of threat of violence in our political dialogue, a smaller degree of actual violence. What do you think the impact of that is and in particular, what do you think, the stories that need to be explored about the consequences and pathways out of this are?
Rebecca Solnit: My favorite essay probably in the last few years was Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow writing in the New York Times with an essay called “We Are Not the Resistance” where she argues that we, the people who believe in racial equality, justice, feminism, human rights, et cetera, are not the resistance which was a phrase being used so much early in the Trump era. They are the resistance, we are the river that the dam will not ultimately stop. It's a very hopeful piece.
And there is a way in which I feel like we're in this tremendous backlash of whiteness and maleness that feels like hegemonic centuries and millennia are coming to an end and are fighting back. These people from my perspective should have nothing to fear. They're going to be like everybody else, except without people like them to terrorize them. But their ideas if you don't have everything, you don't have nothing.
I feel like the violence and political speech is mostly... Well, it's male and it's the conservative women who are kind of male worshipers and QAnon women and the women and that stuff. But there's a kind of continuity from the mass shooters, the NRA gun people, the Proud Boys and Klansmen and Boogaloo Bois and stuff.
Because it's also in real life, and then it feels like it's breaking out as speech and political discourse, mostly conservative political discourse. But it's reality and I think there's been 60-something incidents of people plowing cars into protesters since George Floyd's death. It's police brutality.
It's also this interesting thing that I think you see with a lot of freedom movements, that as long as the powerful don't have to exercise their power, the violence of that power isn't obvious. It's when the slaves run away that the bloodhounds and guns and lashes come out. It's when the women leave their husbands that the homicide threats get strongest, et cetera. And there is a funny way in which I think of what's going on right now specifically with Trump is that America is an abused woman who's left her abuser, which is the most dangerous time for an abused woman. The threats and intimidation and gaslighting ramp up.
But there's also a way in which I think people of color, women, queer people, et cetera are also leaving their abuser, which is white patriarchy, and white patriarchy is trying to terrorize them and us into a sense of our own worthlessness, powerlessness. It's just interesting how extreme it's got because white men are about 33 percent of this country and if they want to control everything, they're really talking about something that looks like South Africa plus misogyny, apartheid era South Africa.
So I see the political speech connected to the real violence, which has been so much right wing and xenophobic and misogynist, which form inseparable forces in this moment, though there's some very interesting left-wing misogyny. It feels like its own pandemic, that when this pandemic and this administration are over, we will have to address in some pretty powerful ways to back off from.
Bruce Shapiro: Well, you said the magic word, which is pandemic. Obviously, we're in the middle of it. It's why we're talking via Zoom instead of in a comfortable university hall or something. You spent a lot of time both as a researcher and as an essayist, as a thinker reflecting on the impact of several past disasters. I think I first encountered you in your book, A Paradise Built on Hell about extraordinary communities in the wake of disaster about New Orleans.
You've written about 9/11 and the alternative pathways out of 9/11. We're now in this era of mass death and and mass fear of death, and also mass debate over the meaning of it and how best to deal with it. When you think about past disasters, what do you think are some important lessons for this period and particular maybe things that journalists might be paying attention to or as citizens, what are the important lessons we should be learning from other difficult periods in recent or longer past history. And what are the stories that are not being looked at enough right now in this pandemic period?
Rebecca Solnit: Oh, that's a pile. Just take what we can learn from earlier disasters. Three things come to mind one of which is that despite the media and elite mythology that ordinary people are chaotic, savage, untrustworthy and competent, and therefore need strong authority over them. The justification for turning Hurricane Katrina into essentially a command and control rather than a rescue and tanned operation in 2005.
So ordinary people tend to respond with generosity, creativity, talent for improvisation and reaching out. We did see despite the fact that unlike most of the disasters I looked at, earthquakes, hurricanes, the Blitz, et cetera, explosions, big urban explosions. Despite the fact that we had to be physically distant from each other in various ways, I found people still doing this incredible reaching out to each other and tending each other from young people forming networks to bring groceries to older people who didn't want to risk having to do their own grocery shopping and exposure.
A group I joined, the Auntie Sewing Squad has made about a hundred thousand cloth masks for frontline and vulnerable and devalued communities as a gesture of solidarity and stuff like that. So ordinary people are often magnificent and it's as though there's a kind of fallback. It's like the default settings take over 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 well-being and survival and do a lot of corrupt and greedy things to take care of them themselves and you can see that in a lot of ways where the Trump administration has handled the pandemic with a focus on what's good for itself. Trump's run everything he's done for the last four years as his re-election campaign. What's good for Donald Trump is his one and only question. But what's good for big businesses and the stock market is also of interest to him.
So we've seen a lot of that callousness and selfishness. And then I think the other thing is that these are moments that terrify powerful people, the governing elites, because there are moments in which the old order fails. Just the fact that there is a crisis is a sign of failure in some ways, and that failure is an opening for profound change including change from below. Things can get a lot worse, they can get a lot better, but it creates a crisis which in medical terms is the point at which a patient either gets better or heads towards death.
There's a way in which things are wide open. People start to question their government, their faith and authority, how systems work, forms of injustice and inequality. And out of those questions often comes a kind of anti-authoritarian insurgency and I feel like there's a fair amount of it now where people are skeptical and feel in some sense weaned from dependence on authority that has failed them.
Bruce Shapiro: Here, I'm thinking about Katrina compared to now and a few other things I've been engaged with. There's a balance, isn't there? One of the strange things is the way that science has become severed from authority, right? I mean, I think we've had a sort of technocratic last 20 years or so in which there's been a presumptive joint march by science and government, whether it's in moving the internet forward, technology-based economy, all that sort of thing.
Here we are with scientists first of all discovering that they don't have power, but also the community-based currency you're talking about can either be an alliance with science or sometimes we're seeing at odds with it. And I'm wondering how you think about that at a moment when public health is in such crisis?
Rebecca Solnit: I mean, there's a real Astro turf thing of right wing manipulation of their base to reject mass, is to reject quarantine, et cetera which is incredibly nihilistic. And it comes out of a rhetoric I call the Ideology of Isolation: my individual rights are so vastly important that essentially nobody else matters, therefore I can carry an AK-47 into Walmart and Baskin Robbins therefore there should be no limit on my freedoms.
In a sense in this country, we've created a society that tends (as opposed to a lot of European and Asian societies among others that tend to emphasize a sense of ethical obligation to the whole and a sense of harmony in that relationship) the sense of absolute freedom. Masks have been assimilated into that sense of absolute freedom: wearing a mask is somehow to have been subjugated and to interfere with your freedom, when it's such an incredibly easy thing to do.
If you wear underwear, you can probably survive wearing a mask. Although there was actually a woman in Florida who announced in a public meeting that she didn't wear underwear either. So I don't even want to go there. So there's that, but there's also this way in which I think that the conservatives have been at war with science because all along science has said, your petrochemicals, your pesticides, your industrial toxins, your mining, your extraction, extractive industries are harming human life and the natural world, we want to regulate them. You can't put an incinerator where it's going to give lots of young kids of color asthma. You can't dump the shit in the river, et cetera.
And this is part of the ideology of isolation. It starts with, I have absolute right and ultimately becomes, I have absolute right to whatever information I most like whether or not it's based on facts and science and evidence or not.
The Bush administration went to more scientists around emissions, extraction, air quality standards, et cetera, in a pretty extreme way that we just don't remember because the Trump version has been so much more extreme as a war on science. But we've also had almost uniquely in this country a war on science with the pretense that there's two sides to the climate debate, which the mainstream media really bought into when it was always industry shills versus every credible scientist on earth with in a relevant discipline and that's been a huge handicap in this country to get anything done about climate - it has created a loss of will.
It spread stupidity where people really think that the jury is out, that we don't know for sure. And Trump was spewing that bullshit last night when we finally had our first real climate question in a presidential debate. And even the framework, do you think it's human cause, is like saying do you think there's gravity? Do you think if you pour gasoline and throw a match, something might catch fire? Even to frame it that way is like: do you think that Klansmen hate black people? So the short version is I don't think government and science have been waltzing together harmoniously at all.
Bruce Shapiro: Fair enough.
Rebecca Solnit: Because science has told industry that it's destroying things.
Bruce Shapiro: When you talk about the deliberate equivalence of true and false arguments and the deliberate corrosion of truth, you've talked about lying in politics and elsewhere, lying as aggressions. They are attempts to trample down the facts and those who hold them and they lay the grounds for dictatorships. The little ones in families, the big ones in nations.
Talk a little bit more there, because I think we are in a time where on the one hand there's a lot of interrogation of the intimate violence and intimate politics of families, of workplaces, of micro-aggressions between people. There's a kind of generational reckoning especially among younger people with these issues. And at the same time, we have this big, big stage, falsehood as lying as politics that we saw last night and that we're seeing on a regular basis. How do these relate?
Rebecca Solnit: Authority is subject to abuse and part of the abuse that it's invested in is determining what the story is and so much of my feminist work has been really been about voice: who gets to tell the story, who is allowed to be audible, credible and consequential in what happened and I wrote a piece this spring about how in a world where women had equal audibility, credibility and consequence, Harvey Weinstein would have either committed one sexual assault which would have then been reported and prosecuted or he would have committed none because he knew he wasn't going to get away with it.
Somebody like him, everything he does is predicated on unequal audibility and credibility and consequence that you drown people out. And that happens in the same way with big stories. In some ways, I think my great intellectual awakening formative experience was the resurgence of Native Americans breaking the story that this continent was discovered, that it was virgin wilderness, that Native people had disappeared and things like that. And seeing what happens when you change who tells the story, where the story is centered.
So from the dictator at the head of the dining table to the dictator on the throne or in the White House, you have people who assume as part of their power, the power of determining what's true. There's a certain way in which whoever gets to tell the story, whoever is louder and that can be subtle, but it can become what Stalinism did which is to force people to swallow and regurgitate lies, to punish people and terrorize people out of telling the truth and to produce the regime of lies.
Heather Cox Richardson wrote something really interesting when she's talking about the impeachment trial earlier this year. I was looking at again this week where she talks about it's kind of a display of power to force people to swallow things they know are lies as the truth and then they get so embroiled in those lies that when you tell the 11th lie to try and reject that, would mean rejecting the whole pile and you're like Gulliver pinned down by all the Lilliputians. You get so embroiled in it and often so compromised by it.
I think that there's an organic way each of us sees the world from our own perspective and a not so organic way in which unequal power results in a warping of storytelling, which at its worst becomes the lies that are so inherent to totalitarianism. In fact, it's very hard to manage an authoritarian regime that's truthful.
What I think I'm seeking in all my political writings is what a democracy of information, a democracy of voice, a democracy of storytelling looks like, where we don't talk about immigration only as it affects people who are already here. We don't talk about rape as something that's very unpleasant for men to be accused of. And we don't talk about racism just as something that makes white people uncomfortable.
Bruce Shapiro: You used a phrase a minute ago that I'm going to grab and maybe we'll riff on. You use the phrase breaking the story and you were trained as a journalist way back when, and you still are one since you write for The Guardian along with your books and essays and who knows what else, and your atlases. But this idea of breaking the story which the journalists in this conversation today means one thing.
You've used it in a different way. You gave a talk a couple years ago at your old journalism school, UC Berkeley, in which you explored this idea. How have you come to think about breaking the story and why did you use it the way you just did to talk about Native American activists changing the narrative in a particular way?
Rebecca Solnit: Of course in journalism breaking the story means having the scoop being the first one to report like the New York Times just did with the granular detail on some of Donald Trump's taxes. But for me, it also is something I've written about a lot in that... Well, to quote the poet, Muriel Rukeyser, "The world is not made out of atoms, it's made out of stories." We live and breathe stories. They shape us. And a great story is a magic carpet, a pair of wings. It's liberating. It helps you move through the world and see yourself and others.
But so many stories are trapped in prisons and balls and chains or they leave crucial things out. So I feel that what I've tried to do often as a writer is to break the story that is the conventional assumptions, the normalizing of something that leaves somebody or something out. For example, my book about disasters which we were talking about a moment ago is about breaking the story of what everybody thought they knew about disasters, which is that people panic and loot and rampage, et cetera and therefore a disaster is really about the fact that human nature is a disaster, and of course 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, empathic and respond well in these situations, you're telling a different story about human nature which is a big philosophical subject. But it leads immediately into a different sense of possibilities in the urgency of the moment and in what our political possibilities are in everyday life. It also reveals that this was a big part of the book how much people want meaning, connection, engagement and things that often win out of everyday life.
There's so many other things and I think part of why MeToo happened in 2017, and it's often treated as this astonishing anomaly that burst out of nowhere like a bolt of lightning. I've written and keep shouting because I keep getting confronted with that version of it. It's the culmination of 50 years of feminism and the last several years of really dynamic feminism before 2017, and part of what we had to do to make people sit up and listen when they talked about men like Harvey Weinstein and all the other powerful monsters who got exposed was we had to break a lot of the stories who lies about rape. And one of the things I've been shouting from every housetop I can find is that the people who lie chronically, constantly, reliable about rape are rapists and break down the stories that women just make it up and women are unreliable narrators and we shouldn't listen to them and it wasn't that bad and all the rest of it.
This summer we've been breaking the story that the police are the trustworthy, reliable keepers of the peace and seeing that they actually often inject violence, danger, and death into situations that don't have to be that way including the mental illness calls people still make to them. So for me breaking the story is just... I am wrapping up, is about seeing what's confining and oppressive and limiting about a framework and finding a different or broader more inclusive other perspective.
Bruce Shapiro: So let's push this a little bit and maybe, I don't know, think back to your journalist days or think outward to the communities that you're part of now. I'm sure that in this conversation today, there's someone who's a public health reporter in New Haven, Connecticut where I am trying to figure out what it would mean to break the story on the pandemic here or there's a police reporter in San Francisco or Chicago or somewhere saying, "Well, okay, Rebecca. If I want to break the story, how do I begin to do that? Where do I look? How do I begin to inquire? How do I change my perspective? What are my habits of work of thought that are going to lead me to be able to do this? How do we get from a public storytelling, a journalism that is defined by conventional expectations to seeing a little bit past and seeing the possibilities for breaking the story? Where do you look?"
Rebecca Solnit: So much of it is sort of looking at what our own biases and blind spots are, what are the conventional frameworks the story carries with it, and questioning those. I think there's a kind of criticality - I feel really lucky I strayed into art criticism when postmodern theory was very dynamic. We all know all the ways that that could be ridiculous and annoying. But it was a set of really critical tools and the artists I was working with for asking very foundational questions who is the story centered on his point of view is given credibility.
Basically, what are the assumptions here? Even though objectivity is one of the most annoying words in the field of journalism, Ben Bagdiki and my wonderful journalism professor at Cal used to say there's no such thing as objectivity. You can't be objective, but you can be fair. But you see it in all kinds of ways. There was a truly atrocious piece in the Washington Post early in the pandemic about... It was in The Lily, the women's section and I kind of hate women's sections because they often talk about things men should be thinking about like raising kids and things.
Just to put in a women's section makes all domestic matters something men are not even supposed to think about and pay attention to. But it was a story about a woman who had a successful startup with employees and was getting somewhere. The pandemic happens, they had no child care, and her husband refused to do child care because it was too hard.
The story really bought into the idea that first of all child care was her responsibility, not both of theirs since you fucking begat the child. Second of all, that it was perfectly normal to see the child care that several billion women on Earth have engaged in our lifetimes as too hard for a slacker dude who did not seem to have major employment outside raising his own goddamn child.
So the story really bought into this deeply misogynist framework that child care is women's responsibility and even though we blame a black woman with a single mom with three kids for not also having a law degree and working three jobs, we were letting a guy who has nothing else to do off the hook for taking care of his own child, so his wife can earn a living and have a career.
That was a really egregious case and I had fun going after it in a piece I think I wrote for Lithub. But you see just little assumptions all the time. One of the really interesting things that happened this week, because I think it all is changing and we are breaking some stories is that the LA Times published, I think it was a front page although in the digital world you never know, a big apology for the racism in their coverage in the past and they acknowledged... And this is part, I think of a huge story breaking going with a new level of engagement on the part of the powerful and the pale with racism.
So the LA Times acknowledged that they used really racist frameworks in covering crime and race in LA in the 1980s and that was a huge part of building the war on crime, the prison industrial complex. It's so huge in California, et cetera. So I think it's really like what are the assumptions here and I don't know what it would look like in journalism schools, but I think it would be really interesting to have that more kind of theoretical philosophical like, how do we look at our own biases and assumptions? How do we look at the cultures?
Who do we give more time to? Were all the experts we just interviewed about sexual violence male? Where all the people who just spoke up about racism white? I think a lot of it is happening very organically and incrementally. So much of my Hope in the Dark work is about how powerful, transformative, good ideas spread from the shadows and the margins to the center and ways that are so subtle and incremental that the people at the center rarely recognize and acknowledge where these transformative things came from. Well, it does make them less powerful, but it doesn't make them less important.
Bruce Shapiro: One of the reasons that Hope in the Dark, both the book and the work, and the title resonated for me right now is that I think all of us certainly have a sense of this being in multiple dimensions, a dark time. And in particular our work at the Dart Center leads to me going into a lot of newsrooms to talk about covering trauma and violence and tragedy and their impact and that means a lot of conversations right now. And in a lot of newsrooms as I think in a lot of political circles, and in a lot of private life, I hear so often right now, the problem is we just don't see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I guess one of the things I'm wondering as you look at this time and think about past times and also think about where journalists, other kinds of storytellers could be looking for an honest reckoning with hope and not just being lost in the dark. What do you think we should be looking at? What are some of the pathways around storytelling to cultivate in a realistic way with a sense of hope right now?
Rebecca Solnit: First, I want to problematize using the word dark in a negative way, because I always feel that gets in...
Bruce Shapiro: Fair enough.
Rebecca Solnit: There's inevitably racial overtones and since, I've become aware of that 25 or 30 years ago, I just never use it as a pejorative. But everybody else does so I'm not criticizing you, and I also think of darkness as kind of mystery night with all its erotic generative energy. The fact for any creative person that your best stuff seems to come out of some place you can't quite see mystery, et cetera, and Hope in the Dark is literally hope, not hope in dark times as it was often misrepresented, but hope in the unknowable future.
Look, six years ago when there's that amazing climate march of, what was it, 400,000 people in New York City, which we did not anticipate, I asked my friend Jamie Henn who was the communications director at 350.org the climate group, how he read this moment and he said this really great thing. He said, "Everything is coming together while everything is falling apart."
I feel like we're in this moment where... There's the backlash that Michelle Alexander and I believe and that what we're seeing with white supremacy and patriarchy is this fear that equality will win. And it's also kind of about what is your framework. The Trump era has been grim for some of the stuff, but I'm almost 60 years old. If I look at the changes around race gender, queer life, et cetera, over my lifetime, it's pretty breathtaking and a lot of it is breaking down hatred, depression, discrimination, exclusion, silencing, criminalization that existed for generation centuries in the case of misogyny for millennia and things have changed a lot.
And then around climate, there's this really remarkable thing happening and did I grab it? Yes. My friend, Antonia Juhasz wrote this completely amazing cover story for Sierra Magazine. She's one of the smartest oil policy analysts and climate journalists around, and I didn't hold it up long enough. The end of oil is near and one of the consequences of this terrible pandemic is that it's further what was already happening, which is that the oil industry like the coal industry before it is collapsing and failing.
There's a way it could go really badly with people like Trump are in charge with lots of subsidies and pumping as much carbon into the atmosphere and dragging it out while everything falls apart. But there is a real possibility in this future that is not yet written in this future that climate activists are trying to help shape of really leaving the age of fossil fuel behind swiftly as all the scientists have been telling us we need to do in this decade.
And just crazy stuff is happening in April. I think it was Brent Crude Tech Oil Futures in Texas dropped to -$40 a barrel. Meaning that they had to pay people to take it away. There are all these oil tankers hovering in oceans all over the world because the glut was so huge because consumption had gone down and people... Clean energy has actually become cheaper for a lot of power generation.
So there's really interesting things happening like that on a lot of fronts where climate change is terrible, the possibility of actually transitioning to a clean economy is... And kind of destroying the industry that's destroying the world is closer than it has been. God, I'm trying to remember her name. Someone called Patrisse... I'm forgetting her last name. One of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter has this beautiful saying. I'm trying to remember... Okay. Nobody has to look at me while I contemplate and research my mental archives for five minutes.
She basically talks about the fact that hope and grief, and fury are not incompatible. And then often people think hope is optimism and denial that everything is going to be great, everything is fine. You don't have to do anything. And hope for me is that some of the things we care about, can be rescued, can be cared for. Some of the things that matter are places where we can win if we give it everything we have. Nothing is guaranteed. And that's the dark I'm interested in.
The radical uncertainty - what will happen to the fossil fuel industry? What will happen to this election? What will happen around so many issues where there's actually room to make a difference? There's a kind of weird fatalism Americans are very fond of because it's a way of giving away power while sounding powerful of asserting that you know exactly what's going to happen and therefore the future requires nothing from you. You don't have to do anything but pontificate.
We don't know what's going to happen. And what's going to happen is what's going to happen because of how we participate or fail to participate in part. And that's the darkness I want people to plunge into, the darkness of not knowing in which... But understand their own power to help shape the future.
Bruce Shapiro: I'm going to ask you one more kind of very reportery question and then I think we'll go to the crowd and see what folks have on their minds. You spent a lot of time along with interrogating violence and power, and community. You've also spent a lot of time in a very loving way and a very deep way chronicling American places, places where difficult things happen. You've done these wonderful atlases of New York and San Francisco and New Orleans. You've looked at the history of warfare and violence in the American West.
A lot of reporters especially local reporters are very much people of places and yet there's a lot we don't wander into and a lot we don't think about. And in particular maybe, we don't think enough about the impact of historic violence and tragedy in places. But a lot of other community and untold story issues as well. If you were to reimagine American local journalism and American local reporting as a different journalism of place.
A lot is up for grabs right now so you may have a real opportunity here. Where would you want reporters who are covering their own communities to be looking for that fresh re-imagining of the story and for that buried history and for its relevance in the present and the other things that you've done in your... And also just the physicality, the actual places. What should we be looking at?
Rebecca Solnit: God, I'm just wishing that we had lots of local reporters again because one of the tragedies and political catastrophes of our time is big tech the monsters in whose shadow I live here in San Francisco undermining the financial model for newspaper reporting and causing the shrinkage and collapse of newspapers and local reporting all over the country so that people really don't know where they live. I'm guilty of it to some extent myself and I read the Washington Post, The Guardian and a lot of things like Vox and Slate and things like that, and don't pay enough attention to the local stuff to what the school board is up to and the zoning battle over this development and stuff. I picked some of it up.
So just like please let's just have lots of local reporting, it may have been imperfect, but it was incredibly valuable for helping people be engaged and empowered citizens in their own community. And one of the things that's been weird for me about the pandemic because I feel like maybe because it's harder to do feature stories, personal stories because we're all supposed to socially distance. I just haven't seen what's happening in the lives of people who are financially wrecked by not having worked in six months, people being evicted, being displaced and things like that.
So it's just the granularity of the statistics of 30 million jobs lost, only 10 million that Trump keeps bragging about regained. What's happening to those 20 million people? What about this rise in hunger and the crisis in food banks and things like that? There are so many stories out there. And you mentioned history. It's one of the things I have a degree in journalism and I'm so grateful for the training and resourcefulness and ethicality I got there, but I always wanted to be essentially an editorialist and essayist and be able to bring in contexts and things that you're not allowed to do in reporting.
I think that's often so important. For example in Hurricane Katrina in the black community, there were rumors that the levees were dynamited and you could think that's paranoia and conspiracy theory, but if you actually know the history of the region, which those people did, the city fathers actually dynamited the levees in the great flood that John Barry wrote about to flood the neighboring parishes and save their own stuff.
If you know that, for example, that levees actually were dynamited, thinking they might have been dynamited again is less crazy. So often, it's just the deep context of what's gone on here and what a place is. There's often a lot that gets missed about what's happened in a place. And then, just to speak beyond the journalism, just to say something about what places mean to me. I feel like we talk about places as inanimate objects, but there's something a native... Well, it's one of the things that's been so rich for me about native culture is the sense that places are deeply imbued with meaning and power. And there's some southwestern tribes that...
There's a book called Wisdom Sits in Places by the anthropologist Keith Basso about the idea that there are literally stories situated in specific places at this rock this thing happened. At this bend in the stream, a coyote did this, et cetera. And that the landscape itself was constantly instructing you.
As somebody who was kind of alienated and lonely and not very good at connecting to human beings as a kid and a young woman, I felt like as I look back that places were the kind and reliable and supportive forces in my life. I didn't have to anthropomorphize them, but I think there really is something of seeing the same oak trees, the same things blooming in spring, the same streams, the same hills, the same views. In some sense, I think place is the most reliable thing in our lives, unless, until it's destroyed by the wildfires.
They took a friend of mine's home this week and you know, have been devastating so much of California. Climate change is destabilizing that foundational thing in a deep way. Just knowing where we are was literally having ground to stand on that empowers us being connected to the neighbors, the history of the neighborhood and the community and things like that. There's a kind of placelessness that's come with us all living in the placeless tech bubble that I think is really bad for us.
And it's not inherent in tech, it might be inherent in ad driven corporate profit driven tech. Leaving aside the horrible racist platform that nextdoor.com is, I think there are other possibilities and there are things like Berkeleyside, the local news site and things like that that do reconnect people. Bird Cams. I'm an advocate of Bird Cams.
Bruce Shapiro: Indeed, indeed. I'm going to now go to questions from folks in the crowd and again use the Q&A which I see that some of you have begun to do which is great. Let me ask a question from Sarah Pascarella who says, "For our society that has profited for so long from the continued abuse of the environment, minorities, and women, what does a meaningful reckoning look like and how does it begin?" And I think you've talked a little about reckoning, the Weinstein reckoning, the LA Times apologizing as the Montgomery Advertiser did and some other newspapers and news organizations have done. What does meaningful reckoning look like and how does it begin?
Rebecca Solnit: I want to pounce, speaking of breaking the story, on the word begin. There's a story we on the left tell all the time, which is that the bad stuff needs to be interrupted and we're starting from scratch because nothing meaningful has happened yet. I think it's begun and well begun in so many ways. I look at a lot of indigenous leadership in south and Central America as well as North America in rethinking the history of the Americas, rethinking our relationship to nature and things like that. I see a lot of people shifting.
I was at a trans rights march in San Francisco early in the pandemic where the first thing was to acknowledge whose land we’re on. And again, I was on a sunrise movement. I was talking to people before they did phone banking and everyone who announced what whose native land they're on. When I was growing up, nobody even knew the words Coast Miwok. I grew up on Coast Miwok and people didn't even know that stuff.
That does not mean because we know some words that everything is hunky-dory now. But I think a lot of it is happening. I think there's racial reparations, there's inclusion and equity, the fact that Random House has a vice president as of today who's a black woman in an industry that's been headed almost entirely by white people is part of the work going on. I think the fact that we now ask these questions (Why is that panel all white? Why is that board all male?) is part of it.
So I always want to shift the framework to the good stuff that is happening. It needs to become more powerful, more large-scale, more impactful. But it is happening and so it's really about how do we amplify it? How do we feed it? How do we support it? How do we let the people who are leading it continue to do the really good work we're doing. So it's just a problem of scale and it's like renewable energy. We're not starting from scratch.
We know exactly that solar and wind can solve most of our energy problems. We just have to scale it up. So I feel like we're not beginning. We have a lot of amazing things happening in this country and elsewhere and we need to scale them up and that also means doing the reverse. When we're talking about energy, we need to keep it in the ground with fossil fuel. When we're talking about, you know, patriarchy and white supremacy, we need to withdraw from a world run by the same old, same old and stories centered on the same old, same old. But I think that's in process and that's why people like Trump are so angry and frightened, pissed off.
Bruce Shapiro: Barbara Ford asks and this is a different kind of reflection. I have a journalist writer friend who while looking at the many losses of the planet for his books and articles describes the trauma experienced by folks who are reporting these losses. You and I have talked about this a little bit. This is also part of the Dart Center's work. Do you experience this or do you know folks who report this? Any thoughts on how this deep witnessing and those doing it can be supported? And I might add to that, my kind of classic Dart Center question, what is your own self-care look like around looking at difficult things?
Rebecca Solnit: Oh my god. I sometimes think that I had a very violent and traumatic childhood and I sometimes think that I'm still so encased in protective layers that I'm not looking at what it means that I've been reading stories about the rape and murder of people of my gender just for being my gender daily including a horrific story about a Dalit woman in India last night, but really intensely for 15 years. I know there's a lot of grief, and sorrow, and pain, and things I'm not always sure that trauma is the right word. Part of it is looking at... I hate the word self-care even just because it does feel kind of buzzy and trendy at the same time that I totally recognize it's necessary and important.
My friend, Roshi Joan Halifax is training Buddhist chaplains who are there to support people be it prisoners, homeless people, activists and stuff like that. And there's trainers, facilitators, coaches and things trying to help people respond to that. I think there's a lot of climate grief right now. We are going to lose a lot, things are going to change. Sea level is going to rise, species are going to go extinct. As Bill McKibben put it in his book, Eaarth, which is Earth misspelled, the gentle nurturing optimum 10,000 years we had are over and we're launched on something much more turbulent and destructive.
I'm always kind of looking at Bill and scientists and understanding that they recognize in a way the rest... I feel like I have to work really hard at understanding what the loss of the Greenlandic ice shield means, what 1.5 degrees means, what these things mean and these are people who get it intuitively. I think in a broader sense, whatever people are doing whether you're teaching kindergarten or driving a garbage truck or you're a congressional aide or a climate journalist, there's a certain amount of wear and tear and finding people who love you and places you feel comfortable or overjoyed. And for me going to San Francisco has a very long coastline, going to the beach is really important for me. I remember once looking at the ocean there thinking everything was my mother, but my mother and particularly the Pacific Ocean.
So I think if people feel allowed in this culture that's so obsessed with productivity and working hard and getting it done, if people are allowed to slow down and allowed to feel that they even have the right, let alone the time to do those things, they usually know what they are and they really vary for people and people love jigsaw puzzles, they love drinking with friends. They love cooking. They love taking the dog for a walk. They love the beach. They love chess. They love sports for some reason I've never been able to fathom.
Bruce Shapiro: Let me just say for anyone in the conversation who has friends or colleagues who you're wondering about these questions for. At www.dartcenter.org, we actually have a whole lot of resources and tip sheets for journalists and other researchers and storytellers who are dealing with a heavy trauma load. That in turn reminds me of, Rebecca something you and I talked about the other day and that also, I think is implicit in what you just said which is that there is part of the political necessity or the journalistic necessity or however you want to put it, is the confrontation with the minute particulars of violence and what they do.
And you talked about yourself looking at all these accounts of sexual assault still. A writer you and I talked about, Jonathan Schell asked readers to imagine what nuclear war and its aftermath would look like in his book, The Fate of the Earth, in a very particular way. Rachel Carson, whose silent spring you wrote the centenary introduction to, did the same thing with environmental catastrophe. There is now a certain amount of controversy around the exposure to shock and the exposure to trauma by readers, by audiences, whether there should be trigger warnings, whether what students should look at, what the public should be expected to confront in its news reporting or not be expected to confront. How do you think about that one as someone who is very alive for the visceral details of violence along with the theoretical understanding of it and the broader consequences and the repair?
Rebecca Solnit: I am full of contradictions on the one hand. I'm really grateful we're at a moment where we can acknowledge just how much trauma there has been, and how racism has been intensely traumatic, and that the refugees who deserve to be here have undergone immense trauma including the trauma of being ripped from their relationship to place and become literal displaced people, the gender violence that has I think impacted every woman's life is a kind of trauma and a kind of inequality. I can hardly imagine what the world would be like in a world without gender violence just because it would be so profoundly different.
At the same time, and this is a contradiction, I do feel like these stories are often told as though we're incredibly fragile and as though were made out of porcelain once or glass. Once you're broken, you remain broken. I think that's kind of a dangerous framework. I can think off the top of my head of three women who are friends of mine who have been almost murdered by misogynist men in the course of sexual and sort of gender rage assaults including the woman who gave me the desk I'm sitting at now, which I wrote about in recollections and they have gone on to have families, have productive lives, et cetera.
So I feel like often what I'm looking for is that gray area balance. How do we fully value the importance of acknowledging trauma while also supporting whatever helps people see themselves as resilient and capable. There's also a really interesting way we often treat, and I think this comes out of the kind of bourgeois individualism of therapy that trauma is exceptional in some way. Barry Lopez wrote an extraordinary essay in the '90s that had a huge impact on me.
He was raped over a period of years by a family friend who also used all the psychological gaslighting, shaming, et cetera to prevent him from telling anyone. And he wrote about it in an essay that framed this as in some ways a very quotidian thing because things like this have happened to so many people and he acknowledges particularly women, and he talks about actually in this essay it's the place he lived, the San Fernando valley outside LA before it fully smogged and developed that was his comfort in that difficult era.
So I think there's also some big questions for me. I don't think I can say anything that's smart enough about them in the space of an answer, but how do we tell our own stories of what happened to us and how do we find solidarity and support in that rather than... In some ways, I think being told your story is exceptional, it makes you alienating, and obviously some people have much worse stories than others and I know some truly horrific ones. But there's an underhanded way that's like, but that makes you worthy of attention and I think one of the interesting things about Recollections of my Non-Existence, I wanted to write a book about being deeply traumatized by all this, not because any one exceptional incidence of violence happened to me as a young woman, but because it was everywhere all the time. It could happen to me anytime I left my apartment where I lived alone.
It was just so ambient and nobody would acknowledge it. In this culture where depending on who you listen to a fifth to a third of American women have been sexually assaulted but almost all of us have dealt with it, dealt with attempts and organized our lives around trying to avoid having it happen to us. What is it like when it's not exceptional and what gets you through.
Bruce Shapiro: It's interesting in the history of the science of post-traumatic stress disorder. The original definition that clinicians work requires that an event be out of the ordinary that a traumatic event while violence or horror was out of the ordinary, but as time went on, someone did the math. A lot of folks did the math and realized that by the time you add up violence against women, war, child abuse, community violence. Out of the ordinary is the wrong criterion and that was actually taken out of the diagnosis and hasn't been there for a long time.
One of the sort of storytellers balancing acts is between the exceptional and the ordinary because our brains are attracted to the most spectacular events that are the most out of the ordinary so the classic trauma news or crime news or violence news dilemma is -- it's the mass violence events that are the most rare and the least dangerous to most people that get all the attention. And they're huge disruptions in the social fabric. They have good reasons and yet it is the most ordinary sources of violence. Those you describe in Recollections of my Non-Existence and that invade people's psyches in the way in which you describe that are the biggest threat to most people. So we have a storyteller's dilemma, don't we? Between getting attention and accurately reflecting the nature of the world we live in.
The journalism and reported non-fiction I love takes ordinary stories and tells them in such compelling and intimate ways that they read that they are deeply absorbing. I'm thinking of my friend, Lauren Markham's, The Far Away Brothers about two undocumented Salvadoran boys who have to flee El Salvador for fear of being killed by gangs and come here as unaccompanied minors. And Anne Fadiman's, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down about a Hmong family in California and the clash between the sort of medical treatment for their daughter's epilepsy and the traditional teaching about spirits and possession and things like that.
I love those stories. I think that's almost the most valuable reporting because it also tells us that it's not this exceptional stuff. Sometimes I feel like everyone in a movie who isn't a detective, a spy, a secret agent, a mafioso gangster, cowboy or superhero. You have these shallow plots driven by violence and car chases and things going bang. And the really good movies are something like spotlight, which is about both the quotidian business of child abuse and the quotidian business of trying to get a story under difficult circumstances and makes it absolutely gripping.
So I think in a sense the cure is better storytelling, better journalism and at the same time that I want to exist, lots of it is out there but it'd be great if we could devalue the spectacular and value the quotidian more.
Bruce Shapiro: So I'm going to ask you one more question from the chat then I'm going to ask you one more question from me and we'll call it an evening. This question I want to ask from the chat is something several people have asked and that relates to what you just said which is to summarize, what are you reading now? People are asking in particular what reading is nourishing you right now given the state of the world? What's on your shelf or on your bed stand these days?
Rebecca Solnit: Oh my god. This is like when I walk into a bar and I immediately forget what I want to drink. I'm working on a big research driven book for which I have probably plowed through 75 books and tons of stuff online, which I will talk about when it comes out in the year. There is a way. I like to think that the election will be won in a safe and reliable way with a transition of power and then I want to shut down social media and withdraw from being such a news junkie.
I feel speaking of trauma like I have news hyper-vigilance and I think a lot of us do. There were some very funny tweets in the first season of the Trump regime where journalists would sort of say, "Hey, I went out to lunch. What happened?" You really feel like you close your eyes for a moment and something else has happened. Occasionally, I have to remind myself that my being extremely informed is not necessarily making the world safer for me and others, and my kids and my ma.
Bruce Shapiro: Wearing my other Dart Center hat, I spend a certain amount of time kind of hectoring colleagues to go on news diets and lower all of our news arousal on a moment by moment basis. At the same time, we are in one of those periods where it seems that a month's stuff happens in a few days or so. It's hard to know what to do. But this actually brings me to one other thing I wanted to ask you about, which goes to the question of storytelling and also goes to the question of our present situation. In Call Them By Their True Names, you ask this question about who is missing from the American narrative?
You run through the list. We sort of talk about a lot, women directors, black screenwriters, not so misogynist lead journalists. Who is missing the rhetorical narrative? Then you say, "No, who's really missing, it's voters." That was written a couple years ago and on the one hand we obsess about voters, we're looking at poll numbers and who's got lawn signs and who doesn't. I'll bet you think that's still true that you think that in some significant way, there's a kind of story about voters who are missing or narrative that's missing. How do we go into this last month and whatever is to come thinking about the missing stories?
Rebecca Solnit: I don't know quite what you're referencing in that book and there's obsession about voters as a kind of commodity that everybody wants to get, and some looking at people dealing with the difficulties of voting.
Bruce Shapiro: I think what you said is voting is a form of speech, a way to say what you believe and what kind of world you want to see. And I think-
Rebecca Solnit: Is this a piece about 220 million missing?
Bruce Shapiro: Yes.
Rebecca Solnit: One of the things that really wasn't very well attended other than by the great Ari Berman now at Mother Jones for the 2016 election was the huge impact on voter suppression on keeping millions and millions of Americans mostly poor non-white and young out of their full rights to vote. So what I talked about in that essay was that if voting is speech, it's a really important part of how we speak up for what we believe in, and it's hard in a culture that valorizes individualism so much for people to feel that whoever wins this election will probably have close to 70 million votes.
Rebecca Solnit: But what was fascinating was if you looked at the scale of voter suppression, which could be as many from full exclusion to having it being made incredibly difficult, you might be talking about 20 million people. If you look at what those... And this is driven by the Republican Party which has committed itself to being a minority rule party, a la Apartheid South Africa. They recognize that they have a platform that is hostile and offensive and dangerous to people of color, women, that hate the environment, et cetera. So they're like how do we keep winning? We prevent people from voting.
But you look at the country we live in. If those people had full and equal voting rights, so many good things around labor, immigration, the environment, the climate, reproductive rights, minimum wage, healthcare, et cetera would have already passed. The reason we're not living in a very... That in a sense this whole country is a story that's been written by a disproportionately older whiter part of the population and a more conservative part of the population.
So in a sense we're living a corrupted story, a story missing 20... We'll just stick with 20 million. It's arguable, but 20 million storytellers who wanted to tell what I passionately believe is a much better story and bringing them in as story writers as voices, I think would be transformative. How do we get to all these good things? Everyone who's progressive, humanitarian, climate conscious wants and voter disenfranchisement is a huge part of the picture.
So there is that way that I think... And that's a story we need to tell. It's been told better but not well enough. One of the things that was really annoying in the aftermath of that last election was people saying, "Well, black people didn't really turn out the way they did for Obama." It's like the Voting Rights Act was sabotaged and all this voter suppression happened. I get it a lot of black people weren't as excited about Clinton as they were about Obama, but a lot of them had their rights taken away. The same rights we've been fighting for since the abolition movement. And that's a really important story.
Bruce Shapiro: And that I think is as good a place as any to wind it up on. So Rebecca, thank you. Thank you for your work. Thank you for your time tonight. Everyone in the conversation with us, thank you. I'm sorry for questions we didn't get to. There were so many good ones. But to get the answers, go out and read Rebecca's columns and buy her books, and continue listening to her when she shows up on Zoom, Facebook or anywhere else. Thank you, Rebecca and thanks to the Dart Center team who were behind the scenes driving the car and also our friends at Columbia's Tow Center for Digital Media who lent us their high-powered Zoom webinar platform so we could handle the large number of folks who wanted to be part of this tonight. Thank you all and good night.
Rebecca Solnit: Thank you so much, Bruce. One thing comes to mind which is Scoop Nisker, the radio journalist in the '70s when I was growing up who used to say, "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." Somehow, I think you just elicited that and it's a great place to end.
Bruce Shapiro: Wonderful place to end. Thank you so much.
Rebecca Solnit: Thank you.