Sometimes the more evidence there is, the more difficult it can be to evaluate someone as a thinker. Especially across multiple forms of media. I wonder sometimes if, much in the way sound travels through different forms of matter in different ways, ideas also sometimes travel differently across interviews and essays and speeches.
I have not only enjoyed but been thoroughly impressed by the interviews I have seen author and well-quoted-feminist Rebecca Solnit give. I’ve found her thoughtful, incisive, and comprehensive. I’ve enjoyed Solnit in sound-bite form too. I mean, she coined the term “Manspalining,” which … until it became so thoroughly part of the lexicon as to die from exposure … elegantly served a useful purpose.
Based on such shining, I thought hers to be a star I ought to let guide me, and so I bought her latest book: “Men Explain Things To Me.” Here the struggle begins, because I find her essays to be tedious, pedantic, and sometimes so horrifically wrong as to make me question either her seriousness or her sanity.
The former two qualities are explicable, if disappointing: Solnit may simply be a better thinker than she is a writer. The requirements of brevity and the aid of an interlocutor that an interview provide may bring out her strengths; or perhaps her book (admittedly the only one of hers I’ve picked up), which is a collection of essays, has suffered from poor editing. Perhaps it is the kind of publications that would want to run Rebecca Solnit essays that are themselves pedantic and humorless, and she has been forced to write to spec. (A professional writer who can’t have sympathy for this has no capacity for it.) Or maybe this book was a dashed off effort to cash in on the cultural notoriety that the “mansplaining” essay (the title feature) had brought her, and isn’t representative of her more considered work. Hey – it happens. That Orson Wells did hack work to pay the bills didn’t make him any less Orson Wells.
But that last issue …
Okay, it’s only come up once, and not even in that book. But it’s a doozy, and I find that – months later – I can’t let it go.
In a December, 2014 essay for TomDispatch called “The Age of Capitalism is Over,” Solnit goes into a bit of a swoon for the French Revolution:
“The revolutionaries had executed their king for his crimes and were then trying out other forms of government. It’s popular to say that the experiment failed, but that’s too narrow an interpretation. France never again regressed to an absolutist monarchy and its experiments inspired other liberatory movements around the world (while terrifying monarchs and aristocrats everywhere).”
This is a mistake of “flat earth” proportions: the French Revolution actually ended with the appointment of an absolute monarch – the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. After he was defeated by outside powers (not the revolutionaries themselves), the Bourbon dynasty was restored, and while constitutional it was still tyrannical. More to the point: the constitutional monarchy imposed upon France by the victorious European powers came from countries that had already established constitutional monarchies without the need for a revolution. Britain, for example.
… oh, yes, and the Revolution led to something still called “The Reign of Terror” today. Over 40,000 accused prisoners were executed without trial; over 17,000 died by the guillotine; over 170,000 were killed in the “War in the Vendee” – a revolt by peasants against the revolutionary government (which is to say, the peasants the Revolution was fought for felt the need to rise up against the Revolution, and were then brutally slaughtered by it). It was a time of massive repression, brutality, and fear.
Yes, it terrified monarchs and aristocrats everywhere. It terrified *everyone.* It was the Reign of Terror. And yes, it was a failure. A colossal failure. A human failure. A political failure: it ended, remember, not with a democracy but with a new emperor.
The scale of this error is just staggering … and then, later in the piece, Solnit doubles down.
“It’s hard to see how we’ll get there from here, but easy to see that activists and citizens will have to push their nations hard. We need to end the age of fossil fuels the way the French ended the age of absolute monarchy.”
And there it is. She’s not only wrong about The French Revolution – she’s calling for a new one. And look, everybody makes mistakes but … I don’t … I can’t … process how an intelligent person deeply concerned with issues of social justice could do this.
Is she suggesting that we need summary executions in order to fight fossil fuels? That there must be a Reign of Terror for climate change? That political repression in service to environmental activism is desirable? Either she’s working with a misunderstanding of the French Revolution so off-base as to be commedically horrific, or she in fact understands that the French Revolution is synonymous with political terror and called for a new one anyway.
This wasn’t heated interview where you always run the risk of saying something stupid before you can stop yourself … this is an essay that (presumably) she looked over twice.
I just don’t know how to take this. If she really believes it, if she’s serious about this, then it makes her one of those people whose noble intentions set turn them into an enemy of mankind. It is a perfectly acceptable analogy, in this case, to say “Robespierre had good intentions too.” They mean nothing if you’re building the foundation of your cause on corpses.
That can’t possibly be what Solnit means … can it?
It’s vital, I suppose, to remember that people and ideas come across differently in different mediums. There is likely no “one true” clip, sound-bite, or essay that gives us the “essential” Rebecca Solnit. And lord knows I’ve said some stupid things in my time … and written some stupid ones on occasion, particularly (I’d like to think) in my younger years. I have long thought that our lust for the Freudian slip – the one telling piece of evidence that opens the true subconscious intentions of the person – as the real measure of a person is a mania with little merit.
But if I’m willing to extend this courtesy to her … and desperately hope she doesn’t really mean it … shouldn’t I be willing to do so to other people? Climate deniers, people who make racist slip-ups, and manspaliners? Where exactly in someone’s total produced work, across all mediums, can a clear declaration of humor philistinism be found?
That it can be found somewhere I am confident. Perhaps too much so. But where, exactly? I have no idea.