Writer Rebecca Solnit is the awful sort of virtue-signaling leftist woman whom one hopes never to meet, not on a sidewalk, not in an airplane terminal, not on a city park trail, not with a cat, not in a hat, though all of these scenarios are, as she informs us rather helpfully, possible if you live in the wrong kind of city, or even pass through it briefly.
You see a lot of her type these days. They are the ones complaining about mansplaining (a term Solnit is credited with inventing) while wearing slutty miniskirts and not much else in the commercials you can’t skip on Hulu. They are your freshman (fresh-zee?) orientation instructors informing you that your first semester will be spent examining your white privilege. If you’re especially unlucky, your brother (or sister) is dating one, and she’s going to tell you and the rest of the family exactly what she thinks about Christopher Columbus at Thanksgiving dinner.
The Rebecca Solnit types have been examining their own privilege lately, and when they aren’t busy murdering the concept of irony by trying to be funny about it, they want to share what they think they have learned about “power.”
In Solnit’s case, this sharing comes in the form of a Harper’s column that is admittedly efficient in mapping every single, dreadful, stereotypical, white lady feminist leftist identity politics meme in one short piece.
There is the handsome black Buddhist “wrongly incarcerated” convicted murderer slash poet on death row who has become Solnit’s pen pal; the protest march against Trump’s executive order “to expand the space available to a select group of people while curtailing that available to everyone else,” (a.k.a. the travel ban); the euphoria of blockading San Francisco Airport’s international terminal to teach people how oppressed people feel (when the oppressed people are flying international out of San Fran); the strained efforts to stop thinking about rape while thinking about Muslims that blow up in Solnit’s face as she tries to pretend that the Janjaweed rapists of Somalia are just white men; the blaming of an innocent dog for symbolic rape of her sweatpants; the gnaw-your-arm-off-to-get-away political arguments that “equal people” should “take up equal space in government” and “domination of space by the powerful might be called structural violence”; and, finally, the big reveal: Rebecca examines her own power, and not good power like girl power but bad power like conservative power.
Good power, you see, is Solnit trying to free Jarvis Masters, whom she believes is innocent of conspiring to murder Sergeant Dean Burchfield, a correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison, in 1985. (See The People v. Masters.) Or, as Solnit puts it: “Some of my freedom comes from my race. Jarvis Masters is black; I am white.” This is the only evidence she offers to explain why Masters is in prison: he is black. Nothing about his crimes nor any of his many victims, nothing about the murder of Sgt. Burchfield, whom she does not even bother to name. Why bother with oppressors’ names, after all?
Solnit tells us she is convinced that Masters is innocent, but the matter of his guilt or innocence isn’t really interesting to her, so she skips explaining why and moves to a more interesting topic: Solnit watching Solnit watch herself visit Masters in prison. This is described in a long, winding series of idiot meditations on the meaning of being “inside or outside” and “places where a woman can walk,” and the park where she walks in San Francisco, and how she has freedom relative to Masters, and other people have freedom relative to her, but it’s a different type of freedom than she has.
The meditation goes on and on, with Solnit getting worked up about everything from the number of times male Supreme Court Justices interrupt female Supreme Court Justices to the drool a dog left on her sweatpants leg until you realize that her politics are simultaneously dehumanizing and narcissistic and utterly exhausting. These “politics” take up every last molecule of her existence and all her waking thoughts, and she doesn’t see this as a bad thing.
What is bad, the only bad thing, is people who don’t agree with her politics. Those people, the conservatives (they need no other name), are so terrible that the world needs to stop them. There are no gray areas here. Unlike, say, feminism and radical Islam, gray areas and identity politics can’t coexist. Conservatives, according to Solnit, are the people who believe that “one person’s gain” must “be another’s loss,” whereas leftists are people who are willing to redistribute everything, with the obvious exception of the stuff they own, like apartments in San Francisco and jobs writing for Harper’s.
Or, as Solnit explains:
At our best, we invite people into spaces that belong to us and defend their right to sovereignty over their own. At our worst, we invade or shut out, whether by land grabs or street harassment or travel bans.
At this point, the reader understands fully that Solnit’s apartment and writing job definitely aren’t on the radical “redistribution” list she’s writing for others. But we conservative white privilege man people are not going to be left alone to snicker quietly about Solnit’s gawking cynicism: such good old days are gone. Solnit is going to make us hunker down with her and dig back into the meaning of her owning stuff, because it is important that we understand how unimportant her importance is to her, because she’s one of the good people entitled to importance.
And dig she does, though the hole, like everything else here, turns out to be pretty shallow. “As a child,” she begins, inspiring another round of frantic arm-chewing by the reader:
I somehow absorbed the idea that getting in the way of other people or wasting their time was a terrible offense. I have been scrupulous about standing to the right on escalators, not blocking aisles, not showing up late. Underlying my anxiety are implicit assumptions about whose time and space matters, perhaps matters more than mine.
In the ordinary world, this is called manners, and then you move on to another topic. To Solnit, like everything else she encounters, thinks, or transiently feels, it is a crucial hill to die on in the eternal battle between the privileged and the oppressed.
How does she justify having stuff while she is also arguing for a radical redistribution of all stuff? How does she write this — To believe that my important business is more important than others’ is the path of entitlement, the antithesis of any ideal of equality – while writing for an elite publication and living in the most socially stratified and elite major city of them all, San Francisco? How does she overcome the “antithesis of equality” that is her own existence?
The answer is what the answer can only be: more identity politics. Solnit is entitled to have nice stuff because of what she is: a woman, and therefore oppressed, though she is also an oppressor because she is white. But she can mitigate the harm of being white by using her stuff to oppose the really deplorable people, the conservatives. And in the process, she gets to keep her stuff because she has repatriated her job and her apartment and her insights and her lifestyle and every waking moment of her existence to the service of the revolution. Or so she believes:
As a writer, I’ve been given more and more space to occupy, and my voice reaches further and further. The only justification I can think of for such disproportionate influence is to use it to advocate for others, to invite in those who have been excluded. And to listen, because when you’re not a conduit you may as well be a dead end.
Professional conduit: nice work if you can get it.
Unsurprisingly continuing the metaphor, Solnit declares that whenever she feels even a little bit impatient with the pre-redistribution less-empowered-type people she encounters, she tell herself to stop being such a dead end “conservative” type:
As my own status has risen and shifted, I’ve felt the pull of something that isn’t exactly conservatism but may fuel it. Sometimes the force you need to resist is yourself.
In this howling vortex of identity politics and granular redistribution, the last frontier is one’s own inner thoughts, which must occasionally be shamed, re-educated, and purged. Abort your inner conservative, in other words. Then abort him again (it’s always a he).
Rebecca Solnit is an influential thinker on the Left. Her politics are their politics. It is important that we understand what that means.
Confronting Solnit’s politics is like dating her, then breaking up with her, then changing your cellphone number to avoid being stalked by her, then having to pack up and flee to Singapore when she gets elected and starts putting conservatives in camps. Which, it is useful to remember, is the ultimate goal of this sort of ideology, once you get past the dreary MFA stylings and aging girl empowerment claptrap.
When an article this banal can look this frightening, we live in dangerous times.