REVIEW: Call Them By Their True Names by Rebecca Solnit

Call Them By Their True Names is a collection of short essays by Rebecca Solnit that identify, explain and reflect on degrees of issues centred around the current political climate in the United States. It is a comprehensive snapshot of the intersections of modern political life and serves as a thoughtful handbook for the academic and the activist alike. The recurring message of the book was a call of solidarity, understanding and recognition of the war at home - a war that is subtle, sometimes slow-moving and disempowering those who think they are but foot soldiers who are not necessarily complacent, but perhaps just ignorant of their blind compliance.

When I began reading this collection of essays, I wondered if Solnit would be yelling into the echo chamber that the left movement can often seem to be. But Solnit takes ideas shared by left movements in the United States in recent years, and discusses their triumphs and failures, ensuring criticism cannot be left only to idealogical opponents. Solnit discusses the the fractured left movement where the intersections of identities and beliefs is ignored for 'greater' mainstream purpose. In particular, her essay ‘Preaching to the Choir’ abstracted the idea that change only comes from convincing your adversaries to adopt your ideology.

The primary assumption behind the idea that we shouldn’t preach to the choir is that one’s proper audience is one’s enemies, not one’s allies…I have often been admonished that my statements should give no offence to strangers with whom I have little in common, that I should say things - I’m not sure what these cottony words would be, or whether I contain them - that will not irritate or alienate. I should spend my efforts on people who disagree passionately with me, because why waste time on those with whom I’ve already formed relationships and share interests?

In the context of religious practice, Solnit refers to Karen Haygood Stokes, who is a minister from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Stokes appeals not to changing anybody’s mind, but rather to deepen an existent understanding - “Have we thought critically about why we agree?” Solnit argues that we proceed to preach to the choir, who are devoted and willing to act consistently and support others.

The choir is made up of the deeply committed…the time the choristers spend with one another, the sum of their sympathy and shared experience, is art of what helps them sing in tune. To win politically, you need to motivate your own.


Another especially striking essay in the collection is ‘Visiting Jarvis Masters on Death Row’, where Solnit explores the New Jim Crow - which Michelle Alexander wrote on how the War on Drugs, the prison industrial complex and opiate crises has enslaved persons of colour in outwardly subtle ways. Beginning the essay with reflection on unconscious bias, Solnit cites Shanker Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain, where he takes a swim in the ocean, unknowingly being carried by a current, which makes him feel like a powerful and conquering swimmer. It is only when he seeks to return to the safety of the shore that he realises, ‘[u]nconscious bias influences our lives in exactly the same manner as that undercurrent’ that had carried him far from the shore. In the context of our social and political lives, some of us ride the current all our lives, feeling powerful, we benefit from privilege. Others fight and struggle against the current, unable to break from a system pitted against them.

I found this to be a poignant passage to read over the weekend where a Day of Mourning occurred in Australia, as our Indigenous people and allies continued to fight against the colonial/settler structures and embedded racism that have privileged white and European persons, and have forced Indigenous persons and other persons of colour to swim against a current that pulled them under for over 200 years. It was an important reminder to meditate on around this day of shame for the stolen land known as Australia. Even more, with Solnit’s message to unite, fight and resist, I encourage all readers to read Subbed In’s blog post about how we can pay reparations to the first people of this land.

As I neared the end of Call Them By Their True Names, I came to think more about truth and objectivity, particularly as I found Solnit’s essays to be more critical reflections than virtue-signalling pieces. As someone who studies law, the notion of objectivity is constantly raised, largely in relation to the fallacy that law is objective and free from passion and individual pursuits. Solnit rightly disagrees, recalling her class on ethics at UC Berkeley School of Journalism.

“You can’t be objective, but you can be fair.” Objective is a fiction that there is some neutral ground, some political no man's land you can hang out in, you and the mainstream media. Even what you deem worthy to report and whom you quote is a political decision. We tend to treat people on the fringe as ideologues and those in the centre as neutral, as though the decision not to own a car is political and the decision to own one is not, as though to support a war is neutral and to oppose it is not. There is no apolitical, no sidelines, no neutral ground; we're all engaged.

If the political climate at present is to be instructive of anything, it teaches that life is inherently political, law itself is political, varying from being both constricting and freeing. Law is not blind - Lady Justice peeks from her blindfold and sees injustice, and pulls the blindfold back over; it develops slowly from rigid ideas. But Solnit is not entirely opposed to the slow burn of legal and political ideological change. Resistance and change is metamorphic - what may be perceived as individual failures, are long-term successes, as the methods of one activist group inspires the lay person and influences burgeoning activists. Growing a movement is a dedication; it is showing up and preaching to the choir.

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