Solnit’s piercing outlook permeates latest collection

Rebecca Solnit tries to be a public citizen, someone who thinks “about broad issues — hope, civil society, revolution, climate” — and the questions these subjects raise. In her new collection, titled “Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness,” she once again reveals herself as one of our most provocative, thoughtful essayists.

Her canvas is large, including Antarctica, Iceland, Mexico, Haiti, Detroit and New Orleans, but she brings the same piercing look at all of these areas, discussing climate change, not-so-natural disasters, economic collapse, the drug trade, social justice and the future of urban America.

She does not mince words, and she manages to challenge our basic ways of thinking, sometimes shining a harsh light not just on capitalism and politics but also on the media.

Take, for instance, her essay that deals with the media’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, “Reconstructing the Story of the Storm.”

“The widely told initial version of Hurricane Katrina was a lie and a slander, based on rumors and racism, and it’s been falling apart steadily ever since,” Solnit writes.

She rips into Maureen Dowd of the New York Times for describing post-Katrina New Orleans as “a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs.” As Solnit writes, “the gist of these stories was that in the absence of authority, people went berserk; the implied solution was the reimposition of authority — armed, ruthless and intense.”

And Solnit argues that, partly because of such reports, authorities refocused their energies not on rescuing people who were stranded and desperate but on protecting property and controlling a captive population.

For several days after Katrina, “there was no commerce, no electricity, no way to buy badly needed supplies,” Solnit writes. “Though unnecessary things were taken, much of what got called looting was the stranded foraging for survival by the only means available.”

The same line of thought is evident in Solnit’s essay, “In Haiti, Words Can Kill.”

Solnit writes about media coverage of the 2010 earthquake in the Caribbean nation, pointing out that the Los Angeles Times ran a series of photographs that repeatedly used the word “looting.”

“Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a disaster. Your home no longer exists, and you spent what cash was in your pockets days ago. Your credit cards are meaningless because there is no longer any power to run credit-card charges. Actually, there are no longer any storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of anything to buy.”

By the third day after the disaster, Solnit says, we should imagine that we’re hungry and thirsty, and that we’re in an encampment where some people seem on the edge of death. “So you go out to see if any relief organization has finally arrived to distribute anything, only to realize there are a million others like you stranded with nothing. …. No wonder, when you see the chain pharmacy with the shattered windows or the supermarket, you don’t think twice before grabbing a box of PowerBars and a few gallons of water that might keep you alive and help you save a few lives as well.”

If you do this, Solnit asks, are you a criminal? “Should you be labeled a looter in the international media? Should you be shot down in the street? … Or are you a rescuer? Is the survival of disaster victims more important than the preservation of everyday property relations?”

Solnit gets into far more nuance than is available to detail in this space, but she’s talking about our ways of perception, of empathy. “And what is absolutely accurate in Haiti right now, and on Earth always,” she writes in the 2010 essay, “is that human life matters more than property, that the survivors of a catastrophe deserve our compassion and our understanding of their plight, and that we live and die by words and ideas, and it matters desperately that we get them right.”

Solnit, a San Franciscan, has more than a few choice words about the Silicon Valley workers who have turned her hometown into their bedroom community, riding what she calls luxury Google Buses with wi-fi every day to work and coming back to the city, acting as if they’re hip and fit into the legendary city’s culture of misfits and artists, while driving up real estate prices and displacing longtime residents. (It’s an argument reminiscent of the debate over the gentrification of East Austin, of course.)

She also talks about what she sees as the futility of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River and argues that both Phoenix and Las Vegas seem fated to become dusty relics in a world going through climate change. She takes on so-called liberals who see country music as the refuge of rednecks, pointing out the variety of Americana traditions (in yet another chapter that should appeal to Austinites). And in “Detroit Arcadia,” she offers hope of an urban rebirth of a once-great American city, not through the revival of capitalism but through the greening of the vast open spaces. For Solnit, Detroit offers us “the hope that we can reclaim what we paved over and poisoned, that nature will not punish us, that it will welcome us home — not with the landscape that was here when we arrived, perhaps, but with land that is alive, lush and varied all the same.”

Through all of her writing, Solnit is trying to make several points, but perhaps one above all. “Books matter. Stories matter,” she writes. “I believe that being able to recognize stories, to read them, and to tell them is what it takes to have a life, rather than just a making a living.”

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