Whose Story Is This?
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Whose Story Is This?

Essays at the Intersection

Rebecca Solnit

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eBook - ePub

Whose Story Is This?

Essays at the Intersection

Rebecca Solnit

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About This Book

Who gets to shape the narrative of our times? The current moment is a battle royale over that foundational power, one in which women, people of color, non-straight people are telling other versions, and white people and men and particularly white men are trying to hang onto the old versions and their own centrality. In Whose Story Is This? Rebecca Solnit appraises what's emerging and why it matters and what the obstacles are.

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The Shouters and the Silenced

Whose Story (and Country) Is This?


The common denominator of so many of the strange and troubling cultural narratives coming our way is a set of assumptions about who matters, whose story it is, who deserves the pity and the treats and the presumptions of innocence, the kid gloves and the red carpet, and ultimately the kingdom, the power, and the glory. You already know who. It’s white people in general and white men in particular, and especially straight white Protestant men, some of whom are apparently dismayed to find out that there is going to be, as your mom might have put it, sharing. The history of this country has been written as their story, and the news sometimes still tells it this way—one of the battles of our time is about who the story is about, who matters, and who decides.
It is this population we are constantly asked to pay more attention to, and forgive, even when they hate us or seek to harm us. It is toward them we are all supposed to direct our empathy. The exhortations are everywhere. PBS NewsHour featured a quiz by Charles Murray in March 2018 that asked, “Do You Live in a Bubble?” The questions assumed that if you didn’t know people who drank cheap beer and drove pickup trucks and worked in factories, you lived in an elitist bubble. Among the questions: “Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American community with a population under 50,000 that is not part of a metropolitan area and is not where you went to college? Have you ever walked on a factory floor? Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian?”
The quiz was essentially about whether you were in touch with working-class small-town white Christian America, as though everyone who’s not Joe the Plumber is Maurice the Elitist. We should know them, the logic goes; they do not need to know us. Less than 20 percent of Americans are white evangelicals, only slightly more than are Latinx, and the former are declining as precipitously as the latter are increasing. Most Americans are urban. The quiz delivered the message, yet again, that the 80 percent of us who live in urban areas are not America; treated non-Protestant and nonwhite people as not America; treated many kinds of underpaid working people (salespeople, service workers, farmworkers) who are not male industrial workers as not America. More Americans work in museums than work in coal, but coalminers are described as sacred beings owed huge subsidies and the sacrifice of the climate, and museum workers—well, no one is talking about their jobs as a totem of our national identity.
PBS added a little note at the end of the bubble quiz: “The introduction has been edited to clarify Charles Murray’s expertise, which focuses on white American culture.” They didn’t mention that he’s the author of the notorious book The Bell Curve, or explain why someone widely considered racist was welcomed onto the program. Perhaps the actual problem is that white, Christian, suburban, small-town, and rural America includes too many people who want to live in a bubble and think they’re entitled to, and that all of us who are not like them are considered menaces and intruders who need to be cleared out of the way.
After all, there was a march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, full of white men with tiki torches chanting, “You will not replace us.” Which translates as “Get the fuck out of my bubble,” a bubble that is a state of mind and a sentimental attachment to a largely fictional former America. It’s not everyone in this America; for example, Syed Ahmed Jamal’s neighbors in Lawrence, Kansas, rallied to defend him when ICE arrested and tried to deport Jamal, a chemistry teacher and father who had lived in the area for thirty years. It’s not all white men; perpetuation of the narrative centered on them is something too many women buy into and some admirable men are trying to break out of.
And the meanest voices aren’t necessarily those of actual rural, small-town, or working-class people. In a story about a Pennsylvania coal town named Hazelton, Fox News’s wealthy pundit Tucker Carlson recently declared that immigration brings “more change than human beings are designed to digest,” the human beings in this scenario being the white Hazeltonians who are not immigrants, with perhaps an intimation that immigrants are not human beings, let alone human beings who have already digested a lot of change. Once again, a small-town white American narrative is being treated as though it’s about all of us, or all of us who count, as though the gentrification of immigrant neighborhoods is not also a story that matters, as though Los Angeles County and New York City, both of which have larger populations than most American states, are not America. In New York City, the immigrant population alone exceeds the total population of Kansas (or Nebraska or Idaho or Wyoming and West Virginia, where all those coal miners are). Los Angeles County’s population is larger than that of all but nine American states. Thanks to the many problems of our voting system—disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, the electoral college’s distortion of the impact of a vote, the distribution of two senators to each state, no matter its size—their voices are magnified already.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, we were told that we needed to be nicer to the white working class, which reaffirmed the message that whiteness and the working class were the same thing and made the vast nonwhite working class invisible or inconsequential. We were told that Trump voters were the salt of the earth and the authentic sufferers, even though poorer people tended to vote for the other candidate. We were told that we had to be understanding about their choice to vote for a man who threatened to harm almost everyone who was not a straight white cisgender Christian man, because their feelings preempted everyone else’s survival. “Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks,” Bernie Sanders reprimanded us, though studies and subsequent events showed that many were indeed racists, sexists, and homophobes.
One way we know whose story it is has been demonstrated by who gets excused for hatred and attacks, literal or physical. Early in 2018, the Atlantic tried out hiring a writer, Kevin Williamson, who said women who have abortions should be hanged, and then un-hired him under public pressure from people who don’t like the idea that a quarter of American women should be executed for exercising jurisdiction over their own bodies. The New York Times has hired a few conservatives akin to Williamson, including climate waffler Bret Stephens. Stephens devoted a column to sympathy on Williamson’s behalf and indignation that anyone might oppose him.
Sympathy in pro-bubble America often goes reflexively to the white man in the story. The assumption is that the story is about him; he’s the protagonist, the person who matters, and when you, say, read Stephens defending Woody Allen and attacking Dylan Farrow for saying her adoptive father, Allen, molested her, you see how much work he’s done imagining being Woody Allen, how little being Dylan Farrow or anyone like her. It reminds me of how young women pressing rape charges are often told they’re harming the bright future of the rapist in question, rather than that maybe he did it to himself, and that the young woman’s bright future should matter, too. The Onion nailed it years ago: “College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed.”
Who gets to be the subject of the story is an immensely political question, and feminism has given us a host of books that shift the focus from the original protagonist—from Jane Eyre to Mr. Rochester’s Caribbean first wife in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, from King Lear to Goneril in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, from Jason to Medea in Christa Wolf’s Medea, from Odysseus to Penelope in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, and from the hero of the Aeneid to the young woman he marries in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lavinia. There are equivalents in the museum world, such as the diorama depicting the Dutch-Lenape encounter in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, now with texts by an indigenous visual historian, critiquing what’s behind the glass. But in the news and political life, we’re still struggling over whose story it is, who matters, and at whom our compassion and interest should be directed.
This misdistribution of sympathy is epidemic. The New York Times called the man with a domestic-violence history who, in 2015, shot up the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, killing three parents of young children, “a gentle loner.” And then when the serial bomber who had been terrorizing Austin, Texas, was finally caught in March 2018, too many journalists interviewed his family and friends and let their positive descriptions of the man stand, as though they were more valid than what we already knew: he was an extremist and a terrorist who set out to kill and terrorize Black people in a particularly vicious and cowardly way. He was a “quiet, ‘nerdy’ young man who came from ‘a tight-knit, godly family,” the Times let us know in a tweet, while the Washington Post’s headline noted that he was “frustrated with his life,” which is true of millions of young people around the world who don’t get a pity party and also don’t become terrorists. The Daily Beast got it right with a subhead about a recent right-wing terrorist, the one who blew himself up in his home full of bomb-making materials: “Friends and family say Ben Morrow was a Bible-toting lab worker. Investigators say he was a bomb-building white supremacist.”
Yet when a teenage boy took a gun to his high school in Maryland and used it to murder Jaelynn Willey in March 2018, the newspapers labeled him “lovesick,” as though premeditated murder was just a natural reaction to being rejected by someone you dated. In a powerfully eloquent editorial in the New York Times, Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Isabelle Robinson wrote about the excuses peddled for the mass murderer who took seventeen lives at her school on Valentine’s Day 2018. She noted a “disturbing number of comments I’ve read that go something like this: Maybe if Mr. Cruz’s classmates and peers had been a little nicer to him, the shooting at Stoneman Douglas would never have occurred.” As she observed, this puts the burden—and then the blame—on peers to meet the needs of boys and men who may be hostile or homicidal.
This framework suggests we owe them something, which feeds a sense of entitlement, which sets up the logic of payback for not delivering what they think we owe them. Elliot Rodgers set out to massacre the members of a sorority at UC Santa Barbara in 2014 because he believed that sex with attractive women was a right of his that women were violating, and that another right of his was to punish any or all of them unto death. He killed six people and injured fourteen. Nikolas Cruz, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas murderer, said, “Elliot Rodgers will not be forgotten.” The man who killed ten and injured fourteen in Toronto in April 2018 also praised Rodgers in an online post.
Women often internalize this sense of responsibility for men’s needs. Stormy Daniels felt so responsible for going to a stranger’s hotel room in 2006 that she felt obliged to provide the sex he wanted and she didn’t. She told Anderson Cooper, “I had it coming for making a bad decision, for going to someone’s room alone, and I just heard the voice in my head, ‘Well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’” (It’s worth noting that she classified having sex with Donald Trump as “bad things happen,” and the sense in that she deserved it was a punitive one.) His desires must be met. Hers didn’t count. Then a tremendous battle happened so that his version of events could stand and hers would not be heard; she was seeking to break the nondisclosure agreement she had signed, a standard piece of legal equipment used against victims of sexual assault to make sure the story the public hears is not hers.
Women are not supposed to want things for themselves, as the New York Times reminded us when they castigated Daniels with a headline noting her ambition—a quality that various other high-profile women have also been called out for, but that seems invisible when men have it, as men who act and direct movies and pursue political careers generally do. Daniels had, the New York Times told us in a profile of the successful entertainer, “an instinct for self-promotion,” and “her competitive streak [was] not well concealed.” She intended to “bend the business to her will.” The general implication is that any woman who’s not a doormat is a dominatrix.
Recently, people have revisited a 2010 political-science study that tested the response to fictitious senatorial candidates, identical except for gender: “regardless of whether male politicians were generally preferred over female politicians, participant voters only reacted negatively to the perceived power aspirations of the female politician.” The authors of the study characterized this reaction as “moral outrage.” How dare she seek power. How dare she want things for herself rather than for others—even though seeking power may be a means to working on behalf of others. How dare she consider the story to be about her or want to be the one who determines what the story is.
And then there are the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. We’ve heard from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women about assaults, threats, harassment, humiliation, coercion, of campaigns that ended careers, pushed them to the brink of suicide. Many men’s response to this is to express sympathy for men. The film director Terry Gilliam was the voice of the old ways when he said, “I feel sorry for someone like Matt Damon, who is a decent human being. He came out and said all men are not rapists, and he got beaten to death. Come on, this is crazy!” Matt Damon has not actually been beaten to death. He is one of the most highly paid actors on earth, which is a significantly different experience than being beaten to death. The actor Chris Evans did much better with this shift in perspective, saying, “The hardest thing to reconcile is that just because you have good intentions doesn’t mean it’s your time to have a voice.”
But the follow-up story to the #MeToo upheaval has too often been: How do the consequences of men hideously mistreating women affect men’s comfort? Are men okay with what’s happening? There have been too many stories about men feeling less comfortable, too few about how women might be feeling more secure in offices where harassing coworkers may have been removed or are at least a bit less sure about their right to grope and harass. Men are insisting on their comfort as a right. Dr. Larry Nassar, the Michigan State University doctor who molested more than a hundred young gymnasts, objected, on the grounds that it interfered with his comfort, to having to hear his victims give statements during his criminal trial, describing what he did and how it impacted them. These girls and young women had not been silent; they had spoken up over and over, but no one with power—sometimes not even their own parents—would listen and take action, until the Indianapolis Star reported, in 2016, on the assaults by Nassar and many other adult men in gymnastics. It was not the women’s story until then. It seldom is. Or was.
We are, as a culture, moving on to a future with more people and more voices and more possibilities. Some people are being left behind, not because the future is intolerant of them but because they are intolerant of this future. White male Protestants from the dominant culture are welcome, but, as Chris Evans noted, the story isn’t going to be about them all the time, and they won’t always be the ones telling it. It’s about all of us. White Protestants are already a minority, and nonwhite people will become a voting majority in 2044 or thereabouts.
This country has room for everybody who believes that there’s room for everybody. For those who don’t—well, that’s why there’s a battle about whose story it is to tell.

Nobody Knows

When I was eighteen, I spent several months working as a bus girl at a diner. It was a cheerful-looking place, facing San Francisco Bay. The kitchen was L-shaped: the owner stood in the short end of the L with the coffee makers and the cash register, and I was often at the other end, by the dishwashing machine, out of sight. In between were the prep counters and an eight-burner stove, where the cook was stationed. He was a middle-aged drinker with bloodshot eyes, who would unexpectedly grab me from behind. No one seemed to notice, and in that decade before Anita Hill brought “sexual harassment” into the popular lexicon, I couldn’t articulate that this was something that violated my rights as well as something that repulsed and rattled me. I couldn’t articulate it at all, because in that era we were supposed to take it in stride, learn to cope, not make a big deal out of it, anything but complain and expect intervention.
Around the time I wrote this piece, a customer grabbed a waitress’s butt on closed-circuit camera, and the subsequently posted footage let us see her turn around without a moment’s hesitation and throw him to the floor; the surrounding story let us know that her manager supported her and so did the police: he was arrested and charged with assault. Her confidence about her rights and the people who backed her up startled me: I had been so used to being on my own in those situations; I had been formed in an era different from hers.
After a few weeks of these unwelcome surprises, I made sure that the next time the cook came for me, I was holding a tray of clean glasses. He grabbed me; I yelped and let go of the tray. The shattering glass made a cacophony. The owner, another middle-aged man, rushed over and chewed out the cook—the glasses were audible and valuable in a way I was not.
Underlings get a reputation for being duplicitous because they sometimes resort to indirect means when straightforward ones are not available. When I was an underling, the only way I knew to make a man stop grabbing me was to trick a more powerful man into laying down the law. I had no authority, or had reason to believe I had none. “When you’re a star, they let you do it” has its corollary in “When you’re nobody, it’s hard to stop them from doing it.”
The assumption that I was nobody didn’t always fit, even in my youth. A decade after I dropped that tray, I was interviewing a man for my first book. He was married, near my parents’ age, but when we were alone for the interview, he got excited and amorous. I could tell that he regarded our interaction as off the record, perhaps because young women were categorically inaudible. I wanted to shout at him, I am making the public record right now. Yet had he regarded me...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Copyright
  3. Contents
  4. Introduction: Cathedrals and Alarm Clocks
  5. The shouters and the silenced
  6. Openings
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. Permissions
  9. Back Cover