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Activist, journalist, writer, authority on everything from empathy to the history of walking — Rebecca Solnit is something of a Renaissance woman. But in this age of gender polarisation and short attention spans, it’s perhaps no surprise that her breakthrough work was a snack-sized essay titled “Men Explain Things to Me”. It’s the piece that brought us “mansplaining”, a phrase she coined after the host of a fancy party in Aspen tried to explain a “very important” new book about 19th-century photography to her — without giving her enough conversational airtime to explain that she was, in fact, the book’s author. “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they are talking about,” she wrote in the follow-up bestseller, offering up a small softener: “Some men.”
Some women, too, I discover during my lunch with Solnit at a small neighbourhood bistro — Chez Maman East — in the low-key San Francisco neighbourhood of Potrero Hill. She has arrived first and waves me over from her window seat. Beautiful (still) at the age of 56 and dressed in California casual chic, she seems appraising rather than friendly, her large blue eyes surveying me, her mouth set in neutral.
Fortunately, we have a shared topic of interest — Silicon Valley. Solnit, whose essays are published in The New Yorker, Harper’s and a spate of other publications, was one of the first people to write about the Google bus, the company-sponsored transport system that whisks paper millionaires from San Francisco to their Valley jobs. She memorably labelled these unmarked vehicles “the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us”.
I start what I hope will be a data-driven discussion about their economic power, but she cuts me off. “The hacking, the leaking, the bots, the trolls, the fake news,” she says. “This idea that everything is connected was always being sold to us as awesome; these genius-wonder boys are making magic things and it’s all liberating. And now that means Mueller and loss of privacy and ransomware and revenge porn.”
As she continues with this free-range thread, I nod, listen and peruse the menu, which is the sort of French that Americans love to channel — onion soup, snails, goat’s cheese. Unlike in France, nobody is drinking wine or lingering long, even though we are in a residential neighbourhood, far from the digital epicentre of the city. She’s part of a San Francisco that I wasn’t sure existed any more, I venture, noting the soaring real estate prices in formerly hippie neighbourhoods, bid up to nosebleed levels by the tech legions. She chuckles. “Yes, but we’re a relict species, if you know the term? It’s an ecological term for when there are still a few rhinos or spotted owls . . . but there’s not a replacement population,” says Solnit, touching on one of her early passions, environmentalism.
“I know a bunch of people in rent-controlled apartments or people like me who managed to buy real estate before it got completely out of hand,” she says. “My first book [Secret Exhibition] was about the visual artists who were part of Beat culture, and a lot of the freedoms seen as heroic virtues of the 1950s and 1960s are really about white flight and the extreme affordability of the city in a boom economy.”
This sort of meditation, covering a lot of cognitive terrain, is typical of Solnit. For any question you might ask, she has an opinion — often multiples of them — strung together in ways that are by turns unexpected, sharp, humorous, nebulous and head-scratching.
Solnit is a hero to many liberal activists, particularly younger women galvanised by the #MeToo movement. Like many of them, she believes that the revelations about Harvey Weinstein are only the tip of an iceberg, and that “a lot of things in the culture have kind of made masculinity even more destructive to men and to women than it has been [in the past]. Online porn, to mention another wonderful thing brought to us by Silicon Valley. Domestic violence is . . . the leading cause of death for women between 15 and 44 worldwide, etc. The fact that you can’t walk down the street without thinking about things that men generally don’t have to think about. Men don’t generally have to worry about whether they might have a partner who will kill them. And what it meant to be an actress in Hollywood: you’re expected, essentially, to be a prostitute, then punished for resisting, and it was a man’s industry.”
Solnit also firmly believes that gender discrimination was a deciding factor in the election of Donald Trump. I play devil’s advocate and press her on why the American left remains so focused on identity politics, when class — rather than gender or race — is arguably where the real economic and political action is. Solnit immediately chastises me for using that “horrible, dismissive term ‘identity politics’ that Bernie Sanders and others used, which pretends that we’re in a colourblind, gender-blind society and it’s all just economics”.
Wait, I say, pushing back, does she think Sanders did that?
“I think that identity politics is old, and identity politics are about feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft and the French Revolution.” (I am pretty sure the latter was about class, but before I can interject, Solnit is on to her next point.) “And this whole notion that there’s a thing called The Left. All the old arrangements are falling apart. The old right hates Trump. There’s a chunk of libertarians who’ve been mistaken for the left. It’s part of the Silicon Valley notion that meritocracy is reality and that there’s some mysterious reason why white men own most things, but we don’t have to look at it. There are liberals who actually love the country and believe in its institutions and just want to set them right. There is an old Marxist left that looks at class a lot and these other things very little, which is most centrally white guys. It feels like we have these very simple maps for these very complicated things and I feel in a way like I’m an environmentalist and somebody passionately committed to human rights and that aligns me with feminism.”
Ideas such as these, which are squishy and unquantifiable, are anathema to me. But Solnit herself gravitates towards such things. Her writing is deeply psychological; at many points during the course of our interview she refers to how things “feel”, and she rails against the “tyranny of the quantifiable”. Speaking of the growing wealth gap in America, for example, she says, “it just feels like you have these warlord empires and people who must faithfully serve them, and then the starving outside the castle gates.” True enough, and yet I find myself wishing that she would pepper her passionately felt arguments with a few sharp Piketty-esque data points, low-hanging fruit that is there for the taking.
Our food arrives. “Here’s your escargot,” says the cheery waitress — “And my salad,” says Solnit, finishing her sentence in a declarative way. The food is perfectly adequate in a local bistro kind of way. Not the best snails I’ve ever had, but mopping up loads of garlic butter with crusty bread is never a total loss.
Solnit picks at her simple green salad and asks me to move the bread to a ledge behind me, out of her reach. There are gluten and lactose issues, apparently, which leads to a brief digression about whether Monsanto may be somehow compromising our digestive systems with genetically modified seeds and toxic fertilisers. Solnit orders fries as a treat with her main course of moules marinière (“My doctor said potatoes are OK”) and generously shares with me, though I hardly need extra. Our lunch spot may be French, but the portion sizes and garnishes are geared towards Americans. My main, an endive salad, has enough Gorgonzola to feed a small family and the walnuts are candied.
I come back to how Solnit thinks the Democrats will, or won’t, come together in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections and the next presidential election in 2020. “I think there’s a classic framework we always hear, that Republicans are totally together and the Democrats are in disarray. And it’s crap. The Republicans are in disarray. Trump is the naked, loud version of everything they try to keep clothed and quiet. One of the things we didn’t talk about in the last election is disenfranchisement. I constantly hear people, supposedly on the left, talking about how Hillary blew it in the three crucial swing seats, but there was so much disenfranchisement, would Obama have won those places?”
Who knows. Still, Solnit is unpersuaded that working-class white men need a disproportionate amount of our sympathy. “A huge amount of low-end, minimum-wage work is done by people of colour and women, and a lot of the future of work is service work. Part of the crisis for white men is that they don’t want to do this stuff.” Fair enough. Solnit is less worried about Democrats’ future prospects than I am. She puts her faith in the “demographics as destiny” argument, noting that “half the people under 18 in this country are not white, and they are not going to vote Republican”.
Solnit’s own destiny as a writer and activist has certainly been shaped by demographics. Her family comes from poor immigrant stock on both sides (Irish and Russian-Jewish), and her father was physically abusive to her when she was young. “I grew up around a lot of male violence and a deeply misogynistic environment,” she says. “Some of what motivates me is personal experience.” She’s been brilliant at turning it all into prose, though, and has even enjoyed something of her own personal Trump bump over the past year. “He turned Hope in the Dark [her 2004 book about the political landscape in America following George W Bush’s re-election] into a bestseller 13 years after its publication!” she says happily. “One gets inspired by fury, as I’m sure you know. I joke, sometimes, that if the patriarchy would just stop doing these things, then my books would become obsolete and I would stop talking about these things.”
The truth is that much of Solnit’s best (albeit not best-known) writing has less to do with gender and more to do with the world at large. Wanderlust (2000), for example, is a combination of history and meditation, a kind of antidote to the soundbite-driven high-speed media of our day. It rambles, like a wonderful walk, across all sorts of terrain, from poetry to history to anthropology. The relaxed pace allows unexpected ideas to bubble up about all sorts of things — time, work, sex, politics, technology — which fuel the work of later years. As she writes in the introduction: “A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were travelling rather than making . . . Perhaps this is where walking’s peculiar utility for thinkers comes from. The surprises, liberations, and clarifications of travel can sometimes be garnered by going around the block as well as going around the world, and walking travels both near and far.” Says Solnit of the book: “It was done pre-internet, and I had lots of time to concentrate.”
Our time is nearly up. I ask Solnit about her next project, and though she won’t discuss details about books that aren’t yet written, she says she’s torn between, as she puts it, “a sense of being a firefighter at the conflagration of this political situation, wanting to write about this very moment . . . and wanting to pull back and go to the joys of archival research and bigger, deeper pictures.” There is a way in which the extreme politics of the moment, combined with social media (Solnit has an impressive 124,000 Facebook followers) “really takes you away from a sense of living in broader spaces, in deeper time”.
As we leave the restaurant, she tells me that she regrets not asking me more about my work. Flattered, I tell her that I’ll send her some stories. Then, she surprises me by asking, “How old are you?” I am suddenly and unusually self-conscious (I showed up sans make-up, with my hair in a ponytail, and in casual clothing, figuring, hey, this is San Francisco and she’s a feminist activist). Now I am suddenly unsure of what her question implies. Does she think I’m not professional? Does she not take me seriously? I’ve never been asked how old I am by any of the numerous male chief executives or billionaires I’ve interviewed. I’m 47, I tell her. “Wow,” she says, with very little affect. “You look a lot younger. Good genes, I guess.”
I ponder for a moment whether I should take offence at her bringing up my appearance; it’s a strange question for someone who is so focused on the problems of patriarchy. I decide instead to take it as a compliment. “My cab is here, here he comes around the corner,” I say, waving. She looks closely and notices what I’ve missed. “It’s a woman,” she says, with a satisfied smile. The last word, of course, is hers.
Rana Foroohar is the FT’s global business columnist