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The Hope and Despair of the Mansplain

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I have just sat down to dinner with my female friend and her two male friends she brought along, neither of whom I’ve met before. They are both programmers, and when my friend goes to the bathroom pretty much immediately upon arrival, they begin grilling me on my knowledge of scatter graphs. This is a raw deal for me. I tell them I’m “not a math person.” And so, of course, they explain.

After maybe five minutes of being told to imagine an X-axis and a Y-axis and an algorithm based on breakfast preferences, they ask me what I do. “I’m a journalist,” I say. “Oh nice,” one shoots back. “Have you written anything?”

My two simultaneous impulses are to run away and to punch “something” in the face. Then I remember that I have in my possession a secret weapon—an advertisement for myself. I reach inside my purse and, in deathly silence, remove from it a slim blue volume with the title emblazoned across the front in white: “Men Explain Things to Me.” I lay it on the table, face up, like a winning poker hand. They stare and they blink and they don’t say anything at all. My friend comes back from the bathroom and asks me what I’m reading.

Solnitbook“Anyone who cares to examine my work” wrote George Orwell, “will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant.” It is in this literary spirit, which recognizes the potential for both intentionality and irreverence in powerful writing, that Rebecca Solnit has culled together a group of gorgeous essays for her fourteenth book, Men Explain Things to Me (Haymarket Books, 100 pages, $10.42).

Solnit—journalist, activist, assailant of monoculture—has written on a wide array of subjects, from global protests to Eadweard Muybridge to the history of walking. Her new book of seven essays, all written in the last six years, borrows its title from her 2008 viral essay, which, in Solnit’s words, has “circulated like nothing else I’ve ever done.”

The essay opens with the story of a poor bluff. A man at a social function asks Solnit whether she has read her own book, not knowing she’s the author of it. Running slipshod over her and her friend’s polite protestations, the man launches into a long and insolent monologue on the book, which, as it turns out, he hasn’t even read.

Every woman has experienced this sort of arrogance in men at one point or another. The self-told myth of their pristine objectivity, and of women’s role as eternal pupil (which, in reality, we all are), is at times so ingrained in women that they end up apologizing for their own subordination. Solnit, who by her account has known many wonderful men and experienced relatively little gender discrimination throughout her professional career, nevertheless writes of a nagging fear, “that I was subjective, delusional, dishonest—in a nutshell, female.”

It is a trope of our society that to be female is to too often be “reduced” to the feminine, to be finalized as a collection of body parts and psychoses. This process by which “woman” becomes idiomatic is coded in language. From Jill Abramson being described as “pushy” to Florida Special Prosecutor Angela Corey saying that Marissa Alexander had “anger problems,” such words have real consequences. And who has the right to speak is just as important as what is said. Solnit writes, “At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.”

Solnit’s intimate understanding of how the twin bulwarks of language and silence fuel political agendas is only part of what makes her writing so exciting. The other essays in the collection complement the first (some are even stronger), but theirs is the poetic correlation of masterful storytelling. Ultimately Solnit’s interdisciplinary, patchwork narratives are drawn together by a single theme: hope.

“His name was privilege, but hers was possibility,” writes Solnit in her essay “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite.” “He” is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the IMF, but throughout the essay the masculine will come to stand in for Europe, for whiteness and wealth, for the power of empire, physical and economic violence against women and the Third World. “She” is Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel maid and immigrant from Africa who in 2012 won her sexual assault case against Strauss-Kahn in civil court after very public accusations that were ruinous to both his career and his legacy. She is Asia, the Global South, the victim; but she is also the plurality, the agent of change whose story “remains unfinished” and “includes all of us.”

This piece could have been a solemn narrative of marginal gains, the downfall of a single man who should never have gotten away with as much as he did. Instead, Solnit transforms it into a space that is safe to explore and expand our political imaginations beyond the confines of recent news or a single hotel room in New York City. Diallo is able to resist the mighty paradigm, which Angela Davis has articulated so perfectly, that “deviant men have been constructed as criminal, while deviant women have been constructed as insane.” The New York Post, in typical, despairing doublespeak, called Diallo a “prostitute,” a word that in our puritanical society is still often used to question the credibility of women. For this Diallo brought a libel suit against them—a perfect piercing of the mansplaining logic.

Solnit knows that language can still inspire awe, even when the deck is stacked against her. She speaks the language of hope—a language more affirming than the bro-ish bravado of a mansplain. For her, hope is a high-stakes game; it is not, as she states in her 2005 book Hope In The Dark, “like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky.” Hope is uncertainty in motion. Hope is possibility, and, Solnit dares to say, it is also feminine. Its antithesis is despair, which, she describes in her exquisite essay “Woolf’s Darkness” as “a form of certainty . . . a confident memory of the future.” Or, to put it in more explainer-y terms, despair is the bluff, hope is the tell.