Rebecca Solnit. New York: Nation Books, 2004
"It's always too soon to go home. And it's always too soon to calculate effect."
Activists who feel despondent and or just plain tired will read this book and take heart in our work and find purpose in the creative search for a better world. Solnit believes we've had many successes; we can and should rejoice -- and then carry on.
"I once read an anecdote by someone in Women Strike for Peace, the first great antinuclear movement in the United States, the one that did contribute to a major victory: the 1963 end of aboveground nuclear testing with its radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother's milk and baby teeth. She told of how foolish and futile she felt standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House. Years later she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock -- one of the most high-profile activists on the issue then -- say that the turning point for him was seeing a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself."
This is one of Solnit's many stories of the unforeseen effect of activism -- the work for peace and justice -- and it sets the tone for her passionate commitment to a life of social action.
Her social history of the successes of social movements and their unpredictability gives great hope to us all. She uses many well-known and some obscure examples to make her point: the possibilities of sustained social action, the results we dream of are what make it possible for us to find joy, purpose and creativity in our lives and that by recognizing our successes we don't quit, but find strength to continue.
I looked a bit askance at the chapter heading, "A Dream Three Times the Size of Texas" and then found it was about indigenous peoples including the formation of Nunavut, the Inuit homeland, formerly part of the NWT. It covers one-fifth of Canada and represents a major accomplishment for the Arctic indigenous people who were decimated by first contact with the Europeans and then had to resist assimilation into the dominant culture. Like the Mayan leader, Rigoberta Menchu, Solnit sees the resurgence of indigenous populations in Canada and around the world as a source of great hope to us all when we consider that historians predicted the obliteration of indigenous culture by the end of the 20th century. She asks, "How do your measure the space between a shift in cultural conversation and a landmass three times the size of Texas?" We can't measure but we can certainly recognize and learn from this wild possibility that became a reality.
Peace activists did not stop the war in Iraq from starting, but we built a global movement which still has the possibility to end the war. Our job did not begin with the occupation of Iraq, it shifted and continues. This is not the time to quit, but the time to work even harder. It is way too soon to go home.
She details the progress of the resistance to the World Trade Organization since 1999 as social movements give information and encouragement to many governments to stand up against the bullies of the world. The resistance to the MAI in 1996-1998 and the failure of that agreement formed the basis of wild possibility in Seattle, Cancun and now Hong Kong's latest WTO fiasco.
I thought of the ripple effect of the early labour organizers, the Tolpuddle martyrs in 1834 who were freed from hard labour in Australia by public outcry and thereby inspired other workers to organize. In Solnit's hometown of San Francisco, USA, there are murals of social leaders, a statue of Bolivar, and a starting place for rallies and demonstrations -- Market Square, where the UN Charter was born. She says, "...for now this a place where history is still unfolding. Today is also the day of creation."
Read this book, take heart, take comfort and stand together in all social action. We make history and change history as we stand; the results are for future historians to record. We will have to make sure they are not untold; we need more activist historians everywhere like Solnit to illuminate our activism.
Solnit wrote a fascinating and politically astute book on the history of walking: Wanderlust. Also highly recommended.
Revuewed by Theresa Wolfwood