Storming the Gates of Paradise
Landscapes for Politics
University of California Press: 416 pp., $24.95
By Bill McKibbenSpecial to The Times
In one of the best essays in this sterling collection, activist Rebecca Solnit describes Silicon Valley as "a decentralized, diffused region: postindustrial, postcommunal, postrural, and posturban -- postplace." Nothing so new in that observation, but in the pages that follow she explains the reasons that placelessness matters. When there's no there there -- no Bastille to storm -- then confronting power becomes so frustrating that it's easy to just give up and play another round of Doom. Silicon Valley is the very image of "postmodern control, in which power is transnational, virtual, in a gated community, not available at this time, in a holding company, incomprehensible, incognito." It becomes a maze, echoed in the Web, with its endless branchings. If you track that corporate power diligently across the globe, she insists, you will find all the victims -- Third World peasants uprooted by agribusiness, the bewildered homeless of her beloved San Francisco, the impoverished imaginations of an entire civilization. But "the scene of the crime ... has vaporized, and resisting an unlocatable and unimaginable crime is difficult."
This book, and all of Solnit's work, is an attempt to nail down the sources of that power, to pin them to the page. Her effort recalls Norman Mailer's 1968 masterpiece, "The Armies of the Night." Solnit spends less time self-dramatizing, and bombast is not part of her arsenal, but she's a comparably gorgeous writer. (Try this casually tossed-off description of the "smog-filtered Los Angeles light," which "always gave me the impression that a thrifty God had replaced our incandescent sun with diffused fluorescent light.") And she's a far more reliable reporter than Mailer, who tended to examine everything through the lens of his peculiar pugilistic psyche.
In Solnit's reading, the most important event of recent years may not be Sept. 11 (though her meditations on the possibilities for civic heroism that tragedy might have produced are painful to read, now that it's clear we took exactly the wrong course in its wake). Instead, it's the 1999 World Trade Organization talks in Seattle, when tens of thousands managed for a morning to locate one of those diffuse centers of power. Delegates arriving at the conference discovered every street blocked by nonviolent protesters linking arms and chanting -- a remarkable experience for people used to wielding power in their nations. Many of the delegates tried to summon police to help them force their way in. But there were no police to be found until an hour or two later, when they suddenly appeared in mini-tanks, firing rubber bullets and pepper spray in a full-blown police riot. "It was a world-changing moment, the golden dawn of a so-far not-so-rosy new millennium," Solnit writes -- and indeed, Seattle rubbed the Clintonian shine off globalization.
Solnit has followed the anti-globalization movement ever since, braving tear gas and police brutality in Miami, Cancun and other such international conclaves-cum-mass-protests. "Uprisings, protests, civil disobedience -- the stuff in the street -- still matter, even though they don't change the world every time," she writes. "Sometimes it's just an exercise of democracy and bravado, exercise in the sense of maintaining the strength and ability to intervene at a time when it will count." Her essays can be profitably read in company with Paul Hawken's "Blessed Unrest," which describes the broad reach of the same movement, and with Mike Davis' "Planet of Slums." These three California writers are leading the way in the always-difficult effort to discern the new global truths from near the imperial center.
But there's much more than political reportage in this volume. Solnit began her career as an art critic, and an essay on the photography of Eliot Porter and how it has shaped the way we see nature hums with insight; it also shows off her skills as a historian -- the pocket history of the Sierra Club and its longtime chief David Brower retells a story I thought I knew. Her art-world credentials are also put to good use in an arch and acid fantasia called "The Wal-Mart Biennale," in which she imagines what new pieces Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton might add to the museum she's assembling with her billions (and some taxpayer cash) in Bentonville, Ark. Perhaps some sweatshop workers could be included amid the Hudson River School scenery. ("Imagine paintings of Edward Hopper's old downtowns, boarded up because all the sad and lonely people are shopping at Wal-Mart.")
Solnit may be at her best in her depictions of California -- Baja and Alta and the border that now runs through them. Anyone wishing to maintain sentimental fantasies about the forty-niners or the Bear Flag Revolt should leave this book on the shelf. She credits the first shots fired by settlers in Sonoma, which began the land grab, with "all the moral authority of a convenience store holdup" and reports that many of the people they were battling for ownership of the land thought the crudely drawn flag depicted a pig, not a grizzly. She is a reliable guide to the current state of the border, and her essay comparing the affluent rigidity of San Diego with the vibrant street life in Tijuana helps us envision possible futures for the Golden State far more promising than the endless spread of subdivisions. Her descriptions of the greater West, especially the desert lands where she's spent much time in the fight against nuclear testing, are particularly lovely. She describes, for instance, "the incomparable cloud formations of summer monsoons, the way the underside of clouds turns the same blue as the underside of a great blue heron's wings when the storm is about to break."
Solnit is impeccably western in her insistence on freedom above all, on liberation as the goal. She's even gentle with the anarchists who undermined the nonviolence in Seattle by shattering windows, and she indulges in a drive-by dissing of Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer-essayist, for his "arcadian" insistence on strong communities. Yet she understands, at some deep level, the pleasures of the plural and the communal: Her essay on architect and planner Teddy Cruz centers on the need to increase urban density, hence gregariousness, and is as nostalgic as anything Berry ever wrote (nostalgia being defined as the desire for something that works better than the sterile American present). Solnit knows where the magic is hidden in our world, and with her precise yet beguiling prose she's helping to weave the spells that may bring it into plain view.
Bill McKibben is the author of "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future" and an organizer of this spring's Stepitup07.org demonstrations against global warming.