A few years after the idiot in Aspen, I was in Berlin giving a talk when the Marxist writer Tariq Ali invited me out to a dinner that included a male writer and translator and three women a little younger than me who would remain deferential and mostly silent throughout the dinner. Tariq was great. Perhaps the translator was peeved that I insisted on playing a modest role in the conversation, but when I said something about how Women Strike for Peace, the extraordinary, little-known antinuclear and antiwar group founded in 1961, helped bring down the communist-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, HUAC, Mr. Very Important II sneered at me. HUAC, he insisted, didn’t exist by the early 1960s and, anyway, no women’s group played such a role in HUAC’s downfall. His scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.
I think I was at nine books at that point, including one that drew from primary documents and interviews about Women Strike for Peace. But explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge. A Freudian would claim to know what they have and I lack, but intelligence is not situated in the crotch – even if you can write one of Virginia Woolf’s long mellifluous musical sentences about the subtle subjugation of women in the snow with your willie. Back in my hotel room, I Googled a bit and found that Eric Bentley in his definitive history of the House Committee on Un-American Activities credits Women Strike for Peace with “striking the crucial blow in the fall of HUAC’s Bastille.” In the early 1960s.
So I opened an essay for the Nation with this interchange, in part as a shout-out to one of the more unpleasant men who have explained things to me: Dude, if you’re reading this, you’re a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.
Rebecca Solnit. This is from Solnit’s well-known essay “Men Explain Things To Me,” and I quote it because (a) it’s a fantastic essay that every self-confident man should read but also (b) there’s an interesting psychological aspect to the situation that’s worth noting. It’s the Googling.
Solnit knew she was right and Mr. Very Important II was wrong — but when she got back to her hotel she still felt compelled to Google it. There’s something about that tone of supremely contemptuous arrogance that makes everyone with normal levels of self-doubt uncertain. That tone is hard to define but I know it when I hear it. For instance, some years ago, when I was still reading Amazon reviews of my books, I came across a largely negative review of one of them that listed a serious of factual errors I had made. Oh no, I thought, and went back to my sources to check. As it turned out, in every single case I was right and the reviewer was wrong — but he had asserted the truth of his claims with such confidence that I had been genuinely shaken. It’s also noteworthy that a great majority of the people who had read his comment marked it as useful: presumably they too just figured that he had to know what he was talking about.
In this context I’m reminded of a funny passage from one of C. S. Lewis’s letters: “I should be useless as a schoolmaster or a policeman. Statements which I know to be untrue all but convince me, at any rate for the moment, if only the man says them unflinchingly. The same weakness is why I am a slow examiner: if a candidate with a bold, mature handwriting attributed Paradise Lost to Wordsworth, I should feel a tendency to go and look it up for fear he might be right after all.”