Wonkette Book Club: Disaster And Decency
Public kitchen, San Francisco, 1906. Photo: National Archives

A quick suggestion: When disaster strikes, and at any other time, don't pick Yr Doktor Zoom to be the leader. He has the organizational skills of a hyperactive chihuahua. Also, "Hyperactive chihuahua" is probably redundant. My point here is that in last week's Nice Things, I pointed out that the book I'd picked for Wonkette Book Club, Rebecca Solnit's 2009 A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, seems only to be widely available in ebook and audio formats. I set up a Twitter poll to ask if we should go ahead and read the book together anyway, and out of the 19 responses, only one chose "nah, I prefer print."

Just one small problem: I never actually said "OK then, hooray for us we are going ahead and reading this fine book!" So while I did include a tentative reading schedule in last week's column, I would feel pretty darn silly going ahead and trying to lead a discussion of the first two sections of the book, only to find a lot of you saying in the comments, "Oh shoot, I was waiting to hear back before spending $12.99 on it in any of the popular e-book formats like Amazon Kindle (with a portion of sales going to Wonkette).

OK, consider it official: We shall be reading and discussing A Paradise Built in Hellthrough Section II (that's up through the chapter on disaster movies, "Hobbes in Hollywood") for next week.

Yes, I was almost exactly this chaotic and loosely organized when I taught college writing classes, too. It's a wonder anyone ever learned anything.

Fortunately, I did ask you to give a listen to this excellent Chris Hayes interview with Rebecca Solnit about her book's thesis, which is that when the norms of everyday life are torn apart by disaster, there's lots of evidence to suggest that we don't turn into Lord of the Flies monsters, but instead, humans tend to help each other. It's often "anarchy" in the ideal sense, characterized by mutual aid and sharing, not panicked mobs running amok. So that's our more scaled-down topic for today: Give a listen to the interview, from Hayes's terrific podcast "Why Is This Happening?" (or, if you prefer, read the transcript here), and we shall discuss! Oh, look, the show is also on the YouTubes!

Here are the things that stood out for me:

Tough-minded optimism: Solnit explicitly rejects the Hobbesian idea that, without the constraints of law and social order, people descend into a war of all against all for scarce resources. Instead, people tend to help each other, creating on the fly ways to get by, like the outdoor community kitchens that sprung up all over San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake. It wasn't safe to have fires inside, so they went outdoors. But instead of just cooking for their own families, neighbors set up kitchens to feed whoever needed food, with food brought in by those who had it or could get it, often from butchers and meat packers who wanted to see their stock put to use rather than let it spoil. (Fast-forward to 2020 and restaurateurs giving away their perishables or preparing meal boxes on a pay-what-you-can basis.)

But Solnit's no starry-eyed idealist either; she acknowledges "not everybody behaves well in these moments," like the white supremacist vigilante in a New Orleans suburb who, following Hurricane Katrina, shot three black men evacuating from the disaster. The shooter appears to have attacked Donelle Harrington and two other evacuees simply because he thought he could get away with it. Harrington was rescued by some good Samaritans who got him to a hospital, but the horrifying thing is that the shooter's assumption was almost right: the world only learned about Harrington's shooting years later when ProPublica reporter AJ Thompson started digging into the case. (Solnit merely says the shooter "pretty much did" get away with it, although Thompson's reporting did lead to a federal investigation. After repeatedly being found incompetent to stand trial, the shooter was found competent in 2018 and pled guilty. But in February 2019, five days after being sentenced to ten years, he died in jail while awaiting transfer to prison, apparently of natural causes. Did he "get away" with the shooting? He had 13 more years of freedom, if nothing else.)

The authorities may make things worse: While Solnit acknowledges that sometimes political leaders do pretty well in a disaster (she says Gavin Newsom is doing a fine job in response to the pandemic, though national "leadership" is flailing), she argues that the more authorities fear the populace getting out of control following a disaster, the more likely those authorities are to cause their own disaster. In San Francisco, the mayor gave a shoot to kill order against looters, and Gen. Frederick Funston, who commanded troops at The Presidio, was happy to get tough. Over 500 civilians may have been shot to death because they'd committed petty theft, or because solidiers thought they might have. Says Solnit,

One of the horrible stories of 1906 was a storekeeper who'd opened his store for people to haul stuff away before it burned down, because the fire was approaching and some of the armed authorities deciding that these must be looters and shooting people, shooting somebody who was taking something the storekeeper had invited him to take.

The fires that destroyed much of the city were largely the result of inept attempts to create firebreaks to prevent fires spreading. San Francisco's fire chief died in the earthquake, and the military geniuses who took over tried to blow up buildings to prevent fires. But they did it all wrong, in some cases using flammable powder that set new fires, and in other cases blowing up buildings full of flammable chemicals and other materials that spread burning debris even farther.

And also, they were trying to force people to evacuate their own neighborhoods. So, instead of allowing people to do what was really effective firefighting, which was wet gunny sacks and bucket brigades, putting out fires by hand, they were often driving people away from their own homes and neighborhoods. I believe some of the people they shot were because they were trying to defend their neighborhood. And so, they were actually doing the right thing, and the authorities were doing the wrong thing.

See also Katrina, where the authorities and the media spread untrue rumors of massive outbreaks of looting, rape, and murder based on nothing. People were scared, but — as further documented in the excellent podcast Floodlines — nobody was shooting at rescuers or at police helicopters. There were no rape gangs. It just didn't happen. But the myths spread anyway.

Racism is deadly: See New Orleans again. In addition to the racist shootings of black evacuees by white civilians and police, there was also the ugly stereotyping of people trying to survive, summed up in this notorious pair of photo captions:

Solnit also points out that "looting" is a word that's generally only applied during disasters, to refer to property crimes that would normally be petty theft or shoplifting. And she recounts this shameful media response:

One of the most heartbreaking things, and you can probably still find the video on YouTube, is a major network personality inside the [...] Walmart in new Orleans, where a lot of stuff was being taken, including by the police in one of the country's most corrupt police forces at the time. But a small black boy has taken a pink t-shirt and this undoubtedly wealthy hosts sneers at him, "I don't think that's your color." I just watched that and I'm like, "Do you understand that this kid's mom could've swamped through raw sewage, or his aunt could have swamped through benzene and toxic chemicals in this incredibly hot city with 80% underwater? This kid is probably a hero trying to find clean clothes for the woman in his little community, and you're making fun of him on the national news."

She also suspects that weird regard for protecting private property in a cataclysm (the store's entire stock would surely have been written off as an insurance loss anyway) is at least in part behind some of the push to "reopen" America right now. Citing people who say we need to get the economy going no matter how many might get sick or die, Solnit says,

I feel like, in a way, I never quite recognized before, these are people for whom dead things like money are alive and beloved in a tender hearted way, and living beings are dead to them in some way.

And so on. So let's discuss a few things before we start really talking about the book next week:

1) What surprised you in the interview? What's going to stick with you?

2) What do you think of Solnit's suggestion that people in a disaster tend to be more cooperative than competitive?

3) What about her point about authorities' tendency to make things worse by trying to reimpose "order"? What warnings does that suggest for liberal lovers of Big Gummint?

4) How do you see Solnit's ideas playing out in the current pandemic?

5) What other stuff have you read/watched that looks at similar themes? Particularly, can you think of any post-apocalyptic fictions where instead of a Walking Dead hellscape where fellow survivors are as deadly as the zombies, people do the mutual aid thing? I can think of at least one recent example, Cory Doctorow's novel Walkaway. It's about a failing USA where large parts of the country are abandoned, while some urban centers are still enclaves of wealth and privilege. With widespread availability of DIY 3D printing tech, lots of people just drop out and build communes, but they aren't necessarily safe, because there are indeed assholes out there too, not to mention those in power who don't like anarchy. It's a novel of ideas that I just loved when I read it a few years back. See also Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed for another anarchic not-quite-utopia.

Have a great Sunday, and next week we'll start discussing Solnit's book for sure! So let's try this updated schedule!

May 24: A Paradise Built in Hellthrough Section II. ("Hobbes in Hollywood")

June 7: finish the rest of the book.

Clear as mud? Indeed it is!

Links to the other parts of this discussion:

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Programming Note: As with other Book Club posts, I'd like to keep discussion focused just on this topic, even though there's not technically a "book" yet. Please save your off-topic comments for the Open Thread, which will be along in a while. Thanks! I will be deleting off topic comments, but don't worry, you wont' get in trouble for that.

["Why Is This Happening" podcast and transcript / Floodlines / A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disasterat Amazon: $12.99 Kindle e-book. Links to other e-book versions here, also $12.99]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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