Aldwych tube station 1940 Photo: Imperial War Museum

On a weekend where America will mark 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 and the New York Times print edition's front page is dedicated to listing some of them (about a thousand), this seems like a good time to talk about the questions Rebecca Solnit asks at the beginning of in her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster: "Who are you? Who are we?" And in times of crisis, she says, those are life and death questions.

Here is some of who we are:


Unfortunately, here too is another snapshot of some of who we are, in reply to a tweet of that front page:


There's also been a bit of rightwing crowing over an error in the front page list, which mistakenly included a murder victim, so perhaps the pandemic isn't real. And others just said hurr-hurr, you said the losses are "incalculable" but you put a number on it, hurr.

But look at the small number of "likes" for those tweets up there. Polls consistently show Americans are not on the side of the idiots, however much noise they make. While it's easy to forget that the noisy jerks aren't representative — good lord, I've just given them too much attention already here — that noise-to-signal ratio illustrates a misunderstanding Solnit wants to dispel.

When things fall apart, most people don't become frenzied mobs, and the post-disaster landscape isn't a hell world of survivors who are as dangerous to each other as the disaster was. Most people just quietly get to the business of helping other people, and out of disaster can come solidarity and new ways of seeing the world.

And if that's who we are — or can be — in a disaster, Solnit asks, why aren't we more like that all the time?


For this week, we'll be discussing Paradise Built in Hell through the end of Section II, the chapter titled "Hobbes in Hollywood."

In some ways, I've been reading Paradise Built in Hell as a reply to this single illustration from that hilariously bad 2006 National Rifle Association comic book about why America needs all the guns it can get. Here's the NRA's answer to the inevitable nightmare of societal breakdown, John Q. Whiteguy grimly defending his concerned (but not terrified) family with a shotgun as the mob advances:

Not surprisingly, it's also the image of post-disaster chaos we see in Hollywood productions and, all too often, the media: Panic, literally, in the streets (which was also the title of a 1950 movie about a hero coroner trying to prevent same, by keeping a lid on news of a possible plague outbreak getting out. People just couldn't handle such information, supposedly).

But as we mentioned last week when we discussed that Chris Hayes interview with Solnit, this is the reality of people in the streets following the 1906 earthquake: they set up soup kitchens and fed anyone who showed up.

They also put up joking signs about the shared privations, like "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland."

Also as we mentioned last time, the problem is that institutions and political leaders all too often assume they need to prepare for the first image, not the latter, so they may do more harm than good. The military in San Francisco shot people for looting, but also on suspicion of looting, or even carrying things away from their own homes. And rumors about mobs of marauding gangs in New Orleans slowed getting help to survivors of Hurricane Katrina, not to mention reinforcing racial stereotypes.

Here's a useful term for that "fear-driven overreaction," in which suddenly authorities think it makes all sorts of sense to issue shoot-to-kill orders over looting: "Elite panic." The term was coined by disaster sociologist Kathleen Tierney, who said its elements include "fear of social disorder; fear of poor, minorities and immigrants; obsession with looting and property crime; willingness to resort to deadly force; and actions taken on the basis of rumor." Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

But that's not right at all, as Solnit demonstrates again and again. In the 1930s, British military planners worried that if Germany bombed British cities, there'd be massive outbreaks of insanity, panic, and depression among the civilian population; even Winston Churchill feared the populace would be reduced to helplessness and would be such mental basket cases that they'd overwhelm the government. Historian Mark Connelly wrote, after the war, that the the working class

was thought to be particularly susceptible to panic and disillusionment in the face of an aerial onslaught. . . . When it came to shelters, the government considered it best to protect people in small groups. Communal shelters, it was argued, would create conditions for an agitator's field day. It would also encourage a '"deep shelter'"mentality, leading people to become molelike tunnel dwellers who would never resume their jobs in vital war industries.

Instead, during the Blitz, Britons adapted, and while only a small percentage of Londoners actually used Underground stations as bomb shelters (there goes another myth), the overall attitude was endurance, not panic.

And wouldn't you know it, British and American leaders still took away the wrong conclusion: Londoners' fortitude, they decided, had more to do with the British "character," not with any universal human tendencies of resilience and community. Solnit notes the postwar US Strategic Bombing Survey found that massive bombings of cities didn't "break" the enemy population's spirit, and that specifically, German civilians were no more "demoralized" than the British population. But then the analysts came to this weird conclusion:

Under ruthless Nazi control they showed surprising resistance to the terror and hardships of repeated air attack, to the destruction of their homes and belongings, and to the conditions under which they were reduced to live. Their morale, their belief in ultimate victory or satisfactory compromise, and their confidence in their leaders declined, but they continued to work efficiently as long as the physical means of production remained. The power of a police state over its people cannot be underestimated.

Britons: Resilient despite terrible suffering because of their special national character. Germans: Resilient despite terrible suffering because their Nazi oppressors maintained mind control over them.

And we wonder why "bombing them back to the stone age" — whichever "them" we're bombing at the moment — doesn't seem to work.

Another idea that really stood out for me in this part of the book was this observation from Charles E. Fritz, who worked on the US Strategic Bombing Survey, went on to graduate work in sociology, and helped found the field of disaster studies. Fritz rejected the notion that disaster weakens social bonds; rather, he believed, the breakdown of normality can strengthen them. Solnit summarizes Fritz's "first radical premise":

everyday life is already a disaster of sorts, one from which actual disaster liberates us. [... due to] "the failure of modern societies to fulfill an individual's basic human needs for community identity."

Later he describes more specifically how this community identity is fed during disaster: "The widespread sharing of danger, loss, and deprivation produces an intimate, primarily group solidarity among the survivors, which overcomes social isolation, provides a channel for intimate communication and expression, and provides a major source of physical and emotional support and reassurance."

And so it's reasonable to ask: If we're capable of great compassion, sharing, and solidarity in a disaster, how can we bring such capacities to everyday life? The solution can't be a permanent state of disaster, thank you very much. I think of the Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," saying of the grandmother he's just murdered: "She would have been a good woman [...] if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." How can we come to that radical recognition of shared humanity, without a crisis?

So there's Discussion Question One, I'd say. Especially, how does that relate to your experience of this crisis, right now (if it does)?

A couple more:

Discussion Question Two: Solnit writes, "The elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control, and in their fear take repressive measures that become secondary disasters." That sounds about right to me; how do you see it playing out in the pandemic? To what degree does it explain the short-sighted insistence on "reopening," even if it leads to more illness?

Discussion Question Three: Um ... are you guys reading this book? I'm enjoying talking about it, but if nobody else is actually reading the book, should I finish up discussing the thing in two weeks (June 7)? Let me know in the comments. I'm inclined to keep on yapping about it; the next chapters discuss the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 9/11 attacks, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of a) the levees and b) the state and federal response.

Programming Note: As ever with Book Cub posts, please limit your discussion to the book itself and current events observations related to this post. Please save your off-topic comments for the actual Open Thread, which will be along in a bit. So yes, if you want to talk about COVID-19 as it relates to Solnit's book or the ideas in this here post, that's definitely on topic. But if it's just the latest stupid thing Trump said, maybe save it for later. Thanks! I will be deleting off-topic comments, but don't worry, you wont' get in trouble for that.

[A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster at 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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