Disasterous truth

Radiolab – produced by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich – recently released an episode called “The Fact of the Matter” which explored the ways in which “getting a firm hold on the truth is never as simple as nailing down the facts of a situation.”  Radiolab is usually presented as a series of three riffs on the central theme, and this month’s first and last segments played around with the idea of absolute truth (via Errol Morris’s discussion of Crimean cannonballs) and whether truth matters at all (via Tim Kreider’s story of a friend whose life seemed to contain nothing true).  The middle section, called Yellow Rain, though, seemed to go off the rails a little, hinting – though never explicitly engaging with – the idea that privileging some truths over others can actually be an act of violence.

The question at the heart of Yellow Rain was whether soviet chemical weapons had been used on the Hmong people in Laos after the end of the Vietnam War.  The Hmong had been U.S. allies during the war, and after American troops left the region, were subject to brutal attacks by the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao.  The Hmong fled into the jungle, where they first encountered showers of yellow droplets falling from the sky.  These showers were followed by livestock deaths, stomach pain, and in some cases, death.  Between the Viet Cong attacks – which often included the aerial assaults – and this Yellow Rain, many Hmong today describe the period after Vietnam as a genocide. Refugees gave leaves with the yellow substance to aid workers, who sent them to a U.S. lab which found pollen and high levels of poison.  They concluded that the Soviet government had created a poison that could be deployed via pollen, President Reagan used the lab’s findings as evidence of Soviet chemical weapons capability, and jump-started U.S. chemical weapons programs.  In the aftermath of that decision, other U.S. scientists re-examined the Yellow Rain, argued that the original lab had made an error, and that the substance was nothing more than bee feces, released all at once when the bees came out of hibernation.

This could have been a fairly straightforward story about how governments lie, or accept incomplete information, in order to pursue nefarious ends – and that seems to be the story that Robert Krulwich was interested in telling.  But at the end of the piece, Krulwich and a Radiolab producer, Pat Walters, interviewed a man named Eng Yang, who had actually lived through both Viet Cong attacks and Yellow Rain.  They asked Yang, via his niece, author Kao Kalia Yang, who was acting as an interpreter (and who sometimes interjected her own commentary), what he thought about the fact that scientists had found that the Hmong had not actually been the victims of chemical warfare:

Yang: [If this was just bee feces] How do you explain the kids dying? The people and the animals dying?
Jad voiceover: We asked Kalia to tell Eng what the scientists had told us, that the Hmong were definitely dying.
Scientist voiceover: The Hmong were under real attack.  They were being fired at from airplanes and by soldiers.
Jad voiceover: But more importantly, even if they weren’t being killed by those direct attacks, they were on the run through the jungle.  They were malnourished, drinking from contaminated streams, diseases like dysentery and cholera were rampant, and the way a lot of people see it, they might have misattributed some of those mysterious deaths to this cloud of bee poop that looked like it could have been a chemical weapon. But Eng says no, not a chance.
Yang: I speak to what I’ve seen, and there is no inkling in my mind that those deaths were not caused by starvation, dysentery, there was chemicals that were killing my people.
Robert: And, um, did the source of the rain, was there always a plane and then rain? A plan and then rain? Or did sometimes the rain happen without a plane?
Yang: We never saw what it was, it was always being dropped on them, and it was always being dropped where there were heavy concentrations of Hmong people.
Robert: Hm.
Yang: That’s what we knew.
Robert: But we don’t know whether there was a plane causing it, or did you just see the dust?
Yang: Bullets and bombs all the day, every time.
Robert: Hm.
Yang: And so whether, whether it was a bombing plane or a yellow plane, it was incredibly hard to distinguish.  Everybody runs when you hear the planes, so Hmong people didn’t watch bombs coming down.  You came out, you sneak your head out, and you watch what happen in the aftermath.  You saw broken trees, you saw yellow in the aftermath of what had been bombed.  I saw with my own eyes the pollen on the leaves eating through holes.  With my own eyes I saw pollen that could kill grass, could kill leaves, could kill trees.
Robert: But he himself is not clear w-, whether it’s the bee stuff or whether its other stuff, because there was so much stuff coming down from the sky.
Yang: You know that there were chemicals being used against the Hmong in the mountains of Laos.  Whether this is the chemicals from the bombs or yellow rain, chemicals were being used.  It feels to him like this is a semantic debate, and it feels like, um, like there’s a sad lack of justice, that, that, that the word of a man who survived this thing must be pitted against a professor from Harvard who’s read these accounts.
Robert: But, as far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall, your uncle didn’t see a plane, all of this is hearsay.
Yang: [audibly upset] My uncle says, um, for the last twenty years he didn’t know that anything, anybody was interested in the death of the Hmong people.  He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. You know, what happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been un-, uninterested for the last twenty years.  He agreed because you were interested.  That the story would be heard and that the Hmong deaths would be re- documented and recognized.  That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken, that our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him or to me.  I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened.  There was so much that was not told, everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used.  How do you create bombs if not with chemicals?  We can play the semantics game, we can, but I am not interested, my uncle is not interested, we have lost too much heart, and too many people in the process.

Yang ends the interview, and there are about 15 seconds of “radio silence” before cutting to a conversation between Jad, Robert and Pat the producer.  In the course of that conversation, Pat says”

“that moment was when the whole story changed for me … there was something about, like, the way that she was pointing away from the thing that we had been looking so hard at, and saying, stop looking at that, look over here … she didn’t convince me at all that this was a chemical weapon, but she convinced me that we were missing something … until she said the things she said at the end of that interview, I don’t think that I fully appreciated the volume of pain that was involved in that moment for them.”

Jad chimes in, saying that he understood her to be saying:

“quit focusing on this yellow rain stuff, because when you do that, you’re shoving aside a much larger story, namely that my people were being killed.”

Robert, though, seems to remain unconvinced that the Yangs’ truth was significant.  He says, in response to Jad:

“Right, that’s exactly what she’s saying.  And that is wrong.  That is absolutely, to my mind, that is not fair to us.  It’s not fair to ask us to not consider the other stories and the other frames of the story.  The fact that the most powerful man in the world, Ronald Reagan, used this story to order the manufacture of chemical weapons for the first time in twenty years, I mean, that is not unimportant, that’s hugely important, but it’s not important to her, so should that not be important to us?”

He goes on to say that while he personally found her reaction to be “very balancing,” that “her desire was not for balance, her desire was to monopolize the story, and that we can’t allow.” (emphasis mine)

There’s a whole lot to unpack there, but I was forcibly struck by two things:  The first was the degree to which western narratives were privileged over non-western ones.  This isn’t just a problem for Radiolab. In a 2008 book on terrorism, Matt Meselson, one of the scientists whose work discredited the yellow-rain-as-chemical-weapon conclusions, opens a section on the “composition of the alleged agent” by noting that “none of the alleged attacks was witnessed by a Western observer. The most tangible evidence bearing on the allegations consisted of the samples of the alleged agent turned in by refugees, and the laboratory analyses of these and other environmental samples, of blood and urine from alleged victims.” Meselson certainly has a horse in this race, so it’s not that surprising that his current work continues to defend his findings from the 1980s.  However, his opening sentence implies that if there had been Western observers, scientists would not have had to rely on the word of non-westerners – these refugees and alleged victims.  While Radiolab never came out with so explicit a demarcation between trustworthy narrators (Western observers) and untrustworthy ones (alleged victims), the arc of Krulwich’s interview with the Yangs reinforced that paradigm.  In light of the final piece in the episode – which argues that the lies told by an individual (American) man about his life, to his friends, shouldn’t matter, because experientially, they knew who he “really” was – it’s hard not to see a disparity between whose truths Radiolab trusts, and whose truths they don’t.

My second thought had to do with the ways in which we (scholars, historians, journalists) use peoples’ experiences of disaster.  Krulwich’s comment at the end of the interview that it was wrong for the Yangs to assert their own truth, and that in doing so they were trying to monopolize the story (language, along with the assertion that Yang’s experience was “hearsay” that Krulwich later apologized for) suggests that, in the moment, he thought that the story about how Reagan used these accounts – the lie that Reagan told to jump-start U.S. chemical weapons production – was a more important story than the Yang’s accounts of the Hmong genocide.  Understandably, I think, Yang disagreed, and that moment could have lead to a really productive discussion of what it means to use one population’s sufferings in service of social or political arguments that are almost entirely divorced from them.  I think that Krulwich implied that while the Hmong genocide only affected the Hmong people, Reagan’s decisions as “the most powerful man in the world” impacted everyone, including the Hmong, rendering the “truth” of Reagan’s claims more important than the “truth” of the Hmong’s experiences.  I also think that there could have been a really productive conversation about the ways in which denying particular truths can be, in itself, an act of violence.  Jad and Pat tiptoed up to the edge of that conversation in the piece following the interview, but neither they, nor Robert either in the episode or in his follow-up commentary, fully acknowledged the trauma they might have inflicted – both to the Yang’s and to other people whose experiences of violence and genocide are still and often silenced.

I see this kind of appropriation all the time in my own work, when donor groups in the 1840s used narratives coming out of Ireland to make political arguments about their own circumstances, bolstered by the moral value of their donations to distant sufferers, but before listening to this piece, I don’t think that I had considered the impact that those appropriations might have had on Irish people.  Most of those starving in Ireland probably wouldn’t have known that New Yorkers or Charlestonians were using their suffering as a proxy for either immoral landholding practices in upstate New York, or the “injustices” foisted upon Southern slaveholders by abolition campaigns, but Irish emigrants might have.

I think it’s also worth thinking about whether the actual composition of the yellow stuff actually matters at all.  In the Errol Morris piece, one contributor notes that it might not matter whether a war photographer staged a famous picture of the Crimea, because the sense evoked by the picture was a more accurate representation of the experience of war than any un-staged image ever could.

[Edited to fix embarrassing misspelling]

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