Hurricane history

As I am writing, hurricane Harvey is still happening.  At the moment (the evening of August 27th, 2017) it seems poised to swing out into the Gulf, pick up energy, and swing back to deluge inland Texas again (as an aside, I saw someone on twitter claim that Hurricanes are powered by cold, therefore climate change is “not a thing.”  Hurricanes get their power from warm, moist air, often found over oceans.  NASA has a great primer on the mechanics of hurricanes here.)

I don’t want to take attention away from the rescue efforts that are taking place in Texas, but I did want to get some thoughts down about why hurricanes are simultaneously forecastable and unpredictable, and why that tension makes them a particularly fraught kind of disaster.

Hurricanes are easy to forecast.  They are large, and (mostly) easy to follow, predictable weather events.  The Galveston Hurricane (1900), which is in the running for deadliest recorded hurricane in American history was predicted by Cuban meteorologists (their prediction was ignored by American meteorologists).  Katrina (2005) was forecast.  Sandy (2012) (which resonates particularly with me, because I am from NJ and lived in NJ at the time) was forecast.  With some variation of strength and landing points, meteorologists know that hurricanes are coming, and where they will make landfall.

I think that for people who are unfamiliar with the Atlantic and Gulf seaboard, hurricanes feel like disaster-lite.  They are not tornadoes, which can appear, seemingly in seconds, and wreck damage that is so extreme that the most common comparison is a runaway freight train.  They are not earthquakes, which seem to strike capriciously.  They are not fires, which – often being caused by human negligence – are almost impossible to predict.  For people who do not live in hurricane country, hurricanes seem like easy disasters.  “Once you know they’re coming” – backseat disaster pundits say – “just get out of the way.”

Despite the confidence of forecasts, damage from hurricanes is incredibly difficult to predict.  Some  damage comes from storm surges (where the barometric pressure of the hurricane – basically, the weight of the water – physically pushes the ocean onto land).  This is what happened during Sandy, and during the Galveston hurricane.  Some damage comes with gale-force winds, which drive the sea onto and over coastal spaces.  Some hurricanes hit in places where natural defenses against flooding are insufficient.  Most spaces are at the intersection of these hazards. This is what happened during Katrina, and seems to be what is happening with Harvey.

This uncertainty is why one of the dominant themes in oral histories of Katrina is that, having survived previous hurricanes, many people of New Orleans thought that Katrina did not seem to pose that much of a risk.  If previous evacuation orders resulted in minimal damage, there was no incentive to leave.  However, the more significant predictor of failure to evacuate  is access to capital.  Evacuation requires a car.  It requires access to money to buy food.  It requires confidence that work will be cancelled the next day.  It requires a financial cushion that means that loosing material goods to looting can be recovered from.  Put pithily: people with social, political and economic capital can afford to evacuate; poor without, cannot.

This is why there are so many people pleading in Twitter for rescue.  This is why so  many people sheltered in place.  This is why so many people trusted government officials when they said that a few inches of water wasn’t dangerous.  This is why so many people where surprised when a few inches of water became a few, several, many feet.  Hurricane damage is unpredictable, and the people who are most subject to that unpredictability are the people who have least.

American hurricanes have a long history.  While individual storms seem capricious, in the last century and change, patterns have begun to emerge.  They are worth attending to as we face the midst, and aftermath, of the latest deadly storm.

Safe Spaces in the Life of the Mind

The University of Chicago recently sent a letter to incoming students which has made me – for the first time – embarrassed to be affiliated with my undergraduate institution.

Image from the Chicago Maroon twitter feed.

This letter (as Kevin Gannon has noted) seems to be equal parts pedagogical statement and public posture.  It certainly needs to be understood in terms of evolving debates about college campuses, academic politics and student life.

I, however, want to address it from the perspective of both an alumna of the college and as a professor.

The call for “civility and mutual respect” in this letter is a heartening one, as is the reminder that “freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others.”  (This, by the way, sounds like what most academics mean when they talk about safe spaces) A space in which “members of our community [are expected] to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement” and to constructively manage ideas that “may challenge you and even cause discomfort” resonates with what I expected when I first stepped into U(C) classrooms some many years ago.

But I balk at what follows – first because the author of the letter seems not to have fully interrogated what “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” mean, in practice, in college classrooms; and second because rejecting student protests and trigger warnings works to undermine what Dean Ellison says is a priority: “building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds” and which supports students’ “freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”

In my experience, and as described by faculty from different institutions, trigger warnings are not about “cancel[ing] speakers because their topics might prove controversial.”   Neither are they intended to allow students to “retreat form ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”  In the practice I have seen, trigger warnings are a way for faculty to help students manage their reactions to material without disrupting the intellectual community of the class, and without derailing students’ own academic progress.

For example, I teach on the history of disaster.  We read about terrible, heartbreaking things.  It does no one in my class – neither me nor the students – any good to not anticipate the possibility that some students might react strongly to (for example) discussions of the death of orphan children during the Galveston Hurricane.  Flagging scenes of infanticide (a trigger warning) in our readings likewise has no cost – it simply alerts students who may have strong reactions to a particular topic that they might want to take extra steps to prepare for class that day.*   These might include drafting a discussion question in advance, finding a time to do reading that might be trauma-inducing when they will not be in public, or even simply practicing scripts to get through the class period.  Rather than undercutting intellectual discourse or protecting students from uncomfortable material, trigger warnings as practiced by me and by many faculty seek to ensure that a student can fully prepare – in what ever way they need – t participate in class.

Dean Ellison similarly seems to be mistaken about the common use and history of “safe space.”  While it is laudable that the U(C) “welcomes people of all backgrounds” and encourages “diversity of opinion and background,” American higher education is historically constructed, and has – historically – been friendlier and more accommodating to certain groups more than others.  For one excellent example of this history, see Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy detailing the racial history of American education (while I have the utmost respect for Dean Boyer – the dean of the college when I was an undergrad – I can’t help but think that Wilder’s would certainly be a book that incoming first years would benefit from reading).  This history means that, in practice, colleges and university have been – and continue to be – safer spaces for some students than for others. Those for whom the college is already safe – many of them students who are not otherwise marginalized – do not need to petition for safe spaces on campus.  For them it already is one.

To reject the idea of safe spaces or to pre-empt any protest in response to a scheduled U(C) speaker is to say – again in practice – that the University of Chicago has no interest in attending to the needs of students who do not already feel safe.  These might include (and this is based on my experiences both as a student and now as a faculty member) students of color, first generation college students, LGBTQA students, undocumented students, students who grew up in poverty, students with learning differences, students with illnesses, students with disabilities.  Making higher education more welcoming to these students sometimes means re-imagining what campus civility looks like.  It means, rather than telling students that protests are unwelcome and silencing, interrogating why those students thought that protest was the best way to speak to the administration.  It involves treating protest as a tool of debate rather than as a fait accompli**.   It involves listening to students who ask for a heads up about potentially traumatic material.  None of this silences academic discourse.  Rather, it makes academic discourse a space in which more and more diverse students can participate.

As practiced*** most frequently, trigger warnings allow for classes to be flexible enough to accommodate students whose experiences of trauma and crisis are different from our (the faculty’s) own.  Discussions of how to make more safe spaces on campus are a way to expand campus culture to include people who historically were excluded from it.  Neither of these models is detrimental to undergraduate education.  Neither undermines the life of the mind.  It shocks and saddens me that a place which prides itself on intellectual rigor for all students would take such a stance.

*They might also choose to skip class, but I have seen no evidence that talking about possibly traumatizing material makes a student any more likely to skip a class than any other of the usual reasons college students have. Incidentally, this is why I do not have an excused absence policy in my classes – students can choose to be absent from a fixed number of class meetings without penalty, and I am not put in a position of adjudicating a good reason for missing my class.

**I want to think about this a bit more about this, but discussions of student protests of speakers tend to assume that having a protest means that the speaker will not come.  This has not been my experience of student protests, and is a perspective which, I think, dangerously misrepresents the institutional power that students, faculty and university deans have respectively.  When we talk about student protests, I think we miss the ways in which institutions and (in the case of Rice, invited speakers) have the power to react to protest.  Many times, institutions and speakers decide that a talk will go on.  When I was a U(C) undergrad, Fareed Zakaria came to speak.  Some students walked out in the middle of the talk.  Some called for the talk to be cancelled.  Both of these actions prompted robust and sustained discussion, and allowed for discussion about the place that Zakaria’s ideas had on the U(C) campus.  Calling for the cancellation of the talk was part of that discussion, not an attempt to silence it.

*** I have a shirt from my time as an undergraduate which reads “that’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory.”  I still love that shirt, but I think that the current U(C) administration might – in this case – benefit from thinking a little more about pedagogical practice, and less about theoretical posturing.

Fire! July 19th, 1845 – The Financial District

On July 19th, 1845, New York City caught fire.  It started in a whale oil warehouse in lower Manhattan and spread quickly, eventually engulfing warehouses full of explosives.  The fire burned for over eight hours, and when it was finally put out, 30 people had died.

The fire was commemorated in popular prints in the 1880s, two of which currently held by the New York Public Library:

View of the terrific explosion at the Great Fire in New York. From Broad St. July 19th, 1845.


The Fire Of July 19, 1845 — The View At Bowling Green.

I came across the fire while trying to figure out the names of public health institutions in 1847 New York.  The NYC guide I’m using – Doggett’s New York City Directory – for 1845-46 contains a list of the 217 buildings destroyed by the fire, and the names of the hundreds of people who were displaced by it.

I thought it might be fun to map the extent of this fire, described in Doggett’s as:

“The disastrous fire of the 19th of July, 1845 – long to be remembered by the citizens of New-York – having laid waste a considerable portion of the business section of the city; and causing, consequently, the removal of numerous business men and firms.”

Ever systematic, the guide went on:

“The total loss by the late fire has been variously estimated at from $5,000,000 to $8,000,000.  The fire commenced about 3 o’clock, A.M. and was not subdued till 11 o’clock A.M., a period of eight hours.  Supposing, therefore, the total loss to have been $6,000,000 – the average loss per hour, was $750,000; the loss, per quarter of an hour, was $187,500; the loss, per minute, was $3,125, and the average loss per second, was $52.08 1/2!  Bank notes, of the denomination of one dollar, would not burn more rapidly in a common fireplace than was the property consumed by this conflagration.”

I have no sense of the relative value of the area destroyed today, but it encompasses much of the financial district of present-day New York City.


On starting new projects

I’m deep in the next-year’s-research planning phase of the summer, which is mostly comprised of figuring out what other donor communities I want to look at for the book manuscript.  I chose sites for the dissertation largely based on news production – locales in which a lot of news was being produced, reproduced and consumed – but for the book I’ve been thinking about how to better center the experiences of non-elite donors, which means looking for places from which donations flowed, rather than places in which people were merely reading about the famine in Ireland.  As part of this, and as part of a related project to collect the names of donors to a wide range of 19th century philanthropic projects, I’ve been working on a database which tracks not only individual donations, but also biographical information about donors.  I’ve been using this data – and in particular donations to national famine relief funds (the American Society of Friends rather than the New York Irish relief committee, for example) to try to map places where donations came from, but that I haven’t yet explored.

So: a very few, very preliminary findings:

  • Most of these donations are coming from cities.
  • Many are on behalf of relief committees of entire cities – it’s not clear yet whether these are Quaker relief committees or ones without religious (or with another religious) affiliation, but I hope that’s something I’ll be able to check out at the Haverford Quaker archives.
  • Of those donations made on behalf of urban relief committees, the people doing the collecting were almost entirely merchants.

The orange circles are the places I’ve yet to explore – lots to do!

CRC donor locales

Quick note: “Snow Fall”

The New York Times has been pushing “Snow Fall,” a multimedia article about the February 2012 avalanche in the Cascade Mountains.  It’s a six part story, much like one of the NYT Magazine‘s feature articles, but supplemented with video interviews, interactive maps, and other material designed to bring the story to life.  It takes some time to get through, but is, I think, worth getting into, because it seems like one direction that newspapers might take in this “digital age” of reduced print circulation.

That being said, I’m not convinced that the story really needed all of the bells and whistles.  The story itself – of 16 professional or semi-professional skiers caught in an avalanche – is compelling enough on its own.  Interviews with survivors are heart-wrenching, but for me the most difficult part of the piece was the narrative reconstruction of the victims’ loved ones’ reactions.  Many people are familiar with print analogues to stories like these – the Magazine’s story last week about Barney’s, for example – which could be augmented with digital material, and I suppose there’s an argument that says that the more information included, in as many different mediums as possible, the better.  And some parts of “Snowfall” worked really well.  As you read each part, the text scrolls over background images – in some cases of snow, in others of trees destroyed by the avalanche, and, perhaps most effectively, over maps which highlight the position of the skier being discussed at the moment.  But in other places, the information feels superfluous, or not fully integrated – digital content for the sake of novelty, rather than for the sake of telling a better story.

I hope to see more of this kind of thing from the Times, because I think that it charts some rich terrain for the future of journalism (and I’d frankly love to play around with something like this for history writing).  I also have to wonder whether some kinds of stories are suited to this treatment more than others.  Because I’m a disaster studies nerd, I did find myself thinking that disasters are particularly well-suited to these kinds of pieces (I was actually reminded a couple of times of the “Murder on Beacon Hill” documentary and app – which, if you live in or near Boston, is really worth checking out).  Disasters (or in the case of the Beacon Hill piece, murders) often feature a discrete cast of characters, a series of events easily fit into narrative form, and take place in a limited enough space to make things like maps useful.  I’d really love to see the “Snowfall” treatment applied to a more data-driven story though, because I think a lot of great work has been done recently with visual and interactive representations of information that could really enhance readers’/viewers’ experience of a story.

The more [history] you learn, the more [history] you see


Credit: Bill Amend at

I’ve been throwing out variations on this line since I first saw this strip, and I’ve been having quite a few “the more history you learn…” moments in the past few weeks because of the hurricane.

On Saturday, the Press of Atlantic City reported that NOAA classified Sandy as a post-tropical cyclone right before it made landfall in NJ, a decision which is estimated to save homeowners/cost insurance companies millions of dollars in deductibles.  NOAA isn’t a political body, but the classification is a fortuitous one for those facing insurance claims for their destroyed property, and it was echoed by NJ Governor Chris Christie when he issued an executive order prohibiting insurance companies from charging hurricane deductibles.  (For a really fascinating discussion of the relationship between disasters and flood insurance, see parts II and III of Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God.)  Though most of the article was about the impact of this call on insurance claims, the article briefly digresses into talking about what it means for a scientific body to be in charge – however indirectly – of a huge financial decision:

“If this was a court case, you’d have multiple meteorologists on the stand,” said Campbell H. Wallace, an attorney for the Professional Insurance Agents of New Jersey.

There is no court case. Insurance companies in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut have agreed to waive costly hurricane deductibles, which could have run in the millions of dollars along the three-state area.

Wallace said the insurance industry accepts the fact that the National Weather Service is “legally tasked” with making such determinations. He said meteorologists are judged by their peers and credibility is paramount to them.

The Wallace quote reminds me of another apparently ancillary fact about the Atlantic hurricane – the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 which killed upwards of eight thousand people.  Although meteorologists, both in the U.S. and in Cuba registered concerns about a storm headed for the Gulf of Mexico, the National Weather Bureau’s policy was to limit the use of the word “hurricane” in official correspondence, because it might engender widespread panic.  On top of all of the other reasons for the high Galvestonian death toll (the misguided belief that hurricanes never struck that part of the Gulf, little way for ships to communicate observations from the middle of a storm, buildings that were particularly susceptible to storm damage) some of the blame must go, and has gone, to whomever made the decision that “hurricane” was just too dangerous a word for the American people.

In some ways, what is happening with insurance companies today is the flipside of what happened with the NWB and Galveston – in defining what counts as a hurricane, and what is “merely” a post-tropical cyclone (the two can be differentiated by as little as 1 mph difference in maximum wind speeds measured on the ground) the NOAA is saving – intentionally or no – thousands of people millions of dollars in total.

Categorizing Sandy

Hurricane Sandy happened two weeks ago – it (not she – because a lot of very smart people have written quite a bit about how oddly and quickly the violently gendered language around the hurricane spun out of control) decimated New Jersey and New York, particularly coastal communities along the Jersey Shore, barrier islands, Staten Island and the Rockaways.  I’ve lived in New Jersey my entire life, and although the town I live in wasn’t particularly hard-hit, the emotional impact of the storm – even two weeks and a presidential election later – is still made manifest here.

Mario Tama/Getty Images, via the Baltimore Sun’s “Darkroom” blog.

I’ve been trying to think about how to write about this from the perspective of someone who studies disaster, and I keep coming back to the need to explain that I am from this place where this thing has happened – that I am not merely a distant observer of catastrophe.  While I’m sure some of that impulse comes of not wanting to exploit a terrible thing in service of my own thoughts on an academic subject, I think that it also suggests something about the field – if there is one – of disaster studies – and maybe also something about how Sandy was reported until the Presidential election overshadowed all other news.

One of the things I open with when I  teach disaster history is the degree to which disasters make for a fractured historical narrative.  A number of quite interesting books have been written about individual disasters, but only a few historians – most notably Ted Steinberg – have tackled disasters as historical subjects.  Jonathan Bergman has recently noted that “disaster studies have experienced some interesting developments and offer great lessons for historical scholarship, yet this reviewer is bedeviled by the suspicion that the subject has not formally ‘arrived’. Reconnaissances have been made, and initial volleys fired, but no scholarly introductions have been tendered on the historical field. Neither has there been a call for a sustained and rigorous discussion of its methods and values”  I think, in part, that the very objects of study are deviations from the norm, and the experiences of people who lived through them are wildly divergent from their everyday lives.

This isn’t to say that disaster history doesn’t have ways of dealing with the fact that the things it studies are in many ways outside of everyday experiences.  Some, including Steinberg, Mike Davis and Matthew Mulcahy, situate natural disasters in terms of the human circumstances that produce them.  For the past few years, the classic example invoked to illustrate this point is Hurricane Katrina.  In fact, the authors of the essays in There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class and Hurricane Katrina point out that it was the social conditions in New Orleans that killed so many people, rather than the eleventh named storm of the 2005 storm season – any major storm would have done the trick, as it were.  Other scholars, particularly scientists who study natural hazards, have pushed back on this historicized or contextualist approach to disaster studies, noting that without catastrophic events, there are simply no disasters to study – they note that particular aspects of that particular storm were responsible for its “disasterousness.”  However, whether we study the natural event itself – in the case of Sandy, a “post-tropical cyclone” – or, if we take the approach described by Alessa Johns as one in which, “If a disaster is defined as a physical phenomenon – an earthquake, a hurricane, or a flood, for example – affecting a human group adversely, then surely the activities of that human community, both before and after the event, require investigation,” a disruptive event is still at the center of the story.  Put another way, both of these approaches lead to a field of disaster studies characterized by unique “firefly events,” rather than grand narratives.

“Ruins at Cranston, R.I. – The Great New England Hurricane of 1938”

This is a very long way of saying that the state of the field of disaster history mapped very closely onto what I experienced waiting for Sandy to hit, and experiencing its aftermath.  People understood the possibility of disaster, but had little by way of a framework for approaching, anticipating or understanding it.

Both before and after the storm, commentators drew comparisons between Sandy and Katrina (largely in the context of Presidential responses).  Others looked farther afield, positioning Sandy in terms of the 1938 hurricane, dubbed by some the “Long Island Express,” which had decimated much of New England, leaving high water marks that are still visible today.  Commentators also reached for superlatives – “New York Subways Hit with the Worst Disaster in 108 Years”; “Ranks Among the Worst Economic Disasters”; and the Wikipedia article’s first paragraph casts Sandy as the largest Atlantic storm on record, the second most expensive Atlantic hurricane in history, and one of the strongest storms of all time. (Usual caveats about Wikipedia use apply here)

It seems like, short of comparing this terrible event to other terrible events, we have almost no rubric for understanding what happened.  For those living through this, the conditions that lead to overbuilt beach communities, or a lack of effective dune screening, or any other structural cause don’t matter, and offer no perspective on loss.  I think that some of these impressions must bleed over into the historiography, because the same comparative framing happens there too.  While I’m absolutely committed to a deeply contextualized social, political and economic understanding of disaster, I also wonder if looking at patterns in aftermaths – in policy, or environmental change, or even demography – might be another way to understand disasters as part of a coherent field, rather than as sudden and disruptive events.

I was also struck by something a friend said to be over e-mail a few days after Sandy.  He mentioned (I paraphrase) that he wondered if, as our possessions, houses and furniture become more and more similar/big-box/Ikea, that the aftermath of very different disasters wouldn’t start to look, and feel more and more the same.  That might be the case from an outside perspective – the worst-hit parts of the Rockaways could certainly have been hit by a tornado or an earthquake – but so long as historical practice is rooted in using sources produced by people who lived through events, disaster history will always feel – to some degree – scattershot.  The people telling us about these things did in the past, and are likely to continue to, describe them in exceptional and unique language, contextualizing them, if at all, in terms of other “worst,” “most expensive” and “most deadly” events.  Given that, it’s easy to see why so many scholars, taking historical actors at their word, replicate that impression of disasters as disruptive, rather than the product of structures, in their own work.

Survivors searching the debris in Galveston, Texas. In the years following the storm, the entire city was raised 17 feet to prevent future flooding.

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]

Scaling tragedy.

Two things.  Yesterday I went to Skibbereen.  Today I watched an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring Lisa Kudrow.

(I think that Who Do You Think You Are? is really fascinating T.V.  The people they profile always seem to be transformed by what they find out – from Sarah Jessica Parker saying that knowing one of her ancestors went west for the gold rush changed everything she knew about herself to Spike Lee saying that he always knew who he was, now he just knew more.  I’ve been interested in my family’s history for, if not as long as I can remember, at least some time – so the idea of never asking questions about where parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are from feels unnatural to me.)

For people who study Irish history, Skibbereen (a village in west Cork, about 50 miles from Cork city) has become a stand-in for all of the worst parts of Ireland during the 1845-52 famine.  In part, its development as an archetype for famine Ireland comes from the fact that during the famine, residents of Skibbereen – particularly Dr. O’Donovan and Rev. Traill – worked hard to let local elites and government representatives in Dublin know about the extent of destitution in their district.  Their many letters made Skibbereen famous as a place where scenes of horror were plentiful, and diarists and artists on tours of Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s would often stop at Skibbereen to see “real” Irish destitution.  In addition, the most iconic images of the famine today – like the “Boy and Girl at Cahera”produced for the Illustrated London News in February of 1847 – were drawn in Skibbereen and its environs. 

Given the iconic place that Skibbereen holds in the imaginations of historians of the famine, and the central role it played in nineteenth-century accounts of suffering in Ireland, it was hard for me to imagine the town at all.  I think I was expecting something greyer, and more sinister than the cheerful and very typical Irish streetscape that I found.  There is a museum devoted to the famine, as well as a walking tour that takes you to the town’s soup kitchen, the site of the old poor house, and the dispensary – but today these are just eighteenth and nineteenth-century buildings, like any other less meaningful edifice on any street in any small Irish town.  I think that I had been expecting to feel the scale of the tragedy in some way.  I knew, I had read about, people dying in the streets of Skibbereen – in some of the very spots that I stopped.  I knew that the poor house turned people away, and that those lucky enough to get in were packed in so close that there was no room to move – but I simply didn’t feel the chill of that knowledge as much as I’d expected to.  I looked for it too at the Abbeystrewery Graveyard, site of a burial pit into which it is estimated that 9,000 people were buried, coffinless and nameless, during the famine.  One boy was so ill that his mother thought he had died, and buried him alive in the pit.  He was able to dig his way out through the corpses, but remained marked for life both mentally and physically.  The physical injury has been attributed to the fact that his mother broke his legs in order to get him into the only coffin available.

The famine plot is the lighter green patch at the bottom of the hill.

The graveyard in Skibbereen is an eloquent, and muted testimony to suffering.  The graveyard is built on a hill, with most grave markers precariously perched on whatever ground is available in the midst of rocky outcroppings.  The only truly flat area, which would be the easiest and most likely place to put new graves under other circumstances, has no graves, and marks the plot where the famine pit was.  It’s not a shocking memorial.  There are no accounts of abject suffering, or of people dying of starvation – I think that the people who designed this memorial assumed that no one would visit the graveyard without some prior knowledge of the famine and its impact.  But I also have to imagine what it must be like to live today with the responsibility of tending to the historical legacy of Skibbereen.  The town as a whole seems relatively ambivalent towards the famine – which is totally understandable.  Who would want to actively remember that the place you live is famous for suffering?  I don’t think that I had anticipated the fact that Skibbereen was a real place.  I had fetishized the suffering so much in my head that it had almost become divorced from reality.  There’s an old chestnut of a Stalin quote (supposedly) that’s something like ‘one death is a tragedy, one thousand deaths are statistics’ [See note] that I think rings true for historians of disaster.  It was almost impossible, for me at least, to get my head around the scale of the suffering as a consequence of the famine – so much so that when confronted with an actual place and actual graves, all I felt was disconnect.

By way of contrast, on the episode of WDYTYA? that I watched today, Lisa Kudrow learned that her great-grandmother had been forced by SS officers to stand at the edge of a pit with two other members of her family, and had been shot and then set on fire.  That was evocative, and tear-jerking – everything I thought I’d feel in SkibbereenSkibbereen does an excellent job of honoring its past while not becoming mired in re-enacting tragedy – and I am working, as someone who studies crises to keep the epic scale of disasters and the poignant narratives of individual sufferers in my head – and do justice to both in my work – at the same time.

NOTE: On this topic, Eddie Izzard says:

“Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people and we can’t even deal with that.  I think, you know, we think somebody kills someone that’s murder, you go to prison.  You kill ten people, you go to Texas they hit you with a brick, that’s what they do.  Twenty people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever.  And over that … we can’t deal with it, you know?  Somebody’s killed 100,000 people we’re almost going ‘well done! well done!  You killed 100,000 people?  Well, you must get up very early in the morning.  I can’t even get down the gym!  Your diary must look odd: get up in the morning death, death, death, death, death, death, death.  Lunch.  Death, death, death.  Afternoon tea.  Death, death, death … “