Category: Sociology

A Paradise Built in Hell

Cover image for A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnitby Rebecca Solnit

ISBN 9781101459010

“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in doing so they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be.”

What happens when a disaster disrupts our communities? If you’ve watched any Hollywood depictions, or followed popular media accounts, the images are immediately of panicked crowds, followed by savage competition for scarce resources. But in the field of disaster studies, crowd panic is found to be far less common, and altruistic, prosocial responses much more the norm. In a large scale disaster, you’re more likely to be helped by your neighbour or your coworker than by an emergency responder or relief worker. So why is the popular conception of how people respond to catastrophic events so skewed? In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit uses six major disasters to examine how the public really responds in a large scale emergency, and how the responses—or lack thereof—by authorities can undermine the altruism, community-building and prosocial behaviour that naturally occur, as well as the role the media can play in perpetuating these misconceptions.

Solnit uses six major disasters, three historical, and three more recent, as her case studies. Working in chronological order, she begins with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, proceeds to the 1917 Halifax explosion, and then turns to the London Blitz. For more recent history, she examines the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 9/11 attacks on New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Throughout, she blends these historical accounts with information from the academic field of disaster studies, contrasting these studies and theories of behaviour with more popular conceptions and reports. The case studies are a mix of natural disasters and man-made events; the Halifax explosion was an accident, while the Blitz and 9/11 were deliberate acts of human violence. While earthquakes and hurricanes are natural occurrences, Solnit pays particular attention to how the response of authorities after a natural disaster can create second, man-made disaster, and by contrast, how public response and organizing following a disaster can lead to political change.

A key concept in the book is elite panic, a term coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers University. Both academics in the field of disaster studies, they noticed that while authorities planning for disaster response were preoccupied with how to control public reaction, in fact it was often the authorities themselves that panicked and over reacted. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the acting commander of the Presidio marched the army out in the streets, nominally to provide aid, but in fact essentially instituting martial law in the city without the required approval of Congress. Ordered to shut down saloons and prevent the sale of alcohol, troops went a step further and began breaking into businesses to destroy their stock. Ordered to prevent looting, they shot people who had been invited by business owners to take groceries and supplies before their businesses burned in the fires that followed the earthquake. In fact, the troops were so industrious in the prevention of any possibility of looting, that they also prevented residents from fighting the fires. In each disaster, Solnit demonstrates that the most brutal acts are often committed by those seeking to preserve or restore their authority, not by panicked members of the general public, who are often preoccupied with helping one another.

In several places throughout the book, Solnit takes particular aim at the popular myth of looting in the aftermath of disaster. In a number of the cases cited in the book, including the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, authorities directed police or the military to shoot anyone who tried to take any property, even with permission. Solnit argues that the term looting “conflates the emergency requisitioning of supplies in a crisis without a cash economy with opportunistic stealing.” Taking a television in a flooded city without electricity is theft; taking food, medical supplies, or the means to build shelter or escape drowning is requisitioning. Myths about looting can be particularly harmful because they make people afraid of one another. After Hurricane Katrina, the rumours about looting and violence in New Orleans led authorities in the neighbouring community of Gretna on the other side the Mississippi River to blockade the bridge and refuse to accept any refugees. Solnit also worked with journalist A.C. Thompson on a major story about how white residents of Algiers Point, a suburb of New Orleans, formed vigilante bands to defend their property. Thompson found that this impromptu militia shot at least eleven African-American men in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in the name of preventing looting. When the general public behaves badly in the aftermath of a disaster, it is often a more powerful group acting out against a minority. Some Germans were targeted in Halifax before it was determined the explosion was accident rather than an act of war by the enemy, and after a major earthquake in Japan in 1923, the minority Korean community was accused of committing arson or poisoning wells.

In contrast to the elite panic is the general behaviour of the public. Solnit argues that “the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic, and brave,” and she is able to back this up with ample evidence from academic disaster studies, and her various case studies. In the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, the community set up camps and impromptu food kitchens in the city’s parks. After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of boat owners crowded into the city to rescue the stranded even while authorities argued that it was too dangerous to enter the city. In the Twin Towers, occupants began an orderly staircase evacuation, even when the Port Authority directed residents of the South Tower to stay inside after first plane struck. The accounts from that day include a disabled man who was carried down in a relay by his colleagues. The urge to help one another is powerful, and so many people felt the need to do something, anything, to be of use to the evacuation and rescue operation. Volunteer services available to the victims and rescue workers included everything from food to counselling to massage therapy. This is mutual aid, which means that “every participant is both giver and recipient in acts of care that bind them together, as distinct from the one way street of charity.”

In addition to altruism and community, Solnit examines the opportunities for political change that can be provided by the upheaval of disaster. She argues that “disasters open up societies to change, accelerate change that was under way, or break the hold of whatever was preventing change.” She is quick to note however that change and progress are not necessarily equivalent. Nevertheless, an opportunity arises. In her account of the Mexico City earthquake, Solnit follows the story of the city’s seamstresses, many of whom worked in sweatshops that were destroyed by the quake. Their employers prioritized saving equipment over saving people, and in many cases disappeared without paying outstanding wages or severance. This led to the unionization of the seamstresses. A housing rights movement also grew out of the disaster, because many homes were destroyed due to the shoddy construction that had been overlooked by corrupt government officials and inspectors. The contrasting cases of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are particularly interesting here, because they both happened under the Bush administration. Whereas the first was used to consolidate power and curtail freedoms in the name of patriotism and safety, the latter opened up the administration to unprecedented criticism and opposition.

I picked up A Paradise Built in Hell following reading Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz, which I reviewed last week. Nawaz cites the book in her acknowledgements as an important source that informed how she wrote her characters’ response to disaster, opting against the more usual depictions of panic. Solnit doesn’t use any pandemics as examples, and indeed a pandemic would seem, by the very nature of contagion, to prevent such altruism and community-building, but Nawaz’s book, despite being written before COVID-19, proved to be a very accurate description of what life has actually been like since the pandemic began. And certainly we now know that the disruption of our ability to gather as families and communities has been one of the most difficult consequences of the pandemic. While it can be uncomfortable to try to think about positive outcomes of horrifying disasters in which people lose their lives, it can also be uplifting to be offered a more positive portrait of human nature in the face of disaster, especially in the midst of one.

You might also like Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg

Palaces for the People

Cover image for Palaces for the People by Eric KlinenbergEric Klinenberg

ISBN 978-1-5247-6116-5

Few modern social infrastructures are natural, however, and in densely populated areas even benches and forests require careful engineering and management to meet human needs. This means that all social infrastructure requires investment, whether for development or upkeep, and when we fail to build and maintain it, the material foundations of our social and civic life erode.”

In the summer of 1995, a brutal heat wave struck Chicago, killing more than 700 people. When sociologists, including Eric Klinenberg, began to study the deaths, they realized that communities with similar demographic conditions sometimes had vastly disparate survival outcomes during the heat wave. The disaster formed the core of Klinenberg’s earlier book, Heat Wave, but it also leads into his most recent publication, where he examines the physical conditions that develop communities and make them resilient. In many ways, Palaces for the People combines Heat Wave with Going Solo, where he examined the increasing trend towards living alone, and Modern Romance (with Aziz Ansari) where they looked at how people form romantic relationships in the digital era. In Palaces for the People, Klinenberg examines public libraries, parks and community gardens, schools, and sports leagues, in an effort to demonstrate how these “social infrastructures” improve our communities, our relationships, and our quality of life.

The concept of social infrastructure is related to, but distinct from, social capital, in that social infrastructure represents “the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops.” Social infrastructures are the places people congregate, and develop communities. The physical landscape of a neighbourhood can be the difference between neighbours who develop “strong and supportive relationships” and those who become “isolated and alone.” If roads and subways and electric grids are the hard infrastructure of a city, soft infrastructure is what we fall back on when these things fail. Klinenberg also notes that while pubs and cafes are classic “third places,” they are not the focus of Palaces for the People, because “not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.”

Klinenberg takes as his first, and key example, the public library, drawing his title from the phrase used to describe the libraries endowed by “robber baron” Andrew Carnegie, who gave away most of his fortune in his later years, so that he is today better remembered as a philanthropist. Klinenberg freely acknowledges Carnegie’s predatory behaviour a titan of industry, someone who was involved in breaking unions, and exploiting workers. However, he still cites Carnegie’s contribution to public libraries as an unparalleled work of public service and social infrastructure building, giving away what would be billions in today’s dollars to endow thousands of libraries.

Klinenberg puts his finger on the pulse of the public library when he writes that “the problem that libraries face isn’t that people no longer visit them, or take out books. On the contrary, so many people are using them, for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed.” However, Klinenberg never delves deep enough into the public library to touch on the tensions that often arise between the different groups trying to coexist in these spaces, and the entitlement some “tax paying citizens” feel to never be exposed to people experiencing poverty or homelessness. In glossing over this divide, Klinenberg loses the opportunity to engage with this tendency to self-segregate, to lay private claim to public spaces, or to retreat from public spaces when too many “others” occupy them. Those who can afford to buy their own resources and materials can abandon the public library, just as some white people responded to the desegregation of public swimming pools by building private pools in their own backyards.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Palaces for the People are the cases that look like social infrastructure on the surface, but do not effectively serve as such in practice. Gathering places are not necessarily good social infrastructure. Klinenberg highlights a number of institutions that have deleterious effects on community, creating further division rather than unity. Among them are private country clubs, gated communities, fraternities, and tech campuses. In the last case, tech companies often create elaborate social infrastructures for their high level employees—demonstrating that they understand the concept—while shutting out the campus’s service workers, as well as the surrounding neighbourhood. In most cases, all a tech campus means for the existing community is more traffic, and rising rent. The segregation of spaces that are ostensibly open to the public, such as public pools, and churches, have damaged their ability to serve as effective social infrastructure, though this varies widely from case to case. Klinenberg also notes that safe, separate gathering spaces for minority groups are important social infrastructure despite their segregated nature.

Palaces for the People also takes a look at what role technology plays in our social infrastructure, and our changing civic life. Klinenberg has harsh words for tech companies in general, and Mark Zuckerberg in particular, for the claims they have made about community, versus the reality that has played out as social media proliferates. However, he is careful to qualify that digital technology cannot be simply scapegoated as the source of all our woes. He points to studies that find that polarization has actually increased most among people over the age of seventy-five. By contrast, social media is most heavily used by the eighteen to thirty-nine cohort. Therefore, Klinenberg cautions that “social media may well contribute to our widening ideological divisions, but if the Internet doesn’t explain changes in the group that has grown the most polarized, it cannot be entirely to blame.”

Palaces for the People provides a high level look at a number of social infrastructures and their impact on their communities, any one of which could probably be the subject of their own book. However, this is a broad, useful introduction for the non-academic reader into thinking about how our investment in public spaces impacts our private relationships, as well as our larger civic life and social cohesion.

You might also like The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

Evicted

Cover image for Evicted by Matthew Desmondby Matthew Desmond

ISBN 9780553447446

“There are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”

Between 2007 and 2009, the American housing market was shaken by the subprime mortgage crisis, in which banks foreclosed on millions of homeowners who could not keep up with their rapidly inflating mortgage payments. But another group of people is deeply affected by the trauma of displacement on a more regular basis: the renting poor. Many of these families are spending between fifty and seventy percent of their monthly income on housing, and even a small crisis can easily cause them to fall behind on the rent, making them subject to eviction.  Sociologist Matthew Desmond takes the reader into two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighbourhoods, one predominantly white, the other mostly black, and spends eighteen months examining what happens when landlords evict those who have fallen behind on the rent.

Desmond begins on Milwaukee’s black North side, with the properties own and managed by a black couple named Sherrena and Quentin. Sherrena’s motto was “the hood is good,” and they regularly bought and rented out marginal properties that required more work that they could honestly keep up with to really be fit for habitation. They could regularly expect to collect $20 000 in rents on the first of every month. On the South side, Desmond examines a run-down trailer park owned by a man called Tobin, who attracted press attention because the park was so dilapidated that the city considered it an “environmental biohazard.” Despite this state of affairs, Tobin earned nearly half a million dollars a year from his property. Landlords can ask tenants to move out with only twenty-eight days’ notice, but when they are behind on the rent, an eviction notice may provide only one to five days’ warning before the sheriff’s deputies and a crew of movers show up to clear the home. The contents of the home are then deposited on the curb, or taken to storage and held for payment, driving the family further into debt.

A significant factor that emerges in both of the neighbourhoods Desmond examines is the presence of children. As a single mother with two sons, Arleen struggled terribly to find a new place to rent that would accept her children. When Pam and Ned were evicted from Tobin’s trailer park, they faced an even bigger dilemma. Pam had two daughters from a previous relationship, her daughters with Ned, and another baby on the way. No landlord wanted that many children causing additional wear and tear on the property. When an eviction comes, children often lose many or most of their possessions, miss or have to change schools, and are sometimes separated from their immediate families as they are shunted off to different relatives who can provide shelter while the parents look for a new home.

Desmond draws particular attention to the plight of black women, who face a disproportionate rate of eviction. Desmond points out that “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” The problem is compounded by the fact that with so many men in jail, the women are frequently raising children alone. Black women with children are by far the most likely to face eviction. Unable to miss work or obtain childcare, they are often unable to attend housing court to contest their eviction. An eviction record then further decreases their likelihood of being able to secure housing in the future. If they choose to miss work to attend court, they may find themselves both homeless, and out of a job.

One very interesting aspect of the book comes not in the body of the work, but in the author’s note, where Desmond describes the process of researching and writing Evicted. He not only went into these neighbourhoods to conduct interviews, but actually lived in them, renting a trailer in Tobin’s mobile home park, and later moving in with an acquaintance on Milwaukee’s black North side. Most interestingly, the landlords were fully aware of what he was working on, and it actually seems as if they trusted him more readily than many of the tenants, some of whom believed that Desmond was probably an undercover cop, or maybe working for the landlord.

Evicted is a book that is largely about documenting the problem, and putting a human face on it. However, Desmond does offer some policy suggestions at the end of the book, such as expanding the housing voucher program, and providing a right to legal representation in housing court.  I was surprised by his support of housing vouchers, because earlier in the book he discussed how landlords overcharge by an average of $55 a month when they know that a tenant has a housing voucher. This means that the tenant pays up to 30% of their monthly income towards the rent, and the rest is paid for by tax dollars through the housing voucher. But Desmond does point out that this program is much more scalable than trying to build more public housing. The idea of representation in housing court made a lot of sense; Desmond describes how seventy percent of tenants do not even go to court, which means a default eviction, and ninety percent of those who do show up do not have a lawyer. This means that housing court, as it currently stands, essentially functions as an eviction assembly line. No doubt another entire book could be written about the possible policy solutions to the eviction problem.

Evicted offers a series of portraits of instability, of chronic poverty in a life with no centre or grounding. It chronicles the rise of eviction rates, and paints an empathetic portrait of the impact this constant uncertainty has on poor families. It also upends the notion that homelessness is caused solely by poverty, and examines the ways in which eviction can contribute to impoverishment. Desmond makes the case that housing is an overlooked issue in our efforts to address poverty, and asks the reader to consider what it means about our values if we refuse to confront this problem.

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You might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (ISBN 978-0-14-312201-2)

Cover image for The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven PinkerThis was the first book I started in 2013, and it proved to be the most difficult and rewarding read I tackled the entire year. It is not uncommon for people to believe that we are living in the most violent period in human history. The record size of our current population means that the absolute number of violent deaths recorded today are larger than the numbers of historical violent deaths. Our global media structure also means that knowledge of these events is more widespread. But as a percentage of the population, Steven Pinker shows that the number of violent deaths in the modern world is lower than it has ever been in recorded history; you are less likely to die of violent causes today than at any other time in human history. Pinker expects readers to doubt his hypothesis, and the first part of the book is spent marshaling evidence for his claim, while the second part focuses on identifying the factors that may have contributed to this decline. Although the numerous examples of historical and modern violence make for heavy emotional reading, Pinker’s optimism that we can do better, and his insights into how, are incredibly important.

Categories: Science, History, Psychology, Sociology

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (eISBN 978-0-307-95295-0)

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissLiterary history records two men called Alexandre Dumas, a father, who wrote well-known novels such as The Three Musketeers, and his somewhat less famous son, the playwright. But the novelist’s father, also Alexandre Dumas, the first of that name, is formidable character in his own right, and it his life that is chronicled here by Tom Reiss. Born the illegitimate son of an itinerant French noble on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Dumas became a free man upon his arrival in France. Dumas achieved power and success in the French Revolutionary Army, before the colour of his skin brought his fortunes crashing back to earth when Napoleon assumed power. His son eventually drew inspiration from his life story for many of his novels, but the real story is perhaps even more interesting. The Black Count is as much a history of revolutionary and Napoleonic France as a biography, but Reiss writes about history with an immediacy that makes his overviews extremely readable.

Categories: Biography, History 

I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies  (ISBN 978-0-307-26916-4)

Cover image for I Do and I Don't by Jeanine BasingerI Do and I Don’t articulates the important differences between romantic comedies and the genre  Jeanine Basinger defines as the marriage movie. The work is descriptive rather than analytic, assembling evidence for the existence of this new genre, and laying out the types of plots and problems most commonly dealt with in movies that are about marriages rather than courtships. Basinger’s encyclopedic knowledge of American cinema, sense of humour, and willingness to go against popular opinion make her the perfect guide. Existing in a space somewhere between academic writing and popular nonfiction, I wouldn’t recommend this book to just any reader, but if you have an interest in film studies, or cultural portrayals of marriage, I Do and I Don’t delivers.

Categories: Criticism, Film, History

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (ISBN 978-0-393-08157-2)

Cover image for Gulp by Mary RoachTake a sharp sense of humour, ruthless inquisitiveness, and the willingness to ask awkward questions, and you have the popular science oeuvre of Mary Roach, who is able to hit the mark time and time again with her humourous investigations into the grossest and most obscure areas of scientific research. Her sense of humour can carry even a squeamish reader through these topics, and her explanations and anecdotes are accessible even to those with little to no science background. In Gulp, Roach takes on the science of the digestive system, from saliva to flatulence and everything in between.

Categories: Science 

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (ISBN 978-1-4000-6980-4)

Cover image for Salt Sugar Fat by Michael MossWell known for his investigative reporting on food issues, Michael Moss takes on the processed food industry, examining the roles that salt, sugar, and fat play in making these food products edible and craveable. Flavour and taste have been extensively researched, and food companies use this knowledge to design products with precisely honed “bliss points” that make them almost irresistible. However, this book is interesting not because it retreads the well known harms associated with processed food products, but because Moss delves into the difficulties these companies face in improving the health profiles of their products in the face of killer competition, and minimal government regulation. In fact, American government food subsidies for meat and cheese may even play a role in the high fat content of the American diet.

Categories: Business, Science 

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Looking for more recommended reads? Check out my top five non-fiction reads from 2012. 

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Cover image for The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinkerby Steven Pinker

ISBN 978-0-14-312201-2

“If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence.”

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker offers up a thesis which, for some, may seem wildly unbelievable. Pinker contends that we are currently living in the least violent period ever known in human history. Using the number of violent deaths relative to the population of the time, Pinker examines trends in murder, war, terrorism and violent crime, and charts a consistent decline in their prevalence in cultures around the world. Having established this decline, Pinker sets out to find the psychological and sociological factors which contribute to the trend.

The structure of the book is predicated on the idea that people will find the thesis difficult to swallow, as Pinker explains in the introduction. He spends six exhaustive chapters—well over half of this 800 page tome—in extensive statistical demonstrations of the decline. While the trends themselves are interesting, the constant barrage of statistics will likely wear thin for the reader who doesn’t find the thesis as difficult to believe as the author assumes. Overall, these statistics are well-explained for the average reader, and clearly illustrated in numerous charts and graphs. However, an understanding of statistics would undoubtedly be beneficial to any critical analysis of Pinker’s findings.

Once he has established the statistical decline of violence, Pinker spends the second part of the book examining the sociological and psychological factors that encourage and inhibit violence, as well as identifying a number of popular culprits which are not actually borne out by the numbers. For example, he found that weaponry, affluence, resources and religion, while sometimes significant, were not consistent factors. The explanations rely heavily on neurobiology and the history of governance, necessitating numerous detours into the basics of these disciplines, and their relevant principles. Pinker finds extremely strong correlations between government and commerce, and the decline of violence.

Not unexpectedly, The Better Angels of Our Nature makes for heavy emotional, as well as intellectual, reading. A discussion of the nature and history of violence necessitates the inclusion of a variety of stomach-churning examples, such as the burning of cats for public entertainment in medieval Europe. However, these examples prove instrumental for demonstrating the extent to which we exaggerate contemporary violence and discount historical violence. Pinker has a deft hand for defamiliarization, a technique he uses to draw historical violence in perspective with its modern counterpart. For example, although we accept the cross, a historical instrument of violence, as the symbol for Christianity, Pinker points out that our modern sensibilities would likely be offended if a group of Holocaust survivors adopted a showerhead as their symbol, or if survivors of the Rwandan genocide rallied around a machete logo. This unusual comparison forces the reader to examine the familiar, even ubiquitous, symbol of the cross with fresh eyes. These numerous violent examples are not trotted out gratuitously, or ad nauseam, but always to illustrate a particular point about how we perceive violence, or why we commit it.

Despite the difficulty of getting through this book—it took me over six weeks to read—I  would rate it highly, and strongly recommend it for those interested in the subject. I agree with Bill Gate’s assertion that it is “one of the most important books I’ve read—not just this year, but ever.” We need both the optimism and the insight which Pinker’s work provides since, as he points out, the decline of violence is not ineluctable—it could be reversed at any time. That being the case, it’s probably a good idea to understand what we’re doing right, and how we can do better.