Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Common purpose vs. 'elite panic'

Tremonti interviews Solnit
CBC's The Current: There's often a strange familiarity to the narrative that unfolds in the wake of a disaster in a heavily populated area. There's the frantic attempt to get information. The urgent casualty count. The rush to deliver aid. The efforts to restore public services and social order. And the stories of heroism, but also of misery and callousness.

Rebecca Solnit has studied the ways that cities respond to crises from San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake to the Halifax explosion of 1917 to New York City after 9/11, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. She thinks she's found another element to the narrative... one that often goes overlooked and undervalued. Rebecca Solnit has written about that in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

Listen to Solnit interview here (scroll down); podcast here.

Review by Dwight Garner, The New York Times: [Solnit's] new book is an investigation not of a thought but of an emotion: the fleeting, purposeful joy that fills human beings in the face of disasters... These are clearly not events to be wished for, Ms. Solnit writes, yet they bring out the best in us and provide common purpose. Everyday concerns and societal structures vanish. A strange kind of liberation fills the air. People rise to the occasion. Social alienation seems to vanish.

'What is this feeling that crops up during so many disasters?' Ms. Solnit asks. She describes it as 'an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive,' worth studying because it provides 'an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility... a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.'... Her overarching thesis can probably be boiled down to this sentence: 'The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure' -- without disaster, that is -- 'is the great contemporary task of being human.'...

The problems that arise in the wake of disasters, Ms. Solnit posits, largely come from official government reactions. Top-down responses quash improvised collective efforts... Worse, Ms. Solnit writes, the news media and other factors have conditioned those in power to believe that people tend to behave badly in times of crisis... Thus a mentality she calls 'elite panic' sets in...

The provocative image that stuck with me from A Paradise Built in Hell is this one: When the electrical power failed after the 1989 Bay Area earthquake and after Hurricane Katrina, the light pollution that usually blotted out the night sky vanished. All the stars came out. 'You can think of the current social order,' she writes, 'as something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster.'
h/t CC