Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones

Source of book: I own this.


Book written by a lawyer? Something my brother got for me? A book in translation that is historical fiction about a very specific time and place? Well, this does at least sound interesting. 


So, the story behind this book is that my brother’s friend from Spain recommended it, and he found a pair of used copies, one for each of us, and thus it ended up in my library. 


Actually, what then happened was that my 14 year old read it for his “free reading” at school, then I read it, and we are still waiting for my brother. 


So, an interesting back story. And also an interesting book. 


What is it about? Well, before Spain was the country it is now, it was part of a fractured Europe, with parts of our modern countries their own nations, or at least independently governed duchies. One of the most historically significant one was that of Catalonia. And within Catalonia, there was the independent city-state of Barcelona. The relationships between Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, France, and the Catholic Church were pretty intertwined and complex. And the alliances were constantly shifting as each tried to grab power while avoiding having their power taken away. Pretty typical stuff. 


The book is set in the 14th Century, kind of near the beginning of the Inquisition, but at the tail end of the great cathedral-building movement. The title itself comes from the Santa Maria del Mar - the famous and beautiful church in Barcelona built at this time, and dedicated to Mary, patroness of the sea. 


While the specific personal events of the book are fictional, the book is extensively historical. The wars, the almost-wars, and the rest are drawn faithfully from contemporary sources. Many of the smaller details were also drawn directly from historical sources, although used for different people. These include many of the most horrifying scenes in the book: the wedding-night rape of the protagonist’s mother by her serf husband’s lord, the marrying of a woman to her rapist, the walling up of a woman who had sex out of wedlock in a prison for the rest of her life, and more. As the author points out in his note at the end, each of these was perfectly legal in the places they occurred (although not universally throughout Europe or even Spain) and are described in contemporary sources, complete with names and dates. The author is also quick to note that the opinions of women expressed in the book are very much not his own, but were true to history. 


The scenes involving the persecutions of the Jews were also fully historical. We are quick to forget that Hitler didn’t invent things such as the gold stars Jews had to wear, or the pogroms against them. Hitler was just more successful at the attempts at extermination that had been going on in Europe for more than a thousand years. 


This is a pretty long book - it encompasses most of the life of the protagonist, Arnau Estanyol, from the circumstances of his conception to his old age. In a sense, the book is a “rags to riches” story, but also a way to illustrate a whole cross-section of late Medieval society. 


I don’t want to spoil all the twists, because the plot is part of the fun. Arnau comes to Barcelona after his father flees with him. All they have to do is live in Barcelona without being caught, and they are freed from their serfdom. But “freedom” is somewhat illusionary in a socially stratified society. Later, Arnau joins the “bastaixos,” essentially the longshoremen of Barcelona - they also carry the stones to build the church. Twists of fate combine with Arnau’s choices to bring him wealth eventually, but also to place his life at risk from the Inquisition. 


There are also a number of women who are central to Arnau’s life, for better or worse. They, even more than he, are subject to fates they cannot control. They cannot choose their spouses, they are brutally punished for sexuality outside of their arranged marriages, they can be beaten and abused at will, and they have very few options or agency in their own lives. 


In this case, Arnau eventually marries three times - the first is an arranged marriage he and the woman, Maria, are essentially pressured into for social reasons. She is sweet and loving, but he cannot return her love because he is in love with Aledis, who was married against her will to a disgusting old man, who rapes her on the rare occasions he can get it up. Maria, sadly, dies in the plague. Later, Arnau is forced to marry the king’s ward, which makes both of them miserable for different reasons, and causes a lot of the unpleasantness in the later third of the book. 


I guess, beyond that, I can just hit on some of the fascinating stuff that comes into the book. There is a fairly extended discussion of the inconsistent and stultifyingly stupid laws regarding the charging of interest, which on the one hand gives the Jews a near-monopoly on certain loans, but which also carves out so many exceptions that make for a truly complex interconnection between Jew and Gentile that makes the periodic bouts of antisemitism problematic for everyone. 


There is an intriguing look into the toleration of prostitution - even the Pope believed that it was a social benefit in some ways, preventing men who couldn’t marry from raping “respectable” women or turning to homosexual acts. Prostitutes not only had a legal status (as long as they followed certain rules), but they were - if they survived long enough - able to be more independent than most women in that society, in many cases becoming financially independent. 


I found the legal stuff - which Falcones definitely took the time to understand and explain - to be fun, although your mileage may vary, of course. This is one reason I have tended to enjoy books by lawyers - from Sir Walter Scott to C. J. Sansom. Lawyers tend to care about the law, and understanding the past requires both understanding the culture and understanding the law that culture gave birth to. 


I should give fair warning about this book, though, for readers with triggers: this book is full of violence, particularly (although not limited to) violence against women. The author clearly does not approve of this violence, but it is arguably necessary both to the plot and to historical accuracy. There is also a good bit of sex, including some that seems kind of shocking to American readers, with our puritanical streak that lingers in our culture. For example, there is a short but borderline graphic scene where a young woman masturbates. Why that seems more shocking than all the rape (in and out of marriage) is an interesting question, but there is no doubt that one finds more references to rape in literature than female self-pleasure. In that sense, the author is pretty egalitarian - the question of female pleasure in sex is largely what determines whether sex is wanted - that is consensual - or not. Pleasure and consent are inseparable in both directions. Non-consensual sex cannot give pleasure despite biology, and sex that brings pain rather than pleasure is by definition non-consensual at some level. Or, perhaps put more carefully, men who do not care about female pleasure will rape, and even marital sex that is not wanted and is not done with the intent of giving a woman happiness can never be truly consensual. 


This, by the way, is one of the reasons that I believe most sex in patriarchal systems is, frankly, terrible. I mean, read Fundie books on sex, and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that not only is sex for women rarely pleasurable, but also that female pleasure is frowned upon altogether. At best, it is a complete afterthought to male satisfaction. Reading this book, it is pretty clear what the Patriarchists envision for society. And it is pretty much hell for women. 


While it is always a bit difficult to distinguish between the work of an author and a translator for books in translation, I do find it fascinating that books in translation tend to display different writing styles that are tied to the original language. For example, despite the more than 50 years between their writing, this book has some similar stylistic cues with The Cypresses Believe in God by Jose Maria Gironella, another historical novel by a Spanish author that I enjoyed. 


Like other works of literary historical fiction, Cathedral of the Sea contains a well thought out plot, and a host of complex and deeply human characters. Arnau himself is believable - he can be both compassionate and vindictive at the same time. He can be consumed by lust while full of guilt. He has moments of brilliance followed by bonehead mistakes. Yet you cannot help rooting for him: he is an everyman sort, who really just wants what the rest of us want. A life free from starvation and violence, to be treated with respect, and to love a partner who returns our love. 


Give this book a try if you like historical fiction, or want to expand your knowledge of the past and its history. 




Interesting legal note about the author:


Apparently, Falcones has had a good bit of legal trouble as the result of this and his later books. I am no expert on foreign law, so I may be misunderstanding the facts, but I have also heard that Spanish tax law is labyrinthine, and, like Italian law, tends to use the criminal justice system for tax enforcement. (In Italy, of the three parallel police forces, the tax police are the most feared.) This leads to criminal trials that might end with incarceration, but more often end up with payments, both bribes and fines. So, sometimes Italians or Spaniards are surprised by how seriously we take tax fraud here in the US. (But also how we don’t treat mistakes as criminal matters for the most part - you pay the tax and a penalty unless you consciously tried to cheat.) 


In this case, Falcones apparently tried to minimize tax liability for the books by moving the copyright overseas. How this works, I have no idea - the US system works totally differently, and Falcones undoubtedly has had to pay full taxes on his book sales here. 


What happened was that Falcones was acquitted (no word on what he had to pay), but is facing a new case based on later books. So, who knows? It sounds like a mess, and a different kind of mess authors have here in the US. 


Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Source of book: I own this.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This one was on NPR’s recommendation list and looked interesting, so I voted for it. While a different book than I would have considered my usual sort, it was actually very well written, and made the nerdy video game design stuff both understandable and fascinating. 

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is, of course, the beginning of MacBeth’s fatalistic soliloquy, the one where his mental state begins to break down, and he sees no way out but death. The book is not, however, fatalistic. Rather, this line refers more to the succession of tomorrows that follow the lives of the characters, the unexpected twists and turns of fate which, combined with their choices, determine the shape of their lives. 


The story centers around Sadie Green, a Jewish-American who becomes a game programer; and her childhood friend and eventual business partner, Sam Masur. The two of them first meet in a children’s hospital: Sam has survived a catastrophic car accident that killed his mother and left him with significant damage to one ankle, while Sadie is there because her older sister is being treated for leukemia. After the two of them meet over a video game Sam is playing - and Sam says his first words since the accident - Sadie is encouraged to continue to play with him (and get points toward the service requirement for her Bat Mitzvah.) The problem is, that she doesn’t tell Sam she gets credit - she would actually prefer to just be his friend, but parents, you know…so it is catastrophic to the relationship when Sadie’s sister spills the beans. 


The two of them end up estranged until they reconnect in college. For a variety of reasons, which I will not spoil, the two of them end up designing a video game together, and, with financial backing from their friend (and eventual business partner) Marx, end up with a hit. This leads to the three of them founding a game company, which has a series of hits and misses over the years. 


This is just a bare framework for the core of the story, though, which is about the complex relationship between Sam and Sadie. They are never lovers. Their relationship is not romantic in the usual sense. But it is intimate in an emotional way - as the book notes near the end, in some ways, gaming with someone is more intimate than sex, particularly the creation of a game into which the designers pour something of themselves.


Surrounding the central couple are a number of other major and minor characters. Sam, Sadie, and Marx all have complicated family backgrounds. Sam is, in a way, like the author - he has a Jewish father and a Korean mother, although his parents were never together - the author’s parents were, and so she had a plethora of extended family on both sides, which inspired Sam and Sadie’s respective extended families as well. Marx is the product of a Japanese-Korean marriage, which makes him unable to feel truly a part of any group - he isn’t white, so many white Americans see him as an outsider. He isn’t Japanese enough to be Japanese, and not Korean enough to be Korean. And then there is the fact that he is a literature major, a gifted actor who can’t land main parts even in college, because he doesn’t “look right” for the part - as the book put it, until Harvard, he hadn’t realized that there were only so many roles available to an Asian actor. Marx is almost a central rather than supporting character in the book. 


There are the family members, who, whether alive, dead, or absent, all contribute to who their offspring are. (We get detailed backstories on Sam, Sadie, and Marx.)


And a few others within the gaming world: Dov, the relatively young professor, who takes Sadie as a lover while she is his student (icky, but the age difference isn’t huge.) Adam and Ant, the gay pair who are the first programers Unfair Games hires, and who become embroiled in the fight over marriage equality. Various romantic partners that Sam, Sadie, and Marx have over the course of the 30 plus years the book covers. You get the idea. Zevin creates a cast of complex and nuanced people, and even the worst characters are treated with some sympathy. 


The author is around my age, and apparently grew up nerdy as well - and in the Los Angeles area, where a portion of the book is set, so there were a lot of references that were familiar to me. One of the most unexpected was The Phantom Tollbooth, which not too many of my generation read, unfortunately. 


I really don’t want to spoil the plot, because there are some major twists, and even trying to tease out the interplay of game design with the interior lives of the characters is futile. I guess the best way to put it is that games are both the context of the story, and also a metaphor that runs through the book. We live our lives within a system that bounds our choices and futures, yet is far more complex than even the most immersive game world. And we cannot simply reboot and start the game again - we live with our choices and our circumstances and all we can do is speculate about the road not taken. 


Our book club had a great discussion of this one. In addition to the well-thought-out plot, the deep characters, and the excellent writing, the book touches (without being particularly preachy) on a number of contemporary social issues. There is the question of cultural appropriation - in a move common at the time, they use a Japanese setting for their first game, something they would not have done later. There is gay marriage, of course. And sexism, both overt and passive-aggressive. There is the question of getting and taking credit for collaborative efforts. Depression and other mental illnesses, physical disability and its psychological toll, mass shootings, and the complexities of violence and fantasy in gaming - all of these come up in the book. 


There is also another interesting issue that seems to have been missed by most reviewers, but noted by readers. Sam is essentially an asexual, which is one factor in he and Sadie never becoming sexual partners. (This is, to be clear, complex - there is a lot going on in both of their heads.) But a lack of interest in sex does not preclude romantic jealousy when Sadie sleeps with other people. 


In any book like this, where financial and artistic success requires certain compromises, there is also, running through the narrative, the problem of being both intimate friends and business partners. What is good for the business (and thus in a certain way for the people who are in business together) is often at odds with what is good for a partner outside of the business. So, when Sam encourages Sadie to ask Dov for permission to use his engine for part of their first game, this is unequivocal good for the business - and leads to their big breakthrough. But it also means Sadie is unable to get credit for a clean design - and she never fully is given credit for being the lead programmer in the company. And also, Sam knows or at least suspects that this will mean Sadie getting back together with Dov, who is not good for her. But, as Sam later defends his decision, he believed she would be back together with him anyway, so why not get some help out of the bargain? 


These sorts of moral decisions encompassing the personal and the financial - and artistic as well - they are making art, not just money, but art takes money - come up again and again throughout the book, and they are never simple. 


It is this depth that lifts this book from the gamer fan-fic it could have been to true literary fiction. Many times after finishing a chapter, I would say, “wow, that is just excellent writing.” And it is. 


I am not a gamer, and never really have been. Okay, so I loved Sim City (all three versions!) and occasionally played other worldbuilding and immersive games like that. Shooters never interested me, and I never got the hang of thumb controllers. So there were many sections in the book that I lacked a personal connection to, which is why it was impressive that I couldn’t put the book down. And not only that, I really was interested in the fictional games that the characters created - I’d totally play them! Perhaps this is Zevin’s strength as both a gamer (although not a programmer) and an English major - she is able to put the gaming world into words that resonate with more than just gamers. 


But it is also important to note that the book is mostly about the humans, rather than the games. The book is never “gee, look at the cool games they made,” but is so much more about what the characters put into the games of themselves. The games are another window into the characters, a way to see what they don’t always see about themselves. 


In addition to the references above, there were some lines that I loved. 


First was this one, in reference to the way that the experience of being raised by someone is often different from experiencing the same people outside of the family. 


Other people’s parents are often a delight.


I also thought that the (fictional) interview with Kotaku, by Sam, who is by that time going by the name of Mazer, on the issue of cultural appropriation. 


MAZER: The alternative to appropriation is a world in which artists only reference their own cultures.

KOTAKU: That’s an oversimplification of the issue.

MAZER: The alternative to appropriation is a world where white European people make art about white European people, with only white European references in it. Swap African or Asian or Latin or whatever culture you want for European. A world where everyone is blind and deaf to any culture or experience that is not their own. I hate that world, don’t you? I’m terrified of that world, and I don’t want to live in that world, and as a mixed-race person, I literally don’t exist in it. 


This is a tricky issue, and it is one that I bump up against a lot in my own life. I am a semi-professional musician, and it is pretty much impossible to make music without some degree of what could arguably be called “appropriation.” And, like Sam, the fact that I am a white guy with roots in Germany, England, and Sweden - but don’t have any actual cultural connection to those countries since my ancestors emigrated to the United States well over 100 years ago. Rather, “my” culture is at least as connected to the multi-racial neighborhoods I grew up in, and the multicultural state of California I have lived in nearly my entire life. 


In the context of music, it is impossible for music to exist without cultural cross-pollination. In fact, I would strongly suspect that soon after the first humans invented music as an art form, another human “borrowed” it and transformed it, and soon afterward, the two forms blended and became something new. As an American, it is impossible to make “American” music without borrowing from the African American tradition - literally every truly American form of music, from Bluegrass to Rock to Country, descends in part from the Blues. You cannot escape it. And no, a German American guy playing Irish music isn’t any less appropriative.


So for me, the best way forward is to acknowledge the roots of the music I make, and enjoy the way that it cuts across cultures and speaks a universal - and shared - language. Music can and should bring us together, and it should grow and evolve as cultures come in contact with each other. 


Likewise for food, for art, for everything that makes us human. And I think what Sam is also getting at here is that the whole concept of purity - cultural and otherwise - has always been a myth. We are all the product of multiple cultures that have blended and evolved in the past. And that is something worth celebrating. 


That said, let me be clear, borrowing without giving credit is still plagiarism, and showing disrespect to another’s culture, profiting off of it outside of its context, is problematic. So, please don’t wear Native American garb if you aren’t actually participating with a Tribe’s event (and with their permission), but by all means, learn to cook with the Three Sisters, and appreciate how Native American musical traditions have become part of our own cultural lexicon. 


On a more humorous note, I have to share Marx’s impression of Dov:


When Dov came down to the apartment to help Sadie set up Ulysses, Marx hated him immediately: the leather pants, the tight black T-shirt, the heavy silver jewelry, the immaculate goatee, the eyebrows permanently in the shape of circumflexes, the topknot. “The poor man’s Chris Cornell,” Marx whispered…


I about died laughing at that one. The final quote I wanted to mention is one from Zoe, Marx’s girlfriend for a time - cello playing, nudist, oddball - her musical compositions form the score for Unfair Games’ first titles. She decides that it is crucial that the company move away from Boston, and go to California. For a variety of professional reasons, but also because of two very personal ones: Sam’s foot needs to be amputated, but he cannot bring himself to do it, and a change will likely make him see the light. And also because Sadie needs to get away from Dov. Zoe is a good bit more worldly than Marx, and she sees exactly how it is to be done.


“Marx, my love, you are so innocent. You don’t need to convince anyone. You tell Sadie that Sam needs to go to California - his foot is rotting; he needs to have the surgery and he won’t do it in Massachusetts. You tell Sam that Sadie needs to go - she needs to find a way to break with Dov. Those two are thick as thieves; they’ll do anything for each other.”


And Zoe is correct. Even if her motives may not be entirely pure. (She herself wants to go to California without losing Marx.) 


So, without any further spoilers, that gives an impression of the book. I really enjoyed it, and the rest of our club (at least the ones who read it) did as well. It’s not quite like any other book I have read, but it captures human complexity in a new context, and that makes it well worth reading. 

Thursday, May 18, 2023

A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit

Source of book: borrowed from the library

I have enjoyed Rebecca Solnit’s magazine articles for a number of years, but never read one of her books. A Paradise Built in Hell is a fascinating look at one of the narratives many of us believe (or once believed in my case) but turns out to be total bullshit. 


TL;DR - Thomas Hobbes was wrong. Very wrong. 


The myth: in times of disaster, humans go feral, and it is every man for himself, marauding gangs, and all that. 


The reality: Most humans pull together during disasters, creating mutual communities of aid. In fact, ordinary people tend to do better than organizations at rescuing people, feeding people, and otherwise getting stuff done.


The caveat: Along with this cooperation tends to come what Solnit calls “elite panic.” That is, those who benefit from the status quo feel threatened by their loss of power and privilege, and tend to do really horrible things. As disaster sociologist Kathleen Tierney puts it (quoted in the book): 


“Elites fear disruption of the social order, challenges to their legitimacy.” 


She notes the elements of this elite panic are “fear of social disorder; fear of poor, minorities, and immigrants; obsession with looting and property crime; willingness to resort to deadly force; and actions taken on the basis of rumor.” 


As evidence for her thesis, Solnit takes a look at a number of disasters, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Also discussed are 9/11, the Lisbon earthquake, the London Blitz during World War Two, the Mexico City earthquake, and a few others mentioned briefly. 


This is just a basic summary. Solnit cites a LOT of primary sources for her stories, as well as her own reporting after Katrina. (For many of us, that was our first experience of her writing - her expose on just how badly George W. Bush, FEMA, and Ray Nagen fucked up the response.) The details are important, particularly the anecdotes, and I can’t really duplicate them in this post. 


I will, however, share a bunch of quotes that I think are enlightening. 


First, from the introduction, Solnit notes that most of us humans really do long for the kind of mutual society that disaster can produce. (For those of us who consider ourselves Christ followers, we could call this the Kingdom of Heaven, as described by Christ.) But society is, unfortunately, set up to make this difficult. 


The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding. The very structure of our economy and society prevents these goals from being achieved. The structure is also ideological, a philosophy that best serves the wealthy and powerful, but shapes all of our lives, reinforced as the conventional wisdom disseminated by the media, from news hours to disaster movies. The facets of that ideology have been called individualism, capitalism, and Social Darwinism and have appeared in the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Malthus, as well as the work of most conventional contemporary economists, who presume we seek personal gain for rational reasons and refrain from looking at the ways a system skewed to that end damages much else we need for our survival and well being. 


This ideology, as Solnit notes, is promulgated by the media, in service to the powerful, who benefit from alienating us from each other. 


But to understand both that rising and what hinders and hides it, there are two other important subjects to consider. One is the behavior of the minority in power, who often act savagely in a disaster. The other is the beliefs and representations of the media, the people who hold up a distorting mirror to us in which it is almost impossible to recognize these paradises and our possibilities. Beliefs matter, and the overlapping beliefs of the media and the elites can become a second wave of disaster - as they did most dramatically in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 


One of the most powerful passages is Solnit’s view of what utopia looks like. I don’t mean “utopia” in a derogatory sense, either. Every single advance humans have made has been the result of dreaming of a better society. We need the utopians more than ever these days. 


The two most basic goals of social utopias are to eliminate deprivation - hunger, ignorance, homelessness - and to forge a society in which no one is an outsider, no one is alienated. 


A careful reading of the teachings of Christ shows this to be the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. We share so that no one goes without. And those on the margins are invited to the table - indeed, they are the Kingdom. One could also say that this is the dream of modern liberalism - taking care of each other, and embracing everyone. 


However, not everyone shares this vision of utopia. In fact, the theofascist movement (Christian Nationalism, White Supremacy, Patriarchy - the Fundamentalist Right I grew up in) sees a very different ideal future. 


Some religious attempts at utopia are authoritarian, led by a charismatic leader, by elders, by rigid rules that create outcasts, but the secular utopias have mostly been committed to liberty, democracy, and shared power. The widespread disdain for revolution and utopia takes as its object lesson the Soviet-style attempts at coercive utopias, in which the original ideals of leveling and sharing go deeply awry, the achievement critiqued in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 and other dystopian novels. Many fail to notice that it is not the ideals, the ends, but the coercive and authoritarian means that poison paradise.


There is a profound truth in there. The ends never justify the means, because the means are the ends. Coercive control and authoritarianism, whether in the service of retrogression (as for today’s right wing) or in the service of equality (the Soviet experience) ends up in the same bad place. And it always creates outcasts. The means become the end - and that end is dystopian authoritarianism. A bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 


The chapter on the “official” response to the San Francisco earthquake is fascinating. Elite panic results in the belief that the people themselves, rather than being victims of the disaster, are the threat to be contained. (This is the bullshit view of human nature.) This then results in draconian measures to “contain” potential rioters and looters. (Code word here for lower class people, often people of color. In case that wasn’t obvious.) In San Francisco, the army was called out, under the command of General Funston, and given orders to shoot anyone suspected of “looting.” Probably hundreds of people were killed, many of which, it turned out later, were trying to save people and property from damaged buildings, not looting. Which is a slippery term anyway. As Solnit points out, in a disaster, why shouldn’t people take food from stores to keep everyone fed? This is requisition, not looting. Anyway, this is a great analysis of the issues at stake. 


The death penalty is an extreme measure for theft, to say the least, and that theft was the primary crime the poster addressed is indicative. Many would not consider property crimes significant when lives are at stake - and the term looting conflates the emergency requisitioning of supplies in a crisis without a cash economy with opportunistic stealing. Disaster scholars now calls this fear-driven overreaction elite panic. 


This is a recurring theme in the book. In a crisis, elites (and by that, she generally means people with money and power, not educated versus uneducated) tend to seek to protect property at the expense of people. You see the same thing in the aftermath of Katrina. 


I wanted to mention the Halifax explosion because it is both relatively unremembered outside of Canada, and it is also pretty dang crazy. In 1917, a couple of ships, one laden with explosives destined for the Western Front, collided. As in 3000 tons of explosives. As the book notes, the resulting explosion was the largest man-made explosion before nuclear weapons. 


The six million pounds of the ship were blown a thousand feet into the air, vaporized much of it, and rained the white-hot shrapnel over cities on both sides of the strait. It created a wave 60 feet high. It leveled everything within a mile radius. Absolutely crazy. 


The aftermath was notable for the way ordinary people spontaneously organized rescue and recovery. One particular story that stood out was an unnamed nurse who was in charge of the children’s hospital who faced down the military and refused to move. I can see my wife doing the same thing. 


This is probably a good time to note that there is no real pattern to which institutions became problematic in the aftermath of disaster. I have mentioned a few cases in which the military treated civilians as a threat - that was the bad. But under better leadership in other situations, the military can be an incredible help at logistics - moving aid where it is needed. The key is in the belief about whether citizens are a threat, or victims in need of aid. 


You can see the same pattern when it comes to the police. In places like New Orleans, they were absolutely fucking horrible, committing most of the looting that occurred, looking the other way as vigilantes murdered black men, and often committing murder themselves. But in other cases, again under better leadership and working from a different paradigm, they have been helpful. The common thread is the belief system: are people “fucking animals”? Or are they humans needing help and support? 


And likewise, churches can be either beacons of goodness, pitching in selflessly. Or, they can become barricades against “those people.” It is all about the belief system. 


Another facet of the divide in belief systems is the question of mutuality versus charity. The “charity” paradigm, very popular among the more compassionate right wingers, is that of the “haves” being generous with charity to those in need. 


The problem is, people prefer mutual aid to charity. And in order for mutual aid to work, people need to have resources. In other words, they need to have control and power over their own destinies, not charity, which always reserves the control to the person giving it. (This may be a blog post on its own someday.) 


Altruism and charity are distinct if not in the acts themselves at least in the surrounding atmosphere: altruism reaches across with a sense of solidarity and empathy; charity hands down from above. The latter always runs the risk of belittling, patronizing, or otherwise diminishing its recipients in underscoring the difference between those who have and those who need it. It takes away a sense of self while giving material aid. 


On a related note, those who prefer this patronizing version of charity also tend toward Social Darwinism in their economic policies. The sense of superiority is the same in both cases. 


This was often extrapolated into what was later called Social Darwinism, the premise of which was that the conduct of contemporary human beings inevitably echoed their own primordial behavior and nature’s essential bleakness. It justified callousness toward those who lost out in the economic struggle: they did so because they were unfit, ill adapted, and lazy, rather than because the system was unfair - a common justification of colonial rapacity, the deprivation of the poor, and basis for theories of racial inferiority. They deserved it, or they were at least doomed and could not be saved, if the forces that trampled them down were as inevitable as nature itself. 


And this insight:


Capitalism’s fundamental premise is scarcity, while a lot of tribal and gift economies operate on a basis of abundance. Their generosity is both an economic and an ethical premise.


I urge you, take a look at the teachings of Christ, and the example of the first Christian communities, and ask yourself which they resemble: the cruelty of capitalism and Social Darwinism? Or the mutuality of a gift economy? 


Solnit also discusses the concept of “anarchy.” This is a word whose meaning has changed over time. Now, we tend to use it as a synonym for mayhem or chaos, but it originally meant merely the absence of a hierarchy. 


It is often used nowadays as a synonym for mayhem, chaos, and riotous behavior because many imagine that the absence of authority is equally the absence of order. Anarchists are idealists, believing human beings do not need authorities and the threat of violence to govern them but are instead capable of governing themselves by cooperation, negotiation, and mutual aid. They stand on one side of a profound debate about human nature and human possibility. On the other side, the authoritarian pessimists believe that order comes only at the point of a gun or a society stacked with prisons, guards, judges, and punishments. They believe that somehow despite the claimed vileness of the many, the few whom they wish to endow with power will use it justly and prudently, though the evidence for this could most politely be called uneven. The cases drawn from disaster contradict this belief. It is often the few in power rather than the many without who behave viciously in disaster, and those few do so often exactly because they subscribe to the fearful beliefs of Huxley, Le Bon, and others. 


Having grown up in a strongly authoritarian subculture, I see both the strength of the belief, and its utter failure at every level, from the implosion of families like mine to the mass incarceration that Americans seem to believe is necessary for order. 


Related: for a truly imaginative portrayal of an anarchist society, check out Ursula Le Guin’s excellent book, The Dispossessed


I thought that Solnit’s critique of Hobbes was interesting. It is a reminder that a major weakness of philosophy over the millennia has been its overreliance on males with few social ties. 


What is curious for a modern reader about the society imagined by Hobbes and then the Social Darwinists is that it appears to consist entirely of unaffiliated men. The relationships between lovers, spouses, parents and children, siblings, kinfolk, friends, colleagues, and compatriots are absent, though those are clearly among the more ancient rather than modern aspects of human life. The world they imagine looks something like an old-fashioned business district during a working day, when countless people venture out to do economic battle with each other. But even those people are formed into corporations and firms whose internal cooperation is as or more important to their functioning than external competition. 


I thought the chapter on the London Blitz was fascinating. One of Solnit’s sources was Mollie Panter-Downs, a journalist and author - I read and posted about her wartime short stories a few years ago - they are definitely worth reading. 


It was out of the war that the field of disaster studies came to be. Solnit discusses the findings of Charles Fritz, one of its pioneers. Disasters, from the sociological perspective, look a lot different than conventional wisdom would say. Solnit bemoans the fact that his extraordinary findings have had relatively little effect on the bureaucrats and politicians who develop disaster response plans. I hope that this has started to change, at least in some circles. Right before the Covid pandemic, my wife was invited to participate in FEMA’s disaster response training exercises, at their big facility in Alabama. Responders from a variety of professions participated, and there did seem to be more of an emphasis on solving problems rather than containing riots - this is a big positive. (Also, both in the training and in the later pandemic, my wife proved to be a real badass. You definitely want her in change in a disaster, believe me.)


Related to the frustration that institutions are failing to change based on evidence is the problem of the media - particularly disaster movies, which get it so very badly wrong. It is never the small group of elites who save the day - they are the problem. Rather, it is the great many ordinary folk who come together and get stuff done. We really need a change in our stories, to say the least. 


So, people pull together during disasters. But what about afterward? This is another interesting question the book looks at. In some cases, like the Mexico City earthquake, the disaster led to long term positive change. This can happen. But other times, as in 9/11, the good feelings can be co-opted into debacles like 20 years of futile war, the lost of rights through the Patriot Act, and a paroxysm of xenophobia leading to Trump. 


A disaster is as far from falling in love as can be imagined, but disaster utopias are also a spell when engagement, improvisation, and empathy happen as if by themselves. Then comes the hard business of producing a good society by determination and dedication. 


This is the truth, and the work of building the Kingdom, so to speak. It is a hard business, and requires long-term thinking and dedication. But it is worth it. 


Speaking of the Kingdom of God/Heaven, this was mentioned in the chapter about the aftermath of 9/11. The volunteers often used that term, whether they were religious or not. 


“This is the Kingdom, this is the notion of everyone working and living together and eating together and pulling for a cause - totally other-directed, totally selfless and, frankly, very self-deprecating.” 


Man, though, the aftermath. I had forgotten about some of the details, but Solnit mentions them. How Giuliani located the disaster headquarters right near the World Trade Center, despite advice to avoid that area - the center was disabled after the attacks. Predictably. Also that New Yorkers tended to hate Guilani before, during, and after the attack. His status as a “hero” was all a media creation. And, of course, the GW Bush administration literally changing environmental reports to hide the risk from the toxic dust. (I was taught that shit like this was lying, but apparently this is all fine to the American Right Wing these days…) 


And that brings us to what ended up being GWB’s downfall: Katrina. What a total fuck-up. And Bush was hardly the only one who deserves blame. The media was, simply put, terrible. They led with lies and rumors that turned out to be untrue. They claimed the city was in a chaos of a riot. It wasn’t. They claimed that there were mass murders inside the Superdome. There weren’t. There were a handful of people who died of natural causes. They claimed people were shooting at the cops. They weren’t. 


What WAS true, however, was that cops were looting. There was eventually a video on national TV of them cleaning out a WalMart. And Cadillacs were found in the possession of cops as far away as Texas. Yeah, but rattle on about African Americans. 


And then there is what Solnit found in investigating dozens of murders of black men by white vigilantes. Man, that whole section is rough. There were others who survived, who describe trying to get help, or transport supplies, only to be met by armed white men who forced them back to flooded neighborhoods. The thing is, one of her major sources was the bragging that these white guys did publicly about killing blacks. And they were never prosecuted. 


This dynamic is something I noticed after living through the LA Riots. (You can read about that in the extended footnote to my review of Nadine Gordimer’s book July’s People.) I have made the attempt over the last 25 or so years to unlearn my subconscious reactions from that time in my life - to recognize it as bias and racism, even if unintentional. Unfortunately, most of my former tribe of white evangelicals (including my parents) have gone the other direction, at least in thought and rhetoric. Here is how Solnit looks at the phenomenon:


Like elites when they panic, racists imagine again and again that without them utter savagery would break out, so that their own homicidal violence is in defense of civilization and the preservation of order. The killing rage of the Klan and lynching parties of the old South were often triggered or fanned into flame by a story, often fictitious or exaggerated, of a crime by an African American man. Of course there were crimes committed by African Americans in Katrina, but to imagine that every black man is a criminal or to punish a whole group or unconnected individuals for a crime is racism at its most psychotic and vigilantism at its most arrogant.  


This is how you get a Kyle Rittenhouse, or a George Zimmerman, or the guy who just murdered a homeless man in a subway station. 


Oh, and how about this white evangelical fantasy? (As described by historian Mike Davis, about the prior hurricane, Ivan, and the lessons not learned.)


“The evacuation of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Ivan looked sinisterly like Strom Thurmond’s version of the Rapture. Affluent white people fled the Big Easy in their SUVs, while the old and carless - mainly black - were left behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the watery wrath.”


I don’t think it is a coincidence that the last few waves of “Rapture” obsession came in response to social change, including the end of Jim Crow, that white evangelicals found uncomfortable. There is a fantasy of getting to leave “those people” behind, and watching them suffer.


I’ll end this post with a bit from the epilogue. 


Who are you? Who are we? The history of disaster demonstrates that most of us are social animals, hungry for connection, as well as for purpose and meaning. It also suggests that if this is who we are, then everyday life in most places is a disaster that disruptions sometimes give us a chance to change. They are a crack in the walls that ordinarily hem us in, and what floods in can be enormously destructive - or creative. Hierarchies and institutions are inadequate to these circumstances; they are often what fails in such crises. Civil society is what succeeds, not only in an emotional demonstration of altruism and mutual aid but also in a practical mustering of creativity and resources to meet the challenges. Only this dispersed force of countless people making countless decisions is adequate to a major crisis. One reason that disasters are threatening to elites is that power devolves to the people on the ground in many ways: it is the neighbors who are the first responders and who assemble the impromptu kitchens and networks to rebuild. And it demonstrates the viability of a dispersed, decentralized system of decision making. Citizens themselves in these moments constitute the government - the acting decision-making body - as democracy has always promised and rarely delivered. Thus disasters often unfold as though a revolution has already taken place. 


This book was written before Trump, so at times it can be a bit optimistic about the direction the US is headed, but I think the core message holds true. If anything, the Covid pandemic has shown that many people can and do pull together in a crisis. And also that the US is deeply fractured right now, with the Right Wing essentially engaging in constant elite panic in every crisis, unable to see those different from them as fellow humans rather than subhuman threats. It seems likely that we will continue to see disasters in the near future, and thus we will have an opportunity. An opportunity to form the kinds of communities that thrive on mutual aid and assistance. As both Solnit in this book, and Octavia Butler in her novel, Parable of the Sower, these communities will be diverse - a variety of races and ethnicities, national origins, genders, sexual orientations - and in stark contrast to the vigilante elites, who will tend to be aggressive white males - or other homogenous groups - drunk on the fantasy of saving civilization from the savage others. 


Whatever the future holds, I am firmly on Team Mutuality, eager to build communities of mutual support. And in a disaster, come on over, and me and mine will have food and shelter and first aid ready to go.