Book Review: 'A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster' by Rebecca Solnit

By Dan Baum
Sunday, August 23, 2009


The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

By Rebecca Solnit

Viking. 353 pp. $27.95

In "A Paradise Built in Hell," Rebecca Solnit presents a withering critique of modern capitalist society by examining five catastrophes: the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906; the little-remembered explosion of an ammunition ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia, harbor in 1917; the Mexico City earthquake of 1985; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York; and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Her accounts of these five events are so stirring that her book is worth reading for its storytelling alone.

But what makes it even more fascinating is Solnit's demonstration that disasters give rise to small, temporary utopias in which the best of human nature emerges and a remarkable spirit of generosity and cooperation takes over. "Disaster," she writes, "along with moments of social upheaval, is when the shackles of conventional belief and role fall away and the possibilities open up." People suffering unimaginable misfortune often revert not to savagery but to an almost beatific selflessness, comforting themselves in extremis by aiding others. Solnit cites many examples of those who remember a disaster as, paradoxically, one of the great moments of their lives. The reaction is similar to that of some who recall the Great Depression as a time of spiritual and social richness.

Solnit explains this phenomenon by suggesting that everyday life is "already a disaster of sorts, from which actual disaster liberates us." She argues that capitalism is premised on scarcity and requires all of us to compete against each other relentlessly. The mental and spiritual energy we might pour into perfecting society is channeled instead into perfecting our own individual lives -- as by shopping or undergoing psychotherapy.

Endlessly focused on ourselves, we become bored, alienated and unhappy. Our natural state, Solnit maintains with a nod to the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, is tribal and communal. "The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting," she writes. A disaster returns us temporarily to that state of grace, which is why people remember the experience with surprising appreciation.

Solnit also addresses the way authorities behave during disasters. Those in charge assume "we are all easily activated antisocial bombs waiting to go off," she writes. "Belief in panic provides a premise for treating the public as a problem to be shut out or controlled by the military." She adds that "Hollywood eagerly feeds those beliefs," citing laughable examples in "Earthquake," "The Day After Tomorrow" and many other movies. More to the point, she describes actual incidents, such as soldiers firing on civilians after the San Francisco earthquake and authorities hiding the true conditions at Three Mile Island for fear of creating a stampede. False assumptions of panic "reinforce particular institutional interests," she writes. And she quotes with approval University of Colorado sociologist Kathleen Tierney's description of elite panic: "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."

Which brings Solnit to Hurricane Katrina. "Elite panic" perfectly describes the disaster within the disaster in New Orleans. The public assertions of Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Edwin Compass that babies were being raped in the Superdome and armed gangs were running riot made a hideous situation immeasurably worse. As I saw as a reporter on the ground covering the disaster, when the military finally showed up after five days, all they brought were guns and a lot of rhetoric about taking back the city. The authorities painted the victims as the villains. The reported mayhem simply didn't happen, and almost all the alleged looting was in fact people taking what food, water and medicine they needed. (I've never forgotten an image from those days: intact liquor shelves in an otherwise cleaned-out supermarket.) But even if some people took consumer goods, Solnit offers the best riposte I've encountered: "Who cares if electronics are moving around without benefit of purchase when children's corpses are floating in filthy water and stranded grandmothers are dying of heat and dehydration?"

In one respect, Solnit may be trafficking in the kind of overheated rumor she decries. She maintains that a mob of elderly white people in Algiers Point massacred an unknown number of black men. Illegal killings may have happened; they've been the subject of speculative news reports, and the FBI is investigating. But twice she claims to have evidence. All she has, though, is one black man with shotgun-pellet scars and a conversation in which some white folks boast about killing blacks. She is right to raise the issue, but she fails to turn rumor into proof. That chapter is a pity because it mars an otherwise exciting and important contribution to our understanding of ourselves.

Dan Baum is the author of "Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans."

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