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A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster Paperback – August 31, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Natural and man-made disasters can be utopias that showcase human solidarity and point the way to a freer society, according this stimulating contrarian study. Solnit (River of Shadows) reproves civil defense planners, media alarmists and Hollywood directors who insist that disasters produce terrified mobs prone to looting, murder and cannibalism unless controlled by armed force and government expertise. Surveying disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she shows that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other. Indeed, the main problem in such emergencies, she contends, is the elite panic of officials who clamp down with National Guardsmen and stifling regulations. Solnit falters when she generalizes her populist brief into an anarchist critique of everyday society that lapses into fuzzy what-ifs and uplifting volunteer testimonials. Still, this vividly written, cogently argued book makes a compelling—and timely—case for the ability of ordinary people to collectively surmount the direst of challenges. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Thought-provoking . . . captivating and compelling . . . there's a hopeful, optimistic, even contagious quality to this superb book."
--Los Angeles Times
"In her far-reaching and large-spirited new book, Solnit argues that disasters are opportunities as well as oppressions, each one a summons to rediscover the powerful engagement and joy of genuine altruism, civic life, grassroots community, and meaningful work."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"Stirring . . . fascinating . . . presents a withering critique of modern capitalist society by examining five catastrophes . . . Her account of these events are so stirring that her book is worth reading for its storytelling alone. . . . [An] exciting and important contribution to our understanding of ourselves."
--The Washington Post
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She makes the contrarian point that masses of people actually behave quite well, with courage and altruism when disasters hit, but often times the elites panic, desperate to preserve or re instate the inequalities they have long fostered. Her point, and it is very well documented here, is that the "stiff upper lip" that the Brits showed during the Blitz, was not unique to British culture, but rather the norm in disasters. The author shows that we often exhibit a co operative "help each other out" mentality in the face of real disaster and wonders why we are not able to maintain it. But she also suggests that in some ways we do.
This is a broad book, that cites many different examples and may be fairly criticized for not following through on the aftermath of each one. I think such a choice would have required Solnit to focus entirely on one event. If you would prefer that approach try Rising Tide, John Barry's masterpiece of the 1927 Mississippi River.
Disasters covered include the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the Mexico City Earthquake, the Managua Nicaragua Earthquake, New York City 9/11, and New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina amongst other disasters. Unfortunately for Hollywood Movies, Anya Rand followers, and selfish promoters of I will survive at your expense, the general public is humane, helpful, and caring. The apocalypse, world disasters and other fear based mythology about the animal nature of mankind surging out to destroy civilization is just that: a useful tool for legitimizing government power. Read this book and perhaps we can replace the myth with the truth of our species. We are social, loving, caring and function best as community groups. It is in relationship to others that we find our value.
The writing is choppy at best, jumping from historical events, to the author's personal habits, to bio-sketches of people allegedly shaped by disaster events. But that's actually the least of my criticism.
My strongest criticism is that some evidence presented as historical "truth" is, in fact, not true.
I was beginning to wonder how well researched this book was, when I came across a passage in which the behavior of fire response officials toward Spanish-speaking San Diegans during the 2007 wildfires was compared side-by-side with mass killings of Koreans by the Japanese after an earthquake in 1923. Having lived through the firestorm in 2007, this was shocking at best. So I started researching.
I found an obscure ACLU report in which the organization dug and dug to find abuses during the 2007 firestorm. And the ACLU did find 1 family deported, and a few unkind words of officials to people of color, and one family who was told (incorrectly) that there were no diapers available. But a few unkind words during an event in which more than 500,000 people were evacuated hardly counts as abuse and in no way rises to the level of the 1923 mass killings in which these "abuses" were framed. Indeed, ACLU's overwhelming assessment was positively glowing. ACLU did spotlight the handful of negative reports, but also noted that those appeared to be isolated incidents and not indicative of widespread abuse. Moreover, response services like 211 worked hard to find Spanish-speaking volunteers to work at call centers to ensure that people had access to information and services.
If Solnit plays fast and loose with truth about a recent, verifiable event, why should I believe ANY of her historical accounts???
The ideas latent in this book - that people really are altruistic and helpful - are too important to have been buried with poor research and even poorer writing.
Sorry, Solnit, but you lied about an event I lived through and volunteered for, and you made my fellow San Diegans look like monsters - which is the farthest thing from what actually happened. In fact, in writing about how people's best selves come out during disaster, the 2007 firestorm might have been one of the examples you painted as BEST, rather than worst.