Skip to navigation | Skip to content

The Disaster Twin-Pak, Plus Zeitoun

The Disaster Twin-Pak, Plus Zeitoun

Rebecca Solnit: A Paradise Built in Hell, The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, 2009, Viking. $17.95
Dave Eggers: Zeitoun, 2009, McSweeney’s Books. $24.00
Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, 2007, Metropolitan Books. $28.00
Reviewed by Dale Pendell

Reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, I was struck by the contrast to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine that I had read the year earlier. Between these two books, with their rather different views of disaster, one can obtain a surprisingly broad political education into the philosophical unpinning of global corporate capitalism and its perennial alternative, cooperative civic society.

In A Paradise Built in Hell, through studies of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax explosion of 1917, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, the financial crisis in Argentina in 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Rebecca Solnit outlines how neighbors and citizens band together in spontaneous collectives to help each other. She also details how this emergence of “civil society” is often suppressed by the government due to what sociologists have called “elite panic”—fear by the elites that they are not in control and that citizens taking charge of their own rescues are a threat to elite privilege, power, and property.

Political philosophy is a long debate on the nature of human nature: are people vicious cannibals ready to slit another’s throat in order to further their own chances for survival, only held in check by “a thin veneer of civilization” (meaning armed troops or police), or are people generally cooperative and level-headed, ready to help with what is best for the general good? The former position was most memorably stated by Thomas Hobbes, appalled by the religious wars of the seventeenth century and defending the institution of monarchy. The latter position, as referenced by Solnit, was championed by Peter Kropotkin, the discipline of anthropology, and by the world’s great spiritual traditions. Solnit shows that in case after case, when push comes to shove in the most disastrous circumstances, it is the altruistic and compassionate side of human nature that comes to the fore.

As the rationale for coercive authority rests on the view that people are by nature selfish, brutish, lawless, and generally incompetent, evidence to the contrary is rarely aired in public media. I was dismayed to learn that the majority of the students in a high school English class in Santa Cruz, a relatively progressive community, still believed in 2010 that the reactions of the citizens trapped in New Orleans after the hurricane prove that people are every bit as bad as the fictional children in Lord of the Flies. This impression is the direct result of the media frenzy to portray New Orleans as a Hobbesian nightmare: armed gangs roaming the city murdering and thieving, babies being raped in the Superdome beside the corpses of the murdered—stories without foundation that were later retracted, but quietly. While hundreds of small groups of ordinary citizens were engaged in rescue and provisioning for the needy, newscasters played a picture of a black man walking out of a ruined store with a television set over and over, almost with glee, to make the point that such was what to expect when “authority” breaks down. According to scholars who study disasters, looting is actually quite rare in such situations, and as it turns out, much of the looting that did occur in New Orleans was by police—it’s on video. In any case, petty theft is not a capital crime, and the decision to redeploy troops who were engaged in search and rescue to, instead, guarding property, with the order to shoot looters, is elite panic at its worst. There were murders in New Orleans, but in the cases documented by Solnit the murders were by police or by white vigilantes.

Dystopias make better fiction than utopias, as scores of Hollywood movies seem to indicate. We are more riveted to scenes of dog eat dog, every man for himself, than to stories of ordinary civility. While our love of gore and rapaciousness has a lot to do with the aesthetics of drama, it is no more an indictment of human nature than is the joy of children playing “war” or “cops and robbers.”

Solnit does what she can to present the well-documented history of the behavior of the overwhelming majority of people in disasters, and she does a lot. Solnit is an excellent writer and A Paradise Built in Hell is a stupendous testimony to the human spirit—that no, we are not crazy, we are not naïve dreamers, and that our best hope for survival still lies with each other.

Not to be missed.

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, is like a miniature of the stories that Solnit presents. It is the story of one man, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, during and after the Katrina hurricane. Zeitoun was a house painter and contractor well-known in New Orleans who stayed in the city during the hurricane and was able to perform a number of rescues because he had a canoe.
The best writing, to my taste, is the least stylized: the chapters on Zeitoun’s arrest and imprisonment. Zeitoun and three other men were arrested in one of Zeitoun’s own apartment buildings by a group of men in mismatched military uniforms—out-of-state policemen, some perhaps Blackwater mercenaries, and some that may have been National Guard. All were armed with M16s and pistols.

Zeitoun and his neighbors were placed in small cages set up in the Greyhound Bus depot that looked as if they had been imported from Guantanamo Bay. None of the men were allowed to make a telephone call, then or during the days that followed. In the cages the prisoners were subjected to verbal and physical abuse. They were sprayed in the face with pepper oil and sometimes shot with beanbag guns. Their money was stolen and never returned—in the case of one man, his life savings of $10,000. After a week they were moved to the Hunt maximum security prison, and still no one knew where they were. After another week Zeitoun passed his wife’s phone number to a chaplain, very against the rules, and the chaplain, in an anonymous call, notified Zeitoun’s wife as to his whereabouts. Zeitoun’s wife hired a lawyer, and after another week Zeitoun was released. Zeitoun’s neighbors were held for five, six, and eight months. All charges against the men, vaguely related to looting or possessing stolen goods, were dropped.

People find it hard to believe that such injustice and abuse could happen in America, or be perpetrated by men in official uniform. Abu Ghraib, I suppose, is only a case of “a few bad apples,” and besides that was in Iraq. One reviewer opined that we have only Egger’s word for what happened. I assure you, however, that such scenes of arbitrary and sadistic brutality by guards is in no way unbelievable to anyone who has served prison time in the United States.

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine is a difficult book to reopen, but the eerie parallels to A Paradise Build in Hell are too obvious to ignore. The Shock Doctrine presents not a mirror image of Solnit’s book, but a negative image.

Klein uses the word shock in three ways. She opens her book with a description of the electroshock treatments used by the psychiatrist Dr. Ewen Cameron, along with sensory deprivation and sensory overload, sleep deprivation, and other techniques, in his efforts to learn how to break a person so thoroughly that they are a “blank slate.” Much of his work was incorporated into the CIA’s interrogation handbook Kubark. The CIA did much to spread Cameron’s techniques around the world, and they are clearly enough still widely used.

The second use of “shock” refers to the economic theories centered around Milton Friedman and the “Chicago School.” As Klein points out, these two meanings of “shock” often travel together: after all, Friedman was an economic advisor to Augusto Pinochet, and Friedman himself used the phrase “shock treatment” to describe his advice to the dictator. And we might add here “shock and awe,” the slogan of the attack on Iraq, where Friedman’s “neoconservative” descendants hoped to create the perfect “free market” laboratory.

The third way that Klein uses “shock” is really a sub-heading of the above and brings us back to disaster: the way the corporate interests take advantage of disasters– natural, military, and economic—to further their program of privatization and profits. Klein looks at the tsunami in Sri Lanka, where the villagers and fishermen were not allowed to return to their coastal homes, opening the way for the construction of upscale vacation resorts. And she looks at New Orleans (the intersection of all three books discussed here), where the public school system was essentially dismantled (Friedman’s last will and testament), and public housing, most of it among the only undamaged housing in the city, was bulldozed. A “clean slate.”

In short, what Klein is calling “disaster capitalism” takes advantage of political, economic, or natural disasters to loot the public coffers: to privatize government functions at fire sale prices, to displace the poor to make room for expensive development, to roll back social programs, and to give global capital a free hand. (Or, a free hand until the next bailout is needed.) As the “austerity” will cause pain (unemployment, hunger, homelessness, shortened life spans), the people will resist—hence such measures are most easily implemented in times of crisis or disaster. If the people still resist, well, then there are the less metaphorical forms of shock. The disaster is like a left jab that puts the citizens off balance so that they relax their watch on the treasury, but the right uppercut is not far behind. Sometimes disasters are purposely induced—what we might call “disaster in the first degree,” by military coups, such as in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Indonesia. In the western democracies, a convenient foreign war (The Falklands, Iraq) can be enormously helpful.

As for the intellectuals of disaster capitalism, we must judge that they are sincere in their beliefs and ideology, but Milton Friedman’s assumption seems to be that what is good for money is good for people, which, to my reading of history, has never been true. However, I think it fair to call the apologists for global corporatism cynical when they call their ideology “free market,” when nothing could be further from the truth. And it is more than fair to demand that the violence and coercion used to enforce this ideology not be swept under the mat. For a “Freedom Man,” Friedman left a lot of bodies and prisons behind him.

(I remember hearing Friedman, in his grandfatherly way, telling us that the garment worker in a Chinese sweat shop was not being taken advantage of, but that she was “working her way up,” that she had been given an “opportunity.” What he left out was her lack of choice: the poverty and desperation that drives the labor pool to accept low wage drudgery in the first place. )

But details are important: case studies and history—the manual labor of writing a book–and Klein requites herself with honors. The Shock Doctrine was written before the recent financial “disaster,” but Klein was uncannily prophetic as to its aftermath, where, as in the savings-and-loan bailout a decade earlier, more money was given to the financial tycoons than has been spent on welfare since the New Deal. Lots more. The results of Friedman’s policies, as Klein details, were disasters in themselves—in Chile, Argentina, and everywhere else they have been tried, including, I would add, the United States. Eighty percent of the world’s wealth is now owned by one percent of the population. Global corporatism indeed has a human face, but the human face wears a mask.

Or a hood.

« Back to Essays