On starting new projects

I’m deep in the next-year’s-research planning phase of the summer, which is mostly comprised of figuring out what other donor communities I want to look at for the book manuscript.  I chose sites for the dissertation largely based on news production – locales in which a lot of news was being produced, reproduced and consumed – but for the book I’ve been thinking about how to better center the experiences of non-elite donors, which means looking for places from which donations flowed, rather than places in which people were merely reading about the famine in Ireland.  As part of this, and as part of a related project to collect the names of donors to a wide range of 19th century philanthropic projects, I’ve been working on a database which tracks not only individual donations, but also biographical information about donors.  I’ve been using this data – and in particular donations to national famine relief funds (the American Society of Friends rather than the New York Irish relief committee, for example) to try to map places where donations came from, but that I haven’t yet explored.

So: a very few, very preliminary findings:

  • Most of these donations are coming from cities.
  • Many are on behalf of relief committees of entire cities – it’s not clear yet whether these are Quaker relief committees or ones without religious (or with another religious) affiliation, but I hope that’s something I’ll be able to check out at the Haverford Quaker archives.
  • Of those donations made on behalf of urban relief committees, the people doing the collecting were almost entirely merchants.

The orange circles are the places I’ve yet to explore – lots to do!

CRC donor locales

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Quick note: “Snow Fall”

The New York Times has been pushing “Snow Fall,” a multimedia article about the February 2012 avalanche in the Cascade Mountains.  It’s a six part story, much like one of the NYT Magazine‘s feature articles, but supplemented with video interviews, interactive maps, and other material designed to bring the story to life.  It takes some time to get through, but is, I think, worth getting into, because it seems like one direction that newspapers might take in this “digital age” of reduced print circulation.

That being said, I’m not convinced that the story really needed all of the bells and whistles.  The story itself – of 16 professional or semi-professional skiers caught in an avalanche – is compelling enough on its own.  Interviews with survivors are heart-wrenching, but for me the most difficult part of the piece was the narrative reconstruction of the victims’ loved ones’ reactions.  Many people are familiar with print analogues to stories like these – the Magazine’s story last week about Barney’s, for example – which could be augmented with digital material, and I suppose there’s an argument that says that the more information included, in as many different mediums as possible, the better.  And some parts of “Snowfall” worked really well.  As you read each part, the text scrolls over background images – in some cases of snow, in others of trees destroyed by the avalanche, and, perhaps most effectively, over maps which highlight the position of the skier being discussed at the moment.  But in other places, the information feels superfluous, or not fully integrated – digital content for the sake of novelty, rather than for the sake of telling a better story.

I hope to see more of this kind of thing from the Times, because I think that it charts some rich terrain for the future of journalism (and I’d frankly love to play around with something like this for history writing).  I also have to wonder whether some kinds of stories are suited to this treatment more than others.  Because I’m a disaster studies nerd, I did find myself thinking that disasters are particularly well-suited to these kinds of pieces (I was actually reminded a couple of times of the “Murder on Beacon Hill” documentary and app – which, if you live in or near Boston, is really worth checking out).  Disasters (or in the case of the Beacon Hill piece, murders) often feature a discrete cast of characters, a series of events easily fit into narrative form, and take place in a limited enough space to make things like maps useful.  I’d really love to see the “Snowfall” treatment applied to a more data-driven story though, because I think a lot of great work has been done recently with visual and interactive representations of information that could really enhance readers’/viewers’ experience of a story.

The more [history] you learn, the more [history] you see

 

Credit: Bill Amend at http://www.foxtrot.com/

I’ve been throwing out variations on this line since I first saw this strip, and I’ve been having quite a few “the more history you learn…” moments in the past few weeks because of the hurricane.

On Saturday, the Press of Atlantic City reported that NOAA classified Sandy as a post-tropical cyclone right before it made landfall in NJ, a decision which is estimated to save homeowners/cost insurance companies millions of dollars in deductibles.  NOAA isn’t a political body, but the classification is a fortuitous one for those facing insurance claims for their destroyed property, and it was echoed by NJ Governor Chris Christie when he issued an executive order prohibiting insurance companies from charging hurricane deductibles.  (For a really fascinating discussion of the relationship between disasters and flood insurance, see parts II and III of Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God.)  Though most of the article was about the impact of this call on insurance claims, the article briefly digresses into talking about what it means for a scientific body to be in charge – however indirectly – of a huge financial decision:

“If this was a court case, you’d have multiple meteorologists on the stand,” said Campbell H. Wallace, an attorney for the Professional Insurance Agents of New Jersey.

There is no court case. Insurance companies in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut have agreed to waive costly hurricane deductibles, which could have run in the millions of dollars along the three-state area.

Wallace said the insurance industry accepts the fact that the National Weather Service is “legally tasked” with making such determinations. He said meteorologists are judged by their peers and credibility is paramount to them.

The Wallace quote reminds me of another apparently ancillary fact about the Atlantic hurricane – the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 which killed upwards of eight thousand people.  Although meteorologists, both in the U.S. and in Cuba registered concerns about a storm headed for the Gulf of Mexico, the National Weather Bureau’s policy was to limit the use of the word “hurricane” in official correspondence, because it might engender widespread panic.  On top of all of the other reasons for the high Galvestonian death toll (the misguided belief that hurricanes never struck that part of the Gulf, little way for ships to communicate observations from the middle of a storm, buildings that were particularly susceptible to storm damage) some of the blame must go, and has gone, to whomever made the decision that “hurricane” was just too dangerous a word for the American people.

In some ways, what is happening with insurance companies today is the flipside of what happened with the NWB and Galveston – in defining what counts as a hurricane, and what is “merely” a post-tropical cyclone (the two can be differentiated by as little as 1 mph difference in maximum wind speeds measured on the ground) the NOAA is saving – intentionally or no – thousands of people millions of dollars in total.

Categorizing Sandy

Hurricane Sandy happened two weeks ago – it (not she – because a lot of very smart people have written quite a bit about how oddly and quickly the violently gendered language around the hurricane spun out of control) decimated New Jersey and New York, particularly coastal communities along the Jersey Shore, barrier islands, Staten Island and the Rockaways.  I’ve lived in New Jersey my entire life, and although the town I live in wasn’t particularly hard-hit, the emotional impact of the storm – even two weeks and a presidential election later – is still made manifest here.

Mario Tama/Getty Images, via the Baltimore Sun’s “Darkroom” blog.

I’ve been trying to think about how to write about this from the perspective of someone who studies disaster, and I keep coming back to the need to explain that I am from this place where this thing has happened – that I am not merely a distant observer of catastrophe.  While I’m sure some of that impulse comes of not wanting to exploit a terrible thing in service of my own thoughts on an academic subject, I think that it also suggests something about the field – if there is one – of disaster studies – and maybe also something about how Sandy was reported until the Presidential election overshadowed all other news.

One of the things I open with when I  teach disaster history is the degree to which disasters make for a fractured historical narrative.  A number of quite interesting books have been written about individual disasters, but only a few historians – most notably Ted Steinberg – have tackled disasters as historical subjects.  Jonathan Bergman has recently noted that “disaster studies have experienced some interesting developments and offer great lessons for historical scholarship, yet this reviewer is bedeviled by the suspicion that the subject has not formally ‘arrived’. Reconnaissances have been made, and initial volleys fired, but no scholarly introductions have been tendered on the historical field. Neither has there been a call for a sustained and rigorous discussion of its methods and values”  I think, in part, that the very objects of study are deviations from the norm, and the experiences of people who lived through them are wildly divergent from their everyday lives.

This isn’t to say that disaster history doesn’t have ways of dealing with the fact that the things it studies are in many ways outside of everyday experiences.  Some, including Steinberg, Mike Davis and Matthew Mulcahy, situate natural disasters in terms of the human circumstances that produce them.  For the past few years, the classic example invoked to illustrate this point is Hurricane Katrina.  In fact, the authors of the essays in There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class and Hurricane Katrina point out that it was the social conditions in New Orleans that killed so many people, rather than the eleventh named storm of the 2005 storm season – any major storm would have done the trick, as it were.  Other scholars, particularly scientists who study natural hazards, have pushed back on this historicized or contextualist approach to disaster studies, noting that without catastrophic events, there are simply no disasters to study – they note that particular aspects of that particular storm were responsible for its “disasterousness.”  However, whether we study the natural event itself – in the case of Sandy, a “post-tropical cyclone” – or, if we take the approach described by Alessa Johns as one in which, “If a disaster is defined as a physical phenomenon – an earthquake, a hurricane, or a flood, for example – affecting a human group adversely, then surely the activities of that human community, both before and after the event, require investigation,” a disruptive event is still at the center of the story.  Put another way, both of these approaches lead to a field of disaster studies characterized by unique “firefly events,” rather than grand narratives.

“Ruins at Cranston, R.I. – The Great New England Hurricane of 1938”

This is a very long way of saying that the state of the field of disaster history mapped very closely onto what I experienced waiting for Sandy to hit, and experiencing its aftermath.  People understood the possibility of disaster, but had little by way of a framework for approaching, anticipating or understanding it.

Both before and after the storm, commentators drew comparisons between Sandy and Katrina (largely in the context of Presidential responses).  Others looked farther afield, positioning Sandy in terms of the 1938 hurricane, dubbed by some the “Long Island Express,” which had decimated much of New England, leaving high water marks that are still visible today.  Commentators also reached for superlatives – “New York Subways Hit with the Worst Disaster in 108 Years”; “Ranks Among the Worst Economic Disasters”; and the Wikipedia article’s first paragraph casts Sandy as the largest Atlantic storm on record, the second most expensive Atlantic hurricane in history, and one of the strongest storms of all time. (Usual caveats about Wikipedia use apply here)

It seems like, short of comparing this terrible event to other terrible events, we have almost no rubric for understanding what happened.  For those living through this, the conditions that lead to overbuilt beach communities, or a lack of effective dune screening, or any other structural cause don’t matter, and offer no perspective on loss.  I think that some of these impressions must bleed over into the historiography, because the same comparative framing happens there too.  While I’m absolutely committed to a deeply contextualized social, political and economic understanding of disaster, I also wonder if looking at patterns in aftermaths – in policy, or environmental change, or even demography – might be another way to understand disasters as part of a coherent field, rather than as sudden and disruptive events.

I was also struck by something a friend said to be over e-mail a few days after Sandy.  He mentioned (I paraphrase) that he wondered if, as our possessions, houses and furniture become more and more similar/big-box/Ikea, that the aftermath of very different disasters wouldn’t start to look, and feel more and more the same.  That might be the case from an outside perspective – the worst-hit parts of the Rockaways could certainly have been hit by a tornado or an earthquake – but so long as historical practice is rooted in using sources produced by people who lived through events, disaster history will always feel – to some degree – scattershot.  The people telling us about these things did in the past, and are likely to continue to, describe them in exceptional and unique language, contextualizing them, if at all, in terms of other “worst,” “most expensive” and “most deadly” events.  Given that, it’s easy to see why so many scholars, taking historical actors at their word, replicate that impression of disasters as disruptive, rather than the product of structures, in their own work.

Survivors searching the debris in Galveston, Texas. In the years following the storm, the entire city was raised 17 feet to prevent future flooding.

Disasterous truth

Radiolab – produced by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich – recently released an episode called “The Fact of the Matter” which explored the ways in which “getting a firm hold on the truth is never as simple as nailing down the facts of a situation.”  Radiolab is usually presented as a series of three riffs on the central theme, and this month’s first and last segments played around with the idea of absolute truth (via Errol Morris’s discussion of Crimean cannonballs) and whether truth matters at all (via Tim Kreider’s story of a friend whose life seemed to contain nothing true).  The middle section, called Yellow Rain, though, seemed to go off the rails a little, hinting – though never explicitly engaging with – the idea that privileging some truths over others can actually be an act of violence.

The question at the heart of Yellow Rain was whether soviet chemical weapons had been used on the Hmong people in Laos after the end of the Vietnam War.  The Hmong had been U.S. allies during the war, and after American troops left the region, were subject to brutal attacks by the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao.  The Hmong fled into the jungle, where they first encountered showers of yellow droplets falling from the sky.  These showers were followed by livestock deaths, stomach pain, and in some cases, death.  Between the Viet Cong attacks – which often included the aerial assaults – and this Yellow Rain, many Hmong today describe the period after Vietnam as a genocide. Refugees gave leaves with the yellow substance to aid workers, who sent them to a U.S. lab which found pollen and high levels of poison.  They concluded that the Soviet government had created a poison that could be deployed via pollen, President Reagan used the lab’s findings as evidence of Soviet chemical weapons capability, and jump-started U.S. chemical weapons programs.  In the aftermath of that decision, other U.S. scientists re-examined the Yellow Rain, argued that the original lab had made an error, and that the substance was nothing more than bee feces, released all at once when the bees came out of hibernation.

This could have been a fairly straightforward story about how governments lie, or accept incomplete information, in order to pursue nefarious ends – and that seems to be the story that Robert Krulwich was interested in telling.  But at the end of the piece, Krulwich and a Radiolab producer, Pat Walters, interviewed a man named Eng Yang, who had actually lived through both Viet Cong attacks and Yellow Rain.  They asked Yang, via his niece, author Kao Kalia Yang, who was acting as an interpreter (and who sometimes interjected her own commentary), what he thought about the fact that scientists had found that the Hmong had not actually been the victims of chemical warfare:

Yang: [If this was just bee feces] How do you explain the kids dying? The people and the animals dying?
Jad voiceover: We asked Kalia to tell Eng what the scientists had told us, that the Hmong were definitely dying.
Scientist voiceover: The Hmong were under real attack.  They were being fired at from airplanes and by soldiers.
Jad voiceover: But more importantly, even if they weren’t being killed by those direct attacks, they were on the run through the jungle.  They were malnourished, drinking from contaminated streams, diseases like dysentery and cholera were rampant, and the way a lot of people see it, they might have misattributed some of those mysterious deaths to this cloud of bee poop that looked like it could have been a chemical weapon. But Eng says no, not a chance.
Yang: I speak to what I’ve seen, and there is no inkling in my mind that those deaths were not caused by starvation, dysentery, there was chemicals that were killing my people.
Robert: And, um, did the source of the rain, was there always a plane and then rain? A plan and then rain? Or did sometimes the rain happen without a plane?
Yang: We never saw what it was, it was always being dropped on them, and it was always being dropped where there were heavy concentrations of Hmong people.
Robert: Hm.
Yang: That’s what we knew.
Robert: But we don’t know whether there was a plane causing it, or did you just see the dust?
Yang: Bullets and bombs all the day, every time.
Robert: Hm.
Yang: And so whether, whether it was a bombing plane or a yellow plane, it was incredibly hard to distinguish.  Everybody runs when you hear the planes, so Hmong people didn’t watch bombs coming down.  You came out, you sneak your head out, and you watch what happen in the aftermath.  You saw broken trees, you saw yellow in the aftermath of what had been bombed.  I saw with my own eyes the pollen on the leaves eating through holes.  With my own eyes I saw pollen that could kill grass, could kill leaves, could kill trees.
Robert: But he himself is not clear w-, whether it’s the bee stuff or whether its other stuff, because there was so much stuff coming down from the sky.
Yang: You know that there were chemicals being used against the Hmong in the mountains of Laos.  Whether this is the chemicals from the bombs or yellow rain, chemicals were being used.  It feels to him like this is a semantic debate, and it feels like, um, like there’s a sad lack of justice, that, that, that the word of a man who survived this thing must be pitted against a professor from Harvard who’s read these accounts.
Robert: But, as far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall, your uncle didn’t see a plane, all of this is hearsay.
Yang: [audibly upset] My uncle says, um, for the last twenty years he didn’t know that anything, anybody was interested in the death of the Hmong people.  He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. You know, what happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been un-, uninterested for the last twenty years.  He agreed because you were interested.  That the story would be heard and that the Hmong deaths would be re- documented and recognized.  That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken, that our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him or to me.  I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened.  There was so much that was not told, everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used.  How do you create bombs if not with chemicals?  We can play the semantics game, we can, but I am not interested, my uncle is not interested, we have lost too much heart, and too many people in the process.

Yang ends the interview, and there are about 15 seconds of “radio silence” before cutting to a conversation between Jad, Robert and Pat the producer.  In the course of that conversation, Pat says”

“that moment was when the whole story changed for me … there was something about, like, the way that she was pointing away from the thing that we had been looking so hard at, and saying, stop looking at that, look over here … she didn’t convince me at all that this was a chemical weapon, but she convinced me that we were missing something … until she said the things she said at the end of that interview, I don’t think that I fully appreciated the volume of pain that was involved in that moment for them.”

Jad chimes in, saying that he understood her to be saying:

“quit focusing on this yellow rain stuff, because when you do that, you’re shoving aside a much larger story, namely that my people were being killed.”

Robert, though, seems to remain unconvinced that the Yangs’ truth was significant.  He says, in response to Jad:

“Right, that’s exactly what she’s saying.  And that is wrong.  That is absolutely, to my mind, that is not fair to us.  It’s not fair to ask us to not consider the other stories and the other frames of the story.  The fact that the most powerful man in the world, Ronald Reagan, used this story to order the manufacture of chemical weapons for the first time in twenty years, I mean, that is not unimportant, that’s hugely important, but it’s not important to her, so should that not be important to us?”

He goes on to say that while he personally found her reaction to be “very balancing,” that “her desire was not for balance, her desire was to monopolize the story, and that we can’t allow.” (emphasis mine)

There’s a whole lot to unpack there, but I was forcibly struck by two things:  The first was the degree to which western narratives were privileged over non-western ones.  This isn’t just a problem for Radiolab. In a 2008 book on terrorism, Matt Meselson, one of the scientists whose work discredited the yellow-rain-as-chemical-weapon conclusions, opens a section on the “composition of the alleged agent” by noting that “none of the alleged attacks was witnessed by a Western observer. The most tangible evidence bearing on the allegations consisted of the samples of the alleged agent turned in by refugees, and the laboratory analyses of these and other environmental samples, of blood and urine from alleged victims.” Meselson certainly has a horse in this race, so it’s not that surprising that his current work continues to defend his findings from the 1980s.  However, his opening sentence implies that if there had been Western observers, scientists would not have had to rely on the word of non-westerners – these refugees and alleged victims.  While Radiolab never came out with so explicit a demarcation between trustworthy narrators (Western observers) and untrustworthy ones (alleged victims), the arc of Krulwich’s interview with the Yangs reinforced that paradigm.  In light of the final piece in the episode – which argues that the lies told by an individual (American) man about his life, to his friends, shouldn’t matter, because experientially, they knew who he “really” was – it’s hard not to see a disparity between whose truths Radiolab trusts, and whose truths they don’t.

My second thought had to do with the ways in which we (scholars, historians, journalists) use peoples’ experiences of disaster.  Krulwich’s comment at the end of the interview that it was wrong for the Yangs to assert their own truth, and that in doing so they were trying to monopolize the story (language, along with the assertion that Yang’s experience was “hearsay” that Krulwich later apologized for) suggests that, in the moment, he thought that the story about how Reagan used these accounts – the lie that Reagan told to jump-start U.S. chemical weapons production – was a more important story than the Yang’s accounts of the Hmong genocide.  Understandably, I think, Yang disagreed, and that moment could have lead to a really productive discussion of what it means to use one population’s sufferings in service of social or political arguments that are almost entirely divorced from them.  I think that Krulwich implied that while the Hmong genocide only affected the Hmong people, Reagan’s decisions as “the most powerful man in the world” impacted everyone, including the Hmong, rendering the “truth” of Reagan’s claims more important than the “truth” of the Hmong’s experiences.  I also think that there could have been a really productive conversation about the ways in which denying particular truths can be, in itself, an act of violence.  Jad and Pat tiptoed up to the edge of that conversation in the piece following the interview, but neither they, nor Robert either in the episode or in his follow-up commentary, fully acknowledged the trauma they might have inflicted – both to the Yang’s and to other people whose experiences of violence and genocide are still and often silenced.

I see this kind of appropriation all the time in my own work, when donor groups in the 1840s used narratives coming out of Ireland to make political arguments about their own circumstances, bolstered by the moral value of their donations to distant sufferers, but before listening to this piece, I don’t think that I had considered the impact that those appropriations might have had on Irish people.  Most of those starving in Ireland probably wouldn’t have known that New Yorkers or Charlestonians were using their suffering as a proxy for either immoral landholding practices in upstate New York, or the “injustices” foisted upon Southern slaveholders by abolition campaigns, but Irish emigrants might have.

I think it’s also worth thinking about whether the actual composition of the yellow stuff actually matters at all.  In the Errol Morris piece, one contributor notes that it might not matter whether a war photographer staged a famous picture of the Crimea, because the sense evoked by the picture was a more accurate representation of the experience of war than any un-staged image ever could.

[Edited to fix embarrassing misspelling]

Scaling tragedy.

Two things.  Yesterday I went to Skibbereen.  Today I watched an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring Lisa Kudrow.

(I think that Who Do You Think You Are? is really fascinating T.V.  The people they profile always seem to be transformed by what they find out – from Sarah Jessica Parker saying that knowing one of her ancestors went west for the gold rush changed everything she knew about herself to Spike Lee saying that he always knew who he was, now he just knew more.  I’ve been interested in my family’s history for, if not as long as I can remember, at least some time – so the idea of never asking questions about where parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are from feels unnatural to me.)

For people who study Irish history, Skibbereen (a village in west Cork, about 50 miles from Cork city) has become a stand-in for all of the worst parts of Ireland during the 1845-52 famine.  In part, its development as an archetype for famine Ireland comes from the fact that during the famine, residents of Skibbereen – particularly Dr. O’Donovan and Rev. Traill – worked hard to let local elites and government representatives in Dublin know about the extent of destitution in their district.  Their many letters made Skibbereen famous as a place where scenes of horror were plentiful, and diarists and artists on tours of Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s would often stop at Skibbereen to see “real” Irish destitution.  In addition, the most iconic images of the famine today – like the “Boy and Girl at Cahera”produced for the Illustrated London News in February of 1847 – were drawn in Skibbereen and its environs. 

Given the iconic place that Skibbereen holds in the imaginations of historians of the famine, and the central role it played in nineteenth-century accounts of suffering in Ireland, it was hard for me to imagine the town at all.  I think I was expecting something greyer, and more sinister than the cheerful and very typical Irish streetscape that I found.  There is a museum devoted to the famine, as well as a walking tour that takes you to the town’s soup kitchen, the site of the old poor house, and the dispensary – but today these are just eighteenth and nineteenth-century buildings, like any other less meaningful edifice on any street in any small Irish town.  I think that I had been expecting to feel the scale of the tragedy in some way.  I knew, I had read about, people dying in the streets of Skibbereen – in some of the very spots that I stopped.  I knew that the poor house turned people away, and that those lucky enough to get in were packed in so close that there was no room to move – but I simply didn’t feel the chill of that knowledge as much as I’d expected to.  I looked for it too at the Abbeystrewery Graveyard, site of a burial pit into which it is estimated that 9,000 people were buried, coffinless and nameless, during the famine.  One boy was so ill that his mother thought he had died, and buried him alive in the pit.  He was able to dig his way out through the corpses, but remained marked for life both mentally and physically.  The physical injury has been attributed to the fact that his mother broke his legs in order to get him into the only coffin available.

The famine plot is the lighter green patch at the bottom of the hill.

The graveyard in Skibbereen is an eloquent, and muted testimony to suffering.  The graveyard is built on a hill, with most grave markers precariously perched on whatever ground is available in the midst of rocky outcroppings.  The only truly flat area, which would be the easiest and most likely place to put new graves under other circumstances, has no graves, and marks the plot where the famine pit was.  It’s not a shocking memorial.  There are no accounts of abject suffering, or of people dying of starvation – I think that the people who designed this memorial assumed that no one would visit the graveyard without some prior knowledge of the famine and its impact.  But I also have to imagine what it must be like to live today with the responsibility of tending to the historical legacy of Skibbereen.  The town as a whole seems relatively ambivalent towards the famine – which is totally understandable.  Who would want to actively remember that the place you live is famous for suffering?  I don’t think that I had anticipated the fact that Skibbereen was a real place.  I had fetishized the suffering so much in my head that it had almost become divorced from reality.  There’s an old chestnut of a Stalin quote (supposedly) that’s something like ‘one death is a tragedy, one thousand deaths are statistics’ [See note] that I think rings true for historians of disaster.  It was almost impossible, for me at least, to get my head around the scale of the suffering as a consequence of the famine – so much so that when confronted with an actual place and actual graves, all I felt was disconnect.

By way of contrast, on the episode of WDYTYA? that I watched today, Lisa Kudrow learned that her great-grandmother had been forced by SS officers to stand at the edge of a pit with two other members of her family, and had been shot and then set on fire.  That was evocative, and tear-jerking – everything I thought I’d feel in SkibbereenSkibbereen does an excellent job of honoring its past while not becoming mired in re-enacting tragedy – and I am working, as someone who studies crises to keep the epic scale of disasters and the poignant narratives of individual sufferers in my head – and do justice to both in my work – at the same time.

NOTE: On this topic, Eddie Izzard says:

“Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people and we can’t even deal with that.  I think, you know, we think somebody kills someone that’s murder, you go to prison.  You kill ten people, you go to Texas they hit you with a brick, that’s what they do.  Twenty people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever.  And over that … we can’t deal with it, you know?  Somebody’s killed 100,000 people we’re almost going ‘well done! well done!  You killed 100,000 people?  Well, you must get up very early in the morning.  I can’t even get down the gym!  Your diary must look odd: get up in the morning death, death, death, death, death, death, death.  Lunch.  Death, death, death.  Afternoon tea.  Death, death, death … “