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December 19, 2016

A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit

One day in October 2014, a man with a gun entered Canada’s parliament buildings shortly after murdering a Canadian soldier standing guard at the national war memorial. The man with the gun had a history of drug addiction, mental illness, and also pledged allegiance to a terrorist “state.” Thankfully, he was taken down before he hurt anybody else, and afterward there were the usual discussions about religious extremism and one religion in particular. A year later, Canada’s Conservative Party was counting on leveraging fear from this incident and others to win another election. They had been slow in accepting refugees from war-torn Syria anyway (and had taken away healthcare from refugees altogether, in a move that defied both logic and human decency), which made it seem personal to Canadians when the body of a small Syrian chid washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and was photographed in a devastating, iconic image.

Determined to stay their course all the same and make it clear how they really felt about multiculturalism in general and Islam in particular—or rather to play to the very worst parts of people’s fears, frailties and debased humanity in order to win votes—the Conservatives gambled on a novel concept, a Barbaric Practices Hotline, wherein Canadians could report their neighbours…for suspected cases of genital mutilation, apparently?? (Who ya gonna call?) An idea that was so preposterous that I still can’t believe it really happened, let alone that the public faces of this idea are continuing to walk around in public (encouraging citizens to “lock up” democratically-elected leaders, no less [but just the female ones. Not that gender has anything to do with it.]).

It was utterly bananas. It was…like waking up one morning and discovering that some clown called Donald is President of the United States. And then against all predictions, against the odds, Canadians in huge numbers shot down that shitblimp and the Conservatives were out. Because for a few weeks there, we didn’t recognize the country we lived in. Because it was difficult to imagine the lows these people would stoop to in order to get power (and you have to wonder if it would be worth it. That you’d have to break something so irrecoverably in order to make it yours. What would it be like to triumph in that fight? Where would lie the satisfaction?). The Liberal Party’s victory on October 19, 2015, I thought—nearly a year after that deranged man had broken into Parliament with a gun (and I’m not going to say he “stormed it,” because he was literally one guy with a gun, and that’s not a storm. That’s something weird falling out of the sky)—was not necessarily for the Liberals themselves, but it was against the awfulness that election had brought us. It was Canadians standing up and declaring that this is not who we are. It was all of us being determined to be something better than what the Conservatives had offered, which was a vision of our very worst selves.

These visions are important, as Rebecca Solnit writes in her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. These visions of who we are, and what we can do, and what we will do. The prevailing view, she writes, of a community in a moment of disaster being that people will panic—riots in the streets, mass slaughter, every man for himself. A vision built on fear, the same way the Canadian Conservative Party erected their 2015 election platform on fear. But what if, Solnit proposes, these perceptions of human nature are wrong? Going back over historical disasters from the last 100 or so years—the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax Explosion in 1918, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, and the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in 2005—to find a different kind of narrative. A narrative that is actually prevalent and proven in the “disaster studies” field, which is that in moments of crisis, people come together, support each other, and that new communities and ways of being can actually emerge.

Where there is panic, Solnit writes, is in the realm of the elite and bureaucratic. Rigid systems fail, precarious structures crumble, powerful people freak out about the prospect of the populous realizing they’ve got true agency—and it’s here where the chaos comes in. Armed forces were sent into San Francisco in 1906, just as they were in New Orleans in 2005 along with private security firms, and these forces caused huge problems, viewing community members as an enemy, and being completely out of touch with social dynamics. The trouble comes from improperly equipped firefighters charging into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, all the while people in the buildings were facilitating their own evacuation (against official orders, even—many had been told to go back to their desks and wait), carrying disabled colleagues down 69 flights of stairs, proceeding in an orderly fashion, saving so many lives.

In her book, Solnit writes to open our eyes to other possibilities of human nature. That perhaps we can be our best selves, that maybe our best selves are even who we really are. It’s a heartening read at this moment in time when the western world seems intent on its own disaster course, and when populists are preying on our very worst tendencies. At a moment when the fall of the Canadian Conservatives in 2015, along with their racist, divisive platform, seems like an anomalous blip, right-leaning, xenophobic politics creeping into the mainstream—or one might even say “storming.” When the very people who touted the Barbaric Practices Hotline are not lying low in abject shame, as one might expect, but are gunning for leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party, the saddest, most dispiriting, race-t0-the-bottom-ish contest I’ve seen since, well, Ted Cruz was knocked off his weirdo throne or that smarmy fucker Nigel Farage quit the UKIP in triumph.

It’s easy to play these kinds of politics. I mean, not from a moral point of view (how do these people sleep at night?), but it really doesn’t take a lot of effort to put a bunch of people together and encourage them to be angry and full of hate. Because, as Solnit writes in her book, our most basic tendencies are perhaps a yearning to belong to something and to each other. We want a sense of purpose, a reason. I was one of thousands and thousands of people around the world who, on September 11 2001, lined up for ages—for nothing, it would turn out, but still—at a blood donor clinic. We wanted to do something. It’s the reason so many Canadians have donated time and money for the past year to support the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who began to arrive in Canada shortly after the Liberals took office—my friends and neighbours have been a part of these efforts, my mom has, Canadians in towns small and large, in communities already multicultural or otherwise. It’s the reason why, when I came across a small car accident the other week, before emergency services had arrived, passerbys were supporting the cars’ occupants, employees from the coffee shop on the corner had brought out chairs and food and water, and I stood there entirely superfluous and wanting to be a part of it, a bit sad to realize I didn’t have to be—my neighbours and fellow citizens had it covered.

There were also people walking by snapping photos on their phones. This was morbid and weird and kind of terrible, but there are always going to be people like this, people who are self-serving, messing stuff up, playing the system. Caitlin Moran writes about this in her new book, about how there are always going to be people who play the system, that this is who people are just as much as the helpers, but this is no reason to tear down institutions altogether. If we wrecked all the systems that people had cheated, where would that leave the parliament of any country in the world, or the Catholic Church for that matter? See also Solnit on “looting” (when black people do it) and “requisitioning of goods” (when white people do it) and the efforts that were devoted to protect things and property in New Orleans in 2005, sacrificing actual people’s lives. All of which is to say that these things are complicated, and nuanced, and it’s much easier to stand before a group of people and smirk and wave as they start chanting LOCK HER UP.

It’s all the same impulse though, the same yearning for connection and meaning. And I take heart in this. The impulse is there, and what if we can “leverage” that, then we can all be better. And how to make that happen? Solnit writes about increasing community connections, investing in social capital, enabling community infrastructure that permits people to share spaces and things, to congregate, to create a vital public life. It’s about giving people opportunities work together, to know each other, and to be empowered to create their own solutions to local problems. Governments can take heed of this, I think, and invest in these kinds of initiatives to bring people together instead of divide them. And on the individual level, all of us can be empowered already with an understanding of the roles we can play—it’s making eye contact and smiling at people in the street, saying hello your neighbour, leaving a holiday gift for your letter carrier, making friends at the park, using the library, supporting community-minded businesses in your neighbourhood. By being the change you wish to see in the world.

3 thoughts on “A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit”

  1. Melwyk says:

    This is beautiful and heartening, Kerry. Thank you for sharing – yes, increasing community connections is part of my life both at work (in a public library) and otherwise, and I hope to work on facilitating more of it in 2017.

  2. Juliet says:

    A very thought-provoking piece. Sounds like an important book. I had to google Rebecca Solnit. I see that she’s an American writer-activist. To many governments, however, the words “empowerment”, “change” and “congregate” is anathema as their chief mission is to control us. They want none of those things.

    I think Canada’s response to the Syrian crisis has been exemplary. I am proud to be a Canadian (living in France.) My Swedish friend here in Paris feels the same way about his country. For a long time, Sweden has received the bulk of asylum seekers. Sadly, France’s reaction has been pretty dismal.

  3. Beth Kaplan says:

    A great essay, Kerry. I wonder if you could find a newspaper or magazine that would publish it on paper, too. It should be as widely read as possible. We need reasons to believe in human nature right about now.

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