For my last blog post I am going to focus on some of my closing thoughts about the course as well as the Malaysia Flight 370. All that we have read about disasters has really shaped my opinion of what a disaster is. I used to think strongly that disasters must have a strong element of surprise or unexpectedness, but over the course, but especially in yesterday’s discussion I no longer think that is true. I thought that Betsy’s point in class yesterday about the Ogallala aquifer depletion was excellent, we know what we are doing, and we know what it is leading too, but it will probably still be framed as a disaster when we finally deplete it. This moves me to what I think the definition of disaster is, the exposure a flaws in our systems that strongly disrupts or destroys the system on a large scale.

This brings me to the Malaysia Flight 370. While it certainly was unexpected, what really made the case intriguing wasn’t the probable death of 200+ people, but the fact that in this day and age we can lose planes. While plane crashes often result in deaths, and are unexpected, they aren’t usually considered disasters. I think this is because they don’t disrupt the system or show a major flaw in it. Planes keep flying, and policies on the aggregate don’t change. With the Malaysia flight there has been a multinational many week long search for the plane, and widespread discussion on how to prevent losing planes.

Finally, I am going to walk back a bit on my point from a few days ago about narrative history and the dangers of moralizing. I think Wells made a great point that Cronon was not arguing that historians should moralize history, but present the history in a way for the reader to make their own moral judgements. But I still do stand by that sometimes “boring non-emotional history” is both useful and interesting. I’m glad that I raised some discussion and enjoyed having this class with everyone!


Too Much of a Good Thing

While I generally liked Cronon’s piece, I have to disagree with Molly’s appreciation for Cronon’s point that historical storytelling helps keep us morally engaged. While I think that there is a place for narrative history, I feel that too much much of it will just end up making more objective history more cloudy and harder to see.

I disagree with Cronon’s assertion that competing narrative will help lead to moral truths. With the example of the dust bowl, I feel that comparing Bonnefield and Worster’s arguments won’t lead to moral revelation, but rather a stale political debate. While there is a place for political debate, I don’t not think that it should be in the realm of history. I feel that more objective histories should be written, and if then scholars want to use those to support a political debate that is fine, but that politicizing history is wrong. On page 1374, Cronon writes that “my list of ‘significant Great Plains events’ surely had no effect on anyone’s emotions or moral vision, whereas I doubt anyone can read Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl without being moved in one way or another.” While I believe that his point is certainly true, is being emotionally moved necessary to the study of historical events? While no history can ever be truly objective, I think it is important for historians to try and be as objective as possible when writing histories, especially when the events studied already have some implicit emotional cache, like slavery or the War on Terror. I fear that though interesting, if moralistic narrative histories take over the field that history will become nothing but an over dramatized HBO version of the current academic field.

The Tragedy of the Commons

I think that Betsy makes a really good point that Koppes is quick to highlight the lack of effectiveness that many initial policies had in reaction to the Dust Bowl, but he then fails to contextualize the evens in the framework of the infancy of the environmental movement. The part of Koppes’ book review that fascinated me most was his depiction of the dust bowl as an example of the tragedy of the commons on page 538. Summed up, the tragedy of the commons is a hypothetical economic situation where there is a patch of free land for anyone to use. It is in every individual’s best interest to use the land as much as they can, but because everyone uses the land it is ruined and its utility is negated. It is a major problem in modern environmental economics because it is hard to convince individuals to act against there best interest.

I must applaud Koppes for recognizing that the individual farmers were not acting irrationally and therefore should not be blamed for causing the dustbowl. Other scholarship he describes is very quick to blame the farmers and not look at the larger structural flaws, and that is an easy logical fallacy to make. I begin to disagree with Koppes because he is very critical of the New Deal government initiatives. While I agree that they weren’t very effective, I’m not sure what he realistically could have expected would be better. I also sense from his tone that he is critical of any government attempts to fix structural environmental problems. He is quick to point to the failure of the Soviet Union to prevent a similar dust bowl scenario in the 1960s, and their system was entirely government controlled. I would be interested to see an analysis of Western and Northern European farming policies and government regulations and interventions and then looking at their effectiveness. These countries have a pretty large amount of government intervention, but aren’t as purely growth at all costs driven as the U.S. in the 1920s or the USSR in the 1950s.

A Blessing in Disguise?

I’d like to start by acknowledging AJ’s post about the tension between protecting public health while still preserving individual liberties. I think that many of the questions he raises are very useful to analyzing this book and I think that the Chapter I read, “Banished Like a Leper” adds something interesting to the discussion. What if the banishment Mary went through provided her with a better quality of life than when she had her freedom? Does this make it more ethical? What if even though she had a better quality of life on North Brother Island, Mary still wanted her freedom, if only to try and clear her name? Does this change anything.

Leavitt starts Chapter 6 by describing the awful conditions that domestic workers faced in  Early 20th century Manhattan. Leavitt writes, “A typical day begins at 6:00 AM  and did not end until the after dinner cleaning, well into the evening hours. Usually the women were on their feet the entire day.” (Leavitt 164) Mary also often lived with her employers in cramped, dirty, spaces, and when she did not she was living with her only friend, a man named Briehof. While on the island, Mary lived in an approximately 400 square foot cabin. Her time was her own and she started a small cottage business as well as being a biological research assistant. As time went on she was even allowed to leave the island to go shopping and visit friends. She also made multiple close lifelong friends on the island. By many metrics, her quality of life was significantly better in captivity than when she was free.

This brings me back to my initial questions, does it make it ethical to hold someone forcibly if you are “improving their quality of life.” For me personally I would rather live “imprisoned” on the island than as a virtual slave with no life or personal time in Manhattan. But, can this personal opinion be policy? Mary continued to insist on her innocence and their is evidence that she wanted to be freed from the island for her whole life, even though she knew it wouldn’t happen and so gave up fighting. Is “freedom” really more important than a comfortable life with personal choice? I really don’t know.

Blame it all on Carter: Political Timing and the Discovery of the Titanic

I would like to begin by acknowledging Molly’s point from last week. At first I staunchly believed that the Titanic had absolutely no intrinsic meaning and it was an entirely blank slate. I found Molly’s argument that the disaster did have inherent personal meaning to those on the Titanic and those directly affected by it to be very convincing, and she has totally changed my mind on this issue. I do think that while the personal meaning of the disaster is important to those directly affected, I think that it is significantly less important on the broader scale of historical memory than perceived cultural meanings, which affect millions of people. In Part II of Down With The Old Canoe, I was personally disturbed by the intense neo-conservative and misogynistic cultural meanings placed on the re-discovery of the Titanic.

Biel frames the search for the Titanic with the Carter Presidency and quotes a variety of sources that essentially tear down president Carter as a weak minded liberal who is essentially the worst thing someone can be- a woman. Aside from the being incredibly simple minded, its shocking that these things were published a mere 40 years ago.  Biel also discusses Clive Cussler’s book, Raising the Titanic!, which framed the search for the Titanic as a struggle against communism, liberals, feminism and government regulation. What I thought was interesting was that while the book was a bestseller, the movie was “a big-budget Hollywood flop in 1980” (Biel 202). In the four years between the publishing of the book and the making of the movie did American cultural thought shift to reject Cussler’s reactionary views? If so this is great proof of the inherent lack of meaning that disasters have in terms of national culture as a whole.

I am curious if the Titanic had been found in the late 90s if it would have been framed differently by the media. Biel raises a question similar when he muses on how the discovery of the Titanic might have been framed differently if the French found it. During the late 90s the American economy was having a surge of growth under a liberal president, Bill Clinton. America was also the undisputed world power after the fall of the USSR. How would society react to the discovery during this time? Would it have been framed in terms of a different social issue? Or would it just have been less culturally prominent and only important for historians and disaster lovers?

The Gospel of Wealth

While reading part 1 of Down with the Old Canoe by Steven Biel, I was struck by the intense moralization that the titanic caused. It was especially striking that while mainstream newspapers saw the Titanic as a symbol of fearless chivalry and as the justification of wealth, many American pastors saw this a a sign of God’s punishment for mans excess and hubris. This leads me to agree with Wells’ post that the Titanic crash had no inherent meaning, but it was a blank slate for people to project meaning onto based on the emotions they were feeling at the time. Of the meanings that people projected onto the disaster, the one I found to be most interesting and controversial was the idea that the noble wealthy men sacrificed themselves for the sake of the poor and the immigrants, but that these “underclass” citizens were undeserving.

The idea that the wealthy are inherently moral seems strange for this time period. As the nation shifted from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era, more Americans started viewing large companies as bad for society and the wealthy as immoral and only looking out for themselves. Why then is an entire segment of society seeing the Titanic as a validation for the wealthy. At first I assumed that all of the newspapers reporting these stories would be from places like New York, where the readership was the industrial elite, but newspapers from all over the country were reporting this very story. On page 43 Biel quotes a Denver columnist who writes about the “disease-bitten child whose life is at best less than worthless, goes to safety.” What was in my mind the most interesting paradox was that for many the wealthy proved their right to live by dying, while the poor showed they were fit for death by living. There is a certain chivalric notion to that statement that I think one would be hard pressed to find in our modern era. Speaking of the modern times, I was trying to imagine a newspaper running an article like the Denver paper did in our time, and at first I thought it could never happen. As I thought more about it, the way most American newspapers report on the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a similar tone. While I think it is important that we hear about and honor our dead soldiers, far more innocent Iraqi and Afghani civilians have been killed in the conflict and that is often not reported on, and when it is it is more of a side note.

Keynes loves SoCal

What really struck me about the readings for today is the deep economic implications that disasters and potential disasters have. I really liked Betsy’s analysis of Steinberg’s claim that the business elites of San Francisco cried “fire” and not “earthquake” to ensure that capital continued to flow into the city. The assertion that this was a freak accident was not just lying to ensure the flow of capital, but Californians really did refuse to accept the dangerous environment that they were living in. Since so much has been written about Steinberg, and because I find that Davis provides some unique and compelling economic arguments, I am choosing to focus on Los Angeles and its disaster culture.

I first found it really interesting that disasters in Los Angeles can essentially be used to prove Keynesian economics correct. Davis quotes a veteran reporter who claimed, “For the Clinton Administration, the Los Angeles earthquake has provided a politically salable reason for doing what it has sought to do for most of its first year in power: pump billions of dollars into Southern California’s ailing economy.” (Davis 48) After relief was provided, especially to economically important sectors, (transportation, technology and the wealthy) the economy of SoCal began to heat up again and return to its status as the most economically productive region of the country. For me this both strongly affirmed the legitimacy of Keynesian economics and highlighted the usefulness of disasters in testing economic theory because essentially post-disaster the entire economy needs to be rebuilt.

I also think it is worth noting that in terms of disaster relief, not much has changed since the Gilded Age, the policy is help the wealthy first, and maybe help the poor if there is still enough time and money left. The image of the houses of the rich in Malibu being rebuilt very quickly and with federal money, while poor elderly minorities were homeless really stuck out to me. This image also reminded me of what we learned about the San Francisco earthquake where the wealthy whites used the earthquake as an excuse to shoot the poor chinese and even had government permission. This government sanctioned inequality provides for an complex ethical debate. Who should we help first? While the poor need it most, the wealthy are most important to getting the economy back on track. It is a complicated issue with no clear answer.

Issues across the Isthmus: The Disaster of Malaria During Construction of the Panama Canal

Issues across the Isthmus: The Disaster of Malaria During Construction of the Panama Canal

The Panama canal is often remembered as a pinnacle of human achievement and as a testament to human ingenuity. More recently, some of the negative aspects of the canal have come into the zeitgeist, but much of the negative focus is placed on the shady political tactics used by the United States. This paper will focus on the hidden killer that ravaged the workers on the Panama canal. Thousands of workers died during construction of the canal, and most of these workers were low-wage minorities. This paper asks, how did, in the context of the American Gilded Age, race manifest itself in the deaths and the reaction to the deaths during construction of the Panama canal? Within this exploration, this paper will explore if social darwinism had a role in these outcomes. Malaria is a disease that humanity has been coping with for thousands of years, yet it took a massive toll on the workers. In India, British colonists had been drinking tonic water for decades to prevent malaria. This paper then examines wether these deaths were a necessary evil or not. Could more have been done to prevent them? This will link up well to the question of race. The Panama canal revolutionized the world economy, and radically reduced the time it took to ship by sea. While heralded by industrialists, did this really help the average American, or world citizen? Finally, this paper asks wether the Panama canal was a necessary evil. Did the costs outweigh the benefits? Who is benefiting? In order to achieve these goals this paper will use a wide variety of sources. First, official construction records will be incredibly useful for numbers and statistics about workers and deaths. It will also help answer many of the economic components of the questions this paper asks.  Then journals would be extremely useful for this paper, but they can be hard to find, especially the journals of poor, immigrant workers, who may or may not be either literate or fluent in english. The journals will probably be most helpful in getting the elite perspective on the canal. Another source for the elite perspective on the canal could be American newspaper articles published during construction and right after completion about the glory of the canal. The hardest sources to find will be the non-elite perspective. For this, secondary source materials on the canal will be the most useful in conveying the feelings of the workers.

Turner: Mentor and Founder

I would like to start by agreeing with AJ’s post, especially his point that Turner’s work is useful and that it does a great job of paying tribute to the pioneers who first tamed “the frontier”. I also think that Eli has done a fantastic job of highlighting the flaws in Turner’s work, and so I will not be focusing on that. Instead, I would like to highlight  what I view as one of Turner’s greatest strengths, his importance in his own time in establishing the field of western history and inspiring a new generation of historians.

One of the biggest criticisms of Turner is his focus on white male frontiersman and ignorance of racial minorities and women. I think that this must be excused because Turner was writing in a time when these groups were not a focus of historical literature.  It also is important to focus on Turner’s influence in mentoring a new generation of historians. Cronon himself admits that Turner was massively beneficial in “shaping as it did a generation of scholars.” (Cronon 161) I don’t think it is too great of a jump to think that Turner’s dramatic and sweeping writing style helped to draw in this new generation of students.

Finally, I found myself thinking back to some of our in-class discussion of disaster as a triggering mechanism for revealing flaws in societal systems. Turner’s frontier thesis has been widely amended and criticized, and in the process a there is now a wide range of strong historical analyzes of the American west. Without Turner to to prompt such a response, who knows if we would have current body of work on the history of the American west?

I really enjoyed reading Turner’s essay and feel that it prompted me to think about a region and period of American history that I often overlook.

Doom and Spoons: An Analysis of Tempest IV and V


Tempest IV and V are magnificent pieces of art by D.C. area artist Kate Kretz that focus on the chaos and doom associated with extreme weather. The pieces were created by etching images of extreme weather, in this case images of tornados onto antique spoons. Kretz’s art often depicts scenes of doom as she is inspired by “nightmares featuring weather imagery specifically several tornadoes hovering on the horizon.” Kretz did not have a specific tornado in mind, but rather used what she knew about tornados and her vivid nightmares when making the piece.

While both Tempest IV and V depict tornados, they focus on different aspects of tornados and highlight different emotions. Tempest IV shows a long, thin tornado shooting out from abstract clouds and rapidly approaching a rural farm. The tornado is almost elegant and in many ways the scene is calm. The farm is still tranquil and there is a sense that the inhabitants have no idea of the doom to come. The abstract clouds provide a feeling of foreboding and the elegant tornado is the manifestation of this waiting evil. Tempest V shows a much different scene. The tornado in this piece is fat and not clearly defined, blending in to the clouds above. The scene is also set in an urban area, and the main feature of the piece is the tornado tearing apart the electric lines. Tempest V has contact between the disaster and humanity and there is no sense of foreboding because the doom has arrived, but in its place are chaos and destruction. It is interesting to note that the “canvas” of the pieces are antique spoons which provides interesting depth to the pieces. The curvature of the bowl of the spoon makes the image have motion and feel dynamic. The color of the spoons also has a great affect on the pieces because the entire image is just different shades of grey. This adds to the negative emotions of the image and makes both images feel as if everything is tarnished and doomed.

Kretz says that extreme weather events have come to symbolize in her mind unpredictability and anxiety associated with dysfunctional family relationships. This notion comes through strongly in her pieces, but as a historian looking through the lens of disaster to me the piece represents much more. This piece is a visual representation of how disaster is a human social construction. Tempest IV shows a tornado in the distance and the main emotion that the piece evokes is a sense of foreboding. There is no anxiety about what the tornado is doing to the non-human sphere, but only a sense of foreboding about what will happen when the tornado makes contact with the human world. In Tempest V the tornado is presently destroying the human world and their is a vivid sense of present evil. Disasters are not a disaster unless they come into contact with the human sphere, it is our reaction to them that makes them a disaster, and thus the whole idea of disaster is a social construction.

The piece also can be used to make a more tornado specific argument: even though tornados occur on a much smaller scale than many other disasters, their devastation is so enormous and all encompassing to those affected that tornados should be a high priority in disaster relief efforts. Tempest V shows how small of an area that a tornado effects, part of a town and its power lines are being completely destroyed while the other half of town is unaffected. It also shows the complete and total nature of the destruction cause by the area affected by the tornado and all the pain and anxieties that those affected feel.

Overall, Tempest IV and V are fascinating pieces that are interesting and provocative to view.