Comparing Disaster Recovery Around the World

There was a time not long ago, in human history, when a faraway nation could experience a wrenching natural disaster that most of the rest of us would not know about for months, or even years, afterwards. The idea that anyone else should or could help the stricken cities or nations recover would have seemed foreign, if not utterly impractical. Help from the U.S. federal government for San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake was minimal and slow to arrive. American involvement in an earthquake at the time in China would have seemed preposterous and quixotic.

2002 planning meeting in Bhuj following the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. Photo by B.R. Balachandran, Environmental Planning Collaborative, Ahmedabad, obtained from Robert Olshansky.

Modern transportation and communications have changed all that, and as we became more instantly aware of hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes in Japan, and volcanoes in the Philippines, we began to realize that there were ways to help—and much to learn. Governments became more aware of a responsibility to assist with planning for long-term recovery, and the field of urban planning, which for decades saw natural hazards as outside its purview, by the 1980s began to undertake systematic studies of how to make recovery more effective. As disasters became more expensive in light of widespread urbanization in recent decades, the stakes have risen dramatically. Researchers and practitioners over the past 40 or 50 years have exchanged data and ideas at major international and national conferences, and national and local policies on post-disaster recovery have evolved rapidly. One can now find a substantial literature on the topic.

One recent and noteworthy entry into this literature is After Great Disasters: An In-Depth Analysis of How Six Countries Managed Community Recovery (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2017; 380 pp.). The authors, Laurie A. Johnson and Robert B. Olshansky, are both highly experienced in the international arena and, I will add, good colleagues of mine in this field. Johnson is an independent consultant based in northern California with past ties to various firms engaged in hazards work. She was a major contributor to Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation (2014), a project I led at the American Planning Association. Olshansky is a professor and head of the department of urban planning at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. The two previously co-authored Clear as Mud (Planners Press, 2010), a book that chronicled recovery planning in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

They have worked in the countries whose disasters they describe in the book: India, Japan, China, New Zealand, Indonesia, and the U.S. These are, of course, vastly different nations in wealth, geography, size, and circumstance, and the question that the authors confront is devilishly simple: Are there lessons from these nations’ experiences in managing long-term community recovery that are transferable? What, pray tell, does flood recovery in Iowa have in common with tsunami recovery in Indonesia or earthquake recovery in India?

My own international experiences have largely been different from those they describe: I have been involved in the Dominican Republic (after Hurricane Georges), Sri Lanka (after the 2004 tsunami), Taiwan, and New Zealand, under varying circumstances, and that very question has grown in my own mind over time. Those experiences have also provided background for assessing the lessons that Johnson and Olshansky derive from the countries they study. I think they do a very solid job of assembling data, shaping the narratives, and drawing useful conclusions from their case studies. At the same time, they make clear what is unique in each country, and where nuances and differences in national frameworks for disaster policy shed light on larger issues.

One fact that is clear from this book is that those national policies are anything but static. Every nation they study is learning from each major disaster and implementing changes over time. Except for New Zealand, these six are large nations with events occurring frequently enough that many of the lessons multiply and reinforce each other. It is equally clear that political history has a major influence on how these nations organize disaster recovery and how it evolves. Teasing out the lessons that are generally transferable is thus devilishly simple. They emerge only after researchers immerse themselves in the details and compare them closely.

For instance, India, like the United States, has a federal system of government. Both nations thus tend to push down to state governments a number of responsibilities that more centralized China and Japan might reserve at the national level. Prior to the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, a state in India’s northwest, India had only a very small disaster management division within its Ministry of Agriculture, a location within the national bureaucracy that itself speaks volumes about how India once perceived the nature of most disasters.

It is worth noting, however, that the U.S. did not consolidate its own disaster relief and recovery functions within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) until 1979, when the agency was created under President Jimmy Carter. The U.S. did not have any federal statutory framework for systematic disaster response until 1950, and created the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968. As the authors explain, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, then completely reshaped the administrative landscape of American disaster management as Congress reacted to those events by creating the Department of Homeland Security and placing FEMA under its umbrella.

The fact that India was at most a generation behind in assuming greater responsibility at the national level should not be surprising in light of its development, but rapid urbanization has also forced reassessment of many issues of federal ministerial structure. India is also a nation that, because of its relative poverty, has relied much more on international assistance, even as it has steadily expanded its home-grown expertise on natural hazards and urban planning.

A sewer line is laid in the old city of Bhuj in Gujarat, India, in 2004. Photo by B.R. Balachandran, Environmental Planning Collaborative, Ahmedabad. Reprinted from the book with permission from authors.

Two weeks after the 2001 earthquake, the state established the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority, led by the chief minister. Like state and national agencies in every other country studied, GSDMA experimented at times, made mistakes and enjoyed successes, and helped rebuild homes and infrastructure. There is no perfect way to recover from disaster, and there are always disappointments. For housing reconstruction, Gujarat, the authors report, employed both an owner-driven plan and a public-private partnership plan. The owner-driven approach had no precedent in India on such a large scale; the earthquake had flattened almost 6,500 buildings and killed 7,000 people. This fact alone illustrates one highly transferable lesson from international experience—that disaster recovery provides a compelling laboratory for such innovation, providing that authorities are prepared to accept the prospect of some measure of failure and to learn from it. A more positive way of making that same point is the “silver lining” theory, which sees disaster recovery as a unique opportunity to advance positive change in a “teachable moment.”

Such lessons take shape in very different cauldrons, however. New Zealand, for instance, which suffered the 2010-2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, the major city of the South Island, has a smaller population than any Indian state or most states in the U.S. The nation is also comparatively prosperous. With only 4.7 million people in an area about 70 percent the size of California, New Zealand has no need to decentralize most government functions, except for rural districts and municipalities. The national government thus found it easy to take control of some recovery functions from the city, and there was no intermediary authority. China, with the world’s largest population, tends to concentrate power but nonetheless also finds some decentralization of recovery functions a practical necessity. In the U.S., however, such power sharing is integral to the system and enshrined in the Constitution. These issues of central authority versus state or provincial and local autonomy tend to set the terms within which the experiments in recovery operate. Moreover, as the chapter on Indonesia following the  2004 tsunami through subsequent lesser disasters illustrates, disaster management institutions are evolving rapidly in developing nations as well as in those with more developed economies such as the U.S. and Japan.

So, what can we learn? This book provides a wealth of detail in its case studies, but the authors note that a key leader of Indonesian recovery efforts stated to them his belief that there are no general lessons to learn because “all disasters are unique.” It is certainly true that each event has its own special context and contours, but that simply makes drawing lessons more challenging, not impossible. The authors conclude with seven recommendations.

The first is to “enhance existing structures and systems to promote information flow and collaboration.” Often it makes sense to retain new agencies or programs because they serve more purposes than simply advancing disaster recovery. Second, the authors emphasize the need for data management, transparency, and accountability. The availability of information is crucial for citizens and stakeholders to make good decisions as they rebuild.

A village meeting discusses details of the post-tsunami resettlement in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, India, in 2008. Photo by Divya Chandresekhar, obtained from Robert Olshansky.

The third point is to “plan and act simultaneously.” The paradox here is that reconstruction can never happen fast enough, yet it is important at times to slow the process down in order to inject some thoughtful deliberation into the process. In short, planners and public officials must learn to work efficiently with limited time to make things happen. In some settings, that may necessitate at least some decentralized decision making to prevent bottlenecks. It becomes essential to learn on the run because not learning can be extremely detrimental.

It is also critical both to budget for the costs of communicating and planning, because these functions are critical to success, and to increase capacity in local governments to make recovery decisions. Effective communication aids empowerment, but so does the ability to hire adequate staff with adequate training. Pushing some of that power and capacity down to individual citizens also expedites decision making. That requires sharing information.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami dramatically affected shoreline communities in Tamil Nadu, India, but fishing families were often reluctant to relocate. Photo by Robert Olshansky (from the book).

The authors also suggest avoiding “permanent relocation of residents and communities, except in rare instances, and then only with full participation of residents.” The risk of forced relocation is greater in more authoritarian and highly centralized systems like that in China, while the U.S. heavily relies on voluntary relocation, and total community relocation remains a rarity. But the consequences of such relocation can be devastating unless the community has bought into the idea and clearly understands how it will benefit—presuming it actually will.

Finally, the authors, again picking up on the theme of time compression after disasters, say, “Reconstruct quickly, but do not be hasty.” Exactly when undue speed becomes haste is, of course, very much a matter of judgment, and good judgment often relies on experience, all of which strongly suggests the value of pre-planning for disasters in order to create the opportunity to evaluate options beforehand and train staff for the eventuality. It might be added that expanding the literature available to them that will expand their familiarity with the issues before disaster strikes is also valuable. This book, in its own way, helps advance that mission.

Jim Schwab

Short Visit to Charlottesville

Few people live for the excitement of radical demonstrations. Most of us want to enjoy life and, if we can, contribute something positive to society along the way. Thus, it is small surprise that, when hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, and engaged in open intimidation of counterdemonstrators the following day, almost no residents were happy, and many made their displeasure clear. In the end, one Nazi sympathizer from Ohio chose to drive his car into a crowd, injuring numerous bystanders and killing Heather Heyer, a young local paralegal with an admirable history of assisting the disadvantaged.

Thanks to extremely unfortunate and ill-considered comments on the matter by President Donald Trump, Charlottesville has become shorthand in many people’s minds for a controversy about intolerance. But what really happens as a community tries to resume normal life after such distasteful episodes? What happens after the intruders, who among other things took issue with the proposed removal of statues of Confederate leaders, finally leave town and go back where they came from? Only one organizer was a Charlottesville resident, not a particularly popular one at that, and the vast majority of right-wing demonstrators were from outside Virginia—a point emphasized by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his condemnation of their activities.

I had the opportunity to visit Charlottesville last Monday. To be clear, my primary motive was to visit two retired friends who moved there from suburban Washington, D.C. They had invited me long before the demonstrations took place. I took them up on the offer largely because I had been asked to speak at the North Carolina state conference of the American Planning Association, which began on September 26. I flew into Richmond the previous day and drove to Charlottesville that afternoon. They wanted to show off their new home town and took me to the University of Virginia campus and then downtown, where we eventually had dinner followed by some late-night conversation. I drove to Greenville, North Carolina, the next morning.

I mention all this because I am sharing casual observations, not dedicated reporting or profound knowledge of the city, which I had never previously visited. Even so, I think my observations have some modest value. For one, Charlottesville is a normal, mostly attractive city, a university town of average size (just under 50,000). It is well forested in places and sports some attractive scenery, like much of Virginia. It is easy to see why people would like living there.

It is also largely a progressive city, not unusual for a community with a strong academic history. The Rotunda, the original core of the University of Virginia campus, was designed by Thomas Jefferson in the years after he retired from the presidency to his home at nearby Monticello. The campus thus has a noteworthy history dating back more than two centuries to America’s earliest days. The university has a noteworthy academic history and has produced its fair share of meritorious scholarship. Historic preservation clearly is part of the university’s DNA.

But that history contains a dark side that long remained unacknowledged until more recent times. Much of Jefferson’s architectural handiwork was achieved with slave labor. The slaves who helped build the campus spent many decades deprived of access to the educational opportunities the university provided. Social justice has become a significant focus of the university’s attention in recent decades, once the civil rights movement had forced the entire state to think seriously about racial equality. This is the state, after all, that in the 1960s gave the nation Loving v. Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

To its credit, however, the University of Virginia has been coming to terms with its history. Surely, one can credit Jefferson for remarkable skills and a certain practical genius in both politics and architectural design. His achievements are not to be gainsaid. At the same time, there is no question that much of his life was predicated on and enabled by inequality and the suppression of opportunity for people of color, enslaved or free. His political courage never extended to the liberation of his African-American servants. University walking tours now include very factual discussions of the role of enslaved African Americans, some of whom were openly abused and maltreated on the antebellum campus. Their story deserves to be told along with that of the leaders who created much of the university’s unique heritage. Brochures and information related to historic buildings suggest that university historians have spent time documenting this history for the benefit of future generations. The contributions of African Americans, willing or involuntary, to the university need to be part of the public record. The educational displays in the Rotunda acknowledge that history.

But it was through this very campus that the Klansmen and Nazis marched on that August night, carrying torches and chanting offensive slogans like “Jews will not replace us.” They made a point of marching in front of a downtown synagogue. I may be Christian, not Jewish, but I can easily imagine how angry I would feel if that were my place of worship. It has never even occurred to me to disrespect someone else’s house of worship in any way. Part of being American, in my humble opinion, lies in respecting other people’s ethnic or racial heritage and freedom of religion. I am aware that there are plenty of examples of disrespect for diversity in American history, but they should fill us with shame, not pride, because they contradict our stated principles as a nation.

Shrouded statue of Gen. Stonewall Jackson in downtown Charlottesville.

As in any such city, the university is a major presence in the life of Charlottesville. But it was downtown where the Saturday rally and confrontations occurred. There seems to be some serious public discontent with the role of the police that day in containing the violence that occurred, quite possibly because public safety officials failed to take seriously enough the full extent of the threat, expecting a much smaller demonstration. Certainly, no one expected James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer from a Toledo, Ohio, suburb to drive his vehicle through a crowd with the express purpose of producing mayhem among those opposed to the right-wing protest, but it also is not clear to all concerned that police had taken all appropriate measures to secure the area to prevent such an outcome. I am not judging; I am merely reporting the apparent public sentiment.

Two statues whose preservation was the object of the protest, those of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, have been shrouded from public view with a “no trespassing” sign to bar fans of the Confederacy from removing the shrouds. I will not take up the arguments about the fate of the statues here. I am merely noting that many would like to see them go, even as others make a case for preserving them. But it does seem to me that there is a serious difference between exploring and understanding the history of the Civil War and providing people who fought to preserve slavery and against the United States with a place of honor on public property. Equating knowledge of American heritage with statue preservation strikes me as simplistic and even disingenuous.

But most striking in this city seeking to reestablish normal life after a harrowing episode involving domestic terrorism and racial hatred is the simple campaign that has been launched to demonstrate a municipal identity in the wake of those events. Throughout downtown, posters and displays proclaim that “Charlottesville Stands for Love.” It is a simple, almost unsophisticated declaration that captures a sentiment that informs the Klan and the Nazis that they are out of place in Charlottesville, that the community simply is not interested in fomenting or disseminating hatred. This is a city looking to the future, not interested in perpetuating the animosities and bigotries of the past. It is time to move on.

The display in the photo above appears in the middle of the downtown pedestrian mall, which reminded me in its design features of the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado. It is a place of small shops, of funky and independent restaurants, of people who accept diversity. It is a place for people to find locally oriented businesses, to relax, to meet each other, and to foster a culture of mutual respect. It is its own message: We all just want to get along and lead productive lives. We have our problems, like any city, but hate is not welcome here.

Jim Schwab

A Brief American Declaration of Intelligence

Ignorance did not make America great. Ignorance will not make America great again. Let’s all vow to stop the glorification of #ignorance.

 

Like millions of other Americans, I have been deeply disturbed over the past week by the comments of President Donald Trump regarding the events last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia. I contemplated what I could possibly do or say in response to someone who seems to possess so little desire to educate himself on the basic issues of U.S. history or to consider the impact of his words on the people threatened by demonstrations of torch-bearing, bat-carrying, shield-wearing neo-Nazis chanting Nazi slogans and white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members invoking the horrors of the Confederacy. I finally concluded there is no point in refuting someone who clearly cares so little for the truth. The truth, in his mind, seems to be whatever he wants to believe is the truth.

Instead, I posted the statement above earlier today on both Twitter and Facebook as an offering to those other millions of Americans who cherish equality and dignity and understand that compassion and truth are the foundations of a better future for our nation. If I can share anything with America, it is a gift for condensing the message in articulate language, and so that is what I tried to do here. It is what I can do for my country at a moment when it is pining for clarity of purpose. We need to honor intelligence and intelligent, thoughtful inquiry concerning the kind of nation we want to become. We must rise above hateful slogans.

One reason I titled this blog “Home of the Brave” was that I felt we should not accede to the appropriation of our national symbols and phrases by extreme right-wing forces at odds with democracy for all. We need to keep in mind the closing words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Those who want more, and those who want to dispute my perspective, can dig through the rest of this website, and the rest of this blog, and parse and dissect it to their hearts’ content. I have left a long trail by now. But for tonight, at this time, my three-word statement above is what I have to offer. Share it, retweet it, put it on your placard or bumper sticker. But please insist on intelligent dialogue.

 

Jim Schwab

Our One-Day Peek at Oslo

Oslo is pleasant, scenic, historic, and modest enough in size to be easily navigated. You can learn a great deal about it quickly, but perhaps not as quickly as my wife and I were forced to do by circumstances. But we thoroughly enjoyed our short stay.

View of Oslo from our room at the Radisson Blu Scandinavia Hotel.

Despite better intentions, we had but one full day to explore Oslo. Our hopes for a second day, as noted in my last article, were dashed by a three-hour United Airlines flight delay out of Chicago that became a six-hour delay in reaching Oslo. In effect, we lost an entire Sunday afternoon that might have afforded us a greater opportunity to learn about the Norwegian capital before continuing to Bergen. But in this piece, I will focus on Oslo.

First, some general comments. Although I will not claim any sort of fluency, I usually try to learn at least the rudiments of the language of countries I visit. The only exception has been Spanish because I learned a great deal in high school and college long before working in the Dominican Republic in 2000 and 2001. In other cases, I have often had a relatively short window of opportunity between learning that I would travel on business to another country and had to cram mercilessly in a painfully limited amount of spare time. The most daunting such experience involved acquainting myself with a tiny amount of Sinhala before joining a team in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. I did much better with Italian in a short two-month window following an invitation to Venice, in part because it bears considerable similarity to Spanish. I thought I had a much longer window in planning our trip to Norway, but it followed my retirement from APA by just six weeks, and spare time was almost nonexistent before that. So, I squeezed most of it into a month, but I learned something important. As a Germanic language, Norwegian bears a substantial similarity to English in many respects, while retaining distinctive Scandinavian characteristics. But that similarity allowed me to begin making sense of things quickly. Once you are in the country, if you know a little bit of the language, you begin making sense of much more of it because of the constant exposure. Even that limited knowledge of the native language of the country you are visiting enriches the travel experience in unanticipated ways.

However, one factor limited that exposure even as it made life easier: Almost all Norwegians these days learn English from early elementary school and are fluent before they reach adolescence. Many then learn a third language in high school. Because of our short visit, however, that may have been just as well. It reduced confusion a great deal. Moreover, in places where tourists abound, such as hotels, airports, cruise ships, and museums, local familiarity with English is virtually universal. This will come as no surprise to veteran European travelers, but is worth sharing, perhaps, with newbies.

As a result, getting suggestions and directions was remarkably easy, enhanced by the almost universal friendliness of Norwegians in responding to visitors. We learned quickly that we could obtain an Oslopass for 24 or 72 hours that would allow us free access to numerous museums, the transit system, and ferries. The ferries were important because we decided to visit Norsk Folkemuseum (the Norwegian Folk Museum), which was in Bygdøy,a peninsula on the western side of Oslo that requires a ferry ride from the downtown area where our hotel, the Radisson Blu, was located. Fortunately, the harbor was at most a 15-minute walk from the hotel.

The path lay through the Royal Palace grounds. You can, by the way, take a tour of the palace, although we noticed that it was not included in Oslopass. With only one day, we regrettably decided to pass on the experience, but we certainly enjoyed the spacious grounds and shot some photos. We then followed our directions to the pier, only to find ourselves also passing the National Theatre, a delightful old building that made me wish we could stay to enjoy a concert. Again, time was our enemy. We shot more photos and continued to the pier, passing Oslo City Hall as well on the way because it sits right near the waterfront.

National Theatret in Oslo.

At that point, we unexpectedly discovered something we inexplicably had not thought about, but which was in the Oslopass package. The Nobel Peace Museum, with exhibits about the history of the Nobel Peace Prize and a nice gift shop for those seeking mementoes or books, sits right across from the dock. It was a wonderful serendipitous discovery, and we decided we would be fools not to visit.

Those less inclined to ponder some of the most serious questions of modern history may not enjoy the museum as we did. The current exhibit dealt with the efforts of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (the 2016 winner) to bring peace to his nation by negotiating a pact with the FARC rebels, ending a conflict that had raged for nearly five decades in some form, costing the lives of thousands of Colombian citizens killed by rebels or paramilitary forces, often in connection with deadly drug cartels. Those stories are sobering enough. But there is a room illuminated by soft glow lights with haunting background music and winding rows of brief explanations about the dozens of Nobel Peace Prize winners since the beginning of the 20th century. One soon realizes, even in a cursory review of their stories, how many people have laid their lives on the line to advance world peace. If you have a decent shred of humanity in your bones, walking through this chamber will be a very humbling experience. It was clear to me that, whatever I thought I had contributed to the betterment of humanity, it pales alongside the sacrifices of these noble men and women.

One of the most striking cases was that of Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist arrested by the Nazis in 1933 and awarded the prize in 1935. Despite his poor health, the German government refused to allow him to leave the concentration camps to accept the prize. He died in 1938, still in the camps. His award infuriated Hitler, and the government demanded that he decline the honor, which he refused to do. Years later, a similar scenario played out in the Chinese government’s angry response to the Nobel committee honoring dissident Liu Xiaobo, who later died while under house arrest. Speaking truth to power remains a very hazardous occupation.

It was still only late morning when we emerged and found our way to the nearby Bygdøy ferry. The ferry provided its own joy as we exchanged cameras with nearby couples for photos. Not sure who among our fellow passengers spoke what languages, I overheard a family conversing in Spanish and asked them if they would shoot our photo. I immediately learned they also spoke English and were from San Diego. They obliged, we obliged, other people obliged, and we all ended up with something better than selfies because we had made some momentary friends. It did not matter that we would probably never meet again; we had broken the ice for our short journey across the bay on a sunny, breezy day.

And so, we all went our own ways once we went ashore. Bygdøy has two primary attractions for visitors, the Viking Ship Museum and the Norwegian Folk Museum. My wife opted for the latter, although I might like to have found time for the former as well. In either case, the route involves walking uphill along a charming residential street and then following signs to the museum of your choice. This apparently prosperous residential area features very attractive hillside vistas above the harbor.

Exhibit hall at the Norsk Folkemuseum.

The Folkemuseum can easily justify several hours of devotion with indoor and outdoor exhibits. The indoor exhibits are in large brick buildings closer to the Visitor’s Center and gift shop near the main entrance. They include some Norwegian art, a rather frank photographic discussion of both Sami culture and the history of social discrimination against the indigenous Sami people, for which the Norwegian king and queen issued a formal apology in recent years, and the difficult role of homosexuals in that environment. There is also a display concerning the role of the Reformation in Norwegian history and culture. In the 16th century, as many people are aware, Norway broke from the Roman Catholic Church to become a predominantly Lutheran nation. Several centuries earlier, Norway and Sweden experienced dramatic changes when Christianity was introduced into a previously pagan Viking culture. Scandinavia was never the same again, and Viking culture, as such, ceased to exist.

Life in those times could be harsh and bleak in Norway because, despite the striking beauty of the landscape, it was also difficult for farming. Much of the land is mountainous, and landholdings were generally small. These and other factors drove much of the immigration to the United States by the 19th century. One gets some sense

Stave church at the museum.

of this history from looking at the preserved barns, farmhouses, and other buildings in the numerous outdoor exhibits that line dirt walking paths throughout the museum’s domain. While my wife chose to sit and rest at one point, I climbed a hill on the eastern end of the museum grounds to find a preserved stave church at the top. To my surprise, the interior did not seem very big, and it also seemed largely dark and foreboding. A painted communion scene illustrates the wooden walls behind the altar. Stave churches relied on wood construction without nails, using the skills of medieval master craftsman to fit supporting beams (staves) into perfectly fitted crossbeams to create what today is a precious piece of the world’s architectural heritage. I acquired a book about this phenomenon and have learned that, while medieval Norwegian Christians built about 1,000 of these structures, only 29 remain, largely in the hands of preservation organizations. The Gol church I saw was slated for demolition when it was replaced in its home town by a new structure in 1882, but King Oscar II of Sweden purchased it and donated it to the museum, which then reconstructed it on its current site in 1885. While a mere handful of stave churches continue to function as parish churches today, most experienced salvation as this one did, usually being acquired by one of several preservation organizations functioning in Norway, which typically reopen the buildings as museums as a means of supporting their efforts.

By late afternoon, however, we caught the ferry back to downtown Oslo. We wandered along the waterfront, checking out the menus in the various waterfront restaurants until we found something sufficiently Norwegian to satisfy our curious palates. (Oslo, like any major city, has developed a diverse cuisine and imported other cuisines that provide a range of options for citizens and visitors alike.) We ended up at Louise Restaurant & Bar. My wife decided to be brave and try cheek of beef, which she had never had before, while I opted for salmon; as we often do, we exchanged samples. Frankly, her choice had much of the taste and texture of pot roast and was much less exotic than she feared. Both dishes included other well-prepared ingredients that added to their appeal, such as potatoes, kale, and cauliflower. Although a retired Norwegian airline pilot we met later informed us that other restaurants in town were less expensive, we relished the waterfront ambience on the last evening we would spend in Oslo. I understand his perspective; I don’t often eat at waterfront restaurants in Chicago, but that is in part because they occupy such familiar territory. We were in Oslo just this once, and we meant to enjoy it. When we were done, we hiked back to our hotel and settled in, knowing we would need to rise early the next morning for an adventure I will describe in the next installment.

Jim Schwab

On the Question of 70-Year-Old Men

There is no doubt about it. President Donald Trump’s latest tweets have rightly triggered a firestorm of disgust and angry responses. The personal attacks on MSNBC reporters Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski have revealed a level of meanness and misogyny even Trump’s most craven defenders find impossible to ignore, with the exception of his White House press team, whose jobs, of course, depend on continuing to justify whatever he says. Thus, we have deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reminding us that, when Trump feels attacked (read “criticized”), he feels compelled to “fight fire with fire.” The problem is that he typically goes off the rails with comments of little substance or truth that would cause most other people to be fired and led out of their office by security. But he is, after all, the President. The people hired him. Or at least, that portion of the public voting in the right places to comprise a majority of the Electoral College even as he lost the popular vote by roughly three million.

My focus in this essay, however, is different from all that, although connected to it. I do not intend to reprise Trump’s acid tweets or analyze or parse or dissect them. My target is certain members of the television punditocracy who should know better and are insulting senior citizens in the process of criticizing Donald Trump. The fact that Trump is their target does not blind me to the ignorance of one statement some reporters have repeated so often I have not kept track of exactly who has said it or how often: “Donald Trump is a 70-year-old man, and 70-year-old men don’t change.”

Poppycock. This is a lazy excuse for failing to take a closer look at the real problem in his case. It is also a display of ageism that should not go unchallenged, certainly not any more than Trump’s misogyny. It is an expression of bias that needs to stop.

Slicing the cake at my APA retirement party, May 31. Not that was I about to disappear to a Florida golf course. Photos by Jean Schwab

I will reveal a personal stake in this debate. In little less than two and a half years, I will be one of those 70-year-old men. At 67, it is not just that I feel very little in common with Trump’s world view. It is that I know in my gut that I remain capable of change, that I have core principles that I hope will not change, and that I have one fundamental quality that Trump appears to lack—that of spiritual, moral, and intellectual curiosity. I approach 70 in the humble knowledge that I do not know everything, have never known everything that matters, and that I never will know everything that matters. I also approach 70 in the certainty that my thirst for new knowledge must remain until my last breath, barring any mental deterioration that might forestall such curiosity. I recall a friend of mine, who had read a biography of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, telling me of book, Honorable Justice (by Sheldon M. Novick). Although the passage does not appear in that book, he noted a story in which newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt is visiting the retired 92-year-old man and finds him reading Plato.

“Why do you read Plato, Mr. Justice?” Roosevelt asks.

“To improve my mind,” Holmes responds.

Which gets us to the problem of the current President. It is commonly said that he does not spend much time reading. Reading is one activity that informs learning, and learning inspires change, and therein lies the problem. We have a President who is so certain of his own superiority, who, on the wings of inherited wealth, has spent so little time being challenged on his core beliefs, that he has not acquired the habit of intellectual curiosity. This is the only trait that truly explains his poorly informed intransigence on climate change, immigration, election fraud, and numerous other issues where his depth of knowledge often appears paper-thin. It also explains his intense, narcissistic preoccupation with personal image reflected in comments about other nations laughing at “us,” and in his perceived need to strike back at anyone who merely disagrees with him, however honest and honorable that person’s disagreement may be.

To what can we attribute this sad state of affairs? Clearly, not just to Trump himself. After all, despite the distortions in popular will wrought by the Electoral College, no one can win the Electoral College without being at least close to a plurality of the popular vote. No one with a weak base of voter support can even hope to win the nomination of either major party in the United States. Inevitably, we must look at the nature of the support that launched Trump into the White House.

There can be little doubt that some of that support involved a level of dislike or dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton that allowed voters to overlook the manifold shortcomings of Donald Trump, although polls surely indicate that many are now reassessing that comparison. Let’s be honest. Clinton had her own baggage and an imperious style that turned off a large part of the electorate. She could have spent far more time with blue-collar voters in the Midwest but chose not to. Whether Sen. Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump, we will never know. History does not afford us the luxury of testing such scenarios. Sanders did not win the nomination, and there is little more to be said. Better luck next time.

Colleague Richard Roths (right), still stirring the waters and challenging conventions in his own retirement, alongside Benjamin and Rebecca Leitschuh, former students (of both of us) and co-workers (of mine), at my APA retirement party.

What I want to emphasize, however, is that Trump’s lack of intellectual curiosity, and his remarkable ability to tune into similar qualities among people very unlike him—the working-class voters worried about job security—reflects a sullen streak in American culture that has long glorified ignorance. Mind you, I am not saying that white working-class voters all fall into this category. I emerged from that environment. My father was a truck mechanic. I have met and known many union members and leaders with much more generous and positive attitudes. (I am married to a Chicago Teachers Union activist.) I am speaking of a particular tendency that can be found anywhere but tends to assert itself in uncertain economic times and under certain cultural circumstances, such as those highlighted by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.

There is a cultural tug-of-war within America that is as old as America. It is between the intellectual innovators and their curiosity and all the changes they have wrought that have launched this nation to international leadership in technology, literature, and science, and those who willingly disparage the value of education, knowledge, and curiosity, whether out of jealousy or resentment or stubbornness. There is an element of social class attached to it, but more often it transcends class. Sometimes, aspects of both traits can be found in the same person. For all his innovative genius in science and politics, Thomas Jefferson remained a racist to his dying day. On the other hand, another “70-year-old man,” his contemporary George Washington, rose above his heritage long enough at the end of his life to free his slaves, upon his wife’s death, in his will, believing that the institution of slavery would need to wither away. Jefferson did no such thing.

So, we fight this war within ourselves at times, and as we do, we need to acknowledge it in order to overcome it, so that our biases are not petrified in old age. Trump seems to have chosen the opposite course. Unfortunately, he won election by tapping into an anti-intellectual streak in American politics that runs rampant across age groups, although we can hope that the worst biases are dying off among the young. But beware of the mental calcification that can start at an early age.

Deene Alongi, to my right, will begin managing speaking tours for me this fall. I may have a few things to say!

Seventy-year-old men and women can readily change. Having retired from APA just a month ago, I am rapidly acquiring new routines, setting new goals for the coming years, and trying to think new thoughts. Like Holmes, I cannot wait to read books new and old, and I want to remain intellectually challenged. I hope everyone following this blog has similar aspirations. It is the only way we will keep our nation, and indeed the entire world, moving forward and confronting challenges in a positive way.

And I don’t want to hear one more ignorant reporter talk about how “70-year-old men don’t change.” To them, I say, look inside yourself and ask why you are saying such a thing. Is it because you anticipate being stubborn like Trump when you reach his age? Perhaps you have some biases of your own to overcome.

Beware: From now on, I may start recording reporters’ names when I watch the TV news and hear comments about old men not changing. And I will call them out when they repeat their ageist slurs.

 

Jim Schwab

New York City, Water, and Resilience

I was never a New York native, but I did not feel entirely alien, either, when I returned for the first of four visits to the area in January 2013, following Superstorm Sandy. My father lived in Queens most of his life and left only when my mother, who was from Cleveland, insisted on moving. New York City was not to her liking, and she wanted to go home. But my paternal grandparents remained on Long Island until they died in the 1960s, and we often visited. I was born in Bayshore Hospital, one of seven that were evacuated during the storm. My father had told me about living through the “Long Island Express,” the famous 1938 hurricane that also swamped much of New England. I was not a total stranger. I was certainly aware of many of the cultural traits that make New Yorkers famous (or infamous), though I think some consist more of popular stereotype than reality. But there is a certain toughness that comes from living in the Big Apple, even if it’s different from the toughness I have learned from my eventual attachment to Chicago, the alleged “City of Big Shoulders.”

Hence, despite all the vulnerabilities connected with a city of eight million people that is nearly surrounded by water, I instinctively understood the connection of the city with the concept of resilience. The city has withstood more than Sandy—this was the site of the worst 9/11 attacks, after all—and responds well to challenges. There are no feet of clay; the foundation of Manhattan is bedrock. But any map of the city makes clear that every borough but the Bronx is an island, and even that is a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides.

What brought me to New York after Sandy was a decision by the American Planning Association to assist our New York Metro and New Jersey chapters in preparing their members and communities for the arduous task of post-disaster recovery. To be honest, ours was a contribution more of solidarity and expertise than of resources, which had to come from the massive allocations of federal funds used or distributed by federal agencies, led mostly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). What mattered to our members was our presence, our ideas, and the time we spent preparing and delivering a series of training workshops in April 2013 on planning for post-disaster recovery. It is fair to say that, as manager of APA’s Hazards Planning Center and the ringleader of that training effort, Sandy recovery dominated my life for the first half of 2013. And this is all context for my observations in reviewing a relatively new book from Island Press, Prospects for Resilience: Insights from New York City’s Jamaica Bay, edited by Eric W. Sanderson, William D. Solecki, John R. Waldman, and Adam S. Parris. Contributors include biologists, geographers, and engineers, among others with a wide range of expertise that contributes to the book’s comprehensive approach. its utility is clearly greater for professional practitioners in planning, civil engineering, public administration, and allied fields, as well as for academic researchers, than for purely casual readers.

Map from Gateway National Park, National Park Service, website. https://www.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/map_jbu.htm

The book focuses specifically on Jamaica Bay, although New York City matters greatly as the municipal government making critical decisions that affect the bay’s resilience. Jamaica Bay, however, is an interesting case study of the intersection of geographic, ecological, industrial, and urban planning factors in both weakening and enhancing the overall resilience of a highly stressed water body and the urban neighborhoods that line its shores. The book’s most noteworthy feature is not any one approach to the subject of resilience for Jamaica Bay, but the way in which it seeks to cross disciplinary lines to undertake a thorough analysis of the prospects for building resilience in an area like Jamaica Bay. Researchers there may have much to share with those examining other ecologically challenged urban water bodies across the nation.

It is important to understand the geographic context of Jamaica Bay, an area familiar to most people (including many New Yorkers) primarily as the scenery below the airplane as it makes its descent into John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). The airport, in fact, has a significant impact on Jamaica Bay because it sits at the eastern end of the bay in Queens, the linchpin between the rest of Long Island and the Rockaways, a long, densely populated peninsula that stretches west from JFK and forms the southern boundary of the bay. That, in turn, means that the Rockaways, home to 180,000 people, is extremely vulnerable in a major storm like

Fire devastated Breezy Point during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Cleanup lasted for months. Photos courtesy of James Rausse.

Sandy. The Rockaways suffered some of the worst damages from the storm, including a fire that tore through Breezy Point, destroying 130 homes. Because of its isolation at the end of the peninsula, and the storm surge that inundated it, it was impossible for fire trucks to respond to the conflagration. For those curious about the origins of a fire in the midst of a flood or hurricane, it is worth remembering that a surge of salt water can easily corrode and short out electrical wires, triggering sparks. Much of New York’s subway system, well designed to pump out normal stormwater, was shut down during Sandy for the same reason.

What makes Jamaica Bay matter enough to devote nearly 300 pages to the subject? It is a great laboratory for resilience. The dense urban development that surrounds the bay stresses the natural ecosystems of the bay, whose biological composition has changed radically over time. The late 19th century witnessed the growth of a viable fishing industry, including oyster harvests, but pollution from sewage disposal and industry brought that to a sudden halt by the 1920s. The same factors reduced the bay’s recreational potential as well. Only in the last few years have there been efforts to restore the oyster beds, but like most such efforts, they will require ongoing research and attention to succeed.

Just as importantly, human communities need to become more resilient as part of a larger social-ecological system because the city is not about to disappear. There simply will be no return to pre-urban conditions. Urban stormwater drainage, sewage disposal, industrial activity, and transportation all have impacts that good urban planning must mitigate or prevent in trying to maintain a healthy urban relationship with the natural environment. Serious scientific inquiry may provide some answers. Greater levels of awareness and connectedness by area residents to the marine environment can also help, but that has often not been the case. An entire chapter explores neighborhood and community perspectives on resilience around Jamaica Bay. Few seasoned urban experts and planners will be surprised to learn that New York generally, and the Jamaica Bay watershed, feature remarkably diverse neighborhoods in terms of density, ethnicity and race, and income level, all of which influence those perspectives and influence community goals. New York is also a remarkably complex city in which residents of some areas in Queens can feel isolated from the center city in Manhattan, but may also feel more secure in their isolation. It is noteworthy that some areas at the western end of the peninsula were heavily populated by public safety personnel. All this influences people’s perspectives on proximity to, and connection with, the waterfront and public understanding of the relationship between human settlement and the ecological health of the bay, which is not always straightforward in any event. People can exert both positive and negative influences on that relationship. The good news is that the authors found that Sandy and the recovery process that followed had some useful impact on the perceptions that underlie those actions.

Given all that complexity, it will also be small surprise that the resilience of Jamaica Bay and its surrounding development is affected by a complex network of overlapping jurisdictional responsibilities that are sometimes in conflict. In addition to the city and its boroughs, a variety of federal and state agencies with varying agendas and authorities, including the New York-New Jersey Port Authority (responsible for airports including JFK), the National Park Service (Gateway National Park), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (climate and coastal zones), overlay the influence of numerous private organizations and academic institutions. Add the flood mitigation and post-disaster recovery responsibilities of FEMA, and one is suddenly confronted with a multicolored collage that for some people can become bewildering.

The case of NOAA is interesting in that climate change is likely to affect the frequency of extreme weather events, which may further test the resilience of an already dynamic social-ecological system. As a scientific agency with significant meteorological and climatological expertise, NOAA has contributed to the array of modeling tools helping to analyze resilience in Jamaica Bay, although academic and other institutions have added to that toolbox. What is important ultimately is to bring together the various strands of research in cooperative efforts for integrative management. The good news, well described toward the end of this book, is that such cooperative efforts have produced the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay for that purpose, with participation by decision makers from local, state, and federal agencies to help resolve those conflicting missions and adopt a comprehensive systems approach to the challenges facing the area. Let us hope that those decision makers, and the public officials controlling their resources, have the wisdom to maintain hard-won progress. As is true of many other areas in the U.S., those responsible for the health of Jamaica Bay have much work to do. The rest of us have much to learn from what they are doing and a stake in that progress.

 

Jim Schwab

Words That Move America

Chicago, a city that has spawned at least its fair share of writers and attracted many more, has spawned a national museum dedicated to people who propagate the written word. The American Writers Museum (AWM) opened May 16 at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, situated amid a dense ecosystem of museums, parks, and other cultural attractions that make living in Chicago such a stimulating experience. Let me just state the basic premise up front: If you live in Chicago, or you are visiting, and you care about or have any curiosity about literature, this is worth a visit. It is not a huge museum, at least not now, and you need not worry that it will take all day. You can spend all day, but you can get a great deal out of it in two or three hours if you wish.

Literature, in the context of AWM, does not only mean fiction or poetry. One point that was immediately obvious to me during a visit last week was that the museum takes a broad view of both “writers” and what constitutes “writing.” Communication comes in many forms, and the museum seeks to explore how those forms change in response to numerous changing conditions in American society. AWM President Carey Cranston reinforced that point with me during a brief walk-through when I arrived, before turning me loose to make my own assessments of the exhibits. Thus, in the various displays one can encounter Charles M. Schulz, the author of the “Peanuts” comic strip, which made points about life, love, and laughter just as surely as Jane Jacobs, discussing the status of urban planning in the 1960s in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Jean Toomer in Cane, an intriguing mix of fiction techniques that shed life on African-American life in the early 20th century. Creativity is not bounded by genre. It helps define genre.

Hold that thought for a minute while I explore with you the big question that drove me to visit in the first place. It is obvious enough how some other museums dedicated to natural history (Field Museum, e.g.) or technology and science (Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, or the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.) make their subject visual and sometimes even tactile with displays of dinosaur skeletons or space capsules, accompanied by videos that help patrons relive the experience of exploring the moon. How does one take the words of poems, novels, memoirs, and other types of written expression and make them come alive in an institutional setting? After all, any library can create a display of the ten best novelists by simply stacking the books along a display counter to draw attention. As readers, we engage with these works by buying or borrowing the books and, well, reading them. So, what makes an American Writers Museum a vivid encounter with its subject matter?

One answer lies in the timeline that greets you just to the right of the front desk after you enter. Running from 1490 to the present, it is not, as Cranston noted to me, a display of the best writers America has ever seen, but instead provides an emblematic display that allows you to see the relationship of major themes in American history to the writing American authors have produced. The United States of America, an independent nation for only half of that time and a maze of Spanish, French, Dutch, Russian, and British colonies as well as native societies at various times before and since, is rich in historical themes that have inspired literary responses. The vastness of a continent new to Europeans . . . . the interaction of cultures . . . . Civil War and its aftermath . . . . the struggle for civil rights . . . . the fight for dignity and identity for American Indians . . . . immigration and the assimilation of new peoples and cultures . . . . industrialization and its impact on a formerly agrarian nation . . . . America’s emergence on the world stage. One could go on, and one could navigate the endless subthemes and nuances of each topic, which is precisely what American writers, whatever their origins and perspectives, have done for more than five centuries.

Opposite the timeline, and complementing it, is a wall with the names of prominent writers on small boards built in that one can turn for additional information. Many, though not all, feature short videos one can launch with a finger touch that illustrate important points. I played with one for Ray Bradbury, one of my own favorites dating back to high school. The video quotes part of Fahrenheit 451 while showing a pile of books being consumed by fire. Alongside Bradbury’s name is a theme, in his case, Dystopian Literature; this occurs with each writer to help show the range of genre that American literature has produced, how it has responded to both contemporary and larger issues, seeking to excite the visitor’s imagination. Whether intentional or not, it excited mine simply by introducing me to writers previously unfamiliar to me, which is saying a lot. There are American writers of whose work any of us may know little or nothing but who have the potential to stir our thoughts and prod our consciences. That has always been the mission of good writing.

Near all that is a current, periodically changing exhibit, the Meijer Exhibit Gallery, which demonstrates some of the most potent creativity the museum has on display. Its first exhibit displays the work of poet W.S. Merwin, about whom I confess I knew nothing, but who is now a source of fascination for me. The small room one enters for “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness,” features a haunting 12-minute video with no human presence except for the soft voice-over of narrators reading from Merwin’s work dealing with the complex and problematic relationship of humanity and nature. The video features the view from inside a cabin in the Maui rainforest, redolent with the sounds of birds and insects and the abundance of life beneath the forest canopy. You may stand or sit on a simple bench and contemplate this immersive adventure into the mind of a poet. Merwin, now 89, has produced more than 50 volumes of poetry, according to the brochure that complements the exhibit, which discusses writer Gregory Bateson’s concept of an “ecology of ideas,” the network of impressions and perspectives that form our conscious and subconscious minds. Since the late 1970s, Merwin has lived in Hawaii on an old pineapple plantation he has restored to its natural state.

As a Lutheran, I found one other thing haunting. Merwin is a practicing Buddhist, and the brochure contains a typewritten, hand-edited draft of a poem called “Place.” It begins:

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

Curiously, for years, I have known that Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is upon us, and I know these two men came from very different places to express the same thought. But if a 16th-century religious reformer and a 20tt-century Buddhist poet can reach the same conclusion about the resilience of our commitment to the earth and the stubbornness of faith, perhaps there is hope for us all, after all.

AWM will be sponsoring events in a modest meeting room that features another challenging exhibit, “The Mind of a Writer,” which explores the connections between writer and audience. Professional writers clearly cannot earn a living without an audience, and the practical questions are both how to define and shape that audience and how to reach that audience. The “reach” forces us to explore the role of technology and institutions in facilitating those connections, which clearly have evolved over time. Displays make us think about the evolution of the book shop, starting with the Moravian Book Shop, launched in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1745, largely to import religious publications, but continuing into such modern innovations as Oprah’s Book Club, using the medium of television to connect viewers with writers; bookstore chains such as the now defunct Borders; and Amazon, allowing people to order books through the Internet. Of course, writers have also used periodicals, which in their heyday relied very much on the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service, as well as other media. Playwrights do not expect people to read their writing, but to hear it on stage. Screenwriters reach people through televised performances of their scripts, and so on. All of that got me wondering whether AWM missed a beat by not discussing the Internet not only as a mechanism for selling printed works but as a medium in itself for digital publishing. After all, the very premise of my visit was to review the museum not in print but online, by blogging. Maybe I missed it, but where was the discussion of blogging as one of the most modern innovations in audience creation? Anyone out there? Judging from the list of subscribers on my admin site, it would seem there are thousands. In the aggregate, probably hundreds of millions. It’s a brave new world. But I suspect it may not be long before AWM addresses this phenomenon.

Just beyond this area is a section where you can sit at an old-fashioned typewriter and play. The staff each day places sheets of paper in a tray with the opening lines or fragments of famous quotes. Your job: start pecking away to fill in the blanks with your own thoughts about how the quote should end. For writers like me who are almost preternaturally oriented to the computer screen, it is slightly disconcerting to hit keys that sometimes skip, but the experience is indisputably tactile, though arguably less so than perhaps using a quill pen. In any event, there is a wall with clips. You are invited to hang up your work when you are done. I did not get around to asking what the staff does with these at the end of each day. Maybe you should ask when you visit.

I hope you are more dexterously agile than I appear to be with one other exhibit that allows you to move any of a number of drifting images across a screen for a surprise exploration of an individual writer’s work. One of several lines of inquiry allows you to hear a short oral reading, but I had trouble triggering that feature because my index finger seemed not to hit the precise part of that line that activated the recording, at least not on the first try. I found myself a little frustrated, but a generation that has become adept at using its thumbs to tap out smartphone messages may be more adept in this respect. I was never very skilled with video games, either. We all have our limitations.

There are other features, including one on Jack Kerouac that includes the “scroll manuscript” he pasted together for On the Road, and a room on Chicago writers, since the museum lives here. I am sure there will be more in the future. The museum leaders appear to have built out their infrastructure of sponsors and board members, and if you’d like to know more, you can visit the website. That is not my mission here. As an active American writer, I hope I’m offering you reasons to visit the museum itself.

 

Jim Schwab

Beyond Tradition and Empire

Image

The Republic of Botswana, a paragon of progress in today’s Africa, did not start life with any apparent advantages. In fact, the former British protectorate of Bechuanaland, which became independent Botswana, appeared in the 1950s to have bleak prospects, in no small part because of archaic British colonial policy. Nearly surrounded in the post-World War II period by South Africa, which was in the process of establishing its notorious apartheid policy, the colonial backwater of South-West Africa that later became independent Namibia, and the white-run Rhodesia that morphed into modern Zimbabwe, Bechuanaland was a sparsely populated land of desert and scrub that seemed fated to be swallowed by more powerful neighbors. Yet today it is both one of the most prosperous of African nations and a functioning democracy, although like any nation it has its flaws and shortcomings. But it has maintained an uninterrupted series of democratic elections since independence, a claim few African nations can make.

Seretse Khama. Image from Wikipedia

Seretse Khama. Image from Wikipedia

A curious and stunning piece of personal history lies behind the story of Botswana’s independence, which occurred in 1966. The heir to the chieftainship of the Batswana people, the nation’s predominant ethnic group, was in London in the years after World War II to study law while his uncle ruled the nation as a regent. The British had established their protectorate in 1885 after King Khama III had appealed to them in the face of rising threats from South Africa and other neighbors. With a population at the time of little more than 100,000 (now 2 million), Botswana would have been helpless in the face of invasion. Moreover, Botswana had mineral resources, including diamonds, that made the country a potentially attractive target. In the midst of all this, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of this fragile country, managed to fall in love with an English working woman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a typist.

A United Kingdom, a movie based on the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams, tells the story that followed from this unlikely romantic adventure. It is a little difficult at first to fathom exactly how these two become so strongly attracted to each other, but the story is based on real life, so we know they did. It’s just that it would be nice if the movie did a somewhat better job of making clear how that happened. It is clear enough that in post-war England, prejudice against black Africans remained widespread. Knowing this makes it important to better understand how Ruth Williams found the courage to face down family disapproval and societal racism to decide that, when Khama proposed to her on a London bridge, she was prepared both to move to a poor rural African nation and to assume the role of an African queen.

The disapproval occurred on both sides. Khama’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama, wanted him to divorce Willliams, and failing that, wanted to send him into exile to spare the country division over the issue. Khama refused to do either and insisted, against the advice of the British officials, most notably Alastair Canning (Jack Davenport), the condescending British liaison to Bechuanaland, that the case be presented to an assembly of the people, then all male. (It should be noted that Canning never existed. In the film he is a fictitious composite of various British colonial officials.) But in this format, we can already see the seeds of modern democracy in Batswana culture, an open forum in which people could hear and judge for themselves. Following the uncle’s denunciation of the marriage, Khama passionately makes his own case for remaining both king and the husband of his English mate, and after some tense moments of thought, the men side with him. Uncle Tshekedi moves on to form a new settlement where they no longer need to live together.

But then the machinations begin. British diplomats, worried about South African ambitions and opposition to interracial marriage, work behind the scenes to oust Khama anyway. Khama turns out to be no one’s fool; he notices that mining explorers are on Batswana land without permission and quietly enlists a British journalist to investigate, and it becomes clear that his nation may both be resource-rich and the target of those who would exploit it before Khama can assert the nation’s right to control those resources, which ultimately turn out to be diamonds. Meanwhile, the British are using the dispute between uncle and nephew to manipulate the situation for their own geopolitical advantage.

The story that follows shows both the workings of democratic dissent in the United Kingdom (the movie title is clearly a play on that name with reference to Botswana) and the dishonest nature of imperialism. Labor Prime Minister Clement Attlee seems bent on catering to South African wishes despite opposition within his own party. British officials lure Khama to Britain to negotiate a settlement, then ban him from returning for five years. Amid all this, the king and his wife must endure the burden of prolonged separation while she is pregnant and gives birth in Bechuanaland to their first child, a daughter. We watch her convictions and commitment grow as she blends in with the people she comes to love despite the skepticism many first felt about her.

Back in England, meanwhile, Winston Churchill, in a bid to return to power as prime minister, promises publicly to return the young king to his throne. Once his Conservatives regain a narrow majority in Parliament, however, he reverses course and declares a lifetime exile for Khama. Despite widespread adulation of his role in the fight against Hitler, there was a dark side to Churchill that wanted to cling to the glory of the declining British Empire. Increasingly desperate both to reunite with his wife and to save his country from these designs, Khama finally manages to get permission to return for one week to meet with his uncle and settle family affairs. Khama uses that opportunity brilliantly by convincing his uncle of the need for national unity. Overcoming the weight of tradition, they agree to forsake the traditional monarchy and seek independence with free elections, upending the British ban on Khama’s rule and setting the stage for eventual separation from the UK within the Commonwealth. In due course, by 1966 Khama was elected the first president but honored democratic principles and set the stage for a much better history than most other African nations have experienced. Moreover, the nation has largely lifted itself out of poverty, with average annual income rising from about $70 per year to nearly $20,000 today. A Texas-sized nation in southern Africa, two-thirds of which is Kalahari desert, has grown a substantial middle class and educated its citizens. Somewhere, there is a moral in this story. It strikes me that the moral centers on courage and leadership and vision, which are often in short supply in this world.

And all that means this movie deserves more attention than it will likely get, but I’d like to hope that it will get that attention anyway. It is a powerful antidote to much of what we still see happening in the world today. It reminds us that one can stand for dignity in politics and make change accordingly. And while you’re watching A United Kingdom, enjoy the dramatic South African scenery, the lively romantic plot, and the brilliant acting. It is a movie, after all.

 

Jim Schwab

The Voice of Identity

For many Americans, including numerous prominent Republicans, one of the more troubling phenomena in the 2016 presidential election was the rise of certain groups who seem to attach their own identity to resentment and rejection of those who do not fit traditional images in our culture. The frequently demonstrated reluctance of Donald Trump to distance himself from advocates of white nationalism or supremacy served only to reinforce a sense of unease about the direction our nation was taking. The situation raised some disturbing questions about who we are as a nation at the same time that it also revealed a very real sense of the loss of possibility among those who embraced the Trump messages. Before we hasten to condemn this trend, it is important to keep in mind that many of the people who launched Trump into the White House have felt a very real unease of their own, a feeling of losing their footing in what they experience as a stagnating economy. The feeling transcended party boundaries and went a long way toward explaining the surprising popularity of the Bernie Sanders candidacy in the Democratic primaries. This great stirring is far from over just because Trump won.

I do not raise this issue to reach any partisan conclusions or even to address it in any specifically political terms. But I was moved to think about it in part after observing some of the more blatant instances of racist prejudice in post-election interviews with the likes of Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute. Spencer grabbed some attention with a speech that included the phrase “Hail Trump,” a barely veiled echo of “Heil Hitler,” and, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, made clear his dream is “a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans,” and has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” It is hard to imagine how ethnic cleansing can possibly be peaceful, so I think one can hardly be blamed for suspecting deceitful propaganda. No matter how many disclaimers the alt-right may use in trying to reframe its identity, the old stench of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi movements refuses to go away.

But I want to make a larger point and then delve into the very question of how we frame identity, and how it frames us. Our sense of identity can be both liberating and oppressive, both loving and resentful, thoughtful and downright stupid. Spencer, in a recent television interview, effectively expressed the notion of simply claiming his white identity in the same way that blacks take pride in theirs. Many on the alt-right take pains to note how much white people have contributed to our society as a means of expressing dominance. This is rather simplistic for the obvious reason that our society long was of predominantly European origin, so it stands to reason that most of our heritage bears that mark. But it is not nearly so simple as all that. The whole notion bears some dissection.

What has come to be identified as the African-American experience, for starters, resulted from a forced common experience of bondage in which most slaves lost any or most of their specific African heritages under circumstances that were not only unquestionably racist but involved violent subjugation as well. It is no accident that black slaves often readily identified with the biblical story of the Israelite release from slavery. Liberation movements throughout world history have played a role in forging new identities through struggle. The fact that the struggle has continued to this day in the form of civil rights battles has served only to strengthen those ties.

And yet—one needs only to observe the assimilation into American society of African and Caribbean black immigrants to realize that there are subtleties and variations in the African identity. President Barack Obama himself, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a Kenyan student at the University of Hawaii, struggled in his youth to establish his own sense of identity, which did not come from claiming slave ancestors in the Deep South. In current American society, one can see expressions of Ghanaian culture, as well as of Ethiopians, Nigerians, and Somalis, all arriving long after the most bitter civil rights and liberation struggles have been fought, seeking to establish their own ethnic identities in a very diverse America. The tapestry is ornate and continues to enrich American society with everything from new cuisines and artistic expression to new ways of understanding what attracts people to the American dream.

These variations and nuances extend to the frame of “white American” experience. Because what became the United States of America began with English colonies, the experience of early Americans was very English in nature—but not entirely. Early on, the British empire absorbed Dutch and French settlers into its universe, as well as a modest number of American Indians who intermarried. (It should also be noted that perhaps one-fourth of African-Americans have some American Indian ancestry, in no small part because of slaves escaping to Indian communities and integrating and intermarrying over time. See Black Indians for just one interesting exposition of this fascinating history.) Over two or three centuries, “white” America gradually absorbed more non-English elements, beginning with the Irish and Germans, and eventually including all sorts of largely non-Protestant immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as well as Lebanese, Turks, and others.

All these people brought with them unique cultural attachments. For example, Greeks brought not only their Orthodox church, but numerous specific perspectives on the world based on their own historic and philosophical outlooks, all tempered over time by new experiences in the New World. In many cases, those initial experiences included some discrimination and challenges in becoming American. Any serious student of American history is aware of such phenomena as the Know-Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s, a period when factory doors often sported signs indicating that “Irish need not apply.” Tensions boiled over at times, including one notable instance in Chicago in 1855 known as the Great Lager Beer Riot. Know-Nothing Mayor Levi Boone sought closure on Sundays of the pubs and bierstuben that the Irish and German workingmen patronized, and a confrontation erupted. Boone became a one-term mayor, and his initiative came to naught.

The targets of white-on-white discrimination shifted over time into the early and even mid-20th century, as assimilation proceeded and various nationalities won grudging acceptance. American literature is replete with very personal interpretations of these experiences from Norwegians, Lebanese, Greeks, Russians, and others trying to find their place in American society. One astute student of the subtleties of this evolution, Mel Brooks, generated the biting and wickedly comic satires Blazing Saddles. I have long felt that movie, which I have watched several times, offers far more insight than meets the unlearned eye into the sometimes explosive mixture of influences that shaped the American West. My own discerning eye for the subtleties of this movie came after living in Iowa for more than six years and researching a book on the farm credit crisis, as well as marrying a Nebraskan, all of which made me very aware of the diverse ethnic communities that comprise much of the West. Rural America is not nearly as monochrome as many urban Americans imagine it to be.

Let me return briefly to the phony vision of the alt-right. What I have just described should make abundantly clear that the notion of “white identity” can have only one purpose. That purpose is white supremacy and the oppression of minorities because the overall “white” experience in America is itself so diverse and has evolved so far from its English colonial roots that the only possible meaning one can attach to this “white identity” is that of suppression of any other form of identification with the meaning of “American.” I also do not think a blog article like this can do more than scratch the surface of this subject. Whole books have been devoted to the formation of personal and collective identity in the American melting pot without successfully exploring all the nooks and crannies of the issues involved. Nonetheless, I strongly believe we must keep this subject open for further exploration. We have little choice if we want to understand both ourselves and what is happening around us.

I also want to make clear that I do not believe that Donald Trump is endorsing white supremacy. What troubles me is his willingness to exploit this sentiment to advance his political ambitions. Many of the obvious splits within the Republican party had as much to do with the discomfort of Mitt Romney, John Kasich, John McCain, and the Bush family, among others, with this exploitation of prejudice as with any other stance that Trump took. These past Republican leaders simply found themselves unable to stomach such intolerance. Trade and foreign policy issues are fair game in a presidential contest, but for reasons related to his own view of the imperative of winning at any cost, there is little question that Trump took the low road in making his arguments. That choice will leave him mending fences for the next four years if he truly wants to be president of “all the people.”

Ultimately, our collective national identity is a composite of the many individual identities we construct for ourselves. Some of us construct these identities carefully and deliberately over many years, and others simply accept inherited attitudes, privileges, or resentments. But one of the central claims of the conservative right has been that America has traditionally been a Christian nation. That is a position that, in some respects, also ignores the freedom of religion that is enshrined in the First Amendment, which includes the right of people to observe other faiths or no faith at all. But I would prefer to confront white identity on Christian grounds both because I am willing to claim Christian identity and because real Christian faith flatly excludes white identity: “For in Christ there is no longer Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male or female.” (Galatians 3:28) Saint Paul did not need to add “black nor white” to make his point perfectly clear. The only thing that is remarkable is how often this simple point is missed or ignored.

Another piece of Christian wisdom is well known and comes directly from Jesus (Luke 12:48), that from those to whom much has been given, much also is demanded. I can think of few things more appalling than to waste one’s life and talents disseminating hatred and bigotry in a world badly in need of greater love and understanding. An honest search for our collective or personal identity demands both an open mind and respect for our fellow citizens. I can think of nothing that would ever alter my perspective on that final observation.

Jim Schwab

Deepwater Horizon

I have just returned tonight from seeing Deepwater Horizon at the movie theater. It has been a while since I used this blog to review a movie, but I feel compelled. This one, I am willing to say, is well worth your time and money. Peter Berg, as director, has done an outstanding job in using special effects to recreate a realistic sense of the disastrous chaos that ensued when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately spilling more than 5 million barrels of oil over 86 days before the leak was plugged. Mark Wahlberg stars as Mike Williams, a leading member of the crew, along with Kurt Russell as Jimmy Harrell.

I will not dwell here on the details of what happened, which are well documented and readily available on numerous websites about the worst oil industry accident in American history. On the evening of April 20, 2010, the rig, owned by Transocean, exploded and burned as a result of a blowout deep below the water’s surface. BP owned the drilling rights in the area, known as the Macondo Prospect. Eleven men died, and numerous other workers were seriously injured. Billions of dollars of damage to the Gulf Coast environment ensued, resulting in a huge political backlash that ultimately entailed pressure from the White House on BP to establish a $20 billion fund to compensate victims including the states and communities affected by the oil pollution that spread across the Gulf.

The entire environmental and political story might make a good movie and certainly is great material for a documentary, but that is not the focus of the movie. Nor does it have much to do with my recommendation. Instead, the movie calls our attention to the intense human cost of the event among the workers themselves and their families. The value of the stunning special effects is not to make the event surreal, as in most Hollywood productions, but to make it all too real. For most of us, the events of the Deepwater Horizon spill are abstractions, and most of the television news coverage featured polluted shorelines and bayous, tarred and dying birds, and similar scenes that typified the larger impacts of the accident.

In contrast, Deepwater Horizon the movie draws our attention to the traumatic experience of actually working on the rig and exposes us to the tensions between Transocean workers and BP officials. The high human cost among the crew, involving not only physical suffering but traumatic escapes from the burning platform, are the less well understood aspects of the entire event, but the movie makes you feel those impacts at a very intense and personal level. I will admit it forthrightly: the movie left me with tears in my eyes as I began to absorb the horror that unfolded and almost surely left most of these people scarred in the deep recesses of their souls. Several, the movie indicates, never returned to sea or the oil industry again, but moved away from Louisiana and moved on to other things in their lives. It is worth remembering the high price they paid for the shortcomings of BP management.

 

Jim Schwab