An echo is also a choice

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Adam Hochschild
  • Adam Hochschild
One of the more promising programs of the recent Chicago Humanities Festival was to be a three-way conversation with Adam Hochschild, a founder of Mother Jones magazine, Monika Bauerlein, coeditor of that magazine, and Tom Engelhardt, creator of the blog and newsletter Tomdispatch.com. Their subject, to quote the festival, was going to be "what it means to write carefully and edit thoughtfully at a time when both crafts seem out of fashion."

Unfortunately, bad weather stranded Englelhardt in the east, and Bauerlein was a little too deferential to Hochschild for their exchange to strike many sparks. A provocateur would have been welcome, and as the hour ended an opening for some mischief came and passed.

A member of the large audience in the Francis W. Parker auditorium said he was puzzled that Hurricane Sandy didn't seem to have harmed Mitt Romney in the polls. So Bauerlein asked Hochschild if he thought Sandy had made climate change register on Americans in a way that "years and years of pontificating" didn't, and Hochschild replied that it hadn't—at least, not yet.

"There’s a certain gear people get into when they watch natural disasters," he said. You're watching police rescuing people from rooftops "and of what you're wondering is, is that child going to be rescued and winched up into the helicopter—yes, she is! OK! I think there's a gear we get into when we're reading, or watching about natural disasters, Isn't this terrible! Oh, those poor people who are suffering! You know where can I donate to help? And so on. I don't see enough people drawing a larger connection.

"It's a a little bit hard, because you cannot say, this hurricane was caused by a change in climate. . . . Weather is so complicated that you cannot ascribe responsibility that easily. But you certainly can point to the larger pattern . . . "

But isn't it strange, the original questioner broke in, for a storm the size of Sandy to hit New York in late October?

"It ends up being about the echo!" said Bauerlein, neatly segueing into a closing comment. The two of them had been talking throughout the hour about the echo—the resonance of a well-told story that that is greater and more lasting than the story itself. "I don't think we know yet what the impact of this specific hurricane on people's thinking will be, but the hurricane also has an echo. As journalists, it's our obligation to set it into a larger context, to set the story of the little girl on the rooftop into a larger context, so that you can connect to that one moment but you can also see that there will be other little girls for years and years to come in other disasters. Eventually, I think, if we tell the story well, those echoes settle into a change in the conversation."

On that note the program ended and the audience filed out. But a provocateur might have insisted on a word or two examining that obligation. There's more than one larger context, he'd have offered; there's context sure to please all of you good people, but others that would comfort the people you think of as fools. A journalist willing to identify Sandy as yet another sign that we near the end of days won't lack an audience. Does that journalist, serving that audience, meet his obligation?

Or for instance . . .

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, had his say about Sandy in his magazine's December 6 issue. His say was heavily colored by the storm's decision to wallop his home town, New York City. In the grip of what his piece calls "the solipsism of situatedness"—that is, the context of it having happened to him—Wieseltier let her rip. Calling Sandy only "the most recent of the devastating proofs" of climate change, he asserted, "the repudiation of climate sciences deserves to be universally regarded as intellectually and socially disreputable, the ravings of cranks and the scheming of capitalists at their most contemptible."

Meanwhile, syndicated columnist George Will, nursing his wounds after the recent election (he'd predicted a Romney landslide), put climate change in an entirely different context. "For the seventh consecutive hurricane season," he grumpily noted on Thanksgiving Day, "none hit Florida. After Katrina in 2005, climate-change prophets said major (Category 3 or higher) hurricanes would increase. None has hit the U.S. since that year, the longest period without one since reliable records began being kept in 1851."

I would never tell a journalist to avoid context. But readers need to keep an eye out for big pictures more self-serving than helpful.

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