It was a boojum . . .


Illustration credit: Théophile Steinlen [Public domain] (1898) via Wikimedia Commons

Toward the end of our class meeting last week with Paul Schwartz, Paul’s comment about the “rescuer/hero narrative” in regard to the Flint crisis gave me pause. I have seen references to a similar paradigm in the Flint Water Course, which describes instances in which people came into the city to help and assumed that the residents were “country bumpkins who didn’t know anything.” (Flint Water Crisis Course, October 13, 2016)

I understand this dynamic quite well, and Paul’s mention of it made me recall my own experiences. Some years ago, my husband died suddenly, leaving me alone to raise four angry children who did not understand why their father was not with us. My family became a beneficiary of various social services, which means that several professionals were tasked with getting me the help that I needed to put my family on track to recovery. In practice, the professionals from different agencies could not come to a consensus about a relatively trivial matter, and their itinerant, chaotic approach to “helping” us was actually harmful. My family soon escaped further harm by moving away. A month later, we were visiting a family advocate who had befriended us, and her neighbor told her that she had heard of us. We were famous! One of the agencies that failed to help us changed history and was touting our “case” as their own achievement: “We changed this family’s life.” It turns out that the harm continued after we moved away because we were objectified.

What resonated with me about Paul’s comments was the idea of the fishbowl of victimhood, the insult of self-proclaimed rescuers drawn to the limelight of a crisis to glean some personal glory through self-accolades before they vanish.

What does this have to do with the boojum? A boojum is “a particularly dangerous kind of Snark,” and both are creations of Lewis Carroll in his famous 1876 nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark. To me, the Snark is symbolic of the chaos of bias, prejudice, and reckless disregard for truth. Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks of boojums and Snarks in relation to these concepts. In 1993, Eileen Byrne wrote Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome, which discusses women’s access to science and technology in higher education. Byrne coins “the Snark syndrome” to describe beliefs that have no credible basis, that have been internalized through use, then are institutionalized and used to justify decisions and policy. I often felt that my situation was being over-sensationalized, with truth being pushed aside in favor of rumor and innuendo. When I took exception to such misinformation creeping into school reports, I was stonewalled. Does this sound familiar? What widows have in common with ordinary citizens is that both are subject to being marginalized by those with elite or authority status. Have we seen the Snark Syndrome in our studies of Flint and Washington, DC this semester? I believe we have.

Byrne, E. M. (1993). Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome. Falmer Press, Bristol, PA.

Carroll, Lewis (2006) [1876]. The Annotated Hunting of the Snark. Edited with notes by Martin Gardner, illustrations by Henry Holiday and others, introduction by Adam Gopnik (“Definitive Edition” ed.). W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-06242-2.

The Flint Water Crisis Course (2015). https://www.umflint.edu/flintwatercrisis. October 13, 2016 (Session 3).

Dr. Sarah Bailey, CEO of Bridges into the Future, Inc., presents at the Flint Water Course on October 13, 2016.

4 Replies to “It was a boojum . . .”

  1. …and the boojum being the most dangerous kind of snark – causing something to “softly and suddenly vanish away”.

    Thank you for the post Monica and the book reference.

  2. “What I tell you three times is true,” said the Bellman in the opening stanzas of The Hunting of the Snark. Now that Eileen Burke has called out the Snark syndrome in science, I am starting to see the prevalence of the Bellman’s fallacy.

    The late Space Shuttle Columbia was a casualty of the Snark syndrome. There had been prior instances of foam shedding during launch, potentially damaging to space shuttle thermal protection components, on multiple missions. Because prior damage had been relatively benign, “foam strikes” were not considered a serious problem, and this view was internalized by NASA management and used to formulate policy and make decisions. The Snark syndrome in deadly action. Perhaps this is what Lewis Carroll had in mind when he conceived the boojum as a dangerous and deadly Snark variant.

    The damage that Columbia sustained during its fatal mission STS-107 was confined to a reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) area rather than the fragile glass-coated silica tiles. The RCC was durable, and NASA’s collective thinking about its durability evolved into characterizations of the RCC as impenetrable and indestructible (like the Titanic). Snark syndrome again! Only this time, the Snark was a boojum, and Columbia indeed vanished away, as Lewis Carroll eerily foretold a century before.

    Columbia was my Space Shuttle, the project that I worked on as a NASA co-op. My group at JSC tested conceivable potential anomalies with the thermal protection system. But not inconceivable ones, like breach of the RCC.

    Columbia tile paperweight from STS-1
    Piece of Columbia’s HRSI tile from STS-1 encased in lucite (1981)

  3. Thank you for this thought provoking (albeit painful) post. Thank you also for the reference to Eileen Byrne’s book. Sounds fascinating.

    How interesting that you raise the idea of “perpetuating harm,” even after the original harm has stopped or diminished. And how interesting that, as you suggest, the perpetuating harm can be different in quality and impact from the original harm and can take the form of a story/narrative/idea/interpretation of events that can reinforce the victim’s silencing and marginalization. I can relate to this myself. I know that when reporters/writers contact me to interview me about DC, I get nervous about the additional harm they can inflict just from misrepresenting, or presenting incompletely, what I share with them (which has happened numerous times). Frequently I find myself trying to weigh whether the potential harm is likely to be greater if a) I proactively silence myself by declining to talk or b) my words are misused to feed a master narrative that does not reflect my experience. I wonder if reporters/writers receive training on the power they have to perpetuate harm simply by telling people’s stories.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this: in the case of Flint, what about the “rescue” narrative do you find “Snark”-like (i.e., infused with bias, prejudice, or reckless disregard for truth)? Do you think there are ways that promoters of this narrative could learn to see more complex dimensions and realities in the situations about which they write? Do you think there are forces that prevent them from achieving this? Or make achieving this difficult?

    On a different note, if it’s easy to share with us the exact link to the Flint video you quote in the opening of your post, I would love to see it. Thank you!

  4. Victim blaming has long been a normative practice in modern capitalist societies. The perpetrators probably don’t do this intentionally or even recognize it, but the practice is widespread. I believe I understand part of the reason.

    In order to feel safe, it is necessary for the rescuers to insulate themselves from harm by creating a protective shield between themselves and the victims. To do this, they must widen the “gulf” by emphasizing the differences between the victims and themselves. If the victims are members of lower socioeconomic strata, this is easy to do. The “gulf,” or locus of differences between victim and rescuer, is the very definition of inequality. Inequality must therefore be perpetuated and increased (which is what happens with neoliberalism) for the rescuers to feel safe.

    For a city like Flint that is built on a large working class, which descends into an underclass when deprived of livelihoods as large industry decays, the differences between victim and rescuer are stark. “They” (the Other) choose to live in those neighborhoods. “They” reject dominant cultural values and prefer alternative medicine, education, entertainment, religion. “They” don’t do enough to elevate themselves from poverty. No wonder “they” have problems and need to be rescued.

    When there are not obvious differences between victim and rescuer, the rescuer must construct an artificial “gulf” by assigning more blame to the victim. To behold a victim like me, married to one husband for 16 years, a member of a profession with a master’s degree, a homeowner raising children in suburbia, drinking bottled water and flossing, must be downright scary. If my problems are not my fault, then all of society is vulnerable to having the same problems that I have had. Instead of extending a helping hand in a spirit of equity, the process of “helping” the victim must necessarily include a construction of the victim as the Other. In Flint and Washington, DC, have we not seen a disproportionate effort directed at perpetuating false narratives? For me, just one small example was the aforementioned school reports containing fictions that I was not even permitted to challenge, lest I upset the narrative of “Otherness.”

    Yanna, you mention bias, prejudice, and reckless disregard. Those are among the first-line tools of victim-blaming. Is anything off the table when it comes to building a self-protective shield around the rescuer? My take is that the victim should fear the rescuer with greater trepidation than the problem that cast one as victim in the first place. But don’t tell anyone, or you’ll be blamed for not wanting to take drugs to allay your “anxiety.” Drugs which no doubt will take the edge off one’s will or ability to protest the violence of secondary victimhood.

    Perpetuated harm: I think about my deceased husband sometimes, but I cannot escape the perpetual hurt of evil that was done to me by false agents parading as rescuers, and there is no aspect of my life it has not pervaded. The best I can hope is to turn it to good by making me a crusader for equality.

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