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) . 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).