Sunday, July 30, 2023

A new course on the terrible twentieth century

I've spent the last several weeks designing a new honors course for juniors on the catastrophes of the twentieth century. It's not a "history" course, and it's not a philosophy course. Instead, I conceive of it as a learning experience for our honors students aimed at deepening one's capacity for coming to understand the past as human reality. It is practice for taking historical knowledge seriously, and how to do so. I've tried to pick out readings that both illustrate the human intensity of the catastrophes and the individual experiences of several especially evocative contemporary observers. Here is the course description:

The course takes on the largest challenges of the twentieth century – war, genocide, racism, socialism, dictatorship, and fascism. It considers the catastrophes that states and dictators have created for millions of human beings, and it looks as well at some of the ways in which human beings can strive for freedom and equality in the modern world. Many of the readings are chosen in order to find a single person’s human voice on these enormous catastrophes.

There are a handful of permeating issues that are woven through the topics and readings: the harsh inequalities of life created by the capitalisms of the 1930s; the recurring racisms that occur in the American South, Nazi Germany, and Hindu-Muslim hatreds in India; the powerful creations of fascist dictatorship that arose in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union. And there is an overriding philosophical question throughout the course as well: is it possible to create a working social democracy that ensures the freedoms and equality of all members of society?

These are general historical questions. But the course aims to help students to gain an experiential understanding of the practical human circumstances represented by these moments of suffering and catastrophe that occurred from Wigan to West Bengal, from Babi Yar to Kursk, and from Alabama to Oklahoma. George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier offers an honest and specific account of the lives of coal miners and their families. Arthur Koestler's Invisible Writing expresses Koestler's particular experiences of Communism, Stalinism, the Holodomor, and the Gulag. Vasily Grossman's writings about Treblinka and "Ukraine without Jews" passionately express this honest journalist's observations and compassion in reaction to the murder of the Jews of Berdichev (his home city and the place his mother was murdered by the Nazis) and throughout Poland and Ukraine. Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem Babi Yar expresses vividly the horror of the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Kiev -- and the silence of the USSR about this atrocity. The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror offers students a contemporary description of the murderous violence of the Nazi dictatorship -- and a case study in propaganda and the Big Lie. Varlam Shalamov's short stories about the Gulag in Kolyma Tales are personal and gripping. Tom Joad, the protagonist of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, speaks for many of the powerless men and women destroyed by the Great Depression, and the photography of Dorothea Lange and other Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers help to make these testimonies vivid for students. The poetry of Langston Hughes and a narrative of the Scottsboro case give students a direct exposure to the violence of the Jim Crow regime. And V.K. Ramachandran's extensive interviews with an Indian landless worker trapped in debt bondage (link) will give students a much deeper understanding of oppression, domination, and exploitation in India. In each case my goal is to help students connect to these historical human experiences in ways that give them a more intense sense of engagement with these human realities.

I find it intriguing that many of the texts I've chosen are far from "canonical" -- in fact, most of them have probably had almost no readers in decades. Who has read Koestler's autobiography, The Invisible Writing? And yet Koestler offers a powerful and engaging first-person account of many of the most terrible events of the century. It is sobering that such expressive and truthful voices from the relatively recent past can disappear so quickly from popular imagination. Even the Road to Wigan Pier, though not forgotten entirely, is rarely read or discussed when the question of a just social system is considered.

Whenever I create a new course I find that I learn new and unexpected things. In this case I learned about the 1933 book, The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag. The Reichstag fire was the stimulus to Hitler's seizure of dictatorial powers and the beginning of his rule by massive violence. But there is a mystery: who was responsible for this arson? Koestler refers to the Brown Book in Invisible Writing, and I thought it might be a useful contemporary assessment of the Hitler dictatorship. According the the title page of the book, it was "prepared by the world committee for the victims of German fascism with an introduction by Lord Marley". The book gained wide exposure internationally, and it offered as fact a conspiracy theory of the arson: that the arsonist Arinus van der Lubbe had acted on the instructions of Nazi officials (Göring and Goebels) for the purpose of providing an incident justifying Hitler's seizure of extra-constitutional power. The Nazi theory of the arson was equally conspiratorial; the Nazis claimed that van der Lubbe was a Communist agent working at the orders of higher-level Communist officials. But the facts turn out to be quite different. The Brown Book was not the product of "neutral anti-fascist activists", but rather the work of the propaganda office of the Communist International. And there was no supporting evidence whatsoever for either the Brown Book claim or the official Nazi story about the conspiracy. Both narratives, it now seems certain, were pure propaganda, and van der Lubbe acted alone. There was no conspiracy.

Here is the summary offered by Anson Rabinbach in "Staging Antifascism: The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror" (link):

The campaign around the Brown Book and the trial of Georgi Dimitrov and the other defendants in Leipzig from September to December 1933 was so skillfully managed that it persuaded many observers outside Germany as well as reputable historians until the 1960s that the fire was the work of a Nazi conspiracy. (97)

The book and the campaign that accompanied it was the creation of Willi Münzenberg, the renowned international communist impresario and Reichstag deputy who earned the title "Red Hugenberg" for his organizational empire, which included the International Workers Aid (IAH), numerous dailies and weeklies, journals, and the highly successful illustrated weekly Arbeiter Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ), with a circulation of nearly half a million. (100)

And, it emerges, Arthur Koestler himself had a minor role in the Comintern propaganda machine. Here are comments from Invisible Writing:

I ARRIVED in Paris in the middle of the Reichstag Fire Trial, which was holding Europe spellbound. The day after my arrival I met for the first time Willy Muenzenberg, Western Propaganda Chief of the Comintern. The same day I started work at his headquarters, and thus became a minor participant in the great propaganda battle between Berlin and Moscow. It ended with a complete defeat for the Nazis—the only defeat which we inflicted on them during the seven years before the war. (237)

The 'we' in this context refers to the Comintern's propaganda headquarters in Paris, camouflaged as the 'World Committee for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism.' I arrived in Paris, as I have said, in the middle of the battle, and my part in it was a subordinate one. I had to follow the repercussions of the trial, and of our propagands, in the British Press and in the House of Commons, to study currents of British public opinion, and draw the appropriate tactical conclusions. For a while I also edited the daily bulletins which we distributed to the French and British press. (242)

And so the homeric battle of blind-man's-buff between the two giants ended. It had taught me that in the field of propaganda the half-truth was a weapon superior to the truth, and that to be on the defensive is to be defeated. It taught me above all that in this field a democracy must always be at a disadvantage against a totalitarian opponent. My years with Muenzenberg have made me sceptical regarding the West's chances of waging 'psychological warfare' against opponents like Hitler and Stalin. For to wage effective psychological war the West would have to abandon precisely those principles and values in the name of which it fights. (249)

This is an important topic for students to consider when they think about the twentieth century: how can we sort out the lies from the truths and half-truths about important historical realities? Spin, conspiracy theories, concealment, and obfuscation are strategies of falsification of history that are all too familiar -- whether in the political journalism of the 1930s, the French De Gaulle government's narrative of the fate of French Jews during the occupation, or the pervasive lies that shape public opinion on social media today. (Once, while visiting a university in Asturias, Spain, I overheard a passionate disagreement between the provost and the head librarian over whose troops had attacked the university during the Civil War -- Franco's troops or anarchist miners. Each person had family stories and memories, and their accounts were diametrically opposed.) How can ordinary citizens cultivate their capacity for critical reading and thinking that will help them sort out the truth about issues they care about?

This is one reason that I have such admiration for Marc Bloch and his Historian's Craft (link). Bloch embodies what are for me the central moral commitments of the historian: fidelity to the facts as he or she has uncovered them, and a willingness to allow the historical evidence to be the final arbiter for historical belief. This is not to doubt that there are problems for debate about the interpretation and validation of historical data; but the historian should not put a thumb on the scale to support his or her own preferred ideology.

Monday, July 24, 2023

The generation of the Freedom Riders

The courageous Catherine Burks-Brooks passed in early July in Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of 83. The New York Times ran an extensive and moving obituary for her this weekend (link), and the piece is important reading in today's world of "forgetting" of our recent history of racist violence in the United States. Burks-Brooks and her fellow Freedom Riders risked their lives to bring Jim Crow racism and oppression to an end. Violent organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, abetted by segregationist public officials, did everything in their power to prevent change in the segregated south. And yet the Freedom Riders continued.

Burks-Brooks was an inspiring example in 1961 when, as a senior at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University, she joined with hundreds of other courageous young people in defying the Jim Crow South's stubborn refusal to comply with the 1946 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation on interstate buses and trains (link). With leadership and support from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality, nonviolent but determined groups of students boarded buses in defiance of racial segregation of seating. The violence that met these Freedom Riders was brutal and unchecked. 

And yet these young people persisted, and as a result of their courage and persistence the Kennedy administration finally asked the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the law of the land. 

It is vital to recall that the struggle for justice and equality was not waged on "social media", and it was not simply a question of safely demonstrating in the streets. Rather, it was an organized resistance to injustice that exposed these young Americans to violence, jail, and occasional murder. Only three years later civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were brutally and viciously murdered in Mississippi. This atrocious crime occurred only months after the Mississippi murders of Medgar Evers, Clifton Walker, Henry Dee, and Charles Moore, and two years before the murder of Vernon Dahmer. Burks-Brooks herself was jailed several times and spent nearly a month in a brutal Mississippi state prison. The stakes were incredibly high, and these young people had the courage to rise to the task. 

It is a very sad fact that the most cherished goals of these young heroes from sixty years ago are still in doubt: full racial equality, and full rights of democratic participation and voting. The continuing effort in southern states to limit voting rights and to gerrymander districts to reduce the impact of African-American voters; the effort by politicians in states like Florida and Texas to tell "happy stories" about the history of slavery and racism in the region; the persisting disparities that exist across racial groups (of all incomes) with regard to health, education, employment, and property ownership -- all of these facts show that the work that brave young activists like Catherine Burks-Brooks and her contemporaries is not finished. And the threats and violence that she and others faced with equanimity should remind us that resisting injustice is never easy, never safe -- and yet permanently important for ourselves and future generations.

Governor DeSantis, how do you propose to address the wide gap in health system performance scores between black and white Floridians (link)? Are you satisfied that "Mortality amenable to health care (per 100,000 population)" for black Floridians (137) is 67% higher than that for white Floridians (82)? Do your job, Governor, and stop lying about the history of racism and slavery in the United States!

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Regulatory failure in freight rail traffic

On any given day some 7,000 freight trains are in motion around the United States, with perhaps 70,000 individual freight cars and intermodal units in transit daily (link). (Here is the US DOT Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) website, which provides a fair amount of information about the industry.) Freight rail is big business, with record profits over the past several years. And it is occasionally an industry prone to accidents, failures, and disasters. Most recently was the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train, resulting in the release of a large amount of vinyl chloride, a flammable and toxic chemical, near the town of Palestine, Ohio. The full extent of this catastrophe is not yet known.

Derailments, crashes, fires, and explosions make the news. But there is a more insidious process at work as well: the relentless effort by the large freight rail companies to increase profits by increasing the volume of freight and reducing costs. And -- as is true in many other risky business operations -- reducing costs has worrisome consequences for safety (link). Reducing personnel is one way of reducing costs, and crew size on freight trains has been reduced substantially. There were only two crew members on the Palestine, Ohio train (engineer and conductor) that derailed, and the industry wants to preserve the freedom to reduce the cabin crew to a single engineer (link). Increasing the number of cars -- and therefore the length of individual trains -- is another way of reducing costs for a ton-mile of transportation; and sure enough, trains are now traveling around the country that are substantially more than a mile long. Another strategy for cost "containment" is the strategy of tightening operations in and around large rail yards, streamlining the process of re-mixing cars into trains with different destinations. And the tighter the schedules become, the more tightly-linked the system becomes. So a disruption in St. Louis can lead to congestion in Pittsburgh.

The railroad companies and the Association of American Railroads make the case that the rail safety safety record has improved significantly over recent years; link. And it is of course true that there is a business case for maintaining safe operations. However, it is plain that voluntary efforts at maintaining public safety are insufficient when they conflict directly with other business priorities.

Rail operations and business management plainly involve risks for the public; so government regulation of the industry is crucial. But the economic power of railroads -- today as well as in the 1880s -- allows the companies, their associations, and their lobbyists to block sensible regulations that plainly serve the interests of the public (plainly, at least, to neutral observers). Because railroads are largely a form of interstate commerce, states and local authorities have little or no ability to regulate safety. Instead, this authority is assigned to the Congress and the Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration. And yet the hazards created by railroads are inherently local, and local and state authorities have almost no jurisdiction.

Consider the photo above. It is a freight train stopped across an unguarded rural rail crossing in Michigan. The train will sit across the road for an extended period of time, from ten minutes to an hour. And the relatively few people who use the road to get to work, to take children to school, to go shopping or bowling (yes, we have bowling alleys in Michigan) -- these people will simply have to wait, or to take a circuitous route around the obstruction. Fortunately in this local instance in Michigan the blockages are relatively short and there are other routes that drivers can take.

But turn now to York, Alabama, as reported in the July 15, 2023 New York Times (link). Peter Eavis, Mark Walker, and Niraj Chokshi describe a chronic problem in this small town on a rail line owned by Norfolk Southern. "Freight trains frequently stop and block the roads of York, Ala., sometimes for hours. Emergency services and health care workers can't get in, and those trapped inside can't get out." "On a sweltering election day in June 2022, a train blockage lasted more than 10 hours, forcing many people, some old and ill, to shelter in an arts center." And the problem is getting worse, as freight trains become longer and longer, with more frequent (and longer) periods in which a train blocks a crossing.

The article makes the point that state and local laws aimed at regulating these blockages have been regularly overturned by the courts, and efforts to introduce Federal remedies have failed. "Congressional proposals to address the issue have failed to overcome opposition from the rail industry." The article indicates that the lobbying efforts of the rail companies and their industry associations are highly effective in shaping legislation and regulation that affects the industry. They report that the rail companies and the AAR have spent $454 million in lobbying over the past twenty years, including campaign contributions to key legislators. They also make the point that the extent of the problem of extended blockages of rail crossings is poorly documented, since there are more than 200,000 rail crossings and and only a low level of reporting of individual blockages. Long freight trains are part of the problem, because trains longer than a mile exceed the length of many sidings that were previously used to manage train traffic without blocking crossings.

This is a familiar problem -- the problem of industry capture of regulatory agencies through the use of their financial and political resources. The industry wants to have the freedom to organize operations as they see fit; and their first goal is to maintain and increase profits. The public needs regulatory agencies that depend on neutral expert assessment and rule-setting that protects the safety of the families who are affected by the industry; and yet -- as Charles Perrow argued in "Cracks in the Regulatory State", all too often the regulatory process defers to the business interests of the industry (link). He writes:

Almost every major industrial accident in recent times has involved either regulatory failure or the deregulation demanded by business and industry. For more examples, see Perrow (2011). It is hard to make the case that the industries involved have failed to innovate because of federal regulation; in particular, I know of no innovations in the safety area that were stifled by regulation. Instead, we have a deregulated state and deregulated capitalism, and rising environmental problems accompanied by growing income and wealth inequality. (210).

Blocked crossings are an inconvenience of everyday life for many people. But they can also lead to life-threatening situations when ambulances and fire vehicles cannot gain access to scenes of emergency. Leaving the problem of blocked crossings to the railroad companies -- rather than a sensible set of FRA rules and penalties -- is surely a prescription for a worsening problem over time. As Willie Lake, the mayor of York, put the point in the New York Times article: "They have no incentive" to make substantial changes in their operations to substantially improve the blocked-crossing problem. The FRA needs to provide clear and sensible regulations that give the companies the incentives needed to address the problem.

(The Washington Post ran an extensive story in May on blocked rail crossings, with examples from Leggett, Texas; link. The National Academy of Science is conducting a study of the safety implications of freight trains longer than 7,500 feet (link).)

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Trump, Hitler, and the politics of legality

Christopher Browning is a noted and respected historian of the Nazi period and the Holocaust (link). His October 2022 article in the Atlantic on "the politics of legality" during Hitler's march to power is an extremely serious warning to all of us who care about our democracy in the United States (link). It is a brilliant and sobering analysis -- all the way down to the role played in Hitler's rise by "The Big Lie". Highly relevant to the situation of far-right extremism and MAGA in the US today is this shift of Hitler's strategy described by Browning:

Hitler’s lesson from the failed putsch was that he needed to pursue revolution through “the politics of legality” rather than storm Munich City Hall. The Nazis would use the electoral process of democracy to destroy democracy. As Hitler’s associate Joseph Goebbels said, the Nazis would come to the Reichstag, or Parliament, as wolves to the sheep pen. By 1929, the press empire of Alfred Hugenberg had embraced and even financed Hitler as a right-wing spokesperson, giving him nationwide exposure and recognition.

Hitler's "legal" seizure of power began with the irregular appointment of Hitler as chancellor in 1933. This office (with the support of President von Hindenburg) gave Hitler the powers he needed to legally suppress (and ultimately to violently eliminate) all opposition. (The term "legal revolution" derives from Karl Dietrich Bracher's account of the period; link.)

In short order, the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly were suspended. An extrajudicial power to arrest and detain people without trial voided normal due process, and this provided a legal basis for the Nazi concentration-camp system. In addition, non-Nazi state governments were deposed, and full legislative powers were vested in the chancellor instead of the Reichstag—in effect allowing rule by fiat. That enabled Hitler to disband labor unions, purge the civil service, and outlaw, one by one, opposing political parties. Within five months, Germany was a one-party dictatorship and a police state.

Browning did not envision a Hitler-like seizure of power in the United States, even as recently as fall 2022. Rather, he suggested that an authoritarian future for the US might take the form of an "illiberal democracy" along the lines of Orbán's Hungary. But given the disclosures offered in the New York Times and the Washington Post this week, Browning's prognosis seems woefully optimistic. Real anti-democratic extremists seem to be in control of the MAGA agenda, including pro-authoritarian firebrands like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon.

Consider the New York Times analysis of the plans Donald Trump and his supporters have made for a possible Trump victory in 2024. The key goals of this "putsch" faction are summarized in the opening paragraphs of the Times article by Jonathan Swan, Charlie Savage, and Maggie Haberman (link).

Donald J. Trump and his allies are planning a sweeping expansion of presidential power over the machinery of government if voters return him to the White House in 2025, reshaping the structure of the executive branch to concentrate far greater authority directly in his hands.

Their plans to centralize more power in the Oval Office stretch far beyond the former president’s recent remarks that he would order a criminal investigation into his political rival, President Biden, signaling his intent to end the post-Watergate norm of Justice Department independence from White House political control.

Mr. Trump and his associates have a broader goal: to alter the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House, according to a review of his campaign policy proposals and interviews with people close to him.

Mr. Trump intends to bring independent agencies — like the Federal Communications Commission, which makes and enforces rules for television and internet companies, and the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces various antitrust and other consumer protection rules against businesses — under direct presidential control.

This is a plan for MAGA dictatorship, sweeping aside all checks and balances within the Federal government. Given the rulings made in the recent past by Federal courts and the Supreme Court, citizens can have little confidence that the courts will intervene to preserve democracy. Like the extreme right in late-stage Weimar politics, MAGA activists and policy theorists work to demonize their opponents as socialists and enemies of the people. Here are Trump's words at a recent political rally in Michigan:

“We will demolish the deep state,” Mr. Trump said at the rally in Michigan. “We will expel the warmongers from our government. We will drive out the globalists. We will cast out the communists, Marxists and fascists. And we will throw off the sick political class that hates our country.”

This is fascist language.

The extremist policy advocates and MAGA think-tanks described in the Times article make their plans under an openly authoritarian legal theory: the unitary executive.

The legal theory rejects the idea that the government is composed of three separate branches with overlapping powers to check and balance each other. Instead, the theory’s adherents argue that Article 2 of the Constitution gives the president complete control of the executive branch, so Congress cannot empower agency heads to make decisions or restrict the president’s ability to fire them. Reagan administration lawyers developed the theory as they sought to advance a deregulatory agenda.

Such a theory would give the strong-man president -- a Trump or a DeSantis, for example -- unconstrained power to carry out his agenda.

In the Washington Post during the same week Philip Bump adds to the Times analysis by analyzing worrisome shifts in public opinion about the value and efficacy of democratic institutions (link). After analyzing recent public-opinion results conducted by Associated Press-NORC indicating that only about 50% of adults believe that "democracy is working somewhat or extremely well", Bump highlights the substantial differences that exist between Republicans and Democrats on this and related questions. The clear indication is that Republican voters are turning away from traditional commitments to democratic institutions -- including the idea that elected officials are only in office to serve as stewards for the interests of the whole of US society. Bump writes:

What Trump proposes, though, is a collapse of the idea of a democratic government with temporary stewards, an extension of his own misunderstanding of the position he once held to a wide array of federal departments. If polling is any indicator, much or most of his party wouldn’t object.

These signals need to be a source of real alarm for anyone who cares about our constitutional democracy. There is a powerful anti-democratic movement that is determined to fundamentally destroy our democratic institutions and traditions, and it is gaining wide support among its followers. The stakes in the 2024 presidential election could not be higher.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

The air traffic control system and ethno-cognition

Diane Vaughan's recent Dead Reckoning: Air Traffic Control, System Effects, and Risk is an important contribution to the literature on safety in complex socio-technical systems. The book is an ethnographic study of the workspaces and the men and women who manage the flow of aircraft throughout US airspace. Her ethnographic work for this study was extensive and detailed. She is interested in arriving at a representation of air traffic control arrangements as a system, and she pays ample attention to the legal and regulatory arrangements embodied in the Federal Aviation Administration as the administrator of this system. As an organizational sociologist, she understands full well that "institutions matter" -- the institutions and organizations that have been created and reformed over time have specific characteristics that influence the behavior of the actors who work within the system, and influence in turn the effectiveness and safety of the system. But her central finding is that it is the situated actors who do their work in control towers and flight centers who are critical to the resilience and safety of the system. And what is most important about their characteristics of work is the embodied social cognition that they have achieved through training and experience. She uses the term "ethno-cognition" to refer to the extended system of concrete and embodied knowledge that is distributed across the corps of controllers in air traffic control centers and towers across the country.

Vaughan emphasizes the importance of “situated action” in the workings of a complex socio-technological system: “the dynamic between the system’s institutional environment, the organization as a socio-technical system, and the controllers’ material practices, interpretive work, and the meanings the work has for them” (p. 11). She sees this intellectual frame as a bridge between the concrete activities in a control tower and the meso-level arrangements and material infrastructure within which the work proceeds. This is where "micro" meets macro and meso in the air traffic control system.

The key point here is that the skilled air traffic controller is not just the master of an explicit set of protocols and procedures. He or she has gained a set of cognitive skills that are “embodied” rather than formally represented as a system of formal rules and facts. “Collectively, controllers’ cultural system of knowledge is a set of embodied repertoires – cognitive, physical, emotional, and material practices – that are learned and drawn upon to craft action from moment to moment in response to changing conditions. In constructing the act, structure, culture, and agency combine” (p. 122). Vaughan's own process of learning through this extended immersion sounds a great deal like Michael Polanyi’s description in Personal Knowledge of the acquisition of “tacit knowledge” by a beginning radiologist; she learned to “see” the sky in the way that a trained controller saw it. The controllers have mastered a huge set of tacit repertoires that permit them to understand and control the rapidly changing air spaces around them.

A special strength of the book is the detailed attention Vaughan gives to the historicity and contingency of institutions and organizations. Vaughan’s approach is deliberately “multi-level”, including government agencies, institutions, organizations, and individuals in their workplaces. Vaughan takes full account of the fact that institutions change over time as a result of the actions of a variety of actors, and changes in the institutional settings have consequences for the workings of embedded technological systems. She points out, moreover, that these changes are almost always “patch-work” changes, involving incremental efforts to fit new technologies or team practices into existing organizational forms.  “Incrementally, problem-solving people and organizations inside the air traffic control system have developed strategies of resilience, reliability, and redundancy that provided perennial dynamic flexibility to the parts of the system structure, and they have improvised tools of repair to adjust innovations to local conditions, contributing to system persistence” (p. 9). Institutions and organizations change largely through processes of "social hacking" and adjustment, rather than wholesale redesign, and she finds that the small number of instances of efforts to fully redesign the system have failed.

Particularly valuable in Vaughan’s narrative is her fluid integration of processes and factors at the macro, meso, and micro levels. High-level features like economic pressures on airlines, budget constraints within the Federal government (e.g. delaying implementation of long-range radar in the air traffic control system; 83), and military imperatives on the movements of aircraft (83); meso-level features like the regulatory system for air traffic safety as it emerged and evolved; and micro-level features like the architecture of the workspaces of controllers over time and the practices and problem-solving abilities that were embodied in their work – all these levels are represented in almost every page of the book. And Vaughan points out that all of these processes have the potential of creating unanticipated system dysfunctions beyond their direct effects. Even the facts of the diffusion of high-speed commercial jets and the rise in military staffing demands during the Vietnam War had important and unanticipated system consequences for the air traffic control system.

Vaughan refers frequently to the causal role that “history” plays in complex technology systems like the air traffic control system. But she avoids the error of reification of “history” by carefully paraphrasing what this claim means to her: “History has a causal effect on the present only through the agency of multiple heterogeneous social actors and actions originating in different institutional and organizational locations and temporalities that intersect with a developing system and through its life course in unanticipated ways…. Causal explanations of historical events, institutions, and outcomes are best understood by storylike explanations that capture the sequential unfolding of events in and over time, revealing the interaction of structures and social actions that drive change” (p. 42). This clarification correctly disaggregates the causal powers of “history” into the actors, institutions, and processes whose influences over time have contributed to the current workings of the socio-technical system. Further, it provides a useful contribution to the literature on institutional change with its granular level of detail concerning the “career” of the air traffic control system over several decades. (Here she draws on the work of sociologists like Andrew Abbott on the role of temporality in social explanations.)

One illustration of Vaughan’s attention to historical details occurs in her account of the extended process of invention, design, test, and publicity undertaken by the Wright brothers. This narrative illustrates the multi-level influences that contributed to the establishment of a paradigm of heavier-than-air flight in the early decades of the twentieth century – individual innovation, networks of transmission of ideas, institutional context, and the authority and reputation of the magazine Scientific American (pp. 49-63). And, like Thomas Hughes' historical account of the development of electric power in the United States in Networks of Power, her account is fully attentive to the contingency and path-dependency of these processes. This material makes a genuine contribution to science and technology studies and to recent work in the history of technology. 

Vaughan sounds a cautionary note about the safety and resilience of the air traffic system, and its (usually) excellent record of preventing mid-air and on-ground collisions among aircraft. She has argued persuasively throughout the book that these features of safety and resilience depend crucially on the well-trained and experienced controllers who observe and control the airspace. But she notes as well the perennial desire of both private businesses and government agencies to squeeze costs and "waste" out of complex processes. In the context of the air traffic control system, this has meant trying to reduce the number of controllers through "streamlined" processes and more extensive technologies. Her reaction to these impulses is clearly a negative one: reducing staff in air traffic control towers is a very good way of making unlikely events like mid-air collisions incrementally more likely; and that fact translates into an increasing likelihood of loss of life (and the business and government losses associated with major disasters). We should not look at reasonable staffing levels in control towers as a "wasteful" organizational practice.

(Here is an earlier post on "Expert Knowledge" that is relevant to Vaughan's findings; link.)

Saturday, July 8, 2023

Life and memory in Lviv

The tragic death of Victoria Amelina in Kramatorsk, Ukraine on June 27 in a Russian missile attack against civilian targets makes me think of her writings about Ukraine. Here is a good example -- "Nothing Bad Has Ever Happened" (link), published in Arrowsmith. Amelina refers to Timothy Snyder's use of the phrase "bloodlands" to refer to both the geography and the history of atrocity, genocide, and murder that unfolded over two decades across Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, and the USSR, and that has now resumed in Ukraine. Here is a moving obituary in the Guardian (link).

Here are several sentences from "Nothing Bad Has Ever Happened" about Lviv:

My hometown is located right in the middle of the “bloodlands” — in western Ukraine. Lviv was founded in 1256 by Danylo, King of Ruthenia. However, the German-speaking world might remember it as Lemberg in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Poles recall the same city as Lwów. During the too-long life of the Soviet Union, Lviv grew Russified: many of its new citizens called it L’vov.

My grandparents moved there in the 50s and 70s, leaving behind their own family stories about the deadly 30s and 40s in central and eastern Ukraine, which had been the epicenter of the genocidal famine. By the time they settled in Lviv, almost none of the city’s prewar inhabitants remained. Only a handful of natives might have offered a first-person account of what the city had been like before the war. In 1939, Lviv was home to about 110,000 Jews, comprising fully a third of its population. By 1945, fewer than a thousand survivors remained.

The Soviet system never commemorated the Holocaust. One reason for this is that once you define and identify one genocide, you can recognize other genocidal crimes. The Soviet empire didn’t want us to learn our history. Decades of Soviet education and censorship ensured that even after the USSR collapsed, many in Lviv failed to realize the striking proximity of the Holocaust.

It is piercingly sad to read these lines by such a talented young woman about her hometown in Lviv, and to know that she died in Kramatorsk, some 1,200 kilometers to the east, under atrocious missile attack by the Russian state. The tragedies of Ukraine seem never to end.

The city of Lviv exemplifies the turmoil of life in Poland and Ukraine over the course of the past century. Lviv, Lemberg, Lwów, L’vov -- each iteration represented a cultural and political shift of identities, and often a movement of families and peoples as well. And with the Holocaust, the killing of the vast majority of the Jews of Lviv changed the city from an important center of Jewish life into an emptiness. (Here is a historical overview of Jewish Lviv; link.)

Timothy Snyder's 2003 book, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 is important reading today. Here is a vignette of the many transformations of a single town in Galicia, Kolomya (Ukraine) -- roughly 200 kilometers from Lviv:

When the statue of Lenin in the Galician town of Kolomya was dismantled, its pedestal was seen to be constructed from Jewish tombstones. Kolomya, today, is a town in southwestern Ukraine. In 1939-41 and 1945-91 it was a town in southwestern Soviet Ukraine, between 1941 and 1944 a town in the Nazi Generalgouvernement, before the Second World War a town in Poland's Stanislawow slawow province, before the First World War a town in Austrian Galicia, before 1772 a town in the Polish Kingdom's Ruthenian province. Until the Final Solution of 1941-42, Kolomya was, whatever its rulers, a Jewish town. The absence of Jews, in Kolomya as throughout Eastern Europe, coincided for forty years with the presence of communist rule. (Kindle Locations 115-119)

The passage is significant for several reasons. The historical fact of the use by the Soviet regime of Jewish tombstones to provide the foundation for a statue of Lenin is entirely revealing about the persistent anti-semitism of the Soviet regime throughout its history. The demographic and cultural transformation of Kolomya following from the physical destruction of Kolomya's Jewish population was a permanent change in its history -- like the same circumstances in countless towns and cities in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus. Kiev, Lviv, Berdichev, Miropol -- all fundamentally transformed by the murder of Ukraine's Jews. This is the fundamental tragedy captured in Vasily Grossman's 1943 essay "Ukraine without Jews" (link):

There is a long list of Ukrainian towns and villages where I found myself while working as a special correspondent for the paper Red Star. I was in Satrobel’sk, Svatov, Muntsisk, Tsapuika, Voroshilovgrad, Krasnodon, Ostro, Iasotin, Borispol, Baturin... I was in hundreds of villages, farms, settlements, and fishing outposts on the shores of the Desna and Dnieper, in steppe farms encircled by pastures, in solitary little tar houses existing in a constant shadow of huge pine forests, and in beautiful hamlets whose thatched roofs are hidden beneath canopies of fruit trees.

If one was to gather into a single place all of the stories and images that I witnessed during those days and months in Ukraine, it would amount to a horrifying book about colossal injustice: forced labour and secret beatings, children deported to Germany, burnt houses and looted warehouses, evictions onto squares and streets, pits where those suspected of having sympathy for or connections with partisans were shot, humiliations and mockery, vulgar cursing and bribes, drunken and erratic behaviour, and the bestial depravity of reckless, criminal people in whose hands rested the fate, life, integrity and property of many millions of Ukrainian people for two long years. There is no home in a single Ukrainian town or village where you will not hear bitter and evil words about the Germans, no home where tears have not flowed during these past two years; no home where people do not curse German fascism; no home without an orphan or widow. These tears and curses flow like streams to an immense river of collective grief and fury; day and night, its troubles and pain roar beneath a Ukrainian sky that has been darkened by the smoke of raging fires.


And it occurred to me that just as Kozary is silent, so too are the Jews in Ukraine silent. In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere—not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin. You will not see the black, tear-filled eyes of a little girl, you will not hear the sorrowful drawling voice of an old woman, you will not glimpse the swarthy face of a hungry child in a single city or a single one of hundreds of thousands of shtetls.

Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered. ("Ukraine without Jews")

Victoria Amelina sought to document the tragedy and atrocity that have once again engulfed Ukraine. The atrocious and lawless war of aggression initiated by the Russian Federation and its tyrant, Vladimir Putin rivals the crimes of Stalin and Hitler against the people of Ukraine. Once again innocent Ukrainian men, women, and children are being murdered, their cities and lives destroyed, and a new chapters of crimes against humanity are being written.

Victoria Amelina, your life ended too soon, and your courage is inspiring.