This story has come across my news feed more than a few times in the past few days. I respect Radiolab a hell of a lot and it was disconcerting to see Mr. Abumrad and Mr. Krulwich charged with approaching a story in a racist manner. I wanted to do some research and form an opinion before rendering judgement. Now I feel ready to do just that and, well, it’s complicated.
First and foremost, I have little doubt that the “Yellow Rain” mentioned in the segment was not a chemical weapon, but a type of mass hysteria. Given the attention chemical weapons tend to draw in conflicts, it is hard for me to believe that if there were a chemical weapon that was used on the Hmong peoples as they fled Laos, there would be such a huge difficulty finding evidence of it, especially if it were as potent as it is described in the story. Satellite photos would show evidence of patches of second-growth vegetation (or no regrowth at all) in areas where the agent had been used, to say nothing of the fact that the remains of people or animals upon whom this agent had been used should display telling signs of toxicology. That none of these secondary indications appears to have been discovered strongly points me in the direction of believing that “Yellow Rain” was a means for Hmong refugees to have a bogeyman upon which to direct their (deserved) resentment of their treatment both by the Laotian government and the United States. I’ll be more than happy to eat my words if any of these secondary data sources proves the case that “Yellow Rain” was indeed a real chemical or biological weapon.
All that said, the mass atrocities waged on the Hmong are very real and sadly yet another example of the US government accidentally enabling the targeting of civilians by playing a short game both in civil war and the aftermath. We can see the same pattern at work throughout Latin America, the Middle East, and countless other countries that became collateral damage during the Cold War. This is not the first time I’ve encountered the Hmong story and I absolutely believe it deserves more exposure. The way the Hmong were targeted during and after the Laotian Civil War is no less deserving of our attentions, sympathies, and respect than the experiences of the Kurds, Darfuris, or Tutsis.
Was Mr. Krulwich insensitive to this story? Yes, absolutely. Did it constitute racism? No, I don’t believe so. I personally think the story was edited in a way that was equally fair (or perhaps unfair) to all parties involved. Case in point: Mr. Krulwich was a straight-up bully in the interview, there’s no doubt about that. It would have been a simple matter to present the facts as he had them, and let the Yangs present their answer as they saw fit. He remains belligerent in the wrap-up after the interview (which was an opportunity for him to express some form of regret for his treatment of the Yangs and he blew it) even as Jad and Pat confess to finding the direction the interview took disturbing.
But here’s the other element that disturbs me: the Hmong have been treated horrendously by the United States, Laos, and history–their story hardly needs embellishment in order to have a moral transcendence, yet that’s exactly the route the Yangs have taken it down. Despite Ms. Yang’s admission that the purpose of the interview was stated to be on the Hmong experience specifically with Yellow Rain, she states in the difficult portions of the interview that she’d thought Radiolab was interested more in telling the story of the Hmong themselves. What kind of journalist (and here I refer to Ms. Yang), award-winning or otherwise, goes into an interview on a controversial topic without expecting the controversy to be touched upon? Equating mass atrocities against the Hmong with the veracity of whether chemical weapons were used against them is not only disrespectful to the experience of the Hmong themselves, it is also downright dangerous to their cause. If it can be proven (and I think it likely that it can) that the deaths attributed to chemical weapons had another cause, by focusing the suffering of the Hmong upon this single element of the story it only makes the discrediting of it more damaging to the story as a whole.
This is a huge issue because to me it seems a case of emotional manipulation of the audience. And Ms. Yang isn’t content just to stop there: for this article she doubles down, rather than focusing on what the interview got wrong (I’d love at least one link, any link in the article to any of the pieces of research she claims bolster the claim that “Yellow Rain” was indeed a chemical or biological weapon), she talks about the experience of losing her baby. What does this have to do with the interview? One could argue it might have to do with her emotional state as she fielded Krulwich’s ever more aggressive questions or explain her reticence in engaging in the debate, but I frankly think it has more to do with generating sympathy in the audience. The message she presents is: look at these scientists beating up on my uncle and I while I suffered a miscarriage. She refutes none of the claims of the piece aside from claiming they edited out portions of the interview in which her uncle explains his experience with bees (which again, she could have presented in detail herself but opts not to), but instead focuses on the most emotionally charged pieces of information she has on hand to generate sympathy: by bringing her miscarriage into the story and by describing the treatment of her and her uncle as racist. The story of the Hmong is tragic enough–by manipulating the audience in this way it only serves to make the Yang’s seem even less rational than they appeared in the interview itself. What is the basis of the claims of racism in the interview? That the findings of a number of scientists were presented as more credible as those of a Hmong refugee and his niece? Given that only one of these parties has to submit their findings to peer review and prove their case in the court of public opinion, yes I’m going to say one of them does indeed have more credibility to bring to bear. If that is racist then all of physics, biology, geology, and chemistry is racist.
This is the one and only reason I sympathize with Krulwich: there have sadly been more than a few cases in history of sympathies of well-meaning people being directed into destructive means. One example that comes to mind was a story from the Invasion of Kuwait in which a Kuwaiti refugee claimed to have seen invading Iraqi soldiers killing babies in hospitals and more specifically seeing babies removed from incubators and left to die. The story was repeated to congressional inquiries and used as a talking point by then-president George H.W. Bush to bolster the case for repelling the invasion with US troops. The problem, as it turned out, was that the story was a fabrication. I’m not going to argue that it was the sole reason for the first Gulf War, but the fact that it was used on any level to justify that armed conflict is disturbing enough. As Krulwich points out in the story, the belief that the Hmong were attacked with chemical weapons was again used as a talking point to help justify the United States return to chemical weapons production. Nobody should want to build a case for sympathy on a house built even partially on the suffering or potential suffering of others.
All that said, I would love a follow-up piece about the Hmong out of NPR–something that addresses the deep history of their culture and experiences as an ethnic minority in both Southeast Asia. This interview wasn’t that and from what I can tell was never intended to be that. But when and if a journalist of any ethnicity does do a story on the Hmong, I can only hope that they let the story speak for itself rather than sensationalizing it by resting the case for the Hmong’s suffering on the most sensational pieces of it they have at their grasp. Ultimately the biggest disservice that does is to the Hmong themselves–it suggests their story isn’t tragic enough on its own and I assure you it is. They don’t need a twist worthy of Hollywood to lay claim to a heartwrenching story of oppression and suffering, it’s already there.