To the editor:

I appreciate Harold Henderson’s thoughtful review of my book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago [“City on the Hot Seat,” July 26]. But I can’t help but ask about the three questionable premises that organize his article.

First, why does Henderson believe that the job of the social historian or sociologist is to prescribe specific policy remedies for the breakdowns he uncovers? Heat Wave is meant to generate public discussion about deprivation, inequality, and governance in the city, and Henderson praises it for digging up Chicago’s buried catastrophe and explaining why it happened. Coming up with a program for fixing the city’s problems was explicitly not an aim of the book; the challenge is a collective responsibility that we’re better off facing together.

Second, why does Henderson represent Heat Wave as an expression of liberal values but fail to notice that most of the political changes it criticizes–“reinventing government” in the spirit of business, delegating social service work to “community police” while cutting funds for other agencies, and “revitalizing” working-class neighborhoods by eliminating affordable housing–were primarily liberal projects? Henderson lauds Heat Wave for transcending “the usual left-liberal analysis” by examining the vulnerability of men, SRO residents, and elderly African-Americans. So why fall back on a reductive liberal-versus-conservative framework that clearly doesn’t fit?

Finally, why does Henderson think that the epilogue, “Together in the End,” implies a view of the disaster that the book rejects? This one I can answer: It’s because he misread the text, substituted his words for mine, and then criticized them as if they were my own. I don’t say that “nobody cared” for the victims–but that dozens of victims were buried alone because “no one came” (p. 237) to claim their remains. This is a revealing slip. If Henderson had evaluated the book on–and with–its own terms, perhaps he would have recognized why the social autopsy was necessary, and where it fits in the city’s intellectual and political life.

Eric Klinenberg

Harold Henderson replies:

First, you can’t analyze a social problem without implying what you think is the appropriate kind of remedy. For example, Heat Wave emphasizes the reduced numbers of city-employed social workers and passes quickly over the increased number of seniors living alone. The implication is that the heat wave would have killed fewer people if the city had hired more social workers. An equally diligent researcher with a different political perspective might have emphasized the breakdown of extended families and said little about social workers, implying that the heat wave would have killed fewer people if we arranged our lives differently so that we could help care for our own elderly relatives.

Every diagnosis implies a prescription–not a detailed prescription, but a general approach. And every prescription carries a responsibility to make some kind of case that the prescription won’t make things worse. I think Klinenberg needed to give us some kind of assurance that putting more social workers on the public payroll would actually do some good. And his hypothetical opposite would need to give us some kind of assurance that urging people to live near their elders would be anything more than an exercise in rhetorical futility.

Second, probably the most accurate label for policies that make government act more like a business is “neoliberal.” My impression is that Chicago is full of left-of-center folks who’ve been criticizing privatization for decades. I don’t think they would appreciate being called its authors.

Third, the words “nobody cared” were not a quotation from the book. My apologies if any reader thought they were. I was characterizing the simpleminded idea that the heat-wave victims died because nobody cared about them. I don’t share that view. I know Klinenberg doesn’t. He has demonstrated its superficiality with persuasive evidence. I feared that his well-intended epilogue, dwelling on the unhappy tear-jerking scene of the burial of the unclaimed victims, fed the simpleminded notion he’d already refuted.