Radiolab’s “truth” is no justice for Hmong activist

Kao Kalian Yang in Hyphen Magazine explains the racist pattern of interaction and representation in a recent Radiolab story on “the science” and “the truth” behind Yellow Rain. An activist and interviewee of the Radiolab show wrote the piece. Yellow Rain was a material Ronald Reagan and Hmong refugees have called a poison weapon. Some people we call scientists in American universities have claimed Yellow Rain was just bee droppings.

As the reporter tries to drill Yang and her uncle on what they saw and what they know, he tries to claim that they could not know what they claim to know — not in the terms that a bunch of lab scientists testing 20 year old samples could.

Hmong man who was an official reporter to Thai government on Hmong violence: “It feels to him that this is a semantic debate. It feels like there’s a jack of justice. The word of a man who survived this thing is pitted against a man from Harvard who read these accounts.”

Radiolab guy: “It seems like your uncle didn’t SEE the pollen fall. Your uncle didn’t SEE the plane. All of this is hearsay.”

Yang cites justice as a value that competes against various definitions of what can count as truth. It’s not just that we need plural truths, but we need truths we can use in pursuit of justice too. The means of pursuing truth must also themselves be just. Judith Butler writes about the politics of truth in her piece Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality (2001). She tells the story of the havoc wreaked on the life of an American kid whose non-binary gender became a battleground for a culture seeking scientific understanding of sexual “nature vs nurture.” The life of the person made a subject of scrutiny didn’t get factored into the debates about the politics of sexual knowledge. The “yellow rain” story is riven with questions of how we make our truths, as well as who gets to speak “truth.”

Must read for any ethnographers, journalists, and everyone who thinks they care about what counts as evidence.

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2 Responses
  1. I read the Hyphen Magazine article, too! Additionally, how the NPR casters continually edited their podcast to take away their defamatory statements (like their awkward and insensitive laughing) and NPR refusing to post Yang’s response to the matter.

    I’m going to have to add Butler’s “Doing Justice to Someone” to my reading list as I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

  2. Edits: (Sorry, didn’t do a proof read prior to hitting “post”)

    I read the Hyphen Magazine article, too! Additionally, how the NPR casters continually edited their podcast to take away their defamatory statements (like their awkward and insensitive laughing), and NPR refusing to post Yang’s response to the show is also disturbing and show a gross lack of respect.

    I’m going to have to add Butler’s “Doing Justice to Someone” to my reading list as I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

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