America is in the business of killing off its presumed undesirables, conversely, playing favorites with those it admires. In simplistic terms, this comes down to race; yet race is code for other factors that transcend racial boundaries, so that whites as well as blacks are in the crosshairs of capitalism when these factors come into play: poverty, radicalism, vanishing industry, all three conspicuous in Flint’s historical-cultural-industrial setting. Flint is a loser by American standards because it is predominantly black, is associated with labor militancy (heritage of the Sit-Down strikes), and, as determined by corporate giantism, no longer the green pastures sought by the automotive industry in its search for high profits. Still more basic, Flint is an ideal scapegoat in the structural context of internal colonialism, a throwaway appendage serving foremost as an example of America’s powers, at home and abroad, to inflict pain and induce submission as a testimony to its own lofty purpose and rectitude as a Conquering Nation. Exceptionalism comes to Michigan with a vengeance, enjoying the full cooperation of federal, state, and local government in the city’s plight of social misery.
Results can be achieved without conscious planning. Societal phenomena do not just happen, but when a nation’s governing institution, political economy, and ideology converge, which is usually the case, a framework has been established for how people’s lives are managed, what they are expected to think, and the mechanisms for social control instated to ensure stability. In Flint’s case, the relative abandonment of its manufacturing base already served to discipline its population into fatalistic quiescence. Michael Moore lived to fight back, but not many more did. From all sides, the smell of the kill grew more acute, more enticing, Flint, a micro-Detroit too large to knock down and bring to its knees. Detroit is becoming gentrified piece by piece, Flint, however, too far gone for that purpose, and hence readied for the assault, the rape of its once-proud identity as a working-class true biracial town truly a red flag to the American bull[y] and logical target for the hate-driven ethnocentrism red-baiting/race-baiting characterizing the American mindset. Flint is like Minsk, too remote to worry about, yet under the surface fit for demonizing because somehow, dimly, representing the enemy, an alien existence.
When the switch was made in the water supply the EPA as a matter of course, given the source would be the Detroit River, should have demanded and enforced a rigid protocol backed by daily testing; the city health department and state Department of Environmental Quality, ditto in support of that effort; and the governor from day one on top of the situation. In my mind’s eye I thought of an ideal experiment, simultaneous steps to introduce a toxic supply into the water systems of Flint and Traverse City, the latter white, privileged, good vibes emanating from its recreational image. If the lead content in the young children of Flint had been found in the children of Traverse City, would months of inaction, deceptions, outright lies, culminating in the governor’s faux-apology to the state legislature have in the latter case happened or even been allowed? No, racism does not fully explain what happened in, and to, Flint, contemptuous dismissal of the class enemy, who signified an obstacle to enhanced capitalist development via relocated plants, outsourcing, the weakening of labor, all consistent with a primordial racism which no longer requires identification and expression, and, relatedly, the go-ahead signal to capitalism to make self-aggrandizing decisions with impunity, no explanations offered.
Meanwhile, the people of Flint, to all intents defeated, have not fought back, instead falling into despair or numbness. This is a battle of Cynical Triumph, enough criminal behavior spread out around the table so that no-one feels—or is to be judged—implicated. That children will bear the physical results and learning disabilities of contaminated water and contaminated measures of contaminated policy makers up and down the line is understood and explained by the classic evasion of monstrous evil: deus ex machina, as though introduced by God from heaven or, in Webster’s, as introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty. No-one takes real responsibility, a self-castrating exercise of both political parties, state and nation. Here it is instructive to look at Paul Krugman’s NYT article, (Jan. 25), typical liberal tripe, as opposed to radical analysis, fed from the bowels of a dead carcass—American freedom—to an adoring, again liberal, public and readership.
He sets up a promising background: “In the 1850s, London, the world’s largest city, still didn’t have a sewer system. Waste simply flowed into the Thames…. But conservatives…opposed any effort to remedy the situation. After all, such an effort would involve increased government spending and, they insisted, infringe on personal liberty and local control.” Of course, familiar, except that the position is not exclusive to conservatives. Obama’s visit to Detroit led to brief reference to sadness for the affected children in Flint, crocodile tears when it came to remedies beyond a small allocation of federal funds, while Snyder, in his State of the State Address, did little more: to deplore a situation, partly of one’s own making, is an empty mea culpa when not accompanied by substantive change, criminal charges, especially directed against those who manipulated data and failed to carry out their responsibilities (himself, on the latter, a suitable candidate), and dealing forthrightly with health issues. Krugman: “It took the Great Stink of 1858, when the stench made the Houses of Parliament unusable, to produce action.” 158-odd years later, the Michigan legislature has still not kept up with its Great Stink, almost from day one of the supply switch, discoloration and foul odor of the water was noted by residents—with nothing done.
To his credit, Krugman a) recognizes that an essential public principle is being violated, and b) sees Flint itself in a more general context. “Modern politicians, no matter how conservative, understand that public health is an essential government role. Right? No, wrong—as illustrated by the disaster in Flint, Mich.” The chain of guilt extended far and wide: “What we know so far is that in 2014 the city’s emergency manager—appointed by Rick Snyder, the state’s Republican governor—decided to switch to an unsafe water source, with lead contamination and more, in order to save money. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that state officials knew that they were damaging public health, putting children in particular at risk, even as they stonewalled both residents and health experts.” Nevertheless, he omits mention of liberals and Democrats, not just conservatives and Republicans, as obviously derelict or complicit—too, health experts who could have daily taken samples of the water and, the lead content discovered, children’s blood samples as well. Where I credit Krugman is on his generalization: “This story—America in the 21st century, and you can trust neither the water nor what officials say about it—would be a horrifying outrage even if it were an accident or an isolated instance of bad policy. But it isn’t. On the contrary, the nightmare in Flint reflects the resurgence in American politics of exactly the same attitudes that led to London’s Great Stink more than a century and a half ago.”
Then he caves in, superbly revealing the limitations of liberalism, and—hopefully not a cheap shot—how the Nobel Prize in Economics is rewarded, i.e., keep it straight, avoid stepping on capitalism’s toes, be respectful and respectable: in this case, take the high ground and avoid controversy by narrowing the boundaries of what it is legitimate to discuss: “Let’s back up a bit, and talk about the role of government in an advanced society.” Yes, let’s, and in order to see the antiradical core of liberalism, elimination of VALUES wherever possible. “In the modern world,” he writes, “much government spending goes to social insurance programs—things like Social Security, Medicare and so on, that are supposed to protect citizens from the misfortunes of life.” One would have thought, no argument, applause from liberals! He continues: “Such spending is the subject of fierce political debate, and understandably so.” Now in retreat: “Liberals want to help the poor and unlucky, conservatives want to let people keep their hard-earned income, and there’s no right answer to this debate, because it’s a question of values.”
I submit that Flint and all that it represents is a test of liberalism, and not merely conservatism. How much courage does it take to affirm social insurance programs? And go further, seek their fuller democratization, rather than beg off on grounds of inconclusiveness? Liberal exquisite-ness of argumentation and analysis can go only so far before its emptiness is revealed—here the distinction between “public goods” and the social welfare: “There should, however, be much less debate about spending on what Econ 101 calls public goods—things that benefit everyone and can’t be provided by the public sector.” The trouble is, all that makes for a life which is safe, healthy, amicable, non-exploitative, can and should be considered public goods, not just those wherein values may be evident to the supposedly objective-minded economist. Democracy is a value; freedom is a value; taking a stand on the utter legitimacy of both, and working toward their fuller, more comprehensive achievement, is not grounds for ruling them out as public goods. Many things “benefit everyone,” militarism not being one of them, nor crumbling infrastructure, another. Instead, the circle narrows, as though only a priori things will do: “Yes, we can differ over exactly how big a military we need or how dense and well-maintained the road network should be, but you wouldn’t expect controversy about spending enough to provide key public goods like basic education or safe drinking water.”
Nor would you expect the analyst/observer to hide behind basic education and safe drinking water, in order to escape from taking a stand on military-influenced capitalism and suffocation of the social safety net, let alone myriad other vital issues, such as socialized medicine—there I’ve said it (rather than the single-payer system)—instead of the for-profit Affordable Care Act. I surmise Krugman is a person of good will, a convinced liberal, who finds radicalism abhorrent as much as reaction, in which case ideological myopia still colors the analysis and confines his attention to attacking the Right without reckoning that the Center and Right have melded, as witness everything Obama and the Clintons represent, and together constitute shock troops for advanced capitalism and unilateral global dominance. Those poor conservatives: “Yet a funny thing has happened as hard-line conservatives have taken over many U.S. state governments. Or actually, it’s not funny at all. Not surprisingly, they have sought to cut social insurance spending on the poor. In fact, many state governments dislike spending on the poor so much that they are rejecting a Medicaid expansion that wouldn’t cost them anything, because it’s federally financed.” To summarize, Krugman finds Flint to be “an all too typically American situation of (literally) poisonous interaction between ideology and race, in which small-government extremists are empowered by the sense of too many voters that good government is simply a giveaway to Those People.”
Race is undoubtedly in the mix, but the ideology runs deeper than small-government extremists imposing their will on an equally resentful, frustrated electorate; all of America, its history, its current practice, is implicated in the poisoning of Flint.