Apathy is an American social disease. We kill our own, and then look away. This is the story of Flint, a nightmare of prostituted government (literally) in the service of money via a context of political-structural debasement. I refer not so much to local authority, but state and national, an intricate web of complicity from Gov. Snyder to Pres. Obama, their respective agencies in charge of safeguarding the public health and environmental well-being of state and nation alike, in which the opposite has taken place, children the primary victim of a society indifferent to anything but capital, its ascendant role, its established wealth and power. It is too simple to say that capitalism is murdering the children of the poor, not because that is incorrect, but because several direct, intermediate steps have to be factored into the indictment, not least, the aforementioned apathy, specifically induced and/or engendered to cover over the inbred nihilism of the System.
This is too important for one to get bogged down in conspiracy theory. The interpretation now favored is a contamination crisis because of the stupidity of decision-makers at every level of government; I submit, otherwise—rather than stupidity, insert ideology, a consistent direction of public policy which neither credits the suffering of blacks (Snyder, no surprise here, issued a statement that race is not involved in the whole water-supply debacle) and the poor in general, nor accepts responsibility—moral, political, economic—for the degradation of a community that, particularly, is made up of blacks, the poor, and at its historical roots working class. The state, in effect, washes its hands of Flint, not quite the eradication of its identity and people, so much as a studied neglect and indifference which, predictably from the developments in the case, i.e., the toxic character of the river from which the water supply is taken, would result in collective punishment for the city and its residents just for representing who and what Flint is, a presumed embarrassment to state and nation, on grounds of class, race, and the inability to hold onto its manufacturing base (an oblique jab at the UAW and, for the memories of a heyday of militant labor, the suspicion of anticapitalism, whether or not justified). Flint’s deterioration, and now, endangerment of the health of the community, actually, because of the long-term consequences of lead poisoning, already at the point of no return, one can see this as a case study in ideological pay-back time, a fate some mining and agricultural communities have faced absent the specific form of poisoning in Flint (mining has its own cross to bear) or possibly the threat to capitalism, easily magnified by ownership across the spectrum of production and investment when things do not go completely its way.
Therefore, Flint becomes an object lesson, viscerally, rather than conspiratorially, determined. The people and surroundings are dispensable, testimony to a two-nations’ social mentality from the inception of the republic, and only intensified through industrialization, large-scale immigration, and the boldness in claiming political-market world dominance. Not merely race, which provided a learning tool for upper groups in how to establish Order once for all ensuring hierarchical patterns in defining societal place, but informal separation of the classes vital to the disciplining of a labor force. The initial Nazi business-fronts perfected the idea of soldiers-in-industry, a built-in contempt for, and desire to regiment the lives and aspirations of, working people, finds its counterpart in the reservoir of superiority necessary to maintain social control by capitalist elites. To think that the attitude I am describing is not integral to capitalism, and does not come into play with respect to national and state government authorities’ treatment of Flint, foolishly takes American democracy at face value and ignores the bloody history of labor violence. Flint may well be “the final solution” to working class discontent, at any rate, given the lack of militant protest while its children face unspeakable deformities, it would seem mortally wounded verging on paralysis.
If Capital wins hands down in Flint, as now seems the case, the future does not look bright for organized labor, except within what I am terming the definition of place—a system of social-structural CLASS stratification (far more germane to modern times than race) facilitating the concentration of wealth and power from the top down. Snyder, state environmental officials, those filling the emergency-manager cadre, don’t give a snap for those who have borne the brunt of their policies, their condescension, indeed, beyond patronizing, their contempt for the so-called lower orders, those who have not made it as have they, and the wealthy bankers, industrialists, developers, standing behind them. Why expect differently? Flint to them is 100,000 nobodies, with no claims on government. Instead of, let them eat cake, let them use water filters, which it turns out cannot be effective when contamination exceeds (as is now happening) a certain level. Human life is cheap, provided of course protest can be effectively neutralized. Flint is in a bind, so far as the poor are concerned, emphatically not of its own making, but of those traditionally arrayed against them and, unlike Henry James’s Princess Casamassima, unwilling to share their hardship, suffering, and fear of worse hanging over them.
Here is my abbreviated version of the timeline of the Flint water crisis provided by the New York Times, with occasional interpolations. The Times begins: “Months after warning signs emerged about problems with the water in Flint, Mich., city, state and federal officials are responding to the public health emergency. High levels of lead had leached from pipes into the water supply.” It continued, April 25, 2014, its first entry: “The city switches its water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River. The switch was made as a cost-saving measure for the struggling majority-black city. Soon after, residents begin to complain about the water’s color, taste and odor, and to report rashes and concerns about bacteria.” Succinct, to the point, because the original supply, from Lake Huron, was pure, while the Flint River has been known as a toxic dump. What could be clearer, that not stupidity, but ideology, comes into play; and that a “cost-saving measure,” defining the purpose of the emergency-manager system, in which appointment is made by the governor, superseding all local authority, also represents, as it does with the IMF with respect to European economies, the negation of democratic procedures and power-relations, for the sake of fiscal responsibility? Fiscal responsibility (aka, austerity) trumps human life—and those advocating for it, know full well the consequences. More on this by all odds fateful and pivotal decision to resort to a contaminated source for an American city’s water supply later: contamination, lead poisoning, is not a species of scientific exotica. If you are running the Department of Environmental Quality (Michigan) or the Environmental Protection Agency (US), or up the ladder, the governor or president responsible for the official’s appointment, the facts of lead poisoning are an open book, and everyone along the line of authority should, under any meaningful conception of the rule of law, be held accountable and regarded as the felons they are.
The Flint city government, hardly blameless, issued a news release: “Flint water is safe to drink.” Then August-September 2014, The Times reports: “City officials issue boil-water advisories after coliform bacteria are detected in tap water.” Band-aids would have been as good. October, Stephen Busch, a district supervisor for the state DEQ issued a statement: “The city has taken operational steps to limit the potential for a boil-water advisory to re-occur.” Meanwhile, children and fetuses of the unborn are subject to poisoning, and, still October, we learn that car parts are just as vulnerable as fetuses and children: “A General Motors plant in Flint stops using municipal water, saying it corrodes car parts.” One would think, enough is enough: blow the whistle on this travesty of justice. Yet, January 2015, when the situation could have been materially improved, in fact, corrected (after, however the harm had already been done—lead poisoning plays for keeps). We read: “Detroit’s water system offers to reconnect to Flint, waiving a $4million dollar connection fee. Three weeks later, Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, declines the offer.” No excuse here, even austerity scruples overruled, suggesting the policy toward Flint was deliberate, not inadvertent, and beyond Ambrose stands Snyder, knee-deep in denial and, subsequently, sanctimonious apology before the state legislature (fully seventeen months after the story was known).
Among the memos released by Snyder, one, February 2015, already disputes the harm being done, the presumed frivolous nature of the complaints: “It’s clear the nature of the threat was communicated poorly. It’s also clear that folks in Flint are concerned about other aspects of their water—taste, smell and color being among the top complaints.” As if the complaints did not tell us something. Feb. 18, a revealing entry puts the degree of contamination into perspective, Flint being way over the line of danger to humans: “104 parts per billion of lead are detected in drinking water at the home of Lee Anne Walters…. [She notifies the EPA.] Even small amounts of lead can cause lasting health and developmental problems in children. The E.P.A. does not require action until levels reach 15 parts per billion [hers, 104 parts per billion], but public health scientists say there is no safe level for lead in water.” Feb. 26: “A water expert from the E.P.A. and the [DEQ] discuss high levels of lead found in a resident’s water sample.” By this point, criminality suffuses the official air, no response from Obama, EPA, Snyder, DEQ, in the worst tradition of stonewalling. There is no excuse for not taking action, particularly when, the next day, Miguel del Toral, an EPA expert, and one of several heroes of the story who tried to alert authorities to the harm being done, warned that Michigan, in the way it was testing the water, had understated lead levels in the water: “Given the very high lead levels found at one home and the preflushing happening in Flint, I’m worried that the whole town may have much higher lead levels than the compliance results indicated.”
Not the poisons, but Flint was being flushed down the toilet. March 3, 2015: “Second testing detects 397 parts per billion of lead in drinking water at Ms. Walter’s home.” Still no response: on March 12, we learn that “Veolia, a consultant group hired by Flint, reports that the city’s water meets state and federal standards; it does not report specifically on lead levels.” And jumping ahead to May 6, 2015: “Tests reveal high lead levels in two more homes in Flint.” On July 2 we see in microcosm agency complicity with the governing power structure, national and state (for what else could it be?): “An E.P.A. administrator tells Flint’s mayor that ‘it would be premature to draw any conclusions’ based on a leaked internal E.P.A. memo regarding lead.” This is more and more like Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” and the poisoning of the public baths, except that Flint is paying a higher price for the cover-up. In mid-August, DEQ “tells Flint to optimize corrosion control,” that is, don’t switch to a safe source of water, just apply chemicals to the pipes to prevent leaching (supposedly extracting the poisons which, it turns out, are not confined to lead but result as well from the chemical process itself).
Now we’re coming closer to the present, each passing day an indictment of Obama, Snyder, the regulatory apparatus, either doing nothing or, in the state, deceiving the public and, worse, the residents of Flint. September 2, another one of our very few heroes: “Marc Edwards, an expert on municipal water quality and professor at Virginia Tech, reports that corrosiveness of water is causing lead to leach into the supply.” Quickly, DEQ “disputes those conclusions.” The state goes on the offensive mounting the barricades of denial. We are now at Sept. 24-25. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, chief of pediatric medicine at Hurley Medical Center in Flint and assistant clinical professor at Michigan State (I accord her top laurels for showing courage and speaking out), led a group of doctors who “urges the city to stop using the Flint River for water after finding high levels of lead in the blood of children.” The Times couldn’t be more blunt: “State regulators insist the water is safe.” In fact the regulators, DEQ along with the Department of Community Health, said that inquiry into children’s blood levels of lead was becoming a “political football,” as the blame-game was on, so that responsibility could be shifted to the state itself. Then, Sept. 28, suspiciously late, Snyder claims notification of the Flint problem: “The governor is briefed on lead problems in a phone call with the state environment department and federal officials.” Note, however, his State of the State address, where he claims to apologize and state he is fully on top of the situation, is still more than three months away.
I wish I could report substantive accomplishment, but as of January 30, promises are cheap and have not been translated into action. Oct. 1: “Flint city officials urge residents to stop drinking water after government epidemiologists validate Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s finding of high lead levels.” Snyder “orders the distribution of filters, the testing of water in the schools, and the expansion of water and blood testing.” There is only one school nurse for all of Flint, and the prescribed testing is handicapped by a pitiful allocation of funds. Dec. 14: “Flint declares an emergency.” On Dec. 29, the director of DEQ resigns, and an advisory task force puts all the blame on the agency, exempting all other parties from responsibility. Jan. 16, Obama antes up $5 million taken from FEMA, and on the 20th the Michigan House approves the sum of $28 million for relief (replacing pipes alone has been estimated to cost $1.5billion). There Flint lies, the pin cushion of class hatred and/or disdain for its people, their health, their livelihoods.
When I was growing up, in the years following World War II, there was a popular saying, one originally expressed by G.I.s in Korea: “That’s the way the ball bounces.” Fatalism, inevitability, absorbing or riding with the punch, expecting nothing more or less. By the time of Vietnam, call the mood amoral cynicism, the infliction of harm without batting an eye, burning villages, napalming civilian populations, a mindset easily corralled by business for its aggrandizement, no holds barred in the drive for capital accumulation, no matter whose ox is gored. Capitalism in full splendor, not subject—similarly, the military—to restraint of any kind, so that a president in our own time can negotiate a vast trade partnership with one hand and direct a program of drone assassination with the other, the two intimately connected by a divine license accorded America inhering in its self-deluded doctrine of Exceptionalism.
Exceptionalism not only tolerates but creates the Flint of today, antecedently, the conditions of poverty, underfinanced social services (yes, one school nurse for a large educational system), even the lack of a large food market for the entire area. If Flint were on the coast, and the Atlantic were the Aegean, we by rights should see a mass migration to European countries, the Syrians facing the military equivalent of Flint residents’ economic deprivations, the common thread here, death hovering overhead as the larger community sits back and treats the suffering casually if at all. Michigan and Washington are dialectically intertwined, each encouraging the other to adopt the manifesto (used in both senses), business as usual. This is not a partisan issue; despite an inhumane governor and legislature, both Republican, in the state, Democrats are hardly any better, coming very late to the table and with both hands tied behind their back. Ditto, the nation, except that Obama is technically a Democrat, there being inhumaneness enough to spread around, so that party differences hardly matter, particularly when the policies of both have helped to make Flint what it is today. A military budget second to none has a way of draining all compassion from society, as well was limiting the ameliorative prospects of government.
As seen above, when it comes to regulation, government is not only perfidious, it is evil, the Swiss Guard of corporatism, monopolism, and war, all in contradistinction to a defense of the people’s interest. Regulation caricatures itself, EPA, DEQ, parties to business self-regulation in which government promotes the concentration and consolidation of capitalism as foundation for a strong and powerful State, self-regulation itself the product of a co-partnership between the private and public realms. Indirectly, this speaks to the precarious condition of Flint, for the idea of public responsibility for society’s welfare goes against the ideological grain of advanced capitalism, a concession of principle which opens the way to the democratic leveling of classes. Whether state (Snyder) or nation (Obama), explanations relying on conspiracy theory are crass; instead, capitalism epistemologically shapes a holistic framework of thought, difficult to break apart into sections admitting mutuality, cooperation, non-invidious social relations, along with, on the other hand, treating the individual as a commodity and viewing human life as a means to one’s own exploitative ends. Rather, the capitalist mindset cherishes stability, seeks totality of ideological perspective, thus rejects as more than window dressing the harmonious dimensions of human affairs.
Let’s briefly look closer at Flint vis-à-vis the forces confronting it. It has to lose, or America will never be the same again; race and class are irrelevant when stripped of motive power to effect a democratization of status and values, but when, as here, the potential—if nothing more—exists to question capitalism and the State, exposing both to do fundamental harm to the body politic, poisoning the wells of citizenship and social identity, then the time has come for upper political-economic groups to fight back in defense of their privilege. Flint is a test case for the determination of power relations in society, the legitimacy of property with its full complement of institutional-cultural support, or the public health of working people, their consciousness for acting as a class, and the shucking-off of deferential behavior. Regrettably, Flint has not thus far accepted the challenge, making for a one-sided contest of wills going to its abject defeat. Yet there has to be more. The sit-down strikes are inscribed in the city’s DNA, and the dire circumstances of public policy converging on the destruction of children’s health, appears to be waking up community spirit to slough off the apathy and discouragement I alluded to, thereby making government all the more resistant to social change, all the more willing, despite public-relations stunts about admitting responsibility (Snyder’s State of the State address), to tough it out against what is seen, by ideological choice, as the class-enemy, blacks, the poor, or a combination thereof.
Go back to September, 2015, as reported by Goodnough-Davey-Smith’s NYT article, “When the Water Turned Brown,” (Jan. 23, 2016), to Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s announcement of her evidence-based charge (this late in the narrative, where filters, etc., are in play), that “the number of Flint children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had risen alarmingly since the city changed its water supply the previous year,” and one finds, what?—stonewalling by the authorities, denial, even attack on her character. Within hours of her news conference, they write, the Department of Health and Human Services declares the findings false, DEQ calls her remarks, “’unfortunate,’” the concern over Flint’s water, “’near-hysteria,’” and argues DEQ has met for months “state and federal standards.” That may be true, but what does that say about the standards? Goodnough, et. al, capture the human drama of those who buck the system: “Dr. Hanna-Attisha said she went home that night feeling shaky and sick, her heart racing. ‘When a state with a team of 50 epidemiologists tells you you’re wrong,’ she said, ‘how can you not second-guess yourself?’” When I title this paper, “Infanticide: A Policy Choice,” do I, despite its harshness, exaggerate? Only this month does the governor, in mock-contriteness, admit the validity of Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s findings.
By way of further detail and recapitulation, one sees deliberateness in the pattern, not the willful poisoning of Flint’s children and the community as a whole, but the indifference to their fate when the procedures and protocols followed were certain to yield a horrifying outcome, an indifference grounded in the last analysis in an hierarchically-structured capitalist system which views with contempt the underlings generated by it, blacks and the poor reduced to ciphers of no-account, Flint therefore a living laboratory of class attitudes and policies full-pedal ahead in ignoring harm done its already-marginalized who are dimly viewed as impediments to Empire and Greatness. The reporters add, in light of last-minute admissions by the governor and state officials, “Yet interviews, documents and emails show that as every major decision was made over more than a year, officials at all levels of government acted in ways that contributed to the public health emergency and allowed it to persist for months. The government continued on its harmful course even after lead levels were found to be rising, and after pointed, detailed warnings came from a federal water expert, a Virginia Tech researcher and others.” Ideologues have blocked ears, whether Snyder or the emergency manager who approved the switch in the water supply. And they continue: “And through it all, officials persisted in playing down and dismissing the concerns of Flint residents—one referred to concerned residents groups as ‘anti-everything’—and authoritatively vouching for the water’s purity, even as they themselves were debating whether it was pure.” Amoral cynicism, anyone?
There is no need to drag out the story. Beyond lead contamination (then Flint mayor, in June 2014, Dayne Walling, told the Flint Journal, about the water, “’It’s a quality, safe product,’”), there were other problems, which may have distracted from the discussion of the lead (misery comes in bundles): “At points, the city’s water tested positive for E. coli bacteria…. City officials pumped extra chlorine into the system to address the bacteria issue, which led to elevated levels of total trihalomethanes, or TTHMs, chemical compounds that may cause health problems after long-term exposure.” February 2015, a state briefing: “the TTHM was ‘not nothing’ but also not an imminent ‘threat to public health.’” July 2015, “Flint sent residents a letter saying it was ‘pleased to report’ the ‘water is safe.’’’ Can one blame Flint residents for being disheartened and believing that officials all along the line had betrayed them? That can be a dangerous mix, going either way—demoralization or rebellion, at this point still too early to tell. In the words of one mom, whose children already developed sores and lesions, and who was particularly worried about the long-term effects of lead on her learning-disabled eleven-year-old, stated: “’My trust in everybody is completely gone, out the door. We’ve been lied to so much, and these aren’t little white lies. These lies are affecting our kids for the rest of their lives, and it breaks my heart.’”
With cynicism and indifference also comes hypocrisy. Liam Stack reports in The Times article, “Michigan Gave State Employees Purified Water as It Denied Crisis, Emails Show,” (Jan. 29), that while Snyder’s administration throughout most of 2015 claimed that Flint’s “tap water was safe to drink,” emails released on the 28th “suggest the state was concerned about its own employees’ exposure to the city’s water as early as January of last year, even arranging for purified water to be provided at a state office building there.” Bureaucrats first, citizens last. Stack writes: “The emails depict an exchange that month [January 2015] between employees of two state departments [DEQ and Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget—they knew already!] that expresses concern about the water’s safety within the Michigan government long before Mr. Snyder acknowledged to residents in the fall that there was a problem.” Lonnie Scott of Progress Michigan charged favoritism involved here: ”’While residents were being told to relax and not worry about the water, the Snyder administration was taking steps to limit exposure to its own building.” As early as January 9, 2015 we see the flow of emails, a facility notification to DEQ about the State Office Building in Flint (which sits, ironically, on the banks of the much-polluted Flint River), the dispatch of water coolers to each floor—the “email thread” also indicating concern about “unsafe levels” of TTHM in the water. Snyder, two days ago, on Detroit radio, said “he was unaware state employees in Flint had been given purified water starting in January 2015.” Stack, you can sense the futility and game-playing, writes: “Mr. Snyder has said he is committed to fixing the problem [how do you fix the poisoning already occurring in little children?] but he has so far not said when it would be safe for Flint residents to drink tap water without using a filter. He has also declined to say when thousands of water service lines in the city that are made of lead would be replaced, a key step toward convincing the public that it is safe to drink from the tap.”
Finally, let’s not be squeamish, let’s take the plunge into the tainted water supply. Things may be far worse than I’ve made out. Abby Goodnough’s NYT article, “Flint Weighs Scope of Harm to Children Caused by Lead in Water,” (Jan. 29), describes Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s investigations, examination of children and interviews with parents (her current estimate of children exposed to lead poisoning “could number 8,000”). Goodnough soberly observes: “Of all the concerns raised by the contamination of Flint’s water supply, and the failure of the state and federal governments to promptly address the crisis after it began nearly two years ago, none are more chilling than the possibility that children in this tattered city may have suffered irreversible damage to their developing brains and nervous systems from exposure to lead.” This is further reinforced by the fact “that recent tests of unfiltered water in Flint had found levels of lead in some samples higher than what filters distributed to residents were designed to remove.” Some US Public Health Service samples revealed “levels [of lead] higher than 150 parts per billion,” when EPA guidelines declare that “lead in drinking water should be below 15 parts per billion,” and Flint filters supposedly “remove lead up to 150 parts per billion.” Lead, I’m sorry to say, is UNSAFE at any level, and even the assistant secretary of the US Public Health Service, Nicole Lurie, in charge of preparedness and response, sought to downplay the significance of the findings.
The cards are stacked against Flint (and communities, including sections of larger metropolitan areas, like it): “Residents and advocates have expressed outrage over the government’s failure to protect Flint’s children, something many of them say would not have happened if the city were largely white. Adding to their injury, they say, are the harsh conditions of poverty that have already placed obstacles in their young lives.” Too, the future, “when the effects of consuming lead-laced water for months may be all too evident.” Dr. Hanna-Attisha, with her Hurley Children’s colleagues, is “scramble[ing] to put in place the resources so that every child who needs extra help learning or overcoming medical problems will have support for years to come.” Sadly, I fear, the future is here, and it is too late. Consider the reporter’s words: “Decades of research have found that exposure to even low levels of lead can profoundly affect children’s growth, behavior and intelligence over time. Studies have linked elevated lead levels in blood to learning disabilities, problems with attention and fine motor coordination, and even violent behavior.” Goodnough adds, “Younger children and fetuses are especially vulnerable because of their developing brains and nervous systems, which is why the efforts here will focus on children 5 and younger.” Dr. Hanna-Attisha may be like a modern-day Sisyphus, but hardly for want of trying—she is everywhere, yet encountering a mindset, as that of the state nurse who, revealed in one of the emails to the governor’s office, told a Flint resident this month, “regarding her son’s elevated blood lead level, ‘It is just a few IQ points…. It is not the end of the world.’”
No big deal. Dr. Hanna-Attisha dissents; she and others “who have studied lead poisoning have a sharply different view of lead exposure, for which there is no cure.” Her own words deserve to be plastered across Snyder’s Ann Arbor condo: “’If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.’” (Incidentally, a demonstration in front of his condo has been called for Feb. 3.) Not only the obstructive mindset (increasing degrees of false consciousness as one descends the wealth-ladder, those, like the state nurse, identifying with those above), but material conditions facing the residents of Flint, indicate the enormity of the problem—and perhaps the sadistic impulse driving it home: “Underlying the problem [the poisoning of generations to come] are the troubling conditions prevalent among low-income children and their families in cities like Flint: spotty access to doctors and health care services; a dearth of healthy foods; living conditions so poor that many of the children may have already been exposed to lead poisoning from the paint in their homes; parents with limited time and financial resources.” So, doctors’ focus would be on improving children’s diets, Head Start preschool programs (Flint’s already has a waiting list), and Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s Pediatric Public Health Initiative, bringing together psychologists, child development experts, and nutritionists. But to what avail, given the permanent damage done to children? She states at one point, “’Our kids are already rattled by every kind of toxic stress you can think of. Every single day in our clinic we have a 40 percent no-show rate, and it’s not because parents don’t love their children.’” She and others urge “families to feed their children foods rich in calcium, iron and vitamin C, which can help minimize the amount of lead their bodies absorb.’” Back to the Sisyphus syndrome, the damage is done, continually eating away at the child’s vitals. More: “Yet that raises another problem [as noted before]: Flint is a food desert, with no large grocery stores within the city limits.” One of the mother’s she interviewed lamented: “Instead of them donating all this water, what can they do about the pipes? What can they do?”
What can America do?