Flint’s Crisis Is About More Than Water


What is in the mind of someone who knowingly poisons children and impairs their lives? Why did the politicians, regulators and bureaucrats who knew the water in Flint, Mich., was toxic lie about the danger for months? What does it say about a society that is ruled by, and refuses to punish, those who willfully destroy the lives of children?

The crisis in Flint is far more ominous than lead-contaminated water. It is symptomatic of the collapse of our democracy. Corporate power is not held accountable for its crimes. Everything is up for sale, including children. Our regulatory agencies—including the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality—have been defunded, emasculated and handed over to corporate-friendly stooges. Our corrupt courts are part of a mirage of justice. The role of these government agencies and courts, and of the legislatures, is to sanction abuse rather than halt it.

The primacy of profit throughout the society takes precedence over life itself, including the life of the most vulnerable. This corporate system of power knows no limits. It has no internal restraints. It will sacrifice all of us, including our children, on the altar of corporate greed. In a functioning judicial system, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Flint’s former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, along with all the regulatory officials who lied as a city was being sickened, would be in jail facing trial.

Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Gitta Sereny in “Into That Darkness,” Omer Bartov in “Murder in Our Midst,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn in “The Gulag Archipelago,” Primo Levi in “The Drowned and the Saved” and Ella Lingens-Reiner in “Prisoners of Fear” argue that the modern instrument of evil is the technocrat, the man or woman whose sole concern is technological and financial efficiency, whose primary measurement of success is self-advancement, even if it means piling up corpses or destroying the lives of children.

“Monsters exist,” Levi noted, “but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men.” These technocrats have no real ideology, other than the ideology that is in vogue. They want to get ahead, to rise in the structures of power. They know how to make the collective, or the bureaucracy, work on behalf of power. Nothing else is of importance. “The new state did not require holy apostles, fanatic, inspired builders, faithful devout disciples,” Vasily Grossman, in his book “Forever Flowing, wrote of Stalin’s Soviet Union. “The new state did not even require servants—just clerks.”

We churn out millions of these technocrats or clerks in elite universities and business schools. They are trained to serve the system. They do not question its assumptions and structures any more than Nazi bureaucrats questioned the assumptions and structures of the “Final Solution.” They manage the huge financial houses and banks such as Goldman Sachs. They profit from endless war. They orchestrate the fraud on Wall Street. They destroy the ecosystem on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. They are elected to office. They are empty shells of human beings who stripped of their power and wealth are banal and pathetic. They are not sadists. They do not delight in cruelty. They are cogs in the machinery of corporate power.

These technocrats are numb to the most basic of human emotions and devoid of empathy beyond their own tiny inner circle. Michigan state officials, for example, provided bottled water to their employees in Flint for nearly a year while city residents drank the contaminated water, and authorities spent $440,000 to pipe clean water to the local GM plant after factory officials complained that the Flint water was corroding their car parts. That mediocre human beings make such systems function is what makes them dangerous.

The long refusal to make public the poisoning of the children of Flint, who face the prospect of stunted growth, neurological, speech and hearing impairment, reproductive problems and kidney damage, mirrors the slow-motion poisoning and exploitation of the planet by other corporate technocrats. These are not people we want to entrust with our future.

Theodor Adorno warned in his essay “Education After Auschwitz” that if we did not create an educational system that taught us to think morally and trained us how to make moral choices, another Auschwitz would appear on the horizon. Schools must teach more than vocational skills; they must teach values. They must, as Adorno wrote, teach citizens about “the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.” And they must do this “without fear of offending any authorities.”

We live in an age that has eradicated social and cultural consciousness and left us in a rootless, ahistorical, emotionally driven void. Whole populations in our poorest communities are poisoned or, in countries such as Iraq, murdered en masse. But we have no context for measuring human actions and human evil. We find our collective identity in childish nationalist cant and patriotic propaganda that bombards the airwaves, not in the cold reality of our callousness and ruthlessness. We do not know who we are.

“People who blindly slot themselves into the collective already make themselves into something like inert material, extinguish themselves as self-determined beings,” Adorno writes about the technocrat. “With this comes the willingness to treat others as an amorphous mass.”

“The manipulative character—as anyone can confirm in the sources available about those Nazi leaders—is distinguished by a rage for organization, by the inability to have any immediate human experiences at all, by a certain lack of emotion, by an overvalued realism,” Adorno goes on to say in his 1966 essay. “At any cost he wants to conduct supposed, even if delusional, Realpolitik. He does not for one-second think or wish that the world were any different than it is, he is obsessed by the desire of doing things [Dinge zut un], indifferent to the content of such action. He makes a cult of action, activity, of so-called efficiency as such which reappears in the advertising image of the active person. If my observations do not deceive me and if several sociological investigations permit generalization, then this type has become much more prevalent today than one would think.”

Humanity as an idea, as the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has pointed out, is itself mortal. It can be extinguished along with millions of human beings. “Barbarism is not the inheritance of our prehistory,” Finkielkraut reminds us. “It is the companion that dogs our every step.”

“Indeed, one of the most frightening consequences of the Holocaust may well be that rather than serving as a warning to preserve humanity at all cost, it has provided a license to privilege physical survival over moral existence,” writes Omer Bartov in “Mirrors of Destruction.” “This may be one reason, along with the realization that mass murder has continued unabated since 1945, that such men as [Tadeusz] Borowski, [Jean] Améry, Paul Celan, and [Primo] Levi finally decided to put an end to their own lives.”

We have turned our universities into temples dedicated to corporate vocational training. Most graduates of Princeton or Harvard have no more ability to question the operating systems of the corporate state than an inner-city boy or girl who is taught basic functional literacy only so he or she can stock shelves or sell fast food. We all have our place in the great machine of corporate self-immolation. We all are drones. The technical skills vary from intricate and complex to rudimentary. But the commonality is that we lack the capacity to measure our actions against the ideas, outrages and injustices of the past. We have ceased to be moral beings. The devil in Goethe’s “Faust” grasps that the element most essential to the perpetration of evil is the obliteration of memory.

Now it is over. What meaning can one see?
It is as if it had not come to be.
And yet it circulates as if it were.
I should prefer—Eternal Emptiness.

We do not possess the intellectual skills—and this is by design—that permit us to question power, to see ourselves as part of a long human continuum. We have forgotten, or never been taught, that each individual must be seen as an ultimate end if we are to retain any human decency and hope. Once we depersonalize others, once we forget who we are and where we came from, we make evil possible. “Act so that humanity, both in your own person and that of others, be used as an end in itself, and never as a mere means,” Immanuel Kant wrote. If we cannot think morally, if we live devoid of empathy, if our advancement comes at the expense of the other, if we lose touch with the wisdom of the past, we cannot rebel. And if we do not rebel we will sustain a system that will ultimately slay us.


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Chris Hedges, whose column is published weekly on Truthdig, has written 11 books, including the New York Times best seller “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” (2012), which he co-authored with the cartoonist Joe Sacco. Some of his other books include “Death of the Liberal Class” (2010), “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (2009), “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” (2008) and the best selling “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” (2008). His book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (2003) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.