Pol­luted democ­racy

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Mahir Ali

AS Michael Moore put it in Time mag­a­zine last week: "If it were hap­pen­ing in an­other coun­try, we'd call it eth­nic cleans­ing." The film­maker and ac­tivist was re­fer­ring to the poi­son­ing of his home­town, Flint, a rel­a­tively small town in Michi­gan.

The colour of the wa­ter that has been com­ing through Flint's taps has been vi­su­alised in im­ages across the in­ter­net. It ranges from yel­low to brown, and dates back to 2014, when the pre­dom­i­nantly African-Amer­i­can town's wa­ter sup­ply was switched from Lake Huron to the thor­oughly con­tam­i­nated Flint River.

It wasn't so much the tox­ins in the river - a repos­i­tory for ef­flu­ent, not least from the de­pleted Gen­eral Mo­tors fac­tory in town - that caused lead poi­son­ing as the rusted pipes that yielded highly con­tam­i­nated sup­plies as the con­se­quence of a chem­i­cal re­ac­tion. It thus did not help mat­ters much when the source was even­tu­ally switched back to Lake Huron last year, af­ter an ex­tended pe­riod of de­nial on the part of the au­thor­i­ties.

Fed­eral and state emer­gen­cies in re­cent weeks have led to sup­plies of bot­tled wa­ter for Flint res­i­dents, but th­ese will not last for­ever, and Moore makes a valid point when he ac­cuses the Michi­gan gov­er­nor, Rick Sny­der, of ig­nor­ing ini­tial com­plaints be­cause they came from cit­i­zens who are un­likely to have voted for him in the first place, and ar­gues that "this would not have hap­pened in pre­dom­i­nantly white Michi­gan cities like West Bloom­field, or Grosse Pointe, or Ann Ar­bor".

Plenty of oth­ers have also made the point that when Gen­eral Mo­tors dis­cov­ered its cars were cor­rod­ing as a re­sult of the river­ine source, it was al­lowed to switch its wa­ter sup­ply back to Lake Huron. Not so the or­di­nary res­i­dents of Flint, and up to 9,000 chil­dren are be­lieved to have been poi­soned. In­tel­lec­tual re­tar­da­tion is one of the most ob­vi­ous con­se­quences, al­though there are far worse pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Moore was per­haps the first to sug­gest that Sny­der's cal­cu­lated care­less­ness should lead to a prison sen­tence. That's un­likely, but what's clear is a pat­tern whereby the le­git­i­mate con­cerns of lesser cit­i­zens are over­rid­den by the im­per­a­tive to cut costs in the in­ter­ests of ne­olib­eral pre­rog­a­tives.

A sim­i­lar sce­nario un­folded in New Or­leans more than a decade ago, when Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina stripped away the ve­neer of the great Amer­i­can il­lu­sion and laid bare the re­al­ity of racism in the heart of Louisiana. Fur­ther ex­am­ples of this ten­dency will no doubt emerge in the years ahead.

It is all very well for Barack Obama to claim that he would be ap­palled if his chil­dren faced sim­i­lar risks - just as he de­clared that Trayvon Martin, a vic­tim of vig­i­lante racism, could have been his son. De­cent hom­i­lies, how­ever, do not de­liver the req­ui­site change. That's not the pres­i­dent's fault, but it's a mea­sure of his im­po­tence.

The race to pick his suc­ces­sor en­tered a new phase this week with the Iowa cau­cuses, shortly to be fol­lowed by the New Hamp­shire pri­maries. Even the early re­sults were not avail­able at the time of writ­ing, but the process will be­gin to whit­tle down the field, es­pe­cially on the Repub­li­can side, where there is still a fairly long line of con­tenders. Among Democrats, it's more or less a straight con­test be­tween Hil­lary Clin­ton and Bernie San­ders. Both have claimed to be ap­palled by the Flint de­ba­cle. Both also cast them­selves as Obama's heirs, which is in­ter­est­ing but not quite ac­cu­rate in ei­ther case.

San­ders stirs more en­thu­si­asm among younger vot­ers, as Obama mem­o­rably did in 2008, but his out­sider sta­tus is un­likely to stand him in good stead with the Demo­cratic party hi­er­ar­chy. Cur­rent polls sug­gest he would de­feat Don­ald Trump or Ted Cruz by a big­ger mar­gin than Clin­ton, who is some­what sul­lied by her stints as first lady and sec­re­tary of state. She re­mains, for the mo­ment, the like­li­est next pres­i­dent, al­though it will de­pend ul­ti­mately on whether the Repub­li­can side of pol­i­tics can do any bet­ter than Trump or Cruz.

But how­ever much any of them might mil­i­tate against the egre­gious in­jus­tice in Flint, what the sit­u­a­tion in Michi­gan ul­ti­mately comes down to is a con­test be­tween peo­ple and prof­its. And prof­its gen­er­ally tend to win, es­pe­cially if the peo­ple in ques­tion hap­pen to be non-white, It's just the Amer­i­can way.

Only San­ders, on the most op­ti­mistic pro­jec­tions, is likely to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo in re­spects that re­ally mat­ter. His chances of se­cur­ing the White House and de­liv­er­ing a shock to the sys­tem are dis­mal, though.

The poi­son­ing of Flint's wa­ter sup­ply, dis­tress­ing as it may be, is but a re­flec­tion of the long-stand­ing con­tam­i­na­tion of Amer­ica's democ­racy. And those of us dis­in­clined to con­tem­plate the pos­si­bil­ity of a Trump pres­i­dency should re­flect on the fact that both Ron­ald Rea­gan and Ge­orge W. Bush served two terms each in the most pow­er­ful post in the world.

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