Reflexive bothsiderism

In case you’ve been out of the loop for the past couple of weeks, the city of Flint, Michigan, was poisoning its citizens via their water supply from April 2014 through December. This catastrophic failure occurred because of a short-sighted austerity measure put in place by Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder and the emergency manager he set in place to run Flint in lieu of its elected government. They decided that it would be cheaper to draw Flint’s water out of Lake Huron than to keep the city connected to Detroit’s water system, and while a pipeline to the lake was being built they thought it would be a good idea to draw the city’s water out of the Flint River, whose water promptly corroded the pipes and caused heavy metals to leach into Flint’s tap water. It should have been immediately apparent that the water was undrinkable, and scientific studies later showed that it was unfit for human consumption, but Snyder and his manager ignored the evidence until it became impossible to ignore any longer. Now Flint has to be reconnected to Detroit’s water system, but in the meantime we’ve managed to afflict a whole bunch of children with, among other things, lead poisoning.

Yesterday, in National Journal, professional scold Ron Fournier, a Michigan native who apparently has a house just outside of Flint, wrote a pretty scathing column about how the people of Flint have been failed by nearly every level of American public society. Fournier is right, this was a huge failure at every level, and he even includes himself among the people who failed:

As I was knock­ing around Flint, a city neg­lected and ul­ti­mately poisoned by every level of gov­ern­ment, my thoughts kept drift­ing to two phrases: “re­fresh­ing ap­proach” and “in noth­ing we trust.”

The first phrase is my de­scrip­tion, in a column last month, of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s lead­er­ship style. What was I think­ing? More on that later.

Don’t buy a bottle of water from this guy
Snyder’s failure is obvious and should, but won’t, cost him his job. And there’s even a legitimate “Thanks, Obama!” component to this story: the administrator for the EPA region that includes Michigan, Susan Hed­man, knew at least as far back as June that the Flint water was poisoning people, and she did…nothing. She blames “protocol” for her failure to say anything, but screw that. Tens of thousands of people were drinking contaminated water, to hell with protocol. Hedman works for Obama’s EPA, so ultimately this is partly Obama’s problem, even though he seems not to be acknowledging it amid his response to the crisis.

There, Both Sides are to blame! Plus we got to fall on our own sword! A perfect Ron Fournier Column, right?

Well, no. Leave aside the fact that water delivery is much more a local/state issue than a federal one. Fournier is obviously a 10th dan black belt when it comes to figuring out how Both Sides are to blame for, well, everything, and in this case I agree there’s blame to go around. But here’s the thing: Obama’s failure was the failure of a particular individual to do her job. That’s bad, and needs to be addressed. Snyder’s failure was the failure of his bankrupt, “drown government in the (contaminated) bath” ideology. That’s worse, because despite the fact that the austerity agenda has been thoroughly discredited over and over again, it’s been able to maintain a firm grip on our national politics partly because influential pundits like Ron Fournier can’t seem to distinguish between failures of performance and failures of ideology.

Obama screwed up and can do better, in this case by appointing better people to run his EPA. Snyder, on the other hand, did everything just right according to his ideology; it’s the ideology that sucks. He can’t and won’t do any better; hell, he doesn’t even really understand what he did wrong in the first place. Pundits, like Fournier, who can’t, or won’t, tell the difference are part of the reason why we can’t get an honest debate about the corrosiveness of right-wing “kick down” austerity, even while we’re acknowledging the corrosiveness of the water that said austerity has put in Flint’s water pipes.

Fournier isn’t even able to put his blind man-crush on Snyder and his ideas to rest after they’ve literally poisoned an entire city, as we see toward the end of his column:

For that mat­ter, why did I write a column about Snyder’s lead­er­ship that didn’t even men­tion Flint? There’s no good an­swer, no ex­cuse. I took my eye off the ball. I blew it.

Now that I’ve caught up, I still think Snyder wants to bring re­fresh­ing change to Michigan polit­ics. Even as he ac­know­ledges a cata­stroph­ic lack of lead­er­ship, I be­lieve he cares about the people he serves. So does Obama, for that mat­ter, and most oth­er politi­cians I know.

See? Snyder still “wants to bring refreshing change to Michigan politics.” Not, perhaps, as refreshing as a tall, cool glass of Flint tap water, but refreshing nonetheless.

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