Floodwaters in two Houston-area neighborhoods hit hard by Hurricane Harvey have been contaminated with bacteria and toxins — and the highest levels of contamination were found in a low-income neighborhood built next to a slow-moving river that is known to have been polluted for decades.
A New York Times investigation discovered E. coli levels at four times the amount considered safe in “water flowing down Briarhills Parkway in the Houston Energy Corridor.”
“There’s pretty clearly sewage contamination, and it’s more concentrated inside the home than outside the home,” Lauren Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who participated in the Times’ research said. “It suggests to me that conditions inside the home are more ideal for bacteria to grow and concentrate. It’s warmer and the water has stagnated for days and days. I know some kids were playing in the floodwater outside those places. That’s concerning to me.”
Though the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have risen concerns about contaminated floodwaters, none of the results of samples they have taken have been made public so far, the Times reported.
The Times elaborated on medical warnings:
Dr. Beau Briese, an emergency room physician at Houston Methodist Hospital, said he had seen a doubling in the number of cases of cellulitis — reddened skin infections — since the storm. He said it was a more modest increase than he had expected, and that the infections had been successfully treated with antibiotics.
Dr. David Persse, the chief medical officer of Houston, said residents caring for children, the elderly and those with immune disorders should try to keep them out of homes until they have been cleaned.
In the Clayton Homes public housing development, which is alongside the Buffalo Bayou, levels of E. coli were measured at a shocking 135 times higher than what’s considered safe, the Times reported. The water also included elevated levels of “lead, arsenic and other heavy metals in sediment from the floodwaters in the kitchen.”
The Buffalo Bayou has been polluted for years, and it’s been reported that minority residents have suffered the most from the consequences.
“Here it’s normal to see industrial flares from front porches, and to wake up to paint particles from the nearby scrap metal shredding facility floating into homes,” Houston Public Media reported regarding neighborhoods along the bayou.
“I wanted you to come through here because you’re going to see one of the shredding facilities that shreds cars into tiny tiny little pieces of metal. It comes into this community here, and they don’t like it,” said Juan Parras, a community activist who led TEJAS, or Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, in 2011.
Parras said the facility should have never been built. The Ashby high rise was heavily protested in the more affluent parts of town, Houston Public Media reported.
“And there was a lot of complaints, you know, the citizens obviously didn’t want it. And at the same time they were building this,” Parras said. “And sometimes it gets real real high, you know, just a pile of cars here. And so we call it our Ashby high rise. But even though we protested, you know, we got it anyway.“
In 2012, environmentalists called for strengthening the Clean Water Act, which helps regulate pollution control, the same law that President Donald Trump’s administration has already proposed rolling back.
Charlie May is a news writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @charliejmay
More than 4,000 pages of emails from Pruitt’s days as Oklahoma’s attorney general reveal that the EPA administrator and his staff had dozens of meetings with coal, oil and gas executives and lobbyists, according to a report by the Associated Press.
One email from Pete Regan, executive director of the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance, urges Pruitt to meet an oil and gas lobbyist who he describes as “a gem of a dude. He serves on DEPA executive Comm w Harold Hamm. AG Pruitt was on multiple exec calls on 2015 giving updates re ‘sue and settle’, endangered species cases, etc. . . . Greg worked closely with Sen. Bob Dole and has great stories.”
Many of the items on Pruitt’s schedule were blacked out, which makes it more difficult for watchdog groups to ascertain the extent of his connections with the coal, oil and gas industries.
The emails were withheld from the public by Pruitt until a lawsuit by the liberal advocacy group Center for Media and Democracy convinced a judge to order their release.
Pruitt’s proposed budget cuts to the EPA have been so drastic that even many of his fellow Republicans have criticized them. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey told Pruitt during a congressional hearing on Thursday that “we are home to a historical background that shows us to have more Superfund sites than any other in the nation. I know there has been a proposal here to reduce substantial funding for this program.”
Similarly, Rep. David Joyce of Ohio asked, if Pruitt’s proposed cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative go through, “How will these functions be maintained if the GLRI is eliminated?”
Rep. Michael Simpson of Idaho pointed out that, because farmers in his state are dealing with new pests due to global warming, cutting EPA funding “leads to less timely reviews. The president’s budget will cut well below the minimum. The potato industry will not have access to the proper crop production tools.”
Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and his work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.
Jump into your time machine and let me transport you back to another age.
It’s May 2001 and The Atlantic has just arrived in the mail. I’m tantalized by the cover article. “Russia is finished,” the magazine announces. The subtitle minces no words: “The unstoppable descent into social catastrophe and strategic irrelevance.” Could it be that the country I had worried most about as a military officer during all those grim years of the Cold War, the famed “Evil Empire” that had threatened us with annihilation, was truly kaput, even in its Russian rather than Soviet guise?
Sixteen years later, the article’s message seems just a tad premature. Today’s Russia surely has its problems — from poverty to pollution to prostitution to a rickety petro-economy — but on the geopolitical world stage it is “finished” no longer. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has recently been enjoying heightened influence, largely at the expense of a divided and disputatious superpower that now itself seems to be on an “unstoppable descent.”
More than a generation after defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States of 2017 seems to be doing its level best to emulate some of the worst aspects of its former foe and once rival superpower.
Sixteen years after Russia was declared irrelevant, a catastrophe, finito, it is once again a colossus — at least on the American political scene, if nowhere else. And that should disturb you far less than this: more than a generation after defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States of 2017 seems to be doing its level best to emulate some of the worst aspects of its former foe and once rival superpower.
Yes, the US has a Soviet problem, and I’m not referring to the allegations of the moment in Washington: that the Trump campaign and Russian officials colluded, that money may have flowed into that campaign via Russian oligarchs tied to Putin, that the Russians hacked the US election to aid Donald Trump, that those close to the president-elect dreamed of setting up a secret back channel to Moscow and suggested to the Russian ambassador that it be done through the Russian embassy or even that Putin has a genuine hold of some sort on Donald Trump. All of this is, of course, generating attention galore, as well as outrage, in the mainstream media and among the chattering classes, leading some to talk of a new “red scare” in America. All of it is also being investigated, whether by congressional intelligence committees or by former FBI director — now special counsel — Robert Mueller.
When it comes to what I’m talking about, though, you don’t need a committee or a counsel or a back channel or a leaker from some intelligence agency to ferret it out. Whatever Trump campaign officials, Russian oligarchs or Vladimir Putin himself did or didn’t do, America’s Soviet problem is all around us: a creeping (and creepy) version of authoritarianism that anyone who lived through the Cold War years should recognize. It involves an erosion of democratic values; the ever-expanding powers exercised by a national security state operating as a shadow government and defined by militarism, surveillance, secrecy, prisons and other structures of dominance and control; ever-widening gaps between the richest few and the impoverished many; and, of course, ever more weapons, along with ever more wars.
That’s a real red scare, America, and it’s right here in the homeland.
In February, if you remember — and given the deluge of news, half news, rumor and innuendo, who can remember anything these days? — Donald Trump memorably compared the US to Russia. When Bill O’Reilly called Vladimir Putin “a killer” in an interview with the new president, he responded that there was little difference between us and them, for — as he put it — we had our killers, too, and weren’t exactly innocents abroad when it came to world affairs. (“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”) The president has said a lot of outlandish things in his first months in office, but here he was on to something.
My Secret Briefing on the Soviet Union
When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources”; you know, books, magazines and newspapers. The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years (though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991). Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our archenemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless Communist oppression.
Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?
I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with: that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment and an extensive prison system featuring gulags. All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.
This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.
This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.
In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing — eight points in all — one item at a time.
1. An authoritarian, surveillance state: The last time the US Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.
2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales: The US continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of President Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the USA is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.
3. Bent on nuclear domination: Continuing the policies of President Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.
4. Imperialist and expansionist: Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the US is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly. When the US military speaks of global reach, global power and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.
5. Persecutes critics and dissidents: Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the US is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse. As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.
In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “Lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.
6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment: Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the US today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma. Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.
7. Extensive prison systems: As a percentage of its population, no countryimprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.
8. Stalemated wars: You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration (even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion). US forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there. Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, US leaders continue to over-deploy US Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.
In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.
What Is to Be Done?
Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the US is becoming more like the former Soviet Union.
Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the US is becoming more like the former Soviet Union. Just to begin the list of similarities: too many resources are being devoted to the military and the national security state; too many over-decorated generals are being given too much authority in government; bleeding-ulcer wars continue unstanched in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; infrastructure (roads, bridges, pipelines, dams and so on) continues to crumble; restless “republics” grumble about separating from the union (Calexit!); rampant drug abuse and declining life expectancy are now American facts of life. Meanwhile, the latest US president is, in temperament, authoritarian, even as government “services” take on an increasingly nepotistic flavor at the top.
I’m worried, comrade! Echoing the cry of the great Lenin, what is to be done? Given the list of symptoms, here’s one obvious 10-step approach to the de-sovietization of America:
1. Decrease “defense” spending by 10 percent annually for the next five years. In the Soviet spirit, think of it as a five-year plan to restore our revolution (as in the American Revolution), which was, after all, directed against imperial policies exercised by a “bigly” king.
2. Cut the number of generals and admirals in the military by half, and get rid of all the meaningless ribbons, badges and medals they wear. In other words, don’t just cut down on the high command but on their tendency to look (and increasingly to act) like Soviet generals of old. And don’t allow them to serve in high governmental positions until they’ve been retired for at least 10 years.
3. Get our military out of Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn countries in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Reduce that imperial footprint overseas by closing costly military bases.
4. Work to eliminate nuclear weapons globally by, as a first step, cutting the vast US arsenal in half and forgetting about that trillion-dollar “modernization” program. Eliminate land-based ICBMs first; they are no longer needed for any meaningful deterrent purposes.
5. Take the money saved on “modernizing” nukes and invest it in updating America’s infrastructure.
6. Curtail state surveillance. Freedom needs privacy to flourish. As a nation, we need to remember that security is not the bedrock of democracy — the US Constitution is.
7. Work to curb drug abuse by cutting back on criminalization. Leave the war mentality behind, including the “war on drugs,” and focus instead on providing better treatment programs for addicts. Set a goal of cutting America’s prison population in half over the next decade.
8. Life expectancy will increase with better health care. Provide health care coverage for all using a single-payer system. Every American should have the same coverage as a member of Congress. People shouldn’t be suffering and dying because they can’t afford to see a doctor or pay for their prescriptions.
9. Nothing is more fundamental to “national security” than clean air and water. It’s folly to risk poisoning the environment in the name of either economic productivity or building up the military. If you doubt this, ask citizens of Russia and the former Soviet Republics, who still struggle with the fallout from the poisonous environmental policies of Soviet days.
10. Congress needs to assert its constitutional authority over war and the budget, and begin to act like the “check and balance” it’s supposed to be when it comes to executive power.
There you have it. These 10 steps should go some way toward solving America’s real Russian problem — the Soviet one. Won’t you join me, comrade?
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a regular contributor to TomDispatch. He has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, and now teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers and supporters protest job cuts during rally in Chicago, Illinois, March 2, 2017.
Photo Credit: John Gress Media Inc/Shutterstock
Science isn’t everything. But it is crucial to governing, decision-making, protecting human health and the environment and resolving questions and challenges around our existence.
Those determined to advance industrial interests over all else often attack science. We’ve seen it in Canada, with a decade of cuts to research funding and scientific programs, muzzling of government scientists and rejection of evidence regarding issues such as climate change.
We’re seeing worse in the United States. The new administration is proposing drastic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and others. Information about climate change and environmental protection is being scrubbed from government websites, and scientists are being muzzled. Meanwhile, the government is increasing spending on military and nuclear weapons programs.
There’s nothing wrong with challenging research, developing competing hypotheses and looking for flaws in studies. That’s how science works. But rejecting, eliminating, covering up or attacking evidence that might call into question government or industry priorities — evidence that might show how those priorities could lead to widespread harm — is unconscionable. It’s galling to me because I traded a scientific career for full-time communication work because good scientific information helps people make the best decisions to take us into the future.
Many scientists prefer to work quietly, letting their research speak for itself. But recent attacks are galvanizing scientists and supporters throughout the U.S. and elsewhere. The March for Science on Earth Day, April 22, has been building steam for months. The main march will take place in Washington, D.C., but more than 425 marches are planned around the world. That kicks off a week of action, culminating in the People’s Climate March on April 29, also focused on Washington but with satellite marches throughout the world.
The March for Science website says organizers are “advocating for evidence-based policymaking, science education, research funding, and inclusive and accessible science.”
The group’s 850,000-member Facebook page is inspiring, with “advocates, science educators, scientists, and concerned citizens” sharing personal testimonials about their reasons for marching and why science is important to them, along with ideas for posters and slogans, questions about the march, articles about science and exposés of climate disinformation sent to schools and science teachers by the anti-science Heartland Institute.
March participants are a wide-ranging group, from a neuroscientist who is marching “for the thousands of people suffering from spinal cord injury” to sci-fi fans who are marching “Because you can’t have science fiction without science!” to a scientist marching to honour “the many, many women and young girls interested or involved in science” to those marching “because we know climate change is real.”
Celebrating and advocating for science is a good way to mark Earth Day. I’ll be in Ottawa, where a march is also taking place. David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington and I will launch our new book, Just Cool It!, at an Ottawa Writers Festival event that also features Nishnaabeg musician, scholar and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.
Climate change is one area where anti-science rhetoric and actions at the highest levels of society are endangering human health and survival. Our book is a comprehensive look at the history and implications of climate science, the barriers to confronting the crisis and the many solutions required to resolve it.
It’s discouraging to witness the current attacks on science, and the ever-increasing consequences of climate change, diminishing ocean health and other human-caused problems, but seeing so many people standing up for science and humanity is reason for optimism. Of all the many solutions to global warming and other environmental problems, none is as powerful as people getting together to demand change.
Every day should be Earth Day, but it’s good to have a special day to remind us of the importance of protecting the air, water, soil and biodiversity that we all depend on for health and survival. Politicians are supposed to work for the long-term well-being of people who elect them, not to advance the often short-sighted agendas of those who pay large sums of money to get their way regardless of the consequences. Standing together to make ourselves heard is one of the best ways to ensure they fulfill their responsibilities.
The Trump administration’s war on the environment, which was accelerated this week with the president’s executive order to dismantle various environmental protections, is a product of the administration’s larger war on science, which is in turn a manifestation of President Trump’s unrelenting assault on the truth.
While “truth” and “objectivity” are endlessly debated in the field of journalism, no branch of human knowledge is more established on empirical evidence than the natural sciences, which seek to understand and describe the world through experimentation. One’s attitude toward the natural sciences and the scientists who dedicate their lives to research, therefore, can reveal a lot about one’s attitude toward truth in general.
By now it should be obvious that Trump, who once claimed that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese, has very little respect for the natural sciences. This week we learned just how little the president cares about the expertise of scientists, with a New York Times article reporting that the staff of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been completely decimated since Trump entered office. This elimination of STEM experts from advisory positions is consistent with President Trump’s other anti-science policies, including his call for cuts to the EPA, NASA and NOAA, as well as his sweeping deregulatory agenda on the environment.
Trump’s hostility towards science and scientific facts like climate change is characteristic of his “post-truth” outlook, and his administration’s anti-science agenda is just one part of his larger crusade against objective truth.
This crusade has involved the president relentlessly attacking the media as “fake news” while simultaneously peddling false stories and citing genuinely fake news publications himself. He has been so successful at this that Time magazine came right out and asked it on its latest cover: “Is Truth Dead?” With same font and format as the magazine’s famous “Is God Dead?” cover from 1966, it includes a remarkable interview with the president, who manages to make about a dozen false, unverifiable or misleading statements in one sitting.
Whether deliberate or not, the cover headline alludes to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who is best known for proclaiming the death of God, but also for rejecting the idea of objective truth (“there are no facts, only interpretations”). For the philosophically inclined, then, our “post-truth” era can be traced back to Nietzsche, as the lecturer in philosophy Alexis Papazoglou did last December in an article for the Conversation on the philosopher’s theory of “perspectivism.” According to Papazoglou, Nietzsche posits that, “once we realise that the idea of an absolute, objective truth is a philosophical hoax, the only alternative is a position called ‘perspectivism’ – the idea there is no one objective way the world is, only perspectives on what the world is like.” Papazoglou continues:
According to perspectivism, we agree on [basic facts, like that Paris is the capital of France] not because these propositions are ‘objectively true,’ but by virtue of sharing the same perspective. … but when it comes to issues such as morality, religion and politics, agreement is much harder to achieve.
While it is doubtful whether Trump has ever heard of Nietzsche — and even more doubtful whether he could get through one paragraph of the philosopher’s cryptic prose — the president is quite the perspectivist in his own crass and superficial way (much as he is a crude caricature of Nietzsche’s idealized Übermensch). In his Time interview, the president claimed to be a very “instinctual person,” which one can take to mean that he seldom questions his own perspective or feels the need to verify a claim that he feels in his gut before stating it as fact (even when, as president of the United States, he has access to top secret information).
If there are really no facts and only interpretations, and if millions of Americans are ready to unthinkingly embrace your perspective, then why bother adhering to a rigid line that separates fact from fiction? If you interpret a period of cold weather as evidence that climate change isn’t happening, and if millions of other people agree with your point of view, then climate change is a hoax. If your subjective experience perceives record attendance at the inauguration, then there was record attendance — aerial photographs that prove otherwise are simply illustrating another perspective.
Nietzsche was a major influence on the French postmodern philosophers of the late 20th century, who adopted a similar perspectivist view of objective truth and rejected the “grand narratives” of the Enlightenment and modernism. (Not surprisingly, these thinkers do not have a good reputation in the scientific community; see the notorious Sokal affair). As a philosophical movement, postmodernism is mostly known for the contention that all human knowledge is a product of social constructions and competing narratives — including scientific knowledge, which is no more or less true than, say, Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction.
While prominent postmodernist thinkers were almost all on the left, and used their theories to critique dominant ideologies and powerful interests, their work did not go unnoticed by those on the right. In an interview with the New Yorker last October, Mike Cernovich, one of the leading online personalities of the alt-right, discussed postmodernism and the importance of narratives: “Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Walter Cronkite lied about everything. Before Twitter, how would you have known? Look, I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative.” Like many other alt-right figures Cernovich made his name on Twitter, which has become an invaluable tool for promoting different “narratives,” whether it be climate change denialism or voter fraud conspiracy theories or fables of the deep state.
So the right has managed to successfully adopt a postmodern style of politics, where alternative facts counter objective truth and alternative narratives create a new, paranoid picture of the world. It is far from certain, however, that this kind of postmodern (or post-truth) politics is sustainable in the long run — especially now that Trump and the Republican Party are in control of the government.
Two and a half months into his term, Trump’s presidency has been nothing short of a disaster, and this is largely because the president has shunned experts who operate in the real world (like, er, scientists), while surrounding himself with know-nothing sycophants who dare not contradict his fact-free worldview. If Trump continues to govern as a post-truth president disconnected from reality, all signs point to an eventual collapse. Then again, it’s all a matter of perspective.
Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.
On Monday, President Trump signed an executive order mandating that “for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination.” Trump declared the measure to be “the largest ever cut by far in terms of regulations,” adding, “If you have a regulation you want, number one we’re not going to approve it because it’s already been approved probably in 17 different forms.”
“Government regulation has actually been horrible for big business, but it’s been worse for small business,” Trump said, posturing as a friend to workers and small business owners. In addition to excoriating supposedly unnecessary regulations, the president stated that the order “goes way beyond that,” adding that the slate of minor regulations passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, most notably the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, were a “disaster.” Trump declared that his administration would do “a big number” on that legislation, without specifying what.
The “one in, two out” regulatory rule would mandate that for every new federal regulation introduced, two others must be singled out for elimination. In addition, the text of the order declares that for fiscal year 2017, “the total incremental cost of all new regulations, including repealed regulations … shall be no greater than zero.”
Business lobbyists lauded the action, with Jaunita Duggan, president of the National Federation of Independent Business, stating “[The] president’s order is a good first step on the long road toward eliminating ball-and-chain regulations so small businesses can create jobs and expand the economy.” Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan responded to the executive order by declaring, “President Trump’s executive order helps bring the nation’s regulatory regime into the 21st century by putting regulators on a budget, and addressing the costs agencies can impose each year.”
Trump sought to present the executive order as the fulfillment of campaign promises to do away with regulations which were supposedly “killing” American businesses. However, rather than supporting the interests of small businesses, Trump’s new rule would continue the consolidation of big business’s domination over American society, including the bankrupting of small businesses, while facilitating the exploitation of workers and the environment.
Elaborating on the administration’s intentions at a White House press briefing Monday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer noted that the goal of the administration would be to “unleash the American economy,” adding that Trump was focusing on “the energy sector, how to unleash America’s natural resources.”
The executive order comes on the heels of Trump’s meeting last week with manufacturing industry executives, where the president promised to eliminate “75 percent” of industrial regulations. In particular, Trump has been focused on environmental regulations which have placed higher fuel efficiency requirements on vehicles produced in the US.
Members of the scientific community expressed horror at the arbitrary measure. Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Washington Post the executive order was “absurd, imposing a Sophie’s Choice on federal agencies.”
“If, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to issue a new rule to protect kids from mercury exposure, will it need to get rid of two other science-based rules, such as limiting lead in drinking water and cutting pollution from school buses?” Kimmell asked. The scientist asserted that Trump’s order was “likely illegal,” declaring, “Congress has not called upon EPA to choose between clean air and clean water, and the president cannot do this by executive fiat.”
Trump’s executive order would concentrate power in the hands of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), whose agency is charged with overseeing federal regulations. Trump’s nomination for OMB director, Republican Congressman Mick Mulvaney, is an adamant opponent of federal spending.
According to the New York Times, “Within the Trump team, the views of Representative Mick Mulvaney… rank as among the most reactionary.” Mulvaney, who according to the Times possesses “an almost perfect conservative voting record,” has spent his six-year congressional career opposing disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy as well as backing the 2013 government shutdown, which was instigated by right-wing Republicans in an effort to force the adoption of austerity measures.
Mulvaney is a proponent of ending government-provided health care, having declared that “[we] have to end Medicare as we know it” in 2011 while being interviewed on the Fox Business Network.
The onslaught against federal regulation comes as Trump’s nominees for cabinet secretaries continue to be placed at the head of departments of which they have a record of opposition. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency, has a long career of leading lawsuits against the agency on behalf of the energy industry.
Myron Ebell, who led Trump’s EPA transition team, declared in a recent interview with the Washington Post that his prescription for the EPA would see the elimination of 5,000 employees and the halving of the agency’s $8.1 billion budget. “My own personal view is that the EPA would be better served if it were a much leaner organization that had substantial cuts,” stated Ebell in an interview to the Post .
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled to vote on Pruitt’s nomination on Wednesday. In addition, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon and Trump’s pick for Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin are set to receive committee votes this week. All three nominations would then proceed to the Senate floor for confirmation by the full Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow 52-48 edge.
Mnuchin’s vote was originally scheduled for Monday, but was postponed as Senate Democrats delayed the hearing in order to attend a candlelight vigil opposing Trump’s executive order which bans visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
President Barack Obama’s remarks Wednesday in Flint, Michigan before an audience of about 1,000 people at Northwestern High School displayed the arrogance and contempt of his administration and the corporate elite toward working people suffering from the devastating effects of lead in their drinking water.
Flanked by a host of state and federal officials who oversaw the disaster in Flint, including Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Democratic Congressmen and Senators, the president offered a series of false promises and platitudes. He blandly noted certain symptoms of the social crisis in America—crumbling roads and bridges, aging water pipelines, failing public schools—without acknowledging the role of his administration in presiding over this disaster.
Pallets of bottled water standing in a lot across the street from the venue of Obama’s speech
In his trademark folksy and patronizing manner, Obama urged the people of Flint to resume drinking the city’s water, despite test results showing the persistence of dangerous amounts of lead. At the same time, he dismissed the serious short and long-term effects of the poisoning of Flint children by lead-tainted water. “The kids will be just fine,” he said.
To back up this assertion, Obama cited the spurious example of children accidentally chewing on lead flakes from paint. He noted that perhaps he had ingested lead as a child.
Obama also urged Flint residents to begin drinking the water again, which in many areas is brown and still contains high levels of lead. At one point in his remarks he asked for and drank a glass of filtered water, while proclaiming, “This is not a stunt.”
LeeAnne Walters, an activist whose actions played a pivotal role in exposing the lead poisoning of Flint’s water, told the WSWS, that she and her husband walked out of the event. “Obama’s speech was a complete atrocity. To sit there and tell a city of 100,000 that lead poisoning from drinking water compares to Obama eating paint chips as a kid is incredible. To compare drinking lead poisoned water to paint chips is like comparing apples to toxic waste. We were devastated. We were told our kids don’t matter—not just my kids, but all the children here. We’re talking about the long-term effects.
“He told us to drink the water. That means the programs for filters and bottled water will stop.”
Obama’s visit to Flint coincides with an explosive development of the class struggle in Michigan. It came in the wake of two days of angry protests by teachers in nearby Detroit, Michigan over intolerable conditions in the classrooms and attempts by authorities to rob them of pay. It also coincided with the start of mass water shutoffs in Detroit for households with delinquent bills.
Flint residents crowd the street waiting for the Obama motorcade
Hundreds of people lined up along the route of Obama’s motorcade in Flint, some holding up signs calling for federal help for the city. Many expressed frustration and anger that work on repairing Flint’s water system has barely begun.
A Flint resident holds a sign along the route of the motorcade
Estimates of the cost of repairing Flint’s antiquated piping run as high as $1.5 billion. Democrats in Congress have advanced penny-pinching proposals amounting to only a few hundred million at most. Obama himself in his remarks made only vague promises of fixing Flint’s pipes, specifying no concrete dollar figure. Instead he touted the work of non-profits, charities and philanthropists in providing assistance to Flint residents. He even cited approvingly the $2,500 raised by a group of prisoners in Indiana.
A central aim of Obama’s remarks was to perpetuate the cover-up of the criminal responsibility of government officials at all levels for the disaster. He made a point at the beginning of the speech of noting the presence of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and chastising those who responded by booing. “We’re doing business here,” Obama said.
Obama blamed the crisis on “poor decisions,” claiming that no one “consciously wanted to hurt the people of Flint.” Instead, officials simply “weren’t attentive to potential problems” when acting under budgetary pressures. “This is not to sort out every screw-up that resulted in contaminated water.”
In fact, officials did not merely make “poor decisions,” they actively conspired to ensure that the water source was switched to the Flint River despite ample warnings of the consequences. Documents show that state environmental officials altered reports in order to minimize the dangers of lead in Flint’s drinking water. When residents began to complain of the contaminated water, local, state and federal officials worked to discredit these complaints and cover-up their responsibility.
Obama wants to avoid an analysis of the “screw-ups” because his administration is itself culpable. The federal Environmental Protection Agency moved to isolate and silence Miguel Del Toral, an EPA officials who warned of elevated lead levels and said that the city was not using corrosion control. The agency regularly allows cities throughout the country to violate the government’s own standards.
Both Democratic and Republican officials were involved in the decision to shift Flint’s water supply to the polluted Flint River. This included former Democratic State Treasurer Andy Dillon who signed off on the decision to shift the Flint water supply.
The crisis in Flint is part of a generalized crisis produced by decades of deindustrialization, budget cuts, the elimination of regulations on corporations and growing social inequality. Basic social services are being starved for funds while the Obama administration lavishes countless billions on the Pentagon war machine and handouts to America’s wealthy elite.
Obama’s remarks on Wednesday were a declaration to the people of Flint and throughout the country that nothing will change, no serious assistance will be provided and that workers should simply stop complaining and be quiet.