Hubris. It’s a word not commonly used anymore. Maybe because it’s been around for 2,500 years and most words have a finite life-span. But it’s a good word. Aristotle said hubris defined actions meant to shame the victim. We see it in nearly every football game we watch; a player outruns his opponent then smugly shakes his finger in the opponent’s face. They call it taunting. It draws a penalty.
More recently the meaning has changed slightly and instead of describing actions, it has morphed into a description of the attitude that sparked the action, that allowed someone to scorn the victim. Merriam Webster succinctly defines it as “a great or foolish amount of pride or confidence.”
It seems to me the swirl of bad publicity bubbling up from Lansing has its roots in hubris, both in its original meaning and in its more modern sense.
For instance, consider the general elections in 2012 when the people of Michigan rejected Proposal 1 by a margin of 52% to 48%, a proposal that would have allowed Governor Snyder to continue to appoint an Emergency Manager (EM) whenever, wherever he deemed the fiscal environment was unsustainable.
You would think that would have settled the question but it didn’t. A month later the lame duck Republican majority in the Michigan legislature minimally revised the Emergency Manager law that had been rejected by voters just weeks earlier, then approved their minor revisions, and rushed it to Snyder for his signature. The voice of the voter’s be damned, we have the power to do whatever we want.
Fast forward to the 2014 elections. When the Republicans redrew the states electoral districts in 2011, they used the time honored practice of gerrymandering, designing districts to favor themselves when the votes
were tallied. The role gerrymandering played in the 2014 elections shows exactly how it works. The Republicans increased the seats they control in the Michigan House. Strangely enough, however, when the votes of the entire state were counted, only 48.9% of the votes were cast for Republican House candidates while 50.9% of the votes were garnered by Democrats, a 3% point difference. But thanks to gerrymandering, The Grand Old Party claimed 57.2% of the seats.
This happens, but even a conservative media provider like Bloomberg questions if Michigan’s extreme gerrymandering doesn’t make a mockery of democracy. When the election results were announced, the leaders in the Republican House declared they had received a mandate to continue working on their agenda. A 48.9% mandate? One of my high school teachers used to call that sort of reasoning, “Whistling past the graveyard.”
Even Snyder, favored to win by virtue of his incumbency, running against a fairly unknown opponent (quick, what was his name?), could only claim a 4% margin of victory, so what the heck, call it a mandate and go about your business. Snyder took the narrow margin and declared, “We’re strengthening our majorities in both the House and the Senate. I think we have a strong mandate to continue the reinvention of Michigan.”
Less than a year after the election, it was revealed that Republican control of Flint via Snyder’s appointees had not only made grave errors, but perhaps violated many laws. When they poisoned Flint’s water supply for as yet an unknown number of citizens, all talk of a mandate is gone and the finger pointing has begun. It’s every man for himself as the House and Senate leaders have no comment on their rush to restore Snyder’s EM authority in the face of its voter rejection four years earlier.
The Governor’s just released emails (which don’t include 2013 when the wheeling and dealing was going on) show a staff ready to blame anyone, everyone. At least the emails that weren’t redacted. His top aide, Dennis Muchmore was ready to dump the problem back in the lap of the Flint citizenry, adding “it’s really the city’s water system that needs to deal with it” and that he was unable to “figure out why the state is responsible”.
He then turned the spotlight on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), a department then managed by a Snyder appointee. Dan Wyant took the helm of the MDEQ in 2011. Originally a Governor John Engler appointee, it was Wyant’s department that was informed by the federal government there were problems in the water quality in February, 2015 because of the supply change from DWSD to the Flint River. The MDEQ ignored the warning. In retrospect, Flint’s mayor at the time believes that, “The MDEQ was interpreting it all from their perspective in Lansing.” And whose perspective might that have been?
Muchmore could have stepped up to shoulder a little blame himself. State Treasury honcho Andy Dillon, also a Snyder appointee, and Muchmore together concocted the plan to switch Flint’s water supply to the Flint River way back in March, 2013. (Dillon resigned from Treasury in October 2013.) Snyder emails from this period have not been released.
What was the big deal about switching the water supply anyway? Records show that the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) offered Flint a deal that would have saved them more ($800 million over 30 years) instead of converting an aging, polluted water supply that would require millions, if not billions, to build and maintain. What was so important that they would risk bleeding more money out of Flint at the same time denying much needed revenue to the DWSD? What indeed.
It’s clear that the switch from DWSD water to a local water supply came from Lansing and was rubberstamped or defended by three of the five EMs appointed by Snyder in just four years, 2011 to 2015, none of whom questioned the need for the change.
The second of the five, Ed Kurtz (who had previously been Flint’s Emergency Manager in 2002 – 2004, appointed by John Engler) originally approved the plan presented to him by Lansing. By the time Darnell Earley (presently Detroit Public Schools EM) became Flint’s EM number four, the deal had been closed a half year earlier. But it was under his watch that in April 2014, the switch was made. Earley sold a nine mile stretch of the Detroit pipeline to Genesee County six months after the switch, theoretically eliminating any chance of reconnecting to DWSD water.
There were plenty of warning signs of the impending problem. GM quit using Flint water in its manufacturing process in October, 2014, then on January 2, 2015 MDEQ found Flint was adding way too many chemicals to the water in an attempt to clean and disinfect it. On January 6, Flint’s “mayor” Dayne Walling (defeated in his November re-election bid) proclaimed Flint’s water absolutely safe, then on January 9, U of M Flint reported high lead levels in its water.
But last February an EPA (a federal employee, so not a Snyder appointee) employee reported that there were potential problems with Flint’s new water supply, confirmed it with additional testing in April and then presented his findings in an internal communication in June.
Why didn’t the EPA intervene? EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman asked for a legal ruling concerning the EPA’s ability to interfere in the problem. The opinion was issued in November, well after the facts were becoming available.
In light of the surfacing situation, in March, the token Flint City Council voted to switch back to DWSD but Snyder EM appointee Jerry Ambrose and titular mayor Walling were opposed.
Volunteer faculty and graduate students from Virginia Tech routinely do
water studies were informed of the Flint situation last summer. On August 24 they sent 300 bottles to Flint to be filled with Flint city water to be analyzed and 300 more on September 2. The preliminary findings were shared with the MDEQ and instead of thanking the volunteers for their assistance, they were ridiculed and humiliated.
The MDEQ questioned the Virginia Tech team’s methodology, ignoring the successful national reputation they’d earned and in spite of the fact that even their own June water sample tests showed much the same thing.
At the same time, the staff at Flint’s Hurley Hospital was puzzled by an influx of symptoms, particularly in children, that strongly resembled lead poisoning. 1,700 blood samples were analyzed showing lead levels found in the blood samples had spiked, nearly doubling since the water source was changed. The MDEQ response? Spokesman Brad Wuerfel said the Hurley findings amounted to “near hysteria.”
Within days, the facts overpowered the cover-up. As late as September 30, the MDEQ was still denying the problem, but on October 1, Genesee County declared a public health emergency after Flint issued a lead advisory. The jig was up.
Snyder recently apologized, but put the blame on that Tea Party bugaboo …GOVERNMENT. “Government failed you at the federal, state and local level,” he said. Some folks are pretty sure the government he mentioned is the one he controlled.
As more facts have emerged, Snyder recently confessed on Fox 2 News that, “This is a disaster. I had people that worked for me to be blunt, that let all of us down. But I’m responsible. So I am not trying to get out of that. You have to be responsible for these things.”
Hubris has a way of getting the last laugh.
Yet hubris rages on. The conservative National Review puts the responsibility firmly on all the Flint residents who ever voted for a Democrat, while Fox News blames the citizens who blindly let their children drink the contaminated water.
As Aristotle defined it, we see “actions intended to shame the victims.”