Life in the Empire Part 2: Bringing the Media Giant Down

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George Collins 

In the first installment of this series, I lamented the nonexistence of a strong anti-war movement in the United States despite the need for one being greater than ever. The amount of destruction abroad that continues to murder civilians and foster resentment towards American imperialism rises with each new presidential administration, yet much of the American electorate remains silent. What little noise does surface comes from fledgling organizations formed within the past year such as 2016 Green Party Vice Presidential nominee Ajamu Baraka’s Black Alliance for Peace. The larger efforts historically stem from the libertarian wing of the populace than anywhere else, giving libertarians a step above progressives in being progressive.

 

But if there is anything I despise more as a political writer and broadcaster than a systematic problem going unaddressed, it is the swarm of people all too eager to point out these problems and spout all the answers while providing none of the solutions. I will not be one of them. In this piece, I’d like to reflect on the roots of past anti-war efforts and explore how the same driving forces behind them could be revived or replicated for today’s American left.

 

Two primary examples come to mind when considering mass resistance to American imperialism in modern history: the Vietnam War and the Second Gulf War AKA the Iraq War. These two periods of anti-war protest differed in multiple ways, and those differences shaped how the American people interacted with their government in challenging United States imperialism. Some of these differences were more influential than others in determining how those interactions took place, but the media world serves as the connection between all of them. Analyzing how media outlets large and small handled war propaganda, and the citizens’ collective response to such presentations, offers crucial insight into how the anti-war resistance rose in response to each armed conflict.

 

Of the two wars listed above, the Vietnam War carries the more infamous legacy among the majority of Americans. The resistance to the invasion of Vietnam has been well-documented in the decades since the war’s conclusion, and many events associated with that resistance stand out as some of the most famous moments in American history. The Mahayana Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in protest of the treatment of Buddhists by the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government; champion boxer Muhammad Ali being stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing to enlist because “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger”; the eruption of college campus protests organized by such student groups as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); the violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention in which journalist Dan Rather’s skull was almost cracked open by security personnel. These events and more are as familiar to Americans as the flag raising at Iwo Jima or Washington crossing the Delaware.

 

How did those events come to be so significant? Through a media machine that served as an unauthorized fourth branch of government enlisted by the citizenry to keep the other three branches in check. Like most progressive movements, the initial waves of protests against the war stayed relegated to smaller gatherings facilitated by organizations like SDS. The availability of information contradicting the government’s claims of success and the willingness of large media figures to spread such information enabled that fervor to grow into a movement of national strength and scale. Information and images contrasting with official government accounts began leaking like a broken nose, and the average American’s trust in their beloved government began to falter on a national scale for the first time in modern American history. It culminated with the famous 1968 CBS broadcast when Walter Cronkite, hailed as “the most trusted man in America” at the height of his career, reported on national television that the generals he met with in Vietnam were no longer confident in a victory. The sentiment that the entire war effort was fruitless graduated from the independent media circuits to mainstream television in that crucial moment. The resulting shockwave through the nation was so fierce that the federal government’s counterpunches were powerless to stop it. It destroyed President Lyndon Johnson’s standing among the American people and he abdicated the presidency in 1968 on the certainty that the voters would rather elect a jar of mustard.

 

Understanding the power of the media to shatter the federal government’s wall of propaganda and reverse public sentiment in less than five years involves examining the various entities’ experience with the concept of mass media itself. Television as a widespread staple of American homes on the national level had barely reached its tenth birthday in the middle of the 1960s. Prior television availability consisted of regional stations that had nowhere near a national broadcast reach, and the 6,000 or so homes that owned a tube watched programs based on the preceding network radio format. This meant less emphasis on spectacle and more on simple information delivery. News anchors were shoved on screen to sound like Steven Wright afflicted with crippling depression before departing in favor of audio-based programming reminiscent of the prime radio programs of the 1940s. Investment in television as a major medium of communication by media giants like NBC and CBS in the early 1950s grew the Tube faster than staph on an unwashed wrestling mat, and half of all U.S. homes owned televisions by 1955.

 

New inventions that reach the scale and influence of television in such a short amount of time are difficult for governments to control. Predecessors to the Johnson Administration had been given the time and experience necessary to control radio narratives detailing World War II and the Korean War. Independent radio circuits existed at those times, but their meager reach could not even wrinkle the skeleton of the national radio behemoth tethered to the U.S. government’s lifeline. Television offered a communication medium independent of government influence in most respects, and the unprecedented rapidity of its growth did not allow sufficient time to implement the same controls placed on the radio industry. Thus, by the time the Vietnam War was in full power mode and dissenting information began to be released, a Johnson Administration inexperienced with this new medium stood no chance of stopping the momentum. It lacked the time and resources necessary to consolidate the young and ambitious television networks in such a way that it could shape the narrative before Americans’ eyes the way it had done with radio in the decades prior.

 

This principle helps explain why conquering the propaganda around 9/11 and the resulting invasion of Iraq many years later would be more of a challenge for the next generation of anti-war progressives. Thirty years passed between the end of the Vietnam War and the second Gulf invasion. This provided the time and proficiency necessary for the federal government to establish the media control it lacked in the Vietnam years. Several pieces of legislation consolidated media outlets into a smaller group of owners and removed regulations on ownership in any given political unit. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 stands as the most blatant example. The law destroyed any barriers to merging that existed, allowing larger companies to buy out smaller competition faster than a Conor McGregor knockout. Prior to the Telecom Act, merging between media conglomerates could only take place under specific circumstances, and companies could only own one media outlet per municipality even if a merge took place. Newspapers, radio, magazines, and television all began to fall under a shrinking roster of owners as the competition the bill (allegedly) sought to create evaporated overnight.

 

The Vietnam War machine had little experience controlling widespread media dissemination, and they needed to navigate a climate without the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that consolidated power among media conglomerates down to a handful of entities. The Iraq War machine, by contrast, juiced itself to the gills on deregulation of information spread and was much better-equipped to handle the attacks from the fourth branch. The reliable watch dog of the establishment had been through a thirty-year training camp to become that same establishment’s armored attack dog.

 

But even that wasn’t enough. Even in the face of this new and improved propaganda machine, Americans still brought the giant down and recognized the invasion of Iraq as the colossal failure it was. It only took two years for the Iraq War to become a contentious election issue that no politician wanted any attachment to. George W. Bush’s legacy became tainted in the same way Lyndon Johnson’s had in the 1960s. How did Goliath fall a second time, even with the years of preparation and power consolidation?

 

Turns out Goliath wasn’t the only beast pounding horse meat and whey protein all those years.

 

Think back to Walter Cronkite being named America’s most trusted man at the peak of his career in the Vietnam years. Who on American television qualifies for such a title today? On a more fundamental level, who qualifies to even be compared to somebody like Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow in 21st century American media, or late-20th century American media for that matter? This is somebody accepted as a reliable source by an overwhelming majority of news consumers regardless of political affiliation and who carries a flawless record of fact-checking.

 

Can’t think of one? Neither can I, nor can most of us in the world of professional journalism.

 

Thirty years is a long time for groundbreaking domestic events to take place, and many such events in that wide period of American history eroded confidence in the government to a level below Satan’s wine cellar. Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal serves as the most potent example as Americans learned their government was capable of committing profound deceit to tamper with the election process, something as sacred to the principles of the U.S. as ammosexuality and apple pie. Many Americans may have suspected this prior to the events of the 1972 election, but few were ready to admit it even to themselves. Trust in the government shattered and has never recovered in the decades since.

 

Paralleling the government’s fall from grace was rising skepticism among Americans concerning the news media, the same media that instigated the outrage over Vietnam. Consolidation of media outlets and the companies owning them blurred the messages across networks together. The rise of figures like Roger Ailes fanned the flames of political extremism by promoting antagonistic rhetoric around the clock on a level never before seen in the country. This new breed of programming sought not just to convince you your side was correct, but that all dissenting voices were inherently evil and must be destroyed. The aforementioned consolidation of media outlets thanks to Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 threw ownership of 90% of all types of American media outlets to a total of six companies, and more possible mergers such as one proposed between CBS and CNN threaten to reduce this number further every year.

 

These changes did not escape the notice of American news consumers. Us Americans may not always identify the right issues to expend our energy combating, but we can still identify a turd in a chocolate box if given enough cues. By the dawn of the 21st century, most of the country chose to avoid large media networks out of cynical skepticism that what they were watching was pure advertising. The rise of the Internet as the next generation of information delivery also contributed to this phenomenon as people began to abandon desires for objectivity in favor of what financial journalist Matt Taibbi termed “information shopping” or the deliberate seeking out of narratives to confirm one’s own viewpoints above all else. This mass skepticism of the media’s truth-telling capabilities caused the Iraq War media machine to crumble after only being active for two or three years. The government spent thirty years building a mechanized world champion kickboxer only to discover the opponent across the ring brought an EMP grenade.

 

People began noticing the widespread contradictions in the government’s narrative on the reasons behind the invasion of Iraq and the progress being made in the campaign. One minute our intelligence agencies had identified the terrorist cell harboring Osama Bin Laden, next minute they didn’t know where he was. One day we had taken Baghdad, next day we were still fighting to secure the city. Dick Cheney’s former ties to oil giant Haliburton became known but were never reported by mainstream news networks. The mythical Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that dominated pre-invasion coverage never surfaced despite the government’s continued insistence that they existed. The 9/11 hijackers were confirmed to originate from Saudi Arabia, yet few reporters or journalists on any major network used this information to ask why we had invaded the wrong country. Those few that did were booted out the door without a second thought.

 

By 2003, the weight of these conflicting stories crushed the government’s credibility in legitimizing the Iraq invasion, and the media machine they relied on to distract from these inconsistencies had lost its influence over the American public long before any 9/11 truther could scream about jet fuel and steel beams. Two years was all it took for Americans to shake off the double vision caused by one of the greatest tragedies in the country’s history.

 

The original question I set out to answer here concerned what is missing from the American left today to replicate these successful anti-war efforts. Why has it taken so long to pressure our government into pulling out of Afghanistan after almost two decades of occupation? Why are so many on the left supporting the war in Syria despite multiple United Nations investigations concluding that no chemical weapons have ever been used by the Assad regime? Why are supposedly “progressive” Democrats in Congress calling for armed conflict with Russia and Iran with no electoral consequences from their voter bases? Why is being pro-war still an acceptable position not met with genuine questions about that candidate’s sanity?

 

In examining the above history of the respective Vietnam and Iraq War protests, a common trait among the resistance emerges: skepticism. The Vietnam era taught Americans how to question the government through the rebellion of the fourth branch: an active and independent media circuit concerned first and foremost with bringing the truth to every home. The Iraq War propaganda campaign morphed this circuit into a monstrosity spewing misinformation around the clock, but it was brought down by organic skepticism of both the government and the media fostered by decades of scandal and media consolidation. For better or worse, Americans became conditioned to question everything, even if what they were questioning did not need to be questioned.

 

The American left has lost its ability to be skeptical. Instead of calling for investigations of chemical attacks in Syria, media figures associated with mainstream leftist politics applaud the Trump administration’s reckless abandonment in handling sensitive armed conflicts. Instead of calling on media outlets to scrutinize government narratives and ensure the truth is being told, viewers offer no reaction when anchors and reporters thoughtlessly regurgitate the statements of intelligence agencies and military spokesmen. Publications once heralded for their unshakable journalistic integrity like the Washington Post and New York Times continue to insist Russian agencies hacked the French presidential election even though French President Emmanuel Macron himself claimed no such interference occurred months ago. An increasing number of states are coming forward with evidence their voting systems were not hacked despite the government’s cries of hysteria. Basic levels of quality investigative journalism would have prevented these instances misreporting, but the skepticism and calls for accountability needed to punish these outlets for their blatant dishonesty is nowhere to be found.

 

This lack of pressure from the left wing could have originated from President Trump’s open wars with the media and intelligence agencies alike. His avid usage of terms like “fake news” and “the deep state” inadvertently forged an unholy alliance between these inherently conservative institutions and the American left who would rather be shot in the head than be seen in alignment with Trump on a single issue. Trump’s assault on the media may be immoral and dangerous in the context of maintaining a free and fair press, but his antagonism does not render these institutions trustworthy nor should the left regard them as worthy allies. The CIA and FBI are not our friends and never have been. These agencies harbor a long and racist history of stamping out dissent through means up to and including blatant murder. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The Washington Post, and other corporate media outlets are not reliable sources of information given their connection to big money interests, and choosing to ignore those conflicts of interest to appear cleansed of anything Trump-related is a grave miscalculation.

 

We on the American left must rehabilitate our ability to be skeptical and recognize that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Trump is despicable in almost every possible way, but his charges against corporate media and the evil deeds of American intelligence agencies at home and abroad carry varying levels of truth to them. Restoring our ability to recognize this distinction and translate it into informed action would reignite the anti-war left, and the refined presence of the Internet and mass media sharing could amplify the effectiveness of such efforts to a level even the Iraq War resistance could not have achieved. My suggestion is to seek out the independent media outlets that continue to tell the truth on a matter of principle. Empowerment of these sources and wider sharing of the truths they provide are what can turn smaller anti-war organizations like Ajamu Baraka’s Black Alliance for Peace into the megaforces needed to make being pro-war an unacceptable position among elected officials and media figures alike.

 

Students for a Democratic Society is now the oldest and largest student organization in the country and it had its roots in anti-war activism. Through the power of media and critical thinking on the part of the electorate, we can create another generation of such groups and leaders. We at Ungagged are up to the task. Come join us and be a part of revolutionary history.

Life in the Empire Part 1: Where is the American Anti-War Movement?

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George Collins 

Ask any American who experienced the assassination of John F. Kennedy what occurred in their lives that day, and they will be able to recall every detail: where they were, whom they were with, what they ate for breakfast that morning, all as fresh as if it took place only an hour prior. Ask Americans who experienced the fateful morning of September 11th, 2001, and you will see the same phenomenon. I happen to belong to the latter group.

 

Young George was in third grade when the twin towers fell. My parents would sometimes inform me of events on the morning news before we headed to school. Much of it constituted local happenings with the occasional national issue they thought I could comprehend. I would soak in this information and then forget much of it by the time class began a couple hours later. The usual morning update took place that day. My mother explained to me that two airplanes collided with these gigantic buildings in New York City, and that people all over the country were paralyzed with fear. She left it at that, as the complex implications of the geopolitics behind international attacks are often lost on eight-year old children. I filed the information away to be forgotten a couple hours later, and we travelled to school like any other day. The realization that this news was more than just another insignificant tragedy somewhere in the country arrived the moment I strolled through the classroom door. All of my peers were discussing the same story I heard that morning, which had never occurred with my other morning news reports. More significant to my childhood mind was the fact that all the adults in the school expressed concern, sorrow, and other strong reactions to the tragedy. The message was loud and clear by the time of the morning bell: something massive had taken place, enough to catch the attention of every adult inside and outside the school, and we would be hearing about it for years to come.

 

News of the United States’ numerous armed conflicts in the wake of the tragedy permeated the rest of my K-12 education. The school began receiving the kids edition of Time magazine the following year, and the publication never avoided the topic of the Iraq War and the political buildup surrounding the eventual invasion. The facts were simplified, and much of the corruption regarding Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the attack or the payouts for Haliburton never made those pages, but everyone stayed aware that the tides of war were on the horizon. One teacher even took the time to talk to us about the Patriot Act and the various ways it violated our constitutional freedoms. The 2004 election took place a few years later with the status of Iraq taking center stage as an election issue. The name Afghanistan surfaced with increasing frequency not long after that until it superseded Iraq as the primary recipient for American aggression. The roster expanded over the years to include many more countries filled with sand, oil, and brown people such as Libya, Syria, Yemen, and more.

 

Growing up in wartime is an experience common to my age group in the United States. We may have existed in a time when our military was not exhausting its bomb supply on civilians in West and Central Asia, but we lacked the political consciousness to understand the shift between the two eras. In 2017 at the age of 24, I still do not know the security of a peace-driven country where scapegoats and fear-mongering about innocent people I will never meet do not occupy some portion of the news cycle every day. Every American generation witnessed armed conflict, but those in my age group who knew the name Iraq before we learned long division lack one thing that most other generations saw in their political awakenings: a strong anti-war movement. This is even worse to me than the American empire’s imperialism itself.

 

Donald Trump’s ascension to power spawned a resurgence in activism throughout the United States. Early 2017 painted a hopeful picture for progressive politics in the country. The monumental Women’s March, the Sanctuary City movement, the March for Science, the boost in donations to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and related organizations, and other landmark happenings suggested the American left was awakening at last from the apathetic slumber fostered for almost a decade under former president Barack Obama. Yet one vital fervor remains absent: the anti-war streak. Amidst all the protests, new blood for political office, explosion in support for independent media, and other hallmarks of an active progressive movement, little to no energy can be found in resurrecting the national-level anti-war efforts that destroyed the legacies of presidents like George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson.

 

The absence of anti-war sentiments puzzles me, as nothing has changed on a fundamental level across the Bush/Obama/Trump administrations when it comes to American imperialism abroad. Troop surges still occur every year in various countries across West and Central Asia, the U.S. military still constructs new bases abroad, and each administration surpasses its predecessor in launching drone strikes that kill a disproportionate number of civilians relative to the terrorist cells they intend to target. Many more examples of the American empire’s imperialistic expansion can be seen with every passing month.

 

The need for the kind of pressure felt by the Bush administration in the wake of the atrocities committed in Iraq never diminished, but somehow this fact escaped the left during the Obama years even though many of those same atrocities persisted or even escalated in an expanding roster of countries. Such facts are well known among average Americans, but we can’t seem to muster the courage to launch a nationwide movement to oppose the killing of children across the world while we sing the praises of anti-war movements of generations past. We praise figures like Walter Cronkite and Muhammad Ali for their bravery in risking their livelihoods to oppose the Vietnam War and tell ourselves we too would land on the correct side of history, but we have nothing to show for such rhetoric. One could argue the ordinary citizen has nowhere near the level of influence of either of those two figures, as we don’t all have heavyweight championship gold to forfeit as a show of solidarity. However, even community-level action can achieve significant strides in building national resistance, as other contemporary movements demonstrate every day. Even that level of action is missing in the anti-war wing of the left.

 

There are a few factors I can think of that may contribute to this particular apathy among American progressives. I suspect the primary culprit to be the support of these armed conflicts from alleged “progressive” figures. Many media outlets critical of Donald Trump applauded his decision to fire missiles into Syria even in the absence of an official United Nations investigation into the nature of the chemical attacks. Many claimed the move was his pivotal step into becoming more “presidential”. Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC both approved of the action with Williams displaying photos of the missiles and calling them “beautiful” while Maddow dedicated half an hour to explaining the efficiency of such missiles. Apparently the fact that real, innocent people were on the other end of those “beautiful” and “efficient” pile drivers was not worth mentioning in these segments. Democrats in Congress also expressed support for the careless attack. Those who did not, such as representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, faced intense vilification even in Democratic circles.

 

The response to the Syria strikes may be the most blatant example of this tone shift among “progressive” figures, but it is nowhere near the only one. The war-mongering rhetoric surrounding the United States’ relationship with Russia in recent months has seen several members of Congress calling the alleged tampering in the presidential election an “act of war”. North Korea entered the crosshairs next and the two nations along with Iran were the target of controversial United States sanctions that were condemned by our allies in the European Union. The bill even threatened to unravel the Iranian nuclear deal achieved by the Obama administration, but this irony escaped most Democrats in Congress because it was more important to rake in profits reaped from a war machine that never stops raging.

 

The current media and governmental climate does not foster any tolerance for an anti-war message among Americans without vitriolic accusations of unpatriotic treachery in a frightening revival of McCarthyistic tactics. Such stigma has never stopped progressives from fighting back in the past, but the anti-war drum suffers several puncture holes when leaders and media figures associated with the left begin siding with the same tyrant they claim to oppose. This blind following of such figures, however fraudulent they may be given their ties to establishment influences, can derail any momentum gained by a movement the establishment does not want to combat. Marches for women’s rights and scientific research can pass through the toll booth because they do not affect oil company and private military contractor profits that extend to members of Congress and the owners of major media outlets. By contrast, stopping wars in West and Central Asia that benefit no common American will be regarded as unacceptable in the corporate media’s eyes because it interferes with their conflicts of interest. Washington Post owner and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos works as a contractor for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for a reported $600 million. It is ludicrous beyond measure to suggest that CIA motives and propaganda do not influence the ways the Post reports on foreign affairs.

 

Flippant approval for these military advances is dangerous for another reason: it sends a crystal-clear message to the Trump administration that no repercussions will come from such actions. The reckless Syrian missile retaliation violated several international rules of war and destroyed any opportunity for the United Nations to enter Syria and determine what occurred in the preceding chemical attack. When silence follows from those entrusted to hold the executive branch of the government accountable as per the description of their jobs, nothing is off the table. The Trump administration now knows with certainty it can launch whatever military action it wants without any consequences for its power over the American empire’s iron fist, international laws be damned. Trump’s increased approval ratings following the strike are another byproduct of such irresponsible reporting, as it proves military action to be a surefire way to boost public approval of the presidency. This is a bad message to send to any president, but it becomes worse when considering the narcissistic tendencies Trump exhibits at every opportunity. Everybody expressed fear at the prospect of Trump launching a nuclear strike against North Korea, but nobody has demonstrated there would be consequences for his doing so. Beyond the possible discouragement from the generals in his cabinet, what is stopping him from throwing that knockout punch? Right now, nothing.

 

A strong anti-war movement needs to happen in the United States, and it needs to happen fast. In spite of my negative tone above, there is hope in me that the left wing can overcome the obvious deception peddled by people like Williams, Maddow, and the whole other brigade of right-wing war pigs we expect to push this narrative. After all, the precedent for such breakthroughs is less than twenty years behind us in history. Think of the timeline of events in the years following the 9/11 attacks: The country at large shook from the aftershock of the initial blow. Media heralded George W. Bush for emerging as a leader in a time of crisis. Support for an invasion of somewhere, anywhere, reached international levels when numerous countries in Europe expressed support for armed retaliation. Anchors and reporters lost their jobs for daring to oppose the idea that war was the solution including Phil Donahue of MSNBC and Pulitzer-Prize winning Chris Hedges of The New York Times. The famous phrase “you’re either with us or against us” dominated American consciousness and hate crimes against Arab-Americans rose 4,000% in mere months following the attack. Despite all of this, the American people eventually pierced the wall of misinformation and propaganda and began to sway public opinion back to the side of saying no to war in West Asia. The war in Iraq was regarded as a colossal mistake by the time of the 2004 presidential election, only three years after that fateful day in 2001.

 

What changed their minds, and can those catalysts appear today when confronting jingoistic rhetoric surrounding Iran, Russia, and other nations designated as enemies by the military industrial complex? I would like to think so, and I will investigate these questions in the next installment of this series.

 

Part 2 Coming Soon

The Frontlines of Rust Belt America

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George Collins

My father is one of the most hardworking people I know. He works as a university administrator in the provost’s office of the school he taught at for nearly two decades. He served as Chair of the Faculty Senate with no additional pay prior to accepting that position. He maintained his duties in the provost’s office while also teaching an honor’s course this past academic year, and he now hosts a weekly music program on KRFP Radio Free Moscow in the town ten miles to the east. He still reserves time for extra projects and goals such as building models and he never once missed a sports game or special occasion of mine or my younger brother’s while we were growing up.
He once told me about his upbringing and how it contributed to his work ethic. Growing up in Flint, Michigan, his own father worked at the automotive assembly plants from early morning to mid-afternoon whereupon he would travel straight to his bulldozer to run his independent bulldozing business until it grew dark. This was the philosophy of blue collar Michigan in the mid-20th century: you worked until the job was done and until it was done well. How bloody your hands were or how much your body was screaming at you to take a rest were not acceptable metrics. My father admits that he doesn’t believe he works all that hard, and it’s easy to understand why he would think that when my grandfather’s life is the standard.
He credits these blue-collar roots as owing to his success in the university world. I credit them to my own success as well, as we were raised on a working-class mentality even though we were not a working-class household. Despite these benefits, those roots carry a hidden burden with them: the full comprehension of the decline of the American Rust Belt.
I had the chance to visit Flint early in the month of May. It was my first time visiting the town in ten years and my first visit equipped with the chops of my college political awakening. Though enjoyable and important for me on a personal and familial level, it will remain one of the most sobering experiences of my life.
Visits to Flint were common for my family during my childhood. The city carries a tremendous legacy for my bloodline, one with deep connections to American labor resistance. Some of my great grandparents participated in the famous Flint sit down strike that created the domestic auto workers unions in the United States. Almost all my parents’ extended family worked in the factories or supported the infrastructure in one way or another. Most of the family still lives in Michigan with a large chunk of that majority residing in or around the Flint area.
When the Flint water crisis emerged as an international headline, the whole scenario first seemed surreal to me. The city of my family history was suddenly vaulted into worldwide infamy. It brought up conversations about the shattered Midwest economy in the middle of a presidential election in which this topic became the cornerstone issue. Donald Trump capitalized on the anger and resentment of the forgotten population of laborers to win crucial states in the general election and brought the Democratic Party’s lack of class consciousness into the bright spotlight. All this because of events in the town I would see every summer as a child.
Most Americans know the story of the Rust Belt’s death, but witnessing the aftermath firsthand brings another level of understanding I was not fully prepared to absorb.
Before continuing, it needs to be noted that there are good developments occurring in Flint these days. Certain neighborhoods were spared the horror of lead-infused water due to copper piping being used in their houses. My mother’s stepmother resides in one such neighborhood. Downtown Flint sees economic growth every year as new businesses appear in storefronts abandoned decades ago. The Flint Farmer’s Market, which I had the pleasure of visiting, is a thriving business community of locally owned and operated vendors dealing in food, art, jewelry, and many other products and it is expanding its base at an incredible rate. There are several positives to identify in 2010s Flint, and they need to be acknowledged in any assessment of the city.
Even with these in mind, the harsh realities remain. Derelict houses line the streets with no sign of repair taking place. The same is true for storefronts outside the downtown region. These are not relegated to a single neighborhood or even a few; driving more than a single minute without encountering one is impossible. Signs of poverty and poor neighborhood health, a measure in public health characterized by a variety of factors such as church presence and quality of architecture, can be found in every district. Flint unemployment sits at about 9% in 2017, above the overall Michigan rate of 5%. A statistic offered by my grandmother tells the story succinctly: More than 300,000 people worked in the factories during the city’s prime. That is just factory workers; their families and all non-factory affiliates such as medical professionals would comprise several thousand more. In 2017, Flint’s total population rests below 100,000 and continues to shrink every year. The pangs of nostalgia for this heyday hang in the air like summer humidity even for somebody who did not experience my childhood there. I cannot begin to imagine the heartbreak of seeing the city’s decrepit state for my father and others whose identities are rooted in this place and who understand the full context of what this city’s strength once was.

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Dwarfing all these observations is the ongoing water crisis. The story itself has only been in wider public consciousness for just over a year, but the public health and infrastructure impacts stretch as far back as 2014 (The Detroit Free Press crafted an excellent timeline of the events that can be accessed for newcomers to the story). Though the crisis may not receive the same magnitude of coverage in the corporate media sphere as it once did, it is far from being resolved.

 

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Construction of new pipes is finally underway but most residents cannot expect to see repairs completed on their homes for months, and the city leadership now finds itself embroiled in a lawsuit from the state of Michigan itself.
These people are suffering and they have been suffering for a long time. Nobody in the political sphere even acknowledged their plight for years. No proposals for how to alleviate the unemployment rate or improve the infrastructure of the crumbling cities ever surfaces despite the ample opportunities to tackle the problem.

 

Solar power is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States. Take a guy from Flint whose entire career was wiring dashboards for cars and hand him a manual for how to wire a solar panel. An entire workforce is waiting in the Rust Belt to build this infrastructure. The fact that alternative energy is widely thought of as a “left-wing” idea will have no influence whatsoever over their decision to take these jobs. Instead we hear talk of “retraining”, a term with profound classism embedded in its usage that suggests working class people are stupid and cannot acquire other skills. It took independent media outlets like The Young Turks to finally break the water crisis story at the national level. Even so-called “progressive” outlets like MSNBC ignored it until they were forced to acknowledge it due to mounting public pressure.
It is not difficult to understand how someone like Donald Trump, as fraudulent as he appeared to most of us, could appeal to the deep pain this region continues to battle.
Yet, as I left Flint with this full comprehension of daily life there, my primary anger was not towards President Trump for exploiting this pain. Instead, my mind became occupied with the narratives I see and hear in my own progressive circles. The ones that proclaim these voters to be “stupid” or “uneducated” for being coerced into trusting a charlatan. The ones that talk down to such voters with the same classist rhetoric surrounding the aforementioned “retraining” discussions. The ones that ask not the question of how best to help these people and bring them to our side so they never fall for this charade again but rather the question of if these people being poisoned by their own water supply deserve to be helped at all.
We can disagree with these people’s decision to support Trump in the desperate hope of improving their lives (I certainly do and have written about it at length), but have we on the left reached a point where we no longer express empathy for the worst-off among us? Are we so devoid of class consciousness that we fail to see Trump’s election as the byproduct of the same systemic class oppression we work to destroy? I never thought I would see the day where we state with genuine intent no desire to help people subjected to the institutionalized violence we claim to oppose.
American socialists faced a similar situation a century ago when The Great Depression ravaged the lives of working and middle class Americans. They could have turned away from this suffering and degraded the victims of capitalist violence as heartless and racist as we do now. Instead, they chose to engage with these people and show them their true oppressors. Union membership soared and today we enjoy such benefits as Social Security and Medicare that are not dare touched even by the most right-wing among us, all because the leftists of the past had just a shred of empathy in their veins.
I’ve been back to the frontlines of Rust Belt America, and yes, it really is as bad as everyone says it is. If the left cannot understand this and find in our hearts the desire to help people genuinely suffering, then it is not a left I will call my own.