Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Americans are drinking lead, chromium-6, Legionella bacteria, diesel, benzene, and 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. Why?

"We see a lot of babies come into our clinics with high lead levels."

--Community Health Center Worker, "Hundreds of people line up for free water filters in Milwaukee," WTMJ-TV Milwaukee, November 30, 2016 

Above: A WPA waterworks projects in Birmingham, Alabama, 1936. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Drinking Poison

All across the nation, the drinking water supplies of nearly all Americans are at risk of contamination - or already contaminated. Some of the contaminants, such as lead, have made people sick. Other contaminants, such as the Legionella bacteria, have killed people. The list of contaminants in our drinking water has also included chromium 6, diesel, benzene, and 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.

During the 1930s and 40s, thousands of waterworks projects were carried out by New Deal work programs - new water mains, new filtration plants, new reservoirs, new consumer connections, and so on. There were also extensive efforts to clean our rivers, streams, and lakes, because, of course, they're an integral part of our drinking water supply. President Franklin Roosevelt once said: "Unprecedented advances in cleaning up our streams have been made possible by the public works and work-relief programs during the past six years... As in many other fields of conservation, great improvement in the Nation's basic assets of water has been incident to the fight against unemployment" ("Message to Congress on Water Pollution, February 16, 1939," University of California Santa Barbara).

Why Are We Drinking Poison and Bacteria?

All of the above begs the question: Why are Americans letting their drinking water become contaminated with bacteria and poisons? I think I can break it down into three reasons (the first two being closely related):

(a) Most Americans are unaware of their nation's history. This has been shown time and time and time again. Thus, they're not aware of what the New Deal accomplished and, in many cases, have probably never even heard of the New Deal at all. Yes, it seems unbelievable, but many Americans have no understanding or knowledge of the New Deal, despite the fact that it is, arguably, the largest work & construction program in human history. And so, they have no idea just how extensively the federal government modernized our infrastructure during the 1930s and 40s.

(b) Since they're unaware of their history, many Americans are susceptible to simplistic conservative rhetoric, for example, "government is the problem, not the solution." And once you buy into that nonsense, the idea of increased federal funding for infrastructure, or a new WPA, seems absurd (even though that's exactly what worked in the past).

(c) Americans have been convinced that rich people are special, and should be obeyed. Indeed, we have such a slavish devotion to the rich, that we're willing to bow our heads, drink contaminated water, and breathe foul air, because any limitation on the holy "JOB CREATORS" is seen as a risk to jobs. It seems that millions of Americans have been manipulated into thinking that we can't have jobs AND a clean environment - only one or the other.

Solutions

So, how can we fix this situation? Here are two solutions:

(a) We should stop obsessing about "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, and math), and start emphasizing Social Studies more (history, economics, geography, etc.). We are turning into a callous, technology-obsessed culture that has no respect or understanding of its history. And what good is math, if you have no soul, and have no sense of what it means to be a good citizen? Sure, you can calculate and perform regression analyses on all the ways that the middle-class is being pounded into the ground; but without an understanding of history, you won't have a full array of policy options to choose from - in fact, you may be left with only imbecilic thoughts, like "well, guess you'll have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps!"

Now certainly, if particular students show an aptitude for STEM, they should be offered courses to let that aptitude flourish; but Social Studies is the key to children & adolescents becoming well-informed, critical-thinking, civic-minded, and compassionate citizens. And that should be the foundation of our culture, from which everything else, for example, STEM, is built upon.   

(b) Create a New Deal Museum & Study Center, with an educational outreach program. The New Deal was the largest work & construction program in human history (counting not only infrastructure, but also artwork, publications, trees planted, historic preservation, and more). Isn't it amazing then, that such an enormous piece of our nation's history has no large museum? And make no mistake about it, there needs to be one. There needs to be a place where people can come and learn about this important and gargantuan piece of American history. The fact that there isn't is, frankly, jaw-dropping. For example, the WPA employed 8.5 million Americans to build, repair, or improve 650,000 miles of road. That's enough roadwork to circle the Earth 26 times. They also engaged in 124,000 bridge projects; created over 380 million clothes for low-income Americans; served 1.2 billion school lunches to needy children; and much, much more. And yet, there is no large museum to honor and showcase the work of these 8.5 million Americans?? Um, excuse me, but that's bullshit.

In sum, tens of millions of Americans do not know the history of the New Deal and, until liberals and progressives come together to make sure that they do, we may see a long line of Trump-type presidencies. Are you listening rich Democrats? Are you listening progressive-minded millionaires & billionaires? Are you listening crowd-funders? Are you listening Moveon.org, ThinkProgress, and Elizabeth Warren? Or are we just going to continue drinking lead and yelling in our respective echo chambers?  

"The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup of agencies because it put people to work building roads, bridges, and other projects... it gave men and women a chance to make some money along with the satisfaction of knowing they earned it."

--Ronald Reagan, 1990, in his autobiography An American Life

"[The WPA] has added to the national wealth, has repaired the wastage of depression and has strengthened the country to bear the burden of war."

--Franklin Roosevelt, 1942, in the Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-1943, p. v

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