Heather Reynolds examines the weaknesses in the modern liberal ethos through the lens of the Flint water crisis.
Liberalism as a doctrine is about putting the rights of the individual at the core of politics. Referring to government as a “necessary evil,” it espouses that all people should have the freedom to do as they please, so long as it does not hurt anyone else in the process. However, in recent years, the doctrine has become separated from the practice, with many who profess having liberal views not wholly following this practice. Most recently, liberalism has become conflated with maintaining the status quo with a left-leaning tilt. Rather than pushing for radical change, as has been the course with liberalism in the past, modern liberals concern themselves more with reasoned debate. Hearing both sides has become par for the course in all arguments, even those as simple as whether people should have clean water. Individual human rights, which liberalism professes should be at the core of all legislation, are being debated based on how they affect others, even when they are proven to have no negative effect. This is a phenomenon that has been allowed to occur because liberal ideas are being viewed as an exercise in thought, rather than as actual legislation that affects the lives of others.
This “thought exercise” culture that has arisen in liberal politics has led to two main faults; a lack of acknowledgement of the lives that government policy affects, and a preoccupation with hot topic issues. Due to the focus on reasoned debate and rational thinking, people are encouraged to disconnect, leaving those who are in need of aid without assistance because it would take away benefits from those who do not need them.
Flint, a town in Michigan declared a state of emergency on the December 15th, 2015 after their water source was changed to save money resulting in slightly higher levels of chlorine. This increase in chlorine levels aggravated the lead piping, causing lead to seep into the water systems and enter the water supply. This state of emergency was one of the leading stories at the time, and people were aghast that an entire town was poisoned over an avoidable change made purely to create a monetary gain for those in government. It was a major talking point among liberal circles, with many organising clean water drives and holding fundraisers to provide aid to those who need it.
This story held the public consciousness for around a month to varying degrees, before fading away entirely
This story held the public consciousness for around a month to varying degrees, before fading away entirely. Flint was without clean water from April 24th in 2014, a year and a half before the state of emergency was declared, with little to no media coverage. The government has agreed to replace the pipes, but at this point, in 2017, locals are still encouraged to avoid drinking the water. People who refer to themselves as liberal, and profess the tenants of liberalism, were preoccupied with this crisis until the next scandal came up, when they quickly moved along. Flint stands as just one example of this aspect of modern liberalism, a preoccupation with having the ‘hottest take’ on any given issue while maintaining an intellectual distance from the matter at hand.
At this point, in 2017, locals are still encouraged to avoid drinking the water
Another example of this is the public response to the homelessness crisis in Ireland. Any new figure released or headline printed about yet another death of a homeless person leads to a few days of indignation on Twitter, maybe a new petition to be emailed to the Dáil, but where is the consistent pressure being placed on the government? Who in Varadkar’s constituency is tweeting their outrage instead of calling his office to complain about the lack of feasible legislation to aid the homeless in Ireland?
Comments made by Eileen Gleeson, Director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive sparked the most recent backlash about homelessness in Ireland. Gleeson said long-term homelessness tends to be caused by years of “bad behaviour,” comments that sparked anger and outrage online, homeless charities spoke out against the comments and possibly received increased donations as a result of the media attention and Twitter storms. Well-intended as such responses may be, they alone are not enough to solve the problem of the Irish homeless, and are clearly not resulting in enough pressure being placed on our government to do more to alleviate the problem. No matter how much the issue is discussed, no action is going to be taken without individuals taking that action themselves.
Who in Varadkar’s constituency is tweeting their outrage instead of calling his office to complain about the lack of feasible legislation to aid the homeless in Ireland?
Liberalism has regressed to a debate rather than an actively engaged political stance, and this has led to people physically not engaging themselves with horrors, instead using them as thought exercises for as long as they stay relevant and then assuming them to have been dealt with when the opposite is true. This is the key fault in modern liberalism: it leaves the issues explored, dissected, but not engaged with to a point where those in power feel the need to effect direly-needed change.