On Democratic Virtues: East Palestine, Ohio

...screaming bloody murder when you have urgent and serious reasons to question authority is a political virtue.

On Democratic Virtues: East Palestine, Ohio

There is a debate about the political norms of talking about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. I believe it is worth wading into because being a citizen in this democracy is tough. On the one hand, the relevant authorities are not demonstrating themselves fully trustworthy in an emergency. Screaming bloody murder isn't just something one has to do for one's own sake. You have to do it because if they're indifferent to you, they'll be indifferent to everyone else. On the other, there are bad actors who want conspiracy theories to spread so they can make their political opponents look bad. Their goal is the destruction of society, not just the political system. They want to say the President and his party are pure evil and they alone represent the forces of light. They want to pick on vulnerable populations and spread conspiracy theories about them, too.

As you are no doubt aware by now, a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, spilling toxic chemicals everywhere. An AP report which details the initial response by officials, "Residents can return home after crews burned chemicals in derailed tanker cars," elicits dark laughter at this point. Even that report mentions the dangerous chemicals involved: vinyl chloride, hydrogen chloride, and phosgene. The last of these was used as a nerve agent in WW1. But officials at that time were saying residents could go home after a brief evacuation, that their tests were showing things to be relatively safe, and the AP only echoes those officials. Then the people of East Palestine started putting up photos and videos of their dead and sick animals. Local news began showing the outrage of those affected, as well as their seriousness, knowledge, and humanity:

In the video, the hazmat specialist completely outclasses the EPA and the local Fire Chief cited by the AP. He asserts the chemicals in question are simply too dangerous to let people back into the town quickly. He strongly implies that all the relevant authorities will be subject to lawsuits when he tells people to get documentation about the state of their health.

Still, some bad actors started weaponizing what already was a national disgrace. One of the more outlandish claims seems to be the assertion that the entire Mississippi river, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, would be affected. This lends some air of legitimacy to the critique of Twitter pundit Will Stancil, who was at one point very vocal in stating that too many people were screaming about the derailment. Stancil is at his strongest when he takes notice of the worst rhetoric used. Below, a retweet from Stancil's timeline. Charlie Kirk tries to say that what happened in Ohio is about a "war on white people." Kirk is shameless in his racial demagoguery:

The outstanding question remains. There are deep failures of attention and leadership which require people to make noise. This can be uncomfortable for some engaged in politics, as they want to tell the President that he's doing a great job with his messaging about Social Security. The President's record on railroad labor, on the other hand, might be a more difficult issue to discuss. If some on Twitter with Soviet iconography in their usernames and terrible opinions about Stalin hadn't raged about East Palestine, it is not clear the story would have become as large as it has. It is very easy, as Sam Thielman has said, to forget about a town of 5000. We do it all the time.

I think we can tentatively say this: screaming bloody murder when you have urgent and serious reasons to question authority is a political virtue. And it is also a political virtue to not let that become "bad info" and turn into conspiracy theories. The train derailment may not be Chernobyl; money from railroads may not control all aspects of government; the Ohio River Valley may not suffer as a whole from the spill. How do we reconcile two competing moral imperatives?

It doesn't do anyone any good to be quiet, unless they want to lie about everything and everyone. It does help to understand the precise failure of the authorities. I hold that failure is a lack of awareness that government must build trust. In this case, a number of factors have made the authorities less than trustworthy:

  • It is clear to all that the incentives in this situation are for authorities to downplay the situation unless they are pressured to change. Since the President conceded not long ago to the worst of the railroad companies' demands, forcing people to work without any paid sick leave, he in effect legitimized the rail companies terrible and fatal ways of doing business. Sam Thielman at Forever Wars has a quick round-up of the facts you need, but the points that stick out to me are that the trains are longer and the workers are far, far fewer. "The average length of a train is 1.3 miles," labor is definitively overworked, and the companies are extremely profitable. We should note that if the President and Congress are thought culpable for the disaster, then no figure of authority is safe, and all the relevant authorities know that. It is easier to play along with statements from the railroad company unless explicitly told otherwise.
  • The authorities did the air and water surveys and misled the residents. Their incentives were to downplay the spill. They did that. This leads to the heartbreaking reporting of Prem Thakker in The New Republic:

    "Reports of suffering animals, from dogs and cats to fish and chickens, continue to accumulate. Taylor Holzer, an animal caretaker, lost one of his foxes. Others are in poor condition with faces swollen, stomachs upset, and eyes watering. Holzer’s dog, who hadn’t returned home until after the evacuation order was lifted, has begun coughing and gagging. “He will go into coughing fits so hard his front legs bow and he looks so uncomfortable,” Holzer said."

    When the authorites are telling you it's safe, and these are the facts on the ground, then I am critically understating the situation when I say that "trust" is an issue. The government must demonstrate it is worthy of trust, and it needs to be screamed at day and night until that is accomplished. Humility and acceptance are not virtues in these situations. The testing done by the authorities was at best misleading, at worst a lie.
  • The authorities do not understand that they are tasked with oversight. The President is actually one of the worst culprits. He believes his election in itself was a return to normal. How can the country return to normal when insurrectionists who want to overthrow the government aren't prosecuted for the crimes they committed? In a similar manner, pretending everything is normal and the railroad company will make amends is deadly, unacceptable logic. Your job isn't to say "the system works." Your job is to prove it works by pointing to how you're employing best practices and being transparent about your priorities. That the Transportation Secretary took so long to make a statement is a serious problem. The Administration needs to be grilled by Congress on what happened.

So yeah. People should scream about East Palestine. The government is not attempting to demonstrate it is trustworthy. It is going through the motions for the most part. At the same time, there are really bad people out there who want to destroy everything. We don't want to feed conspiracy theories. Reality is already rough to deal with. How much rougher do we want to make it? I tend to treat conspiracy theories as vehicles of control. If I can make everyone believe in my delusions, I can get them to do anything. This, I wish, would be more forcefully addressed by those complaining about the attention given to issues which aren't their hobbyhorse.