If you want to understand what some of us mean when we say that Washington, D.C., doesn't care about the post-industrial America of poverty, drug abuse, and spiritual despair, what even President Trump means when he talks about "American carnage," get off exit 7 on I-475 in Michigan and head down Court Street until you get to the Flint Children's Museum on the campus of Kettering University.
In many ways, the museum — with its cheerful twin yellow towers popping out from either side of the large brick structure in a kind of invitation to exuberance — resembles many other institutions of its kind. Just about every medium-sized city has a place like this. There are colorful hands-on exhibits on circuits, bridge-building, and gravity; a pretend post office and grocery store; a climbing wall; a "Tot Spot" with rubber tumbling mats and age-appropriate toys.
But there is one thing that isn't quite right. Even for a public building in a city whose population has been declining steadily since 1970, the place will seem unusually quiet. Another thing you will notice almost immediately is that the drinking fountains are all turned off or torn up and covered with signs.
It's possible that there would be more children here, that my daughters would not have been able to enjoy the run of the place on a weekday afternoon in the middle of July, if it were not for the fact that as many as 276 infants were poisoned and died in their mother's wombs in the city of Flint between April 2014 and October 2015.
That sickening statistic comes from a new working paper, which reports that during the period in which municipal water in this city was drawn from the Flint River rather than Lake Huron, fertility rates dropped by 12 percent and fetal death rates increased by nearly 60 percent. Health of children at birth was also affected. Older children have been diagnosed with severe cognitive disabilities, behavioral disorders, deafness, late puberty, and other impairments directly attributable to drinking and regularly bathing in water with a lead content of 400 parts per billion (the maximum, if hardly desirable, permitted concentration is 15). Adults have suffered from memory loss, thinning hair, and erratic blood pressure.
Though it has largely been eclipsed in the popular imagination by the detritus of our last presidential election, the Flint water crisis is far from over. Nearly two years after officials began to admit the extent of the destruction, it is still almost impossible to comprehend the horror of what occurred. Shootings, bombings, explosions in which children perish happen every day in this country and the world round. But what happened in Flint is different. It was not terrorism or some insane homicidal impulse that insisted upon mutilating the bodies of those children whose lives it did not take, but cold neglect. These children were poisoned and slain not because they were despised but because they entered so little into the calculations of the powerful that they were unworthy even of contempt. They had to die because they were inconvenient.
Inconvenient to whom? It would be easy to blame the city council or the county water authority or the city emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder or President Obama's EPA for the present situation. But the water crisis cannot be understood outside its wider context; it is the horrifying result of a recent neglect born long before the austerities of the post-recession economy. It dates well beyond what most people think of as the formal decline of the city, which began in the '70s with the oil crisis, recessions, and the advent of outsourcing. It is an ancient alienation, a willful atavistic privation as old as the modern city itself.
Multiple generations of my family worked in Flint's factories during its supposed golden age, the years when Genesee and Wayne Counties had the highest per capita income in the world; two of my great-uncles were city policemen (both died within a year of their respective retirements). Perhaps it is easier for those of us who were born in the city but grew up only in its shadow to see the nature of the evil. The prosperity of the white working and middle classes was possible only because it deliberately excluded the African-American population. The history — of German and Polish immigrants and their descendants imbibing the prejudice of the southern whites who followed them to Michigan, of white strikers being intentionally pitted against black "scabs," of exclusion from the skilled trades even where janitorial work or line jobs became available — of this calculated deprivation cannot be rehearsed in the space of a column.
But its legacy is clear. The city's population is 60 percent African-American. The median household income is less than $25,000. More than 40 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, white GM retirees living in the suburbs draw their pensions, fish, play golf, and move to Florida.
It is tempting to think of the great Michigan dream of the '50s, '60s, and '70s as a kind of Valhalla, built, like the abode of Wagner's gods, with plunder, founded upon a lie that was finally renounceable. But unlike the great composer's Götterdämmerung, the destruction of Flint and Detroit did not claim the lives of its gods or usher in an emancipation of men. The twilight is still upon us, and it is impossible to say when morning will come.