…was in London, at Grenfell Tower, where an explosion in a refrigerator quickly spread fire in every direction from the fourth floor, engulfing the 24-story building in flames, killing at least 79 people.
The June 24 headline in the New York Times describes the origin of the tragedy. “Why Grenfell Tower Fell: Regulators Put Cost Before Safety.” Specifically, regulators in the United Kingdom allowed the use of a cheap type of siding known to be highly flammable.
Building housing for people of modest means often involves cutting corners. This cut, however, was criminal. Everybody knew the danger, from the American company who sold the tiles knowing they were going to be used in a building much taller than the 30-foot level of safety (while whispering to itself “not our problem”) to the builders and regulators who knew too well the mantras of the times: cut costs, loosen regulation, make more money. Grenfell is what popes, philosophers, and political activists mean when they speak of “savage capitalism.”
This is the bigger picture. The fire this time was in London, but tinder for even more lethal fires is accumulating daily in other places, and especially in the United States. Grenfell Tower is a perfect microcosm, an apt metaphor for a whole “philosophy” that in this country has been gaining predominance for decades, culminating with Donald Trump: profits over life; profits over fairness; profits over nature; profits over all.
It is a philosophy—in the same vein that “you rob banks because that’s where they keep the money” is a philosophy. It contradicts the fundamental moral values of every religion and all secular systems of belief, including humanism. It is driven by the same priorities, carried out on a much vaster scale, than those that led Grenfell Tower to fall.
As an aside, the question of how a society that has produced breakthrough inventions, top science, and statesmen like Lincoln, Roosevelt and Obama has come to this in the twenty-first century is as profound as the question of why the country that produced Beethoven and Kant became in the twentieth century a human extermination machine and waged a war of aggression that turned half the world into a slaughterhouse.
That’s a heavy book, this merely a column. Here, I will concentrate on how the pseudo-philosophy is playing out today on a few crucial issues, such as health care, the budget, the environment, and other key current concerns.
The Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is an abomination, a horror story worthy of Stephen King. The fake philosophy of the Republicans and that of the bank robber are both based on stealing. They diverge in that the robber goes to where the money is while the Republicans target the money-less.
The Republican health care ‘Dracula’ bill now being debated in the Senate, for instance, would steal $800 billion life-saving, pain sparing dollars from Medicaid. People on Medicaid are no better off than the residents of Grenfell, at best. To what end to steal money used by the poor not on booze or drugs but on medicine? To lavish it on the richest people and corporations in America that already pay way too little in taxes through…a huge new tax cut.
It’s a level of criminality that dwarfs Grenfell in scale and foreknowledge of the consequences, a colossal, premeditated, vicious aggression against the vulnerable. It is so vile not even all Republican senators can stomach it and therefore it may still fail. If I prayed, I would pray for that.
The Republican budget is another exercise in taking grave risks not with one’s own life but the lives of others. How else to call cutting funding for the Centers for Disease Control in an age in which frightening new infectious diseases are emerging faster than we can find cures for them? Too bad walls present no problem for viruses and bacteria.
The principle of profits over all comes across in so many of this monolithic (President, House, Senate, and Supreme Court are all officially or de facto Republican) regime’s policies I could not list them all but only hint at their breadth and malevolence.
Profits over life? Cutting resources and regulations for the Office of Occupational Health and Safety, which employs them to save workers’ lives.
Profits over environment? Saying yes to open pit mining in Alaska’s fragile Arctic environment. Approving fracking and the pipelines to transport the product across vast areas, even at the cost of making Oklahoma the country’s earthquake capital. Slithering out of the Paris Accord.
Profits over fairness? Appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a judge that would give the benefit of the doubt to the corporate equivalent of Charles Manson over the claims of any of its employees.
And, so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say. But not forever. Throughout every stage of his young presidency, Trump has had the lowest public approval rating of any U.S. president at the same point. Only a quarter of Americans support the health care bill he is pushing. Republican representatives regularly catch hell from constituents when they meet them at town halls.
Trump and company may toy with lives and language but we also can deploy language as an arrow. As long as Trump is president, let’s call the EPA what it is: the Environmental Pollution Agency. For its treatment of refugees and immigrants, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) becomes the Department of Homegrown Sadism.
But all this we shall endure. Then we shall prevail. Then we will bury the party of organized selfishness under its mass of lies and cruelties, its ferocious and farcical “philosophy.”