Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Week 49 of the Occupation.
March 11, 2014
This week Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr visited the Michigan Citizen. We had a wide-ranging discussion about his role as emergency manager, his understanding of the development of the city, and his hopes for the future. The Citizen staff developed questions, intended to give our readers an opportunity to hear from Mr. Orr. We chose not to debate him, but to guide his conversation into areas that affect all of us.
Mr. Orr offered little that was new. He spoke confidently and competently about city finances. He insisted that he is focusing only on the numbers and that Mayor Duggan and the City Council are being left to deal with development.
He said he is more concerned about the effects of his decisions than people give him credit for. He emphasized that banks are especially upset with his treatment of them. They feel he is favoring pensioners.
Once he gets to the end of this bankruptcy, he has no desire to continue as emergency manger of Detroit or anywhere else.
As I reflected on this interview, an old essay kept coming to mind. Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote it in 1963. Arendt had fled the Nazi in Germany in 1933 and ultimately came to the U.S. She was a brilliant and controversial thinker. Her works on “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “The Human Condition” are classics and offer insights valuable today.
In 1966, as Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann went on trial for his role in the effort to exterminate the Jewish people, Arendt wrote an article for the New Yorker based primarily on her interviews with him in prison. It was called “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil.
That is the phrase that kept running through my head as I listened to Mr. Orr: The banality of evil. In Arendt’s words, Orr seemed to me “terrible and terrifyingly normal.” He did not talk of grand schemes of dispossession. Instead, he talks of numbers and debts and blight and streetlights.
Arendt captures this kind of conversation. She says “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else.”
This capacity, to think in a logic that excludes the consequences of your decisions on the lives of others characterizes much of what we saw in Mr. Orr.
This was most evident when he talked of pension cuts. Here he stressed, “There are only 30,000 pensioners in a city of 700,000.” This is just a few people. A sacrifice for the many.
This kind of numbers game is chilling.
The impact of a 34 percent cut in pensions is catastrophic to people who are barely getting by now. The pain of people is absent from Orr’s view.
He does not see the woman who told me at a community last week that she will now face $30,000 in medical bills because of the loss of benefits. “I feel like we have been thrown to the wolves, she said.”
He does not see the woman in her early 80s, who came to Women Creating Caring Communities, with her concern that she has to choose between medicine and mortgages.
Mr. Orr does not consider the moral implications of asking people who have worked all their lives to live an entire year on what one of his clerks makes in less than two days.
Mr. Orr has developed a habit of mind that seems to have given up an essential part of himself. He speaks of numbers, not people.
That is why it so important that those of us who understand that decisions have consequences in the lives of people need to file our objections to this horrific effort to protect banks and assault pensioners. It will take a loud outpouring to break through such evil.