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Here's a thought: Know what you're talking about before you criticize

Apr 12, 2016

I was prepared to give Gov. Rick Snyder credit for having agreed to speak at a Pancakes and Politics breakfast in Detroit Monday.

This is a traditional Detroit political ritual sponsored by the Michigan Chronicle, the state’s African-American newspaper.

However, this particular session was held in the serious old-money atmosphere of the Detroit Athletic Club, few of whose members actually live in Detroit. There, the governor for the first time fingered a culprit for Flint’s water crisis.

He said it was “career bureaucrats” who had an “absolute lack of common sense,” because they didn’t add corrosion control chemicals to the water.

This explanation may get a sympathetic hearing in some circles. After all, “career bureaucrats” are mostly Democrats, right?


Well, the painstaking investigative reporting done by Michigan Radio and other news services, most notably Curt Guyette of the American Civil Liberties Union, indicates the problem was far wider.

There was a systematic failure of government at the highest levels, and we’ll still be sorting out what went wrong for some time. I do not know whether the Citizens’ Research Council of Michigan is planning to issue a report about what went wrong in Flint.

However, I hope so, because the work they do is respected and trusted. This is a special week over at the CRC – tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of their founding.

It was called the Detroit Bureau of Government Research back then, and was a child of the Progressive era impulse to make things work better and more efficiently.

Its founder was a captivating character named Lent Dayton Upson who everyone seems to have called “Up.” Up was a man of great scholarship, piercing intellect, and matchless integrity – who still knew the doormen at half a dozen Prohibition-era speakeasies.

Today, you often hear debaters quoting the late great Daniel Patrick Moynihan in saying, “you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.”

But long before Moynihan was born, Detroit Bureau founder Upson put it this way:

“The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about.” That’s an idea that seems utterly alien to most of the arguing heads you can see yammering on the cable channels, not to mention at least one leading presidential candidate.

I know these interesting facts about Upson, by the way, because the CRC just completed a surprisingly fascinating history of itself, entertainingly illustrated, called “100 Years: Making Democracy Work.”

That title may sound a bit grandiose, but is largely justified.

They have been helping make democracy work. Their work is utterly essential to what Michigan Radio, Bridge Magazine, and every responsible news organization does. That’s because the CRC has never departed from the core principle it adopted a century ago: “To secure efficiency and economy in government, whether national, state or municipal, by all lawful means,” other than trying to elect candidates.

They meant, by the way, not government which is the cheapest, but which works best. We live in an era when there are fewer and fewer journalists with the time and resources to do serious policy research, which means we need the CRC more than ever.

So I’d like to wish the Citizens’ Research Council happy birthday. I hope it is still around to keep the politicians honest, a century from now.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.