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Michigan has a reputation abroad, but it's not a good one

Jun 22, 2017

It’s nice to be back. I’ve been gone for the last few weeks on my first real vacation in a few years. Last Sunday, I was doing something I’ve wanted to do all my life – visiting the excavated ruins of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, buried by a volcano in 79 AD.

I was with a group that included many different nationalities when suddenly the guide asked, “Is anyone here from Michigan?”

Well, of course, I said yes. I thought he was going to say something transportation-related; you can still see the ruts in the stone streets caused by horse-drawn Roman vehicles.

During an earlier phase of my career, which has included reporting everywhere from Paraguay to the Philippines, the one thing everyone knew is that we had put the world on wheels.

But no. Instead, the guide, who had a graduate degree from the University of Edinburgh, showed me an ancient water pipe. “See, the Romans knew how to drink out of lead pipes without being poisoned, not like in your Flint,” he said. He didn’t quite have his facts right.

He thought the reason we had lead poisoning in Flint was because we had added something that caused the pipes to corrode, when in fact the problem seems to have been caused by a failure to add a chemical that would have prevented the corrosion.

Nor is it clear that Romans didn’t suffer ill effects from drinking out of lead pipes or storing wine in lead containers.

But it is sort of embarrassing to have our home state known as the lead poisoning capital of the world. Europe isn’t perfect by any means, and though the Italians I talked with were no great fans of Donald Trump, they knew their nation had elected the highly embarrassing Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister more than once.

However, a new breeze seems to be blowing in a number of western nations. While we remain mired in ideological gridlock, both in our state and nationally, France elected a new prime minister who came out of nowhere to promise common sense reforms and cooperation with other nations. Emmanuel Macron’s movement didn’t have a single seat in France’s National Assembly a month ago.

Now, it looks like it will end up with two-thirds of them after this Sunday’s runoff elections are over. “What doesn’t work anymore is the party system,” Macron has told western journalists.

We aren’t France, but it is pretty clear it doesn’t work here either. Earlier this month, pollsters in Great Britain were sure that the Labour Party, which had moved sharply to the left, was headed for a historic defeat. Instead, it made major gains and almost toppled Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May from power.

Suddenly British conservatives have dropped all their plans to cut aid to education, and are instead talking about finding more money for social programs. There seems to be a renewed idea across much of the continent that we are all in this together.

You don’t hear any of that in Lansing, where legislators and the governor spent this month on a deal to weaken teacher pensions.

Nobody is talking unity in Washington either, but national and state elections will be coming next year.

I can’t wait to see what surprises they may bring.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.