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Posted January 29, 2011
Corporate Greed Was Not Invented by BP Oil
The Epidemic opens with a juxtaposition of the survivors and the final victim of the Ithaca, NY typhoid epidemic. The cause of the epidemic was no doubt a crime of negligence that could be laid at the feet of many, but, in keeping with the culture of laissez faire justice, was ultimately placed upon the victims.
Although DeKok's book is filled with characters easily recognizable from history, both at the time of the incident and through their subsequent roles in industry and government, it is not a story about these historic icons. The Epidemic is a story about the many people who became victims of the greed, incompetence, and dishonesty of an irresponsible businessman, and a group of people intent upon protecting the reputations and the privilege of their own kind.
As the story unfolds, DeKok points out numerous missed opportunities that could have prevented or curtailed the loss of life through simple measures. As the epidemic took hold in the Ithaca and Cornell communities, it was met with inadequate half-way measures which seemed more designed to obviate blame than to effectively counter the spread of disease.
In a sub-plot to the actions of the water company, the university, and the city government, DeKok draws on his career as an investigative reporter to assess the role of the press in reporting the epidemic. We see a tale of two papers, The Ithaca Daily News and The Ithaca Daily Journal. The publisher of the Daily News, Duncan Campbell Lee, demonstrated the courage to risk his fortune and career to report the story of the typhoid epidemic honestly and openly. The Daily Journal by contrast, despite occasional forays into the truth, seemed content to support the self-serving myths of the water company and the university administration.
We can learn a lot by reading The Epidemic. Not just about the past, but about dangers that continue to threaten us today. Although we would like to think that the mistakes in Ithaca can't be repeated with improved government regulation and the protection of a modern judiciary, just stop and look around. Whether it is irresponsible oil and gas drilling, inadequate mine safety, or first responders breathing the "safe" air at Ground Zero, we cannot count on government regulation to ensure our safety. Money still talks, and it is only in retrospect that we can see the human cost. A free press and an informed public are still our best defense against corporate greed and irresponsible behavior.
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Posted January 16, 2012
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