‘Our house is on fire,’ and we’re … tweeting about it?

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Annabelle Baker/Staff

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“I want you to act as if our house is on fire,” said Greta Thunberg to the World Economic Forum on Jan. 25, “because it is.” As if summoned from the pages of a storybook, Thunberg has sailed to the promised land to lay bare the fiction of its kings and queens. She has gained entry into their courts and asked them why they have robbed her of her youth. Can it be true that they haven’t heard about the end of the world? And the others that have come before her — did they not believe them either?

Even on the heels of Thunberg’s recent speech to the United Nations on Sept. 23 and the outpouring of public encouragement that has followed, a cursory glance through the recent archives of online activism gives us little to hope for. Movements such as Kony 2012 come immediately to mind, floating like dead fish on the crests of the murky waves of social media activism and becoming hard to ignore.

While Greta is a tenable martyr, a teenager armed with facts and seeking action from the adults in charge, there might be doubts about the efficacy of sponsoring her. What happens after she is posted to Instagram stories, to Facebook profiles, to the various other blue-penciled projections we hang above ourselves and use for reference in place of observable action? In the words of the formidable Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”

As stated previously, a cursory glance gives us little to hope for. But a closer analysis suggests otherwise. Perhaps our virtual endorsement of Thunberg is, in fact, more than a self-congratulatory display of wokeness. In pursuing this second, more forgiving slant, considering two of the more widely reviled industries that have sprung up from the fruitful womb of American capitalism seems relevant: tobacco and pharmaceuticals.

Perhaps our virtual endorsement of Thunberg is, in fact, more than a self-congratulatory display of wokeness.

In 1994, the seven CEOs of the seven major domestic cigarette companies stood in front of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, raised their right hands to something higher than themselves, and swore, one by one, that they did not believe nicotine was addictive.

Yet, the tobacco industry had been gathering evidence to the contrary since the early 1960s and had gone to great lengths to keep that research from the American public. By the time the executives testified at the 1994 hearings, they were in the midst of one of the largest civil litigation settlements in history, and the cat had, for all intents and purposes, been dragged hissing out of the bag.

Fifteen years earlier, a man named Arthur Sackler published a scathing opprobrium of the cigarette industry’s marketing techniques. He called out their “weasel-worded warnings” on packages and wrote that the publishers of magazines promoting cigarettes must “square with their own consciences their contribution to our national mortality.”

At the time, Sackler co-chaired a small Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma with his brother, Mortimer. In 1995, after Big Tobacco’s reckoning and years after Sackler’s admonition of the cigarette industry, Purdue Pharma released the opiate-derived painkiller OxyContin.

Purdue’s perversions of the truth and manipulations of influence were myriad, stacking up more like the rap sheet of an industrious kingpin than anything else. The company had friends in high places write in medical journals saying that America’s “opiophobia” was irrational. It encouraged doctors to give out free OxyContin prescriptions. It claimed it was less than one percent addictive (it was, of course, more than that). It blamed addicts for abusing the company’s drugs. It released a pamphlet informing doctors that when a patient comes to them displaying the indicators of addiction, they are likely only “pseudo-addicted.” The cure for pseudoaddiction, said the pamphlet, was often an increase in opioid dose.

Purdue Pharma did nothing about the pill mills popping up throughout rural America in the poorest, most desperate of towns. At a congressional hearing in 2001, a Purdue representative was asked what the company would do if its data revealed that a rural osteopath was writing thousands of prescriptions, as its data had indeed shown. The representative responded that it was not Purdue’s responsibility to assess “how well a physician practices medicine.”

The similarities in the two cases are obvious: A large corporation causes devastating and widespread harm and then denies its culpability to the bitter end, even when it makes it look either delusional or despicably underhanded. What’s less obvious is why both corporations finally changed their tunes, because eventually Big Tobacco and Purdue Pharma took significant strides to fix the messes they made.

Mike Moore, Mississippi’s attorney general from 1988 to 2014, played a central role in the litigation that was brought against the tobacco industry. He recalls asking the head tobacco honchos what exactly it was that they wanted to get out of the settlement hearings. “We want to be able to go to cocktail parties,” they said, “and not have people come up and ask us why we’re killing people.”

With a statement so absurdly detached from the larger context of the issue at hand, the seven CEOs reminded us that, in the face of all their avarice, their greed, their disregard for the wellbeing of ordinary Americans, corporate executives still maintain that most base human instinct: They want to be played with on the playground, too.

It took 40 years for a public understanding of Big Tobacco’s dishonesty to take shape. Plaintiffs began suing cigarette manufacturers when reports linking cigarettes to cancer first emerged in the 1950s. The first big win for a plaintiff suing Big Tobacco was in 1990. The litigation of Purdue Pharma follows a different trajectory. OxyContin was released in 1995, and just over 10 years later — in May 2007 — Purdue pleaded guilty to misleading the public about the drug’s risk of addiction.

In the face of all their avarice, their greed, their disregard for the wellbeing of ordinary Americans, corporate executives still maintain that most base human instinct: They want to be played with on the playground, too.

Purdue’s real Judgment Day came, however, in 2017 when Patrick Radden Keefe wrote a mordant expose of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis in the New Yorker. After the release of Keefe’s piece, the public response was swift and compelling. Protestors, coordinating online, met at the various institutions and museums that the Sacklers patronized. They littered the marble floors with prescription bottles and lay among them in faux overdose. They lined the balconies and dropped white prescription sheets that drifted down like cottonwood pollen.  Photos were shared on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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The Sacklers had faced lawsuits for years, but what really affected them, said David Sackler, grandson of Raymond Sackler, to Vanity Fair, was the screaming vitriol with which the public was serving the family. He couldn’t stand that his son, upon returning home from kindergarten, asked: “Why are my friends telling me that our family’s work is killing people?” An undoing that took almost half a century for Big Tobacco took two decades for OxyContin. A lifetime for a dog, sure, but relatively zippy for the public revelation of a huge corporation’s malfeasance.  

On Aug. 19, the Business Roundtable, a consortium of the nation’s richest, most successful CEOs, released a statement titled ‘Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation.” In it, they wrote that companies must invest in the environment, their employees and the communities in which they work. This statement marks a radical departure from decades of abiding by corporate conventionalism, in which the general belief was that the only role of the corporation was to increase its profits. After Milton Friedman released his essay “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits” in 1970, the general directive of most corporations has been to unapologetically plow forward in their pursuit of affluence, leaving the rest of society to be damned. 

But on Aug. 19, we saw an apology, or at least what can be considered an apology in the age of “nonpoligies” (see Ronald Reagan’s “mistakes were made” in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair or Harvey Weinstein’s written statement that he “came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”) The Roundtable’s release contains lines such as “This new statement affirms the essential role corporations can play in improving our society” and “These modernized principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans.” While smacking of quixotism, the release of the statement marks some amount of progress toward the end of an era of shareholder supremacy. Or perhaps, more accurately, it shows us that executives are finally taking the populace’s condemnations seriously. 

“They’re responding to something in the zeitgeist,” said Nancy Koehn, Harvard Business School historian, to the New York Times in reference to the statement. “They perceive that business as usual is no longer acceptable.” In 21st century America, that cultural zeitgeist is informed markedly by what is posted online. Public figures and incorporated businesses feel the judgments of the public much more acutely than they did in 1970. 

This is the internet, and as my mother would undoubtedly remind you, the internet is forever. It’s harder to cover things up and let a story roll by. The highest readership ever for U.S. newspapers was 60 million in 1980 — social media account ownership is triple that today. Almost nothing flies under the radar, and more people than ever before have access to receiving antennas. Stories of neglectful conduct are posted on Facebook and Instagram, and protests are organized on Twitter. Responses are immediate; evidence is shared.

Public figures and incorporated businesses feel the judgments of the public much more acutely than they did in 1970. 

The public pressure for action has proved itself effective already: On Sept. 26, three days after Thunberg spoke to the United Nations and cities around the world witnessed protests that were thousands of people strong, Stewart and Lynda Resnick donated $750 million to the California Institute of Technology for environmental studies. Their donation was the second-largest donation ever to be made to an American university.

When asked about their donation, Stewart explained that the predominant motivation for him was the contention he would face from his grandchildren: “My grandkids … they would yell at me all the time, ‘How can you help with this? What are you doing about it?’” I venture that he’s thinking of his grandchildren in part because of Thunberg and the precedence many of us have given her as well as the climate protests shared on our social media accounts. 

Doubtless, in the face of global climate change and the seemingly innumerable other challenges that face the United States and the rest of the world, we should be driven by our moral imperatives to do more than just walk, post and share. But let’s not argue that attending a rally or sharing footage of it online is nothing more than a delusional pat on our own backs.  

To quote William Faulkner’s address to the 1952 graduating class of University High School (and at the risk of sounding trite):

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If you, not just you in this room tonight, but in all the thousands of other rooms like this one about the world today and tomorrow and next week, will do this, not as a class or classes, but as individuals, men and women, you will change the earth.”

Contact Katherine Blesie at [email protected].