Here is my latest, slightly expanded column for the print version of CounterPunch, which came out last month.
A former colleague of mine died recently, although I didn’t know he had been my colleague until I read his obituary in the New York Times last month — six months after his obscure and unmarked death in the small East Tennessee town where I’d worked as a reporter.
Charles Varnadore and I worked together for five years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, part of the vast research complex that midwifed the atom bomb. Curiously enough, my grandfather had helped build Oak Ridge. A sharecropper turned carpenter, my grandfather Lon been recruited, like thousands of other workers and artisans, to construct the “secret city” in the midst of World War II. He wasn’t allowed to tell his family what he was doing; he would just get on the train in the rural deeps outside Nashville and be gone for weeks at a time. Varnadore’s grandfather had worked there too, and his father as well.
But I never met Varnadore during my time at ORNL. It wasn’t that kind of place. It was like a huge, sprawling college campus — a heavily militarized campus, with machine-gun-toting guards, iron gates, walls topped with barbed wire. The kind of campus where people went only where they were authorized to go, subject always to the arbitrary dictates of security. (It was a prevision of 21st century America, but we didn’t know that then.)
So there wasn’t much mixing and mingling. Varnadore was a technician, working in the analytic chemistry division. I had no idea where that was. I was working — after a fashion — as an editor in an unusual enclave of leftish researchers dealing with issues like energy conservation and the still somewhat recherché matter of global warming. My services weren’t much needed by these very articulate scientists, most of whom had been war protestors and civil rights campaigners. I spent much of my time hiding out in one cubby-hole or another, reading books: the entire corpus of George Eliot, the complete works of Colette, the Alexandria Quartet, Gore Vidal by the yard, Tillich, Buber, Arendt, Celan — whatever treasure I fetched up from the magical milk-crates of McKay’s Used Books in nearby Knoxville.
Varnadore took his work more seriously — and that was his downfall. After years elsewhere in the Oak Ridge system, his first job at ORNL was analyzing soil samples from decommissioned nuclear plants. But, as the New York Times reports, he soon found the samples weren’t being maintained properly, making them conveniently useless in measuring the amount of radiation left behind by the closed plants. He duly reported the situation to the bosses, along with a number of other concerns about the mishandling of dangerous materials, which left even office workers exposed to radiation hazards.
Now in our ultra-modern, super-savvy 21st-century world, we all know what happens to whistleblowers. But Varnadore probably thought he was still living in the kind of country he’d been told about in Civics class. He thought the federal government would want to know about these dangerous glitches, and correct them.
You can guess what happened next. No remedies — but plenty of punishment for the ‘troublemaker.’ Varnadore — who was recovering from cancer — was shuttled from one assignment to another, then finally parked in a room full of radioactive and chemical waste. When a company medical tech flagged the risk, he was moved again: to a room where poisonous mercury was left lying in pools. After years of exemplary performance reviews, he suddenly began getting negative evaluations.
He sought whistleblower protection under federal law — garnering an appearance on the national news — and took his concerns to the Labor Department. An administrative judge ruled in his favor, saying that ORNL had tried to shut Varnadore up by “intentionally [putting] him under stress with full knowledge that he was a cancer patient recovering from extensive surgery.” The judge sent the case on to Bill Clinton’s labor secretary, the liberal lion Robert Reich, to levy damages against the facility’s corporate overseer, Martin Marietta.
Now all those of a dissident hue know Mr. Reich well. Today you can read his earnest pleas for hard-hit working folk and his jeremiads against elitist economics in any number of progressive media venues. So you can imagine what this stalwart champion of the people did next.
That’s right: he flushed the whistleblower down the toilet. Reich dismissed Varnadore’s claims and had the judge’s ruling reversed. The corporate overseer got away clean, and the truth-teller, after years of lonely battle, working within the system like citizens are told to do, was crushed. But that’s no surprise: a little taste of state power can bend even the most liberal of lions to the agenda of elite domination.
Broken, and near broke, Varnadore soon took early retirement. But the arc of immoral power is long, and it bends toward destruction; the state wasn’t through squashing this inconvenient gadfly. Two years after leaving ORNL, Varnadore was imprisoned for selling some of his guns at flea markets, as men in those rural climes have done since the days of the flintlock. Even though by this time Washington was ruled by George Bush’s gun nuts, with Attorney General John Ashcroft himself boldly defending the rights of any terrorist with ready cash to buy weapons at gun shows and baby showers, for some reason the full weight of the law fell on the ageing, ailing retiree from the Appalachian foothills. He served 27 months of hard time, struggled on for awhile, and finally died this spring, his death unnoted until his former lawyer alerted the NYT this month. So much for truthtelling.
Bush, of course, started a war that killed a million people. He’s a whimsical painter now. Reich’s boss Clinton killed half a million children with his Iraqi sanctions; he’s now the beloved “Big Dawg” of our savvy liberalistas.
I guess the system worked OK for them.