WARNING: Kanawha County in the rearview mirror

My home community of Kanawha County, West Virginia, held a vote on a levy that would have restored funding to the public library system (long story) and shored-up the county school system’s budget against federal funding drops and self-imposed levy caps.

Voters overwhelmingly defeated the proposal to meet these financial needs with additional property taxes. Superintendent Ron Duerring said Saturday that “everything will be on the table,” as they look for budget cuts.

“There will be cuts in pretty much every area — staffing, transportation, you name it,” one principal said. “The possibility of students paying to participate in extracurricular activities is not one that I look forward to.”

The library has a few short months to come up with millions of dollars or start closing county branches.

What on earth?

It all reminds me of a religion/ethics lecture I heard about three years ago at Davidson College:

What does this mean anyway?

Our professor suggested this: “Maybe when you read something in ancient texts, and it doesn’t make any sense, maybe just maybe you’re not focused on what the writer is really trying to tell you.”  Of course, his big maybe was a polite and gentle way of saying that people get into all kinds of arguments about things that are not really the point.

Distance lends perspective, and living in a different community right now I am starting to refocus on some painful dysfunctions in the Kanawha County public discourse system. It’s not that I didn’t know they were there, but it’s easier to see when I suddenly am surrounded by something else. In New England, there is a long tradition of transparent and straightforward public meetings. When we have a meeting about an issue of public importance you are often read a “warning,” and it’s read to you three times. The first time this happened I was scared to death. WARNING! What?

Oh, it’s just a heads up that something important needs your consideration and thoughtful decision. And we know making a big decision takes time and education. So, here you go: Three times we are going to tell you what is coming up and what is at stake, and you have plenty of time to ask questions and get answers, in public.

Norman Rockwell painted “Freedom of Speech” using his Vermont neighbors as models.

There is plenty of disagreement  in Vermont, just as there is anywhere else. But the process tends to support a well-reasoned and informed debate, and even when you don’t get what you want you’re rarely left with the bitter taste of feeling like you were the victim of dark politics and pure ignorance.

I can’t say that about Kanawha County. I want to, but I’d be lying.

Maybe it’s our enormous income gaps, or maybe it’s our labor-strike-dynamics-to-every-fight legacy. I don’t know. But whatever it is my beloved home place has got to turn this ship around, and soon.

There are a lot of proud stands against perceived inefficiency and mismanagement and budget-balancing on the backs of those least able to pay. I understand that frustration. My family is a one-income family right now, and a couple of hundred dollars a year is the difference between having some things we need and not having those things. I, too, would expect clear and compelling evidence as to why this is necessary. Apparently that didn’t happen.

But the scary thing is that it was ever “okay” for certain things to be on the chopping block.  My fervent hope is that as a community Kanawha County can pull together and talk about its values. I grew up there. I know children and education are important to most people in the community. To everyone? No. But those people are so few that they alone could never do the damage that as done with this body blow to the public good. There is a bigger hole here.

There needs to be a coalition that doesn’t pit responsible fiscal management against kids.

These do not have to be opposing goals. But there does have to be an “outing” of who always gets what they want and is never held accountable and who doesn’t.

The whole thing is so classic it would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. It traditionally works like this: Status quo interests don’t want the masses tuned into their self-interests, so they steer the general public toward cannibalism.  Why, I wonder, can’t there be an insistence that something like the levy was not an acceptable solution and send the whole thing back to the drawing board?

WARNING: The public will be asked to vote up or down an inappropriate proposal to increase taxes to support our schools and public library system. We ask that we be presented with a source of funds from cuts to less-essential public services.

WARNING: We the public will keep insisting that you do better until you do better. This proposal is unacceptable.

WARNING: We are not kidding.

Look, I feel for the over-taxed and under-paid. I do. I’m about up to here with it as well. But I just hope that Kanawha Countians can work through this frustration to a better way to deal with it than listening to fear-mongers and assuming the worst of those least likely to want to deceive them.

Ask yourself, are people who’ve devote their lives to sharing books and literacy and youth development more likely to jerk your chain than career politicians and out-of-state corporations?

I love you, KC. Don’t give up.

(For more information, read The Charleston Gazette, Libraries to begin searching for funds.)

Turning Point Images: The Girl in the Bathtub

Via EPA.gov

Since the invention of the camera, human beings have known turning point images.

These images capture moments denied to the outside world, but intimately connected to the realities of specific scenes of human suffering. Most often those scenes take place where no one wants to go. Photographers who document these places take great personal risk to bring remote, hidden pockets of pain into the daylight where we all can see.

And once you’ve seen, you can’t go back.

Consider the Vietnam conflict’s “Napalm Girl.” The iconic image turned 40 years old this week, and you can see the picture and read an interview with the woman who was that child in the photograph here.

(Nick) Ut’s editors made an exception to a policy preventing frontal nudity in photos and went ahead and published it. Known simply as “napalm girl”, the photo transcended the divisive debate about the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War and crystallized the barbarity of war.

Also in the news this week, a photograph of a five-year-old Kentucky girl made national headlines when it almost appeared in a U.S. Congressional hearing about mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining practices. The photograph shows the child sitting naked in bath water that appears to be contaminated with toxins and heavy metals from mining runoff. (Click here to view the photograph on Katie Falkenberg’s website: The Human Toll: Mountaintop Removal Mining.)

Note: The photographer removed the photo of the girl in the bathtub due to the controversy, but other powerful photos remain on this link.)

There is a lot going on in this news story, and it continues to evolve. There are accusations of child pornography, sham hearings, sleazy politics, and emotional manipulation. I’m not sure where it will end, but I feel confident we have reached our turning point image.

The girl is not running and screaming, like Kim Phuc in the napalm attack on her village. She sits still as a stone, her arms wrapped under her legs. Her head is down. She is a portrait of submission and vulnerability, and any adult looking at her knows she has no real knowledge of the insidious presence in her bath. She probably knows water is supposed to be clear, but she has no choice but to trust those who care for her and accept her surroundings.

We Appalachian people like to think ourselves hard to tame. The Hatfield McCoy feud movie was on The History Channel last week, and there was plenty of armchair whoopin’ and hollerin’ about how fierce our people can be. Big men, big guns, lots of chest puffing and tough talk. I wonder this week, as a little child shows who we really are in 2012, if we will own the truth.

We are vulnerable. We are alone. We have trusted and we have hoped for the best. In many ways, I think we have remained deliberately ignorant about what is all around us.

Will we ever get up and run? And if we do, is it too late?

You can read the testimony by Boone County WV resident Maria Gunnoe on June 1, 2012, at the hearing titled “Obama Administrations Actions Against the Spruce Coal Mines: Canceled Permits, Lawsuits and Lost jobs” (sic) by clicking here.