The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 3)

As inelegant as it is, here I must say that not all things are wrong. There are many hard and beautiful truths in a West Virginia life that other places may never know. I am reminded of the betrayals of a true love. Not much is lost when you never cared, but there is a unique pain in the infidelities of the one to whom you’ve given your heart.  West Virginia births and raises true loves. We don’t do things half-way or a little bit. We come out into this place like wires, connected, to a land of creeks and sky and hills. We hit the earth a part of it, and “mountain mama” is not just a line from a song. Whether we want to have this relationship or not, it is both a birthright and a burden.

I think again of my great-grandfather. What did Charles Edward grow up believing? I imagine he was like the rest of us. He grew up believing that that is a good place. He no doubt came into the world with a strong belief that the land around him was worth fighting for, that anyone who would disparage what West Virginia is would be easily and swiftly defeated. What he did not know, what none of us know at first, is that this place is a commodity to be traded, and that loyalty to this place is like falling in love with a hooker. That sounds terribly harsh, but I believe it is accurate.

Those in the know will tell you that despite the fantasy, no one sells their physical and spiritual self because they want to do it. They do it because the children are hungry. They do it for reasons that call out for solutions, and the way in which the terrible wants are met with resolution is not in question; at least not in the moment of decision and transaction. As a parent myself, I understand this on a fundamental level. There are some things I like to think I would never do, but I’ve held a screaming, hungry child. I know what it is to have every element of your responsibility and your future literally in your hands, and to have to make a decision about how to help. All morality and ethical consideration goes out the window, save the system you’ve inherited as a parent. That system says that the ends justify the means. Feeding and clothing and caring for your child is the only purpose you have, and the only bedrock principle of how you make decisions.

If West Virginia were a parent, would she struggle so? I wonder when I personify this place if it would trade its streams, its mountains, its communities for food for its young? And as I even ask the question, I know the answer as clear as anything I’ve never known. It is as simple as not wanting to know. Yes, she has sacrificed all of that. And like real human children do, we have learned from our mother’s example. Give in, give up, justify. Do whatever you have to do so that your children don’t go hungry. Don’t obsess or worry about the now, or even about the consequences of the now. Save the little ones, and forget yourself. Your only real purpose is to keep them alive.

Charles Edward had ten children and a wife to keep alive. Did he ever even have the time to wonder about the effects of coal mining on anyone but himself? He was a miner back in the days when men bent low and stayed low in the dark from dawn until night, chipping away at the rock walls of the mine shafts with hammers and chisels. They loaded chunks of coal into rail cars that followed them into the dark and that carried their treasure safely out into the daylight; they continued to strike the hard earth, in the dark. At one time there weren’t many jobs for a young Fayette County man that would allow him to feed ten children and a spouse. Mining coal developed a reputation for being the only work worth doing that even approached paying enough to feed a large family.

Of course, the coal industry rarely paid actual money. Miners were paid in scrip, a form of artificial money that could only be used to cover expenses at company stores. I don’t know for sure if Charles Edward was paid in scrip, but I imagine that at least part of his compensation came in this form. This kind of control over the fruits of a worker’s labor is one of the most notorious and detested parts of the coal industry legacy in West Virginia. After days of mind-numbing hacking at stone walls and hour upon hour of breathing filthy and even toxic air, a man’s paycheck still was not a moment of freedom. Your compensation was something you were privileged to hand right back to the company that kept you in dangerous conditions underground, and you were supposed to be grateful that they would take it back from you for whatever they could spare.

You were supposed to be glad that you had a job at all, and while this trite outlook always has some genuine truth to it, the sentiment behind it has not served my people well in West Virginia. The gratitude philosophy just dead ends into a stone wall. There is never been much public discourse about deserving better, and I ask silently if that is because there hasn’t been much private speech about it, either. Somewhere along the line, articulating wanting and deserving more became corrupted into being selfish and disdainful of this place. Layered decades of a mono-economy made any words against the one thing everyone believed mattered, the coal industry, into dangerous hate speech.

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 2)

West Virginia has a long history of conflict. The conflicts are documented in our history books and highlight near-wars like the Battle of Blair Mountain and the textbook controversy that rocked Kanawha County in the 1970s. In these kinds of fights guns are fired; sometimes, people die; and almost always there is a gouged scar on our cultural landscape. On a recent visit to Vermont I heard myself trying to explain how things play out in West Virginia, and what came out of my mouth after a few glasses of wine was, “We are a culture of winners and losers.” My dinner guests were hooked, I could tell, when they put down their own glasses and leaned in to hear more.

I wasn’t sure there was more to say, and I didn’t expound much on my words; I think they speak for themselves. But I have rolled the wine-tinged phrase around and around in my own mind without ceasing for days now.

West Virginia is a culture of winners and losers.

It is something so obvious once I said it out loud that I hardly know where to start, and yet the looks on my dinner companions faces said it was not entirely normal or expected. I think communities that are thriving well  beyond where we are in West Virginia have either never accepted the winner/loser dynamic or have so solidly rejected it long ago that hearing it is still real in other places is like hearing that dragons exist. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but you are shocked nonetheless.

We don’t really resolve things in West Virginia, and accepting that reality has been a slow train coming for me. I haven’t wanted to internalize and deal with the fact that this is a place of hurts that fester untended. In an odd way I think we’ve learned, as a people, to allow our wounds to go full-tilt into permanent scars. When I look at mountain top removal, or mine deaths, or cancer rates or any number of “wound like” truths in our Appalachian landscape, I wonder. I wonder where that line is when people stop trying to get well and start trying to catalogue their scars. “We may never get well,” they say, “but we can make you look at what happened. We can try to make you look at what you did.”

Our Way of Life

Recently I made a mistake.  I did not resist the urge to leap into a Facebook back-and-forth about the coal industry, the environment, and most importantly, the economy.   You don’t have to be a native West Virginian to be troubled by what is going on, but I am both native and troubled.  Status update soundbites can never give justice to the dynamics and complexities of West Virginia’s agonizing, heel-digging resistance to even talking about life outside the colonial economy of coal.

We need to talk about one thing above all others, and that is how seemingly impossible and yet absolutely necessary it is for our state to stop defining ourselves by a fading economy.  I saw a quote today on the side of a building, it said, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”  Eleanor Roosevelt said this, and it is used in a wide range of human circumstances.  West Virginia would do well to take these words to heart.

I am unaware of any other industry or profession where people are not expected to do what everyone else has to do, and that is figure out how to be employable in more than one field.  It’s extremely difficult, but we all have to do it.  Some people talk about coal miners as if they are some unique category of people who never have to adapt and figure out how to be relevant in a changing economy and find new work, ever.  Underneath that way of thinking is a condescending attitude that they aren’t like everyone else because they aren’t smart enough or tough enough or modern enough or something.  It drives me crazy because just the opposite is true. 

If you want tough and adaptable and curious and indomitable, you want a West Virginia coal miner.  These folks eat my fears for breakfast, and negotiate circumstances so deadly day after day it would finish most of us within 24 hours.  There are families in West Virginia that go back generations who are built on the genetic and character codes of this kind of work, so please, don’t condescend to them.  Ever.  Not even for a vote.

The trouble is, while West Virginia’s future rests on the cannot-be-defeated nature of miners, what it does not rest on is out-of-state coal companies.  This post is not about coal companies, but most people are aware that their reputations are much less glowing than the reps of miners themselves.  Let’s leave it at that.

In my Facebook comments, I compared the dynamics of the economic transitions ahead of us to the shock to the Old South with the end of plantations where the production was almost entirely from a system of slave labor.  That was not a wise thing to pop up in a few lines in a real-time conversation, because it is so easily misunderstood.  In no way am I comparing slavery to coal mining.  I do believe, however, that there are valid opportunities to see West Virginia’s economic issues through the lens of the Old South if one can stay focused on the transition problems.  I maintain they are relevant and potentially useful in bridging the gaps in public dialogue around us every day.

The language similarities are striking when thinking about comparisons between the Old South agricultural empire and West Virginia’s extractive industry economy .  Threats to “our way of life” are common cries.  People bring up their family trees, how long their family has been part of a work culture, and how the nation depends on the product to survive.  Patriotism and morality are questioned.  Families and friendships are strained and in some cases broken.  Some people talk about the President of the United States as if he is an enemy of the state, and there is constant pressure to not say the wrong thing so as not to be labeled disloyal — to what, take your pick.  You risk being disloyal to your beloved state and the commitment and even sacrifice of generations of miners if you question anything about the impact of the coal industry, and you risk being disloyal to your own children’s health and well-being for a few bucks if you don’t chain yourself to a tree. 

Something’s gotta give.

It starts with talking about one thing with a laser sharp focus: The New Economy.  No one stopped needing food and fibers when abolition became law, and no one is going to stop needing electricity when mountain top removal and even coal mining itself is no more.  We must focus on what we need, and how we will continue to get it through new methods that meet the new information we have about the destructive contamination inherent in coal mining.  Really smart people I’ve known all my life are turning a blind eye to what everyone outside of West Virginia knows without even trying — coal ash, mercury poisoning, degradation of streams and elimination of entire ecosystems are poised to do more than inconvenience a few fish.  Even the most stubborn person out there has got to know in his or her heart that this is insanity.

We need to stop letting the coal industry define this debate.  The WV Coal Association has one of the nicest, kindest men you will ever meet as its spokesman, and it does not matter.  Personalities need to disappear from the conversation.  I started by saying I am a native West Virginian, and that comes with a big guarantee — I will never give up on this place.  I do everything I can to keep the conversation on a high level, but also on a level that matters.  At the end of the day, in the Old South it did not matter, not even a little bit, how long anyone ran their farms a certain way.  It needed to end, and people needed to have a higher vision for what they could do, how, and why.  It took a Civil War and the near end of this country for people to get a clue.

Let’s not make the same mistakes.

Sportin’ the Bad Idea Jeans

The late, great Phil Hartman talks Bad Idea Jeans.

The “Bad Idea Jeans” skit from Saturday Night Live lingers with one of the most useful lines in popular culture.  Check out the skit here on Hulu: the very young Mike Myers is a wonderful trip down memory lane (depending on your age, of course).  Every time I think its utility is past, I find a new opportunity to use the concept.  The skit is great because it’s not so much about making the wrong decision as about making a decision that is simply A Bad Idea.

As each of lines in the SNL skit demonstrate, A Bad Idea seems to pivot on throwing caution to the wind and not thinking through the potentially extensive, permanent, and disastrous consequences of the decision.  There is a short-term burst of bravado coupled with thoughts only of the action itself, and no concern with what happens next.

The Governor of West Virginia is wearing his Bad Idea Jeans this morning.  It is anticipated that he will announce plans to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over tightening permitting procedures considered by the mining industry to hamper its ability to make as much money as possible.  The more coal that comes out the ground, the more severance tax dollars that can be collected, and therefore the greater the amounts of money that flow into the state’s bank accounts to support state government.

What you will hear about is jobs.  You will hear that permitting is hurting job creation and retention for good, hardworking West Virginians.  Whether or not these are the jobs we should be creating and retaining is a matter of debate, though my heart goes out to miners right now.  They are caught as pawns in an intense and serious conflict about the future of West Virginia and the viability of the state from environmental, governmental, and cultural perspectives.

By even considering suing the federal government — and of all things the agency tasked with protecting clean air and clean water — the governor looks desperate.  It’s short-term thinking at best, and seems to be an obvious attempt to ratchet up his chances at defeating a more conservative political opponent for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Robert C. Byrd:

Republican John Raese, who is running against Manchin for the U.S. Senate seat held for decades by Robert C. Byrd, has alleged that Manchin has not shown enough support for the mining industry and would not stand up to President Obama on coal-related issues.

Someone considered “in the know” told me once he thought the governor was a smart man, but that he had an unfortunate tendency to be swayed by the last person he spoke to about an issue.  If that is true, he needs to start having his “last conversations” with people other than political hacks worried about their own necks and people on the coal industry’s payroll.  Which, come to think of it, would mean shutting out his own administration entirely, as we have already established that coal supports state government to an incredible degree.  I might need a time out to recover from the whiplash.

While it’s not rock bottom by any stretch around here, this is West Virginia politics at its most disappointing.  No vision, no plan, just ego and distraction.  And some really ugly jeans.