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 UBB Anniversary: The Truth is Always Respectable

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in 7 years.”  — Mark Twain

Today is April 5, the first anniversary of the deaths of 29 men in a terrible coal mining accident at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

I honor the dead, and the families who mourn them; yet this post is not about that accident.  This post is about a question that the accident and its aftermath pose.  It is about something my father believes that I am not yet sure I do, and the anniversary of the UBB tragedy brings it again to the forefront of my thoughts.

“The truth is always respectable.”

My father is much more intelligent than the vast majority of people I know and even know of.   He is one of those “scary smart” men who can remember long chains of statistics, human connections, and historical sequences.  He is trained in the liberal arts and the law, has served in the army and the National Guard, endowed a prize in evidence at his law school and is intensely close to his God.   The fact that he is my father makes his stature even more awe-inspiring for me.  I listen when he speaks.  I take as pillars of my life some of his core tenets:

  • All things in moderation (If my father had to choose between Lost Horizon and the Bible for his one book on a desert island, I know he would struggle).
  • Your experience is the only experience you have; one always generalizes his or her own experience.
  • Never resist a generous impulse.
  • Fewer clothes in a marriage mean fewer arguments. (Note: I have been corrected since the original post, it’s not fewer arguments, it is arguments of shorter duration.  Got it.)
  • You can never see a great film too many times.
  • Butter is worth it.

This is just a sampler of his wisdom, but you get the idea.   The man knows what he’s talking about when he shares the wisdom of his over 80 years, and I pay attention.

That is why I am so troubled about my personal struggle with, “The truth is always respectable.”

Given the track record of how dad’s thinking turns out to be accurate I really wish this core idea were easier for me to understand.  I am still not there, and the UBB date on the calendar clouds things even more.

Evidence in the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigation turns up testimony that all of the men did not perish instantaneously as originally reported.  I remember the claim that no one survived the blast being quickly and widely disseminated to ease concern that the miners suffered.  Now we learn several men may have not been killed immediately, and that one man made valiant efforts to save his fellow  miners, only to have to retreat as his own oxygen supply dwindled to dangerously low levels.

When I learned this, honestly I was angry.  I was not angry at the now-alleged wrong information, I was angry that anyone thinks the families need to know that.  How horrific, to be maybe even healing a small amount, only to face renewed grief.  If someone I loved had been in that mine, I thought, just leave me in peace.  Let me have the only thing I can possibly have, and that is that he died without struggle or pain.  Let me move on, let my heart rest.

Then here comes this news…….and there is no rest for the hearts and minds of these families.  It feels so wrong, almost unethical to bring this to light if there is nothing that can be done but to hurt more.

But some time has gone by, and now I do more than just react to this terrible and seemingly pointless news.  I start to turn it around and reconfigure what it means to be devoted to knowing the truth.

If we say, either explicitly or implicitly through our responses to new information, “This is pointless and painful and you should never have told us,” what else are we saying?

We are saying it is acceptable to withhold information that might change future outcomes.

It is true that the terrible UBB explosion cannot be undone.  Those men are gone from this world forever, and their families and communities will never be the same.  But it is also true that large corporations (including the government) breathe a sigh of relief when we don’t make too much out of knowing what really goes on: who was lax, who made a serious error, who showed disdain for human life, who would just as soon deliver a modified story as the real one.

My conflict is with whether or not what the truth IS deserves respect.  That is what I usually hear when I hear, “The truth is always respectable.”  If it’s true that you cheated on a test, or lied to Congress, or abused a child, is that respectable?

No.  But making the reality of what you did available to yourself and to others who deserve to know is.  It’s more than respectable; it’s the only way anything gets any better over the long haul.

The real stories necessitate real change.  I want to put my head under a pillow so I can’t hear the real stories.  But hear them, and share them, and support them I must.

Dad, you did it again.  How do you do that?  I love you.

Image credit: EthioSun.com

Mr. Blankenship? The call’s for you.

When I heard the news that Rolling Stone was profiling Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, it seemed like a gift from God.  Finally, the nation and the world would get a look at what West Virginia has been battling for decades.

Bring it on.

I started taking Rolling Stone magazine in my early teens.  My friend Joanna gave it to me as a gift for my birthday, and continued it for a few years before I picked it up on my own.  It’s been several years since I subscribed, but I still buy it from the stand from time to time.  Honestly, it was Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous that brought me back, and I’m grateful.  If you haven’t seen the movie, you really owe it to yourself.  Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kate Hudson. Anna Paquin – wow.  The writing is great and the performances genuine.  I’d pay full price in the theater again just to hear Frances tell Billy over a pay phone, “Russell, it’s not too late to become a person of substance.”

What RS does better than anyone is deliver profiles of famous people that reveal the human being submerged in the image.  After reading such a piece, I traditionally need to spend a few days shaking off the unpleasant feeling that everything I’ve read prior about the featured person is obscenely incomplete and unfair.  I’m not saying RS writers don’t have agendas, because everyone does whether they acknowledge it or not; but profiles in Rolling Stone are difficult to categorize as manipulative.  When one reviews the sequence and elements of the story, rarely if ever will much emerge beyond undisputed facts and the verbatim reflections of the people directly involved in the story.  I find RS writers often surprise themselves with the degree of empathy and connection they build with people who, profiled differently and in ways less complete, are not hard to despise.  The profile of Blankenship met all of my expectations in this regard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are stories about Blankenship’s childhood, youth, and young adulthood.  His now infamous “investment” in (then) West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard is reviewed, and lest you forget how bad that smelled you can catch another nauseating whiff here.    Blankenship’s memos directing miners to ignore safety violations, his crushing of the United Mine Workers in 1985, and his swanky mansion with its own water supply piped in are all presented and chronologically explained.  I knew most of these things, but something about having it all recounted as event after event pulls together a story most of us have been trying not to put together.  It’s just too awful.

If one wanted to dismiss much of said story as “just business”  (which I hear all the time), it is still impossible not to be jarred by the consolidation of immoral corporate conduct that has had such devastating and irreparable consequences to so many people.  I don’t toss around the word “evil,” but a better word is hard to find.  I try not to describe human beings as evil, but there are actions that are driven by a system of rewards I think reasonably could be termed evil.  Consider:

During the 198os, the company (Massey Energy) injected more than 1.4 billion gallons of slurry underground — seven times the amount of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico during the BP disaster this spring.  According to the lawsuit, Massey knew the ground was cracked, which would allow the toxic waste to leach into nearby drinking water.  But injecting the slurry underground saved Massey millions of dollars a year.  “The BP oil spill was an accident.  This was an intentional environmental catastrophe.” (p. 88)

All told, Jeff Goodell’s portrait of Blankenship is something that will linger in the reader’s mind for a long time.  It resonates with the old saying, “Man is not punished for sin, but by sin.”  Goodell is certainly not out to paint Blankenship as a hero, but there is a surprising degree of pain in his conclusion that “the dark lord of coal country” did not make choices that could have lifted him up as a visionary with the potential to lead his people out of darkness.  Blankenship was a local boy with street cred in Appalachia.  Goodell believes Blankenship could have been a voice of reason and sanity about coal’s future, about energy transition and business ethics.  Goodell makes the case that he could have saved lives — hundreds of lives if not more.

I think Goodell’s conclusion is romantic, and fails to take into account the fact that Blankenship rose to power and influence based on a ruthless and cold profits-only mentality for which he was richly rewarded.  It seems slightly flawed to ask why Blankenship didn’t use his power for good when in fact he would have had no power at all with Massey if it were not for his utter disregard for human life and health, both now and in the future.

Still, it is impossible to know.  Nothing scrapes at the human heart like lost potential and doors that are forever closed.  RS has a small collage of photographs of Blankenship over the years on page 86.  Perhaps it’s the Christmas season, but when I look at the yawning canyon between the handsome senior class president and the bloated and dead-eyed coal baron 40 years later, it breaks my heart.

I wonder what Frances would say to Don on a pay phone?

Image credits: Think Progress (miners sign), The Consumerist (pay ‘phone), Almost Famous (Frances McDormand)

Following the publication of the December 9 issue of Rolling Stone, Massey Energy announced Don Blankenship’s retirement as Chief Executive Officer.

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.

Coal and the Space-Time Continuum

Albert Einstein said, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  This is a guiding principle the nation would do well to consider as we navigate planning for life after dependence on finite energy resources.

Clean energy transportation

Imagine West Virginia is a well-respected policy think tank that dove into the deep end when it issued its first formal policy recommendations in April 2008 with Coal: Energy, the Environment & West Virginia.  This report is a good example of keeping things simple without going too far in that direction.

Testament to what IWV did very well is that the report’s facts are not in dispute.  What one ought to conclude or support from the facts is a contentious issue, however, so there has been some heat in the kitchen for over two years.  I was reminded last week of the statistic that “projections suggest that there is sufficient coal to meet the nation’s energy needs for more than 100 years at current rates of consumption.”

What brought this stat to mind was someone’s comment that “coal isn’t running out any time soon.”  This is a verbatim phrase I’ve heard so many times I almost ignore it now, but for some reason this time it brought me to full attention.  Coal isn’t running out any time soonWe have about 100 years.

On both sides of my family, 100 years is one human lifetime.  It is an exceptionally long lifetime, but it is one nonetheless.  When you see 10 decades that way, it feels like we have no business exhaling over the finite nature of coal as an energy resource.  If you have not yet read the IWV report, you may enjoy learning more about what a significant slice of the energy pie it is at home and abroad.  It is quite clear that even if one wanted to just stop the use of coal tomorrow there is currently no other developed alternative energy that is ready to fill the gap based on current demand.

Human beings can step up when they have to save their own rear ends.  We will most likely get it together to fill the coal gap before my child is a grandmother, but not if we continue to act like coal isn’t running out any time soon.  Einstein also theorized, “For objects travelling near light speed, the theory of relativity states that objects will move slower and shorten in length from the point of view of an observer on Earth.” 

I’m not 100% sure why I think this has something to do with the whole kit and kaboodle, but I think it might.  It’s also probably not simple.