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.