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.

Growing Up Blind – John Warren (part 4, Born Again)

This is part 4 of a 5 part essay for the Essays on a WV Childhood project.  To go to the beginning of the essay and start with part 1, click here.

Growing Up Blind (part 4, Born Again)

Things became more complicated in the middle of my senior year of high school when I became a born-again Christian.  I had gone to church all my life, but mainly because my parents required me to do so.  At a church service on New Year’s Eve of 1985 I decided that I wasn’t doing a very good job of running my life and that I should surrender it to Jesus and let him have control.  At the time I didn’t know that many Christians considered a homosexual lifestyle to be sinful.

My senior year passed quickly, and in the fall of 1986 I began my freshman year at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana.  I quickly became actively involved in a campus Christian fellowship, and I made a lot of great new friends.

Being a seven-hour drive away from home seems to have helped me finally to admit the truth to myself and others.  Just two weeks into my freshman year, I told Mark, an upperclassman from the Christian group, about my sexuality.  I wrote,  “We had a really good talk.  I told him all about my past.”  I had finally told someone, but I wasn’t ready to admit the truth to my journal yet.

Through conversations with Mark and other Christians I became convinced that having homosexual desires was not sinful, but acting on them would be.  I felt horrible feelings of guilt and shame when I allowed myself to entertain sexual thoughts; I began praying that God would help me to change, or at the very least, to have the strength to resist sexual temptation.  I read all the information I could find on the subject, and over the course of my freshman year I wrote more and more openly about my struggle with homosexual desires.  

At one point, Mark introduced me to a woman he knew who was similarly conflicted about her sexuality.  It was a huge event in my life: For the first time I knew another person who was like me.  Despite our similar circumstances, I never became very close with her.  I didn’t have a car, and she lived off-campus.  I suspect I would have put more effort into the relationship if Mark’s friend had been a man.  

By the beginning of my sophomore year, I had come out to my parents and many of my college friends.  In September of 1987 I wrote, “Something I’ve meant to do recently is to make a list of people ‘who know,’ if you know what I mean.  It’s no big secret if you’ve been keeping up on the past few month’s [entries].”  I went on to list 14 people that I had explicitly told about my sexuality and 16 others that I thought probably suspected the truth.  I was careful about who I told, but there was not a single person I told during college who rejected me (and most of these guys were conservative Midwesterners).

Tomorrow, part 5 and the conclusion of Growing Up Blind – After College.

Image credit: John Warren