Thursday, February 26, 2009

Appalachian papers' lessons from documentary: the need to dream, the need for local action

"What lessons should we take" from the ABC documentary "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains" and its follow-up reports and viewer reaction? The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky., asks that question in an editorial this week, and answers it by pointing to the closing comment of University of Kentucky historian Ron Eller: “There are ways to think about the future in the mountains in different kinds of ways than we’ve thought about it in the past. We just need to be willing to dream.” (Encarta map)

It's a good time for dreaming, the editorial argues: "Central Appalachia is a proving ground for the future of the United States. The problems that afflict the region today are the consequences of having been an economic colony ever since the first trainloads of local coal went off to power the industrial revolution that profited so many others. If Appalachia is hopeless, then the rest of the United States can’t be far behind – because the industrial revolution is history, the banking system is in rehab, and the mighty country that Appalachian coal miners worked so hard to make possible is in big trouble."

As for the show and journalism's role, the weekly says, "This newspaper, along with many other organizations and individuals, has been trying for decades to call attention to the underlying economic and political reasons why so many people in our beautiful, beloved corner of the world find themselves living lives of quiet desperation. But there’s no denying the power of a national network television program to get the public’s attention – at least briefly – on a scale that no newspaper can ever hope to match. Whether you admired Sawyer’s 20/20 special or hated every minute of it, we should all say a prayer of thanks that there are still television news organizations with the resources and the will to spend nearly two years putting together such a powerful program." (Read more)

Earlier this week, Samantha Swindler, right, editor of The Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., wrote, "The difficulty in doing a piece like Sawyer tackled is stereotyping and marginalizing problems when you’ve got less than a hour to work with. And while I think she did a good job portraying what life is like for the most unfortunate children of Appalachia, I would have liked to have seen not only a broader look at health problems, but a broader look at the vast differences in the region’s towns and rural areas. Because, as we know, there are two very different Appalachias." The show made that point, very briefly.

Swindler notes the divide between the very poor in the isolated hollows and the middle class who live in county-seat towns much like those in the rest of America. "Why is there such a great divide? Why do we accept it as inevitable? . . . How many of you Corbinites support foreign charities and decry the problems of inner cities, yet objected when media pointed out the problem in your own backyard? . . . Once we move past anger that our deepest embarrassments were broadcast to a nation, what are we going to do about it?" (Read more)


Anonymous said...

Sure, to dream away from hopelessness is great, and to think a myriad of Central Appalachians have not already done so for generations would be short-sighted. But it's time for Central Appalachians to ask the hard question of, "where has coal gotten us today," and if the answer is "where I want to be," then we should only assume that everything will remain the same, and some would predict worse, in this region.
Now if you answer that question, in some portion or another, by saying, coal gave grandadday black lung, and coal wiped out daddy's fishing creek and livestock water, or coal filled every holler in the south half of my county with worthless rock, then you've got two choices: Expect your children to anguish through their own existence with this industry, OR, confront the very cause of more than 100 years of social, environmental and personal degradation by realizing the land, the home, the history you have in this place if so much more valuable than the coal that is pulled from the ground. The riches are in the water, the soil, the plants and animals, the families. Once that is realized maybe the old political systems that remain entwined with coal extraction industries will change…education will be realized at a value equal to gold, quality of life will be valued beyond a coal hauler's pay check, the remnants of an incredibly unique natural environment will be marketed for its true worth.
Coal companies are on the run and well they should be, and as the rest of the world catches on to the lies of "clean coal" and sees the devastation of mining not only in Appalachia, but around the world, those same companies will be left to defend themselves only where they are strongest: in Central Appalachia by pitting neighbor against neighbor in a last ditch dying effort. This will only reinforce the downward spiral of the region.
Here's a case study: Heartwood, a national forest protection group that opposes commercial logging in National Forests, five years ago held a gathering near Harlan, Ky., at Camp Blanton. Located next to a Kentucky State Nature Preserve that holds extremely rare old growth forests, Camp Blanton was once affiliated with Boy Scouts of America and is now owned by a group of local men from the Harlan area. Last year, in 2008, Heartwood and Camp Blanton agreed to have the event at the camp again in the spring of 2009. The event some five years earlier had attracted members of U.S. congress, Academy award nominated actor Woody Harrelson, nationally-recognized voter rights activists and a wide array of concerned citizens from across Kentucky and the country. Hundreds of people attended the Memorial Day weekend event and tens of thousands of dollars were spent in the local community. It could be assumed from later feedback that all of the attendees left with heartfelt thanks and memories of their visit to Harlan.
Earlier this month the board of Camp Blanton, refusing to give any specific reason, announced to Heartwood, after nearly nine months of planning, that the camp would suddenly not be available. Scheduled the week before the Memorial Day weekend Heartwood event was Mountain Justice Spring, an activist training camp for people working to end mountaintop removal as a means of coal extraction.
After conversations with numerous board members of Camp Blanton, it became obvious that the board had told Heartwood and the Mountain Justice group that the camp would not be available due to pressure from coal mining interests. The board members would not deny this.
As hundreds of people who were planning to attend this event each talk to a few of their friends from all over the country about these recent events, how would the people of Central Appalachia imagine they are now being considered? As organizers of these two events scramble to find a new location outside of southeastern Kentucky, what might the people of Central Appalachia imagine future guests will contemplate before making a decision to visit?
There was some reference to incest in Sawyer's program, and no matter how derivative it may have been, it could be argued there is a certain incestuous tendency in the region, but it's not inter-family. It's social: Hills get blown up, mountain sides get clear cut, undervalued paychecks get cashed to pay for fast food meals and high interest rates on debt. The same high school teachers teach the same classes that put the same family members in the same jobs a generation earlier.
It's great to dream, alright, and I can't imagine a young person from Central Appalachia dreaming of anything but how they will ever get out of there. I lived in Eastern Kentucky for nearly 25 years, went to high school and college there and wish that my family could validate with common sense our desire to return. But we can't, and we really, really want to. But we can't, and folks like the ones running Camp Blanton help remind us of why we can't and won't.

Anonymous said...

This is a slap in the face to every person who gives a damn about their homeland and their country. Is this what has become of our America? Is this the land of the free or the land of Greed? One day I hope the people of this great nation will wake up and realize that it may be in mans nature to destroy themselves but it is also within our power to save ourselves, our homes, our streams and forests. Hopefully sooner rather than later...