Impunity, part 2

Posted in history, law, mine safety, union on July 8th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

In my attempt to beat the summer heat in Brooklyn, I’m focusing a lot on trying to publish some stuff (as well as on doing some data analysis on kinship networks in Labrador, Canada, but that’s another story). I have to admit, it is a long and trying process. After a fellow CUNY blogger mentioned that it’s nice to read about a work in progress but that he might never get to read the final work, I decided to write a less academic and hopefully more interesting article based on the research I completed this semester about mine safety laws. While the academic version has given me some promising leads on publication, I’ve sent the “public” version to several left-leaning online and print journals, and…nothing.

The process of writing a non-academic article when you’ve spent a year (or five, if you count undergrad) being completely indoctrinated into writing with as much jargon and theory as possible is far more difficult than producing a peer review-worthy paper. This might sound ridiculous coming from a first year graduate student, but actually writing in a style that would make people want to read my article, make them care about what I am saying, and make them do something about it rather than just giving them something else to think about was trying and frustrating as much as it was rewarding and fulfilling. The lack of response, however, has really got me down. Part of my reason for getting into anthropology and insisting on going straight to graduate school was my interest in public anthropology and my feeling that the discipline is turning toward a more accessible version of itself – and that this is something I want to be a part of. So now I have a new task at hand: writing about things I care about is one thing, but getting them out there is apparently something else altogether.

I have been speculating about the lack of response, and while I recognize that it may very well be based on my writing, I wonder if it may have something to do with the topic I’m presenting. One of the journals I sent the article to, In These Times, is a great publication that takes a lot of interest in workers’ issues, and it surprises me that they posted what appears to be only one article targeting Don Blankenship (granted, he is the easiest target…) and his personal violation of mine safety laws. Okay, but there’s a much longer, detailed dialogue that needs to be happening here, and while Massey and Blankenship are the largest and most visible culprits in this situation, we’re talking about the systematic erosion of mining laws, which means that really, any mining company can get away with this stuff, even the small ones. Never will I argue for the innocence of Blankenship. But only focusing on his actions and his salary, sick as they are, ignores the more significant implications of corporate capitalist expansion as a whole, and it ignores much of the historical detail I have gone to great pains to understand. Removing Don Blankenship and Massey Energy doesn’t change the fact that coal extraction exploits West Virginian miners. Impunity extends beyond that man to government agencies and the union alike: maybe that’s where I get myself into trouble (I guess some people don’t really like it when you say that the union isn’t going to solve the world’s problems…).

Another part of me wonders if this issue is just too hard for folks to deal with. Do we not want to be told about how reliant on coal because it’s easier not to know, so then we don’t feel as guilty for our consumption’s role in this disaster? Holding someone accountable means energy consumers, too, whether we like it or not. Is that too harsh of a reality for the average lefty news reader? We are outraged about oil spills (which are devastating, I know, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t be outraged), but admitting that excessive mining due to our own huge energy demands causes people’s deaths is something that is too hard to care about, or too hard to do something about. Is coal consumption too deeply ingrained in our being to consider changing our ways? If that’s the case, then we’re all just Don Blankenships, who once suggested that coal is what made America great and is necessary for its continued greatness, and that’s why we should keep on mining it like we do.

I know to some extent I’m overthinking this whole thing. Publishing is taxing, and convincing people to be interested in what you care most about is the hardest thing about caring about something. This remains a huge issue in West Virginia news, and it’s a pity that it has disappeared from what appears to be all other news sources. If I don’t get any responses from the next week or so, I’ll post the full article here for some more extensive feedback and discussion.

And by the way, thanks to all my really amazing friends who read the article and gave me feedback on it, particularly my anthropology life partner Kara. Her work is admirable and inspirational and her criticisms are the most honest as well as the most useful.

In other news

I’d like to take a second to pay homage to the late, great Robert C. Byrd, who died on June 28th. His life was complex and fascinating, and while he was largely supportive of coal corporations in West Virginia, I think his attitude toward this most recent tragedy left him with some highly honorable final words. Furthermore, he was able to do more for the state than perhaps any other person in history, and for that we as West Virginians are deeply indebted to him. Read about his life at the Charleston Gazette.

This means that West Virginia has an open Senate seat for the first time in 25 years (Jay Rockefeller took office in 1985). Governor Manchin has mentioned holding a special election – in which he might run – for the seat within the year. The timing of Byrd’s death and the opening of the seat with statewide questioning of coal mining practices provides an interesting, though perhaps unlikely, possibility for a new perspective in the governance of the state.

Repost: Making Mountains out of Coal Hills

Posted in history, union on May 6th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

(originally posted December 7, 2009)

This blog is the birth of an effort in a public, engaged, activist anthropology. It was conceived in the process of writing papers for graduate classes that will only be read by professors and myself; if I intend to be an anthropologist who reaches out past academia to make my work apply to real situations, then sharing the process that will hopefully develop into long-term work in Appalachia with as wide an audience as possible is the first step I can make in that direction. I hope to be part of an academic trend to dispel stereotypes of West Virginians as gun-toting rednecks and snake-charming evangelists (two common comments I hear when I introduce myself as West Virginian), and there is no reason to wait until I have a Ph.D. in order to begin. My passion for this project is longstanding, and no matter how many papers I write about this region, I will always have more to say and more to learn. I hope this space can be a forum for discussion of issues affecting Appalachia today as well as the negative image of its people that has been exacerbated by academia for so many years.

Of all the information I’ve come across in the past few years about West Virginia, what I discovered tonight actually moved me to take the action of starting a presentation of material that either inspires or enrages me. I’m writing a paper about labor history in West Virginia, because I think that the unique, radical history of labor activism in the state helps shape the efforts of activists fighting the processes of mountaintop removal and that it is absolutely necessary to have a deep knowledge of that history in order to truly comprehend mining today. History and historical process should influence anthropology and ethnography, because it is historical, economic, and political factors as much as the people who live there that make this region what it is. Appalachian anthropology often lacks this stress on history, which tends to lead to misinformed conclusions. But that’s a different discussion, and for now I want to look more deeply into history.

Anyone who grew up in West Virginia probably remembers 8th grade West Virginia history and the Golden Horseshoe exam. Part of the reason I think it is so important to highlight labor history in the state is because the state educational system downplays it so much. Personally, I can’t remember studying miners at all, and certainly not union resistance. I started doing some research about the Golden Horseshoe test and found that, in all the mini-quizzes I took, only one question was about the union: “What does UMWA stand for?” (United Mine Workers of America). While I don’t want to ignore the fact that many test questions are about Native Americans in WV and uprisings that they led, I wonder why the laborers are neglected. I imagine – though I have no proof – that it has something to do with the fact that the coal companies are so deeply entwined in the political system of the state and can use K-12 education as a forum to push their agenda. To me, radical labor history is a seriously important part of West Virginia’s identity, and it gets easily lost on a generation who will probably not end up working in the mines and whose parents are probably no longer union members.

I don’t want to pretend that union organizing is the only significant kind of resistance the state has ever seen – indeed, activism now is rarely union organized, as the UMWA has stated its support of mountaintop removal in the name of providing jobs. But I think the fact that young people in West Virginia don’t learn about labor history is hugely problematic. This means that we also never learned why some miners might want to fight against coal companies, so we could never really understand the exploitative conditions workers and their families lived under in the state’s single-industry economy. We didn’t learn about coal companies concentrating power in the hands of absentee mine owners and how the legal system established in at the end of the 19th century allowed coal barons to obtain native West Virginians’ lands for coal production. Is this because we would all then get angry and begin to question the hegemony of the concentrated power of the two coal companies left in the state? Would we all reclaim Sid Hatfield and Mother Jones as our favorite historical figures and give up Chuck Yeager, Belle Boyd, and James Rumsey?

There is no reason anthropologists and other academics cannot take up these questions. I see the role of anthropology as one that is obliged to question the structures that uphold inequalities and to do something to change them, and in West Virginia those structures are built around coal companies and their histories. Twentieth-century mining history shaped the course of coal in the state as a whole, and the better we understand that basic fact, the richer our ideas of Appalachia and Appalachians have the potential to be.

some sources from this discussion:
Batteau, Allen. 1990 The Invention of Appalachia. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.
Burns, Shirley Stewart. 2007 Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginian Communities. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
Corbin, David Alan. 1981 Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
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