Rednecks are Stupid, and other important facts I learned from Anthropology

Posted in anthropology, environmentalism, race on November 6th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Sometimes Anthropologists need some little reminders:

We often forget that the discipline was initially founded on the tenets of scientific racism.

We often think we’re smarter than everyone else because we’re so critical of the way the world works.

You can probably imagine what happens when someone forgets both.

I recently joined the Environmental Anthropology listserv, which typically has some pretty interesting discussions about the nature of environmentalism, conservation, climate change, and other relevant topics. Recently someone posted a link to a really interesting and provocative (because of its incomprehensible conclusions and misuse of anthropology) evolutionary psychology article which suggests that people who stay up later and are productive during the night hours are simply smarter and more evolved  than those who don’t (i.e., those who live in “undeveloped” countries where lack of electricity means people sleep when it’s dark and are productive when it’s light). Because of its really problematic application of “anthropology” to describe how different cultures have typically “used” the hours of dark, it received a nice trouncing on the listserv that I thoroughly enjoyed reading until one post happened, which I’ll quote in full:

“Not to reopen debate on this issue, but I have traveled extensively and interacted with numerous cultures and groups of people, and likewise have read much literature and other works from an extremely diverse amount of cultures. Now, shouldn’t everyone be in basic agreement that every single group of people in this world, no matter which way they try to push or pull it, in fact has some smart people, and a blisteringly, overwhelming amount of dumbasses? (Pardon my French; the more blithely the point put forth, the more I tend to speak French)

Kind of like how every country in this planet has a small core of “sophisticants” and an American dessert portion gram-cracker coating of rednecks? Even checking out Wikipedia it states “with the median set score at 100, and a standard deviation of 15″. Egads! I didn’t exactly score genius level on any standardized tests, but I was smart enough to look up that, on the whole, excellence in standardized testing proves that you are extremely capable of standardized testing (but doesn’t show much else).”

I’m not sure if it was the haughty reference to being more well-traveled than most people or the use of “cracker” in the same sentence as “redneck,” but this just pissed me off (in plain English. As someone later pointed out, the euphemistic pardoning of one’s French doesn’t excuse one of being disrespectful). And so my entry into the world of listerv participation was this:

“So now poor, rural white folks are not just backwards and ignorant – which are bad enough stereotypes as it is – they are the marker for what it means to be stupid in this country?

There are many ways to describe how thoughtless a statement like that is. I’ll just take one example: two Goldman Prize winners in the past decade are women you’d probably call rednecks. Having “traveled extensively and interacted with numerous cultures and groups of people” doesn’t absolve us of our biases, especially toward the groups we think we know the best.”

I have to say, I was pretty proud of myself for only writing four sentences, none of which stooped to the level of calling this person a dumbass right back, but it is unfathomable to me that a person who describes her or himself as an anthropologist does not recognize the problems with such a statement. It’s one thing to actually think rednecks are stupid. It’s entirely another to pretend that you know more about everything than anyone else because a. you’re smarter and b. you’ve had a good education and c. you’re well-traveled and still be suggesting that there is something inherently stupid about being poor, rural, and white. It sickens me that anthropologists (and other academics, to be sure) so often think so highly of themselves that they think they no longer have any prejudices, and then they fail to see the ones right in front of them.

Maybe this person doesn’t know the interesting history of the word “redneck” or how poor whites were long part of the list of groups targeted by eugenics proponents with (as described by another respondent) “such bad ‘genetics’ as alcoholism, feeble-mindedness, illiteracy, having twins, being a migrant worker, single-parent family, pauperism, homelessness, being of Franco-Canadian descent, being of Indian or African-American descent” and that in the 1920s it was suggested they be sterilized along with the other groups mentioned to stop breeding among “bad” sorts of families. Or maybe this person doesn’t recognize the important work women like Julia Bonds and Maria Gunnoe have done in places like Appalachia and what their presence means to so much of what environmental anthropologists tend to care a lot about. (I also don’t wish to assume that Julia Bonds and Maria Gunnoe self-identify as rednecks, though they very well might. I think I’m probably safe in guessing, though, that the uninformed poster would categorize these women as such, being rural white folk and all.)

Then the poster had the nerve to relegate the response to the lengthy conversation about the “redneck” comment to a post-script:

“PS: I think I see where some hot buttons were – “rednecks” and “sophisticants”, which immediately dredged up socio-economic concepts. Please disregard – I was attempting to state that there is no segment of any society in the entire world that does not possess individuals of high intelligence. This includes rural regions. “Redneck” was a poor choice of words when posting to a listserv filled with individuals who exercise precisely named categories for groups.”

Disregard. No, I won’t apologize, or suggest that I might have offended someone, or recognize that I might not understand the complications of this term that I so carelessly flung about, or – dare I reference the great Pierre Bourdieu – that I misrecognize my own assumptions about what it means to be poor and white, therefore perpetuating the stereotype that they really are the stupid segment of our society and certainly don’t deserve a place in all this academic talk.

There’s a reason we “exercise precisely named categories for groups.” Maybe it annoys you, poster. But it annoys me that you’re careless enough to think that such statements aren’t examples of how deeply embedded such stereotypes are. Yes, pop culture loves to portray rednecks as dumb, but apparently, some anthropologists still think they are too. Redneck was a poor choice of words here, period.

Anthropology has come a long way from studies that measured brain sizes to confirm that African-Americans were less developed than Whites, and most of us recognize that there’s still a long way to go to really get to an anti-racist anthropology (on this topic I highly suggest Leith Mullings’ 2005 “Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology” in the Annual Review of Anthropology (vol. 34)). But I have to insist that we take this criticism further, because it’s obvious to me that people still do associate stereotypes with people of certain races and from certain places, and one of the easiest targets of such stereotypes is the rural white poor. Maybe they’re the least exotic, and that’s why they’re the most ignored group by anthropologists. They’re the most invisible and therefore the least complicated. We think we already know everything about them, so they are useless to us and our significant academic contributions (though Eliza Darling’s work is an exciting intervention into that last bit).

I’ve always liked anthropology because of its ability to provide critical perspectives on the assumptions we have about the way society works and the way we think about one another. But I wonder if this discipline is guilty here of its own misrecognition (according to Bourdieu, “the fact of recognizing a violence which is wielded precisely inasmuch as one does not perceive it as such”). Anthropology recognizes the violence we’ve done to other groups of Others that we’ve constructed as counter to our Selves, but we miss out on the fact that just saying we do violence doesn’t mean we stop doing it. Or, just because we recognize that anthropology was long complicit in constructing racism doesn’t mean that we still don’t have really awful stereotypes about people that we continue to accept without question because we think we’re past all that. We’re critical enough of everything else that if one group gets left out, it’s no big deal. We don’t see that such unchallenged assumptions, such acts of misrecognition perpetuate the invisibility of groups like the rural white poor and therefore allow inequalities and subjugation to remain ignored.

I sure do hope I’ve used that ‘misrecognition’ thing right. Otherwise they’re going to kick me out of that ‘sophisticant’ category and into the American-dessert portion graham-cracker redneck group of dummies.

Then again, would that really be so bad?

anthropol-itics-ology

Posted in activism, anthropology, representation on October 26th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Most people who know me know my politics. And I like it that way.

Most people who know me and know that I do anthropology also know that I do a very politically-oriented sort of anthropology. Among the many parts of my life that I have been thinking about since I started grad school has been how to represent a volatile political situation in which a(n admittedly) biased researcher does in some sense want to give credence to a multi-faceted story; that is, how can I depict a situation in which I have my own political interests in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, including those with whom I disagree?

Last week, my environmental anthropology class had a guest lecturer, Paige West, whose book Conservation is Our Government Now presents a discussion of the effects of conservation programs developed in the west and imposed in small villages in Papua New Guinea. While I won’t attempt to do her amazing and beautifully written book justice here, it does not have the overt, manifesto-like political action arguments that anthropologists have tended toward writing recently and toward which I typically gravitate. She made an active effort to explain and to problematize conservation in a way that would allow her work to be read by conservation biologists, among others – while she clearly challenges the effects their programs had on the Gimi people she works with, she never condemns their projects outright.

In her lecture, however, Dr. West discussed that she has major political opinions of conservation, of the conservation biologists she met in PNG, of the mining projects that have become common in PNG, and of broader neocolonial efforts of westerners to tell “Third Worlders” how to treat their nature as well as their selves.  But she didn’t want this to be the focus of the book, for numerous reasons, and she is working toward the idea that anthropologists shouldn’t necessarily view their research sites and subjects through our own politics.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past week, and it came up again in our class. The facilitator of the class is Melissa Checker, whose work on an environmental justice group in Georgia has been one of the most influential enthnographies shaping my own work. Her work very clearly is of the activist anthropology genre, though she doesn’t completely exclude the perspective of the people against whom the group she write about are working. I don’t mean that these these two women are at odds with one another, but I do see two types of ethnography here. At what point do we try not to privilege one group over another, at what point do we attempt not to alienate diverging groups, and at what point do we sell out? When we’re talking about political issues, who are we most obliged to represent? Clearly, in both cases – and probably in most instances of political action and impact – one group has already been privileged. In my own work, coal companies have more power than activists or workers to propagate their own interests – but this doesn’t mean I can write them off and only talk to miners or environmentalists if I want to write an ‘accurate’ account of a situation. Indeed, I do hope that I will be able to talk to mining company representatives because this is a complex picture, and in some sense all these different perspectives are valid ones, even if I don’t agree with what a person or group is doing to achieve their ends. That said, can someone such as myself even access this group (who will surely know of my political leanings before agreeing to an interview), let alone write in a way that doesn’t simply attack them for their life’s work, which I might full well see as totally destructive? Does attempting to show all the sides take away from what I think is most important, which are the impacts of such destruction on less powerful people’s lives?

This brings to mind Laura Nader‘s seminal piece, “Up the Anthropologist”: Nader suggests that “studying up” and focusing on those in power can provide a different sort of insight than the one we gain from studying the powerless, one which anthropologists have neglected throughout the discipline’s history. This essay was published in 1972, and I think anthropologists still haven’t done justice to her idea – myself included. If our obligation is legitimate representation, then these are the sorts of complications to grapple with, no matter what our political leanings may be.

In the end, though, how much impact can an ethnography have? As Dr. West suggested, a book that doesn’t overly privilege one political agenda over another will be more widely consumed, though a more activist-style work may instigate more controversy and discussion within the discipline. If we want anthropology to leave the Ivory Tower, is it more important to be more politically loud in a more public way, or should we temper ourselves and attempt to challenge the worldview accepted by the interlocutors we view as negatively impacting a view of a group? Either way, we see ourselves as holding the knowledge of a certain kind of truth that only we are privy to and that we have to share with others – we’re really only choosing an audience.

Full References:

Checker, Melissa. 2005 Polluted Promises: Environmental Racism and the Search for Justice in a Southern Town. New York: NYU Press.

Nader, Laura. 1972 “Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up” in In: Dell H. Hymes (Ed.) Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon Books: p. 284-311.

West, Paige. 2006. Conservation is our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press.

Interlude

Posted in Uncategorized on October 3rd, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I know it has been a long time since my last post, but sometimes life just gets in the way, especially when starting a new semester. I’ve been having some amazing experiences teaching and I’m doing some exciting research that I’ll be chronicling soon, but I’d first like to write a small tribute to someone special whose life was cut tragically short in a biking accident.

Andrew Wolf was someone who I crossed paths with at all different times throughout college in Washington, D.C. From working at the library to having anthropology classes together to dating my best friend, Andrew’s smiling face was often present in my day to day activities. His dedication to social justice was truly inspirational, and the last time I saw him here in Brooklyn, he was preparing for a bike tour through Canada with the Otesha Project to educate young people about sustainability. While others have written better, more eloquent memories of Andrew’s passion and love than I can, I just want to take a moment here to step back and reflect on the influence Andrew had on my life. After we lose someone close to us, I think it’s easy to say we only remember the good things – but I truly only have positive memories of Andrew, which in itself pays tribute to the sort of person he was. Thinking back on my friendship with him reminds me how important it is to keep going, that only through commitment to what we’re passionate about and through passing that commitment on to others can we make change happen.

The community I shared with Andrew is now spread across the globe, and it’s difficult to deal with these times when we can’t all be together. The ways we touch and inspire each other come in many different forms, from near and far, and sometimes it’s good just to remind one another how much that means. I wish I could find the words to thank everyone who has shown me compassion in the past few weeks.

If you’ll be in D.C. next week, American University is holding a memorial service for Andrew on Tuesday, October 12 from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. in the Kay Spiritual Life Center. His family has set up a memorial fund as well.

Thank you, Andrew, for being part of my life.

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.

Impunity, part 1

Posted in mine safety, union on May 19th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

An Act

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. That this Act may be cited as the “Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977”.

FINDINGS AND PURPOSE

SEC. 2. Congress declares that–

(a) the first priority and concern of all in the coal or other mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource–the miner;

I’d like to keep updated reports on my progress as I write this paper on safety regulations. Each time I sit down to work, I find something new that contributes to my ire as well as to my paper’s framework, and I think it would be helpful for me to share those thoughts as they come.

Today I’m working with a book called Coal River that’s written by Vanity Fair reporter Michael Shnayerson. It focuses largely on mountaintop removal in the Coal River Valley, but I was absolutely shocked to read his discussion of the Upper Big Branch mine in the second chapter. This section is meant to frame Don Blankenship’s role in forcing the union out of Massey mines, but it’s an ominous set of pages considering what’s happened at UBB since this book’s publication in 2008. According to Shnayerson, when Massey acquired the mines at Montcoal in 1993, UBB was a union mine. Massey’s policy is that the union is disbanded when the company gets control, but miners are allowed to put unionization to a vote – which many thought they’d win because a significant number of those formerly unionized miners were rehired after Massey bought the mine. After a series of anti-union propaganda efforts, however, miners at UBB voted not to unionize, and as far as I can see there hasn’t been another vote.

Now, I won’t say that the United Mine Workers of America is a perfect specimen of unionism, not by any means, and of course I can’t say that the explosion at UBB wouldn’t have happened if it had been a union mine. I am just truly appalled at the overall lack of knowledge about the mine’s union status in the recent events and of how Massey circumvents union accountability in both underground and mountaintop mines. Maybe the UMWA is like MSHA (Mine Safety & Health Administration) in that it really can’t do much to protect miners simply because the coal companies are so much more powerful – so maybe the union status of this mine is pretty insignificant. But I’m still troubled by Massey’s systematic destruction of union mines in West Virginia as it expands its control over the state’s mines – this is not unlike some of the techniques used the 1910s and 1920s in West Virginia when miners were fighting for their right to unionize. And now that they have it, the union has been rendered impotent. It’s all part of the culture of impunity within which the coal companies work – neither the government nor the national union can do anything about their practices. What’s the point of having either, ultimately, if they can’t counter King Coal?

Representing Courage

Posted in mine safety, representation on May 7th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I hoped for a while that writing this paper about the Upper Big Branch disaster would be a cathartic experience in which I could begin to stop being outraged and to end my period of mourning. But the more I learn, the angrier I get. The more I realize how important it is to really and truly learn what’s going on and what specific processes of law, of politics, of economics, and of history come into play to allow disasters like this to happen (and ignore consistent smaller incidents in which one or two miners die, as the events in which three more miners died in Kentucky and in West Virginia since the explosion at Upper Big Branch). For me, this is just the beginning: the next decade or so of my life will be dedicated to these mining communities, and if this keeps up, this will only be the first of many disasters and deaths I will have to deal with.

My mom made a comment to me the other night when I was telling her about my deep emotional involvement with this project that eventually I’d work through it to get to the objective perspective I need as an anthropologist. Now, I’ll never be objective in the truest sense of that word, and I don’t think anyone can really expect me to be. My bias will always be in favor of the people, the brave men and women who work underground, knowing that the slightest spark could end their lives; their families who support them endlessly and who make their lives in the coalfields; those willing to speak out against the wrongs of the coal companies; those who have already given their lives for coal and those who died for the rights of miners. Whether I support strip mining, underground mining, or no mining isn’t even relevant; it’s a privilege that I have as a West Virginian who is not tied to the coalfields to make that kind of judgment.

What’s important is that people continue to mine coal, above and below the ground. Sometimes it’s a choice: mining jobs are well-paid, compared to other options, and sometimes it’s an obligation where no other jobs exist. Either way, coal is people’s livelihood, and that’s undeniable. That’s the starting point. The question then becomes why this is the case: what factors have made coal mining people’s best or only option? And how is it that the mining companies get away with considering the miners an expendable resource? What keeps people so attached to this land that they stay and accept the daily dangers of living in mining country – and can that sentiment even be put into words? In terms of my own position as anthropologist, I am an outsider academic as well as being inherently connected to the people of West Virginia and knowing their attachment to that land because it’s my land, too.

But how can I maneuver representing a group of people who have been so negatively stereotyped in this country? How can I write about people who make a decision I would never (and would never be forced to) make for myself without making them seem like foolish pawns of the industry? How can I show that people are making a choice both because of obligation and because of tradition while at the same time explain how the industry works in ways that leaves people with no choice at all? Furthermore, how can I simplify this complexity in a way that my interlocutors can gain something from that insight?

In the end, what I want to avoid in my quest for some kind of more objective perspective is losing sight of the people I’ve learned to admire and respect (albeit from afar, for now) for their courage and their commitment in the face of so much adversity: poverty, corporate exploitation, physical danger…it’s these people I am writing for, and it’s their troubles I am writing to confront. It’s for them that I’m angry, and it’s to them I dedicate this work.

Repost: Blankenship vs. Kennedy vs. Tree Sitters vs. Science

Posted in activism, environmentalism, representation on May 7th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

(originally posted January 23, 2010)

A lot of interesting things happened in West Virginia at the end of January. The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, and Robert Kennedy, Jr. held a public debate on MTR and climate change at the University of Charleston while a tree-sit protest against Massey’s intended blasting of Coal River Mountain lasted for nine days, including the day of the debate, before the protesters descended and were immediately arrested. Earlier in the month, the journal Science published an eleven-author peer reviewed article condemning MTR, which, while significant, really only confirms the effects of MTR most people already knew. Hopefully this article does mean that a different realm of academics will take notice of MTR, but honestly I’m not sure there will be much more of an impact than that.

What I think is more interesting is the concurrence of this hugely important debate and the tree-sit protest. The debate is a long conversation but definitely worth listening to.

Now, I’m clearly not Don Blankenship’s biggest fan (if you read my last post, you can start to see why), but frankly I am not much impressed by Kennedy, either. Ever since I saw his film “Crimes Against Nature,” based on his book of the same title, in a large part I think I’ve had the same reaction to him that a lot of West Virginians have to outsiders who come into the state and think they have to speak for us because we can’t do it for ourselves. It doesn’t help that he loves to reinforce how much of a free-market capitalist he is; rather than considering alternatives to capitalism as much as he considers alternative energy sources, he’s convinced that pure capitalism would hold producers accountable for all the costs of production, and I just don’t think that’s feasible.

This debate began with Kennedy’s attempt to legitimize his presence in West Virginia in the first place, which doesn’t really extend much further than JFK’s War on Poverty beginning in the state and his own love for the mountains, and I certainly do appreciate his passionate plea to save the state I love, too. But of course, Blankenship knows the industry better than Kennedy, and he’s not a stupid guy: he’s able to talk about coal and its role in the growth of the US and that, if coal made us prosperous, we’ve got to keep mining to continue to prosper, which is something a single-industry state like West Virginia does like to hear. For much of this debate, these men are really just talking about completely different things – a lot of people have responded that Kennedy won the debate outright, but really there is absolutely no common ground and Kennedy is simply the more loquacious of the two.

This debate is just one element of a new discovery I’m having about Don Blankenship. People who are on his side like him because he’s from West Virginia, he’s worked in mining for six decades, and he’s only at the top of the coal chain because he got there himself. But he is also a liar; he also supported the apartheid state in South Africa; he also blames all the problems of the coal industry on the “enviros” like the out-of-state tree sitters. Not only did he state during the debate that strip mining causes no meaningful pollution (which was solidly disproven by the Science report on MTR), he also claimed that coal provides more to West Virginian communities than it takes away – even if that means paying people more than their homes are worth to get them to leave so Massey can blast more mountains. I’m pretty sure that mostly profits the absentee landowners who Massey leases the land from in order to be allowed to blast and mine it – there’s just about nothing in it for the West Virginia communities.

Last week I also got the chance to watch a great documentary called Mine War on Blackberry Creek (it’s only 30 minutes and really insightful) about a strike against Massey in 1984 in which Blankenship tries to justify Massey’s investment in multinationals who send jobs to South African mines to “help the people,” despite the fact that they must be paid less than American workers (otherwise why would they export the jobs at all?) and despite the fact that they are working in conditions of slave labor. Considering how he treats mine workers in West Virginia today, his statements through this documentary enlighten viewers to Blankenship’s longstanding obsession with productivity and profit.

It’s hard to tell with Blankenship: has he really kidded himself into thinking that these lies he’s telling himself are true, or does he know better and is really only speaking in the name of the coal industry and money? Somehow I think the latter is a bit more likely, especially considering that his conclusion in the debate was that the EPA’s regulations are unreasonable and that sustainable environmental policy and productivity are irreconcilable. But of course, that’s all because MTR doesn’t create any significant pollution…

But Kennedy is probably kidding himself when he says sustainability and productivity go hand in hand, at least if his definition of “productivity” is the same as Blankenship’s – which, considering how this debate went, it’s probably not. Kennedy’s correct in his facts about the coal industry’s decline as well as about alternative energy opportunities. He really does speak passionately about the destruction caused by MTR, and he certainly doesn’t ignore the human impact it has. Kennedy is more eloquent than Blankenship and probably is the best counterpart to Blankenship in this dominant-male style argument. But I think when Blankenship brings up the activists who aren’t from Appalachia who participate in direct action protests (like the tree sitters and their supporting cast, who came from as far away as New Orleans and Chicago), he’s including Kennedy in that realm of non-native folks who don’t actually get it. And this just brings me back to my first point: why does it have to be someone else speaking for West Virginia?

This choice seems to me to be a gender and class issue in large part. Why not have Blankenship debate with one of the people who has lived through the effects of his company’s practices and who knows Kennedy’s statistics equally well, if not more, and who work with organizations who aren’t just spouting rhetoric about alternative energy sources but actually organizing campaigns for them (like Coal River Mountain Watch – check out their great video)? Is it because many of them are women? Is it because many of them are poor? Is it because many of them are less educated? Is it because of his status as a wealthy white male that Kennedy is seen as of an equal to Blankenship and more fit to meet him in a direct debate (and let’s not forget the mediator, Dr. Ed Welch, president of the University of Charleston and a white man in a stable economic situation…)?

Kennedy may be smart, passionate, and a man with the means to speak out about MTR, but he’ll always be an outsider. And until Don Blankenship has the balls to get up on a stage in front of an enormous audience and on West Virginia public television and tell the people of Appalachia that Massey hasn’t polluted their communities, hasn’t forced them out of their homes, hasn’t stolen their jobs, and hasn’t destroyed their livelihoods – all without lying – then nothing has changed. And until it’s West Virginians sitting in the trees on Coal River Mountain at least alongside the “enviros” from out of state, then those actions remain ineffective. It’s time to stop putting on shows to prove how radically we all are convinced of our positions, Blankenship and Kennedy included, and actually do something to effect sustainable change in West Virginia. I also wouldn’t mind seeing Blankenship’s and Kennedy’s net worth combined and redistributed to the people of Appalachian coal towns, for starters…but I guess that wouldn’t be “purely capitalist” enough for either of them. At least there’s one thing they can agree on.

Repost: Judicial Elections, Corporate Power, and the Supreme Court

Posted in judicial politics on May 7th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

(originally posted January 22, 2010)

Right now I think it’s really important to look at this landmark decision the Supreme Court just made to end restrictions on corporate funding for political campaigns. I’m glad to see a lot of people outraged. This decision is a pretty blatant acceptance (and even approval) of how entrenched politics and corporations are in the US political system. Nowhere do I think this is more evident in West Virginia, where the two largest corporations (Arch Coal and Massey Energy) are sickeningly powerful and have more influence in political campaigns than the candidates and their platforms. The CEO of Massey in particular, Don Blankenship, uses his West Virginia charm, if we can call it that, to mask his ruthless attacks on anti-coal politicians (check back in a few days for a post on his recent debate with Robert Kennedy, Jr., and the local response). Because Massey has so much money, more than political campaigns can normally raise in WV, they are able to sway elections one way or another in favor of the coal industry’s interests, and this has become extremely apparent in the judicial realm. In West Virginia, judges are elected just like any other official, which is problematic in part because we don’t truly realize the weight of this type of decision. Furthermore, companies like Massey are constantly influencing judicial campaigns in their favor, meaning that WV voters tend to vote in favor of Massey without meaning to do so.

Let’s take a campaign from 2004, which was when I was a senior in high school about to vote in my first elections and fairly dedicated to local politics. I went to a meeting in Martinsburg about letting voters registered as Independents vote in primary elections for the Democratic ticket. There, I met Warren McGraw, a candidate for the Supreme Court that year and someone who I thought seemed respectable, attentive, and very worthy of my vote. But when I spoke of how much I enjoyed meeting him to others, I couldn’t understand why no one else echoed this sentiment until someone explained to me that he let child molesters walk free. While I continued my support of McGraw throughout the election, it wasn’t until later that I was able to delve more deeply into his campaign to see what had really happened.

McGraw had voted numerous times against Massey Energy, and Blankenship didn’t want to take a chance on the WV Supreme Court having the power to shut him and his company down any longer. Rather than leave the election to the candidates, Massey put almost $2 million into a campaign called “And For the Sake of the Kids,” which, in its advertisements, declared that McGraw allowed our children to be victimized and criminals to walk free, all based on a single case in which McGraw allowed a man convicted of sexually assaulting his younger brother to get probation. The details left out of these claims against McGraw included the paroled man’s youth as part of a drug trafficking ploy by his mother and sexual abuse by a teacher; while I won’t claim his troubled past excuses his behavior, I want to show that Massey’s biased support of Brent Benjamin, McGraw’s opponent – which was monetarily more substantial than any amount McGraw could have raised – was based around assumptions and misrepresentations of an issue that clearly placed McGraw in the role of the child-hating demon. I don’t blame West Virginia voters for not rooting through the details of this case to find the truth, but it is sick and sad that Massey was able to swing the election their way based on an issue that had absolutely nothing to do with coal (for more information on this issue, see Burns 2007).

If this was in 2004, and coal mining in WV has become a larger issue in the six years since then, and if corporations are now allowed to give political candidates as much money as they want…I think we can see where this is going. While Obama may be making strides in his executive position at least to consider revoking mountaintop removal permits, I still don’t think national policy is what’s going to make the difference. When the political situation in West Virginia stops being so intrinsically linked with the coal industry and with coal corporations’ money, that’s when we can consider seeing change in West Virginia. Despite the fact that the state is working on laws requiring more transparency in campaign funds, the US Supreme Court has opened up the opportunity for companies like Massey to even more blatantly buy out political candidates, knowing full well that no candidate who isn’t supported by the coal industry can possibly make enough money to counter the smear campaigns that the industry inevitably runs. If there is no industry as strong as coal in West Virginia and if the companies that consolidate that strength throughout Appalachia are allowed to choose who is in office, then I think we can agree that democracy cannot even exist as a fantasy in the coalfields.

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.
http://www.wvculture.org/HISTORY/trivia/quizindex.aspx
http://www.wvculture.org/HISTORY/wvmemory/timeline.aspx

Switcheroo

Posted in mine safety on May 1st, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I realized a while ago that I inadvertently purloined my blog’s name from the best source of information on coal that I know, Ken Ward, Jr.’s Coal Tattoo blog through the Charleston Gazette. From the two recent disasters to keeping up with EPA regulations on strip mining, this blog is my best recommendation if you’re interested in some more background information.

Furthermore, in an attempt to contribute to CUNY’s public efforts, I decided to move my blog to the CUNY commons. I’m hoping that it’ll open some eyes about what public anthropology can really be about.

I’ll be reposting all my previous entries on here, and I’m currently working on a project about mine safety regulations. In light of the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in WV and the roof fall at Dotiki in Kentucky that killed two more miners last week,  it’s obvious that it’s time for more people to speak up about how unacceptable the situation is. I’m sure others can understand that I’ve been unable to put into words my sorrow and outrage about these recent tragedies, and I’m hoping that through this new research I can find a way to say what needs to be said.

Ken Ward recently cited this line from a statement by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis: “Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood.”  It’s with this in mind that I write this next paper, hoping that there is some way it might possibly make a difference.

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