On the politics of emotions in coal country

On the politics of emotions in coal country

Over at Slate this week, science editor Susan Matthews takes New York Times daily podcast host Michael Barbaro to task for choking up during an interview segment with a retired coal miner from Kentucky. Coal country is back in the news with feeling this week after Trump signed an executive order to dismantle much of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Although this new order affects environmental standards nation-wide, much of the focus both from the White House and national media has been on Appalachia’s coal industry. I discussed this development with WNYC’s On the Media program here. With a similar intent, the New York Times selected a voice from Appalachia for its segment and included a former coal miner from Harlan, Kentucky, on their program. During the interview, Barbaro’s voice breaks several times with emotion after questions turn from environmental regulations and politics to the realities of coal mining and life in coal communities. For Matthews, this is irresponsible and unethical journalism. I’m certainly interested in Barbaro’s reaction, but it’s Matthews’ reflection on this segment that troubles me.

According to Matthews, “it’s a miraculous 10 minutes of radio, ending with Barbaro crying while he realizes he doesn’t really understand coal country at all, and perhaps if he just visited a mine he would have an entirely different perspective on the situation.” Matthews faults Barbaro for not challenging his subject’s views on the coal industry more forcefully, finding his line of questioning and emotional response not only dangerous but ultimately cruel for “allowing” the miner to believe his myths about the promise of better days. “I’m sorry, but what can living in a coal town teach you about whether coal is actually damaging to the atmosphere?” she asks as a means to de-legitimize the tone and content of the interview.

Matthews’ piece omits two key facts about the interview. The first is that Barbaro’s 10-minute segment with a miner was prefaced by a thorough conversation with an industry expert reporting on the overall financial health of the coal industry, the larger ebb and flow of energy markets, and Trump’s recent executive order. The second and most heinous omission is that Barbaro’s subject was suffering from Stage 3 Black Lung, a condition that I presume made the interview difficult on a number of levels. The interview is punctuated by moments where the miner has difficulty breathing and providing longer responses and the pair discuss the condition, although the miner is reluctant to dwell on the fact that he is critically ill. In short, broadcast of flawed beliefs aside, Matthews is shaming a reporter for displaying emotion during an interview with a man who has a terminal and very obviously debilitating illness without mentioning that fact.

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There’s a better life and you dream about it, don’t you?

There’s a better life and you dream about it, don’t you?

Despite the absence of posts here, I’ve been working 9-to-5. I wanted to round-up a few links to my writing and share from the responses, but first let me quickly say we’re in countdown mode to wrapping up things here and heading home. This is great news.

I got back into the swing of things after the New Year with a piece for Belt Magazine, “To the Rust Belt, Solidarity from Appalachia.” The Women’s March on Washington inspired sister marches throughout the world and I reflected on those that took place in Appalachia while wondering if these acts of solidarity might be enough to turn the narrative tide about Trump Country. Unfortunately, based on the pieces I’m about to link, this was wishful thinking.

I took a break to attend the Appalachian Studies Conference in Blacksburg, Virginia, but came back with an essay about the political uses of whiteness in Appalachia for the 100 Days in Appalachia Project, a multimedia catalogue of how the region is responding during Trump’s first 100 days in office. Appalachia is often coded as “all-white” despite increasing regional diversity. I ask why that myth persists and how it serves historic and contemporary politics.

Finally, I published two responses to a number of recent high-profile articles written by progressive condemning West Virginians, specifically, and “hillbillies” more generally. These reached a wider audience and came with a wider range of responses, and I’d like to highlight a very typical response I’ve received. But first, my longer essays are here in Belt Magazine and here in Salon. Both, although different, raise a question that runs through a lot of my writing: why are progressives outside the region obsessive about Trump voters in coal country when there are more significantly populated Trump enclaves in their backyards?

In disputing the answers I give in these essays, folks often raise this point, although in sometimes less polite ways. Below, from a Twitter exchange.

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This point – that the electoral college vote is supreme – is not technically incorrect. But, my work is premised on a very simple push-back: if you are acting in good faith, it’s more righteous to hold individuals accountable for their racism and other harmful attitudes than the design of the electoral college. If my neighbor is a bigot and is starved out of civic engagement according to progressive hillbilly divorce fantasies, what does he become when he moves to New York and is your neighbor? It is even possible to develop an outlook that does both. In other words, it is appropriate to grant individuals their specific weight in the body politic while conceding that none of us are weightless. Skewed pieces about Appalachia written by media elites often do none of these things and, of course, I often write about why.

Get up, stand up: a quick update from the long-haul

Get up, stand up: a quick update from the long-haul

I spent the inauguration eve alone in a hotel during a business trip listening to Florence Reece. Many people understandably spent last weekend thinking about their children and the world they will inherit, but my mind was on women like Florence. History remembers Florence Reece as the spirit of the 1931 Harlan miners’ strike whose folk song “Which Side Are You On?” transcended as a modern civil rights anthem. To me, Florence is a woman from Sharps Chapel, Tennessee – born thirty years before my grandmother into the same community. I held Florence close not only because of her strength, but because she went home. She died in Knoxville at the age of eighty-six at the hospital where my grandmother worked, their paths only ever crossing in my imagination.

Saturday we learned that thousands of individuals across Appalachia participated in national Women’s March activities: Pikeville, Roanoke, Jonesborough, Knoxville, Charleston, Morganton, Lexington, Asheville, Chattanooga – we saw you. We also saw our friends in the Rust Belt and across the Plains take to their communities and in the process challenged divisive narratives about who or what is “Trump Country.” Thank you to all and especially to those who marched in Knoxville. I’m sure Dolly approved.

Speaking of challenging narratives, I’m happy to announce that I’m partnering with Belt Publishing to write a new book about America’s recent fascination with the people and problems of Appalachia. Yes, this is where I come for Hillbilly Elegy. This partnership is a good reminder that regional publishers are just as frustrated with local myth-making as writers and related creatives. One form of resistance is elevating voices and perspectives from our regions as opposed to about our regions, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of just that.

This means that I might write a little less here for the next few months, but feel free to reach out to me at elizabeth.catte [at] gmail.com if you’d like to connect. Of all the many things that the election means, for my family it’s confirmation that we can do our best work from within the region and we can’t wait to get back home. If you have a project or cause you’d like to discuss that might benefit from the help of a couple of historians and policy wonks, do get in touch.

For now, take good care.

The votes are in – an update to “Appalachia as Trump Country”

The votes are in – an update to “Appalachia as Trump Country”

Last month, I wrote an essay about the media’s overuse of Appalachia – and particularly West Virginia – as a mythic Trump Country during the election cycle. I used the word ‘mythic’ not to deny the existence of Appalachian Trump supporters, but to instead underscore that writers and photographers from prestige outlets relied on mythic qualities of Appalachia and its working class to give their pieces traction and to shore up an emerging narrative about economic anxiety and the white working class.  This strategy, I concluded, was historically consistent with the broad “othering” of Appalachia as a place that represents the failures of American progress and helped explain why writers preferred to profile Appalachian Trump supporters as opposed to Trump supporters in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Washington, or other geographies that might complicate that narrative.

McDowell County, West Virginia, received the most press attention and I’d like to quickly revisit my original essay now that we know how McDowell County voted. But first, let’s recap the highlights of “McDowell County as Trump Country.”

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For the good of the poor and common people: What Hillbilly Elegy gets wrong about Appalachia and the working class

For the good of the poor and common people: What Hillbilly Elegy gets wrong about Appalachia and the working class

Over at the New Republic, Sarah Jones has a blistering take on J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the social analysis of Appalachia’s “forgotten” white working class masquerading as a regional memoir and current favored text for understanding the inner lives of economically precarious white voters. Her piece works better than most because it attends not only to the central themes and lessons of Elegy, but also to the media oversaturation of Vance as a white working class whisperer and his eagerness to embrace the role of political analyst during and after the election.

From local papers to the national press, from Fox News to NPR, from the lecterns of state schools and business schools, Vance has served up “straight talk” about the white working class that both conservatives and liberals are eager to consume. For conservatives, Vance’s rags-to-riches story – from his broken childhood in rural Ohio and Kentucky to the heights of Silicon Valley’s venture capital world – is confirmation that the American Dream they’re selling works: that through hard work and bootstrapping all is possible, handouts be damned. At the same time, liberals applaud Vance for demonstrating the dangers inherent in what he characterizes a veil of misunderstanding between coastal elites and rural whites. The problem, as Sarah Jones writes, is that the “media class fixated on the spectacle of white trash Appalachia, with Vance as its representative-and-exile” and stopped looking for any other voices or perspectives. If your goal is to rebuild coalitions of working class whites and win back their votes – and this is the angle that Jones covers – it might be time to consult a new expert, or perhaps just actual working class people. I’ll leave that angle to others, but keep reading, because I have a good recommended text.

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Pick 5: Excerpts from a Century-Old Seance

In honor of Halloween, here are 5 excerpts from a series of seances performed in 1906 by a Mrs. Smead at the behest of Dr. James Hyslop, an investigator from the American Society for Psychical Research. Dr. Hyslop found Mrs. Smead to be a credible psychic, not only owing to the quality of her performance but also her refusal to accept any “pecuniary reward” for her services. Although the fate of Mrs. Smead is unknown, Dr. Hyslop died in 1920 at the age of 65, and purportedly continued to communicate to his loyal secretary through mediums and spirit writing, most often with the morose complaint, “I find it difficult to assume that I am dead.”

These excerpts are well paired with Shannon Taggart’s photographs of New York’s Lily Dale community, the former center of the Spiritualist movement.

Tennessee Historical Commission tells Memphis it must keep hated statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported Friday that the Tennessee Historical Commission rejected an application made on behalf of the Memphis City Council to relocate a statute of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to a new site more appropriate to the interpretation of Civil War history, with expressed interest from Shiloh Historical Park cited. The statue currently sits in the Health Sciences Park in the city’s growing medical district. The Memphis City Council has argued that the historic statue – gifted to the city in 1905 – is incongruent with the area’s modern overlay of professional offices and the function of the park as a recreational spot for medical students and downtown residents.

The application is part of a review process set forth by the 2013 Tennessee Heritage Protection Act (revised 2016), which is why it sticks to uncontroversial facts to argue for the relocation of a controversial statue. The THPA prohibits the removal, renaming, relocation, and alteration of memorials, statues, and buildings dedicated to military heritage, including what lawmakers call “the War Between the States.” While the law cites a broad cross-section of historical resources, it’s important to acknowledge that lawmakers created the THPA to “protect,” above all, the public display of markers related to Confederate heritage and, indeed, this very statue. The THPA establishes an exemption process governed by the Tennessee Historical Commission, and the application by the Memphis City Council was its first test. While the Memphis City Council was unsuccessful, it is the Tennessee Historical Commission that failed.

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