BEAR LODGE, a ghost story about late-capitalism

Before Bear Lodge, I’d never actually taken an Uber. Part of the reason was circumstantial – I’ve never been much of a traveler – but I’d also made a promise to Dr. Safar, my old colleague at the community college. Dr. Safar emigrated with his wife from Syria ten years ago after she accepted a cardiology residency at Mercy Hospital. He was an anthropologist in Syria but in Pittsburgh, for a time, he was a taxi-driver. “Cliché, I know,” he told me once during our smoke break. “But that’s what a lot of us did when we first arrived. And I’d do it again if I had to. The firm took care of me. You should always take a taxi, Kate, not one of those internet cars. Much better for the drivers.” He stopped driving a taxi when he and wife had saved enough to move across the river and eventually he became my office mate at Wallace Community College, sharing the sunless warren of desks reserved for adjunct instructors.

Despite his wife’s profession, Dr. Safar was an unapologetic smoker and we spent most afternoons together at an uncomfortable concrete picnic table between the faculty parking lot and the administration building, killing time. Because the college paid us by the course – and quite poorly at that – we resented spending the long stretches of time between our 8am classes and 3pm classes in our office and rotated between the picnic tables and our small cafeteria. Without a hint of irony, Dr. Safar suggested the time outdoors would be “good for our health, Kate, with the fresh air,” and, weather permitting, we stuck to our routine. He’s gone now. His wife jumped at the chance to take a senior surgical position in Canada after the election, and I guess I don’t blame her.

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Experimental journalism project Report for America announces Appalachian pilot program

Report for America, an experimental project supported by GroundTruth and Google News Lab, announced today the creation of a pilot program to recruit and install “top, emerging” journalists in “rural Appalachia.” First conceptualized in 2015 and billed as a “a new model for saving local journalism” that borrows from “national and community service programs,” Report for America is currently accepting applications for three positions with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and the Kentucky Herald-Leader respectively, with the latter announcing a complimentary plan to re-open a reporting bureau in Pikeville.

As a centralized national organization eventually supporting journalists across the country, Report for America will subsidize the cost of recruiting and training journalists with the expectation that these journalists commit to a period of service of at least two years (one year for the pilot program) in an under-served area. Local employment partners are responsible for kicking in a smaller percentage of the wage-subsidy as well as supervising daily assignments and contributing to the cultural literacy of a new generation of journalists.

Sponsors present Report for America as an antidote to parachute journalism, one that will give local newsrooms better control of regional coverage and in the process help restore “trust in journalism at a time when it is in deep crisis,” according to GroundTruth CEO Charles Sennott. It’s clear that there’s an urgent need to collapse the divide in local and national reporting on Appalachia. When the Columbia Journalism Review reported in July 2017 that not a single outside journalist attended the West Virginia-based New Story 2017 media conference despite persistent outreach, the snub surprised few here. I’m happy to acknowledge that Report for America has correctly diagnosed a problem, but the larger question is whether or not their planned solutions are as original and sustainable as presented.

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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?

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.

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

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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There is no neutral there: Appalachia as a mythic “Trump Country”

Of the 2016 presidential election, New York Times international affairs correspondent Roger Cohen wrote, “The race is tightening once again because Trump’s perceived character – a strong leader with a simple message, never flinching from a fight, cutting through political correctness with a bracing bluntness – resonates in places like Appalachia where courage, country, and cussedness are core values.”

Cohen’s dispatch is one of many now forming a distinct genre of election writing – the “Trump Country” piece, which seeks to illuminate the values of Trump supporters using Appalachia – and most often West Virginia – as a template with little variation in content or approach. “To understand Donald Trump’s success,” their composite argument flows, “you must understand Appalachia.”

My concern is less about unpacking these articles individually – although I confess I’m not exactly sure what “cussedness” is or why it is ascribed as one of my core values – but rather pulling back and examining what the sheer volume of these pieces might tell us. We need to examine why journalists from elite and prestige publications are invested in presenting Appalachians – and particularly West Virginians – as representative of all Trump supporters, to the extent that they write, as John Saward does in Vanity Fair, “I am in West Virginia to understand Donald Trump.” Why aren’t pockets of Trump supporters in Oklahoma, Idaho, Florida, New York, and New Jersey the subject of similar profiles? To be sure, I’m certain that there isn’t a red state in America that hasn’t been described as “Trump Country” by at least one journalist, but the compulsion to hold up Appalachia as representative is unique.

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Pick 5: Mothman

He’s the quintessential Appalachian monster. Like so much mountain lore, his origins tell a story about the decline of the natural environment at the hands of exploitative outsiders. According to legend, he rose from the acid-infected ruins of the West Virginia Ordinance Works on a cool night in 1966, but he’s best known for his appearance at the Silver Bridge collapse the following year. Locals interpreted previous sightings of the strange creature as a warning of the tragedy yet to come, which claimed the lives of 46 men, women, and children in 1967. In the years that followed, Mothman became a harbinger of doom, the sign of a bad moon rising.

Point Pleasant, West Virginia, has hosted its annual Mothman festival since 2002, the year John Keel’s Fortean-inspired book The Mothman Prophecies became a major motion picture starring Richard Gere. In post-industrial West Virginia, the festival is now a vital source of revenue for the dying town. Tourists can run in the Mothman 5K, watch the Miss Mothman pageant, take a bus tour of area Mothman haunts, or meet amateur cryptolzoologists. Although he remains thoroughly in the realm of the kitsch, his likeness occasionally appears on anti-fracking literature as a supernatural defender of the mountains.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the first Mothman sighting, and the 15th anniversary of Point Pleasant’s Mothman festival, here are 5 images that celebrate the patron saint of rural poverty line. Hail the misunderstood monster who’s still trying to save his small corner of West Virginia.