By Elizabeth Catte
To all Appalachians, but particularly West Virginians, New Republic columnist Kevin Baker has come with some hard truths after watching the state’s most recent Bernie Sanders town hall in McDowell County. According to our favorite blue state secessionist, coal is dead and we in the region lack the imagination or bravery to imagine a future without it. Citing our ancestors, the insurrectionist Blair Mountain miners who went to war with anti-union coal companies, Baker tells us quite unambiguously that those men were heroes but we, the accumulated generations that came after, are something quite different and lacking. If Sanders sees value in coal country, it’s only because he’s romanticized a history that we have long forgotten. “These are the heroes that Bernie Sanders remembers,” Baker writes of miners past, “the least we owe their descendants is the truth.” The truth, of course, is that Appalachia is dying and only Kevin Baker’s eyes are unclosed to this reality.
Because New Republic made the decision to pay a New York-centric fiction writer for his take on the history of West Virginia, its readers will likely miss that there was a second Battle of Blair Mountain in 2011. The year prior, coal company Massey Energy produced permits to begin strip mining at the site despite its historic designation, which mobilized anti-coal and environmental activists across Appalachia. To Appalachians, Massey’s designs for Blair Mountain went far beyond coal – for many of us, it was an attempt to control our history. As the late Larry Gibson, an anti-mountain top removal activist, said, “If they can take Blair Mountain, by god, they can take anything they’re after.” The coal companies lost that battle, too.
One of the second battle’s organizers was a man named Chuck Keeney. I’ve never met Dr. Keeney, but I imagine he represents modern Appalachia and West Virginia as well as anyone. A historian and West Virginia native, he’s the descendent of Frank Keeney, a former United Mine Workers of America president and leader of the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain. When Baker preens that we owe the descendants of miners past the truth about their wretched inheritance, he’s speaking about people like Keeney who marched against coal companies in memory of his great-grandfather. He’s speaking about people like me, whose life has nothing of value added to it by any truth claimed by men like Kevin Baker.
The bulk of Baker’s essay is taken up with warning progressives – New Republic touts itself as a champion of progressive ideas – not to read too much into Appalachia’s affection for Bernie Sanders and his prior political successes in the region. The Sanders-West Virginia love affair is a dysfunctional one, Baker argues, that leaves both of us limping along and hiding our inevitable breakup behind occasional sparks of socialist politics. In Baker’s analysis, Appalachia-as-West-Virginia is clearly the more undeserving partner: it voted, unenthusiastically but resolutely, for Donald Trump and perhaps even worse, it refuses to divorce itself from the coal industry or imagine a future without coal.
According to Baker, Appalachia has “let itself be reduced” to destitution. Here some perspective and history might be useful to Baker. In Appalachia, outside interests – we often call them absentee landlords – own at least half the land. Absentee landlords can be anyone from big coal companies, to elite educational institutions like Harvard, or even men who write think pieces for Reason asking why poor Appalachians don’t just move. The land is secured by notoriously complicated deeds that often divide surface and minerals rights and were executed when coal mining was carried out by a couple of men with a wagon. A hundred and fifty years later, powerful energy conglomerates are allowed to destroy mountains and pollute the environment without paying significant taxes back to the region, thus profiting off our degradation while we shoulder the cost. Of course, many Appalachian politicians – our version of the local elite – facilitated this kind of wheeling and dealing to enrich themselves, making corruption a compelling reason why the region, and particularly West Virginia, experiences historically low civic engagement and voter turnout.
The reasonable solution here, Baker suggests, is to pack up and join the urban underclass or be held accountable for every environmental and political catastrophe that follows. Appalachians must make “hard tough choices about what where they live and what they do, and about withdrawing their support for the band of thieves they have given unlimited control over this country,” Baker writes, “If human civilization is to continue, we will have to make immediate, radical alterations in how we live and the least of those changes is to stop burning coal, now.” He concludes, “Much as they like Bernie, there was no indication the good people of Appalachia are close to accepting such realities. But that’s the sort of stuff heroes do.” Yikes.
It’s shocking that this needs to be explained, but the people of Appalachia can’t control the world’s coal consumption and we do not own coal companies. Even if all 36,000 persons working for the coal industry in Appalachia heroically withdrew their labor, energy companies would likely replace them with the same sort of transient staff that maintains natural gas pipelines. What we do have is the largest concentration of individuals engaged in anti-coal work and activism in this country. It’s a region patchworked by community organizers, labor leaders, academics, entrepreneurs, radicalized young people, theologians, and environmentalists. What I think is unique about Appalachia is that we often work together to brainstorm answers to a question that Kevin Baker is neither brave nor bold enough to even raise beyond the typical “just move” solution to the region’s decline: “If not coal, what?”
In Appalachian community development lingo, post-coal strategic visioning is known as the “transition” or sometimes the “just transition,” to use the concept’s philanthropic brand name. Some individuals, particularly young Appalachians, have introduced the phrase “Appalachian futurism,” a tribute to Afrofuturism, as a way of imagining an Appalachia without coal. Whatever one chooses to call it, for every disgruntled, Trump supporting-coal miner in Appalachia that launched a dozen think pieces, you’ll find an individual taking tangible steps to be part of the solution for a sustainable, post-coal economy. Although it’s tempting turn Appalachia into a symbol of America’s looming decline, the truth is that we’re much the same across regions. We’re attached to the same national and global markets and populated by a not insignificant number of individuals who placed their whiteness ahead of their regional or class loyalties during the last election.
The most insulting aspect of Baker’s essay, however, isn’t his mischaracterization of West Virginia’s politics or superficial take on the Sanders effect – it’s that he was paid to write it in the first place. It’s that a publication engaged in championing a “progressive voice” and a call for the “radical alterations” of our lifestyle and politics calculated the reasonable compensation for a hit-piece about a region he just got paid to argue he was done with. In other words, a person who recently wrote that it’s folly to waste more time, resources, or energy on us apparently doesn’t mind catching a profit from our regional dysfunction and New Republic doesn’t mind paying.
I spent the latter part of last week at the 40th annual Appalachian Studies conference in Blacksburg, Virginia. I traveled over a thousand miles to attend. It was important to me, in these first days of the Trump era, to be around thoughtful people from home. Over the course of three days I attended workshops on the opioid crisis, new Appalachian feminism, prison abolition, post-coal community organizing, mountain cinema, and more. I saw art, I heard singing. Not everyone held the same views, but what we all shared seemed to be a sense of accountability that we are all responsible, in our own ways, for shaping our regional future. In the best moments, we dreamed about what might be next, after coal: Helen Lewis, a long-time anti-coal organizer, wanted apple orchards; another advocate wanted community-owned forests. Many of the younger participants wanted inclusive spaces for queer and trans Appalachians, envisioning economically-liberated mutual aid communities. Intentional and almost always anti-capitalist, their fantasies mobilized place and power and took ownership of our creativity as a form of resistance. For three days, we were not just one thing – the grim trajectory of the coal industry – but many. And we weren’t just one person – the struggling miner – but rooms filled with the conversation of a hundred voices.
I sincerely ask these platforms, these writers – why is that not worthy of your attention? If you crave the radical, if you want the raw material for deep, true stories about alternative possibilities, then why do you keep writing the same story about Appalachia? I’ll give Baker his credit – instead of re-litigating the election, he’s quite happy to blame Trump’s victory on even the progressive-leaning West Virginians who showed up for a Bernie Sanders rally. Without irony, he condemns the extractive industries that have depleted the region, all while using us in the service of the critical but superficial commentary that earns his clicks and keep.
Progressive publications, imagine a world full of insightful regional analysis written by local experts, not disgruntled columnists hitting re-fresh on an MSNBC livestream from a state they don’t give a shit about. Imagine giving a voice to smart folks with the truly radical politics you like to bemoan that no one has. Imagine not writing taglines like “bereft of an industrial alternative to coal, West Virginia has been reduced to almost feudal destitution” because you’ve got a person with actual regional knowledge on standby that can articulate the alternatives the region does indeed have. Imagine these things and then imagine your next pitch from Kevin Baker about how kids in West Virginia are killing coral reefs. This is, entirely, your loss.
Elizabeth Catte is a writer and historian from East Tennessee, and author of the forthcoming What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, from Belt Publishing. She holds a PhD in public history from Middle Tennessee State University and is the co-owner of Passel, a historical consulting and development company.
photo of Blair Mountain March and Rally by Mark Haller