America’s Got Talent is watched by around 10 million people a week. On Tuesday, Jimmy Rose, a former coal miner and Iraq War vet, appeared on the show to sing an original song, “Coal Keeps the Lights On”:
This is an extraordinary cultural artifact, for all sorts of reasons. There are lessons in here for social change agents in general and climate hawks in particular.
First off: It is genuinely affecting! Not least because Jimmy Rose has the kind of deep Appalachian accent and adenoidal, high-lonesome voice you don’t hear much in country music these days. It brings to mind lots of other amazing music out of that tradition. And of course lyrics about a hard-working man watching over his family can hardly fail to tug the heartstrings, even if “clothes on their back and shoes on their feet” might not be the most original turn of phrase. He sells it.
But the segment also draws a great deal of power from the larger narratives and tropes it evokes. It’s pure Americana: Rose served in the military, which makes him an object of instant, bipartisan adoration in the post-9/11 world. He’s got the twang. He’s got Pineville, Ky., which to these hyper-groomed L.A. judges might as well be another planet. He’s got the anti-style haircut and the fish-out-of-water family. He’s got a dream. And he’s got a history as a coal miner. It’s all of a piece.
What’s fascinating to me, and significant for climate hawks, is how the coal mining piece fits into that larger tapestry.
On the show, before he starts singing, Rose emphasizes twice how dangerous coal mining is — even says he joined the Marines and deployed to Iraq to escape it. Yet the implicit message is not that coal mining is a crappy job or that coal companies are neglectful, inconsiderate employers. Instead the job is presented as a kind of heroism: Rose went underground, put himself in danger, so that he could feed his family and keep the lights on for the rest of us. It’s a kind of national service, an analogue to his stint in the military: These are the guys who work and suffer so that the rest of us can live in luxury. Heroes. It’s powerful stuff, clearly enough to get the crowd rooting for him.
Why does coal mining evoke these kinds of feelings? One obvious explanation is that working-class guys are taking a battering all over the country, not just in Appalachia. Coal mining is hard, dangerous work, but it’s honest work, available to anyone willing to do it, and it can — or could — support a family. Those kinds of jobs have been steadily disappearing for decades. Now America is a land of knowledge workers and service workers, ever-increasing inequality and ever-decreasing social mobility. That kind of economy can work, at least for a while, for large urban areas with lots of knowledge workers to service, but it’s hell on places like Pineville (or Detroit) that relied entirely on decent-paying working-class jobs. Lots of people around the country understand the anger and loss in places like eastern Kentucky even if they don’t share all the cultural signifiers.
But still … with all sorts of workers in all sorts of industries being displaced by automation and economic shifts, why do coal miners elicit such a unique emotional response? We make furniture faster and safer by replacing builders with robots, but few would argue that we should make furniture more slowly or less safely by preserving those jobs. Those builder jobs “put food on the table” also, but it’s not viewed de facto cause to prevent factory automation. We don’t necessarily like it, but we accept in practice that progress means creative destruction and that some people inevitably get screwed. (Indeed, that’s why liberals support a social safety net.)
When it comes to cleaning up and modernizing the power sector — a sector that has resisted substantial innovation for over half a century — we collectively abandon that frame and adopt another one. Coal mining jobs, unlike furniture factory jobs, are seen as intrinsically ennobling, not just a job but a way of life. This quote in National Journal is telling:
“When you attack guns and coal, you’re attacking what they in the mountains consider their birthright,” said Jim Cauley, a Democratic strategist and Kentucky native who managed President Obama’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 2004. “They’ll feel like you’re attacking their culture.”
Coal has been woven into the fabric of Appalachian life for more than a century. It’s not a job, it’s a cultural identity. That’s the nut of it.
Such is the difficulty for progressives. It’s not just that the status quo has more money, it has more stories, deeper-rooted and more broadly resonant. Novel narratives about, say, “green jobs” do not have the same emotional depth. There is no history, there are no archetypes on which to draw. Coal evokes a rich oral, musical, and cultural legacy.
That’s why the Republican Party has people like Jimmy Rose locked up, despite its relentless support for the very policies that hurt his socioeconomic cohort and make the rich richer. Democrats promise the working class policies that will help them adapt to change — education and job training and a safety net. Republicans promise to stand athwart history and prevent further losses. It’s not about the policies, it’s about the stories, stories of a nobler past and the interlopers degrading or destroying it. Such stories have always had great power.
Democrats, or at least liberals, and especially climate hawks, are fated to forever be pushing the new, promising the future, projecting what could be. It’s an intrinsically weaker position and highlights the great need for creativity and storytelling. Can you even imagine someone in Jimmy Rose’s position singing a song about solar power that brings an audience to its feet?
For those of you with longer attention spans, let me share a few more cynical comments on the show.
First, the aesthetics of spontaneous discovery (from out of nowhere, a Heartland Hero!) are just that, aesthetics, and they are not left to chance. This segment has been planned, polished, and scripted to a fare-thee-well, carefully assembled for maximum audience stimulation. Every one of the tropes on display, from his haircut to his clothes to his family to his song, was chosen and crafted to support the story.
And those tropes are targeted squarely at a particular demographic: conservative Americans, mostly white Southerners. A prime-time show like this wants to appeal to everyone, including Real Americans who love coal, love Appalachia, and hate “Obama and the treehuggers,” as the first commenter on this YouTube video puts it. Their intensity and numbers during the Obama years have convinced the entertainment industry that they are both a target demo and a source of perverse fascination (see: Honey Boo-Boo). Real Americans can take heart in the fact that TV executives are now manipulating them into buying Snapple just like the rest of us.
Second, if Rose had stayed in the coal mine he probably would have gotten black lung, assuming he avoided injury, given Kentucky coal’s abysmal safety record. That man in the song, working two shifts in the mine to feed his family? He’ll likely have trouble breathing by the time he’s 50, and the sons he cared for will be faced with the financial and emotional burden of his long-term health care (ailing coal companies have a way of welshing on their workers’ pensions).
Third, the man in the song may well have lost his job already. Just last year the James River Coal company, headquartered in Pineville, laid off 400 employees. Coal mining jobs are indeed vanishing in eastern Kentucky, where 4,000 jobs were wiped out last year, but Obama’s “war on coal” has very little to do with it. The main culprits, writes the AP, are “declining reserves, higher production costs and competition from other coal basins [mainly the Powder River Basin] and natural gas.”
Fourth, a larger point I and others have made many times, coal mining has stripped Appalachia of hundreds of thousands of acres of pristine, biodiverse forest, defiled its water, air, and land, and left it economically devastated. Jimmy Rose’s tiny hometown of Pineville had a household median income of $12,435 in 2000 (the latest census numbers I can find) and that was before coal’s recent battering.
It is absolutely true that the loss of more coal jobs will hurt Rose’s family and friends. There’s no sense dodging that point. And there’s no point pretending, at the moment, that anyone can promise coal mining families anything better after the mines shut down. Van Jones is fond of saying that every coal miner should be give a million dollars and a parade: “Thank you for your service; you may retire in honor.” I’m not sure I’ve heard anything better offered to the people of Appalachia, certainly not from their fossil-owned-and-operated legislators.
The coal industry has done virtually nothing over the last century to build the local capital and institutions that Appalachia needs for lasting prosperity. It has sucked the area dry, left it filthy, corrupt, and exhausted. Now it’s using the suffering of its workers to scapegoat Obama and delay its own obsolescence. Coal companies are bastards. Always have been.
All this is beside the point, though. You can’t argue with a song. You can’t argue with a feeling: nostalgia and sorrow for what is slipping away, fear at what the future brings. You can only create other feelings.
By way of conclusion, it’s always worth revisiting Machiavelli’s famous quote:
… it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.
UNNECESSARY FURTHER ADDENDUM:
In 2011, country-rock artist Neal Spears put out a song called … “Coal Keeps the Lights On.” Here it is:
Pretty good! Certainly much, much better than “Drill Here, Drill Now” by country artist Aaron Tippin: