We are all from Wise County
Want to get really angry about health care and global warming? Not the ginned-up rage of the Obama-was-really-born-in-Kenya crowd, but an anger that fires you up to take action in the name of justice? Anger like the rage felt by so many white Northerners and Southerners in 1963 when they saw Birmingham’s fire hoses turned on patriotic African-Americans, a rage so profound that they too joined the civil rights revolution?
Well I invite you, in a brief audio and video tour, to bear witness to what’s happening in Wise County, Virginia. This Appalachian region, only a few hundred miles from the policy fog in Washington DC, clarifies what the health care/climate policy fight is all about. And if you’re not angry enough to take action after hearing these voices and seeing these images, blame yourself when powerbrokers like Don Blankenship (more on him later) once again have their day.
Let’s start with what’s good about Wise County: its hard-working families. Taking a look at this community calendar, you’ll see all that is right with rural American communities and their urban counterparts. From January to December, the citizens of Wise County celebrate the legacy of Dr. King (January 19), perform plays (March 17), honor our country and its veterans (July 4 and October 8) and get involved in all of those glorious community, spiritual and volunteering activities that capture the essence of the American experience. In Wise County, it’s not hard to find the best of ourselves.
But one item on the same calendar reveals what is not right: the July 24-26 “Remote Area Medical Health Fair” at the local fairgrounds. Sound innocuous? Well take ten minutes to listen to this recent report from NPR on the event, hosted in Wise County, which served 2,700 “tired and desperate” people from 17 different states. In the words of NPR, it was “a Third World scene with an American setting.” It’s heartbreaking: entire families waiting in line overnight to get just some of the basic health care that they cannot afford. Hear about the young boy with a battered nose and an oozing ear; the single mom with a gallbladder so enlarged it’s about to kill her; and the many patients gettingall of their teeth pulled. That’s right — for over 20 years, while DC politicians have been promising a better health care system, your fellow Americans in and around Wise County have been suffering. Angry yet?
And take a guess what industry dominates this part of Appalachia. No surprise: it’s coal. Like in so many parts of the country, excessive reliance on coal means high levels of poverty — the kind of poverty that creates the need for this health “fair.” A recent study out of West Virginia University puts it clearly: “Coal-mining economies are not strong economies. [Coalfield communities] are weaker than the rest of the state, weaker than the rest of the region, and weaker than the rest of the nation.” There’s no doubt that the thousands of employees of the (increasingly capital-intensive) coal industry are hard-working, admirable people; the problem is that in the 21st century, coal helps them at the expense of others.
The second part of coal’s legacy in this area is mountaintop removal. Take this extraordinary virtual flyover of Wise County to view its devastation:
The human effects of this destruction are captured in the words of Wise County’s Kathy Selvage. Listen to her speak about the “terrible injustice’ created by coal, literally in her backyard:
And memo to the Birther crowd: if you think the fight against mountaintop removal is some godless liberal conspiracy, see this testimony from Kathy: “It was my Mother’s custom to have her early morning Bible reading on her front porch. [Because of mountaintop removal,] she was forced to move inside because she could no longer stand the noise, dust, and smell that was invading her ‘Morning with the Lord’.”
In Wise County, poverty, environmental destruction and powerlessness come together, and the result — despite the resilience of hard-working Americans who call it home — is sick families, destroyed mountains, a dysfunctional economy and at least one good lady who finds it harder to pray.
Now there certainly are winners in all of this: take Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Coal, a modern version of Daniel-Day Lewis’s ruthless oilman in There Will Be Blood. It’s hard to know where to start with this guy:
- Blowing up mountains throughout the country.
- Buying off judges in West Virginia. (Bonus: watch him punch an ABC reporter!)
- Polluting rural communities like no one else.
- And he seems to be a coward to boot. When James Hansen accepted Blankenship’s challenge to debate global warming, the Massey CEO suddenly backed off.
So climate warriors, let’s get angry: about inexcusable poverty, the destruction wrought by coal, and the lobby-laden system that helps Blankenship thrive while too many of the good people of Wise County suffer.
And if you are angry, what are you going to do about it? Will you be willing to get arrested standing up to Massey Coal, like Jim Hansen? Lead civil disobedience against Dominion Power, right there in Wise County? Or at least, show up to your elected officials’ town meetings and speak loudly and clearly in support of health care and climate change legislation? With some hard work, maybe we can reveal Blankenship and his ilk for what they are: the Bull Connors of the dirty-energy age. There’s no time to waste.