HelmetsThis weekend there was a memorial service for the 29 miners killed in the explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) all spoke. I found Obama’s address infuriating.

Look, obviously, it’s a memorial service. The focus was on the miners and their families, and that’s entirely appropriate. Turning memorials into political rallies is never a good idea.

Nonetheless, Obama’s speech was so bland and gauzy, so resolutely inert, that for me at least it amounted to an insult to the miners’ memories. Why must a tribute involve papering over the realities of their lives and the circumstances that led to their deaths? Do we honor them by romanticizing what they did? Do we honor them by referring to the explosion that ended their lives as though it were an unforeseeable act of God?

Look at this:

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All the hard work; all the hardship; all the time spent underground; it was all for their families. For a car in the driveway. For a roof overhead. For a chance to give their kids opportunities they never knew; and enjoy retirement with their wives. It was all in the hopes of something better. These miners lived — as they died — in pursuit of the American dream.

So anybody who works to feed their family is living the American dream? What a lazy, limpid bit of rhetoric. People work to feed their families in other countries too. It seems to me what separates the American dream from the dreams of others is that in America every citizen is afforded a measure of dignity. Every citizen can expect to be treated as a human being, not a cog in a machine. Every citizen has the right to unionize, to protect employee interests. Every citizen has a right to a workplace that conforms to reasonable safety standards and an employer who obeys the law. Every citizen has a right to a working and living environment that does not slowly poison their family. Every citizen has a right to speak out without fear of reprisal or bullying from the owners of capital.

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Massey miners had none of those rights. Exploitative work, without union representation, in a patently unsafe environment, run by bullying managers who break the law with impunity? That’s not the American dream. That’s a Third World nightmare. The deaths of these miners was a failure of the American dream. And it didn’t just happen. There were real people behind it, who made real decisions that prioritized rocks over human lives.

Greed and venality killed these miners. Can’t we feel just a little bit of anger about that? Is it really “politics” to allow ourselves that anger?


As an addendum, how are the barons and lobbyists of the coal mining industry reacting to Obama’s kind words? Are they giving him any credit? Being reasonable in return?


“You’d be hard pressed to find a president whose actions have been more warlike on coal. There are those who say the president has parked his tanks on our front lawn, and it’s hard to dispute that,” said Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association.

“Tanks on our front lawn.” This from a lobbyist living a comfortable life in D.C., whose manicured nails have never once been stained by a piece of coal, who faces no risk more severe than failing to get a table at The Palm, heading an organization that resolutely fights worker safety protections at every turn. Repulsive. (See Appalachian Voices for more.)