Monday, April 26, 2010

A Rage Not Felt (for publication 5/14/2010)


“In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old.”

So says a bereaved mother lamenting the loss of a son in John Synge’s play, “Riders to The Sea”. But, it’s a lament that could have been uttered by mothers of coal miners in Farmington, Sago, and most recently Montcoal where families lost the bet that a $20 an hour pay check could compensate for the ever-present risk of death.

It’s a gamble requiring a calculus familiar to those who wrestle with the paradox that the means by which they gain their livelihoods may also kill them. And make no mistake, all who enter the mines do the calculus.

At one time we all did because in nature sustenance always comes at the risk of death. It’s a measure of civilization’s progress that most of us are spared from that paradox. So, from the safety of our insulated lives, we watch with compassion but also curiosity the anguish of the Montcoal families whose plight is ancient and strange to us now. And, try as we might to be with them and support them, we know we are not of them and we are grateful.

Of course, miners are not the only ones who do the calculus. Others include regulators and mine owners among whom none is more accomplished than Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine. The fact that Massey’s stock price has not dropped catastrophically since the disaster is evidence of Blankenship’s acumen. He didn’t know the disaster would happen, but he knew it could and that it was cheaper to invest in liability insurance than in changes to the mine that might have prevented it.

Still, Blankenship can be forgiven for saying that nothing is more important than miner safety. Such statements are and are understood as expressions of sentiment rather than of fact. The question is whether Blankenship even shares the sentiment. It’s doubtful.

According to “The State Journal” the Mine Safety and Health Administration “issued 48 withdrawal orders in 2009 at the Upper Big Branch Mine for repeated significant and substantial violations that the mine operator either knew, or should have known, constituted a hazard.” Meanwhile, Massey mines were placed on potential “pattern-of-violation” status 13 times since 2007, more than one third of all such citations in the industry. But, what’s damning is Blankenship’s attitude toward enforcement of safety regulations. In 2007 Massey contested 97% of the major safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine.

Finally there was the news conference at which Blankenship was asked about the implications of the Upper Big Branch disaster. Pivoting neatly on the graves of his dead employees, he used the occasion to bemoan the possibility of more federal regulation, something he self-assuredly asserted, “no one wants.”

No one? Really? Are we that helpless, that cowed? Would we hold harmless a company whose negligence may have caused miners’ deaths rather than risk the loss of jobs? Is our fear so reflexive that we’ve forgotten basic economics which teaches that, if the mine has value and we drive out Massey, a new owner will step forward to preserve jobs and almost certainly be more committed than Massey to safety since they could hardly be less so?

Sadly, the answer to these questions may be, yes. And the sadder truth is that some no longer have to suppress rage before acquiescing because they no longer feel rage at all . . . so conditioned have they become.

We are complicit in a system that often allows malefactors to “pass along to consumers” the costs of their misdeeds, which brings to mind Benjamin Franklin’s observation that those who give up liberty to obtain a little safety deserve neither. Isn't justice as precious as liberty and might not the same be said of it?

It’s an infuriating tradeoff in this day of populist outrage. But, even populism is strangely directed anymore. Ten years after deregulated energy markets produced the Enron meltdown that plunged thousands into financial ruin and two years after nearly unregulated financial markets destroyed wealth and jobs on a scale not seen since the Great Depression, the fear voiced by our most active populist group, the Tea Party movement, is not that there will be too little government regulation, but that there will be too much.

Of course, Blankenship did that calculus as well. He and fellow directors of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce donated a million dollars to the Tea Party movement among whose organizers is former Congressman Dick Armey who was a driving force behind both energy and financial deregulation and whose Institute for Policy Innovation received $200,000 from Enron.

Maybe that’s why at recent West Virginia Tea Party events, there wasn’t a sign condemning Blankenship or Massey. Quite the opposite, Blankenship is an invited speaker at Tea Party rallies.

So, as miners do the calculus they must every day, Tea Partiers can lash our President and other suspected socialists to a post and follow Don Blankenship and Dick Armey who will direct the formation of a circular firing squad before retreating to the safety of their corporate board rooms from where they will give the order to fire, aim being unimportant.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Of Incest & Authenticity (For publication April 16, 2010)

“They are a curious and most native stock, the lanky men, the lost, forgotten seeds spilled from the first great wave-march toward the West and set to sprout by chance in the deep cracks of that hillbilly world of laurel hells . . . And if you yearn to meet your pioneers, you’ll find them there, the same men, inbred sons of inbred sires perhaps, but still the same . . . They are misfit and strange in our new day.”

Thus did Stephen Vincent Benet describe the people of Appalachia in his book-length poem, “John Brown’s Body” that won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1922.

We can be reasonably sure that West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin has never read this passage because, if he had, the campaign to rescind the Pulitzer Prize would be well underway.

There are few slights of Appalachia and West Virginia that don’t draw the Governor’s ire. His targets have included NBC television for contemplating a reality show called “The Real Beverly Hillbillies”, Abercrombie & Fitch for selling a T-shirt that featured a map of West Virginia and the slogan, “It’s all relative”, and even then-Vice President Dick Cheney who found himself in the Governor’s cross-hairs when he remarked that he had Cheneys on both sides of his family, "and we don't even live in West Virginia."

But, does any of it make any difference? Perhaps.

A few years ago the artistic director of a major theatre told me that, if I wanted my play, “Rain in The Hollows” (since retitled “Claudie Hukill”), to be produced in New York, I should change the play’s setting from the hollers of West Virginia to the west coast of Ireland. He even offered suggestions about how the play’s dialogue might be tweaked . . . no major revisions, mind you . . . to lend it the necessary “authenticity”.

What the artistic director didn’t explain was why a change in setting unaccompanied by any change in the play’s substance should make theaters and audiences more receptive. On reflection, it’s fairly clear that he felt “Rain in The Hollows”, a play that employs magical realism to explore the nuances of family relationships, would be more “accessible” to audiences if it were set in Ireland.

Why should that be the case? One answer is that Ireland, unlike West Virginia, has produced a stream of playwrights– Synge, O’Casey, Friel, McPherson, and others – who have written highly nuanced works in this vein, so perhaps audience members are able to relate more readily to the “Irish peasant experience” than they are to the less frequently staged, “Appalachian mountain experience”.

That’s the polite way to describe it. There is, however, a darker interpretation that goes like this. Audiences either can’t or don’t want to identify with characters whose lives they associate with ignorance, provincialism, and bigotry. In other words, audience members might not be able to get past their caricatured notions of Appalachian hill people to find their underlying shared humanity.

Whichever interpretation is more accurate, the episode reminds us that the mere mention of place can evoke waves of emotions, images, and preconceptions, a phenomenon that good playwrights use to imbue their plays with color, texture, and context without having devoting pages of dialogue to tedious description. That’s a good thing, but it’s a good thing that can have a distressing consequence.

Calling upon preconceptions also means calling upon prejudices. And, by willfully employing audiences’ prejudices, playwrights, whether intentionally or unintentionally, validate them.

An example is the frequently produced play, “The Spitfire Grill”, in which a young woman recently released from prison travels to a remote lake town in Wisconsin to start over. When we hear that the crime for which she was imprisoned was murder, we are also told that she killed her father at whose hands she was the victim of incest.

Normally this kind of revelation is the proverbial hand grenade that a playwright can’t simply roll on to the stage and leave unexploded. INCEST! My God! The audience wants to know.

But, if that’s not really what the play is about and the playwright needs to move on, what does he do? The playwrights of “The Spitfire Grill” (James Valcq and Fred Alley) simply added a line explaining that the young woman is from West Virginia.

Why does that simple factoid bring closure to the issue of incest . . . defuse the hand grenade so to speak? Because incest is what audiences expect to happen in West Virginia. No further explanation is required and, in fact, the playwrights give us none. Would further explanation have been required had the young woman hailed from New York, California, Florida, or other more presumably cosmopolitan places? Certainly.

I won’t go into statistics showing that incest is no more prevalent in West Virginia than it is elsewhere, but will merely observe that the writers of THE SPITFIRE GRILL weren’t deterred by statistics either. But, does this tiny exploitation of audience members’ preconceptions do any damage? I don’t know, but I wonder if THE SPITFIRE GRILL might have been seen by a woman I met in New York recently who, upon being told that I live in West Virginia, looked at me with furrowed brow and asked plaintively, “Why?”