Is this you? (Photo of our Kentucky cousins by Shelby Lee Adams, copped without permission from the Internet.)
“We are going to a new world… and no doubt it is there that everything is for the best; for it must be admitted that one might lament a little over the physical and moral happenings of our own world.”
– Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 10, Written in 1759
It’s fun to dream of a Transcendent New Nation of Appalachia where bright, optimistic people create opportunities for themselves, and aren’t reliant on somebody else—government, for the most part—to take the lead in every aspect of their lives.
West Virginia, in central Appalachia, is often described as the ultimate Appalachian state. It’s the only state that is entirely within the region the federal Appalachian Regional Commission defines as Appalachia. The word Appalachia has been stigmatized, made synonymous with poverty and ignorance, and West Virginia, as far as many observers are concerned, epitomizes Appalachia. If you don’t believe that, simply Google the word and see what you come up with.
Wikipedia defines Appalachia as a cultural region, mentioning that popular media continue to perpetuate the image of Appalachia as a culturally backward region, and that poverty continues to blight our prospects. The list of resources that pops up on the first page of Google includes Images of Appalachia, four thumbnail photos of toothless old men (all white, by the way), hound dogs, and shacks surrounded by debris. ‘No, no,’ we Appalachians who think of ourselves as middle-class, protest. ‘That’s not an accurate picture of who we are,’ and we hasten to show images of gleaming, mirrored towers of commerce in the state capitol of Charleston. Some real estate companies try their darndest to depict a West Virginia that looks like Everywhere Else, USA. The photos in Wonderful West Virginia magazine, a state publication, show lovely locales in the state. ‘That,” say we indignant West Virginians, ‘is more like it.’
Or is this you? (Photo of happy diners somewhere in the Transcendent New Nation of Appalachia by unknown photographer, shamelessly copped from Google Images of Charleston, WV.)
But recently it has come, irrefutably, to my attention that activities in the gleaming towers of commerce in Charleston are directly related to the stereotypical images of poverty that is the Appalachian brand throughout the world. And the activities in the gleaming towers are inextricably connected to what transpires under the ornate gold-plated dome of West Virginia’s capitol building.
Lately I have hesitated to write a report from the Transcendent New Nation, as I am bogged down by the realities in the Current Nation of Appalachia. One way of dealing with reality is to ignore it. Another is to deny it, and yet another is to accept it and build a life around what is. The latter, it seems, is the tactic most often employed by West Virginians and others in the central Appalachian region.
That tactic no doubt contributes to fatalism, the infamous characteristic most often ascribed to us as a people, and the characteristic that leaves us at the merciless disposal of tyrants.
My usual Panglossian optimism has been severely challenged lately, as I share office space with a new organization called WVGreenWorks.com. Every day, as I observe the executive director of WVGreenWorks endeavoring to bring opportunities to West Virginia that are commonplace in other areas—opportunities such as fast, convenient access to excellent training in weatherization and energy efficiency—I marvel at systems entrenched here that are designed to firmly anchor West Virginia at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, and to crush any fledgling opportunity.
The images of West Virginia that we so often protest are in fact only the tip of an iceberg of inertia and ineptitude compounded by avarice. That’s right, folks. Supposedly well educated people in well paid positions work every day to see that West Virginia doesn’t budge an inch from the status quo. Thirteen thousand nonprofit organizations are out there supposedly striving to improve the lot of West Virginians—three thousand more than in Haiti. Yet things remain very much the same here in Wild & Wonderful, as an editorialist in the Daily Mail also observes, quoting Henry Harmon, president and CEO of Triana Energy, as saying, “It seems we ask the same questions decade after decade.”
Perhaps the truth is that life ain’t all that bad for the folks in power, and the rest of the populace has learned to cope with their reality. “We just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day,” to half-quote Randy Newman.
I’ve colored a lot of the front page of today’s Charleston Daily Mail bright yellow, highlighting passages that strike me as ironic, outrageous, shameful, or all of the above.
New life for old schools not easy—The East End’s Roosevelt Neighborhood Center, housed in the former Roosevelt Junior High that closed in 2000, has gas and electricity bills that often top $8,000 a month in the winter.
Note that millions of dollars have come to the State of West Virginia earmarked to train people in weatherization jobs, and there are no training programs to show for it.
Or how about Disability numbers on rise—that entire item is neon yellow with highlighter, but this passage stands out: Another 14,835 West Virginians were listed as dependent spouses or children of those (91,273 persons) on disability, bringing total beneficiaries to 106,108. More than five per cent of our state’s population is considered disabled. State Senator Dan Foster says our high ranking can be attributed to poor health habits.
Note that, during the 2009 legislative session, a group of chortling state legislators were shown on the evening TV news sucking down biscuits and donuts as they defeated a bill designed to improve their constituents’ health.
Today’s Charleston Gazette didn’t provoke as much highlighting, except for Ken Ward’s story on a WVU study linking C8 with unhealthy levels of cholesterol in children in the Parkersburg region of the Ohio Valley, and the oddly comforting quote on the editorial page from former U. S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “If a person goes to a country and finds the newspapers filled with nothing but good news, there are good men in jail.”
And so the Transcendent New Nation disappears once again albeit temporarily, obscured by current issues in the Land as We Know It.
Check back tomorrow for thoughts on “If you’re smart and you ain’t here, why you should be.”