Sunday, February 20, 2011

Overlooking Appalachia and devaluing Appalachians

That's a dominant theme of Silas House's op-ed in today's New York Times. In "My Polluted Kentucky Home," House writes of the invisibility of Appalachia, but also what might be considered discrimination against Appalachians.

House recalls various environmental and human disasters in the region, many related to coal-mining and its toxic effects on both people and place. He asserts that most of us know little if anything about these events because "as it does in many other impoverished quarters of America, the news too often avoids covering Appalachia as if it were a no man’s land." Among the examples he gives are these:

When a 3-year-old Virginia boy was crushed to death in his crib after a half-ton boulder was accidentally (and illegally) dislodged by a mining company, it barely made the national news. Many people around here believe the omission reflected that the child lived in a trailer home in the heart of coal country.

In 2000, 306 million gallons of sludge — 30 times more than the volume of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez — buried parts of Martin County, Ky., as deep as 5 feet. Yet hardly anyone outside the region remembers the disaster, if they ever heard about it.

As part of his argument that "coal is king" and that we have overlooked the human costs of extracting it, House contends that our nation--including the government--places a lower value on Appalachian lives than on the lives of others. House provides some very personal anecdotes, including one only marginally related to the rest of the column:
When I was little, teachers would stand over my desk and tell me that I had to change my accent if I wanted to get ahead in the world. Never mind that I had nearly perfect grammar and spelling.
This, it seems to me, is less about invisibility than it is about cultural imperialism, regional and class-based bias, and metronormativity. Still, it reflects a type of bias only slightly different to that which is at the heart of House's column. I am reminded of a comment by Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies when the phrase "bridge to nowhere" was getting so much airtime in the run up to the 2008 election and following it: "When people think of rural as 'nowwhere,' [they're] saying the people who live in those places aren't worth working with, they're not worth helping." They are suggesting that rural Americans aren't full citizens, a less worthy underclass. This, in turn, reminds me of Angela Harris's discussion of how institutions and practices can "diminish the personhood of certain individuals and groups." (Angela P. Harris, Theorizing Class, Gender, and the Law: Three Approaches, 72 Law and Contemporary Problems 37 (2009)). House's argument, as I understand it, is that Appalachians are such a group.

Read another post here about how environmental disasters in rural America--and the flyover states in particular--tend to get overlooked.


RH said...

Although I probably relate things back to Chomsky too much, I think the failure of the news media to report on the environmental degradation of Appalachia fits his model of how the American news media operates quite well. Media companies are themselves big businesses that are tightly held, and the coal industry is quite powerful and could bring pressure to bear on "overzealous" journalists. Bias toward urban consumers probably plays a role too.

I would guess these Appalachian stories are reported, but the placement, tone, context, and fullness of coverage on a national scale serve to minimize their impact. I bet there were journalists out there who wanted to give these events more coverage, and tell the stories with the appropriate outrage, but the editors of the big papers and the producers of the prime time news shows filtered them out and whittled them down, in accordance with the institutional pressures that shape their decision-making.

Chez Marta said...

Maybe I'm hammering on the point, but here goes: Due to my thinking this week about the soil, the source of all of our nutrition, I am shocked to find that Silas House says his family graveyard is covered in "unwanted topsoil" (emphasis added).  That the coal mining industry views topsoil as an unwanted burden is insult added to injury.  Ashley Judd, actor and activist agrees: Mountaintop removal is probably the single most dangerous process of environmental degradation today, with consequences we can already see, but whose extent we probably underestimate yet, and are unable to comprehend. Topsoil is expensive, hard to find, and impossible to replace once lost.  Yes, without coal we will be cold(er).  But without good soil, we are certain to die.