April 04, 2009

Palm Sunday

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Palm Sunday is probably the most ambiguous holy day in the Christian calendar. It marks the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, where the throngs said "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."

But it's also less than a week away from Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the days that mark his agony in the garden, arrest, scourging and crucifixion.

Even for the non-religious, this holy day can speak of the changeability of human affairs, of the human heart, and especially of human crowds. It doesn't take long for cries of "Hosanna!" to turn into shouts of "Crucify!"

This Palm Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the death of one of West Virginia's finest authors, Breece Pancake of Milton. To be exact, since Palm Sunday is a movable feast, the actual anniversary of his death is April 8th, but I'll stick to the religious calendar.

Pancake began publishing stories in The Atlantic and literary journals in the late 1970s when he was a graduate student at the University of Virginia. His stories, for the most part set in a fictionalized Milton he called Rock Camp, were often dark but strongly compelling.

For reasons nobody will know, Pancake shot himself on Palm Sunday. A convert to Catholicism, he had attended Mass earlier that day. I have the feeling that it was brought on by a sudden rush of panic rather than any kind of premeditation.

A volume of his was posthumously published as The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake in 1983 and is still in print and has been translated into several languages.

For me, the holy day and the sad anniversary will always be associated. If you haven't taken a look at his work, I'd highly recommend it.

April 03, 2009

The light (or train) at the end of the tunnel

El Cabrero has been musing here this week about current coal controversies in and around WV, particularly mountaintop removal mining. The issue has heated up again in the wake of signals that the coal policies of the Obama administration would reverse many Bush era policies.

I've argued this week that whatever happens, the situation will be tragic for many coalfield communities. In fact, it's been that way for 100 years or so. I don't have any easy answers but here are a few thoughts:

*We need to start thinking in terms of the opportunities presented by the emerging "green collar economy." Allow me to put in another plug for Van Jones' book of the same title. Many companies and public agencies are making more or less sincere noises about moving in a more sustainable direction. And there are public resources to support this emerging economy in both the stimulus package and President Obama's proposed budget. There is also the possibility of using federal funds for reclaiming abandoned mines to create jobs aimed at mitigating some of the damage.

*One of the more interesting efforts to rethink economic development around here is Create West Virginia. In some of their publications, they emphasize that in order to move to a high road creative economy, we need to focus on talent, technology, tolerance and quality of life issues.

Here's a question to think about: as we move into an economy in which creative and talented people will be able to work from anywhere, will the mined-out areas of southern West Virginia be anywhere anybody like that will want to live and work?

*I'm convinced that it is possible not only to have meaningful climate change policies, but to use these to help low income people and as well as areas like southern West Virginia deal with the changes.

A few years back, Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggested that the auctioning of carbon credits in a cap and trade system could be used to raise revenue to ease the impact of such changes on low income people, state and federal budgets, and workers and communities in affected industries. The Obama administration has embraced some of these ideas, but these are facing an uphill struggle in the Senate.

Sooner or later, something like a cap and trade system or carbon tax is likely to happen. It would be smart politically (in addition to being the right thing to do) for such policies to specifically provide assistance for those areas that sacrificed so much in the coal age.

ON THE SAME TRACK, there's some support in the WV House of Delegates for a resolution supporting a wind farm in southern WV on a site scheduled for mountaintop removal. And a court has given the Obama administration a deadline to figure out its plan, according to Ken Ward's Coal Tattoo.

WANNA DO SOMETHING TODAY? Call your senators today in support of President Obama's budget. The American Friends Service Committee is urging people to urge their senators to

Vote for President Obama’s budget.

Vote against any amendments that cut spending on human needs at home and abroad.

Support any efforts to reduce the military budget.

The toll-free number is 1-800-473-6711.

CHICKEN LITTLE. The AFLCIO blog has been having fun with a contest to find the most hysterical response to the Employee Free Choice Act. In WV, talk of collective bargaining for public employees usually starts a similar hissy fit, but a poll shows the public supports it.

BARRIERS. Here's a little video from AFSC on barriers to peace in the Mideast.


April 02, 2009

Noble savages

People seem to be genetically wired to make, tell and see stories and we often tend to endlessly recycle a few basic kinds of story types.

One that's particularly popular in America today is the action movie, with clear good guys and bad guys and a happy ending. That can be entertaining, but it's not always the best lens to look at social problems. As I've argued earlier this week, a lot of life is more like a tragedy of conflicting rights and wrongs.

The coal industry version of the action movie is that coal mining, including mountaintop removal, is the best thing that ever happened to West Virginia and that environmentalists or people serious about regulation are the serpent in this Garden of Eden. (Coal is also clean and carbon neutral, which is kind of like booze without alcohol.) Which is, of course, a product of bovine digestion.

I dislike mountaintop removal, support stronger regulation of the industry, and would like to see it phased out. But I've noticed that some articles on the subject by out of state environmental writers have an action movie of their own going on. According to this one, the good guys are a bunch of Appalachian Noble Savages standing as one against the evil coal companies. The assumption is that if the practice just ended today, everything would be great.

I'm not that worried about the evil coal company part of this action movie frame (which kind of works in some cases) but the rest is over-simplified. While probably a majority of West Virginians oppose the practice according to the public opinion research I've seen, this is a contested issue all the way down. There are noble and ignoble savages and non-savages on different sides of the issue.

There are no doubt people who work on mountaintop removal jobs who don't like it deep down inside. And there are people who personally oppose it but accept it for economic or political reasons. Lots of people are conflicted to one degree or another for various reasons.

The happy ending part is also over-simplified. I think the results for southern West Virginia are going to be tragic no matter what happens. If it goes on as it has in the past, there will be huge environmental devastation, water contamination, floods, coal-related health problems, etc., not to mention more climate change impacts. And if it stops, there will be some job losses and a loss of revenue for public services from coal severance taxes.

According to the US Energy Information Agency, in 2007 there were 6,608 surface mining jobs in West Virginia.

While I don't think coal companies have historically paid enough in taxes in light of the damage they've done and the wealth they've extracted, revenues generated from severance taxes make up an important part of West Virginia's budget, lately bringing over $300 million per year to the state's general revenue fund. According to a state tax official, around 85 percent of that is from coal.

Severance taxes are part of the reason why the state was slower to experience the fiscal impact of the current recession. And around 80 percent of state general revenue funds go to public and higher education and human services. And even if nothing changes as far as coal regulation goes, when it's gone it's gone.

El Cabrero is not seeing a whole lot of happy endings. Whatever happens, I'm seeing more of a tragedy than an action movie.

I'm reminded of a quote attributed to Woody Allen:

“Today we are at a crossroads. One road leads to hopelessness and despair; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we choose wisely.”

I'll try to find a silver lining tomorrow....

WHILE WE'RE AT IT, here's Ken Wards latest blog post on the Obama administration's approach to the issue.

AND THEN THERE'S THIS. This article looks at research on carbon capture.

THE PATH TO WAR (BUT WHERE'S THE EXIT?). The latest edition of the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes From Under the Fig Tree looks at the war in Iraq and especially Afghanistan.

SIGN OF THE TIMES. The recession is filling and stressing libraries.


April 01, 2009

Blood veins as blue as the coal

Benjamin Franklin once famously characterized humans as tool using animals. Since then, we've found out we're not the only ones.

My modest substitute would be to say that we are story-creating animals. The human mind (and voice) secretes narratives the way the liver secretes bile. We often tend to fit things into a limited number of pre-existing story forms.

As I argued yesterday, people in the US have a tendency to see the world in terms of an action movie, with clear good guys and bad guys and usually a happy ending. The problem with this approach is that history is often more like a tragedy than an action movie, with conflicting rights and wrongs and frequent casualties. The action movie frame can show up across the political spectrum.

One thing that kind of irks me about the way some out of state environmental writers talk about controversies like mountaintop removal mining is that they often fall straight into this frame. I dislike the practice and would welcome greater regulation of the industry. But I also dislike over-simplifications.

More on that tomorrow.


POVERTY ON THE BRAIN. It can leave scars.

GOOD NATURED. A deformed skull from a child estimated to have lived over 500,000 years ago suggests that early humans showed compassion.

A HAPPY DEATH. A bill that would have required random drug tests for people receiving various kinds of public assistance, including unemployment, died yesterday in the WV legislature (with a little help).


March 31, 2009

Tragedy or action movie?

Antigoneby Frederic Leighton, 1882. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

It seems to El Cabrero that the kinds of stories a culture tells itself shapes the way the people within it view the world. US residents, alas, have been fed a bit overmuch on a diet of action movies and french (freedom?) fries.

In action movies, there are definite good guys and bad guys with little or no ambiguity. The good guys usually win (in the US version anyway) and the bad guys lose and there's a happy ending.

Real life, however, is often more like a Greek tragedy than an action movie. There may be some better or worse characters, but it often involves clashes of rights and wrongs--and there will be some casualties by the time it's over.

Sophocles Antigone is a case in point. Antigone is a daughter of Oedipus. Her brother was slain outside the gates of Thebes for trying to overthrow the ruler Creon. Creon decrees that his body is to be left unburied. For ancient Greeks and other Mediterranean cultures, not being buried was considered to be worse than dying.

Antigone is torn between duties to the state--Creon, after all, was a legitimate ruler and her brother had no claim to power--and those to her conscience, her family and the gods. She can't keep all of them happy. In an act that some have described as world literature's first instance of civil disobedience, she buries her brother but must face the consequences by being buried alive under orders from Creon.

The ruler Creon suffers in turn. His beloved son Haemon was betrothed to Antigone and kills himself when he finds that she is dead. Creon's wife Eurydice likewise kills herself on learning of the death of her son, cursing Creon with her last breath. In the end, Creon is disgraced and despised by all Greece for his arrogance.

(I never said Greek tragedies weren't a downer. The same, however, could be said about much of real life.)

Former President George Bush was all about action movies--smoking the bad guys out of their holes. That worked out pretty well, huh? But people use the action movie frame across the political spectrum.

Occasionally the gods may give us an action movie type fight--a struggle with little or no ambiguity. Such fights are rare and precious. Much more often, however, we live in the realm of the tragic.

OH GOOD, HE SAID, WITH IRONY. Here's an item on coal to liquids and some of the problems that go with it.

A LITTLE GOOD NEWS. Blair Mountain in Logan County WV, the site of a 1921 historic battle between coal companies and miners fighting for the right to organize, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

SPEAKING OF GOAT ROPES, here's something to think about regarding Iraq.

SHELTER FROM THE STORM? Maybe not. Six million American families may face losing their homes through foreclosure in the next three years.

WHILE WE'RE AT IT, the NY Times reported yesterday that things are getting so bad that some banks are walking away from houses they foreclosed.

RUNNING AND EVOLUTION. There is a connection.


March 30, 2009

Travelin' on down that coal town road

Osage, WV, circa 1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia is in the midst of another coal controversy. Specifically, our ruling class is winding itself into hissy fit mode over the possibility that the Obama administration may actually regulate the coal industry.

It was the more or less official policy of the Bush administration to let it do whatever it wanted to whomever or whatever it wanted whenever it wanted.

I have no great love for my state's ruling class and even less of an inclination to fight its battles. They're pretty good at looking out for themselves. But I've always felt empathy for the people who mine the coal, and especially for the members and supporters of the United Mine Workers of America, who have written some of the most inspiring pages in labor history, often in their own blood.

One sad feature of today's coal controversies is that they sometimes understandably but tragically pit union members against others working to protect the environment or the health of coalfield communities. Although people here are pretty good at working on issues where there's agreement and parting company on others, I will leave it to the Gentle Reader to guess who the big winner is on such occasions.

It wasn't always that way. In fact, the first big struggle I got involved in as something other than a spectator was the Pittston coal strike of 1989-1990, in which labor and community groups rallied in support of workers and retirees. As such fights go, that was a good one, although there was no lasting happy ending. About which, more to come.

SPEAKING OF COAL, if you want to keep up on the latest developments in all such things, I highly recommend Coal Tattoo, which is written by award-winning Charleston Gazette environmental reporter Ken Ward. And here's an op-ed arguing that greater regulation won't be the end of the world.

SPEAKING OF GOOD FIGHTS, here's an op-ed by yours truly about one going on now. Short version: if WV modernizes its unemployment insurance policies so that more people can be protected during this recession, we can draw down $33 million more in stimulus money.

To get the first 1/3, we need to change the base period for calculating benefits and eligibility. To get the rest, we need to make at least two of the following four changes: include part-time workers, include people who can't work for family-related reasons such as domestic violence; include people in job training programs; and/or provide an allowance for dependents.

There's enough money from the stimulus package to fund these changes for seven years. If, after that period, the state can't afford to continue benefits, it can make changes then.

So what's the problem?

LEGALIZED GAMBLING. Here's Paul Krugman on the international financial crisis.

RELIGION. Here's a controversial article on the future of evangelicalism.

BUDGET PRIORITIES. A number of groups in WV, including AFSC, are supporting the main goals outlined in President Obama's proposed federal budget.

CRABS SAY "OUCH!" Well, maybe not literally, but the latest evidence shows that crustaceans can feel and remember pain. (El Cabrero has long abhorred the unsportsmanlike practice of boiling lobsters alive.)