Dark As A Dungeon

Let the record show that Don Blankenship’s last public act in the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse on April 6 2016 was to reveal, openly and for the transcript, how far gone into delusion he’d become over the course of his career.  In his final statement to the court, Blankenship insisted on positioning himself as a man who’d been unfairly accused: “It’s important to me that everyone knows I am not guilty of a crime,” he said, after offering the feeblest and most general condolences to the families of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion six years before.  Yet that was precisely and exactly what he was now—a convicted criminal, albeit one convicted of a mere misdemeanor.  And then Judge Irene Berger, herself the daughter of a coal miner, hit Don Blankenship with the maximum allowable prison sentence of one year, and a $250,000 fine.

The court verdict made Blankenship the highest-ranking coal executive ever to be convicted of a workplace safety violation in West Virginia.  The brevity of the court’s sentence notwithstanding, this was a dramatic reversal in how the legal system has dealt with mine bosses found to be in repeated violation of safety law. If the verdict isn’t overturned or lessened on appeal, Don Blankenship will become the only mine operator in WV history to be sentenced to anything like the maximum penalty for conspiracy to violate federal mine safety standards.

The trial’s primary dramatic context, culturally if not strictly legally, was the killing blast at Upper Big Branch in April 2010.  That Blankenship could even utter the words “not guilty” without collapsing under the weight of shame right there in the courthouse didn’t come as a shock.  Unfortunately, that level of blatant hubris is an old and familiar story here.  To those of us following the trial closely, the fact that Blankenship received the maximum penalty in federal court was the real surprise, the end result that very few of us anticipated.

It was especially notable because throughout the trial, and again between the conviction and the sentencing, Blankenship had made all the expected noises, delivered all the standard platitudes that get trotted out when miners die, when mountains get ripped up in chunks, when the soil and the root systems tumble into the streams and rivers, when the waste leaches into the groundwater, when rivers and creeks get poisoned, when those of us who live and work here are forced to deal with the runoff, the fallout, the waves of debris and fire and chemicals we’re constantly told are the unavoidable product of labor and business.  Mostly these noises were delivered as subtext, through the arguments made by Blankenship’s defense team.  But it was the same familiar script, the same culpability-avoiding two-step we’ve heard time and again.

In his pre-sentencing statement Blankenship euphemistically, and predictably, characterized the miners as “lost”: “The lost coal miners,” he said, “were great men.”  But they weren’t lost.  They weren’t mislaid, or out sick, or running late because they were around the corner at lunch.  They were killed.  They were killed, 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch site, on April 5 2010, when coal dust and methane ignited and blew fire through an improperly ventilated mine, a mine that had racked up over 1300 safety violations in the five years preceding the explosion, including two violations the very day before.

Even so, the rhetoric Blankenship and his legal team trotted out was the expected one, the one that’s worked for generations here when business interests and raw profit have been weighed against the rights, the wages, and even the lives of the people hired to go underground and pull up the product so it could be processed and sold.  And when it didn’t work this time, when it became clear that Blankenship wasn’t going to be able to escape responsibility by appealing to the standard tropes of necessary risk and selfless sacrifice—when it became evident that he wasn’t going to be able to obfuscate and maneuver his way out of a conviction—you could see how completely it took him off guard.  Early in the trial, whenever Don Blankenship left the courthouse he’d be smiling like a man enduring a brief but unavoidable inconvenience.  By the end his face looked like a wet paper bag, the dark circles beneath his eyes heavier and blacker, when he realized that he wouldn’t be escaping even the very short prison sentence the law allows for the crime he’d committed.

The press photos were not kind to Don Blankenship.  It’s common to say of disgraced public figures that they look like crooked used car salesmen.  But that comparison fails to capture the deeply weird combination of personal mundanity and brazen arrogance that Blankenship exuded every time his picture made the news.  Even engaged in an act as simple as walking from the courthouse steps to a waiting automobile, he looked as though he’d been caught in an act not only unethical, but somehow morally depraved.  He had the lumpy physique and porkish jowls of a man shaped for lampooning in editorial cartoons, and a mustache like a cigarette butt dissolving in a sidewalk rain puddle.  His deeds seemed all the uglier because the man who’d committed them looked so relentlessly ordinary, his chin soft and weak, his grin so forced it appeared to have been tightened with screws.  When he smiled, the increasingly tense rearrangement of his features into a performance of harmlessness only made the overall effect more hideous.  He looked somehow both dull and perverse in equal measure, like an assistant deacon caught in bed with the minister’s wife.

He never expected it would happen to him.  He couldn’t believe it when it did.  He said as much in the closing statement to the court—“I never thought I’d have a probation officer”—and why would he?  Why would he expect to be held accountable when the law’s loopholes allowed mines slapped with safety violations to keep operating indefinitely as long as they filed appeals?  Why would he expect to be held to ethical business standards when for years, local and state government supported the coal companies in building the economies of entire towns around the extractive industry, after which the companies folded and faded into the night, never reinvesting in those communities, leaving the towns, and the residents in them, to fend for themselves, so that local entrepreneurs who try to make it in former coal towns often find themselves closing their doors for lack of any business whatsoever?  Why would Blankenship expect he’d ever be called out in a state that had made business, his style of business, so profitable, and at the clear expense of so many of us?

But then he was.  He was called out by the court, which slapped him with the maximum sentence allowable.  And after that, on the street, he was called out again by a man named Tommy Davis, whose son Cory, brother Timmy, and nephew Joshua were three of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion.  Photographer F. Brian Ferguson, of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, snapped a photo of Davis that ought to hang in the West Virginia State House from now until the last tick of time.  Davis, his right hand raised, his finger pointed past the camera at Blankenship, his eyes wild and staring with the fury brought on by permanent and unhealable loss, yelled as the convicted conspirator left the courthouse: “You don’t have a heart.  You don’t miss your kids like we miss ours.  I hold a picture, I hold a tombstone.  You hold nothing.”

You hold nothing.  That was it—that was the phrase I’d been listening for without realizing it, the terrible, rage-fueled indictment that the court couldn’t have delivered in such clear, precise terms.  You hold nothing: Tommy Davis’ son Cory was, at 20, the youngest miner to be killed in the explosion at Upper Big Branch.  And Ferguson’s picture of Davis calling that thunder down on the head of Don Blankenship was as gutting a shot as I’ve ever seen in any newspaper.

The article beneath that photo, detailing the reaction of the dead miners’ families to the Blankenship verdict, was written by David Gutman, whom I’d met two years before when we sat on a panel about journalistic coverage of the Elk River Spill at the Reed College of Media at WVU.  Dave said that the morning of that spill, before the news had broken, he’d bent down to the water fountain at the newspaper office and recoiled at the stench coming from the head, the smell of the MCHM that Freedom Industries had allowed to seep into the Elk.  I remember that smell clearly even today; I’m not likely to forget it, or the way it suffused the car as I drove water down to my family from two hours north, or how I felt when I found out my sister had bathed her infant daughter in that water before the leak had been reported.

Blackened air; churned-up earth; poison water; killing fire.  How long, sweet Jesus?  How long will these brutes be permitted to rob and befoul and blast and burn?  When the verdict came in, my newsfeed seemed evenly split between those who were enraged that the sentence was so light, and those who were gobsmacked that anything like a penalty had been handed down at all.  That surprise speaks a grim truth about how we’ve been conditioned to accept this sort of monstrous arrogance throughout history.  But the core truth, and to my mind the central context for understanding what the Blankenship verdict means in the long term, is that the jury worked exactly within the parameters of the criminal code for conspiracy to violate federal mine safety standards, which is, under law, a misdemeanor, even if those violations create measurably life-threatening conditions.  And though I was as angered as most by the particulars of the sentence, the language of the court, the phrasing of it, was as pleasing to me as any long-overdue summons delivered to a man who’d been allowed to run riot long enough.

He said “I’m not guilty,” and the jury said, “Guilty.”  He said, “They were lost,” and Tommy Davis said, “You hold nothing.”  And I recalled how two years before, Freedom Industries’ Gary Southern tried to cut the press conference short on the first night of the Elk River Crisis by saying “It’s been a long day,” and the ABC reporter called him back to the microphone: “We have a lot of questions, and it’s been a long day for a lot of people who don’t have water.”  In February of this year, Southern was sentenced to a month in jail for negligent discharge of a pollutant, causing a discharge of refuse, and violating a condition of a clean water act permit.  And I thought about how for years, they’d walked away when they wanted to, when they were through with us; and I thought how gratified I was, at last, to finally see us begin getting in the last word.

Negligent, violation, conspiracy: For generations this was how the industry’s business was accomplished, with very little pushback and nothing much in the way of penalties.  For all the blowhard palaver from operators and politicos in bed with the extraction industry about how the EPA and the federal government are engaged in a war on coal, the flat fact is that here in West Virginia, coal played itself.  For decades the industry made money with both fists and skipped town when they’d sucked all they could out of us.  If there was a war,  it was waged against us: against the people who live here and work here, against the people who were sent down into darkness to draw fire for the nation, and who were treated as expendable when production fell below the mark.  And now, with the coal industry in general decline, the smoke hasn’t even cleared; and here comes the new swarm of locusts, drilling and blasting and fracking and fouling up the place for all of us.  Meet the new boss.

We deserve better.  Better than the raw, sad mathematics of it: 1300 safety violations at Massey Energy over the five years before the explosion: a little over one violation for every foot below ground the miners were when the 2010 blast occurred.  One year in prison: 12 days inside for every person killed.  $250,000: $8620.69 per dead miner.  If nothing else, the Blankenship verdict has revealed the cost to business, the real cost incurred, the actual risk in days and dollars, for putting a miner in killing harm’s way: A little under two weeks, and roughly the Blue Book value of a four-year-old Buick Regal sedan with a hundred thousand miles.

We deserve better, and always have.  We deserve better than to hear someone sing that old song again.  That song of a history of sacrifice and loss and backbreaking work is one I used to sing, and it’s one I used to love.  My family taught it to me, and it’s one you probably know too:

Where it’s dark as a dungeon, and damp as the dew

Where the danger is double, and the pleasures are few

Where the rain never falls, where the sun never shines

Where it’s dark as a dungeon, way down in the mines

I hope Don Blankenship hears that song when he walks into a room and a door closes behind him that he can’t open again for a year. I hope he finally feels the walls push in around him like we’ve felt for generations.  I hope the state legislature wakes its dead ass up and figures out that we’ve got an economy to rebuild, a good one this time, one that serves us all and serves us well.  I hope we invest in the kids who want to stay and get educated and work and live and thrive.  I hope we’ve set some kind of precedent over the past couple of years for getting good people involved in building this place up into something, and protecting it from the thugs who’d destroy it for money and return us all to darkness.

And I hope the price those thugs are made to pay is high. Because as hard as we’ve pushed back, as hard as we’re pushing now, as far as we’ve gone, it’s still not enough.  It’s not enough.  It’s not.


Eric Waggoner

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My dad, a lifelong firefighter, used to teach Hazardous Materials Response and Safety classes to first responders.  The first informational point he covered at the beginning of the course was how to read the classification marks on transportation tankers—the little diamond-shaped signs, usually mounted on the back of the tank, that announce via numerical code what kinds of chemicals are stored in those transport vehicles, and what levels and types of health risks would be associated with a spill in the case of a wreck.  The first homework assignment he gave was for the firefighters to go home and stand on the main cross street in their neighborhoods and home towns for about an hour, and write down the numbers on every tag they saw pass through that intersection, then go look up the numbers.  Dad said that the next week, when those students came back for class, invariably there’d be two or three groups of firefighters whose faces were white as flour.


This is not going to be a very cogent post, I’m afraid.  We’re still in the middle of the mess that got made for us, and there are still a lot of things we don’t know, including when the water is going to be drinkable again.  I’ll try to be as articulate as I can.

Yesterday, Saturday January 11, I drove to Charleston WV, the city where I was born, and where my parents, my sister and her husband, my niece, and many of my family still live.  I’m two hours north now, up in lumber country.  They’re still down south in coal country.  One of the ways we identify regional demarcations in this state is through industry.

I’d been talking to my folks ever since the spill at Freedom Industries on Thursday morning.  Here’s what we know so far: The spill dumped 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River, a mile and a half upstream from the intake pipes for West Virginia-American Water, a company that serves nine counties.  The spill was caused, according to the most reliable reports we’ve been seeing to this point, because of deterioration of Freedom Industries’ storage and transfer materials for chemicals used in coal processing.  We’re talking here about your basic rusted pipes and breached concrete containment walls.  Freedom Industries hadn’t been inspected by the Department of Environmental Protection in over 20 years.  There was, we’re being told, no plan—no plan—on the books for procedure and protocol, should one of those containment tanks happen to be breached.

I drove down to Charleston on Saturday morning with ten cases of bottled water, as my folks, my sister and brother-in-law, and my niece haven’t been able to use tap water since Thursday.  Saturday morning it rained in Buckhannon—rained hard.  It rained off and on all the way to Charleston, a sheeting, high-wind downpour that at times, through the windshield, looked like driving through a car wash.

About ten miles out of Charleston, the rain slacked off.  The temperature was mild, about 60 degrees.  I drove south to the point where I-79 South ends, and you pick up I-64 West to head into the interstate exchanges on the freeway that runs the length of downtown.  And there, about a mile and a half out, I smelled it, smelled the odor of the MCHM coming in through the car vents.

I keep hearing the odor described as “licorice.”  That’s not quite right, at least to me.  But I can see how you’d make that association.  The smell was both sweet and sharp, and strangely light, at least in comparison to the smells I associated with chemical leaks growing up.  But it was there, suddenly, like someone had flipped a switch.  It wasn’t there, and then the next second, there it was.

I-64 West into Charleston, coming from southbound, unrolls in a big left-hand curve just after you come into the city.  I’ve driven this route hundreds, maybe thousands of times.  I grew up here.  I recognize every building from the freeway—the banks, the hospitals, the hotels and apartment complexes, all of it.  In the deepest part of that big left-hand curve, down off the freeway and to my left, there was West Virginia-American Water Company, and the smell suddenly became very, very strong.

On my way in, the rain had let up.  Now there was low-lying fog, white-and-gray tufts and tendrils of vapor rising up from the street level all around the small wood-frame houses and gas stations and grocery stores.  The sky was dark, and the fog was in the streets, and the smell was everywhere.  I looked at the water company, and I smelled the air, and suddenly I was filled—I mean filled—with a rage that was quite sudden, very unexpected, and utterly comprehensive.

We can never predict what moments are going to affect us this way.  I’m no dewy-eyed innocent about chemical leaks.  They were regular occurrences when I was a kid.  On the merits, this doesn’t seem right now to be the worst industrial threat West Virginia has ever endured.  Hell, it isn’t the most immediately threatening one my family has endured personally; that would be the bromine leak in my very own hometown of Malden in the 1980s, the one that forced a complete evacuation of the entire town until the leak could be contained.

But something about this confluence, the way I had to bring potable water to my family from two hours north, the strange look of the landscape wreathed in rain and mist, the stench of a chemical that was housed directly upstream from the water company—something about all of that made me absolutely buoyant in my rage.  This was not the rational anger one encounters in response to a specific wrong, nor even the righteous anger that comes from an articulate reaction to years of systematic mistreatment.  This was blind animal rage, and it filled my body to the limits of my skin.

And this is what I thought:

To hell with you. 

To hell with every greedhead operator who flocked here throughout history because you wanted what we had, but wanted us to go underground and get it for you.  To hell with you for offering above-average wages in a place filled with workers who’d never had a decent shot at employment or education, and then treating the people you found here like just another material resource—suitable for exploiting and using up, and discarding when they’d outlived their usefulness.  To hell with you for rigging the game so that those wages were paid in currency that was worthless everywhere but at the company store, so that all you did was let the workers hold it for a while, before they went into debt they couldn’t get out of.

To hell with you all for continuing, as coal became chemical, to exploit the lax, poorly-enforced safety regulations here, so that you could do your business in the cheapest manner possible by shortcutting the health and quality of life not only of your workers, but of everybody who lives here.  To hell with every operator who ever referred to West Virginians as “our neighbors.” 

To hell with every single screwjob elected official and politico under whose watch it all went on, who helped write those lax regulations and then turned away when even those weren’t followed.  To hell with you all, who were supposed to be stewards of the public interest, and who sold us out for money, for political power.  To hell with every one of you who decided that making life convenient for business meant making life dangerous for us.  To hell with you for making us the eggs you had to break in order to make breakfast.

To hell with everyone who ever asked me how I could stand to live in a place like this, so dirty and unhealthy and uneducated.  To hell with everyone who ever asked me why people don’t just leave, don’t just quit (and go to one of the other thousand jobs I suppose you imagine are widely available here), like it never occurred to us, like if only we dumb hilljacks would listen as you explained the safety hazards, we’d all suddenly recognize something that hadn’t been on our radar until now. 

To hell with the superior attitude one so often encounters in these conversations, and usually from people who have no idea about the complexity and the long history at work in it.  To hell with the person I met during my PhD work who, within ten seconds of finding out I was from West Virginia, congratulated me on being able to read.  (Stranger, wherever you are today, please know this: Standing in that room full of people, three feet away from you while you smiled at your joke, I very nearly lost control over every civil checkpoint in my body.  And though civility was plainly not your native tongue, I did what we have done for generations where I come from, when faced with rude stupidity: I tamped down my first response, and I managed to restrain myself from behaving in a way that would have required a deep cleaning and medical sterilization of the carpet.  I did not do any of the things I wanted to.  But stranger, please know how badly I wanted to do them.)

And, as long as I’m roundhouse damning everyone, and since my own relatives worked in the coal mines and I can therefore play the Family Card, the one that trumps everything around here: To hell with all of my fellow West Virginians who bought so deeply into the idea of avoidable personal risk and constant sacrifice as an honorable condition under which to live, that they turned that condition into a culture of perverted, twisted pride and self-righteousness, to be celebrated and defended against outsiders.  To hell with that insular, xenophobic pathology.  To hell with everyone whose only take-away from every story about every explosion, every leak, every mine collapse, is some vague and idiotic vanity in the continued endurance of West Virginians under adverse, sometimes killing circumstances.  To hell with everyone everywhere who ever mistook suffering for honor, and who ever taught that to their kids.  There’s nothing honorable about suffering.  Nothing.

To hell with you.  This is the one moment in my adult life when I have wished I could still believe in Hell as an actual, physical reality, so that I could imagine you in it.

That was what I thought.  Not in those words—it came to me in a full-body rush—but I think that’s a reliable verbal representation of the feeling.

Like I said, it wasn’t rational or cogent.  I’m not an eco-warrior or a Luddite, and I’m not anti-business or even anti-industry.  But for years, I’ve watched from inside and out while the place I grew up in, the place where many people I love still live, got sold out and scorched and plowed under and poisoned and filled with smoke.

There are sensible, sane ways to do things.  (A mile and a half upstream from a water intake facility, for fuck’s sake.  Upstream.)  It’s essential for state and federal governments to consult with scientists—actual, real scientists, in spite of this area’s long and fierce tradition of anti-intellectualism when it comes to public policy—and provide a regulatory apparatus for maintaining safety standards and making sure things are up to code, and that there’s a protocol in place for when systems fail.  That’s what a society does to protect the people who live in it.  Or the people who live in it will—should, anyway—naturally come to the conclusion that their health and safety mean zero in the calculus of industry and politics.

Over the past couple of decades, the resource manufacturing industries have been leaving the state in a slow trickle—of their own volition, though, and not, as might have been hoped, at the end of a pike—and gradually, the state is going to have to move to a post-coal, post-chemical economy.  That’s a good development, to my mind.  But the history of sellout politicians and cheapjack business interests in this region keeps me on watch for the next plague of locusts.

Having been made to endure fucked up Air, Earth, and Water, we ought to be mindful of that history, and make sure that history goes with us, always, into the voting booth, into the streets, into the home, into the wider world.

Otherwise, to steal a line from the old hymn—and don’t we love our Jesus, our stories of noble suffering around here—we’ll all of us, residents and politicians and operators alike, find ourselves standing in the Fire Next Time.

Eric Waggoner

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Fast Food Items That Would Also Work As Poorly Chosen, Vaguely Off-Color Pet Names For Sweethearts

Drawn from the last few weeks’ worth of direct-mail coupons to show up in my mailbox:

  1. Little Thickburger
  2. Tender Crispy
  3. Chicken Basket
  4. Macho Beef
  5. Big Country Breakfast
  6. Vanilla Shake (Large)
  7. Nibblers
  8. Quad Stacker
  9. Sirloin Dip
  10. Triple w/Everything
  11. King Oreo
  12. Superstar with Cheese
  13. Chicken and Biscuit Bowl
  14. Double Meatball Marinara
  15. Caramel Moo-latte
  16. 6″ Meat Lover
  17. Onion Petals
  18. Hand-Dipped Strawberry
  19. Enormous Omelet
  20. Monster Biscuit
  21. Sack Of Fries

I do love me some small-town livin’.  And yes, we’ve been reading McSweeney’s again.

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Memo From Jonestown: Whoopee! We’re not dead. Now what?

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one subject, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed on a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of tears, to be reaped by its posterity…. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

–Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852)

I no longer remember where or how I first found Charles Mackay’s fantastic book. I remember someone mentioning it to me in the early 1990s, so probably a fellow grad-school malcontent turned me on to it. Beyond that dim recollection, I can’t recall much about how I came by it. However, I do remember being knocked on my ass from the very first pages, and thereafter recommending it to all of my friends.  It’s that kind of reading experience. Because in this sad, hilarious, sometimes horrifying volume, published first in 1841 and then in a second edition in 1852, Mackay offers an overview–the merest sample, as he points out in his introduction–of human delusion, bizarre behavior, and the thoroughly avoidable suffering that results from mass irrationality, from the Crusades to the Mississippi Scheme of 1720.

Howdy. It’s Monday, May 23rd, 2011–Judgment Day plus 2, as it were–and another End of the World has come and gone. Nice to see everyone back. (Except, sadly, for Macho Man Randy Savage. Godspeed, Macho Man; Pro Rasslin’ Heaven has gained a saint.)

Like most of you, I spent last Saturday idly aware of the ticking of the clock according to Family Radio Worldwide’s Rapture Countdown, a sort of goofball-apocalyptic “ABC’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” with civil engineer and amateur bible numerologist Harold Camping in place of Dick Clark, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse standing in for the Dropping of the Ball in Times Square.

Of course, here in Bucktown we were also celebrating the annual Strawberry Festival, and so I kept myself irrigated on the off-chance that Camping and company were right, since the arrival of Conquest, Slaughter, Famine, and Death would likely be easier to accept, or at least more fun to watch, if I were slightly oiled. (I was also watching the Festival Parade, and unless there’s been a grievous misreading of Revelation and the four horsemen are actually Miss Farm Tool, Shriner Clowns, Classic Cars, and Minor Local Television Celebrity, I missed the end of days entirely.)

But as it turned out: ho-hum. Aside from the parade, at least around my house it was a standard Saturday; I hung out with some friends, I watched a movie, I had a few drinks, and I went to bed. And then, if only to spite a single civil engineer in Oakland, California, I woke up the next morning.

It’s easy to poke fun at doomsayers. It’s easy to poke fun at anyone who’s being 100% deadly earnest about anything, in fact. That goes for proponents of world peace as much as boosters of World of Warcraft. Total commitment to anything makes you an easy target, no matter what trip you happen to be on. But, to this observer anyway, there’s something deeply mean-spirited about the end-is-nigh crowd. And–oh, irony of ironies–they’ve been with us, well-documented and noisy as crickets in a baseboard, since the first millenium.

Difficult as it is, I want to try to talk about this outside the context of religious faith, since I doubt even a statistically significant percentage of global Christendom put much stock in World Radio’s judgment day stopwatch. That apocalyptic countdown was the stated context for Camping’s prediction, but the grim and pessimistic sentiment behind it–the country’s going to hell in a handbag, humankind is circling the drain, we’re all gonna die, everything’s getting worse, the light at the end of the tunnel has gone out, etc.–seems to be infiltrating contemporary public discourse to a degree that’s not just alarming, but damn near stifling.

Also, not that it has much bearing on this particular discussion, but quite contrary to the phrasing used in several mainstream-press news stories about the Great 5/21 Celestial Soul-Hoovering, Harold Camping has precisely the quality of credentials for claiming to be a “Bible scholar” as I have for claiming to be an Admiral in the Queen’s Navy.  I’m a little disgruntled at the cavalier way the word “scholar” has been treated in this context, but for the nonce, let’s put the quasi-religious concerns to one side.

I’ve seen two anecdotes frequently repeated in news stories concerning Camping’s big bustout in this game of divine blackjack.  Last year, Joel and Adrienne Martinez quit their jobs in New York and cancelled plans for Adrienne to attend medical school, budgeting their income and savings to run out on 5/21.  (The couple has one daughter, and another child–actually typing this makes me feel so petty–due next month.  Call me cynical, but timing your pregnancy so that the delivery date occurs after the end of the world is either the most or the least selfish act I’ve ever heard of.)  NYC transit employee Robert Fitzpatrick spent his life savings, approximately $140,000, to advertise Harold Camping’s prediction.  That’s a hundred and forty.  Thousand.  Dollars.  Poof.  Gone.  Just spent.

These, and many others, are sad stories.  Much of the news coverage I’ve seen takes Camping to task, blaming the resulting financial hardship and suffering his advocates are now going to have to endure on his exploitation of human uncertainty and fear, for profit.  (Family Radio Worldwide is financed entirely through private donations.  And you’ll never believe this, but you can STILL make contributions through the organization’s web site.  Ye gods.  The sheer audacity.)

I have to admit, however, that I can’t work up much sympathy for people like Martinez and Fitzpatrick.  I tried.  I didn’t try very hard, but I did try.  And of course, I feel the standard wince at the thought of a fellow human depleting his savings in a way that would have been equally as effective had he soaked the money in gas and lit it on fire.

Still, anyone who balances the end of the world against hope for the future, and incinerates their money and personal security in the process, has something much more badly damaged inside them than can be explained away by simple uncertainty over the future, which it falls to all of us to face and overcome.

It’s not even as if this irrational, irresponsible behavior were locatable only in our own age. This sort of thing has been going on for at least a thousand years, in more or less exactly the same way.  Charles Mackay devotes the fifth chapter of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds to prophecies of the end of the world.  In it, Mackay describes the mass European pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the year 999.  The number of pilgrims was “so great,” he writes,

that they were compared to a desolating army.  Most of them sold their goods and possessions before they quitted Europe, and lived upon the proceeds in the Holy Land.  Buildings of every sort were suffered to fall into ruins.  It was thought useless to repair them, when the end of the world was so near.  Many noble edifices were deliberately pulled down.  Even churches, usually so well maintained, shared the general neglect. (257)

Not only that; they saw ominous portent in every naturally-occuring weather pattern:

Most of them were smitten with terror as with a plague.  Every phenomenon of nature filled them with alarm.  A thunder-storm sent them all upon their knees in mid-march… Every meteor in the sky seen in Jerusalem brought the whole Christian population into the streets to weep and pray… Fanatic preachers kept up the flame of terror.  Every shooting star furnished occasion for a sermon, in which the sublimity of the approaching judgment was the principal topic.  (257-8)

Well.  The shock of recognition, even when it comes from a book published over 150 years ago, is one of the hardest shocks of all.

I said above that I find something particularly sinister and mean-spirited about doomsday rhetoric. There’s something in apocalyptic language that’s not only dependent upon, but that also in some way fetishizes the very idea of, all the lights going out. That seems not only deeply pessimist, but also deeply misanthropic, in the least valuable way possible. A valuable misanthrope, on the Mark Twain model, might try to point out our faults in order to help us improve ourselves and cut the bullshit, as it were. A useless misanthrope sees no point in going on, and never expects anything but the absolute worst, so why not pull the plug already? All we’re going to lose is this crap world anyway.

This tendency to hysteria, to stridency, to the sort of language that not only keeps us divided but moves us farther apart from each other, is observable not only in the context of apocalyptic faith, but in the strident tone of most of our public conversations in contemporary American life.  Now that we’ve reached the 2012 candidacy-announcement season, the vocabulary of rack and ruin is being trotted out again, and for exactly the same purpose as always: to make us scared, to stifle the exchange of genuine ideas, to thwart calm rationality, and to subvert the intellect.

It happens on the left and the right.  I was especially disheartened to read this statement–one can’t really call it an editorial or an argument–by P.J. O’Rourke, printed in the Weekly Standard.  Reading it depressed me, because I’ve always admired and enjoyed O’Rourke’s writing, and found it eminently reasonable and worth considering carefully, even if my politics didn’t always meet up with his–as if that last consideration mattered a goddamn in a free society anyway.  This piece… of something… instead trades in irrationality and fear-stoking in order to appeal to our inner end-is-near-er.  And no coherent point is raised.  Not a single one.

I hasten to point out that this isn’t a matter of political or party affiliation.  I mention the O’Rourke piece because for me, as a reader who’s admired his work for its levelheadedness in the service of making a political argument, it serves as an emblem for what happens when that rationality gets cast aside in favor of whipping that segment of the populace that already agrees with you into a frenzy.  It’s not a left-or-right phenomenon.  It happens all along the political spectrum.

What can possibly be the point?  Why the hysterical tone in our public discussions?  Who can be moved by such rhetoric except those who are already on our side?  What’s the purpose of all this stoking of the fires of armageddon anyway, even (maybe especially) in the context of debates over politics and differences of public opinion?

I have a theory.  Don’t I always.

Hauling out the rhetoric of demise and destruction–figuratively, metaphorically, or literally–allows for the maximum amount of dramatic window-dressing for any political, ethical, moral, or religious opinion one cares to spout, and it encourages the debate to ride on purely emotive energy instead of pesky elements like logic, evidence, or reason. As opposed to a self-fulfilling prophecy, doomsday is a self-aggrandizing prophecy. It turns every disagreement into a do-or-die last stand, at the end of which anyone who doesn’t agree with us gets thrown over on the “die” side. It divides us all–not to ransack the thesaurus of religious metaphor–into left-hand and right-hand, sheep and goats. It presents us with an either-or proposition: Get on board, or be a part of humanity’s long slide into death and destruction. Also, give me a donation.

We’re better than this.  We’d damn well better be.  Because the responsibility for our accepting of opinions we take whole-cloth from hucksters and con men; every chance we miss to fact-check some claim that someone tries to get us to believe in the service of furthering their own projects; every moment in which we might have used an opportunity to learn something and instead chose to rebroadcast a sound bite we got from someone else, even to the point of using our own life savings to do so… all of that responsibility–all of it–is ours.  Individually.

Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

The process of recovering our senses is slow, solitary, difficult, and expensive.  How much better not to lose them in the first place.

Posted in books, faith, politics, random firings | 3 Comments

Perhaps I need a sabbatical.

Sorry, folks.  I’ve been away.  Doing what, you ask?

Doing this right here:

Actual marginal comments I’ve written on student essays/exams over the past month:


“The ‘Segway’ is the two-wheeled device.  A ‘segue’ is what moves an argument from one point to the next.  We went over this in class a few times.”

“You argue that the U.S. justice system is based on letting the punishment fit the crime, and that death penalty is the ‘only equal fitting punishment’ for murder.  By this logic, what punishment should rapists receive?”

“This isn’t a word.”

“You’ve already said this a few times.”

“I have no idea what this phrase is intended to mean.”

“Oh, lord.”



” ‘it’s’ = ‘it is’ or ‘it has’; ‘its’ = the possessive pronoun or adjective”  (seven times or so)

“Actually, this doesn’t happen in this novel.  I’m not sure what book you’re thinking of.”

“You’ve got to fight the urge to write this way.  You’re going to hurt your readers’ brains.”

“How can you be sure what topics ‘children used to fight about’ one hundred years ago?”


“where’s your source?”

“what’s your source for this?”

“where’d you get this?”

“Doesn’t the article argue exactly the opposite of this?”

“I cannot parse this sentence.”

“[frowning emoticon]”

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The Huckleberry Finn rant, pt.2

[This is part 2 of a two-part entry.  Part 1 appears in the preceding post.]

The two usual arguments one often hears regarding Huckleberry Finn’s language, particularly in the context of school board and reading list debates, run like so.  One side argues that the very appearance in the novel of such racist terms as Huck uses, and certainly the pervasiveness of those words, makes the novel itself a “racist book.”  The other side argues that the novel strives for realism in depicting the way people actually spoke during the mid-1800s (the time during which Huckleberry Finn is set), and for that reason it isn’t a “racist book,” just a realistic one.

Both arguments, I think, miss the mark.  At the heart of this binary either-or proposition is the question of whether or not Huckleberry Finn is something we might call a “racist book.”  I think that’s the wrong question to ask.  The question is, rather, whether Huck himself is racist.  And if so, how are we to understand his actions in the book, considered in the context of the language he uses to tell his own story?  In other words, how does the book encourage us to understand Huck’s racism itself?

That Huck is a racist—that he believes God created whites superior to blacks in intelligence, moral sense, and spiritual value—there can be no question.  He espouses such beliefs throughout the book, he grapples confusedly with the seeming contradiction of such beliefs when he encounters evidence to the contrary, and he never comes to a point where he understands Jim to be his racial equal.  What he does do, however, is something much more significant and powerful.

In the Widow Douglas, in Tom’s Aunt Polly—indeed, in virtually every genteel, middle-class context he encounters in the book—Huck sees white people treat black people as property, with contempt and with a thoroughgoing assumption of the lesser value of black lives when compared to white.  He also sees many of these same characters spout a message of charity, love, hospitality and acceptance—as we might say, the solid virtues of mainstream American society.  These characters give lip service to charity and grace, while treating the black characters in the book with indifference or violence.  They speak nicely, yet they behave foully.

Huck, by contrast, is the only character in the book to interact extensively with a black character—Jim, “Miss Watson’s runaway slave.”  In contrast to the middle-class whites in the novel, Huck speaks foully; despite the protests of readers who would claim that Huckleberry Finn simply represents the “way people talked” in the mid-1800s, “nigger” was not a word used in polite society in Huck’s (or Twain’s) day, and its deployment in public settings, heard by whites who considered themselves upstanding, moral people, would have suggested low manners and poor breeding in the person who used it. 

That’s precisely why Huck’s use of that term—indeed, his pervasive use of it—is so significant; that basic hypocrisy is at the heart of Twain’s choice to have Huck use it on nearly every page.  Huck has picked up on his use of the term from all levels of white society around him, from lower economic strata to the entrenched middle class.  He has heard it used everywhere, behind closed doors, in private settings, by whites of all economic and social backgrounds.  Because he doesn’t care at all about behaving in accordance with social niceties, he uses it thoughtlessly, since every white person he’s ever encountered, well-off or poor, has signaled to him that using it is perfectly natural and acceptable, so long as one doesn’t do so publicly.  The racism of the word doesn’t bother him, since he’s been taught from infancy that whites are superior to blacks.  Because he’s learned the fundamental lesson of racial superiority, it doesn’t bother him that he’s using a word other white people might make a show of disapproving.  He’s seen how black folk are treated.  He understands their true position in American life, whatever verbal niceties others might try to use to obscure it.

In this sense, Huck’s use of the word—his use of a word that, even in Twain’s day, was thought of as low and vulgar—represents the articulation of a racist consciousness fundamental to American life for hundreds of years, one that “polite society” suggests we shouldn’t acknowledge.  Huck speaks what we wish most to deny: The racism that permeated every level of American society, both public and institutional, for centuries, and which (considered on the historical timeline) we have only recently begun, as a culture, to try to dismantle.

Gribben’s and NewSouth’s replacement of that word with “slave” implies that Twain’s book doesn’t make a distinction between the two, that they are interchangeable, and that the replacement therefore doesn’t alter the text in any meaningful way.  In fact, Twain’s book does differentiate between the two.  The word “slave” appears on six occasions in Huckleberry Finn, and in every case, whether voiced by Huck or another character, that word is used in its very specific sense of denoting an “owned person”—that is, to refer to the indentured position foisted upon black folk in American life in Twain’s era.  Twain’s text understands, and consistently demonstrates, the difference between “slave” and “nigger” in Huck’s era.  The former refers to a position within an economic system of human exploitation, while the latter refers to black folk generally.

Huck’s casual use of the latter reveals that, no matter what his personal feelings may be towards Jim, he “understands” on a very basic level that Jim is his racial inferior.  The exceedingly problematic “happy ending” of Huckleberry Finn turns on Jim’s freedom; but the book’s racist vocabulary leaves the question of whether or not Huck still thinks of Jim as “a nigger” by the book’s end arguable.

The famous moment in Huckleberry Finn when Huck decides to “go to Hell” rather than turn Jim in is sometimes cited as the moment when Huck conquers his racism.  It is, importantly, no such thing.  Huck decides to try to help Jim escape, but not because he’s overcome racist thought.  He’s decided to do it because he’s decided that he is congenitally incapable of being good, upright, and moral—of being, in effect, a good American, a good white person, and a good Christian.  He believes, in making this decision, that he’s doing the wrong thing.  And Huck believes in Hell as an actual, physical reality.  In refusing to turn Jim in, he believes himself to be rejecting every standard by which a white person might be morally judged, in this world and in the next.  He commits to his immoral, anti-white, anti-Christian decision.  And he doesn’t look back.

This, I think, is a much more radical, subversive, and interesting moment than a simple “healing of a racist mind” might provide.  But it is not comforting.  The comforting book—the one NewSouth appears to want to publish—would be one that permitted us all to agree upon the evil of racist thought, and recognize the equality of black and white, while muting Twain’s depiction of the actual insidiousness and pervasive psychological effects of racism in the white mind.  That would be a “nice book.”  That would be a book that made the consoling argument that racism is an aberration in the American character, as opposed to a deeply embedded part of it.  That would be a book that allowed us to cheer for Huck as a redeemed character, by allowing him to stop using the word “nigger” thereafter.

However—and this is a point that I’ve not seen mentioned very often in discussions of the book—after that moment, Huck doesn’t refer to Jim, in his internal narrative, as “a nigger.”  He will use the word in other contexts, he will use it when referring to Jim in order to trick the Duke and the Dauphin; but he will never, in his own mind, simply refer to Jim by using that word.

It is a small change.  It is one so subtle that is has generally gone unnoticed in discussions of the novel.  Huck does not even, to all appearances, recognize it in himself.  But I find that detail, that change, a much more realistic depiction of how racist thought may begin to be dismantled than any sweeping, more comforting story would be able to afford.  Huck cannot recognize his love and admiration for Jim, and continue to refer to Jim in his own mind by that word.  He will continue to use the word when speaking to others, and when speaking about others.  But from that point forward, Huck cannot, within his own mind, use the words “nigger” and “Jim” as if they were interchangeable.  It is a minor change.  But at the same time, the suggestions it raises are staggering.

Huck has minimal formal education.  He is deeply ignorant.  His vocabulary and method of expression are crude at best.  And he is a racist, having grown up all his life around racists from every socioeconomic level.  And still, this barely literate kid, with no reinforcement or help from any other white folk around him, and with absolutely no vocabulary to understand his own racism—indeed, with no concept of what the word “racism” means or signifies—manages to free one small part of his brain from the assumption that this racist word naturally applies to this man, Jim.

It is a tiny, perhaps an infinitesimal measure of individual progress.  But in it, Twain seems to suggest that nothing—not impoverishment, not lack of education, not religious upbringing, not “family values,” not “the way I was raised”—nothing lets anyone off the hook.  Even without education, without reinforcement, Twain’s novel seems to suggest, one can begin to struggle free of the prejudices foisted upon us all from childhood, like a butterfly beginning the excruciatingly slow and difficult process of cutting itself free from the cocoon. 

Remove “that word” from the text, and that element is completely lost.

Still, it must be acknowledged that black and white readers come to Huckleberry Finn in fundamentally different ways.  No black reader has ever needed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to help him or her understand the specific end results of racist pathology.  Huckleberry Finn can educate white readers much more effectively than black readers, in this regard.  But in its depiction of the obliviously racist mind, the mind that itself does not recognize how deeply the concept of racial superiority has warped and confused it, the book is like nothing else in American literature. 

It is upsetting, it is frustrating, and it does not reassure us that the forward progress of history will alleviate the problem.  It is, in other words, complicated, conflicted, and uneasy.  It is meant to be, because it is meant to place the responsibility for progress on all of us, and it reminds us of that responsibility on every page.  An attempt to render The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn less upsetting robs us of its unique lesson regarding how racist pathology, passed from generation to generation in the home or in the world at large, poisons even the minds of children.  It is a lesson we sorely need, still, nearly 150 years removed from its initial publication.

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The Huckleberry Finn rant, pt.1

[This is part 1 of a two-part entry.  The conclusion appears in the subsequent post.]

NewSouth Books, a Montgomery, Alabama-based publisher, will in mid-February issue a one-volume edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).  The new edition replaces what NewSouth’s web site calls “two hurtful epithets” in those novels with the words “slave” and “half-blood,” in order to “help the works find new readers”—thereby removing the precise textual element that makes Huckleberry Finn, in particular, so essential an American book in the first place.

Huckleberry Finn is one of the most troubling and disconcerting novels in American literature.  It began in Mark Twain’s initial conception as an adventure story, a sequel to the well-reviewed (though not very successful) Tom Sawyer, with which it shares a geographical and historical setting as well as a handful of characters.  Unlike Tom Sawyer, which was written in the third-person voice, Huckleberry Finn was to be told in the first-person voice of a fairly literate, but abysmally ignorant, young boy from the American South.  Tom’s story, that is, is told by an omniscient narrator whose voice provides context, irony, or commentary as needed.  Huck’s story, by contrast, was to be told in Huck’s own voice.

That single difference creates a pervasive conflict, one that the book itself does not resolve in any very reassuring way.  That problem permeates the novel and makes it, I think, one of the very few American books that accurately depict the pathology (and, perhaps optimistically, the barest initial enlightenment) of the racist mind. 

The problem is this.  Huck Finn’s story is to be told in Huck’s own words.  And Huckleberry Finn—the character, not the novel—is a racist. 

Huck has only a minimal formal education, but he is a shrewd observer of the ways in which people act, which are frequently at odds with what they profess to believe.  Through that observation, and from his position as an impoverished white orphan who’s recently been taken in by a middle-class white family, he’s learned a very comprehensive lesson as regards race, a lesson taught to him by the genteel middle-class Widow Douglas as much as by his violent, abusive, low-class father.  Huck has been consistently told, and therefore unquestioningly believes, that whites are superior to blacks, that slavery is in complete accordance with the will of God, and that white superiority is a basic precept of the Christian faith he hears professed all around him. 

Huck begins the book a racist, and, despite those teachers and readers who might wish it otherwise, he ends the book a racist.  Sort of.  But I’ll come to that later.

As a result of letting such a narrator tell the story in his own words, Twain has Huckleberry Finn write or speak the word “nigger” approximately 200  times over the course of the novel.  Dr. Alan Gribben, who teaches in the English and Philosophy departments at Auburn University, edited NewSouth’s upcoming release, which substitutes the word “slave” for that racist term.  In his introduction, Dr. Gribben offers a detailed and, to me, thoroughly convincing account of his own personal challenges as a teacher, throughout many years of discussing both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in group settings:

For nearly forty years [writes Dr. Gribben] I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck.  I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed.

I’ve also taught Huckleberry Finn for many years, though not as many as Dr. Gribben, and always in the context of a college classroom.  I can relate to his sense of discomfort, particularly as a white teacher discussing a book that contains the word “nigger” on very nearly every page.

But however much we might wish the word away, however relieved we might be did we not have to deal with its presence in the book, however comforted we might be as teachers and students if we could ignore the fact that Huck Finn uses that word to refer even to the runaway slave Jim, whom he comes to love and who loves him back… the simple fact is that Huckleberry Finn is a book that is absolutely intended to make its readers uncomfortable, and any attempt to make it more palatable does significant damage to what Huckleberry Finn reveals to American readers about our own culture.

As Dr. Gribben points out, both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer frequently end up on “banned” or “unsuitable” lists in public school curricula.  This is, according to his introduction, the primary reason NewSouth is bringing out its new edition: to help bring both books to wider audiences by removing their most controversial elements. 

Tom Sawyer I have always found a harder book to defend in this regard than Huckleberry Finn, as it is primarily a generically formulaic “boy’s adventure” story—a well-plotted adventure story, but not one that raises much in the way of complicated or thought-provoking questions for the reader, on its own merits.  There is a serious tactical mistake, I think, inherent in publishing both books in one volume.  Because these are two very different, in fact radically different books. 

Tom Sawyer is a boy’s adventure—one told using racist language, but at its heart, a novel that follows the conventions of what’s come to be called “young adult literature.”  Huckleberry Finn is, most emphatically, not “young adult literature.”  Huckleberry Finn is a dark, disturbing, relentlessly uncomfortable dissection of a racism endemic though not peculiar to American history, on every page of which we are forced to acknowledge that Huck’s genuine personal respect and admiration for “Miss Watson’s runaway slave Jim” are not, finally, enough to make him fully comprehend how the pathology of cultural and institutional racism has poisoned his mind.  He begins that process, but he does not complete it.

Twain, as Gribben states, did originally intend Huck Finn as a sequel to Tom Sawyer.  But those plans were abandoned midway through the writing process, as Twain discovered that he could not write this story, in this voice, and tell that sort of innocuous, generically coherent story.

To take a small but telling example: When Huck Finn first appears in Tom Sawyer, he is depicted as the sort of kid that every young male child in town envied—he has no parents, no fixed home, runs around in old clothes that are little more than rags, smokes, talks dirty, and essentially does anything he pleases without fear of parental discipline: “In a word,” writes Twain’s omniscient narrator, “everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had.” 

Feeling stifled by the solid values and comforts of their homes, churches, and schools, all the young boys in town including Tom Sawyer admire and envy Huck.  But readers understand the irony in the sentence above.  Huck is the very emblem of Poor White Trash, a filthy boy of low-class Irish heritage whose degenerate father is the town drunk.  His life is hard, unpleasant.  Readers understand that.  The kids don’t.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by contrast, is told in Huck’s own voice, and therefore with no opportunity for ironic or blindly romantic distancing of his life’s harshness.  In his own novel, Huck describes surviving by eating garbage, fakes his own death to avoid being killed by his own father (following a harrowing scene in which Huck is locked inside a remote cabin with Pap, who shrieks and raves for hours as he undergoes alcohol withdrawal, and on whom Huck holds a gun for self-protection even after he passes out), and at various points directly witnesses murder (including the murder of a child his own age), robbery, fraud, vicious mob justice, and larceny.  Huck is a hard kid.  But he inhabits a compensatorially vicious world.  And part of that viciousness inheres in the novel’s deployment of racist language.

[continued in next post]

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