For more than 100 years, this nation has benefited from the cheap energy and magnificent timber of Kentucky’s mountains, all produced for our use by the back-breaking labor of the people of Appalachia.
The enormous wealth generated by this treasure has mostly accumulated outside of Kentucky, but a not insubstantial sum arrived in Frankfort as tax revenue.
Largely unacknowledged regarding the source of these treasures, the people of the mountains have also inspired the nation through our unique music, art and literature. (Think of Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, James Still, Harriet Arnow and a host of others.)
In addition, unappreciated and often overlooked are the untold gallons of blood shed by mountain volunteers in the nation’s wars from the Spanish-American through WWII and today.
Always a stoic and proud lot, now the people of the mountains are drowning in a sea of unemployment and opioid addiction. This represents a failure of the state and federal governments to acknowledge and repay this enormous debt to Appalachia.
The debt payment so far has been little more than ridicule and further exploitation. Of course the media carries a share of the blame, but from our elected officials — such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Gov. Matt Bevin — we expect much more. They, above all others, should understand and appreciate the people of the mountains and their sacrifices for the rest of the state and nation.
Rather than enacting policies and programs to repay the debt, our elected leaders continue to use two despicable strategies to avoid responsibility.
First, blame someone else. The downside of cheap coal, in addition to the destruction of the mountains and the bodies of miners, has been the release of tons of pollutants into the nation’s air and water. Our elected officials avoid this conversation by shifting the conversation to declining employment, while failing to mention that mechanization of mining has caused three times as many layoffs as environmental concerns.
Blaming the environmentalists for the results of burning fossil fuels ties cleverly into the second nefarious strategy for avoiding responsibility: blaming the victims themselves.
Utilized by both liberals and conservatives, the people of the mountains are themselves regularly blamed for the lack of education when they weresaddled by the worst schools in the commonwealth. They are blamed for drug abuse while facing exploitative drug companies and soul-draining levels of unemployment; and for obesity and horrendous dental care while under attack by sophisticated fast food marketing and absent health care.
Perhaps the unkindest cut of all is the notion that any attempt to feed hungry children, provide health care for the sick and dying or invest in housing for the poor is a way of “creating dependence on government aid.”
Where is the irony in our political leaders’ own dependence on cheap energy, tax cuts for the wealthy and political contributions from health insurance, pharmaceutical and energy corporations?
In his brilliant essay, “The Braindead Megaphone,” George Saunders notes that those who manage to continually shout via the media are able to distract us and drag our thinking to the lowest level. McConnell and Bevin are not likely to read this piece, Kentuckians can consider these ideas on their merit and vote accordingly.
Charles L. Baker is the retired mayor of Buckhorn. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.