Op-Ed

Paper has little empathy for those in poverty

In its "Move over barefoot Hillbilly, make way for the offended Appalachian" editorial, the Herald-Leader dismisses the experiences of thousands of Eastern Kentuckians who have felt the stigma of poverty in the region.

It's sad there is stigma—that people who are better off are so repelled by the inevitable unattractiveness of poverty—but that's the way it is and always has been. Think of the slum residents of India and its historic caste system.

Think of the residents of deteriorating public housing across this country. Think of sweat shop workers in New York, Chicago and Boston during this country's industrial age living and dying in filthy, diseased tenements.

I wholeheartedly support the editorial's call for more funding for dental care in this underserved area and for more education about the health effects of soft drinks.

But there is a noticeable lack of empathy for those who struggle to rise not just above poverty, but above the emotional and psychological effects of living in a region that has experienced economic exploitation and entrenched poverty for generations.

Joel Pett's "Reruns, huh?" and "Nice teef" cartoons really say it all. Even the children are portrayed in an ugly, mean-spirited way. Can you imagine African-Americans, Hispanics or any other group, a significant segment of which struggles with poverty, being portrayed this way?

The editorial chastises Appalachians who dare to ask the rest of our state and country to examine the region in its full complexity—its unique sense of place, scenic beauty and the natural charm, humor and warmth of the people who live there.

Is it wrong for local officials in the mountains to ask for acknowledgment of the progress that has been made?

Of course all stereotypes have some truth to them—that's a given. It's the reason stereotypes start in the first place. But the point is that many people in a given group—whatever the group may be—don't fit the stereotype and want to be judged on their own merits.

I'm not sure what polls support the paper's assertion that "most people know that not everyone in Eastern Kentucky is poor, addicted and toothless." If you talk to Eastern Kentuckians, many of them will tell you a different story, especially those who have left the mountains for college or work.

The editorial ignores the social stigma and misperceptions that have plagued generations of Appalachians. Perhaps the Herald-Leader could start by talking to Appalachian students here at UK.

Ironically, in chastising the "offended Appalachian" there's more than a hint of the editorial writer's own offense at negative backlash against the Herald-Leader's reporting—and I use the term 'reporting' loosely—about the overturned trailer in eastern Kentucky.

This deep-seated attitude toward Eastern Kentucky may explain the contempt some Herald-Leader editors and columnists have exhibited toward Lexington as well. Explaining why she believes Lexington lags far behind Louisville in sophistication and progressive thought, a friend of mine summed it up this way: Lexington has always been the capital of Appalachia.

But here's one reason our city struggles to be all it can be and our state continues to lag behind. When your major newspaper has too often covered local and state issues with sarcasm, contempt and an overt lack of objectivity; when editorials commonly dismiss the population's predominate cultural leanings, religious beliefs or political thought rather than respectfully but persuasively disagreeing; when coverage of our complex history too often lacks regional, national or historic context and the glass is always reported as half-empty, there is no opportunity for constructive dialogue.

Without constructive dialogue, you end up with polarization and a paper that preaches to a choir of folks who already hate our city and state, who think we're a lost cause, and who like to hear their beliefs repeated back to them. On the other end of the political and cultural spectrum, you have a lot of people who have stopped listening. And you have a few people like me who agree with most all of the Herald-leader's policy positions but can't understand how dismissive criticism that lacks empathy for its subject matter will convince anyone to change their thinking and help move us forward.

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