Sunday Forum: Appalachia, heal thyself
LEXINGTON, KY. -- In the end, Appalachia remained out of sync with much of America this year. West Virgina, Kentucky, Tennessee, a swath of Pennsylvania and most of the hill country went for John McCain. Barack Obama's message of "hope" did not play as well here as elsewhere.
This may seem a bit odd. The major targets of the election were Joe Six-pack, Joe the Plumber; Joe the Ordinary Man. Joe represented disaffected males, the lost ones yearning for a simpler and better time. Enough Joes in other states voted for Mr. Obama to win him a spectacular victory in places like Ohio, Florida and Michigan.
But no one thought much of Joe the Coal Miner and not much attention has been given to what this election means to the many Joes who live in Appalachia.
For too many generations, our Joes have either hunkered down and worked the coal fields or eked out a meager living on rocky hillside terrain. Many have survived on the cash economy, tinkering as best they could to cobble together a living. My father tells me his grandfather made mandolins to supplement his farm earnings and played them at family gatherings. There were town centers where families would come to "trade" on the weekends. Dad describes his upbringing as poor, but happy.
Baseball teams formed and played a small-town circuit. I once saw a 1914 picture of my grandfather as a member of one of those teams -- the Mize Nine. Today you could not get nine people together in Mize, now barely a wide place in the road.
It is a world where the much-discussed disappearance of the middle class didn't apply because it never existed. Like my father, many of the men left for the factories of the North in the 1940s and '50s. The culture was and is a story of signature literary, artistic and musical achievements, but little in the way of jobs outside of coal.
Appalachian people were sometimes portrayed during the Democratic primary as racist, ignorant and pathetic. Appalachian towns like Inez, Ky., where LBJ proclaimed the war on poverty in 1964, were visited and heralded as towns to be rescued -- only to be left behind as attention shifted elsewhere.
In an era when change is demanded, what can be expected of or for Appalachia?
It is a land where minerals are king and are largely owned by outside interests. It has resisted change and remains ridden with poverty and an image that defies change even in the face of success -- and there are some success stories in Appalachia.
President-elect Obama was the candidate of hope. His soaring speeches lifted us up. But he is a Chicago kind of guy and seems likely to focus attention on the big cities and surrounding regions where 75 percent of Americans are expected to live by the year 2050.
But hope also applies to places like Appalachia. We don't need to be caricatured in the national media as pathetic, poor and somehow unqualified for the brave new world.
Yet we should not expect that Washington will solve our problems. It is dawning on all of us that what is big and glittery may not be what we need. The environmental, energy and financial crises have converged to drive home what Hurricane Katrina was trying to tell us -- that we need to realign our priorities.
What we need most fundamentally are not big new investments in infrastructure or more federal money for education. Those would be welcome, but the changes that will mean the most long-term will come from the local level, from the ability of smaller places to reinvent themselves.
I see some signs of this. Appalachian towns that had been written off are coming alive again as we seek to build locally what is beyond our means in larger, more glamorous venues.
West Liberty, Ky., is cultivating new leaders and engaging high school students and 20-somethings in discussions about the future of the region. Morehead, Ky., home of Morehead State University, is reinvigorating itself by breaking down barriers between the city and the university, seeking more employment spin-offs from the university and inviting students to join local boards and commissions.
People in Inez also are determined to take control of their own destiny. They want to write a new story that transcends poverty and the image of their town that's presented by the 24-hour news outlets. They want to do more than catch up; they want to leap forward.
As the Obama administration grapples with the many issues it faces -- economic distress, energy dependence and health care among them -- it should remember the words of Colin Powell: "All villages matter."
Small places -- and big ones -- do not need Washington to save them, just to acknowledge that they are important and deserving of equal opportunity. President-elect Obama should help us build great communities in all corners of the nation. Appalachia may not have voted with him, but as he said on election night, "red" America is still part of America.
The tired old policies of Washington politicos will not work any longer. Handouts have never been the answer.
As one voter here said, "We intend to hold Obama accountable in his presidency." Then she paused: "And we expect him to hold us accountable as well."
First Published November 16, 2008 12:00 am