By Matthew Stevenson
Photos, Matthew Stevenson
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Not since the 1960s, in particular the campaigns of John and Robert Kennedy, has the question of Appalachia determined the outcome of a presidential election. Then it was a backdrop for speaking about domestic poverty, educational failures, the importance of labor unions, and the sense that the Democratic party cared more for mine workers than the corporations that owned them. Now it counts more as a clue in crossword puzzles.
The political legacy
In 1960, when John Kennedy won the West Virginia primary (in this case his father was bootlegging the Scotch-Irish), it signaled his arrival as a serious national candidate.
To replay this era of good feeling, in 1968 Robert Kennedy held Senate hearings in the field around the themes of Appalachia’s downfall, equating the hardships of miners to the failures of the federal government to provide wage support, health care, retirement benefits, educational support, and help for impoverished women with children. He contrasted its neglect against the waste in Vietnam.
In February 1968, Robert Kennedy went to Whitesburg, Kentucky, where he met with the best-selling author, Harry M. Caudill. His 1963 book about Appalachia, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, had enlightened JFK and the nation at large about the depressed coal regions of Appalachia, which were shown to have powered, but then missed out on, the American dream. He wrote: “Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies.”
Admiring both John and Robert Kennedy (meeting the latter while in the eighth grade), I read Night Comes to the Cumberlands as a senior in high school. When it came time to select a topic for independent study near graduation, I chose the coalfields of Appalachia, even though I had grown up in suburban New York.
As part of the research, my friend Kevin Glynn and I spent ten days riding the train and hitchhiking across West Virginia, to understand better what the Kennedys and Caudill were saying.
We followed the line of the Baltimore & Ohio as it headed northwest from Washington, D.C. and made stops in Grafton, Clarksburg, and Fairmont before turning north for the steel mills around Wheeling and Weirton.
We spent our nights in station hotels, guest houses, and even the city jail in Hundred, WVA, where the sheriff kindly offered us the only spare beds in town (after beating us at pool in the local bar).
Until recently I had not traveled again in Appalachia. This time, instead of boarding a tired day coach in Washington’s Union Station, I drove a rental car south by southwest, toward the coal counties of southwest Virginia (evocatively named Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Lee, Tazewell, and Wise). In particular I was following a freight line of the Norfolk Southern railway that ran through Rural Retreat.
The New York photographer O. Winston Link took some of the best photographs of Appalachia in the late 1950s, including several around the station of Rural Retreat, which lies in the valley near some of the grittiest coal seams in America.
A legacy of the region’s sense of cultural independence
Although Link was there to capture the last days of American steam engines, his black-and-white pictures are a legacy of the region’s sense of cultural independence, the belief that somehow Appalachia belongs more to itself and its inhabitants than to some larger government entity.
Nearby, the aptly named Dante, Virginia was just one of the hollows where I took stock of the fact that bituminous coal no longer makes anyone’s shortlist of fuels that would allow America to run on alternative energy. Much American coal now gets shipped to foreign markets that have more lax environmental regulation.
Whoever named the town had a sense of literature and irony for the town is a circle of depression along a narrow, dark valley of the Clinch River. It was once the headquarters of the Clinchfield Coal Company and is now as forgotten as the tender on an abandoned steam engine.
From Dante, I crossed the Appalachian Plateau at Pound Gap, not unlike the Cumberland Gap, but farther north and celebrated for the Civil War battle in which a future president, James A. Garfield, helped to push Confederate forces out of Kentucky.
Down the hill from Pound Gap is the town of Whitesburg, KY, where Caudill wrote his books and where Robert Kennedy campaigned in 1968. When not writing or in the state legislature, Caudill was a local lawyer. Perhaps his engaging personality and sense of injustice can be glimpsed in the fictional persona of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird?
Not knowing anyone in Whitesburg, a mixture of sad-looking storefronts and small houses, I headed for the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library, hoping that a local librarian could steer me toward his house or tell me more about Robert Kennedy’s visit.
I found the staff willing to pull manuscripts and clippings that Caudill had donated to the library before he died, a suicide, in 1990. (He was suffering from Parkinson’s.) I was even shown a book, still out on the open shelves, that Robert Kennedy had autographed on February 14, 1968. Was it the last time a candidate traveled to meet an author and stopped in a public library?
For dinner I decided to eat in the Courthouse Café, where for about $11 I had a full meal, desert, and coffee, and a long conversation with the owner, Josephine Richardson, who had personally known Caudill well and who had first come to Appalachia in 1969 in the spirit of idealism so synonymous with the Kennedy visit.
She described how Caudill wrote his books on Appalachia in longhand or dictated them, and how his wife, Anne, had helped to polish the prose. He believed that the mining companies were digging the lifeblood out of the mines and miners, with little regard for the region’s environment.
Caudill was among the first to oppose strip mining. Were he alive today, she said, he would despair at mountain-top removal, in which the crests of hillsides are sliced open like a soft-boiled egg and the shells are dumped into nearby streams. Like others I met, she said that many companies found it expedient to walk away from their environmental indemnity bond rather than restore the mountain to the way it was first found.
Robert Kennedy, Jr., the senator’s son, recently helped to make a documentary film, The Last Mountain, about this mining practice. The film picks up the themes evoked by Kennedy’s father and Caudill—that coal is both the life and death of Appalachia. Relatively few miners now work the coalfields, as heavy machinery is employed to strip the hills clean.
Profits from the mines are cashed in corporate suites far from Kentucky counties such as Perry, Letcher, and Whitely. Nevertheless, having diversified from coal, Appalachia’s poverty and unemployment rates are now closer to national averages than they were when Caudill wrote his books.
To see some of the “removed” mountains, I drove around Harlan County, went to the excellent coal mining museum in Benham, KY (it has a mannequin of Loretta Lynn and a lunchpail collection), descended an old mine at Lynch, and decided to camp in a state park that has a panoramic view of Appalachia.
As I was there out of season, the park had the eerie feeling of a ghost mining town. I slept lightly, after a ranger warned me about bears and other campers described how joy riders caroused at night through the park.
Dawn on the industrial skinheads
The uneasy night was worth it to be on top of the world for dawn’s early light, which shimmered off several peaks that, from a distance, looked like heads shaved bare. Around these industrial skinheads were the scars from the excavators that had stripped clear the trees and vegetation.
Drinking my cowboy coffee and eating a day-old sandwich, I felt a continuing sadness about Appalachia. Beneath the hills where I was sitting were enough fossil fuels for America to ignore the Middle East for two hundred years. Coal is also part of a proud tradition of industrial progress, as evocative as Link’s pictures of fading steam engines.
Instead of selling itself as an alternative to Arabian instability or finding ways it can be environmentally clean, coal is still positioning itself as a commodity that, to be exploited, first has to sell out the region and its workers for the interests of the corporate store. Caudill writes: “It is an extractive industry which takes all away and restores nothing. It mars but never beautifies. It corrupts but never purifies.”
Matthew Stevenson, a Geneva writer, is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays, and edited Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.
Economic notes from a recovery summer
By Matthew Stevenson
Photos, Matthew Stevenson
Because I live in Europe and only travel around the United States in summer—America-on-five-relatives-a-day—I am sure my economic observations from this last hegira lack the rigor of a Gallup poll or a Brookings Institution survey.
Nevertheless, I did cross about two thousand miles of the country—from Maine to New Jersey and then up the Hudson River to Montreal—and came to the conclusions that: in most communities the real estate market is still dead; economic development means putting up a CVS opposite a new Duane Reade; college is a protection racket; public transportation isn’t very kind to the public; Amtrak’s problem is that it doesn’t like trains; Americans all sound like Best Buy salesmen; and, finally, it’s hard to get away from the War of 1812.
Sellers beware: I would like to report that I saw signs of economic recovery in Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Apart from the bubble that is New York City’s co-op market, most conversations I had about housing prices indicated that, to use Shakespeare’s phrase, the recovery “waxes desperate with imagination.” I drove through a working class neighborhood in Bangor, Maine where it seemed almost a third of the houses were empty or boarded up. In New Jersey, it has taken more than ten years for the houses and apartments in my father’s retirement community to sell, and still vacancies remain. Forlorn towns along the Hudson River look like they are waiting for a revival of the whaling industry.
Build it and they will shop: At each stop I found myself wondering about an economy that to show growth needs to build more drug stores. Banks aren’t lending to small- and medium-sized businesses, but they will fork out any amount of money to put up another drive-through pharmacy, no doubt because the government is now in the pill-giveaway business and doctors prescribe medications by the fistful. Whatever the benefits of Obamacare, it is a gold rush for chain drug stores. Even small towns have two or three of the national brands, all selling flu shots and Oreos. (Aisles 1 to 6 make you sick; in 7 through 12, you feel better.)
Knowledge is good, if pricey: Within the SUV classes, all anyone talks about is getting their kids into college, be it Pomona, Penn, or Perdue. It used to be, in summers, most high-school kids had jobs scooping ice cream or, in my case, pumping gas into motor boats. Now, summer work involves SAT booster courses, essay-writing tutorials, vocabulary enrichment, and application-building volunteerism that usually includes a side trip to Shanghai. I shouldn’t complain, as I value the liberal arts and and touring colleges is clearly a boom industry. But what society wants—on top of the $200,000 in college tuition costs—to limit its university applicants to those who can attend SAT summer camps?
Safe, dependable, cramped: I try to connect the dots of my family with public transportation, even when it involves a bus ride. On this trip, I took Greyhound from Burlington, Vermont, to Montreal. To catch the bus, however, I had to take taxi out to the airport, as the long dog no longer serves downtown Burlington or the University of Vermont. Greyhound is a dreary experience (don’t bet on its wi-fi working), and for many American towns it’s the only hound in the hunt—a virtual monopoly on long-haul bus routes. Nor does it bother with many secondary towns. When you are without a car in Homeland America, the country lives up to Dr. Johnson’s observation about the Giant’s Causeway in Scotland: “Worth seeing, but not worth going to see.”
Your stimulus money at work: A handful of American cities and towns are granted an appearance from Amtrak, although it’s generally so spotty that only those down on their luck or with time to burn chance it for a connection. (Down on my luck?) I took the all-day train from Pennsylvania Station to Plattsburgh, New York. The train was an hour late (at least we had views of the Hudson). The train crew of three conductors (who passed the time reading newspapers in the club car) still managed to strand onboard a passenger who tried to get off in Ticonderoga. The diner ran out of coffee. The old, but charming depot in Plattsburgh had a hand-lettered sign on the door: “This station does not sell tickets,” but noted an 800 number and stated “Reservation Required.” (Is that for the call or the train?) Amtrak is the same organization making the case to be in charge of President Obama’s $128 billion stimulus proposal for high-speed rail.
The attention span of iCats: During my vacation travels, most rooms that I was in had either a new flat-screen television or some other electronic device as alluring as Mecca. Chatting with Americans now is like talking to monks whose heads are always bent in prayer—on the altar of a smart phone. It used to be every American room had television; now it is every pocket. Most conversations touched on the next upgrade.
For solace, I retreated into Neil Postman’s 1985 classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In delivering a bromide against the evils of television, making the distinction between a “word-centered culture” and an “image-centered culture,” he writes: “Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment then vanishes again.” He wrote this before there were iPhones.
The battlefield business: Given that Revolutionary and Civil War touring is big business, why not make more of the War of 1812? I enjoyed tracking down the decisive battle of Plattsburgh and its offshore equivalent, the Battle of Lake Champlain. I met Keith Herkalo, the president of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association and its 1812 Museum, and he walked me through the now-forgotten battle that, more than Yorktown, preserved American independence.
On September 11, 1814, American soldiers in Plattsburgh and ships on Lake Champlain held off the attacking British forces from capturing the waterway, if not the Hudson, with a brave stand against numerically superior forces. In his history of sea power, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan calls Lake Champlain “decisive.”
Plattsburgh might have saved the American republic, but the ferry across Lake Champlain to Grand Isle, Vermont left me high and dry, about twenty-five miles from Burlington and without a bus to the city. I ended up in an expensive taxi, in which the driver’s girlfriend talked for most of the ride about the novels of Stephen King. (“That’s the one where his head explodes…”)
The sun was setting across the lake, and Vermont had the summer smell of fresh corn and cut grass. It made me forget my late train, all those flat-screen TVs, fragmented conversations, and indebted students. In Burlington, it took me forever to find a hotel (they’re out by the interstate). At least the funky and charming downtown has lots of restaurants, boutiques, and even sidewalk bricks that celebrate cities like Ulan Bator and Chongqing—and, of course, drug stores.
Matthew Stevenson is the author of “Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited,” a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is “Whistle-Stopping America.”
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – American women made it clear in hundreds of US media Sunday that they intend to make their votes count in the upcoming presidential election, but just what the result will be is anybody’s guess.
Marina Mecl, Youth Vote Overseas Outreach Program director at the Overseas Vote Foundation, contributes her thoughts on the issues.
Women’s Equality Day, USA
By Marina Mecl
Did you know that the long and difficult struggle for women’s right to vote lasted 72 years? Certainly the struggle was compounded by the fact that women were not even allowed to speak at public forums in that era. Can you imagine that in this current election year?!
Now, both men and women in the United States celebrate Women’s Equality Day on August 26th. It was on that day in 1920 – eight days after it had been ratified – that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was declared in effect, giving female citizens the right to vote in all U.S. elections. Sad to say, only one of the suffragists who attended the historical Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 was still alive to vote in the 1920 presidential election.
The 19th Amendment was not only a landmark for democracy in our nation’s history; it was the first step on a long path towards raising consciousness about equality – equality for women of all social ranks and equality for women and men of all skin colors and religious denominations.
Let’s turn to the present 2012 Presidential Election Year. Will this be an “election all about women,” as the title of an April 2, 2012 article in The Atlantic suggests?
The presidential and vice-presidential nominees
It’s an all male race in November with the exception of candidates chosen by the Green Party, which selected two women, presidential nominee Jill Stein and vice-presidential nominee Cheri Honkala. Women may not be running in the two largest political parties, but their votes will have a major impact on who wins. The candidates know that they will ignore them only to their own peril.
The issues are being hotly discussed, but according to a USA Today/Gallup Swing-State Poll in April, “Men and women (among registered voters in 12 of the top swing states) show somewhat different priorities when identifying issues that are ‘extremely important’ in influencing their vote for president.” And the closer we get to the election, the more women it seems are bringing up the issues specifically related to females.
Political discourse via social media tools
Everyone would probably agree that social media tools have become an increasingly important means for political discourse and information sharing today. So who is using these tools? In 2011, female Facebook users in the U.S. outnumbered male Facebook users in all age categories! Facebook reported that the 55 – 64 age group, which included two million more female users than male users, was almost the size of the 13 – 17 group, in which there were one million more females than males. An anecdotal observation is that these older female Facebook users may be just as likely to be sharing political links as they are to be sharing pictures of their grandchildren.
Most reports are also indicating that the number of females in the U.S. using Twitter is slightly higher than the number of male Twitter users.
The presidential debates
Largely thanks to the efforts of three teenage women, the moderators for this year’s presidential and vice-presidential debates will be evenly divided between male and female journalists. When sixteen-year-olds Emma Axelrod, Elena Tsemberis and Sammi Siegel, all from Montclair, New Jersey, learned in civics class that it has been twenty years since a female journalist moderated the presidential debates, they started a Change.org petition. The 122,000 signatures they collected fell slightly short of the number needed but their campaign caused a lot of attention and in the end brought success!
Women in Congress
Little has changed since I started writing articles for Women’s Equality Day in 2006, when 81 of the 535 House and Senate seats were held by women. Now women hold 90, or 16.8%, of the 535 seats in the 112th U.S. Congress — 17, or 17.0%, of the 100 seats in the Senate and 73, or 16.8%, of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. In addition, three women serve as Delegates to the House from Guam, the Virgin Islands and Washington, DC. It is not a dramatic increase, but at least it is in the upward direction. We can all see we are not equal yet!
Voter turnout – the gender factor
If the turnout of voters in the upcoming presidential election follows the trend of the past three decades, the proportion of eligible female adults who will vote will exceed the proportion of eligible males who vote. According to The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, 70.4 million women and 60.7 million men voted in the 2008 Presidential Election. Even among citizens between the ages of 18 – 24, the percentage of women voting was higher than that of their male peers.
Taking these hard facts into account, you can see that a woman will very likely cast the deciding vote on November 6.
I close with this message:
May Women’s Equality Day be a reminder to ALL of us to express our precious right to vote! Remember this isn’t just a presidential election; it’s a general election, so lots of seats for Congress will be decided too. Look up your candidates, see where they stand on the issues, make your choice and vote on November 6, 2012 — whether you live at home or abroad!
Some helpful voter resources:
- Non-partisan information on elected officials’ voting records and candidates’ positions: Project Vote Smart
- Non-partisan information about Congress including more demographic information: Congress.org
- A non-partisan organization providing online tools and services for U.S. voters living abroad: Overseas Vote Foundation and their website for young voters Youth Vote Overseas – both provide a handy Candidate Finder
- A non-partisan organization that provides young women and girls with the skills and confidence they need to become the political leaders of tomorrow: Running Start
 “Swing States Poll: A shift by women puts Obama in the lead,” USA Today, April 2, 2012.
 “Candy Crowley, Anne Raddatz Chosen as Presidential Debate Moderators, Teen Girls’ Petition Succeeds,” The Huffington Post, August 13, 2012.
By Andy Sundberg
One thing overseas Americans seem to have systematically overlooked so far, in our efforts to try to bring about changes in the current US tax legislation, is the fact that many in Washington may have their most fundamental core beliefs about taxation not based upon reason at all but elsewhere, and possibly most powerfully in the various versions of Holy Scriptures.
We have traditionally built our appeals almost entirely on the basis of facts, common sense, secular history, and so on. Perhaps we have been fundamentally deluding ourselves in terms of how the process really works today, and what the most powerful neuron motivations really are in the benighted City Upon a Hill.
If we want to have an effective impact on future deliberations in the Congress, and in the Executive Branch, too, we might be well advised to spend some time now trying to build up the metaphysical dimensions of our arguments in favor of what we think would be greater equity in the way we are being treated, and especially as justified by appropriate divine commitments.
If you Google the question: “taxation in the Bible”, as I did this morning, within 6 seconds you will have the option of viewing more than 6 million responses! Wow! Obviously a lot of folks have already been there and done that.
Three of the articles that popped up among the very first on this enormous list are below, as well as a website that has a lot of additional chatter about taxation in the Bible, provocative questions about taxing only “foreigners” and why the role of Jesus in tax issues might have contributed to his crucifixion!
So if we want to be properly prepared from now on when we meet key leaders on the Hill, we should try to get up to speed on their possible meta-fiscal sensitivities and vulnerabilities too. Yes, yes, I know that this is a very sensitive issue. But that doesn’t mean we should simply ignore it.
Here in this summary table is an overall breakdown of religious affiliations of the current members of the 112th Congress.
Now, over to you. Please share your thoughts on this new dimension of our common endeavors.
Could paying attention to this additional dimension of an already immensely complex and highly emotional issue possibly contribute productively to a quicker and more efficient game-changing resolution once and for all?
What Google gave me:
What does the Bible say about paying taxes? by Mary Fairchild, About.com
The Bible speaks on taxation (tribute) by Pastor Art Kohl, Faith Bible Baptist Church, 2002
Taxation, liberty and the Bible – Biblical tax and the various tithes by Martin G Selbrede, The Covenant News, 25 January 2009 . Martin G. Selbrede is the Vice President of the Chalcedon Foundation.
If you want to have some more fun, go to this website and read what this analyst has to say: What is taxed, which starts off with Who would Jesus tax? Data mining the Bible.
Ed. note: Andy Sundberg, founder of American Citizens Abroad and a fellow of the Overseas American Academy, occasionally contributes to this guest blog.
by Matthew Stevenson
republished from NewGeography.com, with permission
General Stanley McChrystal may be the first commanding general in the history of warfare to be relieved of his command because he groaned over the receipt of an email from an ambassador, or because one of his aides whispered to a Rolling Stone reporter that the president had looked “intimidated” in a meeting with the military brass.
In terms of carrying out strategy, it has been stated that the president had no military complaints about the heavy metal general, who was walking the impossibly thin red line between a general war in Afghanistan and a campaign waged only with assassinations and drone missiles.
Just a month before his firing, McChrystal successfully packaged a tour of the White House and Capitol Hill for President Hamid Karzai. In earlier media campaigns—notably when the president flew into Kabul in the dead of night to lecture a pajama-clad Karzi over corruption—the Afghan president was deemed unworthy of an American war effort.
However briefly, McChrystal had succeeded in integrating the Afghan government into the order of battle. So why was he sacked for humming a few bars of Satisfaction in the presence of a rock reporter?
No doubt McChrystal had his enemies within the bureaucracy, including the ubiquitous ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, former general Karl W. Eikenberry. Along with these two add in a legion of jealous Army politicos, all of whom would love to wear combat fatigues to a presidential photo-op.
In relieving General McChrystal, perhaps as part of a search for his mojo, President Obama joins a long line of presidents who never figured out how to command their commanders. Here’s a brief summary of some of the more complicated relationships between American presidents and their field generals:
President Lincoln Often praised for his habits of command in the Civil War, he nevertheless promoted, endorsed, and endured the incompetence of such generals as McClellan, Meade, Burnside, Pope, and Rosecrans before winning the war with Grant and Sherman, both of whom would horrify a Senate confirmation hearing, let alone the editors of Rolling Stone.
Grant was a drunk who killed thousands at Shiloh and Spotsylvania, and Sherman once celebrated the drowning of a boatload of reporters, pointing out that maybe their “heavy thoughts” had taken them to the bottom. He also burned Atlanta. Both understood how to win modern wars.