We Got the Beat?


“Time for music!” announced the teacher, gesturing toward the bookshelves, where she had laid out all the cheap plastic instruments in a row on the bookshelf.

Before she could tell us to line up, we children scrambled to the side of the classroom.  The boys trampled one another to see who could get to the drums first.  The girls’ tastes were more varied, some choosing xylophones, some flutes, some triangles.  Instruments in hand, we created a cacophony of sound on the way back to our desks, until the teacher called for attention over the din of our uncontrolled abandon.

Slowly, the musical notes dwindled.  The softer sounds ceased first, the quiet students having chosen instruments much like themselves.  Then, one by one, other students put instruments onto desks and hands into laps.  The insistent beat of the drums was the last to die.

That was the first and only time the teacher made such a mistake.  After that, she waited for the room to grow quiet, and she called on the most attentive students to choose an instrument first.  And then she orchestrated our playing, offering each of us a chance to add our notes to the tune until we achieved an elementary version of a song that had both melody and harmony.

I’m reminded of that scene whenever I try to initiate a discussion about an issue I care about—an issue for which there are no simple solutions.  Issues are issues precisely because they are complex and defy easy answers.  But when we discuss them, we end up acting much like the children in my elementary school classroom.

We run for our favorite solution, and we bang out the sound of it, disregarding the discordant noise of others.  The quietest people—those who find conflict disagreeable—abandon their notes first.  And the drumbeat of the most forceful is almost always the last to fall silent.

This week, the Obama administration announced new pollution controls in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in April allowing the EPA to take steps to control interstate air pollution from power plants.  The cacophony began, and it reached a crescendo in my home state of West Virginia, where coal is the cornerstone of the economy.  And, once again, the drumbeat of the most aggressive drowned out more reasoned arguments.  In fact, most people who live outside the state have no idea that some West Virginians want to look for viable solutions to the ecological and economic challenges they face.

The editorial staff at the Charleston Gazette wrote

After World War II, West Virginia had 125,000 miners, but the number has fallen to about 20,000 today. Thick, profitable seams are nearly wiped out. Inexpensive natural gas is seizing the power-generation market. These relentless trends can’t be reversed by allowing more pollution.

But the drumbeat of politicians who fear being voted out of office drowns out more mellifluous voices.  Even the sole remaining democratic congressman from West Virginia’s congressional delegation, Nick Rahall, has announced plans to fight the federal cleanup.  Why?  Out-of-state billionaires, including the Koch brothers, have spent over a million dollars to unseat him.

Out-of-state democrats have largely written off the state as recalcitrant and inconsequential—a mistake that will be costly if the drumbeat continues.

West Virginia clings to coal because it is the only source of solid income to many of its residents.  In Wyoming County, where I grew up, a beginning teacher with a BA makes just under $32,000 a year.  The average starting salary for a coal miner is $60,000.

One of my better high school teachers left the classroom early in his career for a job in the mines.  My own brother went back into the mines when the Koch brothers sold the company he worked for to a foreign company that immediately cut his salary.

Here’s the perspective that few people outside the state understand:  If I’m a coal miner, surrounded by families where three generations have lived on federal assistance since the War on Poverty began, why would I defend a government that supports those people but threatens my livelihood?

Appalachia is one of five rural regions that comprise 85% of the country’s poor.  While I believe that people sometimes need government assistance, the political left often enables the entrenchment of poverty in such areas.  And that makes the area ripe for companies that exploit the hard workers whose livelihoods depend on an industry that soils their lungs and ours with the detritus of coal but makes millionaires of the businessmen.

The left can’t solve this.  The right can’t solve this.  But our politicians keep making the same mistake my teacher made only once.  Like those children in my elementary classroom, we need leaders who can silence the drumbeat and bring us together in a least a child’s version of a song in three-part harmony.

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