"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.
Distraction is the modestly self-confessed theme of the newest book by the best writer I know personally, say, to have to supper on a Sunday evening. For those readers ever brutalized by English teachers (the language-police sort—most ETs are harmless nerds who loved to read), theme just means idea.
I’m currently swallowed up by one of my obsessions in public life, this time the mining disaster in West Virginia of several days ago, not sure how many days, but enough that the talking heads are saying rescue less and recover more. I sit horrified, staring at the TV stupidly for days, pole-axed: the defeat of Adlai Stevenson, the chill autumnal death of President Kennedy and five years later in the cruelty of spring, like Lincoln’s, the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then the murder of Robert Kennedy, the fall of Saigon, Watergate and its trials, the murder of John Lennon—now these circuses (in the horrific manner of ancient Rome) come to town more and more and faster and faster: the hotel staircase in Kansas City, the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson, Sept. 11, the campaign of shock and awe, Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees, the Christmas tsunami, Haiti … this week, the Upper Branch mine.
When quizzed, I speculated that the theme of my friend’s new book is the parent/child dyad. As I am a college English teacher, not many people will argue with me about theme, but this author has been a meditator for 40 years, so he doesn’t really give a crap about what anybody else thinks of him and his doings. The central character, whose experience and perception the novel follows most closely, is a journalist, an early fan of the greatest entertainer of all time, a madman whose music videos affect the masses like a combination of heroin for pure pleasure, the blessed host for divine nourishment and a vitamin cocktail for plain well-being. In my friend’s way of reckoning, the journalist proves herself heroic by failing to be distracted by the Maker (which translates into ancient Greek as poeta) or anything else.
As I listen to the voices that be, the newscasters, the Massey Energy spokes-folks, the clergy, the families frantic with suspense or drowning in horrible certainties, I feel a déjà vu that I can’t account for at first. Then I realize it is the women’s voices, shy, hard, self-conscious voices that can never escape the shame of sounding like hicks, ignorant hillbillies, to most of the world, all outsiders. These are the voices of my aunts and my father’s mother and her sisters, who speak real Kentucky, the tongue of Shakespeare and the first English speakers to make it over the Cumberland Gap. My particular tribe of Herrins are Irish by way of Wales, though they were wagon makers and wheel wrights, never miners. Family stories and lectures always made a point of that—Herrins don’t go down the mines. The men were tall and hollow-chested, funny and handsome, and they’d just as leave barber or keep store or play fiddle or break a horse, but the Herrins don’t go down the mines. Like to had enough and more in Wales, I always supposed.
And as I watch the women smoking in the camera lights, many with a kid pressed to her middle with one arm, I seem to see in the shadows behind them other women from other times, women in house dresses and thin sweaters under their husbands’ worn flannel shirts, many with a child pressed to her middle with one arm. This is how mining disasters have always looked, forever and still today. And I realize that all the information on TV, listservs, blogs and posts and the greatest newspapers on earth, world-class video in HD shot by the steadiest hands and sharpest eyes the best film schools can produce, none of it makes one great goddamn because it is all just a distraction.
We learn the horrible truth about the genocides and the thieving multinational corporations and the rising Kristallnacht nationalism of the Tea Party. (If you have not read Mari Sandoz’s novel “Capital City,” go home and make a pot o’ coffee and read the book tonight. Written in the 1930s, it is Miss Sandoz’s answer to the great moral question of the 20th century: Can the Holocaust happen again? More important, can it happen here?)
Because the information is too awful and overwhelming and inescapable, we look away. We allow ourselves to be distracted. Because we are running out of petroleum, we have distracted ourselves by making coal clean and reinventing coal companies as energy companies. But it is only a distraction.
Massey insists its safety record is better than the industry average, but it has repeatedly been cited for violations. The Upper Big Branch mine, judging by federal records, appears to have been a case study in sloppiness. It was cited for 458 violations in 2009, many involving poor ventilation of dust and methane, failure to maintain proper escape routes and the accumulation of combustible materials (unsigned editorial, New York Times, April 6, 2010).
And we allow ourselves to be distracted. And we dare point to the citizens of Nazi Germany, who turned a blind eye to what was going down. They allowed themselves to be distracted? Kettle? This is Pot. You’re black.
What are we, morons?
The only hope is paying attention. Don’t be distracted by the medium, by which I mean the media. Pay attention to the message. Don’t be distracted by a few minutes (or hours, if you’re guilt-racked and screen-addicted like me) of cathartic passion. Pay attention to the quiet souls wrapped in black tarp who are carried out under spotlights and red flashing. Pay attention to the men with black faces and hard hats with lamps, scuffing the toes of their boots on the slag road. Pay attention to the women smoking in the camera lights, many with a kid pressed to her middle with one arm.
Don’t let yourself be distracted.