Giving props their props

This is the best commentary I’ve read on the whole “small town America” brouhaha lately…

    …Struggling towns are props, not issues. One side rushes to drape themselves in flags, guns and the kind of Norman Rockwell hagiography that is far removed from the 2008 reality of meth labs and foreclosure frontiers. The other side says religion is for fools, and if only they had a new Starbucks in town, some of those Bible-banging gun nuts could learn to love Sundays with Norah Jones and a Scrabble game.

The comments are interesting too and well worth a read.

The column was written before the Pennsylvania primary. That circus is now moving on to Kentucky and West Virginia. I recently watched a true American classic, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA, and I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t seen it before. I’d guess that there are maybe two kinds of viewers for this film. You’re either going to identify more or less viscerally with the various people struggling in this story (be it the organizers from the big city, the miners, the miners’ wives, their mothers, or the lone black miner in the film); or you’re going to think it’s a pretty good “slice of life” about mountain folks who make up songs about everything.

I wanted to watch it because my great-grandfather was a coal miner in Luzerne County, Pa. (His Irish emigrant father, also a miner, must have worked during the reign of the famous Molly Maguires.) He died before I was born, so I never heard any stories about that kind of life. I’m also up for anything about labor union history, since I did grow up with some of that – although nothing like what’s depicted in this film, of course. (I don’t even think my father ever went out on strike.)

The movie covers the period from about 1968 to 1974, dealing with both national and local mine union politics. I guess I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew; like how utterly backward the mining industry was when every other industry had been organized. I didn’t know about the murder of Joseph Yablonski and I think it was at that point my mouth dropped open. It was like watching the 1920s or ’30s happening at a time when I was alive. Not to mention the standard of living of the miners.

If this movie is a “slice of life,” it is a slice straight down into the American soul. There isn’t a single issue in the news today that doesn’t have roots on display in the film. Kopple set out to make a movie about the Yablonski murders but wound up focusing on the lonely and dangerous struggle of one small group of miners (very small – the adage “20% of the people do 80% of the work” rings true here, even among the miners themselves).

It’s also a movie about the miners’ wives, who are the surprising core of the rebellion, even putting themselves in the line of fire in tense armed standoffs where many of their husbands won’t go. They’re also the first to speak of the possibility of armed resistance. And then there’s Barbara Kopple herself, present only as a disembodied voice in one scene where she outmaneuvers a mining company heavy in a way that probably would never be possible today. (A filmmaker like her today would never have been granted access to a picket line by the authorities — any number of anti-terrorist h%^#$&land security laws would have been her undoing.)

The movie has a surprising end that sort of blew my mind. It doesn’t end at the triumph of the Kentucky miners, but with a sober 15-minute epilogue dealing with the erosion of the very rights that the miners had just fought and died to secure. There are scenes of workers lined up to vote at bigger, cleaner mining facilities elsewhere, with somewhat harsher Northeastern accents (Pennsylvania maybe?), talking about contracts and grievance processes. And a couple of guys in work clothes with their lunchboxes standing on line, muttering to their friends about the vote and the choices before them: “This is bullshit…”

And this is where the distant past catches up with my present — or at least, my own past, because these guys could have been my father and his friends, talking about the kind of issues that I grew up hearing about. (Issues that Kopple would return to in her far less uplifting “sequel,” American Dream).

The links to the past are still very strong even generations removed. Maybe people can see amazing films like Harlan County USA and understand why there is a hero-shaped void in the lives of some Americans that just isn’t quite filled by any of the current choices. And in today’s non-industrial workplaces, we are steadily losing so much of what their families fought for — even as pundits proclaim these voters mystifying, or easily explainable, or expendable, or just extinct. A waste.

3 thoughts on “Giving props their props

  1. Phil

    Very interesting article. Of course, I was impressed that the only person he singled out for praise was Springsteen,: “Nobody in American literature or politics has done a better job than the Boss of describing (as in “My Hometown”) the heartbreak of a foreman who says, ‘these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back.’ ”

    What was also interesting was the columnists request that someone come out and say that a lot of these towns aren’t coming back either. Wasn’t the last pol to do that Reagan? When people complained about his first term’s economic policies which consisted ofunion-busting, de-industrialization and huge increases in unemployment, he told people in Rust Belt areas to “vote with their feet” and move to the Sun Belt and some service sector job.

  2. Ellen

    But I did think Maggie (comment #4 on the discussion) had a point… which I guess could be said of Springsteen’s musical persona as well. Springsteen doesn’t perfectly speak for everyone in the working class. (nor does any other artist… but then again, they’re not expected to, as long as they don’t endorse political candidates) :-)

    I don’t clearly recall Reagan saying that. Suffice it to say, he didn’t care about the Rust Belt and neither did Clinton.

Comments are closed.