Should everyone cool off the coalfield rhetoric?

January 10, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Regular readers of Coal Tattoo know that one of the things I’ve tried to do with this blog is encourage folks with various views coal industry issues to talk more respectfully with each other — and to tone down the political rhetoric, whether it’s about a “war on coal” or comparisons between mountaintop removal and genocide. As the debate continues to heat up, I’ve had more than one long-time activist comment privately that they’re surprised no one has gotten shot yet.

Now, in the wake of Saturday’s terrible murders in Arizona, there’s plenty of talk about the need to calm things down, and avoid the harsh tone of political discourse turning into the harsh realities of violence (See today’s New York Times editorial and this commentary from The Atlantic’s James Fallows).

A lot of the media coverage has focused on Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs ad,” but I did happen to notice that Tom Brokaw mentioned West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s “Dead Aim” advertisement this morning on MSNBC. And I’m told that David Gregory mentioned it on Meet the Press yesterday.

Remember that ad?

That’s right, in the middle of an incredibly heated time on the Appalachian coalfields — with very emotional debate over potential restrictions on mountaintop removal, possible limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and a very deadly year that included the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years — our then-Governor, thought that showing himself using a gun to solve a political issue was a good thing to do …

Now-Sen. Manchin issued a statement very soon after Saturday’s terrible shootings in Arizona, saying:

Our thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of Congresswoman Giffords, her staff, and all of the innocent victims of this unspeakable and horrific tragedy. Gayle and I offer our heartfelt sympathies and pray for comfort to the families of all those killed and injured.

But over on the Gazette’s Squawk Box blog, my friend Alison Knezevich asks:

What about our own Sen. Joe Manchin’s “Dead Aim” campaign ad, where he shot a rifle and promised to “take dead aim” at the federal cap and trade bill?

Politico named the ad one of the “top 10 political moments of 2010.” Time Magazine ranked it a top campaign ad.

I wonder what Manchin would say about it now.

UPDATED: What does Manchin say now? Read this new post on the Gazette’s Squawk Box blog to find out …

26 Responses to “Should everyone cool off the coalfield rhetoric?”

  1. Mari-Lynn says:

    I hope the media does confront Sen Manchin about his own ad showing him shooting with a gun and “taking aim” at cap and trade. His comments now seem to be deeply hypocritical. That ad contributed to an air of violence from his own political campaign. Violent words beget violent actions. He is an elected official and should be held responsible for his own highly provocative campaign.

  2. Monty says:

    Manchin will go on being Manchin … but the fact remains that, stripped down to its essentials, his ad advocated violence as one way to resolve an issue about something you don’t agree with.

    I don’t really think we need a martyr in the coalfields, do we, Joe? Some well-chosen words now, instead of more political spin, might actually help settle things down.

  3. bob the miner says:

    Ken, there are ALWAYS going to be the fringe element — the people who seek to solve their problems with violence — but frankly I don’t understand the angst on the part of so many regarding the use of images such as Joe’s ad or that of Sarah Palin.
    I mean, I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, watching the Three Stooges, Bugs Bunny and reading Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Fury and War Tales comic books. I would wait with baited breath for the latest episode of Gunsmoke to come on.
    I grew up around guns. I fired my first rifle when I was just nine. I have several today — I keep them in a locked storage cabinet in a locked room off my garage, but they are there. I travel a lot — sometimes late at night — and I generally have a “means of protection” with me.
    Do I want to use it? No. Would I? Yes, if I had to.
    The point is that these images are just that – images. It takes a truly warped person to stalk a Congresswoman and shoot up a parking lot. It takes already deranged people to walk into their school and kill their classmates. The will to violence was there already and it would have manifested itself in some fashion regardless of the presence or absence of these ads.
    That said, I pray for those who were lost and injured in this tragedy.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    bob the miner,

    Just images? Perhaps … but they are just images that appear to many people to promote the notion that if you disagree with someone’s proposed government policies, the best way to resolve that is to unlock your gun storage locker.


  5. thelma says:

    In coal wars, things need to move past agitating one another, with each side’s talking points, to actually hearing what the other side is saying.
    Old you tube films show the violence. Creative language that compares violence to violence to nature, stirs emotions. Creative language to create fear also stirs emotions about living without a job….
    It would be nice to set aside the attachment to one’s job, retirement, and family members to see truth, when it is not attached to politics and economic gains by some, for truth, goodness and beauty. Joining the peacemakers on the other side of the fence, compromising.

    It would be nice to set aside one’s attachment to Green politics, and unions and see that activism can also mean that more people agree with you, but prefer efforts to join the peacemakers on the other side of the fence. Look for truth, goodness and beauty that they possess. More joint efforts to show WV working together. Coal Country showed both sides quite well.

    If any believe in a God of their understanding, they will not know peace until they move toward the virtues that lead toward Love.
    Even secular humanists know this is true. Love does not breed violence. Foolishness does.

  6. Thomas Rodd says:

    bob the miner, I wonder if you would address why there have been so many instances of people bringing rifles to Tea Party rallies.

    Those are not deranged people. They are people suggesting by their conduct that they are ready and willing to use “second amendment remedies,” i.e. violence, to defend their “constitutional rights.”

    That message clearly spills over to and affects people who are “warped,” if by that you mean mentally ill. Images do affect people, and so does rhetoric.

    But more importantly, most political violence does not come from the mentally ill. Timothy McVeigh wasn’t crazy, he was just a far-right guy who bought the idea that extremism in the defense of his version of liberty is no vice. The many, many people who participated in thousands of lynchings to terrorize African Americans for generations were quite sane folks who wanted to keep the blacks down where they belonged.

    Political violence occurs to a greater or lesser degree, and waxes and wanes, in all modern societies, without regard to mental illness. Putting cross-hairs on people encourages it, and to deny that is just not common sense.

    On the topic Ken discussed: I would not be surprised if Senator Manchin, who has often been willing to acknowledge concerns that people have about his positions and choices, will make it clear that while he hasn’t changed his mind (yet!) about cap-and-trade, he is going to stay away from conflating the use of firearms with politics.

    Whether he says so or not, I bet he will.

  7. Monty says:

    Ahhh, yes, the “They’re just images” argument. Coupled with the “They’re just statements” argument from the vitriolic radio/television talking heads.

    Yes, we have First Amendment free speech rights in this nation. And I am glad we do. However, having that right comes with the responsibility to accept the consequences of your actions – and the current level of political rhetoric has reached such a degree that I think it would do everyone good to take a deep breath and step back. This is not a “left” or a “right” issue, this is a common sense issue. Was the shooting incident in Arizona an isolated incident? Perhaps. What about the “bombing” in Maryland last week? Two people could have ended up dead instead of with burned fingers, in another case of someone upset with the government. How far is it OK to go to act on your disenchantment with our political system and our leaders, egged on by a constant stream of media that exhorts people to “target” politicians they disagree with, to “get” the ones who are “destroying the country,” to eliminate” those who would “turn America into a socialist state.”?

    Free speech is a right. It is also a responsibility. One we ALL need to be mindful of.

  8. Thomas Rodd says:

    Looks like I called that one right — Senator Manchin stepped up and called it right. (Of course, hindsight is 20-20, even with shooting glasses on.)

  9. Lyn Grotke says:

    I think an important lesson is that we should not use threatening language or images. Partially because it normalizes these behaviors over many repetitions and partially because of the mentally ill who have a poor decision making organ (brain). the main reason is that it is not really productive persuasively. If you want the other side to listen to your point of view antagonizing them is not likely to win them over.

  10. Dave Rao says:

    Maybe Hoppy the Sportscaster won’t be calling the Gazette “the choice of extreme environmentalism” any longer.

    Maybe this horrid thing will start the conversation about abolishing partisan elections in our wild state. No primary, just the candidate standing on their own two feet..responsible for their own platform.

  11. Ellen says:

    The ads from both sides have made me cringe. We had violence here in upstate NY when the healthcare debate was on-going and our Rep. Louise Slaughter had her office vandalized. In the words of Rabbi Heschel (deceased) when speaking of vitriolic language (or ads)… “words create worlds.”

    “The Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, with tanks and guns. It began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds.”

  12. Vernon says:

    The “war on coal” hasn’t included death threats, signs and facebook postings advocating lynching, violent physical assault and battery, poisoning civilian water supplies, or coating communities with blasting dust. Just thought I’d point that out. Comparing MTR to genocide, as I’ve done before, is saying, “please stop killing us.” It’s not saying “We are going to kill you.” I’d be really thankful if the folks who have threatened or tried to kill us would stop.

  13. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Thanks for your comment Vernon …

    It would seem to me that anyone who believes that the tone of the rhetoric in this country contributes to terrible events like Saturday’s shootings might want to take this time to consider whether their own statements and rhetoric contribute to that … it’s not just about whether you or anyone else specifically threaten someone else. It’s about whether the tone and words that are used contribute to a political discourse that is anything but productive and anything but respectful of others.

    From where I sit moderating the comments on this blog, everyone on all sides of coal issues — this reporter included — could sometimes think more carefully about what they write or say.

    But as Tom Rodd likes to say, I could be wrong.


  14. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    One additional thought, Vernon, and I do thank you for your comment.

    What I personally would like to see is for everyone who engages to respond to this event by considering carefully what their own rhetoric is like, and whether they could find ways to make their points that are more respectful to others and tone down the situation a bit.

    Coal Tattoo has been an incredible learning experience for me if for no other reason that it makes me engage more directly with folks who very frequently don’t like what I’ve written (folks from both sides). I have to think about what I’ve written, and explain why I wrote it the way I did.

    We could all do ourselves and our neighbors a favor if we used this opportunity to think more about what we can personally do to improve the tone of political discourse in this country, and less just pointing at the side we generally disagree with and blaming it all on them.

    But again, I certainly could be wrong … and I predict my readers will tell me that I am.

    Best, Ken.

  15. Red Desert says:

    Re the Update: I don’t understand Senator Massey’s response. Is he saying, given what unfolded Sat in Tucson and knowing what he knows now, he wouldn’t have released “Dead Aim”; or is he saying that it wouldn’t be effective politics to release such an ad today because of heightened sensitivities?

  16. Scott14 says:

    One of the greatest truths ever put down with the human hand is this. “Only the dead have seen the end of war” Plato. This was written 2300 years ago and it still rings true to this day. It is in our nature to destroy ourselves. The sad fact is that we still have reptillian parts of our brain that lead ourselves to violence. Everyone has this instinct. Its the reasoning part of our brain that we let get overridden by this violent instinct that makes us who we are. Maybe one day we will truly become a peaceful being. Fear breeds anger. Anger breeds hate. Hate breeds suffering. Just a thought. God be with those that lost a loved one in Arizona.

  17. Thomas Rodd says:

    Scott14, it’s great that you quote Plato. The ancient Greeks — perhaps the most imaginative and important civilization in the history of the West — those “sons of the morning” who discerned ideas like pathos and hubris and democracy — were also embroiled in war after war among themselves.

    Four hundred years later, a new idea sprang up in the Mediterranean, that has also endured among the wars. Jesus taught that we have a choice — to listen to the better angels of our nature, not the reptilian parts that lead to violence.

    And that teaching, just like the ideas of Plato, has spread around the world, and fostered great social progress — including the reconciliation movement in South Africa, the nonviolent activism of Eastern Europe, Gandhianism, and of course Dr. King.

    Political leaders who use the horrible language of violence make it more likely that people will listen to their violent natures. Rhetoric that calls other people terrible names makes it less likely that people will see what they have in common.

    I have been reading about the Civil War lately, and I get the idea that one reason so many people admire Lincoln was his refusal to demonize even those whom at the time he was leading a bloody war against.

    Just some more thoughts, yours are appreciated.

  18. George says:

    I certainly believe that everyone should cool off the coalfield rhetoric. It contributes to creating a public discourse in which mean-spiritedness is increasingly accepted, and it makes it easier to see our fellow community members as enemies if they do not subscribe to our personal point of view. Perhaps worst of all, the rhetoric distorts issues that are of vital importance to our communities (issues such as the availability of good-paying jobs, the protection of the environment, and safe working conditions).

    My personal belief is that it does not help someone’s cause to paint people who are interested in protecting the environment as people whose goal is to kill jobs and take food from the mouths of hard-working peoples’ children, but unfortunately, I have heard those claims more than once. Similarly, I don’t think it helps to paint people who are protective of their livelihood as people that are participating in genocide or rape. I think that this sort of language further polarizes communities and makes it more difficult to reach a common ground.

    Further, I think that it is definitely dangerous that such mean-spirited (and sometimes, violent-tinged) sentiments are routinely expressed in coalfield debates, and I think that such sentiments can contribute to real-world violence. Something that comes to mind is the case that was documented in Appalshop’s documentary, Stranger With a Camera, in which a landowner in Appalachia shot and killed a filmmaker who was on his property. This filmmaker was shot because he had come to be seen as the enemy, someone whose goal was merely to disparage Appalachians. And I don’t think that the landowner that did the shooting fit the bill of crazed psychopath that many seem to say are the only people that create such crimes. It seemed that he had become increasingly angry, had increasingly come to view journalists that documented poverty in Appalachia as enemies, and at the time saw shooting the filmmaker as almost the right thing to do. Shooting someone who is doing something that that doesn’t match our point of view being seen as the right thing to do—that is certainly something that we do not have to worry about, right? I mean, all of the violent-tinged talk is just rhetoric, right? Rhetoric or not, it actually seems to be precisely the sentiment that is expressed in a t-shirt that states, “Save a miner’s job: Shoot a tree-hugger.” And that it has gotten to the point that a sentiment like that is expressed in some public forums leads me to believe that we all do need to think about how we are expressing our views.

  19. Thomas Rodd says:

    amen george

  20. Ellen says:

    In response to Vernon: “The “war on coal” hasn’t included death threats, signs and facebook postings advocating lynching, …”

    I think you forget that it was an MSHA inspector who advocated on a Facebook page “hang a tree-hugger today.”

  21. Vernon says:

    Ellen, that MSHA inspector’s post was what I was referring to. It was not part of what the industry calls “the war on coal,” but a post by a pro-coal agency regulator that some of us who are identified as “tree-huggers” take very seriously.

  22. Clem Guttata says:

    Joe Manchin still doesn’t get it.

    What he remains clueless about is that his intent is not the be-all-or-end-all of the matter. The violent symbolism of his ad contributed to the caustic environment he is now busy condemning.

    In a chillingly prescient comment around the mid-term elections, Ohio Democrat Steve Driehaus complained to now House leader Boehner about Boehner’s incendiary comments: “it’s about how the least rational person in my district takes it.”

    As I said when Manchin’s was released… the ‘Dead Aim’ ad (Joe’s name for it) “is violent, hateful, and should never have been made. Joe is not out hunting for game, he’s not shown getting target practice at a shooting range, he’s firing a high powered rifle to make a political point. His chosen target is legislation strongly associated with Nancy Pelosi. While he’s aiming the gun he says the President of the United States’ name. The strong subtext of this ad is violence–and physical elimination of opponents, if necessary–is somehow acceptable. It is not.”

    (More here: )

  23. Bob the Miner says:

    Sorry guys, I just don’t buy it. What bothers me more than crosshairs on a map or Joe shooting a rifle through a copy of the cap-and-trade bill is hypcrsisy.
    First, let me say this with a disclaimer, Ken I do not direct this toward you or most of your readers. You have been consistent in your call for discourse rather than argument.
    What does bother me is the hypocrisy of so many on both sides. Excuse me for stating what I believe is the obvious but the truth from my perspective is very straightforward. The environmental policies (particularly those many of your readers espouse) toward coal mining, the use of coal for power generation, etc. WOULD and DO cost jobs and those jobs mean parents who can’t pay bills, put food on the table or keep their homes. There is COST associated with ANY policy. You can’t simply ignore that.
    If I am a coal miner, a utility worker, or anyone who loses their jobs due to the implementation of a policy then you had better believe I am angry. Your actions are “targeting” me in a very real way.
    It is ignorance (I use that term in the proper context meaning a willful ignoring of reality) at best and hypocrisy at worst to deny that this is true. It is also ridiculous to ask me and my family — the people who pay the costs associated with your policy — to ignore that impact and not see it as the “threat” that it is.
    Sorry guys, but I simply don’t buy it and from what I can see the American people aren’t buying the attempts by some to score political points while circumventing the basic rights of free speech afforded us as American citizens under the Constitution.
    I agree fully that we should be respectful of others, but people this is nothing new. Fistfights have broken out on the floor of the Congress. Emotions go hand-in-hand with politics. Emotions are a given when you are talking about issues that I believe hurt me, my family or my country – and that goes for people on both sides of the aisle.
    Many people in the environmental community feel strongly about the issues. They look at mountaintop mining and they see “tragedy.” I recognize that. I respect that, just as I respected Judy Bonds for her often emotional defense of her position. She felt under attack. She didn’t shy away from saying so.
    I and many others feel equally under attack. I just wish that more people on the other side (the environmental side) would take a moment to understand this isn’t just political posturing. This is OUR reality every bit as much as they have their’s.
    This is my last comment on this thread.

  24. George says:

    In my view, suggesting to cool of rhetoric does not mean ignoring emotions or speaking in superficially positive terms in order to be politically correct (at the expense of not acknowledging true costs to real people in our communities). I think rhetoric works to distort very important issues by incorrectly simplifying some complex and important arguments and by framing those arguments in ways that may be negative and antagonistic.

    I think it is perfectly reasonable (and in fact, noble and necessary) for someone to speak up and talk about the effects that they see environmental policies may have on their families, but my problem with rhetoric is that is simplifies arguments that support those environmental policies and paints them in a negative light. For example, I think it can reasonably be stated that working to protect one’s homeland and natural environment from permanent destruction (as well as to reduce numerous health hazards in one’s community) can be a very well-meaning endeavor. Yet, I think it simplifies that endeavor to say that people that work toward that end are targeting hard-working people or ignoring that there may be costs associated with implementing environmental policies. To do that takes an endeavor that many people may see as well-meaning, needed, and beneficial, and reduces it to something that is negative and mistakenly simplistic. Someone may have a problem with the environmental and health effects that come along with mountaintop removal mining AND they may also sincerely dislike the possibility of losing high-paying jobs in their communities. Those people may feel that they have thought long and hard about the issues, and may say that they feel the benefits to the environment and the physical health of community members outweigh the potential economic costs. To say that those people may be targeting miners or taking food from hard-working peoples’ families takes what those people may see as a difficult endeavor, but one that may ultimately benefit their communities as a whole, and reduces it to something that is extremely negative. Further, in doing so, it works to make those peoples’ arguments illegitimate, because it reduces those complex arguments to something that is merely out to harm people. Similarly, someone may not necessarily think that mountaintop removal mining is an entirely positive practice, but they may have thought long and hard about the issues and may feel that economic benefits and energy-producing contributions outweigh environmental and economic costs. To say that those people are out to commit genocide or rape similarly paints them in a negative light and makes their arguments illegitimate.

    That is the problem that I see with rhetoric. It simplifies arguments, takes us away from speaking reasonably with one another to perhaps work toward compromises or work toward policies that would benefit our communities as a whole and, as I said, I think it increases anger in our communities and makes it easier for us to see our fellow community members as enemies. And I hope that the rhetoric does cool down and that we are able to increasingly speak reasonably with one another and work to see one another’s point of view. And I hope that we can do that without having to witness fistfights or, God forbid, worse.

  25. Thomas Rodd says:

    I know Ken doesn’t like comments that are just cheerleading for one side, but I am cheering for ALL of these comments. A great discussion!

  26. Red Desert says:

    Two thoughts:

    One could say energy efficiency costs coal miners their jobs. By that logic, we should tear down our newest power plants and and most efficient factories and keep the oldest, least efficient running. But beware: that could mean no more MTR. What is MTR but highly mechanized, capital-intensive and, at least measured by man-hour per ton–a highly efficient form of mining. The Soviet Union measured economic progress in tons of coal produced. The US measured progress in goods produced.

    At what point does someone’s right to earn a living, or buy a boat, exceed the rights of others to clean air and clean water, the measurable increases in health and well being, and the measurable decreases in costs when pollution is cut.

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