Thursday, March 30, 2017

Crying Hipster Interviews Kentucky Coal Miner

Image result for harlan county coal
Harlan coalfield
Today a NY Times audio show had an interview with a coal miner from Kentucky.

The link isn't embeddable, but it's here.

The first part of the show is also worth listening to -- about EPA head Scott Pruitt deciding he can't contest the "endangerment finding" of the Obama administration -- a big deal -- and then the interview with coal miner Mark Gray starts at the 8:45 mark.

The interview is at once impressionable, infuriating, sad, tragic and maddening.

The NYT host, Michael Barbaro, does his apparent best to talk to Mr. Gray about the prospects of coal mining in the US, its impact on the environment, and the impact of its demise on where Gray lives -- which was Kentucky, when he mined, but is now Tennessee as he has given it up.

Mr. Gray has third-stage black lung disease.

Barbaro wants to talk about the pollution and health problems associated with coal, but Gray won't really let him. Gray is totally focused on how coal mining has affected him and the area he grew up in, Harlan County of Kentucky, which by now is a place that is practically iconic in this debate and in American culture. At the very least, see Justified, or, even better close by, the movie Matawan.

Barbaro avoids asking Gray many hard questions, such as coal's contribution to long-term climate change or its well known externalities of acid rain, mercury poisoning, and other damages to humans, other species, and the environment.

Gray talks about how his daddy worked in the mines, as did his daddy's mother and the siblings, and how coal is a way of life there. Which I'm sure it is, or was.

Gray then asks Barbaro if he's ever been to a coal mining operation. Barbaro, who seems like the prototypic Brooklyn hipster, admits he hasn't. Worse, he's never really thought about where his energy comes from, and the lives of those who make that happen.

By this point Barbaro is already crying. Yes, crying, claiming he's so moved about how Gray describes his dying way of life.

But sadly, Gray the miner has no real understanding of the industry he worked in, saying he can't think of any harm coal does. Gray clearly doesn't understand what harm Barbaro thinks is occurring from burning coal, and the best he can come up with is the harm done to miners, such as his own advanced black lung disease. But destroying his body and life was worth it to Gray, he says, because it provided for his family.

Gray thinks Barbaro should come visit a coal plant in the Appalachians, which really chokes Barbaro up, so he can see all the good coal does, "clean coal" he calls it.

I found this both sad and infuriating, because Gray clearly has a very strong work and family ethic, but is unable to see past the PR the coal industry puts out. He blames the Obama administration for all of coal's ills, even though (as Barbaro tepidly tries to point out) Obama's Clean Power Plan has been tied up in the courts and hasn't been implemented yet. Gray doesn't get this and swooshes right on past.

Gray voted for Trump. He thinks Trump is going to reverse all the evils of Obama (which, again, haven't even come out of the courts yet) and put the miners back to work. At least some of them. Gray resented Hillary Clinton, saying her $30 billion jobs and training package was "charity." Gray says they don't want charity, they want good jobs, like his people before had, working hard to provide. Again without an iota of thought of coal's impact.


Barbaro never does ask any hard questions, about coal's pollution or very long-term climate change and sea level rise, and how that will affect future generations. He seems almost afraid of Gray, because Gray is a hard-assed blue collar worker and Barbaro is just a hipster desk jockey in NYC wearing khaki pants.

So the interview never really goes anywhere, or comes to any conclusion. But it's still very memorable, because these two people are so utterly far apart they don't understand the slightest thing about each other's point of view, so all they do is talk past one another, and of course Gray's life is the more genuine (Barbaro clearly agrees, without even questioning it), because how can you disagree with a miner with 3rd-degree black lung disease who knows no other way to provide for his family and who lacks the education to understand, or even see, the larger picture? He's the real man here, right?

I probably won't forget this interview for awhile. But I won't view it as what it could have been, and should have been, if the interviewer had a little more guts and did a little more journalism.

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