20 April 2012

Midnight in the Garden at High Noon



Expatriate American author Gertrude Stein played as much a pivotal role among the Lost Generation of expat authors, poets, artists, and musicians in Paris during the 1920’s as she did, in the form of Kathy Bates, in Woody Allen’s 2011 film “Midnight in Paris” as mentor to hopeful author Gil Pender, portrayed by Owen Wilson. 

Visitors to Stein’s salon in the Notre-Dame-des-Champs section of Paris and her other associates included such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Aleister Crowley, Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Sylvia Beach, Henry Miller, Igor Stravinsky, Coco Chanel, Sergei Diaghilev, Thornton Wilder, and Sherwood Anderson, along with her brothers Michael and Leo and her lifelong partner, Alice Toklas.

The same folks also frequented Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop, which served as a lending library and bookstore in addition to gathering place.  Joyce nicknamed it “Stratford-on-Odeon”.  It was closed in 1940 during the Occupation; after Beach died in 1964, George Whitman’s “Le Mistral” on the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) near the Place Saint-Michel changed its name to Shakespeare and Company

Justifiably renowned for her contributions to the arts (she and brother Michael had collected works by and supported some of Europe’s finest artists), Stein suggested in 1934 that Adolf Hitler should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Her statement at the time was heavily laden with language that could be interpreted as irony, but in 1938 she spearheaded an effort to convince the Nobel Committee to do just that.  During the Spanish Civil War, she publicly endorsed Francisco Franco and the Nationalists and during the Second World War compared Vichy leader Marshal Petain to George Washington.

What’s wrong with this picture is that Gertrude Stein was both Jewish and gay. 

In the South, we’ve long been accustomed to such contradictions as of a Jewish lesbian supporting a foreign political leader who was both anti-Semitic and homophobic.  Reading about Stein reminded me of a demonstration in Atlanta several years back against then-Governor of Georgia Roy Barnes.  Representatives of the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans showed up in their re-enactment uniforms at the same time as a group of family members of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.  Shortly afterward, the local chapter of the New Black Panther Party showed up. 

These three disparate groups stood together to protest a governor they detested, even though the Black Panthers weren’t overly thrilled with the Confederate-uniformed SCV members and neither they nor the King family contingent were comfortable with each other either.  Only in the South.

I remember in particular one day I substitute-taught an American history class at Howard High School, whose student body was 99.5% black. 

The class was studying the Civil War period, and I was excited because I had just recently turned up information about the First Colored Brigade of the Army of the Cumberland based in Chattanooga and about the comparatively large number of black officials both the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County had well into the early 20th century.  I also had information about black soldiers who had fought for the Confederacy, including quotes from Frederick Douglas’ letter to Lincoln on the subject and accounts of the all-black (including officers) 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards of the Confederate Army.

Of course, I met with the teacher for whom I was substituting beforehand and showed him some of the materials I wanted to bring in.  It proved to be one of my favorites days of substitute teaching. 

What was really interesting about it was what I discovered during the “planning period” while looking at the wall outside the classroom.  As part of getting his students to see history from the point-of-view of its participants, the teacher had assigned them a writing lesson in which they would take the part of a soldier writing to his sweetheart back home or vice-versa.  They could choose for themselves whether to be Union or Confederate.  I found it quite interesting that nearly all, with two or three exceptions, chose to be Confederate.

Take the case of the black student Byron Thomas, freshman at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, to hang the Army of Tennessee Confederate battle flag in his dorm window.  For the record, what is commonly called the Confederate battle flag is actually that of the Army of Tennessee.  Those of Northern Virginia and Trans-Mississippi, along with some of the smaller regional commands, had their own battle flags.

I know that may sound totally bizarre to those outside of or only recently relocated to the South.  Probably as bizarre as the fact that a Jewish lesbian supported Adolf Hitler, but not very much to anyone who’s from around here.

None of these Howard High students were what some deride as “Uncle Toms”, to use an alternate term for what Malik el-Shabazz called a “house Negro”.  In fact, many of them were associated with progressive, even radical organizations.  They saw themselves simply as citizens of Tennessee, which happened to be in the Confederacy at the time of the Civil War.  The choice wasn’t about politics, it was about soldiers, and about home.

They were all pleasantly surprised to learn of the Union’s Department of the Cumberland’s First Colored Brigade, however.

Speaking of the term “Uncle Tom”, it is misused.  In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the 2nd best-selling of the 19th century, behind Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and ahead of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887), Uncle Tom is rather a courageous figure, beaten to death for refusing to himself beat another slave.  The opposite of how pop culture likes to portray him, which is in the mold of Malik el-Shabazz’s (Malcolm X) “field Negro” collaborator who fawns over his/her Master.

Another term oft-misused as an epithet is “Ugly American”.  It derives from the 1958 novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, The Ugly American.  For most of the world, an “Ugly American” means those loud, overbearing Americans who live overseas, particularly in what used to be called the Third World, staying inside their “Golden Ghetto” (as the book calls it), treating the locals with condescension, patronization, and outright contempt. 

In the novel, however, the central figure you meet in the chapter “The Ugly American” is actually very respectful of the nationals in his host country, with he and his wife living in one of the village with the same amenities as their neighbors and treating them with mutual respect.  The only person more heroic and more in tune with the local people is “The Ugly Ugly American”.

There can be no doubt that the original seven states of the Confederacy (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded to preserve slavery, pure and simple.  So much for the “noble” Lost Cause.  That is why even though I am qualified several times over for the SCV’s Military Order of Stars and Bars I will never join.  In addition to Confederate military veterans, the MOSB allows descendants of former Confederate officials and legislators, the very slave-owning planted aristocracy which brought about the War Between the States in the first place.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), on the other hand, is a different story.  The SCV is solely for descendants of Confederate military veterans, though there is a provision for associate members that permits nearly anyone to join.  With seventy-three qualifying lineal and collateral ancestors, I have been a member (though long inactive) for a decade and a half.  I am even adjutant emeritus of the SCV’s now-defunct Sam Bennett Camp.  The SCV isn’t about politics (except for the League of the South faction from South Georgia to which I am bitterly opposed); it’s about soldiers.

Another fact of which there can be no doubt is that tens of thousands of blacks, both slaves and freemen, served with the Confederate armies.  While the number of those who actually fought as combat soldiers may be in dispute, Frederick Douglas is among those providing witness to what might seem to some contrary to common sense.  

After the war, Douglas  joined one of the American sections of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s International Workingmen’s Association, which he left in 1872 with others to form the Equal Rights Party.  That same year the former slave ran for Vice President as running mate to Virginia Woodhull on the party’s ticket.  Woodhull, not Shirley Chisholm nor even Belva Ann Lockwood was the first woman to run for U.S. President just as Douglas, not Chisholm, was the first black to run for executive office.

For the students at Howard High, the question when they were choosing with which side to identify was not about politics but about home, their city and state, about belonging where they lived.  Not in the sense of being an “Uncle Tom” but rather of claiming their right of citizenship by birth.  Which was the same reason so many black men fought for the Confederacy in defiance of what makes sense to 21st century politically-correct minds.

Regarding Gertrude Stein, she was a lifelong Republican and very much anti-leftist, in spite of the company she kept.  More afraid of Communism than its alternative, she saw fascists such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco as the best hope for keeping the Bolshevik horde at bay.  However, unlike Coco Chanel, Stein’s collaboration never went much farther than translating several speeches by Vichy president Marshal Petain into English.  She even compared the German army occupiers to the Keystone Kops.

As for the designer of fashion extraordinaire, inventor of the LBD (little black dress), and matriarch of modern melanoma, Coco Chanel actively spied for her German friends, and though the Americans and Brits salivated over her designs once she started back in production, the French despised her for the rest of her life and still do to this day.

To those outside the American South who think they understand the South…you really don’t understand anything.  To those from the American South who think they understand the South…you need to wake up.



11 April 2012

Economic disparity in the U.S.A. and worldwide

(The following was a letter to the Editor at the Chattanooga Times-News Free Press published 9 May 1999.)

During the Golden Age of Capitalism (1946-1973), when the top estate tax rate was 75%, the top income tax rate was 91%, and the United States experienced its strongest and most long-lasting period of economic growth, salaries of top corporate executives averaged 12 to 20 times that of the average worker.  Today the top income tax rate is 35% and the ratio of salaries of top corporate is 200 to 250 times that of the average worker.

Among the 19 largest industrialized countries, we the people of the United States are Number 1 per capita in: 

-Billionaires
-Wealth
-Material consumption
-Income inequality
-Children living in poverty
-Total healthcare costs
-Population without healthcare coverage
-Infants born underweight
-Infant mortality
-Preschoolers not fully immunized
-Death of children under five
-Lack of paid maternity leave
-Overpay of athletes
-Underpay of teachers
-Military spending
-Underspending for the poor
-Underspending on education
-Suppression of workers' rights
-Military aid to developing countries
-Lack of humanitarian aid to developing countries
-Bank failures (and this was BEFORE the crash of 2007!)
-Bank bailouts (again, this was TEN YEARS before the TARP program!)
-Pay gap between executives and workers
-Deaths by guns
-Deaths by capital punishment, aka state homicide
-Deaths of suspects in police custody
-Political prisoners (again, this was more than two years before Gitmo and CIA extraordinary renditions began and ten years before Pres. Obama and Congress authorized indefinite detention.)
-Length of penal sentences
-Total population imprisoned.

At the top of the world's economic food chain are 358 individuals who have—use or hoard—as much as the bottom 2,700,000,000 persons, 45% of the world's population, who have not.  In other words, each single one of these individuals consumes in one year on average as much as 7,541,899 other individual human beings combined.

Since the U.S.A. has the largest number of the world's billionaires, it's safe to say that most of these 358 gluttonous plutocrats are Americans.

09 April 2012

Parable of the Good Palestinian



On one occasion when Jesus and his crew and their groupies were hanging around outside the synagogue after Shabbat service, an expert in Halakha (Torah and Talmud combined) asked him, “Rabbi, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Halakha?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

The expert answered, “‘Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“That’s it,” Jesus replied. “Do that and you will live.”

Then the expert asked Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?”

Jesus told him a story: “A kibbutznik on leave from the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) was driving down from West Jerusalem to Jericho on his way to see the historic site at Petra in Jordan and got carjacked on Highway 1 by some really bad guys. They stripped him, beat him, and drove away in his car, leaving him half dead on the side of the road.

“A wealthy Ashkenazi Cohan from the Labour Party happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, stepped on the gas pedal a little harder, afraid that he too might be robbed.  Then an upper-middle class Sephardi Levite from the Likud Party slowed as he drove by, and when saw him, sped up and passed right by him, not wanting to get involved. 

“But a Palestinian from the National Initiative driving west home to Ramallah from a meeting with the Jewish Voice for Peace stopped, gave the man first aid, and took him to the nearest emergency room, waiting there as the man was treated.  The next day he drove the man to a hotel and sat with him that night.  In the morning, he gave $200 to the manager, saying, ‘Look after him, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The Halakha expert replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

“Well said.”  Jesus told him.  “Go out and do the same.”

08 April 2012

Why I am an atheist


I was born and raised in the Bible Belt of the South.  In the American South, as well as in Christianity and in any other religion for that matter, the absolute worst and most shameful thing a person can do or be labeled with is “being uppity”.  Being a Christian in the American South gave me a double dose of that soul-crushing pile of crap.

My family was Episcopalian and tended Mass every Sunday and major holy day, but we were very exposed to more fundamentalist versions of the Christian religion.  We had Bible class taught by a fundamentalist once a week, on school time, with repercussions like missing recess if we didn’t memorize our verses for the week, and this was at a PUBLIC elementary school.

We grew up down the street from that school and lived next door to a Reformed Jewish family from New York.  As a result of the latter, we had Jewish godparents in addition to the godparents we had at our baptisms.

In terms of thought, my family and our immediate friends at our parish were from the school of Episcopalian thought known as the High Church or Anglo-Catholic wing.  That’s the wing that is much closer to conservative Roman Catholicism.

I did have a bout of Dissenter fundamentalism when I was 13 and attended an unaffiliated Baptist church until I figured out that the preacher was full of shit.  After coming back to PECUSA (Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA), I attended the Bible study classes at our parish whose members were mostly charismatics, Episcopalians aligned with many aspects of Pentacostalism, for about a year.

Oddly, it was during this same time that I decided I was called to be a priest.  And no, as I have frequently explained to those who think all priests are Roman Catholic, that wouldn’t mean giving up sex and marriage.  Episcopal clergy have always been allowed to marry, even after ordination.

One of the reasons I chose political science as my major at university (I minored in psychology, religion, and history) was that canon law recommended a social science or liberal arts degree for aspirants to the priesthood.  Even though my course of study was officially poli sci, my declared major was pre-seminary.

And so it remained until mid-spring semester my junior year.  The priest with whom I’d been working in the process of getting into seminary had decided to become a Methodist minister and we’d gotten another priest to replace him.  He proved to be something of an autocrat who related better to what he called the “Scotch and soda” crowd.

Which should have warned me ahead of time: who the hell would fuck up good (or even bad) Scotch with soda or anything else, including water or ice?  Well, I am gonna try Scotch and Dr. Pepper one of these days, but only once.

Anyway, in my first meeting with him as my “guide”, he suggested strongly that I go into business so I’d have something to fall back on if things didn’t work out.  Since I’d always thought the Church should be run on faith rather than pragmatism, that ended my aspirations to the priesthood, at least in PECUSA.

That didn’t stop me from laying the groundwork for the Chattanooga parish of the Anglican Catholic Church, which I helped establish during one of the periods I was home on leave from the Navy.  But that’s another story.

At the time of the flowering of my disillusionment with PECUSA, I had been attending Sunday evening Mass at the Catholic Student Center on campus for nearly three years anyway, as I mentioned in a previous essay, “A Big Chill, or Fuck Forrest Gump” (http://notesfromtheninthcircle.blogspot.com/2011/12/big-chill-or-fuck-forrest-gump.html).
Since I already had long considered myself more Catholic than Protestant, it wasn’t that much of a leap for me to convert.  I didn’t go all the way until I got to Holy Family Parish at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, though. 

I have only good things to say about my experiences there and the people I got to know there.  I attended rosary and Mass every day, even when I was in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and had to stop taking Eucharist for that period.  I joined the Knights of Columbus and made it through the Third Degree after my confirmation.  After that, I became a lector, a lay Eucharistic minister, and chairman of the community outreach committee upon which sat two lieutenants, three captains, a major, two lieutenant colonels, and a chief master sergeant…and I was a mere petty officer third class.

Since my wife, whom I met much later, was from a very Protestant, in the anti-Catholic sense of the word, my activities were curtailed to the point of nonexistence.  It wasn’t until our son, David Nicholas, was born that we began to talk about church.  We compromised on the Philippine Episcopal Church and became active members.  We were at a teach-in which the vicar of the pro-cathedral was conducting for the whole parish on a Saturday when he dropped dead in front of us and forty other people.  I helped revive him on the way to the hospital, but he eventually died permanently a couple of hours after I went home.

Grace was one of two people being confirmed in the PEC the very next day, and David was being baptized.  The bishop of the PEC had to take over.  Everyone was in a daze and we might have all gone completely crazy if there hadn’t been David to focus on. 

That, too, was another parish for which I have only fond memories, except for Brian dying, of course.  Pardon the digression, I just needed to give some background on why I ended up Episcopalian again.  Back in the States, our little family became founding members of a new mission of PECUSA along with the rest of my family and remained there until the dissolution of my marriage. 

And still, I kept going.  I eventually switched to the parish of my childhood and youth then back again.  Included during this time was a year-long attendance at a conservative synagogue in which I went to services every Shabbat, First Shabbes dinners every month, and inquirers’ class. 

During another period I also went to prayer services at a Hindu temple, including Navratri festivities one year.  Had there been a mainstream Muslim mosque, I doubtless would have attended that too.  There’s no Buddhist pagoda either, but I had been in tune with aspects of Buddhism, especially Zen, since I was in 6th grade.

My next-door Jewish godfather attended Midnight Mass every Christmas Eve, so I saw nothing unusual about attending Hindu, Jewish, or Muslim services.

At one point, my sleep cycle finally got so out of whack that I needed sleep on the weekends more than I  needed superficial social contact at the facilities of a religion of which I was only going through the motions of believing.  Besides, my son wasn’t really into it either and that had been the main reason I’d been going, at least to church.

With nonattendance decided upon, I had time to think.  Not just time, but freedom from interference with my clear thinking.  With that I came face-to-face with the self-imposed credulity upon which all religions base the structure of their ideology.  In streets terms, I had to clean off my face and stop bullshitting myself.

The arguments among fans of Star Wars and Star Trek and between the two sets of groupies are nearly an exact match in tone for those within any one religion and between believers in different religions, and the basis upon which they base their arguments is equally lacking in validity.  In logic terms, all religious arguments are fallacious because all religious arguments are an appeal to authority.  Just like arguments between Trekkies based on Star Trek canon for the Star Trek Universe or between their mirror images in the Star Wars Universe or the two against each other.

Religion needs to be called out for what it is: literary fantasy and science fiction.  With the twist that most religious texts as we have them today, in ALL religions, serve the purpose primarily of upholding the interests of a society’s elite.  In other words, look not to Mount Olympus or the equivalent for your true gods, look to Wall Street or its equivalent, such as Eretz Israel in the case of the sectarian Jewish State or the mullahs of Iran in the Islamic Republic.  Not truth but conformity is what religion teaches.

As for our innate sense of right and wrong, that inside voice we hear even when our culturally and/or religiously ingrained voice is screaming at us to do the opposite (say, for example, in the white supremacist American South that went virtually unchallenged until the 1960’s), that has come from millennia, even meganni*, of evolution.  If that innate, evolved moral sense, rather than the superficial moral sense of religion, were to ever triumph, humanity would have the world-wide socialist economy it needs to survive, one where the needs of the many outweigh the greed of the few.

(*A megannum is one million years.)

But I digress.

One thing I hate above nearly all else is historical fiction.  Not the literary genre, of which I happen to be a fan, but political, religious, and social historical fiction.  As I mentioned before, my 12th grade American government teacher first introduced me and my classmates to the idea that we had been “lied” to.  Historical fiction is the bane of every religious believer, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Taoist, Jain, Wicca, New Age, etc.

A predisposition to credulity accompanies every system of religious belief because humans have to suspend their disbelief in order to believe some of the absurd hypotheses religion teaches as fact.  Sometimes, however, a mountain of misinformation reaching up to the heavens falls down upon a believer and the stench forces him or her to face the truth.

The Exodus did not happen.  The utter lack of evidence for it after extensive desperate search for even a grain of truth is more than enough to establish that, which I have discussed elsewhere.  The kingdom of David and of Solomon never existed either, as I have also discussed elsewhere, and Judah, or Yehud, only came into being after 722 BCE.  The Israelites were actually tribal semi-nomadic Canaanites.  Archaeological evidence shows that many of the rulers in the books of Kings were real, but the stories warped from the highly subjective points-of-view of their Judaean authors.

The character of Jesus as the protagonist of a persecution-death-rebirth cycle story is anything but unique as several writers known as Church Fathers themselves relate.  In fact, some used this similarity as proof that their own doctrines were real.

These other deities—Isis and Osiris, Cybele and Attis, Adonis, Dionysus, Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, and Mithras, to name the most prominent versions—had stories and tales that were indeed remarkably similar to that of Iesous as formulated in Egypt.  Some parts of their stories are incorporated into the Gospels with almost no change, such as the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John.  In Roman Judaea, there was no town of Bethany; Bethany derives from “Bet Anu” or the House of Anubis.  I don’t know about a parallel for Martha, but Mary, sister of the dead guy, bears the same name as one of the titles of Isis.  Lazarus comes from El Azar, Osiris.

Gnosticism is not a heresy of early Christianity; it is a movement that developed in parallel with early Christianity, both most likely originating in Alexandria.

As for the actual history of early Christianity (first century Judaism for that matter, and the Mystery Cults), therein lie the pitfalls of believing only what you are told to believe and ignoring all evidence to the contrary.  Hadrian Augustus’ letter to Consularis Servianus in 134 CE recorded in the Historia Augusta makes it clear that the common modern day view of such things holds water about as well as the RMS Titanic after its pilot backed it away from the iceberg:

There those who worship Serapis are, in fact, Christians, and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are, in fact, devotees of Serapis.  There is no chief of the Jewish synagogue, no Samaritan, no Christian presbyter, who is not an astrologer, a soothsayer, or an anointer. Even the Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is forced by some to worship Serapis, by others to worship Christ…Their only god is money, and this the Christians, the Jews, and, in fact, all nations adore.

A few years later, Bishop Marcion of Sinope (Pontus, Asia Minor) appeared in Rome with his Evangelikon (Gospel of the Lord, an early version of Luke) and Apostolikon (epistles of Paul: Galatians, I & II Corinthians, Romans, I & II Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, Phillipians, and Philemon, plus Alexandrians and Laodiceans).  He also brought with him his Antitheses, an explanation of his own ideas contrasting Jesus of the New Testament with the “Jehovah” of the Old Testament.  Antitheses also prohibited allegorical interpretation of any Scripture.

Considering that Marcion has been declared one of the earliest heretics of the Church for eschewing the Jewish Tanakh, it is ironic that his Pauline Epistles have been preserved as presented (except for the last two) and in the same order.   His Gospel was heavily interpolated and renamed the Gospel of Luke.

At about the same time, a manual of prayers and religious practice was being passed around Roman Asia known as the Didache.  Within the Didache is a set of prayers for the communal meal; modern-day Christians are stumped by the fact that there is a prayer over the cup BEFORE the prayer over the bread. 

What they don’t realize, not knowing Jewish practice lasting even to today, is that first there is an offering of the cup to sanctify the meal, followed by the breaking of bread to bless the meal, and another cup after the meal to give thanks.  This tripartite offering is actually preserved in the account of the “Last Supper” in the Gospel of Luke, which even the Gentilist Marcion knew about since his Gospel of the Lord was its forerunner and source.

Excuse the aside, but it does show how diverse and unlike our conception of it in its time early Christianity actually was.

Even if the above were not the case, Christian history has been swamped with “pious fraud” endorsed by, perpetrated for, and acquiesced in by Church leaders that Christianity itself has not one shred of credibility left to it.  The Shroud of Turin, debunked in 1988, and the more recent fraud over the sarcophagus of “James brother of Jesus” are but two examples that come to mind immediately.

Clearly, Christianity developed out of the ferment of the 2nd century BCE to 2nd century CE that produced the numerous Mystery Cult religions.  But whereas the adherents of Isis-Osiris, Demeter-Persephone, Dionysus, Orpheus, Adonis, Cybele-Attis, etc., knew that the stories about their deities were allegories that told a greater truth, some Christian, somewhere in the Mediterranean world, decided that the version of the story he believed in was the literal historical truth.  Perhaps it was Marcion, Bishop of Sinope.

Anyone who has been in a Star Trek or Star Wars chat-room or e-list can easily see that happening.  Many of the stories from the Star Trek and Star Wars Universes provide useful, or at least amusing, anecdotes to our everyday life.  But neither should be a framework by which to organize our lives and our very system of thought, much less our laws by which to govern each other.  Nor should any religion ever propagated by humans.

No amount of polite historical fiction can make me ignore the fact that this Universe is 213 duovigintillion km3 in volume, with Terra, our planet Earth, only a mere dust speck by comparison, hardly the be-all, end-all of existence in space-time.  At least not anymore. 

Yes, I confess that I was once a religious believer, and that I truly and devoutly believed and sought out the truth of what I believed with every fiber of my being.  My absolution is that I saw the light, an epiphany to which I was ironically brought by my own ardent seeking for confirmation, and gave up that misbelief.

It was easier after I’d had a conversation with my ten-year old son and learned he thought most of what he “learned” in church was ridiculous.  Previous to that I’d been reluctant to come of the unbelief closet, kind of like a parent pretends the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and Santa Claus are real.

At last allowing myself to judge Christianity as it is without giving it the benefit of doubt it does not deserve, my first reaction was anger.  Anger at myself for bullshitting myself for so many decades, anger at all the people who’d lied to me over the decades (yes, lied; even if they were lying to themselves like I had been, they were still lying to me) directly through personal interaction or indirectly through their writing, anger at the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity over the centuries, atrocities I and every other Christian are or were complicit in by virtue continuing to adhere to the ideology of mythology which made such atrocities possible.

Rage is a better word than anger.  Rage like I haven’t felt since the rage which made me leave the Philippines out of fear of what I might become responsible for if I remained.

Just imagine, I had not even suffered under the same kind of theocratic hell that my unfortunate fellow humans in the Islamic Republics of Iran and Afghanistan have been enduring for decades.  Nor was I molested by a pedophile priest protected by an allegedly celibate male hierarchy.  Nothing but the mundane crushing of human spirit, freedom of thought, and psychological health that is the everyday business of an institution whose main purpose in fact is to keep people in their place.  Nor am I a woman, which would make me a victim no matter what religion I was in.

So, why am I an atheist? 

Because I think fairly tales should be kept in their place, and that is exactly what the scriptures of any religion are, fairy tales.

Because I believe in thinking for myself and not persecuting other physically, socially, or even in my own mind because “Authority” tells me I should.

Because adhering to any set of beliefs formed by others is a lie, and doing so also automatically cuts me off from the overwhelming majority of humans.

Because I do not believe in any Master Race, whether formed by conversion or genetics, that has any right to claim precedence above the rest of humanity.

Because there simply is no deity.

Because I am a Terran, a citizen of Earth, because the whole world is my home, and all its people my brothers, sisters, and cousins.

07 April 2012

HIV: Scourge of Humanity



This essay was a term paper for Immunology and Serology class in the fall semester of 2008.

In the summer of 1981, I had just graduated from high school and was travelling to Costa Rica for three weeks then around the entire state of Tennessee for the rest of the summer, keeping up with news in a few areas I was interested in as a future political science student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, such as the conflicts in Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua) and the early days of the Ronald Reagan administration, along with the ongoing hunger strike in the H-Blocks at Long Kesh in Northeast Ulster (Northern Ireland).

As a consequence of reading numerous news magazines, such as Newsweek, to keep up with those events, I came across an article about a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about a cluster of five gay men in Los Angeles, California, who had an uncommon pulmonary disease called Pneumocytstis carinii pneumonia (PCP), something usually only seen in persons with severely compromised immune systems such as chemotherapy patients, transplant recipients, or those with Severely Combined Immune Deficiency Syndrome (SCIDS).

A little later, physicians in New York City (primarily) noted a number f cases of young gay men afflicted with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a skin cancer caused by HHV-8 (human herpes virus-8), usually only seen in elderly men.  Almost simultaneously physicians in California noted ten more cases of PCP in young gay men.  The rise of new cases snowballed.

The date of the afore-mentioned CDC report was 5 June 1981, a date which marks not only the agreed-on start-date of the AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) pandemic, but also the reincarnation of the field of immunology into how we now know it as well as the birth of such now-commonplace healthcare procedures and the Universal Precautions.

The five cases mentioned in the report were the first cluster of cases in a series of isolated incidences of patients with seemingly good health succumbing to infections and diseases that were easily dispatched by the immune systems of most people the previous decade.  But as the first identified cluster of cases, it was the first signal that the world health community, at least in the developed world, had a major crisis on its hands.

In truth, African nations, especially those of the sub-Saharan region, had been suffering from AIDS for what we now know was nearly a century by then; levels of infection reached epidemic proportions in the Belgian Congo around the year 1960.  Two of the most “ancient” samples of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the virus which eventually leads to AIDS, from deceased persons (1959 and 1960 respectively) in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were studied, dissected, and compared for genetic deviation.

It was determined by the degree of deviation between the two samples that they had evolved from a common ancestor dating back to the 1880’s, when the DRC had been a colony of the Belgian crown and the city of Leopoldville was built.  The conditions resulting from this concentration of humans in that area provided fertile ground in which the pathogenicity of a then-relatively benign (or at least much less virulent) virus mushroomed exponentially. 

Still, the disease remained relatively isolated and a largely local problem easily ignored by the rest of the world until the building of the Kinshasa Highway between the Congolese city and Mobutu, Kenya.  This coincided with the Ground Zero event of the American Bicentennial celebration in New York City, a gathering of four friends, all gay men, one of whom was later determined to be “Patient Zero”.  Gayton was a French-Canadian flight attendant who had worked several flights to Africa landing in Kinshasa and Mobutu and was directly connected to over four hundred of the first American victims of AIDS.

Virologists have demonstrated that HIV evolved out of a similar virus among other primates which was relatively benign (at least in comparison to what HIV does to nearly all humans it infects) called Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), and was transmitted corss-species through zoonosis.  It has also been determined that the ultimate ancestor of today’s SIV was a fragment of DNA of the lemur on Madagascar broken off 1.8 million years ago.

Two major strains of HIV exist, one of which is less immunogenic and less pathogenic though still deadly (HIV-2), and the other the major cause of AIDS world-wide (HIV-1).  In addition to SIV and the two strains of HIV, another virus with aspects of both SIV and HIV termed Simian-Human Immunodeficiency Virus (SHIV) has been discovered among monkeys in West Africa. 

The strain found in North America is almost always HIV-1, of which there are three groups (M, N, and O), the first of which, Group M, has eleven subtypes, with Subtype B being the overwhelmingly dominant subtype.  HIV-2 is usually found only in West Africa, and if seen in the USA the patient is likely either from West Africa or has had sexual or similar close contact with someone from there.

Incidentally, not one single human in history have ever been infected by a virus; a virion does not become a virus until after infecting the host. 

The HIV virion is composed of a lipid membrane which is studded with docking glycoproteins (gp) called gp120 that are attached to the cell membrane with transmembrane gp’s named gp41 and which contain a nucleus surrounded by a protein-24 (p24) capsid surrounding not DNA but RNA and an ezyme called reverse transcriptase, making it a retrovirus, so-called because its replication process is RNA-to-DNA rather than DNA-to-RNA.

After the reverse transcriptase replicating its own DNA before replicating itself and integrating into the DNA of the host cell, whereupon it replicates the viral RNA to assemble into more virions using material taken from the host cell, which is eventually depleted to the point of necrosis, and eventually leave the host cell to infect other cells.

HIV primarily attacks the CD+ T-lymphocyte, using the CD4 receptor to gain entrance into th interior of the target T-cell via interaction of its gp120 with the CD4 molecule and either the chemokine co-receptor CCR5 or the CXCR4.  HIV invades other cells such as macrophages, microglial cells, peripheral blood monocytes, and the various other cells of the reticulo-endothelial system which have these receptors, but T-helper cells are its favorite meal. 

M-tropic (aka R5) strains of HIV-1 use CCR5 as a co-receptor while T-tropic (aka X4) strains CXCR4.  This is important because a large number of person of Northern and Western European descent lack the gene which produces CCR5 and are thus virtually immune from the R5 strains.

The CD4 receptor is the particular target of HIV because of its affinity for HIV’s gp120 surface molecules.  The CD+ T-cells are, of course, rapidly destroyed by this process, with other cells of the immune system (such as CD8+ T-cells) also being affected.

When the CD4+ T-cell count falls below 200/mcL (a condition called lymphocytopenia), that is the point at which an infection by HIV officially become AIDS.  However, just as no one has ever been infected by a virus (rather by virions), AIDS has yet to kill any human.  It is instead the opportunistic infections which the destruction of the immune system caused by the HIV allows to enter the body which lead to the death of the human host.  These infections are called opportunistic because they are helpless against the defense of a stable immune system and can only infect the host because of a lower threshold of his or her compromised immune system.

Some of these opportunistic infections include Pneumocystis pneumonia (previously thought to be caused by the P. carinii parasite but now known to be caused by P. jirovecii, a yeast-like fungus, but still called PCP), various kinds of candidiasis (infection by a fungus from the genus Candida), extrapulmonary cryptococcosis (infection by a fungus from the genus Cryptococcus), disseminated coccidiodomycosis (infection by a fungus from the genus Coccidiodes),  toxoplasmosis (infection by the protozoa Toxoplasma gondii), Kaposi’s sarcoma, cytomegalovirus (CMV, aka Human Herpes Virus-5, or HHV-5) and other herpes viruses, HIV encephalopathy, histoplasmosis (infection by the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum), aspergillosis (infection by fungus of the genus Aspergillus), and countless others.

A serious and growing danger that is rapidly becoming the single-most dangerous and widespread opportunistic infection attacking AIDS victims is pulmonary tuberculosis caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, producing new strains of that disease once thought to be under control which are completely resistant to usual treatment as well as more virulent.

Seroconversion, the point at which antibodies normally become present in sufficient quantity to detect, usually occurs three to twelve weeks after infection, but this can be delayed for up to six months.  The initial test for HIV antibodies is the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), as has been the case since the early 1980’s, though a recently FDA-approved test called the Ora Quick Rapid HIV-1 antibody test can also be used. 

Since false-positive as well as false-negative results can occur for a variety of reasons, positive results should be confirmed by at least one other test, preferably a Western blot test in which HIV-1 viral antigens are electrophoresed on SDS gel then incubated.  Positive result for gp41 (from the HIV membrane) and/or p24 (from the capsid of its nucleus) are considered valid confirmation or the positive ELISA result.  Tests for the HIV antigen include the EIA test for the p24 antigen, DNA amplification by PCR (polymerase chain reaction, useful for quantifying the amount of HIV RNA in the patient’s plasma, assessing viral therapy, and predicting progression of the disease), and immunoflourescent assay (IFA) using p17 or p24 antibody to treat infected cells.

As for transmission of the disease, sexual transmission is overwhelmingly the main means of transmission, followed by mother-to-fetus and mother-to-infant transmission, blood transfusion, organ transplant, and occupational exposure.  However, according to the CDC, due to the fact that blood supplies in lesser-developed countries were not (and in some countries still are not) routinely tested, nine out of ten HIV-infected persons world-wide got their infection from a transfusion.

Currently, there is no vaccine against HIV and much more controversy about ongoing tests to date.  However, scientists representing different institutions around the country have recently discovered that the Apobec3 family of proteins encodes for Rfv3, a  gene which neutralizes the function of retroviruses, the gene present in the 2% of the HIV-infected population which never displays any sign of the disease.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Avasthi, Amitabh.  “HIV/AIDS Emerged as Early as 1880’s”.  National Geographic News, 1 October 2008. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/10/081001-hiv-aids-africa.html .

Koehler, Amanda.  “The Quest for an AIDS Vaccine: the Controversy Continues”.  Advance for Medical Laboratory Professionals, Vol. 20, No. 17, pp. 20-23.  (King of Prussia: Merion Publications, Inc., 2008).

Pratt, Robert J.  HIV and AIDS: A foundation for nursing and healthcare practice, Fifth Edition.  (London: Arnold, 2003).

Santiago, Mario L., et al.  “Apobec3 encodes Rfv3, a Gene Influencing Neutralizing Antibody Control of Retrovirus Infection”.  Science Magazine, Vol. 321, 5 September 2008, pp. 1343-1346.  (Washington: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2008).

Shilts, Randy.  And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic.  (New York: St. Matin’s Press, 1987).

Turgeon, Mary Louise.  Immunology and Serology in Laboratory Medicine, Third Edition.  (St. Louis: Mosby, Inc., 2003).

Appalachia: Resistance to the Rape of a Culture


This text was originally a term paper written for Dr. Fouad Moughrabi’s poli sci class “U.S. and the Third World” at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in May 1984.  Keep in mind some of the individual facts may have changed even though the overall picture remains; updates will be in italics within brackets.

Appalachia, simply defined, the region surrounding the Appalachian Mountain chain in its various branches.  It includes the Adirondacks, Allegheneys, the Smokeys, the Blue Ridge, the Cumberlands, and other ranges, plus a Ridge-and-Valley region.  It encompasses extreme southwestern New York state, eastern Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina, the entire state of West Virginia, northwestern South Carolina, northern Georgia, and northeastern Alabama.

The story of the land and people of Appalachia is one of pride, independence, and courage in the face of exploitation by huge corporations, by the federal government, and by those who want to “develop” its tourist potential and “civilize” it with second homes, condos, and metropolitan society—in other words, colonization. 

This corner of the world provides an illustrative view of the “Ugly American” who wishes to force his way of life on everyone else and regards the rest of the world as there to serve him, with one exception:  this is America and these are Americans.  What follows here is largely the view of the people themselves, how they perceive their plight.

The situation in Appalachia appears the same as in most Third World countries, with a very few people or groups of people controlling all the wealth and economy and most of the land.  Some statistics from the region, which will look familiar to the student of the Third World situation, are as follows:  land ownership—28% locally-owned, 72% absentee-owned; mineral ownership—20% locally-owned, 80% absentee-owned; land control—53% of the land is controlled by 1% of the population, leaving 99% to compete for the remaining 47% of the land.

The largest single land owner in Appalachia is the federal government, primarily through the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), but also through the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), building it dams even where none are needed, diverting water from the mountains to the metropolitan centers on the outskirts of the region, all in the name of “progress”.

The other major group of outside owners include the coal companies.  Known as “Big Coal”, the top twenty owners [as of May 1984] are:

1) Kennecott Copper, through Peabody Coal, the company which devastated Muhlenberg County in western Kentucky, owned by the Rio Tinto Group;

2) Consolidation Coal [now Consol Energy], which owns the Chrysler Corporation and is in turn owned by Continental Oil [now Conoco-Phillips];

3) Island Creek Coal Company, which is owned by Occident Petroleum Company (Oxy);

4) Clinchfield Coal Company, which is owned by Pittston Coal Company, a subsidiary of the Brinks Company;

5) AMAX Coal Company, which is owned by American Metal Cliimax;

6) U.S. Steel, which owns its own operations;

7) Bethlehem Steel, which also has its own operations [sold to International Steel Group in 2003, which merged with Mittal Steel (an Indian company based in Rotterdam) in 2005];

8) Eastern Associated Coal Corporation, a division of Eastern Gas and Fuel [now Eastern Enterprises];

9) North American Coal Corporation, a totally independent operation [now a subsidiary of NACCO Industries];

10) Old Ben Coal Company, which is owned by Standard Oil of Ohio [which is itself now owned by British Petroleum];

11) Freeman United Coal Mining Company, which is owned by General Dynamics;

12) United Electric Coal Company, also owned by General Dynamics;

13) Westmoreland Coal Company, another independent operation;

14) Pittsburg Midland Coal Company, which is owned by Gulf Oil [now part of Chevron-Texaco-Unocal];

15) Utah International, Inc., which is independent of outside control and also deals in copper, iron ore, and other minerals throughout the world;

16) Central Ohio Coal Company, owned by American Electric Power, the largest utility company in the world;

17) Central Appalachian Coal Company, also owned by American Electric Power;

18) Windsor Power House, also owned by American Electric Power;

19) Central Coal Company, also owned by American Electric Power; and, finally,

20) Southern Ohio Coal Company, also owned by American Electric Power.

These twenty companies produce 52% of all coal in the nation per year.  It is also interesting to note that in mmany cases, “Big Coal” is the whore of “Big Oil”.

Coal is not only the major product of the region, but also the major producer of conflict.  Strip-mining, unsafe working conditions, insufficient wages, pollution of the land and rivers have all served to fuel the fires of hostility between the coal companies and the people of Appalachia.

The history of organization by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) contains much of the violence so often attributed to Appalachia, most of it committed by coal company thugs and which is still going on wherever the union tires to organize new locals.  It is a classic struggle between rich and poor, powerful overlords and a helpless population, civilized corporate tyranny and resistance by a people striving to feed their families and maintain their existence against the onslaught of Manifest Destiny and the invasion of American imperialism.

The people of Appalachia are not opposed to the coal industry as such; in fact, many welcome the jobs and income.  But they would like an industry with more concern for safe working conditions and the welfare of the workers and their families.  They would also like for the industry to show more concern for the environment; nobody but the coal companies and maybe the TVA would be sad if strip-mining were made a capital offence.

In 1890, the UMWA was founded to fight for the rights of miners who worked long hours in hazardous conditions with pennies for payment.  It was about this same time that socialist thought was increasing in the labor movement and radicalism prevailed.  The push for organization was forceful and so was resistance by owners.  This was particularly true after John L. Lewis assumed the national presidency of the union in 1919.

When the destitute miners began to organize for their rights, they were met with the same brutal force that rail workers striking against Standard Oil in 1914 met in Ludlow, Colorado.  There, company thugs surrounded a strike camp and opened fire, killing 43 women and children and wounding hundreds more while National Guardsmen nearby stood and watched. 

The mine operators in Appalachia were equally as vicious.  When miners began organizing in Appalachia, operators hired Pinkerton agents as mercenaries, employed their own goon squads, used the National Guard and the various police agencies available, and, in one place, even recruited a mini-air corps, led by one Billy Mitchell (later the father of the U.S. Air Force), to fly over their strike camps and drop bombs on the miners and their families.

Let the people of Harlan County, Kentucky, stand witness.  According to Nimrod Workman, an organizaer there during the 1930’s, one of the company thugs’ favorite tactics was to go into the strike camps while the men were gone and pour kerosene into the children’s milk—which was likely all they had to eat. 

Jack Hill reported in The Labor Defender in 1932 that thugs would raind mining towns, searching house-to-house for guns, union cards, literature, etc.  If there was any resistance, heavy machine guns on the hills would open fire, killing everyone, men, women, children.  They would harass, bomb, shoot, and otherwise intimidate any they found striking for the union.  At the height of union-organizing in 1938, there were seventy-five murders in Harlan, almost all by company thugs. 

Many of these tactics are still being used today [in 1984], as women demonstrating against strip-mining in Knott County, Kentucky, and strikers against Duke Power Company can attest to, as can many still trying to organize in stubbornly resistant operations.

From 1949 to 1950, coal miners across the United States held a general strike against the Southern Coal Operators Association, the combined northern and western operators group, the captive mine (owned by steel companies) operators, and the anthracite operators group.  They struck for a shorter work day, higher pay, and more safety, and against the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, increasing mechanization, and especially against use of the very hazardous continuous miner machine.

Beginning in West Virginia, under leadership of the Johnson-Forrest Tendency of the SWP and at first authorized by UMWA president Lewis, it rapidly spread to all of Appalachia and then to the West.  After Lewis prematurely ordered the miners back to work, the strike became as much against him and his collaboration as against Big Coal.  Pres. Harry Truman, who had campaigned on a promise to get Taft-Hartley repealed, eventually used that same law to end the strike by fiat.

Bitter hostility between labor and management continued until 1950, when the National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement was signed, aka the Mechanization Agreement (among other things it specifically abandoned resistance by the UMWA to the continuous miner).  Then, “abruptly, permanently, and somewhat mysteriously”, all hostility between Lewis and the leaders of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, or BCOA (George Love of Consolidation and Harry Moses of U.S. Steel) disappeared.

During the next ten years of his rein, Lewis grew cozier and cozier with his former antagonists.  The union’s rank-and-file membership was virtually locked out of negotiations.  Lewis assumed an autocratic rule of the union and held down resistance to the automation of the industry that put thousands out of work.

Tom Kennedy, Lewis’ vice president, succeeded him in 1960, and Tony Boyle succeeded him in 1963.  Boyle began to use the Welfare and Retirement Fund to his advantage.  He drew a salary of $50,000 [$350,000 in 2012] with plans to retire at full pay.  The twenty-seven district presidents made $30,000 [$210,000 in 2012], retiring at half pay.   In contrast, rank-and-file members received $1380/year [$9660 in 2012] at retirement.  The Fund also had several disqualifications which robbed men who had been working all their lives in the mines of their just due.

So complete was the bedding together of the coal operators and those who were supposed to be protecting the miners’ rights that shortly after one of the worst mining disasters in history at Mannington Mountaineer No. 9 in West Virginia (in which 78 men were buried alive in 1968), Boyle appeared on the scene praising the mine as one of the best companies to work for.

The decision of Fund board members to revoke medical cards of all members who were working for companies which failed to sign the national agreement caused a mass uprising in Eastern Kentucky.  Wildcat strikes were widespread.  “roving pickets” went from mine to mine inciting strikes and closing down operations.  Of course, these were harassed, beaten, and killed along the way.  The state police and the National Guard were called out against them.  They failed in many places, but they sowed the seeds of the reform movement in the UMWA.

The case of Eastern Kentucky is unique in many respects.  Kentucky is the only state in the Union where the legality of the “broad-form deed” was upheld.  This gave the mineral owner the right to extract the coal by whatever means possible, regardless of the damage to the surface.  Of course, these were sold eighty years ago [110 years now, the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries], when almost all miningg was done underground.

No region in the U.S.A. has undergone the rape that Eastern Kentucky has suffered, though strip-mining is widespread elsewhere, especially in West Virginia and East Tennessee.  Small wonder that the people eventually took up arms against the mountain strippers.

In the Lotts Creek section of Knotts County, members of the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People (AGSLP) began attacking the operations of the Kentucky Oak Mining Company after tension sprang up surrounding two events in 1965 in which residents faced off against bulldozers threatening their land.  Out-and-out warfare continued for six months with almost nightly firefights.  Equipment was sabotaged.  Supplies were destroyed.

In 1966, the owners (Bill Sturgill and Richard Kelly) decided to leave Lotts Creek.  After that, the movement spread throughout Eastern Kentucky, though in less violent forms (sporadic violence did continue into the mid-1970’s).  In 1970, the AGSLP began to hold mass demonstrations, stopping coal trucks, holding marches, motorcades, and press conferences, meeting with Congressional leaders and conducting groups on tours of strip-mined areas.  Finally, in 1974, a law was passed in Frankfort (the seat of Kentucky state government) effectively negating the broad-form deed.

The reform movement within the union began in 1968 when doctors discovered that “miner’s asthma” was really the disease pneumoconiosis, one in which coal dust gets in the lungs and ruptures the air sacs.  This is better known as “black lung disease”.  When miners, spurred on by physician Donald Rasmussen, began to demand compensation, the UMWA’s Boyle regime resisted, even when the rank-and-file were going to the states instead of the union or the operators. 

Faced with this, Arnold Miler and other formed the Black Lung Association (BLA).  The BLA became a powerful lobbying agent, getting bills passed on the state and national level.  A wildcat strike by 40,000 miners in West Virginia in support of black lung legislation was condemned by the UMWA, which ordered the strikers back to work.  They marched anyway. 

The reform movement formally declared war with the Boyle regime in 1969, with the candidacy of Joseph Yablonski for the international presidency that year.  Mass fraud and intimidation at the polls kept Yablonski from winning.  Twenty-two days later, 31 December 1969, Yablonski and his family were murdered in their sleep.

Another election was held in 1972 because of the fraiud in the 1969 election.  Boyle lost to the reform candidate, Arnold Miller, president of the BLA.  The UMWA was once again representative of its people. 

Boyle was convicted of Yablonski’s murder in 1974.

In the past twenty years [now fifty years], the mountain people have had to deal with yet another invasion of their homes.  Developers, spurred by the popularity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, have begun to move in.  Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is now one of the most renowned tourist traps in the country.  Condominiums at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina sell for $100,000 [$223,000 in 2012 dollars]. 

Resorts and second homes for “Florida Yankees” have sprung up all over the Southern Appalachian Highlands, primarily in western North Carolina and East Tennessee.  Besides raping the land, this drives up prices for land far out of the small farmers’ range, and puts a strain on the water supply.

Next to American Indians, the people of Appalachia are the poorest and the most discriminated against minority in the country.  Median income ranges from $2047 [$4560 in 2012] to [$8588 [$19,132 in 2012].  Many, particularly in the mountains, “live without water and sewage facilities, without warmth in the winter, with rats and insects breeding in the open garbage, and with visible structural failures” (Chase, “Housing in Appalachia”).  They are often scorned as “hillbillies”, and this quote from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) shows the attitude of most of mainstream America towards the Appalachian people:

We all profess to love liberty, but these people take their liberty seriously.  They don’t buy food; they shoot, grow, or catch it.  Few have running water or electricity in their homes, and most have less than a fifth-grade education.  Family and kinship ties are strong here; it is common for three or four generations to live together.  They have no social consciousness in the modern sense—but when one man’s barn burns down, every man in the vicinity shoulders his axe and hikes through the woods to help build a new one.

Many families live in deserted coal towns that companies have left behind in search of greater profit.  Three-quarters of Eastern Kentucky’s coal miners found themselves without a job this way after the coal boom of the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  “They become victims of a materialistic social order which venerates efficiency and wealth above all other things, and largely disregards social and human consequences” (Caudill). 

Some of these miners banded together and earned meager profits working small holes with little equipment other than their arms and backs.  Some remained where they were, unwilling to leave their homes, and were forced onto welfare rolls.  Thousands, over one-third of the regional population, followed the course of other people from the region abd fled to the metropolitan centers of the North and Midwest to look for work.

Migration has become a fact of life in Appalachia.  Driven out by high prices for land, unemployment, and/or ruined land, over two million people fled Appalachia between the early 1960’s and early 1980’s [probably millions  more by 2012].  By the way, it is “migration” rather than “emigration”; probably a majority of the displaced Appalachians pile into cars once a month, if not every weekend, to travel back “home”, if home still exists.

The Appalachian people are unique in that, with American Indians, they are the only segment of society with a federal agency especially dedicated to their welfare.  Though the people disagree over whether the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) really has their best interests at heart, the ARC does often fight an uphill battle with Congress, local governments, and other parts of the bureaucracy for the rights of the people and what it eems to be in the people’s best interests.

The ARC is one of the programs Ronald Reagan has slated to be slashed out of existence in 1985 [fortunately, he failed in that and ARC still exists].

The situation may sound desperate, but the times are changing.  Under Arnold Miller, the UMWA has moved to the forefront of the grassroots movement of the Appalachian people to protect their right and improve their general welfare.  The Council of the Southern Mountains has moved from simply promoting Appalachian culture and edication to aiding communities organize to get help and services they need.  The Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People is still alive in Eastern Kentucky. 

These organizations are essentially grassroots groups begun by the people to help them help themselves.  Being proud and independent people who revere self-reliance, they probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

I do not know if we can “do” anything for the people of Appalachia, or even if they would want us to.  but I do know they would appreciate it if we support their efforts for justice. 

Therefore, I close with these words of the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia:

The cries come now from Appalachia,
but they are echoed
—across the land
—across the earth
in the sufferings of too many peoples.
Together these many sufferings
form a single cry.

The living God hears this cry
and he tells us,
what long ago
on a different mountain,
he told his servant Moses that,

—he had heard the cry of his people.
—he would deliver them out of the hands of oppression.
—he would give them a rich and broad land.

But before we turn
to this message from the Lord,
we must hear fist
the cry of Appalachia’s poor.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bethel, T.N.  “Conspiracy in Coal”.  Appalachia in the Sixities: Decade of Reawakening.  Ed. by David S. Wells and John B. Stephenson.  (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1972).

Branscombe, James.  “Nonviolence and Violence in Appalachia”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

Branscombe, James, and Peggy Matthews.  “Selling the Mountains”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

Brooks, David.  “Strip Mining in Eastern Kentucky”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

Caudill, Henry.  “The Permanent Poor: The Lesson of Eastern Kentucky”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

Chase, Elizabeth.  “Housing in Appalachia”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

“LAND: A Broken Covenant”.  Pamphlet by the Catholic Committee on Appalachia.

Miller, Arthur.  “The Energy Crisis as a Coal Miner Sees It”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

“THIS LAND IS HOME TO ME”.  a Pastoral Letter by the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, 1972.

Voices from the Mountains.  A collection of words, songs, and photographs from many people.  ed. by Guy and Candie Carwan.  (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, Inc., 1975).