No Adverse Comment Here

Here’s a beautiful and troubling piece from The New York Times this past week: “As the Mountaintops Fall, a Coal Town Vanishes.”

The Times’ Dan Barry, one of the most eloquent and sensitive voices in American journalism (and a fine reporter, too), writes about Lindytown, West Virginia, a hamlet in the southern part of the state that has all but vanished because of nearby surface coal mining:

To reach a lost American place, here just a moment ago, follow a thin country road as it unspools across an Appalachian valley’s grimy floor, past a coal operation or two, a church or two, a village called Twilight. Beware of the truck traffic. Watch out for that car-chasing dog.

The people Barry meets recount the disappearance of Lindytown and other communities because of coal companies’ preference for mountaintop removal mining. Among the details that stick out: A subsidiary of Massey Energy, the giant coal concern, bought out the former residents of Lindytown. To get payments that amounted to a pittance for most people, they had to sign an agreement “not to sue, testify against, seek inspection of or ‘make adverse comment’ about coal-mining operations.”

“To make adverse comment about”? It’s not enough to forfeit the right to go to court or to promise to let the company do what it wants without seeking the protection of government regulations. You’d better not say anything mean about the mining, either, if you want to get the money the company is handing out. You can’t blame people who have next to nothing for signing away their rights, but you can’t turn a blind eye, either, to the fact this is more and more the way we do business: You can have your First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment and all the free speech and due process you want–but we can buy you out and shut you up. Reading the article, which certainly reflects adversely on the changes the coal companies are wreaking on the landscape of Appalachia, you wonder if any of the people the reporter talked to (including one who called the payment he got “hush money”) will suffer for having done so.

Several times, the story mentions the bedrock argument behind the mountaintop removal mining: we city people and the country at large need the coal to provide the unlimited supplies of electricity we take for granted. Of course, that argument doesn’t justify extracting coal (or other energy sources) at any cost. But our conscious choices and unconscious habits do have an impact in a wider world. Me: I’ll switch off my laptop as soon as I hit send on this post.

Today’s Reading

Kate pointed this story out in today’s New York Times, and read it aloud:

He Confirmed It, Yes He Did: The Wicked Witch Was Dead

“Like any coroner, he has seen some things. But one case stays with him nearly 70 years after the fact, like some old song he can’t get out of his head.

“He couldn’t shake this case even if he wanted to, what with all the videotapes, the DVDs, the television broadcasts replaying the gruesome aftermath over and over, in vivid Technicolor. Those striped socks, curling back like a pair of deflating noisemakers. …

“The coroner’s name is Meinhardt Raabe, and he lives in a retirement community tucked between here and there. He can’t see or hear too well, and his short legs need the assistance of a three-wheeled walker with hand brakes. But none of this means that at 91 he has forgotten much, because he hasn’t — especially about that case.”

It might be hard to believe a profile on one of the bit players in “The Wizard of Oz” might make compelling fare, but the story’s worth reading just for the writer’s touch; the story he tells is touching, too. There’s a catch, though: For a reason that escapes me–probably because this is the work of a highlighted national columnist, Dan Barry–the story is only available online as part of the Times Select service (we get Times select because we shell out for a daily subscription to the paper). It’s hard to see how this really helps the Times much. It’s one thing to put op-ed columnists and older-than-two-week archives under wraps and make people pay to see them, though I wonder if even that’s a winning proposition in the long term. This is just a lovely slice of life, and it comes as something of a rude surprise that it can’t be shared (unless, I suppose, people want to make do with email copies).

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