It’s tea time in Appalachia; I’m in a parallel universe where communication and logic are lost

Is this the end of civility?

I don’t watch the TV pundits, liberal or conservative. And I don’t listen to the radio numbskulls like Glenn Beck. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t influential — and scary.

I’ve spent the past 10 days in rural Western Pennsylvania. I grew up here, the grandson of union coal miners – one a Democrat, one a Republican. They were smart and civil men, and they made up their own minds without any help from the likes of Beck or Limbaugh. They read the newspaper, they attended union meetings, and they went to church. They thought things through, and they believed in community.

My grandfathers and the other miners from Coal Run discussed issues quietly, if they discussed them at all. It wasn’t considered polite to talk about politics or religion in those days. When they did, it was usually over shots and beers at the local tavern.

Welcome the the Tea Party!

Regardless of their affiliation (most coal miners were Democrats in those days), the miners respected each other and they respected their  country. That included repect for the office of the president – the one held by Franklin Roosevelt and the one held by John L. Lewis.

Boy, have times have changed. Most of the deep mines are closed now, and the economic clout of UMWA wages disappeared with them. While the power plants still send their megawatts to points east, much of the coal comes from points west.

Real unemployment here runs over 20%. As they say in these parts, a whole lotta folks don’t have a pot to piss in.

They’re angry. Real angry. And they just ain’t thinkin’ straight.

What’s going on Appalachian Pennsylvania defies logic. As I talk to the unemployed and the underemployed, they’re universally aligned against President Obama. Their racism is overt and the n-word a fixture of their conversation.

“I can’t believe someone hasn’t shot him,” one good old boy told me. Another can’t understand how we could elect a president who is a commie, a Muslim and a n—–.

They believe every word of it. Every word.

“So, you voted for McCain-Palin?” I asked several. Nope. They didn’t vote at all. But today they say they’re ready for revolution — the kind where people die.

Their anger is understandable. But it’s fueled by misinformation and ignorance. Don’t try to argue with them.

Most of the folks here oppose health-insurance reform, even though they’re precisely the ones the legislation will help. They’re stockpiling ammunition and firearms, convinced “that bitch Pelosi” is coming for their guns. Yet no such legislation has been proposed.

This is coal country – or it used to be. It was a place where men once worked hard and earned the right to drink heavily. Now they just drink, and the anger builds.

The hero for many? Sarah Palin. “She’s one of us,” they told me. Palin 2012 signs are common in these parts, and those who post them are also looking forward to the next tea-bag rally.

Like I said, I don’t get it.

Most of this anger comes from people who never heard their grandpa tell stories of the Great Depression. I did.  They don’t understand how their families – and mine — benefited from the New Deal and from other (gasp) government programs. They’ve never seen a real community pull together in tough times.

It’s been said that ignorance is bliss, but that’s not the case here in coal country. Here, ignorance just fuels anger and hatred.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not off topic. I can’t help but wonder what kind of twisted PR mind crafts the misinformation and deceit that drives this hatred I’m seeing. And I can’t help but wonder what happened to the once-wholesome values of coal country.


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31 Responses to It’s tea time in Appalachia; I’m in a parallel universe where communication and logic are lost

  1. Robert says:

    Amen. I also find it fun that my grandfather was a coal miner, too. He grew up in West Virginia. Later, he left coal mining and went to Texas to work for the Texas & Pacific Railway, another stoic union culture. So, do all grandsons of coal miners wind up in higher ed PR? ;o)

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik: It’s tea time in Appalachia. Blogging from Coal Country — and can’t believe what I’m seein’.

  3. Wally says:

    My grandpa too worked in the mines, started in a little town called Wehrum, doesn’t exist anymore. He had a drink at the Company Tavern one evening after finishing his shift of hanging 16 brass on the coal cars, you had to hang at least 16 to get paid for that day, the men that bought him the beer, Union organizers. When Dee Dee got home, to his company house, the company police were there, had my mom and uncle and grandmother in the street, telling them that if Dee Dee had another conversation with the Union, they would be put out. He responded as you would expect, and while two company cops held him, two others trapped him between the bumpers of two Model T trucks, breaking his hip. Oh, the company doctor treated him, let him recover so he could take his place in the man trip and fill his 16 cars a day. Make no mistake, the Union had good support for gaining strength, much like the carryings on happening in Congress these days. Misinformation, maybe, but when your family is hungry and your ability as a man to provide for your family is being systematically stripped away, you will have consequences.

    Maybe, like the Union organizers of Dee Dee’s day, the Congress is trying to find the means to an end. I don’t pretend to know what the motives are, I do know you can judge a tree by the fruit it bears. Right now Congress is bearing division, creating discrimination where there should be none. Not between races, that issue has its own champions, but between citizens. Those republican and democrat grandparents, in today’s political climate don’t discuss politics because they are supposed to hate each other, not find agreement or solution. The New Deal, Social Security, Medicare, Health Care, social welfare programs, I don’t know. Benjamin Franklin said, to paraphrase, “we must make the condition of the poor as difficult as possible so they will not want to remain there, for I have seen in my travels where entitlement programs have only served to make the poor, poorer and enslave them to the provider of the benefit.”

    One only need look at the events in New Orleans during and after Katrina, and now in Haiti. Millions of dollars in entitlement support created a social welfare slavery that the people could not in any way lift themselves up. The difference between our grandparents and the benefactors of the entitlement programs of today, our grandparents had the will, the motivation, the determination to succeed with only the strength of their bodies and dedication to each other.

    God Bless America.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    My Grandfather Sledzik was a union organizer and faced many of the same threats. Those were tough times, but they were determined people. Did not know of our common roots, Wally, but it’s not too surprising given that we grew up in the same place. And your Dad, like mine, stayed the hell out of the mines!

    My point and yours are similar, but we disagree on the situation of the poor. I’m all for folks using their bootstraps — as our grandparents did — to rise out of it. But the deck is stacked against them today.

    The system has degenerated to a point where no one is willing to cooperate or compromise. It’s become a hateful environment, and it’s spreading to the electorate — at least in that little part of the world where you and I grew up. What I saw this past 10 days in Southern Indiana County scared me.

    Glad you dropped by, old pal.

  5. Sarah says:

    Sadly this parallel universe is not limited to Appalachia. Spend five minutes in my northern, middle-class, blue-state alley and you’ll hear the exact same talk. This is racism plan and simple. We are, at our core, a nation that is still vehemently racist. Agreed, there are some sick masterminds behind the messaging, but they have a vast audience eagerly awaiting every word. God help us all.

  6. Bill Koch says:

    I’m reminded of the words of our dear, departed PR guidepost Pat Jackson: “Zealots are fanatics with their stabilizers removed!” There’s a trainload of stabilizers missing in this country right now. Back in Pat’s day, the zealots were mostly associated with the NIMBY movement. And, virtually all of them were against something: a landfill, a new nuclear power plant, strip mining, you name it. Today’s zealots, unfortunately, are against EVERYTHING!! This irrational behavior, coupled with the lousy economy, widespread unemployment, the growing divide between the haves and have nots, the collapsed housing market, racial tension, Wall Street abuses, and the bellowing of the high-paid media fear-mongers have created a Perfect Storm situation. At the same time, we have 535 legislators in DC who haven’t got a clue about what’s going on. A group of them even stood on the outside balcony of the Capitol Building inciting the “Kill the Bill” crowd outside during the debate on the House floor! And these are the people who are supposed to be leading our country!

    Bill, I too am scared and I worry what the next 12 to 24 months will bring. Let’s hope we don’t return to the riots of the 60s.

    Oh, and by the way, you’re completely on topic because emerging PR practitioners better have a full understanding of what societal pressures they’re facing if they ever hope to reach their audiences. Good job dude!

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Amid the chaos, you bring a smile to my face by invoking the name of our PR prophet, Pat Jackson. And I remember, more than once, gathering 45 minutes early to assure ourselves a seat at his lectures! A side lesson that emerges, I suppose, is how badly the PR profession needs the kind of critical thinking and moral leadership Pat gave us.

      I, too, hope it doesn’t deteriorate to the riots of the 60s. Because this time, the rioters will be armed with a lot more than signs and rocks.

  7. Jerry Mckee says:

    If only this ignorance and political naivete were confined to Indiana County. There isn’t even a modicum of polite, respectful exchanges between the parties in Washington. While Republican party and congressional leaders feign innocence in this discourse of disrespect, they truly are culpable for the behavior of followers resulting from party leaders’ inflammatory remarks.

    And Fox News has lowered the political IQ of the nation to where the ordinary citizen lacks the skill to discern fact from fiction. I remind relatives and friends in Indiana County and elsewhere of this very important fact: O’Reilly, Beck, Limbaugh, Savage, etc. are all multi-millionaires. What makes you think they seriously are looking out for the interests of the lower middle class they claim to represent?

    Things have to get better, as they surely can’t get much worse. And all of this will definitely make a great case study for both political science and public relations students in the near future. Acquiring the reputation, deserved or not, as the Party of NO may bring serious damage to the Republican brand.

  8. Although i come from coal country myself, this venom is not contained to Appalachia. In fact I have been in a bit of a funk lately as i assess the sorry state of America and its voice the web.

    Used to be, you were only exposed to radicalism and hate through the odd pamphlet on your windshield at the Wal-Mart parking lot. The social web has given voice to the ugly underbelly of America and I feel as though I’m surrounded by hate i never even knew was there.

    I’m realizing there is just as much extremeism in America as any other country. It’s just sightly more constrained by the rule of law. For now.

    Thanks for the bold post, Bill.

  9. Breeze says:

    Excellent post, Bill. You highlight many of the reasons I’ve lost interest in political discussion. Reason and logic take a far backseat to the bottom line–whether it’s ratings for the pundits or re-election bids for the pols, there’s too much emphasis on stoking fires and very little thought given to potential consequences.

  10. Bill Sledzik says:

    @ Breeze — I’m trying to turn this into more than a political discussion. Hope it worked. As communicators, we are in trying times, and critical thinking has been abandoned by so many.

    In real political discussions, both sides usually have defensible views. Not so in this case. These folks are spewing deliberate and hateful lies. And as Governor Palin pointed out yesterday, the are “reloading.” Scary part is, I think the tea baggers are taking that literally.

  11. It is unbelievable to watch this from Canada. It is indeed twisted minds that have induced people to red hot anger, threats and vandalism if not worse so that an agenda designed to help them is overtaken by the zealots for cheap points. These “tacticians and strategic minds” only seem to be about brinksmenship and destroying your opposition no matter what the cost and are an insult to our profession. Where is the public discourse in both politics and communications?

  12. Polly Wade says:

    It is disturbing, to say the least. I see it with my FB friends. I consider FB my personal, fun SM outlet. I friend my friends, and I don’t follow any “serious” groups or causes. Yet I’m amazed at how many — and how often — some of FB friends start angry, derogatory political discussions. And some of the “facts” they reference makes me shudder.

    I really don’t know how to communicate in that kind of environment.

  13. Aaron Baer says:

    People keep pointing to the Republican party as a source of misinformation in this health care debate, but I think the democrats need to look at themselves for the source of much of the misinformation that may be out there. This process has been anything put transparent – and when you have someone like Nancy Pelosi saying things like we need to pass this bill so we can find out what’s in it, you can understand why some people may be confused. To that ends, I would be interested in hearing what particular bit of misinformation you’re referring to.

    Also, you spoke of respect for the President, and I don’t think it’s a hard case to make the George Bush was the most disrespected president of all time – people literally made movies about the man. This is not to defend ANYTHING that some of these people are saying about President Obama – there’s no place for racial or religious prejudice in civil society. My simple point is that we need be weary of being hypocritical when pointing the finger at the republican party for the actions of some on the fringe when it was a pretty accepted practice for democrats to blatantly disrespect our former President.

    The last point I’d like to make is that for many people, myself included, the bigger picture matters more than how this health care reform is going to help me as an individual. As someone who could benefit from this health care bill (I’m under 26 and could remain on my parents insurance), I still oppose the legislation because I think it’s a bad move for the country and I don’t think it will resolve the issues that face the health care industry and the US economy.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Thanks, Aaron. I can see both sides on the healthcare reform issue, for sure. It’s a piece of legislation that deserved a lot of debate, and it got it. Both sides made their case and — as so often happens — both sides bent the truth to suit their needs. I’m used to that.

      The vote went in favor of reform. Let’s move on. And let’s add that the president was elected by a sizable majority after running on a platform that had healthcare reform front-and-center. In 2008, people wanted it.

      But this post is about ignorance and racism. It’s about people stating matter of factly that the president is a Muslim. Not that I’d care if he were, but he is not. He also not a “commie.” I am pointing to a radical fringe that seems to operate under the Tea Party label that until yesterday was very much welcome in the GOP tent. Maybe they still are. But given they hate they’ve been spewing, I certainly hope not.

      I won’t disagree with you that “W” was a maligned president. I probably said a few of those things myself, and I voted for the guy once. These are not civil times we’re living in. But I see the bulk of that incivility coming the far right — which is now not nearly as “religious” as it used to be.

      What it leads to (back to the PR lesson) is the erosion of trust in our institutions and in the democratic process.

  14. […] ToughSledding: It’s tea time in Appalachia; I’m in a parallel universe where communication and logic ar… […]

  15. Bill Sledzik says:

    Before this thread gets political — at it did over on Facebook — know that this essay reflects a experience I’ve had in one place at one time. It doesn’t reflect on the the good people of Indiana, Pa., but on some individuals from surrounding rural areas, where chronic unemployment is the order of the day.

    Many people have written to tell me the racism and ignorance I discussed here are NOT limited to my home, and that may be so. But the point of the post is not to argue about the politics of one party over another. It’s meant as a reminder to communicators what we may be up against in the years to come.

    It’s ugly.

    • Aaron Baer says:

      Appreciate it, Bill – While we may disagree on the legislation and on our assessments of the political/social landscape, there’s no arguing that this situation is creating rough waters ahead for communicators on both sides.

  16. Hi Bill,

    Your comment this morning doesn’t come as a surprise. Of course the “good people” from Western PA that read your piece are going to take it personally and, of course, the comments are going to get “political,” as in venomous, nasty, etc. Political thought today relies on notions of offensiveness and who can yell the loudest.

    This is a major facet of the challenge with political discourse today, which you also correctly point out — the overwhelming majority of people do not think critically about issues they face nor can they divorce themselves from their own beliefs. As such, people rely on “gut” instinct or the first thought that crosses their minds, as if from a rote script delivered via Fox News. The result is that people like those we grew up with now identify with the conservative movement for reasons outside their own economic interests.

    The saddest aspect of this lack of political discourse, in my mind, is that it so easily translates (devolves) to racism. There is a popular re-post going around Facebook now that essentially asks God to kill “take” Obama. I’ve seen this posted on pages of friends who consider themselves highly religious, yet this kind of re-post is clearly outside those bounds. I recall the left heaping much scorn on President Bush, but I don’t remember requesting his death.

    I think the most critical PR/Communications point from the health care debate and the discourse during the Obama Administration is how the opposition usurped the message so easily. Love them or hate them, the Republican Party has dominated the message and, essentially, turned the President’s wave of post-election popularity against him. The upcoming midterm elections will be a great indication of how much the message has changed.

    Those of us who understand messaging and study discourse as a profession owe it to speak out. I applaud you for taking this stand, particularly given that it might alienate you from your hometown and surrounding areas to some degree. We need to hear voices from across the political spectrum. As communicators, the lack of “rational” debate is indeed an “ugly” reality.

  17. Bill Sledzik says:

    Heh, heh. Maybe we need to handle this whole issue with humor. Missed this in last Sunday’s funny papers.

    “I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.”

    Elvis Costello, from (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes

  18. Bill Sledzik says:

    Oh, oh. Looks like the Queen of the Tea Party now has a problem with my Subaru. I think I’ll have to buy another 🙂

    • Jeanine Black says:

      Haha – I just got a Subaru Forester! Now all I need is an Obama sticker to make it complete. 😉 Anyway, excellent entry here, Bill. Just started reading your blog and am enjoying it.

  19. Here’s hoping that Fred Barbash of Politico is right, that the heated rhetoric will face, though hope alone might not be enough.

  20. David Murray says:

    Great post, Bill. For what they’re worth, here are a few of my observations, from a fast trip through Western P.A. on my motorcycle last summer.

  21. Jan Leach says:

    Thought-provoking post, Bill. And troubling.
    Not because of what you said but because hatred and misinformation is evident everywhere. This weekend alone, I heard similar comments walking in the hallway of a suburban Cleveland hospital, at a high school sports contest and even at the makeup counter at a local department store. What that tells me is that we failed as communicators. We have not yet provided facts to answer vitriol; we have not provided independent resources for media consumers; we have not provided a credible, widespread message. In that kind of vacuum fear and falsehood flourish. I think journalists and PR practitioners have a daunting task ahead of the mid-term elections.

  22. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, Jan. I’m not sure the media are up to the task. Most are reeling from massive cutbacks in staff and now are simply unable to unearth the facts and to report them. But as a former editor, you know all that. And even if newspapers did have the resources, I’m not sure anyone is listening anymore.

    Is PR in any position to defend truth and justice? I doubt it. Besides, we’ve never been very good at such things. We’re advocates who are paid to represent a point of view. We are not arbiters of truth.

    Many of my 2.0 friends cheered the demise of mainstream media. “Who needs newspapers?” they asked. “We can decide what’s true without their help.”

    Can we?

    In today’s media environment, we access our information from sources that confirm our worldview. Communities no longer have the powerful news outlets to gather, interpret and analyze the events of the day. And they aren’t coming back — at least not in the form we knew them.

    I’m not saying a revival of mainstream news would save us from this information chaos. But we desperately need someone or something to fight what Al Gore described as the “assault on reason.” And by mentioning Al’s name, I just lost all credibility with anyone right of center. Clearly, I can’t be trusted 🙂

  23. As a PR person, I’ve always felt my role is to inform and educate. When I see PR’s role twisted by certain individuals into spin and deceit, I fear for my profession. It does not seem that the American public responds to discretion and logic anymore – only to sensationalism that is determined to whip them up into a frenzy, whether or not it’s based on truth and reality.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      A noble role, Linda, and one I have also embraced. But sometimes it’s hard to reconcile truth and advocacy — at least for some clients. PR has become really good at generating oxymorons. “Clean Coal” comes to mind. But I’m also informed enough to know that a majority of our electricity comes from fossil fuels, and it will take decades to change that, assuming we would ever choose to.

      One thing that drove me open my own PR firm back in the 80s was my unwillingness to shill for clients who placed little value on truth and community. The only “balance” that interested them was at the bottom of their financial reports. I don’t mean to demonize business, but I am reminded of another oxymoron: business ethics.

  24. Marketing $ociologist says:

    Great post.

    As I have said repeatedly, Afghanistan destroyed the USSR; doing the same with USA.

  25. Bill Sledzik says:

    Politics aside, today we are all coal miners.

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