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A Time for Temerity

Feb 17, 2010

In August, 2005, after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the hours and days passed with no federal government response, I began calling the White House and leaving messages for the President and his Chief of Staff, asking them to turn on CNN. I sent emails to every Senator, literally begging them to take action. "Our people are dying. A great city is being destroyed. Please do something now."

I didn't think about what I was doing--in the sense that I didn't calculate costs or benefits that might accrue to me, personally--I simply did what I did because I had to do something. I was electric with rage and despair. How could my leaders allow their fellow Americans to suffer like this? How could this be happening in the United States? My "Can Do" country had become a land of the "Can't Dos," the "Won't Dos," or scariest of all, the "Frankly, Don't Give a Damns."

But even more shocking than the careless ineptitude of the government was the reaction of my co-workers to my constitutionally guaranteed--if rather lame--efforts to appeal to my leaders for help. Far from joining me in my emails and calls, they implored me to stop. They were fearful of how my actions would "come back on me" and how my speaking out might even "hurt the company."

Petitioning the government for redress of grievances had somehow morphed, in these good people's minds, into a seditious act. An act serious enough that I might well expect to be punished for it.

Huh?

By my calls and emails I certainly did not intend to overthrow the government. I wasn't staging a rebellion, merely attempting, in some small way, to compel the government to behave as designed. I implored those in charge to do their sworn duty--nothing more nor less. By speaking out I was only doing my job as a member of a participatory democracy. That such participation could be construed as "risky" by Americans younger than myself left me flabbergasted. How did they get such a crazy idea? Their timidity repelled and horrified me. The implications of such fearfulness could not be good.

Flash Forward to 2010.

Now seven months into my odyssey of wind and politics, I realize to my dismay that a toxic blend of timidity and credulity in the face of corporate power is the coin of the realm where community governance in Appalachia is concerned.

History has taught the people of this region that to the timid go the leftovers, or the scraps. And the scraps is all we can hope to get from those in power. This dependence has fostered a profound conservatism that demands we toe the line, play by the rules set by those in power, and most particularly don't tempt Fate. Those audacious enough to complain or suggest a better way are likely to get slapped--or worse. So people keep their heads down and thank God if they are drawing a paycheck.

It's a captive mentality. You don't dare mention the lice in the mattress for fear your captor will withhold your daily allotment of bread.

To mention the lice in the mattress is to show an uppitiness, a temerity, that's just not done.
Way too risky. After all, a person's gotta have that daily bread.

And in Appalachia, in an economy where massive extractive industries hold all the cards, the people have been told by corporate landowners and too many of our elected representatives, that the only thing we have a right to expect is enough bread to survive. Period. To put forth any conditions whatsoever regarding how that bread is made, how the wheat is grown, harvested or delivered or to limit in any way the impact of such production on future generations is to express a temerity that an utterly dependent population cannot afford. So, such outspokenness has been quashed.

Aligning with the oppressors has seemed the only way to guarantee survival. Thus behavior that supports the rights of the oppressors to keep on doing what they're doing has been encouraged. While behavior that questions the goals and impacts of the oppressors, or seeks in any way, shape or form to restrict or even monitor their actions has been demonized. Everyday life reinforces the truism: How dare We, the powerless, request anything of Them, the all-powerful?

And then there's the more insidious subtext, the none-too-subtle message to those of us in the community, elected or not, who might dare question the enduring and all-powerful status quo: Would you take food from our mouths? If so, take your questions and suggestions elsewhere. Clearly you're an outsider. Don't ask. Don't tell. Leave things be.

Well, if we, all of us, who live here in Appalachia were slaves or indentured servants, or serfs in the Middle Ages, we'd risk more than hunger, we'd risk severe physical punishment or death by standing up for rights and interests greater than simply having enough bread to survive. Fortunately, we are not slaves, indentured servants, or serfs, we are American citizens, inheritors of a great tradition of audaciousness, members of a democracy that depends on our temerity for its survival.

Yes, even here. Even us.

What Price Our Daily Bread?

A recent Pocahontas Times editorial took Pocahontas County Commissioners to task for having the "temerity" to question the rights of a landowner in another state--that would be Highland New Wind Development. The Times made it seem as though questioning the actions of a landowner were tantamount to treason. As is well-documented in these pages, Highland New Wind, located in Highland County, Virginia, will have a devastating impact on Camp Allegheny Battlefield, an historic site located in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.

One un-schooled in the baroque complexities of community politics might conclude that speaking out as a Commissioner regarding this impact did not display temerity (much less treason) so much as simple obedience to duty. There's no Founding Father-inspired derring-do in simply standing up for the rights of your constituents when those rights are being trampled.

Oh, if it were only that simple.

In Pocahontas County's political climate, such standing-up and speaking-out, though profoundly American and democratic in every way, is not embraced, but viewed as suspect.

Why?

So deeply entrenched is the belief that one does not question authority, and most-particularly landowner authority. He who owns the most land has the most power, period. And if the owner of the land is connected to a corporation that owns more land in other counties and other states, well, more power to him.

Thus, in order to protect the almost entirely abstract idea of the "rights" of the owner of a quarter-acre, the people appear bound and determined to allow the owners of hundreds or thousands of acres to do what they please, regardless how many ridges and streams, forests and ecosystems, hallowed grounds and neighborhoods are destroyed. Zoning and land use planning are perceived as real evils against which destruction of the environment or the integrity of the community simply does not count.

The "right" of the landowner to do whatever he pleases would appear to trump every other value, including planned development or shared purpose or even hope for a better future. According to letters to the editor and community blogs, a deep fatalism is at work. A fatalism that seems rooted in the history of an oppressed and marginalized people. A sense that things are as they are because God ordained them. We dare not mess with the order of things. We dare not raise our eyes too high.

The logic goes like this: You might not particularly like the wind turbines or the quarry or the sewage treatment plant, but if your neighbor wants to build it on his own land, then he's got a God-given right to do so. No one has a right to stand in his way. Besides, if you had the opportunity, you'd probably do the same thing. So, if you know what's good for you, you'll keep your mouth shut. Complaining about the way things are is only borrowing trouble, and if you keep that up, what little you have might be taken from you.

In Praise of Temerity (Or, Learning to Love Change).

Temerity is another word for audacity. The two words are synonyms.

"Fearless daring" or "aggressive boldness" are definitions given for both words. If there's one quality our Founders shared that simply cannot be denied, it's temerity.

In their quest for independence from British rule, our Founders risked being drawn and quartered (and fed to the pigs) as traitors to the crown. "Give me liberty or give me death" wasn't a slogan. It was a commitment. And it turned out to be one of the most spectacularly successful examples of temerity in the history of the world.

But they had no guarantees that this would be the case.

They well knew that, even if they "won" independence, forging a new system of governance would be fraught with difficulties. Going forward, the unknowns far outnumbered the knowns. They knew they may fail.

Their only sense of security flowed from a deep-seated belief in their capacity, and indeed the capacity of all their fellow citizens, to work together to forge a better life. They refused to live under the edicts of a royal oppressor, an absentee landowner lodged an ocean away. They refused to play by the oppressor's rules. They refused to exchange freedom for daily bread.

But (and this is important to remember) when they challenged the status quo, they had no guarantees, none whatsoever, that things would turn out the way they intended.

Would any of us, today, wish they hadn't taken such risk? Fact is, our Founders possessed the abject temerity required to look the status-quo in the face and state: "You know what, we can do better." Would we have them be more timid? Would we have them be more credulous? Would we have them be more fatalistic? Would we prefer that they had kept their heads down and their hands out, thankful to receive whatever scraps the ultimate landowner, the King of England, threw their way?

I don't think so.

We do them no honor by keeping our heads down and our hands out. We do them no honor by failing to work together as a community to envision a future, plan for it, and move toward it. We do them no honor by believing that this, this right here and now is as good as it gets.

We do them no honor by succumbing to fear.