I've written several articles about Mountaintop Removal since visiting the destruction sites in West Virginia last October. But after writing each one, I have had a sense that my words have been insufficient, too small, to describe what is really happening there. Maybe because I can't really understand it myself, its enormity does seem indescribable. The fact of Mountaintop Removal exposes something profound, literally and figuratively, psychologically and emotionally, about both human nature and our economic culture. And it exposes that our words, like pebbles flung at the Death Star, may be inadequate to portray and fight against this crime and what it means. It's as though our language has suffered a prolonged, engineered drought, the meaning purposely drained from our words, so that the few survivors are flopping about like suffocating sardines on the ocean floor. Maybe it's that the ears to which the words are addressed have gone conveniently deaf. But, that doesn't mean we stop demanding that responsible words should lead to action. It might be worthwhile to approach this mountaintop phenomenon as though it were a religious sacrifice. Which it may well be.
The Pre-Columbian Mayans are remembered as a peaceful people with some barbarous, religious customs. They, along with the Aztecs, had a belief in the efficacy of human sacrifice which was committed, it is thought, with the hope that the death of prisoners or innocent children or virgins would appease the gods of water or death or destiny. They believed that only human blood could avert the wrath of capricious gods who might choose to end the world. One can imagine a Mayan priest solemnly poised in full feathered splendor at midday on the temple top wielding his obsidian knife, slicing open the chest of his victim, yanking out the still beating heart and holding it up in his blood lathered hands to the credulous, shouting throng. Imagine the horror and thrill of the people hoping that this heart may be the one to purchase their freedom from catastrophe. The potency of religious inclination seems often to need only an occasional reinforcement --- a soaking rain, a cool wind, a relief from locusts, a bounteous crop of corn, a brilliant shaft of sunlight through the clouds. How willingly we accept horror forced on the other if it might, just might, save us. How irresistible that mix of fear and bounty. Give us a sign, any sign, o lord, that you have accepted our offering, and we'll keep blood on your menu.
The Mayan priests were sacrificing people to save the future. With Mountaintop Removal we see our corporate priests sacrificing the future to garner extreme profit --- Profit being both the name of the deity and a description of his bounty. To obey the laws of this god and to assuage its appetite, the priests destroy the forests and mountains that are responsible for their subjects' history, their culture, their health, their environment, their aesthetic, their co-species, their food and livelihood, their identity, their families, their children, their knowledge, their future. One can imagine a corporate priest, such as Don Blankenship, chairman of Massey Energy, astride the rubbled plain of the flattened mountains, offering up a bleeding, heart shaped model of an Appalachian mountain for the appeasement of his god. One can imagine him with a whole coal truck load, over 470, of such bleeding model mountains, raising them up, one after another, chanting the prayer slogans of profit margin, resource development, necessary collateral damage, stock holder satisfaction. One can imagine the awful wrath of his god if our anointed priest quailed before the task of meeting Profit's ruthless commandments. Our priest will look down in the valleys and see the remains of the once beautiful and irreplaceable mountains. He will see that this work is good. He will cry out to his god the mountains' new names ---- overburden and valley fill. He will discover that his god requires no burden over his own heart in recognition for what he has done. Profit, in his merciful beneficence, excuses all crimes against Nature. Surely, this is the religion, and this the sacrificial act, that rules America. Profit is the god in which we trust. Nature the coin. Money runs down like coal slurry, slurry like blood.
But, enough of religion, let's go back and talk about language for a bit. It's language, and the ability to believe it that allows things like Mountaintop Removal to go on.
In 1954 I was in the second grade at the Kilgore public school in Cincinnati. I developed a huge crush on my teacher, the sweet Miss Beach, with her bobbed brown hair, pastel cashmere sweaters and calf length, wool skirts. And, even when confronted with the fact that she was Mrs. Beach, I still wanted to elope with her and had a hard time accepting her graceful reluctance. Oh, unrequited love is a hard lesson and a bitter pill even for an eight year old. That same year, perhaps as a solace for heartbreak, I discovered humor. Knock, Knock and Moron jokes. My first and most memorable Moron joke is ---
Why did the moron throw the clock out the window?
Because he wanted to see time fly!
To get such a joke is not as easy as it seems. A kid has to intuit immediately the absurd contradiction between a concrete act (throwing the clock) and a figure of speech ( time flying), and know that the notion that one leads to the other is ridiculous. How does an eight year old know that? I don't know. But any kid does. Kids know that there is a difference between killing a person and saying, "That joke is so funny it kills me."
Now, fifty-three years later, the moron with the clock perplexes me because I can't escape its prescient metaphor. The Appalachian Mountains represent 300 million years of time. Why would anyone but a moron throw time, time itself, out the window?
I guess the answer must be that he places no value on time if he is willing to throw it away. Or, maybe he thinks he can make a lot of money before it crashes to the ground. Or, maybe he hates himself, and rather than knocking himself off, he endangers the ability of everyone else to inhabit time. Or, maybe he's lived such a sheltered life that he's never had to believe in the reality of gravity or any of nature's laws. Or, maybe he thinks that he is so entitled and exceptional as to be exempt from time's exigencies. Maybe he was merely following the dictates of his god: the only value is money. One thing for sure about a moron, he lives in a land of make-believe. But this speculating about the motives of the moron steals attention from where it rightly belongs --- on the victims. Just like with the recent sub-prime mortgage crisis, the news keeps the focus on Citigroup, JP Morgan, and Merrill Lynch and the billions they have lost, not on the people who were suckered by their greedy schemes and lost their homes. Or, in West Virginia, the poor people who have lived for generations in the mountains that are no more.
What happens when powerful adults in a society live in a land of make-believe? They try to remove the obvious connections between an act, its consequences and its motive. Between the concrete act and its concrete results. It's the world of make-believe when the adults believe they inhabit the Kingdom of Economy when in fact they inhabit the Kingdom of Nature. They insist the reality of the first trumps the second, when any child knows it's the opposite. They believe, because of the insidious whisperings of their god Profit, that their re-ordering of reality, normally what you would do to make a joke, is scriptural religious practice. In the land of make-believe the answer to the question, "Why did the desperately, oil dependent chicken cross the road?" is not the obvious one, "To get the large amount of oil on the other side," but, "To free all the beleaguered field mice that happen to live in oil-land." Such behavior mimics a joke but is not funny because it plays for keeps. Real people have to die for the joke to be realized. In make-believe the answer to the question, "Why did the moron blow up the Appalachian Mountains?" is not, "To run his electric toothbrush," but, "To fulfill the word of my god." Somehow the joke is lost.
If you took your mother's ornate, antique clock, the one she inherited from her great grandfather and is shaped like a beautiful mountain, and threw it out the third story window, who would laugh at the punch line, "To see time fly"? A child might be forgiven, once, for a failure to appreciate the difference between the make-believe of a joke and the concreteness of the smashed clock.
An adult, never.
When adults try to disengage an act from its consequence and from its motive, it's not for humor. It's to lie. When we listen to a joke, we suspend our disbelief so we can allow ourselves to laugh at absurdity. When adults lie to other adults or children, they insist that the absurd be taken seriously, and they threaten to punish you if you don't. A joke asks you to trust the teller explicitly to entertain you. A liar in a powerful place asks you to trust him so that he can betray you, rob you of your most precious possession and ask you to be thankful.
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Why did the moron throw the Constitution out the window?
To make us all safer!
How did the moron reclaim the destroyed mountains?
He made them into toxic dumps.
I wanted Mrs. Beach to single me out with her affection. Eventually I understood that for her to do so would be to upset reality in a way that would not be a joke and was therefore wrong. I also knew, though I certainly couldn't have put it in words, that what made jokes work were the commonly accepted rules of reality that the jokes flaunted. We knew that people who weren't fair, or cheated, or distorted reality when they weren't joking were dangerous.
But, I had no way of knowing in 1954 that I was growing up in a culture that loves jokes and feeds us lies. It has to. Jokes divert us while lies become the culture's life blood. We were all warned that one lie led to another even as we
were being taught, like Hansel and Gretel, follow a path from one bright lie to another. Our destination was the saccharine doom of the Big Lie's Consumption Palace. Can we find the way back? If the mountain is rubble, there is no back.
The truth depends on a general respect for the meaning of words. A word is like a seed, an evolutionary artifact, containing in its DNA the fossil memory of precise meaning. Our words today have the same validity that a kernel of corn does after Monsanto has worked its magic. Our words are like pumpkins the day after Halloween --- hollowed out, candle-less, the eyes and mouth shrunken, the inside charred. The reason for this is because it always takes courage for people to insist that words maintain their meaning. Words with meaning prohibit the desecration of the irreplaceable. Think of the "swift boating" of John Kerry. Here was a man with authentic experience that demanded to be upheld with plain, courageous words to refute the orchestrated smears. He could not do it. He no longer had the courage to inhabit his own experience. His life had become political prop and myth to him, a persona to be stage managed. He had no idea himself if he was a real person or a money and vote lusting actor. He was a ghost fluttering around without the desire to re-enter his own body.
Our president is correct when he says the Constitution is just a piece of paper. It always will be until legislators and the people have the tenacious courage to demand that the words have meaning. "Democracy", the word, is merely a stuffed dinosaur in the Political History Museum. Teeth that can't bite, tail that can't thrash, no backbone at all. The plaything and mascot of the corporate priests.
Until we insist that our words have meaning (which means that they demand accountability), we might as well make ourselves comfortable thinking that jokes and lies are the same thing. If the words have no meaning, calling attention to the outrage of Mountaintop Removal becomes absurd. A joke. With Profit as god, the truth is a joke, the absurd is sanctified, the self-destructive is ordained.
Why did the corporate priest blow up the Appalachian Mountains?
To fulfill the word of his god!
Let's tell the truth about this god. It's the god of lies, of exploitation, of climate change, of hatred for nature, and the god who despises those who stand between itself and profit.