“My friend Tony Oppegard recently shared an article with me highlighting one miner’s termination of employment for “insubordination.” The act of “insubordination” came when Harrison an employee for Murray Energy, sent back a voided “safety bonus” check with “KISS MY ASS, BOB” written on the back to signify his protest of a bonus system better designed to silence claims of unsafe work practices and instead increase production. You can read more about it here.
Such muzzling gives me reason to elaborate on a long held belief of mine. We exist within two very different versions of “freedom” in this country.
In order to understand these two “freedoms,” we must first look at freedom, and what better way to establish the first form than to start with a little Appalachian history.
In “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,”Harry M. Caudill gives explanation to the way in which our ancestors came to the mountains. While history classes often teach of the tobacco and cotton that was grown and traded by the colonies, they never seem to detail the unfortunate souls who labored in the fields. We are often told they were African slaves, but the slave trade wasn’t as well established during the early years and laborers were still needed. Thus the British Crown found a way to deal with the problem of poverty the Scots and Irish, and a lack of labor in their newest colonies.
…dumped on a strange shore in the keeping of a few hundred merciless planters [plantation owners]… Many of them died on the plantations under the whips of taskmasters. Some ran away and became pirates whose Jolly Rogers terrorized the oceans. A few, perhaps, rose over the heads and shoulders of their suffering fellows to become planters themselves. Others— and it is these with whom we are concerned— ran away to the interior, to the rolling Piedmont, and thence to the dark foothills on the fringes of the Blue Ridge. These latter were joined by more who came when their bonds [indentured servitude] had expired. And here we have the people— few in number, but steadily gaining recruits, living under cliffs or in rude cabins— who were the first to earn for themselves the title of “Southern mountaineers.” Slowly, in the last quarter of the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth, these backwoodsmen increased in number. Steadily, newcomers pushed in from the coastal regions and the birth rate must have been, as it still is, prodigious. Thus by 1750 or 1775 there was thoroughly established in the fringes of the Southern Appalachian chain the seed stock of the “generations” [*] whose descendants have since spread throughout the entire mountain range, along every winding creek bed and up every hidden valley. The family names found in eastern Kentucky today are heard over the entire region of the Southern mountains. They bespeak a peasant and yeoman ancestry who, for the most part, came from England itself and from Scotland and Ireland…
By the time of the Harrodstown (now Harrodsburg) settlement, much of the pioneer society in this mountainous region had resided in the wilderness for three or four generations. They had already become thoroughly adapted to their environment. They had acquired much of the stoicism of the Indians and inurement to primitive outdoor living had made them almost as wild as the red man and physically nearly as tough. The white backwoodsman had learned, perhaps from the Cherokees, how to build cabins,[*] and had improved the structure by the addition of a crude chimney. His “old woman” could endure hardships and privation as well as the Indian squaw, and was far more fruitful. Having never been exposed to the delights of civilization, she was willing to follow her husband wherever wanderlust and a passion for untrammeled freedom might take him. And the mountaineer needed few implements and skills to live by kingly standards (to him) anywhere in the Appalachians, or in the rolling meadowlands beyond. He had learned to clear the narrow bottoms for the cultivation of Indian corn, squash, potatoes, beans and tobacco, and from the sale of skins and other forest products he had acquired an ax and the Pennsylvania “Dutch” rifle and lead and powder. Salt could be obtained at natural licks, and all other things essential to his well-being could be acquired in the forest.”
Aside from Caudill’s somewhat racial remarks regarding Native Americans and dim depiction of the intelligence of the Appalachian pioneer women, his telling of the way in which Appalachian mountaineers came to be is perhaps one of the most accurate.
The key point here, and what brings us back to the purpose of this article, is the idea of “freedom.”
Our early mountain ancestors were freedom seekers. They came to the mountains in search of freedom, found it, and held fast to it. They adopted a simple way of life free from the wants of materialism. They became a loose knit culture of free land-based people, very similar to the First Nations with whom they co-existed with for a short span of time–at least until more settlers invaded the mountains and began taking land for themselves thus damaging those relations.
For nearly 200 years, mountaineers lived in relative freedom until industrialists sent in land speculators and railroads, laying the way for the timber and coal industries to take the resources and enslave the once free people of the mountains as their generational workforce.
Naturally, to make someone a slave, you must make them dependent upon you for life. Unlike the African slaves brought to North America and placed into the bondage of fear and necessity, Appalachians were white and did not have to fear an oppression from the color of their skin, nor did they have any fear of being starved after having lived for generations in the mountains and knowing the land. Like the First Nations, they could not be easily turned into slaves–they had to much spirit, to much honor, and a deep love for the freedom they had established for themselves.
Industry would find it’s way to subdue us however.
Outside investors began by destroying the forests (think killing the bison) and then acculturating our people to a life of economic want and need (think company stores vs. farms and forests). We did not go quietly. Unions were formed and we fought against the machine guns of company mercenaries and corrupt law enforcement. For decades we kept a voice, kept some of our freedom and pride, but when you are up against such intense oppression from people who have enormous fortunes, plenty of time, and are willing to pull every trick in the book, it’s only a matter of time before our spirit was broken and the unions were busted.
Today we think we have freedom. In an effort to justify our loss of true freedom, we prop up our new version of freedom against despotic regimes, telling ourselves we have more freedom than people in China or those who lived in the former Soviet Union. We tell ourselves that we should be appreciative of what freedoms we have. Of course, this is a bullshit comparison when thinking of the true freedom our people once enjoyed. Our current “freedom” isn’t freedom at all.
Getting back to the article involving Mr. Harrison’s note to Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray, plainly put, Harrison doesn’t have freedom of speech. None of us do while working for companies whom we are dependent upon for wages to feed ourselves and our families. We do as the company says, act as the company tells us to, and keep our mouths shut to keep our jobs.
We are not allowed to be “insubordinate” even in the face of unsafe working conditions.
I’m sure many people will say, “Well, you have the freedom to quit, the freedom to find another job, the freedom to build your own company, and all the freedoms given to you by the free market” etc etc etc.
To this I must then point out, “What happens when corporations ask for our resumes and call our references? What happens when you don’t have the money to start your own business and the banks won’t loan to you? What happens when you’re black or hispanic? What happens when big business keeps getting bigger and bigger, forcing out the small people who can’t compete against cheap goods produced halfway around the world by people who are forced into wage slavery that’s even worse than our own? ” I’m sure we would spend hours going back and forth. I would cite the amount of land that has been purchased or outright stolen unscrupulously (in terms of the Native Americans and even the land companies in Appalachia), and I’m sure I would speak to the institutionalized racism, classism, and the tremendous amount of money corrupting our political system. The opposition to my comments would come in the form of telling me that people are just not driven enough, that anyone can do anything they put their minds to and work hard for, people are only as free as they believe they are (of which I think the latter comes closest to finding common ground).
I’m sure many folks have been in the same situation I have been, working the best job they could find and not wanting to jeopardize it for fear of being unable to find another decent job to sustain their families. While we are certainly free to quit our job, to move to a different place to find a different job, or go deeply into debt to start a business, we don’t. Fear keeps us bound to the grind, to being the quiet, tempered employees we need to be to maintain what little comfort we have.
So, do we have true freedom or have we been acculturated into a system of mental and economic slavery played off as freedom? We stand and give the pledge of allegiance in school, we take off our hats and put our hands over our hearts for the star spangled banner, and we honor the many who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country, all while we allow ourselves to be silenced in the workplace.
Can we go back to the way it was, living off the forests and what we grew? Can we know what the simple life holds while we are constantly bombarded with advertising and a culture that tells us we are worthless unless we have bigger, nicer, better things?
When looking at our past, I think the answer becomes very clear.