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Ventriloquism Appalachian Style

On March 4, the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance and the Department of Political Science convened an international symposium, “Entangled Ontologies: Decoloniality and Decolonization,” that brought scholars of decoloniality and decolonization into dialogue.[1] One of the participating authors was Carmen Martinez Novo, a professor at the University of Florida whose paper was entitled, “Ventriloquism, Racism and the Politics of Decolonial Scholarship.” It is a fascinating study, employing the idea of ventriloquism to examine the mobilization politics of the Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa (2007-2017). Correa was elected to office calling for indigenous equality and rights. Nonetheless, as his nation’s economy sputtered during his tenure, he leaned heavily on the country’s traditional extraction industries to spur export activity and called simultaneously for looser restrictions on those companies’ activities (i.e., permitting more pollution) on indigenous lands, where many had operations.

Novo drew on the Ecuadorean historian Andrés Guerrero’s work to define ventriloquism as a form of politics in which whites and Mestizos, appearing in traditional native dress, have long purported to speak for and represent indigenous peoples.[2] Whatever its social context, ventriloquism finds members of a dominant group that has chosen to discriminate against, or systematically has sought to silence, a minority socially and economically, while purporting to speak for members of that group. In such cases, the broader population typically finds the ensuing performative rhetoric of such individuals “genuine,” since their assertions echo broadly accepted memes, accurate or not, that the majority associates with those populations. Indeed, these representations are usually stereotypic and simplistic and do not reflect measured exploration of the cultures or the lived experience of those being characterized. Novo argued that Correa not only resorted to ventriloquist representations to justify speaking for indigenous populations, but also went further, as his term continued, to dehumanize and degrade those groups publicly when their representatives protested his administration’s violation of their rights by supporting illegal mining on their lands.

One abiding paradox associated with ventriloquism is that the groups toward which it is targeted slowly become used to it, and in any case, must somehow accommodate to how they are treated in such terms. Some, indeed, may even seek to use such representations strategically to press their own purposes, perceiving that their situations allow them no other recourse. And many, perversely, may even adopt such claims as a part of their identities.

I was struck, when reading Novo’s paper, that Appalachians have historically been the objects of a ventriloquist pattern of behavior. In their case, the sources of that forced and false characterization have been double-barreled. On the one hand, residents of the area have long been popularly stereotyped by a major share of Americans as ignorant, unmannered and lazy, thanks to media and government portrayals of them.[3] That othering has engendered a readily understood anxiety and anger among many area residents to strike out at those practicing it. On the other hand, many communities in the region have long relied in whole or in part on coal for their very existence, and that industry’s successful efforts to “speak for” residents of those jurisdictions constitute what might be called a second form of Appalachian ventriloquism. At its most basic, this corporate type is linked to the tale of an energy industry that has lost ground in a changing market to competitors, including natural gas and renewables, and shifting patterns of demand.[4] Yet, even as coal has more or less steadily declined in relative importance since roughly 1969 across the region, the industry has remained a, if not the, major factor in many communities as their lone or principal source of economic life and social organization. As the pace of corporate downsizing and bankruptcies has quickened in recent years, in lieu of sharing the truth of what is occurring with those affected, coal corporations have sought instead to blame government regulation for the loss of residents’ livelihoods. That trope neatly aligns with neo-liberalism’s companion assault on governance as the central problem in our political economy and so it has been echoed by the GOP as well. The following comments of the president of the West Virginia Coal Association, Bill Raney, are typical: “They (the Obama presidency) spent eight years trying to put us of business, not only in West Virginia but across the country. And it’s taken its toll.”[5]

This assertion exemplifies a claim that has been remarkably effective in convincing many Appalachian residents that it represents reality, despite its complete lack of empirical foundation. This message has been endlessly echoed by representatives of industry-sponsored faux community organizations and leaders, too, including the Friends of Coal (established in 2002) and Faces of Coal (created in 2009). It was also embraced by then presidential candidate Donald Trump, who told residents in 2016 that he would end the alleged “war” on them, and on coal, with which he completely identified them, and would put them back to work immediately, if elected. However, nothing of the sort occurred during his term, as major coal firms declared bankruptcy in close succession and the industry continued to decline across the region.[6] Nonetheless, the coal trade association and its proxy organizations, in alliance with the Republican Party, continue to contend that environmental regulation has occasioned Appalachian coal’s decline. This gambit has worked politically, as residents of hard-hit areas in Appalachia who went to the polls (generally low percentages of those eligible) delivered large majorities to Trump in the 2016 and 2020 national elections.

The reality is profound. Coal firms are going out of business or deserting the region daily as their markets dwindle. As they do, for many of the region’s residents the only way of life they have ever known is evanescing in ways they realize they cannot control. But if reality is supremely difficult, so is the fact that in fear, anger and concern, thousands have embraced the industry and the GOP’s lie that government has caused this cataclysmic decline in their way of life and, more particularly, that the precipitous decline is the fault of Democrats and other never specified disdainful elites. Coal industry representatives and Republican leaders tell citizens that these others have taken their livelihoods from them in callous disregard for their fate. Or, as Raney has put the argument,

It befuddles me. America has more coal than any other country in the world. And the way that a lot of the media and lot of the environmental groups want us to get out of the coal business totally? … I mean, it makes no sense to me.[7]

Raney’s artfully distorting rhetoric brought to mind H. L. Mencken ‘s trenchant observation, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.”[8] In the present case, the coal industry, which continues to abandon the region and its residents and to do so while seeking to avoid responsibility for the health difficulties of its former employees and the environmental consequences of its activities, has nonetheless successfully spoken for a large share of the area’s residents as it knowingly offered a lie to explain their predicament.[9] In so doing, the industry’s representatives have persuaded many of Appalachia’s citizens that coal is, or should, constitute a principal part of their identity, even though its significance has been declining for decades. In short, the industry has practiced a ventriloquism not unlike that imposed on the indigenous communities in Ecuador by not only speaking for, or standing in for the area’s residents, but by exploiting the structural discrimination and relative dearth of opportunities that they confront, to persuade many that embracing a lie regarding what is befalling them is their best available strategic recourse.

This situation is tragic and bitterly ironic, but so to conclude is not to indict the citizens who have adopted it, or to label them as ignorant or worse for doing so. In fact, many of Appalachia’s citizens are today confronting the rapid economic and social decline, even dissolution, of their communities; a related opioid crisis; and for many, the loss of their personal livelihoods. This is unfolding as a share of elected and corporate leaders have lied to them in order to avoid responsibility to assist them or to secure their votes, or both. Rather than simply accepting efforts to blame the victim or countenancing the cynical treatment of the region’s residents in a kind of ventriloquist jujitsu, as the industry and GOP have done, the larger lesson to be drawn from this ongoing crisis is how important social frames can be and how dependent citizens are on their leaders, the media and, for that matter, corporations, to tell them the truth.

While many forms of media today cannot be expected to pursue the truth or even to inform their audiences, and are surely not doing so as they pursue profits and specific political ends, and many corporations will resist doing so in the name of what they take to be the imperatives of profitability, citizens can expect and should demand better of their current and would-be government or democratic leaders. The phenomenon of ventriloquism and its mediated character make that a difficult challenge indeed.  What one can reasonably say is that all citizens bear responsibility for ensuring that their fellow Americans are treated with dignity and are accorded respect and that they can and should demand that their public leaders do the same. That is not now occurring across Appalachia. More broadly, that same dearth of respect is arguably not being accorded many Americans by a share of their peers in other extraction dependent communities as well, but I have examined the issue in Appalachia as an example here.

And, as is often the case, it is those individuals most ravaged by the vicissitudes of capitalism who not only wind up bearing those costs, but must also mobilize to press for collective assistance and social justice. The majority of Americans are hardly immune from responsibility for the crisis now besetting Appalachia, as their attitudes toward governance and their willingness to discriminate against the area’s population have enabled the cynically cruel course of the coal industry and its allies.  So, the nation’s majority now, more than ever, must see its way clear to supporting the truth and to demanding equality and freedom for all of their fellow citizens, including, of course, those from Appalachia. There simply is no other democratic, not to say, moral, choice.

Notes

[1]  Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance/Department of Political Science, “Entangled Ontologies: Decoloniality and Decolonization,” https://ipg.vt.edu/News/decolonialitysymposium030421.html, Accessed March 19, 2021.  The symposium will result in a special issue of an academic journal edited by Virginia Tech Professors Desiree Poets, Anthony Szczurek, Max Stephenson Jr. and Laura Zanotti.

[2] Guerreo, Andrés, Administración de poblaciones, ventriloquía y transescritura. Quito and Lima: FLACSO and IEP, 2010.

[3] Catte, Elizabeth, What You are Getting Wrong about Appalachia, Cleveland, Ohio: Belt Publishing, 2018.

[4] Houser, Trevor, Jason Bordoff and Peter Marsters, “Can Coal Make a Comeback?” New York: Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, School of International and Public Affairs, April, 2017, https://energypolicy.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/Center%20on%20Global%20Energy%20Policy%20Can%20Coal%20Make%20a%20Comeback%20April%202017.pdf., Accessed March 18, 2021.

[5] Raney, Bill, quoted in Young, Jeff, Appalachian Fall: Dispatches from Coal Country on What’s Ailing America, New York: Tiller Press, 2020, p. 169.

[6] Murray, James, “Charting a Decade of US Coal Company Bankruptcies and Plant Retirements,” NS Energy, May 26, 2020, https://www.nsenergybusiness.com/news/us-coal-company-bankruptcies/, Accessed March 18, 2021. 

[7] Raney, Bill, in Appalachian Fall, p. 170.

[8] Mencken, Henry Louis. Prejudices: Second Series, McAllister Editions (Public Domain), p.62. https://www.amazon.com/Prejudices-Second-Henry-Louis-Mencken/dp/0341754412/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=&asin=1537426222&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1. Accessed March 19, 2021.

[9] Young, Appalachian Fall, pp.152-168.

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