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Rural Blog: Silas House offers passionate retort to NY Times story on Eastern Kentucky


Silas House, author and National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, responded to The New York Times article What’s The Matter With Eastern Kentucky? in which Annie Lowery, referring to growing inequality, wrote, “What has happened in the smudge of the country between New Orleans and Pittsburgh — the Deep South and Appalachia — is in many ways as remarkable as what has happened in affluent cities.”
 

Following are excerpts from House’s post on his blog, titled “The Matter Is That You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About.” To read the entire post, click here.
 

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Silas House (Photo from Rural Blog)

Silas House (Photo from Rural Blog)

“Well, I am that smudge. My people are that smudge. My homeland is that smudge. And we are much, much more than that. In fact, we would fight for that smudge. Many of us have. Many of us have lain down to be arrested for it (Beverly May, for one), have even risked violence (The Widow Combs, for one) and death (Hazel King, for one) for it. . . .
 

“I will be the first to admit that that article possessed statistics that cannot be denied. But what good are statistics if the reporter using them does not acknowledge or use or even know the history surrounding them? Statistics are only as good as their context. I cannot imagine going into a country I do not know and having the audacity to write about it without knowing my facts, without having worked hard to understand the history of the place and its people, without having the ability to give the joys and sorrows of an entire culture historical context. That is the matter with “What’s The Matter With Eastern Kentucky.” . . .
 

“You cannot know a place without loving it and hating it and feeling everything in between. You cannot understand a complex people by only looking at data—something inside you has to crack to let in the light so your eyes and brain and heart can adjust properly. . . .
 

“I’ll be honest with you: Sometimes I get frustrated and wonder why my people keep putting terrible representatives back in office. But then I remind myself that voting is complicated in a region where extractive industry has such a stranglehold on everything from local churches and schools to county and state government. Appalachia is a country that has been in the clutches of big corporation propaganda since before propaganda became a marketing strategy on Madison Avenue. And it’s a place where politics and religion are as tangled as a ball of fishing line that has been tossed into the depths of your tackle box and needed quickly: very, very tangled. As much as many of us think for ourselves, there is no denying that as a region many of us have fallen prey to that propaganda. Keep telling people that coal is their only resource, toss in a free T-shirt, shut down the unions, get into the churches and schools…well, you see how this works. . . .
 

“I’ll use myself as an example here. Because of my outspokenness on the problems created by Big Coal I’ve been called a traitor to my own people. I am proud to be from a coal mining family, but that pride comes from the hard work done by the miners, not an allegiance to the companies that became rich on their backs. Nothing makes me sadder than when I see my own people being fiercely loyal to the corporations that have hurt us over and over. In short, we’ve been convinced to vote against our own interests, but the reasons are not as simple as being brainwashed. Once again, history matters here.
 

“Mostly I get sad because once there I see how the media portrayals of my people have led to life being worse for us. If you tell people they are worthless long enough, some part of them begins to believe it. Calling a place “a smudge” certainly doesn’t help. . . .
 

“It is tempting to gather some statistics about this reporter’s socio-economic background and then use that to judge her point of view, but that wouldn’t be classy—and it wouldn’t be accurate, since we’d also need to factor in historical and cultural context. Yet that is what members of the media sometimes do to the people of Appalachia, base their theories on statistics while not taking history and culture into account. As an economics reporter for The New York Times, Lowrey needs to understand that great economic reporting should be about more than statistics. Much more, like history and culture. Especially when reporting on a region like Appalachia that has historically been a sacrificial ground for the rest of the nation. Especially when reporting on a place that has given up its land, timber, natural gas, coal, young people and many other natural resources throughout the history of this country. . . .
 

“The thing is, it is hard to live in Appalachia, especially in Southeastern Kentucky. The statistics exhibit some proof of that. The economy is not good. The environment is being devastated. Many places throughout the region are food deserts. There’s a reason I had to move an hour away, after all. The problem with “What’s the Matter With Eastern Kentucky” is that the reporter thinks of the people and the place she is writing about as “a smudge.” Not as a place where the history and culture matter. And that’s what’s the matter with the article. . . .
 

“My point here is, once again, that to properly examine quality of life in the region, one needs to do more than look at data. I do not mean that only Appalachians can write about Appalachia. But I do mean that anyone who is attempting to write about it must become immersed in a special kind of way. Appalachia is the kind of place everyone thinks they understand but very few actually do, and that’s mostly because they haven’t taken the time to educate themselves properly.”
 

House has advice for those who would write about Appalachia: “One must sit and jaw for awhile with folks on their front porches, to attend weddings and high school graduations. One must study the history of the place and come to understand it, must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people, the calluses on their hands, understand the gestational and generational complexities of poverty and pride and culture. One must stand for awhile outside the funeral home and smell the air, study the gravestones out back that await the inscriptions of names belonging to people, not statistics. Otherwise, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
 

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.
 


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