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Friday, January 06, 2006

A Question of Doing What's Right

There is a scene in October Sky where Homer enters the mines to work for his first evening shift. He glances upward as the elevator goes down into the mine shaft for a last glimpse of sky, and sees Sputnik flash by before the doors of the mine clank shut and he is enveloped in darkness.

That scene always makes me cry, partly because it is the moment that Homer feels his dream of science and space being extinguished. But partly because people in my family have always worked the mines, and all sorts of other industrial jobs, aspiring to so much more, but never quite making it out of the economic circumstances to which they were born, and continuing to work at jobs to take care of their families but which never really fed their souls. It was back-breaking, exhausting work for most of the folks in my family, but their work ethic was always inspiring, along with the lesson that I learned to aspire to more before it was too late.

Which was why, from the time I was a very small child, my parents emphasized education as the way out for me. I was lucky. My parents both worked hard to give me every opportunity to stretch my wings, but most kids here in West Virginia simply aren't that lucky. And that is true for a whole lot of Appalachia, and other economically depressed areas around the country, rural and inner-city alike.

The recent mining tragedy in Upshur County here has brought home those family lessons for me all over again. My heart aches for everyone involved in this. I'm told by folks who were there the night the miners were found that family members, in that rush after the inaccurate information on them being found alive spread through the church, rushed out to get blankets and coats to wrap their loved ones in when they came out of the mines, waiting on the church steps for the first sight of their men.

That this was not to be is so painful, so unbelievably painful, that describing what happened after that is more than I can bear this morning. And, to be honest, we know folks on all sides of this (I feel ethically obligated to say that up front), so this isn't a post about specifics on this particular incident. But the closeness of where this tragedy has hit home for everyone around here compels me to say some things that I have been thinking about for quite a while now.

We have lost our way in this country in terms of values. I don't mean in the wingy sort of way in which values are usually discussed, where you say a bunch of superficial nonsense about gays getting married and the country going to hell as a result, either. That's just another one of those fear tactics stirred up by political types who want to play divide and conquer to win elections by working the ends against the middle.

No, what I'm talking about goes deeper into who we are, into issues of where we ought to be. And these are issues that Democrats used to be for, in the not so distant past, but they have all but disappeared from the discussion in the last few years. I'm going to talk about this more as time goes on toward the elections in the Fall, but this morning it is eating at me as I listen to local news updates from the mine and find out that the miners left notes for those they left behind -- those notes cry out to me to get off my butt and do something. So here goes.

You have to have a job to make any money to live. That's pretty much a given. You can start your own business, but that requires a helluva lot of work, too, so unless you are lucky enough to be born a trust fund kid (like the ones I met when I was away in college), life requires that you get off your butt and do something to earn a living.

To what end, though? As a worker these days, you have less earning potential in a whole lot of jobs that used to guarantee a decent day's pay. And at the end of the road, you have no guarantee that the pension into which you've been paying your whole damned life will even be there - I can't tell you how many people around here have lost everything because the business for which they worked went bankrupt and the pensions got voided in a reorganization under the corporate bankruptcy laws.

But as someone who has owned her own business, I can also tell you that the owner end of things isn't all roses and profits. After we got done paying out salaries, overhead costs, state and federal taxes, business taxes, social security and workers' comp, there was not a whole lot left for my partner and myself a lot of months. For small businesses, the margins are awfully small sometimes.

For a lot of corporations, especially those industries where money pressure has really put the squeeze on things in this economy, the margins are pretty tight, too. It's not enough to just say corporations suck -- that's too easy, and too intellectually sloppy. With the increases in fuel costs this year, I can't imagine trying to work a large budget for some of these places -- my little firm budget used to give me a migraine, and we only had a handful of employees and one office building.

None of this, though, excuses treating people like dirt. Nothing does. And that's where my gripe comes in today. CEOs for some of the major corporations in this country make obscene amounts of money, all the while, in a lot of cases, running the company into the ground and then taking off on their golden parachute ride -- leaving behind the folks who are living on the margins on their $7 an hour (and that's a great salary for a whole huge group of people in this country, let me tell you) to pick the pieces out of all those broken promises.

We need a voice for those people. John Edwards picked up this theme in the last election cycle during the primaries -- with his Two Americas -- and I would love to see that discussion continued into 2006. People who make $7 an hour (or less) can't afford to hire Jack Abramoff to represent their interests to the big shots in Washington. They generally aren't in any sort of union -- which would at least give them a possibility of an organized voice of some sort (although these days, that certainly isn't assured). They have no big money voice to back them up in Washington.

These are the folks that Democrats used to be able to depend on for a vote -- because the party spent time working on issues that lifted up the least of our nation, to give them a shot at the American dream, just like everyone else.

What I saw as an attorney -- both in private practice and as a prosecutor in cases with abused and neglected kids through to adult criminals -- is that there are a whole lot of folks in this country who have absolutely no faith in being treated like decent, equal human beings. People who are so used to being pushed to the margins that they see no way out. People who get into a cycle of being brought up in a family where abuse and neglect seems normal because it is the everyday norm, who then become juvenile offenders and then move up to the adult system and, when they have kids, the cycle starts all over again.

We've gutted funding for mental health. We pay social workers who intercede on the children's behalf less than they could make at McDonalds, but we expect them to do a job so difficult and so important to our communities. We spend huge sums of money on new prisons every year: imagine if we just dedicated a small portion of that amount to services on the front end of the problem -- when these kids were small or even when they were still in the womb (you would not believe the amount of damage to a child that can be done by a mother using crack while pregnant) -- how much better return would that be for our nation over the long run?

These are the things that kept me up at night as a prosecutor. The individual stories behind every single one of the defendants and families that I saw, and the question of how to fix the problems that I kept repeatedly seeing, and not just put a band-aid on the problem and hope it would go away on its own. The question of how economic hardship can push someone already on the brink of disaster to do something so stupid, and that can impact his family for generations. But the answers were elusive, and still are.

This is a problem that we need a national discussion about over an extended period. Not some nasty political infighting. Not throwing a bunch of sound bites at each other and looking smug, digging in our respective positions a lobbing bombs out from behind the ideological bunkers.

A real, honest discussion. Education is the way out -- but that only works if people in incredibly poor areas have access to decent education. How do we accomplish that?

Mental health and other safety net programs have been gutted over the last few years. Are we trying to create more criminals to lock up -- because that's been a big part of the result that I've seen in the real world trenches. But for a government running deficits as big as the federal government is, where is more funding coming from to increase these programs? And from states, who are having trouble meeting federal entitlements that keep pushing off costs onto the backs of governors whose budgets are already stretched thin? No easy answers here, that's for sure.

Fair wages for a fair day's work are essential. But how does that happen in an era when health insurance costs are through the roof -- for both the worker and the business employing them -- and energy costs are eating up the margins for a lot of other businesses who might have some slack? For that matter, exactly how does a CEO justify making 350 times or more than his lowest paid worker, all the while running a business into the ground with bad decisions?

The bottom line is this: there are some really tough choices facing this nation (and the discussion above is my no means a comprehensive list), and we need to approach them carefully because the results of our action or inaction have long-term ramifications for our children. Democrats used to own these issues because they listened to the voices of those people who needed help, who needed a hand up, and who were willing to do the work on their end to get the job done. And they spoke up for them, gave them a voice in the halls of power.

Ever since 9/11, Republicans have hijacked the message. It's been all security, all fear, all the time. It's been "we tell you what to think about morals" and never mind that what you are being taught is to hate your neighbor because he thinks differently than you do.

Well, I've had it with this divide and conquer strategy, and I'm standing up today to say that this nation deserves better. My child deserves better, and so does yours.

The ends do not justify the means. That only works if you are on the top end of the food chain and don't give a rat's ass about anyone underneath you.

Growing up, my folks taught me that I was no better than anyone else. Period. But they also taught me that no one else was better than me, either, and that sense of self has helped me to question things that I thought were wrong my whole life. It's one of the reasons that I started blogging.

But it isn't enough that I want more for myself and my family. Every person in this nation needs to wake up and realize that they deserve more as well. That's a message that Democrats could take to the bank, I'm sure of it. I know it is a message that would resonate here in West Virginia. People are hungry for hope, they are hungry for someone who will value them -- and not just use them as a pawn.

More than that, they deserve to be valued. It's a question of doing what is right, not just what is politically expedient in the moment to win the election or raise more money or whatever else seems to be driving political power these days. Let's give the little guy a voice again -- help him to stand on his own two feet and make something for his children, and you help the whole country. That goes for moms, too, I can tell you that.

Homer Hickam set his sights on the heavens in October Sky. Imagine where we could go as a nation if we all started looking up again, looking to our dreams for our own lives and for our children, instead of just looking down on each other.

(Photo credit to Richard Mills of The Times.)