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Is West Virginia a Cult?

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

After decades of suffering environmental torture at the hands of polluting industries, West Virginians might regard a chemical spill that poisoned the drinking water of 300,000 residents -- and is still scaring folks after the dangers have presumably passed -- as a last straw. But there never seems to be a last straw for them.

Though some state legislators have called for reforming the state's famously lax regulations, the general response has been to yell at the media and outsiders. The battle cry: Others don't appreciate the personal sacrifices West Virginians make to provide the nation with chemicals and coal.

It is true. Outsiders don't appreciate them and, furthermore, don't respect them. They can't understand why anyone would let absentee landowners level their mountains and bury their streams in waste. Birds don't dirty their own nests.

The hard-luck people of Appalachia deserve their reputation for physical courage and a strong work ethic. But they suffer more from servility than from bad luck. Outsiders wince when the natives angrily declare their independent spirit and then cringe before corporate polluters, however tawdry.

Freedom Industries owned the rotting tank farm that leaked poison into the Elk River, less than 2 miles upstream from the intake pipes for the state's biggest water provider. One of its founders, The Charleston Gazette reported, was an ex-con who went bankrupt, was convicted of cocaine violations and failed to turn over $1 million in taxes he withheld from his workers' paychecks.

The company is now controlled by partners living in Florida and Pennsylvania. State inspectors hadn't visited the facility for 23 years.

As the latest disaster was unfolding, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., met in Washington with coal interests, vowing to kill proposed new Environmental Protection Agency regulations. This is the same Joe Manchin who made almost $1.5 million in 2011 and 2012 off his coal brokerage company.

Manchin quoted the state motto: "Mountaineers are always free." That served the dual purpose of flattering the voters back home and reassuring the industry that the munchkins were still with the program.

A different interpretation came from West Virginia native Eric Waggoner, an English instructor at West Virginia Wesleyan College. After the chemical spill, he drove to Charleston with 10 cases of bottled water for his extended family. He was in a "blind animal rage."

"To hell with you," Waggoner chanted in an essay for The Huffington Post. To hell with the "greedhead" operators who flocked to West Virginia for the lax regulations and exploitable workforce. To hell with the local politicos who wouldn't enforce even the weak regulations they wrote.

But Waggoner's most powerful "to hell with" was reserved for fellow West Virginians. These were people who bought into the idea of "constant sacrifice as an honorable condition" and who "turned that condition into a culture of perverted, twisted pride and self-righteousness, to be celebrated and defended against outsiders."

Outsiders. Creating an aura of specialness that must be protected from outside influences is how cult leaders keep their members in check. It takes a good deal of mind control to turn mass sucker-dom into a bragging point.

"In West Virginia, we're willing to do the heavy lifting," Manchin told the coal bosses.

Waggoner again had a very different take: "To hell with everyone whose only take-away from every story about every explosion, every leak, every mine collapse, is some vague and idiotic vanity in the continued endurance of West Virginians under adverse, sometimes killing circumstances."

He's hit the nail as only an insider can do. West Virginians bursting with prideful self-pity should know that the outsiders pity them, as well.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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