Travel is broadening. I just traveled for the first time since COVID-19 hit to see my younger son in New York. While there I had a new revelation that I believe can apply to us here back at home.
My revelation was based on a documentary film about the experience of tree planters in British Columbia. Great cinematography and up-close, candid interviews allowed us to share the experience of the tree planters both in their congregate camps and on the mountainsides where they worked.
Most of the workers were young adults. The coming-of-age film showed them testing themselves against grueling conditions in a kind of rite of passage.
Success was judged by planting enough trees at the minimal piece rate to more than cover the daily payment for the camp and its meals. It also meant to escape serious injuries with the potential to impact them for the rest of their lives.
The revelation came later, when I learned that the workers were basically exploited by the lumber companies who hired them as independent contractors with no guaranteed wages or health care.
One of the workers interviewed said that she felt that she was helping to save the earth from global warming. In fact, as I came to understand it, the whole operation was an integral part of industrial tree farming. The tree planting was only putting in a new crop to replace the trees that were cut down.
The film was well done on its own terms. However, it failed to give the broader picture in a way that might have lead to improvements in working conditions and compensation. It was in essence a description of a closed system where the terms were not questioned.
What struck me is how we are dealing with a similar kind of closed system related to the political and economic dynamics in West Virginia.
Some of us have been obsessively focused on the actions of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and the Republicans in our congressional delegation.
Specifically, how can they pass up the opportunity for major federal investments that all of the data shows are so badly needed here in order for our state and our people to succeed and to protect our planet in the process?
Beyond the closed system of the individual people who are now in office, it can help to keep in mind the larger context that is affecting our state. Plenty of evidence documents how we have been viewed as a colony throughout most of our existence.
The extraction of our resources has encompassed timber, oil and gas and coal, as well as the downstream products from our utility and chemical plants.
The original fighters for unions risked their lives to ensure higher wages and other benefits for those who followed them in resource-based industries. These same workers then sacrificed economic security to boom-and-bust cycles and their health and that of their families to the degradation of our land, water and air.
The vast majority of profits generated by these workers have gone to corporate managers and investors, many of whom live out of state and in some cases in other countries.
Those political leaders of both parties who have blindly supported these industries have been rewarded with both wealth and power. Manchin is one of a long line of elected officials who were chosen to function as the products of this closed system.
At the same time, our people have suffered from the lack of adequate government services that they need to sustain themselves with a decent quality of life. Those in power have controlled the narrative and used divide and conquer tactics to perpetuate themselves.
These same leaders have even been able to convince a number of their constituents to be grateful that they are somehow being given a good deal.
A recent New York Times article by Kenneth P. Vogel and Kate Kelly documents the extent to which donors who generally give to Republicans have built up the coffers of Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Simema, D-Ariz., as they each, separately and together, work against many of the provisions of the president’s agenda that invest in people and help to reduce increased global warming.
Many of these donors have made their money in carbon industries, including via Wall Street and in Texas oil and gas. One of them, Kenneth G. Langone, was quoted as saying that “My political contributions have always been in support of candidates who are willing to stand tall on principle, even when that means defying their own party or the press.”
According to the reporters, during the first nine months of this year Manchin has raised “more than 14 times as much as his haul through the end of September last year.”
Between the beginning of 2019 and the end of September his campaign “raised about $3.8 million and had $5.4 million in hand.”
Neither Sinema nor Manchin are up for reelection until 2024. No one knows for sure whether Manchin will run for the Senate again. One person I know has speculated that, based on his actions, he may be positioning himself for lofty gig in a future Republican administration. He is also at an age where retirement could be an option.
I do not have a mind for the calculus that goes into winning elections. I have to question how the interests of the Republican donors who view Manchin as an ally correlate with the real needs of the people of our state, or with our country’s and the world’s needs to address global warming. I also have to question the merits of the partisan polls that he may be choosing to rely on to justify his position while discounting the polling that shows support by our people for the president’s agenda.
I give Manchin credit for asking some good questions and working hard to arrive at workable solutions on some of our key issues. At other times, at least from my point of view, he just seems to speak off the wall, with no connection to the realities that I see at close hand in my community and across our state.
He does not seem to trust the president’s expertise or judgment, using as a defense his own interpretation of the will of our people. He continually states that his constituents are not talking with him despite the fact that many of them are actively seeking to share their own personal stories in any way that they can.
As I have expressed in the past, we cannot know what Manchin may be considering in making his decisions. The Bible says that where our treasure is, there is our heart also. We also do not know how his large war chest of donations from outside interests may or may not translate into votes from rank and file West Virginians.
It is clear that many of these constituents not only do not share in this wealth but are also suffering greatly from the dynamics that allowed its holders to accumulate it in the first place.
I have trouble envisioning how Manchin can win here without the votes of the state Democrats and independents who continue to support the president and his agenda. We know that the numbers of people of color in our state, who are disproportionately affected by inequalities, can in and of themselves make the difference in a close vote.
Policies based on the best interests of our people and our planet can only prevail when we stay strong in support of those elected officials who will actively fight for them. We need to figure out who these officials are at all levels — national, state, county and municipality — and support and contribute our time and resources to help them to gain and to stay in office.
This is an ongoing fight. When we really care, we cannot step away from it. It is not one and done. The dynamics that we are dealing with here are historic and are likely to continue to be with us for a very long time.
Right here and now we need to plan for these longest days of the year, through the winter solstice. Get enough UV light, mostly outdoors, to keep away the winter blues. Watch our diet, exercise and rest, and do everything we can to reduce our risk of contracting COVID-19.
We can look to the light and the hope that comes in with the solstice, as reflected in both the science and in our various faith traditions. Gear up for all of the work that still needs to be done.
Above all we need to get to a place in ourselves where we can feel and express our empathy and love for others. It is up to each of us to find a way past the multitude of things that divide us.
It is only through reaching out to and supporting each other that we can break the bonds of the closed system that we find ourselves in and join together to pursue and help to create a brighter future.
We can do this. It is by our example that we can help to demonstrate a better way.
If we do not do this, then who will? As long and as hard as it may be, we cannot give up the fight when there is so much at stake.