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DW Documentary: Coal Mining In America’s Heartland

Since the start of 2017 the German public service broadcaster Deutsche Welle, which caters for audiences around the globe, has started to publish some of its excellent reports and investigations on its own YouTube channel, DW Documentary. This recent feature, Coal mining in America’s heartland, is an eye-opening experience as it examines the shockingly tough lives of working-class people and communities in the mountainous state of West Virginia. A region which recorded a huge vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The misplaced faith of these downtrodden – but immensely proud – men and women in the populist demagogue is genuinely moving. Watch it.

“Wild, wonderful West Virginia” – that’s how the small state nestled in the Appalachian Mountains bills itself. This documentary reports on the daily struggle facing local coal miners hoping for help from Donald Trump; a sheriff combating the opioid epidemic that has already claimed thousands of lives; and a Cherokee environmental activist whose efforts have earned her intimidation and threats.

The whistle of a locomotive at the front of an old coal train, quiet winding roads, and hardly a highway to be found – that’s still the image that many have of West Virginia today. But beneath the forest-covered mountains lies a labyrinth of tunnels just one meter high, in which miners still spend their entire working days toiling in the dark on their hands and knees.

The camera team accompanies a traditional coal mining family as they go about their day. Together with the family’s two sons, Scott and Steven Lockhart, the crew ventures into the mine. Conversations with the miners reveal why people who had been lifelong Democratic Party supporters are suddenly placing their hopes for the future in Donald Trump.

But the documentary also ventures beyond the coal mines to uncover the lesser-known sides of this Appalachian state – from snake-handling Pentecostal churches to the bluegrass and mountain ballads of Alan Cathead Johnston. We also speak with Sheriff Martin West, who sued the country’s three biggest pharmaceutical makers for their role in the opioid epidemic that has swept the region. And we meet another person who has decided to fight back: Maria Gunnoe, a young Cherokee activist who has dared to take on the coal barons that are ravaging the beautiful mountains of West Virginia.

8 comments on “DW Documentary: Coal Mining In America’s Heartland

  1. The documentary does a good job pulling together the myriad problems that beset WV and more broadly throughout Appalachia. Aside from fracking, the explosion of lines at the free dental/healthcare fairs and switch from meth to opioids, all of this was true in the 90s. The poverty is shocking, widespread and growing. The mountain top removal and fracking have been devastating, rendering the environment uninhabitable for millennia.

    China reduced exports of steel smelting coal this summer causing a jump in prices for coal globally and revitalizing WV’s coal industry. Trump will likely gain the credit. Yet in 10 years time the same documentary can be made again. Michal Moore’s work over the decades would show that swapping out coal mining for automobiles, the same documentary could be made in Michigan. Right down to the reliance on hunting to provide meat for your family.


  2. Have you read “Hillbilly Elegy”? It gives a pretty good insight into life in that are?


    • I read a similar work a good few years ago, post-Palin but well before the emergence of Trump as a demagogue, I think. The name eludes me. The writer was on the American left. I think he may have been spurred on by the emergence of the Tea Party movement at the time. It was a fascinating book, paying close attention to the Scots-Irish legacy in the US.


      • The Scots-Irish legacy in the US is more complicated than a lot of recent pen and ink about them would indicate. One more “holistic” book that deals with them as compared to other groups would be “Albion’s Seed” by David Hackett Fischer which deals solely with British influences, “American Nations: A history of The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” deals with the same British groups but also French, Dutch, Jewish Spanish/Hispanic, Caribbean, German, Chinese, other immigrant, and Native American influences.

        I’m an American who has been involved in anti-war movements and Democratic politics, (I’m not Scots-Irish myself and most of my relatives came to the US during or not long after The Great Famine/Potato Famine), I’ve learned from various sources and experience that a simplistic view of the Scots-Irish just doesn’t work. I’ve learned that while there is no gainsaying the fact that culture tend to run more hawkish than Puritan, Quaker or most non-British influences in American culture, it frankly pales next to the degree of relentless, non-stop war mongering in the culture of the Anglo-American South-like in the coastal regions from Virginia down along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast.

        For starters Scots-Irish people were fanatic supporters of the American Revolution-obvious divergence from the distant cousins across the sea. For another by the Civil War, Scots-Irish people, had wildly different political consciousness in different regions WITHIN The Union and The Confederacy. And in fact, the vast majority of people who faced their own relatives on the field of battle were Scots-Irish. Most Southern raised and educated military officers who decided to fight on the Union Side were Scots-Irish. In other areas Scots-Irish tended to dominate fields like small-time slave holding, overseer, bounty hunters who specialized in fugitive slaves, slave breaking. So we are talking about a fairly unpredictable segment of society in many, many ways.

        But that said West Virginia and other Appalachian areas going to the GOP is nothing new. The Midwestern states that actually flipped from the Democratic party to Trump are not all that similar to Appalachia. So while Wes Virginia voting for Trump may be frustrating, it’s a decades long pattern. This population wasn’t uniquely susceptible to Trump’s Demagoguery.
        In fact, blue-collar Caucasian in general weren’t uniquely susceptible to it.

        Trump managed to get at least a small cut of nearly every demographic except African American women. I know Vietnamese who were boat people and who supported Trump’s “wall”, Mexicans American guys who were willing to overlook it because they cheered his promise of job and his spurning of “political correctness” when it came to women.

        But the good news is that across the demographic board Trump gained more from low voter turnout among likely Democrats, Third Parties, and fickle swing voters who reflexively boot the incumbent party than from actually converting all that many Democrats to the GOP.


        • Thanks for that informative comment, Grace.


          • Say! Didn’t know you’d responded until just now. If you’d like a good documentary about coal miners in a very Scots-Irish part of Appalachia, try Harlan County, USA. It deals with a coal miner’s strike in the 1970’s where a number of things went very differently than anticipated. The local culture gets a fair amount of play, but it doesn’t have this lurid tendency to label Scots-Irish (either in terms geographic areas with that influence or people with that heritage) of as either inherent reactionaries, noble proletarian, or as “The Real Americans”. I don’t even think the doc ever uses the term “Scots-Irish”, but the folk music of that region gets a good deal of play for example.

            It’s an older style of documentary that ruled, before Michael Moore came along-and in my opinion utterly ruined American documentary. Today’s documentaries tend to be all about the maker’s “shtick” and not much about the actual. Documentaries in the past didn’t force it so much, let their subjects be themselves, and took way more chances in terms of letting the unexpected happen. I suppose the “Michael Moore” way would be alright in my book if it has coexisted with the older style…..but alas and alack the trend was one of “supplant”.


  3. John mc Cain funeral should be an eye opener to those still in the dark about who is the true bad guys. Btw, I recently learned today that Bill Clinton did the eulogy for Robert Byrd when he kicked the bucket. That’s Byrd the KKK leader.


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