Postcard from Kentucky

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(Empty coal freight wagon in a land where coal was once king!)

I take my blog title from Joshua Johnson’s NPR report on Kentucky (http://the1a.org/shows/2017-03-21/postcards-from-kentucky) in the wake of Trump’s recent visit to the state that once was Democrat with a capital ‘D’ and now voted overwhelmingly for him.  The quintessential example of a blue-collar state, Kentucky is in crisis.  The cheap natural gas extracted by fracking has destroyed the already moribund coal industry, but most people here have drunk the proverbial cool-aid and would swear that it was Obama’s Clean Air Act which has ruined their lives.

Fracking has also made Kentucky’s water the most toxic in the country and in some areas people use bottled water even to brush their teeth. In the meantime, Kentucky has the highest overdose rate in the country – especially from new opiate-based prescription drugs – and the 48th worst education system (thank God for Mississippi and West Virginia, the taxi driver told me, who are 49th and 50th !).

Ironically enough, Kentucky’s health statistics significantly improved under the Afforable Care Act, with lots of people getting coverage for the first time. Obamacare also made insurers cover so-called ‘behavioral health’ issues (such as addiction and drug and alcohol-related problems) as well as ‘physical health’ – which was a godsend for many Kentuckians struggling with these mental health issues on their own.

Trumpcare, of course, would get rid of that provision as well as health care for many people altogether. So why Kentuckians at Trump’s rally cheer when he claims that Obamacare has been a ‘disaster’ is one of those paradoxes of American politics that pundits have tried to explain in recent months.

One explanation is probably that poor education rate. I hate to sound like a patronizing urban liberal but surely the failure of many Kentuckians to see that Trump represents precisely all the business interests who have poisoned their drinking water and failed to transition their economy to greener energy comes at least partly from a collective shrugging off of lucid and critical thinking. It certainly isn’t a place that loves books and the kind of thoughtfulness that we English professors believe comes from reading! I hunted around for even one bookstore in downtown Lexington and could not find one ! I walked 20 minutes to the University of Kentucky campus to visit what was promisingly called The Bookstore but inside I found only basketballs and UK sweatshirts and sports gear.

What was not lacking in Lexington was churches ! One recent article I read by somebody who grew up in what he calls ‘Christian White America’ argues that Trump got elected because people in ‘deep-red America’ are essentially fundamentalists who will always reject facts that do not fit their beliefs (http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/rural-america-understanding-isnt-problem).  And their beliefs include a conviction that white people are better than non-white people and made in God’s image.  The article also argues that these red-state Christians are very susceptible to propaganda since they are naturally averse to self-reflection, self-correction and counter-evidence. Once an idea gets into their system it is very hard to root it out. This tendency has gotten reinforced now that most people only listen to highly partisan news sources. When I was growing up in the 70s, everyone listened to the main networks for the nightly news. These were corporate news sources even then, but at least they pretended to be neutral and so everyone watched them. In the 80s, the news market got fragmented by cable and now conservative local news stations have pretty much total control over the information that most people get.

I heard an example of the magical thinking that results in an interview conducted by Joshu Johnson in that NPR report. The head of the Kentucky Coal Miner’s Association claimed that coal could last a ‘couple hundred more years’ as a natural resource and job provider in Kentucky if Obama hadn’t introduced federal regulation to handicap it and to artifically support ‘competing energy sources’ like solar and wind. The idea that coal could thrive for a couple hundred more years is pretty fantastic – scientists say we don’t even have 30 years left before the consequences of global warming will become irreversible and deadly to us all (though arguably we are already feeling those consequences now — see this: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/27/climate-change-kills-400-000-a-year-new-report-reveals.html) — not to mention that it’s not a great industry for workers since coal mining destroys workers’ bodies in ways that cleaner energy industries don’t — but Trump promised to magically bring back all those coal jobs and people here were desperate to believe him because looking backward is always easier than looking forward to change. Sadly, Trump and his cabinet of billionaires will only make things here worse.

But peddling magical thinking seems to be Trump’s main policy as president. This week he signed a bill promoting NASA ‘s mission to send people to Mars and accelerate space exploration. With no sense of irony, he boasted that America should have ‘a footprint’ on other planets, as if our footprint on Earth hasn’t been destructive enough!  It has become trendy among technophiles to tout space colonization as an answer to global warming and environmental destruction, and Trump’s bill totally goes in that direction (except that he would never admit to the global warming part), but anyone who isn’t high on opiate-based drugs or magical thinking would instinctively realize that we cannot just trash this planet and move to another. Earth is our home, our spiritual and physical mother, to which we are connected in ways that we scarcely understand with our 3-planet lives and artificial isolation from the cycles and forces that created us, and we have a moral and existential responsibility to protect it/her. John F. Kennedy once called space The New Frontier, but that too was a lapse into magical thinking. The American Frontier was never anything except a zone of terror in which ruthless men destroyed entire cultures, peoples and eco-systems in their blind resource-grabbing settler colonialism push across the continent. It’s time we laid aside the Frontier Myth and realized that we are all the Indians in Trump’s new game of cowboys and Indians! and the challenge facing us now is surviving the Trump presidency and saving our home from the ultimate space cowboy.

— Dispatched from Daniel Boone country (Kentucky) — home of the Frontier Myth!

***

My explorations of Lexington today revealed a downtown of banks and churches, but hardly any people !

I jogged out — on a road with no sidewalk (cars are king here now!) — to the local cemetery, which was beautiful, as many 19th century cemeteries are – one thing Americans got good at after the Civil War is cemeteries ! They invented the park-like cemetery, though it’s too bad that live people aren’t allowed to have such lovely places to hang out too.

Lexington does have its whimsical touches though – some fine murals – and an odd toy store that had a copy of the first acts passed by Congress in 1791 in its front window.

A more creepy find by the side of the road — a bird leg with an identification tag attached — as if some illegal poachers had cut off the leg and threw it out the car window to avoid getting caught red-handed.

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Equally creepy — and sad — the only trace I found of the original Native American culture — and the Algonquins were not even a local tribe! there were no streets named after local tribes, which included Cherokee, Chickasaw, Delaware, Mosopelea, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Yuchi.

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On a much nicer note — a free library — the closest thing I found to a bookstore:

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An even nicer note — a friendly word of acceptance of neighbours from anywhere!

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Also very cool, a woman jeweller with her soldering workshop just behind the counter of her boutique (Savané Silver):

Equally cool, her husband runs Lexington’s only African restaurant, Sav’s Grill: http://savsgrill.weebly.com/

And last but not least, Transylvania University! In the immortal words of Sesame Street’s Count von Count, ‘Ha ha ha ha!’

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POSTCRIPT — NEXT DAY

 

Less groggy, I spent a second day exploring Lexington and was able to find some of the alternative culture I couldn’t find the first day.  Walking further afield , I discovered a little oasis of bookstores and local bohemia.  The Black Swan Bookstore — with a great display of feminist books in the window — was closed but the other one – called simply ‘Unique Books’ — was a treasure trove of used and interesting books on almost every subject, including critical theory, the Beats and World Native literature. The bookstore owner was very friendly, as was everyone I met today: artists, sales people, barristas and a post office worker who gave me a free box for shipping home the pile of books I bought at the bookstore.

 

And the quirky shops and boutiques, including one full of art for sale and one of the artists herself on the premises:

 

I wandered into something enticingly called Kentucky Native Café, and it turned out to be a café and plant nursery with some local ‘native’ varieties. Oh well! it was still very cute even if it was not was I was expecting.

 

And a few final images from around town, which has lots of unexpectedly charming places:

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4 thoughts on “Postcard from Kentucky

  1. Love this blog, Agnieszka! Lots of great photos and informed commentary. Have never been in Lexington, but gave a talk in Louisville some years ago. Pretty much the same mixed bag, and Trump hadn’t yet been elected! Enjoy your trip. Best, John

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  2. Hi Agnieszka, I really enjoyed reading this. Banks and churches – reminded me a lot of Tulsa, where I went earlier this month. I hope you will still have more to explore!

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  3. Great post with such perceptive and smart windows of insight. Love the mix of critical thinking on broad issues and detailed attention and care for the minutiae of life. It seems to do Lexington honor, showing it in its several aspects. More! More! 🙂

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