America starts here

What the hell is it with southwestern Pennsylvania these days? How is that such an ordinary place keeps get mixed up with such extraordinary headlines?

It’s rare enough for any part of Pennsylvania to make a ripple in the national consciousness. As geographer Pierce Lewis notes in Chapter 1 of A Geography of Pennsylvania (E. Willard Miller, ed., Penn State Press, 1995), “A recent study has shown that Pennsylvania conveys no very clear image of regional identity; by many Americans it is seen as an ordinary kind of place.” But in highly stressful times, such ordinariness can begin to seem attractive, as Americans search for emblematic expressions of bedrock national virtues. You want examples of old-fashioned fighting spirit and moral rectitude? The headlines say, Look no farther than your own backyard.

It may be that Americans are growing tired of being the swaggering, trash-talking policemen of the world. If that’s true, it’s no wonder that the low-key, self-deprecating style cultivated by folks in my neck of the woods might seem refreshing. When cultural geographers rank the fifty states according to the presence or absence of state pride, Pennsylvania is all the way over on the other end of the spectrum from Texas. We are the anti-Texas!

This is in part because different regions within the state are so distinct. Our veteran senator Arlen Specter – who is, whatever else one may think of him, a very bright man – once admitted in an interview that, for the purposes of campaigning, he divided the state into six distinct regions, with a different campaign style required for each. Wilbur Zielinsky, in A Geography of Pennsylvania, identifies seven “culture areas.” According to Zielinsky, geographers debate about how much of Western Pennsylvania may actually be considered an extension of the Midwest, and whether the extreme southwestern corner of the state constitutes the tip end of the “Upper South.”

We weren’t always so self-deprecating or lacking in regional self-identity. Southwestern PA first gained national notoriety in 1794 with the Whiskey Rebellion. This began as a local revolt against federal excise taxes, and quickly spread south throughout the backwoods areas of the then-frontier. George Washington – one of Western Pennsylvania’s original land speculators (today we call them “developers”), with a strong personal stake in the insurrection’s outcome – led 13,000 federal troops over the Allegheny Front to crush the revolt. Considering that many volunteers in the Revolutionary War had fought against the British precisely because of their resentment of excise taxes, some historians view the violent suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion as tantamount to a counter-revolution.

When the Whiskey Rebellion was crushed, what had been a sharply defined, separate regional identity quickly dissipated. The most rebellious elements of the population relocated to more inaccessible portions of the Appalachian chain, to be replaced by later maves of somewhat more tractible immigrants. Some contemporary historians feel that the Whiskey Rebellion’s influence on the United States may actually have been quite salutary, helping to solidify the anti-Federalist positions of Thomas Jefferson and his associates. Be that as it may, there’s a certain irony in the fact that the original stronghold of state’s rights sentiment was a portion of the country now exceptional for its lack of regional jingoism.

But the appetite for radical democratic organizing lingered. As a center of the steel industry and a bituminous coal region, southwestern Pennsylvania (including Pittsburgh) has seen its share of epic labor battles. The great Homestead strike of 1892 led to one of the bloodiest battles in American labor history, pitting Pinkertons and the Pennsylvania National Guard against 25,000 locked-out workers and their families. Although it represented a step backward for labor relations, repercussions of this battle would eventually be felt around the world. Alexander Berkman’s failed assassination attempt against strikebreaker Henry Clay Frick, and its total lack of impact on political events, helped turn his companion, Emma Goldman, against the then-popular anarchist dogma of “revolution by the deed.” Goldman subsequently became one of the world’s most influential advocates for individual freedom and social anarchism, and her thoughts on the limits of violence would influence countless other revolutionaries and social change advocates for decades to come.

In an even darker episode, the Johnstown Strike of 1937 provided industrial bosses with the first opportunity to see if a new, “scientific” approach to strikebreaking pioneered by the Rand Remington company in Elmira, New York could be successfully copied elsewhere. The National Association of Manufacturers would later cite the Johnstown Strike as a model for how to employ the so-called Mohawk Valley Formula:

“A citizens’ committee is formed under the slogan of ‘law and order.’ Mass police powers are invoked against the strikers by dramatizing real, imaginary, or provoked instances of ‘violence.’ Back-to-work sentiment is stimulated by the presence of massed vigilantes, a pretense of normal plant operations, mass meetings, press and radio publicity, dissemination of demoralizing propaganda, the circulation of back-to-work petitions, and a well-timed dramatic opening of the plant so prearranged that a substantial body of non-strikers or outside recruits marches into the plant en masse. The employer manipulates pressure groups to discredit the strike as the ‘lost cause’ of a ‘radical minority.’ With public support, he can, if necessary, employ extra-legal means of thwarting unionization.”

This procedure became an essential tool for industry to defeat unions after the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, which for the first time required management to bargain with workers’ representatives. Again, the outcome of the Johnstown Strike had impacts around the world. Elements of the Mohawk Valley Formula are still routinely employed, not merely against labor organizers but environmental activists as well.

I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on this history over the last nine months, as I’ve become involved in a fight to maintain public control over a popular state park in southwestern Pennsylvania. Despite strong local opposition to a proposal to build an exclusive, country club-style resort in the park, and despite the fact that three-quarters of the 19 groups in our anti-resort alliance are based in the local area, resort proponents have sought to portray us all as “outside agitators” intent on imposing our effete, anti-jobs agenda on a vulnerable populace. And an informal “citizen’s committee” of wealthy local elites has formed to try and concentrate influence on state-level decision makers and outflank us “agitators.”

Although I have been known to question the value of patriotism, I don’t deny that questions of national, regional and tribal identity play a key role in politics, especially in helping to shape people’s willingness to fight or to refrain from fighting. Who are we – a nation of jack-booted thugs and trigger-happy sadists, or the valiant firefighters of the world? As individuals, should we follow our leaders and root for the home team no matter what, or must we obey the dictates of our own consciences, even rising up in revolt if the circumstances demand it?

For many Americans, events in southwestern Pennsylvania have helped to crystallize these questions. First came the Quecreek mining disaster of July 2002, which drew television reporters from far and wide with its dramatic story line. Focused on the horror of being trapped deep underground, the nation was unprepared for the miners’ successful rescue, and many found their nonchalance and stoicism inspiring. (The extent to which this disaster had been precipitated by the extreme incompetence and callousness of the mining company, encouraged by newly-relaxed safety standards championed by “President” Bush only weeks earlier, unfortunately never garnered much publicity.)

Then came September 11. Whatever the exact circumstances surrounding the crash of Flight 93 at Shanksville, PA, transcripts of phone conversations with the passengers leave little doubt that a coordinated uprising against the hijackers did take place. Local firefighters and first responders became linked in the public imagination with the heroes of the World Trade Center disaster in New York City, as well as with “the 40 brave souls [who] fought armed terrorists to save the lives of others and some unknown national landmark,” as the Flight 93 Memorial Information Center puts it.

The latest example of the “ordinary heroism” of southwestern Pennsylvanians emerged just this week. Somerset County native alerted officers of Iraqi prisoner abuse, trumpeted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Bernadette Darby said she received a phone call from her husband, Spc. Joseph M. Darby, about three weeks ago, informing her that something was going to happen with his unit and that she shouldn’t worry.

“‘He said he wasn’t in any trouble and I shouldn’t worry,’ said Darby by phone from her home in Cumberland, Md. ‘I asked him what was going on but he wouldn’t tell me.’

“According to details of an Army report released yesterday, Darby, 24, a Somerset County native and member of the 372nd Military Police Company, was the one who alerted officers about the alleged torture of Iraqi prisoners of war by others in his Cresaptown, Md.-based unit, leading to criminal charges and possible court-martial of several soldiers.

“Bernadette Darby, who along with her husband grew up in Somerset County, said she had heard of the incident on the news, but was not aware of her husband’s role until a reporter from the Baltimore Sun phoned her yesterday.

“‘I was shocked and proud,’ said Darby. ‘I am behind him 100 percent. He felt something was wrong and I couldn’t be more proud of him.'”

In his expose of the prisoner abuse scandal in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersch quotes from a transcript of a military hearing. “A government witness, Special Agent Scott Bobeck . . . told the court . . ‘The investigation started after SPC Darby . . . got a CD from CPL Graner. . . . He came across pictures of naked detainees.’ Bobeck said that Darby had ‘initially put an anonymous letter under our door, then he later came forward and gave a sworn statement. He felt very bad about it and thought it was very wrong.'”

If we look at cultural rather than political boundaries, intertwining story lines form an even more interesting weave. Like Joe Darby and the Quecreek miners, Jessica Lynch also hails from these mountains. To me, Lynch earned her hero status when she repudiated – in a firm, if understated manner – the false heroism that the military propagandists had tried to attach to her story. According to her Iraqi nurses and doctors, Lynch’s extreme naivete and lack of affectation made a deep impression on everyone who came into contact with her. In contrast with the brutality and cynicism of the U.S.-led invasion, these very ordinary virtues seemed extraordinary.

But then there are those soldiers in the now-notorious photos, also from the mountains. One of the soldiers under investigation is from southwestern Pennsylvania, in fact. Four of the others are from rural Virginia, and one, Lynndie England, is from Fort Ashby, West Virginia – less than twenty miles from the Pennsylvania border. England is the inanely smiling young woman posing with the degraded bodies of her captives whose only crime was to be identified as “outside agitators” . . . and to be dark-skinned. This, too, is the face of America – we might as well own up to it. But that’s another, far less heartwarming story . . .

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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