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By Douglas John Imbrogno | Editor | WestVirginiaVille.com
1. The Divine Mis-anthrope
The year 2021 has been a long, messy, complicated one. Yet who among us here in the many hills of West Virginia could have forecast it would end with a formal apology to all y’all from Bette Midler?
Bette is pleading she was suffering from a kind of Manchin Derangement Syndrome — who isn’t these days? — after this intemperate tweet:
“What #JoeManchin, who represents a population smaller than Brooklyn, has done to the rest of America, who wants to move forward, not backward, like his state is horrible. He sold us out. He wants us all to be just like his state West Virginia. Poor, illiterate and strung out.”
It took the esteemed performer all of 40 minutes to recognize she’d gone off half-cocked (apparently, a thing she does) against a whole state — and to tweetpologize. I repeat an offer I made to the singer on Twitter in response:
Dear Bette: Come visit, sing out & make a joyful noise, lifting into view the many folk east to west, north to south, who will defy the easy, hurtful caricatures people reach for too often about people who live in a genuinely wonderful place. WestVirginiaVille.com will help host.
My buddy Rick Wilson’s line above — “we’re used to this kind of thing” — sums up the long-suffering exasperation any wakeful person in the Mountain State feels when the national spotlight swivels West Virginia’s way. And once again, out roll the easy caricatures and hillbilly porn, which even an official cultural lib like Bette Midler finds so easy to grab off the shelf of Cartoonish ‘Others’ We Love to Despise.
Throughout West Virginia’s history, its citizenry have just hunkered down and endured such slings and arrows of bullshittery, retiring into our tar-paper hovels as we brush our several teeth with a twig after a meal of hard biscuits and roadkill. Change happens. Now, there is a small but growing, mince-no-words, return-fire cadre on what we comrades sometimes call ‘West Virginia Twitter.’
Take, for example, one of West Virginia’s finest novelists and pungent animators of untold, ignored, or suppressed colonial history in West Virginia. She is responding to the many folk who piled on in the wake of Midler’s initial tweet and Manchin-disgust, to frantically wave their hands for Twitterati attention: ‘Bette’s not wrong …’
“Ixya,” a West Virginia University alum whose Twitter profile describes her as a “Proud hija de imigrantes,” fired off a tweet that should be added as official text to every iteration of the West Virginia state flag:
Two other retorts were succinct masterpieces of tweetology:
Kayla Young, a WV House of Delegates member: “I promise you, the people of West Virginia do not want your hot takes.”
And from Katie Heller, whose Twitter bio reads: “Politics and logistics. WV native on Capitol Hill”: “You can be mad at Joe Manchin and not be mean about West Virginia <3.”
For those who don’t do Twitter and wonder whether anyone pays attention when we sail our tiny paper airplanes onto the social media breeze, note the following figures. As I write these words, Heller’s ‘don’t be mean to West Virginia’ instruction has been retweeted 2,300 times, ‘liked‘ 26,000 times, and has attracted 664 comments.
So, then. Someone is open to a portrait — a vision, even — of contemporary West Virginia minus hillbilly corncob pipes and cousins-breeding-cousins beneath grandma’s quilt.
3. It’s a Joe Thing
But let us get down to what launched a million kerfuffles and repulsed tweets. That would be the tsunami of outrage kicked off by a FOX TV interview with Joseph Manchin III on Dec. 19, when West Virginia’s supposed-to-be Dem senator announced he’d take a pass on voting to pass the hugely ambitious Build Back Better Act, sticking a shiv in the Biden Administration’s ribs.
CLICK TO VIEW SHORT VIDEO: “JOE-MENTUM: An Editorial Cartoon Round-up”
And did you know Joe’s Italian family name was originally ‘Mancini‘ back in the Calabrian town of San Giovanni in Fiore, whence his paternal family hails, while his maternal grandparents were Czechoslovak immigrants? And wouldn’t it be good to ship him back to his ancestral lands and see if we could get a better working model?
Or, as Katie Heller, that ‘WV native on Capitol Hill,’ also tweeted: “West Virginia has a lot of things to be proud of. Joe Manchin is not one of them.”
Yeah. But, but, but …. apres Joe, who else stands in the wings, frothing to push one of West Virginia’s two powerful senatorial offices into broad-spectrum Trumpublicanism (joining Shelley Moore Capito, R-WV, on the dutiful right-wing)? Since we’re dropping French words as if we can speak the language — we can’t, which is why we’re linking to be helpful — the bete noire who the state really wishes to avoid is a guy who tried once already to depose Manchin.
That would be ‘leprechaun-gone-bad’ Patrick Morrisey (as I like to call him — so much so that he blocked me on Twitter this year). Last we looked, West Virginia’s right-as-right-can-be Attorney General was seeking to de-fang the EPA from reining in coal-fired power plants spewing planet-killing emissions. Just as, you know, a genuine climate crisis bears down on a million species, including — quite miserably — ours.
So, when it comes to Joe Manchin/Mancini, we need to borrow a phrase from Facebook’s menu of relationship settings:
4. ‘Set My Feelings Free’
I will leave you to your own homework on the politics of keeping Manchin in the Democratic fold. Even as Mitch “I’m evil as Mordor, but still all-powerful” McConnell keeps twitching a ‘come-hither’ finger, inviting Joe to join his Borg-like version of the Republican Party (Official Theme Song: ‘Power Uber Alles …’).
But wait. Did Manchin really just toss a stick of dynamite into the U.S. Capitol on Sunday because his feelings were hurt when he got singled out in a White House press release, citing him as chief impediment to passing BBB before year’s end?
Or see the delicious riposte by Slate correspondent Will Saletan: “And yet, incredibly, some people think women are too emotional to run the country.“
It is, indeed, hard to restrain the urge to breathe dragonfire Manchin’s way on one’s own teensy timeline. If only to vent our not-good-for-us fury on an alleged Democratic multi-millionaire lord — one who is stalling the Biden Admin’s perilously balanced, yet grand and humanistic ambitions after four years of The Former Guy’s hellscape cruelty.
Yet we must work with the Italian-American boy from Farmington WV, even despite Manchin’s “clinical thin-skinnism,” which has erupted in Build Back Better’s back-and-forth into “the tall and broad oak tree of snowflakery we see on display today” (in an epic description by Josh Marshall).
The stakes are very high. In a bracing New Yorker piece by Evan Osnos, the writer concisely lays out the human scale implications of Manchin’s intransigence. That is to say, what it might mean for kids and families back up the hollers, in the burbs, and on mountaintops of the place Manchin is supposed to be looking out for:
If Manchin’s opposition holds, his vote will be decisive in ending the expanded Child Tax Credit program, which, according to the Treasury Department, last week delivered payments benefiting three hundred and five thousand children in West Virginia. Statewide, ninety-three per cent of children are eligible for the credit, tied for the highest rate in the country. Analysts estimate that, if the program is allowed to expire, at the end of the month, fifty thousand children there will be in danger of falling into poverty.https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/west-virginians-ask-joe-manchin-which-side-are-you-on
Over at TalkingPointsMemo, Kate Riga also cuts to the chase:
Manchin has shown little interest in the human suffering that will result in the loss of programs like the child tax credit. He reportedly told other senators he suspects that people will use that tax break to buy drugs. But he has shown immense concern about the nebulous and unspecific idea of the “economy.”https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/manchin-moderates-reconciliation-senate
This, then, is the clarity about Manchin which the Build Back Better brouhaha has brought into crystalline focus. Here is Osnos again — speaking of shivs to the ribs — on Manchin’s “imperial remove”:
… to the West Virginians who begged him to support the anti-poverty programs in the Build Back Better bill, his rejection reflects a fundamental seclusion from the needs of people which he is no longer willing or able to perceive. To such critics in the state, Manchin has become an icon of Washington oligarchy and estrangement, a politician with a personal fortune whose blockade against programs that have helped his constituents escape poverty represents a sneering disregard for the gap between their actual struggles and his televised bromides.https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/west-virginians-ask-joe-manchin-which-side-are-you-on
Jim McKay, director of Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia, a nonprofit organization that lobbied Manchin on Build Back Better (and since West Virginia is a village, one of my wife’s colleagues) told Osnos the senator was “conspicuously absent” from “personal meetings with West Virginia families.”
“Unfortunately [said McKay], while his staff did have some meetings — which we are thankful to have had — personal contacts with Senator Manchin were extremely limited.” Dodging uncomfortable meetings is not unique in politics, but the accusation carries a special sting for Manchin, whose status as a Democrat in a red state makes him especially keen to project an image of a man who refuses to “go Washington.” McKay said, “I look forward to when Senator Manchin reconnects with average people.”https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/west-virginians-ask-joe-manchin-which-side-are-you-on
6. A Wealth of Wealth
It is not as if the senator’s corporatist, man(chin)-of-the-people-in-name-only leanings have been hidden from view. Although as Osnos notes: “Manchin’s self-narrative — of a coal-country football star from the tiny town of Farmington — has always passed over his wealth and status.”
Yet the corporate and fossil-fuel money that made Manchin a made-man in terms of huge money and vast influence — and the world-view that resulted — have always been rocks in the shoals for those who’ve interfaced with this scion of a now-powerful West Virginia lineage, whose clockwork resume includes stints as secretary of state and governor.
A long-time actor in the West Virginia policy scene, who has interacted for decades with Manchin, had this to say in trying to suss out his worldview:
Manchin has had the same ideology of corporations over people since I have known him. It’s kind of anti-policy. He thinks the role of the government is to redistribute money upwards and empower the private sector, not solve problems like health care, poverty, climate change, etc. But sometimes he is forced to go along with the crowd i.e. real Democrats (e.g. Trump tax cuts) … It is also true that most voters in WV probably want him to fight the Democrats, and that’s part of his “brand” on centrism.
Yet, unless you want a leprechaun-gone-mad two-stepping gleefully for Mitch Puppetmaster, Manchin is the only Democrat around with a prayer of being a Senate-someone from West Virginia with a “D” after his name. Without him, Mitch rules and Trumpism — or Mitch’s obstruction-as-policy — returns to full, putrid flower.
7. The Oligarchic Side of the Force
On the other hand, what are we actually up against here as Congress finally tries to take baby steps — and they are baby steps, even if they cost billions of dollars — to address the societal and existential crises addressed by Build Back Better? MSNBC’s fire-breathing Mehdi Hasan had this to say after Joe said BBB was dead to him:
Don’t forget: this isn’t just about Joe Manchin. It’s about the dark money and billionaires and coal interests behind him, which keep winning at ours and the planet’s expense. Manchin is a living breathing reminder that America is often more oligarchic than it is democratic.https://twitter.com/mehdirhasan/status/1472583572737437705
8. After the Stinkbomb
So, now what? It sounds like after setting off his stinkbomb — and being relegated to what someone on social media dubbed “Manchin Island” — we’re back to negotiating. Something. The Joes — Biden and Manchin — are “going to get something done,” says President Joe, sounding remarkably un-shivved.
Maybe Lesser Joe found religion after the immense national pushback. As Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin tweeted after Manchin’s bombshell: “2 really big things today: Entire D party rallied to WH. Manchin is on his own. Most important: Goldman cut growth projections. It’ll be the Manchin recession.
Or maybe a staffer pushed a phone in his face, mid-dash through a media scrum, and Joe scanned the New Republic headline below. Then, grokked that he — nephew of a West Virginia coal mine fatality victim — was going to look yet worse the next time he fired up his silver Maserati, surrounded by even larger crowds:
“Does Joe Manchin Know That Build Back Better Would Extend Vital Aid to Sick Coal Miners?: The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is in danger of insolvency, which could affect industry veterans stricken with the disease.“
Or maybe his innate narcissism — is there any doubt about that? — and his obvious delight in the dog-and-pony show that put Country Joe at the white-hot center of American (and world) politics, got a little too hot to handle, after all.
9. Manchin the Liberal?
The stakes, to accentuate, are sky-high. Will Manchin’s pugnacity ensure the return of the belching Trump Train to D.C., after the Icarus-like plunge of Joe Biden to Earth? Or do we yet have the chance to pass nation-transforming legislation?
Even a trimmed down Build Back Better Act, featuring only three or four major new programs, would be one of the most significant pieces of legislation in American history, comparable to the New Deal, says Kevin Drum:
… We should all stop feeling like the world has collapsed around us — and drop all the circular firing squad crap while we’re at it. Manchin says he’s open to further talks in January, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they finally produce a compromise of three or four fully funded programs along with enough offsetting tax hikes to make the bill more-or-less revenue neutral. And if this happens? “Only” three or four programs? Then pop the champagne. No other president in recent memory has done anything like this. And by any reasonable standard, it would make Joe Manchin quite a liberal senator.https://jabberwocking.com/bbb-was-always-unprecedented-its-no-surprise-that-its-getting-cut-down/
10. ‘Return to His Commitments’
My friend Rick Wilson, with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in West Virginia, has been on the social justice frontlines here forever. His “Goat Rope” blog features dispatches from the state’s immensely frustrating policy barricades, in a state whose politics have veered deeply into the red.
(Where, it should be noted, they did not used to be for much of West Virginia’s history: “The state legislature was controlled by Democrats for over 80 years, until Republicans flipped both houses in 2014.“)
I am going to give the last word to Rick’s AFSC, whose notable mission the group describes in this way: “A Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action.”
So, is it possible to retain faith in Joe Manchin’s ability to do the right thing? These Quaker hard-asses believe so:
We have … witnessed firsthand the better angels of our Senator’s nature in the compassion he has shown for victims of natural and human disasters. From the 1968 Farmington mine disaster, in which he lost an uncle, to the Aracoma, Sago and Upper Big Branch mine tragedies in the 2000s and beyond, Senator Manchin has shown himself to be compassionate and responsive.
We are still hopeful. AFSC is a diverse organization committed to the deeply held view that there is “that of God” in every person. It is not too late for Senator Manchin to return to his commitments, take a bold and needed step in this pivotal moment, and support prompt enactment of these measures.
We are holding out hope that our Senator still has some compassion for the hundreds of thousands of West Virginians and millions of people who would benefit from the Child Tax Credit, childcare support, improved health care, and immigration relief. As an organization with a global footprint, we also hope the Senator has compassion for the billions of people worldwide who might benefit from addressing climate change, an existential threat to us all.
We urge our Senator to recommit himself to negotiating the passage of genuinely transformative federal legislation that would dramatically reduce human suffering in West Virginia, the United States, and worldwide.”https://www.afsc.org/newsroom/west-virginia-afsc-speaks-out-against-manchins-refusal-to-support-build-back-better
PS: Harmonic Manchin Outreach
Harmonically urging Joe to back Build Back Better: dec10.2021: A harmonic convergence of West Virginians come together on the new music video “Hey Joe,” urging Joe Manchin to support the Build Back Better Act and its many climate measures.
STAY UP TO DATE on WESTVIRGINIAVILLE. Subscribe to our free newsletter at: WestVirginiaVille.substack.com