01/31/2014 01:06 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

West Virginia: Worth the Risk

Whoa. As I read and reread syndicated journalist Froma Harrop's column, "Is West Virginia a Cult?," (Jan. 23 Charleston Gazette) I'm at last moved to add to the storm of commentary generated by a chemical spill in Charleston, WV, that affected the water supply of at least 300,000 people in a nine-county region.

I was privileged to wait out the drama from a comfortable distance away, in lovely Greenbrier County, where, presumably, the air and water are as clean as it gets in the crowded eastern United States. I've been waiting to see what authorities will do in response to this event, which can't be ignored or minimized, as so many similar but smaller scope events routinely are.

I can't say Harrop's observations don't resonate with me. I often marvel at how my fellow West Virginians put up with people in positions of authority here who, year after year, sell us short for the huge financial benefit of a few. I have come to understand West Virginia as an authoritarian state of the corporatist variety, as described by Yale social scientist Juan Linz. Like Harrop, I note the irony of a people who claim under the state motto to be "always free," but who are bought and sold daily on the stock exchange. What keeps them in the corporatists' thrall? A paycheck. That's the constant reminder of what it comes down to here in the USA -- and everywhere else in the developed world.

Harrop's paycheck comes from expressing her opinions. Most West Virginians make their livings by playing on a corporate team. These corporations are interwoven in a network that supports extractive industry, providing steady paychecks with benefits such as health insurance and pensions. They buy uniforms for kids' sports teams, subsidize local events and schools and support political campaigns. Their managers are often well dressed, their homes are impressive and their parties are well stocked. They appear to live that mythical American Dream to which the working class aspires. Not only have they convinced their workers that there can't possibly be any jobs here other than what they offer, they believe it themselves. One doesn't threaten the team without paying dearly. I believe the operative phrase is, "Go along to get along."

I am surprised, though, that Harrop tars all West Virginians with one broad brush. She notes that "our" general response is to yell at the media and outsiders who don't appreciate the personal sacrifices "we" make to provide the nation with chemicals and coal. That may be the party line, but it's not what I hear from my friends and associates. I submit that few are thinking about their personal sacrifices; they are doing jobs at hand they have been conditioned to do since birth, that their grandparents and great grandparents were brought here to do. Some people call that "heritage," a package of sentiment handy for manipulating the guileless. More than 2,000 West Virginians left the state between July, 2012, and July, 2013, turning their backs on that heritage.

Harrop says that not only do outsiders not appreciate us, they don't respect us servile West Virginians. This might be construed as "blaming the victim," although, as she points out, it's dangerous to get comfortable in the victim's role. Many, like Harrop, wonder why West Virginians docilely eat everything that is put on their plates. Maybe Harrop has never felt obliged to bow to authority to keep a job, to feed a family, to live. Maybe she has never been faced with the dilemma of biting the hand that feeds.

Yet our predicament is not hopeless. The largest employers in West Virginia may be Wal-Mart and government, the biggest money-makers may still be extractive industries, but a growing faction even here understands the realities of a thriving global innovation economy.

We're inviting the world's most creative thinkers to join us in West Virginia, to create systems that provide not only us, but our beleaguered planet with life options that don't require "national sacrifice zones." We're proposing that the world's most able problem solvers stake a claim here where real solutions are needed. Think there might be some money in that?

A stunningly beautiful landscape with hundreds of rushing streams offers the promise of world-class outdoor recreation. This region is worth our best efforts. With the slightest relief from abject profiteering, we can rebound from past and present degradation. Who will be among the fresh wave of immigrants here, the ones who create a sustainable heritage?