A few years ago in my college library, I came across a book called “State of Deception: The Art of Nazi Propaganda.” I spent some time looking through the pages, which hosted a collection of photos of art identified during the time of the National Socialist’s regime as pro-party propaganda. The art was in no way limited to obvious symbolic imagery- it spanned across media, portraying a range of subject matter ranging from subtle to blatant in message. I was most struck by a painting of a rural farm family sitting down to dinner, the family members’ heads bowed in prayer before eating. What made this image propaganda? Perhaps the artist only meant to portray the warmth of family, their wholesomeness confirmed by the robust, brightly-lit countryside outside their window. But in the context of a Nazi ideology, this painting portrayed an ideal, which meant that there had to be a non-ideal, an “other” to be destroyed. What made the farm family so valuable was in large part due to what it was not.
When the artist finishes the last brush stroke of their piece and steps away from the image, intention becomes irrelevant. All that exists is the work and the viewer, and the viewer will bring their own lens of pre-suppositions with which to view the work.
As I watched CNN’s airing of “Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America” last night, I was disturbed to hear, over and over, a music overlay of marchers from the March on Blair singing Florence Reese’s union classic “Which Side Are You On?” The song in of itself has always been a favorite of mine to sing with crowds. The lyrics essentially demand that the listener understand that they must admit their own agency and choose a side in the struggle for a union. But when I watched how CNN used this song in its 5-minute coverage of the March on Blair Mountain, I had to rethink my feelings about the message of the song.
Throughout the special, CNN repeatedly attempted to tell Blair’s story as one of two sides: Jobs vs. Environment, Working Class vs. Elites, etc. In the 5 minute segment that covered the June March on Blair Mountain, “Which Side Are You On” was the song most repeatedly used, regardless of the wide variety of songs that were sung throughout the march. In the context of the Special, “Which Side Are You On” emphasized the idea that the marchers were promoting an opposing and irreconcilable ideology against those who disagreed with them.
And yet, “Which Side Are You On” is about dichotomy. A friend had pointed this out to me on the March itself, and my reply had been to justify the song in the context of Florence Reese’s experiences in Harlan County in 1932. But this isn’t 1930’s Harlan County, and this struggle is a multi-faceted one. It is not one of unionizing or not unionizing, pro-environment or anti-environment. Saving Blair is about making a place not merely survivable but flourishing for all of its inhabitants. I would not let myself fully embrace this idea for my love of Florence’s song. It was Florence’s conviction that I held onto more strongly than her words.
The greatest causes for strife in the world come down to the sin of confusing ideas (and hence ideals) with reality. For the last 130 years or so, Appalachia- the people, the land, the cultures- have been treated as ideas. “Jobs vs. Environment” does not begin to approach the complexity of the struggle to preserve and honor Blair Mountain. Any real solutions in the coming years surrounding this mountain will not come from people who envision Blair as a historic romanticized struggle between workers, thugs and scabs. Solutions will come when we understand those who fought to be the same people as our neighbors, our brothers or mothers. And for those of us who produce the art that helps to motivate marchers, organizers and curious onlookers, we have to be careful not to fall into the easy trap of celebrating ideas over people.
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