"Come in this place, you don’t know if you’re coming out. And if you do you might be missing an arm or eye or leg. Do something for yourself.” – Wes Dorsett, on Aliquippa, PA’s steel mills. (source: S.L. Price’s Playing Through the Whistle, p. 232)
“Choking on dust, Mir Abdul Hadi emerged from the narrow mine shaft with a sack of coal hanging heavy on his back and his skin stained black.” Those are the words of New York Times reporters Christina Goldbaum and Yaqoob Akbary. They had filed their sad story from Chinarak Coal Mine in Afghanistan.
So why does Hadi toil in such horrid conditions? Goldbaum and Akbary’s answer is that the 29-year old is “desperate to scrape out a living amid an economy in ruins.” He in particular needs the work because he has a wife and kids. Hadi’s work nets him “a few dollars a day, just enough to buy bread and tea for his family to survive.”
Of course, what you’re reading doesn’t tell the full story. Not by a longshot. In order to emerge with the coal necessary for “a few dollars a day,” Hadi must hack away in a dark tunnel, “always terrified it might collapse on him.” His fear is well founded. This is where it becomes a bit gut-wrenching. Hadi began working the mines last October, and since then three mines have collapsed. The most recent one killed 10 miners, “all of whom suffocated after being trapped inside a mine shaft for days.”
Please remember the horrors of work necessary for survival in Afghanistan the next time some political romantic promises to bring back factory jobs, or mining jobs that “went overseas.” They reveal a remarkable amount of naivete when they lionize so-called “dirty work,” or work done underground. And this worship of the work from the past is bipartisan. Joe Biden has long crafted stories about ancestors who nobly worked the mines (they didn’t), but before Republicans take on a smug countenance, don’t forget how Donald Trump promised coal miners in West Virginia a return of the kind of work that’s been repelling human capital from the Mountain State for decades.
Afghanistan is one of those countries that “took” our mining jobs. Do you the reader want this kind of work? The question answers itself. It’s a sign of immense progress that Americans (including West Virginians) no longer need to do work that’s so dirty, and so dangerous. And the latter is not an elitist statement. In truth, it’s a celebratory one. Evidence supporting the previous claim can be found books, in culture, but also in a prominent U.S. retail chain, American Girl.
For background, during a recent visit to American Girl with my wife, 5-year old daughter, and 2-year old son, the goal was to find a book for the 5-year old. My daughter wanted another American Girl cook book, but my wife picked up one of the retail outlet’s Encyclopedias meant to give young kids an historical understanding of life in the United States. My wife randomly opened the Encyclopedia to a page featuring a blurb about American life in 1914. For too many it was brutal.
Factory and mine work had become a growing source of employment for Americans, but this kind of work was dangerous then much as it is now. The tragic consequence of this truth was that orphaned kids were not uncommon. With so many fathers risking their lives each day in the mines, it was cruelly logical that not all of them emerged intact, or even alive. Which means that in working to support their families, more than a few fathers died trying.
What was true in 1914 was also true in the 1960s and 1970s. As the quote that begins this piece makes plain, mine and factory work was still maiming and killing people in Aliquippa, PA fifty years after the historical anecdote mentioned in an American Girl Encyclopedia. That’s why Wes Dorsett (father of Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Famer Tony) was so adamant that his kids get out of Aliquippa. Unlike the politicians out to use mines and mine workers for political posturing, Dorsett knew.
It seems he also intuitively knew what politicians don’t know about the why behind dying towns and cities. Closed factories and mass layoffs at mines in decades past were decidedly not the cause of the decline of cities and towns; rather the existence of factories and mines (and the work they provided) were the cause of decline. For obvious reasons. Read the Dorsett quote if you’re still not sure...
What rendered Aliquippa an economic basket case was that the talent that was formerly abundant got out of town as quickly as possible. Their parents had worked the mines so that their kids wouldn’t have to. They were not going to stick around for work that might maim or kill them. Again, the mining work was the problem. And it is the problem in Afghanistan now. With opportunity scant, this is what the Afghans have to do, and they do it at risk of losing their lives.
How will we eventually, hopefully know that Afghanistan is growing? We’ll know it when the mining jobs that obnoxious U.S. politicians promise to bring back to the United States are no longer required for survival in Afghanistan.
Back to the U.S., economic nostalgia is arguably one of the most crippling afflictions of all. It causes otherwise bright people to wistfully yearn for a past that was more often than not brutal. Wise people should celebrate their good fortune that includes being alive in 2022, and thankfully not in 1922. If you doubt this, browse the books section at American Girl, or purchase S.L. Price’s remarkable book.