Monday, March 7, 2016

Kentucky Kicks Its Own Ass

There's a popular merchandise marketing campaign these days.  The family friendly moniker is "Kentucky for Kentucky," but the risqué (here in the bald pate of the Bible Belt) foundational slogan for the brand is "Kentucky Kicks Ass."  Said quickly in many East Kentucky dialects this could sound like "Kentucky Kiss Ass" as well.

A friend of mine rails frequently on the whole movement.  He described KKA as "a weird amalgam of jingoism meets hipster kitsch."  It's saying "We're #1!" from behind aviator sunglasses wearing an ironic t-shirt.  But is it really that?  I'll reserve my own judgment for the end of the piece.

First, let’s look at the actual state of Kentucky. 

Standing proudly out from is that we rank the worst national for cancer deaths at 515 per 100,000 people.  Not incidence of cancer, but cancer deaths.  And I live in a county that ranks poorly in the state and the nation for this.  It is worrisome.

In overall health outcomes and health factors (per the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) Kentucky ranks 44th in the nation.  We clock in higher than the US median in Premature Death, Poor or fair health, Poor physical health days, Poor mental health days, Low birthweight, Adult smoking (26%), Adult obesity (32%), Physical inactivity (29%), Alcohol impaired driving deaths (29%), Sexually transmitted infections (394 per 100k), Teen births (48 per 1,000), Preventable hospital stays (94 per 1,000), Umemployment (8.3%), Children in poverty (26%), Children in single parent households (34%), Violent crimes (235 per 100k), Drinking water violations (9% exposed versus 1% nationally), and Driving alone to work (83%).

I believe that last one directly relates to the fact that we’re the 49th Bicycle Friendly State as ranked by the League of American Bicyclists.  The state bicycle pedestrian coordinator likes to dismiss this and touts that we’ve been ranking 7th in spending on bike-ped infrastructure nationally, but from a cultural and policy standpoint we simply suck.

In Kentucky the average weekly wage is $836 compared to the national average of $1,035.  You could say that is offset by a lower cost of living, but I would say that is negated by a lower standard of living as well.  The median household income in Kentucky is about $10,000 less than for the US as a whole.  And 18% of our population lives below the poverty line.

Not only as we ranked 45th in renewable energy production (energy.gov) but our legislators continually babble on about the asinine “War on Coal” and pass laws to prevent our citizens from benefitting from renewables while pandering to an destructive extractive industry that represents only a few thousand workers but which generates billions in revenue each year while blatantly polluting and harming our environment.  We revere coal above human health and well-being and I don’t understand why.  Well, I know why.  It’s called “naked greed.”

And finally, CNBC ranks Kentucky the 10th worst state.  While I can question any and all such rankings based on subjective responses I think it points to the fact that our state has room to improve. 

Before I continue, let me point out that I love my home state.  I believe we have a lot to offer and that in many way it is a great place to live.  But I am continually frustrated with many things that could be better if we would simply have the will to think and act differently.

Kentucky for Kentucky…their mission is:

…TO ENGAGE AND INFORM THE WORLD BY PROMOTING KENTUCKY PEOPLE, PLACES, AND PRODUCTS. AND TO KICK ASS FOR THE COMMONWEALTH!

The first part I agree with.  We need more positive promotion.  The Commonwealth needs better press.  We need better dialogue.  We need to change perceptions.

Unfortunately I don’t think any kind of positive dialogue is going to happen as long as the national political circus is in full swing.  Too many narrow minded people are energized by the dangerous and destructive rhetoric that’s being flung about like poo on the debate stages of—particularly—the republican primary race.

But what does “kick ass for the Commonwealth” mean exactly?  Are they going to make sweeping social change?  Fight for equal rights for disadvantaged populations?  Promote economic and social justice?  Or just sell a lot of Colonel Sanders and Loretta Lynn inscribed souvenirs ringed about with references to bourbon and horse racing?   

Kentucky is more than horse racing, bourbon, and coal mining.  It is so much more.  And those things don’t represent the best of us.  They don’t represent the majority of us either.  We have other industries that contribute to our economy and culture.  And those three marquee industries inhibit the kind of change and growth we desperately need.  Horses foul our land use policies and demand our attention in ways that defy logic.  And coal mining has fouled the very soul of this state.  It has blackened the heart of government and the rot that continues to abide there promises an ugly future unless we try damn hard to reverse the effects of breathing in so much coal dust over the past century or so.

Coal does not keep the lights on. It darkens the night and dims the days ahead.  We must untangle ourselves from its insidious grip. 

Our culture is enigmatically tied up in southern exceptionalism.  There are many people in the Commonwealth who proudly wave the confederate battle flag and insist they are not racist.  This is something we need to distance ourselves from.  People in Eastern Kentucky talk romantically about living in and being from the mountains, but won't accept that those mountains are cultural and economic barriers to a brighter future.  


So when they say “Kentucky Kicks Ass” I have to respectfully disagree.  Kentucky has the potential to kick ass, but not in the form of fried chicken franchises, an artificially inflated alcoholic industry, and in the form of two hideously exploitative industries that the state is most well known for.  Our people are regarded as simply minded-hillbillies regardless of their geography, and the rest of the country hardly takes us seriously even after seeing our orthodontia up close and hearing us articulate ourselves on national issues.  They simply hear tones of Hee-Haw echoing off the hills.  We can kick all we want, no one is going to quail in fear of our clodhoppers.

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