The coalface is the wall of coal, way down below the surface of the earth, where miners pick away at the poster child for fossil fuel.
The British expression to be at the coalface invites the listener to imagine brutal, dangerous, and exhausting work. At the Coalface was the title of a memoir by one Joan Hart, a British pit nurse, who spent decades serving the mining community.
Cooked up in the 18th century, the formulation to be at the coalface locates an event at the site of actual labor. It’s come to mean having direct contact with experience. Among the OED’s brief selection of examples is one from a 2002 Liverpool newspaper, quoting a speaker who praises “first hand coalface experience of talking to people.”
Thus to be at the coalface is on the one hand to do demanding and risky work — a prison guard for example, or a triage nurse — and on the other to engage in an activity that is true because it is real, real because it is true.
If you’re reading this, you might feel that your own work puts you at some coalface or other, and you might be right. The coalface is a real thing for miners but a metaphor for the rest of us. Most of us labor at workstations instead of actual coalfaces, and what we mine isn’t coal but data.
In the past few months, however, coal itself has become something of a metaphor, but it’s working in a different way.
Against opposition from environmental groups as well as resource specialists who point out that coal just can’t be significant in any sustainable fuel future, the White House imagines that by “freeing” mining companies from regulations, more workers will be able to be at the coalface, more coal will be mined, mining communities — or at least mine owners — will see an influx of cash, and coal scuttles all across this great land will enjoy a black bituminous bounty.
As Paul Krugman has pointed out, voting to bring back the mines is to vote for a way of life that’s long past us.
That real historical past is embedded in an ahistorical past, too. It’s not coal but “coal” that this administration would celebrate, not the stuff in the ground but the restoration of an America that can’t be lost because it never really was, a country free of both immigrants and regulations where the rich are never idle because they’re so busy reorganizing their holdings and fending off governmental oversight.
Metaphors are powerful things, and never more so than when they are mistaken as denotative.
Where coalface once invoked the hard reality of a dangerous profession, our political handlers propose a fossil-fuel renaissance that stands in for an unrecoverable America, unrecoverable because it’s the dream of an America that never was — a Currier & Ives carriage with a grim-faced Ayn Rand in the passenger seat, wending its way to an independent, free-standing cottage from whose chimney a cheerful plume of coal smoke curls skyward.
A dissenting view might opine that there’s nothing to see here. That all political language says one thing and means another, and that rhetoric is always at risk of becoming the poetry of deceit.
But whether we’re working above ground or below, when environmental risks and political illusions coincide we’re in this together. The risks are human and global, not sectarian or national.
We’re getting smoke blown in our faces. It’s what happens when deliberately deceptive talk displaces what might once have been called coalface truth.
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