CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The most miserable city in America is Charleston. So says Gallup. Our fair city ranks lowest on the pollster's index of well-being in six categories: Life evaluation, emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors and access to basic necessities.
Did Gallup's data make Charlestonians livid when the findings hit the headlines in April? About as angry and bitter as Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean who was imprisoned for 19 years in the galleys by French authorities simply for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's seven starving children. Valjean had good reason to be upset. So did Les Misérables, or The Miserable Ones of Paris who finally rebelled against their hell on earth with Valjean's help.
If Charleston's hell on earth as defined by Gallup should be leading to a revolt of sorts by our Misérables, then we should be seeing barricades in the streets. Dissent should be in the air. Rallies should be held, demonstrations commenced. Yet no shots are fired. No protests are heard except against the headline writers. It seems the anger and bitterness are misdirected. Instead of taking up arms against the poverty and degradation that afflict the city, citizens are attacking the messenger of bad news. Denial appears to be the substitute for action to improve the work environment, advance physical and emotional health and gain access to basic necessities. And, as we know, denial is the gateway to apathy and lethargy.
In writing his iconic Les Misérables, Hugo cites "the three problems" of early 19th century Paris: "The degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night." There can be no denying that in modern day Charleston, poverty, the attack on women's rights and "the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night" are primary problems. No better example of it can be found than in this year's assault on young women at George Washington High School by the forces of darkness who would deny the youngsters reproductive health education and basic contraception.
Within the city limits, men and women of good will recognize Charleston's limitations as delineated by Gallup. They are not in denial. Like Jean Valjean who rescued Fantine and her daughter, Cosette, they want to save Charleston from itself and its darkness. They deplore privately, for instance, the slut-shaming episode at the high school. Yet, they tell me, they will take no affirmative action to change the backward slide of their community for fear of losing friends and business.
"So long as [such] social asphyxia shall be possible," said Hugo, "so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth," no change is possible. And Charleston may be saddled with its miserable reputation for a long time to come.
Rabel is an Emmy Award winning broadcast journalist who lives near Charleston.