De-heroizing the Chilean miners

For the past four months–since their dramatic and well-televised rescue on October 12, to be precise–the 33 miners from the San José copper-gold mine have been treated like darlings of the media. Miner Edison Peña ran the New York City marathon and did his best Elvis impression on “The Late Show” with David Letterman (and at a Memphis Grizzlies basketball game). “World Exclusive” interviews appeared in newspapers across the globe with miners Mario Sepulveda, Luis Urzúa, and others. The miners, just like the Green Bay Packers, were honored at Disney World. And we even heard that heartthrob Brad Pitt was reportedly negotiating for rights to tell the trapped miners’ stories.

Though we had the whispers of rumors of the miners’ all-too-human humanity even during the rescue operations–particularly in the extra-marital affairs of miner Yonni Barrios–media outlets were all too eager to place the trapped (and then rescued) miners on pedestals, drape them with more-than-human accolades, and mythologize their ordeal to an extent that might cause King Midas to blush.

But in recent days, the pendulum has decidedly swung. Earlier this week, reports from CBS News — which featured several of “Los 33” on 60 minutes Sunday night — released a story that the trapped miners had “contemplated cannibalism, suicide.” Another report,  based on material from a new book by New York Times reporter Jonathan Franklin, reveals the men were “given pornography after an offer to donate 10 sex dolls was deemed inadequate.” The lurid report–akin to a lost episode of “Miners Gone Wild”– goes on to say that “the miners had worked out a system with a separate room for ‘conjugal visits’ to the plastic women they hoped to receive, using condoms for hygiene. But the authorities couldn’t stomach this, concerned that having to share the dolls would lead to jealousies.”

Global working-class heroes or pornography-devouring cannibals? Dope-smokers humping sex dolls hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth or the frontline leaders of the next great proletariat?

Both the grandiose hero-building project of the Chilean mine disaster and rescue coverage as well as the current stream of supermarket check-out line fodder miss the larger possibility that is still largely unexamined in the wake of what happened at the Copiapó mine in 2010. We need to have a large-scale, global conversation about worker safety in an industry whose safety records should be the cause of shame (and revolt). And if the global mining companies (and the national governments whose permits sanction their operations) aren’t willing to come to the table, miners need to be led by the examples of Tunisia and Egypt and demand change. Because their lives, quite literally, depend upon it.

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