Sunday, December 2, 2007

Review: Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting with Jesus

In Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, Joe Bageant offers an enlightening, humorous, sad, and often scary look at the rural white working class. Ghettoized and economically oppressed in a manner that often defies widely held beliefs regarding race and class, “redneck” workers--ignorant, angry, and propagandized--have become the populist backbone of the conservative political resurgence, repeatedly voting against their own economic interests, and recreating the very causes of their anger driven, irrational political behavior.

Bageant, a journalist, former editor of Military History, and progressive populist, grew up in the working class community of Winchester, Virginia, a town of 25000 tucked between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. He escaped what Marx referred to as the “idiocy of rural life,” thanks to the Great Society social programs, and subsequently joined the ranks of the New Left. Recently, however, Bageant returned home--to the people that "smell like an ashtray" and "praise Jesus for a truck with no spare tire." Thus, Bageant speaks with an interesting voice—he is redneck by birth, godless commie by choice. Although thematically similar to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, it is more stylistically similar to Jim Goad's Redneck Manifesto--non-academic and more targeted to a general audience. It is largely comprised of illustrative anecdotes interwoven with witty, ironic, and sardonic commentary: exchanges between himself and his old high school buddy; run ins with locals at the Royal Lunch; and discussions with his brother, a Baptist preacher.

The picture he paints is quite bleak—that of workers who have never heard the words “class war” and therefore are desperately losing it. Economically and politically dominated by local business owners, mired in debt by unscrupulous mortgage agents, and suffering from a lack of education and health care, most of the working class residents of Winchester are beat down, frustrated, alienated. Their primary means of understanding their oppression comes from right wing talk radio, internet urban myths, and the local prayer revival---all which place the blame for their problems squarely on the shoulders of the “liberal elite.” Local business people, often Republican Party operatives, reinforce this world view—repeating Limbaugh-esque sound bites drawn from NewsMax, FrontPage, and other right wing news sources; and in a world where few people question direct authority, it may as well be from God’s mouth.

The world of Winchester is characterized by a naïve belief in the way the world should be, with an irrational hatred of anyone that might want to actually bring that world about. Bageant comes across an old school mate who is convinced that revenue from “Support the Troops” magnets (probably made in China) actually goes to the troops—because why else would they make them? Bageant’s best buddy from high school has totally internalized the sound-bite defense of the American Empire, an Empire that offered him up as canon fodder in Vietnam and constantly threatens to outsource his job at Rubbermaid because American labor is too expensive. A lot of it simply comes down to symbolism—or what Bageant refers to as the American hologram—the blue collar denizens of Winchester would rather vote for a candidate that implores the public to “support the troops” and pretends to cut brush in his free time than a candidate that actually went to Vietnam and pretends to wind surf.

What is to be done? Bageant offers few specific prescriptions, his case is largely implied. The key difference between Bageant and “his people” is that he left and got an education. As Bageant argues, widespread access to quality education has a liberalizing effect upon society, and the post-integration withdrawal of many whites from the public school system has been to the detriment of both. The erosion of support for public schools and the rising expense of higher education have produced a new generation of under educated individuals, happily unable to sort fact from fiction—anti-intellectual in thought and practice. Moreover, the development of Christian academies and homeschooling has produced a new generation of highly indoctrinated individuals—convinced that the world was created in seven days and the rapture is nigh with the political goal of recreating a Christian Republic that never was. And of course, the Republicans have eagerly played into this—seeking to hasten the breakdown of the public education system and thus reproducing cohorts of ignorant and pliable workers for generations to come. The Left must work to reverse these trends through the aggressive defense of our public education system and resist attempts to privatize schooling through vouchers or other machinations of the tax code. Additionally, making college education more affordable to the working class is imperative.

The Left also needs to get “right” with the Second Amendment. As Bageant correctly points out, during the heyday of New Deal liberalism, being a Democrat and a gun owner were perfectly consistent, today, not so much. Few issues have been more cleverly manipulated by the Republicans than gun ownership. The beauty is that the solution is very simple—support the right to bear arms—the Black Panthers did, if that helps. Additionally, the Left needs to pressure the Democrats to be more aggressive in supporting class based legislation—protecting Social Security and establishing a real National Health Care Plan.

Alone, none of this will make much of a difference, because through the American hologram, all of these things will become distorted beyond repair. The only way to counteract this eventuality is if the Left and the Democrats step out of their comfort zone and talk to these people. Few people in Winchester know a real live liberal, much less a “red,” therefore mischaracterizations and stereotypes are easily held and reinforced. Rather than talking down to Evangelical Christians and redneck labor, it is time to learn to change our own oil and maybe change a few minds.

Make no bones about it, at times, this book can be tough to read. As someone who shares Bageant’s political sensibilities and certain aspects of his background (I can’t honestly state that I grew up a redneck, but my extended family is from rural Indiana, and the world of Winchester is not outside my experience), I am sensitive to terms like “white trash,” “hick,” and “redneck” as class based put-downs. I have as little use for middle class whites who mock lower class whites as I do for racism, and more than a few times Bageant’s mockery of “his people” rubbed me raw. But as I read, the more I realized there is a method to his madness. Bageant challenges us to rethink an implied assumption of many on the Left—that the white working class should be written off. Although it may very well be true that the remaking of the American working class is causing the rural white working class to be less significant numerically, the reality is that the white working class will remain a substantive part of American society for the foreseeable future and, in the worst case scenario, could serve as the shock troops of a fascist America—a looming possibility as oil prices threaten to undermine American living standards and the US becomes more dependent on the military to prop up its ailing domestic economy and to enforce its will overseas.

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