Bageant unbound

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Bageant: irrepressible witness to a whole alienated culture.

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My friend in the UK sent me the following review of Joe Bageant’s DEER HUNTING WITH JESUS.  She had the good fortune to hear Cyrano’s good friend and senior contributing editor, Joe Bageant, present his thoughts to an enthusiastic British audience at Royal Festival Hall in London last week.  The review, written by Dan Glazebrook, was published in “The Morning Star,” the only Socialist newspaper in the UK, and a newspaper that carries no advertising.

 I think it’s a good review, but it doesn’t really capture Bageant’s style, which is inextricable from his insights.
 
I disagree with Joe concerning gun control.  Growing up in the rural south, as he did, is a very different proposition from my background growing up in Queens, New York City.  But, even about this issue, Joe has made me re-think some of my positions.  There’s room for dialogue–and he’s right that it’s often a wedge issue that divides the progressive, urban Left from the rural, Christian-fundy “Heartland.”  Guns and hunting are woven into that culture in ways we of the cosmopolis cannot begin to fathom. 
 
I think Bageant’s book works so well because it is so literary!  He presents his characters with humanity–no matter how foolish they are in their personal opinions and their very constrained view of the bigger picture.  Another theme of his that this review doesn’t capture is how very limited these rural folks (1/2 of America) are in terms of their information.  Their local media is apt to be owned by the town’s biggest slum-lord!  The schools are shaped by the fundamentalist churches (with their anti-gay, women-in-the-kitchen, barefoot and pregnant values; pro-sports–to the point of fixations!,–pro-military, etc.).  Add the fact that these people–not “exotics,” but our “fellow-Americans” for Chrissake!–are over-worked and grossly under-paid, consume bad/chemicalized food and drink (it’s cheap and fast), drink too much alcohol (often to assuage very real physical and psychological pain), and get piss-poor healthcare (if any) and we can see what rich hunting ground they comprise for our Republican country-club snake-oil merchants.  We may also intuit how our Hollywood Dems would want to maintain a cordon sanitaire around their country cousins.
 
I don’t know of any contemporary writer who has better expressed the heart and soul and consciousness of this “other America.”  Bageant holds the mirror up to human nature–shows us (and the world) our varied, complex, fragile, pathetic, and sometimes triumphant, selves.
 
–Gary Corseri
 

An ultimatum to the US left

(Tuesday 16 September 2008)
BOOK: Deer Hunting with Jesus: Guns, Votes, Debt and Delusion in Redneck America by Joe Bageant
(Portobello Books, £8.99)

RETURNING TO HIS ROOTS: Joe Bageant.

DAN GLAZEBROOK reads Joe Bageant’s proposition that the exploited working poor of the US heartlands are much more progressive than they’re given credit for.

Joe Bageant grew up the son of a trucker in what he calls “redneck America.” Winchester, Virginia to be precise.

After years working as a journalist in the north, Bageant returns to his roots in an attempt to reacquaint what passes for the left in the US with      their supposed constituency – the poor working class of the US heartlands.

The very fact that this is even necessary already helps to answer the central question that Bageant’s book sets out to resolve. Namely, why is it      that the class whose lives are so consistently trampled by the Republican government – through enforced insecurity, piss-poor wages and as cannon fodder – seem to support that very party so consistently?

Tellingly, Bageant reveals in his introduction how bizarre he finds it that he is paid to speak publicly about the lives of the US working class. “It is as if your people were some sort of exotic, as if you were from Yemen or something,” he quotes a New York editor as telling him. To the liberal left, the working class, it seems, are indeed a foreign country.

His answer to the conundrum of working class support for the Republicans is roughly as follows.

The brutality of working every waking hour, permanently two paychecks from eviction, saps your humanity and drives a dog-eat-dog conception of the world into your brain.

Add to that the fact that most Virginian workers’ sole experience of Democrats and liberals comes in the form of rich doctors, lawyers and estate agents intent on capitalising on their every misfortune and one can understand the resentment.

In other words, oddly enough, Bageant’s thesis is that it is precisely class warfare and a perverted form of class consciousness that drives working people into the hands of the Republicans. They simply have a gut reaction against middle-class parasites with whom they identify the Democrats and, by extension, the entire left.

Along the way is an extremely prescient chapter on the then still-to-unfold “subprime mortgage crisis” and what it means for folks like Bageant’s relative Tommy, whose 79,000-dollar trailer home will cost him more than 260,000 dollars by the time that it is paid off, although its true value is already falling from the minute that he walks out of the estate agent’s door.

There is also a spirited defence of gun ownership and a damning indictment of the “gun-control left.” “It’s all about middle-class liberal feel-good masturbation and celebrity-identity franchise building through causes,” he says, before reminding us that “the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns but to control blacks.”

There are excellent chapters on the growth of Christian fundamentalism and the influence of the Ulster Scots on US culture, all told through an      absorbing combination of bittersweet anecdotes, hard facts and vitriolic passion.

Bageant’s solution is pretty simple. “Show me a political party willing to train and put real working-class people on these streets door to door,      which is what it will take to mobilise the votes of the working screwed, and I will show you one that can begin to kick a hole in that wall between Capitol Hill and the people that it is supposed to be serving.”

In other words, working-class support for the Republicans is essentially an ultimatum to the left. Engage with us – or fuck off.

Gary Corseri serves as a Senior Arts & Culture Editor with Cyrano’s Journal.  His articles, poems and stories have appeared in more than 200 journals online and in print around the world, including The Village Voice, The New York Times, Dissident Voice, Pravda, and others.  

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