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Joe Bageant 4/11/11

It is with sadness that I read about the recent death of Joe Bageant on March 26. His is a voice I will miss. His death did not elicit the public attention it deserved. As a culture we pay far more attention to shallow no-talent celebrities than serious writers.

For anybody who has never heard of Bageant, he was a writer, the author of a book that sold pretty well a few years back, Deer Hunting With Jesus. Besides simply writing well, Bageant had a uniquely rural American perspective. Based in Winchester Virginia, he lived in red state heartland, away from any blue metropolis. The only other writer I can think of who was remotely like Bageant was Edward Abbey although they certainly had differences. Both were rebels and both wrote from the boondocks.

As a southern rural white working class writer who zeroed in on the issue of class, Bageant wrote truthfully and empathetically about poor white people. Here is some vintage Bageant:

“To be poor and white is a paradox in America. Whites, especially white males, are supposed to have an advantage they exploit mercilessly. Yet most of the poor people in the United States are white (51%) outnumbering blacks two to one and all other minority poverty groups combined. America is permeated with cultural myths about white skin’s association with power, education, and opportunity. Capitalist society teaches that we all get what we deserve, so if a white man does not succeed, it can only be due to laziness. But just like black and Latino ghetto dwellers, poor laboring whites live within a dead end social construction that all but guarantees failure. If your high school dropout daddy busted his ass for small bucks and never read a book in his life and your mama was a textile mill worker, chances are you are not going to be recruited by Yale Skull and Bones and grow up to be President of the United States, regardless of our national mythology to that effect. You are going to be pulling an eight-buck-an-hour shift work someplace and praying for enough overtime to make the heating bill. A worker.”

Bageant does a good job of showing the devastation meted out to the rural poor. Whether black or white, both have been hammered in this economy.

“Rural America is now a cold heartless place that is very difficult to escape, where the rules of hard work and honesty no longer apply. The only people making any dough in rural and small town America these days are bankers, lawyers, doctors and a few with government jobs. Thanks to the new global economy, it is hard and desperate terrain for working people. Mean too.”

Bageant catalogues the indignities and insults showered on working people. I think it is fair to say he reserves some of his harshest criticism for liberals and the left. Bageant criticizes Democrats and the left for failing to support workers. Now Democrats talk about supporting the middle class, contributing to the national mythology that everyone in America is middle class. Mention of poor or working people has been excised from the vocabulary.

Once upon a time, Democrats stood with workers. Now, many middle class progressives look down their nose and have a contemptuous view of white workers as trailer trash. Bageant totally has their number. He calls out the elitism and class snobbery.

“Liberal America loves the Dalai Lama but is revolted by life here in the land of the pot gut and the plumber’s butt.”

Also:

“The liberal elite is not entirely a Republican myth. This generation of white liberals is not involved in class issues and have become more about trendiness.”

Or how about:

“Ain’t no wonder libs got no street cred. Ain’t no wonder a dope-addicted clown like Limbaugh can call libs elitists and make it stick. From where we stand, knee deep in doctors bills and hoping the local styrofoam peanut factory doesn’t cut the second shift, you ARE elite.”

I do think Bageant was exactly right. Call it lack of empathy, compassion or identification. Liberals have not wanted to be around working people and behind it is class prejudice. Of course, he had no illusions about Republicans and their slavish devotion to the rich. Bageant saw through that agenda.

Bageant wanted liberals and the left to leave their enclaves and reach out to his people. He points out that rural southerners in his region had never met a liberal! The far right is far more interwoven in the community. Bageant suggests focus on fundamental issues like jobs that pay a living wage, education and national health care for all. He especially discusses education. So many people from his region drop out, get an inferior quality education and do not develop critical thinking skills. Money is a part of the equation: education now comes with crushing debt. Bageant has no illusions but he wants progressives to see rural red state areas as places to win over – not write off.

I expect Bageant would have been heartened by recent events in Wisconsin and the development of a new labor movement. He knew his people have been on the losing end of a class struggle. Bageant favored working people getting organized. For anyone who would like to find out more, Bageant’s website is a great place to start : http://www.joebageant.com  His essays are all posted there.  Also, read Deer Hunting with Jesus. It is a hoot, downright entertaining, funny, and a good read. I will also mention that Bageant has a new book coming out called Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir. I haven’t read it yet but I expect it would be well worth reading.

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