Thursday, July 05, 2007

Deer Hunting with Jesus

Tuesday, I had an opportunity to sit for a good long spell in a desolate, Nowheresville parking lot on Leesburg, Virginia's south end. The lot was shared by a plumbing-supply shop and a gas station, and the only comfortable spot to sit was atop a pile of gravel under a tree.

Luckily, I had a brand-spanking-fresh copy of Joe Bageant's new book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War, to occupy my time. I was only a couple of pages into it, Joe's lucid, funny, and immeasurably passionate voice beginning to convince me once again that I'm not insane for thinking that the United States is headed for Fecal Matter Creek in a leaky Rubbermaid shitbucket from Winchester.

(Well, first, I checked to see if my name was in the Acknowledgments, as Joe'd promised it would be -- a-yep, right there, listed along with King of Zembla as a "plain intelligent and aware soul out there on the Net who took the time to connect with a curmudgeon writer because, well, similar minds run in the same gutter," stroke stroke...)

I am lucky enough to have Joe's home number in my cellphone contacts. I don't bug him much, just the occasional howdy when he's not in Belize fomenting class warfare. But I decided there on Page Two, somewhere around "[Winchester, Va.] is solidly fundamentalist Christian and conservative, steeped in the gloomy ultra-Protestant notion that man is an evil, worthless thing from birth and goes downhill from there," that Joe needed a good bothering at exactly that minute.

My luck was working. Joe was home, between publicity interviews for the book, and glad to hear from me. We chewed the fat for a bit (excellent fat, fresh-killed venison), talking of this and that.

The plumbing-supply shop door opened, and a man stepped out who could easily be one of Joe's working-poor subjects. Huge proletarian mustache, plastic gimme cap crowning wispy gray hair, hollow alcoholic's eyes, working-stiff clothes greasy with plumber's putty and machine oil. He took me in, long-haired yuppie in a white polo shirt and Frye boots (forgot the pants that day), and then he cracked a smile when he saw the book I was holding.

"Deer Hunting with Jesus! I like the idea!" he said with a phlegmy laugh. I smiled back, unable to come up with any rejoinder, whipsawed by the whistlingly weird circumstance of being on the phone with the author of that ironic title at that exact moment. Thinking back, I couldn't tell if the guy got the joke, or whether he was interpreting it literally as a religious deerstalker's guide. I have seen weirder things on the shelves at my local market. Well, see, there you go.

Kwitcher self-satisfied namedropping, you social-climbing cocksucker, how's the book?

If you're familiar with Joe's online essays, you'll know. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry. The subject is America's working poor, the "mutt people," the people who cause liberals to shake their heads in frustration and bewilderment because they so constantly and consistently vote against their own economic and political interests. Joe explains why this is, through a whole slew of real-life examples from his home town of Winchester. Their stories are both heartbreaking and viciously, ironically funny.

Just about every page evinces a righteous "right on!" Here's one of my favorite passages so far:
"The people" like cheap gas. They like chasing post-Thanksgiving Day Christmas sales. And if fascism comes, they will like that too if the cost of gas isn't too high and Comcast comes through with a twenty-four-hour NFL channel.

That is the American hologram. That is the peculiar illusion we live within, the illusion that holds us together, makes us alike, yet tells each of us that we are unique. And it will remain in force until the whole shiteree comes down around our heads. Working people do not deny reality. They create it from the depths of their perverse ignorance, even as the so-called left speaks in non-sequiturs and wonders why it cannot gain any political traction. Meanwhile, for the people, it is football and NASCAR and a republic free from married queers and trigger locks on guns. That's what they voted for -- an armed and moral republic. And that's what we get when we stand by and watch the humanity get hammered out of our fellow citizens, letting them be worked cheap and farmed like a human crop for profit.
The book is full of these powerful passages, genuine anger that dates back to a time when the Left actually stood for poor people, rather than aggrieved interest groups. This is what Joe drives at again and again: Liberalism must make itself stand for these people again, must defend their interests, and not, as I've seen time and time again among the very people I know, dismiss them as booger-eatin' sister-fuckers.


gregra&gar said...

As candidates, here a year and a half before the election, are swapping percentages of the minor portion of the eligible voters who actually vote, the booger eaters keep on keepin' on without even knowing, caring or depending on who the president is. The poorest will be tutoring the richest about survival when the shit really hits the fan.

Will Divide said...

Finished reading it in three big bites yesterday. It burns with a fierce, bright light. You say hey to Joe for me, tell him he's written something equal to Lincoln Steffan's Shame of Our Cities, only about the decayed state of the American soul.

clue fred said...

I fully expect that if fascism comes, the booger eaters will the the ocean that overwhelms us. But, while I fear them, I recognize that they desire to do that which they, in their ignorance, have been persuaded is right and good, to fight for their country and freedom. So, I reserve the bulk of my blame for people who see principles as a weakness to be exploited, and have eagerly convinced an entire class of Americans, through their radio stations, preachers, sportscasters, and cable news channels, that their country is under siege from liberals and our 'allies,' homosexuals, immigrants and islamic terrorists. Wickedly manipulative people like Cheney and Rove, and the scads of others willing to fan the flames and ride the wave for their own selfish ends are at the root of this.

The president, for his part, is just the nastiest booger eater of all.

Kevin said...

I like a fine writer who can dissect things, be it class warfare or the Beatles -- reason I read both you and Joe.

I only hope that when the shit comes down it doesn't mean the end of everything.

dSmith said...

Black Southerners vote Democratic. White Southerners, who face the same dismal economic outlook, vote Republican. The Dems did not leave them,. They were fine with the Democratic Party until civil rights came along.
Since the end of the Civil War White Southerners have shown a preference for demagogues running on platforms of fear, hatred and ignorance. There is no way the Dems will be able to appeal to them and their attempts at pandering to them should stop.
Oh, and enough of this “Special Interest Group” bullshit. Those of us who aren’t White Southerners are as much Americans as they are. Maybe more so.
If Dems are able to help them improve their lives it’ll be in spite of them, not with them.

Madman in the Marketplace said...

Exactly right, dsmith, and white poor midwesterners who didn't leave over racism left over homophobia and/or misogyny and religious zealotry.

As the grandchild of good, hard-working po' white trash, I know that the dismissal and snobbery runs JUST as strongly the other way. The dismissal and scorn tossed out by fundies and rural folks toward city folk and the educated is every bit as full of bile as the limosine left often spew toward their rural cousins. I remember when I first visited NYC I was SHOCKED by how hard the people in the little shops and meat markets and fish markets and unloading trucks were working: the constant drone about "lazy welfare collectors" had been drilled into me for so long.

You can't talk to rural people about finding economic ground b/c they're convinced that the niggers, sand niggers, spics and fags AREN'T GOOD PEOPLE, that they are dirty, immoral and NOT REAL AMERICANS. How do you drill past that hatred, that ignorance? How do you work with people who'd rather suffer and die young than submit themselves to "socialized medicine"?

I love Bagaent's stuff, and his writings have done me a great service in their insistance that I look back at my roots with a little more respect, but today's rural poor are a long way from generations past that used to put on local productions of Shakespeare and who wrote home beautifully written letters from the foreign fields of the rich man's wars.

I think the collapse will be necessary ... I don't think that there is anyway for people to find common ground short of it, and frankly I see civil war after the collapse, NOT a newfound brother and sisterhood of common citizenry.

Will Divide said...

What shocked me so about "Deer Hunting" was the evident level of self-loathing these otherwise loyal and down-to-earth people direct at themselves, and so their children, an illness of the soul stretching back generations. (I, for one, felt Joe's own anger at them, or maybe a fierce compassion, boiling just under the surface of the page.)

I think a good part of this defining poor white hatred-which-radiates-outward stems from being traduced by every single authority they've ever trusted, from James I through Jeff Davis to George II. The effects of chronic generational alcoholism, the easiest balm, can't be discounted either.

As for reaching them politically, folks forget there were whole sections of the rural south where FDR was revered until the folks he helped directly died off in the 60s and 70s.

Neddie said...

Dsmith, Madman: I try, and fail, to imagine words like that coming from a Wobbly organizer a century ago...

Madman in the Marketplace said...


Well, I don't either, and I wish that wasn't how I saw our present circumstances, but today's working men & women in the hinterlands ARE NOT the same folks the Wobblies organized. There are generations of hateful propaganda that have been ingested and accepted warping things now.

So many workers back then still remembered or had heard stories about European royalty, they still remembered living in states with official religions, they or their parents had come here themselves to escape bigotry or hopelessness, only to be confronted by the bigotry of those who'd been here a generation or more.

So many of our rural white poor now see the world as Pat Buchanan and his ilk do (and it still amazes me how he and others like him refuse to remember that it was THEIR GRANDPARENTS and great-grandparents who were the filthy invaders).

Seriously, how do we get past that? I'd love to see some good ideas, but what we're being offered now, and what seems to capture their imaginations, is militarist martinets like Webb or libertarian no-government types like Paul.

We live in a country that responded to Brown v. Board by systematically destroying public education for all, rather than willingly share it w/ their fellow darker citizens. BOTH parties have pandered to ignorance and division, and folks like my family and the people that Bagaent writes about LAP IT UP.

The bosses wouldn't need to hire "security firms" to beat up the Wobblies now ... far too many of the white workers would gladly beat them up themselves.

Neddie said...


We of the Left have lost our way over the decades. Our politicians dread speaking in terms of rich-versus-poor, for fear of being accused of "class warfare" -- as if true class warfare could ever be said to originate anywhere but with the powerful.

As a matter of both philosophy and emotion, I side with the powerless against the powerful. That is what I interpret leftism to mean. It's my firm belief that there is no national politician -- and damned few local ones -- who ever see the world in those terms.

What Joe has done in his book is to remind me that the ability to express outrage at what has been done to these people -- yes, over many years, even to the point where they themselves don't even know what's been done to them -- is gone. There are no local papers, no unions, no dissenting voices whatsoever, to remind them of their victimhood.

The only thing coming in is TV and mass culture, which invariably portrays them as the aforementioned booger-eatin' sister-fuckers. And this gets internalized, to use a psychobabble term I'd rather not use.

They remain powerless and frustrated and extremely angry. Leftism needs to develop a new vocabulary, a new populist language, that will let these folks be leftists without appearing to succumb to the grotesque parody of leftism that exists on TV today -- the academic, ironic, hipper-than-thou Blue State version. (Expressing outrage that the very term "class warfare" has been appropriated by the class warriors, 'd be a start. I'd also strongly suggest just killing the word "Liberal.")

They are Workers. The Left should understand (if they'd ever actually read their goddamned Marx and Engels instead of making PoMo jokes about them) that enormous potential power emanates from them. It seems to have forgotten how to even talk to them.

Madman in the Marketplace said...

I agree with you neddie, but how do you talk to people who despise you and don't WANT, think they don't NEED, to be helped?

I don't think you can kill off "liberal", because it describes the top down philosophy of the DC Donks so well, the kind of people who think they can dictate to others. Personally, I want the term "leftist" to come back. I also think that we need to connect anew to the leftist movements around the world, but I really doubt that the "god, guns, gays" crowd will be open.

I'm willing to be wrong. I know that I'm not the right person to speak to them, as my comments here have made plain. I'm far too angry at the ones I know, from personal experience.

I want the left to separate itself from the worthless national party, and build an independent movement separate from them. Maybe then the new vocabulary will have a chance to grow organically. It'll take years.

John B. said...

Liberal is still a great word and tradition. It is our tradition. America and it's United States is based on liberalism. To be liberally educated is the greatest honor that there is as great books make men free. The word has been ruined by the authoritarians but we can take it back. It is who we are.

About the workers: We don't work the same way we used to. We are losing our farms and our farming rural heritage. We are losing our manufacturing base and the skilled workers it takes to make highly skilled objects. We are left with service jobs and an undereducated population disconnected from even their own hertitage. I like Joe's book alot and I like his writings and I hope I get to talk to him someday about his ideas and hopefully prescription. It is problematic though that on the one hand people like me who used education as a means to leave the ranks of the poor somehow now is tagged with not caring about my fellow man. Answers are in short supply these days...

Tonio said...

"Since the end of the Civil War White Southerners have shown a preference for demagogues running on platforms of fear, hatred and ignorance."

Excellent obervation, DSmith. I suspect I know the root cause of the fear, hatred and ignorance, and it's not poverty alone. The cause is the hierarchical structre that Southern society had until very recently. Poor whites in the South had few sources of comfort in their lives, and one was the knowledge that they ranked above poor blacks. Poor white men also knew that they ranked above women. The salutary changes brought by the civil rights and women's rights movements shattered that illusion. The unintended effect was to deprive poor whites, especially poor white men, of most of their sense of security. That longing for order and stability almost certainly led to the growth of Christian fundamentalism in the following decades.

While white men elsewhere in America also felt that loss of false security, it was strongest in the South because of the region's old social order and its history of fundamentalist religion. The late Molly Ivins wrote that "fundamentalists aren't evil, they're scared." They see themselves as powerless, and as Clue Fred noted, they are being exploited by demagogues who pander to their sense of resentment. So what's the solution?

Neddie said...

So what's the solution?

I'm wondering if we're not asking the wrong question.

By odd coincidence, I was looking through some old posts, and I came across this quote from John Powers' Sore Winners, a survey of the cultural landscape of the Bush Years by LA Weekly's media critic:

Since the fall of Communism and the rise of centrist Democrats, even the faith in action [among the Left] has largely disappeared. The remnant of the Left is largely defined by patterns of consumption -- which magazines we read and which movies we see -- or by newfangled ideas of organizing -- such as Howard Dean's Internet-grassroots campaign. What passes for the serious Left isn't a set of shared ideas or values attached to a living social movement. It's an audience brought together by big-name freelance "radicals" -- [Michael] Moore, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Arianna Huffington, Jim Hightower, and showbiz figures like Susan Sarandon or Martin Sheen. What these folks have in common isn't a vision of the world -- it's fame.

Does this bother you as badly as it does me?

John B. said...

yes, Neddie, most definitely...

Neddie said...

Hey, Sloop John B.:

How's the boy digging the Strat? No problems, I hope. I'd seriously like to chat with the lad about some of the axe's idiosyncrasies, particularly tuning it efficiently. I've got some very useful shortcuts I'd like to offer.

Arvin Hill said...

The patterns of consumption piece is dead-on.

Nothing strikes me as more absurd than seeing the words progressive and movement parked next to each other - as I did at Dissident Voice the other day.

All together now: There is no progressive movement.

There. Doesn't it feel better to just say it? At least then we have a starting point rooted in something besides wishful thinking.

At the end of the day, it's not about what you stand for. It's about who you'll stand with.

I'll stand with any rabble rouser who wants universal healthcare or a living wage - and whether he's holding a "Free Mumia" sign or stinking of gin or ain't got no teefers makes no difference to me as long as that person stands in the road next to me and clogs up commerce.

There are commonalities among us,and if we don't have the desire and the will to find out what they are and exploit them with reckless abandon, then we're just another market segment.

Maybe someday we can rediscover what "citizenship" means. Among other things, it entails reaching out to make connections with people you don't particularly care for or understand just because it's the right thing to do.

After taking that first step, the open mind often finds more in common between The Self and The Other. But it doesn't happen on its own. Each individual has to make it happen.

Alas, niche marketing has invaded the liberal psyche. As consumers, we're constantly told how perfect we are, so the thought of actually making ourselves do something seems downright unnatural.

Like Joe, I'm not particularly hopeful. But I ain't ready to call it a day, either.

Robert M said...

I've read Joe's book and it's great. I've been trying to figure out how to get through to the booger-eatin' sister-fuggers. I live amongst them and the best I can come up with is slowly injecting reminders that ALL good things have come from Democrats and pointing out how wrong the repugs have been. I wish I could find a way to appeal to them like NASCAR does and still get the message across. It's hard to undo the pollution they've ingrained from Rush & clones.

JerseyExile said...

I just finished the book this morning. Here in West Texas, I see folks like Joe writes about every day. Coming from a staunchly union blue collar household, I just don't get why so many working folks I meet denigrate the unions. My dad, uncles, cousins, all worked as union carpenters and have benefits, pensions and annuities. This is bad how?
Being in the military, I'm confronted by the liberals are evil mantra every day in the smoke pit or break room. One kid told me, straight up "I only believe what I see on Fox news" Color me dumbstruck. Part of me thinks it's time to grab the family, guns and gear and head up into the mountains. The other part of me wants to scream "Wake up, the corporations and government are destroying everything that is good about this country, the stuff I joined up to keep safe, help me stop them" But most of the sheeple here will head off to Wal-mart to get some Nattie Light and GPC smokes, turn on FSN and slowly kill themselves.