It isn’t often that I’m bushwhacked by a book, but Joe Bageant’s social analysis Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War was a real ambush. I defy you to read this book and go right on satirizing the gun-totin’, God-fearin’, Republican-votin’ workin’ class in quite the same way as before.
Joe Bageant was born and raised in Winchester, Virginia, in the working class buffer zone between well-off whites and “at least we’re not …” blacks. Returning in 2001 after thirty years of being a big city liberal, Bageant took a fresh look at the way of life of his youth.
The result is quite simply the best –the funniest, the sharpest, and the most telling –exposition of American culture that I’ve ever read.
Bageant takes a few good licks at blue-state liberal condescension toward a people and a way of life with which they have little experience and which they understand not at all. He reserves his deepest scorn, and his greatest resentment, for the social forces that oppress millions of the working poor — chief among these is the woeful standard of education, which Bageant believes is a purposeful strategy of the middle and upper business classes, the most efficient way to keep the lower class low.
The narrative power of Deer Hunting with Jesus lies in its dark humour, its tell-it-like-it-is writing, and probably the best way to present Bageant’s ideas is in his own words. I have little hope of topping authentic down-home stuff like “you’re so poor your cash bounces.” So if you’ll allow me, rather than paraphrase the good stuff — or needlessly over-explain Bageant’s message –I’m going to get out of the way and let the author speak for himself.
The hard part, and it really is hard, will be to pick just a few of the dozens and dozens of trenchant passages that deserve to be featured here. So settle in for more than a few of the good parts. When I’m done, I’ll bet that you’ll want to head right out to your local e-library and download the book, too.
[A] good deal of this book is about class in America, especially the class from which I sprang,the bottom third of Americans constituting the unacknowledged working- class poor: conservative, politically misinformed or oblivious, and patriotic to their own detriment.
I would like to take the reader someplace closer to the lives of America’s homegrown working folks than our media ever ventures, closer to those whose kids’ high school trip is to Iraq, who are two paydays away from homelessness yet in their pride cling to the notion that they are middle-class Americans.
1. American Serfs
Places such as Winchester are, as they say, “investment paradise.” … low taxes, few or no local regulations, no unions, and a chamber of commerce tricked out like a gaggle of hookers, welcoming the new nonunion, air-poisoning factory. … Big contractors, realtors, lawyers, everybody gets a slice, except the poorly educated and nonunion mooks who will be employed at the local plant at discount rates.
It is in the interest of these well-heeled conservative provincials to maintain a feudal state with low taxes, few or no local regulations, no unions, a cheap school system, and a chamber of commerce with the state senate on its speed dial. …[T]hey dominate most elected offices and municipal boards.
2. Republicans by Default
My people don’t cite real facts. They recite what they have absorbed from the atmosphere. Theirs is an intellectual life consisting of things that sound right, a blend of modern folk wisdom, cliché, talk radio, and Christian radio babble.
… [If] you spend your days at a soul-numbing repetitious job … when are you supposed to find the time to grasp the implications of global warming? You are brain dead, so a couple of evenings a week you stop at Royal Lunch and pour beer on the dead brain.
The Republican message, baloney though it is, was accessible … . The Democrats didn’t have any message at all. … Only right-wing politicians appealing to their religious prejudices and ignorance on behalf of big money pay any attention to [the working poor].
3. The Deep-Fried, Double-Wide Lifestyle
The reality is that our economy now consists of driving 250 million vehicles around the suburbs and malls and eating fried chicken. We don’t manufacture much. We just burn up ever-scarcer petroleum in the ever-expanding suburbs built with mortgage money lent to people who haven’t a clue.
It has been an orgy so glorious and unholy, so mindless that we have now eaten our seed crop in our spiraling consumerism. Our political masters look the other way. The Republicans have proclaimed the entire disastrous mess to be the lifestyle we are entitled to as Americans, and therefore nonnegotiable.
4. Valley of the Gun: Black Powder and Buckskin in Heartland America
Every one of them owns at least one gun, and most own several. Most would die for or kill for America as they understand it. Which is a damned shame because the way they understand it is through the purposefully clouded lens of the Fox News Network and the jingoistic history they learned in school. Few honestly grasp that there are other nations in the world, other value systems. True, some have been abroad, but generally within the controlled environment of the military.
To the working people I grew up with, sophistication of any and all types, and especially urbanity, is suspect. Hell, those city people have never even fired a gun. Then again, who would ever trust Jerry Seinfeld or Dennis Kucinich or Hillary Clinton with a gun? At least Dick Cheney hunts, even if he ain’t safe to hunt with. George W. Bush probably knows a good goose gun when he sees one. Guns are everyday tools, like Skil saws and barbecue grills.
5. The Covert Kingdom: They Plead upon the Blood of Jesus for a
… [S]ome evangelicals stand apart from the mainstream in one important way. They would scrap the Constitution and institute “Biblical Law,” the rules of the Old Testament, and they take the long view toward the establishment of a theocratic state. Others believe we are rapidly entering the End Times and the fulfillment of the darkest Biblical prophecies.
Unlike public schools or civic organizations, the fundamentalist church is one of the few social structures still functioning in America. … This self-referential culture is so focused on religion and conviction that it was bound to come to see the larger secular society as its persecutor and all authority other than God’s, especially that of the government, as corrupt.
You don’t need a degree in Sociology to know that the most obvious class indicator in America is religious belief and that religious zeal is concentrated in lower-class and working-class whites. One look at Brother Charlie casting a demon out of a Camaro engine block tells the story. Working-class whites have always been evangelical Protestants.
6. The Ballad of Lynndie England
Whatever you think of the leash girl of Abu Ghraib, Lynndie England never had a chance. Abu Ghraib, or maybe something even worse (an RPG up the shorts, for instance), was always her destiny. Nearly half of the three thousand Americans killed thus far in Iraq are from small towns like hers, like mine. … Most of the young soldiers were fleeing economically depressed places, or dead end jobs like the one Lynndie had at the chicken-processing plant. … These so-called volunteers are part of the nation’s de facto draft– economic conscription. Money is always the best whip to use on the laboring classes. Thirteen hundred a month, a signing bonus, and free room and board sure beats the hell out of yanking guts through a chicken’s ass.
7. An Unauthorized Place to Die: The American Health Care System
on Life Support
In America your economic status pretty much determines your social status. A dentist’s wife is treated differently than her nanny. People like Dot are treated as inconsequential, matter-of-factly insulted b y doctors, lawyers, and administrators who might not even realize they are doing it. It I dress down and drop a few consonants, the same thing happens to me. All of this is dictated, of course, by access to higher education, which is mostly determined by economic status.
Like most regional hospitals of its type in the heartland, the Winchester Medical Center is the largest generator of bankruptcies in our area. In general, medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States for the uninsured. … A 2005 Harvard University study found that 50 percent of all bankruptcy filings are wholly or partly the result of medical expenses, a 2,200 percent increase since 1981.
Half the nation depends entirely on the government for help when they grow old. They paid in advance for that help. A far larger number will find themselves in America’s hospitals and will expect those hospitals to put health and healing before all else. But … our sprawling medical system sees its purpose as seizing market share instead of curing people.
8. American Hologram: The Apocalypse Will Be Televised
Anyone who thinks that these white conservatives, both working class and small business class, don’t care about anything outside their own zone of ignorance is only half right. The fact is that many of them cannot see outside that zone at all. They are too uneducated, too conditioned to the idea that being a consumer is the same thing as being a citizen. … As we liberals now begin to inveigh against the loss of personal freedoms in the new corporate American state, a much larger freedom has already been lost: the freedom from ignorance.
In truth, television drives the hologram, creates Americans’ reality, regulates our national perceptions and interior hallucinations of who we Americans are — the best and the bravest, the richest and the most powerful, the freest country on the planet.
Social realism in this country is a television commercial celebrating America. The Soviets posterized thick, broad-shouldered women of the steppes cradling sheaves of grain in their arms. We have Kirstie Alley stepping from our TV screens, the Salome of Jenny Craig bearing America-the-Corporate’s glad tidings to an obese republic — a simulated republic of eagles, church spires, brave young soldiers and firefighters, and “freedom of choice,” a heroic feast within the temple, so long as we do not stray outside the hologram. Which is to say, until the coming economic and ecological collapse.