5 January 2005 — Counterpunch
SPECIAL NOTE TO THE READER: The Multi-Issue Alternative Magazine, EnergyGrid, conducted an excellent interview with Joe Bageant recently; I recommend that you check it out after plowing through what’s below. Who is JB? Well, if you ask me…I think you’re better off not knowing at this juncture…if you don’t know yet…reading through what he has to say here…and then diving into what he’s put out there for one and all to date (much of it accessible as per footnote #1 below). Trust me on this, if you will, just like Joe did…not knowin’ me from Adam and the Ants. By the way, a reader introduced us…making this possible. Hi, Chuckie!
ROX: In talking to you recently, you mentioned in passing that you were very popular with the Generation X crowd in England. What’s your guess on why that is?
JB: At first I was surprised. Then later it was explained to me by one of the exers that they were identifying with the American beatnik aspect and the anti-authority nature of my work. Also, like them, I see much virtue in getting loaded and rowdy.
ROX: Your “The Covert Kingdom: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Texas” (from May of this year) –which many of my friends consider the best online take of the Bush crowd in 2004– paints a picture of the left being lost in space vis-a-vis realities on the American Ground these days. What must “progressives” wake up to…to have a chance at moving in solidarity nationwide against The Extreme Right Roar? (TERRoar!)
JB: Hoooboy! That’s a biggun. See, I don’t believe the U.S. really has a political left. It just has personalities who consider themselves leftists and make an identity gig of it. If we really had a left, then I could walk out this door to a leftist party headquarters and take political action. It’s not like I can call up the local chapter of the Rifondazione Comunista, as in Italy. It’s not like I can stop by the newsstand and buy a copy of Liberazione. Americans kid themselves about having choices. Hell, they won’t even dare call themselves leftists. They’ve backed off into calling themselves “progressives.” That is totally gutless. What is the alternative to “progress?” The Stone Age? I think the U.S. has a cottage culture industry called the left. And it has a body of middle class professionals and semi-professionals who cannot bring themselves to associate with Republicans, so they call themselves “liberals.'” But liberals are too comfortable. So they deny reality. They are not going to do anything so long as they are comfortably insulated in the middle class. They are not going to wade into that hate filled ditch of political action, real political action that requires sacrifice, to battle for America’s soul—not as long as they are still living on a good street, sending their kids to Montessori and getting their slice of the American quiche. I guess what I’m saying is that until we get a real left in this country, one capable of creating change through radical action, one willing to risk everything for what they believe, we should not be talking about what our pseudo-left should be doing. Our pseudo-left is doing exactly what it should be doing. Posturing, bickering amid itself and boring the hell out of the rest of America.
I just realized that I didn’t come close to answering your question: What must “progressives” wake up to…to have a chance at moving in solidarity nationwide against The Extreme Right?
American progressives need to wake up to the fact that they are just as big a part of the world’s problems as the Republicans, so long as they insist on living the American lifestyle. As long as they continue to thoughtlessly consume the world as if it were their birthright. All talk and no walk. Buying organic toilet paper and voting for evasive Democratic hacks just isn’t going to cut it guys.
ROX: Being Left of Left means never having to say you’re sorry, Joe. Seriously, though, Joe…all of that is valuable, “keeper words” one and all, as they say. In your November “Dining with Rhinos” piece –I loved your bouncing off of Ionesco, by the way– you mention something about wanting to get away from the herd, “shopping hard for a house in Andalucia, or St. Kitts, or Normandy, places where there are still secular humanists political parties of the type the rhinos see as the heart of evil.” In terms of our ecocidal momentum, is it possible to depart…without feeling “irresponsible” on some level? Can one even get away at all? And…if one is concerned with planting seeds that may not bear fruit until after one’s lifetime…aren’t the immediate pleasures of relocation problematic?
JB: One man never beat a mob on the mob’s own turf. But one man can sure as hell get outside the turf and lob hand grenades at the mob. Can one even get away at all? Of course not. But I don’t have to suffer the daily insults of America’s military capitalist mindwarp ALL the time for christsake! I think I can leave the country for months at a time…get away to think and write and screw and feel free. And to hear some other voices and opinions from the outside world. It is impossible to do so inside this capitalist military state, where information is so controlled and the citizenry’s behavior and attitudes are so heavily modified by media, consumer advertising, etc. Also, the older I get the more I appreciate simplicity…like buying vegetables in the market and spending all day preparing them. Playing my little parlor guitar. Napping with my dogs in the afternoon. Frankly, I’d like to slip away to a more contemplative life, but if you are born in this country you gotta buy back your fucking life before you are allowed to change it. The state owns us from birth. Ensnares us in its economic system as productive and consumer units. As far as planting seeds that may not bear fruit in our lifetimes, well, that’s a global proposition, isn’t it? You can do that from anywhere because it is about how you conduct your daily life. I think it is as much about what you refuse to do as what you do. Of course I am very much full of shit and tend to do as little as possible whenever possible. So screwing off and leaving the world alone, not using much of it up, appeals to me. That and internationalist solidarity of mankind. But even to accomplish that, we need to slow down, shut the fuck up and think about the world and our places in it. THEN we can commence to raise hell against the systems that enslave us.
ROX: I don’t remember where I read about your final moments with your dad…on his deathbed, but it was touching…the business of what was appropriate, not appropriate to bring up in that setting. What is your guess…that he would have said in response to what you just laid out? Forgive me, please, if I’m being insensitive here.
JB: No, you’re not being insensitive. I wouldn’t have put the subject out there if I were unwilling to discuss it. I’m sure his response would be total incomprehension. Fundamentalist faith such as his, and that of my family and some 100 million other Americans, is a religious throwback. Religious fundamentalism is sort of a blind default setting in mankind’s programming. It is not about any kind of comprehension. Hell, my dad only went to about the eighth grade, so I never expected to sit around and discuss existentialism or Marxism with the guy. But growing up in that religious environment gave me enough language and insight to discuss right and wrong and moral things with him. His faith was quite a bit deeper than the stuff of the Bush election ballyhoo. I don’t think he ever bothered with such things as the abortion issue. He was more interested in his daily connection with his creator. Talking to God in the back room of the house trailer where he died. He had a whole little scene back there with his meditations, which he wrote in the margins of his Bible, and his country music records….my grandpap’s old pocket knives, his wartime memories. It was an entire world, physical and metaphysical, in that tiny room of his, a place where he could listen to old time fiddle tunes and talk to God too. Pretty good deal, huh!
ROX: You can say that again…on national TV, if you will! What impact would you say the personal nooks and crannies we all have to go through has…on left solidarity? What do our various “quirks” (for want of a better expression right now) mean…what “should they mean” to us…vis-a-vis talk/thoughts about solidarity? I consider this stuff of paramount importance…for one, since it’s not addressed at all; and that’s a separate subject from another interesting angle…the black/dark view that’s shared among many old leftists. Right now I’m thinking that…maybe…I don’t really want you to answer those questions; perhaps we’ll save them as a teaser of sorts for a Part II. But I’m very interested in the many people you’ve had relationships with…people who have intrigued me –to say the least– over the years. People like Timothy Leary, Stephen Gaskin, Allen Ginsberg. Trungpa Rinpoche, William Burroughs, John Lilly and Marshall Mcluhan…and the “unknowns” you’ve mentioned like Marc Campbell of Taos, New Mexico and Jack Collum of Boulder, Colorado. I noticed that you didn’t bring up Ward Churchill (someone I know you know very well) in the EnergyGrid Magazine interview. I’m particularly interested in what your view on what Marxism and corporatism have to do with Native Americans…since I greatly respect Ward’s position…and I understand you differ slightly there.
JB: I guess what I was trying to say in that last reply is that we cannot do it all with our minds. The left is too intellectual. Our hearts should be rivers. Empathy is far more important than intellect, to me at least. As far as the “impact of personal nooks and crannies on the left’s solidarity,” I’m not quite sure what you mean…other than the fact that the U.S. left is severely handicapped by our overblown American notion of individuality and personal uniqueness. Every American seems to think the sun rises and sets on his or her ass. Americans cannot seem to get over themselves. Consequently, empathy for mankind’s planetary misery is in short supply…more of an intellectual concept than a reality to soft, moody, self-absorbed American lefties. They all come from the 25% of Americans who get a college degree. They have no fucking idea what it is like for the other 60-70% of Americans who have to survive in our brutal corporatized state without the benefit of genuine education, insight or even honest news programming to see what is going on around them. These workers are being cultivated as a human crop by global business. A crop of toilers, consumers, and when need be, mechanized killers to be sent abroad. The one thing the thinking left and urban liberals will not do is trod the soil of the Goth—subject themselves to my people here in places like my hometown, Winchester, Virginia. Subject themselves to the unwashed working class America, that church-going, hunting and fishing, Bud Lite drinking, never-been-to-Europe- and-don’t-wanna-go, provincial America. The people who cannot, and do not even care to, locate Iraq or France on a map–assuming there is even an atlas in their homes. Few educated lefties will ever find themselves sucking down canned beer at the local dirt track or listening to the preacher explain the infallibility of the Bible on every known topic from biology to the designated hitter rule, never attend awards night at a Christian school or get drunk to Teddy and the Starlight Ramblers playing C&W at the Eagles Club. Well HO! HO! HO! Welcome to my world! As for Marxism and Native Americans, I leave that to The Ward. He’s right and everybody knows he’s right. But just as he is Native American and speaks from that standpoint, I am European and speak from mine. And Marxism is the default political affiliation of intellectuals the world round, not just Europeans. Being conceived in the glory days of the industrial revolution, naturally it is overly concerned with production and failed to take into account environmental degradation, etc. But we can compensate for what Marx could not have foreseen. I don’t go for all that eye-glazing Marxist intellectual crap, and positively cannot stand Marxist gatherings in the U.S. But common sense and a lifetime of experience tell me that Marxism makes sense. I used to live on an Indian reservation at Plummer, Idaho, and hung out with an ancient Wobbly named George Bowmer…a crippled up old logger who repaired chainsaws. He never even finished high school, grew up in a remote logging camp in the Selkirk Range skidding logs with mules and fighting for the union when he was 12. He showed me what internationalism is and how it can reach around the world in solidarity simply because man is man, truth is truth and class struggle is ever necessary. He understood that he had brothers in labor in places like Argentina and Chile, though he would never have been able to locate those places on a map.
ROX: In your Dining with Rhinos piece you focus on Berenger and his “buddies,” of course, but there’s another Berenger in another Ionesco play, Exit the King…which your dad’s deathbed is now reminding me of. In that dying is seen as “illumination” through the shedding of old “clothes,” now-unecessary possessions and postures. What balls and chains do leftists have to leave and the roadside? What dodges and tics do they have to give up…for us to advance? To move on “to the other side,” say, as opposed to going where outfits like MoveOn would have progressives go.
JB: Well, the most sincere fundamentalist Christians certainly see death as you described it: “illumination” through the shedding of old “clothes,” as in the old hymn, “I’ll have a new body, oh lord, I’ll have a new life!” As to what the left has to do to advance…. hell, I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t even believe we have a real left. Just folks who wish we did, including me. I am not an intellectual or a social strategist, just a laboring son of the blue collar American South who somehow ended up being a writer instead of a truck driver. As far as moving on “to the other side,” I dunno what that means to you. But to me it means crossing over and joining the rest of humanity we claim to care so much about. Sacrifice, which for Americans means putting money where the mouth runs. Sell your house and give the money to the needy of Bombay. I know you must be laughing at that one. But I mean it. This spring I will be buying a place in the Caribbean or Europe, but I will not own it. I plan to legally deed it over to some deserving poor family on the condition that I can stay there when I visit, or live there in exile if necessary. In the Caribbean it would be an Indian or black native family. In Spain I think it would be a Roma family. I never want to own another house again, muchless two of them. I’d like to go out of this world completely broke, having used little and leaving nothing to my heirs. I don’t believe in inherited wealth. You can imagine that this sort of thing is not too popular with my wife and family…but that’s what I mean about trying to walk the walk. It necessarily makes one’s life harder. To me, that’s what “moving to the other side means.” It means evolving one’s mind and soul to a more liminal place, focusing one’s eyes beyond the grave. Being a Marxist does not preclude a spiritual life, a recognition of a larger cosmic order of things. Ultimately being a leftist is about liberation of all kinds, don’t you think?
ROX: I really love you, what you’re saying, Joe. Truly. And, yes, I certainly do think being a leftist means liberation of all kinds. I asked ten fans of yours who are in contact with me regularly to submit questions…with the idea that I’d pick one or two to throw out during this interview. I picked one at random here…from someone who adored your “Sleepwalking to Babylon” piece (2)…thinking it’s watershed material…but who brought things back to your Ionesco/Rhinos article. Here are his words…which I’d like you to respond to briefly: “Joe Bageant I like because he reflects the voice of the common peoples with all their prejudices from TV and ads but I did not like the rhino stuff because rhinos are very smart animals with little darting eyes, not at all stupid but very territorial (they protect excellently their young, females even more fiercely…). Ionesco was wrong.”
JB: You are right in that no animal deserves to be compared to Americans these days. But don’t dismiss a wonderful piece of satirical art because it doesn’t accurately portray every aspect of the animal kingdom.
ROX: In the interests of moving expeditiously, and in acknowledgement of the short attention span of readers and limited heartbeats available for most…I’m going to be presumptuous and assume that we can make this a twelve-part series of sessions for the next time capsule buried…or at least turn it into a two-part ding-a-ling for online addicts…by asking you to close with three questions…directed AT/TO the reading public. To wit, three interrogatives that you’d like them to contemplate.
JB: You lost me old buddy. I don’t know what the heck you are talking about! Regarding “To wit, three interrogatives that you’d like them to contemplate.”…I have no idea. However, here is what I consider the most important philosophical question anyone can ever ask themselves: “What is the question to which my life is the answer?” (3)
ROX: I remember you saying something recently about appreciating being turned onto Ricardo Dominguez and the Electronic Disturbance Theatre –hackers of a sort– and I’d like to get your hit on something he said in an interview with Ben Shepard and Stephen Duncombe in 2000 (which can be found in Duncombe’s Cultural Resistance Reader): “And having been enamored of Genet, I felt that being a book thief, since that’s what I knew, well that’s the way I would live. And I started stealing very expensive Verso books and Lyotard’s wallbook on Duchamp, $350, and I would sell them at Mercer Books.” He’s talkin’ about how –early on– he managed to survive. And since I know you like Genet…I’d like to hear what you think of people “doing what they have to” to get by. Particularly since you made a huge distinction between the average, “cultured” lefty and the masses they supposedly want to help…but who they are light years from understanding. Get through that, and I’ve got one more inconsequential cutie I’d like to lay on you. This’ll be the swansong until Part II, okay?
JB: Well, I was quite impressed with the concept of the Electronic Disturbance Theatre. Much of this stuff is new to an old guy like me, who has been simply out here alone in his own corner of the left field for so long. As for the book stealing by a college educated middle class person, it sounds a bit suspect to me. But who am I to judge? There were years in the 1960s-70s when I dealt drugs to help support my wife and child (not to mention sustain a good stash of my own.) I’ve been a thief on occasion, and found I have neither the talent nor the nerves for it. On the other hand, I’ve been in the company of criminal angels…thieving junkie jazz players and their hooker wives in New Orleans (Ed and Kathy and Karen, if you are out there and still alive, contact me) and the like who showed me why and how the heavens turn on eternity’s star strewn axis. I know there is angelic criminality, just as the face of eternity is set in human misery and its heart is divine deviance. But I do not think it is something you can just go out and do because you think it is cool or makes a political point. It is not the kind of thing that can be contrived. You need to be born under a bridge in Rio or Bombay, or cast upon the American wastelands of Columbine High school for it to come naturally.
ROX/JB: Happy New Year!!
(1) Joe’s collected downloadable essays can be accessed at www.coldtype.net
(2) “Sleepwalking to Fallujah” has been used too.
(3) Joe tips his hat to Tim Leary heary.
Richard Oxman can be found these days reading Joe Bageant’s material in Los Gatos, California; contact can be made at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Ox’s never-before-revealed “biography” is available at http://news.modernwriters.org/
Some of his recent writing can be found in his Arts & Entertainment section and Features (under Social) there.
Weekend Edition Features for November 27 / 28, 2004
What Happened to O’Reilly’s Loofa?
What We Can Control
The Other Cheek: “Empire Doesn’t Analyze, It Acts”
The Murder of Danilo Anderson
Fallujah, the 21st Century Guernica
Empire’s Lawless Opportunities
The Case of Captain R.
Walter A. Davis
God’s Kind of Men
Albert, LaMorticella and Ford