15 June 2008
Book Review: ‘Deer Hunting With Jesus – Dispatches from America’s Class War’ By Joe Bageant
“Never experiencing the life of the mind scars entire families for generations.”
This is the hardest review I have ever had to write. Who am I writing it for seems to be at the heart of my dilemma. But let me say first that this book is a witty, insightful and sympathetic portrait of a world most of us are only aware of through cliché or stereotype. Who are we talking about? The so-called American Redneck.
The reason I’m having such a hard time ‘interpreting’ Bageant’s book is simply because much of what Bageant deals with, white working class America, guns and life as it is lived in Small Town USA (actually Joe’s home town in Virginia to which he has returned after an absence of thirty years) has no equivalent in the UK or, for that matter anywhere else in the world except perhaps white, rural South Africa but even here, the resemblance is only skin-deep if you’ll excuse the pun (although according to Bageant, Australians do get it, which may explain why the book has been a big hit in Australia).
Talking about poor white, working class America in the white-owned mass media is pretty well verboten. As far as the MSM is concerned, only Blacks are poor in America, everyone else is middle class. Well we know this isn’t true (or we should do) but to talk of many millions of white working people living on the breadline (or below) might disturb the calm waters the so-called liberal intelligentsia swim in, after all they have enough trouble explaining the lot of Black America without giving the ‘Great Game’ away. Yet, as Bageant points out:
“… slightly over half of all poor people in the United States are white. Poor whites outnumber all minorities combined. Black poverty consumes a larger percentage of black society, to be sure. But that does not negate the fact that there are at least 19 million poor and working class whites and their numbers are growing.”
‘Dear Hunting With Jesus’ goes where few dare to tread, into the heartland of white, working class USA and we’re talking here about 1/3rd of the US population, almost seventy-five million people, that’s a heck of a lot of rosy necks. And in so doing he paints a very intimate picture of the gun-loving, God-fearing heart of small town America. And he does it without the usual patronizing that accompanies so much writing about working class life (wherever they may be).
And this is where it gets difficult for me decide how to present this to a readership that judging by the those who visit InI, come from all over the planet. How for example to present Joe’s very convincing argument about the right to keep and bear arms or his take on Christianity US-style? The amazing thing is that he does it without mentioning Marx or socialism once throughout the book, no mean feat for a leftie, which is perhaps one of the reasons why I connected to Joe’s writings in the first place, for like me, he doesn’t write for lefties (what’s the point of preaching to the converted?).
But perhaps most importantly for all of us it’s poor, white Americans who voted in Bush, whose computer-generated election programme tapped into the fundamental fears of whites, cut adrift by Walmart America and the central role that racism and religion plays in maintaining Pax Americana.
It succeeds because it’s an intimate portrait of small-town USA, told largely by the people that Joe grew up with in Winchester, Virginia. It’s a town where as Joe points out:
“Winchester is one of those southern places where the question of whether Stonewall Jackson had jock itch at the Battle of Chancellorsville still rages right alongside evolution, gun control, abortion, and whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. is half the driver his daddy was.”
And there’s no getting away from the centrality of the people Joe describes and knows so well, we ignore them at our peril. Let’s get one thing straight, these are not bad people, indeed, like most Americans, they are generous and trusting, even if barely educated, ill-informed and prejudiced (“two in five residents of the North End [of Winchester] do not have a high school diploma. Here, nearly everyone over fifty has serious health problems, credit ratings rarely top 500, and alcohol, Jesus, and overeating are the three preferred avenues of escape.”) But they are the bedrock of Bush’s America, whose fears and insecurities, maintained through carefully crafted propaganda, fuel the imperial agenda.
Just why millions of poor people should buy into Bush’s evil designs is to great extent revealed in this book– if one cares to listen, for much of the book consists of conversations in diners and bars with the people Joe grew up with before he ‘escaped’ and became a writer.
This is not say that Joe is not without his own prejudices, especially when it comes to ‘intellectuals’, a dirty word in America, regardless of their political persuasion for they are urban and urbane and know little of the life of the inhabitants of Winchester, Virginia nor, in all likelihood, care.
Still, Joe is an intellectual, whether he likes it or not but unlike many who escape their class background, he still retains an intimate connection to it even if, as he says:
“… when I moved back after thirty years out West, it was if my heart was back where it belonged. Which lasted about three months.”
And there is a strange parallel here between Joe and yours truly, because I too moved back to where I originated from in South London, also after a thirty-year absence, and like Winchester, the South London I left has changed greatly even if it looks pretty much the same.
Joe points to the central role religion plays in working class life, and not the one you’d expect, recounting the following conversation overheard in the checkout line of the low-rent supermarket chain store, Red Lion by Eddie Coynes (not his real name):
“as he receives his change with nicotined-stained fingers and stuff it into the breast pocket of his shirt. His wife is telling the clerk how her church rallied to buy her and Eddie a secondhand truck after theirs was repossessed: “It needs a spare tire, but we can come up with that.”
“Praise be to Him!” exclaims the clerk, as if God had come down with a five-piece band and personally delivered that 1990 Toyota himself. Obviously they are all born-again. The wife grabs up her purchases, a sixer of Diet Pepsi, a carton of Little Debbie cakes, then moves on toward the door.”
The reality of life in Winchester and thousands of towns like it, is revealed at its starkest by the following:
“It is a class thing. If your high-school dropout daddy busted his ass for small bucks and never read a book and your mama was a waitress, chances are you are not going to grow up to be president of the United States, regardless of what your teacher told you. You are going to be pulling down eight bucks an hour at shift work someplace and praying for overtime to pay the heating bill. And you are going to be pitted against your fellow workers and a hundred new immigrants on the other side of town to hang on to that job. And you are going to draw the inescapable conclusion that it’s every man for himself. Solidarity be damned. The much-needed eight bucks comes first.”
Joe takes us on what is a guided tour through white, working class America, starting off at the Royal Lunch, a local tavern:
“where we meet Dottie and Dink, and the other good working folks who populate this book.
“Then its on to meet some local employees of Rubbermaid and take a hard look at the ways globalism plays out for the people of this town.”
And so far, I’ve only scratched the introduction which ends with the following plea:
“Maybe the next time we on the left encounter such seemingly self-screwing, stubborn, God-obsessed folks, we can be open to their trials, understand the complexity of their situation, even have enough solidarity to pop for a cheap retread tire out of our own pockets, simply because that would be a kind thing to do and surely make the ghosts of Joe Hill, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mohandas Ghandi smile.”
The heart of the book consists of a series of encounters with the good people of Winchester, drawn with sympathy and not a little frustration by Bageant as he listens to their tales of life that you won’t see on CNN or NBC. Tales of a small town dominated by the Rubbermaid plant and of course the inevitable Walmart megastore and above all the fear of getting sick and dying simply because you can’t afford the treatment (which happens to more than one of Joe’s encounters during the course of the book), interspersed with very accurate information on what is actually happening to working people in the ‘land of opportunity’.
We meet a ‘self-made’ property millionaire as thick as two short planks (and illiterate to boot) who nevertheless is looked up to by the very people he rents his clapped out clapboard houses out to simply because he’s ‘succeeded’ where they have failed. ‘Failure’ in America is very, very personal, that is to say, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. Yet, as Bageant points out, even the very poorest who receive government assistance work at least six months of the year. ‘Workfare’ supports, if that’s the right word, only those who fought very hard to get it and are loathe to see it spread even more thinly than it is already.
It explains a lot about the psyche of working class Americans and why they can be manipulated, apparently so easily by the rapacious pirates in power. Simply put, there is no sense of the collective whatsoever, a view borne out by my own conversations with working class people when I lived in NYC and hung out in a scuzzy bar in East Harlem, where, during one evening of drinking, I got into a conversation with a young Puerto Rican guy who worked in Mount Sinai hospital and he told me, with desperation, “This has got to be the best of all possible worlds.”
And it’s a view that’s not lightly challenged, and with good reason, after all, if you think life consists of nothing but you against the rest of the world, then in challenging that perspective, you are inevitably questioning something that is fundamental to every American, the possibility of Success (the Capitalist version). To challenge the notion that the US is the best of all possible worlds is simply a step too far and in my opinion, explains much about why Americans consistently vote in a government that screws them up the yazoo, big time, every time.
There are so many good things to quote from ‘Deer Hunting’ that I run the risk of reprinting half the book. That said, they sum up so much about the paradoxes of life in the US of A. Take the following that opens the chapter titled ‘American Serf’:
“Faced with working-class life in towns such as Winchester, I see only one solution: beer. So I sit here at Royal Lunch watching fat Pootie in a T-shirt that reads: ONE MILLION BATTERED WOMEN IN THIS COUNTRY AND I’VE BEEN EATING MINE PLAIN! That this is not considered especially offensive says all you need to know about cultural and gender sensitivity around here. And the fact that Pootie votes, owns guns, and is allowed to purchase hard liquer is something we should all probably be afraid to contemplate.”
But it’s Bageant’s portraits of the working people that stand out. Often cutting and often quite merciless, they nevertheless convey the guts of what makes America tick. Take the following portrait of Dottie:
“Dot started work at thirteen. Married at fifteen. Which is no big deal. Throw in “learned to pick a guitar at age six” and you would be describing half the southerners in my generation and social class. She has cleaned houses and waited tables and paid into Social Security all her life. But for the past three years Dottie has been unable to work because of her health.… Yet the local Social Security administrators, cold Calvinist hard-asses who treat federal dollars as if they were entirely their own in the name of being responsible with the taxpayers money, have said repeatedly that Dot is capable of full-time work. To which Dottie once replied, “Work? Lady, I cain’t walk nor half see. I cain’t even get enough breath to sing a song. What the hell kinda of work you think I can do? Be a tire stop in a parkin’ lot?”
“Although it might seem that my people use the voting booth as an instrument of self-flagellaton, the truth is that Dottie would vote for any candidate—black, white, crippled, blind or crazy—who she thought would actually help help her. I know because I have asked her if she would vote for a candidate who wanted a national health care program. “Vote for him? I’d go down on him!”
Humour and pathos in equal amounts sums up ‘Deer Hunting’ as I think the preceding excerpt reveals and it’s no exception. There is one issue however that I think is perhaps the most contentious, at least with a largely defanged British public and that’s guns or, as the Constitution says it, the right to keep and bear arms.
Bageant’s family have been in the USA for over 250 years and guns have long been a part of his family’s history. Perhaps the following sums up the attitude (at least in Bageant’s neck of the woods):
“In families like mine, men are born smelling of gun oil amid a forest of firearms. The family home, a huge old clapboard farmhouse, was stuffed with guns, maybe thirty in all. There were 10-, 12-, and 20-gauge shotguns, pump guns, over-and-unders [whatever they are], and deer rifles of every imaginable sort from classic Winchester 94 models to 30-ought-sixes, an old cap and ball “horse pistol” dating back to the mid-1800s, and even a set of dueling pistols that had been in my family since the 1700s … For millions of families in my class, the first question asked after the death of a father is “Who gets the guns?” That sounds strange only if you didn’t grow up in a deeply rooted hunting culture.”
‘Deer Hunting’ pinpoints the link between guns and Christian fundamentalism, a link that goes back to Bageant’s Scots-Irish ancestors, further even, to the English Bill of Rights, where the right to bear arms, not to shoot your neighbour with but to defend yourself against the actions of a violent and heavily armed State first became enshrined in law.
Rooted in a frontier culture that was part farming, part hunting and that has since become a part of the national mythology, guns are intrinsic to American culture (200 million owned by 70 million people, twice as many own guns as those who vote) and contrary to popular belief, owning and carrying a gun does protect an individual’s life at least according to the following quote from the National Institute of Justice (a government organisation):
“Citizens use guns to defend themsleves as many 2.5 million times a year… Each year firearms are used sixty times more often to protect the lives of citizens than to take lives. The majority of these citizens defend themselves by brandishing their weapons or firing a warning shot … Only two percent of civilian shootings involved an innocent person mistakenly identified as a criminal. By contrast, the error rate for police officers is eleven percent.
“The Carter Justice Department found that nationwide 32 percent of more than 32,000 attempted rapes were committed, but only 3 percent of the attempted rapes were successful when a woman was armed with a knife or a gun.”
Not that Bageant isn’t aware of the legion of real gun nuts out there (he devotes a section to it), that is people who own guns that are expressly designed to kill people not deer, but he points to the racial origins of gun control, that is, it’s okay for whites to own guns but not blacks:
“The fact is that the right of every citizen to own a gun was taken for granted in this country until periodic race and immigration issues brought it into question. After the Civil War southern whites denied blacks the right to own guns. Consequently, race and gun ownership were factors in ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. Besides nullifying the South’s “black codes,” which prohibited blacks from travelling, testifying in court, and suing whites, the amendment clearly guaranteed blacks the right of gun ownership and possession. This guarantee largely helped sell the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to Congress. Supporters of Negro rights understood that an armed citizen “suffered significantly less likelihood of oppression”—shorthand for being lynched.”
One final observation before I wind up this overlong review (and I haven’t really dealt with the issue of religion and especially health care, or rather the lack of it).
Ever since I first read ‘Deer Hunting’ I kept thinking, has anybody in Winchester actually read the book, after all, it’s not exactly a flattering portrait, so I asked Joe and he’s had “tons of feedback” but none at all from those whose portraits are actually drawn in the book (but plenty from those who thought they were).
And predictably it’s the local bigwigs who have been most outraged by it as the following reveals:
“I [Bageant] am told by one local official that a city councillor wanted council to issue a proclamation of denouncement of the book. But then he was reminded that it is the sort of thing communist states do. Another portion of the offended business class took it upon themselves to have a bad review campaign on Amazon…which didn’t go too far. But reading those reviews offers much insight into the logic of the dominant class. In the end the best they could accomplish was getting me taken off of Wikipedia as one of Winchester’s most famous natives. Editors at the local newspaper tell me that the owner, has banned mention of me or my book in the paper. And it seems that many of the realtors in town seem to believe the illiterate realtor was them.”
But the liberals cheered the book, and:
“Thanks to them, I’ve had the distinction of outselling Harry Potter at the independent bookstore downtown. Many non-natives who’ve moved here from metropolitan areas for the cheaper housing say it explains so much of what they see around them, but could never quite comprehend…the poverty no one acknowledges, the closed minds, the general belligerence toward outsiders, the intense religiosity…”
Sadly however, only one person who is in the book, Dottie, has actually read it but what she thought of it is not known:
“…most working people, almost none of whom buy books, never heard of me, naturally. I’ve given most of the people in the book a signed copy…On the whole though, books are completely irrelevant to their lives, even books in which their lives appear. Which tells you a lot about the lives of working Americans.
“In many respects it has reduced my relationships with my people, the ones I write about. I seldom go into the old haunts because I’ve become the guy who wrote a book. Doesn’t matter what book. In their eyes I am no longer quite one of them.”
‘Deer Hunting With Jesus – Dispatches from America’s Class War’ By Joe Bageant, published by Crown Books, 2008 and soon to be published by Portobello Books in the UK.
1. You can read these reviews here