The Politics of Poverty


Believe it or not, just two generations ago, many families in Morgan County, West Virginia were self sufficient.

Hunting, fishing, growing vegetables, canning for winter.

Subsistence farmers they called them.

Some families spent only $100 cash a year.

You can scoff.

But are we better off now?

Or not?

Joe Bageant was born and raised on Shanghai Road in Morgan County, West Virginia.

He went on to write two great books about the white working class in America.

How they are being screwed by the corporate state.

And why they often vote against their own interests.

As in — voting for Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, our Congresswoman, who puts the interests of the big banks and big insurance corporations ahead of the interests of the poor, white working people of her district.

These are truly remarkable books.

The first is Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Working Class.

And the second is Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir.

A third book is scheduled out soon — Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball: the Best of Joe Bageant.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been running ten miles in each of the 18 counties of Capito’s district.

Calling attention to Capito’s betrayal of her constituents.

And urging people to sign the petition at capitoresign.org.

On Saturday, I ran in Clay and Braxton counties — eleven down, seven to go.

And the eye-opener has been the poverty.

White working class poverty.

At the same time, I’ve been reading Bageant’s remarkable memoir — Rainbow Pie.

Bageant tells the story of growing up on Shanghai Road right here in Morgan County.

Where his grandmother and grandfather lived a life of self-sufficiency.

They did almost everything for themselves.

Ate like kings.

Walked to Unger Store if they had to make a phone call.

Granpa’s suit was handed down to his sons and then to the grandsons.

Three generations of family all living under one roof.

No nursing homes.

No assisted living facilities.

Problem was, when the conveniences came, they were irresistible.

Here’s Bageant describing the transition:

“What Maw and Pap and millions of others got out of it, primarily, were a few durable goods, a washing machine, a television, and an indoor toilet where the pantry, with its cured meats, 100-pound sacks of brown sugar, flour and cases of eggs had been. Non-durable commodities were vastly appreciated too. One was toilet paper, which ended generations of deep seated application of the pages of the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog to the anus (the unspoken limit seemed to be one page to a person at a sitting.) The other was canned milk, which had been around a long time, but had been unaffordable. Milk cows are a wonderful thing, but not so good when two wars and town work have drained off your family labor supply of milkers. So joyous over canned milk was my uncle Toad that he taught me this laudatory poem to evaporated milk when I was five:

Pet Milk best in the land
Sits on the table in a little white can
No cows to milk, no hay to pitch
Just punch two holes in that son-of-a-bitch!”

In two generations, the self sufficiency Bageant witnessed on Shanghai Road was gone.

Or as Bageant puts it — “The connective tissue of shared work for shared sustenance had disintegrated in the face of the monetary-wealth-based economy.”

Now, we are all at the mercy of the corporate state.

It’s out of our hands.

And it’s brutal.

“On any given day in America’s heartland towns and cities and suburbs, I can find innumerable Americans whose class experience has been the same as mine,” Bageant writes. “They are without a doubt an underclass measured by the standards of the developed world: they are ignorant; under-educated; given to unhealthy vices such as smoking and alcohol; underpaid; semi-literate; misinformed; given to crude entertainments, sports, and a love of spectacle (particularly violent spectacle); disposable as a labor force; quick to violent solutions; easily misled; simple-minded in world view; superstitious; and poor in parenting and social skills.”

“Most ominously, they are hostage to political manipulation,” he writes.

And most ominously now, they are hostage to Capito’s manipulation.

Capito — who tells them that she is seeking to protect and strengthen Medicare, when in fact she voted in April for legislation the Wall Street Journal said would end Medicare.

Earlier this year, I called Bageant’s home in Winchester, Virginia.

Wanted to invite him up to the Earth Dog to speak to our monthly meeting.

His wife said he wasn’t feeling well.

In March, he passed away after a four month bout with cancer.

Yesterday, I drove over to Shanghai Road.

Visited the Greenwood cemetery where his family is buried.

And wondered about this man that very few in Morgan County know about.

In fact, very few in the United States know about.

Kenneth Smith is a friend who maintains Joe’s web site — joebageant.com.

Smith told me that Joe’s books were never reviewed by a major newspaper in the United States.

In fact, Joe couldn’t find a publisher for Rainbow Pie in the United States.

The book was published by Scribe, a publisher in Australia.

“Joe is extremeley popular in Australia,” Smith told me.”He made two trips there, he was a featured guest on television there, he was the featured speaker at both the Melbourne and Sidney book fairs. When he died, Australian television ran a 30-minute interview they had played the year before. It’s difficult to explain how big he is in Australia. Outside of Australia, the only newspaper to run an obituary was La Stampa in Italy.”

“It’s like Jesus said — “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.”

Russell Mokhiber edits Morgan County, USA.
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