What’s the Matter with Winchester?

Joe Bageant’s book “Deer Hunting with Jesus” is a book anyone in out-sourced America who still maintains any working class sensibility absolutely must read. Any urban, educated leftist who wonders why the great mass of meat hunting, NASCAR-loving, cryin’-in-your-beer, country music-loving, overweight, bible-thumping American bubbas continue to vote against their own self-interests and help the GOP purloin elections and man (and woman) the front lines of endless imperial wars will be smacked upside the head with the answers.

As my good buddy, roofing contractor John Yackshaw, a son of rural Iowa, who read the book simultaneously with me (the same actual book) notes, “This book answers the question What’s the Matter with Kansas?”

John’s referring to Thomas Frank’s earlier book that came at the same issue and opened the dialogue. But, like any top-down, scholarly work analyzing an exotic species, Frank’s work comes up short on down-to-earth answers compared to this book written by a son of the same permanent underclass he lovingly, funnily and angrily writes about.

The book and its title are brilliant, as is the subtitle, “Dispatches from America’s Class War.” My good friend Lisa Goldrosen, a daughter of Boston leftists who enjoys reading anything by Bageant, says, “It always seems like I’m reading reports from the front lines of a foreign country.”

The title refers to the religious pamphlets distributed to meat hunters by their fundamentalist preachers. Said tracts are read by meat hunters (as opposed to recreational and trophy hunters) while whiling away their time in blinds praying for Jesus to direct a deer into range. I know most urban liberals will knee-jerk laugh at the concept, but just how different is it from my Indian hunter friends praying for a good hunt–something urban liberals romanticize?

And, what about that unacknowledged class war? Bring it up even in passing and you’ll get slammed by Bill O’Liely acolytes for fomenting a conflict that doesn’t exist in egalitarian America. Yeah, sure.

Joe takes America’s hidden caste system head on. He starts out with a chapter on “American Serfs,” introducing us to such salt-of-the-earth denizens of the Royal Lunch drinking establishment as Pootie, Dink, Dottie and the rest of the gang–describing what he calls the great “white ghetto of the working poor.”

Joe never once demeans the gang. He’s even fair-minded towards the Christian fundamentalists who pretty much prey on such folks. Anyone who knows the value of a hard day’s work would be happy to hang out with these remarkable, resilient people.

The Royal Lunch is one of the places in Winchester, Virginia where folks go after back and soul-breaking days spent at the local Rubbermaid plant or other dead-end jobs where one’s occupation and the pace of it are completely out of one’s control. Drinking and karaoke, like over-eating and religion serve as palliatives for the mind-numbing work and the constant fears of job out-sourcing.

Chapter Two, “Republicans by Default” explains how such fears are successfully exploited by the Republican rural oligarchy all across America. Unions? Forget about it. Mandatory worker meetings assailing “commie unions” like those that I was forced to attend when I worked at sawmills just infuse or as Joe notes, “pistol-whip a proper sense of gratitude” into folks forced to look over their shoulders at the legions of “little brown guys” being brought in to “keep the plants competitive,” never mind such commie wishful thinking like good wages and decent health insurance. (When I worked for GM while attending Community College, the UAW pretty much was part of the same system, so I’m not all that convinced that unions would get the job done either–witness their impotence as GM abandoned its and my hometown of Flint.)

Virtually every working class stiff in Winchester over fifty has serious health problems. Laid off because your body’s just worn out from on-the-job activity? Your resource is the predatory “good Democrat” lawyer and if you’re lucky, you’ll get maybe ten percent of your medical costs covered after the “buzzard” barrister takes his cut. Pension? That would be Social Security, if one lives long enough to collect it. And even then, an army of bureaucrats spend time on ever more creative ways to deny services–the most often used ploy is to just ignore or roadblock folks until they get the message and quit asking.

My partner Nina, a psychiatric social worker, notes that over the years her job has been more and more run by bean counters and paperwork over services is the name of the game. Even social service professionals are seeing their jobs and the pace of their work defined by others. Nina says that the book “should be a Sociology text at universities everywhere.” Apparently others feel the same way as a group of professors at the University of Pennsylvania have begun just that.

No one in Joe’s hometown has a decent credit rating, but that hardly stops one from buying a double-wide for “whatever it takes.” Like an over-priced new car, the trailer is, of course, worth about half what one pays the second it leaves the lot. The chapter, “The Deep-Fried, Double-Wide Lifestyle” has such an excellent analysis of the predatory mortgage industry that yet another buddy who read the book along with John, Nina and I, Brent Maxson, a real estate agent who’s seen the endless lists of repossessed trailers for sale cheap, said, “Looks like I’m going to have to get a new job.”

Another chapter explains the gun culture and therein is the bottom line. All gun owners know that the “Democrats are out to get your guns.” That perception and the fact that very few, if any, denizens of the Royal Lunch actually know any Democrats are a big part of the reason why the GOP gets their votes. They might know Joe and regularly drink with him, but as one of the regulars notes, “but you’re a godless commie, so that doesn’t count.”

Urban Democrats generally look down on such folks. Yet these people do rub shoulders with the local Republicans at church and, of course, as their bosses which means that even if liberals could get over their aversion to the great unwashed working class with their double-wide homes and asses and actually do some organizing on their behalf, countering the local GOP oligarchs would likely be one damned insurmountable task.

Local wealthy characters, like the mean-spirited developers cashing in on DC’s exurban building boom in Winchester, come into the Royal Lunch on occasion to spew lies (“The Democrats want to put gays in as Scout leaders”) which are easily bought by folks who, as Joe puts it, have an intellectual life that consists of things that “sound like it might be true” – which is why the right focuses on so many oxymoronic slogans–“kinder, gentler, compassionate conservative, tax burden, death tax, sustainable development, defense of marriage, gay agenda, etc.” And, it certainly doesn’t help that George W. can go to his “ranch” and pretend to cut brush while John Kerry goes wind-surfing ferchrissakes! The response across rural, working class, brush-cutting America is, “Who the hell goes wind-surfing?” (No one seems to notice that the great rancher is afraid of horses and the brush-cutting is the default photo-op mode.)

The part of the book that actually scared me is the chapter on fundamentalist Christianity. Joe cites the beliefs of the “hard-core End Times fundamentalists” and their call for capital punishment “for a wide range of crimes, including abandonment of the faith, blasphemy, heresy, witchcraft, astrology, adultery, sodomy, homosexuality, striking a parent and ‘unchastity before marriage’ (for women only).”

Joe’s brother Mike is a preacher who describes a casting out of demons incident that has more than a little Dungeons and Dragons (dare I say witchcraft?) aspect to it. Another fundie, Brother Charlie, is seen casting a demon out of a Camaro engine block. (Before anyone gets too uppity about that one, let me say I know a New Ager who “did Reiki” on a broken pump and declared it fixed–it never worked again.)

A chapter titled “The Ballad of Lynddie England” sums up the “Scots Irish Borderer” mind-set and how that plays into the atrocity of Abu Ghraib. The cock-fighting, bear-baiting, eye-gouging pastimes of the group broadly known as the Scots Irish are very well explained. As Joe notes, “our belligerent Borderer pride insists on the right to be dangerously wrong about everything while telling those who are more educated to ‘Bite my ass!'”

The “economic conscription” that led England into the service is exposed. The woman held a job reaching into chicken anuses and pulling out their guts. Can anyone blame her for dreaming that the military was her ticket to an education and a better life as a “tornado chaser” like Helen Hunt in that movie?

The lack of a Draft has left many liberals sitting on their hands this war–hey, it’s not their ass on the line. But, one cannot deny the effects of the “economic conscription” and “serving your country” family traditions. As Melissa Crabtree sings about in her song “Message from a Soldier,” a working class GI on his way to “Babylon” she meets on a plane as she returns from a San Francisco peace rally says, “I don’t believe I should be fightin’ this war. But, I do it cuz my people always done it before.” Indeed.

The penultimate chapter takes on the gawd-awful industry that has sprung up around disabled and dying people. “An Authorized Place to Die” dissects that seedy industry. Anyone who has cared for aging, dying relatives (as have I, my siblings and most of my cousins) will be rightly outraged as they recognize the scams and maybe get over some of the usual guilt associated with being unable to care for their loved ones on their own. Even without first-hand experience of it one can get the best deconstruction I’ve ever read of how half the nation depends on the government for end-of-life care and yet they are getting locked into a system that puts profits far above health care, all the time heart-breakingly begging as Joe’s own mother does and my Dad did, “Get me out of here.”

Joe finishes with a chapter on what he dubs the “American Hologram.” He notes that our culture depends on an unbroken supply of two things–TV and petroleum. Break the supply chain and people might begin to notice that we are wallowing under a ton of debt; have little or no health care; that retirement insurance and pensions have all but vanished; that the prison industrial complex incarcerates some three percent of us–over 25% of all prisoners on Earth are in America’s vast Gulag; we’ve been at war somewhere our entire livesyet as long as there is a new usurious interest pick-up in the driveway, a new iPod and 24/7 “entertainment,” the plight of the one paycheck away from insolvency working class remains invisible to the urban, educated middle class and the hologram holds.

This book is an antidote to the hologram. 17,000 of the first printing of 20,000 copies have sold in two weeks. I sincerely hope that that’s the proverbial tip of the iceberg and many more copies are bought and read. I hope more professors follow the lead of those at the University of Pennsylvania and the book becomes required reading.

Winchester is changing. The exurban blight is cresting. A brew pub has opened complete with six dollar beers. Yet, all across America, the war on the working poor continues. Joe Bageant has done a great service shedding light on the ruling class battle plan. Whether liberal America can rise to the task and counterattack remains in doubt. But, here’s the road map.

MICHAEL DONNELLY’s Irish American farmer grandparents stressed education as the way out of the hologram. His WWII vet father used the GI Bill to get an education and went on to be a Community College pioneer. Neither of them ever lost touch with their roots. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com




MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com