Joe Bageant is author of Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War just published by Random House Crown. He recently spoke with JOSHUA FRANK about his new book, religion, rednecks and what it’s like to serve beer to an underage horse.
JOSHUA FRANK: So Joe, what the hell is going on with the redneck strain of the working class anyway? Why do they seem more apt to embrace evangelism rather than a labor union? Is it, as psychologists would say, learned helplessness, or worse, idiocy?
Joe Bageant: Well, Josh, that’s a pretty broad brush you’re painting with there. In fact, it’s too broad to be answered, but that will not stop me from responding with my usual shrillness and tin drum noise punctuated by flatulence. Let me start by saying the term redneck does not apply especially to southerners. I have found indigenous redneck culture and communities in Maine, Oregon Kansas, New York, Massachusetts, and California in virtually every state and in large numbers. Among loggers, cowboys, poles, Germans, and even Latino rednecks.
Really. Don’t you think beer and low riders and macho sports aesthetic of Latinos, the heterosexual, patriotic Jesus focused Catholic is that much different from their Jesus focused Baptist Dixie and Midwestern counterparts? The low riders of LA are the same as beer and muscle cars of the south. In fact the first rednecks were probably the striking miners at the Ludlow Colorado massacre, who wore red bandanas and were seen as tough, surly, angry working class people who had to be kept down. The sun on the neck definition is another more recent one that got applied especially to Southerners, during the civil rights era I suppose.
We have been taught to use these ethnic, regional and racial labels to cover up the real issue in America that the rich want keep hidden another 200 years-that we are a classist country. That one class owns pretty much the whole country these days and that all the rest are left to suck hind tit and pretend they are all members of something called “the middle class.” The only real middle class is that thin layer of commissars, lawyers, teachers, journalists, and other caterers to the empire, those people necessary to manage it and count the beans, dumb down the kids and lock up enough people to keep the privatized gulags in business.
Anyway, I assume you are referring the heartland white working class people who attend fundamentalist churches. Ever since around 1800 about one-third of white America has been fundamentalist Christians, about one-third of Americans have had a born again experience. The thing that is different now is that these churches have access to political power. They were welcomed across the church-state wall of separation by cynical GOP strategists to whom giving the Republicans another chance to sack Washington, loot the national kitty and maybe pull off a good oil raid in the Middle East, was more important than our constitution. Now that they’ve let John Calvin’s wooly beast into to tent, we find it chewing on the constitution and generally stinking up the joint-it’s not going to leave without a fight.
As to the last parts of your question: When it comes to embracing the church instead of a labor union, I can remember a time when the churches stood behind the labor unions. Have we learned to be helpless? Man, we are helpless. Capitalist conditioning has replaced citizenship with consumerism. I mean, what are you or I doing? I write a book so the global publishing chain of Bertelsmann makes more money; you and I both sit here on the Internet spewing electrons across circuit boards that keep Bill Gates and the stock brokers farting through silk while we preach to the choir who bought our books. There are far better alternatives. We could grab some axe handles and heat up the tar bucket and start to burn some shit down. That still works you know.
JOSHUA FRANK: I’ve always thought that’d work.
Joe Bageant: But we won’t. Because we are all programmed to participate through purchase, whether it is my book at Barnes and Noble or the software that enables us to read CounterPunch. Or choose the candidate that has been preselected and purchased in advance by the people who have essentially made Americans into a nation of iPod implanted pizza drivers and well dressed lawn jockeys sitting in front of monitors on the empire’s electronic plantations.
JOSHUA FRANK: So how can we change this political myopia?
Joe Bageant: Our involvement with politics, our political lives, are merely as spectators who listen to commercials for three years before the magical moment before we “cast our vote” by simply going shopping in the tiniest shopping space of all-the voting booth-with the most limited choices possible that can still be called a choice: two twin parties whose parents, the corporations, have to display them against different colored backgrounds so people can get a clue as to their difference. (“I am for fighting the war until the last dog is dead,” as opposed to “I am for pulling the troops out, but not until a few hundred thousand more dogs are dead. I don’t wanna be seen as weak on the dead dog thing.” Or my favorite, “We can’t leave now or there will be chaos?” What the fuck is it we have created there now?) Right now the owning class Westchester Country Club Democrats is offering us two flavors, Hillary Clinton (bitter vanilla) and Barrack Obama (Mocha hope.)
Soooo What’s going on politically with the great beery redneck nation? Nothing. We don’t think about politics until the last half hour before time to vote. Then a sort of a heartburn grips our chests, and all the negative campaign ads, and the sound of Bill O’Reilly’s voice and last night’s beer and bratwurst and Hillary’s stern beady eyes drill in on us preachers call down lightening bolts and fighter planes do a double roll over the desert then suddenly an acidic clot curdles in our throat, we close our eyes and we projectile vomit all our fears and suspicions and prejudices and state injected messages in the direction of the party making the most noise right up until the last minute. That’s what we do down here.
What do ya’ll do?
JOSHUA FRANK: Well, I grew up in Montana with rednecks aplenty. Most of my own family is small farmers who were forced to move to the little towns in the area because of the onset of industrial agriculture. They lost the land they worked. Most of them are still proud rednecks. I respect the work ethic, but not all the culture that goes along with it. Up in Big Sky country, folks know politicians lie, so they put their trust in God instead.
Pick up trucks. Gun racks. Elk hunting. Beer drinking. It’s a way of life there. I enjoy most of it. It takes some pretty damn rough times before people stand up and say, enough is enough! You’d think they’d be screaming from the mountaintops by now. But they haven’t because they don’t think they can do a damn thing about their lot. And that’s where you get a lot of that anti-government sentiment. The Freeman and the Unabomber. It resonates quite well. As it should. The state doesn’t stand up for the little guy, but for the big corporations and they know it. The elites, however, always seem to capitalize off of their collective weakness-mainly their inability to stand up in the face of power. But anymore, the mainstream “right” and “left” are almost one in the same when it comes to the fundamental economic issues of our times.
Anyway, this is supposed to be an interview with you. Not me!
Joe Bageant: I lived in northern Idaho for years and had a lot of truck with Montanans like yourself. And to me they are among the best people in this country, tough uncomplaining people, kinda like Southerners, but with far less racism (unless you happen to be an Indian in some cases). Once when I was trending bar on the reservation, a Montana cowboy led his horse right into the place and demanded a beer for his steed. He had been drunk for two days, driving south toward New Mexico with his horse trailer, down from Alberta, Canada, and was obviously looking for a good old time tension-releasing brawl. “Well sir,” I told him. “That horse ain’t old enough to drink.” “That horse is 18,” he replied. I peeled back the horse’s lips and checked his teeth. I had horses of my own and knew how to check their age. “That horse is nine years old,” I said. “Just about the age a good cow pony starts getting some real sense.” He threw back his head and laughed. The situation was defused and we sat there in the Bald Eagle Bar and jawed until closing time. A good, tough, brave man of the kind America doesn’t make anymore. Tipped me ten dollars, then went off to wrap himself in a blanket and sleep in his truck until first light.
At the same time though, there is a belief in authority, a reverence even, that is so typically American. America has never been a nation of true dissenters. Even during the Sixties. Don’t let the old newsreels fool you. You gotta remember that when those kids were gunned down at Kent State, one half of America was cheering and an even larger portion did not give a shit. But the footage was so shocking, and we actually had a rather liberal media back then, and so, like Twin Towers footage, it was shown over and over and written about until the message finally soaked in. But Americans for the most part are on the side of their own oppressor and like it that way. Heartland Americans were happy when the working man was shot down at Ludlow, and happy when the Bohunk and Pollack miners were gunned down at the Latimer mines (again, the rewriters of history have made it seem otherwise). The good people of the heartland were happy with the kangaroo courts that framed and murdered Joe Hill and Sacco and Venzetti. And today they are happy when they see police in black Kevlar beating down young radicals in Seattle and Old Jewish women in Miami protesting turning that city into a free trade zone labor gulag.
JOSHUA FRANK: Your book has been put out by a major publishing house. As you note, these cats are in the business of making money, and I’m assuming they wanted to make your book palatable to the run-of-the-mill liberal audience. What was that process like?
Joe Bageant: For lefties it can be infuriating. My publisher is Random House, is owned by owned by Bertelsmann, the former Nazi German publisher that made massive profits from Jewish slave labor and published ant-Jewish propaganda for Hitler. It also owns Doubleday, Bantam, and a slew of other media around the world. So today we see the irony of scores of Jewish editors etc working for Bertelsmann, but this time instead of tattoos, they are sporting blackberries, worrying about theater tickets and treating their Salvadorian nannies like shit.
Anyway, big publishers Random House Crown roll the ball right down the middle of the aisle looking for a strike to sell the most books to the broad middle class. No leftie gutter balls. Let Seven Arrows have’em. On the other hand, Crown publishes Anne Coulter, which tells you something about the real middle road and what sells. Everyone must do that to keep their jobs and climb the ladder of the company, which constitutes the corporate brand allegiance that is their lives, livelihood and personal identity in the Empire. Their lives are the brand. The brand is their lives. As in, “I am an editor at Harper Collins, the one who did the Martini Book of Common Wisdom,” or “Hillary’s book,” or whatever.
At one end, you have the editors, many of whom care about the life of the mind but have internalized capitalist market driven values, and thus feel courageous when they really are not. At the other end you have the company management, who see all books merely as units. Naturally, in a system like that, the pull is always rightward toward profit driven and non-risky thinking. Consequently, the American reading public for idea based books, which is small as hell, thinks it is expanding its knowledge through reading when they buy books, when actually, all most want to do is see their viewpoints reaffirmed. But what really happens is that they are drawn more rightward by the narrowness of available choices in a marketplace that loves the homogeneity and standardization of thought which makes marketing much easier.
In all fairness though, I would be the first to say that a publisher like Random House seems to put energy, resources and talent behind you, once they are committed. Frankly, they put in more than I really care to deal with sometimes. But when I hear the horror stories of some very good writers working with small publishers and their limited resources, I know I have been fortunate that way. Lucky to have the editor, publicist and agent I have. Most writers would kill for what sort of landed in my lap, given that I was not looking to write a book in the first place. I try not to be an ingrate, but at the same time I am not at all impressed with this stuff. I might have been at your age, but not now. Thankfully, it has come too late. It’s rather like a beautiful woman coming to the bed of an 85-year old man. Delightful to behold, but no distraction from the path that took so long to hew through the jungle of false thinking and ill-focused passions.
I had the good standard middle class New York Jewish editor. She had the job of reconciling my cranky agrarian based redneck leftist thinking with the publishing environment and the marketplace as it is. I am a rather uncontrolled writer given to free association and distracting rants. When it comes to something as long as a book, I absolutely need an editor for guidance. Someone to say, “That sucks. It’s unreadable,” and make suggestions. Without her work, it would not be getting the glowing reviews it is getting so far.
Writer/editor relationships can get very personal as you know, and we had class issues, given was the chasm between our backgrounds. But I must say the editor made every effort to bridge that gap, once she got around to my book, when, at times, I simply refused to. Mostly when drunk and depressed by the glacial process by which books are published. To compound matters, time was running out for me. I was very ill with my lung disease at the time and was diagnosed as having about 18 months to live, which turned out to be somewhat wrong; I’ve got a few more years in me yet. So here I was sneezing blood, working 55 hours a week at a straight gig, and trying to write a book too while my editor had put me on the back burner so she could work on Barack Obama’s book. Needless to say, I was a very miserable camper during much of the process.
At the same time, the entire grisly process brought my editor and I closer together as human beings, and I now consider her among my good friends, even if our backgrounds have forever conditioned us in different directions. I shudder for the fate of her children in this world the same as I do for those of my adopted family in Belize.
As to Belize, I’ve pretty much got my scene together there and consider it my home, though what I will do for money in the long term, I do not know. Presently I am back here to cooperate in the promotion of the book, and will be here a few weeks longer. I’m beginning to understand that I will always be spending significant amounts of time here, if for no other reason than earning money. A lot has happened in the past several months. I began to live on $4000 a year, as I had vowed, which causes stress on my marriage and family life, as you would imagine. And now I have a deep regret for the trees wasted in the publication of my book and hate what my air travel to Belize does to the upper atmosphere, regarding global warming. If I ever do another book, I can try to do it on recycled paper, insist it be done by union printers, and then, as I do now, donate all the royalties except the $4000 to small-scale development projects. But frankly, I don’t have anything to say that is important enough to justify the damage done by publishing it. Nothing that cannot be said on the Internet with far less environmental damage. But who knows? Life has a funny way of making us eat every word.
JOSHUA FRANK: What do the folks of your town, of which you write so frankly, think about the book?
Joe Bageant: Not much so far. The working class people in the book, who never buy or read books at all, seem rather mystified when someone exposes them to parts of it. They relish figuring out who is who and generally agree with its message about class in America. The town’s old families are pissed. Some have called me. One asked why I wrote such “mean things about this town’s leading families.” Leading families! Can you imagine that? Another told me there is “no such thing as class in Winchester. We are all happy and equal.” I just about choked on that one. They tell me the local newspaper is oiling up its guns for an attack. And some upper crust family is bound to try and sue me, I’m sure.
JOSHUA FRANK: So when is this class war you write about going to come to a head, or has it already? I’m talking about blood in the streets and mansions on fire. Will there ever be a true class revolt in the United States, or will any sort of militant dissent be stopped dead in its tracks by the Feds?
Joe Bageant: I don’t think that will ever happen, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep up the fight. I think so-called terrorism and ecocide may tear down the system for us, though. Danger has no favorites. The good old days of “the teeming masses,” that sweat soaked, beer farting mob of working class Americans who didn’t have a pot to piss in, much less a credit card, but instinctively knew fascism when they saw it, are over. Seattle in 1999 may not happen in the states again. We have all become an artificial product of corporately “administrated” modern life.
JOSHUA FRANK is the co-editor of DissidentVoice.org, and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the forthcoming Red State Rebels, to be published by AK Press in March 2008. He can be reached through his website, BrickBurner.org.