A Book A Week: Deer Hunting With Jesus

A few days working my way through Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War by Joe Bageant, has taught me an important lesson: I have it easy. And so do you.

You think you have it bad? You don’t. You have a job you hate, kids, a mortgage, stress, crazed neighbors, days when you want to strangle whomever is next to you for no better reason than they pissed you off. We all have those. You haven’t made the big time by any means, but trust me, if you’re here, reading this, you’re in good shape.

To understand the meaning of the term “utterly screwed”, you need to spend a few hours in Winchester, Virgina with Joe Bageant, an old school socialist gonzo reporter who spent the last decades of his life thoroughly denouncing the  “American hologram” that life here had morphed into. It was a big deal to him: he used the phrase 24 times in this book alone.

Bageant wrote an online column (www.joebageant.com) that made him a cult hero among gonzo-journalism junkies and folks whose politics veered to the left. He gave interviews on Air America (remember that?) and commented on America’s long history of religious fundamentalism. He was in his editor’s words, a “undeniable product of the Internet.” Not inasmuch as he grew up using it so much as it gave him a huge audience for his work after a meaningless but relatively prosperous (he had health insurance through his job) career in newspaper reporting.

Joe Bageant’s subject matter has been the working-class multitudes of the south and west, the folks that I by a nature of my birth, education, and history have only come into contact rarely and tangentially. It’s best to let him describe these folks in his own words:

The one thing the thinking left and urban liberals have not done is tread the soil of the Goth–subject themselves to the unwashed working-class America, to that churchgoing, hunting and fishing, Bud Light-drinking, provincial America. To the people who cannot, and do not care to, locate Iraq or France on a map–assuming they even own an atlas. Few educated liberals 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 or attending awards night at a Christian school or getting drunk to Teddy and the Starlight Ramblers playing C&W at the Eagles Club.

Welcome to Joe’s world. It’s ugly, and it’s beautiful, and it’s creepy, and desperate, and full of hope, faith, tragedy, anger (a lot of anger), and guns, and alcohol, and religion, and pride, and honesty, and an unshakable belief in the American Dream. It’s full of back-breaking labor in dead-end factory jobs–when there are the jobs to be had, of course, which is not that often. It’s populated by people named Pooter, and Dottie, and Buck who understand every little thing that you and I do and expect from life but count themselves lucky if they can stay two payments behind on a double wide on a quarter acre lot in rural Virginia.

It’s a world where gun culture really is a culture: a way of feeding one’s family through hunting, involving family heirlooms lovingly cared for and handed down, father to son, in an unbroken chain that can go back a century or more. It’s a culture that is intensely spiritual and more fully engaged with the environment than some activist groups can imagine.

It’s a world that involves a level of class warfare that begins at the grassroots level and never really graduates into the capitalism we rich kids learned about in Eco 101. Local business owners call the shots because they are the big shots of their localities. They are (among other things) the landlords and slumlords who advise City Hall and influence the building codes , and they like things just fine. According to Bageant it’s more feudal than corporate, but no one down there has ever used the term class war, nor does it occur to them to do so.

The quote about “urban liberals” above might strike a few people who have spent their lives devoting time to worthy liberal causes as just another redneck slur. It’s not. One thing that Bageant–a long time old school socialist–laments is the way that modern liberalism has lost touch with the working class. To him, the working class  is not just a voting block to be wooed every two or four years. The working class is not made of nice people who visit coffee houses and head to open-mike poetry readings in the West Village because the New York Times told them to. The working class is a huge group of men and women who do things with their hands: electricians, plumbers, construction workers, bricklayers, masons, guys who climb telephone poles and women who work on assembly lines. They get the job done for damned little money and no job security, which, considering that they keep the country running, is shameful. And they only way that the progressive left will ever get their attention much less their loyalty is to go down there, spend time with them, and show them what progressive politics offers. These folks don’t have much presence on Facebook.

I could go on, but it’d be like the proverbial blind men examining an incredibly abused and worn down elephant. Just buy the book.

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