Americans like to think they live in a society unstratified by class, a society of equal opportunity, where the American dream survives. Joe Bageant, a journalist turned cultural critic, challenged these myths with inimitable intensity, compassion, and wit.
Along the way, he reminded us of the links between the nation’s white working class and rural America. Bageant died earlier this year at the age of 64.
I first heard the name Joe Bageant in, of all places, Waarnambool, Australia. It was November, 2010, and I was there to give a lecture at the Rural and Regional Law and Justice Conference. After my talk, “Toward a Critical Legal Ruralism,” an Australian law professor approached me and recommended the book Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant. I promptly purchased it. Who could resist such a provocative title?
I found that what the academic literature teaches about class wars, Bageant expressed in sharper, colloquial terms. For example, the scholarly literature tells us that progressive elites look down on the white working class and fail to see their struggles, including the struggle within the white working class by which the “settled,” disciplined working class differentiate themselves from the “hard living.”
Bageant—consistent with his rural roots—expressed this distinction between the settled and the hard living as that between rednecks and white trash, explaining:
Life is about work for the American redneck. … [T]he work ethic is burned into their genetic code. (Incidentally, I am not talking about white trash here. I am talking about rednecks, the difference being that rednecks work themselves to death and will never accept a handout. White trash folks do not have the same hang-up). In the redneck mind, lazy is the worst thing a person can be—worse than dumb, drunk or mean, worse than being a liar and a jailbird or crazy. The absolute worst thing that a redneck can say about anyone is: “He doesn’t want to work.”
Similarly evincing his awareness of the sometimes-subtle social hierarchies we create, Bageant wrote, “human nature being what it is, we are all kicking someone else’s dog around.” It’s not a far cry from Pierre Bourdieu, “[s]ocial identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest, which represents the greatest threat.” Bageant wrote with such intensity, his observations so spot on, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. I did both.
While I have seen little media attention to Bageant’s work in the U.S. and rarely encounter anyone familiar with it, I am convinced Bageant had one very high-powered reader. I saw in Deer Hunting with Jesus a remarkable similarity between its explanation of white working class politics and President Obama’s efffort to explain his way out of “Bittergate.”
Recall that “Bittergate” was the name given to Obama’s “biggest unforced error” of the 2008 campaign, his comment that small-town voters are naturally “bitter” because of economic decline, which the Clinton and Bush administrations failed to stem, leaving those voters to “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Obama later explained:
[T]hese voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition…
I mean, part of what I was trying to say … was, ‘You guys need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong.’ … Because, in fact, if you’ve grown up and your dad went out and took you hunting, and that is part of your self-identity and provides you a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in your economic life, then that’s going to be pretty important, and rightfully so. And if you’re watching your community lose population and collapse but your church is still strong and the life of the community is centered around that, well then, you know, we’d better be paying attention to that…
To act like hunting, like somebody who wants firearms just doesn’t get it—that kind of condescension has to be purged from our vocabulary.
Obama’s words—though delivered in his low-emotion, highbrow fashion—summed up Bageant’s core points about sources of identity for the white working class and why change comes so hard for them. I could only conclude that Obama or a staffer had read Deer Hunting with Jesus, which was published a year before Bittergate.
But my response to Bageant’s work was not only that of an objective academic. Like Bageant, I am a class migrant (or maybe Bageant would call us class paratroopers), one who grew up working class but whose access to education landed me in the professional/managerial class. Those to whom Bageant repeatedly refers as “my people”—that is, his people—are my people, too. Bageant wrote both of my lives—just as he wrote both of his—the working class from whence we came and the liberal elite among whom we now hang, albeit a bit on the fringe.
Much of the content of Bageant’s book is similar to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, but with a critical difference—sensitivity and compassion on Bageant’s part. Bageant did not ridicule or, when he did, he did so as a loving big brother, coaxing his people to recognize their foibles. Consistent with the principle, “I can criticize my mother, but you can’t,” Bageant’s descriptions of the white working class were far more palatable than Frank’s derision of them.
Bageant unflinchingly revealed the American dream for what it has become—a sham, an ideal now accessible to relatively few: “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.”
Indeed, one of Bageant’s most powerful insights regards the “intellectual bareness and brutality” associated with the working class and poverty. In his plea for universal access to a decent education, he keenly observes that “[n]ever experiencing the life of the mind scars entire families for generations.” He was correct that what holds back the working class is a powerful combination of the material and the cultural, including bias against them. “[J]ust like black and Latino ghetto dwellers,” Bageant wrote, “poor and laboring whites live within a dead-end social construction that all but guarantees failure.” At no time in recent history is that more true, surely, than this age of declining mobility.
Re-reading Deer Hunting with Jesus in January, wanting to be sure I had not missed a single nugget, I was moved all over again. I wanted to contact Bageant, to be one more reader to say, “I understand. I get it. They’re my people, too.” But his website announced he had been diagnosed with cancer and would be out of communication. A few months later, Bageant died.
This summer, I read Bageant’s second book, his memoir Rainbow Pie. Rainbow Pie is an amalgam of personal reminiscences and Bageant’s biting social commentary. He introduces us to his entire extended family and draws on anecdotes of their lives by way of opining (as in Deer Hunting) why the white working class tend to do what they do, believe what they believe — why working class folks tend to distrust the better educated; why rural folks tend to distrust urbanites.
Rainbow Pie explains the link between rural and urban in relation to these enigmatic white workers. The key reason is rural-to-urban migration that took so many rural whites to cities in the post-WWII years. Deer Hunting conveyed a sense that Bageant was writing about rural people, even though most of the book was focused on Winchester, Virginia, which is part of a metropolitan region. Like Bageant’s parents, many working class rural folks moved to places like Winchester for economic reasons — because the limited economies in their rural home counties could not support them.
Yet, like migrants everywhere, old habits, customs and beliefs have died hard. These rural-to-urban transplants, Bageant suggests, remain culturally rural—which partly explains their outlooks and their politics. It also explains why “rural,” “small town” and “working class white” so often get collapsed in the national consciousness and in political rhetoric.
Some liberal elite colleagues will shudder that I have written a tribute to Joe Bageant. They will shudder because he was a good ol‘ boy, because he was brash and uncouth, because he was not a scholar. But they will also shudder for the very reasons Bageant was compelled to speak: we don’t want to acknowledge the harsh, tragic reality of the working class because their existence shames us as a nation.
Better, progressive elites seem to think, to avert our gaze from this gauche embarrassment, to let them bear the blame for their circumstances. As I look at the cover of Rainbow Pie, featuring a Dorothea Lange photo of a poor white family, I wonder when Americans became so disdainful and resentful of our poor, when our compassion for them evaporated.
Joe Bageant courageously spoke many truths, but too few people in power have heard him.
Lisa Pruitt is a professor of law at University of California, Davis, and runs the Legal Ruralism Blog.