A voice for reason

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am

Some say Joe Bageant's meteoric rise in popularity as a commentator on class issues in the United States owes as much to his prescience as to his eloquence.

After all, the politically incorrect 64-year-old author, essayist and blogger who enjoys renown outside the US for his best-selling essay collection Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America's Class War, predicted the advent of both George W. Bush and the mortgage meltdown long before others did.

But Bageant is quick to decry any notion of prescience and credits his vast readership to the fact that 'I'm so damned average, that what I write resonates with people. My fears are the average person's fears. It may be that they're inchoate, undefined, but there's a feeling that something has changed, and it's bad and it's scary and it's big and it's hard to define'.

But he will admit he knows how to move people. 'I'm thinking what a lot of us are thinking, but I say it maybe with a little more humour or soul.' When political newsletter CounterPunch published one of his early essays predicting Bush would win the American presidency, he recalls, 'the needle just went over and laid down'.

Bageant's been bending readership gauges ever since. But it was in 1999 that he turned his back on the corporate media world he had worked in for 30 years and returned to his rural roots in Winchester, Virginia, looking for clues to Bush's ascendancy and America's future, and did not hold back when he found them. 'I just started putting things out there, on the internet, and it kind of went off the charts from the very beginning.'

Now being developed as a television series, Deer Hunting With Jesus went on to bolster an internet readership of millions with its searing insights into a burgeoning white American underclass whose existence no one wants to acknowledge.

Disturbing, provocative, hilarious, angry and heart-achingly sad, it was written as a wake-up call for his fellow progressive liberals 'and everyone else' who discounts 'the great beery, Nascar-loving, church-going gun-owning America that has never set foot in a Starbucks'.

In his new book, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir, Bageant delves even further into the nature and history of this white underclass than he did in Deer Hunting With Jesus, and looks at how it was created in the years after the second world war. A chronicle of his early life, and the southern uplands hog and hominy culture - or redneck culture - it is also an angrier, and profoundly sadder, book in many ways.

It is also deeply poetic as it chronicles America's massive post-war shift away from an agrarian rural consciousness, to an urban, cash-based consciousness. A shift that, he reveals with chilling clarity, was engineered by corporate lobbying and government policy. But like all Bageant's writing, Rainbow Pie is as witty as it is provocative, as biting as it is sad, and utterly riveting.

He opens with an account of his own parents and other members of his extended Scots Irish family to help illustrate the deliberate post-war displacement of 22.2 million rural Americans into the cities where they became the foundation of a permanent white underclass, which now constitutes 60 million people. 'People that are forgotten, they've been left to rot educationally.'

He says a third of all Americans are now functionally illiterate. 'The numbers seem staggering, but they're not. I didn't even have to go to any trouble to find them. It's just that nobody was interested. Urbane people create urbane news, and all the stuff that is between the big cities, the heartland, is pretty much invisible to them.'

It is that lack of interest of Americans in their fellow Americans that cuts Bageant to the core. He rants about the propensity to believe a national healthcare system would employ 'death panels' or their habit of deep-frying everything from cupcakes to pickles, but says 'those people are still my people. They've always been poorly educated and they've always been misused by larger forces. I'm kind of heartbroken at the prospect that it's not going to get any better in my lifetime and maybe never'. He likes to describe Rainbow Pie as sociology and social history masquerading as memoir, because he wants people to know why this white underclass was created, and how it continues to be exploited.

He also wants people to consider what was gained as well as lost in that trade-off from an agrarian economy to a cash-based economy. He wants them to know as he puts it in the book just how 'ten thousand years of agriculture was synthesised into money', and how 'the soil-to-city chain of small farms, villages and towns linked to the great city markets was destroyed'.

He has written often of what he calls the American hologram, 'the media-generated self-referential consumerist hallucination in which most Americans live'.

'I'm using an example with specific geography and specific time and specific people, but I trust discerning readers to extrapolate into it far more. I mean for [the book] to be a launching pad for reflection,' he says.

'Look, the same thing is happening in China, and they're hailing it as an economic miracle. India is an economic miracle. Give me a break. I've seen those people, it's not. The disenfranchised of the earth are becoming even more disenfranchised. In the age of media communications and viral propaganda you can neutralise the poor and the wretched by simply not displaying them. They disappear from public consciousness.'

Bageant's concern extends beyond words. He put most of his six-figure advance for Deer Hunting With Jesus into building homes and establishing children's healthcare programmes in Belize, and now lives for much of the year in a rented home in a village in Mexico, commuting back to the US for his public speaking engagements.

'There's a resilience and a simplicity and a Buddhist mindfulness about the way they do things, and I enjoy living here because I'm looking at something that was once there in my own people.' Besides, he adds: 'I don't want to be an ageing spectacle like you become in America. I don't want to be out running around in shorts trying to play tennis.'

Most of all, it gives him the distance in which to ponder the nature of life in the US, when he is not angry about it, he says. ' I'm sad. If there's one thing everybody has in common, regardless of politics, it is the feeling of loss and shifting anger about it.'

His most recent essays, he explains, express an almost spiritual mindfulness about the disoriented feeling that most Americans feel in the face of 'that sad eco-disaster and an economy that isn't even there', and have evoked even more response than his previous work. 'That's kind of blown me away,' he says. 'I'm really so much like a whole bunch of people that I don't know until they read what I write then write me. But I do know that if I keep honest and true to the path of the thing I do, I will have all of these friends forever.'