Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Deer Hunting with Jesus

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War
Joe Bageant (2007, Crown Publishers)

"I would like to take the reader someplace closer to the lives of America's homegrown working folks than our media ever ventures, closer to those whose kids' high school trip is to Iraq, who are two paydays away from homelessness yet in their pride cling to the notion that they are middle-class Americans."
A book about poverty in America is always a matter of double vision: the person who's writing it is almost certainly not, himself, poor. For that matter, if the reader is the sort of person who can, and will, spend twenty-five dollars for a hard-cover book, that fact marks a dividing line of both economics and culture. (When Barbara Ehrenreich made a field trip into just-getting-by America, in Nickel and Dimed [2002], she was frank about the fact that she'd be going back to her regular life afterward.) Joe Bageant has the necessary credentials to cover the class war he wants to show us: Deer Hunting with Jesus is a report from the front lines.
Bageant grew up in Winchester, Virginia, and got out through military service and higher education. He spent thirty years in other parts of the U.S., working in journalism and developing a liberal perspective, but now he is back home in Winchester, because he feels most comfortable among his own people. His people are gun owners, soldiers, evangelical Christians, chicken processors and truck drivers. They leave school after high school, if they make it that far, and they marry young. They drink beer and spout talk-radio opinions, and they vote Republican.
In this book, Bageant is reaching out to his fellow liberals on behalf of his fellow rednecks. He has some sharp words for both groups, and some fair criticisms of their short-sightedness. He's mad at the liberals for their blindness to working-class economic conditions, and their complicity in the systems that maintain those conditions. He's mad at his neighbors for voting against their interests, and for subscribing to religious doctrines that may yet wind up overturning the constitution.
Withal, he is also tender with them for being so dumb. Cigarettes, diet cola, and Little Debbie Snack Cakes are not the ideal diet for people who are destined for hypertension and diabetes, but how are you going to take people's pleasures away? The patriotism that sends the youth of our small towns into uniform is a fine and glorious thing, though they'd be better off if they also knew some history, or had some other ways of seeing the world. And it is not entirely his neighbors' fault when they are suckered into bone-crushing debt while trying to buy a home, considering that their choice is between predatory mortgage brokers and slumlords with equally carnivorous tendencies.
Bageant's a good writer; he serves up his hard facts in a palatable way. He has no easy answers, but he does us a service by putting a human face on the mortgage debt crisis, the world of for-profit nursing homes, and the miserable consequences of education policies that leave many people unable to read or reason. It's a good beginning if we acknowledge the existence of a working class in America, and a better one if we acknowledge that its members are our own kin.

Email, November 2007

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