Joe Bageant’s Option for Hillbillies

By Michael Loughnane
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia 

“Poet”, “prophet”, “hillbilly revolutionary”, “progressive redneck with a conscience” — these are some of the descriptive terms that have been conferred on Joe Bageant who died on March 26. Steve Austin of the Australian Broadcasting Company called him “The Woody Guthrie of the typewriter” for he championed the cause of the “redneck”, a social group he saw as being one of the most marginalized and disenfranchised in America.

Joe was a man of wisdom, intelligence and penetrating insight, but what made him really special was his warm, wry — sometimes acerbic — sense of humor and his direct no-frills honesty. He was also, in my view, a kind of a genuine working class liberation theologian — at least he would have been had he believed in God!

Today, liberation theology appears dead (it is certainly in cold storage), and while there are strong voices advocating on behalf of the poor and disempowered, there is little conversation about the transformation of unjust social and economic structures and virtually no conversation at all about class. Bageant bypassed our denial mechanism and laid bare the despair, the sense of indignant outrage, the oppression of 60 million white Americans whose spirit has been burned dry “like raisins in the sun” by American corporate power.

Bageant was very proud to be one of his people, and spoke and thought in the vernacular of the “redneck”. Witness this opening statement in a recent interview:

“I don’t like middle class people very much. They tend to be smug and they tend to look down on my people …”

A nice opening gambit to capture the hearts of his cultured, liberal, middle class audience! He was a mischievous “stirrer”; he liked to feed and subvert the stereotypes, preconceptions and misconceptions of his readers and listeners.

Bageant saw class as being the basis of all politics — which is, in his view, the primary reason we don’t wish to talk about it. The silencing of such conversation is an essential strategy of the few who benefit from the present structures — the one percent of the population that owns 45 percent of America’s wealth.

With one well-formed sentence he could burst the illusory bubble of America as the land of opportunity: “If yer mamma was a waitress and yer pappa worked in the mill, if there ain’t a book in the house, well, you’re not goin’ to be in the White House kid …” — a bull’s eye summary of innumerable sociological tomes.

Bageant believed that the American psyche is now programmed to a setting that is antithetical to the very idea of equality and the common good. It has become a “corpocracy” where corporations, not the government, run the country. The hyper-individualism that flows from the profit-at-all costs mindset comes at the cost of the social fabric of the nation.

He reserved his most caustic scorn for the American media and their abject failure to inform the populace. Instead of informed analysis they stage “fake media revolutions” and turn all of American life into “cheap propagandistic theatre”; it is a nation “immersed in spectacle”– two headed babies, Martians in Las Vegas, Obama practicing Voodoo in the White House. The people are permanently “distracted from distraction by distraction” (T.S. Eliot).

The irony is that (as a consequence of the drip-feed of propaganda), the poor rednecks are the most likely to support the very policies that will impoverish them even more. How could they be aware they are being tricked if they are deprived of the very capacities that would empower them to perceive the trickery? Their only option is to “house” the mindset of the elites (Paulo Freire).

Though he rejected organized religion, Bageant’s world view was deeply humane and entirely consistent with Catholic social teaching. He loved to repeat the phrase “I am my brother’s keeper”:

“treat the people with humanity, for God’s sake, they get up in the morning and they bleed with the rest of us. Try to look on them with a little bit of compassion instead of building a damn wall around them. … Are you your brother’s keeper? Then see to it that they get a damn education. … The worst prison is ignorance, and you let them rot … you didn’t reach out. … You are perfectly happy to let ‘em be dumb. …”. (From the documentary video The Kingdom of Survival.)

Bageant reminds all “us Christian folk” that religion is not primarily about what we believe but about how we behave.

Bageant brought us beyond the caricature and stereotype and took us right into the mind of the fundamentalist redneck and in so doing invited us to understand the historical, social and psychological reasons why they see the world as they do. The recent film Winter’s Bone powerfully supports Bageant’s claims for the resilience, integrity, loyalty and self-sacrifice of this white underclass, despite the humiliation of poverty wages, inadequate healthcare and poor education.

I’m not sure if there anyone out there who can quite fill Joe Bageant’s shoes. There are some excellent journalists and scholars writing about the American underclass (such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Jonathan Kozol, Noam Chomsky, Henry Giroux and bell hooks). But none has the charisma, charm, laser light wit and poetic turn of phrase that Joe Bageant possessed.

He will be missed by large numbers of people around the world. But we still have his books. Books with those marvelous tongue-in-cheek titles that were typical of the person that he was: Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War and Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir

May Joe Bageant, literary high priest of rednecks and hillbillies everywhere, rest in peace.

Michael Loughnane is Director of Religious Education at Guilford Young College in Hobart, Tasmania and holds a Ph.D. in Practical Theology from the Melbourne College of Divinity.

This article first appeared in Eureka Street, a publication of Jesuit Communications Australia.

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