By Justin E. H. Smith
Joe Bageant died Saturday. He was my father’s very close friend over the past several years, and was an encouraging presence for me as well. This clip from the 2010 documentary, The Kingdom of Survival, shows him, I think, at his defiant best:
I was first introduced to Joe, through my father’s mediation, right around the time I was giving up on overtly progressive-cause-based writing, and moving into the role of the apolitical curiosus in which I still find myself (and for which I hope to provide an adequate defense soon). I had taken to using the biggest words I could find, and affecting a know-it-all tone on whatever obscure topic captured my interest. But Joe’s straight, lucid language provided for me a counter-model of articulacy: he says what he thinks so clearly in this clip, there can be no doubt as to what he represents and why he feels the need to speak and to write about it.
What he says is also, among other things, an indictment of most of us: the coastal ‘liberals’, the white Americans with social and economic advantages that in turn cause us to believe that to be white is to be privileged by definition, and that to be liberal is to want to help people, but only on the implicit assumption that it is one’s natural place in the order of things to reach downwards in helping others. This does not count for him as ‘brotherhood’.
I don’t know if I ever quite cut it as a coastal liberal, but Joe made me ashamed of having so much as tried.
When I was in Australia in 2009, Joe insisted on putting me in touch with his Melbourne-based editor. It was an awkward conversation. I told him I already have a good career going in academic writing, but I have this whole other side-business in Montaignean essays, Borgesian metafiction, things like that, and I wouldn’t mind cultivating a wider Australian audience. As I recall the editor told me to get back to him when I had some concrete ideas. Joe’s contrarian redneck take on US politics went over well in the international market; what I had to offer seemed a bit harder to package.
But I bring this all up simply because I was touched at the time, and am touched upon recollection, at Joe’s eagerness to help. In spite of our very different forms of expression, and in spite of the apparent us-vs.-them mentality he projects in the documentary, Joe in fact had a very broad sense of who, as he put it on the phone to me, is “on the side of truth and beauty,” and this included a far wider variety of people than the working-class Appalachians for whom he sought to speak, when no one else would.