[ Joe Bageant grew up in poor, conservative Winchester Virginia, which is like tens of thousands of other small towns in America. He is one of the few who escaped and got a college education. So when he retired there in 1999, he knew hundreds of people. Bageant gives readers a visceral, gut-level understanding of what life is like in “red” Republican bible-belt territory. He paints vivid portraits of the locals he knows and cares about, the feudal economics that keep them poor, how Christian fundamentalism is woven into their lives, and why they vote against their own interests. Best of all, the language is brilliant and fun to read.
Bageant believes many of his people are intelligent. But many aren’t — about half of American’s are minimally to functionally illiterate, the majority of them poor or working class. There are 32 million functionally illiterate adults, one in seven, who can’t read, write, and calculate for their own and their community’s development.
Bageant says this illiteracy means that most of the folks in Winchester Virginia don’t know who Tom Delay is and don’t watch the national news unless the U.S. attacks somebody. If they could read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, none of them would see it as anything other than a story about animals. They have no idea what acronyms like IBM, FEMA, or HUD mean and can’t separate industry from government, advertisements and infomercials from the news. They can’t really participate in a free society or make the kinds of choices that preserve and protect one.
I’m convinced from this book that they can’t be convinced to change their minds about Trump, short of North Korea dropping a nuclear bomb on Alabama and other red states. And the survivors might still vote for Trump.
This book explains why that is. Basically, they’re embedded in a spider web of propaganda. The 20% of wealthier Republicans who control the town and who the poorer folks all want to emulate someday mix with the poor in bars, churches, and fraternal clubs. They hammer them with the Republican line. So do the churches. So does Rush Limbaugh and other hate talk radio for their 8 hour shift at Rubbermaid and other deadening jobs. Land of the free my ass! This is some of the most sophisticated brainwashing I’ve ever seen. The fake news and propaganda is not done at re-education or concentration camps, where people would realize what was happening to them.
I felt like I understood more about why people voted for Trump after reading this book than the academic nicey-nice bend-over-backwards to be sensitive “Strangers in their own land” by Arlie Hochschild or “Hillbilly Elegy”. The best book on how these people came to be historically is “White Trash, the 400-year untold history of class in America” that explains how it came to be that poor whites who arrived in America had very little chance of ever owning land or a business after 1700. Another good book about how the politics of resentment came to be what it is today is Nick Reding’s “Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town”.
Below are excerpts of the book, as usual disjointed because of that, but hopefully will give you an idea of his writing and convince you to buy this excellent book.
Joe Bageant. 2008. Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War.
On the morning of November 2, 2004, millions of Democrats arose to a new order. Smoke from neoconservative campfires hung over all points southward and westward. The hairy fundamentalist Christian hordes, the redneck blue-collar legions, and other cultural Visigoths stirred behind distant battlements. In university towns across the country, in San Francisco, Seattle, and Boulder, in that bluest of blue strongholds, New York City, and in every self-contained, oblivious corner of liberal America where a man or woman can buy a copy of The Nation without special-ordering it, Democrats sank into the deepest kind of Prozac-proof depression. What, they wondered, happened out there in the heartland, the iconographic one they’d seen on television and in magazines, the one bright with church spires, grange halls, stock-car races, and community heritage festivals. And why had the working class so plainly voted against their own interests?
One thing the thinking left and urban liberals have not done is tread the soil of the Goth—subject themselves to the unwashed working-class America, to that churchgoing, hunting and fishing, Bud Light–drinking, provincial America. To the people who cannot, and do not care to, locate Iraq or France on a map—assuming they even own an atlas. Few educated liberals will ever find themselves sucking down canned beer at the local dirt track or listening to the preacher explain the infallibility of the Bible on every known topic from biology to the designated-hitter rule or attending awards night at a Christian school or getting drunk to Teddy and the Starlight Ramblers playing C&W at the Eagles Club.
Well, ho ho ho! Welcome to my world! Here in my hometown, Winchester, Virginia, it is impossible to avoid the America that carried George W. Bush to victory in 2004. Winchester is one of those southern places where the question of whether Stonewall Jackson had jock itch at the Battle of Chancellorsville still rages right alongside evolution, gun control, abortion, and whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. is half the driver his daddy was. The area is solidly fundamentalist Christian and neoconservative, steeped in the gloomy ultra-Protestant assumption that man is an evil, worthless thing from birth and goes downhill from there.
You can make lightbulbs at the GE plant, you can make styrene mop buckets at Rubbermaid, or you can “bust cartons,” “stack product,” and cashier at Wal-Mart and Home Depot. But whatever you do, you’re likely to do it as a “team assembler” at a plant or as a cashier standing on a rubber mat with a scanner in your paw. And you’re gonna do it for a working-man’s wage—for about $16,000 a year if you’re a cashier, $26,000 if you’re one of those team assemblers. Yet this place from which and about which I am writing could be any of thousands of communities across the United States. It is an unacknowledged parallel world to that of educated urban liberals—the world that blindsided them in November 2004 and the one they will need to come to understand if they are ever to be politically relevant again.
in 1999, when, after a 30-year absence, I decided to move back to my hometown and saw the creeping (and creepy) way the lives of my working-class family members, my neighborhood, and my community had been devalued and degraded by the forces against which left-leaning people have always railed—the same forces my family and town so solidly backed in the voting booths. My part of Winchester, the North End, contains the most hard-core of the town’s working-class neighborhoods, where you are more likely to find the $20,000-a-year laborer and the $14,000-a-year fast-food worker. I grew up here, my dad worked at a gas station here, and my mom worked at a since demolished textile mill whose rattling looms were the round-the-clock backdrop of our lives. I smoked my first cigarette here and married a poor white girl from down the street. My forebears are buried here, and all my ghosts are here—the ghosts of 250 years of ancestors, the ghosts of old love affairs, and the ghost of my youth. I know everyone’s last name, whose daddy was who, and who boinked whom when we were in high school. So when I moved back after 30 years out West, it was as if my heart was back where it belonged. Which lasted about three months.
It didn’t take too many visits to the old neighborhood tavern or to the shabby church I attended as a child to discover that here in this neighborhood in the richest nation on earth folks are having a hard go of it. And it’s getting harder. Two in five residents of the North End do not have a high school diploma. Here, nearly everyone over 50 has serious health problems, credit ratings rarely top 500, and alcohol, Jesus, and overeating are the three preferred avenues of escape. These days the neighborhood looks as if it was painted by Edward Hopper, then bleakly populated with gangstas, old men with 40-ounce malt liquor bottles, hardworking single moms, and kids on cheap, busted plastic tricycles.
The working class here in what they are now calling the “heartland” (all the stuff between the big cities) exists on a continuum ranging from complete insecurity to the not-quite-complete insecurity of having a decent but endangered job. It is a continuum extending from the apathy of the poorest to the hard-edged anger of those with more to lose.
Being born lower class in working America makes some of us, probably most of us, class conscious for life. Consequently, a good deal of this book is about class in America, especially the class from which I sprang, the bottom third of Americans constituting the unacknowledged working-class poor: conservative, politically misinformed or oblivious, and patriotic to their own detriment.
In the course of that circuitous journey between leaving Winchester, penniless and dumber than tree bark, and returning at age 53, a modestly successful journalist and editor, I am now approximately a member of the middle class and one of the liberals at whom I so often poke fun.
What I see is that my people, the working folks in the old neighborhood—though they own more electronic gadgets and newer cars—are faring worse than when I left in quality of life and basic security. And then there are those who’ve joined the growing permanent underclass in America. You see them everywhere.
For example, I am standing in the checkout line at one of the most low-rent supermarket chain stores, Food Lion, watching the fellow in front of me, Eddie Coynes, receive his change with nicotine-stained fingers and stuff it into the breast pocket of his shirt. His wife is telling the clerk how her church rallied to buy her and Eddie a secondhand truck after theirs was repossessed: “It needs a spare tire, but we can come up with that.” “Praises be to Him!” exclaims the clerk, as if God had come down with a five-piece band and personally delivered that 1990 Toyota himself. Obviously they are all born-again.
I know which ones cannot get full-time hours at the plant, and I know which ones kid has “a dope problem,” and was busted for OxyContin—the poor man’s heroin. The clerk is not doing much better; I’ve seen her make purchases with food stamps as she goes off shift. Every one of them has worked all his or her life and lost ground for the past 25 years by Middle American standards.
When the middle-class citizens of Winchester or of the new suburbs of America—the 20% or so of Americans whose lives most closely resemble media images of the middle class—do cross paths with these struggling workers, they do not often recognize them as struggling. That smiling, wise old fellow in the orange vest in the pipe department at the local Home Depot, the one who knows everything there ever was to know about plumbing, is limping around at age 67 on bad knees and has two bone-grafted disks earned through a life in construction labor. He is working solely to purchase heart medicine and the private insurance he must have if he doesn’t want to lose to hospital bills the rundown bungalow he and his wife bought in 1964.
If you had lived his hard working life and had a philosophy of never wanting any handout from the government, you too would be conservative. You would be cautious and traditional enough to vote for the man who looks strong enough to keep housing values up, to destroy your unseen enemies abroad, and to give God a voice in national affairs. These working people both young and old—mostly whites with only a high school diploma—are nameless (except for the most obviously worst-off, who do have a name: white trash).
The myth of the power of white skin endures, and so does the unspoken belief that if a white person does not succeed, his or her lack of success can be due only to laziness.
Universal access to a decent education, however, would lift the lives of millions over time, especially considering that many of the worst aspects of poverty stem from the intellectual bareness and brutality of the environment.
Never experiencing the life of the mind scars entire families for generations.
It is a class thing. 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. You are going to be pulling down eight bucks an hour at shift work someplace and praying for overtime to pay the heating bill. And you are going to be pitted against your fellow workers and a hundred new immigrants on the other side of town to hang on to that job. And you are going to draw the inescapable conclusions that it’s every man for himself. Solidarity be damned.
If we define “working class” simply as not having a college degree, then fully three-quarters of all Americans are working class. Working class might best be defined like this: You do not have power over your work. You do not control when you work, how much you get paid, how fast you work, or whether you will be cut loose from your job at the first shiver on Wall Street.
A self-employed electrical contractor is not a small business person or an entrepreneur. He is a skilled worker whom construction companies refuse to hire because they do not want to pay Social Security or worker’s comp or health insurance for employees. Instead, they contract with him, and he assumes the costs of those programs, and takes orders from a manager and shuffles through the farce that he is one of America’s ever-growing crop of dynamic, self-employed entrepreneurs. Our self-employed electrical contractor is not about to resist the system. Who is offering to back him up if he resists? Which he has no idea how to go about doing.
In the days before the spine of the labor movement was crushed, back when you could be a gun owner and a liberal without any conflict, members of the political left supported these workers, stood on the lines taking beatings at the plant gates alongside them. Now there is practically no labor movement, and large numbers on the left are comfortably ensconced in the true middle class, which is only about 20 to 30% of Americans. From that vantage point, liberals currently view working whites as angry, warmongering bigots, happy pawns of the American empire—which begs the question of how they came to be that way, if they truly are.
Meanwhile, we have what my people see as the “liberal elite,” the people still living the American Dream in relative economic safety. Yet the liberal elite—and verily they are an elite group—don’t think of themselves as elitists. Overwhelmingly white and college educated, they live among clones of themselves. As far as they know, American life is about money, education, and homeownership.
At the other end of the melanin-and-money meter are blacks. And alongside them are low-earning, uneducated rednecks, bred from generations of low-earning uneducated rednecks, clustered in whole neighborhoods of the same.
The middle class, both liberals and conservatives, are utterly dependent on my people, the great throng of the underpaid, undereducated, and overworked. We are the reason inflation stays low and the private retirement accounts of the middle class have remained stable. Meanwhile, the working class is left entirely dependent on the Social Security program, which eventually will be slashed and privatized by some backdoor method by the ownership class in order to boost (in a wonderfully self-serving loop) the stock market, which serves primarily the upper middle and upper classes.
It is easy for conservatives, who were born into the upper quarter and have never needed entitlement programs, to be against them.
No Democrat or leftie seems to grasp that much of working-class theocrats’ eagerness to join the corporatists at putting the liberal yuppies in their place is revenge based. Working-class people can perceive the upper-middle-class snobbery toward them. But that snobbery emerges only when the rough edges of the two worlds rub against each other. Most of the time the true middle and upper classes are scarcely aware that real working people exist.
My working-class brethren have been downright stupid to be so misled by the likes of Karl Rove, Pat Robertson, and the phony piety of George W. Bush.
The fact is that liberals and working people need each other to survive the growing economic calamity delivered to us by the regime that promised to “run this country like a business”.
In what might be viewed as a series of closely linked essays, we start off with a night at Royal Lunch, one of the local taverns, where you will meet Dottie, Dink, and the other good working folks who populate this book. Then it’s on to meet some local employees of Rubbermaid and take a hard look at the ways globalism plays out for people in this town. In Chapter 3 we buy a mobile home and in the next chapter we visit the heartland gun culture that few gun control advocates ever set foot in. After our get-together with the inhabitants of the gun culture, it becomes apparent why the antigun forces in America can never win. These Americans love their guns for perfectly legitimate, if not always comforting, cultural reasons that go clear back to that battle-hardened swarm of Calvinist Border Scots who came to America, happy enough to kill off “the feathered and painted godless heathen.” Over the past few years we have watched their descendants fighting in Iraq, having their guns and bodies blessed by attending clergy as they go forward to scrub yet another nuisance from the path of democracy and righteousness. To understand why they believe God might want such a thing done, you are invited to read Chapter 5, in which we meet some Christians who want a theocratic state. In Chapter 7 we visit a nearby small town, one of America’s many cheap labor and nursing home gulags that nobody is talking about these days, where local karaoke singer Dottie ends up. This opens a can of worms about how married women who work are cheated out of their Social Security dollars and how fake nonprofit hospitals dominate American health care, failing to help uninsured and low-income sick people while spending billions to put small local hospitals out of business and open multimillion-dollar spas and fitness centers.
And in the last chapter I try to answer this question: How in the hell can it be that one part of a nation knows so little about the lives of the other? What great illusion in the theater of American life holds us so captive that we cannot even see those around us, much less persuade them not to vote against their own best interests?
This book is written from a changing town in Virginia, but this class of mine, these people—the ones who smell like an ashtray in the checkout line, devour a carton of Little Debbies at a sitting, and praise Jesus for a truck with no spare tire—exist in every state in our nation. Maybe the next time we on the left encounter such seemingly self-screwing, stubborn, God-obsessed folks, we can be open to their trials, understand the complexity of their situation, even have enough solidarity to pop for a cheap retread tire out of our own pockets, simply because that would be a kind thing to do and surely would make the ghosts of Joe Hill, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mohandas Gandhi smile.
Faced with working-class life in towns such as Winchester, I see only one solution: beer. So I sit here at Royal Lunch. I call it my “learning through drinking” program. Here are some things I have learned at Royal Lunch: 1. Never shack up with a divorced woman who is two house payments behind and swears you are the best sex she ever had. 2. Never eat cocktail weenies out of the urinal, no matter how big the bet gets.
Dink is 56. His undying claim to fame in this town is not his Waylon imitation, it’s that he beat up the boxing chimpanzee at the carnival in 1963. This is a damned hard thing to do because chimpanzees are several times stronger than humans and capable of enough rage that the pugilistic primate wore a steel muzzle.
To readers who wonder whether people really have names such as Dink and Pootie: Hell, yes! Not only do we have a Dink and a Pootie in Winchester, we also have folks named Gator, Fido, Snooky, and Tumbug—whom we simply call Bug.
By the time my people hit 60, we look like a bunch of hypertensive red-faced toads in a phlegm-coughing contest. Fact is, we are even unhealthier than we look. Doctors tell us that we have blood in our cholesterol, and the cops tell us there is alcohol in that blood. True to our class, Dottie is disabled by heart trouble, diabetes, and several other diseases. Her blood pressure is so high the doctor thought the pressure device was broken. And she is slowly going blind to boot. Trouble is, insurance costs her as much as rent. Her old man makes $8 an hour washing cars at a dealership, and if everything goes just right they have about $55 a week left for groceries, gas, and everything else. But if an extra expense as small as $30 comes in, they compensate by not filling one of Dot’s prescriptions—or two or three of them—in which case she gets sicker and sicker until they can afford the co-pay to refill the prescriptions again. At fifty-nine, these repeated lapses into vessel-popping high blood pressure and diabetic surges pretty much guarantee that she won’t collect Social Security for long after she reaches 63, if she reaches 63.
Dot started working at 13. She has cleaned houses and waited tables and paid into Social Security all her life. But for the past three years Dottie has been unable to work because of her health. Dot’s congestive heart problems are such that she will barely get through two songs tonight. Yet the local Social Security administrators, cold Calvinist hard-asses who treat federal dollars as if they were entirely their own in the name of being responsible with the taxpayers’ money, have said repeatedly that Dot is capable of full-time work.
Although it might seem that my people use the voting booth as an instrument of self-flagellation, the truth is that Dottie would vote for any candidate—black, white, crippled, blind, or crazy—who she thought would actually help her.
Dink and Pootie and Dot are the least likely Americans to ever rise up in revolt. Dissent does not seep deeply enough into America to reach places like Winchester, Virginia. Never has. Yet, unlikely candidates that they are for revolution, they have nonetheless helped fuel a right-wing revolution with their vote.
In the old days class warfare was between the rich and the poor, and that’s the kind of class war I can sink my teeth into. These days it is clearly between the educated and the uneducated, which of course does make it a culture war, if that’s the way you choose to describe it. But the truth is that nobody is going to reach Dink and Dot or anyone else on this side of town with some elitist jabber about culture wars. It is hard enough reaching them with the plain old fact that the Republicans are the party of the dumb and callous rich. As far as they are concerned, dumb people in our social class have been known to become very rich. Take Bobby Fulk, the realtor we all grew up with. He’s dumber than owl shit but now worth several millions. And he still drinks Bud Light and comes into Royal Lunch once in a while. Besides, any one of us here could very well hit the Power-ball lottery and become rich like Bobby Fulk.
We are going to have to explain everything about progressivism to the people at Royal Lunch because their working-poor lives have always been successfully contained in cultural ghettos such as Winchester by a combination of God rhetoric, money, cronyism, and the corporate state. It will take a huge effort, because they understand being approximately poor and definitely uneducated and in many respects accept it as their lot. Right down to being sneered at by the Social Security lady. Malcolm X had it straight when he said the first step in revolution is massive education of the people. Without education nothing can change. What my people really need is for someone to say out loud: “Now lookee here, dammit! We are dumber than a sack of hair and should’a got an education so we would have half a notion of what’s going on in the world.
Americans are supposed to be so disgustingly healthy, educated, rich, and happy. But I have seen half-naked Indians in Latin America eating grubs and scrubbing their codpieces on river rocks who were a whole lot happier, and in some cases more cared for by their governments.
But no one in America is about to say such a thing out loud because it sounds elitist. It sounds un-American and undemocratic. It also might get your nose broken in certain venues. In an ersatz democracy maintaining the popular national fiction that everyone is equal, it is impermissible to say that, although we may all have equal constitutional rights, we are not actually equal.
Why are my people so impervious to information? Despite how it appears, our mamas did not drop us on our heads. The lives and intellectual cultures of these, the hardest-working people, are not just stunted by the smallness of the society into which they were born. They are purposefully held in bondage by a local network of moneyed families, bankers, developers, lawyers, and businesspeople in whose interests it is to have a cheap, unquestioning, and compliant labor force paying high rents and big medical bills. They invest in developing such a labor force by not investing (how’s that for making money out of thin air!) in the education and quality of life for anyone but their own. Places such as Winchester are, as they say, “investment paradise.” That means low taxes, few or no local regulations, no unions, and a chamber of commerce tricked out like a gaggle of hookers, welcoming the new nonunion, air-poisoning factory. Big contractors, realtors, lawyers, everybody gets a slice, except the poorly educated nonunion mooks who will be employed at the local plant at discount rates.
At the same time, and more important, this business cartel controls most elected offices and municipal boards. It also dominates local development and the direction future employment will take. Which makes for some ridiculous civic scenarios: When our town’s educators decided to hold a conference on the future employment needs of our youth, the keynote speaker was the CEO of a local rendering plant, Valley Protein, a vast, stinking facility that cooks down roadkill and renders deep fryer fats into the goop they put in animal feed. He got a standing ovation from the school board and all the Main Street pickle vendors, and not a soul in that Best Western events room thought it was ironic.
Meanwhile, the conservative Republicans ballyhoo “personal responsibility” to working-class employees like the guys and gals here at Royal Lunch. Most working people around here believe in the buzz phrase “personal responsibility.” Their daddies and mamas taught them to accept responsibility for their actions. They assume responsibility for their lives and don’t want a handout from the government. They see accepting public help as a sign of failure and moral weakness. Consequently, they don’t like social spending to give people a lift. But self-reliant as they are, what real chance do they have living on wages that do not allow them to accumulate savings? What chance do they have living from paycheck to paycheck, praying there will be no layoffs at J. C. Penney or Toll Brothers Homes or Home Depot?
According to Republican economic mythology, human beings are economic competitors; the marketplace is the new Olympia where “economic man” cavorts; the almighty market is rational and rewards efficiency, thrift, and hard work; and free competition “rationally” selects the more worthy competitor, and thus the wealthy are deserving of their elite status. According to the conservative canon, if you haven’t succeeded, it can only be because of your inferiority. Nearly everybody at Royal Lunch feels socially inferior. But in any case, they feel they can at least be self-reliant. They can accept personal responsibility.
We first started hearing about the average Joe needing to take complete responsibility for his condition in life, with no help from the government, during the seventies, when Cold War conservatives Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz dubbed themselves “neoconservatives.” In doing so, they gave a name to an ultra-rightist political strain that passionately hated taxes and welfare of any kind, and that favored a national defense strong enough to dominate any part of the world—or the whole world—at any given time. Neoconservatives hated the counterculture and saw it as the beginning of everything that was wrong with America. And they saw plenty of evidence of a shift toward a welfare state, most notably Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which for the first time funded school districts, college loans, Head Start, Medicare, and Medicaid, and cut poverty in half. America was close to being a Communist welfare state, and people had better start taking some personal responsibility, they thundered. We find neoconservatives today all but owning the Republican Party and attempting to axe Social Security and slash unemployment insurance in the name of “personal responsibility.
But what sort of personal responsibility is possible in the neocon environment? A wage earner’s only asset is his willingness to give a day’s work for a day’s pay, the price of which he does not determine. So where does he get the wherewithal to improve his circumstances? He gets that wherewithal from the wages he earns. But in the new neocon environment, that wage does not support savings. It does not support higher education. It only allows the wage earner to survive from paycheck to paycheck, hoping he doesn’t lose his job
Conservative leaders understand quite well that education has a liberalizing effect on a society. Presently they are devising methods to smuggle resources to those American madrassas, the Christian fundamentalist schools, a sure way to make the masses even more stupid if ever there was one.
Until those with power and access decide that it’s beneficial to truly educate people, and make it possible to get an education without going into crushing debt, then the mutt people here in the heartland will keep on electing dangerous dimwits in cowboy boots.
This is a terrible and silent crisis. Working-class passivity, antipathy to intellect, and belligerence toward the outside world start early. They begin at home and continue in grade school.
Working-class people who own homes have no equity left due to refinancing to pay credit card debt or medical bills. And the working poor have even less of a chance. They rent until they die, with no hope of passing along to their children any accumulated wealth in the form of equity in a home.
So over the generations they stay stuck or lose ground. And they stay dumb and drink beer at Royal Lunch and vote Republican because no real liberal voice, the kind that speaks the rock-bottom, undeniable truth, ever enters their lives.
One of the few good things about growing older is that one can remember what appears to have been purposefully erased from the national memory. Fifty years ago, men and women of goodwill agreed that every citizen had the right to health care and to a free and credible education. Manifestation of one’s fullest potential was considered a national goal, even by Republicans.
Nobody kidded themselves that Republicans—the party of business—would look out for the education of the working class, or for the health of working-class children and oldsters, or for anything else other than their own bottom line. That’s what Democrats and liberalism stood for: working people and collective progress. Between 1932 and 1980, Democrats held comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress in all but four years (1947–1949 and 1953–1955). You’d think that sometime during those 48 years the party of Roosevelt would have done the right thing about health care and education for everyone. Especially during the fat nineties. But the stock market was booming, and middle-class professional and semiprofessional liberals had their diplomas in hand and their student loans paid off. They had jobs and those newly established 401(k)s that begged to be fattened, and airfare to France was cheap and…well…you know how it is. I cannot point fingers here. I was certainly among them at the time.
So now I sit at Royal Lunch looking out the window at the people on these old streets who not only fail to get what they rightfully deserve but do not even get what they need. Not sustenance. Not a roof over their heads. Not even a touch of mercy, right here in my own town. In Winchester, as in many historic towns in eastern America, the ancient brick veneer hides much poverty. Three-quarters of the town earns less than three-quarters of the national average, and a large portion lives entirely on Social Security. The town has as high a percentage of slum rentals as any big city. Fifty-six percent of residents rent, paying the highest rents, based on income, of any town in the state. Rental housing codes have never been enforced because big landlords and slumlords have constituted a majority on the city council. Over time they have made the town a slumlord’s heaven. It’s that way not just here but in thousands of small and midsize towns around the nation.
When I came back to Winchester in 2001, things were worse than ever. So in 2004 I began raising hell at city council meetings, pulling stunts like presenting the council, in front of television cameras, with dead rats collected from children’s bedrooms and hypodermic needles picked up from playgrounds. It had no effect whatsoever. So I gave up trying to embarrass these people and spent the next two years organizing the Winchester Tenants’ Board, the state’s first tenant union. We did not dare call it a union because union is a term so despised in this “right to work” state that nobody would have joined, and the word itself would have made us targets for union-hating and right-wing city and state politicos.
Things were rough. Board members were physically threatened by slumlords and their managers. One landlord pushed me down a flight of stairs, then called the police, alleging I had assaulted his seventy-year-old wife.
All the elements of a class war were present—a fact not overlooked by the local neoconservatives and right-wing editorial writers, who accused the organizers of attempting to stir up a class war
Mary Golliday was certainly homeless when I first saw her standing in the winter rain—toothless, wrinkled, addled. The manager of a children’s store on Main Street called me, asking if the Tenants’ Board could do anything for her. In a rare act of enforcement, the city health department had condemned Mary’s apartment for general violations. The landlord responded by throwing her into the street and hauling away everything she owned—mostly thrift-store junk—in a dump truck. The two months’ rent she had somehow managed to pay in advance had vanished. I called the city sheriff, whose job it is to deal with illegal evictions. Under law, only our city sheriff can conduct an eviction. Listening to Mary’s story on the phone, the sheriff replied, “Oh yes, Ms. Golliday. We’ve had trouble with her before.” And that was it.
An illegal eviction in Virginia is a civil matter. She would have to get a lawyer and take the landlord to civil court. This was not very likely to happen, given that she was living on a monthly Social Security check of $500 and change, $400 of which went to rent. Besides that, no lawyer in town would take a tenant case against any landlord. The lawyers drink at the country club with the landlords and make substantial fees in rental real estate transactions.
Mary’s case is by no means unusual, nor is her treatment at the hands of local institutions and agencies, which do almost nothing because they are deliberately underfunded by the city government and are managed by people who understand that their job is to keep costs, and thus services, down. To do something would require raising taxes, and Virginia is a much-ballyhooed low-tax state. The effort within agencies to deny services gets ridiculous at times.
Churches and, more recently, faith-based initiatives are supposed to take care of all that.
Without trying too hard, you can find millions of Mary Gollidays across this country. The only difference is that here in the South when individuals like Mary are down, we stomp them. The operating Christian principle is that one should always kick people when they are down—it gives them incentive to get up. After that, they can try again to dance to the rhythm tapped out by the invisible hand of the free marketplace.
By now we all understand that it was Ronald Reagan’s powerful coalition that first turned Mary and her kind out into the streets
Remember when welfare mothers were robbing us all blind and driving Cadillac’s? Thirty years and a couple of Democratic administrations later, things are only worse. Republicans do not own all the blame. Bill Clinton was more enamored of his own hubris regarding NAFTA and a republic of yuppie mutual-fundsters than of ordinary working Americans, despite the urban folklore surrounding his humble birth in Hope, Arkansas, in 1946.
The misery of folks like Mary Golliday may be a result of national policy, but it is also part of America’s one-sided class war being fought at the local level. The problem is that only one side understands that a class war is going on, the side that gets to do the ass kicking. It’s like being tied up inside a burlap sack trying to guess who is clobbering you with that baseball bat. Certainly no one here at Royal Lunch has ever heard the term class war. And the average construction worker at this tavern certainly does not grasp that the multimillionaire housing developer for whom he gratefully works is one of the people clobbering the burlap sack.
The small cartel of southern families that traditionally have run our little banana republic at the top of the Shenandoah Valley, they continue this proud tradition. Today they are raking it in from super-heated over-development, leaving the taxpayers stuck in traffic jams and holding the bag for all those new schools that come with development.
But the truly dangerous ones are those ankle biters trying to get a bigger piece of the local action. I am talking about the realtors, lawyers, and middlemen willing to cooperate in whatever it takes to destroy land-use and zoning codes, bust unions, and generally keep wages low, rents high, and white trash, liberals, and “Afroids” (as one local old-line realtor calls them) down.
Despite globalism, owners of small and medium-size businesses run much of the heartland. Many of those picturesque towns you whip by on the interstate are small feudal systems ruled by local networks of moneyed families, bankers, developers, lawyers, and merchants. That part of a community’s life you cannot see from the road or from your Marriott hotel room, and it certainly does not appear in tourist brochures. It is in the interest of these well-heeled conservative provincials to maintain a feudal state with low taxes, few or no local regulations, no unions, a cheap school system, and a chamber of commerce with the state senate on its speed dial. At the same time they dominate most elected offices and municipal boards.
Members of the business class, that legion of little Rotary Club spark plugs, are vital to the American corporate and political machine. They are where the institutionalized rip-off of working-class people by the rich corporations finds its footing at the grassroots level, where they can stymie any increase in the minimum wage or snuff out anything remotely resembling a fair tax structure. Serving on every local governmental body, this mob of Kiwanis and Rotarians has connections. It can get that hundred acres rezoned for Wal-Mart or a sewer line to that two-thousand-unit housing development at taxpayer expense. When it comes to getting things done locally for big business, these folks, with the help of their lawyers, can raise the dead and give eyesight to the blind. They are God’s gift to the big nonunion companies and the chip plants looking for a fresh river to piss cadmium into—the right wing’s can-do boys. They are so far right they will not even eat the left wing of a chicken.
In any other era, Buck might have won the game. But not this time. These days the geet is siphoned off long before he sees it, sucked up by the rich sons of Bush oil men and the rest of the new class of financial kingpins. So, unlike our mutual friend developer Mifflin Cooper, who was born with a silver spoon in every orifice, Buck finds that there’s no room for him at the trough. He is not part of the old-money Byrd family, which owns our local and regional newspapers, or the Lewis family, which owns our conservative talk radio station. And when, after kissing these people’s asses all his life, Buck allows himself to realize that it’s never going to happen, he turns nasty, breaks bad on the world. He had the right stuff and deserved to be wealthy, so somebody else must be to blame. It must be the welfare bums. It must be all of those taxes for “social programs for minorities’,” code for “throwing money at blacks and Mexicans.” Or tax-and-spend liberals. Or “big government.” It can’t possibly be because of the rich elites, because, dammit son, rich is what Buck is trying to be!
I doubt Buck has ever looked at the federal budget to see how much of his taxes, maybe 4% at best, goes for what he calls “socialist programs.” And he sure as hell never questions the 25 cents of every income tax dollar that goes for interest payments to super-rich bondholders, or the cost of nuclear carriers, stealthy bombers, and the far-flung legions it takes to maintain the American empire. In fact, he’s proud of the empire.
To make sure the little guy never becomes a real threat, the current administration again cut funds to the Small Business Administration. Why? Because the real players calling themselves small businesses are not so small at all but are local and regional cartels. They are taken care of. They are big campaign contributors. No need to waste a money on a loan to Raynetta Jackson, who successfully raised six kids of her own and is trying to start a day care center, or on Bobby Jenkins, who believes he could operate a pretty good body shop if he only had some startup cash.
Here are some of examples of why it is hard to change their beliefs:
When Bageant asks his anti-union son Tom, who works at the Rubbermaid factory, to give him one example of a union demanding a 20% pay increase for zero productivity growth, it doesn’t work. People don’t cite real facts. They recite what they’ve absorbed from the atmosphere, a combination of things that sound right, a blend of modern folk wisdom, cliché, talk radio, and Christian radio babble. There’s no point in me telling my son that corporations do everything they can to increase productivity except increasing wages and benefits, or that they’re beholden to Wall Street, not the workers, and prefer Asian sweatshops.
In the heartland, no one talks about universal health care or education, paid parental leave, affordable housing, unemployment compensation, food stamps, or Head Start. These are shameful “entitlements, damned government giveaways”. If people really want more, they’ll get up off their lazy asses and work for it.
One of the slickest things the Republicans ever did was label necessary social costs as “entitlements.” After 30 years of repetition, the working class associates the term with laziness, something for nothing. This propaganda is made easy because who has the time to deal with anything other than their jobs. The Tom DeLay and Abramoff scandals, Republican cronyism, payoffs, and so on doesn’t register. The main thing is that the narrative is simple and makes clear who to love and who to hate. Ever since Reagan, Republicans have been good at coming up with such stories. Anyone who could sell people on the “trickle down” theory that working people’s best interests are to give as much money as possible to the already-rich for instance. The working class simply doesn’t have enough awareness of the world to debunk the Kerry Swift-boat story, partly driven by class resentment of rich Yalies, whereas George Bush cuts brush on his ranch while Kerry is windsurfing at Martha’s Vineyard. Many people in the hinterland don’t know a single registered Democrat, making them even less likely to hear another point of view.
The working class has no time to listen to anything but Rush Limbaugh, Gordon Liddy, Michael Reagan and other right-wing talk jocks at work. This is their main source of knowledge about anything political. Most don’t subscribe to a newspaper, and if they do find time to watch TV news, listen to Fox.
In Winchester and other towns, the Republican’s everyday lives are woven into the fabric of the community in a way that the everyday lives of the left have not been since the Great Depression and social justice movements of the 60s. Despite the class system, many rich Republicans still meet the small business and working class on their own turf, and working-class people encounter then at churches, fund-raisers, local small businesses, fraternal organizations like the Elks Club, and at the local bar where they hang out.
They often know these wealthy republicans from childhood, and greatly admire them, and hope to become wealthy like them some day, so they hang on their every word in case they say something useful. One of their wealthier friends who shows up at the bar is a landlord who spends a lot of her time at city hall fighting tenant’s rights and proper taxes. At the bar she badmouths progressive politics and anything related to the Democratic Party. No one questions her veracity – being wealthy is proof of God’s love. The Democrats in Winchester simply don’t interact at the grassroots level to spread another perspective on the world, nor do they have radio shows to counter the hate-talk right wing radio stations people listen to at work all day.
Republicans also attend city council meetings, write letters to the local papers, and consequently have a unified response to any liberal message.
At the small town level, local candidates are raised and groomed for state and national office. From these local grassroots GOP business-based cartels a vast army of campaign volunteers, political activists, and spokesmen spring. This is why the rightists succeed at forcing their vision of America – they’re committed to organization and communication.
Liberals chatter among themselves online or at social gathers and make little attempt to engage, much less convert, the heathen tribes.
Of course all the Republican shit stirring the world would be useless if there were no working-class anger or anxiety to be tapped. They may not spend much time mouthing off about politics, but many sure as hell fester inside about their lives and livelihoods. This deep anger has little to do with gays or the sacrifice of unborn children, it’s born out of the daily insults they suffer from their employers, the government, and educated fellow Americans such as doctors, lawyers, journalists, academics and so on.
The brutal way in which America’s hardest-working folks have been forced to internalize the values of a gangster capitalist class continues to elude the left, which doesn’t understand how the political and economic system has hammered the humanity of ordinary working people. These people, who do our hardest work and fight our wars are not altruistic and probably never were. They don’t give a rat’s bunghole about the world’s poor or the planet or animals or anything else. Not rally. They like cheap gas, chasing sales, and if fascism comes, they will like that too if the cost of gas isn’t too high and Comcast comes through with a 24-hour NFL channel.
Genuine moral values have jack to do with politics. But in an obsessively religious nation, values remain the most effective smoke screen for larceny by the rich. What Christians and others who voted Republican in 2000 and 2004 were voting on was fear of human beings unlike themselves, especially gays, lesbians, Muslims, and non-Christians.
I have seen hate in others and I’m seeing more of it now than ever before in my lifetime, which is saying a lot since I grew up in the Jim Crow area. Fanned and nurtured by neoconservative elements, the hate is every bit equal to the kind I saw in my people during those violent years. Irrational. Deeply rooted. Based on inchoate fears.
They’re too busy to read and learn, many work second jobs after work, or fix their homes and cars. When they have any spare time, they watch televised sports, drink lots of beer, and remain stupid and blind to the world. Working folks seldom talk politics or current events except during the final weeks before an election or when lefty agitators like me or local Republican operatives from the middle class approach them in the bar with a deep understanding that their psyche is one of emotion substituted for thought, fear, ignorance, and propaganda. The intellectual lives of most working-class Americans consist of things that sound as if they might be true, which is why millions are spent on sound bites and sloganeering.
But the main reason Republicans dominate is that rightists tapped into their dissatisfaction by attributing loss of community and values to the cultural left’s feminism, anti-racism, gays and so on. The Republican message, baloney though it was, is all that reached them. The Democrats didn’t have any message at all. Only the right-wing politicians paid any attention to them.
Getting a lousy education, then spending a lifetime pitted against your fellow workers in the gladiatorial theater of the free market economy does not make for optimism or open-mindedness, both hallmarks of liberalism. It makes for a kind of bleak coarseness and inner degradation that allows working people to accept the American empire’s war without a blink. They believe violence can solve foreign political problems.
For many of them, bombing anyone anywhere helps purge some unarticulated inner-rage—rage that the easy truisms that once seemed to lend nobility to the dullest of lives are no longer believable, such as that Americans are brave and true and exceptional and looked up to by the rest of the entire world. His son Toms blames this on “weirdo university professors, union racketeers, and the rich California ACLU types who never worked for a living. It all started to go to hell during the 60s”.
The forebears of today’s rednecks were people for whom not working meant their families would starve. Literally. So the work ethic is burned into their genetic code. I’m 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,” generally followed by “Hell, I don’t want to either, but I have to.” By the same logic, educated liberals who have time to read, who in fact read so much that they join book clubs, are suspect.
Our culture is based on two things: television and petroleum. Whether you are Pootie or the president, your world depends on an unbroken supply of both. So it is small wonder that we all watch a televised global war for oil as brain-wave entertainment. As a consequence, we receive the conditioning required to sustain our acceptance of the state brutality occurring at the edges of the empire in the quest for oil.
We live in an age of corporate dominion just as we once lived in an age of domination by royal families, kings, and warlords.
Okay, end of the excerpts, time to order the book so you can also find out about:
- What it’s like to work at the Rubbermaid factory and meeting the people who work there
- Real estate and debt before the 2008 crash, which Bageant and so many others, can see coming.
- The gun culture and why it’s not nearly as bad as liberals fear, and a sure-fire way to keep them Republican. But Bageant shudders to think about what will happen one day if things spiral out of control. What happens when this country finally hits peak oil demand and the electrical grid starts browning down and even little things become desperately difficult or unaffordable? What happens if the wrong kind of president declares the wrong kind of national emergency? What will be the reaction of millions of gun owners?
- Fundamentalist churches their belief in the End Times (the Rapture), how they influence politics. Evangelicals would scrap the Constitution and institute Biblical Law, the rules of the Old testament, and they take the long view toward the establishment of a theocratic state.
- How deeply entrenched this culture is, going back to the Calvinistic beliefs of Scots-Irish from the old country who came here.
- What the poor experience in the American health system. One of his friends told him “Honest to damned, I think these [incompetent] doctors are here to take out the old and crippled people in this country. Kill ‘em off in out-of-the-way plces were the public can’t see. They treat all of us like they expect us to die and like they expect to make money on us right up to the last minute”.