Always with You

DeerHuntingIf you read only one book this year, let it be this one. I picked up Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus at a used book sale because of the title alone. The blurbs on the back suggested it would be hilarious, and even the subtitle, Dispatches from America’s Class War, didn’t sink in until I began reading. Written during the dark ages of the Bush administration, the contents are a bit dated, yet timeless. Although there’s humor here, I, like Bageant, was born and raised in a working class environment. My father was a house painter (before it became chic) and my stepfather was a blue-collar Joe who did the kinds of jobs nobody else wanted to do. Life was coarse and rough at times, but the people I knew were fiercely patriotic and staunchly Republican. Most adults I knew had never read a book since they’d managed to escape from high school. Deer hunting was nearly as religious as church, and anything you heard in either venue was to be taken absolutely literally. And yet government programs to help them get along were merely shams that politicians knew they couldn’t see.

Like Bageant, I feel at home among the working class. I am one of them. My job may be in Manhattan, but the sensibilities that got me this far are from the backwoods of Pennsylvania. Those who know me outside the office still occasionally call me a redneck. Perhaps it’s an affectation, but it is an affectation born of deep appreciation of the honesty of the worker. They’re no saints, the working class. They will get away with what they can (what bobble-head wagging above a white collar can honestly claim that it doesn’t as well?), they will laugh at the crudest jokes, and they will be mean and turn on each other if provoked. They are, however, good people caught in a system that won’t let them improve. The only possibility is education, the one service governments slash at every opportunity. The system, as Bageant shows, was built just to do that. Like Moses, throughout the book, he calls them “my people.” I know exactly what he means.

When I visit my hometown, it’s like a Bruce Springsteen song. Windows are boarded up and the streets seem even meaner than they were when I was a kid. These are people in ill health with a government that would rather not spend the money on them—we’re used to it, and Uncle Sam knows that—so it assures that the only businesses that thrive are fast food and liquor stores. You can also find a television and rifles, but not much else. The liberals, as Bageant states, don’t know how to relate to the common man. In my own experience, the redneck who earns a doctorate won’t have a chance of getting a job. The university liberals have their own agendas, too busy trying to save the planet to worry about the real people who make their lifestyle possible. I picked up Deer Hunting with Jesus as a joke, but found it the most important book that I’ve read in many years. Please read it and try to understand.

3 responses to “Always with You

  1. I have a different background. But I also was greatly moved by Bageant’s account of the Appalachian white working class.

    It’s quite different than the Midwestern white working class. Here in Iowa, the white working class are Catholics and more politically moderate. There isn’t the same kind of gun culture or gun violence, despite the high rates of gun ownership, and not many would think of themselves as proud rednecks. It’s a quieter way of being white working class. Still, there are commonalities.

    I am familiar with the world Bageant describes. My mother’s working class family comes from Southern Indiana and Kentucky, not that I’ve lived in either place. I did spend many years of my life in South Carolina and North Carolina. I know what a genuine redneck is like. In SC, my best friend in high school was of that variety of working class white. Unlike Iowa, there were gun racks and rebel flags everywhere.

    Even though I liked Bageant’s work, it does bother me that it fits too closely the stereotype many have of the white working class. It’s a different world in the Midwest.

    A family farmer working fertile Iowa farmland, unlike in Appalachia, was prosperous in the past and could afford to send his kids off to college. The Midwest is also highly industrialized. Many working class whites had high paying factory jobs in the past and were highly unionized. The Midwest still has the highest union membership rates in the country and it corresponds directly with rates of Catholicism.

    In a state like Iowa, we tend to vote for Democratic presidents. Iowa and the Upper Midwest have long traditions of radical and progressive politics. There have even been strains of agrarian socialism and communitarianism in this region of farm country. Working class whites here are of Northern European ancestry, not Scots-Irish—a vast cultural difference. Garrison Keillor likes to parody this Midwestern culture.

    The white working class is no more a monolith than are any other broad national demographic. Still, Bageant offers plenty of useful insights. He did help me understand better at least one part of the American population.

    Much of the farm state Midwest might be less extreme in politics and poverty. Still, reactionary politics has taken hold here as well with economic problems worsening for so many. Maybe the old differences of regional culture are becoming less relevant. Even many of the children of poor Appalachians are escaping the rural areas and small towns, heading for the multicultural big cities—just like the younger generations all across the country. Iowa has been hemorrhaging young adults moving elsewhere. The aging population left behind is not feeling hopeful for the future of their communities.

    The divide isn’t just about a combination of race, class, and location. The more important divide that is developing might be generational. What Bageant doesn’t describe is the vast number of Appalachians, mostly younger, who left Appalachia. What has become of them? And how do they differ from the family, friends, and neighbors they left behind?

    Another thing that Bageant doesn’t discuss in as much detail is race. He has mentioned in various places how old forms of racism aren’t as dominant as they once were. He points out that interracial marriages are becoming more common in Appalachia, even among the working poor. It is easy to forget that Appalachia had and still has large black populations. The blacks in Appalachia are on average even more poor than the whites.

    I understand why Bageant didn’t discuss it. He probably grew up around mostly whites. And, after all, he was writing from his own personal experience. But it would have been nice to have heard more of his perspective on the plight of working class blacks in Appalachia and how their lives relate and diverge from that of whites. He had a way of bringing clarity to important issues like this.

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    • Thanks for the observations, Benjamin. I can’t speak for Bageant, obviously, but I did find that much of what he wrote was accurate. It is difficult to be comprehensive about anything, working class folks included! Having lived many years in Wisconsin and married to an Iowan, I understand your point about the Midwest, particularly the upper Midwest. The problems differ, but I can’t help but think there might be some common solutions.

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      • I know Bageant spent many years in Colorado and the West Coast. But I got the sense that he may never have lived in the Midwest, particularly not states like Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Part of the limitations of his personal experience is that he was no longer a poor working class white when he left Appalachia to live in other parts of the country. For example, when he was in Colorado, he lived In Boulder and wasn’t out in the rural boonies. For Bageant, being a working poor white meant being an Appalachian. As a Midwesterner, I found it odd when he’d refer to Appalachia as the Heartland. It just would have been interesting to have heard his opinion on other populations similar to while different from his beloved Appalachians.

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