Saturday, June 13, 2009

Deer Hunting With Jesus

I've read some of Joe Bageant's pieces at The Beast and a few of his blog items, and I like his writing quite a lot -- angrily funny, bitterly acerbic, and usually dead-on in his observations. And I'd been looking forward to checking out his backwoods missive for quite some time. Yet it comes up short in a few respects.

I get where Bageant is coming from, at least, and he's right about his most fundamental insights into the Appalachians' relationship with and outlook on their government and their country. Lower-class working people of every ethnicity have always been and always will be the fodder for the machinations of the people who really run the country, and in a country run by its top 1%, that's substantial leverage. And the mostly Scots-Irish inhabitants of these areas tend to be bound by externally imposed constraints -- poor education and lack of real opportunities being the most prevalent.

These are people who are stuck with the scut work of society, slaving in slaughterhouses and nursing homes, joining the military to get a shot at something better, being burned through like human cord wood at shit jobs in shit towns across the dying inland valleys and plains of this country. To add insult to injury, they have to compete with illegal immigrants for these jobs. Drugs, debt, and desperation all conspire to kill them off, bodies broken and hopelessly in debt, before they're even old enough to collect Social Security, providing an even greater eventual rate of return on the cheap labor they endure throughout their working lives. The housing and health-care markets are rigged against them from the very outset. They are not given much of a chance to escape their conditions, and it's not accidental.

It's where Bageant tries to tie these economic and demographic maladies to other sociocultural phenomena, and thence to political outcomes and desires, that the premise begins to lose some ground. The relative cultural and geographic isolation experienced by these folks transmutes into, to be charitable about it, intensely ugly and blatantly self defeating political choices. So in Bageant's return to his hometown of Winchester, Virginia, he presents family and friends and townsfolk as examples of where and why things went in that direction.

Occasional asides at the smugness of liberals and the fallowness of Democratic politicians share the stage with the cataloging of instances where Republicans catered to some of the more irrational conceits of the area to get votes, and screwed the inhabitants even harder, only to be rewarded by more votes. It goes awry mostly when Bageant frames the issues of religion and guns (which is redundant for this part of the country).

The gun culture of these areas is presented sympathetically, almost reverentially, mostly in the context of the hallowed family hunting trip. And in that light, it's entirely convincing; only the most die-hard gun-control advocate would have any issue with grandfathers, fathers, and sons bagging a couple deer to fill the family freezer for the winter, and doing some genuine bonding in the process.

But to the extent that the gun-control argument is even presented, it is largely decontextualized from more contemporary issues as random mass shooting sprees, politically-driven killings, and organized crime. It's as if evil, ancient, convicted felons weren't taking the guns they're not supposed to have and murdering people at random at the Holocaust Museum, or crazy assholes hadn't used Virginia's wink-and-a-nod gun laws to shoot up college campuses. The idea that Mexican drug cartels use U.S. gun shows to stock up on AR-15s and Tec-9s, to take back across the border and slaughter every cop and journalist in sight, is apparently superseded by Cletus' inviolable right to hoard assault rifles with which presumably to perforate beer cans out in the forest.

Ultimately the argument is presented that it is the responsibility -- and therefore the failure -- of Democratic and/or "liberal" politicians to reach out sufficiently, especially on the issues of guns and religion. But those are the areas in which the people are most intractable. Just as there is not much political headway to be made in easing gun restrictions that even the police can't abide, so too there's no political upside to be had in catering to people who think they are casting demons out of Camaro engine blocks (seriously). It's hard to compose a truly compelling argument as to how or where -- or even why -- ideological opponents should expend valuable political energy trying to counter this perpetually aggrieved, self-destructive intellectual boobism.

There is an effort to be made, and it should revolve strictly around issues of economic justice. This is where the visible policy failures are rendered most manifest. The usual trope is that Democrats have ceded sociocultural issues to Republicans because of some imputed sense of smugness and superiority. But that is not necessarily, empirically true, it's just a comfortable assumption. Republicans have learned to speak the lingo, to make it jibe with the closer issues of local politics, to infuse one with the other, from starting city council meetings with prayers and invocations to local developers working hand-in-hand with churches to make things happen at the local level.

But it's harder to square matters of policy and longer-range strategy to these sorts of weird cultural obsessions and expectations. Only a person not seriously concerned with operational issues, with the actual nuts and bolts of running a serious government, could find the time and energy to spend off in the weeds flirting with this god-bothering nonsense. That's about the only way to put it, because the corollary to that is that a serious, policy-engaged person would and should be uncomfortable with discussing issues that, frankly, should be personal and private in the first place.

We keep hearing that government should be run like a business, but every time it's actually attempted, the same people start crying because there aren't Ten Commandments monuments and fifty-foot crosses at every intersection. This nonsense is to the point that the more people whine about that sort of thing, the more you can reliably assume that they know fuck-all about the Ten Commandments or the Bible.

The challenge in engaging this lame cultural posturing is enhanced by the simple fact that, as we always say, countering irrational arguments with rational ones is a waste of time. People who are that deeply vested in positions that are unencumbered by facts or even coherence are never going to be swayed by the rhetorical opposite. They either hunker down in stubborn sophistry or move the goalposts. This has never not been the case throughout history. People do not suddenly leap from quackery and yahooism into sober empiricism, nor do they typically respond positively to overtures from people they have been conditioned to despise. Reaching out to them on their own terms just means you're a pussy, as far as they're concerned.

The simpler truth is that people do not change their behavior until they understand that the cost of not changing is greater than the cost of changing. Making the effort to get people to understand exactly how that is taking place in their lives is the only way that will happen. And that's a politically impossible thing to do, tell people that their debt peonage and wasteful consumerism and excessive resource dependencies are about to bite them square in the ass, even harder than they've become accustomed to.

Even then, there's the instinctive mistrust of say-everything/do-nothing political operators to overcome, and if the track record so far of Mister Hope 'n' Change is any indication, it's gonna be awhile. Putting the foxes in charge of the economic henhouse is not exactly a great way to build trust among your ideological opponents, and I do think six months (since the election, and hence the initiation of policy direction) is about long enough to get a sense of what's to come.

The honeymoon's over, and if one thing Obama has said is likely to turn out to be the most true and accurate, it's that we have to be the change we want -- in other words, get your shit together and figure out how much you want to engage with the machine, because the machine is sure as hell not going to fine-tune that for you. Or, continue to guzzle gas and shitty beer and nacho cheese and reality teevee and hillbillies driving in circles all day and wonder why your life is so irreversibly fucked. Must be everyone else's fault. It's always someone else's fault.

In the end, it's hard not to come away with the impression that much of this damage is self-imposed and self-inflicted. Yes, it sucks that people drop out of ninth grade and work in a slaughterhouse until their backs give out at forty-five, and wonder why they're dying broke and exhausted at fifty-five. I dunno, maybe if the government mandated free public education through the twelfth grade, maybe that would help?

I don't understand exactly how reaching out across some self-imposed cultural divide is supposed to make kids stay in school, or even stay awake in school. Or, as Frank Zappa put it in the liner notes of Freak Out, over two generations ago, go to the library and educate yourself if you've got any guts. Lashing out at everyone who thinks they're sooooo fuckin' smart hasn't worked too well. Perhaps it's time to try something different.

It's true in every dying shithole town: the smart kids found ways to learn something useful, saw what the town had to offer them for their trouble, and either got with the program or got the hell out. The rest just stayed and took what they could find. How is it everyone else's fault most of them chose to fester and stew in their own juices of self-selecting bitterness and imaginary resentments?

That's really the ironic part, how effectively they've been made to ignore the things they should be resenting, distracted with flag-waving and toys and cheap food and cheaper jingoism, while their pockets are being picked, their lives and opportunities are being carefully circumscribed, and their kids are sent off to die or be maimed in unnecessary wars. As a wise man once said, "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

Still, all these discontents are mitigated by the genuine weight and passion of Bageant's writing, and the fact that, whether one agrees with the entire argument or not, it deserves to be heard and considered. It may be that Bageant himself has too high a personal stake in the outcome to balance the players and arguments sufficiently, and propose realistic, comprehensive solutions. The best place to start would be to hit the reset button on the health-care system and stop letting these bastards run people into bankruptcy and destitution for the simplest of things. Most of the cultural issues would take care of themselves. Sometimes the best way to meet people halfway is to simply quit fucking them over.


OneMadClown said...

We don't tell you this enough Heywood, but you're a bloody brilliant writer, son.

Joe Blow said...

That is some fine piece of discussionary writing...

I think that the whole system is, however, built on screwing the lowest 20% 100% of the time, the middle 60% of the time, and then varying amounts of screwage for the upper 20% depending on luck, stupidity and not being trashed on drugs when your chance comes.

(does not apply to top 2%. they have 0% screwage, but are subject to ODs, car and plane crashes and getting cut out of the will)

interesting info... thanks!

Joe Blow said...

"the middle 60% of the


"the middle 60%, 50% of the time"

Heywood J. said...


As always, I definitely appreciate the kudos, and keep spreading the word. As epic jeremiads go, this one was somehow more draining than most. I must be out of practice.


I'd say your math is is essentially correct, probably even more Paretian than your estimates. And of course the top 1~2% are exempt, since they're doing the screwing.