Class war and the 'American redneck\'

June 14, 2008

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War

By Joe Bageant

Scribe, 2007

$32.95 (pb)

A memorable scene from Mike Moore's classic anti-war film Fahrenheit 9/11 shows US President George Bush addressing an exclusive dinner attended by the some of the wealthiest businesspeople in the United States.

"You're my base", Bush tells his masters. The assorted millionaires and billionaires applaud in appreciation. They had bought themselves a president who would really look after their interests.

But there is another "base" that the Republican Party machine and the conservative establishment have sought to cultivate over the past decades. George Bush would never have been elected US president without the support of millions of poor working-class whites living in the US South.

Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus helps to explain a lot about contemporary US politics.

The entrenched racism and fundamentalist Christian ethos that dominates the outlook of the white working class in the south of the US is not exactly new. But it serves a very useful purpose for the ruling elites who can manipulate a population too overworked, subjugated and fearful to realise they are being taken advantage of by the very people they trust the most.

Bageant is well qualified to write a book that investigates why some of most downtrodden people in the US also number among the staunchest supporters of the political parties of the corporate rich. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian "redneck" family himself.

He returned to his hometown of Winchester, Virginia after a 30-year absence to find that the people he spent his childhood with were now part of a permanent white underclass. He catches up with relatives and old friends victimised by countless dodgy mortgage and credit card rackets, or labouring in dead-end jobs where they are overworked and underpaid.

Two out of five people in small-town USA have never completed high school. Adult functional illiteracy is widespread. Wages in the South are the lowest in the country but "union" is considered the dirtiest of words. A full time factory worker takes home just US$26,000 a year. Adult wages for a cashier at Wal Mart amount to only $16,000 a year (at a paltry $6 an hour).

Health statistics among Bageant's people are appalling. The privatised health care system means that medical bills are by far the biggest single reason why working class people file for bankruptcy.

This kind of financial and social insecurity leads most poor whites to search for an escape, however temporary. Alcohol, Jesus and overeating are the most popular methods.

On top of this, the average working-class person will spend one third of their waking lives sitting on the couch watching television in lieu of something better to do.

Given their poor education and the desperate belief that they are still middle class, many poor whites fall victim to what Bageant calls "the biggest organised racket in the United States [which] rests upon the dream of owing your own home".

He describes a typical case where a relative of his "got the loan for his $79,000 trailer, which somehow added up to $130,000 in total. His $130,000 investment will be worth a little more than half of what he paid for it the day after he signs the contract, and it will cost him $260,000 before it is paid off."

Bageant insists that the rise of white ghettos across the US in towns like Winchester has everything to do with class. But "the problem is that only one side understands that a class war is going on, the side that gets to do the asskicking".

But in the absence of a viable political alternative to the left the unarticulated class anger, anxiety and insecurity of the US redneck manifests itself in an aggressive patriotism and unquestioning support for US wars.

"Any day of the week I can easily show you a hundred people who believe we should bomb France",says Bageant. Many of his friends are willing for the US to nuke Tehran or Caracas (even though he admits that most of them would be unable to point to these cities on a map).

The US redneck is poorly equipped to distinguish between genuine information and blatant propaganda. The media, the big corporations and the capitalist politicians are interested above all in keeping things that way. Thus "the intellectual lives of most working class Americans consist of things that sound as if they might be true, and that is why millions are spent on sound bites and sloganeering".

Along with a belligerent national pride in all things "American", it is religious fundamentalism that has the biggest impact on the political and social character of Bush's heartland. According to Bageant the persistence of fundamentalist Christianity is one result of the region's poverty and social dislocation. "You don't need a degree in sociology to see that the most obvious class indicator in America is religious belief and that religious zeal is concentrated in lower class and working class whites."

Most of Bageant's friends are "born again" — some several times over. Slick mega-churches have become more like big budget rock concerts than places of meditative worship. The devout around Winchester can join groups that go Dancing with Jesus, Deer Hunting with Jesus or even NASCAR Racing with Jesus.

Bageant's own brother is a pastor at a local fundamentalist church. He explains to Bageant the numerous times he has seen demons prowling around Winchester and claims to have performed exorcisms at least half-a-dozen times.

Millions of fundamentalists display a similar "magical thinking about the Bible [which] resembles Dungeons and Dragons more than religious contemplation".

But the political conclusions of fundamentalist Christianity are far from harmless. The "End Times" fundamentalists apply their literal interpretations of the Bible to world affairs with predictably bizarre conclusions.

Thus, US wars in the Middle East are good regardless of the human toll, especially if they help extend the borders of Israel from the Euphrates to the Nile. Israel's expansion along these lines will signify the End Times when the believers will be "raptured up" to heaven to be with God, while those remaining on earth will suffer under the rule of the Antichrist.

The "boys on the ground in Iraq" are, therefore, not killing and dying in a war for oil and empire. They are carrying out a task akin to a holy mission by bringing the End Times closer.

Christian fundamentalist politics are also deeply anti-environmental. If the End Times are so close, they reason, who really cares what happens to the Earth? Fundamentalist politicians and leaders in the US routinely speak out against environmental regulations and laws of any description.

Throughout Deer Hunting with Jesus Bageant writes about his people with a strident honesty and with deep sympathy. He has little time for the kind of arrogant middle-class view that dismisses working-class people as stupid. Much of this book is directed against these liberal prejudices that discount the potential of working people to change society in a radical way.

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