Thanks to the election, a lot of liberals are taking an interest in the plight of the rural working class these days. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and White Trash by Nancy Isenberg have been the subject of many a review and think piece. I gave up on Hillbilly Elegy after a few chapters because it was more memoir than analysis, and the memoir wasn’t interesting me much. As for Isenberg’s book and similar ones, as someone who grew up in the rural white working class, I’m uncomfortable with the anthropological approach of an outsider swooping in for a brief period and claiming to have the answers. (I may still read White Trash and Strangers in Their Own Land at some point, but I’m hesitant.) I decided I’d rather go in a different direction and read some Joe Bageant, a writer much praised by Citizen Reader.
Published in 2007, this book is a collection of essays about Bageant’s hometown of Winchester, Virginia, a town in the northernwestern part of Virginia. Bageant grew up there but moved away for 30 years before returning late in life. His political views are liberal, and he writes with compassion and sometimes frustration about the people he grew up with and how the Republican party has convinced them that their party has the answers, even when it doesn’t.
You might think that a book written in 2007 would be ridiculously dated by now, but, for the most part, this feels more prescient than out-of-date. For instance, there’s this from a section on the importance of education:
Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution. It is no accident that number corresponds roughly to the percentage of people with college degrees. So intelligent liberals are advised to save their depression and the good booze for later, when things get worse.
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. And that means educating everybody, not just the small-town valedictorian or the science nerds who are cherry-picked out of the schools in places like Winchester or more rural areas. These people end up in New York or Houston or Boston—places where they can buy boutique coffees or go to the art cinema—holding down jobs in broadcasting or research or economics.
I’m guessing that if Bageant were still alive, he’d think this was the time we were supposed to be saving that good booze for. So there’s that. And the point about education is a good one. I was lucky enough to live in a rural county that valued education and supported a large high school with more offerings for its smartest students than you’d find in many rural areas. (When I went to college, I learned about areas where we were lacking, but we did well with what we had.) But even so, there were lots of kids who graduated with barely enough knowledge to get by. And, as far as I know, only a few of the top-performing students from my graduating class live in the area now. The brain drain is real.
What’s more, as Bageant describes and my own experience bears out, there is suspicion of higher education in some rural communities. After I went away to college, I returned to my hometown to teach high school for a couple of years. I’d lost some of my accent, and I used correct grammar when speaking (although that was always true), and some students immediately branded me an outsider not worth listening to. One student was convinced my family wasn’t from the area even though my roots there went back generations—and those roots were not from the county’s upper classes. So education can make rural areas uncomfortable places to live, which further exacerbates the brain drain problem.
Bageant also talks about how much more effective the political right has been at getting their message into rural areas. For example, people on the factory floor listen to right-wing talk radio all day long. NPR may be available, but it doesn’t hold the same appeal. There’s a chicken or egg quandary here that Bageant doesn’t get into. Personally, I think the right-wing media exacerbates tendencies that are already there, but not necessarily to toxic levels. So someone who worries a little about how immigration affects their employment gets a drumbeat of information that makes them terrified and furious about immigration.
At any rate, Bageant maintains that the left isn’t nearly as effective as it should be at getting the message out about how the rich are screwing over the poor. In the political scene, for instance, Bush had photo ops of himself clearing brush in Crawford, while John Kerry’s photos showed him wind-surfing in Martha’s Vineyard. Who seems more relatable to factory workers in Winchester?
Some of Bageant’s harshest words are directed at the corporate class, and he’s not just talking about CEOs of big companies. He also makes digs at local business people who don’t pay the small-time contractors who work for them and local governments that offer generous tax breaks to companies that don’t need them while neglecting the needs of their poorest citizens. And those citizens are taught to feel grateful for the terrible jobs and low pay that they receive.
I found most of Bageant’s ideas interesting and well worth thinking about. And he has an enjoyably informal tone. (Trae Crowder, aka the Liberal Redneck, is similar in tone but with a lot more cussing.)
The only chapter that really fell short for me was the one on guns, and I think this one suffered from 10 years of time. Bageant makes some good points about how liberals writing gun-control laws really ought to know more about guns. But he seems to be arguing against a straw gun control advocate who is anti-gun in every situation, always and forever. Such people exist, but they are not most people, or even most gun-control advocates. Most people in the U.S. are in favor of some degree of gun control, rather than outright bans. The debate among reasonable people is over how much regulation is appropriate. Unfortunately, by owning so much of Congress, the unreasonable, corporate-controlled NRA owns that debate.
I also wish Bageant had dug a little deeper into the racism around him. If he were alive today, I think he might. In 2007, racism was present, but further underground than it is now. Bageant clearly disapproves of racism, but he doesn’t look very hard at it. And at one point, when someone he’s talking to makes a racist comment about her Indian doctor, he even seem to go along with it. It turns out this particular doctor probably wasn’t doing a good job, but generalizing out to all the immigrant doctors in rural communities is unfair. That part was disappointing.
However, on other subjects, Bageant is right on. Much to my surprise, the chapter on healthcare holds up surprisingly well. He doesn’t discuss specific policies so much as he does the impossible choices poor people have to make, and those choices remain real, even if the specifics of the policies behind them have changed. And his chapter on Christian fundamentalism is especially good. It also ends with some hopeful commentary, drawn partly from the work of Fred Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy:
The very nature of liberalism, with its emphasis on diversity and individuality, makes it hard to organize. The bigger problem, though, is that liberals, like most other Americans, have lost the skill of grassroots organizing, not to mention the will. Clarkson observes, “Every good citizen should learn how to be a good activist—or a good candidate. Yes, it may mean making some choice, like less television and surfing the Internet. But that is how a constitutional democracy is organized. That’s the way it works. If we abandon the playing field to the other side, they win by default.”
These last few weeks have shown that liberals are gaining the skill and the will to organize and act. Let’s keep that up!