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

deer-hunting-with-jesusThanks 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that a book written in 2007 would be ridiculously dated by now, but, for the most part, this feels more prescient than out-of-date.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!

This entry was posted in Nonfiction. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War

  1. Elle says:

    I remember reading this in 2008, and your reading tallies well with what I recall. It was a major wake up call for me as a vaguely politicised teenager living in central Virginia.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder what I would have thought of it before the election, or even when I was still in SW Virginia. (By the time it was published, I’d been in Northern VA for several years.)

  2. readerlane says:

    From your review, it sounds like this book is what I’m looking for to help widen my perspective. Adding it to my TBR list. I’ve got Hillbilly Elegy on the pile, too….

    • Teresa says:

      From the liitle I read of Hillbilly Elegy, I think this does better of giving a wide view. Vance seemed to be extrapolating from the example of him and his family, and Bageant talks to lots of people.

  3. Jeanne says:

    People who make their living by working at a college–as I do, and my parents did–are in favor of reaching more people without putting them into crushing debt. But how?
    I’ve worked for almost nothing as an adjunct, and I don’t make a heck of a lot now with my part-time job. My husband works all day plus nights and weekends in one of those administrative jobs people complain about as if they’re extraneous to the mission of the college. When I try to get the people I work with more involved in local political efforts, they say their “time is limited” which I know is true because they devote almost every waking hour to their students and committees.
    We just made our last tuition payment for our youngest child and breathed a sigh of relief. And that was with lots of aid–we paid only 15% of his tuition, plus full room and board.

    • Teresa says:

      “How” is a challenge, isn’t it? do wonder how costs for college have skyrocketed so much. (And I know it’s not because professors are earning more.) I had financial aid and student loans back in the 90s, but it was not considered the norm for middle-class families the way it is now. From what I remember, most of my friends didn’t get aid, and they weren’t exactly from rich families. And even though I was able to get the maximum amount allowed for government loans most years in college, the payments after I graduated were reasonable. Something changed.

      But I don’t think education is just up to college. K-12 education plays a big role, especially since not all kids can (or even should) go to college. But K-12 schools are stretched thin, too, and required to spend precious time on testing and testing some more. And some communities use school curriculums to promote their political agendas. It’s a mess.

  4. Jenny says:

    I was under the impression that the guy who wrote Hillbilly Elegy wasn’t an outsider — is that wrong? That he grew up in the Rust Belt and Appalachia and was in the Marines? Was he in the Liberal Elites, though? Weird. This sounds like a good one.
    Just for the record, I am that gun straw person, who is against all guns, in every case, forever.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, yes, I wasn’t clear. I was thinking of White Trash and Strangers in Their Own Land when I mentioned the liberal elite outsiders. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy did grow up in the Rust Belt, and his grandparents were from Appalachia. (Whether he could call himself a Hillbilly is arguable, but that’s a nitpick. The term fits his grandparents, who raised him.) Will edit to clarify.

  5. Christy says:

    I’ve been living in the suburbs of D.C. for so long, I’ve lost the stamp of my rural, conservative upbringing. I go to my parent’s church, back in my home state, and the conservative rhetoric feels so alien to me, though it was once all I knew.

    • Teresa says:

      I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I moved back. Could I get comfortable again? (Not that I was ever super-comfortable. I moved away for a reason.)

  6. I’m more likely to read White Trash, I think, than Strangers in Their Own Land. White Trash at least comes from a scholarly standpoint, so it feels less like someone swooping in and making judgments where they don’t know anything. I also may be slightly sensitive to the Strangers book because she swoops into MY STATE and so forth. :p

    • Teresa says:

      The history angle makes White Trash more appealing to me than Strangers, too. But I’d be even more hesitant about both of them if they were Virginia-based!

  7. Pingback: In lumina

  8. I’d not heard of this book but now I think I must add it to my TBR. I’ve been reading a lot lately from different sources about the urban/rural divide and it’s something that’s never been more evident to me than now. I live in a suburb of a medium-sized southern city, and the city limits proper are very left-leaning, while the rest of the county and surrounding counties are almost totally right-leaning. Part of me keeps thinking, well, big cities are where the jobs are, so at some point more and more people will be moving there, and maybe being forced to live and work with different types of people will result in more people who are unafraid of “the other?” Naive, maybe? Not everyone can or will want to move from the rural areas. I think he’s right -our only hope lies in the rest of us getting better at communicating with everyone, and the Democrats getting better at communicating without condescension.

    • Teresa says:

      I do wonder if moving to a city would make a difference, or if it’s that people who are able or inclined to move to cities are more left-leaning. I moved to the DC area partly for cultural reasons (feeling stifled in the SW Virginia city where I lived) but also because there were so few decent and interesting jobs where I was. I don’t know if one factor alone would have been enough to get me to do it. And I could only afford to move because I had friends to live with initially.

  9. Stefanie says:

    Ooh, this sounds like a really interesting book and still quite relevant. Enjoyed your review!

  10. Linda says:

    I liked Hillbilly Elegy a lot, but I wish everyone would stop touting it as an explanation for the election results – as you say, it’s really just a memoir and one guy’s views on the area where he grew up. As someone from a similar area (but in Maine) who also left and became upwardly mobile, I felt it rather validating. But I’m also interested in these wider views, and I hadn’t heard of this one before, so thank you. I started White Trash at one point and liked it, but had just finished a nonfiction book about the opiate crisis (Dreamland by Sam Quinones) and really needed to just read a novel before tackling more nonfiction. But I’m hoping to go back to it.

  11. maecurrell says:

    I think this point that you hit on, “And those citizens are taught to feel grateful for the terrible jobs and low pay that they receive” is key. There’s so much dad-blamed shaming that occurs – both at explicit and subtle levels – to keep this status quo injustice in place. Just found your blog today… enjoyed the post!

Leave your comment here, and feel free to respond to others' comments. We enjoy a lively conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s