Dispatches from the US's small-town class war

Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War
By Joe Bageant
Scribe Publications (2009), 288 pages (pb), $24.95
Reviewed by Chris Atkinson

Deer Hunting With Jesus is an indictment of the abandonment of the small-town US working class by the corporate elite — “the bastards” as Joe Bageant calls them — and their government backers, Republican and Democrat alike. It’s a compelling read because it’s told through the drawls of the people of Bageant’s home town, Winchester, Virginia.

Much has been written about the political affinities and aspirations of the rural US working class. But it’s usually either (1) mainstream-media electoral analysis or (2) condescending, dismissive “they are so much dumber and more backward than us” caricature. An example of the latter is Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), which assesses working-class votes in Kansas as an expression of a collective cultural “cultivated derangement”. Bageant, on the other hand, is clear that his mates (and his Christian preacher brother) are not stupid, just stupefied by television, the Church and the everyday grind.

A number of reviewers describe the book as “depressing”, but I think they miss its hopeful undertone — that the working poor of Winchester and the whole US are still looking for the better world they sense is possible. Take the conclusion of the introduction, for example: “... in such a Darwinian system as ours, there remains the deep, persevering humor of my people, and, unapparent as it is sometimes, an abiding belief that, even if we haven’t seen much of it lately, human fairness is indeed possible.

“Despite our indoctrination regarding American exceptionalism, and the arrogance of our political elites, there still exists the belief, even among the least of us, the Dotties and Pooties and Dinks [Bageant’s dirt-poor buddies — and yes, they are real names] of this book and our nation, in a more perfect union somewhere over a horizon. It is a union that seems to have been lost. Or, at the very least, none of our supposed ‘betters’ — the leaders, the chosen, the educated ones, the brilliant ones anointed to theorize about and execute policy — seem able to locate it.

“Meanwhile we — the unchosen, undereducated, misinformed, and misled — who bust our knuckles turning socket wrenches, or send our children to walk in terror amid IEDs, blood and sand, remain standing. May we be granted the providence to find that horizon for ourselves.”

Just what that more perfect union might be, Deer Hunting leaves unstated. But Bageant clearly didn’t intend Deer Hunting to be a political manifesto. It’s more an attempt to expose the human impact of the erosion of working-class institutions (such as trade unions) on the US small-town working class. That said, it’s pretty clear from Deer Hunting’s descriptions and reiterations of the opinions of his drinking buddies at Royal Lunch that nothing short of a revival of militant trade unionism and protest organising will lift the Dotties, Pooties and Dinks out of poverty and put the US working class on the front foot.

A big part of the problem is what Bageant calls “the American hologram” — the televised, corporate advertising-dominated, virtual reality designed by the “bastards”-owned media to distract workers from the insidious realities of capitalism. But, as Bageant points out in his concluding chapter, “... no matter how much junk this corporation called America can stuff into its laboring class, there is still the basic foundation of oppression that characterizes working-class life but is never acknowledged”.

“What is working class in America?” Bageant asked himself in an October 2008 interview with the American News Project’s Nick Penniman. “We’ve denied that there was such a thing up until very, very recent times.” Whenever Barack Obama refers to class, which is not often, he provokes far-right protest.

But the US working class is changing rapidly. In its “American serfs” chapter, Deer Hunting points out: “... a real blue-collar middle class exists in some places, just as unions still exist. But both are on the ropes like some old pug boxer taking the facial cuts and popping eye capillaries with no referee to come in and stop the carnage ... Right now, even by the government’s spruced-up numbers, one-third of working Americans make less than $9 an hour. A decade from now, five of the ten fastest-growing jobs will be menial, dead-end jokes on the next generation — mainly retail clerks and janitors ...”

Amidst the screeds of liberal electoral analysis are some interesting observations. The October 13, 2008 edition of the New Yorker reported on a study by four University of Arizona sociologists that followed the voting behaviour of the 45 per cent of US whites who identify themselves as working class. They found that the Democrats were not seen as any better than Republicans at promoting their material well-being. The US, Bageant says in an August 25 post on joebageant.com, “has only one political party anyway — Big Business. The Republicans vs. Democrats mock combats are mere bread and circuses for the sweaty clamoring crowd.”

Bageant has no illusions in the Obama administration defending working-class interests. “Almost a year after the Great Giddy Swarming of the Obamians last November, some of the revelers are waking up with one booger of a hangover. And they are asking themselves, ‘What were we thinking when we had that tenth drink of Democratic Party Kool-Aid?’ ... The spike in the drink was, of course, hope. Poor pathetic American liberals. Forever doomed to be naive freshmen at the senior beer bash.”

If you’re after a funny, engaging, affectionately human, rage-inducing insight into the reality of the USA’s white, small-town, slow-burn class war, Deer Hunting With Jesus is just that.