North American society prides itself on being classless. Almost no one in North America calls him/herself lower-class or upper-class, and people who describe themselves as ‘middle-class’ (a class which really no longer exists in North America) do so hesitantly. Few even describe themselves as ‘working-class’, since that seems to imply it’s a place one resides for life (which is the case, but to acknowledge this fact would put the lie to the myth of social mobility). Despite the Great American (and Canadian) Dream (anyone can be President or Billionaire if they work long and hard at it), your chances of moving up even one quintile in the economic and social order are negligible, and dependent more on luck than intelligence, endeavour or education.
My friend Joe Bageant‘s book Deer Hunting With Jesus explains through personal stories his brutal assessment of just how strong the class system in the US really is, why the classes are and always have been at war, and why that plays perfectly into the hands of the right-wing political and economic interests there. These are stories about the people Joe grew up with and calls friends, and to write about their lives so bluntly and candidly is an act of incredible courage and honesty.
This is a society where poverty and illness are stigmatized as symptoms of laziness, ignorance and self-neglect, a society built on two-way class vs class fear of the unknown and misunderstood. The principal determinant of one’s class in America, and the hermetic worldview that comes with it, is education.
More than anything, Deer Hunting is a plea to those of progressive inclination to meet with their working-class peers, at a grass-roots level, to understand how they live, how they think, and why they think that way, and to find, as hard as it will be to do so, common cause with them against the corporatist exploiters and their right-wing political and religious handmaidens, and common cause for universal health care, quality education for all, a fair pension and a decent wage for a day’s work — the end of the “dead-end social construction that all but guarantees failure”.
I’d given away three copies of Joe’s book before I’d ready anything beyond the brilliant introduction — I just knew the people I gave them to needed to read the book more than I did. If you’ve read Lakoff, and kind of understand the huge divide between conservative and liberal worldviews, you have to read Bageant, so you really understand the chasm between the worldviews of the uneducated and educated. When you read Joe’s astonishing stories, all of a sudden what George Lakoff says makes sense. And, just as astonishingly, so does Bush’s 2004 win, and the terrifying prospect that Republican arch-conservatives could be poised to establish a dynasty in the US that will accelerate the Cheney-Bush regime’s project for endless war, bankrupting and dismantling government, and ending the separation of church and state, and which will last until that country’s final, ghastly unraveling occurs (I’m betting that will happen later this century).
I picked up my fourth copy of Deer Hunting With Jesus in Australia, which includes a little orientation for Australians not familiar with current US culture. This orientation was probably unnecessary for two reasons: Educated Australians (and Canadians and Europeans) probably know as much about current US culture as their American counterparts. And uneducated people from these countries, I strongly suspect, think much like their US counterparts (though less fanatically) — Joe’s description of uneducated Americans sent shudders up my spine, as I recognized in their stories and attitudes those of many uneducated Canadians I thought I knew, or didn’t care to know (and now understand much better).
There is so much wisdom in this book, and it is so important to read to achieve an understanding of the current predicament of the US (and hence of the world), that I would not presume to prÈcis it here. If you read only one book this year, please make it Deer Hunting With Jesus.
Some of the key lessons for me:
The bottom line of this vicious cycle is that half of Americans are functionally illiterate, and poor education, poor health care, poor nutrition, corporatist oppression and exploitation are creating a time bomb that, in the short run, vents itself in anger against pontificating liberals they never see and don’t understand, and in the long run could explode into bloody and nationwide violence. These people, living right in our midst but whom we never reach out to, simply don’t have the wherewithal to improve their own lot — “they are too uneducated, too conditioned to the idea that being a consumer is the same thing as being a citizen.”
Joe laments the fact that both affluent and poor are now being brought up with neither the capacity nor the need for self-recognition — for discovering who they are as individuals. Instead, they are given a ‘menu’ of lifestyles to choose from, each with its own defining brand names and ensembles. “Adult yokels and urban sophisticates can choose from a preselected array of possible selves based solely on what they like to eat, see, wear, hear and drive.” None of us can, any longer, “make up his or her identity from scratch.” The upper-middle and affluent suburban “catering classes”, those who support the corporatist centre (orange band in my chart above), are more to blame for its excesses than the working class because the catering classes at least have the education and power to see and resist it. When I published this chart a couple of years ago, it never occurred to me, in my liberal affluent comfort, that many or most of those living on the Edge are not at all able to see the centre for what it is, or to have any inkling that they need to pull further away from it, not aspire to become part of it.
We are all, Joe argues, prisoners of this corporatist political and economic system, caught, more or less, in its web. “America’s much-ballyhood liberty is largely fictional. Three million of us are [in prisons or on parole]…The rest of us are captives of credit, our jobs, our need for health insurance, or our ceaseless quest for a decent retirement fund.” What’s worse, “You never know you are in prison until you try the door”. And America’s working class in particular has been so systematically dumbed down that they can’t even see the door.
America, he says, cannot hope to stop messing up the rest of the world until it solves its own mess. “When social conscience extends no farther than ourselves, our friends, our families then Darfur and secret American prisons abroad are not [perceived to be] a problem”.
This book is about the horrific mess that is America in the 21st century, but there is nothing here for those of us living in other countries to be smug about. American culture is being embraced everywhere in the world (and not, for the most part, forced down anyone’s throats). And our cultures already exhibit many of the same qualities and propensities that are so magnified in the US and portrayed in such terrifying light by Joe Bageant.
So no matter where in the world you live, please buy several copies of Deer Hunting With Jesus and give them to people who do not understand why George Bush won the US election of 2004. This is important, and Joe has done all the hard work and research for us, in a courageous, personal and awesome portrait of the true nature of the most powerful country on the planet. We need everyone to hear this story, to understand what has been going on under our noses all along, that we never got quite close enough tosee.
Category: US Politics
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May I Ask a Question?
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A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
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No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
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The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
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No Noble Savages
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All the Things I Was Wrong About
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We Make Zero
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Healing From Ourselves
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Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
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Under No Illusions (Short Story)
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Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
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