I very much appreciated Joe Bageant‘s previous book, Deer Hunting With Jesus, so eagerly looked forward to reading Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir. Bageant, who died last year, was a political and social commentator whose overall goal in both books was to explain the political and social effects of white working class despair. Deer Hunting was set in Bageant’s hometown of Winchester, Virginia, and followed people there as they sought to cling to dignity in the face of economic desparation.
Bageant had a real gift for drawing the connections between global economic flows and their local effects, not just economic but political and emotional. Rainbow Pie is similar in many ways to Deer Hunting, but its organizing principle is Bageant’s own biography instead of the social organization of the town of Winchester. Ironically enough, this individual focus allows the book to provide a more systemic analysis than Deer Hunting did.
Authenticity is a motif of the book: the folks Bageant grew up with were authentic, and would sneer at, for example, hobby crafts such as cooking, quilting, and woodworking. These are authentic folk crafts, reincarnated as expensive hobbies for the leisure class. “I consider myself fortunate to have caught a glimpse of a more-purposeful and meaningful way… only to be ambushed by an increasingly fancy and ‘store bought’ America–a slicker, glossier one with no handmade edges” (33).
Consider the following passage:
Lately, we have come full circle. Now there is a popular movement to put the famrs and the people who eat their products back into closer proximity, through local famrers’ markets, etc…. for the better-heeled middle class, or those willing to cough up more money for reasons of health or ecological idealism. You don’t see many ghetto blacks, blue-collar mooks, poor whites, or Salvadorean dishwashers munching organic apples at a buck a pop.
Personally, I eat beautiful, unblemished apples flown in from China. They are gorgeous looking because they are so pesticide laden that any bug which gets within 50 feet of them is instantly croaked….Here in Winchester, Virginia, acres of apple orchards stretch away into two surrounding states. God knows where they are sold, because they aren’t sold here.
Last autumn, I stopped at a local farmers’ market, where the apples looked good. Too good.
“Where do you get your apples?” I asked.
“Oh, I get ’em from a distributor in Baltimore. They get ’em from China.”
To cut a long story short: The bastards won. This distillation of how they won, this little piece of feral scholarship, is bound to make some people apoplectic. Especially academic hairsplitters in political science and history departments. The “Oh but…” crowd. Which is OK with me. Everybody needs a job. But mine is the vew from here in the cheap seats among the non-players, in the game of big politics and bigger money. We call ’em like we see ’em. But no matter how you connect the dots, or which dots you choose to connect, it comes out the same: our parents’ lives were displaced; our own have been anxious and uncertain; and our children’s are sure to be less certain than ours. And nobody grows apples and tomatoes along Shanghai Road [Virginia] anymore, because that requires an abidance in, and caring for, a specific place. A nation is nothing but a place, a piece of dirt, that people either do or do not take the time to contemplate, to care for, and care about. (p. 105-106)
This is vintage Bageant: a local observation, a global understanding, a recognition that the problem is about anxiety and insecurity, and a diagnosis of powerlessness in the face of these realities.
For some reason, hopeful American progressives at this writing seem to believe that the thin majority of educated Democrats now in Congress, led by the clearly educated and articulate Obama, can somehow affect the hearts and minds of tens of millions who honestly believe that one of Noah’s chores was feeding the dinosaurs on the ark. But the ignorance and superstition of American fundamentalism goes back a long way, and is rooted in the lack of real education in heartland America. (124)
One of the things that makes Bageant’s analysis so compelling is its insistence that we take seriously the deficit of intellectual opportunity–emphatically not intellectual talent–provided to the white working class. “Indeed, the computers [in schools] are more efficient for the kids. A laptop on every desk enables them to cut and paste bootleg homework assignments faster, so they can get to the mall sooner” (205). So why can’t, and don’t, “they” read? A host of reasons, each boiling down to an anti-intellectual culture in which global capitalism makes the life of the mind seem pointless and encourages working-class whites to recapitulate this anti-intellectualism as petty resistance.
The decline of authenticity is, for Bageant, a technological process with capitalist undertones:
We now remember and understand our selves, our culture, and our nation in the ways that best serve our wealth-based corporate economy…. the dream they produce solely relates to wealth, and why we are particularly entitled to it as Americans, with no reference to is historical human costs (such as slavery), or to its continuing costs (such as the fate of our sons and daughters, or of Iraqi and Afghan children), or to the money spent on two wars that could have lifted millions of Americans out of poverty.
There are no flies in amber. Today the sedimentation is squared by an onslaught of textual and igital retelling and redefinition. The events of even one month ago are morphed. (264)
The narrative of the book is about the shift from substance to debt. It’s Deer Hunting With Jesus for the post-housing-bubble age; a recognition that saddling working-class Americans with oodles of debt so they can feel that their homes are “theirs” is a fool’s errand. “The truth is that these few acres will never truly be his…. because nobody ever owns anything in America’s debt-as-wealth economy…. Clayton’s home is part of the county’s patchwork of heavily mortgaged property. Each parcel is occupied by a dwelling, with its own septic system, well, powerlines, and driveway, carved out of farmland and mortgaged to the hilt. In the wealth economy, all things are only worth the amount of money that can be borrowed against them–the amount of indebtedness that their ‘owners’ can carry for corporate financial entities” (292).
Toward the end of the book, Bageant goes to visit Krassie, wife of Clay Junior:
Sprawled on the couch in a grungy pink sweat-suit, Krassie, overweight and fast headed for that permanent post-third child white-trash obesity, was immersed in a Fox News program about the elections, now just a couple of days away.
Somehow, I’d not imagined her having the slightest interest in politics or the elections. As it happens, though, Obama’s race had grabbed Krassie’s attention. More accurately, America’s far right had taken up residence in her vacant political mind. More bluntly, the Republican Party had run its hand up her a** and was now operating her like a puppet, flapping her mouth. After the initial greetings and obligatory Southern small talk, she informed me that, “If Obama is elected, every white woman will be a slave to some ni**er.”
Even I, a man who listens daily to some of the most ridiculous, ignorant sludge that the American mind has to offer, was floored…. Krassie is by no means a hateful person. Dumb as a sack of goat hair, yes; but hateful, absolutely not.
“Where did you learn that?” I asked.
“It’s right here on the Internet. I’ll show you.”….
While we waited for [the computer] to gnaw its way through to a modem connection, Krassie’s oldest daughter, age eleven, offered her opinion. “I like Obama,” she said. “He’s very smart.” There was no objection on Krassie’s part. Remember: our people are believers in and defenders of the right to opinion, even the most ill informed–probably because we own the majority of them. (297-298)
I have my doubts about the political and intellectual viability of authenticity, but I must say Bageant’s brand is different. He offers a very sympathetic view of a proud people, duped into an authentic stupor that is at once the product of corporate manipulation and of willing complicity on the part of the people themselves. There are times, though, when his commitment to pure authenticity goes too far, as in his tender discussion of an early sexual encounter at a drive-in movie:
Over the course of the evening, Karol and I wrestled around in the back seat, got in a dozen-or-so awful kisses, and I managed to feel her tits and play stinkfinger, despite the encumbrance of her tight jeans and heavy black-leather belt. The whole event left me feeling weird, but at last I knew what a woman smelled like. Years later, I would learn that she was a lesbian…. It must have been miserable for Karol, suffering such sweaty groping during a confusing, painful attempt at imitating a sexuality that denied every molecule and sensibility in her poor young soul…. To Karol, I say: I am sorry. We gave it one helluva shot, trying to be “normal teenagers” by the ridiculous, soul-strangling definition of the times. (235)
I’m sure my point here will be controversial, but why should we assume this wasn’t actually “normal teenagers,” or that it denied every molecule and sensibility? Only because of an overly naturalistic idea of authentic sexuality that suggests they can’t have been honestly exploring the contours of their own sexuality.
The book ends with a summation to the question “I am asked in nearly every interview”: “Why do they [the white working class] work so hard to screw themselves?”:
It is because the screwees have no language of their own in which to talk to themselves, or to discuss their condition with others of their own class. When they speak at all of these things, they speak in the language of their screwers, a language in which terms such as “socialism,” “universal healthcare,” “welfare society,” “citizen entitlement,” “social taxes,” “solidarity,” “fair go,” and “common weal” are deemed profanities. Without language and the education to use it in defining concepts, their intellectual life is a constellation of deeply internalized corporate state-media imagery–commercials for the American brand entertainingly presented in a theater of political and social kitsch. (304)
This is the majesty of Bageant’s analytic mind: an understanding of the fit among culture, capital, authenticity, and language that fits right in among the genius of Marcuse and Adorno, and that reminds me of the terrific essay “Aspects of Language” by Schweppenhäuser and Köhne that Jeff Olick and I translated and included in Group Experiment. (Though I can’t quite imagine Adorno uttering the words “screwees” and “screwers”!)