Reviewed by Jill Brasell
(The Spark February 2009)
Journalist and blogger Joe Bageant grew up among the working-class people of Winchester, Virginia, and a question has evidently itched him ever since he escaped from (and then returned to) that community. Why do the working class reject liberalism, and instead hold tight to ideas that work against their own interests?
Deer Hunting with Jesus (Three Rivers Press, New York, 2007) is a series of loosely connected essays that attempts to answer that question. Bageant is a sharp observer and the book is a thought-provoking and often entertaining read as he takes a bottom-up look at globalisation, home ownership, healthcare, guns, Abu Ghraib, Christian fundamentalism and what he calls “the American hologram”.
The book offers some possible answers to the central conundrum, though it is more anecdotal than analytical. Bageant’s style is rambling; the essays are all engaging, but there is no sense of an overarching philosophy. He has described himself as a “redneck commie”, but it’s doubtful whether he is actually either. His view of the working class is conflicted - he loves them (hell, he lives with ‘em, doesn’t he?) but he doesn’t really believe they’ll ever get off their sorry asses to change anything. They’re great folks but they’re ignorant, superstitious, short-sighted, resistant to change and easily bought off with junk. His identification as one of them is pretty much limited to a common love of guns (and even then he admits that he quit hunting years ago).
As for being a “commie”, while he expresses some anti-capitalist views, nowhere in the book does he advocate socialism or even unionism, claiming that “there is practically no labor movement” in the United States.
In the end, Bageant’s portrait of the white working poor is somewhat depressing. (It’s not clear why he excludes blacks and the unemployed from his field of vision. He may have decided, perhaps sensibly, only to write about what he knows. But the book is weaker for this.) He has no answers for the folk of Winchester apart from advocating “universal access to a decent education”. He believes “many of the worst aspects of poverty stem from the intellectual bareness and brutality of the environment”, and observes that “never experiencing the life of the mind scars entire families for generations”. These attitudes beg several questions, including how such universal access might come about, and what a “decent” education might be, as well as what counts as the life of the mind.
Even so, the book makes a worthwhile contribution, and reveals some slimy things under the rocks it overturns. (For example, how fake non-profit hospitals put small local hospitals out of business and steal healthcare dollars from the poor.) And it’s interesting to consider at what points and to what extent it corresponds with the social landscape of New Zealand.
While many of the specifics of Bageant’s observations do not apply here, there is some of the same disconnect between what working class people want and what liberals and socialists think they need. (Some New Zealanders see their “right” to smack their children in very similar terms as some Americans see their right to own guns.)
Bageant believes that “sooner or later… the left must genuinely connect face-to-face with Americans who do not necessarily share all of their priorities… if the left is ever to be relevant again to working America.” There’s at least a grain of truth in that.