Thursday, May 13, 2010

The fascination of road kill

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

I lived in the United States as a teenager, and I have since found its politics fascinating, although the fascination is akin to that fascination one feels towards road kill – one can't stop looking at it – or perhaps even a poisonous snake.

In my first week in DC, I was physically nauseated by the sights. Here in the capital city of the richest country in the world, homeless guys slept over air vents and used the traffic circles as extremely public toilets even as the limousines and cavalcades rolled by. People stank, really stank, and held out crumpled paper cups for spare change. Meanwhile, women wore fur to dine at the elite members-only clubs that dotted Washington; I know, because I was invited to some of those lunches and was always underdressed.

Later, I joined a volunteer organisation which delivered groceries to the needy each month. I visited rat infested apartments that stank of gangrene and rot and talked with residents who were always so gracious, so grateful, despite nephews killed in shoot outs and feet amputated thanks to diabetes. Me, I would have been screaming at anyone who came near me to get me out of this nightmare.

I couldn't believe – I still can't believe – that such a rich country could so obviously fail to look after so many of its citizens. I never got over the sense that here was a very poor country, even if it was the richest country in the world; that many people were startlingly ignorant, frequently misinformed and completely lacking in critical skills, yet were also stridently opinionated – often on subjects that lead to war; that there were clear divisions of education and class, although it claimed to be a classless society; that despite the separation of church and state, fundamentalists of all stripes were doing everything they could to infiltrate the state and inflict their own mores onto everyone else; and that despite rallying calls for freedom and democracy, there was very little of either here.

And I never got over the sense that all this was obscene in what was supposed to be the most privileged country on earth, a country moreover that prided itself on being God's gift to the world. As soon as I came of age (well, 17), I moved out of home and fled back to Australia with a renewed fondness for its more egalitarian secular state.*

Of course, how I felt about the US was rarely coherent; it was all muddled up with being a miserable and lonely displaced teenager with an acute case of homesickness. I felt sick with guilt just for being middle class, when all around flowed oceans of poverty. As I walked past women huddled in blankets on the sidewalk near work, church or museums – all downtown – I felt deeply ashamed of my wealth and my escape across the river to the relative safety of my home in Arlington. I was churned up with pity and confusion and frustration, and I was scared. The gap between haves and have-nots was more than unsettling; it was sickening, it was frightening, and I was just a young teenage girl trying to understand where on earth I had wound up.

I only wish that Joe Bageant had written Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War back then – it explains so much, and would have been my essential guidebook in navigating this strange and violent country.

Bageant describes himself as a working poor redneck. He left his hometown to study and work as a writer and editor, but returned years later to live. He found that in the decades he had been away, the people of his town had tumbled down the economic scale; the opportunities for which he had scrabbled (especially college) were now completely out of reach of his demographic. He also realised that this was the demographic which had propelled George W Bush to victory and would again, even although Republican policies had so corroded their community. Bageant goes on to investigate how and why this demographic supports the Republican party, and how the wealthy keeps it struggling – and keeps it Republican – in order to maintain a privileged lifestyle.

The result is that access to education, health care and a living wage are becoming the domain of the elite, and everyone else is being left behind. For many Americans, the only possible access to these once foundational aspects of the commonweal is through military service – what he describes as 'economic conscription' – and even then it rarely comes through.

Bageant suggests that this is a class war – and yet, he claims, most poor Americans are unable to interpret their situation in this light because they lack the insight and skills to reflect on their situation. Bageant is scathing about American education. Many do not finish high school, and even those that do often lack critical thinking skills. Something like one quarter of Americans are functionally illiterate: they may be able to read a sentence, but they cannot follow the thread of an idea through five paragraphs. Such a population is unable to critique their political leaders; for that matter, it is barely able to distinguish between political statements, news programs, entertainment and advertising.

The lack of critical skills is compounded by the brutality of life for the working poor. Wages are so low, and working conditions so insecure, that many work two jobs just to make ends meet; even so, one or two unforeseen medical bills can send a household spiralling into debt, even bankruptcy. In addition, in the competition for extra shifts or just to stay employed, the working poor are usually pitted against one another in their workplaces. In this climate, they lack the time, energy, education and culture to reflect on their situation, and from there to organise themselves and others into a movement for change.

He suggests, too, that the sedative powers of television and sport have rendered the population even more passive. The average American spends a third of his or her waking life in front of the box, where conservative agendas are rampant and a sound bite is valued more highly than a complex thought.

I'm not one for conspiracy theories, and Bageant's book at times veers into places where I am not entirely comfortable. For example, I am not sure how intentional the subjugation of the working class has been, or whether it is a more incidental, if not unimportant, flow-on from an economic system which prioritises corporations over people. However, his insights dovetail so closely with my own observations that I find most of his claims very convincing.

And overall, the book is fascinating. As one who was born in a small poor town but went away for many years, Bageant writes about his people with a lively insider / outsider perspective. He uses rich and fruity language, telling many stories along the way, that make it a terrific read.

Deer Hunting was written before Obama was elected, yet my sense is that Bageant would be no less scathing about the current situation. After all, the problems that Bageant names are deep-rooted and require a complete restructure of society: a wresting away of power from corporations, and a revolutionary investment in education and healthcare. No modern politician appears to have the guts to challenge, really challenge, the corporate state, nor, for that matter, the grab for power by Christian fundamentalists.

I gather Bageant is not currently hopeful as, according to his blog, he has escaped the hellhole that is America and is living in Mexico where he lies around feeling depressed and drinking heavily, emerging only to post the occasional rant. As I am writing this at my local pub, listening to sad songs with a beer close at hand, I feel some sense of affinity.

*Of course, Australia's track record, particularly regarding our indigenous population, is not great either – but it certainly felt better to me back then!

> Joe Bageant Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War (North Carlton, VIC: Scribe, 2007)

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