By Joe BageantPatrick Ward
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Joe Bageant: Champion of the forgotten underclass

This article is over 13 years, 1 months old
In his previous book, Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant took on the media's portrayal of the "redneck" community he grew up in. He talks to Patrick Ward about his new memoir, Rainbow Pie.
Issue 352

Joe Bageant

How has the community you grew up in changed today?

Today there are the old ones who remember, but they’re dying. There are people in my generation, but we ain’t spring chickens ourselves. Then there is a small contingent of hippies who moved there to look after the land. They are wonderful. Then there are a lot of well to do people from Washington DC who have their hobby farms. The closest ancient old town, George Washington’s Bathtub, is very fortunate that the gay community took it up as a place to come on weekends or to buy up little farms. But the average person is definitely among the high unemployed. The county I describe is one of the richest in West Virginia. Can you imagine what the poorest are like? They are goddamn horrible.

I only had one bad review of Rainbow Pie, and it was only partially bad. It said I romanticised the period. But I didn’t. It just looks romantic to other people. They weren’t living like that because they were inherently better people. It was because a real community is based on a mutual need to preserve resources.

I’m living in a community here in Mexico. When people don’t see this old geezer stumble out and fart and get the mail in the morning they come in and make sure I’m not sick. That’s community.

Who are the white underclass today?

Well, it’s kind of like if you ask a goldfish about its environment the last thing it’ll describe is water. But those 22.2 million people who were moved into cities in the mid-1960s, they begat roughly that many people who begat roughly that many people. That’s how I get the 60 million figure for today’s underclass.

They don’t all look like Farmer Green Jeans. They don’t even live in the country, necessarily, they’re not all working in chicken plants and they certainly don’t all work below the poverty level – although there are 40 million people below that now and I think they’re well represented.

They’ve got their Wal-Mart stuff and a new truck, but they don’t have health insurance or full-time jobs. They are very hard to measure demographically. Nobody says, “Do they have an education? Does the family get proper nutrition?” The misery in their life can be masked by commodities very easily.

There’s a good book called Born in the Country where the guy documented all of it. I spent six months doing the research and then I found a book that had all of it already. That sort of pissed me off.

The Tea Party doesn’t represent these people worth a damn and they don’t necessarily give a shit about politics. They’re busy making a truck payment, trying to find a little entertainment and sport. I think you can go anywhere in the US and find people who are in this white underclass. All I’ve got to do is go, “Hey, anybody here from the South? Anybody here from the Midwest?” Well, it ain’t going to be a college professor who comes over and shakes my hand; it’s going to be a worker. Maybe he’s a cable technician or maybe she’s a laboratory technician and wears a lab coat, but their dad wore a coal miner’s uniform and they seem like they’re something else.

They sort of feel like, “Well, I’m doing better than my parents.” Well, you’re not doing better than them. The underclass is very hard to see, given the way our inbred media works – they only hire certain people from a certain class because they sound like you, they talk like you and they’ve been trained to your values.

Joe with younger brother Mike, 1951

Do you think that there is something qualitatively different between this underclass and the rest of the poor working class?

Oh, yes! Class is about power over one’s life. The white underclass is made up of people who have absolutely no control. The corporations dictate when to work, what they will be paid, whether they will get benefits, which is seldom, and when they will be fired without rights of appeal, which is whenever the corporations want to cut costs to raise stock dividends. When they get fired, they use credit cards to pay bills, putting them in debt to other financial corporations, and so on.

What is the Tea Party?

There were a handful of people, many around Ron Paul. They were neither good nor bad, but it was a legitimate populist movement. They were angry – the whole fucking nation was angry – we have an anger rippling under the surface. Fear is what it really is, no security. There was a realisation in the Republican and Democratic parties – and they never realise anything – that whoever could capture the discontent first would have an advance.

All of a sudden they are on radio stations and there’s 60 or 70 demonstrations going on. No way, who the hell paid for this? These guys didn’t collect it from their school lunch money. When you fund things like this in the US you control it. When you provide organisation, like the buses and the administration, you control it. They’ve co-opted the word “rebellion”, that’s what they do to everything legitimate – they co-opt it and make something illegitimate out of it. So the media jumped on it.

So here’s old Ralph and Ellen sat in front of the TV set. They see these rallies and they believe it’s real. “Hell, I saw it on television, didn’t I, Ellen?” And they’re screaming shit like, “Take back America.” Well to that guy sitting there – without a lot of education, tired, bored, can’t afford anything, stressed – that sounds like quite a good thing. “Hell yeah, take back America!” Most of them remember when it was better – we all do. So the illusion becomes reality in the theatre state and suddenly there’s a whole lot of people you can get to come to a rally. They get photographed and whoever is loudest and has the ugliest sign makes it into the media. But it’s a hallucination; it’s a theatrical stage production to control workers.

But where is the liberal left?

We don’t have a liberal left. We have one party. It has two faces, either Republican or Democrat. There are goddamn fine leftists in this country and you’ve never heard the voice of any of them almost. They’re in a vacuum, in a jar with the lid on it, and you can’t hear them. The rest of it is just an illusion that’s sold to my people and to your people.

How did you get into journalism?

I went into the navy, lied about my age when I was 15, just to get out of there. Then I was pretty much just a hippy living in a school bus with a wife and kid. My wife was 15. I was 18 or something. I’d read a lot. I’d already read French existentialism and stuff. I just didn’t know what they hell they were talking about. So we went out west, poor white trash, and I just thought, look what’s going on, San Francisco, all this stuff.

I’d already taken LSD. I was getting it from Johns Hopkins University, where a friend was being “treated” with it for his homosexuality. He walked in one day and threw it down on the table, “There it is, Bageant.” We’d been wanting it since high school. I wanted to be where people did this all the time. So I wrote a few things for the underground newspapers and they were very popular. Of course, they didn’t pay you – if they did they paid you in pot.

Then came Time and Newsweek. This is in Boulder, Colorado, which had a huge hippy scene where backwash from San Francisco had settled in the mountains. They read some of my writing, because all AP bureau chiefs do is steal, and they asked if I’d write about the counter-culture. They paid $17 an hour! Jesus Christ, minimum wage was a dollar and a quarter, so I was the richest hippy in our school bus camp!

It was great. We were very communal. I could buy 100 pound sacks of rice for the group, and so on. I didn’t even have to walk around to cover the counter-culture – I was already deeply part of it. I got assignments in major magazines. This only happened a few times a year, but if someone pays you a hefty $4,000 you can live a year on it, which I did.

I was working at a car wash and I’d have to get time off so I could go to Central America to write a story. It was the most ironic strange damn thing, but I couldn’t lose my job at the car wash. The guy at the car wash gave us all health insurance. He wasn’t being generous; it’s just what was expected.

A guy proposed I cover stuff in Washington DC. One piece was about melting a mountain for oil shale. Another was on fragging [when US soldiers killed their own officers in Vietnam, often using fragmentation grenades], which was unheard of then but it was starting to develop. So I became self-syndicated and each of the newspapers could give me up to $50. It was a good living for a hippy.

Then my kids got older and I had to have some sort of damned stability, so I went to work for a magazine. As my beard got greyer, you know what they do – they get the old dogs and put them in charge of the young pups. Management in a magazine was nothing like it is now; we actually did things that were interesting.

You’re proud of shunning the mainstream media though, these days?

Yes, absolutely – although publishing a book with Random House is hardly shunning. They called me up having read my online writing and said, “Would you like to write a book?” and I said, “No thank you,” and then they mentioned six figures and I said, “What kinda book you wanna write, darlin’?” The first advance was over a hundred thousand dollars and it enabled me to quit the damn job. I had been miserable for ten years in the magazine business, this cut and paste journalism, and they are all just consumer magazines anyway. I said I’d write the same things as I do online, and would probably include great chunks of the same things, and they said “Fine”. It still sells as regularly as hell.

That was when it dawned on me that I was in a position to actualise some of my deals. So I paid the Feds, the state and my agent their money, and then took the rest to Central America and gave it away for children’s health. It’s the best thing I ever did and I’m still doing it. I discovered that you can fall into the arms of the world and it will take care of you. I live on about $10,000 a year now and I’m safe every day, I’m happy every day, I play my guitar in the morning before breakfast, and I can write whatever I want.

I don’t want to pay taxes to the empire to kill brown babies, so I opened my great big mouth at a convention and said, “I will no longer pay taxes!” Well, the next morning I woke up and said, “Damn, Bageant, you weren’t even drunk! You really fucked up now!” Then an amazing solution came along. A retired IRS person said, “Look, your legal address is now in Mexico. You make your money in other countries. You do not have to pay tax in the US.” Woah, thank you god! Saved my ass on that and my big mouth!

I hate the damn empire, I don’t want to be any part of it and I don’t want to be part of the publishing scene. You get a book that sells well in the US, Americans sell the rights to the Brits, and then they throw in Australia, like a piece of shit on top of the deal – like who cares about 20 million fucking Aussies? So this time we launched the book in Australia.

When does Rainbow Pie hit the US?

It won’t be long now. What we gotta do now is translate it back to American vernacular. To do it for Britain and Australia we had to say “arse” and, you know, change “liberal” and “conservative” because they mean the opposite in Australia. It’s ironic – I have to change it back to redneck!

What reaction have the people in your home town had to your books?

To Deer Hunting with Jesus, oh, the rich hated me. They’re going to hate me a lot more after this one. They were going to pass a resolution at city council denouncing the book. I had a wonderful time reminding them that’s what Communist countries do. But the working guys – I didn’t realise how many lefties were in the American South, aged about 35 to 60. We call them “left necks” – they just don’t have a voice. As for working people who know me, they don’t read books, but they’ve all got a copy of mine. The only part they’ve read is the part they’re in and they’ve got it bookmarked so they can show people. There are so many people there that just hate my guts – the slum lords and every wealthy family – but those working guys will go to the wire for me. They haven’t even read the book, but I’m one of them.

Any final thoughts?

Publications like yours… I don’t know how to say this without sounding kiss-ass. I’m 64 years old. There’s a lot of hopelessness around me. You guys give me hope, and I’m a hopeless old fucker. I think things are gonna get bad before they get much better, but they are going to be forced to understand and embrace socialism because nature and 7 billion people are going to force them to cooperate in the spirit of man some day. But I need sustenance too, I need my cup filled, and it’s things like Socialist Review that help fill my cup.

All good socialists embrace humanity. They’ve got their eyes on something higher. When you meet a good socialist, there’s something in the heart. I don’t care about any intellectual explanation or anything.

I always joke Adam Smith had two hands. When the right hand grabs for money, the left hand of the world extends in friendship and goodwill. We’ve heard too damn much about the right hand.

Rainbow Pie is published by Portobello Books, £14.99.

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