All too often the word “redneck” brings up connotations of slack-jawed yokels, wilfully uneducated in everything other than in how to aim a shotgun. This snobbish attitude can be applied similarly to the poorest working class communities around the world. Think “chavs” in Britain.
Rainbow Pie, Joe Bageant’s “memoir of redneck America”, is the best antidote to this I have ever read. Framed around his own experiences of growing up in West Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s, Bageant’s book manages to paint an affectionate “warts and all” portrait of the white underclass, which he places firmly in the historical context.
Bageant laments the loss of the farming communities, which provided some level of solidarity and mutual support without the need for credit card debts or subprime mortgages. Sure, it was never perfect, with back-breaking toil until you dropped, and a lack of real education for most of the poor. But the arrival of the increasingly large and influential corporations tore the farming communities to shreds. Meanwhile, the pioneers of real estate conned people like Joe’s father into dodgy variable-rate mortgages, condemning them to a life of debt and poverty.
The rapid industrialisation of the mid-20th century also led millions of workers to abandon farming and move to the cities, where a concentrated workforce could be gradually ground down in alienating labour.
As these farming communities were destroyed, agribusiness seized and polluted the land with pest spray created using excess poison gas from the war. Meanwhile, schools were flooded with “educational films” about fitting into the new consumerist culture. Bageant recalls one film, Shy Guy, which told kids like him how to fit in with peers: keep your head down and shop for the same mass-produced factory clothing as everyone else.
Bageant argues that all this encouraged the growth of religious fundamentalism, which filled the void left by the uprooted communities. When poor education is intrinsic, TV mind-numbing and the poorest patronised as idiot rednecks by the elite, they become perfect game for the religious right: “I blame that on our system, which purposefully and consistently rejected universal and free higher education, leaving the bulk of the citizenry in frustrated ignorance and incomprehension, clay to be kneaded into outrage by political potters.”
The author’s voice comes across strongly in the narrative, which blows from one anecdote to the next like the Blue Ridge Mountain fog he describes. Most of what he says you will like, some of it you might not, but all of it will make you think hard about our brothers and sisters on the empire’s underbelly, people those in the ivory towers want us to forget, ridicule or ignore so that they can be ground further down into the dirt for their last cent.
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